Long after the scent of salt and sorrow had faded, Stiles stayed tucked against Derek’s side, using him as a pillow. Nothing changed for hours. Even the fear slowly digesting Derek’s insides had given way to boredom.
Sometimes the darkness became a thing he could feel, pressing on each exposed inch of flesh, and it surprised him a little when he moved his hand and met with no resistance. Sometimes it was an endless nothing, a void waiting to be filled. He could feel himself dissolving into it, his edges blurring. If not for Stiles pressing against him, he would have reduced to a singularity, a simple crossroads at which sound and awareness met every so often and then departed.
A few times he drifted so far from his body that he couldn't remember the last sensation, and the realization would make him flinch. Sometimes he closed his eyes so the emptiness felt more like a choice. The lie could be a surprising comfort.
He could feel himself starting to drift again and brought his attention back to the body leaning against him. The rise. The fall. He wasn't asleep. The quality of his silence changed. Derek wondered when he'd learned to read so personal a language. But then, he couldn’t remember when Stiles had been around and not a presence glowing bright in his awareness. His senses narrowed on that warm glow.
"You're thinking so loud you could wake the dead," Derek told him, whispering to keep from startling him.
"What? That doesn't even make—I wasn't even doing anything!" Stiles protested.
Derek shrugged. "Could still hear you."
Stiles snorted softly.
"So what was it?"
"What was what?"
Derek rolled his eyes and it came out in his tone. "The thing you were thinking about."
They were both quiet for a second. Then Stiles’s heart sped up. He radiated something—trepidation?—and lifted his head from Derek’s shoulder. Short, hot breaths brushed Derek’s cheek. Then Stiles slid a hand onto his leg just above the knee.
Derek’s breath hitched.
"Can you feel the full moon?" Stiles asked.
Derek tilted his head toward Stiles, half his attention on the sparks shooting their way up his spine. "Yes."
Stiles leaned a little closer. "What does it feel like?"
"I—like an itch under my skin," he said. A pull at his bones, like longing.
"Does it hurt?"
"No." Your hand . . .
"But it's because you're trying not to change?"
He could barely follow the line of questioning. "I know how to control the shift on a full moon," he ground out. Even Scott was getting the hang of it.
"Yeah, I know, that's not—" Stiles sighed, still not moving his hand, and tried again. "Would it stop itching if you let the shift happen?"
Derek's jaw dropped for a second in surprise. "I—yeah, I guess."
"Then you should."
He couldn't imagine why Stiles was asking him to shift. How much pondering had gone into that question? How much close observation of the wolves around him? More, when had Stiles started to think it was worth investigating whether he was lonely, or hurting? Worth caring enough to ask. He couldn't—
Laura had given up asking when she could no longer stomach the answer.
No one after that.
Decades of practice had gone into maintaining his composure and keeping close his secrets. But they were alone and unseeable. So he gave in, even if only because Stiles asked it. He jerked and rolled his neck, letting his features change, fangs descend. His eyes flashed blue.
"Better?" Stiles asked, and he took his hand away as he started to move.
"Yeah." Derek breathed his reply. It was better. Like letting a spring unwind, or the moment when a knotted muscle relents.
Derek kept still, unsure of what was going on. He felt knees press on either side of his legs and realized he’d been straddled.
"What are you doing?" he asked, his voice altered by the fangs.
Stiles breathed deeply.
He frowned up at him, sure what the racing of his heart must mean, unsure that he should let this go. A hand touched lightly on Derek's chest, then clumsily against his chin. He started to form a question, but those long, gentle fingers kept moving, tracing from the stubble of his beard to the long wolf hairs at his cheeks. He gasped as they touched, fascinated with the way Stiles moved his fingers through this inhuman part of him. He traced the shape, tested the coarseness.
The soft pad of his thumb touched along Derek's upper lip but kept moving. A slow, tender advance.
Derek's breaths came in small, regular gasps as he gave the whole of his attention to the tips of Stiles's fingers. He was exploring. Mapping, with all the intensity he could bring to bear.
When he found the ridges of new bone that resculpted Derek's shifted face, he slowed. Derek felt his heart jump as all that incredible focus turned on him, peeling away his layers. He was at the same time concealed in darkness and utterly exposed. The touch was so light, ghosting. He shivered.
Stiles traced along his brow, following the curve, and touched the small spot just above his nose.
