Howdy! If you've stuck around to the end of the story, dang, you rock.

I actually don't think I've FINISHED a story (that wasn't a one-shot) in… ages, I think? Years, certainly. This is a weird feeling.

I hope it's worth the five-month journey, lol.

The Redemption of Gideon Grey

Ch. 15

"Follow me."

Gideon Grey felt himself being tugged – or maybe pulled or forced was the more accurate word, because it was certainly a mighty drag – off stage and into a darkened alcove behind it that led into the back hallway of the barn, the area that seemed to have been an added-on afterthought for an otherwise spacious, but traditional, building.

Bonnie Hopps was beside him in a moment, but she, wringing her paws fretfully, had not been the one who pulled the fox away from the teeming, argumentative crowd that grew by the second, as spectators poured inside before the imminent barn dance of the Bunnyburrow Fall Harvest Festival to see what all the ruckus was about.

Instead, Mayor Cotton dusted herself off in front of the fox and rabbit, brushing her paws over her tight cherry-red flannel and dark, almost black jeans. A thin layer of particles – sawdust, kicked-up dirt, whatever else Gideon could not quite place – fell from her in a gently wafting cloud that dissipated soon after.

He was the first to speak. "Mayor, I…"

"Sorry for the abrupt departure, hon," Mayor Cotton cut across him like a blade, giving her shoulder one last flick. "I'm not quite sure what I stumbled into, but if they're not hearing out Bonnie, there's no point in you being around right now."

The rabbit folded her arms and looked to the fox, then to the mother of Judy Hopps, whon seemed out of breath, chest heaving in frustration. "Gideon, you need to tell me what happened out there. And no sugarcoating it. There's a mess of angry prey out there and I need to know why." She pointed beyond them. "Because that. Isn't. Normal."

"Travis is here." The fox came out swinging, breathing deeply after he said it as though the ferret would materialize alongside them at any moment. "Or… or we're pretty sure. He ain't alone, neither, and they're prob'ly up to no good."

Cotton's tight clasp across her chest slackened just noticeably. "You saw him? And the others that were missing?"

"They took a truck in. It was out by Clover's place, they jumped in when nobody was lookin'. We got here—"

"We?"

"Judy was with me. She's off lookin' for 'em, I reckon. Maybe already found 'em, who knows, I hope so. But I came in to tell folks, 'cause…"

Cotton nodded. "The dance." She glanced over at Bonnie. "You saw all this?"

"I was inside when Gideon was warning everyone. They… didn't want to hear what he had to say." Her voice quavered.

Whatever din had grown inside the barn's open area had quelled substantially; Gideon could hear a voice speaking over the microphone in calming, palliative tones.

"That's one of mine," Cotton said, indicating the voice after recognizing Gideon's curious look. "Told him to calm everyone down. He'll get 'em there. Though I don't recommend going back out there anytime soon."

Gideon sniffed and shrugged. "Right, Mayor, but what about—"

"If there's a threat," she said pointedly before the fox could finish speaking, "we're going to deal with it – me, my team, our local force and the county effort." Her ears, folded down against her back previously, perked up. "Speak of the devil." Her gaze was beyond Gideon now. "My dear constable, a word?"

Constable Skip Clover peered at them from beneath the brim of a brown cowboy hat pulled down just above his eyes. He had two rabbits in tow, neither saying a word, simply trailing the well-known city official on either side, practically symmetrical astride one another. Clover had rounded the corner into the alcove, clearly intent on making his way to the stage. It was clear, too, that he had not expected the trio in front of him to have been blocking his way.

"Folks," the rabbit greeted cordially after the briefest of noticeable hesitation. "Mr. Grey. Mrs. Hopps. My dear mayor. Happy Saturday!" He struck a glowing smile. His cohorts did not.

"Skip, I take it you're on your way to kick off the dance, then?" asked Cotton, maneuvering to the point immediately.

Nodding, the constable and part-time festival emcee rested his paws against his sides. "It's time to get things going, I reckon, don't you? All the extra equipment's been loaded in; I just got back from checking on that personally." He grinned, and his gaze found Gideon. "I hope you and some of the other newcomers are stayin' for the festivities, Gideon. Would love to show you how us folks throw a party 'round here – gonna make that fest over in Foxgrove look like a quaint get-together in comparison."

"I'm afraid we might need to hold off for a moment on that," Cotton interjected, folding her arms. "Gideon here says he saw our little missing troublemakers from a few nights ago slinking around the place."

"That so?" Gideon noticed the corners of Clover's smile twinge ever so slightly.

"Says they stowed away on the delivery truck coming from your place. Mighty strange, wouldn't you say?"

"Positively peculiar." The smile was gone. The fox felt the constable's hot gaze burrowing into him. "May I ask why you were snoopin' around my property, then?"

Before Gideon could respond, Cotton cut across him. "Now's not the time, I'd say, Skip," she declared brusquely, dismissively waving a paw. "I'm curious too, but let's tackle that when the time comes. Because if that bunch is here again, chances are they're up to no good."

Clover lingered on Gideon a moment longer and then turned away. "Probably a good hunch." He swiveled his head slightly, and the ears of the rabbits behind him pricked. "Can y'all handle this?"

His pair of volunteers glanced at one another, nodded and stalked away briskly, rounding the corner into the back hall.

The mayor was not yet pacified. "Appreciate the small effort, Skip, but maybe you should be –"

"Listen up," he asserted, training his eyes on the mayor. "I gotta go in there and what the good townspeople here have allowed me to do for the past decade: put on a show."

Cotton cocked her head. "There's a time and place for celebration, but you're hired to protect, first and foremost. Not entertain."

"That's what I'm doin'."

"I don't follow."

He pointed a paw at Gideon, practically in the fox's face, and Gideon sniffed in spite of its intrusion, glaring down the bridge of his snout.

"If what he says is right," started Clover, his voice having lost every bit of its ceremony that began their conversation, "and let's be clear, Mayor, we've got no evidence other than the Greys' word that these folks even showed up the other night after we told 'em to turn tail and head home – but regardless of that, if they're back, and they're up to somethin', I still don't think it's gonna benefit any of us to waltz into there right now," he balled up his one paw and specified the main gathering area of the barn with the other, "and tell good, innocent people that we think somethin' is the matter."

"But Skip, I'm not sure that keeps people out of danger." Bonnie had been silent for a while; Gideon had nearly forgotten she was there at all.

"S'long as my team does its job, it will," he said shortly. "And in the meantime, if we go in there and say, 'Well, sorry, folks, but dance is canceled on account of some predators who may or may not wanna cause some chaos involving you and your family,' that's gonna incite a panic when there may not be any need for one."

The rabbit shook his head and straightened the frilly shirt collar around his neck. "And I'm not interested in making our good neighbors any more on edge than they already are with this mess. My team will be posted around the perimeter – they'll see them before they come in. Simple as that. Because they sure as heck aren't already inside – we'd've seen 'em."

There was a pause in the admittedly one-sided conversation. Gideon felt at a loss, wanting to chime in and express his concern but at the same time uncertain if Travis and the others had even come inside, let alone had any sort of designs on the dance and the breakdown of its safety. He could not necessarily find a weighty argument against Clover's point, either; if an authority figure went into that barn right then and there and told them, shortly after the hubbub that brewed from the fox's simple warning and the civil, but spirited, unrest that followed, that everyone might be in danger, then he could only imagine what pandemonium might follow.

So it did not surprise him when Mayor Cotton responded the way she did.

"As much as this doesn't sit well with me, Skip, I don't think you're wrong." The rabbit shuffled to the side, allowing a place through which Clover could pass. "And as long as you have faith in your team…"

"I do. Though perhaps the county folks should be notified. Heck, where's your daughter?" Clover said, remembering suddenly. "She can help as well, can't she?"

"She's already off lookin' for the county crew," Gideon answered, glancing around as though she might turn up. "Prob'ly found 'em by now."

"We'll go look for her just in case," announced Bonnie, pinching Gideon's elbow. "No trouble at all."

Clover adjusted the brim of his hat one last time. "Then excuse me, y'all," he spoke, the pageantry returning to his voice, "but I've got a show to run."

