Claire is four the first time her uncle comes to visit. He brings an old bag that's got sand in the bottom, a fuzzy bear that's almost as big as she is, and a smile that's the same as her daddy's.
"Hey there, Spanish Harlem," he says, and scoops her into strong arms covered in spots. "Last time I saw you, you were making your mama fat."
"Her fat mama doesn't have to feed you," Mami calls from the kitchen.
He laughs like her daddy never has. "I didn't say you were fat now, damn."
Mami comes in to swat him with a wooden spoon. "Language, Theodore. Mija, say hello to your Uncle Teddy."
Claire looks from her to him to the huge lump of fur at his feet. "Like the bear!"
"Like the baritone," he says, smacking a kiss on her mother's cheek as he swings her back down to the floor. "Have you taught this child nothing?"
When Mami tucks her into bed that night, her new stuffed friend swallows half the space. Claire wiggles her toes in her footie pajamas and scoots down under the covers.
"What's a bear tone?"
Mami shakes her head. "Your uncle is a silly man."
"Is that why he has spots?" Mami blinks, and Claire hits the bed with one hand. "Clowns are silly, and they wear spots."
"His spots are called camouflage. It's a uniform, mijita."
Claire pulls both brows together. "What does that mean?"
Mami finishes folding the blanket under her chin, then lays a warm hand on her tummy.
"It means he is a hero. And that is all you need to know."
She doesn't know why her feet have brought her here, but it's good to see solid glass in the door.
Her knock is too loud for pre-dawn. The answering voice from inside is louder.
"Get lost, thanks."
She takes a deep breath and tries again.
"Closed door means closed, asshole!"
The solid rap becomes a rhythm, steadier than she feels, and only stops when the thudding footsteps start.
"Fuck off, it's five a.m.!"
"And I need a fucking drink," Claire yells back.
The door flies open, fresh glass rattling in its frame. Jessica stands on the other side, smeary-eyed and seething, in nothing but a long black beater and a pair of unlaced boots.
"I'm calling in that favor," Claire says, and raises an eyebrow. "I was gonna let you keep your pants on this time, but I can see that ship has sailed."
"Nobody's bleeding," Jessica says, and stops. "Here, anyway. And I sure as hell didn't order a house call from my conscience."
"Good thing I just came for the drunken stupor," Claire mumbles, ducking under the outstretched arm and into the apartment. There's a bottle of bad tequila on the desk, already uncapped. "Look at that, I'm right on time."
They don't bother with glasses, just pass the bottle back and forth between them — Jessica slumped in the chair, Claire cross-legged on the floor — and when she knocks the last of it back, Jessica opens the bottom drawer with the toe of one boot and they start all over again.
The swigs stop burning eventually.
Halfway through the second, Jessica stops peeling pieces of the label off the empty and swallows nothing but her own saliva.
"Is it Luke?"
Claire looks up, too fast — her eyes can't quite keep up with her head. "What?" The only answer she gets is a glare, and she holds up both hands, splashing a spray of tequila on the wall behind her shoulder. "It's not Luke. I haven't seen him since… well. I take it you haven't, either."
Jessica rolls her eyes, reaching down to snatch the bottle back. "Yeah, we're not gonna do that. This isn't group therapy."
"Hell's Kitchen Anonymous," Claire snorts. "'My name is Claire, and I killed a man last night.'"
Jessica blinks. "So what is this, a guilt trip?"
Claire doesn't know what this is, but Luisa's voice echoes in her ears.
"It's fine," she says, rocking to her knees to reach the tequila. "He was already dead."
She stops halfway, because the whole thing is so suddenly, irrationally insane that she has to laugh. Once it starts, it doesn't stop until she's crashed back to the wall, heels of her hands pressed into her eyes and her breath coming in hiccups.
"God," she gasps, "this is really my life."
"I'd welcome you to the club," Jessica says, "but I still want the fuck out, myself."
Claire is exactly six the next time she sees him.
