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The Rhapsody of Things As They Are

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***

Charlie Francis has seen a lot of weird shit since he started working for Fringe Division. Hell, he's had arachnids swimming in his blood, ready to turn him into a proud and pretty dead spider mama if he didn't dose himself every six hours with a growth inhibitor. But this … he still has no idea how he's going to file this report.

***

It starts with a class one event that's really a milk run for Linc, Liv and him and in hindsight, that should have been a warning because nothing is ever easy.

It turns out that it's not a vortex but some anti-amber activists on a vendetta. They catch him, Liv and Linc, and he's almost impressed that they manage so much. The masked little twerps also have the nerve to gag and bind them in the ratty old shed they lured them to. They set fire to the shed. "See how the ambered feel," is the final greeting and Charlie hates this day, because how the hell does ambering compare to being burned alive? They couldn't even get that bit right?

He hates the day even more when he sees the mounting look of panic in Linc's eyes when he takes in the flames licking toward the gasoline spilled on the floor. Fire. Out of all things, when Linc has just recovered from the third degree burns sustained by that freak from the other universe. Even with their trackers active and help likely already on the way, the cavalry is never going to make it in time to stop them from being burnt to a crisp.

Charlie's not going to watch him go through that again. Hell, he has no intention for any of them to go through that, first or second time around.

Their attackers haven't used zip ties to bind their hands so with a judicious amount of shuffling and caterpillaring over the dirty floorboards and the help of Liv's smaller hands reaching the pocket knife in his cargo pants, they manage to cut through the restraints at the very last moment before the fire reaches the gasoline and hell breaks loose around them.

Charlie has seen the door at the other side of the shed. He grabs Linc and Liv by their elbows and barges ahead, pulling them with him. The explosion behind them gives them enough velocity they burst through the old, splintering wood of the closed door and find themselves tumbling down a rotten staircase into the darkness of the basement. They land on something that groans and gives under their combined weight. Charlie hears glass break. His head hurts and he feels dozens of splinters from the door bite into his hands and face.

Liv's hair is burning at the tips and she claps her bare hands against it to quench the flames. For the fraction of a second, he sees her face, then everything's dark again The stomach-turning stench of singed hair and skin fills the basement within seconds.

Somewhere to his left, he hears Linc breathing hard. He's brushing wood splinters and glass from his jacket with a sound of disgust that morphs into one of bitten back pain. The flickering of the flames above them doesn't provide enough light to see him, but Charlie thinks that Linc will have his face and hands full of splinters from the door just like he does. "I hate fire," Linc says.

"Right there with you, buddy," Charlie says. He's surprised that Linc isn't freaking out more. God knows, if Charlie were in his shoes, he would be. He's shaky enough as is. Then again, he knows that even if Linc can't lie, he's pretty good at deflecting. He thinks that if he could see Linc’s eyes, he’d see bright, blinding panic.

"Where the hell are we?" Liv asks.

The light from the inferno above them isn't enough to light the basement, so he fishes a pen light from one of his pockets and darts the small beam of light over their surroundings. The dust in the air has him sneezing a couple of times. The basement looks like a suspiciously well-stocked lab and the glass he heard breaking, the glass he heard Linc brushing off his jacket earlier – it's vials. Vials that weren't empty, judging by the powdery residue that's now floating in the air and glittering in the flashlight's beam.

Linc sneezes as well, and Liv follows. That can't be good.

"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Charlie asks.

"Get the eggheads," Linc and Liv chorus.

***

It all goes to hell in a handbasket soon after that.

They're placed in quarantine after the lead egghead, a petite Argentinean scientist by the name of Dr. Silvina Casares, whom Charlie frankly finds terrifying, takes one look at the lab and declares a full lock-down.

The decontamination vehicle is a black monstrosity that gives Charlie the creeps whenever he sees it. Like an oversized coffin.

"What's up, Charles?" Liv asks in a cheerful voice that grates on his nerves. No one should be this cheerful with their palms blistered from the fire they just escaped. "Feeling a little uncomfortable?"

Charlie forces himself to relax and drop his shoulders a fraction. "Happy as a pig in shit."

Liv snorts.

"Agents," Dr. Casares says. She sounds like a damn drill-sergeant and Charlie feels himself standing at attention even though he never was in the military in the first place. The woman is scary. She's barely twenty-five. No one so young should be that scary. "Get in."

There are no niceties with Casares, ever. Charlie finds himself scrambling into the vehicle's back faster than he normally would have just to get away from her.

Liv and Linc amble in behind him, they seem unfazed if a little on edge. Both have caught his hectic retreat. He hopes against hope that they'll just let it slide, but of course, these are his partners of two years. He should know better.

"Feeling a little uncomfortable now, Charlie?" Liv asks and her smirk is off somehow.

Linc sits down next to Liv so they're both facing him now and he leans forward, elbows resting on his knees. "Look at that. Big bad Fringe agent is scared of a little girl." His jaw looks harder somehow. The jibe feels more personal than their usual banter.

"She's about as far from a little girl as you're from a choir boy," Charlie snaps. It's not like Linc to demean people, not even when he's trying to get a rise out of Charlie.

"You never know what Linc gets up to in his spare time," Liv says, a speculative glint in her eyes.

"What free time?" Charlie asks, aware that his voice is flatter than usual. "Big Boss here is even too busy to go on dates, so I doubt he's got time to sing with –" he interrupts himself. "Or does mighty Boss Man have a problem landing with the ladies?" It's an open wound and Charlie wouldn't normally go there but he feels backed against the wall. "Too busy with – "

"Fuck you, Francis." Linc sits up, his back ramrod straight.

"What, did he hit a nerve?" Liv asks. Her speculative look appears blood-thirsty and Charlie feels his skin crawl. Something is off and he doesn't like it. They should be bantering, not trying to hurt each other deliberately.

"Can't all have perfect love-lives like you," Linc snaps and Charlie sees the shutters go down behind Liv's frozen smile. He knows about Frank leaving her. Looks like Linc doesn't.

"Yeah, but you're not even trying," Charlie says just to distract Linc from Liv.

Linc whips around to him. "But you are, aren't you, Peter Parker?" A nasty smiles crosses Linc's face. "Bug girl dates Spiderman."

Charlie shrugs. "Better than nothing."

"How is that going to end, huh, Charlotte? Are you two going to be holding hands for the rest of your lives?"

"Fuck you." Charlie has to take a deep breath, curl his hands into fists and shove them into his jacket pockets, so he doesn't clock Linc one.

"At least I could," Linc says with a nasty smile and this time, Charlie doesn't hold back on the urge to get right into Linc's face, because god damn, he didn't bare his soul to his partner just to have it thrown back at him for a cheap laugh half a year later.

Liv is there at the last minute and steps between them. "Knock it off, you two."

Charlie rolls his shoulders against the tension that has settled in them and walks to the other end of the decon truck, as far away from Linc as possible. He doesn't need any more smart-assery.

***

Once they arrive at the hospital, decon is a given. Charlie hates decon, especially the part that means that their clothes are being burned. He likes the jacket he's wearing.

So strip-down, wash-down. They're not strangers to it, which is probably a good thing. He'd been a cop before he joined Fringe Division, Liv and Linc were soldiers; none of them is shy or awkward about being naked in front of the others. Nevertheless, Charlie has to fight an almost visceral reaction of hunger at seeing more and more skin revealed as Liv and Linc strip. He shakes his head and concentrates in scrubbing his hands along his arms. The water from the shower heads is far from a pleasant warm and the disinfectant stings the cuts and bruises they all sustained in the tumble down the rabbit hole.

Linc bitches loudly and Liv teases that he's setting a bad example. She gives his bare ass a playful slap with the back of her hand. It echoes in the tiled room and Linc shoots her a dirty look. "What you don't get is: I'm the boss. I complain whenever I want to."

"You bitch," Charlie corrects. "There's a difference."

Linc gives him the middle finger. Charlie blows him a kiss.

***

With all three of them once again dry, their scrapes and wounds treated and already healed, and now clad in fetching agency-issued white scrubs, their debrief takes place in one of the biohazard quarantine cells.

Secretary Bishop appears and it takes Charlie one look at his body language to know that he isn't going to like what's about to come next. "We're going to keep you in quarantine for the time being."

Charlie fights a groan and feels an itch under his skin that's not the arachnids. Behind him, Liv is pacing; her bare feet are loud on the linoleum. Linc saves him from asking the question that's on his mind. "What was in that lab, Sir?"

"We don't know yet."

"Bullshit," Linc mutters and shakes his head. He looks agitated, tense, rolls his shoulders.

Charlie throws him a surprised look. It's not like Linc to swear, especially not in front of a superior. Just like it wasn't like Linc to get so personal in his bantering earlier. The itch under Charlie's skin grows worse.

Bishop must have heard Linc, because he plasters that deceptively mild smile on his face. "You were saying?" He's not focused on Linc yet, his gaze keeps tracking Liv who's still pacing behind them, but that doesn't mean for one second that he didn't hear Linc the first time.

Charlie hopes that Linc will shut up and not destroy what was until now a brilliant career. Not destroy their team.

Linc leans against the window, braced on his forearms. His smile is all teeth. "I said 'Bullshit'."

Charlie bites back on a groan. He watches the scene unfold as if he's watching a movie, unable to move because he's just so shocked that Linc, ever-the-good-agent-Linc, the brilliant kid that can be glib but never rude, is single-handedly deconstructing himself and his future. Their future together. The thought alone makes Charlie want to knock him unconscious so he can't talk anymore.

"You wouldn't keep us in here if you didn't know something. You wouldn't even be here if you didn't have some kind of an interest in this."

Linc does have a point, Charlie thinks, even if he's a complete nutjob for saying it to Bishop's face instead of talking about it with Liv and Charlie in private. Bishop wouldn't come over here for a simple debrief, even if they're the leading Fringe Division in the country. They're important, but not that important.

Bishop's features freeze for the blink of an eye, then turn fatherly. His gaze slides to Liv, then back to Linc. "You will watch your tone, Agent." His tone is mild, yet doesn't hide the steel underneath.

"Or what, huh? Are you going to fire me?" Linc laughs, mirthless, and Charlie shakes his shocked trance, tries to pull Linc away, shut him up, but he shakes Charlie's hand off. "I know way too many of your secrets."

Bishop's gaze turns glacial. "Do you now," he sounds politely interested and the hair on the back of Charlie's neck rises.

"Linc," he tries again and attempts to distract Linc physically by stepping close to him.

"Shut up, Charlotte, and back the hell off."

Charlie holds up his hands and takes a step back; his annoyance flares sharp. "Just trying to help, buddy."

"I don't need your help." Linc glares at him.

Charlie holds his gaze while he wants nothing more than to beat some sense into Linc. "Obviously. You're fine handling that self-destruct button all on your own."

Charlie sees Bishop tracking their back and forth. "I will not hold Agent Lee's actions against him, Agent Francis. Whatever was in that lab might be affecting his mood."

"Don't patronize me, you bastard," Linc snarls and slams the heel of his hand against the window separating Bishop from them hard enough that Bishop recoils. The glass is reinforced, otherwise it would have shattered under the impact.

"Don't test my patience, Agent."

Behind them, Liv stops pacing and stops beside Linc. She stops rubbing her hands over her arms and Charlie's grateful for it; the sound drives him nuts.

Liv's not a person to lash out; despite her jovial exterior, she internalizes, but she stares at Bishop like she wants to flay him alive, slowly, and much to Charlie's amazement, Bishop actually lets himself be stared down. There's something going on between them that Charlie can't parse, something that has nothing to do with their current situation.

"I'll send Dr. Casares to take blood samples," Bishop says, half-dismissing them already. He takes one last look at Liv and his lips thin, then he turns on his heel in precise, military fashion and walks out.

Anger radiates off of Liv, mingles with the fury Linc is projecting and combined, their rage is so intense that Charlie feels it like a class three vortex, spinning faster and faster until it pulls him in. Linc gives the glass another thump and Liv bares her teeth on a snarl.

Charlie rolls his shoulders against the tension that has settled in them and thinks, 'Let her come.'

***

Silvina Casares makes a fascinated sound when she looks at the instant read-out from Charlie's sample. "Your arachnids are happy."

Charlie slams his chair against the wall in frustration when she doesn't answer his question on what she found. He doesn't really need to, though; he can feel it in his veins and under his skin. They're getting more active. They're growing.

***

Liv simmers down a little when Charlie's chair crashes against the wall. It freaks her out that she can barely remember what happened in the last few minutes. Everything is lost in a red haze of anger strong enough she can still taste it on the tip of her tongue.

"Hey, relax," she says, putting on a cheer she doesn't feel, "you're going to be fine."

Charlie gives her a look that's as familiar as breathing and which cuts right through her bullshit. "Easy for you to say. You don't have hitchhikers in your body."

Liv fights a wince. Charlie doesn't know. Can't know. No one besides Frank, the EMT medics, the hospital ob-gyn, and Secretary Bishop know, and Bishop's made sure that none of them are talking.

"Can't all be special like Charlie," Linc comments. His snide tone saves Liv from having to reply to Charlie and gives her the chance to throw a pissed-off look at Linc.

"Shut up," she says, not wanting round two of Linc laying into Charlie. "And while we're at it, watch your motor-mouth around Bishop. I'd like to keep our team intact."

"Awww." Linc's smile is a parody of his usually mischievous one and it rubs her entirely wrong. "Mother hen worries about us."

"Yeah, buddy, so should you." Charlie sounds odd, his voice is raspier than usual but strangely flat. Liv has no time to think about that because Linc flips Charlie off and the thoughtless dismissal of Charlie's concern in this regard is so unlike Linc that she tenses. This can't be normal. Linc is normally Mr. Protocol, even if he hides it. He believes in the chain of command and in the sensibility of procedure. She wonders what the hell was in that lab that completely erased that. What it will erase in Charlie and in her.

"Looks like we'll have some downtime until they figure something out," she says, just to say something.

"Sucks that you have to spend it here, right?" Linc says and he's clearly spoiling for a fight. What scares Liv is that she's ready to give him one. She rubs her hands over her arms again to counteract the feeling of her skin being too tight for her body. She's hungry even if she doesn't think she could eat a single thing.

She shrugs, forces herself not to bite. "Just gives me more time to spend with my favorite idiots."

"Well, Charlie and me have no one waiting for us," Linc says.

Charlie's, "Speak for yourself, Mr. My-Job's-Too-Demanding," lacks heat. Liv knows that Linc is right, Charlie isn't seeing anyone right now, or they'd know about it. He's a tight-lipped bastard about everything else, but when it comes to relationships, Charlie Francis is a gossip girl at heart. Charlie doesn't look as if he's in the mood for any kind of talking right now, though. He's pale and holds himself in a way that Liv doesn't like, because Charlie only usually gets this quiet when he's in pain.

Once again, Linc distracts her from Charlie. He rolls his eyes at Charlie and continues, "What will Frank say when you don't come home this weekend? What if he has another one of those super-romantic getaways planned?"

"Frank's not in," Liv forces out, clipped. God damn it, Lincoln Lee has a talent for going right for the jugular. She wonders if he knows more than he lets on and, if he does, she hates him for it. All she really wants is for him to shut up right this second.

"Work?" Linc asks, because of course he's not letting it go.

She shakes her head; an aborted, choppy movement that has her neck muscles hurting.

"What, he's out on the town without you?" Linc's eyebrows shoot upward toward his hairline. "What happened?"

From the corner of her eyes, Liv sees Charlie step forward. "Linc …" He really does sound odd, his voice shaky, but Liv attributes it to the same anger she feels rising inside of her.

"Tell me, what is it? "Linc crowds her, goes on like a sniffer dog smelling cocaine. "Oh, oh-ho!" He's gloating now and she wants to ram her fist into his face. "Lover's tiff? Second thoughts?"

If she doesn't walk away, she's going to hit him. Any moment now. She turns away from him, giving him the coldest shoulder she's capable of. Anger is making her scalp prickle. Her hands ball into fists at her sides. "None of your business, Sir."

Almost as if it's compulsory, Linc goes on, grabs her shoulder and turns her back to him. "Did you find out some dark secret? Perfect fiancé not so perfect anymore?" He is gloating and she wants to wipe that damn smirk off his face with her fist.

"Linc, you might wanna shut up now," Liv hears the warning tone in Charlie's voice.

Charlie knows. She told him about Frank leaving her. Didn't give him the reason, just told him. Charlie hadn't asked, had just given her a hug and a kiss to the top of her head while he held her. Charlie's always been good at that, at understanding boundaries. Linc is different. He can't lie and can't keep a secret and most of all he doesn't know when to shut up and to stop prodding. And she desperately needs him to shut up. Now. Before she does something drastic.

Liv tries to concentrate on Charlie in an attempt to shut Linc out. Charlie's sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall as if he needs the support it offers to stay upright. He's even paler now, his lips are a thin white line and she wonders if he may have overdosed on the inhibitor. She's heard the hissing sound of it at least four times since they were put in the quarantine cell.

"I keep telling you that you have bad taste in men." Linc goes on as if Charlie never spoke. "But you never listen, do you?" He tries to reach out to touch her with a look of exaggerated pity on his face. "You just keep choosing the wrong guys – "

She hits Linc there and then, her nerves snapping like a wire stretched too taut. Her fist connects with his cheek with a crack that has a dark and festering satisfaction roiling in her stomach within seconds.

Linc shakes his head against the blow and pokes the inside of his cheek with his tongue. She sees blood on his teeth. "What the hell, Liv?" Linc glares at her, anger mixed with physical pain and a look of hurt betrayal and she knows she should back off, apologize, retreat before this escalates any further but she can't ignore the surge of relief that flooded her body for the split-second in which her fist connected with Linc's face.

So, like an aggressive sleepwalker, she crowds him and hits him again. And again. And again, until he's on the ground and she's pummeling into him. He's blocking her, but not fighting back – too much training, too much basic decency to hit a woman. Linc is a good colleague, a good superior officer, but he'll never be a match for her in hand-to-hand-fight because he's just too careful of hurting her. She uses that to her advantage now and feels no remorse over it.

"Jesus, Liv, stop," she hears Charlie's voice, but she can't, she won't. Part of her wonders why Charlie doesn't make her stop, but it's quickly swallowed by the part that enjoys the chance to get all the violence out of her system. Each time her knuckles get in touch with Linc's skin on another blow she feels elated despite the pain that is the skin on her knuckles tearing and the coppery smell of blood when his lip splits. It’s like scratching an itching mosquito bite she couldn’t reach before.

Linc wants to retaliate, she can tell, she sees how much he's holding back, smells it in the way his scent – blood and sweat and anger – changes to something sharp and feral that she wants to unleash. She wants him to fight her back. Wants his hands, his fists on her, pushing, pulling, exchanging blows to get the tension out of their systems, so she hits him even harder, ignores the rush of blood in her ears and Charlie’s shouts, and watches the growing fury in Linc's eyes and his movements. No, Linc's not going to just take a beating for long. He'll fight her back. Anytime now. He'll bare his teeth and leash out. If only she hits hard enough, if only –

Charlie’s on her then, pulling her back, immobilizing her arms with bitten off curses and she kicks and tries to throw him off, but his hands are on her bare arms, his chest against her back and as soon as her body registers the levels of closeness, she sags like a limpet, all energy drained from her, relief so sweet and so immediate it takes her breath away and makes her knees buckle.

