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On her first day with the FBI's Fringe Division, Astrid Farnsworth bought ginger ale for a man who'd just been released from a mental institution, oversaw the refitting (at extremely short notice) of a long-disused laboratory in the basement of Harvard's Kresge Building, made up fifty gallons of saline solution for her new boss, Agent Dunham, to float in, and ordered and took delivery of a thousand pounds of silicon and a two-year-old purebred bussaurus cow.

On her second day, she milked the cow.

 

***

 

"Walter, you're being unreasonable!"

Astrid suppressed a wince as she walked into the lab, and wished she'd thought to listen outside the door for a moment before entering. That way, she might have avoided walking in on Dr Bishop and his son when they were having an argument. Then again, after less than two days' acquaintance, she already suspected that the probability of walking in on Dr Bishop and his son when they weren't arguing with each other was pretty low.

"I am not being unreasonable!" Walter shouted, stamping his foot for emphasis on each word. It made him look -- and sound -- like a three year old throwing a tantrum, and undermined any gravitas he might otherwise have achieved. Astrid couldn't help noticing that something that looked a lot like a small plastic model of Big Bird was poking out of the breast pocket of his lab coat. "I am being," -- stamp -- "completely," -- stamp -- "reasonable!" He finished off with an extra loud stamp, then folded his arms obstinately across his chest.

Astrid looked between them. "Is this a bad time?"

Peter shot a glance in Astrid's direction and said, "No, it's a great time, if you want a crash course in the joys of dealing with my father." He looked back to Dr Bishop. "The American government didn't break you out of St Claire's because it's just that nice, Walter. You've got an actual job to do, which means you're going to be expected to produce actual results. So if the FBI is willing to pay for you to have a lab assistant, then you should let them give you an assistant."

Dr Bishop seemed to wilt a little under the force of Peter's glare. He turned away and started to tidy the lab bench nearest to him. Not looking around, he said, "I told you. I won't have someone -- some stranger -- coming into my lab, ruining my work, stealing my things --"

"Right," Peter said witheringly, "because the FBI's science division is just full of incompetent kleptomaniacs."

Dr Bishop didn't answer, just kept tidying his workspace. At least, it looked like he was tidying it: after watching his frantic gestures for several seconds, Astrid realized he was simply moving things about, rearranging them according to some set of complex rules known only to him. Slowly, she walked around to the far side of the bench, so she was standing opposite him. "You know, you're not going to be able to do everything yourself," she said. "You'll need someone to help."

"Peter will help me," he said obstinately.

"Oh, no," Peter said from the other side of the lab. "I want to keep my sanity and avoid committing patricide, and both of those very desirable goals are best served by me not sharing a hotel room with you and being your gofer in here all day."

Peter couldn't see his father's face from where he was standing, but Astrid could, and he looked so crushed that she couldn't help feeling a stab of sympathy for him. His eyes were red-rimmed and downcast, as if he might start crying at any moment. He reminded Astrid of the way her grandfather had been in the months after her grandmother's death: lost and uncertain, always waiting for someone to tell him what he should be doing next.

The silence stretched, broken only by the squeaks of the screws on the metal test-tube stand which Dr Bishop was repeatedly tightening and loosening for no discernible reason.

Finally, Peter put up his hands in a gesture of defeat. "All right, look, if even talking about this is going to induce a full-scale meltdown, then let's not go there right now." In a tone which was less angry, but a lot more weary-sounding, he went on, "I can't be with you 24/7, Walter. Even if I could be, it'd be a really bad idea. If you want this crazy set-up to work, you have to start thinking about how we're going to make it work." He looked like he was going to say more, but right then his cell phone rang, and he pulled it from his pocket to answer it.

Dr Bishop kept adjusting the test-tube stand. Up and down. Up and down. Up and down.

Up and --

"Big Bird was always my favorite, too," Astrid said.

Dr Bishop's hand stopped. He raised his head and looked at Astrid as if she was the one with psychological difficulties.

Astrid looked pointedly at the small plastic toy poking out of the pocket of his lab coat. His expression cleared. "Oh!" He took it out and held it up, smiling broadly. Then he lowered his voice and confided, "We went to McDonalds for dinner last night. I had a Happy Meal. The portion was too small, but I wanted this little fellow." He tapped his index finger against Big Bird's yellow plastic beak. "No one believed him, you know. Not for a very long time. But he was right and they were wrong!"

