Have you heard the story of the cuckoo? Secretary Bishop asked her a couple years back.
They're one of the few birds that still thrive across the whole continent. No wonder: their entire strategy is planting themselves in another bird's nest, stealing the mother bird's food, and masquerading as her young. They survive from deception and disguise. We could do well to follow their example.
So she dyed her hair blonde and kicked the other Olivia out of the nest of a much more ramshackle Fringe Division. She learned fast, like all good cuckoos do, and stole all she could in the name of survival. Of course they caught on, but by then she was ready to fly out on her own anyway.
Sometimes Olivia still wonders what tells she let slip; what mistakes she made that were too brazen to ignore.
Nobody says a word when their counterparts shimmer out to nothing: Walter with a gaze too abstracted, Astrid with one too soft, Olivia with hair too light, Peter with...too much even existing in the first place. Nobody looks at Lincoln for a couple of beats. Olivia's the first to turn.
He meets her eyes, steadily, not deigning to answer any question she leaves unspoken.
"Kind of too late to ask this now," she says, a broad but unfelt grin lightening the words, "but -- seriously? You're sure?"
Lincoln's own smile is far smaller and much wryer. "Yeah," he says. "It..." There, his attention breaks back to the spot where his universe once appeared. "Didn't feel that much like home anymore."
If she repeats the real question aloud -- why? -- Olivia isn't sure it'll do either of them any favors. So she hitches up her shoulders in a tight shrug, practically touching her own ears; all she says is, "Okay. Come on, let's get you settled."
As she puts her back to the collapsed bridge and passes Lincoln, she gives him a light, friendly smack on the arm. The gap between her and the rest of the crowd stretches at least ten feet before any of them think to follow.
When she watches Lincoln over the next few days, she finds herself cataloging every familiar tell. He rubs his forehead twice before threading his hand up through his hair. He scratches the shell of his ear sometimes. He can't ever squint in thought without cocking his head to the side at first, just a little bit.
He looks just like Agent Lee, and every so often she wants to suppress a smile as she thinks, come on, Lee, you're not fooling anybody, don't make the glasses do all the work. That's why I got the field job Over There and you got stuck at a desk. Then she remembers, heart clenching.
When their eyes meet, sometimes he'll drop his gaze so fast it's like she burned him just by looking at him. Olivia's usually fine with pretending those moments never happened. Lincoln seems content to do the same, but that doesn't mean he stops, when he thinks she's not paying attention. That's the first thing to scrape along her nerves: he thinks she ever stops paying attention.
She wonders how good an agent the other Olivia could possibly be if Lincoln thinks he can catch her off guard.
"You know," she points out one day, "we haven't really known each other that long." Saying that is easier than saying the truth outright: I'm not her.
"I know," is all Lincoln admits. "But it seems like longer."
Oh, no, she thinks with a sigh. Don't say that.
The whole team goes out for drinks after nailing a particularly stubborn case one night. Olivia laughs, mingles, and finds herself gravitating toward Lincoln's table anyway, like a line reeling her across the water.
"You're always so quiet," she says, and even though she's grinning, it almost sounds like an accusation -- enough for Lincoln to glance up, wary and uncertain. "Come on, Lee, talk to me. Or talk to Charlie, he could use a new face to pour out all his worm woes to."
His own smile is thin, like a wire about to snap. "I'm not a new face," he points out, draining another two inches of his beer.
"You know what I mean."
He wrinkles his nose. "Yeah," he admits, studying the latticework of foam clinging to the inside of his glass. Abruptly, he looks up. "Olivia -- "
Lincoln shakes his head. "No, not you. The other Olivia."
Olivia feels a stillness creep over her. Lincoln goes on, "It still...it kind of hurts, you know? What she did. What she gave up so she could be with him."
Slowly, she nods. The stillness has transmuted, turning to a queasy chill as she remembers looking into the other Olivia's eyes, seeing furious memories lurking there that she'd never experienced, all the connections to her true past -- to anything but Peter -- severed as cleanly as the bridge. She decided in that instant she would never be mistaken for her counterpart again.
Lincoln doesn't seem to notice. He's absorbed in his words. "It's not even that she decided to be with Peter. They're -- what they have was never going to change, whether I was there or not. But that level of just...cutting everything off..."
He drifts to a halt. Olivia's eyebrows rise, slow as the etching of frost on a windowpane.
"You did the same thing," she says, and Lincoln's halfhearted attention snaps to her in full, his mouth agape. Olivia mirrors that tiny, ice-brittle smile. "Come on. You didn't have anything left over there, but what the hell did you think you were going to get over here?"
His mouth opens and closes. "That's not -- "
"Did your Olivia ever appreciate being treated like an idiot, Lincoln?" He doesn't answer. Olivia's smile vanished long ago. "Yeah. Me, neither. You know what it feels like to be treated like somebody you're not?"
"I know you're not her."
"Really?" She leans in a little, suddenly so angry, angrier than she ever expected to get over this topic. "Because the way you've been acting, I don't think you really know. I think you still look at me and your first thought is her with a dye job, before you get all your memories back on track and remember who I really am. And it needs to stop."
