Chapter 17—Castles Crumble Slowly

A/N: Holy crap, guys. This is it. This is the chapter. This is the beginning of the end. I almost couldn't bring myself to write it because it was so intimidating to me. But here it is. Written.

This is also the chapter where we delve a bit into social contract theory, which I mentioned was a major source of inspiration for this story. I'm tempted to go off on a tangent about it, especially as it relates to Nick and Judy both in the original movie and in this labor of love, but I will try to let my storytelling speak for itself instead. However, I'll have you know that it's difficult to restrain myself, because I actually really enjoy ranting. :P

As always, my heart sings with gratitude for Camoss and Libious, who are better friends and editors than I could ever deserve.

Onward we go.

Day 15: Tuesday, July 1st, 2016, 3:32 a.m.

Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. Thunkthunkthunkthunkthunkthunkthunkthunkthunk...

Nick groaned from where he sprawled on Judy's bed, the bunny curled around his side and her head on his chest. "Your turn, Carrots," he grumbled.

Sleepily, Judy whapped his stomach. "It was my turn last time."

"No, it wasn't. What time is it anyway?" Blinking blearily, Nick raised his head enough to look around the room. "Do you not have a clock?"

"Who has clocks anymore?" Judy mumbled.

The thunking continued. With a sigh, Nick reached over to the nightstand, eyes squeezed shut. It took him a few tries, but he finally managed to find his cell phone. He turned it on just long enough to see the time, then set it down with a growl.

"It's three-freaking-thirty in the morning," he said.

Judy whimpered before sitting up. "All right, I'll go see if I can get her to relax."

"No," Nick gently pulled her down. "You're right. You went last time. It's my turn."

The bunny didn't protest. She immediately plopped back down to the bed and breathed the slow, heavy breaths of a sleeping mammal. Nick bent to peck her cheek before rising from the bed, throwing on his Hustler costume, including the voice box, and heading toward his bedroom—the source of the continuous thunking. He abruptly swung the door open and glared down at Mayor Dawn Bellwether, whose legs—bound in duct tape, as were her hooves and mouth—continued to kick at the air before she realized the wood was gone. She glared back.

"Look, I realize that this isn't an ideal situation for you," Nick said, "but we're not letting you leave, so you may as well sleep. And let us sleep, too, while you're at it."

Bellwether tried to yell at him, moving her jaw as widely as the duct tape would allow, but Nick only shrugged.

"You know I can't understand you when you talk like that," he said condescendingly. "So what will it be this time? A TV show? I could probably arrange that."

At that, the sheep only attempted to shriek louder, scooting forward to kick his shins with her bound legs. Nick, face blank, merely stepped backward and out of her reach. She breathed heavily as she gazed up at him, nostrils flaring.

For some reason, her fury in that moment crushed whatever patience Nick had left. Abruptly, he stooped to pick her up and toss her carelessly onto his bed.

"Listen," he hissed, pointing a stern finger at her and letting her hear the barely restrained ire in his voice. "I don't know what's more insane—the fact that you had this crazy plot in the first place, or that you seem to think we'll actually let you go just for being annoying. Your actions have hurt thousands of innocent mammals. Your actions have hurt me. Your actions have hurt mammals I care about. And most importantly"—he directed his finger toward the wall dividing his room from Judy's and leaned closer to the sheep, lowering his voice in such a way that let his fury ring clear—"I distinctly heard you make a plan to kill my partner, my best friend, and I would let the entire world fall apart before I would let your hoof within an inch of her." He paused, letting out a trembling breath as he pierced her with his glower. "Stop expecting that we'll give in to you, and start being grateful that all we've done so far is made you shut up."

Bellwether's own glare didn't falter. But at least she was finally sitting still.

"Now let us sleep," Nick said as he turned to leave the room, "or I'll tie you to the bedpost."

With that, he closed the door and paused for a moment, waiting for another noise. When none came, he trudged back to Judy's room and collapsed next to her on the bed, snuggling his body close to hers. He let his tail cover her like a second blanket. She didn't stir at all.

For a moment, he simply blinked tiredly at her peaceful face, then lay a gentle kiss on her nose.

"My Carrots," he murmured as his eyes fluttered closed. "I'll never let anything happen to you."

Day 15: Tuesday, July 1st, 2016, 7:30 a.m.

"Sources from city hall claim that Mayor Dawn Bellwether has not shown up to her office today and is unreachable by phone or email," a koala reporter from ZNN was saying from the video playing on Nick's phone, which sat on the dining table between Nick and Judy as they ate bagels for breakfast. An image of Dawn's awkwardly smiling face was suspended next to the koala, who steepled his fingers on the morning news desk. "It's a severe blow to an already unstable city as fights and riots continue to break out in the streets, led by both predators and prey. The ZPD is currently working to discover the cause of the mayor's disappearance and hopefully find out her location."

