"I miss you', he admitted.
'I'm here', she said.
'That's when I miss you most. When you're here. When you aren't here, when you're just a ghost of the past or a dream from another life, it's easier then."
― Neil Gaiman, American Gods
Nick dreamed he was climbing.
The stairs that rose up in front of him were suspended in an inky void, darker than any night he'd seen in the city. The light from a thousand headlights, lampposts, windows and neon signs made even the most clear nights a dull smudge of gray over the top of the skyscrapers.
When he had been little, Nick had been disappointed by how few stars he could see in the sky when he looked. Often he would watch the slow moving lights of a plane or helicopter crossing across the city from his window at night, and pretend it was a shooting star - all so he could make a wish.
He remembered wishing for a lot of things, Sometimes they were selfish wishes - a new bike, a toy dart gun, or a stack of comics - but even as a kid he had felt almost guilty for doing so, like it had been a waste of something precious. So after a while, he'd started wishing for more important things, things he desperately hoped would come true.
He'd wished for a uniform so he could be part of the pack.
He'd wished that someone would give his mother a job that would pay well enough that she could quit the second one working the graveyard shift at the diner.
He'd wished that he wasn't so much of a burden.
He'd wished that he hadn't said the things he'd said, and that he could have found another way to support himself that didn't leave him ashamed.
And once, he'd wished for everything to just stop hurting.
In his dream, Nick could barely make out the winding course of the stairs as they rose up into the darkness in front of him. Behind and in front, they faded away - first into a indistinct blur, and then into nothing. Each step gave off a pale glow - something like moonlight - as he stepped onto them. And as he watched, the light slowly faded away. It reminded him of the light that used to shine from the plastic, glow-in-the-dark stars his mother had placed on the walls of his bedroom when he was little.
Nick didn't know why he was climbing, but he was - just a route action, one done out of habit and not from a purpose. And for what could have been days, or years in the strange reality of his mind, Nick climbed.
And then one day he stopped.
Nothing around him had changed - the path below fading behind him, and the path above fading in front of him. They looked the same, and he wondered why he was climbing at all. Would it matter? Why was he even bothering to go up, to fight against the constant pull of gravity?
Wouldn't it be easier to go down?
Nick turned, and tentatively took a step backwards.
Suddenly, he heard a voice from above him, saying something he couldn't make out. It was coming from too far away, and Nick couldn't make out the words. He squinted up into the darkness, trying to make out the shape of whoever it was.
He turned back and began to climb again at a brisk pace.
And he began to make out the form of some other mammal ahead, dim and blurry at first - a pale ghost that faded into the night.
It was Judy.
Somehow, Nick simply knew this and it was true. His pace quickened, and he could feel his heart pounding in his chest as he pushed himself to keep up. Judy was climbing too, faster and faster. If he didn't hurry, he'd lose her.
Another sound tugged at the edge of his hearing, a deep rumbling from behind him. Barely noticeable at first, but soon clearly audible. Nick glanced behind to see the thin, blurry line that marked out the steps below him begin to contract. Small dots of pale light falling down behind the line, like so many shooting stars into the abyss below.
The steps were falling into the void, and they were falling faster than he was climbing.
Nick turned and began to run and climb as fast as possible, panicking as the rumble behind him grew and grew. He tore at the steps with his claws, climbing on all fours in his desperation to keep ahead. To catch up to the phantom of the rabbit in front of him.
But he failed.
He felt the steps fall out from underneath him, watched in abject terror as what little he could see of Judy faded into the darkness.
The steps that fell around him began to pulse and vibrate with a growing intensity, a threatening buzzing rising in pitch and intensity all around him as he fell.
Nick woke with a sudden yelp, bolting upright from where he'd lain on the hard metal of a bench against a wall of the holding cell. He was breathing heavily, and his heart was racing as his mind struggled to full awareness.
He closed his eyes and forced himself to take deep, even breaths to slow his pulse and calm his panic. It had just been a dream, he told himself. The buzzing from his dream was still there in the back of his mind, but Nick realized that it was just the sound of the cell bars humming with electricity.
The fox opened his eyes and glanced around the cell. Most of the predators in the cells were lying on the benches or floors of the cell trying to catch what sleep they could. A few like him were upright and awake, glancing warily around. Each wore a weary look that conveyed a sense of deep exhaustion.
