Title - After the Apocalypse - Part 4

Author - Kourion

Summary: "I'm lost in thought, studying the photo - the black and white photo of Franky squished between her two dads, smiling so warmly that an outsider would never suspect such a tortured past." Franky focused/ Minky-tones/ noncon warning.

A/N: Please note: this story is written in a very, very atypical format. Experimental, you could call it. It may not be your cup of tea for that reason, or - more likely, due to violence and noncon situations detailed within. Proceed with caution.

"Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage." - Lao Tzu

m i n i' s p o v

Franky's room is...consoling. If such a thing makes sense. I mean, it feels very soft and muted and safe. Even in the relative darkness - with nothing but moonlight to illuminate the space - there isn't a bit of spookiness. You think there would be, with the clanking radiator, and the Alfred Hitchcock posters and the goofy looking hamster (his cage tells me his name is Giblet) staring at me in nervous study. But it's not. It feels protective, really, with its scent of sandalwood (incense?) and something else...an aroma of cedar chips, gingerbread biscuits and coffee grounds. Not really 'girly' scents of body spray or air fresheners. No, the scents here are real scents of real activities - drinking coffee, lighting incense, changing a little animal's cage. There is no artifice here. No falseness. Just truth, unconcealed.

I glance over at Franky's work station table, where an old 80's Sony Dream-machine alarm clock blurts out the time to me in red squared numbers: 2:56 am. Apparently, although I don't feel tired at all. And I still can't sleep, even though by my estimate, Franky's been resting for the better part of an hour.

Studying her briefly, I quickly reevaluate my position - resting might be too generous a term. Her body doesn't look restful, her face doesn't look restful. There's no peace in her sleeping expression.

Instead, her hair looks dark auburn, not ginger, and plastered to her face. I can see where sweat has worked through her Henley pajama top. I can see how her clothes stick to her skin.

And it's not hot in here at all.

I really don't know what to do.

I mean, she's sleeping, and from the prescription bottle of medicine I saw in her bathroom, I doubt sleep comes to her easily. In my defense, I wasn't snooping through her stuff - just looking for toothpaste, and I noticed the little yellow and white vial on the lower shelf. I'm pretty sure it's sleeping medicine, too, because not only did the bottle read, Fitzgerald, Francesca Alice, Imipramine, 125 mg, take 1 capsule 2 to 3 hours before expected sleep, Franky had also plastered the container in shooting star stickers and gold-glint pen marked zzzzz's, as if to make the container - the substance within - more whimsical, more attractive. The little doodles made me smile for a second, before I realized that this wasn't something she had shared with me. This wasn't something she had wanted me to *know.* It's something I took in by accident, so I shut the cabinet door quickly and made do with a bottle of Listerine and the spare wrapped toothbrush that Franky had laid out for me on the countertop.

But now...now I'm not sure what to do. I'm not even sure what to do when her small mouth suddenly gasps open like a pucker fish, struggling for oxygen, her face contorting into something that makes *me* want to cry.

'Damn you Matty. Damn you for taking advantage of her'

She's folded up into herself like a small burrowing animal, and she looks so...alone. Her cries are so quiet, her words so soft that I can't hear what she's saying. I can only guess that she's saying the same word over and over again. Almost like a mantra.

After a bit of focus, I realize that she's saying please. Her fearful expression, her small size, her words...all come together in such a way that I feel something jump-start my heart.

'Nothing is right here. Nothing is right.'

Getting up slowly, I try to move without sound, and reach for her strewn blankets. Pulling the cloth over her body, I can't help but be shocked by how cold she is, despite her sweating, so I decide to pull an extra quilt over her body for additional warmth. Which turns out to be a very bad move on my part, because instead of comforting her, all it seems to do is generate...


Horrible screaming.

And for a couple seconds, my brain just turns off. I don't move, I don't blink, I don't breathe. I just back up against the wall as if caught in a nightmare of my own, the whole scene just so unexpected and...

"Bloody hell!," I hear the harsh gasp of a cry shut down, and turn to see Franky's Dads quickly entering the room. I continue to stay where I am - transfixed, numb.

Jeff, Franky's older Dad, mobilizes quickly and is near her bed before I can warn him not to touch her. As it turns out, he already knows not to do this, and just crouches down low on his haunches, his hands coming close to Franky, but not really making connection. Just talking very softly, the words barely discernible over the strangled screaming, "It's over. It's over now, Franky."

Which is so laughably simplistic that I push down on my own guilt, and make a move to approach her, too. Geoff stops me, his hand lightly coming to my wrist, tapping insistently until I pause, and turn to look at him.

