Disclaimer: I own nothing related to Fringe, just the thoughts in my head.
Rating: T (some language and heavy situations)
Summary: "Do you have any idea what it's been like for me to watch you slowly killing yourself these last few months?" – Olivia and Peter take tentative steps out of the darkness in their lives
Spoilers: Post-ep to Marionette
Author's Notes: To all of you who are still hanging in there for Ruby Slippers, thank you and I promise I will update it as soon as possible. This story, however, just wouldn't leave me alone, forcing me to write it before I would let myself watch Firefly. So this is my take on the events post-Marionette (now I can go read everyone else's). It's AU now, but it was fun to write. Brace yourself, it's a long one. I'd toyed with breaking it up, but it loses its flow that way.
Thanks to my brilliant beta, Joy for coming up with the title after much thought on both our parts and for corralling those rampant random quotation marks :)
He'd had just about enough of Special Agent Olivia Dunham.
Peter Bishop cast his gaze to the woman in question as she sat sullenly beside him, steadily soaking the seat of their FBI-issue SUV. Though her hair was finally drying, stubborn strands still clung to the sides of her face, but she made no move to brush them back. Peter's hand ached to do it for her, his skin remembering the feel of her hair wrapped around his hand like a vine as he'd slid his arms under hers and dragged her up from the icy depths.
He'd almost lost her tonight; then again, he wasn't entirely sure that she hadn't slipped away months ago. Peter blew out a frustrated sigh. Two years in, and they were right back to square-one, right back to the Olivia who was single-minded in her drive, the Olivia who threw her body off of buildings and her mind into the murky abyss his father created to find answers, to find justice ... to find peace. They were right back to the Olivia with walls so thick around her heart that Peter feared it would never see the light of day again.
Right now, that Olivia was shivering so hard Peter could hear her teeth rattle.
"Are you sure you don't want my coat?" he ventured for the second time that night, already certain of her response.
"I'm fine, Peter." He was getting pretty sick of hearing those same three words all the time.
Sure, she was fine - who wouldn't be after narrowly missing being blown to pieces by shapeshifters, then nearly drowning in the frigid waters of a frozen lake? She should've gone to the hospital, but he'd known she would refuse. As soon as the EMTs had declared that she would be alright as long as she stayed warm and dry, Olivia had jumped down from the back of the ambulance, pulled a blanket tightly around the scrubs they'd given her to wear and strode, albeit a little shakily, to her vehicle, intent, she'd announced, on a hot shower.
Peter had tracked her progress from his own perch on the ambulance's tailgate, before the heavy weight of another's gaze drew his attention. Turning, he caught Broyles' eye. Even in the darkness, the senior agent's entreaty was clear.
'Can't you talk some sense into her?'
Peter could only shrug in response. No, there was nothing he could do and Broyles knew that. Six months ago, he might have been able to rein her in. Six months ago, she might have listened to him; he would've been able to remind her that there were people who cared about her in her life, people who needed her, who would be forever broken if she were lost to her singular quest.
However, he no longer had the rare privilege of being Olivia Dunham's anchor in the storm. All he could do was sit on the sidelines and watch as she retreated further into her shell, wondering if he'd ever be able to find the woman he loved in the rubble of her obviously broken heart.
Seeing as he was the one who broke it, Peter was pretty sure his chances were slim.
'She wasn't me. How could you not see that?'
After fighting for her life and her freedom, she'd made it home only to have all of her hopes and dreams crushed. It had been devastating, he got that, but he was heartbroken, too. Couldn't she see past her own shit to notice? He'd come back to the only home he'd ever known because she'd asked him to. He'd thought that he'd finally found the place where he belonged, a family he could love, but like the rest of his life, it had all been a lie. Everything he'd ever held dear had been ripped from his grasp and turned inside out in the last year, leaving him to doubt the very core of his being.
Still, you didn't see him playing chicken with cyborgs from another dimension.
A shudder skittered down Olivia's spine, drawing Peter from his musing.
'Damn it, we should've gone to the hospital.'
He knew it was wishful thinking. Just getting her to let him drive had been hard enough. He'd jogged to catch up with her as she'd trudged purposefully to the driver's side door, awkwardly fishing through the pockets of her sodden coat, where it was slung over her arm. Coming up empty, she'd whirled around at the sound of the doors unlocking to find him behind her, clutching the fob she'd been looking for. Peter truly believed that he'd only won that particular battle of wills because the cold had significantly reduced her level of stubbornness.
