“Pardon me, Administrator,” came a deeply masculine voice, drawing her sparkling gaze to the large white-tailed stag who sat regally above the foxes nearest to him. He met her gaze and tilted his antlered head in a slight bow when she nodded for him to continue. “While I think most of us agree that the lawyer is of interest to the Council, shouldn’t we begin with the topic of our fallen member? There have been no leads, no claims of responsibility, and no seeming reason for the sudden move against the Council.”
The vixen gave him a warm smile that she reserved for those who she enjoyed having seated at what was her table. That he had spoken first was not unexpected. A natural leader, Frederick was, and one who saw a need for balance in all things. She was sure that was why he also called Hopps ‘the lawyer’ rather than ‘the bunny’ as she had and was sure most of the Council would. They would do so either because they saw themselves as better or because she had started by calling her that.
“The two seem to be directly connected, wouldn’t you think, Bardsley?” she said, her voice easily reaching the ears of all in the room even though she didn’t raise it. That was mostly because there was no sound aside from her voice when she spoke. “I don’t think it can be called a coincidence that Nathaniel was so suddenly cut down so shortly after the bunny arrived in this city. And it certainly isn’t a coincidence that the tiger our entire city saw trying to murder Miss Hopps was, at one time, under the command of the departed general. That was before he was a Councilor of course, but the tie still remains.”
“You think Valter sent an assassin after the bunny?” said the smallish fox with sandy fur, one paw pressed to the table as he leaned forward. She read his expression as confused and doubtful, with just enough sarcasm in his tone to make the fur on the back of her neck itch slightly.
“I have sent you all the information on the matter, McArthur,” she said easily, sweeping one paw, pads facing up, towards them. “Feel free to browse the information after the meetings and send me your thoughts.”
“Well, so what if he did?” he pressed, causing her amiable expression to harden slightly as she returned her gaze to him. He was not oblivious to this fact and quickly eased the tone of his words when he continued. “If he did send the assassin after the bunny, then I think we have a suspect in his own assassination: whoever this mystery fox is.”
“Is that right?” she said, her voice bland as she lowered her gaze to her paw for a moment to examine one perfectly manicured claw. Imagining her lack of interest was causing the insides of his ears to burn right about now, she raised her eyes to meet the disconcerted gaze of the male again after a moment. She flicked her claw, as one might flick away an annoying flea before she placed the paws on the podium and leaned towards the Council as a whole. “Have any of you seen the morning news?”
“Yes, Administrator,” McArthur grunted, leaning back in his seat as the rest gave their own nods and murmurs of acknowledgment.
“Then you know the reputation this mysterious fox has made for himself,” she said, raising her voice half an octave as she looked from one to the other. “A hero in our midst. Savior of the city’s only rabbit visitor. No one knows who he is or where he came from, save for the fact that he has attached himself to Hopps, openly protected her, and made himself as close to a folk hero as you can get in this modern era.”
“That does not directly absolve him of possible guilt,” Diana said, the tone speculative as the lioness watched her closely. A fact which made her smile as she straightened herself from the podium and gave a slow shrug.
“Of course. The fact remains, the ban on bunnies in Zootopia has never been the most popular act of the government,” she continued as she stepped away from the podium and started to slowly walk around the table. They all followed her with their eyes, even those who were forced to turn in their seats uncomfortably to do so. “While we can all agree it was necessary at the time, many call it a stain on the government. A stain that some mammals are still looking to us to correct. Just like many see the conviction of Otterton to be a stain on our justice system.”
“Is that why you invited the lawyer into the city?” Bardsley asked, his posture still regal as he was one of the few on the Council large enough to make no effort more than following her with his eyes.
“I saw too many stains. You could call the bunny an olive branch to those who still don’t agree with the ban on bunnies. Along with that, I invited her into the city to possibly correct what far too many see a miscarriage of justice, which adds leaves to that branch. And yet, the moment she entered the city someone tried to have her killed. Someone almost managed to add another stain.”
