"It's Zira," said Nick. Almost flatly.
"It's... Zira?" said Judy, entirely at a loss.
It was Zira.
Before them was another lioness, tall and wiry and grinning viciously. She was mostly a dull tan, but a darker strip ran vertically down her forehead, nicely complimenting the sheer mania in her red eyes.
"Guys," said Sly through a forced grin. "Who is this? What is happening?"
The four lionesses stood to attention; two restraining Carmelita at the shoulders and wrists, one holding Judy and one Sly. Nick, still cuffed to the ship's railing, was apparently not a threat.
Wolf moved to intercept Zira, falling into step with her as she stalked closer. "Well, ma'am, they're here. Plus an extra. Ran into some trouble, but we handled it."
"Yes, yes... excellent." Her voice was loud and raspy. She was either unaware or unconcerned that Wolf was, in fact, alone, the majority of her hired mercenaries currently adrift far from the Tamatoa. "Exactly as I pictured it."
She planted herself before her captives. Nick frowned. Judy stared. Carmelita struggled. Sly tilted his head.
"So," she proclaimed. "At last, you lie broken at my feet!"
"Hi!" said Sly, waving an encased hand. "I'm Sly Cooper. Who are you?"
"I am your doom," she said, tail curling behind her. "And my name is Zira Wazimu."
"Great!" His grin didn't waver. "But, um... who are you? To us?"
"What Sly is trying to say," added Judy, "is we aren't... sure... why you'd want to kill us."
"Bah. Some detective you are, rabbit." Her fangs shone. "I," she declared, with what should not have been pride, "am Scar's lover."
"...You are?" Judy turned to Nick, horrified. "She is?!"
He just winced.
"But – but!" Judy's brow furrowed. "He never mentioned you! Not once! And you weren't listed as a known associate on his police records..."
This gave Zira pause. Briefly. "Uh – of course! I was his secret weapon! And still am!" She folded her arms. "And I worked."
Carmelita opened her mouth, and Sly thought she was going to say something, but instead she tried unsuccessfully to bite one of her captors' paws. He spoke up. "We actually thought this was all Bellwether."
Zira laughed. "It wasn't Bellwether! It was me, Zira!" she said, jabbing a thumb at her chest. "I am the one who defeated you! All of you! Because of Scar's peerless planning!"
She sighed, one paw dramatically against her forehead.
"It was a rough few months. Especially for the children–"
"There's children?!" squeaked Judy, almost too high to be words.
"–but my faith was rewarded! A series of instructions sent via encrypted texts, surely formulated by Scar himself! No-one else is as smart and ruthless and... wealthy..."
"Wealthy?!" said Sly, suddenly affronted. "No – Bentley was so thorough."
Judy was still boggling. She turned to Wolf, hovering nearby. "So – you've been working for her this whole time? Not Bellwether?"
"Uh, yeah," he said. "Reduced rate, too. She's got three kids! I'm not a monster. You have any idea how hard it is to be a single mom? And a pred, too?"
"Yes!" snapped Nick. "First-hand! But my mom isn't evil!"
"Well, we don't all have that luxury," said Wolf flatly.
"Right?" said Sly. "Been trying to get that through his head all day."
"No. Hold on." Nick turned to Zira. "You want to kill me and Judy for arresting Scar?"
His brow furrowed. "And – and you didn't prioritize Sly over us? O'Donnell called him 'just some guy'. Shouldn't he be as much a target as we are?"
Zira blinked. "Why?"
"He–!" Nick's ear twitched in frustration. "He destroyed Scar's house! The train? That was him! So was stealing all of Scar's money! He helped us stop his plan, he was integral, and then he went like fifteen steps further! He's the one you want, not us!"
"You really think I was 'integral'?" said Sly.
"I regret statements I may have made in the heat of the moment," said Nick, instantly calm.
"Bah!" Zira waved a hand. "I won't entertain your pathetic attempts to distract me, with your so-called facts and logic! It won't work! Besides..." She unfurled another grin. "What does it matter? All four of you will die right here!"
"Joke's on you!" yelled Nick, instantly not calm. "Carrots can't die!"
"We, uh, don't need to test that." Judy met Zira's gaze. "Miss Wazimu, please. Think about this. The whole city is looking for us. Our friend here, she's with Interpol. Yes, you've cornered us. But do you really think you can get away with this?"
Zira laughed. "Of course! I would gladly cut you all open and face whatever punishment the courts handed down. Such is my devotion to Scar! But he has returned that affection by protecting me with his genius!"
