It was hours after Drake's defeat - hours after dragging Blade's not-quite-dead body back to Caulder's place and watching, grim-faced, while Caulder worked out whether he was going to live or die - before Abby finally managed to hit the showers. She was running on empty, nothing left to give, and the shower at Caulder's place was much smaller than the one that they'd had back at the Honeycomb Hideout, but it was just as effective in one respect - it got her clean. She simply stood there, turning her face into the spray and letting the water wash away everything, every trace of blood and ash and grief until there was nothing left behind but an empty, aching tiredness.
There were so many things still to do - none of which she was looking forward to - but she took a self-indulgent moment, just one, to be numb.
It couldn't last forever, not when reality was out there just waiting for her. When she was as clean as she was going to get, she climbed out and dried herself off with a towel that wasn't hers - it was white and threadbare, too small for what she needed - and dressed again in clothes that needed a good wash, too.
She added towels and clean clothes to her mental list, the one that just kept on growing because reality didn't give a shit how exhausted she was.
She checked on Zoë first, watching Zoë's small, heart-shaped face for a few minutes as the girl slept, and not missing the paleness of Zoë's skin or the faint tracks of tears on her face. Zoë had her arms wrapped tightly around the quilt Abby had draped over her, holding it to her, and that was something Abby else was going to have to try and retrieve - Zoë's toys, one of them, any of them, so that the kid didn't have to sleep alone.
There were a lot of things she was going to have to try and find, pieces of the life they'd had to leave behind; she was going to have to scrape together what she could before the empty barge at the docks started to attract the wrong kind of attention. She'd have the rest of the night, if she was lucky. Less if she wasn't, which meant that she was going to have to prioritise when it came down to what to look for, what she could take and what she'd have to leave behind, and just the thought of it left her even more exhausted.
But it wasn't difficult to pinpoint her first priority.
She'd let King shower before her, watching him wordlessly as he'd limped slowly in the direction that Caulder had pointed out, his instructions brief and peremptory as he tried to deal with all of them at once. But she couldn't have taken as long as she'd feared, not when King's hair was still wet, plastered seal-dark to his skull when she finally tracked him down again, droplets of water escaping to slide down his face. She was losing track of time the same way that everything else seemed to be slipping through her fingers, but Caulder had taken or made the time to see to King. King's cheek was puffy and swollen, the skin around his eye already starting to bruise, but there was a row of neat, dark stitches against the pale skin of his cheekbone, slashes of black against the red lines that Danica's feet and fists had left.
He looked up when she paused in the doorway, sagging against the frame for a moment as the energy seeped from her, leaving her shattered and quietly sad, aching even for the things she hadn't lost yet.
"I think I made a major mistake," he said, and his voice was gravelly and hoarse, rougher than she remembered it being before she'd stepped gratefully into the shower herself. There were bruises around his throat as well, and she let her gaze trace over them, waiting for him to finish whatever he'd started to say.
It wasn't like King to be introspective, but this was new territory for them - victory - even if the price of it was all too familiar.
"I sat down," he said, quirking the corner of his mouth up at her. The smile didn't spread across his face; maybe he was as exhausted as she felt, and King was the Eveready Bunny. "And I'm pretty sure I'm done for the night now."
She snorted, the sound drawing another small smile from him, one that was wider this time but ended in a grimace of pain as his poor, damaged face objected to it. He touched his cheek with cautious fingers, pressing them gingerly against his bruises in a way that told her that this wasn't the first time he'd tried that tonight. He never seemed to learn when it came to poking the parts that hurt.
"I need to head back to the Hideout," she said, knowing that saying it out loud still didn't translate into her being any less reluctant to move. "Grab what I can while we can."
King nodded, and she wasn't at all surprised when he tried to push himself to his feet. But he hadn't been wrong about going nowhere - he lost what little colour he had and his arm came up, wrapping around his chest instinctively as he sank back down onto the mattress.
"Cracked ribs," she said, and her voice was steady as she kept on reciting the litany of his injuries, much as Caulder had when he'd told her about them, each one of them a little pulse of might have beens that had sent a shiver through her. "Numerous lacerations, deep tissue bruising and probable concussion."
