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A Lead Role in a Cage

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Chapter 19:

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Shifting and turning, mumbling in his sleep, Nick was woken by the sharp knock at the door. His ears perking up, he lifted his head and groggily opened his eyes, looking on at Madge who stood outside the cell, observing him through the window. He nodded slowly and she moved. There was a rattle as the door was unlocked, and she quickly moved in and locked it behind her.

"Morning," Nick groaned, as he slowly shuffled back so that he was sitting up in bed.

"Morning," she replied quickly, as if she were trying to avoid the subject. She carried with her a few bags and boxes of material, which she placed down on the desk, an unpleasant look growing on her face as she did so. Turning forwards, she took a few exploratory sniffs, the grimace on her muzzle growing with each one.

Her eyes rested accusingly on Nick.

The fox shrugged, before pointing towards the cell's toilet. "By the time I was going to bed, I started feeling a bit off… First time I needed to barf, I didn't quite make it."

"And you were just too lazy to clean it up?" Madge sassed, raising an eyebrow. "So tired you thought you'd just leave it until the next day? Let it stink up the place, and let someone else deal with it rather than clean it up? Make it so that those who manage this place have to deal with your disgusting bodily fluids…?

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"…Yeh," Nick replied innocently, shrugging as he did so. "Pretty much so."

The honey badger turned and stepped over to the stain on the floor, examining it a bit before grabbing some toilet roll and mopping it up. "I suppose it really wasn't that smelly, but I'm still a bit disappointed that you couldn't spend ten seconds doing a bit of a mop up however bad last night's fever was."

"Funny thing about that, Patches," Nick said with a chuckle. "No fever… I just had to puke."

Flushing the paper, Madge turned back and rolled her eyes, letting them rest judgementally on the resting fox. "Interesting, though not surprising… it's…"

"-A by-product of a sudden adrenaline spike," Nick interrupted. "Fight and flight and all," he carried on, before sighing and almost seeming to deflate. "Just my near-death experience catching up with me…"

His voice trailing off, an uncomfortable silence filled the room for a moment, before being broken by Madge. "Yeah," she agreed. "Just what I was going to say. I'm surprise you knew that."

Looking up at her, Nick shook his head. "I used to be a vet, Madge. You helped tutor me for the exam, remember?"

"And the fact Mhikala and I bought a jungle themed swing set for Asani means we're the runners of Wild Times two," she replied sarcastically, before her face took on a more sombre mood. "I have some things to cheer you up, but I want to know how you're holding up right now. I don't want any of that Wilde sass, or your 'never let them see…' I just need the truth."

"So, you want the truth, huh?" Nick said slowly, bringing up one of his paws to count off of. "Horror number one, I kept on having nightmares of being beaten up by the guards. Horror number two, I kept on having nightmares about being Lenora's real-life baby, breast is best and all. Horror number three, I woke up and my body still aches, and I thought every sound coming from the outside was those guards returning to finish the job. As for horror number four…" pausing, Nick look up and gulped, before carrying on. "Well, prepare to have your opinion of me forever lowered."

"Try me," Madge said.

Nick sighed, bringing his paws up to massage his temples, before speaking on. "My brain must have been fried into a mess, because on all of those occasions… all of them… I wanted that damn Rhino."

"What do you mean, wanted?"

There was a beep as Nick's collar went orange, before he turned his head to look at the stack of items on the desk. "Hey, what's with that stuff Madge. I mean, I'm getting a good smell from something in there."

Turning back, he was met with a wall of silence, the honey badger looking on and one of her feet impatiently tapping the floor.

"Fine," Nick groaned, as he covered his eyes with his paws in shame. "I… I felt safe in the dream with her. I felt happy, and safe, and like I was a baby kit and she my mommy… It wasn't really a horror at all. And in the other dreams, and when I woke up and thought someone was coming to finish me... I wanted her to be with me, and to hug me up… I wanted her hoof stroking my head gently, and for her to tell me I was a good boy… Or even a good girl, I didn't care much at that point. God, I'm just a needy, pathetic, useless…"

He was cut off by a quick shock of his collar, his body jolting slightly due to it. Taking his paws off his face, he looked away from Madge, curling his body up into a defensive spiral.

There was a light touch on his shoulder and his body uncurled a bit, even more so when the touch turned into a light rub.