Derek gasped and pulled away as sparks shot down his body, pooled in his legs.
"Oh, God. Did that—? I'm sorry."
Derek blinked into the darkness at him, too stunned to form a response.
"Did I just—oh, God. Did that hurt? Did I—Did I just violate you?"
"You have to tell me. Okay? It's just . . . I was curious. I didn’t mean—you have to tell me that, okay?"
What? Derek could feel Stiles above him, looming and worried and keeping his hands to himself.
"No. It, no . . ."
Stiles exhaled in relief.
"I just . . ." he frowned at himself, embarrassed, and mumbled over long teeth. "I didn't know what it would feel like."
"You . . . but you've had girlfriends."
Derek's eyes fell shut, and he turned his face away. "I never shifted when we were close," he admitted in a small voice, shredding a bit more of his dignity.
After a moment of silence, Stiles's voice drifted to him. "So no one . . ."
He shook his head, then remembered that wouldn't be enough. "No." Such a small word to crack with so much need.
The chasm inside hadn’t seemed so dark or so deep, until someone tried to fill it. That was a wish he’d stopped making long ago, because wishes signaled to the world that you had something to lose. Wishes were wounds.
This one slipped in through the side door unannounced.
The hands returned, warm and dry as they drew along the column of Derek's throat, urging him to look up from his shame. For a moment, Stiles held Derek's cheeks cupped in his palms, intimate and steadying. And then lifted his palms so that just the sensitive tips of fingers made contact.
"Okay?" Stiles whispered.
"Okay . . ."
And he became undiscovered country. Stiles caressed his shifted skin like it was precious, and Derek shuddered. This side of him, this face, saw only war, knew only pain. He gaspgasped when Stiles traced his heavy brow line, smoothing away his instinctive frown. Sucked a startled breath when he drew a single finger down between the ridges. Touched that lava liquid spot. It sent ripples across his skin, raised gooseflesh down his arms. A feeling of vulnerability hovered around his heart, and he struggled to let it be. To tremble with it.
It felt a little like falling, and like turning his face into soft grass. Like being warmed by sunlight. Skin that had never felt kindness drank it in and shivered with delight until it bordered on overwhelming.
Stiles brushed a thumb across Derek's lips, and he didn't remember what such things meant.
Gentle lips touched against his own, and he surged to meet them, seeking warmth, solace, before realizing, thinking—
Derek pulled away and pressed a hand out against Stiles's chest. "I can't," he said brokenly. Wishes are wounds.
The hands vanished, and Stiles leaned back, seeming to disappear into the darkness. Both their hearts pounded loud, so loud.
Even unable to see each other, Derek couldn't quite face him. "You're seventeen. I could be arrested." True, and not all the truth.
"Oh my God, are you kidding me!" Stiles exploded. "We are gonna die in this pit, and you're worried my dad will arrest you? Seriously? You know what? No." Out of nowhere, Stiles shoved him hard, cracking Derek's head back against the wall. "Fuck you."
And then he left.
He scrambled away into the void, putting more space between them than there had been for hours, for what felt like days. Derek felt his absence like a knife blade and cursed himself, cursed the frightened thing in his chest that shook with too much emotion and threatened to shatter. He hadn't meant to get here, on the precipice of falling. Or to mean something to anyone anymore, to hurt anyone else that way. Suddenly a chasm gaped between them that only brave men cross.
He could hear the quick beating of Stiles's heart. He'd stopped moving further away, which meant he'd found the far wall.
It wasn't right. Whatever Stiles must be thinking, it wouldn't be true. And if they weren't going to make it out, he had to do better. Just once, do better.
Derek shifted back but held the glow of power in his eyes, letting them shine. It wouldn't help him see, but Stiles could see him. He crawled forward, easily led by sound and the scent of sorrow. As he neared, he swept one hand out, searching back and forth. He found a foot, but Stiles jerked it away from him. It felt like a slap.
"You don't understand." Derek's voice shook. "You don't know what you're asking."
"Really? I was asking for a kiss, Derek, not a wedding ring." His sarcasm didn't quite cover the quaver.
A twist of emotions hit hard in Derek's chest, knocking out his air. Fear and loneliness and guilt and shame and things he didn't have names for that ached in his bones. Pains he'd never spoken drew claws down his throat.
"I—You don't," he tried but nothing fit. "I can't—I-I don't—"
"Complete a sentence!" Stiles shouted.
