Wick and Balefire
By Draes Letum
I'd love to have you as a partner.
Sorry, Fluff, but I wouldn't dream of it. I'd lose all my connections as a cop! Trust me, I'm more useful to you as a conman.
But… I don't know, Nick, I kinda like knowing you've got my back.
Then I'll be there as often as I can. You and me, we can take on the world together, and I don't need a badge to prove it.
"I feel safe when you're around," she wanted to say as he shoos her back onto stage. From a distance he inspired confidence, a strength she couldn't quite place. She was distracted by him as she made her speech about the predators they rescued from Cliffside. Clever fox never stopped grinning when she stumbled over her words. She hardly got to answer any questions as she quickly excused herself.
In another world, he doesn't become a cop, staying a conman but opting to aid her. They never have a falling out and they catch Bellwether without further complications. He's usually still there by her side, but never as close as he could have.
She was quite bright in the morning when she saw him in her kitchen cooking for her, essentially having trespassed into her own home, but his frayed edges and his half-tucked shirt beneath the gaudy throw-away apron told her that he got here in a hurry.
"How did you get in here?" she asked in mock frustration, sauntering over to his side, looking for the telltale signs of any roughing up he might have escaped from, which were absent. So she's left to wonder.
"I picked up lock picking with Finnick," he told her with an ease he only knew with her, a cheeky grin to him that wasn't so much a signature as it was permanently plastered to his stupid face. "Thought it would come in handy today." He shrugged as he placed another eggplant onto the pan.
"You mean you learnt it this morning to break into my apartment?" She crossed her arms, quirking a brow.
"Not my fault you traded noisy neighbors for cheap locks."
She'd argue, usually, but the con-fox had always been the crafty sort who did what he wanted. It's not like most of the things he did were illegal, just sleezy. And this, she thought, was just one of those moments where he's all him and she'll just have to put up with it.
So all she did was sigh and sit at her own table, watching with some fascination at how the fox cooks for prey. And she found that he's quite skilled at it, but she realized that cooked eggplant slices and lasagna wasn't as skilled as it was clever.
"A good conman can accommodate any guest, so you can imagine what kind of skills I've picked up," he said, watching her take another meditative bite of his cooking.
She leveled a brow at him. "Is that so? Can you dance?"
He left his apron on the island counter and proceeded to tap dance. Then river dance. Then the Cossack coupled with a failed attempt at a Russian accent. Then he took her hand as he pulled her in, showing her his vast array of experience on the waltz.
And yet, for all her grace and talent, Nick was quite surprised – and quietly pleased – that she didn't know how to waltz passed the basics. "Everyone was too intimidated to ask me out to any of the dances so I never felt the need to learn."
He thought it quite silly and rather sad as he rolled his eyes, taking her up in his arms, having decided to teach her. In the very least she was a fast learner, but she messed up a few times – though far less than he did when he first tried. Almost an hour passed before he gave up teaching her how to cross-step and spin, as he opted to give up halfway through the lesson and just spin her in his arms until they were dizzy.
They collapsed at her doorway, falling onto the carpeting of her living room. She's giggling and he thought she enjoyed that too much but couldn't help but join her. And when the mirth has left their lungs, she sat up to smile at him, reveling in the joy he brings her.
And he mirrored her, returning the sentiment as his features soften almost uncharacteristically at her, a simple jubilance he's certain he'll never find with anyone else.
Then the smile turned sad as he looked away, not wanting to see her reaction. "I won't be able to join you today…"
She huffs, breathing a relieved sigh that told him that she was worried he had terrible news. "Jeez, Nick, I'm a big girl. I can handle myself out there, thank you very much."
He sighed wearily as she scampered off to collect the rest of her breakfast. He shook his head, more than a little worried for her. She's certainly no damsel-in-distress type but one woman against the world was a frightful thing, regardless of one's mettle.
"Take a partner with you today. A temporary one, at least," he cautioned, but she has none of it.
"Nick, I'll be fine. I can handle whatever this city can throw at me."
She's so stubborn, he thought, wishing he could say it aloud. He didn't know yet if it's pride or if she simply refused to take anyone but him with her, but he's left with little choice… which was what he would say if he wasn't Nick Wilde.
He stood up then trapped her arms in a bear hug. She thought he was just being silly until she told him it wasn't not funny anymore. He then told her that he'll let her go when she decides to at least take that rookie Ansel Mason with her. She resisted but didn't find much need to argue, his insistence winning her over.
