The lights had been flickering, a faint pulsing blue and green, as they'd driven through the warehouse district, heading for the rundown building that their newest cell was using as a base. It made Abby wary, and she grew tenser the closer they got, running through all of the scenarios that could cause it.
King obviously had his own concerns - he'd gone silent and focused, his hands tightening on the wheel. Maybe he was thinking the same things she was, and right now the best outcome she could hope for was the cops.
And Zoë was there. She didn't like the idea of fighting their way into another cop shop, this time to retrieve a six-year-old instead of Blade.
Nothing could have prepared them for the sight that greeted them when they finally turned the corner.
"Holy shit! Did Rudolph throw up everywhere?"
As King's comments went, this one was at least strangely apt. The Christmas lights were strewn all over outside of the warehouse as though someone had simply dropped them there in a hurry - no rhyme or reason as far as she could tell, except to be as garish as possible.
"Did you have something to do with this?" she asked King as she undid her seat belt, her gaze still fixed on the building in front of them in spite of the glare.
King snorted. "Please. I have some taste."
She gave him a sidelong look, her mouth curling up in a half-smile, not saying a word. She didn't need to, not when he caught the look and rolled his eyes good-naturedly.
"Come on," he said, unfastening his own seat belt. "Guess we'd better go find out why Caulder and the rest of his team wanted our base to be seen from space."
She followed him into the building, still smiling to herself and content - for once - to let him take the lead on this. It wasn't difficult to find the culprit - Malcolm was plugging in the last set of lights.
He smiled when he caught sight of her and straightened up, ignoring King the way that he usually did. That was getting seriously old.
"Nice decorations," King said mildly, forcing Malcolm to acknowledge him. "Very... festive."
Malcolm gave him a tight little smile before his attention switched back to Abby, his smile widening and becoming more genuine. "I thought the kid might like them." He jerked his head towards Zoë, who was hovering in the doorway, eyeing Malcolm like he'd grown a second head.
She didn't return Malcolm's smile, but she returned King's when he headed towards her with a grin, swinging her up into his arms and rubbing his beard against her face just to make her giggle and squirm. "Hey, short stuff!"
She watched the pair of them indulgently for a moment, only switching her attention back to Malcolm when she realised that he was still watching her, waiting for something.
"It's... very bright," she said a little awkwardly.
"What Whistler is trying to say," King interrupted, placing Zoë back on her feet, his fingers tightening around Zoë's small fingers when she slipped her hand into his, "is that it's the kind of thing that draws attention. Maybe the wrong kind of attention."
Malcolm shrugged, his handsome face settling into faint lines of distaste. She wondered whether he was even aware of the expressions on his face when he looked at King - she doubted it, somehow. He'd be better at controlling it if he did, pushing it all behind that smooth mask that he seemed to think was irresistible. "It's in character," he said easily enough. "We sell decorations, remember? That's our front."
There was a slightly condescending tone in his voice and King didn't miss it, sending her an amused look over the top of Zoë's head. But for once he stayed silent, not stirring things any further, and she was grateful for that. He turned back to Zoë instead.
"You ready for bed?"
She was a good kid - she nodded, despite being obviously disappointed, and didn't argue. "Will you read me a story? Since you're back in time?"
"Sure, kiddo. Want to go brush your teeth and one of us will be with you in a minute?"
She trotted off obediently, and Abby started to follow her in, exchanging a last look with King as he dropped into step beside her. It was only once they were through the doorway, Malcolm hard on their heels, when King came to a sudden stop, staring upwards before turning to give Malcolm a look of wide-eyed innocence that immediately put Abby on her guard.
"We sell mistletoe, too? Man, I didn't know that was part of our front."
Malcolm stopped too, staring at King, his expression nonplussed. And then his gaze slid towards Abby, something furtive in it that made her feel squirrelly, bringing a flush of embarrassment to her face.
"Aw, man," King continued. "You shouldn't have. No, really, you shouldn't."
Malcolm opened his mouth, maybe to argue or make some comment intended to put King in his place, but Abby would never know which, because King hadn't finished yet. He never did unless he was guaranteed the last word.