But once he was through the small clearing in the wood and into the brightly lit barn area…

"Mayor… yer sure?"

The fox had barely meant to even vocalize the question out loud, but he could not help himself, the culmination of a sudden anxiety borne from realizing that, regardless of how the night would go, he could not return to the dance.

The Thumpers would undoubtedly see to that.

Cotton sighed, pulling up the sleeves of her flannel in the evening heat and fanning herself with a paw. "Constable Clover is in his position for a reason, and I don't pay him just so I can second-guess him all day," she said gently. "I'm no micromanager. The best I can do is see to it that his team is on high alert like he says it is and do my part in any way I can. The same goes for all of us."

"C'mon, Gideon," Bonnie breathed, brushing a paw against his arm. "Let's go find Judy."

"And perhaps you should stop by your booth while you're at it…" suggested the mayor with a meek smile. "Seems like I've seen your brother there more often than you this weekend, and he could use the owner's paw in teardown tonight, I'm sure."

Gideon grimaced. Colt had been quite the prolific substitute that weekend.

"Suppose that's right, Mayor. See ya 'round."

The evening had a cool, crisp temperament to it, a welcome feeling juxtaposed against the condensed heat inside the barn that necessitated quite a few large industrial fans to circulate air in an otherwise crowded space.

But Gideon, breathing it in deeply so that it chilled his lungs, was more gracious for the nighttime and its lack of illumination that cloaked him somewhat from animals who might recognize him otherwise, those who might point out that dumb fox who had made a fool of himself in front of the town not once but many times in the span of a few days after a first half of the week that seemed ripe with promise.

"I'll go find my daughter," Bonnie said finally once they were outside. "You heading back to the booth?"

"Suppose so."

"Tell Stu I'll be there soon to help pack stuff up for the night if he hasn't already."

"Sure," grunted the fox, and a few moments later he was alone again, which he quite preferred for the time being.

The path outside the barn that led to the general vendor area passed through what was usually a grassy lawn full of trees, flower beds and other pleasant growths complementing the picturesque downtown of Bunnyburrow, but it was well-worn from days of passersby trudging along it to other parts of the festival or to the nearby parking lot where most left their vehicles. It was mostly empty at that point of the evening and quiet enough that Gideon could make out the muffled sounds of Clover speaking to those at the dance over the microphone – and, shortly after, the exploding kick-drum beat of a folk-y melody to start an evening of music.

He rummaged in his pocket and pulled out his phone, texting a quick message to Colt: "Be right there," he typed, "how're things?"

Another missive blinked at him from the home screen once his first one sent; it could not have been in his inbox long. Gideon recognized Judy Hopps' name immediately and tapped it open.

The fox was outside the schoolhouse moments later, huffing and puffing, markedly out of breath but having reached the place as quickly as he could.

Judy emerged from the front door, Edmond in tow.

"I got here as fast as I could," Gideon panted, paws against his knees as he gasped for air. "Y'… should be proud of me, done more runnin' this week than I have… since high school."

The rabbit cop cut to the point. "The county cops were locked in a room downstairs. Well, not locked, barred. Someone deliberately stuck a chair under the door handle so it wouldn't budge from the inside."

"Oh. That's swell."

"Yeah. Don't know why, but someone obviously knew that if they stuck them down there they'd have no cell phone or walkie talkie reception."

"It's practically a dead zone," chimed in Edmond, "we noticed that earlier this week."

"So who did?"

"Some goat no one said they'd seen around, but he was wearing a volunteer badge, so they didn't think anything of it," the other rabbit said timidly. "Lucky I had my keys…"

"And that's not all," Judy interrupted, tapping her foot with increasing rapidity against the concrete front stoop of the schoolhouse. "Edmond here says he saw Travis." She paused. "With Clover."

Gideon's mouth hung open; suddenly his fatigue seemed a world away. "Wha—"

"I'm positive. It was them." The rabbit stomped his foot derisively, shutting his eyes tight. "This whole time – the constable – I don't know…"

The fox rubbed his forehead with a paw. "This don't make no sense. None at all."

"You're right. It doesn't," Judy agreed. "Not immediately. But whatever's up," she pointed to the illuminated barn, "I think that's where we're gonna find our answers."

She turned to Edmond. "Once the county cops get situated, tell them that's where we went. Think you can do that for us?"

The rabbit nodded. "I'm sorry this happened. I wish I'd known…"

"None of us did. No use going back over it now."

Gideon straightened his back on the front stoop of the schoolhouse, head turned toward the barn from which he had just come. Swallowed. Though it was certainly the last place he wanted to be in that moment…

"All right, let's go, then."

Judy took the lead, as the fox had hoped; after all, he still had not quite decided if his re-entry into the building was part of his master plan. He hung back a few paces while the rabbit, not exactly sprinting but keeping a brisk pace, darted off to the barn, from which they could hear the dull boom of music and mingled voices.

And then he heard it. They heard it.

It was not a scream, but the sound they heard certainly bordered on one, its volume piercing the night and causing anyone not already inside to turn their heads as if by instinct. Female, and panicked. Definitely panicked.

A pig tore from the entrance of the building. She was not the source of the yell, but there was a heightened dread in her look nonetheless as she ran, practically tripping over herself, barely catching herself on one side before nearly toppling over moments later the other way. And she was only the first in a stream of animals of different shapes and sizes, even predator and prey, all gushing forth in one concentrated direction: out.

Judy squeezed through them easily, darting in and out of trampling feet and stumbling legs; Gideon lost sight of her fairly quickly and found himself unable to evade the current of in-motion bodies as easily. The fox was body-checked a few times, not out of malice but sheer accident in an effort to move quickly, and he could not help but perk up his ears to listen for a clue among the assortment of grunts, yelps and jumbled voices.

"Excuse – OOF excuse me, what in—" he stammered, momentarily breathless from a shot in the gut from a sheep's elbow.

"You some sorta fish? Swimmin' upstream? We gotta go," bleated the sheep, who turned only momentarily to shout at the roadblock fox before disappearing into a sea of fleeing mammals.

There were yells coming from inside the barn, shouts of alarm Gideon could barely make out as, in some cases, cries of pain amid the hubbub. Elbowing his way past one last rabbit, who held three young kids in her arms, their heads all turned toward the barn to face that from which they absconded, Gideon finally got a clear look at what was happening inside.

Soundtracked by a bed of swift, unassuming bluegrass music clearly meant for a line dance, there were about a dozen animals – all prey, that was Gideon's first realization – on the sawdust-laden floor, some writhing about, all covering or rubbing at their eyes.

Black figures stood above them, beings cloaked head to toe and everything in between in a dense fabric that allowed no suggestion of what teemed underneath, no muscle, fur, not even a tail – whatever they wore covered that too as deftly as possible, though a few bulges where one might poke through the suit were clearly visible.

And they all wore hoods and masks. Fox masks – there was no mistaking their shape, the pointed nose, the orange and white markings.

Pss. Psssssss.

The rattle of a can was accompanied by the hissing of a spray can – like a can of compressed air, or, worse, fox repellent.

And then it dawned on him. Repellent.

"Doggone it."

Judy was already a few steps ahead of him. Her tranquilizer gun was pulled and aimed ahead of her, but she had not fired yet.

"I can't get a clear shot on any of them," the rabbit, spotting Gideon, called. "Where's Clover?"

Gideon spun around. Nothing. But he did, however, find…

"Mayor!"

She lay in a heap not far from Gideon. The fox stumbled over to the rabbit, whose face was concealed by fumbling paws that struggled in vain against eyes closed tightly shut.

"Mayor, I—"

"Find the… the county c-cops," stuttered the rabbit as Gideon held her arms gingerly. "Cure."

Smack.

A body slumped to the floor nearby. Another rabbit. A dart protruded from her waist.

"Cheese and crackers," swore Judy, smacking the gun she held in her paw. "It moved her – it saw me…"

The spraying and hissing of cans of repellent had subsided inside the barn. Each figure – Gideon now counted three – had turned to face Judy, one pulling itself out from behind the doubled-over rabbit Judy had hit, clearly having dragged the smaller mammal in front of it at the last moment to take the shot from Judy's gun instead.

