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When Night Falls

Summary

Ten months after the events of When Instinct Falls, Nick begins the difficult work of forging a new path. With his eyes on the Mayor's office and Judy at his side, the duo work together to make the world a better place, and navigate a dangerous plot years in the making. Meanwhile, a long kept secret threatens to destroy the peace between Zootopia's last two great crime families.

Genre:
Romance / Action
Author:
Upplet
Status:
Ongoing
Chapters:
1
Rating:
n/a
Age Rating:
18+

New Beginnings

Welcome to When Night Falls! A lot of work was put into planning this story and writing its corresponding chapters, to the point where I can safely say that its quality absolutely dwarfs that of the previous installment, When Instinct Falls, in every way imaginable. I am supremely proud of what’s to come, and hope you join me to see it unfold! I’ll try my best to update at least once a month, and with the next few chapters already finished, I imagine that will be achievable. I also did my best to write this story so that even those who have never/sparingly read the previous installment can enjoy it, though of course not everything can be so easily accounted for to those who haven’t.

There will be some more important info in the Author’s Note below. But for now, I hope you enjoy the first chapter!

“Every moment is a fresh beginning.” - T.S Eliot

10:00 A.M ; Savanna-Central...

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Teeth grit with exertion, Nick clutched the rails of the treadmill. Beside him, an antelope in sweats was clapping and shouting, cheering him on.

“Yeah! That’s it, Wilde! You’re doing great. I wish all my patients would put in half this effort!”

Breathe in. Breathe out.

The fox glared down at the settings on his machine. 8MPH.

He could barely draw breath. His body threatened to collapse with every step. Every movement drove a red hot nail into his bad knee. And he was only going eight miles per hour.

Breathe in! Breathe out!

The red hot nail in his knee suddenly turned into a screw - driving even deeper, sharp edges grinding into bone. Nick’s steps faltered. He tried to compensate, but his sharp-eyed companion noticed immediately.

“Shut it down, Wilde.”

Gritting his teeth through the pain, Nick ignored the order, not ready to give up just yet.

“I said shut it down! You’re gonna tear something!”

“It’s fine!” Nick barked back, still refusing to look the antelope in the eye. “I can keep going!”

With a deft movement, the other mammal reached forward and snatched the safety key out before Nick could do anything. As the machine ground to a halt, Nick briefly stumbled, clutching the rails as he finally turned to face the antelope.

“Come on, Marcus!”

“Hey, no!” The antelope barked back, immediately shutting Nick’s complaint down. Marcus pointed at himself. ”I’m the licensed physical therapist here, not you. When I say shut it down, you shut it down. Or do you want to rip that knee open?”

“It’s fine,” Nick ground out.

“Oh, yeah? Then why are you leaning on that rail like you’d fall down without it?”

It was true. Nick’s right leg was folded beneath him, completely useless, and his good leg shook with the effort of holding his weight. He was leaning so far on the handrail he was practically laying across it. Ears pulled back in dismay, Nick looked away and huffed.

Marcus’ flinty brown eyes softened, and he put a hoof on Nick’s shoulder. “Listen, I get it. You want to get better. Want to get back to your life. But pushing too hard is only going to put you back. Three steps forward and two steps back and all that. You have to trust me. We’ll get there.”

Nick huffed again, but nodded his assent. “Alright.”

Now that his patient was being reasonable, Marcus smiled. “Good. Now, let’s get some ice on that knee.”

A little while later, Nick hobbled out of the therapy center leaning heavily on a sleek metal cane, his small knapsack hung awkwardly off one shoulder. As he walked away, he silently cursed himself for pushing so hard. Marcus was right: his leg ached terribly, forcing him to rely on the cane. If he had slowed down, he would be walking on his own two feet right now. The fox sighed bitterly. For as much progress as he’d made over the ten months since his injury - learning how to stand, walk, and hop again with both legs unaccompanied by a cane or any other assistance - he still had a long way to go before he was fully back to normal. Nick had wanted to have been able to run again by this point in his recovery process, but it was clear that a light jog was the best he could accomplish, given his results on the treadmill.

At least I can walk okay, he thought to himself, wincing as an irritation threatened his gait. So long as I don’t push myself. Maybe Marcus had a point, after all.

Stopping by the curb, he pulled out his smartphone and fired off a text. A familiar tanky cruiser pulled up just as he slipped the device back into his pocket. He looked up and grinned as the window rolled down to reveal his favorite rabbit smiling back at him.

“Hey, Slick!” Judy greeted happily.

“Hey yourself, Carrots.” He replied, smiling wearily at her. He wished he could have put more enthusiasm into it, but with his present mood, it was unfortunately the best he could muster. “You sure got here quick. Were you lurking down the street or what?”

“Whaaat? Pft, nooo. That’d be crazy.” Judy theatrically rolled her eyes, shook her head and waved the idea away.

Nick stared at her, eyebrow quirked, clearly unconvinced. ”Riiight.”

Judy cleared her throat and forced the conversation along. “So, ready to go?”

Shaking his head with amusement, Nick moved to get in the back seat. As he pulled the door open, Judy called, “You can get in the front, you know.”

Smile growing tight, Nick called back as he tossed his knapsack in ahead of him, “Front seat is for cops, remember? Shifty foxes sit in the back.”

Judy’s ears briefly dipped with sympathy, but she forced them upright and masked her emotions with a smile. “You don’t really want to sit back there, do you? Those seats are super uncomfortable.”

“Does it matter?”

The smile was gone. “Nick. Come sit in the front with your wife.”

With a sigh, Nick closed the door and stepped toward the front. After a bit of awkward fumbling to get into the tall seat, they were off. A silence encompassed the vehicle for some time as Judy tried and failed to ignore how snippy Nick’s tone had been earlier. It was clear that his frustrations were getting to him.

“So, how did therapy go?” Judy asked, hoping to rekindle the spark of pleasant conversation.

“It was fine,” Nick grunted noncommittally, gazing out the window at the city passing by.

“C’mon, Nick. You know Marcus talks to me. And I know you only use that crutch when you can’t help it. You shouldn’t push yourself so hard.”

Nick turned to face her, his usual smug smile absent. “Look me in the eye and tell me you wouldn’t push just as hard in my place.”

Judy tried. She turned and looked into his green eyes. She opened her mouth. Nothing came out. Her mouth closed and she turned forward to focus on the road.

Nick turned back to look out the window. “Thought so.”

"I’m the dumb bunny, remember?” Judy sardonically remarked. ”You should be smarter.”

Already plenty sick of this conversation, Nick diverted, “Why don’t you have a new partner, anyways?”

Judy barely held back the urge to brake check her foxy husband just like the day they’d pulled over Flash the sloth years ago, on their first patrol together. She just wished the circumstances were even half as simple.

“There’s no one available,” she grit out.

Nick rolled his eyes. “Sure, and I’m the next track and field champion.”

“There’re only so many new recruits-”

“Mary? Harlan?”

“Are partnered with other, more experienced officers.”

Nick stared at his wife, long and hard. “I suppose…” he began thoughtfully, “If you had a partner, it would be harder for you to wait around for the chance to drive your injured husband around the city.”

“It is not like that!”

“You sure picked me up quickly. Even though I left early.”

“Nick-”

“You’re a cop,” Nick chastised. “You have better things to do.”

It took a long time for Judy to respond. Though she continued to glare into traffic, her eyes grew moist. Finally she murmured, almost too low for Nick to hear, “Can you blame me?”

Nick softened, realizing too late how harsh he’d been. A pained sigh escaped his mouth - one he had been holding in since the start of the argument. Reaching over, he gently rubbed her shoulder. “I get it, you want to help. I love you too. More than anything. But don’t forget your oath. Don’t set yourself on fire just to keep me warm.”

“Okay. I won’t.”

Nick nodded and pulled away so she could focus on driving. The fox stared out the window, rubbing his knee and grimacing. After a while, he sighed, “I’m sorry.”

Judy glanced over, then back to the road. “For what?”

“For being a jerk. You were right, earlier. I pushed too hard during therapy. Hurt myself.”

As they stopped at an intersection, Judy glanced over again, longer, eyebrows pinched with concern. “You okay?”

“Just hurts, is all. And the knee is just the tip of the iceberg,” Nick sighed. “Not being a cop. Not being your partner. All of it. I took it out on you and I shouldn’t have. You’re the absolute last mammal that deserves it. Pain just… has a real knack for bringing out the worst in someone. I’m sorry.”

Leaning over, Judy took his paw in her own. “It’s going to be alright.”

Nick clasped her paw, squeezed it, marveling at how it fit between his own much larger fingers. He smiled down at it, his expression tinged with melancholy. “I sure hope so.”

Raising his gaze, he stared into her violet eyes, and they smiled matching bittersweet smiles. Between them was an unspoken truth: they weren’t okay. They were both hurting. But they had each other, so they knew it would get better. A few long moments of companionable silence passed, both just enjoying the other’s presence. Eventually, Nick thought back to a few choice words that had been spoken earlier. He looked to his wife with concern.

“Carrots… it’s been ten months. Why haven’t you found a new partner?”

Judy shook her head. “I don’t know, I just… haven’t yet.”

