Original SWAT Kats Story

Foundation of Trust

By Eric "Erico" Lawson

  • 3 Chapters
  • 46,567 Words

For one newly appointed Deputy Mayor Calico “Callie” Briggs, the city she loves seems to be spinning towards destruction. But two fateful encounters with two very different sets of kats will convince her that perhaps Megakat City is still worth fighting for…so long as you know who to trust. (3 Chapters – Complete)

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Author's Notes:

Title: Reasons to Live
Author: Eric “Erico” Lawson
Rating: T
Warnings: Profanity, mild innuendo.
Disclaimers: “SWAT Kats: The Radical Squadron” is copyright to their respective owners/creators.

Chapter 3

Reasons to Live

S SWAT KATS: REASONS TO LIVE

By Eric “Erico” Lawson

Looking forward to the future, kats fly into the horizon.
For a city they love, they sacrifice everything.
But when they land, and the silence of night falls…So too, does loneliness.
Trust is hard to earn and harder to give. That is why it is so precious.

***

After “Unlikely Alloys”

            The Turbokat didn’t so much fly home as it limped. The damage that their afterburners had caused to the rear of the craft had shattered the jet’s maneuverability. What was left of its ailerons, trim tabs, and rear fin rudders had been charred beyond recognition. It hung on by a thread, and were T-Bone a lesser pilot, it would have crashed. Without their radar scrambler module, they were forced to drop altitude as soon as they crossed the Megakat City limits on a southwest course to throw off any trajectory predictors before doubling back southeast to put them on course for the junkyard. All the while, they had to stay below 25 meters so the Enforcer’s radar network couldn’t track them. It had been the longest 3 minute flight that either of them could recall in a long while, with Chance forced to rely on the VTOL jets just to keep the Turbokat from crashing.

But at last, the junkyard came into view. With a push of the ‘garage door’ remote control, T-Bone opened up the hidden entrance to their underground hangar and facilities, and the Turbokat finally, resignedly, touched down into the tunnel. T-Bone coasted the last 30 meters of it, and the jet finally came to a stop on the rotating hydraulic lift. The engines died out with a whine, and both of the SWAT Kats let out the breath they’d been holding. The lift started to take them up out of the launch tunnel and to the hangar proper.

“Well, that was a thing.” T-Bone said, offering a weak chuckle.

“What was?” Razor asked, playing along.

“Feral. Almost complimenting us.” T-Bone popped the canopy open. “Too bad we had to save the city from being renamed Crater City to make it happen.”

Usually, Razor would offer some comeback at the Commander’s expense, or play the pragmatic card about how they didn’t do this for glory or gratitude, but because it needed doing. But he didn’t this time. Instead, he stayed silent as the lift finished rotating the jet back around.

“Razor, you okay back there?” T-Bone asked.

Razor unstrapped himself, jumped out of the Turbokat, and then walked back slowly to the rear of the jet. T-Bone followed a moment later, and found his partner looking up at the crisped metal. The paint had flaked off, and what was left of the back end was an ash gray.

“I’ll have to replace or refabricate everything back here.” Razor muttered.

“Well, yeah, but we can do it. Hell, we built the Turbokat from scratch, then did it a second time and tossed in those sub-orbital boosters and the Speed of Heat drive.” T-Bone rested his paw on his friend’s shoulder to comfort him. “And you’ve got me to help you.”

“We damaged the Turbokat, we sacrificed the Hoverkat, and the Megalaser’s first live combat test was pitiful.” Razor reached up and removed his helmet, then his mask.

Jake Clawson stuffed the mask of his SWAT Kat persona into his flight helmet and tucked it under his arm. “Mac and Molly probably got away clean, and Greenbox got hauled away for psych testing, when he should be rotting in prison for what he did. Today…wasn’t a win.”

“We saved the city, buddy.” T-Bone removed his own helmet and mask, returning to the persona of Chance Furlong. “That’s always a win. Come on. What’s bugging you? You can’t be disappointed in your tech. It worked great like always. Zed was just a little bit more than we could handle.”

“Yeah.” Jake lowered his head. “I guess I’m just…tired.”

“Yeah. So am I, after that ride home.” Chance patted Jake’s shoulder again, then motioned for the lockers and the ladder that led back up to their living room. “Why don’t you go ahead and order us in a pizza? I’ll see what I can do to start the repairs down here.”

“No. You order the pizza, I’ll start the repairs.” Jake mumbled.

Chance intercepted him, standing in his way like the immovable wall of muscle that he was. “Jake. You need a break. I’ve got this.”

Jake looked up, ready to argue, but the worried look on his friend’s face took the argument right out of him. He nodded, turned, and walked off to change.

Chance shook his head and made his own examination of the damage. Deflating, he had to admit that Jake’s spot assessment had been dead-on. The Turbokat’s flight control surfaces would all need to be torn out and replaced. It’d be at least two weeks’ worth of junking, part searching, repurposing, installation, fine tuning and repainting before the Turbokat would fly right again.

Looking at how Jake had been holding himself, how he was acting, Chance felt a certain amount of worry. His friend had been worse; that scheme of Dark Kat’s had nearly succeeded in draining all the confidence and fight out of him. This was close to that, but different.

Chance wasn’t sure what was eating at Jake exactly, but he knew it was something serious. Combat fatigue, maybe. Or hopelessness.

He needed a break. Maybe they both did.

***

Megakat City
Bernie’s Firehouse Deli
The Next Day

            Lieutenant Feral, commander of the Enforcers 6th “Special Response” Squadron didn’t spend all her time in the air running patrols. Sometimes, she hit the beat in a cruiser, the same as the rest of her men. And on those days, which were a monotonous routine of traffic stops at best and ended in shootouts at their worst, she found that having a refuge from the job helped. Luckily, there was someone who agreed with that sentiment. Someone who she just happened to be friends with, after too many close calls and narrow escapes. Someone else that was a shekat stuck with the grunge work.

Parking her squad car and dropping a pair of quarters into the meter, Lieutenant Feral walked into a hole in the wall sandwich shop that had refused to bow to the pressure of skyscrapers and the concrete jungle. Bernie’s Firehouse had kept the name through two generations of Bernies, with the original deli kat’s son, Bernie Jr. now running the place. It sat on the ground floor of a three story building which had once been an actual firehouse before the MCFD moved on to newer quarters, and in spite of its rough looks, saw continued business. There was some talk these days about franchising, but the original restaurant’s rustic look, the owner had emphatically stated, wasn’t about to change. Neither was how they made their sandwiches; fresh bread every day and a full delicatessen with meats brought in from a local butcher. The prices were reasonable, and if one got past the rough looks and told themselves they didn’t need fancy napkins, or a need for a tie, they found that the place made some of the best damn sandwiches ever. And their potato salad was to die for.

The firehouse was plenty full of kats being the lunch hour, and Felina scanned the interior, finally locating the deputy mayor in her familiar pink power suit, waving from a small table off and crammed in next to the wall. Felina walked inside, receiving nods and friendly waves from the other patrons. Dressed in her patrol uniform, Felina automatically commanded respect, and the regulars around here knew her by now. Everyone seemed to brighten up when she was here, if only because they felt a little safer knowing that there was a cop on scene if anyone tried anything stupid.

She sat down across from Callie and glanced up at the long line at the register for a bit before noticing the numbered tag sitting beside Callie’s elbow. “Oh, good. You already ordered.”

“They’re busy today.” Callie nodded. “I barely got a seat, but Junior’s wife strong-armed a malingerer out of the shop to make room. I guess I can add that to the perks of being the deputy mayor.”

“Hey, there has to be something good to come out of the job.” Felina smiled. She hoisted up the glass of water left for her and took a long drink of it. “Boy, this morning’s been a giant headache. How about yours?”

“I’ve been trying to convince the mayor that instead of giving another tax cut to the elite because of our surplus, he should use it to shore up the retirement plans of municipal workers.” Callie rolled her eyes. “Two guesses as to what his opinion about it was.”

The tax cut. All the better to keep his ‘friends’ who give him the money for his re-election campaigns. Felina looked up at the ceiling with a frown. “I don’t need to guess.”

“So, lots of traffic stops?”

“Dumb traffic stops. I had this cheeky bitch who nearly got sideswiped by a truck because she was busy checking her makeup instead of paying attention to the traffic light. Needless to say, she got two tickets. One for a failure to stop, the other for arguing about it.” Felina sighed. “Traffic day has to be my least favorite. I’d rather be flying patrols.”

“Okay, that’s enough complaining about our jobs for now.” Callie said. “Let’s talk about something a bit more cheerful.”

“Well, have you heard about this one UHF station, Channel 71?”

“Heard of it. Never watched it.”

“A lot of kats didn’t, until this one program, Mysteries of Megakat City changed its content.” Felina paused as a waitress came by with their lunches, set the plates down on the table, and collected the number tag. “Oh, this looks good. You remembered my favorite, Callie.”

“Tuna salad on rye with prosciutto, lettuce, and banana peppers, no cheese?” Callie smirked. “It isn’t that hard.” She reached for the toothpick stabbed through her own club sandwich and pulled it out, poking it through the mound of potato salad next to the sandwich. “So, what’s special about them?”

“Before they did ghost stories, unsolved mysteries, that sort of thing. They actually got us a few leads on some old cold cases, which made my uncle happy. But the big thing they’re doing now is trying to figure out who the SWAT Kats are.”

Callie nearly choked on her second bite of sandwich at that. “They’re what?”

Felina shrugged and chewed on her sandwich, letting the deputy mayor process it a little more.

“Why would they be doing that?” Callie finally spoke, after taking another drink to wash her lunch down.

“Because those two are always news-worthy. I think they started examining the issue for ratings, but it’s sort of ballooned into where it is now.” Felina shrugged. “There’s actually a betting pool that my uncle doesn’t know about for who the SWAT Kats really are.”

“You’re kidding me.”

“No, I’m serious.” Felina smiled.

Callie pushed her plate to the side and rested her head on a fist. “All right…so what are their guesses?”

“They’ve been examining candidates for a while now. They started off with the notion that Bruce Mayne was actually one of them, and that some friend or employee of his was the other.”

“What, that billionaire bodybuilding playboy that the mayor’s always asking for money from?” Callie made a face. “That tom is an absolute joke. And personally, I find him repugnant. He hit on me once at a charity ball. Well, several times. Wouldn’t take no for an answer, so I threw my glass of wine in his face and walked away. Manx chewed me out afterwards, but it was worth it to see the look on his stupid face.”

“You have to admit, he does have a pretty impressive physique.”

“You’ve worked with the SWAT Kats before, Felina.” Callie raised an eyebrow. “Can you see Mayne risking his neck to save anyone’s life?”

Felina shrugged. “Personally, no. But the odds in the betting pool are currently 4 to 1 that he’s T-Bone.”

Callie sighed. “I know I’m going to regret this, but…who else have they tried to pin down as being the SWAT Kats?”

“Oh, a few others. Some of their guesses are based on the notion that the SWAT Kats have access to a pile of money and loads of free time. Other guesses are that they’re not rich themselves, but are being funded by some eccentric, which I admit does make more sense.” Felina nibbled at her sandwich some more before continuing. “The way they fly… how they handle themselves in a fight, their tactics, it’s military. Probably not Enforcers, because they’re on a different level than most. Air Force maybe, or they received their training from some retired ace. So there’s a slew of theories about them being related to Bill Drisclaw or Steve Scratchie, even though neither of those aces ever reported having a kid.”

“I get the feeling that they’re grasping at straws.” Callie shook her head. “I’m not even sure if I’d want to know who they really are.”

“You’re not curious?”

“I’ve been curious since they first saved my life.” Callie admitted. “But is it worth knowing? Would the Commander ever tolerate them if it was known who they really were? Or would he ride out in full force and arrest them? He’s put out warrants on them before, most of them from before you joined the force.” She spooned up some potato salad and smiled sadly. “They hide themselves for a reason. As much I wonder about it, I’ve come to accept that maybe it’s better if I don’t know for sure. If nobody ever knows.”

“I haven’t placed a bet myself, mostly because none of the guesses seemed close enough to be right.” Felina offered. “And you’re probably right about my uncle. He’s too set in his ways and in the rulebook to admit that this city needs them as much as it needs the Enforcers. Publicly, at least.”

“See? I knew there was a reason I liked you.”

“You mean besides my ability to find the best eats in town?” Felina grinned, which caused Callie to stick out her tongue.

The two laughed and started to dig back in their lunch with gusto.

