It's not everyday that you come home from work to find out it's three months later. Claire was used to being declared missing, even when she was in the room at the time. With 404 being an identifying tag, it happens on occasion and not always as some happy accident. Like the time that Mauser had shouted, "Not found!" during roll call. It made everyone laugh, which was good, but it left Claire feeling less than happy. On the other hand, this was probably the first time she had been missing long enough to be declared dead. This resulted in more activity than she was used to in correcting such errors. For instance, the rent on her tiny home had very nearly wiped out the meager savings she had from her time at the APD. Not to mention all the food that had gone to waste in her absence. She was very unaccustomed to that. For her, every little bit counted and was appreciated for what it was. Even her poor chairs and coffee mugs that had seen better days were rescued from being unwanted. From being something simply 'not found' and casually cast aside.
To make matters worse, what about all the people who were now under the idea that she was no more? Not that there were many people she could count as friends, but they too were important. She'd have to make sure to see all of them in time. Which is why she made the trip back to HQ in the rain in the first place. The cool, crisp air of early morning filled her lungs as she walked through the plaza to the entrance. The guards at the front desk gave each other a look when she entered through the glass and chrome doors, umbrella in hand. One of them glanced at the clock on the wall. For the first time in three months, it was time for Officer 404 to make her usual rounds.
* * * * *
Chrysine was fairly sure she the last time she had felt this way was ten years ago, when as part of the CRASH team she had fought against the Yakuza and the Destiny Engine. Personally witnessing the loss of four XSWAT officers, who had been captured and imprisoned by the Yamaguchi-gumi, had almost undone her. Only a long talk with Lieutenant Brogan had enabled her to find the will to continue. Now, ten years later, she felt the same depth of despair again. Claire 404, a promising Clade she had recruited personally, was gone. Lost on her first day after a simple field expedition to survey a long-abandoned housing complex had turned into an apparent nightmare of blood-magic and Entity-level reality warping. Once again, six officers were gone, just like that, without even a body to properly put to rest.
Walking through the halls of XSWAT HQ, Chrysine tilted her head and blinked, still trying to come to grips with her altered vision. The last three months had seen one of the largest Entity incursions in the last ten years, and XSWAT had responded in force. Just about anyone fit for field duty had taken to the streets, with the Director herself nearly joining them. And there had been losses, despite everyone’s best efforts, losses that made Chrysine’s missing eye seem minor by comparison. She, at least, was still alive, still able to walk, to think, to function. Nevertheless, it has been close, and even now, the empty socket ached slightly—Entity ichor burned like nothing on Earth and had so effectively destroyed the nerve bundles that she was unable to be fitted for a cybernetic replacement. Well, at least Angie had tried to make the best of it by joking her mom now looked like a fox-eared pirate.
Entering her office, Chrysine nodded to where Hexbreaker rested in his brackets on the wall. The weapon, which still took the shape of a kwan dao, replied with a subdued “Captain.” Resting her carryall on the floor, the tall Clade sat down with a faint sigh; her enthusiasm for her work tempered somewhat by the events of the past few months.
Tilting her head again (the doctors said she would eventually grow used to her altered vision) Chrysine blinked again, and then a third time. “Hexbreaker,” she asked, “what is sitting on my desk?”
“A muffin, Captain.”
“Thank you, Hexbreaker.”
Hand trembling slightly, she picked up the folded sheet of paper sitting next to the lemon poppy mini-cake and opened it.
Dear Captain Winterfox, You said we’d have tea once I got back from my field exam. My apologies for being late. I didn't mean to be. I'm sorry. Best Wishes. Patrol Officer Claire 404
* * * * *
Proper maintenance is essential to the lifespan of any firearm. Under the bright fluorescent lights of HQ's cafeteria on an equally bright white table, a single longslide variant of an AMT Hardballer, finished in brushed steel, lay in pieces on several paper towels. The gun’s owner meticulously swabbed the barrel, occasionally looking through to check her work. All of Claire's attention for the last twenty minutes had been devoted to this particular task. Guns, like all things, just need a little care from time to time. The scent of gun oil and cleaning fluid mixed with the aroma of coffee and cafeteria food somehow reminded Claire of home.
Once satisfied, she reassembled the pistol with practiced ease. She held the gun for a moment, running her finger over the word 'Sugar' engraved on the grip before holstering it. Her tail swished back and forth with no apparent rhythm. It sometimes had a mind of it own to the casual observer. She started to pull the other pistol from its resting place when her ears also got in on the act, flicking sporadically. Perhaps they knew something she didn't?
“Patrol Officer 404?” The voice sounded strained, as if the owner was struggling to keep their emotions in check.
Claire set the other pistol on the table before her and stood. She took a deep breath and, without turning toward the speaker, she gave a salute. "Yes, Captain?"
