A broken bottle turned under Annie's heel, and she almost fell. She caught herself against the flaking brick wall, grazing the skin from the heel of her hand, and swung around the corner into another tiny side street, staggering as she got her feet back under her. Her breath came quick and painful in her throat, panic making every detail around her too sharp, too significant.
The gun at her waist was a solid weight, balanced by the useless paraphysical stunner on the other side of her belt. The gun was useless too, of course. At the Academy, the segment on breath-stealers had been short and to the point.
"Run like hell," the sergeant had said, his eyebrows drawn down. "Don't try to fight. You can't fight them. Don't even think about trying to stand your ground. If there are other victims in the vicinity, you can protect and serve them best by making sure they run too, and by staying alive to serve another day."
Annie dropped her head, her fringe tangling into her eyes. There were no other victims here – only her, the rookie cop, the idiot who got separated from her new partner in a city she didn't know.
There was a heavy whisper on the air behind her. She flung herself around another corner, a gasp escaping her.
She wasn't going to get out of this warren of streets. She was going to be one of those people who turned down an alley and never came out again. A statistic, a warning for other freshly minted cops like her who got too cocky.
She hadn't thought she was being too cocky, though, for once in her life. She'd only been assigned to her first partner a week, and she was trying so hard to be the perfect partner. Not to annoy Laena by being the baby officer who asked too many questions and slowed her down – even though Annie was still lost in this too-big city she'd so blithely transferred to, eager just to get out onto the streets, whether they were her streets or not.
This had just been a routine bit of reconnaissance: check the lay of the land and meet up with Laena down the block to compare notes. A training exercise, more than anything else, to see how she was settling into the beat. The breath-stealers had been under the bridge, and Annie hadn't noticed, hadn't spotted the darkness for what it was because she was too new and too stupid to realise that the bridge shouldn't have been so dark at four o'clock in the afternoon.
Maybe if she hadn't been so keen to be liked by her new partner with the smoky eyes and the heavy fall of dark hair and that husky smile in her voice, maybe she would have asked the right questions, and she wouldn't be going to die on duty, right here. And where was Laena? Shouldn't she have checked in by now, when Annie didn't? Annie didn't dare stop to open her comm and find somewhere with a signal.
She threw a look behind her, her breath rasping in her throat. Her elbow banged against a low windowsill, and she turned, scrabbling her fingers against it. It didn't budge, and there was no light behind the glass, no sign of movement at all. She slumped for a second against the flaking sill, her forehead on the glass. Her fingers fumbled for the communicator at her side.
Prickles skittered up her arms, cold pins and needles, and the light grew dim. She gave a sob and threw herself sideways, her hand falling away from the comm. She landed on her knees, avoiding the shadows, and had to scrabble on her hands until she could get to her feet again, staggering on.
"You won't last." The grizzle-haired cop had stopped Annie in the break room on her second day, her voice a smoker's rasp. She'd given Annie a sour grin, raising her coffee mug. "Geronimo's partners never do. She's a dark one, that one. I wouldn't want her at my back."
Annie had stiffened, already enraptured by Laena. The older cop had just laughed, a little mean. "You're cute," she'd said, "but you won't last."
The knot of tension in Annie's stomach was tightening. What if she meant that Laena doesn't care to keep partners? What if Laena sent you down this rabbit warren not really caring if you came out again? Annie couldn't tell whether the thought was only panicked paranoia; she couldn't think straight at all. She couldn't think straight about Laena anyway, with that stupid, stupid crush.
Annie hurled herself around another corner.
And threw her arms up against the dead end wall.
She scrabbled against the brick for a moment, as though there might be a way through. There was a whisper from behind her, a creaking groan on the air. Shivers chased themselves up and down her spine. She turned around, pressing herself against the brick behind her.
Breath-stealers looked almost human, from a distance. In the dim light, getting dimmer all the time, she could see them at the end of the alley. There were two of them, elongated black figures with features shrouded in darkness, pacing closer.
Annie dropped her hand to her waist. She touched the comm, her fingers tracing the signal panel – cold, no signal light at all. She moved to the gun instead, her fingers nervous on the holster, and then moved her hand to the stunner, blindly feeling out the sleek curves. Finally her hand closed over her badge, pulling it free of her shirt. She wrapped her fingers around it, the cool edges digging into her hand.
It wasn't a weapon. The badge was a symbol at best. She hadn't even had a chance to earn it yet, not really. And the first enemy she'd come up against was one she couldn't fight and she ... was never going to be anybody after all. It wasn't a weapon, but none of her weapons would work anyway.
The figures were closer now, and they looked less human. Annie could see the glowing paleness of their eyes from here.
There was a scraping sound from above. A moment later somebody landed with a thud of boots beside her. Annie spun about, holding the badge up like a shield.
