In all honesty, she should have seen it coming.
There was no way Nick could have gotten her and the suitcase of evidence out. Especially not when they were already worn out, with the aftereffects of their first adrenaline rush bleeding out after the madcap train ride. Foxes simply weren't built for that kind of endurance, and with Bellwether's goons surrounding them, she was simply a dead weight that Nick couldn't afford to carry.
She should have made him leave without her. She could have stalled them, bought him time to get out with the suitcase. In the worst case scenario, there would only be one casualty, and Bellwether would still be arrested with sufficient evidence to lock her away for years. She'd taken her police training seriously, and she knew that was the best option to take. She would've been remembered as the police bunny who died for the noble cause of stopping Bellwether.
But Nick wouldn't leave her, and between the time cramp and the excruciating pain, she had allowed him to drag her along in the botched escape attempt. They hadn't gotten very far. And now, trapped in an exhibition pit with the suitcase out of their possession, Judy would have smashed her head against the wall for sheer frustration. Or Nick's. She glared at him across the artificial foliage of the pit, before turning back to face Bellwether.
"What are you going to do, kill me?"
The sheep laughed, slowly opening the suitcase. "Oh, hohoho, no, of course not." The humor in her voice died. "He is." Nick and Judy's eyes met for a split second, instantly knowing what was going to happen even as Bellwether aimed the gun directly at Nick.
Nick dived; Judy screamed his name – the sphere clipped his cheek, the deceptively tiny blue streak black against his russet fur. The rest of the sphere's contents splattered across the artificial boulder behind them. But the damage was done. Nick collapsed, paws clawing at his face, gasping and squirming as the drug took effect. Judy cast a desperate glance at the tiny blue splatter on the boulder, hoping against all hope that it would be enough for her only real friend in Zootopia to fight off.
Nick heaved, trembling – the rabbit grabbed him, rubbing his back urgently. "Fight it, Nick," she pleaded. "Don't do this. Fight it."
"Oh but he can't help it, can he?" The sheep cackled, pacing around and watching the fox as he gasped. "Since preds are biologically predisposed to be savages."
"Nick, please," Judy whispered, as his heaving gasps slowly turned into growls, his claws digging furrows in the dirt that could just as easily be her own flesh. "Nick."
His eyes snapped open, and she stumbled back, startled. The fox's emerald gaze bored into her own, previously round pupils tightening into slits. For a moment Judy's heart stopped, the instinctual fear of her natural predator rising to her throat in a choking hold, even as she stared into the anguished eyes of her unlikely friend, unable to look away.
A whine escaped him, pitiful and broken.
Nick's voice turned into a growl, all recognition and memory of her bleeding away from his eyes. He got up to all fours, hackles raised and fangs bared in a menacing snarl. There was no sign of the laid-back smooth-talking fox she knew, only a feral, prowling predator presented with its prey. Injured prey.
He lifted his head, sniffing at the scent of her blood, and licked his lips, taking a step forward. The sweet, coppery scent of blood sang for him, and the temptation to just rip her apart was almost irresistible. Judy backed away, stumbling and dragging herself along as her leg gave out on her, terrified of the fox she no longer knew. But just as suddenly, Nick stopped. He let out a long, low whine, ducking his head and shaking it violently, his entire body trembling. No. No. Not her. Not Judy. His claws flexed, raking the ground, and far above them, Bellwether paused in her gleeful pacing, her eyes narrowed at the gasping fox valiantly fighting the effects of the drug. She had called the police, they would be here any moment – she was counting on Judy to be dead and silenced, and then she could have the savage fox put down for slaughter.
Except that it wasn't happening as fast as she thought it would.
Bellwether glared at the gun, a useless metal contraption now that its lone ammunition had been fired – the dosage hadn't been strong enough, and now she was running the risk of getting caught in her own trap. And yet she couldn't do anything herself – most unfortunately, foxes were also her own natural predator, and she was out of rounds.