Judy exchanged a nervous glance with Nick, after which they both flicked their eyes toward his bedroom door. Bellwether had finally fallen asleep after spending most of the night waking them up at intervals with her kicking and banging. Fortunately, Nick had already removed everything that he considered most valuable and personal—and certainly anything that would have identified him—when he'd moved out, so he wasn't too upset about anything that the sheep had ruined. What really bothered them was all the lost sleep.

"The mayor was last seen drunk and being carried out of the Tipped Hat nightclub last night by an unidentified fox and rabbit," the reporter continued. "If you have any further information on her whereabouts, please call the ZPD immediately."

With that, the video ended. Judy leaned back in her chair and nibbled her claws. "Do you think anyone saw us bring her in?"

"I didn't see anyone," Nick answered, though he stared with absentminded worry at the table as he crossed his arms. As always, they had stuck to alleyways and other shadowed areas throughout their walk home last night. To get Bellwether inside, they had actually used some of the rope Judy kept stashed for her vigilante activity to pull her through Judy's bedroom window. It had been an awkward and difficult experience that Judy hoped would never need repeating, but at least they had managed to achieve their objective without anyone noticing. Or so they hoped.

"I'm sure that if anyone actually saw us take the mayor into our apartment, they would've already told the ZPD by now, right?" Judy asked, though her voice was tinged with uncertainty.

Nick shrugged. "Probably." Then he looked at her and sighed. "What exactly are we going to do, Carrots?"

"Well, we already know that Doug is targeting the PHA meeting tonight," Judy replied. "We should be there to stop him, maybe give an anonymous tip to the ZPD, and use the opportunity to publicize Bellwether's conspiracy."

"Of course," Nick agreed. "But after that?"

"After that?" Judy blinked.

Leaning forward while clasping his fingers together, Nick nodded at her. "Do you want to keep being Crossfire?"

For a moment, Judy didn't answer. Her eyes met his. "Do you want to keep being the Hustler?"

Silence drifted between them, settling there while they each stared at the table.

"I don't..." Nick began quietly, paused, and began again. "I don't want to do something that... doesn't work. That's all."

"And you don't think vigilantism has been working," Judy stated solemnly.

"Well," Nick sighed, "not any better than anything else I've ever tried." Slowly, thoughtfully, he shook his head. "How do we actually make the world a better place, Carrots?"

The question was important. Judy realized that. But right then, she could only think about the warm ocean that flooded her heart as she looked at the fox's concerned, contemplative face. "I love you," she whispered.

Nick blinked at her. "Huh?"

"Sorry," Judy blushed and smiled softly at him. "I love you for wanting to make the world a better place. For caring."

With an amused huff, Nick glanced away and traced a portion of the swirling bark on the table with his claw. "I love you for that, too."

"But, um, to answer your question," Judy cleared her throat. "I think there could still be a useful purpose for our vigilantism, at least for a little longer. Mammals know about us. They pay attention to us. But..." She slowly raised her shoulders in a ponderous shrug. "Maybe after this, our point will be made, and... Maybe it's time to retire and go on from there." She propped her cheek on her palm. "I think... I've realized that I don't want to fight anymore. I mean, not just fight. I want..." A thoughtful breath fell from her lips. "I want to build. Build... bridges. Do you know what I mean?"

Smiling warmly, Nick nodded. "Yes." He reached across the table to gently grasp her paw with his. "And that's how I feel, too."

Judy squeezed his paw in response. "Any ideas for a good exit?"

The fox hummed. Then he tilted his head and tapped his chin. "How much money do we have?"

Day 15: Tuesday, July 1st, 2016, 9:46 a.m.

The apartment was quiet, save for the sound of Nick rustling through his duffel bag in the living room, running a mental checklist of everything inside it. A knock at the door made him pause and furrow his brows. After allowing himself a moment to debate what to do, he stood, tossed the duffel bag into Judy's bedroom, and opened the apartment door.

He had to look down to see his visitor—a familiar fennec who glared up at him and growled, "So you're finally home."

Nick kept his own face neutral. "Didn't think I'd see you again."

"Bet you didn't," Finnick snapped, "seein' as how you betrayed us."

Rolling his eyes, Nick glanced quickly into the hallway to see whether there had been anyone around to hear that, then pulled Finnick inside and shut the door. He crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes at his old friend. "I suppose you've conveniently forgotten about how you betrayed me first."

"You got almost the whole Den arrested, Nick!" Finnick exclaimed.

But Nick hurriedly raised his paws to shush him as his eyes flicked toward his bedroom, an action that Finnick mimicked suspiciously. "Don't. Don't. Don't use my name."

The fennec's glare went from angry to skeptical. "Why? What's goin' on?"

Nick shook his head. "First, tell me why you're here."

For a moment, they both stared each other down. But Finnick nodded tersely.

"I just want the same thing you did when you came to me after the food drive," he said. "Closure. Why'd you do it?"

