Drabble 1: Cold Open
8 : 43 PM
Koslov was a simple mammal with simple desires. In his opinion, there was nothing wrong with that.
The heavily-built polar bear, huge even for his species, was known in two different circles. He was the owner of a popular borscht restaurant on Fleet Street, but he was also the head bodyguard of Tundratown's crime lord, Mr. Big. Most mammals he met were only aware of one side of him, though he made little effort to hide the other. Again, he was a simple mammal. He did not see the point.
Tonight, he was the former, but would soon be the latter. The restaurant closed at 9: 00, which meant business was quickly winding down. Soon after, he would lock up and head to the compound of Mr. Big, where he would resume his other job. Only one customer remained, and as Koslov's few employees had already left, he would have to take care of it himself.
As soon as the guy decided to get off his phone, that is.
Koslov leaned against the kitchen door, looking out over the dining area. The Palace was, as to be expected, simplistic in design, with seats and tables arranged for most efficient service, a distinct lack of frilly decorations that he personally saw as just a waste of money. You came here to get borscht. If you did not want borscht, you would not come. Why were there so many who didn't understand that?
"Evening, Peggy, how's my favorite trash panda?" asked the customer, a sharply-dressed fox leaning back in his seat with a phone to his ear. "Wait, is that a slur? I always forget if that's a slur. Anyway, I'm just having a bite to eat across town before we get down to business. Are you busy?"
Koslov did not know if this 'trash panda' was busy, but he certainly was. He locked eyes with the fox and pointed to the clock. He had no problem serving someone after-hours, but only if they actually ordered before closing time. Otherwise, he would have even less problem tossing him out on his tail.
The fox seemed oblivious, but Koslov knew he was just ignoring him and growled under his breath. "Good to hear," he continued. "Then do me a favor and give me a quick run-down on what you've learned about our VIP." He rolled his eyes. "Yes, now would be good, thanks."
Koslov's large foot tapped as the fox went silent for a while. "Interesting. And what about the girl? Anything to worry about there?" He started tapping his claws on the table, as if he weren't being obnoxious enough already.
"Crazy like a fox?" He saw a large smirk spread across the vulpine's face. For whatever reason, he seemed to find that immensely funny. But Koslov was not laughing. He glanced up at the clock himself. 8:47. At this point, he almost hoped this conversation would last until 9. He could use the stress relief.
The fox suddenly looked right at him, with an expression somewhere between concern and amusement. He didn't even know such an expression existed. "You don't need to do much of anything. I've already pulled some strings and I can guarantee you the boys won't give you any trouble. So whenever you're ready, just walk right in and do your thing. Once you meet up with our mutual friend, just be sure to give him a special Tundratown greeting." Koslov had no idea what he was going on about and he was quickly losing any interest he had. "Well, of course it's going to work. It's my idea."
Another look at the clock. 8: 48. He was starting to suspect the cold weather had frozen the clockwork.
"Oh, there is one more thing," the fox said, his tone darkening. "You haven't forgotten about my son, right? I'd like to think you of all mammals wouldn't lose sight of our goal, but I just want to have all my bases covered." As soon as he'd heard what he wanted, he perked right up again. "Nah, that's all I wanted to call you about. Good luck and enjoy your meal."
By some divine mercy, he finally ended the call. Koslov chose to waste no further time. "Are you ready to order?"
The fox looked at him like he forgot he was in a restaurant, which tried his patience even further. "Sure. I'll have borscht."
Koslov glared. "All I make is borscht. Be more specific."
He made a big show of thinking it over, even putting his fist to his chin. "Hmm...I'm leaning towards the red kind."
"Is beetroot red?"
He gritted his teeth. "Yes."
"Then I'll take that."
"Traditional then." Koslov turned and headed into the kitchen. He couldn't believe he had waited so long for this. Even heating up the pre-made stock took him a few minutes longer than he'd wanted to spend here and fresh was out of the question. He should've just thrown this nutjob out, but there was a sense of pride in maintaining the rules of his establishment, even if that meant having to endure a little.
He soon brought a steaming hot bowl of borscht out to the fox and set it down in front of him, not bothering to stick around as he walked away again. "Much obliged," he said, lifting a spoon to his lips to taste it. "Hey, this is actually pretty good."
Koslov stopped. "Actually?"
"I was just curious how committed you really were to this whole borscht thing," he said as he took another, purposefully loud, sip. "But I can see now that you've really got a passion for it. Perhaps even more than your other job."
He just snorted a little. "So you know."
"I know many things, most of which are a lot harder to come by," he chuckled, gesturing to the chair across from him as he continued eating. "Come on, don't be a stranger. Have a seat."
"I am stranger."
"You mean you don't recognize me?" The fox pouted pitifully. "Funny, I thought our last encounter would have left more of an impression."
