A/N: Written for not_bang in the 2014 Fringe Exchange. Taken from the final sentence in the prompt, "Happy endings optional." You've been forewarned.
Million stars up in the sky
Formed a tiger's eye
That looked down on my face,
Out of time and out of place.
"Your Bones," Of Monsters and Men
The world is an onslaught of faces and she is helpless to stop it. Everything pulls her attention – the stutter of footsteps on the sidewalk, rumbling thunder, a flash of paisley skirt on the corner by a fruit stand –
The fruit stand. Her skirt.
"Peter!" she tugs his elbow and tries to go after her, after Etta, but he's reigning her in, a hand on her shoulder moving up, his fingers fast and gentle on her neck. She yanks away. "Peter, come on, I saw her. Please!"
But he's shaking his head. "Olivia, it's not her. She had brown hair."
"I saw her, Peter." She runs a few steps ahead, shoving aside a shivering teenager, an aged woman, the man in a trench coat she saw two blocks back. She can still see her, the girl, just her pink skirt, torn and muddied as she trips along the sidewalk. Etta.
"Olivia." He catches her by the elbow again and pulls her back so that her heels skid and she stumbles into his chest. She thrashes a little, but he pins her to him and won't let go. Twisting, she elbows him in the ribs, wrenches at the arms clasped tightly about her. "Olivia," he grunts, breath hot on her ear. "Olivia stop. It's not her."
"But Peter, what if it is, what if – "
"Look," he grinds out, and the brokenness in his voice makes her stop, listen, follow his command. Her eyes skim the crowd, jumping over black hats and bloody faces, raking the surface of the city's pain in search of her little girl.
"Peter, I don't – I don't see her. I lost her, you've got – "
"There, in front of the newsstand. No, look up."
And she sees it then, why he stopped her, why it is not her little girl. The fight drains out of her and he loosens his hold. She sinks back, curls into him, a hand strangling his jacket. He smells of sweat and two days without a shower.
"Peter. The skirt. I thought – thought for sure it was her."
He cards his fingers through her hair, cradles the back of her head as she leans against him. "I know," he rasps, lips pressed to the crown of her head. "I know."
They stand there until a man jostles past. Peter rouses, pulls in a shuddering breath. "C'mon. We need to eat."
She lets herself be pulled into a nearby diner. The garish red of the flickering neon whips at her nerves and she cringes away. Peter heads for a booth bracketed by windows and Olivia follows, sliding across the cracked vinyl seating until she reaches the end. Silent, she presses her cheek to the cool of the glass and continues to stare at the shifting figures.
A waitress brings menus and asks if they'd like anything to drink. Peter orders two coffees, one with sugar. The girl shifts and says there isn't any sugar – their suppliers never delivered. Her voice is full of apology.
"We put the last of it in the pies – would you like some of that? We have apple and pecan. Maybe a little lemon left, too."
"Pie okay with you? Olivia?"
She nods, the movement barely a flicker against the window. In truth, she doesn't care. Isn't hungry. Hasn't been for days.
"We'll take two slices of apple with the coffee," Peter decides, handing back the menus. "Thank you."
The girl nods and hurries off with their orders.
She watches a middle-aged man pass by the window, his shirt pale and fluttering in the wind, raindrops glistening against the wool of his coat.
"Liv," Peter tries again. He squeezes her knee beneath the table.
"No one has an umbrella," she murmurs, watching the crowds scatter as the clouds go belly-up.
"We're gonna find her, Olivia. We're gonna find our little girl."
She turns her head to look at him. Marvels at the hope still shining there, clinging tightly to his eyes. How does he do it? How can he be so sure she's still out there?
"Peter…" she begins, but a man materializes at their table. Olivia jumps, expecting to see bald flesh, black fabric, but instead meets white teeth and the glow of laughing eyes. "Who are you?" she asks, shoulders tense beneath her jacket.
"Donovan, at your service, ma'am," he beams as he rattles two plates onto the table.
Olivia sinks back against the booth. Peter takes over the conversation and she lets him, too tired to care. Her gaze returns to the scene outside, flickering over the half-empty streets and people scrambling to cover their heads. Everything is black or bleeding shades of gray, as if the Observers have stretched a giant newspaper over the city and now watch as the rain sheets through it, inking everything it touches with the news that they are here.
Her eyes slide shut.
They are here, and Etta is not.