Now, he had the heat in the SUV cranked as far as it would go, but the numbing chill that had seeped into him just wouldn't release its hold. Peter was pretty sure that a hot shower wasn't going to help, not when the ice had settled in his heart.
The look in her eyes as the surface of the lake gave way beneath her feet was permanently seared into his memory. The understandable shock had been laced with something even more terrifying: resignation. Furious, he had dived right in after her. After everything they'd been through, after all of the times she'd rushed in to pull him out of the fray, she had no business giving up now, not like this. Despite all that they'd weathered, the bonds were still strong. She might want to let go, but he was just going to hold on more tightly.
"Are you okay?"
Peter couldn't suppress the start at her voice, having not heard it for hours now. As the interior of the car came back into focus, he noticed his death-grip on the steering wheel and the tension strung through his body like a bow. He glanced in her direction as he carefully loosened his fingers, intending to throw her words 'I'm fine' right back at her when his eyes snagged on hers.
What he found there took his breath away.
For the first time in months, the shields were down; the anger and resentment that she bore like a cross had lifted for a moment, leaving her eyes open, full of genuine concern and something he hadn't seen since that day their gazes had met on a suburban street her first day back on the job after ... well, after. He didn't dare analyse it too closely, but it fanned the tiny flame of hope that had refused to be snuffed out by all that they had been through, leaving it burning just that little bit brighter against the darkness that battered them every day. For the first time since she'd left him in that sad, tangled garden, he'd caught a glimpse of the Olivia he'd fallen for, the Olivia who had held him in her thrall before he'd discovered the truth of his origins and their lives had gone to Hell in a handbasket.
This was the olive branch he'd been waiting for, the step one of them was going to have to take if they were ever going to find their way back to where he was pretty certain they both wanted to be. However, the childish part of his heart, the part that was still nursing the wounds wrought by both Olivia and her double, refused to take it. After being made to feel like a pariah for months now, his pride just wouldn't let him end this emotional standoff that had become their lives. Instead, that hurt part inside of him, that he thought he'd sublimated, reared its head without warning, spitting out the, "I'm fine," he'd been reining in before he could stop himself.
The effect was instantaneous. Her depthless eyes shuttered and all the light fled from the spaces between them. Lips pursed in that way she did when she was trying to hold the pain at bay, Olivia shrunk back into her seat, turning her gaze toward the window.
She kept on shivering.
By the time he nosed the vehicle onto her street, the silence had become so thick Peter feared he would choke. Olivia had nodded off well before they'd reached Brighton, and as much as he'd wanted to wake her up, to take back his words and get her to look at him again like they might actually have a chance, Peter let her have the rest she so desperately needed. The signs of her exhaustion had been getting worse. Olivia was an expert at bluffing her way through things, but he noticed; how could he not?
'You managed not to notice a lot of things, genius. That's what got you into this mess in the first place.'
His subconscious never was one to pull punches.
Pulling up to the curb outside of her building, Peter blew out a frustrated sigh. Three months and they were getting nowhere. If anything, they'd been regressing. Bringing his train of thought to a halt before he dug himself in any deeper, he turned to his companion in the passenger seat.
"C'mon, Sleeping Beauty, time to get you showered and into bed." He figured that humour had helped them get by in the past, so why stop now?
She didn't respond. He hated to wake her; she seemed to be at peace for the first time in as long as he could remember.
Then, he looked more closely.
The shivering had stopped. Her head was slumped against the window at an uncomfortable angle, breath fogging the glass in shallow pants.
"Liv, c'mon, wake up."
Her skin was cold and clammy under his fingers as he gently patted her cheek, trying to rouse her. Her face, even more ghostly pale than usual, practically shone in the light of the streetlamp above them. She was freezing.
Throwing off his seatbelt, Peter launched himself out of the car and skidded around to her door. She would've fallen into his arms when he ripped it open had it not been for her own belt.
"Hang on, 'Livia'," he whispered as he reached over her limp body to release the clasp and pull her into his chest. Sweeping her up into his arms, Peter staggered up to her apartment.
