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Hungry Hearts

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It took a little less than an hour to recall the whole story to Benny and Gideon. Thankfully, they had been patient and quiet while they sat through the entire story. N had to admit that if he were in their position, he might have called the troops on him regardless of how well Judy could explain things. He was a Walker, after all. 

 

N stood two paces behind Judy as she spared no details about everything that led up to this moment. Gideon and Benny sat quietly on their couch and listened intently, having forgotten all about their plans for a movie-night. Occasionally they’d guffaw or gasp at the more surprising turns in the story, but here were other times that N saw the cheetah smile ear to ear like a giddy little kit. The sight made him smirk.

 

I can’t believe I was scared of this big softy. I mean, at first glance the guy is built like a weapon, but now I’m getting the feeling he is more likely to break into song and dance rather than blow my brains out. Gid, on the other paw, that’s a guy who’s more likely to stiff me. He keeps shooting glances at me like I’m wearing a tutu or something. I bet ‘the cook’ is good with a kitchen knife too. But he does seem to trust Judy well enough so... maybe this’ll work?

 

“... that’s when he showed up in the garden,” Judy continued, nearly finished with the story. “We snuck him into the burrow for a bit, but we couldn’t keep him there.”

 

Gideon nodded and gestured to N from the sofa. “Well yer darn right y’all couldn’t keep him next to Stewart Hopps. That’s like keepin’ a lame buffalo in a lake full’a sharks––it’d just be a matter of time.”

 

N rolled his eyes. “Thank y–you for keeping my mind at… at ease.”

 

“Ah, uhh… sorry.” Gid sheepishly rubbed the back of his head and looked at the ground. “I take it y’all brought him straight here?”

 

“Yup.” N saw Kris take a step forward and felt her slug his hip with the back of her paw lightly. “I figured if anyone was gonna have some fox-sized clothes lying around, it’d be you, Gid. Plus, the best place to keep him safe from the military is the last place they would check: in one of their own homes.”

 

N looked over to Judy, who was trying her hardest to vouch for him despite the circumstances. The look of pleading concern on her face as she told their story was endearing to watch. He really believed that she was scared for him, and it made his chest ache a little. Odd, he thought. The ache was not as bad as it had been before… or had he just gotten used to it? Had he started to like it? 

 

He continued to watch patiently as Judy finished the story. “Guys, I’m so sorry to spring this on you, but we really need your help. Anyone else would kill him, and this could be the first real step towards ending the deadrising in nearly a decade. Please…”

 

N turned to look at their two hosts, both of whom looked at eachother with furtive glances. Neither one looked eager to speak first, but Benny made the jump and gave his boyfriend a pitiful frown. “Gid, we have to help them.”

 

Gid sighed and frowned further. “Benny, If we’re discovered hiding a Walker in the walls, we’ll both lose our posts. Hell, they might even lock us up.” His thick drawl was more plane when he spoke to his partner.

 

Benny nodded solemnly. “I know, but this isn’t sneaking twinkies from the inventory. This is a matter of life and death… well, death and a worse kind of death I guess.”

 

“Arghh…” Gideon stood and rubbed the back of his head pensively, before shooting a considerate glance at Judy. He approached her and shook his head in doubt as he walked. His rounder belly looked more pronounced from the side, but he still felt like the authority in the room with his stature. “Jude, I know you take promises seriously. I need your word that you’ll do what you can to keep Benny from sleepin’ behind bars. If this goes south, you’ll get your dad to let him off?”

 

Benny crossed his arms. “Gid, I can take care of myse–”

 

Gideon raised a finger, cutting Benny off. “Your word, Judy.”

 

N saw Judy stand up a little taller. “Gideon, I’ll do everything I can to keep you both safe. If this goes wrong, this is on me. I promise.” Gideon leaned down and extended a paw, which Judy accepted and shook with intention and gravity. 

 

He nodded and let her hand go before peering over at N. The Walker suddenly felt a little smaller than usual when the larger fox approached him and glared at him with all the seriousness he would have expected from the soldier in the room. Much to everyone’s surprise, Gideon offered his paw to N openly just as he had to Judy. “I want your word too, Walker. I want to hear you swear that you won’t lay a finger on anyone while you’re in the walls.”



N glanced at Judy, who seemed a little nervous about the gesture but nodded all the same. Gideon’s figure was stocky and imposing, especially compared to N’s slender frame. It wasn’t a hard thing to promise since he didn’t have any intent on eating anyone anyway, but the possibility of having his bones crushed by the larger fox suddenly felt very possible.



Standing as tall as he could, N reached a shaky paw forward and shook Gideon’s firmly. “I pr...promise. No one gets hurt.”



Gideon squeezed his paw heartily and shook it back, jostling N a bit as he did so. Turning back to Judy, he offered a wry smile. “Y’all can stay the night.”



“Woohoo!” Clawhauser sprang up from the sofa and rushed over to Gideon and wrapped him in a thick hug from behind. “Thanks Giddy.” A grateful kiss smacked his forehead.


