There is a tipping point between simply being cold and freezing to death. On a winter night in the city of Vale, with the aftermath of a blizzard still thick on every surface, a lone child wondered, with equal parts dread and curiosity, where exactly that point lay.

Her feet might have frozen to death. They still moved, still plodded through the dirty slush, but she could feel nothing in them but the ghost of an ache. Tiny puffs of vapour escaped her lips as she whispered curses at her flimsy shoes.

They'd probably been a decent pair, fifteen years ago. Now, even the rubber soles had been beaten thin enough to let the cold through, and they'd crumple in on themselves like burst footballs every time she took them off, which she did often, because they were meant for a much younger girl. If she wore them much longer, her toes might grow through the front.

For now, she kept them on. She didn't want to look underneath, in case the skin had turned grey.

And her ears. They'd definitely frozen to death. Not the fleshy lobed ones, the ones tucked beneath her scraggled cascade of hair, but the black cat ears that peaked from her scalp. She wondered if she could snap them off. She wondered if she'd feel it.

Occasionally she'd try to resurrect them by cupping them in her hands, but never for long, because it meant unfolding her arms and beckoning the wind into her shirt. Better frozen ears than frozen insides. Could your insides freeze? Would you know if it was happening, or would you just be alive one minute and dead of frostguts the next?

She quickened her pace as much as she dared in the slippery gloom.

By the time it got this dark, she was normally huddled in whatever nook she could find, withdrawn into her clothes like a frightened tortoise and cradling, if she was lucky, the fruits of her daily scavenging in her lap. Tonight she had a dead rat in her pocket, which she would soon have to make a decision on.

She glanced over her shoulder and realised, with a glint of pride, how far she'd managed to walk. The lurid yellow glare of Vale's industrial district was yielding to the moon's silverescence, and ahead, compacted ice mush transitioned to honest snow. It couldn't be much further now.

Out in the fields, where the humans aren't. Out where we don't walk on their streets and see by their light.

Please let it be here. Please let it be real.

The girl opened the door and shuddered in half-lidded comfort as warmth billowed out.

Opposite her, against the varnished oak panelling of the back wall, a tall, dark woman, bespectacled and gleaming bald, reclined on a throne of a chair behind a mighty executive desk and blew gently into a steaming mug. At the sight of the girl, she bolted to attention, putting her pressed, pristine coat on full display.

Though they had never met before, and though she had yet to speak one word, the girl understood immediately that this was the Lady In Charge.

"Good evening," said the Lady, perching her mug on a cork coaster. Her voice was deep and mild. "May I help you?"


Clean, carpeted floor. Cushioned furnishings. A flatscreen TV in the corner, though it was muted and the lady paid it no attention. Tidy. Spacious. Warm. Wonderfully, skin-tinglingly warm.

This was not a place where faunus went. This was a place faunus got kicked out of, and she hadn't even knocked. She half, no, fully expected someone to seize the scruff of her neck and toss her back into the snow out of sheer universal axiom.

"Someone said I should come here if I got sick or hurt?" she said, clutching the doorframe.

"They were right. Don't be shy. Come in. You must be freezing."

The girl sidled inside, closing the door behind her, and the lady waited for her to advance before stepping from behind the desk and meeting her in the middle of the room.

"What seems to be the problem?" she said.

The girl turned and pointed at the back of her head. The hair was wet and clumped in the centre. A trail of crimson residue ran down her neck, where blood had streamed and bloomed into the fabric of her collar.

"Dear me. That looks like it hurts," said the lady, wincing in genuine sympathy. She gestured to a side door. "Come on through and we'll have a look at you."

The room beyond was less inviting. Still clean, immaculate even, but starkly so. All white tiles and polished steel apparatus. It looked cold, even if it didn't feel it.

The lady led her to a chair and bid her to sit, then slid her fingers into her hair and parted it as tenderly as the tangles would allow.

"I slipped on some ice," said the girl.


The wound glistened, still fresh, a red crescent outlining the bump of her occipital bone. There'd be a scar, but nobody would see it.

"Do you feel dizzy? Sick? Is the light hurting your eyes at all?"

