Disclaimer: Daria and associated characters are owned by MTV. This is fan fiction written for entertainment only. No money or other negotiable currency or goods have been exchanged.

This is the fifteenth John Lane story

Richard Lobinske

Ring of Champions

"'Focus on Agility' my ass," Daria Morgendorffer grumbled as she walked through a hallway at Lawndale High School. "Ms. Morris is passing off cheerleader practice as gym class."

Walking beside her, John Lane said, "Gee, and all I'm getting is an extra forty minutes of track practice."

"I hate it. And because I didn't participate, I have detention."

"That sucks."

"Come on, do I look like a cheerleader?"

I wouldn't mind seeing you in the uniform. "That would be one of the last things I'd expect you to do," John replied.

"I don't see how you can stand Ms. Morris as the track coach."

"I still imagine running up and down her spine wearing track spikes."

"You've probably drawn it, too."

"Nope. Don't want any evidence lying around. But when I graduate…it's another story."

Two of their classmates were stopped in the hall, talking. Kevin Thompson said, "Yo! How come you look so down, Mack Daddy?"

Mack MacKenzie replied, "Don't call me that. I think I screwed up that ethics test today. How'd you do?"

Smarmy, Kevin answered, "Pretty good."

"Wait a minute." Mack did a double-take. "You weren't even there today. You cut class on the day of a midterm?"

"I was excused. I didn't have to take the test. Coach talked to the teacher, and I got by."

Disgusted, Mack said, "You mean you got 'a bye'."

"Yeah, that's it. Coach says I gotta maintain a 'C' average to stay on the team, so he took care of it or something."

"Hey, that's not fair. I'm on the team and I had to study."

Matter-of-factly, Kevin explained, "I'm the Q.B., Mack Daddy."

Mack yelled, "I've told you a million times, don't call me that! When are you going to get it through your thick skull already?" Mack spun and walked away clenching his fists.

Daria said, "Did you hear that?"

"Whoever said life was fair?" John said in return.

"I don't know, but I'll bet he was a quarterback."

John put his hands in his pockets. "You know, I had this weird anxiety dream where we had this pop quiz in math that I was totally unprepared for."

Daria smirked. "Were you in your underwear?"

"No. That's how I figured out it wasn't a dream."

"Uh-oh. Not a great score on the quiz?"

John shook his head. "My straight 'C' average in math is now in serious danger of becoming a 'D.' So I'm off to study hall. I don't even want to consider what your mother might do if I get thrown off the track team for academic ineligibility."

"Trust me, she'll find something for you to do. So, you better study and I'll go sit in detention."

Helen folded her arms and looked at her daughter and foster son. Curious, she asked, "Why did you two get home late from school?"

Daria sighed. "I had detention because I refused to participate in cheerleader practice during gym. John waited for me."

Helen immediately became suspicious. "I'm supposed to believe that? Cheerleader practice during gym class. Right."

"Hey," John interjected. "Why don't you ask Quinn what they're doing during class? The freshmen get the same thing."

"After you've already had a chance to buy her off? What have you two really been up to? I've come to expect an honest explanation from you two. I'm very disappointed."

"I had detention."

"Okay, what for?"

"I told you. Because I didn't want to join Ms. Morris's cheerleader practice."

"Daria, I'm finding that explanation hard to believe."

"Why don't I ask Ms. Morris to call you tomorrow?" Daria suggested. "She can confirm I had detention. But I'll warn you, she calls it 'Focus on Agility'."

"All right. I'll hold off on any punishment until then, though this better not be a delaying tactic."

In Helen's law office the next morning, her secretary Marianne put the phone on hold and said, "Helen, it's your daughter's teacher."

"Oh, God. Which one, which teacher, and what did the offender do, or forget to do, this time?"

"Um, Daria. P.E. Teacher. Given detention for not participating in class."

"I was expecting it, put the call through." Helen picked up her telephone and pressed the button for the held line. "Hello, this is Helen Morgendorffer. I understand my daughter was given detention for not participating in class yesterday."

In her office, Ms. Morris said, "That's correct. She refused to participate in agility training, so I gave her detention."

"She was under the impression that the class was a cheerleader practice."

"I assure you Mrs. Morgendorffer, while certain moves are similar, it is agility training."

"I see. I'm curious as to why she thought it was cheerleading practice."

"There's no telling with kids today. As strange as this is to say from knowing his older siblings, I keep hoping that your foster child John's good attitude will rub off on Daria. He's the most focused and determined runner I've got on the team. I'd like to see a smart young lady like her develop that drive."

Helen nodded. "Well, I'll see what I can do. Thank you for your time, Ms. Morris."

"Thank you, Mrs. Morgendorffer. Oh, our first track meet is next Wednesday after school. Will you be able to attend?"

"I'll have to check to schedule to see if I'm supposed to be in court then. But I'll be there if I'm free."

"I understand. Have a nice day, Mrs. Morgendorffer."

"You too. Bye."

Helen sat down on her daughter's bed and said, "Your detention checks out, so you're off the hook on that charge. But, I'm still not buying this 'cheerleader practice' excuse. Can you please tell me why you didn't participate?"

Hiding her irritation, Daria said, "We're doing things like splits and cartwheels or similar activities. You know I'm not that coordinated. I don't enjoy it and it's a painful experience. But trust me, I've learned my lesson. I'll go out there and suffer my proper humiliation in the name of physical fitness."

"It's something we all suffer through, Sweetie." Helen looked out the window for a moment. "But, I'd suggest not mentioning it to your father."

"Trust me, I won't."

"I'll consider the detention as school punishment enough…this time. However, I expect you to participate in the future. Am I clear?"


Helen stood back up and said, "Good. Dinner will be ready in a little while." She left and headed down the hallway, stopping at John's room.

She knocked and after a couple seconds, John answered with a paintbrush held sideways in his mouth while he wiped his hands. "Hmm?"

Helen said, "I talked with Ms. Morris today. She's very impressed with how motivated you are about the track team. I just wanted to say I'm proud of you."

John pulled the brush free to say, "Thanks."

"Anyway, you two are off the hook; the detention checked out."

"That's good to hear."

Helen nodded and went downstairs. John watched and said to himself, "Of course I'm motivated."

