Actions

Work Header

Living is Easy

Work Text:

Summer has arrived and it's brought a blanket of heat with it. It settles over the city, thick and oppressive, smothering everything underneath it until Abby is worn thin, exhausted simply by living. Even the fall of night brings no relief - the air still has a weight to it, pressing down on Abby until every step, every breath she takes requires effort. It's only sheer stubbornness that's keeping her upright this evening, and sheer force of will that's keeping her moving step after step, breath after breath.

The air is so humid that it's like running underwater, and she focuses, driving herself on, counting the beats in her head as the music pounds in her ears and the sweat slides down her spine. It drips down her forehead, too, sliding into her eyes, stinging and blurring her vision. She reaches up to wipe it away, not even sparing the breath to curse as she puts one foot in front of the other.

Cursing won't help; it's just a waste of energy and she doesn't have the energy to spare. Sweating doesn't help either, but she's got no choice in the matter. It's too hot, too close, too soul-suckingly miserable for even sweat to cool her down, not when it can't evaporate in the high humidity. All she can do is grit her teeth and concentrate on the steady rhythm of her feet on the asphalt - one- two, one-two - using it to keep her going.

She's hit asphalt now and the road surface is soft beneath her feet, heat-stressed like the rest of the city. It sucks at her shoes, just another thing to slow her down, dragging at her like the heat, and the humidity, and the slow-burning anger smouldering inside her. She bites back another curse as she stumbles and heaves in a harsh breath through a dry mouth and down a parched throat before she finally gives into temptation and takes a swig from her rapidly emptying water bottle.

The water's tepid, but it soothes the burning in her throat even if it does nothing for the burning in her lungs, the aching in her legs, the anger still growing inside. Each step is harder now; her legs are shaking and her heart is pounding, the litany in her head the only thing she can cling to, not even her music helping, not now. She's done this run a hundred times, maybe more, and she normally lopes through it with ease, but not tonight. Tonight she's running through water, not air, and there are weeds tangling around her legs, slowing her down.

She takes another mouthful of water and spits it out like that will rid her of the bitter taste that lingers on her tongue. She is still slowly boiling in her own juices, exhausted beyond measure, but she finally sees the rusting hull of the Honeycomb Hideout in the distance, wavering in the early evening light.

Halle-fucking-lujah.

Not far to go now, and she tries to hold tight onto that thought like it's a lifeline. It doesn't bring much relief, not when her hair is plastered to her neck with sweat and tendrils are escaping from her hair-tie to stick, spider web-like, to her cheeks. The sweat drips into her eyes again and again she swipes it away with an impatient arm, setting her mouth stubbornly as she keeps on going and going and going, because stopping is just not fucking acceptable. She's Abigail fucking Whistler and she does not - does not ever - quit.

If she really was a dog, she thinks bitterly, at least she'd be able to fucking pant, and just like that, the anger flares again, something bright and furious that eats up the last of her oxygen.

She swallows it down, using it to power her last few steps as she sucks in another heavy, unsteady breath. The litany in her head is no longer one-two one-two, but bitch, bitch and she bites back on a snarl, dampening it, using it.

She's usually better at this, at using the anger and the frustration to drive her on, not hold her back. And it's not the first time that that insult has been thrown at her. Au contraire, as King would say. She's heard it her whole fucking life, from stuck up bitch in high school to fucking bitch from the vamps she's taken down.

She thought it had lost its power to wound, but then she's never heard it from Hedges before.

She can still picture his face as he'd screamed it, brick red and shining, his hair spiky with sweat and his shirt sticking to his stomach. She pictures it again now, but thinks of her fist sinking into the soft, doughy curve of his belly, of her elbow smacking into his jaw, her knee into his groin.

See how you like that, you fucking asshole.

It helps; she flies up the gangplank separating the Honeycomb Hideout from the docks like the hounds of hell are on her heels, the metal rattling beneath her feet until she finally skids to an exhausted, sweaty stop at the top.

She collapses against the cabin wall, sucking in one shaky breath after another until her lungs are at least half-way towards forgiving her. There's no sign of Hedges, which is probably for the best. Okay, she knows that he isn't built for this kind of heat, but then none of them are. Logic might tell her that tempers are fraying and Hedges is brittle at the best of times, but that doesn't mean she still doesn't want to smack the stupid look off his face.

Dex looks up from the bank of monitors that serves as their too grandly named 'Security Centre' and raises an eyebrow at her, his expression wary. He should be wary. He'd said nothing while Hedges had tried to rip her a new one - 'tried' because Hedges might be a whizz with tech, but other than a few choice insults he stands no chance going head to head with her. That doesn't mean she's any closer to forgiving Dex for being a silent observer instead of an active participant.

She gathers her dignity and stalks past him towards the showers, flipping a wave in his direction and fighting back the urge to flip him off instead.

On the plus side, she thinks, at least King hadn't been there. He has an uncanny knack of escalating situations like that instead of diffusing them, and then maybe she really would've ended up killing Hedges. Or King.

Sometimes it can go either way.

She hits the showers and turns the temperature down as far as it will go. A cold shower after a long run is normally a stupid ass thing to do, but even at the lowest setting the water is still tepid - Hedges' rainwater tanks catch the sunlight, which is great in winter, but not quite so great in the summer. And she needs to cool down - body and temper alike.

She stays there until the pounding of her heart, the pounding in her head, have died down to something more bearable, and until the bitch, bitch echoing in her ears has been drowned out by the sound of the spray. It's the heat, she tells herself. The heat and the humidity affecting everyone's mood, including hers. She doesn't really want to kill Hedges, especially not in this weather when he'd be stinking up the place in no time.

Sometimes the voice in her head sounds suspiciously like King, and she's not sure that's a good thing.

She takes her time but still finishes before she wants to, the small and annoying goody two-shoes voice in her head telling her to be sensible, not use up too much of their rainwater reserve. It's been weeks since their last rainy day, and it didn't do much to ease the humidity. Now it just threatens to thunder for days at a time, always lurking on the horizon, never coming close enough to bring any relief.

Pretty much like the rest of her fucking life at the moment.

She doesn't bother with a hairdryer even though the humidity will leave her hair damp for hours and frizzy as hell. The idea of more heat on top of the day is just unbearable. She wants to be up on deck, where there's at least the chance of catching a stray breeze, even if it brings with it the stench of the river. It's better than the alternative of hiding in the bowels of the ship with the others, especially when she isn't the only one teetering on the knife's edge between aggression and sarcasm. Sometimes she thinks that the only reason her crew haven't killed each other yet is because it would be too much fucking effort.

She passes Zoë on her way up towards the top deck, slowing her steps to watch the girl as she lies like a melted little puddle in the shade of the cabin. Zoë's hair forms damp tendrils around her wan face, but she's got a bottle of juice close by and she's been slathered with sunscreen - King, Abby thinks, because it would never have occurred to Hedges and Dex would have rubbed it in a lot more carefully instead of leaving white streaks on her arms. Zoë waves at her listlessly and then goes back to talking to her dolls as Abby passes.

"...prepare to die, vampire..."

Sometimes Abby wonders what the fuck they're doing to the kid, how the hell this can be healthy, but she knows better than to say anything to Sommerfield about it. Besides, no matter how she looks at it, it's a fucked up world out there. Maybe it's better that Zoë knows that the monsters under the bed are real, and - more importantly - how to make sure it's their day that ends worse, not yours.

There's got to be some value in that, right?

She's paused for a moment too long, too caught up in her thoughts - Zoë stops playing and blinks up at her, her small face screwed up in confusion. "Don't stay out too long, Zo," Abby says, her throat tight with everything she can't say, and Zoë nods seriously, as trusting of her - as compliant - as always before going back to playing 'hunting' with her toys.

And that only makes Abby's legs feel even more leaden as she walks away.

King is exactly where she would have expected him to be if she'd stopped long enough to think about it - leaning against the railing at the back of the ungainly barge they call home and staring down at the dark water moving sluggishly below, his expression lost in thought. He's no fonder of being cooped up than she is - less, maybe - so of course he wouldn't have been below deck with the others.

But she didn't think and now he's here, in front of her, larger than life. She's not sure if that's a good thing or a bad one, if she can bear company in her current 'bear with a sore head' mood or not. But it's too late to retreat now - he turns towards her, alerted by the sound of her footsteps ringing on the steel decking, and tilts his head quizzically.

She stares back for a moment, trying to decide whether or not she's up to dealing with him. Some of that must show because his mouth quirks at the corner in quiet amusement and he goes back to staring out over the horizon.

She hesitates, tempted to linger silently for longer than seemly, as her mother used to say, but pride drives her on.

"Hey," she says as she takes those final few steps to come to a stop beside him, folding her arms on the rail and mirroring his position. The corner of his mouth quirks upwards in a smile, but he doesn't drag his eyes away from the far bank. Not yet.

"Hey. Hot enough for ya?"

She snorts inelegantly and that small smile of his deepens. Ass. He knows exactly how to get a rise out of her and it seems that the heat hasn't checked those tendencies, even though it's plastered the hair to his head, sweat-darkened and curling at the ends. He's finally acknowledged that it's summer and removed his shirt; his shoulders are freckled and golden in the early evening light and his skin is dewed with the same sweat that's dampened his hair.

The Honeycomb Hideout isn't pretty, but the same can't be said about King. And at least he must have showered semi-recently - he doesn't stink, which is always a plus these days.

"You'll burn," she warns him.

"What's summer without a little sunburn?" he asks lightly, only then turning his head to look at her, his eyes sweeping over her body and taking her in in all of her sweaty, uncomfortable glory.

Even this late into the day, the sun still has some heat behind it, although maybe it's the look in King's eyes that's leaving her dizzy and a little lightheaded. It's tempting to take off her own shirt, just to capture what little breeze there is, but she can just imagine King's reaction if she did that. Dizzy doesn't begin to cover it.

"How was your run?" he asks when she stays silent.

She shrugs, too hot and tired to answer when a shrug sums things up as neatly as any words could.

"Does Hedges still have his balls?"

Of course King would have heard about that - he seldom misses a trick - and she wrinkles her nose, fighting the urge to sigh, to rub at her eyes like that would help the incipient headache looming behind her right eyeball.

The heat, the humidity - perhaps if she repeats that often enough to herself, it will help her to deal with the complete cluster fuck that the last few weeks have been.

"I'm going to take that as a 'yes'. As always, Whistler, it's been a pleasure talking to you."

Punching him is too much effort, but the glare she sends him works just as well. His face cracks into the same sort of grin she'd get if she really had mock-punched him, just as delighted at getting a reaction.

In spite of her poor mood, she has to bite back a smile of her own.

"You're such a dick," she says, and his grin turns into a laugh as he shrugs, accepting the criticism with equanimity, if it can even be called criticism.

She's not sure that it can, not when it comes to King. It's just part and parcel of who he is, and she's never really minded it much when it comes from him.

He sinks back into silence, his expression pensive as he goes back to staring out over the river. She goes back to staring at him, trying not to be too obvious about it. She probably is, in spite of her efforts - it's too hot to be subtle and too much effort to come up with an excuse if she's called on it. But King - for once - misses a trick.

Or perhaps he just sees straight through it, misdirection wasted on him.

"Are we hunting tonight?" he asks instead, and this time her nose crinkles up in frustration.

"Is there much point?"

If he hears the disgust in her voice, he doesn't comment on it. Instead he taps his finger against the railing thoughtfully, the look in his eyes distant as he watches the water flow past.

"I've been thinking..."

Dangerous, she thinks but doesn't say. It's too hot to get into it, and she's not sure that any teasing surface would hide the bite beneath. He pauses for a second, like he's waiting for her to fill in the gap he's left, but her brain is fried and, after a moment, he sighs and continues.

"About, you know, hunting."

Her shirt is sticking to her back where the sweat is already gathering, and she tugs it free impatiently, letting the air circulate.

"Deep," she says, and maybe it's a little more sarcastic than King merits.

He lets out an exasperated little huff, shooting her a sharp look that's a little frayed around the edges as he turns to face her, cocking his hip and leaning against the rail.

"About why we've had so little luck in the hunting department recently."

That catches her attention.

"And?"

"I might have a theory."

'Might'. That sounds really fucking hopeful. The scepticism must show on her face, too - not that she's ever been great at hiding things like that from him - because his face creases for a moment in frustration.

"We hunt them, they hunt humans, right?" She returns his sudden sharp look with added interest. The phrase 'grandmothers' and 'suck eggs' springs to mind. "So, what happens to the humans in summer?"

"They stay inside where there's air conditioning," she grumbles. "If they're smart."

"Yep." He treats her to another grin, like she's just shot up to the top of the class and she blinks at him for a moment, nonplussed. "Or they go to the mall, where it's bright and has a/c, or the grocery store, where it's bright and has a/c... You see where I'm going with this, right?"

She doesn't. The heat really has fried her brain. She is normally much better at keeping up with King than this.

"Explain this to me like I'm stupid," she suggests. "Or like you're about to get my foot up your ass for being a dick."

He shoots her another look, this one more amused than it has any right to be. He's damned lucky that it really is too hot for her to beat the smugness out of him.

"I'll explain it to you like you're someone who went for a run when the thermometer hit a hundred, if you like? Did you manage to scramble your brains, sweetheart?"

This time she does take a swing at him, something half-hearted and playful. He catches her hand, grinning down at her, but not before her palm has connected with his chest.

His skin is warm underneath her fingers. She pulls back like it's scalding hot.

"Dick," she says again, breathlessly, hoping it covers the rush of blood to her face.

"Whatever you say, sweetheart. But there's a point to this."

"Then get to it."

He takes his time in spite of her impatience, sucking in a breath as he goes back to contemplating the skyline. She tries not to take it personally - that's how King thinks, and it gives her time for the redness in her cheeks to fade.

"Vamps have a hierarchy, right?" His fingers begin to move restlessly, another sign of him thinking, or pulling things from his ass. With King there's just a hairsbreadth between the two. "And at the top, the elite, there's the natural-borns, not that Deacon Frost left many of them standing."

She nods, hoping that he gets to the point soon, or that the sun finally sets and takes some of this heat with it.

"And let's face it, those guys, they're like old money. Danica and her ilk? Well, they're like the nouveau riche."

"Where are you going with this?"

In spite of the heat, her irritation and her exhaustion, it's weirdly fascinating watching his brain work. Almost as fascinating as watching the flurry of expressions that cross his face as he wrangles his thoughts into something someone else can follow.

He doesn't usually have to do this much wrangling with her.

"Danica wants that," he says, and something bleak flits across his face before it evaporates in the sunlight. "That status, I guess. She wants it all - the adoration, the possessions, the class..."

"Okay." She's less dismissive now, dragged in by the pictures he's painting. "And how does this explain why we haven't managed to kill any vamps recently?"

"Predators follow the herd." He shrugs again, and the sunlight catches his hair. "In Danica's case, she follows the money, and the rest of her little coterie follows her."

"You think that the vamps we hunt have gone on vacation?"

Maybe she's been a little too forceful, because for a second he looks almost wounded by the disbelief in her voice.

"I think -" he scowls at her for a moment "- that you were right about the fact that in this kind of weather, people congregate together where it's cool and well lit. If you're rich, it's easy - you get the fuck out of the city, go somewhere a hell of a lot more pleasant.

"If you're poor, it's not. You got no choice but to stay put. So you stay out of the subways if you can help it - because it's too damned hot down there. You stay off the streets, or you spend the evenings in the parks where there are so many people around that the undead can't even get a decent meal in the dark." She wonders if he's speaking from personal experience. "That's like a vamp's worst nightmare, right there. Days are longer, nights are shorter..."

It makes a weird kind of sense when he spells it out like that. She twists and turns it in her head until she can see where it fits together. "Less hunting time," she says thoughtfully.

"And hunting's not as easy, even during the night. But vacation spots... well, they're the perfect hunting grounds. A lot of people out of their comfort zone, in areas that they're unfamiliar with. A lot of people moving through who might not be missed, not for weeks..." He shrugs again, his ill humour evaporating the way that she wishes hers would.

She hums thoughtfully, still considering it.

"So think about it, Whistler." His tone turns wheedling and, when she turns to look at him, his eyes widen appealingly. "This town's dead. We haven't had a vamp sighting in, what? A couple of weeks? And even then it was some pathetic little no-life wannabe who looked like he lived mostly off cats. I think Danica's swanned off to wherever the rich go to play, just so she can keep on killing the high life. And I think that anyone who aspires to being more than a street rat is following right behind her, hanging off her coat tails like good little evil minions. You know it makes sense."

He's too damned tempting, that's the problem. Too tempting and knows her too well. Yeah, their last hunts have been a bust and she's not the only one getting frustrated with that. And she's got to admit that there's a certain logic to what he's laying out. "So it's not just that they've gone on vacation," she says slowly. "You think they've headed to the vampire equivalent of the Hamptons?"

King does that thing where he half grins and shrugs at the same time. There's something both rueful and gleeful in his expression and in spite of herself she's more than half convinced by the story he's spinning.

"They follow the herd, we follow... them?"

He hums in agreement, his dark eyes watching her closely. "You got a better suggestion?"

She doesn't, not really, and it helps that he's not being a dick about it, not challenging her the way that Hedges has been getting in everyone's face recently. He sounds genuinely curious, like if she wants to suggest an alternative, he'll listen.

For someone who is all frenetic energy and attitude, King can be remarkably peaceful and easy to deal with at times.

His words - his opinions - hold weight with her, whether he realises it or not, and she catches herself already trying to figure out the logistics in her head. Sommerfield and Zoë are out - no way in hell is she dragging them across the countryside on what could be a wild goose chase, and - however harsh it seems - they're both a liability in the field. In the same vein, she doesn't want to be in close quarters with Hedges at the moment. Wouldn't want to be even if he wasn't busy being a pissy little asshole.

Even the thought of Dex, as laid-back as he usually is...

"Okay," she says slowly, drawing the word out as the gears whirr in her head. "It's got to be worth a shot. Anything's got to be better than our current strike rate."

He grins at her again, sudden and fierce, and it hits her hard. His words have a weight with her, but so does his smile and thankfully he doesn't seem to have figured that one out yet.

This time it seems that he's too distracted by his enthusiasm to notice.

"I don't know about the Hamptons," he says, and she's content, now, to let him follow his train of thought to the end. "But I'm sure we can figure out the popular, exclusive spots -" He makes little quote marks with his fingers around the word 'exclusive. "- and if nothing else, we can follow the trail of the missing and the recently dead."

She grunts, hoping that will be enough, but he's still watching her expectantly, obviously hoping for more. "Would any of these spots be in Alaska?" she grouches.

His expression morphs into mock sympathy. "A little overheated are we, Whistler?"

She flips him off, the move lacking any of her normal energy to it, and some of the sympathy on his face becomes real.

"I've got a fan," he offers out of the blue.

She turns her head to squint at him instead of down at the water. "Hedges confiscated all of the fans for his server room. And then he banned the rest of us from using too much power so it didn't short anything out," she says pointedly.

Her words simply slide off King, who shrugs, unconcerned. He's still watching her, all traces of sympathy - real or false - now gone. The something else there in his face instead, something she doesn't want to examine too closely.

She's not sure if that's because she's afraid that she's reading him wrong, projecting what she wants to see instead of what is actually there, or because she's afraid that she's reading him exactly right.

"What Hedges doesn't know won't kill him. And even if he finally figures it out, what's he going to do?"

"That's not the point."

"That's exactly the point."

It's too hot to be this argumentative, especially about something as stupid as this. She sighs, letting it go.

"Besides," King continues blithely, "I was planning on leaving Hedges behind, where he can't annoy you to the point where you shoot him." She gives him a look. "Hey, in this heat he'd be stinking the place up in no time."

Sometimes it's scary how closely his thoughts echo hers, even the ones she hasn't voiced out loud.

"You can tell him that," she says and then catches sight of the mischievous expression that flits across his face. "On second thought, I'll break the news," she adds dryly, ignoring his put-on pout. "Let's make sure we still have a team to come back to."

He seems to accept that argument with good grace, or maybe it's because now that he knows that he's won he's willing to be magnanimous about it. Even King knows enough to quit when he's ahead. Sometimes. Whatever the reason, he simply pushes himself away from the railing and heads back into the barge, slowing down to pull on his shirt, meaning that she first gets to catch up with and then overtake him.

The others are exactly where she expected to find them - clustered around the battered table that serves as their galley. Hedges, Abby is pleased to note, swallows visibly when he catches sight of her, his face paling beneath his sunburn. He opens his mouth - and he better be about to goddamn apologise - as King saunters past her and pulls open the fridge.

Cool air swirls around her and she closes her eyes for a second, drinking it in. Man, she would stand here all day if she could. It feels so good that she's almost - almost - ready to forgive Hedges.

"So, Whistler and I are going on a field trip and none of you are invited."

King takes a swig from his cold beer, meeting her gaze over the top of it, his eyes dancing merrily.

After that, her evening goes rapidly downhill.

-o-

She's still tired and grumpy when she gets back to her quarters in the early hours. It might have been petty but she'd dragged King out on a useless hunt just so she could pointedly ignore his bitching. They found nothing, of course, but even more frustratingly, King hadn't bitched once.

Just occasionally he shows some signs of self-preservation, especially after he's pulled one of his stupid stunts and she's gunning for his balls.

She finally manages to get her door open, the metal sticking in the heat, and steps inside. It's a little cooler than it was earlier, but not by much, and she's thinking so hard about how much trying to get some sleep is going to suck that it takes a second to spot the fan sitting in neatly in the middle of her bed.

King's stuck a post-it note onto it, and she pulls it off to read.

Sorry, it says. Friends?

It helps, a little, but when it comes to King a little has always been enough.

-o-

She leaves the details of their road trip to King. It's the kind of shit he enjoys and he certainly seems engrossed in whatever research he's doing. She sees newspaper print-outs and maps whenever she ventures into the part of their communal work area that King's long since marked out as his own, but she doesn't linger for long enough to figure out what he's doing or where they're going, not with Hedges' computers blowing out heat the way that they do. Whatever King's up to, it's keeping him happy and as long as they end up somewhere other than the city - somewhere where there are vamps to hunt - she'll be happy, too.

That doesn't mean she doesn't still try dragging him out at night, once darkness has fallen and the temperature drops a couple of degrees. Maybe he's right and the vamps have all fled the city for not- so-sunny climes, but maybe he's wrong, and by the time evening rolls around she's usually climbing the walls, ready to do something, anything that's not a whole lot of nothing. King isn't the only one who can be a stubborn bastard about things like that - she's been known to attract that description a time or two, herself, although in her case it's usually stubborn bitch.

She spends her days with Zoë, and it's not just guilt at leaving the girl behind that drives her to it. There's a simple kind of pleasure to be found in spending time with someone who's as uncomplicated as it gets. It's easier than dealing with King's on the edge sarcasm, or Hedges' shifty guilt - he still hasn't apologised for calling her bitch, but she knows it's only a matter of time. Dex isn't saying much of anything, but that's just Dex and at the moment even his easy, laid back persona is like sandpaper against bare skin. But Zoë... Zoë's easy and quiet, calm and amazingly self-contained for someone who's six.

Abby's going to miss her. Maybe more than anyone else.

Sommerfield is taking Zoë west to meet up with some of the other Nightstalkers where she thinks it's safe to do so, looking forward to comparing notes and biological inventions in a way that makes Sommer ten times the geek that Hedges is, at least in this. Whatever makes her happy, Abby supposes, and it does do a little to ease the guilt at leaving the two of them behind.

It takes a few days, days of burning sun and too little air conditioning, of empty hunts and short tempers, but finally King comes up with a route and Dex finds them a car. It's big but not too flashy, something that won't draw too much attention wherever the hell they're going but that also won't look too out of place among the Mercedes-Benz and the BMWs of the 'nouveau-riche'. She'd roll her eyes at that description if she had the energy, more at King who comes up with it than at the concept itself, but his reasoning is usually sound, no matter how ridiculously he dresses it up.

Sometimes she thinks that that the ridiculousness is the point.

They're heading into the mountains, he tells her, reeling off place names in a way that says she should know where the hell they are. But these days she's a city girl through and through, and not a nouveau-riche one. She knows the boulevards and the avenues like the back of her hand, can recite the names of them in Esperanto and English both, but beyond the city limits there's just miles of country and Abby left that at eighteen, several states away.

She wonders if she'll recognise it now as she packs, whether there will be something familiar about the mountains that reminds her of the plains in terms of the people and the places that now seem half a lifetime away. Mom and pop stores and ice cream parlours, dusty streets that pass from one end of the town to the other and that you can drive through in five minutes or less. Those she remembers, although they're only vaguely familiar, like something half-remembered from a dream.

When she dreams these days it's of slick city streets, of neon and darkness, the flash of a blade and the after image of burning long-dead flesh.

Maybe that's what happens when you take the girl out of the country and the country out of the girl, she thinks. You're left with someone like her, someone distilled down to something fierce and focused, unrecognisable. She shops in bodegas these days, not mom and pop stores. She travels the subway and walks streets that stretch for miles, seldom recognising the faces that pass by, and she can't remember the last fucking time she went to an ice cream parlour, let alone with a boy and without a care.

But King thinks that the mountains will be cooler, and she's willing to risk a lot for that.

-o-

They hit the road in the early morning, when the day is at its coolest, and Abby watches the Honeycomb Hideout grow smaller in the side mirror until it finally disappears from view. It's already too bright outside, the light hazy the way it only is in the early morning, when the dust hasn't settled and the earth isn't steaming, too hot to walk on, and she squints through the windshield at the road ahead, sinking down into her seat and pulling on her shades.

King's eyes haven't left the road - he's not one for looking back, which is just as well given his history. He's all about the next place they'll be, the next hunt they'll have, so she leaves the driving to him. He takes a weird kind of pleasure in it, his hands wrapped loosely around the wheel at ten and two, the same kind of pleasure that Abby takes in her bike. She's not sure she understands it - she's more at home, more at ease when she can watch the asphalt roll by under her feet and feel the miles being eaten up by her wheels. Sitting up here in the SUV's cab, it feels too distant, too remote, and she's more than happy to hand the task to somebody else as she stares out of the window and lets everything else fade away.

King is humming to himself, sometimes even in time to the radio. He sounds perfectly content, the kind of low-grade contentment that's almost contagious, and she finds her eyelids drooping, the sound of the car's wheels on the road and the soft noises that King is making conspiring to make her drowsy.

The car's a/c works, too, and she's pleasantly cool for the first time in days, not subject to the burning heat of the day or the harshly chilled air of department stores or mega-marts, the only places she's been able to escape it.

She finally gives into the inevitable, closing her eyes and letting the road lull her into sleep.

