by Jennifer-Oksana

Fred has come to like this world. Willow's inside their house, playing with herbs and kitchen witchery, Dawn is in the den, curled around some funny, funky reading that she simply must do before speaking to anyone, spring break be damned. Of course, Willow and Fred, both former graduate students themselves, completely understand. Still, Fred can't help but be mildly amused when Dawn announces, "So how would you compare the pragmatics of science to narrative knowledge?" as though she's pulled off a coup.

(the first is all window dressing. because this is not Fred's world. this is not where Fred is really from.)

Fred has come to like Sunnydale, with the edgeless, perennially mild weather, the lovely beaches, the old money/hippie alliance against the twenty-first century and sprawl, and the Doublemeat Palaces. Dawn complains that there aren't any nightclubs in Sunnydale except the Bronze, and that's a meat market for god-forbid, undergraduates, but she's mostly shamming. New York will do that to a girl, and Dawn has done so well in New York. Willow, Fred thinks, Willow sometimes wonders if she hasn't trapped herself here in this endless quiet, but Willow is mostly glad for the good life. Fred and Willow and spousal hires and university housing by the sea. There are worse things.

(they won in this world, pulled their heads out of the sand and rallied around each other and fought to win the day. it had been a hard victory, but victory nonetheless.)

"Baby, we're out of oregano," Willow says, wandering onto the back porch, where Fred is sitting in the sun, munching on carrots, and reading up on portal-sickness in the Journal of Interdimensional Physics. "I'm gonna go to Lassen's and get some. Keep an eye on the stew, okay? I'd ask Dawnie, but you know how she is."

"Don't distract me when I'm reading," Fred says dramatically, putting her hand to her forehead and throwing her head back. "It's very bad for my comprehension."

"I heard that!" Dawn calls shrilly from the den.

(where Fred comes from, where she really comes from, both of them are long dead. Fred saw the bodies on her walk. Dawn, like the fairy-tale princess, her lips red with blood. Willow, nothing but a shriveled skin.)

"I know, baby," Fred replies, standing up and shaking out her limbs before giving Willow a peck on the cheek. "Just keep readin', will you? We don't want all those brains going to waste on stew."

"Okay," Dawn replies lazily, and Fred imagines that long, lean body snuggling deeper into the couch cushions. Just the way any twenty-some-odd-year-old girl-key should.

"That girl," Fred says fondly, slinging her arm around Willow. "She's something, isn't she?"

(all of Los Angeles, barren wasteland. Fred remembers walking, and wailing, and being alone. alone in the rubble, nearly blind from the grit and smoke, chanting the words that could save her or destroy her. only enough magic and power left for one jump. only one jump for only one person. only she escaped.)

"Oh, yes," Willow replies, grinning as her purse jingles. "I'll be back in ten minutes, all right?"

Fred nods and heads into the cozy kitchen, steaming and alive with spices and herbs and the faintest lashings of magic. The stewpot is something out of a vision of domestic bliss, gleaming and copper-bottomed. The kitchen table is blonde wood, with painted white legs and room for six. When people come to visit--and people are always coming to visit, living, dead, and undead--they always come to the kitchen. This is the sacred ground. This is home, and everyone feels that down to the marrow.

(this is not Fred's home at all.)

Fred has considered trying to analyze exactly what makes it so--The Particle Essence of Kitchen Hominess, a new study by Professor Winifred Burkle, UC Sunnydale Physics--but there's always some reason she can't do it. Quite possibly, it's the nature of the magic itself, busily keeping Fred out of its private places. Willow has admitted to Fred that part of the reason Wicca and witchcraft sometimes frustrates her is the sheer insistence on mysticism and mystery. Willow, like Fred, is a child of the bright technological world of science and hackery and objective know-how. Mystery annoys them both.

Dawn has mentioned that this is very dualistic and binary of them, and usually this is before Dawn goes into one of her lengthy discussions of dead French philosophers who make Fred yawn. Not that she's denying it's dualistic and binary of them, but Fred can't quite see the alternative's Dawn's proposing.