She splayed her arms, letting the sea wind rush past her.
"His plan is elegant in its simplicity – and brutality. We shall sail until we reach international waters. Then, when I torture you to death, it will be entirely legal!"
"That's," said Judy, eyes closed, "not remotely how international waters work."
And Scar should know that.
Judy and Nick shared a glance, communicating the same sentiment. Something wasn't adding up. They tried to gauge what Carmelita made of it, but her attention was elsewhere.
"No trace of you will remain!" Zira was proclaiming. "Everyone will look to the empty space that you once occupied, and know that to cross Scar is to court doom! You will be remembered forever as an example, but otherwise forgotten! And – you, uh–" She frowned. "The loud fox is distracting me. Can't you hold her still?"
"We're doing what we can, boss!" said a lioness. "She's like, all muscle."
"NGAAAAHHHHHH!" Carmelita's eyes were pure fire. She wasn't just strong, she was unpredictable, her boots shifting under her faster than her captors could anticipate. "I am not a hostage! Let me go before I skin you all!"
"It's a whole thing for her," Sly murmured to Nick and Judy. "One too many kidnappings."
"See – Miss Wazimu – this is exactly what I mean," said Judy. "The second my good friend and professional mentor Inspector Fox gets the chance, she's going to inflict a lot of violence on you."
"Knock out your teeth and feed them to you!"
"Heh!" said Sly. "Classic."
"So, please," said Judy. "Can't we work out something more reasonable?"
Zira laughed, again. "How rich! My prisoners begging I surrender! I think the totality our victory simply hasn't sunk in for you, little rabbit."
She counted on her fingers. Like Scar, her claws were unnecessarily unsheathed.
"We defeated you on every front! Your partnership is legendary, so we separated you. Your colleagues love you, so we isolated you. And your raccoon friend of little importance has dangerous fingers, so we encased those fingers in steel!" She took them in, her grin darkly triumphant. "So let's cease the preamble and get to the good part. After all, tonight's a school night."
Silence hung for a moment. Then Sly laughed.
In their time together, Nick had heard Sly crack constant jokes. But if he ever found something funny himself, he would just smirk, letting his amusement twinkle subtly in his eyes.
Now he was laughing. Full and rich, his shoulders shaking in the lioness' grip.
"What?" Zira's eye twitched. "You dare mock me? Mock Scar?!"
"No. Well, yes. Of course I do. But it's not that..."
His laughter trailed into a genuine smile.
"This whole time... my hands have been covered in metal."
Sly kicked off the ground and slammed both metal cuffs into his captor's face. The lioness stumbled, too disoriented to even yell, and with a vicious shove Sly shouldered her over the ship's railing and into the ocean below.
He was moving before anyone could react, mind and body equally fast. He slid on his knees to Carmelita and backed with momentum his hands cracked into a lioness' knee. She cried out, her grip breaking.
Carmelita wrenched her arm from the injured lioness and shifted her weight, slamming her palm into the other's stomach. Her technique was flawless. Her target wheezed painfully and released her other arm, and Carmelita stood free.
Working together, she and Sly soon pushed both lionesses off the ship.
One lioness remained. Judy felt her paws shaking where she gripped her.
"Hey." She looked up, giving her captor a diplomatic smile. "There's no shame in leaving a bad situation."
The lioness nodded whitely, dropped her, and leapt overboard.
"That's what I thought."
Judy grabbed Sly's cane and Carmelita grabbed her pistol and Sly still could not hold anything but now it seemed he didn't need to. They faced down Zira and Wolf.
"Hey, Sly?" Nick caught his eye, giving him a little smile. "...That was pretty good. High-five? For morale?"
"I'd love to!" said Sly. "But I don't think it counts with these things on. Fistbump, maybe?"
Zira roared in frustration. "I will not be denied my victory! O'Donnell, stand ready."
Wolf glared. "What? I'm supposed to fix this myself?"
"That's what I'm paying you for!"
"Ugh... that 'reduced rate' I offered is getting less reduced by the second."
"Okay, guys." Judy was low to the ground, brandishing Sly's cane like an ancestral spear. "We know Carmelita and Wolf are evenly matched. Sly, I suggest you and I take out Zira."
"Then help Carmelita finish off Long John Purple!"
"Solid plan, Judy." Carmelita lovingly adjusted her pistol, ensuring it was okay. "You're going to make a great commander someday."
Nick smiled to himself, relieved that the tide was shifting back in their favour. And then a voice in his head reminded him that this was the exact kind of moment life tended to kick him the hardest.
