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Ouroboros: the Endless Cycle

Chapter Text

As Bogo cut through the straps binding Ensign Totchli's limbs—the fox had already freed himself completely unaided—he couldn't help but wonder if he was doing the right thing. Did he actually trust the rabbit's testimony, or was he simply trying to save face after being embarrassed by a fox?

And he had been embarrassed, he knew that much. He could try to make excuses for himself—that he was tired, that it really was the most important problem he had to solve, even that he had been deliberately provoked—but they all rang false. The fox had provoked him, it was true, with what Bogo recognized after the fact as a truly impressive amount of skill. But Bogo had had every opportunity to realize what was going on, as the fox continually and deliberately drew attention to his paws and his bindings, but he had let every single one of those opportunities pass him by. The temper that had almost cost him his career decades ago had flared up with a brutal intensity Bogo couldn't recall having felt anytime in the recent past, and in his moment of rage he had nearly committed a gross violation of his sworn oath.

Until the rabbit had stopped him.

That, Bogo decided as he watched her rub at her wrists as she sat up, was what had influenced him the most. Totchli obviously cared for the fox, and deeply at that, but she had remembered her own oath. She had known what the fox had eventually confessed with deliberate casualness; of that much he was entirely certain. Totchli simply couldn't keep her emotions off her face, and if the academy still had patolli gambling rings Bogo was sure she had never walked away a winner. Bogo was equally certain, though, that she was going to tell him everything she knew about Fermina, no matter the cost it might have for her own credibility or for the continued freedom of the alchemist. How many members of the City Guard had that kind of devotion to duty? A certain amount of corruption was an inevitable truth of the job, no matter how much Bogo hated it, but even the guards who didn't take bribes had a cost. There would be something—or someone—that they'd bend or break the rules for.

But not for Totchli.

He couldn't help but feel a grudging admiration for her, even as he wished she hadn't been born a rabbit. If she was a larger mammal it'd be a lot easier to help her career along once he got to the bottom of the situation in Phoenix and the attempts on the princess's life. Assuming that he succeeded and there was still a City Guard left after everything was over, of course.

But Bogo pushed that maudlin thought aside as he watched Totchli take one of the chairs in front of his desk. She had said that it'd be best if she showed him rather than simply tell him, and he had agreed. The fox, after his single sharp warning, hadn't spoken again, and his eyes were also on Totchli as she reached over with her right paw and began unwinding the bandages from her left. "An Ehecatl nearly bit my arm off," she said as the tightly wrapped bandages started coming loose, "I almost died."

Bogo couldn't help but frown at that. Ehecatls, he knew, had mouths like the cruelest traps a mammal could devise, full of wickedly sharp teeth designed to strip flesh from bone. But they were venomous, too, and Bogo had never heard of a mammal surviving a bite except from juvenile Ehecatls that hadn't come into their venom yet. And even then, of all the mammals he had ever heard of who survived an Ehecatl bite, he had never heard of one being as small as a rabbit.

He wasn't sure what he was expecting as more bandages came off—perhaps that Totchli's arm would be horribly withered, or even that the bandages were the only thing holding putrefying flesh onto her bones—but her paw didn't look out of the ordinary to him. The fur covering it was dark brown rather than gray with a white underside like her other paw, but not every mammal's coloration was symmetrical. But as more and more of the bandages came off, Bogo saw that partway up Totchli's forearm the dark brown gave way to red-orange. As he looked more closely, even the texture and the length of the fur seemed to be off, and there was something odd about that color. The color was quite vivid; it looked to be exactly the same as the—"Nicholas healed me with alchemy," Totchli continued, flexing the fingers of her left paw, "He made me a copy of his own arm."

Bogo had seen quite a few of the wonders that alchemy was capable of, as there seemed to be little alchemists enjoyed more than showing each other up. And while the attempts to heal the prince consort with a philosopher's stone had failed, he had seen plenty of successes. Blind mammals who had their sight restored. Crippled mammals who walked again. He had even seen the heir to a noble family who had suffered such extensive burns in an accident that it was impossible to tell his species be fully restored to perfect health. But he had never seen anything like Totchli's arm. Even chimeras like the princess were the blended result of two species, something new and unique in each case. "I guess I'm a chimera now," Totchli continued, and her tone was almost apologetic.

