Olivia is beginning to think that spending twenty-odd years in Amber has robbed her of the ability to sleep – something she’s never been good at, even when she’s somewhere safe and familiar. While the lab is plenty familiar – safe, even – she hardly feels at ease. If Peter were here, she would rest better, even with their separate beds. But Peter isn’t here, and of course she’s restless.
It’s been four hours since they returned to the lab, three since her husband left for fuel, and two since she started worrying. She tells herself to stop, that she’s being ridiculous – she’ll give herself heart failure before gray hairs – but it’s no use.
He makes her nervous. He’s too used to blending in by standing out – engaging in the activity around him – whereas Olivia fades chameleon-like into a crowd until its shifting faces erase her from conscious thought. Considering that they’re living in a dystopian world of mind-readers, her approach is the safer one.
But Peter has never been safe. Driven, yes. Protective, certainly. But safe?
More like oblivious, she thinks, recalling that afternoon and his dogged you really don’t remember? Even now, after eight, fifteen, twenty-nine? years, it baffles her how he can be so perceptive and yet so unaware sometimes, almost to the point of insensitivity. That stupid diner – he hadn’t even thought that the memories might be too raw for her, too fresh in their grief. All that matters to him is that they have their daughter back and are making a difference in the here and right now.
Blending in by standing out.
She smiles humorlessly, pressing a thumb to her forehead. It’s so easy for Peter, moving on. He sees his second chance and takes it, whereas she… she can’t.
Olivia rolls onto her stomach, bedsprings squeaking beneath her. She can’t do this, allow herself to get lost in their differences. Not like last time. It will only make her hollow, bitter. Eager to run away.
She flops onto her back, sighing loudly, which of course reminds her of Peter’s complaints that she’s impossible to sleep with when she’s stressed. If he would just come back –
Olivia rubs her ring finger, still jolted by the absence of her wedding band. Peter hasn’t asked about it, though they do share heavy looks whenever he catches her staring at his chest and the ring dangling there. Maybe he thinks she threw it away, or left it at their house before leaving for New York.
But she didn’t. She kept it.
Part of her wants to tell him, open up about that morning spent sewing on their daughter’s bed, hands shaking, eyes blurry with the tears he never saw her cry. If she tells him about her jacket and the items stitched inside – her ring, a lock of hair from Etta’s first haircut – it might help him understand why she left. Not because she was strong or brave or a hero, but because she was afraid.
I just. I believed so strongly that she was dead, and I didn’t want to see it.
Just like she didn’t want to see her marriage fall apart, any more than it already had.
Dropping all pretenses that she might actually fall asleep, Olivia leaves her bed. She heads for the main part of the lab, dragging a blanket over her shoulders as she goes because it’s cold, and finds her jacket draped over a chair. She hasn’t decided yet if she’ll put the ring back on, but she wants to hold it at least, feel it between her fingers.
The lock of hair, she’ll keep against her heart.
She’s squinting, searching for her ragged stitching in the Amber-tinged dark, when something falls out of another pocket. Frowning, Olivia reaches for it, only to find herself staring at the cover of River’s comic book.
I thought you might want it, he’d said, finding her alone on a bench that night. It’s the one you had earlier. That I asked you to sign. I saw the way you looked at them. And here he’d turned to the middle panels, the ones of her and Etta.
Her jacket falls forgotten to the floor as Olivia drifts to a table and flips on the lamp, sitting. I saw how you were with our little girl. Peter’s words come back to her as she studies the panels. I know how much you love her.
Apparently, he isn’t the only one.
Olivia turns the pages slowly, absorbing River’s version of a mother’s love for her little girl. He’d improvised with fiction, of course, but she knows exactly where he got his facts. How couldn’t she? She’d relived that day a thousand times since it happened.
Etta’s voice startles her out of the memories and Olivia turns, smiling when she sees her daughter standing with hair tousled and arms shrugged close for warmth. Another memory flits across her mind, the image of a much younger Etta tiptoeing inside their bedroom at dawn; the toddler would always reach for her mother’s side first, knowing Olivia would be awake or easier to rouse than her father.
“Here,” Olivia says, and offers the blanket. Her heart beats faster already, stirred by this uncanny resemblance between the little girl from her memory and the young woman standing in front of her. Her presence alone is enough to unnerve her – she’s still not used to this adult version of her child and as a result never knows what to expect.
“Thanks.” Etta wraps herself tightly, shivers fading.
She shakes her head. “I napped a lot on the drive back.” A pause. “Is Dad asleep?”
“He’s getting fuel for the van,” Olivia says, managing to sound calm, even through her worry; he should be back by now.
“And you’re waiting up for him?”
Olivia lifts her shoulder. “Something like that.”
Etta studies her with those piercing blue eyes – Peter’s eyes – and Olivia waits for her to say what’s on her mind, but she never does. Instead, she shuffles closer, gaze falling to the table and book splayed there.
“Is that one of the comics? the little boy’s?” she asks, reaching to touch it.
“Mm-hm.” Olivia stands so Etta can see the pages better. “River gave it to me. Before we left.”
“It has a lot of you in it,” her daughter says, paging through it. “And… is that me?” Etta flashes her a look.