After the sandwiches were gone and they were working on their sides, potato salad for Callie and chips for Felina, the lieutenant moved to a new topic.

“So, Callie. You seeing anyone these days?”

The blond-furred queen paused for a moment before spooning up some more of the firehouses’ famous side dish. “Why? You want to know if they have a friend?”

“Just curious.” Felina answered carefully. “You are one of Megakat City’s most eligible bachelorettes, after all. Your name came up in a Metropolitan poll.”

Callie gave her head a shake. “No, I haven’t. None of the guys I meet because of work interest me.” She looked at Felina. “What about you?”

“Ah. Well.” Felina shrugged. “If the name doesn’t scare them off, the rank does. Actually, I have been daydreaming a bit about someone lately…”

“Not Bruce Mayne, I hope?”

“Oh, please. I’m personally hoping he isn’t T-Bone, because then I’d have to find someone else to fantasize about.”

Callie blinked at that. “You? Like T-Bone?”

“That surprise you?”

“Well, a little. I mean, he’s a vigilante, you’re an Enforcer. Wouldn’t that be a conflict of interest?”

“Yeah, that’s why it’s a fantasy.” Felina smirked, looking out of the firehouse window. “He’s a tom that gets it done, outflies everyone else, but still sticks to his code. Not to mention, he fills out that flight suit rather nicely.”

“Heh.” Callie took her glasses off and started to clean them. “Well, I guess we’re still okay, then. If you had a thing for Razor, I might be jealous.”

“You? Like Razor?”

“That surprise you?” Callie asked, turning Felina’s own words back on her. “I think of T-Bone as a distant friend. He’s a great guy, and he’s one heck of a pilot. I guess that’s why you like him. He’s someone who you have everything in common with, aside from the uniform.”

Felina pushed her chips away and leaned in over the table. “And what do you like about Razor, exactly?”

Callie laughed, blushing a little. “Lord, are we really doing this? Gossiping about dream guys over lunch?”

“Yes. Now spill it, Calico.” Felina prodded with a widening grin.

Callie sighed and put her glasses back on. “I guess…he’s always there to save me. Razor doesn’t have any bluff or bluster in him. Not like T-Bone. He knows when to be quiet, to just be there.” She leaned back and closed her eyes. “But it wouldn’t work out. Even if I worked up the nerve to ask him…He’d refuse.”

“How do you know that?” Felina folded her arms. “He might say yes.”

“No.” Callie shook her head. “He’s friendly, but he’s always distancing himself. Maybe he thinks he’s protecting me. Or maybe he’s just not interested.” The deputy mayor rocked forward again and picked up her spoon. “In any case, he’s not who I…” She stalled herself out, blinking as she realized what she’d begun to say.

“Oh ho. Got another one lined up?” Felina set her paws down on the table and leaned forward with a predatory gleam in her eye.

“No.” Callie snorted. “He hasn’t asked me yet. And if he keeps things up, I may have to ask him.”

“Who is he?” Felina demanded.

“Uh-uh, Lieutenant.”

“Hey, it’s my obligation, as your friend, to vet any guys you’re interested in. So tell me, who is he?”

Callie smirked. “I’m pretty sure he isn’t your type.” She stuck some more potato salad in her mouth and giggled as Felina started to pout.

“You do love your secrets, don’t you?”

“Just the good ones.” Callie said, looking off at nothing.

***

Megakat Salvage Yard
That Saturday 

            The sound of a car horn honking outside the garage pulled Chance from the reverie of his welding work on a vehicle’s fender. Killing the flame before taking off his welding mask, he glanced over to Jake, and the two shared an understanding nod.

They knew that car horn all too well.

Jake had his paws full, covered in grease as he worked on rebuilding an engine. “You’d better go say hi, Chance. You’re not as grubbed up as I am.”

“Sure, but I’m not the one she comes here to see.” Chance teased him, winking.

Jake furrowed his eyebrows at the implication, then tried to deflect it. “I thought you had a crush on her.”

“Yeah, sure I did. Who wouldn’t? But these days, I’ve got a different lady on my mind.”

“Oh, please, spare me the details.” Jake sighed. “Just…get out there, would you? She’s not due for an oil change, so it might be something serious.”

Chance held up his arms in surrender. “Fine, fine. I’m going, sureshot.”

Thank you.” Jake got back to work, and Chance headed outside.

Calico Briggs was standing beside her gullwing doored ’64 Longclaw in blue jeans and a white T-Shirt. Her long blond hair was tied back in a ponytail with a blue scrunchie, and she gave Chance a wave as the mechanic emerged. “Morning, Chance.”

“Morning, Miss…” Chance paused as one of her eyes narrowed, and he hastily amended his greeting. “…Sorry, Callie.”

“Better.” The Deputy Mayor relaxed again. “Sounded like you two were busy in there.”

“Oh, we’ve got a few big projects going on right now, yeah.” Chance took off his baseball cap and smoothed down his mussed fur. “A lot of repair work. So, what’s wrong?”

“The brakes are squealing, and not responding as well as I’d like them to.” Callie explained. “Think you can take a look?”

“Probably you just need the bearings cleaned out. I’ll see how worn out your brake pads are.” Callie handed Chance the keys, and he stepped into the car, pulling the door down after him to close it. “Go ahead and go grab yourself a cup of coffee. I should be able to tell you how things are looking in five minutes.”

“Thanks, Chance.” Callie smiled at him. “Jake inside?”

Chance put the car in first gear and nodded at her through the window, coasting the car into the shop.

Thirty seconds later, she walked into Jake’s field of vision with two cups of coffee.

“Morning, Jake.” She said quietly. The mechanic glanced up and smiled faintly before turning back to his work.

“Hey, Callie. What’s wrong with the Longclaw?”

“Brakes, I think. Chance is looking at it right now.” Callie set his coffee down a foot away from his workspace on the bench and stepped back.

“Ah, good. If there’s something wrong with it, he’ll find it.” Jake nodded. “How have things been otherwise?”

She fidgeted a bit, rocking back and forth in her tennis shoes. “Oh, fine. Megakat City is still standing, thankfully.”

“Well, good.” Jake chuckled, still fiddling with the engine pistons. “I have to buy our groceries somewhere.”

Callie stood there, waiting for him to go on, but instead the slender mechanic lapsed into silence. She frowned at him, and he ignored it.

“So how have you been?” She asked, picking up the conversation again.

“Oh, there’s good days and bad.” Jake answered, not looking up. “Just like with any other job.” His distracted attitude chipped away at her good mood, and Callie leaned a little more into his vision.

“Aren’t you going to drink your coffee?”

“In a minute. My paws are grubby, and I don’t want to have to wash up twice.”

“Do you need clean paws to have a conversation with me?” Callie demanded.

“Well, usually…”

“Jake, stop it.” She cut him off. “I know what you’re doing.” That finally made him look up, but he didn’t seem surprised at how sharply she’d read him. “Do you want me to leave?”

“That would be the smart thing, yes.” He said, giving up the ghost.

“Why.” Callie said flatly.

Jake set down the guts of the car engine and reached for a shop towel. “Because I’ve got projects to finish up. I don’t have time to…”

“To what?” Her piercing emerald eyes bored into his soft brown ones. “To talk to a friend?”

“Are we?” Jake threw the now greasy towel over a towel bar to dry out. “You shouldn’t be friends with me. With us.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re…and we’re…” He fumbled with his answer.

“Do you hate me?” She pressed.

“No.”

“Do you not like me?”

“No!”

“Do you care about me?”

“Yes!”

“Then why haven’t you asked me out yet, Jake?!” Callie shouted at him. Their conversation had grown heated enough that they’d missed the sounds of Chance working further back in the shop slowly quieting. When she snapped the question at him, the silence that followed was punctuated by the noise of Chance dropping a screwdriver on the concrete floor.

Jake’s face contorted, too blended with emotions for Callie to discern it accurately.

“You…you shouldn’t…It wouldn’t work.” He got out, in strangled fashion.

“Why, Jake?” She pleaded with him. “I like you. I don’t care that you’re a car mechanic. You make me smile. Why not give us a chance?”

Jake looked down at the floor. “You deserve someone who can be with you all the time. I can’t be. I just…It wouldn’t work.”

“How do you know until you give it a try?”

“Because I know.” Jake shook his head, and his ears flattened down against his skull. “It’s better this way. No matter…no matter how I feel.” He looked back at her, and this time, there was nothing but an apologetic askance.

“So that’s it?” Callie set her coffee cup down and let her arms drop to her sides. Jake nodded slowly, and she cracked a sad little laugh as her eyes misted up. She took her glasses off with one shaking hand. “I guess I was right about you.”

“I’m sorry.” He whispered.

“Don’t be.” She rubbed the tears away. “I told Felina this was how it’d go. It was stupid of me to believe you’d change.” She walked past him and spoke to Chance, then got in her car and drove off. All of that escaped Jake’s notice as he stood there, deaf to the outside world.

At last, the sound of Chance’s steel toed workboots approaching pulled him back to the present.

“She’s gone.” Chance told him softly.

Jake nodded. “How was her car?”

“Gave the bearings a quick dose of WD-40. The pads are good for another 2,000 miles or so.”

“Good.” Jake’s voice was hollow. “Good.”

Chance walked around him and picked up the abandoned cups of coffee. “I thought you’d go for it.”

“Really?”

“No.” Chance admitted. He went over to the water fountain and poured the brown liquid out. “But I’d hoped you might.”

“You know why I couldn’t.”

“Yeah.” Chance took off his cap and rubbed his head. “Doesn’t mean I don’t hate it.”

“We knew what we had to give up when we put on the masks.” Jake told him wearily. “It doesn’t do us any good thinking about what might have been.”

***

Megakat City
Kostco Supermarket
3 Days Later

            One of the other aspects about being the leader of the 6th Squadron was that Lieutenant Feral was forced to keep odd hours. While others would do their grocery shopping either at the end of the workday if they weren’t retired, or in the morning if they had kits in school, she did hers when she got off shift…usually late at night, like tonight.

The last can of tuna slid across the laser scanner in the checkout lane, and she slid her bank card through the reader of the self-service kiosk to finish her purchase. With little fanfare, the still uniformed officer bagged up her groceries and headed out into the dead of night. Her food for the week went into the passenger’s side seat of her small, sporty sedan, and she climbed in a few moments later. The engine started up with a slight flutter of the starter, and then she was off, driving down the main streets towards her neighborhood.

She was headed down Persian Street when she saw an Enforcer sedan pulled up behind an old, banged up tow truck with its lights flashing. For a moment, she almost kept driving on. It had been a long day, and all she wanted to do was get home, make herself a late supper, and laugh a little at David Litterbin before hitting the sack.

But he might need support, and how would it look if he ended up shot dead and on the news tomorrow?

With a long suffering sigh, Felina reached through her window and slapped the emergency police light on her roof. As soon as the magnetic clamp settled on the roof, the light clicked on automatically. She pulled in behind the Enforcer police cruiser and stepped out. It only took a second for her to realize that stopping was a good idea.

“You talkin’ back to me, you trash? Don’t think I won’t haul your tail in for disrespecting an officer!”

“Hey, long as I don’t take a swing at you, you’ve got no grounds. Even though you deserve it!”

Felina emerged at the nose of the Enforcer cruiser in time to see and hear the officer posture in front of a seething tom in mechanic’s overalls. His tone was even more threatening. “Yeah? I could put you away and nobody would blink.”

“I might.” Lieutenant Feral said, clearing her throat loudly. The officer and his traffic mark looked back at her with equal reactions of surprise.

“L…Lieutenant Feral?” The officer stammered. Felina’s eyes narrowed. “What are you doing here?”

“I was on my way home when I thought I might see if you needed any assistance with your traffic stop.”

“No, ma’am. I’ve got this taken care of.” The Enforcer said quickly.

“Was he speeding?”

“No, ma’am. He had a broken tail light.”

“It was fine until you kicked it in.” The driver of the tow truck said heatedly.

Felina stopped the back and forth with a wave of her hand and moved up to examine the busted tail light in question. Yes, it certainly was broken, but a quick examination quickly showed why.

She dug out a piece of the red plastic from inside of the housing and held it up for both of the other kats to see. The edge of it glimmered with black boot shine.

“You start kicking in lights, you should remember that freshly polished boots leave residue.” The shekat snapped hotly.

“I…I…”

“Enough.” Lieutenant Feral cut off the panicking Enforcer. She handed the piece of evidence to the mechanic and marched until she was nose to nose with the officer in question. “Your name. Your badge number. Now.”

