I'M SO TOTALLY NOT PANICKING, BTW
LET'S GET ON WITH IT!
The crushing… he couldn't take it anymore… He couldn't breathe, he couldn't think… he couldn't hear anything.
It was the end, there wasn't a doubt in his mind. He just wished he'd been able to see what had been inside the Vault… whether he would have measured up to his ancestors…
"Sly! Hang on!"
It was so ridiculous… here at the end everything was stripped away and he saw that he'd been such a coward. His life was flashing before his eyes… and all he could think about was her...
Early May might have been his favorite time to be out at night, the way the world still seemed to hum with life long after the sun as gone down; the Earth moving after the long winter and lingering cold spells of early spring.
It wasn't cold or too warm, the breeze carried both the smell of plants and the smell of a city to him. It was normal, which meant things were about to get interesting.
"You read me, Sly?"
"Loud and clear, Bentley." The raccoon looked down at the house marked by the waypoint through his binocucom. It was virtually indistinguishable from all of the other houses in the neighborhood he overlooked from atop a water tower. "You sure that's the place?"
"It's what's listed on her driver's license." The nasal voice came smoothly over the newest version of the earbuds the turtle had designed over the last few weeks. Sly found himself resisting the urge to check over his shoulder for his friend. "Remember, Sly-"
"I know, I know." Sly stowed his binocucom in his leg pouch and leapt easily from his perch, releasing his paraglider and letting it catch the air. "Don't be pushy, don't give away too much information, I get the concept."
"Just stick to the plan, Sly." Bentley said irritably, "Though I doubt this plan can really get messed up, it's so simple."
"That's the spirit." The raccoon said, steering the glider so he could alight on the sturdy branch of a backyard tree. Then he frowned, "Bentley, you said both Kaia and her father were out of the house?"
"Yes, her father's on a mission out of the country and her car isn't here. Why?"
Sly silently descended and approached the back door. "There's someone inside."
"… Sly, I know what you're thinking. Don't do it."
"Why not? The only one allowed to steal from her is me."
"Don't go in there! Stick to the plan, Sly! We need more information."
"Come on, Bentley. What's the worst that could happen?" Expertly picking the lock on the back door, he slipped inside quietly.
He barely had the time to give the kitchen before him a quick scan before something black moved out of the corner of his eye and white-hot sensation exploded at the back of his head.
I sighed, running my hand through my hair in exasperation. Note to self: If random girl from your Anthropology class asks if you want to hang out, completely out of the blue, she's using you as a designated driver because she knows you won't drink.
Having pulled into my driveway, I rolled the windows down an inch or so, so my car would air out that alcohol smell, and killed the engine.
Letting my head rest against the steering wheel for a moment or two before opening the heavy door of my truck, I inhaled the cool, damp smell of earth at night. I stepped out and locked the car, clicking the button on my key chain three times in rapid succession.
My house was fairly modest; small, two stories, a flower bed home to easy-to-care-for plants, a lawn mowed by a high schooler down the street.
I shook my head, inputting my garage door code. It was a good thing my dad was in South America, working with Interpol. They'd offered him a position about a month after the whole Cooper fiasco. With a little persuasion on my part, he'd been happy to accept, something I was glad for, considering he'd been a bit… overprotective.
It wasn't that Dad and I didn't get along anymore or anything… it was just that my time with the Cooper gang had changed me so much that it was hard to find common ground now. I'd come to the realization that sometimes it really did take a thief to catch a thief and that when things needed to change you sometimes had to take them into your own hands.
As such, I had remained tight-lipped about the things I'd learned running with the gang. I got away with claiming Stockholm Syndrome, of all things, when questioned about it. I didn't think anything I knew would be of any consequence, really, but I was careful anyway. Heck- I didn't even know where their true Safehouse was, didn't even know which country.
I ran my hand through my hair yet again as the garage door went up. I really needed to either cut it or decide that I was going to let it grow out; it was at a really awkward length, about an inch past my shoulders.
As the rising door cleared my eye-level, I blinked in surprise. The door to the kitchen was cracked open, a slight light shining through the gap.
That was weird. I'd asked my friend Millie to stop by and feed the neighbor's cat, which I was looking after over the weekend, when I realized that I was going to be out rather late. But that was nearly an hour ago. She couldn't just now have gotten here, could she?
