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No Want For Exceptions

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Nick beat at the van's back doors till Finnick threw the left door open. The baseball bat lowered. Finnick sneered.

"Save it," said Nick.

"You got a warrant, officer?" Finnick shouldered the bat.

"I said save it."

Grabbing the opened door by its side, Nick swung up into the back of the van. He blinked to clear the sunlight from his eyes. The van was dark, dark but for the small television set tuned to ZNN. His throat tautened. A clip of the news conference played in the corner of the screen as the analysts droned over it.

Finnick hauled the door shut. The shadows deepened.

"Sure you don't need to call your cute partner?" A rustling then a thunk behind Nick: he hung the bat in its slot.

"She isn't my partner," Nick snapped.

Finnick had long ago ripped the second row of seats out to expand the back space. Nick slipped easily between the front seats and thumped back in the driver's seat.

"Bounce over."

Sighing, Nick moved to the passenger seat. Finnick looked Nick over as Finnick took the driver's seat.

"Bunny got to you?" He sounded shrewd.

Nick flipped down the sun guard and pulled out the pair of aviators there. A laugh came from the driver's seat: Finnick knew Nick's tells. Nick ignored him and put on the glasses before settling again.

"Oh, she got to you. She got to you real bad."

"She?" said Nick mildly. He kicked his feet up on the dashboard and reclined the seat. "Oh, you mean Officer Hopps. Mm. No, ah, we had our deal." Fishing without looking in his trouser pocket, he retrieved the pen. "And what do you know. Wilde wins one."

Finnick chuckled again, without pleasure. "Oh, yeah, you won that one. You did just what Officer Hopalong made you do."

Finnick pumped the side-bar of the driver's seat so it sank down, removing his face from the glare of the sun slatting through the windshield. Nick folded his hands in his own lap and closed his eyes.

The TV blabbered behind them. Judy's voice came on: "Predators survived through their--" A pause, as she thought. Only briefly. "Aggressive, hunting instincts."

Behind the glasses, Nick opened his eyes. He looked without looking up at the lowered sun guard.

"You want to shut that off?"

"Why?" asked Finnick. "It bother you?"

Nick shrugged a shoulder. "Just ruining my nap."

"How about you quit mugging and confess," said Finnick.

"Nothing to confess."

"You stink like rabbit."

"Oooh, try again," Nick suggested. "You really got to work on that interrogation technique."

"I know you, Nicky," Finnick said, "you've always been soft." Nick snorted. "She bat those big eyes at you and twitch that nose a little and hold your hand, and you started thinking maybe she thought you weren't just some lowlife pred?"

"Wow," Nick said. He'd closed his eyes again. The carrot pen was smooth under his hand, against his belly. "You sure got a pair of eyes on you, Finny."

It was Finnick's turn to snort. He did not disappoint. A jingle played on the TV for a tooth whitening formula, "specially formulated for ungulate and ruminant teeth!" After it finished Finnick heaved out of the driver's seat to unplug the set.

The quiet continued a while. Nick tapped a claw against the pen. Two hundred dollars a day. His ears itched. He wouldn't let them flatten. Cool and looking it, that was Nicholas P. Wilde.

"She hustled me," Nick said. Finnick grunted but said nothing else. "You said it. You know what she said? That I wasn't like 'them.'"

"Never bothered you before."

"Yeah, like it never bothered you."

Finnick huffed out his nose, acknowledgement. Another long silence stretched out through the van. Then Finnick stirred.

"C'mon. You need a drink, Nicky."

*

"Think you're about done, foxy-looking," said the bartender, a hefty jaguar in the standard black.

Nick peeled his chin off the bar to glower. The bartender and his two identical brothers wavered before him.

"I'll dell you when I'm ton," he said. Nick frowned.

Finnick slid a red plastic mesh bowl at Nick. "Eat the animal crackers, Nicky."

"'S'all a pred's good for, huh," Nick said, dropping his head to the bar again. He fumbled blindly in the dish for a cracker. They insisted on slipping from his claws. "All those... instincts. To hunt and eat."

"Yeah, you a real savage hunter," Finnick mocked.

Nick made a triumphant sound and held a cracker aloft. He squinted at it. A rabbit. Nick crammed it in his mouth and crunched it meanly in his back teeth.

"Cops muzzled 'em."

Finnick nursed his drinks, like Nick usually did. Three downsides to drinking: it made you slow. It made you emotional. Nick couldn't remember the third. He figured another shot might clarify the matter. The bartender ignored his wave.

"Muzzled who?"

"The savage predators," said Nick, dragging each word out with deliberation. "Keep those sharp teeth away from those soft little--" He broke off and ate another cracker. Made you forget when to quit. That was the third thing.

Finnick slid Nick the drink he'd nursed. Nick downed it.

"Somebody snapping at me, I want 'em muzzled," Finnick said.

"Muzzle you."

