Judy and Nick walked out of the Zootopia stadium. Mammals of all kinds flanked them as the enormous crowd that had come to see Gazelle filtered out.
The bright lights of the marquee still flashed, casting shadows in front of the crowd as it shuffled along through the narrower exits. Mammals talked excitedly about the dazzling concert as they made their way, eventually spilling out in a wave into the parking lot.
Nick had to admit it had been a good concert, and the end production had certainly been something to see. He was not the huge Gazelle fan Judy and Clawhauser were, but it had still been fun. That was not even mentioning the backstage pass they had gotten for a pre-show meetup, either. Even he had been a bit star struck rubbing elbows with the famous singer before the show.
The crowd slowly thinned out as mammals broke off for various parts of the packed lot to their cars or elsewhere, but neither Judy nor he owned cars. They both agreed that in a city like Zootopia, it made much more sense to use the subway or bus. Their run-in with Flash earlier in the day being somewhat of a case in point.
Nick was still floored Flash had been the speeding bandit. They had let his old friend off with a warning, much to the displeasure of Chief Bogo. However, the chief had let it slide when they explained how Flash had helped them in the missing mammal case, and that they owed him one. Having almost always been on the other side of the law, Nick was well aware of how fluid and adaptable said 'law' was at times. Even Judy had employed some of the questionable, at best, tactics herself during the missing mammal case, but he was okay with that.
Judy was in an ebullient mood as they walked out and towards the subway station on the far side of the parking lot. She was skipping along ahead of Nick singing, arms pumping up, "I messed up tonight! I lost another fight!"
Nick smiled and inwardly chuckled as he watched her spin around and hop step backward.
"I still mess up, but I'll just start again!" she sang then stopped abruptly. She spun around, facing away with arms up. "Nick, this was amazing!" she exclaimed, looking up toward the sky. The summer sun had almost set and stars were starting to pop into existence. She was walking backward just in front of him. "Your first day, our first case solved," she said and rolled her eyes and smirked, "Even if it was Flash…. and we got to pal around with Gazelle before that fantastic concert! How cool was that?"
Nick smiled despite himself… or was it a smirk? He honestly had a hard time telling when he was smirking or smiling anymore. It didn't feel like smiling, so he slotted it over to the 'smirk' column. Especially considering the mood he was in.
"Well, I gotta say Carrots, that was pretty cool," he said. He had to admit, it had been a pretty darn good day in general, and yes, getting a backstage pass from Zootopia's biggest pop star was a pretty good cap to his first day as an official police officer. So why am I feeling so... what? he thought. He couldn't put a name to how he was feeling. Giddy came to mind, or anxious. He absentmindedly rubbed at his chest, which seemed to ache any time he was around Judy these days.
Just my luck, he thought, best day of my life and I die of a heart attack. The more he watched his partner hop around to an imaginary beat, watched her ears flop to and fro as she swung her hips, the name for what he was feeling started to form in his head. Despite trying to perpetuate the lie he had so carefully maintained and crafted over those months, he was beginning to understand. He was starting to come to grips with why he was on edge, but tried to tell himself it was still a mystery.
The way Judy turned and grinned at him, how her top front teeth poked out from behind her lips, how she was still wired and full of energy after an amazing show, it was all getting burned into his brain.
And my heart… Ugh, when did I turn into such a softy.
The lies he'd told himself since meeting Judy were crumbling in front of him to the beat of a hit pop song.
Judy was too wrapped up in replaying the concert in her head to notice how lost in thought Nick looked.
He managed to pinpoint when it started to bother him tonight. That darn hip bump during the finale of "Try Everything," he thought. That ever so brief moment when their eyes met. It was more than just that, though. That had just been a catalyst for something else he had been ignoring or, at least, refusing to acknowledge for days. No. Weeks. Tonight, though… tonight, and particularly right now, right this instant, it was rapidly building. It was bordering on panic, and it took all his effort to keep himself calm.
