"What can I get for you?" Peter asked as he wiped down the counter.
"A red eye, please," she said, already putting the money down.
"Coming right up!"
Just as he turned to make it, he heard a crash coming from the kitchen. He snuck a glance at the customer, who seemed curious more than appalled, and heaved a sigh of relief. He loved his father, but he did tend to make things interesting.
"All clear!" Astrid called from the back, and Peter chuckled.
"Sorry about that," he said, as he put the drink on the counter. "He does make a mean pancake, though. Do you want one?"
"No, thank you."
She gratefully took the cup from him, and Peter could almost see the caffeine doing its job. "You're new in town?"
The woman scoffed and Peter smiled. He gestured around him. "It's just that we really only get regulars," he explained. "Someone new is a novelty."
She smiled again but didn't elaborate. That was fine, Peter didn't have to make small talk with everyone who came by. He pulled a book out of his pocket and sat down on the chair behind the counter, settling in for the wait until lunch rush started. She left about eleven minutes later - not that Peter had been keeping count - and only then could he really focus on the story he was reading.
She started coming in regularly, Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays. It was never busy when she stopped by; she seemingly kept other hours than the rest of the world, which had the annoying side effect that even after about a month, Peter still didn't know her name.
The smile that had started to grow the moment he heard her come in, faded a little as he saw how ragged she looked. "Are you okay?"
She smiled at him, a half-smile that somehow spoke to his very soul. "Do I look that bad?"
"You look like you could use a whole pot of caffeine."
She chuckled as she accepted the red eye he'd had ready. "Yeah, well, that's what happens when a four-year-old with the flu keeps you up all night."
"You've got a kid?" He didn't know why he was so surprised; of course this woman had a life beyond his small coffeeshop on the edge of town. He'd just never pegged her for a mother.
"Yeah, Ella," she said. For a moment it seemed like she wouldn't say anything more, but then - Peter didn't know if it was the lack of sleep or the growing familiarity or just a desperate need to talk to someone - she added: "She's my sister's. She and her husband died in a car crash a couple of months ago. They were on their way to pick up Ella who'd spent the day with me."
"I'm so sorry." Peter longed to put his hands on the woman's to comfort her, so to keep himself busy he started cleaning his already sparkly clean counter. "How is she holding up?"
A half-smile. "I think it really hit her a couple of days ago that they're not coming back. That's probably what prompted this round of flu, her body just rebelling against the very idea of her parents being dead."
Then, suddenly, she choked back a sob, and this time Peter did reach out to grab her hands. "How are you holding up?"
"I'm okay." She tried for another smile, shaking her head a little as if she had no right to any of the pain and grief she must feel. "I just gotta be there for her, you know? I'm a paediatrician, so taking care of a kid should come naturally, but it's overwhelmingly hard."
"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have-" She grabbed her hand back, scrambled away from the counter as if she could erase what she'd just said, as if she had committed some grave crime.
Peter opened his arms to gesture at the building. "Hey, Fringe is a safe space," he said. "We're here when the world out there gets a little too much and you just need a place to hide."
He walked around the counter and softly grabbed the woman by the arm. "Come, sit," he said, and he led her to one of the tables. "You need something to eat."
"I'm fine," she protested, but she did put her bag down.
"I know," he said. "But my dad has been jonesing to make pancakes for days now, and if I don't give him his way soon, there'll be a pancake tower waiting for me that I will never be able to eat or sell. Save me from that fate, will you?"
She smiled again, a real one this time, albeit small, and Peter felt his heart speed up a little. "Okay," she said. "Thanks..."
She trailed off, waiting for him to fill in his name.
"Peter," he said, eagerly waiting for her to finally fill him in on hers.
They smiled at each other until Peter cleared his throat and said: "Right. Pancakes. Coming right up!"
"Is she here?"
"Yes, dad, Olivia's here." Peter shared a fond smile with Astrid.
"Well, did you ask her yet?"
Walter's enthusiasm was endearing, but Peter's insides twisted around at the very idea. He should never have brought it up with his father; he should have known he would think it a done deal.
"Give him some space, love," Astrid advised. "Your son's a little shy."
Peter laughed and threw a towel at her. "I am not shy. I'm just not sure how to start that conversation."