John gazed at the stands as he walked to his starting blocks. He spotted all of the Morgendorffers seated together. The cell phone in Helen's hand brought a smile. Quinn wore a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses to protect herself from the sun, and maybe to hide a bit. Jake read through the program like it was a horse racing form.

Daria noticed his attention and gave him a small wave. Ack. Who just released the flock of butterflies in my stomach? He smiled and waved back.

To John's surprise, his brother Trent appeared on the bleachers and sauntered over to sit in front of Jake and Helen.

"Take your positions!" the starter called.

John set his feet into the starting blocks and crouched forward, fingers just touching the track. The muscles in his legs tightened in anticipation of their sudden use and John's attention narrowed to the small section of finish line 55 meters ahead. The starter pistol's report caused an instinctive response to leap forward at full sprint. All thought stayed focused on reaching the finish line by working his legs at peak performance.

Seconds later, the race was over and John was slowing down as cheers rose from the bleachers. Evan, one of the other Lawndale sprinters was the first to reach him, slapping his back and saying, "Dude, way to go!"

More team members gathered around John as he realized that he'd won the race. For the first time in his life, a crowd gathered to congratulate him. After the meet, John was given a trophy to hold while Ted DeWitt-Clinton took a photo for the Lawndale Lowdown. Happy and still shocked by the attention, he barely noticed the camera flash or the good-natured backslaps and shoves from his teammates.

John found the family waiting outside the gym. Jake called out, "Way to go, my man!" and gave him an exaggerated high-five.

Helen smiled and said, "Congratulations."

Hesitant because of her parents' proximity, Daria gave him a hug. "Good one."

After the emotional high of the meet, her closeness felt exceptionally welcome. He returned the embrace thankfully and lightly kissed her cheek that faced away from Jake and Helen. "Thanks."

Playfully, Quinn said, "Well Daria, how does it feel to be dating a jock?"

Trent stepped out from behind the Morgendorffers. "Cool, Johnny."

"Thanks for coming, Trent. It means a lot."

"I know all that practice meant a lot to you," Trent said.

Jake said, "Hi, Trent."

"Hey, Mr. Morgendorffer, Mrs. Morgendorffer. Looks like you're fattening Johnny up good."

Helen said, "He has filled out."

"Daria thinks so," Quinn quipped.

Trent turned to the blushing girl. "Hey Daria. Looks like my brother still has good sense, too."

Daria mumbled, "Um, thanks."

Trent traced a pattern on the ground with one foot. "I need to go. Band practice at five."

John said, "It's six."

"Yeah. Better get going then. See ya."

"Bye, Trent," John called. "Thanks again for coming."

Beside him, Daria whispered to Quinn, "You're going to pay for that."

"It'll be worth it," was the younger sister's reply.

After school the next day, Mack and Jodie stopped by John and Daria's table at Pizza Prince. Daria had just finished saying something to John and was sipping her drink when Jodie said, "John, you were amazing. First place."

Mack put out his hand. "Yeah, congratulations."

John shook it. "Thanks, I, um, just pretend I'm running away from one of Li's assemblies."

A blond-haired boy came up to the table and leaned against it, saying, "Hey, teammate."

John tilted his head toward the newcomer. "Daria, this is Evan, one of the other runners. Evan, this is Daria. You've heard me talk about her."

Evan said, "Hi, did you see this dude run like the wind?"

"Yeah, I was there," Daria said.

"Anyway…" Evan stood back up. "Can't wait to see you burn up the track next week. Later, dude."

"Hey, bro!" Kevin yelled as he came with Brittany.

Mack clenched his teeth and said, "See you later, bye."

He took Jodie's hand and both made a hasty exit as Kevin neared the table.

Kevin loudly said, " Hey, hey, hey, it's the track star. You're gonna like being a jock, man. When you're a winner, everybody wants to be your friend."

Daria said, "Yeah, but they don't care who they push out of the way to get to you."

John asked, "What?"

Daria sharply replied, "I wouldn't mind finishing what I was saying before everyone and their brother decided to interrupt."

Kevin stepped back. "Um, this is, like, kinda freaky."

Brittany took his arm and pulled him further away. "Really freaky. We better get out here, Kevie."


John looked across the table. "Daria, what the hell's wrong?"

"I was in the middle of talking to you and they just kept barging in."

"Okay, you'd paused to take a drink when Jodie said something. I doubt if she was trying to be rude. She and Mack were just stopping by to say, 'hi.' And, how would Evan or Kevin know you'd been talking?"

"Uh…they couldn't." Daria slid down in her seat. "That sounded pretty bad, didn't it?"

"Kind of like me trying to run off Ted at the medieval faire a couple weeks ago?"

"We still need to work on the jealousy thing, don't we?"

"Looks like it."

The following weeks brought more wins for John. His new popularity was exciting and disturbing. As a natural response, he liked the attention for a change. But at the same time, there was a sense of being watched and being judged. Like the slightest misstep would lead to disaster.

On top of it all, his math scores were still barely passable. One day, Ms. Morris pulled John aside during practice and asked, "You seem preoccupied with something."

"Um, well, I've got a math quiz tomorrow." He frowned in embarrassment. "I've barely got a 'C' average and I'm worried about it dropping. I don't want to be ineligible to run."

"You've taken three firsts and a second in the fifty already. Don't worry about the quiz."

"What do you mean? If I bomb it, I'm gone."

She placed a hand on his shoulder. "I'll talk to Mr. Navarre. You won't have a problem."

"How…? You're going to get me a bye on the test."

"We need you on the team. Don't worry."

Disturbed, John said, "Um. Okay."

The painting was dominated by a vague landscape of dark greens and blues, while a tiny runner seemed lost amid the wilderness. John sighed in frustration as he pinched brush bristles between his fingers as he gently worked the brush soap into them. After rinsing the tool and drawing the bristles to shape, he set it in a cup to dry.

"Enough evasion," he said and picked up his math textbook. He dropped onto his bed and started reviewing the latest sections, but the words and symbols mentally blurred together in confusion. The more he stared and tried, the worse things became.