They part ways when she had realized that she was late for work and so she bolted out of the room. She then drove off into the city on that listless spring morning, where the world seemed to stand still along near empty streets and the muted, stagnant sky. And there she finds the cusp of some stray thought lingering in her mind's eye a little longer than it should have: If Nick would be okay today.
Fanfare mixed with almost every letter in the mail, her dream job etched into a golden badge, a fancy apartment at the tallest building she could find, her own car big enough to hold a whole host of bunnies, and a salary big enough for two cops. Judy Hopps has all these things and yet she couldn't help the gnawing feeling at the pit of her gut that something was missing, giving her pause as she stared into the sunset hiding behind towers of concrete and steel through the ZPD's window.
As a woman who should want for nothing, she somehow managed to entail some. But she does not quite know what.
She ponders the question of what it is, long enough to chew her lip, and her visible display caught the attention of the rambling Ansel Mason, a capybara officer new to the force who pushed down his starry-eyed glee at the sight of his idol as he sinks back, unsure of what she'd do to him if he interrupted her thoughts.
To him, her sigh was an omen of grave things, that her dejection might mean something has gone terribly awry, but when she spots the woe in his eyes against the window's reflection, she thinks he's being quite silly. Because her problems do not belong to the world, and her every being was not dedicated to her job, but the hyperbole romanticized by the media has clearly won its way through the young man.
Her first thought was to, perhaps, change his mind, but there was some merit to the mysticism surrounding her. Avatars of hope were a dime a dozen, but so few were so regularly out in public like she was, amongst the people every day.
So instead she stilled her lips and quieted as the young man fidgeted in place, quite unsure of what to do with himself.
Bogo came with a saving grace for them both, his lumbering stature flush against light pouring out of the hall, imposing and masculine, frightening Ansel. And Judy capitalized on this, laying a gentle hand on his shoulder as she stands between them, giving the capybara somewhere to hide, thankful for her.
"Hopps! I have an assignment for you." The buffalo regards them both, only then remembering that she'd requested to let him tag along with her today.
"What do you need, Chief?"
Her spirited aura gave him pride, a stark contrast to their rocky first meeting. That was almost a year ago and she has done nothing but produce results since then. But a quiet fear still lurks beneath his gratified grin, eying the distinct limitations of a mammal so small, no matter how skilled or talented she might be. And for a moment he considers rescinding the assignment he was about to give her, but decides to give it to her anyway.
A stakeout but an important one. Denzel Creed, a Caporegime for the Big Mafia, was stockpiling something illegal in one of their off-the-record warehouses. They just needed to watch the place and call for back up when they see anything.
Bogo had honestly hoped that Nick would tag along. Potentially illegal activities aside, Nick was essential to Judy's outstanding performance. She could stand on her own, yes, but Nick was a reliable and stable partner who was creative enough to compensate for her overzealous attitude and could help talk their way out of a messy situation.
With a quiet sigh, Bogo reluctantly left Judy and her temporary partner to their assignment, but the star struck look in Ansel's eyes gave him pause, staring at them through the crack in the still ajar door. He wanted to impress her, to prove that he was worthy to stand with giants, so to speak.
But Bogo resigns to leave them be and bear with it till they meet again in the morning. He'd made the mistake of underestimating fresh blood, so perhaps he might prove him wrong here.
Vibrant, magnanimous, it is life blood for its warmth, it is the forge in which the west was built. It crafts steel and builds empires. It creates almost as well as it destroys. And Judy was witness to its power as it struck down gods of industry and lords of crime as easily as it would the common man.
Andrei Callahan, CEO of the American Harrier Industries, now an ashen silhouette indistinguishable from that of his cronies. Denzel Creed, Caporegime and eventual wartime Consigliere to the Big Mafia, now a screaming mass begging what powers might be to quell the flame that turned his pale white fur into cinders that dance amidst the billowing smog. And their associates meet similar fates amidst the great pyre in the warehouse, turning a circle of corruption into fuel for the fire.
She scrambled back amidst the burning stockpiles of illegal material, serving as towering blockades around her as they collapse under the crushing weight upon weakened, scorched foundations. Her eyes searched for an exit, flitting about as the warehouse breathed its last breaths into great plumes of smoke that ebb off from the collapsed openings above where the sheet metal roof has given way from the burnt supports.
One sheet metal fell before her, making her yelp as she stumbled back. She trips on a body then, falling to her back that forced air out of her lungs. She pulled herself up, body aching and breath bated as she got to her feet.
