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like a puzzle with a piece missing

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So, they’ve been adjusting.

It’s been slow, and Sly wouldn’t call it easy. There was the whole “busting Bentley out of the hospital” thing, first off, and then Murray left before they’d even started to figure out next steps. Sly’s been feeling uneven since then, like he’s missing a limb, or like the entire world has been turned inside out when he wasn’t looking. He’s always prided himself on his ability to improvise, to think on his feet, to roll with the punches, but it’s been a long time since he’s had this much change happen all at once. Not since he was eight years old.

Bentley, at least, seems to be taking things in stride. They’d nicked a wheelchair from the hospital on their way out, and he’s been tricking it out with all kinds of gadgets and gizmos and whatchamacallits. Since Murray left, he’s become almost consumed by it. Sly worries about that, a little, but he figures it’s probably good for Bentley to have something constructive to focus on.

He’s been having trouble finding a good distraction himself. He’s been reading the Thievius Raccoonus obsessively, poring over the pages for the millionth time just in case there’s some new trick that he’d never picked up on before. He’s been running all kinds of jobs: little ones, small-time heists from small-time criminals that he can handle by himself. He knows Bentley would help him plan something more elaborate if he asked, but he doesn’t want to bother him. And it just wouldn’t be the same as before, not without Murray.

And that’s the elephant in the room - or rather, the hippo in the room and the lack thereof. They’ve barely talked about Murray since he left, though he’s been on Sly’s mind pretty much constantly. He keeps catching himself turning to crack a joke that only Murray would get, and the ache he feels in his chest when he’s faced with vacant space never really goes away. He keeps finding things on his jobs - old wrestling tapes, model trucks, a gorgeous silk sky-blue scarf - that he picks up to bring back to Murray. They’ve all been sitting in a slowly-accumulating pile off behind the couch in the safehouse. Sly knows he should just toss them out before the clutter becomes an issue, but he can’t bring himself to do it.

It’s been about a month of this when Sly comes home one evening with a fresh haul of groceries (bought, not stolen - though he can’t say the same for the money he’d bought them with). “Home” is the Paris safehouse, the one they’ve used the most over the years. The one with indoor plumbing and pirated cable and real beds. It’s also the one with a ton of Murray’s old stuff, and leftover plans and blueprints from the Clockwerk parts job, and ghosts haunting the city around them that Sly can’t really shake no matter how hard he tries (every time he passes the Seine he expects to see the parts floating in the water; every time he passes the part of town where It Happened he hears Bentley’s startled scream and Neyla’s sneering voice and the beat of Clockwerk’s heart).

So, Sly comes home, and he shuts the door tight against the swirling memories of the city outside and hauls the grocery bags into the kitchen - stuffs them in the fridge without unpacking them, because it’s easier that way - and on the way back to the dark corner where he’s been sequestering himself with the Thievius Raccoonus he stops to check on Bentley in his workshop, which is just pure habit at this point. He knows what he’ll find: Bentley hunched over his work, wielding a welding torch or maybe tapping away frantically at his computer.

So he’s a little surprised to see Bentley just...sitting in his wheelchair. He’s not moving. His computer screen is dark. Sly frowns and steps through the doorway with his cane at the ready, just in case.

“Bentley?” he asks, a little cautiously. “You okay there, pal?”

Bentley gives a little jolt and turns his head. Behind his glasses, his eyes have a far-off look to them. “Oh. Sly. Yes, I’m fine. Just...thinking.”

Thinking. Sly frowns. Bentley doesn’t think, he plans and he schemes and he calculates. He doesn’t just sit by himself in a dark room and stare off into space. Sly steps a little closer, close enough for a conversation but well clear of Bentley’s personal bubble. “Thinking about what?” he asks.

“Nothing,” Bentley says. “Everything. I don’t know.” He sighs. “I’m feeling a little melancholy, I guess.”

“Oh,” Sly says. He’d thought they’d been over this already, but, “Bentley, you’re still a valuable member of the team. That wheelchair doesn’t change anything.”

“Yes, it has.” Bentley turns his head and fixes Sly with the kind of tired, exasperated look he gets when someone doesn't understand a concept he's trying to explain. “Don’t try and give me that, Sly. It’s changed everything!”

“Sorry–” Sly tries to say, but Bentley keeps talking.