"Wrong about what?" Astrid asked cautiously.

"About Mr Snuffleupagus, of course."

Astrid stifled her smile. "Of course," she said.

On the other side of the lab, Peter ended the call. "That was the nice people from the FBI's human resources division again. Apparently they need me to sign a form, but they can't let me sign it before I've signed a half dozen other forms." He put his phone away. "C'mon, Walter. Time for another trip downtown."

Dr Bishop's hands gripped the edge of the bench, as if anchoring himself to it. "This is simply intolerable! How am I supposed to achieve anything if I am to be constantly interrupted this way?"

He was getting upset again; Peter, meanwhile, looked like he was heading for 'angry' by way of 'frustrated'. Astrid had read Dr Bishop's file, and knew that the long years he had spent in psychiatric care had been matched by an equally long estrangement from his son, but it was one thing to read about it and another to see it right in front of her, a vast gulf between two people who didn't seem to know how to relate to each other.

"I can stay here with Dr Bishop until you get back," Astrid offered.

Peter looked at her, his expression a warring mixture of guilt at handing off responsibility for his father and relief at the prospect of a temporary respite. Relief seemed to be winning out. "You're sure?"

"It's no problem. I can keep an eye on… things." She looked pointedly in the direction of his father.

Lifesaver, Peter mouthed at Astrid. "Walter, Agent Farnsworth's going to stay with you. I'll be back in a couple of hours." He was already heading for the door with a haste that she suspected wasn't completely warranted.

"Well, good. Now I might actually be able to get on with some work," Dr Bishop sniffed. He dug around in a pocket, and produced a tube of something which he handed to Astrid. When she turned it over, she saw it was a tube of KY Jelly. She looked up at Walter, who was beaming at her. "You'll need this," he said cheerfully.

Astrid stared at him, wondering if this was the weirdest kind of sexual harassment she'd ever encountered and if volunteering to spend a couple of hours alone with Dr Bishop had, in fact, been a really, really bad idea. Very carefully, she said, "Need it for what?"

From the makeshift stall which had been set up in one corner of the lab, the cow made an insistent lowing noise.

Gravely, Dr Bishop said, "For the teats."

Sexual harassment might almost have been preferable, Astrid decided. She suppressed a sigh. "Right."

 

***

 

The thing about milking a cow, Astrid quickly discovered, was that it was hard work. Really hard work. After spending twenty minutes face-to-udder with nine hundred pounds of pedigree bovine, all she had to show for it was a couple of inches of frothy milk in the bottom of a basin and aching hands.

"Ow," she complained, shaking them out to try to relieve the cramping pains shooting up into her wrists. The cow turned its head around to glare reproachfully at her. "No way," she told it. "That's it, I am done."

"But you haven't finished," Dr Bishop said from the other side of the lab, where he was setting up some arcane piece of dangerous-looking equipment.

"If I don't at least take a break, I'm going to give myself repetitive strain injury."

"Hmm, then perhaps I should take over for a while," Dr Bishop said, crossing the lab to join Astrid. Gratefully, she got up from the stool she'd been sitting on and let him take her place.

She had plenty of non-ruminant-related work to do, but she couldn't start any of it until she regained at least some of the feeling in her fingers, and so she found herself watching Dr Bishop as he took over where she had left off. He tugged on the teats of the cow's udders with firm, but not jerky, motions, and started to hum happily to himself as he fell into a rhythm. Very quickly, the level of milk in the basin started to rise. He looked relaxed -- or, at least, more relaxed than Astrid had seen him at any point since she'd first met him -- and it wasn't hard to see that there might be something restful, even therapeutic, in the mindless repetitiveness of the task.

"You've done this before," she observed.

"Hmmm?" Walter asked. He glanced at the cow and blinked, as if surprised anew by its existence. "Oh, this. Yes. Back when I worked with Belly -- William Bell, that is, we shared a lab for a number of years, I hear he's done rather well for himself while I…" he trailed off. "What was I saying?"

"Cows," Astrid prompted.

"Yes!" Walter exclaimed. "We always kept a couple around." He lifted one hand and patted the animal fondly on its flank. "Wonderful creatures. And they've made huge contributions to the advancement of human knowledge, you know. Smallpox, for example."

