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Belling the Cat

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Belling the Cat
by A. X. Zanier


"Women and cats do as they damned well please, and men and dogs had best learn to live with it."
~Alan Holbrook

It all started innocently enough. Well, if you consider a simple mission needing rescue from certain doom innocent. While Darien, with easy grace and an eerie silence that went unmatched even by the dainty paws of an underfed night-roving feline, made it across the minefield of shattered glass and ball bearings that had been forcefully introduced to each other during an earlier brawl involving the FBI and the weapons seller and his flunkies, neither Alyx nor Bobby had. The sounds, slight enough to have gone unnoticed on any other occasion, were, tonight, more than enough to give away their position - invisible or not.

It had taken liberal use of Alyx's abilities and the beneficence of Dame Fortuna for the situation to be resolved with the limited success to which it had been. They had learned that Alyx could fling ball bearings with a deadly accuracy, or in this case, a disarming accuracy, as she made use of the BB sized metal balls to take out the bad guys weapons one by one. In the end, a score of injured perps had been rounded up, along with a collection of top of the line military hardware due to be shipped overseas to a known member of Al-Qaeda, and turned over to the members of Homeland Security for questioning.

Hopefully, they had saved a few lives by preventing this shipment from being delivered.

Alyx, as usual, had overdone it more than a bit and practically fainted when all was said and done, which lead to a lecture from Claire, their one and only Keeper, guardian of their well-being. And who took advantage of the situation by declaring that the over-worked female agent would be spending the next week having her annual physical evaluation. This lead to 'argh' being groaned by one and all present, as it was a well known fact Alyx hated the week long battery of tests she was going to be forced to endure. Even knowing it meant she would be home in San Diego for the entire time did nothing to improve her mood.

Darien could live with the crankiness and irritability that would ensue, since Alyx put up with his same moodiness when it was his turn to go through his evaluation. It was the week of no sex, which was mandated along with it, that he hated. By the end of the week the sexual tension between the pair would be visible even to perfect strangers and those closest to them would be ready to toss them into the padded room with nothing but flavored oils and an assortment of sex toys just to have it over with.

Least that's how it had always been in the past. This year Darien had an idea for a distraction. One directly related to the recent mission.

"You want to what, Fawkes, it's only been," Bobby glanced at his watch, and Darien could see the cogs whirring in his friend's mind as he did the math, "thirty-six hours. The lack of sex can't have turned your gray matter into goo already."

"Bobby!" Alyx cried out in indignation as she backhanded him on the arm. She couldn't have been too upset, however, as she began to chuckle mere moments later.

"Well, gooier than it was, anyway," Bobby corrected, unrepentant.

"Wasn't me who gave away our position t'other night, now was it?" Darien was careful to keep the smugness out of his voice, and watched as the pair glanced at each other with matching looks of consternation on their faces.

"Okay, you got a point there, pal," Bobby acknowledged with a tip of his head. "But I think I'll pass on your Thieving for Beginners refresher course."

Alyx's eyes darted from Bobby to Darien and then back again. "Bobby, it's not that bad an idea and sounds far less boring than reviewing the cheesy stealth course the boss-man can afford."

"True 'nuff. I got some contacts over at Miramar that'll be more'n happy to make sure I'm sharp." Bobby looked right into Darien's eyes. "Can't teach an old dog new tricks there, partner."

"But he can relearn the old. Gotcha." While Darien had been surprised that Bobby agreed that he'd screwed the pooch on the noise thing, Darien hadn't been surprised at the refusal of his offer. Surprised the refusal had been so polite, hell yes. Bobby usually had more than few choice words when it came to Darien's larcenous past and the woman who had helped facilitate it. "Alyx?"

She seemed to mull his offer, one hand rising to tap her cheek in an obvious mockery of deep thought. "Lessee, boring standard class ' no offense, Bobby."

"None taken."

"Or something new." She dropped her hand and flashed the two men a huge grin. "Thieving for Beginners, it is."