Her skin sings with the touch and that awful hunger she's felt since they left that lab recedes. She hangs in his arms, limp, panting. She feels like she's just run through the desert and found a well at the last moment before she died of thirst. This makes no sense. Unless …

Unless her feeling better for those split seconds while she was hitting Linc had nothing to do with releasing her violent urges.

Liv glances at Linc where he's leaning against the wall with his eyes closed, panting, bloodied, his shirt torn and she wants to run as far away as she can from what she's done. The remorse is like hot mercury on her tongue, bright and poisonous.

"You about done?" Charlie asks and gives her a shake.

She nods, unable to form words, unable to say "Don't let go," without sounding even more than a lunatic than she already must look. His hands on her arms, even though they're biting into her skin enough to hurt, are a lifeline, a rush of pleasure and peace alike. She feels a crawling sensation where the inside of his wrist touches her naked skin, something that's not just blood pumping through his veins, but before she can summon enough brainpower to think about what that means, Charlie says, "Good," lets go of her and walks over to Linc. He lets go of her and no, no, no. She feels her heart beat faster, her skin parchment-paper thin and that awful, debilitating anger returns to the forefront of her mind.

In mid-step, Charlie falters, doubles over and goes to his knees with a bitten back sound of pain.

He never makes it to Linc's side.

***

They're placed in separate quarantine cells after Charlie's collapse and her attack.

Frustration and the need to get back with Charlie and Lincoln have Liv beating her fists against the walls, screaming obscenities. She has no agency in here, can't help herself and can't help Charlie. All the choices are taken from her and she can't breathe from the rage that's choking her and the feeling of loss swirling in her, making her want to claw her way out of her skin.

Complete psychotic break, it says in her file from that time the other Olivia had taken her place, after the events at the opera house. The other Olivia had nothing on her.

Liv's voice gives out after fifteen minutes of non-stop screaming.

They pump a sedative into the air when they notice that her fists are leaving blood stains on the white walls.

She goes under.

***

Charlie thought that with the inhibitor, he'd have things under control. He remembers the hours after the arachnid infestation, the itching escalating to pain so bad he wanted nothing but for someone to shoot him in the head and end it all. They'd knocked him out and he'd still felt the pain, even in his unconscious state. On bad days, he's still waking up in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat from the phantom pain.

He'd had it under control.

It was under control.

Until now.

The itch he'd attributed to whatever was in that lab, particularly after looking at Liv rubbing her hands over her arms, turns out to not be lab-related at all. It's the spiders. He's felt it, known it and ignored it, because it can't be, it mustn't be. He's pumped himself full of enough of the inhibitor he's jittery and weak and it's still not working.

"Your arachnids are happy," Casares said. She has no idea how right she is.

They're growing, the bigger ones are crawling, stretching his blood vessels, his veins to the point of tearing. The smaller ones make him itch so much he wants to scratch away his skin to make it stop. On top of it all, he feels a hunger and an anger that's hard to control. It's the worst kind of nightmare, the one where you know you won't wake up.

If the inhibitor's not working, and none of the eggheads come up with another way to stop them, then eventually, the spiders will tear his blood vessels for real and he'll bleed out from the inside. It was easier the first time around when he was clueless. This time, he knows what's coming and he's had the false safety of the inhibitor. It was always a possibility that something could go wrong one day, but he never once imagined it would just stop working.

And just this morning, he thought that life was pretty good. It must be a trigger thought for something horrendous to happen, since Linc told him that he thought the same thing before he was burned.

Why the fuck did he ever decide to work for Fringe Division? He could have stayed a cop, could have been shot in the street or taken by a vortex like so many other cops. But no. No. It had to be Fringe Division. He had to be on the front line with the leading Fringe Division, breathing in whatever damn thing was in that lab. And it had to affect the fucking spiders.

Charlie shakes with anger, fear and disgust, and claws at his arms again. His stomach turns; he imagines the spiders crawling around his innards and the thought makes him sick enough he empties what's left in his stomach on the floor.

His arms are scratched bloody by the time he opens his eyes again.

Let it bleed, he thinks. Maybe if he scratches long and hard enough, the god damn spiders will find a way to crawl out of him.

He wishes Liv and Linc were here.

Charlie has never been so scared in his entire life.

***

Dr. Silvina Casares makes people nervous. In charge at twenty-five, she's not only too young for most people's comfort, but also too self-assured. While too imposing to use the word pretty, she's definitely a striking figure, black hair cropped short, eyes a piercing green accentuated by a tribal tattoo on her left and right temple. She wears jeans and a black shirt that says, 'I can kill you with my mind,' which is unsettling when you know that it might be true. As one of the first results of genetic manipulation to create specialists, she's been engineered as a scientist. Somewhere in the genetic make-up, bedside manner and compassion have been completely erased. She's fantastic in every other regard: thorough, dedicated, whip-smart, funny as hell, but completely stone-cold. It's one of the reasons Lincoln likes having her on the science team. She's the one to make the hard recommendations, was there when Boston was ambered and showed not an iota of remorse.

Lincoln doesn't like it when she looks too cheerful; he's found out the hard way that Casares being fascinated is a bad, bad sign. She looks cheerful now, and with him, Charlie and Liv being the specimens that she looks at through that bulletproof, hermetically sealed glass, that freaks him the hell out.

"What?" He asks when she appears in front of the quarantine cell again. He's been pacing like a caged tiger for what feels like half an hour, listening to Liv scream bloody murder two cells down, trying to push back the unease and the memory of her assault. She's fallen silent now and that makes him even more ill at ease.

Casares holds up the pad with the test result from their blood tests. "Your stress levels are through the roof."

"Yeah, no kidding," Lincoln comments. Despite the instant treatment of his injuries, his face and chest still feel sensitive from Liv's attack. He feels the bruises deeper in his tissue and can't overlook the irony of her literally getting under his skin. As if she hasn't been there all along. Her attack had managed one thing, though, it had calmed him down for some time. He supposes he should be grateful for that.

He takes a closer look at the readings and his jaw drops. The cortisol and norepinephrine levels are truly off the charts, higher than he's even seen in the more extreme cases at the academy's medical classes. "That's …"

"Approaching lethal levels, I know, isn't that fascinating?" She sounds as if she's just found the holy grail.

A hot surge of anger rolls through him. "You're telling me that you find our imminent deaths fascinating?" he snarls at her.

"That's exactly what I'm saying."

Lincoln slams his hand against the window again and curses.

Casares doesn't bat an eye. "Excessive amounts of cortisol will destroy the immune system, shrink the brain and other vital organs, decrease muscle mass, and cause thinning of the skin which results in prominent blood vessels." She gives him a long once-over. "Are you experiencing any abdominal pain, Agent Lee? Sensitivity to the skin? Aggression?"

Lincoln bares his teeth and feels the anger slither underneath his skin like he imagines the arachnids in Charlie's blood doing. He looks at his arms and sees the veins raised against his skin, like miniature purple snakes coiling along his arms.

"Stupid question, you're right," Casares comments, dry as dust.

"We're not your lab rats," he shouts at her. "Do you have any idea what these cortisol levels will do to Charlie's arachnids?" The small glimpse he got on the pad suggests a serious worsening of Charlie's condition. It explains the subdued noises of pain he's heard from Charlie's cell, the ones he's tried to ignore, hoping against hope they wouldn't mean what he feared. Lincoln was there when Charlie was first infected. He never wants to see him go through that again. "Don't stand there, do something!"

"Your face looks red," Casares comments as if she hasn't heard him. "An increase in norepinephrine accelerates the heart rate, constricts blood vessels, and raises blood pressure. I would like to take your blood pressure."

Lincoln wants to hit her and he shocks himself with that urge because he's never wanted to hit a woman before. Except for Liv, earlier. He still feels sick to his stomach over it – if he survives this, he'll have nightmares of this out-of-control-Liv for weeks to come, of that look of hatred in her eyes -- but he can't deny that somewhere in the middle of the beating he took, he'd felt almost elated. Better, if just for a microsecond. Obviously he'll always be a masochist when it comes to Olivia Dunham.

He drops his chin to his chest, runs both hands through his hair and fists them near his scalp. Strands stretch tight and tear. The jittery feeling of his heart beating overtime and the latent anger are still there, slithering under his skin. He needs to do something, he can't just sit here and wait for whatever they were exposed to to slowly erode their minds.

"What about Agent Francis?" he rises from his crouch slowly. Concentrating on Charlie, on doing his damn job to keep his people safe, should help him distract himself.

"I don't see how that information is going to help you in your current situation."

He takes a deep breath and fights against the rage that's filling the back of his mind with a swirling addictive pull. "That man," he presses out from between clenched teeth, "is not just my agent, he's one of my closest friends. I won't watch him die."

"No, you won't," Casares says, matter-of-fact. "Since you're separated from him, you'll just listen to him die if the new inhibitor doesn't work."

Lincoln yells, unarticulated rage floods his entire system, blots out reason. When he slams his hand against the glass this time, his wrist breaks.

***

The quarantine cells may be sealed, but they're not soundproofed. As long as something is loud enough, it travels between the cells, even if it's muted, without needing to resort to speakers and microphones.

Liv wakes when she hears Linc shout in fury, hears something thump and Linc's shout turns into a howl of pain.

A nurse runs past her window with a horrified look on his face and Liv's stomach knots. "What the hell happened?" Her voice is rough, her throat raw.

"Hey!" She thumps her fist against the window, making a nurse jump. "What's wrong with Agent Lee?"

There's no answer and her mind latches on to the nearest answer: something she did to him, one of the blows she's dealt him must have injured him a lot worse than it seemed at first. She's sick to her stomach and her hands are shaking. It must be something she did. Lincoln.

She tries to get the nurse's attention again but she's being ignored. No one tells her anything, they just throw glances in her direction, careful, fearful glances as if they're dealing with a dangerous headcase.

There's nothing else she can do but make them pay attention to her.

As a result, there are bloodstains on her window as well as on the walls now.

"No," she shouts, when the familiar hiss of the sedative being released into her cell reaches her ears, her voice sandpaper-rough. "No, don't, you bastards, don't you dare – "

She goes under.

***

She's a little calmer when she wakes next. Her hands are wrapped in gauze – just patches, she notices, no bandages, as if they're concerned she might get creative with them - , but she can tell that underneath the gauze, the healing process is already complete. Her side's advanced healing techniques are something she took for granted before. Now that she's been to the other side, she knows better and is grateful for them.

The speakers are open in all their cells, the endocrinologist, fresh-out-of-college Dr. Dimaguiba, informs them. She cranes her head and can make out that he's standing in front of Linc's cell, reporting to him. She's seen him a few times before; he'd seemed nice if a little shy. He wears rimless glasses that accentuate a broad, likeable face, and still has the bright eyes of someone who started the job very recently, but he wouldn't be here if he weren't one of the best. The hilarity of him giving Linc a sit rep makes Liv snort. Linc, even though he's the head of Fringe division, is just as compromised as she and Charlie are. She appreciates Dimaguiba keeping up appearances, though. It's more than Bishop would have done.

"We have determined what is causing your condition," Dimaguiba says. He fidgets a little, and Liv sympathizes. Linc can be intimidating when he wants to be.

"And?"

"Your bodies' oxytocin supplies have been completely depleted."

"Oxytocin?" Liv echoes.

"It's the hormone created by touch," Linc explains before Dimaguiba can.

"We're lacking the cuddle hormone?" Charlie's voice comes through the speakers and Liv can hear his eyebrows knitting. "Are you kidding me?"

She doesn't like the way his voice sounds tight, like he's biting back pain.

"She's not," Lincoln confirms. "I've seen the test results."

"I am not filing that report," Charlie says.

"As if you ever do," Liv quips. She's trying for levity, but it sounds forced even to her ears. "So, what, can you just dose us with the stuff and everything will be back to normal?"

"In theory."

***

Turns out that theory and reality have very little in common.

The oxytocin is administered by a nasal spray to breach the blood-brain barrier and it has an effect. Just not the one they'd all been hoping for.

Lincoln hasn't had a hard-on in public this bad since he was 13 and he has never, not even back then, been so damn desperate to jump whoever steps in front of him or at least to rub one out as he is this very moment. The thought of Liv and Charlie separated from him by only one wall makes him want to howl in frustration.

"Well," Casares says, "that's a raging success, isn't it? Looks like chemically introducing the oxytocin only raises their stress levels further now that they're sexually frustrated on top of everything else."

"I don't understand," Dr. Dimaguiba says with a furious blush, "this should have worked."

Casares gives Lincoln's hard-on and his still healing, bandaged right wrist a wry look. "Be easier if you were left-handed, huh?"

Lincoln has a seizure when his blood pressure spikes through the roof and his last thought is that he wants to bash her head in so badly he can taste it.

***

When he wakes again, he's informed that his oxytocin levels have dropped down to zero again. The frustration and anger he feels is almost a relief over the chemically induced horniness. He's glad he wasn't in the same room with Liv and Charlie when the hormone kicked in, doesn't need the extra humiliation. Despite his wrist being mended, he's weaker now, though strung out beyond anything a human body should be able to endure. He feels like a live-wire, snapping and fizzing with no rhyme or reason.

"What else?" Lincoln asks, shaking his head to clear his mind. "There has to be something else."

In the cell next to his, Charlie is groaning in pain and Lincoln's mind latches onto it, weirdly glad to not have to think about what the treatment not working means for himself, too. "What's happening to Agent Francis?" he demands.

"I'm afraid your earlier assessment was correct," Dimaguiba looks pained. "The high levels of cortisol in all of your systems in his case render the inhibitor useless and also suppress his immune system. The arachnids in his blood are multiplying. They have also doubled in size."

Oh, God, Charlie. A block of ice settles in Lincoln's stomach when the full meaning of Dimaguiba's words hits home.

"And Agent Dunham?"

"Her condition is … a bit of a wild card."

"How?"

"In the last hours, her body has begun producing a large amount of a CRH binding protein."

"A what?" Lincoln hates himself for skipping most of his endocrinology classes at the Academy. He has enough vague knowledge to bullshit his way out of an exam, but nowhere near enough to fully grasp what Dimaguiba is saying.

"A protein that binds corticotrophin-releasing hormones."

"Pretend for a moment that my brain is too fried to follow you." It is, Lincoln knows. He wouldn't have a problem following Dimaguiba on a normal day.

Dimaguiba smiles and some of the tension leaves his shoulders. "During the stress-response, your brain secretes a corticotrophin-releasing hormone," he says, clearly more at ease now he can lecture. Lincoln remembers that he was working at a college before Fringe Division hired him. "It's the body's master stress hormone and it triggers the release of glucocorticoid stress hormones from your adrenal glands."

"Cortisol." This much Lincoln remembers. It's little enough.

"Yes." Dimaguiba nods. "Normally, the levels drop again once the stressful situation is over. Yours don't, in fact, your adrenal glands keep producing cortisol. There's nothing counteracting the secretion."

Lincoln shakes his head against the information overload and against his mind processing exactly what that means for them. "And what is different with Agent Dunham?"

"The CRH binding protein in her system prevents the CRH from being recognized and used by the respective receptors. As a result, a large part of the extra CRH is rendered biologically inactive. Think of it as a phone call into open space." Dimaguiba mimes holding a phone. "Hello, anybody home?"

Lincoln glares at him and Dimaguiba sobers quickly. "She's not producing enough of it yet to make her any less aggressive than you and Agent Francis, but it heightens her chances of survival."

His brain latches on to the first part of Dimaguiba's sentence. He doesn't want to hear the rest of it. "Yet?"

"Well, I suppose if she were in the second trimester of her pregnancy, her chances would be much better."

Lincoln goes still, so still he can feel his muscles vibrate with the need to move. His stomach feels as if it just plummeted from a high rise. "Her what?"

Dimaguiba blanches and takes a step back. "You didn't know."

"No," Liv's voice, scratchy and low, comes through the speakers suddenly. She sounds tired. So tired. "He didn't. Neither did Charlie. But, hey, thanks for saving me the trouble of telling them on my own damn terms."

Dimaguiba's gaze flickers along the walls of their cells. Under any other circumstances, Lincoln would feel bad for the guy because he looks so guilty. Not today. He fears he might break his other wrist if Dimaguiba stands in front of him a second longer, giving him that scared rabbit look. "I need to speak to Dr. Casares."

Lincoln tastes bile at the back of his tongue. Cold sweat breaks out along his upper lip. His scalp prickles.

"Talk to me guys," Liv says. It's a plea.

He doesn't know what to say and his body takes the decision away from him: He heaves, vomits water and bile, feels his blood pressure spike and a high-frequency hum fills his head. His nose starts to bleed.

It goes on long enough that a flurry of motion starts behind the window. Nurses start running. By the time someone in a hazmat suit pushes inside his cell, Lincoln has almost grayed out. His last absurd thought is that he should leave the morning sickness to Liv.

***

He drifts in and out while Casares and Dimaguiba argue.

"Well, the hormone is produced by giving and receiving affectionate bodily contact. Touch."

"The notes we found said that the compound was manufactured in order to be weaponized to incapacitate enemy armies. If you take into account that the compound lowers the oxytocin levels enough that you either touch or die, then … well, you have the answer there. Whoever made this stated clearly that they didn't want to kill, just incapacitate. And how to best incapacitate an army without killing them? How do you make really sure they can't move anymore?"

"You mean that it has to be produced naturally?"

"Under field conditions, there would be no doctors there, no scientists."

"What are you saying?"

"It's kind of a long shot, but I think they need to get in skin contact with each other."

"Do you remember what happened the last time they were in a room together? Agent Dunham beat Agent Lee within an inch of his life."

"Open the doors," Lincoln says and forces his eyes to open.

Casares' voice rises. "It's our best chance and you're trying to tell me we can't take it because you're too chicken to risk a few bruises – "

"Open the doors," Lincoln says again, louder this time. He tries to push himself into a sitting position.

"I," Dimaguiba yells back, "am not taking that attitude from someone who doesn't care about the most basic – "

"Open the damn doors," Lincoln bellows.

They whip around to face him.

"Now."

Dimaguiba looks intimidated. "Sir, we – "

"Now."

He has no authority here, not in his state, but Casares moves nevertheless, she uses the brief fugue state Dimaguiba seems to be in. The doors between the cells open with a hiss and in the tunnel that forms between the three cells, Lincoln sees Charlie kneeling on the ground with an injector pressed against his wrist, doubled over in pain. His arms are scratched open, the bandages torn off. Blood stains his hands and Lincoln's stomach bottoms out. He can't lose Charlie. Not now. Not ever.

Behind him, Liv's loose hair is like fire in the white cell. She's on the floor, knees pulled up and arms locked around her legs; she looks hollow-eyed, rocks back and forth. They stare at each other over Charlie's prone figure, then, in a whirl of motion, Liv is through first, tearing her shirt off and launching herself at Charlie. He staggers backward with a grunt when she locks her legs around his waist and presses her entire upper body against his bare chest. A sound tears free of her chest when Charlie's arms close around her back to hold her against him, a broken sound, close to a sob. Charlie sags against her with a whimper.