With the bandages completely off her arm, Bogo could see the point where it had been attached, the gradual transition of red-orange to gray and the vein-like traceries of fox fur that continued up her shoulder. He understood in that moment what the fox had done, and he also realized why the fox had seemed to warn Totchli about mentioning it to him.

It shouldn't have bothered Bogo that a fox didn't think much of him. Just about every fox he had ever met had been a thief of some kind or another with absolutely no room to take the moral high ground. And the practiced ease with which he had been manipulated, to say nothing of the fox's obvious connection to Alfonso of New Quimichin, made Bogo suspect that the fox before him had a past about as shady as possible. But despite all of that, it seemed the alchemist had expected him, the member of the City Guard most devoted to the princess's welfare, to think less of Totchli for being a chimera. It was more than a little insulting, and the worst of it was that Bogo wasn't sure it was entirely undeserved. But his own feelings were completely meaningless to the dilemma before him, and he pushed the thought aside. "To be frank, Ensign Totchli, I don't particularly care," Bogo said, doing his best to project an authoritative air of indifference, "So long as you can carry out your duties, you're still an active member of the City Guard."

Something like relief mixed with anxiety washed over her face as she seemed to take something out of his words he hadn't deliberately put in them. "That's— That's another thing, sir. I'm... Ever since..." she fumbled over her words, and then suddenly turned to the fox, "Nick, I've been seeing you."

"I wasn't invisible before, Ca— Ensign. Are you feeling alright?" he replied, and Bogo couldn't help but wonder what he had been about to call Totchli even as he tried to read the fox's expression.

He thought that there was concern there, but whether that was all that was there he couldn't tell. "No, I saw— There were two of you. Then the other one kicked you and you woke up the instant he did it and then he vanished and it was like you knew exactly what Captain General Bogo and I were—"

"Slow down there," the fox said, putting his paws out, "No one kicked me awake; I woke up a couple minutes before I started talking. Took some time to loosen those straps and sit up, you see."

"You did?" Totchli asked.

Neither the rabbit nor the fox was paying Bogo any mind, apparently lost in their own discussion. "I did," the fox replied, his tone quite gentle, "You're not seeing this other Nick now, are you?"

"No..." she replied, drawing out the word, "And you really don't remember anything before you woke up?"

The fox shook his head. "Last thing I remember is falling asleep while being carried back."

Bogo felt a stab of guilt as he watched them. He had ignored it before, in his zeal to question them, but both of the mammals before him showed every sign of being on the ragged edge of thirst and hunger. There was a gauntness to both of them—the fox especially—and he realized just how hard they must have pushed to try to get information about Cencerro back to him. It was a small wonder, really, that Totchli had started hallucinating. "You're tired, hungry, and thirsty, Ensign Totchli," Bogo said, "I'll send for some food and drink for the both of you."

Both mammals turned toward him, Totchli's face betraying a surprise that the fox's didn't, and Bogo saw again just how worn she must have been.

"Sir—" Totchli began protesting, but she fell silent when the fox nudged her.

Bogo stuck his head outside the carriage long enough to put in an order with one of his guards and then turned back to his papers, pointedly turning his attention away from the pair. When he sensed that Totchli was about to speak again, he cut her off before she had the chance to get so much as a word out without looking up from the page. "Getting some rest is an order, Ensign," he said, as mildly as he could, and she stayed silent.

The food that was brought into the carriage wasn't much—a thin and salty vegetable broth served with hard rolls—but there was a lot of it, and both mammals fell to their bowls as though it was the most delicious meal they had ever eaten. Each of them guzzled down the canteens of cool water that had been brought in to accompany the soup, and when they were finished sopping up the last of the soup with the remains of their rolls they both looked almost sated.

"The question now is what do I do about Lieutenant Colonel Cencerro," Bogo said, speaking as though it was the next natural part of their conversation.

