"Take the hurt and make it strength." - Nikki Bella
8:00 A.M ; Zootopia General Hospital, Savanna-Central...
Normally, Judy was the type of mammal to shake herself awake as soon as her eyes opened. It had even become a point of pride of hers to be able to shoot out of bed in the morning faster than an overslept student. There were instances when the rabbit had even timed herself to see just how quickly she could finish her morning routine.
Today, however, was no such instance. It took nearly an entire minute for her eyes to fully open, and when they were, it took another just to adjust to the strong white lights that were glaring down at her. She shifted with discomfort, fingers feeling out the texture of a plush mattress supporting her body. A dark shape entered her field of view, blotting out the light. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the change in lighting, but when they did, Judy was left gazing up at a familiar face, the sight of which never failed to bring a smile to her face.
"You really are the world's most stubborn rabbit, aren't you?" Nick began before letting out a relieved sigh, a slight grin tugging at the edge of his mouth.
"Nick," She groaned weakly as she tried to sit up, only for a sharp pain to flare in her ribcage, causing her to sink back down into the bed. "Ow, ow, ow."
"Easy there, Judy," her husband advised, placing a paw on her shoulder. The lack of a pet name caught her attention. "You're still recovering. You need to rest."
Judy nodded, and allowed herself to relax into the mound of pillows supporting her upper body. She gazed around the polished hospital room and immediately noticed two other figures standing at her bedside. The hulking form of Chief Bogo grunted in acknowledgement as Judy noticed his presence, and beside him Chief Myreme bowed slightly.
"When word reached us that you had been found injured in the jungle, we were quite concerned," the anteater said.
"You just couldn't help yourself, could you?" Bogo grumbled. A snort escaped his thick nostrils. "I'd expect nothing less."
The bunny's ears drooped to the back of her head. "I'm sorry for running off without notice, I really am, but I did what I had to do. I... I..."
Her words trailed off as she thought back to her tussle with Lucy Sang. She remembered the cold of the rain, the pain of her blood being drained, and the satisfaction of chaining that bat to the tree, thus earning her victory. But what little joy she could garner came crashing down as she recalled the outcome of their duel.
"I had her!" Judy exclaimed, fists squeezing with frustration. "But she had lockpicks." A sigh broke through her teeth, and her gaze lowered with shame. "I failed."
Chief Bogo stepped forward. "Don't be so hard on yourself. You didn't fail," he assured. "Chief Myreme is alive because of you. And from what I hear, you gave that bat one heck of a fight. You beat her. That doesn't sound like failure to me."
"That's right," Chief Myreme added. "I owe you my life, Officer Hopps." He bowed politely once more. "Thank you."
"Well, that's what we do at the ZPD," Judy replied softly.
"You're the best we've got, Hopps," Bogo praised. "Rest up."
The two chiefs then excused themselves from the room, giving Nick and Judy their privacy. The latter glanced to the nightstand by her bed, which was piled with cards from various cops around the city. She spotted at least three different ones from Clawhauser alone, and even a small card signed by Harlan and Mary, with a picture pinned to the interior. Judy picked it up, taking note of the bandages around Harlan's body from his time recovering after the incident at the academy. She smiled, glad to see him alright. She also couldn't help but notice a small fang resting atop the nightstand as well, buried among the get-well-soon cards. It didn't take much effort to deduce who it belonged to.
"Your little ruckus in the rainforest seemed to inspire a lot of support." Nick began, lightly flicking a random card in the pile. "I think I even saw a card from Chief Latran somewhere in there... Either that or the trash can." He nodded toward the small metal cylinder in the corner of the room and smiled innocently. "Can't remember."
Judy gave a humorous snort. "You did not throw his card away," she grumbled in disbelief.
"It may or may not have gravitated toward the nearest collection of waste."
The bunny rolled her eyes. "You're unbelievable sometimes."
"You know you love me," Nick said the old, oft repeated phrase with affection.
A smile tugged at Judy's mouth. "I know," she replied. "I'm sorry if I worried you by running off like that."
"It's okay. I've gotten used to it by now. Your spontaneity is to you like unending hunger is to Clawhauser: To be expected."
"The only thing I wasn't expecting was waking up in the hospital at-" Her eyes widened as they settled on the clock across the room. "Eight in the morning?!"
Judy practically lept from the mattress as she scrambled to her feet, only to trip on the rim of the bed frame and fall to the floor with a groan.
Nick immediately knelt by her side. "Judy!" He yelped before helping her to her feet. "Speaking of spontaneity." He chuckled dryly. "What was that about?"
Exhaling as she settled back into bed, Judy locked eyes with her husband, concern lacing her countenance. "Nick, we only have two days before Al enacts his plan!"
Nodding, the fox pulled a chair up beside the bed and cupped his wife's paw in his own. Judy may have been an undeniably tough cookie, but there were times when Nick wanted to wrap her in a blanket and slap a handle-with-care sticker on her forehead. He blamed the mates-for-life instinct that his species carried for such thoughts.