But then her eyes met the stagnant, frozen gaze of Ansel Mason, lying dead across the floor, a bullet wound that rung through his head now no longer visible against the blackened char against his temple.
Her voice hitched, gasping as she pains at the sight of him again. She would have wept for him had she not already, face still caked in his blood.
She shook her head and bolted out, weaving passed collapsing product, ignore the myriad screams around her. She spots a way out, passed some shelving towards the aptly named fire exit.
But then her eyes then fall upon the still writhing form of Denzel Creed, tears welling in his singed eyelids that mist almost as readily as his body ignites. He rolls and pats his frame but the air fed the flame too quickly, making his actions feeble, useless, petty. And then he collapsed from exhaustion, face-first into the cement floor before her, the tongues of golden fire whipping from his limp body. The fire draped around his orifices suffocated him first before killing him, sucking in the air from his lungs to feed itself.
She needed to jump over him to escape.
Judy got a running head start, bolting off then jumping over Creed, but then she tucked and rolled and all she could see was the embers flitting about in her tumbling vision. When she came to a halt, she slammed into the door, cheek smacking against the cement flooring.
She could feel the heat still flush against her cheeks, his whiskers likely singed from all the close contact.
She was winded still, gasping for air that quickly left her as the burning building just a scant few feet behind her still grew. If the fire didn't kill her, the warehouse that would eventually collapse certainly will.
But it never got the chance.
A blur of orange red fur filled her fading vision alongside her failing consciousness, and all she could hear before she passes out was Nick calling out her name, begging her to stay with him.
A tongue of flame breached the thin sheet walls of the warehouse, dancing behind the glass windows as the fires whipped, spurned, and multiplied. Soon the structure was crowned by flame, smoke billowing thick in the night sky.
It was not long until the warehouse was completely engulfed, any signs of a building lost under the burning gold expanse.
Judy, in her fleeting instance consciousness, watched it in awe as she's cradled in Nick's arms. She still felt the warmth, even from a distance, evaporating her sweat and boiling the blood that trickled from her cuts.
Nick called out to her still, watching her come in and out of consciousness. But when she finally came to, she was still bruised and in his arms, and she didn't want to open her eyes.
His voice died in her ears, muted beneath the cries of the helpless animals still trapped inside. Perhaps she was imagining them, but she had no doubt that at least some of them were still alive in there. The sight of skin and fur turning ashen black was still fresh in her mind, vivid and tangible beneath her shut lids.
Consciousness failed her once more as she's cradled in Nick's arms, the sirens filling the air as her world vanished in the muffled cries from her fox.
She didn't stay in the hospital for long. Only for a night and he stayed with her throughout. A nurse tried to kick him out but he snuck back in minutes later, the custodian's key ring dangling off his hip. The same nurse found them in the morning and, with a dejected sigh, ultimately left them alone.
He brought her home that very morning, letting her rest in her own bed.
And as Judy awoke, stumbling into her living room to find him, she uttered the first words he's heard her say since the incident at the warehouse: "I'm hungry."
He fixed her a collard green salad, laced with strawberries, and dared to add some carrots. He's no cook, but a salad was an amalgam of greens and other things decoratively put together, and as a conman, he fancied himself an expert in appearances, hoping the salad looked better than it tasted.
But Judy didn't care for either the arrangement or the taste, what mattered was sustenance and liquids. She felt dry, and… off somewhere, as if something inside her had snapped. Memories of last night blurred across a cavalcade of colors, gleaming gold and white hot, but nothing was coherent, nothing made sense in the slew of images that flashed before her.
"You alright there, Carrots?"
"I don't know…" she muttered into her plate, blinking away the stardust still lingering at the corner of her eyes, a knuckle rose to dispose of them.
Then the lights went out, her high rise apartment flush with shadows as even the sunlight was shut off by the passing rainclouds that crept steadily into the city.
"Ugh, damn storm…" Nick groaned as he left the room.
Alone with her thoughts, Judy found that she still remembered the heat bursting across her skin, and the smell of burnt flesh and narcotics. Then she remembered the great flame engulfing a warehouse, crowned by pillars of smoke above the fire, jeweled by the stars above, a great beast howling, roaring at the unperturbed moon.
Tears welled in her eyes as she remembered the still, lifeless eyes of Ansel Mason. His youth, ripped from him as his remains didn't even have the courtesy of going cold. Because there was fire burning around her, a hellish landscape she was scarce to believe she even escaped.
