"Carrots, I'm fine."
"Nick, I've seen your face. You're not."
"Come on, I'm not thrilled about this. But this is part of my duty. You, of all mammals, should understand that."
"Why didn't you at least tell him about what happened?"
"You honestly think the Chief would care? You heard him. Obviously I'm the best suited for this job. It's simply my turn for those traffic lessons this time, and that's it. Besides, it's just a bunch of children."
"Which might not be different than before. What if you face their rejection all over again? I would hate for you to get hurt because of their pettiness."
"Yeah, but now I’m all grown up and I’m perfectly sure I can handle it."
With these words, Nick opened the squad car's door. One foot already on the pavement, he felt Judy's eyes on his neck. He sighed, "Carrots, please don't make this harder for me than it already is."
"Nick, I-" she started, but the look he gave her made her fall silent.
In a swift motion, he turned around and hugged her, burying his muzzle into her neck, her sweet scent calming his nerves. "You did so much for me already. Please, just let me do this for myself."
When he pulled away, she closed her eyes. Then the warm smile that always managed to soothe Nick lit up her face. "All right, Nick. I'll pick you up later."
He gave her a quick kiss and finally got out of the car. He was once again grateful, as he stepped onto the pavement, for wearing the ZPD uniform. This way, at least, he could convince himself the looks he got were due to mammals not being used to officers showing this type of affection for one another. As the car's engine started up behind him, he took a deep breath. The familiar smell of sun-heated asphalt kept his mind on the present task at hand.
A few determined steps later, he reached his destination. The Junior Rangers’ headquarters of Savannah Central. It was only a few steps up to the door. As his paw grasped the handle, he could already feel his heart racing. Then, he was inside.
The wooden floor creaked under his step. There was the smell of some recently brewed coffee somewhere close by. The walls were hung with frames, depicting various uniformed mammals, as well as citations to the Rangers' core principles. To his left, stairs led to the upper floor. To his right stood a wooden bench next to a door. A wildebeest boy peeked his head through it.
"Welcome to the Ranger Scouts, sir. Are you Officer Wilde?"
Nick nodded. "The very same."
"Come in, then," a grown-up voice said from inside the room.
Nick halted in mid-stride for a split-second. His neck hairs stood on edge. There was something familiar to the voice. Something alarming. He seemed to faintly remember the owner of it. He wasn't so sure, yet he couldn't deny it either.
As the boy held the door open for him, Nick collected himself and entered. So this was the place to find coffee in this house, Nick mused. A quick glance around made him wonder whether he was in an office or a living room. The sofa and recliners in one corner sure looked cozy. Yet they wouldn't fit in with the folder-stuffed shelves and the filing cabinets surrounding all of this. Those, however, went along just fine with the two cluttered desks in the middle. Yet what struck Nick most, beyond any unmatched furniture, was who sat at one of those desks. When Nick saw him, he knew immediately why that voice was so familiar. Nick would never forget the face of any of his childhood tormentors. His first instinct was to just turn around and walk out. Yeah. Definitely. Just walk out. Not run away this time. Unlike the last time.
He mentally shook his head as he stifled a growl. He respected the uniform he wore too much to even consider the option. He did not want to even imagine Judy’s disappointment if he did.
The Zebra sitting at the desk rose. "So it really is you, Nick. I saw the photos. Read the article. But it's only now that I believe it."
Nick clenched his paws. The boy still standing behind him was the only reason he remotely kept his calm. Through gritted teeth, he growled, "Zach. It's been a while."
"Quite. Too long, I'd say. Jeremy, please let the others know we'll start as planned, then get to the preparations."
The last words were directed at the boy. He nodded and left the room.
In silence, Nick complimented himself for holding back until the door had closed. "What is this? What preparations did you have in mind this time?"
"Please, calm down," Zach said. He stepped around his desk. "These kids are not part of what happened between us. To them, this is a regular visit of a regular officer, giving a regular lesson on traffic safety."
