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The Pelt We're Dealt

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It was late.

Okay, well it couldn’t be THAT late, not that he had any way to check.  But it seemed late, it felt late.  To be fair, it had been a long day, one that involved stealing and crashing a train car, tricking a confession out of the mayor, giving endless statements to various police officers, and now waiting for hours outside of a hospital.  Nick instinctively tried checking the time on his phone but the screen was blank, the battery had died.  Just like the last time he’d checked it.  And the time before that.  

He sighed and pretended to drink out of his empty coffee cup.  It was a blessing to have something to hold in his paws, but more importantly, it was a prop.  It made it look like he was doing something, something besides loitering on a bench outside of the small to medium-sized entrance to Zootopia’s largest hospital.  He had been getting more than his share of suspicious looks since parking his tail on this particular bench, even though he’d chosen one a respectful distance away from the entrance.  Also, that broad-shouldered, broader-antlered caribou of a security guard was passing by this way an awful lot, glaring daggers at the red fox with his coffee cup.
But Nick was used to suspicious glances, they didn’t bother him.  Or they shouldn’t bother him.

Admittedly it was easier to deal with them when he was keeping busy.  A suspicious glare when he was in the middle of a hustle became a challenge; act suave, speak smoothly, play the victim, walk away with money.  That last part was his favourite, obviously.  But a suspicious glance now, while waiting outside of a hospital...  

Thus the empty coffee cup.  Nick took another sip.

The small door a ways down the sidewalk opened.  Nick deliberately did not look over to see who was walking out of it.  He was afraid to make eye contact with the wrong mammal, and give that grumpy-looking caribou a reason to kick him out.  He did, however, have his ears at their maximum attentiveness.  A shuffle, then a step. Limp?  A small mammal, or large rodent, big feet.  Could it be her…?

“There you are!”  A feminine voice exclaimed and Nick nearly collapsed with relief as a familiar grey bunny limped towards him.  

“Carrots!”  Nick said smoothly, hiding everything under a smooth façade of smug indifference.  “You took your time, I was beginning to think they’d have to amputate.”

“Might have been simpler. There are a lot of stitches.  I don’t know how many. I asked the doctor, but she lost count.  I guess it’s a deep cut and they had to do the stitches down on the different layers of tissue?  Or something?  I didn’t understand it all.  The ones underneath will dissolve, but the ones on top have to be removed in seven to ten days.  My parents are going to freak.”  Judy frowned as she took her phone out of her pocket.  Blank screen, dead battery.  Just like his.

“You got somewhere to sleep tonight?  Some way to charge that phone?”  Nick asked, glancing down at the device in her paw.  It looked to be the same kind as his, so he could probably find a charger for it at his place.

“No, but I can just sleep in the produce truck tonight”  

She folded her ears down along her back and for some reason the sight of that was particularly endearing to a certain red fox.  He had the sudden urge to stroke his claw down those ears, towards her back, her tail.  It wasn’t an entirely unexpected thought.  He’d had them on and off (and on) since this bunny came into his life.  But, he was an adult and perfectly capable of controlling himself around females, of any species.  Especially rabbits.  He filed his thoughts away in a folder labeled ‘interesting, to examine later.’

“Bad idea, fluff.  You and that rust bucket of yours will be a meal if it’s parked in Zootopia at night.  Something will get stolen and if you’re lucky it’ll be something replaceable.”  His words were light, but his tone carried a warning neither of them could ignore.  

“I left my wallet at my parents’ house, I guess I was in a bit of a hurry to leave this morning.  My parents will wire me a transfer for a motel room, if I can find a way to charge my phone. I wish I hadn’t given up my room at the Grand Pongolin Arms.”  She tapped her injured foot on the ground impatiently a few times before remembering that such a movement would cause pain.  Her sigh turned into a scowl.

“You can charge your phone at my warehouse, and crash on my couch for a night or two, if you’re okay with that?”  Nick asked, unusually tentative.  It wasn’t every day he invited a prey animal into his place.

Judy, however, was no ordinary prey animal.  Her eyes brightened and her ears perked up.  “A warehouse?  A real one?  Can I see inside?”

“You’re so weird.  Come on.”  He grinned his sharp teeth at her and motioned her to follow to where he’d parked her parents’ produce truck, binning his empty coffee cup on the way past.  The wood-paneled truck with shovels and hoes sticking out the back stuck out like a sore paw amongst the shiny, purple and red city cars parked on either side of it.

“Weird?  Weird how? And is it a real warehouse?”  She kept up decently well even with her injured leg and scrambled into the passenger seat.

“Yes it’s a real warehouse.  What other kind is there?  It’s near where you found me under that bridge this morning.”  He couldn’t resist a smug wave at the security guard, who looked horrified to see an injured bunny get into a truck, especially this truck, with a fox.    

“Okay, and what do you mean weird?”

“Rabbit, you are about to follow a fox to the industrial side of town.  Nobody knows where you are, you have no phone and no way to call for help, and you are excited because you’ve never seen a warehouse.  What would your parents say?”

“They’d be horrified.”  She said cheerfully.  “But, they’ve never met you!  I have.”

That same flutter of emotion cruised through his body.  Shuddering, tingling, up one end and down the other, finally ending up somewhere below his stomach.  Behave , he told himself, not that it did any good.  He was in it deep, and now he was bringing her back to his place, to get her scent all over his couch, when he was developing feelings for her.  He wished that he could just turn it off and be done with it, but of course that was impossible.  He couldn’t help but feel like he was the rabbit being dragged into the fox’s den, and not the other way around.  This was a bad idea.

But they kept driving anyway, mostly in silence. It had been a long day after all.  He had night vision and familiarity with the city, neither of which she had, so it was a relatively quick ride back to his warehouse.

“Here we are!”  He announced, hopping out to unlock the gate.  The warehouse was big and imposing-looking, especially at night.  It wasn’t much to look at from the outside; it had some broken windows and was pretty dirty.  Nick wondered what Judy must think of it.

Judy, for her part, didn’t seem to mind any of that.  She slid to the driver’s seat and drove, awkwardly with her injured leg, the last few meters and under the smaller of the garage doors that he had opened for her.  It was dark in the warehouse, which didn’t bother him but for her sake he turned on the side lights.  Fascinated, she looked around at the collection of treasures. 

“Nick?”  She asked suspiciously, peering at the vehicle closest to her.  “Are these stolen?”

“What?  No!  You injure me.  What an accusation, what an insult!” He held his paw up to his chest dramatically.  “We run a legitimate business. To the best of my knowledge, nothing in here is stolen.”

“To the best of your knowledge?”

He shrugged innocently.  “I don’t actually own the warehouse, a friend of mine does, but she needed to skip town in a hurry and I needed a place to stay.  Win-win.  We lend it out to various mammals to do modification work.  Ten dollars a job or sixty dollars a week to use the space and equipment.  Enough to cover upkeep and taxes.  Most of them just pay by the job, except Dave, I guess.  That guy is fast.  Anyway we do a lot of vehicles.  You know, raised seats, elevated gas pedals, angled mirrors, that sort of thing.  A lot of blended families use our services.  I know a buck deer who married a marmot.  The size difference alone makes things difficult for them.  Everything in their house needs to be modified just so they can live together.”

Feeling a little uncomfortable talking about inter-species romances with her, he motioned to a row of windows near the ceiling that overlooked the warehouse floor.  “Up there is where I live.  It used to be offices or whatever.  Where the big boss used to make all the big, bossy decisions. I’m not sure exactly what it was before, but it’s mine now.  Everything I need, including a couch that’s big enough for you to stretch out on.  Your family’s truck will be safe here overnight.  Come on, can you manage the stairs?”

She nodded and hobbled up behind him.  Again, he flicked the light switch for her benefit.  Several of the bulbs had burned out.  He didn’t use lights very often.  Mildly embarrassed, he made a note to get them replaced.  Thankfully the place was otherwise clean and cozy and he couldn’t help showing it off a little, pointing out the wide window that looked out over the warehouse floor, the open kitchen that he had installed himself, the couch that he had “bought” at discount, and the tacky floral curtains that his mother had sewn for him. He even took an extra minute to pretend to be a big boss man, scowling down at the empty warehouse and muttering something about photos of Spider-Ram.

She laughed, twirled happily and flopped down on the couch.  “It’s wonderful.”

“Hey now, flopsy.  You’re covered in soot.  No sleeping on the couch until you’re clean.”

She nodded, standing up from the couch, but then smoothed her flannel shirt, bashfully.  “I, uh, don’t have anything to change into.”

“Ah.”  He said, sharing in her embarrassment.  How could he not have thought of that?  And also, could he please get those naughty thoughts out of his head?  The silence dragged on a little longer than was comfortable as he tried to not imagine her clothes on a pile on his floor.  “Right, well.  Bathroom is in there, so is the washer and dryer.  The towels folded on top of the dryer are clean, go ahead and use one.  We will wash them tonight.  Your clothes, I mean.  We will wash your clothes tonight.  So they can be clean by tomorrow, so you can wear them again.  Ahem.  One of my shirts will be big enough for a nightshirt for you.  Sorry I don’t have any soap suitable for a rabbit.”  He cleared his throat again, even more embarrassed now.  Small consolation was that Finnick wasn’t around to see the usually articulate red fox at a loss for words.  He’d never live that one down.

“Thanks Nick.  Actually, could you please get something from the truck?  There should be a fur brush stashed away there, and some shampoo.  We bunnies get dusty in the fields, we’ve always got stuff like that hidden around everywhere.”

Thankful to have something to do, Nick disappeared back down the steps, turning the warehouse lights back off as he went.  He was also able to find an extra phone charger and plugged both of their phones in while he shooed her into the bathroom.  Then he found some extra pillows and blankets for her little nest on the comically oversized couch.

Like any fox, his hearing was decent, but sense of smell was better.  This was a bad idea.  He told himself again as he heard the water running and smelled her shampoo.  While soap for a fox is harsh and designed to counteract their distinct musk, hers was softer.  It smelled of damp earth and crushed leaves.  The effect was intoxicating and he allowed himself a brief indulgence into imagining what she was doing in there.  How he wanted to taste that warm water as it ran down her fur.

“And that’s enough of that.”  He muttered to himself, shaking his head and ambling over to his bedroom closet to try to find something for her to wear to sleep.  This brought its own wave of thoughts that also needed to be shaken out of his head.  A very bad idea. 

He was able to find a t-shirt that should suffice for her though.  Finnick had gotten (stolen) it for him as a joke and he pretty much never wore it, though he did appreciate the humour.  It was a novelty, gift store t-shirt; pastel blue with a drawing of an ice block printed on the front and the words ‘Chillin’ like a Villain in Tundratown’ written underneath.  He thought she would get a kick out of that, and hung it on the door handle for her.

He wasn’t disappointed, as she came out of the bathroom wearing that shirt, grinning like a banshee.   For a moment they were both distracted from the awkwardness of the situation by the ridiculous t-shirt.  It came down to the floor so that only the tips of her toes poked out from underneath. It made her look mildly absurd, and a little bit cute, though he knew better than to say as much.  They laughed for a while, a good, stress-relieving chuckle that wasn’t fully about the shirt.  Finally, he excused himself for his own shower, tugging affectionately on her ear on the way past.  He almost missed her quick inhalation of breath as he did so.  Almost.

His shower took longer than hers.  His fur and tail were longer and required more lathering, more rinsing, more grooming and more drying.  At least the movement was familiar, soothing.  His bathroom was in no way glamorous.  At one point it had been an employee bathroom, with multiple stalls for multiple mammals, but he’d had the stalls and all but one toilet removed.  A washer and dryer stood in one corner and a showerhead had been installed in another with a drain in the middle of the floor.  The sink was too tall for him so he had a small staircase-type stool shoved up underneath the counter.  It was a large area, too large for one fox, but it had everything that he needed so he had never bothered changing it.  He rather wished that he had now that Judy had seen it though, there was nothing cozy or inviting about it.  

Whatever Judy thought of his bathroom she was keeping to herself.  She was cozied up on the couch, phone in paw, chatting with her parents when he emerged from the shower, his fur still damp and clinging to his mismatched pajamas.

“No really, I was safe.  Nick was with me the whole time.  Yes, Nick the fox!  The one I told you about I… yes, you can trust him. I trust him.  Anyway, it all worked out.  You and Giddeon Gray gave me the clue that I needed to solve it.  Night Howlers were being used to turn all those predators savage. Night Howlers! Midnicampum holicithias .  They were distilling it into capsules, or something.  I never would have figured it out if it weren’t for that, and it turns out that Mayor Bellweather was spearheading the entire thing.  Yes, the sheep, she’s been arrested.  Turn on the news, you’ll probably see footage of her.  No, that was after the train thing.  Can we forget I said anything about the train?  There was no train.  Nothing happened on a train.  It was just me and Nick and a bunch of harmless sheep and then the real cops showed up to arrest them.  Yes, the fox! I already told you he’s a fox.  He was there for the whole thing. Yes, even on the train.  Oops, gotta go, I’ll call you tomorrow, love you, bye!”  She sighed and pressed the red button on her phone, ending the call.  

“Real cops?”  He asked, bemused.

“Quiet you.”

“Harmless sheep?”  Nick pressed, not quite willing to let this one go.

“They don’t have to know everything.”  She grumbled.

“Yet you told them about the train?”

Judy groaned and flung herself backwards onto the cushions. “They saw it on the news.”

“What else did you tell them?  Did you tell them about your leg?”

“What?  No, are you crazy?  I’m not going to tell them that I had to go to the hospital!  I’d never hear the end of it!”

“Did you tell them where you’re staying tonight?”

“No.”  she said in an unusually small voice.  “I didn’t tell them that, and they never thought to ask.  I think they were too hung up on the train thing.  They might have thought of it though by now, ah.  Here it is.”

Sure enough, her phone started vibrating again.  She wilfully ignored it, but it was only silent for a few seconds before it buzzed again.  After that was a series of shorter vibrations, probably text messages. 

“You going to answer that?”  He asked.

“Nope!”

“How about that one?” Her phone was still vibrating on her lap.

“Definitely not.”

“And that one?”

“Am I going to answer the…”  She turned the screen back towards her face and jammed the pad of one paw at it impatiently “twenty eight missed calls, seven voice messages, one hundred and twenty two text messages from eleven, no, twelve different family members tonight?  No.  No I am not.  They know I’m safe now, everything else can wait until morning.”

“Well maybe I should start returning all of my messages.  It is the responsible thing to do, after all.”  Nick teased, retrieving his own phone from where it was charging on the kitchen counter.  “Oh, this might take a while.  Looks like I have, let’s see, zero missed calls, zero voicemail, zero text messages and, oops, six unread emails. Hmm, looks like they’re all from foxbox.com.  I really should unsubscribe from that.”

He gave her his characteristic half-lidded smirk, inviting her to share in his amusement, though she didn’t appear to see the humour in it.

“Nobody checked in on you?  Nobody at all?” It wasn’t pity in her tone, not quite.  She just seemed sad.  Either way, he hated it.  He plopped down on the floor to lean against the couch, facing away from her, completely rejecting the look of sorrow on her face.

“Nobody had reason to think that I was mixed up in all of this.”  He grumbled.

Thankfully, she seemed to take the hint.  “Hey, you still have blueberry in your fur.”

“What, no I don’t!”  He brought his paw up to his neck where Mayor Bellweather had shot him with that blueberry.  Had he seriously just had a long shower and somehow missed his neck?

“Nick, you just pulled off the most important hustle of your life, I think that we can forgive a little bit of blueberry.  Here, come on, I’ll get it for you.”  She was still behind him on the couch, so it was easy enough for her to lean forward and start brushing out the fur of his neck.  She still had her little bunny brush, which was much smaller and finer than he would have chosen, but it worked okay for such a small patch of fur.

Nick sat still for her and leaned his head to the side to give her better access to his neck.  It felt…good, to have her grooming his fur like that, wonderful, even.  He was swimming.  Floating?  Sinking?  Whatever he was doing, he didn’t ever want to stop.  She must have gotten the blueberry out by now, but he didn’t care.  His mind cleared and his head felt heavy as she worked her paws through his fur.  He had enough self-control left to stop himself from purring, but it was a close thing.  She probably didn’t even know that foxes could purr.  Maybe one day I’ll purr for you. He thought lazily.  It was an exciting thought.

As if on cue her paws stilled, still tangled in his fur.  He forced his heavy eyelids open and twisted back around to look at her.  Her face was close to his, eyes wide, breath shallow, the bases of her ears were pink.  

Well sh--- He thought, suddenly a little panicked.  It was one thing to deal with his own dumb hormones, he didn’t think he could handle hers too.  Especially not this late at night.

“Thank you, that’s much better.”  He said quickly, shifting away from her.  “Extra blankets in the hallway closet.  The crew usually starts coming to the warehouse around eight.  Sometimes later, if we’re lucky.  Goodnight.”

“Nick…”

Nick shut the door to his room and flopped down on his bed, staring at the ceiling and thinking about what had just happened.  Now, he was a sensible fellow, decently introspective, and not one to use metaphors when plain language would do just as well.  Which is why he was ready to admit that he was in love with Judy Hopps.  And that was fine; really, it was fine.  He could deal with loving her quietly from a distance; being there for her as a friend, helping her out with whatever investigation, following her into whatever dangerous situation, occasionally baiting her and watching her get riled up, then going home, separately , and thinking about that amazing little bunny.

But now he couldn’t deny that they had shared a moment back there, and whatever it was, Judy had felt it too.  And suddenly the whole situation felt a lot more complicated.  Loving Judy quietly, from a distance, became a lot harder when he would always be wondering if she was doing the same.  Especially so now, when he could still feel her paws on his neck, still smell her scent on his fur.

He had to fight the urge to go back out there and gather her into his arms.  Thankfully he was tired, so the urge to go to her was overpowered by the comfort of his bed and the desire for sleep.  He touched the other pillow gently with one paw and imagined her head on it next to him.  Maybe she’ll come to me. He thought dreamily as he drifted off to sleep.

 

Chapter Text

Nick woke up at his usual time to his usual feeling of dread, from a nightmare that he could never seem to remember but that always left him feeling on edge.  He glanced at his alarm clock.  The green letters read 4:43 a.m.  This morning’s wake up seemed especially rude considering he’d only just gotten to sleep a few hours ago.  

He tried to force himself to lay in bed, to go back to sleep, but that had never been a battle he could win.  After a few minutes he got up and noiselessly ambled around his loft.  He slipped into the bathroom to switch over the laundry and turn the dryer on.  He brushed his teeth and lapped a bit of water up from the bathroom tap, then made a few circuits around the overlarge bathroom, trying to avoid going into the main living area while the bunny was sleeping on his couch.  

He only fought that battle for a few minutes before he remembered that he’d abandoned his phone in the living room last night. He wanted to check the news, and the battery should probably be charged some more before the day started.  He could move very quietly when he wanted to, part of his predator biology he supposed, and he was careful not to wake her as he padded silently into the other room.  Even with his night vision it took him a while to find his phone though, it wasn’t on the floor where he’d left it.  Judy must have moved it to the counter and plugged it back in after he’d fled last night.  He felt a wave of affection for her as he retrieved it and glanced at her sleeping form.  She was curled up amongst the cushions with the blanket pulled to her chin and her long ears draped over the armrest.  She looked deliciously cozy.  

He felt a little guilty for even looking at her while she was sleeping, like he was intruding into something that he wasn’t invited to.  He retreated back to his bedroom, phone in paw, and opened an app to the local news site.  

Nick scrolled for a while past headlines such as Natural History Museum remains closed to public and No injuries reported after close call on freight train.

Eventually he tapped on a link and a familiar moose showed up on his screen.  “ More developments tonight as acting Mayor Dawn Bellweather is taken into custody.  Authorities are not releasing any more information about the alleged criminal activity that may have taken place in city hall, but warn of more arrests to come. Footage shows City Hall is closed off to all staff and visitors while boxes of evidence are moved to waiting police cars.  Zootopia Police Chief Bogo is expected to make a statement at two o’clock tomorrow afternoon.  This will be the second time this year that a Zootopia mayor is investigated for criminal activity, following the arrest of former Mayor Leodore Lionheart earlier this year. For ZBC News, I’m Peter Moosebridge.”

Nick scrolled a while longer, reading a few more articles and watching a few more video clips.  It appeared that the media didn’t have all the information yet.  Or rather they had a lot of the information but didn’t know how to put it together.  There were a number of articles about a train derailment, quite a few articles about an explosion underneath the Natural History Museum, a good number about the arrest of the Mayor, and the usual articles about the savage predators and anti-predator protests.  None of those stories seemed to be connected though.  The next few days would be interesting.

He lay back on his bed with his phone on his chest and thought about Judy.  He missed her.  He missed her, and she was just in the other room.  What was even happening to him?  He’d been in love before, but both times came with uncomfortable memories and maladaptive coping strategies.  This felt different though; Judy was different. She was so wholesome, so sincere.  He rolled onto his side and caught a whiff of her shampoo from the fur of the side of his neck.  He inhaled again, wanting more of it, but the scent remained elusive.  Get it together Nick.

Okay, so there was no denying the way he felt, but that led to the obvious question of what to do about it.  He couldn’t deny that the thought of allowing himself to love her was wonderful, the thought of allowing her to love him back seemed farther off.  She, to put it bluntly, deserved better.  She was younger than him, for starters, nearly seven years younger, and far more sheltered. She was ambitious and had worked hard to get where she was, while he was…not. Frankly, she was going places that he had never imagined for himself. She had a well-meaning but overbearing family who wanted the best for her but almost certainly wouldn’t react well if she started dating a fox. Then of course there was the question of an inter-species romance, much less a predator-prey romance, which had been legal for several decades but would still draw negative attention. He could probably weather the scandal just fine but he didn’t think that it was fair to ask her to do so as well.

So it was decided then.  He’d allow himself to love her, but not to do anything about it.  That seemed like the best solution and while it was hard, devastating even, it was the right thing to do.  That decision brought him some anguish, but also some peace.  It was the right thing for Judy, and that meant it was the right thing.  It would be a struggle, but his whole life had been a struggle and he would get through it.  He always did.




 

The next time Nick opened his eyes it was much later in the morning.  8:55 according to his bedside clock, later than he usually woke.  He lay still for a moment and listened.  Downstairs in the warehouse a radio was playing and small feet were scurrying.  Must be Dave; that racoon was always tinkering with something.  Further off, the sound of mid-morning traffic and a far-off siren.  No sound from the main living area.  Could Judy still be asleep?

Nick made his way out of bed and out to the living room, less gracefully this time.  The little grey bunny was awake on the couch, scrolling on her phone.

“Good morning!”  She said cheerfully.

“Morning.”  He muttered, significantly less cheerful than she was.  He stumbled over to the coffee maker.  “Anything in the news?”

“Nothing we don’t already know.  Actually quite a bit less than we already know.  They know that Bellweather has been arrested, but not why, for example.  Bogo is giving a press conference this afternoon, so I guess he’ll tell them more.  I hope his goes better than mined did.”

Nick could only grunt.  It was too early in the morning to relive that monstrosity.  They were both silent for a while as Nick fumbled with the coffee maker and Judy scrolled.  Downstairs came a clatter of tools.  Two pairs of ears twitched in unison.

“You were right.”  Judy said without looking up from her phone.  “The first worker came at eight o’clock.  Just like you said.”

Nick didn’t question how she knew.  Her hearing was much better than his.  “the first worker? Who else is here?”

“Finnick and some guy named Dave.”

“Finnick is here?  Is he by chance coming up the stairs?”

“Not sure, hold on.”  She paused, her head cocked to the side and ears perked up, listening. “Yes, actually, I think he is…  I guess I should go get dressed.”

“Good idea, your clothes are in the dryer.”  Nick said, not even trying to hide his relief.  If Finnick saw Judy in her Chillin’ Like a Villain shirt neither of them would ever hear the end of it.

Judy grinned sideways at him and hopped down from the couch.  There was a hiss as she landed on her injured leg and sucked the air in through her front teeth.  Concerned, Nick watched her closely as she hobbled over to the bathroom, barely putting any weight at all on her one leg.  She appeared to be in more pain today than last night.  She seemed determined to do it without help though, and made it to the bathroom just in time as the door to the warehouse stairs slammed open.

   “Yo Nick, Duke tells me that you’re back in the pocket of Mr. Big.” Finnick ambled into the flat, disappearing for a moment as he walked on the other side of the kitchen island. As always, his tiny form contrasted humorously with his canyon-deep voice. “That was cold, Nick, threatening to ice him.  Not that I blame you, that weasel gives petty criminals everywhere a bad name.  Still, that was cold.  Don’t make a habit of it, eh?  Mr. Big remembers who owes him a favour.  Or don’t you remember what happened last time?”

“I remember.”  Nick grumbled, pouring a second cup of coffee for his friend.  The little fennec fox scrambled up the bar stool so he could stand at the counter and hummed with pleasure as the coffee aroma reached his sensitive nose.

“Duke also said that you’re all chummy with that rabbit again, the cop.  Of course, I didn’t need him to tell me that.  She came pounding on my door yesterday, looking for you.  I told her where to find you.  Maybe I shouldn’t have, but you’ve been pining after her for weeks, I figured you needed some resolution.”

Nick didn’t answer, he just frowned into his coffee cup?  Pining?   That seemed extreme.  He hadn’t been pining… had he?

“I guess I don’t need to ask what kind of resolution you got.  That truck downstairs gives it away, but even if it didn’t this whole place smells like bunny.”  Finnick turned his head up to Nick, wrinkling his nose suspiciously.  “ You smell like bunny.”

“Oh, don’t be dramatic.  I do not.”  Nick deflected smoothly.  He knew that Finnick was baiting him and he was not about to take it.  If he still had bunny smell from last night he knew it would be very faint.  If.  

“Hmmph.”  Finnick grumbled, clearly unsatisfied.  His eyes rested for a moment on the tangle of blankets from the couch, then he went back to enjoying his coffee.  “I hope you know what you’re doing.”

Once again, Nick chose not to answer.  It was a convenient time to fall silent, since from the bathroom they could hear the sound of a toilet flushing and the sink running.  A moment later Judy joined them.  Her jeans had a tear in them from where she was injured yesterday and she was obviously favouring that leg.  She seemed to have found a rhythm though, walking on the inside of her injured foot only and then doing a little hop to her uninjured one.  It was an awkward movement, but she seemed to be doing well with it, getting decent speed.  Nick had to fight the urge to help her as she awkwardly scrambled up to her own bar stool.  He poured a third cup of coffee and set it down in front of her.  She thanked him but made no move to drink from it.  

“What happened to your leg, Rabbit?” Finnick asked.  He wasn’t one for small talk, so Nick did appreciate that he was making the effort.”

“I tripped on a mammoth.”

Finnick didn’t seem to find anything odd about what she had just said.  He nodded knowingly.  “The one at the Natural History Museum?  That thing is a menace, the tusks are right at eye level.  Never any consideration for us little guys.”

Judy blinked at him, surprised.  “You know the one?”

“Sure I know it.  What, do you think that I can’t be interested in Natural History because I’m a fox?  I can’t like museums?  Is that it?”

Judy shook her head.  “Not at all, but it’s in the out of bounds area, only staff is allowed back there.  I’m just surprised to hear you’ve been there.”

Finnick crossed his arms across his chest defensively.  “I have my hobbies.”

“Sooo, Judy.”  Nick interrupted, before Finnick could admit to anything of questionable legality.  “Did you check all your messages from last night?”

“Sure did!”  Judy responded, obviously glad to change the subject.  “Fru Fru wants to meet up, we just have to schedule a time.  My sister and brother are getting married.  To other mammals, obviously, they just happened to announce it around the same time.  Always a competition, those two.  And by the way, Chief Bogo wants to see us.  He asked if tomorrow morning would work, but I wanted to check with you first before I confirmed.  Would ten o’clock be okay?  He wants to see us together, but didn’t say why.”

“Ten o’clock tomorrow works fine.”  Nick responded evenly.  “And your parents? I know that most of those messages were from them.  What did they have to say?”

“They’ll be on the next train to Zootopia.  They say they need to pick up the truck, but I know it’s because they want to check up on me.”

Nick was careful not to show his disappointment.  He was rather enjoying having Judy to himself for a bit and wasn’t keen on the idea of sharing her with her parents.  Would she want go back to Bunnyburrow?  He glanced at the clock, calculating how much time he had left with her. “What time will their train arrive?”

Judy checked her phone.  “Actually they’re already on it.  Should arrive in less than an hour.  They want to meet you.”

“What? Why would they want to meet me?”

“You saved my life, they want to thank you.”

“Right.”  He said, suddenly uncomfortable.  “I guess I did save your life.  Well, twice more and we’d be even.”

“Oh, don’t sell yourself short, Nick. I couldn’t have done it without you.”

“Some day you cubs are going to have to tell me the whole story.”  Finnick said, without bringing his muzzle away from his coffee cup.  

“Another time, perhaps.”  Nick said quickly.  “Judy?  If we leave now then we’ll have time to stop for breakfast.  I don’t have anything suitable for a prey animal in this house.  

“You don’t have much suitable for a predator either.” Finnick chipped in, and Nick glared at him.

Judy nodded, abandoned her untouched coffee mug, and scrambled awkwardly down the bar stool. “Nice to see you again, Finnick.  And thank you again for your help yesterday.”

“Any time.  Yo, Nick.  Can…?”

“Yes, you can use the warehouse, just clean up after.”  Nick said, hopping down from his own bar stool.

Finnick whooped and claimed Judy’s untouched coffee mug for himself as the other two made their way downstairs towards the truck. 

 

Chapter Text

Judy and Nick stopped off for breakfast on the way to Savanna Central Station (garden veggie wrap and beet juice for her, fried cicada wrap and black coffee for him). They had time on the drive to talk, but it was mostly about superficial things. He learned that she didn’t drink coffee (which explained why she left hers for Finnick that morning, but didn’t explain where she got her energy from). She learned that he preferred drinking warm water over cold. Nothing substantial, but it did pass the time, and he was glad that there was no awkwardness over last night.

Savanna Central was a madhouse, even at that time of morning. Nick parked the truck as close as he could to the entranceway, but they still ended up several blocks away. Thankfully for Judy’s injured leg, Zootopia was designed to accommodate so many different sizes and abilities of mammals that it wasn’t hard for them to find a trolley that would drop them off at the station.

They located Stu and Bonny Hopps fairly quickly. A year ago he would have said that all rabbits look alike, and considering there were several hundred million of them he wouldn’t have bothered trying to learn identifying features. But now as soon as he saw them he knew they must be Judy’s parents. They looked like Judy’s parents should look, they acted like Judy’s parents should act. If he had encountered them in the middle of a hustle he would have pegged them as easy targets, and maybe they would have been. But now, seeing them embrace their daughter, he found his opinion of them vastly different. He watched for a moment as Stu fussed over his daughter’s injured leg and Bonny pulled a sunhat out of the oversized suitcase that they had brought. He suddenly missed his own mother, and made a note to go visit her soon.

Judy tolerated their attention politely for a while before bringing them over to introduce Nick. They were friendly, if a little awkward, but all-around endearing. He tried not to focus too hard on Judy, who looked entirely too delicious in her sunhat. Thankfully, Savanna Central provided a plethora of distractions, and he was able to slide relatively easily into the role of tour guide. He steered them away from City Hall, which was still surrounded by flashing blue lights and police tape, and instead walked them past the Globe Theatre and the Public Library and towards Savanna Central Park, where they all bought popsicles. Not as good as his own Pawpsicles, but still satisfying.

Feeling rather smug about how it was all going, Nick watched as Judy and her mother walked away towards the central fountain where some cubs were tossing stones into the water. Bonny’s arm was around her daughter, who was able to use the support to walk carefully on her injured leg. Nick felt a rush of affection as he watched them walk away. Judy was a hair shorter than either of her parents, she had her mother’s eyes and, though he knew she would deny it, she sometimes got her father’s expression. Neither parent had the bit of black fur at the tip of their ears though. Nick’s paw twitched at his side as he imagined running his paws along those ears.

His warm feeling was short-lived though, as Bonny turned back to make eye contact with Stu. It was not at all subtle. She looked at Stu, frowned, and then jerked her head towards Nick. Stu then gulped and nodded, as Bonny turned her attention back to the fountain. It was obviously a message, and obviously about Nick. Whatever Stu was supposed to talk to Nick about, they had clearly discussed ahead of time. Nick braced himself for the awkward conversation that he knew was coming.

“She sure is something, our Judy.” Stu said. “Nobunny quite like her. Boy, I tell ya’. She has two hundred and seventy-five brothers and sisters, and I don’t think any of them caused me as much stress. Oh, sure they all have their moments of rebellion, but it’s always been small, petty things. You know, taking the tractor on a joy ride, dying their fur pink, sneaking out of the house, that sort of thing, but they always stay close to home. But with Judy it was never about rebellion. She knew what she wanted to do and nothing at all would stand in her way. We tried to talk her out of it, oh did we try. But she’s got drive, that one. She was determined to go out into the world, but the world is a big and scary place and we worry every day that it will give her more than she can handle.”

Nick, who until this point had been making generic noises of agreement (“Yep, uh huh, absolutely, yep,”) fell silent. The two of them stood still for a few moments, watching Judy and Bonny over by the fountain.

“Look, Nick.” Stu said at last. “It’s not the life that we would have chosen for her, but it’s the life that she chose for herself. It kills me to think that my little girl is out here in the big city. It kills me to know that she’s a police officer and she’s putting herself in danger. But it kills me even more to know that there’s a part of her life that she is hiding from us. I don’t want her to think that she can’t tell us when she gets injured, or goes to the hospital. And whatever her life is here in Zootopia, you’re a part of it and we’re not. I just want you to promise that you will look out for her, you know? She trusts you.”

“Right.” Said Nick, suddenly feeling the weight of the request weighing on him. He remembered yesterday (was it only yesterday?) as she dangled from the horns of a very angry ram out of the front of a moving train that she had commandeered against his protests. Judy was nothing if not impulsive, not one to slow down and think about her decisions. How could he make such a promise if he wasn’t sure he was up to the task? What if something happened to her and he had to explain it to her parents? The thought of something bad happening to Judy was not a pleasant one. He swallowed, and then swallowed again. “I promise.”

