A/N: Hello all, and thank you again for reading. 's limited formatting issues made this chapter very difficult to get right. For the best reading experience, I highly recommend reading the story using the "Full" story-width setting. If you wish, you can find the "most correct" version of the story on Ao3.
The rabbit has soft grey fur, and violet eyes.This is not Juno. Nora understands this.
Though she does know this rabbit, whose eyes are shimmering with such apprehension. Such fear.
Nora knows her the way any dreaming creature knows another. In a dream, someone simply is.
Nora knows her, even as the room around the two of them
(which is not really a room,
but the impression of one.
A mimicry of
a memory of a place:
Retold once over and then barely half-
is smeared over. Like a painting left out in the rain.
Breathe. The rabbit — the one who is not Juno — is still there. Still steady.
Nora steps forward, and the room
shifts beneath her.
shudders around her.
tumbles over her.
There are other animals here, she sees now. Their forms are foggy and distant. The faces…
She can barely make them out. And only when she casts a glance from the corner of her eye.
Except for one: The rabbit. Her grey fur. Her violet eyes.
Without knowing what she could possibly say, Nora calls out, but the voice is not her own.
It's a male's voice. A stranger's voice. The wrong voice. Though…
There it is again. That uncanny familiarity, shivering down her spine. He says
That is her name. This rabbit, here. Judy. Her vest reads ZPD. Of course. She's a cop.
It is an old design, though, the kind that officers have not worn in a hundred years.
She is standing in front of an ancient telephone, wired, with numbers still fixed to a rotary dial.
The receiver hangs lifeless in her paws. Nora can almost understand why. There was a call…
The narrative is falling, not into place, but into recognizable pieces:
A fire. No — an explosion. A violent act.
The phone call. Judy's face as the voice on the other end said…said what, again?
And this damned room they were stuck in when they really ought to be out there. Finding—
Nora opens her mouth (his mouth) to speak again, because Judy is staring right at her (at him).
Nora (Not Nora, but—) can feel it, the overwhelming pressure of need in those eyes.
Nora feels sick. A sense of vertigo is clawing at her gut. She is at once herself and not herself.
She looks down for the first time and sees an almost familiar frame.
But the tawny red fur on her body is not her own. Those clenched claws are not her own.
They are (his.)
If she thinks hard enough, she might even be able to remember (his) name…
but then Judy speaking, her mouth is moving. Silent. She has no voice.
Nora can hear nothing except for the rush of blood in her temples.
Except for the soft click of her claws on the hardwood floor as she steps forward.
And then she is
words that she knows, in that dreaming way of knowing, even though they mean nothing at all:
("Judy, who is Jack—
Nora woke. She was still lying on Brody and Dallis' couch, her body half submerged in the tattered leather cushions. The wolf was standing above her, wearing an expression of mild concern, along with the exact same loungewear she had seen him in before completely crashing. He was even holding the same mug, and a trail of steam was dancing lazily in the air above it. It could have been mere seconds since Nora's eyes last closed; she certainly felt just as exhausted as she had before passing out. A glance at Dallis' monitor told her that it was, in fact, 7:23. It wasn't exactly the two hours of rest she had been hoping for, but it would have to do.
Nora sat up, groggy, but functional, though barely. She shook herself with as much vigor as she could muster to try and unstick the tiredness from her eyes, not to mention her mussed and matted fur.
"Nightmares?" Brody asked.
"Why?" Nora laughed, "Was I growling in my sleep, again? Twitching my little feetsies, maybe?" She was only half-joking. For the past few weeks, Nora's dreams had felt strange. More vivid than usual in one sense, though still much harder to cling too once awake . Nora was mostly aware of this in a nebulous, half-formed sense; even now, the visions and sensations that were so frighteningly vivid to her just moments before were evaporating from her mind, leaving only
(Grey fur. Violet eyes. "Judy, who is—)
that irritatingly familiar feeling of vague unease that always arrived to fill the void of memory left behind upon waking.
Brody must have noticed the way Nora was gnawing on her lip, or how she was digging her claws into her tail a little too hard, because he didn't bother responding with one of his trademark retorts. He simply clapped her lightly on the shoulder with one hand and offered his piping hot mug with the other.
"Fresh pot of coffee," he said. "And before you ask, yes, I made sure to wash my slobber off first."
"Dallis won't mind if I pilfer some of his precious liquid treasure?" Nora asked.