"I don't love lightly!" Derek roared back, breathing furiously. His whole frame lit with fire.
A pregnant silence, and then he heard Stiles swallow.
"No . . . no, you don't, do you." He didn't sound angry anymore.
Derek reached in the direction of his voice, but came up short. He sent a surge of power to his eyes to be sure they still glowed and knuckled forward to try again. This time, he brushed against a shirt and set his fingers on Stiles's shoulder. He pressed his hand along until he could brush trembling fingers into the hairs at the nape of his neck.
Stiles swallowed hard and held himself very still.
Derek leaned in, slow and cautious. His lips found the corner of Stiles's mouth, and kissed there, a quick promise. Then he angled them together. It was warm and chaste, a gentle declaration that opened up a lake within. He drew back and left only their foreheads touching. The moist vapor of Stiles's breath touched his lips and cheek. Derek open his eyes wide, so they would glow the brightest, and he moved his fingers over the curve of Stiles's cheekbone, just visible in the faint light. He felt him shiver.
The lake of unexplored emotion broke its shores, and tears brimmed at his lower lids. He shouldn't want this. Shouldn't care quite so much. And knew better than to bother having wishes. But Stiles laid a hand along his cheek, and he turned into it anyway.
"I'm sorry," he muttered.
"Shut up." Stiles pulled him down into another kiss, a little more wet, sucking at his lip, a little less chaste. He could feel the hunger there and fought against the draw of being devoured. It was too much, too quickly. The wound of having cracked himself open too raw.
He held Stiles's face in both hands and eased them apart, leaving caresses in apology. He moved away to prop himself up against the wall nearby, shaking, and pressed a hand over his mouth for a moment to try to calm himself. Too many things he wasn't ready to say stuck in his throat. Even though if he could trust anyone, it was surely the boy who had carried his life so often in his hands.
Still. Trust was a minefield. And there was so very little of himself left to try again.
Somehow, even without being able to see him, Stiles was aware of him, and moved unfalteringly to his side. Probably, he supposed, even mirroring his pose. Their shoulders touched, then bent knees. Their hands brushed together, and Stiles carefully interlaced their fingers, his hand shaking a little until Derek met him half way. He couldn't, he realized, remember the last time someone had done that. It wasn't the type of thing people wanted from him. It scooped out his insides and left a brittle shell. Stiles communicated his attention through the slow, light glide of his thumb along Derek's wrist.
He should say something, but he didn't know what. How to start. He had so many broken edges for someone to cut themselves on.
"You're still shaking," Stiles observed, confused. He paused for a moment and then unlinked their hands. There was clamoring and hands on thighs, and then Stiles settled between Derek's legs and leaned back against him. He searched until he found one hand and drew it over himself like a blanket. Derek's body convulsed in silent amusement, and he brought the other arm across Stiles's chest on his own.
The tension he'd been holding melted in a sigh, and the trembling eased.
"Better?" Stiles asked softly.
Derek bent until his mouth found Stiles's shoulder. "Safe," he said without thinking.
Stiles turned, dragging his nose through the stubble of Derek's cheek. "Holding me makes you feel safe?"
Derek nodded into his shoulder.
"Huh." Stiles faced forward. "Suddenly I feel like a human shield."
Which wasn't at all what he meant. Derek lifted his head to reply, but Stiles shushed him, touching his hair, and laughed. "Joking, dude. But . . . if you wanna switch . . . see how it goes. That's cool."
He didn't. Not right then. He hummed in pleasure and drew Stiles closer. Followed his shoulder to the curve of his neck and rested there, breathing him in. Even though the boy's heart beat faster, Derek lingered. Desire colored his scent now, making it new, and he couldn't get enough. The hues were different, better, beautiful. He drew his nose along Stiles's neck, filling his lungs and letting out hot breaths. Stiles made small, delicious sounds. And he couldn't resist.
Derek pressed a kiss just under his jaw, light. The next lower, harder. He licked his lips to make it wet and tasted the skin beneath him.
Stiles gasped, and opened himself to it. His body moved in a wave, ending with hands squeezing on Derek's thighs.
Salt and soap. Stiles. Derek laved. Tongue. Then lips. Blunt teeth.
He pressed his hands up under that t-shirt Stiles loved so much and stroked over warm, smooth muscle. Surprisingly strong.