The fox laughed and pushed the larger predator off of him. “Easy there big guy, we’ve got company over.”



“So what should we do with him first?” Kris asked. The look she was giving N made him more than a little nervous.



Clawhauser looked at her a little confused. “Don’t you guys think he can clean himself up?”



Gideon shook his head and spoke softly to Benny. “With how shaky his paw was just now, I don’t reckon he could even hold a loofah.”



“That’s a good point. He could use a shower,” Judy said with a shrug. “Maybe a full-on bath?”



Benny sized the Walker up and placed a paw under his chin thoughtfully, his finger thumping on his chin.  “We’ll need a new set of duds. I think Gid’s got some older clothes upstairs that would fit nicely.”



“His teeth could use a brush’ too,” Kris suggested.



Judy agreed with a nod. “We’re gonna need the world’s toughest fur-brush. Maybe a little musk mask?... hmm, maybe a lot of musk-mask.”



Why are they all getting closer? N backed away from the crowd that was slowly beginning to approach him. His eyes nervously widened as he shook his head anxiously. Judy’s devilish smile widened as she nodded at him eagerly.



“First things first!” Benny said and walked over towards the TV. He picked up a short gangly cable that connected the TV’s speakers up to a mobile phone. “We need some music goin!”



This got Kris excited. The otter hopped up onto Benny’s shoulder and peered down at his collection as he scrolled through options. “Ooh! Put on ‘Pretty Wombat’. That’ll be funny.”



That was a step too far for N. “No!” he groaned. “Anything but Rockabilly.”



Kris smiled and tapped Benny’s shoulder. “Guess Judy wasn’t kidding about his taste in music.”



“Here’s something newer.” Benny clicked play on the phone and set it down on the counter. “Just a little something to perk everyone up a little.”



A bright pop-ish tune from just before the deadrising began to play through the speakers. It was peppy and fun, but not anything N had heard before. It only took a few seconds before Kris and Benny began dancing and singing along. It reminded him a bit of when Judy played one of his records back at his warehouse. These goofballs are Judy’s crew, alright.



“Come on,” Judy said softly, placing a paw on his sleeve and tugging him along. “Gid, do you have enough water for a full bath?”



He nodded but winced in concern. “Yeah, but it won’t be warm.”


“That won’t be a p-problem.” N followed her up the stairs and into Gideon’s bedroom, the larger fox following shortly behind. Their steps muffled by the comfortable carpet lining the stairs and hallway floors. N noticed just how much cleaner a typical house was here amongst the living than anything he was used to back in the city.



“Alright then, I’ll get the bath goin’.” Gideon disappeared behind a door opposite the bed where the sound of squeaking faucets and rushing water drowned out the music downstairs.



Judy put a paw to her mouth and called out to Gideon from the bedroom. “Get that tub as bubbly as you can, Gid.”



“Yes’um. Y’all owe me some of the nice soap for this!” he hailed back.



Judy opened up Gideon’s closet with a hop. The alcove was tall for a rabbit and hosted a modest collection of button-up shirts and trousers. There were a few clean aprons that he probably used for work hanging on a hook on the door.



Judy nodded with satisfaction. “We can work with this,” she said and turned to face N. “Take off your shirt.”



N yipped. “W—what?”



“Your hoodie and t-shirt, N. Off they go.”



In any other context, he would have quipped at her—something along the lines of Dinner and a movie first, Carrots , most likely. But in the moment, he could not hide his timidity as he looked at the floor. “Are you sure?”



“N, I’ve had to take care of so many younger siblings that getting a kit clean is basically my second job.”



He frowned. “I’m nn-not a kit, Carrots.”



She rolled her eyes at him. “Then stop being a baby and ditch the rotten clothes!”



“Fine!” he barked and hesitantly tugged at the zipper of his hoodie. It didn’t budge, and his shaky paws were having a hard time grasping the little metal handle. Judy stepped a little closer and shook her head.



“That zipper is busted. Hang on.” Judy went to the bedside table and opened the drawer. She rifled through the contents for a moment and tossed the useless items onto the bed; a book, a few pencils, and a military-issue .9mm sidearm. After another moment of digging, she pulled out a sizable knife that looked weighted to throw. She drew the blade with a click and motioned for N to come closer.



N gulped. “Please be c-careful.”



Judy smiled again. “You of all mammals should know how good I am with a knife.” With one smooth motion, she hopped up and swiped the blade down his hoodie along the side of the zipper. N felt the cloth give way and open up easily. Judy quickly folded the knife back up and helped him shuffle the ancient blood-stained garment off of his shoulders. He grasped at the moldy white t-shirt and shuffled it over his neck, getting stuck for a moment. Judy tugged at the shirt as well and helped him get it off.



Once his chest was bare, Judy rolled up his rotten clothes and tossed them aside. Her eyes only glanced at him, but then N saw her do a double-take and with her eyebrows raised. 

 


“Where’s the wound?” she wondered aloud.