Finnick's snout rucked; he bared his teeth at Nick. "Like to see you try. Take your paw off first."

Nick licked at his chops, chasing the astringent memory of a shot. The points of his teeth glanced over his tongue. He set the glass on the bar and slid it away to the left.

"I told her about the initiation."

Finnick thought about this. "Cud," he said.

Sloppily, Nick saluted him.

*

"One night," Finnick said as warning, "then you're out of here."

"Real pal," said Nick. He kicked trousers across the van and collapsed on the rug. "Got a heart like a... Steel trap."

"This is my sanctuary," Finnick said. "And I'm not letting you stink it up with your broken heart."

Nick said, "The only thing broke is my wallet," then cackled.

Finnick muttered about hyenas and snoring. "Mark territory, and I'll beat your face in."

Sighing, Nick rolled over to face away. "Don't worry. I still know how to open doors."

Finnick vanished to the front of the van. Nick stared a while at the inside of the back doors, unpainted and scuffed and vastly uninteresting. They swam.

"Forget about the rabbit," said Finnick. His voice drifted low and rough to Nick through the lonely spaces. "Two days. Just put Officer Fluff out of your head."

"Hopps," Nick mumbled to the rug. "Her name's Hopps. Judy."

They'd hunched together on the rocky shore under Cliffside Sanitorium so Judy could call in to dispatch on her phone. The wind was harsh, the rain nearly as cold as the bay water, and Judy had shivered. Her fur, wetted, stuck out at unpleasant angles. Nick had moved to block the wind from her. The ends of her soaked and upright ears had trembled at his shoulder. He'd trembled, too. It was the cold, the wet. How her teeth chattered as she belted instructions to the dispatch operator.

"Brave bunny," he told the top of her head. Judy had laughed breathlessly then sneezed on him. Some strange instinct made him loop an arm around her and rub between her shoulders. Hey, you, it's me. Here I am.

Nick blinked. The memory of Judy smiling toothily and runny-nosed at him gave way to an ant moving in slow and wandering steps along the back of the van door.

"Forget her name, too," said Finnick.

"Sure thing, Frank," said Nick drowsily.

He dozed a time. Finnick's deep snoring woke him. A sudden compulsion hit Nick, and he sat upright to find his trousers. Had he lost it? He'd lost it. He'd used it at the bar to write his number down for, for who? Nick thought he'd written down the number to a local pizza joint for the vixen with the toothy smile. Her teeth had been all wrong.

The carrot pen was in the right pocket. Clutching it, Nick fell back to the rug. His head and stomach swooped at opposite angles. He held the pen tightly in his paw. The fourth reason not to drink was he was going to spend most of the morning upchucking more than a cow.

He bet Officer Judy Hopps never drank. He bet if she did, she'd had a glass of something fizzy and sweet with the rest of her cop pals to celebrate breaking the case of the Savage Predators, But Mind the Repetition.

Nick looked at the pen in his paw. The plastic was very sleek against his rough paw pads. He tightened his grip and bent his elbow, to hurl the pen away from him. In the dark, alone with Finnick's snoring, Nick thought of her face: the nose that had shivered as he snapped at her, the way her soft, round cheeks were so very still. The hugeness of her eyes. How dare she look at him like that, he'd thought. As if he were the one hurting her, when she had stood before the city and talked of biology and instinct and savagery with Fox Repellent in her belt.

He dropped the pen and curled up on the rug. His tail wound up between his legs. The tip of it touched his nose. I thought you saw me. I thought you knew me, he thought. What an honor, to be the exception to all other foxes. A real articulate fellow. It was better to see the truth in her than to want the lie.

Nick lay like this for a few minutes then he stood up to piss. Finnick would kill him if he did it in the van.

*

In the morning Nick dressed again. His clothes stank. He stank; he needed to groom, get the dirt and the stress out of his fur. Nick sniffed at the inside of his elbow. He paused. Another smell stuck in the fur. His ears ticked. He worked his jaw and dropped his arm.

"I'm off," he said.

Finnick said, "Get lost."

"Oh, you bleeding heart."

"Something's gonna be bleeding," said Finnick. He plugged the TV back in. ZNN was still replaying the conference. Finnick changed the channel to RoarTV. The music pounded.

Glancing around the back of the van for anything else, Nick spotted the aviators. He snatched them up then paused. An orange pen had rolled up against the hinge where a back seat would have connected. Nick turned from it. He stopped with a paw on the door handle. His snout itched. He breathed hotly out through his nose and turned again.

He tucked the pen in his breast pocket and, head pounding, eyes squinting behind the shades, Nick popped the door.

"Smell ya later."

"Au revoir," said Finnick. He flopped down into the lawn chair he'd set in the back. "Catch you tomorrow."

"You got it," said Nick. His shirt bagged where the pen weighted it. He hopped from the van into the sunlight and slammed the door behind him.