He was back, looming over her in the darkness, his heat searing a hole in her soul. He'd been her tether on the other side, whispering in her ear, shouting when necessary, feeding her glimpses of what once was, what could be again if she could just get home. Well, she'd believed in him and she'd found her way back and look where that had gotten her. Now, all he was doing was driving her mad and keeping her from getting any sleep.
The minute she'd close her eyes, he would be there, offering a taste of what she could never have, what she'd taken away. Every night, she fought against his relentless tugging at her heart, refusing what she so desperately craved, waking coated in a sheen of sweat, his words of comfort taunting her in her head.
Tonight, she just didn't have the strength. Tonight, the attraction was stronger than ever and she'd almost died and, hell, if she didn't deserve to indulge just this once.
Leaning in, she welcomed his warmth, laced with his spicy scent that her memory had never managed to recreate before. She wanted to burrow into him, to wrap herself in his body to burn back the chill that had permeated her core.
Soon, the need to discover if he tasted as good as he smelled overrode what was left of her pride. Hungrily, she dragged her lips up from his sternum to his collarbone, revelling in the frantic tattoo of his pulse beneath her touch.
"You belong with me," she murmured, punctuated with a gentle nip over his heart.
His answering groan set her own heartbeat racing, keeping time.
It had never felt so real before. His breath fanned over her hair as her hands mapped the planes of his chest, fingers dancing over taut muscle as they travelled lower. Suddenly, he snagged her wrist, stilling her progress before things could get really interesting.
Arching her eyebrow in a playful query, she drew her eyes up to his. What she found, however, stopped her cold, ice quickly flowing back into her veins. Beneath the haze of passion, his gaze was clouded with confusion and even fear.
Her stomach rolled sickeningly. There was a reason this felt so real. Recoiling from his embrace, she came aware of her surroundings, slipping on the wet porcelain as hot water tumbled around her where she sat, clad only in her underwear, in the bottom of her bathtub.
Face flushed with mortification, she glared at her companion, sitting cross-legged in his soaked boxers inches away.
"What the hell, Peter?" she hissed, struggling for purchase with weak limbs against wet tile.
He was up in an instant, sliding his arms under hers, dragging her again up from the depths. The memories, however, continued to pull her back down: the ice, the lake, darkness and penetrating cold, all of it fuelling the embarrassed nausea roiling her gut as she put the pieces together in her mind. It was too much, threatening to drown her all over again. Certain that her feet were solidly beneath her, Olivia pushed hard on Peter's chest, desperately needing to put as much distance between them as possible. His momentum forced him to step out of the tub and Olivia's chest loosened ever so slightly. Absently, she reached out and shut off the water, trying to hold on to some small sliver of dignity.
"Get out, Peter," she seethed, hoping anger would be enough to get him to leave her alone, enough to recreate the wall she'd so painstakingly built around herself, her last bastion against her broken world. She needed to regroup, to try and brush off this momentary lapse in judgement. She could do this. She was Olivia Dunham, master of picking up the pieces and moving forward, no matter what the cost. She just couldn't handle Peter being there to watch her do it.
"I'm not going anywhere, Olivia." Of course, after three months of letting her push him away, Peter picked now to fight back.
She didn't have the strength tonight.
"Peter, please-" She was drowning, right there in her bathroom and Peter was going to be the one to drag her under.
She tried to keep her head above water and meet him glare for glare in their silent standoff, but she couldn't help herself. Everything was still a little fuzzy, her body humming with leftover endorphins she just wasn't able to suppress. Her eyes were drawn by the rivulets of water tracing lines along his body. Her gaze tracked one particular drop as it sluiced over the skin of his chest, rosy from the impromptu shower, curving around his torso before it disappeared into the material of his drenched underwear, retracing the trajectory of her hands from earlier. The warmth suffusing her face had nothing to do with the steam in the room and she swallowed reflexively, disgusted at her own weakness.
Dragging her eyes back up to his, she felt even more pathetic. He'd noticed her control slipping and seemed intent on encouraging her to let go, to give him the green light to join her in this madness. His eyes were dark, fathomless in the harsh fluorescent light of her bathroom.
"'Liv," he breathed, his whole body straining with the effort not to move towards her.
The heat was back with a vengeance, spreading out from her heart, pooling low in her belly, her breath hitching painfully in her chest as she fought with every fibre in her being not to pull him back into the tub with her. She'd thought she had beaten this ridiculous urge into submission, ruthlessly killed all feelings she'd had for him when he had told her the truth of his ignorance. She'd been managing just fine for three months now. They were never going to be lovers, she'd accepted that a fairy tale ending just wasn't in the cards for her and she'd moved on ... she'd moved on. So she didn't need this absurd ... need screwing up what was left of her life.
