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Keep Calm, Restless World

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Jacques promised they would see each other again, and he was not wrong.

The last thing Olivia remembers is falling and bone-deep dread, some innate knowledge that death is coming, no, it's here, and then ---

And then she's in the back of a taxi that smells like old books and long drives, and there's stars out the window and a familiar black leather jacket that's worn in all the right places balled up underneath her head. She holds her breath and doesn't want to look, doesn't want to hope, because for an instant that could stretch across eternity if she just believes hard enough, it almost feels like Jacques is still alive.

"You're welcome to engage in polite conversation whenever you decide to admit you're awake," the driver says, and her heart stops (again?) because it's him, it's his voice, and the stars are bright and the world is spinning and everything has been set to rights and and and --

"Jacques?" The word tumbles off her tongue, begging for a future and salvation and a way out of this mess that was never supposed to be a mess in the first place.

"Indeed," he says, and then, "The world is quiet here."

"It is," she agrees, and sits up, pulling the leather coat onto her lap and running her fingers over the familiar fabric as Jacques drives further down a road that stretches into forever. Her eyes catch his in the rear-view mirror and he smiles at her in the dark, a flash of teeth under the light of the moon, and she thinks about falling in love with him thirty stories into the air, his words circling through her thoughts -- it attaches to me, with that same cheeky smile, like he was the steadiest rock she could tether herself to, some promise that he could keep the both of them afloat with nothing but belief in nobility and literature and the importance of putting out fires, figurative and literal.

"Are we....?" she asks, but trails off, not knowing if the end of the sentence is alive or dead or dreaming or something else entirely.

"The world is quiet here," he says softly instead of an answer, and something in her stills obediently, calms under the weight of those words that aren't an answer but are answer enough. "What do you believe?"

"I believe that there are good things in this world, in spite of all the bad we've seen," she replies, tries to sharpen it into some sort of retort, but the edges are soft and blurry, like the memory of falling and the world ending and waking up in the back of a cab that's the most like home she's felt since she was twelve and eating faintly burned toast and orange juice at the kitchen table while her father did crosswords and her mother fed the baby.

"Those are very good things to believe, indeed," he replies.

"I also believe I love you." The words are impulsive and fearless, because she thinks she knows the answer to her first question, and that begets more questions but right now it's just them and the road and the cab and the stars, and she thinks she can hear the occasional thump of books lifting and settling in the trunk when they pass over a bit of unsteady road.

He doesn't brake but the car maybe slows a little, or perhaps the world around them does. His eyes are steadily holding hers in the mirror and if the moon wasn't so bright she might not be able to see, and if it was anyone else she might be fighting down an impulse to snap at them to watch the road, but right now she's as safe as she's ever been her entire life, that is to say, she's with him and he was always safer than mundanity. Even if --

Well, it isn't time to go there right now.

"I believe I love you as well, Olivia Caliban," Jacques says. It isn't like he says he'll explain everything, but the way her heart swells it certainly feels that way. Like just that sentence fixed everything, successfully rescued the Quagmires and the Baudelaires and raised them in loving homes, set fires in reverse, flame building up destroyed houses in time-lapse until homes stood where rubble sat moments before, the dead brought back to life.

She knows, but doesn't want to admit it, so she clambers into the front seat over the center console and he returns his eyes to the road with patience and welcoming silence, not even the gentle rebuke over safety he might have given before the first time they took this interminably long drive.

Olivia has many things to say, but sometimes a quiet road is a better way to catch up with a once lost loved one than chatter, so they settle into the drive like they've done this for years, like there's more history between them in the seats than the short time Olivia had really been a volunteer. The sagebrush passes out the window, and sometimes shadows dart in between -- some small nocturnal animal seeking the next dinner, some evidence of life beyond the hearts beating together in a taxi racking up mile after mile.

Eventually, they stop to camp. He sets up a fire, forgoing the portable stove they used previously, and part of her is glad for the warmth and the light. She picks out dinner from the collection of cans and rations, but he picks out marshmallows and boils water before anything else. She realizes that she isn't hungry, and he probably isn't either; the stop is a courtesy, not a necessity. The car is a sanctuary, but there's things to be said and where else to spill words than on hard earth surrounded by sage?

They sit in the dirt, and she says, "When I heard, I.... I thought you'd lied to me. That I wouldn't see you again."

His smile is sad, but his tone is certain and reassuring as he tells her, "I would never betray you."

"I found Madame Lulu, she left, asked me to take over. I didn't think I could do it at first, but..."

"Sometimes we have to do hard things, and sometimes we have to succeed at them no matter how difficult it is."

Olivia nods, but there's a difference between success and a pit of lions and she knows he knows that. Success was measured by a different metric entirely; not by disguises but by lives and at the end of the day the tally was still coming up short, and the children still weren't safe. It was infuriating, to find a way to make the world a better place and still failing impressively, forced to settle for yelling for them to run towards the hope of a better tomorrow and promising that she'd be right behind them even though everyone in the room knew it was an impossibility.

She finally says, "We were never going to win, were we?" because it's the question that sums it all up and doesn't say that too directly.

"It's an ancient story," Jacques says, and she's captivated by the slow drag of his voice and the flame casting shadows on his face. "Good and bad clash. People start fires, and other people put them out. It isn't about winning, it's about sticking to one's moral and literary principles."