Nick’s expression softened with sympathy. If that was the best answer she could provide, then Nick knew she wasn’t in the mood to discuss it. Now wasn’t the time to press.

“Okay, well, just be careful out there,” he urged, placing an affectionate paw on her shoulder. “You don’t have to take on every threat alone.”

A smile grew on the bunny’s face. “I know. I’ll do what I have to.”

Despite the somewhat ambiguous response, Nick was satisfied. He leaned back in his seat, eager to get the atmosphere in the vehicle back to someplace positive.

“How has work been for you lately?” He asked. “Not that I was the best partner you could have asked for or anything, but I can imagine being on your own for all this time hasn’t been easy.”

“You’d be surprised,” Judy teased, symbolic of her rising mood. “Going solo isn’t so bad, but...” her eyes longingly flicked toward Nick for a moment. “I do miss having you as a partner. We made a great team. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t holding out hope that you’d come back one day. Maybe even become a detective. That’s always an option.”

“Maybe one day. But at least as long as my top speed is in the single-digit range, I need to find something else to occupy me,” Nick muttered, briefly stroking at his leg before shaking his head and glancing back to Judy. “That reminds me. What kind of cases have you been taking?”

Judy hummed with thought. “Well, after we took down Al Catpone last year, organized crime took a major hit. Related cases have nearly dropped to nothing, though, which isn’t good. It means that the organizations leftover are doing something right. The Nocturnal-Mob and the Tundratown Mafia are both still out there, picking up the pieces of Al’s empire. We just gotta wait ’till one of them slips up. The Chief has had me on more stakeouts than ever, just to keep watch. Oh, and Harlan and Mary have been helping clean up the mess Al left behind in Happytown, you know. I think they’re pushing the paperwork to partner with each other, now that they’re almost off rookie status.”

“Good for them. It’s nice to know that even wolves and sheep can get along. Remind you of anyone? Heh.” Nick jested, lightly nudging her with his elbow. “Anything else to report, officer?”

“Not much. It’s been busy, but... uneventful. Which is a nice change of pace, considering how many cases we had thrown at us last year.” Judy chortled softly. “To think that Zootopia used to have five crime-lords before we came along and shook things up. Now, Mr. Big and Vladzotz Fangpyre are the only ones left. We accomplished a lot, yeah, but I have to wonder if having two rather than five is a good thing. But they seem to be on their best behavior, so I can’t complain too much. It’s left me with a lot more busywork than usual, now that cases have shrunk. I have been pursuing a bit of a personal project too, though. Just on the side.”

“And what’s that?”

“Trying to track down Lucy Sang. Ever since she got the slip on me in the Rainforest-District, I haven’t been able to get her out of my head. I was so close to bringing her in. I can’t just quit where we left off. I know that if I can take her down, the Nocturnal-Mob won’t be far behind. I’ve been looking into every lead I can find, but they’ve all been dead ends. She covers her tracks too well. Turns out there haven’t been any sightings of her since Al’s plan imploded. I think that might be why all my leads have dried up.”

“I remember her from Beaverdam. That bat nearly bit a hole in me,” Nick noted, rubbing at his neck. “Knowing you, I’m sure you’ll find something sooner or later.”

“I sure hope so.” Judy said. A period of silence descended over the cruiser as the topic came to a close.

Nick stared down at his cast, deep in thought. Past all the pain of these past few months, Judy had been there for him. It’s one reason why he liked listening to her stories from work - to repay her for her efforts. That, and because even after all this time, he still missed working at the ZPD. Missed working with Judy. Nick made a promise to himself that if his side project worked out, that he’d do his best to ensure that Judy had a place at his side. The last thing he wanted was for them to drift too far apart.

The long quiet was interrupted by a chirp from Nick’s phone. Slipping it out, Nick checked the message and grinned. Now this was some good news.

Looking up, he nodded at the next traffic light. “Oh, could you turn right at this light, Carrots?”

Judy looked at him, one eyebrow cocked curiously. “Why? The apartment is this way.” She nodded her head left.

“I need to go uptown. Remember those political aspirations of mine we’ve talked about? My side project? Well, they’re finally paying off.” He waved the phone, indicating the message he’d just received. His grin grew as an undeniable look of hope filled his countenance. “My Campaign Manager wants to meet me.”

Meanwhile, somewhere in the Nocturnal-District...

Fire meant many things to Vladzotz Fangpyre III.

Death and devastation were often the first traits to come to mind. After all, even seven years later, the arson incident that had claimed the lives of his old family and ancestral home still seethed in his mind, printed into the foundation of his being no different than the blackened scorch marks that had adorned the halls of Castle Fangpyre’s ruined remnants before its final destruction.

But fire created more than just ash. From its heat, one could stave off the cold. From its light, one could illuminate the dark. And from its ruinous wake, the new could supplant the old, and fresh starts could be made from what was left behind.

Vladzotz knew this better than any mammal alive. The destruction of his ancestral home had been a major blow to the Nocturnal-Mob, but it had allowed him every opportunity to grow, for only when at rock-bottom could the sheer scope of the opportunities beyond be seen. After months of hard work, the Nocturnal-Mob had recovered from its setbacks, in no small part due to the aid of Lucy Sang. Now they were more powerful than ever in the wake of Al Catpone’s defeat.

A smile spread its way across the crime-lord’s fangs. The wood bar that the vampire bat clung to creaked as he ruffled his wings, inverted eyes staring deep into the flames delicately crackling in the nearby fireplace. The books lining the wall of the library filled his nostrils with the faint, vanilla-hinted scent of ancient paper. The library was his favorite room in the safehouse for many reasons - the vast collection of knowledge, the tranquil atmosphere, and the comforting allure of the fireplace rarely failed to draw his presence on quiet nights such as these, when the day’s work managing one of the two largest criminal enterprises in Zootopia came to an end, leaving him free to relax.

But this room now held a treasure far more precious to him than any decrepit tome: a representation of all the beauty and opportunity that came through the blazing inferno of change. Vladzotz craned his neck to the cradle settled directly below his perch and smiled down at the two bat pups sleeping inside, neither more than a month old. One had a shade of fur as dark as night, much like his own, while the other bore a lighter hue of gray. Both were swaddled in red blankets, their toothless mouths plugged with pacifiers. These pups were the culmination of all he had fought for, all he had sacrificed since that fateful night of fire and agony. To him, they were the future that he had been craving for so long.

One of Vladzotz’s large ears twitched. Moments later, the door to the room quietly swung open. He straightened his head to scan over whoever had entered, but was surprised to see that he still appeared to be alone. A slight fluttering emanated from somewhere out of sight. Vladzotz couldn’t see behind him due to the vampiric collar that jutted from the nape of his sleeveless black overcoat, but he had a sense far more accurate than sight for such occasions. He let out a burst of sonar from his jaws, echolocating into the room to pin down the source. When the sound waves returned to him, giving him a mental map of his surroundings, it was too late.

The other bat was on him in an instant, leaping down from the ceiling and landing directly in front of his snout as he turned to face her. Vladzotz’s single red eye lit up with surprise, but before he could react, the intruder caught his lips in an upside-down kiss. The crime-lord’s surprise burst into a delightful heat, akin to the logs smoldering in the fireplace. When the connection severed, he was left staring into the inverted countenance of Lucy Sang, who smiled warmly back at him, green eyes beaming past long rows of lashes.

“You always have been partial toward the element of surprise, haven’t you?” Vladzotz asked, his voice deep and velvety, smooth as molasses.

Lucy smirked. “Professional thieves need to constantly sharpen their skills, even when off the job,” She claimed, high-pitched voice taking on a sultry tone as she briefly kissed him once again. “And you’re the perfect whetstone.”

The male bat hummed knowingly. “Hrm. Well, you’re welcome to sharpen your fangs on me anytime.”

“Ooh, is that a hint of playfulness I hear?” She teased back as she readjusted his red bat-shaped bow tie. “A bit uncharacteristic for the big-bad crime-lord of the Nocturnal-District, don’t ya think?”

Vladzotz shrugged. “You certainly have helped pull me out of my shell, since we first met. I owe you much, my dear, and I fear it’s a debt I can never repay.”

Lucy nuzzled her cheek against his own, gray fur tickling against his darker coat. “Don’t worry, you’ve paid me back more than you could ever know.”

They held their embrace for a moment longer before parting. Lucy had never been much of a sucker for mushiness, but with a mammal as romantic as Vladzotz in her life, it was hard not to succumb. He just had that vampiric charm to him. Besides, with as many close brushes to imprisonment and death as she’d had, Lucy had grown to cherish the little things in life, and if that meant enjoying a moment of affection with her husband, then she was happy to partake.

Lucy then flapped up to the same perch that Vladzotz hung from and gripped the bar with the talons on her feet. Vladzotz wrapped his arms around Lucy, wing folds molding into the shape of her lean curves while she snuggled into his chest with a satisfied sigh. Cuddling up to Vladzotz never got old. Maybe it was just bat pack instincts, but being wrapped in his wings never failed to bring about the most assuring sense of safety and security. Her skintight catsuit was cold to the touch, but the smooth black fabric quickly warmed as their body heat pooled together comfortably.