Koslov paused. Did he know this fox? He certainly wasn't a regular customer, which meant he would most likely know him from his other line of work. He'd certainly seen his share of foxes through Mr. Big's employment, but most of them didn't make it out of the office again at stable body temperature. The only exceptions he could think of were Nikolai and...
It couldn't be.
"You...you are John Wilde?" he asked hesitantly.
"Is that so hard to believe?" The fox smiled at him in bemusement. "And I go by Count Reynard now, FYI."
Koslov took a seat, still towering over him. "You are different."
"I suppose I am," he said, glancing down at his suit. "It took me decades to look this good." He kicked a long cane up into his paw, turning to point it at him. "But you, Koslov, haven't changed a bit I'm afraid."
"What do you mean by that?" he asked, narrowing his eyes threateningly.
"Well, when I last saw you, you were working for Mr. Big and making borscht. What do you do now?"
"...I work for Mr. Big and make borscht."
"See?" Reynard noted, returning his attention to his soup.
Koslov crossed his arms stubbornly. "I have no need to change. Job is fulfilling."
"Yes," he growled. "My borscht is result of many long years of work and refinement-"
"I'm not talking about the borscht," Reynard interrupted, waving his paws. "I mean your role as a supposed 'bodyguard' for Mr. Big. How fulfilled can you really be doing nothing?"
"I do not do nothing!" he roared, slamming a fist onto the table. The result was Reynard's borscht flying up and splattering all over the bear's chest.
The fox winced. "Oooh, tough break. Looks like you could use a new suit."
Koslov barely even glanced at the stain. "I have others."
"So let me ask you something," Reynard said, clasping his paws together. "How often do you actually have to protect him from anything?"
"It seems to me that with Mr. Big's highly-secured compound and squad of polar bear enforcers, the chances of you personally having to come to his aid are rather slim. Am I wrong?"
Koslov frowned, his expression wavering slightly. "...You are not."
"Then what exactly do you do? Because it kinda seems like your job is just to stand there and look menacing. When you're not ferrying Big around like some furry taxi service I mean. You must have to be pretty delicate to avoid hurting him, huh?"
"Hmm, I can't say you really strike me as a 'delicate' mammal," Reynard observed, reaching over to grab one of the bear's beefy arms and giving it a small squeeze. "I bet it's tough having to control your strength sometimes, to resist the urge to just clasp your paws a liiiiiiiitle bit tighter..."
"I am deeply loyal to Mr. Big," he scowled. "I would not dare hurt him."
"Really? My mistake then." Reynard shrugged and sat back in his seat, making no further comment as he looked idly at his phone.
The silence quickly grew unbearable. "Why do you think I would hurt him?" Koslov finally had to ask.
"I just thought you would find it unfair," he explained, still focused on his phone. "Unfair that a mammal so powerful should be rendered so powerless. Heck, I wouldn't be surprised if mammals even mistake you for Mr. Big every now and then. Must sting having to correct them."
"I am content with my job," he snapped, somewhat defensively. What kind of nerve did this guy have to come into his establishment and question his life choices?
"Content? Interesting word choice." Reynard put the phone away, looking back at Koslov expectantly. "Not exactly the same as 'happy' or 'satisfied' is it?" Koslov remained silent. "Tell you what, how about I give you a little test? To see how much you really like your job."
"How could you possibly prove such a thing?"
He casually lifted a finger and pointed at the empty borscht bowl left on the table. "Bring me two more of those."
Koslov blinked in confusion. That was the last thing he would have expected. "You want borscht now? Two bowls at that?"
"No, no borscht. Just the bowls."
"...You want me to bring two empty bowls?"
He mimicked his accent. "Yes."
Koslov turned and looked up at the clock. 8: 56. "It won't take long, I promise," Reynard said from behind him. "Besides, isn't setting a good career goal worth all the time in the world?"
Begrudgingly, Koslov pushed himself up from the table and headed into the kitchen, returning with two empty bowls that he laid out in front of him. "Here."
Reynard grabbed the two bowls and turned them over onto the table, then withdrew a small coin seemingly from thin air, flipping it up and down on his thumb. With his other paw, he reached over and grabbed the remaining bowl. "Do you know how this game works?"
"I'd rather know why you're playing games in first place," he growled. "My patience runs short, fox."
"Don't worry, it's simple, just the way you like it." He flipped the coin up into the air one last time, then caught it in the bowl and slammed it down onto the table with the other two. "I shuffle the bowls around and then you tell me which one you think the coin is under. Savvy?"
"This is complete waste of my-"
"Good. Now keep an eye on the birdie…" Reynard's paws started moving a mile a minute, shuffling the bowls around at such a speed that normal mammalian eyes could hardly follow it. All the while, he kept staring at Koslov, that same, smarmy smile on his muzzle. "Now, now, don't look at me. You want the coin, right?"
Figuring he might as well play along, lest he got himself into this mess for nothing, Koslov did his best to keep track of the bowl the coin had been under. When Reynard finally stopped, he pointed over to the one on the left. "That one."
