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That common consolation

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You are not beautiful, exactly.
You are beautiful, inexactly.
-- Marvin Bell

Some months have passed since Olivia was pulled into that place -– World 2, or the Other Earth, or whatever you want to call it –- and then was ejected from it through the windshield of her SUV, and she has not been the same person since. Peter sees it and Astrid does too; in the lab she walks aimlessly around, touching pieces of glass and changing their positions on the tables, turning objects over as if their shape is wrong, as if someone is speaking another language in her ear.

To be honest, Peter has never known quite exactly what to make of her. He has known strong women before, desperate women, women willing to die for their beliefs, but never has he encountered someone who will lie in a vat and let a mad scientist (for that is how Peter thinks of his father) run current through her brain. Olivia will do anything to get more knowledge, and that's actually kind of scary. Peter never knows, week to week, what insanity she'll lead him into.

Of course that same uncertainty is also an exhilaration -- a high even higher than living in Iraq and hearing the shells whistling through the air during a deal done in a dank room. That very high is what keeps him around, for he is quite sure that without Olivia and her constant entertainment, he would be hightailing it back to the Middle East, leaving his father to the tender mercies of someone else.

Out on assignment Olivia forgets the ends of sentences, stops, and looks at her hands. Then looks up helplessly, as if she is looking for a message written on her palms. Charlie is not around anymore to take up slack, so Peter tries his best to smooth the moments over. He's not exactly a trained interrogator, but he tries with his best crooked smile to cover her lapses.

A few times he tried asking her about Charlie's death but she refused to talk about it and he stopped trying. Figuring her out is like looking into a cave he visited once in South America – it went down and down, and at the bottom it was so black it was almost a negative light. Not in an unfriendly way, exactly, but in a way that promised that once you lowered yourself in, you were not coming back out the same person. Peter is kind of an expert on risk and he's sure that Olivia is a risk that, once taken, will pay off in a big way. Sometimes she looks at him sideways out of those eyes of hers and it's a kind of voltage, the kind he's been searching for all his life.

On a cold Friday between cases he comes into the lab and his father is working on something with the cow –- Astrid shakes her head when he opens his mouth, a shake that says "don't ask." She has a pained look on her face and he decides he won't inquire after all. No one in the FBI, or probably in the whole state of Massachusetts, has figured out why Astrid sticks around, but everyone (even if they don't know it) is glad that she does.

"Olivia?" he asks, and Astrid inclines her head toward the back room where he can see a flicker of video. Entering the darkened room, he can make out Olivia's form as she views, once again, the tapes of herself that Walter had made when she was a child.

Peter wastes another useless moment thinking on what a bastard his father is. On the tape, young Olivia is crying but also defiant, just as present-day Olivia would be if forced to submit to torture (and Peter considers what young Olivia went through to be, at its basic level, as bad as Guantanamo).

"Hey," he says, sitting down beside her in a folding chair. She tips her head a little toward him, and a little smile touches her mouth, but he sees that her hands are tightly clenched together and they are shaking.

"Hi, Peter." Her voice (which is, if he's honest, another thing that keeps him hanging around) is a little rough from disuse. "I'm just watching these again to see if there's anything I missed -- "

"From the last seventy-three viewings? I'm pretty sure you've got it memorized by now." He keeps his own voice light, doing Peter the Charming Clown, one of his best roles.

"I just want to make sure." She sounds tired, and he suddenly wonders how long it has been since she's seen any family. Charlie's dead and Broyles doesn't count, so surely she's taken some time out to see her sister and her niece? Surely she doesn't spend every moment alone? Of course, she would never tell him one way or the other. He feels a strong, sharp urge to make her tell him.

"Olivia, if there was anything on there, you'd have seen it by now. You were just a kid, not some kind of oracle. Walter had you on drugs, hooked up to machines ... come on, you shouldn't watch this stuff." He's surprised to hear the heat in his voice: the charming clown is in retreat. Olivia seems surprised too and even more so as he leans forward and pushes stop on the video player.

She frowns. "I just wish I could have said something –- something useful. Let me watch it again," but he stops her from turning the video back on by putting his hands over hers, just to help stop the shaking, he's sure that's all he means to do. He can't stand that she would blame herself for the filthy things that Walter did.

"Olivia," he says. "He was wrong. He did that to you and if you're angry at anyone it should be at him and not at that poor girl. Think! If it were another kid on there, would you be mining the tape for clues and trying to treat it like a data dump, or would you just have accepted that my father mistreated a child because he was delusional, and not because she was psychic? Wouldn't you have moved on?"

"But I can't move on," she says, her voice stifled, trying to pull her hands out from under his. He lets her, and she bends her head and in the blue flickering light of the vcr he can see that she is looking at her palms again.

He puts his hands over hers again, turning them over, trying to regain his sense of humor, wanting to fix it for her, fix whatever it is in her that's broken. "What do you keep looking for, honey?" He barely even knows he's said it but she looks up straight at him and he opens his mouth to take it back but she cuts him off by pulling her hands away again, gently, and putting them on his shoulders.

Kissing her is better than BASE jumping, better than free fall, better than running five hundred volts through his head. He has kept himself to himself so long that the feel of his tongue against hers short-circuits every nerve in his body and when she slides her fingers into his hair, he feels it stand on end. They don't move from the chairs, even though he'd like to get her in his lap or put her up against a wall or something, but she's the boss and they both know it. And so she finally ends it, about a million years later, by saying up against his mouth, with a smile he can feel, "I'm not your honey."

He is pathetically out of breath and awareness is coming back with a bang -- how he has a hand up her shirt, what is he, going to second base? -- and how he's about as hard as he's ever been in his life, and how she's smiling, she's actually smiling, so he says, "Oh yes you are."

"Hm," she says, and he feels the hum vibrating in her chest and he lowers his mouth back to hers for one minute, just one minute more, and the vcr switches its blue screen off, and her fingers find the buttons on his shirt. Vaguely in the other room he hears his father yell triumphantly, "Eureka," and Peter thinks, yes, I have found it.

--end--