My heart pounding away in my chest due to pure adrenaline was at once both nostalgic and nerve-wracking. The garage door was pretty loud, which ruined any element of surprise I might have had, so I hurried over to the kitchen door and swung it open.
It took me a moment to process what I saw but when I did my keys fell from my grip, clattering on the tiles under my feet.
"Millie." The bat jumped and hid the roll of duct tape behind her back, "Why is there a raccoon tied up at my dinner table?"
Said raccoon did not look like a happy camper. His right eyebrow twitched violently above the long strip of duct tape holding his mouth closed. The rest of his limbs were secured to the chair with everything from belts to what looked suspiciously like shoelaces.
Millie smiled her too-innocent smile that made me check to see if my wallet was still in place, "Weeeell, he was sneaking around, so I clocked him in the head with this," to my horror, she hefted a frying pan, "Then I realized who he was, so I decided to ask him about last year since you won't tell anyone anything."
I sighed and resisted the urge to rub the bridge of my nose, an urge I hadn't felt in a while. I reached into my back pocket and retrieved my wallet, opening and flipping through it. Ten, five, five, one, one, one… I delved into my pockets as well, before looking up at Millie again and holding up what I'd found. "$23.42 and this never happened."
She beamed and my hand was suddenly empty. "Pleasure doing business with you! Bye, Cooper!" She waved to the incredulous thief and bounded off to the front door, ponytail bouncing slightly behind her.
I waited until she'd taken off safely into the night before locking the double locks on the door and returning to Sly. "Sorry about that," I knelt in front of him and worked on peeling the tape away from his mouth as painlessly as possible. That is to say- very slowly. "Millie's kind of crazy."
He grumbled something and I beat back a smile. Being this happy to see him again probably wasn't healthy. I heard an odd buzzing noise and it took me a minute to realize it was coming from Sly's ear. I smiled this time, "Bentley's eating you alive in there isn't he?"
"That's an understatement," the raccoon said the instant his lips were free. "You think you can get one of my hands free so I can tell him your dad didn't shoot me or something?"
"Yeah, sure," But when I started working away at five shoelaces of various colors and what appeared to be a power cord, I amended my statement, "Actually, it looks like I might have to go get the hedge clippers out of the garage, Millie can tie a mean knot."
I didn't have to get the clippers, thankfully, though I made a mental note to ask my bat friend if she'd ever known a sailor. As soon as I freed his hand, Sly activated his mic.
"Bentley, I'm alive, I was just a little… tied up." He winked and I gave an exaggerated groan, even as I started working on freeing his other arm, "Yeah, one of Jinx's friend was over… she hit me with a frying pan…" He grimaced, "It's not that funny."
"Yeah it is," Then, as an afterthought, "Tell Bentley I say 'hi'."
"He says 'hi' back… Yeah, Bentley, I know… Yes… Yes… I know… I swear, I'll stick to the plan… Okay, I'll let you know."
"What plan?" I asked, having freed his other arm and a leg and working on the last of the knots, "If you're here to kidnap me again, my Dad's gonna be pissed."
"She says as she continues to untie me."
I shrugged, pulling away the last bit of twine and standing, "Well, I have to admit, college isn't the most fun after gallivanting across all the known universe- ghack!"
Sly had risen fluidly to his feet and pulled me into a bone crushing hug, "It's good to see you again."
"…You too." I said once I recovered, hugging him back, "You too. But seriously, what are you doing here at…" I checked the digital clock on the oven as soon as he let me go, "… two-thirty in the morning. You know what? Screw sleep. You want some coffee?"
A few minutes later, Sly and I sat in the living room (he absolutely refused to return to the chair he'd been tied to), sipping from mismatched mugs across the coffee table from each other.
"So," I spoke first, after a short while of companionable silence, "Just what is it that you want from me?"
"What, no 'So, how've you been?'?" He smirked at me over the blue rim of his cup.
"I'd think you know me well enough by now to know that I hate small talk." I traced the painted pattern on the ceramic in my hands in an attempt to avoid looking at him.
"Actually," He propped his feet up, "It's not like we ever had a chance for small talk before."
I gave him a mock glare. "Alright, smart-aleck. Quit stalling."
He chuckled a little bit before placing his mug on a coaster and adopting a serious pose. I involuntarily straightened. "I have a proposition for you."
That threw me for a loop, "A… what?"