There were no clocks in the cell, so Nick couldn't tell exactly, but he guessed it was morning. He quickly took mental stock of himself - he had all the same aches, pains, and bruises as the day before, albeit slightly duller. He'd survived a rough day in the cells, and it sure felt like it.
Before Nick could think to rouse Mike from where the wolf lay curled up on the floor, the fox heard the door to the cell block open with a screech. A few of the sleeping predators reacted to the sudden noise, but many gave no indication they'd heard the sound at all. Nick heard heavy footsteps start to walk towards his cell, and after a moment he recognized them as belonging to Francine.
The elephant walked over to the electricity box, opened it and switched off the power to the bars. Instantly the background hum that permeated the room vanished, and Nick felt a visceral sense like when his ears popped - a sudden equalization of pressure and a relief.
What few predators that were awake watched Francine as the officer walked to the cell door, put a key into the lock, and slid the door open.
Nick was suddenly aware that Francine was the only officer in the cell. This was completely against protocol - when opening a cell door, you always had a second officer there in case something went wrong and a group of suspects tried to jump you. The Lt. Pennington that Nick had known was nearly as much of a stickler for protocol as Hopps had been, so the fox sincerely doubted this version of the elephant was much different.
"Nicholas Wilde, step forward," Francine said after she'd picked him out from the mongrel crowd in the cells.
Nick felt his stomach twist - all eyes were on him. He slowly got to his feet and carefully walked up to the elephant.
"Paws out," the officer said, bending down low with a pair of cuffs in her trunk.
"Where are we going, lieutenant?" he asked cautiously.
"Paws, Wilde," the elephant said flatly.
There was a hitch to her voice that Nick recognized - it was the same hitch that had crept into her normally clear and strong voice whenever she'd made a risky bluff at poker night.
She was nervous.
Nick held out his paws, and as the elephant cuffed them he asked again, "Where are we going?"
"For questioning," Francine said. "Hopps wants a word."
When Francine led Nick to the left past the stairs down to the Records department, Nick knew something was wrong and stopped dead in his tracks.
"This isn't the way to the interrogation rooms," Nick said. "What the hell is actually going on here?"
Nick felt the back of Francine's leg nudge him and he stumbled a step forward.
"Like I said," the elephant said a little too sharply, "Hopps wants to talk to you know. Now keep moving."
Nick stared skeptically at the elephant for a moment before he begrudgingly continued down the corridor. He knew that only thing down this way was a few janitorial closets and an old evidence lockup that hadn't been used for twenty years..
The fox considered his options: he could go along with whatever it was that Francine was leading him towards, but if he wasn't actually being led to see Hopps ...
Nick swallowed thickly.
He'd been trained to hold his own against larger mammals at the academy (and had boasted for weeks about having bested Rhinowitz in the ring), but that training was only intended for worst-case scenarios. He didn't fancy his chances against Francine in a non-training environment, especially not with his paws cuffed.
Francine stopped him in front of the door of the old evidence locker, and then carefully knocked three times on the door. The two mammals waiting in the hallway, before Nick heard a soft click as the door was unlocked.
Lieutenant Judy Hopps opened the door and glanced quickly between Nick and Francine, stuck her head out to glance down the corridor and then pulled Nick inside and carefully shut the door behind her.
The inside of the lockup was almost identical to how Nick remembered it - dusty shelves, old tacky carpeting, two walls covered in lockers, and a big metal table in the center of the room. Two chairs had been pulled up to the table. Though clearly designed for mammals much larger than Nick or Judy, a pile of old books of laws and ordinances had been stacked on the seats of the chairs as makeshift booster seats for the fox and rabbit.
Nick watched Judy cautiously as the rabbit fished out a key and uncuffed the fox. She smiled feebly and gestured to the two chairs.
Without taking his eyes off Judy, Nick slowly made his way over to and climbed up one of the chairs. The lieutenant presently did the same, and the fox and rabbit found themselves sitting on either sides of the table.
"I uh," Judy said haltingly after an awkward moment of silence, "Well, I'm not really sure where to begin here."
"How about we start with why you're having an off the books meeting with me in a dusty evidence locker," Nick suggested.