"No, ma'am."

The lady nodded and let the black curtains fall. "It's not as bad as you probably think it is. I know the blood must have been a shock. But it will need a few stitches."

The beginnings of a grimace gripped the girl's mouth, but the lady's hand was already on her shoulder, squeezing reassuringly.

"We'll give you an injection first. A quick bee sting, then you won't feel a thing. I promise."

"Won't it be okay?" She eyed the door now, suddenly very aware that she was free to leave whenever she wanted. "You said it's not too bad, right?"

The lady circled in front of her and squatted low enough to bring their faces level. She was smiling, but not in a condescending way.

"Now listen. You walked all the way here by yourself with that nasty cut on your head, so I know you're a brave girl. That's what bravery is. When you see that something needs to be done, you do it. No matter what. And…look at me…this needs to be done too. So be brave for just a few more minutes, alright? That's all it'll take."

The girl bowed her head in compliant silence.

"Would some tea help steady your nerves?" said the lady.

"Maybe." Maybe. But more importantly, it would forestall the frightful procedure for a few minutes.

Even with just the two of them indoors, at an hour when any normal person would be shuffling and drooping if they were awake at all, not a hint of slack showed in the lady's gait. She took six steps to the door, scalpel sharp, surgically precise, and cast it open as if to confront someone. She returned seconds later with the mug she'd been blowing on and offered it to the girl, handle first.

"Here. Warm yourself up. I'll get my things ready."

As she bustled on, arranging crinkling plastic packets on the worktop, the girl peered into the mug and frowned.

There must have been some mistake. 'Tea' was something you stewed in stagnant water to mask the taste. A muddy brown soup with little flecks floating on top. This was nothing like tea. It was pale and clear, the colour of honey. It smelled of flowers.

You couldn't drink flowers. Surely.

"Oh!" In the middle of stretching a latex glove over her hand, the lady span to face her. "There's no sugar in…"

"Mmm?" The girl looked up with eyebrows raised and a mouthful big enough to bloat her cheeks. With no indication of distaste, she swallowed.

The lady stared at her for a moment, then twanged the glove shut. "Never mind."

She knelt at the back of the chair, touching two fingertips to the girl's head, just underneath the wound. "Here we go. Little pinprick. Hold still now."

The girl's eyelids squeezed shut. Her teeth clenched, abdomen tightened, trouser leg bunched in her fist oh god oh god oh god

"Ow," she said.

"Good girl."

She loosened, bit by bit. You're sitting here with your head split open, worrying how much it'll hurt to be poked with a needle, said a self-admonishing voice that was older than it should have been.

"May I ask what age you are?" said the lady.

"Eight. I think."

"Really? I'm surprised. Most children, when they say they like 'tea', they just mean they like warm, sugary drinks. Coffee, cocoa, doesn't matter what's in the cup as long as it's sweet and you can dip a biscuit in it. It takes time to appreciate the flavour for what it is. And you're doing it already? That says a lot about you."

The girl's face settled into the placid, contemplative expression that just-old-enough children get when they suspect an adult of laying it on too thick. She did like the tea, that was true. On the other hand, at this moment, she'd have guzzled boiled seawater just for the heat.

She became aware of a faint, rubbery creaking. The lady was on her feet now, working off the gloves.

"There. All done."

"What?" said the girl. She pushed a finger under her hair and probed for the evidence. "But I didn't feel anything."

"I promised, didn't I? I always keep my promises. Now." She swatted the girl's hand with an empty glove, and she lowered it with a start. "Try not to play with your hair too much. If you have to scratch your head, do it gently. And please, please don't pick at it. If you undo the thread, I'll have to put it in all over again."

The girl knew then, without needing to endure a second more, that the worst thing about stitches wasn't having them sewn in, or the injection beforehand, or the sensation of the wound when the anaesthetic wore off, an insistent tautness she'd come to loathe. It was having little pieces of string poking out of your skin and being forbidden to fiddle with them.

"Um, thank you." she said. "Should I go, then?"

"Not yet. I'd like to give you a full examination, in case there's anything else wrong. But finish your tea first."