He looks almost as white as Franky, his face almost as grim.

"I think we should go downstairs for a bit."

I bite down my retort, that no, I'm not gonna leave my friend, thank you muchly, but something about his eyes stops me from being so flippant.

Something about his eyes tells me that he knows exactly what this was, and that it's nothing new.

"You looked spooked," Geoff tells me glibly, as I drop down into 'Franky's chair.'

I just stare at my hands. My fucking manicured-to-perfection hands, while I think of my friend upstairs, no longer screaming, but...

"You're not abandoning her. I asked you to come downstairs," The Dad tells me pointedly, and I realize that it must be inordinately hard for Franky to hide anything in this family. To lie about anything. Which may have its benefits. It might also feel incredibly...

The thought falls away as Geoff opens up an oak kitchenette door, and roots around for a couple mugs.

"We have a bear mug, and a pig mug left. Everything else is in the dishwasher," he tells me not unkindly, despite the stark somberness of his features.

I indicate that I'll take the pig mug, which is so extravagantly whimsical that just looking at the porcelin pig features seems to be calming me down a bit.

"Chamomile, mint, ginger, jasmine, uhhh,]..." and I hear him root around for some more selections, "cinnamon?"

I really doubt I'll be going back to sleep tonight.

"Nothing with caffeine?," I say hopefully.

"We try not to stock up on caffeinated beverages here," and as I formulate a response, Geoff grins - although it's a toned-down version, to be sure. "The Pepsi Max is all Franky's doing."

"Ahh. That makes sense. She likes her soft drinks,"stoprambling, "ginger?"

Geoff nods briskly, and removes two herbal packets, then goes to turn on the kettle, depositing each tea bag in the mugs, before coming round to the kitchen table, taking an opposing seat.

Letting out a sigh, he starts.

"So, I take it...Franky never really told you about...any of this?"

'Any of this' is perhaps the plainest, non-revealing description for what I've experienced tonight. But, in a way, I like that Geoff's so cautious with Franky, and her privacy.

"Does this happen a lot?," I state quietly, not really comfortable with the subject matter.

"If you mean...does she wake us up screaming like that?...well, it happens. Not as much as it used to. A couple of times a month, now. I'm sorry if she scared you."

"Are they...night terrors?," I still don't know what I've witnessed. I've had bad dreams. I've never woke up screaming from any of them.

"In a sense," and Geoff rises from his space as the kettle starts to whistle. I swallow down a lump in my throat as I hear the sweet gurgling of water from the canister flowing into the mugs, the clinking of spoons against mugs. He returns a few moments later with saucers over each animal cup to help the tea 'steep.'

I poke my pig mug, touch the smoothness of its glossed hand painted surface.

"I thought night terrors were...I dunno, I thought only little kids got those..."

"Well, these are a different breed of animal. They're not really night terrors, in the truest sense," Geoff says to his bear mug, not quite meeting my eyes. "These are memories, more than anything else."

The ginger burns my throat as he speaks, and when I'm done swallowing, I still have no idea what to say.

Geoff plows onwards. "Has she...has she shared any of this with you?," and his voice is curious, testing.

I pick at a cuticle on my finger.

"She...doesn't really get into it with us. I mean, sometimes things will happen, or have happened and...she..."

I really should be talking to Franky about this. This...feels like a betrayal.

"What happened earlier? Yesterday?," Geoff queries, his face leery, as if he's expecting me to divulge some awful, treacherous story.

I exhale, not knowing what is right to share, what is wrong to hide.

"She...well. I don't know, really. Something happened with her and another friend of ours - Matty? - and, well... I actually have no idea what happened. She just...she was very upset for awhile."

"I see. Panic attack?"

I nod briefly. "Yeah, something like that."

Geoff puts his mug down, and mumbles something about how he can create a makeshift bed for me on the sofa.

I nod off into space, my eyes locking onto the Rupert mug Franky had been drinking from earlier. It seems so terribly old fashioned and sad, now.

"No, I didn't chuck it out, young lady..."

My ears prick up at the sound of a cd player blaring out a techno beat. Something both melancholic and meditative. 80's sync music.

Probably something from Franky's own stash.

"Well, what am I supposed to drink then? I mean, it's gone!"

And there we have it: Franky's voice. Sounding disproportionately pissed for someone who just can't locate a certain beverage. She also sounds comfortably snarky, considering how she woke up her parents last night.