"I know," he started softly. "And while you've been asleep, the ZPD has been doing everything in its power to prepare for it. Chief Bogo's upped the security in Happytown, and Chief Myreme managed to scrape together a warrant for a raid on Al's HQ. It's scheduled for tonight. We'll stop him before he does anything he can't take back."
Judy's breathing steadied. "Okay... That's good." She squeezed Nick's paw. "I just don't want everything we've done to be for nothing."
"It won't be," Nick promised.
A moment of silence followed, but was broken just as quickly by Judy's grunts as she shifted her weight in the mattress. "I'm coming too," she declared.
The fox didn't even need context to know what she was referring to. "I don't think so, Carrots," he retorted. "You need to recover."
"I'll be recovered enough by tonight, in time for the raid. I need to be there to help."
Nick exhaled through his nostrils. "I was right. You really are the world's most stubborn rabbit." He crossed his arms, fingers tapping thoughtfully against his biceps. "You'll have to take it up with the chiefs. Make sure they're both willing to accept your unwavering desire to help. I'm warning you though, the chances are slim."
Judy smiled. "A chance is all I'll need."
"I worry about you sometimes, you know," Nick muttered as he leaned forward. "Just be careful."
"I will. I promise," the bunny assured.
Nick couldn't resist grinning. He reached out with one of his paws and stroked at Judy's right ear, just below the hole that Lucy had bitten clean through.
"Looks like your ear got pierced the hard way. It must've hurt." He chuckled softly. "On the bright side, if you want, we could string up that fang Wolford found into an earring." His snout dipped in the direction of the tooth atop the nightstand. "Spice up the wardrobe a bit. It'd make a nice memento for your hard-fought victory."
Judy allowed herself a slight chortle. "Earrings aren't really my style. But I'll do something with it. I think it'd make a good hole-puncher."
"That's the spirit. At least that didn't get broken in your fight."
"Hey, I got off pretty well." Judy claimed. "Just some cuts and sores."
"And a bruised rib or two. Or was it three?"
"Not enough to slow me down," she asserted.
The two mammals shared a laugh, enjoying what might have been their last moment of peace for quite some time. When their eyes settled across one another, another moment of silence passed between them. Nick gave his partner a smile.
"I'd expect nothing less from a dumb bunny like you."
10:45 P.M The previous night ; The Nocturnal-District...
It was nights as peaceful as these that reminded Vladzotz how lonely his life had once been.
Hidden away in one of his favorite safehouses, in a small library that often occupied his spare time, he lost himself in the pages for hours, hanging silently from the ceiling. The fireplace before him, once a mighty flame, had been reduced to a pile of smoldering embers just barely strong enough to illuminate the room. Late-night readings were a beloved pastime of his. To him, studying in solitude was a pleasure overshadowed by few others, yet for all that he had learned over the years, poring over book after book, no lesson was more precious to him than the realization that for too long he had burdened himself with grief over the death of his old family.
For years, Vladzotz had spent night after night locked in the study of his old family manor, Castle Fangpyre, feverishly compiling whatever information that could get him one step closer to tracking down the mammal that had taken so much from him. He may have long since abandoned his vengeful crusade, in no small part thanks to the support of his mate, yet on quiet nights like these, he couldn't help reminiscing over those many nights of solitude and pain.
The crime-lord exhaled softly, causing the reading glasses settled across his leaf-shaped nose to slide a bit down his face, with the beaded thread wrapped behind his head preventing them from falling. He closed his book and let it drop to the table beside him, and was just about to unlatch himself from the ceiling when he detected an out-of-place scraping noise. One of his large ears twitched, honing in on the source of the sounds. Vladzotz turned to the fireplace just in time to watch a small, grimy body tumble out of the chimney, rolling out of the firepit and throwing ash across the red carpet before it came to a stop below him.
"Lucy?!" Vladzotz exclaimed. He quickly flapped down from his perch and knelt by her side. "What happened?"
"Dumb-" An ashy cough broke through her maw. "-Bunny," was all the female bat could manage.
Vladzotz lifted his wings, worriedly hovering them over Lucy. She looked like she had been dragged through a landfill by the end of a rope. Her right eye was swollen shut, and her gray fur was nearly unrecognizable behind a layer of mud, ash, and dried blood. Her normally pristine bodysuit was littered with cuts, and one of her ankles was bruised and inflamed, the skin around it bloody and abraded terribly, as though it had been forcibly yanked out of a hole several sizes smaller than her foot. The crime-lord had never seen his mate so injured before.
Without hesitation, Vladzotz scooped her up in his wings and carried her to a nearby couch. He carefully settled her atop the velvet cushions before turning his gaze to the door.
"Someone get me a first-aid kit! IMMEDIATELY!" The crime-lord roared into the safehouse.