“The wha—Carrots!” he stumbled as Judy stepped closer and began rifling through the fur on his chest. She used her fingers to comb through areas near his sternum and was way closer than she had ever gotten before. N’s chest ached again, and he could have sworn he felt her breath on his skin, though it was probably just his imagination again. She continued diligently combing through his fur, oblivious to his nerves shaking to life. 

 

She shook her head in disbelief while she searched. “From the hospital…”

 

The knife , he remembered. She had tossed one into his chest when they first met. He had pulled it out like it was nothing, but there had been a red mark on his hoodie ever since. The wound should have been seeping and clear as day, but despite her invasive prodding, she seemed to have trouble finding it. After digging around a little longer, she struck gold.



“Oh my god.” Judy’s breath caught in her chest. “N, it’s healing!”

 


N gasped and pawed at the fur on his chest. “Ww-what?”



“It’s red and it’s clotted, and probably needs stitches but it’s getting better!” Judy looked at him with wide hopeful eyes. He pawed at his sternum, finding the spot she had found and let his finger wander over the coarse surface of clotted blood. His paw landed on hers. She did not recoil, instead she ran her thumb over his paw tenderly. She laughed a little, looking at him square in the eye. She was so close now. “N... ” she whispered.



“Woah! We interrupting something here?” Kris was standing at the door to the bedroom with Benny following closely behind. He was carrying a smaller speaker system and singing along to the pop tune they had been playing downstairs. Judy’s ears stiffened and she leapt back a few paces from N bashfully.



“Kris! Don’t scare me like that,” Judy spat. “Benny, you said you had some clothes ideas, right?”



“Yes I do, little bunny. Let’s see…” Benny made his way past N and began digging through his boyfriend’s collection of button-down shirts. N saw a flurry of blue and white plaid as Gideon’s simple clothing was tossed along the hangers. He pulled out a few samples and held them up against N’s bare chest to test out their fit. “What are we thinking, ladies? This farm-friendly plaid? Or maybe this polo shirt for the city-slicker?”



Judy shook her head at both options. “Both of those are too big, Benny. Do you have anything from when Gideon was a little younger?”



Gideon called out from the bathroom again as the tub continued to fill up. “Y’all callin’ me fat in there?”



Benny called back reassuringly with a smile. “More of you to love! Where’d you put those older shirts?”



Gideon groaned and called back out. “Try the box in the back!”



“Oooh good call,” Benny agreed. He got down on his paws and knees, rustling through a few boxes underneath a pile of dirty clothes. Eventually, he pulled out a ratty cardboard box and began pulling out shirts. “Here we go… No… uh-uh… these undies should work… nope… these pants should be good too… eww no!... maybe this red shirt?”



Judy nodded and gave it a quick glance. “Looks like it’s the right size. N, come here and try…what’s that?”



N had silently picked up one of the shirts that Benny had tossed aside. He held it in his paws and idly turned it over observing the fabric. It was a light-green color with some darker green prints of palm trees all over. It had short sleeves and a big pocket on one side. It was a little tacky, and not exactly climate-appropriate for the colder months. But despite all of that, something about it struck N as oddly comforting.

 


“Aww not that one sweety.” Kris scoffed and yanked it out of his paws. He made a motion to grab it back for a moment before he looked dejectedly at the wall and rubbed his shoulder. He wasn’t exactly the authority on fashion right now so perhaps it would be best to leave this to the living.

To his surprise, Judy walked over and scooped the shirt back up. “Let’s go with this one.”



Kris shook her head. “Jude, he’ll stick out like a sore thumb.”



She shrugged her friend off and handed the shirt back to N with a reassuring smile on her face. “We need to get him a coat or a sweater to cover up in the cold anyway, so we might as well give him something Gideon’s not gonna miss. Besides, he should wear what he wants.”



He took the cloth in his paws and ran a wayward paw over it. “Thanks C—Carrots.”



“Why is he calling you ‘Carrots’?” Gideon walked back into the bedroom and wiped soapy bathwater from his paws on his trousers. “Y’all picking that shirt, really? My Auntie got that while we were on vacation in West Pawm Beach. Always thought it was the silliest thing.”



“He seems to like it well enough,” Benny said with a shrug. “It’ll probably fit the best we can get anyway. The bath is all set to go?”



Gideon clapped his paws and smiled. “Yessir indeed. Let’s wash the death off of him.”



Judy got behind N and pushed him towards the bathroom. He was initially hesitant, but the sight of the bath calmed his nerves a little. The bubbles were stacked nearly as tall as he was. There were towels lined up and a handheld fur-dryer plugged into the wall by the sink.



“Please tell me he won’t need help dropping trow,” Kris murmured.



N rolled his eyes. “I can handle th—that much.”



Kris chuckled. “Good. I don’t want to imagine what 8 years of undead ball-stank looks like.”

 

Well isn’t she just a ray of sunshine.



“Kris,” Judy scolded. “Don’t be mean. N, we’ll give you a minute. Let us know when you’re in the tub.”

 

***



They all waited at the door, giving N a little privacy. Judy turned to her otter-friend and crossed her arms over her chest. “I wish you wouldn’t make fun of him when he’s clearly not comfortable.”