"Only probable?" There was sweat beading on his brow. "I'm impressed, and you should be, too. See, I told you I had a hard head."
She nodded slowly, not taking her eyes off him. She couldn't. "And I told you you're an ass."
"Seems we were both right." His jaw tightened, the only warning she needed that he was about to do something stupid like try and haul his sorry ass up again. She took a step towards him and then another, reaching out a hand to ruffle his hair. Or that was what she'd intended to do, anyway. It ended up being more like a caress, her fingers sinking into the soft, wet strands and lingering there for a long moment.
"Keep an eye on Zoë for me, okay?" she asked, and when he looked up at her, his face already settling into stubborn lines, she met his gaze and held it until he was the first to look away.
"Tell me you're taking Caulder with you, at least. And that you'll watch your back."
"The vamps are dead, King. At least the ones Danica ran are, and the rest are probably running scared tonight. I'm the safest I've ever been."
It was his turn to snort as he shot her a jaundiced look. "The cops aren't running scared, and you're way too pretty for prison."
She treated him to a twitch of a smile at that, one that was a pale reflection of his but about all she could muster just then. But she couldn't quite manage to let go of him, move away, not yet. Instead, she let her fingers linger, tracing a gentle path down over his cheek, avoiding all of the cuts and bruises and not missing how his eyes drifted shut at her touch. "I'll be careful," she promised, and his cheek pressed against her palm for a moment.
That gave her the strength to step away, but King's voice stopped her before she got very far. "Hey, Abby?"
She half-turned back, unwilling to risk turning the rest of the way to face him, not when she knew her own weaknesses only too well. If he asked her to stay, to leave this until he was well enough to go with her, she would, no matter the cost. And they'd already paid enough. Too much.
"If you're dead set on doing this, can you bring something back for me?"
The question caught her off-balance, not least because it meant he wasn't going to try and talk her out of it, and she hadn't been expecting that. King was stubborn, almost as stubborn as she was, and he never had known when to quit. She wasn't sure why he was giving up so easily now.
She turned to face him fully, finding the energy from somewhere to give him a small half-smile, something warm, as playful as she could manage when her muscles burned with exhaustion, and her eyes ached with half-remembered tears. "Wash-kit," she said, counting them off on her fingers one by one, all the things she needed to bring back for him that she'd already added to her little mental checklist. "Your jackets - both of them - your spare gun-harness, the Kevlar, and your porn stash. Anything else?"
She startled a laugh out of him, the sound somehow joyous in spite of everything and it left her helpless to do anything but smile back, suddenly, unexpectedly giddy with the relief of finding him again. But even that relief was short-lived; he winced as the movement pulled on his sore ribs, and the sound of his laughter died as suddenly as it had appeared.
She kept her own instinctive wince tamped down, knowing that King only took pity on his terms - usually when he thought her feeling sorry for him would get him what he wanted, especially when what he usually wanted was her. He was resilient, as stubborn in that as in everything else, but when he looked back up at her, there were tight lines of pain fanning out from the corners of his eyes and between his brows. The look in his eyes, though, was full of the same kind of wry amusement she was used to seeing there.
The familiarity of it - the sheer, stubborn, pigheadedness of it - left her giddy with relief all over again.
"Why would I need porn?" he asked. "I have you." He waggled his eyebrows at her suggestively, and she rolled her eyes, the move both familiar and comforting, something to cling to when she couldn't - wouldn't - cling to him. But then his face grew serious again, watching her with something more than just affection in his expression. There was tiredness there, too, something lost and a little wary, and it simply drove home to her that she wasn't the only person grieving.
"You know that beam above my bed? You should do - you spent enough time on your back looking up at it." He grinned at her, completely unfazed by the hard look she shot him, but then he sobered up again, the look in his eyes growing intense. "There's a box, a small one, tucked in the corner up there." His tone was as close to diffident as King ever got, and she frowned a little, confused by his sudden change in mood, reduced to searching his face for some hint that would tell her where this was all coming from.
"Could you bring that back for me?"
