"It's only California, Mom," Fred said. "Its not like I'm
Europe, or the moon."
Her mother sniffed. "There are plenty of fine schools right here in Texas."
"No one there is doing the kind of research Professor Seidel is doing on nondeterministic polynominal timelines..." She trailed off at the incomprehension on her mother's face. "None of them is doing the kind of work I can do at UCLA."
"I don't see how you'll be happy there, Fred. Do you know what kind of people you'll meet?"
"I'm pretty sure that graduate students in physics are the same everywhere," Fred said. "Mom, you know I won't be doing anything wild. I'll be working too hard to get into any trouble."
Trish Burkle picked up the envelope from UCLA as if to weigh it in her hands. If Fred shut her eyes she could visualize the words: the acceptance, the details of her grant, an offer of housing, all that money just to study and research, no teaching for the first two years. And even better than that, the letter from Professor Seidel, his interest in her proposal, the way it dovetailed with his own work, and sure, she knew that meant she'd end up doing unpaid labor in his lab and he'd try to use her results without proper credit but she understood that. That was how it worked in the world she wanted. She could handle that, so long as she could get there.
"I don't know," her mother said. "It's so far away, and we don't know anyone there."
"I'll be OK there, Mom," Fred said. She'd said the same thing a hundred times, ever since her parents saw Fred's face as she ripped the envelope open and read. "I promise. If I'm not, I can always come home. If ya'll will have me."
"Of course you can always come home! Oh, I suppose you know best and I'm being silly. But you're still my little girl, and I'll keep worrying about you."
"I know you will, Mom. I love you too. This is just... something I need, like when you let me go to community college in senior year. Remember?"
Her mother's face softened. "I know, sweetheart. You know I don't understand half of what you talk about, but I always knew it would take you away from home."
Fred felt her own eyes tearing up. "This is always gonna be home," she said. "I'm not gonna turn into someone else in LA, mom, I promise." She meant it, and she wanted it to be true, but even then she could see the highway stretching out before her, and at the end, a whole new world.
Fred ran. In the back of her head the phrase, "as if the demons of hell were chasing her" was rattling around, along with everything else there, like terror and pain and the need to keep an eye out for tree roots that might trip her up and the wiring in the collar hanging uselessly around her neck.
She had been running forever.
She missed a root and went flying forward, sprawling onto the ground. When she was five she fell out of an oak tree and knocked the wind right out of her. Her Daddy picked her up and brushed her off and she didn't cry then and wouldn't cry now, but where was someone to pick her up?
Maybe it had happened to someone else.
She could hear breathing and a heart beating. She raised herself to her hands and knees, then to her feet, and started to run again.
The lobby was cold and she tried not to look into the shadows skittering in the corners. Anyway, Gunn and Wesley were standing by the reception desk, and she knew they'd be upset if her attention wandered. More upset: they were standing, both of them, arms folded on their chests, stiff and frowning.
"You should have told one of us," Wesley said.
"I left a note."
"'I'll be back later. Sorry about taking the truck,'" Wesley quoted. Fred avoided Gunn's eyes. "Where did you go?"
She shrugged and kept her eyes on the floor. She'd forgotten how hard it was to get away from the city; she had to keep driving long after the suburbs and subdivisions should have yielded to farms and fields, and then a little longer, down unfamiliar country roads in the early morning hours.
"We were worried about you," Gunn said. "It's dangerous out there."
"I slept in the daytime." She had, curled up in the front of the truck, from dawn to the early afternoon. Then she'd got up, climbed a fence and started walking. "I just needed to go somewhere. Was that bad?"
"You aren't a prisoner here," Wesley said. "We want you to be happy."
She could tell what he wanted her to say: that she was happy, that she was grateful to them for rescuing her, that she wanted to help. The words crowded into her mouth and they weren't lies, but she didn't know what they would be when they came out. She bit the side of her tongue. She wasn't a prisoner.
"If you want to borrow my truck, just ask," Gunn said. She had to smile at that, before she looked down again.
"We aren't angry," Wesley said. "We were worried, that's all."
"I didn't mean to scare you," she said. "I just needed... I needed to go somewhere without so many buildings." Dry grass had crackled around her as she walked, seeds stuck to her jeans. Tiny lizards and snakes scrambled and slithered away from her feet. In the late afternoon she'd wandered up a dry creek-bed and through scrubby gray trees and found what she didn't know she'd been looking for: big warm bodies, soft eyes, the constant buzzing of flies and the smell of manure.
The cows had eyed her without interest, flicking their tails at the flies and shaking their heads. She'd crouched down under the last tree and just watched them for a little while. "I am you," she had whispered, and, "I am not you." When the shadows started to reach out from the trees to the herd, she'd stood and hiked back down the creek-bed. Back over the fence, she'd driven in the dark back to the hotel.
"No buildings," Gunn said. "OK. I guess that's no crazier than anything else. You wanna go get pancakes?"
She'd kissed Angel on the cheek and told him, "Call me if there's an apocalypse." Some other time, she'd worry about how half-hearted his smile was. Now LA was hours behind her and the late afternoon was coming on. There were fields on her left full of strawberries and artichokes, and on the right, wood houses with big windows and big porches cluttered the hills. She found an old-fashioned motel past San Simeon and boggled at the price for a room but took it anyway. There was a view of the surf from the window and the light blue walls smelled of new paint.
The cooler in her car was full of oranges and homemade sandwiches -- Fred thought her mother would be proud -- but she bet she could find a Mexican restaurant out here somewhere if she wanted. She stretched her arms over her head and watched the waves break and the sun go down.
Fred loved her lab at Wolfram & Hart: all that equipment, everything shiny and new and the best that money could by, and assistants at her beck and call. She loved the freedom to work on whatever she wanted, except when they needed research for cases but even that was fun most of the time, and she knew damn well that without Wolfram and Hart there was no way she'd be staying in a place like this. She just needed to clear her head, a little. There were too many things that were almost off-balance enough to be obvious, and she'd tried to fix them, endless equations down the whiteboards in her office and the lab conference room, but the results never matched. There was some piece missing, and she couldn't find out what it was. She thought that it might be because her eyes were too full of everything else, so here she was, just water and sky and clouds shading orange to gray.
The sun had gone down behind the curve of the earth, but the clouds reflected its colors back for her to see. That was the first step, she thought, you couldn't see it but it changed everything. But the sky got darker and cloud covered the stars and the missing thing stayed just over the horizon, just out of sight.
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Small print: Joss, ME, WB own it. All mistakes are my own; I know nothing about physics. Many thanks to Jennyo for organizing the ficathon and to inlovewithnight for providing a neat prompt. I hope you like it.