SUMMARY: Fred goes home. Set after Not Fade Away. Completed August 2007. 2300 words. Rated PG. For Shapinglight, because she worries about the Burkles. Thanks to Caille, Barb C, Malkin Grey and Peasant for moral support. Thanks also to my betas: azdak, Reverence Pavane and Deepa D.
You know there's something wrong as soon as you open that door. Fred always calls you before she comes home, not that she comes home often, sometimes not even for Thanksgiving, but she calls. But here she is, on your porch, in the high noon of summer, and she has no car and no luggage and no hat. Just her big, beaming smile. She doesn't even smell like herself as you fold her into your arms, but that could be a change of shampoo. She steps back to look at you both, saying, "Mom, Dad," as if she thinks you might not let her in. "Just thought I'd come by. Is it a bad time?" And your husband shakes his head. "No," he says, "no, it isn't. You're always welcome here, Baby Burkle."
You haven't heard from her in months but you won't say a thing, because isn't that always how it is? Even before LA, when she'd moved on up to Austin, she'd ring every day for a week, and then not call you for months. It's just how she is, she gets caught up in her work; she was like that even in high school sometimes.
"Come on in," you say.
You've done your best for her, always, or the best that you know how. When she was tiny and pink, you kept her cleaned and fed, and waved fingers in front of her face till she reached out to touch them. You'd talk to her as she lay in the bassinet while you sewed her baby clothes on the Singer. She came with you in the stroller when you went down to her grandma's, and you'd cover her face with a flat old hat of yours to keep off the sun.
When she got a little older, you kept an eye out as she ran around the yard. You read her stories on winter nights and helped her trace out the words with her hand. You taught her to bake and cheered her as she made her first shaky ride on a bike. Though money was tight, you sent her to Girl Scouts and summer camp, and bought the whole Funk and Wagnall's, one volume a week. You told her how proud you were when she brought home her grades and those sticky ornaments she made in Art Class. And once a year, you'd drive on down to Corpus Christi so that she could see the sea.
You still have photos of you all back then, in the upstairs closet. You take them out from time to time, everyone's faces looking kind of red in the early years because the camera wasn't so good. There aren't as many photos of the time since she went to college and there's almost none since she went to LA. She's emailed you pictures from there in the last couple of years, but you've never worked out how to print them.
You have to let kids go sometime, you know that, so they can live their own lives, no matter how far away it takes them.
Even if, sometimes, they come back.
She's not saying anything much, right now, about why she's there or what she's been doing. So Roger talks, sitting down in the den with her, telling her about your trip to Hawaii. He tells her about the beaches ("Not so nice as South Padre") and the hotel ("Furniture like you'd find in a dime store, but the folks were friendly"). You fix them some tea and you get her room ready, and when you come back, he's still talking. "The whole thing went 'boom!' and made the new crater. Hard to imagine, but that's what the guide said. Must have killed darn near everything for miles." You keep the den's shades down to keep the heat out, so as the sunset comes they look like two shadows sitting in the dark. And she's still not really talking.
At dinnertime, you give her all her favourite things to eat: queso, and fajitas, and those cookies you hadn't thought she'd liked until she complained she couldn't find them in LA. She smiles a lot and keeps looking over at the dresser, cocking her head at Texas town commemorative plates and framed black-and-white photos of Burkles.
When you finally run out patience, you say, "So how's it all going then? How's LA?"
"Oh, fine," she says, "fine," and you don't believe a word.
You give her old room back, though it's really the guest room now; cousin Pat stayed there three weeks last year. Fred's posters have all come down and the closet's been emptied, but the bedspread's still the one she picked out in Beall's.
The last time she visited, in her first year of grad school, she was like a storm in the house, running this way and that, her voice bubbling up the whole time. This time she's quiet, and when you bring her a nightgown to wear, she stands there and holds it like she doesn't know what it is.
That night you can't sleep. You can't find the right way to lie still. It's too hot and Roger's too warm lying next to you.
At two in the morning you hear a sound from above, like a window opening upstairs. You drop a foot to the floor and, as you step from the bed, there's a quiet thump from outside. You peek through the drapes to see your daughter crouching there on the lawn, a yard or two from you, her body outlined by streetlight. When she stands, there's something strange in the way that she moves: she's more purposeful and more upright. You pull your head back, just in case, and sure enough you hear her turn and walk to your window. You see the shadow when she blocks the strip of light where the drapes don't meet. You close your eyes, with your back to the wall, holding your breath.
Then Roger snorts in his sleep, rolling over, and the footsteps walk away.
Half an hour later, you slip back into bed. She doesn't come back until almost dawn.
In the morning, Roger says you look ill. You're so tired and worn-looking he won't let you get out of bed. He gets up and pulls on his dressing-gown to go fussing in the kitchen with some bacon and eggs.
Your daughter comes to see you. She looks fresh as a daisy, not tired in the least, and she smiles the way she always does. She sounds the way she always sounds.
"You sick?" she asks as she sits next to you on the bed. She touches her hand to your cheek and her fingers feel cool.
You say, "Fred, you know that I love you? You know that'd be true no matter what?"
She pulls her hand away from you, looking unsettled.
"You know you could tell me anything, Fred, anything at all? Whatever happened to you or whatever you did?"
She stares at you, her face gone blank as a wall.
