Content Warning: Domestic violence, panic attack, flashback.

“I feel like that was probably a bad idea,” I said. My voice had become a distant, muffled sound, but at least that meant my eardrums were healing.

Mateo’s shoulders rose and fell in a sharp, uneven rhythm. His hands shook, then clenched into tight fists. He stood facing away from me, staring out into the night as our intruder disappeared in the distance. I carefully ignored the smattering of old, shiny scars that marred the warm brown skin of his shoulders and back. I didn’t know much about Mateo’s life as a human — centuries before I’d been born, he’d lived in a world very different from the one I knew.

I had unkind names for that world.

The beat of silence shattered as Vee’s coma-breaking howl boomed through the house again, followed swiftly by a second, identical one. Mateo's eyes cut to me in the dark reflection of the broken window. It didn't take long for Ollie and Salma both to appear in the doorway, their faces just as covered in wounds and dark blood as Mateo. Salma rushed to her brother's side, her hand lifting to cup his cheek.

“Pobrecito," she murmured, brows drawn tight over worried eyes.

"I'm fine," he said, gently stepping away from her touch. "Thanks to Bunny and Vee's efforts."

I carefully looked away from the hurt on Salma’s face. I didn’t know what that was about, but I certainly wasn’t about to draw attention to it. We had bigger problems.

Ollie crossed her arms, staring past Mateo out the window. Her eyes held a laser focus that his had lacked.

"What the hell happened?"

Mateo gestured to me. "Ask them."

When all eyes turned to me, I sighed and quickly summarized the events of the past twenty minutes.

When I mentioned my hearing issues, Ollie began rubbing at the side of my head, massaging the area around my ears until the ringing started to fade and my hearing fully returned. Vampire healing wasn't without its limits, but it remained one of the best parts of my afterlife.

"I don't suppose we know what the fuck that thing was?" Mateo asked. He turned around, reaching up to gingerly press his fingers against the angry wounds on his face. It wasn’t healing as fast as it should’ve been.

"I don't know what it was," I said. "but I can make some educated guesses about why it was here."

Ollie and Salma exchanged a look, but said nothing.

"Remind me," he said, looking from the blood-soaked bed to his sister's face. "That we need to set out something nice for Vee. Maybe a carton of cigarettes for her.”

I narrowed my eyes at him, but he quickly moved on, and, all things considered, I let him.

“In the meantime, the Buddy Protocol is in effect."

Successfully distracted, Ollie and I both groaned. I turned to shove my face into her shoulder, our whining chorus only growing louder over Mateo’s attempts to make us stop.

"How about we don’t implement Buddy Protocol, and just say we did," I broke long enough to mutter into Ollie's shirt.

“Motion seconded!” Ollie piped up, raising her hand above our heads. "Motion passed. Buddy Protocol abolished. And everyone clapped!”

The growl was all the warning we got. Before either of us could react, hands gripped my shoulders and ripped me away from Ollie, and shoved me into the hallway. I stumbled backward, landing on my ass.

Salma stood above me, snarling with her fangs bared and eyes gone feral.

“You think this is a funny haha joke to make? Shiloh may be lost, and this is the time for laughter? True death nips at our heels, and you wish to make its job easier?”

The contempt in her voice cut me in a way nothing else could have. I stared up at her, my eyes blurring, and a familiar fear vibrating through my bones. I trembled, gritting my teeth so hard in my effort to freeze my shaking body. I dug my nails into my palms. I needed to stop. I needed to breathe — no, I didn’t — my lungs burned hot as my eyes, the rapid pounding of my heart drowned out by the blood roaring in my ears.

The grip of her hand on my arm hurt — sharp, yet not quite bruising, — but it was her silence that struck the match of terror in my gut.

Please, mo--

“Bunny. Breathe in with me, mije. It’s okay, you can do it.”

I sucked in a ragged breath until my lungs ached from the effort. Abruptly aware of our mutually tight grip on each others’ hands, I tried to pull away, but Mateo tightened his hold on me. I stared at him, and he simply stared back. I held that breath for long, ticking moments, weighing it in my lungs like an anchor in the sea, tying me to my body. Sensation flooded back into me, the minor sting and itch of healing wounds, and the tension holding my muscles painfully rigid.

“Now, let it go,” he whispered. “You are safe.”

A long time ago, though perhaps not so long in his eyes, Mateo had held my hand and promised me safety. I took that promise, and made one of my own. He had not yet broken his promise, but tonight, I’d broken mine.

Salma’s voice cut through the silence.

“I didn’t mean to —” Tears. I could smell them. Salt and copper.

“Didn’t you? You are nearly 900 years old, Salma, and you’re acting like a child. You fucked up, own it,” Ollie snapped back. Fabric rustled. “C’mon.”

Their voices faded.

Mateo squeezed my hand, dragging my attention back to him.

“You let her deal with it, comprendes?” He shook his head, brows falling heavy over his eyes. He dropped his voice to a whisper just for me. “Escucha, quiero a mi hermana, pero …”

I exhaled, slowly, and softly patted his hand. “It’s okay. I mean, it’s not, obviously, but it’s not on you.”

“Debatable,” he muttered. “Vamos, we should both clean up.”

He rocked back on his heels and did a little hop to his feet, abruptly dragging me upwards with him.

Unprepared for it, I over-corrected and landed face-first in his bare, hairy armpit.

Mateo burst into laughter, pulling my crumbled, not-crying-but-clearly-distressed face out of the furry chasm of his pit and pulled me into a bear hug. His hand cradled the back of my head, his arms wrapped around me like a warm blanket, and everything was … immediately, a little bit better.

