The commotion came from down the hall and around the corner. Frankie’s shrieking echoed through the building, high pitched and frantic, mixed with the sound of crashing against the walls.

I sped ahead without thought, focusing on navigating through the halls and the shifting obstacle course of people. Turbo-drifting into the playroom, I came to a sharp stop, and shook my head to rattle my vision back into focus.

Colorful toys littered the floor, some shattered into tiny shards of plastic, others thankfully intact. The fluffy white innards from well-loved stuffed animals floated through the air, the torn and ragged remains tossed carelessly to the ground.

Movement caught my eye as Frankie lifted something above her head, breathing heavily, and chucked it.

Dashing across the room, I blocked the firetruck aimed for Dr. Landry’s face, snatching it out of the air before it could make contact with her forehead. In the abrupt silence that followed, one loose plastic tire clattered to the floor.

I looked from the truck to Frankie, where she stood across the room with her hands clasped over the bottom half of her face, her eyes impossibly wide and filled with fear. I turned back to Dr. Landry, already tensed to defend the kid.

But the good doctor just looked up at me with a grateful smile -- like a woman well-used to the tantrums children could throw.

She was an older woman with bright hazel eyes, dark tawny skin, and a gold chain linked between her nostril and ear, a purple scarf loosely covering her braided black hair. Faint lines creased across the red bindi between her crisply manicured brows as she looked between Frankie and I. She smoothed her hands over the embroidered silk of her muted green saree, a barely noticeable tremor in her fingers.

Dr. Landry bent to pick up the fallen tire, and set it on the cushion beside her. She gave no sign that she was unnerved, but I could hear the hard thump of her heart and the way her blood pressure had risen, increasing the warmth radiating from her skin.

“Hello again, Seville,” she greeted me, her Quebecois origins evident in the light accent of her voice.

“Doc,” I said, nodding to her. “Having a good day?”

“I’m learning a lot about our new friend,” Landry said with a genuine smile. She leaned in like she was telling me a secret, her eyes sparkling with amusement. Sotto voce, easily heard even with Frankie’s human ears, she said, “I appreciate that she’s very forward with how she’s feeling. Makes my job a little easier.”

“That’s one way to look at it,” I said, dryly. Glancing back to Frankie, I watched her eyes fill. Ah, hell, not again. I was forever making the twerp cry, damn it. “Hey, kid --”

She slammed into my side, her arms going tight around my waist. I froze, my arms held in the air. I looked at Landry, widening my eyes in a plea for help. She dipped her head to half-assed hide a smile, but gestured insistently for me to return the hug.

Awkwardly, I patted the back of Frankie’s head as the scent of her tears hit the air. It was the smell of salt, relief, and abject fear. With an internal slump of defeat, I wrapped her in my arms, squeezing lightly. Her grip on me tightened, her sharp little fingers digging into the small of my back.

“I didn’t think you were coming back,” she whispered, muffled by my shirt and her own wild, unbraided hair. The curls had gone frizz city; someone had clearly attempted to run a brush through it. Idiots.

“You kiddin’? Gotta hit me a lot harder than that to take me out,” I scoffed. “Have a little faith.”

She sniffled, rubbing her nose into my belly. Almost like…

I frowned, and took a discreet sniff of her hair. No. She was definitely still human. But she sure did act like a shifter.

“I’m okay; I promise,” I said. Then I pulled her away from me, allowing her to avoid eye contact but making sure she could see my face. So she knew I wasn’t angry, but I was serious. “I don’t know what was going on in here, but you can’t be throwing shit-- I mean, stuff at people, Frank.” I ignored the amused look the doc shot me at my self-correction. “You could’ve seriously hurt Dr. Landry. She’s human. She doesn’t heal like I do.”

“I know,” she muttered, almost involuntarily. Her lips turned down. “I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry. I just…”

She scowled but didn’t finish the sentence. Her tiny body shook under my hands, echoed in the way her voice trembled.

“Sometimes our emotions get really big, huh? It can be hard to control them sometimes,” Landry said gently, keeping her eyes cast down and to the side of Frankie. The way I’d seen volunteers at the shelter do with fear-reactive dogs. Avoiding the challenge instinct by demonstrating a lack of aggression. She leaned against the arm of the chair, folding her hands together.

Frankie nodded, her shoulders slumping. Her eyes darted between the therapist and the floor, tensed and waiting for punishment. I could have told her that no one here was going to hurt her, but words weren’t going to mean much. She was just going to have to figure that part out on her own.

“Hey, doc, would you mind if I steal Frankie from you for a little bit?” I asked, keeping my tone light. No need to freak the kid out any more than she already was, but a change of scenery was certainly in order.

“No worries. We can pick this up another time, Frankie,” she said, sending a gentle smile the kid’s way.

Frankie nodded.

It didn’t take much urging to have Frankie follow me out of the room. On the way out, I caught sight of Sam sending in a clean-up crew to handle the mess she’d made.

By the guilty flush on Frankie’s face, she had noticed too.

