Astrid is a hero. The world may not know it, but she is.
Not everyone can say that. The average person doesn’t wake up each day with the power to change lives by pecking away at a keyboard or thrusting their hands into some gooey mass of bloody organic gunk that’s never been seen before. They don’t work with geniuses who ask for their opinion and actually listen when they give it. They don’t have Walter.
The people in her building, at least those she’s actually spoken to, know she works for The Bureau. There was a rooftop party when she first moved in and she made jokes about pushing paper for gun crazy bad asses. But that was before she really knew Olivia (she feels guilty for making fun of her now; Olivia hates carrying her gun, though she’d never admit it) or before Fringe. It’s become an event dividing the two phases of her life; the person she was before she joined Fringe Division and after. The people in her building don’t know about Fringe. They’ll never know how many times it’s saved them.
She doesn’t make eye contact with strangers as she walks. That’s the other thing about her job; you can’t fight evil without knowing exactly what it looks like. It’s unassuming and careless, too slippery to grip. It’s a desperate, blue eyed Adonis who lost the only thing that made him human. She doesn’t make new friends anymore. It feels too much like tempting fate.
The coffee shop is crowded. It’s near two office buildings that probably house a law firm or accounting office or something else that measures a work day in fifteen minute increments. She’s surrounded by business suits and Blackberries, all at least five inches taller and a great deal more impatient than she is. She gets elbowed twice. The woman in front of her makes a high pitched sound when the barista gets her order wrong.
This will probably be the worse thing about the woman’s day, getting whole milk instead of skim. It makes Astrid think of Gene and the yellowish brown liquid that came out during the last chocolate milk experiment. She orders her coffee black.
Walter’s already in the lab. The room smells like cinnamon and formaldehyde, a combination that made her nauseous for the first few weeks, but now she barely notices. He’s hunched over a large bowl and staring at the contents as though waiting for it to explain its purpose. It’s probably someone’s insides, or at least part of them. Walter has a thing about human brains; he’s been known to keep one for weeks at a time. That’s another thing she had to get used to. She’s been dissecting computers since she was six years old, but barely made it out of high school biology with a C. Now she’s held a human heart in her hands.
“What you got there Walter?”
Walter turns around with an expression that manages to be startled, jubilant and annoyed all in the same grimace. “Agent Farnsworth, you’re here. Excellent, I have—” He whirls around, looking for something. “You have to touch this, it’s remarkable. I keep pressing downward and it just springs back into place, like…like, Jello. Oh, do we have any? I’m craving strawberry.”
Astrid is a hero. While everyone else is staring up at the sky, she’s down in this basement lab with a bowl of something slick, red and quivering waiting for her to reach inside. This is how she saves the world.
Astrid dreams in numbers. She knows that life is all about patterns and symbols, codes that say things, mean things, and so in her dreams she counts because it’s the only way understand it. Like the fact that there are thirteen street lights on the road outside her apartment building but only ten that flicker out in her nightmare; or that there are two men who’ve loved her and one woman who broke her heart, so the faceless lover between her legs must be a figment of her imagination. That there are two worlds with Astrid Farnsworth’s, so the strange pictures on the wall may not be hers.
Tonight she dreams about her mother. She counts the years (sixteen) and counts again just to be sure. They don’t speak this time, (this time because there have been others. Astrid’s yelled at her before, but it comes out muffled, like screaming through cotton the way such things in dreams do), but their bodies mirror each other, legs crossed, hands listless over one knee, eyes flitting back and forth between the floor and the face in front of them. There were six glasses in the crystal set Astrid gave her for Christmas. There were forty-eight years in her mother’s life. There was one birthday they never forgot. There will always be five days that Astrid can’t remember.
Astrid wants to touch her, but can’t. Her arms feel heavy, weighed down by the air in the room, which isn’t really a room at all. It’s just slick darkness and mist beneath her feet, like something out a horror movie. The smell is damp and salty, like the sea.
There are fifteen stripes across her mother’s sweater. There were twenty-eight days, in 1988 that Astrid’s life was perfect. There is one word that still makes her shudder. There are five fingers on her mother’s right hand. There are too many words. There was never enough time to fit it all in.
He calls her Ostrich. It shouldn’t bother her. Most days it doesn’t, but today it does. Maybe it’s the fact that it doesn’t even start with an “a”. Maybe it’s because she’s never liked ostriches.
“You called me Ostrich. My name is Astrid. You know that Walter.”
He stops mid-motion and waits for the significance of this statement. Walter finds labels pointless when they’re not necessary to distinguish one thing from another. It isn’t like she has a twin, or a double from an alternate dimension running around. He never gets “Our Olivia” or “Peter” wrong. “Agent Broyles,” is an administrative requirement for requesting supplies or navigating security protocols. “Agent Farnsworth” just handles the pudding.