When she finally wakes the sun is higher in the sky, but on the wrong side, disorientating her for a moment, wondering if they'd managed to get turned around without her feeling it, if they were heading back the way they'd come.

"Evening," King says cheerfully, taking his eyes off the road to look at her for a moment, his expression amused.

She blinks blearily at him, parsing what he's said and letting it sink into her brain where it might start to make sense. Her neck aches and one of her legs has fallen asleep. Her mouth is gummy and when she finally speaks, her voice is rough, edging into hoarse.

"Have I been asleep all day?"

"More or less," he says, shooting her another look. "I guess you needed it. How are you feeling?"

Embarrassed, she thinks, twisting her neck to stretch it and work out the kinks, and wincing slightly when it cracks. "Okay. Hungry."

"Yeah, well, we'll be there soon."

She blinks at him, slowly getting her brain into gear. It takes her longer than it should do, which is another sign of how exhausted she's been recently. It's not just the lack of sleep; the heat itself is draining. But she's not hot now. In fact, her fingers are cold, the car's a/c a little too good. She rubs them together, bringing him - and what he'd just said - back into focus.

"Where exactly is there?" she asks, and he turns his head to look at her again, his expression faintly surprised.

"Ah," he says, a flurry of expressions crossing his face, not all of them good. The one he ends up with is slightly sheepish around the edges and she suppresses a sigh. "Well, we're heading into the mountains..."

"No shit, Sherlock."

"Rude." He flashes a grin at her, unoffended in spite of his objection. "What gave it away?"

"The trees? The fact that we're still driving up hill? The fact that that's where you said we were headed? Take your pick."

He laughs, his eyes crinkling in a way that makes her want to smile back. "Smart girl. At least now that you're finally conscious. It's a good thing I don't need your sparkling conversation to keep me entertained on long journeys, Whistler."

No. King's perfectly able to entertain himself for hours, and she'd lay dollars to donuts that at least some of that had involved him singing along to whatever had been playing on the radio instead of just humming along under his breath.

"So, where are we headed?" she asks again, trying to get him back on track and ignoring the still amused look he sends her. "Other than up a mountain?"

"Resort by the name of Twin Pines," he says. "And it's on the other side of the mountains, not up them." He catches her look and shrugs. "It's still cooler than the city."

"And what's in Twin Pines?"

"A whole lot of rich people and all of their associated accoutrements." He lets the last word linger on this tongue, grinning at her when she rolls her eyes. "Quaint little antique shops and upmarket boutiques, amusing little coffee shops and the odd five star restaurant. That sort of thing, I'd imagine."

She waits him out.

"What isn't there is the family of three who went missing."

And there it is, the reason for Twin Pines in particular. King might mock Hedges for his computer modelling, but he sees his own patterns in things.

"You're thinking vamps?" On the surface it's a stupid question - of course he is, or they wouldn't be heading to this place - but really, she just wants him to keep on talking. Watching King's brain work is fascinating and, okay, maybe she's feeling a little bit guilty about bailing on him in the 'keeping him entertained on long car journeys' thing.

He shrugs, his eyes back on the road. "I think it's worth a shot. I mean, all I've got at the moment are a couple of newspaper articles, but... It feels like vamps, you know?"

She does. There's always a certain undercurrent to that kind of report, something that King would say got their Spidey-senses tingling. And he calls Hedges a geek. There's a reason that the Honeycomb Hideout has an impressive comic book collection, and it's not just for research, no matter what King claims.

"So we head to Twin Pines, do some digging, kill some vamps?"

"That's about the size of it, yes." He shoots her another quick glance. "So, this is really news to you, huh?"

"Why wouldn't it be?"

"Oh, I don't know. All the notes I left lying around so you'd know what I was thinking?" His look this time is faintly quizzical. "I'm kind of surprised you didn't go over them with a fine tooth comb. I mean, that's what you usually do, right?"

That's what she does with Hedges' plans, yeah, but that's because Hedges gets a little distracted by the shiny. And Sommerfield's plans tend to be heavy on the outcome (I need this, get it now) and short on the 'don't die' details, so, sure, she triple checks them just so she knows that Sommerfield has actually considered the fact that none of them are immortal. But King's plans...?

He's still waiting for an answer, and she's a little embarrassed at having to voice it, but she finally admits, "I don't need to check them. I trust you not to fuck it up."

"Oh." He looks absurdly pleased for a moment, and that makes him look weirdly young, like a kid who's been complimented unexpectedly. And then his expression settles back into that vaguely sheepish one.

She raises an eyebrow at him, waiting for the inevitable.

"So Twin Pines turns out to be quite the popular vacation spot among the glittering lawyer and entrepreneur set..."

"Okay."

"Very popular at this time of year."

"Get to the point, King."

He pulls another face. "Rooms are at a premium, so, you know, I kind of had to take what I could get..."

Abby stifles a sigh. "Please tell me our rooms have air conditioning at least."

She should have known better. Yes, King's plans tend to be okay in the 'killing vamps without necessarily dying' sense, but the man does like to cut corners and skip some of the less important - to him - details.

Not only is there no a/c, but it turns out that it's 'room'.

Singular.

-o-

The Pleasant Inn lives up to its name, Abby supposes. The lack of air conditioning aside, it's clean if a little shabby around the edges, and it's got a Olde Worlde country style kitsch feel to it that's definitely not her thing. She suspects that some of the décor might be the real thing, like the pitcher and basin set that sits on the white-painted dresser, but it has modern plumbing, at least, and the shower has decent water pressure. And like King says, beggars can't be choosers and this is what they get for not booking well in advance.

At least, that's what he tells the inn's proprietor, turning on the charm in a way that actually manages to make it sound non-insulting. When he's not being a deliberate ass, King's got a way with people, an ease that Abby can only envy. Of course, that innate understanding of people is probably why he's so goddamned effective at getting under their skin when he wants to.

He gets under Abby's skin, which would be easier to deal with if that was only about him being a pain in the ass instead of about him knowing her so well and being able to slip into her sub-conscious like he's supposed to be there.

She stays silent while she listens to King spin his special brand of bullshit, managing to wrangle a freestanding fan out the guy to add to the ceiling fan that creaks and stutters but doesn't seem to be doing much to actually cool the room. She stays silent as King establishes non-threatening identities for them, as he gets recommendations for somewhere to eat, places to shop, things to do...

Places to maybe avoid like, oh, say where people might get hurt.

He has the guy eating out of the palm of his hand in no time, getting all of the gossip under the guise of being a semi-interested tourist, and Abby just watches him work, throwing in the odd smile of agreement when it seems called for, because not only is King a joy to watch work - so slick and smooth and genuinely charming when called for - but watching King means she doesn't end up staring at the only bed.

It doesn't matter that it's a king, not just a double - and King would smirk at that if she was ever stupid enough to point it out - meaning that there's extra room. King's a big guy who takes up a lot of space, and she's going to be sharing a bed with him.

With King.

Jesus. She'd suspect King of having ulterior motives if it wasn't for the fact that he's not exactly shy about coming forward and he's had plenty of opportunities to hit on her in the past. Unless Danica killed his interest in women stone cold dead, which is always possible, she's always figured that he's just not really interested in her as anything other than a partner, his constant low-grade flirting aside. She can't take that seriously, not when King flirts with everyone.

"Hey, sweetie?"

King's voice drags her back to the present and, damn it, she's been staring at the bed again. He hasn't missed it either, at least judging by the smirk that's playing around the corners of his mouth.

"Sorry," she apologises, giving the proprietor her sweetest smile and cursing the fact that King's too far away to kick. "Long journey."

The proprietor smiles back a little uncertainly. She's not sure whether he's always this nervous or if there's something about her, or about King, that's pinging his 'not quite right' radar.

She turns the smile up a notch, just in case, and he blinks at her.

"George here was just telling me about this 1950s retro diner he thinks we might like. Actual people sized portions, none of that nouveau cuisine crap." 'George' winces a little at the descriptor. "Should we check it out?"

Christ, yes. She could murder a burger right about now, one that's just the right side of rare with fries the size of her fingers. Some of that must have shown because King's face cracks into a wide grin.

"The little woman does like her vittels," he says, slapping George on the shoulder and giving her a look that just dares her to say something.

For a second she's tempted - she even has a vague idea what to say, something along the lines of needing something to keep her satisfied - and she knows that King doesn't miss the undercurrent because his grin turns delighted and his eyes light up with barely banked mirth. It's almost impossible to stay mad at him when he's like this - assuming she was even close to mad in the first place - and so she just rolls her eyes good-naturedly.

"Burger, yes," she says dryly. "The floor show I could live without."

King grins back at her before turning his attention to George. "So, do we have a curfew?" George simply blinks at him again, and she has some sympathy with that. King does tend to be a little overwhelming. "What time do you lock the doors, George? I thought we might have a look around town once we've eaten."

It could have been worse. King could have worked the word 'cravings' in there or referred to her as 'the little woman' again, and she is so going to kick his ass about that. Once she's eaten.

"Oh. We're open all night during the high season," George says, a little flustered as he pushes his glasses up his nose. "There's a night porter on, so you will be able to get back in, that's not a problem. Just..." He hesitates, and Abby can tell he's veering between honesty and being smoothly political. "Just keep an eye out for local wildlife. We are in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes city folk tend to forget that. Especially at night." He gives them both a tight, contained smile, one that doesn't even come close to reaching his eyes. There's something a little haunted in his expression, something that he's not hiding very well, and Abby wonders just how many animal attacks there have been this year.

"No wandering off the beaten track in the dark," King says solemnly. "Got it. Thanks for the tip." He reaches for his wallet, a clear sign to George that the conversation is over, and tips the man heartily. It's not until George has shuffled out, seeming a little happier now that his palm has been generously crossed with silver, that King finally meets Abby's eyes.

"Think we've got a bear problem?" he asks, his expression leaving her in no doubt as to his opinion of the answer.

"Let's find out."

-o-

The diner that George told them about would probably be described as 'retro', which means lots of red leather and highly-polished chrome. Abby's tempted to roll her eyes, especially when she spots the memorabilia hanging on every available wall, but she's behaving herself, or at least trying to behave like a tourist. Kitsch doesn't begin to cover it, but she's too damned hungry to care.

King, of course, loves it, which figures.

It's a good thing she's hungry, because when she pulls the menu open and catches sight of the prices, her eyebrows rise to her hairline.

"Oh, how nice to be rich," King murmurs from across the way. "Do you think they have an off-season menu or do they gouge the locals just as much?" He keeps his voice low, thankfully, and it's busy enough that their waitress bustled away as soon as she'd seated them, so at least he isn't overheard. She guesses it would be difficult to blend in with the privileged if they balked at a mere forty dollars for a burger.

Forty fucking dollars for a burger, even if it is hand-raised organic beef, and the fries are extra. Jesus.

"Relax," King says, tapping her foot with his under the table to get her attention. "I've got a nice, shiny new credit card with an exemplary credit rating thanks to Dex, and he's even promised to pay it off while we're away."

She grunts, her eyes still focused on the menu. They've got chicken subs (organic, free range, corn-fed chickens of course), which might be slightly healthier than their other options, but, God, she really could murder a steak. "How did you manage to swing that one?"

"Bribery," he said succinctly. When she looks up, he adds, "I told him that the longer we stayed away, the more likely it was that Hedges would survive you coming back. For some reason, he seems to like Hedges."

She gives him a long, steady look. "And where would you put Hedges' current odds?"

"Oh, about seventy percent, I would think." He glances up at her, his eyes twinkling for a moment before he returns his gaze to his menu. "And getting better by the day. Man, I could really go for a vanilla milkshake right now. Can't remember the last time I had one."

"When you were twelve?"

His eyebrows crease in a thoughtful little frown. "No, I definitely had one the day I finally got into Sherry McEwan's pants and I was... oh... at least sixteen by then."

She doesn't want to know, she really doesn't, but she can't help but grin at his ridiculousness. "Sixteen?" she asks. "Wow. Late developer, huh?"

"Never said she was my first," he shoots back, quick as a whip, and his smile this time is dazzling.

It's not fair that a grown man has dimples and, in spite of King's penchant for witticisms, she sees his so rarely.

The menu is a safer option and she turns her attention back to it, making her decision quickly.

The waitress materialises again as soon as she snaps it shut and she's starting to think, grudgingly, that maybe the prices are worth it if the service is this good.

"Can I get you a drink, honey?"

The waitress is her age, maybe a little older, but she's done something to her hair, pinning it up into a haphazard bun, and she's got the kind of world-weary look about her that's probably intended to make her look older, like a real old-fashioned middle-aged diner goddess, but that instead tells Abby that this is a frustrated actress in the making.

God, the decor wasn't enough? They had to go overboard with the wait staff as well?

"Milkshakes," King announces. "Vanilla, and make it two."

Abby gives him another long, steady look. "Coffee," she tells the waitress, her eyes just daring him.

She should have known better. King's never met a dare he couldn't go one better on.

His pout is adorable and completely fake. "Oh, come on, Whistler. Live a little, why don't you? We're on vacation."

She knows he's putting it on for the waitress, but then he smiles at her and for once there's something genuine in it, like some of the tension has leached from him during the drive up here. He's more relaxed than he has been for as long as she can remember, and for a second she could almost - wants to - believe that this is a real vacation, just the two of them with no stress, no drama, just days stretching out ahead of them with nothing to do. Nothing that they don't want to do.

She sighs, small and quiet. "Chocolate," she says, because she can't let King win entirely or he'll start to get ideas, like that he can wrap her around his little finger, and it doesn't help that he probably could.

King grins delightedly, settling back into the leather booth, one elbow resting on the back. "Now that's more like it."

"And coffee," she adds pointedly, just to hear him laugh.

The waitress smiles politely, her pencil tapping on her pad and waiting for them to finish whatever it is that they're doing. Abby's not sure what that is - if it had been anyone else, she'd have said flirting, but this is King and this is her, and she's never been exactly able to pinpoint what they are. She doesn't want to label it now, either, so focuses on the menu again, giving clipped, precise instructions to the waitress about her meal while King watches, amused.

"What?" she asks him when they've finished ordering and the waitress finally sashays away.

"Dressing on the side?" he asks, raising one eyebrow. "Seriously, Whistler?"

"Sometimes I like it, sometimes I don't," she explains with a shrug, wondering why she's even bothering. "What's the big deal?"

King shakes his head sadly. "Sometimes you're such a girl."

"Don't be a dick."

"Well, that's like asking me not to be me." He has a point. "Anyway, I need a bathroom break. Don't drink my milkshake while I'm gone."

She's tempted to flip him off but, given that they're in public, it's a temptation she resists. This doesn't seem the kind of place where that kind of thing would go unnoticed.

While King's taking care of business, she takes the time to look around the diner, carefully studying the other clientele. It's easy to tell who's a tourist or not, and they're all of a type. No frazzled parents and overly tired kids - most of them are college aged: bright, preppy and pretty girls with long hair and short skirts, and guys in polo shirts and khakis. Here and there there's some variation - a guy in shorts or a girl in a maxi-dress, someone a little older but still reeking of money and privilege - but mostly they all look like they come from the same mould.

And none of them are dressed like Abby. She's already attracting one or two pitying looks, at least from the girls - not that she gives a shit about that. Some of the guys are giving her interested looks, the kind of interested looks she's used to shutting down and shutting out. The kind of look that says that they have her pegged as a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, someone cheap and disposable, and if she's on her own then maybe she's easy pickings.

Assholes. She'll take King's brand of dickishness over that any day.

She ignores them for the most part, or at least the looks. The clothes she pays more attention to - it pays to blend in and she can see a shopping trip in her future, which is pretty much her idea of hell.

Joy.

King's back before any of the young and the ball-less can do more than cast longing looks in her direction and this time he slides into the booth next to her, ignoring her quizzical look. He's not exactly chivalrous - he has her back, sure, but as for defending her honour? He's more likely to hold her coat while she does that, and that's just one of the reasons she puts up with his crap. But on reflection, she supposes it makes sense. She'd instinctively sat facing the door with the wall behind her, meaning King had had his back to the door. That can't have been comfortable for him - she knows she'd have been twitchy as hell had their positions been reversed.

Plus, the diner is a little crowded. She supposes that sitting right next to her reduces the chance of anyone else being able to listen in on their conversation.

"So what are you thinking?" she asks him, and he startles a little at the question, like he'd been paying attention to the rest of the room and had forgotten she was there.

"Right now? I'm thinking I could really do with that milkshake."

She gives him another look. "About the whole bear situation?"

He shrugs, perking up when he spots the waitress heading towards them, tray in hand. She watches his profile as he gives their waitress - 'Charlene', Abby finally notices is on her nametag, and she wonders if that's for real or part of the whole diner 'experience' - a brilliant smile, one that she can't help but notice has Charlene smiling back.

"Yeah," he says after taking a huge sip of milkshake through the curly straw it came with. Abby stirs hers, waiting for the ice cream to melt a little. There's a distant look in his eyes for a moment and she's not sure whether it's memory or whether, like her, he's looking around the diner and wondering where they fit. "I think maybe a little digging might be in order. Not just animal attacks, but drunk drivers, boating accidents at night, that kind of thing."

"You think they're that unsubtle?" She finally takes a sip of her milkshake while she waits for him to answer and, damn, that's good: ice-cold, dark and rich.

King shrugs. "Maybe, maybe not. This isn't a permanent hunting ground, so they might feed to their fill and then move on. Guess we'll find out soon enough. For now I want food."

The diner has really good service - no sooner has he mentioned it than Charlene reappears, as if by magic, and starts placing platters on the table. Her smile for King this time is even brighter, more intimate - at least until she catches Abby's eyes and is all business again.

King really does know how to pull them in. Half the time, she's not even sure that he even realises the effect he has. The other half of the time she's pretty sure it's deliberate calculation on his part.

"So what's the plan for tomorrow?" she asks as soon as Charlene is out of earshot, hips swaying as she sashays away throwing a last, hopeful glance over her shoulder at King as she goes. The fries are just as Abby imagined - thick cut and steaming - and she pulls the bowl towards her, not bothering with her fork as she digs the first one out. She's beginning to think that this place is worth the money it charges, even if it won't do anything for her cholesterol levels. "Do some digging?"

He shakes his head, stealing some of her coleslaw. "I think we might be in for the long haul. Old fashioned detective work, you know? Let's find our feet first, not do anything to attract too much attention, get the lay of the land. Speaking of that..." He reaches up behind him, pulling some flyers out of a rack she hadn't even realised was there and spreading them on the table in front of them. "Let's figure out where the big tourist spots are, especially at night. Guess the lake's the big feature..." He pulls one of the flyers free and she cranes her neck to get a better look at it.

That brings her closer to King, and she'd forgotten how warm he was. In this heat, she's been staying away from him, but he smells a hell of a lot better than she expected after that long drive.

"You guys looking for things to do?"

She's been so wrapped up in King that she hadn't registered Charlene drawing back towards to their table, this time bringing the coffee Abby had forgotten she'd ordered. Or - more likely - she's made the rookie mistake of not registering Charlene as a potential threat, seeing her as a part of the scenery more than anything else, and she could kick herself for that.

"Sure," King says, all pleasant smiles and aw shucks attitude. "You got any recommendations?"

Charlene cocks her hip thoughtfully, making a production of it because she knows that she has King's full attention. "The lake's a good place to start," she says. "You can hire a boat, or a paddle boat if that's more your speed -" she gives King a grin he's happy to return "- and it's a hell of a lot cooler down there than it is in town. And the 'skeeters aren't too bad down there during the day."

"The little bloodsuckers are bad at night?" King asks, and Charlene smirks.

"They come out as soon as the sun starts setting, and they do like the lakeside. 'Course, there's not much to be doing down on the lake at night now, not since the town council put a stop to folks renting boats at night."

"Oh?" Abby asks, and not just because she's starting to think that maybe she needs to remind Charlene that she's actually there by becoming a part of the conversation. "Why's that?"

"Oh, you know. Couple of college kids get themselves drunk and killed out on the lake after dark. Hell of a mess that had to be cleared up - word is that the boat drove over them, cut into them real good. So now they've banned all night time pleasure craft from the water. I mean..." She treats King to another beaming smile, none of her attention on Abby even though it was Abby who'd asked the question. "With the summer being as hot as it's been, the water level's lower than it should be and now there's all sorts of things just waiting to catch you that last year you'd have clean sailed over. Not so bad in the daylight, you know, when there's people around and you can see where you're going and what's in front of you, but at night, it's just..."

"Lethal?"

"Heck, yes." Maybe Charlene realises that there's a little too much relish in her voice because she sobers up and is all business again. "Can I get you folks anything else?"

Abby shakes her head and Charlene gives her one of those fake, professional smiles with just the right amount of world-weariness in it, back in character after letting the young girl beneath it all shine through for a moment, and then heads off to deal with her other customers.

This time she doesn't look back, and Abby's pretty sure that's not relief she's feeling. She still waits until Charlene's out of earshot before she turns King's attention back to their conversation.

"You read the papers, didn't you?"

"Hmm?" King's look is all innocence as he picks up his burger, but she knows better than to be fooled.

"Night time boating accidents? You knew."

He gives her a slow, amused smile. "Busted. So, lake tomorrow?"

She's tempted to suggest tonight, because she's bored of coming up empty hunt after hunt, but King's right. They need to do some work on figuring out the layout of the land, and being out there in the dark in unfamiliar territory is an invitation for disaster, no matter how tempting it is to say 'fuck it' and just get out there and fight.

"Fine," she says. She's about to say something else - something about what the hell are they going to do all day by a lake - when something catches her attention.

Or someone.

The three guys who've just walked through the door look as out of place as Abby feels. There's something off about them - like the fact that they're not in the preppy outfits favoured by the rest of the clientele, and the arrogant way they stalk into the diner like they own the place despite being barely old enough to shave.

She doesn't need to spot the too light irises in their eyes or the pallor of their skin to immediately peg them as vamps, and it's like everything in her stops for a moment.

It's not fear. If she was smart, it would be fear, if not for herself then for everyone else in the diner. But this? This is more like a shiver of anticipation, something that slides up her spine, sets the hair at the nape of her neck on end, makes her fingers tingle.

King has frozen next to her, his burger at his lips. She can see him out of the corner of her eye and she doesn't need to be able to see any better than that to be able to picture the look on his face. She knows what it will be - it will be the mirror of the one on hers.

Christ, she's missed this.

She puts her burger carefully back on her plate, watching intently as the vamps swirl through the diner, loud and raucous, eyes glittering hungrily as they eye the girls, and the boys, and leaving scowls in their wake.

Charlene pastes on a professional smile and tries to guide them to a table but frankly she might as well have pasted an 'all you can eat buffet' sign on her chest and have done with it. They circle her, making low-voiced comments that Abby can't quite catch as they tug at her skirt, poke at her hair.

The woman looks close to tears by the time King rises to his feet.

He's not the only one, and that's the only reason Abby doesn't follow him straight away, holding back as she watches him unfolding from the booth, full of predatory grace as he straightens up to his full height. She's so used to his presence that sometimes she forgets just how impressive he is on first sight, towering over those around him, broad-shouldered and sleekly muscled.

He's not the first to reach Charlene - he's beaten there by a middle-aged man who has the look of someone who spends too much time indoors and maybe a little less time than he should at the gym, but has still managed to dress as preppily as everyone else. But to his credit, it doesn't stop him as he tries - in vain - to reason with what he thinks are probably just street punks and not the kind of beings who could rip his throat out without skipping a beat.

One of the vamps - the tallest of them - turns on Charlene's would be rescuer with a smile, something in it vicious enough to have the man stepping back, a look of consternation crossing his face at the creeping realisation that he might have bitten off more than he could chew. He stands his ground, though, and some part of Abby has to respect the attempt.

Of course, that's probably because he hasn't yet realised how fucked he is. Or how fucked he would be if King wasn't already neatly insinuating himself between the vamps and him.

There's something in King's smile, too, something that has the vamp's look of triumph - of an anticipation to match the one spiking its way up Abby's spine - fading slowly from his face, a thwarted kind of wariness replacing it.

Abby's seen this dance before and she's on her feet, heading towards Charlene, even as the vamp is exchanging brief looks with each of his companions in turn, his courage bolstered when he realises that they outnumber King three to one. Or so they think. But the fact he even checked, looking for backup, tells her that they're fledglings, not long turned. An older vamp wouldn't have worried about the odds, not the way they were used to their strength and their supposed superiority when confronted with human prey.

Because the only hunter they worry about is Blade and that's usually their first - and last - mistake.

"Now, guys," King is saying pleasantly as Abby reaches Charlene, placing a firm hand on her elbow and ignoring the way that the other woman starts in surprise as Abby starts guiding her out of harm's way. "What seems to be the problem here?"

King's eyes meet Abby's briefly, something cool and controlled in their depths, and she nods, letting him know that she has his back. She steadies Charlene as Charlene stumbles, her eyes wide as she looks back at King. There's no misreading the fear on her face, and for the first time tonight she actually looks her age, the 1950s waitress persona completely evaporating. She probably thinks it's a hold-up, or that the youths who've just sauntered in as though they owned the place are high on something, which might even be worse.

"Should I call the cops?" she whispers to Abby and her voice is too loud, attracting attention from all the wrong people. Abby eases her way between Charlene and the vamps in much the same way that King has done with Charlene's erstwhile protector, putting a human shield between the vamps and the rest of the diner. Her silver blade is a heavy weight in the small of her back and she knows there's no way that King came out unarmed.

It's not the fact that there are three of them that worries her, or even the possibility of collateral damage. She's fast and King's a hell of a lot more agile than a man his size should be. They could take these three down without breaking a sweat, as green as they are.

What worries her is that this is the kind of thing that attracts attention, and she has no desire to explain to the cops - or anyone else - why three people exploded into ash and dust as soon as she hit them.

Fuck. For all that she's been looking for a fight - to be able to take down some vamps and scratch the itch that's been plaguing her for weeks - she was hoping not to have to do it in public.

"There's no need for that," King says smoothly, his gaze holding the vamp's. "These gentlemen were just leaving. Isn't that right, guys?"

He has that tone in his voice, the one he gets so rarely. The one that pretty much has Abby's id sitting up and begging, all smooth confidence on top and ice-cold steel underneath. It certainly has the vamp hesitating, fingers clenching and unclenching nervously as he searches King's expression.

Maybe it really is King's tone or maybe it's a sudden realisation on the vamp's part that maybe, just maybe, someone will actually call the cops and they'll be in serious shit with whoever sired them for attracting this much attention - Abby doesn't know and can't bring herself to care - but finally the vamp jerks his head angrily towards the door and heads towards it, his crew following in his wake. He pauses right in the doorway to cast a malevolent look back at King and point a threatening finger in his direction. Abby's surprised when he doesn't draw the same finger across his throat. What the hell is it with vamps and their need for drama?