"He's on the upper-levels right now, actually," Brody said. "Checking to make sure everything is clear as can be while you 'rest up' down here. As soon as he sends back the all-clear, you'll be good to go." Nora took a greedy gulp of the brew, almost regretted it as the liquid nearly scalded her throat, and then sighed in relief as the bittersweet warmth rushed down her stomach and filled her with just enough life to start making at least a couple more bad choices for the day.
Brushing off the last traces of worry left from her restless sleep, Nora stood at last. There was no way she would be able to commandeer a ZPD aircar without calling attention to herself, and such vehicles were all but useless in the one of the asphalt districts. This meant she'd need to take one of the few remaining ground-trains down to Old Savanna Central, and if it was half-past seven now, it would be almost nine o'clock in the morning by the time Nora reached her destination. Nora would have just a little over two hours to track down Juno at The March Hare and get whatever information she could before UrsaCorp started running interference.
"Time's a' wasting'," she said, cracking her knuckles and back with a luxurious stretch. Then, after catching sight of the ARCTIS sitting in its station on the lab workbench, Nora flashed Brody a mischievous grin. She could see the wolf's eyes widen with conspiratorial glee before she even asked her question.
"Is there any chance I could take the suit?"
Nora was almost asleep again when the steel wheels on the old Line 3 monorail squealed to a shuddering halt. She was fully awake just seconds later, when the tram doors slid open with weary whoosh and clunk! This was followed by a staccato clattering of claws and hooves, as the morning stragglers still on board the train began making their exit. It was still early, and the only animals heading back into weary asphalt districts were the ones just getting off of the graveyard shifts. Sanitary workers, security detail, freelancers of various shapes and sizes.
Not to mention one wayward cop who is just begging to get put on lockdown, Nora thought, though whatever chance she had to turn back at this point was long gone. Then, she would have to double-time it back to HQ. Despite Brody's optimism, the odds of her sneaking back in without going unnoticed were slim-to-none; Nora had to hope that whatever intel she got would be enough of a bargaining chip to earn Chief Dasher's good graces. The finer points she would simply improvise when the needs arose.
Nora left the platform at Berry Station, being careful not to accidentally bump into any objects or random passersby. To anyone looking at her without paying too much attention, she looked like any other fox you might find in Zootopia, a little tired maybe, and dressed in a plain purple hoodie and tattered jeans; it was a getup that marked her more as an under-slept and underemployed twentysomething, rather than a ZPD Agent wearing almost two-million dollars' worth of technically stolen government technology.
The illusion was even more seamless than Nora had anticipated, though Dallis and Brody had both warned that the cameras and optical fibers woven all throughout the ARCTIS were extremely sensitive to physical disturbances. A stiff breeze they could handle, but if a buffalo that didn't respect Nora's personal space happened to stumble right into her, every animal nearby would likely be wondering why the threadbare fox's hand-me-down fit suddenly transformed into a shimmering techno-suit with a very obvious
ZPD logo emblazoned on its breast. If her low profile was blow, Nora was going to try and pass the ARCTIS off as one of the tech-rave getups that were so popular at the synthsense clubs these days, with the ZPD decals there to appeal to a clientele that harbored specific sorts of fantasies about the foxes that served them their AMPed up cocktails. It was what Dallis might have referred to as a KCP — a "Khatri Calamity Plan" — and Nora was only slightly bitter that she'd come to think of them as such herself.
This wasn't her first visit to one of the asphalt districts, though it had been years since she'd spent any time in one outside of conducting work as a ZPD officer, and even then, it there an unspoken but well-known understanding that the ground slums weren't exactly on the top of the ZPD's priority when it came to managing Zootopia's crime rate. In the past century, the city's population had nearly tripled, and it was not exactly short on bodies in the old days either. When an officer ever got assigned to smaller precincts in charge of these places, their colleagues half-jokingly referred to it as "R&R detail", as in "Rundown and Runout", because the only cops that got "grounded" were the ones who were either too grey-furred to keep up with the work in the hot zone of the main city, or were too much trouble to work with otherwise.
Which is exactly where you'll be headed if this jaunt of yours doesn't turn out something useful for the UrsaCorp job, Nora thought, though it strangely rang in her head as a perfect imitation of Dallis' grumbling. Nora checked the hologram of a digital watch that the ARCTIS had so helpfully projected onto her wrist: It was 9:03 AM, which meant Nora was more or less on track with the plan. She had to give credit to those creaky old trams: They might be ugly as sin, and totally outclassed by their skyrail competitors in literally every way, but they still ran on time.
