Title: Theme and Variations
Characters: Ella, with Olivia, Rachel, Peter, Astrid, Walter, and a handful of others
Season/Timeline: Blueverse, up to and including 3x22 The Day We Died
Warnings: Character deaths
Summary: Five times Ella Dunham said goodbye.
A/N: Thanks to ziparumpazoo for beta reading!
When she was four years old, Ella's mom and her Aunt Liv took her to the beach in Florida. Ella splashed in the waves and built the best sandcastle ever and ran as fast as her little legs would carry her to see the pelicans fish and the dolphins swim and to chase the gulls away from Aunt Liv's outstretched hand.
"Today was the most fun ever," Ella declared as she flopped onto the hotel room bed at the end of the first day. Mom sat next to her and grinned, ruffling Ella's hair.
Aunt Liv collapsed onto a chair at the table by the balcony. "I can't keep up with you two," she said with a mock-groan, and Ella laughed.
It was supposed to be Dad, not Aunt Liv, sitting there with them and rehashing the day. But the night before they left, as Mom was packing the suitcases, Dad's phone rang. When he hung up, he muttered low words to her mother in the other room, kissed Ella on the top of the head with a "sorry, squirt," and walked down the stairs and out the door.
Mom bit her lip and rubbed her forehead and shook her head. Then she smiled and said, "I'll call your aunt," and Ella shrieked in glee.
The second day they played on the beach again, all day long, but by the afternoon of day three, Aunt Liv declared herself desperate for a break from the sun, so they headed to the aquarium instead. There were more dolphins to see, and some seahorses and a huge turtle and a manatee. And when Ella pronounced the manatee the cutest ugliest animal on the planet, Aunt Liv took her by the hand and led her to the gift shop and dumped a little stuffed manatee into her arms.
Ella clung to that fist-sized manatee all the way through the aquarium, back to the car, and into the restaurant where they stopped for dinner. Mom and Aunt Liv smiled and laughed, and Aunt Liv reached over to tickle Ella when she wouldn't giggle at Aunt Liv's knock-knock joke, and Ella decided this day was even better than the two that came before.
But when the food arrived at the table, Aunt Liv didn't eat right away. She turned her head and craned her neck to look out the window as though something had caught her eye.
"What is it?" asked Mom, and Aunt Liv turned back around and made a face, her lips pursed and eyebrows furrowed.
"We've eaten here before," she said, and Mom's smile faltered.
"Have we?" she asked, setting down her sandwich and twisting to look around the room. "I don't remember."
"It looked different then," Aunt Liv said, and she looked different too, somehow; tighter, maybe, and a little bit sad. "But the pier out there. I recognize that pier."
Ella didn't like seeing her Aunt Liv look sad. And she hated the hush that dropped over the table as Aunt Liv and her mom looked at each other as though they were seeing something totally different.
"Was I there?" Ella asked softly, breaking the silence, and when Aunt Liv turned to her and shook her head and smiled, everything was fine again.
"It was a long, long time ago, honey."
It wasn't until they were back at the hotel, with Ella tucked into bed, that Ella realized she'd left her new manatee at the restaurant. Mom got on the phone right away, but the toy was long gone, and Ella cried. Hard.
"I'm so sorry, sweetie," Mom said over and over as she rubbed Ella's back, murmuring, "She's tired. She's so tired," to Aunt Liv every now and then. Ella tried to stop crying, told herself to be brave like Aunt Liv would, but she couldn't. She just couldn't.
Not until Aunt Liv slid into the bed next to her and gathered Ella up in her arms and held her tight. "I miss your smile," she said.
"I'm so sorry, Aunt Liv," Ella choked out between her sobs.
Aunt Liv stroked her hair. "You're sorry?" she asked seriously. "What for?"
Ella took a deep breath, in and out, steadying herself before she spoke. "I'm so sorry that I lost your present, Aunt Liv," she said at last.
But Aunt Liv just held her tighter. "Oh, Ella."
Early in the morning, before Mom woke up, Aunt Liv pulled Ella to the table and sat down next to her.
"You're still not smiling, honey," she said.
Ella shook her head.
Aunt Liv propped her elbow on the table and rested her chin on her hand and looked at Ella thoughtfully. "Let's draw," she said finally, reaching under the table and pulling out the bag of paper and crayons Mom carried with her everywhere they went. "Let's draw some of our favorite things we've seen here."
So Ella drew the dolphins, and Aunt Liv drew the sea; Ella drew the beach towels and Aunt Liv drew herself asleep in the bed at night. And at the very end, Aunt Liv handed Ella a picture of a manatee and said, "Now you have one to keep, even if you had to say goodbye to the first one."
And Ella smiled.
She was nine when her parents' divorce became final. They'd been on again, off again for years before that day, but somehow they'd never managed to officially call it quits, always finding some way to reconcile before they both signed on their respective dotted lines. And all that time, they kept hiding it all from Ella, masking reality with trips to visit Aunt Liv and stories about long hours for work or renovations to be done at their house. But Ella heard the low-voiced, late-night conversations between her mom and her aunt, saw the hurt looks and the tension and knew what was happening long before they ever told her it was real.
A girl can learn a lot by sitting back and paying attention.
"Welcome to the club," her friend Carrie said at the bus stop that morning, swaying back and forth and swinging her purse in front of her. "From here on out, your schedule is not your own. What is it, mom on the weeknights and dad every other weekend?"
Ella didn't answer, her gaze following the pendulum motion of the purse, back and forth.
"Holidays?" Carrie tried again.
Back and forth, left to right, it was mesmerizing and oddly soothing.
With a jerk, Carrie pulled the pocketbook up by the straps and slung it over her shoulder. "Dad gave it to me," she said. "Twice as many birthday presents now, you know. Look at the bright side." Her voice sounded strange; cool and a little mocking, a stretched-out attempt to be less like her ten-year-old self and more like her older brother. To be confident. Independent. Different. Old enough to be free, and too old to be heading off to jump ropes, hula hoops, and a spelling test after lunch.
Ella felt like that too, today.
She turned away, not wanting to look at herself in her friend's eyes any longer, and watched the school bus pull around the corner and up towards their stop. And as it drew closer, she felt Carrie's hand slip into the crook of her arm and Carrie's chin rest on her shoulder.
"You'll be okay," Carrie said, and Ella nodded.
Dad's car was waiting in the line after school, one of the first ones there, and Ella climbed in, putting on a smile and leaning across to kiss his cheek.
"How're you doing, squirt? Good day?"
"Yeah," she responded automatically, with no real thought as to the truth of her answer.
"Good," he said, nodding. "Good." He pulled the car away from the curb.
They drove down the road in near-silence; Ella didn't quite know what she was supposed to say, and Dad wasn't helping, so she stared out the window at the cars and buildings as they slid by. The hush stretched out as they hunted for a parking place and continued as they made their way across a busy street and over to the ice cream shop they'd visited so many times before as a family. It went on so long that she was about to open up her mouth and blurt out, "Dad, just get over it already." But then he looked at her and asked –like he always did – if chocolate was still her favorite flavor, and she laughed and said, "Are there any others?" as though today were normal, and suddenly it was all okay again.