A smile tugged at his mouth. "A proposition."
"And what is this… 'proposition'?" I was wary, I had no idea what to expect.
"We want you to join the gang, for real this time."
It felt like the bottom of the world had just dropped out from under me.
Ever since I got home, I'd been trying to force myself to reconcile the fact that what happened last year wouldn't happen again. No matter how much I'd enjoyed running with the Cooper gang, I'd never get to do it again, so there was no use pining away for it.
Trust Sly to show up and turn everything on its ear just when I thought I'd gotten to the point where I'd be okay. And now that I'd reached the point, I didn't know if I could bring myself to leave my friends, family and home, willingly this time.
I shook my head to bring myself back to reality. "Why? I mean, it's not like I don't want to, but…" I put my cup down hurriedly and pressed my fingers to my forehead. I needed to think, "Why do you want me on the team? I mean, yeah, I've read the Thievius Raccoonus, but I'm not even close to your level. What could I possibly do to contribute?"
He grinned and reached across to mess up my hair. "That should be the farthest thing from your mind in this case. If it makes you feel better, Bentley wouldn't have let me come to get you if he didn't think you could have a significant part in the gang."
"But you don't know what it is."
I groaned and flopped back on the loveseat, holding a throw pillow to my face. "What brought this on?"
"We're…" I could tell Sly was struggling with just how much information he wanted to give me. "We're going to pull a really big, really important job. We need a team. One bigger than just Bentley, Murray, and me."
And he wanted me to be on that team.
I sat up, clutching the throw pillow to my chest, and took a deep breath. "I want to, Sly. I want to more than I could possibly express, but… This is something I seriously need to think about."
To my surprise, he beamed, "That's good. I wouldn't want you to join up and regret it later. Besides," He stood, walking towards the door, "Bentley set up a challenge for you."
I watched in shocked silence for a moment, then scrambled after him, "Wait- what?"
He grinned and tapped me on the head with his cane, "If you decide you want to join up with us, you have to find me. Your deadline is Thursday."
I gaped at him and he winked.
"Consider it an audition."
"… Kaia? … Kaia!"
I jerked at the sound of my name, looking across the table. "Eh, yeah, sure."
The mutt across from me drummed his dull nails on the table in annoyance, "I asked how many hours you were taking next semester."
Oops. "Sorry, Roger."
"Seriously, you've been a total space cadet all day." The silver lynx to my right lamented, "You're usually a lot more fun when you're sleep deprived."
I elbowed him swiftly. "I have something on my mind, is that okay with you?" I asked sweetly as he wheezed out something about abuse.
Millie looked up from the lemonade she'd mixed with fruit punch, "Is this about the other night?"
My heart leapt in my chest, "Yes, not that you should be asking. I bought your silence yes?"
She snorted, gesturing to her pasta with a winged arm, "What you bought was my lunch for the week and my silence about the specifics. Everyone knows my total silence costs $50."
I groaned, dropping my head into my hands. "Yes, but all I need to insure your eternal silence is a pillow, some kerosene, a lighter, and a little patience."
"Wait a second," I heard Roger sit up a little straighter, "What happened the other night?"
"Nothing." I muttered.
"This I have to hear." Kurtis had apparently recovered from my assault on his ribs and was also curious. "You usually give us cryptic half answers or lie to us. What, are you keeping an actual secret?"
"Go back into your emo corner and leave me alone."
"Ouch, that was mean." He sulked in his black jacket, hood drawn up with his ears poking out the little holes he'd cut for them.
"Seriously, what happened? Mill?" Roger turned his interrogation to Millie, who sat next to him. Roger was gruff around the edges with no known soft spot, but he was possibly even more protective of his friends than I was, which pretty much made him a juggernaut when it came to making sure they were safe. And Millie had just given him a hint that not all was right in Kaia-Land.
"Weeeeeell…" She gave an extra syllable to the word, clicking the top of her fruit punch bottle between her fingers, "Let's just say that our favorite albino received a little visit in the wee hours of the morning; a gentleman caller whom I intercepted."
"I'm not an albino." I snarled at her, "My hair is black!"
Roger ignored me, his brick red eyes narrowing, "What sort of caller?"
"Well, unfortunately, the specifics are a little fuzzy…"
The brindled canine reached for his wallet.
"Millie!" I hissed, feeling adrenaline pump under my skin, "Can it!"
