Disclaimer: Zootopia stories, characters, settings, and properties belong to the Walt Disney Co. This story is written under Fair Use Copyright laws.


The Fire Triangle—A Zootopia Fanfiction


Part One:

Fuel


Chapter 7—Tying Up Loose Ends
(Pt. 7…Conclusion)

"Now folks, let me point out that my engineer is an otter and my daughter's two best girlfriends are a weasel and a fennec…and I have absolutely no problem with that. But would she ever date a predator? The answer is not on your life, and I wouldn't allow it anyway. If some of you do-gooder species have a problem with that, I suggest you change the channel and go look after your own families. But don't come whimpering to me when your kid…"

Erin Hopps thumped her foot and tried to drown out the harangue coming from down the hall. She wished like heck that someone, any one of the other girls would finish up showering so she could take her turn and be done with this.

She was sitting on a bench outside the girl's bathroom in the Hopps Family Warren, waiting to get cleaned up before turning in for the night. What the heck was taking Liddy so long?

Fifteen yards away, in one the Hopps Family Warren's many dens, Rock Hardesty continued with his televised diatribe.

"It's fine to have a predator for a business partner or a schoolmate…even a BFF, but a romantic relationship? I'm sorry mammals, we have to draw the line somewhere…"

Erin sighed and stopped thumping her foot, it wasn't helping and if she made it any louder, her brother Billy would come out of his room and start complaining. Ohhh, why did this particular tunnel have to act like a blankety-blank echo chamber?

She could picture the scene in the den one flight below; the Hopps family adults all gathered in front of television #3, occasionally nodding in agreement with what they were hearing. Her father was only a causal viewer of the Rock Hardesty show, but her big bother, Stu Hopps Junior tried never to miss a broadcast, even saving the episodes he couldn't catch on Tivole. (He was an avid listener of the hyrax's radio program, as well.)

Rock Hardesty's program—or rather programs—originated in Zootopia, where his radio talk-show was the #1in the ratings. (His TV show wasn't doing too shabby either.) Here in the Burrow, where there was lot less competition, he all but owned the airwaves.

It was easy to see why; Hardesty's standard delivery style was a kind of old-fashioned folksiness that could charm and disarm. Usually, Erin found him easy to ignore. When he 'got his evangelical on' as her mother liked to say, then it was 'like trying to tune out someone dragging a rake across a chalkboard.' (Her friend, Terri Blackburn's words; Terri heartily detested the hyrax.) When he went on the attack, it was even worse; he had a habit of hanging up on callers who disagreed with him, and then belittling them once they were off the air. To Erin that smacked of cowardice; trash-stalking animals who couldn't defend themselves. And just to add insult to insult, whenever Hardesty booted a caller off his show, he would play the sound effect of a toilet flushing and then declare, "Back to where you came from, do-gooder."

That never failed to get a laugh out of most of the Hopps Family adults; most of the kids just rolled their eyes.

Erin Hopps wasn't one of them; Hardesty's methods were eerily similar to those once employed by a certain mean vixen named Amanda Hill…when she'd launched her online campaign against a certain young, white-furred bunny.

Amanda… Erin couldn't help smiling wickedly at the thought. Earlier in the day, the news had come down from Zootopia; Craig Guilford had been captured up in the Meadowlands District, along with his girlfriend, (by Officer Judy Hopps no less; who-hoooo, way to go big sis!)

"Erin, shower's free." A voice spoke from beside her, breaking the trance.

"Thanks Liddy." She said, bounding up and scampering through the door.

She allowed herself the luxury of an extra lathering; something about the rhetoric she'd been forced to endure while awaiting her turn demanded it…and besides, Lidia had taken longer than usual too.

When Erin emerged from the shower room a short while later, smelling faintly of mint and lavender, Hardesty was still at it; in fact he seemed to have amped up his oratory.

"If we allow public displays of affection between predator and prey, where does it end, mammals? Where…does…it…end? Well, let me tell you where it ends. Dateline, Pawley-Furham, North Caroliona…"

He went on to describe the case of a cougar that had become engaged to marry a white-tailed deer and had instead ended up getting killed by her in self-defense. Okay, that was too much. Never mind the 'Dateline', Erin happened to know that story, and it was more than two years old. Not only that; how, exactly, had that episode started with a public display of affection? There'd been no mention of that in the original news item, not that she could remember now.

She scurried down the hallway, headed for her hutch as fast as her feet would take her. Enough of THIS!

It was only after she closed the door that the young bunny began to relax. Now, at last, the voice of the hyrax was inaudible. She checked her clock, only 8:30. Hmmm, she hadn't been waiting as long as she'd thought; still a good half hour to go before the chat started. Well that was okay, better early than late; she could finish brushing her fur and maybe surf the web for a while.

A short time later, after changing into her robe and her favorite PJs, Erin opened the door to her hutch just a crack and slipped her 'Do Not Disturb' sign into place. (It actually read 'Bug Me and DIE!'—with a hastily scrawled note underneath explaining that the warning did not apply to her parents.)