He took stock of the situation, searching for weaknesses – telling himself it was just so he could celebrate properly when he found none. Judy's plan seemed solid. They were out at sea, but it would be easy to turn the ship around once the fighting ended. The Phantasm...
...had been worryingly quiet.
Nick glanced up, past the escalating shouting match just ahead of him, and saw it. There. Hovering above a smokestack.
Was the Phantasm... holding something?
Nick could make out something in its claw-hand, something small and dark and adorned with several flashing LEDs. It returned his gaze for a moment, as though ensuring he was watching.
And then it dropped it down the smokestack.
Nick felt as though he had been kicked awake. As the object disappeared into the ship, he realized with horrible clarity what it was.
"The ghost has a bomb."
Judy turned. "What?"
"The ghost has a bomb!"
"Seriously!" snapped Wolf, raising a hand. "Is no-one else hearing this?! Wilde's lost it! Stringing together absolute nonsen-!"
The bomb went off.
The whole ship juddered as the freighter's engines took a direct hit. Nick's knees scraped painfully against the deck as the rest fought to maintain their balance.
Wolf's eye widened. "Fine okay maybe he's onto something."
There was another series of explosions from within the ship, rattling the frame. Nick suddenly recalled the complaints he had overheard about the ship's cargo. Something that smelled odd. Something that was probably reactive.
Judy's ears were tall. "It's tipping over!"
Wolf ripped his walkie-talkie from his belt. "We're going down! It's every mammal for himself – if you can hear this, get off, now!"
Zira smirked. "Why, Wolf. I didn't know you were so–"
"Shut up!" he yelled. "Everyone shut up and go!"
"He's right!" said Sly. "Now's not the time – we all need to leave!"
Wolf ran – but only made it two steps before Zira's paw grabbed his shoulder, twisting him back around. "Oh no you don't! The battle is far from over!"
"Are you nuts?!" Wolf struggled, trying to pull himself free. "The ship is sinking!"
"And I'll make sure they all sink with it! Even if I go down too!"
"...Yeah," mumbled Nick. "She's nuts."
Zira was focused on Wolf. Judy silently drew the attention of the others.
Just Zira, said Judy's eyes.
Just Zira, said Carmelita's nod.
Please, after you, said Sly's smirk.
"This is the day of reckoning!" Zira was screaming. "This is the path to Scar's glorious return to power! And it shall not be ruined by–!"
Carmelita shot her in the face as Judy slid across the deck, slamming Sly's cane full force into her legs, and as the lioness toppled Sly leapt up and cracked the handcuffs into her muzzle.
Zira fell and did not get up.
They turned to Wolf and without hesitation he raised his hands.
"Okay, okay. We're done. I'm not gonna fight you when I can feel this ship sinking under me." He ducked down, trying to heft Zira by the waist. "Just – help me get her to a lifeboat, wouldya? There's still an outside chance I'll get paid for this."
"You don't have to lie, Wolf." Judy ducked under Zira's collarbone, using the cane to push up her shoulders, as Sly gathered up her legs. "It's like you said. You aren't a monster."
"Ugh. Whatever. Don't read into it."
"Now we just–" Judy gasped. Not from the weight. "Wait! Nick's still restrained!"
"On it!" said Carmelita. She took aim
no no please no
and with one well-placed shot blasted the handcuffs apart. Nick stared at his freed hands – and could almost taste the Phantasm get closer.
Then the ship shifted again and suddenly Carmelita was grabbing him, pulling him close against her, and Nick became very aware that the lioness hadn't exaggerated by calling her all muscle.
She pulled him down the ship, apparently not trusting him to move. That's fair, he realized dimly. I didn't. Judy, Wolf and Sly were close behind, managing a decent pace by sharing Zira's bulk.
"We gotta go further!" roared Wolf. "Somebody released all the nearby lifeboats!"
Judy winced. "Yeah, okay, that seemed smart at the time, but in hindsight..."
Carmelita led the way. "There's lifeboats further back, and I have a ZPD speedboat tethered to the stern. Just keep moving!"
Nick scanned the night air for the Phantasm. He couldn't see it. Of course he couldn't. He was struggling to understand what had even happened, but the ship shifting under his feet took most of his attention.
"There!" yelled Carmelita. A speedboat in black and white, as she said – and another lifeboat. "There's enough room for everyone. Move!"
The ship was beginning to tilt under them. Carmelita hurriedly untethered her speedboat as Judy and Sly released the lifeboat. Nick glanced between them – and his eyes landed on Wolf. Standing there, Zira in his arms. Frowning.
