A/N: HUGE thanks to CasuallyCompetent for agreeing to beta this story, and for providing invaluable suggestions on several scenes. I couldn't have produced the version below without his guidance.
Chapter Two – Day Four
Judy woke before her alarm, stretching under her bunched and mussed blankets. Her foot poked out into the air and only sheet covered her left side. She may have been orderly and put together when conscious, but asleep, she rolled, flopped, and often managed to end up at a mattress edge or somehow sleeping with her head at the foot of the bed. It came from a lifetime of little brothers and sisters getting nightmares, needing stories, and wanting snuggles throughout the night.
Rubbing her eyes, she sat up, automatically reaching behind her head to smooth her flattened fur.
"Morning!" A chipper voice called from two bunks over, on the other side of a mountain of unconscious grizzly and polar bear, following it with a wave. "You're a crazy sleeper Carrots."
Judy ignored the fox, who had started each of her days with some sort of unwanted commentary, always awake before her. She threw back tangled blankets and put her back to him.
It was too early for this.
The creak of a mattress sounded behind her, and she palmed her face.
"So," Nick padded past trunks and sat down on her bed without invitation, hushing his voice to a whisper. "Did you think about my offer? Want to be friends?"
He had plunked down too close, touching his hip and thigh to hers, and Judy scooted over, glaring. "It's four in the morning!" She hissed. "This is my time to train and get ready. What are you doing up?" She'd purposefully set her alarm an hour earlier after he'd surprised her at five yesterday.
Nick shrugged. "I'm a pretty nocturnal guy. Technically, it's still dark out."
She grumbled as she leaned over, rummaging for the folded pile of workout clothes she had set out the night before. "Get off my bunk Wilde."
"What if I say no?"
"I'd say you were ten seconds from me changing in front of you," she snapped.
Nick's ears flattened, and he shot to his feet. "Psh. Nothing I haven't seen before," he fumbled, looking away. "Sorry Carrots."
Amid his sudden discomfort, the apology was genuine – she could see it in the embarrassed start of a frown and the wideness of his eyes. Judy did nothing to alleviate his remorse, closing her fingers around a pair of shorts.
Good. Cocky jerk. Such a fox.
Nick shifted his weight from foot to foot. "I'm really adding to my charm, huh?"
Judy nodded. "I think I'm downright smitten."
His ears stayed low. "I told you, I'm not good at… social stuff."
Judy huffed and rose, tucking her clothes under an elbow. "They're called 'manners'," she said dryly. "And they usually dictate appropriate times for interacting with others."
Nick's confidence returned. "So four isn't?" He patted his chest, as if looking for something. "Let me just write this down, I should take notes."
"Ha ha," she side-stepped him, heading for the barrack bathrooms. "Go get your morning coffee."
He let her pass, grinning. "You noticed?"
The rabbit huffed, pausing mid-step. "You drink it constantly."
"Want me to get you a cup?"
She shook her head and marched off, not bothering to look back. "Nope."
"Listen up cadets!" Their instructor hollered, beginning to pace and making the whistle at her neck sway. "Today, we start exploring Zootopia's ecosystems," she shot a look to Nick. "Without tools or special gear. Your job will be to get through each obstacle course without killing yourself. The sand pit earlier this week was just a warm-up. Questions?"
Shared looks swam through the group – the 'warm-up' had been full of traps, sinkholes, and fans that had pelted stinging grains into skin, fur, and faces hard enough to leave welts. The rabbit in their midst had even been blown clear from the site.
Several hands went up into the air, including Judy and Nick's.
"None? Good," the polar bear nodded, glancing to her clipboard. "We start with Tundra Town. Come on," a large paw picked up the whistle and blew. "Alright! Let's move it!"
The class of twenty sprang to obey, and Nick and Judy ran together, darting around the huge steps of their fellow cadets.
"Have you ever been to the Tundra District?" Judy asked under her breath, following the others as they left the field.
Nick nodded. "Of course. I grew up in Zootopia."
"You did?" Judy's ears perked.
She blushed as they ran past the mess hall and infirmary. "No," she pushed herself to keep up with a huge trio of cats lumbering up ahead. "I'm from Bunnyburrow."
"Really?" Nick teased. "I'd have never guessed."
Judy rolled her eyes. "What kind of obstacles do you think we'll face?"
