I. THE CANDY SHOP
Judy had done it again.
Judy and her big mouth had done it again.
Long before they left the sweet shop, where the customers and counter help and proprietor had all heard her words and seen her partner's reaction to them, the rabbit realized she'd overstepped the line she'd once sworn she would never again cross. Nick preceded her outside with jaw clenched to contain his hurt and anger, taking great care not to slam or bang the glass door, which might betray his inner turmoil and shatter the confident aura demanded of a mammal in uniform. Judy, not nearly so adept at masking her feelings, felt her face twisting in embarrassed, mortified chagrin as the full ramifications of her actions here hit her, and without excusing herself from the storeful of mammals followed out after the fox, her gait stiff-legged and her feet reluctant to take those dreaded steps.
Nick stood on the sidewalk before the passenger door of their police cruiser, standing very still, his back to her. She tried to read his mood, although she could guess easily enough what that mood must be after her latest verbal disaster. As his paws clenched at his sides, the nerve to speak abandoned her, and her intended apology caught in her throat, unuttered.
"Really, Judy?" Not Carrots, not Fluff, but her actual name.
This was not good.
"You really had to go and do it again?"
"Nick, I'm ... I'm so ... I didn't mean ... "
"You didn't mean?" Now he did turn around to stare her down - and a stare was just what it was, or perhaps glare would be more accurate. None of the half-lidded smirk now, none of the playful, sarcastic attitude which accompanied so much of their shift-filling banter. Just green eyes, wide and round, with enough downturned lip and exposed fang to signal that the mask was off. This was the real Nicholas Wilde, and his mood was not pretty at the moment.
"Well, just what did you mean? Perhaps I'm just misunderstanding something here. Perhaps I'm misinterpreting it, dumb fox that I am. And perhaps all those animals in there that you disparaged me in front of misunderstood it too. I'm sure we're all just missing your point, because you couldn't possibly have meant what it sounded like you meant."
"Nick, will you just ... I'm sorry, I don't know what ... "
"No." Nick straightened and turned, reaching for the car door. "No, we're not going to do this out here, in full view where everyone can see and hear. Let's wait until we're back at the station." And with that he opened the door, climbed up into the passenger seat, and closed it again.
Closed it quietly, softly, with the same care he'd used to exit the candy store. And in that measured, reserved restraint raged a storm unspoken.
Judy stood for a few moments on the sidewalk, alone, collecting herself while several mammals in the shop gazed out the windows, watching her intently to see what see would do next. Finally she stirred herself into uncertain motion, crossing around in front of the cruiser to the driver's side, getting in and seating herself behind the wheel.
She risked a glance Nick's way. He did not return it, studiously staring straight ahead, out the windshield. Perhaps sensing her eyes upon him, he pulled his mirrored glasses from his breast pocket and flipped them open, sliding them onto his snout. From this angle, she could still see past the lenses to the green eyes behind them, but they remained trained resolutely away from her.
Not trusting herself to speak further, lest she only make things worse, she started the car and pulled away from the curb, easing into the traffic flow to resume their patrol route.
The remainder of that shift was the most awkward afternoon of her life, with Nick responding to her in clipped, one-word answers or grunts, when he bothered to respond at all. Judy wanted the dragging minutes to pass so that this day would end, but she also dreaded that same passage of time, knowing the blowup that likely awaited at the precinct.
Five o'clock finally came, with their cruiser dutifully parked in its proper space in the garage. Nick led the way in and, to her surprise, ignored Clawhauser and all their fellow officers as he made straight for the exit, not even bothering to hit the locker room to change out of his uniform as he always did. The cheetah receptionist and some of the others looked on in mystification as the bunny trailed after her partner with an imploring expression.
He could not mean to just end their day here, to walk out on her for the night, to let it lie without the inevitable confrontation the situation demanded, to leave her hanging with the awfulness of what she'd done. He wouldn't possibly do that. But it looked like that was exactly what he meant to do.
"Nick ... " Softly, pleading.
He stopped. When he turned to face her, he looked tired, as if keeping in his anger had exhausted him.
