She's so light in his arms, and getting lighter by the second.
Walter is a man of science and reason; he knows fully well that Astrid Farnsworth is no balloon slowly losing air, to crumple until there is only skin left. It is only a trick of his own mind, his own circulatory system brought to its knees -- much like he himself on this concrete floor, looking up at a man he thought he'd lost decades ago and hearing his words as if from far away: not their resounding clang but only their faint echo.
In the present, in his arms, Astrid is is bleeding out. Walter has never seen her face so still, lips slack and tinted grey. Shock, he thinks, and for a millisecond doesn't know whether he means hers or his. His left hand cradling the small of Astrid's back is warm, 98.6 degrees and slick, slippery. He can smell mineral ions and proteins breaking down. But he can't be doing so too, he cannot, he must not. With great effort, he focuses on -- no, not Belly; no longer Belly. This is not his friend, who smiles as if nothing has happened.
Everything has happened and still is happening to Astrid because of his, Walter's plan. Or maybe it's not only his doing alone, although following a chain of causality means leaving the realms of logic to enter the realms of ethics. And there, Walter is a stranger and always has been.
"William," Walter says -- stiffly, too stiffly, because William Bell laughs.
It's a kind sound, in spite of it all: raspy and familiar enough to make his chest ache and his fingers shake a little. "Walter, she was right; this is just a misunderstanding."
There is nothing just about this, and Walter does understand. William Bell's hired men were trying to kill the woman who has been by his side every step of this way, post-St. Claire's, but it's not what turns his own blood to ice. If anyone knows about mistakes made, it is Walter. No, it's the fact that William can still smile, and mean it. Because to William, Astrid is nothing and no one.
"Let's get her inside my tech lab, shall we? I'm terribly sorry, of course." William does look contrite, coughs. "I will help her, and in turn you can help me, Walter."
"How?" Not the first question he usually asked. He and Belly always started with What? But that was then; this is Astrid getting weaker by the minute now. "We need, we need an ambulance, a hospital, immediate surgery --"
"No, old friend; all we need is my little helpers. They will mend her from the inside."
The nanites. Of course. Walter exhales. His vision is blurring; he blinks away the moisture. "Yes, well, what are we waiting for; can, can these gentlemen go and get them, perhaps, and do it right now?" His voice is pleading, he knows but doesn't care.
"Walter." Still so amiable. "This is a complicated matter, but I need you to trust me and come with me. You will see why I have been orchestrating all of this after I've had the time to explain. Once I have your promise you'll listen."
Walter is listening. To the faint wheeze of Astrid's breath, the slow-and-slower beat of her heart. Walter's relied on its steadiness for what feels so long yet isn't nearly long enough. If it is Astrid weighed against the world, Walter hopes he will not be tempted to pay the price, hopes he will not be selfish. He is not William Bell and likes to think he never was (only that is a lie). But like his son, he can pretend. "I promise."
One of the goons grunts and tries to wave Walter away, bending down to pick up the gun next to Astrid. Then he clearly wants to pick Astrid up too. His hand touches her shoulder.
"No!" Walter startles at the sound of his own voice, even louder in the void of the warehouse.
The men don't, but they go quiet for a moment before the one right in front of Astrid laughs. "Suit yourself, and carry her, old man."
Walter doesn't waste his energy by nodding but shields her from their gaze and their grip, shifts a little. His right knee, where the arthrosis is worse, sends a spike of pain up his leg at the movement, but he manages to swallow his gasp and cradle Astrid gently, to lay her head against his chest. She's not a child, but gravity-wise she might as well be. Foolish of him, but folly brought him here in the first place -- that and determination. It'll bring Astrid to the lion's lab, where Walter can think: think and devise a plan to save her, save her life and the fate of the world. If wishes were winged horses he'd be over the moon.
Lifting her, his fingers tighten on her hip, press against something soft, malleable...and crumbly? Walter feels his heart-rate pick up, covers it by clumsily settling Astrid more firmly against his chest, turning away from the henchmen. Making his first steps, panting without any pretense, Walter reaches into the side pocket of her coat. He touches plastic and, after another poke, the lemon cake.
The lemon cake containing cortexiphan.