From behind one mask, she heard the muffled voice: "Shoot, didn't expect you so soon…"

Gideon had barely gotten a good look at all of them – varying sizes, but mostly larger mammals, it seemed – before one clapped its paws together, and the entire group scattered. One knocked over the microphone stand, causing screeching feedback to bounce throughout the now-nearly empty hall.

And to his surprise, as they moved to leave, others filed in – townsfolk, for that matter.

"Judy! Judy!" Aaron Longfellow cried from the doorway, panting as he curled a paw around the frame.

She had been pinned to the spot, her gun still outstretched but with nary another dart fired, when he entered, and Judy lowered it immediately.

"Aaron, what are you—"

"They knew we'd run," he groaned, eyes wide, almost static-charged in their crackling intensity. "More was waiting for us outside – c'mon, now!"

Judy was past him in a sprint, and Gideon stood to follow.

"Aaron," he instructed quickly, "the others, they escaped, least I think they did. But all these folks – can ya make sure they're all right? The mayor 'specially."

The rabbit nodded. "There's an antidote, isn't there? One of those little pens filled with the stuff. They were spraying repellent, right?"

Gideon sniffed once. "Smells sorta like it. Even if it's predator spray, that stuff'll mess with anyone who's dumb enough to get it in their eyes, so the cans'll say."

"The county folks should carry—"

"That's what the mayor was sayin'. I'm off to find 'em. They should be comin'."

Kneeling next to a goat who seemed to be finally shaking off the ill effects of the spray, Aaron bowed. "I'll keep watch."

Outside, a cool evening breeze mingled with intermittent cries of alarm and the unmistakable rattle of the cans that the mammals Gideon assumed to be Travis and his friends wielded. There was a large crowd gathered nearby, bound together as though a herd of like-minded individuals who could barely think for themselves past what their neighbor might have to say – and, Gideon thought, he was not just thinking that because they were mostly sheep.

He heard Judy's voice. Ran toward it.

Her gun was pulled again, and alongside her stood Perkins and a few of the other county officers. Gideon swiveled his head just in time to see the other cops disappear into the barn. Good, he thought, satisfied.

"Now, this is just some… extreme misunderstanding."

He knew that voice too. Clover.

Wait… Clover? Now?

Judy sucked in a deep breath of air and exhaled, her shoulders arched as she held her gun with both paws. Perkins was similarly situated, as were a few of his fellow officers, all in practically a straight line that preceded a crowd of attentive, but alarmed, townsfolk.

Across from them, on the precipice of the wooded area alongside the festival, the one that led to the baseball diamond, Constable Clover held, struggling, in clenched paws one of the cloaked mammals. It struggled against his grip – not soundly, but enough that the rabbit seemed to be doing his best not to let go of it completely. Three of his volunteers were in the same position, two doubling up and clutching a larger, fox-sized animal that strangely seemed all too willing to abide.

"You heard me, Skip Clover," maintained Judy in a firm, commanding tone, her voice carrying surprisingly far despite her smaller stature. "You don't move a muscle either."

"Judy." Larry Goatsby, a friend of Stu Hopps and a fellow vendor, stepped forward from the crowd, wringing his hooves in disarray. "Judy, calm down, the constable's got them…"

"Listen to your dad's pal, Judy. The mayor might have brought you here to help out," he said curtly, "but I'm still in charge here."

"Then tell your constituents, dear Constable, what you were doing with Travis just this evening."

He snorted. "Mighty presumptuous. That ferret hasn't been seen around here in days – doing exactly what I asked of him and his friends."

"That so?" Judy called with a smirk. "Then how about taking off the mask of whomever you've got right there, hm?"

"Why, I hardly think loosening my grip on this wrongdoer just to take off a disguise would be the right course of action right now – didn't they teach you anything at the academy, Hopps?" He motioned with a flick of his head. "Maybe if some of my good friends from the county police here would help me…"

Judy glanced over at Perkins. The coyote caught her gaze and returned a reassuring nod.

"All right, then, if you're not willing to own up to meeting with them before all this went down, then how about explaining why I saw them boarding a truck right on your property just an hour or so ago to make it here in the first place?"

"Again, a fairytale, simply b—"

"They were under your nose the entire time."

These words had not come from Judy, but from another rabbit entirely.

Belle Thumper stood in front of the rest of the crowd; she had emerged near Gideon, who still watched from the side nearest the barn. She wore the same determined, gritty expression Judy had encountered often that week. It felt good to see it facing someone else this time.

"The last two days," Belle continued, her voice low, nearly indistinguishable. "These preds were practically in your backyard. Your backyard, Constable, of all people in this entire burrow." She pointed a paw straight at him reproachfully. "I didn't want to believe it when they told me. And I can buy one coincidence."

Taking another step forward, she folded her arms. "But you and every one of your little cronies got outta that barn without even as much of a scratch, and you happened to nab all of them on your own, and Hopps here says you were seen talking to them?"

"Cool it, Belle. Don't you forget who helped make your family here in town."

"Is that a threat?" Another step closer.

"No, it's – Thumper, I swear…"

Another. "Then explain yourself."

"I'm warnin' you…"

Clover stood against the black-as-night backdrop of the tree line, the rabbit shrouded by its lack of illumination, but that did not stop Gideon from seeing the gun – another tranq shooter like Judy's, sure, but a gun nonetheless – produced from the constable's side.

It all happened fast. Clover was quick on the draw, but Gideon was quicker, reacting immediately by dashing forward himself, squinting through the night as he followed the trajectory of the gun and the path of its dart, intended specifically for Belle her ever-nearing figure.

A dumb move it was, thinking he could swat one of those things out of the air as though it were a basketball and he the player, rejecting it from its path to the basket. The best he could hope for was a quick flick of the wrist that might impact with its side, sending it sprawling off to – where, exactly? Toward another person? The sky? The ground?

Or it would hit him, but quite suddenly, Gideon did not care too much about being tranquilized, if it meant, for one moment, protecting the townsfolk he had hoped to impress, even when they would not consider reciprocation all the while.

Perhaps that was his one redeeming factor, his path to redemption, if he had one at all.

Someone shouted his name and a few other words, but he did not quite hear them fully – Judy? Belle? Clover? Gibberish, a foreign language to a half-diving fox with one arm outstretched in a mad, last-ditch effort to block the projectile's laser-like path.

He was just in time – he felt the tip of the needle snag within his shirt sleeve, and he expected he knew what would come next, a jab in his skin, just a little prick – before numbness fell over him , the sweet oblivion of unconsciousness preceding whatever grogginess might follow whenever he came to.

It took everything in him not to fall over in a heap despite the reckless abandon with which he lunged. Gideon stumbled wildly a few steps, his tail brushing against Belle—

The first thing he noticed: it was quiet.

Secondly: he neither felt a prick, nor pain, nor a stark loss of bodily function.

Multiple events transpired at once, like a cannonball set into breakneck motion, or many cannonballs at once, all spinning off in different directions.

There was Judy, a blur of gray fur as she sped toward Clover – or at least where Clover had been. The constable had turned on his heel and fled – how long had it taken him? Right after the shot was fired, perhaps? – into the forest. Some of his volunteers who had straddled him on either side remained, but only because a pair of them had been momentarily stunned by whomever they had been holding in their grasps, the masked figures who were, too, nowhere to be found.

A rush of animals had descended upon Gideon too, some shouting obscenities past him – there were children around, some hushed, but they did not seem to care – others grabbing to hold his arm, to see the damage, to help.

Following Judy, a few county officers, after commands barked by Perkins that Gideon could not discern, had taken off into the woods, while others made a beeline for the constable's underlings that remained out of sheer ignorance, marked surprise or otherwise.

Belle Thumper held one paw out in front of her face toward Gideon, but her way was very quickly blocked by the sudden, swarming onslaught of others rushing to the fox's aid, and in that moment, she could do nothing but stare.