Stiles groaned, panting, and writhed in place, wanting more, everywhere.
Derek made it one motion, hands pressing up, circling, mouth pressing down. His palm grazed a nipple, and Stiles jerked, breath stuttering. "Fuck . . ." But he hadn't found the spot. His beard rubbing against sensitive flesh when he smiled. Stiles, hissed and pressed back harder, exposing his neck more. His hands squeezed, squeezed.
Derek bit. Licked. Searching for the point of precious nerves.
Not quite. Gasping. Not quite. He sucked lightly.
Stiles all but collapsed in on himself. There.
He beat his tongue against the pulse. Stiles arched under his hands, moaning, and gripped his hair. His heart hammered, and Derek could already feel him reaching, stretching after greater pleasure.
They both shook, and Derek slowed. Licks to light kisses. He gathered his partner hard against him and breathed. Breathed . . . slower . . .
"You're stopping?" Stiles asked, sounding wrecked. "Oh my God," he said between breaths. "You're a tease." He found the hand Derek had pressed hard against his chest and covered it with his own anyway.
This wasn't what he had planned. Wasn't anything like what he would have planned. Derek moved so their cheeks pressed together and let instinct carry through with an affectionate nuzzle that any other time would leave him shamefaced. It made Stiles laugh a little. "Your beard is insane." He could work with that, and rubbed their cheeks together a little extra just to prove it. "Oh my God, I am doomed," Stiles groaned.
Derek held him a little tighter and then slipped his arms out from the under the shirt.
Their heart rates slowed. Breathing evened. Stiles resettled himself a few times and hooked a hand around the back of one of Derek's knees. Questions bounced loudly around inside of him, and he was struggling to keep them in. Or maybe to choose which one to set free. He was quiet a long time.
"You didn't stop because you're a tease," he said in a voice low and controlled.
Derek heaved a sigh. "No."
"I'm old enough to know what I want."
Derek worked his mouth for a second, scoring his lips with his teeth. "It's not really about that," he replied at last, hoarse with the things he didn't want to say. Kate’s sweet, bloodied words echoed; made his hands shake.
"I can't"—he pressed his face into Stiles's hair—"please." I would tell you if I could.
Stiles drew an unsteady breath. "We might . . . not exactly be getting a second chance."
He whispered, "I know," in reply and tried to formulate how to explain the silences he couldn't yet break. There are fears that live in the body and have no use for futures or reason.
Stiles puffed out a breath of frustration, but seemed to let it go. He busied himself playing with the fabric of Derek’s jeans instead.
"Are we bait?" Stiles asked suddenly.
Derek blinked, for all the good it would do, and tried to catch up to sharp shift.
"I-I don't know. Maybe? Scott's got to be worth more to them than I am."
Stiles groaned unhappily and dropped his head back against Derek's shoulder. "He's gonna do something really stupid."
A dark expression crossed Derek's face—one he was happy Stiles couldn't see. "Yeah," he said lowly. "Probably."
Before they even got to the apartment, Scott could tell. A frown settled on his face, and he gave Isaac a look, seeking confirmation. The pinch around his eyes and sour expression said all there was to say, really.
The Sheriff answered when they knocked, and Scott brushed past him, a spark burning in his chest.
"What's he doing here?" he demanded, looking straight at Lydia.
She glanced up from the arrangement of fire bomb bottles on the dining room table, unimpressed with the heat in Scott's voice. Her eyes swiveled to Peter, at her right, then back to Scott. She shrugged. "He came to give us information."
"Baking tips," Peter replied. "What do you think?"
It fanned the spark in Scott's chest, and his eyes flashed red as he huffed.
Sheriff Stilinski dropped a hand onto his shoulder. Somehow his presence, his control, was enough that Scott could quash the wild thing inside. Peter had never paid for the things he'd done. And he would never be an ally. But maybe enemy of my enemy was enough. Scott's eyes faded to their normal deep brown, and the Sheriff stepped away to lean against the back of the couch instead, watching.
"Lydia?" Scott asked carefully, because she hadn't answered his question.
"It's about the agora. Specifically about the door. He says it's alive, and that Allison should try to put it to sleep once they're inside so that they can't get locked in. It's"—she cut a sideways glance and then said reluctantly—"probably a good idea."
Peter failed at not looking smug, but at least didn't say anything. He gave Lydia a long, enigmatic look that made Aiden go very still, and then slipped around the furniture from the dining room into the living room, taking his laptop with him. Scott stared at him until he looked up.