A memory from one of the undergraduate courses she'd taken tugged at the corner of Astrid's mind. "Oh, that's right -- the first smallpox vaccine was based on cowpox, wasn't it?"

"Very good!" Walter said, looking round at her without breaking the steady, even rhythm of milking. "Cowpox is similar to smallpox, but not nearly so serious. Milkmaids used to get it, and people started to notice that milkmaids who'd had cowpox didn't get sick with smallpox. An English doctor called Edward Jenner decided to test the theory that cowpox could grant immunity from smallpox. He extracted pus from cowpox sores and injected it into a test subject, then exposed the subject to the smallpox virus. The subject didn't get sick, thus proving the vaccine's efficacy."

"Wait," Astrid interrupted. "I remember this. Jenner's 'test subject' was a child."

"Yes," Walter agreed. "The boy was eight, I believe."

Astrid frowned, suddenly recalling the argument she'd had with her class professor the first time she'd heard this story. "That little boy could have died."

"But he didn't," Dr Bishop said. He looked perplexed, as if he really couldn't see the problem. "It was a superb piece of deduction, and an equally brilliantly conceived experiment."

"But what if Jenner had been wrong?"

"The point is that he wasn't wrong!" Dr Bishop said, his voice nearly a shout. The cow mooed loudly, and Astrid saw that he had started pulling harder -- too hard -- on its udders. "No one died, and Jenner was right, and history remembers him as a hero, not as some misguided fool whose recklessness caused the deaths of innocents --"

The cow chose that moment to express her dissatisfaction with the way he was treating her by kicking her back legs, hard. Dr Bishop managed to scramble up from his seat in time to avoid the kick, but the animal's hoof caught the edge of the bucket. Milk spilled out over the floor in a frothy puddle that steamed faintly as it cooled. Dr Bishop stared at it with a degree of horror that was far in excess of what the relatively small accident merited. "Oh," he said quietly. "Oh, my, I…"

"Hey, it's fine," Astrid said quickly. "No harm done. You know what they say abut spilt milk."

It was the right thing to say. He stared at her for a second, and then abruptly his face cleared, and he gave a weak chuckle. "Yes, I see, very good."

Astrid ran and got a mop and a roll of paper towels and started to clear up the mess, while Dr Bishop patted the cow and murmured soft apologies to it. Watching him scratch it affectionately behind the ears, it was hard to believe he wasn't just another harmless eccentric, but she couldn't escape the conclusion that Dr Bishop would have made exactly the same choice as Edward Jenner had, without the excuse of living several centuries in the past. And the justification he'd offered didn't rest on the number of human lives saved by the eradication of a deadly disease, but the purity of the science behind the discovery. It struck Astrid that if ever anyone had ever needed someone else around to keep their more extreme inclinations in check, it was Walter Bishop. And Peter had been entirely right to point out that he couldn't be there all the time.

Still mopping the floor, she asked casually, "Why don't you want a lab assistant, Dr Bishop?"

He didn't answer for a long time, and Astrid had almost decided that he either hadn't heard her or was deliberately ignoring the question, when he said very quietly, "I have my reasons."

She gave the mop one last squeeze and looked up, leaning on it. "If you don't choose an assistant, Agent Broyles will just assign you someone."

He looked at her, expression slyly hopeful. "You could be my assistant."

Oh, no. There was no way she was touching that. "I already have a job helping Agent Dunham," she reminded him, "and, anyway, my background is in linguistics -- I don't know one end of a test tube from the other."

"But I like you," he said simply.

Which was weirdly flattering, but Astrid felt compelled to point out the obvious: "You only met me two days ago."

"I am an excellent judge of character, Miss... um…"

"Farnsworth," Astrid supplied. "Agent Astrid Farnsworth. Look, Dr Bishop, I'll help out as far as I can, but only until you find a permanent assistant. Do you understand?"

"Perfectly," Dr Bishop said.

 

***

 

The first lab assistant was called James Nussbaum. He came straight from Quantico with a string of degrees and glowing recommendations from everyone who'd ever met him, all the way up to the FBI's Director of Science and Technology, whose hand-written letter praised his "exceptional intelligence and ability to push beyond conventional thinking".

He quit on day three.

