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"I want to see it work," Judy demanded giddily. "Please?"

Giving him her best 'cute' look, ears falling behind her head and eyes half lidded as she snuggled right up to his chest and tilted her gaze upwards, her paws kneading his chest. A gurgled purr rumbled within his chest, with the taller mammal trying to shake away her strange attempt at persuasion.

Who was he kidding… he loved it.

"Fine," he grumbled. To be honest, Nick was wholly looking forward to showing off his most advanced design thus far, but he didn't want to seem too full of himself yet. "Best to stand back."

The rabbit doe hopped back, bouncing on her toes and holding her paws intertwined in one another, awaiting for something grand to occur.

The red fox gave her a gentle smirk and shook his head.

Moving over to a console, he began the initiation sequence for the nanotech. He would have reminded her it wasn't technically ready, but it would do good to at least show her what it could do currently.

"It's not 100% yet," Nick divulged. "So,... if it… falls apart… that's more or less to be expected."

"Oh… I thought you were just being overly cautious when you said 'Not ready'," admitted the bunny, her energy waning and face falling in mild disappointment. "You don't have to show me right now then…"

Letting out a chuckle, the fox tod rebuked her, saying, "I feel all the more inclined to give you a peek. Worst that happens is I end up with a puddle of silver on the floor."

The canister opened and the fluidic mass whipped out, wrapping around Nick's outstretched paw and conforming to his body. It flowed and rippled like quicksilver over him and completely encased his form.

Judy's eyes were wide in interest and slight trepidation. It was odd seeing a mass of nanotech seemingly devour him whole.

As if sensing that fear, the fox chortled, offering, "It won't eat me. Simple answer is that it can't. Contrary to science fiction stigma concerning nanotech and infinitely multiplying until all mass is consumed… real nanotech that can self multiply needs similar materials. With the protocols I have in the tech, it doesn't even register organic material as 'edible', per say."

The mass continued to rope and ripple around his body, covering every inch of flesh and every patch of fur on him. His head was left untouched, with the rest of it reforming and changing.

Some fluidic looking parts became more solid looking, conforming to his curvature and turning into plating, the hue artificially changing from the chrome look to a solid black. As if becoming the plating wasn't enough, they slid and locked into another position, sealing the components together.

His chest was completed first, with the rest changing hue to black and coalescing into an intimidating visage of a Flux armament. It looked like his older model, though sleeker and more… 'fluid'. The doe guessed it was a blank template for the armor, at least until he could give it more tweaks for advanced commands.

The fluidic mass avoided his face, but still formed plating to encompass it, with them sliding into place after becoming solid.

True to the usual nature of his suits, the accents began to glow a dark purple, Shard energy invigorating the suit.

"And there it is," Nick voiced in breathless triumph, seeming relieved that it worked at all. His paws were outstretched, both witnessing the last of the nanotech turning from fluidic to solid as the tips of his digits were properly covered in armor. "My Blade Storm, base form."

"So,..." began the smaller mammal, reaching out to touch the armor, "it can repair damage to itself and reconstruct components of other suits? What about larger suits? I don't see this thing gaining mass it doesn't have."

Nick smirked devilishly, leaning back and gesturing to a table behind him. It was covered in steel ingots.

"It's a simple matter of matter," he joked, reveling in his strange pun. Judy rolled her eyes.

The fox reached over and picked up two ingots…

...to which both watched them begin to crumble and dissolve like sand, the particles flowing into the armor and bolstering its plating. The suit started to resemble Jackhammer more so, with the arms and legs gaining thicker plating.

Suddenly, there was a stutter in the process. One of the legs began to bubble and shed the excess alloy, falling like scales on the floor. Only a few seconds and the leg distended in an odd shame and lost cohesion.

"Ah… and there's the rub," the tod griped in a low growl. He stopped the process and put down what was left of the ingots, the remains looking like stunted pieces of grey wood having been eaten by termites.

"Uhm… are you ok?" the small grey doe inquired with an outstretched paw towards her fox.

"Yeah…" he replied blankly, looking down at certain components dripping away. The tod hobbled oddly towards the container, swiping a recall command on the screen. The armor quickly turned into a silver substance again, flowing into the unit and resuming its previous state as a swirling mass. "Guess the induction protocols need more work. Oh well."