She paused her steps at the far end of the chamber, the forest before her shimmering and changing until she was looking out a wide window to a view of the city below. The fact that the image itself was a holographic projection of what was outside of the tower didn’t matter; it represented what was on her mind. The glory of the rising towers, shining in the early morning sun as the mammals of the city started to move about their lives. The beauty of Tundra town, frozen and white, turning into the smoldering sandbox of Sahara Square. The two districts were about the balance between the two. The massive refrigeration units draining the heat from one side of the wall and releasing that heat through coils and vents to keep the air on the other side dry and hot. She had to ensure that the balance within the Council chamber remained so perfectly synced.
“You were elected because I wanted you on the Council: each and every one of you. You all have qualities that make you ideal for your positions because I don’t tolerate incompetence,” she said, her voice taking on an edge of ice as she turned to face them with the balance of the city behind her. “My own Councilors will not be allowed to act against the betterment of this city because they think it will benefit them to do so. You would all do well to remember that.”
The silence that followed was a heavy one, one she showed them did not affect her in the slightest as she started the walk back towards her podium. As she watched the uncomfortable but silent glances they cast towards one another, it was not hard to imagine their minds working over her words. Trying to determine if they had been a threat or even an admission of her part in the demise of the member of her Council whose foolishness had ended with a knife at his throat. Of course, they would never question her. And she was sure that most of them, for the sake of keeping their comfortable places of power in the upper levels of The Tower high above the city, wouldn’t even risk voicing their concerns to each other. But the effect was clear when she stood above them again, her gaze drifting from one to the other. From the smallest fox to the largest lioness, and even the regal white-tailed deer with his impressive rack, they all looked on with a distinctive silence that told her she was at least partly understood.
There would be no more questions from them about Valter.
“Very good,” she said, spreading her paws out in front of her in a gesture of welcoming and even forgiveness. She was benevolent when obeyed if nothing else. “Now to address the lawyer and her companion. Unless evidence comes to light that says otherwise, it will be assumed that he had no part in the assassination of Councilor Valter. In fact, for the good of the city and the stability of its population, any questions fielded on that subject will be answered with the truth: there is no evidence that he was involved and while we do not know his identity, he is doing the will of the Council, if not by order at least in spirit.”
Their only reply this time came in the silent nods of accent.
“Good,” she continued, tilted her head slightly as she considered the idea that anyone on the Council might find out the true identity of the Todd. It was extremely doubtful. “We will treat him as the hero the people seem to want him to be and afford Miss Hopps every courtesy and comfort our city has to offer for her stay. That will, in the short term, pacify those who are still calling out for our gates to be open to The Commonwealth.”
“Won’t the people see it as strange?” The speaker this time was Andrew, who was reclined in his chair with his paws laced together over his neat suit jacket. “That you are allowing a fox who is not under your direct control to run free in the city with someone so important?”
“Considering how heroic he seems after the attack at the prison, most won’t even be focused on that. But make no mistake,” she continued, her face as cool as the ice sheet of Tundra Town, “just because he is not directly under my control doesn’t mean he’s outside of its reach.”
He still wasn’t used to this sort of exposure. Particularly when he was standing in the impound lot not far from the ZPD, with a chain link fence the only thing between his back and a very open street. He had been in the ZPD building and even the jail system in the past week, but neither of those had felt as exposed as this. Even when he had been walking beside her while leaving the courthouse; or when she had stood in the open talking to Lionheart; or going for ice cream. Maybe it was the fact that they had been standing here for almost twenty minutes, the bunny beside him calmly filling out the forms that seemed obnoxiously long.
He was pretty sure she had been made to write her name down at least six times.
“All right, Miss Hopps, it looks like everything is in order,” the boar who maintained the impound lot grunted after he examined the pages carefully, twice. “The car is in lot 112 currently. Keys are here.”
“Thank you, officer,” she said, keeping her tone and her expression neutral.
Nick thought she was trying to keep it professional because he could see her tail twitching and her ears tremble when she reached up to take the key from the large mammal. She was excited and had been since waking that morning. Energetic and ready to get moving before the sun finished its rise over the city skyline. Having to fill out a barrel of forms had not changed that much and he was pretty sure she would have run through the lot like a kit at an amusement park if she hadn’t been on the clock.