Frankie didn’t say much as we walked down the halls, her hand clinging to mine and garnering curious looks from my coworkers. She didn’t seem to notice the attention, her eyes on the ground as I led her to the cafeteria. I briefly made eye contact with Tian and Billie as we passed, both of whom waved and smiled brightly upon seeing us. I lifted my chin to them, forcing my expression to be some level of friendly, but didn’t slow or stop to chat.

A slow-broil concoction of anxiety and dread bubbled up in my chest -- I’d always stayed relatively low-key in all areas of my life, and suddenly I was the focus of attention among my co-workers and it was not a comfortable sensation.

But that had to be a problem for Future!Bunny; I had other shit to handle

Sam and I had agreed that too many people at once would only freak the kid out, so Mrs. Sato -- and Mateo, who had flat out refused to leave -- were going to meet us in a little while. My sire had been ecstatic at the idea that he would get to meet the little troublemaker that I’d nearly died for.

He swore that he’d behave, but there was a long history of my definition of that word and his being two very different things.

Gently guiding Frankie to an empty table, I tugged at the front of my t-shirt, rotating my shoulders up and back until the tension in my muscles eased.

“I don’t want to talk about anything from the other night or today,” she said firmly as I slid into the metal chair next to her.

I paused, my brows slowly rising before I relaxed into the seat, folding my arms over my chest and hooking one foot back around the chair leg. She shoved her hands into the pockets of her tattered red hoodie, stretching the fabric down, and a stubborn glare settling over her brows.

“Can’t blame you,” I said, shrugging. “Not like I’m eager to relive that night. I don’t know if you heard, but I almost died, y’know.”

I stretched a little to eyeball the buffet’s offerings, surveying the choices we’d been given for the evening. “Do you want some pudding? They’ve got the double chocolate kind. I can’t digest it, but it tastes damn good, especially for cafeteria fare.”

“I thought vampires couldn’t eat,” she accused, narrowing her eyes at me.

“Eh, we don’t need to eat,” I said, shrugging a little. Centuries of misinformation and contradictory, though entertaining, media had long ago won the war on accurate vampire lore. As a species, we had mostly given up attempting to correct the errors on any kind of mass scale. “The only things we really need is to avoid sunlight and drink blood. Most of us still sometimes indulge in some human things, like food, even if it’s not exactly good for us. But who doesn’t engage in a little self-destructive vice here and there?”

The question fell from my mouth before I could stop it, my tone dripping in a level of bitterness I’d thought long faded. Sundrenched memories floated in the back of my head like dust motes too distant and too scattered to sweep away. 

I winced, and shot a weak smile at Frankie.

“Eh, forget I said that, yeah?” I suggested, dragging my hand over my head. “It’s like someone who shouldn’t eat dairy having a nice big bowl of ice cream. We usually regret it later, but sometimes it’s worth it. But anyway, I meant for you, not me.”

She ended up declining the pudding, but asked for some juice and I acquired some for both of us -- though I grabbed my usual O-Neg Blüdlite for myself. Her eyes stayed glued to my bottle while she drank her apple juice, quiet fascination on her face.

“It’s just synthetic blood, kid,” I said, setting the bottle down with a clink. She opened her mouth to speak, but I cut her off. “Do not ask to try it. It literally just tastes like liquid pennies, same as the regular stuff.”

Frankie pouted, slumping in her chair. “I want to be a vampire someday.”

“Oh yeah?” I cocked a brow at her. “And why is that?”

She looked over my shoulder, her eyes unfocusing a little. “I want to be strong and fast, like you. I met a vampire last year and he scared everyone in the cluster. Like, we were all still nice to him, but he was scary. Even Miss Amira was happy when he left, and she’s cool with everybody. I want to be like that.”

I fought the urge to freeze, twitching a little. I was going to have to come back to her ideas about what it was like to be a vampire another night, because she’d just given me two tidbits of information I hadn’t even known I needed.

That would explain why she hadn’t been picked up before. The closest cluster I knew of was the Southpaw Cluster, stewarded by one Amira Nieves, whose familiar face flashed in my head, complete with the stern eyebrows she always shot my way.

Supernaturals generally tended to be drawn to their own kind -- packs, prides, flocks, broods, herds, etc. -- finding safety and comfort in familiar company, but that didn’t work for everyone. Initially, clusters had formed as small, mobile groups of solitary predators and prey shifters, protected and supported by each other in temporary campsites on the outskirts of cities and established supernatural territories. Eventually, as clusters became more popular and grew larger, ComRes worked with their Steward and local leaders to establish permanent territory for each group. I’d been dispatched to help them with some rowdy folks once or twice in the past, but the need was rare and they tended to handle their own issues for the most part.

I was going to have to mention it to Sam, and find out who Amira was working with in the Intercommunity Support Division. Before Bastien fucked it up, I could’ve just rolled up to the territory on my own and walked in, but now that everything was an official investigation, I had to watch my step.

Movement at the cafeteria entrance caught my eye, and I grimaced as Christine and Shiloh walked in.

Speak of the devils, and they shall appear.

Frankie continued chattering about the benefits of being a vampire as I watched Shiloh’s attention focus on her, her direction immediately shifting towards our table. My lip curled, flashing one sharp fang at my sister in warning.

She smirked, gesturing to Christine to follow her, and continued our way.

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