All the bluster blown out of him, the Enforcer supplied the information. Felina jotted it down in her notebook, bagged the busted in tail light in a plastic baggie, and then told him to get the hell out of there. The mechanic watched with a bemused expression, and even waved as the Enforcer drove off, leaving him and Lieutenant Feral alone.

“Sorry that happened. I’ll be filing a report on this incident. If you’d care to make a statement, it’ll help with the insurance.” She said to the orange/brown furred tom.

He was slim, but carried definition, and there was a sharpness to his eyes. And something about him seemed familiar as he gave his head a shake and slipped his cap back on, putting the bill of it backwards. “No, that’s okay, officer. I’ll just fix it myself when I get back home.”

“You shouldn’t have to put up with that. The Enforcers are better than that, believe me.”

“I believe you’re better than that. Him?” The tom gave his head a shake. “Well. Even if you got rid of him, it wouldn’t change things.”

“Why?” Felina asked, now curious. She knew this kat. But how, she couldn’t quite place. Then again, it was late at night.

The kat shrugged, looking uncomfortable about the topic. “They’ve been pulling this crap for years. It’s not going to stop overnight just because you put one smug prick in his place.”

Even more puzzled now, Felina squinted as she examined him. She knew this kat.

“Who are you?” She demanded.

He blinked back at her, looking over her uniform. His eyes seized on her unit insignia.

He sighed and looked away. “If I tell you, can I get in my truck and drive back home? I had one last delivery to make, and I don’t want to miss David Litterbin.”

Whoever he is, at least he has good taste in comedy.

Felina kept her arms at her sides and nodded. “Yeah. Been a long night for the both of us, I think.”

“Okay.” He nodded, seeming older and more worn down than when he’d been facing off against the Enforcer just minutes earlier. He pointed to the patch on her uniform’s breast pocket. “I used to have your job.”

After that, it was a half-second’s work to make the right connections.

The 6th Tactical Response Squadron. A troubled unit who’d been without a leader until she was promoted to the position.

He used to be affiliated with them.

Jake Clawson. And Chance Furlong.

Jake must have seen the lightbulb in her brain go off, because he turned and headed for his truck without saying another word. He put the truck in drive and pulled off, headed for the highway on-ramp that led out of the city.

Felina watched him leave, and it was only after he was just another blur of light in a stream of them that she got back into her car and drove for home. Everyone in the Enforcers knew the cautionary tale about the ‘two hotshots’ who thumbed their noses at regulations and made a reputation out of being daredevils in the sky. Until they’d finally taken one risk too many…and their jet had crashed into Enforcer Headquarters because of ‘pilot error.’ The building had recovered, but their careers hadn’t, and they’d supposedly been sent somewhere to rot after being dishonorably discharged.

Apparently, their permanent re-assignment wasn’t too far from home.

***

Megakat Salvage Yard
24 Minutes Later

            Jake couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d stumbled into the last screwup of their short, eventful careers as SWAT Kats. Even before they’d first suited up, back when they had just been prepping the old Megawar II bunker into their hangar and adjoining facilities, he and Chance had understood that they’d have to take barbs without responding. Former Enforcers, all who knew them and some who’d worked beside them, would absolutely have to view them as washouts. Even a hint of their old personalities resurfacing might have given away enough of a clue for those in the know to connect the dots.

So for years, they’d endured it. Burke and Murray were just the most visible nuisances, but it went beyond that. The occasional wrongfully written speeding ticket. Being pulled over just to get spat on. They’d hung their pride out on the line and let it be destroyed, all for the illusion. The act.

Why did you talk to her? Why didn’t you just thank her and drive off?

Two minutes interacting with Lieutenant Feral… all of that work, all of that swallowed pride, shot to hell. If anyone could make the connection, it was her. She was too stubborn a detective to let obvious clues slip. He didn’t know how she’d react once she put it all together. She could either turn them in, or forget about it. Let it slide. He wasn’t sure, and the not knowing ate at him.

Why couldn’t you just…But he couldn’t. From the moment she pulled up, he was screwed. Felina would have gotten the information about who he was eventually.

The junkyard was quiet when he pulled off of the dirt road. Only he and Chance stayed in it, and he closed the gate behind the truck, padlocking it shut so nobody would come in and mess around while they were sleeping.

Pulling the tow truck into the garage, he examined the damage to the tail light with a shake of his head. He had spare parts for it; it’d only take him about three minutes to get it back to street legal status. He didn’t have the energy to get to it tonight, though. He’d left Chance down in the hangar when he took off to do their shopping, and based on the absence of noise coming from their two story shack, he was still down there working on the Turbokat.

That jet. Building it the first time had been a monumental undertaking. Building it the second time, even with an F-14 airframe, hadn’t been a picnic. The Turbokat was larger and had a bulkier belly than the original frame; it had to, to accommodate their internally stored payload as well as all their vehicles. The Cyclotron. The Turbomole. The Hoverkat.

Jake shut his eyes. How many incredible inventions had he made over the years? Counting the vehicles, the missiles, the delta packs…Too many for him to even try to count.

The ring of the telephone snapped him out of his pity-party. He headed into the office’s garage and pulled it from the hook.

“Megakat Salvage Yard, Chance and Jake’s Garage.” He said automatically. There was someone on the other end of the line, he could hear background noise, but they didn’t speak. “Hello?”

“Jake. It’s Tony.”

Jake felt his stomach sink. His brother was calling. “Hey, Tony.”

“Mom’s dead.” His brother’s voice was calm, but rough. Jake took the news and screamed inside his mind. But he offered no outward sign of emotion. That wasn’t the Clawson way. No, they just kept it all bottled in, stayed perfect in public. It didn’t matter how much of a dick you were at home, so long as it stayed home. Though he was long gone from Katlanta and everything that went with it, that chief lesson kept Jake from crumbling.

“H…how did it happen?” Jake asked, when he could speak again.

“Heart attack. She passed in the hospital. I thought you might want to know.”

“I’ll get some time off. Drive down there.”

“…Jake. Dad doesn’t want you at her funeral.”

Jake ground his teeth together at that. “I see.”

“Everyone here pretends you don’t exist. Don’t come, Jake. It’d just make things harder.”

Jake crumbled at that. “She’s my mother too, Tony.”

“Yeah. But she’s gone now, and dad says you’re not his son.”

“And I’m not your brother, then?” Jake snapped.

There was silence on the phone line, and at length, the connection was cut off. Jake set the phone back on the cradle and stared at it hard for another minute before moving into the kitchen.

That was where Chance found him an hour later, an entire six pack of fermented milk pulled off of their plastic rings and lying empty on the table. Jake held the last can as he leaned back against his chair, eyes red.

“Jake…what’s wrong?”

“Just the world falling apart. Nothing unusual. For us.” Jake answered with a sick little laugh.

Chance sat down across from him and sucked on his teeth. “What happened?”

“Felina stopped a crooked Enforcer from arresting me on the drive home, and she’s probably gonna figure out who we really are. I told Callie off, which was stupid, even if it was the smart thing to do. Oh, and my mom died today.” Jake threw the can across the room and put out that odd little laugh of his again when it splashed against the wall in an explosion of foam. “I can’t even go home to bury her.”

“…your dad?” His larger friend wagered knowingly.

“And my brother too. Whatever. It doesn’t matter.”

“Yes, it does.” Chance said sadly. “I’m sorry, buddy.”

Jake must have cried out all his tears, because even though he looked like he wanted to, his pupils were dry. “We deserved so much more than this, Chance.”

They had, Chance knew. But they were shot down, right in their prime. Before they ever had a chance to really shine. There was so much more they could have done, and even now, fighting as the SWAT Kats, it was all just a feeble attempt to do something, anything, to prove they still had meaning.

“Do you think anyone would miss us if we just…disappeared?” Jake offered up hollowly.

There was danger in that sentence. The fur on the back of Chance’s neck went up at it.

“The mission’s not done yet.” Chance answered firmly.

Jake slowly looked up from the table to his partner. “The mission.”

“You told me that as long as Megakat City needed defending, we’d be there to defend it.” Chance reminded him. “It still needs us.”

Jake snorted. “It doesn’t want us.”

“Too bad.” Chance smirked, offering up a little levity. “When have we ever cared about what other people thought?”

Jake cracked a smile. Weak, and forced, but it was still there. A glimmer of hope cracked through the hopelessness. “My family sucks.”

“You think mine’s any better? The only one who still talks to me in my old neighborhood is Pops.” Chance countered. Jake snorted at that, and his burlier friend relaxed. The danger had passed. “Come on, Jake. Let’s get you in your rack. We’ll get you a glass of water on the way.”

“I’m not thirsty.” Jake protested as Chance hoisted him up over one shoulder and led him out of the kitchen.

“Oh, you will be.” Chance promised. “Remember all those one day passes our classmates took at the Academy?”

“Ohhh, yeah. I’m not that drunk.”

“Could have fooled me, buddy.” Chance shook his head. “Could have fooled me.”

***

Megakat City
2 Days Later

            Traffic patrol. Felina chewed on the day’s rotation like a sour grape as she stayed in traffic, watching how others slowed down because of her presence. I hate traffic patrol. At least tomorrow would be better; she was scheduled for some much desired flight rotation in her Enforcer jet. She just had to get through the rest of today’s shift without biting some idiot’s head off.

“Dispatch to Unit Garfield six-four. Come in, Garfield six-four.”

Felina winced. That was her cruiser’s ID code. She picked up her radio. “Garfield six-four. Go ahead, Dispatch.”

“We have a report of a 10-50 in your patrol area at Felix and Halverson.”

Felina held back her groan. And there goes my day. “Roger, Dispatch. Unit G-64 is 10-67 to Felix and Halverson.” She hit her lights and siren, and the cars around her eventually cleared as much of a path as they possibly could.

It took her three minutes to get to the scene, and when she did, her bad day got infinitely worse. Just at first glance, she could see that one car had crashed into the passenger side door of the other vehicle, clogging traffic. The driver of the vehicle that had done the crashing looked disoriented, but it was the driver of the crushed in car that had Felina worried.

It was a green ’64 Longclaw, a car before the age of airbags. And the driver was Deputy Mayor Calico Briggs.

Felina quickly radioed in for backup, an ambulance, and tow services, then headed in to deal with the accident and assess damage.

A few seconds speaking with the man confirmed what Felina already suspected; he was dazed and clearly under the influence. That put him at fault if the damage wasn’t enough, and she made a mental note to do a breathalyzer test after checking on Callie.

Her friend was in far worse shape. She was bleeding from her forehead, the windshield and side was crushed in, and she hadn’t gotten out of the car yet.

“Oh, lord. Callie!” Felina reached for the door handle and yanked it open, examining the deputy mayor. Callie stirred, groaning a little, and tried to turn her head towards Felina. “No, don’t! You might have a cervical fracture, just hang on.”

“I turned my head earlier. It hurt, but I can still move.” Callie lifted an arm up towards Felina to make the point. “Felina?”

“Yeah, it’s me, Callie.” The lieutenant confirmed. “Can you move your legs?”

Callie was slow to respond, but she could indeed. The heels of her pumps caught on the floor of the car and fell away from her feet.

Felina let out a tense breath. “Good. No nerve paralysis. We’ll still have to be careful, but I think you’re all right. Why haven’t you gotten out of the car yet, if you can move?”

“Because I don’t want to look at it.” Callie said.

“Look at what?” Felina blinked. “The accident?”

Callie slowly lifted her head up away from the steering wheel and turned her head ever so slightly in Felina’s direction. She had been crying.

“My father’s car.” The deputy mayor croaked out. “It’s ruined.”

Felina glanced at it. The vehicle had survived being flooded with fetid swamp water, crashing headfirst into a streetlight during the Katchu Picchu incident, and more, but it had never been horribly disfigured. Until today. The other car had T-boned it, and the Longclaw was partially wrapped around the other car’s crumpled in front end.

Felina pressed her lips together. “I’m sorry.” She said, at a loss for what else to offer.

“It’s all I have left of him.” Callie went on.

“Come on.” Felina unbuckled Callie’s belt strap and helped her out of the car, keeping her turned away from it. The whine of approaching emergency units cut into the dull drone around the scene of the accident. “We need to have EMS take a look at you.”

Luck was truly on Callie’s side. She had minor lacerations along her face from where shards of glass from the passenger window had sliced at her, and there was a lump on the side of her skull along with a mild concussion from the resulting force of the impact, but she’d likely be discharged from the hospital that same day. The other driver, just as Felina had suspected, had been under the influence. Paramedics gave him a once-over, and then the lieutenant took extreme pleasure in cuffing him and shoving him in the back of her cruiser. By that point, backup had arrived, and traffic congestion was being eased.