“Ninety-nine, one hundred,” she counted aloud, causing him to grin as she started to speed up, forcing him to reach out to place a restraining paw on her shoulder.
“We’ll get there, Carrots,” he murmured, shrugging at the annoyed expression when she turned lavender eyes to him. “As much as they want you to believe otherwise, just because we’re on government property doesn’t mean we’re safe. The prison was proof enough of that.”
A small sigh was her only reply, though she did slow her pace as the counted down the last dozen lots before reaching the now very familiar chocolate brown car. At this point, he couldn’t have held her back if he’d wanted to. She bolted away from him and towards the car with surprising speed, instantly had the key in the lock, and was yanking the door open before he’d even had a chance to make sure there were no surprises hidden within. Slightly thankful when none arrived, he simply sighed and rubbed the bridge of his muzzle under his sunglasses for a moment before he walked over to lean against the hood while she had a look through the car.
“How many places can a receipt hide?” she muttered to herself, drawing his gaze. She had taken off her jacket and was currently crawling around on her hands and knees in the back seat. While the view was appreciated, he could hear the annoyance in her voice when she continued. “If someone removed the receipt and didn’t submit it as evidence for the trial, that will make this a lot harder. Nick, let me borrow your stick.”
That last part had him blinking slightly, one brow quirking high enough to be seen over the frame of his sunglasses as she sat on her knees in the back seat. “My stick?”
“Your baton, then.” She grumbled in annoyance and stuck her paw towards the door expectantly. A few minutes of searching and the paw that she held out towards him was already dirty. “I can’t reach between the seats here.”
“Look, cottontail, you can’t just take my baton and jam it between the seats like some… Stick,” he said as an uncommon indignation rise at the very idea of the weapon being used as a hunting tool in some otter’s car. He was about to continue when the cell phone in her coat pocket started to ring. Thankful for the distraction, he frowned to himself and holding the top of the door with one paw leaned forward as she dug out her phone.
“This is Hopps,” she said, her tone somewhere between friendly and professional. His eyes instantly narrowed, and he leaned closer when she cast a startled look in his direction, her nose twitching twice as her brow creased and she sat up straighter. “What do you mean you have it? Who is this?”
He didn’t bother to ask who is was. Her sudden confused tension has the fur on the back of his neck standing on end as she held his eyes, her expression shifting between confused to annoyed as she opened her mouth to speak again. When she stopped and closed it, he frowned when she held the phone in his direction.
“She wants to talk to ‘the mystery fox.’ She says she has the receipt.”
His frown flatted to a cool expression as he took the phone from her and stood upright as he placed it to his ear. “Speak carefully,” he warned in a low, emotionless tone.
“And the first words directed at me are so forceful,” the feminine voice on the other end of the call said, causing him to twitch slightly when what he could have easily called a pleased sigh escaped the speaker. “Alright, Hero. I have what you need, and I have what the bunny wants. If you want what I have, you’re going to meet me for a little chat. Just the two of us, sans bunny.”
“Not going to happen.”
“Well, that’s not very nice. I just want to have a talk, get to know the fox behind the bunny,” the voice continued, a familiar one that tickled at the back of his mind until it dawned on him who he was talking to. “It’s such a small price to pay for such an important item.”
“We do need it,” he admitted, though the tone of his voice didn’t change as he spoke, watched Judy as she stepped out of the car and stood facing him with a worriedly curious expression, “but meeting me alone is out of the question.”
“Look, I’m not trying to trick you or anything,” came the voice, though Nick was only half listening now as Judy waved both arms until he tapped the screen to mute the phone.
“Who is she? Does she have it? If she wants to meet, then meet her!”
“It’s a reporter. She wants to meet me alone,” he said dryly as the voice of said reporter droned in his ear. “Which isn’t going to happen because you go where I go, remember?”
“I need that receipt, Nick,” she said, obviously trying to keep her tone from showing the annoyance in her eyes. It was the same annoyance he had seen when he had refused to let her close the bathroom door her first day in the city. “There has to be somewhere safe you can leave me. With Flash, maybe. He has a bunker, after all.”
“Flash is an information broker, not a bunny sitter,” he muttered, holding up his paw when she narrowed her eyes at him. “You know what I mean. Plus, a squad of hit-mammals was already sent after you there. It may be under surveillance.”
