By Jessie

Summary: Charlie Francis loves the women in his life. One woman in particular. A companion piece to the episode "Unleashed."

Characters: Charlie/Astrid. With a healthy dose of Olivia, Sonia and Walter as well.

Spoilers: Takes place during "Unleashed" (season 1, ep 16)

Rating: PG-13 (nothing you wouldn't see on primetime)

Disclaimer: Fringe and it's characters are copyright some one else. No infringement intended.


"I'm married."

Yes, it's the first thing he can think to say to her every time they meet, and yes, every time they meet is exactly the same. The motel room with bad lighting. The faded curtains closed against the sun or else the streetlamps, either being too bright for this. The hard mattress. Her soft skin. His rough hand on her cheek.

And standing there beside the door that's only just been closed, before any of the rest of it, all he can say--so earnestly he's surprised it's really his voice--is: "I'm married."

Astrid nods her head into his hand, her cheek and chin moving against his cupped palm. "Okay."

She says the word the same way she says it a hundred times a day, in response to any order given, any request made and any favor asked. As if he's just given her some crucial instructions and she's committing them to memory with the same ease she commits such things when they come from Walter Bishop or Olivia Dunham.

Astrid's good like that. The perfect assistant. The perfect little sidekick.

That's what Charlie calls her in the middle of the night, when they're both out of breath and sated, and their flesh sweats out salty, sweet evidence of their lovemaking, and all he really wants to do is kiss every last square inch of that sweat off of her flawless skin. Instead, he gives her a half smile and presses his lips briefly to her temple. His right arm, under her and wrapped around her shoulders, squeezes her to him a little tighter. And he says, "my little sidekick," in a tone that suggests that what he really means would be better said with three entirely different words.

Astrid doesn't ever say those three entirely different words either, or even their equivalents disguised inside some pet name or in-joke. Because, Charlie supposes, being a good sidekick generally requires that one keeps one's mouth shut.

He's a smart guy and doesn't push the matter.

However, "smart" leaves him entirely when he finds himself bedridden in Bishop's lab with sixteen hours to live. "Smart" heads for the hills first damn thing, and for a long time all he knows about himself is pure emotion. He wants to call his wife and he wants to hold Astrid and he wants to do both at the very same time all while Olivia puts a hand on his forehead and tells him that everything will be alright.

These women in his life have somehow become the most important parts of that life. And maybe they always were, but now with, shit, ieight/i hours to live the only thing he really wants is to protect all three of them and to be protected by them too. It's hard to be "smart" about this when at death's door.

He finally does call Sonia. He can't bring himself to tell her that anything's wrong, but hearing her voice brings a smile to his face, even before that awful joke she tells him. His chest constricts, not with pain but with a longing so deeply rooted he's certain it'll kill him before the larvae do. He longs to put his arms around his wife and to tell her yet another lie. No, monster's aren't real. Yes, everything's fine. I'll always be there. I love you. Monster's aren't real.

An entirely different urge takes over when he hangs up the phone and sees Astrid running about the lab busily. Her eyes are so intense sometimes, filled to the brims with all the work she has left to do in the day, but never with all the work of the day before. She's like the most amazing sponge he's ever seen. Soaking up more information than he really wants to contemplate, but never letting it affect her for very long. Always retaining the same shape no matter how much she lets in.

Exhibit A being himself, he imagines. How much of him must she have soaked up over the years without ever letting a trace of it show? He is simultaneously jealous and concerned. What will be the thing that finally leaves its mark on her? He prays to God it isn't him.

"Hey." Astrid jumps a little at the sound of his voice. They're the only ones here right now, but she hasn't spoken a word to him since the others went gallivanting off to once more save the day. He's fairly certain there's only so many times that that motley crew of Dunham's can actually come out on top of these things and it wouldn't surprise him at all if this was the story that didn't end well.

The look on Astrid's face tells him she's thinking the same thing.

They're quiet for a little while, staring at each other as if for the first time. As if she's never watched him get dressed while lying naked across a motel bed. As if he's never watched her gracefully stretch out aching muscles from across a crowded office. For a moment they're strangers, but in the best possible way. In the way that allows them to fall in love all over again, and Charlie suddenly knows without a doubt that if he were to meet her for the first time right now he'd still end up breaking his marriage vows for her.

"Come here." He says, his naturally gruff voice all the gruffer from the pain and the drugs.

She does so, a little hesitant, and this hesitancy makes her look even younger than she already does. But whatever causes her nervousness is gone by the time she reaches him. A good assistant knows how to hide these things. Knows how to take orders without question.

And that's who Astrid is. She takes orders. Rarely gives them. iNever/i gives them. This isn't something that Charlie necessarily likes about her, but it's definitely something about her that he understands. He takes orders rather well himself. After a lifetime of taking them, even when he's doling them out it feels as much like he's on the receiving end as any of his agents.

"Just so we're clear," he begins, then takes in a deep breath as his gut reminds him with a jolt exactly how dire the situation is. He swallows and forces a smile. He reaches his hand out for hers and is grateful to find it already on its way to him. "I love you, kid." Another pet name, and one that she hates, but her eyes go glassy regardless and she blinks several times to hold back the potential flood.