She watches the three of them leave, tromping across the parking lot but turning back frequently to glare through the windows back into the diner, before she looks at King. He raises an eyebrow at her, his expression speculative, and she nods minutely.

"Do you think we should call the cops?" Charlene asks nervously, her hands plucking at the fabric of her pale pink uniform as though she needs to de-soil it from the vamps' touch.

"No," Abby says firmly. "They've gone now and I doubt they'll be back. If they do come back, then maybe call the cops, but I suspect that they have more to deal with than three smart-ass kids."

"Did you see their eyes?" Charlene's would-be rescuer again, his expression faintly harassed and heading towards appalled as the adrenaline starts to wear off. "What the fu- heck was wrong with their eyes?"

"Contacts." King meets the man's flustered gaze with a cool sympathy. "All the kids are doing it, getting those weird contacts like they're in a movie or something. There was a kid in our local mall... when was it, honey? Last week? Had cat eyes in. Weirdest thing."

She nods obediently while still managing to give King a look that speaks volumes about the whole 'honey' thing. The man opens his mouth again, obviously not yet ready to let it go. She sympathises, she does, even if he's only got the slightest taste of how messed up the world can be, how the safe, sane 'reality' he thinks is the world's true face actually overlies the chaos underneath, but he needs to drop it before anyone really does call the police and they end up with dead, drained cops all over town.

The ones that aren't already familiars, of course.

"Thank you," she says, cutting him off before he can get started, and he blinks at her, completely thrown. "For stepping in. That was very brave."

He blinks at her again and then - surprisingly - starts to blush. "Someone had to," he says gruffly. "Kids today..."

He shakes himself, his embarrassment apparently overwhelming him, and then gives her and King a brief nod before heading back to this table and his waiting wife and teenage kids.

They're not the only diners still gawking. She and King are getting some looks before people slowly drift back to their meals. The fact that they do that at all amazes her - God bless the human capacity for self-deception.

She exchanges another look with King, a world of meaning in it, and he's as attuned to her as always.

"Can we get our meal to go, please?" he asks Charlene brightly.

-o-

It's easy to find the vamps, mainly because the stupid fuckers think that they're the ones who are 'lying in wait' for her and King. She soon rids them of that idea, slamming the back of her head into the face of the one who grabs her from behind, the taunting words - because they always taunt before they realise that they're not the ones doing the hunting - dying on his lips as she breaks his nose.

His voice isn't the only thing dying - he dies straight after that, impaled on her silver blade before his friend has even reached her. The second goes down as easily as the first, her knife sliding between his ribs. He dissolves into a shower of ash and embers, his scream lingering longer than the rest of him.

King takes down the third, punching him in the face several times before finally drawing a silver stake and driving it straight through the vamp's chest.

That ends predictably and King's vamp doesn't even have time to scream.

All in all, a good night's work, and Abby's feeling looser, more at ease, than she has for a long time.

"So," says King slowly, brushing the ash from his face and leaving a smear of it on his cheek. "What do you reckon? Back to the hotel or - since we never managed to finish our meal - what about a midnight picnic?" Sounds like a plan to her and she's suddenly starving again.

They eat their burgers at a picnic table, by the lake, and Charlene was right. The little bloodsuckers really do come out at night.

-o-

She sleeps as badly as she expected, and not just because of the heat. It should have been easier, now that she's a little less wired, her body singing in that satisfied, bone tired way that it does after a successful hunt. But that was before she factored in a half-naked King sleeping next to her, sprawled on the bed in nothing but his boxers and breathing deeply.

He throws off a lot of heat, but it's not the warmth of his body that keeps her awake, lying on her back staring at the ceiling, or the sound of the fan clicking and whirring all night. It's the thoughts whirring around her brain, the ones that tell her what a bad fucking idea it would be to close her eyes in case she moved a little closer to him, let sleep claim her when he's right there and her subconscious is a bitch in more ways than one.

She finally slips under in the early hours. When she wakes, the bed is empty but her fingers are curled into the sheet where it's still warm from King's body.

She pushes herself up, wiping at gritty eyes before she rolls over to blink blearily at the ceiling. The shower's running, which explains where King has gone, and the room is bright but with that golden quality to the light that suggests that it's still fairly early.

She'd look at her watch to confirm it, but it's on the bedside table and reaching for it is too much fucking effort for the way she feels right now.

The shower shuts off, and she sighs, putting the thought of dozing for a few more minutes out of her mind. By the time King emerges from the bathroom, still towel drying his hair, she's ready to push past him, clutching her clothes and managing a grunt in response to his cheerful, "Good morning."

At least he's hung the towels up, and she stands under lukewarm spray until she feels vaguely human again. She feels even more human when she comes out to find he's made her a cup of coffee, using at least two of the complementary packets the hotel provided to make it strong enough to satisfy her.

Sometimes she could kiss him.

He watches her with an amused smirk as she gulps it down, thankful that it's cooled enough while she's showered to let her get the caffeine into her system as quickly as possible. "What's the plan for today?" he asks as he pulls on his shoes, neatly tying off the laces.

"Shopping," she gets out between gulps, and if she wasn't still focused on caffeinating herself, she'd smile at the look on his face. As it is, she takes another long swallow and it's enough to get her brain into gear enough to add, "We stand out too much. We need to blend in better."

He blinks at her for a few moments, his brow creasing as he figures out what the hell she's talking about, and then a look of sheer horror crosses his face. She knows it's at least partly put on for her benefit but that doesn't stop her from grinning at it.

"Please God, Whistler, tell me you're not going to make me wear pastels. Or worse. Shorts."

So sue her if she immediately moves 'shorts' to the top of her mental shopping list, and he knows her too well because his look of horror morphs into an 'I dare you' glare.

Of course, he should know her better than that.

-o-

In the end they compromise, which means she gets to drag him to the resort's downtown area and the only shorts King agrees to buy are board shorts. He picks the most garish pair, of course, or at least as garish as it seems stores get in Twin Pines, which is about ten times less garish than King was probably hoping for.

He wears his best put upon puppy face the whole time she drags him around one of those upmarket stores he'd talked about, this one selling the kind of men's preppy outfits she'd seen last night with price tags that make her eyes water. She ignores him, sufficiently familiar with the game to play along just enough to make him feel wanted but not enough to make it worth his while to go for round two as she hands him clothes to carry and he puts most of them back again, sometimes even hanging them on the right rack. He leaves just enough in the pile he's carrying not to stretch this out any longer than either of them can stand, and not long enough to piss her off beyond recovery.

She hits the next store - women's clothing this time - in the same state of mind, determined to get out of the store before it gets busy and mentally cataloguing what she's already got back at the hotel against the fashions she's seen around her. Decision made, she makes a beeline for the skirts and shorts section. The shirts she's got will mostly do, because no matter what King thinks, she does occasionally buy things with flowers on even if she tends to wear no nonsense leather over the top of them. The choice when she gets there is quick and easy, too, mainly because no way in hell would she wear most of these outfits - denim for the shorts, because they're practical and are less likely to show blood and dirt than the white ones that seem to be everywhere, and shorter, slightly flared skirts that won't get tangled around her legs when she's fighting.

The only thing she actually bothers to try on is shoes, and even then she goes for plain white sneakers that cost far too much but are comfortable and practical. Not that there's much to choose from anyway - the store only carries a small range.

King stands on the side-lines for most of it, once again relegated to holding things, watching her with an amused little smile on his face as she sweeps through the store like a woman on a mission, which is probably an apt description when she thinks about. After about twenty minutes, when she pauses to take stock of what's in the pile - which King has abandoned next to her before wandering off - and definitely doesn't think about how many hundreds of dollars this is going to run to even though she's limited it as far as she can, King re-materialises next to her.

"Swimsuit?"

Damn it. She starts looking around for the swimwear section, assuming this place has one, pissed at herself for forgetting that when all they've been talking about is the lake and how that's where people congregate, when he holds up a suit in front of her.

It's a bikini, of course, skimpy and aquamarine and the cost about a hundred times more than is justified by the amount of fabric it contains, and she should have expected that. She gives him a look that speaks volumes, plucking it out of his hands and heading towards the relevant section to pick out something else. She settles for a one piece, something practical but pretty, and ignores the disappointed glint in his eyes as he follows behind her. Of course, given that it's King, it doesn't actually do anything to suppress him. The next thing she knows, he's holding up a top he's found, something white and gathered around the bust, with embroidered roses and thin straps.

She gives him another look but this time he doesn't just smirk back.

"C'mon, Whistler. It's cute and you'll look cute in it."

"Cute?" She leaves him in no doubt of her scepticism, but it doesn't faze him.

"Well, you could always go for the sequinned kitten shirt instead if you like." She follows his gaze until hers falls on the item in question. "I think that's really you, Whistler. There's just something about that kitten that's adorably cross eyed. Or do I mean 'creepy'?"

She pokes him in the stomach hard enough to make him 'ooof' and he laughs, his breath hitching as he fends off her next attack. Maybe smiling is indulging him too much - and she knows that letting him throw the white top in with the other clothes is - but, damn it, he looks good when he's happy.

"You're such a dick," she says, because it bears repeating, and he flings one arm around her shoulder companionably as he steers her toward the till.

"I promise I'll behave if we can get out of this hellhole."

"At least it's air-conditioned," she says absently, rubbing at her temple. The lack of sleep has left her with a low grade headache - not enough to hinder her but enough to drag at her steps a little.

"Okay. If we can get out of this air-conditioned hellhole." The smile she gives him this time is a little absent and he doesn't miss that. "Tired?"

"Yeah," she admits. "A little. Didn't sleep that great."

"Huh." For a second she thinks she's given too much away, but when she turns her head to look at him, the expression on his face is sympathetic, not considering. He shakes her gently. "We'll get out of here, head to the lake. Should be cooler up there and you can get some sleep."

"In public?"

Okay, maybe she sounds a little sceptical again, but King doesn't seem insulted, probably because he's too busy pulling his wallet out as they approach the very short line at the till. "That's what most people do in this kind of heat, Whistler. Sunbathe and sleep. Damn it..." He stops and looks at her, an irritated frown crossing his face. "Sunscreen."

She picks it out of the pile and waves it at him, raising one eyebrow. Yeah, okay, the makeup section in this store is expensive, and the sunscreen costs an arm and a goddamned leg, but she's just thankful that they even stock it. Being able to pick it up here means that she doesn't have to drag King to the drug store after, and dragging him around two stores in one day is pretty much her limit.

"Once again, I am in awe of your organisational skills. Seriously, Abby. We're talking terrifying here."

"I think we're talking 'full of shit' actually, but I'll take the compliment."

Her tone is dry but he still grins at her and it warms her up inside.

Which is the last thing she needs in this kind of heat.

-o-

There's something to be said about living like the rich, and Abby ignores the quiet, judgemental voice in her head, the one that whispers that she's growing soft and lazy. King's right in one respect - she needs to get some sleep during the day if she's going to be in any fit state to hunt at night and it's too fucking hot to do anything else. So why not fit in, laze by the lake and catch some sun as well as some zzzs.

But then King is tempting in more ways than one, and she's got to admit that it's a temptation that's getting harder to resist, especially bare-chested and wearing board shorts that hang low on his hips.

So it's not just her conscience that has her sinking into the clear, crystal cool lake, intending to at least do some exercise to feel better about sleeping for the rest of the day. The blazing summer sun has taken the edge off the run-off, but it still holds enough of a chill to catch at her breath and send goose bumps running up and down her spine, and maybe an ice-cold bath is just what she needs if she's not going to do something stupid, like look where she shouldn't or touch what's out of her reach, if she's got any sense. She takes a deep breath, sinking under the water so that it soaks her hair and then steadies herself, setting off and sliding through the water with ease.

She doesn't go far, careful to stay within a safe depth and close to the shore, because she doesn't know these waters and she's not stupid - at least not about this - but far enough out so that the splashing, cat-calling children don't come close enough to interrupt her. There's something peaceful about staying in that little bubble, isolated from the families around her, and she takes a few more strokes until she's further out, rolling over onto her back and staring up at the sky.

It's still early enough that the sun isn't directly overhead and the sky is an impossible blue, stretching out endlessly above her. It leaves her feeling small and insignificant, just a speck bobbing up and down in the water. It's a strange, giddy-making feeling, something twisting and lurching in the pit of her belly, caught up in the skip-skip beating of her heart. Her head is buzzing and the skin on her face is tight over her cheekbones when she finally rolls over again, closing her eyes and sinking down into the lake's depths until the water closes over her head again.

It's even more peaceful down here, but that isn't what drives her back to shore.

King is still sprawled on his back on the short pier that they've staked out as theirs, his arm thrown over his face to shield his eyes from the sun. He only moves when she pulls herself up onto the boards beside him, turning his head to squint at her in the golden sunlight.

"Good swim?" he asks lightly, and his voice is a low purr, sleepy and content.

She stares back out over the lake, roughly towel drying the ends of her hair. "Fine."

"Just fine?" He pushes himself up onto his elbows, peering up at her, a smile curling at the corners of his mouth and echoed in his eyes. "Come on, Whistler, you can do better than that."

Sitting has made the muscles of his stomach tense up, and she drags her eyes away from the outline of his abs, the way his skin gleams in the sunlight.

"You could try it yourself," she suggests tartly and his grin widens.

"I prefer to do my swimming in places where fish don't piss. Like, oh, the hotel pool."

"The outdoor pool," she points out. "Where there are still bugs and the amount of chlorine in the water could fell an ox."

Her words are like water off King's back. He just shrugs and smiles again, rolling over to pillow his head on his arms and stare out over the lake.

His shoulders are broad, as firmly muscled as his stomach, and this time she can't resist, letting her gaze wander down the line of his spine to his narrow waist, coming to rest on the dip in the small of his back and the V that disappears under his shorts.

He shifts and sighs and she starts, the blood rushing to her face when he turns his head to look at her curiously. "You're going to burn," she says, pleased at when the words come out steady and unaffected. "You need to be more careful."

But it's not him who needs to be careful, and she's the one who's going to get burned.

"Yeah, well," he says easily. "You kind of disappeared on me when we got here. Water that tempting?"

It's not the water.

The words hang on the tip of her tongue and she bites them back. "It's cool," she says. "Nice."

"Fish piss in it," he repeats, giving her a sly look and inviting her to play along. But she can't, not when he's sitting this close and wearing so little, and after a moment he sighs. "Do you mind?" he asks, and now she has no choice but to look at him if she wants to understand what the hell he's talking about.

He's waving the tube of sunscreen at her and she can't really say no, not without making a bigger deal out of it than it should be.

It scares her how much she doesn't want to say no.

He's still lying down and that makes it both easier and harder to do this. She's touched him before - of course she has - but not like this. She's tended to keep her touching of him to safe zones - his forearm, his shoulder - and for all that King's an extrovert, he's strangely non-tactile. This... This is a whole new world and she's not sure she's ready for it.

She settles on the deck beside him, squeezing the sunscreen onto her hands as she wonders where to begin - where it's safe to begin. She starts with his shoulders, and his skin is already sun-warm under her fingertips. She tries to keep it brisk, business-like, but there are things that catch her attention, that snag at her fingers and slow her down. His skin is soft, but not smooth - there are freckles and moles, dips and hollows, an acne scar on one of his shoulders and a faint pale line along one of his ribs. She remembers when that happened - a familiar's shotgun blast that splintered the door behind King and sent a shower of wood chips down on them - like she remembers how King had cursed and twisted to get the six-inch splinter out.

If she turned him over would she be able to map the rest of their time together, the small cuts and injuries, the things that make them the walking wounded more often than not?

She flattens her palms and slides her hands over his shoulder blades, down his biceps, and he lets out a low rumble of contentment. That catches at her attention, too, her fingers pausing a beat too long before discipline takes hold and she keeps on moving, pouring more sunscreen into her palms to cover her hesitation.

His shoulders are broad, but his waist is narrow and she slides her hands down his back, fingers curling along his sides as she heads south. Her mouth is dry, her breathing echoing loudly in her ears and she doesn't think that her sudden dizziness has anything to do with the heat. The faint scent of the lotion is heavy in the air, and underlying it is the scent of King, something so familiar to her that she thinks she might be able to pick him out of a line-up even if she was blindfolded. He lets out another sound, something light and amused as the muscles of his waist twitch under her touch and she runs her fingers over that spot again, just to get him to repeat that sound.

"No tickling," he murmurs sleepily, lifting his head to peer down his body at her.

She ducks her own head, covering the sudden skip of her heart with a light, "Oh, but it's so tempting."

"Just remember I'm doing you next," he says, and the idea drives the words straight out of her head.

She's reached his waist, and she makes sure that she gets the lotion into that tempting hollow at the small of his back, wondering if she dares go further, right down to the waistband of his shorts. If she doesn't - if she skips it because she's too damned cowardly, so little in control of herself - he'll burn.

She takes a deep breath, her head buzzing as she slides her hand along that patch of skin, where it's soft and vulnerable, sliding just the tips of her fingers under the fabric of his shorts to make sure she doesn't miss any part of him. His legs are easier, but only just, especially when she reaches the top of his thighs again and is confronted by that same dilemma.

"Okay," she says when she's finished, aiming for brisk but coming out breathless. "I think you're done."

He makes another one of those sleepy, contented sounds that goes straight to her stomach, and then lower still. "Want me to do you now?"

Just like that, he's struck her dumb again, and she has to swallow, hesitating long enough that he's sitting up and looking at her curiously before she can find her voice again.

"Sure," she says, aiming for nonchalant and missing it by a mile. She shuffles around until her back is to him and closes her eyes, trying to remember to breathe, trying not to flinch when he finally touches her.

His breath stirs her hair and that gives her enough warning to brace herself, his fingers landing firmly on her skin, not too hard, not too soft, but a steady firm pressure as he rubs the lotion in. She opens her eyes again, and the sunlight is dancing on the water, bright enough that when she closes them again, she can still see the patterns swirling behind her eyelids.

His hands slide up her neck, into her hairline, his thumbs pressing into the nape of her neck, and she lets her head fall forward, breathing through her mouth as the tension shivers up her spine and then evaporates, leaving her limp and pliant under his touch. He keeps it impersonal, never venturing outside her comfort zone, and the more proper his touch the more she longs for his fingers to stray. But the pressure he uses is firm enough that when his fingers finally leave her skin she sways back towards him involuntarily, like he's got a gravity to him and she can't help but be pulled closer.

"Okay?" he asks, and she nods, still silent, not trusting herself to speak. "Are you okay, Whistler? You seem a little..."

He trails off, leaving a gap that's just inviting her to fill it, and she finally swallows, saying, "I'm fine. Just a little tired."

"Ah." There's a world of understanding in that sound, and that means she can look at him again, safe in the knowledge that he hasn't seen through her, not yet. His eyes are kind, and she'd forgotten that he could do that, or at least that he could let it show when normally he hid safely behind a wall made up of equal amounts of wit and bullshit. He pats his towel, spread out on the decking. "Why don't you try and get some sleep."

She hesitates for a moment, long enough for him to sigh and reach for her, shaking her shoulder lightly again, affection on his face for a brief instant before he manages to hide it again.

"C'mon, Whistler. It's broad daylight. No one is going to try anything."

I might, she thinks, but she gives in, letting him tug her closer to him and stretching out on the towel he's pulled her towards. He balls their other towel up into a makeshift pillow, pushing it under her head as he settles down next to her, his feet dangling in the water as he stares out over the lake.

She doesn't think that she can sleep, not with King right there next to her, but his fingers come to rest gently between her shoulder blades, his thumb stroking a slow, gentle and mindless pattern over her skin, something intended to soothe, and she closes her eyes.

She drifts away to the sounds of summer and the broad, steady warmth of King's hand on her back.

-o-

That night they hit the bars, not the restaurants, and the rhythm of that is familiar even if the clientele is less rowdy than she's used to.

They blend because Abby makes sure that they blend, and King's hand is steady in the small of her back as he guides her in front of him, a perfect gentleman in appearance if nothing else. Here and there she catches a look as they wend their way through the crowd, a quick one-two as someone looks her up and down and dismisses her, the vague kind of interest you might have in a stranger and little more. She suspects that the reason that their gazes flit past her so quickly might have something to do with King and his closeness to her. Those interested in her have her pegged as spoken for, and those interested in King have more than enough to hold their attention.

Or maybe it's that she blends too well, not standing out the way that King does.

He looks good tonight, and she'd be the first to admit it. The grey long-sleeved shirt clings to him in all the right ways, and his pants are just tight enough. But then he always looks good to her, so maybe she's not the best judge. Whatever the reason for the attention, neither of them is out of place, and that should make it easier to spot the ones who are.

In theory.

It takes her all evening to admit that tonight they might come up empty. Abby is strangely okay with it. They can't be greedy, not with the number they took down the night before, and an evening spent with King is never wasted. No one else makes her laugh quite as hard as he can and the worry that she might be missing something - that they might be missing something - is easy to let slip away when she has King's sly smile and amusing anecdotes to keep her entertained.

Besides, she's not entirely sure whether Twin Pines could support more vamps than they've already dealt with, not without causing more of a stir than it did. The town's heaving, yeah, but it's not city sized, which she supposes is the point.

When she mentions this to King, he shrugs. "We've got our room for three more nights," he says philosophically. "We find more vamps here, great. We stake the fuckers. We don't, we move on, try somewhere new."

It sounds sloppy and inefficient phrased like that but when she frowns, King gives her a crooked little smile. "Look at it this way, Whistler. This time of year, being able to find an empty room is a clear sign that something is thinning the tourist population. So wherever we end up, chances are we're going to find something."

That's one way of looking at it, and it even has its own weird, morbid practicality about it. But then, King can be practical about the weirdest things. The small corner of the Honeycomb Hideout that he's marked out as his own bears witness to that. It's full of esoterica, the kind of stuff that most people would dismiss as flotsam and jetsam, but she knows King better than that. Sometimes she can see patterns in the things he's collected and if she can see the patterns then King can see the whole picture.

One of these days, he might even share.

"What?" King raises one eyebrow and his question startles her into realising that she's been staring at him while he talked, a small smile on her face.

"Just you," she says to cover it, hoping that whatever her expression is, it reads as 'fond' instead of... anything else. "You have an answer for everything."

He shrugs, letting his gaze wander around the bar, looking for anything out of place. "I'm just an eternal optimist, Whistler."

He'd have to be, really, after everything that he's been through. If he wasn't, she suspects he wouldn't be able to function. Sometimes she wonders if he has any idea how fucking strong he is. Most of the time she's convinced he doesn't.

His gaze finally drifts back to her, a slightly rueful look on his face that tells her that he hasn't spotted anything out of the ordinary, and then he gives her another one of those crooked smiles.

It's her turn to ask, "What?"

His smile deepens. "I was right about that top. It looks cute on you."

She rolls her eyes, if only to cover the small pleased smile that she can't help but let escape. "Like I said, an answer for everything."

He grins at her as he turns to face the bar, raising his hand to catch the bartender's eye and order them more drinks. It's busy in here, busier than she expected given the size of the town, but she supposes that there must be more hotels, more rentals than she's seen to support the restaurants and the expensive shops, and she lets her eyes track over the crowds automatically.

Someone's watching her.

She gets the prickle in the base of her spine first, and then the hairs on the back of her neck rise. She's too experienced to let any of that show, pasting a bored expression on her face, just a girl waiting for her boyfriend to buy her another drink.

She spots him eventually, the too pale guy standing by the jukebox. He's tall, hungry looking, and he doesn't blend. He doesn't blend because he's wearing black in the summer, because he's goth pale in a resort that's all about sun worship, because he's not clutching a beer in one hand.

He doesn't blend because he's not fucking human.

Gotcha.

She doesn't let on that she's seen him - and he'd had enough sense to look away before meeting her eyes - so she lets her gaze pass him by before she turns back towards King.

King is watching her, holding out her beer and raising one eyebrow quizzically. She slides closer to him, still conscious of that itch that tells her that the vamp's attention is back on her, and leans in, her hand resting on King's hip.

To his credit, he doesn't even twitch, but simply lowers his head towards her so that she can talk to him without being overheard.

"I think we've got a live one," she murmurs, more conscious now of the warmth of King's body and the faint scent of his shower gel than the eyes that are watching her. "Behind me, by the jukebox."

King's gaze flits briefly in that direction before returning to her face.

"Do you think he's made us?" she asks. "He was looking straight at me."

"I don't think so," King mutters, and his breath is warm against her ear. She fights the urge to shiver; the prickles running up and down her spine now have nothing to do with the vamp or the excitement of an incipient fight. "I wasn't joking when I said that top was cute on you."

She gives him a look, one that's slightly cross-eyed this close to him, and he grins, something fierce and predatory behind it. His gaze flicks towards the vamp again. "And I think he's lost interest now that he knows you have a boyfriend. Hate to tell you this, but I think he's checking out the brunette in the very tight top."

"Which brunette in a very tight top?"

King grins again, something delighted in it. "I wouldn't be able to say, sweetheart, since obviously I don't have eyes for anyone but you."

He's playing - she knows he's playing, but her stupid heart still skips a beat. She covers it, like she always covers it, ducking her head with a laugh and turning to look out over the crowd, which only coincidentally means she's looking towards the jukebox again. King's right - the vamp's lost interest in her now, his eyes tracking a giggling brunette and her friends as they make their way towards the exit.

It must be getting late. She hadn't realised how late - or how early - it was until she spots that the crowd is lighter than it was, people slowly making their way home, or back to whatever expensive guest house or rental they've got for the summer.

"Shall we?" King murmurs in her ear, his chest brushing against her shoulder as he leans in. "I think there's a party about to go on out there that we should have been invited to."

The vamp makes his move, and Abby starts to follow, King right behind her.

King doesn't place his hand in the middle of her back this time, and she misses it even though she shouldn't. For a second she's tempted to reach back for him, to catch a hold of some part of him and drag him closer until his warmth is back up against her again, and she reaches for her blade instead, just so she won't do something stupid.

The vamp pushes out the door, and she's only a few steps behind him. He glances back over his shoulder but King is right there, sliding his arm around her shoulders and leaning in towards her again. She leans back, closing her eyes for a moment, knowing it's stupid but unable to resist. When she opens them again, the vamp has lost interest and King steps away.

She swallows the bitter taste in her mouth, taking her disappointment - and it's so fucking stupid to be disappointed - and turning it into something useful, something focused.

The girls up ahead giggle, staggering a little drunkenly and the vamp's steps slow, as though he's torn between making a move on them and waiting until she and King are past, until he has no observers and can take his time with them. Her lip curls with disgust, the anger bubbling within her. Oh, she wants to take this fucker down, badly.

The girls turn the corner, heading towards Twin Pine's main street, and their laughter drifts back towards them.