The second lab assistant came with slightly less glowing references, but was made of sterner stuff. Her name was Tina Levene and her finest quality was her ability to remain calm when presented with anything from the grotesque particulars of a typical Fringe Division case, to the sight of Dr Bishop practicing his golf swing in the middle of the lab, naked. She might even have worked out permanently, if Walter hadn't spiked her coffee with hallucinogens. He swore it was an accident; once Levene stopped believing that a giant seahorse was trying to eat her, she decided the job wasn't for her after all.

Astrid didn't even meet the third lab assistant. He arrived one morning while she was in a meeting at the Federal Building downtown and Agent Dunham and Peter were out following up a lead. When Astrid came back to the lab at one o'clock he wasn't there. Walter said he'd just stepped out for lunch, but by that evening it was pretty clear he wasn't coming back. They never did manage to get the entire story from Walter, and the single useful result of the whole debacle was that they all agreed a new rule, never to let Walter meet anyone by himself again. Ever.

The fourth lab assistant left in protest at what she called, in the lengthy letter she wrote to Agent Broyles, Dr Bishop's "unethical, immoral and frankly unhygienic working practices". She handed in her notice the day before they successfully closed their first case, and so wasn't at that night's impromptu celebratory dinner, which took place at a small pizzeria just off campus. Astrid was the last one to arrive, as she'd driven Roy McComb back to his apartment. He'd been about to get out the car when he'd stopped and pushed the heels of his hands into his eyes and let out a soft sob. "I'm sorry," he'd said when he could speak again. "It's just… I really thought I was going insane, hearing those voices all the time, and now they've stopped, it's like I've got myself back again. I don't know how to say thank you for this. I don't think I'll ever be able to say thank you enough." And Astrid had told him he didn't have to, and had sat with him until he was ready to go back to his life, and on the return drive to Harvard she'd felt a profound sense of pride -- in herself, in her work -- that she couldn't remember ever experiencing before.

That night, Astrid shared ham and pineapple pizza with Peter and Dr Bishop and Agent Dunham, and got drunk on cheap beer and laughed until she couldn't breathe when Peter read the fourth lab assistant's resignation letter in a silly voice, complete with lengthy and fairly insulting digressions about the writer. Which was maybe a little -- okay, a lot -- unfair, because the lab assistant had been mostly right, especially about Dr Bishop's habit of snacking during autopsies. But that wasn't the point. The point was that they were a team, now, and anyone who couldn't work with Dr Bishop wasn't going to work out, period. And, anyway, Astrid thought, drowsy from a pleasant excess of beer and pizza, Walter wasn't that bad, really. Erratic, sure, and he still couldn't get her name right two times out of three, but he was kind at heart, and essentially harmless. She didn't know why Peter was so hard on him all the time.

 

***

 

She changed her mind when Dr Bishop overpowered her and injected her with a syringe full of sedative. When Astrid regained consciousness, she was lying on the lab floor, freezing cold, with a cramp in her neck and pins and needles in her hands and feet.

"I was simply doing what was necessary to protect us all," he told her afterward. She listened politely while he made his little speech -- it sounded as if he'd been rehearsing it in his head for a while -- but she couldn't bring herself to smile and tell him everything was fine, when it really wasn't.

"You know, coming from Walter, that almost counts as an apology," Peter said when she told him.

They were sitting in a booth at one of the coffee shops close to the Harvard campus. It was late; there were only a few other customers, all students. She'd hadn't been very surprised when Peter had casually asked her if she wanted to grab a coffee with him, as she'd been avoiding the lab -- and, by extension, Walter -- for days. It hadn't even been difficult, since it was just as easy to do a lot of her job from her desk in the Federal Building.

"Funny, I don't remember hearing the word 'sorry'," Astrid said, idly stirring her hot chocolate. It was an indulgence, but screw it, she'd had that kind of week. "It sounded more like self-justification to me."

"Yeah, that's my father -- owning up to his mistakes has never been one of his talents." He hesitated. "He likes you, you know."

"He told me that," Astrid said. "He also stuck a syringe in my neck."

"Just think what he might have done if he didn't like you," Peter joked.

Astrid didn't laugh. "He can't even get my name right. Last week, he called me Astrogirl. Twice."

"Walter's taken so many drugs that it's impressive he remembers his own name, never mind anyone else's. Would it help if I said sorry on his behalf?"