Nick laughed, a short dry sound.

Judy looked down, seeing the remnants of metal dust, formerly imbibed into the armor.

"You'll get it," she comforted him. "In the meantime, wanna go meet the new recruits?"

His ears perked at that prospect, eyes making the sidelong glance to lock with her own amethyst gaze.

Her smile became infectious, making his own muzzle spread in a grin.

"You think Leo will let us kick them around some more?" he asked, giddy with an unnatural pleasure at the prospect of doing so. The bunny could only roll her eyes.

"I highly doubt it," she fired back. "Besides, do you really think they'll stick around if they think we recruited them to be stand-in punching bags?"

"Probably not…"

"Come on. Let's suit up and 'meet' them," Judy goaded, taking off with a bounce in her step towards the armor repository.

0000000

Minutes later and the two had used one of the tubes to traverse the distance from the armory towards the warehouse. One might question the validity of such a large network going unnoticed in the city, but most didn't even know the extent of underground infrastructure that went into the building of a city over the course of several decades. It wasn't hard to add in a few touches to blueprints. Waterways that went nowhere, drainage that didn't exist, and service tunnels that were defunct. That's what it looked like when viewed on old blueprints that spanned the rise of a city. Eventually, these things were written off as construction faux paws, giving Nick and Leo leeway to seal off pathways to alter for their own purposes. City sanctioned and constructed pathways for him to use as Flux.

The two glided along the tunnel walls, a repulsor field active beneath their feet and letting them skate their way to their destination. Phantom was having a blast, using the momentum to corkscrew through the pipe and nearly smacking into a divider when she cheered at her own accomplishments.

"Why don't we do this in combat?!" the armored bunny called out. "This is so much fun!"

"If you haven't noticed… we actually do on occasion," remarked Flux. "We just don't do it often or for very long. Much movement we have subject ourselves to calls for quicker feats of evasion than gliding like we're roller skating."

"That's boring," the rabbit doe voiced.

Nick was about to reply, before hearing a hum of machinery and some bolt guns going off, likely assembling something overhead.

"We've arrived," he commented, finding the hatch in the tunnel and floating up to it. Upon scanning him, it opened with a small hiss and he pulled himself upwards through it. The armor clad doe followed suit.

Phantom noted they were in an assembly lab or sorts. Everything looked either light grey or white, with soft blue lighting illuminating the area. It was much the same as portions of the armory at the house, though less messy, probably because her fox didn't have his paws on this area.

It was all the more proof to her that her boyfriend was an absent minded genius and idiot all rolled up in one lump of red and cream fur. A small giggle left her muzzle in reflection of that.

"Not one word," the armored fox told her off with a thump of his paw to her plated skull.

"I didn't say a gosh darned thing," she laughed through the comms, holding up her paws.

She heard griping and complaints nearby, the pitch and tone indicative of her hyperactive friend. Rounding the corner, Phantom wanted to guffaw at what she saw.

"Someone get these things away from my rump!" yelped Essie, trying to turn in the grip of some manipulator arms that were fitting plating to her arms and legs. An extra arm was fitting plating to her rear, making laser guided measurements and adjustments to the core exoskeletal structure she was wearing.

"I have told you, Essie," Leo chastised from the other side of her, "it would be a quick and effortless adjustment if you stayed still. Your discomfort is noted but the process is necessary."

"Don't stop her from complaining," Gus remarked, cool and collected as components were fitted to his suit. "It's quite the entertaining distraction."

"Welllll excuse me for not loving a robot getting frisky with me!" the wild dog called out. Subsequently, she grumbled after, "Now I guess I know how my perps feel. Ugh… I hate turnabouts."

Flux chose that moment to intervene, trying to bring levity to the weird mood as he voiced, "Try creating the design for these things and getting fitted for many dozens of different suits. I couldn't tell you how often I've gotten my tail yanked by these 'frisky' robots. It does NOT get any easier."

"Is it gonna be like this everytime we have to suit up?" Connor asked from another part of the room, faring better with his fitting.