Right before the ambulance took off with Callie in it, the tow truck arrived. Felina did a double take when it pulled up; she recognized the truck and its plate number. She’d seen Jake Clawson driving it 2 nights ago, after all.

This time, a burlier, taller tom was behind the wheel, though wearing the same blue worksuit that the ex-Enforcer had. His name on the lapel cemented what she already was guessing at; Chance. Chance Furlong.

“Chance!” Deputy Mayor Briggs called out. Chance got out of the tow truck and headed over to the ambulance worriedly. He spared only a brief glance in Felina’s direction before putting all his attention on the deputy mayor, and Felina found herself following him.

“Hey, Callie. You all right?” Chance asked.

“A few bumps. A nick here and there.” She assured him. “I’ll be okay.” She bit her lip. “Will my car be okay, though?”

Chance looked back over to it and masked his flinch, though he did scratch absently at the side of his face. “I don’t know. It looks pretty bad.” He looked to Felina. “If I could ask, Lieutenant…”

“Feral.” Felina said, feeding him the name he was reaching for. “The other driver was OWI. The deputy mayor was making a legal left turn, and he plowed through a red light and smashed into her.”

“Bastard.” Chance muttered, shaking his head. He looked back to Callie. “It’s pretty bad. I’ll have to get it in the shop and have Jake help me give it a better look before we can tell you anything. But I know how much it means to you, Callie. We won’t give up on it unless it’s…”

“Don’t say it. Please.” Callie shut her eyes for a moment to compose herself. When she opened them again, she moved on. “How’s Jake doing?”

“He’s…” Chance started, but paused before settling on a bland answer. “He’s Jake.”

Callie offered a watery snort. “Yeah. That says it all, doesn’t it?”

Chance sighed. “I’d better get to work. I’ll give you a call tonight, Callie, let you know how things are.”

“You need a hand?” Felina asked as he started to turn away.

“No thanks, Lieutenant.” Chance called back. “You’ve got the harder job right now.” He left the two shekats be, and brought his tow truck around so he could separate the two vehicles.

Felina glanced over to Callie, who was being loaded onto the ambulance gurney for transport to the hospital. “Fellas, I need a little more time with the witness.” She told the EMTs. The two kats glanced at one another, and after deciding there was nothing immediately life threatening, bowed to the Enforcer’s demand, making themselves scarce.

“What now, Felina?” Callie asked wearily, now that they were alone.

Felina looked over to Chance, then back to her friend. “You know him?”

“Yeah. He and his friend Jake are my mechanics. They run a small garage out of the salvage yard south of town. They’ve been keeping my dad’s car running for a couple years now.” Finally noticing Felina’s odd expression, Callie frowned. “Why?”

“…Chance Furlong. Jake Clawson.” Felina said.

“Yes, that’s them.” Callie said impatiently. “Do you know them?”

“I’ve heard of them.” Felina murmured. “But not because of what they do now.”

“I don’t understand. They’re mechanics. They fix cars, and do a damn good job of it. What are you saying?”

“I’m saying they used to be Enforcers. Co-captains of the 6th Tactical Response Squadron.” Felina mused softly, watching the muscles in Chance’s back flex powerfully as his paws pushed unyielding metal aside just enough to slip tow hooks in between the vehicles.

“…What?” Callie uttered dizzily. “But they never…”

“Told you?” Felina finished. “I’m not surprised. They were dishonorably discharged after a certain incident. I don’t imagine it’s something they’re proud of. Or like to remember.”

Newly informed, Callie stared at Chance with wonder and suspicion. “Two of them.” She whispered, and something seemed to click. “How come I never heard about it?”

“Everyone in the Enforcers knows what those two did. They’re a cautionary tale, about following orders and not taking stupid risks. But it doesn’t get talked about outside.” Felina looked away when Chance finally looked back over at them, sensing their eyes. “Huh.”

“…what are you thinking about?” Callie asked her friend.

“Me? Nothing at all.” Felina lied.

The deputy mayor closed her eyes. “Neither was I.” Felina looked back down at Callie, frowning.

You had the same thought I did.

“Okay. Get better, Callie. I’ll check in with you after I get off shift tonight.”

“Thanks, Felina. You want to get some dinner, come visit me at the hospital so I don’t starve?”

“You’ll be out before you know it, Calico.” Felina smirked, patting her friend’s hand. “No, I’m afraid I can’t. I have some research to do tonight.”

With a groan of metal, the two cars in the accident finally separated. Callie’s ears flattened out, and Felina whistled to get the attention of the EMTs.

“Get her out of here, guys. We’re done.”

***

Enforcer Headquarters
That Evening
6th Squadron Offices

            With some hesitation, Sergeant Courgry Barnes approached the office of his squadron commanding officer, Lieutenant Feral. The blinds of her window were down and drawn, but the light was on inside. Just before coming off shift, he’d been relayed a message that she wanted to speak with him. He could have done without that notification, considering that he was only a year and a half from retirement on full pension. Meetings like this were almost never good ones. Especially with the window drawn.

Putting on his best face, the aged jet pilot knocked on the door.

“Enter.” Came the gruff female voice from inside.

Barnes took another breath to reassure himself, then stepped inside.

Lieutenant Felina Feral was sitting at her desk, a mess of papers laid out in front of her. Personnel reports, he noticed, before bringing his eyes up to meet hers. He came to attention and snapped off a salute. “Sergeant Barnes, reporting as ordered, Lieutenant.”

“Close the door and have a seat.” Lieutenant Feral’s coat was hanging from the wall hook designated for it, and her uniform shirtsleeves were rolled back with her pistol still sitting in her shoulder holster. Much like her uncle, in that respect; she preferred to do her paperwork still wearing her sidearm.

Barnes did as ordered and sat down. “What’s this about, Lieutenant?” He asked, too old and too tired to mince words or wait for her to get around to the topic.

Felina smiled a little in response.

“Direct as always, Barnes.” She said. “All right, fine. In figuring out how I can further improve this unit’s performance, I thought I’d do a little historical digging, see how things were done in the past.” His eyebrows went up at that, but she kept going. “The Tactical Response Squadron was co-commanded when it was founded, which in itself was unusual. Ordinarily, Enforcer squadrons have one CO. Unfortunately, information on their methods, memos, filed reports…there wasn’t a whole lot to go on.”

“Not surprising.” Barnes said with a nod of his head. “Those two boys were never big on paperwork.”

“Captains Furlong and Clawson, you mean.” Felina clarified.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I did, however, note that almost all of the squadron’s original membership had been transferred to different units by the time that I assumed command. That is, with the exception of you. Now why is that?”

Barnes shifted a little under her gaze. “They kept sendin’ us rookies after everyone else shipped out. Figured someone needed to show the nuggets the ropes. Might as well be me.”

“That’s nice of you. Now what was the real reason?” She deadpanned.

Barnes sighed. “Ma’am?”

Felina waved a paw towards him. “You have my permission to speak freely. Swear if you like. I’m just after answers.”

“What kind of answers? The official line, or the truth?” Barnes snapped back. This time, Felina was surprised, and she gestured for him to go on. “Listen. I’m less than two years from retirement. I’d like to keep it that way. So if you want me to open up, you need to promise me you’re not going to shitcan me.”

“You want that in writing?”

“Do I need it in writing?”

“…If I were my uncle, you might.” The two kept their staring contest going for a while longer, and Felina broke. “Sarge, nobody ever talks about Clawson and Furlong except in the framework of the story they tell every Academy class. You’re the only one still in this unit who knew them. I like having you around. You keep the younger ones in line, and you’ve helped me keep this squadron run smooth since I took over. I’ll keep you around as long as you want to stay. So tell me about them.”

Barnes scratched a fleck of dirt off of his uniform collar, then sighed and relaxed back in his seat. “All right. Those two were in the same Academy class. They were roommates. You’d look at them and think they were oil and water. Furlong, he was the local boy. Pride of his block. All he ever wanted to do was be an Enforcer. Protecting kats, being the hero. And I swear, he lived in his cockpit. Lot of swagger, but behind it, miles and miles of heart. Bit of a temper, but then, I suppose that’s why he got along with Clawson.”

Felina set her elbows on the desk and leaned forward, listening intently.

“Furlong had heart. Clawson… he had brains for days. He was from Katlanta. Poor family, but one hell of an engineer. For him, serving in the Enforcers was short term. Guy planned on getting out after his rotation, getting into Kat Tech on military scholarship. He didn’t talk about it much, didn’t talk much about anything aside from strategy and tactics, but he had guys from Pumadyme interested in him even before he got out.”

“You’re kidding.” Felina uttered.

Sergeant Barnes laughed. “Nope. Honest truth. He was a super brain. Not bad in a scrape, either. Furlong was big into wrestling, grapples, judo, or flat out street fighting, but Clawson, he was all about pinpoint strikes, karate. Precision.”

Felina leaned back, jotting down a few notes on a yellow legal pad. “So how’d they get put in charge of the 6th Squadron?”

“Easy. They came up with it.” Barnes shrugged, ignoring Felina’s dumbfounded expression. “Standard Enforcer response to a crisis is what, exactly? Escalation? More patrol cars, roll out the tanks, sortie entire air wings? Chopper backup?”

Barnes folded his arms over his chest. “It’s a hell of a way to do things. Put more kats into the line of fire, risk loads of expensive military equipment, drag out the conflict. Those two knuckleheads, though, they put forward a proposal. One of the only times I ever saw Chance Furlong’s name on a report, actually. Their argument was, why not tackle crisis situations, the really bad ones, with a small, specially trained force of rapid responders? Feral hated it, of course, but he was taking flak back then from rising crime rates, and he needed some kind of a solution to get Mayor Manx off of his ass. So, your uncle figures, he’ll put his OK on it, but give these two freshly graduated officers just enough rope to hang themselves with. Then, when the plan doesn’t pan out, he can mothball it and go back to business as usual. He’s a good commander, he plays the politics game, but he’s got no vision.” Barnes rolled his eyes. “Steamed his whiskers when in spite of everything, Captains Furlong and Clawson start getting results. Getting traction, respect. Sure, sometimes things got messy. But problems got solved, hostages got freed. You hear about innocents getting caught in the crossfire, you get sick to your stomach. We never had a single civilian casualty when they ran this outfit. And Feral, he started getting angrier. They were making him look bad.”

“I never heard this before.” Felina said. Barnes just looked at her like she was stupid, and she looked away. Like Uncle Ulysses would tell me if it was. “This is real?”

“You wanted the truth. I’m one of the few kats still wearing a badge who remembers it. The only reason I can sit here talking about it is because I kept my damn mouth shut. But I was in the air with ‘em that day.”

“…The Skyport crash.”

“Yeah.” Barnes murmured, and he looked at the ground. “Dark Kat was on the warpath, flying like a madman. We sortied after him, but jetting through downtown Megakat City… it’s risky, dangerous, and if you make a mistake, you’re gravy and a building collapses. Only those two could match him in their double seater. Furlong was the best damn natural pilot I’ve ever seen, and he kept up. Got them in close enough for Clawson to tag the bastard with a missile. They had a second shot lined up, but then the Commander horns in. Tries to take the kill for himself. It was their tag, lieutenant. Furlong even yelled it over the radio twice. They had a lock. It was their tag.

Felina swallowed at that. Rules of Engagement were clear. Once someone had the tag, you left it to them. It was more than courtesy, it was a matter of flight combat safety.

“And… then they lost control. Bailed out. Their jet crashed into headquarters.”

“No. They didn’t lose control. It wasn’t pilot error.” Barnes stared at her. “Your uncle hits his afterburner, blows past them, and clips their fucking wing. They bail out somehow before the jet is beyond all control, Dark Kat gets away, and just like that, it’s all over. The accident was your uncle’s fault. The official story is, what? That they reported engine trouble early in the engagement, but refused to RTB? That they endangered their own lives and the lives of everyone in the building by not bugging out when they were told to? That they put the mission at risk for the sake of their own egos?” Barnes had a sour look on his face. “I haven’t thought about that day in a long time, Lieutenant. We lost our captains that day, and the rest of us were given a gag order. Shut up, or we’d face jail time ourselves. Of course, he didn’t actually arrest them. He couldn’t.”