The fox lifted the bowl, revealing it to be empty. "Bzzt! Wrong! Care to try again?"
Koslov took a deep breath before nodding slowly. If this fox wanted to play games with him, then play he would. Play and win.
Reynard lifted the rightmost bowl to reveal the coin again, then started to shuffle them. Koslov trained his eyes on the bowl he wanted like it was injured prey and followed it back and forth. Smiling to himself, he chose again...and chose wrong. "What?!"
"Tough luck there, friend. But third time's the charm right?"
The third time didn't go any better. Or the fourth. Or the fifth.
"Yikes, hate to see that happen."
"He shoots, he misses."
"Ooh, that one's gotta sting."
"ENOUGH!" Koslov barely held himself back from hitting the table again, pointing sharply at the central bowl. "I know that was coin! What are you trying to pull here?"
"Hey now, don't be a poor sport," Reynard smirked. "Just be glad you're not gambling over this."
Koslov looked back at the clock, realizing he was almost ten minutes late closing up. All because he had let himself get distracted by this stupid game. "Keep your lousy coin and get out!" He emphasized his point by sweeping a giant paw over all three bowls, sending them to the floor where they shattered to bits.
"Now why did you have to go and make a mess?"
"I'll clean it later. Now…" He glanced down at the pile of porcelain for just a second, but it was long enough to notice something. Or rather, a lack of something. "Where is coin?"
"Hmm? What coin is that again? I have so many…"
Koslov reached over and grabbed Reynard by the front of his suit, easily lifting him into the air. He shook the fox up and down, dislodging a familiar coin from his sleeve. "You keep me here after hours just to cheat me?!"
"No, I kept you here to demonstrate something."
Reynard smiled, gently patting the paws that could easily tear his head off. "Three things. First, when you are challenged in any capacity, you seek to prove yourself. Second, you greatly value your physical strength and the power it brings you."
"And what is third?" he asked, baffled by the fox's complete lack of fear.
"The third…" He shook his head pitifully. "Is that you have too much pride to let yourself be made a fool of, even here in this empty restaurant with no other witnesses. Which makes me wonder, why exactly do you continue to work for Mr. Big, defying all of these traits that make you you?"
"It is complicated." He roughly dropped the fox back into his seat. "You don't understand."
"Actually, I think I understand pretty well," Reynard replied, dusting himself off. "It's the only option you see open to you, it pays you well enough to make a living, it allows you some degree of satisfaction even if you're not completely fulfilled. Am I in the ballpark?"
"You're one to lecture me," he scoffed. "As I recall, last I saw you, you were groveling to Mr. Big for favor."
"That was then, this is now," Reynard replied, unfazed. "Complacency, Koslov, that has been my biggest mistake. But I am no longer willing to settle. I will fight for what I desire, no matter the cost." He leaned across the table, smiling up at the bear. "You've seen what this change has done for me, now what about you? Will you remain stuck in this borscht-filled hole you've dug for yourself, or are you ready to show this city what you can really do?"
Koslov looked at him, closely. It was hard to deny how much his demeanor had changed. The fox that sat before him now exuded an unbreakable confidence, to such an extent that even he had been unable to put a chink in that armor. He thought he was happy now, but how much happier could be become? How much better of a mammal? "...What would I have to do?"
"Ah, now you are asking the right questions," Reynard grinned. "I'm pleased to see you still have some fight in you after all. In exchange for your honesty, how about I let you in on a little secret?" He looked back and forth, despite knowing full well they were alone, and whispered over to him. "After tonight, let's just say Mr. Big is gonna get a whole lot smaller."
"What?" Koslov's eyes widened. "You mean to say you intend to-?"
"This is what taking action looks like, Koslov, and I don't have time to waste. You're not the first one of his bears I've talked to, you know. There's a number who would rather take orders from a mammal who at least reaches up to their knees."
Koslov struggled to keep his composure, breathing heavily. But did he react this way because he feared for his employer...or was it something else? "Who?"
"I'm not going to spoil the surprise that much. What fun is that?" He laughed, getting up from his seat and gently pushing it in. "But you should be aware that a friend of mine is going to stop by the compound later, a friend with a very...particular set of skills. When he does, you're going to have a choice to make." He turned around and headed for the door, twirling his cane.
He couldn't lose this chance. "Wait! What choice?"
Reynard stopped in place, one paw hovering over the door. "That's the beauty of it. Either you do what you think your job is, or exactly what Mr. Big has been having you do all this time. Nothing."
With one final smile and wave, he pushed himself through the front doors and disappeared, leaving Koslov alone. The bear looked up at the clock one final time. He was now almost a half-hour late for duty, even more by the time he got there. Somehow, he felt no need to rush.
After all, Koslov had always been a simple mammal with simple desires.
But maybe it was time that changed.