Judy had dropped back beside him, still skipping. She smiled sidelong up at him. She hopped a step closer and gave him a light elbow in the ribs. "I think Gazelle thought you were cute!" she said, slowing her pace to walk beside him.
Nick forced a laugh and rubbed his side theatrically, "Ya think so? Is that what your detective skills told you, Carrots?" he said and stuffed his paws into his pockets, automatically giving her that trademark smirk of his.
Judy shook her head, looking forward. "Nope! That's just what my female skills tell me!" she said then leaned over and stage whispered to him out of the corner of her mouth, "I think she has a thing for predators. I mean, look at all those hunky tigers she surrounds herself with!"
Nick's heart skipped half a step. "Hunky tigers, huh? You a fan of all those teeth and claws, Fluff?" he asked, trying to ooze confidence. He wanted to bury his head in the ground when his voice cracked at the end of the sentence, betraying his faux charm. The fur on his neck stood on end with how direct he thought he was being, but it was a question he desperately wanted an answer to.
"Hmm?" Judy asked, looking up at him. "Oh, heh, I never really thought about it that way." She reached up to one of her ears and gave it a tug, and she could feel her cheeks burn just enough to notice. "I mean, I'm not opposed to them or anything, if that's what you're asking."
Nick could feel himself getting warm under his collar.
"Still, I bet you might have had a shot with her if you'd asked!" Judy continued. "Who knows, sly and courageous might be her type."
Nick forced another what he hoped was a normal sounding laugh, but in his ears, it sounded strained.
"Maybe, but she's not my type," he said distractedly. A slow horror started to build in his mind as he realized what he was going to say next. One part of his mind was howling bloody murder for him to stop, while the part in control of his mouth just kept right on going.
"Don't get me wrong," he said, "she's pretty and all that, but not what I would consider beautiful. Not beautiful like you, anyway." Nick stopped, his ears splaying out and eyes going wide. Welp, now you've done it Wilde, he told himself, I hope you're happy. There's no taking it back now.
Judy took a couple of more steps before she too stopped and slowly turned her head back towards him with her eyes wide.
The dwindling stream of mammals that still walked in their direction with them parted and flowed around the two of them drawing a few glances. Even though there was a constant low buzz of conversation around them, paws and hooves on the pavement, the sound of cars doors, and engines starting, it seemed like silence.
Judy slowly turned back around to face him directly. "N-Nick?" she said.
To Nick her voice sounded small and... what? Fragile? Hopeful? Frightened? He couldn't tell and just stood there stunned into near inaction. His paw grabbed at his chest again, clenching shirt and fur both. He looked down at his chest. It was almost like he wasn't in his body and was actually watching someone else. "You know," he said quietly, his voice barely above a whisper, "they joke about it, but it actually does hurt."
A look of alarm overtook the shocked expression on Judy's face.
"Nick, are you okay?!" She stepped closer, but Nick stepped back with his other paw coming from of his pocket and held it out to stop her. His expression was unsure and confused.
Judy stopped, seeming equally confused.
"Heartache," Nick explained, his voice a bit stronger this time. He rubbed a paw back over his head and sighed. "I kept trying to ignore it, telling myself it was nothing, or just due to those extra long runs the major made us do," he said with a calm he did not feel, "but... I know what it is. I think I've known what it is for months, and just kept it hidden."
He sighed and pulled at his ears. "I can't do this anymore." His gaze moved from Judy to the marquee of the stadium with all its dazzling lights, but he wasn't seeing them. Instead, he saw events of the past months in his mind. All of them were of Judy, with Judy, or thoughts about Judy.
After they had solved the missing mammals case, Nick had put in his application for the police academy. With Judy's backing and a few pulled strings, he had gotten in. It had taken about two months of bureaucratic nonsense before he was officially accepted, and then another month before the next group of cadets started their training. In that time he and Judy had met up occasionally when schedules allowed.
Nick had still needed to hustle, but not for the need of the money. He had mainly just for something to do, so he kept on doing what he always had. He had to keep his new impending profession hidden from Finnick and others as long as he could too, for obvious reasons.
