1. He didn't know.
"He didn't know," Olivia says again. She is standing in front of the washing machine, listening to her sheets slosh around.
Deep in her soul, Olivia would prefer to throw the sheets out, but her bank account is not so full that she can afford to do that, and anyway that's the kind of theatrical move that she has avoided all her life. So she came back to her apartment and she rewashed the mildewed clothes that the Other had left behind, and now she is putting them in the dryer as the sheets take their place.
She wonders whether the Other Olivia would burn her sheets. She seemed more ... volatile. Olivia's spent the past months shedding hairs on cotton from another universe. That Other Olivia knew is unlikely to make her any happier about the intrusion. (Walter called her Fauxlivia once, and only once, in her presence; the look on his face when she turned to stare at him was as close to mortified as she's ever seen Walter Bishop.)
"Liv," her sister says, and Olivia closes her eyes, wishing that she could cross the distance between Boston and Chicago as easily as she can (now) swap realities. "Are you trying to excuse him, or condemn him?"
Rachel only vaguely understands what's happening, but she seems to have accepted 'identical replacement' for now.
Olivia sighs. "A little bit of both?" she says, missing the old telephone cords that you could twist during your uncomfortable conversations. "Anyway, I should go. Give Ella my love."
"Always," Rachel says.
Olivia is suddenly, knee-weakeningly grateful that Rachel and Ella were in Chicago. The Other Olivia might have spent time with them, otherwise. Or maybe she'd have felt the need to create an accident, so that the people who knew her best would be out of the picture. "Love you," she gets out, sinking to the ground, clutching herself with rebound terror and relief.
"Love you too." The call ends. The dryer whirls and the washer chugs.
Life goes on.
"Get down!" Peter yells, and she drops. Half a second later a wave of heat sends her tumbling backwards, coughing, but the fire and the shrapnel go over her head.
She's fine. She doesn't even need treatment from the EMTs, which is more than she can say for Peter, who got a pretty good slash across the back of his left shoulder while he was crouching over their witness, protecting him.
"Thanks," she says, the way she'd thank anybody whose quick thinking quite probably saved her life. She turns away before she can see Peter's reaction.
3. So that I may climb the golden stair.
Olivia is appalled at the amount of hairspray and gel it takes to keep the Other's bangs out of her eyes. Worse, different kinds of goo do different things, and they have ridiculous names more suited to romance novels than to informing a person what she might actually expect from a particular formulation. She tries eleven different products until she finds a combination of two that works, but that has to be rinsed out each night or she can't sleep for the stiff crackling.
Her hair is weaker now with the various dyes and bleaches she's had applied. She might be better off going shoulder-length and starting over, but she's not going to do that.
Best estimate, it's going to take a year before the bangs are completely gone. Until then, she has the best cosmetic technology this side has to assist her.
4. She didn't tell anybody.
"If I'd known," the victim's father says. "If we'd known what she was thinking, we would have done anything to help." Beside him on the brocaded couch, the stepmother is sobbing quietly. There's genuine love there, Olivia thinks, defying the stereotype. Mrs. Hallett is small and blonde and looks like the victim, only fifteen years older. Olivia knows what that implies about the first Mrs. Hallett, but that's none of her concern.
"Mr. and Mrs. Hallett," Olivia says, leaning forward, elbows on her knees, "we believe that your daughter did not take her own life." They clutch each other's hands, so tightly that Olivia can see the blood leaving the flesh around Mrs. Hallett's fingers. It's good that they have each other, Olivia thinks. Maybe they'll make it through. "We need to know about her friends, who she might have been spending time with recently."
"She was a very private person," Mr. Hallett says. "It was always so hard to tell what Jane was thinking."
Mrs. Hallett looks away, towards the pictures on the far wall. Jane is rarely smiling in them, but she doesn't seem sad; more like she's thinking about something other than smiling for a camera.
"Mrs. Hallett?" Olivia prods. "Do you know who Jane might have been talking to recently?"