That sole factor was probably the only thing the asphalt slums had in common with the Core Districts, though. Stepping off of Berry Platform and out into the streets that ran the southeastern edge of Old Savanna Central, Nora was struck by how much it felt like walking out of a time machine and into a Zootopia from an almost forgotten past. Though some smaller, sleeker looking storefronts still managed to cling to life even in these impoverished neighborhoods, most of the buildings were still made of stone brick or even wood, and very much tarnished with age. Nora spotted graffiti all over, which in itself wasn't unusual in Zootopia; for years, the city and many businesses employed holo-graffiti artists to add a splash of vibrant personality to the sterile steel chassis of buildings in the Core Districts. Everything here was tagged with plain spray paint, though, since the newer stuff would not work on these analogue surfaces, and Nora was guessing that most of those crude and sloppy illustrations were not done on commission.
There was one work that struck Nora as rather nice, though. It caught her eye as she first walked out onto Berry Street, a mural done up on the side of a rusted-out van that sat up on blocks by a small one-story shop on the corner. It was a preposterously over-the-top depiction of a scene straight from a book of fairy tales, or maybe one of the covers on those vinyl album sleeves her dad had been so fond of collecting: An armor-clad hound carrying a sleeping and/or dead fox maiden in his arms as lightning flashed ominously in the background.
Aside from one or two aircars that had been modified to function with wheels that served as more than mere glorified landing gear, almost all of the automobiles on the street were decades old. She even saw what looked like an ancient ZPD city bus that had been bought out and converted into a ride-share taxi. When Nora was just eight, her father and mother had taken her to the somewhat less intimidating old neighborhoods up north in the Meadowlands, and they'd ridden a bus all the way to the canal district without taking off into the sky even once. The novelty had delighted her to no end, back then.
Since she was trying to avoid pinging her location to anyone at HQ that were not her two best friends, Nora had to find The March Hare the old-fashioned way. On the other side of the paper that Juno had scribbled her note on, Nora had scratched out a rough shorthand of the directions Brody gave her. Her handwriting was difficult to make out even for her, a common struggle for almost everyone raised exclusively on touch screens and holographic keyboards, but was able to follow the list well enough, cutting across two marginally busy intersections and making for the northern part of town. It took twenty minutes to wind her way through the streets and alleys, but Nora eventually made her way to 3741 Coarse Wood Ave, where she found the slightly crooked apartment that apparently served as the headquarters for The March Hare. The cracked stoop and barley-colored shutters matched the building that TechTrace found, but Nora took care to stand just beyond line of sight of the windows as she planned her approach.
"ARCTIS," she whispered, "Run a thermal and acoustic scan for individuals inside. Target specs match a female Harlequin rabbit of medium height and build. Run a simultaneous scan for building security as well." The suit only took a split second to process the command and boot up its HUD, and Nora watched through the augmented reality link in her contacts as a wave spread out in front of her and shifted the world into black and silver hues, an effect that was as satisfying to behold now as it was when she first saw it months ago, when she helped Brody and Dallis develop the prototype equipment.
The ARCTIS' HUD laid out the floor plans of the building on a three-dimensional grid for Nora to assess. It was sparsely inhabited, with only a dozen or so of its units looking currently occupied between its bottom three floors, half that number filling out the top three. Based on the thermal readings and sound profiles the suit was able to gather, which were relatively limited without the aid of Dallis' drones, most of the apartments were limited to solo tenants, with a handful of couples scattered about. As was traditional in these older buildings, which lacked the structural and architectural amenities of the mega-housing blocks in the Core Districts, the larger animals lived on the bottom floors. The orange-red silhouette of an elephant paced impatiently around his cramped living room on one end of the main hall. A pair of hippopotamuses dined in what Nora assumed was their kitchen
The smaller creatures lived on the top levels, and it was on the sixth floor that Nora spotted the animal that the ARCTIS pinged as a match for the search criteria. The apartment consisted of a living area, a kitchen, a washroom, and two bedrooms, though only one was occupied by anything living. A sleeping rabbit lie curled up in a small bed, its two ears comically poking out of the too-small bed frame. Without the use of In/DEX verification and remote visual analysis, though, it was impossible to be certain that the rabbit was specifically Juno Mori. The ambiguity was actually sort of exciting for Nora.