"Only the first time," the fox explained. "These things need to fit right. Not too loose and not too snug. It's for your own safety. I mean… imagine it like throwing an egg in a strongbox and dropping the strongbox from a skyscraper. The box will be fine but the egg… not so much."

"Though crude, I see your point," chimed Bella, struggling with her own issues. "These suits can take a fair bit of damage but there's only so much you can do to protect the pilot. The snugger the fit, the more you can diffuse a hit?"

Done with her fitting and completely covered in armor, accents glowing purple from the core mounted on the back and covered for protection, the deer doe stepped away from the apparatus, running her hooves over the plating.

"I do have one complaint about such a snug fit…," Bella voiced in a fading tone. "Does this thing really need be so… revealing of my form?"

All heads that weren't looking over at her did so immediately, making the female deer instinctively cover herself uselessly.

The wildebeest turned his head and coughed, the image ingrained into his mind forevermore. Besides the cough though, he remained silent.

The large bear let out a low chuckle, stepping forwards upon his own fitting being complete as well.

Phantom and Flux simple fist bump, both wordlessly appreciating the results.

Essie was the first one to break the silence, giving the doe a catcall whistle as she called out, "You have curves, girl! Your pantsuit had to have been hiding them before."

"You can just call it a suit…" Bella defended weakly, unsure how to address the other comments on her appearance.

Gus began laughing heartily once more, adding, "Gotta say, she's not wrong. No need to be ashamed. In fact… I think you just scored a few points with mister gnu over there." At the last mention, the bear jerked a thumb towards said gnu, indicating his wide-eyed stare and subsequent embarrassment.

The deer blushed heavily herself, the usual calm demeanor cracking under the focus of attention as she fumbled her words, "Y-yeah? Well it's a workout itself to keep up with him. Can't skip a leg day when he's so restless and work focused."

Nick snickered beneath his muzzle plating, earning a thump from Judy, a silent gesture that said, 'Stop laughing at their embarrassment.'

Instead of taking her insistent gesture, the fox spoke up, "Having difficulty keeping up with Connor?" He then tilted his head and looked at the aforementioned mammal, who shook his head to tell Flux silently to 'shove it'. "Way to go, big guy."

"That is NOT what I meant and you all know it!" the deer doe nearly shrieked.

Everyone began to laugh at the two mammals suffering, though Bella and Connor's expressions seemed to soften as the mood became something less stifling.

"I would say that was an impromptu but highly successful team building moment," the android plainly relayed from behind a few consoles, coordinating the fitting of all four mammals simultaneously.

"Actually," Bella interjected once more, "now that I think about it… why do I need armor?"

"You seem to be the type that needs familiarity with equipment she might have others use," explained Leo. "I figure you would have a better understanding of the capabilities of such armaments in the field if you were subject to their capabilities yourself. That and your record indicates you are a capable fighter. One can never be too careful about preparing for all contingencies."

"Is it strange that you sound a lot like her, just less hot?" the wild dog interjected from nearby, having finished her fitting and testing out the movement of her armor.

All eyes turned on Essie, including the chastising stare of a wildebeest and blushing muzzle of the concerned deer doe.

"What?" she barked in question, looking sincerely confused. "You guys don't see it?"

"Called it," Gus murmured with a victorious grin. "She likes females."

"Hey!" Essie giggled in turn. "Just because I appreciate her winning features doesn't mean I'm attracted to her like that. I mean… maybe? But, I'm pretty sure Connor already has a claim staked on that cutie."

"I'm choosing to ignore that," the gnu grumbled, gyrating his arms to test the joints, finally complete with his fitting as well.

"Notice he didn't deny it…" the wild dog teased, making sure everyone heard it, though leaning more so towards Gus, tapping his chest lightly.

"Huh…" Flux sighed in relief, turning to address his partner, "This is going much better than I thought it would."

"And I'm far less annoyed with Connor than I thought I'd be…" Phantom relented with a shrug.

"Now that I've been able to tailor the designs and measurements of your suits," the robot interrupted, silencing the murmured conversations from all, "I think we can proceed to take in some data with calibrations. For that, I'll need you all to line up over here and do some movements as I direct you."