There's truth there, and she thinks that a week ago she might have straightened her back and nodded in agreement, but tonight anything can happen so she says, "The point was to save the Baudelaires, and we didn't."

"There are other volunteers," he says, and it isn't a confirmation but it comes close. Olivia stares at him, feeling like agate, hard but not hard enough, and he reassures, "There will always be other volunteers."

There's hope in the words, but nigh-interminable despair too. "More volunteers to die," she corrects, and something about the night lurches with gut-wrenching force, but maybe only for her because Jacques merely takes her hand and says, "Would you like some tea?"

Olivia bites her tongue, her lip, her cheek, teeth scrabbling for purchase on any piece of flesh to create little pinpricks of pain to center the world and set it back on its axis, but Jacques doesn't wait for an answer and instead begins the familiar process: hot water poured into mugs, a tea bag carefully submerged and left to steep. She watches, and by the time he presses the mug into her hands she thinks she knows why he offered tea to Olaf like it could somehow break him better than fierce interrogation.

"Would you rather know you remained true to your principles, or that you succeeded in one mission?"

Olivia understands the point, but she still retorts, "There's something to be said about living to fight another day."

Jacques regards her calmly, patiently, and says, "But could you live with yourself, knowing you walked away?"

She thinks of the sound of slammed doors and a car starting up and crunching over the gravel driveway as it leaves and takes her father with it. She thinks of a birthday card before graduation and a return address that couldn't possibly outweigh that sunny day with the burnt toast and the orange juice and that closed door that shut and never opened again.

So she says, "No."

He nods, and smiles, and says, "I love you."

"I love you too," she replies, but her voice breaks on the last syllable because does it really mean anything anymore? Does it really mean anything here, wherever here is?

"Drink the tea," he invites, but there's a bit of an order in his voice. She doesn't see how it could fix it, how anything could fix it, but she drinks anyway, focuses on the water that's almost too hot, burning with warmth on the way down but not burning flesh. The fire crackles and the night is just chilly enough to invite that warmth, too, like the first hint of fall or the last night of spring, bookends of summer, an in-between place that hasn't decided what tomorrow will mean.

By the time there's nothing left in the mug but a dripping tea bag and a remaining scent of bergamont, Jacques has carefully set aside his mug and impaled marshmallows on sticks. Olivia takes the one he offers and together they roast the marshmallows.

"You set a fire," she says.

"Sometimes the best comfort is a campfire," he replies, and she can feel him slowly bringing her around to understanding and acceptance in some slow and deliberate way, like he's trained for this, the same way he's trained to scale buildings and slip into disguises, and drive for hours without getting irritable.

Her marshmallow slips too far into the fire, deliberately, and as she watches a tendril of flame curl up from the white, she says, "I think we tried our best."

"We did the noble thing," he agrees.

She thinks back, thinks to shoving the Baudelaire orphans ("Don't you ever push anyone again," her mother reprimanded, and six year old Olivia wanted to cry at the frustration of not being understood, of being pushed to the point a shove was the only solution). She thinks to telling them to trust her, thinks to stepping onto that plank, thinks to disguising herself as Madame Lulu, thinks to a dream job hindered by a miserable place, thinks to dreaming of being some sort of secret agent as a child and dismissing it out of hand, thinks to meeting a man in a taxi offering a deeper meaning to the world.

"I don't think we did the noble thing," Olivia says, slowly, taking the marshmallow out of the fire and watching it still continue to burn. "I think we did the only thing."

Jacques leans over and blows the flames out with a gentle puff of breath. It's a little too burned, but she takes a bite anyway, and he's right -- the crunch, the sugar, it isn't perfect but it mends something torn inside her anyway.

"I think you're right," Jacques says. "Sometimes, it is very difficult to hold to your beliefs."

"The hardest thing you can ever do."

He leans a little closer, and after a beat says, "I'd like to kiss you," with agreement like he's reminding her that beyond the hard is the reward, and sometimes you just have to take whatever meager comfort there is.

Olivia darts her eyes back up to his, and whispers, "I think I'd like that."

His lips are sticky with marshmallow, and she thinks hers probably taste like burnt sugar, but there's hints of strong tea underneath, and his hand on her neck is strong and rough, and no matter what else there had been or would be, this was everything.

They break apart slowly, and stay close together for a long while. There's understanding, healing quiet between them as the fire burns down and the stars twinkle above and Olivia knows the night could last forever if she just believes hard enough. (That's telling in it's own way, love-struck or something else.)

Finally, he says, "We should continue on," and they pack up like it's more familiar than it really is. They don't speak until they both have the taxi's doors open, and then she says, "Wait."

He pauses, one leg already in, and she finally asks, "Are we really dead?"

There's an errant piece of hair flopping across his forehead and half into his eyes, and the scene should have a dawn to it, some faint hint of sunlight peeking over the horizon, but the stars haven't moved since she woke up not knowing what was worth believing anymore. It's not a matter of belief anymore, she realizes, but a matter of reality and what to do with the situation. No -- it was never a matter of belief anyway; it was always a matter of what to do with the reality of the situation while holding to your beliefs.

Jacques smiles, roguish and fierce, and offers, "What would that change, anyway?"

A laugh bursts from her throat, and she grins back.

They get in the car and Jacques doesn't look back so neither does she. And so they drive, and it is a very long time before the sun begins to rise.