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The Pelt We're Dealt

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“Kinetic impact projectiles are starting to fall out of favour.”  Friedkin was saying to the class.  “They’re unpredictable, and messy, and lethal more often than we care to admit.  But, they are very useful for crowd control.  And with all the species-relations protests that are happening out there, crowd control is what we need.  So for now, we learn to use them… safely.”   

She glared at the class, and a chorus of “yes ma’am” echoed back at her.  Nick walked towards his seat, trying not to meet anybody’s eyes.  Those he did see seemed more sympathetic than anything, which he was glad of.  He didn’t think he could handle knowing that anybody was laughing at him.  He inched past Matt’s desk and the jaguar held out a fist for Nick to bump as he passed by.  Nick met it with his own fist gratefully.  

“Now, the most important thing to remember with these things is that size matters .  It won’t slow down a pachyderm, but a rodent will be killed on impact.  Official recommendation cuts off at about a hundred pounds, but I’d err on the side of caution.  If you’re not sure, choose a different weapon.  Understood?”

Nick shivered and chanted “yes ma’am” with the rest of the class.  

“Good.”  She rubbed her paws together.  “Everyone to the weapons yard!”

Nick joined his classmates in filing out of the classroom and down the hall.  Brian, the elephant, was the first to be called.  He stood at the front of the group as Friedkin did her safety checks and loaded the gun with a rubber bullet.

“Lower extremities only.  Do not bounce it off the ground first, you never can be sure which way it will go.  That is an outdated practice.  If your bullet ricochets and kills a smaller mammal you will be held responsible.  Hearing protection on!”  Friedkin put her headset on; the rest of the class did the same.  She stood a safe distance away, pointed the gun at the elephant and yelled “Fire in the hole!”

The gun went off with a crack and Brian snorted and rubbed his thigh as the rubber bullet hit.  He walked towards Kelly, but the paramedic waved him back to the group without being seen.

Next to be shot was Sam, the lioness.  The process was the same, except this time when the impact hit she yelped and was thrown to the ground.  She put her paws to her thigh and came up with a healthy spot of blood.  This time the paramedic helped her limp towards his table where he started to bandage up her leg.

Next was Ted, the polar bear.  He jumped when the impact hit, holding back a snarl.  He started towards the paramedic table, but Kelly merely glanced at his leg before waving him back to stand with the others.

Helen, the hippo was called next.  She flinched and rubbed her leg as the impact hit.  She didn’t even bother going to check in at the paramedic table.

Matt, the jaguar, was next to be called.  Friedkin made him stand on the scale.  He weighed in at 129 pounds, which was technically over the cutoff, but Friedkin ordered him to stand with the class without taking a turn.  Nick had never seen a mammal look so relieved as he did when he rejoined the class.

Then came Melissa, the Yak.  She weighed considerably more than one hundred pounds, but Friedkin examined one skinny leg and ordered her to return to the safe zone.  

One by one the mammals were shot by a rubber bullet.  Even with the headset, Nick’s ears were ringing by the end of the exercise.  Most of his classmates were shifting tenderly where they stood, holding their weight off their sore side.  Sam was still at the paramedic table; she had yet to even be released.  

Nick’s name was never called.

And then it was over.  Well, over was a generous word.  Actually, it was lunch time.  And after that they would all be sprayed with pepper spray.  And then they would stumble straight to the showers.  And then it would be over.  Nick started to regret driving himself this morning.  He wasn’t sure how safe he would be getting home.  He might have to take a Zuber, and come back to get the car later, which would be hugely inconvenient, but better than dying in a fiery crash.  Today would be a terrible day to die .  He thought morbidly.  

 

 

Nick didn’t feel that hungry, but he forced himself to eat anyway.  His peanut butter sandwich felt heavy in his stomach, and he only managed to choke down half of it, followed by a juice box that had been provided to each of the recruits.  Sam and Matt joined him at his table.  The three of them seemed to have grown closer after their muzzle adventure from that morning.  

“Is everybody ready for this afternoon?”  Sam asked.  She still couldn’t really sit down properly after being hit by that rubber bullet and chose to stand at the table instead.

“Nope.”  Nick and Matt chorused together, and the three mammals grinned at one another.  

