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The Fire Triangle—A Zootopia Fanfiction
"Came but for friendship, and took away love"
"Friendship may, and often does grow into love, but love never subsides into friendship"
Chapter 1 – With This Ring
Three Years Later—Sahara Square, Second Week of June, Wednesday
Ahmed Ali Rachmann al-Rafaj liked to think of himself as a fair and open-minded jackal, and by the standards of Sahara Square he was. Certainly he was more progressive in his thinking than his brother; Ismael was about as tolerant as the average scorpion.
The senior al-Rafaj brother by contrast was willing to look at both sides of the picture, especially when financial considerations needed to be factored in. (High moral standards were all very nice, but they didn't pay the bills.)
Even he had his limits however, and though Ahmed couldn't possibly know it, they were about to be sorely tested on this fine summer morning.
Like every other resident of Sahara Square, the Rafaj brothers were naturally resistant to change—especially rapid change; they liked to keep things the way they were.
It was an attitude born out of their environment rather than from any cultural mores, and it was best summed up by the famous Six Words of Sahara Square—Always The Desert Sets The Pace
It was an adage known to every animal that inhabited the district, as well anyone who came here on even an irregular basis. The Six Words were everywhere; you saw them on traffic signs, you found them printed on sales receipts; you observed them pasted to the back-bumper of nearly every other car on the street. The Five-Star Palm Hotel even had a 10-foor sculpted bas-relief of the slogan mounted behind the reception desk. Every metro stop in the district had the famous watchwords posted on the directory signs.
"Always The Desert Sets The Pace," The Six were not just a meme, but words to live by—literally. Whether natural or mammal-made, the desert is a formidable environment; it can suck the moisture, (and the life) out of you before you realize what's happening. Every species native to Sahara Square knew this; 'knew it without knowing it' as the saying goes…they could never have survived in such a harsh climate otherwise.
However not every resident of the district—much less every visitor—was wise to the foibles of such a hot and arid ecosystem. It was for these animals that the Six Words were intended.
What they meant was this: You can't defeat the desert, it always wins in the end; if you're going to survive here, then you must adapt yourself to the environment, not the other way around
For example in the heat of the day, (except when absolutely necessary,) never, never push yourself; always move quietly and avoid fast exertion. Otherwise you may find yourself waking up in the ER, dehydrated and suffering from heat exhaustion—IF you're lucky.
That might have seemed an odd bit of advice to a first-time visitor watching as the herds of camels made their daily run across the Beach Promenade, loping full-tilt beneath a blazing sun. What they couldn't understand was that this was madness with a method; an exercise aimed at building up the animals' heat resistance.
Always The Desert Sets The Pace…and the pace was never a rapid one; paws down, Sahara Square had the slowest growth factor of any one of Zootopia's twelve ecosystems. Anyone who thought otherwise needed only to look at an aerial photograph of the city. While Sahara Square contained great swatches of sparsely populated, or even desolate tracts, next-door neighbor Savanna Central was built up all the way up from its border with the desert zone to where it butted up against the Rainforest District. (Even Tundratown, on the other side of the Climate Wall to the north had a denser population.)
Looks could be deceiving, however. Sahara Square might not have been the most heavily settled region in the City of Zootopia, but what it lacked in populace, it more than made up for in per-capita income; The Square it was easily Zootopia's most upscale district; home to more high-end shops and businesses than the rest of the city combined.
Not the least of these was an establishment just across the street from the Cactus Grove Metro Station, though you'd never know it to look at the place.
First of all, Cactus Grove was anything but a tony neighborhood, lower middle-class, if that. For upscale shopping in Sahara Square, Oasis Circle, near the Palm Hotel was the place to go, (for those mammals new to the city or only visiting that is.)
The store's exterior was no eye-catcher either, a white-alabaster front as plain as blank sheet of paper, with arched windows and a trio of keyhole doors in different sizes, (Large Mammal, Small Mammal and Rodent.) Above these, painted in simple, blue, scimitar script was the name of the shop Rafaj Brothers' Fine Jewelers.