"It... it is good to see you. And... it is also good to see you passed your evaluation." There was a long pause, then, "Would you care to join me for breakfast?"
"I..." Claire wrung her tail and looked at her feet. "I did my best Captain. Just like we talked about. I'm real sorry I'm late." She took another breath. "Breakfast would be very nice."
There was a moment where Claire thought Chrysine was going to say something, then the tall Clade swept her up into a bone-crushing hug. "I cannot express how good it is to see you alive, Claire," she said, her words slightly muffled.
Claire did her best to wrap her own arms, and even her tail, around her superior officer. Whatever her reply was, it was lost in the taller Clade's embrace.
* * * * *
It hadn’t taken Claire long to discover just how sprawling HQ’s food court was. It took up a good third (or more) of the first floor, as well as a portion of the second. Tech Sergeant de Normandy had mentioned the design was to ensure officers could have a measure of privacy while eating (if they so wished), while still giving a sense of camaraderie and companionship. It also meant that Claire and Chrysine were able to set their trays down on a table overlooking the first floor, while a series of potted plants effectively screened them from the rest of the room. Thus, the two could be both alone and remain surrounded by their fellow officers at the same time. There was some comfort in that.
Taking a seat, Chrysine rested her chin on her hands and regarded Claire for a long moment. “Care to talk about it?” she finally asked.
Muttering her usual mealtime prayer of thanks, Claire paused to consider what she should say. Was it polite to talk about dead bodies during a meal? Flayed skin? Not-pleasant noises in the dark? Doors to other realities? Black squirming masses of... of... of what? What about how much worry she caused those closest to her? And above all, which of these things truly bothered her more? For once, the plate of pancakes before her offered no comfort. She idly pushed a pat of butter across the steaming flapjack with her fork. Playing with your food is also not-polite, but right now it was providing focus. "I should. I just... I-I just don't know what to say."
“When I was a Patrol Officer...” Chrysine started, “...much like you. I was recruited into a special operations unit called the CRASH team. It was commanded by none other than Lieutenant Mitch Brogan, the Director’s husband.” She paused, and took a sip of tea, trying to put into words what she had seen and how it had affected her.
“We had been assembled in order to find four XSWAT officers who had gone missing in Omega Sector.” She paused again, trying—and failing—to not dwell on the past. “We found them in the hands of the Yamaguchi-gumi. They were being used to fuel a device called the Destiny Engine. The process turned all four into Entities. And… we were forced to destroy them.”
Chrysine looked away, tilting her head in an effort to focus her one eye on a distant bit of decorative art. “It is not a good thing to have to fight against those you once served beside. I found myself unable to sleep, eat, to stop thinking about what it must have been like. In the end… I spoke to Lieutenant Brogan.”
"That sounds just... What did he say?" Claire looked up from her tray for the first time since they sat down. This was a side of Chrysine she hadn't seen yet. It wasn't the only thing that was new. Claire couldn't quite place it yet.
"He told me that I needed to get a hobby." Chrysine looked back at Claire and gave her a wry grin. "Something that would let me take my mind off of work. That would let me relax and unwind. It is why I took up pool.
"It is also why I feel so close to Angie. She has brought great joy into my life and I into hers. Thus, I think it might do you good to spend more time with her. Perhaps on your days off you two can get out and see more of the city. The better parts. The parts that remind us why we do what we do. What do you say, Claire?"
Claire noticeably perked up at the idea. Angie was a lot of fun to be around. "Yeah. I'd like that. I'd like that a lot. I was hoping we could go see th-" That's what was off. There was something hidden behind Chrysine's snow-white hair. "Wh-what's that on your eye? Are you ok?"
"Ahh..." Chrysine brushed her hair away from her face, revealing a plain cloth patch covering her left eye. "There... there was quite a bit of Entity trouble while you were away." Self-conscious about her appearance, she twisted in her seat, trying to hide the damage. "I went out into the field, but.... Entity ichor is very acidic."
"Y-you've been broken..." Claire's ears went flat again. It's been her experience that people tend not to keep broken things. Like when Officer Murphy broke both of his femurs. He never showed up at Precinct 16 again after that. "They're not going to get rid of you are they? You're not gonna go away, right? I don't want you to go away." Sudden flashes of Claire's nightmares came back. Tears started to well up in her eyes. "Marni went away, and I don't want that again."
Reaching out, Chrysine took one of Claire's hands in her own. "No, I will not be going away. In fact, my eye means I will be here in the tower, if you ever need me."
With her other hand, Claire tried in vain to wipe away the moisture running down her cheeks. Next to Jennifer Woo, the closest thing she had to actual family was Chrysine, Angie, and now Tyche. Just knowing that Chrysine would still be there for her meant the world to Claire. Trying to reign in the emotion, she gave a very quiet "Thank you."