"Jane," she says and sniffles. "She said—there was a reading group. Like a book club, but focused on self-improvement. They treated the books as a sort of literary study. She said, you didn't have to talk about what you were doing in your own life. It was—quirky. Just the kind of group Jane would join." Mr. Hallett's face shows confusion. He doesn't understand why his daughter would have been interested in reading self-help book after self-help book, seeking answers perhaps not for herself but for the human condition as a whole. Olivia can't say she sees the appeal either, but that's not important now.
"Thank you," Olivia says, quiet and respectful. "I'll let you know as soon as we know more."
The book group turns out to be the key. One participant took 'Getting to Yes' seriously enough to invent a serum that makes his pheromones practically irresistible—Olivia briefly thinks that Harvard and MIT need to be implementing more intensive psychological screening, see also: Walter Bishop—and graduated extremely quickly to rape and murder, which he excuses as caused by the weakness of lesser minds, as if Jane Hallett killed herself just because a criminal took over her hands for his own purposes. Olivia, fortified with the mixture of Vicks, peppermint, and something Peter wouldn't even disclose to her slicked under her nose, listens to his self-justifying rant for all of sixty seconds before she takes him down.
5. It‘s written all over your face.
These are words that she would not say out loud, even if she had anyone to whom to say them: Olivia hates that fucking tattoo.
"Something that size and placement, it's not going to come off all the way, even with laser treatment," the dermatologist she consults tells her. "You might be able to find someone to do a skin graft, depending on how serious you are about wanting it gone." He's not saying more, but Olivia can tell the rest: you were stupid to get something so permanent that you might not want.
His silent judgment makes Olivia want to laugh. But she wouldn't stop with laughter, so that's a bad idea all around.
There's a picture of human bodies on the wall of the office, a flayed man and woman. They look like they could have come from the exhibits of one of Olivia's cases, except that these bodies are only missing their skins. Everything else in the office is white and silver: shelves, sinks, paper-covered exam table on which Olivia sits, a voluntary patient this time but no more comfortable in her useless thin cotton gown. "A skin graft?" she asks.
"We take some of your own skin. The placement means there's a high likelihood that there will be scarring. You're probably better off keeping your hair long and using makeup to cover whatever pigmentation remains after laser treatment."
Olivia imagines cutting and pasting bits of herself. Like cloning in Photoshop, moving skin around until she looks almost like herself again, scars moved to places no one gets to see.
Except that Peter would have gotten to see them. If he'd only known.
"Thank you," she says. "I'll let you know how I want to proceed."
She's going to get that tattoo off if she has to rip it off with her fingernails. But it's not considered a covered expense—as far as her insurer's concerned, 'I was tattooed without my consent in another universe as part of a plan to brainwash me into helping Walternate destroy this world' translates into 'cosmetic.' So at the very least she's going to have to wait until her bank account looks a little better. (The Other bought a lot of new clothes. They're gone to Goodwill, but the credit card statements linger.)
If she asked, Walter would pay for the treatment. No, actually, he'd invent a treatment himself, probably one that left no scarring. She could describe the treatment chamber Lincoln used, back on the other side, and Walter could reverse engineer it based on her description.
On second thought, she'd rather try the fingernail method.
6. Are you nobody too?
They watch the black-and-white surveillance video of the bags of money floating out of the vault. "Well," Peter says, "that's something you don't see every day, even around here."
"Of course, Peter, it's what we don't see that makes all the difference!" Walter chips in, on cue. "Our options would appear to be invisibility, telekinesis, or vampirism."
"Vampirism?" Astrid asks, in the tone of someone who just can't help herself.
"Vampires don't show up on recorded media," Walter says, with a faint air of surprise at Astrid's ignorance.
"Let's go with the first two for now, unless drained corpses start showing up near the sites of the robberies," Olivia suggests. And then, because she has learned something in her years at Fringe Division, she goes to make sure that no drained corpses have been showing up near the sites of the robberies.