He's been writing her letters from far away, and she sends back pictures, books, big boxes for his birthday. Mami says he needs all the soap and socks and tubes of toothpaste, but Claire's sure that the candy she picks are his favorite. She'd even packed her blue blanket once, the fuzzy one with Care Bears all over — she liked it better than the one with ponies and the hole in the middle, but his last letter said it got cold at night, wherever he was. Claire has Mami to make sure she's never cold, but she's never had an uncle before.
This morning, her uncle is curled up on their couch under her little blue Care Bears blanket. It's the best birthday present ever.
They go to the park after breakfast. She's never been to this one, but they pass by on the bus now, she and Mami, on the way to her new school. It's nice — only a little trash blows by in the wind, and almost everything hasn't been broken yet. He finds a pointy rock and draws her name in big bubble letters, teaches her how to play tic tac toe and hopscotch. He pushes her on the swings and plays with her in the grass and doesn't even yell when she gets dirty.
After he holds her up across the monkey bars for the third time that morning, she squeals as he flips her over his shoulder.
"Alright, Spanish Harlem. We gotta get going, stop at the store for your mama."
"You always call me that," she says, giggling.
"It's a nickname."
"'Cause there's nothing short for 'Claire,'" he says, and reaches up to poke her in the side. "Because you're both, baby girl. I had to improvise."
Claire has no idea what that means, but it doesn't sound bad.
"What's short for Teddy?"
"Teddy's short for Theodore. Nobody calls me Theodore."
"Mami calls you Theodore."
She feels his laugh shake against her stomach. "And when she does, I know I'm in trouble."
They're halfway home, her on two feet again, when they duck into the bodega down the street. He crouches down until their heads are almost even, and she watches him squint at a row of powdery bags. "Supposed to get cake flour," he says. "Which one says 'cake'?"
Claire rolls her eyes. "The one with the cake on it," she says, and pulls a package of harina de repostería from the shelf with both hands. It's too heavy for her to hold on to and leaves a cloud of white dust down the front of her shirt, but he's grinning at her as he takes the bag with two fingers under the flap, and she's already dirty, anyway.
"See? Both. Both is good."
They have Mami's pantela after dinner that night. Claire blows out the candles to a flash in her eyes, and when she shakes out the picture, there's a smiling uncle on one side of her and a stuffed bear in a birthday hat on the other.
The couch is empty the next morning, but the blanket is gone again, too.
She names the bear Teddy, because he should have a name. And Uncle Teddy becomes Tio Theo — something Spanish, something she can teach him. Something just for them.
Maybe he can be both, too.
Somebody somewhere probably has better things to do with their Wednesday than hop the 5 to a rundown range in Brooklyn, but Claire Temple is not that somebody.
Misty has already claimed the center stall, goggles in place and Glock on the counter, and she chuckles a bit as Claire comes in and sets up in the stall to her right.
"Never struck me as a .45 kinda girl."
"Never been much of a gun girl, period," Claire says, "but go big or go home, right?"
Misty hums, setting up both their lanes like she's done it a thousand times before.
"I'm surprised you actually showed."
"I am full of surprises." Claire takes a pointed look around. "Though, when you asked if we could get together, this isn't really what I had in mind."
"What," Misty says with a smirk, "would you rather go get coffee?"
Claire huffs out a laugh. "Point," she says, and cuts her eyes toward the target. "And you've obviously got another one to make, so don't let me stop you."
Misty's mouth twitches at one corner, and Claire slips on the muffs as the other woman levels the gun and lines up her shot. The shots pop off in rapid succession, one after the other, and even with the layers of leather and foam over her ears, it still sounds like the darkest days of her childhood.
The target jumps and jerks forward, track whining all the way, a dozen holes drilled center mass and four more in its blank black face. Misty strings up a new one, flips the switch that sends it out again, and reloads her clip.
"Not bad," Claire says. "Your dad teach you how to shoot, too?"
"My father taught me how to shoot hoops. I don't think he's ever touched a gun in his life."
"He sounds like a smart man."
"Smartest man I know." She widens her stance and takes aim again. "Since I can't say the same for every asshole with a street piece, target practice it is."
