The ZPD headquarters was easily the most eye-catching building in downtown Zootopia; a colossal slab-like structure of unpolished ocher stone standing like an ugly sentinel over the central line that ran through the district. It wasn’t the most hideous building in Zootopia, but it stunk of uninspired, committee-approved blandness. It’s sole defining feature, the 7 points that stuck skyward out of its main entrance, and was supposed to put one in mind of the points of a crown but gave the uncharitable observer the impression of a raised middle-finger, did little to rescue it from its fate.
Worse yet, whichever civil engineer had designed and built the place had faced it westward, so officers starting their shifts in the morning were blinded by the rising sun and assaulted a second time in the afternoon when it set.
This placement, however, did net at least one benefit; the late afternoon sun cast a spectacular glow through the ZPD’s glass foyer, saturating everything in beautiful golden light.
It was through this glimmer that Judy was walking now with an armful of completed records destined for filing, smiling and chatting with the officers coming and going. 4 o’clock, the hour before the end of her typical duty shift, had never really been her favourite part of the day, pretty as it was. Once her day as an officer ended, it was home on the Zootopia express, and then a struggle to find enough menial chores to fill the gap before bed. This was made somewhat difficult given that her apartment was a single room, and many of its stains were beyond the power of even the most caustic solvents to remove. It might have seemed sad, but her job was her life. It was what she enjoyed. She wasn’t a paint-your-fingernails, take-a-lavender-bath sort of bunny. She liked walking her beat. She liked busting criminals.
That said, there was a little change in her lately. Come end of day there was a still a spring in her step, beyond the natural springiness contributed by rabbit genetics. There was a genuine smile on her lips. It didn’t take a genius to deduce what was keeping her in such an up-beat mood.
Judy bounced down the stairs and pushed the door to Records open with her rump, careful not to jostle her stack of files. Then she crossed the room and hefted them onto the room’s solitary desk. A second later, the bespectacled face of the ZPD’s record’s clerk, Rupert, peered over the top.
“Afternoon, Hopps,” he goat mumbled, removing his glasses to wipe away a smudge with the corner of his coat. “What have you got for me? More files? That’s spectacular. I can’t get enough of these.”
“Rupert,” she returned with a pleasant smile. “I’m glad you found your life’s calling down here.”
“Definitely. Sure. How’s that new partner of yours working out?”
Judy’s smile widened just a whisker. “Nick’s doing great, Rupert. It is so much nicer to have a permanent partner out there. Someone to watch your back, to chat with when the action slows down. It really makes the job. And he seems to be having a ball with it as well.”
“Good. Perfect,” Rupert said with a smile. There was a brief silence. “Well, I’m going to go up to his desk in a moment and bludgeon him with this paperweight, so I hope you haven’t grown too attached.”
Judy’s smile didn’t go anywhere. One eyebrow, however, did suddenly develop a twitch. “Ok. And…why would that be?”
The goat disappeared for a moment, returning with a sheet of paper which he thumped down on the desk. “This is why.”
Judy picked it up. It was a piece of ruled loose leaf, on which someone had scrawled, “I, Nicholas Wild, apprehended a filthy, lowlife criminal ferret today. Called Gavin, was selling knock-off designer merchandise. Hopps helped. Everything went well, all things considered.” Under this were was a curly signature, a date, and a rough sketch of a fox and rabbit in uniforms giving the thumbs up. One could possibly guess it was supposed to be an arrest report.
Rupert fixed her with a gaze. “I think the one with the two sausages protruding from its head is supposed to be you.”
Judy was still smiling. Her eyebrow twitch intensified. “Did he say anything when he dropped this off?”
“No, he did not,” the goat drawled, “so I’m speculating that your partner has either not been shown the procedure, doesn’t have a computer, or is gravely mentally handicapped.” He paused, raising a long-suffering brow. “Or all three.”
“Let me talk to him,” Judy said, and disappeared up the stairs, the sheet of paper hanging form her paw, a sigh putting a dent in that otherwise near-permanent smile.
“Swell. Fine,” muttered Rupert, rolling his eyes as he turned back to his work.