When her research is finished and she's temporarily reassured that she probably doesn't need to worry about undead Bonnie and Clyde, she checks in on the Bishops.
The footage is playing on infinite loop. "We're going with invisibility," Peter says, deadpan. "Take a look at that bag." He points, and she watches the one he's identified. Its path is bobbing, not smooth. "That looks like the up-and-down motion you get with walking. If this were some sort of nonphysical motive force, we'd expect a smoother path." He taps a couple of keys on his computer and shows her an animation, a green wireframe of a person, superimposed on the footage, bag slung over its shoulder. "This could be a man or a woman, of course, but I've at least got a height estimate—approximately five foot eight."
"If this person is somehow invisible," Olivia says, thinking out loud, "then what about trace evidence shed from his or her body?"
"It would depend," Walter says, "on what's causing the invisibility. I have several incompatible theories."
Peter adds, "But we should definitely check for fingerprints. After all, the secretions that produce them are already invisible to the human eye."
Ten hours later, they have hundreds of fingerprints for the database to churn through, plus a truckload of trace evidence. Including some long hairs that only show up as impressions on the collection tape, deforming it despite the eye's insistence that there is nothing there.
"Very good!" Walter enthuses when she brings in her trophies. "Ah, Esther, could you get out the lead vests? I'm worried about your continued childbearing capacity, if that's a choice you someday wish to make."
"Are you saying these hairs are radioactive?" As Astrid scurries to comply, Olivia drops the plastic bag and backs away, for what good that will do.
Walter raises a hand to his head, then realizes that he's holding a digital thermometer and puts it awkwardly down. "Not necessarily. The Geiger counter as well, please," he tells Astrid, raising his voice a bit but not turning. "Assessing whether it is radioactive will aid me in determining the precise mechanism behind the invisibility."
Tracking thieves by the things they leave behind, Olivia thinks. It's not even a Fringe technique; totally standard except for the inapplicability of direct vision. Everyone leaves marks on the world as they pass through, even when they're unseen. The trick is to pay attention to the traces and not only to what's on the surface.
Of course, later on the chase for the thief involves cans of spray paint, not exactly standard police equipment. Effective, though.
As Olivia cuffs the now brightly colored man (given the length of the hair, Olivia had expected a woman, but he just has a ponytail), Peter grins at her. "I'm trying to decide whether to go with the Blue Man Group joke or the Goldfinger joke."
Olivia almost gives him her most tolerant smile, before she remembers. And then, because she's angry but she's also committed to the team, she tries to produce that smile, but Peter's face falls anyway.
7. Blood will tell.
Her stepfather's card arrives like clockwork. For one agonizing moment Olivia wishes that the Other had stayed long enough to hunt down and shoot him like a dog.
Except that hadn't been part of the mission, so as ruthless as the Other was, she wouldn't have bothered.
That night, Olivia dreams that he's there, in her room. It's her Boston apartment, but all the furniture and bedding is from her childhood. He's holding a stuffed alligator, lost years ago in one of their moves (or did he sneak back in and take it?). "I knew it wasn't you, Olive," he says, smiling down with the gleam in his eye that said someone was going to get hurt. "I waited. I knew you'd come back to me."
Olivia wakes, grabbing for the gun she's taken to leaving on the bedside table, like some caricature of a traumatized FBI agent in a serial killer novel. Serial killers would be an improvement.
She puts the gun down and wraps her arms around her knees, sitting up in the bed. The Other became a sharpshooter because she liked the feel of a rifle in her hands. She liked how easy it was, how obvious the markers of success and failure were. When she picked up a gun, she never had to remember that first time, how heavy it was in Olivia's hand, how terrifying: if she didn't get it right, her stepfather would take the gun and use it on her. She'd believed it completely at the time, and she's still convinced that, if he hadn't been too badly injured, his immediate rage would have led him to kill her.
But that had been in the heat of the moment. Given time to recover, the cruelty that served for marrow in his bones had led him to torment her from a distance instead.