When time allowed he and Judy had met for lunch a pawful of times to catch up on what each had been doing. They had a couple of after work dinner meet-ups, too. Judy had tales of her job as a rookie cop and plenty of advice on what to expect at the Academy. Nick, however, had had fewer stories. He had always kept the conversation away from his questionable activities while he waited the long weeks for the paperwork to churn through the gears of city government.
Over time, though, their discussions had started to become slowly strange and awkward. Both he and Judy seemed to have an increasingly harder time looking directly at the other. Eyes were always shifting to something else while they talked, with each of them making excuses as to why they had to go. Always some important business to take care of, someone to meet, somewhere they had to be. He never really did, though. He wasn't really sure it was the same with Judy, but he prayed to gods he didn't believe in that it was.
Then, Nick had gone into the Academy. Nine months of long, long days. Study, exercise, training, and more exercise, more training. It had been hard, but not because of the stress or physicality of it. The actual physical part had been pretty easy for him once he got past the first month or so. In fact, he had come to enjoy the rigorous exercise, and the Major had often let him lead the group runs and call out cadence.
What had been almost intolerable, though, was not seeing Judy. Sometimes he had gone weeks without seeing her with only the occasional text or e-mail. There had been rare times he was able to get away from the academy the same time she was free, but those had been precious few and far between.
He turned back to Judy. His gaze searched her wide, confused, and oh so beautiful eyes. He swallowed hard, paw still massaging his chest absently. Slowly, he started to come to his senses, his eyes darting around as his thoughts began to race. He lifted his head, meeting Judy's worried eyes. He cocked his head slightly.
"You know, Fluff, from the first time I met you, there was something I couldn't put my paws on," he began. Images flashed through his mind again. The first time he saw her in the ice cream shop, getting wrangled into the missing mammals case, nearly getting iced by Mister Big, and that look on her face after the press conference when he confronted her. He recalled how much that had hurt him. It wouldn't have hurt the old Nick. It would have just been what, typical? Expected? Par for the course? He didn't know, but coming from that 'dumb bunny' that he hadn't even known for two days, it had felt like he had been stomped on by one of Mister Big's polar bear goons.
The few months after that disastrous news conference were not much more than a blur. He had almost stopped hustling completely, having found it nearly impossible to drum up his normal motivation for scamming mammals out of money or pulling off his myriad of lucrative cons. Even when he had, he had let Finnick take the lead most of the time. Finnick, bless his angry little heart, had tried his best to pull him out of his despondency to little effect and eventually gave up. He smiled inwardly as he remembered what Finnick had told him later. "Man, I was so glad to see that bunny, you have no fuckin' idea."
Then she had come back and found him. He hadn't even known she'd left the force and gone home to BunnyBurrow. He had just been moping around that day, just like he'd done all the previous days that week. Then, he heard her calling for him from the bridge. The elation he felt was unlike anything he had known in years. He'd desperately wanted to jump up and rush up there. He didn't, though. Instead, he panicked, fumbled around, plopped himself down into that ratty chair and tried to act cool just as she had poked her head over the side of the bridge. Walking away from her like that had been one of the hardest things he had ever done in his life.
When she pinned his badge to his chest just a few days ago, the look of swelling pride she gave him filled him with more satisfaction than the bright, crisp set of blues he was wearing ever could. That one simple thing had made it all worthwhile.
It wasn't that he had not had relationships before; he had plenty over the years. Not with any rabbits to be sure, but he had certainly never felt like this towards anyone else. The closest to this was his first, but thinking about it always left him with a sour taste in his mouth. It reminded him of when he'd been muzzled as a kit at his first scouts meeting.
He was done. He was done hiding all this. He didn't care that she was a rabbit. He didn't care that she was much younger than him. He had been willfully blinding himself or ignoring his feelings for months, and he couldn't do it anymore. I love her, he finally admitted to himself, and I have for a long time. Time to start acting like it.
"Nick I-" Judy started to say when Nick didn't continue, but that brought Nick out of his reverie and he continued talking as if he had never stopped.
