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What Happened at N.I.T.E.

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“I’d say that went well.”

Nick’s uncharacteristically wide smile was still in place as he and Judy convened behind one of the decorative landscaping areas toward the front entrance of City Hall once they managed to make their way out of the main chamber. The thick shrubberies and wide-leafed ferns gave them a semi-private space away from the celebrating crowds to gather themselves from their performance. While Nick seemed completely unfazed, Judy paced in front of him chewing on her nails.

He gave her a good-natured backpaw to the shoulder on her next pass. “Come on, Carrots, relax! We did it. Swish, nothing but net. Quit overthinking everything.”

“Still one more hurdle to get past, remember?” was Judy’s tense reply as she turned to look at him. Her ears popped up and eyes went wide as she stared up over his head. Nick had just enough time to brace himself for the rough grip on his collar as his feet left the floor. A pitched squeak from his partner suggested she was in a similar position.

Chief Bogo lifted them up, one in each hoof, until they were dangling at his eye level. Hot breath through flared nostrils accompanied his fierce glare.

And there he is. “Heeeey there, Chief,” Judy began with a half-wave. “So, I know what you’re thinking—”

“You have thirty seconds to convince me not to sack you both.”

Judy’s ears wilted. Despite their precarious position, Nick was quick to resume his half-lidded smug smile and crossed his arms.

“Well… if you sack us, you won’t get to see the foolproof plan we’ve got drafted up for financing the program you’ve technically just adopted.” He tilted his head, his voice edged in challenge and complete confidence in his eyes. “That would be helpful information for you to know, right?”

“Have you gone completely mad?” Bogo quietly railed through clenched teeth as his eyes darted back and forth from the fox to the rabbit and back again. “How in God’s name can I possibly fit something of this scope into the station budget if the city itself couldn’t figure it out?”

“For one thing, you have something that they didn’t: the benefit of my creative accounting skills.”

The Chief glared directly at him with an impatient snort. “Wilde, it is only out of sheer morbid curiosity that I’m still listening to you, so I would suggest you cut to the chase because that’s not going to hold out for much longer.”

“We’re just giving N.I.T.E. a better home,” Nick explained. “It can support itself with any extra proceeds generated by the Floral Procurement Registry background checks, through charitable giving and grants, and a few larger donations from a couple of wealthy *cough* benefactors from Tundratown and Sahara Square that we’ve already confirmed are interested. Set it up as a non-profit and it becomes tax-exempt, also. Your budget should barely feel a thing. We might need to fund-raise once a year, if that.”

Chief Bogo raised his eyebrows, an expression of surprise that changed into one of skepticism almost immediately. “And just who’s going to oversee the talks? The patients? Their records, their data? Last I checked, neither of you has a medical degree.”

“That should fall to the station counselor,” Judy chimed in, “who you’d be paying a salary to anyway.”

“As you may recall,” Bogo said as he swung his snout in her direction, “Dr. Barnsworth has chosen to retire once his bank of paid time off runs out, which… ugh, it’ll be another month before that happens. I can’t officially hire on a new doctor until he’s gone.”

“Which means we’ll have time to set up the backbone and scout a replacement for him, won’t we?” she said, her eyes and words lifted in eagerness. “Someone with suitable experience to handle caring for our officers and also manage the workings of this hefty community program concurrently?”

Chief Bogo flicked an ear in irritation as his officers watched him expectantly. He groaned, and set their feet back on the ground.

“Something tells me you already have someone in mind.”

The two partners exchanged a meaningful look and Judy took out her cell phone. “It just so happens that we do.”

*****

Melanie’s heart was so filled with so much more joy than she had ever before experienced at one time, she was convinced it would burst in her chest.

They did it. They really did it.

Her nose was an inch from the TV screen as she drank in the unfolding scene. All the faces that she didn’t know, and all the faces that she did… together.

Sam stood, and spoke with such confidence. Kathleen’s voice carried and galvanized the voices of those around her.

Emmitt Otterton had a perch on Renato Manchas’ crossed arms, a comforting paw on his shoulder. A fierce look in both their eyes.