They talked for over an hour. Dad told her about his tennis club, and Ella told him about the hula hoops and the spelling test and her fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Parnicky.
But she didn't tell him about Carrie's purse or her split-up family.
It turned out Carrie was right, though, because when they'd cleaned up their little table and were about to walk out the door, Dad stopped and pulled something out of his pocket. "Here," he said, holding it out to her. "I saw these the other day and thought you might like them."
Ella held the plain white bag for several seconds, running her fingers back and forth along the folded top. "Go on," Dad said eventually, and she did, reaching in a hand to see what was inside. What she pulled out was hair ribbons, long and purple and edged with something sparkly.
She ran her fingers down the length of them and kept her eyes cast down so that her dad couldn't see what she was thinking.
"You used to have some like that," he was saying. "I haven't seen them in a while, and I thought – well, if you'd lost them, you might like some more."
The ribbons, Ella knew, were probably still decorating a stuffed bear that she and Mom had given away during one of their closet cleanout days over the summer. And she thought to herself that she wasn't five anymore, and hadn't he noticed? But she didn't say that, either, any more than she'd told him about Carrie. Because maybe she didn't need hair ribbons, but still, they were something from him, today of all days.
And anyway, she really did love purple. So she looked up at him and gave him the most sincere smile she could muster. "Thanks, Dad," she said, and he ruffled her hair and grinned back.
The drove home in silence just like they'd come, but happier than before, more comfortable. At least, it started out that way. But then they drew closer to home – Ella's home, Mom's home, not his home – and she started to get that feeling again, like nothing was right, like she didn't know which way to go, stuck like a fly in honey.
She stared down into her lap and ran the ribbons through her fingers. She wasn't five anymore, and she didn't need fantasies about how this could all be better if only they'd try.
But that didn't stop her from wishing.
"All right, squirt," Dad said when he drew the car to a stop along the curb. "Have a good day tomorrow."
"You too, Dad."
He kissed her on the cheek, and she gave him a hug. Then she got out of the car, shoving his present into her pocket as she headed up the sidewalk.
She was only a few steps along when his voice made her pause.
"El," he called, and her heart skipped a beat or two.
She turned, took the two slow steps back to lean in through the open car window. "Yeah, Dad?"
"Call me," he said. "Anytime you want. Day or night."
She nodded, then drew herself up and away from him again. With a lift of her chin, she squared her shoulders as she'd seen Aunt Liv do so many times when she was unexpectedly called away to work; as she'd seen her mother do in the face of all the disappointments over the years.
"Bye, Dad," she called over her shoulder as she headed up the walk to the front door, forcing cheer into her tone.
"Bye, squirt," he called after her. She waved and shut the door.
"Hey, sweetie," Mom called to her from the kitchen over the sound of clinking plates and dinner sizzling in a pan. Ella headed straight in and took over setting the table, laying out forks and napkins and knives. Two instead of three; it wasn't that hard to remember, because dad had moved out months before, for the official separation.
"How was the ice cream?" Mom asked as they passed serving dishes back and forth between them. Ella muttered something noncommittal and shoved a bite of chicken into her mouth, and Mom sighed.
"I'm fine, Mom," Ella said, her voice louder than she'd meant and her fork landing on her plate with clink that was far too forceful. She closed her eyes for a long moment before she tried again. "Really, Mom," she insisted, but softer this time. "I'm okay."
Mom nodded and looked down at her plate, running her finger along the edge. "Ella."
"I didn't want to say, with everything else, but …"
"I've got an interview for a new job. Next week."
"Really?" Ella asked. Mom had only just started the job she was at now, sometime over the summer. Ella had thought she liked it.
Mom nodded. "This place, you see, it's near Providence. Just a company that – well, we'd be close to your Aunt Liv, and you could still fly back here to see your father, and he could come see you when he's in New York for work. And the work your Aunt Liv does, it's … it's important, and these people are …" She paused for breath. "Well, they're helping her."
Ella blinked, not really taking it all in. "Rhode Island?" she asked slowly.
Mom nodded. "Yeah." She paused and drew in a deep breath, and when she spoke again, her voice was stronger, like she'd made up her mind. "But if you don't want to go, Ella, we don't have to."
They'd been to Providence, during some of those times they stayed with Aunt Liv. Ella didn't hate it. And maybe if they moved, she'd have a chance to have friends who weren't either staring at her or sympathizing with her.
Something new. Something different.
Ella finished her homework at the dinner table after they'd washed up, then she headed off to shower. When she padded back down the hallway wearing her slippers and PJs, she found Mom curled on the couch, studying something in one of her old accounting textbooks as soft music played in the background. Ella crossed the room to sit on the floor in front of the couch, leaning her head against her mother's knee. Mom played with the ends of her hair and hummed along with the music.
"All right, sweetie?"
"Yeah," Ella said. She held up the hair ribbons she was clutching in her hand and turned to watch as her mother took them.
"Dad?" Mom asked, and Ella nodded.
Her mother's fingers moved over the satin, slowly, and Ella wondered if Mom was wishing herself back to another year, when Dad wasn't gone and Ella was still wearing pigtails and bows.
She looked up into her mother's eyes and said, "Please."
Mom nodded. "Okay."
Ella shifted again, leaning her back against the couch, and with one slow, careful twist after another, Mom pulled Ella's hair into two long braids. She'd never fix this, Ella knew; no one would. Her little world was broken into bits and shards that couldn't be put back the way they were before.
Mom patted the braids and tied the ribbons at the ends.
But this, at least, was something she could have from both of them. One last time.
New snow fell from a steel-grey sky, the flakes melting on the sidewalk but sticking in white dots across the disused plant bed to the old trees and beyond. Ella took two steps forward, then several more, past the quarantine sign and up the steps onto the plaza in front of the building. The wind blew stiffer there, above the level of the street, and Ella shivered. She lifted a hand to pull up her coat collar and tug her scarf tighter around her neck, but it wouldn't do any good, not really. The cold running from the top of her head to the base of her spine, the lead settling in the pit of her stomach, they had nothing to do with the rushing approach of a too-early winter and everything to do with the Amber that encased the little office park in front of her, as far as her eyes could see.
Snow looked very strange coating Amber.
There hadn't been snow the last time she'd been here. Clear, bright blue had stretched all the way across the sky, and warm sun had toasted the tips of Ella's ears as she sat, laughing, over sandwiches and lemonade at a little metal table in the courtyard before her now. Aunt Liv had liberated Ella from her summer babysitter and they'd driven down from Boston to meet Mom here for lunch. No reason, no special occasion. Just because.
