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The Center, Holding

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Walter stumbled backwards as the doctor turned away into the emergency room.  She caught one elbow with her gloved hand, steadying him.  "Walter, come on, let's go find somewhere to wait."

He'd looked confused and helpless, and she understood the feeling.  She'd been here more than once, steadying her mother as her grandfather was wheeled behind dull stainless doors, parsing physicians' words and making decisions that shouldn't have been hers to make.  She had the sinking feeling that today she'd have yet more to make.

Walter followed her docilely, unseeing, as they settled into ugly orange plastic chairs.  He didn't even acknowledge her when she told him she was going to see the duty nurse at the desk, to check in and get whatever paperwork might be needed.  Not that he would be much help in filling it out; other than blood type, which he'd already given to them, she knew everything else.  He seemed to sink deeper into himself as he answered the questions for the hospital admissions paperwork, monotone, robotic answers she had to drag from him just to keep him engaged and aware of what was going on.  

When she came to the emergency contact information, the nib of her pen hovered over the blank line.  Legally, she knew that Walter, as next of kin, should be the decision maker.  But should, or could, he?  He'd been willing to let go, let him go into that mechanical monstrosity this afternoon.  She neatly printed his name, and rose, suddenly finding her hand gripped tightly in his, not letting go.  "I'll be right back, Walter," she soothed, disengaging, freed hand on his shoulder for a moment before stepping away to return the clipboard to the desk.

By the time she'd returned to his side, the doctor had emerged, running a hand through already messy hair.  "You're the next of kin?"

Walter stared mutely, pleadingly.  It was left to Astrid to explain, "He's Dr. Walter Bishop, father of Peter Bishop, who was just brought in following an injury sustained while working as a consultant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  I'm Agent Astrid Farnsworth.  I'll be handling the situation here on behalf of the Bureau."  She extended a hand, and he sized her up for a moment before taking it.  

"Agent Farnsworth.  I'm Dr. Talbot, the emergency attending.  We've got Mr. Bishop's vitals stabilized," he said, looking down at Walter as he spoke, before returning his gaze to Astrid.  "He's still unresponsive, though stable, so we'd like to take him up for a CT and MRI to rule out spinal injury from the fall, and ascertain the extent of his head trauma."

"Of course."  She nodded in assent, then wondered whether it was Walter's agreement was necessary as well.  "Walter?"

"Yes, yes.  I told you all this when he was brought in," Walter insisted.

Dr. Talbot nodded sharply.  "I'll keep you posted.  We'll definitely be admitting him, and a nurse will notify you of where we'll be taking him once the tests are finished."

Astrid nodded, already picking up her phone to update Broyles.  "Thank you, Dr. Talbot."

The doctor disappeared back into the emergency department, as she put a hand on Walter's shoulder, feeling the tension radiating off of him.  He was not a man who sat idly by.  Nor was Broyles, who answered on the first ring of her phone.  "It's Farnsworth.  Peter's stable, but they're taking him down to imaging now.  I'm here with Walter.  Have you spoken to Olivia?"  She spoke five languages, but she wasn't sure she wanted to find the words in any of them to explain to Olivia what had happened.

"I have.  She's on her way, and should be there within the hour.  Keep me posted."

"Yes, sir."  Tucking the phone back in her coat pocket, she turned to Walter and put a hand on his forearm.  "Olivia's coming."

The nod was barely more than a wobble of his head.  "Good.  Maybe she will have learned something.  Because I don't know..."  He trailed off, and she could see tears welling in his flustered face, threatening to spill over and become a fit of frustrated rage.

"I don't know either."  She squeezed his hand, and was reassured when he clasped hers in return, tightly, as if she was all that was stable in the world.  "Why don't I ask the desk where he's going after the imaging, and we can go see if the cafeteria has milkshakes, all right?  That might help us think, while we're waiting."

The look he gave her suggested he found the proposition ludicrous, but he let her guide him over to the desk.  He said nothing as they were informed that Peter would be taken to a room on the third floor following the MRI; even if he woke, he would be spending the night for observation.  Astrid could see he wanted to give more instructions to the nurse, but she tugged him away before he could do so.

Walter seemed to grow steadier during their walk to the cafeteria, and didn't protest when she settled him at a table and left to get them something.  Normally, she knew, he'd want full input on snack selection.  But she was grateful for a few moments to herself, to take a few shudderingly deep breaths and not have to worry that the fear might creep into her face and worry him further.

When she returned to the booth with a strawberry milkshake for him, she settled in across from him and took a long sip of her vanilla one.  She stayed quiet, knowing he'd need to talk, to put into words at least some of what was going on in his head.  He was not the strong silent type.