"Oh, it's very easy, son," Walter said, eager to help as always. "You just go up to her and ask 'Olivia, when's your niece's birthday?' and then she'll let you know and I can create something magnificent for the little girl."
"It's next week." Olivia's voice came from behind Peter, and he could clearly hear her smile before he even turned around. "I'm sorry, I'm probably not supposed to be here. I was looking for the bathroom and then I heard you talking."
"That's okay," Peter said.
"Marvellous," Walter said. "And what does she like? Strawberry? Chocolate? Vanilla?"
"All of the above," Olivia laughed. "But you don't have to-"
"Nonsense," Walter interrupted. "I want to. I love making birthday cakes and we don't get a lot of children around here. You would do me a favour, really."
"It's true," Astrid said. "He's been hounding Peter to ask you for weeks now. He just wants the chance to play around in the kitchen."
"Well, in that case," Olivia said. "Be my guest."
"Thank you!" Walter turned around and started looking through some stuff, humming Be My Guest under his breath. "She'll be five, right?"
Olivia looked amused. "Right. Her birthday's on Wednesday."
"He'll be in the zone for a while, now," Peter said as he steered Olivia out of the kitchen. "Thanks for that, I really appreciate it. The bathroom's through there."
She smiled over her shoulder just before she went through the bathroom doors. "You've talked about me, huh?"
Luckily for Peter, when she came back he was busy with another customer, and she left before she had a chance to tease him some more.
"Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you." Walter came out of the kitchen, carrying a huge vanilla cake with strawberries all over it and chocolate drizzled over the top. Peter and Astrid followed him, smiling. "Happy birthday, dear Ella, happy birthday to you."
The moment Walter put down the cake, Ella burst into tears. Walter looked at Peter, worry and self-recrimination evident in his eyes, and Peter spared a smile for his father. Olivia seemed close to tears as well, so Peter sat down next to the two of them.
"It's weird, huh," he said conversationally to Ella. "Celebrating without your parents."
"It can't be my birthday," she said. "Mom makes me cake on my birthday. And dad makes me pizza."
Peter glanced at Walter, who had gone a little pale. At least he'd stopped beating himself up over some imaginary wrong with the cake; Peter couldn't take care of all of his family at once, no matter how much he wanted to.
"I need to pee," Ella announced, her voice still wobbling.
"I'll go with you," Astrid said, and she shared some silent communication with Walter that had him up and leaving as well. He didn't even bother coming up with an excuse, leaving Peter and Olivia alone at the table.
"I don't know what I'm doing, Peter," she said. "This is her birthday. She's supposed to be happy."
"No, she's not," Peter countered. On Olivia's angry glare, he explained: "Her parents died, what, four, five months ago? This is her first major event without them. Of course she's sad."
"Then how do I help?" Olivia looked so lost that Peter almost tucked her in against his side, but this probably wasn't the time to act on his feelings.
"You tell her it's okay to be sad. You let her know that you're sad too." He took a deep breath. "When my mother died, Walter just... Lost it. He couldn't cope. He'd wander around for days on end, leaving me by myself. Eventually, he got admitted to a mental hospital."
"I'm so sorry," Olivia said.
"Yeah, well, it's a long time ago," Peter said with a smile. "What I meant is, I know how it feels to lose your parents. The fact is, they should be here to make her cake and pizza. That first birthday on your own? That's awful. But you can be there for her, show her that she's still loved. That her life doesn't stop because her parents' did, and that that is okay."
Olivia was silent for a bit as she stared at the cake. "How old were you?"
"I was seven," Peter said. "A little older than Ella, but I don't think that really changes the basic concepts."
He could see in her eyes that she wanted to ask him some more questions, but he was saved by Ella coming back.
"Don't let their memories die," he whispered as last-minute advice. "Not talking about them will only make things that much worse."
Olivia nodded to signify that she had heard him, and smiled at the little girl. "Hey, Ella-bean. I know it's not your mom's cake, and it's probably nowhere near as good, but do you want a piece of it anyway?"
Ella nodded. "I miss her, aunt Liv."
"I know you do, sweetie." Olivia ruffled her hair as she put a piece of cake in front of her. "I do too, every day."