Sighing, Nick walked toward the couch and plopped onto the cushions. "What exactly do you think I did, Finnick?"

"While I was escapin', I heard the police chief askin' about where the Hustler went 'cause you'd been lost in all the confusion," Finnick replied. "You hadn't been in the ballroom. Wasn't hard to realize you'd taken 'em to one o' the secret entrances."

"They were going to kill Crossfire," Nick said simply, his stare hard as stone.

The fennec's own eyes bulged in return. "What, has she become that important to you?" he asked incredulously.

"Yes," Nick answered without hesitation. He shrugged. "Honestly, Finnick, all I went there to do was steal Grandmama's money so that I could botch some of the operations. I didn't know that the ZPD was coming, and I was going to stay out of that whole mess. I didn't change my mind until Crossfire was threatened."

"How long have you even known that—" Finnick abruptly cut himself off as he peered around the living room. He stomped into the kitchen. "Where's that bunny roommate o' yours?"

"Working," Nick replied. "And please be quieter."

"Why, Nick?" Finnick spun to face him. "What other secrets are you hidin' from someone who was your friend for twenty years just because a bunny popped up out o' nowhere?"

"It's not that simple," Nick sighed. "Just... please? We can talk, but I need you to—"

Suddenly, Finnick pivoted and darted toward Nick's bedroom. Before Nick could jump or say anything, the fennec had already opened the door. He stood staring for several seconds at Mayor Dawn Bellwether snoring on the floor, her hooves, legs, and mouth still bound with duct tape, while Nick groaned and rubbed his temples.

Slowly, silently, Finnick closed the door, then turned around to face Nick, his eyes narrower than ever.

"What. Are. You. Doin'."

Day 15: Tuesday, July 1st, 2016, 12:37 p.m.

"Hey, Judy?"

Turning away from the supply closet at the sound of her name, Judy was confronted with a fellow waitress—a koala—who was fidgeting nervously with her apron.

"What's up, Ruby?" Judy asked as she turned to continue gathering napkins.

"I'm just... I'm just wondering if you could take one of my tables," Ruby said timidly, pointing discreetly at a table where a family of leopards was seated. "Predators make me so nervous, but you never seem to mind them."

Judy gave herself a moment to suppress an irritated sigh. Calmly, she answered, "Just because they're predators doesn't mean they're savage, Ruby."

"I—I know, I just... I mean..." Ruby stammered, her eyes huge. "Pl... Please, Judy?"

Closing the closet and shuffling past her, Judy nodded. "Fine," she said tersely.

As she distributed napkins among the tables that were nearly out of them, she reminded herself that she should be more patient with her co-workers. After all, she had discovered that she still had her own prejudices to unlearn. Still, it was just—

There was a tap on her shoulder. This time, Judy whirled around to greet a tight-lipped porcupine in a pearl necklace she had seated a little while ago.

"Excuse me," the porcupine said. "When are you going to remove the leopards? They're making the other customers uncomfortable."

Blinking confusedly, Judy glanced around the restaurant. Most of the customers—the majority of whom happened to be prey right then—were chatting with each other and focusing on their own meals, but a few were occasionally sending the leopards anxious looks. Judy turned her attention back to the porcupine, who raised her brows expectantly.

"Ma'am, they're not causing a disturbance," Judy said. "We can't just kick them out."

The porcupine eyed Judy skeptically. "Surely you understand that with all that's happening with predators going savage, it's a little... unnerving to be inside an enclosed space with them. If you truly care so little for the safety of your customers, I suppose we'll need to take our business to a different establishment."

Judy glared and wrestled with the temptation to stuff a napkin in the porcupine's mouth. "I suppose you—"

"Don't worry, ma'am," Yannis said from behind her. Judy let her jaw drop as she swiveled her head to face him, but he only nodded graciously at the porcupine. "We'll be sure to usher them out as soon as they're done."

Although the porcupine regarded him for a moment with a brow arched in dissatisfaction, she returned to her table. Judy looked back at Yannis to see him staring at her reproachfully.

"Good customer service is about making the customers want to stay, not leave," he scolded her.

"And what about the leopards?" Judy responded under her breath as she started clearing a table. "They're customers, too."

"Predators," Yannis replied. "One of the types causing all the trouble lately."

"First of all, that's a hugely biased generalization, and secondly, one of the owners is a lion," Judy hissed. "How do you think he and his wife will react when they find out that you're treating predator customers like this?"

Yannis shrugged as he trudged past her and toward the kitchen. "I'll worry about that. Just do your job, bunny."

Judy stared at him. Then she stared at the leopards. She stared at the porcupines, the other prey minding their own business around the restaurant, and then back at the leopards.

Balling her fists, she climbed onto the chair of the table she'd just cleaned off, then slammed both of her feet onto the table of itself.

"Excuse me!" she called out over the din.