That was a three years ago. Three years, and a few short months. Now, Ella thought she could still make out the corner of that table sticking out while the rest was submerged in the giant blob of Amber. But it was hard to see for sure through the snow and the haze of tears in her eyes.
Three years had passed since the day Ella's world changed.
The Day the World Changed was before that, of course. The cracks in reality had first been made well before Ella was born, back when even her mother was just a tiny girl sucking her thumb and carrying a stuffed toy here and there. And now she knew that Aunt Liv had spent most of Ella's life with her fingers plugging the holes that evolved from the cracks, holes that were still evolving even now. All that time, Aunt Liv had been trying to stem the flood of chaos and destruction as best she could. But Ella's world fractured after all that began.
She'd caught a story on the news last night, sandwiched in between the opening arguments of the Bishop trial and an update on the budget for Fringe defense, local, state, and federal. They'd shown the same old footage, the Fringe teams converging and the Amber deploying and the still, silent aftermath once everyone who wasn't dead or trapped had gone home.
Her stomach lurched just thinking about it.
To almost everyone else, today was an anniversary. A day to mark an occurrence. One of the first large-scale Fringe events, perhaps the first that hadn't been averted at the last second, that couldn't be written off as climate change or atmospheric phenomena or terrible freak accident.
Which was ironic, considering that a freak accident was exactly how this event had started.
She'd seen it on TV before anyone told her, stood there in the junior high library and gaped at the breaking news report with the librarian and two other student aides. And she'd felt strange, curiously detached, like she ought to be screaming or crying or running for the door, but all she could do was watch. On the screen, that odd, curious mist spread over the too-familiar buildings, turning into a giant orangish gem while the reporter droned wah-wah-wah over the footage. Ella had stared at the unfolding scene in transfixed horror until the vice-principal had come and taken her arm.
"Come on, Ella," Mrs. Krebs had said gently. "There's someone waiting for you."
Ella couldn't remember if she'd felt some wild and crazy hope as they'd walked down the hallway, passing rows of lockers and closed classroom doors until they'd reached the front office. She couldn't remember if she'd felt anything at all, really. The only thing she did remember clearly was the moment when she walked through the door into Mrs. Krebs' office and saw Astrid standing there, her hands clutched together and her lips in a tight, thin line.
Right then, what she'd wanted was to turn and run far, far away. Because when she'd seen Astrid, she'd known it was all real.
But before she could move, before she could speak or cry or even breathe, really, Astrid had crossed the space between them and wrapped her arms around Ella's twelve-year-old self and held her hard. "Oh, Ella," she said. "I'm so sorry."
Ella shook in her arms, but she didn't cry.
They'd driven in silence to Aunt Liv's apartment. Once or twice along the way, Astrid had glanced over and taken a swift breath, as though she might say something; but then she'd clamped her lips down tight once again, trapping the words somewhere inside.
Astrid was good, and smart, and kind, and Ella had always loved her. And she'd known that if she asked, Astrid would tell her everything. But that hadn't seemed right, and Astrid had known it too, somehow.
Everyone else had gotten their briefings from newscasters, from press conferences, from a series of Presidential addresses that had gotten worse as they'd gone on and on. But Ella had hers from Agent Dunham, fresh in from the field and concealing her grief behind the facade Ella now knew her Aunt Liv wore every day.
The words Aunt Liv had used, soft spots and rifts and wormholes, made more sense than Ella would like now, but back then, they hadn't meant a lot. They'd sounded like the droning of the newscaster, just so many ways to say tragedy and disaster and something went really, really wrong.
"There was an experimental device," Aunt Liv had explained, "that the researchers were working on. It was supposed to help heal the soft spots, to shore them up so they wouldn't become more dangerous. But there was an accident, and –"
"It made it worse instead."
Ella felt the bile creeping up the back of her throat. "Are they alive?" she asked. "In the … in the Amber?"
"Ella –" Aunt Liv paused, glanced down at the ground and shook her head before raising her eyes back to Ella's and continuing. "El, accounting is – was – right over the research labs. Just one floor up. She didn't –" She drew a deep breath. "They were gone, honey, before we initiated the Amber protocol."
"You mean she's not trapped in there." Ella couldn't believe how hard her own voice sounded. How angry.
Aunt Liv – Agent Dunham – flinched. Ella wasn't sure she'd ever seen that before. "No," she said at last. "No, she's not."
Ella waited on a retaining wall, the stones cold like ice beneath her. She hadn't had any illusions when she'd come here today, skipped out before school and hopped on a train and hitched the last few miles to the edge of the restricted zone. Even the news trucks had observed the quarantine, gathered up on the main road as they waited for official tours to take place later in the day, carefully monitored by Fringe agents the whole way. Ella, on the other hand, had ducked down the road and into the bushes and climbed a fence that for all she knew was wired with more sensors than the White House's front lawn.
She might be a fifteen-year-old girl playing hooky from school for the first time ever, but there were consequences for crossing that line, and she hadn't even tried to evade them. Hadn't wanted to, really. So she sat, still and silent, and waited for the team she knew would be on the way to apprehend her.
But when the cavalry arrived, it wasn't exactly what she'd expected.
Aunt Liv stopped at the bottom of the stairs, her feet apart and her hands clasped behind her back. Every inch the trained soldier, ready to fight her battles against the very forces of nature.
Ella hadn't expected it to be Agent Dunham here today, but still, she didn't really feel surprised.
"Come on, Ella," Aunt Liv said after a few minutes' stretched-out silence, and Ella stood, came down the steps, and walked at her aunt's side across the parking lot and down toward the road.
The news trucks were still there, of course, when they passed through the gate and exited the restricted area – the legal way, this time. Out of the corner of her eye, Ella spotted the cameras pointed their way, but she didn't have much time to think about it. Aunt Liv was grasping her arm, gently tugging until Ella followed her to the side and off the path.
"Did you see this?" Aunt Liv asked, and Ella shook her head.
Of course she hadn't seen it, sneaking in the back door as she had.
Aunt Liv swept the new snow off the surface, and Ella pulled off her glove, reaching out her hand until her fingertips barely brushed the ice-cold metal of the plaque. She ran her fingers across the raised letters of the first name she touched, then slid her hand down, following the alphabetized list until she came to the one that mattered to her. Rachel Dunham. Her mother's name immortalized in bronze along with all the others.
Ella was lucky, she supposed. Mostly, no one bothered making plaques with the names of the lost anymore. There were just too many.
When they got home, Ella made straight for the television and switched it on, hunting until she found one of the twenty-four hour news stations just starting a special report. Then she flopped down onto the couch and closed her eyes and listened.
Over the sound of the anchor's too-sober voice, Ella heard her aunt in the kitchen, running the sink and clicking the stove on and setting the kettle with a clank onto the burner. Normal sounds, but they didn't feel that way today.
The minutes passed; Ella wasn't listening to the newscast, not really, but she opened her eyes when the sound cut off.
"That's enough for today, El," Aunt Liv said, handing over a mug of hot chocolate as she sat down next to Ella.
