Did ya miss me?

Nah... I'm sure most of you didn't. Otherwise all these bullet holes wouldn't be here. Good aim everyone.

Anywho... another chapter!

I finally get to resolve something I've wanted to for a long long long while. A team name! Always wanted to name a team. No spoilers, just read.

Now enjoy, read, review, fav, follow, and... grab... that strange snack. I'm munching on a jar of cake. Yep... found it at the market. Someone literally bakes cakes in mason jars. I love it. this one is lemon and lime. Tastes like sprite in cake form.


Nick was pacing his armory, Judy having not even woken yet, Leo at his side and awaiting his response.

"You think it's about time?" the fox asked almost somberly.

"You have their attention and their understanding," the android explained evenly, "but you most importantly need their trust. As it is, this knowledge you need to share may change the way they fight with you. Suffice it to say, they may act differently now, if they were ignorant to a few facts. We can't have actions in the field based on information that makes certain actions inefficient."

"Like shielding me?"

"Yes."

"I can't believe I didn't think about this til this morning… barely an hour before they are supposed to arrive," the red tod groaned to himself.

He had a small mental revelation concerning the team dynamics and the potential risks of keeping information about the Shards to himself. Only Connor had even an inkling of the knowledge he had to offer, and even what he knew the gnu was told was predominately just a few implied details in his escape.

The main concern became knowledge that Nick and Judy were effectively in far less danger than the other four. Their power made them a bigger target, but also healed their wounds and extended their life, not to mention the superior abilities that transcended normal biological capabilities. If they weren't aware of that fact… any one of these people could see a moment of misinterpreted threat to their lives… throwing their own in the way or risking theirs unnecessarily. The robotic being agreed that they could be trusted and needed to know to best operate as an efficient team.

He has his prime candidates…

...but now he needed them to be true volunteers.

"Should I reveal Judy and my identities to them?" he questioned in passing.

Leo seemed to process the outcome of that, remarking swiftly and plainly, "I predict your chances at allaying any fears and solidifying trust would be nearly thirty percent higher if you did so out of the suit. Over seventy percent if Judy chose to do so with you as well. A word of caution though, it would be wise to ask her before proceeding with your own reveal, as Esther knows of your cohabitation and may either be smart enough to figure it out rather loudly in front of everyone else, or simply assume one of many variants that may make her angry."

"Ah…" Nick replied thoughtfully, scratching at the back of his head in slight anxiousness. "I'm gonna go wake Little Miss Fluff and get her opinion then."

"A wise choice," the mechanical entity agreed, staying put while the fox ambled off on a mission.

Walking towards the doe's room, haunches raised and paw pads stepping silently, he knocked lightly on the door, hearing no answer.

He knocked more insistently, though still making it light and polite. A groaning sound emanated from the room.

"Whaaaaat…?" Judy moaned from within. "Just because we have to meet them in an hour doesn't mean I have to take that time to look pretty…. I'll be in armor. Let me sleeeeeep."

Nick chuckled, opening the door slowly, a bunny spread out and face down in her covers, which happened to be haphazardly draped over her, both legs and an arm uncovered. Her tail wiggled and peeked out from beneath the rumbled edge of her covers, making the fox smirk.

"I need to ask you about something," he entreated her softly. "Can you get up?"

"For the time being… this bunny is comatose," the grey doe sleepily grumbled.

"So…" the tod began, reaching out a paw towards her tail, "...you won't mind it if…" His paw and claws found the furry nub, raking through the plush fur and making Judy gasp, her rump rising as he teased her. "...I do that?"

Stubbornly, she pulled the blanket over her head, pulling her legs up and looking like a little hermit crab. Regardless of his question, she remained quiet.

He gripped her tail again, rubbing a paw pad in little circles just above her tailbone, one of her feet twitching and jerking to the stimulation. It took a few seconds, but the fox eventually got the intended reaction, with the doe's foot thumping in the air.

"Erg… Stoooop…" Judy pleaded, immediately followed by a her throwing off the covers and bringing her flushed muzzle to peer angrily at him with sleepy purple eyes. The anger also came across as sleepy, making her look more pouty than anything, and Nick couldn't help but smile warmly at her.

"There's a limit to how cute you can be, you know, Fluff?" the tod fired at her, snarky grin firmly in place. That seemed to stun her into confusion, unsure how to respond. Ever since she understood that him calling her that was an honest compliment, Judy would suddenly short circuit at the C word being thrown around.

"What do you want?" she mumbled out, the sleepy haze settling over her briefly once more.