“How come there’s no evidence of this?” Felina demanded. “Something this huge…”

“There’s no evidence because Commander Feral didn’t want there to be any evidence.” Barnes explained coldly. “You ever wonder why no formal charges were filed? Why they got hauled away to ‘work off’ their debt, instead of serving out their nine lives in prison? It’s because he had just enough control and authority to stifle the damn incident, as long as it didn’t get out of control. If they’d gone to trial, kats would find out about the evidence tampering. About the truth of what happened. And he couldn’t have that.”

Felina sat quietly, then started to slowly shake her head. “No. This is…he wouldn’t do that. My uncle is a good kat. Stubborn, yeah, but he wouldn’t…”

“He wouldn’t what? Do everything possible to make sure he stayed in power? In control?” Barnes cut in bitterly. “Feral protects Megakat City, he serves it, but you’ve run enough ops now that you know he has one solid mantra: My way or the highway.

Felina went quiet, and Barnes rocked in his chair for a bit. “What happened to those two was an outrage. And as upset as I am about it, I’m just as upset with myself. Because I said nothing. Did nothing. Because I was too old, and too concerned about myself to make things right.” He shrugged again. “I guess that’s what happens when you get old. You stop caring about others. All the fire gets burned out of you. When you’re young, you want to charge up the hill, risk your neck. But the older you get, the harder it is. Maybe your uncle and me have more in common than I’d like to think about.”

Felina set her paws down on her desk, sliding papers out away from her. “So… what am I supposed to do with this?”

“Do? Nothing.” Barnes quipped. “It happened. You wanted to know how to make this unit better? Don’t ask me. Ask them. But then again, maybe you shouldn’t.” He stood up and smoothed out his uniform. “The last time this unit crossed your uncle, he sent it into a tailspin. Take my advice, or don’t. Believe me, or don’t. You asked for the truth, Lieutenant, and I’ve said it to you. Just remember, you gave me your word. This conversation never happened. And I’m retiring in a year and a half. Full benefits.”

Felina nodded, and Sergeant Barnes headed for the door. He paused with his claws wrapped around the handle, and mustered one last laugh.

“Ironic.” He said.

“What is?” Felina asked, still shaken from their conversation.

“Was just thinking… maybe if Feral had modeled the Enforcers after what the 6th did, we wouldn’t need a couple of hotdogging vigilantes to keep saving our asses.” The old tom said humorously. Felina’s head jerked up, and she stared at the old sergeant’s back as he left. Respectfully, he closed the door.

Felina stared at her notes. She could see the patterns. The parallels.

T-Bone and Razor. The ace pilot, and the tech genius.

The muscular, raw force, and the sharpened edge. Blunt force, and precision. It was in their names.

Their body builds. Their personalities. The brash one. The quiet one.

Their tactics. Their techniques, both in the air and on the ground.

Everyone had always assumed the SWAT Kats were billionaires with money and time to burn, or the children or secret students of Air Force jockeys.

Nobody had ever thought to look closer to home. And nobody ever would. If Barnes was right… if Uncle Ulysses had really done everything that the sergeant had said he’d done…

“Maybe now you’ll trust me when I tell you that Razor and I might know a little bit more about your dear old uncle than you do.”

            “He’s got an ego to match his muscles.”

“It’s them.” Felina whispered.

In masking the truth of what had happened, Commander Feral had sown the seeds of the SWAT Kats. Without knowing it, he had made it possible for them to operate undetected, without anyone connecting the dots.

Until now.

***

Calico Briggs’ Apartment
Close to Midnight

Chance had called. The damage to her car was severe, and putting the Longclaw back to rights… it’d be way too damned expensive. She’d already thought of the possibility, in spite of her fearful desire not to, but hearing it straight from him sunk all of her hopes.

But right now, she wasn’t thinking about her car, or her father, or broken dreams and lost memories.

She was thinking about them. About him.

Callie felt stupid for not seeing it. She probably would have gone the rest of her life without seeing it, had she not encountered Chance Furlong at a moment when Lieutenant Feral also happened to be present. The painkillers she was on numbed the aches in her body and the pinches of sharp pain along her face where stitches and butterfly strips covered the lacerations. They did nothing to calm the feverish storm of whirling thoughts in her head.

Felina probably had the same suspicions, but her friend was more analytical. She’d see the possibility, but refuse to acknowledge it until she researched it completely. But Callie didn’t need that. She’d known Chance and Jake for years. Known the SWAT Kats for just as long. And it all made sense, in her heart.

Why the SWAT Kats always insisted on calling her Miss Briggs, and stayed professional.

Why Chance and Jake were so friendly and approachable.

Why Jake refused to take a chance… in spite of how he felt.

Callie knew. She knew. And yet… there, at the finish line, her instinctive, marvelous warm heart tripped over hard-won rationality. Knowing in her heart wasn’t enough.

She sat in her living room’s recliner, staring out of the window over the Megakat City skyline. On the coffee table in front of her was a half-full glass of water she hadn’t touched in fifteen minutes, and the contents of her pink purse, scattered out pell mell.

In her shaking paw was the comforting, familiar weight of a triangular communicator. Her lifeline to the SWAT Kats.

All she had to do to know for sure was to press the button. Just… press the button. Ignore the instructions they’d given her all those years ago, and call in spite of the fact it wasn’t an emergency.

She just had to press the button.

Her thumb traced the edge of the communicator uselessly, while she became intensely aware of her own breathing.

Her wristwatch beeped its hourly alert, and she let out a small gasp of surprise. That brief jolt shocked her hand into motion, and her thumb came up and depressed the center button with a mind of its own. She stared down disbelievingly at it, at her hand. She froze.

Seconds passed, Callie didn’t know how many. The communicator came to life, and Razor’s voice echoed out of it.

“Yes, Miss Briggs? What’s the trouble?”

She tried to speak, but couldn’t. Her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth.

“Miss Briggs? Are you there? Miss Briggs!”

Callie swallowed back the lump in her throat. “I… I’m here…”

“Oh, thank goodness. For a minute, I thought… never mind. What’s the trouble, Miss Briggs?”

She closed her eyes, visualizing him as if he were in the room right there with her.

“I’m okay.” She said shakily.

“Is the city in danger? Is it being attacked?”

“No. Megakat City is safe.” He would be there in his blue and red flight suit, with his mask and his helmet. She saw him remove the hardened headpiece away, his ears flicking after emerging from inside.

“…Then why did you call us?” Razor demanded, and as the fervent panic in his voice faded for irritation, she could hear the utter, absolute fatigue behind it.

In her mind’s eye, Razor reached for the edge of his mask, and slowly pulled it away. The face underneath, always a blank puzzle, took on blurry, familiar features.

She knew, but she had to know for sure. Swallowing one last time, feeling warm tears burning at the corners of her closed eyes, Callie tried to speak. To ask all the questions she’d wanted to.

Did you think I wouldn’t find out?

            Why would you lie to me?

            Why didn’t you trust me?

All of those hurt, angry, confused, thoughts boiled down and condensed. Her tongue, heavy and leaden, finally moved. One word, choked and on the edge of a sob, escaped her lips.

“…Jake?” Her teeth bit down on her lip, and she wavered, fearfully quiet, afraid to breathe.

She could hear him breathing, though. Shallow. Shaky. Shuddering.

He ended the call.

And Callie wept.

***

Megakat Salvage Yard
2 Days Later

            The junkyard that Jake and Chance maintained was more than busted up cars and appliances. Beyond the scrap metal heaped up in piles, it was also the site of the Enforcers Boneyard, where aged and destroyed planes and equipment were hauled off to. Ostensibly, the Boneyard was supposed to act as a depot for spare parts and serviceable planes that could be recommissioned, similar to the Boneyards of the Air Force and Navy.

But what something was supposed to be and what it actually was were two different things. Nobody ever came from the Enforcers maintenance garage to look for parts, a decision which stemmed from on high that newer was always better. Some planes and helicopters towed in were in fact absolute wrecks, little better than scrap, but then there were those planes that had simply been outmoded and replaced. As a result, the Boneyard was full of relics, far too many of them in good condition. It was stupid and a waste of money, and the SWAT Kats reaped the benefits.

Callie knew.

Jake, looking akin to death warmed over, had told Chance the bad news the morning after her midnight call. Since then, his friend and partner had sequestered himself in their hangar, working on the Turbokat with rigorous intensity. The brawnier tom could hardly fault him for it. If Callie knew, then Felina had probably already figured it out, or would. And then it was just a matter of time before the Enforcers came to arrest them.

When that happened, the least they could do was try to have the Turbokat looking pristine again. So when Jake had asked Chance to go out and check the Boneyard for replacement flaps and wing sections, he’d done so without complaint. Thus, with a plasma cutting torch being fed power from the portable generator set on the bed of their junkyard truck, Chance slowly cut away the critical section of a fourth and final wing strut from an old Enforcers jet. It was even a double seater, like the one he and Jake used to fly in.

With a groan, the metal strut and flaps gave way and collapsed to the dusty soil of the junkyard underneath the jet. The ground had a rusty red appearance, and it kicked up a cloud of particulates after the hard impact. These jets were smaller than the Turbokat, so Chance had taken two for each wing. He and Razor would have to fabricate what they needed out of the pieces… but then, the Turbokat had always been a custom job.

With a sigh, Chance Furlong killed the plasma torch and removed his welder’s mask, squinting as the high sun beat down on his eyes with full force again.

“You’re a hard kat to find, Captain.”

Chance knew that voice without looking, for as often as he’d worked with the shekat who owned it. Sure enough, after relaxing his shoulders enough to calm down again, when he looked down, he saw Felina in blue jeans, combat boots and an olive green tanktop leaning up against his truck. Her own car was parked fifteen feet away. She’d snuck up on him while he was noisily cutting through the planes.

Chance gave her a deadpan look. “Haven’t had that rank in years, Lieutenant. It’s just Chance these days. And that’s unusual gear for an Enforcer on patrol.”

“It’s my day off.” Felina told him.

“And you decided to swing by the Boneyard?” Chance hopped down from the defaced jet and started spooling up the torch’s conduit. “You’re more bored than I thought.”

“Well, I’m definitely not as busy as you.” Felina glanced meaningfully at the wing sections already shoved into the back of the yard truck, then pointed to the fourth piece still lying on the ground. “What’s the hardware for?”

“I’m makin’ a windmill.” Chance lied, keeping his eyes away from her.

“Funny. I thought you’d be rebuilding the Turbokat after the beating it took with Zed.” Felina inferred.

It was intentional goading, but Chance had been expecting something like this to happen for days, and he was mentally prepared for the barb. “The Turbokat?” He snorted. “Like I’d know anything about that.”

Felina rolled her eyes. “T-Bone, you can stop lying. I know, all right? I put it all together.”

Chance forcefully threw the coiled up plasma cutter line onto the truck bed and generator. “So now what? You here to arrest me?”

“No.” Felina gave her head a shake. “I came here to talk. Not to stop you and Jake from… being who you are.”

Chance stopped in his fuming and looked to her curiously. “Say what?”

Felina pulled herself off of the truck and poked him hard in the chest. “Mister, I’ve jumped into hellfire alongside you and Razor… Jake… for countless missions. Did you honestly think I’d arrest you the first chance I got?”

“Your name’s Feral, isn’t it?” Chance blurted out. He cringed a half second later and sighed. “Sorry. You didn’t deserve that.”

“No, I didn’t. But I do deserve some answers. And Callie probably does too.”

Chance crossed his arms. “And you’re not out to screw us?”

“Would it help if I took a lie detector test? You two probably have one lying around.”

Chance chuckled at the joke. “That, we don’t have.” He relaxed a bit. “Fine. What exactly do you want to know?

“Is it true?” Felina asked. “The skyport incident. Your crash. Was… was my uncle responsible?”

Chance sucked on his lower lip for a few seconds. “It happened. It was our tag, he clipped us, we crashed. He puts the blame on us, and here we are.”

“And you didn’t fight him on it?”

“Oh, I wanted to.” Chance growled. “But your dear old uncle, piece of work that he is, he worked too damn well. We were blackballed. Nobody left to believe us, no evidence left to exonerate us, and even the members of our squadron refused to talk to us.” Felina stood, nodding slowly to that. Chance calmed down a bit, as the pain of it faded away again. “And then Jake got the idea that we could still keep doing our jobs, even without our jobs. Nobody was paying any attention to us out here. So we stopped making noise.”

“You let Megakat City forget about you…and you started over.” Felina went over to the section of wing lying on the ground and grunted as she hefted one end of it up. “Out here, surrounded by junk…” She paused and shook her head. “No. Not junk. Equipment and planes, abandoned before their time.” She locked eyes with Chance again. “Like you. Did you really make the Turbokat out of spare parts like this?”

