Astrid's phone buzzed and she winced. The flat tone was so much worse at three in the morning. It was a text message, so it probably wasn't Walter wondering where his waffles were, this time. She flipped open the phone to find a message from an unknown number.
I DON’T LIVE HERE HELP ME
"Is everything okay?" Olivia called from the living room.
Astrid pulled on her kimono and went out. "No. I've got a strange message." She held the phone up to show Olivia, who was already out of the sofa bed and fully awake. She was wearing Astrid's favourite orange silk pyjamas, which were comfortably loose on Astrid but rather tight and several inches too short for Olivia. She'd had to leave the top two buttons undone, leaving most of her lightly freckled breasts exposed.
"Eyes up here, Astrid! You're sure it's not Walter?" Olivia was blushing – just slightly, but it showed up so well on her pale skin. Her gaze quickly flicked across the number and the message.
Astrid frowned, and looked back at her phone. "I'm never sure it's not Walter, but I'll call Peter and check."
Olivia barely even flinched at Peter's name, which Astrid considered progress, of sorts. "Okay. I'll get dressed. If Walter's all right, we can find out where the call's from."
Astrid went back to her bedroom to text Peter. It seemed cruel to communicate with him right in front of Olivia and her watery smile, and she wished she hadn't mentioned anything.
The two women had been in a sporadic relationship for over a year, kept casual by both mutual agreement and Astrid's intense need for solitude. Too much time around other people – especially if they touched her – left Astrid exhausted and unable to focus on anything other than getting back to her private, safe space. Working with Walter was chaotic and demanding, but there were also had long stretches of time when they both retreated into themselves and abhorred all contact. Astrid's last full-time relationship had been in college, and it had just been too much, to deal with the whole outside world and come home to an entire new world overflowing with touch and talk and emotions.
Her times with Olivia were infrequent, offered only when Astrid had enough space left in her for the joy of Olivia's strong hands and rare blushes. After that, there was not enough of her left to block out the distractions of Olivia's warm thigh or soft breathing or tickly long hair and sleep; Olivia must have known someone like Astrid, once, because she simply asked where the linen closet was and went to make up the sofa bed.
It had been no surprise to Olivia that Astrid hadn't been near enough to the imposter to discover the lie – unlike Peter – and she had quickly accepted Astrid's invitation to stay. When Astrid had found out about the imposter living Olivia's life, she had felt physically ill at the thought of someone rearranging all her carefully placed things, changing her clothes, wearing her make-up, leaving her hairs in the hairbrush, contaminating every inch of the apartment with her wrongness. Olivia didn't admit to the same feeling, the stoic that she was, but she was here, on Astrid's sofa, in Astrid's too-small pyjamas, and that said everything to Astrid. She would put up with the discomfort of someone else in her living space because it was far worse for Olivia, who needed to be out of her polluted house so very badly.
Peter's text came back quickly.
WALTER FINE. ALL OK?
Astrid texted back in the affirmative and quickly got dressed in the suit she'd worn that day, but with flats rather than heels – she normally liked the extra height, but she didn't know if they were going to have to run tonight, and, despite all her practising, she was still faster in flats.
Olivia had folded up the sofa and was tapping away at her computer. Her hair was tied back neatly, but she was still wearing yesterday's shirt, and her collar was rumpled. "I've got a location – just a few miles from here, in the suburbs. The tech said the signal was unusually strong, and the phone's still on."
Passing Olivia her coat, Astrid reached out a gentle hand. "I'm going to straighten your collar, Olivia, okay?"
Olivia nodded. When Astrid tugged her collar into place, Olivia's shoulders were so tense that Astrid swallowed her next question, which was whether they should call it in. If Olivia was still in defence mode even somewhere as safe and relaxing as Astrid's apartment, the last thing she needed was to be around Peter.
The hesitation must have been obvious, because Olivia shrugged away from Astrid's hands and took out her phone. "I'll text Broyles," she muttered. "He'll send in the rest of the team if he thinks it's important."
"Okay." Astrid grabbed her keys from their hook by the door and waited. She never understood how Olivia spotted the tiny errors in demeanour that Astrid could see in patterns and codes, but, nonetheless, she always did it. When their arrangement had started, Astrid had promised herself that she would always be completely honest around Olivia, but that was a lot harder than she had realised, even for someone who believed in truth. Every little hesitation of kindness, each time Astrid wanted to protect Olivia for just a moment, or smooth her path – Olivia always knew.
"Let's go." Olivia collected her computer and led them out of the apartment; Astrid followed in the billowing shadow of Olivia's coat.
The signal trace led them into the Boston suburbs, towards Medford, in an area that was very familiar to Astrid. "I used to live near here, when I was first assigned to work with you."
"You can go first if there's a chase, then. Turn left at the next intersection."
"Olivia – that's my street. Did they text me from my old apartment? Is this time travel? What if it's the other me?"
Olivia put away the computer and released her seatbelt, ready to leap from the car. "Astrid from over there was quite different to you. Even so, if I spot a copy of either of us, I'm prepared to ask some very serious questions."
The quiet suburban street was pretty much as Astrid remembered it: a mix of family homes, converted houses and small apartment blocks, the trees almost bare of leaves at this time of year. The front of Astrid's old building was still clearly lit by the streetlight and the overly strong spotlights that the landlord had put above the front steps after a tenant had fallen. Just at the edge of the patch of light, barely visible, stood a small woman in a long coat and a beret. She seemed to be the only person in the street at this time of night. Astrid peered at her, trying to make out her features, but Olivia had already surveyed the scene, leapt from the car and was dashing across the road, one hand on her gun.