“But… I don’t get it. They only recorded history after the Purge. How did he know about me?”
“Walter said he saw a lot of pre-Invasion material archived when it came to Fringe Division. Backstories, news articles – even personnel files.” Olivia shrugs, rubbing a thumb along the hollow of her collarbone. “That’s probably where River got his information.”
“I guess they wanted to establish a context for us,” her daughter muses, but stops when she sees the look on Olivia’s face. “Sorry. Not us – I just. I meant Fringe Division.” She blushes.
“No, you’re right,” Olivia stammers. “Us.” A pause. “I guess I’m still getting used to the idea that you’re not a little girl anymore.”
While she was able to conceal her worry about Peter’s whereabouts, she isn’t as successful this time. She can tell by the look on Etta’s face that she’s doing it again – staring – eyes full of that odd mix of emotion Peter had pegged within hours of freeing her from the Amber. It’s like you’re incredibly sad and amazed at once, but it terrifies you. She terrifies you.
She’d looked at him then, reflexively, lips falling open to snap that no she was not afraid of her own daughter, but his gaze had stopped her. He was right, of course. Absolutely right. Etta does scare her. And amaze her, and grieve her. Because she was gone, and now she’s not, and Olivia has no frame of reference on how to act around this woman.
But that doesn’t stop her from trying.
Etta drops her gaze to the comic book, finding it easier to study River’s artwork than to brave the emotion in her mother’s eyes.
The drawings really are amazing, considering River’s age and the amount of care he put into each page. One panel shows her mother facing a storeroom as it goes up in flames, while another depicts her in the aftermath of a firefight, Invaders scattered around her feet and gun still smoking as she cradles Etta to her chest.
“So River got all this from a couple lines in your personnel file, huh?” she says in an attempt to lighten the mood. “He has quite the imagination.”
“Actually, that really happened.” Although her tone is light, Etta hears the change in her mother’s voice as it tenses, becomes suddenly too careful. She raises her eyes.
Olivia nods, pulling the comic toward her. “Mostly. He added the part with the Observers, of course, but I know exactly what he’s referring to.”
“Can you tell me about it?”
“I think I can do better,” her mother answers cryptically, then pushes off the table and disappears into the Amber.
Etta frowns after her, but soon finds her gaze pulled back to River’s artwork. She studies the drawings, unable to look away from that panel depicting her in her mother’s arms, mesmerized by the look of relief and love on Olivia’s face.
As a child – and much later in life – Etta would have given anything to possess something like this comic. She’d been desperate for any memento that might help her remember her family, to confirm that yes, she had parents (once), and the hazy memory of the three of them at the park wasn’t just a figment of her imagination.
In those first few years without them, most of Etta’s daydreams revolved around her mother finding her. On the street, at school, in the store – everywhere she went, Etta would hear her name called out, and suddenly Olivia was there, strong and real and pulling her close. Even though they never came true, Etta clung to those dreams because they made her feel warm and safe – something foreign in her darkened world.
Best of all, though, was the sight of her mother’s face, because in the dreams it made her remember everything. But years passed, and her mother’s features remained a blur, just like her father’s and Walter’s.
By the time she entered adolescence, Etta’s pipe-dreams had long ceased to involve being found. Instead, she took the finding upon herself and searched out their old house, hoping for a photograph or family album – anything to give her parents a face and name. Instead, she found the mysterious bullet and her mother’s diploma from the FBI Academy, and her imagination went wild.
Teenage Etta’s dreams were a far cry from little girl Etta’s dreams. Now – in her fantasies – whenever she and her mom were finally reunited, they set the world ablaze, saving humanity and killing Invaders as they went. Just like River envisioned in his comic.
Just as they’re doing now, in real life.
Etta shivers, and it has nothing to do with the lab’s freezing temperature.
You know, I used to imagine this – going on a mission with you. You have no idea how many battles we won together.
“Found it,” Olivia calls out, and Etta looks up in time to see her mother duck out of the Amber with a scrapbook in tow. After flipping through it for a moment, she stops and sets it on the table so Etta can see the newspaper clipping pasted inside. “There. That’s where he got the idea for the panels.”
Etta leans forward. Explosion Rocks FBI Headquarters, Agent’s Daughter Almost Killed the headline reads, and beneath it, in full color, is a picture of a soot-stained woman sagging against a brick wall. Though her face is partially obscured – both by her hair and the child held close in her arms – it’s obvious from the caption that the woman is her mother. And the child… “Is that – me?” Etta asks, glancing up.
Olivia nods, letting her fingers loosen and fall from their place against her lips. “You were eleven months old and just learning to walk,” she murmurs, then smiles, that mile-long stare creeping back into her eyes. Etta returns her gaze to the article.
An explosion, presumably the result of a bombing, rocked Fringe Division’s headquarters yesterday. While the Manhattan office sustained significant damage to its lower levels – including an evidence locker and the Division’s daycare facility – Fire Chief Riley Bowman assures the public that no structural supports have been compromised. In the aftermath of the explosion, four agents and two daycare workers were rushed to the hospital, but there have been no confirmed deaths at this time. Though sources speculate that the explosion was the result of an attack, head of Fringe Division General Broyles has yet to confirm the presence of a terrorist threat. “An investigation is in full operation,” he reports. “We will not rest until the perpetrators are brought to justice.”