"Do you usually get presents on your birthday, Ella?" Walter had come back from the kitchen, a present hidden behind his back just in case he was overstepping. He looked a little anxious, again, and Peter knew this was stirring up memories for him as well, memories he'd rather keep buried.
Ella nodded. "Last year, dad got me Aurora. She giggles when I tickle her."
"It's a doll," Olivia explained at the Bishops' confused looks.
"That sounds amazing," Walter said sincerely. "Would you like a present today?"
Ella looked at Olivia for approval and when her mother nodded, she said: "Yes, please."
She was bouncing a little on her seat, the tears for now forgotten as her birthday really started to take off. Olivia shared a relieved smile with Peter, who smiled back as reassuringly as he could.
Olivia turned away from Peter with an apologetic smile and Peter shrugged. Ella was bouncing on her seat next to Olivia, and Peter faked a tickle as he cleared away the pancake plates from the table. They'd made it a regular outing, the two of them, to come by on Saturday morning and have pancakes. Walter loved it, and, honestly, Peter did too. The more time he could spend with them, the happier he was.
As Olivia finished her phone call, he could see a worried look growing on her face.
"Everything okay?" he asked as soon as she hung up.
"Not really," she said. "The clinic needs me to come in. The colleague who was usually on schedule was in a small car accident and is in the hospital being treated for a broken leg, and the colleague who's on call is out of town."
"Out of town? Aren't you supposed to be available when you're on call?"
"Yeah, well." Olivia looked ruefully at Ella. "Some people are better at that than others. I'm the only one left and I don't want to leave those kids alone, but I've got nowhere for Ella to go."
"Nonsense," Peter smiled. "She can stay right here."
"No, I couldn't-" Olivia's eyes were wide and disbelieving, and Peter wondered whether there'd never been someone else in her life who had been willing to do the little things for her, to help her out where they could.
"She can play around in the kitchen," Peter said. "Astrid's great with babysitting, she does it all the time with my father. Look, let me just ask her, okay?"
Olivia nodded, still a little hesitant but she seemed at least willing to consider it, so Peter left to find Astrid.
"Of course!" she said as she heard Peter's request. She was on her way to Olivia before Peter could even say something else, and he chuckled.
"Can you keep her away from the dangerous stuff, Walter?" Peter asked, and Walter nodded.
"You know, when you were a boy, you used to hang out in the kitchen with me all the time. You'd mix flour with sugar with the most intense look on your face."
Peter smiled. "Sounds like you'll be fine."
"Look, Ella," Astrid came in with the little girl. "Want to help Walter make pancakes?"
"Yes!" Ella was almost bouncing on her feet, and Walter seemed to be just as happy.
"This was a great idea," Astrid said as she watched the two of them playing around.
"Oh, she's gone already," Astrid said. "She said thank you again, and then she really had to go. You did good here, Peter."
Olivia came in, looking nothing like herself. It wasn't anything specific that Peter could pinpoint; there just seemed to be something wrong with her, even beyond the fact that it was Thursday and she wasn't supposed to be in the coffeeshop at all.
"Are you okay?" he asked as she sat down at the counter, but she didn't reply, didn't even look up. "Olivia?"
She gave him a distracted smile, which Peter hesitatingly returned. She'd come in at a busy time, and he turned his attention to a couple of other customers who were waiting to give their order. As he made the lattes, cappuccinos and mochas, his eye kept wandering back to Olivia.
"How's Ella?" he asked when there was a lull in the line, and he was just waiting for Walter to come up with a couple of the food orders.
"Oh, she's fine. She's with my sister."
"Your sister? You mean you've got another one? How many of you are there?"
"Another one? No, I've only got the one sister. She's Ella's mother, you see. So that's where she is."
Astrid, who had come out to bring the ordered pancakes, shared a worried look with Peter.
"Olivia?" she asked, after she had served the pancakes. "What do you mean, 'she's with my sister'?"
Olivia's confusion seemed to grow as her eyes flitted back and forth between Astrid and Peter. "Why are you being so weird about this? Rachel is Ella's mom, of course she's the one taking care of her."
"Olivia," Peter said, as gentle as he could be, "Rachel's dead."
