The sound of padded footsteps shook her from her fitful slumber. Blearily, she blinked her eyes open and wished she hadn't.
The cell was tiny, gray, and damp, serving as the perfect reminder for how twisted her life had become in only a matter of days. She slammed shut her eyes to stem the tide of tears that threatened every time she considered the reality of her situation.
Betrayed and disgraced, left to rot without even a shred of a defense raised in her name.
Was it all for nothing? she thought, not for the first time. Years of service, a pedigree of law enforcement, a nigh immaculate record, all tossed aside at the word of another.
Don't lose hope, said a soothing voice in her head. And didn't it figure that it sounded like him. He was partly the reason she was in this mess to begin with. It didn't matter how he'd raged at the guards when he'd awoken to see her cuffed across from him; his fervent denials of her involvement with him likely had only dug her hole even deeper.
It's not like he'd defend someone he didn't care about.
Carmelita sagged back into the miserable cot she laid upon. She knew there was no use dwelling on it. Wallowing accomplished nothing, and she should be wracking her brain for evidence of her innocence to present to the Contessa the moment she saw her.
But she was tired and scared and furious and couldn't seem to think about much of anything else.
Carmelita's eyes snapped open at the voice. "You!" she snarled, launching herself off the cot and into the bars of her cell. Her nails, more like true claws given how long she'd been away from home, gripped the steel bars hard enough to make her knuckles pop.
"Me," Neyla drawled. The tigress was draped lazily on a stool just out of reach, on leg crossed over the other. Her lips peeled back slowly into a grin. "Thought you'd be happy to see a familiar face, Carm."
"You won't get away with this," Carmelita growled. "Once I talk with the Contessa –"
"I'm afraid you'll find her hospitality a bit lacking," Neyla interrupted. She sighed theatrically. "Oh, but I'd love to see your face when you realize how alone you truly are. Maybe I'll get a peek at the tapes…"
The fox's grip tightened on the bars. "The only thing you'll be getting a peek at will be the business end of my gun when I get out of here."
Emerald eyes rolled. "You really do have too much faith, Carmelita. The case against you is clear; open and shut."
"The 'case' against me is a photograph taken by you. And need I remind you that you danced with Cooper too?"
The tigress purred. "That was fun, wasn't it? Did you at least enjoy yourself? I know you're always dying to get close to him."
Unsure of whether she was flushed from anger or embarrassment, Carmelita didn't bother to acknowledge Neyla's words. "What do you think you're even playing at? You know I'm clean."
"Do I? You do have a bit of a history of not catching the Cooper Gang right when it seems you have them in your sights." Neyla buffed her nails against her exposed midriff. "Not to mention that whole Krakarov incident. You two made quite the team."
"I'm not with Cooper!"
"But wouldn't you like to be?"
Shoving herself back from the bars lest she hurt herself, and pointedly ignoring the question, Carmelita drew herself up to her full height. "Why are you doing this, Neyla? You don't need to tear me down to rise in Interpol. Barkley told me before he put you with me that you were going to be promoted at the end of the year."
Neyla just looked at her, seemingly incredulous, before she laughed, deep and hearty. "Oh, it must be so nice to live in a little bubble where everything makes sense. God, what on earth does that raccoon see in you, I wonder?"
The tigress rose and strode to the bars. "I don't care about a promotion, Ironsides. I don't care about your career. I don't care about Interpol. I don't care about you."
"Then why?" Carmelita burst out, choking back a sob. No weakness, she chided herself.
Neyla folded her arms across her chest. "I wouldn't expect someone as sanctimonious as you to understand. I have goals, and you seemed like you might get in the way so…" Her incisors flashed in something that couldn't be called a smile – it was too predatory. "Something had to give."
Carmelita reeled. "I…I don't understand. I'm just unlucky that you thought I'd get in the way of whatever your plans are? Collateral damage?"
Shrugging, the tigress said, "Pretty much. I told you that you wouldn't get it. My motives may be too much for someone with your black and white worldview to comprehend, but that doesn't mean you wouldn't've made a nuisance of yourself. Although if I'm being honest, you were the smaller fish to fry."
