"We were nearly dead! We were almost actually dead!" Erin laughs, out of breath and covered in slime and she can't stop smiling.
"I know!" Abby calls, her grin like a hall of mirrors as it catches all of theirs and beams back, dazzling. Patty leans her cheek against Erin's hair, all of them too disgustingly sticky to care where they touch each other, and Erin can feel the thrum of her laughter like the burr of their lasers in every notch of her spine.
Holtz is clinging hard to her waist, exhausted and grinning, and when she reaches out to Abby with an ecto-slick hand Abby falls into the group with a happy hum. The jostling of their proton-packs still strapped to their backs and the dank, empty basement and the fact that there's ectoplasm in her bra is nothing, just noise to the brightness inside of Erin right now.
"We did good," Patty says, and Erin turns her face towards her, finding her mouth a breath away from her own — and it seems like the most natural thing in the world to close the inch between them and kiss her, soft and close-lipped.
"Whoa," Abby says, and Erin jerks back.
"Oh, is that how we celebrate now? Nice," Holtz breathes, molasses-thick and warm across the corner of her jaw.
"Sorry," Erin says, mortified. "It's just, when people put their face near my face I just kind of," she says, flapping her hands vaguely between them. "Sorry," she says, again.
"It's cool," Patty says, amused and honest with it, and Erin backs away, her heel only slipping a little on the slime.
"We should, er, get out of here before tells us to clean this up," Erin says, and hurries for the stairs.
"They can't make us do that!" Abby calls after her. "We have a contract!"
"No, really, is that what we're doing now?" Erin hears, and she doesn't look back.
Holtz has started standing at the edge of doorways, which would be fine — they're used to finding her and/or the things she's working on in odd places around the firehouse, scattered up the stairs like an exploded diagram or sparking gently in the bathroom sink — except Erin is the only one that keeps crashing into her whenever she turns into a room without looking, and Holtz isn't even doing anything while she stands there.
She's just — waiting.
On a Thursday morning Erin walks out of the laboratory while concentrating on the readouts from the containment unit, and yelps to a stop when she finds Holtz's face a flinch away from hers.
"Holtzmann! Seriously!" Erin gasps, as Holtz grins and pushes herself away from the wall with a roll of her shoulder. There's nothing nearby she could have been doing — her hands are deep in her pockets, her eyes covered by glasses instead of goggles. "Do you want me to kiss you?"
"Yes," she says, her smile wide and easy.
"Oh," Erin says, jolting back an inch. She blinks. "That would be — I mean, if you want to —"
Holtz steps forward, hands still in her pockets, and she was already so close that this just means Erin can't breathe in without touching her. Erin's world narrows to yellow lenses and wide eyes behind them, watching as Holtz's gaze drops down to her mouth. "How's this?" she murmurs, her breath warm and light across Erin's chin.
"Fine," Erin squeaks.
"Good," she says, and darts forward with a solid, fleeting press of a kiss that's gone before Erin can even sway into it. "Thanks," Holtz says, the hitch of her smile curling around her voice, and she holds Erin's gaze steady as she takes two full steps back before she turns, and saunters sway.
Erin swallows. "What is happening?" she whispers, and then shrieks when something inside the containment unit thumps on the wall.
"So," Patty says, when Erin tells her, in the hope that humanities will be better than physics at working out why her mouth keeps colliding with her teammates'. Her apology pizza sits half-eaten on the table between them.
Patty sucks in her cheeks as she considers it. "I guess that means Abby's the only woman in here you haven't gone to first base with."
Abby walks in at that moment. Of course she does. She looks at Erin, and giggles.
"I mean, you two haven't...?" Patty says, carefully, and then groans. "Oh my God, you have."
"It was when we were in high school," Erin says quickly.
"We were really into exploring the unknown," Abby says, sliding into the seat next to her, and grinning.
"Plus my parents had gone away for the weekend and we stole a bottle of peppermint schnapps from the liquor cabinet."
"Yeah," Abby laughs. "Somewhere between drinking all of it and puking it back up she laid one on me."
"It was so terrible we swore never to do it again."
Abby wrinkles her nose. "I thought that was the hangover?"
"Probably," Erin says, tapping her fingers on the table. "I still can't have peppermint gum without gagging."
"Oh yeah, me neither," Abby says, realisation colouring her voice. "I haven't been able to figure that one out for years."
iv (and iii again).