“It’s been a miserable day.”  Matt grumbled into his juice box.

“It’s not over yet.”  Sam pointed out.  

“I can’t believe I was the only one to freak out.”  Nick was still fairly embarrassed about the whole thing.  

“Only because the rest of us freaked out on the inside.”  Sam was clearly trying to make him feel better.  It didn’t really work, but he did appreciate the effort.

“That wasn’t your first time wearing a muzzle, was it?”  Matt asked quietly.

For a long moment nobody said anything.  Finally Sam spoke up.  “It was my first time.  Somebody used to draw pictures of me wearing a muzzle and drop them into my locker in middle school, but I never had to wear one in real life before.”  She sighed.  “The pictures were weirdly sexual, it was gross.  I never did figure out who did it.”

“I was nine years old.”  Nick said bitterly.  “My first and only day of Junior Ranger Scouts.  They wouldn’t trust a predator without a muzzle.”

“My stepdad used to use it as a punishment.”  Matt used his claw to draw a pattern on the table.  “Some days he’d make me sleep with it.”

Nick felt sick, he looked away.  “Are you guys going to be able to use it on another mammal, once we graduate?”

The other two looked very uncomfortable.  

“Never.”  Matt said.

“We might not have much choice.”  Sam frowned down at her lunchbox.  

“I guess I just don’t see how a predator’s mouth is fundamentally different from a prey's.”  Nick mused.  “Sure we have sharp teeth and all, but I’m pretty sure a hippo’s mouth is more deadly than mine.”

“Not just a hippo.  Have you seen a rabbit’s teeth?  Those things are sharp!”  Matt laughed.  “I wouldn’t want to get bitten by one of them.”

Nick coughed, and then clamped his jaw closed.  No way he was going to answer that.  The other two couldn’t have known that he was dating a rabbit, but he suddenly felt very exposed.  Besides, Judy’s teeth weren’t so bad.  She had this thing that she did where...  

“We should probably get going.”  He squeaked, desperate to change the subject.

“We still have a few minutes left.”  Sam pointed out, looking at him quizzically.

“My legs are shorter than yours.”  Nick muttered, packing up his lunch kit.  

She couldn’t argue with that.  The other two packed up their own lunch kits and the three of them made their way to the training yard, where Major Friedkin and Kelly were already setting up.  The rest of the recruits joined them before too long and Friedkin made them line up from smallest to largest.  Nick was on the end next to Matt, which was fine, he liked Matt, but the jaguar outweighed him by about a hundred pounds.  Next to Matt was Sam, who probably outweighed him by three hundred pounds, and they only got bigger from there.  He felt small and vulnerable.

“It is possible that you will have capsaicin spray used against you during your career.”  Major Friedkin walked along the line of recruits as she spoke.  “You will need to be able to keep your wits about you; protect yourself, protect your partner, even if you cannot see.  When the spray hits you, do not panic, breathe normally, and whatever you do, do not rub your eyes.”

She waved further down the field, where a suspended PVC pipe was spouting water from a number of holes drilled into the sides of it.  “The water will dilute it, but won’t neutralize it.  So dilute it as much as you like, but then just let your tears do the rest.  Ready?”

Nobody was ready, but Friedkin wasn’t really asking.  She just started spraying.

Nick was the first to get hit.  Pain.  His eyes closed and his nose started to run.  At first it felt like he couldn’t breathe, but that might have been mostly shock.  He found he could breathe just fine as long as he opened his mouth and tried not to panic.

Tried not to panic.  Easy to say, hard to do.  From his right he could hear the other trainees gasping and coughing.  Nick forced his eyes open for the briefest of moments.  He couldn’t see much, just the green grass ahead of him.  Somewhere beyond that grass was the water.  He held his head straight up as he felt his way forward, one foot carefully out in front of him, then the other, until he started moving forward at a semi-decent pace.  He couldn’t see and he couldn’t smell.  He tried to focus on his hearing, but that wasn’t much help either.  There was a commotion off to his right.  It sounds like several of the larger animals might have collided into one another.  He hoped Helen was alright back there.