“Well, there has to be somewhere you can leave me where you know I’ll be safe. You didn’t become ‘the mystery fox’ without hideouts,” she said, placing her paws on her hips as she stood facing him with a no-bullshit expression on her face. He was pretty sure this was because his reluctantly annoyed expression told her that he knew exactly the place. “Nick, I need that receipt.”
“I know…” He hesitated and frowned at the phone before he unmuted the line when the female on the other end asked if he was still there. He unmuted it for a moment to say, “Hold on.
“I know someone. But it’s not somewhere I think you would want to visit,” he explained, dropping the phone to his side. “For any reason.”
“As long as it keeps me safe while you go get the receipt, I don’t care if it’s in the sewers. You do still work for me, right?” she added, making him roll his eyes skyward. Determined bunny. And a snarky one he found when he lowered his shaded eyes to her again and saw her smug expression. Clearly, she knew she had won already. “So, do you know a place or not?”
“Yes,” he ground out before he raised the phone to his ear and released a slow sigh. “You have a deal. You name the place, as long as the time is tonight.”
He had never seen such a satisfied expression on the face of the bunny as the one she gave then, along with a whispered little “Yes,” when she slammed the door of the car closed.
Nick was wondering how long that expression would linger when she realized where exactly he was going to leave her.
The vixen held the cell phone in her snowy white paw for a moment, gently squeezing and relaxing her fingers as she stared at the screen in a mild state of shock. He had agreed to meet her. A time and place had been set, and she was going to meet him that very night. That mysterious, strong, handsome figure that she had been trying to get even a whiff of information on for a week without success was going to be standing in front of her. Where she could question him, try to get a read on him, decide if he was the hero she had portrayed him as in her article.
Not that it really mattered, she decided as she finally placed the phone on her desk again and rocked back in her deep leather office chair. She would portray him as a hero because it would sell. Her most recent article had sold more hard copies of the newspaper than anyone had seen in years, not to mention the insane number of online views. Everyone wanted to know about the fox and the bunny he followed; a fox and bunny both who were not following the present archetypes for their species in any way. They both made for a good story, considering that Hopps was the only one of her kind in the city. But she had her own reasons for wanting to know more about the Todd, not all of them purely professional. Not all of them pure in the slightest, as a matter of fact.
“You should be careful,” came a voice, one that didn’t surprise her out of her thoughts just as they had started to turn lustful. It simply made her focus on the similarly white-furred male who stood at her office door, one of his paws resting on her door frame. The powder blue suit and dark tie that he always wore in the office was lacking the jacket at the moment, and his sleeves were rolled up to his elbows. Sharp eyes over a dark nose and untrimmed whiskers made him a pleasant enough specimen to look at, though she considered herself too far out of his league to do more than look. The expression on his pleasant face was one of calm concern. “You don’t know anything about him.”
“You shouldn’t eavesdrop, boss,” she muttered, sniffing slightly as she plucked her phone from her desk again and grabbed her purse. She would need to change clothes. Something more appealing to a spectacular male, rather than the typical day clothes she wore to titillate her sources. “It’s not polite.”
“Yeah, well your name might be on this particular door, but my name is on the building,” he said, turning to allow her to pass when she slipped through the door. He was a news mammal, after all. He wasn’t in the habit of standing in the way of a story. “Just be careful. We already know he’s killed at least one mammal and there are some people you don’t want to hold out on. You can call him a hero on paper, but don’t expect to be treated like a damsel when you have what he needs and refuse to give it. And I’m not talking about…”
“Yes, Andy,” she said, rolling her eye skyward for a moment as she paused and turned to face him. “I just want a look at him. I’m not going to push him any further than he’s willing to go. He’ll get what he wants tonight.”
He looked less than convinced. Maybe because she hadn’t been able to keep the sultry little grin from spreading over her muzzle, though he replied with a nod before she turned and made her way to the elevator.
“Watch your tail,” she heard him say as she pushed the button to take her down, turning as the doors started to close, “but get me a story.”
Her sultry smile turned more than a little predatory when the doors closed between them.