Nick was ready to snap back at him, but something about the Zebra in front of him held him back. The second the door had closed there had been the slightest shift in his demeanor. Like he had just deflated a bit. Even more, the look in his eyes had lost the detached professionalism. Was it really a hint of sadness in its stead now?
"But you have no idea how grateful I am for this chance today."
These words made Nick's blood boil up again. "How dare you," he growled. "You have no idea what you and the others did to me. What I went through because of your bullying. And now you're talking about chances to do what? Repeat the past?"
"Yes, I am," the Zebra said, stopping halfway over to Nick. "I know you have all the right in the world to hate me. I would completely understand if you don't accept it. But I am still glad to finally be getting to..."
His voice had gotten more and more shaky before finally trailing off. Nick watched in disbelief how the now grown up bully from then was taking heavy breaths to collect himself. Was this really going to happen?
"To apologize," he finally concluded in a hoarse croak. "Nick, I am so sorry for what we did. What I did."
Nick felt the blood rushing to his head. "That comes a bit late, don't you think? More than 20 years too late."
Zach lowered his head. "Yeah, I wish I'd seen it sooner. It took me a long time…way too long to understand. But when I did, you were gone. Moved and nobody knew where. They didn't even care..."
"Nobody ever cared," Nick scoffed.
"I did. Please, believe me, I still do."
"Don't give me that, Zach. It was over half a year before we moved away."
"I know," Zach said and swallowed hard. "I know."
Nick stared at the adult Zebra, feeling like he was towering above him. Seeing this grown mammal emotionally cowering before him soothed his fury. He ran a paw across his face and closed his eyes. He had no idea what to make of this. "Maybe we should sit down? I know I need to.”
With a weak smile, Zach nodded and offered him a seat on the sofa. Without asking, he poured them both some coffee. After settling down, he said, "Nick, I truly want you to know that I'm not the same guy anymore that I was back then."
Nick shook his head. "Neither am I."
"I also know there is no excuse for what happened. Horrible only begins to describe what we did. And what makes it so much worse is that the others never seemed to mind. When you didn't come back-"
“What?" Nick complained bitterly while he dumped sugar into his cup, staring dumbfounded at the Zebra. "You honestly believed that I would come back after that?"
"I know that sounds stupid," Zach admitted. He reached for the cream. "Now, looking back...anyway, I began questioning what I had done when days and weeks passed. Not just myself but also the others. They were so pleased with themselves that I honestly managed to convince myself that I was the one who was wrong. Until they finally threw out Chuck."
"Because of what happened?" Nick didn't even try to hide his satisfaction.
Zach smiled at Nick's tone. "Well, I don't really know. He did quite a lot of stuff here. I don't know if he took it so far that they had no choice but to take action, or if his dad caught on. Since his father was donating a lot of money to the Junior Rangers, they were giving Chuck a lot of leeway on his actions."
With that, Nick's short burst of joy was gone. "His dad bought the committee?"
"Oh, no. As it turned out, he wanted to support his old troop and, more importantly, for his son to learn the same skills and values here. It was those in charge who were too afraid to offend him. Yet when he found out, he sent Chuck to military school and increased his donations as an apology."
Nick's brows furrowed even further. "You mean, as a silencer."
Zach's shoulders slumped. He took a deep sip of coffee. "Maybe. I have to admit, I can't say for sure. Either way, soon after Chuck was gone, his best friend left, too. The other two carried on like nothing happened. But I didn't. Without them to silence my doubts I finally admitted to myself what kind of mammals I had hung out with. Well...I started to see the error of my ways."
Nick couldn't help but grin. "This feels like it's turning into a trend. Mammals admitting to me they were wrong. Can't say I mind it. Did you set this up, today? Me being here?"
The Zebra laughed. "I don't really have the power to do that. No, this is a scheduled lesson and I have no idea how the officer gets assigned. All I did was volunteer to supervise when I saw your name."
"And thereby decided to give me the surprise of my life. What's with the other two of your group who didn't quit? Are they around here today?"