But there wasn’t much he could do about it right now.  He didn’t want to add ‘getting trampled’ to the list of today’s activities.  He stepped forward until the grass squished under his foot.  He had found the water at least, but there was another problem.  The pipe was too tall for him to reach.  It hadn’t been made with a fox in mind.  For a moment he stood still, listening.  It sounded like he was right underneath it.  He tried to jump but couldn’t feel anything above him.  Judy had done this, once, how did she manage?

Judy was crafty, she must have found a way.  For the second time, Nick forced his eyes open, as much as he was able, and squinted around him, blinking profusely.  Blinking seemed to help, actually, and he was able to find his way to a patch of grass underneath a stream of water that arched out of that pipe.  Nick just stood under it with his head tilted up for a long while, gasping and gulping that delicious water down his throat.  He rubbed his hands together under the water.  If nothing else, he wanted to make sure there was no capsaicin on his hands.  

Having stood under the water for a few blessed moments, Nick found himself able to look around.  It seemed the other recruits had found their way to the pipe.  Brian the elephant had lowered his face right into the same stream of water that Nick had been enjoying, which meant there would be nothing left for him.

But that was okay.  Nick was drenched, and cold.  He could barely open his eyes, and still couldn’t smell anything, but all of that was manageable now.  He made his way over to Major Friedkin, fluttering his eyelids in short, quick blinks.

He arrived at the same time as Sam, who was drenched from head to toe, just like he was.  Helen joined them a short time after, with a wet spot on her shirt.

“Good job, Potts, Kimba, Wilde.”  The Major said distractedly.  She was still watching the commotion at the water pipe.

Nick plopped down on the grass next to his peers, still taking long, painful blinks to clear out his eyes.  One by one, the rest of the class joined them.

“So, what was the worst part of the day?”  Matt asked with a sadistic sort of grin that wasn’t entirely unwelcome.  After the day they’d had, they could all appreciate some dark humour.

“The rubber bullet.”  Sam said immediately.

“The pepper spray.”  Helen said at the same time.

“The taser.”  That was Brian, sitting down next to the group.

“The muzzle.”  Nick said softly, staring down at his hands.  

“Yeah.”  Said Matt.  “Me too."

Nobody spoke for a long while.  They’d all seen that panic attack.  

“I freaked out a bit with the muzzle too.”  Ted said, staring down at his big white paws.  “I didn’t think I would.”

“It’s interesting, we think we need the muzzle to protect ourselves from the bite of a dangerous predator, but what if the act of muzzling makes a predator more dangerous, because it causes us to lose control of ourselves?” Matt said.

“It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”  Sam added.  “Predators become unpredictable when they’re muzzled, so we muzzle them because we think they’re going to become unpredictable.”  

“Confirmation bias.”  Nick agreed.  “You see enough predators lose control of themselves, you think that predators just naturally have less control.”  

Nick noticed the prey animals around them were silent.  They looked uncomfortable with the conversation.  He wished they would speak up, it was hard to tell what they were thinking.  He hoped they would remember this conversation later.

Major Friedkin, at least, seemed pleased with the conversation.  She beamed down like a proud mama.  “Off to the showers with you lot.  Remember that your hands and clothes are contaminated.  Do not touch your eyes until you have been cleaned with soap.  Don’t drive yourselves home unless you’re sure that you’re up to it.  Dismissed.”

A shower sounded wonderful.  Kelly handed them each a washcloth with some sort of creamy green gel on it.  Nick took his to the locker room and didn’t even bother stripping down.  He just walked into the shower with his clothes still on.  Whatever was on the washcloth lathered up beautifully and finally got the last of the sting out of his eyes.  

 

 

When Nick finally emerged from the building, showered and clean and feeling at least marginally like a mammal again, the sun was creeping lower in the sky and he had to clamp his sensitive eyes closed as the glare hit him.  He squinted hard as he made his way to the parking lot.  He probably shouldn’t drive himself home, though he didn’t really have a good backup plan.  Maybe it would be better once he had his sunglasses on.

His car, being the smallest in the lot, was well hidden in between two larger ones, so he couldn’t see it until he was almost right on top of it.  And there, sitting on the curb waiting for him, was Judy, still in her police uniform.  He had never seen a more beautiful sight.  