She nodded, and he relaxed fractionally, giving her a small smile, one that lacked his customary smart-assed and defensive edge. There was something relieved in it, something softer than King normally let show, something that made it harder for her to leave.
But leave she had to. The clock was ticking and they'd already lost so much. She had to salvage what she could before they lost everything else as well.
"Anything else?" she asked, aiming for brisk. She missed it, the words coming out much more gently than she'd meant them to, and something softened even further in King's gaze, half-hidden in the amusement that characterised him on a good day and shielded him on a bad one.
"Don't peek," he said, a teasing little lilt in his voice.
She raised one eyebrow at him but he simply grinned back at her unrepentantly. She let it go, suddenly too tired to play along. It didn't look like King was up for it, anyway. In spite of his teasing, the skin beneath his eyes was dark and paper-thin, and the smile he'd pulled out was wavering around the edges.
She settled for a simple, "Okay," and then added, "Look after Zoë for me, okay?"
He nodded, his dark eyes suddenly serious again. She hadn't had to ask him, not really, not when she knew he would anyway, but it was something to say, something else to plaster over the cracks when all she wanted to do was break down and cry, or sleep for a week.
But not now. There was still too much to do.
Caulder was still tied up with Blade when she went looking for him, his weathered face creased with concern but without the frantic light in his eye that he'd had when they'd first dragged Blade back to base. Abby had taken that as a good sign, or as good as she was going to get, but she'd still felt a little awkward, hanging around the makeshift infirmary and not quite able to ask him for any more favours. She barely knew him, and she knew the unspoken Nightstalker rule.
Things went to shit, you cut your losses and ran.
But the man was prescient, or so it seemed. He'd taken one look at her face, then called over another one of his cell, nodding at her and simply saying, "Go with her."
Maybe all of this cell were prescient - she sure as hell could have used a little bit of that psychic ability before things went to shit - because the guy he'd summoned - Marcus, he'd introduced himself as, and she had no idea if that was first or surname - simply led her to Caulder's truck and then headed back in the direction of the Honeycomb Hideout without needing to be told.
He seemed content to keep his silence, and Abby was grateful for that. She'd never exactly been a great conversationalist even at her so-called perkiest, and she was a hell of a long way from that now. She spent most of the journey staring out of the window and trying to block the worst of the memories out until she had time - and space - to process them.
She wasn't entirely successful, and the thought of what she was heading back into didn't help.
"Couple of my team are already there."
She started, unable to help it when Marcus finally spoke, breaking her concentration and forcibly reminding her that she wasn't alone. No time to grieve.
Her face was wet and she wiped her sleeve over her cheeks, embarrassed at being caught out. She hadn't even realised she'd been crying.
Marcus stared ahead through the windscreen, giving her the space she needed. She didn't know Caulder's cell at all - that was too dangerous, better to know as little as possible in case they were captured - but she liked them already.
Marcus shot her a quick look, his eyes darting away again. "Couple of my team are already there. At your base. Stripping it of stuff we can use."
Abby absorbed this for a moment. It made sense - there was a lot of expensive equipment, not all of which Drake had trashed. But still, it stung a little, like someone was robbing a corpse.
And she was back to thinking about the things she'd been trying to avoid.
"We took care of them, as well. The rest of your crew."
It took a long time for her to be able to form the next question. "How?"
Marcus threw her another of those little sidelong looks, his expression giving nothing away. "We took them out into the bay. Weighted them down. No one will find them."
The grief hit again, hard and fast. She understood why, of course - no bodies meant no questions, and no attention, official or otherwise. But no graves to grieve over? Nothing for Zoë to visit as she grew older and her mother became a distant memory?
"I'm sorry." There was sympathy in Marcus' voice, but there was also the kind of uncompromising tone to it that she recognised only too well.
"No..." It was a struggle to get the word out and she swallowed hard, pulling everything back inside her. "No, I understand."
Marcus watched her for a moment and then nodded - more to himself than to her - before switching his attention back to the road.
"I am sorry, though," he said, and then he lapsed into silence, not speaking again until they finally pulled up at the docks.