Lincoln watches them through a red haze of doubt and fear, then propels himself forward as well, pulling off his shirt, dropping to his knees and pressing himself against Liv's bare back, holding on to her, to Charlie. They both keen at the contact; the relief is so immediate that their knees buckle and they all slide to the ground in a tangle of limbs. He's neither willing nor able to let go. Charlie's hands snake around Lincoln's back and hold him close, clawing against his shoulderblades hard enough to bruise.

The first touches feel like cauterizing a wound, they hurt, burn all the way down to his bones, but that changes soon enough. The closer he pulls Charlie and Liv, the easier he can breathe again, think again. The jitters stop, his heartrate slows down. With his face pressed against Liv's shoulder and his hands petting Charlie's back, with Liv's foot rubbing against his calf and her hands touching him and Charlie in repetitive, soothing motions, sanity returns gently, like a long lost friend.

It's the return of that sanity that makes him aware of the still palpable tension in Charlie's body and the feeling of something moving under Charlie's skin.

"Charlie," he whispers.

Charlie claws harder into Lincoln's back and Lincoln knows this, he knows that Charlie bites back on sounds of pain until he's almost bitten through his tongue. He remembers Charlie when he was infested with the arachnids in the first place; his fingernails white from pressure as he fought against the urge to claw at his skin and his body held perfectly still, never uttering a sound.

Lincoln's stomach bottoms out. If Charlie's still in pain then that means that whatever Foster's new inhibitor and their touching stopped or healed did not change the damage done by the arachnids. Did not stop the arachnids from getting active.

They can still lose him.

"Liv," he breathes against her shoulder. "Liv, we need to – "

"I know," she murmurs back.

***

Casares brings in Mona Foster again, and Liv thinks that if Bug Lady Foster looks shocked, something must be really wrong. Foster loses all of her dorky attitude and barks short orders to the medical staff behind her. Hectic movement starts and Liv holds on to Charlie tighter to stave off the feeling of dread that's settling in her stomach like a lump of ice. Charlie has gone limp. She can feel the movement under his skin, in his veins.

The doors open and a medical team appears with a stretcher. They're wearing scrubs and surgical masks, no hazmat suits anymore. They still look alien. Liv still shrinks back into Linc, cradles Charlie against her as if she can protect him. It's a ridiculous thought. Foster was called in to help. Nevertheless the thought of letting go of Charlie has cold sweat breaking out over Liv's upper lip and her muscles locking. They need to stay together. She's never been more sure of anything.

"Please let go of Agent Francis, Agent Dunham." Foster's voice is muffled behind the surgical mask.

She can't. Her hands won't open, her muscles won't unlock.

"You need to let go of him."

She wants to, intellectually, she knows she needs to, but she can't.

"He might die if you don't."

"I can't," she forces out from between clenched teeth. "It's not that I won't, I can't."

Whatever that damn compound was, it seems to make sure that when the infected people actually do touch, they form some kind of a bond that makes it nigh impossible to separate until the compound is broken down in their bodies and the oxytocin levels are back to normal. If they ever do.

"Knock them out," Casares says and offers an injector to Foster.

Foster's eyes widen. "Dr. Casares, I can't – "

Casares moves, quick and no-nonsense. "I can." Liv feels a quick sharp pain against the side of her neck, then nothing.

***

She wakes with Linc spooned around her, holding on to her like a lifeline. Part of the hunger she felt earlier is back, even with him there. She grows restless and even though she needs him with her, she's overwhelmed by the heat of his body but feels cold at the same time. It's not enough; Charlie's missing like a limb cut off.

When they take Linc out of the cell to check if the treatment is working, she feels her blood pressure rise again and the anger returns at full force. So much for touch being a damn cure. It's more like Charlie's inhibitor, just treating symptoms, but not curing anything. She's going to be walking like Siamese triplets with Charlie and Linc for the rest of her life if this can't be reversed. Right this moment, the thought doesn't bother her as much as it should. What does bother her is that she's alone and that the relief she felt touching Charlie and Linc is deteriorating by the second. She needs them back with her. Both of them. The anger over the separation slithers under her skin, she's hot and itchy and the urge to ram her fists against the glass until either it or her wrists break is back.

It's the worst possible time for anyone to come check in on her. So, of course, it's exactly the time Secretary Bishop turns up in front of the quarantine cell's window.

"Agent Dunham," he greets her, his tone neutral with a tinge of well-acted concern. Or maybe it's real. She doesn't know and doesn't care. Pacing seems like the best idea to get rid of some of the tension flooding her body. Her scalp prickles when she takes in his face and his damn knowing eyes that track her every movement. She wants him gone. She wants Linc and Charlie back.

Liv's still in her bra and the white scrubs pants; the top lies discarded on the floor. Bishop has his attention on her face but doesn't look at her body – whether that's down to a sense of privacy, sheer lack of interest, or a dislike for seeing his agents stripped down is anyone's guess. Liv picks up the top and pulls it on anyway. It scratches against her skin like nettles and she thinks of the fairy tale that included a shirt woven from them. Mom had read it to her a long, long time ago. Funny what one's brain remembers.

She realizes that she never replied to his greeting and says, "Sir."

"How are you feeling?"

What a fucking joke. The need to shout at him and kick the wall is overwhelming. She reigns it in by planting both feet on the ground and clasping her hands behind her back, falling into parade rest. Her muscles are drawn taut enough that she feels her entire body vibrate with the tension. "Permission to speak freely, Sir?"

"Go ahead." Bishop sounds soft and understanding. It makes her want to break his face. Her hands curl into fists she has to open and close several times so she doesn't lash out.

"Like hell, Sir."

"I was informed that you were doing better."

By whom? She wants to shout. The parade rest is killing her, her muscles are drawn so tight now that she worries that keeping this position for one more second will break her bones. She starts to pace again and rubs her hands over her arms. "When I was with Agents Lee and Francis, yeah."

"Agent Lee has only been taken out for a routine check. No one means to be unnecessarily cruel."

What a sick fucking joke. She can't believe he manages to utter this with a straight face.

"What about Agent Francis, huh?" She gestures toward the door and beyond. "Is keeping the cure for his infestation from him necessarily cruel?"

Bishop gives a long-suffering sigh. "We've been over this, Agent."

They have. When she had first returned from the other side, she had gone straight to him with the knowledge of how the other side had cured their Charlie. It turned out that the creature that had infected both Charlies had been pretty similar, only the one from over there had been part snake whereas here it had been part spider. The cure is simple enough that Liv still wonders why the hell no one has ever thought of it in her universe and she still feels an spike of irritation of the scientists in charge of helping Charlie. The inhibitor had always been a half-assed attempt, just treating symptoms, never a cure. Deep down, she knows the reason, of course. They're expendable. Charlie's doing a good job, but ultimately, someone else could take his place. Bishop never would have gone out of his way to save Charlie. Not like the other Bishop – like Walter – did.

She remembers telling Bishop about the cure, so sure he'd let her create the antidote. She also remembers the sharp flare of annoyance, almost hatred she'd felt when Bishop had denied her request, telling her that she couldn't use information from the other side for personal indulgences since it would compromise the mission. That hatred is back now. Liv tastes it on her tongue and feels it singing in her veins.

She's a soldier, though, and Bishop's her superior officer. Back then, military training trumped the need to beat him into submission, but she has never stopped thinking about it, wondering if she could find a way to create the cure herself. If the glass weren't separating them right now though, she doesn't think she could or would hold back.

It was a pipe dream, she knows. She doesn't have the scientific background, nor the means to create the cure by herself. She could gain access to the creature's remains, and hope that what samples they preserved would have the same effect as the live blood of the creature had in the other universe, but she knows that she needs someone with an advanced medical and scientific background and that she'd be committing treason to even try. She has no problems with the latter, she'd do it for Charlie in a heartbeat, but the former is a problem. Too many obstacles. Not even Linc's degree is advanced enough. Even if they tried, it would risk Linc's freedom as well and she wants at least one of them to be there for Charlie. So she has kept on trying, again and again, always hoping that one day, she'll manage to wear Bishop's resistance thin.

It hasn't worked. It's not going to work now, unless …

Bishop tracks her movements with eyes like a hawk, scanning for ways the stress must be affecting her, probably worried about the baby. It's a look so different from Walter; there's no gentleness in it, only strategy. She's never going to get to him the way she got to Walter. But if strategy's Bishop's game … then she has a chance here. Even through the red haze of anger, she knows that Bishop needs her. She's pregnant with his grandchild, and she's not under any delusions that there's not some kind of hidden agenda that goes beyond any warm, grandfatherly feelings.

So, if he needs her, then she has blackmail material here.

"Yeah, we talked about it," Liv says. "Only circumstances have changed, haven't they?" She rests her hand on her belly and watches Bishop's gaze track her movement.

"If you want your grandchild healthy, you need to cure me. Which means you need to get both Agents Lee and Francis in here." She walks toward the window, her shoulders back and her spine ramrod straight. "And Agent Francis can't be in here with us unless his arachnids are under control."

Bishop's eyes narrow. "You're playing a dangerous hand here, Agent Dunham."

"It's the truth and you know it." She ignores his warning look. "Your scientists couldn't figure out any cure apart from touch and all the data points toward that this whole damn mess won't be cured from just two of us touching. It has to be all three. If Charlie dies," she has no idea how she manages to get the sentence out and not choke on it, "Linc and me won't be enough. We won't make it either. It'll take us longer to die, yeah, but we will."

"That's not verified yet. The data we have hasn't been fully analyzed."

"Wake up and smell the hippie, man!" Liv snarls at him and slams her hand against the window. "If this was meant for war, to incapacitate armies without killing or spilling blood, then it was never meant to be cured by just two soldiers touching." Her mind races to come up with an explanation and launches onto the next best one. "Two soldiers can still function while staying in close touch. Three already can't. Now think of a whole platoon. The whole damn compound must have been developed so that it can only be cured by all of the people who were exposed to it touching. They must have abandoned the research when it became potentially deadly. There's a limit to how many people can be touching each other simultaneously."

Instinctively, she knows she's right. She sees that Bishop hasn't bought it yet, but can't deny the logic of her words either. He looks as though he bit into a donut filled with mustard instead of jam before his features smooth out and he looks paternal again. "Well, Agent, even if the data analysis should differ, I can see how support from your team mates in this difficult time would be beneficial to you." He gives her one of his tight-lipped, spine-chilling smiles. "Losing Agent Francis would prove unnecessarily stressful to you and the baby."

It takes all of her willpower not to launch herself at the glass. As if this was ever about her. If she weren't pregnant, she's not sure they'd still be alive by now. Liv bites back on the urge to tell him exactly what she thinks of him, though – for Charlie. She needs to play this right. And if it means remembering her acting experience from over there, and swallowing most of her pride and her anger, then so be it.

"It would, Sir," she says and forces a vulnerable tremble into her voice. "We need him here with us."

Bishop unlaces his fingers from in front of him to clasp his hands behind his back, which straightens his posture impossibly more. He looks calm but his eyes are full of a sub-zero fire when he says, silky-smooth, "Of course, Olivia. Anything you need." He knows. He knows she's bluffing but he also knows that she might be right. He can't risk denying her wish and it galls him.

Liv feels like punching her fist in the air in victory but holds back.

"You understand that the information about the cure will remain classified."

"I do, Sir." It's easy to read between the lines: She must never tell Charlie where the cure came from, that she brought it over with her. Bishop may think he's getting back at her that way, but she's not a child anymore. All she cares about is getting Charlie back to normal, and spider-free for good. She doesn't need to be his hero, she just wants him back with her and Linc.

Right on cue, the door to the cell opens and Linc stumbles in. He's at her side with three long steps and folds around her. He smells of sour sweat and disinfectant and warm skin and she nearly gasps when her brain latches on to all the places he's touching her. The thrum of discontent and hunger that vibrated inside her since he left the cell recedes a little. She pulls him into a sitting position and climbs onto his lap so their chests are touching and she can feel him breathe. His hands snake under the scrub top and come to rest on her back, warm and dry against her sweaty skin. They're trembling.

Liv is still very aware of Bishop watching them even if Linc isn't. She shoots Bishop one last look, then presses her face against the side of Linc's neck and pulls him closer, concentrates on the way his breathing evens out.

He's muttering, so soft, against her hair, warm breath puffing against her scalp, "It's not enough, not enough, we need more." He feels it too. They need Charlie.

She hears Foster exclaim, "Mr. Secretary!"

Foster's voice is drowned out by Casares saying, "I have the report you asked for, Sir."

It grows silent after that.

Liv clings to Linc and hopes that Bishop will have the cure for Charlie developed soon because their heartbeats aren't slowing down and she has a feeling that she's right. That even touching Linc from head to toe won't be enough eventually.

***

It's nearly eight p.m. by the time that Casares and Dimaguiba appear in front of the window again. Liv can't believe that this whole mess started only this morning. It feels like days passed. The lack of Charlie's presence is getting harder and harder to take. She can hear Linc's heart beating fast and erratic, her own is synched with his.

"Looks like you're right." Casares' voice comes over the speaker. "They all need to be in skin contact with each other." So Liv's argument to persuade Bishop had actually been valid. It would feel like more of a victory if Charlie were with them.

"The readings are conclusive," Dimaguiba confirms.

"Good thing Foster is such a whiz when it comes to bugs, huh?"

Liv's heart does a double take and she feels Linc's fingertips press harder into her back. She's glad he's always cutting his nails extremely short, or she'd be having eight bloody half moons on her lower back now. "Charlie?" Linc whispers into the crook of her shoulder.

"I'm buying Foster rounds for the rest of her life if she – "

The door opens with a hiss and then Charlie's in the room with them. He looks like death warmed over but he's standing on his own two feet and there's no sign of pain anymore. Unless Foster worked a miracle, Liv's plan must have worked out. Bishop had let himself be blackmailed.

"Always cuddling without me," Charlie complains, his voice even raspier than usual.

"Well, some of us were busy flirting with pretty doctors," Linc says and the words glide down Liv's back, "Liv and me had some life-saving to do."

"Yeah, yeah, always the heroes." Charlie grins and it looks almost normal except for the hunger lingering in his eyes.

"Get your ass over here, Francis," Liv orders and points toward Linc's back before placing her hand back against Linc's skin and trailing the knobs of Linc's spine. Charlie's gaze follows her hand. "Cuddle. Now."

Charlie rolls his eyes. "So bossy."

"You have no idea."

Liv turns, Linc spoons around her back, and Charlie moves closer so his chest pressed against hers and his forehead rests against her collarbones. He hooks his leg over her and Linc's calves and it's like a circuit has been closed. Something hums between them on a level deep enough it can't be articulated, but Liv knows that this is it. They're healing, breath by breath. It might take a while, but as long as they don't let go of each other, they'll be all right.

***

"Has anyone figured out what got us into this whole mess in the first place?" Charlie asks what feels like hours later.

"Casares and Dimaguiba talked about it," Linc says. "You didn't hear?"

"Bit busy with my spiders at the time."

"One of vials we fell on contained a compound that reduced the oxytocin levels in our blood to almost zero. As a charming by-product, it raised the stress hormones through the roof enough to reach lethal levels."

"Hence the aggression?"

"Yeah."

"So what the hell was it for?"

Liv knows that Linc loves the science lectures, so she leaves it to him. Besides, her voice is still raw from her earlier screaming. "According to the notes found in the lab, it was meant for warfare. The scientist who invented it didn't want to become another Fritz Haber, so he searched for something that would only be deadly if the soldiers didn't work together."

"You mean if they didn't cuddle."

"Pretty much."

"So, what you're telling me is that we've been dosed with the prototype of a hippie 'make-love-not-war' drug?" Charlie asks from where his head is pillowed against her chest.

"In a nutshell," Linc says and stretches behind her, "yeah." His chest and belly are a broad strip of warmth against her back and she presses against him to soak up the feeling of skin against skin. He hums under his breath and she smiles.

"Well," Charlie says and moves closer to her so he can reach Linc better, "it's a good thing I like you, otherwise this would be awkward."

Linc's laugh is puff of warm air against her ear. "Charlie Francis, Ladies and Gentlemen, declaring his undying love."

Charlie raises his head and blows Linc a raspberry.

"I'm still glad we weren't in the same room when they gave us the hormone earlier," Charlie says as he settles back down. "That really would have been awkward."

Liv shrugs. "I'd have had no problem with it."

"You'd … " Charlie turns his face up so he can look at her, his stubble rasping against her cleavage, his eyebrows comically trying to meet his hairline. "You'd have had no problem with having sex with us."

"Nope." It's a big, fat lie. Or, well, maybe more of a brag. "I trust you and neither of you is completely hideous … " She smirks as she trails off.

"Gee, thanks."

Liv shrugs again. She's relaxed now, ready to banter. "Better than strangers, right?"

"I suppose."

"Come on, don't tell me you never thought about it."

"You and me?" Charlie says. He moves his head from side to side slowly; his chin is like sandpaper against her skin. His pupils are wider than before. "I'm fond of all my limbs attached, so I'll give you no more than a definite maybe." His hand tightening on her hip belies his words. Liv feels his touch race through her and is surprised to find herself imagining it more deliberate.

Charlie's gaze slides to Linc. "Me and Linc?" A grin flickers over Charlie's face and crinkles the corners of his eyes. "You've seen his ass, right?" Liv knows that Charlie is bisexual, and Charlie's never had a problem with showing his affection for both her and Linc. He's kept it in check, though, never once tipped the balance to where they couldn't go back to a normal working relationship or friendship. It's the first time she ever hears him acknowledge what has been plausibly denied before. Liv feels a jolt go through Linc's body when Charlie pinches his ass and Linc slaps his hand in retaliation.

"All three of us together?" Charlie sucks in a breath and releases it in a puff that skitters over her collarbones. "Not going to answer that." He rubs the inside of his wrist against his hipbone and settles back against her chest. Liv feels the controlled exhalation against her skin. "It's moot anyway." A drunken late-night confession Liv has heard: Charlie hasn't been with anyone since the arachnids. He's terrified he'll infect any potential partner.

"Have you thought about it?" Linc, who's been on the sidelines of this conversation until now, asks. His voice sounds a little too jovial. He's also put some distance between her and him. It's not soon enough to hide the twitch of his cock against her ass. She fights the urge to press back against him, to show him he's not alone in his reaction. The subject of their conversation and a pretty active imagination have her a little wet herself.

"Sure." It's a lie. In the past, she's entertained thoughts of herself with each of them individually, but never together. She's glad that they don't call her bluff.

"Really," Charlie says. "Huh." He, too, moves away from her a little. Subtle, they both aren't.

"And?" Linc asks. His voice is tightly controlled, but she knows him well enough to hear the waver underneath.

Oh, Linc. So ready to run into a perceived open sword.

