Sunderance - Chapter 8: King of Pride Rock
 
 

As the sun set behind the taller buildings in Savanna Central, the long shadows that crawled across the plaza were a welcome sight to him. Even though the expensive polarized sunglasses, designed to allow nocturnal mammals daytime functionality, allowed him to move about during the day with only a slight decrease in visual acuity, it still eased the stress on his eyes. When the cool of the deepening shadows combined with the light breeze, his ears perked a bit higher as a good deal of the itchiness left his pelt. Now he could see every corner of the square without the need to squint and allowed himself to relax marginally. There were no distant threats. No snipers on the rooftops, no approaching cars, aside from the one they were waiting for. If the plaza had been empty, he might have relaxed more completely but there were still a good number of mammals milling about.

Keeping his eyes open was required here more than most places. The sound of flowing water from the artificial waterfall cascading down the front of City Hall was more than enough to mask the footfalls of someone trying not to be noticed. The almost impressive building, with its ‘modern design meets flowing traditional architecture’ made a noticeable and pleasant centerpiece in what Nick knew was a fabricated government. The office of mayor held as much power as your average desk clerk under The Administrator, remaining mostly as the public face. The general populous, those who were content to sit back and accept what they were told, knew no better. But those who paid attention, followed the paths of power, realized that the mayor had not made a single significant political move since almost every seat in The Council had been filled by foxes.

Simply thinking about him seemed to draw ‘the clerk’ out of hiding. The long and large limo that pulled up to the curved drive in front of City Hall had them both at attention. The bunny beside him was already moving towards the main entrance. This had been her choice, to lean on the car for an hour and wait him out after they had been denied access to his office. The refusal had been curt and unusual for the usually open and ready for press time mayor, with no explanation offered aside from a short “He’s in a meeting.”

Now the seemingly always smiling Lionheart’s ground eating stride carried him out of City Hall, having an animated and one sided chat with the same slender gazelle who had denied them entry into his office.

“The press conference should be a good chance for us to highlight the improvements made to the city this year,” the thickly-maned male boasted, his attention clearly on anything but the female at his side. Nick, moving one step behind his charge, moved to stand directly in the path leading to the waiting limo. The moment he saw them, the lion’s expression faltered for a moment. Clearly caught off guard, maybe not really understanding the presence of a bunny in Zootopia, it took a full five seconds for that broad muzzled smile to return full force. “Judith Hopps! What a pleasure it is to meet you!”

Nick managed to restrain his desire to block the massive predator from closing the distance and shoving out an equally massive paw towards the bunny. A paw that swallowed her entire forearm when she offered hers for a shake that was energetic but obviously carefully done before he released her and took a few steps back. Not far or fast enough for Nick to miss the interesting mixture of scents that lingered around the lion. The scent mask he had liberally sprayed on himself didn’t do anything to hide his breath, which left the fox with a rather unique picture in his mind. The two herbivores seemed oblivious to it, which could explain why Lionheart tended to hire prey staffers.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mayor Lionheart,” Judy replied in a pleasant but professional tone. “I was wondering if you could answer some questions or offer me some insight? We came by earlier, but were told that you were in a meeting and couldn’t be disturbed.”

“Yes, a meeting,” he said, his gaze shifting to the fox for a moment with recognition in his eyes. He took the opportunity to change the subject from his ‘meeting.’ “I can guess why you’re here. An attack on these very streets, not far from this very spot is not the Zootopia you should expect to see. This is a peaceful city, where predator and prey live together in a peaceful coexistence.”

“Yes, I have already gathered that daylight assassination attempts are uncommon,” Judy replied dryly, drawing out her pad and carrot pen. “But that’s not what…”

“Assassination is a strong word,” the lion cut her off, tugging at the lapels of his perfectly pressed blue suit while looking distinctly uncomfortable. It might have been because Nick removed his glasses, green eyes focused and interested in the lion. More likely it was because the word ‘assassin’ held strong political undertones over attempted murder. He was quick to brush it off and laid his paw against his chest in what had to be the most sincere look of apology Nick had ever seen. Including mammals who were truly apologetic. “Simply confused aggression towards a guest in our fair city, which I deeply apologize for. And the lone assailant has been dealt with, after all. Your… body guard, I assume, made certain of that.”

“Apology accepted,” she said, her tone just curt enough that both males and the gazelle standing nearby understood that she didn’t buy it for a second. “But I am actually here about the Otterton case. There was never an official response from City Hall on the murder of Mrs. Otterton.”

“Ah, Otterton, of course.” To his credit, he didn’t seem surprised nor put off by the change of subject. For all accounts, from a political standpoint, he assumed that a closed murder trial might be an easier subject to handle. “Shame about that. I had the chance to talk to him once, you know. Very intelligent mammal with a lot of good ideas. And a lot of not so good ideas. The city was shocked when he turned to such violence against his own wife.”

“Shocked because it seemed terribly out of character for an advocate of peace?” she asked, jumping right into the question and answer while Nick set his gaze to wandering the plaza again. “Or because of how quickly the conviction was pushed through the court?”

“Anytime a mammal of his good standing goes bad, there is obviously shock involved,” Lionheart insisted and, by way of utterly ignoring the accusation of an unfair trial, he pressed on and started towards his limo again. “I am not sure how I can help you, Miss Hopps. As Mayor, the trial obviously concerned me as a member of this great society but I have no sway over the decisions of the court case.”