Helen—Oh, Helen, you found her—somehow gathered enough strength to be present and fight for what her daughter needed, what she herself needed.

Amelia and Ethan, side by side and paw in hoof, forgetting the horror in their past for long enough to continue their path to a more hopeful future.

Judy had her friend and partner beside her again, and how they moved mountains together for the mammals that had gathered.

And Vincent…

Never in a thousand years, a dozen lifetimes would she have guessed at the words that came out of his mouth. The look on his face she knew well enough finally being directed not at her but at her patients. Predator, prey, lion, sheep, rabbit, wolf… all regarded with warmth and with kindness, indiscriminately. Like he finally, at long last, could see them.

Melanie’s throat closed and her eyes moistened and her nose sniffled. This pack, this herd that she had so carefully tended stood and protected each other without prompting. Made the city a better place for themselves.

And for her.

Ding-a-ding! Ding-a-ling-a-ling! Ding-a-ding! Ding-a-ling-a-ling!

Her phone vibrated and jingled in her paw again. She didn’t have to look at the screen to know the number that was calling, not that she could see it through her hazy eyes. Melanie picked up and put the phone to her ear automatically, her gaze still locked on the television as the camera panned over the room to show the throng of exultant mammals celebrating their victory.

“Hello?”

<Did you see?> Judy’s voice was a delight to her ears but still something of a surprise; it was hard to believe she was hearing it again at all.

“Yes… yes, I did see.” Melanie tried to find him again in the spot where he had been standing, but by the time the camera reached the back of the chamber, Vincent Buckner was already gone. “I… I do not know what to say.”

<Say you’re free for an interview.>

She tore her attention away from the TV. “An… interview?”

<You’ll want to bring your work documents and resume, too, when you come down to Precinct One. Chief Bogo likes a firm pawshake and a crisp suit. You have a suit, right?>

She looked to the pile of luggage at the door, dissecting the bags with her eyes. “Yes, I… somewhere, I can find it…”

<Get ready, then, and be there within the hour. Roads are a bit of a mess, but you should be fine if you leave in the next fifteen minutes. Think you can do that?>

“Yes.” Melanie rose from the couch on jelly legs quickly solidifying. “I absolutely can.”

<Good. See you soon.>

Melanie hung up just as a loud BEEP BEEP BEEP sounded from down on the avenue. A quick look out the window confirmed that the taxi she ordered was waiting.

She was dressed and out the door so fast you’d have thought her tail had caught fire.

*****

Vincent made his way through the thinning and jubilant crowd with quick, brisk strides. It was heartening to witness so many so happy. He couldn’t help but smile as he walked through and then eventually out of it. Even though it wasn’t meant for him, he still found it surprisingly pleasant taking some small part in something that was already having such a positive impact.

The officers would arrange it the right way. Now that N.I.T.E. was free of the politics and partisanship, it could be properly managed, properly funded. No more shuffling patients around between doctors, no more holding licenses hostage, no more obligatory volunteerism, no more shady contracts with vulnerable mammals. Melanie would be able to keep her visa and have good, steady work that paid her appropriately. As it always should have been.

When he finally made it back to his practice, Sadie was at her desk in the waiting room as anticipated. She was alone for the moment; there was still another twenty minutes until his next appointment. He half expected another quip about his tardiness in returning, but she didn’t seem to realize that he’d come in. Instead, she continued to stare enraptured at the cellphone screen in her paws, eyes wide, bright, and glistening. The speakers were just barely loud enough to hear from the door, but the sounds of the crowd were familiar enough to him at this point.

Ahem.” He cleared his throat and her head snapped up in surprise.

“Oh, Doctor!” She startled so hard that her entire body jerked (it was a wonder she didn’t fall right off the chair) and the cellphone all but leapt out of her paws. With a few swipes into the air, she was just able to sandwich it between them and draw it into her chest. The sounds that were coming from the speakers immediately stopped. “I mean… Vincent, I was just… I was just, ah—”

“Catching up on current events?” he suggested as he continued further into the waiting room.

She folded her ears back with a guilty kind of expression—as though she’d been caught sneaking snacks from the cupboard. She tucked her phone somewhere below the desk and out of sight, bringing her paws back up empty.