The conversation quickly faded. Every mammal in the restaurant gazed up at her with eyes either widened in surprise or half-lidded with amusement.

"Thanks," Judy went on. "I just want to let everyone here know that you're welcome here, regardless of who you are or where you came from. I want all of you to know that you're worth something great, and that it's not determined by whether you're a predator or a prey." She gestured widely around the space, ignoring Yannis' face popping around the corner of the hallway leading to the office. "I want all you prey to know that although we should be fighting for a better world, we're not beholden to the mistakes of those who did horrible things while looking like us." Then she smiled warmly at the leopards, who stared at her with expressions that were somewhere between shocked and thankful. "And I want all of the predators to know the same thing. It's wonderful to have you here."

Finally, she let herself meet Yannis' eye. His murderous, murderous eye.

She opened her mouth, but paused when something else caught her attention from the window—a painted van driving slowly by while a certain green-eyed fox stuck half his upper body out the window, beckoning urgently at her.

For a moment, Judy silently watched the van pass the restaurant, her mouth still hanging open. Once it was out of sight, she shook her head and blinked at the mammals, employees and customers alike, who continued staring at her.

"Um, also... Um..." she stumbled, paused—and shrugged. "And also, I quit." Then she jumped down, made her way to the office without looking at Yannis, retrieved her bag, and walked toward the front door. She tossed the stunned restaurant a cheerful wave as she stepped out. "Bye!"

The van was barely still in sight, but Judy saw it turn down a quiet street. She sprinted toward it, relieved to find it parked in a space on the shoulder. Nick spotted her from the passenger seat's sideview mirror and smiled, waving her over.

"That was quick," he remarked as she approached, grinning up at him. "Didn't think Yannis would let you out that soon."

"Well, I quit," Judy replied simply.

Nick's jaw paused mid-comment. He blinked. "I, uh... wasn't trying to make you do that."

"I wanted to," Judy shrugged and curiously examined the vehicle. "What's up? Whose van is this?"

With that, Nick leaned back so that Judy could see the driver. Before she could think to stop it, her mouth tumbled open in dismay when she recognized Finnick. To be fair, the fennec didn't look any happier to see her, judging by the way he steadily, unflinchingly glowered at her.

"How much effort can it possibly to take look up from fluffin' napkins for one second an' notice a van like this driving by the friggin' window?" Finnick asked.

Judy glanced at Nick. "How many times did you drive by waving like a lunatic?"

"I lost count," Nick replied nonchalantly, though his smirk was dripping with self-satisfied amusement.

"And you didn't just come inside because...?"

"Didn't want to deal with Yannis."


"And what were you doing standing on the table?"

"Giving a riveting speech of inclusivity. What else?" Judy grinned and folded her arms, shifting her weight onto one leg. "So are you going to tell me what's going on?"

After exchanging a nod of confirmation with Finnick, Nick looked down at Judy. "Finnick is going to help us with our plan tonight."

Once again, Judy locked eyes with the fennec, who still regarded her like a pest he was merely tolerating out of necessity. "Oh," she said, unable to think of what else to say.

"Just to end this whole mess with the savage predators," Finnick explained curtly. "And out o' respect for Nick. I still don't like you, Crossfire."

At that, Judy's eyes snapped wide open. She directed an uncertain glance at Nick, who shrugged and grinned sheepishly.

"He figured it out," he said.

"H..." Judy squeezed her eyes shut for a second and shook her head. "How did he—"

"Calculatin' odds an' process of elimination," Finnick interjected flatly. Then he jerked a thumb in Nick's direction. "I ain't an idiot, like this guy."

For a moment, Judy could only stare at him. Finally, she waved her paw dismissively.

"Okay, fine," she said, sighing heavily. "What are we doing?"

"First of all," Nick answered, opening the door to hop out and nodding toward the van's back doors, "let me show you something we did."

Day 15: Tuesday, July 1st, 2016, 5:40 p.m.

The library where the Predators for Harmony Association typically held their meetings featured a number of thick pillars expertly carved to appear as though they were twisting gracefully upward into the ceiling. They were beautiful.

In Judy's opinion, they were even more beautiful when they were decorated with a sheep suspended by ropes tightly wound around her arms and legs, pinning her against it.

Bellwether, eyes baggy from lack of sleep, would certainly have killed Judy, Nick, and Finnick with her glare alone if she could. The duct tape was starting to leave the skin around her mouth red with irritation, so they'd decided to have a little pity on her and kept it sealed with a bandana instead.

Meanwhile, the bunny and two foxes—all dressed as their vigilante egos—worked on pushing some of the tables together to create a makeshift stage. Judy also carried the dart gun case that they had stolen from Bellwether. If she had to set it down for any reason, she kept it close.

"When is the librarian coming back?" Nick asked no one in particular as he gently scooched one of the tables just enough to line up its corners better with the adjacent one.

"Should be back any minute now," Finnick replied, grunting while setting a lonely chair to the side of the room. "I only reserved the space until five forty-five."