“Yes, where the sway begins is a problem in this city,” she murmured, a jab that was enough to make the lion pause in his steps even as Nick rose a brow in her direction. As blunt as she had been with Bogo, that cut showed how sharp her tongue could be, too. His lips twitched when Lionheart turned to face them with his mouth drawn into a thin line of annoyance and more than a little offended. Hopps pressed on, however. “You said you met Mr. Otterton before. What were your personal impressions of him?”

There was a great deal of pride warring with common sense, Nick could see. She had pushed a button, one that a publicly powerful but secretly powerless male such as Lionheart would see as a personal challenge. And introducing the idea that he could make some difference beyond public appearances and pretty speeches written by the paws of another had to be tempting. And from the way Lionheart relaxed his stance and turned fully to face them again, it was a tempting one.

“I found him to be very affable. Intelligent and soft spoken, but passionate about his beliefs.”

“Did any of these beliefs lead you to think that he would turn to violence?”

“Oh, not at all,” he replied, his smile returning as he seemed to gain his second wind. “Passionate, yes. But he only wanted to talk about cooperation. Between predator and prey, specifically.”

“He said in more than one interview that he was saddened by the shift in power,” she commented, scribbling on the pad in her paw before she returned her eyes to the lion. Nick noted that her eyes ticked towards the entrance to City Hall and her ears quivered for a moment before she returned her full attention to her current questioning. “Is it possible that this had something to do with how quickly the case was pushed through the court?”

Keeping the conversation tuned in on one ear, he followed where her eyes had gone. Seeing Chief Justice Bellwether on her way out of the building, muzzle pointed down to her phone as she walked on without a glance in their direction, was of some interest to the fox. Interest, but not enough to distract him from his business as she hurried on her way towards the tram station. His gaze returned to Lionheart as his ears twitched in mild amusement.

“That almost sounded like an accusation,” he replied, doing his best to sound displeased and failing due to the uneasiness in the tone.

“It was a question, not a statement,” she replied, keeping her gaze level on him. “It would only be an accusation if I said that I believe this to be the case. But because I have yet to determine if there was some push for his trial to be handled quickly and unfairly, I only have the question: is it possible?”

It was getting to the point now that every time she opened her mouth, Nick was impressed. He was starting to wonder if he was more easily impressed than he realized. Though it could have something to do with the way she not only kept her cool in clearly hostile territory but also had a knack for staring down mammals that were many times her size and flummoxing them with her lawyerly speak. It was an impressive skill and left him wondering where she had come by it.

“Mr. Mayor, your dinner appointment is in fifteen minutes,” came the drab and slightly bored tone of the gazelle.

“Thank you, Meryl,” he replied, nodding in her direction. “That will be all for today. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Of course, sir. Have a pleasant evening.”

“What do you want from me?” he asked at length when he turned his attention to them. “You are asking questions that I can’t answer. I know as much about the Otterton trial as you do. Probably less.”

Seeming to understand that this was a painful admission for the proud lion, she eased her tone slightly. “Do you happen to have a recording of your conversation with Otterton?” There was that hesitation again, clear in his lack of response and the way his paw raised to scratch through his mane. Hesitation which she plowed through. “Otterton is innocent, Mr. Mayor. The people of this city know it. Helping me will go a long way toward showing them that justice still works and that City Hall will stand up for it.”

“Fine,” he replied with a weighty sigh, causing Nick’s brow to shoot up fully when he reached for his phone. “If I had such a recording, it cannot make it into court. It is not legal to record private citizens without their knowledge.”

“Understood.”

“I don’t even know how it could be relevant to the case,” he murmured and turned towards the limo again as he reached into his suit pocket to pull out his phone. “I’ll have it sent to your office sometime tomorrow. I expect some mention of my cooperation, even if the video doesn’t change anything, Hopps.”

“Of course, Mayor Lionheart,” she replied, tucking her pad and pen away as she smiled after he climbed into the limo. “Enjoy your dinner.”

On their way back to the car, Nick considered the conversation even as he considered the square around them. It was nearly dark now, and the number of mammals had thinned to a scant few stragglers. A couple of cheetahs walking hand-in-hand, a hippo in a poorly fitted suit on his way towards the tram station, and the retreating limo of the mayor. And of course, a fox and a bunny climbing wordlessly into the car.

“So,” he said once he had started the car, stretching one arm over the back of her seat as he turned to face her. “Maybe we could swing back by the courthouse. Get your tongue registered a weapon.”

Distracted with her thoughts, she blinked and looked up at him with high ears and a small frown curving her muzzle. “What? Why would we do that?”

“So far today,” he said, holding his paws out in front of her and watching her gaze lower to them as he started to count off on his fingers. “You’ve convinced the courts to accept your appeal, made one of the most stubborn buffalos in Zootopia help you investigate his own officers, and convinced a figurehead that he can make a difference. You have a very dangerous tongue, Carrots.”

Watching the pink flush crawl up the length of her ears did strange things to him. For one thing, he wanted to reach up and touch them. A compulsion that was strong enough that he had to close his paw and lean back in his seat even as she demurely looked out the front windshield. She was insanely cute, and maybe something a little more than that. But for the sake of not starting an argument, he decided not to mention that as he leaned back and placed his itchy paws on the wheel.

“It’s late,” she said at last, her eyes focusing on anything but him as she spoke. “We’ll just head back to the office. Look at my notes and get ready for tomorrow.”

“You’re the boss,” he said, pulling out and starting down the road. “Oh, and you kicked an insane weasel in the balls so hard that he tasted his future children.”

The laugh that she didn’t quiet manage to muffle into her paw was the only sound she made for the rest of the drive, but it was enough.