Olivia Dunham did not need Peter Bishop. She did not need a man who, when it came down to it, didn't truly know her, a man who fell in love with her in name alone.
'I bet he shared a shower with her.'
The insidious thought was the bucket of ice water over her head that she'd needed to bring back her sanity, freezing her boiling blood in her veins. Her eyes became cold steel and she took some small perverse pleasure in the shock that registered on Peter's face at the hairpin turn in her mood.
"Get out, Peter."
"Out. Now." Her voice dropped an octave with her renewed rage and she dragged the shower curtain across her body, holding it under her chin and creating a physical barrier to compliment the emotional wall she'd finally managed to rebuild.
Peter opened his mouth for one last rebuttal before thinking better of it. Shoulders slumped in defeat, he snagged his clothes and a towel from where they waited on the sink and slipped out of the room, closing the door with a soft snick.
Dropping the curtain, Olivia blew out a heavy breath, the physical toll of her unexpected polar bear dip earlier and the turmoil of the last few minutes finally catching up with her. She could feel it coming, a runaway freight train of unchecked emotion bubbling up from deep within, choking her with its intensity. She hadn't cried since that first night after he'd told her the truth, but that was about to change. Tears burned her eyes as she slumped to the floor of the tub. Finally, the dam was breached and the first sob broke free from her lips before should could check herself. Drawing her knees into her chest, Olivia dropped her head, hiding behind a heavy veil of wet hair as three months of pain poured out of her, washing down the drain with her tears.
He'd almost rushed back in when he'd heard her muffled cry, his heart clenching painfully in his chest at the ragged sound. The thing is, he knew his presence wouldn't be appreciated at the moment.
Her bathroom was an ensuite and Peter couldn't help but notice her bed, now that he wasn't distracted by trying to save his hypothermic partner's life. She'd changed the duvet, switching out the red paisley for a blue patchwork that made the room seem colder somehow. Still, he was grateful for the change; it made it easier to believe that his time spent in this room was nothing more than a dream that had become a nightmare.
'She wasn't me. How could you not see that?'
Shucking his boxers, he quickly dried off and slipped his clothes back on, eager to put some distance between himself and the memories he'd been forcing himself to forget. He didn't want to remember, because no matter how happy he'd been, it hadn't been real. His Olivia had been fighting for her life while he'd been playing house with her evil twin.
'Aren't all the best love stories tragedies?'
Hindsight was a bitch. He'd spent hours sitting by her bedside in the hospital cataloguing everything he'd missed, every sign he'd overlooked because he'd been too blinded by his ego. He'd truly thought she'd changed, that she was happier because of him, because of them. He'd gone home (to his own home) and showered that night, scrubbing until he'd been raw, but he'd never managed to wash away the stain of guilt that had imprinted itself on his soul. It was still there now, kept fresh and dark by every questioning look set his way, not just by Olivia, but Walter, Astrid, even Broyles now and then. They couldn't help themselves, wondering if he truly did love her, how he could not have known. He didn't really blame them; it was a question he asked himself every day.
Those glances had become fewer and far between over time. Life moved on, theirs being filled with ever increasing threats of invasion and dimensional destabilization. No one had time anymore to wonder about the star-crossed lovers in their midst and Olivia ... well, Olivia simply retreated, putting as much distance between them as possible, shutting off, like a light switch, any sign that she'd ever felt anything for him beyond professional courtesy ... until tonight.
'You belong with me.'
Those four words, words he thought he'd never hear again, fanned that tiny flame of hope into an inferno, fed by the battle he'd seen raging in her eyes. His heart had soared on the discovery that somewhere deep beneath the layers of hurt and betrayal, her heart hadn't changed, that she still had feelings for him whether she wanted to or not. Then, she'd sent him crashing back to reality with a look. It was one he'd come to know well since he'd told her the truth. It was the look she got when she was wondering about her ... about them, when she was torturing herself with conjecture.