“Did I?” She can tell he doesn’t remember, but has decided this is the quicker route. “Forgive me…dear.”
He takes a breath and places both hands flat on the counter, steadying himself. “Agent Farnsworth, I know you may not believe this, but I do realize that my failure to pronounce your name correctly may be a source of frustration. But please know, it…it is for me too.” He meets her eyes. “It’s not intentional. I know it seems that way, but…well, there was a time that I spent much of my life under the influence of hallucinogens—”
“I know that Walter. You don’t have to—”
“—and one in particular, a small pink pill that smelled like vanilla, we called it Astrid. Will and I, I mean. ‘Fair, beautiful, goddess,’ it was rather…potent. You know I once wrote an entire thesis in eight hours, no citation, just strictly from memory, which made it worthless of course. The paper, not the pill—”
“Walter. What does this have to do with you forgetting my name? Wouldn’t that make it easier?”
“Yes well,” Walter intertwines his fingers. He looks sheepish, and slightly embarrassed. “It’s confusing. I’m never sure if that’s your name or if I’m just remembering the other…”
“Fair, beautiful goddess?”
“Walter.” Astrid leans forward to kiss his cheek. “That was an excellent answer.”
Olivia comes over again tonight. She asks what Astrid’s making and it’s a pear clafouti, recipe courtesy of The Food Network website. Astrid was never a huge dessert fan before she started working with Walter. Now she has a visceral sugar addiction that’s ballooned into an obsession with baking. She kept it secret for months out of fear of midnight phone calls requesting cinnamon rolls or apple pies. Olivia is the only one who knows. She’s always been good at keeping secrets.
Astrid makes the batter while Olivia peels the pears. They talk about things that don’t matter peppered with things that do. Olivia asks if Astrid’s chosen a new bedspread and Astrid says yes, but that it’s hard letting go of the old one. Olivia says she still can’t sleep, but instead of asking if she’s seen someone or thought about moving out, Astrid points to a bottle of Stoli on her top shelf and calls it an old fashioned remedy. Olivia laughs, which is something.
They drink coffee with saucers of dessert on their laps. Astrid eats too quickly while Olivia pretends to have an appetite. The movie is something with Sandra Bullock. Her character befriends a large black guy who lumbers through the film with a slack jawed smile of bewilderment.
Olivia asks if she can stay over. Astrid says of course, but that the lumps in her couch have been known to drive sane people to violence. Olivia smiles and says she’ll risk it, but her eyes are so sad that Astrid’s throat aches.
The phone rings three hours later. Astrid stumbles into the living room, but Olivia’s answered it for her. Walter needs them at the lab. They exchange looks, Astrid’s exasperated and Olivia’s covertly grateful. Astrid glances at the couch and sees the stack of sheets and blankets still folded, untouched. The bottle of vodka has migrated to the coffee table. Astrid moves it to the back of the cupboard before they leave.
Sunsets always put Walter in a melancholy mood. He likes to sit in front of an open window while light slowly warms the lab with burnished orange and gold. Astrid puts on Bach in an attempt to distract him. His mouth quirks at the first notes and he beckons her closer.
“Is that coffee?”
Astrid gives him one of two steaming mugs in her hands. “No, it’s tea. You need sleep Walter.”
He dismisses the idea with a soft huff, takes a sip and scowls. “No milk?”
She pulls up a chair and sits beside him. They’re silent for a long moment, listening to the music’s complicated fusion of piano and strings, until Walter mumbles beneath his breath.
“What'd you say?”
"Punctus contra punctum, note against note.” He’s watching the sun again. The window lines his face with shadows that hide his expression. “The Art of the Fugue,’…a fugue’s a counterpoint, individual voices or melodic lines that play simultaneously in the song.” He pauses to see if she’s listening and then continues, apparently satisfied by her expression. “They don’t compete Astrid,” he says. “One gets no precedence over the other, there is no…war, no secrets, no pieces missing because someone blindly put them there.” He rubs his cheek and narrows his eyes against the light. “There’s just a song.”
She should have picked something else like the Rolling Stones or even a damn polka. Walter’s shoulders are hunched forward, sagging under his guilt. Astrid touches his back and whispers, “But it’s not finished.”
“The fugue. Bach never finished this one right? Maybe he was trying to say something.”
“Oh, but there are many theories about why—”
“Yes, well this is mine.” Astrid shifts until they’re facing each other. Walter sways back, unnerved by the sudden movement. She grabs his hands. “There is no such thing as perfection Walter. It may look that way from the outside, but really we’re all just flawed people, making stupid decisions, pretending to be some perfect counterpoint but in the end just the butt of some blind guy’s idea of a practical joke.”
“You mean God.”
“Oh.” Walter frowns. “I’m not sure I understand.”
Astrid releases his hands and sighs. “Let’s listen to something else. Okay Walter?”
“Alright my dear.”