The St. John's cathedral was the largest cathedral that Claire had ever been in. Probably because it was the only cathedral she'd ever been in. Beyond the double doors at the entrance hall was an immense area populated by pillars and arches. Stained glass depictions of various figures were surrounded by relief carvings and gold filigree. Through it all pervaded a deafening silence that seemed to magnify every little sound. To Claire's heightened sense of hearing, the effect was astonishing to say the least.
For the first time in her short life, Claire felt a tad under dressed for the occasion. Her simple button-down shirt and threadbare slacks looked like rags in comparison to the finery worn by the other people in attendance.
Claire couldn't help but admire the furnishings as a child would gaze at displays in a museum. More than one member of the church was kind enough to inquire as to what brought the young Clade to this prestigious establishment. A few pointed her in the direction of her query, but all received a polite smile and muffin for their trouble.
Claire made her way between the sparsely populated pews. She could only imagine how many people would show up for regular mass. The practice was beyond her but people do what people do. As she passed beneath the large central dome, Claire caught sight of the purpose of her journey here today. Up ahead near the altar, Elizabeth Carpenter was speaking with what Claire assumed was one of the cathedrals custodians. She waved to Elizabeth to make her presence known and then waited patiently for the conversation to conclude.
Within a few moments there was a slight tug on her tail. She turned to find a small child with a thumb in his mouth and his other hand full of Claire-fuzz. She knelt down to look the child in the eye and offered a friendly smile. The little boy merely stared back.
"Hi! What's your name?"
The child continued to stare. Claire guessed he was only about two or three. Not much younger than she was. She playfully tugged back with her tail, finally getting a smile out of the toddler.
"That thumb tastes pretty good, huh? Where's your parents? Traveling the world all by yourself?" Claire glanced around, looking for the adults that belonged to this infant. When next she looked back, he let go of her tail and promptly took hold of her nose.
Elizabeth's voice called out over Claire's shoulder in a gentle admonishing tone. "Bobby, please let go. It's not polite to grab other people's noses without permission."
Bobby dutifully lowered his hand. He removed his thumb from his mouth long enough to announce clearly, "Kitty."
Elizabeth stopped next to Claire, an eyebrow raised. She looked up and signaled to a frantic-looking woman who had entered the nave, looking around.
As the woman approached, Elizabeth informed her, "I guess Bobby's not interested in a nap anymore. Why don't you take him back and see if he's hungry."
The woman took the boy's hand and guided him back to where she'd come from, speaking softly to the once-again mute child. Without taking her eyes off the retreating pair, Elizabeth explained. "Bobby's father is abusive. His mother moved out and filed for divorce. We've been helping her get back on her feet, including providing daycare for Bobby while she's at her job."
Elizabeth turned to regard Claire. "He has not said a single word since he came to us. That is, until he met you."
She stood quietly for a second more, then smiled. "It's great to see you again, Claire. How are you doing?"
"I am awesome, 'lizabeth." Her attention was momentarily directed toward her ears, as she felt the shape of them with her hands. "And I guess I would look like a kitty. Well, to someone who hasn't seen a red panda at least. Ya learn somethin' new every day."
Claire gazed in the direction the boy had been taken in. "I hope I didn't interrupt his, uh... not-talking?"
Elizabeth chuckled. "Dear, you're always welcome to bring some happy chaos to our lives. Would you like some tea? I got a fresh batch from Japan that a friend brought back with him."
Claire's ears and tail perked up. "Tea? I like this plan. Which is awesome, 'cuz I need some advice."
"Advice?" Elizabeth repeated with a touch of mischief in her voice and a wink of her eye. "Ooh, that might cost you," she teased.
Claire's head tilted slightly. "Will muffins do? I brought lots."
Elizabeth's face shone as she laughed. "Why, they will do splendidly!"
Taking Claire's hand in hers, she led her through a door to the side, leading to the rectory offices and finally to a small cozy break room.
Directing the Clade to a worn but surprisingly comfortable easy chair, Elizabeth set a kettle to heat on the small stove.
She sat down on another chair and said with a satisfied sigh. "Well, while we wait for the water to boil, what do you want to talk about, dear?"
Ears at half-mast, Claire opened her mouth to speak, inhaled, and held it briefly. After a pause she tried again. "You know about... uh. Back when... y'know.. You and the..." She fidgeted with her tail as she searched for the right words. "Do they... ? Are entities in the habit of... um... talking?"