“I have to give you credit, my dear,” the crime-lord began. “You’ve recovered splendidly from the pregnancy. It’s as if it never happened.”

Lucy giggled. “Keeping this figure a ten requires sacrifice. You should come to the gym with me more often, you know. You’ve been doing really great about getting out of the house more, but you don’t have to be so paranoid about being spotted all the time. We practically own this district. Those dunderheads at Precinct Six wouldn’t so much as look at you the wrong way.”

“Fair. I’ll make the extra effort. But I always have had an air of caution about me, you know that,” he gazed to the cradle below them. “Besides, we have so much more to protect now.”

Lucy peered down at their pups with a smile. “Yeah. They deserve the best we can give them… a better childhood than I ever got, at least.”

“We’ll ensure it,” Vladzotz promised as he stroked at his wife’s lower back. “They’ll be our chance to do better.” He smiled as a thought came to him. “When they’re old enough to appreciate it, I want to take them to the surface-world, and show them everything beyond these plumbless caverns - something I never experienced until I was nearly twenty years old.”

“I like that,” Lucy agreed. “I can’t wait for their fangs to come in. Though when they do, I’ll definitely have to start feeding them exclusively with bottles.”

Vladzotz chuckled. “A wise choice.” He hummed with thought before glancing at his wife. “Say, how are your fangs these days? They’re not still aching from that skirmish of yours with that rabbit officer, are they?”

Lucy opened her jaws, and using one claw like a toothpick, briefly picked at the hole near the back of her mouth where one of her fangs used to be. She shrugged as she retracted her claw.

“Eh. It doesn’t hurt like it used to. I’m over it.” One ear twitched irritably. “But you can bet if I ever see that stupid rabbit again, I’ll bite more holes in her than swiss cheese.”

“The desire for revenge can be a dangerous slope, my dear.” Vladzotz cautioned, resisting the urge to touch at his missing right eye - a testament to the sacrifices that came from seeking vengeance.

“I know. I may be a risk-taker, but I don’t wanna do anything too reckless. Wouldn’t wanna leave the pups without a mom, after all.” A grin spread her lips. “But I am glad to be able to continue my freelance work. It was a nice break, but I’m ready to bite back.” She emphasized her point by lightly clicking her fangs together.

“I had noticed you were wearing your work outfit,” the crime-lord remarked as he caressed the smooth black fabric. “I haven’t seen you in it since that night you tumbled out of the fireplace. Ten months ago, was it?”

“Don’t judge. Chimneys are excellent methods of entry for a mammal like me,” her tongue smacked against her lips, as though she were not-so fondly recalling the taste of ash. “Not an easy night to forget. Crossing claws with that bunny cop was a fight to remember!” She licked her lips with more indulgence this time. “Her blood was delicious.” The thief allowed herself a moment of reminiscence before she shook her head and looked back to Vladzotz with a smile, rubbing her cheek into his sternum. “But I’m glad we took that break. I definitely needed it, after everything. And it did give us plenty of time to, you know,” she trailed off with a slight blush coloring her cheeks, one claw tracing circles around his chest. “Try for pups. Quite a few hard-to-forget nights there, too.”

Vladzotz grinned sheepishly, trying to ignore how hot the room suddenly felt. For as much as his confidence had grown around Lucy, he was still quite the conservative mammal. “Yes, I suppose it did.”

Lucy giggled. She thought it was cute whenever Vladzotz flustered himself. “It was nice being able to kick back and not have to worry about my next contract for a while, but I’m excited to get started again! This’ll be my first new mission in months.”

“I urge you to be cautious, though, now that you’re returning to your usual work, my dear,” Vladzotz requested. “Ten months is some time to be out of practice.”

Another giggle broke through Lucy’s teeth. “Don’t underestimate me too much, Vladdy. I’ve been polishing my martial arts lately, and besides, I got the jump on you without a sweat, didn’t I?”

“Granted.” The crime-lord chuckled.

“I’ll be fine, I promise,” Lucy assured. “I’m taking things slow, not doing any real dangerous jobs. Just espionage, investigation, maybe some minor theft. Stuff like that. Nothing I couldn’t pull off with one wing tied behind my back. Like I said, I don’t wanna leave the pups without a mom.” She grinned as she flicked his chest with one polished black claw. “Or you without a wife.”

“I appreciate that sentiment, my dear. So,” Vladzotz paused, leering his head in closer to Lucy’s neck. “Would you mind sharing what your latest mission will demand?”

Lucy tapped her chin thoughtfully. “Well, the client is super private, and I mean, like, super private. Voice modulator, wire transfers, dead-drops, the whole nine-yards. It took some real effort just to get in contact with them, and even then it was only through a representative. I have no idea who the actual client is. That kinda secrecy usually means politics, or big business - some high-profile figure with a lot to lose, but enough to gain to hire someone like me. Even crime-lords aren’t that discreet, except for maybe you.”

Vladzotz nodded, as if that was an indisputable fact. “The Nocturnal-Mob has always prided itself on our clandestine operations.”

“And we’re all the better off for it,” Lucy agreed. “Anyways, the client wants me to track down some old turncoat from the Tundratown Mafia that had gone into hiding a few years back. Apparently, they recently reappeared on Outback-Island, and have some kind of juicy information that the client wants.” She beamed wicked fangs. “I can’t wait to find out!”

“Hrm. Your mission borders infringement upon the non-aggression pact between the crime-lords. We’re not supposed to perform espionage on one another. Mr. Big and I are all that remain of the original five, and that’s precisely why I’d like to keep hostilities to a minimum.” Vladzotz swept his wings over Lucy’s hips, staring into her eyes as the two bats dangled from the ceiling. “Please be careful.”

Lucy took on a serious note. “I promise. I’ll be as discreet as possible.” She allowed herself a grin. “Besides, it wouldn’t hurt to have a little info on the little don, would it?”

Vladzotz thought back to the last meeting between the crime-lords, back when Al Catpone was still in power over the Rainforest-District and its respective criminal outfit. As he recalled, the meeting had been prompted by Al to acquire aid for his scheme against the city government, and both Mr. Big and Vladzotz had declined to provide it. But that wasn’t the only thing Vladzotz remembered: he recalled how closeted the shrew had been during the meeting, as if he were hiding something, or harboring some kind of guilt, and that demeanor seemed only more amplified around Vladzotz himself.

The male bat hummed beneath his breath. “Perhaps it wouldn’t.” He relented. “Still, handle yourself cautiously, my dear. There is another meeting this afternoon, you know. Mr. Big and I are to celebrate the unification of our forces to a degree never before seen in the criminal underworld. As the last two crime-lords of Zootopia, we must preserve ourselves however possible. With the new pact, we’ll be stronger than ever. I’d quite like to ensure the festivities go as planned.”

“Mum’s the word,” Lucy assured before leaning in and giving her husband a brief kiss on the chin. “It’s time for me to go. I’ll try to be back in time for the meeting. Can you make sure Leo and Vasila are in good paws when you leave?”

“Of course.” Vladzotz said with a smile. “My Head of Security makes an excellent sitter.”

“Great! I’ll see you soon!”

At that, Lucy acrobatically cartwheeled back to the floor, landing atop the carpet below. She hopped over to the crib to take one last glance at her pups, and gingerly stroked the head of the lighter-furred one with the same claws she so often used as weapons against her foes. Leo stirred ever so slightly, murring softly in his sleep. Lucy smiled warmly. She then stepped back and blew Vladzotz one last playful kiss before flapping off down the hall.

As she flew away, she tried to quell her emotions, to steel herself for the mission to come. It was game time, and she needed all distractions sufficiently tucked away for the moment. Yet the thought of her children kept poking out in her mind. So much more was at stake now that she had a family to protect. Lucy had never imagined she’d ever settle down and start one, but as it so often did, life had a funny way of changing one’s plans, and mindset because of it.

But she wouldn’t have it any other way. Eventually, after a few more minutes of flying, she stopped trying to bury the thoughts as they occurred altogether. Perhaps some reminders of what was at stake would serve as good motivation after all.

A wicked grin split the bat’s muzzle as she took to the cavernous skies of the Nocturnal-District, glowworms lighting the way toward the tunnel that led to the surface-world. She knew it would be fun, regardless.

10:30 A.M ; Downtown Zootopia

In a city so big, there was no place where Nick felt smaller than Downtown Zootopia.

Colorful skyscrapers of assorted shape and design reached toward the clouds above, so tall that looking up to admire them was a posture hazard in its own right. Some were covered in glitzy windows, and curved like horns, while others were built of stone and crawling with vines. Mammals of equal diversity roamed the streets, from sheep in office suits to flying squirrels cleaning the windows dozens of stories high without any harnesses. It was a beautiful, vibrant district, filled with wealth, clean infrastructure, and advanced technology - Zootopia at it’s finest.