"Look," he said wearily, "look, we both want the same thing, and that's for everything to be all right between us. And right now, at this moment, it's not. It's not, and I don't know what to do about it. I don't know if there's anything I can do about it. This falls on you, Fluff." He took two slow steps toward her, his legs as sluggish as his tone. "So here's what I want you to do - consider it your homework assignment. When you're lying in bed staring at the ceiling tonight, I want you to think, and think hard, about what there might be in here - " He tapped the gray-furred dome of skull between her drooping ears. "And in here - " His paw moved down to her breast, coming to rest lightly over her heart. " - that would make you come out with the kind of stuff you spouted today. You give it a good think, and maybe in the morning you'll have some kind of answer that makes sense ... and that will satisfy me."
He started to turn away. Judy steeled herself to speak without her voice cracking. "It's just like the press conference all over again, isn't it?"
Nick spun slowly in mid-turn, all the way around in a full circle, to face her again. "No. No, it's not like the press conference. Because this time I don't have the option of storming out of your life and not speaking to you for weeks at a time. Tomorrow, we ride again. Tomorrow, we hit the streets, and we have to have our heads in the game, and have each others backs. Because cops who don't can end up dead. And I don't want to see you end up dead, and I certainly don't want to see me end up dead."
Then, to Judy's amazement, Nick was hunkered down on his haunches, taking her in a heartfelt embrace. With his muzzle close to her ear, he murmured, "You've got to stop hurting me like this ... "
"Because coming from you, it hurts. If any of these other clowns had said what you said, I'd laugh in their face and call them idiots and that would be it. But from you, it really hurts."
"I know you are. And that's why you're a good mammal - and why I know I'll forgive you. Eventually. But not tonight. Tonight, I'm mad at you."
Pulling away, breaking the embrace as abruptly as he'd initiated it, Nick stood and turned to go, his voice and manner telling her not to follow, not to speak unless she was sure she would get it exactly right.
She remained silent.
"See you tomorrow, Fluff."
Judy had always thought that the blue uniform made Nick look proud, almost gallant, but now, as he trudged out of the wide lobby toward the station doors and into the gathering evening, it was a completely different look he bore. One she recognized, from a year before, in this very spot, when he'd last walked away from her in disgust. The dragging tail, the slump of the shoulders - what little shoulders he had - the resigned, zombie-like footfalls.
It was something she'd never wanted to see again, and had never expected to see. And yet there it was. The worst moment of her life in Zootopia, and of her career as a police officer, brought to life again.
And it hurt even worse this time. Because Nick was fully her partner now as well as her friend - and if friends did not hurt each other like this, then partners most certainly did not.
Chief Bogo happened to be passing through the lobby just in time to catch the end of the embrace, but if he thought he'd come in on the end of a somewhat inappropriate public display of affection, Nick's retreating posture communicated something completely different.
Judy slowly looked up at the cape buffalo towering over her. "Nick and I ... I did something really stupid today, Chief."
"Oh?" That was all the prompting he gave her.
"You remember the press conference? About the Nighthowler case, when I first joined the force?"
"Rather hard to forget."
"Well, I did it again. On a routine call, for petty theft. The suspect was a fox, and the shopkeeper was in a lather, coming out with some pretty harsh things about foxes. I didn't defend Nick like I should have ... I ... I agreed with the shopkeeper. In fact, I more than agreed with him. I thought I was just defusing the situation, to settle him down, but it came out ... well, like the press conference. Only worse."
Bogo was silent for a long time. "That's not good, Hopps."
"Where's the perp?"
"We let him go, with a warning. It was just a few pieces of candy. I talked the shopkeeper out of pressing charges when I ... agreed with him. Too much."
"But it seems you and Wilde patched things up, by the look of it."
"No. No, we haven't. Not yet. Nick's not letting me off that easy."
Another silence. "Will this be a problem?"
"I'll let you know in the morning."
"You do that. Good luck with this, Hopps. See you at roll call."
And then Bogo sauntered away, leaving Judy alone to cope with the mess she'd created.
Nick's phone rang at 1:54am, and he didn't need the ringtone to know who it was.
"Hello, Fluff." Voice only, no video.
"Hey, Nick, it's ... um, me."
"No kidding. Really? Gee, I was expecting it to be someone else."
Not biting or bitter, more smarmy and drolly sarcastic. So there was hope.
"Were you asleep?"
"No. Were you?"
"Guess the answer to that's pretty obvious, huh." A long pause. "Nick, I am so, so sorry about what happened today."
"Yeah, we pretty much covered that already."