And Gideon, well, he was shocked – and relieved – to find the dart, hanging in the crux of the wrist of his shirt sleeve, dangling by a thread, delicately, just narrowly missing fur.

xXxXxXx

Judy Hopps had played in the woods outside the big barn in town often as a child, sometimes alone, usually with siblings who liked to contest games of hide and seek, or perhaps even pretend they were the very adventurers who discovered the land that became Zootopia, climbing over a fallen tree as though it were a majestic hill that, on the other side, held the intrinsic beauty of what would become the city by the water, the greatest one any of them had ever known.

Though it had been years since she had done so, she was relying on whatever memories of those days still residing within the furthest reaches of her mind to find her way around that very forest, for she no longer had the lights of the festival to guide her, and the air around her was blackening by the moment.

But she was faster than Clover – she knew that much. And his path was not impossible to follow; in the distance she could hear the cracking of tree limbs, the labored grunts while dodging around a large trunk or through overgrown bushes. The bunny's ears were at attention, and even when she deviated slightly from his path, a noise undoubtedly uttered or caused by the constable would pull her back in.

She could hear others far behind her – likely the county cops, she surmised. Their larger frames would prove debilitating in this case, unable to squeeze through certain spaces two rabbits would have no problem clearing, but she knew their superior night vision and senses of smell would help them catch up eventually.

And that would be fine. Whatever got Skip Clover off the streets of Bunnyburrow.

Judy was closing in on him. Whatever speed Clover might have had in his youth had not fallen off completely, but his endurance certainly had, and it was leaving the rabbit at an alarming rate.

It was clear that he had realized this, for in an instant, Judy could no longer hear his heavy breathing or the snapping of a branch he stepped on. It was eerily quiet quite abruptly, save for the continuing sound of whomever was trailing them, but that was still quite a ways off in the distance.

The rabbit slowed to a crawling pace, crouched low, arms held out alongside her but paws up to protect from a sudden attack from the front. She sniffed the air. He was nearby, no question, but, squinting through the darkness, she could not figure out where. Her nose twitched.

Snap! The popping noise of something on the ground came suddenly, directly followed by the whizzing of a tranquilizer gun dart soaring through the air. It narrowly missed her right shoulder, and Judy instinctively pulled it in close.

"Come any closer and I won't miss next time."

Clover's voice was harsh and dull, grumbled in a discreet, gravelly tone. He was nearby, no doubt about it, but the rabbit's exact location had not quite revealed itself to Judy.

She peered into the night, her eyes like slits, and saw a large tree close by that seemed to line up with the route from where the dart had traveled. The trunk itself was big around enough that a rabbit would have no trouble being fully concealed behind it.

"I mean it," he seethed again. "You come around the corner and I'll hit ya point blank. Don't be stupid."

Judy let herself relax, keeping one paw on her own gun but otherwise allowing herself a few deep breaths to aid her own fatigue.

Once the others get here, he'll be cornered, she thought. Just stall him.

"All right," spat Judy. "Then talk."

"About what? How I never let you be a cop here in Bunnyburrow? You wanna start there, Miss Hopps?"

Judy snickered. "I'm well beyond that, Clover, and I'm well beyond you, too. Dancing around the issue to get a rise out of me isn't going to work. Not today."

"Right. Then let's talk about how you've got nothing to pin me to any of this."

"I'll bet I do."

Surreptitiously, she reached into her pocket and clicked the carrot pen recorder.

"And you know what I think? I'll bet you're gonna tell me about all of it, too."

"You and what army?" Clover scoffed.

"No army. Just me. Judy Hopps, ZPD. We could start with how you framed Carl Pumaski."

A brief pause. "Barkin' up the wrong tree with that one—"

"Am I? Because it all finally clicked back at the schoolhouse tonight, after you or someone in your employ – who's all in on it, by the way? Oh, whatever, I'll find out soon enough – locked the county officers in the basement. Sloppy, by the way, Constable; there's a trail there starting with the sheep who asked them to move down there in the first place, and it leads straight back to your team.

"But when Edmond – yes, it was Edmond, he saw your rendezvous with Travis out by the barn – told me you were involved, or you at least had some kind of knowledge about it, it all made a little more sense. Do you remember the day the festival started? When Travis and his friends came in ready to cause some chaos after Pumaski's arrest?"

Judy heard something on the ground shift nearby, an arm or a leg joint cracking after being in one place for too long, but nothing more.

"He tried to tell me something," she continued, "and I wasn't sure what it was, but there were also his words to you – him, though. Remember? Those two words have been stuck in my head for the last two days, because why would he say them then? And why would he be so angry to begin with that a panther got locked away for a crime of theft?"

She grinned. "Because when you guys decided to team up to ruin the festival this year, you didn't tell him the blame would be pinned on a predator. In fact, I'll bet you assured him that even he and his friends would be kept out of the spotlight. What would cause them to compromise that? Because you pissed them off by framing a panther who's got a lot of friends in this community, predator or prey."

"This whole town suddenly has this weird affection for Carl," growled Clover finally. "The preds, the mayor, your parents. I don't get it. Criminals don't change."

"That's where you're wrong," Judy countered, steeling herself as the image of her best friend reached her mind. "They can. I've seen it. And Pumaski… he did something wrong, and I think I know what it was, but the worst thing he did to you is come anywhere near your precious festival and your hosting duty." She folded her arms. "Admit it. You saw him as a threat. A threat over a reason to wear a tacky crown for a few days and to prance around in the center of attention all week. That's your job, not anyone else's."

"I do it better than anyone else. That's why the last grand marshal chose me specifically, after running things for 40 years, Hopps. 40 years." There was a haughtiness in the rabbit's voice as he regained some of the gusto lost after sprinting all that way.

"And letting anyone – especially a predator – come close to that was just unacceptable."

Clover snarled. "Look, we let them in this year. Ain't that enough? If anything, they should be thanking me. Your friend Gideon Grey made five times the money he'd make at one of the pred markets, I reckon."

"Oh, I'm sure they'd be more than willing to kiss your feet… if you hadn't tried to get them banned. I'll bet you already had the draft written up and ready to be given to Mayor Cotton after this weekend was over, pointing to the theft, the issues with Travis before the festival, and now this tonight," she added, pointing with a paw back toward the barn. "Then not only is Pumaski out of the way, but you've got no one else who can follow behind him in a few years."

She pricked her ears. Someone else was nearby, approaching from the rear. Perkins' team, she thought with a nod.

"But I do wonder how you got Travis involved in the first place. Travis, Amy, Mike, all of them. Why would they help out you?"

Judy heard him scoff. "Guess something still eludes you, eh?"

"Maybe. But I've got a guess. You've got power in this town, Clover, no one will doubt that. You can make a lot of things happen for Bunnyburrow… and you can make them go away, too. Gideon told me Travis mentioned something about, shoot, what'd he say, 'on-the-side sales'?" Judy was enjoying drawing this out by now, and in the back of her mind, she knew if she could snake the conversation down this path, she could get something quite telling from him. "I wonder, maybe the constable in town told his predator acquaintances he could make some charges go away if they worked together."

"Wrong. Their parents are the criminals."

Bingo, she thought.

"Oh, I know. I saw their records when I was at the county precinct the other day," she said, trying her best to keep the hint of triumph out of her voice. "I just wanted to get it straight from you."

She thought she could hear him standing, but could not be completely certain. The rabbit's paw curled around her tranquilizer again, just in case.

"I've got to hand it to you, Hopps," came Clover's voice from around the tree. "Your sleuthing skills aren't bad. Not bad at all. Maybe I shouldn't have passed over you all those years ago."

"No. No, you shouldn't have."

"I don't mean to deflect here, either, but you should have a good, long talk with that Travis fellow. None of this would've happened to begin with if he and his posse hadn't been so anti-prey. He went to just about every town meeting there for a while, trying to convince us not to let preds back in, telling his kind not to come."

Judy shrugged. "I've known that since elementary school. They don't trust us, and a lot of the prey in this town barely trust them either. But what I can't imagine is them going through this much trouble to show that without there being some sort of incentive. That's where your offer comes in, I bet."

She heard the noise again, now to her left. She squinted into the night but could not make out a figure – Perkins, his fellow cops or otherwise.

