Prologue

A Key to The City

"Miss Hopps! Miss Hopps!" came the sound of yet another annoying reporter, and as it was with many things in the real world, the one with the loudest voice was the one that got the most attention. And tiny white and gray finger pointed at the bear, a fluffy bunny face with high set ears nodded in his direction, and the question came. "Do you really intend to take this battle to Zootopia?"

"I do," came a much more agreeably feminine, if naïve, voice. Such a stern tone. So sure of her righteousness and dedicated to the 'cause.' Seeing her on TV, the way the camera zoomed in on her face to make her look larger than she actually was, some poor fools might even believe her. "I have received permission from the Administration to bring my case before higher courts within the city. I have even been given office space, so I can move through with any legal battles that are to follow."

More shouts for attention, and the figure watching the large screen swirled the glass of amber liquid in his paw easily. He watched the melee of reporters continue their pleasantly civil assault on the poor country bunny through the crystal in silence.

"Do you really believe that Otterton is innocent, Miss Hopps? All reports indicate that he was found over the body with the bloody murder weapon in his possession."

This one was a vixen. Cute. Snow white fur, proper demeanor, pretty suit jacket and a skirt that even the camera could see was a little shorter than it needed to be. In his younger years he might have considered looking her up at her news station, charming her into a few drinks, which would end with him sliding her out of that pretty ivory outfit and onto him. Now? His eyes were on the bunny. That innocent, foolish little bunny. She was walking into a den of foxes, giving herself up as meat and she didn't even realize it.

"I believe that Mr. Otterton has been framed," the fluff ball continued, and his eyes narrowed as he lowered the glass to see her clearly. "His history of speaking out against the corruption of the government has earned him…"

Pausing the screen, he drew himself to his feet quickly. Setting the untouched scotch on the wooden surface of the side table, the fox made his way into the kitchen with a dismissive grunt. She would be dead soon enough. There was no 'act of good faith' as the Administrator had called it, no help in uncovering the corruption that had led to Otterton's arrest. She was going to be made an example of; she would either vanish, or become the victim of some random act of violence. Perhaps kill herself. Yes, that would have been a likely scenario. Devious, no way to trace it to anyone but her own paw, but obvious at the same time. A lesson to anyone who tried to interfere with how things worked in the city proper now.

Self-disgust had him prowling beyond the kitchen, tail high and ears folded back as guilt crawled over him and infected him like a parasite; a feeling that had him stripping off his shirt as he walked. Not guilt for the bunny. She was making her own bed with this, and it was her fault for being stupid enough to think that one carrot farmer could change anything in a city rotting from the inside out.

It wasn't the idea of her blood in the streets, or soaking into the carpet of whatever coffin they called her office that caused his hackles to raise as he slid his fingers into the grappling gloves.

Foolish. Wasteful.

There was something deeper than the idea of those determined, energetic violet eyes milky in death that had the slim but powerful build of the fox skipping the light warm up punches.

Irrelevant. Hopeless.

His muzzle twisted, lips drawn back from his teeth as the blows – blows which caused the bag to jump violently and the support stand to grind across the concrete floor despite the weights that held it down – came more often and with greater force.

Defenseless. Unprepared.

It wasn't enough. Chest rising and falling quickly as he panted, he stripped the gloves off in a rush brought on by the deep set anger he thought he had killed years ago. He felt the sting of the first blow of bare knuckles on leather, and every blow after that.

Brave. Strong.

Growling now. He hadn't growled in years. He told himself it was the pain of ill-timed blows as he tried to vent his fury, his guilt. His fault. She was going to die, and it was his fault. The world he had allowed to be would grind her into nothing.

Bright.

Beautiful.

Extinguished.

The snarl escaped him like a scream, and his claws set into the bag as the impossible thoughts boiled into fury. Tearing, ripping. Muscles bunched and straining as he gutted his own guilt until the sand within spilled freely onto the floor under the destroyed bag. Aching muscles and exhaustion should have eased emotion, the release should have calmed the confusion of his thoughts. The scent of his own fur and sweat sickened him, reminded him that nothing about him had actually changed. He was still a twisted, confused mess of a male.