"Right," the lieutenant said, reaching down and producing a large folder. She slid it across the table to Nick.
Nick glanced down at the folder and back at Judy before reaching out to take it.
"What's this?" he asked as he opened it. At a glance, it seemed to be filled with police incident reports and forensic analysis documents.
"You tell me," Judy said.
Nick gave Judy a confused look.
"Look, I know I'm not from … whatever this world is supposed to be, but I seriously doubt procedure is that different from what I'm used to. So what are we playing at here, Car-" he stopped himself. "Lieutenant ... I'm pretty sure you're not give this stuff to your suspect."
Judy nodded and glanced down at the table for a second before she answered.
"I'm not sure you're a suspect though."
She looked up to catch Nick's gaze.
"I've been thinking about what you said, back in the warehouse," she said. "And … about this."
The rabbit produced Nick's badge out of a pocket in her uniform, the metal clinking softly as she set it down on the table.
"There's a lot wrong with this case, Wilde," the lieutenant said. "I don't know who to trust right now, and you know what? You say you're supposed to be a cop … my partner right?"
"Good - I could use a partner right about now," Judy said and pointed at the folder. "So - if you really are a cop - tell me what you're looking at."
The fox looked at Judy, eyebrows raised for a minute, before shrugging and looking down at the folder.
He carefully spread out the papers in the folder across the desk and began to read carefully and methodically. This was one of his favorite parts of a case; it was like a puzzle - he had some of the pieces in front of him, but he had to figure out where the patterns were, the hidden connections that would show him the outline of the picture.
He felt Judy's eyes on him as he stared down at the reports.
"This is too sloppy," he said after several minutes, pointing at a passage in one of the incident reports. "No coordination in the execution of the raid, so launching it was clearly spur of the moment."
He reached over for a second paper, a forensics report.
"And there's nothing about the Nighthowler pellets," he noted. "No way the CSI team could have missed it, that stuff was splattered all over that room."
He reached for another paper.
"But here's the thing that's the weirdest of all," Nick said and looked directly at Judy. "My Judy's reports are never this short, and never this incomplete. You don't mention a thing about meeting me in the warehouse, the guy who shot at us, or anything."
"So ..." Judy prompted.
"So, you didn't write this," Nick said. "Or at least, not all of it."
The rabbit let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding.
"That's about a third of what I wrote," she said. "Someone cut the rest out."
Nick nodded and said, "Right - someone in the ZPD doesn't want anyone to connect the dots about the Nighthowlers. Someone important, with access to all of this stuff."
Judy nodded and sunk back into her chair. She'd come to the same conclusions the day before, but couldn't bring herself to accept it without getting someone else to independently arrive at the same conclusion. This was too big for her to do anything about without being absolutely certain.
There was a conspiracy in the heart of the ZPD.
"So uh, does this mean you believe me?" Nick asked cautiously.
"I don't know," Judy said with a sigh. "Maybe? But what I think isn't important right now - if there's someone covering this up in the ZPD, I've got to take this to Bogo."
"Look," Nick began, "be careful. The last time we, er- my Judy and I got mixed up in a conspiracy this big, we nearly died in a train crash and I barely escaped being hit with one of those darts. If someone powerful wants this buried, they won't take kindly to us trying to throw it out into the light."
Nick shrugged, "Well I guess just you. I've kinda booked a vacation in the holding cells, and do you know how hard it is to get a refund?"
The rabbit giggled at the joke, and Nick realized this was the first time he'd heard this Judy laugh. At the thought, Nick felt a wave of loneliness wash over him as he wondered if he'd ever hear his Judy laugh again.
"Speaking of," the lieutenant said. "I'll see what I can do about getting you moved, but I can't promise much until after I talk to Bogo. Once I convince him that you've been setup, I'm sure-"
"If you convince him," Nick said.
"Right," Judy said solemnly.
Judy started to say something, but was interrupted by two knocks on the door to the lockup. Nick glanced at Judy.
"Time to go?"
Judy nodded and held out the handcuffs. Nick walked over and held out his paws.
"I'm sorry about this Wilde," she said apologetically.
"Nick," the fox said with a warm smile. "Call me Nick."
Took awhile, but I updated. Sorry for the long wait - I'll make sure the next one doesn't take a year.
Thanks again to Nehkles for editing!