The next round is entirely head shots, a gruesome smiley of empty space. "I got it the first time," Claire says. "Now you're just showing off."
"Like I keep telling people," Misty fires back, "my trigger finger is just fine."
Claire nods, hands in her pockets and gun untouched on the pass. "Maybe it's not your finger people are worried about."
For the first time since she came in, she has Misty's full attention.
"The hell is that supposed to mean?"
"You tell me. You brought me here to, what, show me what a crack shot you are? That your arm's still steady after I stuck my hand in your artery?"
Misty shakes her head, her mouth wide and her tongue planted behind her teeth. "You think there's anything I need to prove to you, Claire?"
"I think you've been compromised every time we've met. With Scarfe, with Stryker, with that bullet through your arm and your blood on my hands. And you don't know how to deal. Then, in that interrogation room, it was about getting your gun back. Now, it's about getting your head back in the game."
Slipping the muffs around her neck, Claire chooses her next words carefully.
"It's never easy to lose people on your watch. I'm a nurse, okay, I know it's not easy. Sometimes it means you did everything you could, and sometimes it means you fucked up. Either way, it doesn't mean that you failed. They're not the same."
"They are exactly the same."
"What do you think is going on here? We're at war, Misty. With the Diamondbacks and the Mariah Dillards and every evil son of bitch who wants to watch the world burn. Mariah's back on the street. Luke's back in behind bars. Kandice is dead." She spreads her hands and watches Misty's jaw clench. "We fucked up. We lost the battle. I get that. But failing? Failing is losing the war. It means the fight is over, and the evil has won. There's no coming back from failure.
"Me? I'm not ready to wave the white flag. I'm gonna fight as hard as I can for as long as I can, because I'm not there yet. I refuse to be. And your father may never have put a gun in your hand, but I've seen you fight for your life, Misty. He damn sure taught you that."
Claire turns to get her tray together, and Misty laughs incredulously at her back.
"Did you come all the way out here to make a big speech and mic drop?" she says. "Shots fired and you never even picked up your gun."
Claire palms the pistol in two hands, braces for the kickback, and empties the entire magazine at her target's throat.
"My uncle didn't just drink Colt 45," she says. "A weapon is a weapon. Only difference is the person pulling the trigger." She pops the clip, collects the spent shells, and swings the strap of her bag over the muffled ringing in her ears.
"Next time you feel like talking," she calls on her way out, "the ammo's cheaper in Midtown."
Claire is nearly nine when he comes to stay for good.
He shows up at their door before breakfast, with his bag and a big box and the note she'd written weeks ago, in a bright pink pen on her cursive practice paper — that she missed him, that she'd won the science fair, that's it's been a lot longer than days, this time. That Mami had cried quietly behind her closed bedroom door, then thrown clothes and shoes and records off the fire escape and made just enough ropa vieja for two.
Mami isn't as happy about it as she is.
"This is our business." Her fingertips dig in to Claire's shoulders. "I don't need you to take care of us, Theodore."
"I know you don't," he says. "Doesn't mean we can't take care of each other."
He walks her to school Monday morning, past the bodega with the broken window, past their monkey bars in Mount Morris Park. She has a uniform now, too, just like everyone else's — a plain white shirt and scratchy plaid skirt and a sweater vest that's slightly too big. Maybe it's the camouflage that counts.
"Are you really gonna stay?"
"Why," he says with a smile, "am I not wanted here?"
She kicks a rock down the path and scrunches up her face. "Staying in the city? Or staying here with us?"
"Both? Maybe? I don't know." He shakes his head, hands tucked inside his jacket. "Tell you the truth, I have no damn idea what I'm doing. Which you will never repeat to your mama." She grins at his wink, and he looks carefully into her face and just as carefully away.
"It'll be different, for awhile."
Claire shakes her head, tucking her thumbs under the straps of her backpack. "No it won't," she says. "It's only ever been different when he comes back."
He smooths a hand over the back of her head. "You're too young to be this old."
There's a shout from the newsstand on the corner, making them both turn around. Carlo has come out from behind the counter to argue with customers this time, his apron undone and his hat on the ground. Then he jerks forward and spins in their direction, both hands fighting to hold on to an old, patchy pouch as he's yanked off balance by the boy with a grip on the other end.