She wonders if he'd really have been able to tell the difference. Probably not. From a stalker's perspective, she and the Other must have seemed exactly the same.
8. A man and a woman/Are one.
Huddling in the house as the waves of angry birds attack, Olivia checks her clip. She's got six shots left, which is as useless as none. The thud thud thud is like the pounding of the surf. "Who takes their animal experimentation cues from Hitchcock?" she wonders as another windowframe splinters and the glass bursts inward. She and Peter scramble across the floor, ending up in a poorly reinforced closet lit only by the light spilling through the cracks at the top and bottom of the doors. Women's suits, smelling of dry cleaning fluid, take up most of the space.
Peter pants, then: "There's also an iPhone app. That might be the reference. Nobody knows the classics these days." As if reminded, he pulls his phone out and checks the signal again, then shakes his head, barely visible in the glow of the screen.
They're both crouched, Olivia with her back to one wall and Peter with his back to the other, Olivia still with her gun in ready position.
"Anyway," Peter says, "you're a lot more glamorous than Tippi Hedren."
Olivia thinks about being an icy blonde. Then about being an angry bird. They never did find out the reason for the bird attacks in the movie, as she recalls. Did Tippi Hedren even make it out alive?
The pounding intensifies, until it's almost impossible to distinguish individual impacts. Surely there must be an end to it. Already they must have sacrificed half the seagulls in Massachusetts. The house creaks and groans. Birds are now hitting the closet door, which Olivia holds in place as best she can by leaning on it, keeping it lodged in the little groove built for it. Peter probably knows the name of the physics term for the pressure she's exerting; could most likely calculate all the right coefficients. So far, each blow is easy enough to resist, like being hit with a pound of pasta, but she doesn't expect that condition to persist.
There's a crash overhead, what must be the attic ceiling giving way. "Peter," Olivia says, because other than pulling the suits on top of themselves like armor, she doesn't have much of a plan.
"Don't," he says. She's not sure whether that's because he doesn't want her to admit that they might not be getting out, or because he doesn't want her to offer him a comforting lie.
Plaster dust is drifting down on them, and the door has developed a definite slant. Each impact now rocks it a little up and down. A murder of seagulls, she thinks.
The silence is sudden, and nearly complete, punctuated only by softer thuds—already-dead birds sliding down to the ground, possibly.
Peter raises an eyebrow, asking whether they should make a break for it. Olivia nods and waves him to press himself to the back of the closet, just in case there's something waiting. She has to tug hard to move the now-warped door.
The floor is a wave of dead birds, white with black spots, almost like a king's fur robe from a child's story. Their eyes are open and shining. She feels their honeycombed bones crunch with every step she takes. Peter follows behind her, speechless as she is.
Walter and Astrid are outside. Walter is carrying a contraption that looks like it came out of a thirties movie serial, more like a cardboard box covered with tinfoil than a real scientific instrument, but it seems to have worked.
"Targeted sound!" he says. "Belly and I once tried something similar with rats. Did you know that 'pied' simply means 'multicolored'? I had hoped that it was something to do with being very drunk."
"Targeted sound made these birds go crazy?" Olivia asks.
"Oh, no," Walter says. "Targeted sound drove them away. I still don't know what caused the initial outbreak." He looks around, possibly noticing his surroundings for the first time. "I don't suppose I'll lack candidates for autopsy. Let's find a pretty one!"
"What were you going to say, back in there?" Peter asks while Astrid and Walter sort through avian corpses.
Olivia hesitates, putting her hands in her pockets.
"Yeah, that's what I thought," Peter says, wry twist to his lips as he turns towards Astrid's car.
"Peter," she says. "We make a good team. Let's try to keep it that way."
The hell of it is, they are, still, a good team. They're grownups and, not to be dramatic, the fate of the world is at stake. It would be profoundly self-destructive and childish to allow her anger to interfere with their mission.
