" For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these, 'It might have been' "

- John Greenleaf Whittier

Nick couldn't remember the last time he woke up with a headache this bad.

Well actually he could - but since it involved a con gone majorly wrong, and the subsequent chase through the dark alleys of downtown in the middle of the night had left him beaten senseless against a dumpster, he had decided to forget about the whole sordid affair and not make the same mistakes again.

But here he was, curled into a fetal position in the dirt moaning quietly to himself and clutching his head. He guessed some things would never change.

In-between the jackhammer thumps of pain throbbing in his temples, Nick tried to get his bearings: He was lying prone in the dirt, the ground cool against the side of his muzzle. Judging from the faint sounds of traffic, he had to be on the edge of town somewhere. It was too warm to be Tundratown, too cold to be Sahara Square, and it didn't seem to be raining so he had to be -

His thoughts were shattered by a ten foot wave of pain crashing against the inside of his skull.

Nick groaned as the tide receded. This was worse than when Hopps had a couple too many shots at karaoke last week and bleated out a heartfelt – and woefully off-key - rendition of "Don't Stop Believing" at the top of her lungs. He hadn't had the heart to try and stop her, it was just too adorable. That, and he knew that the recording of the rabbit's impassioned performance he managed to snag on her carrot pen would make for a great bargaining chip with the bunny. If nothing else, he could tease her mercilessly!

Speaking of his partner …


His voice was hoarse and raspy. The question sounded more like the rasping choke of the engine in Finnick's van than an attempt at speech.

Well, at least I sound as bad as I feel, he thought. After a moment, he tried again:

"Ya' there Hopps?"

Better, he thought, a lot less like a lawn mower that time.

When there was no response from his partner, Nick frowned. He knew that if Judy wasn't here, she'd be out looking for him. She's probably furious! He pictured Hopps tearing through town with that classic determined frown on her face. When she found him (which he knew was only a matter of time) he was in for quite the lecture. Still, he thought, it'll be worth it just to see that cute face she makes when she's worried about him.

He noted with some relief that the hurricane in his head had been downgraded to a tropical storm. I guess ZNN won't be sending Antlerson Cooper to report after all, he noted wryly.

He cracked open one of his eyes and regretted it immediately. Foxes were by nature nocturnal creatures, which meant Nick already had a tepid relationship with the sun. The blinding light of the early morning did not do his aching head any favors.

Too fast, Nick. He chided himself.

Clutching his head, Nick struggled to his paws. He took note that, while it felt as though he had been hit by a train, nothing appeared to be broken. Glancing around through bleary eyes, Nick instantly recognized his surroundings. He was under the cobblestone bridge where Judy had found him at the end of the missing mammal case.

"… you were right all along. I really am just a dumb bunny."

Nick Wilde was a realist. He knew that every animal was an asshole deep down. Some - like him - were just better at hiding it. So when a naïve hick from the burrows had pulled a fast one and managed to out-hustle Nicholas P. Wilde, he had been determined to expose the cracks in the rabbit's façade of optimism. Nobody was perfect.

He thought he found them at Vine and Tujunga. Really, he shouldn't have been shocked to see Judy wilt under the stern gaze of the one ton buffalo looming over her. But for some reason he was. Even more surprising was the "Uh … no!" that leapt - seemingly unbidden - from his mouth after the hulking bovine had demanded her badge a second time.

By the time the fox and rabbit had boarded a skycar bound for city central, Nick had realized that for the first time in years he actually cared. He wanted Hopps to be right, wanted her trust in him to mean something.

And he wanted her to understand.

"I - Nicholas Wilde - promise to be brave, loyal, helpful, and trustworthy!"

He had been elated when her first reaction was to console him, but his survival instincts kicked in and he brushed her off. Never let them see that they get to you.

The two of them would quickly turn their attention back to the case at hand, but Nick swore he felt lighter stepping off the skycar than he had getting on.

Later, as he watched Judy climb up to the top of a podium to speak to the assembled press, Nick was on cloud nine. They had solved the case, and she had asked him to be her partner. He'd never thought he'd ever have the chance or desire to be a cop, but after the way Judy had asked him …

Maybe he finally had a chance to fulfill the promise he made as a kit.

But that which goes up:

"But … it may have something to do with biology."

… must come down.

"For whatever reason, they're reverting back to their primitive, savage ways."