It was easy to forget, in the night to night routine, that there was real magic in the sire/child bond, and it was easier still to accidentally neglect it. Like all magic, and all relationships, consistent nurturing was vital. My face nestled into the curve of his throat, I inhaled deep, letting myself relax in his arms. The tension in my shoulders melted away, like butter off a hot knife.

“I’m so tired, man,” I muttered. “The last couple nights have been fuckin’ rough.”

He hummed in my ear. And promptly began to gently rock me to and fro like a drowsy baby.

"Viejo, I am 164 years old, not a fussy toddler!"

"It's okay to be a fussy toddler sometimes, mije. We were all babies once."

"No!" I snapped, fully aware that I was not helping my case. "I do not have the time for inner child bullshit."

True. Soberingly, very true.

"I don't have the time," I said, tone falling short of light, and straight down into depressingly serious. “I wish I did.”

I pulled out of Mateo's arms, and he let me go.

"But my inner child is just gonna have to wait."

I was getting looks from people I didn't know, and I was not pleased about that shit at all.

Oh, sure, they could've been looking at Ollie striding beside me, barreling menacingly forward in a crisp black tank top, and faded grey cargo pants tucked into her scuffed brown boots. For every one of my steps, she took two, but still managed to get ahead of me like she knew where we were going.

She did not.

But the expressions of our onlookers lacked the admiration that she usually inspired. Instead, they overflowed with concern, a facial configuration I was, unfortunately, quite familiar with.

I could smell the pity, infecting the air like black mold, or annoying little fruit flies. My lip curled.

"Ah, pull the stick out of your ass, Seville," a voice rumbled behind me. A broad, muscled shoulder slammed into the back of mine, shoving me a foot forward. "They give a shit about you, and you ought to be glad of it. Can only do so much all by your tiny, little lonesome."

Oh, come on.

I regained my balance by grabbing Ollie’s arm, pulling her to a stop beside me. She hissed at the person behind me, her face tilted high. I turned, and looked up. Like, way up.

Standing at a whopping 7’3”, Carver grinned down at us, pearly white tusks curving out of her mouth, and yellow eyes with black sclera squinted in amusement. The orc towered over me, her mossy green skin nearly black with the light blocked behind her. She’d pulled her hair into a series of hip-length brunette braids with bone and iron woven in, symbols of her Fae clan, while her ragged, cropped hoodie and low-riding sweatpants combo said she was definitely here on her night off. Carver was the only one of us that actually wore that shit-ugly uniform.

“What are you doing here?” I asked, ignoring her comments. She was always on me to "participate" and ”socialize” more, with a few short jokes thrown in for good measure.

“Sam called everyone in.”

I blinked.

“Like, everyone-everyone?” I asked. I felt more than saw Ollie pry my tightening hand off her arm.

“Team meeting, overtime approved,” she said, shrugging. She crossed her arms, biceps bulging and tats on display. “I think Leon’s the only one still out, but y’know, parental leave and all. I saw Kojo and Dorian on their way up earlier.”

I pulled my phone out of my pocket, checking my messages. Sure enough, six missed texts from Sam. The first three were rapid-fire, only a few seconds between each, while the last two were separated by hours. She was a multi-texter. Go figure.

> What's going on?

> I need an update, Seville!

> Christine is freaking out and Frankie isn't talking.

> Seville, where are you?

> Bunny, answer me.

> Team meeting tonight, midnight. Don't be late.

I was actually early, thank you very much. I quickly tapped out a response.

> Here.

I tucked the device back in my pocket, looking back up at Carver. I was going to have to explain all this shit to the team. That was going to be so much fun. I glanced at Ollie. She hadn't met any of the team before. She didn’t appear nervous about that at all, while my stomach was in angry, writhing knots.

No, Ollie wasn't worried because my most beloved cousin and best friend was eyeballing the team mom like she was a particularly tall ladder she was making plans to climb.

"Okay, well, we better get to the conference room then! We’ll see you there," I said, snatching Ollie by the arm again and dragging her away. She gave a token protest before laughing at my grumpy face and pulling away to throw her arm across my shoulders as we made our way through the building.

Carver moseyed along behind us, stopping every few feet to briefly chat with people, most of whom I vaguely recognized. Though I couldn't have put a name to a single one if pressed. But I didn't miss the way Ollie kept looking over our shoulders at the orc. I hissed at her.

"Stop it."

"What? I'm not doing anything," she said, smirking a little. "Yet. You’ve noticed she’s hot right? Like, girl, I know you’re all about your pet human, but did you see those arms? She could snap me in half, and I think I'd like it."

"Callate, chismosa!” Frantically, I looked around, before dropping my voice low. “First off, shut up about Sam, please, I am begging you. Not here."

She nodded and offered her pinky finger. Resisting the urge to roll my eyes -- I hadn't lied to Frankie, the fist-bump-pinky-promise was sacrosanct in our home -- I took the gesture for what it was and accepted her promise to back off the Sam Topic.

"Second off, please don't fuck around with my teammates. I know you get bored easily, but I don’t want to have to see any of these fuckers at our kitchen table after you’re done with them, and all of them are just different flavors of fucking weird.”

"Ooh, so they're just like us," she said, her smirk growing into a real grin. I shook my and hid my own smile.

Approaching our assigned conference room, I took a deep breath. Swinging the door open, I gestured for her to go ahead of me.

“Sure, just like us.”

Not in the slightest.

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