Kris shrugged. “I poke fun at everyone. I don’t want to seem disingenuous to a host in the Burrows, right? Besides, you’re the one who was making googly-eyes at his chest when I walked in. How am I not supposed to hop on that opportunity?”



“First off, I was not making ‘googly-eyes’ at him, and secondly—“



“—WHA-AH!” N cried out from the bathroom.



Judy rushed to the door with her ear pressed against the wood. “N! You okay?”

 

“C—C… cold,” he muttered, his voice extra shaky.



Gideon’s eyebrows shot up and he gaped down at Judy. “Did that Walker just complain about bein’ cold?”



Judy nodded and turned back to her friends. “I told you guys, this is real. He said other Walkers are changing too.”



“Are we sure he’s really a zombie and not just a homeless guy?” Kris suggested.



Gideon put a thoughtful paw to his chin. “Maybe this is what all city-folk were like back in the day.”



“Hey!” Benny scowled.



Gideon rolled his eyes and playfully pushed at Benny’s chest. “You were a cop, Spots. That’s different.”



Ignoring the antics of her friends, Judy politely knocked on the door and cracked it open. “You okay in here?”

 

“I’m dead–...yeah I’m fine,” came N’s shaky response. 

 

She nodded and offered softly, “You need some help?”

 

A moment of silence between them. “...What about the… the 8 year old ball-stank?”

 

She rolled her eyes. “Ignore Kris’s teasing. We’re here to help.”

 

There was a moment of silence between them where Judy caught the sounds of lightly splashing water and the squeak of paws against porcelain. “Come on in.”

 

Judy felt a shove at her back as Kris nudged her forward, tossing the door open. “Well let’s get busy!” N kept his back towards the door at first, but it only took a few moments for Kris to hop up onto the tub and draw a loofah on a stick like it was a weapon. She turned him around and started digging the scrubber into the fur on his back. 

 

The boys followed in behind her. Benny rolled his sleeves up and grabbed a sponge, getting some soap and lathering it in nicely before working it over his tail. He continued to hum the pop-tune to himself as he scrubbed. 

 

Judy sighed at her friend’s boldness and jumped up onto the bath’s ledge. Thankfully the bubbles were enough to keep him modest enough given the circumstances. She rolled up her sleeves and worked a little shampoo into her paws before working into the fur on N’s arm.

 

Gideon watched with his arms folded as the rest of them scrubbed the Walker. “Y’all owe me shampoo on your next scouting mission.”

 

“We owe you more than that, Gideon,” Judy assured him. 

 

Judy saw the orange of his fur begin to clear up as years of grime and dirt began to wash away from his body. The bath water she did see got a little murky. It was a satisfying sight to watch his features begin to brighten as the room began to fill with the scent of wet-canine. She turned his arm over, noticing something odd: there was a small patch of bare skin exposed under his paw no bigger than the tip of her nose.

 

“Hey N, you’re missing a spot of fur on your wrist,” she mentioned in passing. N’s eyes widened and he quickly withdrew his paw, nearly throwing Judy off her balance. He inspected the spot on his wrist closely, ignoring the protests of Kris and Benny. His reaction made her worry. “Is everything okay, N?”

 

“Mmm?... oh yes… mmmust have ha–happened a long t–time ago.” He gave a weak smile, offering his arm back to Judy. She could tell that there was more to it than that. His stuttering usually came back when he was nervous or hiding something. 

 

Before she could respond, Kris brought the loofah down and whapped him on the snoot. “Quit your twitching and turn around. I need to get your belly.”

 

They continued to scrub him clean for a few more minutes before allowing him some more privacy to finish up and dry off a bit. When they came back into the bathroom, he had a towel wrapped around his waist as best he could and his fur was matted from the bathwater. Kris walked in and began barking orders like a commanding officer. 

 

“Alright boys, you two are tall so grab some brushes and start workin’ on his back and head. I’ll grab the fur-drier and get to work. Judy, see what you can do about his teeth.”

 

“Who died and made you zombie-cleaner in charge?” Benny snarked.

 

“I’m the medical professional in the room, Benjamin, so basically all of Zootopia.”

 

Gideon and Benny both got to work with thick brushes working down his fur on either side, the fox grunting lightly whenever he got to a particularly troublesome spot. Kris turned the drier on full-blast and dried off his tail before moving to his back. All the while, N wore a look of resigned discomfort on his face as his personal space invaded so thoroughly. Judy found a toothbrush and quickly got it wet in the sink.

 

“You mind if we use this, Gid?” 

 

He shrugged and waved her off. “I’ve got an extra. Y’all can just throw that one out when you’re done.”

 

“He should keep it,” Benny suggested. “From our home to yours, N.” Kris laughed at his faux display of generosity, but Judy caught N’s expression of genuine gratitude as he eyed the red plastic brush in Judy’s paw. 

 

“What is it?” she asked, though she had some idea. 

 

“Nn...Nothing really. J-just never had one before,” he said softly. 

 

“What?” Kris asked jokingly. “A toothbrush?”

 

“A gift,” he said simply. 