"Advice… and permission," the red fox mentioned rather seriously, making his girlfriend perk slightly in wariness at his tone.

"Permission for what?" she voiced in trepidation, scooting closer to give him her full attention.

"I started wondering about how we are asking a bunch of mammals to fight with us," he began to detail. "Yes… I know it's what we need, but that isn't what concerned me. We are basically self healing immortal ish beings, much to my chagrin. Anyways, I'm planning on revealing the nature of our power to our team. Most preferably I want to do it out of the armor…"

"... but you would like me to do that with you?" she finished for him, mildly yawning. "I don't see a problem with that. Essie is gonna have a field day and probably break glass with her screeching but this was your idea to hide it in the first place. Why the change of heart?"

"Team dynamics, I guess," Nick plainly spoke, shrugging. "In battle, there isn't any reason they should risk their life for ours, potentially getting themselves killed. Us two will endure… but they have only one life. If they don't know that…"

"... oh…" Judy mouthed in realization, the last dregs of sleepiness clearing from her face. "I can see how that's a problem."

"The big thing is… they need to know I'm just another mammal," the red tod further relayed. "I want to do this out of armor… but if I do…"

"Then, Essie will easily put the pieces together and very likely let it pour from her like word vomit," the bunny doe surmised. "Why do we trust her to keep secrets again?"

Both mammals giggled, though they knew the wild dog was trustworthy, even if overly energetic.

"I'm with you, no matter what," the grey rabbit soothed to him, allaying his fears easily. He sighed in relief, making to leave her room.

"Sounds good then. I'll be sure to greet them in armor at the warehouse, but we'll just take it from there. In the meantime, you go ahead and get a little more sleep. Sorry to have disturbed you."

"It's fine, Scruff," she told him, stretching and getting off her bed. "I probably needed to get up anyhow. I was just playing 'ten more seconds' over and over until Leo got me anyways."

With a gentle nod and a warm smile, the fox closed her door, leaving her to get ready.

He felt quite a bit more confident about everything now, with plenty of anxious doubt at facing his hopefully not former teammates.

0000000

Now donning their suits and sitting in a common area with a circular amphitheatre setting to it, the centerpiece being a holo matrix through their visors, the whole group was awaiting a debriefing.

Thankfully, their suits were far easier to put on than the prior fitting/calibration, with everything sliding and locking into place like a form fitting glove.

Gus was splayed out in the back, barely awake at such an early hour for himself. Connor and Bella were pert and wakeful, used to being up at the crack of dawn. Besides… this would have been their morning anyways, only without the suits. Essie was energetic about being in the suit, though still griping about being up so early.

Entering the room, Flux and Phantom waved at the present armored mammals, with Leo walking close behind.

"Do we really need to do a debriefing?" the wild dog complained. "I do them almost every morning anyways… and believe me… Bogo's voice is one to command attention, but that doesn't make any of the information seem any less redundant sometimes."

"Do you know what your specific tasks would be?" the armored bunny asked curiously. The canine pinched an armored ear in her metal clad paw, unsure how to answer. The rabbit answered her own question, "In a suit, you will have things to do that may not be safe for normal personel. If I am to understand it correctly, this is a means to both familiarize ourselves with suit capabilities and mitigate danger for less protected individuals."

Judy's head hurt trying to recite all that wordy rhetoric, to which the android's head thankfully nodded that she was indeed correct. At least that felt satisfying.

"Fine…" Essie grumbled, crossing her arms and nodding her head for them to continue.

Gus, still looking half asleep in his position, let out a rumbling chuckle, voicing, "Best to stop questioning them so much, Rebound. You don't usually end up looking smarter for it."

"Hey!" the wild dog barked indignantly. "I would have half a mind to call you Bear Butt as your name just for that."

"Pfft," came Phantom's laugh. "This idiot mentioned calling him Bearzerker or something…" she recalled, jabbing a paw towards the armored tod, who puffed his chest out proudly.

To their surprise, the grizzly perked up, looking down at them with interest as he spoke, "Hmm… I like it. Can I be that?"

"Uh… seriously?" the armored bunny doe guffawed in mild humor. "You actually like it? Huh… way to go Scruff. Nailed that one on the head."

"I should hope so," the aforementioned fox piped up. "Now we just need to come up with names for the other two." At the last words, he pointed towards the oddly silent pair, who now looked stunned, as if caught in headlights on a dark street.

"Us?" Connor inquired bluntly. Everyone else nodded, with Bella looking just as confused.

"I don't think I want a name…" the deer doe told them slowly. "Not my cup of tea to be a superhero or something. I'm here for support and to use my head… not look like I could smash skulls."