(a world where everyone is dead, lost, the monsters and the heroes, the blood turning the ocean red. no, Fred can't quite go back to that alternative, no matter if she deserves it or belongs to it.)

"Hey, Fred?" Dawn asks, wandering into the kitchen. Fred gasps, jolted out of her reverie. "Sorry, didn't mean to scare you."

"You didn't scare me. I was just off in la-la land," Fred says, smiling. "How's my future cultural studies professor?"

"Sick of Marxists," Dawn says, standing behind Fred and massaging her shoulders. "So boring. Hate them all. All French Marxists should pay me to read their boring crap instead of the other way around."

(it had been too easy to kill her other self. as though she were like the evil thing in Cordelia, or Lilah, or Angelus. perhaps she is.)

"Well, if that's the way it was, it'd be a different world," Fred replies, rolling her head back and forth. "Glad you're home."

"Me, too," Dawn says. "Any visitors yet today?"

"Nope," Fred says, looking around the kitchen and the slowly shifting light of late afternoon in Sunnydale. "Yesterday we had a busload of 'em, so maybe they're taking today off."

(no need to do the killing herself. no necks to be broken. no death to be blamed on her. simply push. one. small. push.)

"Who was here yesterday?" Dawn asks, moving to Fred's neck with delicate, elegant fingers.

"Tara early, so Will wasn't at her best yesterday," Fred says. "Faith said hello. Charles called right before you got in--Gwen's gonna have ANOTHER baby--and Willow thinks that she saw Darla."

"Darla," Dawn says. "Huh. That's a first."

(bye-bye, other Fred. sweet girl, good luck, good fortune, good night. these are the things that Fred never thinks about.)

"Yeah," Fred agrees. "It was only a shadow, so it might have been someone else, someone we don't know. You know how the kitchen brings visitors."

"I know," Dawn says. "So Gwen and Gunn are at what? Ten kids now?"

"Four, counting this baby," Fred says bemusedly. "Two boys, one girl. They want another little girl, I think."

"Funky," Dawn muses. "We heard from Wes anytime recently? He keeps promising to visit but never does."

(Wesley. not him. any Wesley, even this Wesley, would know what she's done, smell the guilt on her. he can never come here, or he'll know. Fred knows this, the way she knows that fire is hot, the sky is blue, and magic is real.)

"Wes is scared of the kitchen," Fred tells Dawn. "He's got more than a few ghosts to confront."

Dawn nods, remembering the stories Willow and Fred have told her. "That's right. He should still come. Ghosts aren't scary," she avers. "They're just--there. Like the stew pot. Or whatever keeps this kitchen feeling all comfy all the time."

"I know, honey," Fred says comfortingly. "He'll come when he's ready. Do you think we should even touch the stew?"

"Nah," Dawn says. "I think Willow just doesn't want the kitchen to accidentally burn down while our noses are both deep in books."

(had it been so wrong? that girl, that girl who had only looked like Fred, she had been so ungracious, ungrateful. give that girl to the void, give her to the other world. Fred deserves this one.)

Fred nods. She likes this world. Dawn and Willow and a comfortable kitchen and friendly ghosts. Kitchen witchery and stewpots and shoulder rubs from a girl who looks and acts like the little sister Fred never had. Beautiful weather and beautiful housing that the University of California subsidizes. Everyone happy. She likes this city.

"What are you thinking about, Fred?" Dawn asks, sitting down next to her and putting her hand on her shoulder. "You're a million miles away."

Outside, Fred can hear the sound of the car rolling over the pavement. Willow's home, with her oregano and her sage and her beautiful smile. They will eat stew on the porch, watching the way the sun sets and turns the sky white and the trees to black lace. Dawn will tell them all about French theory, and Willow and Fred will pretend to understand while holding hands under the table. Yes, she likes this world very much.

(she likes it. enough to destroy another Wesley's heart in another world. but who is he to make demands of her? she has her happiness to think of, and there's only enough for one.)

"I'm right here," Fred whispers, taking Dawn's hands in her own. "And I'm thinking that life is wonderful."


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