The idea was deceptively simple and was indeed something Darien had learned from Liz back in the early days of his career into larceny. She had not only taught him how to drill and pick locks, case a target and miss nothing, pick pockets, but how to walk quiet enough to sneak up on anyone he chose.

You bell the cat.

Or, in this case, the thief, to train them to move not only silently, but to become hyper-aware of where every step was placed, where clothing brushing against a table edge could give away your presence, to be invisible with nothing more than the right tools and learned skill. Darien had become an expert at invisibility long before he'd become the unsatisfied owner of one slightly used 17 million dollar Quicksilver gland, and it was a skill he'd kept well-honed over the years. You just never knew when it might come in handy.

He found the prospect of teaching Alyx quite refreshing and ? exciting. Though the rewards for a job well done would be perforce be different than those Liz had been wont to lavish upon him. Not because he didn't want to, but due to the 'no sex' edict the Keeper was being adamant about. He had to admit that Liz made sure he'd do his best every time, given the - ahem - mind blowing rewards he often received. Oh yes, he'd taken to her training well and made sure to learn everything she was willing to teach him. Of course, he'd picked up a few things on his own as well and, as Liz had occasionally mentioned, he'd had a natural talent that would be a complete shame to waste.

After doing some shopping for what he'd need, he met Alyx at her place for dinner, noting she was looking worse for wear from her day of being poked and prodded down in the Keep. Still, she whipped together a meal and they chatted amiably about mundane things, such as how crappy the Padres were again this year, as they ate. Once everything had been cleaned and put away, Darien brought out his purchases for her to see.

The box sitting on the coffee table seemed to contain hundreds of bells. These were not the jingle bells found everywhere during the holiday season, but tiny bead-like ones that chimed softly with even the slightest movement. Alyx reached out and lifted a string of them, the sound pleasant, and not one that would likely becoming irritating to the senses.

"So, now what?" she asked, shaking the string gently, as if trying to gauge how little it would take to set them off.

Darien took the bells from her and fastened them about her wrist. "Now, you get belled," he told her, with a seriousness she would be sure to feel. He was not treating this as a game or as a little harmless fun to kill some time during a slow week. He was fully intending on teaching her everything he could about moving silently. This had become important to him, a chance to share a part of him, of his past that could be of use to her and maybe save her life one day.

Alyx apparently picked up on his thoughts. "D, I didn't agree to this just for kicks and I plan on taking it very seriously." She gave him a lopsided grin. "I like it when you teach me, bub," she informed him, which made him duck his head for an instant with embarrassment. "You have an amazing mind. You should share what you know more often."

"All right, all right, enough with the ass-kissing," Darien admonished, as he reached for another set of bells; these designed to be twined into her hair. "I ain't gonna go easy on you no matter how much you try an' sweet talk me."

"Ooooo," She gave a little wiggle of pleasure, which set the bells she already wore to ringing, "I like the rough stuff."

Darien laughed, shaking his head in amusement. "Behave you." He leaned in to place one behind her ear and kissed her on the tip of her nose as he completed the task. "This is going to be work, baby."

She met his eyes, hers lacking any trace of the humor that had been there just seconds before, and said, "Good."

On his recommendation, she spent the first day doing everything as she normally would. This would allow her to learn exactly how much her natural movements contributed to the potential of others hearing her. Alyx's little talent of always being aware of others about her had left her with a blind spot ? herself. While she could see how she moved and interacted with the world about her, she was missing how she affected it. Now, she had passed her various training courses the Official had make her take when she had joined the Agency, but what Darien was attempting to teach her went one step further. She was good, damn good, and he knew it. He planned on making her even better.

The second day found Alyx quickly becoming frustrated with the situation as she proceeded to make all the classic mistakes that Darien himself had made when he'd been learning the very same skill. She overcompensated, trying to move in perfect silence with every step, and then failed miserably. Or worse, focusing so much on her slightest movement that she became unaware of what was going on about her. When she ran headfirst into Agent Peterson while trying to sneak up on Darien, he called her on it and told her to take a break, which sent her temper flaring into life and reminding him of Kilauea's more brilliant eruptive displays.