Staring out the windows at the clustered sidewalks, Nick couldn’t have agreed more. It might not have had the same effect on him as it did Judy, given how upbeat she seemed to be simply by driving around, but he could still find some shred of appreciation for it, cynical as he was. But to him, the city Downtown also represented Zootopia at its worst: how countless amounts of money was directed to the shiny primary districts while leaving secondary sub-districts to fester. He also had a personal irking toward it: If it weren’t for the Prioritization Policy, as it had come to be known in the decades since its enactment, then Nick’s own childhood home of Happytown might not have devolved into such a ghetto. His mother, Olivia, might not have had to live in such squalid conditions.

The fox sighed. He made himself a mental note to give his mother a call later. Her counsel never failed to set his head right. If anyone could get his mind off wanting to boot whoever had devised the Prioritization Policy into jail, it was her. But for now, all he could do was focus on the present. To grin out at the world and not let anyone see that such things truly got to him.

Nick allowed himself a slight smile. He may have been a cynical mammal, but he was also a hopeful one, in no small part thanks to Judy. She had taught him plenty about seeking to live an honest life, and to make the world a better place. And Nick knew that to truly make that happen, it all started with this meeting.

Their cruiser pulled up to a large office building. The structure was shaped like a staircase, with garden terraces tufted by trees and flower patches. Nick paused while unbuckling his seatbelt when Judy grabbed the radio and declared, “Cruiser 359 to Central, going on break. Over.”

Clawhauser’s voice answered back, as buoyant as ever, “Copy that Cruiser 359! Over.”

“You sure you wanna come?” Nick asked. “You don’t have more important things to do?”

Judy glanced at him with a supportive smile. “I’m going to be there to support my husband in the meeting that might change his entire life.”

Knowing there was no hope in changing her mind once she set it toward such a goal, Nick nodded, and clambered out of the vehicle. Touching down on the pavement, his bad knee trembled for a moment, causing him to briefly wobble before he rebalanced himself. A smile spread his lips. The pain was negligible enough to walk without the cane.

Judy came around and patiently walked with the hobbling Nick, though she refrained from offering an arm. She knew he would ask if he needed the help. She did open the door, though, and Nick expressed his thanks with a sly wink.

They found a directory, and Nick led the way up the elevators to the third floor. There they found a sturdy wooden door with a polished bronze plaque. Samantha Diallo, Consultant, it read, script elegant but bold.

Nick knocked. The door flew open with startling speed, and there stood a lanky female meerkat in moderately fashionable business attire, despite the fact that it was completely yellow, from the shoulder tips on her blazer right down to her office skirt. Large eyelashes drew attention to her dark blue eyes, and shiny turquoise jewelry dangled from her ears. She grinned brightly at the sight of her two taller guests.

“Nick Wilde! It’s so good to see you again!” To Nick’s surprise and Judy’s consternation, the meerkat threw her arms around the fox’s middle and squeezed. “Not getting into too much trouble, I hope?”

“Hey, there, Sammy!” Nick spouted in shock, staring wide-eyed down at the mammal wrapped around him. “Good to see you, too! Been awhile. And well, you know me. Trouble tends to find its way to my feet sooner or later.”

Samantha pulled back, still smiling brightly. “I’d expect nothing less. You haven’t changed a bit! But at the same time you have. It’s kinda weird!” She giggled. “We go way back, don’t we?”

Still flabbergasted, Nick just nodded, chuckling softly. Samantha’s sheer perkiness took some time to readjust to.

The very friendly meerkat turned to face Judy. If it were possible, her smile grew even more intense. “And you brought Judy!” Rushing forward, she grabbed the startled rabbit’s paw and proceeded to shake it to within an inch of its life. “Oh, Mrs. Hopps, I am SO glad to finally meet you!” she gushed. “I’ve been watching you on TV for years! First rabbit accepted into the Police Academy, and graduated with top marks! Exposed the greatest conspiracy in Zootopia’s history, not to mention directly involved with dismantling most organized crime in the city! And that time you spearheaded a raid on the lair of an entire criminal empire in the Nocturnal-District - awesome! You’re awesome! My shooting star!”

Judy smiled nervously. She’d met fans before, but never any quite this forward. But the bunny still sought to be as polite as possible. “It’s nice to meet you too, Samantha.” Then that last thing she said clicked. “Your shooting star?”

“Aw, call me Sammy!” The meerkat requested, playfully waving one of her paws at Judy after releasing her grip. Then she bounced with excitement. “Oh, that’s right! The Mammal Inclusion Initiative was my baby, and you blew my expectations away. You’ve done more in your career than any three of your peers combined - no offense Nick, you were a commendable officer - and now no one can say a small mammal can’t do BIG things!”

Judy blinked confusedly. “The M.I.I? I thought Lionheart-?”

Samantha playfully waved her paw at Judy again. “Oh, do you really think that well-coiffed dummy ever had an original thought? His popularity numbers were dropping, so he went sniffing around for a publicity stunt to show he was still a powerful, effective leader,” the meerkat mocked Lionheart’s deep baritone. “So, I jumped at the chance. The usual process: he hired me, I wrote up a plan for him, he took all the credit,” her ears briefly dipped before her face lit up once more. “But I got what I wanted! Oh, I’m sorry!”

Suddenly she stepped back and waved her guests into her office. “Didn’t mean to keep you standing out in the hall! Come in! Come in!”

A grateful Nick and somewhat shellshocked Judy shuffled inside. The office was tastefully decorated with a flair for bright, cheerful colors. The desk was appropriately sized for Samantha’s stature and fastidiously organized, with a laptop, blank letterhead, pens, and various other accoutrements placed with laser accuracy. Sticky note reminders with smiley faces drawn across them adorned the desktop in impressive amounts. Pictures on the wall depicted the meerkat standing or shaking paws with various politicians and bigwigs from all over Zootopia. The fox fell into one of the chairs with a relieved sigh, while Judy took her seat more slowly. Samantha practically jumped into her chair behind the desk, vibrating with excitement.

“So, Nick! I haven’t seen you since highschool, except on the news of course, and suddenly you hit me out of the blue with a message saying you have political aspirations,” the meerkat waggled her eyebrows like the fox having such notions was mischievous by its very nature, and suddenly Judy understood how the two might have been friends in school. Still grinning, Samantha laced her fingers together and leaned forward on her desk. “So? Tell Sammy all about it.”

“Now, don’t laugh too hard,” started Nick with a self deprecating smile, “But I wanna become Mayor.”

Far from laughing, Samantha’s expression grew serious for the first time since they’d arrived. She waved for Nick to continue. “Tell me why.”

Not expecting such a response, Nick blinked in surprise, but he quickly placed that aside to give the answer his best. “Well, it’s been growing on me my whole life, but last year, I came to terms with the fact that there is something wrong with Zootopia. Something is missing. Something important. Fundamental, even.”

When he paused for dramatic effect, Samantha nodded gravely, right on cue. “And what is that something?”

“Common sense.”

The grave expression cracked into a sardonic smile. “Can’t argue that.”

“Now, now, I know what you’re thinking,” Nick waved her off with a smile. “Every mammal with a bone to pick thinks they know how to run the city better than anyone else. But I’m not here to be some old todd yelling at a cloud. I’m not looking for power or excuses, or to push some agenda. I actually want to solve the problems I’ve seen.”

Samantha looked intrigued, as did Judy. “Oh? How?” the perky meerkat asked.

“The reason the average mammal is so ignorant is because those in power keep them that way,” Nick reported like it was obvious. “Last year, Hopps and I were involved in a case with a rat that was manipulating the papers at ZNN. He used his position to spread skewed info and make a grab for power against City-Hall. We brought him down, but he’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s still so much to be done.” He exhaled softly through his nostrils, as if truly realizing that for the first time himself. “Zootopia is still so divided… still has so many biases against predators.” He looked to Judy and placed a supportive paw on her shoulder. “Carrots and I have unearthed some real shady stuff over the years. Banking institutions Downtown with ties to organized crime. Conspiracies with… collars,” He briefly rubbed at his throat, swallowing hard. “And the government’s efforts to sweep knowledge of them under the rug. Criminal mobs so desperate for change that they try to stir up mass revolts - you heard the news about Al Catpone’s plan, right? Chief Bogo promised it would be made public. Hopps and I were there when it happened. It’s where I… broke my leg. And… now that I can’t be a cop anymore, I thought I’d try to make change for the better in a different way.” He shook his head. “But that’s beside the point. There are some deep, deep webs at work in this city, keeping the public ignorant, profiting from crime and suffering. And they need to be exposed. Zootopia needs to change, and I want to be the one to help make that happen.”

Samantha nodded. “Okay. It sounds like you know what you want. That’s a good thing. And I do like the sound of your plan.” A fresh smile spread her lips. “But you didn’t answer my question. Heehee! You’ll make a great politician!”

Nick allowed himself a chuckle, despite the serious situation. Samantha certainly had a way of breaking tension. “Fair point. I’ve put some thought into it, and I’ve got a few ideas.”

Judy shifted on her seat, perking with interest. This would be the first time Nick shared his campaign ambitions with her.