He'd been right - there was a truck already there, equipment being loaded into it by two burly men while a tall woman watched over them all from the upper deck of the barge, a rifle clutched in one hand.
Whoever she was, she'd found the same place that Zoë had liked to stand, watching for Abby and King to return from a hunt, and Abby gritted her teeth, determined to get through this.
Abby followed Marcus up the gangplank. She veered left into the depths of the barge while he veered right, jogging towards the steps that led to the upper deck where the woman was waiting to speak to him. There were a couple of holdalls in Hedges' cramped little room, something she could pack with what was left of their lives, and she headed for there.
When she emerged again, Marcus was waiting for her, his face serious. The woman was hovering just behind him, eyeing Abby up and down curiously.
"You don't have long," he told Abby bluntly. "We're on the last load, and Sattler says that there's movement to the east."
"There often is," Abby said evenly, meeting the other woman's eyes for a moment. Abby was the first to look away - the frank appraisal in Sattler's eyes was unnerving.
"Maybe." Marcus' tone was noncommittal and he bit at his lip, obviously trying to figure out the best way to deal with her. "Either way..."
"I'll be quick," Abby said, not having the stomach to argue.
"Need a hand?"
"No." She realised as soon as the word was out of her mouth that it had come out too abruptly. She didn't need Sattler's raised eyebrow to tell her that, and she moderated it as she added, "It will be quicker if I just work through it myself. Just maybe try and grab as much of Hedges' stuff as you can, not just Sommerfield's medical equipment. Some of it might be useful."
He nodded, watching her like he was weighing her up. She couldn't tell what conclusion he was coming to, but like he said, she was running out of time. No point in wasting any of it worrying about things she wasn't going to be able to change tonight.
She left them behind to deal with whatever the hell they needed to while she headed even deeper into the barge.
She hit Zoë's room first, barely pausing to look around before she began pulling clothes out of drawers. Clean shirts, pants and underwear went in first, then the few toys and books that were sitting on the shelves. She grabbed Zoë's bunny from the bed and shoved it in on top.
The bag still felt too light to be the remnants of someone's life, even someone as young as Zoë.
Her room was next, mainly because it was the next one down the corridor. Strangely it was harder to narrow things down, because she knew exactly what there was to get, all the things that could be missing, nagging at her attention. She limited herself to a few changes of outfits, and her weapons, the ones she hadn't taken on the hunt to find King and kill Drake. A spare pair of boots and a jacket went on top, and she tucked the necklace that King had bought her for one birthday - one she rarely wore because of the risk of losing it in the field - in her pocket.
That only left King's room.
She paused in the doorway, trying not to let the memories overwhelm her. She'd spent more time in here, it seemed, than she had in her own room, even if she hadn't spent as much of it on her back as King had suggested.
Jackets, she thought, moving into the room and starting to work her way down her mental list. Pants, shirts, Kevlar. They all got shoved into the bag while her eyes darted around the room, trying to remember what the hell she'd forgotten. The watch she'd got him for Christmas one year, one he didn't wear in the field in case it got damaged. The book he was reading, spine bent and face down on the bedside table. His spare boots. His wash bag - toothbrush, shaver, deodorant...
Marcus appeared in the doorway, his brow furrowed and expression urgent. "We're leaving. Now."
She nodded, already three steps towards the door before she remembered what else King had asked her to retrieve. She shoved the bag she carried towards Marcus, barely giving him time to grab it before she was back, one foot on the bed as she reached up and scrabbled along the metal beam above the bed.
For a moment she thought that King was mistaken, that there was nothing there, but finally her questing fingers closed around a small box, smaller than she thought it would be, tucked right at the back where she could barely reach it.
She pulled it down and tucked it into her pocket.
Marcus was already halfway down the corridor, and she reached down to snag the bag that had her and Zoë's stuff in, quickening her steps to catch up with him. They passed Sommerfield's lab and she found her steps slowing again, pain twisting in her chest.
Marcus half-turned, shooting her an exasperated look that she ignored. There, on the bench, sat the book that Sommerfield had been reading Zoë. She didn't know how she knew which book it was, given that she couldn't see the cover when it was open and pages up, the Braille barely visible in the flickering overhead lights, and she didn't know why it was important when neither she nor King would be able to read it, and yet...