It didn't take long for one of his mobsters to answer the call. A portly badger waddled into the room no more than a minute later carrying a box of medical utilities, which he set down beside his boss before respectfully stepping back. Several other passing mammals curiously peered into the room, if only to ensure that their leader was well. With a dismissive wave of his wing, Vladzotz urged his minions to leave him. All of them silently resumed their duties, leaving Vladzotz alone with Lucy.
Taking out his handkerchief, the male bat used it to gingerly wipe away the blood and grime staining his mate's face. Lucy hummed with pain, but managed to open her good eye and lock gazes with Vladzotz.
"Thanks... Vladdy," she murmured, smiling graciously and revealing a bloody hole where one of her teeth used to be.
"Don't speak. Save your energy," the crime-lord requested. Words were not needed. Vladzotz had all the information he required to piece together what had happened to Lucy.
"I hope your battle with that rabbit was as monumental of a rematch as you had wanted it to be," he muttered, recalling his mate's past desires to get back at Judy for their first tussle in Beaverdam.
Lucy let out a slight chuckle, only to cough and clutch at her ribs. "Ow..." A smile grew on her face despite the pain. "It was," she claimed between rattling breaths of air. "I gave her... A real run... For her money. Totally... Worth it."
Weakly raising one of her wings, Lucy gently gripped her claws around Vladzotz's forearm, clutching his arm to her chest. The male bat looked down at her, concern filling his one red eye.
"I also realized... A few things," Lucy added. "I'm done doing... Al's dirty work. I want to... Take a break. No more crime... No more mice." She panted softly before a small smile pulled at her lips. "Just us."
Vladzotz nodded, taking a moment to ponder over Lucy's words. "Okay," he agreed, endearingly stroking behind her ear with one of his claws. "Just us."
Staring into Lucy's eyes, Vladzotz sighed contentedly. He removed his reading glasses before tucking them into his pocket. If a break from her usual work was what she wanted, then he would support her choice to the fullest. Opening the first-aid kit, Vladzotz took out some rubbing alcohol before sprinkling it across his handkerchief and cleaning out Lucy's scrapes, causing her to squirm with discomfort.
"You may have gotten yourself beaten to a pulp, but you should know, my dear, that this is the strongest I've ever seen you," Vladzotz remarked. He knew from personal experience that it wasn't easy giving up on something that filled oneself with such drive and purpose, if even for a little while.
Lucy gave a weak grin. "Thanks, Vladdy. But don't you worry. I'll have plenty of time... To heal." Her eyelids gradually fluttered shut from sheer exhaustion. "And we'll have plenty of time... To try... For pupzzz."
Her head lolled to the side, and she promptly passed out atop the couch. Vladzotz simply stared down at her, smiling silently as he continued to clean out her wounds. The thought of taking the time to start a family, perhaps even settle down from crime for a while, no matter how short or long, was one that filled Vladzotz with satisfaction.
For the first time in years, he was certain that the future was to be a happy one, and for the first time in years, he cared not where his locket even was.
9:00 P.M Present time ; Rainforest-Outfit Compound, The Rainforest-District...
"I see," Al Catpone muttered, momentarily fingering his cigar before turning to his two guests. "So that's why you're here."
The jaguar locked his vision upon a pair of smaller vampire bats calmly approaching him. Vladzotz Fangpyre stood beside his partner, Lucy Sang, as they closed the distance to Catpone, walking right up to his feet. Vladzotz looked as he usually did, with his midnight black slacks and vest fashioned over a blood-red undershirt, and his single eye, colored identically, focused pointedly at Al's form. Lucy, on the other hand, looked worse for wear. One of her emerald eyes was purple around the edges, and her bodysuit slightly torn and stained.
Al hadn't been surprised when Lucy had touched down on his headquarters' steel balcony, even if she did look a bit beaten-up, as she had been delivering the ingredients for his drug over the past few weeks. However, he had to admit that he hadn't been expecting Vladzotz himself to show up. For him to have come all this way in person spoke to the resolve behind his words.
"Yes," Vladzotz replied. "As I explained, Lucy will no longer be assisting you in your plan. That stunt at the police academy has attracted far too much attention for our tastes."
Catpone narrowed his eyes. Knowing that Vladzotz and Lucy preferred to both figuratively and literally work from the shadows, Al had had a feeling that they would have been tempted to back out of his operation sometime after his strategic attack at the ZPA had been enacted. It certainly didn't help that their last meeting had gone so poorly.
"This may very well be the last time we speak to one another for... A long time, Alphonse," Vladzotz continued. "You know as well as I do how dangerous this operation is, especially now that you have garnered the attention of the ZPD. They will intervene."
"So you're leavin', huh?" Al asked for clarification, ignoring the bat's warning. Vladzotz nodded.
"Yes. Ever since it was nearly snuffed out late last year, the Nocturnal-Mob, under my direction, has opted not to pursue any operations that would put us back on Precinct One's radar. My organization has no intention of repeating the same mistakes - my mistakes - that nearly led to its destruction. Rashness would only set us back even more, and continuing to assist the Rainforest-Outfit in this mission of yours, after all that's happened, is rash. We will, however, continue our longstanding trade agreements."