"What?" He motioned at the screen innocently. "I'm behind on The Vampire Diaries."
Scott made a face and then turned sharply when he felt Isaac leaning in close.
"It's surprisingly good," Isaac admitted at a whisper, although nearly everyone else in the room could hear him anyway.
The admission made Scott smile, which had probably been the point, and he brought his attention to the small arsenal Lydia had produced. He moved closer to stand opposite her at the table and gave Ethan a quick nod of greeting.
"Do you believe him, about the door?" he asked Lydia.
Her gaze slid to Aiden, who said, "I couldn't detect a lie," and then shrugged. All lie detectors worked the same way; their flaw was that they relied on the conscience of the person speaking and their willingness to believe their own falsehood. Stiles had spent a few days practicing it once before he realized that his father probably wasn't going to strap him into one every time he asked him a question.
"Seems plausible," Lydia said. "At least worth letting Allison know."
Scott pulled out his phone and sent her a text. While he was typing, Isaac and John gathered around the dining room table as well.
"So these are . . ." Isaac started motioning at the bottles.
"Molotovs," Lydia said. "I think—" She stopped and her expression grew distant for a second before she marshaled herself back. "I know that fire can hurt them." She stared hard at the little bottles in a way that made Scott desperate to ask how she knew. "There might be other ways. It's about the bandages, really. Destroy those and you can kill it. Fire's just . . ." Her gaze drifted vaguely toward the living room where Peter sat. "Easy."
Isaac picked up one of the bottles and peered at the clear liquid inside. "What bandages?" he asked, and looked around the table.
Lydia gave them a summary of everything she'd found while they'd been out. She, Aiden, and Sheriff Stilinski exchanged uncomfortable looks when it came to the epiphany about fire, but Scott didn't press any of them on it.
When the explanation was done, Isaac pointed out that they were still left with one major problem.
"The glamor." Scott grimaced.
Ethan spoke up for the first time. "What about mistletoe?"
Scott retrieved his backpack from the floor by the couch and pulled out the bag of powdered mistletoe that Deaton had given him. He dropped it on the table next to the rest of their weapons.
"We have some, but . . . no idea if it will do anything. My boss said it's a different kind of magic. Worth a shot, I guess, but if it doesn't work . . ."
Aiden scowled. "We're going to get ourselves killed. I told you this was a terrible idea. We should be getting as far away from here as we can!"
The wild thing in Scott's chest raked its claws across his ribs. Anger exploded through him white and unyielding. "And I said, we're NOT leaving them!" He found himself in Aiden's face, fangs flashing. Power flowed through him, bringing hot energy to his limbs, and he breathed like bellows. Aiden retreated a step on instinct.
"Scott!" John's voice, scolding.
"What!" He wheeled, snarling. How dare he, how dare he interrupt. Scott felt the challenge in his bones, and yes, yes, he wanted to fight. Tear something apart, make something suffer. A growl rumbled out of him.
Incongruously, the Sheriff's expression softened. "This isn't like you," he said.
"Maybe it is now!" Scott shot back.
A dramatic sigh from Peter in the living room. "Do you mind? I can't hear my show."
"Shut up!" Scott and the Sheriff shouted at once.
And all of a sudden, Scott couldn't stand seeing him there, in Allison's house, breathing. He started forward, but Isaac darted into his path and gripped his shoulders. "Scott!" His blue eyes were wide and pleading, and it was enough to give Scott pause. "Please," Isaac hissed. "Save it for them."
Scott glared at Peter a second more and then eased up. The rage slowly coiled back down into his stomach, and when his eyes changed back, Isaac let him go. Emptiness sunk heavy into his body as the adrenaline drained away, and he gave Stiles's dad an apologetic look. The Sheriff looked concerned more than anything, and that landed like a kick. Scott turned back to the table and everyone watching him and couldn't quite meet their eyes.
"It's the full moon," Peter offered absently, as though anyone cared for his opinion. Scott tried not to react.
Ethan sighed and muttered, "He's probably right. First full moon after becoming an alpha is . . . difficult."
No one bothered to try to correct him.
"And we have bigger problems."
John paced over and stood next to Scott, his stress like a gravity well around him. "Like how you hit something you can't even see."