"It would good to go with monikers for the sake of secrecy from the public or media," the robotic being relayed in kind. "I'll log Esther as Rebound and Gus as Bearzerker. There is another matter though, that we must address first. Flux? If you will…"

Leaving that trailed off, the red fox tod nodded, grateful that his mechanical companion gave him a bump to the topic, as he had no idea how to bring it up.

"Leo is correct," he relented, a bad taste forming in his mouth. "I have something else to share with all of you before we embark on this venture as a team…"

"Don't get too campy on us now, Flux," Essie sassed.

"...right. Haha. Anyways, I want you all to trust me," the tod continued. "Suffice it to say, I'm not all that normal of a mammal. And before you say anything about 'of course' or 'that's obvious', I need you to know the why because it may change how you view yourself as part of this team."

As much as humor might have lifted the serious mood, none decided to break the line of thought that Nick had going, and rightfully so.

He took a deep breath and resumed, "I am in fact a very old mammal. I'm kept alive by an otherworldly force that we call a Shard. It's not really as simple as I'm making it out to be, but basic line here… I'm able to heal and am pretty much immortal as I am."

There was silence that met his revelation. He expected some outrage or calling him out as being exaggerative.

"So… you are telling us because you think this would make working as a team difficult because our lives are at risk and yours… not so much?" came the surprisingly accurate and level headed assumption from the large bear.

The armored fox was flabbergasted, feeling a little stupid for severely underestimating how easily his candidates might assume this end.

"Uh… yes?" he barely murmured.

"Ha!" Gus bellowed, patting the armor of his belly as he laughed heartily. "I'm a bouncer in an iffy district. Big as I am, I still worry about being threatened by a mammal with enough gall to wave a gun or big enough sharp object my way."

"I'm an officer who puts her life on the line every day with far less perks and no armor," the canine added with a shrug, smiling easily. "Oh… I guess a little… but those vests are sooo itchy."

The two outspoken mammals, along with Flux and Phantom, looked over to the gnu and deer doe, who shook their heads easily.

"Don't look at us," Bella deflected. "We live under constant supervision of a fickle governance that might sooner dispose of us than allow our knowledge of certain dealings become their downfall. This is considered an improvement in my book." Wildebeest grunted in agreement.

"We're used to working under a shroud of secrecy and deception with a threat of danger," the larger of the pair voiced further.

"Shroud!" Essie yelled out, stunning everyone, all in attendance now staring at her, awaiting an explanation.

It took a few seconds for her to stop smiling and calm down enough to clear her throat and clarify, "Ah… ahem. Shroud… that could be… you know… Bella's super name? I don't know. Haha."

The looks then gravitated back towards the deer doe, her sigh being the only thing that echoed as she relented with a dragging tone, "That… actually sounds like a good one. I'll admit it…"

The wild dog's fist pump was almost audible along with her hissing, "Yessss."

The canine's eyes then leveled at Connor, narrowing as he squinted back at her, saying in a low tone, "Don't… you… dare."

She smirked, replying, "I'll let you simmer a bit before trying to tackle that, Breaker."

"You hear that? I'm Breaker," the gnu called out, telling all as if the matter were settled.

"What!? I wasn't even trying!" Essie whined. "That doesn't count." She huffed and crossed her paws, clearly sour about having the wind taken from her sails at messing with the larger prey.

"Alright," Leo confirmed, taking note and reciting for all to hear and potentially dispute, "Bella is Shroud, Essie is Rebound, Gus is Bearzerker, and Connor is Breaker. Now… Flux…"

"Right. Right. We got off track there, didn't we?" the armored fox spoke in a mildly flustered state. "Allow me to explain…"

In as little time as could be allotted, given that they had pushed back, but not entirely cancelled, a service standard, the tod went through a short synopsis of what he was, how he came to be, what was really attacking them and why, as well telling them their progress on trying to stop it.

"...and also," Flux added onto his explanation…

His suit opened up, allowing him to step out and into the open.

He really expected the reactions, given only one mammal had any reason to be surprised, as Connor and Bella had seen him before, with Gus as well, but Essie's ear splitting shriek as she screeched, "WHAT!?" still made his head hurt.

Her body leaped upwards almost involuntarily as she made not for him, but Phantom's suit.

The metal clad doe stepped back, seeming to have expected this outcome as the larger female's paws groped and gripped at her face plates, trying to spread them apart.

"Who's in here?" the canine demanded. "Is it Judy? Come on!"

The face plates opened, making Essie squeal as she jumped back, seeing nothing inside.