She rolls to her back and pushes up to her elbows so she can look at them both. "I imagined sexier circumstances than all of us nearly dying, Charlie half-way on his way to doing a Kafka and you recovering from a broken wrist and your face looking …" she trails off and bites her lip when she scans Linc's face for the first time under sane circumstances.

The bruises have mostly healed, but there are subtle discolorations there.

Dimaguiba had said that high levels of stress hormones could lead to memory loss, but she remembers what she did only too clearly. Every hit, every blow, every one of his pained grunts. She remembers the look of shock and betrayal on his face. Remembers the moment when she heard him cry out in pain in the next cell and the thought that she had done permanent damage. "I'm sorry," she says and raises her hand to touch Linc's cheekbone. She moves slowly, doesn't know what she'll do if he should twitch back. "I never meant to – "

Thankfully, Linc winks at her and rests his face against her hand. His smile is warm against her hand. "Sure you have, many times."

Liv strokes her hand along his cheek, careful, gentle. His stubble doesn't rasp against her skin like Charlie's did, it's longer. Softer. Just like Linc. She's not ready for a quip, needs him to understand that she's serious about the apology, so she says, "Doesn't mean I should have."

"And I shouldn't have called Secretary Bishop a bastard." Linc shrugs and moves away from her hand. "Still did though."

Liv can't help the laughter bubbling up. "Extenuating circumstances?" she asks and offers her hand to Linc.

He takes it. "Yup."

Next to them, Charlie is grinning. She's glad to see he's shaken the dejected fugue. "You're like school kids after a fight in the playground."

"Takes one to know one," Liv volleys back with a raised eyebrow.

"I wonder how our counterparts would have handled the situation," Linc muses.

It's an obvious diversion, but Liv goes with it. "With a lot of angsting," she says and smirks.

"And nowhere near as coolly as we did," Charlie says. "Nowhere as completely as we did, either, seeing that my counterpart is dead."

That still rubs Liv wrong but she's not ready to think about the picture with the tealight candle in front of it that the other Olivia had of the other Charlie in her living room or about the fact that she really nearly lost her Charlie and Linc today. She's so glad to have them close enough to touch right now. It saves her from having to find them and clutch them to her to save her from drowning in the quagmire of relief and fear. Charlie's all right now. He doesn't know yet, but he's all right. She can't wait for the moment in which he finds out that the arachnids are history, but she plays the role Bishop expects of her. "Aren't we lucky that we still have you and your spiders?"

"Yes, you are." Charlie gives her waist a rough squeeze. They go back and forth a little, her squirming and trying to break his hold, him giving as good as he gets, until --

"Charlie." There's a warning tone in Linc's voice.

Charlie lets go of her with a sharp intake of breath.

She pushes up on her elbows and looks from Charlie to Linc and back again, confused. "What?"

"I guess I shouldn't …" Charlie gestures toward her belly and doesn't meet her eyes. "Probably shouldn't play as rough as I'm used to."

Oh. Oh.

She doesn't want to, but she guesses they need to have this conversation now.

Liv pushes up and moves so they're sitting at a triangle and she can look at both of them. She heaves a sigh, then soldiers on. "Guys, I want you to listen to me: I'm pregnant, not fragile. This changes nothing. No, don't give me that look, Lincoln Lee." She pins Linc with a glare. "It changes nothing. I'm not even sure I can keep it."

Something flickers over Charlie's face and she wants to slap herself. Charlie had been in a relationship when he'd been infected with the arachnids. The relationship ended eventually, Liv hadn't known why and didn't pry. Much later, one night, drunk out of his skull, Charlie had told them that his girlfriend had been pregnant. She'd decided in favor of an abortion. He'd found out weeks after the fact and it had broken something in him. She knows Charlie always wanted a family, a kid. Liv understands the girlfriend but dislikes her on principle because of the look on Charlie's face that night. With the arachnids in his blood and no cure in sight, his chances of ever having a kid likely ended with his girlfriend's decision. "I'm not talking abortion," she clarifies. "I'm six weeks, and these days, most natural pregnancies never even make it into the twelfth week." It's a sad fact of the 21st century and the reason, expensive as it is, accelerated pregnancy is on the rise. Too many risk factors in the first weeks mean that birth rates are at an all time low. Acceleration helps leaping over the first trimester risks.

Charlie nods and reaches for her hand and squeezes it. "If anyone can do it, you can."

Except she can't, can she? VPE runs in the family. Rachel died from it, along with her baby. She's not going to mention it to Charlie, but she might not have a choice if she wants to live.

Liv forces herself to smile. "Thanks, Charlie."

"Six weeks," Linc says and she can tell that his mind is racing around that number, tracing the last weeks, calculating. "That's …"

"Yes," she acknowledges.

"So Frank …"

"Is not the father."

She gives him credit for not asking what is so clearly on the tip of his tongue, but she knows she needs to give him, give them, something. "I was stupid, okay? I was at a bar and it was late." It's the same lie she's told her mother. It's easier to use the second time around. "Frank and I had had a fight before he left for Texas. I was lonely. The guy was cute." Images of Peter Bishop's smile flash in front of her mind's eye, she feels his mouth on her collarbone and the weight of his arm as he pulled her close in bed, the focused playfulness of his lovemaking, the slip-slide of the mission mingling with emotions. She has to close her eyes and hopes that it's congruent with the lie she's spinning. "I'm not proud of it. It just … happened." When she opens her eyes again, she catches Charlie's frown. "Yes, mother, we used condoms. Turns out, they're not as reliable as you'd think."

It's not something she needs to tell Charlie, just something she needs Linc to hear. That was another part of his drunken confession about the no sex rule. Charlie knows that condoms can't be trusted 100 percent. He doesn't even take that chance.

"A guy at a bar?" Linc echoes. He looks down at his hands so she can't see the expression on his face. "You don't even drink."

She bends forward, puts her index finger under Linc's chin and lifts it so he's forced to look at her. His eyes look bluer in the cold halogen light of the quarantine cell. "I wasn't there to drink. I was there to pick up a guy. Any guy. All I wanted was a quick tumble."

"Funny," Linc says and his gaze flickers away from her, "earlier, you said that sex would be easier with someone you – "

"I know what I said," she interrupts him. "And I mean it. That night, it was different. I was using that guy." She nudges his chin with her index finger again. "Lincoln, look at me: I wouldn't use you like that. Ever."

"Because I'm important, huh?" Linc's voice drips sarcasm and she wishes he had more of a poker face.

He is. He doesn't see it, doesn't know it, but he is. It's not that she's ignorant to the way he feels about her. She never has been. It's just that before, there was Frank, and despite the very real, latent attraction she has always felt toward Linc, she never acknowledged it. Letting him know that she knew how he felt while she was with Frank would have been cruel. It was easier to stop herself from feeling, to stop herself from noticing, if she didn't admit she did either. As long as she didn't put what there was always between them into words, then it wasn't real. And things that aren't real can't hurt, right? Of course, his devotion to her has always been very real to him and it's clear how much her confession is hurting him. So much for her theory.

Charlie saves her from having to answer by flicking Linc across the back of his head. "Read between the lines, moron: She just told you that she loves you."

Charlie says it lightly, as if it's a joke, but it's true. She loves them both. She's never said it out loud, never thought she needed to, but she does.

Linc visibly pulls himself together. "What, and you don't?" he asks in Charlie's direction.

"Like a hole in the head," Charlie replies, deadpan – and smirks.

"So, are we good?" Liv asks, desperate to close the subject. The question encompasses everything: her confession, the situation, the future.

"All in the hippie spirit, everyone loving each other, yeah, yeah." Charlie rolls his eyes. He's not as blasé as he acts, but Liv is grateful for his attempt at levity. "Can we go back to the cuddling now? My spiders are getting restless."

"I bet you say that to all the girls," Linc says and Liv is glad to hear that he sounds normal again.

Charlie winks at him. "And the guys."

If everything goes right, he won't be saying it to anyone anymore soon, Liv thinks. It's hard to bite her lip.

She pulls Charlie and Linc down to her left and right again and lets herself drift in the feeling of their touch healing the rest of whatever it was the compound broke. Linc's hand rests on her bare belly, idly stroking. Charlie's hand covers his. Together, they resume the movement.

***

In the end, it takes eight hours of direct skin-to-skin contact until their oxytocin levels are back to normal and the other hormone levels stay steady. The sounds of the people around them and the feeling of being constantly watched stops Liv from relaxing fully. She dozes, but doesn't sleep, so when the all clear comes, she's tired beyond belief. Charlie is whisked off to the hospital by bug girl Foster who is constantly chattering about wanting to check up on him. Liv thinks that she'd probably rather check him out but that pun sounds lame even in her own ears and she knows that she's done for when she can't pun anymore.

On the drive home, she's a traffic menace. It's a good thing it's the middle of the night and the streets are emptied out. She's glad when she makes it home, can close the door behind her and get to bed. She barely manages to get out of her clothes before she face-plants on the mattress. Strangely enough, she doesn't fall asleep the way she'd thought she would. She lies still with her eyes closed, breathing slow and evenly for a few minutes and listens to the muted noises of cars going past the apartment block, the clicking noises of the radiators and the sound of her neighbor upstairs taking a late night shower before he leaves for work. It's the first time she doesn't miss Frank's presence.

Whom she does miss, though, are Charlie and Linc. They're cured, she knows, she's seen the test results and she hasn't felt any aggressive urges since they said goodbye either, but it feels as if she's not at home in her skin any longer, as if it's too tight somehow. A hollow ache settles under her breastbone and she hates that they each went to their places for the night. Well, not each of them, seeing that Charlie's in the hospital still. It would look insane if she showed up for a visit at three in the morning, wouldn't it?

She has no idea how she's supposed to say this without making a complete fool of herself, but she wants them close again. Just to touch them, to feel the contentment and the regained sense of self she's felt in those eight hours in the quarantine cell. A contentment she hasn't known since she last slept next to Frank, before she went over to the other side, before she slept with Peter. It feels like there's a hole inside of her, like a vortex swirling faster and faster, trying to pull her in.

She doesn't find much sleep that night.

***

Charlie is still in the hospital for final check ups on the arachnids when Liv arrives at work the next day. She looks about as tired and worn out as Lincoln feels.

It's good to have at least her back, but Lincoln feels Charlie's absence like a lost limb. They work on a new case and it's blissfully distracting, but it doesn't change the strange feeling that something isn't right. He wonders if Charlie felt the same way when Lincoln was in the nanite regeneration chamber. But that was before, right? Before the damn compound, before they found out that they actually, literally, needed each other to survive. Lincoln stares at the report in front of him, unseeing, and wonders if some residual effect of the compound stayed behind.

Farnsworth distracts him and for a few hours, he just doesn't have the time to think about anything but work. When the day slows to an end, he's back to thinking about Charlie and Liv. His thoughts turn in circles, over and over again, and when he catches himself rubbing his hands over his arms and Liv watching him, he decides to hell with it. Liv is at her table, her gaze directed at the screen but he can tell she's not reading any more than he is studying the reports. He steps out of Broyles' office (his office, damn it, his office, though he's sure it'll take months for him to get used to that), takes a deep breath and says, casual as he can manage, "How about movie night at my place after we're done here?"

Liv slants him a look from the corner of her eyes, then looks back at her screen. "Food?"

It's her usual question and he answer in the usual tone. "Sure."

"No, I mean, will you cook?"

That is an unusual question, at least for Liv. Lincoln knows that Charlie appreciates his cooking, but he's never quite sure where Liv is concerned. He knows she eats it, but he's never sure if she really likes it. He takes the preferable option and says, "Sure."

"Great," she says, not looking up from her screen. "I'll pick up Charlie from the hospital and swing by at six-thirty."

Lincoln tries to keep the smile from lighting up his face like a damn Christmas tree and fails. Farnsworth sees it and raises an eyebrow. He finds that he couldn't care less.

***

At a quarter past six p.m., the scent of fried bacon hangs heavy in the kitchen, as it sizzles and pops in the pan.

Cooking calms him. Lincoln's always loved the mundane task of chopping, mixing, stirring, of throwing things together and watching something edible come out in the end.

He'll never be a master chef, Lincoln knows; that's his mother: a regular Julietta Child. He remembers watching her in the kitchen when he was a kid, knives whirling and her dancing between pots and pans, barefoot on dark, glossy kitchen tiles. Always a scientist, she'd explained the chemical and physical backgrounds of every dish and every cooking method. He still thinks that it's the explanation for the cohesion between the layers of lime pie that sealed the deal on him deciding to be a scientist as well.

Mom didn't need to insist he learn to cook before he enlisted, he'd learned enough just by watching her and it has served him well. Not just him, though. Both Liv and Charlie have stopped by his place many times, ostensibly to talk shop, but somehow they never leave before dinner is served. He knows Charlie lives off takeout and on the weekends on one of his loud aunts' cooking, and Liv is pretty hopeless in the kitchen. He likes cooking for them. After they day they had yesterday, they all deserve some damn comfort food.

Lincoln's in the kitchen cracking eggs when the doorbell chimes. He startles at the sound – they're too early, damn it - and breaks the egg on the counter instead of over the bowl. A pool of gloopy liquid spreads over his counter and he curses under his breath. The doorbell chimes again just as he reaches for a paper towel to contain the mess. "It's open," he calls over his shoulder.

It's not like they don't have keys, though he appreciates the courtesy of them ringing the bell.

He concentrates on stopping the broken egg from dripping on the floor while Liv and Charlie let themselves in.

He hears appreciative noises coming closer and hurries to hide the little accident. It's not that he can't take the ribbing, but he likes to keep up the appearance of being competent in the kitchen. Some of the egg white runs down his fingers to his wrist when he transfers the dripping paper towel into the trash. He wipes his hands on the towel resting on his shoulder just as Liv rounds the corner to the kitchen.

In the pan, the chopped bacon sizzles louder and he has no time to acknowledge her.

"That smells to die for," Liv says. Her voice still sounds raspy from yesterday's shouting. She stands close to him and hooks her chin over his shoulder to look at the stove. Her hair falls over his shoulder and teases along his skin where the sleeve of his shirt ends. He has to fight the urge to lean back into her warmth and her scent, all fresh lemon and verbena, so he just nods his head toward the pan. "Everything is better with bacon."

She chuckles and her breath skitters along his skin and raises goosebumps. God, she needs to step away. Luck is not on his side, however, because she bends forward even more and inhales where his neck meets his shirt. "You smell nice, too. New soap?"

Of course it is. New deodorant, too. He took a long shower and extra long on personal grooming before they arrived and he'd be lying if he said he didn't hope she would notice. He hasn't factored in that she'd still be as willing to get close to him as she was yesterday, though, and, hell, it's a lot more difficult to take when he's not actively dying of a lack of oxytocin.

"And they start the cuddling without me again," Charlie comments as he walks into the kitchen. Lincoln wants to kiss him for providing a distraction. "A guy can feel left out here, people."

"You can always lean over his other shoulder," Liv says and the smirk is audible, even if Lincoln doesn't see it. "He has two."

"He also needs to be able to move," Lincoln says and uses the chance to take a step away from Liv, "so go sit somewhere. Have a drink."

Charlie pouts. "Dinner still not ready, mom?"

Lincoln flips him off, turns off the heat under the frying pan and starts to grate the parmesan. The ghost of Liv's warmth still lingers on his skin and he's glad Charlie didn't follow her suggestion. He's not sure he could have taken the double-whammy without doing something wildly inappropriate.

He hears them walk around his living room, hears their guns and cuffs clink against the polished wood of his table. Liv flops down on the couch with an oomph noise. He looks up but can't see all of her, just her bare feet hanging over the armrest. She has red nail polish on her toes. Lincoln smiles. Liv is such a no nonsense, combat-boots and cargo-pants type usually that these small idiosyncrasies just add to the mystery of Olivia Dunham. He also knows that she has a thing for fuzzy socks in the winter and is proud to be one of the few people who know about that. Not even Charlie knows about the blue ones with the polka dots.

Lincoln curses under his breath when he abrades part of his index finger and snaps his attention back to the grater he's handling.

Liv suddenly squeaks, "Watch it, worm boy." When Lincoln looks in their direction, her feet have disappeared and Charlie walks away from the couch, looking deceptively casual and innocent.

"I brought beer, you want one?" Charlie asks from the living room.

Lincoln nods toward the open bottle of red wine on the counter. "Not gonna mix."

Charlie walks closer and picks up the bottle to inspect the label. "Fancy."

"If you had any taste buds worth mentioning, you'd see that it goes better with pasta than beer." Lincoln makes a pouring gesture and Charlie takes the cue and re-fills Lincoln's glass.

"Too bad my lowly working class taste buds can't appreciate it."

Lincoln shrugs away the dig at his upbringing. "More for me." And it will be just for him. Liv never was much of a drinker to begin with and he doubts she'll start now. "Water or soda, Liv?" he calls into the living room where he sees her check out the newest additions to his record collection.

"Surprise me," she calls back.

The timer on the stove shrills. "Surprise her, Charlie," Lincoln orders. "I need to drain the pasta."

"Yes, boss."

"TV dinner or table?" Liv asks.

"You choose, just make it quick. Dinner's almost ready." It's not like he doesn't know what she'll choose.

"TV dinner, then."

"Just do me a favor and don't let Charlie choose the movie!" Lincoln calls over to them while he cracks fresh pepper into the egg mixture.

"Not in the mood for spaghetti western"? Liv laughs.

"Not while we're having spaghetti for dinner. I don't think my mind could take it."

"I'm right here, you know?" Charlie says.

"Great. Then you can come over here and help carry the plates."

Charlie heaves an exaggerated sigh. "Work, work, work."

"Should have worked harder for that promotion, then you could boss me around."

"Here I thought we were off duty."

"Ah, see, thing is: Linc likes bossing you around, Charlie. On duty or off."

Charlie shrugs and takes a long pull from the beer bottle he's holding. Lincoln watches his throat work as he swallows. "As Uncle Carlos always says, it ain't punishment if you like it." Charlie winks at him and something warm settles in Lincoln's stomach.

He grins and distracts himself by upending the pasta into a bowl, adding the bacon. Charlie reaches for the pitcher, waits for Lincoln's nod of approval and pours the eggs over the pasta. Lincoln starts to combine the ingredients and sees how Charlie and Liv creep closer to watch. It never ceases to amuse him how impressed they are by the simplest dishes.

"Was Carlos the one with the SM club?" Liv asks after a few seconds in which only the wet sounds of the pasta being swirled through the egg-parmesan mixture fill the kitchen.

"That was aunt Gilda," Charlie deadpans.

"Aunt Gilda who cooks for you on the weekends?"

"Nah," Charlie takes another pull from his beer, "that's aunt Florence."

"Enough with the family stories," Lincoln says. "Get the plates. Dinner's ready."

On the table, one of the cuffs starts to vibrate. They frown in unison. "They can't give us one night off?" Liv groans.

Lincoln knows that it's not his cuff, as his is synched with the in-apartment speaker system so he doesn't have to wear the cuff when he's at home. "Not mine, and they'd have contacted me first if we were needed," Lincoln reasons. "So, hey, Charlie, wanna tell Aunt Florence that you don't need dinner tonight? Liv can handle the plates in the meantime."