Chance grinned at the question. “It’s amazing what you can find in a salvage yard. Hang on, lemme help you with that.” Though he strained slightly, having her help him load the last wing strut onto the truck was easier than hauling it himself. “So now you know the truth. What are you going to do with it?”

“Nothing.” Felina said instantly. At the confused look on Chance’s face, she flicked her ears in annoyance. “What can I do? If I confront my uncle about this, he might get suspicious. He’ll crack down on the few kats who know the truth about it, make their lives hell. Worse, he might come after you two. And this city needs the SWAT Kats. Even if he won’t admit it, I can. What happened was wrong, and I can’t make it right. But you two have. And kats are proud of you.”

Chance cocked his head to the side. “You know something, Felina?”

“What?” She asked him.

Chance blinked at her. “You’re crazy.”

“Well, that’s not too surprising. This fighter jock I kind of like is crazy too.” She teased him with a smile.

Chance swelled up a bit at that and actually cracked a grin. “What would your uncle say about you chasing a washout like me?”

“You’re no washout, Chance. You’re a hero.”

“Really?”

“Lemme think.” She sauntered in close and sized him up. “Secret identity? Wears a mask? Protects the city without ever getting paid for it? Sure sounds like a hero to me.”

Against his better judgment, Chance wrapped his large, striped arms around her torso and pulled her in close. He ended up looking down into her eyes with a smirk as his voice dropped to a low, rumbling purr. “You know, Felina, there’s something else that goes along with being a hero.”

“What’s that?” She countered, bringing her own arms around his body and pressing her paws against the flat of his back.

“They get the girl.”

“Funny, Furlong, I’m pretty sure I’m not the damsel in distress.” Felina said, her eyes sparkling. She inched in closer, but stayed just out of range of his lips, teasing him.

“Well… I suppose I could compromise on that.” Chance concluded with a smile.

And then he did what the unconscious part of him had been wanting to do to Felina for months. He kissed her.

***

Mayor’s Office
Megakat City
The Next Day

            “…And so, we dedicaaaate this new Senior Center in honor of one of Megakat City’s most respected former public servants, Judge Mellswood.” Mayor Manx rattled on, dictating his speech for the opening of the city’s newest public facility. He stood at his rolled out golf mat, his latest putter in his hand as he sized up his shot. “The Mellswood Senior Center will provide space for the elderly members of our community to gather, to enjoy life, to…”

He paused in the middle of his setup and listened for the telltale scribbling of a pen on paper, but heard nothing. Manx glanced back to Callie, who was supposed to be taking down his dictation at her seat over by the window. Instead, she was staring blankly out of it over the Megakat City skyline.

“Callie?” The mayor hoisted his new putter up over his shoulder and looked in her direction. “Are you all right?”

She jolted a bit and looked back to him. “Oh. Sorry, Mayor.”

“Perfectly all right, m’dear. Even I’m prone to a daydream every now and then.” He considered their situation for a moment, then motioned to her legal pad. “Even for shorthand, that seems a bit absent. Did you get all of that?”

“No…I think I may have missed a paragraph or two.” Callie admitted, shaking her head. “But I’ll work it out. It’ll be ready tomorrow morning, plenty of time for you to look it over before the dedication ceremony.”

“I’m quite certaaihn of that, Callie.” Manx smiled. “But if y’don’t mind me saying so, you’ve obviously got your mind elsewhere. Considering your accident, it’s understandable.”

Callie winced at that. Everywhere she turned, people were offering hollow words of sympathy for her after the accident. Some of the bandages had been removed, but there were still two that her doctor had insisted on her wearing. None of them understood how deeply the loss of her car had struck her. Most just assumed she was still dealing with the shock of the event and was traumatized.

Mental trauma had never entered into it, though. After all the near-death scrapes since she’d taken the office, a simple car accident seemed like kitten’s play. She had just lost too much. Was still losing things. Again, she thought of Jake. Razor. The line between the mechanic she’d become attracted to and the vigilante she trusted with her life with had been blurred, and she wasn’t sure how to piece it together. Not while she was sitting here, anyways.

“Why don’t you take the rest of the day off?” Manx suggested. “Go do something that relaxes you. You can’t be focused on the job all the time.”

“Mayor Manx, there’s still things that need doing…”

“And I’ll get them done, Callie.” Her balding, aged superior countered cheerfully. “I’ve been mayor a long time. Just because I like to take it easy now doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten how to do my job.”

Callie stared blankly at him, and his smile dissipated. “What’s wrong, Callie?” He asked.

“I’m just a little surprised at your generosity.”

“It’s not generosity. It’s common sense.” Manx said, shaking his head. “Between you and me, the sort of trouble this city gets into… I’m out of my depth with it. But you, Callie, you thrive in life or death situaaations. I can tussle with the city council and handle the day to day affairs, but anymore…I’ve come to rely on you. Not to do my job, but to handle the things that I’ve not the barest idea of how to deal with.” He met her puzzled gaze with a flat expression. “The fact is, I’m more of a politician, and you’re more of a leader. Some day, I’ll either have a heart attack or a stroke or something else, or I’ll just get tired of the job, and I’ll be gone, and you’ll be left here on your own.”

“What?” She stammered. “But you… you never…”

Manx shrugged. “Why do you think I hired you, Miss Briggs, and not somebody established to be the deputy mayor? I could have, but I wanted a fresh kat. A bit of it was me being lazy, hoistin’ off all that work on you… But most of it was me training you, showing you how to take my place.” He harrumphed, and a bit of his dry humor returned. “Only thing was, somewhere along the line, Megakat City ended up attracting supervillains and the SWAT Kats, and spinning out of control. And you didn’t flinch, not like I did. I’ve seen glimpses of it for a long time now, the strength you really have. I can maneuver in politics, but you have a will, and a sense of leadership which makes kats respect you without the games and the deals. Day might come, this citaayy decides it needs someone like you more than someone like me.”

His sudden praise, all of it, left Callie stunned for several seconds. He waited patiently for her to recover, and to speak, expecting she would have questions.

“Why are you telling me this?” She asked at length. “Why say all of this now?”

“You never needed to hear it before.” Manx explained. “Most importantly, there’s one thing left that I can teach you, and maybe now, you’ll believe me when I say it to you.” He pointed at her. “If you don’t take some time for yourself every now and then, this job will eat you alive. So, for once, listen to your boss and use some vacation. So long as Daaahk Kat or any of those other damned nuisances don’t pop their heads up, I can keep the wheels spinning in your absence.” He shooed her towards the door. “Go on, then. We gave you a new car for a reason. Use it. After all, it seems there’s somewhere else you’d rather be right now.”

His words seemed to finally sink in, and she smiled weakly. “I guess so. Thank you, sir.”

“No, Callie. Thank you.” He replied. She set the legal pad down, collected her purse, and tore out the door at a pace he didn’t think was possible in high heels.

Manx chuckled and collected the legal pad, staring at the shorthand scribbles for a moment and mentally decrypting it. “Ahh, Callie.” He sighed. She’d recorded even less than he’d originally thought. He’d need to get on his computer for a change and type up his own speech.

He paused for a moment, then went over to his desk and buzzed his intercom, hailing his secretary. “Mrs. Willoughby… I don’t suppose you know how to turn my computer on?”

***

Enforcer Headquarters
Commander Feral’s Office

            Lieutenant Felina Feral, CO of the 6th ‘Tactical Response’ Squadron stood at parade rest in front of her uncle’s desk as he reviewed the printed proposal she’d sent to him the day before. On her day off, no less. From time to time, he would glance up to glean some hidden bit of information from her, but she was even more unreadable than usual.

“Let me get this straight.” He said, setting the report down and trying his level best to keep from biting the sentence out with a growl. “You want to hold training exercises in the Megakat Desert.”

“Yes.” Came her quick, matter-of-fact reply.

“With Shortclaw Air Base as the staging area.”

“Yes.”

“…And you planned on inviting the SWAT Kats. As instructors.”

“Yes.”

“As you and I both know my personal feelings on the matter, perhaps you can tell me why you thought this was such a good idea to begin with.” Feral closed the manila folder and pushed it away from him, and finally affixed a glower on his niece.

“Since I’ve joined the Enforcers, I’ve had to work side by side with them more than half a dozen times to resolve crisis situations.” Felina explained. “And I’ve learned quite a bit about their combat styles, both on the ground and in the air. They endorse nonlethal tactics, but still get results. That’s the kind of job performance we’d hand out commendations for. I’ve been looking for ways to improve the 6th Squadron, and this seems like a very real, very feasible option.”

“And if we did this, we’d be endorsing those vigilantes. Validating them!” Feral snapped, slamming a fist down on his desk with a heavy smack. “It wasn’t so very long ago that I had open arrest warrants for both of their sorry tails!”

“Yes, which you let expire, uncle. So obviously, you’ve begun to accept reality. That we need them.” Felina argued. “They get results! They don’t have to worry about regulations, or the bureaucracy. They don’t even get paid for what they do, as far as I know. They save lives, and they put down the threat.”

“There’s a difference between ignoring them in favor of the greater danger and including them in training exercises!” Feral yelled back at her. “They’re criminals! You may like them, because they wear those outfits and they have incredible gear and because they’re not constrained like we are, but they’re criminals!

“They’re not criminals, they’re heroes!” Felina stepped to his desk and set her paws down on the edge, leaning over it. “You’re too wrapped up in your own misguided hatred for the SWAT Kats to see it!”

He rose up to meet her, his enormous frame towering over her own. “I answer to elected authority. The Enforcers answer to elected authority, to the mayor! We’re an appointed force, given the power to operate by those the public has put into office! Who do they answer to?!”

            There was something to be said for Ferals, and that was that stubbornness seemed to run in the family. They stood on opposite sides of the chasm of opinion, yelling at the top of their lungs.

The difference between uncle and niece had never been so clear to Felina as it was then.

Not breaking eye contact, refusing to surrender in the staring contest, she jammed her left arm straight out away from her body and pointed towards the window. Even with the blinds drawn, thin ribbons of sunlight streamed in from outside. The sunlight over Megakat City, a sprawling super-metropolis with millions and millions of katizens.

“Them.” She spat the word out.

“Like Hell they do.”

“Not the politicians.” Felina snarled. “Not the mayor, or his cronies, or the corrupt corporate executives like Tiger Conklin.” That scored a point, as Feral’s eyes wavered for a moment. The president of the mining company that Felina had been sent to investigate was locked down in the basement cells, awaiting trial for illegal toxic waste dumping, the deaths of scores of workers, lying to Enforcers, reckless endangerment, and more. That had been the case which had cemented Felina’s respect for the two SWAT Kats.

“They answer to the kats of this city. The ones who don’t have ridiculous amounts of money, or influence. The ones who are just voices. Have you seen their latest public approval scores? 78 percent. The Enforcers? 51 percent. So what does it tell you, uncle, when the citizens of the city we’re appointed to serve and protect think that the SWAT Kats are better public servants than we are?”

“That they don’t know what they want.” Feral said, though much of his angry, self-righteous bluster was missing. He even looked away. “They only like those damned vigilantes so much because they swoop in and save the day at the last minute. But they’re not around all the time. We are.”

“Exactly.” Felina jumped on his argument, and easily circumvented it. “The SWAT Kats can’t be everywhere, all of the time. But we can. So if we can learn to tackle problems like they do, if we can be flexible in how we react, maybe we can do a better job of it.”

Feral stared at his niece for a full ten seconds, looking for some bit of weakness, for some part of her to break. It never came.

“You really believe that, don’t you?” He said, realizing it.

“I believe in them.” Felina said. “After the Zed incident, it’s never been clearer. We owe them our lives, uncle. The least we can give them is our trust.”

Feral shook his head. “Felina…” He sat back down and pressed a hand to his forehead. “It’s a dangerous precedent, and I’ll have no part of it. Even if they do have the best intentions at heart in what they do, they’re still criminals. Vigilantism is a felony. If kats don’t have respect for the proper authorities, then everything our society is based on, the rule of law, it’s meaningless. And we may as well do away with it all, and live in the kind of lawless land ruled by the powerful that Dark Kat’s always trying to create.” Feral reached for a stamp pad full of red ink, then a stamper, and after a quick application of ink, slammed the rubber stamp onto the proposal. When he lifted it away, the Request Denied stood out clearly. He picked up the proposal and handed it back to Felina. “Lieutenant Feral, your request for training exercises, using the SWAT Kats as instructors, is officially denied.”

Felina bit her lip. “I see. So, we what? Do business as usual? Keep letting kats die out there without meaning? We keep fielding our own officers, knowing that we’re sending them to die because of constraining regulations?”