But here, as with so many other things in Sahara Square, first impressions could be the wrong impressions. Those in the know knew that Rafaj Brothers' Jewelers was only the most distinctive jewelry store in in the whole of Zootopia, an establishment who's most effective advertisement—indeed whose ONLY form of advertisement was, "Wow, where did you GET that?"
With a reputation such as that, who needed a grand façade?
The answer was, of course, 'you don't', but on the other paw, for such an elite establishment, a grand INTERIOR was de rigueur.
In that regard, Rafaj Brothers Fine Jewelers did not disappoint, the inside of the store was opulent nearly to the point of decadence; walls tiled in intricate patterns of rich, vivacious colors, plush, woven carpets on the floors and brightly polished brass everywhere, from the antique chime above the door, to the blade tips of the slowly turning ceiling fans. There were potted plants in brass urns, brass trim on the display cabinets, and even a charmingly retro solid-brass cash register, (whose innards were actually state-of-the-art digital.)
That was the paradox of Rafaj Brothers Jewelers. The ambience might be charmingly antiquated, but the machinery behind it was all cutting-edge… in particular the security system. (No surprise in such a high-end business.)
Standing behind the counter near the cash register, Ahmed al-Rafaj thumbed in a code on a computer tablet and waited for a second.
The elder of the two Rafaj brothers, Ahmed was a golden jackal by species, a canid very similar in appearance to a coyote. Indeed, he had more than once been mistaken for a 'yote'.
He was of average height for his species, with a slight paunch that he had long ago given up on trying to keep at bay. He was dressed, as always, in what he called his 'wrok ensemble', a starched, white shirt, elegantly cut, a midnight-blue sharkskin jacket and a striped red tie, all of it topped by a dark red fez perched between his ears. Ahmed had never learned to like dressing this way, (although he'd been wearing the ensemble to work for more than twenty years now.) Given his choice, he would have preferred a kaftan or a jellabiya, but nearly all of the store's customers were western in their outlook and this was Sahara Square; here you either adapted to your environment or else you didn't survive.
By nature a fussy and fastidious canid, Ahmed refused to open Rafaj Jewelers for business until everything was just so; all of the plants freshly watered, all of the cabinets clean and spotless, every single one of the mirrors atop the counters tilted at just the right angle.
And last but not least, the security system had better be working properly. Towards that end, Ahmed pressed the 'enter' button on the tablet screen and watched as an LED-light beneath the counter sidestepped from red to green. At once, a message flashed on the tablet, 'DISARMED'. Satisfied, the jackal entered new instructions, and the window on the screen vanished, replaced by a sextet of security camera images.
He turned and called over his shoulder in Arabic.
"Are you seeing the cameras, Ismael?"
"All visible here," the ever-touchy voice of his brother answered from somewhere beyond the beaded curtain that led to the rear of the store.
"Very well," Ahmed responded. "I am preparing test the emergency shutters. Make certain the rear door is clear." (The previous autumn, one of their employees had suffered a serious foot injury after failing to get out of the way in time.) He entered another code on his tablet and reached beneath the counter, feeling for the little, platic hood. Flipping it upward, he moved his paw atop a bright red 'panic' button nestled underneath, holding it there. At the same time, he focused his attention on the big hippo in grey serge, stationed beside the shop entrance.
"On the count of three, Rashid," he said.
"Yes, sir," The hippopotamus nodded, taking a lazy step backwards.
To the average customer, the jackals' choice of a hippo as their security guard might have seemed an odd one.
Ahmed however knew better. First of all, hippos are not exclusive to the rivers of southern and tropical Afurica. In fact, they're most commonly found along the Nile River.
Second, don't be fooled by that jolly, rotund appearance; just forget about it. Hippopotami are actually one of the toughest, most aggressive of all Afurican species. Their thick hide is like built-in body armor and their razor-sharp tusks can beat rhino's horn five sides from Sunday. On top that, they can move at incredible speed for their size and shape.
Hippos are also highly territorial—a definite plus in a security guard—and after five years with the Rafaj brothers, Rashid had long since come to regard their jewelry store as HIS home turf.