And then Nick returned, something held in his cupped hand, his face aglow, sending a rickety chill down her spine, staring wide eyed at him in the darkness.
"You really need more of these, Judes," he said, as he let some liquid drop to the counter, one he promised to clean later.
Then he placed the candle down onto the wax.
Then the tiny slither of flame erupts in her sullied vision, a pillar of great fire bursting into the ceiling, its golden edges reaching into the rest of the room. A face then emerged from the white hot center, the roaring visage of Denzel Creed ringing in her eyes. And his scream that followed was mimicked by her, filling the spaces as she fell out of her seat, watching the flame dance before her with that grave illusion begging for the pain to stop.
Nick scrambled to her, pressing her face to his chest as she sobbed openly, holding onto him for dear life.
In another world, fire has broken her spirit, the roars of any crackling flame call back the screams of an errant and erstwhile night, where golden slithers and grey plumes become demons in her mind's eye, haunting her.
Succeeding days went downhill from there. She tried to go back to work but it seemed that bright lights did as much harm her to addled mind as any crackling flame. She tried to hold it in during briefing but it was apparent to everyone that she was uncomfortable, hiding behind her flopped ears at the bright white fluorescent bulbs overhead.
She quickly excused herself from the room before she screamed again. It didn't help that both Bogo and Clawhauser misinterpreted her anxiety, asking her if it was about Ansel Mason and, god, she could not believe that she had forgotten him amidst all this.
She broke down then but Nick, who was waiting at the front desk for her, ran over to pick her up, taking her away from them.
He left her in the locker room later to shower. He found that, on that first morning, that water made her feel safe, as if it would quell the burning sensation she felt rippling through her skin, crouched on the floor, hugging her knees as the droplets filled the gaps in her fur, sinking into her skin.
Clawhauser approached him as he leaned against the wall and he asked what's wrong with Judy. Nick found no reason not to tell him, and so he did.
Ben later told Bogo, who then told Judy to go home and seek help.
She refused, as she would, but her resistance died in his softened gaze. Knelt and on eye-level, Bogo told her that she needed to look out for herself. Because the world would be unkind to her if she did not give herself the time to heal.
So she went home and stayed there for a week, hiding in the darkness, meeting her therapist at the end of it. But then she grew restless, tired of her fear.
She tried to sit in a room with a candle again, Nick watching over her quietly, but then the flame roared and danced, the demon in it crawling out of it and taking her, sinking into her skin as she screamed for it to go away.
Frustrated that she, perhaps, might never heal, Judy forced herself back into the precinct, braving the haunting flame once more. But the congratulations she received died as Bogo lit a lighter before her, making her scream.
He scolded her for coming back too early, and she told him that she was afraid. Afraid that she might never function normally again, that she could never come back to work.
He told her that there would always be a place here for her, but it would not remain for as long as she kept forcing the issue. She needed to take care of herself first and foremost, and she'll only lose her job if she doesn't make that her priority.
So, with a fervor not unlike her, she went to her therapist with hard look on her face, demanding what powers might be that she find her answers here.
Lilianna Mandal was the name of her therapist, and the reserved old woman told her to consider altering her association. "Fire is not what you're afraid of," she told her, soft doe eyes laced with wisdom beneath her wrinkled skin, "it is the incident you associate it with. Your traumatic experience at the warehouse is everything that is haunting you, and to quell that, you must associate fire with something else."
Judy didn't know what she was thinking. Or, better yet, wasn't thinking at all.
She wanted to cook something for herself, but the minute she turned on the oven and the curled flames ebbed out of the pipes, she jumped back and screamed. She fell to the floor, grasping onto the gas tank tied to the old machine and when she pulled it out, the gas ignited off the tip of the flailing rubber tube.
To her credit, she did find a fire extinguisher to douse the growing fire that ignited her walls, but the demon in her mind's eye still reached out for her, creeping along the flame as her attempts quell it appear feeble.
Nick bursts in then, and took the extinguisher, killing the flame and closing the gas. The roar of the flames were silenced then, but the fear that coiled through her system still ran hot across her veins, an adrenaline rush that causes her to scream, but not in panic.
She wailed as she clutched the fur on her head. She felt useless, broken and a million other self-deprecating things.
Nick was beside himself as he watched Judy curl up on her sofa, shaking from the freezing cold that, she found, comforted her just the tiniest bit, but enough to endure what it's doing to her body.
She's a wreck, a shadow of the woman she once was, now reduced to being babysat by her best friend as everything from a candle to even the mere mention of the warehouse triggered fears she buried in graves, altogether too shallow to ignore.
