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Shell Game

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Here’s my latest fic. Actually the longest I’ve ever written, so I think it might deserve headings…

Title: Shell Game
Rating: PG
Word Count: 5370
Disclaimer: Broken furniture is not a form of therapy approved by the American Psychological Association.
Warnings: tears, books, and far too much housework

Beta-ed by the incredible dreamincolor.

Summary: Fred isn’t who she used to be, and it’s getting kind of worrying.


This is a story about loss, and coming home.




Shell Game

It’s one of the oldest in the world. Played across the mortal globe. It’s taken small fortunes from some men, and given them to others.

How’s that for a game?

Three shells, one pea. That’s all it is.
The pea goes under one shell, and the gamer begins his spiel.

“Step on up, and try your hand. Where’s the pea?”

The shells move, one by one, right to left, flashing from hand to hand faster than magic.
And always, one contains the pea.

“Where’s the pea? Don’t take your eyes away. Keep track, sir, and you too could win. Watch the pea.”

There goes one shell, the second, the third – or was that the first again? It’s hard to keep up.

“It’s a lucky day for some. Luck’s in the air, ma’am. Do you feel lucky?”

And as the shells stop, the money goes down and the choice is made. That shell – right there.

So the only question now is, did you pick the right one?



* * * * *



There were so many things she could do.

Trish rinsed off a cup and placed it in the drying rack, still looking out the kitchen window.

She could take out some cookies and coffee, hand them over gently, and wait for the whole story to come spilling out.

She could sit down next to her, give her a hug, and somehow think of the perfect thing to say that would bring down the barriers.

She could sit her daughter down at the dining room table, and firmly insist that she explain what actually happened to her.

Or maybe she should just bite the bullet and get Fred into some sort of therapy.

She bit her lip, and paused, mid-plate scrubbing.
Trish Burkle, don’t be ridiculous, she scolded herself. It’s not so urgent as all that. Fred just needs time, that’s all. The poor girl’s been through a lot lately.

But what had she been through? Trish kept looking out the window, brow furrowed, watching the still figure underneath the apple tree.

They hadn’t known that anything was wrong. Hadn’t had any warning. True, Fred hadn’t called in a while – but they’d expected that.
Checking in with the folks is hardly a girl’s first priority when she’s living the high life in Los Angeles, especially with the strange hours that seemed to be part of the whole fighting-evil thing.

But – Trish sighed, and started on the saucepans – she felt like she ought to have known.

She should have woken up in the middle of the night, heart pounding in her chest.
She should have heard Fred’s name and been instantly uneasy.
She should have just had a feeling.

This was her own flesh and blood, after all – surely she ought to have suspected that something was wrong.

But no, she hadn’t. She’d just been ignorantly carrying on with life, unaware that anything was off kilter until the morning that Fred showed up, dripping wet, standing on their doorstep without a word. With deep scratches on her arms, and that heartbreaking look on her face – a look that Trish was getting more familiar with every day, that plainly said “I have been through too much, seen too much, felt too much, so do you mind if I just shut down and stop thinking for a while?”

Not that Fred had actually said that, of course. She’d just whispered “I’m fine”, and then sat on the couch looking horribly broken.

The saucepan wasn’t getting clean very easy. Black burned flakes were stuck to the base. Trish went at it furiously with the scrubbing brush, blinking back tears.

Her Fred. Her little girl. She was supposed to be able to protect her.

Her daughter should be in her arms, hearing whispered reassurances that it would all be alright – not sitting under an apple tree staring off into the distance, looking so sad.

Trish scrubbed harder.

She just felt so helpless. “Give her time,” Roger had advised. “Time is all she’ll need, mother.” And she agreed – she did – but it had been a week, nearly two, and they still didn’t know what was wrong.

Shouldn’t Fred be talking to them by now?



* * * * *



It’s a con game, really.

“Just keep concentrating, sir. You could win big, I know you could.”