“Thank you.” Stu said warmly. He nodded (again, not at all subtly) at Bonny, who nodded back and guided Judy back towards the group.

Judy, for her part, appeared to have no idea that anything significant had happened. She was bouncing with her usual level of enthusiasm as they approached “did you know that they rent out remote control sailboats? They’re all colour-coded so you know which one is yours.”

Relieved to have a change of topic, Nick nodded eagerly and joined them in fawning over the toy boats. It occurred to him that Stu Hopps shouldn’t have any way of knowing that his daughter had been treated at the hospital, but he was sure there was an explanation. Maybe Judy had let it slip, despite explicitly saying she wasn’t going to. Regardless, he continued his sight-seeing tour, grabbing the suitcase and leading the three rabbits through the park (away from the Natural History Museum) and towards the trolley.

 

 

All in all, Nick thought the morning had been largely successful, though the goodbyes were unnecessarily long and drawn-out, and while he liked hugs as much as the next fellow, he thought more than one was excessive. Also, it had been tricky trying to refuse Stu and Bonnie’s offer to drive them back to his place. Truthfully neither of them wanted to explain that he lived in a warehouse, even such a cozy one. Judy’s parents finally did take the truck and drive off though, after making Judy promise to be careful and to phone every night.

Once they were out of sight Judy sighed and flopped down on a nearby bench, bringing her injured leg up to rest beside her. Nick, worn out from all the social niceties of the day, settled down on the other end of the bench.

“You alright?” He asked, as she rubbed her sore leg.

“Yeah, I’m just… it hurts. I think I overdid it. I need to put my foot up for a while.” She frowned at the rip in her jeans. “Damnit, this was my favourite pair.”

“Here, let me see.” He said, bringing her leg up to his lap and examining the fabric. “There’s no mending it, the tear is too jagged, and denim is a fairly unforgiving material to start with. You’re better off patching it.” He inspected the fabric a moment longer, gently guiding her leg side to side as he peered down at it.

“Nick…” Her voice was a higher pitch than normal, he almost didn’t recognize it. “How do you know so much about this?”

“My dad was a tailor. And my mom is a whiz with a sewing machine. I don’t have their skill, but I do alright.” He said absent-mindedly. He was still inspecting the tear in the material; any patch that would fit over it would have to be long and narrow, and she would probably want something cute and feminine. Maybe a butterfly?

Nick turned his gaze upwards to make eye contact with her to find her gazing intently at him. He held her eyes for a moment and then blinked lazily at her, slowly, trying to make sense of what was happening. They were having a connection, a romantic one, of some sort. It wasn’t sexual, or maybe it was, a bit, though nothing like they had shared the previous night. It was like…he searched her gaze intently… like she was seeing deep into his soul. He hoped that she liked what she saw.

He suddenly became aware of the city around them. The traffic buzzing past, the far away tone announcing the arrival of the next train, somebody’s car radio. He also became aware of his paw curved around her leg to rest on the inside of her knee. Pleasant enough, but not the time and certainly not the place for it. He gently moved her leg from off his lap and back onto the bench.

“Come on, Carrots.” He said gently. “I’ll call us a Zuber.”

Chapter Text

Thankfully the Zuber driver, a petite Zebra, was cheerful and friendly and didn’t seem alarmed to be driving the fox and the bunny and her purple suitcase over to the industrial side of town.  They arrived back at the warehouse shortly before Chief Bogo’s press conference was to start.  Judy shyly asked for help up the stairs to his loft and Nick was entirely too happy to oblige, sliding his arm around the small of her back and drawing her body close to his.  There was nobody else around at this time and he felt like they were the only two animals in the world as he guided her up the stairs and over to the couch.  He reluctantly let go of her and immediately felt the loss of her warm body next to his.  He busied himself closing the curtains that overlooked the warehouse to reduce glare on the tv for Chief Bogo’s press conference, taking a few extra minutes to compose himself, before joining her on the couch.

A familiar scene lit up the screen.  It was the podium where Judy had stood not three months prior.  The memory was not a pleasant one for either of them, and Judy stiffened, drawing her arms in close to herself protectively.  She obviously felt immense guilt over it, which frankly she should, but even so…

Nick glanced over at her and his heart melted all over again.  She knew what she had done, she had apologized for it, and had learned from it, and taken steps to make it right… what more did he expect of her?  He hesitated a moment longer and then reached over to place a paw gently on her arm.

“Don’t feel bad, Carrots.”  He said softly.  “They could have given you more direction than they did.”

Judy gave him a grateful smile.  “I could have been less of a jerk.”

“Yeah, you could have.”  He teased, allowing a touch of good humour to sneak into his voice. He squeezed her arm comfortingly and then withdrew his paw, as on the screen a familiar cape buffalo reached the podium and the chorus of reporters started calling out Chief Bogo’s name.

“There will be time for questions after.”   Bogo announced; through the tv screen his voice still commanded the room, and the reporters fell silent.   “Yesterday afternoon, Zootopia Police Department was alerted to a situation happening inside the Natural History Museum.  When officers arrived they found Mayor Dawn Bellweather in possession of a dangerous biological weapon.  She was arrested and charged, as were four members of the notorious criminal gang that calls themselves The Cloven Hooves.  It appears that this biological weapon contains a neurotoxin that has the potential to cause the target to become paranoid, hyper-aggressive, disassociated, and frankly, savage.  Mayor Bellweather has been arrested on charges of uttering threats, possession of a deadly weapon, careless use of a firearm, conspiracy to commit murder, attempted murder, and suspicion of terrorist activities, with the potential for more charges to come.  We are pleased to report that the Mayor and the other four suspects surrendered peacefully and are now in police custody.  An off-duty police officer was taken to the hospital with minor injuries and has since been released, while a bystander was treated as a precautionary measure but appeared to be unharmed.  I will now take questions.” 

There was the usual clamour from the press.  Bogo listened for a moment before nodding at somebody out of the field of view of the camera.  “Yes, you.”

“Is this biological weapon related to the cases of predators going savage?”  asked a female voice from offscreen.

We are still investigating any possible connections to other open cases, but we do believe that it could all be related, yes.  Next!  Yes, you.”

“What can you tell us about the underground explosion?”

“It appears that this biological substance was being produced in a lab in an abandoned subway car.  This substance appears to be volatile and it caused an explosion underneath the Natural History Museum.  This explosion was contained early, fire crews have mitigated the damage and building inspectors are exploring the damage.  Beyond that, the damage appears superficial, with no apparent risk to the structural integrity of the building.  Next!  Yes, you.”

“Is this in any way related to Leodore Lionheart’s arrest?”

“We have no reason to believe that Former Mayor Lionheart had knowledge of any of this, though he will be questioned in due course.  Last question.  Yes, you.”

“Will there be any more attacks by savage predators?”

“ZPD are still investigating leads but as of this moment we believe that all doses of the substance have been confiscated or destroyed.  The mammal who we believe to be the gunman is still at large, but we want to assure the public that they are as safe as can be. Thank you, no more questions.”

On the screen, Chief Bogo left the podium as the chorus of questions flooded after him.  The scene shifted to show the most recent anti-predator protest as Nick switched off the tv and leaned back on his couch.  “Well.”

He glanced over at Judy, who had yet to loosen her arms from where they were wrapped protectively around herself.  Her eyes were still fixated on the now empty screen.

“Nick.”  Her voice was heavy and she swallowed to clear it.  “He barely talked at all about the predators.  And didn’t even name the Night Howlers, he just called it the substance.”

“It’s alright, Carrots.  Give it time.  There’s a process to this.”

“Time?  We don’t have time, predators are suffering now.”  

“Hey.”  He turned to look down at her, studying her face.  His voice was kind.  “This isn’t going to fix everything.  You know that, right?  All these problems that the world has with predators, they won’t go away after one press conference.”

She hit her fists onto her knees, frustrated.  “A press conference broke the world, I don’t see why a press conference can’t fix it.”

“Judy.”  He didn’t use her name very often, and hearing it now made her take a deep breath, clenching her fists between her knees and staring straight ahead to listen to what he had to say.  “You don’t think that you did all this?”

She didn’t answer, just stared straight ahead, fists still held firmly between her knees.

“You do, don’t you?  You think that your disastrous press conference caused the world to suddenly become something that it never was before.”

“Well didn’t it?”  She asked bitterly.

“No, of course not, it…”  Nick rubbed a paw over his face, suddenly reminded of how naïve she could be.  “Listen Carrots.  When my grandmother was born, predators had to wear a collar and be put on a registry.  When my mother was born, predators couldn’t go to public playgrounds.  When I was born, predators couldn’t apply for loans or business licences.  The laws might have changed, but the attitudes have not.  Not all the way, and for some mammals not at all.  And then somebody like Bellweather comes around and mammals are suddenly bolder.  Like they have permission to be loud about something that before they had to keep quiet.  But the feelings were always there, you didn’t create those overnight and we’re not going to fix it overnight either.”

Judy angrily wiped a tear away that Nick hadn’t even noticed she had shed.  “We have to try.  Bogo, he didn’t even try.  He didn’t say anything!”

Nick reached over again to put a paw on her arm.  “Do you know why you said those awful things at your press conference?”

Judy looked down at where his paw rested on his arm.  “Internalized bigotry?”

“No.  Well maybe a little.  But mostly no.  You were asked a question that you didn’t have the answer to, but you desperately wanted to give them something, so you speculated based on what you thought you knew at the time.  That’s normal, but it’s also dangerous.  Bogo knows that, which is why he’s saying so little about the predators and the serum.  He’d rather risk saying too little than saying too much and have it be the wrong thing.  Bellweather knows that too, but there’s a reason she didn’t stop you sooner when you were at that podium.  She had you right where she wanted you, she wanted you to say all those things.”

Judy bowed her head.  “I played right into her hoof.”

Nick slid a little closer to her.  “Yeah, you did.  But you weren’t the only one.  Lionheart fell right into her trap, so did lots of mammals.  She’s crafty, she’s manipulative.  History is full of mammals like her.”   

After only a short hesitation, Nick put his arm around her.  Judy didn’t hesitate at all, she turned towards him and buried her face into his chest, and he responded by wrapping his other arm around her and pulling her close.

“You’ve been carrying this around for months, haven’t you?”  Nick asked softly into her ear as she clung to his shirt.  “Every protest, every riot, every smashed window.  You thought it was your fault.  That’s quite the burden to carry.”

Judy, from her spot nuzzled into his shirt, muttered “She and Bogo asked me to be the face of ZPD.”

Nick whistled.  “She even had Bogo fooled.  That’s no easy feat, he’s a tough nut.  Good thing you said no, she definitely would have used you for her gains.  You did say no, right?  I’m assuming you did, since I haven’t seen any recruitment posters with your face on them.”

“I said no.”

“That was wise.”

He held her a moment longer, just enjoying her presence, before almost unconsciously he started stroking her ear.  He didn’t even realize he was doing it until she sighed, or maybe she moaned.  Some combination between those two sounds, but whatever it was, it was almost his undoing.  So much for loving her quietly, from a distance. He thought to himself, as he kept stroking her ear, very much enjoying her reaction as she melted into his chest.  

It didn’t take long at all before two parts of his brain started warring with each other.  The logical, cynical part of his brain was telling him to do the hard thing and break away.  The primal, emotional side of his brain was telling him to hold on tight and never let go.  So far, that part was winning.  And that would have been hard enough to deal with if it weren’t for a third part of his brain, and he wasn’t even sure where this part came from, which was whispering to him, go ahead, tell her that you love her, say it.  

That third voice was obviously a bit intimidating, and far too impulsive, but it became harder and harder to ignore, until finally he squeezed her shoulders one last time and then reluctantly got up from the couch.  “I’ll make some tea.  Do you want some?”

“I’d love some tea, thank you.”  She replied politely.  Was it his imagination, or did she seem a little lost after he let go of her?  

He busied himself with the water and the kettle, and was reminded of how little food he kept around the house when he went to open his cupboards.  Those three parts of his brain had yet to turn off, with the first part congratulating him on doing the right thing, the second part just feeling lost and lonely, and the third part suggesting that he immediately walk back to the couch, pin her down, and graze his teeth through the fur around her neck.  That last part he ignored willfully.  

When the tea was finally ready he handed her a mug and they both sat at opposite ends of the couch, sipping in silence.  The couch was designed for a slightly larger mammal than either of them, a large sheep or a small deer probably, so there was a good amount of space in between the two of them, which was just as well because he was still tingling where her body pressed against his.

They drank their tea in silence for a while, and Nick was reminded of the previous evening when he spent so long pretending to drink from an empty coffee cup, just to have something to do.  The situations were not dissimilar, and he hated that he might have made things awkward between them.

“It wasn’t your fault, Judy.”  He said at last.  “None of it.  I never blamed you.”

“You didn’t hate me?”  She asked, looking suddenly hopeful.

“I didn’t hate you.  I was hurt.  But you’ve apologized.  Turns out, you give really good apologies.”

She smiled widely, her ears perking up from their position folded along her back.  “Thanks Nick.”

“You are welcome.”  He said, getting up to put his empty mug in the sink.  “I need to go buy groceries for us.  You’re going to need to tell me what you want.  I have never had to feed prey before.”

“Vegetables.”  She replied simply.

“Alright.  Any particular type?”

“Carrots, green beans, lettuce, broccoli.”

“Right.”  He muttered.  “You’ll be okay here by yourself?  You sure?”

“I’ll be fine, thanks Nick.  I just need to rest my foot for a while.”

Nick nodded, and headed down the stairs.

 

 

 

Nick decided that the easiest way to feed both a predator and prey was to just buy a bunch of veggies and then a few different types of protein to sprinkle on top.  That way they only had to cook one meal, instead of two.  He bought all the requested vegetables, and a few different types of fruit, then his favourite brand of crunchy seasoned crickets, with a packet of peanut butter protein balls thrown in for good measure.  Then he wandered over to the bakery isle for a loaf of bread and some pastries for dessert.  Looking at the clock on his phone, he decided that he still had enough hours in the day to check in on his mother, so he sent a quick text to Judy about his plans and headed to the deli for a few ready-made meals.  

Valerie Wilde’s apartment looked much the same as it had when Nick was growing up, though today it appeared to be much smaller and darker than it ever had been when he was a child.  The elderly fox was sitting in her favourite spot, as usual, and had a pile of unfinished sewing projects piled up next to her, as usual.  

Nick immediately went to throw out all the expired food from her fridge.  “I brought you some things to eat.”  He called, busying himself in the kitchen.  “Samosas, your favourite, you can have those tonight.  I’ve also got some lasagna and some soup.  I’m putting them on the middle shelf.”

“Don’t fuss, Nicky.”  Val smiled, turning her cloudy eyes in the direction of her son’s voice.  “I’m managing just fine.  Besides, I’d rather see you.  How are things?”

“Things?”  Nick asked, distracted.  He was thinking about Judy; hardly surprising, he was always thinking about Judy, and he had to force his mind back to the topic at hand.  He went to open the curtains to let some light into the room.  His mother reacted to the light, though her eyes remained unfocused.  “Things are fine.”

Val frowned, peering in her Nick’s direction.  The grey of her muzzle wrinkling suspiciously as she concentrated on his voice.  She seemed to sense that something was on his mind.  “And Finnick?  How is he?”

“Finnick?  Finnick is fine.  He’s… He’s fine.”  Nick answered absently, and then thought he could probably give a better answer than that.  “He came by the warehouse this morning.”

“You don’t see him as often anymore.”  Val observed.  “Are you still in business with him?”

“Not really.”  Nick admitted.  “We didn’t have a falling out or anything.  It’s just hard to get excited about popsicles anymore.”

Val picked up a piece of mending that she had set aside, turning it over a few times in her lap, but unable to see the stitches she set it back again.  Nick came over to inspect the garment.  It looked like she was trying to hem a pair of pants, but the legs were pinned unevenly.  He fetched the measuring tape from her side table and set to work folding fabric and setting pins until it was done to his satisfaction.  He then threaded a needle with the appropriate colour thread and stabbed it into her pincushion for her.

She smiled with warm affection.  “Thanks, hun.”

“You don’t have to do that anymore, you know.”  He told her, putting one paw on her knee.  “I told you, I take care of the bills.”

“It keeps me busy.”  It was the same answer she usually gave.  The same stubborn answer.  

Knowing it was useless to argue, he flopped down in the chair opposite to her, and they sat in comfortable silence for a while.  As usual, his thoughts returned to a certain little grey bunny.  A certain little grey bunny who was in his loft at this moment, getting her delicious scent all over his blankets.  How he wished he could snuggle into those blankets, burying his snout into the folds and lapping up her scent.  Heck, as long as he was dreaming, he wouldn’t mind burying his snout into her lap, and lapping up…

“You’ve got something on your mind.” Val’s voice interrupted his thoughts before they could get too wild.  For once Nick was glad that she couldn’t see him, he was sure he was blushing through his fur.

Nick didn’t answer right away.  That was a rather embarrassing thought to be called out on.

“You’ve got some one on your mind.”  Val corrected herself.  “A man?”

Nick gazed at his mother for a while, wondering how much he wanted to reveal.  He was guarded at the best of times, but the urge to tell somebody about his feelings for Judy was pretty strong.  He’d been holding on to them for months.  Plus, this was her mother.  His own wonderful, strong, supportive mother.  Why shouldn’t he tell her?

“No.”  He replied at last.  “A woman.”

Val didn’t respond right away; her expression was unreadable.  “You have feelings for her.”

“Yes.”  He replied simply.

“You love her.”

“It’s early still, Ma.”  He said quickly, though even he could hear that his voice was a bit higher than normal.

“And she has feelings for you?”

“It’s still early.”  He repeated, though it was hard to deny it, even to himself, when he thought about how she had snuggled into his chest not one hour prior.  “We haven’t talked about it yet.  But I think she might.”

“So what aren’t you telling me?”  Val said, reaching out in front of her.  Nick reached over the space between them to take her paw.  “I worry about you Nick.  I want you to be happy, but I don’t want to see you hurt again.”

“It’s not like that, Ma.  It’s nothing like before.  It’s…  She’s a rabbit.”

Val’s face filled with emotion.  Her eyes filled and a single tear spilled over, even as she smiled sadly at her son.  “Oh Nicky, I wish I could have made the world a better place for you.”

Nick squeezed her paw, his own voice a little choked.  “I never thought you hadn’t done enough for me, mom.  Never ever.”

Val could only smile in the direction of her son, rubbing her thumb over the back of his paw.  She didn’t look any less emotional, though she was sitting up straighter than before and her body had a sort of energy to it that he hadn’t seen in quite some time.  “Well, my son.  As long as you love her and she treats you right, I’m happy.  It’s not an easy path to choose, but I want you to know that no matter what happens out there” she motioned in the direction of the open window “that you will always have a safe space in here.  When can I meet her?”

“It’s early still.”  He reminded her, very much surprised by her reaction.  She had never responded this positively to his ex.  “She might not even feel the same way.”

“Well what are you doing here then?  Go and find out.  Shoo, off with you.  And bring those samosas over to me before you leave!” 

Nick laughed, relieved that the tension was broken so cleanly.  He took an extra few minutes to make her some tea, wind a few bobbins and thread the sewing machine, wipe the counters, and take out the trash, before kissing his mother affectionately on the cheek and heading back to the warehouse.

Chapter Text

Judy, never one to sit still, had been busy while he was gone. He came home to find that she had tidied her little bed on the couch, as well as cleaned the kitchen and started a load of laundry. She had pulled one of his books off the shelf and had it open on the floor, holding herself suspended over it in a plank position as she read.

“Good to see you’re elevating your leg.” He teased as he started to put away groceries. She did indeed have the ankle of her injured leg crossed lightly over the other one. Technically elevated, but hardly what the doctor ordered. It looked like a difficult position to hold, and she was clearly working too hard to come up with a good retort.

A short while later the timer went off on her phone and she collapsed onto the floor, then rolled over onto her back, arms spread out to the side as her long ears draped over the book that she had left open on the floor. She puffed hard a few times to catch her breath, then tilted her chin upwards to watch him upside-down through her eyelashes. As far as body language goes hers was playful and impish, and it made him go a little wild.

“Quite the library that you have here. Have you read all these books?” She asked, from her place on the floor.

“Some of them. My mom’s the one you want to ask though, those are all hers. She can’t see very well anymore so I got her books. Which one are you reading?”

Judy flipped herself back over and closed the book to read the cover, using her finger to keep her page. “Fear, Betrayal, Bloodlust: How Zootopia’s education system shapes our understanding of predator behaviour.”

Nick leaned back to see her over the cupboard he had been rummaging through. “That one I’ve read. Fascinating stuff, don’t you think? Have you got to the part about how politicians used an outdated high school textbook as justification for writing the laws against inter-species adoption?”

Judy got up from the floor, picked up her book and limped over to him. She used the receipt from the grocery purchase as a bookmark and then began opening drawers in the kitchen. “No, I only just started reading. You know, I think that I used that exact same phrase once in a school play. Fear, betrayal, bloodlust, or something similar to it anyway.”

“Hardly surprising, it was written right into the curriculum. My mother wrote a stern letter to the superintendent when she saw it in my homework once.” Nick fetched a stool for her to stand on so she could start chopping veggies while he got to work washing the lettuce.

“Your mom sounds awesome. If I’d known you were going to visit her I would have asked to come along. I’d like to meet her.”

Nick glanced up, mildly surprised. “You would?”

“Well sure, of course I would. Family is important to me. Besides, it’s only fair, you met my parents this morning.”

“Oh.” Nick said simply. He hadn’t thought to offer. “She wants to meet you too.”

“She does?” Judy’s eyes brightened. “You told her about me? What did you say?”

“Not much.” Nick muttered evasively. He suddenly regretted confiding in his mother. Would she be able to play it cool around Judy?

“Tell me about her.” Judy asked, scraping the broccoli into the saucepan.

“My mother? Well, she worked as a seamstress until her vision got too bad. She still sews, says it keeps her busy. Things were tough after my father died, but she always made it work. She was quite the advocate in her day. She attended every speech, every protest, read every book. She was there the day they legalized predator/prey marriage. She used to go and sit in on court cases while I was in school. My father believed that if he could show kindness to another mammal then they would show kindness back. And if everybody just showed kindness then the world’s problems would fix themselves. My mother was cut from a different cloth. She believed that problems couldn’t be fixed until enough mammals were fighting to fix them.”

“She sounds wonderful.” Judy said warmly.

“She is.” Nick replied, staring off into the distance. For some reason telling her about his mother made him feel really vulnerable, like he had trusted her with something important, and he was touched that she had responded to positively. It was rare that he allowed himself to feel vulnerable around another mammal, and he was rather liking it now. He had the urge to keep talking, to tell her something really personal, but he kept his jaws shut. Old habits were hard to break.

“Nick?” Judy asked after a long pause. “What are you thinking about?”

Nick looked over at her. From her place on her stool she was almost the same height as him, her long ears towering above them both. They were standing next to one another at the counter, close enough that he could feel the fabric from her shirt grazing against his arm. It must have been a long enough time since he’d spoken, because she lifted one paw towards him, but hesitated, allowing it to hover in the space between them.

“I was thinking about you.” He replied simply.

She didn’t respond right away, just blinked a few times, her eyes wide, paw suspended between them. Slowly, tentatively he brought his own paw up to hers, lifting it up towards his face. Also slowly and tentatively he broke eye contact with her to turn his head into her paw, running his muzzle along her wrist until he got to her palm, which he nuzzled and kissed. Her scent was intoxicating.

He broke away from her paw to look back up at her, almost afraid of what he might see. Did she actually feel the same way? Or was he just imagining that part? He needn’t have worried, though, because she leaned forward and kissed him.

And it was serene, and it was exciting, and it was a million other things that he couldn’t quite put into words because he was kissing Judy, and Judy was kissing him, and how long had he dreamed of just such a moment? And then his arms were around her, and her arms were around him, and she was leaning forward and…

…And her stool slipped out from under her. He stumbled backwards as she fell into him and he somehow managed to maneuver them away from the hot stove, though somewhere in the mess the cutting board was knocked onto the floor.

Nick lowered Judy to the floor and then surveyed the damage. Food on stove, untouched. Cutting board, on floor. Vegetable peelings, messy but cleanable. Sharp knife, also on floor, some distance away. Judy, unharmed.

Judy seemed more than unharmed, actually, she was positively elated. Her paws were over her mouth, holding in a laugh. He did have to admit that the situation was mildly absurd, and soon they were both giggling as they finished supper and cleaned up the mess.

Supper was quite good, actually. His seasoned crickets added a delightful bit of crunch to his salad and he was sorry when it was finished. They didn’t say much until it was time for dessert, except when Judy reminded him that they had a meeting with Chief Bogo the following morning (he had, indeed, forgotten).

“Should we talk about what happened back there?” Judy asked finally.

Nick put down his fork, giving her his full attention. “Probably should.”

Judy folded her paws in her lap and sat up straight. She seemed to know exactly what she was going to say. “All my life I thought that I had the world figured out. It seemed so simple. I would work hard and become a police officer, move to Zootopia where everybody gets along, arrest some bad guys, maybe save a life and get a medal. But now, not even four months later, I realize that I don’t really know very much at all. The only thing I am sure of, aside from that I don’t want to go back to Bunnyburrow, is that whatever I do, I want to do it with you.”

Nick smiled, he could hardly do otherwise after hearing that, but something that she said bothered him. “And that you want to be a police officer, right? You’re sure of that?”

Judy shrugged sadly. “I resigned.”

“You what?”

“I resigned, I handed Bogo my badge. And then I walked out of the building.”

“How long ago was this?”

“A couple weeks.”

“Was it because of what I said?”

“No, it was because of what I said.”

Nick groaned and rubbed a paw over his face, suddenly ashamed that he hadn’t checked in with her sooner. Sure, he was hurt and angry and they weren’t speaking, but still. She needed him, and he wasn’t there.

Judy poked his leg with one of her toes. “You’re changing the subject. You can’t just not say anything after I opened up to you like that.”

“Carrots… Judy.” He’d be lying if he said that he didn’t have a script for her all planned out in his head. And a part of him was tempted to just follow it. He was sure he would have her in his arms by the end of the day if he did, but… He leaned forward and took her paw. “Look, I could tell you how I feel about you. Heck, I could show you how I feel about you. I want to, I do, but…I’m not willing to get into anything with you if you have to sacrifice a part of yourself to be with me.”

“Don’t give yourself so much credit.” For some reason she sounded like Chief Bogo when she said that, though he couldn’t pinpoint why. “This was bigger than you, and it was bigger than me. I think I just realized that the world is so much more complicated than I ever thought it was and I didn’t know how to deal with that.”

“We can figure it out together.” Nick said gently.

“I’d like that.”

“Starting with getting your job back.” He announced suddenly, letting go of her paw and sitting upright, a man on a mission. “Our next hustle! We need a plan.”

Judy smiled at him, picking up her fork again and turning back to her dessert. “We could just ask.”

“Yeah, I guess we could.” He grumbled, picking up his own fork and stabbing it into his pastry. “You’re no fun.”

“Hey! I’m plenty of fun!” Judy said, faux outrage.

“Is that so?” Nick asked devilishly, lowering his voice seductively.

She smiled impishly, and leaned towards him. They were inches away from another kiss when her phone rang. They both groaned and leaned their heads forward instead, so their foreheads were resting together.

“My parents.” She grumbled. “That’s their ringtone.”

“You going to answer it?” He asked softly.

“They’re going to keep calling until I do.”

“You did promise to call them every night.”

“But did it have to be right now? It’s like they know.”

“Let’s hope they don’t.” He replied. Her phone was out of reach, so he got up to fetch it for her. She still had an injured leg, after all, and the barstool was already too tall for her. “You want me to go into the other room for a while? Give you some privacy?”

“No, it’s okay. Stay here.” She took her phone and turned it on to video chat. “Hey, mom. Dad.”

“Judy!” Stu’s voice echoed through the receiver. “There’s my girl!”

“Hi Honey!” that was Bonnie. Not wanting to intrude, Nick started on the dishes on the other side of the counter, out of sight of the phone’s camera.

“How was your drive?” Judy asked with affection, if not enthusiasm.

“Oh, fine.” Echoed Bonnie’s voice. “We had a nice view of the fields on the way home, right Stu?”

“Boy, did we ever. Beautiful country up here, I don’t know how anybody could ever leave it.”

“Dad.” Judy said, exasperated. “We talked about this. I’m happy here in Zootopia.”

“Oh, we know you are, we know.” Bonnie said quickly. “I mean, the crowds, the lights, the culture. Zootopia is an exciting place. But we have plenty of excitement here in Bunnyburrow, don’t we hun?”

“Sure do!” Stu chimed in. “Why, just today your Auntie Irene’s tractor was stolen. Can you believe it? Right from the barn! Took her most of the day to find it, and when they did it was stuck in the marsh! We had to go help pull it out. We still don’t know who stole it, do we, Bon?”

“Nope.” Bonnie replied. “No idea who could have done it. But whoever it was made an awful mess of the fields. Drove straight through three rows of cabbages, AND tore up some winter squash plants. I’m heading over tomorrow to help clean things up.”

“You know,” Stu continued, not at all subtly. “We could probably use a police officer in Bunnyburrow.”

“Dad!” Judy’s voice held a warning.

“Alright, alright. I’m just saying, we could.”

“Your father is right.” Bonny’s voice chimed in. “We’re a population of almost eight and a half million, it’s amazing we’ve lasted this long without a police force. You could start one! You always said you wanted to be the first. Well, what an opportunity to be the first police officer in Bunnyburrow.”

“Alright, you’ve said your piece. That’s enough now.” Judy said impatiently.

“I’m sure we could find a place for Nick, if that’s the problem.” Bonnie said cheerfully, as Nick slipped with the dish he was washing, dropping it back into the sink with a plop.

“Wha.. that’s not…Why would you…” Judy stammered, looking a bit panicked. She looked up overtop of her phone to make eye contact with Nick, who was frozen on the other side of the counter, yellow rubber gloves dripping over the sink.

“Oh come now.” Stu Hopps continued, seemingly unaware of the tension he’d caused on the other end of the receiver. “He seems like a nice enough chap, and we can see that you two are close. Attitudes are changing, you two will be accepted here, just like you will be in Zootopia. I’m sure we can find a position for him here doing… what did you say his profession is, again?”

“You know what?” Judy asked, or rather she stated. There was no question in her words. “It’s been a long day, I’m glad you got home, tell Auntie Irene I’m sorry about her tractor. I’ve got another call, gotta go, love you, bye.”

She ended the call and placed her phone face down on the countertop with a thump, and then did the same with her forehead. “I’m sorry you had to witness that.” She muttered, her face smooshed in on the counter.

“They mean well.” Nick found himself liking Stu and Bonnie Hopps. In small doses, anyway.

“I wish they’d mean well a little less intensely.” Judy said from her place against the countertop.

“Do they spend this much attention on all your brothers and sisters?” Nick finally asked the question that he had been pondering since that morning.

“Of course they do, why wouldn’t they?” Judy brought her head up from the counter to look at him quizzically.

“I guess a better question is, do you really have two hundred and seventy five brothers and sisters?”

“Yes. Well actually no, not technically.”

“Not technically?” Nick was finished the dishes by then, so he put the rubber gloves to the side and leaned on the counter to watch her.

Judy drew little patterns on the counter with one finger. “Rabbits have big families, but not that big. My parents have twenty-one children. My mom is one of nineteen, my dad is one of twenty-four. Each of their siblings has between twelve and twenty-five or so children. Eventually all of the cousins and some of the second cousins or friends who are about the same age get raised together in big groups. There’s a few from every generation who train to become teachers, so we all have our classes together too. We call everyone from the same generation our brothers or sisters. It ends up being easier that way, especially as we reach adulthood.”

“Oh.” Nick said, though he didn’t think that it sounded easier at all.

“What about you? How many siblings do you have?” Judy asked, her ears perking up as she leaned forward on the countertop.

“None. It’s just me.” Nick replied simply.

It was Judy’s turn to say “Oh.” Her ears returned to their folded down position as she thought about what he said. “What about cousins?”

“Nope. No aunts or uncles either. My parents were both only children.”

“I see.” Judy muttered.

“Go ahead, say it.” Nick offered, knowing very well that she was holding back her thoughts on the situation.

“Nothing, it just seems…lonely.” Judy replied. “Do most foxes have small families like that?”

“Up until three generations ago, foxes were sterilized after their first child.” He reminded her gently. “you knew that.”

“Well yes, I learned about it in school, same as everybody, but it always seemed so long ago. I guess I never really thought about what that would mean for a family like yours. I’m sorry Nick.”

“It’s alright.” He muttered, but even he could hear the bitterness in his voice. He looked down at the counter so as not to meet her eyes.

“Nick.” She said, and then when he didn’t answer she repeated herself. “Nick.”

He dragged his eyes up to look at her and she reached over across the counter towards him. He also reached forward, wanting to take her paw, but the distance was too great and the arms were too small, there was still a few inches between their fingertips. He smiled, and then chuckled, and she smirked. Small mammals in a big world.

“I guess I have some reading to do.” Judy said, reaching instead for her copy of Fear, Betrayal, Bloodlust.

“Not a bad idea all around.” Nick mused, wandering over to the bookshelf and examining the titles for a while before deciding upon The Invisible Collar: maintaining social control over predators in the age of “equality”. He selected his book and took it over to the couch, where he flopped down onto Judy’s pile of pillows and blankets.

“Hey!” Judy called, clambering down from her bar stool. “That’s my bed!”

“It was my couch before it was your bed.” Nick said defiantly, rather enjoying her look of mock outrage.

Judy awkwardly climbed down from her bar stool and limped over to him. “Off.’’ She said, poking him with a toe.

Nick knew he was being immature but was enjoying himself too much to stop. Besides, there was enough room on the couch for them both to spread out, the whole other side was empty. She had an out if she really wanted it, though it didn’t seem like she did, judging by the impish look on her face. He snuggled into the blankets with an exaggerated sigh. “Ahh, what a nice couch.” He immediately knew he was in trouble though, as Judy’s scent from the blankets she had slept on last night washed over him. Uh oh.

Judy’s ears flattened against her back and her eyes narrowed. “Fine.”

“Fine?” Nick asked, opening one eye. He knew that tone, and knew it meant trouble. Uh oh.