"You're not any of those things," came a comforting voice. "We've been through this before. You are brave, and strong, and I will not let you forget that."

"I keep on forgetting that I hate that Rhino though don't I?" He cursed back. "I hate her and want her gone from my life. I'd even be happy to ask Damien to kill her now… But other parts of me want that other thing and…"

"If it's split personality you're worried about, don't worry," Madge said. "It's much simpler, and easier to explain than that."

"Go on then."

"I'd say, as a vet and not a psychologist mind you, that it's something similar to Storkholm syndrome," Madge innocently explained. "She saved your life twice, so naturally your subconscious would equate that with safety. Then there's the fact that your close proximity, and tight control and high pressure, sound very similar to that dreadful 'attachment therapy' stuff. Pretty much forcing a bond in place, no matter the consequences."

"So, the person I love-hate has been actively turning me into a nut-job," Nick said sarcastically.

"That and the fact that you were almost drowned, so we could have some oxygen starvation of the brain in there too."

"…You know just how to cheer a depressed fox up, you know that Patches?"

Madge shook her head slightly, before walking over to the desk. "If by that you mean bringing over a gift from Cherifa, and a picture of bald Texel, then you are quite right Slick."

There was the sound of crumpling sheets, straining bed springs and a collar going up to orange as Nick sat bolt upright in his bed.

"See what I mean?"

Nick nodded, and let a wide smile grow on his face. "Clever Patches."

"Very clever Patches," she replied, bringing over a bakery box, the words 'Gideon Grey's Real Good Baked Stuff' written on the side. "She even asked me to tell you that she brought it from a red fox baker, just so you could know that no prey mammals would profit from your misery. I told her that even you wouldn't be that petty."

Nick chuckled slightly. "I'm afraid she knows me better than you do," he said, opening the box as he did so. His eyes widened, and his collar briefly went orange. "I knew I could smell something good," he commented, holding out the holy pastry within. "It's a blueberry pie from Cherry Pie!"

"That it is," Madge said happily, looking on as Nick pulled down the metal foil and took a great bite out of his treat. Flakes of pastry fell to the bedsheet and the blue filling spread like lava from the corners of his mouth, coating his fur. There was a beep as his collar went orange once more, and he moaned and twitched as if he was making love, rather than simply eating. He held it in his mouth, chewing it over and over, until he finally swallowed, his tail thumping on the bed excitedly as he did so.

"Oh taste," he sighed. "How I have missed such a wonderful sense while I've been in here. Oh how hard it will be to go back to porridge, soggy sandwiches, economy bug mash and kibble."

"Side note, Slick," Madge noted. "There actually isn't any regulation that limits how much food a prisoner can be sent. Unless under disciplinary action, or said gifts being unsuitable, there's actually a law against turning gifts from family away."

"That… that would actually be fantastic," Nick said, smiling before he sighed. "Until Caprey and co decide to discipline me for having fur that's too red… Or Lenora confiscates it because I'm not supposed to be on solid food yet…" Looking down, he took another bite out of his pie, and his bad mood vanished as he relived the same glorious taste experience once more.

"Speaking of the former," Madge slowly said, as she passed over her phone. "Finding the image from Honey's recording device gave me an idea for the solution to that issue."

Nick's eyes widened at that, his head tilting to the side. Still chewing though, and not wanting to cut it short, he stayed silent, instead turning to look at the phone. His laugh almost sent him choking and, as he finished off his bite, he brought the picture of the bald and naked sheep close to him, savouring it as much as the food.

"However," the honey badger commented, "I think it's best to keep it a secret just for now. Let's focus on the rhino in the room first."

Finishing his bite, he nodded. "Yeah, while I'm still sane enough to know that I want her removed… What's the plan?"

"I don't know," she said slowly. "We want her to get moved to a separate cell block, where doesn't matter, and, given how Caprey's been covering up her past record with you, we need to have some kind of incident that can prove to the warden that this has to be done."

"Agreed," Nick said slowly. "Definitely a better solution than dispatching her for sure. However much I hate her, I don't really want any blood on my paws or any else's…"

There was a pause, before Madge looked up. "What about on a guard's?"

"You mean get an officer to kill her?" he said slowly.

She nodded. "She ran to defend you twice. If you could sweettalk her into thinking that one of the guards, or maybe one of the inmates who's a particular problem, did stuff to you if and when you got separated for a bit… Maybe not death by cop, but if she gets pacified while trying to enact revenge, it might be enough to get the guards not in the game to rebel against Caprey and have her pushed out."