John slammed the book closed and closed his eyes. A solid minute later, he swung his legs off the bed and left his room, heading down the hall to Daria's. After a soft knock, he stuck his head inside to ask, "Can I ask for a little help?"

Daria looked up from the book she was reading. "Of course you can. Why do you think you have to ask?"

John held up his math book. "I have a quiz tomorrow. My staying on the track team is riding on passing. With how people have been ignoring you to talk to me, I wasn't sure."

Daria momentarily chewed on her lower lip. When she spoke, Daria said, "And you've made sure I wasn't ignored. I'm still a little jealous, but I know this means a lot to you." Daria patted the place next to her. "What do you need help on?"

Right after the bell rang, the slender black man spoke to the class with the faint hint of a Haitian accent. "Okay students, that wraps up the answers to yesterday's quiz. For tonight's homework, do the odd numbered problems through number 25 from Chapter 8. If you have any questions about your quizzes, please see me after class."

John looked down at the 'C+' on his paper with relief. The score was his and the bye wasn't needed

Mr. Navarre stopped John on his way out of the classroom by saying, "Nice improvement. Looks like you've been studying."

John nodded and said, "Thanks." I don't want to know if he would've given me the bye or not. He quickly looked over his shoulder at the teacher stepping back into his room. I wish I didn't have this hanging over me. I hate it.

"Enough about the quiz; I have a vested interest in keeping you around, remember?" Daria told John as they sat on the lawn between school buildings. "Anything you want to do for your birthday next week?"

He gave a noncommittal shrug.

Daria suggested, "We can bake cupcakes to poison all the suck-ups who only like you for being a track star."

"Hmm. That has possibilities. But, it'll be hard to hide the evidence. Don't worry about it too much. Birthdays are totally artificial holidays created to stimulate the economy."

"Aren't they the one holiday the greeting card industry didn't make up?"

In an exaggerated hushed tone, John said, "That's what they want you to believe."

"I get the picture. No party and no present."

"I didn't say no present."

"How about a swift kick in the ass?"

John's laugh was cut short when he noticed the time. "Crap. Practice has already started."

Daria said, "You better get going."

John quickly stood up. "Sorry I have to run. See you after."

"See you."

John ran across campus to the track and met a grim-faced Ms. Morris. She barked," Lane! You're late."

He nodded. "Sorry. I was talking with Daria and didn't notice the time."

"Lane, once it's 3:30, I expect to see you on the track running, not talking with your attitude-problem girlfriend. Don't let it happen again."

"Partly, I was thanking her for helping me study for that math quiz. I did pretty good on it. Pretty good for me, that is. I didn't need a bye to pass."

"Yeah, right. You know better than to talk back and make excuses. I was hoping you'd be a good influence on her, but things seem to be going the other way and you're starting to act like your sister Penny. Why don't you take an extra two laps during warm-up to think about it?"

Not bothering to hide his anger, John said, "Yes, ma'am," and started to run.

Ms. Morris yelled after him. "And make sure you ditch your attitude problem before Saturday's meet! We have a long bus trip and I don't want to hear it."

Helen carefully raised a slice and said, "Jake, this doesn't look like take-out pizza."

"It's not!" Jake happily replied.

Helen held the slice still mid-way to her mouth. "Where did it come from?"

"John and I made it," Jake explained. "Right, John?"

The teen said, "Yeah, we followed the instructions on the box and threw a bunch of extra toppings on it."

Biting into her slice, Daria let out an "Aah!" and pulled it away.

Helen reacted immediately, saying, "Oh, my god, Daria! Are you all right? Jake, did you use one of your hot sauces on this?"

Daria smiled, "Relax, Mom. It's just cheese burn. The pizza's actually edible."

"You're such a pain wimp, Daria," Quinn said. She pulled the cheese from her slice and said, "If we're making our own, we really should have cheeseless pizza. It's healthier."

Philistine. John said, "I'll keep my cheese. But if you want to help, we could make a small one on the side for you."

Jake grinned. "Quinn join us in the kitchen? That's a great idea!"

She picked bits of topping from the cheese and transferred them to her slice. "Uh…no, thanks. I can deal."

Helen looked at an open envelope on the table. "What's this? And who opened it?"

Quinn waved her hand. "Don't worry. It's not going to happen."

Helen read the letter. "A mother-daughter fashion show at school? To raise money?"

Daria rolled her eyes. "And consciousness."

Mumbling past a mouthful of pizza, Jake proclaimed, "What a great idea!"

Quinn patiently explained, "The Fashion Club has already scheduled an emergency meeting for this weekend. We'll put a stop to it."

"You don't want a repeat of the last fashion debacle at school, do you?" Daria asked.

"No kidding. We just can't let fashion amateurs run these things," Quinn agreed.

"Well, that's a relief." Helen added, "I mean, who wants to parade around showing off some ridiculous outfit?"

"With your mother." Seeing Helen's harsh glare, Quinn said, "Oops."

Hearing the telephone ring, Jake reached over to the counter and picked it up. Still talking around food, he said, "Hello?"

Sitting on a chair in his tiny apartment, Trent said, "Hey, Mr. Morgendorffer. Can I talk to Daria without John knowing? Trying to find his birthday present."

"Um, well, yeah." He held his hand over the phone. "Daria, it's for you."

"Me?" she asked.

"Uh, yeah. Here, take it." Jake thrust the phone at Daria.

She cautiously answered, "Hello?"

Trent said, "Hey, Daria. Can you help me find a present for John?"

"I guess so."



"Oh, yeah. Can I stop by tomorrow? Not too early, sometime before lunch...or after."

"Um, okay."

"Or better yet, why don't we leave it loose?"

"Yeah. We can do that."

"I owe you. Bye."


Helen asked, "What was that about?"

"Uh, Jodie running an idea by me for the school paper. Nothing big."

Later, Daria let John into her room and almost closed the door. He said, "Red alert. The Four Fashionteers have reversed course on the school's show and your mother's going to be subjected to a full spa treatment tomorrow."

"At least I didn't get recruited this time."

"I don't think Romonica will be anywhere near."

"Can I borrow your track spikes if she is?"

"That should confuse the DNA blood evidence on them."

Daria said, "You looked upset after practice today. Morris being a Class A rottweiler again?