Judy flopped down right on the couch. Or rather, she flopped down on top of Nick, who was on the couch; laying flat on her back as she stretched out along his chest, her paws behind her head confidently and her ears resting comfortably on his face.

“Oof.” Nick said as the wind was knocked out of him. He squirmed a bit, finally getting his snout to peek out from between her ears.

“Ahh, what a nice bed.” Judy said, clearly mocking him.

“That’s not your bed, that’s my body.” Nick said, trying to sound outraged, though he might have ruined the effect by the laugh that he couldn’t fight anymore.

“It was my bed before it was your body.” Judy said, clearly not ready to let go of her advantage.

“That doesn’t even make sense.” Nick said, he was really laughing now, but to be fair, so was she. He was also bigger than her, by a fairly significant margin. He was fairly certain that he could flip her over and pin her down, though he wasn’t sure he was prepared to deal with everything that would come after that.

Thankfully, he was saved from the decision when she flipped herself over, still laying on top of him, and kissed him soundly.

At first he let it happen, content to simply enjoy the bliss. After a few moments he started to let his paws wander over her body. Her thighs, her back, her ears.

Her ears. Something changed in Judy when he touched her ears. It was almost immediate. She sighed and relaxed, collapsing down on top of him and snuggling in to his neck, moaning softly. He kept stroking first one ear (which was uncannily soft), and then her other one (also very soft), very much enjoying this newfound power over her.

For her part, Judy kept up with her soft sighs and moans, with the odd shudder, for several long minutes before her foot started twitching softly against the couch cushions beside him. It seemed to have its own intrinsic rhythm, starting on the exhale, twitching four times exactly on the inhale, resting for the count of six, and then starting up again. Nick counted, fascinated. Sigh, inhale, thump thump thump thump. Sigh, inhale, thump thump thump thump. Sigh, inhale, thump thump thump thump.

Suddenly Judy stiffened and pulled her foot in towards her, as if all of a sudden realizing what she had been doing. She kept her face hidden in Nick’s neck, but no longer seemed at all relaxed. “Sorry.” She muttered, embarrassed.

“Don’t be sorry.” Nick whispered softly into her ear. He very much did not want her to stop. “Your body is reacting to me and I love that. I don’t want you to think you have to fight it.”

“Thanks Nick.” She relaxed again against him, but didn’t seem ready to stop being embarrassed.

Not sure what else to say he pulled the blankets overtop of them both, and just kept holding her and stroking her ear as they both got more and more relaxed and drifted closer and closer towards sleep.

 

Nick awoke around four a.m. His usual haunting hour. Judy had slid off of him at some point during the night and was now wedged in between him and the back of the couch. She was a twitchy sleeper, which he supposed was not entirely surprising. He tried for a while to go back to sleep, but it was no use. For one thing, Judy’s foot was twitching lightly against him as she dreamed. Nick eased himself off of the couch as carefully as he could.

Judy stirred slightly. “wassamatter?” She muttered sleepily.

“Just going to the bathroom. Go back to sleep.” He whispered, covering her with a blanket. She muttered something incoherently, burrowed her face into one of the pillows, and indeed went back to sleep.

Mildly envious, Nick padded silently around the apartment for a while before settling himself down in a chair by the window overlooking the warehouse. It was too dark for even his excellent night vision to see much down there, but it was a good place to examine his thoughts.

Just twenty-four hours ago he was promising himself to never make a move on Judy, but clearly that was not a reasonable goal. So what did that mean for, well, everything? This budding romance was fun, but he would be negligent if he didn’t consider what it would mean for him, and for her. She was a police officer, while most of his friends were criminals. Even the ones who weren’t criminals had had bad experiences with Zootopia’s police force. Was it really fair to keep bringing her around? He supposed he could just try to keep her separated from that, but that didn’t seem fair either. He didn’t really have a good answer.

But one thing was clear, it was becoming more and more unrealistic to stay away from Judy. He’d tried that, for months he had tried that. It hadn’t worked then, and it wasn’t going to work now. Not after he’d held her, tasted her.

Nick rubbed his face, he was starting to feel sleepy again. He considered snuggling back in the spot that he had just vacated, but that didn’t seem right, somehow. He didn’t want to wake her, for one thing, but he also couldn’t help feeling like he should be asking permission before laying down next to her sleeping form. He also considered retreating to his bedroom, but then he didn’t want to give her the wrong message if she woke up alone.

Finally he decided to lie down on the opposite end of the couch, toe to toe with her. There was enough room, and he did have extra blankets. There was a bit of overlap as his tail extended past the mid-point of the couch, but Judy didn’t seem to mind. She rolled onto her side and threw one leg over his tail, sighing contentedly in her sleep. Nick allowed his twinge of arousal to follow him as he drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Text

Judy was already awake when he next opened his eyes. To be more specific, she was standing beside him, poking his shoulder and tugging on his blankets. She was already dressed. Actually that wasn’t right, he realized as his fuzzy mind fought towards wakefulness. She was still dressed, in yesterday’s clothes. So was he, now that he thought of it. Neither of them had changed before bed last night.

“Don’t forget we have that meeting with Bogo.” She said, a usual bundle of energy.

“I didn’t forget.” Nick lied, rolling gracelessly out of his mess of blankets. He stumbled over to the coffee maker and started jabbing at the buttons.

“Also, Finnick is downstairs. I recognize the sound of his van. Do you need the bathroom?”

“Go ahead.” Nick grumbled, still shaking off sleep. He heard her retreat to the bathroom and close the door. Nick leaned against the counter as he blinked dumbly at the coffee maker. He didn’t think he quite had the energy to deal with Finnick just then, though there might not be any avoiding it. Finnick had the habit of letting himself in as he pleased.

Sure enough, the little Fennec Fox ambled into the flat a short time later and shoved the stool up towards the counter. Nick couldn’t help smirking a little at the coffee maker as he remembered Judy slipping off that same stool and into his arms, the night before.

Thankfully Finnick had no way of knowing what had transpired on that stool, though his nose was sharp as ever. He wrinkled it distastefully as he pulled up beside Nick at the counter. “Am I being dramatic now, Nicky?”

Nick immediately knew what his friend meant. He may have been able to deny smelling like bunny the previous day, but he and Judy had been all over each other last night. He for sure smelled like bunny this morning, there was no talking his way out of that. “Guess not.”

“You sure about this, Nick? She is a cop. And a rabbit. A rabbit cop. And worst of all, she’s…” Finnick lowered his voice and looked around suspiciously. “She’s an extrovert.”

“I’m barely even sure of my own name right now.” Nick said slowly. He wasn’t sure if it was the right thing to say, but say it he did. It was too early in the morning for deflection. He poured coffee into two mugs and carried them over to the other counter, where he settled down at one of the bar stools. Finnick followed, it took him considerably more effort to climb up to his own stool, which Nick was glad of. It gave him time to process the conversation, and try to figure out a way out of it. Try, being the key word.

“I think you need to step back from her for a while.” Finnick said kindly. “Give yourself some space, try something new. Maybe we’ve been in the popsicle business too long, you need some novelty. Maybe get out of Savanna Central for a while. What about Tundratown? We had some fun there, didn’t we?”

“Everyone in Tundratown knows us.” Nick muttered into his mug.

“Okay, what about Rainforest District? I’m sure we could find a good hustle over there. Get the wheel of my stroller stuck in the planks of a bridge or something.”

“Finn, there is no part of me that is considering this.” Nick said shortly.

“Nick, we’re all allowed to make mistakes, but you seem to make the same one over and over again.”

“Twice is hardly a pattern.” Nick muttered.

“But three times is.”

“Come off it Finn, you’re in an inter-species relationship.”

Finnick crossed his arms over his chest. “Yes, with a mink. Another predator. It’s different.”

“How is that different? That’s just a double-standard, is what that is.”

“Come on man, I’m just looking out for you. I get that you’re having fun, doing whatever it is you do to smell like rabbit every morning, but you and I both know that this is going to end badly.”

“No, I don’t know that, and neither do you.” Nick snapped, glaring at his friend. “And stop sniffing me, it’s weird.”

Finnick looked like he was about to respond, but Nick noticed Judy out of the corner of his eye, standing awkwardly at the door to the bathroom. How much had she heard?

“Gosh, this really is a fun age, isn’t it?” Nick said loudly, switching easily over to his dad voice (as his friends called it) and ruffling his paw roughly over Finnick’s oversize ears. “I love hearing the things that come out of their mouths at this age, sure keeps a guy on his toes though. Where does he pick these things up? I really should start writing these down. Little scamp.”

“I swear to Dog, Nick.” Finnick swatted Nick’s paw away. At least part of his outrage was fabricated, he had an image to maintain after all.

Judy, dressed in a clean outfit, joined them at the kitchen island. She didn’t seem hugely bothered by the bit of conversation that she had heard, or at least she hid it well. She politely asked Finnick if he’d fixed his van, to which he replied in the affirmative, and asked her about her leg. Perfectly adequate small talk, followed by Finnick’s perfectly adequate excuse to leave them and retreat back downstairs. It was all very adequate.

“I’m sorry you had to hear that.” Nick said gently, as the door to the stairs shut and Judy poured granola into two bowls.

“I didn’t mean to eavesdrop.” She replied, avoiding his eye as she took the almond milk out of the fridge.

“S’all right.” Nick was starting to wake up. Something about having an emotionally trying conversation first thing in the morning would do that to a guy. Just as well, since he suspected another one was coming soon. “You want to talk about anything you just heard?”

Judy frowned at her cereal for a moment before asking. “Can Finnick really smell bunny on you?”

“Don’t worry about Finnick. He’s just being weird.”

“I’m a little bit worried about it though. If he can smell bunny on you, does that mean he can smell fox on me? Can other mammals smell like that? I can’t.”

Nick put down his spoon and turned to face her, giving her his full attention. “Some species can, predators mostly. Canines can, that’s wolves and coyotes, and foxes too obviously. Bears too I guess.”

Judy pulled her ears down over her eyes. “Nick! The precinct is full of predators. We have to leave in less than an hour. I can’t show up smelling like fox!”

Something deep and primal burned in Nick’s belly at the thought of Judy carrying his scent. The sensation frightened him a bit, and he quickly pushed it away. It seemed too predatory, too animalistic, almost territorial. “Don’t worry about that, Zootopia is full of smells, yours will get lost pretty quick, but if you’re still worried about it, I have deodorizing spray in the bathroom.

“Thanks.” She went back to lazily stirring her cereal, frowning intently.

“Anything else?”

“No… yes.”

“Yes?”

She took a deep breath and then blurted out “What did Finnick mean when he said that you keep making the same mistakes?”

Nick glanced down at her, considering for a moment how much he wanted to tell her. Finally he said simply “He was talking about my ex.”

“But what was the mistake? And how many times?”

“Oh no.” Nick held up one paw between them. “If you want to know something personal about me, you have to tell me something personal about you. It’s only fair.”

She tilted her head to the side and smiled impishly. “You want to hear about my ex?”

“Only if you want to hear about mine.”

“I only have one.” Judy said, studying him.

“Then you only get to hear about one of mine.” Nick grinned his sharp teeth at her.

“Well how many do you have?”

“Two. You want to hear about them both, you’re going to have to come up with another secret to tell me.”

“Alright, here goes.” Judy straightened her shoulders. “The first time I forged my parents’ signatures I was eight years old. I wanted to go to the public school in town so I signed my own application form. Somehow they never questioned why I was the only bunny not going to school on the farm with my two hundred and seventy five brothers and sisters. I’m not sure if it’s because I just got lost in the crowd or if they both assumed that the other had agreed to it. Or maybe they saw right through me and decided to go along with it. I can’t ask, for obvious reasons.”

Nick grinned. “You little rebel.”

“Your turn.” She said, poking him with her toe.

“Alright. In high school I dated a girl named Marion. We were the only red foxes in school, and everybody just sort of assumed we would date, so we did, though we never really did have very much in common. She had this way of making demands of me. Expensive gifts, public gestures, got me in a lot of trouble, she did. Though to her defence I always went along with it. Rather humiliating, if I think back on it. I got my first court appearance because of her. She just HAD to have this expensive purse that she knew I couldn’t afford, so she told me to steal it for her. Luckily I was a minor so it never went on my permanent record. Your turn.”

Judy blinked at the sudden change in subject. She studied him for a moment, clearly thinking about what he just told her. Finally she must have decided not to ask questions, because she started on with her own story. “Okay, this is going to sound bad, but hear me out. I lost my virginity to my sister’s husband.”

Nick barked out a laugh, but then immediately clamped his jaw shut. “You saucy little…”

“Oi, you said you’d hear me out.”

“Of course, do continue.” He said, but couldn’t resist the grin that was creeping over his face. Seemed like his favourite little bunny had a wild side, and he was rather enjoying hearing about it.

“He was a jackrabbit, we started dating after high school. That was before he met my sister, before you ask. His fur would be brown in the summer and white in the winter and kinda patchy in between. I think I saw it as an act of rebellion. We didn’t really have any friends in common so we mostly just kept it a secret, which I also liked. It seemed so mysterious, somehow. One day I invited him to the Harvest Festival, but then I was running late to meet him because I was trying to help Henrietta Dorner figure out which of her nephews threw a baseball through the window to her greenhouse. Anyway, by the time I arrived he was chatting with my older sister. I didn’t bother approaching him that day and have just kinda avoided him ever since. They got married one year later.”

“And your sister doesn’t know?” Nick asked, still unable to get the grin off his face. Though the story wasn’t as risqué as he was hoping for, he still enjoyed it. It was so quintessentially country.

“I don’t even think he knows.” Judy replied, matching his grin. “He used to call me Julia when we were together. At first I thought it was a nickname, and by the time I realized that he had gotten it wrong, I was too embarrassed to correct him. So unless he suddenly recognizes me at a family function, there’s no way he could know either. As far as he’s concerned, I’m just some fling who ghosted him at a festival.”

Nick chuckled, and Judy joined him. It was all delightfully absurd.

“Your turn.” Judy said, poking him with a toe.

“My story isn’t going to be funny.”

“I still want to hear it.” She replied quickly, but then caught herself and added “if you are comfortable sharing it, that is.”

“No, it’s alright, it’s just…” Nick took a deep breath. “His name was Mark.”

If Judy was surprised she hid it well, she just nodded kindly and motioned for him to continue.

“Mark was…is a coyote. He was everything that Marion could never be. He was gentle and sensitive. He was interested in what I had to say, he wanted to know my thoughts, he wanted to hear my voice, and I wanted to hear his. He could sing like a goddamn angel”

Nick took a moment before continuing.

“He used to pick me up a blueberry turnover from this bakery near his work, just because he knew that I liked it.” Nick smiled sadly off into the distance. “But Mark was an addict. He hid it well, at first, but things got worse. He lost his job, and then another and another. He was a different person when he was high, but he was always sorry after. He would cry and apologize and buy me a gift and promise that things would change.”

“But they never did.” Judy supplied helpfully, when he paused.

Nick shrugged. “Drugs are expensive, so he started selling his stuff to buy them, then he started selling my stuff. I couldn’t bring him around my mother anymore after he took one of her necklaces. This is where the skunk-butt rug comes in.”

“The…? Oh.” Judy said, remembering. “The one that got you in so much trouble with Mr. Big.”

Nick nodded. “I’d worked for Mr. Big for nearly five years by then, he was always kind to me. He tasked me with finding a specific carpet, one that had historical significance to his family. I think it was his way of saying that he trusted me with an important task. I got the carpet, but then Mark sold it when I was out one evening. He knew he’d messed up, and we devised a plan to get it back, involving finding a substitute for the original rug to fool Mr. Big long enough to get the original back. The plan was to switch them back again but, well, you know how that story ends.”

She nodded thoughtfully. She didn’t seem traumatized at all by her experience being dangled above the icy abyss. “And where is Mark now? Is he okay?”

“I don’t know.” Nick answered truthfully. “I had to leave him behind when I went on the run from Mr. Big. He was on the streets for a while. His sister tried to get him into treatment a few times, but he always came back. Then one day I couldn’t find him. I reported him missing, but nothing ever came of it; as far as the officers were concerned, he was just another junkie predator. I don’t even think they ever investigated.”

Judy (damn her expressive eyes) just looked at him mournfully. “No wonder you don’t trust police officers.”

“Most predators don’t.” He replied simply, and made an exaggerated point of checking the time. “Well, we have to leave soon. I’d better get dressed.”

He hopped down from his stool and strolled towards the bathroom but Judy, moving fast despite her injured leg, caught up with him and wrapped him up in a tight hug.

“I’m glad you told me.” She said, her voice muffled by his shirt.

The hug was warm and comforting, but Nick had spent a good amount of emotional energy already that morning, and it wasn’t even nine o’clock yet. Telling the story was one thing, but dealing with the emotional fallout was quite another, one he wasn’t quite prepared for. He extracted himself gently from the hug and padded towards the bathroom, calling over his shoulder. “Next time you want a story I’ll have to make sure I choose a funny one.”

Nick retreated into the bedroom with only a quick glance behind him. Judy was standing in the middle of the room where he’d left her, a thoughtful look on her face.

Chapter Text

Nick chose one of his favourite shirts for the meeting with Chief Bogo. It was a little obnoxious, purple with black palm trees printed on it, but it was one of his favourites. His mother had made most of his shirts out of discounted fabric, and over time he’d grown to like them, tacky patterns and all. Besides, he found that mammals tended to focus on his shirt and forget his face, which was dead useful when he was working a hustle.

Or marching into Zootopia Police Department’s largest precinct. Nick stuffed his paws into his pockets and followed Judy at a respectful distance, focusing on the back of her baby blue t-shirt and avoiding looking at anything, or anyone, else. He’d been in a police station four times in his life. Twice unwillingly, then once when he reported Mark missing, and once when he came to support Judy for her disastrous press conference. None of those were pleasant memories. He stuck close to Judy, who led him up the stairs and to an office labeled O. Bogo.

“What do you think the O stands for?” Judy whispered as she knocked quietly on the door. Nick could only shrug.

Chief Bogo invited them to sit down at the desk across from him, which they did, settling down on the oversize chairs. Nick’s chair swiveled a little over to the right and he had to spend an extra few moments maneuvering it back into alignment. Bogo watched him somberly.

“So.” Bogo said at last, tapping a stack of papers on his desk. “Estimated cost for cleanup and repair of the Natural History museum. One point five million and counting. I read the report, but I must have missed the part that inspired you to ride a train car into the wall of a subway tunnel.”

Judy gulped. “It was my idea, Sir.”

Nick kicked her gently before she could say any more. Their feet were hidden behind the desk, but the movement caused his chair to swivel again. Bogo turned his eyes over to the red fox and raised an eyebrow.

“What she means to say…” Nick said pointedly, glaring over at her, “… is that we didn’t have much of a choice. We overheard somebody place a hit on a cheetah in Savanna Square. We had to act quickly, so we hijacked the train to remove the Night Howler capsules from the wrong paws. We couldn’t let another predator go savage, especially one in a crowd.”

Bogo turned back to Judy. “Is that right?”

“That is…” Judy stammered, “right. That is right, yes Sir. That is right.”

“Indeed.” Bogo said slowly and turned his head back to his stack of papers. “Lucky for you, the city doesn’t have an acting mayor at the moment, so it is relatively easy to smooth this over, even with the CEO of ZN Rail breathing down my neck. Things are chaotic enough in City Hall as it is. However, this callous disregard for public safety is concerning. I need to know that I can trust that my officers have enough judgement to not endanger the public while collecting evidence or making arrests. This means no more chases through Little Rodentia, and no more crashing train cars. This list is not exclusive. You are lucky nobody got seriously hurt. Understood?”

Nick instinctively knew that Bogo wasn’t talking to him, so he stayed quiet.

“Yes, Sir.” Judy nodded somberly. “But Sir, I am not an officer anymore, remember? I resigned.”

“Did you now?” Bogo asked slowly. “I do seem to remember you forgetting your badge at City Hall one afternoon. Well, if you are serious about resigning, there is some paperwork to do, I can have Clawhauser draw it up.”

“I…”

“If, on the other hoof,” Bogo continued as if she had not spoken. “you are finished with your little vacation then we have some work to catch up on. Paperwork, mostly, but that shouldn’t be a problem since you cannot be on active duty again until your wounds heal. I also believe that you have a box waiting downstairs in the supply room. Those safety gloves that we ordered in your size have finally arrived.”

“I…” Judy stammered again, but this time her face brightened and her ears perked up. “Yes Sir! Thank you Sir! You won’t regret this, I promise.”

“Good work, Hopps.” Bogo said, allowing a touch of warmth into his voice. He slid a badge across the desk towards her. “Dismissed.”

Judy grabbed her badge eagerly and practically flew out of her chair. Nick went to follow, at a more leisurely pace, when he was stopped by Bogo’s voice.

“Stay behind, Wilde.”

Nick froze, halfway off the chair, his heart in his throat. He looked helplessly at Judy, who gave him a sympathetic shrug on her way out the door.

Bogo watched somberly as Nick settled himself back on that chair and swiveled it back into place. The cape buffalo hesitated a moment longer, before finally sliding a file folder across the table towards Nick. He did not look like he was looking forward to this conversation. “You have a right to see this.”

Nick had to stand on the chair in order to read the folder. He was a small mammal and the folder was too big to hold in his lap, which admittedly wasn’t Chief Bogo’s fault, but it did put Nick at a disadvantage because it meant that he couldn’t very easily hide his reactions as he read. It appeared to be a police report. Nick opened it.

Nick’s heart sank as his eyes moved over the paper. That caribou security guard from the hospital two nights ago, one R. Demers, had reported him to the police. A suspicious red fox spotted loitering outside the hospital, later seen leaving the property in a beat-up pickup truck accompanied by a female grey rabbit. The responding officer, (here Nick scanned the document to find the name) Officer Hawthorne, had deemed the report concerning enough to launch an investigation. He had even reviewed the hospital security tapes and, though the video quality wasn’t good enough to read the licence plate, had zeroed in on the letters ‘Hopps Family Farm.’

Nick lifted his head up as he got to the next part. “He called Judy’s parents?”

“It appears so.” Bogo replied without emotion. “Has this become a problem?”

“It just explains that weird conversation I had with her dad.” Nick muttered to himself as he kept reading. The next part was a summary of the conversation that Officer Hawthorne had with Stuart and Bonnie Hopps. Nick gained a small amount of satisfaction from reading between the lines and guessing that the officer had gotten a full dose of the Stu and Bonnie treatment. Serves him right. He thought as he read on.

“…witnesses emotional, difficult to reason with. Not responsive to queries. Able to surmise that their daughter, Judy Hopps, who fits the description of the unidentified rabbit, had recently returned to Zootopia and is known to associate with a red fox with the first name Nick, last name unknown at this time. Miss J Hopps has been in contact with her parents since the time of the initial complaint and was understood to be unharmed at the time of contact.”

Disgusted, Nick stopped reading and flopped back in the chair, clenching his jaw angrily.

“You alright, Wilde?” Bogo asked, sympathetically.

“May I speak freely, sir?” Nick asked. There was an unpleasant sensation around his chest, like his heart was being squeezed from the outside.

“Please do.”

“This file is already twice as long as the missing mammal file that you had on Emmitt Otterton, and I haven’t even gotten to the end yet.”

“I am aware of that. I am also aware that Officer Hopps shared with you confidential police documents, which is why I ran a background check on you. You understand I cannot have civilians so actively involved in police investigations without knowing more about them.” Bogo’s voice was curt, professional. “Which is where I found this police report, and several others. Loitering, resisting arrest, suspicious activity.”

Nick said nothing, his jaws clamped tight.

“I’m not going to pretend that I don’t know what this is, Wilde.” Bogo continued, his voice was gentle, almost kind. Nick didn’t quite know what to make of it. “You were unfairly profiled based on your species, and it seems like this isn’t the first time. Maybe once I would have defended the officer, but not now. So this is me telling you that I believe that Zootopia Police Department is capable of doing better.”

Once again, Nick stayed quiet. It was a lot to take in.

“I also learned that your father was killed in a hit and run twenty-one years ago, that was never properly investigated. How old were you when it happened?”

“Eleven.” Nick answered quietly.

“Did you know that my father was Police Chief the year that it happened?” Bogo asked, and Nick shook his head, no. “I always looked up to my father, I admired him, I wanted to make him proud. It seemed only natural that I would aspire to be Chief of Police, just like he was. So it is not a comfortable feeling that something like this could have happened under his watch. Just as it is not a comfortable feeling knowing that this sort of thing still happens under my watch, twenty years later.”

Nick watched him, fascinated. This sounded almost but not quite like an apology, and almost but not quite like an admission of guilt. It was both too much and not enough. He’d never once expected to hear an acknowledgement from any member of the police force, much less the Chief. Still, what was an apology without promise for change?

“I admit, my philosophy has changed recently. I think I have Officer Hopps to credit for that, actually.” Bogo paused, a thoughtful look on his face. “It’s hard to change your mind at my age. Especially about a problem that is so…complicated. This is where I was hoping that you would come in.”

“I’m not sure I follow.” Nick said carefully.

“Officer Hopps is a good officer, and her heart is in the right place. She can inspire change, but I don’t believe that she has the life experience to enact it.”

“And you think that I do?” Nick asked slowly, testing the waters.

“Perhaps.”

“And you want me to…”

“To become a police officer, yes I do.” Bogo interjected.

Nick considered this new information carefully. It was not at all how he had expected this meeting to go. “…because you want me to change the system from the inside. That’s a lot of pressure to put on one mammal.”

“Let me be clear, Wilde. I am asking you to join the force because I believe that you will make a good officer. I have seen you in action, twice, and I know that you have what it takes. For that reason alone I would encourage you to sign up, but it is more than that.” For once, Bogo seemed at a loss for words. He thought for a while before continuing. “Your presence alone will ruffle some fur, but I think that fur needs to be ruffled. We can’t fix the cracks in the foundation unless we can see the cracks, and I think that your presence will be enough to expose some of them. I think that you are strong enough to weather any pushback you might encounter. I also think, or I guess I should say that I hope, since I don’t even know if this next part will pan out. I hope that your background will allow you to see things that the rest of us might miss. It is my hope that you might be able to bring some things to my attention that have real, measurable flaws and real, measurable solutions. You don’t have to decide right away. You may take some time to think about it if you wish.”

Nick considered this. For once he wasn’t thinking about Judy, but about his mother. Valerie Wilde, who once took a petition to the steps of City Hall. Valerie Wilde, who called the detective looking into her husband’s death for an update every Thursday for five years. Valerie Wilde, who had gradually, over the last decade, lost her spark and now spent her time in her dark apartment, sewing patterns that she couldn’t see and listening to the news on the radio. If he had the opportunity to change the world, shouldn’t he try? For her. “I’ll do it, but I have some conditions.”

Bogo raised an eyebrow. “Conditions?”

“Yes.” Nick announced. “First, I want to make sure that you are serious about changing things. Not just talk; actions. You don’t have to follow all of my suggestions, but you do have to consider them.”

“Very well. I reserve the right to refuse, but I promise to always explain my reasoning why. What else?”

“Next,” Nick continued, “Once I become an officer I want to be partnered with Officer Hopps.”

“Agreed.” Bogo said quickly enough to make Nick think that he had already decided on that independently. “What else?”

“Finally, I don’t ever want to be assigned to parking duty.”

“Now Wilde, don’t go around expecting any special treatment. You will still have to go through all of the training and orientation as the rest of the new recruits. You don’t get to back out of the undesirable tasks just because you find them tedious.”

“Oh, it’s not that. It’s just that I refuse to take part in a system that is designed to disproportionately affect the working classes to the point where they are discouraged from entering public spaces.” Nick couldn’t resist a smirk as he watched Bogo’s face. “Sir.”

Bogo’s nostrils flared and his jaw muscles moved.

“This is what you wanted me for, right?” Nick asked innocently.

“Agreed.” Bogo finally hissed.

Nick allowed a smile to creep over his face, feeling a little smug. “Then I accept. How do I apply?”

Bogo, who looked not at all pleased to have lost control over the conversation, passed him over an application form. Nick filled it out promptly. He had seen it before, after all, though there was no reason to tell Bogo that. When the form was complete, Bogo slid it back across the desk towards him and then reached for the case file.

“Actually sir, I’d like to finish that.” Nick said, indicating to the file. Bogo looked tense, as if he wanted to refuse, but reluctantly passed it back over. Nick once again stood up, (with a small amount of difficulty) on his swivel chair so he could read it. Seems like Officer Hawthorne was feeling pretty pleased about his detective skills. The officer had outlined in detail how he had found Nick’s identity using fingerprints taken from Nick’s discarded coffee cup. “waste of resources.” Nick muttered to himself as he read.

The last page was a suspect profile of one Wilde, Nicholas P. Nick scanned this page as key phrases leapt out of the page at him. No known address… known to frequent the Industrial District…Suspicious business dealings, shady friends, known to associate with criminals… But the next line stopped Nick short in his tracks. His heart sank in his chest, and then raised back up again quickly and violently, as his blood boiled and his heart pounded. “Suspected of sexual trafficking?” He hissed, looking up at Bogo in disgust.

“You alright, Wilde?”

Nick closed his eyes and clenched his fists. Hot, angry tears threatened to fall. “It wasn’t like that.” He whispered, almost to himself. “We were tired, she needed a place to stay. She slept on the couch. We’re not…and even if we were, it’s nobody’s business.”

“I know.” Bogo said gently. “I know.”

Nick opened his eyes to look at the cape buffalo. His vision was blurred with unshed tears. “It’s not fair. I wasn’t doing anything, I was just sitting on a bench. Am I not allowed to even do that? I can’t even sit on a bench without being labeled as a… a predator?”

“I’m sorry.” Bogo said simply.

Nick felt sick. He thought back to the time he’d spent with Judy. Sneaking into a subway tunnel. Walking into his warehouse. Heck, even sitting on the bench at the park yesterday. Who had seen them together? What had they thought? Did anybody else think that he was… Did Judy’s parents…?”

Frantic, Nick flipped back to the point in the file that described the “witness statement” from Stu and Bonnie Hopps, reading it over again, and then again, looking for any indication that Officer Hawthorne had said those hateful words to them. Thankfully, it appeared that he hadn’t been able to get a word in edgewise. Nick had never been so thankful that Judy’s parents were so overbearing.

Chief Bogo was talking again, blabbering almost. Nick forced himself to pay attention. “…is on administrative duty for the next week. He will have to take a course on species sensitivity training before he’s allowed to work in the field again. I have also instructed him to write an essay about species profiling. You are welcome to lodge a complaint against him of course, though I do caution you that if you are serious about training to become a police officer then I may not be able to fully protect you from retaliation. I can, however, assure you that this file is a draft and has not been submitted to the archives. Nobody has seen it except for me and Officer Hawthorne. There’s also the matter of…”

“It’s alright.” Nick interrupted, his voice sounded like gravel in his ears. He clenched his fists and cleared his throat. “I don’t need to lodge a complaint against Officer Hawthorne. And I still intend to become a police officer, I haven’t changed my mind.”

“Good.” Bogo said gruffly and sat back in his chair, examining Nick carefully. He seemed to sense how upset Nick was, though Nick suspected that consoling emotional mammals was not his strong point. Just as well, because Nick didn’t feel like being consoled right then.

“Is there anything else?” Nick asked finally.

“No.” Replied Bogo curtly. “I will expedite your application, you will be notified by email when you are ready to start training.”

Nick nodded silently and slid down from the chair, closing the door quietly behind him.

Chapter Text

Nick kept his head down and avoided eye contact on his way out of the precinct. He felt exposed, as if everybody was looking at him, as if everybody knew that somewhere, in a file about him, were the words “suspected of sexual trafficking.”

Of course that was impossible, there was no way that anybody could know, but it was one thing to know that, and another to feel it.

Don’t let them see that they get to you. He reminded himself. That phrase had served him well over the years. But after repeating it a few times in his head he amended it slightly. Don’t let them get to you.

He felt relieved when he got out of the police station. Lighter, freer. Hadn’t he just agreed to train to become a police officer? Was that wise? He would have to go back into that building, willingly, day after day. He paced for a bit, thinking. Maybe he should just call the whole thing off?

Irritable, Nick checked his phone to see a text from Judy.

I have a few things to finish up here, we’ll have to catch up later. Start thinking about what you’d like for supper tonight, it’s my turn to cook.

Nick smiled at his phone as a feeling of warmth started to replace all those uncomfortable thoughts from a moment ago. He stared at the message a lot longer than necessary, reading it over, and then over again. He found himself wishing that he had a picture of Judy to look at. Maybe a selfie, or a candid shot. Something. He was sure she would give him one if he asked, but he wasn’t sure how to ask. That felt like an overstep somehow.

He read the text again. This felt like a date. Was it a date? Is that what this was? Surely he couldn’t be reading that much into a text like that, not after last night. He pocketed his phone and wandered around Savanna Central a bit, thinking about his day. It wasn’t even noon yet, but he’d already told off Finnick, confided in Judy about his past, been offered a job, and found out that somebody named Officer Hawthorne had investigated him on suspicion of sexual trafficking.

Suspected of sexual trafficking. The words entered his head, uninvited. He pushed them away and picked up his pace.

Nick found himself entering ZPL, Zootopia Public Library. He needed to clear his head. The building was ancient, made of sandstone and resembling a sand castle in appearance. Nick had always liked it for that reason, it had character. There was a plaque by the main entrance explaining that the doors had once been segregated, with the prey entrance being up front and the predator entrance around the side, but Nick had read that plaque many times, he already knew what it said. Today he was here for a different reason. He went inside through the main entrance.

He wandered over to the recipe section, but didn’t find much of interest. Most of the books were species specific, while what he really wanted was something that touched on combining meals intended for both a predator and a prey animal.

ZPL was alphabetized by category, so the recipe section gave way to the Sex and Relationship section. Here he seemed to have better luck. Not recipes specifically, but there was quite a bit about interspecies relationships. He selected one book and began to read.

“Alongside opposable thumbs, extended lifespan, and the ability to walk upright and form speech, mammals adapted to have compatible genitalia, which indicates that our early ancestors used sex as a way of forming social connections and cooperation between species. It was only after we began to acquire land and property did we develop and enforce a bias against interspecies coupling, as mammals who owned and inherited property also had a vested interest in looking for genetic compatibility in their mates.”