Peter smiled, and by now Astrid knew him well enough to recognize that he was using his considerable reserves of charm on her. It would have been flattering, if she hadn't been suddenly reminded of the way Walter could be charming, too, right up until the moment he suddenly wasn't anymore. Walter would have injected a small child with smallpox, just to see what would happen. That was fundamentally the kind of man he was. It was the kind of man he would always be. She shouldn't have allowed herself to forget it.

Firmly, she said, "Not really, no. Dr Bishop can speak for himself." She eyed him steadily. "So can you, so say what you mean to say."

Peter looked at her for a few seconds, then held up his hands in a gesture of surrender. "That's fair enough. Here goes, then." He leaned forward a little and said, "If you're thinking about leaving, please don't. We need you. I need you. Walter really needs you. And I know you didn't join the FBI to play minder to a half-cracked geriatric savant, but --" He broke off, apparently not having given enough thought to how he was going to finish that sentence.

"…But I'm good at it?" Astrid suggested, raising an eyebrow.

At least he had the grace to look embarrassed. Grinning weakly, he said, "I guess you'd be offended if I said yes."

Astrid let out a sigh. "Weirdly? No." She sipped her hot chocolate glumly. "I always thought I'd end up being an academic. Then, when I was almost through grad school, 9/11 happened. After that, I felt like I should be out there, doing something to make the world safer. So I joined the Bureau, but with a background in linguistics and computer science, I ended up getting assigned to research, so I might as well have still been in college. When I applied for a position assisting a field agent, pretty much everyone tried to talk me out of it; they said that wasn't where my talents were. But I wanted to do something on the front line."

Peter smiled. "Be careful what you wish for, huh."

"Some mornings, I wish I'd stayed where I was," Astrid confessed. "I'm not qualified for this. I wasn't trained to carry out autopsies or help wire people's brains up to machines that project their thoughts. I'm so far out of my comfort zone, right now I'd need GPS to even find it. I have no idea what I'm doing most of the time."

"And how many buses encased in blocks of amber do you think I'd seen before last week?" Peter asked. "Okay, so the learning curve is steep, but you're climbing it pretty damn fast. You're smart enough to keep up with my father, and patient enough to put up with him. You can handle him better than I can, most days."

And that was the heart of the problem, Astrid saw suddenly, because she was deep in unknown territory, and the only person she could rely on to guide her was someone whose motives she doubted.

She took a breath and said, "But I don't trust him."

Peter looked at her for a moment. "Well, you're probably right not to," he said at last. "You've read his file, right? You know why he was in St Claire's."

"The lab accident," Astrid said. "His assistant was killed. Dr Bishop was declared unfit to stand trial."

Peter nodded. "Walter's like... He's like a live electrical cable, flailing about, spitting sparks. A huge amount of energy and power, but without control. He could get up in the morning and do something amazing or something terrible, and I'm not sure he knows how to make the choice. I'm not sure he even knows there is a choice."

"He knows," Astrid said with certainty. "If he didn't, he wouldn't feel so guilty about --" She broke off, realizing what she'd just said. "Oh. Oh. Where is he now?"

"Walter? He's still at the lab." Peter glanced at his watch. "I should go and get him."

Astrid got up and started to put on her coat. "I'll go."

Peter looked at her doubtfully. "You know, if you're still mad at him --"

"I'm not mad at him," Astrid said, and was surprised to realize it was true. "But there are some things I need to ask him."

"Does that mean you're staying?" Peter asked.

She shrugged on her coat. "That kind of depends on the answers."

 

***

 

Someone -- probably not Walter -- had thought to switch off the main overhead lights before going home for the night, and when Astrid walked into the lab, she found it dimly lit and wreathed in shadows. The only patch of brightness was the cow's stall in the corner, where Walter was sitting on the low stool, squeezing milk into a plastic basin and singing softly to the animal, or maybe to himself. The cow noticed Astrid before he did, lifting its head and lowing softly at her as she approached.

"Hey, girl," Astrid said, stroking its head affectionately.

Walter looked up, his face cracking into a wide smile when he saw her. "Why, Agent Farnsworth," he said, enunciating her name with such deliberate emphasis that she knew he was trying very, very hard. "It's good to see you! I feel I haven't seen you in days." He stopped, and frowned. "Although my perception of time is admittedly somewhat unreliable, so I must consider the possibility that in fact you simply popped out five minutes ago."