Judy approached Nick slowly, carefully, heart thumping double time in her chest. The fox still had his head down, panting heavily, but with her movement, his head snapped up. His lips peeled back in a snarl, menacing and befitting of his surname. Before she could blink, all the air was knocked out of her lungs as Nick pounced, pinning her on her back by a heavy paw on her chest, the hot breath of the fox gusting around her throat.
The phantom sting of the claw marks across her cheek came back to her mind then, as she stared straight up, nose-to-nose with a vulpine snout. Pure fear, locking up her limbs, quickening her breath and her heartbeat. So this is how I'm going to die. And he could smell it, the primitive part of him responding to the scent of captured prey, his eyes hungrily surveying his prize, drifting up past her throat to her crystalline amethyst eyes-
Purple eyes, wide and angry when he slipped through her accusations with slick movements and slicker words, when he took her dreams and ground it into the pavement with his views of life's harsh reality.
Purple eyes, smug with satisfaction in her successful hustle of a long-time con man, Finnick's deep laugh in the background and his own slack-jawed disbelief as he stared at the clipboard in her paws.
Purple eyes, soft with emotion as he recalled his worst childhood memory, purple eyes filled with tears when she came back looking for him, when she hugged him-
Judy. This was Judy. Judy Goody-Two-Shoes Hopps. The little bunny with big dreams and bigger eyes.
He hesitated, staring down at her, fangs hovering a fraction of an inch over her throat. His torn, conflicted gaze locked with hers, as his conscious mind fought a violent battle against instinct. In a sudden surge of hope, Judy lifted a paw to his face, wide eyes pleading at the fox before her. "Nick. Nick, it's me. Judy. Carrots. Remember?"
Nick whined faintly, eyes falling to half-mast and leaning into her paw as she slowly started to scratch his ear.
"We met, in that elephant ice-cream store. You and Finnick. And I got you to help me with my case. And we met Mr. Big, and went to his daughter's wedding, and-"
The fox growled, softly, pressing down on her ribcage, and she had to gasp for breath. "And I saved you," she wheezed. "From Mr. Manchas – and you saved me – from-from losing my job-"
The wailing of a police siren and a sudden loud voice over a loudspeaker made everyone, including Bellwether and her goons, jump. "ZPD! Please remain a safe distance from the hazard for your own safety!" Loud thumping as the heavier members of the police force hurried in, and she could hear Chief Bogo's shout of "Judy!" as they spotted her, pinned under Nick with his jaws at her throat.
At the sudden noise, Nick's head snapped up with a snarling hiss, the delicate balance shattered and all traces of docility lost from his gaze. The paw on Judy's chest suddenly became excruciatingly heavy as Nick leaned his entire weight on her, turning back to her with jaws bared-
I'm sorry, Nick.
With her good leg, she kicked him square on the nose.
He yowled, recoiling, paws clamped over his bruised nose, even as the brief distraction allowed the ZPD's rhinos to swing down into the pit and restrain him. Amidst the chaos, Bellwether was making her escape, but Judy yelled out, loud enough for everyone to hear.
"Halt! In the name of the law! Dawn Bellwether, you are hereby under arrest for spearheading an insurgency against predators, substance abuse and for causing major civil disorder!"
The sheep stopped dead, and turned around, a perfect mask of concern over her face. "Oh, my, whatever are you talking about, Judy dear? Might this savage fox have hit you in the head? You might need to get yourself checked over at the hospital." She made a dismissive gesture at a squirming Nick, who was in the process of being bound and muzzled. With a pang Judy remembered how Nick hated muzzles, and his anguished expression broke her heart.
But comforting Nick would have to come later. Fishing out her carrot pen, she pressed the play button on the recording and held it up for everyone to hear. As Bellwether's voice and incriminating words rang through the empty museum, Bellwether and her goons backed away from the trio of stern, massive police officers surrounding them. A polar bear officer held up a pair of handcuffs.
"You have the right to remain silent."
Judy loved her carrot pen.