Eventually, he broke the quiet.  "He didn't want to do it, but thought he had to.  For us, for all of us.  He'd wanted my help with understanding that machine, but I didn't want to know.  I thought if we just left it alone, he would be safe."  He looked at her, plaintively, eyes teary, and all she could do was nod in encouragement and understanding, even if she didn't always understand.  "I did a terrible thing to save his life.  It shouldn't be his responsibility to fix the rift between universes caused by what I did for him.  I caused this.  It should be me."

"Walter...."  She was not sure what to say, because she couldn't say he was wrong.  But she also couldn't blame him for an act of misguided love, not now.  It was enough, she hoped, that she was listening.

Looking at him as he stared at her, trying to understand the incomprehensible, he looked, for the first time since she'd met him, like a very old man.  He looked like a grandfather in his buttoned up sweater and tweed cap, someone who should be out playing golf or building birdhouses, or whatever it was old scientists did in their dotage.  She thought, again, of sitting in another hospital, another time, in another violet coat, beside her mother as she tried to make sense of things beyond her grasp.

She began again, "My grandmother was a regular churchgoer.  Every Sunday, she'd get dressed up, put on a fancy hat, and go to services.  She always wore purple.  But it was more for the sociology than the theology.  I don't know what she really believed in.  I was twelve when she was diagnosed with stomach cancer.  She had to make a decision about what to do, if anything, knowing prognosis was poor anyway."

This was not a story she'd shared.  Pausing, she thoughtfully stirred the straw through her shake, and looked up at Walter, watching her attentively.  "She went for a walk, told us she had to go somewhere to think it over.  When she didn't come back after two hours, we went out looking for her.  I was on my bike, heading up the sidewalk past the Catholic church.  It had something next door, nuns or a monastic order, something like that, and between it and the church itself was a garden.  I saw her sitting in there by a statue of a saint, talking to no one, her bright purple coat almost blending in with the flowers.  I went in and asked her why she was there, because we weren't Catholic.  She told me that she'd just been walking, trying to clear her head and think, and saw the garden and statue of St. Francis, and thought maybe someone would listen to her."

Walter stared at her for a long moment, as if working out a particularly vexing equation.  "Thank you, Astrid," was all he said before returning to his shake, still looking troubled, but calmer and not quite as closed off from the world.

As they finished up their milkshakes, she checked her phone.  No messages, just a text from Olivia that she was on her way.  She quickly sent a response to meet them on the third floor when she arrived.  "Are you ready to go up and see if Peter's in his room yet?"  She picked up both empty cups, heading for the trash can with them.  When she returned to the table, he was standing beside it, deep in thought.

She hooked her arm through his and began to lead them toward the elevators, patiently waiting for what he might say.  As they waited, he finally spoke.

"Do you think there's somewhere here that someone might listen?"

"I'm sure there is.  But let's go see how Peter's tests went first, all right?  Then I'll help you find it."

On the third floor, they were directed to room 314, which stood empty.  They'd just walked back out into the hallway when the section's doors parted to admit a team, wheeling a still-unconscious Peter.  At the head of the gurney was a young man, no older than she was, in a white coat.

"Dr. Bishop?  Agent Farnsworth?"

She nodded, but next to her, Walter couldn't take his eyes off Peter.  "I'm Farnsworth."

"Dr. Hahn, neurology.  His CT looked good, and he shows no signs of spinal trauma.  The MRI indicated some slight swelling consistent with a mild concussion, but nothing that we would expect to cause loss of consciousness on this level.  At this point, what we'd like to do is just observe for several hours and monitor his condition.  By morning, if we're not seeing any alteration, we can explore our options."

"I have some research..." began Walter, before turning back to Peter, motionless in the hospital bed.  He seemed to think better of whatever suggestion he'd been about to make, and said simply, "Thank you, doctor."

She stepped out into the hall after the doctor left, giving Walter a few minutes alone with Peter.  There were a few chairs in a little alcove near the desk, and she sat down to check her messages.  A text with an ETA from Olivia, and a voicemail from Broyles informing her that there had been more reported incidents, including a mass of frogs in the Hudson and a square acre of scorched earth in eastern Vermont.  Suspended from the ceiling, a TV played CNN on mute, where people appeared to be talking about a rash of bad weather and unusual tornado activity.  One of the background images showed Dorothy looking out her window to see Ms. Gulch pedaling by, and Astrid wished something as simple as ruby slippers existed, so she could click her heels three times and make the world right again.

In the midst of this reverie, Walter broke in, standing just inside the edge of her peripheral vision, hands kneading one another.  "I think I'd like to go to the chapel for a bit now."

"The sign in the elevator said it's down on the second floor.  Do you want me to go down with you?"

"No, dear, I'd like some time alone.  Just, if you could, stay with Peter."