For him, at least, it was, and neither the rabbit nor the fox seemed surprised at his abrupt opening. It was what had occupied his thoughts the entire time he waited for their food to arrive and while they ate. Totchli looked up at him sharply. "Do you know where he is, sir?"

"I do," Bogo replied, and he explained the version of events that Cencerro had given.

The words came out with surprising ease; he supposed that on some level he really did simply trust Totchli. Certainly she was a mammal who didn't seem well-versed at keeping things secret, even when it would benefit her. If it was an act, it was a truly impressive one, and Bogo didn't think anyone with an ulterior motive would have acted as she did, calling her own credibility into doubt. The raw emotion could have been faked, perhaps; when Bogo had been a lieutenant he had arrested a con artist who could cry on command, which she had used to great effect in a trick involving a supposedly valuable ring. That con artist had been, coincidentally enough, a vixen, but Bogo pushed aside the memory of that long-ago case. Perhaps Totchli wasn't the only one who needed some rest, but there was still far too much to do.

As he turned his attention back toward Ensign Totchli, he realized, to his chagrin, that she had apparently said something and was waiting for a response, but he had no idea what it had been. Thankfully, and it struck Bogo as something odd to be glad about, the fox didn't have anything in the way of respect for the chain of command. "So you don't think Cencerro's telling the truth," the fox said, but his eyes were cynical as he looked up at Bogo.

That, at least, gave Bogo a way to rejoin the conversation. "I don't," he said at last, "Ensign, I'm sure you understand the gravity of my saying so."

She nodded seriously, as did the fox. Then again, from what Bogo had seen, he probably understood the laws of Zootopia better than half his officers. The beginning of an idea tickled at his mind, and Bogo set it aside for later, for after he had dealt with Cencerro. His plan for that, at least, was relatively simple to start with, and it didn't take long to make the arrangements to have Cencerro brought to his carriage.

Bogo liked to think that he was not a stupid mammal, and he had taken every reasonable precaution before allowing Cencerro to be brought into his carriage. Having him searched and stripped of anything he could use in combat was his primary concern, as without either a weapon or a quauhxicalli the sheep didn't exactly stand a chance against him in a fight. It was also the sort of precaution that wouldn't appear unusual to the fussy and rule-bound lieutenant colonel, particularly under such dire circumstances.

Bogo had expected that Diego Cencerro might put on something of a show upon seeing Totchli again. Perhaps claim how glad he was to see that she had survived, perhaps eagerly demand to hear the story of how she had done so. What actually happened when Cencerro entered the carriage, though, was something Bogo couldn't have guessed in his wildest imaginings. The sheep turned to Totchli, politely extending one hoof. "Lieutenant Colonel Diego Cencerro," he said, "It's a pleasure to meet you, Ensign...?"

Totchli gaped at Cencerro in open astonishment, and Bogo supposed that if he hadn't had better control of himself he might have done the same. Pretending not to know who the rabbit was seemed to be about the weakest possible play that Cencerro could make. "Totchli," the doe said at last, hesitantly accepting Cencerro's proffered hoof as though it was something poisonous, "We've... already met, lieutenant colonel."

"Impossible," Cencerro said, rigidly shaking his head, "I saw Ensign Totchli die with my own eyes. Captain General Bogo, this rabbit is an impostor."

"What's that make me, Diego?" the fox asked sharply, not even giving the sheep the courtesy of his title, "Do you remember your old pal, Nick?"

"You're not Nicholas of the Middle Baronies," Cencerro said, shaking his head again, and then he turned his attention back to Bogo.

"I'm not sure what these mammals have been telling you, but they're not who they say they are," Cencerro said.

His posture was just as stiff and his words were just as precise as ever, but to Bogo's eyes there was something dreadfully off about the sheep. His face was unnaturally tight and his eyes appeared almost sunken, and his fingers seemed to be shaking at his sides. "So far as I know, I'm the only fox alchemist," the fox observed dryly, "Or do you have an interesting theory for how I'd be faking that?"

"It's not up to me to explain your trickery, fox!" Cencerro said, spitting the word, "You think you're clever, but you're not."

"Lieutenant Colonel," Bogo began, "Please—"

"And you!" Cencerro said, jerkily turning to face him, "Can't you see?"