"What? What is it?!"
"It's just..." Wolf's brow furrowed. "D'you guys smell someth–"
The deck exploded under him.
Sly didn't see what happened to the others. He had the rare and unpleasant sensation of completely losing his balance as he was thrown from the ship. Then he hit the water. And sank.
He was dragged down into the freezing depths, darkness on all sides. A panicked part – a growing part – wondered why he wasn't getting the precious seconds he was owed, a chance to flail around on the surface and at least take a breath.
Steel handcuffs. Sinking steel. No air.
His legs thrashed, but all his natural grace was gone. None of the movements made sense any more, there wasn't – he couldn't – it was cold and dark and crushing he couldn't breathe
One last, sad bubble left his mouth, and he watched it merrily rise past him. And then he saw something coming straight for him.
Sly felt a pair of strong arms wrap around him, and for a horrible second he thought the cuffs would drag them both down. But pressed together, they had enough buoyancy. In moments, he was being lifted to the surface with the smooth, confident motions of fox legs.
They broke water. For a few seconds, they heaved in air, Sly coughing and coughing until the water left his airway. And then he could breathe again.
Sly's mask had slipped over his eyes, but his grin was unstoppable. "Carmelita! You saved me!" Ecstatic, he gave his rescuer a long, slow kiss on the cheek.
"Actually," said Nick, "it's me."
"Oh!" said Sly brightly. "Cool. ...You can go ahead and let me drown now."
He said it like a joke, but Nick held him a little tighter. Just in case.
Nick looked around, treading water. Luckily, help was at hand.
Carmelita waved to them from the lifeboat. They began swimming over – Nick doing the majority of the work as Sly mostly tried to stay afloat.
"This... isn't awful," he mumbled. It was quiet, so quiet Nick could barely caught it. "Thank you."
Nick heard him. "It's what I'm here for."
They reached the lifeboat. Judy was already motoring the speedboat toward them, having quickly learned the controls.
Carmelita grabbed Sly's shoulders, heaving him up to safety. She didn't let go immediately. It took Sly a moment to realize he was being hugged.
"You scared me," she muttered.
She noticed his mask was askew, and she fixed it. His hazel eyes stared up at her, quietly reverent. Her expression was torn.
"I know you're bad in the water..."
"Yeah," murmured Sly. His voice soft, close. "I mean, turns out Nick's got better reflexes than you, or maybe he just loves me more, but either wah–"
Carmelita dropped him. Tenderly.
Meanwhile, Judy was helping Nick onto the speedboat. "That was amazing!"
"I've always been an okay swimmer," he said. He shook himself out a little, but the seawater clung to him. "It's no big deal."
"That's not what I meant, and you know it." Judy hugged him, her face nuzzling his wet shirt without a hint of discomfort. "You're a good cop," she said, "and a good friend, and a good guy. You see someone in trouble, you help them. No matter what." She looked up. "I'm proud of you."
He didn't have a reply to that. He just hugged her back.
Nick savoured the embrace for a moment, but eventually pulled away. The Tamatoa was still sinking, succumbing to the waves like a dying giant. He looked over to Carmelita's lifeboat, noticing the other occupant. Sprawled across the floor was Zira; fur sodden, eyes closed. Hands cuffed.
"She's unconscious," said Carmelita. "I wasn't about to let her drown."
"And what about Wolf?" asked Judy.
Carmelita just shook her head. There was a moment of silence.
Silence would reign over the dark ocean for some time, broken only by the sound of approaching sirens. Black waves broke bleakly.
A full six and a half minutes after the Tamatoa sank, with a heave of air, Wolf broke water.
He wiped saltwater from his eye. "Well," he said, with a firm finality. "To heck with this."
He swam away.
"Regardless, we've won here," Carmelita said. "The coast guard is already mobilising. I'm confident they'll pick up all the wolves and lionesses." She shot a glare at Zira. "And I'll personally ensure her arrest. You have my guarantee she'll never bother you again."
"That's my 'Lita," smiled Sly. "Protecting the innocent... and me."
She sighed. "But it never feels good arresting a parent. I hope the kids will be okay."
"Just put 'em in an orphanage!" said Sly. "Orphanages get a bad rap. I mean, I grew up in one!"
"Yes," said Carmelita, watching him trying and failing to wring water from his hat with handcuffed paws. "That's my exact concern."
Judy glanced up to her partner. Her smile died. "Nick?"