"Of course, Walter."  Standing, she hugged him, and felt him take a deep breath, sighing as he pulled away from her.  He said nothing as he made his way out to the elevators.

Peter's room was quiet but for the steady beep-beep of the heart rate monitor.  He was breathing on his own, and had had the gash on his forehead cleaned and bandaged; he could merely have been sleeping.  In her time working for the Fringe division, she'd certainly seen enough to believe that the unconscious could perceive the world around them, so she settled into one of the bedside chairs, more comfortable than those in the waiting area, and took his hand, carefully avoiding the IV port and pulse monitor.

"Hi, Peter.  Walter's gone for a bit of a walk--don't worry, he won't wander off too far--so you're stuck with me until Olivia gets here.  She's on her way, and--" glancing down at her watch, she noted it was getting late--"she should be here soon.  All the tests were clear, but you've got a little concussion.  You'll probably have an awful headache when you wake up."

She hated this.  She never knew what to say, or if what she said mattered.  If there'd been a book or magazine, she'd have just read aloud to fill time and the space left by the silence in the room.  Not naturally chatty, she chose to just sit for a while, Peter's hand feeling warm and alive against hers, giving her hope.

After some time, Dr. Hahn returned to the room.  "We're going to do a check on him every half hour for the first few hours, see whether his reflexes are responding.  If those remain good, we may move back to checking every hour."

"They've been good so far?"

"Yes, he's responding to reflexive stimuli, which is positive.  So I'm going to start--"

They heard commotion out in the hall, and Astrid rose as she recognized Olivia's voice.  Nodding at the doctor, who began his exam, she stepped out into the corridor to see Olivia, looking frantic.

"Olivia!"

Her head snapped up at Astrid's voice, and she looked ready to sprint down the hall.  Astrid took a deep breath, trying to gather her thoughts and make some sense of things, before briefing her on the situation.  Olivia's face grew more worried as she continued, so she tried to keep it succinct and factual.  "The doctor's in with him now."

Olivia nodded, slowly, and looked ready to collapse herself.  Astrid put a steadying arm around her shoulders, thinking that though she looked like she needed a hug, she would never ask for nor accept one.  This would have to do.  "Let's go see him, all right?"

They passed Dr. Hahn on their way into the room, and he simply nodded in acknowledgment.  Reaching the bedside, Astrid let Olivia go, knowing she wasn't seeing the federal agent, but the woman.  "I'll be out in the hall if you need me."  She stepped back, out into the hall, as she watched Olivia sink into the chair she'd so recently vacated, crying silently and kissing Peter's hand.  She felt like an intruder, and turned away, returning to the little alcove of chairs.

After calling Broyles to update him, and receiving no news in kind, she closed her eyes and let her head fall back against the wall.  She drew a few deep breaths, inhaling the cool sterile air of the hospital.  The area was quiet but for the low hum of indistinct voices and machinery.  She tried to make sense of what they knew of the machine and its operation, and wished she'd spent more time trying to decipher what information they had on it.  The answer had to be there, somewhere.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the return of Walter, looking a little steadier, though still troubled.  "Astrid?  Why are you out here?  Is Peter...?"

"He's fine.  Olivia just got here, and she's in with him now.  I wanted to give her a few minutes."

He looked thoughtful for a minute, then asked, "You don't think she'd mind if I joined her?"

"I think she'd like it very much."  She watched him walk down the hall, lingering in the doorway to the room for a long moment.  She could see him speaking, but couldn't make out the words, then watched him stagger into the room.  They needed some time together, she knew.  While both Walter and Olivia were there, she made her way down to the vending machines at the other end of the hall, getting bad coffee for all of them, opting for decaf for Walter, who needed no further stimulation tonight.

By the time she came back to the room, the two were huddled together at the bedside, Olivia holding Peter's hand, fingers interlaced.  Wordlessly, she handed over the foam cups, then sat down on the other side of the bed, next to the monitors.

Their night's vigil was interrupted only by the regular arrival of nurses, checking vitals, and doctors, checking status.  Olivia seemed to have turned off her phone; it was only Astrid who slipped from the room at regular intervals, checking in at headquarters, at Massive Dynamic, with Broyles, hoping for some clue, some cure.  Instead, all she got were more questions and more bad news, of a thrumming machine and world destroying vortexes.  She'd bring more coffee back to the room after each departure.  

In the small hours, after both Walter and Olivia had dozed off, Walter slumping with his chin on his chest and Olivia resting her head on the bed, right by Peter's limp hand, Astrid sat and watched, listening to the steady electronic heartbeat on the monitors, and the steady respiration of all those caught up in this apocalyptic maelstrom.  She hoped that with morning, some enlightenment might come, and they would be able to hold their world together.

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