Al glanced to Lucy, who was being uncharacteristically quiet. Her battered exterior and reserved demeanor made Al speculate that there was more to this sudden rescission than Vladzotz was letting on.
The jaguar chuckled, opting not to pry. "That's fine. My crew has enough mushrooms to keep up our work. You've helped plenty."
Reaching into one of the pockets on his overcoat, Al pulled out a handful of tiny, spherical plastic capsules before handing them to Vladzotz and Lucy.
"Your reward, as promised. Each dose has enough power to turn a fully grown lion into an apex. Use them wisely."
Vladzotz took a moment to admire the orbs as they rolled around in his palm, wondering what sort of potential they had. He stuffed the majority of the capsules into his pockets, and Lucy slipped a few into her bodysuit.
"Thank you," the male bat said. "I have faith in your plan, Alphonse, and you should know that our recession from it isn't personal. Lucy and I intend on living out the rest of our days together..."
He trailed off, realizing that his statement sounded almost as if he expected Catpone to die. Al simply let loose a hearty laugh. He reached out with one of his thick paws.
"If I don't make it outta this, just know that you've been a good bud, Bo. Take care o' yourself." He then pointed with his chin to Lucy. "An' take care o' your lady friend, too."
For once, Lucy chose not to sneer at Al Catpone. She didn't comment, instead thinking it best to let Vladzotz and Al have their moment.
The male bat nodded. "I will. And you take care of yourself as well, old friend." He then shook Al's much larger paw. After a few solemn seconds, he let go.
Al Catpone watched as the two vampire bats leapt up onto the edge of the roof. Vladzotz gave one last nod of respect before taking to the air, with Lucy following shortly behind. The two vampire bats flew off together, flapping their leathery wings in unison, their dark silhouettes standing out behind the soft light of the moon.
Sighing softly to himself, the jaguar couldn't help but allow himself a simple smile. He and Vladzotz had been through a lot together, but he had a feeling that it was for the best that they parted ways. He could live with that, though. Al knew that this meant he was on his own now. With Big and Vladzotz having turned him down at their last meeting, and now Lucy having backed out of his operation, there was no one left to rely on but himself. He could live with that too. The jaguar looked up to the sky once again, watching with awe as the soft light of the moon and the stars streamed through the jungle foliage high above his head, dappling the forest canopy with a soothing glow, like liquid silver. It was a sight that never failed to captivate the jaguar, no matter how many times he witnessed it.
With peace at last, Al lit himself a new cigar, silently imagined to himself the hopes of the future, all while reminiscing over the memories of the past.
12:00 A.M ; The Rainforest-District...
Struggling to inhale the thick jungle air, Nick pulled the tactical facemask down from over his muzzle before sucking in a deep breath. He had always disliked covering his face. Tactical police work was always so much more complicated than regular police work, with the extra gear, extra planning, and worst of all, the extra pressure. Nick had always liked to think that he was good under pressure, but when it came to partaking in a raid, even the toughest of mammals couldn't escape some shred of apprehension. Anything could go wrong, from hostage situations to surprise attacks, and Nick was not the kind of mammal that liked those possibilities raising his already elevated stress levels. But the thought of personally taking the fight to Al Catpone's front door was more than enough to motivate him.
He looked up toward the jungle canopy, and spotted the top of the Rainforest-District's waterworks building in the distance. Even from a few blocks away, the building still made for an intimidating sight. With its massive branches, and giant steel balconies jutting out from its towering trunk, the structure seemed to dominate the landscape. Somewhere inside, he knew Al Catpone was hiding behind the front of the civilian offices, plotting his criminal schemes and spreading chaos throughout the city from his seat of power atop the tree. But if the raid went according to plan, then his reign of terror was soon to come to an end.
The fox thoughtfully glanced at the bunny kneeling beside him. The chief hadn't been pleased at her insistence to tag along, but even he knew better than to question her determination by now. He knew they would need all the help that they could get for the entry, given that the sewers were too small for mammals larger than a tiger, leaving officers like Rhinowitz and Trunkaby on backup duty. Judy gripped her tranquilizer firmly in one paw, and nodded at her partner with reassurance. It earned a smile across Nick's muzzle, but did little to quell his concerns. He knew that she was always fond of pushing herself to her limits, but partaking in a raid barely a day after waking up in the hospital was risky, even for her. The injuries she had sustained in her fight with Lucy may have been minor, and far from enough to keep her from participating in the raid, but Nick knew that even one simple slip-up could mean the difference between life and death. Though he had a feeling she wouldn't need it, he made himself a promise to keep special watch over her if things got messy.
Nick's thoughts were interrupted by the barking of Chief Bogo over his radio. "All units are in position! We are ready to move out. I repeat, we are ready to move out."
The SWAT team carried a variety of expressions - Some were nervous, others were collected, but all were ready to do whatever it took to bring down one of the biggest criminal empires in Zootopia for good. Nick glanced down to a puddle at his feet and saw a mask of grim determination reflected back at him. After everything Catpone had done, there was no room for sympathy or hesitation.