“We do our jobs, Felina.” Feral told her, seeming very tired just then.

The fatigue caused her to stop in her seething tirade and look at him. Really look at him.

How well and truly worn out he seemed. He’d always been an enormous giant of a tom, with an impressive physicality that bespoke the alpha male’s dominance, and rightness to command. Right then, he just seemed lost.

She’d won the argument, Felina realized, but he refused to give it to her.

“Funny. I’d always thought that if the job was too much for you, you quit and let somebody else get it done.” She ventured.

“I’ve warned you about insubordination before, Felina.” Feral looked up, a glimmer of illogical rage and hatred sparking at that. “Maybe I ought to just disband the 6th Squadron. It’s been nothing but trouble since it was created.”

And Felina wanted to snap back at him for that. Oh, how she wanted to. Get rid of me just like you got rid of Furlong and Clawson? A lifetime’s worth of injustices all seemed to pile up and be concentrated in that one sentence.

But she didn’t say it. Couldn’t. Her uncle wanted to be an ass? Let him. She would provide no fuel to the fire that might lead to her shortsighted, self-assured relative and superior uncovering the truth of the outcomes of his hubris.

She couldn’t risk exposing them. Exposing Chance.

“Permission to be dismissed, Commander?” Felina asked, returning to a more neutral tone of voice. Swallowing all that pride back was hard, and her own admiration and respect for Chance increased. She’d had to do it for two minutes. He’d been doing it for years.

“Go.” Feral muttered. “And don’t bring this up again.”

Lieutenant Feral came to attention, snapped off a quick salute, and made an about face.

“Felina.” Feral stopped her before she could take a step. She paused and waited. “What you choose to do while you’re off-duty is no concern of mine. You might look into some advanced self-defense courses. Something you could teach the men in your command.”

Felina didn’t turn around to look at him. She barely breathed. Had her uncle just…?

“Move on, then. You make a poor floor ornament.” Feral added gruffly, and got back to shuffling papers.

Not once looking back, Felina made for the exit. It was a poor victory, but one that she could take. To a very small degree, it seemed, Commander Ulysses Feral was willing to look the other way.

She smiled as she closed the door to his office behind her.

It was a start.

***

Megakat Salvage Yard
5:08 P.M. 

            Chance stepped back inside the garage, hitting the switch to drop the doors. The mechanical winch whirred as the slats descended along their track, taking the fading sun away from view.

“Well, we’re done for the day then.” He said cheerfully. “The sign’s turned around, the doors are shut.”

“Yeah, okay.” Jake didn’t even bother looking up from his current project, the last steps in redoing the wiring to a car whose automatic locks and windows were fritzing. Once he finished, he’d just have to put the driver’s side door paneling back into place. With his paws full of the leads to his ohmmeter, he couldn’t even wave. “If you have a minute, go check the Turbokat for me. I’ve got the wingstruts refabricated and in place, but I wouldn’t mind a second opinion.”

“You want me to give the control surfaces a wiggle from the cockpit, see how it feels?”

“Seeing as we can’t fly it yet, yeah. That’ll be the closest thing to a field test we can manage.”

Chance scratched at a bit of stuck on dust on the front of his mechanic’s uniform. “Maybe we oughta rig a wind tunnel up down there.”

That made Jake finally break his gaze away from his work and give his friend a very dry expression. Chance laughed nervously. “I’d… do most of the work?” He offered.

“Very funny, Chance.” Jake got back to work with a sigh.

“Well, it’s not like you can have me fix the radar scrambler, sureshot.” His friend snorted. “But I can at least knock some holes in the wall.”

“It’s not just putting a hole in the existing bunker structure and digging out the dirt, Chance. We also need to calculate the space needed, the placement of the new load bearing columns, the wiring setup, then we’d have to actually find the fans to generate the wind, and set up a new ventilation induction system to…”

“All right, all right. I get it. It’s a lot of work. Just an idea, Jake, we don’t have to do it right this second.”

“Or this year.” Jake muttered.

“So are you going to come help me figure out dinner?” Chance changed the subject.

“You go on ahead. Just as long as it isn’t your Mondo Pepper Five Alarm Chili, I’ll eat whatever. I want to finish this before I come in tonight.”

“Okay. Just don’t work too hard, all right? Kat’s gotta eat.”

“Go on.” Jake shooed Chance away with a jerk of his head. “I’ll catch up.”

His larger friend made one last grunt and left the garage.

Jake finally had his ohmmeter put away, and was getting ready to slide the car’s interior panel back into place when he heard the sound of an unfamiliar car rolling up outside of the building. He rolled his eyes and kept working, hoping that whoever was there would see the ‘Closed’ sign and leave them in peace.

The knock at the shop’s locked, normal-sized door brought those hopes to an abrupt end. He tensed up and gnashed his teeth. “Just ignore them. Maybe they’ll go away.” He said to himself.

Another two knocks followed. “Read the sign, you idiot.” Jake grunted out for the benefit of his own ears. He set the interior panel back into place and relaxed as he felt the plastic tabs finish snapping home.

Another pair of knocks. Harder than he had to, Jake slammed the door of his finished car shut and stormed towards the knocking. From his angle, he couldn’t see who was standing outside, but they were working on his last nerve.

This time, four knocks, harder than before. “Oh, that tears it!” He snapped. Reaching the door, he ripped it open, and was already yelling before he stuck his head out. “It’s after five o’clock; we’re closed!” He lambasted the pesky customer. He froze when his brain kicked into gear, and he recognized who was standing there.

Deputy Mayor Calico Briggs had done away with her pink power suit, and she wasn’t even wearing her usual Saturday morning blue jeans. Instead, she was dressed in a pink sweatshirt and sweatpants, which he hadn’t seen her in since Dr. Viper flooded Megakat City with his mutating swamp. She still had a couple of bandages on her face, matting the fur underneath, but she was as beautiful as ever.

“Uh.” He stammered. Callie raised an eyebrow over her glasses. “Sorry. I…”

“Thought I was just another customer who couldn’t read the sign.” She finished.

“Yeah. That.” Jake rubbed at the back of his head. He looked away from her and spotted an unfamiliar car, a small, white, modern, sporty sedan out in front of the garage. “Yours?” He asked dumbly.

Callie looked to the car, then back to him. “Yes. The mayor insisted on leasing a replacement for me. It’s got airbags, power windows, power locks, even a CD player.”

“He probably insisted on the airbags after…” Jake started, but went quiet again.

“It gets me from place to place, but it’s not the same.” Callie intervened and saved him from another stumble. Neither said anything for a bit after that, with Jake even digging the toe of his boot into the concrete floor as he looked conspicuously in every direction that wasn’t right at her. “Can I come in, Jake?”

Deflating a bit, he nodded and stepped out of her path. She brushed by him, walked through the garage, and headed in for the living room. After mentally kicking himself for a few seconds, Jake closed the door again and followed her.

She was waiting for him in the living room, and Chance was conspicuously absent. Jake made a puzzled glance around before dismissing the thought and focusing on Callie. “So…how’ve you been?” He asked weakly.

“You mean, besides the accident, losing the last link to my father, and finding out the mechanics I’ve been friends with for years are actually the same guys who’ve been saving Megakat City for even longer?” Callie deadpanned. “I’ve been better.”

“I didn’t think you’d find out.” Jake said.

“No. You were hoping I wouldn’t find out.” She slammed his pitiable excuse down easily. “Why couldn’t you trust me?”

“Knowing our identities would put you at risk. Not just from the maniacs we fight, but if you ever got pressured by Feral, by some court summons…” Jake waved between them. “I was trying to keep you safe. Better that you wouldn’t have to lie, or be used as a hostage against us.”

“Yes, that worked marvelously, didn’t it.” Callie sniped. “How many times have I had to stare down the barrel of a gun, or worse, since you and T-Bo…Chance first gave me my communicator?”

A lot, Jake thought, but did not answer.

Callie folded her arms. “There’s… so much I want to be angry at you for. Lying to me for so long. Hanging up on me, that night, when I figured it out. And not…”

She and Jake looked in opposite directions as she tried to compose herself again, and he remained mute as ever.

“It wasn’t that you were ashamed.” She went on, a slight tremor in her voice refusing to go away. “And you’re wrong. You weren’t avoiding me to keep me safe.”

“I wasn’t?” Jake retorted.

Her blond hair bounced ever so slightly as she offered a miniscule nod. “So what’s the real reason?”

Jake took off his hat. “Chance and me… we’re good. But we’re not getting any younger. Some day, something might happen. We’ll fly into action, and we won’t come back.” He looked at her carefully. “It wasn’t just about protecting our identities, Callie. It was also about sparing your feelings. You should find someone who will be there all the time. Someone who will still be alive when the dust settles.”

“You’re still making excuses.”

“Well then, what do you want me to say?” He asked her despairingly.

“You either tell me the truth now, or we yell back and forth, and I get the truth out of you anyways.” Callie said. She pointed a finger before he could start. “Remember what my day job is, buster. I’ll argue circles around you. So before you say anything, just close your eyes for me.”

He blinked. “What?”

Callie poked him in the chest. “Close your eyes. Count to 10. Don’t say anything. Just think. Really think hard about it. And then tell me what kept you from opening up.”

Jake hadn’t been exactly sure what to expect the next time that Callie appeared in his life, but he’d been expecting a lot more yelling and crying than this. As he reflected on his incorrect assumptions, losing himself in her emerald eyes, he realized why.

She was so strong. After everything that life had thrown at her, she still found the ability to keep forging on. He’d thought she would fall into hysterics. But that wasn’t her.

That wasn’t the shekat he was head over heels for. She’d cried over it, there was too much redness and puffiness around her eyes, there under the eyeliner. But she’d cried before, got herself in order. She was facing him straight on, not hiding behind weakness. Could he do any less?

“Please, Jake.” She whispered.

Jake closed his eyes, and his marvelous mind spun away.

It wasn’t her. Not really. His two lives, his worries for her, his desire to see her happy, they weren’t the real reasons that kept him hesitating. Kept making him pull back.

They were all masks. His life was full of them. He saw himself in front of a mirror, staring back at himself. Mask after mask, carefully layered, precisely arranged. Jake envisioned them, and he imagined his paws reaching up. Tearing them away. One mask at a time, the lies, the self-portraits he kept were torn away.

Razor, the SWAT Kat.

Razor, the vigilante.

Razor, the defender.

Jake, the car mechanic.

Jake, the dishonorably discharged Enforcer.

Jake, the forgotten genius.

At last, the last mask fell away. The edifice crumbled, walls made hollow and collapsed.

He saw himself at last. Battered. Broken. Worn down by life. His aspirations, his dreams, his heart, crushed. His ragged body curled up tightly to keep everyone away.

Jacob Clawson.

He opened his eyes, and there was the blurry figure of Callie, still standing less than a foot away from him, waiting for his answer. He reached up and touched the fur under his left eye, feeling the dampness there.

“It’s not you.” Jake said. He pulled his paw away from his eye and stared at his fingertips. Wet also.

“Then what is it?” Callie’s shoulder twitched, as if to reach for him, but she stopped herself. “It’s not what you do. Or what I do.”

“No.”

“Just tell me.” She begged. “Tell me!”

It would have been so easy to construct another lie. To reach for another mask.

But it wouldn’t be the truth. It wouldn’t be real.

She would see through it. And why bother lying? What good would it do him now? Do her?

TELL ME!” She yelled at him. He stood on top of the pile of rubble that was his life, and the force of her cry knocked him back. With nothing left, not even ground to stand on, he fell.
At long last, he fell.

“It’s ME!” He got out. “It wasn’t you! It was me!”

She could have laughed at him for it, and even he had to admit with a sad little hiccup how ridiculous it probably sounded. It’s not you, it’s me. Was he really so pathetic?

Callie didn’t laugh. “Why?” She coaxed him gently.

“Because I’ve been hurt before.” He offered, quieting to a sobering moan. “Because not getting close to anyone… it’s just easier.”

This is easy?” She demanded.

“No. It isn’t. It hurts.” Jake’s voice cracked with a sickly chuckle. “Most of the time, I don’t think about. Don’t… don’t let myself think about it. And you don’t let it show. You don’t ever let anyone see you like this.” He was rambling now, knew it, but didn’t care enough to stop himself. Or he was too tired to stop himself. He was falling apart. And she may as well see it. See the bullet she dodged. “That’s the only lesson about feelings I ever got from my family. And now my mother’s dead, but I can’t even go home to see her grave. My father, my brother and sister, they buried her, wouldn’t let me even come. Because I’m just a disgrace to them.”