The sheep's face worked unpleasantly, as though he had lost control of himself. One eye twitched, his mouth twisting in a grimace. "Don't... Don't you see?" he asked, "You're a... a..."

Cencerro grimaced as though he had tasted something unpleasant. "The picture," he choked out at last, "The bigger picture."

Totchli and the fox exchanged worried glances, and Bogo couldn't blame them. It was looking less like Cencerro was trying some strategy to avoid punishment for his crimes and more like he was suffering from some kind of breakdown. Any thought that Totchli might have been lying had completely vanished in the face of Cencerro's bizarre behavior, but the sheep clearly knew something. "It's over, Cencerro," Bogo said as gently as he could, "Tell me everything you know and I can guarantee you a cell instead of a noose."

"I... I..." Cencerro began, but he never got the chance to finish.

There was a muffled cracking noise like a whip being snapped from behind a wall that seemed to come from inside Cencerro's head, and then the sheep collapsed to the floor like a puppet with its strings cut. Ensign Totchli was on the floor and cradling his head before Bogo could even begin to warn her that it might be a trap, but she pulled back nearly the instant she touched him with a cry of alarm.

Thin trickles of blood were coming from all of Cencerro's orifices, and there was a horribly deflated look to his head where it touched the ground; the flesh under his close-cropped wool had deformed as though he didn't have a skull.

"He's dead," Totchli said, a stunned look coming across her face.

The fox walked over to the corpse and carefully pushed against Cencerro's forehead with one finger. Just like the side of his head had, it pushed inward with no visible resistance, and the fox pulled his paw back in obvious disgust. "I think all the bones in his head got transmuted into sand," he said.

The blood coming from Cencerro's nostrils did have an oddly grainy texture to it, and Bogo saw no reason to doubt the alchemist's assessment. "Who could have done that?" Totchli asked, echoing the question that was on Bogo's mind.

"It'd be pretty gruesome if that's the one piece of alchemy Cencerro knew," the fox said, his voice thoughtful, "I've seen things pulled out of the ruins of Quimichpatlan Barony, though, little alchemical gadgets that just need a complete philosopher's stone to power them. Maybe about the size of a pea for something like this."

"The Alchemist Guild or a very wealthy mammal, then," Totchli said.

It was not, unfortunately, a particularly helpful way of narrowing things down. All of the mammals Bogo considered his top suspects were quite wealthy, and all had connections in some way or another to the Alchemist Guild. "It's another clue," Bogo said before he realized he had spoken the words aloud.

"It's another opportunity to catch the mastermind," he continued, and Totchli slowly nodded.

They hadn't learned much from Cencerro directly, but Bogo thought he had indirectly learned quite a bit. Someone had been keeping a very close eye on the sheep, someone who had either murdered him or given him what he needed to commit suicide. If it was the former, it meant that the mastermind, or at least someone higher up the chain of conspiracy than Cencerro, was indeed close by. If it was the latter, there might still be some hint as to how Cencerro had arranged his own death, perhaps starting with the code book Totchli had recovered from his office. Another mammal might have been discouraged by the dead end, but Bogo wasn't. He knew he was on the right track, and if nothing else a traitor to the City Guard was gone. Beyond that, all there was to do was push onward.

Bogo arranged to have the corpse removed and subjected to an autopsy with the guards keeping pace with his carriage, the fox and the rabbit watching quietly as it was removed. He hadn't ordered them to leave, and so they stayed in the carriage, watching mutely while Bogo made arrangements for the next round of follow up. In particular, it seemed as though any information that could be gleaned by the other "survivors" of Phoenix would be quite useful, and he wrote a brief message demanding any answers that could be achieved.

Beyond that, though, as he pondered his next move and worked on refining the idea that had come to him, he watched the two mammals sitting in front of him. The fox seemed, if anything, more affected by Cencerro's bizarre death; Totchli had the look of a mammal impatiently waiting for an order. He thought he knew exactly the order she needed, and so he set his pen down and looked up.