"What? No, no, that's ridiculous, I just talked to her-" Olivia started rummaging through her bag, looking for who knows what.
"We need to get her to a hospital," Astrid whispered.
"Are you insane?" Peter replied, just as quietly. "They'll take one look at her and take Ella away, drop her into the system. It's just a memory glitch. She must be struggling more than she's let on to anyone."
"Someone needs to examine her," Astrid countered. "Maybe Walter knows someone, I'll ask him."
As she disappeared into the kitchen, Olivia was still looking for her elusive proof that Rachel must still be alive. Peter kept a worried eye on her but let her be for now. Forcing the issue would probably do more harm than good.
He was wiping down the counter when Walter came out of the kitchen, business card in hand. "His name is Sam Weiss," he said, handing the card to Peter. "He helped me when I got out of Saint Claire's, made sure I found my way back to normal society. He's become somewhat of a friend. I called him, he will be here in a minute."
"Thank you, Walter," he said. Walter walked around the counter to sit with Olivia for a bit, and Peter gratefully took the opportunity to skip out back, silently asking Astrid to keep an eye on things. She nodded, the worry still evident in her eyes.
"Brooks Elementary School," a voice on the other end of the line cheerfully announced.
"Good afternoon, my name is Peter Bishop," Peter said. "I'm a friend of Olivia Dunham's, Ella's aunt."
"Good afternoon, Peter, what can I do for you today?"
Here was where things got dicey. He didn't know Ella would still be at school but asking would be suspicious. He'd just jump right in, then. "Olivia's had somewhat of a fainting spell," he explained. "She's fine, but she needs to be looked over, and it will be a little while before she can come over to get Ella. Would you be able to look after her for a bit longer?"
He held his breath. Initially he'd planned on letting them know he'd come by to pick up Ella, but he'd soon realised that the school - hopefully - wouldn't let some stranger run off with a child just because he claimed he was a family friend.
"No problem at all, Peter," she said, and Peter let out a sigh of relief. "Our day-care is open until 6 pm, so just make sure she'll stop by before then."
"I will, thank you so much."
He hung up and let his head rest against the wall for just a minute. From the moment Olivia had said she'd left Ella with her parents, a million scenarios had entered his head about where the girl could be. He was so happy the most benign of those scenarios had been the one to come true.
When he walked out into the coffeeshop, his panic back under control, Walter and Olivia were smiling, a third person standing with them.
"You must be Sam Weiss," Peter said, holding out a hand for him to shake.
"That's me," the man said.
"Peter?" Olivia all but literally tugged on his sleeve. "Peter, do you know where Ella is?"
"Ella is fine." Peter turned back to Olivia, taking her hands in his own. "I called the school. She'll be in day-care until 6, so you have some time to talk with Dr. Weiss over here."
"Just Sam is fine," Sam said. "Where can we get some privacy?"
Peter motioned for them to use his office and watched them close the door with a little trepidation.
"Will she be okay?" Astrid said to no one in particular, but Peter would also really, really like to know the answer to that question.
The hour Olivia spent talking with Sam Weiss was one of the longest hours of Peter's life. He served customers on autopilot, getting more orders wrong than right. There was not a regular who didn't ask him if he was okay, and he forced a smile for every one of them, but he was pretty sure he convinced no one. He knew Walter was on edge as well; the crashes from the kitchen came with an alarming regularity, and the first batch of pancakes Walter almost tried to serve were burned beyond recognition.
As always, Astrid seemed to be the one holding up best, but Peter figured that was out of sheer determination and need to protect Walter from whatever was going on. He hoped when she crashed later on, Walter would be there to return the favour.
When Olivia came back, Peter had to force himself not to jump up and immediately take her into his arms. She looked a little better, though the sheepish look she wore on her face was really out of place.
"Stress can do the weirdest thing to a human's body, including their brain," Sam said. "When it decides reality is too tough to cope with, sometimes your brain does the one thing it can think of and buries the trauma down so far you forget it was ever there."
"Mind you, I'm only telling you this because Olivia asked me to," he added as Walter and Astrid came out of the kitchen. "Everything else that was said in there is, of course, confidential."