"Oh, no, don't worry. They're not. They didn't quit right away, but left after all when they got older."
Nick shrugged. “Hmm…too bad."
Zach stopped, the cup lingering in front of his open mouth. Then he put it down and stared at Nick. "Why?"
"I admit, seeing you wasn't too thrilling." Nick said as he drank some of the coffee. He paused for a moment and decided it needed more sugar. "But now, after listening to you, I'm kind of interested if they changed their minds by now."
The Zebra smiled. "You said this was turning into a trend for you?"
"Yeah, there's been a lot going on in my life the past year. It wasn’t only with me joining the cops. My girlfriend started this trend. Then I met her family, and had a similar experience. Now I’m seeing it isn't just her family."
"Your girlfriend is..." Zach started, then paused and thought for a moment. "She's not a vixen, is she?"
Nick laughed. "I'm afraid there is no correct way for me to answer that.'
"Come on, you know what I mean."
"Yeah, yeah, of course. She's a bunny. Have you ever, by chance, heard of Judy Hopps?"
Nick couldn't help but grin. "Yep."
"You honestly mean the Judy Hopps?"
"The one and only."
Nick nodded, doing his best to subdue the spark of pride flaring in his chest. Distracting himself with another sip of coffee, he paid no attention to Zach's changing expression.
"That bunny officer who held that horrible speech about predators being predisposed to violence?"
Nick coughed, hastily setting down his cup. "No, no. The Judy Hopps who dismissed these beliefs and apologized to me. The Judy Hopps who showed me that you can be who you want to be if you believe in yourself. You're not the only one who can change, Zach."
"Of course not," Zach apologized as he handed Nick a napkin. "That's not what I wanted to say. Or, well, maybe it was. I'm honestly not sure. It's just that...maybe I saw too much of myself in that speech."
"Could be." Nick scratched the back of his head and sighed. "I know I did."
Zach lowered his head. "So, does it still haunt you?"
"Of course it is. It's always been there. I found friends who helped me cope with it. I learned to live with it. At times, I'm even able to ignore it. But I'll never get over it."
Zach shook his head. "I can only ask for your forgiveness again. I'm all the more glad you're able to sit here and talk with me."
"You know, that’s also due to Judy. Maybe you should be thanking her rather than me. The advice I got previous to hers was, well, a whole lot different."
"Maybe I shouldn't ask, but what was it?"
"Let's say with the training I’ve had, be glad I didn't listen to that friend of mine."
Zach smiled. "That drastic, huh?"
Nick knew that kind of smile all too well. The hidden sadness in the Zebra's eyes. That was a smile he'd worn himself countless times. "If you really want to know. When I told him what had happened, on my next birthday after that, well...he gave me a pair of brass knuckles. And invited me to go look for the five of you."
Zach looked back up. "But you didn't?"
"Do I hear disappointment?" Nick chuckled as he raised his eyebrows.
"No, but... I couldn't blame you if you'd done it."
"I hope that is not what you teach these kids here?"
A tinge of crimson flashed onto the Zebra's face. "Of course not. It's just that...well, like I said, I couldn’t honestly blame you. Though I'm glad you decided against it."
"It's more like I never even considered it. I'm not even sure if my friend was serious after all. I know he would have gone through with it if I had said yes. But when I told him that it wouldn't help me, he just laughed and said that's why I'm his best friend. But, I can't get over what you said. You wouldn't have minded if I'd beaten you up?"
"Of course I would have minded. But I still feel I would have deserved it."
Nick blinked. "Are you serious? I'd never thought this would weigh on you so much."
"Yeah, I know." Zach ran a hoof through his mane, "You're the one who got hurt in all of this."
"Right, but that's not what I meant. It's just that in my mind, all of you got past this. Moved on, maybe celebrated what you did. I never even dreamed that just one of you regretted any of that."