"I…" Nick began, before nodding. "Let's put that as a reserve. I'll be honest, it may be a stupid gut feeling, but my gut says that I'd feel better pretending to be broken. Make Caprey think I love being with her, and I wouldn't be surprised if he then moves her away."

"That could be another idea," Madge agreed, "though, like the one I suggested, let's try and find a better one. It could take years for it to work."

"I know," the fox said, shrugging. "I said it was a stupid gut feeling." He turned down and jabbed a finger at his stomach. "You're an idiot, you know that?"

A smile grew across Madge's face and she tutted. "I'm afraid we both seem to be out then," she commented. "Now, my shift starts soon, but we still have six days to come up with a plan. Either that or I learn how to do sex changes!"

Finishing with a laugh, she watched on as Nick took another bite of his food, his excited chewing slowing markedly. He stopped, looked up to her and shielded his mouth with a paw as he spoke. "What do you mean, sex change?"

Madge shrugged. "She's in a male prison as she's not yet had the full operation. She still has a penis, and until that goes she has to stay here. After, though, the poor sods in the lady's jail would be handling her. I shiver to think of the shock that they'd be receiving."

Swallowing, Nick nodded his head. "Right. Is she due for this operation soon?"

"Never," Madge said solemnly. "Not unless we get a big donation in the charity fund, that is."

The fox nodded slightly, before turning back to take another bite of pie. Closing in on it, he paused.

He placed his pie down, his mouth still slightly agape and his right paw wavering up and down as he thought.

His eyes widened, and he turned back to Madge. "How much would that cost?"

"I think the target for her is thirty-thousand bucks," she said, shrugging.

A huge grin grew across his face, his collar going orange. The sound caused Madge's ears to flick and, looking on, she trembled and let a huge smile grow across her face, her collar going orange too. "Twenty bucks a pred," Nick said. "Four hundred preds a day… that's less than a week's worth of our Wild Times earnings!"

Madge shook slightly as her mouth strained, trying to grin further than was possible, and she barked out a sudden laugh, easily ignoring the light shock it earned her. "Of course!" she said. "How could I be so stupid!"

"Clever Fox, dumb Patches," Nick laughed too, before controlling himself to make sure he didn't get the same treatment. "I have more than that in my account, as do the others. That's not getting to the stuff buried in the desert!"

Nodding, a big smile on her face, Madge spoke up. "Just like with the gift rule, there's a rule about finances and such. Even if someone's in solitary, they can't deny someone the right to manage their bank accounts. I can meet with the warden and sort this out today! You don't even have to write a letter!"

"Let me just say this one thing," Nick said, before giving two thumbs up and winking. "Winning!"

"That we are," Madge replied. "That we are. Now, my shift starts soon, so I'd better be going."

"Understood, and thanks," he replied, passing back her phone as he did so. He paused slightly, and his collar went up to orange.

"I really mean it, you know…" he slowly but sincerely said, as he spoke from his heart. "Thankyou. No mammal has ever shined a brighter light for me, nor been there for me in such a dark a place as this."

Madge paused, looking at him and sniffing slightly. Running a finger below an eye, she spoke back. "I'll keep on shining for you, I promise." She turned to leave, only to halt as Nick called out.

"Speaking of letters, what's going on outside."

"Patches?"

"Madge?"

The honey badger turned slowly, and Nick gulped as he saw her collar go orange. Her face seemed to be set in stone, but her eyes looked scared. Slowly, she took a newspaper from the pile and threw it over to the fox in the bed. As he caught it and looked at the headline, his eyes going wide, she spoke.

"I'm sorry…" she tried to explain. "I thought it best not to tell you right away, let you recover a bit first, but…"

She was cut off by the sound of his collar going off, shaking him slightly. He groaned, but didn't speak a word after, only flicking his ears as he carried on reading. She noticed the one with the ugly tag in it did so more than the other one.

"I appreciate the thought," Nick said afterwards, barely in a whisper. He folded the paper, put it away, and clutched his head with his paws.

"If you're mad at me, that's fine, I…"

"I'm not mad Madge, as I said I appreciated the thought," he interrupted. Looking back, he chewed his lips and grabbed his collar, tugging it slightly. "However, I had an idea last night, and I think it needs to be put into action."