Though she tried to pretend that she was winging it, Erin knew exactly where she was going from the instant she opened her laptop. Rock Hardesty's topic of choice this evening had gotten seriously under her skin…and it all came down to a silver fox she'd recently met by the name of Conor Lewis.

Of course, his remark about kissing her had only been meant to push her buttons; Erin understood that now, he hadn't actually been suggesting anything of the kind. But still…imagine if her mom and dad had heard about it after instead of before tonight's edition of the Rock Hardesty Show; her father and Stu Jr. would be loading shotguns!

(Oh-kayyy, they wouldn't go that far, but they'd still be plenty riled; so would her mother, let's be honest.)

Species aside, there was something about Conor that Erin found both a little bit frightening and oddly alluring. He wasn't a bad kid—they wouldn't have let him anywhere near the Zootopia Academy for the Performing Arts if that was the case—but at the same time, there was no denying that he was a tough kid. He was smart, too…and not just book smart, this fox had street smarts in spades. Look at the way he'd conned Jerry Guilford into making his approach over the fireworks display. (Okay, okay…that had actually been Nick Wilde's idea, but Conor was the one who'd pulled it off.)

Yep, there was something of the rogue about that young fox. He might not be a bad boy, but he wasn't above 'playing the sly' when it suited his purpose…as he had when he'd bought her bass guitar to keep her from breaking it and then sold it back to her at cost. (And whoa, did he play one mean-tailed electric six himself or what?)

Erin laced her fingers behind her head, stretched her back and groaned, lamenting to no one on in particular.

"N'ohhhh, I finally meet a guy who's exciting to be around—and that isn't a jerk—and he turns out to be a stinkin' fox!"

Erin Hopps was a lovely, young thing and she knew it, soft blue eyes and creamy white fur tipped with black around her paws, feet, and the point of her ears; her lithe figure was a far cry from the chubby little bunny she'd been only a few years previously. It went without saying that a girl like her would attract the attentions of the boys at her school. Unfortunately for her, the cutest bunny-guys at Rogers Middle School were also the biggest jerks. Max March, there was a good example, sooo certain he was going to be a soccer superstar someday. Yes, he was a great player, the Raiders' star striker, but he showed up on time for practice only when the spirit moved him, and maintained a GPA just barely high enough to keep him from getting cut from the team. Not once but twice, he had stolen the ball from one of his own teammates so that HE could score the winning goal…and both times he'd put on a grandstand show afterwards, in the second instance nearly getting sent off the field for his antics.

All that, Erin could have tolerated, but Max also seemed to take it for granted that one day she was going to be his girlfriend.

As IF…Gah, she couldn't wait to get away from Bunnyburrow.

Banishing these thoughts as best she could, Erin cracked her knuckles and then opened Zoogle.

She typed the name 'Rock Hardesty' in the search window and then as an afterthought, added 'Wiki'.

"No WAY is that macho-mammal handle his real name," she thought as she clicked on the appropriate entry. Her hunch turned out to be a no-brainer, Hardesty's birth name was Ernie Van Daas—and there were a few other tidbits about him on Wikipredia that she hadn't been aware of.

First of all, there was his species. Most animals assumed that a hyrax was either a large rodent, or a relative of the rabbit family, (Erin herself had always thought that was the case.)

Nope…much to her surprise, the hyrax's closest animal relation was, of all things, the elephant. Hmm, well that explained one thing if nothing else; elephants were known to take an especially jaundiced view of predators, at least certain species of predators. It certainly fit in with what Hardesty had been saying during his broadcast.

The most interesting item had come from his biography; Hardesty had been born and raised in Las Vegoats Nevada, where his father had served as the entertainment manager at a number of the major hotels. The article didn't specify which ones, but that hardly mattered. Never mind his down-home delivery style, Rock Hardesty was about as country as a Furrari Dealership—yet another reason for Erin to loathe him, (yes, she was coming to feel the same way about the hyrax as Terri.)

But then her laptop pinged and she saw that it was time. Closing the page, she clicked on the icon for Discorps and waited for it to load.

When it did, the young bunny was presented with a choice of several different servers. She immediately chose the one marked YRC (Young Rockers Community.) She spent a few more seconds deciding on which of two rooms to hit first, #General or #Bass-slappers..

She finally clicked on #General.

211 Miles away Conor Lewis was starting the dishwasher, and also preparing to join the YRC chat.

A casual visitor to the young fox's loft might have been tempted to assume that he was a prisoner here, perhaps even the star of a junior version of The Shrewman Show; the every wall, and even the ceiling was lined with stout cyclone-fencing. In fact, the purpose of this barrier was not to keep him from escaping, but to prevent any sensitive information from getting away …and also to keep any prying electronic eyes and ears on the OUTSIDE of the loft; it was actually a giant Furiday cage, heavily grounded at several key points.

And then there was the living space, easily mistaken for a television soundstage; except for the bathroom, (and another enclosure which the young fox never entered,) there were no separate rooms as such; the various spaces —the kitchen, the bedroom, the living room, etc.—were divided off from one another through the use of panels of the type normally employed to create office cubicles.