Callie’s face melted into shock. “Jake, I didn’t… I’m sorry…” She reached for his arm, but he backpedaled away from her, laughing in that crazed way again.

“Nobody from the Enforcers, nobody from the Academy, any of my contacts at Pumadyme ever call me up, or call me back. I gave up trying. Even she left me. Because I’m a disgrace. It didn’t matter that I loved her. She didn’t care. The day we walked… got kicked off… sent here for the rest of our lives… nobody stayed.” He wiped away his tears on the back of his sleeve and looked away. “It isn’t easy. It’s never been easy.” Jake looked to Callie, the last shred of himself broken and laid bare before her. “But it hurts less this way. That’s what I learned the first day we stepped foot in this junkyard, Callie. What everything reinforces. Don’t get close to anyone. Then nobody can hurt you.”

It was a lot to take in, but Callie, like any female, tuned into one part of his argument, spinning on it. “Who was she?”

Jake shook his head. “Just some girl I was going to marry. Doesn’t matter now.”

“And because of her… all of them… you’ll never try again?”

“It hurts less.”

She refused to turn her gaze. “Chance didn’t leave you.”

“He was in the same boat I was. Where would he have gone?”

“He could have left you, too. But he didn’t. He stayed.”

He looked away for a moment, and that was all it took. Callie crashed into him, and he could feel her arms curling around his body, over his chest. He felt the pounding of her heart against his back… and her warm breath against the hair on his neck as she buried her face in it. He froze, wanting to move, to tear her away, yet unable to.

“Did I ever hurt you?” She asked softly.

“There was that one time at Megakat Towers, when you clocked me with a fire extinguisher.”

Her claws dug into him through his shirt. “Don’t joke. Not now.” She warned him. “Have I ever hurt you?”

“…No.”

“Do you think I will?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, you’ve hurt me, Jake.” Callie told him. He stood rigid, afraid to say anything. “But I’m still here, aren’t I?”

His breathing hitched at that.

“Well?” She went on, still not letting him go. “Ask me why.”

“I know why.” Jake said raggedly. “But… doesn’t it matter?”

“What, exactly, would matter?”

“That I’m just a junkyard kat.”

“No.”

“That I’m a mess?” He tried.

“Who isn’t?” She deflected.

“What if I can’t shake this? What if I’m too broken to be the tom you deserve?”

“You built a jet out of scrap and save the city almost on a weekly basis. Try.” Callie shut him down.

She was just as persistent as she’d promised him, and all of his arguments were exhausted. She’d cracked him apart, leaving him scrambling to pick up the pieces.

He couldn’t rebuild himself, not as he’d been. Shouldn’t even try. But standing there, with the blond shekat of his dreams clinging to him, he was finally broken enough to realize he didn’t have to.

So, Jake turned around, feeling her arms loosening just enough to allow it, and then pulled her tight against his chest. She ducked her head down, and he rested his chin on top of her head.

Jacob Clawson built up his walls once more. But now, she was inside of them. It didn’t hurt, he realized. It just felt right.

She purred as he stroked along her back. He smiled a little, at last penitent for how he’d been. “I’m sorry.” He apologized.

“It’s all right. You’ll find some way to make up for it.” Callie pulled her head back and smirked at him. “You could show me where you keep the Turbokat.”

“Tempting.” Jake let go of her and gently touched her nose with a forefinger. “But we’re still getting it repaired.” He looked up, thinking for a moment, then nodded. “But there’s something else I could show you.”

“Uh, if you were going to show me the backseat of the Thunder Truck, cowboy, you might be getting ahead of yourself.”

He did a double take at that before realizing she’d been yanking his tail. Settling back down, he ran a hand through his headfur and doubled back to the garage, beckoning for her to follow. “Come on. You’ll like it.” She glanced at him dubiously, but kept pace with him. Her paw slipped into his unconsciously, and while he started a little, he didn’t pull away.

Jake didn’t take her into the garage, but led her out a back door to the unseen rear side of the garage. There, kept under a tarpaulin was a vehicle of some kind.

“What kind of a vehicle is this going to be when it’s finished?” Callie asked.

“A car.” Jake replied.

“What’s so special about it?”

“Easy.” Jake reached for the tarp and pulled it off with theatrical flair. “It’s yours.”

And it was hers. A green ’64 Longclaw. She gasped, fingers coming up and covering her lips. But it wasn’t the jackknifed mess that Callie had last seen it as. Her father’s car no longer had a broken spine, yet was still very much a work in progress. The Gullwing doors were missing, and the interior was bare down to the metal frame.

“But… Chance said…” Callie broke away from Jake and went to the sedan. She ran shaking fingers along the roof. The metal had either been pounded back into shape or replaced, and there was evidence of recent spot welds.

Jake came up beside her, setting his paw beside hers. “He told you the truth. It’d cost you an arm and a leg to get it repaired.” She turned her head to look at him, and he nodded. “So I decided… I’d work on it in my spare time.”

“Just how much spare time do you have, exactly?” She asked tremulously.

“Not enough. But… I felt like doing it.” Jake leaned against the gutted Longclaw. “At the time, I was sure you’d never speak to me again. I meant to give it to you as a sort of farewell present.”

Callie took off her glasses and wiped away fresh tears, of happiness this time. “For a guy as smart as you, you can be awfully dumb.”

Jake’s ears flicked at the statement. “Yeah? How so?”

She glomped onto him and planted a kiss on him before he could react. “Giving me this would have just sent me running back after you.”

“Uh. Huh.” He said in a happy daze. “Well… happy birthday, I guess?”

“It’s not my birthday.”

“It might be, when I get this finished.” Jake pulled her in for another snuggle, and their noses touched with a smile shared between their glittering eyes.

“Well, heck, hopefully we get it done before that.” The loud, often obnoxious voice of Chance cut into their private moment, and the two kats jumped apart. Chance strolled out from the back door, his smug expression a clear indication he didn’t buy the ruse for an instant. “Glad to see you two worked things out.”

“Chance…” Jake growled out warningly.

“Don’t get too angry with him, Clawson. If the quarter had come up heads, I would’ve interrupted.” Lieutenant Felina Feral came out behind him, her Enforcers coat and shirt removed, but still in her olive green tank top. Like Chance, she seemed rather pleased at the scene. “So. Are you two okay now?”

Jake and Callie looked to one another. He quirked an eyebrow, she rolled her eyes.

“He’s still a goof. But yes, Felina. I think… I think we’re good.”

“Terrific.” Chance clapped his paws together loudly. “So, then. Lina brought us a big pan of lasagna for dinner, and I just chucked it in the oven. It’ll be done in an hour, so if we hurry, we might be able to put some more of this car back together again.” The pet name stuck in the air, vibrating at a pace impossible to ignore.

“Wait. So you two…” Jake pointed between them.

Chance grinned like the happy-go-lucky fellow he was, and Felina folded her arms with an amused smile.

“Surprised?” Felina said. “I thought it was more obvious than that.”

“No… I’m just thinking Chance has a death wish. If Feral ever found out…”

If he finds out, he can choke on a hairball.” Felina resolved. “Until then, it’s none of his damn business who I hang out with. So. Are we fixing a car tonight, or not?”

“Oh, we’re fixing a car.” Chance promised her. “Right, Jake?”

At peace with himself after far too long, Jacob “Razor” Clawson looked to the three kats he was closest to in the world. And smiled.

“I suppose it’d mean more if we all worked on it together. Okay, kats. Before we go crazy putting the upholstery back in, I was planning on making some modifications in the empty shell.”

“Let me guess. Bulletproofing?”

“More than that.” Razor grinned. “I’ve been working on an Agricite composite steel that’s been promising. If I’m right, it’ll do more than just keep Callie’s car from getting shot out, it’ll reinforce it from additional collisions.”

“I’m not even going to bother asking where you got your hands on Agricite.” Felina said.

“Even I don’t know where he digs up half this stuff.” Chance laughed, slipping on some heavy gloves before moving to a pile of sheet metal leaned up against the garage nearby.

“Hey, it’s easy to find things if you keep them organized. I’m amazed you can find anything in your mess of a room.” Jake sniped back.

“It’s not a mess, it’s controlled chaos!”

“What would all your adoring fans think if they knew that Megakat City’s heroes were a couple of slobs in real life?” Callie sighed theatrically. Jake blushed a little and Chance just laughed it off. Callie caught Felina smiling at her then, and the blond-furred shekat found herself smiling back unconsciously. They both nodded at the same time, even.

“Oh, speaking of messes, I glanced through the psych notes of Dr. Greenbox’s eval.” Felina went on. “You’d contacted him because you wanted Zed to repair a piece of the Turbokat, right?”

“Yeah, the stealth module. Keeps the Enforcer radar network jammed so they can’t track us.” Chance said. “Right now, it’s pretty fragged.”

“And the Turbokat doesn’t exactly lend itself well to stealth geometry, which makes RAM Coatings pretty worthless as an alternative.” Jake explained. “Until I can get the frequency oscillator running, we’re vulnerable.”

“But if you knew the frequencies for, say, the next six months, you wouldn’t need the oscillator, right? The emitter still works?” Felina posited.

Chance did a double take, setting the reinforced steel sheeting down on the ground beside the Longclaw. “Hang on. You know what the radar network is going to be for the next six months? Why would they plan it out that far ahead, and worse, write it down? That information falls in the wrong hands, the city could be at risk!”

“I was planning on making a report to that exact effect, but I thought I might offer to share it with you first. I could probably keep you updated with frequency changes until you get it fixed.” Chance seemed ready to keep blustering on, but she stopped him by raising a hand up. “Chance, the Enforcers are Megakat City’s first line of defense, and you’re the last. I’m not just happy to help, it’s my obligation.”

“Well… thanks, Felina.” The burly tom finally caved in. “So, what can I do to thank you for it?”

“Easy. Let me train with you guys when I’ve got the time.”

“Ooh.” Chance went from gracious to impish in a flash. “Reflex Room.”

Felina blinked. “Reflex Room?”

“Where we train. You’ll probably get a kick out of it, Lieutenant.” Jake filled her in. “But we do get a little competitive. And, as long as we’re doing that, how would you feel about learning a little self-defense, Callie?”

The deputy mayor thought about it for a moment. “You’re going to teach me how to knee someone in the balls?”

Jake chuckled, which Chance mirrored a half second later. “No. I’m going to teach you how to break someone’s wrist. Then their elbow. And their knee.”

“And then you knee them in the balls.” Chance guffawed. “Classic Jake.”

As dinner cooked inside, two vigilantes worked to refit a car alongside the shekats they were closest to. Jake marveled at it all.

How had they arrived here? He had thought that it was all done for. Their careers as SWAT Kats. Any hope of happiness. That even Megakat City was doomed.

Yet here they were, still free kats. Feral none the wiser, and his niece dating Chance. And at his side, Callie. A female who didn’t run from him. Who didn’t care what he was, only who he was. She’d finally forced him to break through his shell. Reconstruct it.

He still hurt, but for the first time in a long while, he saw hope. The last vestiges of his old life slipped away, and something better, something more honest took its place. A life that was more than the mission, more than just Chance. A life with her in it.

His world could be as large or as small as it needed to be. For now, he shrank it in, until all that mattered were Callie, Felina, and Chance. Kats he fought beside. Kats he trusted. Kats who trusted him.

Anything worthwhile starts out with trust. Some part of his always spinning brain latched on to that sentence. Hadn’t Callie said it, sometime long ago? She was right, of course. She’d always been right. And you always think too much.

Her delicate hand waved in front of his face, and he came to with several rapid blinks.

“Jake? You zoned out there for a minute. Are you okay?” Callie asked him worriedly.

God, she was beautiful. He smiled back at her and shook his head. “Just thinking how lucky I was.”

“If you weren’t, we’d probably be dead by now from all those crazy ideas of yours, sureshot.” Chance snarked. “Now stop daydreaming and help me cut out this pattern.”

Shaking his head, Jake did so.

He could have kept musing, about how all of them working to fix up Callie’s old car was a symbol for Megakat City. It was damaged, bruised, a little broken, and more than a few kats had given up on it. But there was still hope for it, and for the kats who lived in it. It would just take work, honest work.

Those were just details. Analogies. In the end, Jake had been struggling for a long time because he’d been trying to find justification for keeping on. Reasons. There, in the salvage yard, surrounded by the ones he loved and basking in their laughter and smiles, he had all the reasons he needed.

THE END

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