"It's funny," he said, his eyes locking with hers again, "I've never been one to believe in fate or destiny. Then I think about all the little events that had to happen for us to meet that day and I have to wonder. If just one had been different, just one, we would never have met." He searched her eyes, grinning as her nose wriggled like it did when her attention was tightly focused. "Just one, Judy," he said.
Judy sucked in a small breath.
Nick never called her Judy. In fact, the only time he recalled using her name was after that plunge at Cliffside, and she had not even heard that. It was always Carrots, Fluff, or Officer Hopps if he was sarcastic, but never Judy. Its use was a bit calculated on his part, but it had the intended effect.
"Nick, I... think about that more than you know," she said after several moments of silence. Her eyes stayed steadfastly focused on his. "It feels like there was so much, I don't know, coincidence? But now, there's…"
"There's what?" he asked.
"There's no other mammal I'd rather be around than you," she finished. Nick thought her indigo eyes shimmered under the moonlight, and the intensity of her gaze forced him to break eye contact.
When what she said registered it nearly derailed his already shaky train of thought. His heart sped up even faster, if that were possible. His mind started running in circles trying to make sense of what was just said. Did what he had just heard mean what he thought it did or was he just making into what he wanted it to mean? A cold dread built in the pit of his stomach. This could just a prelude to the dreaded 'I like you as a friend' speech, the pessimist in him said, but it didn't sound like it. The dread was quickly replaced by a giddy thrill at the thought that it did mean what he hoped. He groaned and a paw slid to the back of his neck to unconsciously pull at the scruff of looser skin and fur. He blinked. Judy stood there, staring back at him with those wide amethyst eyes. Say something, Wilde!
"You… you do something to me," he said finally, "I don't understand how or why." He let his arm drop and laughed, looking up. "I mean me? Nick Wilde! The first fox police officer in the history of Zootopia, and to top it off, he's fallen for a rabbit? Tell that to anyone a year ago who knows me and they would call you a liar," he said then raised his arms, paws up, "Yet, here I am."
Judy opened her mouth to say something, but no sound would come out as she processed what he'd said. Her ears stood straight up as her heart raced.
He took a step closer to the now silent and frozen Judy. "You're the reason I am here. The reason I became a cop," he said, "I know you know that, but... well, sometimes this all seems like a dream to me." He barked out a nervous little laugh and shrugged, "You make me want to be better than I was, and the heavens help me I want you to be proud of me."
He clenched his jaw. He couldn't believe how sappy he was being. Finnick would give him so much crap if he saw this. This was so not him, or at least had not been him in a very long time. His vision began to swim, and he swallowed, steeling himself for what he was about to say. Now or never, Wilde, now or never.
Judy sniffled just audibly enough for Nick to hear. "Nick, I — of course I'm proud of you! What are you saying? Did you…" she said, before getting very quiet. "Did you do all of this for me?"
"Judy Hopps," he said slowly, unable to stop his voice from cracking just a little, "I love you. I love you, but I am terrified that you don't or can't love me."
Judy's jaw slowly dropped. Her heart, already racing in her chest, beat even faster. Tears started to gather in the corners of her own eyes as she stood there for a long moment, mutely returning Nick's wide-eyed stare. She blinked and closed her mouth, swallowed hard, and stepped forward. She cleared her throat and grabbed Nick's tie. She pulled him down to her as a smile formed on her lips.
"What was that one song Gazelle sung?" she asked, determination clawing its way into her voice. "The one she just finished singing at the end of the show?"
Nick stared at her dumbly, suddenly at a loss for words. "Er, 'Try Everything?'"
She touched her nose to his and looked straight into his eyes for a long second before quietly saying, "Exactly." Then, very slowly, she kissed him.
The ground beneath Nick may as well have vanished from under him. The moment her lips made contact with his, the only thing in his world was how soft she felt against him.
In the distance, an incredulous gruff voice could be heard.
"Is that Officer Hopps and Wilde?" it said.
There was a brief pause, then another voice spoke.
"O… M… GOODNESS!"