"What idea?" she asked.

"See if you can send Damien around here soon, will you?"

"He's up here later today for a check-up, a meetup… or at least a letter below a door… can be arranged."

"Good," Nick noted. "I need him to smuggle out a letter."

"Why? What are you going to do?" Madge said, as Nick reached over to a bed stand and brought out a pencil and some paper.

"I'm going to force their paw and end this," he promised.

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Travelling in convoy formation, charging into the Zootopia dockyards, Judy was silent in her cruiser. The radio channel was on, waiting for responses, though none came. The car rumbled, shaking slightly as it followed the large armoured vans in front of her, each one loaded up with SWAT or the Razorbacks from T.U.S.K. Not one of the lower divisions, Judy had to remind herself, but the top of the class. The real deal. The three most feared officers in the entire ZPD.

Half a dozen squad cars, filled with regular officers, were trailing behind, and two helicopters circled overhead.

The radio crackled slightly, and Judy's ears rose to listen to it. "Non-frontline units prepare to take up your positions."

"Ten-four," she replied back, before peeling off from behind the armoured vans and making her way to a nearby carpark. She, and the officers from a second car, leaped out and ran towards a nearby wall, planting themselves on it. Drawing her dart pistol from her holster, she shuffled along to a small hole in the wall, the missing brick making an ideal arrow slit for her to use. Her weapon raised, she looked through the crosshairs and focussed on the building in front of her. Wide, low-rise, a smallish workshop that was innocuous enough. The car park in front, now covered in massive SWAT mammals racing forwards, was littered with weeds while a few trees could be seen sprouting from the roof.

"Officer Hopps, no sign of hostiles, over," she called into her radio, before looking up again. The massacre the day before had ended with the murderers fleeing, leaving most of their weapons where they lay. Where they got that military hardware from, she had no idea, but everyone knew that they might still have some left over.

Tracking the suspects had been easy and had led them here.

Despite the roaring of the helicopters, the blaring of sirens and the pounding of heavy feet, an unearthly silence seemed to take hold.

The officers paused, in position.

There was a creak as the front door opened, and a white shirt on the end of a pole was waved out. The leader of SWAT, a massive Hippo, called out.

"YOU THERE! STEP OUT INTO THE OPEN NOW!"

Stepping nervously outside was a grey ram, his chest wool flowing out and over his trousers, bare for all to see given the position of his shirt. "Why are you here?" he called out nervously. "I don't understand…"

Looking closer, Judy's eyes narrowed. She pulled up her radio and spoke. "Officer Hopps, over. I have a confirming I.D. on this subject. He is one of our suspects. I presume he's stalling for time. Over."

"Ten-four, Hopps."

"…we're just an independent packing company," the ram continued to say, "I don't…"

"WE KNOW WHO YOU ARE. LAY DOWN ON THE FLOOR NOW! OFFICERS, STORM THE BUILDING!" the SWAT captain yelled out.

The sheep's eyes went wide, and he turned to run, barely making one step before Judy sent a dart into his back. Carrying metal armour and riot shields, SWAT officers charged in past him. There was a muffled explosion from behind the building as T.U.S.K breached it and entered.

The regular cops just stayed put, waiting for the all clear.

….

"Attention all officers," the radio crackled. "We believe the remaining suspects have exited into a storm drain and are heading inland, over."

Standing up and looking around, her ears scanning as she did so, Judy raced off. Over to the nearest manhole cover, which she lay her ears on and waited at. Then to the next. And then the next. A crowd of officers followed her and, stopping once more as she reached a fourth.

They were silent.

"Hoof steps," she said, as another officer came over and pulled away the cover. The sounds of curses and back peddling filled the air as the bunny raced to the other edge of the hole, lay down on the ground, and fired three shots in.

The sound of three bodies collapsing into water echoed out and, nodding for some officers to join her, Judy slipped in.

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Two hours later, with four suspects arrested, Judy entered the main building with Bogo at her side. The space was empty, bar the stacks of boxes that lined the walls, and barren. A few cots and army supplies had been found in some of the offices, but it was the centre of the room that everyone was gathering at. At team of officers and workers were busy taking up a section of floor, hacking away at it with pickaxe or scooping up the jelly like mass with shovels.

"Another day, and this would have been a lot harder," Bogo stated.