Well, it was torture for him, too. While she could only speculate as to what had happened, he knew, and the knowledge was eating him alive. Everywhere he went, he'd find triggers - little things - like the softening of her eyes, a rare event these days, or the strains of a song that would set the flood of memories washing over him, tripping up his pulse and bringing a smile to his lips. Then, he'd remember that it wasn't his Olivia that he was recalling, that it never had been, and that stain would grow darker.
Being here, in her apartment, certainly didn't help, but there was no way he was going anywhere, not tonight. The hushed crying that he was sure she was actively trying to muffle had subsided, but he could hear nothing to indicate that she was coming out anytime soon. When she did, she was going to be seriously pissed to discover that he hadn't left, but he suspected that she wouldn't be surprised.
She was going to have to deal with it, because tonight he'd managed to almost lose her and then find her again in the space of a few hours, and he wasn't leaving until they sorted this out. However, he didn't need to wait in her bedroom like a stalker.
Slipping out into the living room, he carefully closed the French doors, remembering that the left one squeaked if swung too quickly. Turning, he took in the rest of her apartment for the first time. It was like a punch to the gut. If her behaviour hadn't already set the alarm bells in his head at full alert, the state of her living area would have. Once he might have dismissed the disarray before him as just a difference in housekeeping habits between alternates, but he'd been in this Olivia's apartment. He knew this wasn't normal.
Every available surface was littered with papers, case files, notes and journal articles on theoretical physics, scattered with no apparent semblance of order. It reminded him a little of Walter's desk, and he found it unsettling. However, what bothered him most was the couch. It looked like it had stopped being a couch a long time ago; he could barely see the brown upholstery under the pile of blankets and pillows.
'She sleeps out here,' he realized with a sharp pang in his chest, suddenly understanding why the bedroom seemed so pristine compared to the chaos around him.
A golden glint on the nearby coffee table caught his eye and Peter sighed, shoulders slumping heavily. Easing deeper into the room, he picked up the bottle of Black Label, finding it lighter than he would've liked and carried it, and the empty glass that had been next to it, into the kitchen.
It wasn't in much better shape. A quick peek into the fridge only darkened his mood. What had she been eating? Suddenly the pieces of the last three months coalesced in his head, the evidence of her apartment filling in the blanks left by her baggy clothes and shadowed eyes, creating a picture that simultaneously broke his heart and left him furious with her.
"Go home, Peter."
Dropping the bottle to the counter with a dull thud, Peter whirled around at her voice. He'd expected anger, a whirlwind of fury determined to sweep him out of her space. Instead all he found was apathy and exhaustion, and his frustration grew.
"I don't think so, Sweetheart," he replied, falling back on the bitter sarcasm he hadn't needed in a long time. "You just about died tonight, several times in fact. Forgive me for not wanting to let you out of my sight."
Her spine went rigid as irritation crept up and into her eyes. Peter smiled grimly, absurdly pleased to see a hint of a spark behind the dullness that had coloured her gaze for far too long. She opened her mouth to retort, but he cut her off.
"Go wrap yourself in that cocoon you've created on the couch," he insisted, turning back to the counter. "I've got things covered in here."
Absently, he pulled open the drawer to his left, bringing out a small pot. Tapping his blunt fingernails against the stainless steel handle, Peter wandered over to her pantry, rummaging through her pathetically barren foodstuffs. His familiarity with the layout only intensified the hollow ache in her heart that remained after she'd cried out the rage and humiliation in the privacy of her bathroom. He'd never learned his way around her kitchen before they'd crossed over. Still, she couldn't bring herself to move. Her apartment seemed warm for the first time in months.
Finding what he was looking for, Peter rolled the can of tomato soup in his palm before finally turning back to where she was still standing.
"I said go, lie down, Dunham, before you fall down. I'm going to make you some soup."
She found her anger again with his dismissal, soothing the ache with its heat.
"It's one in the morning-" she started petulantly.
"And you haven't eaten anything since that half a sandwich you picked at over twelve hours ago." His gaze was dark, daring her to challenge him.
"We haven't exactly had time," she replied archly, rising to the bait.
"From the cobwebs in your fridge and the fact that most of your clothes look two sizes too big lately, I'd say you haven't had time to eat in while."
The fury flared brightly behind her eyes as his words hit their mark.
"You don't get to do this, Peter," she hissed, crossing her arms up over her chest, putting whatever barrier she could between them.
"Do what? Care about you? I hate to break it to you, but the ship sailed on that one a long time ago. Besides, someone's got to do it, since you obviously haven't been caring for yourself for quite a while."