"Thanks," Ella said.
Aunt Liv nodded. She took a sip from her own mug, watching Ella carefully over the rim. She set the cup down on the end table and leaned forward, elbows resting on her knees, her chin on her folded hands. "You know I'd have taken you there," she said. "Still will, if you ask. Anytime."
She looked tired, Ella thought, and she suddenly felt guilty for adding to her aunt's burden today, of all days. But even with the guilt, she'd have done it anyway. She'd wanted – needed – to go herself. No prying eyes. No one feeling sorry for her. Just Ella and the past she'd never been able to confront, that she couldn't quite leave behind.
She wondered if her aunt had ever done the same thing.
"Did you come for her today?" she asked. "Or me?"
"Does it matter?" Aunt Liv returned.
Her words were gentle – Aunt Liv never pushed her – but still, to Ella it felt like a challenge. She lifted her chin and held her aunt's gaze and raised one eyebrow in question, because she wasn't backing down.
Olivia relented. "You, mostly," she said. "Your tracker tripped the alert, and some greenie had the smarts to call my office when he saw your name."
Ella snorted a half-laugh. "Guess someone'll be getting a commendation."
"Nice note in his file, maybe," Aunt Liv said with a shrug. "Rotation through public affairs."
"That's a reward?" Ella asked, thinking of the reporters today, of their trucks and cameras sitting right outside the quarantine line.
"To some people. Maybe."
"Not to me."
"No, El. Not to me, either."
Ella sighed and took a drink from her cup. She didn't know what to say, and really, she never had. Aunt Liv never seemed to, either. So they sat in silence for a long time, sipping cocoa and listening to the hum and occasional ping-ping of the radiator, to the noise of traffic filtering up from the street below.
Outside in the hallway, another door banged open, then shut with a much gentler click. Feet – small feet – pattered across the floor, accompanied by little-girl giggles and an exasperated, "Terri. No!" from a much older voice. Ella recognized the voices, four-year-old Teresa and her mother from across the hall and two doors down. Every Friday afternoon, Ella babysat for them, the only time all week when both parents worked the same shift. She sang songs and she played games that her mother taught her, a million years ago when she was that small.
Ella's throat tightened up and her eyes began to fill.
"Mom loved that job, you know," she said, looking down into her nearly-empty mug.
Aunt Liv took the cup and set it aside, next to her own. "I know, sweetie."
Ella twisted her fingers in her lap. She closed her eyes again, and her tears spilled hot onto her hands. "I just – Aunt Liv, why'd it have to be her?"
"I don't know, Ella. I don't know."
Ella stood with her hands shoved into her pockets, shifting from foot to foot as she waited outside the student center. A knot of students passed her by, one group of many heading into the building this evening. Ella nodded and smiled in answer to a wave from a girl who'd lived down the hall from Ella a year or two ago. The young woman smiled back, then leaned sideways to whisper something to another girl walking beside her. Even without benefit of the high-pitched and definitely-not-whispered "Really?" girl number two let slip in response to her friend, Ella could guess the sort of thing girl number one was probably saying.
It wasn't the first time, after all.
Craning her neck and pushing up onto her tiptoes to see past the crowd, Ella peered down the small road in front of her, willing the black SUV to appear around the corner and head in her direction. It wouldn't make any difference, like pushing an elevator button over and over, but she didn't care. She just wanted to get out of here. Immediately, if possible.
And anyway, these days one never knew. It was entirely possible that willing something to happen could make it so.
But not in this case, apparently. Another five minutes had passed before the car finally pulled up in front of Ella. As she opened the door and climbed in, she managed to refrain from saying, "Thank God – what took you so long?" because of course Aunt Liv was right on time. Aunt Liv always called when she was running late.
"Hey," Ella said instead, mustering yet another smile out of her impatience as she climbed into the passenger seat.
"Hey." Aunt Liv leaned across to ruffle Ella's hair and peck her on the cheek. "Okay?"
"Yeah," Ella replied, and "long week," before Aunt Liv could start looking at her with that piercing 'Agent Dunham' kind of look.
Aunt Liv pulled out her piercing look anyway, but only for a few seconds. Ella tugged the door shut, buckled her seatbelt, and they were on their way.
Away at last.
One night each week, Aunt Liv picked Ella up at school, and they grabbed a table at one of their favorite restaurants. It didn't always work out, Agent Dunham's job being what it was, but she always tried. And once they sat, she refused to answer any text or page unless it came with a 9-1-1 code attached.
Ella figured Agent Dunham averaged a 9-1-1 page during the dinner hour at least one night out of four.
This semester, their semi-sacred nights happened every Monday at 7:30. The time – and the day of the week – had changed over the years, varying mostly with Ella's class schedule, but occasionally influenced by other factors. Like Ella's sophomore year, when The Honorable Ellison Witte, United States Senate, had insisted her committee must meet weekly with the leadership of Fringe Division – a meeting which would be scheduled at the convenience of the committee members, and not of Agent Dunham and her team.
Aunt Liv had really enjoyed flying to Washington, D.C. every single Thursday that fall, Ella was sure of it.
"So," Aunt Liv said as she made the corner onto the main road off campus. "What're we thinking tonight? Seafood? Italian? Sushi? It's been a while since we did sushi."
"Umm," Ella temporized, trying to figure out how to say 'someplace I will see no one I know' without being obvious.
"Or," Aunt Liv continued, interrupting Ella's thoughts, "there's that new Thai place out near Astrid's. I've been itching to try it out."
"Fancy?" Ella asked.
"More hole in the wall, actually, but she says it's fantastic."
"That sounds perfect." Ella closed her eyes and leaned back into the seat.
They drove around block after block in Astrid's neighborhood, laughing at their bad luck as they just missed one vacant spot after another. At 8 o'clock on a weeknight, parking was at a premium. Aunt Liv finally wedged the Suburban into a space several streets away, the SUV barely fitting between the two much-smaller cars on either end.
Ella was fairly certain the only reason there was room here was because most people chose not to park on a street that dead-ended into a small blob of Amber.
She remembered the incident, coming only six weeks after Astrid had moved into her new apartment ten months ago. There was no one trapped inside, she recalled – just an intersection, a hastily-evacuated apartment building, and a vacant corner convenience store – but even so, Ella averted her eyes as she climbed out of the car.
Aunt Liv, on the other hand, stared at the site long and hard. When she turned away to find Ella watching her, she nodded once, slowly, then inclined her head toward the other end of the street. "Shall we?" she asked, her tone light.
Ella nodded and fell into step beside her.
Not until they'd rounded the corner and put a few buildings' distance behind them did Aunt Liv clear her throat to speak.
"So, what was that?" Aunt Liv asked as they walked. "On campus at the student center? Seemed like quite a crowd."
Ella glanced at her sidelong and bit at her lip. "Fringe recruitment session," she said at last. "You know, that … career center sort of thing."