Life was ripped from her, color dim amidst the shadows as even the lavender in her irises seemed to gray, a vibrant soul trapped in a writhing husk smothered in defeat. Her muscles flex against the shifting cold, shivering further when the sun drops off the horizon, the last dull orange rays dying in the shadow of twilight. And when the light was gone, then came the glow from below.
She stared hard into the city lights beneath her apartment, a sea of neon fire burning iridescent against the cavalcade of darkened cement and concrete. It summoned thoughts of raging fire, blooming off the city lights to ignite the sky, filling it with smog, the beast within it roaring as it watched her from a distance. It did not scare her as much as it would have up close, but the fear lingered still and crept into her skin, wafting amidst the languid night that stilled and froze.
Nick closed the blinds then, sheltering her from the torment that might have come.
He sat beside her, and she let herself fall to his shoulder, shutting her eyes as she forced herself to sleep.
Then came the crackle of thunder, slick like a whip that followed the boom.
Judy's eyes shot open as light tore through the cracks in the blinds, the howling storm roaring through the sky. And it might have invited fear had the rain drops not peppered her window, a staccato rapping against the glass.
She was drawn by it, allured by the cold and the rain just outside, and Nick could see the way her eyes seem to light up at it, hopeful and wanting as the color returns to her eyes.
So then he took her by the hand and pulled her out of the sofa, a familiar smile curling at his lips. He asked her to trust him, she obliged and let him take the lead.
The rusted metal door to the roof creaked with a low, heavy groan as Nick pushed it open against the heavy winds wafting about them. The fringes of the storm crackled through the city, a different rage piercing the sky as Judy basks in that energy.
It was raw and untamed like fire, but it was cold and white hot only in its electric tendrils.
Her gaze was lopsided, breathing in the air that smelt of rain, sweetened by the waning flame coursing through her heart.
She was midway through this hell, a step between the fire and the cold, and she could feel herself tipping either way. But her mind and heart won't give, still haunted by the lingering flame that left embers in the air, wafting like fireflies off the neon lights that still ignited the city below.
Nick saw that struggle in her eyes, trying to find a way to quell the demon raging inside of her. And he felt nothing but guilt. Because she would have been safe had he not wasted his day on another con, she would have been safe if he took her offer and been her partner on the force. She would have told him that it was not his fault, but how could he tell himself that if, in the end, he would watch her like this, a ghost of her former self drifting in the madness that haunted her corrupted mind.
So Nick approached her from behind, placing hand over her sleeveless shoulder, catching her attention. But before she could ask him what he was doing, his body slumped over her, cradling her in his arms.
Then she felt herself ignite, his warmth across her skin and the crook her neck.
"I'm sorry," he whispered, clutching her frame as a show of desperation.
She didn't ask the ask the what or the why, instead only letting her sullen frame bask in this warmth, leaning into his chest as the world swirled in her vision. Her hand crept up to cup his face that rested over her shoulder, and then their eyes met.
She could not, with any clarity, explain why it happened, but when she kissed him then, he turned her over take her flush in his arms.
His warmth feed the flame in her heart, coursing through her skin as her fur stood on end, her senses alight, her mind clear, wanting, needing, taking.
She was abreast in his fears, harboring his pain as he did hers, loving over and over and over again until the storm became background noise, and the flame became an afterthought.
She gasped as he entered her and he screamed her name when they came, and she could feel, tangibly, just how much he loved her, with words he never uttered.
Perhaps she loved him too, perhaps he was what she wanted, perhaps he could fills the gaps and empty spaces in her lonely little apartment, and love her till she heals, and love her still if she doesn't.
In the morning she can feel the heat rippling through her skin that's still slick from their sweat across her dull fur, but she can still place the name of her of fear, her trauma still ebbing into her psyche in the fringed edges of the distant sun that peered through the city in great swathes of light.
But she can feel its roar quieting, its demon silenced by Nick's desperate loving cries.
She knew it was impossible to heal completely overnight – though she dared to hope – but the vestiges of some recovery sunk into the bubbling laughter from her tiny lips, surprising herself at the sudden sound.
Nick, having heard her, rose from bed to join her side at the window, watching the morning come as he kissed her neck.
And so he lit a fire in her heart again, and dared to dream of a day that she might be healed completely. And he'll love her all the way, as the wick to light her balefire, there until it sputters and dies as the wax turns to mist and the embers sail skyward, never to find her again.