He returned to the main room, breathing slowing as he took up the glass again and stared at the frozen image of the doomed bunny. Had he thought she was beautiful? Her muzzle was too short, her ears too long, her features soft, the fur a bland mix of grey and white. Nothing special, nothing interesting. Prey. But maybe it was the eyes. Vibrant amethyst, full of everything that had died in the city years ago. Everything that had died in him. He raised the glass in his hand, brought it to his lips, so close that the pungent spice of the fine liquor burned his nose.

He stared into those eyes as he lowered it, placed it carefully on the table, and picked up his phone.

1826.


Two hundred and fifty seven numbers. Agencies ranging from the Rainforest District to the Nocturnal District and everything between. Those had been the first, and while they had been polite for the most part, they had also been direct; there was nothing they could do to protect a bunny in Zootopia. Then she had turned to the mercenaries with good reputations, and had been stone walled. Again, there was nothing they could do to protect a bunny in Zootopia. Private investigators, less reputable guns for hire, the ZIA, the diplomatic corps; she had even, in a moment of desperation, attempted to contact the Tundratown Mafia and had been advised to just stay out of the city.

"Will you have protection while in the city? Do you feel safe?"

Exhausted, listless eyes rose to the small screen on her desk. She kept the news running constantly, staying up to date with the basics, and now her own face stared back at her. A face that for the first time in the media conference showed doubt for the span of a breath before she replied, "Because the ZPD cannot offer twenty four hour protection, I am looking into various agencies and organizations…" Like organized crime, she thought bitterly. "…without luck so far. I still have multiple venues open to me, and I am certain someone will step up for what's right."

Those last words, had they sounded as desperate as she felt? Had there been a plea at the end of her statement, a hope that somewhere someone with a soul was listing and would help her? Or was it just her imagination, her own doubts creeping in as she turned her gaze from the screen when the conference finished. Turned it back to the list.

Two hundred and fifty-seven numbers, and only two left.

One came with no name, but had a stupid catch phrase beside it. 'We do anything, so you don't have to.' It sounded more like an advertisement for a maid service than any sort of protection she could rely on. The last number simply had a name beside it.

Finnick.

She ignored that name for now, because she knew who and what he was. Even the stupid catch phrase was a step up from a fox and a pimp. Drawing a deep breath, she took up the cell phone and dialed the number.

"What'cho need done?"

The fact that the voice, and the accent that went along with it was reminiscent of those poorly directed gangland movies she had been forced to sit through with her brothers almost had her releasing a groan. Instead, she rested her forehead on her hand and closed her eyes.

"Hello. My name is Judith Hopps. I'm trying to…"

"Oh ya, you're that bunny from the TV," the voice cut her off, the sound of amusement so thick that she wanted to reach through the phone to strangle him. "What can I do for ya, cutesy?"

The twist in her stomach almost had bile rising into her throat at the causally speciest slang, but she forced her stomach to calm. "I'm looking for someone to help me. I will need someone to act as security for myself and my offices while I am in the city. And I…"

"Oh ho, no," he cut her off again, this time with an almost regretful laugh. "Nuttin doing. I ain't putting my tail on the line for no bunny. You want protection, you call tha cops."

"Look, I just need-"

The sound of total silence from her phone told her loud and clear what the final answer was, and with a cry of anger, she slammed the phone down onto her desk. Dropping her head into her paws, she trembled with frustration and battled the despair that threatened to bring tears to her eyes; tears that did bring a mist to cloud her vision for a moment before she was able to blink it away. Between her fingers, she gazed down at the list that now only contained one name.

She had come this far. She wasn't going to let the cowards in Zootopia stop her. She would call this last number, and then she would start from scratch. She would go through the list again. She would offer more, and then find a way to get it. She would threaten. She would beg. Anything she had to do to get…

The phone lying face down beside the list began to buzz against the surface of the table, and she blinked once when she lifted her head from her paws. Picking it up, she stared down at the screen for a long moment.

Unknown Number.

She had received various threats already, warnings, and countless calls from the media since the announcement of her trip to Zootopia had been made. She had been sending them to voice mail. And she moved her hand to do so now.

And found herself pressing the phone to her ear instead. "Hello?"

"Judith Laverne Hopps?" The voice was masculine, professionally crisp, and if she had to put words to it, just a little cool.

"This is Hopps."

There was a beat of silence. And then another, and she started wonder if the caller had disconnected when the voice came again.

"I can protect you."