Judy spent the next two days in and out of the hospital, having her leg checked and bandaged. Fortunately it wasn't too serious, but she was stuck with a crutch and a limp for the next two weeks or so while she recovered, and Chief Bogo had given her a "well-deserved" fortnight off (no arguments) for her stellar performance, partly also because the headquarters would be swarmed by reporters otherwise. Not that she really stayed out of the office – she was there occasionally to fill in the case reports and the growing stack of paperwork that needed her attention, and Clawhauser was easy to bribe. A few donuts and Bogo would be none the wiser while the workaholic bunny slipped in and out with armfuls of documents.
Bogo was handling the press, which was an unexpected relief – after her first mess-up on the podium she had kinda gotten a phobia of public speaking. It was just as well – between her visits to the hospital for physiotherapy and dropping in to the office, she needed the time to rest.
As she finished filing the papers, Judy picked up her crutch and limped out of her cubicle, shooting a smile to her neighboring tiger and receiving a thumbs-up in return. Her phone rang in her pocket while she was passing through the lobby, and she paused, propping herself against the crutch while she fished out her phone. "Hello?"
"Hello? Is this Officer Judy Hopps?" A female voice came through the line. "This is the Zootopia Hospital."
The bunny blinked. "…Yes, Hopps speaking. What is it? Did I miss an appointment?" She had been impeccable with her physiotherapy appointments, jotting them down in her calendar, but she could possibly have missed one.
"Oh, no, it's not that." There was a pause. "It's about one…" Rustling of papers. "Nick Wilde, a fox currently in our care."
She froze. Nick. Last she heard, he'd been unconscious, sedated and tied down in his hospital bed with a muzzle locked firmly over his jaws. It was a pitiful sight, but she had only been allowed a glance and the assurance that he was fine before she was shooed out of the ward. Nick wasn't being kept in confined cages as the other savage predators were, and Judy guessed it was because of his significantly lower levels of aggression. He was the safest victim to keep under observation, and thanks to him and his blood samples, development of an antidote was already well underway. It hadn't saved the fox from being trussed up though, as precautionary measures for the safety of the doctors and nurses working around him.
"What about him? Is he alright?" Judy asked tightly, concern heavy in her tone. The first thing that came to mind was Nick attacking one of the nurses, and the second one was that something had happened to Nick himself, might it be another unknown side-effect of the drug or something equally lethal. Neither was a very comforting thought. Either way, the fact that the receptionist would think to call her with any news spoke volumes about how much others were aware of their oddball partnership.
"No need to worry, officer, he's perfectly fine. I'm calling to let you know that he's mostly awake now, and calm to an extent. His doctor believes it would be good for him to work on some… more civilized interaction with people he's familiar with, to observe how much damage the drug may have done considering the smaller dose he's gotten."
"…Oh." Judy deflated in relief, then perked up. "Will I be allowed to see him?"
"Of course," replied the receptionist, with a mild hint of amusement in her voice. "Mr. Wilde doesn't have any friends or family in Zootopia, not that we know of, and you would be the next best candidate. It's the reason why we are calling you. If you're alright with this arrangement, I'll let you know that visiting hours are from 10am to 8pm, and do let us know beforehand so we can schedule for your visit-"
"I'll come right now." Judy started up again, limping towards the exit of the ZPD headquarters with a newfound enthusiasm. "Is that alright?"
Another sound of rustling papers. "Yes, that will be alright. I'll inform Dr. Buck right away. Come straight up to Ward 12-B on the second floor once you arrive."
"Excellent. Thank you!" the bunny breathed, and hung up. Nick sounded like he was doing well, and she was anxious to know if anything had changed since she last saw him.
Nick looked peaceful, almost serene, dressed in a hospital gown and covered in a white sheet, if not for the sturdy leather straps around his wrists and ankles, and across his chest. The black muzzle was dark against his russet fur, its purpose ominous and chilling to imagine. Judy limped into the ward, quietly closing the door behind her, and the fox's eyes opened at the faint sound.
Vibrant green stared into bright amethyst for a long moment, before Nick's gaze drifted down to her crutch and her bandaged leg. Judy followed his gaze, then looked up again at him. "Yeah, it's me, Judy the dumb bunny with an injured leg." She laughed awkwardly. "How are you?"