"I think the queen and the princess will be quite interested in speaking with you," Bogo said to her, and he couldn't help but enjoy the simple wonder and pleasure that spread across Totchli's face.

It was nice, in such dangerous times, to have those reminders that some mammals gave the royal family the proper respect. "And congratulating you on your promotion, of course."

"My promotion, sir?" Totchli said, and Bogo noted that the insides of her ears were flushing.

"Yes, Commandant Totchli, your promotion."

Promoting her immediately to lieutenant might have been reward enough, except that the idea that had formed in his mind required her to be of a somewhat higher rank. And if anyone complained, he was still the captain general. It wasn't as though he could lose the job a second time.

"Congratulations!" the fox said, turning to the rabbit, "No one can say you didn't earn it."

"I never could have done it without you," she said, her voice thick as she looked back at the fox.

Her eyes were beginning to look somewhat watery, and Bogo turned his attention away from the uncomfortable show of emotion to the alchemist. "Indeed not. I believe congratulations are also in order for you, Nicholas of the Middle Baronies."

The fox scratched at one ear, and Bogo did his best to keep his face neutral. The alchemist was clearly clever enough to realize that Bogo was about to do something, even if he didn't know what it was. Considering the impressive display of alchemy the work he had done healing Totchli had been, the decision Bogo had come to seemed obvious. Unprecedented problems required unprecedented solutions, after all.

"Thanks," the fox said, his tone somewhat sheepish even as Totchli beamed at him, "Just doing my part to keep Zootopia safe."

"Indeed," Bogo replied, knowing he was about to commit to his decision.

It would, perhaps, be the biggest headache he had ever made for himself, but so close to engaging the enemy he needed all the help he could get. "And you'll continue to do so," he went on.

At the fox's expression of mild confusion, Bogo leaned forward across his desk, letting his most dangerous smile creep across his face. "I'm drafting you, Captain Nicholas."

Author's Notes:

Patolli was last mentioned all the way back in chapter 1, and it is a real Aztec game of luck and strategy. Nick was notably good—or the guards he was playing against were notably bad—but Judy has never been shown playing it. Whether Bogo is right that she wouldn't be very good at gambling may be more than a little colored by his own biases.

In venomous snakes, it is often the case that younger snakes are less venomous than adults, as Bogo believes to be the case for Ehecatls. On the other hand, younger snakes are frequently more likely to inject venom than adult snakes, and to inject more of it, which can make their bites more dangerous.

The confidence trick Bogo briefly describes has a huge number of different ways it can be executed, but commonly goes something like this: one con artist approaches the victim, begging for help to find a lost item of significant value, like a ring or a necklace. The con artist eventually moves on, and a second confidence artist "finds" the lost item in front of the victim. The second con artist feigns indifference to the story the victim tells them of the first con artist who lost the item, but eventually offers to sell the item to the victim. The actual item is, naturally, cheap and nearly valueless, and the con artists pocket the victim's money. Depending on how exactly the two con artists perform the trick, the first may offer a significant reward for the return of their item, and the price that the second con artist demands of the victim is conveniently significantly less than that to motivate the victim by playing on their greed to make a profit.

This chapter indirectly suggests a reason why there are some things in the ruins under Phoenix that seem more advanced than what anyone has in the present of the story; they need philosopher's stones to power them, and those are expensive and difficult to make. While in those ruins, Judy did see a building that seemed to have been partially transmuted into sand, lending some credence as to Nick's theory for what happened to Cencerro's head.

In being promoted directly to commandant, Judy is skipping the intermediary ranks of lieutenant and captain and ends up in the rank immediately senior to Nick's newfound position as a captain and immediately junior to Cencerro's rank of lieutenant colonel.

As to why Nick comes in as a captain, I figured it made sense based on real world militaries. In many modern militaries, the rank of captain is where officers with professional credentials like a medical doctorate start, skipping the lower ranks. Considering that being an alchemist requires a great deal of study and has the potential for enormous earning as a civilian, I figured that it made sense for the City Guard to allow alchemists to skip some of the lower ranks as part of the incentive to join.

As always, thanks for reading! If you're so inclined to leave a comment, I'd love to know what you thought.