Nick leaned against the stage and idly studied the library. "Just wondering if we'll need to reopen the library ourselves," he said, smiling at Judy when she came next to him and rested her head on his shoulder, hugging the case to her chest. "The PHA meeting is supposed to start in twenty minutes. Mammals will start arriving anytime now."

As though hearing his observation, the jangle of keys signaled the librarian's return. The middle-aged deer doe was busy reading a book and sipping from a paper cup of coffee as she walked inside, but she halted in her tracks when she looked up and saw what had become of the library in her absence.

"I..." she said, glancing wildly between the stage, the costumed vigilantes, and the captured mayor, who stared at her with wide eyes that expressed both innocence and fear. "I think I should probably call the police."

"Nope," Finnick said, unceremoniously whipping a gun from his belt—Judy recognized it as identical to one that Nick had used on her when he was trying to get Crossfire caught by the police—and shot a net at her.

Before the doe could leap out of the way, the net rapidly gathered itself around her figure, sending her crashing to the floor. The coffee cup, of course, spilled onto the floor, and Judy scurried over with her paws over her mouth.

"Sorry, sorry!" she exclaimed. "I can clean that up. Where's the janitor's closet?"

The doe—whose nametag read "Ms. Whitetail"—stared at her in both confusion and terror. "Pl... Please... Don't hurt me..."

"Oh, no, no!" Judy waved her paws at her in what she hoped was a reassuring way. "No, we're not here to hurt anyone, don't worry. Just got an announcement to make. But seriously, um..." She peered around curiously. "Where can I get something to clean up the mess?"

Her good intentions were interrupted when Cam, the bespectacled cougar of the Predators for Harmony Association, ambled into the library as well. At first, he was distracted by something on his phone, but the librarian soon changed that.

"Cam!" she cried. "Get out of here!"

The cougar stopped abruptly, glanced up, and widened his eyes.

"Bunny!" was the only warning that Finnick gave Judy, but it was enough. She stepped to the side and narrowly avoided another net shot rushing past her and hitting Cam, trapping him as well.

Quickly, the vigilantes dragged the doe and cougar to the chairs that they had moved to near the bookshelves when they repurposed the tables, helping them sit upright and ensuring that they were comfortable.

"Sorry," Nick apologized to both of them. "We promise nothing will happen to you. We won't take long."

With that, they stood on the stage and waited, Judy gripping the dart gun case.

Sure enough, within minutes, mammals came trickling into the library—all of the same predators that Judy remembered seeing at the PHA meeting last week, plus some new faces, and even a good number of prey. Some of the mammals fled the scene as soon as they got a good look at it. The ones who remained hesitated, startled and uncertain, but either gathered in the empty space near the front of the room or took seats at the back tables that hadn't been used for the stage. Many of them immediately took out their phones to start taking pictures and making recordings. Nearly all of them were noisily interacting—talking with each other about what was happening, shouting demands at the vigilantes to be told what was happening—while Lars, the raccoon Judy had saved from rhinos in a bar, waved enthusiastically at her from the back. She politely wiggled her fingers in return, but otherwise, she tried not to look at him.

All the while, Bellwether screamed unintelligibly around the bandana encircling her mouth. The mammals studied her anxiously, but no one made a move to get her down. She was so high up and surrounded by so many ropes that perhaps they weren't even sure how they'd start.

Once a sizeable crowd had gathered, Nick stepped forward, clasping his paws professionally in front of him like he was about to run a corporate business meeting. Right away, the mammals quieted, staring at him intently, literally on the edges of their seats.

"Thank you all for coming to the Predators for Harmony Association today," he said, raising his voice while managing to sound like he was speaking casually. "I see we have some new faces today, especially prey. Seems the food drive was successful in more ways than one." With a sigh, he rubbed his paws together. "Now, since I'm sure someone has called the police by now, we'll get started and cut right to the chase.

"You may know this sheep," he motioned at the ewe struggling on the pillar, "as Mayor Dawn Bellwether. In a recent press conference, she announced that predators have been mysteriously going savage, likely due to a biological factor that prey do not have. What she did not tell you"—he paused to fish Judy's carrot pen from his pocket, holding it high for all to see—"is that she's actually the one who orchestrated the entire phenomenon."

Half the audience broke into consternated murmurs. The other half tried to shush them, their eyes not leaving Nick and the pen.

"Oh, you don't believe me?" Nick queried rhetorically. "Don't worry, you don't have to. You can believe her instead."

And he pressed the "PLAY" button. The sheep herself shut her eyes and shook her head, making sobbing sounds, but they couldn't drown out the sound of her voice filling the room.

"Crossfire and the Hustler. So they are working together now. Do you know what they saw?"

Then came Doug's voice.

"They saw everything, I'm pretty sure. But I don't know if they made sense of it all."