Olivia squared her stance, gearing up for a fight, and Peter couldn't help the flush of triumph that suffused his body. This was an Olivia he hadn't seen in a long time, an Olivia for whom everything wasn't 'fine'. He'd managed to prop the door open and there was no going back now. It was time to go for broke and lay his cards on the table.
"Do you have any idea what tonight was like for me?" His voice was ragged with exhaustion and pain, his eyes black in the dim light of her kitchen, and she couldn't look away. "Do have any idea just what it does to me every time I have to watch you try to throw your life away? Watching you disappear into that lake was like having my heart torn out. Still, it comes nowhere near what it's felt like to watch you slowly killing yourself these last few months."
She was coming down with something; that was the only reasonable explanation for the heat that was overtaking her body, racing along her neurons, leaving her lightheaded and feeling strangely small. It wasn't an unusual mixture of guilt, shame and hope that was churning her empty stomach. It couldn't be; she'd stopped letting Peter affect her. She'd had to.
She realized that she wasn't kidding anyone, least of all herself, so she lashed out, gathering her fury around her like a cloak.
"Just because I'm not as fun and carefree as she was-"
He'd been expecting her response and cut her off before Olivia could shut the door he'd worked so hard to crack open. "It's not about her, Olivia. You're not even you!"
"How would you know?"
It may have been expected, but it still hurt, a swift kick to the chest, knocking the wind out of his sails.
"You're never going to let this go, are you?" he asked heavily.
Olivia however was well and truly in the grasp of Newton's first law, riding the cresting wave of the indignation he'd sparked within her. "Let it go? It's not like you forgot my birthday, Peter," she spat, her voice dripping with rancour. "You slept with my alternate, you spent weeks with her and never even guessed it wasn't me."
His instinct was to interrupt, to defend himself, but he stopped short at the look in her eyes, screaming at him from behind a shimmering film of unshed tears. She'd been bottling this up since that moment in the hospital cafeteria, and it had festered, eating her alive like one of those viruses Walter took such delight in studying. If she didn't purge herself of this, there would be nothing left; they'd never recover ... she'd never recover. So, he bit back his words and braced himself.
"How do you think it feels, Peter?" her voice rose in desperation, cracking on every second word. "I was in hell over there. After what they did, I didn't even know my own mind. I didn't know what was real or who I was supposed to be, but somehow my heart knew. My heart sent me you, of all people, to guide me back." She swallowed heavily, blinking hard against the moisture that was threatening to break loose from behind her lashes.
"I fought so hard, Peter. First, it was against you. I refused to believe ... then, I figured it out, and I fought again, against the drugs, Walternate, everything, all because I needed to get back home ... to you. "
She was shivering again, but not from the cold. Peter couldn't help but worry that the intensity of her emotions was going to send her collapsing to the floor, but he knew she'd push herself through this. She always did. Still, he eased closer, carefully closing the distance between them, ready to catch her when the dust cleared.
"When they had me strapped to that table-" she faltered, the rest of her words lodging in her throat. Peter didn't need to hear them. He'd read her report, tortured himself with it for days, punishing his blindness by trying to live what she'd gone through while he'd been playing house.
Edging nearer still, he ducked his head, searching for her eyes underneath the veil of hair that had fallen across them as she made one last ditch attempt to hold it all together. She was so still that had her eyes not been squeezed so tightly shut, he might have thought that she'd given way to her exhaustion and fallen asleep standing up.
Suddenly, she lifted her head, sucking in a noisy breath and steadying herself against the doorframe before locking her gaze with his, her green eyes hard with determination.
"Can you even imagine what it feels like, Peter? Can you grasp what it's like to realise that someone was living your life and no one knew you well enough to see the difference? That not even your closest friends noticed anything was wrong, that the man you fought so hard to return to was busy falling in love with the bright, shining version of yourself you know you'll never be? 'Cause, if you do, I'd like to hear it, because I really want to know how I'm supposed to move past this."
He was right on top of her now, his softened gaze greedily absorbing all the hurt she could throw at him as she tried desperately to hold onto what was left of her anger slipping away like grains of hot sand through her clenched fists.
"I don't want this to be my life, Peter," Olivia breathed, having reached the end of her voice. "I just don't know how to be anything else."