Once she had cooled down, the lava crusting over enough to provide a warm yet stable surface to tread upon, she asked him what she'd done wrong. There was a momentary reigniting of her anger when he explained her error, but this time it was at herself and not Darien. The mistake was quite obvious once detailed, and her usual patience returned as she mulled over his words. Instead of explaining step by step how to correct the situation, as Liz had with him, he offered only hints, knowing Alyx was more than wise enough to figure the rest out for herself. And for her, the reward would be that much greater. Darien had always been somewhat impatient about life, wanting to know now so that he could take his time using the skill later. Alyx was different. She appreciated the challenge learning something new gave her and Darien planned on using that knowledge to her benefit.

Alyx spent day three mostly horizontal, with trips in and out of various machines in order to establish this year's baseline readings. Change was the one constant with both their unique systems, and Claire was careful to maintain an accurate and up to date record in the event something untoward were to occur.

In truth, 'something untoward' happened with a frightening regularity, which kept Claire and those records in near constant use. So, while Alyx had been unable to put Darien's advice to use, it most certainly granted her time to think, to consider how best to benefit from the knowledge and make it work for her. And Darien knew that's exactly what she would do. The disadvantages of teaching her at this late date was counterbalanced by her astonishing ability to learn.

Darien had been, quite literally, a gangly youth, all knees, elbows, and still several years away from achieving his final adult height and bulk when he'd been taught this same skill. Luckily, he'd not been one of those klutzy types who couldn't take two steps without tripping over his own feet and had taken to the work like a duck to water, or a cat to climbing. Climbing indeed, as Liz had quickly recognized his ability at ascending vertical surfaces with little or no gear and capitalized upon it, he had gotten them into quite a few places that Liz otherwise would have passed over with that little talent of his.

By the time Alyx was freed to head home that evening, she'd been too nauseous to care about how much noise she was making and told Darien so when he mentioned it. He wasn't about to ease up on her just because she was feeling a little icky, which had led to a lively argument that allowed a release of some of the irritation and tension that had been building up for several days. Eventually, he made a comment with just the right amount of sarcasm and, instead of screaming at him, she burst out in laughter and then apologized for taking her grumpiness out on him. They then spent the next several hours pleasantly, her sipping peppermint tea to settle her stomach, while he raided the fridge and cleaned out the majority of the leftovers buried within.

Shortly after noon on day four Alyx figured out the trick and Darien couldn't help but feel a sense of pride when she got within a couple of feet of him before he heard the barest hint of the bells she wore. While he did praise her, he also pointed out that he had indeed been warned of her presence and encouraged her to do better next time. She had simply raised a single eyebrow and then suggested they - including Bobby in the invite - go get some lunch.

The entire time they were out, she continued her graceful, near-silent movements, even in the most crowded of areas, proving that she had indeed keyed into that extra awareness necessary. Not that he was the least bit surprised she had caught on so quickly given her already heightened senses. He had done nothing more than show her that she had a minor blind spot, which she had obviously dealt with.

The one thing Darien knew, and that he had not explained to her, was that there was no way to move so that the bells wouldn't chime. They were placed about her body in such a way that she would always fail in her attempts at maintaining perfect silence. The real trick, and it was one that had taken Darien far longer than it should have to figure out when he'd been that gangly teen, was to simply be as quiet as humanly possible and make sure whatever noise one did make could be shrugged off as normal for the area.

Darien was dead certain Alyx hadn't yet figured out that part of the exercise yet. In the meantime, the practice wouldn't hurt her and would continue to hone her newfound attention to the world about her. He still had a few more challenges for her before he'd be convinced she had really mastered this skill.

Day five was nothing more than a continuation of the previous for Alyx. She was stuck in the building for the day, with the Keeper running tests that required multiple samples taken over the course of six hours. When not being poked, scraped or asked to fill a cup with one liquid or another, she worked on the computer in Lab Two, which had become her default working area over the years. For the science ends of things, anyway, more mundane Agency related research was done in her office on the third floor of the building and just down the hall from the one Darien and Bobby shared.