"Oh, come on." It was Bellwether again. "They're not complete idiots. How hard is it to look at all that and figure out that we're shooting predators with Night Howler serum to make them go savage?"

At that, the crowd gasped, many of them gazing at Bellwether with jaws dropped, while she shook her head more vigorously, her eyes desperately trying to convey innocence.

But her damning voice went on. "Maybe we can bribe someone from the Den to reveal the Hustler's identity. Then you could hunt him down, threaten him into telling us who Crossfire is, dart him, and kill Crossfire. Nice and neat. No loose ends."

Doug's voice returned. "We could do that. I'm reasonably sure that the weasel who brings me the flowers is involved with the Den. Maybe he knows something."

The mention of the Den of Thieves elicited another round of gasps from the room, but a few of the mammals called again for quiet as they continued to listen.

"Excellent," said Bellwether in the recording. "And you have all the serum ready for the PHA meeting tomorrow?"

At that, several predators in the audience peered warily around the library while shooting livid glares at Bellwether.

"Yep, all set," Doug answered.

"Enough for all of them."

"Did I not just say 'yep'?"

"Okay, then get back to work. And give me the spare gun. I'll keep it at home with me—just in case they come looking. I'll see you tomorrow."

And with that, the recording ended. Stunned silence pervaded the library as the mammals' eyes flicked between the mayor and the vigilantes.

Nick opened his mouth to speak again.

But a horse in the front beat him to it.

"Why should we believe him?" he shouted. "He's a fox!"

None of them had been expecting that. For a moment, the vigilantes stood on the stage, blinking down at the horse. But some of the other prey were nodding.

"And a predator!" a beaver added.

A moose raised his hoof. "He was part of that terrorist group, too!"

Judy stared around the room as other prey expressed their doubts.

"It's easy to fake with technology these days."

"It's too convenient to pin the blame on someone else."

"I've never even heard of Night Howlers."

"How are we supposed to trust a fox? Two foxes, even?"

Fortunately, a few other prey mammals were countering them.

"What do you mean? How do you fake something like that?"

"I mean, if you actually know anything about biology, it really makes more sense that there would be some external source causing this."

Soon, the predators had overcome their shock to begin piping up as well, arguing with the prey who remained skeptical. The voices around the room grew louder and more heated with every passing second.

Judy glanced at the foxes. Both watched the commotion with their brows drawn up in disbelief, their shoulders sagging.

Above them, Bellwether's eyes were crinkled with a cocky smirk.

Then Judy pursed her lips and clenched her fists, stomping closer to the edge of the stage.

"Now you all shut up and listen!" she shouted, startling the crowd into silence. She gestured emphatically toward Nick with the paw that wasn't grasping the gun case. "This fox is a good, kind, intelligent, golden-hearted mammal who had choices stolen from him because so many of you had already decided who he was!" She pointed around at all of them. "When you live in a society that promises that anyone can be anything, a society that promises it will protect and support all of its citizens equally, a society that promises to promote and facilitate our growth and prosperity as individuals and communities, and then you break all those promises, what right do you have to judge those who choose not to keep their half of the deal?

"Yes, this mammal is a fox," Judy plowed on, lacing her fingers with Nick's. "He's a fox who lives in a society with laws that were supposed to clear a path toward becoming his best possible self, and they've failed him! What is he bound to, then? Why are you criticizing him for being a vigilante when you should be asking yourselves why it happened?" She pointed fiercely at them again. "Explain to me why you're angry at him for not keeping to your unjust standards instead of doing your part to fight them?"

She paused, holding in her breath to push the threat of tears back down her throat before finishing. "You will listen to him! You will listen and you will care about him and mammals like him, the way you should have done from the start!"

Feeling Nick squeeze her paw, Judy looked up at him. He winked at her, but he addressed the crowd. "Crossfire's vigilantism is another symptom of our brokenness. How can anyone look at a capable, passionate, and intelligent mammal like her and not think that all mammals deserve equal opportunities?"

He directed his gaze to the audience as he went on. "She wanted to make the world a better place, but when the city council chose not to pass the Mammal Inclusion Initiative, it was Zootopia's way of telling her that they had already decided what she was, too. She wasn't given a fair chance, so she created one for herself." He held up the carrot pen again. "This, right here, is proof that some mammals will keep stealing chances from you and breaking their promises to you if you don't fight them. I know that I've made mistakes," he added with a sincere, humble bow, "and I'm sorry for the pain that I've caused anyone while I was searching for a way to make a place for myself here. But that's not what this is about." He lowered the pen and raised the paw holding Judy's instead. "This is what we're here for. We're here to stop the forces that oppress and divide us. We want you to join us."

The crowd was quiet again. Predators and many prey smiled up at them, nodding. Judy triumphantly ignored the return of Bellwether's glower and the sound of her irate, indignant screeches behind the bandana.