It was a plush residence to say the least; the Grand Suite at Palm Hotel had nothing on these digs. The loft boasted a giant, flat panel, UHD TV with a CATMOS sound system, a state of the art gym, and a top-of-the-line Jackalzzi Spa. All of the furniture was rendered in oak and all of the kitchen appliances in brushed steel. A back-up generator on the floor below stood ready to take up the slack in the event of a power outage. There was track lighting overhead, a state-of the art of climate control system beside the elevator, and hardly a speck of dust to seen anywhere, courtesy of a pair of industrial strength HEPA-LUMP filters.

None of this was unusual given the loft's pedigree; it had originally been built at the behest of James 'the Mister' McCrodon, then head of the Zoo York City crime syndicate known as The Company. A sea-mink with tastes that ran to extravagant, The Mister had ordered it constructed as a hideout in the event he ever had to go on the lam, (something that had been a distinct possibility, only a few years back.)

The design and most of the construction work had been overseen by his nephew, Kieran McCrodon, The Company's resident cyber-genius, (someone Conor tried to avoid thinking too much about these days.) With the demise of The Mister and all his lieutenants, it had fallen into the young silver fox's possession, his fortress, sanctuary, and great keep. Here was where he had lived for the past three years since escaping from ZooYork City.

He watched the dishwasher's light go on, heard the familiar hiss of water, and then went to the fridge to grab a bottle of pop and some blackberries before heading on over to the Furrison Hotel.

The Furrison was the loft's computer center; it had been given that name by Kieran, a left-pawed reference to the old Dormice tune, Back Door Mammal, "The Furrison's got access to like a million back doors, boyo," he had said, in his farewell message to Conor, recorded at a time when the need for the young fox to take up residence here had seemed about as likely as getting hit by a subway train while riding in a blimp. Instead, it had turned out to be a remarkably prescient action on the sea-mink's part…and hadn't that been just like him?

The Furrison hotel was placed roughly in the center of the loft, the optimum location for its purposes. It looked something like a kitsch-art igloo, or perhaps a beaver lodge, a geodetic dome, woven from copper cable and overlaid with copper mesh. (Conor always thought it looked like a funky, giant tortoise shell.) Like the surrounding box of cyclone fencing, it was also heavily grounded, a Furaday cage within a Furaday cage. You could aim a ZASA radio telescope at this building from two blocks away and never know it was in here.

Placing his paw pads against the access panel beside the door, Conor solemnly intoned "Fo-E-N-X Two Two Three times One Nine."

The door responded by unlatching with a click and a hum.

The password had been another one of Kieran's innovations; anyone seeing it written on paper—Phoenix 223X19—would assume it was pronounced 'Feenix Two Twenty Three, Ecks Nineteen'. If that happened the Furrison Hotel would immediately lock itself down and encrypt all its data files. And just in case some military type got their paws on the pass code, the final nine would likely trip them up; they'd be inclined to pronounce it 'niner' rather than nine, and the results would be the same.

Conor opened the door and stepped inside; it locked automatically behind him.

The array inside of the Furrison looked like a cross between a Nautilus shell, a lunar landing module and an online gamer's lottery fantasy. It boasted a 32 inch UHD display screen (interactive) with two more screens on either side, plus another one mounted overhead.

And then there were the peripherals, an ergonomic keyboard, and the choice of a mouse, a trackball, a joystick, or a stylus control. Beneath the task table was a Blu-Ray drive with eight separate bays all of which could copy any DVD in seconds, even an encrypted one. The set up came with both standard and VR headsets, both with 5 channel capability and noise cancelling earphones. The external speakers were 7.1 surround.

The only thing missing was the hard drive; that was kept on the floor below, along with a small server farm; both of these also inside Furaday cages. It might have seemed odd to put such computing power inside a location that was all but impregnable to an outside signal—how the heck were you supposed to access the net? But there were ways around even a double Furiday cage; to get on the internet, Conor had a choice of ten different heavily shielded DSL lines, (three of the routed to server farms in countries with little or no regard for international law,) and six different Wi-Fi routers, the closest one terminating in Tundratown, But just in case even that wasn't enough security, the computer had the capability of piggybacking onto someone else's Wi-Fi router. (Conor's favorite was located in Litvarks, a video game parlor in the downtown distract; after that place closed its doors for the evening, the sky was the limit.) He would not use that router tonight though; piggybacking was strictly for 'going where angels fear to tread', (another of Kieran's favorite terms.)

The sea-mink had christened his computer set-up The Beast, and was (had been) justifiably proud of his creation, which he considered his piece de resistance. Conor had never thought of it as anything less; this computer's capabilities were almost fearsome. With the Beast as your guide, you could access almost any database in Greater Zootopia, City Hall, the Zootopia TransitSystem, Zootopia Gas and Electric, the local TV and radio stations, and yes, even The ZPD's computer firewalls were as tissue paper before The Beast. And if you wanted to tap into someone else's private conversation, less than a mile uphill from Conor's loft was the peak where the city planted most of its transmission towers, a veritable fountain of information if you had the means to siphon it off, (which Conor obviously did.) There was, in fact, probably only one database in whole of the city that was impervious to The Beast…and the young fox had no desire to go anywhere near that place.