I rub sleep from my eyes, and messily comb through my hair with my hands, surveying the oversized sleep shirt and socks that Franky gave to me the night before.

Tentatively, I reach the kitchen, and - lo and behold - Franky is up. Along with Geoff. I don't see her other dad, really, but I have a sinking feeling that Franky is a little more bold and assertive with her younger dad, anyway.

It's sort of a weird sight, considering I've usually only seen her dispensing sage advice, or forgiving people, or - last night - screaming. But I've never seen her like this: acting like a regular teen.

"Ahh, good morning Mini," Geoff greets me warmly, while I catch Franky - her back to me - tensing. Her neck, shoulders, back freezing up into a hard shell before she willfully releases the tension.

When she turns to me it's with a wary half-smile, as her dad clarifies if I'd like "Crêpes or...would you prefer a feta cheese omelet?" for breakfast.

Geoff is a sous chef. I think that's what Franky told me, once. I highly doubt that he knows how to make a breakfast containing less than 1,000 calories. It's utterly remarkable, really, that Franky has the slight pixie-lite figure that she has. If I lived in this house, I'd either be the size of a house, or sicking up every meal.

I try to return the gesture, the smile, but her eyes are off somewhere else now, and then she's moving onto the pantry, scrimmaging around in the dark, while Geoff mock-hollers to Franky, "omelet or crêpe, princess?"

I recall the term of affection from the previous evening. Princess. I mean, don't get me wrong, Franky obviously needs all the emotional buoying-up that she can get. But princess seems so...unfitting of her, especially this morning, as she returns from the pantry...semi-triumphantly holding up a can of Pepsi Max, her hair slicked back into a gelled style so reminiscent of a little boy from the 1950's that it's almost beyond belief. Decked out in gingham checkered shirt and coveralls, no less! My internal response is somewhere halfway between "aww" and "good god, this girl needs a personal shopper!"

"Behold Dad: liquid sustenance in a convenient pop-tab tin," Franky quips, still ignoring her father's question, while I mumble something about cereal, and not being a big breakfast eater. From the corner of my eye, I see Franky give me a look which is not quite pained and not quite believing, before slouching down into the chair besides me, passing me a box of corn flakes.

"That's not sustenance, lovey. That's carbonated, overpriced sugar water with caramel colouring and chemicals..."

Franky bites the inside of her cheek, then smiles widely, "no sugar, Geoff! It's a health drink. Listen: aspartame, potassium benzoate, acesulfame potassium, calcium disodium EDTA, and panax ginseng. See? Good stuff. Two hits of potassium, some calcium, and ginseng. It's almost, like, you know...a super food or something. Like acai, and goji berries."

Geoff studies Franky for a few seconds, as if trying to determine if she is serious or not, before muttering, "I think I'll make us guys some omelets..."

I feel somewhat badly at his look of disappointment until Franky responds with something that suspiciously sounds like, go ahead, eat all the cryogenically frozen chicken foetuses that you want, which actually makes the man laugh... So all I can take from the exchange is that Franky uses black humor and relative insolence often enough that her Dad's are used to her remarks. And totally unfazed by them.

Possibly even reassured by them. Because, really, after last night...I know that I'm just relieved that she's back to her old self.

And old self, indeed - as Franky, today, is washed free from makeup. There is no trace of mascara, or the purple eyeshadow that she had taken to wearing on occasion over the last few weeks. Nor is there any lip gloss, no lacy top, no skirt. No finger waves.

She's freshly scrubbed down to white skin, sans adornments. The small feminine touches of her yesterday-outfit have been replaced with complete, unflinching androgyny. And the only thing belying her bad night, really, seems to be just how pale she is. Every freckle on her face stands out against a white sea of skin, and her eyes somehow look far more hazel surrounded by such extreme pallor.

If she were diabetic or something, I'd be worried about hypoglycemia.

"Corn Flakes aren't life sustaining, Franky. You can't eat them for every meal," Geoff informs her seriously, while he cracks an egg into a sizzling pan, adds a fair chunk of butter to the mix.

'No, I'm definitely glad I'm not eating that meal... I'd only have to run for two hours to burn it all off...'

"Wanna bet?," Franky baits, while taking minuscule nibbles of the flakes, dry, in her bowl. Coated in a truly generous helping of brown sugar. Actually, now that I watch more carefully, Franky isn't really eating the corn flakes at all... She's licking the sugar off the cereal, then depositing the cereal on a little napkin by her side. If Geoff notices, he doesn't comment as he serves up two incredibly fluffy, feta topped omelets onto two white and blue plates, and retreats up the stairs, but not before a quick reminder that he will drive Franky to her appointment.