Zach closed his eyes for a moment. "I thought so. Which is just another reason I tried to find you. But everything just got worse. When I finally mustered the courage, you were gone. Whoever moved into your place didn't know where you had moved to. Nobody at the Scouts knew anything or seemed to want to know. How little they all cared. That struck me hard when I was a kid. Nobody minded that you were just gone."
"You did, though." Nick emptied the rest of his coffee. "And I think I haven't thanked you yet."
The Zebra stared at him wide-eyed. "Oh, no. Not for that."
"Yes for that. It still doesn't happen too often, you know? " Nick laughed over a sudden thought. "Just, don't expect me to fall in love with you. That spot in my heart has already been taken."
Zach gave him a weak grin. "I think I can live with that. I'm just glad I can finally close that part of my childhood."
"Oh, you won't. Believe me. You will remember what happened. And I'm glad for that."
Zach cocked an eyebrow. "Don't tell me you-"
Nick raised his paws. "I'm telling you that if you cared and minded till now, you will keep on doing so. That's what I learned over the years. No matter how far I moved on, my childhood wouldn't stay behind. Something tells me all these Junior Scouts you take care of each day will make sure the same goes for you."
"Of course they do. That's even why I'm still here. To remind me of what happened. To not let it happen again. I want to help them to be better mammals than I was. I know that what happened will always be a part of who I am. But at least, I can live with it now."
"Honestly, I'm glad to hear that. As great as ideals are, I think you learn best from those who broke them before."
"I still think it would be better if there were none to learn from in the first place."
Nick shrugged. "And I think it would be better if banks were handing out free money. But that's just not how it works."
"Yeah, I know it's wishful thinking," Zach agreed. "Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise learn from others' mistakes. Either way, I just want them to be the best that they can be. And that's why you being here is even better."
"I won't teach them anything any other cop wouldn't have."
"Oh, you will. Because you're still a fox. A fox who defied anything the rest of us have thrown at him. Who pursued a career society deemed him to be unsuited for. I hope I'm not going too far by saying you had everything stacked against you?"
"Well, almost everything."
Zach nodded. "Yet here you are."
Nick stopped for a moment. He looked down his own uniform. Then he looked back at the smiling Zebra. "That's some thought. Now you honestly make me wonder whether that might be what the Chief had in mind."
"Even if not, that's what you're going to do." Finally, Zach also drank the rest of his coffee. "In that sense, we need to go."
He got up and opened the door. Nick stepped through, then let Zach lead the way. He never would have anticipated this assignment would turn out so promising. Exciting, even.
Shortly after, Nick stood in front of two dozen pairs of expecting eyes. At first, this view was almost as intimidating as the Chief during his worst of moods. But the eager looks of beaming children calmed him down. Soon, his acquired instincts took over. He took a deep breath and scanned his attendance.
Half of them were wildebeests. Of course, he thought. The rest were wildly mixed. Yet two of them caught his eye. One was a young wolf, the other a weasel. The latter even wore the insignia of a pack leader.
“Okay, pack, this is Officer Wilde. As you all know, he is here to teach us about traffic safety today. But first, as we do with every meeting, we'll open with our oath.”
At the words of their Scout Master, the children rose from their seats. Their paws and hooves raised, they waited for him to begin.
Nick's stomach cramped up. He cursed himself for not expecting this. Of course they'd start off with the oath. He did his best to keep his eyes on the ground while the attention was not on him. His mind clung to the apology he had just received. Yet despite every effort, it was already drifting back to that one evening.
Until Zach's voice pierced through the draping shroud. “Officer Wilde, would you maybe like to do us the honor of leading us in the oath?”
The world went silent for an eternal second. Nick had to repeat these words in his head to realize their magnitude. He lifted his head and saw Zach smiling at him. Somewhere deep in his heart, he could hear a child cheer him on to say yes. He made a mental note to find out what the Chief's favorite drink was and faced the pack again. Praying they wouldn't see that tear running from his right eye, he raised his paw.
“"I—Nicholas Wilde—promise to be..."