 

Judy smiled wide and rubbed his snout affectionately. She turned to wet the brush and lather on some toothpaste liberally before tapping his nose again. “Okay, let’s see those teeth.”

 

Benny popped up from his brushing near N’s neck and looked at Judy with concern on his face. “Wait, Judy. Is it a good idea for you to get too close to his teeth? Shouldn’t you use gloves or something? I know he’s a good guy and all but what if… what if he… by accident I mean? He’s still pretty shaky.”

 

Judy waved him off as she got a heaping load of toothpaste onto the brush that was a bit too big for her paws. “He’ll be fine, Benny. Right N?”

 

N’s eyes widened and he nodded his head eagerly.

 

“Okay then, open up.”

 

He did, and Judy got to work. His mouth was certainly in a state, but Judy was surprised with just how easily most of the grime began to scrub away. He was missing a tooth towards the front, and his breath was pretty grim, but she dug the brush in and smiled as her effort slowly began to work. As the others continued their work, Judy began to wonder if perhaps it was overkill. After all, all they needed to do was get him passable as a living mammal, and he had made it through the walls thus far. But she could not deny a certain satisfaction with taking something the deadrising had tarnished and making it new again, even if just on the surface. Perhaps she couldn’t breathe life back into him, but she could at least make him seem a little less dead.

 

“How’re you feeling?” she asked idly.

 

With his maw still open, he simply raised a paw and lifted his thumb up for her. 

 

They finished up and set his clothes on the counter before letting him alone once again. Judy waited with her friends, sitting patiently on the foot of the bed with her legs crossed. Kris and Benny had picked another song from his speakers and began working out a dance routine for it. Gideon took the opportunity to sit down beside her and speak in a hushed tone.

 

“So what’s the plan now? Y’all gonna march him to the Ward and show him to the doc?”

 

“Pretty much,” Judy admitted. “We’ll probably wait till morning and have Kris tell him about it first before we risk bringing N across town.”

 

“But what then?” he asked.  “Say the doc is able to figure out what’s going on with him, your Pa is gonna hear about this sooner or later.”

 

Judy nodded and ran her paw over her ears. “I know. I’m not sure how, but we need to convince him and everyone else that N is not a danger to anyone.” 

 

Gideon shook his head. “I know y’all are right, but this is Stewart Hopps we’re talking about here. With how much he’s lost, I don’t think he’ll ever see that boy as anything but a monster.”

 

Judy splayed her paws gently. “He was a reasonable guy once. If we can get Ramic to vouch for him, I think we will make it work.”

 

Gideon got quieter and looked over towards the bathroom door.“... and if we don’t?”

 

Judy frowned and looked at the floor. “We will. We have to try.”

 

Judy felt her friend place a reassuring paw on her shoulder lightly. “Tryin’ has always been what you’re best at, Jude,” he said with a smile.

 

She smiled back, but before she could get another word in, Benny pointed towards the bathroom door. “Here he comes!” Judy looked up and saw N make his way into the bedroom.

 

His fur was now a brilliant shade of orange, even brighter than Gideon’s. It was darker along his limbs, but it lightened towards his center where it changed to a creamy color on his chest that reminded her of a carrot dipped in custard. His clothes fit him nicely enough, but what really drew her attention was just how naturally charming he was. He had this endearing smile on his face that demonstrated his wit without coming across as arrogant. The only things that gave away his condition now were his broken speech and slitted eyes. She could barely tell that he was a Walker by looking at him. In fact, she had to admit that he actually did look rather–

 

“Hot!” Kris shouted and gave him a whistle. 

 

“Wow,” Benny exclaimed. “You look totally different!”

 

Gideon nodded and rose to his feet, gesturing at N’s clothes. “How’s it feel?” 

 

N looked down at himself observing his new clothes and idly running a wayward paw through the fur on his neck. “It’s… I feel… fluffy.”

 

Kris rolled her eyes at the fox. “That’s what fur is supposed to feel like. Good to know you feel something though. It’s really a shame we didn’t go with the red shirt. He’d look like a dashing Eweropean bartender, don’t you think so Judy...? Judy…. Hey Jude!”

 

Judy jumped a little as her friend shook her shoulder lightly. “What? Oh! Yeah I guess.” She knew her friends would be giving each other furtive looks, but she decided to ignore them and take a closer look at N. She hopped off the bed and folded her arms across her chest, wearing a confident smile. “I’d say you look alive enough to me.”

 

He smiled back at her. “Don’t s-sugar coat it, give it to me straight.”

 

“No sugar here, Slick. You look good.”

 

“...Think dad ww–will app...approve?” he asked. 

 

Judy frowned. “Probably not, but at least we could probably walk you by him without him noticing now.”

 

“Do yy–you approve?”

 

Judy raised an eyebrow and gave him one more thorough up-and-down. “Definitely.”

 

“You guys are just too cute,” Kris said with a sigh. 