For all of its power, the Beast was a surprisingly easy machine to operate; Kieran McCrodon had designed it that way. While The Mister had always planned to have his nephew accompany him in the event he had to go to ground, both of them had recognized early on that in the real world, such a thing might not be a possible; there was every chance that if James 'The Mister' McCrodon was forced to make a run for it, he might end up in Zootopia completely on his own, with no one else to assist him.

Unlike his Tundratown counterpart Mr. Big, McCrodon had embraced the digital realm early and hard, the first mob boss to incorporate cybercrime into his rackets. Even so, he had never quite gotten the hang of working with a computer himself. Not to put too fine a point on it, he didn't know Lionux from Zootopia ON-lion. And so his nephew had been required to create what he called an 'idiot proof' operating system for the computer, (although he never used those words within earshot of The Mister…or especially that spoiled-brat kid of his.)

Conor Lewis on the other paw, DID possess some computer savvy—he was no Mr. Roebuck, but he more than got by—and so working a set-up like The Beast was a snap for the young silver fox, (and he was learning more and more every day. Kieran had left a whole stack of tutorial DVDs in the loft, to say nothing of the members of The Circle, always ready to assist the young fox with a problem.)

The zero-gravity task chair was just wee bit too large for him; it had been designed for a fully grown sea-mink not for a juvenile silver fox. Before seating himself, Conor always needed to add a cushion to the mix in order to elevate himself to keyboard level. It was nothing he couldn't handle; heck, when he'd first moved in here, he'd needed THREE cushions to get the job done. (And at least now his legs were long enough to reach the footrest, if it was cranked in all the way.)

Placing his paw against the main, interactive screen, (it had a built-in print-reader,) Conor greeted The Beast with a cheerful "Good morning, Mother," his private joke, and recited the access code "Gee-ni-ton, Are-of, Why-enom, thirty-four" ('Money for Nothing' spelled backward with the first letter of each word pronounced phonetically and 'For Free' reversed and pronounced numerically.)

All around him the screens turned blue, and then his desktop appeared, a panoramic view sweeping across all three of the frontal screens; the main stage of the Hopredy Music Festival, with his number one guitar hero, Richard Tomcat playing for the crowd. (Someday, the young fox vowed, he would attend that gathering in furson…and not as spectator.)

He slipped on one of the headsets—the non-VR one—and adjusted the cans and microphone, grateful that he was finally growing into it. (He'd once had to use a rubber strap to keep it in place.)

Before anything else, Conor had a duty to perform and he spoke three words into the headset.

"Picture, mom, enter."

At once, the familiar image of his mother appeared on all four screens, the only picture he had of her. He spent a moment studying her features and then dismissed the image with the word, "Escape."

Conor had begun this daily ritual back in Zoo York City, when he'd begun having more and more trouble remembering what his mother looked like. Having long since sworn never to forget her, he had immediately made a habit of looking at her picture on a daily basis, making certain no was watching while he did. (Back then he was getting razzed about everything by some of the guys in The Company.)

No similar ceremony existed for the young fox's father; Conor had no idea who he was, much less what he looked like. They had never met, and his mother had only mentioned him once, (and not in a complimentary fashion.)

Checking the clock, Conor saw that he had plenty of time left before the chat started, and as with Erin Hopps, he decided to surf the net awhile.

UN-like the young, white-furred bunny, he didn't bother looking up Rock Hardesty's name. He knew about the hyrax of course—you couldn't get away from his billboards, here in the city—but he had zero interest in the Hardesty Show or anything that its host might have to say.

Besides, when he called up his newsfeed, he found a much more interesting tidbit. Craig Guilford had been captured along with his girlfriend, up in the Meadowlands; the details were sketchy, but….what the? He'd been busted while trying to make his escape in a stolen airplane!

Forgetting the computer for moment, Conor leaned back in his chair, directing his gaze upwards, towards the roof of the Furrison Hotel. Holy fox-trot, he had known from first glimpse that Craig was missing a few keys from his piano, but this? This was Crazy Wez all over again!

"And how the heck did that punk coyote end up here in Zootopia?" he asked himself rhetorically, and then let his mind drift backwards. Wez McCrodon…now, there was a name that hadn't crossed Conor's mind in a long, long time. Was he still locked up in the psycho ward? Probably, unless he was dead; if they'd done to him what the young fox thought they had done…. Aggghhh, grrr, don't go there, kid!

For the longest time after his escape from The Point, Conor had been completely unable to fathom why Wez had backed out on their plan…just like that, no warning, not even a hint that he was getting cold feet.

But now the young sliver fox thought he knew the reason for his erstwhile partner's sudden loss of courage…this is, when he chose to think about it, which wasn't very often; if he was right, it was something almost too horrible to contemplate.

He shook himself hard, as if attempting to dry off, (nearly losing his headset in the process) and sat rapidly upright again.

Conor spent the next few minutes browsing through Zebray, hunting for guitar bargains; he didn't find any worth bidding on, but he did come across a couple to drool over. (Oooo, a Yakmachine F8, if only…!)