The fox cleared his throat. “I want to make the government more transparent. Mandatory. I want the average mammal on the street to know who is responsible for their repression, so they can respond accordingly. No more hiding the truth. Protests are great, but have only accomplished so much. Until mammals can see Zootopia for the way it really is, it can’t be changed for the better. Predators especially have a lot of room for improvement. Another big goal of mine is bringing some fairness to Zootopia. The city government’s Prioritization Policy has severely hurt sub-districts like the Docks, and the Nocturnal-District, and Deciduous-District, giving them waaay less funding for infrastructure and crime prevention than the primary districts like Savanna-Central and Tundratown. Happytown is the worst of them all. Carrots and I have seen it firsthand. I want to change that. It could have a serious impact on organized crime, too. If someplace like the Nocturnal-District weren’t so underfunded, crime-lords like Vladzotz Fangpyre never would have been able to scrape together so much power.”

“Sorry, who?” Samantha asked.

Nick waved away the question. “Just another baddie the ZPD’s been tracking. Don’t worry about it. Anyway, that’s more or less what I’ve got in mind for my campaign: clear information, predator rights, and fairer funding.”

“Oh, so you just want to take on the entire existing power structure. Easy enough.” Samantha joked.

Nick smirked. “Right, well, speaking of which, I also wanna try to bring down any corrupt politicians I might sniff out along the way. You know, the mammals that have been behind all these problems in the first place. I have a feeling we’ll run across a few if we’re gonna be changing things up so much.” He gestured to his wife. “Carrots here can help with the heavy lifting. The brawn and brain to my brain.”

Judy smiled up at him. “If you can find any evidence of criminal activity, I’d be more than happy to break out the cuffs.”

Samantha clapped excitedly. “I like it! Ambitious! Inspiring! Determined!" Her vivacity instantly mellowed as she leaned forward over her desk, paws clasped together delicately. It was like she had an on and off switch between perkiness and professionalism. ”Buuut, I want you to be aware that a plan like that is going to get you a loooot of enemies if what you’ve described with all those conspiracies, and corruption, and criminal activity is true. You’ll need to hold your cards close to your chest, and trust no one, especially if you announce it all during your campaign… assuming you even get that far.”

“What do you mean?” Judy asked curiously.

“Well, running for mayor is no easy task! Plenty try, and few succeed. You have great goals, the fame to back it up, and a personality that I believe the citizens can resonate with, which is an amazing advantage, but I have to warn you, Nick, with everything you want to accomplish, the odds are against you. And if I’m being super-duper honest, it might be kind of dangerous. Politics is power, and where power is involved, danger will be too. You’ll get backstabbed and betrayed. You’ll be a target, especially for the mammals that want to keep the status quo intact.”

Nick nodded, but kept his head high. “Trust me, I know what I’m getting into,” he claimed, causing Samatha to slyly raise an eyebrow. “Carrots and I dealt with danger on a daily basis out on the beat. But I’m willing to accept the risks. No matter the odds, I just want to try.”

The meerkat narrowed her eyes. “If you understand what you’re getting into, then I only have one thing to say,” her serious expression suddenly lit up with joy as she lunged across her desk with an outstretched paw. “Put ’er there, partner!”

Grinning widely, Nick’s larger paw met with hers in a firm shake. With the deal sealed, Judy perked with excitement. This was a step in a new, bright direction for Nick, and she couldn’t be prouder. Deep down, however, an odd feeling of doubt caused her smile to melt prematurely. There were too many questions tugging at her mind and heart. Would all this really be as dangerous as Samantha had said? If webs as deep as the ones Nick had alluded to were at risk of being snipped, just what would that mean for Zootopia, and Nick and Judy themselves? And would such different fields of work put a strain on the relationship that the bunny and fox had built for so long as police partners?

Judy didn’t know. She shook her head, intent on focusing on the present. And she couldn’t deny that the present was looking good. All it took to confirm that sentiment for her was Nick’s happy smile - the brightest of which she’d seen from him in months. Perhaps that was all that truly mattered.

“I have to say, I’m moved by your conviction, Nick,” Samantha confessed as she settled back in her seat. “I’d be honored to work with you.”

“Right back at ya, Sammy,” the fox said, causing the meerkat to giggle. “You’re the best in the business.”

“Darn right I am,” she agreed as she pulled open one of the drawers on her desk before retracting a thick notebook. “Now, let’s get down to business! The next mayoral election is in, oh,” she spared a glance at her calendar. “Three months, so you’ve got between now and then to get your name out there! Your first step to becoming Mayor is getting your name on the ballot. And to get your name on the ballot, you’re gonna need a petition, first!”

“A petition?” Judy repeated curiously, to which Samantha nodded energetically.

“Yep! A candidacy petition with three thousand signatures!” She declared as she flipped open the notebook and slid it toward Nick and Judy, revealing page after page of signature lines. “If you can fill the book by the end of the month, in time for the debating period, your name will get added to the ballot for voting! Then it’s only a matter of getting your name out there, to make sure mammals vote for you in the first place, which is actually the hard part.”

Judy swallowed. The notebook sure looked thick. Then she glanced at her husband, and saw nothing but the utmost confidence manifested in a smile.

“Three thousand signatures, huh? Shouldn’t be a problem,” he assured. “I know everyone in this city, after all.”

12:00 P.M ; Outback-Island...

To fly was to be free. None cherished that sentiment more than Lucy Sang.

She didn’t envy terrestrial-bound mammals. They may have ruled the surface-world, but the gift of flight was something Lucy would never trade for any amount of power. To her, there was little more thrilling than taking to the skies unbound, free to go wherever her wings could carry her. Not to mention the fact that being a flying mammal had helped cement her status as Zootopia’s top thief.

On the job once again, she couldn’t have been more satisfied with her life. Not only did she now have the family she never possessed during her childhood, but the chance to resume her freelance work as well. The bat couldn’t have asked for anything more. Though for as much as she enjoyed her job, the idea of fully settling down with Vladzotz to focus on their family and ensure its safety was an appealing one. Plotting diamond heists and staying three steps ahead of the ZPD at all times got exhausting after a while.

The bat exhaled wearily, quite exhausted in the moment, too. Flying all the way from the Nocturnal-District on the outskirts of Zootopia to Outback-Island, deep into the Zootopian Sound, was no easy task. Lucy was just thankful that her endurance was up to the task. Years of flapping from one district to another worked cardio wonders.

She glanced down at the enclave zipping below her. Outback-Island wasn’t her favorite district, in no small part due to the oppressive sun and dryness, but Lucy couldn’t deny that the island itself was a beautiful place. Neighborhoods built from burnt-orange rocks basked in the heat of the afternoon sun. Dry brush and eucalyptus trees dotted the arid landscape, providing meager shade for the droves of marsupials out enjoying the day. Kangaroos hopped marathons across the sweltering roads, and platypuses carrying briefcases swam to work through azure streams. In the distance, the great red mesas of the Outback rose imposingly over the horizon, casting shadows across treacherous chasms filled with criss-crossing bridges. The rocky coastline pounded with waves, blasting squalls of salty mist across piers stocked with ferries and assorted pleasure craft. Flabby tourists from the mainland gawked at cheap trinkets beneath rows of bazaar tents lining the waterfront, filling the air with noisy chatter.

From on high, there was little that Lucy couldn’t see or hear. She scanned the buildings below, searching for the rendezvous point where her client’s representative had instructed her to go. Apparently, the mission’s target was supposed to be awaiting her arrival near an alleyway off Wombat Way. The harsh glare of the sun had forced the bat to swipe a pair of sunglasses from a street vendor snoozing beneath an umbrella, but they didn’t do any favors to her already limited visibility. She glided lower to the ground for closer inspection.

Landing atop the edge of an office building, she surveyed the streets below. A dilapidated intersection several dozen meters away bore a sign with the words Wombat Way partially obscured behind layers of rust. Smiling, the bat then flapped over to the sign, landing atop the sidewalk before jumping up with a shrill yipe and clinging to the pole.

Guano, that pavement’s hot! She thought to herself as she glanced around sheepishly, hoping no one had witnessed that. This target better show up quick.

At the thought of the target, she took a closer look into the alleyway adjacent to the street. The orange stones cobbled into the ground descended down a crooked ravine between the gap in the buildings, like a path leading deeper into the earth. Dry roots stretched across the graffiti-scrawled walls, and garbage littered across the path, blowing in the wind like tumbleweeds.

A flicker of movement from the shadows earned the bat’s attention. She watched as a disheveled-looking lemming peered out from behind a garbage can. His white button-up was stained with sweat and orange dust, and his black tie hung loose around his neck. A packet of ice rested atop his cranium, melting slowly even in the shade. He was about a third her size, and nibbled at his fingertips with apprehension.

“A-Are you the one they sent?” He asked in a timid, high-pitched voice.

Lucy nodded. “That’s me,” she confirmed before detaching from the pole and flapping into the shade of the alleyway. Thankfully, the pavement was bearable enough to stand on. “I was hired to acquire whatever information you-”

"Shh!" The lemming hissed, looking around in a panic. “Not here! They might be watching! Follow me!”

Lucy was given no time to question his request as the lemming scampered off deeper into the ravine. With no other choice, she flapped after him. Her target led her far into the alley, where the buildings rose so prominently over the gorge that they were practically underground, reminding Lucy a bit of the Nocturnal-District.