 

Judy felt the urge to chide her friend for describing her as ‘cute’ even though she knew full-well how she felt about that word. Before she could, however, a loud and sudden knock came from the front door downstairs. Gideon and Benny both jumped a little and looked towards the staircase that led to the front door. They looked at each other silently with concerned glances while Benny quickly paused the music player. 

 

Judy spoke in a low whisper. “Were you guys expecting anyone else?”

 

“No,” Benny said softly and quietly made his way towards the bedroom door. The cheetah was both fast and silent on the carpeted floor and the mood in the room turned tense as guards went up.

 

“Y’all stay put a minute,” Gideon said and followed the cheetah down the stairs. Judy and the other’s stood by the door and kept very still. She kept her ears tall and pointed down the staircase waiting for more sound. Another loud knock came at the door, this time more panicked.

 

“Hello?” Someone called from outside. “Is anyone home?... I’m looking for Judy Hopps!”

 

Judy’s eyes widened, shooting a glance at Kris and N. “Why would someone look for me here?”

 

Kris could only shrugg in response. They waited for Benny to answer the door. 

 

“Who’s there? Y’all know what time it is?” Gideon called out angrily. 

 

The voice responded loudly and it sounded out of breath. “It’s Ramic… from the ward… Please, I need to find Judy!” 

 

All three of them looked at each other with astonished faces. Judy pointed to the ground and mouthed the words stay here to N before turning and practically leaping down the stairs. Gideon was waiting at the door with his paw on the locks, looking at her with a confused glance. She shook her head in confusion too.

 

Gideon cleared his throat. “Why do y’all think Ms. Hopps is here?”

 

“I know she’s friends with Kris…. And they’re both friends with Corporal Clawhauser” He was still gasping for air. “They weren’t at the Hopp’s burrow, and they weren’t at Kris’s either… please, you have to tell me if she’s here. It’s important!”

 

Gideon glanced through the peep-hole in his door. He knew well enough that at this range, Judy’s hearing could pick up the slightest whisper. He’s alone, Gideon mouthed to her. She nodded and stepped out of the way. Benny waited behind the door as well as the door swung open. 

 

Judy saw a familiar Kangaroo from earlier. He was doubled over, using the post on the deck of Gideon’s house for support. He still wore his lab coat and glasses as well. He immediately saw Judy and his eyes widened. 

 

“Judy!” he called out with a relieved sigh. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere.”

 

“I heard. Why are you looking for me, Doctor Ramic?”

 

He continued gasping. “Not… a doctor… whew, can I come inside please?”

 

“Of course,” Gideon said and bid him through the door, closing it behind the tired kangaroo. 

 

The scientist wasted no time and began rifling through his lab coat. Standing between Benny, Gideon, and Judy, he looked tall but rather too lanky to be a threat. Plus, given her time with him, she knew he wouldn’t be like this without good reason. He eventually pulled something out of his pockets and showed it to everyone in the room. “You gave me this earlier.”

 

“The recorder?” Judy was surprised. She had handed over her pack with all the medicine in it, forgetting that the small recording device she’d found in Zootopia was still inside. “Did you listen to it?”

 

“Yeah. That’s why I’ve been looking for you. I need to know where you found this.”

 

Judy thought back to a few days earlier. “At the hospital, in one of the labs on the windowsill.”

 

“Zootopia General?” he asked eagerly.

 

“Yeah.”

 

Gideon raised his paws, begging them to slow down. “Hang on a minute. What recording are we talkin’ bout here?”

 

“Yeah! I don’t remember this thing.” Kris popped out from around Judy’s shoulder and snatched the recording device out of her paws. Judy glared at her, shooting a concerned glance towards the stairs to make sure N hadn’t followed her down too. Kris ignored her friend and hit the play button on the device. 

 

The speakers were small on the device, so everyone around leaned in a little closer to hear more clearly. 

 

“March 6th…. This outbreak is tearing the city apart. The government has declared martial law, but the police are overrun and packs of monsters are attacking citizens in the streets. I can’t even tell who is alive out there anymore.” 

 

There was a scream in the distance in the recording. Judy could recall hearing all of this during her second night in the warehouse with N. Back then it had made her bones chill as she slept alone in the warehouse office. Now that Ramic had taken such keen interest in it, it concerned her even more.

 

“They’re moving all hospital staff out of the city,” the voice continued. “I think they’re gonna give up on Zootopia and try to get us out to the surrounding neighborhoods. Those idiots in City Hall, if they had just been honest from the start and let me finish my—” 

 

“Doctor! We need to leave, the hospital is almost overrun,” another voice urged.

 

“I’ll be right there!” the first voice answered. “I haven’t given up yet. There’s got to be an explanation for this. The mayor has provided me with a grant to continue my research in the hopes of finding out what the epidemic is, but he really seems convinced it’s Armageddon just like everyone else. If you’re hearing this, we’re still trying.”

 

“Honey!!” the second voice called out again.

 

“Let’s get to Cliffside, go!” More cries and snarls from what must have been Walkers approaching. Judy pulled the recording out of Kris’s paws and hit stop. Kris’s face hardened and her expression grew dark. 

 

Benny pointed at the recorder. “You’re absolutely sure you got this at Zootopia General?”