The shells spin, disorienting the customers. Actually, make that customer. The others aren’t customers – they’re in on the hustle.

“Wow, you almost got that one.”
“You idiot, it’s easy. Here – watch me.”
“I guessed it right the other day – won over a hundred bucks.”
“Come on, mate. One more. Don’t give up yet.”

And you do the patter, keep them off balance. Assure them they’re going to win – after all, they’ve got to win eventually, right?

But you know they never will.

“Where’s the pea? Just one lucky guess, and you’re rich. Yes, you, ma’am.”

You smile at them, take their money, and give nothing in return.

It’s a con. That’s all it is.



* * * * *



Trish hesitated outside the bedroom door, a cup of cocoa in each hand.
Bonding at midnight over shared inability to sleep was one thing – waking your daughter up in the middle of the night because you felt like discussing her problems was another thing altogether.

Still… she might be awake.
And if Trish was quiet enough, it couldn’t hurt to…

She transferred both cups to her left hand, and knocked, very quietly, on the door.

An immediate reply came from inside: “Come in”, and Trish entered, flicking on the light.

Fred was sitting upright in bed, hugging her knees and staring straight forward.

Had she been sitting like that all night?
Well, at least she hadn’t been woken up by her crazy mother. That was a sort of bright side.

She sat on the side of the bed, and passed over some cocoa. It was taken without a word.

(“So… why don’t you tell me all about what happened to you.”)
No. Far too pushy.


“Couldn’t sleep?” Better.

“No.” Fred sipped her drink, and added, “Not so far.”

“Me neither.”

She nodded.

Trish sighed, and drank some more cocoa.

This morning, Fred had occupied herself by sitting on the porch, and looking sad. At lunchtime, she had barely touched her peach pie, being far too busy gazing out the window and looking sad. This had been followed up by the daily bout of walking round the living room touching ornaments without saying a word, and finally a few hours of sitting at the front fence looking sad.

Hard to believe, but this was the best conversation they’d had all day.

(“So Fred, want to discuss what’s on your mind?”)

“Enjoying the cocoa?”

“Yes. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

More silent cocoa drinking.

She was casting around for a new topic of conversation – something, anything, to get her daughter rambling on like she used to – when Fred surprised her by talking all by herself.

“It’s so hard to decide.”

“What?” Trish blinked. “Decide what?”

Fred said nothing, just let her gaze travel over the floor.

Trish blinked again.
She wasn’t the strictest mother in town – that honour went to Mary-Jean Mason, two blocks down – but she had always made sure her daughter at least kept her room from falling apart at the seams by tidying it up once in a while.
It just went to show how distracted Trish was, that she’d been in Fred’s bedroom for five minutes, and she was only now noticing that the closet was open, and every single outfit her daughter owned was strewn across the floor… assuming there was a floor under there somewhere.

“Oh. I see.”

“I don’t know what to wear. It was never this hard to decide before.”

Trish nodded, unsure how to respond.
Oh please, don’t let her clam up and stop talking again. Don’t let me say the wrong thing and ruin it all.

(“So, feel like talking about why you’re all indecisive and crazy?”)


“It can be tricky, sometimes,” she nodded.

“When the-” Fred paused, frowning, and then continued, “When I was in Pylea, I only had one thing to wear.”

Trish tensed. “Pylea – that was the place with all the caves and green folk, right?”

“Yes.” Fred shifted her feet slightly under the covers. “I just had one set of clothes – that was all. And I know- I remember that I used to pretend I had more. I’d be hauling water and wearing jeans and a red top. Or chopping wood in a yellow sun dress with blue flowers.” She sipped her cocoa, and said thoughtfully, “I think it helped. Pretending like that.”

“Yes?”

“Yes.” She frowned. “Odd – that such a simple change could make such a difference.”
She lapsed into silence, and went back to staring at the wall.

Trish sat there, finishing her lukewarm cocoa, and didn’t have a clue what else to say.