This wasn’t really like Nick, Judy thought as she headed up the stairs to the north-wing cubicles. Yes, he was sarcastic and evasive, but the ordeal of his six-month stint at the academy had also proven him to be excellent police material. His results had been almost as a good as Hopps’s; better is some areas, even. He was fast on his feet. He had remarkable stamina. His accuracy with the tranq-rifle was scary. The running joke seemed to be that soon the precinct would be awash in rabbit and fox officers, since they seemed so naturally suited to the demands of policing; that soon the city would be drowning in a sea of sardonic wit and adorable cotton-fluff. Where this uncharacteristic slip had come from was hard to place. He was only three weeks into the job, admittedly, and you didn’t learn everything at the academy. But you certainly learned a healthy respect for procedure, and if you didn’t you got rinsed and washed out the other end. Something had to be wrong.
At the very least, Nick had to be put right on how to draw a bunny. His quick hieroglyph was…what was it? It looked like a helicopter with botulism poisoning to her.
The north-wing was still a buzz of telephones and typing, of puckered faces trying desperately to finish off paperwork while drinking coffee that had gone cold. Nick’s cubicle was at the far end of the room, and she put on a disarming smile before coming around the corner to greet him. “Hey, partner. Just thought I’d pop in and see how you were…getting on…with the…” Her voice faltered when she spotted his in-tray, a stack of documents that was almost the size of Judy herself. Nick, hunched over his desk and holding his head in his paws, shot her a look of mild panic.
“Oh, hey Fluff,” he started, turning around in his chair. Somehow, over the course of the day, Nick had become distressingly rumpled, like he’d just woken up from an all-night party. His uniform was creased, his sleeves were rolled to different lengths, and his tie had come unlooped at some point, probably at the same time he’d unbuttoned his collar to let some air in. “I haven’t got a lot of time to chat, sorry. Got, uh, paperwork due. Quite a lot of paperwork…”
“You’ve got that right,” she returned, staring up at tower of forms. “If that fell on me it would flatten me out, Nick. I don’t think it would be safe to lift it all under our workplace safety codes…”
“Hah. Yeah. It seems to just grow and grow. Every time I look back it’s swollen by a handful of pages. At the rate I’m going I’ll have the whole tree it came from reassembled by tomorrow.” He chuckled, but there was a nervousness to it, and the sound died away quickly. “I think I’m in a little over my head.”
“Nick, the guy down in records showed me your arrest report,” July said quietly, placing the page she’d bought up on his desk. “You know all these forms are available on the ZPD’s drive, don’t you? Didn’t they cover this during your orientation?”
“They probably did,” Nick conceded, his shoulders slumped in defeat. “That’s not the problem I’ve got. It’s that I can’t use” - he rolled back his chair, waving an accusing paw at his computer – “this damned thing!”
“The computer?” Judy asked, fixing him with a quizzical stare, then breaking down into a bout of laughter. “Come off it Nick. You can’t put your paperwork off for ever. You’re going to have to…”
Her voice trailed off, and the smile as well, when she saw the look of hurt and irritation that shadowed his features. “Nick, I’m sorry…you’re being serious, aren’t you? I…didn’t they teach you in school?”
“I’m 32, fluff,” said Nick. “I am allowed to say back in my day unironically. No, they did not teach us to use computers in inner-city public schools 15 years ago.”
“And you’ve never had to use one since?” asked Judy. A knot tightened in her stomach sharply, and she chastised herself for her absence of sensitivity.
“Not much use to a street hustler, I’m afraid,” Nick sighed. He looked down at her with a smile, but she couldn’t judge if he was forcing it. “It’s not like I had to do my taxes with one or anything.”
There was a moment of silence. Not tense, but a little sad. A telephone rang somewhere on the other side of the office, the caller greeted gruffly by some weathered-sounding officer. The water cooler blooped.
“Why didn’t you ask me?” Judy finally said, resting a hand on his knee.
“You’ve got plenty on your own plate, Carrots,” Nick said, turning back to the screen. “I didn’t want to be a burden.” It was the truth. Nick had been his own man, the only one responsible for his well-being, for longer than he could remember. He’d had friends and partners before, but none that he trusted with his weaknesses or short-comings. Those things were locked away, put into storage, hidden where no one could see them. He’d mastered his one small slice of the world and never moved on from it. The thought of asking for help was somehow alien to him.
“Nick, we’re partners,” said Judy. “We’re a team. I can only be as good as you are. And beyond that, I’m your friend.” She gave him a meaningful squeeze as she said that, and he stared down into her face again. “There’s no problem of yours that will ever be a burden to bring to me, I promise you that. And this is a two way street, mister, because I am going to heap my troubles on you. All of them. And you’d better be there to help me out, rain or shine. I don’t care where you are. If you’re standing at the chapel about to get married, I’m coming to you for help.” Nick laughed, amused by this uncharacteristic hyperbole. He guessed his easy sarcasm was starting to rub off on Judy. That or she wasn’t exaggerating.