"What can I say? Some of these families in this town are so bogged down in legal trouble – I'm sure you know the type in Zootopia… eh, I shouldn't be telling you this, but who cares, the most loved rabbit in Bunnyburrow's word against yours, I'll bet I can spin this. Shoot, anyway, these families, they'll do whatever they can to get out of trouble, even if they can't seem to stay outta it in the first place. That ferret's folks? Scrapping some of that junk out there in their backyard for stuff other than cash. That coyote's family has been smuggling guns – and no, Judy, I don't mean the ones you and I are holding – into and out of Zootopia for years, getting caught on and off.

"Point is," he remarked, with a chuckle, "these preds, they're so dumb, so helpless, they'll do anything, even if it's helping out a prey cop they've sworn to hate – then we might, you know, look the other way, keep the county off their tail. Like putty in your paws, Hopps. Putty in your paws."

What Judy had not expected next was a loud grunt – oomph! – that came from Clover, and the smack of something impacting another, and then there he was, the constable, stumbling out from behind the tree and stumbling to the ground.

He barely had the time to utter a quick, staccato "No!" before Judy pumped a dart into his arm.

The rabbit stood there, watching Skip Clover, his arm reached out toward her, lose consciousness. He was barely visible in the darkness; Judy clicked the pen, produced her cell phone and turned on its flashlight function.

She jumped when she saw one of the masked predators standing a few paces from Clover, watching the scene. Judy pulled her gun to a ready stance again, but she did not shoot – because the fox-like mask was being removed from the animal's face.

Travis stared back at her. He seemed surprisingly calm, breathing normally, just… looking at her. Giving her a slow, curt nod.

A tree branch snapped behind her. Judy spun around, gun in one paw and phone in the other, the light passing over a few of the county cops, who had finally caught up to them.

By the time she turned back to the ferret, he was gone.

xXxXxXx

The barn was mostly cleared out. A dance would happen, but not that night – perhaps not even the next.

Gideon gripped in his paw one of the pens that the local cops often held to deter the effects of repellent – for foxes, general predators or otherwise. Luckily a multi-purpose spray had been used that evening, and its effect on prey animals was minimal if used only sparingly.

Except it had not been, though quick work from the remaining county officers and Gideon himself, who had been afforded an extra one when he insisted on helping out, had mitigated what could have otherwise been a gloomy end to the Fall Harvest Festival.

Most of the townsfolk had left already, but there were a few stragglers inside and out, most of whom had congregated in a far corner, stacking the folding chairs that had been laid out along the perimeter alongside larger bleachers. The small stage at the rear had been dismantled with the fox's help, though the microphone that stood atop it was still nearby and plugged in.

"Gideon, would you mind taking the mic stand back to the storage closet? Just follow the plug," Edmond, who carried a large cardboard box in his arms, requested as he walked by.

"Sure thing," the fox said with a wave of his paw. "Be right back."

The cord wrapped around the corner, past the small alcove behind the former position of the stage and into the back hallway, before trailing into the storage closet. Clutching the stand and taking care to avoid the mic falling out of its holder at the top, Gideon walked it back into the hallway, gripped the door handle and pulled it open, looking around for a light switch in the darkness, finding it near the door and clicking it on.

It was a dusty old room, practically archaic save for its fuse box and outlets in the back corner, with old posters, long-broken chairs, a few stacked tables and much more adorning the floor and lining the walls. The ceiling shook whenever passersby on the above mezzanine walked across, sending more dust billowing into the tiny room.

Humming to himself as he unplugged the microphone cord from the outlet and began to wrap it around itself into a secure loop, he mistook the creaking he heard behind him for the groan of the floorboards above him. The shifting of a few old poster boards finally piqued his interest. Curious, he turned around slowly, still humming that tune and coiling the cord.

He and the figure's eyes – well, where its eyes would be, if they had not been obscured by and sunken into the vulpine mask it wore – met only briefly before it grabbed one of the tables stacked nearby and tossed it onto the ground between them, the circular stand wobbling and rolling in front of Gideon as he watched the dark-robed figure, which was about his size, flee into the hallway.

"Wait!"

The fox leaped over the still-spinning table, tossing his head to his left. The figure was rounding another corner, this one leading outside. Though its disguise was clearly designed to hide any indication of what lay beneath, it no longer quite concealed the tip of a fox tail protruding from its rear.

That was all Gideon needed to see. He tore after the fox, careening around the corner as well into the warm night, quiet now after the chaos of the day.

He dashed out into the back parking lot but saw nothing, no one. But his ears perked up as the sound of running came from behind, and the fox barely had enough time to turn halfway around before the same robed figure tackled him at the waist, knocking both of them to the ground.

Gideon grunted and bared his teeth in a grimace, his paws reaching wildly for something to grab onto – and finding it with the pointed mask, to which he clung as he rolled onto the ground, the other fox atop him.

"Ergh… gerroff…" he growled through clenched jaws, and began to pull at the mask, finding that, like most, it was secured by elastic bands around the head, stretching, lengthening, elongated to its breaking point—

With a soundly snap!, the mask was ripped off, the force knocking back Gideon's paw into his own face, and when he finished blinking through the pain, he glared back into the emerald eyes of Mike Robins.

He had little time to react; the other fox landed a hefty blow against his face and was rearing up for another. But Gideon had experienced his share of such spats in his younger days – in fact, plenty of them were friendly tussles with Mike himself – and was quick to block the next shot, gripping Mike's elbow and, in a quick motion that started with splaying both his legs and wrapping them around the fox's back, flipping over, overpowering Mike mostly on sheer surprise.

Once he was on top of the fox, Gideon pinned his shoulders to the blacktop with his paws, straddling him with his legs to keep him from performing the same move.

"Knew you'd be behind this," snarled Gideon, teeth still bared. "Travis, I can understand. You, even more so."

The fox said nothing, opting to rear back and spit on Gideon's snout. He let the saliva drip off, slowly, back onto Mike.

"You know why?" Mike grumbled back after jerking his limbs a few times in an escape attempt. "'Cause I can't stand preds who turn on their own."

"Right. Sure. That's what happened here."

"Sure is. Been goin' on for years. You left us after high school without barely a word. Then these prey folk, they let us into their lil festival without so much as an apology for keepin' us out to begin with, expectin' things to be just fine? You said it yourself when you were hangin' with us, Grey – they do that every year, it's always somethin', but they don't wanna apologize for it, make things right. They'd sooner just act like all those years of prejudice ain't never even happened."

His lip curled, teeth gritted. "And you enable 'em. You get to be the mayor's lil poster fox for it this year, sellin' alongside all the prey. Well, forgive me if we ain't all on board with the idea, friend."

"You act like we're the only ones who ever had it bad 'round here, Mike," insisted Gideon, strengthening the pressure on the fox's shoulders as much as he possibly could. "Belle Thumper's dad hurt her because she had the inkling to like one of us back in school. Just like! Innocent! Completely innocent."

"If that's the worst thing that ever happened to that little tramp, I'm fine with that." He coughed. "I'd've never dreamed of it anyway, me and her. Like, you serious? I'd hold paws with you before I touched that—"

Gideon reared back for another smack, but it was the wrong move; Mike saw his opening and yanked his shoulder from the fox's clutches, blocking the punch with a paw and elbowing Gideon in the face. He yelped, reflexively reaching up to feel his wound, which was enough for Mike to shove his chest with both paws, knocking Gideon off him.

It was Mike's turn to leap atop Gideon, but he opted instead of going for a frontal approach to force the fox's head down against the blacktop, climbing onto his back. Gideon thrust his head to the side, his left cheek smashing against the smooth surface, grunting as he collided with it.

"Soft, Grey. Yer soft. You fit in well with that prey you call friends now, that's for darn sure." He chuckled. "'Course, this reminds me of somethin'. Real recent. Oh, right, that's it – the other night, before I knocked ya out cold. Took out two foxes that night – two mangy, prey-lovin' foxes. Best I've felt in a while."

Gideon's mind flashed to Nick, and then to Mike's truck and its front dent.

"Don't matter to me that you know that, by the way," added the fox with a laugh. "The idiot was walking on a country road in the middle of the night. That's all Clover's jurisdiction, and if he can get us out of what he says he's gonna, that should be a cakewalk for him."