She beamed when she saw him, and jumped to her feet, closing the distance between them easily.  “How was it?”

“I’m just glad it’s over.”  He smiled weakly down at her, feeling immediately comforted.  He wanted to hold her and never let go.  

She seemed to have the same idea.  She stood up on her tiptoes and wrapped her arms around his shoulders.  He bent down and wrapped his arms around her, pulling her in close, and burrowing his nose into her shoulder.  With some relief he closed his tired eyes and just stayed there, enjoying the feel of her.  Part of him felt guilty.  How long had she been hiding behind this row of parked cars, waiting for him?  It was his fault that they couldn’t do this out in the open, after all.  He knew she would rather not have to hide their relationship, but she was doing it anyway because he’d asked her to.  Of course, thinking of that made him think about Officer Hawthrorne and the investigation, which made him want to hug Judy even closer.  The insecure, cynical part of him wondered if this was going to be the last evening they would have together.

“Oh, I’m sorry.”  Came a voice from nearby.  Nick and Judy jumped apart and looked around guiltily.  It was Sam, the lioness from his class.  She had a set of keys in her paw.  She looked embarrassed.  “I was just heading to my car.  I didn’t know you were here.”

Nick cleared his throat, ignoring the sinking feeling in his stomach.  “Not at all.  Sam, this is my, umm, this is Judy.  Judy, Sam.”

“Nice to meet you.”  Judy said.  “Did you have to go through the less-than-lethal weapons training exercises today as well?”

“Yeah.”  Sam nodded.  “It sucked.”

Judy nodded.  “It does.”

“Yeah.”  Nick agreed.  “Umm, thanks for today.”

“No problem.”  Sam nodded.  “You did great.”

“Yeah.”  Nick said blandly.  He didn’t feel like it.  “You too.”

“Will you be okay to drive?”  Nick asked.  Sam’s eyes were still red and she couldn’t go long without blinking.

“I’m only going a few minutes down the road.”  She said,  “I’m picking my wife up at work.  She’ll take over the driving from there.”  

“Alright.”  Nick said.  “Drive safely.”

“I will.”  Sam twirled her keys around one claw.  “Could you two please stand back?  I won’t be able to see you when I back out, I want to make sure you’re out of the way.”

Nick nodded as he and Judy went to stand on the curb so she could pull out of the parking space.  Once she had left the two of them got into their own vehicle.  Nick sank into the passenger seat and closed his eyes.  

“Are you alright?”  Judy asked as she backed out of the parking stall.

“Yeah.”  Nick muttered.  “Just tired.”  

“So?  Tell me about it.”

“It sucked.”  Nick said.  That phrase seemed to be thrown around a lot today.

“Did anybody freak out?  Be honest.”

Nick frowned.  He knew that Judy was just making conversation, but still.  “Yeah.  Me.”

There was a few seconds of silence before Judy said “Don’t feel bad.  It happens to one mammal every semester.  Which part got to you?”

“The muzzle.”  Nick said, and opened one eye to look at her.  “Eyes on the road.”

Judy had indeed taken her eyes off the road.  She was watching him with big, expressive, soulful eyes.  “Oh, Nick.  I forgot, I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright.”  Nick muttered, but something she said bothered him.  “Did you really forget?”

“Yes.  Well, not forget, exactly.  I guess it just always seemed so trivial compared to the rest of it.  It’s not as showy, you know?  I’m really sorry.  I didn’t warn you.”

Nick grunted, eyes still closed.  He didn’t blame her, exactly, but he was struck by her privilege.  She’d seen this happen to other mammals and somehow never realized that it might be a big deal to them.  

“I should have thought of it.  You told me about being muzzled as a cub, and I still didn’t… I’m really sorry.”

“I’m not mad.”  Nick said.  “Just tired.  Stop apologizing.  None of this is your fault.”

“You might have been able to prepare if I’d warned you.”

“It probably wouldn’t have changed anything.  I didn’t know I was going to panic.”  Nick grumbled.  “How was your day?”

“It was...fine.”  Judy tapped irritably on the steering wheel.  Judging by her tone, her day was anything but fine.  “Domestic violence call.  I hate those.”

“I have that to look forward to.”  Nick said bitterly.  “Is it worth it?”