“Besides,” he says, “that’s not what I meant! I wasn’t – I’m not upset about the chair!”

Sly blinks. “You’re not?”

“I - what? No! Of course not!” Bentley turns his chair to face Sly fully with an incredulous expression. “Do you have any idea how much of a boon this thing has been? When I was in the hospital I had to have nurses do everything for me! Now, I - I can cook my own food! I can take my own showers! I can get out of bed and do my work! I can do whatever I want!”

“Oh. So–”

“And all these upgrades I’ve been adding - I can have my computer with me at all times now, and I’m working on adding a pickpocketing apparatus, and once I get the hover booster up and running I’ll be able to jump as high as you can! Higher, even!”

“Bentley–”

“And I’ve been doing research,” Bentley continues, “and you wouldn’t believe the amount of resources out there! I found a whole forum for chair customization! There’s entire chat servers for disabled engineers! And so many great blogs, websites, podcasts - it’s like there’s a whole world that I didn’t even know about before, and it’s incredible!”

“Bentley!” Sly holds his cane up crosswise in a placating gesture, unable to hold back a smile. “I get it. I jumped to the wrong conclusion. That was my bad.”

“Oh.” Bentley settles a bit in his chair. “Right. Sorry, I got a little carried away there.”

“No, no, it’s fine.” Sly pulls up a crate and sits down on it, crossing one leg over the other. He hasn’t seen Bentley this animated since they broke him out of the hospital, and that eases the ache in his chest a bit. “I just had no idea you were so passionate about this stuff.”

Bentley laughs a little. “Neither did I. I suppose it makes sense.” He pats his chair fondly. “I’ve always been gadget-inclined, and now I have an excuse to build all the weird cyborg-adjacent upgrades I’ve always wanted to make for myself.”

“Yeah.” Sly feels his smile slip a bit as his concern starts creeping back in. “So...if you weren’t feeling bad about the chair, then what? What’s got you so down?”

“Ah. That.” Bentley deflates, tucking his chin down towards his shell. “Er, well. I don’t really know how to articulate it.”

“Try,” Sly encourages him. “Getting it out might make you feel better.”

Bentley furrows his brow and nods. He folds his hands together in his lap and looks down at them. “Well,” he says. “It’s about Murray.”

Of course. Sly should have guessed. “I know,” he says. “I miss him too.”

Bentley shakes his head. “No, it’s not that.” He looks up at Sly. “I mean, I do miss him. Of course I miss him! But that’s not…” He shakes his head again. Sighs heavily.

Sly brings his knees to his chest, letting his feet rest on the edge of the crate. He folds his arms on top of his knees and says, “Not what?”

“I…” Bentley says. He adjusts his glasses. “...Would you hate me if I said that I was feeling...resentful?”

“Resentful?” Sly echoes. “Resentful about what?”

“Murray.” Bentley swallows heavily. “How he acted before he left. The reason why he left.”

“What?” Sly hadn’t been expecting that. Bentley isn’t really the resentful type, in his experience, and the thought of him being resentful of Murray - of anyone resenting Murray, really - is hard to get his head around. “What do you mean? I mean, he was really down on himself, and I wish he hadn’t decided to leave because of it, but…” But resentful?

“He left because of me, Sly. He left because I got hurt.” Bentley shakes his head. “And I told him it was all right. I don’t blame him! I never did!”

“He took it hard,” Sly says.

“Too hard, I think.” Bentley frowns down at his chair. “I told you, I don’t see this chair as a problem. I’m okay with how things are now. It was admittedly a little difficult to adjust at first, but I’m doing fine. But Murray…” He exhales heavily. “He made such a big deal about his ‘failure to protect me.’” He raises his hands to make air quotes and then drops them. “He just kept going on and on about it no matter how many times I tried to tell him it was all right. And, I don’t know, it just feels sort of...selfish of him. It’s like he made what happened to me all about him.

“Oh,” Sly says quietly. He can understand now, a little, where the resentment is coming from. “But,” he says, “Bentley, I’m sure he didn’t mean to.”

“I know he didn’t mean to!” Bentley sits up straight. “I know he’s really hurting, and I know he’s not trying to make it about himself. But it still hurts, Sly!” He smacks a hand flat on the metal tray of his chair. “It still hurts, because he’s got it in his head that we need him to be stronger and we need him to be better when what we really need is for him to be here!”