Suddenly, however, Judy remembered that they were pressed for time. Nick and Finnick seemed to be thinking the same thing, as they both nodded at her to continue. She cleared her throat.

"Night Howlers are a type of flower. The scientific name is midnicampum holicithias," she explained. "They're known to induce violent madness in anyone who ingests them or is hit with a toxin made from its juice. Savagery can happen to anyone." Then she let go of Nick's paw so that she could open the dart gun case, revealing the gun and serum pellets nestled inside. "If you need more proof, it's in here."

"Who are you trying to fool?" scoffed a hippo. "Those pellets look just like blueberries!"

"Sweetie, you've been brainwashed," a pig in the front said as she shook her head, gazing up at Judy with her brows tented upward with concern and sympathy. "Do you really think a prey can go savage? It's not in our biology."

"I assure you that we can," Judy replied tersely, narrowing her eyes threateningly at the pig.

"And if it really is some flower causing it," the pig continued as though Judy hadn't spoken, "it's probably because the predators are already genetically predisposed to violence, and the flowers bring that out. It's how predators are made. They're just biologically inferior that way."

That last comment sent the room into a frenzy of furious discussion, some defending the pig while others ripped her arguments apart.

Before Judy herself could figure out how to answer that, a movement caught her eye—curly white fluff bobbing above the bookshelves.


She cursed quietly to herself. Where's the ZPD?

The ram had climbed one of the tall bookshelf ladders and positioned his dart gun over the top. Heart bursting into a sprint, Judy's eyes followed its aim.

Nick was hurrying toward the other end of the stage, where a few mammals had started punching each other. He wasn't looking at the gun trained on him.

Finnick had already jumped off the stage and was running toward Doug with all the strength in his little legs, one paw on his net gun. He wouldn't get there soon enough, though.

"Hustler!" Judy shouted. But the mammals in the room kept yelling at each other, and he didn't turn around.

"Slick!" she called out more urgently.

He still didn't hear her. A capybara whose fist he was holding back from a ferret turned around to spit in his face. He wasn't paying attention at all.

NICK! Judy screamed in her mind, dashing across the stage.

As she shoved Nick to the side, she suddenly felt an impact on her arm, then a wetness sinking through the fabric of her suit and into her skin. Immediately, her blood burned. Darkness rimmed her vision.

Somewhere in the direction of the bookshelves, there was a scream, a crash, and a loud, thump, followed by the deep voices of a ram and a fennec cursing at each other.

The other mammals in the room were shrieking their shock and their questions. Judy turned to the pig, who gazed at her with eyes and mouth wide open in horror.

"Is that... what you think?" Judy breathed, not knowing if the pig could even hear her over the din. "Just... you... watch."

Briefly, she exchanged glances with Bellwether, who was slowly shaking her head, her stare a disconcerting mixture of denial and vacant resignation.

When her eyes met Nick's, that was when her legs collapsed beneath her.

Day 15: Tuesday, July 1st, 2016, 6:15 p.m.

There was a significant portion of Nick's brain that whispered fiercely to him that what he was seeing wasn't real.

Judy wasn't falling to the stage floor.

That cry of pain didn't happen.

There was no blue stain on her arm.

But the rest of him knew that there was no time for denial. He dropped to Judy's side and carefully cradled her head and body against him. The pandemonium throughout the room was muted, the way screams sounded blurred underwater.

"Carrots," he said, trying to keep his breathing under control, "please tell me you didn't do what I think you just did."

She had the nerve to chuckle at that, though it was interrupted by a wince as her body twitched. Nick cursed once, twice, thrice.

"Judy," he murmured urgently, "you are the most infuriating mammal I know, and if I lose you, I swear I will—"

"Take the case," Judy panted between grit teeth, trying to push the gun case at him. He had barely even noticed that she was still holding onto it. "Get it to the ZPD."

"I'm not leaving you behind!" Nick shook his head firmly. A sudden tear cascaded down his cheek behind the mask. "That's not happening!"

"I can't—" she began, then let out a short sob, arching and writhing in Nick's arms.

"We'll think of something," Nick promised as he held her tighter in an attempt to still her.

And she did abruptly go still. But only for a moment. Then her claws rose to grip the back of his head, digging into his skin, while her teeth sunk into his neck in a succession of quick, furious bites. He yelped, the tears now flowing in rivers on his face, but his arms remained around her, trying to hug her close to him.

But her leg came up and connected fiercely with his abdomen, sending him hurtling backwards. As pain filled his vision with static and his lungs labored in vain to breathe again, the mammals in the library erupted into shrieks of alarm. Coughing, Nick finally managed to wobble to a standing position, wheezing heavily and clutching his stomach. Desperately, his eyes roved the area for Judy, but it was easy enough to figure out where she was, based on the way the crowd parted to get out of her way. They cleared just enough space for him to catch sight of her eerily dilated, vacant eyes, and the drool hanging in slings from her snarling mouth. She had paused in her rampage to claw lividly at her mask.