“Alright Carrots, you’ve got it,” he said. “I am an old, grey, thankfully-not-balding but maybe-hard-of-hearing fox, and I need some young whipper-snapper to show me how this thing works.”
Judy chuckled, and said, “Well, let’s start with what you do know. It can’t be nothing. You have managed to turn it on, after all.”
“I know this is a Wintoads PC, and yes, even I’m not so helpless that I can’t find the start button,” Nick replied. “The problems start after that, mostly with these two…things.” He held up his keyboard and mouse, waving them as if they were sufficient evidence of the computer’s inherent worthlessness. “First of all, foxes are clearly not cut out for typing with the claws we’ve got. Have you ever heard of a fox secretary? There aren’t any, because we can’t type.”
“Anyone can be anything in Zootopia, Nick,” Judy said with a roll of her eyes. “Besides, McHorn manages with his keyboard just fine. He hasn’t even got digits to type with.”
“Well, that is scary. McHorn is scary,” Nick conceded. “Secondly, this stupid lump of plastic here” - he waved his wireless mouse at Judy – “is broken. And I mean that, objectively, it does not work at all, not that I dislike it and want to melt it in a fire. I already called out to tech-support as well, before you ask. I thought I was doing the right thing, told them that the mouse doesn’t work. They thought I was talking about an actual mouse who works down in the support department. Next thing I know I get a call from someone called Lewis, demanding to know where I get off throwing around insults about his professionalism like that!”
That tipped Judy over the edge, sending her into a giggling fit that brought a frown to Nick’s face. “Sorry, I’m sorry Nick,” she said through chuckles. “Some people do call it a tracker instead, just to avoid confusion, but I don’t think the tech department is that stupid. They’re probably just hazing you because you’re the latest rookie.”
“Har-dee-har. Everyone loves a bunch of amateur comedians. I hope they think it’s funny when I explaining to the Chief why I’m three days behind on paperwork.”
“I reckon I can help you, here,” Judy said. “What exactly is broken about the thing?”
“It doesn’t work. It doesn’t do anything!” He gave it a vigorous rub on the desk, and pointed accusingly at the lack of activity on the screen. “See? It’s lazier than me on a Sunday morning! That or it’s slow enough to make Flash look like Roosain Bolt!”
“Let me see that for a second,” said Judy. Nick tossed her the mouse, which she puzzled over for a brief moment, then raised it so that Nick was looking at the underside of it. There was a green switch, which she clicked, and then tossed the mouse back to Nick. He started at it for a moment, then swirled it around on his mouse pad again. The cursor did an enthusiastic little dance on the screen.
Judy’s smile grew devilishly wide. “Well, Nick, it took all my technological prowess, but I think I’ve solved your problem.”
Nick chuckled, and turned the mouse over in his hand. “I can’t believe that’s all it needed. I think we need to revise who’s sly and who’s dumb in this partnership, Fluff.”
“I could get used to sly bunny, I suppose,” Judy said brightly. “And there’s nothing in the rule book that says we can’t both be sly.”
They shared a moment of laughter, and Nick fixed her with a genuinely warm grin. “You know, Judy, my entire life I’ve never asked for help from anyone. Never dared. It always struck me as a sign of weakness. As soon as you have to rely on someone else, you’ve lost control of the situation. You’re setting yourself up to be let down at best, betrayed at worst. That’s why I got so good at one skill set, why I never let anyone see me with my guard down. If you hadn’t come along and shown me the error of my ways I would have lived out my life convinced I was a genius who knew everything, not an ignorant two-bit hustler who was frightened of letting people in, too dumb to realise what he was missing out on.”
“Nick…” It wasn’t the first time he’d confessed to her like this, but it was the first time he’d been so self-critical, the first time he’d pulled down the edifice of his former life so completely. But he was still grinning; hell, his eyes seemed to grow brighter as he spoke about his failings and insecurities. He was shedding armour that he’d once thought protected him, which was really just dead weight that kept him pressed into the dirt.
“I’m not good at everything, and I have a lot of catching up to do,” Nick continued. “I’m not good at asking for help. I can’t promise that’s going to change too quickly. But I can promise that I’m going to try never to keep a secret from you, and never to put my pride before our partnership. If we’re a team that’s only as good as the worst one of us, then I’ll be damned if I’m going to be an anchor holding us back. Foxes honour.” He crossed his chest with mock solemnity.