'No doubt worried that she's going to bail...'

Alone, now.

And the anxiety level rises 100% almost immediately.

"We have other cereal," Franky starts, almost carefully. It's strange, really. I don't care about what cereals the Fitzgerald's stock. It's obviously just a ploy to buy time.

"Nah. I'm fine," and I wave away her offering, wishing instead for something like a grapefruit, or a grape and melon salad. And a big cup of coffee. "How...how about you?"

Franky looks a little confused for a second, before she realizes the deeper meaning of my question.

"I'm fine..."


"Alright, I'm not 'fine,' but I'm..."

"Going to be?," I try to offer, helpfully.

She nods curtly, takes a swig of cola. Puts the can down not a second later.

"I'm sorry if I scared you," she whispers to the table. "I mean, I don't know why it happens or how to make it not happen... But the very first time I ever had one, it scared the hell out of my Dads."

"One", I guess being...her night terror episode things. Whatever it was that I witnessed last night.

"So you haven't always had them? I mean, they only started after...you know...being adopted?"

Her eyes flutter shut, and I figure that I've said the wrong thing, because her voice comes out rushed, insistent: "this isn't their fault, Mini. They didn't cause this."

"You were...screaming, Franks!"

I see her bite her lip, take a deep breath, look me in the eye. I can sense how hard that much is for her, and it makes me feel awful that she's nervous to so much as look at me.

"My Dads have never hurt me. They've never hit me. And they've never touched me. They're...really great parents."

And while that should be it, I know that there's so much more to this story. The way she's emphasized "they've" having caused chills to run up my spine, and my stomach to tighten uncomfortably, as if I've eaten too much and I'm going to sick up.

"If someone else..."

"Matty didn't do anything! Why won't you believe me?"

"If anyone hurt you...you know it's not your fault, right?"

Franky's hands dropped to her lap, clenched up into two little fists. Not angry.

But nervous.

I want to take her hand, but something tells me to give her some space right now.

After a moment she speaks, "It's so fucking complicated, Mini. It's...I don't know how to start, where to start, how to stop. And it never fixes it."

"It?," I try to clarify, antsy now for some coffee.

"What good does talking do? It doesn't fixed fucked up people."

I study her briefly, rapidly. Not liking her self-assessment at all.

"Everyone has problems, Franky. At least you...never took your hurt out on other people. You never bullied other people...That says a lot about you, ok?"

Franky exhales then, gives a self-deprecating little snort, little dash of her head.

Squashes dry corn flakes with the edge of her spoon, until they are powdered down to nothing.

"I had a bully once, you know? Like...a bad one."


She nods to the table. "Yeah, back in Oxford. Her name was Riga. She was..."

I know I can't talk. I know if I talk, the spell will be broken. I know if I talk, Franky will never get this out.

Maybe not ever.

So I remain very still, almost corpse-still. I just listen. It's the best thing I can do for her, I think.

"She was just...so cruel. I mean, I get it. Kids get bullied. Freaks get bullied. Life goes on. Yadda, yadda, whatever, right?"

"Franks...don't. Please."

"If it was just words and stuff, everything might have been okay... If it was just pictures, but-"

I see her gulp down a huge swallow of air. Still her hands against the table. When she moves them a moment later, the faint outline of small sweaty imprints lingers.

"One day, after sports, she...waited and just...went...totally ballistic. I mean, I never changed with the other girls. I tried to change in the stalls...to avoid... everyone really."

'Yeah, I've noticed, Franks.'

"And I was always the last one to change, and the last one to leave - because, for me - for people like me - it's safer. And we had sports as our last class, and that helped too..."

She stops to take a sip of Pepsi, and I can't help but wonder if her mouth is as dry as mine.

"She just came up behind me that day - Riga, I mean - and I knew it was her, but I didn't turn around. I just thought, if I ignored her and was really quiet, maybe she'd leave me alone, right?"

Franky looks at me now, her eyes large and full of intense...need. As if they are pleading with me to understand something that makes no sense.

As if she's...complicit in something, when she could in no way be at fault.

"There was this moment of calm... Like intense calm. And it scared me. It really fucking terrified me, because I knew something awful was coming. It was too calm."

Franky brings up her thumb, bites down as if to chew a nail, then pulls her hand away, looking pained.

