"More tea, Carrots?"
Judy took a deep breath and brought a paw up to her face. Pinching the bridge of her nose, she pressed her small claws into the corners of her eyes. It felt good. She'd been staring at the papers strewn out on the table in front of her for what felt like an eternity. Even with her eyes closed, she could still see them. "Yes, please," she said after a moment, reaching out with her other paw towards the sound of the voice. As she felt a mug press into her palm she opened her eyes. Nick stood before her, a little smile curling up one side of his muzzle. "Cheers," he said, clanking the edge of his mug lightly against hers. The strong scent of the blueberry tea he preferred briefly filled the air as he turned theatrically and strode over to the other side of the conference room they'd commandeered.
Adjusting herself in her seat, Judy curled her legs next to her as she held the mug in both paws, warming them. While summer was in full bloom here in Zootopia's downtown, it seemed to make little difference to her. Judy hadn't felt much warmth at all over the past month they'd been assigned to this case. Nothing felt warm to her right now. She had never seen a case like this before. She wasn't sure she could have ever imagined a case like this. Every district affected. No species spared. With every new location discovered came more victims. Mostly alive, fortunately, but not in any way unscathed. As the days wore on, the effects of the case hung like a pall over the city, and over her.
She shivered and held the mug closer to her.
Looking through the lightly curling steam, Judy watched Nick, watched his head dart about as he looked over all the photographs, maps, sketches and notes that plastered the entirety of the far wall of the conference room, from floor to the height of a fox's reach. She watched the rise and fall of his shoulders, heard him crack a little joke to himself. He was putting on a brave front, but she knew it was hard for him. And when she wasn't lying to herself, she knew it was hard on the both of them, not the least of which was the hours. Though there were no windows in the room, she guessed it must be close to sunset by now, with most of the city home for the evening. But not her, not them. Another late evening with the fox.
Nick. It had been nearly a year since he became an officer. Even in the midst of all this, Judy felt so proud of him. Everything she saw in him when she handed him the application that day in the lobby of the ZPD, Nick was and more. The two of them had become inseparable. More than once Nick had been chewed out by Chief Bogo for rushing to her side, abandoning his assigned post. Then again, she'd been equally chewed out for just the same. The thought brought a small smile to Judy's lips. They really did do their best work together, he, smooth talking and quick reacting, she, keen minded and energetically physical, and the both of them oh so devilishly crafty. She loved how they always were trying to outdo each other, how it had them find the best ways in and out of situations. When they worked together, they worked magic.
More than that, Nick continued to be a wonderful friend. They shared each other's company often, and Judy had lost count of their city adventures. It had taken a bit of urging at first, Nick still not trusting that he fit in, still a bit suspicious. She'd stood by him, leading him by the paw when she had to. Now he bounded out the door like a kit, excited to show her the town, all the places and sights and activities that were new to her farm-bunny self. Between his connections and her desire to explore, they'd eaten fancy dinners atop the tallest buildings Downtown, run an obstacle race in the Canyonlands, enjoyed the breathtaking beauty of the falls in the Rainforest District, gone skating in Tundratown, and even visited the Nocturnal District. Their playfulness kept them bouncing off the walls in a good way.
But it went well beyond just frolic and laughs. She was also there when Nick went to visit his mother for the first time in years, sitting in the car as he went inside, and waiting until, an hour later, he emerged, crying but beaming, inviting her in. They shared many quiet moments, gondola moments, as she called them. Nick insisted they called them bridge moments. It was more of their playful posturing, but Judy didn't care. Whatever they called them, she knew she felt utterly comfortable around him. Whether on or off duty, she trusted Nick implicitly.
Quite the difference from when they'd first met.
Lost in her thoughts, Judy sipped her tea, letting its leafy aroma fill her senses. "You know Carrots," Nick said suddenly, cocking his head to look at her as he swung his arm in a wide arc as though to show off their handiwork, "we really should just quit to become interior decorators. I think we'd be splendid at it."
"Either that, she replied, matching his facetious tone, "or the maintenance department will kill us. Though I'll be happy when we have to deal with that, it would mean this case is all done. Heck, I'd pay them right now, out of pocket, if it solved this darn case." She took another gulp of her tea and set it down on the table, vigorously rubbing her forehead all the way up to the base of her ears. "Alright," she said wearily, "Ready to dive into it again?"
"No, but let's do it anyway."
Judy hopped onto the table and ambled over to stand next to Nick. The tangled lines of yarn on the wall beckoned. With a tired determination, she tried to decipher them anew.