* * * * *



There are millions of backstreet bazaars in the world. Probably at least a million people running this game right now.

How likely is it that you’ve found the only honest one?

“Keep your eyes on the pea. That’s right, ma’am. Keep watching.”

And yet you can fool yourself.

After all, it could be possible. It could be just the shifting shells, and not sleight of hand.

“It could be your lucky day!”

The shells move, fast as ever, pulling you in.

Surely this time you can keep track.

Keeping track. That’s all it is. Keeping your wits about you.

“Care to make a bet, sir?”

And despite all you know, despite knowing it can’t be real, you trick yourself. Persuade yourself that you could win.

All you need to do is watch the shell. Throw reason to the wind, and let that shell guide you.

You’re going to win big.



* * * * *



The upstairs passage was covered completely in books. She’d pulled every one of them off the bookcase, and was sitting serenely in the middle of the mess, halfway through Five Fall Into Adventure.

Trish watched, bemused, from the top of the stairs.

“Doing okay there, hon?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Having fun reading?”

“Mmm.”

“Want me to bring your sandwiches up, so you don’t have to move in the middle of the story?”

“Thanks. That’d be good.” Fred turned the page, and looked up, frowning a bit. “They’re not very plausible.”

“The Famous Five?”

“Every strange occurrence in the neighbourhood seems to centre around the same five children. It’s an unlikely scenario, overall.”

“Well, perhaps you could try something else.” Trish gestured around at all the books lying haphazardly on top of each other. “You’re sure not short on reading material.”

She considered it, but shook her head. “No. I know I used to like these.” Fred bent her head over the book again, and said, “I’d like to remember why.”

Trish nodded. “Okay. You do that, and I’ll bring up the sandwiches.”

“Uh-huh.”

It was over a week since their midnight cocoa discussion, and Fred seemed to be doing much better. Seemed to be.
She was taking an interest in the world, helping round the house, even, and spending a lot of time going over her old things.

She’d even taken out a bunch of ornaments – silly china fairies and things – from when she was ten, and set them up round her bedroom, just like they used to be when she was little.

It was nice – and, after the previous couple of weeks of silent tragedy, a blessed relief. Except…

Trish shook her head. I’m being ridiculous. After all that time with her dead to the world and me wishing she’d cheer up, she cheers up, starts talking, starts being herself, and what do I do? Only start wishing she was moody and vacant again, that’s all…

She started slicing a loaf of bread, still thoughtful.

It wasn’t that Fred was doing anything that unusual: she’d been leaving book piles all over the floor ever since she could read. Trish could still picture her, fifteen years old, lying on her stomach across the landing, so caught up in a book she somehow managed not to notice her father tripping over the dictionary and landing facefirst on the carpet.

But… maybe that was it. That she wasn’t being unusual.

She was behaving like everything was right as rain – and acting it well, too, except that Trish knew her daughter, and knew when everything was not right as rain, but was, in fact, rather unright.

Like last night, when they’d watched a movie with Hugh Grant, and Trish had said he had a funny accent, and she’d rather listen to someone who was easier to understand.
And Fred had said, “Oh, I like it. He sounds nice – kinda like We-”, froze mid-sentence, turned ashen, calmly finished “like Wesley,” and then changed the channel to a gardening program.

Or on Tuesday afternoon, when Roger and her had been going over one of her old physics textbooks. They’d been doing okay, discussing some theory of kinematic quantum something-or-other, and having a grand time of it… until Fred had messed up an equation.
She’d almost been yelling with frustration, scribbling down formula after formula, with an aggrieved “Why can’t I do this?! I used to be able to do ANYTHING!”
And when Roger had tried to comfort her, gently saying, “It’s okay, Fred honey, you’ll get back into it. You just need some practice, that’s all,” Fred had closed her eyes and said “What I need is a guide.” And then she’d put her head down on the tabletop, and hadn’t budged for an hour.