“I apologize for my distraction,” she murmured as she turned to her computer and put her paws back to her keyboard to resume working.

He stopped at the desk. “What you do with your lunch break isn’t any business of mine.” He paused, gave a light tap against the counter, and said, “I wonder what your thoughts are on those proceedings this afternoon, if you’re willing to share them.”

Sadie searched his face warily for a few seconds, whiskers twitching in uncertainty. Though she kept her expression carefully blank, Vincent imagined he caught a glimpse of a tiny smile play at the corner of her mouth.

“Only that the camera really does add ten pounds.”

He blinked at the cheeky and unexpected reply, and then laughed. “Wow. Is this how it’s going to be from now on?”

Her ears perked hopefully despite the guarded look. “If that’s an agreeable arrangement.”

Vincent nodded. “I believe it would be, yes.”

The tiny smile widened into a more obvious, slightly playful one. “Well… then I’m sure I can work that into my normal procedures somehow.”

“Oh, good… that’s a relief.” He adjusted his glasses higher on his snout and said casually, “I noticed that there were a number of children present at the rally. Is it a school holiday today?”

Sadie popped her eyebrows at the abrupt subject shift. “No, but it is an in-service day for quite a few districts.”

“Including your kittens’?”

“Um… well, yes, actually. My aunt is watching them until I come home.”

“Hmm.” Vincent stared down at his tie a few moments as he fiddled it between his hoof, churned his words smooth in his mouth before finally committing to them. “You know, I’ve lost track. How old are they now?”

An even more surprised face, which confirmed that this was a conversation long overdue. “Tabitha is twelve, turning thirteen in April. Thomas and Oliver both just turned seven.”

“I see. Formative years.” So little, not nearly enough to know after so long, but… it was a start. He let his tie drop, rolled his shoulders, and stood tall once more. “It occurs to me that most of your tasks for today are already complete, aren’t they?”

If the topic of discussion was a surprise before, now it was moving into uncharted territory. All she could manage was a slow blink and automatic nod of her head in response.

Vincent smiled and said, “Why don’t you go on and head home, then?”

Sadie drew her paws back from the keyboard tentatively and looked up at him with the reservation evident in her eyes. He nodded toward the waiting room door in additional confirmation. “Go. I’m sure I could manage without you for an afternoon.”

She didn’t wait to be told again, but immediately leapt down from her chair.

“I’m not so certain about that, myself,” Sadie said with just a hint of sass coloring her tone as she grabbed her purse and jacket. “But whatever you muck up I’ll just fix when I come in on Monday.”

Vincent gave a low chuckle. “You have so little faith in me.”

“Mmm, mostly I lack faith in your computer skills.”

“Do you think you could pull your punches every so often? I’m not as young as I used to be; I’m liable to break something.”

Sadie stopped in the middle of the room with her mouth open for another zinger, but bit it back before it launched off her tongue. She’d effectively tested the water and found it to be inviting. No reason to wade out any further lest she find herself in choppier seas than she preferred. Besides… she was nothing if not accommodating.

Instead, she said, “I’ll be sure to keep that in mind.”

His face softened into a faint, mixed kind of expression as he turned away. “And I haven’t forgotten about the conversation I owe you. Fuzzy as I was yesterday, that particular part is quite clear. So, you can look forward to it first thing Monday morning.”

“Oh, that’s… that is, ah… I will.” She twanged the strap of her bag between her claws a few times. “It’s nice… to look forward to Monday.”

“I’m glad you think so, too.” He started toward his office with a brief wave behind him. “Enjoy your weekend.”

“Thank you. You also. Vincent.”

She licked her lips and twitched her nose; it still didn’t sound completely natural to her ears yet, taste quite right on her tongue, his name, but… it was a start.

He nodded in acknowledgment and slipped into his office. The door closed with a muted click.

Sadie spun on the balls of her feet, flew out the door and into the sunshine, toward home and a precious extra few hours with her family. A nice home-cooked meal she didn’t have to throw together in twenty minutes. Maybe a movie. Her heart leapt at all the possibilities. It was only a little time, but it still felt like every minute returned to her was plated in gold. A very small something in the grand scheme of all that had happened this week, but… it made all the difference in the world.

