At 2000 hours, the exercise room in the APD 16th Precinct house was not crowded as a rule. Most officers were either out on duty, or at home resting and recuperating from their shift.
The few diehards who were there, though, were treated to an unusual sight. Two of the members of the XSWAT 1st Squad had chosen that time to make use of the facilities.
Lieutenant Tovera was on the mat, warming up by doing one-arm push-ups. Sweat stained her grey T-shirt and shone on her face as she strained to lift her body with her right arm. A cloth armband hid the junction between her flesh and the dark stone of her left arm as it lay tucked behind her on her back.
Not far away, Patrol Officer 404 approached the heavy bag. She adjusted her green sports top as best she could with her oversized boxing gloves. Her blue gym shorts had yellow stripes down the sides and a large red 'A' was embroidered above the hem line. Her long tail stuck out of one of the legs. Clearly these shorts were not cut for such an appendage.
She bounced on the balls of her feet once or twice and took a few practice swings in the air. Once she was good and limber she let loose with all of her might, sending the bag spinning off in a lazy arc. The return swing nearly knocked her off balance.
There were a few quiet snickers from some of the officers in the room.
Tovera sat up, shaking the sweat from her eyes. Silently, she walked over to where Claire was and steadied the bag, holding the chain with her left arm.
"Try it again," she said in a relaxed, encouraging tone.
"Thanks, Lieutenant." Claire quietly replied with a slightly embarrassed smile. She swung again, but the bag refused to move in Tovera's iron grip. A few more novice impacts and Claire was already starting to sweat.
In the same tone, Tovera began coaching Claire through her punches.
"Put more weight on your back leg. Pivot your hip; put your whole body into the punch. Follow through but don't over-extend."
After a few more hits, the Lieutenant moved away from the bag and positioned herself behind Claire. She began prodding and positioning the Clade's body, demonstrating the necessary motions for effective strikes. At one point, Tovera pressed against Claire's back to get her to move into something closer to a proper boxing stance.
A wolf whistle trilled from the APD officers gathered to watch. Claire felt Tovera's body stiffen.
Tovera spoke softly to Claire, "Hold a second."
The Lieutenant casually walked over to the group. They stood silently, unsure of the situation.
Tovera's eyes raked over the officers and focused on the one looking the most uncomfortable. "You," she said, pointing.
The young cop made a show of looking around before acknowledging her. "What? Uh, yes, Ma'am", he added in afterthought.
"Do you get off on watching two fellow officers engage in combat training? Does it turn you on?"
The young man's face reddened at the direct question, and he stammered a reply. "Uh, um, no, ma'am, I mean, not as a rule."
"That's good to hear," Tovera said with a tight smile. "I'd hate to have to report to your Captain that his men can't keep their dicks in their pants."
She once again scanned the group. In a voice just loud enough to get their attention, she spoke. "Now are you here to exercise, or is there somewhere else you should go to do something productive?"
The officers quickly moved apart, some to pay close attention to various exercise machines, while a few of others, including the one still red-faced cop, headed off to the showers.
Tovera turned and walked back to the bag. She nodded at Claire and, switching back to her coach voice, said, "Try some more hits. Concentrate on technique; force will come later."
The young Clade adjusted her gloves before settling back into stance.
After a few more hits, she asked "What was that about?"
Tovera opened her mouth to toss out a sarcastic retort, but paused as she realized that Claire's question might have been sincere.
Even after all this time, she still struggled with the disparity between Clades' physical and mental ages. Just because Claire looked like an adult didn't mean she had the associated lifetime of experience.
Now faced with the task of explaining the social dynamics between men and women working in a high-stress environment like law enforcement, Tovera found herself at a loss for words.
This sort of thing really shouldn't be part of my job, she thought with annoyed resignation. Screw it, she either understands or she doesn't. She needs to pick this stuff up if she's going to work out, and soon.
"Claire," Tovera began softly and slowly, "when that guy whistled like that, he wasn't complimenting us. He was belittling us by treating us as a show. He tried to make himself look big by making us look small. I needed to make sure he, and all of them, got it straight that we deserve the same amount of respect he gives his other fellow officers. And, most especially, they needed to know you don't mess with XSWAT."
She fixed her gaze on Claire, her scarred face giving her a severe, almost feral cast. "You are a fully qualified XSWAT officer, Claire. anyone tries to treat you as anything less, that isn't right. And you damn well better make sure they know better."
Claire's smile never faded as the rest of her slowly shrank. One mitt covered hand rose to the level of her forehead with glacial speed, signaling an affirmative.
"I thought that one officer was being nice when he found these clothes for me. Was that not-right?" Claire blinked in bewilderment. She looked down at her exposed midriff and then around her backside at her somewhat restrained tail.
Tovera smirked. "He was probably more interested in watching you we..." she trailed off and stared levelly at Claire while her mind went into quiet panic mode.
Oh, Jeebus Cluny Frog! Is she even sexually aware? I mean, she's only, what, four or five years old? Dammit! This is not in my job description!
Tovera asked carefully, "Claire? Are you...? I mean, do you...? Crap."