She is in a meadow with the grass sweet around her, blades prickling up between the threads of the blanket to poke into her elbows. Her sandaled feet stir the lazy air and Peter's head rests warm and heavy on her back, anchoring her to this, the ground, their present.
Her book splays out before her, draped in waving tendrils of her hair, and she's only half-reading, because she keeps getting distracted by the pink butterfly that's careening around, zigging in and out of her vision and even dive-bombing her nose once or twice. Giving up, she breathes a little chuckle and Peter shifts along her spine, tilts his head back to look at her.
"What?" he asks, and his voice rumbles into her, straight down to her belly.
"I knew I shouldn't have brought Dostoevsky to the park." Peter laughs and lifts his head as Olivia rolls onto her back and lets the book flop onto the blanket, watches as it, too, becomes a butterfly and darts away into the sun-drenched sky. Peter settles his head on her stomach, and she lets the weight of him pull her down, down into closed eyes and smiling lips and a perfect afternoon.
She awakes to a wasteland, and Peter is gone.
Olivia jumps up and there is ash over everything, raining down, just lumps of sandy gray as far as she can see. But no, no this can't be right, because she was just in the park and Peter was there, and besides, she has no ash on her clothes –
Except no, that is not true, because she does, she is, she's covered in it, coughing through it, throat thick and aching with it. Help, please help she thinks, but no one comes because they can't hear her, and why should they because there are no people, just ash, ash everywhere.
Now she is in a hospital, flat on her back and strapped to a gurney, with the lights and ceiling tiles blurring together and past and she can't see, she can't see, but oh, what is that –
"Peter," she rasps, struggling to sit up. "Please, I need my husband." Instead a face looms over her and palms push her back down because she's not strapped in after all and she needs to stay still.
"It's all right, Ms. Dunham, you're fine. We're taking you to the delivery room right now. You and your baby are gonna be fine."
"My – my what?" she cries, but the face is gone and the straps are back and somewhere someone is telling her to push, but what the hell? she's not even pregnant –
"Peter. Peter I'm pregnant," she's saying, and he's staring at her, mouth not-quite-open and then she almost-smiles and he really smiles and they're kissing, overwhelmed with the joy of this thing they've created, this perfect little soul,
and suddenly, she's back in the park, with Peter, on the blanket, trying to read Dostoevsky and failing because that pink butterfly, except it's not a butterfly, after all – it's her daughter, Etta, and she's bending down to pick a dandelion, long yellow curls swinging in the breeze. Olivia smiles, feels Peter shift and sit up, say something before he calls for Etta. She murmurs in reply, about a bath and never being easy, and a thought is tugging at her mind, a thought she should remember, except she doesn't want to remember, because this is perfect, so perfect, and –
Observers. In the park. Coming for her daughter.
"Etta!" she screams, and her eyes fly open.
Olivia wakes, gasping, and with only a thin blanket to cover her. The moon is bright and spills in through the windows, glinting against the sweat slicking her arms. Her heart thunders. She blinks and presses her lips shut, swallows down the panic in her throat. A dream, it was just a dream.
Except it wasn't, because Etta is really gone, and their house is really gutted, and the whole world is really falling apart around them and she doesn't know what to do.
Olivia raises a hand to her forehead, pinches the bridge of her nose. She's trembling. Trembling, and she can't shake the image of Etta from her mind. The swinging pigtails, wrinkled brow, curled in shoulders and chubby fingers clutching the dandelion stalk.
The pain in her chest is moving and breathing, a seething monster that threatens to swallow her from the inside out. Olivia rolls onto her side and curves in on herself, biting her knees as a way to ground herself in the present. She can't let this take over. She has to fight. She has to find her little girl.
Peter's breathing is slow and steady beside her, his arm tossed out in the deep of sleep. Olivia slips from the mattress and lets the blanket slither off her shoulders, shivers as the night air raises goose bumps along her skin. She reaches for her clothes, finds jeans and Peter's sweatshirt, pulls them on, and then socks and boots, too, because there's still glass everywhere and she really doesn't want a trip to the hospital in her future. She doesn't bother with her hair. It's a mess, just like the rest of her.