Nick snapped the book closed and looked around guiltily. Nobody was paying attention to him. Sheepishly, he put it back on the shelf, selected another book, and flipped it open.

“Unfortunately, predators themselves are not immune from internalized bias that comes from generations of systematic oppression. As a way of coping with a hostile world a hierarchy formed within predator species, with physically larger species such as tigers, bears, and lions being elevated above smaller species such as raccoons, foxes, and coyotes. Though most mammals have to a certain extent accepted this hierarchy as normal or even natural, it is often predators themselves who are most militant about enforcing it, as keeping other species down is a less daunting task than dismantling the whole system.”

Depressed, Nick put this book back on the shelf as well. Though it was a topic that interested him, he wasn’t quite in the mood to read that one just now. He examined the titles, slowly making his way over to the Social Issues section. Here at least some of the titles were familiar; it was like looking at his mother’s bookshelf. He selected the newest Malcolm Goatwell book, Talking to Species, and began to flip through.

“Excuse me.”

Nick looked up from his book, blinking a few times to re-focus his eyes. At first he thought it was Judy. A female grey rabbit stood in front of him, but it wasn’t Judy. Her eyes were darker, her face was rounder, and she was a hair taller. “Yes?” He asked politely, though he mostly just wanted her to go away.

“What is your business here?” She asked rudely.

“My business… here? At the public library.” Nick repeated, to make sure he’d understood the question correctly. “I’m here to look at books. Seeing as how it is, you know, a library. Where they have books.”

Nick blinked at her mildly for a while. He had a fairly good idea of what was going on, but he was rather hoping that she would retreat. They sometimes did, if he wasn’t too confrontational. This one didn’t look like she was about to.

“This is a family establishment, sir.” She hissed. “There are children here.”

“Yes, that makes sense.” Nick replied, keeping his voice mild and non-threatening. “Seeing as how it is a public library.” He went back to reading his book (or at least pretending to,) still holding out hope that she would go away.

No such luck. She tapped her foot for a while before demanding “Let me see your ID.”

“My ID.” Nick repeated. The Malcolm Goatwell book closed with a snap and Nick put it back on the shelf, allowing a touch of irritation into his voice. “You want to see my ID. For looking at books at the public library. Would it be easier if I wore a collar? I could you know. I still have my grandmother’s collar, that she had to wear when she was a girl. She had the scar from it until the day she died.”

“Are you calling me a species-ist?” The bunny shrieked.

Nick didn’t respond. They were attracting attention from other patrons, and he didn’t want to be seen as the aggressor. He took a step back from her and saw a familiar book on the shelves, one that he had read aloud to his mother last year. Its familiarity was comforting to him, and he reached to take it off the shelf, though his paw trembled slightly.

“Excuse me, what seems to be the problem here?” They had gotten the attention of other mammals around, including a young wallaby, wearing the red lanyard of a library employee. He was young, probably still a teenager, and Nick immediately felt sorry for him. He looked woefully ill-equipped to handle a situation such as this.

“This fox,” the bunny shrieked, pointing at Nick, “was sulking around here, acting all suspicious. There are children around. And then, when I asked him to leave, he called me a species-ist.”

“Well, are you?” Nick asked, glaring at her. Somebody nearby gasped.

“Sir, maybe it would be better if you just left.” The wallaby said, glancing nervously around at the bystanders, clearly hoping somebody would rescue him from the situation.

“Oh, I understand, I’ll leave.” Nick allowed his voice to be smooth and mild again. He used this voice every day during hustles, he was quite good at it. “Am I allowed to use the main entrance, or would you prefer I go out the back way? I was under the impression that they stopped segregating public buildings sixty years ago, but clearly I was mistaken.”

The wallaby looked panicked. The bunny looked furious. Nick caught the eye of a nearby squirrel, who looked sympathetic but was making no move to intervene.

“That isn’t… That’s not what I… We don’t…” The wallaby stuttered, his eyes darting around the room, looking everywhere except at Nick.

Nick sighed inwardly. He didn’t mind making (a bit of a) scene if it would teach a species-ist rabbit a lesson. But there wasn’t really any way of doing that without dragging this poor wallaby into it, and that didn’t seem fair. He didn’t want to punish the wrong mammal.

“It’s alright, I’ll leave.” Nick said, handing his book to the Wallaby. “Here, shelve this for me, would you? Or better yet, bring it home for a read through first. You might learn something.”

To his credit, the wallaby looked down at the book in his paw. A copy of The Pelt We’re Dealt by Desmond Stole. Without a look back, Nick strutted out of the library, his head high and his spirits low.

Nick exited the library and checked his phone. Another text from Judy. “I’ve finished up here, but I want to check in at the Grand Pangolin Arms, see if my old room is still available. Don’t wait for me, I can find my own way to the warehouse.”

Nick tried not to feel disappointed. It made sense for Judy to find a room to rent for herself. There really was no other option. Still…

He stuffed his phone back into his pocket and started walking back towards Savanna Station.

 

 

Back at the warehouse, the lights were on and there was noise from inside. A radio, a bang, something heavy being dragged across the floor. Nick listened for a bit. Some of the workers were here. Dave, probably. Likely Marnie as well, maybe one other. He would have to walk past them to get up to his loft, and he didn’t feel like small talk. Not today. Instead he turned around and headed west towards his little bridge, with his little lawn chair. He liked that spot, he always went there when he needed to think.

And there was a lot to think about.

Did he really just apply for a job as a police officer? No, that wasn’t right. He was offered the job, by the chief of police no less. And he accepted it. Sure enough, Nick checked his phone, there was already a welcome package and class itinerary in his inbox.

And now he couldn’t even process it because of, well, everything else.

There was Judy, and Officer Hawthorne, and Finnick, and the library, and his mother, and Judy, and he hadn’t even thought about what they would have for supper that night.

Nick leaned forward in his lawn chair and rested his head in his paws, watching his tail twitch in the dust through the crack in his fingers. That, at least, was soothing.

And that’s where Judy found him, an hour or so later.

“Nick? Is everything alright?”

Nick straightened up to look at her, forcing a smile that he didn’t feel onto his face. “Everything is great.”

“Doesn’t look great.” Judy walked around to stand in front of him. With her standing and him sitting that put them at about the same height, which was kind of nice, in its own way. To be at eye level with one another. “Was it Bogo? What did he say to you?”

“It’s not Bogo.”

“Well what is it?” She searched his eyes for a while. “Nick, you know you can talk to me, right?”

For a brief, fleeting moment Nick considered deflecting. Waving her off, changing the subject, making a joke, something to steer the conversation elsewhere. Ultimately, he decided that he owed it to her to open up, though that didn’t make it any easier. Where would he even begin?

“He offered me a job.” Nick finally said. “He wants me to become a police officer.”

“Nick, that’s great!” Judy began, but then paused and examined his expression, which was anything but happy. “That is great, right?”

“Yeah.” Nick mumbled insincerely. “It’s great.”

“But…?” Judy prompted, still studying him.

“I was profiled at the library this afternoon.” He finally told her. “They kicked me out. It… It didn’t feel great.”

“What?” Judy yelped, outraged. “What were you doing?”

Nick glared at her. “It was a library, I was reading a book.”

“Sorry.” She mumbled and began to pace in front of him. “That’s discrimination. Access to public buildings is protected by Bill Z - 207. Furthermore, under the Bill of Rights it’s illegal to discriminate based on age, gender, size, species, disability, or sexual orientation. Of course, that’s usually applied to hiring practices and housing accessibility but I’m sure it’s also relevant here. We could lodge a complaint under the equal access clause...”

Nick watched her pace for a while, continuing to mumble to herself, before he spoke up again. “There’s more.”

Something in his voice made her stop and examine his face again. “Nick? What aren’t you telling me?”

It was hard to get started. Nick didn’t want to tell her about Officer Hawthorne’s criminal investigation. He wanted to protect her from that information. Heck, if he was being honest he wanted to protect himself from her having that information. But the simple answer was that since her parents had been called, she had a right to know.

“When you were in the hospital, I waited outside for, what? Two hours? Two and a half? Something like that, just sitting on a bench. I guess the police were called on me. They didn’t arrive until after we’d left but they launched an investigation. Bogo found it; he let me read the file.”

Judy clenched her fists, watching him intently. “An investigation on what grounds?”

These next words were hard to say. Nick shook his head.

“Nick…”

“Suspicion of sexual trafficking.” He finally spat out.

Judy drew herself up to her full form. Chest puffed out, fists clenched, feet shoulder width apart. A fighter’s pose; good old Judy. But then she looked again at Nick’s form and let out the breath she had been holding. For a moment she seemed to be searching for the right words, but finally she just took a few steps towards him and gathered him into her arms.

For a while they stayed like that, Nick’s forehead resting against her chest as she cradled his head and stroked his ears. Hot tears burned underneath his eyelids, but he refused to let them fall.

I’m fine, I’m fine. He kept repeating to himself over and over again. Finally, he must have said it aloud, because she drew back and glared at him.

“You are not fine.”

He pulled back from her and smiled at her. His first real smile of the day. “I’m not fine.” He repeated. It felt good to say out loud.

She returned his smile, a shy, hesitant one, but reassuring in its own way. He felt lighter somehow, safer.

If he could have held onto that feeling he would have, but unfortunately the conversation wasn’t quite done yet. He felt his smile falter. “Judy, there’s more. He… the officer. He called your parents.”

Judy took a step back. Her pupils dilated and the colour drained out of her face, visible even under her fur. For a long moment she didn’t even breathe, just stood there in front of him. “Oh.” She finally squeaked. She still had not yet taken a breath.

Nick wanted to comfort her, but he wasn’t sure what to say. Was there any way to make this better? “It doesn’t look like he said much to them. Sounds like they did most of the talking.” He wasn’t sure how helpful it was, but he felt like he needed to say something.

Judy looked at him and nodded weakly. “It’ll be okay. We’ll get through this.” She didn’t sound convincing.

“Yeah.” Nick matched her confidence, or lack thereof, with his own. “It’ll be okay.” He wasn’t sure either of them believed it.

 

Neither of them felt like chatting that evening, so they made their supper and sat down to watch Beaver and the Beast. It was mindless but enjoyable, which Nick was glad of. After the dishes had been cleaned and the credits had rolled the thought of sleep sounded very appealing to both of them. Nick turned to look at Judy awkwardly, wondering what the etiquette was here. He would have liked to hold her, or be held by her, and he was pretty sure that she would be agreeable to that. He somehow wasn’t in the mood for sex tonight, which surprised him more than anything. I must be getting old. He thought wryly. It seemed like a shame to spend another night on the couch when he had a perfectly good bed in the next room, but was there any way to invite her into his bedroom without giving her the wrong idea? He didn’t think so.

Finally he settled for a simple “goodnight.”

“Good night.” She replied, watching him carefully. “Sleep well.”

He nodded and retreated into his bedroom, leaving her behind on her little nest on the couch.

 

 

_______

 

 

Author's note: Talking to Species by Malcolm Goatwell Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell.You should read that book.

The Pelt We're Dealt by Desmond Stole = The Skin We're In by Desmond Cole.  You should read that one too.

Now tell me I'm clever. 

 

Chapter Text

The next few weeks passed quickly. Judy moved back into her old room at the Grand Pangolin Arms. Nick wasn’t surprised that her room was still available, that place was a dive, but she seemed happy. The first few nights after she left, Nick had taken to sleeping on his couch, breathing in her scent and remembering the night they had spent there together. By night three he started to feel guilty about that and retreated back to his bedroom. By then he had started his training to become a police officer, and to his surprise he enjoyed it a lot. How he made it through his background check he would never know, Bogo must have pulled some strings for him, but nobody ever questioned him and he wasn’t about to ask. It took him a few days to notice that there was nothing on the itinerary about addictions and mental health, so he sent an email to Chief Bogo to that effect. To Bogo’s credit, the class schedule was amended a few weeks later to include a guest lecture on the subject. The lecturer had yet to be named, but Nick was cautiously optimistic.

Judy had had to go on an extended round of antibiotics starting about a week after her injury, after her leg puffed up and some creamy stuff started to ooze out from underneath her stitches. The antibiotics made her feel queasy and the infection made her feel tired. Stubborn as ever, she got through her work days okay, but didn’t feel like doing much afterwards so she usually went straight home to her little room. Nick brought her a salad or some roasted veggies most days to make sure she ate and drank, which she seemed grateful for but couldn’t really stomach much of. Several times he stayed up late, fielding awkward phone calls from her parents, and studying at her little desk as she napped on the bed behind him to the sound of the neighbour’s voices.

“Z-thirty three.” Judy said one evening. Her voice came from somewhere behind him where she had been resting on the bed.

“Potentially dangerous mammal.” Nick replied, pausing in his studies. He hadn’t even realized that she’d woken up.

“Z-twenty nine.” She supplied without waiting for him to recover.

“Request urgent backup.” Nick said. He knew that one.

“Z-thirty seven.”

Nick had to think about it for a while. “Hit and run?”

“It’s riot.” Judy said patiently, and Nick turned to look at her as she continued. “It’s not enough to memorize these codes, you have to know them. You cannot afford to get the wrong one in the field. Or if another officer is calling out over their radio, you won’t have time to look it up. You have to know it. Next, Z-forty one.”

“Car accident.” Nick replied easily, and got up from the desk to stretch his back. It was a bit cramped in that desk, after all, for a fox. “I think that’s enough studying for me for today. Are you feeling better?”

“Much.” Judy said. She was sitting comfortably on the bed, her blankets wrapped loosely around her knees. She watched him for a while as he stretched, a contemplative look on her face. “Nick, I have something to show you.”

Something in her voice made him stop to look at her. “Oh?” He prompted, after waiting a few moments for her to continue.

“Open that top drawer.” She said, indicating to her little desk.

Nick did, and found a case file. He brought it over to the bed and sat down next to her.

“I’m sorry I didn’t show you this sooner.” Judy said sheepishly. “I wasn’t feeling well, and then I needed to be sure that I got it right. But anyway, here it is. Open it.”

Nick looked over at her, feeling that familiar thrill he got every time he was close to her. He’d had to put all that on hold when she got sick, though it never quite went away completely. They’d stolen a few kisses and more than a few cuddles in these past few weeks, but that was as far as it had gone.

Nick looked down at the case file, and at the little label on the outside edge. Mark C. Warden. “Mark?” He whispered, rubbing his thumb across the letters. He suddenly found that he was unable to open the file. “Is he alive?”

“Yes, he’s alive. Sounds like he’s doing really well for himself. Open it.” Judy prompted.

Nick looked over at her, and then opened the file. It seemed like his ex boyfriend had escaped the streets after all. He was living over in Zoo York, working as a community support outreach worker and occasional guest lecturer. He’d done a small amount of traveling, giving a talk called Understanding Addiction. There was a list of criminal charges further up to the top of the page, including some that Nick was familiar with. Nothing recent though. It appears that Mark really had been doing well for himself.

Nick closed the file and passed it back to her, feeling a little numb. “How did you find him? I don’t even remember telling you his last name.”

“I am a detective, after all.” Judy replied smugly. “You gave me enough information. “You were right though, it was never really investigated when you reported him missing.”

Nick nodded and rested his head on the wall behind him. He wasn’t really thinking much of anything. He wasn’t really feeling much of anything either. He just was.

“Nick?” Judy asked after a while. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah.” Nick said quietly. He paused for a long while before he felt that he owed her a bit more than that. “Just a little insulted. I gave up a lot for him, and he can’t pick up the phone to tell me that he’s alive.”

“You deserve better.” Judy said, a little stubbornly.

Nick looked over at her, allowing a sly smile to creep up over his face. “The implication being that you are the better mammal.”

The bases of Judy’s ears turned pink, but she lifted her chin up defiantly. “Naturally.”

“You are though.” Nick mumbled, and took a chance doing the very thing that he had been wanting to do for the last few weeks. He leaned over and kissed the side of her neck, allowing his teeth to graze her fur.

Judy let out a quiet gasp, and he took that as encouragement. He leaned into her, pushing her gently back onto the bed, her long ears spread over the pillow as he continued his examination of her neck.

“Nick.” She whispered finally, squirming underneath him. “The neighbours will hear us.”

“We hear them all the time.” Nick mumbled into her ear, and she shuddered. “Let them listen.”

It’s alright, we don’t mind!” came a voice on the other side of the wall.

Speak for yourself.” That was the other voice. Nick still didn’t know their names, so he had taken to calling them Tweedledum and Tweedledeer.

Nick groaned and rolled off Judy, laying next to her on the narrow bed and staring at the ceiling. “You’re right, that does ruin it.”

“Give it a chance, you might like it.” Tweedledum called through the wall.

Judy looked over at him and shook her head gently, and he returned the gesture. They allowed themselves a quiet, guilty kiss, and then stared at the ceiling of her little room and fell asleep to the sound of the neighbours’ voices.

Chapter Text

Now that Judy was feeling better, Nick found himself with more free time. He wasn’t as worried about her now, and he didn’t feel the need to rush over there with a bowl of soup. So today being Saturday, after a long week of classes and his muscles aching from running laps, he decided that a visit to his mother was in order.

Valerie Wilde’s apartment was brighter, and more cheerful, than the last time he’d been here. The windows were open, letting sunlight in and a soft breeze around the room. Her sewing projects had been put away, and the dated floral carpet was freshly vacuumed.

“Nick?” She called, coming out of the other room. “Is that you?”

“You expecting someone else?” Nick asked, going to kiss her on the cheek.

She smiled knowingly. “Kind of.”

“Kind of?” Nick asked, trying to imagine who she could mean. There was that family of muskrats down the hall, he knew she sometimes watched the kits after school. Or Mrs. Tuft, the kindly old bobcat who lived upstairs. Either way, it was nice to see her socializing.

“It’s nothing. Come in, Nicky. Can I make you some tea?”

Nick shooed her to her favourite chair while he made the tea, listening to the radio that as usual was tuned into ZBC Radio One. “A young gray wolf was attacked yesterday as she exited her high school. Witnesses describe a group of deer who held the teenager down as they placed a collar around her neck and a muzzle over her jaw. ZPD is asking the public for help in identifying the suspects and is asking anybody with information on the incident to call Crime Stoppers. The wolf is recovering at home with her parents, and is reported to be unharmed by the attack. This is the fourth such attack in recent days, a trend that is worrying a lot of mammals. I am joined today by Professor Beverly Whitecoat, Dean of Species Relations Studies at the U of Z. Dr. Whitecoat, hello.”

Nick turned off the radio, his paw shaking slightly. The room suddenly felt too small, too closed in, too warm. He remembered all too well what it felt like to have a muzzle placed over his head. He doubted the wolf was unharmed, as the radio announcer had claimed. Maybe physically she was unharmed, but this was the sort of thing that sticks with you.

“I can’t believe we’re still dealing with this sort of thing.” Valerie said as he brought over her favourite mug. “I thought we’d have moved past it long ago.”

“Yeah.” Nick mumbled. He really didn’t want to talk about it. He could still smell the metallic tang of the muzzle from so long ago. Sometimes he could go days or even weeks without thinking about it, but when the memories did come they came hard and fast, and were no less vivid now than they were twenty years ago.

“How is your friend, the rabbit?” Val asked, seeming to sense that her son needed a change of topic. “What was her name? Judy?”

“Yes, Judy.” Nick responded, shaking the memory away as he poured the tea. “You know her name, you ask about her every time.”

“Well maybe if you would introduce us I wouldn’t have to pry.” Val replied stubbornly. “How is her leg?”

“Better.” Nick said, a small smile creeping onto his face. “I’m taking her to get blood work done this afternoon. If her white cell count goes down then she may be able to come off her antibiotics.”

“That’s nice. And how are your studies coming along?”

“Good, it’s interesting. I’m enjoying it more than I thought I would.” Nick said enthusiastically. “Right now we’re learning about the legal aspect of things. Laws and the justice system. It’s easy to collect evidence, but you always have to be thinking about how to make sure it’s admissible to court, and presentable to a jury.”

Whatever Valerie Wilde was about to say, probably some generic words of maternal pride, was interrupted by a knock at the door. A very large knock, from a very large mammal.

“Come in!” Val called cheerfully. To Nick she added, “Make another cup of tea, will you, dear?”

The door opened and none other than Chief Bogo walked into the room, holding a case file. How he made it through the door, Nick will never know. His broad shoulders dwarfed the small apartment and he had to turn sideways to avoid the ceiling light.

“Chief...Bogo?” Nick asked, hardly able to believe his eyes. What was he doing here?

“Wilde.” Bogo responded with a curt nod. He carefully made his way over to the couch and sat down, his knees drawn up to his chest and the couch sagging under his weight.

“I take it you’ve met?” Val asked, a touch of amusement creeping into her voice. “Ogo here has started looking into your father’s death.”

That was a bit of news that hit Nick like a load of bricks, but first, there was something that he just couldn’t let go. “Your first name is… Ogo? Ogo Bogo?”

“Shut your puny mouth, Wilde, you are not to call me that.” Bogo glared at Nick, though he suddenly seemed a little less intimidating than he had before. How scary could you be, when your first name is Ogo?

Nick got up to prepare another cup of tea in their largest mug, turning his back on the other two so he could grin mercilessly at the wall. Ogo?

“Have you made any progress?” Val asked Bogo as Nick returned with the tea.

“Some. You understand that hit and runs are difficult to solve.” Bogo said, accepting the mug from Nick. “You have to find the exact car that was involved, and then match it to a driver. This gets harder if it gets washed and painted before you come across it. And the one we need to match would be twenty years old by now. It’s probably not even still on the road.”

“Of course.” Valerie told him. She didn’t look disappointed at all, though to be fair she’d had twenty years of disappointment. Her hopes probably weren’t very high.

“How come you didn’t tell me this was going on?” Nick asked, taking the only spot that was still available, on the embroidered footstool.

“I didn’t know if anything would come of it.” His mother said apologetically. “Detective Garvity always told me he was doing everything he could, but of course they always say that.”

“Ah yes, Detective Garvity.” Bogo opened the case file on his lap. “He looked into this for a while, but it appears that he backed off once he realized that he was getting wrapped up in a gang war.”

Gang war? This was all new to Nick, who had just been a pup when all this had happened, but Val didn’t seem surprised at all.

“Your husband owned a business.” Bogo continued. “A tailor shop, named John Wilde’s Suit-topia. You know that part, of course. Now Suit-topia was situated in a sort of no-ram’s land, between the territory of two warring gangs. The Ram’s Horns and the Cloven Hooves. The Ram’s Horns have since fallen apart, but the Cloven Hooves still exist today. It appears that Mr. Wilde was in business dealings with the Cloven Hooves.”

Val looked thoughtful. “John couldn’t get a business license; nobody would grant one to a fox. Some banks would give him a loan, but the interest rate was triple what a prey animal would have paid, so John approached the Cloven Hooves. He paid them off every month, and kept them well dressed, and offered his basement as a hideout when needed. In return they gave him protection, and wool, and the signature that he needed for his business license and his loan.”

Bogo nodded, not that Val could see it. “This angered the Ram’s Horns. It’s normal for gangs to lay claim to businesses within their own territory, but Suit-topia was in a location that was claimed by neither of them. Or both of them, depending on your perspective. It’s no wonder he gained a target on his back.”

“So you think that he was targeted deliberately?” Val asked.

“I’m sure of it. The trouble is, we can’t know who.” Bogo frowned at his case file. “Most murder cases have too few suspects, this one has too many. I don’t have any reason to suspect any members of the Cloven Hooves. It appears that Mr. Wilde was well-liked, and paid his debts on time. Simply put, they had no motivation.”

“Is that the same Cloven Hooves that Mayor Bellweather is entangled with?” Nick asked, leaning forward eagerly.

“Yes, but you have to understand that twenty years is a lot of time in gang life. Most of the original members are dead or in prison. They don’t have the same loyalties, or the same priorities. Especially with a change in leadership. Bellwether has only been with them for three or four years as far as we can tell, but she changed their whole dynamics.”
Nick frowned. “So that leaves the Ram’s Horns.”

“Yes, the Ram’s Horns. Twelve of the original members are dead. It’s a rough life, you understand. Three are in prison. Two unaccounted for. I will interview the surviving members, of course, but I want you both to be prepared for the eventuality that we will never figure out which of them did it. It was a common initiation ritual for new members to kill a predator or a rival gang member. A car was their preferred weapon. The Ram’s Horns had their own body shop, and most often they would have the cars repaired and repainted before the police ever came looking for a suspect.”

Nick could feel the fur on his back and arms stand on end. The thought of anybody just running down predators with a car for an initiation to anything was sickening. And this had happened to his father. Suddenly he couldn’t sit there anymore, on his little footstool. He needed to be up and moving. In one swift movement he stood up, knocking his nearly empty teacup to the floor.

“Nick?” Val asked, peering in his direction. “Are you alright?”

“Yes, I’m fine.” Nick said through gritted teeth. He knew that not one of the three of them believed that. “I just need to take a walk.”

“Say hi to Judy for me.” Val said, as he breezed out the door.

 

 

Judy. Say hi to Judy for me.

It was practical advice. Judy would make him feel better, and his mother probably knew that, though he would have preferred if she hadn’t said anything in front of Bogo.

Ogo. That was his name. Ogo Bogo. Nick snickered.

He did feel better out here in the open air, with the cars whizzing past and the sun was starting to get low in the sky. He kinda wished that he hadn’t bolted from his mother’s apartment so fast. He would have liked to hear the rest of the conversation.

Nick walked to the end of the street, but then decided that he didn’t really have anywhere to go from there. Just more traffic and more buildings. He turned and walked back again, arriving back at his mother’s apartment building just in time to see Chief Bogo exiting the building, case file in hoof.

Bogo changed direction when he saw Nick and caught up with him easily. “You alright, Wilde?”

“Fine.” Nick lied easily. “Sorry for walking out like that, I needed to take a phone call.”

“It’s alright, we were finishing up anyway. There was nothing left to discuss.” Bogo said awkwardly, staring over Nick’s head.

Nick hesitated, and then decided that he had a right to know. “Why did you open up this file? Why now?”

“I told you once that I believe that ZPD is capable of doing better. Well, this is my way of proving it.” Bogo shifted uncomfortably in his spot.

Nick didn’t have to ask what he meant by that. Bogo had run that background check on Nick, and discovered an incomplete investigation into his father’s death. This had somehow reflected poorly on Bogo’s father, who had been the chief of police at the time that the case was mishandled. Be it pride, or loyalty, or perhaps some disappointment, Bogo felt that he needed to open the case. Whatever it was, it was personal.

Nick wasn’t complaining. It was personal to him too. And if it would solve the case, who was he to complain?

“What do you remember about the night your father died?” Bogo asked him.

“Me? Not much. I wasn’t there when it happened.” Nick shook his head.

“Tell me what you do remember, it might be important.”

“It might not.” Nick said cynically, but searched his memory anyway. “I had homework. I was supposed to come up with an example of how my parents used math in their jobs. I was excited for my dad to come home so I could ask him, but he never did.”

“What else?” Bogo prompted.

Nick tapped one finger against his leg. “We had to go and clean out Suit-topia. The landlord didn’t give us very much time to empty it out. Somebody had spray painted graffiti across the door.”

“Graffiti? What did it look like?” Bogo asked eagerly.

“It was...pink? Or maybe it was blue.” Nick thought for a while. “No, it was blue. I don’t know what it said.”

“Would you be able to recognize the pattern, if I showed you some pictures?”

“I don’t know, probably not. My mother might remember. She saw it too.”

“Your mother is blind.”

Nick glared. “She wasn’t always blind. I’m saving up for cataract surgery for her.” He sighed, deflated, and rubbed his temple. “I can always take a look, but no promises.”

“Thank you.” Bogo said, and the two of them stood in silence for a minute or two before they turned and walked in different directions.

Chapter Text

Nick hopped on a bus, and then another bus, all the while thinking about his father and Chief Bogo’s investigation. He had some pretty complex feelings about the whole thing. Sadness, of course, but John Wilde had been dead for twenty one years. It never stopped being sad, but it was also a distant kind of sadness. One that Nick didn’t really have time to dwell one right now. He was probably due for another wave of sickening grief, those happened a few times per year, but it didn’t have to be right now. Not when he was on his way to meet up with Judy.

Judy. Should he tell her about this?

Nick thought for a while and then decided against it. Not now, not today. Maybe tomorrow, definitely by the end of the week, but not today. Today was just for feeling. Tomorrow he could start processing.

Besides, he was going to meet up with Judy. Get her blood work done, then out for a nice supper. His treat. He felt a warm smile coming over his face as he thought about her. She was feeling better, getting back her energy, her spunk. He loved that about her. He loved… her.

Nick felt the smile fade off his face and the blood rising to the surface as he thought that. He loved her. Love. Maybe he could tell that to her. His fingers were tingling and his heart was beating fast. Should he tell her that? The thought was thrilling.

And terrifying. When he finally met up with her the words were on his tongue. I love you. But he clammed up, and they never left his lips. Just as well. He told himself as he led her to the clinic. It’s too early.

 

“You were right, that was a lot easier.” Judy said a short time later, holding a small piece of gauze on the inside of her elbow. “If I’d gone to the one in Savanna Central I would be waiting all day.”

“Yep.” Nick said smugly. “Helps to know the city.”

“Speaking of which, where are you taking me for supper?”

“A nice Greek place.” Nick answered. “Twelve different kinds of salad dressing. They make their own.”

“Sounds wonderful.” Judy answered, following him back onto the bus. It was mostly empty, and they settled onto a seat near the front.

The restaurant was about a twenty minute bus ride from the lab, but it was on the way back to his warehouse, so they settled in comfortably. Not talking, just enjoying each other’s company. That is, until Judy gasped and grabbed his arm. “Nick, look!”

“What? What am I looking at?” Nick had been daydreaming. He hadn’t seen anything at all. He looked in the direction of her pointed finger but saw only buildings.

“We passed it, it was back there. A group of mammals. A protest maybe. They had signs. Excuse me sir, we need to get off!”

“Judy.” Nick hissed as she bolted to the front of the bus. “This is a rough neighbourhood. We need to be careful.” But she was already gone. Feeling nervous, he followed behind.

It was indeed a protest. An anti-predator protest, and an angry one by the looks of it. Nick saw a sign that said BRING BACK THE COLLAR and another that read MUZZLE THEM ALL. Lots of mammals, all of them prey, had yellow signs or badges with a black hoof print on it. Panicked, Nick looked around for Judy, and saw her a short distance away, trying to manage the crowd. She was wearing plain clothes, so nobody was paying her much attention.

Think about it. Predators and prey, going to the same schools, the same libraries, the same swimming pools.” A ram was standing on a milk crate a short distance away, holding a megaphone. The crowd seemed to be focused on him. Murmurs of discontent could be heard every time he paused. “They want us to believe that it’s normal. They want us to believe that interspecies marriage is normal.” There was a hiss from the crowd. “They want us to believe that interspecies adoption is normal.” Another hiss. “They want us to teach our calves, joeys, fawns, and lambs that it’s normal to go to school next to cubs and pups.” Another hiss, louder this time. “To grow up to marry todds and vixens.”

“Judy, we need to go, now.” Nick had caught up with her.

“I’ve called for backup, we need to hold the line until they arrive, we might be needed for crowd control.” Judy said, not really looking at him. “Right now we’re the only police presence.”

“Police? What police? I don’t see a badge. We have no authority here. We need to leave, now.” Nick allowed some desperation to reach his voice.

“We can’t leave, this is a disturbance.”

“Judy, please?” Nick pleaded, reaching out to grab her arm.

Judy looked at him, really looked at him, for the first time. She must have seen the fear in his eyes, because she just nodded. “Alright.”

But it was too late. “Hey, that fox just grabbed that bunny!” A voice nearby yelled.

“I saw it too.”

“Unhand her!”

“He’s dangerous, don’t let him get away!”

The voices were coming from everywhere now. So were the furry bodies. A sheep grabbed his collar. Another his arm. A hoof, a paw, a trunk. They were all over him. His shirt ripped, his fur was pulled out in clumps, something heavy was on his tail, his tie was being tightened around his neck.

Nick was scared, terrified. He wanted to scream, he wanted to cry, he wanted his mother. But no words left his mouth. A streak of pain as something struck him on his side, then again. He doubled over, unable to breathe.

Mob mentality. Thought a small voice inside his head, oddly calm. And then that same calm voice added. You might die today.

And then a familiar body overtop of his. Judy had fought her way through the crowd and thrown herself on top of him. Shocked, a few of the mammals backed away, then a few more. Nick looked up at her, seeing the panicked look on her face. He had never seen a more beautiful sight. The voices quieted and the crowd parted as Judy tugged Nick to his feet and led him away.

 

At least one piece of luck came their way; a bus came through just as they reached the end of the street. Nick was still partially winded, so Judy helped him on. The drivers for these routes were used to all sorts so this one, a burly porcupine, didn’t pay any mind to Nick’s torn shirt or patchy fur. She just took their fare and waved them on to the back of the bus.

“Nick.” Judy said, her voice thick and heavy. “Nick, I’m sorry.”

“‘salright.” Nick muttered. His paws were shaking and his tie was too tight around his neck. He tugged at it, trying to loosen it.

“No, it’s not alright. You told me it was dangerous. You told me it was time to leave, but I didn’t listen. I never listen.”

“It’s fine.” Nick muttered again. He had given up fighting with the knot of his tie and just yanked the whole thing over his head. He wrapped it around his paws, over and over again, staring down at it and thinking. This had been his father’s tie.

“No, it’s not fine. You need medical attention. We need to file a police report. That was assault. Look, they pulled out some of your fur. Right there.”

Judy reached up to touch Nick’s neck and he couldn’t help it, he flinched away from her, as if protecting himself from an attack. Judy recoiled, and her eyes filled up. She brought her paws to her mouth. “Nick…”

“Sorry.” He mumbled, forcing himself to relax and looking down again at the tie in his paws. Suddenly he didn’t want it anymore. There was a garbage bin near the front of the bus. And they were near his warehouse anyway, so he stood up and walked towards the driver.

“No, I’m sorry. Look, Nick, you can’t just pretend that everything is fine, when it’s not. You need to talk to me. You need…”

Nick tossed his tie in the trash can and hopped off the bus. “You don’t have to follow me home, you know.” He told Judy.

“I’m not leaving you alone, not after what happened, don’t be ridiculous.” Judy said, following him.