"Yeah." John nodded.

"If she says I don't show enough enthusiasm one more time, I'm going to shove a pile of pom-poms into any and all places I can make them fit on her."

"I'll help." After what she said today, boy will I help.

"You got in trouble for being late, didn't you?"

"I should've paid better attention to the time."

"And you're stuck on a bus with her for an hour and a half each way tomorrow."

"I'll put on my tape player and try to sleep on the way. Best way to deal."

"Kind of wish I was going to be there, if only for amoral support."

"I wouldn't ask anyone to make a three hour round trip to watch my few seconds of glory. But, I'll appreciate a nice hug when I get home."

Daria put her arms around him and pulled him close. "I can do that."

In the morning, John stretched out on a bus seat and closed his eyes. After a few minutes, Ms. Morris asked him, "Ready to run today?"

John pushed his eyelids opened and faked good cheer. "I'm ready."

"Good. The team needs everyone at a hundred percent today; this is one of the biggest meets of the year."

"Trust me, I'm ready to run." And then I'll dance on your head, given half the chance.

The driver started the bus and pulled out of the parking lot. John relaxed and swayed with the bouncing of the stiff suspension as the vehicle traveled down the road. He focused on the music playing through his earphones and let his mind free associate, coming up with new ideas and images.

Quinn dashed across the kitchen to stop Helen from pouring a cup of coffee, yelling, "Don't do it!"

Groggy, Helen asked, "Quinn, what is the matter with you?"

Stunned by Helen's ignorance, Quinn explained, "Coffee…caffeine…dark circles…got it? Don't handicap yourself for the fashion show."

"Quinn, I need my coffee."

Quinn spread her hands to imitate a headline. "'Woman Loses Fashion Show Due to Pathetic Addiction. Daughter Shamed For Life.' Come on, the spa is about to open anyway."

Helen called to her other daughter. "Daria? Last chance to join us for a mother-daughter day of beauty. It's very relaxing."

Quinn inserted, "Yeah, come on. I'm sure John will like the effect on you."

"Um, I have other plans." A car horn outside caused Daria to look through the large living room window. "And surprisingly, that's my ride. I'm helping Trent find a present for John, and I'm going to look for one, too."

Helen waved as Daria left. "Oh well, have fun, Sweetie. And please try to make sure Trent stays awake while driving."

Daria hurried outside and climbed into Trent's car. "I wasn't expecting you before lunch."

"Rehearsal ran late, or early...whatever and I didn't want to go home." Trent then asked, "So, where to?"

Daria unfolded a sheet of notepaper. "Um, I was thinking..."

Trent backed the car out of the driveway and headed down the street. "No art supplies. I've done that too much. Buying just a CD is lame. And I can't set foot in a bookstore. Don't ask me why, Daria. I just don't want to talk about it. So, what are your ideas?"

Daria wadded up her notes and tossed them into the back seat. "A pony running free across the plain?"

Trent laughed and coughed. "Sounds like something Mom would try." He then had an idea and turned down an intersecting road. "You know, I'm sure we'll find something on Dega Street."

Glory of Lawndale High. You've been listening to Ms. Li too much. John's renewed anger smoldered as he waited for the 55 meter to be called up. The pep talk from the track coach had the rest of the team excited, but left John in a foul mood. Running had become a dull, boring job. John missed the simple joy of running. He couldn't remember the last time he'd felt it.

Over a public address system, an announcer's voice proclaimed, "55 meter dash. Please take your positions."

John hopped up from ground and trotted to the start line from the school's infield area. He felt small compared to the well-muscled juniors and seniors lined up with him. I hate this. This isn't the running I enjoy. This is the school wringing every bit out of me so it can look good. I'd quit in a heartbeat if I could.

"On your marks!" the starter called.

John settled into the starting blocks. If not for staying with Daria. She's the only thing worth putting up with this.

John's anger fueled a fast start off the mark as he again narrowed his focus to the finish line of his lane. The adrenalin-fueled dash was fast, but during the walk down after crossing the line, John saw that he was behind several other competitors. A look at the results board showed he was fourth.

After several failed suggestions, Trent pointed to Axl's Piercing Parlor. "Hey!"

Daria asked, "Body piercing? John? Maybe I could get him some new earrings."

Trent asked, "What about you?"

Confused by the question, Daria replied, "Me? No, it just seems too much like getting tortured for the sake of some subculture's notion of beauty."

As they stepped inside, a dark-haired, tattooed man said, "Hey, Trent. Just so you know, we're having a two-for-one special."

"Hey, that's cool, Axl. 11 bucks each." Trent turned to ask, "What do you say, Daria?"

Still not certain, Daria muttered, "Um..."

Axl handed Daria a laminated card. "Take a look at our piercing menu."

Daria scanned down the list. "I don't think that's how you spell 'uvula'."

Matter-of-factly, Axl said, "That's not 'uvula'."

Trent pointed to his right eyebrow. "I'm thinking about a hole right here."

The obvious straight line took Daria's mind off some of the items on the menu. She quipped, "You can never have too many holes in your head."

Trent said, "Come on, Daria. It's a special."

"I've always kind of thought gift certificates were a bit lame, but if that's what you want to give him..."

Trent scratched his chin. "Yeah, you're right." After a moment, he grinned, pointed to Daria's navel and said, "I know what would be cool. Little silver hoop."

Axl nodded his head from side to side. "Yeah, okay. A navel ring works, though I think a lip ring would look nicer."

Shocked, and glowing bright red of embarrassment, Daria snapped back, "I'm not going to pierce my belly button."

"Have a little fun."

"I might consider my ears."

Axl shook his head. "That's two holes; full price applies."

Trent said, "Daria, John would think it looks really hot."

John sensed Ms. Morris coming up beside him and clenched his teeth to keep from saying anything.

The coach patted his shoulder and said, "Great run, John. You set a new personal best for a meet."

John felt himself relax a bit. "I felt fast, but I still didn't place."

Morris continued. "You were beaten by two seniors and a junior who should've graduated last year." Under her breath, she said, "I'd love to find out how they've kept him eligible."

"I was worried you might be upset."

"There's always somebody faster. You should be proud of what you did."