They were still examining the wall when Clawhauser stumbled into the room. Judy and Nick turned to look at him in unison. "Oh, I just came... I wanted to tell..." While slightly out of breath, he seemed much more to be at a loss for what to say. "Thought you should know there's been another incident. It's... it's not good. Maybe they think... we're on their tail they... covering their tracks... I don't know..." He steadied himself and tried to drive to the point. "A building's been set on fire. It's... spread. Four blocks. Of homes."
A look of horror settled onto Judy's face. "ZFD's already on the scene, two stations worth," Clawhauser continued, "so is the arson unit. Don't know what you can..." He didn't get to finish his sentence, as Nick, in a smooth, practiced motion, wrapped his arm around Judy's waist and ferried her from the table towards the door. With equal grace, Judy alighted into a fast walk as Nick brought her down. "We'll go check it out, maybe we can find something they missed in their haste. I'm going to suit up, Nick, meet you in the motor pool." With that, she was out of the door speeding down the hallway towards the locker room.
"Thanks for bringing us the news..." Nick's voice was fading quickly behind Judy's determined stride. The cheetah was right, she didn't know if they could do much more at the scene. But it had to be better than looking over the damn papers again.
The scene in Tundratown was a chaotic mess. Judy and Nick's arrival did little to add to the cacophony of already flashing beacons and harsh service lights from the assembled fire trucks, ambulances, and police cruisers. Soot mixed with the light snowfall, covering the area as though salt and pepper were being shaken down on them from the heavens. If there was anything primal left coursing in their veins, mused Judy as she steeled herself, it was the fear of fire. Just the acrid smell was enough to make her want to stomp a warning and bolt.
Fortunately, she was an officer. She was trained better than that.
As the two partners pressed inward, Judy surveyed the scene. They were nearer to the apartments. As she watched, a fire team emerged from one of the buildings, a cougar and a deer carrying a young polar bear. A raccoon sitting atop the bear's chest held an oxygen mask to the bear's muzzle while frantically calling out towards medics rushing forward with a gurney. As soon as the bear had been placed on the stretcher, the raccoon jumped off and, joined by a weasel carrying another med pack, scurried back towards the building to find and stabilize other trapped mammals. Looking up through all the fire truck ladders, Judy could still see smoke rising from the buildings, though it seemed light enough that the fires had probably been mostly put out. "Sweet cheese, I hope everyone got out safe..." Judy said aimlessly.
"I'm with you on that, Carrots," said Nick. "Maybe this is just a regular fire, maybe Clawhauser was wrong... No." That last word came out like a gut punch. "I've spotted them." Judy followed Nick's pointing finger towards a back corner of the cordoned off area, away from most of the lights and commotion. A gaggle of mammals was being attended to near the blackened shell of a single-story building. Nodding once to each other, the two turned to make a beeline towards the group.
The crime victims were easily identifiable from the frayed fur around their wrists, ankles and, most disturbingly, their necks. Judy cringed reflexively. The collars and manacles sat discarded in a pile next to the ambulances after they'd been removed by the tech squad. It was the discovery of a body with one of those collars a month ago that tipped them off and started this whole affair. Judy stole a glance towards Nick. He was determinedly looking everywhere but towards where the shackles lay. She made to reach out for him but stopped short. Slowly, she closed her paw to grasp the air and, with equal determination, forced herself to return to the task at hand. Turning back from Nick she quickly counted over two dozen mammals in this group. With probably more already sent to the hospital, this was the largest group they'd found, and liberated, thus far. That filled her with no joy, however. Looking at the burned out ruin, these mammals weren't meant to be found. This liberation was a lucky one. Whoever was behind this was willing to go to extremes.
Judy and Nick approached the group slowly and began to speak to the survivors. They got what they could, but it was still too early. Many were still in shock and could not recount much. Judy was reluctant to press too hard given their ordeal. Craning her ears to where Nick was speaking to a porcupine, she heard that he, too, was not probing too deeply. That settled it for her. She kept her notepad open, but wrote little. For her now, it was more important to lend an ear and let the victims know that they were safe and that the ZPD had not forgotten them.
As Judy continued to talk with the survivors, she saw Nick slip over to the building to snoop around, often down on all fours as he combed through the debris. More than once she saw him sit up excitedly, only to throw away, with some vigor, whatever he'd found, ears drooping. Judy wished that they might retrieve something as concrete as a briefcase, but that luck had probably been used up that fateful night with Bellwether. With no new leads, no new direction, and only her nearly empty notepad pages to pin futilely to their wall, she foresaw nothing but the dreadful continuing slog ahead.