"But since you did..." King reached out and grabbed hold of Malcolm's shirt front, jerking the other man towards him before Malcolm could react. And then he was laying one on him, his mouth pressed firmly to Malcolm's with every evidence of enjoyment. When he finally let Malcolm go, he stared straight at him, the look in his eyes just daring Malcolm to say or do something.
For a second Abby thought that Malcolm might actually be that stupid, but then the man flushed, shooting an embarrassed look at Abby.
"Merry Christmas," King said lightly, patting Malcolm's cheek and turning to walk away before Malcolm could react, ignoring the sudden furious colour that bloomed across Malcolm's face - anger this time, Abby thought, instead of embarrassment.
She gave Malcolm a little 'what are you going to do?' shrug and half-smile before she turned to follow King, hurrying her first few steps so that she could catch him up.
He gave her a little sidelong look, his mouth quirking up at the side in quiet amusement as he gave her a wink. "Someone has a crush," he sing-songed, and she rolled her eyes at him, nowhere near as amused as he seemed to be.
"Don't be ridiculous. And that was mean."
"Eh. He's a big boy - or so the rumours have it. He'll live." And then he gave her another sidelong look, longer and more searching this time. "You have realised that the boy has a major crush on you, right? Doesn't make it difficult to figure out who the mistletoe was really for."
She felt her cheeks warm again. "You're imagining things."
"Oh, I'm pretty sure I'm not, at least not if the awkward conversation I had with Malcolm yesterday is anything to go by."
This was not a conversation she wanted to have, and yet she couldn't seem to stop herself from asking, "What kind of conversation?"
"Oh, you know. He wanted to know whether or not he'd be stepping on any toes if he made a move on you. As if he'd really give a fuck if he was. It sure as hell wouldn't stop him."
There was an edge to King's voice, which was weird. She'd known, of course, that Malcolm didn't care for King - and as much as she liked King, she could understand why. He was an acquired taste, to put it mildly.
She just hadn't realised that the antipathy was mutual.
"Are you sure you heard him right?"
King gave her a peculiar little smile, one that was harder around the edges than his normal ones and didn't reach his eyes, and her flush deepened. "What did you tell him?" she asked, because it was like a train wreck now.
King shrugged. "Told him I had no claim on your affections. And that I was looking forward to watching him crashing and burning."
The latter she could believe. King could be a complete asshole when he wanted to be, and obviously that was exactly what he wanted to be right now.
His next words confirmed it.
"Still. Mistletoe? Man, talk about lame. Is that really his best move?"
Abby pulled a face, trying not to let her bitterness - or her disappointment - show. She had no reason for either. So what if it had been so fucking long since she'd been kissed - really kissed - that she could barely remember what it felt like? And as for disappointment...
Well. King had said it. He had no claim on her affections, and she had none on his. She shouldn't be disappointed about that. It wasn't like it was news - if he'd been interested, he'd have made a move before now. It wasn't like King was known for his patience - or sense of self-control - after all.
"It was still an asshole move," she said mildly, hiding how much it stung.
Okay, that one she couldn't really argue with, but it was safer to change the subject completely. "Do you want story telling duty or..." She lowered her voice, making sure that Zoë couldn't overhear her. "P-R-E-"
"She can spell, you know?"
She shot King an irritated look and he grinned back at her, lighter this time, the edge gone from his eyes, almost as though it had never been there. "I'll get stuff out of the truck, you do story time. Deal?"
"Deal. As long as you start wrapping them, too. I have a feeling that 'story time' -" She made little quotes around the words, just like he would do, and ignored his eye roll in response. "- might last, oh, at least as long as it's going to wrap those suckers."
"Now who's being mean?"
She hummed a little in answer, knowing she had him just where she wanted him.
No matter how he felt about her, they made a good team.
Christmas was a success, at least as far as Abby could tell. They'd pretty much had to make it up as they went along, as neither she nor King could remember any of the specific details about the way that Sommerfield had celebrated Christmas with her daughter. They'd known that there had been presents, yes, and they'd all eaten the same Christmas Day dinner on the Honeycomb Hideout, exchanging jokes with Dex and drinking Hedges under the table, but they hadn't taken part in any of the traditions that made up a family - that kind of stuff Sommer had kept for Zoë and Zoë only.