"Could be hers," Charlie says and ignores the dig.

"You'll know in a second."

Charlie walks over to the table and checks the cuffs. Judging from the fact that he picks it up and attaches it to his ear, it's his after all.

"Francis," Lincoln hears him answer.

"No five hour family talk!" Liv calls over to him and grins at Lincoln.

She holds the first plate out to him and makes an appreciative noise as the steaming Carbonara fills the plate. "You're a genius."

It's really nothing special, but that's not what she wants to hear, so he answers with a casual, "I know." He gestures toward the pepper grinder with his elbow. "You can add some more pepper if you like."

Liv winks at him. "Just in case 'some like it hot'?"

He rolls his eyes, amused. "Minus five points for the bad pun."

"Oh, come on."

She hands him the second plate, then the third and he fills them. Lincoln eyes the amount still left in the bowl and waves over to where Charlie is standing, his hand pressed against the cuff, listening. Lincoln lifts the third plate and gestures if Charlie wants more.

Charlie either ignores him or doesn't see. "Are you sure?" he asks. His voice is strangely flat and Lincoln lets the plate sink. Something about Charlie's body language is all wrong. Beside Lincoln, Liv snaps her attention to Charlie as well. The two plates she already has in her hands clink back against the counter.

"Yeah. Thanks." Charlie takes the cuff off his ear and places it back on the table with a carefulness as if it's made from spun glass. Even though he can only see Charlie's profile, Lincoln see that Charlie's pale, his breathing is shallow.

Lincoln sets the plate down on the counter as well, wipes his hand on the towel. "What's wrong?"

"Charlie?" Liv asks as well when Charlie doesn't answer.

Charlie turns to them then, a shell-shocked look on his face. A cold finger of dread runs down Lincoln's spine.

"Can – " Charlie breaks off, gulps in a huge breath of air, then tries again. "Can you come here?"

Lincoln notices that he and Liv walk in perfect synch and stand at something resembling parade rest to Charlie's left and right, flanking him, protective. Military training never leaves you, after all.

"What's wrong?" Liv asks. Her voice is low and gentle. It's her 'don't spook the traumatized witness' voice. Lincoln knows it well, knows how effective it is, he just never thought he'd ever hear it directed at one of their team.

Charlie shakes his head. He doesn't meet either of their eyes. "Can you do me a favor and pinch me?"

"What?" For a second, Lincoln wonders if Charlie's having him on, if this is some kind of elaborate prank, but Charlie' body language doesn't say prank. It leaves the other, less pleasant option: that Charlie is suffering from some kind of side-effect of yesterday's ordeal and might be having a mental break.

Charlie holds out his arms to Liv and Lincoln. "Pinch me. As hard as you can."

Liv throws Lincoln a look. Yeah, she's thinking the same thing.

"Charlie …"

"Just, please, okay. Don't ask. Just do it."

Lincoln shrugs against the uneasy tension in his shoulders and neck. "Fine. But don't hit me if it hurts."

Lincoln reaches out and sets his fingers against Charlie's biceps. The gentle current of contentment accompanying the touch is still there, just like yesterday and before Lincoln can lose himself in the sensation, he pinches a fold of skin, hard. Next to him, Liv is doing the same and Charlie yelps in pain. Lincoln twitches his hand back and exchanges another look with Liv.

When they look back at Charlie, he's rubbing his hands over the offended bits of skin and a smile breaks out over his face, so wide and so brilliant that it takes Lincoln's breath away.

The next thing Lincoln knows is Charlie rushing forward, setting his hands on Liv's cheeks and placing a long, smacking kiss on her lips, then turning to Lincoln and doing the same. Charlie's lips are warm and soft. He tastes of bitter hops and Liv's peppermint chapstick but before Lincoln can do what he desperately wants to do, which is to chase that taste, Charlie moves again, reels him and Liv in and nearly crushes them in a group hug.

They stand that way for several long blinks of an eye; Lincoln's hip pressed against the side of Liv's, Charlie's arms around both their waists, his hands holding on hard enough to cause bruises. Charlie's chuckling and besides the puffs of breath, Lincoln can feel warm moisture against the outside of his shoulder where Charlie's face is pressed against him.

"Okay," Liv's voice is muffled from where her face must be smooshed against Charlie's shoulder. "Not that I'm averse to a little team hugfest, but what the hell, Charlie?"

Charlie sobers a little and pulls back. He's radiant, despite the tear tracks on his cheeks. "That was Mona Foster."

Lincoln frowns. "Did she propose or something?"

Charlie's grin grows impossibly wider. "Nope."

"Ask you out?" Liv chimes in.

"Nope. Not anymore. I think I stopped being interesting about half an hour ago."

Lincoln feels his frown go deeper. "Okay, I'll bite: what happened half an hour ago?"

Charlie takes a deep breath, deep enough Lincoln worries his lungs might explode, then bursts out, "They didn't find any more arachnids in my blood." He rocks back and forth on his heels. "They're gone. For good."

Liv is a whirlwind, she acts faster than Lincoln can even process what he just heard. "Oh my God, Charlie!" she squeals and wraps Charlie in a bear hug. Charlie grins, spins her, even picks her up off the floor for a second.

When he sets her down again, Liv's smile is a brilliant as his.

His mind, normally something he prides himself in knowing works faster than most other people's, is lagging behind. "No more worm jokes, huh?" Lincoln asks, knowing it's lame and not enough. He has a hard time coming to terms with what Charlie told them, no matter how much he wants it for Charlie. He's happy for Charlie, he just doesn't get it. Foster searched for a cure ever since Charlie was infected and never found one. The inhibitor was her best shot. So why find a cure now?

"So sorry, boss." Charlie's smile is brilliant and Lincoln knows that the why doesn't matter to Charlie. It shouldn't matter to him, either. This is not the time to doubt. This is the time to be happy with Charlie. And he is. Damn it, he is.

Lincoln rolls his eyes. "C'mere before that grin outshines the sun." This time, he spins Charlie.

Charlie starts complaining that he's getting dizzy, so they start the movie and start on the pasta, which has grown cold. No one cares.

Lincoln can't help but sneak glances at Charlie from the corner of his eyes. He doesn't know when he last looked so damn happy.

***

"Man, that was good," Liv says and swipes her index finger over the remnants of sauce on her plate.

"Want some more?" Linc asks.

"God, no. If I eat one more bite, I'm going to explode all over your living room," Liv declares and lets her plate glide to the floor next to the couch. She bites back a grin when she looks along the floor and sees Charlie's and Linc's plates on the ground as well, a neat line only interrupted by bare feet. Plate, feet, plate, feet. She curls her toes into the edge of the carpet. They're cold, but she's too comfortable here, pressed against Linc on the couch, she's not willing to get up and get socks.

"Mmmh," Linc says. He leans forward to reach for his glass of wine. "Aliens, the Fringe Division version. With flying spaghetti monsters." He takes a sip. "Has potential."

Liv gives his shoulder a gentle shove and he shoots her a scandalized look when the wine sloshes in his glass. "That's the gratitude?" he asks. "Here you have a boss who provides you with food and shelter and offers riveting entertainment, and what does he get?"

"Awwwww. Poor boss man."

Linc has a beautiful pout. Liv only wishes she'd never seen it before, that way, it might still be effective. She takes pity on him though – shares a look with Charlie over Linc's head and together, they bend forward and simultaneously place a smacking kiss on Linc's cheeks.

Linc goes stock-still for a few seconds, then she feels rather than sees his cheeks dimple with the widest smile. "I knew you loved me."

Charlie pulls back with an eye-roll, Liv does as well and swats Linc's belly with the back of his hand. "Only for your cooking."

"You'll all fall for me eventually. It's inevitable," Linc says, the smile still lingering in his eyes. "I can wait."

From the corner of her eyes, Liv sees Charlie wince and wishes she hadn't seen it or could ignore Linc's words.

She remembers when Linc kissed her, two years ago. The kiss back then, when he didn't know Frank was in the picture had been a revelation, something she'd had to compartmentalize to keep working with him. She was grateful that the moment she'd told him, Linc had stepped back immediately and had never made another pass or even a suggestive comment. She knows that he never stopped waiting for her, though. His continued devotion makes her afraid to fall off the pedestal he's put her on.

"Good thing he has no ego to speak of," Charlie comments, dry as dust and provides a welcome distraction. "Wouldn't he be just impossible to be around if he had?"

"See?" Linc says, pointing at Charlie. "Told you. He loves me." He leans back and rests his head against the couch, sprawling enough that he's touching both Charlie and her from shoulder to knee. He still has his wine glass in hand and takes the occasional sip while he watches, engrossed, as Ohio Jones peers into the Well of Souls and mutters "Bugs. Why'd it have to be bugs?"

"I had nightmares about that scene for weeks when I was a kid," Liv confesses. She turns away from the screen so she's sitting at a ninety degree angle to Linc and pulls her knees up to her chin.

Linc grins against the rim of his glass. "Me, too."

"Doesn't seem to faze you anymore."

He shrugs. "The fictional bugs aren't as scary as the real ones. And, hey, you know what they're not?" Charlie asks. He doesn't wait for either Linc or her to answer, just blurts out, "Spiders!" His grin lights up the room and Liv can't help but grin with him. Of course he's not over it yet. Why the hell should he? He lived with the damn spiders for over a year, so he can show his happiness about their disappearance for at least as long where she's concerned. She high-fives him over Linc's head.

"Hey, speaking of which," Linc asks and turns to Charlie, "How did they get rid of them in the end?"

Liv digs her toes into the couch. Linc can't shut off his brain. It something she usually loves about him, but right now, she wishes he'd just shut up and accept that Charlie's okay.

"Why don't you make a date with Foster and ask her all about it?" Charlie answers, unperturbed.

"You're not curious why they never managed before and suddenly they do?"

Liv curls her fingers around her ankles and forces a curious look on her face. "Yeah, Charlie. Don't you want to know?" She doesn't want to know the answer, but she knows she needs to play along lest she compromise herself.

Charlie shrugs. "As long as they stay gone, I don't give a rat's ass, to be honest."

Liv realizes, amused, that this is Charlie to a T. Some things in his life were beyond his power to change. He never moped about the spiders (okay, not much, and not for long), just accepted them as part of his life and moved on, no questions asked. Questions don't help Charlie. He sees no sense on beating himself up. He accepts the good things in his life with the same pragmatism. Well, and with a lot of bouncing and that brilliant, contagious smile.

The couch moves a little when Charlie shifts. "We've seen some weird shit already. You ever wonder what else is going to come?"

Linc lets himself be side-tracked. It's a conscious decision on his part; she knows that they never would have got Linc thrown off the scent under normal circumstances. "I try not to," he answers, but sounds distracted. From the corner of her eyes, she sees that Linc's hand is on Charlie's thigh, a simple touch that stops Charlie's leg from bouncing. For about five seconds. Linc breaks into a grin. "You're going to bounce off the couch."

"I'm spider-free and happy," Charlie states and grins impossibly wider. "Sue me."

"Wouldn't dream of it, Charlotte," Linc says.

Charlie rolls his eyes. "If I never hear that joke again, it'll be too soon. Or any rendition of 'Itsy Bitsy Spider'."

Liv grins as she reflects. "We gave you a lot of shit over it, huh?"

"Wouldn't have had it any other way," Charlie says. "Trying to deflect the jokes kept me sane."

"You know what's nice about the whole thing?"

"You mean besides me having my life back?"

"Yes, Mr. Happy, besides that." Liv shakes her head over how adorably happy Charlie is. "I actually meant that it's a pretty good feeling to know that we'll always find a way to kick the ass of any weird thing that tries to find trouble here."

"As long as it has an ass."

"We'll find something to kick. Together."

"Awwwwww," Linc and Charlie chorus.

Liv rolls her eyes and shoves her cold toes under Linc's thigh in retribution.

"God, woman," he yelps, "do you have ice in your veins?"

She gives him an insolent smirk and wriggles her toes further under his thigh. He squirms but doesn't push her away.

"Let's just go back to the movie. And, Charlie?" She pushes up a little to look at him. Linc's hand, she realizes, is still on Charlie's leg. "I'm still taking bets on when Linc is going to fall asleep."

"Hey," Linc says, "I'm awake. Especially with these ice-blocks under my ass."

"Ten bucks says before the Ark opens."

Linc sits up and sets his now empty glass on the table next to their guns and cuffs. "That's my favorite part, I'm not going to sleep through that."

She ignores him. "Twenty bucks says before the kiss on the tramp steamer."

"Hah." Linc drops back between them, crosses his arms over his chest, mulish, and settles into place. Her feet are now truly under his ass and they're warming up quick. She fights the devilish urge to find out what would happen if she'd wriggle her toes now. "I'm going to collect from both of you."

"Uh-huh."

She takes pity on him and changes position so she can watch the screen again. There's room to the side of the couch and she could put some space between them, but she looks over to where Charlie leans into Linc and decides to hell with it. She cozies up to Linc's side and settles in to watch the rest of the movie with not an inch between them. A quick look to the side shows her that Linc's hand is back on Charlie's thigh. Charlie's hand is resting next to it. There's maybe a hair's breadth of space between them.

***

Linc has drifted off by the time Ohio reaches Cairo with the Ark; his head on her shoulder is a heavy but pleasant weight. Liv exchanges a look with Charlie and makes a pay up gesture. They share a grin. With wine or without, Linc always is the first to fall asleep during their movie nights and he usually ends up on either Charlie's or her couch because he is just too out of it to go back to his place. Even Frank had accepted the extra toothbrush in the bathroom cabinet. She thinks that she might as well take it out of the cabinet now, put it where Frank's had been. She has a feeling that Linc will be staying over more often if the baby is born. Charlie, too. Maybe she should invest in a fold-out couch.

Linc's head lolls from her shoulder to her chest and she rests her cheek against the top of his head. She breathes his scent. The cool, almost aquatic scent of his soap has blended with his skin and it's more rounded and warmly masculine now. His hair is free of product for once and because of that, soft as a baby's. She thinks that the softness must be attributed to the re-growth after the burns healed. Liv hates that, contrary to what she promised him when he lay on that bridge, charred to a cinder, she wasn't there when he was recuperating.

She remembers the night in the hospital after the incident, the awful hours of waiting, fearing the worst whenever the door to the ER opened and a nurse or a doctor darted through at a run. It had taken nearly five hours before the doctors had finally announced that Linc would make it through. These hours rank among the top five worst memories in her entire life. It had also been Frank's last night and she hadn't left Linc's side, hadn't even called, just sent a quick text. Maybe that had been a sign. Frank hadn't replied to the text.

Liv pushes the memories of Frank aside and rubs her cheek slowly against Linc's head. She smiles into the warmth of his hair. She's glad he's here, alive and whole. She might even forgive him if he starts to drool on her. Maybe.

"Hey," Charlie murmurs. His voice is warm and at the cadence that always gives her goosebumps. She looks up and finds him with his head resting against the couch, watching Linc and her from under half-lowered lids with a smile that's not a smirk yet. Bedroom eyes, she thinks and feels warmth pool in her stomach. She's glad when Charlie says, "Think cuddle bear here will growl if you squeeze his belly?"

Liv fights against a surprised snort of laughter.

"Nah, he'll puke on you," Linc mumbles, apparently not as fast asleep as she thought. The warm puff of air accompanying the P goes through Liv's shirt and bra and raises goosebumps along her skin.

"Gross," she says and pushes his head away from her chest.

He leans against her hand and doesn't move a muscle to stay upright on his own. The look he slants her is pure mischief and he looks so young that she wonders how this imp ever became her boss. "Admit it, you love it."

"The grossness?" she asks. "Hell, no."

"What then?"

Liv looks toward the ceiling and pretends to think hard.

"Don't feed his ego," Charlie warns.

"After the day we had yesterday, I think all our egos can do with a little feeding," Linc says. He leans back against the couch and slants a look at Charlie. "Here, I'll even go first: I like your stupid voice, Charles Francis. Even more when you've had a whisky or five."

Hell, Liv's willing to sign that. She's not going to admit it out loud, ever, but in some of the times Frank had been out on saving-the-population trips, she's had some rather vivid dreams featuring Charlie and that voice.

Charlie looks like he's halfway to a good-natured insult but, atypically, he stays silent and ducks his head.

The grin feels as if it's going to split her face. "Awwwww, look at that. Is that a blush, Charlie?"

"Nah. Just wondering what was in that Carbonara."

"We all ate the same, so if it's a compliment-your-partners-serum, I guess you'll just have to say something nice as well."

Charlie rolls his shoulders and stretches his legs. "I'm gonna need a drink if you want to play that game." He eyes Linc's drinks cabinet.

"Afraid to show your softer side, big guy?"

"Who says I have one?"

Liv shares a quick look with Linc, then they move in unison – jumping Charlie and tickling him. It's a secret Liv and Linc will take to their grave, but Charlie Francis? Is possibly the most ticklish person on the planet. He squirms beautifully and squeaks even better, breathless and broken off.

Charlie is more ruthless than Linc in his fighting style though, and neither Linc nor her are trying too hard, so he has them immobilized on the couch within minutes without breaking too much of a sweat.

Linc and Liv are lying at an awkward angle both with their heads on Charlie's lap, sprawled to his left and right. Charlie's hands are keeping them in place, heavy and warm.

"Next movie," Charlie declares, "since you're obviously awake enough for one. And I'm choosing."

Liv and Linc groan in unison. That usually means spaghetti westerns they've seen a hundred times and Charlie offering badly timed voice-overs.

"Should have thought before you decided to tickle-attack me."

Linc cranes his head so he can look at her and mouths, "Tickle-attack."

Liv dissolves into helpless laughter and her head slips off Charlie's lap and to the couch with a thump.

"You okay?" Linc asks, his tone concerned.

"Fine," she says, "Fine." And she is.

Charlie rests his hands back on their heads once he's put on the next movie. They're a pleasant, warm weight. He glides his fingertips through Liv's hair, presses against her scalp in small, contained motions that are almost a massage and she melts into the couch. Judging from the contented sounds coming from Linc, Charlie's doing the same to him.

Liv feels warm and comfortable in a way she hasn't since before she went over to the other side. She belongs here; she can see herself growing old and wrinkly with Charlie and Linc and still bickering and teasing. It's a good, comfortable knowledge.

Linc's left hand has dropped to the floor by Charlie's feet. Liv shifts a little and reaches out to take it and lace her fingers with his. His touch is grounding, warm. Linc strokes his index finger over the back of her hand. Liv doesn't move again for the remainder of the movie, cocooned in Charlie's and Linc's touch.

***

The credits roll at last and Charlie looks down at Linc, who still hasn't moved his head from Charlie's leg or his hand, still laced with Liv's, from where it's dangling in front of Charlie's shin. Charlie's leg is numb, his ass has fallen asleep, and nature is calling.

