Not far from the new XSWAT barracks, there exists a small hole-in-the-wall restaurant known locally as "Millie's”. A single window, surrounded by a faux-brick façade separates it from the flat grey of the adjoining buildings. Above the door hangs a wrought iron sign with gold lettering proclaiming that old-fashioned dining could be found within. The owner/operators moved to Angelus from the East Coast of the continental United States a few decades ago and still use family recipes that are over a hundred years old. Some of the officers from Precinct 16 swear by the Coney Island Chili, and can’t recommend it enough. Naturally, Patrol Officer Claire 404 simply had to invite some of her closest friends to try it out.
Claire waited patiently at a table by the bay window, watching the puddles gather rain outside on the sidewalk. The other patrons, mostly blue-collar types, could be heard chatting and joking, crowded around the restaurant’s few tables while they enjoyed their own meals. Burgers and subs sizzled on the oversized grills while deep fryers gurgled nearby. The aroma of Millie’s famous chili only added to the overall ambiance, making Claire more hungry by the minute. She flicked her tail back and forth in anticipation.
A bell rang as the front door opened, and Claire’s ears flicked as she caught “...chili? It’s not going to be like that Cajun stuff at Crawdaddy’s is it?”
“I happen to like that Cajun stuff at Crawdaddy’s.”
“Yeah, well, you’re fully grown. I swear, one bite of the jambalaya was enough to put me off a year’s growth.”
“You liked Ping Shen’s well enough.”
“That’s because I was smart enough to stay away from the Six-Demon Sauce.”
That could only be the sound of Angie and Chrysine Winterfox. Claire turned to the door to find them. It wouldn't be hard. Chrysine stood head and shoulders above the rest. In all sense of the term in Claire's book. Once she got their attention, she waved them over to where she was sitting. She also gave Chrysine a salute, as befitting a superior officer. "Afternoon Cap'n. Angie. I got us a window seat all ready!"
“Thanks, Claire!” Angie dropped into a chair and then scooted over to make room for her mother. Chrysine, meanwhile, returned Claire’s salute, then remarked, “Claire, you do not need to salute me when we are both out of uniform.”
"Oh, uh, Yes Captain."
“So, what’s good here, Claire?” Angie flipped open the menu and scanned the listings. “And nothing too spicy, please.”
"It's all good. Although the Philly cheese steak is just kinda average." Claire flicked an ear. "You might even like the chili. It's got a lot of flavor, so you won't even notice the spice."
“I will try the chili,” Chrysine announced, her menu unopened, while Angie debated several selections under the ‘sandwiches’ header. She finally looked up an announced “BLT with fresh onion and a slice of cheddar. On pumpernickel.” Her mother’s reaction was a ear flick and an raised eyebrow.
"I'm also gonna have some chili. Been a while since I was here last." At least three months by Claire's calendar. Once the orders were placed and the menus removed, Claire spoke up. "I'm happy our first case as a new squad went so well! There were cyberdroids, and a car chase, and we followed a paper trail, and there were hotdogs, and they were delicious! It. Was. AWESOME!" She very nearly bounced out of her seat.
"You had to fight a cyberdroid?" Angie asked, looking almost as excited as Claire. Her mother, on the other hand recalled the AAR for the incident in question and nearly shook her head.
"Well, I wouldn't say we fought one." The young Clade deflated momentarily, before bouncing back. "They did take one fishing, though, and that was cool!"
“They took a cyberdroid fishing?” Angie looked confused, cocking her head as she tried to parse Claire’s last sentence. “Who took a cyberdroid fishing? And why?”
"The research team that made him," Claire stated as matter-of-factly as she was capable of—which wasn't much. "They said he could use a day off. He sure looked like it to me. I didn't know cyberdroids liked fishing, but he seemed to be enjoying himself."
“So, anything else neat happen?” Angie asked.
“And how are you getting along with the officers in the APD?” Chrysine added.
"I got to see Jenny again! She's real glad I'm back. I showed her my squad mates, and she thinks Jaden is kinda cute. I think it's cuz he's so small and fuzzy."
“That is good to hear.”
“I gotta come by some time and see the squad house,” Angie remarked, as she munched on some fries. “I’ve never been in one... just the Tower.”
“Give Claire and her squad a little time before you do. That way they can reinforce everything to prepare for your visit.”