 

“Yeah,” she recalled and looked at Kris. “right before that Savage mouse attacked us, remember?”

 

Kris nodded, turning to Ramic. “Do you recognize who that was?”

 

The room turned to the Kangaroo, who looked back at all of them with a somber expression. He nodded his head slowly. “That was Dr. Honey DeFleur. She was an epidemiologist in Zootopia. I used to study under her during my rotations before the deadrising.”

 

Judy frowned. “I’m sorry you had to hear that, Ramic. This was recorded during the deadrising, so I’m afraid there’s little chance she survived.”

 

Ramic shook his head and knelt down to look at Judy a little closer to eye-level. “After Zootopia fell, I heard a rumor about a lab that was still trying to find a cure, one that was funded by the government and had actually made progress.

 

Judy’s ears perked up a little taller. “What kind of progress?”

 

“I don’t know. I wrote it off as a fantasy to help the kids sleep at night because no one knew where this lab was. It’s been eight years, so I gave up hope that it even existed until I heard this,” Ramic explained, gesturing to the recorder.

 

Benny stepped in. “Do you know where she went?”

 

Ramic nodded. “I think so. Honey told me once that there was a mental ward outside the city that would make the perfect research facility in a bioterrorism scenario thanks to its isolation from the city and it’s built-in security. It was called the ‘Cliffside Asylum’, and if Honey got a grant to set up shop there, then the idea that she made progress suddenly sounds a lot more realistic.”

 

Kris folded her arms over her chest. “Doc, if they found a cure, don’t you think we would have heard by now?”

 

Ramic shrugged. “Maybe they had to abandon it. Maybe they got killed by Walkers. I’m not sure, but if they made any amount of progress, Honey would have kept track of it. As you can see, she documented everything she did.”

 

Judy put a paw to her chin, her foot gently tapping thoughtfully. “So there’s a chance that Dr. DeFleur made progress at this secret location. But what do you need me for?”

 

He turned to her and pleaded. “I need you to help convince your dad to send a scouting mission out there.”

 

Judy began to see what he had in mind. There’s no way they’d let one of the only medically-trained mammals in the Burrows risk doing something like that. But what the Burrows lacked in medicine it made up for in firepower. While she was stuck in the city, her father nearly sent an entire platoon into town as a rescue party. If they could get that same kind of mission to go wherever this ‘cliffside’ place was, then maybe they could dig up whatever Honey had left behind. But Stu Hopps would not take a risk like that lightly. 

 

Benny sat on the sofa and scratched the back of his head. He had a reason to feel nervous––a risky scouting party into uncharted territory was his line of work. “Say we can get there. What do you think we’ll find?”

 

The not-a-doctor shook his head. “I’m not sure. Even if it’s just some notes or records like this one, anything that’s there could be useful. If they collected any samples or perhaps even developed a few vaccine trials, I could use that to continue the research here!” Ramic was starting to get excited. 

 

“We don’t exactly have state-of-the-art contagion labs here, Doc,” Kris said skeptically. 

 

“We can make due with what we have in equipment,” he argued. “It’s the development that might cause us some problems. It’s not like we have any willing subjects volunteering for a treatment trial.” The whole room got very quiet as Judy, Kris, Gideon and Benny all looked at eachother with wide eyes. Gideon’s mouth even fell open as they gaped at each other. Ramic was a little lost. “What?”

 

Judy stepped forward and looked at the kangaroo very seriously. “Ramic, what I’m about to show you needs to be kept absolutely secret.”

 

His expression darkend. “What’s going on?”

 

“There’s a reason I was able to spend three nights in the city and make it back alive.”

“Where you bitten?!” he gasped. 

 

“No. I... I made a friend.”

 

His eyes darted between her and the others. “What does that mean, ‘friend’? What are you talking about?”

 

There was no real way to explain it without showing him. Judy sighed and turned towards the staircase, putting her paw up to her cheek and calling out loudly. “Come on downstairs N.” There were a few moments of silence in the group. Ramic’s ears twisted in a few directions as he scanned for any noise from upstairs. “It’s alright. You can come down.”

 

She heard soft footsteps, and Ramic clearly did too. He watched with a mixture of curiosity and profound confusion as a fox he would not recognize slowly made his way down the stairs. She smiled at N, who looked nervously between her and the stranger. She nodded her head and gestured for him to step closer. As soon as he did, Ramic’s mouth dropped in shock. 

 

“Oh my god…” he breathed. “Is that what I think it is?”

 

He ...” Judy said pointedly, “...is my friend from the city. His name is ‘N’––like the letter––and he saved my life more than once. He kept me safe and followed me all the way out here to the burrows.”

 

N fidgetted uncomfortably. 

 

“What’s up… doc?” he muttered. 

 

Ramic literally hopped backwards and yelped. “He talks!”

 

Judy rushed forward to calm him down. “He does more than that, Ramic. He can feel things too. He smiles and jokes and sleeps and gets cold in the rain–”

 

“––Hold on, hold on!” Ramic said and shushed her. “Is he dangerous?”