Even for his species he was a brute, standing at least half a head taller than the average hippo and considerable larger in circumference; a 'walking wrecking-ball' in the words of one regular customer.
Behind the counter, Ahmed counted off quickly. "One…two…three!" and slapped the panic button with the flat of his pawlm.
At once a row of steel shutters dropped down over the door and windows, slamming into place with the doomsday finality of a guillotine blade.
And the shop was plunged into momentary twilight.
Ahmed gave it a few seconds and then entered another code and hit the button a second time; in response the shutters scrolled upwards again...but much more slowly than they had fallen.
'Very well Rashid," the jackal told him, nodding in approval, "You may open for business now.'
"Yes, sir," The hippo answered, reaching slowly for the jangle of keys clipped to his belt; the two words seemed to be the full extent of his vocabulary.
He had just finished turning the second deadbolt when Ismael called out in Arabic once more.
"When you are done with that Rashid, I need you here for a moment. That filthy beggar of a wolf is prowling round our back door again."
"Yes sir," the hippo repeated a third time and then lumbered past Ahmed and through the beaded curtain, leaving the golden jackal by himself for the moment—actually much longer than that. For the next hour of business, the shop would be all his; the remainder of the sales staff would not begin to arrive until at least 9:30
Like most other shop owners in Sahara Square, the Rafaj brothers liked to keep what were known as Spanish Hours, opening from mid-morning to the early afternoon, closing up in the heat of the day and then opening again from late afternoon until mid-evening. As a rule it was always the second shift where the brothers did the most business; on most mornings, things didn't start to pick up until 10 AM at the earliest. Nonetheless, Ahmed would never dream of opening even a minute later than 8:30. You never knew; the one customer who came in early might also be the one who made your day.
At that precise moment, as if to prove the worth of that homily, he heard the front-door chime.
Ahmed immediately put on his trademark ingratiating smile, big and broad, but with no fangs showing; a smile that said to the world, 'I am only here to serve.'
When he turned towards the entrance, the smile was still on his face…but now it appeared to have been carved from a block of hardwood and applied to his muzzle with super-glue.
Two animals had just entered the jewelry shop, a male fox and a female rabbit.
That by itself wasn't enough to raise the jackal's ire.
What turned that trick was that they were holding paws!
Ahmed al-Rafaj was not opposed in principle to interspecies relationships; (He couldn't have lasted long in this business if he was,) but even he had his boundaries. If the pair of animals entering Rafaj Brothers Fine Jewelers had been, say a fox and an ocelot or a bunny and a marmot, he would have had no difficulty with it.
But a fox and a bunny; a predator and a prey species together?
That was where he drew the line.
Ahmed let none of this show of course; it was hardly the first time that something of this sort had happened inside his shop. In fact, he had a procedure he kept handy for just such instances as this.
I revolved around the fact that there were two types of customers that routinely came into Rafaj Brothers' Fine Jewelry, browsers…and buyers.
If these two were browsers Ahmed would allow them to peruse the merchandise for few minutes, and then politely find an excuse to usher them outside. If they persisted in their browsing, he would IN-sist that they leave, and if all else failed, he would summon Rashid. (So far, that had only once been necessary.)
On the other paw, if they were buyers, it changed everything. In that case, the golden jackal would treat them with the deference shown to all of his paying customers.
It was a long-standing creed between the Rafaj brothers; NEVER show the door to someone ready and willing to pay. As their late father had liked to say, "Money has no smell."
And so he clasped his paws and nodded, ever so slightly towards the couple.
"Ah, good morning sir…ma'am. How may I serve you this fine day?"
"Oh good morning to you," Nick Wilde answered, his voice bright and beaming. He was dressed more elegantly than usual this morning, (not exactly to the nines, more like the sevens,) Docker slacks and a dark blue polo shirt in place of his usual Hawaiian print. Beside him Judy Hopps was clad in designer jeans and a pretty, loose knit blouse.