"Look what I got here!" thunders your husband, stepping in through the door. "Fried eggs and bacon, tomato and mushroom, coffee and toast! I'd've made you those little pancakes too but, frankly, I don't know how."
Fred steps away from your bed to let him in with the tray. She asks him, "Aren't you meant to be at work?"
"I called in sick. It's just an office day, they don't need me at the site."
You send Fred out to the drugstore to fetch you some pills. You wait till the car's out of sight. Roger sits heavily down on the bed and you take his hand in yours.
"There's something wrong with our daughter," you say.
"You think I don't know that?" he asks. "It's written all over her. Why do you think I called in sick?"
"Do you think it's her job?"
"Could be boyfriend trouble," he says, "if she has one."
"Could be something wrong with her friends." You don't want to think too hard about just how dangerous her job is; there are so many things which could go wrong.
"We should call Angel," you say.
Roger uses the telephone in the hall, with the bedroom door kept open so you can hear.
"I'd like to speak to Angel," you hear him say. "The CEO."
A pause. "Since when? Well, if I could speak to Mr Charles Gunn then?
"Lorne then -- Krev -- yeah, that's the guy. Green guy with horns. Right, sure. And what about Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, is he gone too?
"Of course he is. And Cordy Chase?
"Oh, I'm sorry. I hadn't heard."
He puts the phone down and comes back to tell you, "They've all left Wolfram and Hart. And Cordy's dead. I don't think Winifred'll be going back to LA."
You and Roger are washing up after lunch. You have your hands in the soap suds and he's drying each dish as it comes. You watch Fred out in the yard from the kitchen window. It's a San Antonio July, hot and humid, the heat so heavy and the light so bright there's not a soul who'll go out walking during the day. But there's your daughter, standing in the sun as if it were nothing. She presses her fingers to the parched grass, she looks up at the cobalt sky, and she rubs her toes over the spot where you buried the dog when she was twelve.
You remember her saying, years ago in the Hyperion, "I'm not normal anymore."
"We could take out a loan," you say. "I don't know what insurance she'd have if she's left the company."
"Most likely, none," Roger says. "I can ask Dr Barth what'd he'd recommend."
"We shouldn't have gone to Hawaii. Then we'd maybe have a little money--"
"You can't think like that," he snaps. "We didn't know this was coming."
"What'll we do if it's demonic?"
"I don't know," he says. "The best we can?"
She looks up at you then and you think, all of a sudden, that she's heard every word you've said. Her eyes meet yours. "I saw you, " you say, through the glass, not raising your voice though she's on the other side of the yard. "I saw you last night. You think that scares me? Well, it does, but I'm still here."
Her looks start to change as she walks toward the back door. By the time she's in the kitchen with you, she's wearing a kind of catsuit and her hair is blue. She looks like the kind of nightmare you had when she first said she wanted to go to California for grad school. But she still looks a little like Winifred Burkle.
She speaks, and her voice is different. It's brittle and sharp and not sweet. She says, "I'm not your daughter. Your daughter is dead. They all are. Cordelia is dead. Gunn is dead. Angel and Spike are dust. Wesley -- is dead. We all died. I am not Fred."
"You know where we buried the dog," Roger says, softly. "You remembered your friend Jill and her Atari last night."
"I remember what she could remember," she says, "but that does not make me Fred."
"Then why else would you have come here?" you ask.
"I do not know," says the blue-haired woman, and now it is her turn to stare out of the kitchen window into the bright, fierce light. "Why should you mean anything to me, you who raised the shell?"
It was Roger's idea, but you were the one who started it. He said, "Maybe if we reminded her of the things she used to like," so you brought out the boxes from the garage: her old clothes, her old toys, her old books. You brought them to your daughter, who is smarter and swifter and stronger than even you thought.
She took to the books again, going through each page, ripping them out as she went, arranging them in piles and patterns on the den floor. She pushed the recliners and the coffee table and the stereo out into the hall as she ran of out of floorspace. She wanted only the physics texts, and when she'd finished those, she drove up to Austin in the middle of the night and came back with more.
You spend an hour or two in the hall every day now, sitting on a dining chair and watching her work, reassured by the sight of Fred at her books. Your daughter's changed in many ways, but some things have stayed the same. She always used to sit like that, cross-legged on the floor, reading and scribbling and muttering to herself.
"I used to walk through worlds and cross dimensions," she says, looking up all of a sudden, "but I did not understand the how of what I did. I could not have, before." She talks to you and to herself. Sometimes she addresses the air as "Wesley" or as "Qwa'Ha Xahn".
The week before last, a sharp-suited man with a west coast accent came to the door, looking for Fred. You lied and said you hadn't seen her for months. He'd looked human enough, standing there in the porchlight, until Fred killed him.
Fred said then, as she helped you wash the goop from the porch, "Wolfram and Hart will keep coming after me. You and I will not be safe until they're ended." She said, "I'll work out how."
The books lie open and torn now, piled in circles around her; their white pages look like petals, or like something spun by a tornado. Photocopies and strips of packing paper hang from ceiling to floor on every wall of the room; steak-knives pin your best white tablecloth over the window. Every last surface is covered with black marker pen: equations and pictures, heiroglyphs and alien script.
Sometimes Fred has blue hair and sometimes she has brown. Sometimes she changes back and forth as you watch.
You've always had faith in your daughter. If anyone knows how to solve a problem, it'll be Fred.