Even if they had remembered some of those small but important details, it wouldn't have felt right to repeat them, not without Sommerfield being there. But then, as King said, maybe they should just acknowledge that the three of them were starting from scratch and make up their own damned traditions. Which was probably why King decreed that Zoë was only allowed to open one present before either of them had had coffee.
He definitely was a Grinch before his morning caffeine.
Zoë was as good as gold, waiting patiently for them to be ready and barely needing the hot chocolate with whipped cream that King made for her to keep her quiet. She was a quiet child, solemn and watchful - she'd always been like that, but it had grown more pronounced after her mother's death, but Abby thought that maybe that was a whole new tradition right there, watching Zoë affectionately as the girl sipped at her chocolate carefully, having taken Abby's comments about not spilling any of it to heart.
The presents seemed to be a hit, too, and, okay, they may have spoiled her a little, trying to make up for things that they never would be able to. But Zoë seemed to like them, taking her time with each one, unwrapping it carefully and examining it closely before she moved on to the next. It lightened Abby's heart to watch the way that Zoë's face lit up when she unwrapped the soft, stuffed rabbit that King had chosen for her, or her pleased smile when carefully opened up the covers of the illustrated Oz books that had been Abby's own contribution to her large Christmas haul, and Abby couldn't help but exchange a multitude of smiles with King as each present was unwrapped.
And there was no goddamned mistletoe, thank all that was holy, which meant no awkward scenes with Malcolm. She managed to avoid him completely until it was time to eat and even then most of her attention was on Zoë, who - thrilled with the season - actually opened up a little, chattering away through the meal, sometimes to Abby and King and sometimes to the bunny she insisted on keeping close by.
Yeah, Christmas seemed to have been a success, enough for her to loosen up enough to smile at Malcolm when he took the time to talk to Zoë one on one. So what if he took that as encouragement? She'd deal with it if he did.
Wasn't like King was interested anyway.
The time between Christmas and New Year was always a busy one in their line of business. Forget post-Christmas bargains - there were a lot of parties, a lot of drunken people wandering the streets late at night at this time of year, and while most of them were good-natured when they were three sheets to the wind, it wasn't the drunks that were the worry.
This was prime hunting time for vamps - lots of vulnerable, unwary people, ripe for the fucking with and feeding from. By the time that New Year rolled around, she was exhausted, and King and the others were no better.
"Is it worth hunting today?" Caulder asked her when she finally dragged her sorry carcass from bed late morning on New Year's Eve.
"Sorry?" King wasn't the only one who needed caffeine to function when they first woke up.
Caulder smiled at her, not taking offence. He was an easy guy to get along with - they'd been lucky in that respect.
"Would it be beneficial to hunt tonight?" he asked again. "The streets will be busier, more difficult to spot vampires. Easier for us to be seen, as well. I have been considering this."
She gave him a long, steady look while she sipped at her coffee. "Is this your less than subtle way of hinting that I should take the night off?"
"Would I hint?"
Damn it, the man had been spending way too much time with King - he had the faux-innocent look down pat.
"Depends. Do we have any leads? Anything concrete we can focus in on?"
"Not that we haven't followed up already. It would be a case of street patrolling tonight, hoping to get lucky, and, as I said..." He trailed off, spreading his hands expressively.
Technically it was his call, as leader of this cell, but she knew why he ran things past her anyway, giving at least the pretence of deferring to her - it was the power of her name, combined with the fact that she and King had been involved in taking down Drake and the Talos Clan. Sometimes she minded less than others, but even if Caulder was more political than she was, more adept at playing the game of command, there was genuine respect for her views behind the questions.
She shrugged. "Okay," she said. "It's your call."
He quirked an eyebrow at her, his eyes amused. "Then we should, as you say, take the night off."
King was about as thrilled as she expected when he finally rolled out of bed.
"Thank fucking Christ. Does this mean I can get drunk?"
She blinked at him, resisting the urge to ruffle his sleep-rumpled hair. "As long as you don't expect me to hold your hair back."