"Excuse me?"

She has no idea what the hell King is up to, and neither does the vamp, who finally stops, turning slowly towards them. His eyes glint in the streetlights, and Abby fakes a stumble of her own, something to convince him that the girls aren't the only ones who've had a little too much to drink tonight.

"You got a light?"

Jesus. That's King's plan? She sighs and throws him a look, one that's half-pissed and half-amused. It's served its purpose, though, attracting the vamp's attention just long enough for the girls to disappear completely out of sight.

"I thought you'd quit," she says, finally deciding that playing along might be the best option.

"Aww, baby. Don't be like that."

"You're a little drunk," she announces, enunciating her words carefully in the way of the truly inebriated, and that seems to clinch it, the vampire moving closer to them and losing interest in his first intended prey. "You only smoke when you're drunk."

They're alone in the street, although Abby can dimly hear the sounds of the bar behind them. No intersections, so no traffic cameras, and it's not residential, so there's no one to disturb if the vamp has time to scream. She's not planning on giving him the time and neither is King. He moves past her, his hands patting at his pockets as though he really is looking for cigarettes, and Abby's watching closely enough to pinpoint the exact moment when the vamp decides that they'll do as tonight's prey. His lips curl up in a smile, something hungry and vicious, showing his fangs...

And then King punches him smartly in the face, hard enough to rock him back on his heels.

The vamp's hand comes up to cover his nose and the expression - from what Abby can see of it - is both surprised and frustrated. There's shock there, too, something almost hurt, as though he can't quite believe that this is the way his night is going to end.

He's seen nothing yet.

King steps back, shaking his hand to loosen the tension, and Abby makes her move. Her first kick hits the vamp straight in the chest, knocking him backwards - she was aiming for his head but her skirt is a little tighter than she thought. Her second kick sweeps his feet out from underneath him and he lands on the asphalt with a loud crack.

He's trying to push himself upright again when King kicks him in the head. Being a vamp, that doesn't put him down for the count, but the silver blade that Abby slams into his eye socket does.

He bursts into flame, his entire body collapsing into dust and embers.

Her heart is racing when she steps back, her breath catching in her throat more from adrenaline than exertion. The noise from the bar gets louder as the door swings open and more bodies spill out into the street, laughing and heckling, and King moves silently to stand between her and them, giving her enough time to slide her blade back into its hidden sheath before it can be seen.

The strap of her top slipped down her arm as she'd fought, and King reaches out, sliding it wordlessly back up onto her shoulder. His fingers linger for a moment, warm against her skin, before slipping away again and she shivers, feeling the ghostly imprint of his touch even after his fingers are gone.

Her mouth is dry and the racing of her heart now has nothing to do with the vamp she's just killed. Instead it's all about the look on King's face, steady and focused, strangely intense.

He takes a step closer, his fingers hovering just above her skin.

The laughter grows louder, footsteps drawing nearer, and King's hand drops to hang by his side before he steps back, moves away, and the moment passes.

She doesn't get much sleep that night, either, and it's nothing to do with the summer's heat.

-o-

Their days start to fall into a pattern, one that's both different from and familiar to the routine she's used to. Each night, they hunt, and that's the same as it's always been, her and King against the world or at least against the part of it that comes out at night. They move together as they always have, perfectly in synch, and if there's a new tension there, a new awareness of King that sets her heart racing and quickens her breathing, she ignores it as much as she can.

It's the days that are the different part, odd and somehow surreal. She still drags King for a run when she can, when she wakes early enough and the mornings are cool enough, when the sun hasn't fully risen and before it's baked the world to a crisp. But once the sun is high in the sky, all bets are off. She's not used to this level of inactivity when she's awake, to not having a million and one errands to do, whether it's putting the squeeze on their few and scattered informants or making sure that the Honeycomb Hideout runs as smoothly as clockwork.

Now the days stretch out in front of her, golden and empty, nothing to fill them but King, and she likes that a little too much to be comfortable with it.

Their time in Twin Pines comes to the end, and King's already found them somewhere else to stay, a couple of hours drive south. The room this time comes with a/c, but it also comes with twin beds, and she misses him - the warmth of his body, his steady breathing as he sleeps next to her - so damned much, as though she needed that ache of his absence to tell her just how much fucking trouble she's in.

Most nights she lies awake for hours after a hunt - too wired too sleep, too tired to talk - and stares at the ceiling. It's only when she can't stand it anymore, when the need grows too great, that she rolls over onto her side, facing King's bed, and watches him sleep. It's sneaky and probably weird, but the sight of him, the knowledge that he's just there, that if she stretched out her fingers she could touch him - if she dared - settles her. She lets the sound of his deep, even breathing finally ease her down into unconsciousness, only waking when the sun's already up and King's in the shower.

It works, in an odd, guilty kind of a way, like scratching at an itch just long enough to ease it for a moment but not long enough to hurt; at least until the night when she rolls over and finds that he's still awake, watching her.

The breath catches in her throat, her heart skipping a beat as the moment stretches out, sweet and tempting like taffy. If she reached out now, if she took the first step across the two or three feet separating their beds...

Her courage fails her. She closes her eyes instead, her fingers tensed into claws beneath her head.

King's bed shifts and creaks and then, silence.

When she opens her eyes again, he's facing away from her, sprawled across his bed on top of the covers. The moonlight has made a shadow of the dip of his spine, the angle of his hip bone, and the sight dries out her mouth until there's nothing left but the bitter taste of regret on her tongue.

She doesn't sleep that night at all.

-o-

They drift, town to town, hotel to motel and back again, and after a while all of these places start to look the same. The same main streets, with their quaint little coffee shops and bric-a-brac art studios, the same strips with their expensive restaurants and bijou little artisan ice cream parlours.

The same faces even if they aren't the same people - confident and well-fed and fucking clueless.

King fits, better than she does. There's something about him, something sleek and confident, that lets him slide through the crowds as though they can't see past his glossy surface to the hunter underneath.

Abby doesn't feel like she fits. She doesn't feel glossy or well turned out next to the leggy tennis playing blondes and brunettes with their trim but not muscular figures and their habit of throwing their heads back when they laugh. She's self-contained, not flirtatious, and she sees the looks they give King as he walks past, speculative and considering, at least until they see her.

She doesn't give them the satisfaction, even if she picks up her pace, a quick one-two to her steps until she's caught up with King when she's lagged behind.

He always smiles at her when she catches up, cracks a joke about her propensity to window shop, something funny but not mean-spirited even though he can be as mean as she is sometimes. Every now and then he throws his arm around her shoulders, giving her a quick, affectionate squeeze before he moves away again, and she fucking lives for those moments, pathetic as that feels.

In the afternoons they usually swim in the hotel pool, if it has one, when everyone is out or has retreated from the midday heat. She lives for those moments, too, the sight of King cutting a smooth, clean line through the water. She watches from the side as the water gleams on his skin in the sunlight, as he pushes his hair back from his face and climbs out of the pool, seal-sleek and mouth-watering.

She's already sliding into the water as he leaves it, powering her way through her own lengths to explain her flushed face, her rapid breathing. The water's cool enough to explain the way her nipples have peaked, wet enough to disguise everything else, but it doesn't do much to ease the ache in her belly, the emptiness between her thighs. It doesn't quench her want for him, but at least it dampens it down to something bearable, and she'll take what she can get.

The evenings are for hunting, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, but the outcome is almost irrelevant. They have more luck now than they did in the city, and that alone would be worth the trip.

At night they sleep, or try to. Sometimes in two beds, sometimes in one. More often in one, now, and she's not entirely convinced that that's all King could find. Maybe that's just wishful thinking on her part, but she'll take that, too. It's better than the alternative - no hope at all.

This is the pattern of their days now - and she feels like it's a holding one, like she's treading water. She supposes that it's better than drowning.

Just.

-o-

The nights grow more humid, and the days are even worse. Sweat paints her body every time she steps outside of the hotel's air conditioned lobby, and if it's this bad up here, where the air should be cooler, she can't even begin to imagine how unbearable it must be in the city now.

She's not surprised when the clouds begin to gather, dark and heavy on the horizon, promising something that never arrives. The storm's been building for days now, painting the sky with deep purples and golds that linger long after the sun has set. The air has an even greater weight to it, one that makes each breath an effort, the air electric in her lungs, and it leaves her on edge, her skin tingling with anticipation.

She's not the only one affected - King has grown strangely silent as the barometer has fallen, as though the pressure of the air has pushed all of his words down deep inside him. There's a weight to all of his moves now, too; he's always been contained when he fights, one of the few places where his energy is focused instead of darting all over the place, like his looks and his words and his humour, but now there's a sense of purpose behind every blow, the violence in every punch he lands barely leashed and his eyes hooded and heavy.

These days when they walk the streets together, side by side as they've always been, she can feel the pull of him beside her, a gravity that draws her closer until all she'd have to do is fall. And it would be so easy to fall, to stagger and stumble and break something vital.

But she has a gravity of her own, something that holds her in place, unable to take that final step towards him. She's not sure why, what she's waiting for, what she's afraid of, but even now there's a solid weight in her stomach, a watchfulness in her heart. Of the two of them, she's always been the more cautious outside of a hunt, but that caution is eating at her now, the carefulness burning away, compacted into something impatient and hungry that lurks just beneath her surface.

The storm can't hold off forever. Eventually it has to break.

Eventually she has to break, too.

-o-

The thunder is the first they know of it.

King pauses, his hand on the car door as he stares up at the sky. His eyes search the horizon, but Abby's watching him the way that she's always watching him these days, stealing glances every time he's distracted. She misses the lightning; she only catches the after-effect of it when it illuminates the planes of his face, casting his eyes and his mouth into shadow.

Then she looks up, searching the sky the way that he had been searching, counting under her breath until the thunder rolls again, loud and encompassing, a bass that she feels in her belly.

Five seconds. A mile then, not yet close enough to worry about unless it heads in their direction, and they're already back at the latest hotel, not on the road. Safe and sound, in theory.

She turns to say as much to King, but the words die in her throat, unsaid, because King is looking straight at her, like he's been watching her the way that she's been watching him for days, weeks now.

Her lips part, her breath catching in her throat. The sky overhead lights up again, but she still can't look away.

One second, two seconds, three -

Thunder crashes and the first raindrops fall with a heavy splatter, ice cold and shocking where they land on her skin. They fall on King as well, turning his hair into a dark cap against his scalp as the water runs down his neck. He doesn't take his eyes off her and she can't look away.

One second, two seconds -

He reaches for her, his fingers wrapping around her wrist and that finally breaks the spell he has over her, that she has over him, the pair of them pelting for the hotel lobby, where it's safe and dry, while the storm rages over head and the rain turns into a deluge, soaking her to the skin in moments. She's shivering by the time they reach shelter but that's not down to the chill of the rain. It's the heat of King's touch, the way that his fingers are still possessively pressed against her skin.

It's late, and the only concierge on duty looks up as they burst through the glass doors. He opens his mouth, some rote greeting on his lips as they head past him, but King nods at him, a brief acknowledgement, and he falls silent again, his lips pursed in sympathy as they head towards their room. He probably thinks they want to get dry, get comfortable, and Abby shivers again, because there's nothing comfortable in this.

She doesn't want comfortable. If she wanted comfortable - if she wanted safe - she wouldn't want King.

King doesn't let go of her until their door is safely shut behind them, and she misses his touch as soon as his fingers leave her skin. She locks the door as he heads towards the large window looking out over the forest. She thinks he's going to close the heavy curtains, shut the storm outside and leave them cloistered in hot, humid darkness, but he surprises her, opening the window wide enough to let the rain come in, dampening the white net curtain so that it sticks to the sill.

Lightning flashes again, surging through the sky, and this time she can see the fork as it splits the sky open, leaving an afterimage on her retinas. She closes her eyes against it, opens them again when the warmth of King's body presses against hers.

One second, two -

Thunder rumbles as King presses his mouth against hers, teeth sharp beneath her tongue and the scent of fresh rain hanging in the air.

One second -

She kisses him back, hard and fast, fingers sinking into his scalp and her body melting into his.

Outside the storm rages, but it has nothing on the fury that's building between them, harsh and bright and fierce, and oh-so-fucking good.

Thunder rolls again as she finally breaks for a breath, her heart pounding, echoing in her ears. King lets her go, but not far; his fingers are curled possessively around the back of her neck as he stares down at her, eyes wide and dark. The look in them sends shivers down her spine, brings goose-pimples up on her arms. It's not just hunger, although that's there, too. There's something else in them, something warmer, something she can't quite name because naming makes it too real and the warmth of his body, the strength of his grip is all the real she can handle.

He lowers his face towards hers again and his kiss this time is slower, more studied, mapping her mouth and turning her knees to water. He slides his fingers up her arm and everywhere he touches tingles, like he's channelling the storm or - more likely - she's so fucking turned on that he could touch her anywhere and it would feel like fireworks.

She can touch him back. It takes her a second to get that, all of her brain cells fried by the simple fact that he's kissing her, kissing her like he means to turn her bones to jelly. He's doing a good job of it, too, but somehow she gets her body to cooperate, her hand sliding up his side and under his shirt, pushing it up as her fingers glide over smooth, warm, wet skin.

He feels as good as he looks, and he looks damned fine. She wants more, flattening her palm and letting her thumb trace along the sculptured lines of muscle, and the low rumble that rolls through her this time is the sound of King's contentment, not the thunder outside.

She pushes his shirt higher, impatient now for the feel of his skin against hers, no longer willing to wait, not when she's been waiting - willing - for weeks. He pulls back far enough to give her room to manoeuvre before leaning in to steal another kiss and then another as she yanks his shirt up, dragging it over his head.

It's awkward and he stumbles, laughing into her mouth, only letting go of her long enough for her to get his shirt the rest of the way off and then he's back, his hands bolder now, moving over her body the same way that hers are moving over his.

His belt is the next thing to go, her fingers wrestling with one of the ridiculous buckles he insists on wearing even as he's steering her towards the bed. She doesn't know which one it is this time; doesn't care except for the fact that it's delaying her getting what she wants. She finally gets it undone, pulling open the buttons on his pants even as his hands are busy sliding under her top, pushing it up so that he can get to skin.

She takes a step back, tugging her top off over her head and throwing it to the side where it lands in a sodden heap on the floor. She expects him to make a beeline for her bra but he surprises her, pulling her back into his arms so that he can kiss her again. Now she can feel his body right up against hers, warm and solid, and the feel of it sends another low pulse of arousal thrumming through her.

His hands slide down her back, cupping her ass, and then down further to grip her thighs. That's the only warning she gets before he's lifting her up, but she's so attuned to him now that it's the only warning she needs. He makes it seem so fucking effortless, and she isn't much help, not when all she can do is wrap her arms around his neck and her legs around his waist, thankful that her skirt is short enough to do this. She can't do anything else when this show of his strength is driving everything but the need for him out of her mind.

That's probably what he intended, but she's not going quietly. She grinds down against him as he carries her those last few steps towards the bed, and he stumbles, his breath harsh in her ears. His dick is hard, pressing against her through his pants and her panties, and she wants him so fucking badly that she's shaking with it.

Somehow he manages to turn them so that he hits the bed first and she ends up in his lap, straddling him as his hands continue to skate over her body. He finally pushes her sports bra up and slides a thumb over one peaked nipple, leaving her gasping into his mouth, pressing closer, desperate for more of that firm pressure. He doesn't disappoint, tearing his mouth away from hers so that he can press kisses down over the curve of her neck, his fingers kneading at her breast, teasing and tormenting her, just the right side of rough.

She sinks her fingers into his hair and holds on, her other hand steadying herself on his shoulder as she arches into his touch. Her skin is singing, every inch of her alive, and when his mouth finally reaches her breast it's all she can do not to let out a cry, biting hard at her lip to keep it in.

He looks like he's going to take his sweet time about it, his mouth moving slowly over her skin, but she doesn't want slow. She wants now, as in right fucking now. She drags his face up towards hers again, taking in his flushed expression, the way his pupils are dilated, before she presses her mouth against his, her hands now reaching down to pull off her bra, not willing to wait any longer for King to get around to it. And then she's pushing at his chest, thankful when he takes the hint and lies back, propping himself up on his elbows so that he can still watch her.

It sends another surge of fierce heat through her, the way he's waiting, laid out like a banquet, and any other time she'd be happy to explore to her heart's content. But now she just wants him in her - foreplay can wait, especially when they've been working their way up to this for weeks.

She stands up and shimmies out of her skirt, kicking it away before trying to kick off her shoes. That's not quite as successful - she's too good at tying laces since the last thing she needs is to lose her shoes during a fight, and King chuckles as she finally gives up and sits down on the bed, impatient fingers loosening them enough to slip off easily.

When she turns to face him again, he's still watching her but his expression isn't amused. It's full of need for her, yes, but there's also that same warmth in it, the one that has her heart skipping a beat. She covers it by crawling towards him on her hands and knees, not missing the flash of desire that crosses his face. She files it away in the small part of her brain that wants to believe that this isn't a one-time thing, that maybe she'll be able to do this again, tease him like this and keep him wanting the way that she's wanting.

He wants to kiss again, and she settles over him, her breasts now pressed against his bare chest. There's a thrill to it, skin against skin, and his hand comes to rest in the small of her back, a heavy, steady weight that has her trembling, full of anticipation for what's to come.

It can't come soon enough, not for Abby.

He's hard when she slides her hand down his flat stomach and touches him through his pants. She can trace the outline of his dick underneath the fabric and when she does, he groans into her mouth, his hands pulling her closer to him until she can't tell where he ends and where she begins. His hands slide under the elastic of her panties, cupping her ass, and she moves to straddle him again, grinding down against him just to have him making that sound again, that half-pained groan that ends on a choked back laugh.

"Jesus," he murmurs, his voice low in her ear and sending another shudder through her. "You're going to kill me."

"Not yet," she breathes back and he laughs again, his hands squeezing her flesh, pulling her flush against him so that she can feel how much he wants her.

It's almost as much as she wants him.

This time when she moves her hand down to cup him, she slides her fingers into the opening of his pants, into his shorts, touching skin. King groans again, his eyes closing and his neck arching as she grips him lightly, sliding her palm along his length, then more tightly as she moves her fist back down again to the dark, coarse hair curling at the base of his dick.

Her mouth is dry again, her body thrumming with a need almost as fierce as the rain still lashing against the window, but he's not quite hard enough, not yet, not to fuck her the way she wants to be fucked.

She eases herself free from his embrace, missing his hands the second they leave her skin, and he props himself back up on his elbows, watching her as she unfastens his pants the rest of the way, pushing the fabric of his shorts down so that his cock juts up into the air.

And then she lowers her head, taking him into her mouth, loving the way that he gasps, the way that his cock twitches, hardening further under her fingers, her lips, her tongue. "Jesus," he says again, and there's a breathlessness to it, something raw and wrecked that hits Abby low in the belly. Her heartbeat is echoing in her ears, white noise that's drowning everything out but the scent of him, the taste of him on her tongue, bitter salt and sweat. It's a heady mixture and she feels light-headed, giddy with it, dizzy with desire as she slides more of him into her mouth, as much of him as she can take.

But even she needs to breathe and she pulls off him with a gasp of her own, her eyes watering. It's not just her heartbeat she can hear now - the rain is heavier, a hissing rattle as it hits the ground outside, and she catches his eyes for a moment, holding his gaze as she lowers her head again and slides his length back into her mouth.

The look in his eyes - that broken, desperate desire - and his low, rumbling groan send another surge of heat through her, tightening in her belly, clenching in her cunt. She holds it together, though, holding back on her own need until he's fully erect, her fingers digging into his thighs as much to steady her as to hold him in place.

When she finally slides her mouth free, his dick is slick with her saliva, curving up beautifully from the thick, curling hair at his groin. She wipes the spit from her lips with the back of her hand as she sits back on her heels, taking in the sight of him. He's panting, his chest rising and falling with effort, and his eyes are dark, almost feral. He sits up enough to reach for her, but she's already twisting away, tackling his laces now so that he can kick his shoes off and she can drag his pants and underwear the rest of the way.

He's even more beautiful naked, the way that the dim light gleams on his skin, turning the dusting of hairs on his chest, on his arms and legs a muted gold. She slides her fingers across his chest, sinking them into the hairs there, loving the way that they feel under her fingers, crisply rasping against her skin. It's easy to follow the trail down, over his stomach to where the hair thickens before it reaches the thicket around his dick, and he lets her play, distracted by his own fingers sliding over her skin, the press of his mouth against her neck and her breasts. She closes her eyes when he takes one nipple into his mouth, tugging at it lightly with his teeth, still staying on just the right side of too rough. It sends a pulse of electricity through her, like it's connected directly to her cunt, and she gasps, abandoning his dick in favour of tangling her fingers in the hair on his head, holding him in place as he plays her like a fucking maestro.

His fingers are on the move again, even as his tongue circles her nipple, teasing her as he finally catches hold of her panties, tugging them down. She lifts her hips, lets him slide them all the way down her legs, and then his fingers are back, stroking lightly over the curve of her belly, the jut of her hip.

When he finally slides them between her legs, she's already wet and ready for him, slippery enough to have him raising an eyebrow at her quizzically, something smug in the crinkles around his eyes. She can't take that look seriously, not when his dick is hard against her hip, but when his fingers come back, sliding easily through her slick folds, she parts her legs a little more widely and he takes the hint, slipping not one but two fingers into her.

It's fucking perfect, stretching her body in a way that has her twisting in his grasp, letting out a sound that's halfway between a whimper and a cry, arching into his touch, the move pushing his fingers into her more deeply.

"Jesus," he says again, as though that's the only thing he's capable of saying at the moment, the awe - the desire - clear in the hoarse tone of his voice. "Fucking killing me here, Whistler."

"Condoms," she grinds out, reaching down to press against the back of his hand, her hips moving of their own volition, an unthinking little rock and jerk that slides his fingers fractionally in and out of her, even when he holds them still. His breath stutters out of him and she doesn't miss it, like the way she doesn't miss his lips parting, or the way that the tip of his tongue slides out to wet them, even in her current state.

He licks his lips again, his voice still hoarse as he asks, "Don't you want me to go down on you first?"

He'd be good at it. She knows that like she knows the colour of his eyes, the way he likes his coffee, the quirk to his mouth when there's just the two of them in on any of his jokes. With his oral fixation, the propensity to make his mouth work, how could he not be, and that's before she takes into account his off the cuff, semi-bitter remarks about there being reasons that Danica kept him around.

He'd be good at it. But...

"I want to come with your dick in me."

She couldn't have stated it any more baldly than that, and it has King's breath stuttering again, a little indrawn sound that's half shock and all arousal. He licks at his lips a third time and she can't take it any more, pulling his head down for another kiss, sliding her tongue along his as his fingers finally slip out of her. He rests them on her hip for a moment, bracing himself, and they're wet against her skin.

He has condoms in his wallet, which is tucked in the back pocket of his pants, and she pushes herself up the bed while he retrieves one, feeling hot and as if her skin is too tight as she lies back and waits for him. She doesn't want fancy, not tonight. Maybe later, maybe once she's come, she'll push him down onto the bed and ride him, make him catch his breath over and over again until he's doing nothing but making those sounds, the ones she's never heard from him before. Right now she wants his weight on her as well as his dick in her, wants to feel the press of his body pinning her to the mattress. She'd tell him that if she could find the words, lay it out there, line by line, just to see his reaction, how his lips would part again, his eyes widening, lust and something like a weird kind of respect in their depths. But now she simply watches, heavy lidded, as he rolls the condom down his length and then she slides her thighs apart again, wrapping her arms around his shoulders as he settles between her legs.

He pushes into her slowly, thick and fucking fantastic, and she can't hold back the noise she makes, something so fractured and needy it sounds almost wounded. He pauses for a moment, staring down at her, but she can't tell him to move, not when the feel of him has driven all of her words from her. Instead she lets her hands do the talking, moving restlessly over his body, pulling him closer, fingernails digging into his skin as she tries to get him as close to her - as deep in her - as possible.

He's a fucking tease, but he knows her better than she knows herself. She thought she wanted fast, wanted hard and deep and rough to satisfy that aching need, but this is fucking perfect, the way he's pushing into her steadily, not letting her rush things, every deep, even stroke leaving her shaking, ratcheting up the pleasure unbearably, letting it build and build until she thinks she'll come apart. She's so turned on, has wanted him so badly for so long, it only takes a dozen of them, maybe a handful more, before she comes. Even that takes its time, rolling through her like the thunder, not fast and hard like lightning, nothing like she'd expected.

He keeps fucking her through it, the same deep, steady pace, until the last of her shudders eases and she loosens the death grip she has on his shoulders. Only then does he pause, still buried within her, and stare down at her.

"Want me to go down on you now?"

She laughs a little breathlessly, her fingers now stroking over his skin gently, a mute apology for the scratches she knows she'll have left. "No. Just keep fucking me." She stretches, feeling the breadth of him in her, the slight burn that tells her she'll feel him tomorrow. "This... this is perfect."

"God, I love it when you talk dirty to me."

She laughs again, taking in the amused tilt to his eyebrows, the smile lurking around the corners of his mouth, and then strains her neck up to kiss him, relieved when he lowers himself, resting on his elbows now, not his hands, so that he can kiss her more easily.

It's good like this, his weight on her, his mouth on hers as his hips rock back and forth, sliding his dick into her. It's not as deep, at least not until she shifts under him, bringing her legs up to wrap around his waist, heels resting on his ass, and then it's back to perfect.

The build-up is slower this time. She trades kisses with him, mapping the contours of his back with her hands, sliding her palms over his sweat-slick skin as she shows him what she likes, the angles she prefers, the pressure she likes on her clit, the right depth of his thrusts to have her arching up into him. She learns what gives him pleasure, too, like how he hisses when she digs her blunt fingernails into him but his hips jerk into her harder anyway, the sounds he makes when she tightens her cunt around him, and the way he lets out a soft hum of pleasure when she slides her fingers over the nape of his neck.

The storm has eased by the time she comes again, her body straining against his for a second time. The thunder's a distant memory and lightning no longer lights up the night sky, but the rain is still steady, a low, constant drumming that doesn't muffle her cries. She buries them in King's shoulder instead, her mouth pressed against his hot skin as the pleasure surges through her, stretching out as King keeps moving within her, driving her higher and higher until the world goes white for an instant. He holds on long enough for the pleasure to ebb, for that slow, satisfied tiredness to replace it before his thrusts grow more erratic, harder and deeper and thicker, and then he's tensing against her, his hips jerking as he empties himself into her with a low, heartfelt 'fuck' in her ear.