Elizabeth's cheerful mood evaporated quickly, leaving concern tinged with remembered pain.
Placing a hand comfortably on Claire's, she said softly, "Only the more powerful ones. Did one speak to you? What did it want?"
"Well, while I was in the hospital, a bunch of 'em showed up. It-it sounded like they were saying 'there you are'." A hint of worry crept into Claire's eyes before she continued. "When I looked at the reports, it didn't look like anyone else had heard it."
Elizabeth frowned as she absorbed Claire's words and noticed her distress.
"Could it be related to what you did down in the sewer?" she asked, referring to Claire's cadet mission, then grimaced and shook her head as she answered her own question. "No, that doesn't sound right. While they're quite capable of revenge, they tend to be more subtle about it."
She chewed her lip as she pondered the issue some more. Looking at Claire, she asked, "Did you report it to your superior officer? XSWAT needs to know if you've been targeted."
"I-it's in my report." Claire inhaled slightly before continuing. "Why would they target me? Did I do something not-right?"
Elizabeth smiled encouragingly. "Actually, it's more likely because you did something very right."
She hesitated a moment, then said, "Claire, I'm not as... capable as I used to be, but I could try to get a read and see if I can get a clue of what's going on. Would you be all right with that?"
Such a warm thought. Claire had to smile at this. "Of course I'd be alright with it. I knew you'd know what to do!"
Elizabeth smiled encouragingly back, trying to hide her own misgivings. The truth was that she had no control on the increased sensitivity her strange hybrid existence had left her with. But she couldn't find how to properly explain this to Claire.
"Okay," Elizabeth directed. "Sit back, close your eyes, and try to clear your head." She grasped one of Claire's hands with her two and continued speaking softly. "Just listen to my voice and let your mind focus on nothing else. Relax your muscles. Start with your toes, then your ankles, work your way slowly up your body..."
As she spoke, she let her own mind drift into her own meditative state, letting her senses open themselves up to any input.
Slowly, a mental image floated into her inner sight. She realized it was a memory, rising up like a bubble up to her consciousness. Then the bubble burst, and the scene flared into awareness with painful intensity.
Liz Yasha knelt in a chamber beneath the cathedral, her torn XSWAT uniform hanging from her body, weeping dark, bloody tears as she faced the presence that filled the room...
Elizabeth jolted back, her breath burning her tightened throat, blood pounding in her ears. She managed a ragged, "Oh, my," before sinking into her chair.
A pair of minty-green eyes jolted open as Claire woke from the reverie. She glanced around the room as if expecting things to be different. "What? What is it? Did ya see something?" she asked softly.
Elizabeth regained her composure, not wanting to alarm Claire. The memory of her encounter with the angelic figure that the Order of Enoch had misguidedly imprisoned was painfully clear. What had triggered it, though, was not.
"I... was reminded of... something I met back in my XSWAT days," she explained to Claire, unsure of how much detail to get into.
She sighed and, back in control, studied her friend with a serious but hopefully comforting gaze.
"Claire, I think you've been... touched by a higher power, a power for good," she was quick to assure the Clade, "but it may be what... attracted the attention of the Entities."
Elizabeth stroked her chin as she mused out loud, "This may be related to your first mission after all, but there might be something else..."
She placed a hand on Claire's arm. "I think I might need to do some research to get a better handle on what's going on. In the meantime, just stay sharp. Stick with your team."
The young-old woman looked at Claire with a fond smile. "You're a very special person, dear. Don't ever forget that."
Elizabeth could see the gears turning in Claire's mind as comprehension clicked into place. The Clade pointed a finger to the heavens. "Woot! I knew it! I knew you were the one to talk to!"
Claire wrapped her arms around Elizabeth, hugging her in a warm embrace. "Thank you very much 'lizabeth. I knew I could count on you!"
Elizabeth was momentarily taken aback by Claire's effusive response, but recovered and hugged her back. She hid her misgivings as she smiled back.
She knew well enough the price paid by those who were chosen to play a part in the eternal conflict. She closed her eyes and tightened her hug a bit more as she prayed for Claire to survive the trials ahead, not only physically, but emotionally as well.
A slight frown creased Elizabeth's brow as she found herself squinting. Did the room seem brighter? And why did it suddenly smell like chocolate chip cookies?