Now that she was here, with an extremely limited scope of options, she needed to come up with a real plan. The part of her that found Juno's secret note-passing schemes to be rather charming wanted to simply walk in through the front door and knock on Juno's door — Nora had been invited, after all. Then again, all signs pointed to the UrsaCorp case being more complicated than it initially appeared, and it already involved corporate terrorism and ninjas with laser blasters. Nora was often proud of how foolhardy she could still be, even as one of the ZPD's few bona fide capital-S Special Agents, but she was not naive enough to think UrsaCorp could not already be scouting Juno's home to keep track of her movements. The company was clearly interested in keeping tabs on her in a strictly confidential manner, and if one of the most powerful enterprises in the world did not want the police sniffing around one of their marks, that meant something. Nora simply had to get a lead on what exactly that was.
It would also have been a waste to take the ARCTIS out for another spin without collecting more of that precious field data Dallis and Brody were so keen on, now wouldn't it? Nora made up her mind, ducking into the nearby alleyway between 3741 and its neighboring apartment, number 3743. She snapped her fingers and waited for the suit to do its job, watching as her clothes shook and twisted in the light for a second or two before melting into the asphalt and brick of her surroundings. At night, the effect was practically seamless; the limitations of the ARCTIS' active camouflage was made plain in the broad daylight, however. It would do well-enough to trick any sensors or cameras, though Nora suspected she would run into few of them inside such a resplendent vision of crumbling progress as this. The biggest issue was that, if Nora either moved too much or stood still for too long, any civilian would be able to spot the suspiciously fox-shaped patch of light and space that didn't quite fall into place with the rest of the world, like a walking mirage.
Nora examined the model of the building again and sketched out a route in her head. Working swiftly, she used a nearby dumpster to hop onto the rickety fire-escape of apartment no. 3743. Halfway up, she was able to make a small leap and climb onto the far exterior wall of Juno's building, being careful to avoid the windows of the units that were occupied on the fourth and fifth stories. On floor six, there was a living unit that seemed empty on first scan; Nora didn't want to risk using the glass cutters in the suit if she didn't have to, so she gave the window a gentle tug. It was stuck, but not locked. After a more forceful push it finally slid open with an obnoxious creak, and Nora slid quietly inside.
The ARCTIS' scans were accurate, thankfully, and the unit just across from Juno's was vacant, and looked like it had been for some time. The were no furnishings to speak of, not even an old refrigerator unit, but scattered bits of litter and the tobacco-stained paint on the walls proved that some animal had lived there, at some point. Nora made her way to the unit's entrance, going so far as to unlock the deadbolt, when a shuffling from out in the main hall gave her pause. It was the telltale rap-rap of shoes against cheap carpet, getting louder as they came closer.
There were only the two units on the sixth floor of the apartment, and since nobody was calling this one home-sweet-home, the only reason any other animal would have would be to make their way up this high would be to pay a certain rabbit a visit. Nora didn't recall seeing anyone heading into the building after she arrived - was this another one of the residents?
Nora activated the ARCTIS' thermal imaging again and saw the form of a hulking feline standing just inches away from her, a male lion by the looks of him. He towered at least a full foot over Nora, easily, with broad shoulders and muscles that looked alarmingly defined, even in the multi-color haze of the ARCTIS' heat scan. Curiously, there was only a thin, faint outline over his left arm, while his right arm glowed an intense bright orange.
A prosthetic arm? Nora placed her hand on the doorknob ever so delicately, ready to fling it open should the need arise. She briefly wondered if the cat might kick the door down outright, but he ended up knocking quite gently on it instead. From inside, Juno's thermal figure rose sleepily from the bed, quickly pulled on some clothes, and trotted out to open the door. Thanks to both her own sharp ears and the ARCTIS' built-in microphones, Nora heard Juno's conversation with the lion as clear as if she were standing right next to them.
"Hello, Caesar," Juno said with a yawn. "You're late. I fell asleep waiting for you to get here, you know?"
"My apologies," the lion responded. Caesar's voice was surprisingly soft too, and he spoke with a curling lilt that Nora could not place. "I was in the middle of some business when I received your message, and I had to see it through before I could come. It sounds as if you have some fascinating new stories to tell?"
Juno laughed. "Caesar, you know full well that any good stories I have to say get put into print for all of your lovely friends to read, the same as everyone else."