It might be the only thing of her mother that Zoë got to keep, especially given the stench of gasoline that had been liberally sloshed around.
Because the unspoken rule of the Nightstalkers was that you cut your losses and ran, leaving no evidence behind.
Marcus was waiting for her, any impatience he was feeling now tamped down so well that she couldn't tell if he was pissed or not. The others were already in the truck, Sattler waiting for them in the passenger seat of the car Marcus was driving.
The stench of gasoline followed her out, on her boots, in her hair. In her leaden heart.
She turned in her seat to take a last look at the outline of the Honeycomb Hideout as they drove away, the rusting hulk of the place she'd called home and would never see again outlined against the early morning sky, flames flickering in the lower window panes.
And then she turned her face resolutely forward again.
There was a muffled whoomph as the fire caught hold, spreading to the upper decks, but she still didn't look back.
The past was behind her. Nothing to be done about that except deal with the fallout.
King was waiting up for her when they finally got back, and she didn't think she'd ever been gladder to see him. He examined her face for a moment and then picked up one of the bags without asking, following hard on her heels as she headed back into Caulder's place. He didn't touch her, didn't talk to her, not yet, and she was glad for that, too. She was afraid that she'd fall apart as soon as he did.
He stayed silent while he helped her unpack Zoë's stuff, and then hers, and even limited himself to a simple 'thank you' when they started on the bag with his stuff in it.
It was only then - when he'd stowed his pair of spare boots under the end of the bed and turned to find her standing there, empty and lost - that he finally put his arms around her.
She sank into his embrace gratefully, burying her head into his neck and breathing the scent of him in, letting it drown out the lingering smells of blood and gasoline, of all that was left of their home.
She didn't cry, not then, the tears still buried so deeply that it was going to take time for them to come back up to the surface, but she could breathe at least, and that was something.
"They burned it," she said finally, turning her head so that it was tucked into the crook of his neck but so that she could speak clearly and he could hear her. "The Honeycomb Hideout." He nodded, his hand rubbing up and down her back. King had been the one to name it, a stupid little nickname that had stuck, and now it was gone.
"And the others?"
"Caulder's people dealt with them. Took them out to the bay. No one will find them."
His hand paused in its stroking for a moment as it sank in and then he let out a shuddery sigh, wrapping his arms back around her and pulling her to him closely. "Come on. I've got a bottle of bourbon with our names on it."
Yeah. That sounded like a plan she could get behind.
It was cold in the small kitchen that King led her to, and she sank down into the wooden chair by the table gratefully, watching King pulled down glasses from a cupboard like he already knew where everything was. Like he already belonged. But then, that was King for you. He was adaptable, she had to give him that. He'd probably already figured out the lay of the land, the people they were now quartered with. Better than she would in that short a timeframe.
But at least she knew he'd have figured it out for both of them.
She shifted in her chair, something digging into her hip as he slopped bourbon into two glasses, spilling some of it on the table and pushed one towards her before sinking into his own chair. He raised his glass to her, his smile a little ironic, worn around the edges.
"Slàinte," he said as she finally remembered the box she'd retrieved for him, and pulled it out, wriggling it free when it stuck in the tight pocket of her jeans.
She echoed his toast, in actions at least, if not in words, and watched him take a deep swig of it, wincing as the alcohol burned his bruised and bloodied mouth. And then she pushed the box across the table towards him, finally getting a look at it.
It was small and green, with gold swirls around the edges. There was no missing that it was a jewellery box, and if she'd been less tired she might have been more curious about it.
King hesitated for a moment before his fingers came to rest on it, tapping lightly the way that he did when he was preoccupied.
"Did you peek?" he asked, but if he was trying for a teasing note this time as well he failed. His voice was too heavy, too tired for that.
She shook her head, taking a deep drink from her own glass and watching King as he seemed to reach a decision. The tapping of his fingers ceased abruptly and then he was pushing the box back towards her.
She searched his face, which for once gave nothing away, before she reached down and picked it up, flipping it open to look inside.