The fox stared at her for a long moment, silent and pensive. His claws raked across the surface of his bed, wrists straining against the bindings, and the mournful look in his eyes was tenfold more miserable behind the straps of the black leather muzzle. The bunny approached him slowly, and sat down on the chair at his bedside, propping her crutch against the wall.
Nick was in a special ward, with large panel windows and surveillance cameras. The bunny was aware that they were being observed, despite being given a semblance of privacy. Dr. Buck, an antelope, had spoken to her about Nick before letting her into the ward.
"He gets… restless when our nurses approach him, but otherwise he's made no serious attempt to break free of the restraints. He responds to his name, but aside from that, we can't be sure, as far as we know he's not capable of any coherent communication. He's tense most of the time while he's awake, especially when he's not alone, so we've occasionally sedated him to get him to relax and prevent muscle cramping. There's a morphine pack attached to his IV drip, so if you need to get him to calm down, the button's next to the stand."
Nick's fidgeting grew more intense at the proximity, his eyes darting over her and around and away. It was somewhat unsettling. Talk to him, the doctor had said, and Judy swallowed back her apprehension and placed a paw on his arm. He stilled at her touch, breathing heavily, eyes riveted on the bunny next to him.
"Hey, Nick," she started awkwardly. "They didn't let me visit the last few days, so I… didn't really get the chance see you. I hoped you were alright, though. I was in and out of the hospital myself, for my leg." She laughed breathlessly, and lifted her leg to show it to Nick. "Muscle tear but fortunately no nerve damage. The bunny officer isn't going to be able to hop for a while."
Nick blinked slowly, scrutinizing her bandaged leg for a moment before fixing his gaze back on her eyes. "Bellwether's awaiting her trial, it's scheduled on the coming weekend," Judy continued. "I heard she's due for life behind bars, if everything goes well. And it's thanks to us." She smiled. "We're heroes in Zootopia now, y'know? Chief Bogo told the press about what was going on, and all the preds are in the clear now."
Nick made a soft whining noise deep in his throat, and the bunny reached forward to scratch his ear. "It's okay, Nick. I haven't said anymore dumb stuff to the press. Probably a good move." Her wandering fingers came into contact with the muzzle, and another pang shot though her chest at the memory of Nick's childhood story. The misery in his eyes as he recalled the day was saddening to behold, and if he was in any way lucid right now, he was most definitely miserable after days of wearing it. Judy glanced at the morphine button. Just in case. If anything, it was the least she could do for him. Standing up, she ran her fingers over the leather, searching for the clasp. "C'mon, I'll take this off for you."
At that, Nicked jerked abruptly, throwing off her paw. It startled Judy, and in the moment she flinched back from him, the fox ducked his head in the other direction, away from her. As Judy stared at her paw, then at him in shock, the fox shrank away as much as he was able to, shaking like a leaf in the wind.
"…Nick?" She got up, and reached out a paw for his face. He flinched, and whined as she gently pulled his head back so he would face her. His expression was tortured, as if the muzzle was something he hated, and yet taking it off was something he hated even more. "Nick, are you alright? What's going on?"
His emerald eyes lowered and slid to the side, refusing to meet her gaze. She could feel his jaw clenching and unclenching, and when he met her eyes again, his gaze was baleful and full of guilt.
I don't want to hurt you.
"Oh, Nick," she breathed softly, and hugged him as best as she could. He shivered at her touch, breath heavy and eyes downcast, but otherwise didn't respond. Judy stayed for as long as she could, until a nurse came in to tell her that it was time to go.
Nick wouldn't let her touch the muzzle at all that day.
The prototype cure was announced two days later, and Nick would be the first of the afflicted predators to get the shot. They were all to be put under in an attempt to avoid any difficult side-effects, as the cure neutralized the mess the Night Howler drug had done to their mental systems. Nick had gotten the shot the night before, and when Judy visited him again in the morning, the fox was sleeping off the anesthesia peacefully. The restraints hadn't been removed, just in case the cure didn't take effect, but Judy had been told that if he woke up while she was there and the cure had worked, freeing him herself was perfectly acceptable.