At 9:00 sharp, a lilting note pinged in his ears, 'puh-WONG!', and he spoke aloud into his headset. "Open Discorps, enter."

Unlike with Erin, here it took the application only a fraction of a second to load. But very much like her, Conor had a choice to make between one of two rooms, #General and #GuitarHeroes. He immediately clicked on the first one; there was practically no one else in GH yet, and there wouldn't be for at least another half hour, the room always filled up later on in the evening.

As soon as he entered, a familiar name hailed the young fox.

Diredark: "Yo silver, where you been, mammal?"

Conor answered him immediately

Eljaysliver: "Down state at this fair-type-thing, doing some selling, doing some playing."

Conor had taken his screen name not from his fur color but from the title of Richard Tomcat tune, Long John Silver, a song dedicated to the fine art of hustling, (and he WAS a silver fox)

Lectricat5: "Cool beans, you make good money?"

Eljaysliver: "Yeah, worked out really good. I didn't plan on playing just getting in some practice, but they had this talent thing show going, and I wasn't gonna turn that down."

Diredark: "Whoa, neat. Did you win?"

BlackPakR: "He said show, not contest, dude."

Diredark: "D'ohhhh, right! Was it a good gig anyway?."

Eljaysliver: "Kicked tail, I was onstage with this girl I met, amazing voice and a great bass player. We gave 'em Tie Your Mother Down and just tore it up."

Lectricat5: "Who Hoo, was she cute, mammal?"

Conor sighed and shook his head. Typical Lectric; mentioning girls in his presence was like peeling open a sardine can in front of a starving otter. He smirked as he typed his response.

Eljaysliver: "No dude, she was really ugly."

He gave it another two seconds and then let Lectricat have it.

Eljaysliver: "She was your mom."

THAT was good for an entirely predictable response

BlackPakR: "LOL!

Diredark: "LMTO!"

Lectricat's response was an emoticon of a rude gesture.

211 Miles to the south, Erin Hopps was gaping at her computer screen. What the heck? Eljaysliver was CONOR?

She had seen him here in Discorps chat many times under that name, even talked with him once or twice, but if she hadn't just seen it for herself, she never would have believed that this was the same boy she'd shared the stage with only few days ago.

But who else could it be? Eljay had played guitar onstage with a girl and so had Conor, she'd been a bass player with an amazing voice, and so was Erin, (well she WAS!), and they'd played Tie Your Mother Down together…just like her and Conor silver fox. Could all that be just a coincidence? Could a sloth beat a cheetah in a footrace?

"The heck with #Basslappers," she told herself, and then moved the cursor to Conor's screen-name name and right-clicked.

Conor heard the 'Puh-WONG!' in his headset again. At first he didn't know what was going on…but then saw the pop-up window in the lower right corner of the screen.

Saintgirl Has Sent You An Invitation To A Private Chat
Do You Want To Accept?

Yes[_] No[_]

Conor felt his ear and eyebrow rising. Saintgirl, what the foxtrot could she possibly want? If he'd chatted with her a half dozen times in the past, that was a lot. Still…his vulpine curiosity was up; he clicked on 'Yes' and then pressed enter, at the same time using a voice command to move the new window to the right-side of the screen. Then he typed a quick message.

Eljaysliver: "Hey Saintgirl, what up?"

In the next half-second he understood everything.

Saintgirl: "Conor, is that you? It's me, Erin."

The young fox laughed and clapped his paws, and then typed rapidly.

Eljaysliver: "Yep, you got me."

It was no surprise that he hadn't known Saintgirl was Erin Hopps before tonight. Like any sensible kid, she had always made a point of never revealing any fursonal information online. Where she lived, her exact age, her telephone number, her email address, and even her species had all remained hidden until now. Heck, if it hadn't been for the 'girl' attached to her name, Conor wouldn't even have been certain of her gender. Other than that, the only thing he knew about her was that she'd taken her screen name from the movie, The Boondog Saints.

Erin had guessed who he was from his description of their gig together, of course. Otherwise his identity would have remained as much of cipher to her as hers had been to him. (In fact, Conor was even stingier with his fursonal info than she was. He had to be; if the wrong mammal latched on to any of HIS secrets…)

Saintgirl: "Wanna go to voice-chat?"

Eljaysliver: "Works for me. Webcam?" He thought he should ask first.

Saingirl: "Yeah, I'm good."

A second later, her face appeared on the screen. Conor felt his throat tighten and then shook it off; Erin was speaking to him.

"Well? Come on already, fox."

Conor spoke as well but to The Beast, not to her. "Voice-chat, headset, surround. Webcam, Green-Screen, Bedroom, Night, Enter."

Erin almost started to thump her foot; what the heck was taking him so long, but then there he was in front of her.

He wasn't wearing his usual poor-boy cap, only some kind of sports jersey in cobalt blue; she could just make out the words 'Hurling Club'. Behind him, she could see a dresser and some posters. He was in his bedroom. (Actually, he wasn't; the backdrop was a projection, courtesy of an app Kieran McCrodon had devised.)