And maybe it was just the last lingering bits of tension.
Maybe she really was getting better, and was managing to move on from whatever had happened to her.
Maybe the stops and starts in their conversations were just residual awkwardness – nothing to worry about.
Maybe she wasn’t a big ball of anxiety and fear, bubbling right under the surface of this whole show of happiness.
Maybe she really was getting there, day by day, and in just a few days more she’d be right there, whole and complete, exactly like she should be.

But somehow, as Trish continued making sandwiches for her cheerful, upbeat Fred, reading upstairs just like old times, she couldn’t help feeling like her daughter was further away than ever.



* * * * *



A shell goes from left to right. Another goes from centre to left – and then changes its mind and heads right instead.
They dance, spinning to unheard music.

“Here’s another round. Who wants to have a go?”

They twirl, from side to side. Left to right, centre to left, right to centre, centre to right, and over again.

There’s a pea under one of them.

The shells spin round the table, putting on a show for all to see.

“Come on, try your luck. Just watch that pea.”

It’s in there somewhere. That’s for sure.

But no-one sees it. No-one can.
The pea stays hidden, out of sight, where no-one will know.

A little sleight of hand. That’s all it is.

“I know you can win this one, sir. I just know it.”

You’re getting pretty good at it.

You can dance those shells, spin your spiel, and fill your pockets.
You don’t even have to look at the pea. Not once.

Right to left, left to centre, and the game goes on.



* * * * *



She’d only been gone a couple of hours.

Trish stood in the hall, still with a shopping bag in each hand, silently taking in the chaos of her living room.

Oh Lord.

It started with a broken piece of wood, right at her feet. It had been in the way when she’d opened the door, stopping it halfway open.
Then there was a large piece of fluff, and then a couple more bits of wood, and then… there was the living room.

Ripped fabric, bent springs, bits of stuffing and screws everywhere – some just scattered, but some clearly thrown.
Three large pieces of what had formerly been a sturdy wooden frame.
And in the middle of it all, sitting huddled and motionless, was Fred.

“I broke the couch.”

Trish put her bags down, and walked in slowly. “I can see that.”

She wrapped her arms more tightly around herself, eyes fixed on a cushion ripped in half, lying on the floor.
“I’m sorry. I needed-” A pause. “I needed to break something.”

“You couldn’t just go with a plate?” Yes, that’s right. Your daughter’s traumatised, so complain about the mess. Great idea.

“Why a plate?”

“What?”

Fred looked up, crinkling her nose in a puzzled sort of way. “Do you have any plates you want broken?”

“No, honey, I don’t.” Trish knelt down next to her, and said gently, “A couch is just a bit over-the-top, though, wouldn’t you say?”

Fred nodded. She looked so young.

As Trish reached out to flip a stray piece of hair behind her ears – or perhaps just give her shoulders a motherly sort of pat – she sighed and said quietly, “It doesn’t go away, does it?”

“What doesn’t?”

“Grief.”

Grief? Is that what…

Fred kept talking softly, her eyes far away. “I thought I could outlast it. Grief was going to starve to death while I looked at her instead. But it just stays here waiting to pounce the moment I drop my guard. The moment I-”

“Honey, what was it?” Trish interrupted, urgently trying to get through to her. “What happened to you in L.A.? What went wrong?”

A moment’s silence, as they sat together in a room filled with ripped fabric and splinters, Fred completely still.

Then she blinked, and looked up, eyes steadily on Trish. “I lost it all. That’s what happened. Everything. Everyone I-” She frowned, and gazed around the room. “And now here I am, wearing dresses, reading books that make no sense, destroying things that weren’t responsible, and I don’t… I don’t know who I am anymore.”

The last words were said quietly, but with so much confusion – and Trish just wanted to wrap her arms around her daughter and make everything alright, just by being there.
Instead, she picked up Fred’s hand and held it gently. “Maybe if you talked about it, it might be easier.”

“Maybe.”

“Was it… the law firm? Did something happen there? Or… was it one of your friends?”