Removing the manhole, the officers lowered down into the sewer one by one. The plan to secure the compound from the ground up, using the sewers to enter the waterworks without notice was definitely among the list of Nick's cleverest ideas. He only hoped that nothing went wrong, but as daring as raids were, he could only be so sure. As he descended, the first thing Nick noticed was the smell. Even through his mask, it was enough to cause his nostrils to shrivel with disgust, and he had to resist the urge to gag. Setting foot on the concrete paths that flanked the rivers of sewage running through the subterranean tunnels, Nick helped Judy leap down from the ladder before the other officers followed.
"Remember, the building may be a front for the Rainforest-Outfit, but it's still an accredited office for the district waterworks," Bogo advised through the radio. "Civilians may be present. Watch your fire."
No one needed to be told twice. For as determined as the team was to bag Catpone, no one needed to get hurt in the process, especially not civilians. Tranquilizer guns were the primary means of defense, but several officers did still carry real firearms with them, just in case. Nick had no doubts that their enemies wouldn't be so courteous, and were likely prepared to fight back with the real deal. All the more reason to handle this cautiously.
The team traversed through the tunnels without incident, eventually reaching a concrete staircase. They cautiously ascended it until they happened upon a large ovular metal door, like a submarine hatch. The lead entry officer, Delgado, twisted the rusty wheel and pushed the door open, allowing the team to enter the compound hidden within the artificial roots of the tree. Once everyone was inside, they set out down the corridor, their path lit by the green-tinted bulbs buzzing from the ceiling. Metal piping snaked along the grimy concrete walls, and shriveled vines lapped at puddles of water pooled into the cracks splitting the floor. It was a struggle just to avoid tripping or slipping.
It wasn't long before the team encountered their first fork in the road. Half the party went down the new path to secure the trunk of the tree, while the other half continued their current route to secure the underground compound. The whole team had been briefed beforehand by Chief Myreme on the plan for the raid, and had even studied a map of the building. It was pivotal to know what awaited them in these labyrinthine tunnels. The whole ordeal reminded Nick a little too much of his adventures in the Painted Labyrinth, back in the Deciduous-District. He was just hoping that Al didn't have any dynamite, as Iluka had exploited during that particular raid. The last thing the fox wanted was another cave-in, particularly in quarters so tight. Though the splitting of the group at least gave him some more breathing room, he knew it wouldn't be long before they united once again for the seizing of the tree's canopy. Stealing a glance to his right, he scanned over Judy, if only to ensure that her injuries weren't catching up to her. Thankfully, she looked as spry as ever, at least for the time being.
At the front of the pack, Delgado led the way with a riot shield to protect them. Nick was grateful for the extra padding, particularly because it came with the strength of a fully grown lion. He and Judy were next in line, holding overwatch to both sides of the shield. The fox was the first to sniff danger - Pausing as a new smell registered in his nostrils. He held up a clenched fist to signal for the team to hold. Everyone came to a silent halt. A few yards forward, the corridor opened up into a large room decorated with cheap couches. A few mobsters were lounging around, or breaking open crates of contraband. No one noticed the heavily armed SWAT team waiting behind the corner.
With a collective exhale of tension, the team reared the edge and initiated the raid.
"FREEZE!" Delgado roared, hefting the shield. "ZPD!" The crowd of mobsters practically jumped in unison. There was little quite like a roaring lion to rattle the nerves.
Most of the criminals immediately raised their paws above their heads. One ocelot accidentally dropped a wooden box on their foot. At the back of the room, a margay made a lunge for a nearby rack of guns, but Judy was swift to dart them in the neck, causing them to fall over and crash into a pile of oil drums. No one else even tried resisting. The room was quickly swept through, and the mobsters were searched, cuffed, and then forced to sit on one side of the room. The whole process took no more than a few minutes.
When the job was done, Nick moved to radio Bogo and the other half of the team, only for the speaker to erupt just as his finger touched the button.
"We've made contact in the trunk!" Wolford's voice exclaimed from the other side of the line. Gunfire could be heard in the background. "We're encountering heavy resistance! Civilians are present! I repeat, civilians are present! We need backup here, now!"
"Ha!" A harsh cackle erupted from behind the face-mask of a lean black panther in a doctor's lab coat. He was pressed against the wall like everyone else, but stared up at the officers with as much arrogance as he could muster. "You're too late! My serum is already complete! Your friends will die for nothing!"
Judy's face hardened into a mask of determination, a reflection of the resolve that had driven her to so many heights. "It's time to move! We've gotta help!"
Delgado nodded, and pointed to two officers in the back. "You two, stay and watch the catch while extraction comes to arrest them. Everyone else, move out!"