"Well," she flicked her sandy ponytail over one shoulder as she pocketed the Lincoln, "All I can really remember is that he was rather well-known."
"Kurt, don't let her by." Roger said as I started to stand.
I stared right into the ice-blue eyes of my seatmate. "Try to stop me. I dare you."
Kurt immediately stepped aside and gestured for me to pass with a flourish. As I walked away, I heard him say, to Roger's Glare O' Death, "Dude, even you know better than to mess with her when her eyes get all gold."
I slung my backpack onto my back. After all of the mishaps of last year, my old backpack had been barely holding together, so it was retired and replaced with a new one. With a single cross-strap, the new bag rested at a comfortable diagonal angle between my shoulder blades and carried all of the essentials for college. Namely, my wallet, laptop, and a first aid kit.
Books? What books?
I sighed, rubbing at my forehead. I'd been mulling over what to do for the past few days, coming to no definite conclusion. I wanted to be with the gang, but I also wanted to be with my normal friends, even if they were being particularly annoying at the moment.
But even so, it wasn't like I could really blame them, not even Millie. She was my best friend and the fact that I hadn't called her after Sly had left to tell her what had transpired was probably making her really worried. She was just going about getting answers in her own, demented way.
I paced about the campus for a while, before taking to the streets. Getting this offer from the gang was seriously messing with me. After coming home, I'd meant to slip right back into my place there, but I couldn't.
I couldn't go to the FBI offices anymore to bring my dad and his team lunch because every eye on me was bursting with the urge to question me, from natural curiosity to the deep-seated urge of some of the agents I didn't know so well that demanded they drag me into one of the interrogation rooms and not let me out until they had as much knowledge on the Cooper gang as I had. Though I didn't think the facts that Sly had the worst bed-hair, Bentley was allergic to tomatoes, and Murray had the disturbing tendency to eat crayons would help them much.
While I'd had a close group of few friends (Millie included) in high school before I'd left and them only, suddenly I wasn't left alone. Again, curiosity became my bane, I'd disappeared from the face of the earth for two months and then reappeared different, if not wholly changed.
And that was the majority of the problem. People regarded me differently, sure, but how I was starting to regard myself was a whole other headache. Going from living outside the law and being totally free (for all I was a 'hostage') to being in civilization again was not something I thought I'd have trouble with. But suddenly I saw the bad everywhere that I'd been blind to, or maybe just ignored.
I'd been glad for the very first time that my dad was never home anymore when I'd gotten in a brawl with a drunkard smacking his kid around. It was only the agility that I'd learned with the Cooper gang that had kept me alive; though I had to be careful to wear long sleeves on the odd occasion Dad came home for a visit to hide the scars I'd gotten from the tiger's claws. Thin though they were, my dad had a good eye.
But the urge still burned in me to do something about everything going on, and the urge had not faded with time, to my dismay. I could report the little things I saw, of course, but there was only so much good that could do. Crime bosses could get more grunts as easily as they could breathe and they were the ones that needed to be shut down. The gang could cripple the ringleaders and get rich on it, a win-win if there ever was one.
I'd been sitting on the side of a hill in a park, overlooking the street and thinking all this through, when I felt someone nudge me with a booted toe.
I was halfway on my feet, hands up in an instant, before I saw Uncle John, holding two ice cream cones and looking down at me with an eyebrow raised.
I flushed in embarrassment and sat back down. Even now, I'd expected a burly flashlight guard when I was startled. He settled next to me and passed me a vanilla cone without a word. I didn't have to ask what he was doing there; the park I'd wandered to was close to the FBI offices, I'd played at the nearby playground as a kid.
We ate our ice cream in silence until he said, "You're supposed to be in class." It wasn't accusatory in the slightest, just a statement of fact. I felt my face heat in shame anyway.
"I'm having an identity crisis at the moment; it's hard to focus on the methods of counting votes in that mindset." I told him as blandly as I possibly could.
He turned to me then, "And what could cause you so much trouble that it starts you pulling at your hair?"
It was a habit I showcased when especially stressed that had always set my uncle's teeth on edge. He'd liked to tell me when I was smaller and let him get away with it that I was special for having such contrast between my hair and fur, white and black. Most people's hair and fur were the same color, or extremely close, unless they dyed it. He'd said after I came home that it he'd been heartbroken to see it cut so short at Rajan's ball and I didn't have the guts to tell him that I'd ached to cut it again for months.