For a moment it looked like she was going to start talking – her face crumpled slightly, and she opened her mouth – but a moment later she was looking more determined than ever.
“No. I just need to try harder. It must stop hurting eventually.”

“But Fred, honey, if…” – Don’t force her. It’ll happen in good time. – “…okay.” Trish smoothed back Fred’s hair away from her face, and suggested, “Why don’t I make us both some cookies? Sound like a good idea?”

She nodded – “Thank you.” – and looked around the living room calmly. “I’ll clean this up.”

“Okay.” Trish got to her feet, and began taking groceries through to the kitchen.



* * * * *



A back-alley gamble crossed with a magic trick. That’s all it is.

So why does it feel like so much more?

“Keep track, sir. It’s in there somewhere. That’s it.”

Three look like twenty, they’re moving so fast. And then they don’t look like shells at all, but like diamonds.

They sparkle across the table, promising everything.

“Guess right, and you could make a fortune. Nothing to lose.”

The game draws you in, making kingdoms and countries rise and fall depending on whether you win or lose.
This guess will be everything.

Strange, when all it really is, is just a pea inside a shell.



* * * * *



When she finally walked out on them, it came without any warning.

Trish was getting a roast out of the oven, and Fred was in the next room, setting the table for dinner.
“I was talking to Sally Walburn today. Their car’s getting repaired again – poor woman’s been walking halfway across town to get to work.”

“Really? That’s a pretty long walk.”

“Can you put napkins out, too? The blue ones would be good.”

“Sure. They’re in the drawer on the left, aren’t they?”

“That’s right. Oh, and make sure we’re using the fancy glasses, okay?”

“No problem.”

“So I said I could pick her up on the bus once I’ve done my rounds. After all, there’s no point in having a big empty school bus to haul across town, while she’s walking all that way.”

“Makes sense. Where are the dessert spoons?”

“Middle drawer. Behind the cake servers.”

“Found them.”

“Don’t know how a vehicle can need so much fixing. Have you ever seen a car in worse shape than that one?”

…and there was silence.

“Fred?”

No reply.

Trish paused in the middle of garnishing the potatoes, and looked through the door – just in time to see Fred disappearing into the hall.
By the time she got to the front door, there was no sign of Fred anywhere.

Trish stood still in the doorway, looking out onto the street, for nearly half an hour – while dinner slowly went cold, and the table sat there, still half-set, with three spoons not in place.

And though they called the police station, and Roger drove around town at snails’ pace, hoping to spot her somewhere, she just wasn’t anywhere. Their daughter had simply vanished.

For the next few days, she poured her worry into housework – vacuuming, dusting, washing, scrubbing. She probably would have re-tiled the roof, given time.

Roger was much calmer, spending most of his time reading books and reassuring her that of course Fred would be fine, she could handle herself, and they really shouldn’t be concerned.
But he looked out the window much more than usual, and once she noticed he sat there for over an hour without turning a single page.

Personally, she thought she had a better coping mechanism. At least the house was getting clean.

But it was hard. Not the work – she was more than up to that. But she kept getting reminders, wherever she looked.

Fred’s shoes, lying messily right in her way.

Fred’s pillowcase, waiting to be washed.

Her physics book, still lying open on the desk, a pen and notepad on top.

Her favourite CD, blasting out something loud and tuneless, when Trish turned the stereo on.

The flowers she’d picked, slowly wilting in the blue vase she’d chosen for them.

Every time Trish looked up, it was something else, and she’d pause in the middle of dusting as the worries started up again.
Was it us?
Was it me?
Was I not supportive enough?
Should I have pushed her more?
She was doing so well.
What if she really did want to talk about it?
I hope she’s okay…


She was beginning to drive herself crazy.

It took four days for Fred to return.
They didn’t hear her get back, but that morning when Trish went outside to get the paper, there she was sitting on the porch steps, watching the sunrise.