It seemed as though King wasn't the only one who planned to get drunk now that the chance had arrived, and she guessed that if you were planning to down more than a few, New Year's Eve was the perfect time for it.
She was pleased to note, however, that in spite of his decree that they'd have a night off, Caulder hadn't neglected to place sentries, just in case. That was one lesson that no one was going to forget in a hurry - don't rely on the automatic UV security lights to protect you. It wasn't just day walkers like Drake they were useless against - they'd be no use against familiars either, and sooner or later one of the vamps they hunted was going to figure that out.
Better safe than sorry. Better to start the year as they meant to go on - safe as they could be.
Malcolm brought her another drink and she gave him a tight little smile, shuffling awkwardly while she looked around the room for King, trying not to look as though that was what she was doing.
"So..." He drew the word out slowly. "New Year, huh?"
Wow. What a witty conversationalist.
She gave herself a little mental kick, not missing King's inflection to her thoughts. Maybe Caulder wasn't the only one who'd been spending too much time with him.
"Apparently it happens every twelve months or so."
That gave him pause, but she'd already kicked herself once. No point in doing it again. Not over Malcolm.
"Sorry. I'm... not so good with small talk."
"Ah." He swirled the whiskey around in his glass, staring down into it. "Would you prefer talking about the latest weaponry?"
He had a nice smile, something warm and human in it. It just... wasn't the smile she was used to, or the one that made her want to smile back.
"Look, Malcolm -"
"Richard. That's my first name. Unless, of course, you have something against being on first name terms." He gave another smile, one that was probably intended to be winning and would have been under any other circumstances.
"I don't even call King by his first name," she said, not missing how Malcolm's smile faded slightly.
"Ah," he said. "I guess King isn't quite as special as I thought."
She banked down the instinctive bristle at that, pulling on what King called her best Whistler face - the take no prisoners, take no shit one - and Malcolm's smile turned wary.
"Look, Malcolm," she repeated, emphasising her use of his surname slightly, "I'm sorry. I'm just not interested in you like that."
"I'm sorry? What gave you the impression that I was interested in you like that?"
She fought down the flush that wanted to rise to her face, locking her gaze with him through force of sheer effort, determined not to let the humiliation win.
But she was going to fucking kill King if this was his idea of a joke.
"You did," she said quietly, firmly. "Maybe I misread you, but that would also mean you didn't talk to King about me. Am I wrong about that, too?"
"He told you, huh?"
"He told me that you asked if you'd be stepping on his toes, yes." It was difficult to keep the irritation out of her voice, or to hold back on pointing out that no one fucking owned her, not even King. "You'd probably have been better off asking me that question, though."
He nodded, mouth curling up in a rueful smile. "I'll bear that in mind. He let me know that you were... a free agent. Of course, he also told me that he'd break my face if I tried anything, which didn't really give me the free agent vibe."
She stayed silent, giving him a long, steady look.
"Guess I wasn't wrong about that."
When she still didn't answer him, he nodded. "Well," he said, dragging the word out as he raised his glass to his lips, "it was worth a shot, Whistler. You were, I mean."
There wasn't a great deal she could say to that except for a wry, "Thanks. I think."
He let out a low chuckle. "Take it as a compliment. Now, if you excuse me I have some drinking to be doing. Happy New Year, I guess."
She watched him walk away for a moment before she dismissed him from her thoughts, looking instead for King.
There was no sign of him, but Zoë was curled up on the couch, her new bunny clutched to her chest and fast asleep. Marta, Caulder's wife, was near to her and Abby headed in her direction.
"Is she okay?"
"She's fine. Just a bit overtired, I think." Marta's expression - which King had once described as equal parts piss and vinegar - softened as she looked down at Zoë, her work-roughened hand reaching down to straighten the blanket she'd draped over the child. "She wanted to wait up to see the New Year in, but I don't think she'll make it. So close."
Abby nodded, reaching out herself to stroke her hand over Zoë's soft, dark hair. "If she doesn't wake up on her own, we'll put her to bed. Have you seen King?"
She thought for a second it had come out completely naturally, one idea leading to another, but Marta shot her a sharp look. The woman didn't miss a trick.