Sitting down on the edge of his bed, Judy reached out to hold his paw. Rubbing the pads of his fingers between her own, her skin came into contact with something hard and decidedly sharp. A light press on his paw revealed what she guessed them to be: his claws. Judy wasn't sure how to feel – she wasn't surprised that they were there, on the contrary, it was only natural; though somewhere deep down she did hope that he might have clipped them, or trimmed them. Even if it was just so she could reassure herself that Nick wasn't anything like Gideon Grey. Absently, she rubbed at the old scars on her cheek, already faded with time and covered by fur.
"'Ryu imaginin' how a ring'd look on there? Wu've barely known each other a week, c'mon. Bunnies. Alw'ss thinkin 'bout multiplyin."
Judy's head snapped up at the muffled and sluggish voice. Nick was blinking slowly, bleary eyes adjusting to the light. "Nick!" There was a blur of grey fur, and an "oof" as the rabbit all but launched herself at him in a huge hug. "I am so so glad you're okay," she breathed, squeezing him tight. "I was so worried."
"Mm glad mm okay too." Nick grunted. "But won't be fur long if you don't git off-"
"Oh, oh I'm so sorry!" Judy let go of him, and the fox inhaled a much-needed breath. The bunny set herself to work on the leather restraints, unbuckling the clasps and pulling them loose. With her help, Nick propped himself up into a sitting position, massaging the places where the leather had cut into his flesh. The muzzle was still there, and a silence fell as Nick reached up, his paw slowly ghosting across the black leather wrapped around his face. And yet he didn't rip it off, not like Judy fully expected him to, only running his fingers over the muzzle wordlessly, sober and deep in his own thoughts.
Judy scooted closer, and held his head so she could turn him to face her, just like she did the last time she visited. "Let me get that for you," she said softly, and he looked up at her. Hesitant. The bunny just smiled, and as she reached for the buckle, Nick's own paws dropped to his lap, quiescent and compliant. With a tug, the muzzle came off, and Judy set it aside on the bedside table, even as the fox rubbed his face, like he was trying to get the feel of the muzzle off his skin.
"Dr. Buck says-" Judy started, but Nick interrupted her. "Did I hurt anyone?" he asked, a haunted look in his eyes. "Did I hurt you? I – I don't remember everything, just parts, here… and there… the rest was just a haze-" He glanced at her leg again, looking like he about to start having a mental breakdown, and she had to hug him to get him to calm down.
"It's okay, Nick. You didn't hurt anyone." She scratched his ear soothingly. "Everyone's okay."
The fox stared at her neck, remembering how close he had been to snapping it in his jaws. "Are you-"
"I'm fine, Nick." She pulled back a little to give him a smile. "A little scared, at the time, but fine."
He relaxed, and let out a heavy breath. "Just a little scared?" His voice was almost teasing now. "Even when the big bad fox had you pinned down?"
"Okay, I was really scared," she admitted with a laugh, and hugged him again. "I thought I was going to die. But hey, I didn't! So all's well that ends well."
"Maybe not…" She looked up to see a wicked grin on his face, and looked up higher to see her carrot pen in his grasp, high up out of her reach."
"I was really scared. I thought I was going to die."
"Officer Hopps, the first and only bunny officer on the ZPD, rescuer of Zootopia, scared."
"How did you-!"
"It is going to be fantastic when I play this on loudspeaker in the ZPD."
"No you don't, give it back!"
"For a price," Nick grinned. "And no, you're not allowed to hit me with your elephant tranquilizer, I'm in a sickbed for heaven's sakes."
Judy huffed in resignation. "Fiiiine. I'll kick you after you get out of the hospital then. What do you want?"
"Fair enough." The fox grinned, and pointed to his cheek. "Twenty kisses. No skimping."
"Ah-ah, no taking back your word!"
All's well that ends well.