Nick had just rejoined her when Officer Feldus came over to them. "I know this is your case," he began, firmly, "but there's nothing more you can do here. You both look terrible. Go home, I'll send everything we gather here to you, I promise it will be on your desk by morning."
"Listen here," Judy began to protest, "There are still mammals being preyed upon out there and given what we found tonight there's no way I'm about to just..."
Feldus cut her off. "GO," he said, pointing back towards the precinct. His voice softened. "I get it, I really do. I don't doubt your gumption. Hopps, no one does. You're one of our best. It's why we need you to be your best."
Frustrated, Judy turned away from Feldus and looked over the scene. The fields were mostly clear, now, and Judy watched as relatives and friends and even strangers came by to pick up those forced from their homes by the fires. The city was, at least, still strong in spirit. She hoped some of that would rub off on the freed mammals, that they too could regain their sense of self after their nightmare. She could use some of it to rub off on her too. Without warning, the tiredness and strain fell upon her all at once.
"Alright, we'll go. Thank you Feldus." The jaguar nodded and shooed them away with his paws. Slowly the two began to make their way back towards their cruiser. Nick's tail was dragging on the ground.
"C'mon," Judy said, pushing him a little, "The sooner we get back to the station, the sooner we can get to our beds."
"Carrots, you truly speak with ancient bunny wisdom," Nick said, the tiredness filing most of the sharpness from his usual wit. Judy could tell it was the best he could come up with right now.
With most of Zootopia deserted for the night, the drive back to Precinct 1 was swift. Neither Judy nor Nick spoke as the empty streets drifted by. Judy wanted nothing more but to fall into the deepest of dreamless sleeps, but given what she'd witnessed tonight, given the weight of the past month, she feared she wouldn't be so lucky, feared that another night of fitful slumber awaited her. She knew it was getting to her, that Feldus was right and she was not at her best anymore, but that worry only ever made sleep that much more elusive. She just hoped it wouldn't lead to someone getting hurt on her account.
Lost in her thoughts, Judy drove up to the motor pool much quicker than she'd expected. She pulled into the nearest empty stall, leaving the car way more crooked than she would have ordinarily. The two stepped out, Judy barely caring to lock the cruiser as they began walking towards the back of the lot, towards where they would say their traditional "Goodnight Nick" and "'Night Carrots" and head to their respective cars and homes. That was their routine, had been for a year, a routine that seemed as strong as their friendship.
That did not happen tonight.
Wordlessly, without preamble, the two continued to walk in unison towards Judy's car.
Arriving at her place, Judy led the way up the stairs and into her top-floor unit. Nick shut the door quietly behind her. Not stopping, Judy padded softly across her loft, undoing and dropping her utility belt unceremoniously on the floor. Nick followed suit, leaving his belt next to hers and, with his longer strides, catching up to her. Without hesitation or sound the two of them climbed atop Judy's bed and curled into each other for support. Judy could feel Nick trembling. She pressed herself into him, holding him tenderly, relieved he was letting his distress be seen, letting it be known. Nick in turn pulled her in close, granting her refuge and comfort. Quietly they lay, faces buried into each other's fur.
They lingered awake, not talking, not needing to, curled into each other's warmth, being there for each other. A space of light in the darkness. Letting themselves be vulnerable and cared for. It was Nick who fell asleep first, Judy remaining awake a while longer, feeling him, at last, be still, feeling his breathing settle down into rhythmic ease until, she too, fell into a quiet slumber. Judy's breathing matched to his.
They slept until late morning.
As Judy began to open her eyes, there was a warmth present she, at first, did not recognize. Waking further, she realized who was there with her. They were still curled into each other, having not moved during the entire night. Judy smiled, content to stay just where she was, lounging amongst Nick's red fur. Soon thereafter, she felt Nick stir awake, and gave him a moment to get his bearings as well. She could feel him looking around, before he rested his muzzle next to her once again.
"Good morning, Nick."
"Good morning, Judy."
She shifted slightly so she could see him, almost giggling at the huge smudge of soot that turned one of his ears completely black. She must look similarly silly. Their fur was a mess. But that was not what held her attention. The look on Nick's face drew her in, a look of wonder and peacefulness and affection. With no alarm, Judy realized her own expression was mirroring his.
For some time they continued to lay there, looking at each other as the sun streamed in, becoming aware of something they hadn't recognized before.
Judy smiled and rubbed her nose softly against Nick's. "Alright Ranger, ready to make the world a better place?"
Nick's smile grew. "I am now."