“Did they ever find who did it?”
Olivia nods. “It took about a month, but we tracked them down. They were members of a radical anti-science group that was against Fringe Division, wanted it gone. Said its foundations were unethical and that the whole program should be shut down.”
Her mother shrugs. “Like I said, they were pretty radical.”
Etta glances back to the article. “Why were we in New York?”
Olivia frowns. “You don’t remember?”
“The apartment, there in the city.”
Etta stares blankly.
“Once Fringe Division got promoted – before you were born – Broyles moved headquarters to New York. Your dad and I moved there for a few months, but came back to Boston after you were born, to be close to Walter. We commuted to New York all the time, though, about every other week. We ended up keeping an apartment there to make things easier.” She tilts her head. “You really don’t remember?"
“No.” Etta doesn’t have the heart to tell her that she couldn’t even picture their faces before finding them in Amber.
“I guess you were kind of young for that,” Olivia muses. “You really didn’t spend that much time up there, now that I think about it. Rachel – my sister – used to keep you on weekends, once she moved back to Boston. Though, we did leave you with her for a whole week once, when you were older.”
“Older?” Etta frowns. “How long did you do that?”
“Commute?” Her mother shrugs. “Right up to the Invasion. We’d actually just decided to call it quits, though, stay in Boston permanently. The travel was taking its toll on us, and we felt like we never got to spend enough time with you. At least, not the way we wanted to.”
Etta’s gaze returns to the photo. “But wouldn’t that mean you gave up your jobs with Fringe Division?”
Her mother shakes her head. “Not entirely. We would just take the cases in Boston, maybe a few in the surrounding area. We wanted… to be normal.”
“Normal?” Etta shoots her a look.
Her mother smiles, eyes crinkling at the corners. “Well, as normal as we could get, after what we’d been through.”
Through years of research and the scraps of information she’s gathered from her family these past few weeks, Etta knows enough about the original Fringe Division to be aware of the craziness that surrounded her parents’ lives at the time. Knowing about it, though, isn’t enough for her to grasp what it was like to be Fringe agents back then. And not just Fringe agents – parents, too.
She points to the scrapbook. “So explosions were a weekly occurrence in our lives back then?” Her tone is light, humorous, but not enough to conceal her thirst for information.
Her mother pinches her lips, staring at the picture. “Not exactly,” she says. “Although you could say that explosions were… ordinary, compared to most of the threats we faced. What made this one so different was that it put you in harm’s way, for the first time since you were born.”
From her tone and the look on her face, Etta can tell her mother blames herself for this.
“Peter became obsessed with finding the people who did it,” Olivia continues, shaking her head. “I wanted them found, too, of course, but your father was… relentless. We barely saw each other that month.”
“You weren’t with him?”
Olivia finally looks up from the picture, offering a sad smile. “I was with you, in Boston,” she says simply. “After this, there was no way we were putting you back in daycare. So I found you a nanny, someone who didn’t mind the weekly commutes, and who also happened to be a former FBI agent, highly trained to handle any risky situation that went beyond changing dirty diapers.”
Etta laughs at the thought, half-wondering if her mother is making this up. But she’s not, of course she’s not. “I think I’m starting to understand what you meant about wanting to be normal. Our family was hardly typical.”
Another shadow crosses her mother’s face. She holds Etta’s gaze for a few more seconds before averting her eyes. “No,” she says quietly. “It never was.”
Etta hadn’t meant for her to take it negatively. There’s so much she doesn’t know about her parents, of their life before the Purge – every bit of new information is a gift to her. And each moment she gets to spend with her mom outdoes any fantasy she ever had.
Y ou're even more than I imagined.
“Hey,” Etta says softly, tentatively, putting a hand on her mother’s arm. Olivia startles at the touch, but raises her eyes to meet Etta’s dipped-down gaze. “You know, all my life, I felt like I was… different. Special is the word I prefer. But that’s something I’m proud of. Not ashamed.”
Olivia smiles, once again in that sad, haunted way of hers. This time, though, it reaches her eyes, peeling away the shadows hovering there. She unfolds her arms, resting a hand atop Etta’s, squeezing it like she did her ankle in the car that day.
“I’m glad you do,” she says. “Someone must have done something right along the way.”
Yeah – you did, Etta wants to reply, but the moment is too fragile, her throat pulled too tight.
“You should get some sleep,” Olivia says after a moment, cupping her hand around Etta’s cheek. “I’m sure we’ve got another crazy Bishop day ahead of us tomorrow.” She flashes a grin.
“Okay. But only if you promise to come to bed, too,” Etta smirks.
“Nice try, Etta-bear, but I know your tricks,” Olivia says, settling back against the table.
She flushes, delighted at the nickname. Etta-bear. Another piece to her puzzle. She savors it.
“’Night, Mom,” she murmurs, body poised to leave.
“Good night,” her mother returns, and the warmth in her voice spreads all the way to Etta’s toes.