Eventually, the lemming halted in front of a cellar hatch big enough to stuff a fox down. Heaving with all his might, he flung open one of the doors before gesturing inside. Lucy descended into the cellar, not stopping even as the light extinguished when the lemming slammed the doors shut behind them. She simply used echolocation to maneuver around, mentally mapping a small, grimy basement filled with shelves of books and DVDs. Her assessment was confirmed as her target flicked on the lights, illuminating only a single bulb atop the ceiling. A few thin windows that pointed to the ground-level of the alley were boarded up with wooden planks, and it smelled of sour fur. Despite the disgusting setting, Lucy exhaled with relief, pleased to be able to remove her shades and enjoy an environment much more suited for her than the sweltering climate outside.

The bat’s stomach grumbled. Flying all this way had given her an appetite. She had to resist the urge to spare hungry glances at the lemming’s neck.

“Alright, what’s the deal?” Lucy asked, eager to keep her hunger distracted. “Why’d you drag me all the way down here?”

She watched as the lemming pulled up a rickety chair and flumped atop it with a tired sigh. “I have information. Information that’s kept me in hiding for seven years. I’m not taking any chances.”

“Whoa, seven years? What have you been hiding from for all this time?”

The lemming laughed mirthlessly. “The crime-lords,” he claimed in a weak voice. “Seven years ago, I used to work for the Tundratown Mafia… for Mr. Big. I’d spent years with him, and desperately wanted out. But I knew too much… I was in too deep. Big would kill me if he found out what I knew! I fled all the way out here, to the Outback, so I could be safe. It was the only way. But the island had its own crime-lord, and it turned out he and his mob were partnered with Mr. Big! They all had some sort of pact! All the crime-lords!”

Lucy nodded. “Right. That crazy tasmanian-devil, Rombahe,” she sneered, recalling a not-so-pleasant thieving job with him last year. “Not a fan. That guy took anger-issues to a whole ’nother level.”

“I couldn’t go outside! He would have turned me in to my old crew,” the lemming glanced to one of the boarded windows nervously, as if half-expecting someone to be watching from outside. “His mob had eyes and ears everywhere! I was only able to start venturing out again after he was sent to prison last year.”

“Good riddance, if you ask me,” Lucy remarked.

“Yes! Do you have any idea how hard it is living on Outback-Island as an arctic mammal?” The lemming yanked the icepack from his scalp and tossed it across the room. “I can barely even go outside with clothes!” He gestured to his sweat-soaked attire. “I don’t want to be a Naturalist! The heat makes me want to jump off a cliff right into the ocean just to cool down!”

“Okay, calm down,” Lucy grumbled. “Just tell me how my client even found you.”

The lemming sniffed. “How am I supposed to know? I found a letter taped to my grate. It said when and where to meet you… that I could tell you what I knew. They promised to help me escape the island in return!”

Lucy narrowed her eyes. So her client knew where this guy lived - enough to inform the target that they wanted information from him in the first place - yet still hired her to be the one to go out and get it, rather than sending one of their own minions? Something about that was suspicious. But the bat ultimately shrugged. She didn’t make it her business to know why a client acted the way they did. All she cared about was doing what she was told for the shiny reward at the end.

“Then enough beating around the bush. Spill. I wanna know what dirty secret was worth wasting seven years of your life down here for.” Lucy demanded.

Swallowing nervously, the lemming waved her closer. Lucy sighed, both paws on her hips, and tilted into range, swiveling one of her massive ears toward his face. The lemming cupped his paws over his mouth as he leaned inside, and whispered in an impossibly soft voice. Lucy’s smirking expression gradually twisted into a frown as she listened. Shock soon replaced the frown, and when the tale had been told, Lucy pulled back nervously, wings cupping over her own mouth with disbelief. Whatever confidence she had earlier was now completely shattered. Her eyes even looked to be moistening around the edges.

“No. That can’t be right,” she murmured. “They’re supposed to… b-but he-”

“It’s the truth,” The lemming assured, looking glum as he slumped in his chair. “Now you understand why I had to run… why Big would have killed me if he’d known.” He suddenly perked up, leaning forward with interest. “But you can save me! You’re gonna go tell your client now, right? Let them know I did my part so they can help me get off the island?!”

Lucy shook her head. “I… I have to go. I need to warn Vladdy.”

“Who?” The shrew stifled before seizing up. “Wait, you can’t! You need to go straight back to your client, or else-”

“I don’t care!” Lucy snapped.

Without another word, she busted open the cellar doors and took to the sky, not even bothering to put her sunglasses back on.

From the dark of the alley, a lone mammal watched the bat with a pair of binoculars as she departed. The boar pulled the eyepieces from his face, lips spreading around his yellow-ish tusks in a knowing smile. He retrieved a handheld radio from a pocket on his gray trench coat before raising the device to his face.

“This is Boarton. The mark is on the move,” he announced in a gruff voice as he pulled a recording device from the glass of the boarded basement windows. “Intel has been extracted. Tell the boss to get ready for phase two.”

1:30 P.M ; Grand Palm Hotel, Sahara-Square...

Vladzotz Fangpyre raised the cocktail glass to his lips, and took a delicate sip. The sweet tang of the fruit mixed with the metallic flavor of the blood made for a taste delicious enough to bring a smile to his lips, showing off his razor sharp fangs.

“I must say, we don’t have beverages quite like this in the Nocturnal-District,” he said as he glanced to the other side of the table. “My kind doesn’t normally mix our sustenance with other fluids, but this is quite delectable! It almost makes me want to visit the surface world more often, wouldn’t you agree, Mr. Big?”

The arctic-shrew shifted his weight in his tiny chair perched atop the table. “Beverages like that should stay in the Nocturnal-District,” he grumbled, tugging at the lapels on his tuxedo. “I’m surprised that this hotel even serves such concoctions.”

Vladzotz’s grin grew even wider. “Only the finest for the guests of the Grand Palm.” The bat mused lazily as he leaned back in his comparatively large seat and took another sip.

Behind them, floor-to-ceiling windows glittered with the midday cityscape of Sahara-Square. Rolling sand dunes stretched for miles in the distance, but up close, the glitz and glamor of the casino district assaulted the eyes with bright lights and vivid colors. The entire district could be seen from the Grand Palm’s penthouse meeting room, giving the two crime-lords a view like no other. In the penthouse foyer, a small crowd of top lieutenants from both the Tundratown Mafia and the Nocturnal-Mob mingled amongst platters of assorted hors d’oeuvres and glasses of champagne.

Mr. Big sighed softly. “Work hasn’t been easy for us ever since Al got himself captured.” A moment of silence passed over the shrew. “When the Rainforest-District lost its crime-lord, I began to fear for my own freedoms as well. To think that we’re all that’s left of the original five. Caution is key, now more than ever.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Vladzotz replied. “With the two of us working together, I’m certain our futures will be prosperous.” He spread one of his wings, gesturing to the crowd of partygoers. “But not all is so bleak. Do not forget the opportunities that came with Al’s imprisonment. While the whole city was focused on that ridiculous scheme of his, our organizations have grown larger and more powerful than ever!”

The shrew allowed himself a smile. Behind him, his second-in-command, a mighty tuxedoed polar bear named Kozlov nodded in silent agreement. “You’re right. I only wish it could have come about from less pressing circumstances.”

“Perhaps, but that’s no reason not to enjoy the revelries. A new era has dawned for us both!” Vladzotz announced, raising his glass to the crowd. “And for that, we celebrate!”

The pack of mammals cheered merrily, clinking drinks and shaking paws as they diffused across the room. Polar bears laughed with gusto as hordes of badgers and raccoons recounted stories and arm-wrestled around candlelit tables.

Mr. Big sighed as he reclined into his tiny chair, sipping from an equally tiny wine glass. “I’m getting too old for this,” he chuckled dryly.

Vladzotz smirked. “Nonsense. Age can never interfere with happiness, my friend.”

“It’s not just the party,” Mr. Big clarified. “Our work, it grows more taxing as the years slip by. My daughter and son-in-law… they urge me to retire. To enjoy life without having to concern myself over the business… over the threat of the ZPD.”

“I have had similar thoughts,” Vladzotz admitted as he lolled his head toward the window, admiring the glimmering lights of the casinos below. “It almost makes one want to... retire. Settle down, at least for a while.” He murmured to himself. “That little break I took with Lucy, for instance, is among the most cherished times of my life. Work was still present, yes, but… I lived more in those ten months than I had in years.” A reminiscent smile pulled at his lips. “We visited many exotic locales. Dined on the finest of meals and blood. Started a family. More than I ever could have imagined even a few years prior. It would be nice to experience it all again.”

“You always were a homebody. I am happy for you, Vladzotz,” Mr. Big said. “Happy that you have allowed yourself to enjoy life to its fullest.”

Vladzotz chuckled softly. “Indeed. Before I met Lucy two years ago, I had never even tried solid food. As of four months ago, I had never felt snow!”

“Never eaten borscht?” Kozlov suggested innocently in a thick, throaty accent.

“I have not. I shall add it to my list.”

The shrew smiled. His nocturnal counterpart spoke of such simple things with such genuine joy that it was hard not to be amused. “At this rate, perhaps Zootopia will be without any crime-lords.”