"You've still got the drive to win. I was obviously mistaken yesterday. You're not like your sister."

"Um, thanks," John said, though his unease crept back up.

"And sometimes I forget what it's like to be a teen. A girlfriend can distract even the most focused athlete. That's the first time it's happened. Other runners have been tardy more than you have. I'm a little harder on you because you have real talent."

John nodded, starting to feel better again. "Thanks. But, I'll try not to be late again."

"I don't think you will. If you want some advice, if Daria's that important to you, you'd try to help with her attitude problem."

Soured, John said, "I'll keep that in mind."

Anxiously, Daria rested on a converted exam bed, her shirt pulled up to reveal her pale stomach and navel.

Seated on a rolling stool and preparing instruments, Axl asked, "Hey, you are 18, aren't you? I should've asked."

Trying to believe she had agreed to the procedure, Daria faintly nodded.

"Good. This establishment is licensed to serve adults only and operates strictly according to the letter of the law."

A bell at the front desk rang.

Axl stood. "I better check on that."

Monique walked into the back room. "Hey, Axl, it's just me."

He said, "Hello, darling."

"I need some more of that antiseptic stuff for my nose ring." She noticed her on again-off again boyfriend. "Oh, Trent!" She hugged him.

"Hey, Monique."

She looked over his shoulder. "Hey Daria."

"Hi, Monique." Feeling increased discomfort with the larger audience, Daria said, "You know, I'm really not big on pain."

"Don't worry," Axl tried to reassure her.

"It'll be over before you know it," Monique said. "Whatcha getting?"

Trent said, "Navel ring."

Daria turned to look at the black-haired woman. "Though I'm about to…"

"That's so cool," Monique replied. "Where's Johnny?"

"Track meet," Trent replied. "Thought we'd take care of his birthday present while he was out of town."

"And his big brother talked me into…" Daria said with irritation.

"Done," Axl said as he spun the locking ball tight on the ring.

Daria's attention darted back to him. "What?"

Axl used an alcohol wipe to clean around the piercing. "Don't take it out for six months, or it'll close up and we'll have to pierce it again. Don't get scared when the mucous starts pouring out." He gave her a small bottle. "Use this antiseptic stuff, and take 50 milligrams a day of um...iron, zinc, copper…something like that."

When Axl moved his hand away, Daria could see the ring. "You really did it."

On the way back to the school bus, John picked up a complimentary notepad and pencil from one of the sponsor booths. After the bus was on the highway back to Lawndale, he put on his earphones and started to sketch.

Still twenty minutes from Lawndale and bored, Evan looked over the back of his seat at John. He tapped his teammate on the shoulder and said, "Hey!"

John pulled his earphones down to rest around his neck. "Hmm?"

"What are you drawing?"

John turned the pad to face Evan and flipped through several leaves.

"That's the Daria chick you hang around with."


"I don't get it."

"What don't you get?"

"Why her?"

"I can easily picture her and draw sketches that way."

"No, I mean, why do you hang out with her?"

"I really like her."

"Yeah, well. Come on, you're a track star. There's all kinds of good-looking girls you could get instead of her."

"Not interested."

"Not…wait, I heard you live with her."

"Yeah, her parents are my foster parents. My room's right down the hall."

Evan laughed and pushed John's shoulder. "I get it now. Why hunt around when you have a piece literally right down the hall. What a setup."

Disgusted, John said, "It's not like that."

"Dude, it's cool. You don't have to pretend."

"Really, we're not doing anything like that."

"Whatever. Still, why stick with just her?"

John's eyes narrowed. "Evan, I don't think we should say another word. Okay?"

"Just trying to understand why you want to hang around with such a loser."

"You never will."

Looking down the street, Daria could see that both her parents' cars were in the driveway of her house. She shifted her hold on a paper bag and said to herself, "Good thing Trent wandered off with Monique after getting his eyebrow pierced so I could pick up something else for John."

Inside the house, her father sat on the sofa, watching television. "Hey, Kiddo! How'd the shopping go?"

Daria showed the bag. "Successful."

Helen stepped out of the kitchen. "You missed out on a wonderful time. Maybe I'll schedule a day for just the two of us."

Daria stared at her mother's immensely complex hairdo. "Uh, no big rush on that. Really."

"Is that John's present?"

"Yes, and before you ask, I'm keeping it a surprise."

"Sure, Sweetie. Mind telling me what John's brother got him?"

"He, um, ran into his girlfriend and got a little distracted."

Helen sighed. "I don't know how that young man is ever going to make it in life."

John arrived home to the sight of Jake asleep on the couch and Helen sitting next to him, talking on the phone. "Don't worry, Eric. I certainly will not be wearing that outfit to work. I was only trying them on for my daughter's benefit…"

He went straight to the kitchen and rummaged in the refrigerator for the night's leftover frozen lasagna. This stuff takes, like, an hour or more to cook. You'd think she'd find something faster if she's always in such a damned hurry.

Holding a plate, he waved to Helen as he walked back through the living room. She held the phone against the sofa. "How was your day?"

"Not too bad. Placed fourth against some heavy competition."

"Oh, that's too bad. I'm sure you'll do better next time."


On his way upstairs, he softly said, "I hope Daria's day was better than mine."

Brittany stopped behind Daria, who was standing in front of the school's locker room door. "Daria?"

The brunette startled and turned. "Oh, hi Brittany."

"Is the door locked or something?"

"Oh, no. I was just…trying to decide if I was going to dress out today or not."

"Are you sick?"

"No, yes, well…I don't feel like changing with everyone in there today."

Brittany stepped away. "Eww. Do you have a rash or something?"

"No, I don't have a rash. I haven't had one since I was a baby."

"Then what's wrong?"

Faintly blushing, Daria shrugged and said, "I just don't…"

Brittany opened the door and pulled Daria inside. "Come on, you know Ms. Morris will be mad if you don't change. Are you sure you're not sick?"

"I'm not sick."

"I'll talk and provide cover; you can change behind me. Nobody will see you."

Surprised, Daria said, "Thanks, Brittany."

They went directly to Daria's locker while Brittany said, "I'm so glad you're doing better with John being, like, more popular and stuff. People have even started noticing you again."