*****

“I appreciate you coming to meet with me on such unspeakably short notice, Doctor,” Chief Bogo said as he opened the door to his office to let Dr. Leuca out into the hall. “We’re fortunate to secure such a qualified and willing candidate for this endeavor so quickly.”

“Hopefully takes some weight off your mind, Chief Bogo, sir,” Dr. Leuca replied, taking the chief’s hoof in her paw to shake. “Also, I am pleased to serve your officers and the mammals of Zootopia further.”

“Good. I expect I can have Mammal Resources put an offer together within the next few—”

Dr. Leuca!

They both turned their heads toward a call from down the hall to see Officer Hopps bounding quickly ahead of her smooth sauntering partner. Chief Bogo grumbled in exasperation.

“I apologize in advance for the mammals you’ll mostly be working with to get things set up. They’re a couple of real—”

“Fine officers,” Dr. Leuca finished with a smile and a low bow. “Yes, I agree and look forward to it.”

Officer Hopps came to a skidding halt in front of Chief Bogo’s door with an enthusiastic wave at them both.

“Heya Chief! How’d everything turn—”

Chief Bogo didn’t wait for the end of her sentence, but stepped back into his office with a glowering grunt and closed the door firmly shut. Melanie cast a concerned look down at Judy, who just waved her paw at the door in complete dismissal as her smile widened even more.

“Oh, nevermind him, he’s always like that.” She grasped one of the panda’s big paws between her own tiny ones and tugged in the opposite direction until they were far enough away from the Chief’s office for her to let loose her enthusiasm full tilt.

Melanie had no idea it was possible to form syllables—let alone complete sentences—at the speed in which Judy was babbling almost incoherently without taking a single breath.

“Oh my sweet peas and foxgloves you have to tell me how it went did it go okay you had everything you needed right he didn’t give you a hard time did he I know he can be a real tough custom—eep!

The big black arms swept behind Judy as Melanie went down to her knees and drew her up from the floor into a trembling embrace.

“How do I thank you for this?” she murmured, only squeezing a fraction as hard as she wanted to. “It is so much. What do I say that can ever be enough?”

Judy recomposed herself from the surprise and returned the embrace as much as possible from under the huge bear head. She gave a few light pats against her shoulder and a gentle nuzzle up under her cheek. “Nothing else than that. Please. It’s more than enough… too much.”

“Oh… sorry, so very sorry…” Her feet touched back to the floor just a few seconds later. Melanie sat back on her heels and wiped at her eyes with the heel of her paw hastily. “So much I feel now and few words to express appropriately. A very long time my heart was in pieces and now feels like finally starts to come back to be whole again.”

“Good. It’s time, I think.” Judy looked down, scuffed a foot against the tile floor, and brought her face back up smiling again. “We’re all a little broken in our own way, huh? But, you know, I think maybe if we all just keep working on it together… maybe we can fit those broken pieces into something better.” She paused and then added, “Like a mosaic.”

Melanie tilted her head. “I do not know that word. What is it?”

“It’s like a picture, but it’s made up of bits and pieces of lots of other things. All apart, they’re just bits, but if you put them together in the right way… they make something beautiful.”

“That is nice thing. I like that.” Melanie added with a teasing smile, “I think you miss your calling. You stop being police, start being counselor instead, maybe?”

Judy laughed. “No, I’m pretty sure I’m exactly where I belong.” She reached up slowly—so slowly—and gave the panda a playful poke in the shoulder. “And now, so are you.”

So am I. Melanie nodded and smiled so hard her face hurt. She clasped her paws together and bowed forward slightly, the only other means she had to express her gratitude to Zootopia’s first and only rabbit officer, Judith Laverne Hopps, who woke up each morning ready to make the world a better place and today had done just that for so many… including her.

“Hey there, ladies.” Nick’s ambling pace finally put him back alongside his partner. The panda straightened herself back to standing again as he gave Judy and her an apologetic look. “I hate to interrupt, but someone’s gotta get back to her post or it is very possible the Chief is going to have an actual conniption.”