The girl looked into the mug and remembered, to her delight, that she hadn't emptied it yet. But when she raised it to her lips, a strange keening rose up from a pit in her belly, a high-pitched whine that even she could barely hear at first, but which deepened and crescendoed until it filled the room, culminating in a ravenous snarl.

She stared at the floor, a blush forcing its way through her chilled pallor.

"And I suspect you'd like something to eat?" said the lady. Slowly. Carefully. Definitely-not-about-to-laughedly.

Yes. Dear lord, yes.

"No thank you," she mumbled into the mug.

"Are you sure?"

The lady crusaded once more into the reception area. There came the rolling whoosh of a drawer, and the rustling of thick paper.

"The thing is, I just got a submarine sandwich from that place down the road."

She returned, filling the doorway.

There were few statues in Vale, or at least in those regions where the inhabitants suffered the girl to exist. But if there had been more, she imagined they would look like this. The lady stood like a goddess poised to smite her with a tasty thunderbolt.

A perfect channel ran lengthwise down the centre of the baguette, a rivulet between two banks of bronzed, bubbly crust. Inklings of lettuce and almost-melted cheese peeked coquettishly from beneath layers of rippling meat. Droplets of yellowish sauce clung to the sides, scoffing at gravity, promising zest. This was the sandwich you photographed and put on posters. And the smell. Oh, sweet heaven. It saturated the room like newly lit incense. It could have purified sewer air.

"Ham, salami. Fresh provolone. None of that processed rubbish. They always stuff them so full, though. I can never eat both halves." She tilted the baton of ambrosia to and fro, as if it were new to her. "Still. I can't leave food lying around all night. If you don't want it, it'll just have to go in the bin."

When she looked up, the girl's pupils had swallowed her irises.

The lady excused herself to the bathroom, leaving the food, the bait, on a table in plain sight, and stood outside with her ear to the door.

Once the crunchy sounds of hoagie murder subsided, she strode back in with her head lowered, a clipboard and pen in her hands, and made a show of intent scribbling so she wasn't looking at the space where the sandwich used to be.

"You'll need to see me again in a week. Hopefully then those stitches will be ready to come out."

The girl, who'd been sitting slumped in a blissful daze, groaned and straightened up. "Do I have to?"

"Unless you want to spend the rest of your life with your head sewn up."

The girl glanced to one side and pursed her lips, apparently giving this prospect serious consideration. The lady dipped her face behind the clipboard, concealing a chuckle.

"You won't need a jab this time. All you'll feel is a little pull. Promise."

She clicked the pen and tucked it behind her ear. "Now. You obviously need some rest, so we'll get this check-up finished as quickly as we can. If you feel uncomfortable at any time, for any reason, don't be afraid to tell me."

She pulled up a chair and sat opposite her, folding her hands in her lap. "Is there anything you'd like to know before we start?"

The girl lifted her head. For the first time, she smiled, ever so slightly. For the first time, she accepted eye contact for more than a split second.

"What are you?" she said.

"What am I? I'm a doctor."

"No, I mean…" She tried to waggle her ears, and found, with a warm rush of relief, that she could. "What kind of faunus are you?"

"I'm not any kind of faunus. I'm a human."

A pause. The smile died.

"No you're not."

The doctor quirked an eyebrow and peered down at herself in exaggerated scrutiny. "I'm quite sure I am."

"You're not. Show me your teeth."

She leaned forward and opened her mouth for the dentist, adding an ahhh for effect. "No fangs."

She held out her hands. They were broad and rough, with fingernails well-kept but not manicured. "No claws."

She rolled up a sleeve, revealing her sinewy forearm. "No fur. No scales."

"What about your feet?"

She slipped off one of her loafers and rested the bared foot against her knee, flexing her toes. No trace of dewclaws or webbing.

"It's a tail. You're hiding your tail in your pants. Let me see."

The doctor tugged her glasses halfway down her nose and regarded her over the lenses.

"Sweetheart. If I expose myself to a minor, people will start asking some very troublesome questions."

"Well I don't believe you," said the girl, huffily folding her arms.