Laena grabbed her hands. Her collar was sticking up at the back, and her hair had pulled free of the regulation hairnet that held it back beneath her crisp police cap. She was breathing heavily.
"Trust me," Laena whispered. Then she wrapped a hand around the back of Annie's head and dragged her forward into a kiss.
Annie opened her mouth in shock, sucking in air. Laena pulled back to bite anxiously at her lip, then moved back in. Laena's mouth was cool at first, shivery and uncertain. Then she opened her mouth, pulling Annie's bottom lip just between her own, hot breath and insistent mouth and Annie had never heard that breath-stealers made you hallucinate before you died. She made a shocked little sound, her hands catching around Laena's elbows.
Laena drew back for a second, her pupils dark and dilated, and she looked scared and so fucking intent. She pushed back in, kissing Annie harder this time, more deeply, her hands pressing into Annie's waist.
Annie had no idea what was going on and she couldn't think and Laena was just kissing her and fuck it, fuck it. She turned her head to the side, sucking in air. Then she pushed her fingers into the tangled hair at the back of Laena's head and kissed her back.
If she was going to die then yes, fuck yes, she would die like this.
Laena gave a sigh against her mouth, her fingers tightening against Annie's uniform belt. Laena's stunner was pressing into Annie's hip, the instep of her boot nudging in between Annie's ankles. Her mouth was sweet and hot, her tongue tangling against Annie's, and she was stellar at this. Annie hadn't kissed a lot of people, but Laena was outclassing them all. She kissed with her whole will, as though there was no part of Annie she couldn't reach.
Annie's knees were weak and shaking and she'd slid down the wall a few inches, enough to cancel the height difference between them. There was a sting down her back where the brick had scraped her shoulders, but it felt good, part of everything else.
Eventually Laena tilted her head, pulling a little away. She kissed Annie again, soft, and slowly drew back again. She looked pale, despite the hectic flush in her cheeks. Her fingers were trembling against Annie's arms.
Annie licked her lips, nervous. Laena's eyes flicked sideways.
"Run," she whispered.
Annie nearly fell, twisting around to look. The alley was empty, only shadows remaining.
Laena's hand on her wrist gave her a sharp tug, and Annie stumbled into motion. Laena dropped her wrist when Annie started running, the grip pulling them both off-balance. Annie's breath was completely shot, but she hadn't lost any of her adrenaline.
Laena knew her way through these streets, clearly. Annie had no idea where they were, and didn't try to work it out. She followed Laena around corners and down side streets, trusting her feet in the shadows.
Then the alley opened up into a broad lightness, and they were out.
They'd come out by the river, on a cracked concrete path with a narrow strip of green to one side. Dog walkers and joggers passed each other. Up ahead, the path joined a busy pedestrian strip, people moving fast through the encroaching dusk, heading home after work. The thrum of traffic sounded from beyond, steady and familiar.
There was a park bench facing toward the river. Annie dropped onto it and let her head fall into her hands. She was shaking.
After a moment she felt Laena sit beside her.
"Hey," Laena said. She sounded breathless. "You doing okay?" She touched Annie's shoulder, then drew her hand back.
Annie lifted her head. Laena was chewing on her lip. Annie remembered the taste of her mouth and had to blink rapidly, her cheeks too hot from running for her to flush again.
Laena shrugged, looking uncomfortable. "I guess I'm not much of a mentor, huh? I nearly let them take you."
Annie wet her lips. "What was that?" she asked. Her voice was hoarse. She cleared her throat, embarrassed. "Why did they let us go?"
Laena hugged her arms. "It was something that I'd heard. I never knew anyone who tried it out, but I thought –" She dropped her hands to her lap, then lifted them to her hair, twisting it back into place, her eyes on the river. "When they pick their victims they get a fix on them, on their energy signature. You knew that?"
She looked at Annie. Annie nodded, frowning and intrigued. "Yeah, I heard – they told us about the energy thing." She leaned forward, curling her hands around her crossed knees.
Laena fumbled in her pocket for a cigarette, lighting up. She took in a pull and blew the smoke out, light and controlled. "I heard sometimes if – you're kissing somebody, if it's a good kiss, I mean a really – a good kiss. Your energies can get sort of mixed, so the breath-stealers can't tell anymore where you end and the other person begins. They lose the scent and so they retreat, to trace it again. You can get away in that gap, sometimes." She laughed, the cigarette trembling between her fingers. "I mean, that's what I'd heard."
Annie leaned back. "That's what you heard," she said. She grinned, adrenaline-bright. "Fuck you, you saved both our lives with what you heard. With an urban legend, oh my god." She was laughing, without realising when she'd started. She had to rest her forehead against her knees while the laughter devolved into hiccups and shakes.