Daria started to change as fast as she could. "Thrilling."

"Isn't it? Now, you're not going to become as popular as me or anything. I mean, my Kevie's the QB and everything. But, you'll still be more popular than you are now."

Daria tossed her skirt into the locker and pulled her shorts on. "I'll try to survive."

"You might even get invited to more parties. Wouldn't that be great?"

Daria turned away and pulled her shirt off. "Wonderful. Why do they have to keep these locker rooms so cold?"

"I don't know. Maybe to make you not notice the cold water in the showers?"

Shirt around her neck, Daria sneezed.

Brittany turned around. "Bless you."

Out of reflex, Daria faced Brittany. "Thanks."

"Wow! When did you get the belly ring?"

Daria pulled the shirt down fast. "Shh. I don't want anyone to know yet. Okay?"


"It's a surprise. I don't want anyone to know."

Brittany smiled and knowingly nodded. "Oooh."

Walking home, John asked, "Um, did you get bitten by something?"

"Huh?" Daria replied.

"Did you get bitten or get into some poison ivy or something? You keep scratching your belly."

Daria looked down and moved her hand away. "Uh…yeah. A wasp got under my shirt during gym."


"It's not too bad, just itches like crazy."

Just before brushing her teeth that night, Daria pulled her shirt up to scratch the irritation around the piecing. Quinn stepped in and said, "You didn't really do that!"

Trying to be nonchalant, Daria said, "Do what?"

Quinn pointed to her ring. "That!"

"Oh, this old thing? I only wear it when I don't care how my navel looks."

Quinn grinned. "Mmm... I get it. You must be planning on something for John's birthday tomorrow. A nice little daring effect with a fake ring. Cute. I didn't think you had it in you, Daria."

Daria blushed again. I've got to stop doing that.

Quinn noticed her sister's reaction and looked closer at the ring. "Ohmygod! Mom and Dad are gonna freak!"

"Shh!" Daria quickly silenced Quinn. "Big fashion show tomorrow. Remember?"

Quinn narrowed her eyes, knowing she couldn't say anything.

Daria added, "And yes, it is a surprise for John. Long story."

"Okay. I'll keep quiet." Quinn said and walked back to her room with a grin. "Until I need it."

Daria started to scratch again and stopped. "You sure itch like hell." She started to undo the ring, but stopped, tightening it back up. She clenched her teeth and said, "Just one more day. If I went through it, John's at least going to see it."

Stubborn people. Daria's bug bite has been itching for days now and she won't get it checked. John thought as he parted ways with Daria after school. She went to the school newspaper's meeting room and he headed for track practice. Last one unless I get an invite to State.

Ms. Morris was waiting for him as he neared the gym. As he drew close, she held up a folded letter and said, "You're going to Baltimore. Congratulations."

John accepted the letter, feeling a big sense of accomplishment at the invitation. "Wow, really?"

"Open it and read for yourself."

John read the letter twice. Thrilled, he said, "I'm really in. I've never received something like this before."

"You earned it. But now you've got a week and a half of the most serious practice you've ever had ahead of you."

The cold slap of reality brought him back. "I better get changed then," he said to cover his exit. Now she's going to be riding my ass harder than ever.

Spotting both cars in the driveway, John said to Daria, "Uh-oh. Your parents are home early."

"Your birthday might have something to do with that."

"I guess, but still, it's not like Helen to leave work early."

"She has the fashion show with Quinn tonight, remember? That's when we're going to the Zon to see your brother."

"Oh, yeah. I suppose I should tell her about the invite to state."

"She kind of expects it."

"I noticed."

As soon as they opened the door, Helen said, "Happy birthday."

Jake chimed in, "Happy birthday."

"The cake's in here." Helen waved for John and Daria to follow.

A cake, with candles, was waiting on the dining table. John looked at it for several seconds. "Thanks. I haven't had one of these in a while."

Quinn lit the candles and grinned.

John suddenly realized, "You're not going to start singing, are you?"

Daria put one arm around his waist. "Come on, you tolerate Mystic Spiral singing."

John whispered to Daria, "I'm afraid your father's singing may be as bad as his cooking."

Back in his room, John sorted the various brushes, paints and other art supplies he'd just received. "I need to have birthdays more often. This is a great way to stock up."

Daria knocked and stepped in. "Hey, Mom and Quinn are sequestered in their rooms to prepare for the show."

John stepped over and happily hugged her. "Thanks. I've been eyeing those high-grade artist manikins for months."

"Thought you'd like them. There's um, one more thing."


"I, uh, went shopping with your brother last Saturday. He came up with…an unusual present that required my cooperation. The more I think of it, I think he was just setting me up to do something."

"Okay, I'm confused, but this is Trent's logic we're talking about here."

"There's really no other way to explain it except…"

Daria lifted her shirt a couple inches to show John the piercing.

John laughed and shook his head. "He got me a hole in your navel."

Trying to explain, Daria said, "Trent thought you'd like it."

John kept laughing. "That is so my brother."

"That's what's been itching like crazy."

John stopped laughing and looked again. It looks hot on her. "I hope you don't mind, but Trent was right; I like it. I can't believe you did that for me."

Daria pulled her shirt down. "That makes two of us. Your brother can be very convincing."

"Oh, he can be a charmer, all right. Guess it's a good thing you didn't see him first."

Daria said, "Hey, I prefer younger men."

John moved his arms around her. "As long as I'm the younger man."

Daria gently kissed him. "Don't worry. You are."

The crowd at the Zon was the usual mix of young adults and teens. On stage, Mystic Spiral was about to start their first set of the evening.

Trent coughed and said into the microphone, "Hello. We're Mystik Spiral and I want to say happy birthday to my brother, John.

Jesse added, "Have a good one, John."

The band started playing a lead-in for Trent's singing.

Little brother, little brother you touch peoples lives like no other.
What can I get you that you haven't taken?
What can I get you that hasn't been killed by corruption and greed?
What can I get you that isn't tie-dyed or like what you already have,
or plastic or not alive or so sad?

Jesse joined in.

Does anybody know?
Does anybody know why we're here?
Does anybody know?
Does anybody know why we're here?
Does anybody know?
Does anybody know why we're here?