"Okay." She says, same as ever. She nods her head once and Charlie knows that's all he's going to get from her, but he wasn't expecting anything else and so he takes solace in the familiar. In some ways she's still so very young and innocent, and in some ways she's a fortress that he's just happy to get close to, if not ever really inside of.

For the next hour Astrid sits on a stool beside him and holds his hand and rests her head on his chest. They don't say a whole lot, but the physical contact puts them both at ease.

And then the call comes in from Olivia that they've killed that damned monster and they're on their way back. Astrid is immediately up and running again, flitting from workbench to computer and back again, maybe not even really doing anything but seeming to need the activity. She was like this, as well, when they first brought him into the lab, and for several hours after the fact. All while she was forced to poke and prod him per Bishop's directions, and he could only lie there and watch her avert her gaze while they both pretended every touch she administered meant absolutely nothing.

Charlie just waits. He contemplates Olivia's words before leaving, how she knows he would do the same thing for her. He contemplates his wife's tender touch the night before, her fingers so used to the bandages he sports after those harder days at work but no less careful with them. He contemplates Astrid's wide eyes and cool demeanor; her ability to be both cutting and caring with a single word or look. He thinks: if you gotta go, might as well do it with as much love in your heart as he has right now for these women.

But he's still terrified as they wait for this cure to either work or not. "That's it then." He says, not bothering to make it a question.

"Now we wait." Bishop confirms.

As much as Charlie tries not to think about it, thoughts of the future he probably won't get to have keep popping up and each one packs a punch. He chuckles to himself in an attempt to stall tears.

"What?" Olivia asks from where she now occupies the same stool Astrid did minutes before.

"Sonia and I. We've been talking a lot lately. About having a baby."

Olivia smiles broadly, and he's about to say more but--

"Sorry. I gotta gel you up." Astrid interrupts, her voice trembling ever so slightly, her hands shaking.

Olivia seems to think nothing of it. Charlie smiles. Wants to say again "I love you, kid" just to make sure Astrid believes it. Yes, he and Sonia have been talking about having a baby. But it's complicated and difficult to explain in terms that any one outside of his own head would likely understand. He wants to be a father, but he also wants Astrid, and he doesn't know how those two things are ever going to be compatible.

The whole team gathers round as they scan Charlie's midsection. He wishes he didn't have quite the audience for this that he does, but that thought is quickly abandoned as the still very much alive larvae come into focus on the screen to his right.

"...It didn't work." Astrid stares at the ultrasound image, never once glancing at him. Her voice betrays her. She sounds like the world beneath her feet has just disappeared. And even though it's his life that hangs in the balance here, all Charlie wants to do is reach out a comforting hand to reassure the girl.

"Ever the pessimist." Walter replies. "Look."

And just like that, he's handed his life back. Charlie's heart leaps up into his throat.

Out of the corner of his eyes he sees Astrid swallow as though her heart has, like his, risen up to choke her, and Olivia squeezes his hand comfortingly, and damn he loves these women.

"They're dying." Dunham says, like even she doesn't quite believe it.

"What happens now?" Charlie breathes in deep and turns his head so that he can't see the ultrasound anymore and he can't see Astrid anymore either. Honestly, he wants to know "what happens now" on so many more levels than Walter Bishop will ever be able to answer for him, so the mad scientist's reply of "now you crap them out" is just as good as any other.

Charlie and Olivia chuckle breathlessly, sharing in the joy and the absurdity of the moment. Astrid silently puts away the ultrasound. Still not looking at him.

Later, once Dunham's gone home and Walter and Peter have found something new to argue about over a table on the far wall of the lab, Charlie slips into his trench coat. Checks his pockets. Tries to keep himself from trembling.

Seemingly from out of nowhere, Astrid appears. Her eyes are as big and childlike as ever. He wants to sweep her into a bear hug, but restrains himself. She takes a step forward, making the distance between them now far too short for his liking. A distance this short can give a guy ideas.

"I love you." She says.

Charlie almost jumps. Frowns instead. "You know, I'm not dying anymore. You don't have to say that."

"That's iwhy/i I'm saying it."

A long, silent moment passes between them. He looks her straight in the eyes and just nods his head. Says "okay," like she's the one giving the instructions this time and he's the one committing them to memory.

In a sense, this is exactly what's just happened. She's finally told him what to do and he's nothing if not good at following orders.

That night, Charlie crawls into bed with his wife for the last time. Holds her close. Breathes in the strong, fresh scent of her. Smiles into her neck. Even though he knows what's going to happen in the morning--fighting, crying, separation--this doesn't tarnish the moment for him. He loves this woman in his arms, in his bed, and that's enough right now. He's going to love her and he's going to keep loving her even when they aren't together anymore. He's going to keep protecting her and appreciating her, even if from a distance.

But he's also going to keep that distance. He's going to do as he's told. Because when the sidekick starts giving the orders, you know you better follow them. When the assistant starts giving the instructions, you know you better damn well commit them to memory.

Charlie commits Astrid's words to memory. Wonders when he'll get to hear them again.