"Come on, Carrots," Nick softly chastised, tilting his head back to look at something no one else could see. "Don't be cruel to her. Joke's over."

A bleeding purple aura left the fox, funnelling back into the empty suit, a voice function coming online to say, "Aww… She deserved it for being so nosy."

Judy's face formed from the ethereal violet, fur and flesh reforming inside the suit. Her eyes were the last thing to retain the amethyst glow, color fading but still a naturally brilliant hue. The doe's smile was just as bright, smug in the fact that she freaked her friend out.

"You cheeky little liar," Essie accused with a cocked hip and playfully pointed paw. "You've been hiding this from me for weeks." It wasn't a question.

"Too much to take, Drama Queen?" the grey bunny sassed back.

"You two know each other," Bella piped up, having recovered from her end of the sonic attack before.

The red fox rolled his eyes as the girls began to giggle.

0000000

Even considering the strange delays, and the oddly calm manner in which everyone seemed to take the information about Shards, as well as Nick and Judy's potential immortality, the team found their way onto a specially modified transport to take the group to the crash site. Government sanctioned salvage teams, not to mention the media circus, were already working in full swing when they arrived.

The armored fox almost wished they had a less anti-climactic reaction, chalking it up to modern science fiction mediums that ranged from mild to outrageous in theme desensitizing the masses. He grumbled a bit when he remembered there had been events of the past year with Drones and Shards that probably shattered the long standing ideals of what reality was to the Earth, with Zootopians as a whole probably having to adapt to odd circumstances. Still… he couldn't deny he wanted more of a wide-eyed reaction.

Bella and Connor had no reason to disbelieve him, considering what they saw together. Gus seemed rather uncaring, either not deigning to refute the story or internalizing his surprise, if any. Essie simply shrugged and complained that, by comparison, at least they don't have to pay for a health plan and skydive without a parachute.

Judy took exceptional joy at seeing his grumpy face.

Regardless of his melancholy at having the supernatural quality of his life reduced to just another thing in this crazy universe, he was at least glad that no one got up and walked out.

Fears allayed, the tod now twisted himself to look out the one way tinted windows in the transport. Leo was driving it by remote, the others talking amongst themselves.

Nerves twisting in his gut, the transport stopped, well behind the erected barriers marking the area as closed off to his relief. Armor or not, he did not like being the center of media attention.

The back doors opened up, an entourage of people leaning in for a peek, along with a few administrative mammals to receive them from the government.

"I would like to formally welcome you, Flux," a stubby, suited beaver chimed, looking over a clipboard and adjusting his square rim glasses. "As per the request, we have accommodated certain teams for your… associates."

The last word seemed to be spoken rather venomously, a gruff snort sounding over the comm from the suits. It was clear to Nick that Connor had something to say.

"Mind explaining, Bud?" the red tod called out, engaging in obligatory replies to the beaver male.

"That's Kent Cast," the gnu remarked with obvious distaste. "He's not a bad mammal, per say, but he's so up his own tail with rules and regulations that he would have you sign papers in triplicate before allowing you the release needed to sneeze. Annoying for anyone that wants to relax and even my superiors don't like him in the room."

"Think that's why they tossed him on field duty?" Phantom murmured with a snicker.

With no small amount of satisfaction, the wildebeest could almost be heard smiling as he snidely admitted, "I'm going to pretend that's the case. He hates the outdoors."

Reengaging with the stuffy beaver, Flux rolled his eyes as he spoke, "I shall send my team out once I give them a final debrief."

Kent didn't even look at him as he nodded and chuffed, turning to address someone else, as if the fox weren't worth his time.

Inside his armor, the tod's brow arched in confusion.

"Don't take it too personally," Connor remarked, the team coming out and standing behind the armored fox. "Once he checkmarks anything, including conversations, off his 'To do' list, you don't exist to him until you resurface as something to be dealt with."

Nick shrugged, replying to the gnu, "Alright. I'll take your word for it. It's easier to talk to you if he's ignoring me anyways."

After letting everyone surround him, he closed outside speakers down and kept the line open only between their suits.

"Now then, no names. If you introduce yourselves, you commit to your new names," he explained. "Only the proper authorities know anything about who is in the suits you don and I don't want any unfortunate characters knowing. Identity protection and all that jazz. Breaker and Bearzerker, you two are doing heavy lifting in the construction zone on the buildings needing repair. Rebound, safety checks and emergency response. Your suit has jump thrusters. Quick and reactive. If someone falls or drops something, you have the quickest suit to catch or intercept anything. Shroud, your suit has deep scanning tech in it. You will coordinate the techs and salvage crew to find the safest spots and pinpoint weaknesses to address or avoid. Phantom and I will be flexing where needed and likely dealing with making sure your suits are functioning properly. Understood?"