“Gee... thanks for the vote of confidence, Mom.”
Claire had to giggle at the exchange. So this is what family looks like. "Oh, I don't think it'll be a problem. Maybe you could even meet Officer Findlay. He's got a big gun." Still smiling, she turned her attention to the cup of chili that had been patiently cooling before her. She clasped her hands and performed her usual prayer of thanks, and promptly dug in.
“This is very good,” Chrysine remarked. “Thank you for the recommendation.”
"I thought you'd like it." Claire said between mouthfuls.
“So, you have Jaden, who I guess is a Clade, and big-gun Findlay… who else is in your squad?”
"Lieutenant Tovera is the squad leader. Then we have Sergeant Godfrey, who I think is an esper of some sort. And of course we have Tyche."
“I have heard of her.” Claire wasn’t sure, but Chrysine sounded somewhat less than thrilled at hearing Serket’s name.
"Oh? Nothing not-nice I hope. She's been very nice as long as I've known her." Red-panda-like ears slightly lowered on either side of Claire's head, apparently bracing for impact.
Chrysine paused and then shrugged, “I have heard that she can be... irresponsible.” Considering that Angie winced at the word, Claire decided that was the tall Clade’s equivalent of a severe admonishment.
Claire paused, turning her spoon over and over in her hand. "Well, 'sponsible or not, I count myself lucky to call her my friend."
“It is good to have friends.”
“Oh! Before I forget.” Angie dug around in the pocket of her coat and then produced a small rectangle of what looked like clear glass. “This is for you.”
Claire looked over the gift, a business card printed on clear plastic. Her eyes went wide when she saw the name. "The Director? Really!? No kidding?"
“Yeah... Mom helped me get some.” Angie gave Claire a self-satisfied smile. “I’ve got a small collection now. Mom’s, Aunt Jama’s, Uncle Mitch’s, and others. Mom uses ‘em ‘cause people remember a plastic card more than a digital e-card.”
“She also made a small fortune selling some online,” Chrysine added, running her hand through her daughter’s inky-black hair. “Next time I will bring her only one or two, not a dozen.”
“Aww... Mom. Now my secret’s out.”
This brought more giggles from the Clade. She produced a small container from her coat and placed the card in it, alongside the one she had received from Chrysine. "Aww, thanks. You two are awesome. I wish I had something to give you." She tilted her head to the side slightly. "By the way, how's things in pathology going?"
"I got to dissect my first body!"
"Cool!" Claire looked momentarily contemplative. "They say you never forget your first."
Claire blinked as Angie entered into a severe coughing fit. She presumed everything was okay, since the teen waved away any offer of help. Chrysine, meanwhile, seemed to be studiously ignoring her daughter's plight, concentrating on her chili instead. When Angie finally came up for air, she squeaked out a faint "ice cube" in response to two curious glances.
Once Claire was sure that Angie was alright, she asked another question. She just had to know, after-all. "Did'ja get to see his guts and stuff?" That's what science is all about.
"Yup. We opened up the abdominal cavity and removed the intestine. I actually had to squeeze everything out by running it through my fingers and... Mom? You okay?"
"I... I think I have had enough chili."
Angie received a blank stare from the smaller Clade across the table. For Claire, it was that same amusement one finds with a car-wreck. She still had to know despite the nature of the details. Now she was questioning the wisdom in asking. After a moment, she finally took the spoon out of her mouth. She looked at the bowl in front of her and then back at Angie. "It is really good chili, though." She checked the time on her databand, paused briefly in thought, and dug back in.
Claire took a few more bites and checked the time once more. She wiped her mouth with a napkin before politely excusing herself from the table. Once outside, she glanced expectantly from left to right before finding her quarry. "I was wondering where you were. What're you doing out here? C'mon inside where it's dry."
Elizabeth Carpenter stood outside, wearing a similar blouse and skirt as the day before, with the addition of a rain-dappled coat.
"I-I'm not sure this is such a good idea, Claire," Elizabeth said timorously. "I'd be a bother, or worse an unwelcome intrusion. I don't want to spoil your time with them." The calm self-assured woman that Claire has spent a good time with yesterday seemed buried under anxiety.