"I think that'll be the least of your problems after tonight, once Judy catches him—"

"Let her. We both know this town's so broken, it's not gonna let its golden boy constable go down without a fight. He's got friends here, friends in the county. You and I both know this doesn't end here tonight."

"It does for you."

Mike was off Gideon's back instantly, stumbling over the fox's horizontal body to face the direction from which the voice had been emitted – and then, saw Gideon, turned to run, but not before a tranquilizer dart burrowed itself into his back, knocking him to the ground once more.

Gideon had not yet picked himself off the ground by the time a trio of county officers surrounded Mike, ensuring he was cuffed and removing the dart from his back. He was still stricken by the voice, and who it belonged to, thinking of whether or not he could face her.

Finally, Belle Thumper walked by Gideon just as he sat up, the rabbit stopping to watch the coyotes straighten up Mike and prepare to drag him off to a squad car.

She spoke just once, but it was all either of them needed to hear.

"Consider us even."

xXxXxXx

It was not an ideal situation Stu and Bonnie Hopps shared that day, and certainly not one they would have ever expected. Their roles on the planning committee for the Bunnyburrow Fall Harvest Festival were just that: as planners, helpers, behind-the-scenes presences, with an emphasis on the latter. They had their own stall to run, after all, and it was understood that the pair of rabbits would be there most of the time, except for perhaps a cameo during opening or closing ceremonies, but little else. Stu could get weird in front of large crowds. His doctor advised against it.

But things change, even in the course of a few days, and there they were on stage at the festival's closing ceremonies – Bonnie initially more for moral support, but she ended up taking up the mantle when Stu went on a long rant about the weather that spun into a debate about whether or not the carrot-farming season had been good to them that year, and that was just not something anyone needed to hear.

Bonnie smiled and rolled with the punches anyway, guiding her husband back on course while providing sincere thanks from the committee that were scrawled onto a piece of notebook paper she held in her paw, since she had had just six hours in between learning she would be helming the ceremonies and actual showtime, and that was hardly enough for full memorization.

Not that anyone would blame them for the slightly awkward, if not lovably endearing display – "All right, Stu, the biggest pumpkin contest winner, you've got the envelope, honey, let's go" – since it provided the few belly laughs the community needed that day, in the wake of the chaos of the barn dance the night before as well as the general frustrations of a week that was supposed to have been nothing short of a swell time.

Mayor Cotton watched from the side of the stage, laughing and clapping along with the rest of the crowd. One could be fairly certain she was watching the Hopps couple to see how they did for future reference, since she had never thought of herself as much of an entertainer, but she would not make any decisions for a while – after all, they had another year to plan, and the Carrot Days festival was quickly approaching anyway.

Judy Hopps watched from afar, her arms crossed not disapprovingly but ingenuously, laughing a few times in spite of herself at her father's ineptitude in front of a crowd and her mother's measured, careful attempts to guide him to his objective.

"Shouldn't have fired the old guy."

The rabbit looked up and grinned. "Mr. Pumaski. Officer Perkins said you'd be out today, but I didn't expect to see you here."

Carl Pumaski no longer donned the black suit in which he was most often seen or the orange jumpsuit he wore when Judy last saw him at the county jail, opting instead for a tight white dress shirt and khakis, his eyes hidden behind face-hugging sunglasses, which he raised to allow a quick glance and wink at the rabbit.

"I wasn't gonna. But the more I talked it over with my wife… I thought I should come here to… to thank you, at least."

Judy unfolded her arms and rested her paws on her hips. "I'm just doing my job, sir."

"You did. Even when you had absolutely no reason to."

"I dunno about that…"

The panther sniffed and laid the sunglasses back down over his eyes. "Look, Hopps, I get it, the whole good-cop thing, I don't doubt that for a second, coming from someone who was raised by Stu and Bonnie." He glanced over the festival, at the white tents that waved in the breeze, the cackling children running and playing on the lawn, the attentive crowd that watched two rabbits stumble through an award presentation. "But anyone else here, I'll bet, would have taken Skip Clover's word when he told them I stole all that stuff – shoot, the county did, and all they had to go off was that Clover and his goons found the goods in my home and business.

"Look, I'll admit, that's damning; I don't know if even I would have questioned it if it had been anyone else but me," he said with a shrug. "But you followed through. You saw the cracks in the surface. You cared, Hopps. And my family can't thank you enough for that."

Judy caught herself blushing, but she steeled herself against the praise when a question came to her mind. "So that day, when you were snooping around the festival beforehand. What were you doing here?"

"Wasn't it obvious? I wanted Clover to fail. Hopps, I wanted him to fail so hard. I don't even know why, exactly. I – I don't want his job, I didn't then and I really don't now. All I wanted was fair representation for my kind at this festival; your parents are great but, face it, they aren't one of the cool cats like me." He flashed a grin. "Anyway, I… well, I was seeing how preparations were going and thought, look, maybe if something was on its way to being broken, or if chaos was near, I'd… help the natural order of things along, you know?"

He sighed. "It was silly. I regretted it as soon as I got home that night. And I never found anything, either – I don't know how much of Clover's crew was in on all of this, but it couldn't be all of them, and I gotta tell you, they seemed to do a fantastic job of setup and planning, except for the whole… well, pretty much the entire preds thing, but hey, I don't expect a bunch of rabbits to know what's best for us. Do you?"

Judy cocked her head. "So… you just wanted on the committee to be the voice of the predators? That's it?"

The panther said nothing at first, instead glancing over the festival grounds from their vantage point near the entrance, down the thoroughfare where Judy and Nick had watched from a few days before at the opening ceremonies. He reached a paw into his pocket. "Well… I suppose there was one other thing."

He produced a small card-like object from his wallet, studied it for a few moments and then passed it to Judy. "You know what this is?"

Judy realized it was a small photograph. She handled it delicately from the panther's large paw, squinting her eyes as she looked the image of a young cat, a wide smile stretching across his face, holding an ice cream cone in his paw. Behind him stretched a sea of neon lights, seemingly twinkling, though the rabbit could not be so sure. There were balloons, skeeball, even – Nick would have appreciated this – a dunk tank…

"It's a pretty festival," the rabbit remarked, handing the photo back to Pumaski, who tucked it back into his wallet.

"It was a block party. I lived in the sticks in Zootopia – Rainforest District, but the outskirts of that even. You probably know that by now, what with my… less-than-stellar past when I was younger."

"It might have come up."

He scratched the back of his neck. "Yeah, got into some mighty tight spots back then, did some things I shouldn't've – all in the past, the very distant past. But I was some wide-eyed kid once, too – we all were, eh? I've seen the photo at your parents' home – the one at the top of the stairs, when you were a young one, at that other festival, Carrot Days, the sunflower dress. Bonnie said you loved it."

Judy grinned warmly. "It was my favorite. I cried the day I grew out of it."

"Well, I loved those block parties, the one in my picture. Favorite thing to visit until my teenage years and I got all surly, as one does. Hopps, I'll tell ya, I'd look forward to those parties all year round. The parties, the street fairs, the whole shebang."

His brow furrowed as he stuck his wallet back into his pocket. "My kids, my boys, they never got to experience that. Not that they've had a rough life without it, don't get me wrong. I suppose I just wanted to give them a taste of home…"

"So you wanted to try to reproduce the fairs from when you were a kid."

"I suppose that's the succinct way of saying it, Hopps. You mind if I get your email? Could use you for writing my ad campaigns," he chortled.

They stood a little while longer. Stu and Bonnie were still on stage, but Judy could tell the ceremony was winding down. A few more hours of the festival would follow – last-minute purchases, games and the like – and then they would head home. A replacement barn dance was tentatively scheduled for late fall, but her parents, Mayor Cotton and others would convene a short time later to determine its plausibility in the face of all that had happened.

"I met my wife at one of those fairs," Pumaski said finally.

"Oh?"

The panther glanced down at Judy and smiled. "Yeah. We were kids. Little things. She lived halfway across town and I only really got to see her then. But when I did… Hopps, she lit up the place even more than the bright, blinking lights ever could."