"Hey," Laena said again. Her hand touched Annie's shoulder, resting there. "You did –" She smiled, putting on an awkward accent. "You did good, kid. If you hadn't turned down that blind alley, you would have – you could have pulled enough ahead, probably."
Annie lifted her head again. Laena gave her a crooked grin. "You covered a hell of a lot of ground in that sprint. I wouldn't have made it to you if you hadn't, even with the –" She lifted the comm at her belt, with its little tracker blinking, the tiny lifeline between partners they handed out with gun and paraphysical stunner and badge.
Annie shivered. She glanced at Laena's mouth and away. "I didn't think someone would be congratulating me for running away, in this job."
Laena shrugged, breathing out a wisp of smoke. "It's more exciting than the beat," she said. She tilted her head to the side, slanting Annie a smile. "Also, paperwork," she said. "There's going to be a shit tonne for this thing. What's better than paperwork, babe?"
The smile tugged at something inside Annie. "Well, gee, pardner," she said. "You sure can show a girl a good time."
Laena looked down. She crossed one of her legs over her knee, tapping ash away against the heel of her boot. After a moment she said, "You'll get your chance to be a hero another day, Monroe." She sounded subdued.
She looked up at Annie again and gave her another crooked smile, this one more distant. "We should get back to the station and report the breath-stealer sighting. There was a psychic sweep a couple months back that should have cleaned out this quarter of the city – I guess they missed a few."
"Wait," Annie blurted. She screwed up her courage in a rush. "I didn't thank you for the kiss."
Laena's eyes widened a little. "Don't –"
"My mother always said the best thanks were a return in kind," Annie said. She leaned forward, touching Laena under the chin, and tilted their faces together. She met Laena's eyes, dark and surprised, and Laena didn't pull away, so Annie pressed a soft kiss against her mouth.
For a second Laena didn't move. Then she eased back, resting her forehead against Annie's. She let her breath out and pulled back fully, shifting along the bench. "No," she said.
All of Annie's courage crumpled into something small.
She nodded, dropping her eyes. She'd thought there must be more, that desperation alone couldn't have made Laena kiss like that, but ... the kiss had been to save their lives. Only an idiot would expect more than her life. She was some kind of idiot, for sure.
Laena tugged on Annie's fringe. "Don't mope," she said. "You know that it – you don't get a kiss that – if you don't feel –" She shook her head, frustrated. "But it's really important to me that this partnership works out, Annie."
Annie raised her eyebrows. "Really?" she said.
Laena rolled her eyes. She offered Annie her hand, tugging her up. "I have a bad record with partners," Laena said. She sounded embarrassed. "I've given up saying it isn't my fault. If the one common element in these situations is you, what else can you think?"
Annie stared at her. "What more do these people want?" she said. She flushed. "Uh."
Laena grinned at her. "I know, right? Perfection, right here. Style, class, a mean gun hand: no more perfect partner has ever walked the earth."
Annie gave her a carefully closed-mouth smile, to keep from accidentally blurting out something true again, like, Yes, I think so. She was a mess, Jesus Christ, it had only been a week.
They started walking, the easy stroll of the beat. Annie was still learning to match her stride to Laena's, but it was getting more natural. A few people gave them faintly wary looks as they passed, one or two shopkeepers nodding or calling an Evening, officers.
Laena tucked her thumbs into her belt. "That's why if they give me a smart girl who's quick on her feet and has the heart to prove herself, I can't – I can't screw it up." She shot Annie a sideways smile, a little sad. "I'm pretty sure we can be great, is the thing. I think our professional relationship could be brilliant."
The compliment warmed Annie despite the rest. Annie sneaked a look at her. Laena's hair had slipped down against her cheek again, dark and soft. The cigarette still dangled from her fingers, nearly burnt out now, coiling faint wisps of smoke, her hand swinging a little with her easy stride. Annie looked away, and their elbows brushed. Annie felt it in shivers and conscious warmth.
"Okay," she said quietly. "Yes, okay."
Laena's other hand came around to close for a second over her elbow where it had brushed Annie's, a seemingly unconscious press of her fingers. Annie saw the indent of her throat as she swallowed.
Annie still had adrenaline coursing through her blood, a more gentle buzz but still bright and alive. She swallowed, then lifted her chin and smiled. "I guess," she said, "the way I see it, our professional relationship has already called for kissing once."
Laena lifted her eyes.
Annie smiled beatifically. "I think it could come up again."
Laena's mouth twitched. She shook her head and looked away, then back at Annie. "Really," she said.
Annie laughed, half-turning and letting her arms swing out. "Well, I'm going to hope, anyway," she confided.
There was a brief, softened expression in Laena's eyes, dark and dazed for a second. Annie grinned at her and let that look buoy her up all the walk back.
Annie was good at hope.