He slumps against her after he's come, and she likes it a little too much, the heavy weight on her, his harsh breaths against her neck as he comes down from that high. She paints mindless patterns on his back with her fingertips, presses a kiss against his shoulder, too tired - too content - to put the walls back up again, not straight away.

Outside the rain has finally died away to a low patter, soft and gentle like summer rain should be, before King eases away from her, disappearing into the bathroom to deal with the condom and do whatever the hell else he needs to do. Abby rolls over onto her side, facing the window, and lets the sound of the rain soothe her, her body singing with the kind of contentment she isn't used to. She could get a little too used to it, though, especially when King slides back into the bed behind her and makes sure that the thin cotton sheet covers both of them. He presses a kiss against her shoulder blade, his beard scratching lightly against her skin, and wraps an arm around her, his body spooned up behind hers.

She closes her eyes and drifts off to sleep, the sound of the rain and of King's steady, even breathing following her down into the darkness.

-o-

It rains all of the next day, sometimes a monotonous sheet that beats a steady tattoo against the window, and sometimes a slow patter that leaves fat droplets sliding down the pane and then plinking down to the ground below.

It's weirdly soothing, the noises that it makes, from white noise to something almost musical. Abby drowses through it all, her limbs heavy and her heart - for once - light. At some point during the night, King got up and closed the window, hung the 'do not disturb sign' on the outside of their door, and then crawled back into bed with her, big and warm and comforting, lulling her back down into sleep until the sun is high in the cloudy sky. He's still a steady warmth beside her, his fingers gentle on her skin.

She's not going anywhere, not today. Maybe not ever again, not when King is slowly kissing his way down her spine, taking his sweet time about it. And it is sweet. Sweet and unhurried, calm the way that King seldom is.

His mouth moves lower, his beard scratching lightly against her skin, and she shifts, a minute move that's slow and drowsy but has him pausing for a moment, his thumb stroking a path along one of her ribs.

"Hey," he says, his voice a low murmur as his fingers drift upwards, brushing the hair away from the side of her neck and tucking it behind her ear. "I thought you were awake."

She lets out a sleepy murmur of her own, stretching like a cat, and he laughs, soft and low, before pressing another kiss against her skin, just below her shoulder blade this time.

"Not very awake then." His hand skims down her body again, as close to a caress as she's ever felt. She lets out another sleepy sound, something close to a hum this time, her toes curling and her back arching into his touch.

That earns her another laugh from King and this time he leans in, angling his head to kiss her on the mouth. It's a little awkward until she shifts again, rolling onto her side and bringing her hand up to cup his face. King's fingers come to rest on her waist, curling against her skin as he eases closer to her, his mouth never leaving hers as they settle against one another.

This is slow and sweet, too, like they have all the time in the world and - for a moment - Abby believes it, believes that this can last until the summer's storms are over, maybe even longer than that. Today, she's the White fucking Queen of believing in impossible things.

When King finally pulls back, the look in his eyes is soft and so is the smile he gives her, warm rather than heated. Her body aches in all the right ways and all the right places, but warmth is curling again in her belly, a slow, gentle build up rather than yesterday's heat.

King leans in again, pressing his mouth against her neck this time, a low, satisfied hum escaping him as he moves his mouth lower. "You up for round two?"

She snorts, stretching again as his mouth moves lower still, her fingers automatically sliding into his hair, scratching lightly against his scalp in a way that has him groaning in contentment. "I thought it was round three? Or four?"

"Who's keeping count?"

Not her. Not about this. This is something she doesn't want to list, analyse, catalogue or enumerate, not the way that she does everything else that crosses the threshold of the Honeycomb Hideout. And they're not there - there's no need for her to do that here, with King. There will be time enough for that when they finally get home.

"I'm not," she murmurs when he looks up at her, his eyes dancing with amusement. "Why? Do you want me to make a list?"

She makes the question arch and he huffs another laugh against her skin. "God, the things I want to do to you. Maybe I should be the one making the list."

"Like what?"

The question makes him pause, like he never actually expected to be called on it. She should have realised that it's just hyperbole, and King's a master at that.

Way to ruin the mood, Whistler.

"I want to make you come so many times that you forget your own name."

It comes out a little stilted, and King drops his gaze, almost as though he's a little embarrassed to be saying shit like that out loud. Abby knows that she's a little embarrassed to hear it. But then he lowers his head, his breath brushing over her skin. She thinks he's going to kiss her again, scatter them across her ribs, but he scatters words instead.

"Fingers first." Now he kisses her, a barely felt brush of his lips against one of the freckles just below her breast. "Slide them into you real good, press my thumb against your clit. Maybe just one or two at first, maybe work my way up to three or four, depending on how wet you are, how ready." He flashes a look at her, and now it's not soft or warm; it's edging into hot, almost fierce. "How needy. Then, when I've made you come, I'll go down on you and if there's one thing I know how to do well, it's eat a woman out."

She swallows, mesmerised, caught up as much by the look on his face as by the picture his words are weaving. He presses another kiss against her skin, open-mouthed this time, and she bites back on a groan.

"You'll love it. You'll make those sounds you made last night, all lost and needy, like you really need to just fucking come already, and I'll get you there. Eventually." He glances up her body again, meeting her gaze and holding it for a moment, letting his words sink in. "After I've made you beg for it. I can picture it now, the way your fingers will be twisted in my hair, the way you'll wrap your legs around my head. How fucking wet you'll be, what you'll taste like. Christ, I can't fucking wait."

He lowers his head again but this time he doesn't kiss her skin; he licks it, a firm swipe across her waist that has her gasping, her muscles twitching under his ministrations. "And when you've come again, I'll fuck you slow and deep, the way I did last night. Maybe with you on your back, or maybe I'll get you to ride me for a bit, let you take control. You like being in charge, right?"

His tone isn't quite teasing - it's too heated, too dark and desiring for that - but there's no malice in it. "And you'd like that," she says, the words sticking in her throat even though she knows they're true.

He smiles although it doesn't reach his eyes - the look in them is far too intense for that. "Maybe," he admits. "Probably, and by 'probably' I mean 'hell, yes'. But I think I'd like to hold you down while I fuck you as well, pin your hands to the bed so you couldn't touch me. That would drive you fucking crazy, wouldn't it? God, the sounds you'd make..."

Oh, Jesus. His voice is rough, like he's not even trying to hide how turned on he is at the thought. But he hasn't finished yet. He keeps moving lower, painting the filthiest pictures in her mind even as his mouth trails over her skin. "I want to fuck you in every position - on your hands and knees, in my lap, whatever the fuck anyone else has thought of and then some. I want to come in your pussy and your mouth. Maybe even your ass. I want to fuck you up against the wall, in the shower, bend you over that chair -" He glances over at the chair they have in the room, his expression considering like he's working out the logistics, and she can almost picture it, how it would feel. Her hips are rocking now, mindless little motions to ease the ache that's building below her belly, and he doesn't miss it, a smug little expression crossing his face as he looks up and meets her eyes. "I want to do things to you that are probably illegal in this state and that I'm damned sure are illegal in places like Texas. Jesus, Abby. The things you do to me should be fucking illegal, too."

She swallows again. His voice is still pure sex but that warmth is back in his eyes, and she's not sure which of them is driving her the most crazy.

"But first I want to go down on you."

She's already sliding her legs apart before he's finished speaking, and he gives her a triumphant little grin, so bright and sudden that it has her heart lurching, a breathless little gasp escaping her before he's even managed to get his mouth back on her.

"I take it you've got no objection to that?" he teases, leaning in to blow warm air gently over her tingling and all too ready to be licked pussy.

"You want to hear objections?" she breathes, her hips rising and her heels digging into the bed as he finally lowers his head to where she needs him. "You just damned well try and stop."

-o-

There's a new pattern to their days now, one that Abby slips into surprisingly easily. She wakes slowly, King's warmth beside her. It's still too hot for him to press himself up against her while they sleep, but sometimes she wakes to the weight of his palm resting against the small of her back or with her head on his outstretched arm.

She likes both a little too much, as though they mean something more than they can mean, holding a promise that she knows King can't keep.

Sometimes she lingers there, caught on the cusp between waking and sleeping, basking in the feel of his fingers against her skin, the slow rise and fall of his chest. There's no urge to run in those moments, no burning need to get up and get moving before the sun is higher in the sky. Besides, King has a point when he murmurs in her ear that these days they're getting all of the cardio they need between the sheets.

King wakes slowly, stretching sleepily until every abused joint cracks. When he finally opens his eyes and sees her, the smile he gives her is just as slow, open and sunny in a way he won't be when he's fully awake, not even around her. She memorises every one of them, touching his face with gentle fingers before either of them can get their guards up, filing them all away somewhere safe inside to keep her warm through winter.

They have sleepy morning sex even if they've fucked the night before. She likes it, the ease with which he reaches for her, kissing her between each stifled yawn. Likes the way his fingers slide into her hair, loosening the braid she wears at night, and the way he pulls her closer, wrapping his arms around her until they're pressed together, naked skin to naked skin.

He's already hard by that point, and it's been so long since she shared a bed with someone else that she'd almost forgotten that men did that, woke with their dicks at half-mast. She's not complaining, though. Not when it means that he can get to full-mast just that little bit quicker, sliding into her slow and sweet.

They take their time, and he makes sure she comes before he does, before he follows her over the edge, hips jerking and panting harshly into her ear. And afterwards they lie tangled together, uncaring of the heat for a few moments, sweat cooling on their skins. He'll makes her laugh at something stupid, his lips curling up in a wicked smile that - for once - reaches his eyes, and later she'll make him smile again, something softer, something just for her, as she lets her fingers trace gentle patterns along his ribs.

They still hunt - neither of them has forgotten the real reason for this trip, not so wrapped up in each other that they can't do what they need to. The afternoons are for recon, for asking seemingly innocent questions that are a hell of a long way from that, for scouting out bars and restaurants and the places where people were last seen, people who are sometimes never seen again.

The nights are when they come into their own. They take down two vamps in Lakeside, a sleepy little town that doubles in size during the summer, and another loner in a town further south of there called Sycamore Grove. Sometimes she wonders why the cutesy names of these places don't drive the local populace crazy, or whether it's the overdone quaintness of them that's the reason they can't see the crazy right in front of their eyes. Maybe it's just because these are rich people's playgrounds, but all of these places seem so artificial to Abby - all straight, gleaming streets and neatly manicured lawns when outside each town's boundaries there are real forests, untamed and stretching for miles.

She'd care more if there weren't other, more worthy, things to think about these days, like the way King drives, loose-limbed with his hands steady on the wheel, or the way he plays with his straw, absent and unfocused, when they stop to eat. Or the way he smiles when he catches her eye, his own gaze full of warmth and promise and things she shouldn't be thinking about, even now.

Their days fall into another pattern now, and it's one Abby doesn't want to change.

But change is inevitable. Abby's all too well aware that it won't - can't - stay the same once they start heading home.

She has this summer, and the summer will have to be enough.

-o-

The thunderstorms eventually pass and the weather warms again, a little more pleasant and a little less humid than it was before.

They change hotels again, moving to a town at a lower altitude, where the clientele runs more to nuclear family than wild young things. The pool's full of kids in the morning, surrounded by indulgent parents who spend half of the day lounging on chairs around the sides, intermittently yelling at their kids to be careful, don't duck your sister, listen to what I say.

Abby feels out of place again, like she and King don't fit, not yet. She smiles awkwardly when someone tries to make conversation and leaves it to King to field the questions, the ones that get way too personal for her tastes - how long have they been married, do they have any kids, are they planning to?

She's relieved when King decides that the place is a bust, at least as far as vampire hunting is concerned. She gets why - the night life is almost non-existent, everyone in bed by ten, kids tucked up safe and sound and their parents hitting the mini-bar when there's nothing else to do. The only plus to the place is that she and King get to call it quits earlier in the night than they would do if hunting was successful, which means that not only do they get back to the hotel earlier than they should but that they get to bed earlier, too.

They don't hit the mini-bar; they're already half drunk on each other and the early nights just let them get the rest of the way.

Still, she's pleased when they move on to somewhere that's more productive on the vampire front, where there are fewer kids and the twenty-somethings party half the night and sleep until noon. The pool's empty in the morning and she can swim in silence, stretching her muscles and feeling that welcoming burn, just pushing herself enough to keep the guilty little voice in her head quiet. Most mornings she can drag King out with her as well and while he's not a morning person, the cool water usually wakes him up pretty damned quick, especially if she drags him in after her.

She hits the mall one afternoon, stocking up the things they're running short of, and it's probably a sign of how content she is with the way things are between her and King that she doesn't drag him along with her. She leaves him drowsing in the afternoon heat, stretched out on their bed in his boxers with the air conditioning running, sleepy and rumpled in a way that makes her mouth water.

Hitting the mall is probably as much for her benefit as his. She needs to do something that involves her staying upright during the day.

If King was impressed with her organisational skills in Twin Pines, it has nothing on her near-military operation when she hits the mall now, weaving her way between the overtired kids and the overly stressed parents. This is pretty much her idea of hell, but she grits her teeth, telling herself that the sooner she gets everything on her list, the sooner she can get back to the hotel.

The sooner she can get back to King.

Even so, when she finds a bikini that's almost the same as the one King had picked out for her the first time they'd tried this - the same shade of aquamarine and just as skimpy if a hell of a lot more reasonably priced - she only hesitates for a moment before throwing it in her basket and heading towards the checkout.

King doesn't get to see it until the next morning, when she's already changed and is about to head out to the pool, and she swears he stops breathing for a second.

Needless to say, she doesn't get to wear it for long.

-o-

If things are different between her and King now, there's one thing that hasn't changed. The vamps are still the same arrogant assholes they've always been, vicious and vindictive, like the years they've lived have burned away the last remnants of their humanity, leaving nothing but cruelty behind.

That doesn't explain the young ones though, the ones who haven't had time to harden into something irredeemable, and sometimes they're the most vicious - the most animalistic - ones of all.

Tonight two of them follow a young woman out of the open ticket midsummer dance at an upscale country club as she stumbles into the trees, because fuckers like these always hunt in packs, too newly fledged, too scared to hunt on their own. The forest is thinned out around the club's perimeter, stripped down to its essence, tamed the way that the rest of the mountainside hasn't been yet. It means that the vamps can keep her in sight as she takes a shortcut to the gate where a cab must be waiting, ready to take her back to town.

If anyone finds her body, the cops will think it's her boyfriend after that hissed argument on the terrace, the one the vamps had been watching, especially after she'd turned her face away, scrubbing at her cheeks with the back of her hand. At some point, when it seems like his temper's cooled, her boyfriend will follow her out into the trees, because what kind of asshole lets his girlfriend walk home alone in the dark?

But he's not the first one to track her, to note where she's heading, and he's not the first one on her trail.

The vamps treat it like a game, taunting her as they stalk her through the trees. They catch glimpses of her white skirt, her pale legs, the gleam of her eyes, wide and wary in the moonlight, and that only spurs them on, harassing her as she leads them deeper into the darkness, cutting her off when it looks like she might try to head back to the safety of the club.

This far out no one will hear her scream, especially over the sound of the music still blaring out of the club's open doors.

They think it will be easy.

It will be the last thing the stupid fuckers ever think.

They corner her in a grove of ash trees, moving to flank her and ready to stop her when she tries to run, ready to end this and feed. But she doesn't run; instead she smiles, something small and knife-sharp that slices through their confidence.

The first one doesn't even see the blade coming.

She lunges towards him, spinning under his arm when he raises it in a vain attempt to block her, and then she's behind him, sweeping his legs out from underneath him so that he stumbles, falling forward onto his face. He doesn't make it; as he goes down, she slams the blade into the back of his neck, sliding it neatly between the C3 and C4 vertebrae, and he dissolves into a fiery cloud of ash.

Sometimes, Sommerfield's rough and ready on-the-fly anatomy lessons really do pay off.

The second vamp is more cautious, and for a second Abby thinks that she's going to have to chase him through the trees, hunt him down the way he was trying to hunt her, maybe even drive him into King's arms the way he'd been trying to corral her with his sire-mate. But in the end, his hubris pushes him forwards, unwilling to back down because he can't imagine losing. He screams obscenities at her, calling her a 'fucking bitch' and a 'cunt' as he rushes her, all fangs and flailing limbs.

She hits him in the stomach with a roundhouse kick but he's so caught up in his fury that it barely winds him. He grabs at her, his mouth still working, and as she ducks underneath his clutching hands, his fingers snag briefly in her hair.

It hurts as he yanks it, trying to drag her back towards him. She stumbles and twists around in his grip, catching sight of the triumphant smile that flares across his face as he slams her into the tree trunk, winding her for a moment and leaving bruises that King will trace tomorrow.

But he's miscalculated. He leans in too close, gloating even now, and she slams her blade into his chest, under his ribs, sinking it in to the hilt.

The silver works its magic and he's gone in an instant, ashes to ashes and dust to dust.

The tree bark is rough against her shoulders blades, scratching against her skin as she straightens up, leaning back against it while her chest heaves with a mixture of exertion and adrenaline. She was never in any real danger, not when King is right there, only a matter of feet away, watching the fight go down but respecting her enough not to step in unless she needed the help. But even knowing that doesn't stop the shivers running through her, every part of her body sensitised, alive the way she usually only feels after a fight.

Flight, fight, fuck. She's run, she's fought and now that only leaves the third one. She's already wet and willing, and she thinks that maybe King can tell, even from all the way over there.

King stalks towards her, his eyes dark and heavy-lidded. There's something predatory in the way he's moving, something that ratchets up the tension coursing through Abby already, leaving her shivering now in anticipation rather than the adrenaline comedown.

He leans in, his arms bracketing her body, crowding her back into the trunk. "Jesus," he breathes into her ear. "I love to watch you work. So fucking hot, Whistler." His palm slides up her thigh, fingers flexing into her muscles as he hesitates at the edge of her skirt. His eyes glitter in the moonlight as he stares down at her, the hunger clear in the shadows the moon leaves on his face. "And I fucking love that you're wearing skirts now."

That's the only warning she has - the only warning she needs - before his hand is under her skirt, fingers dragging her panties down impatiently as she squirms against him, trying desperately to unfasten his belt and pants even as he's trying to get her panties off, eager for the feel of him in her.

They compromise - she pushes him far enough away from her so that she can drag her underwear down her legs and kick them off and he wrestles with his belt and pants, producing a condom from his pocket and rolling it down his already erect length while she waits impatiently. And then his hands settle around her thighs, lifting her clean off the ground and bracing her body against the tree trunk as his dick slams home.

She keens, a high-pitched sound that would embarrass her to make at any other time, but not now, not when King is fucking her like this, hard and deep and fucking perfect. She wraps her legs around his waist, her fingernails scrabbling desperately for a grip on the tree behind her, the bark rough underneath her palms and her fingertips.

He slams home hard again and the world narrows to nothing but the feel of his dick in her, the pleasure rapidly spiralling out of control. It builds and builds with each erratic thrust, each brutal snap of King's hips forcing another sharp cry out of her mouth. His hands are gripping her thighs, her ass, hard enough to bruise, but even that doesn't slow the sharp shards of pleasure surging through her, forming a direct line from her cunt to her breasts, her parched throat, her fevered brain.

She's going to come - that was never in any doubt.

When she does, King doesn't try and muffle her the way he would back at the hotel, laughing into her mouth as he kisses her and she moans. He lets her scream out her pleasure, the muscles in her throat tight enough as she arches her neck to leave it strangled, hoarse and broken. He doesn't slow his pace, either, not while she's coming, convulsing around him, or afterwards, when she's easing down from that high and her clit is sensitive, too sensitive for his urgency. She bites at her lip, bearing it for his sake, and it doesn't take him long to let out a groan of his own, spilling into her with each hard buck of his hips.

Her legs are unsteady when he finally puts her down, letting her slide from his grip like he can't hold onto her anymore. She stumbles, but he catches her, pulling her into his arms until both of them are breathing a little more steadily.

She can't find her underwear, despite searching for it in vain while King deals with the condom, tying it off and wadding it up in a tissue until they can deal with it properly. In the end, she has to walk back to their car bare-assed, with the night air cool on her overheated skin, cooler still where she's still damp between her legs. It makes her feel wanton, wicked and embarrassed both at once, praying that there won't be an errant breeze and not sure what King will do if there is. He's right behind her, his hand coming to rest on her hip when she hesitates in the parking lot, trying to make out which dark coloured SUV is theirs. He presses closer and he's half-hard again, his breath stirring her hair as he nuzzles at her temple, and just like that she wants him again, already.

He spends the drive back with one hand on the wheel and the other heavy on her thigh. She spends the drive back waiting for him to slide that hand up higher, slip it underneath the hem of her skirt, for his fingers to slide between her legs where she's still wet.

He doesn't, although he does rub his thumb lightly across her skin each time he has to stop at a crossing. By the time they get back to the hotel, she's about ready to scream again, but in frustration this time.

He follows her up the stairs, so close behind her that if she stopped, if she leaned back an inch, just one, his body would be pressed up against hers. His hands settle on her hips again, broad and steady, as she fumbles the key card into the lock, waiting for the light to turn green. And then they're in.

They don't make it to the bed. He's on her as soon as the door shuts behind them, his hands sliding up her skirt as her fingers slide into his hair, as desperate for him as he is for her. He fucks her up against the wall, her legs wrapped around his waist again, but this time he kisses her while she comes, muffling her cries with his mouth.

When it's his turn, he comes with her name on his lips, breathless and broken. She presses her forehead to his, holding on to him tightly, breathing the air that he breathes and not letting him go until he can't take her weight any longer. Only then does she slide free, and her hands still linger on him, touching him because she can't bear to have him move too far away.

They shower together before falling into bed, and when he pulls her closer he doesn't seem to care that her hair is still wet, leaving damp patches on his chest. The water darkens the hair there until it forms whorls she can slide her fingers through, petting him absently while her body aches pleasantly, languid with satisfaction. He traces the bruises on her hips with his fingertips and there's something possessive in his touch, something that finds an answering echo in her as she maps the scratches her fingernails have left on his shoulders and his neck, burying her face there to breathe in the scent of him, salt and sex and shower gel.

He slides his fingers up her spine and murmurs her name again, the sound sleepy and muted as he presses his mouth against her hair. Something finally eases in her chest, the last of her tension evaporating as she follows him down into sleep, still wrapped in his embrace.

-o-

In Ashbury, King drags her to the movies with some bullshit story along the lines of 'Well, you never know what could be lurking in the dark, Whistler', and 'So, what? You have something else you could be doing this fine evening?'

She could be doing King.

She's smart enough not to come right out and say that but it doesn't matter how much self-control she has - King sees it written on her face anyway and laughs himself stupid, the ass. He's still grinning as he slings one arm around her shoulders, tucking her into his side as though it's the most natural thing in the world.

It feels natural, and it takes her a second to get her head around the fact that it should feel weird, or at least it would have felt weird once, back when King was still touch shy and she...

She's not sure what she was but touching him now is easy, so easy, and she slips her arm around his waist, leaning into him for a moment before she pulls away.

The movie theatre is a multiplex, ten screens or more, and she stands in the lobby staring at the scrolling boards above the desks, for once frozen by indecision. She has absolutely no fucking idea what any of these movies are about, which ones are horror or thriller or comedy. Or even, God forbid, romance.

"What do you want to see?" King asks.

Damn.

"I don't mind," she says. "You choose."

He studies her for a moment, but she ignores his look of surprise - it's not like she always calls the shots, no matter how much he teases her about her need to be in control.

"Just not romance," she adds when his attention turns to the list of shows and times. He shoots her a sidelong look. "Or horror." She gets enough of that shit in real life. She doesn't need to add any fictional trauma to it.

The corner of King's mouth turns up in a small smile. "Any other requirements?" he asks gravely.

"Not 3D," she decides, not wanting her periphery vision compromised by dark glasses just in case King has a point about things that go bump in the night.

His mouth twitches again. "Anything else?"

"You could try not to show how much of an ass you are."

She gives him a dry look and he ducks his head, grinning back at her in a way that tells her that he's not at all offended.

"No nudity," he says. "At least not in public. Gotcha."

She rolls her eyes just to make him grin again.

"Okay." King stares at the board, biting at his lip thoughtfully as he scans through the names. "Do you want to watch superheroes saving the world, giant robots kicking giant alien ass or buddy cop comedy?"

"Any," she says. "Seriously. I can't even remember the last time I went out to the movies and the last movie I actually saw was some god-awful shark flick Hedges was watching on cable."

King nods seriously, his eyes still fixed on the board. "I think I remember that one. It had two heads or something, didn't it?"

"You were paying that much attention?"

He shrugs. "Babes in bikinis." And then he shoots her another look. "None of whom could hold a candle to you, sweetheart, obviously."

"Nice save," she says dryly and he grins, his attention already diverted back to the apparently difficult choice of how they should waste the next couple of hours.

"Okay." He sounds decisive so she's not at all surprised when he starts to make a beeline for the teller, but he pauses when she doesn't follow immediately, holding out his hand for her, and that does catch her a little off-guard.

He keeps hold of her hand while they stand in the queue waiting to be served, his thumb stroking meaningless patterns over the backs of her knuckles, and he doesn't let go until he has to pull his wallet out to pay. She's too busy people watching to even register which movie he's chosen, but when he's paid for the tickets and reaches for her hand again, hers is already halfway there.

Okay, so back row of the movies might be a cliché, but she's not going to object, not when he pushes the arm between the seats up so that she can settle next to him, with his arm around her shoulders and a packet of Milk Duds in his lap for them to share. She doesn't even like Milk Duds - she'd have preferred popcorn if he'd asked - but she finds herself eating half of them anyway, feeling his body shake next to her every time he laughs and laughing along with him as much as at the movie. It's not a bad movie as these things go - not a shark in sight and the leads are women - and it's a nice feeling, warm, comfortable, just sitting in the dark with him like a normal person, doing normal things that everyone else takes for granted.

For a moment, the rest of the world can go hang.

After the movie's over he actually takes her out for ice cream, finding some artisan ice cream parlour where the variety of flavours are nothing like the ones she's seen in in the window of Baskin Robbins. She picks strawberry and balsamic vinegar while he picks maple and pecan and the pair of them sit in window seats, watching humanity pass by. He makes her laugh and that makes him smile and for a split second she can pretend that they're not keeping an eye out for vamps, that they're just two people, spending some time together on a normal summer's night.

It's only then that it finally dawns on her.

This must be what a date feels like. Except that this isn't one, not for real. This is just a summer fling.

Maybe it's the balsamic vinegar, but suddenly there's a sour taste in her mouth.