He cleared his throat, coughed, then continued, "Even when I was… doing stuff I shouldn't've when I was older, I never lost track of her. Never stopped thinking maybe, just maybe, if circumstances were different, things could work out between us. I went back to one of the fairs a little after I got clean and there she was, still, after all those years, never left town like I worried she might. Bought her a drink and a cotton candy immediately. Barely even had the money, but she was worth it.

"I guess that's what we do, you know? We find the folks who are worth it through all the other stuff, the flowers among the weeds. You got someone like that, Hopps? Well, I don't know if you do or you don't, but if and when you do, don't lose sight of 'em, you got that?"

Before Judy could respond that, yes, she indeed had someone in mind, they were interrupted by the sound of a truck pulling up nearby.

Gideon tossed his delivery van into park and stepped out of the truck, in mid-conversation with whoever was in the passenger seat. Both Colt Grey and Aaron Longfellow emerged from around the hood of the truck, the rabbit talking animatedly while the younger fox simply stared and grinned.

"That's my ride," Judy said with a smile. "Mr. Pumaski, it was a pleasure to speak with you."

The panther nodded solemnly. "Good day, Hopps."

"Judy!" Aaron exclaimed when he saw the rabbit approach. "Judy, c'mon, tell Gid my idea for the name of our business is far better than what he's got going on right now."

"Your business?" she asked candidly. "So, Gideon, you accepted his offer after all."

The fox shrugged as he shut the truck door. "I'm terrible at marketing. Awful, just awful. But I ain't callin' the place 'Humble Pie by Gideon.' No way, no how."

Judy smirked. "Sounds like something in Zootopia's trendier districts. Aaron, you know who you're selling to, right?"

"Don't give me that, Judy. You know he spelled his own name wrong on half his branding, right? G-r-a-y? Not G-r-e-y? I mean…"

"Fine, you spell ev'rything from here on out, but y'ain't changin' the name—"

Colt sidled up to Judy while the fox and rabbit continued to argue. "Bickering like an old married couple already," he remarked, taking a swig of a soda. "Hey, didn't you and the rabbit date?"

"Oooookay, let's get going, Gid. You all packed up?" Judy announced, changing the subject.

Gideon blinked. "Oh. Right. Yeah, Gideon Grey's Real Good Baked Stuff," he emphasized, "is all packed up and done for the year. Sold out of all my stock this morning. Aaron here just asked for a ride over here and to talk my ear of a little more, I reckon."

"Don't think you're getting outta this so easily. We need to talk about a lot of things, my friend, lots of things. How's your Tuesday looking?" Aaron was persistent.

Sighing, Gideon checked his phone. "I dunno. Stop by the house in the mornin'. I'll brew some coffee."

"It's a date." He turned to Judy. "Speaking of, Miss Hopps, if you come back to town single again, I can't promise what I'll do in your parents' front lawn, but I can promise it'll involve a radio and some of our old favorites."

The rabbit cop stifled a laugh behind a paw. "Aaron, always a pleasure."

"Judy." He took her paw, gave it a quick peck, waved and walked away.

After watching him go: "Again, appreciate the ride, Gid. Avery's watching my parents' booth while they stumble through this closing ceremony. And I just… I haven't slept since yesterday."

It was almost true. Everything was a blur for the rabbit after she darted and subdued Constable Clover, traveling from place to place, debriefing to debriefing, while more and more information surfaced – including Gideon and Mike's tussle behind the barn. The cleanup was swift, her statements many, and before she knew it, it was morning again, and the festival, at the mayor's blessing, was back on for its final day. An hour's nap in Mayor Cotton's office around 7 a.m. was her only respite.

The fox jerked his head back toward his van. "Well, let's get a move-on, then. Colt and I are gonna unload our stuff back home, and then I'll probably sleep until Aaron comes over in a few days. Can't wait."

His younger brother rolled his eyes. "Yeah, that's right, you don't have school tomorrow."

"Colt, if there was any day ya deserved a day to play hooky, it's tomorrow," Gideon said, climbing into the driver's seat of his van. "Thanks for lookin' after the booth when I wasn't around."

"Buy me something with all that cash I brought in this weekend and we're even," countered the fox, sliding into the middle seat of the truck while Judy clambered in behind him. "Or pay for my ticket into Zootopia. I've always wanted to visit." He glanced over at Judy. "By the way, when I come, I'm crashing on your floor. Just warning you."

Gideon smiled as he started up the truck and pulled away across the parking lot and onto the main road. "Maybe I'll come out too. Meet a nice vixen, bring 'er back to Judy's place, ravage her couch…"

His passengers both spoke at once – "Like you'd manage one of those Zootopia vixens," Colt argued; "Like my apartment has a couch," deadpanned Judy.

It was not until they started down the road, Judy leaving Bunnyburrow proper for the first time in over a day, that she began to realize what, exactly, she was coming home to.

She knew Nick was awake more often because she had received his texts, though she had little time to look at or even respond to them. There were a few asks about the case – understandable, sure – but the rest were simple updates about the most menial, mundane of things around Zootopia, like how Finnick had made $300 in one hour on Friday, or about the closing of one of their favorite diners in Tundra Town.

And it was not that she wanted to avoid the texts, or to avoid Nick at all, it was simply that Judy had not yet formulated what she wanted to say. After all, the bunny had often thought about their last moment spent together before the accident, running the series of events over and over again in her head, as though it were a repeat viewing of a favorite film – except she quite hated this one and only watched it to remind herself of how much she could have done differently.

The case had allowed her mind to focus like a laser on something else, and if she was grateful for her job at all that weekend, it was for that side-effect, thrusting Nick from her mind as much as possible, even though once she was back home, she could not avoid the feelings, rushing back like a dam had just been opened, its contents letting loose over its path and flowing precipitously through anything in its way.

But now that Clover was caught and Travis and his gang apprehended – he had come quietly after Clover was darted, and after his help in the capture to begin with, Judy made sure her fellow officers treated him gently, though she did not know what was in store for him now, especially after admitting that, despite helping Clover, he still had his concerns about predators and prey at a festival together – she felt she could reassert her energy on the relationship she had with her partner, whatever it was.

The truck slowed to a crawl. The Hopps farmstead was in sight.

"Thanks, Gid. Let me out here. I'll walk."

"Sure thing, Judy. Yer leavin' tomorrow?"

"Chief Bogo gave me the day off tomorrow. I wasn't supposed to get it, but with Nick the way he is, he wanted to be sure he was able to come back on the train, and he wanted me there with him. Grandma and Grandpa say he should be good to go."

"Swell. I'll have to stop by, see y'all off. I like that fox. Maybe more'n you."

He flashed a toothy grin. "Naw, that's impossible, on second thought."

"I'll come up with a better retort when I'm not so tired."

"'Course ya will. Go, get some sleep."

A few moments later, Judy was in the kitchen of her childhood home, hugging her grandparents, both of whom she had not seen nearly as much as she would have liked that weekend, while her brothers and sisters gathered around. It seemed like every one of them had a question about what had happened, about the case – her grandparents had kept on the news all weekend, so they were already keenly aware of much of the basic details, but they wanted to know more.

Except, unlike her siblings, her grandparents were patient and knew there would be time for discussion, revelations, whatever tales Judy wanted to tell about her experience. Slowly but surely, they led her away from the teeming mass of small bunnies allowing her to escape to the staircase.

"He should be awake," her grandfather said with a warm smile. "Shake him if he isn't. He's got a dosage coming up in a half hour."

"Thanks, Grandma, Grandpa. I'll be down soon." She dashed up the stairs as fast as her little legs would carry her.

The door to the room in which Nick was staying was cracked slightly. Judy curled her paws around the side of it, pushing slowly, doing her best not to startle the fox if he was awake.

A thin sound of hushed music greeted her when she entered - Talking Hares, no question about it.

He was sitting up in bed, thumbing through something on his phone. He only shifted his gaze to the entering bunny briefly at first, seemingly regarding her as just another rabbit in a house full of them, before returning to whatever was on his screen.