"Then I will make sure to be especially thorough when I read this week's edition," Caesar said. "I take it you won't be inviting me in for a coffee this week, then? How disappointing."
"Sorry, big guy, but I just needed you to come and pick up the hard drive and the money a little earlier than expected, in case things get...hectic for me, soon. Besides, I'm sure one of your gangster pals would be a much better coffee date that me, right about now. I probably smell a little too much like dirt and burnt fur right about now for your liking." Juno's voice had the slightest twist of friendly acidity to it, and there was a subtle, silky under-growl to his voice that Nora struggled to read. He was either trying awfully hard to threaten Juno, or to seduce her. Hell, given many of the guys Nora had become acquainted with over the years, he might have been attempting both at once.
And did Juno say gangster? Nora did not like that one bit. The absolute last thing this case needed was to be entangled in the illicit business of one of Zootopia's crime families. Trading data and cash with a literal slum gangster? Nora thought. What on earth have you gotten me wrapped up in, rabbit?
Juno vanished from the ARCTIS' view for a moment, and Caesar stood patiently outside, with Juno's door wide open in front of him. Juno hopped back into frame again, and though the suit's scans could not make out precisely what she handed over to the lion when she did, Nora figured it had to be the aforementioned tradeoff. A blinking indicator of a half-drained battery also popped onto the HUD, reminding Nora of another kink that needed working out with the ARCTIS': When separated completely from the NFC energy grids of the Core Districts, the suit's battery life was woefully limited. Nora had maybe five minutes left of active-camouflage utility, and that was only if she shut down the imaging scans.
There was not much left for Nora to see, anyway. After receiving the items from Juno, Caesar gave a very dramatic bow to Juno, which caused Nora's stomach to sink, because that made her suspect that he was either one of those annoyingly performative yoga enthusiasts, or that the "gang" he belonged to was the Yakuza (either option was terrible, as far as Nora was concerned). "Thank you," Caesar said, "and know that Mr. Tsuno extends his family's services to you, should you have need of them." Well, Nora thought, That answers one question.
The lion left without waiting for a response, and Juno slipped back inside her apartment as Caesar slowly made his way down the stairs. Nora switched the imaging off when she heard the click of Juno's door sliding shut and waited another thirty seconds for Caesar to make his way far down enough. If there had been enough juice in the ARCTIS to track the lion for however long she needed to, Nora probably would have done so, but there was only so much she could do with the suit running on empty. After making certain enough that the coast was clear, she slid out of the vacant unit and into the hall.
When Nora placed her ear against Juno's door, she could hear the splattering of water against tile and glass that told her Juno had gone to wash off the grime from last night's misadventure. Turning the shower on was an easy ruse to spot for anyone that had ever bothered to watch a decent spy movie in their lives, but Nora could not afford to use the thermal imaging again. Like so many of the ne'er-do-well characters Nora had seen on film, she would just have to break into this girl's home and be fast about it.
Assuming she isn't standing right on the other side of the door right now, she reminded herself. Ready to beat you over the head with a frying pan or something. Unfortunately, this was a bolt-and-tumbler lock right out of the previous century, which rendered the ARCTIS' tools for disarming electronic-locks all but useless. Nora did have enough foresight to bring along her dad's lockpicking kit, but she was hardly an expert with it. If Juno was smart enough to keep her chain-locks on, then Nora might have her work cut out for her…
When Nora took hold of the doorknob, it offered no resistance whatsoever when she turned it, and the door began to open so quickly that Nora had to stop herself from slamming it shut on reflex. What the hell? Could this rabbit, who had in the span of just a few hours survived a near-death experience, an interrogation from Chief Dasher, and an apparent visit from the Yakuza, truly be dumb enough to sleep and shower with an unlocked door? Except...
Except, Nora had been invited here, hadn't she? This scoop is just for you, Juno had written. Find me at the March Hare.
Looking down, she saw Juno's doormat for the first time. It was a tattered but well-crafted custom piece, done up in maroon and gold stitching. The words "March Hare" were imprinted on the mat in elaborate cursive; in between the top "March" and the bottom "Hare," there was an even more detailed embroidering of a dandy looking rabbit, dressed to the nines, sitting on a stump and reading a newspaper.
Nora sighed and, ignoring the long held conventional wisdom that warned against girls who followed foppish rabbits into strange lands and dangerous misadventures, she opened the door and stepped into Juno's home.