I Can Still Hear Her Burning
Astrid's scream came out of nowhere.
One second he was sitting with Olivia, both stuck in their own little world, laughing at something he had said, and the next-
The next, Astrid was screaming. Startled, he snapped his head around to the center of the lab, where she and Walter had been standing. The change had been so sudden, that Peter was unable to process what was happening at first. He saw Astrid, and he saw the flames, but his brain seemed momentarily unable to put the two things together. Astrid and flames, Astrid and flames, Astrid-
Astrid was on fire. No, how could she possibly be-
Olivia was the first one to react. From the corner of his eye, Peter saw her stand up and run past him, as his brain finally caught up with what was happening. Astrid's jacket was on fire. It was on fire and he needed to do something.
Fire blanket. He ran up to the wall holding it, but all he found when he got there was the empty casing. Shit, where was it? Astrid needed help, she... She wasn't screaming anymore. He turned his attention back to the center of the lab, where Olivia was swaddling Astrid in a thick grey blanket. Peter breathed a sigh of relief and joined them.
'Are you okay?' He asked her. 'What happened?'
'I... The Bunsen burner. It was on... And I...' She shook her head and gave a short, nervous laugh. 'I guess I stood too close...'
Olivia started peeling the blanket off her assistant. 'We should have a look at your arm,' she said. She helped Astrid, whose hands were still shaking, out of her brown jacket.
'I left it on...' Someone muttered next to him. Peter turned, noticing Walter for the first time. The old man stood there, frozen, a half eaten Red Vine still clasped in his hand. 'I left it on...' He kept muttering.
'Walter...?' He called gently, reaching for his father's arm. 'Hey Walter, snap out of it, it's okay, it's over.' Walter shook his head, eyes still locked on Astrid, and stepped out of Peter's reach.
'I left it on...' He muttered again, and then turned and ran out of the lab. Peter sighed and ran a hand through his hair, before turning his attention back to the women. The jacket had come off and Olivia was inspecting Astrid's arm, which, from where he was standing, looked unharmed.
'I better go after him...' He said, and Astrid nodded. 'Are sure you okay?'
Astrid nodded again, but it was Olivia who spoke. 'Looks like the jacket took the most of it.' She looked at him and smiled. 'We're fine here. Go find Walter, make sure he's okay.'
He glanced at Astrid one last time and she gave him a shaky smile. Peter nodded, touched Olivia's shoulder gently as he muttered, 'I'll be right back,' and left the lab.
He finally found Walter sitting on a park bench on the grounds of Harvard University. He was watching the students, but not really seeing them, the forgotten Red Vine still clutched in his hand. Peter sat next to him but remained silent, thinking it was best to let Walter come to it on his own, but after a long minute, Peter decided to change tactics.
'It wasn't your fault, Walter.' He said.
'Yes it was...' Walter whispered, not taking his eyes of the students. A tall, blonde girl was running away from a boy who Peter assumed was her boyfriend, since she was laughing way too loudly and hardly making the effort to get away from him. Sure enough, he caught her, wrapping his arms around her waist and lifting her off the ground, which made her laugh even harder. Peter turned his attention back to Walter. 'It was my fault...' He carried on whispering. 'I left it on. It was my fault, and she burned up...'
'Astrid is fine.' Peter said. He knew that Walter wasn't talking about the young FBI agent. He was thinking about Carla, and the lab fire that had killed her. The fire that had been his fault. 'Astrid isn't burnt, she's fine,' Peter pressed, hoping the name would bring Walter back from whatever dark memories he was dwelling on. It didn't seem to work.
'I can't!' Walter shouted suddenly. 'I can't, she's gone!' He sobbed, tightening his fists so hard, the Red Vine was crushed in two and fell to the ground. 'She's gone and it's all my fault!' Walter settled down as suddenly as he'd gotten all worked up. The young couple had fallen and were now mock wrestling on the grass. 'I can still hear her burning...' Walter muttered. 'In the lab, when it's quiet... I can still hear her burning...'
Peter sighed, placing a gentle hand on his father's shoulder. 'What happened to Carla was an accident,' that you caused, he added to himself, only to chastise his mind for it. Look at the man, he thought. He's in pieces over this.
'An... Accident?' Walter repeated, looking at Peter as he held the key to his vindication.
'Yes, an accident. It was nobody's fault, okay?' Peter pressed. Walter nodded slowly, before pulling his son into a hug that Peter could only return awkwardly.
'Oh, Peter!' He let go of Peter and stood up suddenly. 'Astron! We must check that she is okay!'
'Walter! Walter...' He grabbed the old man's arm as he started running towards the main building. 'Astron-Astrid is fine...' He said, laughing. 'Why don't I take you to her, and you can ask her yourself?'
'Oh, yes, yes...' Walter muttered as Peter began to lead him back to the lab. 'Peter...' He said, stopping suddenly. 'Thank you, son.'
'It's okay, Walter.' He grabbed his father's arm again. 'But you might have to buy Astrid a new jacket.'
'Oh, I saw this lovely maroon coat the other day... With the most beautiful orange daisies!' Walter said excitedly. 'Perhaps we can go get it for her now!'
Peter shook his head, laughing as he imagined Astrid in such a disastrous fashion creation. 'Maybe we'll just give her money...'