Aunt Liv made an 'O' with her mouth.
"Lots of kids I know there," Ella said. "Lots of smart kids. So, good for you, I guess?"
"Maybe," Aunt Liv answered.
Ella shoved her hands into her pockets and walked a little faster, trying not to anticipate the inevitable question.
But the question never came. "Or maybe," Aunt Liv said instead, her voice taking on a hint of mischief, "I should've dropped in to say hi. That'd scare off the weak ones, right?"
Ella glanced up to see her aunt's smile, her apparent lack of concern and, more importantly, her lack of judgment. She cocked her head, playing along. "Thing is, it'd probably scare off the recruiters, too."
Aunt Liv pursed her lips. "Hmm. Counterproductive."
"Exactly," Ella said with a nod.
"You spoil all my fun."
"Well, someone has to."
"When did I lose you to Peter's side?" Aunt Liv asked, poking her finger into Ella's shoulder. Ella just shrugged and put on her best enigmatic half-smile.
She managed not to heave a sigh of relief for the out.
Aunt Liv rarely asked Ella the obvious questions; when things got serious, she turned away at the last minute, with a joke, a smile, some way to take the pressure off. Ella wasn't sure it if was for her own benefit or Aunt Liv's, but either way, she was grateful. Because it meant she didn't have to talk about the girls at the student center and the gossip they'd surely shared. She didn't have to tell the story of the friend who'd stopped Ella on the way out of stats class to ask if she'd planned to attend that night's session, as though of course Ella Dunham would go. She didn't have to explain how she'd just shaken her head no, because she couldn't even say that two letter word without sounding annoyed, without it being plain that she'd been asked the same exact question, with the same expectation, thirty or so times in the last several days.
She was grateful for Aunt Liv's calm, measured acceptance of Ella's apparent lack of interest in the family business, so to speak, because no one else seemed to accept it.
Ella had never thought she'd be a semi-celebrity, despite her aunt's very public role in the Fringe Division. But then some reporter had caught sight of a little bit of loose thread, that camera shot of Ella walking out of the quarantine zone with Agent Dunham. And he had tugged and he had pulled until the whole story unraveled. They'd refused all interviews, of course, but the mystery had only made the story the more compelling; the girl who'd lost everything, an icon for the pain an entire world endured.
If Ella followed in her aunt's footsteps, Ella with her sweet face and her charming smile in place of Agent Dunham's so-serious public demeanor, well, that was a fitting end to the story, wasn't it? A new generation taking on the burdens of the old, brave and fearless.
Ella didn't feel fearless, though.
"Oh, here we are," Aunt Liv said, veering without warning from the sidewalk toward a glass-front door. "Nearly missed it."
She pulled open the door and held it while Ella walked through.
Hole in the wall turned out to be a pretty apt description for the place; a tiny little storefront set in a strip mall that might not have been renovated in the current century. But it was quiet and dark, populated mostly by an uneven stream of people picking up their carry-out dinners on the way home from work in the city. The hostess waved them in, a shooing motion directing them to pick whatever table they wanted. Aunt Liv swiveled her head, casting a quick glance about the room before heading immediately for a booth in the back corner, away from both bar and kitchen. When she sat, she placed herself against the wall, with a direct view of the entrance to the restaurant. Then she opened up the menu and bent her head to study it, a little furrow creasing her brow the same way it did when she studied reports from work or an unflattering editorial in the Sunday Herald.
"So," Aunt Liv said slowly, scrutinizing the menu, "Peter tells me you're going on a trip this weekend. With that boy. Andy." She looked up and caught Ella's eye, lifting an eyebrow as Ella gaped, caught off guard.
"It's not serious," she protested, fumbling a bit.
"Really?" Aunt Liv's eyebrow climbed even farther. "Weekend away? Sounds serious to me."
"Aunt Liv – " Ella started, but she broke off, uncertain. Aunt Liv fixed her with the sort of look Ella imagined she used on reporters and politicians, on Fringe agents who broke protocol at their own peril. On the Honorable Ellison Witte, U.S. Senate.
Maybe she'd been wrong about those hard questions after all.
Ella drew in a deep breath before she tried again. "Look, I know it sounds that way, but –"
Something changed on Aunt Liv's face, some little muscle twitch, and Ella stopped mid-protest. Aunt Liv smirked, her façade cracking. Ella raised her own eyebrow, and Aunt Liv snorted into her hand. Then she laughed outright, shaking her head.
"You're mean," Ella said, sticking out her tongue.
Aunt Liv shrugged. "You're too easy."
"I am not."
"Yes, you are." She canted her head to the side and gave Ella a fond smile. "Your mom always was, too. But you can keep your secrets if you want."
For a moment, Ella wanted to protest, to say that she didn't want to keep secrets, really, it was just that sometimes she didn't know where to begin. But the waitress stepped up to the table and stared sternly at them over her order pad, and as they scrambled to choose between drunken noodles and pad thai, the moment passed.
"She scares me a little," Aunt Liv said, leaning forward over the table and whispering behind her hand as the waitress marched off to the kitchen to deliver their order.
"She reminds me of Mrs. Parnicky."
"Fourth grade teacher."
Aunt Liv nodded once. "I told you," she said. "Definitely scary."
"Call me Sunday," Aunt Liv said as Ella hopped out of the SUV after dinner. "I want to hear all about this not-serious trip of yours."
Ella leaned back into the truck and smirked. "Really?"
Aunt Liv made a face. "Okay, not all about it," she said. Then she pointed a stern finger at Ella. "But call me anyway."
"Yes, ma'am, Agent Dunham, ma'am." Ella sketched a little salute, then turned and ran laughing up the stairs to her apartment and away from her aunt's mock grumbles.
"Call me," Aunt Liv yelled again, and Ella waved as she let herself through the door.
Tossing keys and wallet on the table beside the entrance, she started across the living room, heading straight for her bedroom to pack. But halfway there, she stopped, her eyes catching on a bit of brightly-colored paper on top of the assorted books and folders spread around the coffee table. A flyer for the recruitment night, left there by one of her roommates earlier in the day.
Ella leaned over and plucked the glossy sheet from the table, her fingers grasping only the very edges of the paper. The front was covered with pictures of cadets-in-training; the back with copy text carefully crafted to appeal to a sense of duty, to some deep and inevitable yearning for a higher calling in life. She'd heard it all before. Everyone had, of course. But Ella knew how much more there was to the story. She knew the cost, and she knew the futility.
She flipped the paper over and over, front and back. Studied the faces in the photos, scanned the list of recruitment offices, of addresses, phone numbers, and emails. Then she dropped the flyer back on the table and walked away, leaving it behind.
They headed out of the city Friday afternoon, and made it along the coast to their destination in time for dinner. The room Andy had booked in an old bed and breakfast could only be described as charming, the restaurant as amazing, and the chocolate mousse Ella picked for dessert as positively deadly.
It was a good start to the weekend.