Grunts, yips, yeps, and nods all around.

The armored rabbit stuck her paw in the middle, surprising most as she said, "Come on."

Essie joined without hesitation. Gus joined a moment later, then Connor and Bella shortly thereafter. Nick was the last and seemed confused. His paw was the last to join, a sense of inclusion and connection making him tingle.

Nick had a team. He had people at his back to help. Sure, there was Judy, but this was different. It was something he missed most of his life. A herd, a pride, a warren, a skulk. The tod lacked being able to put himself in with others, especially since he would likely outlive them all. He mostly abstained simply because he thought he would be alone no matter what, but Judy changed all of that for him.

"Break!" the doe chirped, to which the group split apart, Flux looking over at his plated paw, smiling all the while.

"I think it would be wise to address the media at the border of the salvage zone," the android's voice cut through evenly.

"Ah… yeah," the red tod relented, holding onto the feeling and padding smoothly to a gaggle of reporters, beginning to shout incomprehensible questions as quickly as a rapid firing machine gun.

"Who are the mammals in the new suits? Are they piloted or automated?"

"Are you working for the government now?"

"Is this a new tactic for the Drone assault?"

"What has changed since your apprehension?"

"If this is a joint effort, how have you resolved the differences from their attempted capture of you?"

Many more were asked, but those were the ones Leo caught and scrolled across his display in text, like subtitling this circus of a gathering with microphones and paws shoved in his face from behind the red tape.

He splayed out his paws, calmly signalling all to calm down and let him speak. They thankfully acquiesced.

"First of all," Flux began, voice modulated through the suit and given higher volume to cut through the crowd, "I would like to address the potential misconception of my joint effort with the government. I am working WITH them. My capture was not a means to force my paw to cooperate with them. To the contrary, I wanted nothing further to deal with on their end. However, I and they cannot afford to squabble over anything in the face of something so daunting."

"What about the new armored mammals?" a goat bleated loudly, yelling over a few other murmured questions. "Do they work for you or the government? If the latter, can we trust them not to try anything like seizing your tech and doing your job for you?"

"They are from a privately accrued list of individuals that I researched and investigated as prime candidates for a teammate," the armored tod relayed in detail. "They are not contracted or thrust upon me without choice. In fact, I have given them all opportunities to turn this down. At the core of their induction… they are purely volunteers… and I have my volunteers."

The crowd exploded in question, most of which to the spirit of "Is that what you're calling your team?"

"Wait what?" Flux sputtered, flabbergasted. "That's not what I… It's… woah slow down."

It was too late, the media running with it, some of the mammals turning to their cameras to make comments and solidify the name.

"Might as well let them run with that," the mechanical being told him plainly. "You would have unlikely gotten to name them otherwise. Be sure to take control over who names the members themselves, however."

"That's not the name I imagined though," the fox complained in a hushed tone over the comm. "I didn't have a name picked out exactly, but that sounds like we're a fire department… not a team of defenders."

"Fire fighters are just a different form of damage control and mitigation, which is the core of your mission," Leo rebuked him. "Best to run with the fact they gave you a very versatile name instead of something that made you sound like an assassin squad with big guns."

"I guess you're right… Volunteers, huh…" Nick sighed to himself, trying to see all the pluses of such a name.

"What do we call the others?" a new voice asked. That perked the fox up, knowing he had to jump on that before some fool tacked on ridiculous names.

Pulling out an expandable black screen, the pictures of his new members, all in suits of course, showed up, to which he denoted for each mammal, "They are Breaker, Shroud, Bearzerker, and Rebound. And they… are the Volunteers. We… are the Volunteers."


YAY!

Got to finally put together a team AND name it. well... Nick didn't get to like he wanted, but still. XD

I'm a down home country boy from Tennessee, so the Volunteer name means a lot to me. Whenever disaster struck in the country, my hometown was one of many that banded their workforce together (Electricians, Infrastructure, general construction, etc.) and ended up being shipped to the regions in peril. Like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

I'm really glad though about the positive feedback about my original characters. This is the first fic I feel I've delved so deep into investing into widening my character base in a fic. My other works may have had one or two with depth, but I felt they didn't have enough to stand on their own. These ones though... with Essie, Connor, Gus, and Bella... not to mention Leo... I love these guys and writing them.

Until next time, It's been a hustle, Sweethearts.