A big hand slips between her shoulder blades and steers her into the nearest doorway. "Stay here."
"Claire," he says, and she stops at the sound of her name from his mouth, "stay here."
He's halfway there when the boy flips a switch from his pocket and slashes Carlo from elbow to wrist. Carlo lets out a pained yelp and crumples to the pavement, and for a second the boy just stands there, staring, like he's shocked that someone has been stabbed.
The boy's head jerks up, and he takes off just in time to get a head start. But Tio doesn't chase him at all — he drops to his knees next to Carlo and calls out to a woman watching from the beauty shop door nearby.
"Call 911," he says, "tell 'em we need an ambulance now. And bring some clean towels back out here."
She says something Claire can't hear, but it makes him shake his head.
"Open your hand, palm up," he tells Carlo calmly, wrapping one hand around his arm and pressing the other into the bend of his elbow. "Claire, can you help me here?"
Ducking out of the doorway, she drops her bag and rushes to the stand.
"Grab that stepstool," he says, "and pull it around front. There you go." He helps Carlo sit on the dusty stepstool and props his wrist on the edge of the counter above his head. The woman from the beauty shop comes back, holding a towel in each shaking hand, and Tio takes one with bloody fingers and starts to wind Carlo's arm like a mummy.
"Good. Now I need you to —" he starts, and then the woman turns and throws up on the curb.
"Shit. Claire, c'mere, kneel down right here by my feet." She scrambles into place, and he tucks the end of the towel under itself and puts both his hands over the cut again. "We need to stop this bleeding, okay? And the only way we can do that is to apply a lot of pressure. I need to push down on his arm as hard as I can. And no matter how heavy it gets, I need for you to push back. Can you do that?"
Claire is already cradling Carlo's arm from underneath — her hands feel too small, but she holds tight, anyway. "I can do it."
"Good girl," he says. For a moment, she can hear her own heartbeat. "Three, two, one…"
She pushes past the cramps in her fingers and the ache in her arms, past the growing sound of sirens, and only stops when Tio Theo tells her to.
He gets them cleaned up and walks the police through what happened, describing the boy with the switchblade as her glittery pink bag dangles from one shoulder. None of it seems real.
"I am scared of you, Spanish Harlem," he says, steering her towards home. She's learned more than enough for the day. "You might just be a natural."
"I thought… when you ran, I thought you were going to get the bad guy."
He barks out a laugh. "Why the hell would I do that?"
She blinks. "Because you're a hero."
He stops in the middle of the sidewalk, then sits her down on a nearby stoop.
"Who told you that?"
"Mami, when you first came to visit. And I know there's a war where you were —"
"There's always a war, Claire. Every minute of every day, someone somewhere is fighting. Heroes are defined by what they're fighting for." He sits down next to her, propping his wrists on his knees. "Every battle needs a healer, baby girl. It's not always about going after the bad guy. Sometimes it's just fixing whatever the bad guy has broken."
She flicks her eyes down to the red flecks beneath his fingernails, and wonders what it must be like to hold someone's life in your hands.
Maybe, one day, he can teach her.
"You should stay with us," she says, and lays her head on his shoulder. "Both is still good."
Whatever she'd expected from a flyer on a light pole and a cryptic phone call, it isn't a wide-open walkup in Chelsea.
There's a stack of padded mats by the windows and scattered swords mounted high on the walls, and every few minutes new women come in — white women, perky and ponytailed, in yoga pants that cost more than Claire's rent.
This may have been a mistake.
"First time?" someone says to her left. A pretty, blonde someone, strangely familiar, whose polite smile doesn't quite reach her eyes.
"What gave it away," Claire says, "my Wu-Tang shirt or my what-the-fuck face?"
"Right there with you. Well, minus the Wu-Tang." The blonde smiles wider, less guarded, and holds out a hand. "Trish."
"You have any idea what the deal is with this class, Claire?"
"I pulled a number from a flyer in the hood," she says, and shrugs. "Your guess is as good as mine."