Saturday passed too fast, a blur of tourism and idleness that they rarely had time for in the rush to complete their degrees, and Ella thought if she didn't ever have to go back to the city, she'd probably be okay with that.
But then Sunday morning came.
The glint of the diamond seemed far more blinding than it should, there under the overcast skies of New England's coastline. Bright, shiny, and mesmerizing, a morbid curiosity that drew her farther and farther in when what she needed to do was look away. Far, far away.
Ella closed her eyes. "Oh, Andy," she breathed, low and sad, barely audible over the waves pounding against the rocky shore below.
"Not really the reaction I was hoping for."
She shook her head.
"I'm sorry," she said.
"You wanna tell me why?"
She opened her eyes, finally finding the courage to look up into his face. She couldn't give him answers, but he deserved better than her cowardice.
"I can't," she said.
The wind picked up into a gust that pushed at her, tumbling her hair down over her eyes and sparing her the worst of his flinch.
"Right," he said, shoving the ring into his pocket and turning away. "We should … we should get home. It's a long drive."
"Yeah." She nodded, looking out over the water. "Let's go."
Riding in the car, she imagined the conversation with Aunt Liv in her head, practiced it over a few times. "I broke up with Andy," Ella would say, and "Why?" Aunt Liv would ask.
"It just wasn't going to work out," Ella would answer, and that would be that.
She leaned her head against the cool glass of the passenger-side window and watched the scenery slide by.
Ella didn't call Aunt Liv on Sunday after all. She spent the evening avoiding her roommates and waiting for Aunt Liv to call her, but to Ella's surprise, the call never came.
Monday morning, she cut class, hopped on the T and wandered about the city to see the sights she'd never bothered to see before. Followed the Freedom Trail. Pretended to herself that she was a tourist, here for fun, just like she'd been over the weekend. Made believe that she didn't know her ultimate destination.
And while she walked, she thought about what Aunt Liv said about keeping secrets.
Ella hadn't been particularly forthcoming since she'd started dating Andy, it was true. Hadn't mentioned the relationship at all, in fact, until one Saturday when they'd been holding hands and laughing as they wandered through the art museum, and Ella had glimpsed the back of Astrid's head at the far end of the impressionist gallery.
She'd stopped cold at the idea of Aunt Liv hearing about Andy because Astrid had spotted them out on a date.
As it turned out, it hadn't even been Astrid standing there amongst the Monets, but Ella called Aunt Liv that night anyway. Ella still didn't know why she'd kept Andy a secret for as long as she had; but it felt weird, somehow, introducing him into their little family circle that had been through so much. Like those two parts of her life just didn't fit.
She hadn't really understood why before yesterday.
When she finally called Aunt Liv, she'd reached the USS Constitution, nearly the end of the line.
"I broke up with Andy," she blurted, and waited for the expected reply.
But Aunt Liv veered off-script. "Ella," she said, "Do what you need to. But don't forget to live your life."
Maybe Aunt Liv never asked the hard questions because she already knew the answers, even when Ella didn't know them herself.
Ella turned her back on the harbor and walked the last few blocks. She stood before of the storefront for a long time.
She'd remembered the address from the flyer she'd found on her coffee table Thursday night. A little, out of the way recruitment office. Someplace with no media. Someplace where she'd see no one she knew.
She pulled out her tablet and tapped the screen, bringing up her credentials, her transcript, and her references. This was as anonymous as she'd ever be without going to the trouble of changing her name.
Aunt Liv had found her calling, Ella knew; to save as many people as she could for as long as she could until the world ended or the saving killed her, whichever came first. It wasn't enough, it couldn't ever be enough, but it was all she had.
Sometimes, Ella had wondered how she fit in amidst all that. She wondered what it would feel like, to have that sense of purpose. To put herself into the breach. To try to hold their ripped-apart world together with her own two hands.
She'd never wanted to be the ending to a story that someone else had written, but in the end, she seemed to have got here on her own.
She took a deep breath and opened the door.
It should have been windy out tonight. Stormy, perhaps, with the tops of the trees whipping wildly while the rain beat down, slicking hair into faces and making the path treacherous, slippery with mud. Hard to walk, and even harder to see. Dangerous. Damaging.
But it wasn't momentous. Or dangerous, or damaging. It wasn't any of those things. Instead, it was just a warm summer night in Central Park. A little muggy, with a faint haze overhead, calm and undisturbed and otherwise unremarkable. Unremarkable, except for the stack of crates Ella was helping Peter reload onto the back of a box truck, while Astrid ticked each one off on a handwritten list stuck to a clipboard.
Strange, how something as large as the Machine could be broken down into a pile of boxes they could stuff into a truck. Physically, and metaphorically.
"That's the last," Peter said as he gently set down a container the size of a book carton on top of the shortest stack. "Right?"
He looked to Astrid, who studied her list with no more than her usual seriousness, running her finger down the pages with no indication that their lives – everyone's lives – depended on getting this one last operation exactly right.
The silence stretched out as she tipped her head to one side, pursed her lips, and flipped over one more page. At last – at long last – she nodded. "Yep. That's the lot."
"Okay," Peter breathed, then, "Okay," again, but stronger this time. "Right. Here we go."
A week after Aunt Liv's funeral, Ella had sat Peter down and said, "Tell me everything." He'd looked at her, horrified, like she'd asked him to stick a knife into himself and carve out his own heart. And maybe she had. But she hadn't backed down, and Peter had glanced away, staring first out the window and then down at his hands resting on the dining room table.
In the kitchen behind them, the refrigerator had started to hum.
It was as though the sound itself pushed him back into action. Peter shook his head, drew in a deep breath. "El –"
"Don't protect me," she cut in, gentle but firm. She laid a hand on the table near his. "You know Aunt Liv never did."
He laughed, soft and bitter in a way she'd never heard from him before. "Not protecting each other has worked out so well for all of us, hasn't it?" he said.
"Peter," she began, her voice more urgent, but he held up a hand before she could say any more.
Then he leaned farther forward and began to speak in earnest. All the little details, the bits and pieces she'd never seen in the press but had tried so hard to puzzle together over the years. The crazy plan he and Walter had hatched to save the world for real this time.
And as crazy plans went, this one was off the chart. But when he was done, she said, "I want to help," because a high coefficient of insanity and a low probability of success didn't much matter anymore.
"Ella." He scrubbed his hands over his face. "Olivia was so proud of you. She was. But she wanted you to live."
"She also wanted me to make my own choices."
Peter breathed out, long and slow. Then he leaned back in his chair and laced his hands behind his head, almost casual as he regarded her for a long, long time.
Finally, he nodded. "That she did, El," he said. "That she did."
Ella's reassignment came through the very next morning. Special Assistant to Agent Bishop, it read, right there on the official Fringe Division letterhead. She was to report to the Kresge Building that same afternoon.
By the end of the week, her desk at headquarters had been given away. After that, there was no going back.
