Some days, she tries to explain it.
Maybe traces of the cortexiphan still linger in her system. Maybe she's still stuck in amber, mind somehow wandering through a landscape of wishes. Or maybe – (when she's in the kitchen, washing Etta's hair, filling out paperwork for old case files at midnight) – maybe Walter's plan never worked, and she's dreaming. All of this. Stuck in some Observer prison while they dissect Walter's brain and experiment on Michael's. And Peter – God, Peter, he's there, too. One of them. Experimenting.
But then Etta's fingers will find her shirt, tangled curls will brush her fingers, and the weight of her daughter, the warmth of that little body pressed up against her legs, will be real, so very real, that Olivia knows it must be true.
Still, she can't stop herself from believing the nightmares (in the half-sketched watches of the night, the drive to work, odd moments at the park). Some part of her insists she's still that future Olivia, and one day, when she least expects it, Time will grow tired of toying with her and yank her back to those dystopian nights where she's robbed of her daughter and hanging on by a thread.
But weeks pass, and nothing happens.
She grows accustomed to the weight of Etta in her arms, the taste of Peter's lips in the morning and the tangle of his fingers in her hair as they drift off to sleep each night. They fall into a routine, one of them making breakfast while the other helps a hopping Etta into her clothes, wrestles her curls into pigtails and chases her, giggling, to the table.
She dives into work, head of the modified Fringe division, and he follows as official acting liaison for Massive Dynamic (just a fancy name for Walter's replacement he shrugs, when she asks if he's okay with how things have happened). The company he turns over to Nina, retaining only a quarter share, which is more than enough to keep them comfortable. And of course, they both keep working.
Whether it's to ward off the demons or to set an example for their daughter, neither says. But the question is there, just below the surface.
(secretly, she wonders if Walter is out there, somewhere, combing through records, smiling as he assembles their future, bit by bit from strings of data and long-defunct computer files. she can almost see him now, growing misty-eyed over Etta's graduation pictures as he treasures the few memories he has of them, together, as a family)
Eventually, life goes on.
He laughs easily and often, invites Astrid over for dinner, avoids the topic of his father and allows the wound of not knowing to close over, choosing instead to delight in their daughter. "More, daddy, more!" Etta will squeal as he spins her about the room, careful even in his abandon, lest they break something.
A smile ghosting her lips, Olivia watches. Later, he sidles over saying, "You know, you're just as quick with your smile now." And she is healed-over enough to accept his words as the gifts they are.
Even though it never happened (at least, not in this timeline), she remembers those long months between getting back and letting go, remembers the shift from red to blonde and scraping bangs back in her ponytail to keep from seeing her double every time she crossed paths with a mirror.
The difference now is that she's okay with it. True, she found her mother and lost her all over again, a better version of herself stole her life, and the name Charlie Francis really is engraved on the tombstone that she visits every third Tuesday of the month, but she's made peace with that.
When he asks why, she says it's because she's seen what life is like without him, and it's worse. Far worse. Of course, he thinks she means her other life, the one that she mostly gave up to be with him.
If anything, she should be used to errant memories.
It's not all so neat and packaged, though. She still can't go near train stations, can't bear the thought of leaving him again, of running away, of waking up every day to the weight of her daughter's life on her conscience.
On the bad nights, nights when the memories are live wires behind her eyes, she slips out of bed and keeps vigil over her daughter. It is there, soothing her fingers through Etta's tangled, sleep-sweaty curls, that Olivia finds the peace she needs to keep on, the willpower to let herself remember, to embrace this duty she so desperately wishes to escape.
Other times, when the sun is shining and she has no reason to fold herself away, it is all she can do to hold herself together. After a while, she takes to reciting facts to herself, as a way to hold on to what is real and parse past from the present.
One: they never lost Etta.
Two: she kissed Peter awake this morning, and they made love in the shower.
Three: Nina is coming over for dinner tonight, not lying in a pool of her own blood.
Four: she is alive and young and breathing; a mother, and not trapped in her last thought.
When the numbers don't work, she tells herself to breathe. Breathe, Olivia, just breathe. In and out, again, and again. Get a grip and keep going. Your daughter needs you.
And Peter too.
She should tell him.
The more she watches him, though, the more she finds herself biting her tongue, hiding her knowledge, letting him heal the way he's meant to. Because for some peculiar reason, life has deemed her, Olivia Dunham, to be the bearer of its secrets, strong enough to withstand the realization of each moment.
Often, she finds herself marveling over all the myriad possibilities that could have happened but don't, and instead leave her smiling and kissing her baby girl's cheeks or losing herself in her husband's arms night after night after night.
All her memories tell her she doesn't deserve this, that she's given up on the ones she loves one too many times to merit this second (third, fourth, fifth) chance. She doesn't deserve it.
But she wants it. Oh, she wants it.
Time passes. Nina retires "to be a grandmother," and Peter steps up to manage Massive Dynamic. He turns it over to Brandon after five months and splits his days between the lab and Fringe Division, following, he says, in his father's footsteps, though he promises to leave out the drugs.
Rachel gets pregnant again, has twins, and Etta, wide-eyed over her tiny cousins, whispers – "Mommy, I want babies, too." Olivia bites her lip but Peter smiles, and six months later they're waking their daughter up with the new she's going to be a big sister.
Olivia gets shot on a case three years into the job, and Etta breaks an arm climbing to the top of the Kresge building on a dare (from Eddie, the rascal). There are bizarre cases, near-kidnappings, and plenty of sleepless nights, once the new baby arrives.
But through it all, life goes on. No Observers, no amber, no rips in the fabric of the universe. It's funny, but it seems that in giving her these memories, life finally promised to leave them alone.
And slowly, ever so slowly, Olivia learns to be grateful.