“Hey, is there a problem here?” The porcupine bus driver asked. Her voice was sweet and feminine, which contrasted with her tough demeanour and expression. She narrowed her eyes at Judy.

Nick immediately felt bad for Judy. He knew what it was like when a mammal got the wrong impression. “No, it’s fine. It’s nothing, she’s my friend.” To Judy he added. “Come on then, my couch is still available if you want to stay the night.”

The warehouse was deserted. It usually was this time of night, but Nick immediately felt grateful. He didn’t want to see anybody. He headed towards his staircase that led up to his loft, but Judy planted her body in front of him before he could get very far. “No. You need to talk to me.”

Nick looked down at her. Really looked. She looked terrible. But to be fair, he probably did too. His muscles felt weak and his paws were still shaking. “I don’t blame you.” He managed a weak smile. “Sorry we missed dinner.”

“Nick, you can’t just pretend that everything is alright, it’s not. You could have died back there, and I would have had to watch it, knowing it was my fault. And you told me to stay away but I didn’t listen.” Judy looked like she was going to cry. She swallowed a few times and then continued, her voice unsure. “I was just really scared, and I know you were too, and I need you to admit that.”

“Of course I was scared.” Nick took a step towards her, and then another one. He only intended to comfort her, but by the time he got within arms reach of her he didn’t make himself stop. He kept pushing her backwards until she got to a parked car. He then guided her up so she was sitting on the hood of the car; she wrapped her legs around him, and he kissed her neck. And then further down her neck, and then further down, until he reached her shoulder. Her shirt was in the way, so he undid the top few buttons and pushed it off her shoulder so he could reach her collar bone.

Judy, for her part, had her legs wrapped tightly around him and was holding on tightly to him, one paw on his arm, the other on the back of his head. She drew his head closer to her and he growled, a low animalistic sound, and nipped at her fur. “Nick…Not here. Not like this.”

Nick paused against her, breathing heavily and trying to collect himself. He hadn’t even realized that one paw was on her tail. “Sorry.” He muttered against her as he shifted it away. She shuddered as the vibration of his voice rumbled against her chest. Judy shrugged her shirt back onto her shoulder but made no move to do the buttons back up.

Nick stepped backwards and guided her off the hood of the car. There on the dust was the print of her little bunny bottom, as well as paw prints from both fox and bunny. He shook his head and wiped it all off with the sleeve of his shirt. “Come on.” He muttered without looking back at her. “I need a shower.”

 

 

He did need a shower. He was dusty and sore and smelled like damp wool. Judy wasn’t much better. The shower did feel good, though his clothes went into the garbage instead of the laundry. He didn’t feel much attachment to them now.

After his shower he walked straight across the hall to his room. He put on a pair of pajama bottoms but then sat down on the bed without putting on a top. He could hear the water running as Judy had her own shower, but just sat there slumped on the edge of his bed. He felt tired, numb. His paws were still trembling, so he jammed them in between his knees to keep them still.

There was a small knock at the door and Judy appeared, her fur damp and wearing the Chillin' like a Villain t-shirt that he had lent her last month. He didn’t know where she had gotten it. She must have had it stashed away somewhere.

“Can I come in?” She whispered.

“Yeah.”

She hopped up to the bed beside him, her toes peeking out from underneath the shirt.

“You alright?” He asked.

“Yeah, you?”

“Yeah.” He said, then changed his answer. “No.”

“Me neither.”

That felt good to hear. That felt good to say. He flopped down on the bed and stared at the ceiling. Judy settled down beside him, laying on her side with her head propped up, studying him.

She reached for his neck, where that patch of fur had been yanked out. “May I…”

“Yeah.” He murmured, and tilted his muzzle up so she could reach. She caressed the bare patch, which hurt a bit, and then moved her paw further up to stroke along the bottom of his jaw, and Nick practically melted. He closed his eyes and allowed himself to relax and think of nothing at all, except how good it felt. That area on the bottom of his snout was especially sensitive and he would have gone to the ends of the earth if it meant that Judy would touch it.

After a while he realized that he was purring. He wasn’t sure when he had started, or how long he’d been at it. But now that he was aware of it, it became hard to continue. He allowed it to taper off, and then turned his head to the side to look at her.

She was watching him, fascinated, her arm still outstretched towards him. “I thought only felines could purr.”

“Some felines.” He corrected. “Lions and tigers don’t purr. And neither do foxes, really. We can make something that sounds like it, but it’s only on the exhale. A bobcat or a lynx will purr on both the inhale and the exhale.”

“Oh.” She whispered, playing with the patch of white fur on his chest. “I liked it, will you continue?”

“I can’t do it on command.” He was starting to feel mildly embarrassed, but then he remembered when he had stroked her ears and her foot had started twitching, all on its own. “Tell you what? I’ll try to relax and let myself purr for you, if you let your foot twitch for me. I’ll stroke your ears again.”

Judy took a quick breath in. Her ears turned a bit pink and her pupils dilated. She swallowed, and nodded. “Deal.” She squeaked. “I also can’t do that on command. But I’m willing to try, if uhhh. If you stroke my ears some more.”

“I’d love you.” He said, and then jerked backwards a bit as he realized that the words he wanted to say and the words that came out of his mouth were very different. “I’d love to, is what I meant to say. I’d love to stroke your ears.”

Judy was frozen, watching him. He couldn’t remember seeing her take a breath.

“I do though.” Finally he decided that he didn’t have to hold himself back anymore. Something about nearly being killed by an angry mob made three simple words sound much less scary. “I do love you.”

Judy relaxed, and let her eyes flutter closed and her head relax into the mattress. “I love you too.”

Nick gathered her close, breathing in her scent, then made good on his promise to stroke her ears.

Chapter Text

Nick fell.  He fell and kept falling.  Down down down into the heavy darkness.  Down down down into a mass of wooly bodies with sharp black hooves.  Hooves that were grabbing at his shirt, his tie.  Something heavy was on his chest.  He tried to take a breath, then another one, but the air was being forced out of his lungs.  He tried to scream, and scream again, but try as he might no sound came out.  He was being suffocated.  And then a bunny.  His bunny, Judy, was reaching down towards him.  For a moment it seemed like she would save him, but then her paws were on his neck and she was pressing down, hard.  “It’s nothing personal.”  She told him sweetly, but it wasn’t Judy’s voice that came out of her mouth, it was Bellweather’s.  “It’s just part of my biology.”

And then bedroom.  Bed.  Sheets.  Blankets.  They were too heavy so Nick threw them off and swung his legs over the side of the bed, stroking the fur at his neck nervously.

“Nightmare?”  Judy whispered from behind him.  She was sitting on the other side of the bed, knees drawn to her chest under her Chillin’ Like a Villain t-shirt, watching him.

Nick didn’t try to deny it.  She had long ago figured out that he had night terrors.  He wasn’t fooling anyone.  “It’ll pass.”  He muttered.  Though he wasn’t sure about this one.  It seemed especially vivid.  

“Want to talk about it?”  She asked gently.

“No.  I don’t know.”  He was starting to become more aware of his surroundings.  Bedroom.  Or supply closet, more accurately, back from its warehouse office days.  It still had a filing cabinet in one corner that was too heavy for him to move.  Bed, dresser, clock.  8:20 a.m.  Judy, on the bed next to him.  Rain pattering down on the tin roof.  A noise from the kitchen.  Nick’s ear twitched.

“It’s Finnick.”  Judy told him quietly.  

Nick rubbed his face, still unsettled by his dream.  “I wish that guy would learn to knock.”

“He did knock.”  Judy supplied helpfully.  “It’s what woke me up.”

“Oh.” Nick muttered.  It didn’t make him feel any less irritated.  “Did you answer?”

“No, he just let himself in.”  Judy responded.  “My, uhh.  My clothes are still in the bathroom.”

“Oh.”  Nick said again, this time feeling sheepish.  “Want me to go get them for you?”

Judy shrugged, and then shook her head.  “It’s alright.  I don’t think there’s any way of doing that subtly.  He already knows I’m in here.”

“Yeah, I think you’re right.”  Nick stood up from the bed.  He was still wearing his pajama bottoms but was naked from the waist up.  He decided not to reach for a shirt.  “Then it’s his own fault for barging in.  Let’s go make it awkward.”

Judy grinned at him and they walked out of the room together, her wearing that ridiculous t-shirt and him wearing loose-fitting bottoms but nothing else.  

“Where do you keep your coffee filters?”  Finnick asked as they walked into the living area.  He had climbed up to the counters and was rummaging through the cabinets.  He had turned an empty soup pot upside down to stand on so he could see up to the higher shelves.  

“Finn, you can’t just barge in like this anymore.”  Nick told him, fetching the coffee filters from the bottom drawer.  Finnick could have reached it from the floor, if he’d bothered to look.

“Well if you answered your phone, I wouldn’t have to barge in.”  Finnick crossed his arms and glared at Nick.  “It’s out here, by the way.  And yours is too, Rabbit.  I plugged them both in for you.  You’re welcome.”

Nick went to fetch his phone and hand the other one to Judy.  Four missed calls and thirteen unread text messages.  “What..?”

Finnick scrambled down from the counter as Nick started the coffee maker and Judy put away the soup pot.  “You two sure know how to make a spectacle.”

“If you’re going to come over here first thing in the morning you can’t be shocked by what you see.”  Nick snapped.

“Oh it’s not that.”  Finnick said smugly.  “You two are adults and can have sex if you want to.  Nice shirt, Rabbit”

“We didn’t…”  Nick stopped himself.  Or maybe they did, depending entirely on whether you’d define sex as penetrative or....  “Just, just spill it.  What’s going on?”

“Take a look.”  Finnick said, and waved his paw over in the direction of the kitchen island, to today’s issue of The Daily Mews .  “I had to buy a newspaper.  A newspaper.  Do you know they still print newspapers?”

Nick wandered over to the counter where the newspaper was waiting.  “Carrots.  You’d better come and look at this.”

“What is it?”  Judy asked, scrambling up the bar stool to take a look.  Her floor-length t-shirt got in the way and Nick had to help her.

And there, centred on the front page, was a photograph of them at the rally from the night before.  Nick gulped.  

He had to admit that it was an attractive photograph, from a purely artistic point of view.  Centered in the middle of the page was Nick, laying on the pavement.  His head was raised slightly to look up at Judy, who was holding herself overtop of him protectively, one arm steadying herself on the pavement below his shoulder, the other reaching out behind her to protect themselves against the mob.  Framed around them was a mass of protestors, with their signs.  One of them was yelling, another was raising his sign as if it were a weapon.  A lone streetlamp cast an eerie glow on the entire scene, as further off in the distance that ram was preaching up from his milk crate.  The whole photo was heavy on the mood, light on the details, for which Nick was glad.  He and Judy were mostly silhouettes, their dark forms visible against the hazy light behind them; recognizably a fox and a rabbit based on their profile alone, but perhaps not recognizably this fox and rabbit.  Finnick had recognized them, but perhaps others might not?  Nick was cautiously hopeful.

Judy unfolded the newspaper so they could read the caption at the bottom.  “A tender moment caught on camera at an anti-predator rally last night in Meadowlands.   There was no accompanying article, just a photograph and a caption.

“That’s not what happened.”  Judy balled up her fists.  “They make it seem like such a romantic moment, but it wasn’t.  You could have died.”

“Anyone with two eyes could see that.”  At some point Finnick had climbed back up to the counter and was watching the coffee drip into the pot.  “But the world needs a good story right now, and you two have supplied it.”

“It might blow over.  We just need to lay low for a few days.”  Nick said hopefully.  “Besides, does anybody actually read The Daily Mews anymore?”

“Gizelle Cheeped it.”  Judy said, checking her phone.  “So did Arnold Schwartzastagger, and Bill Kitten.” 

“I don’t use Chipper.” Nick said, looking down at her phone on the counter.  Gizelle had accompanied her Cheep with the all caps caption LOVE CONQUERS HATE.

“Everybody else does.”

“Right.”  Nick said, feeling numb.  This was all getting to be too much.

“Maybe we just need to get ahead of the story.”  Judy suggested.  “Do a few interviews, give our side of events.  I still think you need to fill out a police report.”

“She’s got a point.”  Finnick said.  By this point he was attempting to pour the coffee into a mug.  The pot was hot and probably weighed as much as he did, but he seemed determined, and somehow ended up with his mug full of coffee.  “You could parade around for a few weeks, have your minute of fame.  Become the sweethearts of the Reclaim the Streets Movement.  Maybe secure an interview with Oprahssum.  People will lose interest eventually.”

“Pretty sure she’s retired.”  Said Judy, who suddenly looked much less sure about the whole idea.  

“Absolutely not.”  Nick interjected.  He was back to studying the photograph.  A pronghorn was raising his protest sign threateningly above the prone fox.  Is that why his ribs hurt so much today, because some mammal had been hitting him with a sign?  He didn’t remember that.  

“Nick…” Judy called softly, snapping him back from his thoughts.

Nick flinched away, forcing his mind back to the matter at hand.  He was in his kitchen, and nowhere else.  Judy and Finnick were here, and no one else.  So why did he still smell damp wool?  He rubbed his neck where his tie had tightened on him the previous night.

“Nick is right.”  Judy said, watching him carefully.  She seemed to sense his discomfort.  “Let’s just lay low for a while.”

“You two can lay in any position you want.”  Finnick said, miming invisible air quotes around the word lay.  “This isn’t going away, and you’re going to need a strategy for dealing with it.”

“Don’t be crude.”  Nick told him, but knew that his friend was right, about one thing anyway.  “We do need a strategy though.”

“There’s something obvious you’re missing.”  Finnick said.

“Oh?”  Nick, who had been watching his friend struggle with his mug of coffee for the last few minutes, finally went to carry it over to the kitchen island.

“You can just walk away.”  Finnick said, clambering down the counter to follow his coffee to the island.  “Have one last romp in the hay, say your goodbyes, then go your separate ways and this thing won’t be able to follow you.”

Nick hesitated, suddenly overcome with a wave of insecurity.  Perhaps it was better for Judy?  He didn’t need to drag her into all this.  

But Judy was already shaking her head. “Absolutely not.”  Nick felt like he could kiss her.

“I guess that’s your answer then.”  He told Finnick a little smugly.

“You sure?  You don’t have to decide right away, you can think it over for a while.  You’ve had your fun, but this is real life.  It’s bigger than just the two of you.  Not everybody is going to react well when they see the two of you together.  That’s a lot of pressure to start out with.  Lots of relationships wouldn’t survive the stress.”

“You have your answer.”  Judy glared at Finnick, but then looked over at Nick, her own wave of insecurity washing over her.  “That is, if you think…?”

“Yeah.  I do think.”  He told her, reaching over to hold her paw.  She smiled warmly at him and he couldn’t help rubbing his claw through her fur.

Finnick cleared his throat loudly and the two let go.  “Alright then, if you’re sure, I’m here for you.  Whatever you need.  An alibi, a hustle, an agent, I’m your man.  Just name it, what do you need?”

Nick looked over at Judy, who looked back at him and shrugged.  What did they need?  None of them really had a good answer.

Chapter Text

“Come in!”

Nick opened the heavy door to Chief Bogo’s office.  

“You too, Hopps.”

Surprised, Nick turned around to see Judy rounding the corner, apparently headed the same place he was.  She shrugged when she saw him and they entered the room together.  They were significantly smaller than Bogo, so they couldn’t see the top of his desk until they’d clambered up to their respective chairs.  There in the middle of the desk stood Yesterday’s copy of The Daily Mews.   Nick swallowed. 

“So, Wilde.  Training is going well, I hear?  Your instructors tell me that you are acing the academic section of it, courts and the law, though I’m hearing that you are struggling a bit with practical application.”

“I reject the premise of it.”  Nick replied stubbornly.  “The idea that some mammals are born with criminal tendencies independent of life circumstances is flawed at best…”

“And Hopps.”   Bogo continued, as if Nick had not spoken.  “Return to active duty I hear.  Wounds all healed?  Ready for your first assignment?  Good, good.  I am going to assign you to Sahara Square for the next few weeks.  A community of meerkats is habitually calling the police over trivial matters.  Our concern is domestic violence, of course, but until somebody talks to us we cannot know for sure.  A smaller mammal will be an asset right now.”

“Yes sir!  I, umm, thank you?”  Judy said, frowning at Bogo, and then at the newspaper on his desk.

“So!  On to the point.”  Bogo said, sitting up straight and clicking his pen in one hoof a few times.  “I make no secret of the fact that I want to pair you two as partners when the time comes.  Wilde, by the time you are through your training then Hopps will be a senior officer and in a good spot for a mentee.  I have already seen that you are loyal to one another and work well as a team, though it is also important that I consider how your physical attributes compliment one another.  For example, rabbits have better day vision and exceptional hearing, while foxes have better night vision and an excellent sense of smell.  These are all things I take into consideration when assigning partners.”

Nick glanced over at Judy, who was watching Bogo attentively, though she still had that confused look on her face.  Did he really summon them to his office for this?

“However, and I am going to choose my words very carefully here.”  Bogo said slowly, testing each word out in his mouth before he said it.  “ Hypothetically if two mammals begin a romantic relationship with one another and hypothetically I knew about it ahead of time then hypothetically I must assign them to different partners because hypothetically that could create a conflict of interest in the field.”

“Hypothetically.”  Nick repeated dryly.  

“That’s right.”  Bogo replied, looking very awkward indeed.  

“Sir, this isn’t fair.”  Judy announced, and the other two widened their eyes at her.  Nick gave her a warning kick behind the desk, which caused his chair to swivel.  He should have remembered that it would do that.


What did you say, Hopps?”

 “Hypothetically, sir, this isn’t fair.”  Judy corrected, glaring stubbornly at him.  “There’s nothing romantic about that photo; it’s a traumatic photo of a traumatic event and frankly, sir, the police should be investigating it by now.”

“Irrelevant.  IIf you still expect the world to be fair then you haven’t been paying attention.  The reality is that if you two are starting a romantic or sexual relationship then you must work to keep it a secret until after the partners have been assigned.”  Bogo snapped, and then hurried to add “...hypothetically.”

“Understood.”  Nick said quietly, and then looked over at Judy, who looked like she was going to argue more, but then let a puff of air out of her cheeks.

“Understood.”  She sounded resentful. 

“Good.”  Bogo cleared his throat and tapped a stack of papers on the desk.  “Good.”

The three mammals sat in uncomfortable silence for longer than any of them would have liked.  

“Have you?”  Judy said at last to Bogo.  “Have you started a police investigation into the assault that took place in Meadowlands on Saturday night?”

“Yes, but it hasn’t gotten very far.”  Bogo shrugged apologetically.  “With no police report, no witnesses, no victims, and no reported injuries we don’t have much to work with.”

“Well maybe if your witnesses hadn’t been threatened into silence you would have had a police report by now.”  Judy glowered at Bogo, and Nick made a strangled noise in the back of his throat.  Dear, wonderful Judy never quite knew when to stop.

“I understand your frustration, Hopps.”  Bogo said kindly.  Nick had never heard the Police Chief speak so patiently to him.  Bogo must have a soft spot for Judy.  “But you really are reading too much into this.  You are free to make the report, I am merely warning you of the potential consequences of doing so.”

“Hypothetically.”  Nick added.  

“Yes.”

“But sir, bill Z-013 grants mammals protection from discrimination based on, among other things, relationship status…”

“Judy, can I talk to you for a minute?”  Nick asked pointedly.

“I hardly think that’s necessary.”  Judy said without looking at Nick, but Bogo looked in every way relieved.

“I just remembered I have to pick up a file from Clawhauser.  His desk is in the basement now, so it takes a few minutes to get there and back.  Don’t touch anything while I am gone.”  And he breezed out the door, with all the grace that the one tonne buffalo could muster.

“Carrots, you’re just going to have to let this go.”  Nick said as the door closed behind them.

“Absolutely not.  And how are you so calm about this?”  Judy was shaking, balling her fists in her lap.

“How else do you want me to act?”  Nick waved his paw in the direction of the newspaper on the desk.  “We knew there would be repercussions as soon as we saw that stupid photo, and here they are.  We just need a strategy for dealing with it, remember?”

“Our strategy should just be telling the truth.”  Judy said stubbornly.  “Everybody thinks it’s just this romantic moment.  Have you even looked at social media recently?  That damn photo is all over Muzzlebook, and Chipper, and Instaherd.  It’s not fair.  It didn’t happen that way and if we could just make mammals see that…”

“Do you think anybody cares?  They like the story they have, they’re not going to give it up that easily.  Right now we have plausible deniability.  Right now nobody knows it’s us until we tell them.  They might suspect, but they can’t know.  We need to hold onto that.”  Nick was getting frustrated too.  He wiggled his chair back and forth as he talked.

“Bogo knows.”

“Yes, and he’s offering us an out.  We need to take it.”

“We need to file that police report.  That was assault, maybe even a hate crime.  I saw them, they were strangling you, you could have died…” Judy’s voice wavered and she swallowed a few times to collect herself.

“But I didn’t.  You saved me.  Again.”  Nick smiled over at her, but her eyes were focused straight ahead and she didn’t see.

Nor did she take the bait.  “We could do it right now.  Bogo could take our statement, or anybody else really.  We are in a police station.  I have your clothes from that night in my locker.  And your tie.  I kept them as evidence”

“Wait, you took my clothes?  I threw those out.”  Nick yelped, outraged.

“They’re evidence.”

“You had no right.”

“Garbage is considered public property, and evidence collected out of a trashcan is valid in a court of law.  You forfeited your right to it once you disposed of it…”

Two could play at this game.  Nick had spent the past month studying the law, he felt he had a pretty decent grasp on this sort of thing.  “The garbage can was in my house, I hadn’t legally forfeited it until it had been moved off the premises.”

“A city bus is not a legal dwelling, neither is a warehouse.”

A wave of irritation rose up inside Nick’s chest.  Not a legal dwelling?  He loved that place.  “The legal right does not equate to the moral right.”

“I haven’t done anything with them yet, I’m just holding onto them.  Look Nick, we’re splitting hairs here.  The fact is, you were a victim of a crime and we need to come forward.  If not for you, for the next mammal to come along.  How would you feel if this happens to some other predator because you did nothing to prevent it?”

“And if it happens again it will be the fault of the mammal who did it, not because I didn’t report it.  Don’t put that on me, and who are you to tell me how I should be feeling about this?”  Nick was really irritated now.  A lifetime of learned emotional defence mechanisms came bubbling to the surface and he couldn’t help delivering the lethal blow.  “You know what?  Do what you want, but you’ll have to do it without me.  Barge right on ahead without thinking about how your actions affect other mammals.  It’s what you do best.”

Nick was already outside the door of Bogo’s office before he really understood how he’d gotten there.  He paced back and forth a few times, thinking.  That really was a low blow that he dealt to Judy, and the look of hurt on her face as he twisted that particular knife was not one he would easily forget.  He was still angry at her, but he really shouldn’t have lashed out like that, the adult thing would be to go back in there and apologize.

Nick stopped mid-stride.  He had almost paced himself right into Bogo’s leg.  He hadn’t even realized that the Police Chief had returned.  

“Wilde.”  Bogo said flatly.  “Is everything with Officer Hopps resolved to your satisfaction?”

“Err, no, actually.”  Nick ran his paws along his thighs nervously.

“Good, good.”  It appeared that Bogo hadn’t actually listened to Nick’s response.  “I am compiling a book of gang signs and graffiti artists from around the time your father died.  The records are surprisingly detailed; it appears that police work at the time associated tattoos, brands, and graffiti with criminal deviance.  They kept diligent records.  Would you be able to stop by and look through?  Perhaps on Thursday?”

“Oh, right.”  Nick rubbed his muzzle.  How could he possibly have this much going on in his life, that he could forget about his own father’s murder investigation?  “Yes, I can do Thursday.”

“Excellent.  Back to class, Wilde.”  And with that, Bogo disappeared back into his office, shutting the door firmly behind him.

Nick hesitated, looking at that closed door.  Judy was still in there.  He really should apologize to her, but Bogo’s office really wasn’t a great place for it.  Especially with Bogo in it.  He hung back a while longer, waiting for her to come out, but the door stayed firmly closed.  What were they talking about in there?

Finally, Nick decided he needed to get back to class.  He was late enough as is.

Chapter Text

Nick’s class let out half an hour early, which meant if he wanted to catch Judy after work he would have to wait around for a full hour and a half.  And that’s if she got off on time.  What could he do for an hour and a half?  The library was a short walk away, but, well…

Nick checked his phone.  Nothing from Judy, but there was a voicemail from Val; short and to the point, as always.  “Hi, it’s your mother.  Stop by later, I have something to discuss with you.”

The thought of a bus ride to his mother’s seemed a lot less intimidating than waiting around for a difficult conversation with Judy.  Nick decided to take the easy way out, and headed for the Transit hub.  

There was a small pile of mail on the table of Valerie Wilde’s apartment.  Nick started sorting through it.  Two of them were bills; those he set aside so he could pay later today.  One was for him, from the Court of Zootopia’s Bench.  Never a good sign; that one he set aside too.  The last one he opened.

“You have mail from the eye clinic.”  He called out to his mother, pulling the letter out of the envelope and beginning to read.  “Appointment scheduled for the twenty-sixth at ten a.m.  That’s a Tuesday; I have class that day, so I won’t be able to drive you.  Do you want me to ask Finnick if he can take you?”

“It’s alright, Nicky.  It’s all sorted.”  Val was feeling her way along the kitchen counters.

Nick kept reading.  “It’s for your cataract surgery.  Mom, I’m still about fifteen hundred dollars away from being able to afford that.  I won’t be able to pay for it until my second paycheque after graduation, at least.”  He frowned, calculating.  Where was he going to get fifteen hundred dollars in a hurry?

“It’s okay Nicky, that’s sorted too.”

“Sorted how?  I’ve been saving for this for years, mom.  You owe it to me to tell me how you’re paying for it.”

Val smiled mischievously behind her cloudy eyes.  “‘Ogo has offered to pay for it.”

“Ogo…?”  Nick blinked a few times, trying to wrap his mind around that information.  “Ogo Bogo?  The Chief of Police is paying for your cataract surgery.”

“That’s right.”

Nick flopped down on a chair.  “Oh.”  That was good news, right?  That was good news?  It sure seemed like it, but Nick, who had a lifetime of trust issues, couldn’t help wondering what was his angle.  “How long has that been going on?”

“Nothing is going on, Nicky.  He’s just being kind, that’s all.”

“Right.”  Nick muttered.  “That’s good news, mom.  Really, I’m excited for you.”  Thinking about Bogo (Ogo Bogo; he still reserved the right to snicker when he heard that name) made him think about Judy, and a guilty knot twisted in his stomach.  Ignoring this problem sure wasn’t going to make it go away.  

Val shuffled her way along the carpet so she could sit next to her son.  She put a copy of Sunday’s The Daily Mews in front of him.  “Here, maybe you can tell me what this one says.”

Nick stared down at the newspaper with that notorious photo of him and Judy front and centre.  “Mom?  Where did you get this?”

“I had Maryann from upstairs pick me up a copy.  I can’t see the photo, of course, but Pamela Walrus was talking about it on Zootopia at Noon.  I can only listen to them talk about how a tender moment between a fox and a rabbit has become the symbol for the resistance movement for so long before I start to wonder if it was a photo of my son.”

“ZBC Radio is talking about it?”  Nick chuckled nervously.

“Everybody is talking about it.  It’s quite beautiful, from what I hear.”

Nick groaned.  “It wasn’t like that.  We didn’t know it was being taken.  I still don’t know who took it.  That photo is ruining my life.”

“How so?”

Nick, who had been bottling this all up for the last few days, jumped up and started to pace.  “I’ve always been able to stay anonymous, no matter what else happens I can disappear into the streets. But suddenly that ability is being taken away from me right, I might add, as I’m starting an interspecies relationship.  So now I never know what other mammals are seeing or thinking when they see me with her.  Do they recognize me from the newspaper?  Or because Gizelle Cheeped it?  Do they see me as a resistance fighter?  Or an opportunist who is after fame and fortune?  Do they suspect me of sexual trafficking?  I didn’t ask for any of this.”

“Suspect you of… what?”  Val asked, and Nick .  He hadn’t meant to say that part, though he could hardly leave it there without explanation.

“About a month ago, the night that Bellweather was arrested, I waited outside the hospital for Judy while she got her leg stitched up.  I wasn’t doing anything, just sitting on a bench, but it took a long time and…”  He let out a puff of air.  “And I was reported to the police.  They saw me with her and they opened a police investigation.  Suspected of sexual trafficking.”  He cringed.  Even one month later he hated saying those words.

“Oh Nicky, I’m so sorry.”  Val reached out in the direction of her son.  

“It sticks with me.”  Nick said, ignoring her.  “But it’s okay, it doesn’t matter.  Right?  None of it matters.  I never asked for this, but that doesn’t matter either.  Nobody cares how this is affecting me.  Judy doesn’t care either, she…”  He stopped himself from talking, but couldn’t unsay the words.

“Alright, you can’t stop there, what was that last part?”  Val prompted.  

Nick winced.  “Judy wants to report this to the police.”

“That seems reasonable.”

“Reasonable?”  Nick resumed his pacing again.  “I was the one who was attacked, not her, but she’s making it all about herself.  She doesn’t know what it’s like to live this, day in and day out.  She has no idea…”

“Of course she doesn’t.”  Val interrupted.  “How could she?  This is all new to her.”

Nick stopped and stared at his mother, suddenly deflated.  He wasn’t sure how to respond.

“This was her trauma too.”  Val continued when he didn’t speak.  “You don’t get a monopoly on trauma.  She was there with you, and now she’s trying to deal with it, to make sense out of it the only way she knows how.”

Nick frowned.  What she said made sense, and he suddenly felt like a jerk.  “And her way of making sense out of it is to go to the police.  It’s what she knows.  It’s her comfort zone.”

Val nodded in his direction.  “Judy wants the police to fix this.  They probably won’t, but you can understand why she thinks that.  And you just want this all to go away, but there’s even less chance of that happening.  And now you’re angry with her because her trauma response is different from yours, which is also understandable, but it doesn’t actually help matters.  Because whatever else is going on, you two need each other right now.”

“I think… I owe her an apology.”  Nick settled back into his seat, thinking about what he’d just heard. 

“Why? What did you say to her?”

Nick winced.  He wasn’t too keen on admitting it aloud.  “I told her that her carelessness hurts people.  I preyed upon her insecurity.  She already blames herself for what happens, and I used that knowledge to hurt her.”

“Well, call her.”  Val said with gentle impatience.  

Nick took out his phone and played with it for a moment, suddenly afraid.  Would she even want to hear from him?

“Nick.  Call her.”

Nick took a deep breath and opened his contacts to find Judy’s number.



 

 

“Well?”  Valerie Wilde asked a short time later as Nick put down his phone.

“She’s coming here, if that’s alright.  We need a neutral location.  Her place isn’t private enough, and mine is too far away.”

“I’ve been asking to meet this rabbit for absolute weeks, and then you finally bring her around here because you need a neutral location to resolve a conflict?”  Val clarified dryly.

Nick winced.  “It’s not like that.  She’s been asking to meet you too.”

“So why didn’t you bring her around here before your first fight?”

“Second fight.”  Nick muttered.  He really was putting his foot in it today.  “Want us to find somewhere else to go?”

“No, it’s okay, I get it.”  Val started puttering around her apartment.  “I told you that you would always have a safe space in here and I meant that.”  She tried to pile up the small stack of mail on the table, but ended up knocking one of the envelopes to the floor.  Nick came to help her.  

Just then there was a knock on the door.  Could that be her already?  

It was.  “I, uhh, was in the neighbourhood.”  Judy muttered from the doorway.  

“You must be Judy.  Welcome, welcome.  Come in, make yourself at home.  Terribly sorry, but I was just going to check the mail.  Nick, be a dear and give Judy the tour, will you?  I won’t be a minute.”  Val felt along the wall for her keys and inched out of the apartment, closing the door firmly behind her.

Judy looked up at Nick.  “Smooth.”

Nick shrugged.  “She’s been asking to meet you for weeks.  She’ll never forgive me if we don’t resolve this before she’s had a chance to ask you your opinion about small mammal accessibility in public buildings.”

“Oh.”  Judy muttered, rubbing one arm.

Nick copied the motion awkwardly.  Where to even begin?  “I’m sorry.”

“You were right.”  She said at the same time and both voices petered out into a long and awkward pause.  “Who wants to go first?”

“Come on, before she comes back.”  He led Judy down the hall, past the first two rooms (his mother’s bedroom and sewing room) to the final room, which had been his bedroom when he was a child.  It was pretty small, but so were the two of them, so they fit easily; he sat on the bed, Judy took the desk chair.  His parents could never afford much, so the furniture was sparse, and the wallpaper was dated.  As a pup, Nick had decorated the walls with posters that he had cut out of the previous years’ calendars; saving his favourite ones and tacking them to the walls.  His favourite were images of thunderstorms, so there were lots of those.

“I’m sorry.”  He said softly.  “I shouldn’t have said what I said.  I was lashing out.  I shouldn’t have taken it out on you.”

“You were right though.”  Judy jutted her chin out stubbornly.  “I was careless.  And I did get you hurt.”

“No, the riot got me hurt.  It wasn’t your fault and it wasn’t my fault.  We can’t assign blame to anybody except for the mammals who did it.”

“You have to admit that it’s a pattern though.”  Judy pointed out.  “Remember Mr. Big? Remember the train?   I rush into things; sometimes big things.  And this time you got hurt.”

“The train was pretty epic though.”  Nick couldn’t help a weak grin.  “A story for the ages.”

“A one point five million dollar cleanup story.”  Judy gave him a faltering smile.  “I’m just lucky they’re not taking it out of my paycheque.  My grandchildren would still be paying it off.”

Nick snorted.  “Don’t be fooled.  We’ve had expense scandals that cost Zootopia more money than that.  City Hall would gladly eat that much money if it makes their species relation problem go away.”

“It didn’t go away though.”  Judy looked troubled again.  She rubbed one paw along her thigh.  

“It won’t.”  Nick said simply.

 Judy looked away, biting her lip in frustration.   “I just… don’t know if I can accept that.”  She said at last, her voice quiet.