"Why would I pretend to be a human when I'm…"

The faint twinge of amusement faded from her face. No. That wasn't the right question. That question already had a perfectly good answer.

"Why would I lie about this to you?" she corrected herself. "You're the only one here, and you're a faunus. What would be the point?"

"A joke?" The girl shrugged. "It's not funny, but maybe you think it is. I dunno. You're not a human. You can't be. Humans don't help us when we're hurt. They don't give us tea and sandwiches."

"For the most part. Unfortunately."

The girl turned her head and yanked her hair to one side, stitches be damned. "Humans did this to me. I didn't fall down. A human did it."

"I know."

I slipped on some ice. Even if she hadn't blurted out an explanation without being asked for one, even if her heritage hadn't blessed her with a sense of balance that highwire artists would kill for, it would've been obvious from the clipped, sour way she'd spoken. Like she was spitting out something rotten.

"I understand that humans have given you plenty of reasons to be wary, but-"

The chair screeched and clattered on the tiles.

"Don't touch me!"

The doctor froze.

She wasn't going to touch her. She hadn't even moved towards her. All she'd done was show her palms in a conciliatory gesture, and the girl had leapt away as if she'd just pulled out an axe and told her they'd have to amputate.

Holding everything else still, she laid her hands flat against her thighs and inhaled deeply.

"I may not be a faunus myself, but it was a faunus who told you about me. Yes? They wouldn't have done that if they didn't trust me. They came here and I helped them, just like I helped you. That's all I want to do, is help. You don't have to be scared of me."

"I'm not scared of you! You're scared of us!"

To the doctor's astonishment, the girl took a step forward. She stood on her toes with her fists balled, trembling but furious.

"You're scared. That's why you can't just leave us alone. That's why you're always so cruel, even when we try our best to be nice to you! Because you're all scared! You have to gang up on us all the time because you're scared of what'd happen if we stood up to you! And maybe you should be!"

By the time it got this dark, she was normally huddled in whatever nook she could find, withdrawn into her clothes like a frightened tortoise…

And she had been, at first. She'd sat with her shirt pulled over her, examining the rat she'd found for any signs of decay. Then something hit the wall behind her with a soft thump, and cold, wet chunks spattered her shoulders.

She poked her head out. An older boy stood a few yards away, grinning and patting a handful of snow between his mittens…

She ducked just in time. The snowball scuffed her ear and hit the wall again, spreading more icy moisture down her back. She retreated into her shirt, covering her face, but the next one hit her shin. Then her stomach. Her ribs.

"Ignore him," she'd recited to herself. "Just ignore him and he'll go away."

Except that was the biggest lie anyone had ever told. They never went away, because they wanted a reaction. They came to watch the circus animals perform, and if the circus animals didn't feel up to it today then they would damn well fetch the whip. It was a war of patience and they always, always won, because they hadn't lost half their troops before the battle started.

So she snatched up two fistfuls of snow and mashed them into a half-formed lump and flung it without aiming. It disintegrated as it left her palm, barely dusting the boy's anorak. He couldn't possibly have felt it, but that didn't matter. It made him angry. It made a human angry. That was what mattered. That was what you lived or died by.

So he picked up a rock.

The doctor, rather than risk standing up and dwarfing the girl, slid off the chair onto her knees, as slowly as she could. She drew a handkerchief from her pocket, folded into a perfect square, and held it forward. After a second's hesitation, the girl snatched it, whipped it open and pressed the corners to her eyes, letting it hang over her face in a crude veil.

"I hate…" She made a strangled gulping noise, followed by a quiet little gasp. "…the smell in here. It's making my eyes water."

"The disinfectant."

"My eyes are watering. I hate it."

"It's a common problem among faunus."

Which was true. Many faunus had sensitive noses. Strong, chemical scents often created a burning or stinging sensation in the sinuses, which resulted in lacrimation. But it didn't account for sudden onsets of hiccups or pained, involuntary contortions of the mouth and brow.

Eventually, the veil came down, now a great deal damper. The doctor made no motion to retrieve it.

"I need to lock up soon. Do you have anywhere to go?"

"I'm not staying here."