"She slammed my head into the wall before I could even turn around, and I just got really dizzy and then she kicked me over and over again. I threw up in the middle of it because...I was so scared. I knew it was stupid, cause it's not like she'd kill me...but for a second I thought...maybe she would."

I reach for her hand then. I can't help myself.

I'm relieved when she doesn't pull away.

"She and her...gang...they tied me up and did stuff...and took pictures. I...don't really remember it too well, because...well, apparently I had a concussion."

Oh fucking shit.

"Franky," but I don't trust my voice to say much more than that. I don't trust my voice at all.

"I had a skull fracture, but no one knew it, and it was only cause I wouldn't stop sicking up. The janitor found me - in my underwear Mini, covered in sick. My Dad's got a call from the school saying they were going to take me to this medical arts building for x-rays. I mean, that's how much they hated me. That's how much of a freak I am, alright? So freakish they wanted to break me. So they broke my skull."

And she sounds so much like this wounded little kid then, that it takes all my power not to cry.

"Stop, Franky, STOP."

She looks up at me then, imploring me to understand. The guilt on her face is what hurts the most to see. The fucking guilt.

"It...if I had been normal, it wouldn't have happened. None of it."

"None of what? She should have gone to jail, Franky! You didn't do anything wrong!"

Franky bites her lip, pushes her bowl of cereal away.

"She was mad at me. She blamed me because everyone found out, everyone... even the teachers. Because they hurt my arm, and I couldn't *hide* that. I couldn't hide a sling..."

I'm completely lost.

"She beat you up because...someone hurt your arm?"

Something about this feels so wrong. So scarily wrong, and yet I can't put my finger on what it is that is making me feel scared.

What is making me feel so bloody apprehensive.

"Not because someone hurt my arm. Because her boyfriend chose me over her. Because half the rugby team stood around and watched, and laughed."

'She blamed me,' echoes in my head, clashing awfully with the images that are coming to mind.

"Franky...what did they do?"

Franky's whole body is shaking in...anger, or grief, or fear or...maybe all three, I can't be sure.

"You mean you don't know? You can't figure it out?," she hisses dismally, her face contorted by such severe loathing that it's a little scary to witness. "What all guys want, Mini!"

I feel sick.

Like truly...nauseous.

She chokes back a sob, wipes her eyes, turns and studies the table. The wood grain patterns.

"You know what the worst part was, really? I mean, aside from the sex..."

"No, Franky, NO...listen to me, honey. That's not sex! That's ra-"

"I know what is was Mini! But it was still my fault, cause I just...froze up, and I should have-"

"Franky...you did everything you could!"

Because...there's no way a girl winds up with her arm in a sling for nothing. No...Franky fought. But she's tiny and she's soft spoken, and even if she fought, it wouldn't take much to physically overpower her.

"The worst part," she tries again - and I realize that my protests are not really being heard at all - aren't really sinking in, "is that I was so excited for that party, too. Cause I got this special invite and everything..."

"Franky," I whisper, "stop."

"I was so happy. I mean, I dressed up. I wore...this blouse my dad got me, and a skirt and fucking barrettes, Mini! Geoff french braided my hair. I wore mascara. I thought...," and the words stop in a half-laugh, half-sob that seems to suck half the oxygen out of the room.

"Franky, come on. Don't do this to yourself..."

Her eyes are focused not too far off into the distance now. Wide and dilated and totally caught up in this sudden, explosive need to tell. Which, more or less, is what she said not five minutes ago. That if she started talking, it would be hard for her to stop.

I guess, in a sense, I understand. That all this shit is stuff she pushed away and pushed away and denied and fought, but, of course, all that pain was still there. If you go around dismantling an emotional dam, the fallout is probably going to be pretty bad.

"Mini?," she tries again after a few moments of silence, and I realize that her voice sounds more aggravated now - now, saying my name. Moreso than it had when she had admitted to being attacked.

"Mmm?," I breathe in response, slowly reaching for one cold hand, bringing it into mine, cupping it.

The girl is freezing.

"I thought I actually looked pretty, Mini. Not beautiful, but maybe...sorta ok. Maybe sorta pretty. And then they did that, and it's like...it's like..."

Her voice has risen a notch, taken on a note of shrillness.

"It's okay, Franky."

"No...it's NOT. It's...I'm not a freak for nothing, you know? There's...there's always a reason... I just don't want to be seen like that anymore. To have guys look at me like that, alright?"

And damn everything, damn my wanting to give her space. As I move closer towards her, she stops tracing out swirly patterns on the table, her corn flakes long forgotten. Her features look so little-kid scared, or like a puppy with its tail between his legs that it takes everything in my power not to grab her and pull her to me.