It's an attic instead of a basement, this time, but the rush of being alive is the same.
And this time it's Holtz who grabs Patty unexpectedly, and kisses her.
"Oh, is that not what we were doing? I thought this was our thing now," Holtz says, her arms still looped around Patty's shoulders.
Patty sighs, her hands spanning Holtz's waist, and looks over to where Abby is helping Erin off the floor. "Look, I'm down with this but you two better start getting snuggly before this gets weird."
"Gets weird?" Erin asks, her frown interrupted by a wince as she gets her feet under her. There's a throb in her ankle, and a vague memory of it trying to go the opposite way to the rest of her the last time she fell.
"Oh, fine. Come here," Abby says, her hands still solid and reassuringly strong under Erin's forearms, and Erin realises her balance depends entirely on her just as Abby tugs her closer.
Pain shoots through her leg like a struck note, sharp and echoing, but then Abby's mouth is soft under hers and everything goes quiet.
"Oh," Erin says, after a long, warm moment.
"So it was definitely the schnapps that made it terrible, huh," Abby says.
"Yeah," Erin says, a little breathless, and then tries to flick the worst of the slime off her hands.
"Oh my God," Erin says, gripping the door handle. She needs something from Abby's room, but a class three vapour could rise from the floor and possess her and she still wouldn't be able to recall what it is.
"She had a lot of tension in her shoulders," Patty says, from the bed.
"That doesn't explain why you're naked!"
"You're smarter than this, Erin," Abby says, calm and reasonable, but her hand is sliding up Patty's thigh in a move somewhere between an invitation and a warning.
"I'll just — leave you to it," Erin says, and shuts the door firmly in front of her.
"I'm just saying, maybe we should draw up some kind of chart to avoid this kind of thing," Patty says, settled in the crook of the couch that she dragged into the laboratory a week ago. Holtz keeps using it to test the flammability of her new toys.
"Do we need one?" Erin asks, perched on the other end to avoid the burn marks, her hands around her knees. "I mean, everyone has kissed everyone else by now and — what?" she says, catching the glance that Holtz throws at Abby, from one workbench to another.
"You two—?" Patty asks, wiggling her fingers at both of them.
"Oh no, we've never, you know," Abby says, shrugging.
"She kept rejecting my advances," Holtz says, slinging her arm around Abby's shoulders.
"What?" Abby asks, pulling away so she can frown at her. "What advances?"
Holtz pulls a face, looking at the ceiling like she's been keeping a list up there. "Like, every time I asked if you wanted to try out my new dust-buster. Or go get a drink. Or come up to my place and make some magic."
"She's always been kind of oblivious to people hitting on her," Erin says, skewing her mouth in sympathy. "And you never believed me when I told you what was happening!" she adds, flinging out an arm to point at Abby.
"That's because it's ridiculous," Abby says, still frowning as she looks from Erin to Holtz. "You really wanted to kiss me?"
"Present tense," Holtz says, grinning.
"Oh," Abby says, and then, "Okay then."
They look at each other for a long moment, then Abby grabs Holtz by the waistcoat lapels and yanks her in.
"You know, this is not what I thought I was signing up for," Patty says. She leans forward anyway, watching Abby and Holtzmann, and then slides her gaze sidelong.
Erin looks at her, her cheeks suddenly hot.
"We could —" Patty starts.
"Yes," Erin says, and shuffles closer.
and vii (or four, at last).
"We didn't want to risk you feeling left out," Holtz says, the buzz in her voice no less dangerous than a proton-beam. All three of them, Holtz and Abby and Patty, are sprawled together on her bed in mostly just their underwear; Holtz still has her boots on, Patty in her jewellery.
Erin has a sense like an equation where she's missing one of the variables, a pattern larger than the numbers spread in front of her. Her fingers itch with the need to solve it.
"Is this what we do?" Erin asks, pleading, the edge of her voice like she doesn't know which way she wants it to tip. "I thought it was just — kissing."
"It can be whatever you want it to be, girl," Patty says. "Get over here and we'll figure it out."
"I've got this great new toy," Holtz starts, before Abby smacks her thigh with the back of her hand.
"What Holtzmann means," Abby says, looking from her to Erin, and her smile slips warm and familiar in the way that still catches Erin under her ribs, "Is are you coming in or not?"
Of course she is.
"Yeah," Erin says, feeling the heat high in her cheeks and grinning anyway, and closes the door behind her.