He doesn't move, though, because they're a sight, Liv and Linc. Liv's loose red hair is a stark contrast to the tan couch. Where the top of her head touches Charlie's leg, there's a warm point of contact between them. It looks uncomfortable but he guesses it's not, or her hand wouldn't still be laced with Linc's. They both have their eyes closed and Charlie can take his time looking at them. Linc's ridiculously long eyelashes – and oh, yes, Charlie has teased him about that countless times – fan his cheeks, the long past three-day scruff is on its best way to becoming soft instead of scratchy. He looks at Linc's slightly parted lips and feels his face heat when he thinks about his impromptu kiss earlier and about what Liv said the day before. He'd answered glibly enough to mask what he was really feeling, but he wasn't bullshitting. He has thought about it. God knows both Liv and Linc are attractive as hell, and he has wondered sometimes how he got landed with two such damn good-looking partners, if the universe is trying to tell him something. But what it boils down to is not the obvious attraction, it's the trust. He knew exactly what Liv meant when she said that she would rather be with them than a stranger.

To Charlie, sex used to be relaxing. A quick fuck here and there, no strings attached, hell, he was with Fringe Division, right, they're bona fide heroes, so there are always enough admirers. Male, female, it didn't matter much to him as long as they had brains to go with the looks. It changed when he met Sonia: he stopped flirting, even stopped looking. He thought he'd found his place, with her, with Fringe, with his team.

Then his life changed from 'before arachnids' to 'after arachnids' and his private life went the way of the Dodo. He doesn't blame Sonia for leaving him. In fact, he has banned Sonia from his mind and is still ashamed that he ever told Liv and Linc about the whole clusterfuck with the kid he never have the chance to know. There's the thing about Liv and Linc, though: they didn't pity him. They didn't say anything at all, just stayed with him, through the drunken sobbing and the inevitable puking afterward. They were there in the morning to make fun of his hangover. They never talked about it again, never referenced it. Charlie has never been so grateful to and never felt as safe with anyone else in his life.

So, yeah, when Liv said she wouldn't have had a problem with them going through the fallout from the administered oxytocin, Charlie agreed. They already trust each other on a level where throwing sex in the mix would – at least for him – not be a big deal. He'd welcome it, if only to live out a couple of fantasies he's entertained during long sleepless nights. He wants to know if Linc's ass feels as good as it looks and if Liv is as flexible as she appears. He got a taste of them both today and he wants more.

He's always cut down thoughts like this with a reminder that the spiders had forever killed his sex life. He promised himself that he'd never put a partner at risk. He came out on the other side of careful and went straight to paranoid, cutting out every physical contact apart from touch.

That no longer holds, though, does it? He's free of the spiders, which means that he's free of his self-imposed restrictions. And he does remember only too well how Liv's and Linc's lips had felt against his when he'd kissed them earlier. In the most joyous moment of his life, he'd just acted, hadn't thought; he'd probably have kissed Secretary Bishop had he been there. It could have been an innocent, spur of the moment thing that no one would ever speak of again. However, he'd seen the way Liv's eyes had closed, had heard the muted noise she'd made. That hadn't been disgust. It had sounded damn well like a whimper. He'd felt the way Linc had tried to move with him when he'd stopped the kiss, like he'd wanted to recapture Charlie's lips. These small signs tell him that neither of them would push him away if he reached out, and hell if that doesn't get his blood pumping. He just wants more. He's a stupid idiot who always wants more.

He shakes his head. Liv was being facetious yesterday, most likely. Better not to dwell on things he can't have. The likelihood of all three of them tumbling into bed together and making it work is somewhere in the region that Farnsworth's statistical impossibilities.

Liv and Linc, though (good distraction, keep going, Francis) … he can see them having a shot at something good. Hell, after Liv's break up, if Linc plays his cards right and doesn't push, Liv might see that Linc would be good for her and she for him. Better than good. He wants that for Linc. Poor kid has been pining for Liv for the past two years and it's growing more and more difficult to just watch from the sidelines and keep his mouth shut. Charlie has sworn to himself never to meddle with the personal lives of his team, though, so he won't play yenta.

Linc's hand drops to the floor and he turns his head on Charlie's knee so that his breath now goes directly through the jeans to Charlie's skin. Charlie rolls his eyes at his body's reaction – a weird mixture of numbness, pins and needles, arousal and, man, I gotta take a leak.

"Come on, cuddle bear, off to bed with you," Charlie says and nudges Linc's shoulder.

Linc doesn't move. Of course he doesn't. Charlie knows this part, it's well-rehearsed.

"Liv?"

"Do we have to play sandman again?" Liv's voice sounds low and rough, looks like she's been sleeping too. Heretics, Charlie thinks. One does not sleep through Once Upon A Time In The West. Sophia Loren is a revelation every time, and Clint Eastwood is a God as Flute.

"Looks like it. Unless we want to leave him here."

She pushes herself up into a sitting position and swipes hair from her face. Her gaze goes to Linc's head still resting on Charlie's knee and a grin brightens her face. "He's been there the entire time?"

"Yep," Charlie says. "My ass might never wake up again."

"You could have just pushed him off. It's not as if he'd break." She doesn't mention that she never let go of Linc's hand either.

Charlie shrugs. "Nah. Even mighty boss man needs a break every now and then."

"You like it, don't you?" Liv's grin grows wider. "You old softie, you."

He shrugs again and sets his hand on Linc's head. Soft strands of hair glide through his fingers when he traces Linc's skull. It's true. He likes it. Aside from the earlier thoughts of potential sex, he likes having both of them close and already feels the lack of contact between Liv and him like phantom pain.

"Hey, Charlie?"

"Hm?"

Liv takes his free hand and presses a kiss against his knuckles. "Thanks."

Charlie feels a blush creep up his neck. Her lips are warm. For an idle second, he wants to re-learn how they'd felt against his own. "For what?"

"For putting up with us." She takes a deep breath. "For not judging me."

Ah. There's the real deal. "Not my place," he says, and realizes that it sounds harsher than he means it. "I don't have a reason to. You're still you. With a hitchhiker or without." He flashes her a grin. "And, remember, I'm the expert on surprise hitchhikers." Not anymore, he reminds himself, the smile growing real, but the statement still holds true.

"It scares me, Charlie." Liv averts her gaze and looks down at Linc. She lifts her hand and sets it against the crown of Linc's head, strokes absent-minded. "It scares the hell out of me."

Charlie doesn't reply. It's not that he can't but he knows she doesn't need it.

"I have no idea how a kid is going to change my life, or if I can even have it. Look at what happened this week: First crazy bug guy, then the cuddle hormone incident. Stuff like that can happen every day. I could get pulled into a vortex tomorrow and never come out. But it's not just me that'll be injured or even dead. It'll be the kid, too."

Her fingers touch his on Linc's head and he presses his fingertips against hers to still them.

She shakes her head and laughs, ducks her head. "You know what the most idiotic thing that keeps going through my mind is?"

"What?"

"I, ah …" She exhales on a forced laugh. "The last time I had sex was the day Frank proposed. In my future there are swollen feet and a huge belly and then diapers and baby food and …" she trails off and laughs again, embarrassed. "On top of everything that's fucked up about the situation is the thought that no one's going to want to touch me again. That I'm automatically a mom. A neuter."

Charlie grins, despite the seriousness of her words. "The day you'll stop being sexy is the day you're dead." He means it, too.

"Charlie … "

"Seriously, Liv. You're gorgeous. Always will be." He lets a smirk grow wide on his face. "And, hey, we can always put in booty calls if no one else comes knocking."

"My savior," she says with an eyeroll, but he doesn't miss the way her gaze flickers over his face, open and … interested.

Charlie swallows. He meant it as a joke, but if he's honest with himself, maybe it was only half of one. He can consider her now. Hell, he could lick her open and make her scream in pleasure; they could fuck all night and he wouldn't even have to worry about getting her pregnant. He wets his suddenly dry lips and sees Liv's gaze follow his tongue. Holy shit, this is weird. He can't decide yet if it's the good or bad kind of weird. All the times he's thought about it … He's never thought he'd ever have the chance. He's never thought she'd be interested. And he's never fantasized about it without Linc in the equation.

The universe must have a sick sense of humor, because Linc chooses that moment to move in his sleep and his head brushes against Charlie's dick, and, yeah, okay, someone is definitely having a giant laugh on his behalf up there.

He's not sure if he's even reading Liv's reaction right. Maybe she's just tired. And he really, really needs to take a piss. Now, if he ever does make it to the toilet, he's going to have a bitch of a time pissing with a hard-on.

No rules in love and war, Charlie thinks and pokes Linc's side where he knows Linc is the most ticklish. Right on cue, Linc sits up like a pocket knife snapping open, bleary-eyed. "The hell?"

"Gotta take a leak," Charlie says and flees from the couch.

Behind him, Linc groans. The couch squeaks when he drops back against it.

***

Charlie takes longer in the bathroom than he needs to. It doesn't help that the room still smells of Linc's soap. When tucking himself back in, Charlie handles himself rougher than he normally does just so his body doesn't get the idea that this is an appropriate time for another erection after just willing one down.

He throws water in his face over the sink and looks in the mirror, hands braced on the sink.

"This is a bad idea, Francis," he tells his reflection. "A stupid-ass idea." Doesn't change the fact that Pandora's box of possibilities has been opened and he has a damn hard time shoving everything that came out back in. He wonders if it would look strange if he just stayed in the bathroom. He can always sleep in the tub.

When he does leave the bathroom, he reaches for the remote first and switches off the TV as soon as he's back in the living room. He turns toward the couch … and breaks into a wide grin.

Linc is back on Liv's shoulder, with Liv looking extremely annoyed. If he didn't know better from previous experience, he'd think that Linc was just putting on a show, either to annoy them or to get closer to Liv, but Charlie has seen this countless times over the last two years. This is familiar. This, he can handle.

"Need help?" he asks.

"Unless you want to sleep on the floor, yeah," Liv answers.

Linc's couch folds out. He has a tatami for guests as well, which is what Liv prefers when she stays over, but Charlie's back isn't what it was ten years ago, and the mattress on the couch isn't half bad. So, yeah. Getting Linc into bed is definitely a given.

"Come on, sleeping beauty," Charlie says and shakes Linc's shoulder carefully, "Time to hit the sack."

"That's still a weird figure of speech," Linc murmurs but sits up a little at least.

It still takes Charlie and Liv three tries to get him to an actual upright position and eventually, they end up frog-marching him into his bedroom.

Linc flops down on the edge of the bed heavily and since he's not letting go of them, they sit down to his left and right. It's still not weird to be in such close contact, Charlie thinks. Hasn't been the entire night, in fact, he has preferred having them both in touching distance. He has no idea what that says about him or their professional relationship, but he's still willing to chalk it off to lingering side-effects of that compound and tonight's return of his libido. He's not going to say it out loud, but he wouldn't mind another night of having them skin-to-skin with him, even if it stays platonic. Yesterday in the cell … it had felt good. Right. The thought of sleeping alone on Linc's couch tonight has his stomach sinking.

Linc is listing against Liv when Charlie looks up, but it's not Linc who catches Charlie's eyes, it's Liv.

She looks at Linc and there's an openness to her face that Charlie hasn't seen in ages. He can read her face and he knows what she's thinking even before she lifts her hand and sets it against Linc's cheek. She strokes her fingers over his cheekbone and under his eye and Linc leans into her hand. Charlie hasn't seen a look so tender on Liv's face in a long time; it's different from the look she gave him earlier. Her touch grazes Linc's lips once, and she startles. After a deep breath, something in her gaze slots into place. She turns a fraction and repeats the movement, deliberate this time.

Linc keeps his eyes closed and doesn't move away from her touch. Instead, sleepwalker-slow, he turns his head and kisses the palm of Liv's hand. Charlie sees Liv go still. It's as if suddenly, all the air has fled the room. Linc exhales and glides his lips along Liv's fingers. At the pad of her middle finger, he parts his lips and nips, gentle.

Charlie's not sure if Linc knows what he's doing or if he's half asleep. It doesn't really matter though because it's damn gorgeous and erotic as all hell and Charlie feels the zing that must go through Liv's body going through his own. Linc's thumb presses against the center of Charlie's palm.

Liv's eyes go dark and all pupil. Charlie sees her suck in a deep breath and he knows what's going to happen before it does, he sees all the conflicting emotions flicker over Liv's face and finally settle into one and it's like a sucker punch when Liv leans forward and presses her lips to Linc's. Charlie's mouth goes dry and he wonders for a second if this is really Liv, but she hasn't closed her eyes and he sees everything in them. The mixture of bravado and desperate need reassures and worries him at the same time.

Linc doesn't open his eyes but Charlie feels him go still and his hand start to tremble where he is still holding on to Charlie's. His breath hitches.

Don't hurt him, Liv, Charlie thinks and strokes his thumb over Linc's knuckles. Charlie knows what he'd be in for, friends with benefits, but Linc doesn't. Or rather, that isn't what Linc wants. He hopes Liv knows what she's playing at. Charlie looks at her hard, his entire expression trying to tell Liv, Know exactly what you're doing here. Don't you hurt him.

She catches his look and holds it while she raises her hand to Linc's face and strokes along his cheek again. The rasp of her fingertips against his stubble is loud even over the rushing of blood in Charlie's ears. I know, her look says. I want this. I need this. She brushes over the deep, pained frown on Linc's forehead and the gesture is so gentle and knowing that Charlie closes his hand around Linc's tighter to keep himself from reaching out and trying to fix whatever is broken in both of them.

"Liv," Linc whispers against Liv's lips and he sounds wrecked, but she catches his bottom lip where it moves on the V of her name between her lips. She coaxes Linc gently, curls her fingertips around Linc's ear. Charlie sees her tongue touch Linc's bottom lip and a hot wave of arousal washes through him when Linc makes a broken noise under his breath. Liv continues to hold him to her and keeps moving her lips and tongue against his and Charlie feels heat climb in his cheeks.

Linc finally seems to wake from his shocked trance. He takes a breath like a drowning man, surges forward and then it's like watching a supernova because their kiss turns from gentle and slow to wet and noisy and incendiary within the blink of an eye. It's as if Linc puts everything he has into the kiss because he doesn't know if he'll ever get the chance again.

Charlie is getting hard just watching them and even if his base instincts scream at him to touch them, join them, lick Liv's taste out of Linc's mouth, he knows he should get the hell out of Dodge and leave them to it. Linc hasn't let go of his hand, though. In fact, the entire time he's kissing Liv, he's holding on to Charlie's hand like he's holding a lifeline.

Charlie tries to pull away and give them the privacy they so clearly need, but Linc laces his fingers with Charlie's and holds him in place. Liv breaks away from the kiss, leaving Linc open-mouthed and panting. Both their lips are swollen and wet and Charlie swallows hard. God, they're gorgeous. He wants them, their mouths and their hands on his skin, their skin, all of them, so much it hurts.

When Liv opens her eyes, with her temple resting against Linc's, they're dark. The smile that plays around her lips is joyful but scared and Charlie hates seeing the doubt it reflects.

"You know," he says and is aware that his voice has left gruff and gone all the way to husky, "first the hug in the kitchen and now this?" He doesn't feel as glib as his words suggest, but keeps going anyway. "A guy really could feel left out here."

"Can't have that," Liv says and her smile grows surer, more seductive and, damn it, Charlie's done fighting. He meets her half-way, cups the side of her face, leans in and … god. Her lips are still moist from Linc's and that's a turn on that has his mind reeling. He has to close his eyes so he can't see Linc looking at them. Since they're kissing over Linc, Charlie feels Linc's breath glide along his neck and shudders in anticipation. Linc's fingertips press against the back of Charlie's hand, his thumb strokes against Charlie's.

Charlie doesn't bother with keeping the kiss chaste – he knows what he wants and if it doesn't go any further, he wants to have at least this to remember and feed his fantasies. He teases his tongue against the seal of Liv's lips and she opens up on a gasp. Charlie tastes both her and traces of Linc's red wine taste and it just fuels the low burning fire in his gut. He licks into Liv's mouth and her hand goes to his head, her nails scratch along his scalp as she attempts to bring him closer. She touches her tongue against his, quick, electric touches, gone too soon to satisfy. Charlie moves the hand that's not holding on to Linc to the back of her head, fists it in her hair and changes the angle of the kiss so he can suck on her tongue until he strips a low sound from her that goes straight to his groin.

She jolts suddenly and opens up to him even wider. Before Charlie can parse what happened, he feels warmth at his side, the tickling of hair against the side of his face and then Linc's lips are against the side of his neck, nipping and kissing and Charlie can't hold in the groan that rises from his throat.

Liv lets go of him and pushes him toward Linc and, hell, oh, hell, Linc is right there, kissing him, teasing and cock-sure as if they've never done anything but. When Linc licks into his mouth, Charlie makes a broken off sound. He tries to let go of Liv's face to reach for Linc but Liv laces her fingers with his and now both Linc and Liv are holding on to him, aborting his movements. It'd be claustrophobic and restrictive if he didn't trust them as much as he does.

Linc takes charge and pushes against Charlie's chest so he falls back on the bed. Linc moves with him and reclaims his lips as soon as Charlie's head hits the mattress. His kisses are possessive. The take-charge attitude is a turn on if ever there was one even if something niggles at the back of Charlie's mind. It's difficult to concentrate on that, though, when Liv's free hand glides along his thigh, nails scraping against the denim. He moves into her touch and up into Linc but almost slips off the edge of the bed.

Linc breaks the kiss. His face is flushed and his lips are kiss-swollen; he's unbelievably gorgeous. Charlie tries to follow, unwilling to stop.

"Greedy," Linc says.

Charlie is. He doesn't care. He has a year's worth of pent up sexual energy to get out of his system.

Linc's face brightens in a delighted smirk. "Scoot up," he orders and Charlie does without thinking twice. Linc straddles him and Charlie's hands go to his hips, kneading and flexing.

"God, I wish you could see yourselves." Liv's voice is husky; the sentence hangs heavy in the room.

Linc turns to her, and Charlie can feel him sliding out of the moment, so he looks over to where Liv is standing as well. Standing? When did that happen? Wasn't she just on the bed with them?

"Fleeing the scene of the crime?" Linc asks and it sounds light, but Charlie can feel the fine tremors going through Linc's hands and thighs.

"Hah," Liv looks honestly amused. "You wish."

"So what's with the retreat?"

If he wasn't one hundred percent sure that Olivia Dunham didn't even know the meaning of the word, Charlie would swear that what he sees on Liv's cheekbones is a blush. "I was hoping you'd be too occupied to realize I was gone for a few minutes." She pulls a put-on annoyed face. "So much for a threesome being easy."

"Why would you – " Linc starts but Charlie nudges his thigh to make him shut up. It's not the first time he's been in bed with a pregnant woman – never his own kid, sadly – and he knows where this is going. "Damn pregnancy bladder, huh?" He tries to sound sympathetic but fails to stop the grin from spreading over his face.

Liv crosses her arms over her chest and gives him a glare. "Hey, it's a better reason than your peanut-sized bladder. Remember who has to get rid of that second tea half way to every event?"

Charlie throws a pillow at her. "Go, pee, woman." He goes back to running his hands over Linc's thighs, trying to massage the tension out of them.

Liv's halfway through the bedroom when she turns around again. "Guys?" She waits until they both look at her. "You can play, but don't wear each other out."