Darien and Bobby, not being restricted to the environs of the Harding Building, spent most of the day following loose ends on the weapons deal they had broken up less than a week prior. How Rodriquez and his gang of thugs had acquired the guns was a mystery many parties were interested in solving and since the Agency had essentially broken the case, they got an invite to work things from their end. An invite the local FBI offices had not received since it was their mistakes that had caused the ball bearing plant, where the penultimate events had taken place, to be closed indefinitely. A plant that had several military contracts, which were now going to be delayed until the case was officially closed and the building could be repaired.

Darien found Alyx at his place when he arrived just after 8 pm, carrying the pizza and a six of Guinness that he'd picked up on the way home. He and Bobby had grabbed burgers around five, but they had long since worn away, especially after spending two hours hoofing it around the navy base trying to find an Ensign Carlson, who had been misplaced.

Alyx completed, successfully, the difficult bank shot she'd been in the midst of, then bounced over, and relieved him of the brews, placing them on the counter. He set the pizza down and watched as she made a face at his topping selections.

"You have a pineapple fetish, don't you," she complained as she picked off a chunk of ham and popped it into her mouth.

"Not like I bought it for you, y'know." He swatted her hand away as she went after another fair-sized chunk of meat. "Your day go okay?" he asked, picking up a slice and taking a huge bite from it. He was starved.

She cracked open a bottle of the Guinness, which were not twist tops, and handed it to him. "Eh, fun was had by the Keeper." Alyx pushed her sleeves up to show him the bruises already forming in the crook of both elbows. "Loves her scrapings that woman does."

Darien snorted, regretting it immediately as dark lager was not something intended to be inhaled. It took a few minutes, but his lungs finally figured out what it was they were supposed to do, and he was able to suck in air without falling into another fit of coughing. "Christ, don't do that to me," he pleaded, wiping away the tears that had overflowed in reaction to the sudden lack of oxygen.

"Me?" Alyx asked in pure innocence. She raised herself up just enough to place a lingering kiss upon his lips and then swipe another chunk of ham off the piece of pizza he was holding. She strolled away, her hips swaying delightfully as he watched. She was also damn near silent, the bells she still wore making little more than a whisper in the quiet apartment.

As Darien munched on the slice in his hand, he contemplated how to throw down a very necessary challenge to her apparent accomplished skill. He swallowed, washed it down with the lager, and cleared his throat. "Not too bad, you're barely making a sound. Is the energy drain using your abilities to keep them still prohibitive?"

She froze in place, leaning over the sofa to reach the remote, and slowly turned her head to stare at him. "Excuse me?"

"What? Did I use words that were too big for you?" Yes, he was being openly antagonistic, though he made sure to keep his look and emotions bland, as if he had expected this from her.

"I do not cheat," she hissed. "Nor do I need to."

He chose another slice of pizza and bit into it, intentionally responding with his mouth full, "It's been less than a week, no way you could have picked it up that fast."

Alyx spun about and stalked over to him, and he couldn't help but notice that while louder, the bells were still comparatively quiet. Even pissed as all get out, she kept to the lesson. "That's not what you said yesterday."

He shrugged. "Positive reinforcement."

"Why you?." She sucked in a breath and blew it out slowly. He could practically hear her counting to 10 before responding. "You damn well know interacting with items this close to my body causes headaches. Do you really think I'd bother just to impress you?"

He gave her a knowing grin. "In a heartbeat."

For an instant, her eyes flared with an electric blue light and he knew the thunder would be sure to follow in mere seconds, so he prepared himself for the verbal onslaught. She surprised him by doing nothing more than grabbing her jacket off the back of the barstool and walking out. She didn't even bother to slam the door behind her. But even then, she moved with nary a sound.

"Perfect, babe. Just perfect."

The following day was one of very conflicting emotions for Darien. Whenever he was anywhere near Alyx, the bells would chime loudly and with a dissonance that shouldn't have been possible. The moment he was out of sight, the bells would still their restless motion and return to the stealthy subtle chiming, which had been all that could be heard for the two days previous. He knew: he had made a point of spying upon her to find out if she was doing it just to spite him or had backslid that badly after his accusation of the night before.