A shrug tugged on Vladzotz’s shoulders. “Maybe one day. Now that Lucy and I’s pups have been born, I’ve been thinking more and more about the future… about a life, as you said, without fretting over the trivialities of the work we do.”

Mr. Big hummed with thought. “What are their names? Of your children? I have yet to meet them.”

“The boy is Leo, and the girl is Vasila.”

“Vasila… wasn’t that-?”

“Yes,” Vladzotz confirmed. “My late daughter. I… wanted her memory to live on. For legacy.”

“For family,” Mr. Big said with a nod, as though he understood completely. “Family is all.”

“Indeed,” Vladzotz muttered, taking a sip from his drink. A brief period of silence settled over the two crime-lords, broken only when Mr. Big cleared his throat.

“And what of the boy’s name?”

Vladzotz smiled. “Short for Leonardo. Lucy had a brother with the same name. She, in fact, was framed for his murder. It’s how she was sent to prison, so long ago, and began her life of crime. She too wanted to honor his legacy. Our progeny are the start of a new era for us both.”

“Much like this new era for us,” The shrew added, raising his minuscule glass. “To new beginnings.”

Grinning fangs, Vladzotz gingerly clinked his glass against Mr. Big’s much smaller version. Both crime-lords then rewarded themselves with a deep sip. Moments later, Mr. Big squinted past his glass and gestured to the window outside.

“Is that… your wife?” He asked.

Vladzotz narrowed his single red eye, turning around in his side of the booth to look out the window. He was surprised to see Lucy flapping just a few feet beyond the glass, panting heavily with exhaustion.

“Lucy?” The male bat piped out as his spine straightened with intrigue. “What are you doing out there?”

She pointed one of her footclaws at Mr. Big, shaking her head frantically, though no sound could be heard past the pane. Realizing this herself, she bared her fangs in a growl before flapping out of sight. The arctic shrew murred with curiosity.

“I wonder what that was about.” He mused.

“I haven’t the faintest clue,” Vladzotz admitted before turning his attention to the nearest air vent, built into the base of a wall to his right. “Knowing her, she should be finding a new entry right about-”

He silenced himself as the vent burst open, dropping to the floor in a metallic clatter. Lucy crawled through moments later, covered in cobwebs. She coughed out a clump of dust bunnies as Vladzotz flapped down from his seat and helped her to her feet.

“I’m pleased you could make it, my dear, but must your entrance be so dramatic?” Vladzotz teasingly inquired as he pulled a strand of webbing from her shoulder.

Lucy looked up at him, and that’s when Vladzotz knew that something was wrong. Worry laced her face, and her green eyes were filled with anxiety. She fearfully glanced between her husband and Mr. Big, as if expecting something disastrous.

“Is something wrong?” Vladzotz asked, his voice turning serious.

Lucy opened her mouth, but no words came out. Oh, guano, she thought to herself. What do I tell him? As soon as this gets out, there’s no going back. It could ruin everything. I can’t do that to Vladdy. To Leo and Vasila. I… I need to buy some time, and think about this some more.

She then shook her head, forcing herself out of her stupor. Lucy drew in a deep breath, calming herself using the same breathing technique her thieving mentors had taught her to stay cool in a high-stress environment. A faux smile rewrote her anxious expression. She just had to pretend to be confident and in-charge, and not secretly terrified, which she unfortunately had plenty of experience with from earlier in her life. At least it would be fortunate in this instance.

“I’m fine, Vladdy,” she assured. “I’m just… exhausted from the flight. I flew all the way from Outback-Island. Not an easy trip!”

Vladzotz smiled. “Ah, then you must be thirsty!” He swept a wing toward the refreshments table. “Help yourself to whatever you’d like. I heard the punch has a twinge of O-negative!”

Lucy nodded happily, and stepped away, staring at Mr. Big for a moment before fully excusing herself. She sighed once she was out of eyeshot, ears dipping deeply with sorrow. She clutched a single folded wingtip to her chest. The glint of the wedding ring near the tip of her elongated ring finger caught her attention.

But Vladdy needs to know, her mind continued. He DESERVES to know. We might be in danger already! If I don’t tell anyone, we could be caught in a surprise attack, just like-

A piercing slew of knocks overshadowed the fanfare of the party, earning the attention of the crime-lords at the head table. Mr. Big waved at one of the polar bear guards standing near the entrance, causing the bear to nod before opening the door. A tuxedoed wolf peeked his head inside. Vladzotz recognized him as a new recruit to the Nocturnal-Mob, charged with watching the hall. The wolf stepped inside, and jogged over to the head table.

“My lords,” he greeted the two mob bosses with a respectful bow. “A boar presented me with this out in the hallway,” one of his paws retracted a small recording device from a pocket, holding it up for them to see. “He said he was hired to deliver a celebratory message from Zootopia County Prison. It’s from Al Catpone, my lords.”

Mr. Big glanced at Vladzotz. “Did you hire such a mammal?”

“No,” the bat replied before reaching out for the recording. “But that does sound like something Al would do. Allow me.”

Lucy’s hyper-sensitive ears twitched at the notion of this conversation. She stared down the recording from afar, narrowing her eyes with suspicion. A recording sent right here and now? But why? What could possibly…?

She abruptly gasped. “Wait, Vladdy, stop!” She shouted as she flapped into the air. “Don’t play that-”

Click! Too late. Vladzotz pressed the play button the moment Lucy touched down at the foot of the table. She could do nothing but listen as the voice of the lemming from Outback-Island filled the room.

"How am I supposed to know? I found a letter taped to my grate. It said when and where to meet youthat I could tell you what I knew. They promised to help me escape the island in return!”

“Is that Mr. Muroi?” Kozlov asked. “I thought he left our organization seven years ago.”

“You know this voice?” Vladzotz asked, raising the device in his claws.

Lucy seized up as her own voice played over the recording. ”Then enough beating around the bush. Spill. I wanna know what dirty secret was worth wasting seven years of your life down here for.”

This is bad, she pondered. What do I do? Should I destroy it? Do I even have the strength to? Should I eat it? That might stop it! Oh, guano.

She glanced at Mr. Big. The shrew looked quite worried all of a sudden. “Vladzotz, why don’t you give me that recording, and focus on the party, like you said, yes?” He asked softly.

Vladzotz didn’t respond, instead listening on as the voice of Mr. Muroi continued, revealing the info he had whispered to Lucy.

"During my time with the Tundratown Mafia, Mr. Big and Vladzotz Fangpyre, the crime-lord of the Nocturnal-District, were having some sort of feud. I don’t know what had them fighting, but the boss was always complaining about sanctions, and his daughter, and the Nocturnal-Mob. One day he just snapped - throwing things around his office, promising to ice anyone that threatened the organization. He ordered an arson job on the former Nocturnal-Mob headquarters, this old mansion in the Nocturnal-District called Castle Fangpyre. Wanted to burn it down when the Fangpyre family was gone to send a message. To keep plausible deniability, he coerced a new mob recruit to do the job - some poor fox - but the job went south, and Vladzotz’s old family got killed in the fire. It was a huge betrayal of the non-aggression pact that the crime-lords strictly follow. Big started panicking as he realized he’d acted without thinking, so he started tying up loose strings from the job to hide his tracks, and I knew that meant he might have me frozen one day, so I got out of dodge as fast as I could. The funny thing is, after all this time, Vladzotz still hasn’t realized that Mr. Big was responsible all along.”

The party had gone completely silent, as though a vacuum had sucked away all the air, and the atmosphere was just as suffocating. Every mammal in the room had frozen like a statue, all staring down the two crime-lords at the head table. The wolf that had delivered the recording swallowed hard, looking like he’d just stepped atop a land mine.

Mr. Big chuckled nervously, breaking the silence. “V-Vladzotz… this, eh… i-is a ridiculous con. Please, give me the recording.” He requested, waving Kozlov to follow through.

As Kozlov approached the bat, Vladzotz raised one wing in an unmistakable gesture. No words left his mouth, yet the meaning was clear: stop. Despite not being his boss, the polar bear obeyed Vladzotz’s command, swallowing nervously. The bat was a mere fraction of his size, yet his presence radiated a commanding and almost dangerous aura. His red eye slowly glided toward Mr. Big, glaring with an impossibly cold, silent fury. His pupil had shrunk to a pinprick of darkness, as if trying to contain the hatred boiling behind. Lucy stepped back at the sight. She hadn’t seen this side of him in nearly two years, since he had ended his crusade for vengeance upon meeting her.

“It was you,” Vladzotz murmured. “All along… it was you.” The bat carelessly dropped the recording atop the carpet, and began to slowly walk toward Mr. Big. “You employed him.”

Mr. Big instinctively tried pushing his seat away, but his legs were too short to reach the tabletop. “Vladzotz, please, don’t let t-that… that… inexplicable recording delude you. I’m a businessmammal, Mr. Muroi was just another-”

“You paid that wretched fox,” Vladzotz interrupted, wings spreading and lips pulling back to reveal his fangs. “To burn down my home… to KILL MY FAMILY!" He roared, droplets of blood and saliva flying from his maw as he heaved with rage.