"I'll be talking with him for the foreseeable future," Olivia said. "Maybe figure out a way to deal with all of this instead of letting Ella fall through the cracks."
"Right you are," Walter said, a wobble in his voice, and he hurried back to the kitchen. Olivia shared a worried look with Peter, who couldn't do more than shrug. He knew Walter felt guilty about everything that had happened, but he wasn't sure he was the one to help him with those feelings.
"He's fine," Astrid said to the two of them. "Just caught up in memories. You're doing a very brave thing, Olivia."
Olivia shrugged. "Not really. I'm just being sensible."
"Why can't it be both?" Astrid smiled and walked away to comfort Walter.
"I'm not brave," Olivia mumbled.
"You," Peter said, taking Olivia's hands in his and waiting until her surprised eyes met his. "Are one of the bravest women I know. You do know why Walter left, don't you? He wasn't able to make those choices you are making, to choose recovery despite how hard it is, to choose his son over his pain. But you, you are amazing. One hiccup and you're talking to a psychiatrist, letting him in, letting us in."
"I just want to do what's best for Ella," she said.
And I love you for it. The words almost came tumbling out of Peter's mouth, but he caught himself just in time. Unable to force any other words past the cluster of feelings in his throat, he instead chose to pull her into a hug. She came easily, and they stood there for a moment, breathing each other in.
"Hi." With a deep sigh, Olivia settled herself at the counter.
Peter had already prepared her drink the moment he saw her come in and pushed it towards her. "You okay?"
"Ella is having her first sleepover," she announced, with half a smile and a shake of her head.
"And you're worried for her or for you?"
That drew an actual smile out of her. "Both. Mostly me. The house is empty without her."
She took a couple of sips from the coffee he gave her. "Do you ever close?"
"Well," Peter started, with a nod towards the door where the 'Open' part of the sign was clearly visible in the diner.
"Oh my God, I'm so sorry." She scrambled to get up, almost spilling her coffee in her haste, and Peter reached toward her cup to save it.
"Stay," he said. "As long as you don't mind me cleaning up around you, I'd like your company."
She still looked torn, but at least she wasn't running anymore. "You're sure I'm not in the way?"
"You could never be in the way." He smiled at her, his heart beating fast at those all too true words. She smiled back, hesitantly, lovingly, and his heart skipped a beat. Before he could really lose himself and say something crazy, he moved towards the main area to clean the tables.
"Where's the sleepover?"
"A friend from school," Olivia said. "I know her parents, they've been coming to the clinic ever since Lisa was born. They're good people."
He moved from table to table, his heart warming at the domesticity of it all. "And still you worry."
"Of course she worries," Walter said as he stuck his head around the kitchen door. "She's a parent. That's what parents do. Aren't we closed, Peter?"
"Yes, you can go up," Peter replied. "Olivia is just keeping me company while I take care of the cleaning."
He didn't have to see his father to know his eyes were twinkling, and he was still looking for a way to stop Walter from saying whatever it is he was thinking, when-
"Don't make it too late, dears," he said, the mirth obvious in his voice. "We'll be upstairs."
"Thanks, Walter," he said, and he glanced a look at Olivia to see how she was reacting to it all. She was smiling some sort of secret smile into her coffee cup, and Peter felt his heart skip another beat. He shook his head at himself; this was getting ridiculous.
"So, Walter and Astrid live upstairs?"
Peter was now cleaning the tables behind her, and Olivia had turned in her chair to be able to see him as she spoke. He nodded.
"We all do. Not in the same apartment, luckily." He chuckled. "When my father got out of the mental institution, he came to see me. He needed someone to take care of him, and I didn't know it at the time, but I needed a home."
He spread his arms wide. "I found this while looking for places to stay in the neighbourhood. It was run down enough to be affordable, but not too cheap that you just knew it'd be better off being torn down. There are two apartments upstairs, and in the early years we rented one of them out."
"Until Astrid came on the scene?"
"You got it." The tables were clean, and he didn't feel like mopping the floor just yet, afraid Olivia would take it as a sign to leave, so he sat down beside her. "When things started to get a little busier around here, we started looking for extra help. Astrid was heaven-sent. She saw something in Walter that everyone overlooked, and he found in her a place to rest."