She expected the talk that ensued. The usual buzz about nepotism, of course, but this time with an added edge. Agent Dunham's death was one loss too many, the gossips speculated. Ella couldn't hack it in Fringe now, so Agent Bishop had given her an easy billet, someplace to be cosseted, because he couldn't ask Olivia Dunham's niece to quit. Not without hurting her more. And not without a media frenzy.
Ella had taught herself not to care. She'd never have made it this far if she hadn't.
But not caring came with a cost. Those few, tentative friendships she'd begun during training faded, untended; she spent her days with Peter and Astrid and Walter, from dawn until well past dusk, spent her nights in the still-bare apartment she'd only just rented, collapsed in exhaustion on the couch with the cable news her only company.
She couldn't help thinking about Peter's words. She wanted you to live.
A month later, she moved into the spare room at Peter and Olivia's house. On a Sunday afternoon, she boxed up the contents of her kitchen, ready to move everything into storage the next morning. Plastic plates, some forks and knives, and an extensive array of coffee mugs – all together, they barely filled a couple of cartons. The rest of her things fit into a few suitcases. A single stack of boxes and a set of luggage to contain the entire array of her material possessions, barely more than she'd crammed into her college bedroom the year before.
She loaded the boxes and suitcases into her car and made the drive to Peter's house that night. It seemed like she never called anyplace home for long.
She heard him before she saw him, his voice carrying up from someplace behind her on the street.
"El!" he called out, then, "Hey, Ella! Wait up!"
Ella slowed to a stop, careful not to slosh the coffees she carried. For a long moment, she stood very still, the noon-day sun beating hot on the back of her neck. What were the odds, she wondered, of meeting her ex-boyfriend on a sidewalk in Cambridge during the only ten minutes she'd be away from Walter's lab before dinner?
Normal statistics, as usual, didn't apply to Dunhams.
She turned to face him, and as he jogged the last ten feet between them, she made herself put on a smile. It ached a little at the corners of her mouth, the muscles disused and awkward from being forced, but she didn't think it showed.
Then again, it might show. To him, anyway.
"Hey, El," he said again as he drew to a halt.
"Hey, Andy." She squinted up at him against the sunlight. He filled out the suit he wore more than she would have thought, back when she knew him. "What are you doing out here?" she asked.
"Audits," he said. "Cambridge office, this week. Normally I'm downtown."
"Right," she said, nodding. She opened her mouth to speak again, but couldn't find anything to say. She shifted from one foot to the other. "Um –"
"What about you?" he interrupted. He waved a hand, taking in her uniform. "I thought… I mean, I heard you were working at headquarters."
"Temporary assignment." Forgetting the cup she held, she moved to point behind her, toward the lab, and got coffee on her hand for her trouble. She sighed. "Peter, he's my aunt's … I mean, he was …." She trailed off, uncertain.
"I heard about …." But he couldn't seem to finish the thought either. "I'm so sorry, El."
"Yeah." She stared off over his shoulder, not quite able to meet his eyes. "Anyway, I'm helping him out for a few months. He's got a lab here on campus. Special Assistant, which sounds official or something, but really I'm just the coffee gopher." She laughed, trying to play it off as a joke.
But Andy wasn't having any of it. "I heard you were at the Trade Center."
She shrugged. "Part of the job," she responded softly, and he nodded.
"You look great," he said, almost as if echoing her earlier thought, and her eyes slid over to meet his serious gaze. For a minute, she stood frozen, like she couldn't even draw breath, caught in a memory from two years and forever ago.
Then something shifted in his face, and the moment passed.
"I always did like a woman in uniform," he teased, and Ella's eyes dropped away again.
Once upon a time, she could joke like that, sit in a coffee shop for hours and make up stories about the people that walked by. Once upon a time, but not anymore.
Andy reached out and touched her arm, gently. "El," he said, then waited till she looked directly at him again. "I'm proud of you, you know that?" Like an offering, as though he was saying You deserve better than me making light of it.
It had been a while since anyone said anything like that to her. Not since Aunt Liv died. Ella knew they were all proud of her, but it wasn't the sort of thing that mattered anymore. Not right now. What they were doing mattered so much more.
But she'd forgotten what it felt like.
Ella nodded, and Andy held her eyes for several seconds more, until at last, his hand dropped away. She wondered if she'd have the strength to extricate herself, to walk away again, but he saved her this time, pointing at the cups in her hands.
"Coffee's getting cold."
"Yeah," she said, on a long exhale. "Yeah, I've got to –" she jerked her head back over her shoulder.
Ella turned to go, but stopped when Andy said her name again, turned back to look over her shoulder.
He pulled a card out of his wallet. "I'm not trying to… I'm really not. Just, if you ever need anything. Anything at all."
She nodded, making an awkward attempt to shift the cups around and free up one of her hands, but he laid a hand on her arm to still her movements.
"Here," he said, sliding the card under her thumb until it was trapped against the side of the cup.
Her breath caught once again as she looked up into his eyes.
"Bye, El," he said, and headed down the sidewalk.
The work went on in Walter's lab. In the beginning, their progress was steady, a bit intoxicating for Ella and more than a little terrifying. But time wore on, and the inevitable troubles arose. First one glitch, then a handful, then a dozen; problems with altering the machine's design to do what they wanted, problems with altering their plan to fit what they could force the machine to do. Morale ran low. Tempers ran high.
Until one day, it all came apart.
Peter slammed his hands down onto the lab bench. "We can't do it that way, Walter," he said – shouted, really. "It won't work."
"Son, I –"
"No." Peter picked up a piece of chalk and strode to the board, circling something amidst Walter's careful derivation. "Here." He circled something else. "And here." He kept on, making slash after slash all along the line. "Here, and here, and here."
Peter was never one to let an argument pass by, these days.
Astrid stepped up, tried to intervene, but Peter shouted even at her. Then Walter finally turned and yelled at him like a child, and the three of them stood, tense and staring at one another.
Ella backed away and quietly ducked out of the room.
She didn't go back that day, and Peter didn't come home that night. Ella sat up late and played with her phone at the dining room table. She should call Astrid, should ask if everything was okay. Say she'd needed a break, taken some time and a little room to breathe. She should call, but she didn't want to talk to any of them right now. Not even Astrid.
Sliding her fingers into the pocket of her wallet, she pulled out Andy's card. She didn't need to look at it, not really – she'd memorized the number the night after he'd given it to her. She'd never dialed it, though.
She ran her fingers across the digits, traced the edge of the rectangle as it lay on the table. Then she picked the card up by the edge and slipped it back into its place. It didn't feel right, even now. Running back and forth from one thing to the other, never ready to let go. It wouldn't be fair to him.
Ella had no one in town to talk to that wasn't back there in Walter's lab. But maybe she really did need to remind herself what they were fighting for.
Carrie answered the door with the baby in her arms. "Ella," she said, blinking her surprise. "Are you okay?"