“No, your family was never meant to die!” Big yelled back, but even he was already beginning to sense that rational talk would be of no use. “It was an-” He choked in fear as Vladzotz hissed and began to flap toward him. ”Kozlov!"

The polar bear immediately lunged across the table and cupped his master safely in his paws before stepping out of range. Vladzotz hissed loudly, but knew better than to charge a fully-grown polar bear defending his boss, even as his vision began to cloud with anger as red as his very eye. The bat lord clenched his paws and raised his wings, every eye in the room staring him down without a word. No one dared interrupt.

“All these years, and I was chasing a shadow cast by YOU!" He fumed, jabbing a talon at Kozlov. “Well no longer. You mark my words, Cristoforo, you will not know peace until you have felt tenfold the pain I have felt! Only then will you have my permission to die! And when you do, I will be there to suck the life from you! DO YOU HEAR ME?! I swear by my father, and his father before, the Fangpyre Family will NOT forgive this injustice!”

“Your anger is misplaced!” Mr. Big shouted at Vladzotz from between his bodyguard’s thick fingers. “It was the fox! He was the one that burned down Castle Fangpyre, and killed your family!”

“Yet you were the one that sent him to!” Vladzotz snarled back, shaking with anger. “My family is DEAD because of you!”

“They were never meant to be harmed! It was an accident! The building was the target! His recklessness took your family from you, not me!”

Vladzotz let loose a guttural growl of disagreement. “IT MATTERS NOT! You sent him to burn down Castle Fangpyre - a direct defiance of our non-aggression pact - and killed my family in the process!”

“You gave me no choice!” Big exclaimed. “Your sanctions were crippling my organization, and all because you disagreed with me devoting time to my daughter!”

“So you took my daughter, as atonement? My son? Their mother?!” Vladzotz’s voice cracked, head dipping with grief. He soon raised his gaze with a deep, hissing breath, and glared down Mr. Big with pure hatred.

“Vladzotz, I’m sorr-” The shrew began, but was cut off when Vladzotz snarled.

“I WILL NOT HEAR IT! You speak the words of a deceiver! Our pact of non-aggression meant NOTHING to you! I couldn’t trust you then, and I cannot trust you now. If we are to be the last two crime-lords of Zootopia, then I refuse to share that title with the likes of YOU! You tempted war when you broke our pact, and so you’ll get war… and by the time it’s over, you mark my words, Vladzotz Canomir Fangpyre the III will be the ONE AND ONLY CRIME-LORD OF ZOOTOPIA!”

Lucy glanced back and forth between the two crime-lords. She felt an intense, painful emotion that rarely struck her: regret. She didn’t even know what to say if she could speak.

Oh, Vladdy… I’m so sorry, Her mind confessed. I never should have dug into Big’s past. This is all my fault. But the cat’s out of the bag now.

She scanned around the room. Thankfully, no guns had been allowed at the event, otherwise the whole party likely would have turned into a giant swimming pool of blood by now, but many of the minions from both mobs were sparing distrustful, confused looks at one another, as if debating whether or not they should initiate a brawl. But no one dared act out of turn as the two crime-lords continued their debate.

“One way or another, you will suffer for your misdeeds,” Vladzotz snarled. “I promise you that.”

“Kozlov, get me out of here,” Mr. Big ordered his second-in-command, who nodded dutifully before beginning to exit the room. “Send for me if you come to your senses!” The shrew called out as he left.

Vladzotz snarled, posture hunching and fangs gritting with rage. There was nothing he could do to stop Big from leaving. Amazingly, the party began to quietly disband without violence, with the Tundratown Mafia shuffling out the door in awkward droves; faces cast with grim expressions, as if realizing that what was supposed to be a peaceful unification of the two syndicates had ironically resulted in a call for war. The Nocturnal-Mob’s lieutenants remained, none moving or speaking.

Lucy immediately flapped up to the wolf that had delivered the recording, grabbing his tie and pushing on his chest with her legs as though she were rappelling down a cliffside. “WHERE did you get that recording?!” She shouted. “And if you try to lie, so help me I’ll drink you drier than Sahara-Square!”

The wolf gagged as his tie tightened around his neck. ”Ack! I-I got it from the boar outside!” He croaked, pointing toward the exit. “He told me it was from Al! I thought he was telling the truth, I promise!”

“Wait, a boar?” Lucy leapt from his body, flapping over to the door and searching throughout the hallway. Mr. Big and his cronies had all fled, and there was no sign of any boar. Hissing, she flapped back into the penthouse.

That lemming wasn’t being so paranoid after all. Someone really did spy on us, she concluded. And I think I know exactly who. But I’ll worry about them later. Right now, Vladdy needs me.

Landing near the head table, Lucy’s ears dipped at the sight of her husband. Fuming with heaves, Vladzotz slowly approached a nearby table of drinks sized for small mammals. In a rage, he shoved it over, sending glass and colored beverages spilling across the carpet. He then turned toward a beautiful drape hanging from a window directly beside him, and began tearing the base to shreds with his claws. He continued until fatigue caught up with his anger, and he was forced to collapse to the ground, breaths slowly steadying. All his lieutenants backed away respectfully, giving him space to vent.

The normally chatty Lucy remained silent as she watched her husband tear the place apart. She really wasn’t sure what to say. Only after Vlad had worked it out of his system did she approach, putting a sympathetic claw on his shoulder in a show of support. “Feeling better?” She asked softly.

Vladzotz sighed, his gaze not leaving the floor. “It was him all along,” he muttered before chuckling mirthlessly. “I shouldn’t be surprised. He always did seem like he had something to hide from me.” His head slowly raised to meet Lucy’s gaze. “He won’t get away with this. I’ll make sure of that. I’m so sorry you had to see that, my dear. I had hoped the past would stay buried so we could look to the future.”

Lucy squeezed his shoulder, pleased that he had calmed himself down. The last thing they needed going forward from here was irrationality. “Don’t apologize. You did nothing wrong. I shouldn’t have gone snooping into the past. I’m so sorry… this is all my fault.”

“No,” Vladzotz declared. “The blame lies solely with that treacherous shrew. The coming weeks will be of great uncertainty. I trust that you’ll have my back for whatever comes?”

“Of course I will,” Lucy said immediately, wrapping an arm around him. “I’m here for you until the end, Vladdy. Always. We’ll take that miniature mobster down together if we have to.”

Vladzotz sighed contentedly, his smile growing larger and warmer as he leaned into Lucy’s embrace. The flames of the past may have come back to haunt him, but he was glad to be able to fly through them with Lucy by his side. He wouldn’t have it any other way. “Thank you, Lucy,” the crime-lord said before refocusing his gaze to the hallway before them. “Let us go. We have much planning to do if we’re to navigate this situation safely and efficiently.”

“Yes. Let’s.” She started to walk out with him. “You know, as rough as this has been, there is a silver lining to the whole thing. Before today, you might have gone your whole life without ever knowing the truth. It may be hard, but… at least now you can have closure, right?”

“All you say is true, save one detail,” the bat lord claimed. “I won’t have closure ’till I’m sipping that shrew’s blood from a bottle. But for now, we return to the Nocturnal-District.” He announced to the room. “When night falls, our work will only just be getting started.”

The crowd began to funnel into the hallway, leaving nothing behind but the hopes of a united path forward, and one cracked recording device bathing in the harsh sunlight.

Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed the first chapter!

As mentioned in the Author’s Note of the epilogue in When Instinct Falls, this sequel will be much smaller, with a hard cap of 30 chapters that will more than likely end up even shorter. Throughout the coming chapters you can expect twists and turns, new (and returning) characters and settings, LOTS of fresh and interesting character development for new and existing characters, and a plot I hope proves compelling. You’ll be seeing how the A-plot with Nick’s candidacy and Judy’s police work intersects with the B-plot involving the crime war soon enough. I’m going to try to balance the quantity of content from both plots to keep them roughly equal for every chapter, but don’t be surprised if a chapter every now and then has a leaning toward one or the other. You might be able to tell that this chapter had a leaning toward the B-plot, for example, given that the start of the war is what helps kick so much else into action, so it had to come early. I’d also like to add that although Nick’s career is shifting away from Judy’s, there will still be plenty of Wildehopps here for those who like that. Although there will be some growing pains for them as they adjust (it is part of their character development for this story, after all), the elements of their relationship that were so prevalent in When Instinct Falls won’t be going anywhere.

I should also note that if anyone would like to get a glimpse at how many of the characters and settings in this story look, there’s plenty of fanart on my DeviantArt and tumblr accounts, for those interested. Speaking of, I want to give special thanks to Kikis-art-journey, the same artist who has been adapting When Instinct Falls into a comic, for providing the cover art for this story! She did a fantastic job with it! I have it posted on my art accounts for those who’d like a closer look. It’s highly symbolic, and you’ll be seeing exactly how as this story unfolds!

There is plenty to look out for on the horizon, but in the meantime, do please feel free to let me know what you think of this first chapter! You’re also welcome to give it a Favorite/Follow if you’d like to receive notifications for updates. Thanks for reading, regardless, and I hope you stay tuned. The next chapter, “The Right Way”, will be out around this time next month, if not even sooner.

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