And that makes something twist inside of Sly’s gut like a knife. He doesn’t want to say that Bentley’s right, he wants to give Murray more credit than that...but he can hear every ounce of hurt in Bentley’s voice, and he feels it keenly because it’s his own.

“We’ve had a rough couple of months,” he says, his throat a little dry. “And, you know...I think Murray took it roughest. He spent all that time learning how to be more confident, and he was doing great, but then there was the whole thing with the Contessa, and we lost the van, and…”

“And Murray’s always felt like it was his job to protect us, and when I got hurt he thought he’d failed,” Bentley finishes quietly. “I know. I don’t...I don’t blame him, not really. But I wish he could just see how much we need him here.” He looks up at Sly, and Sly’s heart clenches when he sees tears swimming behind the thick lenses of Bentley’s glasses. “I wish he didn’t feel like he had to leave us.”

“Yeah.” Sly hugs his knees, resting his cane on top of them. His tail wraps around his legs, and he feels small and more than a little lost. The three of them have always been together, ever since they met back at the orphanage. The only time they’d been separated at all over the last twelve years was just a few months ago, when the Contessa had captured Sly and Murray. And that, that had been downright awful. Sly had muddled through okay, though his “sessions” with the Contessa hadn’t been fun...but the only reason he’d been able to hold on for so long was because he’d known, he’d been certain that Bentley was coming for him and that they’d all be reunited sooner rather than later.

This is different. He doesn’t know when Murray’s coming back. He doesn’t know if Murray’s ever coming back, because this time he hadn’t been captured or kidnapped or arrested. Leaving had been his choice, and their attempts to convince him otherwise had been completely useless.

“I’m glad you’re still here, Sly,” Bentley says. His voice is a little wobbly.

Sly blinks at him. “Why wouldn’t I be?” He’d never even considered not sticking around, not for a second.  “I’m not about to up and leave you,” he adds, just in case Bentley thinks he might.

“I know that,” Bentley says. “I just...I don’t know, I guess I figured that you’d be trying to track down that family fortune of yours by now, or that you’d go after Murray, or…” he shrugs. “You don’t need to stick around for my sake, you know.”

“I’m not,” Sly says instantly. “I’m sticking around for my sake. You’re the only one who knows how the wifi works.”

“Very funny,” Bentley deadpans, but he’s smiling.

“Seriously, pal,” Sly says. “I’m not going anywhere.” He reaches out and puts a hand on Bentley’s arm. “We’re more than a team, you know. We’re a family. And I’m sure Murray will remember that and come back once he’s worked out his stuff.”

“I certainly hope so.”

“I know so,” Sly insists, though he’s trying to convince himself as well. Still, his confidence grows as he continues, “Murray knows we care about him, and he knows we’ll welcome him when he’s ready to come back. We just...have to give him time.”

“And hope that he doesn’t throw himself another pity party over my wheelchair when he comes back,” Bentley mutters under his breath. Sly winces, and Bentley’s eyes go wide. “Oh. That was out loud, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Sly moves the hand on Bentley’s arm to his shoulder and gives him a pat, “but don’t beat yourself up about it. Things are...messy right now, and we’re all dealing with a lot. I think you’re allowed a little resentment. Just maybe...try not to hold on to it.”

“I won’t.” Bentley gives Sly a shaky smile. “Since when were you a psychologist?”

Sly snorts. “Honestly, I’m just making this all up off the top of my head.”

“Ah, then I will take the necessary precautions before following your advice,” Bentley says, his smile turning sardonic. “I’ll put in an order for elbow pads and a helmet, maybe strap a pillow to my chest.”

Sly gives his shoulder a playful shove, laughing. Bentley holds the sardonic smile for a moment more before joining in.

It’s been a while since Sly’s laughed. It’s been longer since he’s laughed with someone else.

“Thanks,” Bentley says once their giggles have subsided. “I didn’t realize how much that stuff had been eating at me.”

“Hey, no problem.” Sly’s hand is still resting on Bentley’s shoulder, and he gives it a squeeze. “Just glad that you’re okay. I’ve been worried about you, pal.”

The smile slides from Bentley’s face, and he casts Sly a thoughtful, serious look. “You’re one to talk,” he says. “You’ve been...off lately.”