“Yes.”  Judy said immediately.  No hesitation.  “This job… it’s nothing like I imagined, but I really like it.  I do.  I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”

“What did you imagine it would be like?”  

“I guess…”  Judy thought for a moment.  “I thought that the line between good and bad would be more clear.  That most mammals would be good, except the ones who are not, so all I had to do was take down the bad ones and the good ones would thank me for it.”

“Do you miss that optimism?”  Nick forced his tired eyes open to look at her.  He was terrified that she would say yes.  When she first showed up in Zootopia she had been sheltered and naive and he was terrified that he was taking that idealism away from her.  It kept him awake at night.

Judy, having no way of knowing the thoughts that were going through his head, just answered simply.  “No.  But I don’t think I’ve lost my optimism.  I still believe that mammals are inherently good.  It’s just that some of them do bad things sometimes, and we need to find out the reason why.”  

“Wish I could believe that.”  Nick mused.

“What do you believe?”  

Nick thought for a while.  “That mammals are inherently selfish.  That’s not a good or a bad judgement, it just is.  We act in our own self-interest because we have been taught that nobody else will do it if we don’t.  And sometimes that means hurting another mammal to get ahead.”  

Judy frowned.  “That’s terrible.”

“It explains a lot though.”  Nick said.  “What do you find terrible about it?”

“I was raised in a community.”  Judy pointed out.  “We all looked out for one another.  There was very little room for the individual, because we all knew that our needs and our family’s needs were one and the same.”

“So why did you work so hard to get out?”  Nick asked, and Judy scowled.  She clearly did not appreciate the question, so he decided not to push it any further.

“I think Zootopia would be a better place if we acted more like we were in a community, actually.”  She said at last.  “It can get pretty lonely here.”

“Yeah.”  Nick couldn’t argue with that.  “Think that will ever happen?”

“I like to think so.”  Judy said, and the two of them fell silent as she drove.  Nick still leaning back against the headrest with his eyes closed, Judy focused on the road ahead.

“Officer Hawthorne caught up with me today.  He and Officer Kinneigh.”  Nick said at last, opening his eyes again so he could see her reaction.

Judy frowned.  “What did they say?”

“They know it was me in the photo.  I guess it was only a matter of time before they caught up to me.  They still don’t know who you are though.”  Nick barked out a laugh.

Judy twisted up one side of her mouth in a smile.  “You’d think Hawthorne at least would have figured it out.  Didn’t he investigate us once before?”

“He spent one afternoon on it, three months ago.”  Nick smiled at the roof of the car.  “It’s possible he’s forgotten the details.  I think Bogo confiscated all his files from that night.”

Judy snorted.  “Are you going to tell them, or wait for them to figure it out?”

We are going to tell them.”  Nick corrected.  “I told them that you and I would stop by the precinct tomorrow morning and tell them the whole story.”

“Are you okay with that?”  Judy asked, glancing over at him.

“I guess I’ll have to be.”

“What does this mean for us, if this gets back to Bogo?”  Judy asked quietly.

“I don’t know.”  Nick answered honestly.  “I guess he’ll just assign us different field partners.  We’ll adjust.”

Judy frowned and tapped at the steering wheel, thinking.  Never one to admit defeat, Judy.  “I don’t see how our relationship is relevant to the case.”

Nick felt a smile creeping over his face.  “You’re right.  Bogo seems perfectly willing to accept plausible deniability.”

 “What’s there to deny?”  Judy asked innocently.  “We were just there as friends.”

“Yep.”  Nick matched her grin.  “I was showing you where to get your blood drawn.”

“As any upstanding Zootopia citizen would.”  Judy grinned back at him.

“Nothing romantic about that.”

“Certainly nothing romantic about that photo.”  Judy wiggled in her seat.  She seemed to be enjoying herself.  “Gosh, it’s so strange that mammals are reading so much into it.”

“Strange indeed.”  Nick was starting to feel better.  Nothing like a small bit of banter to bring some normalcy back to his day.  

Judy reached across the centre console to take his hand.  “Hey.  We’ll get through this.”

“Yeah.”  He whispered, more to convince himself than anything.  “We’ll get through this.”