On top of that, she refused to speak to him, just ignored him completely, which earned some quizzical looks from Claire and a grilling from Bobby as to what Darien had done to 'piss off the kid so badly.' He was almost thankful when he and Bobby were sent out to meet NCIS Special Agent Dorchester (Bobby being doubly thankful it wasn't Brock Oliver handling the case) about their missing Ensign, who had turned up in a rather unlifelike condition that did not bode well for their hopes of questioning him.

Alyx was dealing with the joy of having to redo some of the previous tests when the results came back wackier than Claire liked, but it was nothing unexpected and a fair part of the reason Alyx hated evaluation week. It never failed that something just had to go wrong, which is why Claire always scheduled a full week for Alyx instead of the usual five days.

By the time Darien and Hobbes returned, Alyx's mood had improved and she had four slim files waiting for them. She'd been busy working on the case as well and tracked down some interesting tidbits for them to mull overnight. She was still making about three times more noise than should have been humanly possible with the bells, and Darien had to admonish her about it. It was his job to teach her this skill to the best of her ability, and allowing her to so blatantly blow off what he knew she had learned just wasn't right.

"So," he began conversationally, "guess I was right about how you learned so fast."

Alyx tipped her head slightly to the side and replied archly, "Oh really?" and then turned to Bobby. "Need anything else? Looks like I'm free for the evening."

Darien watched as Hobbes bit the inside of his cheek to keep a hold on whatever smartass reply that was trying valiantly to escape. He finally managed a strangled, "Nah, kid, you did good. Go cause some trouble."

She gave Bobby a huge grin. "Every chance I get, my friend." Then she sauntered away without even a glance in Darien's direction.

"Fawkes, are you a complete idiot?" Hobbes questioned, reaching out to pinch Darien on the biceps, hard.

"Ow! Cut it out, Hobbes," Darien squawked, rubbing the spot that would be sure to bruise by morning. "I had to do it. Part of the Thieving for Beginners," he explained.

"Huh? Oh. She not doing too good, I take it." Hobbes didn't seem too happy at the prospect that Alyx might be failing Darien's impromptu course.

"Just the opposite. She's doing great. Just another lesson or two for her to get through and she'll be ready." Darien beamed with unabashed pride.

"Then why the button pushing back there?"

"Cause you can't let the cat forget why it was belled."

When Alyx showed up at Darien's door bright and early the next morning, carrying coffee and a bag with a selection of Danishes from his favorite pastry shop, he swallowed a sigh of relief, for it had been a long and lonely night once he and Bobby had parted ways. Alyx had refused to answer either of her phones, and failed to respond to the messages he'd left on her voicemail, so his sleep had been restless at best and peppered with ominous dreams that left him feeling that he had missed something of great importance.

When he asked why she was there so early, she directed his attention to his answering machine, which showed three calls that he'd missed. Turned out Hobbes had called to let Darien know that there had been a break in the case and that it would require an early morning meeting. Darien had slept through all three calls due to the simple fact that he'd unintentionally turned off his ringer at some point the previous evening and never even heard them. Alyx seemed to find this highly amusing, and only after assuring Darien that he had plenty of time before the meeting to get ready to his usual standards, did he stop mentally kicking himself for his bout of boneheadedness.

He also noted that she was wearing the bells and still failing to put any effort into keeping them from chiming, but after the night he'd had he wasn't in the proper mood to call her on it. That would be something to do after he'd imbibed in copious amounts of caffeine and achieved a reasonable measure of consciousness. That and had Hobbes nearby to guard his back when she decided to claw his eyes out in anger.

They were back at the Agency by midday with a few more pieces to what was turning out to be a very complicated and detailed puzzle. It was beginning to look like there might be sympathizers within the local military that were arranging the sale of the weapons, and who might have killed Ensign Carlson for discovering them. This little weapons deal was looking to be bigger than anyone expected.

Alyx left the paperwork to them and reported to the Keep to tie up a few loose ends and Darien didn't see her again for a couple of hours. The Official was apparently feeling generous and turned them loose for the remainder of the day, basically just trying to avoid more overtime, as they had been working eight days straight by this point. They, however, were more than willing to take whatever free time they could without a word of complaint.