Allison led, even though she wasn't quite sure what they were looking for. Her father had been doing that a lot lately, letting her lead. No, trusting her to lead. That was different.
Westvale stretched from the East Hills River to Drury St. and kept losing some of itself to the Stillmont District a little more each year. As they crossed into the borders of Westvale, a little more darkness seeped in. Allison felt it closing like a fist and stopped her advance to see why. She turned back and peered at the In-N-Out, still visible across the street, its signs throwing off a cheerful colored glow. And then she checked the buildings on either side of her. Brick facade and black metal fire escapes. A corner store was already closing up shop, and she watched as the cheap lighted sign advertising that day's lottery jackpots went out. The store sign itself was just a painted plank: Lee Fruit and Veg. She gazed up the length of the sidewalk and noted that nearly all the streetlights were dark. Those that weren't flickered.
"Okay?" her father said at her side.
She considered the question. "Yeah, it just feels . . ."
"It's an old part of town," he supplied. "Doesn't draw much business. Rent is cheap."
Allison nodded. No one cared to fix the lights in a part of town like that. She started walking, heading for Conejo as Lydia had instructed. Her phone vibrated in her pocket, and she slipped it out to read a text from Scott. Frowning, she slowed and glanced over her shoulder.
"They're saying the door to the market is . . . alive?"
His face was stone. "I'd believe it."
"Scott says we should try to put it to sleep if we can, so that they can't lock us in."
Chris arched an eyebrow at that. "Clever. And with everything they have for sale, I'm sure we can find something."
Allison nodded and sent a text back confirming that part of the plan. She slid her phone away and kept moving. When they found Conejo, they took a left, heading deeper into Westvale. Allison nearly tripped on a heaved piece of sidewalk before she realized that all the concrete here was cracked and busted. Small pieces of crumbled stone crunched beneath her boots, and she shifted her gait to slink across the ground like a dancer or a proper thief. The moon wasn't high enough yet to cast much usable light, so they explored in the shadows.
They took opposite sides of the street but moved as a unit, flowing forward and checking doors as they came to them. Allison kept her bow slung on her back but slipped a knife out of a holster. Her father kept a gun out but low by his side.
No one shared the empty street. Aside from the one shop owner closing up just as they'd arrived, they hadn't seen or heard anyone. Allison hadn't known it was possible to be in the depths of an urban zone and so far from signs of life. They could still hear cars in the distance; that was something. Mostly she heard her own breathing.
They came to the end of the block and pressed close to the sides of the buildings. From their vantage points, they could each see what lay around the other's corner. Allison bumped her fist against her opposite shoulder to signal to her father that all was clear. He returned the gesture, and Allison paused to consider their options. Split up and cover more ground? As far as they knew, the hekaloi had nothing against hunters, so they should be in relatively little danger. Pick a direction and travel together? Certainly safer. And one of them might pick up on something that the other didn't.
But they were on the clock.
Allison bit her lower lip and then signaled to her father to go straight while she went left. He hesitated for a second, but then nodded and stalked across the open street. Allison edged around the corner and gripped her knife hard by her hip. She gave every door she passed a touch and a quick examination. At the end of the block, she turned right to explore in parallel with her father.
“Trust your senses,” he had said. A vague roadmap if there ever was one.
The streets made her feel exposed, and she darted across them to the safety of the next block of buildings as quickly as she could.
Just as she crossed onto Flores, she felt something race across her skin, like she’d passed through a barrier of pine needles and ice. She gasped through her nose and stopped instantly, turning in a slow circle.
Her pulse quickened.
Bare streets. Empty sidewalks.
But her heart raced.
And she should trust her senses.
She exhaled, and her breath formed a small cloud before dissipating. It hadn’t been that cold a second ago. The small hairs on the back of her neck stood up, and something unfurled inside, dark and liquid. It touched her pelvis and her throat, connecting and pulling tight. She should have been afraid; her heart thudded with excitement instead, and she started down the sidewalk with her knife up and ready.
Somehow, Westvale grew more quiet. Deathly still. Allison hadn’t seen a single living thing since the edge of the neighborhood, but the further she went, the more sure she got that something dark shushed the world. The sound of her boots on the pavement grew muffled; her own breathing somehow louder in her ears.
She glanced around, and the moon had gotten high enough to spill silver light down the streets and building faces. But something about it . . .
Allison frowned but couldn’t quite place what was wrong. Something was wrong.