Taking the risk of destroying the fragile balance that had built between them in the last few precious seconds, Peter carefully drew a wayward strand of hair behind her ear before cupping her cheek, an echo of a moment from what felt like another lifetime.
"Sure you do," he whispered, thrilling when she pressed herself into his hand ever so slightly. "I know you know how, because I've seen it, with Ella, and Rachel, and even on rare occasions with me, once upon a time."
Despite her complete emotional exhaustion, she eyed him quizzically.
"Hey, I seem to remember something about card tricks in a bar in Georgetown."
His grin was infectious and she felt the corners of her lips twitch in response, waiting for him to continue, understanding that it was his turn now.
"That's the Olivia I fell in love with," he murmured, carefully framing her face with his fingers, smudging away an errant tear with this thumb. "The Olivia I fell in love with is the woman who would play dress up with her niece and then go out and face down some of the most terrifying shit this world has ever seen like some sort of avenging angel. You carry so much on your shoulders, 'Livia. It's something I've always admired about you, but all I've ever wanted to do was make it easier, to help relieve that burden just a bit and see a little more of the Olivia I know lives inside of Agent Dunham."
The sight before him left Peter breathless, and he paused to collect his whirling thoughts. For the second time tonight, her eyes were open, shining with what looked like hope, and this time he wasn't going to let his pride screw things up. He knew what needed to be said, but took the time to figure out just how to say it. This was his only chance and it would kill him if he destroyed the trust they'd been slowly rebuilding, brick by brick, between them tonight.
"When we – she and I – got back," he continued cautiously. "And she was different, lighter, I thought, in what I know now was a moment of supreme arrogance, that I'd succeeded, that being with me had made things just that little bit brighter." Peter sighed. The hurt was rising again to the surface of her olive gaze, but she was holding her own, determined to hear him out. It gave him the courage to continue.
"I understand now nothing is that simple. I realize that I've blown this ... us all to hell, but if this is truly my last chance, if you're going to continue to hate me, at least do it knowing that you've had the timeline wrong. Know that I've loved you for almost as long as I've known you, and know that whatever happens between you and I, that I just want to see you smile again, Olivia."
Peter dropped his hands to his sides and they both drew in a breath at the same time, Peter holding his as he desperately held her gaze, trying to divine her thoughts. She was as impenetrable as she'd ever been and he knew that his chances were slim, momentary lapse of judgement in the shower notwithstanding. His heart thundered in his ears as he counted the seconds, a making a supreme effort not to inch any closer.
Then, "I don't hate you, Peter," slipped from her parched lips and he thought his heart was going to explode.
"Okay," he exhaled on a shaky breath, before a grin, that was completely beyond his control, split his face. "Okay."
His smile was contagious and she found herself answering in kind. The shift between them was palpable, and while she knew they still had a long way to go, it felt like they'd taken the first step.
The silence stretched between them as she searched for words, something to let him know where they stood. However, as the stress and anger slipped from her body, so did the adrenaline holding her up.
"Whoa, there," Peter chuckled as he caught her underneath her arms, for the third time in as many hours, before she crumpled to the floor. "Even avenging angels need their beauty sleep. C'mon," he urged, turning her bodily around, back towards her bedroom. "I'll tuck you in."
His trademark humour held an edge of nervous anticipation as he guided her past the couch towards her bed, waiting to see if it was too much too soon.
Olivia allowed herself to be nudged in the right direction, finally willing to let him push her that next step forward. Her bed truly was more comfortable than the couch, anyway. Despite the overwhelming fatigue that was wrapping like Morpheus' cloak over her mind, she fought to find the right words, anything offer him some sort of assurance. Then, she caught his eye as he eased her down onto the mattress and pulled her new comforter up to her chin.
Words could wait until tomorrow.
She was asleep before her head hit the pillow. As Peter pulled the French doors closed, he smiled at the tiny squeak when they came together. He could still see her, her shadowed silhouette rising and falling steadily with her breathing. Slowing his own breaths to match her cadence, Peter felt his world settle around him for the first time in what felt like forever.
Maybe, just maybe they could find a way out of this emotional stalemate.
Quietly, he picked his way to the couch, shutting off the lights as he went before dropping onto the worn cushions and slipping into the space she'd occupied for too many nights. Wrapping himself in a warm, Olivia-scented afghan, Peter let his eyes slip closed and dreamed of tomorrow.