"Was it weird, to see your father-" She trailed off, as if she didn't quite know how to finish that sentence.
"Date?" He chuckled. "Oh, yes, it was weird. By then, it had been years since my mom passed away, so it wasn't really that I thought he still belonged with her."
The silence stretched for a bit.
"But...?" Olivia offered, and Peter tried a wan smile.
"I think for the longest time I didn't think he deserved happiness." He couldn't look her in the eye as he said it. "I know that's-"
"Understandable," she filled in for him, taking a hand in hers. "He left you when you needed him most. Maybe now, with the hindsight and the experience of an adult life, you can sort of understand what made him do it. But that didn't make it okay. And that didn't make it hurt any less."
"No. No, it did not."
Silence fell as Olivia finished the rest of her coffee.
"Do you ever get..." She trailed off, as if embarrassed by what she was going to ask.
"Get?" he prompted.
He wanted to laugh, but there had been something vulnerable in her voice that he didn't want to hurt. "You know me," he said with an easy smile. "I know everyone around here. I know every patron by name and their life story by heart."
He flinched a little at her look, as if she knew exactly what he was doing and would not let him get away with deflecting.
"I've seen you work," she nodded, confirmation and rebuttal all at once. "When I just started coming there were these moments, when there was nothing to do and you kind of stood aside, watching the diner... And you had this look on your face. A look that said 'I'm happy to be here, but something is missing'."
They were pretty close now, facing each other on the bar stools, as if some sort of magnetism had pulled them together.
"You don't get that look anymore," she finished, her voice merely more than a whisper, as if she was almost scared of saying it out loud.
Peter smiled, and he put a hand on hers. "Maybe I found what I was looking for."
He could feel his heart pulsing in the fingers he'd laid on her hand, as if the very contact was amplifying his heartbeat. His right thumb stroked her fingers, a light touch he hoped wasn't misconstrued as unintentional because it was very deliberate. She looked at their mingled hands first, then at him, then slowly, very slowly, she leaned towards him-
A sound. Olivia sat back up in her stool in a flash, getting her phone out of her bag and holding up a hand as if to say 'hold that thought' before Peter had even realized it had been her phone's ringtone.
A myriad of emotions flashed over her face, disappointment, love, affection. "No, of course, I understand. I'll be there in about 10 minutes."
She clicked the phone away and smiled at Peter. "Ella wants to come home."
"Then by all means, go get her."
She seemed torn and Peter knew how she felt. There was a sense in the air that if she left now, maybe things would never get back to that point. But her love for Ella was one of the things that made her Olivia, and he would not let her give that up for him. He got up and got the mop from behind the counter, poured some water in the bucket he used.
"We can finish this conversation another time." He swatted at her with the mop, and droplets clung to her pants.
Peter didn't exactly know what she was asking - was he sure about wanting to kiss her, was he sure this wouldn't change anything, was he sure there'd be a time to reproduce this moment - but the answer was always the same. "Yes, I'm sure."
With a last smile of thanks she was out of the door. Peter allowed himself a couple of minutes of regret, of dreamy what-ifs, and then got to finish cleaning. Tomorrow would be another day.
"We're going to the zoo today," Ella announced as she climbed on one of the bar stools.
"Oh, are you?" Peter smiled and pushed a hot chocolate her way.
"Your coffee's coming up," he said to Olivia, who had settled down next to Ella.
"Ah, I see, it's that way now."
Peter laughed. "You know it. Ella stole my heart, she beat you to it."
"Ah, shit," Olivia said with a smile. "I'll just have to work twice as hard to get it back then."
It was ridiculous for Peter's heart to jump up at that, but it did anyway.
"What's your favourite animal, Peter?" Ella asked, oblivious to the tension that was running above her head as she blew on her hot chocolate.
"Hmm," Peter said as he prepared Olivia's coffee. "I think wolves are my favourite animals."
Ella shivered on her stool. "Wolves are creepy."
"Wolves are just like you and me," Peter said, booping her on the nose. "They live in a family, they travel together, they get sad when someone dies. And when a wolf is injured, its friends rally around him to lick him and make him feel better. I think that's nice."
He handed Olivia her coffee and they shared a smile.