Trish froze, wondering if she really had gone insane and started hallucinating.
But no – that was Fred sitting there, on the steps, wearing exactly the same clothes she’d been wearing when she left.

They didn’t say anything – not for a while. Trish just sat down on the steps next to her daughter, and as Fred leaned into her, and rested her head on Trish’s shoulder, she felt them both start to relax for the first time in a long time.



* * * * *



The thing is, there’s no way to win.

Guess wrong, and the money disappears into someone’s pocket.
Guess right, and he distracts you with a dazzling smile, turns the rules upside down, and once again you’ve lost.

“Bad luck, ma’am. You’ll do better next time, though. I’m sure of it.”

So you play again. You lose.
You play again. You lose more.
You play again.

“Where’s the pea? Keep watching, sir. I know you can do it now. Watch the pea.”

His smile’s still dazzling. You smile back, and don’t even notice how much you’re being screwed.

A lost cause. That’s all it is.
Still, you’ve got to keep playing.

You bet more.

“That’s it, ma’am. Keep your eyes peeled. You might just be lucky.”

Lucky doesn’t exist in this game.

You play, you lose, you play, you lose, the pea is nowhere in sight, and before you know it he’s taken everything you ever had, and all you have left is the shell.

But a Shell, at least, is something.



* * * * *



She still didn’t have the faintest idea what had happened to Fred.

Trish set down the geranium plant she was re-potting, and looked across at her daughter, who was curled up in the porch swing, contentedly reading a novel.

“Good book, honey?”

“Hmm? Yeah… it is.”

“Well, that’s good.”

“Mm-hmm.”

Funny, but I never thought I’d actually miss being harassed by my chatterbox of a daughter.

Trish sighed, and went back to re-potting.

It wasn’t that they weren’t getting along well – they were. Everything was going great – especially now that they’d established some unspoken ground rules about Things That Should Not Be Talked About.
Top of the list being magic, English people, karaoke, and for some reason, a video game called Crash Bandicoot.
Any mention of those, and Fred would freeze up. Apart from that, they were doing great.

And not fake, I’m-fine-Mom-really, overly-cheerful great, either – but proper, relaxed, genuine great.

It was just… she still didn’t know.
Didn’t know what had happened, didn’t know what had made Fred so sad, or why she still was, didn’t know why she kept asking questions she already knew the answers to… and karaoke! What on earth was wrong with karaoke?

It was driving her crazy.

Or had been – until she’d decided to take a whole new approach, and started being serenely unconcerned about the whole thing.

Let Fred be as tantalisingly cryptic as she could be – she, Trish, would just smile serenely and calmly take it in her stride.
Serene calmness. Calm serenity. Unconcerned nonchalance, no matter what went cock-eyed.

It was practically zen.

“What do you think – enchiladas for lunch? Sound good?”

Fred turned the page calmly. “Yeah. That sounds delicious.”

“And after lunch, we can do the laundry. Or maybe we could blow off the laundry, and play a game of chess. Or…”

Or… maybe we could do some karaoke. Or some magic. Or play video games.

“Uh-huh. That’d be nice.” Fred was still engrossed in her book.

Really – who calls a video game Crash Bandicoot, anyway?

Serene, calm, nonchalance. Unconcerned geranium re-potting.

Everything, after all, was fine. Fred was relaxed, she was normal, she was readjusting… and she probably thought Trish hadn’t noticed that she’d been reading the same novel for five days now, and was still stuck halfway through chapter two.

Something on your mind, sweetie?

A couple of months ago, she actually would have asked that question. Out loud.
But then – Trish sighed – a couple of months ago, Fred would have given her an answer.

And she knew she’d probably never find out the truth, probably never have Fred trust her with it. And that was okay. Really it was. Fred was doing so much better, looking so much…

Actually, come to think of it, she did look like she had something on her mind.
More today than yesterday.

It was subtle – just the little things. Her mouth set a bit too firmly, the way she was sitting just slightly… off.
An outsider wouldn’t have picked it, but there was something there. She was clearly upset, and if Trish was any sort of mother, she’d go over there, hug her tightly, be wonderful and comforting, make her feel so much better… and she couldn’t, could she?