If she could just get a weekend to let it out, throw herself at a wall like one of those doomed birds, she might feel better. But for now she just has to pack her loss away with all the others and wait for the day when her view of Peter changes again, the way it did when she first saw the glimmer surrounding him.
9. I'm not as think as you drunk I am.
The Other kept wine in the apartment for Frank. (If there's anything positive about the whole debacle, it's Frank. Not in himself—he's not Olivia's type and if he were she would hardly be pleased about leaving him to the Other—but in the proof he represents that there are many, many possibilities; there is no destiny requiring her to end up with Peter. John was not a mistake and he was not a waystation.) The Other never touched the stuff herself, didn't like the buzz enough to suffer through the taste.
Olivia has wondered whether the Cortexiphan changed her on such a fundamental level that her senses are comprehensively different from what they would have been, because a good whiskey is truly a thing of beauty to her. She's wondered what else is different. She remembers what it was like to forget details; the implanted memories were that complete. She remembers what it was like to be able to hit a target with 99% accuracy at two hundred yards, but that didn't stick—she'd tested it at the FBI range.
The Other didn't feel the lack of Ella in her life, just didn't think about it.
Olivia's tried to compare their situations, but in the end she has to admit that 'universe not falling to pieces' trumps any other item on the list.
Olivia still enjoys her whiskey at the end of the day. She drinks no more and no less than she used to. Her passion got her this far; she's not going to lose touch with it now, whether by burning bridges with Peter or by numbing it with alcohol.
The Other took Peter. She can't have anything else.
10. Tu quoque.
A witness flirts with Peter through the entire interview. Peter is his usual charming, Teflon-coated self, and by the end the witness knows better than to offer anything but her office number if they need to know more from her about this particular strain of filovirus.
Olivia pulls her coat more tightly around herself as they step into the icy Boston wind, instantly chilled to the bone. The snow is mud-brown in the streets, white with an iced-over coating of grey where it's piled on the outer edge of the sidewalks. It's hard to imagine that it will ever be spring in this town again, daffodils popping up like smiles at every corner.
Olivia slips on a patch of ice and Peter's hand shoots out, stabilizing her. He lets go immediately, and her thanks are probably lost somewhere in between her scarf and his earmuffs.
Then Peter stops, and Olivia takes three steps before she realizes she's lost him. She turns, and he's looking in the window of a restaurant, some trendy nouvelle Americaine hangout they'd talked about, long months back. She'd said that she'd like to try it, and he'd oh-so-casually indicated that perhaps the both of them should go.
He must have taken the Other, she realizes. For a moment, she can almost see them in the window there, lit by warm candles: the Other, smiling more, leaning forward as Peter relays some confidence. Peter, relaxed and trusting. Hopeful, and willing to ignore any awkward details, thinking that he was seeing further into the real Olivia.
Then they would have gone back—surely to Olivia's apartment, never to the house Peter shared with Walter—and they would have done more than talk. Olivia shudders, involuntarily, just as Peter comes back to himself and hurries to catch up with her, his gait as stiff as if he were recovering from an injury.
For the first time, she wonders whether Peter wants to scrub away his skin the way she wants to burn her sheets.
"I know you mean well, Walter, but you are the last person I want to talk to about this." Truthfully, the last person Olivia wants to talk to about Peter is the Other, but that's presently impossible, and she can be forgiven the slight exaggeration. It's easy for most people to forget the monstrous things Walter has done, but Olivia's one of the people—the children—he did them to, and so her tolerance for receiving wisdom from him is already minimal. If he seriously wants to engage her in conversation about his son's failure to discern that Olivia had been replaced by an imposter, she's going to go dig up some of his better drugs and toss them in his lap herself.
Walter looks down at his hands. She thinks that's shame on his face. It might be easier on all of them if Walter didn't, sporadically at least, recognize his own culpability. "I would only ask you to consider one thing. Peter grew up in a world that had suddenly, irrevocably changed. But to everyone around him, that world was exactly as it should be. His questions, his perceptions, were nonsensical. Is it so inconceivable that he would have learned to ignore small inconsistencies?"