It had hurt, a lot more than he would ever admit. He had finally found the cracks in her façade, just like he did with everyone. He cursed himself for being so foolish and trusting, and vowed to never make the same mistake again.

After two weeks of nursing his anger, Nick was loathe to hear Judy's voice calling his name at the top of the bridge. He had spent days wallowing in self-pity, fantasizing about the perfect sarcastic comeback that would shame the dumb rabbit. He never got a chance to spit out the venom he'd prepared.

Because she apologized, and Nick was surprised to find that was enough.

He was tired of keeping his guard up. Even though he knew it was stupid and he could get hurt, he decided to trust her.

The aftershocks of his headache brought Nick back into the present.

Boy, when did I get so sentimental? He wondered and began to rub at his temples.

Nick turned his attention to trying to remember how he got here in the first place. The last thing he remembered was waving goodbye to Judy after she dropped him off at his apartment, watching her drive off at the end of the day. He had turned to go into his apartment building and then …

He couldn't recall.

This worried him, since he normally had at least a vague inclination of what led to him waking up in the dirt … it usually involved blueberry schnapps.

"And why would I end up back here?" he wondered out loud.

When no answer was forthcoming, Nick sighed and fished his phone out of his pocket. He really ought to let Judy know that he was okay. Plus she might have some idea how he got here.

Nick scrolled through his phone to his contacts. His favorites list had maybe half a dozen numbers. Nick didn't need to scroll; he tapped the first contact ("Carrots"), brought his phone to his ear with one hand, and idly shoved his other hand into his pocket where it stumbled upon Judy's famous carrot pen.

Well there's a silver lining, he thought. If he had done something stupid, she couldn't have recorded it!

A familiar voice answered the line:

"Lieutenant Judy Hopps, ZPD. What can I do for you?"

Oh good, he thought, she doesn't sound too upset.

"Hey Carrots! Looks like I had a rough night last night … any idea what I was up to? I just woke up in … "

"I'm sorry, who is this?"

"You wound me fluff. What, did you lose my number? Get a new phone or something?" he teased.

"Sir, is something wrong? Do you need to report a crime? A predator attack?" She sounded strangely weary.

"A predator attack? Seriously? The only crime around here is that my partner thinks she's being funny. Seriously Carrots, you need to lay off … "

"Sir! You're going to want to refrain from calling me 'Carrots'!" Judy snapped suddenly.

Nick furrowed his brow in confusion, his mind racing. She hadn't been bothered by his nickname since they first met. Had she always been that annoyed by it?

"Hopps are you … "

"That's Lieutenant Hopps." He heard her say through clenched teeth.

This is not good, Nick thought.

"Listen, is this about something I did last night? Honestly, I have no idea what happened! I just woke up under that bridge and …"

"Wait a minute, you're that jerkass fox I ticketed! You are aware that harassing an officer is a punishable offense right? How did you get this number anyway?" Judy was very agitated.

"Hopps … you gave it to me." Nick said softly. Did she not remember?

"I don't think so, pal. Now unless you actually have something to report, we're done here."

"Judy wait, what's the matter …"

The line went dead.

Nick stared at his phone in stunned silence.

"OK, what the hell was that?" he asked after a moment.

"Everything alright Hopps?"

Judy looked up from her phone to the towering figure of Chief Bogo who wore an uncustomary look of concern on his face.

"Oh, uh ... yeah! That was just some wacko who thought he knew me or something." She said with some forced cheer. "Probably still drunk from last night and thought it would be funny to prank call an officer."

Bogo raised an eyebrow at her, scrutinizing her for a moment before putting on his reading glasses and turning his attention back to the stack of reports and papers in his hands.

"Whatever, Hopps. I only care if it's going to cause problems."

"No Sir! No problems here!" Judy said overenthusiastically.

"Good." The chief grunted. "How long have you been with us now, Hopps?" he asked a moment later, still looking over the files in his hands.

"Almost two years sir!" Judy said, unable to hold back a wide grin.

The chief seemed to consider this for a moment, before pulling out a case file from the stack of papers in his arms. Without looking the buffalo placed it in front of Judy.

Judy could barely contain herself. She was about to thank the chief profusely when she saw him hold up his hoof.

"Relax Hopps, this isn't a big one. I need you to look into some tips we've been getting about suspicious deliveries to a warehouse at the docks. And before you get too excited, nothing illegal just suspicious."

"What kind of deliveries?" Judy inquired, nose twitching in excitement.