 

“Not anymore,” N assured him. “I’m trying out vv–veganism.”

 

Ramic’s eyebrow raised up a little. “Huh. He does joke.”

 

N’s expression grew more anxious as Ramic stepped closer. The kangaroo observed both of N’s eyes carefully before taking a hold of his wrist and squeezing it. He tapped N’s nose with his finger. “He’s got no pulse, his nose is dry and…” Ramic snapped his fingers next to both of his ears, “... no reflexes. I’ve seen warm bodies with more signs of life than him.”

 

“But smell him!” Kris said with an excited tap of her tail. “He doesn’t smell rotten at all!”

 

“How long have you been dead?” Ramic asked him. 

 

N shrugged. “A few years at l–least.” 

 

“Is all this new?”

 

N’s brow furrowed. “All… all what?” 

 

“This!” Ramic spat incredulously and gestured to all of N from ears to tail. “The joking and the feeling cold and the sleeping. Oh yeah, and veganism!”

 

N shrugged again. “It’s new. I guess since….” 

 

Judy stepped in and finished his thought. “Since he met me. He saved me in that hospital and kept me safe in the city. He even helped me escape.”

 

“But we’re sure he was a brain-eating monster before, right?” Ramic asked. 

 

Judy decided it best to leave out the details, since she knew it would be awkward to bring up just whom he had eaten prior to meeting her. The word spreading around that he’d eaten one of their neighbors would certainly make it harder for the Burrows to see him as friendly. Plus, Ramic didn’t have to know details like that, afterall.

 

Kris, however, had other ideas. “He totally ate Jack!” 

 

“Goddammit Kris!” Judy spat.

 

“He did!?” Benny gasped. 

 

Gideon smirked. “Hmm. I knew I liked you for a reason.”

 

“Oh….” Ramic said and took a short step back in reflex. “Was uhh… was this before or after you met?”

 

“Ughhh…” Judy groaned, “before.”

 

“Kinda during, really,” Kris continued. 

 

Ramic ran his paw over the back of his head. “So let’s get this clear. A typical brain-eating Walker bumps into Judy Hopps and suddenly stops eating brains and starts becoming more and more like the living, is that about right?”

 

“Isn’t it sweet?” Kris said with a smile. “I mean, in an eff’d-up kind of way, but it’s better than any of my relationships.”

 

“It’s incredible… it’s unbelievable… he could have some kind of immunity?”

 

N stepped forward with his paws splayed outward, speaking calmly. “There are more.”

 

Ramic’s mouth fell open. “More?”

 

“More ww...Walkers. More who feel… who remember.”

 

Ramic’s gaze hardened. He stepped closer and clapped a paw on N’s shoulder. “N, you and I have so much to talk about.”

 

N nodded. “Ww...what about the… the lab?”

 

“N has a point,” Judy said. “Whatever’s going on with the Walkers right now, the answer could be at Cliffside.”

 

“You’re right,” Ramic said and looked back to Judy. “We have to show him to your father.”

 

Gideon held his paws up as if calling for a time-out.  “Okay, y’all lost me right there. It doesn’t matter what he can say or how much we can dress him up. As soon as Stu Hopps discovers there’s a Walker in the walls, he’ll send every last soldier to hunt him down. And he won’t be satisfied with a body, Jude. He’ll burn him.”

 

Judy scowled and placed a paw on N’s arm reassuringly. “We’ve got Ramic’s support now. If we can introduce them––show him that he’s not a danger to anyone––then he’ll come around. He used to think fox’s were all thieves and thugs once, but he’s not shy about having you over for dinner now.”

 

“This isn’t the same, Judy,” Benny said with a frown. “He thought predators were bad back when he didn’t know any. But he knows what Walkers are capable of, and what can happen if there’s even one within the walls. He’s seen it all first hand.”

 

“I know, Benny. So have I….” Judy sadly looked at the floor. “If I can change my mind, maybe he can as well.”

 

Gideon looked at her skeptically. “N’s hide depends on you pulling that off, Jude.”

 

“I can do it,” she said confidently.

 

“We have to try,” Ramic said. “This could be the first turning point since the deadrising. It’s too important.”

 

Kris stepped next to Judy and placed a reassuring paw on her shoulder. “Why don’t we let the Walker decide? After all, we won’t be able to do shit without him.”

 

She had a point. Judy nodded and turned to N. “That’s true. N, what do you think we should do?”

 

He looked down at her, his slitted eyes meeting hers. One of his paws rose up and scratched at his chest for a moment. He smiled at her, his eyes dropping into a sly smirk that was starting to grow familiar to her––like a new set of clothes that were starting to break in. 

 

“You can do it.”

 

Something strange occured to Judy just then. She thought back to her younger days before the deadrising, how mammals used to scoff at everything she did. When she volunteered to fight the Walkers, she was met with even more disapproving groans from everyone she knew. Even her friends voiced their concern with what she was capable of. She remembered feeling like all the mammals who ever really believed in her were dead.

 

Funny , she thought. I guess I was right.