"At least they didn't use quick drying cement," Judy added.

There was a click, metal against metal, and a group of workers raced towards the place it had happened at. Crowding around, they dug away, quickly exposing the entombed sniper rifle.

"I am going to teach these monsters what true savagery is," the chief growled, looking on at the scene with disgust. "Whichever one is this Bell Conagher is going to wish he was that corpse we found."

"Assuming this isn't the same ruse all over again," Judy commented. The statement hung in the air, and she felt the looming presence of the chief turn, towering over her even more-so.

"I used to think you naïve, Hopps. Me being the experienced pessimist…."

Judy thought about replying but didn't have to, as the chief pinched the bridge of his muzzle sharply and spoke.

"It seems we have swapped positions," he said, before turning to leave. "I need to go outside for my stress relief. Before I do so, any astute observations Junior detective?"

Following behind him, Judy spoke up. "All I know is that this is making Preds hate Prey more, and vice versa. If he even is involved in this attack, that is."

"The only thing this place has done recently is import and export a bunch of smoke detectors," Bogo commented. "Now they have military hardware. I'm pretty sure he's involved."

"Whether he is or not, we need to stop this," Judy said resolutely, her fist thumping into her palm. "He's trying to stoke up predators and wants them to give an ugly reaction. Because they're the ones who'll get hurt and punished when that happens, no matter who started it. You said so yourself."

"Do you think they'll give an ugly reaction?" Bogo asked.

"I don't know," the bunny officer replied. "But we'll likely find out in a few days."

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Dear Predators of Zootopia.

This is Nick Wilde speaking.

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I'm someone who likes to joke a lot. Be funny. Try and eke out a laugh out of a dark moment, just to help me or others get through the day.

Today is different though.

When I read about the massacre, I felt as if the blood was being drained from me. I felt weak and tired and powerless, like a piece of driftwood carried by the waves. Seeing the pictures, and just trying to imagine the numbers…

I couldn't.

It just seems too awful to consider.

This was done by the same enemies who killed Gazelle. Who darted predators, knowing that they would have their lives taken away from them as a result. Who framed me and has been lashing out more and more ever since.

I don't want you to stop what you're doing. It pleases me so much to see that we, the ten-percent who were so helpless before, can create such a big change. While my access to the outside world is a bit limited so far, I am pretty certain that the mayor hasn't even bothered to respond to our requests. Instead, she's urging the police to spend their time trying to undo our good work, while at the same time catching these terrorists. Instead, I think we can turn our actions up a bit. We predators can't be at the mercy of these two evils any more. We can't just be useless things thrown around, our lives fated by the dictates and machinations of those who hate us. So, we're going to force their paw.

I'd called it a hustle, but that's a misuse of the word.

It's an ultimatum.

Accept our demands by the end of the month, or else on the first we'll all cut off and remove our collars.

Think about it for a second.

There are tales of them killing those who try to remove the device for sure, but when I checked the law books and medical data it turns out there's no way for that to really happen. It's a myth the prey spread to scare us. That's all.

The collars are held on by a tough fabric. But I know that a sharp pair of scissors or some shears and some patience can get through it. There is the anti-tamper detector, but any shocks from that can be defeated via a something insulating like wood or plastic, or something conductive like a metal plate placed beneath the shockers. Why not use both?

The reason no-one did this before, alongside fear from the tales and myths, was that you couldn't put your collar back on afterwards. No collar meant that, on being seen outside, it was life in solitary for you.

But what are they going to do if we all have no collars?

They can't build enough prisons, and certainly can't afford to run them all.

Instead they'll only have one option.

Give us our collar free zones.

They can still think we're dangerous savages who you have to steer clear from. They can still think that a whiff of blood is enough to turn us into monsters. They can still believe that we're born without morals or even created by the devil.

But we'll have our emotions back and they can sleep 'safe' at night.

This way they don't lose anything, and we win big time.

And if they don't, and we end up without our collars? I guess they'll just have to learn that complete collar prohibition isn't the end of world. They might end up evolving beyond their primitive fearful ways, might they not?

And as for those who've been working to harm us. Those behind my framing, Gazelle's death and the massacre…

Your days of scaring us and us being at your mercy will soon be over. And I want you to remember that you brought your own failure on yourself. You messed with the wrong fox, Lupus.

This is all on you.