Ahmed's eyebrow lifted as he took note of this. When mammals dressed nicely to come into the Rafaj Brothers' shop, it was fairly good sign that they were buyers rather than browsers.
Nick pulled Judy closer and she laid her cheek on his arm, looking half excited half afraid. He patted her arm and smiled reassuringly, and then looked at Ahmed again.
"We'd like to buy an engagement ring."
The jackal's smile broadened by two inches…in order to conceal the fact that his teeth were clamped like a vice; it could have been a tennis bracelet, it could have been a necklace, it could have been a pendant, a brooch, or perhaps a pair of earrings.
But noooo, it was a ring…an engagement ring. These two weren't merely a couple; they intended to become a MARRIED couple. That was bad enough, but could not this idiot of a fox have had the discretion to go looking for a ring himself, instead of bringing his fiancée with him.
And where had this silly, new idea come from anyway—couples shopping for engagement rings together instead of the male surprising his girlfriend with it at just the right moment? The only upside to ther trend was that it made for fewer returns than the traditional way. Other than that…he should tell these two to go elsewhere and right now.
Except...the fox said, 'buy', not, 'look at', 'see', or, 'can you show us?' 'buy!' And not only that, the magic word had been practically the first one out of his mouth.
No one said 'buy' right out of the gate unless they had already made up their mind; when this couple walked out of Rafaj Brothers' Fine Jewelers, they intended to depart with a purchase in their paws.
And so the jackal clapped twice and then bowed slightly, "Ah, congratulations my friends…Now, if you will kindly step this way, we have many fine stones in small mammal sizes."
He guided them to a leaded-glass display case, three spaces down from the cash register. It was a bit high for Judy, but the jackal was prepared, rolling out a step stool for her to stand on—an ingenious contraption with wheels that locked as soon as you put weight on them.
And then he nodded at Nick.
"And now if you will allow me just one moment please, sir; in deference to your species I will adjust the light."
Nick and Judy nodded while Ahmed pulled a remote control from his pocket, marked with three buttons:
Smiling broadly, the jackal pressed the third button and a row of translucent shades descended halfway down the windows, dimming the light inside the store by about a third. At the same time the ambient lighting shifted ever so lightly, becoming barely tinged with orange.
Foxes and rabbits don't have much in common, but one thing they do share is that they're both crepuscular species, meaning that they're most active in the period between sunset and darkness, and in the interval between first light and sunrise. (What Nick's distant, lupine cousins referred to as the 'Wolflight'.)
"There we are." Ahmed nodded a second time as he put the remote away.
"Very nice." Judy answered, looking over at Nick, who, if anything, was even more impressed
"What she said," the fox nodded
"All part of our service," Ahmed told them smiling, "And now, please permit me to show you a selection of our engagement rings."
He unlocked the display case, removing a tray of diamond rings on black velvet, all of them nestled in neat rows like a new crop of carrots.
"Do you see any that strike your fancy, sir?" Ahmed asked them, looking first at Nick.
The red fox pointed to a ring in the middle row.
"Can we see that one?"
"Certainly, sir." The jackal answered, plucking the ring from the tray with a white-gloved paw. "You may, of course, choose another setting if you wish…or if you would prefer something truly unique, we can design a custom setting, just for you."
"I-I-I think let's pick out a diamond first," answered Judy, down-to-earth practical as always.
"Agreed," Nick, nodded. But when the jackal offered him the ring, instead of taking it, he put on a glove of his own and produced a jeweler's loupe from a side pocket.
That caused Ahmed's muzzle to spread open in an even bigger smile.
"Ahhhh, I like a knowledgeable customer," he said, entirely sincere for the first time since Nick and Judy had entered his shop.
Nick pegged the loupe to his eye and examined the diamond closely.
"Oh, this is exquisite," he said, and then passed the ring and the loupe to Judy, "What do you think, hon?"
Judy studied the stone for a second before looking up with an uncertain expression.
"Ohhh, it's a pretty diamond, Nick." She said, handing the ring back to him with a twitching nose. "But it just doesn't…it doesn't really grab me, if you know what I mean."