There was a ring in there, silver maybe, with a green stone and what looked like a couple of small zircona on either side of it. Lovely if you liked that kind of thing.
"Your mom's?" she asked as she placed it back on the table, because something seemed to be expected and that was all that came to mind.
King shook his head, a rueful little half-smile on his lips. "Yours," he said simply. "If you want it."
Chills went through her, hot and then cold as she stared at him, searching his face for any sign that he was joking. He didn't seem to be, instead returning her look with the kind of gravity she rarely saw in him, even when things were at their worst.
"The main stone's emerald," he explained as she looked at it again, more closely this time because it gave her time to think. She didn't pick it up this time, though. Her fingers felt frozen into place, like the rest of her. "And there's a couple of small diamonds, too, because I'm led to believe that diamonds are traditional. I had the stones set level with the ring surface itself, so that they wouldn't catch on anything if you decided to wear it when you're kicking ass."
Her mouth was dry. "You had it specially made?"
"Yeah." He was still watching her closely, that half-smile on his face, but it was softer now, less rueful and more understanding. And a little sad. "Green for the green in your eyes. Platinum instead of gold because, well. You've never really struck me as a gold girl, and it's closer to the look of silver." He shrugged, and his smile deepened for a moment, something warm and real in it. "It felt right."
It was beautiful, even more so now that she knew how much thought had gone into it, how hard he'd tried to get it just right.
"How long have you had it?"
He shrugged again, and his smile this time had a self-deprecating air to it. "A while," he admitted. "I was waiting until I was a little more sure you'd say yes. I mean, I know you're not big on the whole marriage thing, but..." His voice trailed off, the look in his eyes still sad and a little thoughtful. "I liked the certainty of it, you know? The... solidity, I guess.
"But it all seems a little bit ridiculous now." He widened his eyes at her, a sudden switch in mood that just begged her to join in with the mockery he was aiming at himself. "Let's just say that recent events have put that kind of existential angst into perspective."
She couldn't nod or play along. She could only stare at him numbly, at least until he sighed and leaned forward, reaching for the box.
She beat him to it, closing her hand over it before he could touch it, and he sat back, watching her again, his expression back to unreadable - maybe a little worn down if it was anything - as she pulled the ring free from its small white cushion.
It slid onto her finger easily, the metal smooth and cool to the touch, and she stretched her fingers out in the dim light, watching it catch on the stones and on the delicate curves of the mount that swirled around them, holding them safe and secure.
"It's a little big," she said huskily and he nodded, eyes fixed on her face as he reached for her hand.
"That's probably because your fingers are cold," he said gently, his larger, callused fingers closing around hers. "See what it's like when your hands are warmer, and if it's still too big we can have it adjusted, okay?"
She nodded, the tears she'd thought were buried deep suddenly perilously close to the surface, closer still when he brought her hand up to his mouth and kissed her palm.
"I love you," she said quietly, because she never said it frequently enough and he deserved to hear it a hell of a lot more than she could say it. He smiled, his lips turning up against her skin and his eyes bright for the first time since they'd dragged Blade's sorry ass out of Danica's lair.
"I figured you'd have to or you wouldn't put up with all of the crap I give you." The joking helped, easing some of the tightness in her chest, the one made up of equal parts grief and a muted kind of joy; pain and fear and hope. "Does that mean you want to keep it?"
She nodded again, giving him a tremulous smile, and then - when that didn't seem enough, anywhere near enough given the question behind the offer - she said, "Yes."
The smile he gave her this time was warm, happy even though it was marred by the harsh traces of the last few days written in his face. He kissed her palm again, keeping hold of her hand when he finally straightened up, reaching for his glass. He raised it in another toast, his expression edging back towards solemn.
"To us," he said quietly. "And to Sommerfield, Hedges and Dex. May the bastard who killed them be finally burning in hell."
"To us," she said, feeling something shift and settle in her chest, something that felt right.
The past was behind them, with all of its grief and pain, and she owed it to the others to keep on going, for Zoë's sake, and for her sake and King's.
She owed it to herself to keep on living, and what better way to do that than loving King.