That was when she noticed the way he was looking at her. A week ago, she would have blocked him for it; not now. She pretended to sigh.

"Awww do I really look that bad tonight?"

Conor responded with a wink and sharp, foxy grin.

"Name a gift, then speak my name; if it's bread and honey, I own a hive."

Erin giggled and shot a finger at the monitor screen.

"Heinlion, The Zoon is a Harsh Mistress." Whoa, it hadn't taken him long to snap out of it. "Darn it, why couldn't you be another bunny?" she thought to herself. She said, "Hurling, what's that?"

"It's an Irish sport," the young sliver fox explained, pointing at the word on his jersey. "The best way to describe it is, thirty guys beat each other with sticks until a whistle blows. Then they start all over. No seriously, it's kinda like a hybrid of Lacrosse and Field Hockey." He did not mention that the jersey was gift from Kieran, who had taken up the game after his uncle had forbidden him to participate in Mixed Martial Arts any further. Back then it had been three sizes too large for the young silver fox.

"I play field hockey," Erin said, "Does the Academy have a team?"

"Nah, they don't have much in the way of team sports," Conor shook his head. "They've got an athletic field, and a basketball court; the kids play there all the time, but nothing's organized, just pick up games."

Erin blew a stray tuft of fur off of her nose. Darn it, the shedding season was supposed to be over. Well at least ZAPA had a place to play; maybe she could start a field hockey team when she got there.

"IF I get accepted," she reminded herself archly. As her mother always said, 'Don't cross your bridges before you get to them.'

"So, what'cha doin'?" she asked, returning her attention to the here and now.

"Not a lot just hanging out in chat," the young fox answered, reaching for his bottle of soda. He took a swig and then said, "Had a good day, though. You know that double-neck guitar I snagged the parts from to repair your bass? I took it down to the Peace Rock Guitar Co-Op with me this morning, and Eric told me it's completely fixable; we're gonna do a full refurbish on that bad boy."

Erin threw up a fist and whooped, "Wow, that's so cool, Conor. You're going get a new guitar out of this." She had always thought his reward for all the help he'd given her had been way too insufficient.

Conor tilted his head and felt his mouth pull sideways.

"Welll, that depends on whether or not I can afford to buy it back after the work's all done," he said (He could and he would, but he wasn't about to say so just yet; now was not the time.) "To quote Heinlion again, 'TANSTAAFL;' I'd love to have it though. I know parts of a few songs that'd sound killer on a twelve-string."

"There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch," Erin translated the quote for him, and then nodded soberly, "I know what you mean, Conor. Someday, I want to learn how to play a fretless bass; I love that sound."

"Yeah, me too," the young fox answered, smiling. It was on the tip of his tongue to inform her that she'd get the chance to learn all that and more at the Performing Arts Academy but again, not yet—not until she got in. While there was no doubt in his mind that this bunny had the goods to pull it off, 'TANSTAAST', There Ain't No Such Thing As A Sure Thing', either.

So instead he told her, "And then after work, a bunch of us got together to watch Carlos Sandcata's online guitar class. Whoa that was just sick, bunny-girl."

Erin felt her nose starting to pinch up, but then remembered that 'sick' in city-speak was another word for mega-cool.

"Ooo neat, I heard about that. Have they got one for bass players, do you know?" she asked.

Conor's mouth pulled sideways again. "Mmmm, no…I don't know that. I bet they do though, there's a whole bunch of those online master classes, you could prolly look it on Zoogle. Tom Furello teaches one, too." He felt his brow starting to furrow and his ears pulling backwards as he remembered something; his buddy Saad was a huge fan of Cage Against The Machine.

"Agggh, grrr…those dirty slime buckets, just WAIT until I…!

"Hello-oooo? Ground Control to Major Fox, come in, please."

Oops, he'd forgotten about Erin for a moment.

"Sorry, sorry," he told her, raising his paws. "I kind of reminded myself of something there; friend of mine at the Co-Op asked me to help him out with something tomorrow. Can't talk about it, he made me promise, but it's not a happy thang, if you know what I mean."

Erin knew, but she wasn't thinking about it. The look on Conor's face just now had sent a slow chill up the back of her neck. Somebody had crossed that friend of his…and that somebody was going to regret it, big time. This was exactly the way he'd looked when he'd hacked into Amanda Hill's video files.

Amanda? There's your change of subject, Erin. Grab it quick, before it gets away.

"Oh, I almost forgot. Have you heard yet? Craig and Amanda were busted up there in Zootopia earlier today."

"Yeah, saw that on my news feed right after I logged online." The young fox answered her, "Up in the Meadowlands; would you believe stupid 'yote tried to rip off a stinkin' airplane?"

To the young fox's surprise, Erin responded to this with a twitching nose. Okay…so this was news to her, but it shouldn't have been that big of a surprise. Craig's dad was a pilot and so was his uncle. It naturally followed that…

"Uh, you didn't see who caught them?" her voice was cautious, almost tentative, and then she said, "It was my sister, Judy and Nick Wilde."