Etta's room is awash with silver and shadows as she clears the threshold. Pink, cream, hints of purple – all the colors she knows are there have been swallowed by the night. Olivia slumps against the doorframe, surveying the damage. Toys are strewn everywhere, books, clothes. She pushes off the doorframe and crouches amidst the clothes, pulls her fingers through the chaos. A shirt, pajamas, the overalls with the funny little cow patch on them. (Those were from Walter.) Here are Etta's favorite leggings, and over there her purple shirt, the one with the cartoon frog stamped on it. Olivia gathers them to her chest and rocks back on her heels, breathes deeply of their scent.
The memory of her daughter is still there, in the green apple of her shampoo, her watermelon detangler, the syrup she'd spilled at breakfast Saturday morning. Olivia's fingers whiten around the clothing. She'd meant to wash it right away, keep the stain from setting, but then Peter had come down and suggested they go to the park, and she must have just thrown it in the hamper…
Etta. Etta, she thinks, knuckles digging into her lips. Etta I miss you. And she can almost feel her, then, standing at her feet with the light bouncing off her blue eyes, fingers reaching out to touch her cheek.
Olivia chokes back a sob.
Where is she now, Etta? Did the Observers take her? Or some well-meaning family? Did someone else's mother come along and see her little girl standing alone in the park with a dandelion stalk and take pity on her, scoop her up and carry her off because Olivia wasn't there to stop her, to gather Etta up in her own arms and carry her home to a bath and bedtime and butterfly kisses amidst giggles and did you brush your teeth?
Olivia lowers her knees and smooths the shirt across them, runs her fingers along the textured surface of the frog and its smile. Her wedding ring flashes in the moonlight, and she remembers how Etta loved to sit and play with it, twisting it around and around her finger while Olivia talked.
"Oh God," she whispers, balling her fists and tilting back into the moonlight. "Dear God I want my daughter back."
Her confession hangs in the air, and no answer comes to save it.
Peter finds her the next morning, huddled and defenseless in the chaos of their daughter's room. He rouses her gently and she sits up, untangles herself from a bruised and dreamless sleep. Once he sees she's awake, he stands, picks his way through the debris, and disappears, leaving her to gather the cracked and glinting pieces of last night and assemble them into another morning, another day.
Another day without her daughter.
Hope. She can feel it slipping through her fingers like soap; the harder she holds on, the more elusive it becomes, until one morning she wakes up and it's gone, just gone, and all she holds are memories, clinging like suds to her fingers, her heart.
Olivia swallows and rolls her shoulders, grits her teeth at the ache in her back. They've been at it for days, canvassing the suburbs. She can't remember the last time she showered, slept in a bed, ate. It's finally stopped raining, but now everything is cold, bright. Like the operating room just before the surgeons cut you open, expose you to the light.
The door closes and Peter turns to face her and she doesn't have to ask to know what the answer was. No. I haven't seen her, but you might try…
Etta. Her name is pain, stapled lungs, the sudden absence of air and a great aching emptiness rising to claim her.
The sun is only a pale flutter between the shells of buildings when he rouses, limbs stiff and lips numb. Peter blinks and scrubs gloved fingers across his eyes, shifts his feet to make sure his boots are still laced around them. His jaw cracks as he yawns, echoing the smack of his head against the ceiling as he miscalculates – again – the distance between his head and the van roof.
Olivia stirs beside him, curls into herself to compensate for the sudden loss of heat, and Peter stills for a moment, watching her. The pale silk of her hair is lost beneath her cap, as is the rest of her face. All he can see is the pale jut of her jaw, so sharp and white against the mounds of black and gray around her. He can't see her face, but he can guess what lies upon it – a deep and troubled sea of hurt without answers. A mirror of his own.
He shakes his head, easing his fingers around the door handle, and prepares to slip out, pack in hand. The door cracks open and a tendril of cold seeps into the space, causing Olivia to curl deeper into her pile of blankets. Peter shoves his shoulder through the crack and tips out, jerking the door shut with an ease only weeks of practice will give. Once out, he bounces a little in the chill, tugs his hat down farther over his ears.
It only takes him a minute to adjust to the cold, and soon he's unfolding into his morning routine. Five minutes, and he's got a fire burning, fueled by trash from the alley, and ten minutes sees him swinging a pot of coffee over the coals. Fifteen, and he's swinging it back off again, tilting the watery brown liquid into a chipped mug before grimacing it down his throat, chasing the aftertaste with a hunk of stale bread. Two minutes more and he's done, bread swallowed and limbs warmed.
Peter stands, shoulders his pack, and pokes at the fire, makes sure it has enough fuel to burn another twenty, thirty minutes, and then sets out in search of his daughter.