This side of the block served as the back of the building, and the façade opened into a small parking lot with a loading dock. That, like the streets, was empty. Allison scanned for doors and marked five targets. When she started toward them on fleet feet, a thrill bristled through her body. She spun the ring dagger around once just to feel the weight of it shift in her hand. The black cord through her center pulled tighter, and she checked over her shoulder as she went. Something flickered at the corner of her vision, and she spun, weapon at the ready, heart pounding.
Nothing. The moonlight reflected off a window pane, and the world could have been a tomb.
Allison clenched her fists and hurried to the closest door. She touched its surface with a gloved hand and glanced at the door knob. It looked ordinary. More importantly, it felt harmless. She moved on.
Each step made her more aware of her surroundings: the rock under her foot, the gliding clouds, the shape her breath made when it curled out of her. She touched the second door, tensing for the second before her fingertips made contact, and then sighed.
The third door stood at the center of the block, cloaked in a blade of shadow.
Allison paused and frowned at it, then looked up at the full moon, clearly visible from where she stood. The door should have been . . . Her eyes flashed, and a thin smile crossed her lips. Illuminated.
The cord holding her taut pulsed, sending liquid fire down her arms and into her thighs. She moved with a cat’s grace and concentrated on the hot feeling inside that intensified the closer she got. Her father had said it would feel like fear.
It felt like power.
Allison stepped up to the door and should have sunk into that impossible shadow, but its darkness didn’t touch her. The angles against the wall implied an awning that didn’t exist. She pulled out her phone and turned on the flashlight.
The light simply . . . vanished. She waved it over the surface of the door a few times and then tried on her hand just to be sure. The beams never made it as far as the surface of the door.
And then the knob.
Only it wasn’t a knob. The handle was curved, like a jug handle. But instead of a tab to press to operate the lock, there was a small pan with—Allison leaned in close trying to get a better look—small, sharp teeth. She clenched her jaw and stood up, placing her knife back in the holster on her hip. It was the right place. It had to be the right place. She reached her right hand out to touch the surface of the door. The fingers the archer's glove left exposed made contact, and Allison snatched her hand back before fully processing what she felt. She swallowed and tried again.
It was warm. The first time she thought it had been ice cold, but that was expectation and confused signals.
Warm. Yet it made her bones feel cold with terror, and the black cord inside pulsed unexpectedly, made her blood rush with pleasure.
She pulled her hand back and breathed through the sensation, unsure where it had come from or what it was supposed to mean. Her hand shook a little, and she told herself it was the suddenly wintry air as she reached for her walkie-talkie.
"Dad, I found it."
"Where are you?"
"One block east, five south from where we split up."
"Got it. I'm coming to you."
Allison put distance between herself and the door and tried to push down the liquid feeling in her body—the same feeling she used to get when Scott's hands skimmed up her back, when he kissed her neck, her breastbone. She clenched her fists and glared, as if she could dare whatever dark power lay within the door to do it again.
"Allison?" Her father's voice from too far away, muffled by whatever powers the agora drew around itself.
She looked over and watched him jog to her side, great clouds of frozen breath billowing up and away, so silent. They approached the door together. Allison held out her hand, and he placed the vial of blood carefully in her palm. She worked off the cap with a bit of effort and glanced at her father to be sure he was ready—to give him the chance to assure her that she was ready, too.
Danny's blood disappeared into the small metal mouth. Maybe it was watching too much Harry Potter, but she expected the mouth to . . . do something. Close its lips. Gnash its teeth. Gasp to sudden life and speak. Something.
Allison looked at her father, worried that somehow she'd gotten it wrong, that somehow a door handle with teeth and a door that eluded light wasn't a black market after all, which had to be absurd. He put a hand on her shoulder and motioned for her to keep watching.
It didn't come to life, not like her imagination thought it might, but the pan with the teeth did suddenly snap up, refusing further payment if any were offered.
And then the door groaned—an organic, living sound that sent goosebumps racing down Allison's arms. She found herself a step back, mouth agape, before she got control of herself. Chris reached for the door handle, something hard and determined in his eyes, and he pulled the door open like moving a mountain. The smell of earth and spice rolled out into the chilled lot, followed by sharp, intoxicating herbs, fresh blood, and rot. Allison forced her hands to remain at her sides, to keep from recoiling, squared her shoulders, and strode inside, letting her father shut the door behind them.