At that, the team readied up before making way to the nearest staircase. They had several false starts as fleeing citizens kept running into them. As they moved up, they were forced into a single file so panicked mammals could pass them on the narrow stairs, spreading their team across two floors. The unmistakable cracks of live ammunition grew louder until it filled the air around them. The group was in weary condition by the time they had climbed the ten flights of stairs to join with their comrades in the trunk. Here, the concrete hallways had been replaced by wooden foyers filled with cubicles, desks, and other office supplies.
Shield at the ready, Delgado crashed through the first door. The big cat paused there, waiting to see if he'd be fired upon. When it seemed safe, he called for the rest of the group to advance. They split up in twos as they came through the door, spreading across the office in pairs. Nick and Judy were the last ones through. The fox glanced down at his partner. Her elbows were tucked in way too tight, like she wanted to clutch her chest, but wouldn't let go of her dart gun, and he could hear her ragged breathing. He pushed her behind a desk, which was as safe a place as they were going to find in this situation.
Placing a paw on her shoulder, Nick bent down to look Judy in the eye.
"Are you good?"
She was not good. After marching up ten flights of stairs in full gear, the wound in her side burned like fire, and it was a struggle to keep moving and not curl up in a ball and wish for death.
"Yes, Nick. I'm fine. Let's go," she claimed, giving the paw on her shoulder a reassuring squeeze before pushing it off and leading the way back into the rest of the offices. The fox tightened his jaw and hurried to follow. He knew she was lying, but didn't question it. He just hoped that she would be able to handle herself for the rest of the mission.
It wasn't long before they found their comrades bunched up in a hallway.
"Sitrep!" Delgado called as he hustled to the front of the line. Wolford was waiting for him there, his snout pulled back in a fierce grimace.
"Multiple shooters armed with live ammo," the wolf reported. As though to emphasize his point, several bullets impacted the corner they hid behind, spraying drywall like shotgun pellets. "And civilians everywhere. No hostages, yet, but we can't step out without drawing more fire than we can deal with."
Delgado tapped his earpiece, keeping his voice as low as possible as he began giving orders over the radio.
"Team Beta, search for and escort all civilians from this floor. If you encounter enemy resistance, fall back. Your only priority is civilian safety. Report once all areas are clear."
They got to work, cautiously sweeping the cubicle farms and offices. It took only a few minutes to locate and escort the dozen or so civilians to the emergency exit, but it felt like hours. Rushing terrified civilians away from hails of bullets tended to alter one's perception of time. But like all things, it eventually came to an end. When they were finished, the pairs all radioed in the completed sweep. When they were finished, the pairs all radioed in the completed sweep.
Delgado called them all back to the choke point where Wolford and Team Alpha were pinned. Delgado and Wolford each pulled flash grenades off their hips and prepped them. Wolford took up position behind Delgado, paw on his shoulder. Then Wolford gave three quick taps. The two cops leaned out from behind their cover, and Delgado's shield must have taken a dozen bullets in the two second time it took them to aim and toss the grenades down the hall.
They ducked back, and there were two loud bangs. Mammals started screaming, and bullets spattered all over the hallway, but it was obviously blind fire. They waited for most of the clips to run dry, then Delgado rushed in, followed closely by Wolford and the rest of the line. They stayed single file, to maximize the use of Delgado's shield. They came into another foyer, one devoid of cubicles, but several desks had been pushed together for makeshift cover, and a dozen mobsters were behind them, either pawing at their eyes or blindly trying to reload their guns. One poor soul lay bleeding out on the expensive carpet, the victim of blind friendly fire. They were all subdued in a hail of darts.
Delgado ordered another sweep, but no more mammals were found, civilian or criminal. The captured criminals were ziptied and a medevac was called for the one bleeding out, while two of the officers got to work applying first aid.
And then they were faced with the private staircase leading up to the top of the tree where Catpone's private offices nestled among the branches. Delgado stepped forward, hefting his shield as he reached around to grab the handle. The door was unlocked, and he pushed it open.
There was a muffled squeal, and Delgado twitched towards it. A goat was tied up in the corner - likely one of the civilian workers judging from the blouse and skirt she wore - with a nasty cut on her head. She stared at the intruding officer, tears running down her face as she sobbed into her cloth gag.
Delgado stepped through the door, hurrying to help the distraught and injured civilian. Wolford was only a couple steps behind. "It's okay, we're here to help!" He assured.
The goat continued bleating, shaking her head with terror. Officer Delgado stopped in his tracks, suddenly taking note of the way the goat's eyes were pointing behind him. He realized too late that she was trying to warn him. From behind the hanging door, a tayra stepped forward with a toothy grin, took aim at the distracted Delgado's back, and pulled the trigger.
The bullet went into Delgado's back just above his protective vest and out his front near the base of his throat. He collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut. Wolford spun, his dart gun already raised, and darted the tayra twice in the chest. He recognized the mobster to be Pazzo, the Rainforest-Outfit's head interrogator. Pazzo frowned and stumbled forward a step. Sneering fiercely, eyes full of hate, he tried to bring his gun to bear on the cop that had shot him, but his arm fell limp at his side, and then he toppled to the floor with a soft thud.