She took a breath and let it out, then tried one more time. "Claire, do you know about sex?"
Tovera covered her eyes with her right hand. What did I do to deserve this?
She took a deep breath and addressed Claire. "All right. I'll see what I can do to fix this. In the meantime... dammit, just don't accept gifts from other people without clearing it through me first, okay?"
"Yes Lieutenant." Claire saluted the shorter woman, the boxing glove padding gently on her forehead. Her disappointment was barely concealed in her tone. She flicked an ear. "Lieutenant? Do you often get presents?"
Tovera studied Claire's face. Damn, I can't tell if she's asking a sincere question, or just playing me. She decided to take the question at face value.
She let a wry smile grace her face. "From a man? Not lately." She gestured at her scarred face. "I don't have the looks that guys tend to go for."
Claire's ears began that weird bit of semaphore that often signaled confusion. Looks? What's 'looks' got to do with presents? Lieutenant Tovera sure is a complex person. "Do you get presents from women?"
Tovera hid a choked gasp by turning it into a cough as her mind tried to parse the meaning of her question. Jeezus, it's like trying to have a conversation with a kid. Which I guess she is, after all.
"Not as a rule, at least not since my mother died." She gave a small smile to remove any bite from her words.
Before the Clade could continue down any uncomfortable paths, she waved at the bag. "Let's get back to some training, okay?"
The response was an enthusiastic "Oki-day!" as Claire got back into stance and took a few more swings. Maybe I should get the Lieutenant a present? Would that cheer her up?
After a few less noob-ish strikes, Claire's hits slowed and became softer until she stopped. She lunged forward and wrapped her arms around the punching bag. "Aww... I'm sorry. I'm just trying to get better at being useful. Don't look so not-happy."
Tovera stood nonplussed at the scene and hesitantly said, "Uh, Claire. Are you... apologizing to the bag?"
Still hugging the bag, Claire turned her head towards Tovera. Her hair brushed against the well-worn canvas. It was still as messy as it ever was. "I thought it could use some cheering up."
Tovera remembered feeling similarly disoriented from reading Lewis Carroll's works back when she was a teenager, after watching a restored print of the Disney movie Alice in Wonderland.
Trying to play along, she joked, "Looks more like he's disappointed that you haven't been hitting it enough. That's what punching bags live for, after all. Getting punched, I mean."
"I don't think I would like being designed for that. That would get to be not-comfortable after a while."
Claire gave the bag one more empathetic squeeze before retreating to stand next to Tovera. She wiped the moisture from her brow with the small towel she had set off to the side. "Somehow I don't think I was designed to assist Mr. Punching Bag with his intended purpose, either."
Tovera's head tilted slightly, fixing the young Clade with a solemn gaze.
"That's the thing, Claire. Sometimes we find ourselves having to step beyond what we thought we were meant to be."
She lifted her left arm, the light glinting off the stone limb. "I sure as shit wasn't planning to get this when I graduated from the Academy. But you learn, you adapt, you grow. That's what life's about."
Claire gazed with child-like wonder at the Stygian appendage. She gently nudged it with a mitt covered hand. "Does it make a difference if you were specifically tailored for a role? I mean, they don't make humans the same way they make Clades. Does it work the same way?"
Her minty-green eyes made their way up the arm and across the shoulder to meet Tovera's own.
Tovera let the chuckle escape as her smile spread with warmth with a touch of mischief.
"Well," she drawled," I would think your friend Captain Winterfox should be answer enough to that question. Don't you?"
Claire's tail swept pensively through the air while she gazed at some imaginary point behind Tovera's head. "Ya know, I didn't think of that at all. I'll have to ask her about it sometime."
Tovera's mouth tightened for a second, then shifted back to an encouraging smile. "That's a good idea, but hold off on that for a bit. There's something I need to talk to her about first."
Tovera gave a peremptory wave, cutting off that topic off. "That's for her and me to discuss and for you to learn after."
As if in an effort to distract the Clade, Tovera waved Claire over to the open mat. "Let's see you work on some warm-up exercises. Even if you're not dancing with Mr. Bag, you still need to make sure your muscles are loosened up before doing any heavy work."
She paused and her head slowly rotated to regard the few men still in the room. She said in an even tone that carried well to them, "I'm sure there won't be any interruptions or unnecessary commentary to distract us."
What few heads were turned in their direction quickly swung to regard other things with pointed interest.
Claire turned toward the mat, flicked her ears once and turned back to Tovera.
"Ar-righty!" she exclaimed and began un-doing the velcro straps on her gloves with her teeth. "Shub ba sharr iff pssha or do you think umma runsha wa wrrr adda?"
Tovera replied curtly but still with a touch of warmth, "Try that again without the glove in your mouth, Officer."
Claire paused, gloves now in her hands rather than on them. "That was very not-polite of me. I'm sorry, I got caught up in the moment. I said 'Should I start with push-ups or do you think stomach crunches would work better?'"
Tovera shrugged and, with a slight smile, said, "Show me what you've got, Claire. I'll try to follow along."