For a long beat, Lincoln stays silent. Eventually, he breathes out a shaky breath and looks away; dull and toneless, he says, "I'm sorry."
All Olivia does is give him a curt nod before she grabs her drink and moves on.
She's wondered a couple times, since Secretary Bishop made the comparison: what if the cuckoo isn't fooling anybody? What if it only thinks it's fooling the mother of the fledgling it killed?
What if the mother knows damn well her child is gone, but chooses to pretend over the far worse alternative?
Their time together grows quieter. The glances become less frequent. They still do their work without issue, but more often than not, that's where the interaction ends.
One night, she bundles up in a hat and scarf and walks the bridge between Liberty Island and Manhaten. The air turns to fog before her mouth and nose, stings a little when she draws it into her lungs. It's good air. It chills her thoughts enough to slow them down a bit.
When she sees a familiar silhouette up ahead, the air stops misting in front of her face. She can't make out the shape of his glasses in the dark, and his hair spikes at unruly angles from a bad night's sleep; he shucked off his suit jacket a while ago. Olivia swallows, squares her shoulders, and keeps walking.
"Nice night," she says, with the faint self-deprecating lilt of someone well aware of the cliché, as she leans on the rail next to Lincoln.
He startles, turning toward her. "Hi," he ventures, the same way another man might plant one wobbling foot on a tightrope.
"Hi," she echoes, and turns to look out at the skyline. Lincoln follows her glance, gradually resettling against the rail as the tension ebbs.
"It looks so different," he whispers.
Olivia hears the thought resurface, bubbling with something nearer to panic this time: oh, no, don't say that. She pushes it down, letting out another lungful of mist. "How?" she asks. "You mean the towers?"
"Yeah, that's part of it." Lincoln chews his lip. "Back home, I never went to New York until after 9/11. The skyline they've got now? That's all I've seen, unless you count old movies."
"Eleven years isn't old," she counters, laughing a little.
"Old enough," he says, and lets the conversation lapse into quiet.
Several minutes later, Olivia attempts to scoop it up again. Softly: "You said 'back home.'"
Lincoln glances at her. For an instant, he looks no less panicked than when she crept up on him earlier. "I didn't mean," he begins.
Olivia shakes her head, dismissing the apology before he can finish it. "You miss it?"
Lincoln mirrors the gesture; hesitates; changes it to a slow nod, after a moment. "Not that much," he says. "But...sometimes. Yeah. I get a little homesick. I want to hear stuff in the news about how terrible that Green Lantern movie was, not how they're finishing up the memorial on the new White House lawn."
She smiles, brief and fleeting, and ducks her head in an acknowledging nod of her own. "I get a little homesick, too," she says. This time, the look Lincoln shoots her is pure bafflement. Olivia shrugs. "You, here...it's like I've gone back over there, and I'm waiting for extraction again. Only I know it's never going to happen, because..."
She trails off. Lincoln, after a beat, fills in what she can't say: "Because your Lincoln's dead."
Olivia nods. She glances back to Lincoln, forcing another smile. When in doubt, she thinks, smile; smiling lets you get away with a lot, lets you smooth out the edges that might catch someone's attention.
"I'm sorry," he murmurs.
"Don't," Olivia says, lifting a hand as if shielding herself. "You didn't do anything."
It's his turn to smile, albeit much more wryly. "Except exist."
"I exist, too."
He squints, brow furrowed, head tilting the tiniest bit. Olivia feels her throat thicken and swallows it away, waiting for him to get it. Her Lincoln was smart, and this Lincoln is too: within seconds, the look transmutes to a stunned understanding.
"Remember how weird it was the first time you saw my Lincoln? It's...always kind of weird, when you've got a reflection looking back at you anywhere but a mirror." She links her hands atop the rail. "Sorry I let loose on you at the bar."
"Olivia," he whispers. She feels light fingers brush over hers. Olivia doesn't push them away.
"I know you're not him. But..." Unthinking, she turns her hand over, lacing her fingers with Lincoln's. "I fake it sometimes, too."
Lincoln's quiet. "We could both keep faking."
"That's not fair."
"I wouldn't mind."
She looks up, managing another tiny smile. "I nearly fried my hair off bleaching it over there," she says. "And Lee complained about his damn contacts so much I almost shelled out for the surgery myself."
Lincoln's answering smile is far more pained. "Plus," he says, "you'd have to wait even longer for an extraction, huh?"
"Yeah," she whispers, and all at once the grief rears up to clench her by the throat. She blinks, hard, turning back to the World Trade Center glittering bright across the Hudson.
Lincoln lets go of her hand. She has nothing to support her but frigid New York air until his arm slides around her shoulders, tugging her closer, gentle as a guiding hand. She doesn't pull away from that, either.
In silence, she counts the tells: arms not quite as muscled, shirt too starched, no stubble when he rests his cheek against her forehead. Olivia breathes out as she places this new egg inside the nests of her memory, and closes her eyes to await its hatching.