"The last time I saw him, he was heading for the roof. You should probably go find him. I'll watch over the child."
Abby nodded her thanks and headed towards the back of the warehouse, where there were stairs leading to the flat roof. She grabbed a bottle of beer on the way. Zoë had been close - the minutes to midnight were ticking down and she'd be damned if she was going to see it in without a drink in her hand to toast it on its way.
Marta had been right - King was up there, leaning against the railings and staring out over the distant city. He'd lit one of the braziers they used on watch, when it was bitterly cold and they didn't have to worry about being seen. The fire was contained in a barrel, throwing off warmth but not much in the way of light, at least not from a distance. There was enough light to see King, the fluid lines of his body, the relaxed way he leaned, something she'd recognise even if she hadn't known it was him.
He turned at the sound of her voice, giving her a pleased little smile as she joined him by the railings. "Hey," he said. "Thought I'd try and make it a bit cosy up here in case half-pint wanted to watch the fireworks."
"Half-pint is asleep," she said. "Fireworks?"
His face screwed up in a momentary disappointment before it smoothed out again. "Yeah. The city's putting on a show at midnight, down by the river, but we should be able to see them from here." He nudged her lightly with his shoulder. "Want to see the fireworks, Whistler?"
"Sure." She watched the profile of his face for a moment as he turned to stare back out over the city. "I'm avoiding Malcolm anyway."
King snorted, but she didn't think she imagined the way that his lips had tightened at hearing the name. She wouldn't have been able to tell from his voice, though, which stayed light and even. "Why? Is he after a New Year's kiss? Do you need me to hold your coat?"
"You could always kiss him for me, I suppose."
He snorted again, more genuinely this time. "Once was enough, thanks. I can think of, oh, at least half a dozen people I'd prefer to kiss than him."
He shot her an amused look, his eyes crinkling at the corner. "What about you, Whistler?"
"Maybe I should keep my options open." She took a deep swallow of beer. "What was it that you told Malcolm? He wouldn't be treading on your toes?"
King's voice stayed even. "No, I said I had no claim on you. If we're being completely accurate."
"Really? I thought - since we're being accurate - you'd said you'd punch him in the face if he tried."
"I told him I'd break his face, Whistler. I don't believe I specified the body part I'd use. Since we're doing the whole accuracy thing."
He was unbelievable, even if he was almost as funny as he seemed to think he was.
She opened her mouth, ready to tell him that she'd figured it out - how he felt, how she did - when the dull sound of a cheer echoed from below and the sky to the east of them lit up with blue and red and gold.
The firework display caught her attention for a moment and when she turned back, King's lips were twisted in a smile, his eyes warm in the firelight and his shaded with the colours exploding overhead. "Happy New Year, Whistler. May it be better than the last."
"Happy New Year," she repeated, her eyes searching his face, memorising the shadows and the curves, the shape of his nose and the angles of his cheekbones. It was familiar and yet new somehow, as though she'd never seen him before but still knew him on a deep, instinctual level. When he leaned in, she was ready. More than ready. She turned her head so that their mouths met instead of King simply pressing a New Year's kiss against her cheek.
If he was surprised, he didn't show it. Instead his hand came up and cupped her cheek, a gentle pressure that had her tilting her head, letting him deepen the kiss.
She pressed closer, her own hands mirroring his move, capturing his face as her lips parted, letting him in. His mouth moved slowly over hers, sending heat racing through her as he wrapped his free arm around her waist, pulling her closer to him.
Eventually, he broke away to look down at her, staying close enough for his breath to brush against her skin, warm and certain. "Well, this year is looking up already."
"I guess there's something to be said about starting as you mean to go on."
"That's a very good point, Whistler." He only hesitated for a moment before he closed the gap between them, pressing his mouth against hers again, soft and sweet.
She slid her hand around his neck, holding him there, kissing him back again and again, taking her time with each achingly slow kiss until she could feel the warmth of his touch in every part of her and he - finally - relaxed completely against her.
This time when he pulled back, the warmth in his eyes, the light there, rivalled any amount of Christmas cheer.
"Happy New Year, Whistler."
It was going to be.