He hunches over the fire and chews his bread, squinting into the crackling blaze. All around him, the city is lean and fire-hardened, quiet, but slowly stirring to life. Now that the sun is down, it isn't safe for him to move about. Not that it matters – he can't search well in the dark, anyway. Besides, who would leave a child out in the night?
A glass bottle rolls and shatters against the mouth of the alley and he jumps, hand reaching for his gun. But it's just Olivia, and he relaxes as she steps into the light.
"There's soup," he murmurs, gesturing to the pot on the fire. She nods and pours some into a mug, wrapping her bone-white fingers around its warmth before sitting across from him.
"You okay?" he asks, but she only stares into her mug, gaze glassy in the light.
"I went to see Walter today," she says finally, voice so low that the sound of the fire almost masks it.
She tips her eyes up to meet his. "I went to see Walter. At the lab." A pause. "He and Astrid have a plan."
"To defeat the Observers."
She clutches the mug tighter, straightening her hunched shoulders. "They've been working on it in the lab with September."
"Apparently he knew about the Observers coming."
"He what?" Peter jumps to his feet.
"He warned Walter ahead of time."
"And Walter didn't tell us. Damn it Olivia – he knew and he didn't even tell us!" He scrapes a hand through his hair and tugs, but the pain does nothing to clear his head.
She only watches him through the flames, green eyes turned gold in the light. "He said you'd react this way," she murmurs at last. Peter flinches.
"They need our help."
He stares at her.
"They have a plan."
"Yes, and I have a daughter. A daughter who's missing."
"Don't you think I know that?" Olivia shouts, jumping to her feet. Her mug shatters as it drops and Peter can see soup bleeding across the pavement. "You're not the only one hurting here, Peter. She was my daughter, too. Our daughter."
He stops pacing at her outburst but keeps his gaze fixed on the spilled soup as it creeps slowly toward the shadows.
"Peter." Her voice is desperate. Wild. Is this what they've become? "Peter please just look at me. I need to know you're still here."
"Was," he whispers.
"You said was. She was our daughter."
"Peter – "
"No." He shakes his head, fingers knotting into fists. "No, not was. Is. She is our daughter, and I'm not giving up on her."
"Peter, I'm not –. Walter and September, they have a plan. A plan to defeat the Observers, and if we can just help them execute it, then we can do it, we can get rid of the Observers – "
"Just like they got rid of our daughter?"
She stops, rigid with silence. Minutes later, her shoulders slump and he's left alone in the freezing night.
Walter calls an hour later, but Peter sends it straight to voicemail. Days later, when he's hollow with the absence of her, he plays his father's message.
Peter, it's your father. I'm calling to let you know that Olivia is safe. She's at the lab, with Aspirin and me. September is here, as well. I don't want you to worry.
And that is all. Nothing more.
She stands on the platform, shoulders taut, thumb hitched under her pack strap to ease the pressure on her aching limbs. Her back spasms and she winces, twitches a little to relieve the pain. Beside her, Walter mumbles last-minute instructions like a mantra, the same mantra he's been babbling for the past twelve days as they've prepped her for this trip. Astrid shoots her a sympathetic look and Olivia smiles. It's nothing more than eye contact and a twist of her lips, but it's enough.
"I packed food to last you three days," Astrid says. "You should be able to find our contacts before then." She squeezes Olivia's arm briefly. "Be careful, all right?"
Olivia nods, but offers no words of assurance. She'll do whatever it takes to make this plan work.
"Olivia – " Walter mewls, a fumbling hand on her shoulder. She softens then and turns to embrace him, this father she never had.
"I know," she whispers, clinging tight. "I'll be careful."
He nods and steps back, eyes bright.
"I'll call when I get there," she says, and boards the train.
Olivia gazes out the window as the train pulls away, watching Walter and Astrid peel away from her like stickers off glass.
She glances down at her hand and Peter's ring glinting there, wonders if she's doing the right thing. And then she remembers Etta, Etta, Etta, the long sleepless nights and cold mornings, the slammed doors and crammed hospitals, the terror of the unknown about to be known.
It's better this way, she reasons, and twists the ring off her finger. This way, she'll be fighting the Observers, something she knows how to do. She was never meant to be a mother.
Olivia clenches her fist around the ring one last time before reaching into her jacket, unzipping a pocket there.
"For Etta," she whispers, and drops the ring inside.