Conor reeled back in his chair as if a plug of wind had burst out of the monitor screen and hit him, full in the face. Oh yeah, that explained her reaction, and no…

"No, I didn't see that; the story I read didn't mention it. Wow, cool on them. Craig didn't give them any trouble, I hope." From what he'd seen of the young coyote—and smelled of him—that punk was just mean enough and dumb enough to try and fight it out with the cops, (especially if they were members of a species smaller than he was.)

Erin fanned a paw in front of her webcam.

"Naw, they had plenty of back up; Judy's the one who figured out where they were hiding, though." There was an unmistakable note of pride in her voice.

Conor thought, "Welllll why not? She's entitled," and then he said, "Whoaf, I wouldn't wanna be in Craig's fur right now; they'll try his coyote butt as an adult for sure."

"You think?" Erin's, nose twitching again.

"Positive," the young fox answered, reaching for the bowl of blackberries. "You seen the latest news on his father? They're gonna charge him as terrorist…and sonny-boy Craig was his spotter. You don't end up in juvie for something that messed up; it's prison for him." He frowned and added a qualifier, "Unnn-less he can cut a deal of course, but I don't think he's got too much of a shot at it. Burrow County has more than enough to convict his dad without any help from him."

Erin's nose began to twitch even faster and the felt the corners of her mouth curving earthward. Just how the heck did he know all this? Sweet cheez n' crackers, he seemed to be aware of it almost instinctively.

But if he knew that much then maybe he could tell her something else.

"What about Amanda, what do you think will happen to her?" she asked him.

Conor answered her question with one of his own.

"Mmmm, that depends; she got any kind of a record?"

"Not as far as I know," Erin ventured, carefully. It was possible she supposed, but doubtful.

"Then she'll probably get off with probation," Conor told her, "especially if she co-operates; and according to what I read, that's already happening." (Actually he hadn't read anything of the kind—but he'd seen Amanda up on that hillside with Craig. Oh yeah baby, she'd give up her boyfriend to save her own pelt…in a heartbeat!)

Erin, meanwhile, felt a punch of disappointment; Amanda Hill wasn't out of her life just yet. It must have registered on her face because Conor added a quick coda.

"For what it's worth Erin, I don't think she'll be giving you any more grief; after today she can probably kiss her online privileges buh-bye."

"Don't bet on it, silver-boy!" The young bunny's laugh was high, dry, and bitter, "If I know Mandy's folks, they'll probably buy her brand new computer…just to help her cope with all the trauma, poor baby."

Conor nodded again, this time warily. Eeee-yipe, could girls get vicious with each other sometimes or WHAT?

"Ah, I see. Spoiled, huh?"

"Like last month's cabbage!" Erin spat out the words, coming as close to a snarl as was possible for her species, "She's had it for me ever since school let out, the year before this one."

"Really, what for?" the young fox had his ears pricked up.

Erin threw up her paws as if signaling for a field goal, "I don't KNOW! That's the part that drives me crazy. It's like she just came at me out of nowhere. I didn't even know it was her harassing me online until Lisa Chatterton caught her bragging about it in the school cafeteria."

"I see," Conor's face had gone tombstone-cold and his voice had taken on a velvety sheen, "Well if she gets in your face again Erin, you know where to find me."

Erin Hopps hesitated for a second. She had the feeling that if she took that step, Conor would deal with Amanda the way a swatter 'deals' with a fly.

"You say that like it's a bad thing," her inner voice reminded her, and she quickly banished the thought from her mind.

"Thanks, but I don't think it'll come to that; she's out my hare for now, excuse the pun. Uhhh, can I ask you something?" It was time to change subjects again.

Conr's face became instantly piqued, "No, I won't do a pole dance."

Erin rolled her eyes.

"Har, har…Yeah, like that's something I'd ever want to see." She was laughing derisively, but the derisive part was forced. "Be serious, 'kay? I wanted to ask you a question about the Zootopia Performing Arts Academy."

"Okay, sorry, shoot," he said. He sounded sorry, but didn't look that way, he was getting his sly on again. Never mind let it pass, she told herself.

"All right," she said, "Well I know you can't actually help me with my audition, but are there any tips you can give me, any advice?"

"Oh yeah, I can give you some pointers," the young fox answered, happy to be of service, "first off, lay something on the judges that they'll recognize. Like the saying goes, you can't go wrong with the classics—but at the same time, you wanna try and put a new spin on it, show 'em something they haven't seen before. And last but not least, catch 'em by surprise, hit the judges with something that they totally won't be expecting; that's how you really get their attention."

"Oh-kayyy, Erin chewed her lip and nodded very slowly. Conor had just given her a lot to think about. "Is that what you did?" she asked him.

"Yeah, pretty much," he answered, tossing a paw in a 'whatever' gesture, his way of saying that this was ALL he was going to say.

Erin wanted to groan, talking with this fox could be like trying to pull a hippo's tooth with a pair of tweezers sometimes.

"All right, what did you do?" she asked him, trying not to sound exasperated.

Conor looked uncomfortable for a second

"Ahhh, it'd be easier to show you than to tell you," he said, "hold on a sec."

He did something and then a pop-up window appeared on her screen. She recognized it immediately as a Fuzztube window. The caption read simply, ZAPA Auditions, #29—Conor S. Lewis."