A small, reassuring smile played across the face of the young, naive officer Elizabeth had only met the day before. "It's fine. I'd rather have you come in out of the rain. It's nicer in here."
Elizabeth looked at Claire with a quizzical expression which slowly softened into a smile in return.
"My God," she whispered, "your strength gives me strength."
She reached out to gently place a hand on Claire's cheek. "Whatever happens in there, dear," she said solemnly, "Thank you."
Without waiting for a reply, she hooked her arm in Claire's and declared, "Let's do this before I chicken out again."
They strode into the establishment. Chrysine and Angie were easy to find among the lunchtime crowd.
Claire practically bounced over to the table. "Captain! Angie! I made a new friend yesterday. I thought it'd be nice if they joined us. I hope you don't mind."
Softly, Elizabeth said the first words she had spoken to her old teammate in almost a decade. "Hello, Chrysine."
For a long moment there was silence, then the tall white-haired Clade stood, head tilted as she did her best to focus on someone she had not seen in years. “Elizabeth Yasha?”
Looking from past her mother, Angie’s jaw dropped as she whispered “Aunt Liz?”
“No, Claire, I do not mind. I would be honored if Elizabeth Yasha joined us for lunch.”
Elizabeth let the breath she had been holding out. Her smile was still tentative as she pulled out a seat and joined the table.
"I've gone back to using my family name," she said apologetically. "Liz Yasha was... well, I'm not that person anymore."
"Then what name should I call you by?"
"And can I still use Aunt Liz?" Angie added.
"Elizabeth Carpenter," Elizabeth replied to Chrysine. To Angie, she mimed pondering the question with a finger on her chin. "I suppose you're entitled," she said with a wink, her mood lightening but shifting back to a more sober mien.
"I want to apologize for not staying in touch all this time. I was... caught up with... a lot was going on..." She ran out of words, and she sat silently pained as she tried to grasp at any that could fill the void. Closing her eyes for a second, Elizabeth took a deep breath and said, "I'm sorry."
"For what?" Chrysine shook her head, "No, you have nothing to apologize for. If anyone should apologize, it should be me, for forgetting about you."
Elizabeth shook her head slightly, still contrite. "I made myself scarce after... we came back," she lifted her hands mutely, as if to point herself out, "there were things I needed to figure out... to atone for."
She sighed, her breath a bit ragged. "After that, it seemed easier to pretend I'd never been... what I was." She fixed her gaze on Chrysine, her eyes bright. "But that meant ignoring the friendships and bonds that I was able to forge. And that was wrong of me."
Chrysine nodded in reply, her expression thoughtful. “It is true that those of us in the Crash Team seem to have gone our separate ways. Lieutenant Hemelshot is still on the force, but I have not seen her in years. I do not think that Officer Thornhallow is even on Angelus anymore, while Officer Tsanthos might not even be on our world. The only person I still see with some regularity is Lieutenant Brogan.” She paused, fixing Elizabeth with her one remaining eye. “It is good to see you again, Elizabeth Carpenter. And I think it is good that you have met Patrol Officer Claire 404.”
“And since mom doesn’t want this,” Angie slid Chrysine’s chili in front of Elizabeth, “you can dig in while I tell you all about cutting up corpses for fun and profit.”
Elizabeth's glanced at Chrysine with a raised eyebrow then back to Angie. With a wry smile, she replied, "Well, Angie, since I assume Chrysine is tolerant of your pursuits, I'm guessing you decided to get into medicine or forensics. What got you interested in that, dear?"
“The Blue Lady.”
Elizabeth nodded in silent understanding.
Claire looked up from her now-empty bowl, and cocked an ear in confusion. "Blue Lady?"
Angie glanced at her mother, then Elizabeth, then back to Claire. "She was an XSWAT officer. Who... died."
Once more, Claire's ears said more than words as they went flat against her hair.
“I did say I could talk to ghosts….”
"S-she's not here now, though. Right?" asked the Clade, trembling slightly.
"No... no she's not." Angie's voice sounded almost sad at the admission.
Claire let out a sigh of relief. Ghosts were spooky, regardless how inspirational they may have been.
Elizabeth noted Claire's reaction and laid a reassuring hand on hers. "It's all right to be afraid of some things, dear. There are things out there that deserve being afraid of. Just don't let that fear keep you from doing what needs done."