All she could do was sit here re-potting geraniums and try to feel serene.

The new pot was creamy white, and was going to look really nice under all those red flowers.
She deftly shifted the plant into position – spilling dirt all over the table – and put it down with an accomplished smile.
“There. Aren’t you happy I got you out of that cracked old bit of pottery?”

She was right. They did look nice.
“And you’ll look even nicer, once I’ve got some water back into those roots. It’ll perk you right up.”

“What are you doing?”
Trish turned. Fred had looked up from her book, and was watching carefully.

“Oh, nothing honey. Just talking to the flowers, that’s all.”

A frown flickered across her face. “What’s it saying?”

“Well… nothing. It’s just… sitting there, really.”

A deeper frown. “But…” She pulled her feet up onto the seat, and wrapped her arms around her knees. “Why talk to them if they won’t talk back?”

Well… why not? After all… Besides, that isn’t the point, is it?

“That’s not really the point, honey. It’s just something to do. Makes me feel like I’m being friendly. And it’s supposed to help them grow better, I think.” She smiled slightly. “And anyway, they’re plants. It’s not like they’re supposed to be talking back to us.”

“They used to.” Fred kept hugging her knees, and said quietly, “I miss that.”

What on earth do I say to that? Trish cast around for something profound, and finally settled on “Uh-huh.”

And she waited – but nothing else seemed to be coming.
So she picked up a rag, wiped all the loose dirt off the table, put the rag down, and turned back around… just in time to see Fred stand up and determinedly pitch her book across the garden.

All the way across the garden.

It landed with an audible thud, somewhere close to the cherry tomatoes.
Fred stood there, glaring out towards the vegetable patch with a defiant look on her face.

“Honey? Everything… okay?”

No response. Just a woman watching the world as if it was about to start attacking her and maybe she should get in on the fight early.

“Honey?”

Nothing.

“You… going to finish reading that?”

Fred folded her arms, and asked, “What’s the point?”, with a faint tremble in her voice.

“Well… Fred, honey…” She was still at a loss for words, but all of a sudden it didn’t matter anyway, because Fred was talking again.

“Why should I sit here reading a novel written by a stupid human who’s hardly even alive?” – and that faint tremble was starting to come through loud and clear – “It makes no sense, trying to fit, trying to make it work, when it’s all going to collapse into dust. Because that’s what everything does. Every time.”

Tears were pouring down Fred’s cheeks, right along with the words that were pouring out.

“It all goes, and leaves, and everything falls apart, and you keep going, working around the body that doesn’t fit right, and people destroy you over and over again, and still you try, listening to men – mere men! – and thinking thoughts that were never yours, and before you know it, you’re standing in the rain waiting to fight a dragon.”

She took one deep, shuddering breath, and kept right on going, voice cracking more with every new word.

“And I shouldn’t have been there! That fight wasn’t mine to fight! Why was I so weak, staying to do battle when I should have walked away, when I should have crushed those imbeciles who thought they could tame me, who thought I was weak enough to control? I should have left them there! But I watched them fall, and Wesley fall, and I was too weak to…”

She was still staring defiantly into the garden, shaking.

Trish touched her shoulder gently, and she turned – startling blue eyes looking out of Fred’s face.

“Oh, Mom. They’re all dead. They’re dead, and I couldn’t stop it.”

She looked so lost, and Trish folded her into a firm hug, pulling her down to the porch swing.
“It’s okay, honey. It’s okay. Everything’s going to be alright now.”

Trembling arms held onto her, and she sat there, stroking a shaking back, murmuring soothing words… and fervently thanking her lucky stars, God in his heavens, and everything else she could think of, because Fred was sobbing in her lap, her hair flooding blue beneath Trish’s fingers, and finally, incredibly, Trish knew that she had her daughter back at last.


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