"Tell me something, Walter." Her voice is as sharp as it was when she first found out about the Cortexiphan. "Do you believe that you can use logic to change how I feel? Do you really think that's helpful in any way?"
Walter's face collapses, more like a child's than an adult's for all the wrinkles. There is not one inch of Olivia that feels guilty. Walter is a patchwork of sensitivities and insensitivities; she's seen him almost as distraught over Astrid's inability to secure the precise mixture of jellybeans he wanted to ensure a proper sequence of flavors as he consumed each color in turn.
"At some point," she says, more gently, "you're going to have to accept that things have changed. There's no going back."
He raises his head, and their eyes meet across the lab table. "Olivia," he says, "that constant haunts me daily. Is it so wrong of me to hope that, going forward, one's path might loop around to a similar place?"
And like that, he's the man whose genius only wants to help. "No," she says, gentle now. "It's not wrong to hope."
12. Doomed to repeat it.
Olivia flips through file after file, looking at the same story, repeated with slight variations, for roughly fifteen percent of Dr. Papaconstantinou's patients. Healthy full-term babies, growing normally, until they reach six months. Then: failure to thrive, decline, wasting away. The pictures of the infants, hospitalized with tubes sticking out of them in every direction, are difficult even to examine.
Dr. Papaconstantinou recommended cremation to the grieving parents and most, still in shock, complied. But four months ago one mother had insisted on burial, except that the infant's body deteriorated so quickly that there was almost nothing to bury, even the young bones disintegrating into a soupy mess. Once was a mystery. When it happened again last week, it was a matter for Fringe Division.
Olivia grabs at her phone as soon as it buzzes. "According to Walter, the DNA was highly degraded," Astrid says, "but there's no doubt that Mr. and Mrs. Shih were not the parents."
So Olivia goes to explain to the bereaved family that the fertility treatments they thought had produced a miracle had in fact enabled a profound hoax. Watching them, Olivia knows that Astrid is mistaken: Harriet had been, in every way that mattered, their daughter.
"But she has her mother's eyes," says Mr. Shih's own mother, who has been listening the entire time. "Look, see." She takes the photo from the side table and gives it to Olivia, who takes the family portrait with the care it deserves. The resemblance, Olivia agrees, is strong.
"We still don't know how Dr. Papaconstantinou did what he did," she temporizes. "But somehow he was able to mimic the physiology of each of the parents." They stare at her, miserable and indifferent to any explanation.
Olivia feels secretly quite satisfied when she ends up having to run Papaconstantinou down in an alley. He tries to pull a gun, and she kicks his knee so hard that he collapses. She's not brutal, but she's not gentle either when she cuffs him.
Walter eventually determines that Dr. Papaconstantinou genetically manipulated his own sperm and the eggs of his late wife in order to disguise their children as those of the couples he treated whose own gametes wouldn't respond to his treatments. "The perfect cuckoo," Walter says, when they're all back in the lab and Olivia is writing up the report. "Except that the treatment itself caused the degradation that killed the infants. Had he but limited his interventions, all his children might have lived."
Astrid frowns. "But he'd still have been abusing his patients' trust and violating their bodies."
"Oh, yes," Walter agrees quickly. "Quite unethical." He blinks at the rest of them, hopeful.
"What are we going to tell the other parents?" Peter asks.
If they only say that it was Papaconstantinou's experiments that killed the children, the parents may think that it was their fault for choosing him as a doctor. They may think that anyway. "We tell them everything," she decides. "They've been deceived long enough."
Five parents seem relieved by the information that the babies weren't genetically related to them; seven collapse with grief, though whether would have happened for any reopening of the old wound Olivia can't say; three are too hard to read for Olivia to tell how they're feeling. She reaches out when it seems useful and withdraws quickly when their presence is obviously aggravating private pain.