Nick's tail brushed her hip as he stayed at her side. "Probably ice, snow, and some sort of depressed, wooly mammal wandering around, wondering why he lives there instead of a district with grass and sun."
Judy snickered out loud, surprising herself. The tiger glanced over his shoulder at her, frowning at her proximity to the smug-looking fox.
Nick caught his eye and winked. "He's in for as a big a surprise as you," he whispered to the rabbit. "No doubt he's from a jungle province – there's way more cold, white stuff out there than he can probably wrap his head around."
Judy covered her mouth, suppressing another laugh. "Be quiet. You're not funny."
He grinned. "Liar."
They rounded a bend, and Judy stopped short as she caught sight of the course, covered in a sheen of ice. A huge wall towered in its middle, casting a long shadow over artificially-built-up slaloms and a pond laced in frost.
Nick elbowed her. "Don't be the first one to go for the rope," he jutted his chin to the dangling lifeline hanging on one side of the wall. "Let Mr. Tiger climb it first and use him as a springboard instead."
Judy barely heard, feeling her size for the first time. "Am I… too small for this?" She whispered, not realizing she'd uttered it aloud as she stared at the hulking barrier.
Nick took her hand and pulled her forward, joining the rest of the group who'd clustered around their instructor.
"You'll be timed during this exercise," Friedkin explained. "So get over the wall and past the frost heaves as fast as possible, making sure not to leave yourself vulnerable. Throughout all of these trials, keep in mind that in real life when you're on duty you'll be engaging suspects in these elements, so make sure you stay vigilant."
Judy wished she had a pad of paper to jot everything down and listened so hard her ears strained forward. She was so focused on directions, she missed Nick watching her in idle amusement.
"Ready?" The instructor lifted her whistle. "On your mark, get set, GO!" She blew, and the shrill sound filled Judy's frame, freezing her in place.
Nick dropped her hand and gave her a gentle push as forms blurred around them. "Get going Carrots. You have things to prove."
She stared at him, trepidation filling her usually-determined gaze.
"You've got this," he leaned down. "Just wait for one of those big guys to grab the rope first."
"R-Right," Judy nodded, hearing the words numbly, from far away. "Thanks."
Nick gave a final nod and ran forward into clouds of kicked up snow. Judy burst from her spot, following and making her way through mounds larger than her, speeding to a sprint. An elephant shouldered her aside as the bunny tried to pass.
"Watch it Small Fry," she trumpeted, barreling towards the wall. "You'll get stepped on!"
The taciturn wolf raced past next, almost clipping her in the shoulder. "Good luck Farm Girl," he called, coining the instructor's nickname. "You'll need it getting over this wall!"
Judy ran harder, gritting her teeth. She had a momentary thought of Nick and squinted to see red fur, but the looming barrier pushed him from her mind. Squaring her shoulders, she leapt forward, hands outstretched, to grab and climb its chilly surface.
She hit it with the force of her run and struggled against the jarring sensation of suddenly being immobile, digging her fingers into hard snow and ice for purchase. She scrambled up a few inches and felt a flare of triumph ignite her chest.
I can DO this!
She clambered higher before numbness overtook her hands, and she realized with horror she was sliding down. The flare went out as she slipped down fast.
A red hand grabbed her by the back of her uniform, halting her fall. "I've got you Judy."
Violet eyes looked up to see the fox, no longer confident or amused over her, one hand on the rope he'd told her not to use. "Why didn't you listen to me?" He asked, wrenching her up with one arm. "I said wait."
"You didn't," she countered, seeing strain in his face and grabbing the rope, easing her weight from his grip. "And wait for what?" She blanched at how far away the summit seemed.
Nick rolled his eyes and started climbing anew. "Follow me."
Judy watched the elephant and wolf who'd surged ahead of her get near the top and start to struggle. "Oh," her mouth dropped open as their feet slipped out from under them, and they careened downward toward an ice-plated pool.
The tiger was faring better, using his long claws, clinging to the wall as his comrades slid past. Judy gauged the distance between them and launched herself from the rope, aiming for the predator's wide shoulders. She sailed through the air, and landed on black stripes for a second, connecting and springing upward. A polar bear was near the top, working not to follow his comrades' plummet, and she grabbed the ruff of fur at his neck, vaulting herself over the wall. The back side was steep and empty, and she rocketed down on her cotton tail, filling her pants with snow and cold. As she skidded to a halt, she glanced back.