Judy smacked her paw into her forehead. “Oh, sassafras, you’re right! I still have to make quota, crud…” She cast a rueful glance at Melanie in lieu of a goodbye—they’d see each other again soon, after all—and gave Nick a firm squeeze around his middle. “You’ll take care of the rest, right?”

Impossible to miss the contented face, the eyes that closed completely at the connection that was reestablished in the physical contact, however brief. Melanie felt it warm her mending heart; if anything she’d said had brought Judy back into harmony with her good friend once more, then that was an outcome she was grateful to have had a paw in.

“Just leave it to me,” he said as she looked up at him and released her grip once more.

“Okay, good. We’ll catch up later, then.” She turned, came back for another squeeze and a quick, “Last hug,” and then zipped away from them both with an enthusiastic wave overhead. “Bye!”

Nick gave a subdued half wave back to her retreating figure with a soft smile before he turned his attention to Melanie. He folded his paws behind his back and turned on his heels to swagger toward the exit.

“You’re with me, Patches,” he said over his shoulder, and Melanie fell in step behind him obediently. “Got a pal a few blocks over at M.I.C.E. that’ll get you all squared away on paper until we have everything set up here. Hopefully that won’t take too long, but I’m thinking it best to play things safe, right?”

She nodded. “Yes… that I would also prefer.”

They walked away from the station, Nick leading and Melanie following just behind and to the side of him. There was no further exchange of words for a block or so when Nick cleared his throat loudly and adjusted the knot of his tie.

“A ‘thank you’ is probably in order,” he said with a smile and sideways glance at her. “So… thank you.”

Melanie tilted her head in mild inquiry; it may have been the happy, hazy fog that still had her mind moving a bit slowly, because she couldn’t recall anything that she had done for him that would justify any sort of thanks. “For what?”

“For whatever you did to help Hopps.” Nick slipped his paws into his pockets. “She said she talked to you the other day.”

“Oh… well, we have tea. She gives me back my things,” Melanie said carefully as she shifted her eyes to the ground and her bag to the other arm. She would tread lightly around this subject; particulars about Judy’s visit were protected by the same strict confidentiality as she had with any other patient—even the fact that she’d come to the apartment to seek therapy at all.

“Yuh huh.” Nick deepened his smile a little further. “I get it… you don’t have to acknowledge you gave her any professional counseling. I know you did, and I appreciate it. I tried to help her, but I didn’t know how. You did. So again… thank you.”

Her face tightened, lips pressed into a thin, reluctant kind of expression. She nodded once and deflected any additional conversation on this topic away by saying, “More I should thank you both for help you give to me. I would be far away and very sad today if not all you do.”

Nick waved his paw casually. “Eh, you know… that bunny’s pretty firmly committed to making this city a better place. Just so happened that meant keeping you in it.” His ears tucked back. “I am sorry to say I don’t think we’ll ever be able to get you pay for all those sessions you led.”

“I understand this and it is fine.” Her voice turned tender and airy. “Have one thing I most wish for. More than makes up for what is lost.”

Nick turned at the next corner immediately up the short walkway to a big, drab administrative building with glass doors. He stopped in front of them, and Melanie paused beside him.

“Well, you should get something of value for what you’ve done for Zootopia up until now. And I’m just the guy to give it to you.” He patted himself down and dug deep into his pocket melodramatically while muttering, “Now, where did I put… I know it’s here somewhere… ah, there it is!”

Nick brought his tightly balled fist out, shook it up beside his ear as though confirming what was in it, then tipped his nose up smugly. “Hold your paw out for me, Doc.”

She did, and his fist opened over it to deposit into her palm … absolutely nothing.

Melanie stared, confused. “What is—?”

That,” he said, and pointed, “is a favor. Trust me, there are plenty of mammals who would go to great lengths for one of those from me.” He winked. “Anything you need, anytime. You let me know, I’ll make it happen. Guaranteed.”

She blinked soft and slow down at her paw, and then curled it closed around the fox’s gift. “I will keep somewhere very safe.”

Nick snagged the door as it opened from another mammal leaving the building. He swept his paw in front of him to usher her inside with a pleased smile. “You do that.”