Sly feels his own smile freeze on his face. He pulls his hand away from Bentley’s shoulder and  coughs awkwardly. “What? Nah. Don’t worry about me, I’m fine.”

“Sly, come on.” Bentley leans back in his chair. “I’ve barely spoken two words to you in the last month. You come and go at odd hours, you hide from me whenever you’re home, and you haven’t even looked at the map to your family’s vault since Murray left!” He folds his arms over his chest. “In addition to all that, your fur’s a mess, your cane’s unpolished, and the living room is turning into a hoarder’s worst nightmare. Don’t patronize me. I know you well enough to tell when you’re having a breakdown.”

Caught in the lie, Sly can’t do much more than shrug. “Okay,” he says, “maybe we’re both kind of huge messes right now.”

“That’s one way to put it.” Bentley looks at him - really looks at him - and reaches out to put a hand on Sly’s arm. “You don't have to pretend to be all right for my sake, understand? I'm an adult, same as you. I can take care of myself. My getting hurt didn't change any of that. And it means that you don't have to shoulder everything on your own. I'm here for you as much as you are for me, understand?”

And Sly does understand. Because...because maybe he's been thinking about how things were before - before Clock-La, before Clockwerk, before the Thievius Raccoonus. Back when he'd been the one doing all the protecting, all the fighting, all the field work. And then Bentley had saved his life, and he and Murray had both taken an interest in field work...and maybe, Sly thinks, maybe since the accident he's been thinking of Bentley as the timid turtle who’d barely left the van during their first year on the road, and not as the man who'd singlehandedly busted him out of jail and taken on the Klaww Gang’s musclebound smuggler face to face.

“Of course I understand,” he says, a little more quietly than he might otherwise have done. He flashes Bentley a quick smile. “You've got my back. I know that's not going to change, no matter what.”

“You'd better believe it, pal.” Bentley leans back in his chair, pulling his hand away. “Things may be different now, but that doesn't mean that they need to change.”

“Yeah.” Sly takes a breath. “So...what now? I mean, I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to get a little sick of wallowing in my own misery.”

“Good question.” Bentley presses his lips together. “What we need is some kind of project, something to get our mind off things...but it doesn’t feel right to plan things without Murray.”

“I know what you mean.” Sly fiddles with his cane, twisting it back and forth between his hands. “But,” he adds, “Murray wouldn’t want us to mope around for his sake, y’know? He’d...he’d want us to keep going without him.”

“That’s true.”

“Maybe we should stick to something simple. Pull a museum heist or something.” Though if Sly’s being honest with himself, he’s had enough museum heists to last him for a while - particularly given how the one in Italy had gone. He and Murray had been lucky to make it out unscathed, and in the end he’d had to rely on Carmelita to get the map for him.

“Maybe…” Bentley looks up at him. “What about your family vault? That shouldn’t be too difficult, right? It’s on an uninhabited island and all. The only challenge would be getting there.”

Sly frowns. “I don’t know. That’s the kinda thing I’d really hoped we could all do together, you know?”

“Yes, I know.” Bentley pushes his glasses up. “But that map isn’t going to do us any good just sitting around here. And Murray...Murray would understand. It’s like you said - he wouldn’t want us to put an adventure off for his sake.”

“What happened to ‘things don't need to change?’”

Bentley looks up at him and frowns. “Why must you always use my own words against me?” he mutters. “You know that's not what I meant.” He straightens up a bit. “Besides, this would just be recon. Murray didn't usually run recon missions anyway. We...we can always call him in, once we have a clearer grasp of the situation. We should be able to track him down somehow.”

“Right.” Sly nods. “Yeah. We can call him in once we’ve gotten the lay of the land.”

“Exactly.” Bentley folds his hands together and nods right back. There’s a gleam in his eye, one that hasn’t been there in months. It’s the gleam of a new plan, a new adventure, and it’s contagious.

Sly can feel his own enthusiasm rising even against his own misgivings. It’s like there’s been a cloud hanging around him since defeating Clock-La, like he’s been wandering through a fog. And now...maybe the fog’s not gone, not really, but he can start to see through it. And on the other side is adventure, and fortune, and a connection to his past. And maybe, hopefully, reconciliation. Healing. Closure.

Sly takes a deep breath, holds it for a moment, and then exhales.

“So,” he says. “What’s the plan?”