"I like elephants," Ella said decisively after she had slurped down half her hot chocolate. "They have trunks."
Peter laughed. "That's a good reason as well."
"And giraffes," Ella continued. "Because they have those long necks and they're so cool. Oh, and I love penguins, because they walk funny."
Peter waited a little to see if the list would grow any longer still, but it seemed she was done. He looked at Olivia, then, raising an eyebrow in wait for her answer.
"I like sea otters," Olivia said. "They're so smart. They use rocks to break open their food, which is so much easier than just having to use your paws."
"Do they have those at the zoo, aunt Liv?"
Olivia smiled. "They might have. What do you say we go look and see?"
She got up, lifted Ella off her stool and put her on the ground, helping the girl put her jacket on.
"Will you go with us Peter?"
Peter regretfully looked at the shop, which was just starting to fill up. "I wish I could, Ella, but these people need me."
"Another time, okay?" he added as he saw how sad Ella looked.
Peter held out his pinky for Ella. "Promise."
"Peter, you don't-" Olivia started, but Peter ignored her and linked his pinky with Ella's.
"I want to," he said to Olivia after Ella had let him go, satisfied with the solemn swear. "I would absolutely love to go with you sometime to go watch the animals, we just need to figure out a time to make it happen."
He collected their cups from the bar. "She stole my heart, remember?" he added. "I'm not letting her go anytime soon."
"What's this?" Olivia settled at the counter, her gaze curious as she looked from the basket to Peter and back.
"That," he said, "is a picnic basket."
"I can see that." Olivia laughed. "Why is it here and where is my coffee?"
Peter smiled, excitement buzzing at the corners of his mouth and at his fingertips. "Inside a thermos, in the picnic basket."
Olivia almost looked wistful for a moment, then shook her head. "I'm on call, Peter. I don't think I can be relaxed enough to properly enjoy a picnic. Another time, maybe?"
"Actually," he said, while he untied the knot on his apron and put it away. "You're not. I called Dr. Madison, the one who conveniently forgot to stay in town when she was on call a couple of weeks ago? She was more than willing to make up for it by taking your shift today. You are completely free."
"Brilliant?" he finished for her, and he could see that she was trying not to laugh.
"Forward," she said instead, though she put a hand on his arm to soften the blow. "Don't you have a shop to run?"
"I can take care of it for a couple of hours," Astrid said in his stead. She made some shooing motions to push them out. "Now, go! Have fun, enjoy, fall in love."
Peter shot her a look and she gave him her most innocent stare back. Olivia laughed next to him, and he could feel his whole body warming at the sound.
"We'll do that," she said, and before Peter could breathe again, she'd gone out the door. He took one glance back at the counter, but Astrid had gotten busy with queueing customers, so he left without another word.
"Where are we going?"
"There's a park not far from here," he said, pointing the way with the picnic basket. "It's perfect for picnicking. Lots of comfortable grass, trees to provide shade, there are always some people to watch but it's never crowded, and it's not far from here."
She laughed and they walked in a comfortable silence Peter for once didn't feel the need to fill up. She made him calmer, not in a way Astrid did for Walter, but still similar. His insides were usually churning with thoughts and possibilities, with things he had to do but shouldn't forget, but with Olivia next to him everything was attuned to her, as if his dials had turned.
"What?" she asked as they settled on the picnic blanket and he couldn't stop looking at her.
"You make me happy," he said, unwilling to keep it in any longer. "I am so glad you walked into my life."
She smiled, putting a hand on his and squeezing it. "Now, what did you bring me?"
The childlike glee in her eyes made him laugh, just the surprise at how there were so many sides to her. "Let's open it up and find out."
They opened the basket, Olivia immediately claiming the thermos and pouring herself a cup as Peter took out the rest of the food.
"I gotta say, the service used to be better." She smiled and Peter laughed.
"Is that so?"
"Hm-m," she nodded. "I had to wait twenty minutes for a simple cup of coffee. Such a shame, too. I thought the owner liked me."
Her eyes sparkled at him, and Peter decided to stop waiting and leaned forward. Olivia put her cup out of the way and lifted her head up to meet his.
"He does," he whispered into her mouth. "Oh, he does."