Again, his tone left the door open - not snappish or dismissive, just snarky. And in perhaps an inviting way, bidding her to go on - or so she fervently hoped.
"Nick ... why do friends hurt each other?"
"Dunno, Fluff. Why do you?"
"Nick, don't make this any harder on me than it already is."
"Why not? Why shouldn't I?" It was not an accusation, but a genuine question. "All you did was say the words. I was the one who had to stand there and absorb them, get cut by them, get put down and belittled in front of a whole shop full of mammals lucky enough to see Zootopia's most famous cop stick her cute little rabbit's foot in her cute little mouth and leave her partner feeling about three inches tall."
"Nick ... please ... the 'C'-word ... "
A heavy fox sigh went over the line. "There's an old philosopher's saying: 'words are like water - easily spilled, they can never be recovered' ... "
"Yeah, I heard that. In my college Philosophy class, back when I was still trying to get into the Academy before Lionheart's Mammal Inclusion Initiative."
"Oh goody. So you're smart. But we all already knew that. But there's a difference between intelligence and wisdom. And today you showed a distinct lack of the latter."
"That's ... harsh." Pause. "But fair. Maybe it's fair."
"Maybe it is. There's also an old fox saying, although these days you're more likely to hear it from raccoons, who stole it from us. 'The unintended insult cuts deeper.' And you gave me a bellyful of that today, Judy. Right in front of everyone. So, tell me again about fairness."
"Nick, back at the station you asked me for an explanation for why I would say something like what I did today. I've been thinking long and hard about that, and I don't think I can give you anything you haven't already figured out for yourself."
Pause. Pause. Pause. Then the fox's voice. "Bunnyburrow."
"Yeah. Bunnyburrow. I know it sounds like a lame excuse, and a generic pass for any stupid thing I might say, but that's where I came from. That's where I grew up, and formed my view of the world, as much as I tried to look past that view at the same time, and widen it. But I'm from Bunnyburrow, and Bunnyburrow's still in me. It always will be. Which means ... which means, no matter how much I try, and no matter how much I want NOT to, there's still a chance I might let slip something like that again. If I didn't learn my lesson from the press conference, maybe it's not a lesson that can be learned. I swore I would never hurt you again, but today I went and did just that. And ... I'm scared, Nick."
"Scared?" Legitimately curious, with maybe just a hint of ... concern?
"That I'm gonna lose you over this. Which is maybe what I deserve, and I wouldn't blame you ... but ... Nick, did I lose my partner today?"
A deep breath in her ear. "I already told you back at the station that tomorrow we'll be hitting the streets again - weren't you listening with those big floppy bunny ears of yours? No, Fluff - you're not losing me over this. But I also wasn't lying when I said I was mad at you. So if I'm putting you through the wringer a bit over this, maybe I feel justified, because you put me through the wringer first."
Nick could almost hear her nodding over the phone. "You're right. You're so right. But ... thanks. I needed to hear that. That I hadn't ruined everything, for good."
"Not this time. No promises for the next one."
"Understood. So, um ... what happens next?"
"Next, I forgive you."
"Right now. It's ungodly late, and I also meant it at the station when I said I want us fresh and sharp for duty in the morning, so that neither of us winds up in the morgue. Because that would totally ruin my day. So, for the sake of both expediency and self-preservation, I forgive you, Judy."
"That sounded rather ... disingenuous."
"Would you get one wink of sleep tonight if I hung up without forgiving you?"
"Hmmmmm ... no, probably not."
"Then there you go." Nick was almost back to his old self. Almost. "I'm not about to string my favorite bunny along to our mutual detriment. Take my forgiveness as sincere or not, as it pleases you, but it's my forgiveness to give, and give it I just did. Now get some sleep, Carrots, and stop pestering this old fox. 'Cos I need my beauty rest far more than you do."
"Okay. Okay. Thanks for talking. I ... needed it."
"I know. We'll be doing a lot more of that, because we still have some things to air out. But that can wait. For now, don't worry, and get that sleep. See you in the morning."
"Yeah. See you then. And thanks, Nick."
A beat. "You're welcome."
Nick hung up and rolled over. No light was on, because as a naturally nocturnal mammal he didn't need any. Placing his phone on the night stand, he closed his eyes and breathed evenly, willing sleep to come. Unburdened and drained as he was, he did not have to wait long.