After a last flourish, Jesse pumped his fist. "Yeah!"

After the set, John and Daria sat at a small table with Trent, who was saying, "Thought you'd like it, Johnny."

John held Daria's hand. "Oh, I do. But now, she's making noises about what's good for the goose…"

Trent laughed and coughed. "Guess I should've saved the other hole from the two-for-one after all."

Daria said, "I don't think that's something you can save."

"Oh, yeah." Trent looked distant for a moment and said, "Hey, Johnny, got a call from Penny today wishing you a happy birthday."

John smiled in surprise. "Wow, that's cool. Where's she at this time?"

"Costa Rica."

"What's she doing now?"

"Picture frames, or something like that. Found a big pile of scrap tin."

Daria said, "I see the Lane creative streak strikes again."

"Yeah," Trent agreed. "Penny's also the other runner of the family. She pissed off her old gym coach when she wouldn't join the track team."

John said, "No wonder Ms. Morris has such a bug up her butt about Penny."

"Oh, yeah. She's still the coach, isn't she?" Trent asked.

"The one and only."

Trent shook his head. "Ah, man. No wonder you've been having such a bad time."

John asked, "Did Penny leave a phone number?"


"Well, did she say anything else?"

"Yeah, run one good race for her. Just to rub Morris's nose in it."


Each with one arm around the other, Daria and John watched Trent's car leave. John pulled Daria close and they shared a long kiss. He said, "This is the best birthday I can remember. Thanks."

"You're welcome."

Playfully, John asked, "I don't suppose you'll start wearing your sister's baby-t shirts to show off your ring."

Daria told him, "I got that for you, not for general audiences."

He smiled. "That means a lot."

"It better, considering what I went through to get it."

John felt his face flush. Between actually showing her stomach to a stranger and the actual piercing… "I know it wasn't easy for you."

After embracing for a few moments longer, John said, "Guess we better go in."

"And listen to Quinn prattle on about the fashion show."

"I'm the birthday boy. I'll claim privilege and run away with you upstairs."

"I should feel guilty about spillover perks, but I'm not," Daria replied.

Inside, they turned the corner into the kitchen. Helen, still dressed for the fashion show but disheveled and irritated, waited with arms folded. Quinn, similarly attired and disarrayed, sat at the table. Jake stood firmly beside Helen with hands on hips.

Daria said, "Um…what's up, doc?"

Helen pushed the replay button on the answering machine.

After a beep, Brittany's voice said, "Hi Daria, it's me, Brittany! I was kind of thinking and I really liked the belly button ring. Where did you get it? You can tell me at school tomorrow. Bye!"

Jake said, "We want to see it now."

"Out with it," Helen demanded.

Daria shifted her attention from one parent to the other before sighing. She lifted her shirt and said, "Here."

"Gahh!" Jake screamed.

"What got into you, young lady?" Helen asked.

"You…you've been mutilated," Jake sputtered.

"Mom, Dad, I, uh…" Daria looked at John and took his hand. "I did something impulsively for a guy. Okay?"

Helen shot a look at John. "What did you have to do with this?"

"Uh…" John got out.

"Yeah, what?" Jake asked.

Daria said, "It was a surprise for him. He only found out tonight."

Tapping her foot, Helen asked, "And what kind of message were you trying to send?"

"God, Mom," Quinn interrupted. "John's been one of the best things for Daria, and you're giving her a hard time for trying to look hot for him?"

Helen swung around to set Quinn in her sights. "Exactly. That is not the kind of message she needs to be sending to a young man."

"What kind of message do those see-through nighties that you keep hiding at the bottom of the laundry send?" Quinn rebutted.

"That's different. Your father and I are adults and they're not," Helen said.

Daria opened the ring and pulled it out. "This thing's been itching like crazy anyway." She slapped it down on the table. "They said the hole would close up if I took it out too soon. Will that make you happy?"

Helen glared. "It's a start."

"Good, I'll be in my room. You can tell me about my punishment when you decide on it."

Jake said, "We'll let you know!"

Daria quickly went upstairs.

"Oh, crap," John said and chased after.

Quinn picked up the ring and rolled it between her fingers. "Good one, Mom. Daria finally did something to look nice for John, without us pushing her, and you slammed her for it."

"It's not like she bought a dress or shoes…"

"No. That was probably a lot harder for her to do."

"She clearly wasn't thinking…"

Quinn put the ring on the table and stood. "Of course she wasn't thinking. She was feeling for a change."

"That's what I'm afraid of," Helen snapped.

"You shouldn't be. Those two are still….oooh!" Flustered, Quinn started to walk away. "Forget about us tripping during the fashion show. I'll get over it. But, I don't know about Daria."

After Quinn left, Helen picked up the ring and sat down.

Jake asked, "We did the right thing, didn't we?"

"Did we?"

Daria leaned on the windowsill and stared down into the back yard. John stood behind and to the side, one hand resting lightly on her shoulder. She moved her hand up to his. "One step forward and two back. Now Mom and Dad are going to swing back to paranoid mode again."

Without a clue of what to say, John gently squeezed her shoulder. He then moved closer and stared out into the night with her.

Twenty minutes later, they were still there when Helen knocked and looked in. "John, I'd like some time with Daria."

John looked over and nodded, slowly taking his hand from Daria's shoulder. "I'll be in my room."

After John walked by, Helen noticed Daria's hand still on her shoulder, where it had been holding John's.

After John closed the door, Daria said without turning, "What's the sentence?"

Helen stopped several paces from the teen. "Daria, there are good reasons why you have to be 18 or have parental permission before you get pierced. You realize that, don't you?"

"Yes, and since you're going to ask, I lied about my age."

"And the shop didn't check your ID, even though you don't look 18."

Daria rested her head against the window. "Is the torture necessary? I screwed up, we know that. Can you please just tell me what the punishment is?"

"One question first."

"And that is?"

"What were you feeling?"


"What emotions did you feel when you did it?"

"Um…well, Trent and Monique were talking and I thought…"

"I didn't ask what you were thinking. What did you feel?"

The young woman slowly turned. "How John makes me happy. In a way I've never been before. I wanted to…uh…for him…I'm not making sense, am I?"