Something clicked in Carmelita's brain. Because everything came back to him, of course. "Cooper," she growled.
Neyla hummed. "He's never far from your thoughts, is he?" Carmelita bared her teeth. "You're right, of course. He and that gang of his are a pesky bunch. Tell me, how much of your success is because Sly leaves you evidence when he steals from another criminal? Surely it must be half of your cases by now."
"You don't know what you're talking about," the vixen managed around the singular shame of her career. That chasing Cooper and his gang around the globe had resulted in a bump in her arrests weighed heavily on her on a good day.
"Oh I think I do," Neyla chuckled. "Honestly, if I didn't know better, I'd think you were in league with them. It's all just so convenient. In return for not arresting him, Sly hands you criminals. Your career flourishes and he keeps his loot. It'd be quite the nice arrangement if you ever had the sense to do it."
"Some of us have integrity. Not that you'd understand something like that."
Emerald orbs drilled into Carmelita's own. "Does your precious integrity keep you from wanting to fuck him, Carmelita?" The vixen retreated a step, choking on her retort.
Neyla rolled her eyes again and dropped back to the stool. "You're so predictable, you know that? I swear, it wasn't even fun tearing you down. No challenge at all. It's so easy to lie to people who are already lying to themselves."
"I'm not." Aren't you? the soothing voice from earlier chimed. She shoved it to the back of her mind.
"There's no need to be scared of the truth. This is a safe space; let it all out," the tigress implored, voice suddenly gentle. It made Carmelita's hair stand on end.
"There is no truth, no lie, no nothing. And rest assured I'll make you eat every word you've said here when I get out, Neyla," the vixen snarled, her accent thickening in her rage.
"So you haven't wondered what all that charm would lead to if you let it?" Neyla purred. She crossed one leg over the other and rested her chin in her palm. "You haven't thought about throwing it all away? Letting him put all that grace and athleticism and strength to good use and leave you begging for more?"
Carmelita didn't respond, unsure of what exactly would come out of her mouth if she tried. Her stomach was a knot of nerves as Neyla spoke, and she felt her claws digging into the soft skin below the fur of her palms.
"No? Hmph, I must've just imagined the obsession and longing looks you two throw at each other across the rooftops." The tigress leaned back, idly scratching at the fur of her midriff. "You make no sense to me, Ironsides. It was all right there for the taking and you just…didn't. Why is that?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"No, of course you don't. Which is too bad, really, because he's quite a bit of fun when you get him going."
Carmelita spat, "And you'd know."
Her stomach turned to lead as Neyla's grin turned smug. "I would, as a matter of fact. Really, if all you wanted to do was catch him all these years, you could've just given him a taste of what he's always wanted and…" The 'snap' of her fingers made Carmelita jump. "…he'd've been all yours. A look here, a lingering touch there and he comes undone. You could've taken everything you've ever wanted from him, left him tied up in Barkley's office, and he'd have thanked you for it."
Oh, Sly, what did she do to you? "I'm not like you," the vixen said, voice far weaker than she wished.
"No. You're not," Neyla agreed. "You hide behind your precious code and think it makes you better than the rest of us. I take what I want and enjoy it."
The tigress rose, giving the fuming fox a once over before she turned her back. "Enjoy your stay, Ironsides. It was lovely catching up."
She picked up the stool and strutted down the dingy corridor of the cell block. Carmelita watched her retreating back, claws digging so deeply into her palms she felt the slow trickle of blood slide down her fingers.
"Neyla!" she called, voice cracking. The tigress halted and turned to regard her over one shoulder, mocking. "What did you do to him?" Carmelita breathed.
Neyla's incisors flashed in the low light. "Nothing he wasn't begging for by the end." She strode off without another word.
Carmelita heard the distant bang of the metal door closing behind the tigress and collapsed backward onto her mattress, trying and failing to choke back the tears that flowed freely down her cheeks.
Distantly, beneath an anguish she couldn't put a name to, her thoughts echoed: I'm sorry, Ringtail.