And then the playback commenced

"Hi, My names Conor," she heard him say—but she couldn't see him, the window was too small. She clicked to expand it to full screen, but then hit pause.

"Just a second, I need to go pee." She got up from her chair and disappeared off screen, returning about five minutes later with a bottle of apple cider.

She took a short swig and then seated herself.

"Kay, let's see what you've got, Conor," she said

She pressed play and heard a voice speaking from somewhere below the stage—one heckuva stage, like one of those grand old theaters from the days before TV…or even movies.

"Hello Conor, what are you going to perform for us, today?" a friendly female voice was asking him; Erin couldn't be sure but it sounded like Gazelle.

"Hi….Um, I'm going to play something by…uh, Led Zeppelion okay?"

Erin blinked, and then stared at the screen. What now? Conor was wide-eyed and trembling, and…where the heck was his electric guitar? All he had on him was an acoustic six, and he was holding onto it as if it was a life preserver and he was standing on the deck of a sinking ship.

"It's all right son, don't be nervous," someone else said, causing the young silver fox to fidget even more.

"Is this the same kid I played with at Carrot Days?" Erin wondered, nose twitching as she took another swig of her cider.

"I-I'm not nervous," the Conor on the screen insisted, looking sideways for a second, "I'm….just kinda pinched for time; I'm only gonna be able to do the short version of this song…just the short version. O-Okay…here we go."

He strummed a couple of notes, a familiar tune but Erin couldn't' quite place it.

And then he began to sing.

"Hangmammal….Hangmammal
Hold it a little while
I think I see my friends a-comin'
Ridin' many a—GYACK!"

The cider exploded out of Erin's nostrils like twin shotgun blasts. On the last word, Conor had snapped his head sideways, and stuck his tongue out the side of his mouth. (He had even managed to make his eyes bulge.)

Erin jumped up out of her chair, shaking her fingers and grimacing…and also laughing herself sick.

"Aahhh, eyeeww…fox, warn me if you're going to do that!" she said, sitting down quickly and grabbing a pawful of tissues from the dispenser she kept on her work desk.

She began wiping furiously at herself, (least she'd missed the laptop,) listening to Conor laughing his tail off…no wait, was that him or was it coming from the video? No, it was both, Erin finally decided. Oooo, she was SO going to get him back for this.

But then she heard a stentorian drumbeat come thundering off the Fuzztube vid, the opening rhythm of another Led Zep tune, a number much more familiar than the last one, and… and what the fresh heck? Conor had exchanged his unplugged six for the Strat he'd played at Carrot Days talent show. When had that happened?

Now he began to play along with the drumbeat, and he didn't look so unsure of himself now…or sound like it. (In fact, that had never been the case, Erin realized; the whole thing been an act.)

Conor played with the same flash and flourish she remembered from the Carrot Days show, whipping his finger against the strings on the concluding eight notes of each riff.

And then he began to sing.

"If it keeps on rainin', levee goin' to break
If it keeps on a RAIN-in', levee, she goin' to break."

Conor had said to put a new spin on an old song, and now Erin understood just what he'd meant by that, he sang the tune in a semi-Cajun accent, just enough, but not too much. He was also changing the lyrics when it suited him.

"She got just what it take to make a swamp fox leave his home.
"Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh, yeeeeah."

And yeah, he had great singing voice, too.

When he came to the first bridge that was Conor really began to show off his guitar chops; putting on a slide and turning his instrument into a slithering anaconda.

And then, when he started to sing again, he was belting it full force.

"Don't it make you feel bad
When you tryin' to find you way home.
An' you don't know which way to go-ho…?"

It was awesome; everything about the young fox's performance was just…awesome. His singing, his playing, and don't forget his timing, switching to his electric and starting the music again just as the judges' laughter had begun to subside.

No wonder they'd admitted him to the Academy, Erin decided. When Conor finished his performance, she stood up and gave him a one-bunny standing ovation. (And from the sound of things on-screen, the judges' panel had been equally enthusiastic.)

"Wow! That was just amazing," She said, and then she felt her eyes crinkling mischievously, "I can see why you got in…although fair's fair, you did have kind of an unfair advantage."

"Huh, what do you mean?" the young silver fox asked, tilting his head sideways; the Fuzztube window had vanished and it was just the two of them again.

"Wellll," Erin looked coyly at her paws and then up again. "Everybody knows rock guitarists get real ugly faces on when they're heavy into a solo, and in your case that's a cakewalk."

She saw his ears turned backwards and his face abruptly lengthen; he looked like the seat of his pants had just ripped wide open. Good!

"Oh nyuk, nyuk, nyuk…really funny there, Snowdrop. When you get to ZAPA, don't bother signing up for any of the comedy classes; you ain't got the cred."

Erin just sniggered quietly to herself; that didn't quite make up for the way he'd caused her drink to come out of her nose.

…but it was a pretty good place to start.


Author's Note:

Conor's experiences with The Mister, The Company, and Kieran McCrodon are detailed in The Fire Triangle Prologue, Escape From Zoo York