"MEDEVAC!" Wolford screamed even as he turned to rush to Delgado's side. Rolling the big cat over, the wolf pressed both paws over the gushing wound. Delgado was awake, staring up at him wide eyed, like he couldn't understand what was happening. The lion coughed and hacked, blood seeping from between Wolford's grip.
Two of the burliest officers stepped forward to carry him, moving as fast as they dared to get the big cat down to ground level and a waiting ambulance. Wolford went with them, his paws still pressed over the gunshot wound. The remaining officers stood around in a daze, shocked at the unexpected loss. Nick blinked, taken aback by the sight of one of his comrades being carried away from the fight. He hadn't known Delgado all that well, but he was still a fellow officer and a good mammal. It was a distressing image.
Beside him, Judy grimaced, wishing that she had been able-bodied enough to have taken the lead. Maybe if she had been there instead of Wolford, her ears would have detected the danger faster, and Delgado wouldn't have gotten injured. But she couldn't blame Wolford or herself. Raising her gaze with a fierce determination burning in her eyes, she knew that the only way to make peace with the costs of walking on the thin blue line was to bring those who crossed the line to justice. Al Catpone had nowhere left to hide, and she was going to make him pay for his crimes.
She marched past Nick, making way for the private staircase that led to the canopy, that was, before Nick caught her forearm, stopping her in her tracks.
"Carrots! Fall back, you know that-"
She shot her gaze back to her partner. "I'll lead! No more cops are getting hurt if I can help it! I'm going to end this right now."
"I understand how you feel, Judy, but you're still injured. Let me go first." Nick insisted.
Without waiting for her response, the fox took the lead. Judy exhaled softly through her nose. It was hard to argue against logic like that, even with her newfound resolve. Nick's concern for her well-being was sweet, and she promised herself that she would watch over his shoulder with the utmost care possible. She could only hope that Delgado would overcome his injuries, and made herself a second promise to visit him in the hospital after the raid, if she had the chance. But for now, she knew that they still had a job to do.
When the raiding team had secured the trunk and steeled themselves over the loss of Delgado, the fox proceeded to lead the way up the stairs to the final floor, where Catpone's private offices lay waiting behind a large wooden door. The team took position in the staircase, ready for anything.
Gingerly pushing the door ajar, Nick settled beside it before pulling a small flash grenade from his belt, and preparing to toss it inside. He hesitated for a moment, arm drooping as he came to realize that this was all that remained: securing this final room and then bagging the crime-lord of the Rainforest-District at last. It would be a major victory for the ZPD, and was what Nick had personally been wanting for a long time. But something about it gave him pause. The fox thought back to what Al had said on that night the two of them had spoken in his apartment, about how the city government was corrupt, and how he viewed dismantling the current power structure as a good thing.
Nick knew that City-Hall had always expressed gross amounts of favoritism toward the primary surface districts, while leaving secondary districts like the Docks and the Nocturnal-District to fester to crime and corruption. He knew that the council with the precinct chiefs and even the office of the mayor itself wasn't exempt from misuse of power, as Chief Latran, Ratsputin, and the past three mayors had proven. And he knew that for as long as predators and prey had been at peace, that predators had always gotten the short end of the stick in everything from economic mobility to political representation. It was a telling fact that only two chiefs on the council weren't prey mammals, while every crime-lord in Zootopia was a predator. During their talk, Nick recalled how Al had told him that for as long as inequality existed between the two factions, that organized crime would never end.
Deep down, Nick wondered, if only for a moment, what would happen if Al were to succeed in his plan - What would happen if the city government was somehow ousted, and Al's dream became a reality. Would the lives of predators truly be any better than they were now? And would the lives of prey be negatively affected by such a change? Nick didn't know. All he knew was that if Al succeeded, the city would descend into chaos, and that even if a better utopia emerged from the ashes, the ends might not justify the means. The fox's eyes glazed over, and he chuckled slightly. During his time as a con-artist, he probably would have scoffed at that assessment. He probably would have even been among the crowd that helped overthrow the government to begin with, if Al's plan had been enacted back then. It was funny to think that so many aspects of his perspective on life had been changed by one dumb little bunny.
Nick was shocked out of his daydreaming by the grip of a paw on his forearm. He turned to lock eyes with Judy, who silently stared at him as if to ask, are you okay? It probably hadn't been any more than five seconds since his mind had initially wandered off, but it had been noticeable enough for her. Nodding reassuringly, the fox decided then and there that Al was wrong, and that he would do whatever it took to protect the city and his loved ones, from his partner standing beside him, to his mother still slaving away in Happytown. Nick also promised himself that after all this was over, and when Al was behind bars, that he'd do everything in his power to change Zootopia for the better - Not through violence like Al wanted, but through peace and productivity, like Judy had already proved possible.
Such an epiphany was all it took to snap Nick out of his daze for good. He then pulled the pin on his flash grenade and tossed it inside, ready to finish what he had started.