An uneasy silence fell over them.  From outside they could hear the uneven whiz of traffic passing; he used to fall asleep to that sound when he was a child.  From further on in the apartment came the sound of ZBC radio (Valerie Wilde must have turned it on after her little excursion, probably to give them more privacy).  A little closer was the creak of the desk chair as Judy rocked back and forth, back and forth.  

“I won’t ask you again to report this to the police.”  Judy said at last.  “But just remember that I’ll be here when you’re ready.”

“I might not ever be ready.” 

“I understand.”  

“And I’ll try not to make it so personal next time.”  Nick still felt a little guilty about that.  “I do that, I know I do, but I’ll try to do better.  It’s a learned behaviour, but I guess I need to start un-learning it.”

“Were you trying to push me away?”  Judy asked gently.

“No!”  Nick answered immediately, but then stopped to think some more about the question.  “Not on purpose.”

Judy nodded thoughtfully.  She didn’t look insulted or offended at all, but Nick still felt the need to explain himself.

“I think…”  He considered his words carefully.  “I think that I was afraid that when I bring you into my world, then you will discover that it is not a very nice place to be.”

“Oh Nick…”  Judy slid off her chair and stood in front of where he was sitting on his little bed.  She slid her body between his knees and ran her paws up his arms until their forearms were resting together, paw to elbow.  

A familiar warmth rose up in his chest, his belly, and---down lower too.  He suddenly became aware of how small that little room was, and how close they were to a kiss, and how easy it would be to fall into that bed.

His childhood bed.  In his childhood room.  With his mother nearby.  

Awkward.  

Nick cleared his throat and slid off the bed, gently moving her aside.  He puffed up his chest and spoke in his Tour Guide voice.  He had to use this voice in hustles sometimes, and he was fairly good at it.  “And here we start the tour of the Wilde residence.  If you look out of the window to your left, you will see a stunning view of the parking lot.  Further off across the street is a brick wall, which provides excellent acoustics for the revving of motorcycle engines at two a.m.”

“Nick, remember what I said just now about you pushing me away?”  Judy said gently, sliding up beside him and putting one paw on his arm.  

“I wasn’t pushing you away.”  He leaned down so he could whisper in her ear, enjoying the sight of her shivering ever so slightly as he did so.  “My mother is in the next room.”

“Oh right.”  Judy muttered, clearing her throat and tugging on her little police vest.  She stood next to him at the window for a moment, watching the traffic down below.  From behind the bedroom door came the sound of ZBC radio.  Nick could only make out the occasional word, but Judy’s sensitive ear tilted backwards, listening.  “They’re talking about that photo again.”  She said glumly.

Nick groaned.  “What are they saying?”

“The photographer is really enjoying his time in the spotlight.  He’s just an intern at the newspaper, so he’s pretty excited to have taken such an iconic photograph.  He’s being nominated for several awards.”

“Oh.”  Nick grumbled.  He was used to thinking about that unknown photographer with a vague sense of resentment, so it was odd to think about the mammal behind it all.

“So are we just going to avoid seeing each other or going anywhere together... forever?”  Judy asked finally.

“Not forever, just… for now.”  Saying it out loud didn’t make it sound that much better.  “It’ll die down eventually.”

Judy pounded her fists against her thighs.  “It’s just so unfair.  Everybody looks at that photo and assumes that something is going on, but then the fact that this photo even exists in the first place is preventing us from doing that something.”

Nick blinked at her a few times.  “You’re talking about sex, right?”  

“Of course I’m talking about sex!”  Judy snapped, and then gave him a shy half smile, which he returned.

“We can still see each other.”  Nick pointed out.  “We can still have our dinners in, spend the occasional night together.  Have sex again,” (here he stumbled over his words) “if that’s what you want, of course. Or we don’t have to do that either.  We can just enjoy each other’s company.”

Judy frowned at him, confused.  “But we didn’t have sex.”

“Well maybe, depending entirely on how you define it.”

“Sex is just...sex.  I don’t know, how many ways are there to define it?”  Judy still looked confused, but now also a little bashful, which was just fine with Nick.  He felt that way too.

“I guess your jackrabbit ex wasn’t very creative?”  Nick asked, amused by her reaction.

“He did alright.”  Judy cleared her throat and straightened her shoulders.  “But uhh, how else would you define sex, if not just...sex?”

Nick grinned at her and leaned down to whisper in her ear.  “Oh rabbit, you are in for some fun times ahead of you.” 

Judy shuddered, letting her breath out without taking another one in.  She stood there, frozen, for a long minute, her eyes wide and staring.  

“You alright?”  Nick asked, feeling a little smug.  Judy just nodded mutely.

“Excellent.  Come on then, let’s not keep her waiting any longer.”  Nick opened the door to his bedroom impishly.  Perhaps a little unfair of him, but he did enjoy watching her squirm.

“Seriously, how many ways are there to define it?”  She whispered as she passed him in the doorway.  Nick could only grin.

Chapter Text

Valerie Wilde was puttering unnecessarily around the kitchen.  As usual, she had the radio tuned in to ZBC.  The muffled sounds of AM radio became clearer as they came out of the bedroom.

“The charges against Dawn Bellweather are serious.  Attempted murder, Suspicion of Terrorist Activities, among others.  Now, the thing about serious charges like these is that the threshold for conviction is also very high.”  A male voice was speaking over the radio; strong, sure, academic.   “So for the prosecution to move forward with these charges, especially in such a short timeframe, they must be very certain that they have a strong case.  We don’t know yet what the evidence is or who the witnesses will be, but what we do know is that the lawyers from both sides are very experienced, which is hardly a surprise considering it’s so high-profile…”

Nick turned down the radio so it was just background noise, and his mother jerked back, surprised.  For a moment she moved her head back and forth, her ears perked forward and her nose twitching, trying to gauge where everybody was. 

“Did everything get worked out okay?”  Val asked, having finally located the other two mammals.

“Yes, and I’d like to introduce you to my… to Judy.”  Nick said, faltering slightly.  For a moment he was searching for a title.  Friend?  Girlfriend?  Partner?  Finally he just decided to keep things simple.  “Judy, this is my mother, Valerie.”

“Lovely to meet you.”  Judy said politely.  “Did you get your mail okay?”

“My what?  Oh right, mail.”  Val stumbled over her words a bit, remembering too late to cover for her little white lie from earlier.  She waved her paw in the direction of the pile of mail on the table.  “I actually got it earlier today.  Silly me, I must have forgotten.”

Judy followed her gesture to the pile of mail that Nick had been sorting through not long ago.  “Oh, I see you have one too.”

“Pardon?  One what?”  Val asked.

“Nick, I mean.”  Judy said, picking up the envelope that was from the Court of Zootopia’s Bench.  “He got summoned to speak in court.  I got a letter just like this one.  We’re key witnesses in Bellweather’s trial.”

“Oh, is that what that is?  I hadn’t opened it yet.”  Nick had been avoiding thinking about that letter, and so he was quite relieved to hear it wasn’t something worse.  He wasn’t quite removed enough from his criminal past to feel relaxed about seeing a letter from the courts.  He tore open the envelope.  Sure enough, he was being summoned as a witness.

“Make sure you talk to a lawyer before you testify.  Days before, and not just the morning of.”  Val leaned over the counter towards them.  

“Yes mum.”  Nick said obediently.  He didn’t need the reminder, though he appreciated it anyway. 

“And dress nicely.  Do you think you still fit into your father’s suits?  I can have one of them altered for you.”

Yes, mum.”  Nick repeated, a bit more forcefully this time.

“Where are my manners?  Please, sit down.  The tea is steeping.”  Val shooed them both towards the couch.  Nick felt like a teenager again as he sat next to Judy awkwardly and waited for his mother to settle into her favourite chair.  

“So, Judy.”  Val said, leaning forward.  “Nick speaks very highly of you.  He tells me that you are smart, and ambitious, and confident.  He might have used the word obstinate, if I remember correctly.”

“Mom.”  Nick hissed.

“And I promise that I will come back to all your achievements in due course.  Treat you like the strong and independent career rabbit that you are,”  Val continued, ignoring her son.  “But first, allow me to be shallow.  Please, tell me what you look like.”

“What I… Oh.”  Judy faltered over her words.  “I’m just a generic grey bunny, I’m afraid, nothing special.  If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen us all.”

“She’s got very expressive eyes.”  Nick jumped in.  He did not like hearing Judy describe herself as nothing special.  “Violet, or maybe lavender depending on the light.  Her ears have black at the tips; they perk up when she’s focused and lay flat along her back when she’s contemplative, as she is right now.  Right now she’s still wearing her police uniform, but she tends to dress in soft colours; baby blues and pinks.  My favourite is when she wears plaid.  It makes her look so cute, though I’m not allowed to say that.”

“You are absolutely not allowed to say that.”  Judy said dryly, though her mouth did curve into a smile.

“You sound lovely.”  Val said, smiling wistfully into the distance.

“She is.”  Nick said simply.  Ordinarily he wouldn’t be so bold, but the timing seemed right for this one.  Slowly, silently, he took Judy’s paw in his and raised it to his muzzle for a kiss.

Val cleared her throat.  “I’m not so blind that I don’t know what you’re doing over there.”

“Sorry.”  The two of them said in unison.  They pulled their paws away.

“How much can you see?  If you don’t mind me asking, that is?”  Judy asked, recovering quickly.

“Not much.”  Val admitted.  “I know when a light is turned on or off.  I can see movement, I can sometimes differentiate between colours if they’re bright enough.  I get around alright, I can use sound and scent cues to help fill in the gaps.  It happened pretty gradually, I didn’t even notice at first, though it has sped up quite a bit in recent months.”

“She hid it from me for a long time too.”  Nick was still a little hurt about that.

“Well yes.”  Val at least had the good grace to sound guilty about it.  “That was back when---well, you had a lot going on, I didn’t want to worry you.”

“She’s talking about Mark.”  Nick told Judy, and to his mother he added.  “I already told her about all that.”

“Oh.”  Val said, she started picking at the hem of her skirt.  This was clearly a sensitive topic for her.

“He’s alive.”  Nick continued, gently.  They were already on the topic, so it seemed like an appropriate time to bring it up.  “Judy found out for me.  He’s clean and living in Zoo York.”

“Is that so?”  Val muttered without much enthusiasm.  She looked away.  

Nick immediately felt bad for bringing up his ex.  He’d known that his mother wasn’t really fond of Mark, though he thought maybe enough time had passed that it would be a safe topic.  Clearly he was wrong.  ‘It’s not that I don’t like him.’ She had told him once.  ‘ It’s just that I don’t like the person you become when you’re around him.’

“How was work today, Carrots?”  Nick asked finally, as a way to break the tension.  

Judy, for her part, looked from Nick to Val and back again.  For a moment she looked like she was going to resist the change of topic, but finally she decided on just a simple answer.  “Fine. I’m back on active duty again, finally.  It felt good to be back on the streets, but almost nothing happened the whole shift.”  She sighed.  “Some days are like that, I suppose, but it’s hard not to take it personally, if only because I’ve been off for so long.  Not that I want bad things to happen, of course, I just want to be there when they do.  And how was your class?”

Nick blinked.  “It was… interesting, I guess.  One of the instructors can be pretty old-school.  He says that since every mammal is potentially dangerous then we have to treat them all as if they are dangerous.  I just find his whole attitude problematic.  It’s so cliche, but I can’t help but thinking of the old adage, ‘if you go looking for a fight, you are sure to find one.’”

Judy nodded.  “I’ve noticed that some of the older officers are like that.  They are always so on edge, like they are always expecting something big to happen.”

“And how long before something big happens because some cops are just waiting around with their paw on the trigger?”  Val leaned forward in her chair.

“I was taught that too.”  Judy admitted.  “That we have to assume that every mammal is potentially dangerous.  But I was also taught that we have to assume that every mammal is capable of being talked down to a rational place.  De-escalation is preferable to escalation, any day.”

“I’m pretty excited about tomorrow’ lecture.”  Nick decided that a partial change of topic was probably a good idea; there’s not much his mother liked better than discussing excess use of force by ZPD, and he would rather ease into that conversation gradually.   “Addictions and mental health.  They still haven’t released the name of the instructor, which is a shame.  I’d like to read up on him ahead of time.”

“Or her.”  Val and Judy said at the same time.  They grinned at one another.

“Don’t assume the default is male.”  Val teased.

“Or her.”  Nick repeated dutifully.  He had enough good sense to know when he was outnumbered.

“Did you learn about addictions and mental health when you did your education, Judy?”  Val asked pleasantly.

“Drugs yes; addictions… sort of.”  Judy frowned.  “I could probably use more.”

“Maybe they’ll let you sit in on tomorrow’s lecture?”  Val suggested.

“I work tomorrow.”  Judy’s face fell.  “Otherwise I would. Nick will have to send me the name of the lecturer, so I can see if he has anything posted online.”

“Or she.”  Nick said innocently. 

Judy stuck her tongue out at him, and Val just grinned.  

Just then, Judy’s phone rang.  She groaned.  “It’s my parents.”

"Are you going to answer it?”  Nick asked gently.

“No.  I’ll call them later tonight.”

“Do…”  Nick’s voice cracked, and he cleared his throat.  “Do they know that it’s us in the photo?”

“I don’t know.”  Judy frowned at the phone in her lap, which had finally gone silent.  “They might not have seen it.  But they have been phoning a lot, so maybe?  They haven’t brought it up and I’m not going to ask.”

“Why not?”  Val asked kindly.

“They worry about me.”  Judy said glumly.

“All parents worry about their children.”  Val pointed out.

“I know, but my parents are a little extra.”  

“How so?”

“I don’t know, they just are.”  Judy sighed and started fiddling with her phone in her lap.  “It’s funny… well, maybe not funny so much as...ironic maybe?  At first I thought that Nick must be so lonely because he has no siblings or cousins, he only has you.  But now I feel like the lonely one, even though I have so many of them, and we talk every day.  But I only tell them small things; like I’ll tell them about my train ride or about buying a new jacket, but I won’t tell them that I am dating someone new or that he’s a fox or that he almost died and I feel responsible and now I’m constantly reminded of that because there’s a photo of it being shared around so now I need to navigate that too.  I just don’t tell them the important things, the way Nick does with you.”  She smiled faintly at Nick as he took her paw.

“Are you trying to protect them?  Or to protect yourself?”  Val pressed gently.

“That’s an oddly personal question.”  Judy shook her head, clearly embarrassed.

“You don’t have to answer it if you’re not ready.”

“No, it’s alright.”  Judy said.  “Both I suppose.  I want to protect them from worrying about me, but I also want to protect myself from the emotional energy that it takes to deal with them worrying about me.  So it’s easier to just pretend that everything is fine.”

“I hid my vision loss from Nick for a while because I didn’t want him to worry.”  Val said softly.  “And he hid it from me how much trouble he was in with Mark.  Or he tried to, anyway.  Ultimately we discovered that there’s so much ugliness in the world, we needed each other on our sides.”

“My parents are… different.”  Judy mumbled.  

“Who can you confide in, if not them?”  Nick asked finally.

Judy opened her mouth, and then closed it again.  She brought her arms out wide, and then let them fall into her lap.  “Nobody I suppose.”

“You have me.”  Nick told her.

“And me.”  Val added.  

“Thanks.”  Judy said genuinely, her voice full of emotion.  She looked away from him, but Nick could see a tear in her eye.

“Come on.”  He tugged her to her feet and led her to the kitchen.  “My teacup is empty.  Come to the kitchen and help me make more.”

Val took the opportunity to tactfully excuse herself to the bathroom.

“You okay?”  He asked gently once they were a safe distance away.

Judy smiled weakly at him.  “Yeah.”

“I don’t believe that.”  

She shook her head stubbornly.  “I should be the one comforting you right now, not the other way around.   I wasn’t the one who was assaulted.”

“I don’t have a monopoly on trauma.  You were there too, and now you have to work through your feelings, just like I do.”

Judy smiled weakly up at him.  “When did you get so wise?”

Nick chuckled, shaking his head.  “Actually, my mother knocked some sense into me.  I was feeling pretty sorry for myself a little while ago.”

The timing seemed right for a hug.  Almost organically the two of them melted together.  Maybe one of them had initiated it, maybe both of them had.  Nick stroked her ears and Judy clutched onto his shirt, sniffling softly.

“Want me to stop by your place later?”  He whispered.

“No, it’s alright.”  She pulled back from him and wiped her face with the back of one paw.  “I’ll have to catch up with you later this week.  We do have some things to talk about, but it’s probably best if we find a time where nothing else is happening.”

“Things?”  Nick pressed.

“Yes, things.  Like Bellweather’s trial, and Chief Bogo, and that photograph that’s going around, and how we’re going to make up for our dinner date if we can’t be seen together in public.”

“Right.”  Nick rubbed the back of his neck.  That reminded him of something important.  “I have some things to discuss with you, too.”

“Really?  Like what?”  Judy asked, and then pressed a little harder when it seemed like Nick wasn’t going to answer.  “You can’t just leave me hanging, I’ll be thinking about this all week.”

Nick scratched the fur on his arm.  “Chief Bogo has re-opened the investigation into my father’s death.”

“Oh, Nick...”  

“It’s alright.”  He cut her off.  “Not here, not now, remember?”

“Right.”  She opened her mouth a few times, studying him carefully.  “You’re right, we do have a lot to talk about.”

“Later.”  He said, and walked to the bathroom to knock on the door.  “It’s alright, it’s safe to come out!”  He called out to his mother.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, I was just powdering my nose.”  Val emerged from the bathroom and smiled at the other two.  “Would you like to stay for supper, Judy?”

“No, thank you, not tonight.”  Judy said regretfully.  “I should get home.  It was lovely to meet you.”

“You too, I’m glad Nick finally brought you around.”  Val replied.

Judy waved to Val, forgetting that she wouldn’t be seen, and then turned to look at Nick, studying him for a long time.  “Bye.”  She said at last, though it looked like there was a lot more she would have liked to say.  “Good night.”

“Good night.”  

With one last look at Nick, Judy let herself out of the apartment, closing the door behind her with a click.  

Chapter Text

Trigger Warning:  Abuse, child abuse/neglect, drug use.



Author's note:  I struggled with this chapter, a lot.  I'm still not sure I got it right.  I considered abandoning it, but in the end I set the story up to lead here, so it wouldn't make sense to skip it.  If you struggle, just remember that you are seeing through Nick's eyes, and both he and Mark are unreliable narrators.  They have their own flaws, and their emotions are high. 

I promise you lots of fluff in the next chapter.

 


 

 

 

Nick sauntered down the halls of ZPD, feeling pretty smug.  About a month ago he had sent an email to Chief Bogo pointing out that his syllabus didn’t include anything about addictions and mental health.  Bogo didn’t reply to the email, but a few weeks later the syllabus was amended to include a lecture on the subject.  Maybe a coincidence, but Nick couldn’t help feeling personally responsible.  He smirked at a passerby on his way to the lecture.

Precinct One was pretty big; it had tall, vaulted ceilings and skylights and a large, central staircase and, key to today’s events, two lecture theatres near the back of the building.  Today’s talk was to be in the larger of the two, which made Nick feel even better about himself, maybe they’d opened it up to mammals, and not just the new recruits?  He did see some mammals that he didn’t recognize mingling outside the lecture theatre, so that was encouraging.

“I can’t believe they’re making us do this.”  A grizzly bear was complaining nearby, dressed neatly in his constable uniform.  “I’ve been at this job for fifteen years, I think I know what addiction looks like.”  He didn’t seem to notice Nick glaring at him.

A moment later the door opened and mammals began filing in.  Nick followed, expertly dodging feet that were too large and too uncoordinated for his liking.  He darted out of the way of a polar bear but then stopped short and was nearly trampled by a hippo.

The reason that Nick stopped so suddenly was standing at the podium at the front of the room, shuffling through some notes.  His fur was sleek and well-groomed, a mixture of grey, brown, and copper.  Nick had always liked Mark’s fur pattern; it had its own sort of poetry to it, though the last time he’d seen it it had been matted and patchy.  

Mark.  Mark Ranger.

Nick’s ex was the guest lecturer for the day.  

“Out of the way, fox.”  A nearby voice growled.

Mark, hearing that, looked up from his papers to see what the commotion was.  His eyes met Nick’s and the two shocked mammals stared at each other for a long, uncomfortable moment.

By then most of the other mammals had settled in chairs around the room.  Nick wasn’t sure what his next action should be.  Did he really want to stay?

But Mark finally recovered enough to wave his paw towards the front row.  “Take a seat.”

The smaller chairs were situated right up the front of the room.  There wasn’t much other option but to take one of those.  He knew from experience that he wouldn’t be able to see much if he tried sitting near the back.  He selected the chair closest to the exit.

There were a few uncomfortable moments where neither mammal seemed to know what to do, or where to look.  Mark was shuffling his papers again, but robotically this time, as if he was just trying to pretend to look busy.  Nick traced small patterns on the desk with his claw numbly.  

Finally Mark took a deep breath and pressed a few buttons.  The lights dimmed and the slide projector hummed to life and blue light projected onto the screen.  

 

'Understanding Addiction

Mark Warden

Community Outreach Support Worker’

 

Mark avoided Nick’s eye as he began to talk, his voice projected neatly to the back of the theatre.

“My mother never wanted children.  Well, I don’t really know what she wanted, I don’t think she did either.  You see, the choice was taken away from her when she was barely more than a child herself.  She had my sister at age fifteen, and then me at age eighteen, and my brother at nineteen.  Three kids, and still a teenager herself.

“My sister raised us when my mother couldn’t.  Or wouldn’t.  I’m still not sure which it is.  My sister is the one who got us dressed, and made sure that we got to school in the morning, and home again in the afternoon.  She is the one who taught us to tie our shoes, and to spell our names, and tell time.  I’m still not sure where she learned to do these things, as nobody taught her, but she did.  She did this, by the way, as we were living out of the back of a car, or sometimes a motel room if we were lucky.  But lots of times we weren’t so lucky, and we would move in with one of my mother’s boyfriends’.  Those were the worst times.  We had food, and we had a roof over our head and sometimes a bed to sleep in, but we had… other stuff too.  Bad stuff.  My sister especially; she got the worst of it, being a girl.

“She ran away when she was sixteen.  I don’t blame her now, but I did then.  I thought she abandoned me.  I took it personally.  I started acting out.  I got punished.  I acted out more.  I got punished again.  My punishments looked different than what you would expect for a kid that age.  My mother used to brand me with a cigarette lighter on my hindquarters.  Nobody could see it, but it hurt like hell.  I couldn’t sit down in my chair at school, it hurt too much, so the teachers thought I was just being defiant.  They didn’t like me much.  I was a moody kid with bad hygiene who was behind on his studies and couldn’t sit still.  Some of them tried harder than others, but of course I didn’t really know what to expect when adults were around.  Nobody had ever taught me how to deal with any of this.”

Nick was quiet; just like the rest of the audience was.  Parts of this he already knew.  He had seen the scars.  But he’d never heard it laid out like this chronologically.  It was a lot to take in.

“And I think that’s a big part of the problem.  Nobody had ever taught me.  Nobody had ever taught me how to emotionally connect with anybody.  Not with my mother, not with my siblings, nobody.  I didn’t know that kids need eye contact, or that physical touch shouldn’t cause pain, or that fights can be resolved without screaming or throwing plates.  I didn’t know.

“My mother didn’t mean to abuse us.  She didn’t know either, nobody had taught her.  My sister didn’t mean to marry an abuser when she met her first husband.  Nobody had taught her.  I didn’t mean to abuse my partner--”

Mark’s words faltered and Nick clenched his paws underneath the table.

“...My former partner I should say.  Nobody taught me that either.  And I didn’t mean to become addicted to drugs.  It wasn’t a moral failing.  It wasn’t a lack of willpower.  It was that just being me, just existing, was so painful, that I would do anything, anything , to not be that mammal for a while.  And drugs offered me that out.  Even when I knew that I was hurting the person I loved, I didn’t stop.  I couldn’t stop.  Because stopping, even for one moment, would bring me back to who I really was.  And I couldn’t face that mammal inside me.  I never learned how.

“And here I am now, standing here before you, three years clean.”  Mark paused as the audience broke out into applause.  Nick kept his paws pressed firmly between his knees.  “Three years clean, but still an addict.  I still call myself an addict even though I am three years clean.  I will still call myself an addict even if I am ten years clean, even if I am thirty years clean.  Because that part of me hasn’t gone away, it’s who I am.  I am a recovering addict, but I will never be a recovered addict.  Because you never really leave drug addiction behind.  You just learn to live without it from one day to the next.  But each one of those days is still a struggle.  I don’t know if it will ever get easier.

“My sister divorced her abusive ex-husband after he broke four of her ribs and collapsed one of her lungs.  She now works as a bartender in Zoo York where she lives with her daughter.  And my brother… My little brother didn’t make it out alive.”

There was a long pause and the silence sat powerfully over the room.  Somehow, in that room full of mammals, most of whom weighed more than one tonne, nobody moved.“And what did it take to get me here?  Did it take a supportive older sister who paid for my rehab, even when she couldn’t afford it?  Did It take a loving partner who bailed me out again and again and again?”  

Ex partner” Nick whispered under his breath.  He didn’t think anybody heard him.  

“...Did it take a police officer, who told me that I was a waste of skin?  Or the one who asked why I wasn’t dead yet every time he saw me?  Did It take the nurse who wouldn’t bring my meal tray into the room when I was sick and instead let me go hungry?  Or the doctor who complained about wasting antibiotics on me when I would be dead in six months anyway?  Or the library staff, who wouldn’t even let me come in to use the bathroom?

“In case you didn’t pick up on it, that was sarcasm.  No, it wasn’t any of those things.  You can’t reach mammals if you are going to treat them as less than you are.  If you remember nothing else from today, remember this.  You cannot reach a mammal if you are going to treat them as less than you are.

“No.  Oddly enough, after all that, the thing that allowed me to get clean was a sympathetic judge.  I was in front of her for some bullshit charge.  Probably loitering or petty theft.  I don’t even remember.  But she asked me what I need.  That’s it.  What do I need to get clean?

“I told her a bus ticket, a shower, clean clothes, and a sandwich.  So I got a bus ticket out of Zootopia and a meal and a motel room in Zoo York and that was it.  I detoxed in that motel room, which I don’t recommend by the way; always use a hospital or a licensed detox facility.  And I haven’t used since then.  Three years clean.”

There was some shifting of seats in the audience.  It seemed nobody quite knew if they were supposed to clap or not.

“So, now that I’ve told you my life story, what do I want you to take away from this?  In short, I want you to understand that intergenerational trauma is not some made-up term.  It is real, and it is hard to get away from.  It’s not just a matter of deciding one day that you want your kids to have a better life than you did.  Of course you do, but you don’t know how to make that happen.  It takes work.  It takes resources.  It takes connections.  And it takes re-learning a lifetime of lessons that you never got as a child.  How to love other people.  How to love yourself.  How to emotionally connect with them.  How to respond to criticism.  Even things that seem simple, like basic nutrition or cleanliness.  You have to learn something when you didn’t even know that the knowledge was lacking in the first place.  Some mammals can manage all those things, others never do.

“Next, I want you to remember that all addicts have a history of trauma.  All of them.  No exceptions.  Most of them have stories that would break your heart.  None of them chose to be there.  And if you want to reach them, treat them like they matter.  Make eye contact, smile, ask their names.  If they are homeless, and not all of them are by the way, let them use public washrooms or get a full night's sleep without waking them up to chase them away from a park bench.  Ask them what they need.  You might be surprised by the answer.”

Mark paused to take a drink of water, and Nick took the opportunity to peek around the room.  He saw the grizzly bear who had been complaining about having to take this course just half an hour ago was looking very uncomfortable indeed.  Good.  

“Lastly, I want you to remember that every mammal has a certain number of basic needs.  We learn about them in kindergarten, remember?  Needs versus wants.  We need food, we need shelter, we need clothing, we need sleep, we need social connection.  Think about the last time you felt you didn’t have one of those things.  How much did you get done that day?  How much did you accomplish?   A drug addict needs those things too, but usually at least one of those needs is not being met.  And it gets worse than that, because eventually we start to resent them for having those needs, for existing.  We resent them for begging for food, or eating out of the dumpster, or loitering.  We resent them for sleeping in the street, or trying to use a public bathroom.  And this is going to lead us to the second part of my presentation, where I address in more depth some of the socioeconomic issues surrounding addiction and the barriers that a mammal must surmount before he or she is able to overcome his or her addiction.  I will now take questions, and then we will have a twenty minute break.”

There was the customary awkward silence, as the audience collectively paused to see how many other mammals would raise their paws.  Eventually a few crept hesitantly upwards, including that of the grizzly bear a few rows back.  Mark nodded in his direction.

“This whole time you’ve been talking I haven’t once heard you take personal responsibility for anything that you did, even when you admitted that you’d been abusive towards other mammals in the past.”  The bear said.  “So my question is, how much does the issue of personal choice factor into a story like yours?”

Nick blinked.  He had been all ready to judge this bear because of his comments earlier, and truthfully he still didn’t like the tone, but he had to admit, that was a good question.

Mark nodded glumly, and avoided Nick’s eyes as he answered.  “You’re right, and I don’t mean to avoid taking responsibility for my actions, so much as I try to present them in a broader context.  Now, I want to start by saying that if you find yourself in an abusive relationship, your first priority is to protect yourself.  Don’t start worrying about your abuser’s past or his learned behaviours or past traumas.   Get out.  It’s not your responsibility to stick around long enough for that person to fix themselves.”  He smiled sadly and glanced over in Nick’s direction.  “I wish I could go back in time and tell that to a few mammals from my past.”

Nick looked away, disgusted.  He felt his heart beating in his ears.  How was he supposed to take this?  For three years he didn’t even know if Mark had been alive or dead and now… this?  

“Having said that, I don’t think that the issue of personal choice is quite as clear as we make it out to be.”  Mark continued.  “We do get to choose which way to get to work or what to have for breakfast.  But those choices don’t really change the course of our life.  We don’t choose what species we are or how we were treated as a child, and those things do change our course in life.  A lot.  Because if you learn as a child that conflict causes pain, then you will react badly to conflict as an adult, and people notice that, and treat you differently.  If you have no books in your house and nowhere to study as a child, then you will be behind your peers at school.  So already you’re at a disadvantage when it comes to your education and your career.  It is possible to overcome these things and go on to have a good career with healthy relationships, but it’s not just a matter of making different choices.  It takes a lot of resources to get there, and sometimes when you live that sort of lifestyle that I did, you don’t have the resources to spare.  You’re too busy trying to survive to worry about all of that.  Does that answer your question?”

The bear scowled but didn’t answer.

Mark nodded to somebody in the back.  Nick didn’t see who.  “Yes, the rhino in the back row?”

A female voice spoke up.  Nick recognized her as Helen, one of the other new hires that was training alongside him.  He liked her well enough, though he wouldn’t call her a friend.  “We learned in class that addicts have to hit rock bottom before they will go seek help.  Do you think there is any truth to that?”

Mark frowned.  “Possibly, but I think it might be a little oversimplified.  It’s like saying that ‘your keys will always be in the last place you look.’  Of course they will, because it would be silly to keep looking once you’d found them.  It’s similar with addiction.  Rock bottom just means the place you were before you got help, and yeah, it’s usually a pretty bad place to be.  It sucks.”  He paused for the first time, suddenly unsure of himself.  He cleared his throat and shuffled some papers unnecessarily.  Finally he continued, his voice smaller and a bit hesitant.  “For a long time I had what we call an enabler.  Somebody who would look after me, who made sure I was always fed and comfortable, who covered for me, and cleaned up after my mistakes.  And as long as I had that, then I would never reach my rock bottom, as you call it.”  Another pause, another nervous shuffling of papers.  Finally, Mark straightened his shoulders and stared straight ahead, his voice more confident now.  “I was destroying my life, and he stuck around, even when I started destroying his life too.  And if I could go back in time and change one thing, then I would tell him that he doesn’t have to.”

Nick felt sick.  His heart was pounding too loudly and his ears were ringing.  He needed to get out of this room.

Thankfully, Mark provided him with the out he needed.  “There will be more time for questions after the second part of the presentation. We will now take a twenty minute break.  Meet back here at quarter after.”

There was a shuffling of chairs as the larger mammals in the back got to their feet.  But Nick barely even heard it; he was already out the door.




 

Nick darted into the (thankfully empty) washroom and paced around a few times, feeling trapped.  He entered a stall but didn’t actually need to pee, so he came back out again.  He turned the tap on at the smallest of the sinks and stared at the water for a while.  He wanted to splash it on his face, but his fur would take too long to dry.  Instead he washed his paws and turned the tap off to stare distantly into the mirror.  For all his hustling he’d always been bad at masking his facial expressions, and today was no different.  He looked---haunted, for lack of a better word.  

What he really wanted to do was talk to Judy, but what could he even say to her?  He brought his phone out of his pocket and typed “hey, can we meet up later?  I’d like to see you.”   He stared at the message for a moment, then deleted it and instead wrote “ how is work going for you today?”   Then he deleted that too and pocketed his phone, looking back up at the mirror.  A handsome coyote was hovering around at the edge of the image.

“Hey.”  Mark said timidly, as Nick whirled around and scowled at him.

Nick glared.  “What are you doing here?”

“I’m a public speaker now.”  Mark shrugged.  “I was invited to give a talk on understanding addiction.”

Nick already knew that.  But of course, that hadn’t really been what he was asking.  What he really was asking was what are you doing here in this washroom?   But he figured the answer to that was equally as obvious, so he didn’t ask again.

“I should have known I would run into you eventually.”  Mark continued.  “You do get around.”

“How many times have you given that talk?”  Nick asked coldly.  He didn’t much feel like small talk.

“I don’t know.  Twenty, maybe more.  I tweak it a bit each time.”

Nick stared at him, hardly believing what he was hearing.  Mark had told his life story to what?  A few hundred strangers, but couldn’t be bothered picking up the phone to let Nick know that he was alright.

“I wanted to call you.”  Mark said at last, as if on cue.

“So why didn’t you?”  Nick hissed.  “I’ve had the same phone number for a decade.  I know you still remember it.”

Mark at least had the decency to look embarrassed.  He shuffled his feet and looked away.  “I didn’t think you’d want to hear from me.  Or maybe I thought it would be better for you if you didn’t.”