"...Annnnnd here comes the boring part," the fox tod complained mildly. "I doubt you want to stay for this."

"For what?" the armored bunny questioned with a slightly tilted head.

Right on cue, the four newly armored mammals began to take instruction from Leo, following his movements in very stiff mimicry.

"Oh…" she followed up with, the tod nodding.

"It's like that tutorial in a game where you learn the controls and adjust sensitivity… only this goes on for hours and is really boring," Nick detailed.

"Why didn't I do this?" came the rabbit doe's just inquiry.

"Leo was taking in data from your morphsuit and used the data from that to do the same as what their doing will accomplish. The difference here is… that their suits are made to be mostly autonomous from his input or overall intervention, unless absolutely necessary. So… the suits use a user interface system that will learn their motor functions and limits, making usage easier."

"Like breaking in a pair of stiff jeans?" the armored bunny offered in question.

"Ehhh… close enough," her boyfriend shrugged. "How about we check in on our prisoner?"

"Wasn't that an annoying task before?" Judy quipped, smiling beneath the face plate. "Besides… we JUST got here!"

"I had an idea pop into my head, and I would like to play it out before it fades from my mind," Flux described in a low tone. She nodded, watching him turn to go.

"I'm staying though," she told him. He waved at her and gave the bunny doe a thumbs up.

"Prepare for boredom," he forewarned his girlfriend in a faux ghostly tone, mocking her.

Phantom tossed a small tool at him, the fox tod chuckling, before dropping through the hatch and disappearing from sight.

0000000

The Shard sat still, posed comfortably and meditating in the chamber he was left to, walls covered in a lattice of wires and spikes. Any attempts to escape would be painful at best. Before, he was in a bland looking interrogation chamber, but now… he was obviously incarcerated in a holding cell.

A door opened rather suddenly, the creature sighing heavily and trying to diffuse the fear in his limbs.

"Meditating?" the armored figure questioned curiously. "I never got the reason why anyone does that. It's so boring and only serves to make me irritated with the crushing silence. I love to tinker as a hobby… maybe throw paint filled balloons at a wall."

"It's a means of calming the mind and body," he relented. "To each their own method of relief to that end."

"And if that method of relief is to use you as a pin cushion or skinning you?" came the smaller being's reply.

He bit the inside of his cheek, unsure of the validity of the threat. At the very least, he knew this threatening individual wasn't overly worried about his life. He would regenerate over and over… until his power ran out.

"I suspect this threat was used against you already…" the armored being continued.

The avian Shard didn't expect that.

"I saw the information provided to me about your suit… and my companion updated me on your species a few minutes ago," he began in explanation, turning his back to the Shard. "Did you know, Tim?"

"Know what?" he answered, shrugging off the name.

"Your suit was meant to overcharge itself and drain you to fight with great power… but at the cost of your Shard energy."

"I knew," Tim confirmed. "Not much I could do about it."

"Another thing," his adversary began. "Your species has been and is still logged as…"

"Non-sapient… according to your language," the avian alien interrupted. The comparatively diminutive creature turned to look at him, waiting expectantly. He sighed, deciding the knowledge wouldn't do anything harmful, and continued, "I was the same. I was a mindless monster of the wilds… or so they told me. At random chance, I was infused with the power of a Star Shard. It happens more often than one might imagine, unfortunately, but my… sponsors… had methods to overcome that obstacle. Cybernetic implants and biologically induced hyperactive learning methods through them. I was elevated, though the threats and torture that accompanied it were meant to instill fear in me. Wavering loyalty or simple hesitation made such threats of this treatment return."

"You were raised from a simple creature to become a weapon of war," came the statement from the smaller Shard.

TIm nodded.

"Well… if you're telling the truth, that does change things, but we can't simply release you."

Again he nodded, remarking, "I understand."

"Another question… if I may? If you have been brought up to the height of intelligence with all the means they provided you, how are you not ingrained as a mindless soldier to their whims?"

"I am a coward," he reiterated, clasping his claws together. "Most embraced the teachings or succumbed to the will of them. My fear made me question everything… but it also made me keep quiet in the same fear. I silently knew I was only a means to further their goals, but if I was useful… I wasn't going to be killed or tortured."