Astrid pulled the car over and hurried over to Olivia's position. Even though she had been half-expecting it, given the location and the text message, it was still disorienting to see herself standing there in front of Olivia, standing in a stiff, military posture that Astrid herself had never adopted. Her hair was shorter and more tightly curled, and her black, military beret had a symbol on it that looked rather like a TV antenna, but her dark clothes and the contrast of the bright light nearby made it difficult to make out more detail. As Astrid got closer, she realised that there was a third reason why she couldn't see the alternate Astrid clearly: she was partially transparent.
"Why are you here?" Olivia snapped. She hadn't drawn her gun. "Are they experimenting on the rest of Fringe Division now?"
The other Astrid – A'strid, Astrid decided, her reflection – didn't meet Olivia's stern gaze. "I, I knew you were somebody else, just at the end. Not Olivia Dunham."
"How did you know? Who did you tell?"
A'strid's voice was very small. Astrid hadn't spoken like that since she was a teenager. "Nobody. I knew about the two universes, mathematically, I mean, and then it made sense. You don't stand so close. She does."
Astrid stepped up beside Olivia. A'strid was right – the other Olivia had not taken such care with Astrid's personal space over the last weeks, but Astrid had put that on herself, as she usually did, feeling that she was the abnormal one. No wonder Astrid hadn't felt comfortable enough to ask the other Olivia to her house: she was far less aware, less kind.
The way Astrid could see through her alternate self to the bushes and a brick wall was deeply unnerving. "Why haven't you completely come through to this universe? I thought it was a yes-or-no proposition."
A'strid shook her head. She didn't meet Astrid's gaze, either. "People have made a lot of assumptions. Leaping ahead of the proof." She glanced at Olivia for a moment. "Is Colonel Broyles dead?"
"Yes. I'm sorry. He was a good man."
A'strid's face crumpled, and fat tears rolled down her cheeks. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I don't mean – I wanted to help him."
Astrid kept her voice soft and calm, just like her mother had always done for her. "How did you want to help? Can you still help us?"
She brightened at that, and reached for her coat pocket. Olivia twitched, her hand on her gun. "Go slow."
A'strid obeyed. "I'm getting a piece of paper. It's just paper."
"Good. I don't know what the rules are, so let's just keep it relaxed."
Olivia's voice was just as calm as Astrid's, and Astrid wondered again at how easy it had been to excuse the other Olivia, when they were so different.
A'strid pulled a neatly folded piece of copier paper from her pocket, and opened it up. "Here. The universes don't want to be together. They never did. There are a massive number of universes and they're not colliding. It didn't make sense that these two would try to merge. Not at all."
The paper was covered with a huge and complex equation, in tiny, fastidious handwriting. Astrid quickly snapped a picture with her phone, in case her doppelganger suddenly vanished.
"What does that mean?" Astrid asked. Her mathematical skills had long been focused on cryptanalysis, and, without further examination, only small parts of the equation were clear to her.
"It's the way the two universes should be. I thought that maybe one universe might be a recent offshoot of the other, but the deviations are too great." A'strid was much more fluent now, and her sudden tears had dried on her cheeks. "No-one admitted that there were two universes, but it was the only thing that made sense." She pointed to the upper left of the equation. "This is how my universe should be, but it lost mass to your universe somewhere in the 1980s. Your universe had the advantage, then, and it's just getting stronger and stronger. Every year there are more incursions from your universe into ours and the fabric of our universe is damaged further. My calculations indicate that by 0400 hours on June 12th, 2016, our universe will be destroyed and yours will settle down again. Plus or minus 46 hours. "
Olivia frowned. "So your Secretary of Defence is fighting back. He knows what will happen if he doesn't somehow change the outcome."
A'strid nodded vigorously, nearly dislodging her beret. "Yes! But he's trying to destroy your world, and there's no need! They want to be in balance." She flapped her paper at Olivia. "Here's the evidence! I don't know what to do with it, but here it is!"
Astrid reached out a hand to see if she could touch the paper, but her hand passed through it, and for a moment she felt like she had touched liquid nitrogen. She gasped and clutched her fingers in her other hand, but the icy pain passed quickly.
"I'm sorry," A'strid muttered, looking at the ground again. "I can't cross over. I'm just standing in a soft spot I found. I built a small version of a Negative Matter Ring to help me."
"Like the Rose brothers? But isn't this part of Boston encased in Amber?" Olivia had her phone out now, too, and both she and Astrid were photographing the equation in more detail, to piece together later. A'strid held it steady for them.
"No. I'm standing right at the edge of the zone. It's like when I broke my wrist. You have to immobilise the break but that weakens the muscles around it. Every Amber zone is surrounded by these spots. That's why Fringe Division keeps having to expand them, just a little at a time." She turned slightly towards Astrid. "And I used to live here, like you. I had to find you. Agent Dunham and you."
Astrid touched her own wrist, broken at the age of six. "They're not going to catch you, are they?"
"I don't know. If Colonel Broyles…well. Anyone. I hope not."
Olivia put her camera back in her pocket. "You're starting to fade, Agent Farnsworth."
A'strid looked around her, up at things Astrid couldn't see. "Astrid. I, I don't know if you have training camps here, the camps for gifted people and, and other kinds of people. But, Astrid, please tell your mother not to try to rescue you. She'll just end up in prison. Tell her you're fine. Please."
She was gone.
"Astrid?" Olivia didn't try to touch her, but waited with her hands at her side.
"She was telling the truth," Astrid muttered, thinking about A'strid growing up without her mother to teach her how people worked, how to get along in the huge and frantic world. She would call home today, she promised herself.
"I know. I trust her. But we need to get these photos to Walter, now."
Astrid nodded, but couldn't stop staring at the place where A'strid had been. For once in her life, she reached out her hand. Olivia was there to take it in her own and lead Astrid back into the night, two tiny universes beside each other, in solitary harmony.