"Yes, I do know," Nick nodded solemnly and returned the ring to Ahmed, who returned it to the tray, not at all disappointed. Truth be told, this was par for the course; no one EVER bought the first diamond they looked at…or hardly ever, and if in fact if Judy had said to Nick 'this is it' the jackal would have recommended they look at a few more stones before making up their minds.
(Or that's what he would have done if they hadn't been a predator/prey couple.)
"Why don't you pick the next one?" Nick suggested. Judy nodded and then pointed.
"How about, that one there?"
This time the situation was reversed; Judy adored the diamond, but Nick wasn't particularly taken with it.
"But if it's the one you really want…" he started to say, and she quickly waved a paw.
"No Nick, we agreed…a diamond we BOTH like, remember?"
Nick remembered and returned the ring to Ahmed.
"Perhaps you could recommend something?"
"Certainly sir." The jackal answered, smiling pleasantly.
Three trays later, his smile was once again forced; truly it was all he could do to hide his frustration. THIS was why he didn't like couples shopping for engagement rings together, it was always the same old story; every diamond the fox favored, his fiancée rejected; every stone that she liked, he did not. Well, the jackal supposed, he should have seen it coming—a fox and a rabbit after all—but Bismillah, could these two not agree on anything? He should have bowed them out when he had the chance.
But then he noticed Nick Wilde leaning over the counter and beckoning with a crooked finger. Curious, he moved closer.
"Ahmed…can I call you Ahmed?" the red fox asked him, lowering his voice and looking around as if to ensure that no one else was within earshot. (A ludicrous gesture, the store was empty except for the three of them.)
Satisfied with his survey, Nick leaned in closer and cupped a paw to his muzzle. "Can I ask you something, one maligned species to another?"
Ahmed blinked, and then his eyes narrowed and he too was leaning in close.
Nick Wilde had just struck a chord within him…dead center. For just as conventional wisdom brands all foxes as shifty and untrustworthy, so too it decries all jackals as thieving and cowardly. Oh yes, Ahmed understood. With those two simple words, 'maligned species' the fox had just reminded him that they shared a kindred spirit—rabbit fiancée or no.
"You may ask," the jackal answered, speaking in a low murmur.
Nick looked around again and then moved in even closer.
"You wouldn't happen to have any…lavender diamonds for sale, would you?"
Ahmed blinked his dark eyes again, this time more rapidly…but before he had time to speak, Judy Hopps was raising her voice in protest.
"Nick…NO! You can't afford a lavender diamond. No, please…that's too much money."
Ahmed relaxed but only slightly. He'd been surprised by Nick's inquiry, but not put off by it. And he had been UN-Surprised at Judy's objection—but not completely; her only problem seemed to be with the price of the stone. She apparently had no idea that… Well, what else could you expect from a dumb bunny?
"It's too much money." she pleaded again, spreading her paws at 4 and 6 O'clock.
But her fiancée would not be dissuaded. "Aw c'mon, hon…I just want to see if they HAVE any; it doesn't cost anything to look." He glanced over at Ahmed, arching an eyebrow, "Uh, that is, if….?"
"I-I-I believe we might have one or two lavender stones in the back." the jackal answered, nodding towards the beaded curtain and then adding a caveat, "However, I must caution you sir, the lady is quite right, lavender diamonds are most dear."
"We'd still like to see one." Nick told him, not about to have his mind changed.
Reluctantly, Judy agreed. "Ohhh-kay…I guess."
"I will not be a moment." Ahmed told them, and then turned and called towards the back of the store, "Rashid? Would you come out and watch the front, please?"
As if expecting the call, the giant hippo lumbered instantly through the beaded curtain and past the cash register. Taking up a position near the front door, he folded his arms and focused a baleful gaze on Nick. "Don't even THINK about it, fox." He seemed to be saying.
Ahmed gave him a quick short nod and then disappeared into the back of the store.
There are two big Easter Eggs in this episode; one in the opening sentence that repeats itself throughout the chapter...and another one even earlier than that.