No one was cresting the surface, and she hesitated, waiting to see a pair of sharply-pointed ears poke over. They didn't, and Judy wrestled with herself.
I should just keep moving. He'll be fine.
She frowned. "You wouldn't be here without him," she muttered, and surged back towards the wall. "Nick!" She cupped a hand around her mouth. "NICK!"
A muffled snarl sounded from the other side. "Go Carrots! I've got th—agh!"
Judy raced up the wall, digging her fingers again, trying to gain traction. "Hold on!" She cried. "I'm coming!"
Nick's growls grew faint, and she realized he had fallen.
Come on. You can do this!
She dug one hand in front of the other, inching upward, when a familiar whistle blew.
"Assemble cadets!" Major Friedkin yelled. "NOW!"
Judy let her grip relax and immediately slid back down. As she trotted over, she noticed the burn in her fingers for the first time and looked down.
They were red and wet, and some of the fur had been rubbed away. She stared dumbly at the raw digits, wondering when she had pushed them so hard.
Her instructor was not happy, and glared at the unsuccessful group trudging towards her. "What was that?!" She admonished. "You are the MOST pathetic batch of recruits this academy's ever seen! I should send you all home now! This course…," she continued on, ranting about their lack of teamwork, perseverance, and strength.
Judy fought not to sink to her knees as she went on, overcome with her failure and sudden fatigue.
I was the one who didn't work as a team. I left Nick behind. Her thoughts grew dark and chiding as a form limped up to her.
"Hey," Nick nudged her. "No one makes it the first time."
Judy looked away. "I tried getting back to you, but I couldn't make it," she stared at her hands, surprised to see blood starting to rise. "Sorry."
Nick followed her gaze. "Don't worry about it," he reached over and closed his hands over hers, careful of her fingers. "You should get those bandaged."
She shook her head, still half-listening as the polar bear continued to cite their shortcomings.
He cradled her palms gently. "We'll stop by the infirmary before lunch."
Distracted, Judy nodded absently, only later realizing he had kept her hands through the rest of their instructor's tirade, and had held one the entire path to the triage center.
Nick surveyed the sleeping barracks, roaming over inert forms snoring in exhaustion. He had meant to only idly glance at the rabbit, who had already kicked off her covers and thrown her arms over her head, but his eyes lingered on her parted mouth and soft breathing longer than he knew they should. The ends of her paws were wrapped in bandages, and he fought back a thick swallow.
She just felt guilty, he assured, staring at her bared stomach, exposed in a splayed stretch. Climbing back over to get me.
The violet eyes usually sparked with anger or argument were closed, and the fox fought the urge to creep closer.
No need to be a stalker. She's not anything special anyway.
Squaring his shoulders, he turned for the exit, making sure to walk quietly. He passed a rhino, the tiger Judy had hopped on, and a lion, making sure to keep his tail still; it had a nasty habit of banging against things if he wasn't careful. Nick made his way to the door, and turned for a last look back.
Judy's mouth moved in her sleep and mumbles lifted from her. He was too far away to hear them and took a step back.
Wait, what are you doing? Who cares what she's saying! You're already late!
He turned back around and opened the door, sneaking outside and being careful to avoid the lit lamppost and security camera nearby. Treading across the track he already hated and the field he wished he had never crossed, he left the base, heading for the main road. As he walked, his mind returned to the bunny, who was proving more interesting than he'd thought she'd be.
Her earnestness and effort appealed to him in a way he hadn't known he valued. Why did she want to become a police officer so badly? Certainly not for the glamor. He started down the main road, keeping to the shadows, thinking of her expressive face, giving out more emotion than he was sure she wanted it to.
Nick hadn't meant to help her on the obstacle course. He had left her side and hadn't given her a second thought, having done his duty as 'friend' in offering council. He had assumed she'd capitalize on his assistance when he'd instinctively grabbed her, maybe even wrenching him loose to take his place, but when she hadn't, and rushed back for him, he was shocked.
A car without its headlights on rolled down the road and slowed as it approached. Judy faded from focus, and he sunk his hands into his pockets, pulling on a confident smile.
The car stopped beside him, and a door opened, revealing two polar bears in its backseat, looking out expectantly.
Nick got in without a word, and the limo sped away before he'd even fully-closed the door.