Her childhood friend looked good, Ella thought. A fond memory from that time called before; tired, and older, but good, and right. A happy ending after everything she'd been through, all those years ago.
Yesterday evening, sitting at that dining room table and wanting nothing more than to get out, Ella hadn't been able to think of anywhere else to go. So here she was, a long night in Boston and a packed flight to Chicago later, standing on a doorstep unannounced.
Maybe she should have called first.
"I'm sorry," Ella said, shifting from foot to foot. "I just …."
"Hey, none of that." Carrie reached out a hand and grabbed her arm. "C'mon in."
They'd kept up over the years, somehow, though Ella knew she'd been slack lately. But she'd mailed a gift for the baby shower, even though she hadn't been able to go, and Carrie sent chatty monologues about her new daughter every week or so whether Ella replied or not.
When Carrie called after Aunt Liv died, Ella had let the answering machine take the call. Just like she'd let the answering machine take all the calls.
Now, Carrie ushered her down the hall and into the living room, taking Ella's bag and shooing her to a chair. The house was cluttered, and all Carrie had to offer was tea and a box of half-stale cookies; she tried to apologize, but Ella waved her off. Snagging a playmat from a stack of toys near the wall, Carrie set the baby down to bat at the hanging animals and perched herself on the end of the couch nearest Ella's chair.
"Tell me everything," she said, a curious echo of Ella's demand to Peter.
But Ella had no answer besides, "I can't."
Carrie nodded, and they chatted for a while, about nothing, about everything. Ella slipped down to the floor to play with the baby on the rug.
"How's your brother?" she asked after a while.
"He's in California," Carrie said. "His wife's pregnant, but …."
Ella nodded and made a small, sympathetic sound.
It wasn't official knowledge yet, not something reported in medical journals or even the nightly news, but Ella knew. Everyone knew. The higher rate of miscarriage was one of the as-yet-underreported side effects of Fringe events, and Carrie had suffered one after another trying to have this one child. The ghosts of those unborn children were all the brothers and sisters Carrie's daughter was ever likely to have. And they'd have to wait and see if she even had a cousin.
Ella wiggled her fingers above the baby's head and smiled softly at the child's awkward attempt to grab onto them. Ghosts or not, Carrie's baby was here, and real, and so, so sweet.
"Are you okay? Really?" Carrie asked.
Was she, Ella wondered? Really? She looked up and met Carrie's eyes. "Is it worth it?"
"What, the baby?" Carrie asked, laughing.
"No, the …." Ella didn't know how to explain. "The whole… everything. Knowing you could lose it all at any time."
Carrie sucked in a breath, swift and audible. "Oh, Ella." She slid from her perch on the couch to sit on the floor with Ella and the baby. Scooting closer, she started to speak, then shook her head, a quick, fierce back-and-forth. Not a no, but a repudiation of the whole question. Then she leaned in and wrapped her arms around Ella and the baby together.
Ella started to cry.
She walked back into Walter's lab the next afternoon. Astrid handed her a list of calls to make, supplies to re-order and one or two trusted manufacturers to check in on, and they went back to work like nothing had happened. No one said anything about her leaving, and no one said they were glad she'd come back.
Ella wondered if maybe they wished she hadn't.
You make what you can, Carrie had said to her yesterday when Ella's tears had dried, in the space that you have. Really, it's not so different from before.
Peter met Ella's eyes from across the room, his brow furrowing slightly. She tossed him a half-smile and picked up the phone.
It was surprising how quickly things had gone after that. Solutions fell into place one after another, as if they'd been waiting for this precise moment to make themselves known. As though the universe wanted to give them one more chance to affirm that this was what they wanted. And when the last contingency had been outlined, the last parts made or re-made, they called Senator Broyles, and then they packed up the lab and headed for Central Park on that curiously calm, clear night.
Ella watched while Peter and Astrid headed for the cab of the truck.
They'd said their goodbyes already, back at Peter and Olivia's house. Now all that was left was to watch them go and wonder what would happen, here at the end of the world.
Of course, Peter had been gone for a long time already.
Ella turned and glanced over her shoulder at Walter, standing several paces back with Senator Broyles. Walter, who'd rather have gone with them, but couldn't.
Ella would rather have gone with them, too. But Peter had asked her to stay. Asked, not told. So she'd agreed.
"There's no way to know the outcome for certain," Walter had explained, over and over again. "There are many competing theories of time, of how we might disrupt its flow if we could move within it." What they were doing could be predestined; perhaps nothing would change, because nothing ever had. Or the entire world as they knew it might wink out of existence the minute Peter and Astrid stepped through the wormhole. Or something more sinister could come to pass; they might spin off another copy of themselves altogether, another timeline with its own life, its own existence trying to fit into the space where this one already sat.
Ella wished she'd never heard Walter say it once, let alone as a theme set on infinite repeat leading up to this singular moment.
Tomorrow morning, Walter would be remanded to custody, if tomorrow morning ever came to pass. The loss of two Fringe agents, Broyles could cover up, even when the agents were Peter Bishop and Astrid Farnsworth. A pro forma investigation, a foregone conclusion, nothing more complicated than that. But he couldn't simply lose the most valuable, the most reviled man in the entire universe.
And Ella? If tomorrow morning came to pass, Ella would have to go on.
The truck started, the sound no more than a cough and hum, the most modern and expensive solar tech the world had to offer. Every T crossed, every I dotted, they crept toward the wormhole, into the far-distant past and a newborn future.
They slipped into the maelstrom, and Ella stared for a long moment, then turned back to Walter and Broyles.
Looked like the world didn't vanish after all.
Silence filled the house when she got home, deep and imperturbable, quieter still for the knowledge that the hush would linger from now on.
Ella stayed up the rest of the night, old shoeboxes open on the dining room table before her, photos and mementos spread all around. A lock of her mother's hair Aunt Liv had saved from when they were just children. Hair ribbons from Ella's father.
A hand-drawn picture of a manatee, wrinkled and beginning to fade.
When the sun began to rise, pinkish-gray light breaking through the blinds on the windows, she carefully packed everything back into the boxes and replaced them in the cabinet from whence they came. Except the manatee. That, she left sitting on the table.
She showered and changed and made herself ready to face the day. A few hours later, she drew her phone from her pocket and keyed in the number she wanted from memory.
"Hi," she said softly. "I've been thinking. Would you like to have coffee?" She hesitated for a second, a mere breath, then pushed on. "I'm free now." She listened to Andy's voice on the other end of the line and smiled, then laughed. "Yeah. I'll meet you there."
Plucking her keys off the kitchen counter, she walked to the door, but she paused with her hand on the doorknob and turned to look back into the room. She crossed the short distance back to the dining room table and picked up the drawing. Her fingers drifted across the page, tracing the sharp, confident lines of gray and pink and blue. She smiled as she folded it in half, then in half again until it was just small enough to fit in the pocket of her wallet.
Then she walked out the door, locked it behind her, and didn't look back.