-o-

She's antsy for the next couple of days, not quite sure why her nerves are sizzling and she can't settle. Ashbury is one of the biggest places they've been for a while, even if it can't hold a candle to the city they live in, so there should be vamps, and she and King spend their days familiarising themselves with the locale, figuring out the most likely hunting grounds. It gives her something to do, something to distract herself with, and maybe it's the anticipation of a successful hunt that's getting to her, the need to move, to take down something inhuman. If she can get back to something familiar then maybe the world will start making sense again.

She misses her bow with an ache that surprises her. She's just as handy with a gun or a blade and they're easier to hide in the city proper, but she still finds her palm resting on the carpet in the trunk of their SUV, longing for the feel of her bow, which is tucked safely out of sight in the spare tyre well. Maybe if she found a range, hit some targets, she'd feel a little less unsettled, a little more like herself.

But there's no call for it at the moment, not when they're trying to be blend in and, as much as she loves her bow, it's not a subtle weapon, not like her knife. So she buries the need down deep, but it's easy to blame that for her twitchiness, the fact that she's on edge.

Today she wakes before King, as she has for the last couple of mornings, staring at the ceiling while he breathes heavily next to her - it's not quite a snore, for all that she teases him about it, but it's enough to tell her he's still sleeping and probably will for a while yet.

Normally she'd enjoy the silence, the way that the early morning light streams through the window with that golden hue to it that only comes when the sun first rises, but today she's too restless, her mind darting here, there and everywhere, never still.

The ceiling has a hairline crack in the plaster and she stares at it for a while before rolling over onto her side, facing King.

He doesn't even twitch, in spite of her shuffling, and she's left watching him while he sleeps, taking in the way that the sunlight highlights his hair, the way that his face has smoothed out, the subtle stress lines that are always there, even when he's joking, easing.

For someone who's never still when he's awake, he's oddly peaceful when he sleeps. She knows that he dreams of the past sometimes and the dreams are never pleasant - he never talks about them, but the mornings after one of his nightmares he's snappish, wound up as tight as a spring and just as likely to unwind messily if you touched him the wrong way. But now, when she thinks about it, she can't remember a single bad dream since they've been sharing a bed. Maybe he's one of those people who stays still while he dreams, frozen in place and managing to hide everything underneath that, but somehow she doesn't think so. Not King.

He's not still now. He finally stirs in his sleep, flinging one arm across her waist before settling down again.

It would be easy to close her eyes again, slip closer to him and bask in his warmth. It's bearable with the air conditioning working, and she's tempted, so tempted, especially if there's any chance that she could sleep for a couple more hours.

But in her heart she knows that there's no chance of that, and so instead she takes a deep breath and eases away from his side.

He wakes at that - of course he does. He blinks up at her and she can't resist temptation this time, stroking her fingers over his hair, a gentle ruffling motion that has his eyes drifting half-shut again.

"Go back to sleep," she whispers. "I'm just going for a paper. Want anything?"

He blinks at her again, making her regret the question if thinking about an answer is going to bring him all the way awake. But then he sighs, his eyes closing completely as he murmurs something that she reads as a negative.

She lingers until she's sure he's fully asleep again, his breathing evening out and becoming that deep not-quite-a-snore, before she moves away. This time, he doesn't wake, and she swallows down the momentary disappointment at that. It's easier if he sleeps - there's no need for both of them to suffer because of her insomnia.

The streets of Ashbury are almost empty at this time in the morning, and the kerbs are still damp with the morning dew. She's the only tourist around as far as she can tell, and she draws the odd glance or two, leaving her feeling both too obvious and invisible at the same time.

There are a couple of shops up the road, overpriced and cheery convenience stores selling beer and spirits, chips and fruit to keep a busy tourist going, but she ignores them, not wanting to deal with bright chrome and plastic smiles, even at this time of the morning. She wants something simpler, or more complicated in a way that suits her, not these whitewashed temples of homogeneity.

She's not sure where she's headed - she has no particular destination in mind - and so she keeps on walking, making her way through the hotel district and then out into the city proper, trusting on her sense of direction and her spatial memory to guide her back.

The streets get a little grimier, a little more careworn, and she starts to breathe more easily, sloughing off the persona she'd hardly been aware she'd adopted - the cute little skirts, the preppy little smiles are just a memory now. The only thing that's missing is King, but she's not ready to turn back, not yet.

She finally finds a little hole in the wall corner store that's as close as she's going to get to the bodegas of her home city, somewhere that stocks newspapers in both Esperanto and English and where she can pick up some beef jerky that tastes like home. She glances at the headlines of the Ashbury Times while she waits to pay, looking for the kind of patterns that King picks out so easily, the ones that might indicate vamp activity, and picks up some candy at the counter - the kind that King likes - while the vendor serves the customer before her, his tanned and weathered face pulling on a practiced smile when it's her turn.

"Bonan matenon. And how are you this fine day?"

"Tre bone, dankon," she returns. "Kaj vi?"

His smile widens, becomes a little more genuine even though her accent could be better. For a second she feels close to real again before his gaze slides away from her and he nods a brief acknowledgement to someone who's just walked into the store. A regular, Abby would guess from his expression, unable to turn off the part of her brain that analyses these things. Someone familiar in a way that she isn't.

She smiles politely, takes her change and leaves.

Even so, her steps are a little lighter as she heads back to the hotel, taking in the signs of life as Ashbury wakes up. She passes a gaggle of girls, long-legged and in their late teens, giggling on a corner as they wait for a bus, and some kids clutching skateboards even though she's seen nowhere to skate. They're a little more real than the rarefied world she's been living in and she pauses for a moment to watch them, squinting into the sunlight as they jostle each other, ride up and down the street but keeping an eye out for any adults who might spoil their fun.

When they catch Abby watching, they stop, elbowing each other, and she takes the hint and moves on.

She's been longer than she planned and the early morning light has become brilliant sunshine by the time she finally jogs up the steps to the hotel's entrance, looser and more relaxed than she was when she left. She nods at the concierge, ignoring his plastic smile in return - she didn't bother with makeup and her hair is gathered in an untidy ponytail at the back of her neck, but if she doesn't give a shit, she's not sure why he should.

She takes the stairs, not the elevator, needing that run up a couple of flights to loosen the last of her muscles, get her ready for the day ahead. Maybe they'll have more luck hunting tonight, and she suits that better than she does movie theatres and ice cream parlours, which seem even less real in retrospect. She could do with something nice and uncomplicated like a staking to take the edge off.

She half expects King to still be dozing when she opens the door. She's even toying with the idea of stripping off again and joining him in bed for a couple of hours, just to see if she can get some more sleep before the night ahead. But he's wide awake, stretched out on the floor by the window in his undershorts, doing a series of ab crunches.

He doesn't see her at first, not when he's so focused and she's so light-footed, not least because she hadn't wanted to disturb him if he was still asleep. It's not until she closes the door behind her, barely aware that she's doing it, that he looks up and catches sight of her.

He slumps back on his elbows, chest heaving with effort, and gives her a bright smile.

"Hey."

She'd answer but her mouth has gone dry at the sight of him, stretched out in the sunlight. His shorts are riding low on his hips, exposing his treasure trail, and his bare chest is gleaming. Her eyes follow the line of hair from one to the other and then back again.

"I thought maybe we could hit Lakeland Springs this afternoon. It's the next town over, and according to popular opinion, it has some five star restaurants and a slight problem with missing tourists. What do you think?"

She doesn't want to think. Thinking is seriously overrated in her opinion, at least when it comes to King. She starts stalking towards him, full of predatory intent and stripping her top off over her head as she goes.

"Or, we could do that," he says. "That totally works for me."

It works for Abby, too, because sex is about as uncomplicated as it gets.

Right?

-o-

At some point, Abby thinks idly, she's going to need to get up again, get some food if nothing else. Her stomach is rumbling but King is surprisingly comfortable for a guy who's so muscular. She lets her fingers drift over his skin, absently stroking a path across his abs.

"That was fun," he says, still breathless. "We should do it again sometime."

She huffs in amusement, rubbing her face against his chest as his hand comes up and settles over hers, flattening it against his stomach.

"We should get up," she murmurs. "If we want to get to..."

"Lakeland Springs," he prompts helpfully, stretching his neck to peer down at her. "A place of a myriad of possibilities, many of which involve staking assholes. So, in short, my kind of town."

She snorts, letting her short fingernails scratch lightly at the hairs growing just below his belly button. "And you figured this out while I was getting a paper?"

"The internet isn't just for downloading the latest tunes, Whistler. It also has news sites. And porn. But you're right - we should probably get up, if only so the maid can clean the room without the risk of walking in on something a little more live action."

She shifts reluctantly, peeling herself away from his side and rolling over onto her back, rubbing at her face tiredly. "The 'do not disturb' sign's on the door."

"Sure, but that's kind of my point. It's pretty much a permanent fixture. Only yesterday the concierge asked me if we were on our honeymoon."

She blinks up at him as he rises to his feet, dragging his fingers through his hair. The words take a moment to sink in and, when they do, there's a funny little skipping sensation in her chest. She keeps her expression neutral, though, long practice making it a little easier than it might have been, even around King.

"What did you tell him?" she asks evenly, and King shrugs, looking around for his underwear.

"Told him it was something like that. I figured that if I said yes outright, he might notice the lack of wedding rings."

Oh. She chews this over for a moment, trying to ignore the squirrelly little feeling that's still making itself known in her chest.

"Relax, Whistler." King rolls his eyes. "I told him you were my secretary and this was an illicit escape from it all, hence all of the hot sex."

She gives him a look.

"Okay, fine." He waits for a beat, just long enough to make it funny in his mind if no one else's, and then adds, "Actually I told him that I was your secretary and this was the only way I could guarantee getting a raise in this economy."

"Funny," she says dryly.

"I thought so. Mind if I hit the shower first? Or do you want to conserve water and share?"

"If I shower with you," she points out, "we'll probably be there the rest of the day."

He flashes her a quick grin. "I do so love your optimism, honey, even if it's misplaced."

She gives him another look, one that doesn't quell him at all. "You can have the shower first," she says. "You need it more."

"I feel out ought to point out that that's because you've spent the last thirty minutes or so riding me like a goddamned pony."

She raises an eyebrow at him. "Are you objecting?"

"Hell, no. Feel free to ride me hard and put me away wet anytime, sweetheart."

She tries to keep a straight face, she really does, but the corner of her mouth twitches anyway. He doesn't miss it and gives her another one of those brilliant smiles of his, one of the ones that are a little less cocky, a little softer around the edges.

Which doesn't do anything to ease that weird feeling in her chest.

"Okay," he says, heading into the bathroom. "Let me know if you change your mind."

She waits until she hears the shower turn on before she slumps back onto the bed again, staring at that now familiar crack in the ceiling. Odd that a place that can spring for a concierge and where the restaurant charges a small fortune for an entrée has missed it, but then perhaps the hotel's normal clientele hasn't spent as much time on her back as she has over the last few days.

The thought makes her oddly self-conscious, even more so when she thinks about King's crack about the concierge and his stupid assumptions. Maybe King was simply trying to wind her up or - more likely - crack a stupid joke without meaning to wind her up, but it bothers her more than it should.

Jesus. Like she actually gives a shit what people think about her. Why would people noticing that she and King are pretty much spending all day together in bed be so different?

It shouldn't, but the way it niggles at her is what finally drives her from the bed. If in doubt, move your ass and do something. It's a motto to live by.

The something involves brushing her teeth, leaning over the sink while King's still in the shower and it's not until she's rinsing that it strikes her how comfortable she is doing this, how fucking domestic they are together. She stares at her reflection in the mirror for a long moment, searching her expression for some sign that she's lost her fucking mind, and then she sighs.

She's screwed one way or the other, she thinks as she pulls back the curtain, planning to join King in the tub. She might as well make the most of it while she can.

-o-

It turns out that Lakeside Springs is a couple of hours down the road, although it's not that far as the crow flies. But since neither she nor King are birds of any description - and, as King has pointed out more than once, cool as it might sound, the vamps of his acquaintance have never possessed any shape shifting abilities that might have made the whole thing at least semi-fucking-bearable - they're stuck with driving.

She lets King do it - he loves driving and the roads are different enough from those in the city to make it a nice change for him. She stares out of the window for most of the way, the trees towering up on either side closing them in until she's feeling almost claustrophobic.

"You okay?"

She starts a little at the question, not realising that she'd fallen so silent that King had noticed. Normally he's perfectly happy to leave her to her thoughts when he's behind the wheel, keeping up a stream of chatter if he feels like it to which she doesn't have to listen or respond if she doesn't feel like it, or even falling into companionable silence far more often than most people would believe given the normal persona he projects.

She must have been really withdrawn if he's concerned enough about it to ask.

"I miss my bow," she says quietly, because it's easier to explain that, the nagging feeling of something being out of place, than it is to admit that trees are giving her the heebie-jeebies. "I was thinking that this morning while I went for the paper."

He nods thoughtfully, thankfully not mocking her for it. He gets it, she supposes, the idea that a weapon can be an extension of you, so much so that it feels off, as though you're missing a limb, when you don't have it. He should understand - he's a little too attached to his Bone Jack rifle even if it draws too much attention for most of their missions. He's left it behind on this trip, and she wonders if that's because of practicalities or because Hedges was being a dick and not letting him take it out of the armoury. Either way, she thinks that King might be one of the few people that gets it.

He clears his throat, his eyes still on the road. "You know, I'm pretty sure we can find a range if you want. One of these places must have something like that. They have pretty much everything else."

She appreciates the sentiment, she really does. But: "It would draw too much attention."

"Probably less than you think," he argues. "And face it, it's not like we're sticking around. No one's going to join the dots, sweetheart. Think about it at least, okay, and I'll see what I can do."

Sometimes she could just kiss him and not just because he looks good naked.

"So, tell me about Lakeside Springs," she says, changing the subject to something safer. "What's so special about it?"

"Apparently it has miraculous springs," he says. "It's a real pity that their powers don't seem to be able to do anything about the sudden spike in muggings, especially the ones that end up as corpses with throat wounds."

"We should probably do something about that."

"And there you go again, just reading my mind. It's scary how in sync we are." He shoots her another smile, one that tells her he doesn't mean it, before his attention is drawn back to the road.

She watches him this time instead of the trees, and not just because he's the more attractive scenery as far as she's concerned.

"You sure you're okay?"

Maybe she's been a bit more obvious about it than she thought. "Yeah," she says before admitting, "A little claustrophobic, maybe."

He steals another look at her, this one a shade more concerned. "Yeah, the trees are freaking me out a little bit, too. They just don't end, do they? I keep thinking about Lord of the Rings." He catches sight of her confused look. "Ents?"

She remains none-the-wiser.

"Man, Abby, did those movies completely pass you by? I'm surprised Hedges hasn't pinned you to a chair and made you watch them."

"I'd like to see Hedges try," she says, and King smirks.

"Me, too."

She studies him for a moment longer before asking, "Did he make you watch them?"

King shakes his head. "I read Tolkien when I was younger." And then he smiles, something nostalgic in it. "Every summer between the ages of twelve and seventeen in fact."

"What happened when you were seventeen?"

"I discovered girls."

"I thought you were sixteen when that happened." The comment takes him by surprise. "That first night, at the diner. You said something about your last milkshake and getting into Sherri something's pants when you were sixteen."

"Sherry McEwan. You remember that?"

She shrugs, not wanting to admit that she remembers most of the things he says, even the things that are obviously crap. She doesn't tune him out anywhere near as often as he probably believes, largely because he's funnier than she's willing to let on.

"Man." He laughs softly, lost in memory for a moment. "I think I was closer to seventeen, and she went to camp that summer. So I re-read Lord of the Rings again." He glances over at her, his expression self-deprecating. "No one around to impress."

"So, you were a bit of a geek when you were a kid?"

"I was... awkward, let's leave it at that." He steals another look. "I might have been the class clown."

That she can believe. It's weird, though, that she knows him so well and yet his life before Danica Talos got her fangs into him is a complete mystery. He was in Chicago when he had the misfortune to run into Danica, Abby knows that much. Post-grad, although he's never said exactly what in, and he's Canadian.

And that's pretty much all she knows. It's depressing how little it is now that she lays it out in her mind like that.

"What?"

She's never been good at lying at King - never seen the need to before now - and the words are out of her mouth before she can stop them, not that she'd pull them back in again even if she could. "I just realised how little I know about your life before Danica."

He considers this for a moment, his brow furrowed as he works his way through it. And then he shrugs, as though it's not important.

"I don't really think about it, I guess. So I don't really talk about it. Why? What do you want to know?"

Everything, she thinks. "What do you want to tell me?"

"There's nothing to tell, really. I grew up in Vancouver, youngest of three kids, all boys. Normal kind of a childhood, I guess. Read a lot, played hockey and lacrosse, which I guess is a Canadian thing. School, college, got good enough grades to want to do a post-grad. Moved to Chicago to do it, since their programme was good. Met Danica, and my life got flipped, turned upside down." He gives her a small smile, his fingers tapping a little beat on the steering wheel. "What about you?"

"Me? I'm just a small town girl, living in a lonely world."

He gets the reference straight away and grins at her, and if she had to guess why, it's because he's pleased that she's playing along.

"Seriously, though? That's it?"

She shrugs, uncomfortable now that it's getting personal about her, and tries to get her thoughts in order. "Mom was a waitress. That's how she met my dad. She was attacked one night on her way home and he was there to save the day. She said she thought he was lonely." And that, right there, sums up her father, she thinks a little bitterly.

"So... she made him a little less lonely?"

There's no condemnation in King's voice - just a kind of mild curiosity - but she bristles anyway, too used to the comments, the stereotypes. "Something like that," she says brusquely.

She doesn't miss the sidelong look he gives her or the way he chooses his next words with care, or as close as King ever cares enough to come to it.

"And it was just the two of you, growing up?"

"For a while. Mom married when I was eight so I had a step-dad after that. He was a decent enough guy. I had an okay childhood. No great trauma, really."

"But you still chose this life." He's still being careful about the way he's wording things, and that's weird enough that it has the opposite effect than the one he probably intended, drawing her attention instead of diffusing it.

"I always knew vampires were real," she said flatly. "What was I supposed to do? Ignore it?"

"Hey." King looks genuinely distressed for a moment. "That wasn't a criticism, sweetheart. Really. I mean, where the fuck would I be if you hadn't made that call?"

She takes a deep breath, knowing that she's being unreasonable, knowing she has to let it go. God only knows what's wrong with her.

"I'm sorry," she says stiffly. "I guess I'm a little more on edge than I thought."

King accepts the apology, such as it is, with good grace, taking one hand off the wheel to reach for her hand, squeezing her fingers gently. His thumb strokes lightly over her knuckles for a moment before he lets go.

"That's okay. It was a stupid fucking question."

It wasn't, not really, but she appreciates the attempt.

"Do you ever..." King pauses, his eyes fixed on the road in a way that tells her that maybe he's not done asking questions he thinks are stupid. But then knowing that a course of action is potentially reckless has never really stopped him from taking it. "Do you ever wonder what your life would have been like if you'd never known of their existence? If they had never existed, just stuck to being fucking myth and legend like everything else?"

"Well, I wouldn't be here for a start," she says dryly, and he pulls a face, something half-sheepish in his expression.

"So that would be the silver lining to their existence, then," he says.

Abby's not sure that her father would agree with that sentiment. She's under no illusions of what he lost when his wife and daughters were murdered, even if the act was what set Abraham Whistler on his path to fighting vamps and training Blade. Looked at in that light, Abby's a piss poor consolation prize.

That's a familiar pang, and one she doesn't waste much time on, not anymore. Since she can't change the past, there's no point in worrying about it. What's concerning her now is the reason behind King's question.

"Do you?" she asks. "Wonder what life would be like?"

King shrugs, still paying more attention to the road than Abby, at least on the surface. "I killed a lot of people," he says eventually, his voice low, quiet. "If I could change that... God, I'd want to be able to change that."

Abby stays silent, and not just because she's giving King the space to talk if he wants to. He never talks about this kind of stuff, not out loud although she's not so stupid that she's missed it going on beneath the surface. But for him to come out and just say it...

That's a hell of a lot of trust to place in her, so much so that it's rendered her mute.

"But if it wasn't for that..." He steals another look at her, this one quick and furtive, like it's something he's ashamed to admit. "Sometimes I think it was almost worth it."

That silences her for a moment, too. She's never thought of it like that, what vampirism would be like without the vampirism part. Unlimited lifespan without having to take it from others. No need for blood, but you'd be stronger, faster, heal almost instantaneously. It would be tempting, she supposes, except...

"I'm not sure I'd want to live forever, even without the need to feed," she admits quietly, feeling the subtle criticism in each word despite her attempts to keep it as neutral as possible. "I think... I don't think people were made to cope with that."

"No, that's not what I-" King huffs out a laugh, but there's no amusement in it as he scrubs his hand across his face. "I'd still have Danica to deal with and believe me, five years of that bitch was more than enough. The idea of spending eternity with her..." He shudders, and she gets the impression that only half of that is put on for dramatic effect.

When vampires get hurt they don't scar, but even without any permanent markers carved into his skin, King has dropped enough cryptic references over the time she's known him for her to build up a partial picture of his life with Danica Talos and it's not a pretty one. Bitch doesn't even begin to cover it.

"That's not what I meant," he continues quietly, his gaze flitting to her and then back to the road again. "I just... Forget it. We're here, anyway. That must be Lakeland Springs up ahead."

The trees are starting to thin as they head down into a valley, but she pays no attention to the signs of habitation, too busy watching King instead. He ignores her, although he's subtle about it, just a slight tension in his jaw that gets more pronounced the longer that she looks.

It's not until he's found a parking space, has fed the meter and is waiting for her to join him on the sidewalk, his fingers tapping a little staccato beat on the roof of the SUV, that he answers the question she's been careful not to ask.

"If it hadn't been for Danica picking me up in that bar," he says quietly, avoiding her gaze, "you and I would never have met. And, well, I... I don't think I've ever had anyone in my life I trust as much as you."

He's rendered her mute again, and part of him must get that because he drops the subject, ignoring the bombshell he's just dropped, and gives her a crooked, shamefaced little smile instead.

"So on that awkward note, let's just go kill us some vamps."

-o-

It's late, or early, when they finally ride back to Ashbury, vamps staked and lives saved. Abby is silent most of the way back, lost in thought as she stares out of the window into the darkness.

She should be touched. She is on some level, it's just that every other level is freaked the fuck out. She can't stop playing his words over and over again in her mind, until they start to lose all meaning and she's not even sure that what she remembers is what he actually said.

She remembers the other things he's said, though, when he's been drunk or hurt or just in the mood for teasing and hyperbole.

Hey, how's my best girl?

She should remember. She's kicked his ass for it more than once, rolling her eyes as he's laughed himself stupid, the kind of drunk that she prefers - tipsy and cheerful, not falling into that dark place he does sometimes when he hits the bottle, when the memory of Danica drags him down and drowns him.

How's my best girl?

She should have known. God knows she knows King better than she knows herself sometimes. She should have known.

She thinks maybe she did, maybe that's the reason for the subtle undercurrent of unhappiness that's been running through her days.

My best girl.

My best -

Friend.

The word settles in her mind, heavy and certain. It fits perfectly in spite of his smiles, the warmth of his touch, and it hurts even though it shouldn't. She's always known that this couldn't last, that it was the heat of the summer and would cool as soon as autumn arrived. She thought she was resigned to it, to having King and then not having him again once they got home, getting as much of him out of - and into - her system as humanly possible.

But...

The weight of it, knowing that he sees her as his best girl, his best friend with added benefits, at least for this summer, settles somewhere in her chest, tight and uncomfortable until she can't breathe.

But she's always been a pragmatist, and she pulls on that now, uses it to keep her face expressionless, her breathing even, despite the tightness of her throat, the prickling in her eyes. This thing between her and King will burn out fast, she's certain of that now, but it burns hot and it burns bright and she'll have the memory of it to keep her warm through winter.

And they'll still be friends after it's over. She'll still have that.

She slides her hand across to King's seat and feels his fingers close around hers again, squeezing gently. This time she's the one who strokes her thumb over his skin, memorising the feel of it, the warmth of it, the calluses his guns have left on his fingers. She holds on until King has to pull away, his attention back on the road.

The darkness rushes past outside, so pitch black that Abby can't even make out individual trees in the gloom.

All she can see is the wood.

-o-

The days are getting shorter and the nights a little longer when King finds her somewhere to shoot.

She didn't ask him to, but he's ferretted out another country club, one that on the surface is indistinguishable from any other with its white painted stone buildings and its neatly manicured lawns.

But this one has a range out back that isn't for guns.

She leaves it to King to talk or pay or what the hell ever their way in, and they don't seem to attract any attention as they make their way outside. King lets her lead the way, her steps quickening the closer she gets to the range. When she sees it, it's not perfect - kind of amateur hour, actually - but it will do.

Oh, it will more than do.

The sun is high in the sky, beating down onto the top of her head, when she's finally ready, taking a deep breath and holding it for a moment as she pulls back and then releases. Something in her eases as her arrow flies towards its target, some tension that she hadn't realised was there, like the sudden loosening of a muscle or the first breath after a long, deep dive. Her arrow lands fractionally off-centre, but she doesn't care or let that deter her, drawing another as smoothly as she draws a breath.

She clears her mind of everything: the soft sound of the leaves rustling behind her; the sweat droplets running down her back; King watching her silently from just a few short metres away.

Her arrow flies free, and the soft whisper of it as it sings away lightens Abby's mood further. It still lands a little off-centre, but she steadies herself, refusing to grow frustrated. She's just a little out of practice, just needs to compensate for what breeze there is.

The third arrow hits home right where she intended, but she doesn't hesitate or take the time to bask in it. Instead she's already drawing again, sending the fourth and fifth on their way.

She stops after that, and takes the time to collect her arrows from the target so that she's got a clear shot for the next volley. She's the only one on the range today, and she takes a moment on the walk down to wonder how much use the buttresses get. They're well maintained, but that could mean anything from rarely used to frequently replaced.

She's heading back to the shooting line, marked in white chalk on the lawn, when she realises that King isn't alone. He's deep in conversation with an older guy, someone who has 'official' stamped all over him. She hesitates for a moment, instinctively searching for any sign of trouble, but when King catches her watching he simply smiles and gives her a half wave.

She pretends it's the sun in her eyes that has her turning back to the targets, not the easy affection on King's face, at least to herself, although not even she's falling for it. But it does give her a little more practice at blocking everything else out; she focuses until the target is all she can see, until her bow feels part of her, a familiar extension of her arm, her whole body.

The next arrow flies true, landing in the target with a satisfying thud. She eyes it critically for a moment before pulling her next arrow free from her quiver and sending it after the first.

She falls into the rhythm of it easily, drawing and releasing smoothly until the target bristles with bulls-eyes and she needs to collect them again or risk missing the next shot. Again and again she shoots, losing herself in the flow of it until it's as automatic to her as breathing.