She disappears into the bathroom and Charlie seizes what is probably his one and only chance to get the question that’s been burning inside of him off his chest, even if the last thing he wants to do right now is talk. "Hey Linc," he says, low and under his breath so Liv won’t hear. "Do you have all the variables here?" Approaching a subject scientifically is usually the best bet to get Linc to listen.

Linc gets up off the bed and walks to the papasan chair in the corner. He takes off his socks, rolls them up with military precision and places them on the chair. "Do you?"

Charlie ponders this for a few seconds while he tries not to get distracted by the strip of Linc's bare skin appearing when he bends forward and the cargo pants riding low on his hips. Charlie knows the answer, even if he's not sure he likes it. "I know what she needs and what I need. I know that this is a one-time deal. She needs us today, wants us today. I don’t expect her to feel the same way tomorrow."

Linc’s face is hidden in shadow where the lamp doesn’t disperse the night; Charlie just sees his shoulders straighten. "So?"

The unusually monosyllabic reply is answer enough.

Charlie sighs and murmurs, "Linc, buddy – "

"Drop it, Charlie. Please." Linc’s voice is low.

"I just – "

Linc has always been quick, you've got to give it to him. He's right there in front of Charlie suddenly, on all fours on the bed, grabs the back of Charlie's neck and pulls him into a bruising kiss clearly made to shut him up. Linc smells of fear and tastes of anger; no matter how his kiss has Charlie panting and craving more, this is something he can't ignore. Charlie reaches up, places both hands so they frame Linc’s face and he slows the kiss to something that’s gentler, something he can control.

Charlie pulls them into a position where they're resting side by side on the bed, leans his forehead against Linc's and tries again, "Linc – "

"Just let me pretend, okay?" Linc whispers against Charlie’s lips and his heart breaks.

Charlie heaves a silent sigh and fights the urge to wrap his arms around Linc while at the same time mentally hitting Liv over the head with the biggest clue bat possible. He kisses Linc instead, warm and steady, until Linc responds and relaxes, kissing back with enthusiasm, and they both lose track of time.

"Starting without me?" Liv asks, right next to them. Charlie hadn’t heard her approach, he's too invested in stripping small sounds of appreciation from Linc. At the sound of Liv's voice Linc's fingers bite into Charlie's side, clutch onto him. Charlie gentles his hands over Linc's back and says without missing a beat, "You were taking too long. I thought I’d get the grasshopper here warmed up for you." He curls his hand around Linc's waist and moves around him to kiss the side of Liv’s neck. "Feel like taking over?"

When he pulls back, Liv’s smile is brilliant enough to light the room and Charlie pointedly doesn’t look at the way Linc, after a split second's hesitation, responds in kind.

***

Charlie holds on to Lincoln when Liv returns, and that's probably a good thing, or he may have bolted after all.

What's happening here is one of his dirtiest and most recent fantasies, something he never really considered before the clusterfuck yesterday. But last night, as he lay in bed alone, desperately missing the sense of connection they'd all had in the lab, he allowed his mind to play through the scenarios he usually squashed with a ruthless efficiency. No good fantasizing about something you can't have, right? Only after what Liv said yesterday, maybe it wasn't so much what he couldn't have, but what he didn't allow himself to hope for from fear of getting hurt.

That fear is still there. It's lingering in every touch of Liv's hands and lips and if he's honest with himself, then he knows that without Charlie with him, he would have bolted after the first kiss.

Charlie… Charlie is like a rock in the sea, the one waves can crash against and break, but he won't. He'll never break. The unhurried, easy competence he brings into work is the same he has here, in bed with them.

Grasshopper, Charlie calls him, and Lincoln wants to grin and slap him at the same time. He's not in the headspace Charlie's in yet and the casual tease rubs him a little wrong. Charlie is relaxed, at ease with all this, and it seems like has no problem letting go. Even as he relinquishes control, he's still in control. The thought alone is bizarre, as bizarre as this reality is.

They're in bed with each other, literally and Liv is kissing him, open-mouthed and dirty, uttering low sounds of appreciation when he runs his hands over her breasts and kneads them, first careful, then harder when she responds with more guttural sounds and slides onto his lap, wrapping her legs around his waist and rocking up against him. Lincoln tears his mouth away from hers to suck in a huge gulp of air and fight a moan. He can smell her arousal and Charlie's skin and it's almost too much. Liv rocks against him more insistently and he bucks up into her, shuddering at the friction and at the same time terrified of what the hell it is they're doing here, of what it'll mean for the future. Terrified of having his heart broken into so many pieces he'll never put it together again. Liv throws her head back and Charlie is there, kissing along the long line of her throat but never taking his eyes off Lincoln.

Lincoln feels himself relax as he meets Charlie's gaze. The deep brown of his irises is calming and Lincoln loses himself in them for a few seconds. With Charlie in the game, it'll be all right, he can let go and allow himself the risk of opening up. With Charlie there, he'll never fall, because Charlie will always be there to pick him up, no matter in how many pieces. And he wants to open up. It's been too long since he felt a lover's touch and if he closes his eyes and pretends, then he can pretend that Liv wants him for himself, that Charlie does, too.

It's easier to believe with Charlie. He's seen the looks Charlie has given him in the past, when he thought Lincoln wasn't noticing. He knows that if he ever would have acknowledged Charlie in the past, he'd have had someone who would have given him exactly what he needed. But he'd been hung up on Liv, always waiting for the impossible, and Charlie had never once stepped over the line separating friendship from something more. Thinking about how tightly Charlie reigns in his emotions and the reasons for it makes Lincoln's chest feel constricted. He wonders how someone like Charlie, who must have an ocean full of need hiding inside him can be so steadying. It's not the situation for a heart-to heart, though, so he bends forward and sets his lips against the bare bit at the base of Charlie's throat where his pulse thrums fast.

Charlie buries his hand in Lincoln's hair, holding him close; his gun-callused fingers catch against Lincoln's hair. The low hum of Charlie's voice reverberates against Lincoln's lips. "You're driving me insane, you two."

"Nothing new there, huh, Charlie?" Liv answers, her voice sounding low and rough.

Lincoln looks up at her and when her eyes meet his, they're full of fond, mischievous, familiar laughter and he realizes that he has never wanted anyone more than he wants her and Charlie right now.

Lincoln decides in that moment. He curls his hand around the back of Charlie's neck, kisses Liv until they're both breathless and then does the same to Charlie.

To hell with tomorrow.

***

Charlie and Linc are kissing when she returns from the bathroom and Liv has to stop and admire them for a couple of minutes. They're unaware of her and they kiss gently, unhurried. Linc's hands are curled around Charlie's head, pale fingers a stark contrast to Charlie's dark hair, while Charlie's hands are on Linc's hips, kneading. Linc traces Charlie's ear, runs a nail along the outside of it and Charlie takes a deep breath and moves into Linc. His hands move from Linc's hips to his ass and bring their groins together. Liv sees Linc gasp into the kiss and Charlie chase that gasp. He grabs Linc's ass with a possessive move and rocks forward, making them both groan. The kiss turns from gentle to lewd and Liv is wet just from watching them. She thinks she might be content just to watch them have a go at it, but the sounds Linc makes are addictive and she wants to be the one causing them, together with Charlie. She wants to hear Charlie murmur encouragements in her ear. She wants them naked. With her, around her, in her. She wants it all.

She sidles close to them and drops the handful of condoms she found in Linc's medicine cabinet on the bedside table. The sound of them hitting the polished wood is loud and alien in the room but doesn't seem to faze Charlie and Linc. When they still don't acknowledge her, she asks, "Starting without me?"

Linc jumps as if he’s been slapped, but Charlie holds on to him and doesn't let him move away. He ghosts another kiss over Linc's lips and says, "You were taking too long. I thought I’d get the grasshopper here warmed up for you."

She watches Linc – face flushed, lips swollen, pupils blown so wide she barely sees his irises anymore – yeah, she'd say that Charlie did an excellent job of getting Linc warmed up.

Charlie curls his hand around Linc's waist, loose, just maintaining contact, and angles his body toward her. He slants her a look from under half-lowered lashes, and wow, Charlie really has those bedroom eyes down pat. Lips curled in a slow smile, he grazes the side of her neck in a soft, teasing kiss. His voice is velvet over rough stone and raises goosebumps all over her skin. "Feel like taking over?"

The grin almost splits her face. Hell, yeah, she does.

She pushes Linc to the bed and kisses him, first slow, then deeper, climbs onto his lap and wraps her legs around his waist. His hands kneading her breasts feel good. His cock, rubbing against the seam of her pants feels even better and she throws her head back to catch her breath and feel the rush of warmth spreading through her body from head to toe.

Charlie comes up behind her and kisses her exposed neck at the same time that Linc rocks up against her. She's ready to fly apart from this alone.

Their scents are familiar as breathing, though she's never perceived them laced with the musk of sex before. She's glad she has the chance now, because it makes them even more stupidly sexy than they already are. Linc's hair brushes against the side of her neck when he kisses Charlie and with them both pressed against her front and back, she can't breathe but she doesn't want to either. She wants to stay like this, in a moment out of time; safe, familiar, loved and if that's a sappy thought then she doesn't care.

Liv feels every inch of them touching her, takes in the feeling and the scent of Linc's hair and the roughness of Charlie's stubble against the back of her shoulder. She feels Charlie's heartbeat against her skin, fast. He's getting more into kissing Linc. His left hand is curled around her waist and caresses her skin but his right has slid into Linc's hair and pulls him closer. Little noises of pleasure escape Charlie's throat and the low hum glides under Liv's skin and goes straight to her clit. Linc's eyes are closed and he's kissing Charlie like he's drowning, all the while his hips are moving against her and his cock's an insistent pressure against her crotch.

She feels like an intruder between them in this moment, so she gently eases Charlie's hand off her waist and slips out from between Linc and Charlie as carefully as she can.

It's not careful enough apparently, since she has to wriggle and twist way too much to be subtle in any way. They stop kissing when she's slipped free of them. Linc's look is alarmed and Charlie looks a little apprehensive as well.

"What – ?" Linc begins but Liv leans forward to stop the rest of his question with a light kiss. She feels the flutter of his lashes against her skin when his eyes close.

"Don't worry, tiger, I'm not running away," she murmurs against his lips with a smile. "I just …" she trails off when Charlie lifts her hair and kisses the very top of her spine, distracting her. She turns to kiss him, too, lightly, then pulls back so she can see them both. "I want to watch," she says and barely recognizes her voice.

A delighted smile breaks out over Charlie's face. "Yeah?"

She doesn't have to fake any enthusiasm here, the answer is on her lips immediately. "Hell, yeah."

"Well," he turns to look at Linc, "what say you, boss?"

"Can't disappoint the lady, can we?" Linc answers with a half-smile. He doesn't look quite as sure as Charlie does, but he's still breathing heavily and his gaze keeps sliding back to Charlie's lips.

Charlie straightens his shoulders. "No sir."

Linc's pupils widen and it looks like Charlie knows exactly which buttons to push.

"Like that, don't you?" Charlie smirks. "Sir?"

"Put that mouth to a better use, Charlie," Lincoln says and pulls Charlie closer to kiss him again. Watching the kiss alone is a revelation. They're easy together, so easy, almost carefree. Charlie grins into the kiss and Linc's smiling, too. Liv still is amazed, because while she knew that Charlie swung the other way as well as hers, she had no idea that Linc did, too.

Their kisses are playful at first, then turn serious, and Liv couldn't look away if she tried. Linc reaches for the back of Charlie's head and runs his hands over the short-cropped hair over and over again. The bristling sound is loud over the sound of their heavy breathing and the wet sounds of their kisses. Charlie pushes and Linc goes down easily, as if they practiced this many times. Charlie abandons Linc's lips and kisses his way down to where Linc's shirt is pulled away from his throat by their movements. Linc bucks up into Charlie when Charlie brushes his lips just under Linc's ear and Liv files that away for later. He stretches his neck to give Charlie better access and Charlie uses the offering to his full advantage by sucking a bruising kiss to the side of Linc's neck. Linc's eyes roll back and his lips open on a subdued moan; he doesn't seem bothered by Charlie's attempt at marking him. His left hand bunches the sheets while his other keeps stroking the back of Charlie's head. Liv has a hard time staying on her side of the bed just watching because Linc looks like the very best kind of porn out there, already debauched and Charlie's just kissing him. She wants to hear Linc make the same noises when it's her turn, just more and louder.

She sees the muscles in Linc's arms and legs flex just before he moves so she has the warning that Charlie doesn't. Linc flips Charlie to his back and Charlie goes down with a surprised oomph. The bloom of Charlie's lovebite is a stark contrast against Linc's pale skin even in the dim light of the bedroom.

The smile on Linc's face is downright predatory when he moves to straddle Charlie and Charlie rolls his hips up to meet his. "Patience isn't really your thing, is it?"

"I haven't had sex in over a year, smartass. Right now, I think patience is completely and utterly overrated." Charlie actually looks a little put out. "Now get that shirt off."

Linc snorts laughter. "And here I thought I was the boss." He grinds down against Charlie and Charlie's eyes flutter shut for a few seconds.

"Shirt," Charlie repeats, a little strangled, and slides his hands under the soft cotton of Linc's tee.

Linc remains unhelpful and just gyrates against Charlie, his lips half open and smiling down at Charlie's reaction, so Liv decides to help. She moves up behind Linc and kisses the back of his neck. A soft sound of surprise escapes his throat, as if he'd forgotten she was there. Liv's not having that. She meets Charlie's hands under the body-warm fabric of Linc's shirt and pushes it upwards. Charlie takes her hands and together, they roam over Linc's skin, touch his back and the dips under his ribs, all the way up to his chest. Her palms brush Linc's nipples and there's no mistaking the jolt that goes through his body. This is still Linc's and Charlie's time, though, so Liv pulls her hands away from his and gently presses Charlie's hands against Linc's chest.

"What happened to watching?" Linc asks, breathless.

Liv smiles and pushes his shirt up so more and more of his back is revealed to her. His skin looks soft. From experience back in the lab, she knows that it is. "Oh, I'm watching. I'm just removing a couple of obstacles that are in my line of sight." She bends down to brush her lips against his spine and feels Linc's body wired with the need to move into Charlie's hands and against her lips at the same time.

She makes short work of the shirt and is glad when he obliges and allows her to pull it off over his arms and his head. It smells of him and Charlie, a familiar scent that causes a Pavlovian reaction in Liv. She tosses it on the floor and plants light kisses against every knob of Linc's spine until her lips reach the hem of his cargo pants. Linc jolts suddenly, throwing her off and when Liv looks up to see what happened, she feels her mouth go dry and her blood rush south. Charlie has curled up and is licking at Linc's left nipple and Linc makes a sound so broken that Liv worries for a second. It really only lasts a second, though, because Linc is all movement suddenly. He grabs Charlie's face and pulls him up to kiss him again, open-mouthed and lewd, then he scrabbles at the hem of Charlie's shirt to pull it up.

When it's off, Charlie laughs in between kisses and murmurs something that sounds like "Patience, huh?" Liv can't be sure because the sound of their breathing and their kisses and her pulse in her ears is just too loud in the otherwise quiet room. They rock together for what feels like forever, faster and faster, Charlie's hands clamping down on Linc's ass and squeezing, Linc's hands raking over Charlie's back, his short-cropped nails leaving pink trails.

Eventually, Charlie tears his mouth away from Linc's and says, "I'm too damn old for dry-humping. I vote everyone gets naked."

Liv can't help the laugh bubbling up. "We're voting now?"

Charlie rolls his eyes while Linc focuses his attention on Charlie's ear with his lips and teeth. The eyeroll turns into Charlie's eyes nearly rolling back in his head when Linc bites down on his earlobe. "Just strip," Charlie gasps.

Liv is well aware of the attention of both men on her when she divests herself of her shirt. She moves deliberately slow, teases at the button of her pants before she undoes the zipper and then slides them off her legs. Charlie and Linc have stopped kissing and are watching her with rapt attention.

"Come on, keep up and maybe I won't be done before you are," she says with a raised eyebrow. She pushes at the bra strap and feels it glide down her upper arm.

Linc and Charlie scramble to divest each other of their clothing and irrationally, Liv is glad that neither of them is still wearing their shoes. The process of taking off shoes usually takes too long and brings back too much of the reality that is blissfully absent in this bedroom. She very much appreciates the sight of Charlie pulling Linc's cargo pants off those long, lean legs and then hooking his thumbs under Linc's boxer briefs and pulling them down as well. Linc's ass really is a work of art. His cock is hard and Liv's mouth waters a little. She sees that he's narrow and circumcised and leaking pre-come, making her want to reach between her legs.

Linc's deft fingers make short work of Charlie's pants and boxers as well and she gets to see the full gorgeousness that is a naked Charlie Francis, the long, elegant lines of muscles and sinews and the tattoos curling along his arms and legs. He, too, is hard and the first look at his cock has her mouth watering even more. Charlie's shorter but wider than Linc. Her mind goes into a brief overload thinking what both men can do for her.

"One of us is still overdressed," Charlie comments, a little breathless from Linc's hand palming his ass.

"I guess someone should do something about that, huh?" she asks, eyebrows raised. She moves her shoulders so her other bra-strap slips down as well.

Both Charlie and Linc move at the same time and as though by an unspoken understanding, Linc goes for her bra while Charlie goes for her panties.

They're guys, so of course they're show-offs; she's just not sure whom they're showing off to, her or each other. Linc opens her bra one-handed and then catches the bra-strap between his teeth to pull it down her arms, kissing and nibbling down her arms in the progress. He gives Charlie a brief kiss when he has pulled the bra down far enough she can shake it off her hands. "Your turn," Linc says and Charlie's eyes flash with the challenge. He guides Liv to lie down but raise her hips a little, then he sets his lips against her belly and kisses his way toward the elastic band of her panties. He breathes deep and shudders a little against her. "You already smell good now," he murmurs into her skin. "Imagine how you'll smell later." It would be a crude remark if she wasn't sure that he's planning to go through with every single fantasy going through his mind.

Charlie, too, tries to get his teeth on the fabric of her panties, but fails, the elastic keeps slipping away from him and after the fourth try, he gives a frustrated huff.

"Suave, Charlie," Linc comments and the laughter in his voice is audible. "Real suave."

"He's just rusty," Liv teases.

Charlie harrumphs. "I'll show you rusty."

"Promises, promises," Liv retorts, and, oh, that was either the worst or the best idea of the night thus far, because Charlie pulls the panties down her legs in an impatient move that's nowhere near as gentle as Linc was and then Charlie's hands are there, opening her legs and his hair tickles the inside of her thighs. He dips his head so he can set his mouth against her, stretches her with one hand and licks a long, teasing strip along her clit. Just one, then he's gone. Liv bucks up as though electrocuted and falls back on the bed with a frustrated groan when Charlie rolls to his side and makes no more move to continue what he started.

"Tease," she pants.