"Building materials, food and drink, and strangely enough party supplies."

Judy frowned. Party supplies … really?

"Do we know who owns the warehouse?"

"The warehouse building and nearby clinic are registered to a fox by the name of Wilde."

Wilde? Wasn't that the name of the fox she ticketed? The one that just called her?

Judy must have made a face, because the chief fixed her with a look.

"That's not going to be a problem, is it Officer Hopps?"

"What? Oh, no sir!"

"Hmm" the chief rumbled. "Head down to the docks and take a closer look at the warehouse. If you see anything untoward, radio it in and we'll dispatch some officers to assist. No heroics, you understand?"

"Completely sir!"

Judy straightened herself up and gave the chief a smart salute before bolting out of the room.

Chief Bogo shook his head and sighed as he watched the bunny dart out of the room. That one was a handful, he thought. Still they needed every officer they could get. The ZPD was woefully understaffed and had been for years. It was all they could do to keep any semblance of order in the city, let alone try to do anything proactive. They couldn't even spare an officer to manage the front desk! God knows he could use a good secretary.

Not like the old days, the chief mused. No, not like the old times at all. Though, back then they never would have hired a bunny, even one as exceptional as Judy Hopps.

Bogo would never say it to her face, but the bunny had managed to impress him. On her first day he assigned her parking duty to get her out of his fur, and she somehow managed to rack up nearly 300 tickets. Nobody was able to come close to that before or since. Her work ethic was outstanding, and she'd earned a promotion to lieutenant in record time. Despite his reticence to put her in more dangerous situations Bogo found himself unable to justify squandering her talents.

What bothered Bogo was watching how the thankless work had started to get to the rabbit. At the start she had been so enthusiastic, optimistic and full of energy. But there was a limit to how many times you could be confronted by the harsh reality of life as an officer and not have your outlook tarnished. This recent spate of predator attacks wasn't helping anyone maintain an optimistic outlook, that was for sure. Her innocence was slowly but steadily being replaced with the cynicism and jaded detachment that was the hallmark of an officer of the ZPD. And as it had with all of his officers, it pained the chief to watch.

Not like the old days, he mused. She could have kept her innocence and optimism - if not forever - for a great deal longer then.

He was reminded of the closing couplet to a poem that captivated him as a calf:

"So dawn goes down to day.

Nothing gold can stay."

The sun came down, harsh and hot, on Zootopia years ago and it wasn't pretty. He just hoped that Hopps wasn't the last flash of gold on the horizon at sunset. Bogo knew that Zootopia wouldn't survive the night.

Nick was on his fifth draft of a text message to Judy when he heard a familiar voice boom from the top of the bridge.

"What the hell are you doing Wilde?"

Nick looked up from his phone to see a sandy furred fennec fox standing at the top of the bridge fixing him with a very angry scowl. As always the Finnick was wearing a black polo shirt with red stripes down his sides. Strangely, he also seemed to be wearing something around his neck … some kind of collar?

Well now, I should have figured he'd be into that, Nick thought. A wide grin found its way onto the fox's face.

"Finnick? You're about the last person I expected to see." Nick said.

Finnick's scowl deepened. "Yeah, real cute Nick. Where've you been? We were supposed to start this job an hour ago."

Nick glanced at the time on his phone: 9:04 am. The fennec was right rollcall was at 8:00.

"Well Fin, guess I had a rough night. Just woke up here a few minutes ago …"

Finnick continued to glare as he scampered down from the top of the bridge.

"And what do you mean 'we'?" Nick continued. "Did you join the force while I wasn't looking? I mean I'm touched, big guy. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery …" Nick fixed the smaller fox with his trademark smirk.

"The hell is wrong with you? A fox in the ZPD? You hit your head or somethin'?"

Nick frowned, scratched at the back of his head and said, "Sure feels like it. You have any idea what I was up to last night? I have no idea how I got here."

"What do I look like? Your mommy?" Finnick snorted derisively. "Now get your head on straight and let's go already."

"Love to pal, but I'm already in hot water with my partner. I need to get down to the precinct and … What're you looking at?"

Looking back at the smaller fox, Nick noticed that Finnick's scowl had turned to a look of surprise.

Nick looked himself over. His standard green Hawaiian print shirt and purple tie were dusty and wrinkled, but that was hardly surprising all things considered. So what was the fennec staring at?

"Nick … Where's your collar?"

My what? Nick wondered.