I nibbled at the cone of my ice cream and weighed my options. I couldn't tell him the truth of course, but he was the only one who had not been disappointed that I'd claimed Stockholm Syndrome and refused to cough up any info on the gang. He was also the one I told about all the things I saw, not even scolding me when it changed from giving leads to venting about what I saw, even though there was no evidence. A kind of sixth-sense I'd picked up with the guys, I could spot a rotten crook quickly, if not prove it.
"I'm having a hesitation of occupational choices." That was true enough.
He frowned, "I thought you were sure you what you wanted to do."
"I am," I scrambled to say, "But…" I crumpled the napkin that until recently held my snack in a hand and drew my knees up, resting my chin on them, "I feel that there's something I should do first. Something important."
He sighed and dropped back to the grass suddenly, not even minding his suit as he folded his arms behind his head and stared up at the clouds, "I know you're restless. You've been restless for ages now. Used to be that when you were upset, you'd play video games, not wander the streets to burn off energy."
'And unwanted thoughts' I tacked onto the end of that statement. I hated exercising for simply the sake of it, but when I had plenty to occupy my mind, I didn't mind so much. Not to mention I felt like a fool just sitting around thinking. I had to have something to do, which was why I used to play video games, mindless ones that didn't require thought. I usually hated them, but had to keep my hands busy somehow.
I didn't answer. I didn't have to. Uncle John knew why I was restless, he didn't blind himself to the fact that I'd probably done some illegal things with the Cooper gang, like my dad had; and that I'd perhaps developed a taste for it (one of the main arguments of those agents who'd wanted to interrogate me sooner than welcome me home), he just didn't care. He knew I wasn't a hardened criminal and that sometimes the long arm of the law only stretched so far.
He just didn't know that this 'identity crisis' stemmed from the same source as my restlessness.
He finally spoke again, "Did you know that your grandparents wanted me to be a lawyer?"
I blinked at him and said 'no'. I certainly hadn't known that. My grandparents had always seemed so proud to have two sons in the bureau.
"They said it'd be a shame to waste my head doing thankless work, that I ought to focus on making sure those who were caught, stayed caught. Your dad was just a city cop then, hadn't even started to work up the ranks and showed no inclination to do so, but that was just to ruffle our father's feathers. They wanted a son they could brag on."
"I went to law school for three years, but it never seemed to click. I started hanging out with your father and his friends after hours and found I could talk better with them than I could with classmates I'd known for years. Maybe it would have been smart to stay in law school, but I can sleep better at night knowing that I'm catching the bad guys and not just waiting for them to be brought to me, the only muscle I ever use being my tongue."
He sat up again and looked me dead in the eye, "All I can really tell you is to do what makes you comfortable in your own skin. You understand Kaia?"
And I did. I realized why I'd felt so out of sorts. I loved my friends and my dad and my uncle, but my life didn't fit with theirs anymore. It was like I was a jigsaw piece that had changed shape and color and now belonged to a new set. Toss it in a different box and it could blend right in, but when the puzzle is put together, it doesn't fit into the big picture.
It felt like I was trying to fit myself into skin that didn't belong to me anymore. An outlaw trying to fit in the skin of a civilian. It was weird to think of myself as someone on the wrong side of the law, but I wasn't the person my dad liked to pretend me to be anymore and I supposed I'd get used to the term.
I'd find Sly and maybe, just maybe, I'd make a little mark on the world, maybe change something for the better. That's all anyone can ever hope for, really.
Uncle John checked his watch again and sighed, hauling himself to his feet, "My lunch break's over. My partner will have my head if I'm out late again."
I stood, feeling so much lighter than I had when I'd sat down, and hugged him tightly, I didn't know when I'd see him next or if I'd be in a pair of handcuffs when I did, "Thanks, Uncle John, for talking to me." Hopefully the next time we meet will also be under happy terms, I added silently to myself as he hugged me back. "I have things to do as well."
Did I ever.
My mind made up and heart lighter than it'd been in a while, I felt near-giddy as I walked to the student parking lot back at campus and hopped into my truck, taking it to another familiar part of the city.
Okay, first chapter over and done with! I'm breathing, I swear.
Hope you guys enjoyed! Let me know your thoughts, I crave your reviews!