"Great," Trish groans. "The world is overrun with aliens and mind control and assholes grabbing people by the pussy, and we just walked into Zumba in Stepford."
The elevator opens again, and another woman comes in — Asian, impossibly young, maybe five-two at the max, in loose pants and a light tank and what appears to be a katana. This can only be the mysterious Colleen Wing.
"Thank you for coming," she says. "Let's make sure we all came for the right reasons." She walks back and forth before the wide windows, swinging the scabbard off her shoulder. "If you're here for an exotic workout, you can get the hell out now. Martial arts are not the new yoga."
There's a chorus of gasps around the room, and Claire presses her lips together and tries not to laugh. Then she catches a glimpse of Trish's face and fails.
This may be worth it, after all.
Claire is seventeen the last time she ever sees him.
When she steps behind the podium and looks out over the crowd, it's the whole neighborhood looking back — scattered shop owners from the block, rows of patients and volunteers from the VA, Carlo in a wheelchair against the far wall. And Mami, straight-backed and stone-faced, just across from the casket.
"The first time I met my uncle, he claimed he was named after Teddy Pendergrass." There's a rolling chuckle, knowing and fond, and Claire smiles softly. "Yeah. By the time I could actually do the math on that one, he said it was just subtraction homework in advance."
She grasps the edge of the podium with both hands, holds on tight. "Theodore Temple was a lot of things to a lot of people. He'd have your back in public and call you out in private. He believed that words had power but action had impact. He was a pacifist who went off to war.
"For me, he was whatever I needed him to be. He taught me to how to drive, how to fight, how to trust my own instincts. How to be the very best version of myself. He was the man my father should have been, in every way that really matters." In the front pew, Mami nods through steely tears. "As much as I'd love to think that makes me special somehow, I know he had lessons for everyone in here. That they're every bit as powerful as mine.
"Remember what he taught you. Teach someone else. He died a hero, but he lived like one long before that. We've all lost a good man. We don't have to lose what he stood for."
There are waves and murmurs as she steps down, a smattering of applause drowning out the sniffles. The few feet to the casket feel like miles.
He'd bled out internally, thanks to the bullet in his back, but none of that is visible now. The funeral home has done a good job — though his eyes are closed and his smile is gone, he still looks like himself. But it's his hands that catch her attention, folded carefully over his chest. Hands that had brushed her hair and wiped her tears. Hands that had saved so many.
She lays her own hand over his and bends to kiss his forehead.
"Te amo, Tio."
The blue blanket is tucked inside her bag, faded and worn, and she pulls it out and puts it in with him, where it belongs.
"To keep you warm," she says, "wherever you are."
It's been too long since they've done this. Christine had been at Met-Gen three years when Claire started, and was the only resident in rotation who didn't treat emergency medicine like a stepping stone to something better. It had hurt like hell when she left. But no matter what else is happening in the world, something about a taco truck lunch with her favorite ER doc grounds her like nothing else.
"C'mon." Christine dumps salsa verde into the center of her burrito and takes a big bite. "You're telling me you really don't miss it? Not even a little bit?"
Claire conjures the ER rush in her blood, the pace and the pressure and the paper-thin line between the two, and it's nowhere near as powerful as it used to be. Not when the whole world is a battleground, and healers are in short supply.
"I really don't," she says. "The world is changing around us, and we have to change with it. You don't always need a hospital to heal."
Christine nods, thoughtfully. "So, with the things you've seen now — Luke and Harlem and all the crazy things you're not even telling me about — has any of it seemed sort of… unexplainable?"
Claire raises an eyebrow. "You're kidding, right?"
"I'm not talking metahumans and bad medicine," Christine says quickly. "I'm talking… magic."
Once upon a time, Claire would have laughed. Would've said that she believed in science, in sense, in a world with rules for its reality. But this is the ever after, a time when blind men can see and black men are bulletproof. She's past trying to understand the how the story unfolds. All anone can do now is fight like hell and hope for a 'happily.'
"Who knows," she says, and reaches for her food. "Stranger things have happened."