"No! No, don't do that!" he yelled at her, even while knowing it was futile.

From the corner of his eye, he saw the red and blue lights of the ZPD flashing outside the library windows. He stumbled as rapidly as he could toward the edge of the stage and jumped. Although his legs crumpled beneath him when he hit the ground, he quickly rose to his feet, pushing his way through the crowd to where he could hear her grunting and growling.

When he reached her, she was curled in a ball on her back, trying to use her feet and paws to push her mask off her head. The hem had risen enough to reveal a couple inches of gray fur, scratched and bleeding from the impact of the claws in her feet. He firmly pushed all his own pain to the back of his mind and dashed forward, gathering her in his arms again. Immediately, she refocused her ire onto him, latching deeply onto his shoulder with her teeth. Nick barely restrained an agonized scream behind his grit teeth as he sprinted blindly into the crowd, counting on them to simply let him through.

They did. Whether out of respect for his determination to escape or fear of the savage bunny, he wasn't sure, but it didn't matter. Somehow, he managed to see through the pain spots blotting his vision to maneuver his way around the tables and chairs. He paused when he spotted Finnick behind the bookshelves, but the fennec waved him on.

So he ran toward the front doors, kicking them open. At the noise and sudden change in lighting, Judy detached her teeth from his shoulder so that she could whip her head around and observe her new surroundings.

Several members of the ZPD stopped abruptly on their way toward the entrance, their eyes widening at the sight of Judy writhing, reaching toward them with her claws, hissing at them with saliva dribbling down her chin. Before the officers could say anything, Nick darted to the side and toward Finnick's van. Behind him, the officers yelled at him to freeze, but he yanked the van door open and clambered inside with Judy, shutting it closed the second he could.

He finally released Judy, who decided that the fabric seats were her next target. She chewed and tore at them while Nick listened to the officers surround the van, demanding that he exit immediately. Blinking around the tears still blurring his eyes, he removed his mask, snatched up the chloroform Finnick kept both for cleaning and past exploits with the Den, and clumsily poured it onto the cloth. Then he looked at his savage bunny, took a deep breath to gather his courage, and lunged at her. He hurriedly yanked off her mask and pressed the chloroform to her nose. Predictably, she kicked and scratched at him furiously, but he held her firmly, only relaxing when she finally went still. Gently, he laid her on the floor, his heart lurching at how peaceful her face looked now that she was unconscious.

"I'm so sorry, Judy," Nick whispered, stroking her cheek.

His ear twitched. The officers outside spoke into their radios about a hostage situation, calling for backup. Good. That gave him a little more time.

"And I'm also sorry for what I'm about to do," he whispered again. "But I promise to keep my eyes closed."

He kept his promise. The whole time that he pulled off her Crossfire costume and got her dressed in the outfit she had packed in the duffel bag, he kept his eyes squeezed firmly shut. His shaking paws flinched away from sensitive areas, and he was careful to only spend as much time as absolutely necessary to make sure the clothing was comfortable for her. Then he turned his back to her and started taking off his own costume.

"Don't peek," he said to Judy over his shoulder, mostly to try to lighten himself up. It didn't work.

Once he had donned his own change of clothes, he dropped to his knees and hurriedly started filling the costumes with wads of dollar bills. Sirens were approaching. Backup had arrived. And judging by the murmurs outside, many of mammals from the meeting had exited the library and were now watching the police work to save them from the savage bunny and the fox who had kidnapped her.

"You were supposed to help me with this, you know," Nick mumbled to Judy as he checked over the stuffed costumes to make sure they properly resembled a fox and a bunny. He used the remains of Judy's ropes to strap them to the fireworks she had stolen from Mr. Big's shed.

A minute later, he quietly opened the van's sunroof and positioned the fireworks beneath it.

He took a lighter from his old utility belt.

He ignited the fireworks.

And he didn't stay to watch them shoot upward or pay much attention to the screams of the mammals outside. Instead, he scrambled to scooch Judy aside enough to open the hatch that he and Finnick had made together earlier that day. The fireworks exploded in the air above them while he bent down to open the sewer directly underneath them. He scooped Judy carefully in his arms and leapt into the darkness.

His feet landed in water, and he winced at the pain that rocketed through his abdomen from the impact, a shockingly excruciating reminder of Judy's earlier kick. However, his adrenaline let him pause only long enough to steady himself and make sure Judy was okay. Then he splashed through the water, relying on his night vision to guide him. He tried not to imagine what it must look like to see bright, colorful sparks and half-charred dollar bills drifting through the air while ZPD officers and PHA members stared.

Instead, he focused on imagining a safe home somewhere, with a safe bunny.

He clung to that image as he pressed her to his chest.

A/N: Well... There it goes.

The final two chapters will probably be pretty short. They're just meant to wrap things up. My goal is to post one on Saturday and one on Sunday. I'll do my best to make sure it happens.