"C'mere," I encourage, and from where I'm standing and where she's sitting, she really doesn't even have to move much.

Instead, she sort of lets her head fall over to my torso, and this feels familiar. This feels like...yesterday, except the sadness today is more apparent. The grief...more apparent. The fear, not so much. She was panicked yesterday. Today she seems...so terribly small. So young.

So hurt.

Which is why I'm simultaneously surprised, and not surprised at all, when she moves from her position, and falls into me. A second later I feel those small, small arms wrap around my waist, and her face connect with my torso. I will myself to relax. To just...be cool, be strong. Be a good friend to a friend in need. Despite these strange feelings she keeps evoking in me, especially lately. Like now, all hurt, and part of me feels like just...holding her, sure. But part of me, and this is the part that I find disturbing - feels like kissing her.

I will my heartbeat to slow down.

"You are pretty, Franks," I whisper against her hair, knowing she's getting this. Hoping a little too eagerly that she's hearing this. Really, really hearing.

"I don't feel pretty. I feel ugly."

And she's not doing it for reassurance, either. Because although I find her very pretty in this atypical, elfin way - it's clear from the conviction in her voice that she doesn't really see her the way I see her. Only now, every thing that I've called oddball in the past - makes a sort of tragic sense. Dressing up in boys' clothing. Doing everything in her power to appear genderless.

My guilt is back with a vengeance, too. I mean, I played a part in her crappy self image, didn't I? Even if I felt pretty low about it all by the next day. Even if I wanted to apologize properly (but never did). Too chicken-shit to...bring it up. Apologize properly. But how she feels...is sort of the culmination of all the people she's been around, and how all those people have treated her. I've played a role in this. In who she is, now.

Maybe not the biggest role. But a role.

"I'm...sorry, Franks. If I...made you feel...worse. Less...pretty. Cause you are. To me."

She pulls away then, and her eyes look red, but not teary. Her posture looks stronger, not wilted.

Apparently, even just a little bit of support...builds her up. In that sense, I think she's terribly resilient.

"So," I try for ease, noting that her face has gone from pale to ruddy. From my last comment, or just - everything that has been discussed, in general - I'm not sure.

I try to think of something - anything - lacking in emotional intensity to sort of break this newfound awkwardness. Although the crack in my voice belies my upset, too, I think.

"You had long hair, before, huh?," I query with a raised eyebrow, remembering the supreme vauge way Franky had referred to herself as a kid. As if, her hair had been short for most of her life, and only had been longer as a small child. Of course, I can also gather that she was reluctant to share anything more of her past for the very reason that the story wasn't a simple one. Wasn't an easy one to tell.

Franky looks at me, then laughs, wipes her eyes a bit more.

"Yeah," she coughs out, giving me an almost guilty expression."Pretty long. Ringlets. After...Riga, and everything... I cut it all off. I just took my arts supply scissors from my satchel and...snip, snip," Franky makes cutting noises, moving her hands in a goofy motion indicating scissors. "My dad's were so upset about everything else, that they didn't really get mad at me or anything."

I give her a smirk, imagining the scenario.

"That was pretty bold. I would never do that. Like...not in a million years."

Franky smiles at her feet, almost abashedly. Her blue elastic braces catch my eye, given the intensity of the smile.

"It was pretty impulsive and stupid, is what it was, Mini. I mean, I did a really...bad job."

I mock check out her hair, going for an appraising look, before declaring the job "befitting."

"No...this is nothing. My Dad's...they took me to a salon like right after the hospital. I had made a real mess of things. The basically had to...shave my head. Not quite, but...here. I'll show you."

She hops up then, ambles over to a small wall division housing various ferns and photos, before unclasping one frame from the wall.

"That's from last year. See?," and see I do, because - she's absolutely correct - her hair is almost completely buzzed off.

I'm lost in thought, studying the photo - the black and white photo of Franky squished between her two dads, smiling so warmly that an outsider would never suspect such a tortured past. And given the shortness of the cut, all that...horror...would have still been so recent. Probably only a couple weeks old, at best.

When I look up, Franky's watching me intensely, her mouth quirked in a 'told you so' grimace.

"You look pretty here too, Franks. Nothing you do to yourself is going to change that."

Because, really, what I've learned this morning - more than anything else - is just how much someone can cover up how they really feel. Just how much Franky, in particular, can cover up her feelings. Cover up what's eating her from the inside out, and present an image of being strong and stable, when everything is just the opposite.