King is still talking to his companion but this time he breaks off when she collects her final flurry of arrows and heads towards them.

"Ray here was telling me he's been admiring your form," he says as she approaches, widening his eyes at her from behind Ray as the man steps forward to shake her hand, an old-fashioned gesture that catches her slightly off-guard. She smiles politely and then sends a look in King's direction that should hopefully leave him in no doubt that she caught his double entendre.

He doesn't look at all abashed. Instead he grins at her but there's something else in his expression, something it takes her a moment to puzzle out.

Pride.

Normally she'd bristle at that, the idea that he's using her to get some kind of reflected glory. It's too reminiscent of her mom trying to get her to behave, to be a perfect little lady in front of the neighbours, or her dad using her in the early days of the Nightstalkers to show up the other recruits. But King doesn't look like he's showing her off, not exactly. More like he's actually proud of her, not just of how she makes him look.

He takes a backseat while Ray talks to her, asking her smart questions that she doesn't want to answer, like how long has she been shooting and which archery club she's affiliated to (and the answers are 'my whole life' and 'none'). His eyes light up at the last one, and it's not until he starts on his patter about how new their facilities are and how proud they are of the club's tradition, a spiel that she listens to in silence all the while hoping that her silence will discourage him, that King finally steps in.

He's smooth, she's got to give him that. Now that she takes a step back, watches him action, she's reminded all over again of just how charming he can be, without even trying.

No wonder she can't resist him.

Ray, to give him due credit, knows better than to push. He has a charm all of his own, although Abby suspects that there's a certain ruthless streak underneath. She has a nose about such things. But King takes the card Ray proffers with a smile and tucks it away in his back pocket, and she's amused rather than put out at his presumption.

"What was all that about?" she asks when Ray heads back to the club with another smile and a wave.

"Oh, he was impressed."

"Really?" She gives King another look, this one amused and letting him know that she knows what he's doing. "Is he the one you talked into letting me use this range?"

"I may have mentioned the words 'Olympic Hopeful', yes."

"My form's not good enough for that, King." It's not - she's all about practicalities, about getting the arrow where it needs to go, not about positioning. Besides, most of her arrow heads aren't exactly traditional or tournament approved.

"Oh, I don't know about that." King gives her a slow once over, his mouth curling up in a wicked grin. "Your form looks plenty good enough from here, sweetheart."

She snorts good-naturedly, not buying his bullshit, but she lets him slide his arm around her shoulder as they start the trek back to the main building. "He was impressed," King repeats quietly as she tucks herself in against his side.

"And you?"

"Oh, I always think you're impressive, Whistler. Especially when you're shooting things."

"You are so full of crap."

He chuckles a little at that, but doesn't disagree, not at first. But then he says, "You really are that good, you know."

She knows, but it's nice to hear him say it. Nicer still when he slows his steps as they turn the corner, out of sight of most of the windows, and then leans down to kiss her.

There's nothing heated about this kiss; it's nice and slow, a little sweet around the edges. When he pulls back, his expression is warm, full of admiration of her, like as far as he's concerned she might hang the moon and the stars.

That's even nicer and, for a second, she can almost fool herself that it's real.

-o-

She's being really good about not dragging King into bed with her and staying there until the summer is over. They still have a job to do, and she can't let him distract her, no matter how tempting it is - how tempting he is - or how much she knows she's going to miss it.

Miss him.

But that doesn't mean she doesn't sometimes roll over in the middle of the night and slide her fingers down his belly, scratching her short nails lightly against his skin until he wakes with a start. Only then does she slip them under the waistband of his shorts, wrapping her fingers around his dick.

He blinks at her, sleepy and disorientated, until she comes into focus. She waits until he relaxes, until he realises where he is and who he's with, before she begins to move her hand, slowly stroking him to full hardness. She keeps going until he's biting at his lip, his back arching with each upwards stroke, fingers digging into the mattress beneath him.

Sometimes she rides him, pulling her panties off or even just pushing them to one side as she straddles him and sinks down onto his dick. She braces herself against his chest as she moves, sometimes fast and frantic, sometimes slow and sure, depending on what she needs, what she thinks he'll like. His hands are never still while she takes him - they roam up and down her back, cup her breasts, find her hips and match her rhythm, pulling her down harder onto his dick each time she rocks back down so that he slides more deeply into her.

Sometimes he pulls her down to kiss her, his arms around her back and holding her still while his hips move, slamming up into her until she's the one who's biting at her lip, her fingers digging into the mattress as the pleasure rises in her. Or she might lower herself so that his mouth can find her neck, her breasts, sucking and nipping at her skin with sharp little kisses that send shivering electric shocks to her core.

Sometimes he sits up, settling her into his lap so that they can rock together, slow and sweet, while they kiss and his fingers trace mindless patterns over her skin. She holds him tight while she comes, her fingernails digging into his shoulders and waist, pressing herself as close to him as she can get. He kisses her temple or her neck, his hands curling underneath her ass so that he can hold her still and thrust up into her, or keep her moving while the aftershocks of her orgasm are shivering through her, fucking her until he comes himself.

And sometimes they don't get as far as fucking. Instead she takes him into her mouth, makes him come with her hands, her lips and her tongue, swallowing down the bitterness when he finally finds his release.

Afterwards she curls up next to him, luxuriating in the feel of his fingers stroking up and down her side. If she hasn't come, he'll kiss his way down her body, take her apart with his fingers, with his mouth, and he was right - he's really fucking good at going down on a woman.

But mostly she basks in the warmth of him lying next to her, sweaty and content, the scent of his body and the smell of sex hanging in the humid night air. His voice is drowsy as he murmurs sweet nothings into her hair, his arm curling around her and drawing her closer to him, and she goes, not caring about how hot it is, how uncomfortable the summer nights are. She goes because she needs this, needs to remember this - every sight, every sound, every inch of his body and every way he touches her.

She'll need those memories when this is over.

-o-

Their latest stop is Woodbury, a sleepy little town that seems to come alive in the summer when everywhere else is wilting, although 'alive' might be pushing it even then. Their regular trawls through local papers and the internet for potential vamp attacks picked up on a couple of hikers who'd gone missing, but now that they're here, Abby doesn't even know where to start with that. Woodbury's not exactly a bustling metropolis, although she wasn't expecting much. But she'd figured on there being a nightlife, since that's the kind of thing that vamps tend to zero in on.

But Woodbury is all about clean living, or clean dying in this case. There's a lake a couple of miles from the town, which is 'great for fishing!' according to the signs she sees in the general store, and there are trails leading into the woods that apparently teem with walkers in the summer, and not the kind of walker that she's used to.

There could be anything out there - werewolves, wendigos or wargs, according to King, although of those only the concept of 'werewolves' is familiar to her. But then, King is the master of bullshit and she wouldn't be at all surprised if he'd pulled some of those words out of his ass just to confuse her.

He thinks she's 'cute' when she's confused, at least in those few seconds before she kicks his ass. And she's not even touching what he thinks when she's in full on takedown mode because it turns out that even she has an inner censor.

"What do you reckon?" she asks after they've walked up and down main street a couple of times, looking for clubs or bars or even dark alleyways that might be useful prospects. Vampires tended to be traditional about the whole lurking thing except, apparently, in Woodbury.

King grunts, shielding his eyes from the setting sun as he stares up and down the street again. "I think this town is dead. Okay, yes, maybe it's the in place if you're the kind of person who thinks woodland walks and the inevitable raging case of poison ivy is fun, but I can't really see it being the kind of place our mutual friends are interested in, can you? At least, not if you're talking the kind of walking dead we're after."

He says it a little too loudly and the elderly woman riding the mobility scooter past them gives him a filthy look.

King gives Abby a comical look in response, widening his eyes to invite her into the joke, although she's a little too hot and frazzled to give a fuck.

Maybe he gets that because the next words out of his mouth are: "Do you want to strike this place off the list? It's not exactly the kind of place I can picture Danica and her various wannabes. Not unless they've died for real this time and gone to hell."

She shrugs, a little irritated at wasting an afternoon, especially in a plastic place like this. "My dad's place wasn't in a big town, but a vamp still turned up at his door. We can't rule it out entirely."

"No," he says thoughtfully. "But for once it could actually have been bears. I mean..." This time he keeps his voice low enough not to attract attention. "Even if it is vamps, which I accept is a remote possibility, they could be anywhere out there. We can't haunt every picnic spot or lakeside property in the hopes that they'll turn up and flash their fangs at us."

She has to concede that he has a point as she pushes her hair out of her face and scratches at her sweaty scalp. Christ, she hates this heat, and Woodbury is at a low enough altitude that it is still too damned hot.

"Want to head back?" King asks again, a little more sympathetically this time.

"Buy me an ice cream and I'll consider it."

"You're a cheap date, Whistler."

"You haven't seen the prices yet."

He grins at that, although for once he doesn't put his arm around her shoulders, which is just as well because the mood she's in, she'd probably bite it off.

Oh, hell. Who does she think she's fooling? No, she wouldn't. She'd lean into him, let him hug her as much as he damned well pleased. And that knowledge certainly isn't doing anything to improve her temper.

"How about I buy you dinner, as well?" he asks. "You can have ice cream for dessert."

She gives him a long, searching look. "It had better not be MacDonald's if you want me to put out."

As soon as the words are out of her mouth, she stiffens, already regretting them, knowing that with King's off colour sense of humour he's likely to make a crack she can't cope with, not at the moment, not if he reduces whatever they have - however short a time it lasts - to that. But he doesn't and she's not sure why not, whether it's because he's read her reaction correctly, because of Danica, or because it simply doesn't occur to him.

Instead, he simply says, "You haven't seen their new menu. Man, I'd put out for that."

"Really?"

He shrugs. "Of course, I'd also put out for ice cream. Or a soda."

Now she can smile, play along. Tease him maybe, even though it doesn't feel like teasing. "Just for me or for anyone?"

He shrugs again, wrinkling his nose thoughtfully. "You wouldn't even have to buy me a soda," he says, grinning at her.

She rolls her eyes, absurdly touched when it's hardly the most romantic of things to hear, even if this isn't about romance, not for him. Not for either of them if she has any sense.

"I'll bear that in mind," she says dryly. "Now are we going to eat here or not?"

He hums softly to himself, looking at her in a way that makes her instantly curious. "Actually," he says slowly, "I think I've got a better idea. Want to meet me back at the car?"

"Why?"

He widens his eyes again, but in wounded innocence this time. "Don't you trust me, Whistler?"

She does, that's the kicker. "Fine," she says, holding her hand out for the car keys. "Don't mug any little old ladies."

His laughter follows her down the street.

At least the SUV has air conditioning, which is more than she can say about Woodbury's streets, and when King still hasn't shown up after fifteen minutes, she gives in and turns the engine on, letting it idle just so she doesn't melt into the leather seats. It still takes King another fifteen minutes before he deigns to show up, bag in hand.

He stows it in the trunk, ignoring her curious look. There's a self-satisfied smirk on his face as he climbs into the driver's seat and she bites back on any questions, knowing that he's just waiting for her to crack. Instead she simply raises an eyebrow at him then fastens her seatbelt, settling back into her seat comfortably.

He chuckles as he puts the car into reverse, pulling neatly out of the parking space and heading out of town. Now he's really piqued her curiosity but she's still not quite willing to give him the satisfaction of asking about it, even though he's stealing the odd glance at her every now and then, his eyes bright and a small smile playing around the corner of his mouth.

The road he takes isn't the one they arrived on, and she shoots him another look, well and truly intrigued.

"Trust me," he says again.

It's enough to keep her silent through the rest of the drive, taking in the scenery for as long as she can, at least until the twilight gloom closes in and King switches on the headlights. After that, there isn't much to see but the road stretching out ahead of them, and the ghostly imprint of trees, trees and more trees as they flash past in the periphery of the wide beams. It's weird, though, how the woods are less claustrophobic in the dark, maybe because the night's already closed in and a few thousand trees have nothing on that. Whatever it is, Abby can relax in this cocoon of a car, knowing that King's right there and the rest of the world is safely outside, hidden in the darkness.

They're on the road for longer than she thought they would be, an hour at least although she never thought to check the time when they left and doesn't want to check it now. However long it's been - and her internal clock is usually accurate enough - it's fully dark by the time that King slows down and starts to pay more attention to the road. She's not surprised when he hits the turn signal and takes a side road that's narrow and poorly marked.

They end up in a clearing, one that's been converted for use as a car park judging by the sound of gravel crunching underneath the wheels as they finally came to a stop. Now she's really eaten up with curiosity but she waits until he puts the car into park and turns off the headlights entirely.

"Okay, we're here," she says, unable to keep silent any longer. "Where's here and why are we here? Are we hunting? Did you get some intel I don't know about?"

King just gives her another smile as he pulls the key from the ignition. "Like I wouldn't tell you if it was intel?" He shakes his head a little mock-sadly. "No, honey, or at least I hope not. I just thought it would be nice to eat outside again, the way we did that first night."

"That first night we were hunting vamps," she says dryly. "Hence the question about hunting. So, what? You're planning a midnight picnic?"

"It's not midnight," he corrects automatically. "At least not yet. And this is Lookout Point. The view is supposed to be spectacular."

"That's an original name. Are you sure it's not make-out point? Because otherwise I can't understand why you've brought me here in the dark."

"Picky, picky, picky," he says with a grin, climbing out of the car, which means she also has to get out if she wants to continue having this conversation. She's not sure she does. She has her own suspicions about why King might want to take her to somewhere like this, and as comfortable as their SUV is, and as young as she is, she's still too damned old to be having sex in the backseat. That shit is strictly for teenagers, especially when they have a more than adequate, king-sized bed back at the hotel.

She's about to say as much to King when he pulls out his mysterious bag from the trunk and produces a blanket from its depths.

Oh great. She's not opposed to al fresco sex in principle, but the ground is gravel, which is not going to be good for her knees or her back. She's a little surprised, then, when King spreads the blanket over the hood and then sits on it, leaving a space for her that he pats entreatingly.

She only hesitates for a moment before she clambers up and settles beside him. The hood is still warm but the blanket dulls the worst of it and the nights are starting to grow a little cooler, at least out of doors. She'll be pleased for that lingering warmth later on, assuming that they're still here then. And it seems to be a safe assumption - King has an air of settling in about him, something that suggests that they're here for the long haul.

The moon is high in the sky now, but it's only quarter-full, giving just enough light for her to make out King's expression as he smiles at her, catching on his cheekbones and in his eyes, but not enough to make out much more.

"Comfortable?" he asks and she nods, knowing it's not a lie. She's been more comfortable, sure, but as stakeouts go this one doesn't suck as much as stinking alleys when the rain is streaming from the sky, cascading down rusting fire escapes and soaking her to the skin. "Good." Satisfied, he reaches back into his bag and pulls out something wrapped in brown paper and hands it to her. It's soft and squishy and smells good; when she unwraps it, it's pastrami on rye, her favourite.

"I figured sandwiches were the easiest thing to eat in the dark," he explains, unwrapping his own. She'd lay odds that his is roast beef and horseradish, because that's King's favourite and something he can rarely get from the kind of joint that they usually frequent. "There are some cheeses as well, and a couple of bottles of beer. No ice cream, I'm afraid. I figured it would have melted long before we even got here."

"Where is here?" she asks again.

"I told you." He flashes her another grin, teeth white in the darkness. "Lookout Point."

She doesn't rise to the bait. "Why are we here if it's not a stakeout? Do you think there are vamps?"

"No, just look."

She looks out over the vista stretching out in front of them. Maybe in daylight it's impressive enough to earn the place its name, but at night she can see nothing but darkness with a few twinkling lights scattered below marking homesteads or the odd secluded hotel.

"No, sweetheart. Look up."

She does and the sky stretches endlessly above her, a river of stars stretching from horizon to horizon. For a second she feels a wrenching pang of homesickness for the small town she grew up in, where the lack of light pollution meant that if you drove far enough away from town you could see a little of this, just a little.

But here it's crystal clear, clear enough for her to tell, even with the naked eye, that the stars come in all sorts of hues, not just sparkling white.

"It's beautiful," she breathes.

"Yes, it is." King's voice is soft, but when she turns her head to thank him for this, for bringing her here, he's not looking at the sky. He's looking straight at her. "Absolutely beautiful."

She goes hot and cold both at once, goose bumps breaking out on her skin even as her face feels heated. He has that tilt to his head that tells her that he's smiling at her even if she can't make it out clearly in the moonlight, the angle of his head all wrong for her to be able to see his expression. But she's not surprised when he reaches up to brush a strand of her hair away from her face, tucking it behind her ear. She's already closing her eyes before his fingers touch her skin, leaning into his touch, which stays soft and gentle.

When she opens them again, he's still looking at her, closer now, the shadows on his face growing more pronounced as he leans in to kiss her, his hand cupping her face.

When he finally pulls back and turns to look up at the sky, she slides closer to him, leaning her head against his shoulder when his arm wraps around her automatically.

The sky is beautiful, more than beautiful. It's alive, full of possibilities, and for a second she thinks that maybe this moment will last forever, stretch out like the stars, a never-ending summer of her and King.

But nothing can last forever. She should know better than that.

-o-

The first sign that summer is almost over is when the kids disappear from the streets during the day.

It takes a little while for Abby to notice, longer than it would have done if she wasn't wrapped up in King, sailing merrily down the river Nile and still pretending that the summer is as endless as the night sky. When she does notice, the knowledge settles in her stomach like lead, weighing down her steps and taking the bounce right out of them. It's still hot and there are still tourists as the month winds down towards autumn, but time marches on and not even she can deny the reality of that. Sooner or later, the tourists will head back to the city, which means that the vamps will follow on their trail.

And she and King will head back to the Honeycomb Hideout, where things will go back to the kind of normal she doesn't want but will have to deal with anyway.

For now, she sticks her head in the sand and wills the world away, just for a few more weeks and then a few more days.

King doesn't say anything at first, not until it's been almost a week since their last successful hunt and even then he broaches the topic with care, leaving her wondering what kind of unconscious signals she's been sending out.

He waits until she's finished her daily swim, the pool empty of everyone but her and King before he says, as she's climbing out of the pool, "I got a text from Dex a couple of days ago."

She pauses on the ladder, her fingers tightening on the rungs until the metal bites into her fingers. "Oh."

"Yeah." He's watching her carefully - too carefully - as she climbs the last few steps until she's standing on the paving. "He doesn't think we love him anymore. Wants to know when we're coming home."

She reaches for the towel and makes a show of squeezing the water out of her hair, buying her some time to think. Only, there's nothing to think about, is there? Not really, not when it's inevitability that's knocking at the door.

"There's nothing stopping us, is there?"

He shakes his head, seemingly satisfied by her answer. "I guess not. It's been fun - a lot of fun - but I'm kind of looking forward to getting home, you know?"

She dredges up a smile from somewhere, something that feels so false on her face that he's got to be able to see straight through it. "Be nice to sleep under our own roof, in our own beds."

"Yeah." He treats her to a little smile of his own, one that's rueful around the edges. "Although the downside is that we'll have to eat Hedges' cooking again. At least on the nights when it's his turn to cook."

Her smile seems frozen now, as ice-cold as she feels inside, but she keeps it on her face as she nods, trying to hold it together, clinging to her composure with her fingertips. "When were you thinking?"

"Room's booked 'til tomorrow. I don't really see the point in looking for somewhere else, do you?"

"No. No, I suppose not." Ice. She's ice inside, in spite of the heat, and she's never going to be warm again. "Are you going to let Dex know?"

"Sure." He gives her an easy smile, the kind of smile that would normally warm her through, but all she can do now is mimic him, hoping that it passes for real.

The summer's over and winter is coming, and all she can do is freeze.

-o-

They make love for the last time that night, and now that it's almost over she can call it that, at least to herself. She knows that's not the way that King sees it, the sex they have, but she's done lying to herself.

There's no point when the truth bites so deeply that not even she can wilfully block it out any longer.

So she lies back in the middle of the big bed that they won't share after tonight while King goes down on her for the last time. She stops him before he makes her come, though, pushing at his head until he gets the hint and raises his face towards her, his mouth slick and wet from her.

"I want to come with you inside me," she whispers and he nods, like he doesn't even remember she said that to him the very first time they did this. Maybe he doesn't, but Abby does and that's enough.

She has to wait until he's rolled a condom on before he can finally settle between her thighs, and she closes her eyes as he pushes into her, moving slowly until he's in her as deep as he can get. He buries his face in her hair, his breath warm against her scalp, and she winds her arms around his shoulders, holding him there as his hips start to rock, sliding his dick smoothly in and out of her.

The angle's all wrong but that's not why she shifts her legs until she's managed to wrap them around his waist, crossing her ankles in the small of his back; it's so that she can be as close to him as possible, for as long as possible, so that she can have every inch of him pressed against her, as if that will mean that the scent of him will permeate her skin, become part of her so that she won't lose him entirely.

They'll still be friends, she thinks, and the thought doesn't hurt, not straight away. It's too distant, too cold, leaving her numb. Maybe even friends with the odd, added benefit, but she won't have this: sleeping with him every night; waking up with him every morning; being able to touch him whenever she likes and for however long she likes.

She opens her eyes and stares at the ceiling, and it blurs above her. When she blinks, she can feel the tears roll down her face, and she sinks her fingers into King's hair, holding his face against her neck as he fucks her so he won't see that, so he'll never have to see that, see her losing control. She has some fucking dignity left, although even that's a cold comfort when she's losing this.

She closes her eyes again, focusing instead on the feel of King's body moving against hers, the gasps he's letting out against her skin, soft and lost as she clenches her body tightly around him. She kisses his shoulder, rubbing her tears off against his skin and by the time he moves from her neck to kissing her face, to her mouth, he'll think any lingering taste of salt on her skin is her sweat.

He's good, he's so good at this and she arches her neck, baring her throat to his mouth, her fingernails digging into his skin as the first pleasurable waves course through her. He doesn't disappoint, nipping and lapping at the delicate skin where her neck joins her shoulders, leaving marks that will be hidden underneath her shirt but will take a couple of days to fade. The thought - the idea that even after this is over, she'll have something of him to trace with her fingertips once she's home - sends her over the edge, the ripples of pleasure tightening her cunt around King, dragging him down after her.

She bears his weight for as long as she can stand it, stroking her fingers over his skin, but when he finally moves away to strip off the condom, she escapes to the bathroom with a quick and muttered explanation about needing the toilet that she's not even sure he catches. The tears are falling before the door even closes behind her and she slams her hand over her mouth, muffling any sounds before they can escape, before King can hear her and start asking questions she can't answer without falling completely apart.

The sobs that wrack her body don't last long. She can't - won't - allow herself the indulgence of wallowing in it, not when King is just outside the door and she doesn't want their last night together to end like this, in tears and recriminations about things that just aren't his fucking fault. She knew what she was getting into. It's not King's fault that, when it comes down to it, she can't handle the fallout.

But she can handle anything. She has to. No one else is going to handle it for her.

She gets herself back under control, washing her face in cold water to reduce the puffiness around her eyes, the redness. She still looks wrecked when she looks in the mirror over the sink, but hopefully it's the kind of wrecked that will pass for well-fucked in the dark, not fucked up and fucked over. When she's at least semi-presentable, she flushes the toilet so that it sounds like she had a reason to be in there and heads back out to the bedroom.

King is already asleep when she gets back to the bed, and she doesn't know whether to be relieved or pissed about it. She settles on neither, or both, or something in between, too tired, too heartsick to work it out. Instead, she crawls in beside him, trying not to wake him.

He wakes anyway, his voice a sleepy murmur as he asks, "Hey. You okay?"

"Yeah, I'm fine. Go back to sleep." Her voice doesn't quiver, and she's proud of that.

King makes another sleepy sound, tugging the covers back over her. He leaves his arm draped over her, pressing closer until she can feel the warm of his skin against hers. "You're cold. Com' 'ere."

She goes, sliding into his embrace and resting her head on his chest, listening to the sound of his heart beating as he drifts back off to sleep.

She doesn't think she'll sleep, not tonight, but she's wrong. Her body betrays her and she's soon sliding into slumber, wasting those last few hours with him to sleep.

-o-

When she wakes, the bed is empty and King's already in the bathroom, whistling to himself as he neatens up his beard. Before this summer, she had no idea that he did that - that he still shaved and that he whistled while he did it - and it hurts, it really fucking hurts that this is all she gets, all these little pieces of a life she's never going to be a full part of. The pain clenches in her chest, a tense, tight feeling that takes her breath away for a moment.

But she's always been the kind of person who keeps going through the pain; she takes a deep breath and then another, slow and sure until that tightness recedes, leaving a weird kind of emptiness behind.

It's early - she doesn't need the 6:37 blinking on the clock beside her to tell her that. Checkout time is eleven, and she's tempted to see if she can drag King back to bed until then just so that she can have those few more hours of him, or maybe even longer just so that they don't have to leave today, so she's got more time to get used to the idea that this is all she gets.

But when King finally emerges from the bathroom he's fully dressed, and his wash-bag is already packed and in his hand.

"Oh hey, you're awake," he says, his smile too bright and beaming for this early, for their last day together like this. "I was beginning to think I'd have to resort to throwing you into a cold shower to get any signs of life."

She drags a smile onto her face, keeping it there through sheer willpower.

"You're up early."

"Yeah." He shrugs like it's no big deal, like he doesn't know he's ripping her heart out. He probably doesn't - she's been careful enough to hide it from him, after all. "It's a long drive back to the city. I wanted to get on the road asap. Do you mind if we grab something to eat on the way instead of before we set off?"

"No." Her smile feels frozen again, splintered and fractured around the edges. "That's fine."

At least he makes her a cup of coffee while she showers, and she gulps it down when she emerges, hoping that the bitter taste will be more palatable than the taste of mingled grief and regret that's already on her tongue. He ruffles her hair as she drinks it, but it's distracted like he's too busy thinking about what they've packed and what they haven't as his eyes dart around the room, cataloguing and crossing things off a mental list. Maybe she's projecting, putting the best spin on things. Maybe he's finding this as awkward as she is, although King usually signposts 'awkward' from a great distance with flashing, neon signs.

It's not until they're standing at the checkout desk, dealing with a clerk who's almost as sleepy, as grumpy as Abby is, that she realises that King hasn't kissed her this morning. And that, she thinks bleakly, is that.

She retreats into silence once they get into the SUV, because silence is safe and she can lock down everything tight. The numbness helps, like packing the wound with ice, and that's how she thinks of it; a temporary stop gap until she can retreat somewhere private to fall apart and then put herself back together.

King doesn't seem in the mood to talk either as the miles roll by and she's grateful for that, for the silence. She stares out of the window at the never-ending stream of trees until she's sunk into a fugue state, until the never-ending why why why in her brain dies down to something empty and bearable.