Much to Darien's surprise, when Alyx was turned loose she invited him to spend the remainder of the day over at her place and he accepted before she could change her mind. In no time at all he found himself sprawled on her oversized sectional, channel surfing with munchies and alcoholic libations near to hand. He could hear her puttering about the apartment, doing those mundane things one always needed to catch up on during free moments.

Her every movement set the bells to chiming, and after pointing it out twice with her reaction being little more than agreement, he dropped it, deciding not to push his luck. About the time the scent of her homemade pasta sauce began wafting through the air, he drifted off into a light doze, the less than refreshing nights' sleep needing to be compensated for with a mid-afternoon catnap.

Darien awoke with a jerk some time later, sat up quickly and glanced about the quiet apartment. Silence. That was what had woken him. The lack of noise. The TV was still on, but the volume turned down so that the lioness chasing down the hapless gazelle was without the voice over or desperate cries of the doomed grazer. 'Where the hell is Alyx?' he wondered, the sudden lack of chiming causing worry to spring to the forefront of his mind. Last he'd seen her, she'd been in the kitchen preparing one of her simple, yet masterful culinary miracles.

Rolling off the sofa, he padded across the floor and into the kitchen to find the sauce simmering on the stove, cooking down to the consistency she preferred. It had huge chunks of mushrooms and garlic in its depths, and he was unable to resist stealing a sample. Everything else seemed to be in order; the utensils she'd used had been cleaned and put away, the counters wiped down and spotless. He checked the fridge to find a salad and a horizontally halved loaf of Italian bread slathered with the garlic-butter awaiting broiling in the oven.

The clock on the stove showed he hadn't been asleep for any more than 90 minutes, so he was utterly at a loss as to where the hell had she gone. He ducked into the bathroom, dealing with a call of nature while there, poked into her closet, noting the hamper still full of clothes, which meant she wasn't downstairs in the laundry room. Heading back out to the main room, he stepped about the screens that blocked a direct view of her bed, thinking that she had maybe lain down for a nap herself only to find it neatly made and untouched.

Confused and becoming more and more worried by the moment, he returned to his starting point, by the sofa, and surveyed the area. There was no place remaining that she could be hiding - unless she'd crawled into one of the kitchen cabinets, which just made no sense to him.

"Damn it, Alyx, where the hell are you?" he rumbled aloud, suddenly wondering if this might be some prank to get even with him for the last couple of days.

"Right here."

There was the musical sound of Quicksilver being shed, followed by the chiming of bells as she pounced on him. They ended up on the floor with her sitting on his abdomen and looking for all the world like the proverbial cat that had eaten the canary.

"Alyx, what the hell?" Darien asked, feeling truly bewildered.

"Just passing my final exam," she replied smugly.


"Oh come on, D, have you forgotten the point of this exercise?" She asked, wiggling so that every single bell that could move did, creating a harmonious cacophony of sound.

"Umm, no," he replied, wondering what the devil she was talking about. "The point was to teach you to be more aware of things about you with the bonus of learning how to move even quieter that you could before."

"Yep," she agreed. "And I'm pretty damn sure I passed that part with flying colors, else you wouldn't have accused me of cheating."

Okay, so she was right about that part, but he was not going to admit that under duress. "Coulda fooled me given how noisy you've been the last couple of days."

She just waved his words off. "Why does one 'bell a cat'?" she asked.

"So the birds can hear it coming," Darien responded automatically.

"So then, how does the cat still manage to corner its prey when belled?"

Darien had to think about that for a few minutes before coming up with the only logical answer, which also proved that she had caught onto the second part of this training method, as well as making masterful use of the knowledge to her advantage. It was simple really, and he'd fallen for it completely, as her little demonstration had proved.

Eventually, if the cat is smart and sneaky - as most accomplished felines are - it can get the bird used to the sound of the bell even to the point where they no longer hear it.

With a grin Darien said, "You pass."

Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in.
~ Unknown