Nick stared at him some more.  “That was not your call to make.  You went missing.  I reported you to the police.  Do you know what it’s like to have somebody go missing?  Not dead, but missing.  You couldn’t manage a text?”

“I’m sorry.”  Mark looked away.  The two mammals stood in silence for a long moment.  Nick turned back to lean over the sink, staring bleakly into the mirror.  

“I’m glad you’re doing well.”  Nick said at last, straightening up and turning back to face him.

“Yeah, you too.”  Mark gave him a familiar lopsided smile that always made Nick’s stomach flop over on itself.  “A police officer, eh?  You’re full of surprises.”

Nick smiled back at him.  “Yeah, that one came out of left field.”

“Do…”  Mark coughed and rubbed his arm.  “Do you want to get coffee later?  For old time’s sake?”

“No.”  Nick said quickly, and then added a hasty “sorry.”

“I understand.”  Mark replied, and the two mammals stared at one another for a moment.  “Do you have anybody new in your life?  Anybody special?”  Mark asked at last.

Nick considered lying, or deflecting.  He was fairly good at both, and he didn’t owe Mark an explanation, but finally what came out of his mouth was a simple “yes.” Ultimately he felt that it would be good for both of them if he said it aloud.

Mark nodded.  “I saw the photo in the newspaper.  A rabbit, right?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”  Nick snapped.  An obvious lie.

“I understand.”  Mark repeated himself.  “I’m glad you’re doing well, really I am.”

“Yeah, you too.”  Nick muttered.  “Bye.”

“Bye.”

Nick retreated out of the bathroom, nearly running into that grizzly bear.  Was he… hovering?  Eavesdropping?  Or did Nick just imagine that part?  Nick glanced up at his shoulder patch and read the word ‘HAWTHORNE’ stitched there, white thread over navy blue fabric.  Where did he know that name?

“‘Scuse me..”  The bear muttered, and continued to make his way into the washroom.  Nick shook his head to clear it.  He considered skipping part two of the lecture; he really needed to take a walk, but he’d left his book bag.  Besides, it wouldn’t set a good precedent for him to skip out.  Nick sighed, risked one last glance at the door to the bathroom, and made his way back inside the lecture theatre.  





 

 

“Are you sure?”  Bogo asked.  “Take your time.”

Nick already had taken his time.  He had been at this for hours, pouring over pictures of graffiti in a three-ring binder.  He was trying to match it to a hazy memory he had from when he was a pup, of the door of his father’s shop.  He’d shuffled, he’d stared, he’d flipped forward and back again.  His neck hurt and his mouth was dry.

And in the end he ended up with a picture not of graffiti, but of a tattoo.  There was something about the curve of the C that he kept coming back to.  He couldn’t even read the script.  It looked like the letters CU, with five tally marks after.  He couldn’t imagine what that would stand for.  But still, there was something about it that he just couldn’t get away from.

“This one.”  Nick said.  He finally decided that staring at the photo some more wouldn’t accomplish much.  He slid it across the desk towards Chief Bogo.  Besides, that thing was giving him the creeps.  The tattoo was on a shaved bit of skin, perhaps a sheep, though it was hard to know for sure.  He was pretty sure it had been taken at the morgue.  

“Are you sure?”  Bogo asked again.

“Not sure at all.”  Nick replied.  “It was twenty years ago, and I was a kid.  But there’s something about it… That’s the best I can do, sorry.”

“Very well.”  Bogo took the picture, along with the binder, and left the room.

Nick stretched a bit when he stood up, twisting the kinks out of his back.  “Sorry dad.”  He whispered to the empty room.  He collected his bag and left the interrogation room.

Chapter Text

“How did he seem?”  Judy asked, drawing her coat tighter around herself and shifting her weight from one foot to the next.  It was night, and they were in Tundratown.  Large flakes of snow were drifting lazily down.  One landed on her nose, which she twitched, and Nick smiled affectionately.

“He seemed… good.”  Nick said, drawing his own jacket tighter around himself.  His breath was visible in the cold night air.  “Better than I’ve ever seen him before.  It was weird seeing him up there giving that lecture.  He’s probably told his life story to hundreds of mammals by now, but it seemed like he added parts of it because he knew that I was in the audience.  It was probably weird for him, too, to have me there.”

Judy nodded.  “And how are you feeling about it all?”

“I don’t know.”  Nick shrugged, staring at the snowflakes swirling above them.  “It was weird, as I said.  It was nice to have him acknowledge all that he put me through, but somehow… somehow the only thing I am not ready to forgive is that he didn’t bother to tell me he was alive.  Which is strange, because some of the other stuff is objectively worse, but that’s the part I’m stuck on.”

“That does sound tough.”  Judy said sympathetically.

“Yeah,”  Nick muttered, still watching the falling snow.  “It’s all consuming, when somebody you love goes missing.  When it rained I wondered if he was getting wet.  When it was cold I wondered if he was staying warm.  I didn’t want to sleep because I felt like it was unfair to him.  I used to go for long walks, a different route each time, just hoping to spot him under a bridge or something.”

Judy opened her mouth, and closed it again, trying to find the right words.  Finally she just decided to repeat a simple “I’m sorry.”

“I used to wish that he would turn up dead.”  Nick mused, his voice quiet, speaking more to the falling snow than to her.  “Because it seemed like a much better option to mourn his death than it did to spend the rest of my life not knowing.  And then to learn that he could have called at any time, he just chose not to.”
Judy slid her body in front of his and slipped her paws into his.  Nick looked down at her and squeezed her paws.  They had been so careful, up until now, to stay away from one another in public, for fear of being spotted together, but it was dark out, and they were hidden by the doorway of Mr. Big’s Tundratown mansion.  Nick took a step towards her so their bodies were pressed together, still grasping paws.  They weren’t quite at the right height for a kiss, at least not a convenient one, but he did bend his head downwards to inhale her scent while she rested her forehead into his chest.  

“Thanks for doing this with me.”  Judy said at last.

“Well, I do owe you a date.”  He replied gently.

Judy shivered as a snowflake landed on her ear.

“Do you want my jacket?”  Nick asked, taking a step back from her so he could examine her carefully.  To be honest he wasn’t really sure that he wanted his jacket.  He was wearing a three-piece suit that his mother had kept from his father’s business, and he had to admit that it fit him well.  He looked good, and Judy seemed to have noticed.  But it just didn’t feel right on him.  He missed his loose tie and colourful shirt.  

“No, I’m fine.”  Judy said, drawing her arms around herself and drawing one foot up off the ground, then the other.  “I just don’t understand how mammals can live here.  Don’t their feet get cold?” 

“Most of them are cold-weather mammals, like polar bears.”  Nick pointed out.  “They don’t need to worry about cold feet.  Though sometimes another species will choose to live here, and just wear boots.”

“What?”

“Boots.”  Nick said, wiggling his own feet.  “They’re like a covering that goes over their feet, it keeps them warm.”

“How odd.”  Judy said, frowning.  She lifted one foot up to examine it, clearly trying to imagine what such a thing would look like.

The snowflakes were getting even bigger.  Nick caught one on the tip of his tongue.  That felt good, almost primal.  It reminded him of simpler times.  He caught another one, then glanced down at Judy as she made a strangled sound in her throat.  “You alright?”

“Yes,”  She squeaked.  “Fine.”

Nick looked at her quizzically and caught another snowflake on his tongue.  She squeaked again, and he suddenly clued in, and smiled up at the cold air.  This time he caught a flake even further away, allowing his tongue to linger underneath it for just a second before he scooped it up and pulled it back into his mouth.  This time Judy groaned audibly, and Nick suddenly didn’t feel cold anymore.  He eyed up another snowflake and let his tongue creep out, more slowly this time.

“You sure you’re alright?”  He asked, when she squeaked again.

“Uh huh.”  Judy cleared her throat.  “It’s just…”

Nick raised an eyebrow.  “Just what?”

“Just… you have a very long tongue.”  Judy finished at last.  She grinned bashfully and ducked her head a bit.

Nick smiled, watching her.  He had the sudden urge to pin her up against the wall and explore what she had on under that dress.  “You’ve seen what my very long tongue can do.”

“Well, I couldn’t actually see it.”  Judy whispered, and brought her paws up to her mouth to hide a giggle.  

Nick smiled and held her gaze as he caught another snowflake.  This was turning into a very interesting night.  Maybe he would show her more of his tongue later, but first, they had to get through the evening.

Just then the door opened and a very large, very grim looking polar bear beckoned them inside.  Both mammals took some deep breaths to get their untamed hormones in check before entering the building.  

“Raymond!  How’s it going, buddy?”  Nick called up at him.  As usual, there was no answer.  The bear just motioned them to follow.  There was a large, central staircase, but Raymond brought them off to the left, into a long, twisty hallway.  Even though he knew why they were here, Nick was starting to get nervous.  This place had never been inviting, even when it was trying to be.  He glanced down at Judy, who didn’t appear to share his apprehension.  She was hopping along, humming quietly to herself.

At last Raymond halted before a side door.  This he opened to reveal a rather cozy parlour.  There was a row of bookcases along one wall and a fireplace in the corner.  A table was set up in the middle of the room, with two place settings that looked to be Nick and Judy’s size, and another, smaller table set up on top of the first one, with two tiny little chairs and two tiny little plates for much, much smaller mammals.  

“Judy!”  A small voice said from somewhere further in the room.  It took them a few seconds to locate Fru Fru, who was waddling along towards them, one tiny paw on her comparatively huge belly.   Raymond gently placed one massive paw on the ground in front of Fru Fru, who grasped one of his claws to steady herself as she stepped up onto the paw, but otherwise ignored the bear.  

“Fru Fru!”  Judy said excitedly, grinning at her friend as the bear held her up at eye level.  “Love the dress.”

“Aww.”  Fru Fru said, grabbing one side of the fabric and twirling it around a little bit.  “Thank you!”

Meanwhile, Nick noticed another shrew who was left behind on the carpet, presumably Fru Fru’s husband.  Nick wished that he had thought to ask his name from Judy ahead of time.  

“Hello.”  Nick said awkwardly to him.  “I’m Nick.  Nick Wilde.”

The shrew looked up at Nick and nodded politely.  “Jionni LaVole.”  He didn’t seem to be bothered to be left on the floor by his wife as she and Judy laughed at a shared joke that the two men had somehow missed.  Nick glanced over at them to see Judy gently placing the pad of one paw along Fru Fru’s pregnant belly.  Fru Fru grinned and Judy sighed dreamily.  It was good to see her unwind with a friend, though he rather wondered if she needed to bring him along.

“So…”  Nick asked Jionni when it became clear that Judy and Fru Fru were in their own little world.  What kinds of things do men talk about in social situations anyway?  “Do you like…sports...”  Nick panicked internally.  Narrow it down, choose one sport to ask about, not just all of them.  “...ball?”  He finished lamely.

“Not really.”  Jionni replied.  He didn’t seem to notice that sportsball is not a real game, so clearly he knew even less than Nick did about that particular subject.

“What about movies?”  Nick asked.  That seemed like a safer subject.

“Whatever Fru Fru wants to watch is fine with me.”  Jionni replied.  Nick was beginning to wonder if this little shrew came with a personality, or did he just get by because his wife had enough for both of them?

At last Raymond put his paw down on the table so Fru Fru could step off towards her own little table.  Judy took her place but Nick hesitated, looking awkwardly down at Jionni.  Should he offer to lift him up to the table too?

Luckily, Nick was saved from having to decide when Raymond reached down to lift Jionni up as well.  The two shrews took their place at their little table.  Nick took his own chair, careful not to bump anything, as three polar bears entered the room.  Two of them set plates down in front of Nick and Judy, while the third carefully set his paws down on the table.  Two more shrews stepped off that paw and placed little plates of food in front of Fru Fru and Jionni, they then stepped back onto the paw and all five mammals retreated back out of the room.  Nick watched them go, and to his surprise Raymond left the room as well, shutting the door quietly behind him.  

“Daddy is busy preparing a nursery.”  Fru Fru was telling Judy excitedly as the four began to eat.  “One in each house, so three so far, including the one out in the country.  He acts all tough, but he’s just a big softie.  And he’s so excited to be a grandfather.”

Judy nodded.  “My parents have nine grandchildren already, with another set of twins on the way, and they get equally excited each time.  They have a giant play area in the basement, far bigger than they had for their own kids.  How are you feeling?”

“Oh, I’m fine.”  Fru Fru said in her usual accent.  Then she stopped and frowned down at her plate.  “Actually I’m not, I’m huge and I want this to be over with.”

“Aww,”  Judy said quickly.  “I don’t think you look huge, I think you look beautiful.”

“I know I look beautiful, but I feel huge.”  Fru Fru said, tossing her hair over one shoulder indignantly.  “But the plan is to have two close together, so I guess I’ll be doing this again soon.  Isn’t that right, babe?”

“Whatever you think is best, darling.”  Jionni said automatically, sipping his soup.  

“Isn’t he great?”  Fru Fru continued, beaming at her husband.  “Daddy chased so many of my suitors away, I thought I’d never find a husband.  He used to load them up into his car at night and drive them out to the docks to try to scare them away.  So glad he never did that with you.”

“Oh, he did.”  Jionni said.

“What?  Babe, you never told me that.”  

Jionni shrugged.  “It ended up being a very pleasant evening.  We drove out to the pier and watched the cargo ships being unloaded.”

“Do they unload cargo ships at night?”  Nick asked over a sip of wine.

“The unscrupulous ones do.”  Jionni replied.  Nick found his opinion of Jionni improving.  He added unflappable to his list of personality traits that the shrew possessed.  Though admittedly it was still a short list.  

“My parents can be pretty overprotective too.”  Judy chuckled over her spoon.  “When I left to go to university they called the dean to tell her to watch out for me.  Imagine how embarrassing that must have been.”

“You never told me you went to university!”  Fru Fru squealed.  “What did you study?”

“Straight out of high school.”  Judy grinned.  “Criminology, with a minor in Sociology.  I wrote my thesis on socially deviant behaviours.  After that I went straight to the Police Academy.”

“You’ve always had a one track mind, haven’t you?”  Nick had finished his plate, so he set down his spoon and leaned back in his chair.  He took the opportunity to admire Judy.  He’d never seen her in a dress before.  Heck, he’d never seen her wear a necklace before, he was half surprised she even owned one.  A single gold chain with a little carrot pendant that was hanging daintily down the middle of her chest.

“And what about you, Nick?  What do you do for work?”  Jionni asked.

Nick blinked, tearing his gaze away from Judy.  “Me?  Well, I guess you could say I’ve been...self employed.”

“You worked for daddy for a long time, didn’t you?”  Fru Fru asked, leaning forward in her chair.  “I remember now.  You bought me that car for my sweet sixteen.  And you saved the cake when I almost knocked it into the pool.”

“Your dad bought you that car.”  Nick pointed out.  “I just put in the legwork.  If anything I was his errand boy.  I made things happen when he didn’t have the time.”

“I loved that car.”  Fru Fru said dreamily.  “Why did you stop coming around?  Daddy was never quite as happy with his next assistant.”

“Creative differences?”  Nick’s voice cracked, and he brought up his wine glass to hide his face.  

“By creative differences I assume you mean that you wished to remain above the ice, and not below it?”  Jionni asked in his usual bored voice.  

Nick exchanged a look with Judy, who looked just as startled as he was.  How could they respond to that?

Thankfully, Fru Fru came to their rescue.  She scoffed and flapped her hand dismissively.  “Aww, don’t feel bad.  Daddy threatens to ice a lot of mammals.  He rarely follows through.  Ooh, dessert!”

Sure enough, those same three polar bears were back.  Two with plates for Nick and Judy, one holding two arctic shrews with much smaller plates for Fru Fru and Jionni.  

“Compliments to the chef.”  Nick said, mostly hoping to change the subject, though the praise would not be unwarranted either way.  Nick and Judy each had a decadent piece of tiramisu in front of them, while Fru Fru and Jionni had the same thing, albeit in much smaller form.  It must have taken a delicate hand to pull that off.  

One of the wait staff shrews turned and bowed to him.  She had a smooth white towel draped over one forearm.  She then joined her colleague back on the paw of the polar bear and all of them retreated out of the room.  Fru Fru squealed excitedly and dug into her dessert.  The others followed suit.  Nobody said a word until the forks had been licked clean.  

“So.”  Fru Fru said, leaning forward onto her elbows.  “How did you two meet?”

Judy glanced at Nick.  “Well, I was working a missing mammal case, and Nick was a key witness.”

“I know that part.”  Fru Fru said dismissively.  “But was it love at first sight, or did it happen gradually?  Tell me all the deets.”

Nick coughed into his wine glass and Judy shifted uncomfortably.  “I mean, we did almost die on that case, a few times actually.  I guess that brought us closer together.”  He said awkwardly.

Judy nodded.  “The adrenaline rush helped for sure, but ultimately we realized that we could count on one another when things got sticky.  And help one another through the emotional follow-up.”

“Aww.”  Fru Fru sighed dreamily.  “How romantic.”

“That was your picture I saw in the newspaper, wasn’t it?”  Jionni asked.  

Nick and Judy exchanged a look but Fru Fru was already asking “What picture?”

“It’s taken at an anti-predator rally.”  Jionni told her.  “A bunny throws herself on top of a fox to stop him from getting trampled.”

“Ooh!”  Fru Fru squealed.  “I saw that photo.  Was that you?  How wonderful!  Gizelle is offering backstage passes to the mammals from that photo.  We should call her.”

“That’s not…”  Nick began.

You have Gizelle’s number?”  Judy interrupted, and then clamped her paws over her mouth.  She looked at Nick guiltily.  “Sorry.”

“Well sure!”  Fru Fru squeaked.  “We go way back.  I helped her get her first gig at the Jubilzee Auditorium.  And I paid for costumes for the first two years until she was established.  She’s really excited about that picture, wouldn’t you know.  She calls it a catalyst event for social change.”

Nick laughed nervously.  “I don’t know about that.”

“Of course it is!”  Fru Fru said .  “That picture has made a lot of mammals really excited.”

“Or really angry.”  Jionni added matter-of-factly.

“Yes, well, as interesting as this all is, that wasn’t us in the photo.”  Nick lied smoothly, he knew he was using his hustle voice, but he couldn’t help it.  Call it a defence mechanism.  It had helped him out of many a tense situation.  

“It wasn’t?  Aww.”  Fru Fru looked disappointed.  “I’m surprised the two mammals haven’t come forward yet.  They’d be famous.”

“They’d have backstage passes to Gizelle’s next concert.”  Jionni added, and Judy whimpered softly.

Nick watched the scene unfold, analyzing it carefully.  He didn’t think he was fooling Jionni, though Fru Fru seemed to believe his lie.  

“Well,”  Judy deflected, standing up from the table.  “If you’ll excuse me, I think I need to go to the washroom.”

“Me too.”  Fru Fru had to brace herself on the table to stand up, putting one paw first on her back and then on her belly.  Her husband offered a paw to help her.  “Little Judy is kicking my bladder.”  

Nick was confused for a moment until he remembered that Fru Fru had announced her intention to name her unborn daughter Judy.  Somehow, Raymond knew to come into the room at just that moment.  Nick had always suspected that the shrews carried buttons that they used to summon the polar bears.  Like a modern-day servant’s bell, though he had never been able to confirm this.  Raymond gently lifted Fru Fru over to a small ledge near the fireplace, where a small doorway was embedded in the wall.  This Fru Fru entered, leaving Nick, Judy, Jionni, and Raymond behind.

“If you don’t mind waiting, Raymond can show you where the bathroom is.”  Jionni said.

“Actually, I can show her where it is.  I know the layout of this place.”  Nick didn’t fancy waiting around awkwardly with Jionni and Raymond.  Neither of them were known for their striking conversation.  “Come on, Judy, this way.”

The little parlour had been warm and cozy, but the hallways were not.  Like most things in Mr. Big’s mansion, the floors were cold and there was frost on the doorframes.  The hallways were crooked.  He knew it was because they had been designed to allow shrews to pass easily between rooms through little passageways hidden behind the walls, but the effect was a little spooky.  Everything was twisted and they couldn’t see very far in front or behind.  Like they were in their own little part of the universe.  They had also both left their jackets in the parlour, which was really Nick’s fault.  He should know better; he had spent enough time here, and should know how cold it could get.  Still, Judy’s dress came down off her shoulders and with her walking along beside him, arms drawn around herself, he did have a pretty good view of her arms, and shoulders, and chest.  Not that he wanted her to be uncomfortable of course, but as long as she was, he could enjoy the view.  

“I don’t actually need to use the bathroom.”  She admitted as they walked along.

“Probably should, while we’re here.”

She smiled up at him.  “Okay, dad.”

“Don’t you start.”  He bumped into her good-naturedly as they walked along.  

She chuckled, and gave him a friendly shove.  Even being a much smaller mammal she was fairly strong, and he was mid-stride, so it knocked him off balance.  He toppled into the wall with a grunt.

Judy gasped, then laughed, then brought her paws in front of her mouth, her eyes wide.  “Sorry.”  She held out one paw towards him to help him up from where he was leaning against the wall.

Nick accepted the paw, but instead of letting her pull him up, he instead pulled her towards him.  She made contact with his chest, and then looked up at him as he snaked one arm all the way around the small of her back towards her opposite hip, holding her close.

“Nick…”  She whispered.  Her paws were on his chest and she fiddled with the buttons of his shirt.  

He tightened his hold on her.  His right paw was resting gently on her shoulder.  His left had reached all the way behind her to rest on her opposite hip.  He started to gather up the fabric of her dress with this paw, inching it higher, then higher still, exposing more of her leg, then thigh, then hip, then bottom.  Eventually he discovered the side of her underwear, where it rested low across her hip. Leave it to Judy to somehow find lacey booty short underwear.  He slipped his thumb underneath the band

By now Judy had untucked his shirt and was sliding her paws up along the fur of his belly and chest.  She moaned as he brought one leg in between both of hers and closed her thighs tightly around his, thrusting once.

Meanwhile, Nick’s ears were at maximum alertness.  The hallways were crooked, which meant that nobody could see them, but it also meant they wouldn’t see anybody approaching.  He didn’t hear anything, but this should probably be stopped before it went any further.  Especially since Judy had moved on to the button of his trousers.  He let her skirt drop back down and pulled back from her by a few inches.

“There are lots of places around here that are too small for polar bears and too far out of the way for shrews to get to.”  He told her gently.  “This isn’t one of them.”

Judy groaned and rested her forehead against his chest, relaxing her hold on him and letting her paws rest on his fur.  “You started it.”  She grumbled.

“I’d love to finish it.”  He whispered in her ear, feeling her shudder against him.  “Want to sneak off somewhere?”

Judy took a deep breath in, and then let it out slowly through her teeth.  “No.  We can wait a few hours.”  She smoothed her dress and straightened her necklace.

“Bathroom is in there.”  He told her, motioning to a doorway just down the hall.

“You go first.”  She sighed and leaned against the wall, staring up at the ceiling.

He did, straightening his shirt, tie, and buttons.  Less easy was trying to get his body to calm down, specifically that bulge in the front of his trousers.  It was getting there, slowly, but not there yet.  He let a puff of air out of his cheeks and exited the bathroom.  “Your turn.”

He sagged agains the wall as he waited for her.  Not for the first time, he marvelled about the affect that this bunny had on him.  It was exhilarating.  Terrifying, even, to feel so out of control.  But try as he might, he couldn't wish the feeling away.  He wanted more of it.  He wanted more of her.  

"God, Rabbit."  He whispered to the empty hallway.  "What are you doing to me?'

Chapter Text

Author's Note: Well, it's been about a year since I started this thing. One year ago I wanted my characters to be sexual beings, with their own desires and histories. I wanted them to talk about sex, and joke about sex, but I didn't want to have to write about it or think about the logistics of it cuz...no. It's a kids movie right? Well here I am, one year later, writing a sex scene. I still feel a little weird about it, but hey, I had fun. And you're the one reading it, which means that you probably are too. Enjoy.

Comments are love.

 

 

 

They made it back to the parlour in decent time. Fru Fru was back on the table, though the shrew-sized dining area was replaced by a small sofa and side table. It took Nick a moment to locate Jionni, who was on the fourth shelf of the bookshelf, examining titles of books that were much bigger than he was. Judy immediately took her seat back at the table so she could visit with her friend. Nick hesitated, but it didn’t look like Jionni especially wanted company, so he joined the two women instead.

“What took you so long?” Fru Fru asked.

“Err…” Judy fumbled for words.

“I was powdering my nose.” Nick said dryly.

Fru Fru seemed to accept his explanation without much thought. “We should play a game! Who likes charades?”

None of the other three mammals seemed very enthused about that idea. Nick especially would rather take his chances with the ice pit. “We should get going if we want to catch the last bus.” He said after an awkward pause.

“Aww.” Fru Fru looked disappointed.

“We had a really great time.” Judy added helpfully.

“We can ask our driver to take you home!” Fru Fru exclaimed. “That way you can stay longer.”

“Mr. Manchas only just came back from his leave.” Jionni pointed out from his place on the book shelf. “He only works two days a week now, and never this late in the evening.”

“Oh right.” Fru Fru rubbed her belly, frowning. She looked disappointed.

“Perhaps we can ask them to stay overnight in one of the spare rooms?” Jionni added indifferently.

Fru Fru’s eyes brightened. “Of course! That’s what we’ll do! You must stay the night. Ray Ray, prepare a room for them.”

As if on cue, Raymond appeared at the door, which just added fuel to Nick’s theory about some sort of summon button. Raymond nodded to Fru Fru and disappeared out of the room, all before Nick could protest.

He looked at Judy. “Looks like we’re staying the night.”

She gave him a small smile and a shrug. “Looks like.”

 

Staying the night at Mr. Big’s mansion wasn’t the most terrible of options; they were getting tired, after all, and both of them were feeling pleasantly buzzed from the expensive wine they had been drinking all evening. A comfortable bed did sound appealing. Raymond re-appeared and led them back down that twisty hallway and towards the central staircase that they had sidestepped earlier. Both mammals hurried to keep pace.

Eventually they ended up in a very large room with a very large bed and a very large side table. Too large for a fox and a bunny. Probably about the right size for a polar bear or two. It was grand enough, with a four-poster bed and some heavy curtains and expensive-looking artwork. Nick had never been in this room before. He didn’t like it.

At least there was a little seating area that looked to be just about their size. Somebody must have set it up just for them; it was pretty simple, but Nick did appreciate the thought. A small table and two chairs, a tumbler of liquor and two glasses, and a coat rack that looked to be about Judy’s height. Folded on the table were two pairs of pajamas of the appropriate size and species for each of them.

Judy walked into the room and scrambled up to the very high bed. She probably would have managed it in a much more dignified manner if she hadn’t been wearing a dress.

“What do you think?” Nick asked, as Judy gave a few test bounces from her position sitting on the edge of the bed.

“It’s...cold.” She replied, and drew her jacket further around her shoulders. Like everywhere else in this mansion, it was cold and drafty, with frost on the windows.

“Yeah.” Nick muttered. “I should have warned you.”

“You did warn me.” Judy rubbed her arms to warm them. “Thanks.” She added, when Nick hopped up to the bed and placed his own jacket over her shoulders. She pulled it around herself and sighed happily.

“What do you think?” He repeated, holding out the pajamas that Raymond had left for them.

“Not really my style.” Judy chuckled, examining hers. It was a white satin nightgown with a V-neckline and a lacy ribbon drawn up around the sleeves.

“Nor mine.” NIck said, laying out the pajamas that had been given to him. A silky red, button-up two-piece, with white trim. Ordinarily Nick was all about contrasting colours and tacky patterns, but he was having a hard time with this one. Red, he knew from experience, was a horrible colour on him. “How do you feel about just sleeping in the clothes we’re wearing now?”

“We don’t have to wear anything.” Judy said impishly, and ducked her head to hide her grin.

Nick’s heart skipped a beat. Did he really just hear that?

“So...what’s the etiquette here?” Judy asked, when it became clear that he would not answer.

“Etiquette?” He squeaked nervously.

“You know.” She waved her paw at the room. “Two of us, one bed.”

Nick suddenly wondered if he’d read the situation. He didn’t want to presume anything, so he decided to play it safe. “I’m sure they’d give us a second room if we asked.”

“Dumb fox.” She punched him lightly in the arm. “That’s not what I meant.”

“What did you mean?” He asked, rubbing his arm.

“I mean.” She glared at him. “Will Mr. Big be insulted if we have sex in his guest bedroom?

Nick barked out a laugh. “He’d probably be insulted if we didn’t.”

Judy just frowned at him, her ears falling back on her shoulders.

“That was a joke.” He added hurriedly.

“Not a very good one.” She shook her head as he made a face at her. “So what’s the real answer?”

“He won’t care. These walls have seen worse.” Nick rubbed his thigh nervously as he contemplated how much to tell her. “Mr. Big has a very high code of honour. He is very loyal, and he treats his friends and employees well, and expects the same in return. That’s why it was such a big deal when I sold him that rug. It was a betrayal.”

Judy frowned at him. “Should we tell him the truth about what happened? With Mark?”

Nick shook his head. “It won’t change anything, it was still a betrayal. I chose Mark over him.”

“Oh.” Judy thought about this. “Are you okay being here?”

“Yeah.” Nick said, though he wasn’t sure he fully believed it. “There’s nothing in this world that Mr. Big values more than his daughter. And you’re her friend, you saved her life, you’re going to be the godmother of her child. As far as he is concerned, that makes you family. And as long as I’m at your side, I am too.”

“We’d better not break up then.” Judy said dryly, and then hurried to add, “That was a joke.”

“Not a very good one.” He teased, and she stuck her tongue out at him.

“What about you?” He asked, sliding in closer to her. “How do you feel about all this?”

“About all what?”

Nick waved his paw around the room. “All of this. You are a police officer, sworn to uphold the law, and you are suddenly in the inner circle of Zootopia’s biggest crime boss. Doesn’t that bother you at all?”

Judy stuck her chin up stubbornly. “Fru Fru is my friend, not Mr. Big. She is her own mammal. She is not defined by her relationship to the men in her life.”

“Oh right.” Nick muttered. He had never really thought about it that way before. He was so used to thinking about Mr. Big’s empire as encompassing everything and everyone, including his daughter. Somehow he’d never really thought of Fru Fru as an independent being, outside of her father’s influence. Could it really be that simple?

They sat there for a few long minutes, Judy was kicking her feet back and forth and Nick was tapping one finger on the blanket. Neither spoke.

“I found out who is investigating the incident at Meadowlands.” Judy said quietly at last. Nick guessed that she had been waiting for the right time to bring this up, though of course there could never be a right time. “I thought you should know.”

Nick felt his heart sink. “Oh?”

Judy nodded. “Quite by accident, actually. I just overheard them talking in the break room about it. Officers Kinneigh and Hawthorne. I’ve worked with Officer Kinneigh before, I think she’ll do a good job. I’ve never worked with officer Hawthorne but he’s supposed to be a good detective.”

Nick frowned. He knew that name. “Hawthorne was at Mark’s lecture the other day. He didn’t seem like he was there by choice, though he did ask some good questions.”

“Oh? What questions did he ask?”

“Something about personal responsibility.” Nick frowned, trying to remember. There was something else…? He thought for a minute, then slapped his knee forcefully. “That’s it!”

Judy jumped. “What’s it?”

“Hawthorne… That’s the guy who investigated me for sitting on that bench outside the hospital that one night.”

Judy’s ears drooped. “Oh. Him.”

“Yeah. I remembered the report well enough, but I guess I’d forgotten the name. Of all the mammals, he’s the one who has to investigate this thing?” Nick barked out a laugh. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. The universe loves a good dose of cruel irony.”

Judy didn’t answer, she just rounded her back to rest her elbows on her knees, frowning down at the carpet.

“What did they say, about the investigation?” Nick asked after a while.

“I didn’t hear too much of the conversation.” Judy sighed. “They said it would be easier to find the fox from the photo since there are so many rabbits in the world it would be like trying to find the proverbial needle in a haystack. They said once they’d found the fox then they should be able to figure out who the rabbit is. It didn’t sound like they’d made much progress, but this was a few days ago. I can’t really insert myself into the investigation.”

Nick nodded, copying her posture as he slumped forward with his elbows on his knees, staring down at the carpet. He wasn’t really sure what else to say. He stayed like that for a long moment before he felt a paw on his arm.

“Hey, we’ll get through this.” Judy said gently. She rubbed her thumb along his arm for a while before finally asking “are you okay?”

Nick nodded numbly, gazing down at her. “You’re right, we’ll get through this.” And he did feel better, having said that out loud. Her presence was comforting and he felt like no matter what the world threw at him, he could get through it with her at his side. Besides, he had a plan for tonight, and he wasn’t about to let himself get sidetracked. He straightened his shoulders. “I just… don’t want to think about it right now. Not tonight.”

Judy nodded, and shivered as the cold air got to her. She pulled Nick’s jacket further around herself. Nick felt a twinge of arousal. The jacket was too big for her, which for some reason made him start to think about everything that she was, or was not, wearing underneath. She had his jacket, and then her jacket, and that off-the-shoulder dress that had been driving him wild all night, and that lacy underwear that he had detected earlier. He had the impulse to start feeling up the inside of her thighs, but she looked pretty cold. And to be honest he was a little chilled too. The thought of removing articles of clothing was not as appealing as it otherwise would have been.

By mutual, unspoken agreement, they both stood up and walked to the head of the overlarge bed, which had been made up hotel-style, with blankets that had been neatly tucked by a much larger animal than a fox or a bunny. Both of them tried untucking the heavy blankets, but couldn’t manage to do much more than just put a wrinkle in the fabric.

Judy sighed and slid her body underneath the folded edge of the blanket. It looked pretty unsatisfying. “I guess this is how we sleep tonight.”

Nick thought for a minute, looking around the room. He wasn’t ready to admit defeat just yet. His eyes drifted from the table, to the lamp, to the coat rack.

The coat rack! Why it had been chosen for this room he didn’t know, but as long as he had it, he may as well use it. He hopped down the bed and tossed the coat rack back up onto the mattress, then brought it over to where Judy was. Together they dragged it underneath the blanket and towards the centre of the bed, where they shoved it upright like a tentpole. It worked better than he’d expected, holding the heavy blanket securely above them like a tent, and creating a cozy little area for them to sleep.