He looked so innocently befuddled that it would have been easy to feel sorry for him. But pity wasn't what Walter Bishop deserved or, for that matter, what he needed.

"The last time you saw me was Tuesday afternoon," Astrid reminded him, "at the Federal building. We talked about how you drugged me, remember?" When his blank expression didn't shift, she went on, "You said you'd let me inject you if I wanted, but that you'd probably enjoy it."

Walter chuckled. "That does sound like me, yes."

"Dr Bishop," Astrid said, "I've come to tell you I'm not going to be your assistant anymore."

"Oh," Walter said. His eyes flicked down to the floor. "I suppose that's… understandable, in the circumstances."

Astrid hesitated, mindful of all the ways this conversation could go disastrously wrong at this point. Quietly, she said, "You had an assistant before, didn't you?"

Walter's expression grew distant. "Yes. Her name was Carla Warren. She was a lovely girl. So intelligent. And so young. She had so many things ahead of her. So much to look forward to." He looked up and said, suddenly, "Just like you."

"No," Astrid said quickly. "I'm not Carla, and you know that. I'm a federal agent, Dr Bishop. I knew there were risks when I chose my profession -- okay," she conceded, "maybe I didn't know about the kinds of things I've seen since I took this assignment, but knowing what's really out there is just making me more sure I made the right choice."

Walter wasn't saying anything, but he was looking directly at her, and there was a calm, lucid quality in his gaze that made Astrid feel he was evaluating her.

"You've been scaring off lab assistants faster than we can recruit them, but you let me stay and help the whole time, even though you know I don't have the right experience for this. You've been trying so hard not to think of me as permanent that you won't even let yourself remember my name. You need someone to help you, but you don't need an assistant." Astrid stopped for a second and looked right back at him, meeting his gaze, challenging him. "The FBI assigns its agents partners."

She waited.

"Partners," Walter said thoughtfully.

"We make a good team," she told him, "but you have to trust me. And I have to know I can trust you."

"Partners," Walter repeated. He nodded, very slowly. "How… how might that work?"

"Well, it'd start with you saying sorry for drugging me, and it'd go on to you getting my name right, and telling me what you're doing instead of hiding things from me."

Walter nodded again. He was quiet for a few seconds, and then he said, "I'm sorry, Astrid."

"That's okay, Walter."

"Are we partners now?"

"We're partners now."

Walter reached up and slapped the cow affectionately on its flank. "Agent Farnsworth and I are partners! What do you think of that, Jean?"

"Our cow is called Jean?" Astrid asked. She tried to remember if she'd ever heard Walter call it that before.

"Not Jean," Walter said: "Gene. G-E-N-E."

"You said you wanted a cow because their DNA is similar to humans," Astrid remembered. "You wanted her for her genes." She grinned. "That's pretty funny, Walter."

"Hmmm? Oh, no," Dr Bishop said. "Actually, I named her after Gene Tierney, the actress. I think there's a striking resemblance, don't you?"

The cow -- Gene -- ducked her head, modestly accepting the compliment. Then she mooed loudly, as if to indicate that this talking was all very well, but could they please get back to the business of milking her at some point in the near future?

"Here, let me," Astrid said, and motioned to Walter to step aside so she could take his place on the stool. She hadn't expected to do a lot of cow-milking in this job, but on the other hand, she hadn't expected to do a lot of the things she'd been doing lately. And while her life was frequently weird, often surreal, and occasionally freaky and dangerous, she knew suddenly that it was the life she wanted. The one she'd chosen.

"I brought something for you," she called to Dr Bishop. "It's on the table."

She waited until he located the large paper bag on the far lab bench, bearing the McDonalds logo. As he carried it over, the warm smell of grease-soaked cardboard floated ahead of him, mundane and comforting. "A Happy Meal!" Walter declared, practically ripping the bag in his enthusiasm to get to the food inside. "And, look, Astrid, it has a Mr Snuffleupagus toy! What a wonderful piece of luck -- now I have the complete set!"

Gene tipped her head at Astrid, and gave a questioning moo. Astrid smiled back knowingly, and kept milking.

 

[END]