"Then come with me. I can take you somewhere-"


She sighed. "I can't force you. But once I'm gone, I won't be back until the morning. If you change your mind, you'll have to wait until then."

The girl didn't answer. She turned away. Her fingers limpened, letting the handkerchief drift to the floor, and she made it halfway to the exit before she felt the doctor at her back again.

"If you must go out again, take this."

Something black was thrust over her shoulder. The girl focused sullenly on the doorknob for a good five seconds before deigning to acknowledge the gift.

It was a knitted cap.

"I don't have any clothes that'd fit you," said the doctor. "But this'll at least keep your ears warm."

"Don't want it."

"Take it anyway. You can give it to someone who does. And I'd like you to do the same for these."

She produced a set of small, rectangular cards, stacked an inch thick, pinched between her thumb and forefinger. "I just had them made. If you meet any faunus who don't know about me, give them a card. Keep one for yourself, just in case."

Without meeting the doctor's gaze, the girl held out her hands and allowed her to place the hat in one, cards in the other. They were printed with bold, professional type and an emblem depicting two hands clasped together, one human, one clawed.

"Can you read what it says?" said the doctor.

The girl's brow wrinkled. She wiped the last of the blur from her vision and held the cards close, tracing the letters with her fingernail. "Dir…D-R…"


"Doctor…irris, Eye-ris…Loo-see-dah. F-free faw…faun-us, heal, health carry? Health care. One…hun-dred…uh…"


"One hundred percent…safe…space."

"And again?"

"Dr. Iris Lucida. Free faunus healthcare. 100% safe space."

"Hey, kid."

The girl stirred. Whiteness lanced through her eyelids. Morning already?

Oh. Of course. With how late she'd stayed up last night, marching stubbornly towards anything but hospitality…

"Hey, hey. Come on now. Wake up."

She grumbled.

She knew the bench had been a bad idea. Partly because her hip throbbed from where the bone had been pressed into the wood all night; that was a bruise, no question; but mostly because this was a place where humans sat. As soon as one of them wanted it, off she'd go.

She forced her eyes open, expecting looming, indignant brutes tapping sticks into their palms. Instead, she saw an older man, just one, greying at the temples, with a trimmed beard and a shiny raincoat. He didn't loom either. He sat on his haunches.

"Are you okay, sweetie?" he said.

She blinked. "Sorry?"

"Do you need some help?"

Her gaze flickered to each part of his body in turn, crossing through the old checklist. No ears, no fangs, no tail, no claws…

Impossible. Ridiculous. She was still grappling with the concept of one decent human. Two? And back to back, no less. Did Dr. Lucida send someone to check on her? Did she know anyone who would do that? And even if she did, would she really have had her followed all this way just to make sure she was alright?


"You need some help?" repeated the man. "Are you lost or something?"

She studied his face, searching for the smirk, the predation in his eyes, any of the subtle tells she was so accustomed to finding on humans who just wanted to wind her up. Nothing. Nothing but concern. Just like Dr. Lucida had looked when she refused to stay.

Am I lost?

I don't want to sleep outside anymore. I don't want to dig through stinking dumpsters anymore. I don't want to gag at the things I have to eat anymore. I don't want to be kicked or spat on or called horrible names anymore. I don't want to run anymore. I don't want to feel like I don't want to live anymore. If you can fix any one of those problems, even for a little while, then yes. I'm lost. I'm lonely. I'm scared. I'm whatever you want me to be. Just help me. Please.


And then it occurred to her. Despite the frigid air spiking into every gap and every tear and every loose stitch in her ragged clothes, one part of her still felt cosy.

"No, sir. I'm fine." She surveyed the throng behind him, parents and their children all bundled up and playing in the snow, and pointed to a stranger who had her back turned. "My mom's right there."

The man looked at the unwitting accomplice, then back to her, then everywhere else. He put his hand to his mouth and dragged it down to his chin, his face tense with doubt.

"Alright, then," he said, at last. "Sorry to bother you."

She watched him leave.

Once she was certain he wouldn't turn around, she took the fringe of the cap in both hands and pulled it tight against her scalp.