He was staring at Zira, his eyes dull. "It... doesn't make sense."
Sly and Carmelita stopped joking. They all watched as Nick sank slowly to his knees.
"It had to be Bellwether." His mouth twisted in a numb smirk. "Well. It had to be poison too, and it wasn't. It's..." He swallowed thickly. "I don't know what it is. I don't know anything."
"Oh no," said Sly quietly. "It's happening again."
Nick dragged his eyes to Carmelita. She felt an uncomfortable pang of pity. Kneeling in the shadow of a sinking freighter, he was wet and exhausted and... beaten.
"Carmelita. You should arrest me."
"What?!" Judy stepped closer. "Nick, why?"
"What do you mean, 'why'?" Nick sounded more frustrated than anything. "Look around, Hopps. We won. We've stopped Wolf. Thing is, Wolf has nothing to do with Bellwether or the Phantasm. This has all been a dead end in some sick maze, and I want out."
Judy frowned. "I know it's – it's really weird that it turned out to be Zira. But you're right! This is just a detour! I know Bellwether's the one behind this, because she called me!"
"What?!" said Nick. Carmelita stared, silent.
"While I was alone, they left a phone with me, and she called me. I'd recognize that voice anywhere." Judy stood firm. "So you can't give up yet. She's still out there."
Nick's eyes narrowed. "Is... that supposed to make me feel better?"
"Okay. So Bellwether's still out there. There's still somebody trying to destroy me, entirely separate from the other people we just stopped. Hooray? Great news? Halle-freaking-lujah?" His voice was rising. "How many more layers is there to this? If Zira was just a proxy, some idiot Bellwether was manipulating, how many more idiots might almost kill us?!"
He caught himself. Judy's ears were low. With a sigh, he laid a hand on her shoulder. On his knees, he was at her level.
"Judy. You..." He swallowed. "I can't thank you enough for sticking with me. No matter what happened, you wouldn't give up."
"But," he said, "you told me yourself. It's a flaw. You don't know when to quit. That's my decision." His eyes were down. "And I think we've officially hit that point. We've got nowhere to go from here. At least turning ourselves would be safe. If we keep pushing our luck, we're just going to get hurt. All we've done so far is... survive."
"I..." Judy fidgeted with one of her ears. "I don't know."
"Yeah," he said. "Me neither."
Nick couldn't look at her any more. Resolutely, he stood and faced Carmelita.
"Well? Don't just stand there, Inspector. You said you'd arrest me."
Carmelita took a breath. He was right. She had made this offer. It was all she could offer. The cold but certain safety of a cell.
She thought of Bogo. She wasn't supposed to be here. She had even left Fangmeyer and Wolford behind. Coming back with Nick would help smooth that over, even if Sly and Judy slipped away. They could keep working this if they wanted, while Nick kept safe. It was the sensible decision – and more importantly, her duty as an officer.
Nick stared. "'N...no'?"
"I know what I said, Nick. But I meant that offer as a last resort. And frankly, I'm with Judy. You're giving up too early." She met his gaze. "For one thing, have you tried following the ghost?"
"Well, I guess that'd make sense, but–"
"You saw it?!"
Carmelita was calm. "I take it you mean the flying thing with the black cloak and silver mask."
"Then I saw it." She stabbed her thumb through the night air. "It flew overhead while you were underwater. Heading north-west, and fast. You'd need to hurry to catch up. Something I'd suggest anyway, with the coast guard closing in."
"Yeah. We need to get gone." Sly danced up to her, giving her the kiss on the cheek he felt she was still owed. Then he leapt over to the speedboat. "Thanks for everything, Carmelita. I'll have them both home soon. I promise."
"You'd better, Sly. I mean it." Her eyes went from Sly to Nick to Judy. "I have faith in you. Finish this."
Lacking words, they just nodded.
Judy went to sail away, but Carmelita's voice rang out again. "Judy!"
Carmelita hesitated. Then she tossed over her shock pistol, leaving herself unarmed. "Give 'em hell."
Judy blinked in surprise, but recovered, giving Carmelita a wide grin.
Their boat tore through the dark water, and they were gone.
Nick watched as Carmelita disappeared against the night. "I can't believe she let us go..."
"It's more than that." Sly's voice was serious. "We have her shock pistol. I've never seen Carmelita share that thing with anyone." He glanced to Judy. "She gave it to you twice."
She lay the pistol carefully at her feet, next to Sly's cane. An odd pair. But something about seeing them together gave her confidence.
The ghost hunt began.