Sleep. Or not sleep. He liked that idea better. Judy was still wearing his jacket, and he felt it was time that he claimed it back. He gathered her into his arms and lowered her to the bed, laying open his jacket, and then hers, until she was laying underneath him in her off-the shoulder dress. He’d been thinking about nibbling on her neck and shoulders ever since he first saw her in that dress earlier this evening, and now he was finally free to act on it. Nibble he did, down her neck, and down her chest, and then he tugged that dress down too so he could nibble lower still, to everywhere that would normally be hidden from polite company. Judy moaned and arched into him, she bent her knee and ran her leg up her body, which had the not-unwelcome side-effect of allowing her skirt to fall down towards her hips. Nick happily accepted the invitation to cup his paw around her thigh and draw her knee up to her chest as he lowered his body onto hers, teeth still at the fur of her chest.

By then Judy had undone his tie and the top three buttons of his shirt, but he had her pretty well pinned down, and that was all she could reach. That was fine with him, he was happy to keep her squirming for a while longer. He tried to pull her dress down further so he could reach the other side of her chest, but it was becoming tighter and it was clear he wouldn’t get much further without undoing it altogether. He fumbled blindly around at the back of her, trying to locate the zipper.

Judy chuckled and shifted onto one side so he could reach her back, but it was pretty dark in their little blanket fort and she was still tangled in those two jackets and he still couldn’t find it. She laughed a bit more this time and drew herself up to her knees, facing away from him, and let both jackets slide off her shoulders. Now he was in a good position to locate that zipper, and speaking of good positions…

Nick slowly undid her dress, watching as the fabric fell down her shoulders and towards her waist. He wrapped his arms around her from the back and allowed his paws to shift lower on her body, and lower, until he had guided the dress all the way down to the mattress. She was now kneeling in front of him wearing nothing but that lacy pair of booty-short underwear. Judy groaned and laid her head back on his shoulder, ears draping comfortably down his back as he continued her exploration of her body, bringing one paw up towards her chest and the other down further, and further still, until he was in a good position to drag his paw along the lace. Judy groaned and buckled into him.

“I think you’re overdressed.” She whispered into his ear as he brought his head down over her shoulder.

“I think it’s just right.” He muttered, but loosened his hold on her. Slowly, she turned around so she could face him and started working on the buttons of his shirt, then of his trousers.

“Now it’s just right.” She said, pulling his shirt off of his chest and running her fingers through his fur.

He allowed himself to be lowered onto the mattress as she crawled up along his body. Nick had had a size imbalance with his previous partner, though at the time he had been the smaller of the two, so he had a pretty good idea of the accommodations they would have to make. Judy had no such experience, though she seemed to be adapting fairly well. She figured out fairly quickly that she could not straddle his pelvis and still be at eye level, so she ended up moving further up to his belly so that she could bury her face in his neck. She kissed up his neck and then nuzzled along the bottom of his snout, and Nick couldn’t stop the low growl that was forming in the back of his throat. He brought his paws up her thighs towards her hips, and then further up so they could rest on her tail, which was poking up through the back of her lacy, botty-short panties. The last obstacle to go before she would be exposed to him completely. He slipped the fabric over her tail and inched it down on her hips. Judy squealed and twitched as he touched somewhere sensitive, knocking her forehead into his jaw.

“Owww.” Nick muttered.

“Sorry.” She chuckled, resting her forehead against him. “You’re still overdressed though. It seems a little unfair.”

He had to admit she was right about that. He was still mostly dressed, with just his shirt hanging open at the front and the button of his trousers undone, while she was mostly---not dressed. He guided her off of him and then raised himself up to his knees.

With him on his knees and her standing he was still a little taller than she was, but not by much. He gathered her into his arms and they paused their exploration of each other’s bodies, just holding one another for a while. Nick was enjoying the feel of her, the smell of her, while she just seemed happy to be held. It was warm and cozy in their little blanket fort, a sharp contrast to the rest of this place. Outside was cold, and complicated. Outside there was frost on the windows, and a crime boss who had once tried to kill him. Outside was Bellweather, and the Cloven Hooves, and the upcoming trial. Outside was that photograph that they couldn’t seem to get away from, and a police investigation that he would rather forget about. Outside was his father’s murder investigation, and his mother’s cataract surgery, and the Chief of Police, who was somehow involved in both those things. Outside was a world that just didn’t seem ready for the two of them, and to top it all off he had exams to study for.

But in here none of that mattered. It was just him, and her, holding one another, furry body against furry body. Four ears and eight paws and two heartbeats. Nothing mattered except for the two of them.

Nick tightened his grip on her, inhaling her scent, and decided that it was time to resume where they had left off. Hadn’t he been teasing her with his tongue earlier tonight? It was time to show her exactly what it could do. He allowed his paws to resume their exploration of her body.

Chapter Text

Author's Note:  There's a lot of one-off characters in the next few chapters.  They're necessary to tell this part of the story, but not important to the plot, so don't think you have to remember them all.  The paramedic mountain goat with the bushy eyebrows is modelled after my husband, special request.   Find somebody who inserts themselves into your furry fan fiction.

As always, comments are appreciated.

 


 

 

Not for the first time, and not for the last, Nick drove under the high iron gate that read ‘ Zootopia Police Academy.’   This place never got any more inviting, made worse by the fact that he had to wake up earlier to get here in time.  Nick hated getting up earlier than he had to.

He parked the car that he’d borrowed from the warehouse and fetched his phone from where he had thrown it onto the front seat.  One unread text message from Judy.

“I’ll see what I can do about picking you up this afternoon.  It all depends if I can get off work on time.  Let me know when you get there, I’ll be thinking of you today.”

Nick smiled down at his phone and then typed out his own reply.  “ I’ve arrived.  Did you really live here for a year?  This place is creepy.”

There was the familiar three dots at the bottom of his screen before a reply appeared.  “Not quite a year. I got used to it.”

I don’t think I’d want to get used to it.”   Nick typed into his phone, then added.  “ Today is going to suck.”

“Yeah, it will.”   Came the immediate reply.  Never one to mince words, was Judy.  A moment later another text came through.  “ You’ll do fine.”

Nick took a deep breath and pocketed his phone.  Yeah.  He’ll do fine.  Maybe.  He locked the car behind him as he walked towards the building.  

The room he was looking for was on the main floor off to the left, at the very end of the building.  Quite a long walk for a small animal.  A small gathering of large animals was mingling outside the room, waiting for it to be unlocked.  They were all new hires to ZPD who, like Nick, were just trying to get through the day.  He waved hello to Helen, the hippo who had always been friendly towards him.  She waved back, but looked like she was engaged in conversation with another recruit.  He took a spot next to Sam, a lioness who he recognized from his classes. 

“Hey.”  He said by way of greeting.

“Hi.”  She replied, looking down at him.  “You ready for today?”

“No.”  He replied frankly, and then smiled up at her.  “You nervous?”

“Terrified.”  She replied, and they exchanged a grin.  

Nick looked around him, but all he could see was legs.  Big legs.  Elephant legs, hippo legs, rhino legs, polar bear legs.  Somebody stepped backwards and almost flattened him; he had to scurry to get out of the way.  He glared upwards, but the offending party didn’t even appear to notice.  Nick sighed and backed up towards the wall.  There he saw somebody he hadn’t seen before.  A mountain goat with a scraggly beard and bushy eyebrows.  A paramedic, judging by his uniform and equipment.  Nick, from his place against the wall, didn’t notice Major Friedkin’s approach until she was almost on top of them.

“Alright, recruits.  Sign your name on the sheet and grab a waiver.  We are going to have fun today!”  She announced, unlocking the door to the room.  “Not you, Wilde.  These officers have some questions for you.  You can join us when you’re finished.”

Confused, Nick watched as the rest of the mammals started filing neatly into the room.  He looked around and noticed two police officers hanging back with him; a grizzly bear and a buffalo.  The bear he recognized.  Officer Hawthorne.  

“Nicholas Wilde?”  The buffalo asked as the door closed, leaving the three mammals alone in the hallway.  “I am Officer Kinneigh, this is Officer Hawthorne.  Do you mind if we ask you a few questions?”

“I really should get to class.”  Nick said nervously, eyeing up the brown bear.  Officer Hawthorne.  The one who had investigated him for suspicion of---well.  That one.  He was half surprised to find that he was another predator.  I guess prejudice runs deep.   He thought.

“This won’t take long.”  Officer Kinneigh said, and held out a photograph towards him.  “Do you recognize this?”

Nick glanced at it, though he already had a pretty good idea of what it would be.  It was the photograph that was taken that night at Meadowlands, when Judy had thrown herself on top of him to prevent him from being murdered by an angry mob.  “I saw it in the newspaper.”  He said evasively.  

“And do you recognize any of the mammals in the photo?  Take your time.”  Officer Kinneigh continued.

“I think I’ve seen the street preacher around.”  Nick pointed to the silhouette of the ram in the top corner of the photograph.  “He likes to stand outside of the transit hub with a sign that says ‘keep predators out of our schools. ’”

“Don’t be coy.”  Officer Hawthorne leaned down and pointed one massive claw at the photograph.  “Do you recognize the fox and the rabbit from the centre of the photograph?”

“Not every fox knows one another.”  Nick said, feigning offence.  Neither officer seemed impressed by his answer.  

“It’s okay if you do.”  Officer Kinneigh said kindly.  “Nobody is in trouble, we just want information.”

“Look, I really want to get to class.”  Nick inched towards the door.

“You can go once you answer our question.”  Hawthorne said, placing his body in front of the door.

“Am I a suspect?”  Nick asked stubbornly, glaring up at the bear.  

“No, but we think you might be a victim.”  Kinneigh said, and bent down so she could see him better.  “Look, Nicholas, we know that the photo was taken at 7:24 p.m. the night of the assault and that you got on a bus at 7:27, half a block away.  That puts you at the crime scene, which means you’re either a victim or a witness.”

Nick ran his paw along his thigh nervously.  He wished Judy was here, together they could talk their way out of this, he was sure.

“We understand why you didn’t want to come forward.”  Kinneigh continued.  Her voice was gentle.  “But you have to understand that the time for keeping this secret might have passed.  This is a really high-profile case, and the more time that passes the more angry the public is getting.  It’s only a matter of time before you’re found out, and it might be dangerous for you if the wrong mammal gets to it first.”

Nick didn’t answer, he didn’t know what to say.  She was right.

“You don’t need to tell us the whole story, if you’re not ready yet.”  She continued.  “Just tell us the name of the rabbit you were with that night.  We can get the rest later.”

Nick blinked at Kinneigh, and then at Hawthorne.  “Wait, you haven’t found the rabbit yet?”

The two officers exchanged a glance.  “No.”  Kinneigh said.

“But we will.”  Hawthorne added.  

Nick had no doubt that he was right, but for now they didn’t know, and that was almost a little funny.  Judy was right under their noses, sometimes literally, and they hadn’t figured it out.  He felt one side of his mouth curving into a smile.  “You don’t have any idea who she is?  None at all?”

The officers again exchanged a quizzical look.  “What aren’t you telling us?”  Hawthorne asked.

“Nothing, nothing.”  Nick shook his head, laughing quietly to himself.  Way to miss the forest for the trees.  He was feeling better.  He had regained control of the situation.  He may not be able to prevent himself from being discovered, but at least he could maintain the upper hand, for now.  He laughed again, enjoying the look of discomfort on the two mammals’ faces.  “Alright, here’s the deal.  I’ll tell you the whole story, but not right now.  We will meet up tomorrow, and I will bring the rabbit along with me.  We will tell you everything that we know.”

Kinneigh nodded.  “Deal.  But you’d better show up.”

Nick tossed his arms out to the side.  “Where would I go?  You already know where I live.”

“You’re…”  Kinneigh frowned nervously.  “You’re homeless.”

“If you say so.”

“You’re a squatter.  You live in a warehouse.”  Hawthorne added.

“Which you will not arrest me for because, as you’ve already said, I’m a victim, not a suspect.”  Nick said smugly.  He tucked his paws into his pockets.  “I’ll be there, and I will bring the bunny.  Ten o’clock tomorrow, precinct one.  Find a room for us, somewhere private.  Not an interrogation room.”  And with that, he entered the room and closed the classroom door behind him.





“Remember these are called less than lethal weapons and not non-lethal weapons for a reason.  Take a seat, Wilde.”  Major Friedkin announced from the front of the classroom.  “They are not designed to kill a mammal, but they still will if used improperly.  Which is why we are going to learn to use them properly."

There was a murmur of agreement from the rest of the group.  Nick took the opportunity to scan his waiver.  He read through the words ‘ fully understand the risk’ and ‘ bodily harm, injury, or accidental death.’   He initialed next to the acknowledgements that he would not misrepresent his medical history or hold the academy responsible for damages.  Finally he hesitated at the bottom of the documents, where there was a line to fill in the emergency contact.  His first instinct was to choose Judy, because he trusted her judgement and would want her to be at his side if anything happened.  But he wasn’t quite ready to have her name on a document like this just yet.  He was sure that Major Friedkin would pick up on it.  

He considered writing his mother’s name, but he didn’t really think it was fair to put this on her.  Besides, she was limited in her mobility and might have trouble finding her way to the hospital.  Finally he wrote Finnick’s name and telephone number, wrote ‘friend’ in the relationship section, then signed and dated at the bottom of the document.  

“...You will follow my instructions exactly.  Any misfire or accidental discharge of a weapon will result in automatic suspension.  Do you understand?”  Major Friedkin asked the class, then raised her voice when the murmurs of agreement were not enthusiastic enough for her liking.  “I SAID DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”

The recruitis, including Nick, jumped and chorused “yes ma’am!”

“Good.”  She rubbed her paws together.  “Now, if you think that you can use a weapon like this on another mammal, then you had better know what it feels like to have it used on you.  Trust me, it doesn’t feel good, but you are about to learn that for yourselves.  We will start with the conducted energy weapon…”  She reached in a case and brought out a taser to show the class, then set it on the desk in front of her.  “...After that we will get a bit of a break with the bite deterrents and kinetic impact projectiles…”  She held up a muzzle and a pack of rubber bullets.  “...And we will finish off the day with capsaicin spray.  And believe me, you won’t want to do much after that.”  Here she held up the pepper spray to show the class and then carefully set it down on the table next to the other objects.

A chill went down Nick’s body as he stared at the table.  There, sitting in between the taser and the rubber bullets was a muzzle.    A muzzle.   Or bite deterrent, as the Major had called it.  Somehow nobody had thought to warn him that there would be a muzzle?  Judy hadn’t warned him?  She had done this exercise before, she should know what to expect.  He knew about the taser, he knew about the pepper spray, but the muzzle, that was a surprise.  An unpleasant one.

Major Freidkin was talking again; Nick forced himself to pay attention.  “Now, the kinetic impact projectiles will only be used on mammals weighing more than one hundred pounds.  Pretty sure that’s most of you, except for the fox.”

“Why don’t you just call them rubber bullets?”  Somebody called from the back of the class.

Major Freidkin glared.  “The technical term is kinetic impact projectiles.  Get used to using the real names of these things.  If you can’t remember the full name then perhaps you aren’t smart enough to be here.”

Nick winced and wrote down in his notebook:

 

kinetic impact projectiles= rubber bullets

conducted energy weapon = taser

capsaicin spray = pepper spray

bite deterrent = muzzle

 

He frowned at that last part.  It seemed so clinical. 

Freidkin held up the muzzle.  “Now, the bite deterrent will only be used on predators.  Our teeth are sharp and our bites are strong.  You should consider the mouth of a predator to be a weapon, and just like any other weapon it must be neutralized for your own protection.”

Nick glanced at Helen, who was sitting a few rows back.  He was pretty sure that her mouth was more deadly than his.  She met his eyes, and shrugged her big hippo shoulders.  She seemed to have had the same thought.  

“To keep it consistent, everything will be done alphabetically.  Babar, you’re up first.”

An elephant near the back nervously stood up and walked to the front of the room, where a space had been cleared for today’s activities; Nick recognized him as Brian, one of the other recruits that he had been taking classes with.  The paramedic mountain goat that Nick had seen earlier hopped up easily onto a little step ladder, one hoof on the top rung, one against the wall, holding the pose with an ease that few other mammals could have managed.  He took an extra large blood pressure cuff and wrapped it around the elephant’s arm, nodding and jotting a few things down in his notebook as the cuff inflated.  

Brian removed his shirt and stood at the front of the room, facing away from the rest of the class.  Two more mammals were called to the front to stand on either side of the trainee; another elephant and Helen, the hippo.  They each grabbed one arm as Major Freidkin took aim, yelling “ Taser! Taser! Taser”, and fired.  

Two wires shot out of the taser--of the conducted energy weapon --and attached themselves squarely in the middle of Brian’s back.  One just above his rump, the other further up his flank.  For a few seconds nothing happened.  The elephant looked back over his shoulder quizzically.  

And then--TIC! TIC! TIC! TIC! The device made some loud snapping sounds and a bright flash of light.  One of Brian’s legs and his trunk contracted upwards and he arched his neck and spine as the current met his body.  TIC! TIC! TIC!  A soft, involuntary moan escaped from the elephant’s mouth, and then it was over.  His legs sagged for a minute and the other two mammals helped him to regain his footing.  He took a few steps forward and collapsed into a chair.  

“How was it?”  Major Freidkin asked with a sadistic grin.  

“Owww.”  Brian groaned.

The paramedic hopped up to the back of the chair, balancing easily as he examined the first of the probes that were embedded in the elephant’s tough hide.  “You might feel some discomfort.”  He said, and grabbed the probe with a pair of pliers, braced one hoof against Brian’s back, and yanked it free.  Brian winced.

Major Freidkin, meanwhile, was busy loading another cartridge onto the device.  “Next up!  Kimba!”

Sam, the lioness, stood up and walked to the front of class.  She checked in with the paramedic, then went to stand up at the front of the class.  Two other recruits, a jaguar and a yak, took their places beside her, each hooking an arm under both of hers.  She lifted her shirt midway up her back and took a deep breath as Freidkin fired.  

As before, the probes made contact with her flesh, one higher than the other.  There was a short delay as the device calibrated to her body weight, and then the same loud cracking sound as before.  Sam’s tail and all four of her limbs contracted in towards her body as an otherworldly moan escaped from her mouth.  Five seconds of writhing in pain and it was done.  Her legs buckled under her and the other two mammals had to help her over to the chair over by the paramedic.  The mountain goat took another set of vitals from her then went to examine the probes in her back.

“Ready?”  The paramedic asked, and yanked the first probe free without waiting for an answer.  Sam groaned and bit into her wrist to prevent any more noise from escaping.  

“Koslovo?  Get ready, you’re next!”  Friedkin called as the other probe was yanked free from a very distressed-looking lioness.  Ted, a polar bear sitting near the back, stood up to take his place near the front of the classroom.

Nick, whose last name started with a W, was the last to be called.  He would have liked to have gotten it out of the way sooner; watching his peers be tased one by one was a drain on his nerves.  He had nothing to do but watch them line up, one by one, then get shot with a weapon and contract in pain for a few seconds, knowing that his turn was next.  It was--unnerving, to say the least.  To top it all off, he noticed a definite pattern in that the smaller mammals like the lions seemed to feel the removal of the probes a lot more than the larger ones with tougher hides such as elephants.

Nick, of course, was the smallest mammal of all.  He nervously walked to the front when his name was called, staying as far away from the table as possible.  The muzzle was still displayed there and he did not like being too close to it.  

He wordlessly checked in with the mountain goat, then removed his shirt and took his place at the front of the room.  Sam, being closest to his size, was called to support him, as was Matt, a jaguar that he didn’t know very well.  They had to kneel down to get closer to his height as they each took an arm.

“It’ll be over soon.”  Sam whispered to him, as Friedkin fired.

All of the muscles contracted in Nick’s body.  All of them, including his diaphragm, which explained the slow groan as the air was pushed out of his throat.  The whole world paused; there was no passage of time, no thoughts, no world around him.  Just pain.  He couldn’t move,  he couldn’t really think either.  He just wanted the pain to stop.

Stop it did, eventually.  He knew it had only been five seconds in real time, but that seemed so meaningless.  As far as he was concerned it had been an eternity.  The two mammals helped him to get his feet under him.  The current was gone, but the pain wasn’t.  Not yet.  His muscles felt weak, as if they had just worked too hard and needed to recharge.  His brain felt fuzzy, like a pebble in a tin can.  His skin felt prickly and uncomfortable.  The floor looked cool and inviting; part of him wanted to just lay down on it.

But he forced his legs to work, to bring him shakily over to the chair.  It was too high for him, which ordinarily wouldn’t have been a big problem, but right now the thought of climbing onto it was a bit too much.  He collapsed over it instead, his arms reaching over to grab the seat as he draped himself over it, allowing the goat to place a blood pressure cuff over his arm.  

The probes were next.  They weren’t hurting him while they were in there, but they did need to come out.  The paramedic repeated his same phrase from earlier “you might feel some discomfort.”

Some discomfort. Thought Nick, as the mountain goat put a knee into his back and yanked the barb out of his flesh.  He clamped his jaw shut to stop the yelp that wanted to escape.  That hurt .  The other one came next, which was no better.  Nick put a paw to his back and examined his fingers.  Blood.

“The bleeding won’t last long.”  The paramedic said, applying bandages to the wounds.  “Keep them clean and watch out for signs of infection.  The barbs are sterile, so it’s usually not a problem.”

Nick grunted and moved to put his shirt back on.  His arms felt shaky and numb.  “Thanks.”  He muttered as he went to take his seat.  The goat nodded encouragingly to him.

“Alright recruits!”  Major Friedkin gleefully rubbed her paws together.  “Break time.  Have something to eat and grab an electrolyte drink on the way out of the door.  Be back here at ten thirty, the day isn’t over yet!”

On unsteady limbs, the class filed out of the classroom.  Nick lingered behind, walking shakily up to the table.  The classroom was large, it had to be for the day’s activities; there was a lot of room at the front, and the muzzle looked so small in the giant room.  He stared at it for a long while.  His heart was beating hard in his head and his ears were ringing, and he didn’t think it had anything to do with the taser.  

That muzzle.  He was too close to it, but somehow he couldn’t bring himself to look away.  He didn’t like it being out of his line of sight.  As long as he could see it, he knew where it was.  As long as he could see it, it couldn’t hurt him.  

Some forgotten part of his brain was telling him that this wasn’t sustainable.  He obviously couldn’t keep staring at it forever, he really should turn and walk away.  It couldn’t hurt him from the table.

And yet, it was really hard for him to turn away.

And yet, he was still scared of that thing, even after all these years.

And yet, he would have to have it secured on his head before the morning was over.

Nick took a deep breath and clenched his fists at his side.  He glared at the muzzle one last time and then marched out of the classroom.





“Kimba!  Koslavo!  Sanchez!  Wilde! You’re up next!”  Major Friedkin announced a short time later, after all the recruits had consumed their electrolyte drinks and returned to the classroom.  Nick felt his heart drop down to his stomach.

Samantha Kimba, a lioness.  Ted Kosalvo, a polar bear.  Matteo Sanchez, a jaguar.  And Nicholas Wilde, fox.  All predators.  All sitting in the classroom waiting for their turn to be muzzled.  

The urge to flee was strong.  Nick fought it.  He stared straight ahead, paws clenched on top of the desk.

“Now, don’t think the rest of you are getting off easy because you don’t get to try one of these out.  Only reason you’re getting off is because they don’t make these things the right size for prey.  If it was up to me you’d all be trying one on.”  Friedkin was saying, glaring at the prey mammals in the class.  “The bite deterrent is a tool, nothing more.  It is designed to protect you from a potentially dangerous mammal.  It is not to be used as a power play or humiliation tool, understand?”  

She glared at them until the murmur of agreement turned into a chorus of “yes ma’am!”  Nick stayed quiet, his jaws clamped shut.

“Kimba!  To the front.  You’re up first.”  

Sam stood up from her chair and walked to the front, turning to face the rest of the class, her head held high.  

“Three minutes, Kimba.  That’s how long you’ve got to keep this thing on.”

The lioness nodded and allowed the muzzle to be strapped over her...well, muzzle.  Nick’s heart was racing, but Sam seemed tense, but otherwise okay.  Nick counted as she took deep, even breaths.  In-two-three-four, hold-two-three-four, out-two-three-four.  Three minutes seemed like an eternity.  

At last the muzzle was removed and Sam took a few deep breaths and twitched her ears.  She wiggled her jaw back and forth and returned to her seat.  She was scowling, but otherwise seemed okay.

“Kosalvo!”

Ted, the polar bear, sauntered to the front of the room.  He looked fairly relaxed about the whole idea.  He grinned and made a face at somebody in the back of the room, then allowed himself to be muzzled.

At first nothing happened, he stood there at the front of the room with the muzzle strapped over his head.  Then it seemed like he was losing control.  He shook his head, and then shook it again.  Almost unconsciously he took one step backwards, then another, until he bumped into the table and knocked it back into the wall.  Thankfully Major Friedkin had removed the weapons from it before starting this activity, as she called it.  

“Focus, Kosalvo!”  Major Friedkin barked.  “Seventy seconds left.”

Ted brought his paws up towards his head, then forced them back down again, clenching and unclenching his fists as he waited out the timer.  As before, the time dragged on to eternity.

At last the muzzle was removed and Ted rubbed his face with one enormous paw, scowling at the class.  He didn’t seem nearly as relaxed as before.

Nick’s heart was really beating fast now.  He risked a glance at the rest of the class.  They seemed uncomfortable, which made him feel a bit better, at least.  He didn’t know how he would have reacted if anybody looked like they were enjoying the show.  The paramedic was frowning from his chair off to the side.  He looked troubled.

“Sanchez, you’re up!”  

Matt, the jaguar, walked up to the front.  He looked as shell-shocked as Nick felt.  Nick met his eyes and gave him a weak smile as the muzzle was lowered onto his face.  On the surface he looked like he was handling it well, but Nick could see the tension in his body.  Nick saw that his fists were being clenched and unclenched rhythmically.  Nick saw his sharp claws sticking out of the fur around his fingers and toes.  Nick saw the fur of his tail puffed up, and the deep shuddering breaths he was taking.  Matt, he knew without having to ask, had also had an experience with a muzzle at some point in his past.

Three minutes was way too long.  But somehow not long enough.  Because now it was Nick’s turn.  He forced his heavy legs to walk to the front of the room when his name was called.  He knew his fur was standing on end, but there wasn’t much he could do about that.  His heart was still beating hard in his chest and the edges of his vision had gone black.  All he could see was the muzzle.  Nothing else.

He forced himself to hold still and allow Major Friedkin to lower it over his face.  And then there it was, strapped behind his ears.  He tried to take deep even breaths like he had seen Sam doing.  At first it seemed to be working, but then his breaths started getting faster, and faster, and faster still.  He couldn’t stop it.  Pretty soon he was breathing so fast that the air made a whistling sound every time it passed his throat and his full body was shaking uncontrollably; he couldn’t stop that either.  

“That’s enough, get it off him.”  Somebody nearby said.  Nick heard the words, he understood the words, but he didn’t quite put together that this meant another mammal must have said them.  So when the mountain goat appeared in the centre of his vision, his full on panic set in.  He yelped and twisted away from the paramedic, ramming his shoulder into the table leg, which shifted across the floor with an ungodly creak.  On all fours now, Nick leaped towards the exit, but then got tangled in a chair, which toppled over onto the floor with a crack.

Still on the floor, Nick clawed at the muzzle, trying to get it off.  But the police-grade ones were a few steps above the one that the Junior Ranger Scouts had gotten a hold of when he was a kit.  This one wasn’t going anywhere.  Getting desperate now, Nick used his back legs, hooking his claw under the strap and trying to force it over his head.  

And then he was pinned to the floor, one arm twisted behind his back, a knee in between his shoulder blades as somebody removed the muzzle from his face.

“Look at me.”  The mountain goat said, pulling Nick to his feet and turning to face him.  For a brief, terrible moment, Nick thought that it was a sheep who had grabbed him.  Already worked up from the muzzle, Nick suddenly had a vivid memory of when he was attacked by that mob.  It had been a sheep who first grabbed him, and dragged him away from Judy.  He instinctively flinched and brought his arm up to protect his face from an attack that he was sure was coming.  

“Come on, we’re taking a break.”  The mountain goat said, guiding Nick outside to the hallway.  Before the door closed, Nick looked back at the classroom and saw the faces of his classmates, all frozen in uncomfortable silence.  

The hallway was deserted, thankfully.  Nick walked to the other side of it and leaned against the wall, resting his forehead on his arm as he stared blankly down at the floor.  

“Focus on your breathing.  In through your nose, out through your mouth, do it with me.”  The mountain goat prompted, demonstrating the breathing technique.

But Nick felt he didn’t have to breathe.  His body was already oversaturated with oxygen.  He had been breathing pretty hard back there, after all.  He continued to stare down at the floor.  He felt sick, and glanced down the hall to locate the nearest garbage can, just in case he needed it in a hurry.  The mountain goat, seeming to understand that Nick was coming down from his panic on his own, just leaned one shoulder against the wall and gave him some time.

“First panic attack?”  The paramedic asked, after giving Nick a few long minutes to himself.

Nick straightened from the wall.  His paws were tingling and his muscles felt weak.  “First time I’d lost control like that.”  He smiled weakly, hoping to show that he was alright.  He didn’t think he was fooling anybody.  

The paramedic nodded.  “But not the first time with a muzzle, right?  How old were you?”

Nick flinched and looked away.  “I don’t know.  Nine?”

The mountain goat whistled.  “Just a child.  I’m Kelly by the way.”

“Nick.”  The two mammals smiled at one another, and Nick started to feel calmer, safer, better.  He leaned against the wall and rested his head back, staring up at the ceiling.  

“You’re not the first one to react like that.  Won’t be the last.  There’s a reason there’s no chalkboard in that classroom.  Too easy to break.”  Kelly chuckled, copying Nick’s body language as he, too, leaned back against the wall.  “They learned that the hard way.”

Nick didn’t much feel like laughing, but he forced a weak smile onto his face.  He wasn’t sure if that made him feel better or not.  It was nice to know he hadn’t been the first one to panic, but it did remind him that he would have to go back into that classroom, eventually.  It reminded him that his classmates had seen him freak out.  Major Friedkin…

Nick straightened from the wall, rubbing his face.  He could still feel the muzzle, still smell it.  His mouth was dry, and he wanted water.  He licked his lips and tasted salt.  He must have been crying, at some point.  He didn’t remember that.  He rubbed his face again, this time with purpose.  He didn’t want anybody to be able to see tear marks on his face.

The door opened and Major Friedkin came out, shutting the door quietly behind her.  “You alright, Wilde?”

Nick opened his mouth to answer, but no sound came out.  He cleared his throat and tried again.  “Fine.  Sorry about all that.”

“Hrumph.”  She snorted, clearly not convinced.  “Every year they make me include that bite deterrent exercise, and every year I tell them that it’s not the predators who need the lesson, it’s prey.  If I could get a muzzle that would fit them you bet your furry behind that they would be freaking out at the front of the classroom too.”

Nick didn’t answer.  He didn’t really know what to say.

“You made it one minute and twenty seven seconds.”  Friedkin continued.  “That’s nowhere near the record, by the way.  Shortest time with the bite deterrent is forty seconds.  I’m not going to make you finish the three minutes, by the way.  Nothing to be gained by torturing you further.”

Nick nodded, grateful that he wouldn’t have to go back to stand in front of the class.  Somehow facing his peers seemed worse than being muzzled again.  This whole thing was terribly embarrassing. 

“We’re about to start with the kinetic impact projectile exercises.  You’ll be under the weight restriction so you won’t have to partake, but I would like you to be there.  It’s still valuable to see how it affects mammals of different weight categories.  The elephants will barely feel it, but the felines will be limping for a week.”  Friedkin barked out a laugh.

Nick glanced back at Kelly.  Was that humour?  Was he supposed to laugh?  The paramedic was just frowning at Friedkin.  He didn’t seem to find it funny either.

“You go ahead, we’ll be in in a minute.”  Kelly said awkwardly.

Friedkin seemed to like that idea.  She marched back back into the classroom, announcing “alright recruits!  Show is over, now the real fun begins.”

“Are you going to be okay to go back in there?” Kelly asked, and Nick flinched.

“I don’t have much choice.”

“There’s always a choice.”

“Not if I want to graduate, there isn’t.”  Nick shook his head.  “I’ll be alright.  It was the muzzle that made me panic.  I can handle the rest of it.”

“You don’t need to handle it alone.”  Kelly said, all of a sudden sounding less like a friend and more like a professional.  Nick found himself missing the closeness that he’d felt a few minutes ago.  “You can call the twenty four hour mental health crisis line, I’ll give you the number.”

“I’ll be okay.”  Nick muttered.  

“You’re okay, until you’re not.  Do you know how to handle it if this happens again?”

“If I get muzzled again?”  Nick forced out a laugh.  “I’d rather focus on that not happening.”

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”  It seemed like Kelly had a rather dark sense of humour.  Nick wasn’t sure how to answer, so Kelly took it as an invitation to continue talking.  “To get through a panic attack, you need to focus on your senses.  Find something you can see, then something you can hear, then something you can touch, then something you can smell.  Then do it all again, as many times as you need to.”

“All I can smell is the muzzle.”  Nick said bitterly.

“I think I can help with that, actually.”  Kelly muttered, reaching into his pocket and bringing out a hoof full of alcohol swabs.  He opened one and wafted it under Nick’s nose.  “Does this help?”

Nick twitched his sensitive nose as the smell hit him.  It didn’t smell great.  Sharp and chemical; but it did help.  His nausea started to go away and he no longer smelled the dusty straps of the muzzle.  Anything was better than that.  “Yes, actually.  That does help.”

“Take a bunch then.”  The paramedic said, shoving a pile into Nick’s paws.  

Nick shoved them into his pocket and walked back towards the classroom.  “Thanks.”  He paused before opening the door.  “You’ve been great.”

“Just trying to make your shitty day a little less shitty”  Kelly waved his hoof dismissively, then added.  “You’ll be one of the good ones.  I can tell.”

Nick blinked.  He didn’t really know how to respond to that.  He wasn’t sure he believed it, not today.  He mostly just felt embarrassed.  But it was time to go back in.  The two of them entered the classroom together. 

 

 

Chapter Text

“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.”