"Hey, stranger," she started delicately, slowly closing the door behind her. "Fancy seeing—"

"Wrap your arms around one another, draw them close," Nick recited, still keeping his phone in front of his snout. "Because no matter where we go or who we know, you'll stand tall with a Hopps by your side."

He set down the phone on the night table beside his bed. "I couldn't remember the first part. I only wrote down the part I could remember into my phone."

"Cheese and crackers, my grandparents brainwashed you, didn't they?"

"Judith, unshackle me from this bed, for I must haul in the carrot crop before sundown."

The rabbit smiled, sitting carefully on the edge of the bed. "Are you feeling better, or are those the painkillers?"

Nick leaned back against his pillow. "Am I allowed to answer yes to both?"

"As long as you're okay to head back to Zootopia tomorrow. Bogo gave me the day off tomorrow, but…"

"I'm fine, Carrots. Fine enough to take a train, at least. Though the longer we stay here, the longer I can avoid all the desk work Chief's gonna give me whenever I'm good enough to return to work."

"Oh, you poor thing, you might have to fill out paperwork for once."

The fox grinned widely, arms and paws behind his head. "I missed this."

"…me too."

After a few moments' silence: "Oh. We caught the guy who hit you."

"Get out!"

"Yeah. It was Mike Robins, Travis' fox friend. Remember him?"

"Fox-on-fox hit-and-run. Who'd've thunk it?" asked Nick, propping himself up on his elbows.

Judy laughed. "Hey, it got you out of work. Your favorite thing."

"Hippity Hopps with the sick burns today. Have you been saving these up while I've been unconscious? Because that's not fair, it's not like I could subconsciously think of retorts."

Yawning, the rabbit waved a paw dismissively. "Whatever, Slick. Think of a few quickly before I pass out on this bed from lack of sleep."

"Oh, I've got a few. You ready?"

"Lay 'em on me."

For the first time Judy had seen since the accident, Nick got out of bed and stood. This was nothing new to the fox, who had been taking bathroom breaks alone and walking down to meals since the day before, but Judy was delighted to see the scene nonetheless – even if it was accompanied by the ever-present bandages and gauze around his waist that betrayed his injuries.

"All right, Judes, you caught me," the fox said as he walked, with the slightest of limps, over to her, stopping when he was beside her. He sat down on the bed, leaning back with his paws propping him up. "I've got nothing else, no retorts, no clever one-liners. But you know what? I don't need them, because I've got something better."

"Oh?"

He took her paw. "Judy, I—"

"I was stupid."

Nick cocked his head at the interruption. "Well, I wasn't gonna say that, but…"

"No, Nick. I was. Like, really, really stupid. I shouldn't have kissed you."

"Ah… I see…" the fox could not hide his crestfallen look.

"Because it wasn't the right place or time to do it. It should have been here, at home, surrounded by the people whose opinions I actually care about, not in some mayor's office in Bunnyburrow."

She looked down at the paw he still held and caressed it lightly. "And I shouldn't have said afterward that I didn't want to talk about it. Because I was confused – oh, wow, Nick, I was confused – but that wasn't fair to you to word things that way. I've regretted it ever since."

"We had the case. I get it."

"But Nick, gosh, what if that truck had… what if Mike had… I can't imagine having left things there."

"I'd've come back to haunt you as a ghost. No big."

She lightly punched Nick's good side.

"Don't hit the cripple, Officer. Is it my turn yet?"

"Oh, sure."

"You're sure this time." Nick smiled slyly.

"Go before I change my mind." With a yawn, the rabbit burrowed her head against his shoulder.

"Okay, then listen, Carrots: I've been thinking of saying all this for a long time before this week, but I… well, FInnick says it's love—"

"He is the guru of love, that guy."

"—but I don't know. I mean, like, I'm not saying no, but I just don't know if I want to put a label on it yet. I do know, Judy Hopps, that I love you as a friend, as a partner – I haven't doubted that for a long time. But beyond that, I… you make me feel whole, Carrots. Like I matter. And the feeling I have when I'm with you, it's the greatest high in the world."

Judy looked up at the fox. "Even though I'm a bunny?"

"What? Yes, of course, even though you're a bunny. You think I don't realize that? You, Hopps, are the bunniest bunny I've ever met. And it wouldn't matter if you were a badger, a rat, another fox: I'd feel the same each and every time. I'd want to take you out on a date – I don't know where yet, don't pressure me – or I'd want to sit at home, watch a bad movie, laugh about it, cuddle, oh gosh, what am I even saying anymore, this wasn't part of the plan, please stop me, put me out of my misery, Carrots—"

Giggling, Judy reached up a paw and closed Nick's muzzle with it.

"I can't promise my folks won't be weirded out about it."

"You kidding? I think your dad already thinks we're dating."

"And back home, the force…"

Nick laughed jovially. "If they don't have a bet on us and when we'd get together, I'd be shocked."

"All I'm saying is that it's probably not going to be the easiest, and I don't know what this is or where it's going to go, but…" She glanced up at him, smiling. "I'm excited to see where it takes us."

Tentatively, Nick planted a small kiss on the rabbit's forehead.

"Whatever you want."

xXxXxXx

All the windows in Gideon's home had finally been replaced, and he was glad for that; though the leftover heat from summer still loomed that weekend, the throes of fall were around the corner, and there would be a leaf-rattling breeze very soon in its place, certainly not prime weather for a draft.

He had not slept well because of it – well, partially because of it, since he had plenty more on his mind over the previous few days that also delayed sleep. But now, with his home seeming right again and the threat of an intrusion far, far away all of a sudden, he could only imagine the lengthy nap he was about to undergo.

It would give him a chance to escape from a steady stream of messages his cell phone had been receiving that day; once his final pies were vended and he and Colt closed up shop, his younger brother had the foresight to pass out Gideon's personal email and phone number for additional orders. It seemed as though he was receiving a new one every 20 minutes, sometimes from repeat customers who decided, on second thought, give me more when you can – I'll pay extra.

His mother was, of course, proud and happy to see him when he came home, with his dad and grandpa also offering congratulations in their usual, quieter ways. The fox was forced to tell them what he knew about the arrests the night before, about Clover and Travis and everyone else involved. He could only explain what he knew, that a trial was forthcoming, and that public opinion had shifted quite suddenly with one selfless act of a very brave fox – that was him, by the way, he told them, blushing – who most had written off previously as a no-good predator with a temper.

And maybe it was true, perhaps he had a temper, anger issues, whatever they might have been from childhood. One pie order came from a pig who happened to have been in The Icy Koala the day he snapped on Travis, and she said she could recommend some great books written for animals – predators, prey, everyone – who sometimes felt the way he reacted that day, some of which she had in her possession and could drop by the coffee shop; she would talk to the owner, Sheila, and work things out, no worries. It was nothing to be ashamed of, she said, and it was not because he was a fox, either. Just read the books, do the exercise. Also yoga. Lots of yoga. (He had not yet decided if he would take up the latter.)

Gideon smiled as he thumbed through the messages, seeing the well-wishes alongside a flurry of new orders. He had made more money that weekend than he had seen in quite some time, and more would soon be flowing in – after he got around to baking some more, of course. A day's rest would have to come first. Maybe two. Heck, why not three?

But the biggest surprise at all came when he checked his computer at Colt's behest, reminding him that even more may have come via email.

As it turned out, the brunt was through text, but there was one new message in his inbox.

He recognized the address immediately, read the full email and, though his mind raced a mile a minute, old anxieties flaring up in the back of his mind, he allowed himself to smile.

It was 133 Whitehare Lane. The address of the Thumpers. And it was for four pies. Cherry. And a carrot cake, please.

END

OK, again, thank you SO much for reading. The response on this fanfic here, on AO3, in the Zootopia community in general, whatever – it's been tremendously exciting and uplifting. I know it wasn't a perfect story by any stretch of the imagination, but I'm glad I was able to entertain some folks along the way.

Next up, my 20-part podcast about how I would have done a few things differently. Signed on as the third season of Serial. You're gonna hate it.

Hope to do something else in the fandom soon, but for now, I'm looking forward to a long break where I don't have to worry about how this story still isn't finished five months later.

Seriously. Love y'all.