The proceeding detonation filled the room with so much light that it seeped through the crack in the door, and was loud enough to pause even the officers themselves with a brief moment of disorientation.
What captured Nick's attention wasn't what he heard, however, but rather what he didn't. Normally, what followed a flash grenade detonation was a chorus of agonized groans. No such groans reached his ears. Nick took a few sniffs, but didn't register the same kind of scent that he had earlier. Fully opening the door, he raised his dart gun and stepped inside. The room was empty, with the only sign of life being the vines that crawled across the walls. Judy and the other officers followed, and began searching the vicinity.
"Area clear!" Judy declared. She looked around at her team, just as confused as they were over the lack of bad-guys.
"I don't like this." Nick grumbled. "Where is everyone?"
One of Judy's sensitive ears twitched at the sound of something rustling beneath a nearby desk. Raising her dart gun, she approached the source of the sound, peeking under the desk to find a tapir curled in a ball, sniveling quietly.
The tapir gave her a nervous smile. "H-H-Hello there," he stifled.
Judy reached under the desk and dragged the tapir out by his ankle as he tried digging his hooves into the floor with no effect. Nick eyed the commotion with interest.
"I recognize this desk-jockey," he claimed. "He's the mob's money-handler. Ronnie, right?"
"D-D-Donnie!" The tapir corrected as Judy latched a pair of cuffs around his wrists.
"Sure thing, Ronnie," Nick said. "Mind telling us where your boss is?"
Donnie stiffened with fear, closing his eyes and parting his gaze from Nick's with a whimper. Judy narrowed her eyes. To her, Donnie looked more than just afraid that he had been caught, but as though he were afraid of speaking, as well. A sickening knot of suspicion began to tie itself around her heart. She turned her gaze to the only door that had yet to be opened.
Judy marched right up to it and kicked it open. The door slammed into the wall behind it with a rattling thud that echoed throughout the area. She pointed her tranquilizer inside, scanning over the office. It was small, with a floor-to-ceiling window at the back wall and a tall armchair looming behind a massive desk. Judy checked the whole room, from under the desk and behind the door, to even behind the window blinds out of sheer desperation, but found nothing.
She stepped back, panting as that knot of suspicion unwound into a dread realization that sank into the pit of her core like a cold weight.
"He isn't here," Judy murmured beneath her breath. "He isn't here!" She shouted to the others.
"What?!" Nick choked. Clamor erupted across the room as disbelieving growls and shouts emanated from the officers.
Judy looked to Donnie. "He was never here," she concluded. Al had already fled to Happytown to enact the final stage of his plan. "We're too late."
Donnie let out another nervous chuckle, though his demeanor seemed a tad bit more confident than earlier. "Surprise." The tapir squeaked.
Happy (late) New Year, and 4th anniversary for Zootopia! Sincerest apologies over the recent lack of updates, but real life has been reigning over my priorities for a while, with recent debilitating health problems seriously affecting my ability to write. Nonetheless, I can assure you that I am not only fine by now, but that my productivity is rising, and that (early-mid) 2020 will be the year WIF finally concludes, and the year that other special projects are created, as well, perhaps.
Looking back at 2019, we've accomplished a lot, and have plenty to be thankful for: New chapter updates, a comic adaptation (which is on its 14th page, with Nick and Judy having just met Vladzotz for the first time), tons of edits, surpassing 2K Favorites/Follows, and even a ZNN Interview, which has since been released on their website/Youtube (Feel free to check it out if you'd like to hear me talk about my story and provide writing advice). None of it could have been done without you. Thank you all, truly, for supporting me over the years, however small, and may we finally close the cover on this ginormous story in the new decade!
In other news, When Instinct Falls now has a TV-Tropes page, and a corresponding characters page! Anyone interested is welcome to check it out to see the way this story and its character's tropes are broken down, and anyone interested/able is welcome to add to the list, as well. It still has a long way to go, unsurprisingly, so feel free to have at it.
Anyhow, I hope you all enjoyed this latest chapter! Some of you may have noticed the parallels between the first two scenes, with the two combatants returning to their loved ones. I've gotta say, the scene with Nick mulling over his thoughts on the city near the end there, and the scene where Vladzotz and Lucy concluded their character arcs are probably among my favorite new scenes in this arc! You can expect to see tons more development coming from both Nick and Judy in the remaining two chapters as the finale unfolds in Happytown! As another point of fact, the scene where Vladzotz and Lucy visited Al will actually be the last time we see those two villainous vampires in this story. They'll be appearing in the sequel/spinoff, When Night Falls, though, which I briefly explain in my interview, and of which is already under development! I can't wait to expand that (much shorter) story with what I have planned. But let's finish WIF before worrying about that, shall we? In the meantime, I'd love knowing your thoughts on this chapter in the form of a review!
Regardless, I thank you all for reading this latest chapter, and hope you stay tuned for the finale, coming soon! A special thanks to ADeadMissionary for their assistance in editing this chapter!
'Till next time...