William Bell ducks his head and takes the lead, and behind him Walter follows. The goons are three steps behind Walter, flanking him. No escape, except of his own baking. Walter has to press his lips together not to grin maniacally. Sweat covers his skin when he takes his first steps, carrying Astrid in his arms. But he manages to break off a first bite from the cake and, masking the motion by sweetly stroking her cheek, feed it to her. Her throat works, Astrid's body responding dutifully to empty her throat. Walter realises he is making soft cooing sounds that make one of his captors snort in derision and the other one turn his head away as if embarrassed. Neither of their reactions is inappropriate; it's strange for Walter to run his fingers over Astrid's skin. The gesture is not invited, and he will never do it again. But here, there is no other way. Surreptitiously, he feeds her a second piece of cake, and a third.
When Walter glances ahead, the lab is maybe fifteen steps away, a metal door leading into a mobile cube of aluminum. Around them are cages made from an alloy unknown to Walter that reflects almost no light, half-blending into the background, empty yet not quite. Walter can see, on their respective floors, feathers and fur, the shimmer of a skin that's been shed, only there are no snakes with the circumference of a minivan.
A sixth bite. William Bell lets out a grateful, elderly sigh, reaches out to the sensor by the door.
The last bit of the cake disappears in Astrid's mouth. Walter is the one who swallows, hard. If he keeps walking now, it'll only be a few moments until the metal door will close behind him and Astrid. But she stirs, breathes. The slow drip of blood against his fingers has stopped. The bullet hole through her coat is still there, of course. Walter's index finger fits right through it, encounters only warm skin that's unbroken. He puts his hand to her ear. "Be quiet," he murmurs. "We have to run when I say so." Astrid's eyelids flutter, and he would swear he saw the corner of her mouth twitch upward.
The door swings open, and William Bell looks back over his shoulder at them. "Come on in, Walter. Inside, we can help her."
Not, help Astrid. Bell doesn't know her name, or her function, except of course as a pawn in his game. But pawns, Walter thinks, only need to reach the end of the board. The fingers sliding over his, hidden by him carrying her, are small but strong. Astrid squeezes his hand and nods almost imperceptibly.
"Of course, oh, ouch, that --" Walter lets out a moan, lets Astrid slide down a little so her feet touch the ground. He curls forward as if in greater pain than he really is. "My back!"
"Jesus fuck," Number One mutters behind him, "I knew it."
"Hey, come on," Number too says, something almost like concern in his voice.
Both of them are close: close enough that Astrid, once she is putting weight on her legs, can jab her elbow against the underside of Number One's chin with the full force of arm and shoulder and years of field training. He doesn't even have time to scream; he just drops.
Number Two does yell at them, charges at Astrid and Astrid alone, which is a bit of a mistake because Walter just needs to stand up abruptly and shove him at the precise angle of intersection of their two paths. Kinetic energy is simple to calculate, only not for Two, who is thrown off his trajectory, stumbling. Astrid sweeps him then: shift-falls into a crouch and swings her own leg in a wide arc so he too goes down, his head hitting concrete.
"Walter," she breathes, "let's go." Her eyes are wide and keen.
He'd like to call it running; it's really more like very fast hobbling, because his knee hurts and his L3 intervertebral disc really needs a check-up after this, but they don't have to run too far, because there's the sound of sirens and the red-and-blue flicker of law enforcement reflecting in the high, dust-caked windows of the warehouse. "I -- I texted Broyles he should check up on us after an hour," Astrid gasps, "so they must've tracked the car's GPS when they couldn't get us on the line."
Perhaps there is such a thing as magic, after all, because his name conjures him up. Walter has always had tremendous respect for Phillip Broyles but, he thinks, never as much as right now, when in the midst of beams and the faint smell of almonds Broyles appears, suited and regal as ever and taking it all in. He's surrounded by FBI agents fanning out and going deeper into the structures, as pointed by Astrid. She looks after them, as if wanting to follow.
Walter tugs at her sleeve, seized by panic he didn't feel up to this -- very late -- point. His fingers are trembling. "Don't -- don't go, Aspen. We don't know how long the cortexiphan holds."
"Walter." Very gently, Astrid slides his hand off her arm. Her smile is firm, though. "We don't know how long this world holds. But it's okay. I wasn't leaving."
And that's all he needs to hear right now.