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Soft Spot

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There’s something familiar about the girl. That’s the first thing that Vanessa thinks about when she sees the young girl race in front of her, braided pigtails flying behind her. She has to be twelve, thirteen, a laugh on her lips that causes as much of a ruckus as her running. It’s late, the sun beginning to set. She should be home, Vanessa thinks next. Home to her mother and her father, safe and sound.

That gives her pause, as if she can’t understand why this girl needs to be safe. But she glances up at the sky and sees the smallest of slivers of the waning moon beginning to peak in the night sky, and she realizes she knows why. The dark of the moon is soon, and for as long as Vanessa remembers, she’s always been worried about that time of the moon.

A slight smile tugs at her lips as she watches the girl carefully. What a silly notion, to be worried about a natural phenomenon and to place her fears on some kind. Still, her fingers grasp at her throat as if she’s supposed to find something there to hold onto.

There’s nothing. Nothing ever hangs around her neck. She’s been adverse to necklaces for so long that there isn’t even a reason for it anymore.

“Watch where you’re going!” someone snaps out at the girl. His lips pull back into a growl, spiked green hair towering over his head like a weapon. Like if he bent his head, he could impale her.

Vanessa’s heart hammers in her chest madly, and she steps forward, wrapping her arm around the girl’s shoulders and tugging her close. The girl stares up at her with wide brown eyes, but she relaxes instantly into the touch. “No need to yell,” Vanessa tells the man.

He turns that sharp look on her now before his gaze flickers over her body with more of a leer. His tongue dashes across his lips, and it’s all that Vanessa can do to not knee him in the crotch. Her body tenses, but she paints a friendly smile on. “This kid ran into me.”

“No I didn’t,” the girl protests. She glares at the man. “He showed up out of nowhere.”

“I’m sure she didn’t mean to.” Vanessa’s fingers dig into the girl’s arm. There’s something not right about this guy, the way he looks at her, the way he looks at this kid. Like he could devour them both. Like he’d get off on gutting them and seeing how they worked.

Revulsion rolls over her skin, but she manages to hide it behind her pretty smiles and soft words. There’s power in pretending to be something you’re not sometimes, in letting people think you’re weaker than what you are.

“If anything, you ran into me,” the girl snaps.

She sounds so much like another girl Vanessa knew long ago. Stubborn, challenging. An ache jabs at her.

“You should apologize to the gentleman,” Vanessa chides gently, taking a step back. The girl goes with her, reluctantly.

“No way, lady.”

The man smiles, vicious, cunning. “How about you step away now, and let me deal with the little troublemaker. No reason for you to get involved with someone you don’t even know, lady.”

Vanessa wishes she could have been less obvious about that one. A tremble runs through the girl’s body, but she can’t be sure if it’s fear or anger. Vanessa isn’t really sure which one she’s feeling either.

“I do know that I am not about to let some girl be taken by the likes of you.” Shoving the girl behind her, she takes a step forward, baring her teeth in imitation of his own.

He’s shocked. That’s easy to tell with the way his head snaps back, the way his body leans away from her, nostrils flaring. “You’re making a huge mistake.”

“The only one making any mistakes here is you, if you think you’re going to get any closer to me or this girl. I won’t hesitate to make your life hell.”

She’s terrified, sure, but there’s power in her words. It flows through her body and sends steel down her spine. She’s not a scared girl anymore, worried about the way people think about her. She is fire and will and that spark of hope and freedom every girl deserves to have in this world.

He sneers, but it’s obvious he’s hesitating. “This isn’t over,” he mutters under his breath before stalking off.

Turning around again, Vanessa expects the girl to be gone, but she’s still there, watching her with those wide eyes. “Whoa. You’re amazing.”

The way this girl looks at her makes her feel like she’s a goddess.

“That was nothing,” Vanessa mumbles in embarrassment, running her fingers through her short, blonde hair.

The girl shakes her head emphatically, two braids whipping through the air. “No way are you getting by with that kind of humble act, lady.”

“Vanessa,” she says. “My name is Vanessa. What’s yours?”

“Katrina,” the girl says with a grin.

“Aren’t you too young to be out in the middle of downtown L.A. by yourself?” Vanessa puts one hand on her hip. “Where do you live?”

Katrina shrugs her shoulders, her fingers wrapped around the amulet hanging from her neck. It looks like a tiny moon, silver and glittering in the street lights. “Nowhere.”

The fire dies out in Vanessa’s veins, leaving behind a wave of sadness. “Your parents?”

“None.”

She presses her lips together in a thin line before holding her hand out to Katrina. The girl looks at it warily, like she’s expecting to be taken somewhere she doesn’t want to go, like maybe this is some kind of trick.

But Vanessa’s always had a soft spot for little girls with a penchant for trouble, for girls who have nothing and no one.

“I bet you’re hungry, then. I haven’t eaten dinner yet, so I definitely am,” Vanessa says softly.

Katrina’s hand is warm and small as she places it in Vanessa’s. Her fingers close over the hand. “Starving.”

“Okay, then. What’s your favorite thing to eat?”