"I see…" breathed the armored being. "I've seen your armor force the boundaries of speed from you, but is it actually an affinity you possess?"

"No," Tim bluntly told him. "I would lie but I suppose it matters little. If they find out I lived but failed… they'll wish to terminate me anyhow. My affinity is useless."

"To them, maybe… but tell me for my own curiosity."

The avian Shard clicked his beak in mild irritation, saying, "It's called Ghost walking. I can view a place from a distance as if I traveled there physically. The reason it is useless is that my 'ghost' is still constrained by the laws of physics. I could explore this entire chamber in such a manner… but unless I used my ability while the door was open… I couldn't walk through it."

The armored being titled his head, likely frowning in confusion as he spoke, "That's oddly specific…"

"Many Shards are constrained by such things," the alien snapped. "We aren't all so lucky."

"Why tell me such things now… and not earlier?" he followed up.

The details came quite easily this time, with Tim stating, "I had time to think. No one knew where that spatial anomaly led… nor how to get anything back. So… now that I'm here… I realized something important, especially realizing you defeated all the forces I would have been subject to…"

The armored being remained silent and patient, allowing him to continue.

"...I'm not under their rule anymore," he breathed in slight relief. "No more oppression from them or stigmatic dogma about their goals and my place in all of it. No more suffrage as a pawn. I know I'm trapped in a needle cage right now… but with them unable to reach out and keep their stranglehold over me… I feel free."

"Does that mean you would be willing to give us information?"

"I see no reason for it to hurt anymore," the Shard replied in a tired tone. "For now though, I just want to rest, if I may…?" He didn't expect that comfort, seeing he was a prisoner, but the smaller Shard surprised the avian alien, getting up with a nod and leaving the room slowly.

"I'll be back with some… 'comforts'," he spoke.

Tim narrowed his gaze at him, unsure what to say.

He eventually found his voice, telling the armored creature before the door closed, "They want to use your planet's resources to create two separate devices. One is a transmitter to broadcast the location from afar. The other is a stabilizer of sorts for the wormhole…"

"I see…" his captor barely muttered, letting the cell shut and leaving Tim to let out a sigh of relief.

0000000

Disengaging his current suit, Nick shed the metal shell outside and approached Leo, having been using two bodies currently to carry out the tasks of monitoring Tim and dealing with the others at the off base facility.

"Your take?" he inquired of the observant intelligence, the aforementioned being interacting with a series of equipment and consoles.

"He was telling no lies," the android began. "Though anxious and guarded, he presented little signs of actual deception. I am aware of the cybernetics, having had to check them upon apprehension to make sure no further communications were made to or from and disabled what I could safely."

"You think he'll help us?" the fox asked, his tone clearly skeptical of any pawsitive answer.

"Maybe," Leo offered, surprising Nick, "but the level of indoctrination is unclear and I just don't know enough to give you a definitive answer. The safe answer here is continued observation and imprisonment would be the most viable option. He can offer little in terms of combat, especially if facing his former captors and their forces might trigger more flight than fight. Information retrieval should be our main priority. Low risk and hopefully high yield of results, as opposed to giving him the tools to hinder us if our trust is misplaced."

The tod sighed heavily, remarking, "Yeah… I thought so."

"As for the two devices they want to make, I'll need to make haste to get us down to the ship, so I can properly scan the planet for any tech capable of doing what he explained."

"And in the meantime?" Nick questioned, a paw of his making a slightly dramatic flourish.

"Give our new members some time in the suits," the robotic entity detailed evenly. "If I recall correctly, a massive portion of a pod ship fell into a park and caused some damage. Give them all limited license to help with the clean up and reconstruction. It would give them much needed hours in the suits without subjecting them to nervously stumbling through battle simulations or more sparring matches."

"Ha!" the red fox barked in laugher. "Agreed."

"Should I give them the good news?" Leo asked simply.

"Be my guest," the tod confirmed for Leo, beginning to walk out of the room. "Also, let's give the guy some better amenities. Less spikes and more cushions. I think he at least earned that."

"Understood," the mechanical being affirmed.

0000000

Her fox was right… this WAS boring.

Insanely, unequivocally, and surely… boring.