"You okay?"

It takes her a second to realise that King's talking to her and a second more to find the words to answer him, staring blankly at him the whole time. Even she wouldn't be convinced by the 'Fine' that finally falls from her lips, and she's not surprised when King's face creases in concern.

"You sure?"

No no no no.

"Yes."

"Okay. You're... you're just being quiet, even for you."

His brow is still furrowed as he switches his attention from her to the road and then back again, and she hates him a little for this, for caring even if it's not the way she wants. The way she didn't know she wanted until it was too late.

"I'm fine," she repeats, and King's frown deepens.

"Okay..." he says, drawing the word out sceptically, and she really doesn't need this. Why the hell can't he drop it?

Because if he dropped it, he wouldn't be him.

"You looking forward to getting home?"

"Sure." That word's flat because that's how she feels: flat and flattened and crushed. The a/c's not on but even so she's cold and she pulls her jacket more firmly shut like that's going to help.

"Jesus, Whistler, it's like drawing goddamned teeth." He flashes her an irritated look, exasperated like she's not playing ball when she's not even sure what game they're playing now or what the rules are any longer. "Are you still pissed at Hedges? Even now?"

It takes her a second to figure out what the hell he's talking about, to remember what even started all of this. "No. I'm not still pissed at Hedges."

"Oh. Are you pissed at me, then?" He shoots her another look, something that's not so much irritated as edging towards an anger all of his own. "What did I do?"

"You didn't do anything."

"Okay, what didn't I do that I was supposed to?"

Love me she thinks and the pain flares again, icy cold shards stabbing into her heart, ripping out her lungs.

"I'm not pissed at you." She can't be. He's done nothing wrong, made no promises he hasn't kept, lied to her, loved her.

"Hey, you know what would be awesome? If we didn't do the 'I'm not going to tell you what you did wrong but I'll punish you for it anyway' dance. That would just be..." His mouth twists into something tight and bitter for a moment and his fingers clench on the wheel. "Absolutely fucking fabulous. Been there, done that, would have the scars to prove it except for that whole heal-like-a-motherfucking-vampire gig."

This time it's anger that flares through her and she welcomes it, welcomes the heat that it brings because at least it's some fucking warmth. "I'm not punishing you for anything," she snaps, the words and tone sharp, hard-edged. "Don't be so melodramatic."

"Right." His tone is just as hard as hers, just as sharp. "I'm being melodramatic."

Her anger ebbs away as rapidly as it arrived, leaving her tired, and heartsick, and grieving. She hates this, she fucking hates this. "I'm just... I hate long car journeys and I just want to get home. So can we please not make a big deal out of this?"

There's a beat and then two before King finally sighs. "Okay." Then there's another beat before he adds, "Sorry."

"Me, too," she gets out, and the words are truer than he'll ever know.

"I might occasionally... be slightly melodramatic."

A soft huff of laughter escapes her, catching her by surprise before she can shut it down again. But King relaxes when he hears it, his grip on the steering wheel loosening and a small smile appearing on his face.

It suits him much more than the tight, stressed look she'd caused.

"Is this our first fight?" he asks, relaxing further.

"I punched you in the face the very first time I met you," she says, aiming for casual and probably missing it.

"Yeah, but I was a vamp then. It doesn't count."

She summons up a smile from somewhere, a twitchy little thing that seems to satisfy him anyway. His fingers start to drum on the steering wheel, a little tic of his that he only does when he's relaxed. She envies him that, the ability to deal with shit and just move on. He's stronger than she is in a lot of ways, and she envies him that, too.

"It was good, this summer," he says suddenly, glancing at her and meeting her eyes for a moment before his are drawn back to the road. "Maybe we should do something like this next year, you know, assuming we haven't wiped the fuckers out by then."

She can't summon up a smile for him this time, not when she can see the future stretching out in front of her, tempting and terrifying in equal measure. If they'll do this again next year he'll break her heart all over again, without even realising, and she'll have to pick up the fractured pieces all over again, over and over again until that's all she is, all she has left - pieces, broken pieces of something that's forgotten how to be whole.

And it is just so fucking tempting, because two months with King out of a year is better than twelve months without.

And maybe that thought - that realisation - is what gives her the strength, the desperation, to finally put an end to this, kill that stupid hope stone-cold dead and put it out of its misery. "I don't think a summer fling is supposed to last more than one summer, King."

The car jolts forward so suddenly that her arm automatically flies up, bracing for an impact that never comes. The car fishtails for a moment before King manages to regain control of it again, and she's left staring at him open-mouthed as shock stutters through her, her heart racing with adrenaline.

King's hands are gripping the steering wheel so tightly that his knuckles are white and he's just staring out through the windscreen, his expression blank, not the frantic, what-the-fuck expression she expected if he'd almost hit something. She glances back down the road behind them, but she can't see anything: nothing hit and nothing that's now bounding away, alive only thanks to King's quick reflexes.

She has no idea what the hell just happened.

"What did you say?" King's voice is quiet, toneless but she's still skittish, too half-scared out of her wits to be able to take his question in.

"What?" She tries to get her pulse under control again, deep, even breaths as she slowly uncurls her fingers from the defensive fists they'd automatically formed at the first sign of danger.

"What did you just say, Whistler? I mean, tell me I misheard you."

She blinks at him, unable to unscramble her brains long enough to answer him.

"A summer fling?" There's a note of disbelief in his voice, and something else, something harder underneath it, more bitter than simple sarcasm. "That's how you're categorising this?"

She finally finds her voice, but it's too small and quiet for this. "That's what it was, wasn't it?"

King doesn't miss the past tense, and the corner of his mouth tightens, nothing like the easy smiles and smirks he usually gives her. All of his moves now are deliberate, so in control of himself that it's like klaxons blaring, because King is all loud noises and jerky movements when he's pissed, not silent and shut down. His expression smooths out to that blank mask again and it unsettles her, setting her pulse to racing again, fight or flight or...

Not fuck. Not anymore.

"King?"

He still doesn't answer her, locked down tight in that silence, but he hits the turn signal and the brakes, taking a turning that she hadn't even seen was there. They crunch to a halt in a gravel parking lot, right in front of a convenience store-cum-café-cum-gas station. Last fill-up for fifty miles the sign says cheerfully, and Try our homemade pound cake.

King's hands are still white-knuckled on the steering wheel, and all Abby can hear is the steady clicking of the engine cooling.

"You're going to have to explain this to me like I'm stupid, Whistler." His words are clipped, tight and tense, but she can sense the anger that's bubbling just below the surface, and it's throwing her off her game. "Which obviously I am, because the idea that this is... was -" Hard lines form around his mouth as he corrects himself. "- a holiday romance never fucking occurred to me."

She doesn't understand what he's saying, why he's so angry, not at first. Maybe she won't let herself understand, because it sounds like...

It sounds like she should hope, even after she's tried to kill it, and she should know better than that. Plan and contingency plan and make damned sure you have escape routes mapped out, yes, but don't hope. Hope is for people who haven't got a fucking clue how fucked up the world really is, who think life isn't short and that things can last.

"And you didn't think to bring this up at any time over the last, oh, six weeks or so? You wait until the drive home before you casually mention that you're dumping my ass? Jesus, Whistler." He finally releases his grip on the steering wheel, and his hand is shaking as he wipes it over his face. "Sometimes you can be a cold-hearted bitch."

"Don't call me a bitch," she protests automatically, her mind still spinning, still trying to catch up, but it's slipping, the gears not catching like they should.

"Then don't fucking act like one!"

He's yelled at her before, when he's been scared out of his wits or an op has gone pear-shaped but not like this, not with such venom. Not in a way that leaves him panting and out of breath afterwards, as though the words have been ripped out of him, torn from his lungs and forced through his throat.

And then he lowers his voice to something hot and hard, and that's even worse, because there's not just anger in there, there's grief, too, and a pain that tempers it like steel.

"And for the record, Whistler, if you're just looking for someone to fuck on vacation and then leave behind, it's generally not a good idea to fuck the guy you have to go home with after. Makes for some really awkward fucking conversations."

He stares at her for just long enough for the words to sink in, sear themselves into her brain along with the fury on his face, the pain in his eyes. And, yes, there's still anger in his gaze, but that's not what numbs her, what tears all of her words away and leaves her mute and shaking.

For one brief moment, she can see how much he fucking hates her for doing this to him.

And then it's gone, fading into something bitter and bleak, something she'd seen all too often in King's expression in those dark days after she'd dragged him out of Danica's clutches, after Sommerfield had given him the cure. Something she'd hoped she'd never see again.

"I need to piss," he says, tearing his gaze away and stepping out of the car before she can even think to stop him. It's an excuse, she knows it's an excuse to get the hell away from her while he pulls himself back together, and maybe that's why she lets him go. That or the fact that she's still fractured and splintered herself, in too many pieces to stop him as he slams the door behind him, too hard for it to be accidental, and stalks towards the café. His spine stiffens further with every step he takes away from her as he pulls on his anger, uses it like a shield.

She freezes for a moment too long. By the time she gets hold of herself, flails for the door handle - her sweaty fingers slipping painfully off the plastic the first time she tries - his long legs have already carried him into the building.

She hesitates, torn between racing after him and waiting for him to cool down enough for them to actually have a conversation. King doesn't let things fester, not like Sommerfield, who can hold a silent, seething grudge for days at a time. He forgives a lot, more than she thinks he should sometimes.

She'll just have to hope that he forgives this particular cluster fuck, and in the meantime at least it gives her some breathing space to figure out what the hell just happened.

Twenty minutes later, she's still sitting there, staring blankly through the windshield, and King still hasn't reappeared. She runs his words through her mind over and over again, looking for the catch, for the thing that will kill her hope stone-cold dead again, this time beyond resurrection, but it just refuses to die.

Fuck it. Even her patience has its limits. Either King will have calmed down or he won't, and either way, she needs to know. Anything would be better than sitting in this limbo, letting her brain imagine the worst.

It takes her another five minutes to figure out where the hell King's hidden the spare set of keys to the SUV - because no way is she going to leave it unlocked with the amount of weaponry they have secreted in the trunk - and that gives her enough time to second guess herself more than once. Maybe it's that that finally drives her out of the vehicle - the fact that she can't make up her goddamned mind, twisting and turning in the lightest of breezes - but she takes a deep breath and sets off in the direction that King had headed.

There's no sign of King in the café, just a bleached blonde behind the counter whose roots are showing and a brunette by the till who looks up from her magazine sullenly when she hears the bell over the door ring. The blonde is a little more curious, looking Abby up and down, head to toe, but given that there's no one else in the café maybe this is the most excitement the waitress has seen all day.

"He's out back," she drawls, and Abby blinks at her, silent for long enough for the blonde to exchange a smirking look with her friend. "The guy you came with." She touches the tip of her tongue to her top lip, like she's enjoying this a little too much. "Your boyfriend."

There's a slight lift to the last word, not quite enough to make it a question but enough to convey the waitress's thoughts anyway, but if she actually believed it was going to be enough to discomfort Abby - Abby, who has faced down fucking vampires, for Christ's sake - she's a little disappointed. Abby simply nods at her, keeping it just the polite side of unfriendly, and then glances around the small café, trying to figure out what the hell the blonde means by 'out back'.

"We got some tables out there." It's the brunette's turn to speak this time, and she doesn't bother with the 'polite' side of unfriendly as she points towards some glass patio doors. She doesn't even look up from her magazine, where her attention is now firmly fixed. "For paying customers."

There's no missing the meaning behind her words and the blonde smirks. Abby has a choice - ignore, tell them to go fuck themselves, or buy something, even if it's just to keep the peace. And given that she has no fucking idea what mood King's in or how long this is going to take, she goes for option number three. She knows enough to pick her fights with care, and she's not planning on picking any more today, not if she can help it.

"Two black coffees, please. To go." And then, because there's picking your fights with care and then there's being a pushover, she adds, "Don't bother with any sweeteners."

The sarcasm doesn't escape either of the two servers, who exchange a look she pretends not to see, but given that they're right in front of her and there are limited opportunities for them to spit in anything, she thinks maybe she's won that one. She can only hope that her luck holds out as she takes the coffees that are handed to her with fake smiles and heads towards the glass doors.

There are picnic tables out there, sitting at the top of a bluff the graduates down to the wood below. The wooden kind with benches and King is sitting on top of one, his feet on the seat like he couldn't give a fuck as he stares out across the vista stretching in front of them. Admittedly, it's an attractive view but she's doubtful that's why he doesn't look up as she heads towards him even though he knows she's there. She can tell he's aware of her, and it's comforting that there are some things about him she can still read.

She's not sure what the hell to say, where the hell to start, and so she ends up putting his cup down beside him before clambering up onto the bench herself to sit next to him. His eyes are red, the look in them lost now, not angry, and something twists painfully inside her.

She did that.

If he notices her hesitation, the shy looks she's sending him while she searches for the right thing to say, he doesn't give any indication of it. Instead he just clears his throat, still not looking at her, before saying, "I'm sorry I called you a bitch."

"That's all right. You were angry."

"No." He clears his throat again. "I was... upset. And, yeah okay, angry. But I'm sorry anyway."

She nods, twisting her cup round and round in her hands, still searching for just the right words. "King..."

He cuts her off. "I, um... I knew I was going to fuck it up eventually, you know?" He steals a quick look at her before his eyes dart away again. "I guess I just didn't think that even I'd fuck it up quite that quickly."

"You didn't fuck it up," she says quietly. "I did."

She doesn't think he's heard her, or he isn't listening to her, not at first, because the look in his eyes stays distant, a little lost.

"I keep asking myself what the hell did I miss, what cues didn't I see, and, you know, I haven't got a fucking clue, even now."

"King..."

"Because you? You're straight as a fucking arrow, Whistler. No bullshit, no beating around the bush. You've never been less than honest with me, and God knows I fucking appreciate it."

She's feeling like complete shit now, but he still hasn't finished.

"So why weren't you honest with me about this?" He looks straight at her, his expression tired and his eyes still wet. "You touched me like it wasn't temporary and you kissed me like it wasn't temporary, and... For fuck's sake, Abby, you even held my goddamned hand walking down the street."

Her lips part, but she can't find anything to say, and after a moment, he starts talking again, which means he just keeps on twisting that knife.

"I just couldn't figure it out, how I could mess this up so fucking badly when I thought I knew you so well."

She finally finds her voice again, but all that comes out is a soft and wavering, "King..."

He nods, his eyes never leaving her face. "And the only thing I could think was that maybe I hadn't. Maybe you were being honest with me, like you always are. But that didn't make sense either, because why the fuck wouldn't you just come out and say the shit you needed to say? Why would you think this was just, what? A casual series of one night stands? I just didn't get it. And you know the answer I came up with? The only thing that makes any fucking sense, and even then it doesn't make a lot?"

He pauses just long enough to give her the space to answer, but nothing comes out of her mouth, all of her words held back by the heart in her throat.

"That you're scared," he says. "But I know that can't be the right answer either, can it? Not you, not scared. Because you, Whistler? You are fucking fearless."

She still can't say anything, but King studies her face for a moment and then nods, as though there's something in her expression that he expected to see.

"And then I thought about what I am. Or what I'm not, I guess. I'm not a fucking quitter." He shrugs as though it's no big deal, something looser in the set of his shoulders now even if the set of his mouth is still bitter, five or more years of regret behind it. "If I was the kind of person who quit when things got tough, I'd have bled out on the fucking floor that night Danica bit me instead of making it to the undead section of the populace. If I was a quitter, I'd never have survived five years of that psychotic horse-humping whore. I'd never even have made it to the cure let alone made it through it.

"And I'll be fucked if I'm about to quit now."

Abby lets out a sound, something half-way between a laugh and a sob. Even she's not clear which it is, but it has King looking back at her again anyway, really looking at her.

"Unless that would be creepy and stalkerish, of course," he adds. "Because God forbid I end up like my demonic ex. So if you decide to tell me to fuck off, give this up because there's no fucking hope, I'll listen."

She doesn't say anything, doesn't even open her mouth because she's too goddamned scared that what's going to come out isn't clear enough and just fucks this up even more. Instead she just stares at him, her heart still choking her and her eyes burning, tears prickling in spite of her efforts to keep calm.

King nods again, any animation disappearing from his face, leaving something beaten down and a little broken behind.

"Well, now that I've had my little breakdown, I guess we'd better get back on the road again. Long way to go. Thanks for the coffee, by the way," he adds, finally picking up his cup and waving it at her. "The caffeine will come in useful, although this might be the last bathroom break for a while, so if you want to go, go now."

He stands up, brushing the dirt off the back of his jeans with his free hand.

"King?"

He turns to look at her again, but there's something exhausted in his expression, something that's just begging her to stop, and his next words confirm it. "I'm not sure I'm up for another heart-to-heart right now," he says quietly. "Can we put off this emotional roller-coaster ride until I don't have an eight hour drive ahead of me?"

"King," she says again, more forcefully this time, but when he stops and looks back at her, the rational words, the ones she'd spent twenty minutes in the car trying to find, disappear, evaporating unsaid from her tongue again. "You asked me why I was quiet," she says instead.

King nods, but there's no real understanding in it, just a rote acknowledgement that she's spoken. He looks wiped out, drained, and something in her heart twists again, but she manages to get the words out anyway. Just.

"I didn't want to go home."

He looks at her blankly as if, now when she needs him to understand her - to rely on that unspoken connection that they share - he hasn't got a fucking clue what she's talking about.

"I knew... I knew that when we got home that this would be over. And... I didn't want to go home."

It seems to take forever, the moment stretching out until Abby doesn't think she can bear it anymore, but then he finally gets it, the confusion in his eyes disappearing, replaced by something brighter, something not as shredded as it has been. And that gives her the strength - the impetus - to keep talking, dragging the words up from somewhere, as confused and fragmented as they are.

"I thought this was what you wanted, because if you wanted me for longer than that, then why wouldn't you want me back at base?"

King shakes his head at that, but not as though he's disagreeing with her, more like he can't quite believe the words that are coming out of her mouth.

"Jesus, Whistler. Of course I wanted you back at base. Why the hell do you think I organised this little road trip?"

"You... organised this because wanted to get into my pants?"

"I wanted to make you happy." The words are exasperated, but that's better than the blankness or the grief he's been exhibiting so far, so much better that it renders her silent again, relief shaking her frame. "You were bored and you were grumpy and you were pretty much melting into the street every time you stepped outside. I just... I wanted to make it better for you."

"You... "

"Not that I made a particularly good job of it, obviously." King sighs, scrubbing his hand tiredly over his face and then back, ruffling his hair. "Jesus, Abby. I love you but sometimes you drive me fucking crazy."

What he said doesn't register at first, not on top of everything else, and she stumbles on, the words tumbling over each other as she tries to get them out, as her eyes prickle with unshed tears, the relief bubbling up in her and feeling oddly like grief. "I thought... You didn't even kiss me this morning."

King stares at her for a second, his expression edging back towards pissed or frustrated, she can't tell which and it doesn't matter anyway because he's already moving towards her, placing his cup on the table and then pointedly removing hers from her hand and placing it next to his.

And then he leans in, both hands cupping her face and holding her still while he kisses her.

It starts off hard, his exasperation clear, but when she relaxes into him, her fingers reaching up to catch hold of his t-shirt, it softens and one of King's hands slides to her shoulder and then around her back, holding her in place while he explores her mouth.

She's practically melted into him by the time he pulls back and peers down at her, taking in her red eyes, the wetness on her cheek that he reaches up to wipe away with his thumb, his fingers still gently cradling her face.

"Fucking crazy," he says, shaking his head. "I swear."

Her fingers are still twisted in his shirt and she can't let go, doesn't want to let go even if she could. Instead she leans back into him, burying her face in the crook of his neck. The first silent sob that shakes her body comes as a surprise, and she bites back on it hard, not wanting to do this, not now.

"Sorry," she manages to get out, cracked and broken, as the second one hits, and then the third, humiliating her.

King's arms wrap more tightly around her. "Oh, sweetheart," he says. "Baby, don't."

"Sorry, sorry..."

He shushes her, his hand rubbing up and down her back and his body warm and solid against hers, anchoring her, helping her regain control of herself, although less quickly than she would have liked.

The embarrassment hits just as quickly, just as hard, but when she tries to pull away from him, her face burning with it, his arms tighten around her like he can't let her go. She gives in for a moment, just another concession to weakness, and presses her hot face into his shoulder, her fingers finally uncurling from the fabric of his t-shirt.

His hand settles in her hair, fingers tangling in it as he presses a kiss against her head. "You okay now?" he whispers against her forehead and she nods, finally finding the strength to step away.

This time he lets her go, but not far, his fingers busying themselves with brushing her hair out of her face. She can't meet his eyes, not even when those same fingers wipe the tears from her cheeks again. She's so fucking humiliated, losing control like that, kicking herself for being so fucking weak. Christ, what must he think of her? Probably the same thing she is.

It's only after he's caught hold of her chin and lifted her face up to meet his, kissed her softly and pulled back again, that she can finally look at him.

His own eyes are a little watery and he gives her a wavering smile. "Christ," he says. "What a fucking pair."

She laughs. She can't help it, and it makes it easier, it really does, especially when he pulls her towards him again. This time the kiss he presses against her skin is shaped like a smile.

"We do... um. We do seem to be fucking this up," she admits.

"Well, it doesn't involve shooting people. Be a hell of a lot easier if it did. We're both good at that. Not so much with the talking, it seems."

"I don't know," she teases, sliding her arms back around his waist until she's pressed against him as close as she can. "You've been known to miss."

"Ha fucking ha, Whistler. Such a comedian. You should probably leave the jokes to me from now on."

She doesn't want to bicker right now, not the way that they're usually so good at, and so she limits herself to a soft sound of agreement, tucked comfortably in his arms. It would be easy to stay there, forever if she could - and how fucked up is that? - but in the end practicality rears its ugly head.

Like the fact that the tear trails on her face are starting to itch and her nose is running.

She lets go of him reluctantly, scrubbing the backs of her hands over her cheeks. "You got a tissue?" King pats his pockets and finally produces one, balled up but she guesses that it's clean enough for what she needs.

"God, I'm a mess."

"Well, I'd agree that you're a hot mess, yes."

She gives him a look, and it's odd how easily they slip back into it, the same teasing banter they've always shared, the kind of back and forth she's never been comfortable doing with anyone else. Only now there's a twist to it, a deeper meaning behind every word.

"Do..." She hesitates, trying to sort through and pick the right words. "Do we need to talk about this some more?"

"God, I hope not." King's nose wrinkles. "Are you seriously asking me if I want to talk about my feelings?"

She gives him another look and he grins, although it's a little less bright than normal, a little raw around the edges. "Okay, fine," he says, adopting a put upon look that she can spot is fake from a mile away. "I admit that feelings might be involved in among all the amazingly hot sex, which I think meets the technical definition of dating. The feelings, not the hot sex, although I suppose the sex counts."

"Does it now?"

"It does." He grins at her again, a little more real this time, and reaches out to snag hold of one of the belt loops on her jeans, tugging her closer. "In fact, I think it might actually meet the technical definition of 'going steady'."

"Only if you have a class ring to give me," she says, dredging her memory for the kind of high school terminology she'd never paid any attention to while she was actually in high school. "Or we could go straight for the adult term, which I believe is 'being in a relationship'."

"That right?" His smile is doing things to her, like it's always done things to her, giddy little butterflies in her stomach that eases the last, lingering ache in her heart. "What does that require me to give you?" He widens his eyes at her, his smile turning filthy in a way that makes his meaning clear. "Because I wasn't joking about the 'hot' in 'hot mess'."

"Shameless," she murmurs against his mouth, her lips brushing his as she shapes the word.

"Absolutely." He kisses the corner of her mouth, far too briefly, and pulls back when she tries to deepen it. "But I figure I'm good for it since I know damned well that you heard me say I love you, and I'm pretty sure now that you love me, too."

"I did." He kisses her again and she sinks into it, the way his mouth moves slowly over hers sending shivers through her. "I do."

He smiles again and there's something sweet it in, something that lights up in his eyes and makes him look ridiculously young, ridiculously happy, something that chases the last of the clouds in his eyes away. "So, should we head back to the car or find a hotel and spend the rest of the day in bed?"

Right then, she doesn't care which option they choose - she just wants him to kiss her again and again, and he does, leaning in, warm and solid in a way that makes her feel safe and, yes, loved, both things she'd never known she needed, never thought she would.

"God, you are just..." he says as he finally breaks for breath, his hair tousled and his eyes dark and warm. "You are just fucking perfect."

"I'm not perfect."

"You are for me." His smile cracks, all broken edges for a moment, the kind of vulnerability he never lets anyone else see. "And I warn you now, I'm probably going to fuck this up."

"No." She pulls his face back down to meet hers, pressing her forehead against his and resting her palm on the nape of his neck, calm and steady. "When have I ever let you fuck anything up? It's not going to happen, King, okay?"

"Okay." The word comes out of him a little breathlessly, a little unsteady, and she shakes him gently, her hand still cupping the nape of his neck, until the tension leaves him in a sigh. "Okay," he says again. "Sorry."

"I still have that tissue if you need it," she says. He laughs, and even if that's a little unsteady around the edges as well, it's solid in the middle and that's what counts.

"I love you."

"I know." She gives his neck a last, comforting squeeze and then lets go. "I love you, too, and you're perfect for me, okay?"

"Okay." He takes a deep breath and gives her a nod, more in control of himself now. "I guess we should get back on the road."

"We've still got time." And they do, the realisation leaving her a little giddy again for a moment, long enough so that he's looking at her quizzically by the time she comes back to herself and adds, "We can drink our coffee, take in the view. There's no rush."

There isn't, not any more, no cramming everything in because she's so conscious of time slipping through her fingers. She smiles at him again, her fingers still pressed against his shirt, feeling his heart beat steadily underneath it, warm and sure, before she lets go of him and steps away.

She sits down on the bench and pats the seat beside her, waiting until King settles down next to her before she leans into him again, relaxing against his body as he puts his arm around her shoulder.

"It's a hell of a view," he says, and she knows, just knows without even looking, that he doesn't mean the woodlands stretching out below them.

She smiles, reaching out to take hold of his hand and feeling his fingers slide through hers, warm and solid, real. It doesn't really matter if they head back today or find a hotel, like King only semi-seriously suggested. They'll make it back to the Honeycomb Hideout eventually, catch up with the others, head out to kill some vamps. Get back to the day to day business of living, do all the things that they are seriously fucking good at and even better at together. And they will be together, in the field and out of it.

That's real enough for Abby.

King was asking the wrong question when he asked if she wanted to head home today.

If home is where the heart is, then she's already there, with King.

The End