She then turned to regard Angie with an arched eyebrow. "Necropathy's not exactly the sort of thing that makes you a hit at parties. How have you been handling it? Remember, I haven't been around to see the kind of trouble you've gotten yourself into." The last comment was accompanied by a half-amused, half-sympathetic glance towards Chrysine.
“Aunt Jama’s been helping me. Right now I’m an intern at the Tower and will going into the Academy after graduation.” Angie shrugged, “It was scary at first, but now I’m kinda used to it. Most ghosts aren’t so much scary as annoying. At least the ones I meet.”
"Well," Elizabeth commented with a trace of humor, "ghosts are by definition restless spirits. Doesn't exactly lead to cheerful dispositions."
She turned to regard the tall white-haired Clade. "What about you, Chrysine? What are you up to these days in XSWAT?" She couldn't help having her eyes flick to the eye patch on Chrysine's face.
“I was recently made a captain.” Chrysine smiled slightly at the memory, “And I work in the Tower mostly, acting as a go-between XSWAT and the Clade community. And I look for, and recruit, promising talent. Such as Officer Clare.” One hand lightly brushed her eyepatch. “I also spent a great deal of time in the field during the last Entity outbreak.”
The day that Chrysine had recruited her was an important one in Claire's short life. A major turning point. A day she'd not soon forget. She perked up, thinking about it. On the other hand, she still felt not-good about the Entity outbreak that occurred while she was missing. Training day was the longest day of her life. Another one she'd never forget. She gazed mournfully at Chrysine's eyepatch. Still silent as old friends caught up with one another.
Elizabeth nodded soberly at Chrysine's last statement. "We had a few outbreaks reported in our neighborhood," she said, her head bowing and hands clenching at the memory. "XSWAT wasn't able to respond to all of them in time. There were... casualties."
She sighed and straightened, trying to inject some hope into her voice. "Hopefully, the Council will now realize the continued need for XSWAT and start building up the budget again." The look in her eyes hinted that any councilor with a different opinion would not bode well in her presence.
The more the outbreaks were discussed, the more Claire shrunk in her seat. She should have been there. They all should have.
She felt a hand on her arm and heard Elizabeth's voice, laced with concern. "Claire? What's wrong, dear?"
"I-we should've... maybe we coulda done something." Claire's eyes grew moist. "If we hadn't disappeared, maybe those people wouldn't of... Maybe..." At this last bit, she cast a quick glance to Chrysine's eyepatch.
"Oh, honey." Elizabeth leaned over and hugged Claire, gently cradling the Clade's head on her shoulder. After a few seconds, Elizabeth leaned back and lifted Claire's head with a finger on her chin to make their eyes meet.
"You listen to me, Missy," she said, in a mock-stern voice, "What happened was not your fault. You didn't cause it, but you damn well stopped it before it could have gotten much worse." She absently brushed Claire's hair with a hand as she murmured sadly, "There will be many opportunities for regrets in your life. There's no need for you to volunteer taking on more than you deserve to." A thread of remembered pain trailed in her voice.
Claire sniffled and wiped her eyes on a sleeve. "I just... o-okay. I-I'll try. I'm sorry," her voice breaking as she tried to regain composure.
“Uhm….” Angie looked around at everyone at the table, “I’d like to make a joke… but I can’t think of anything funny.”
Elizabeth gave a small chuckle as she turned her head to glance at Angie and, wearing a smile Chrysine remembered from the CRASH team days, said, "That sounds like a grave matter to me."
Angie started at Elizabeth for a long moment before replying, “That pun was so bad, it had me coffin.”
Shaking her head, Chrysine glanced at her daughter. “You do realize that a pun is a ‘form of wit to which wise men stoop and fools aspire’?”
“How can I be a fool, when I have you as a mom?”
Elizabeth smiled fondly at the display of mother/daughter affection, then looked at Claire, who she was still half-embracing.
In a kind tone, she said, "Feeling a little better, sweetie?"
"Uh-huh. I'll be fine." Claire wrapped an arm around Elizabeth and nuzzled into her shoulder. Her cheeks were still red, but a wan smile crossed her face.
Elizabeth held Claire, absently patting her head. Her eyes met Chrysine's over the young Clade, pleading, the silent message clear. This one is special and precious. How can she survive the hell that awaits her?