She'd spent nearly the better part of an hour watching Leo's current body direct the four recruits through suit calibration exercises to ascertain the boundaries of their current physical limits. It wouldn't do well if a suit tried to enact upon a neural command to do the splits when the concerned wearer was well out of practice.

It was still funny at least to see Essie try to do exactly that.

"It's been a while…" the wild dog pouted, still trying to force her limbs to listen to her.

Phantom had to admit that, if she didn't feel the need to compete, her friend might not be trying this at all. Yet, lo and behold, next to Essie… and stunning all…

...Connor was the one doing splits, accompanied by Bella.

"How?!" the canine finally gave up and complained towards the two.

"I go to yoga classes," the gnu remarked plainly, not wanting to elaborate.

"Ahem…" came the small noise from the deer doe, eyeing her larger companion with skepticism.

The wildebeest snorted and corrected himself, "I mean Bella makes me go to yoga."

"Much better," Bella told him with a satisfied grin, earning a string of grumbles from Connor.

"You could have let me have that one…" he groaned in complaint.

"Oh please," the deer doe sassed, earning the beginnings of a giggle from Judy, "when I first offered it, you jumped at the chance but misunderstood, thinking I was taking you to a new frozen yogurt place."

"Yoga… Yogurt," Essie voiced, testing both words on her tongue and nodding. "Yeah, I could see the confusion."

"Please tell me you're being sarcastic," the small deer seethed in mild annoyance.

The canine female let out a nervous chuckle, shrugging as she replied, "Uh… yes?"

A bellowing cacophony of laughter erupted from the bear nearby, simply quietly listening to everything transpiring. He wiped as his eyes, apparently chuckling hard enough to draw a tear or two.

"You guys are too much," Gus remarked, holding his gut.

"I agree with the big guy," Phantom provided, finally giving her voice to the fun going on that was pretty lacking through all the boredom. "I'm loving this."

"So… Phantom… Miss?" Essie addressed her, being almost overly polite in her nervous nature. "When do we do… whatever we're going to do?"

"To be honest," the armored bunny began, "I can't say for sure. Most of my training has been on the fly because we weren't as prepared as we wish we could have been. Now… we're trying to actually set forth a plan of action that could make things easier on not only myself and Flux, but help give a bigger safety net to the city of Zootopia. You're the first we've inducted and so we have no real set guidelines for all of… this." Upon the last word, she gestured to all of them and the facilities armaments.

They seemed to look to her for answers still, faceplates gone for their comfort for now. Thus, she could see their expressions and felt her answer was woefully inadequate.

Thankfully, Leo stepped in and seemed to perk up with new purpose.

"I can answer a portion of that concern right now," the being told them all. "Since combat training has its risks, and giving rise to that danger so soon in your training would be detrimental, You're going to be doing some familiarization with your new suits in the field. Non-combat but still important. That wreckage in the park will need some work to remove, aside from what has already been done. I want to show the public that you are an extension of the people on their behalf and give you something simple to learn what you can do inside those suits. Does this seem agreeable with all?"

"Sounds good to me," the large bear replied easily.

Bella and Connor nodded, their expressions somewhat neutral.

Essie bit her lip, as if to restrict herself from saying something bad, then sighing and venting out, "Finnnnnneeeee. This feels like community service or trash clean up… but at least I get to do it in a hyper awesome sci-fi suit. So, whatever."

"Good, I'm currently notifying the proper authorities," the android told them all. "All of you will show up at 6 a.m. here to don your respective suits and we'll make our way there to start working at 7 a.m."

"Awww come on…" the wild dog complained. "I thought I was going to be able to sleep in… This certainly feels less superhero-y than I might have imagined."

"Oh yes," the grizzly started. "We're going to suddenly become fantastic because we're wearing high tech hardwear." He smiled down at her, crossing his large paws.

"Shove it, Battle Bear!" Essie barked, earning a substantially deep rumble of laughter from said bear.

"Am I the only one who thinks this one will be our unofficial mascot?" Gus asked all in witness.

There was little hesitation as all but the canine's paw/hoof went up.

"Hey!" she groaned uselessly, the start of giggles drowning out the rest of her reply.