"You know what - forget it, I understand." The fennec's voice had lost any trace of anger.

"Understand what? What collar? Fin, what are you talking about?"

Nick was already unsettled by the bizarre phone call with Judy, and this wasn't helping. The creeping sensation of dread that had earlier curled into his belly began to squirm and claw its way into Nick's chest.

"No I get it, its fine. You just wanted a night without the damn thing." The fennec continued. "But Nick, you're going to jeopardize the whole operation! We're too close to do stupid things like that."

Nick wasn't sure what worried him more: the fact that Finnick seemed to be trying to rope him into another con or the uncharacteristic look of sympathy on the fennec's face.

Nick furrowed his brow in irritation. "Finnick, I have no idea what you're talking about and frankly the less I know the better. You know I don't do 'operations' anymore."

The fennec's face flickered between confusion and a scowl, a neon sign in need of replacement, before settling on the latter.

"Oh really? Look at Mr. High and Mighty over here!" Finnick swept his arms wide before giving Nick a sarcastic bow.

"Seriously though, Nick. Whatever you want to call your little theme park, we've got a lot of work to do before we open tonight. You need to pull yourself together."

"My what? Did you say theme park?"

What on Earth? The only theme park he could think of was …

Nick momentarily glanced past the fennec to the ramshackle warehouse down the road behind him.

"Wait, you can't be talking about that. It's just a crazy idea I had as a kid!"

Finnick scoffed. "Crazy doesn't do it justice. Now are you done being stupid? Koslov's collectors are going to be around tonight and if we don't have his cash both of us are dead."

Koslov? That didn't make any sense. He'd already squared his debts with Mr. Big, all thanks to Judy.

"Finnick, I'll have you know Mr. Big and I squared away that little … misunderstanding!" Nick protested. "And even before that I'd never be desperate enough to turn to him for money! Too many strings."

Confusion worked its way onto the fennec's features. "Big? The shrew? Damn Nick, you must have hit your head good! You WERE desperate, kid. Honey and I warned you not to go to Koslov, but did you listen to us? No! Hell, you even roped us in somehow."

Was Honey one of Finnick's squeezes? The fox prided himself on knowing everybody in Zootopia, but even he found it hard to keep up with the fennec's wild love life.

"Ok, whatever." Nick said as he brought a paw to massage his aching forehead. He didn't have time to sort this out.

"As much fun as I'm having with … whatever this is, I'm a busy mammal. The streets don't 'Protect and Serve' themselves after all. So why don't you give me a lift to the precinct and we'll sort the rest out later, huh?"

Finnick cocked his head to the side dumbfounded. "Are you TRYING to get arrested? You want to walk into jackboot central without a collar? They'll tear you apart!"

"What is with you and collars today? Why the hell are you wearing that thing anyway?"

Finnick snarled. "Oh gee, I dunno Nick. I really like how it brings out my eyes. What the hell kind of question is that?"

The fennec's scowl disappeared and he said, "Seriously Nick, you're starting to worry me. You're dense, but you're not THIS dense. You feeling alright?"

Again, Nick was surprised at fennec's expression of concern. Finnick was one of Nick's only real friends (a category that until recently the fennec was alone in), but they never voiced concern for one another. Years of making ends meet on the streets had taught them that sentiment was a weakness that larger or more vicious animals would pounce on if exposed. This wasn't like Finnick. Nick thought he should be touched, but for some reason he felt his temper flare.

"Alright, that's it I'm done. I want off the crazy train." Nick growled, throwing his hands up into the air. "Did Hopps put you up to this? Is this revenge? Throwing me under a bridge and making me think I've gone nuts?"

Nick's thoughts were becoming increasingly frantic. Nick looked around desperately. "Alright guys, real funny. Ha. Ha. You really had me going there …"

When Judy didn't jump out of hiding to laugh at him for being so gullible, Nick felt his heart race and his headache returned with a vengeance. Something was terribly wrong. A sudden thought worried him: Is this what going insane is like?

Nick began to seriously consider throwing up.

After a moment, he decided he would.

"Kid, you need to lay off whatever you're trippin' on." Finnick said and put a comforting paw on Nick's shoulder as the larger fox emptied his stomach.

"Listen, Nick I dunno what's wrong with you but let's get you to the clinic, ok?" The fennec offered.

Nick was in no position to argue, so he just nodded and tried to will the throbbing in his head stop.

This was turning out to be a really bad day.