"More than you think. Much more." Helen slipped the ring from her little finger and stepped over to Daria. "Your voice told me it wasn't what I was afraid of. I'm sorry I made the wrong assumption. Though next time, please ask for permission."

Daria accepted the ring. "I doubt if there will be a next time, at least for me."

Helen went to the door. "I'll tell John."


After Helen closed the door, Daria carefully put the ring back in her navel. "After all that, I think we're going to be together a while."

Helen stepped to the hall window and looked out. "But I heard something I was hoping not to hear until you were older."

John opened the door for Helen. She said, "All charges are dropped. Daria's free to go."

He took a couple tries to say, "Really?"

"We agreed that she'll ask for permission before doing anything else like that. The same applies to you."

"No argument. But, this is a big turnaround. You were really mad down there."

Helen went into the room and closed the door. "John, when I was your age, I did some indiscreet things. Things I've regretted. Because of that, I was afraid her piercing was a sign of something it wasn't. Now that I know otherwise, I gave the ring back to her."

"I suppose from your end, it did look rather bad. But, it meant a lot to me. Daria always makes me feel…um, that is, when she's with me, uh…I'm happy."

Helen saw pink on his cheeks. "I get the picture."

She opened the door. "Good night and happy birthday."

"Thanks. And, thanks for changing your mind about the ring."

Helen silently nodded and closed the door.

John looked at the wall he shared with Daria. "What did you tell your mother?"

Daria watched Ms. Morris storm out of her office and head toward the main office, presumably to see the principal, Ms. Li.

Brittany followed her out of the office, twirling her blond hair. "Wow. She's really upset."

Next, several other cheerleaders stepped out. Nikki said, "No kidding."

"It's not like anyone can see them or anything," Angie said.

"I'm almost afraid to ask," Daria said to herself as she went into the locker room. "At least 'Focus on Agility' is over and I have the excitement of volleyball to look forward to."

After a half-hearted attempt to stop the ball that zipped past, Daria heard Ms. Morris yell, "Morgendorffer! Get over here. Now!"

I guess I'm not showing enough enthusiasm again.

Daria shrugged and walked over. "Yes, Ms. Morris?"

"Just what do you think you're doing?"

"Trying to play volleyball?"

"Not that. The cheerleaders all say they got the idea from you. What do you have to say for yourself?"

"The cheerleaders?"

"Yes. They've all pieced their belly buttons because of you!"

Utterly incredulous, Daria asked, "They did what?"

"First it was Brittany imitating you, but now they've all done it!"


"What about it?"

"It's not like I held a gun to their heads and made them."

"For some reason that's beyond me, students look up to you, and you're setting a terrible example."

"Ms. Morris, I got my piercing for my own reasons. Trust me, corrupting your cheerleaders was not one of them. I'm just as surprised as you that they did it."

Cautiously, Ms. Morris said, "Okay. You may not be doing it purposefully. But like I said, students look to you as an example. Be careful of the one you set."

"Yes, Ms. Morris."

"Now get back into the game. And try to look like you're playing volleyball."

John watched Daria and her family in the stands, waiting for the race to start. Trent had also piled into the SUV for the trip to Baltimore and was seated with them. His view shifted to Ms. Morris, and he purposefully slammed down the images of mayhem she generated. Today isn't for you or Lawndale High. Today is for those you and the team have insulted.

He recognized several runners as those that beat him at the regional meet. He nodded to them and they wordlessly nodded back. Following the starter's direction, they set their feet into the blocks and prepared. John looked past the starting line and felt a sense of relief. At the gun, his running felt fluid and effortless; his breathing was perfect and he soon passed the finish line as a smile spread on his face.

Surrounded by the team, John wanted to swing the brass trophy at Evan, who approached with a fake smile plastered on his face.

Evan said, "Whoa. First sprinter to take a state trophy in over twenty years."

The veiled jealousy irked John. "Well, I had some special motivation today."

"You need to bottle it and pass it around next year."

John handed the trophy to Evan. "Hey, can you carry this back?"

"Um, sure."

John extricated himself from the crowed and trotted away, thinking, First useful thing he's done for me all year.

At the edge of the field, he grabbed Daria and gave her an ecstatic hug and a kiss.

Surprised by such an open display, Daria took a second to respond, putting her arms around him.

"Congratulations, John. Third in the state," Helen said.

Jake slapped John's back. "Yeah! Congratulations!"

"I'll make sure I tell Penny," Trent added.

Quinn said, "I don't think he heard any of you."

After his name was called, John dropped his tape player's earphones down around his neck. He accepted a quick hand-squeeze from Daria and walked up to the stage to where Ms. Li, Ms. Morris and Coach Gibson stood. Between the two coaches was a table with two shrunken stacks of athletic letters. As he crossed the stage to the podium, modest applause came from the gathered students who were still awake for the school assembly.

Ms. Li cooed, "All of Lawndale High appreciates the honor and glory that Mr. Lane has brought with his trophy-winning performances. Ms. Morris."

Ms. Morris picked up a yellow and blue 'L' and handed it to John.

John handed it back. "That isn't why I ran. But, I will say that I learned a lot about competition and I'm glad to see the season is over. Don't expect me back next year."

Next, he tugged on the sleeve of his red shirt. "Don't bother ordering a jacket; this is fine."

Ms. Morris harrumphed and said, "After all this, you're still a quitter like your sister and have your girlfriend's attitude."

"Looks like it."

Ms. Li fumed. "What is the meaning of this?"

"I'm a champion in the eyes of the only one that matters. I don't need that letter. I already have a ring."

Ms. Morris leaned forward and harshly whispered, "Then you better start worrying about your grades. Byes can vanish."

John whispered back, "I never used them and have all my graded papers to prove it."

John turned and walked to the stage exit. He unplugged his earphones and turned on the tape player, rolling the volume control up with this thumb.

Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes.
There beneath the blue suburban skies
I sit, and meanwhile back

Some dialog from:
See Jane Run by Rachelle Romberg
Pierce Me by Neena Beber

Lyrics from:
Penny Lane by John Lennon and Paul McCartney

Thanks to Kristen Bealer, and Ipswichfan for beta reading.