Luckily, Linc steps up to distract her. He bends down to mouth at her breasts. She jolts when he sets his lips against her right nipple and guides his tongue, wet-warm-silky, over and around it. "Don't." She pushes Linc's head away from her breast. He looks up at her, alarmed; her tone must have been a lot sharper than she meant to. She strokes her hand along his cheek and trails his lips with her fingertips to convey she's not upset. "Breasts are fine, just leave the nipples out," Liv instructs. "Too sensitive." The pregnancy has them over-sensitive to the point of hurting, chafing against even the softest bra.

Something flickers through Linc's eyes but she's glad to see him shove whatever it is he originally meant to say aside. "I'm sure Charlie wouldn't mind the attention," she quips, but Linc is focused. He cups her breasts as he weighs them in his hands. They're fuller now than they were a few weeks ago, feel heavier already. Linc pays them a lot of attention, massages gently, presses soft kisses under them and over, blows air over the moist patches left by his open-mouthed kisses, touches everywhere, all around her nipples but never touching them, proving that he's good at following her wishes. His other hand has moved to her belly, strokes idly around her belly button, then dips lower, and, yeah, oh, yeah. He finds her clit and spreads the moisture already very present there. His breath comes fast against her skin, his hips move against her leg.

Liv sucks in a huge gulp of air when Linc's finger breaches her and his thumb presses against her clit in perfect counterpoint. Her breathing becomes shallow after that, interspersed with little moans. She comes for the first time when Linc pushes a second finger inside her. Her hand flails and reaches out for Charlie to anchor her. The orgasm is short and intense and nowhere near enough. Her body is ready for more, so much more, and she wants to tell Linc to fuck her right the hell now, but she catches Charlie watching them with rapt attention, his hand curled around his fully hard cock, thrusting into his own fist. His eyes are darker than normal, his mouth flushed and his lips are open.

The picture he makes is gorgeous and sexy as all hell, but she thinks that he's had only his hands as company for long enough. "Looks like Charlie's feeling a bit neglected," she murmurs as she runs her free hand over Linc's back.

"Oh, don't mind me. I'm enjoying the show," Charlie husks.

"What if I want a show too?" Liv asks. "What if I told you to blow Linc for me?" She wouldn't mind it the other way around, either, but Charlie's bound to have more experience, and she wants this to be good for all of them.

Charlie's about to answer when Linc pounces. "Still the boss around here," he says and crawls over to Charlie, bats Charlie's hand away and bends over Charlie's cock to give it an experimental lick. Charlie's head thumps back on the bed and when Linc takes him fully into his mouth, he utters a very colorful expletive in Spanish. Charlie's hand nearly crushes Liv's. Linc's action just shows her that she can try to orchestrate things in this bed, but she's still dealing with two men who very much have their own ideas. The more Linc relaxes, the more creative he gets and Liv feels giddy and incredibly turned on with the knowledge.

Liv is reduced to staring because she sure as hell hadn't expected this. Seems that for all his talking, Linc has left out some key information about his experiences, because what she's seeing here is not an inexperienced blowjob. Linc's eyes are closed, his lashes fan his cheeks and he's hollowing his cheeks as if he's never done anything but suck cock. His lips stretched around Charlie's cock are beautiful.

Charlie's breathing fast, muttering encouragements and stroking Linc's hair. Liv feels a hollow ache between her legs; it grows worse the longer she watches them, and the closer she sees Charlie getting to release. When Charlie starts to thrust up into Linc's mouth, his eyes unfocused and his words no longer making any sense, Liv moves, unable to stop herself.

"Stop," she orders and pulls Linc away from Charlie and up to her. She kisses Linc deep and breathless, tasting Charlie in his mouth. "Don't get him off yet."

"Hey," Linc complains, but lets Liv take the lead again.

Charlie gives an inarticulate groan of protest and flops back, spreading his arms wide on the bed in defeat and breathing hard. His laughter edges toward hysteria. "Remember the part about not having sex in over a year? And you're cock-blocking me in the middle of the best damn blowjob I've had in ages?"

Liv blows him a kiss, winks and catches the light from the papyrus lamp in the corner on the foil package of the condom so it reflects on Charlie's face. She tears it open and rolls it on him.

"Ladies first," she declares with a grin.

"Oh, yeah?" Charlie Francis, she's glad to re-learn, has never backed away from a challenge. He goes to his knees, hauling her up, none too gentle, so her ass rests on his thighs, both her legs over his right shoulder. He takes his time spreading her legs wide, kisses the soles of her feet before draping one leg around his hip and handing the other to Linc.

Linc kisses his way from her knee to her hip, circling the point of her hip with mouth and tongue, making her squirm.

When Charlie enters her with one long rough thrust that steals her breath and makes her back arch off the bed for a second, Linc is there, his hand underneath the small of her back, supporting her. His hand is hot against her sweat-damp skin. Charlie's well endowed, his width stretches her almost to the point of hurting and she's glad they spent enough time on foreplay so that she's wet enough. He feels good inside of her.

Charlie stills, half pulled out of her, and a throaty moan escapes her throat when she feels Linc's mouth and tongue against her clit. "Oh, God." She's ready to fly apart but she fights it, lifts her head because she has to see, has to see Linc’s mouth go from her clit to Charlie’s cock and back again, and hear the sound as he laps at them wet and slippery. It’s both stunning and hot, the way Linc’s eyes are closed, long lashes fanning his cheeks, a look of rapture on his face that she’s never seen before.

"Fuck, you’re gorgeous," Charlie mutters. "Both," he swallows against his voice cracking, licks his lips and tries again, "both of you." His words, harsh with arousal and need, go straight to her core, her muscles clench around him and she rocks up against him, trying to make him move.

Charlie slides into her fully and Linc supports the small of her back, making her arch even more and her hands scrabble for purchase on the sheets and Linc's thigh while she loses her breath as her body tries to accommodate Charlie's cock. She moves once, meets Charlie's thrust and already she feels it begin to build. Selfishly, she chases after her own release.

"No don't," Linc says when her eyes begin to flutter shut. She forces them to re-open because his voice leaves her no choice. "Keep looking at him. Keep your eyes open when you come. I want you to see him."

Charlie's brow knits as if he's in pain. He grabs the back of Linc's neck, pulls him up and kisses him with so much force that she hears their teeth clack. Something unspoken passes between them, but she's not ready to read between the lines. She's hung up on the realization that Charlie must taste her on Linc's lips, and, god, that shouldn't be as sexy as it is. She clenches around Charlie's cock again and he gasps into Linc's open mouth.

"Look at her," Linc murmurs and both men direct their gazes at her. "Look at how beautiful she is, how she's straining for you." Linc's voice is like cool silk, but he's flushing, almost as if he's embarrassed. She can tell that he's not used to the dirty talk, so she saves him from attempting any more and claws her hand into Charlie's leg. She barely has any breath left as she husks out, "Look at how she wants you to fuck her into the goddamn mattress."

Charlie's eyes nearly roll back in his skull and he starts to move, each thrust shooting sparks along her spine.

Liv is never averse to dirty talk as long as it's on her terms. "I want you both to make me scream."

Charlie's thrusts stutter and his hands bite into her thighs to pull her up higher. The movement changes the angle he's thrusting into her and she gasps. "Yeah. Come on." Between one breath and the next, she reaches for Linc's hand, sucks his index and middle finger into her mouth, swirls her tongue around gun calluses and soft skin. When she releases them, she says, "Get your hand back on my clit, Linc."

His pupils almost swallow his irises when he does. Liv arches when his fingers touch her exactly where she wants him to. She throws her head back and moans her approval.

"You're gonna kill me," Charlie breathes.

Linc gives her a wicked smile and leans forward to set his lips against Charlie's chest and lick a broad stripe across his nipple. Charlie jolts, mutters incoherent Spanish and starts fucking her in earnest. It's not gentle, and she doesn't want it to be. It's hard and fast and exactly what she needs. She gives back as good as she gets, meets Charlie thrust for thrust. Linc's hand is merciless on her clit as well, and Liv feels it building inside of her, while her skin flushes with heat. Their bodies slap together, loud, and the sound of Linc licking and sucking at Charlie's nipple blends with Charlie's and her moans. Just a little more, just a little harder …

Charlie stiffens suddenly, just for a second, and makes a sound that seems to come from the very bottom of his vocal chords as he looses all coordination. His next thrusts are even deeper than before and Linc flicks at her clit faster and faster as he murmurs, "Yeah, come on, come on," and on a sensory overload that borders on pain, Liv falls over the edge. Her back arches and her body is set alight by the force of the orgasm racing along every nerve ending. She shouts her pleasure and clings to Charlie and Linc while she rides out the last aftershocks. She never closes her eyes and so she gets to see Charlie break open as well, his face twisted in near-pain but the relief and the happiness are so strong that she feels tears prickling in her eyes just from watching him.

Charlie slumps against her when he comes down from the high and she feels squished pretty soon, has a hard time breathing, so she moves her legs off his shoulders and slides away from him. He lists to the side with a smile playing around his lips that's downright dopey.

"If I die now, I'll die happy," he declares and relaxes into a boneless heap.

Liv catches Linc's gaze and grins at him. "Looks like we wore him out."

Linc nods but his smile doesn't reach his eyes.

Doubt. What she reads there is clearly doubt and Liv, still high on endorphins, has no idea how to deal with that except to kiss him. She goes slow, deliberately different from how she was with Charlie, and Linc opens up willingly, lets her push him to his back and climb over him.

"Are you sure?" he asks and Liv wants to laugh, because she has no idea why he'd ask her that now.

"The female body is a wonderful thing," she whispers close to his ear. "Give us one orgasm and we want more. And even better, we can have more."

It's not really what he meant, but she needs something to concentrate on that's not this sudden influx of insecurity on her end as well. His cock is at full attention, pressed all the way up against his stomach and it leaves wet smears against her belly. Liv moves up and drags her vulva over his cock and watches his eyes flutter shut in time with her body acknowledging the new sparks shooting along her spine.

She looks him straight in the eyes, eyes that she's never seen so damn blue before. "Lincoln Lee," she says, takes his cock gentle but firm in her hand and positions it at her entrance for one quick, enticing touch. "Will you please fuck me?" He shudders at the contact, tears his gaze away from hers and blindly reaches for the nightstand to grab a condom. It's Charlie who hands him one, already out of the foil package. Liv helps him roll it on and then, impatient, she lowers herself on him, feeling her body welcome him.

It's good. Different from Charlie, but just as good. She closes her eyes, leans back and just enjoys the connection for a few seconds. Once she bends forward again to look at him and moves her hips a few experimental times, she feels him aborting his movements, as if he's trying very hard not to lose control this early on. Always the gentleman, his hands come up to reach for her clit, fingers finding her sensitive spots within the blink of an eye, already expertly pushing her toward another release, but his eyes stay closed and she can't have that. Won't have that.

"Don't," she says on a gasp. "Don't close your eyes, Linc. I want you to see me."

So he does and she knows within seconds that her request was a clear case of careful what you wish for, because Linc … Lincoln can't keep a secret. Never could. He may hide and deflect and joke but here and now, with him buried inside her body, straining against her, she sees everything and it's like a punch to the gut to realize that he loves her. Not just as a partner, not the way she loves Charlie and the way she loves him. This isn't just camaraderie and lust. This runs deeper. It's devotion.

Liv stares at him for what seems like an eternity before her body wills her to move. He never breaks eye contact with her, lays it all out in front of her and she can't take it, so she bends down to kiss him, deep and desperate. Linc groans into the kiss, holds her close enough she'll feel the bruises in the days to come, and starts to move under her. They kiss and kiss, dirty, wet, and wild, while his hands move to her ass and press her down against him.

Lips against the back of her spine make her arch and tear away from Linc's mouth on a gasp. Linc groans when her position changes and so does she; he's deeper inside of her now and the aborted snap of his hips hits exactly the right spot. She bends back but keeps her hands locked with Linc's as she speeds up her movements, riding him faster. Not long now, just a little more and she'll, she'll –

Charlie's rough hands on her hips come as a shock when they stop her and force her to move slower. He draws it out for both of them, guides Liv's hips first slower, then faster, until Linc whispers heated obscenities and strains against her. His fingers nearly crush her hand but she's doing the same to him; they both know they won't break the other. The pain is a heady rush Liv didn't expect to like.

It starts to build momentum when Charlie lets go of her hips. Liv digs her knees into the mattress, bends forward and locks her gaze with Linc's again. The grin she gives him is probably manic but she doesn't care; he feels too good inside her. He grins back at her, wide and brilliant and real, all of the earlier shadows gone. With Charlie no longer holding her back, she can quicken her pace and she's riding Linc fast within seconds, making him bite his lip to suppress a moan, rushing toward her climax at a dizzying pace. The slap of their bodies meeting is loud in the room and she's laughing; this feels good, it feels right, so much better than she would have expected and she needs to stop thinking now and let everything else go. This isn't just for her, this is for Linc, too and she needs to, she needs –

Liv falls over the edge, unexpected, when Charlie's fingers press against her clit. Her orgasm blooms sharp and feral, racing out against her skin in an explosion of gold and heat that goes on and on. Linc's jaw goes slack as he watches her come, he licks his lips and whispers encouragements she can't hear over the rushing of blood in her ears. Charlie doesn't let up and Linc holds back still and she knows she can, so she speeds up again, fucks him harder than before and one orgasm slides into a second, even brighter one that leaves her wrung out and sagging forward. Linc follows her then, his face contorting as though in pain when he comes, his eyes losing focus but never closing. She watches him unravel and like it was with Charlie, this isn't awkward in the least – it's a gift. She gentles him with kisses as he comes down from the high and tastes his smile against her lips. He tastes happy and she's suddenly, inexplicably scared because she realizes that she is, too.

She doesn't linger in the afterglow. She slips from the bed and heads for the bathroom again to pee and clean up and to get a washcloth for Charlie and Linc. On her way to and from, her mind goes into overdrive, thinking about the consequences of what they just did. She switches off the light and lies down next to Charlie, feeling stiff and awkward, especially when she thinks of Linc and that look of wonder on his face. She's frightened by how much she wants to see it again.

Charlie pulls the sheets over them and loops his arms around both their waists, pulling them close to him. "Stop thinking, both of you," he orders, his voice gruff. Liv wants to smile at the underlying fondness, but it feels like a grimace; her facial muscles just don't want to comply. What if this is the last time he'll banter with them this way? What if the sex they had will now always stand between them? What if they can't go back to being friends? It's too late to worry about that but she can't stop the thoughts from cartwheeling in her head.

"I said both of you," Charlie says and pokes her side. "That includes you, Liv." This time, she does smile. She can hope, right? And even if it doesn't work tomorrow, he's still there now and so is Linc. She'll take what's offered. She kisses the ball of Charlie's shoulder and snuggles up against him, snakes her arm across his belly. Linc finds her hand in the dark and laces his fingers with hers. She squeezes back and is glad when he doesn't let go.

Charlie kisses both of their heads and his hand around her hip tightens. She imagines that he's doing the same to Linc.

Liv listens to Charlie's and Linc's breath even out into sleep. Even though she’s calmer now, the wild beast of panic back in its pen, it takes her hours to follow.

***

She wakes to early morning light filtering through the windows. It takes her a while to get her bearings and remember what happened the night before. She tenses, but Charlie still has his arm draped around her hip, and even in sleep he's solid enough to stave off what is on its way to becoming a round of buyer's remorse; his bare skin is warm and wonderful against her and she'll enjoy it as long as it lasts, damn it. She lifts her head to look toward the other side of the bed and something twists in her stomach to find it empty. Linc is nowhere to be seen.

Liv extricates herself from Charlie as carefully as she can so she won't wake him and looks around the room for something to wear. Her clothes are rumpled and need a quick tumble in the 'fresher. She contemplates pulling them on after all but after giving her shirt an experimental sniff, she drops it. Definitely 'fresher material. One of Linc's black shirts lies thrown over a chair so she pads over and pulls it on. He's always been just shy of slight, so it isn't too large on her, just too long, which suits her just fine.

Liv doesn't know what she expects to find in the living room. She hopes he hasn't left. She hadn't been able to fall asleep for the longest time last night and had had time to think and while there were no revelations, there were realizations. The bedroom door still in hand, she hesitates. She doesn't know what she'll do if she finds the living room empty.

Eventually, she squares her shoulders and pushes the door open.

There's noise in the kitchen and her relief is sharp enough to make her knees watery. She pads around the corner toward the open kitchen and leans against the wall to watch him while she waits for her knees to lock. He's wearing sweatpants that ride low on his hips and nothing else. His hair is tousled, though not in the artful way that she keeps on joking requires half a metric ton of product and an hour in front of the mirror each morning. No, it's tousled by sleep and, she swallows and feels a pleasant heat pool in her stomach, by hers and Charlie's hands.

The muscles in Linc's back and over his hips flex as he walks back and forth between the stove and the kitchen. There's a pitcher with a whisk in it next to the stove. A frying pan rests on the stove and a pot of tea sits on the counter, with three delicate china cups arranged meticulously around it. They're hand-painted. Liv remembers an artist in China Town giving them to Linc after he'd called off the quarantine of her block at the last minute. Linc had acted as if he didn't care back then, but she'd seen the delighted smile lurking in his eyes. They might be heroes to a lot of the people in New York City, but it was still rare that anyone gave them presents.

"Hey," she says eventually, her voice still low and rough from sleep.

He whips around, takes in her appearance and smiles one of those radiant smiles she saw the night before. "Hey," he greets in return.

Liv pads barefoot around the counter, takes a glass out of the cabinet and fills it with water from the pitcher standing next to the sink. The mundane task helps her to get some order to her thoughts even when she knows he's watching her. She empties the glass, sets it in the sink and says, "I was worried that you'd left."

"This is my place, where would I go?" The casual reply sounds too rehearsed, too carefree and Liv makes her decision then. He's standing in front of the fridge, his back to her and she walks up to him and hugs him from behind, her hands flat against his stomach, her face pressed against his right shoulder blade.

He freezes and she just holds on tighter, willing him to understand what she can't put into words. It takes him a long time to relax into her touch. When he does, his arms come up to cover hers and he leans back into her. She doesn't know how long they stand that way; she loses time listening to his heartbeat slow from a frantic thumping to a steady pace. It's not okay yet. She just hopes it will be.

"What is this?" Charlie's voice startles her out of the moment; she lets go of Linc. "No one told me there were free hugs available."

Charlie looks rumpled, the pillow has left a crease pressed into his cheek and without product to keep it in place, his hair curls and stands on end. He's bare-chested too, clad in just his loose charcoal boxers and he's … damn near floating. He looks like a cat that got the cream and seems completely oblivious of the tension between her and Linc.

"Only for those who don't sleep until noon," Linc quips, then turns around to catch her gaze, inviting her to join him in teasing Charlie and it's comfortable, the way it's always been between them.

"Then aren't we glad that it's barely nine?" Charlie rasps. "So, come here. Group hug."

Charlie engulfs them in a hug that smells of happiness, of bed-warm skin, musk and familiarity. He kisses first the top of Liv's head, then stretches a little to kiss Linc's, and Liv wants to weep at the gratitude she feels. It's going to be all right. Better than before.

Fin