“Nick, you’re going to make me cry, you sentimental old canine,” Judy said, but his smile was proving infections, and his heartfelt declaration lit her from the inside like a fireplace. “My partner is brave, savvy and clever. I don’t need him to be perfect as well.”
“Well good, because you’re never going to ring perfection out of me. Case in point, now that you’ve bent this fiendish electronic monster to my will I have an avalanche of forms to submit. Is there anything else I need to know?”
“All the forms are on the ZPD server, right here” said Judy, indicating to some desktop icons. “You type in the information, save a copy to the server, and then print hard copies to go down to filing. Easy as blueberry pie. Just mind Rupert when you go down to Records; he may have threatened to brutally murder you when I spoke to him last.”
“Eh, that’s not the first time that’s happened,” Nick quipped. He turned back to his computer and stretched. “Well, at least I know what I’m doing for about the next 6 hours. If I don’t get some of this paperwork off my desk it’s going to snap it in two. And it’s so close to knocking-off time as well,” he sighed, throwing a glance at his watch. “What sorts of fun things do you usually get up to on a Thursday night, Carrots? Give me something to think about while I’m tapping away into the night here…”
He blinked in surprise when Judy suddenly leaped up onto his desk. She gave the pile of work an appraising stare, and then placed her hands roughly at the halfway point, lifting that slice of the stack away.
“Carrots, no. Come on. I can’t feel good keeping you behind with me to sort this out. I made the bed. It’s for me to sleep in.”
“Weren’t you paying attention to yourself a moment ago?” Judy replied, resting her stack on the desk and fixing him with a look. “About team work and pride and all that Saturday-morning cartoon wholesomeness? I meant what I said about us Nick, and I’m going to prove it to you. Besides,” she continued, her ears flopping a bit as she spoke, but her smile holding fast, “I really don’t have anything to be getting up to tonight anyway. I’d just be looking for ways to kill time before tomorrow. The ZPD is my life, Nick, which means, by extension, so are you.”
Nick’s own ears flattened a little at that, as he was suddenly both admiring of and troubled by his partner. He couldn’t imagine having nothing besides work in his life. How on earth did she blow off steam?
“Alright, Carrots,” he relented, his easy smile returning. “I owe you one, and don’t you dare think I won’t remember and return the favour.”
“Well, I do have a condition,” Judy said, and raised the loose leaf sheet she had brought with her in initially. “You’re letting me keep this. I’m going to fold it up and keep it here, right in my wallet, and anytime one of us is stupid enough to think there’s any part of this job where we need to go alone, we take it out and rub it in the offender's face. Sound fair?”
“Incidentally, why did you draw me to look like two snakes fighting over a watermelon?”
Nick snorted. “A complete lack of any artistic ability. My other great failing. You’ll notice I drew myself looking like a pineapple with arms, as well.”
“So you did,” Judy said with a smile, tucking the page away and recollecting her pile of forms. “Alright Slick, if we’re quick about this we can be done by 8 o’clock, right on time to catch the last express train to come through here. And I’ll tell you what, let’s make this interesting; I bet you I can finish more forms in the hour than you can. Loser buys coffee tomorrow.”
“Trust you to turn it into a race,” Nick mumbled, but the spark of competition twinkled in his eye at the challenge. “Alright rabbit, you’re on. But I’m starting right now. All’s fair in office work and war.” He spun in his chair and immediately started slapping buttons on the keyboard.
“Ack! I knew I couldn’t trust a fox!” Judy squealed, bouncing of his desk and rushing to her cubicle down the hallway. “Enjoy your lead while it lasts, Nick. You’re about to find out what carrot-farm dirt tastes like!”
As she shuttled off, Fangmyer threw a curious glance over her cubicle wall. “Now that is the strangest thing I have ever seen.” Her partner, Delgato, sitting a few seats away, leaned out with a look of barely-contained revulsion.
“Zootopia’s first small body-type officers are also it’s most nauseatingly saccharin. I’m going to be sick.”
“You know, Delgato, I’ve got some overdue paperwork floating around here as well. Any chance I can get you to split it with me?”
“I’ll split you if you ever ask me that again!” growled the lion, hunching back over his desk with pulverising air of irritation. “Cuddly bunnies on the police force. What the hell is the world coming to?”
Fangmeyer chased Judy with a grin, and muttered, “It’s just moving on. Like it should.”