"Maybe there's no right thing to do in a case like this," Peter says on the way back from notifying the last couple.
She remembers her time in the Marine Corps, talking to women who'd never be able to trust the system again, no matter how well Olivia did her job. "Sometimes seeking justice is all that's left," she agrees. "But that's worth something."
13. Makes me that much stronger.
"Are you sure you don't want to come?" Astrid asks again after she's made one last round of the lab, checking to make sure everything with a switch is off and everything that produces a chemical reaction is sealed.
Olivia smiles from her position at the door. Astrid is more than generous; Olivia believes she's completely sincere in saying that Olivia would be welcome. But Christmas is a time for family.
"I'll be fine," she says. "I've got a video chat with Ella all planned, and after that the Charlie Brown Christmas Special. You go and tell your family nonclassified stories."
Astrid's lips twitch. "Even the unclassified versions are pretty bizarre. I might stick with talking about what my sorority sisters are up to these days." She hesitates for a moment. "Are you going to drop in on—Walter?"
"You can say his name, you know," Olivia points out.
Astrid huffs. "Fine. Are you going to see Walter and Peter? I think Walter scared all the neighbors off with the exploding Christmas lights, and now he's made the world's largest batch of egg nog. I'm sure he'd be thrilled to see you. They both would."
"I don't know," Olivia says, and is shocked to realize that she's told the complete truth. "I think—the holidays can make emotions run high. I don't want to upset the balance we have."
Astrid shrugs her coat on and wraps her scarf around her neck. "This is also a time for appreciating the people around you. I'm not saying that you have to make any big gestures. You know what's right for you. Just ... think about it, okay?"
"I will." Astrid is the most well-adjusted of all of them—would probably be so even in a more typical field office, which is a more sensible metric—and Olivia takes her advice seriously.
Seriously enough that she shows up at the Bishops', Christmas Eve, with a bottle of brandy and a nervous smile.
The hopeful look on Peter's face when he opens the door is almost enough to make her cut her visit short, but Walter's cry of pleasure brings her inside. "Olivia!" he says, like she's an amazing discovery. "Sit down! You must try the nog. I made sure to make some with actual nutmeg."
Olivia checks in with Peter—yes, Peter's eyes say, that means there's a batch with more psychoactive ingredients, but I'll make sure you get the straight stuff—and nods. Walter bustles into the kitchen, leaving Olivia perched on a slippery plaid sofa that seemed to have emerged intact from the 1970s. She rests her elbows on her knees and looks up.
"Merry Christmas," she offers.
"You too," Peter says. "Hey." He turns toward their tree—it is more decoration than tree, which she infers is Walter's doing, especially since the blobby glass ornaments look almost like strands of DNA—and retrieves a long, rectangular package from underneath. "I was going to give you this when we got back, but since you're here—"
"Thank you." It's not light enough to be jewelry, not heavy enough to be a gun. The neatly folded paper is dark green with a thin gold stripe, and there's a wire-stiffened gold ribbon tied around it so that it looks like it could be out of a TV ad. "All I got you was the brandy."
"Believe me," Peter says, nodding in the direction of the kitchen, where Walter is singing something that sounds like a dirty limerick, "it's appreciated. And—you're welcome to open it, right now. Since I intend to do the same with yours."
Olivia considers. "Why not?" The ribbon slides off easily, and then she seeks out the places where the wrapping paper was taped, trying not to tear the paper too much. She can feel Peter watching.
The instrument she pulls from the cotton is black with silver fittings, bulging and tapered by turns. "An oboe?"
When she looks up, Peter is standing very still. "I thought you might want to try again, someday."
Six months of lessons, with all sorts of picky details: posture, preparation, technique. Then another move, and it hadn't seemed worth bothering Mom about finding a new teacher, not with everything else Mom was going through.
She's much older now, busier. Even if she does start up again, she's not going to be any good for a long time.
She turns it in her hands, slides her thumb over the reed.
"I guess there's only one way to find out," she says, and smiles.