3:31 pm, September 18th
Something felt right, which was decidedly wrong; nothing was ever right. It started, unlike so many other times, with a gentle drift into perception. It was true that there was nothing to see - nothing but a void of darkness - as Nick felt himself float, but despite the weightlessness of his body, he could not find it in himself to believe it was urgent to open his eyes, to see where he was or what made him feel so light. Instead, he happily allowed himself to wallow in the feeling. It was not unlike the hot-spring baths in Koslov's Palace, enveloping him in a cradling warmth that forced his muscles to relax.
Perhaps a younger version of the fox, even by just a couple weeks, would have felt himself flung into a panic at the relaxing sensation, recognizing how dangerous it was to feel such a way in the life he led. No such feeling took him, nor did it even cross his mind, as he continued to float through the warmth of the void. It far too comforting for his already weary mind to fight, and it guided him without resistance, filling him with a sense of belonging that rested unusually pleasant in his chest. It was like all worry had evaporated out of him, and all that was left was his body being carried along aimlessly by the invisible force of comfort.
Soon, Nick found himself recognizing his orientation, feeling like he was lying backwards against some intangible object, though still floating through the air. A part of him wanted to believe it would never end, but as the time dragged on, so did his drifting form float downwards. The first corporeal feeling that he was made aware of was of him sinking into something soft beneath him, followed by something rigid coming up to press itself into his back, propping him up into a sitting position. As he settled into the newfound notion of sitting down, Nick found his environment becoming clearer by the second, the most substantial feeling being the dull warmth pressed into his side and chest.
Over a long period of time, distinct sounds began to emerge from the void around him. Soft and muffled at first, they grew into steady rhythms, filling the fox's pointy ears with the sounds of the ocean. The waves cascaded down onto the shoreline a very short distance away, retreating away only to come back again in an endless tempo of gentle sound. From where he lie, the sounds of long, fibrous leaves swaying in the cool air played like a melody above him. Everything was reminiscent in a way that made him immediately think he was lying on the beach, though with how brisk the ocean air became as his mind cleared, it could not have been day.
Through his eyelids, a faint blue glow faded into existence, finally bringing to an end the illusion of a void, and replacing it with the realistic perception of a seashore treeline bathed in the cold light of the moon. Nick's eyes parted drowsily, and the fox found his vision filled with the breathtaking view of the night's sky. Stars of all sizes shimmered against the dark blue background, the full moon shining brightly down on him. It was as if there was no light in the world, and he could see the beautiful sight unobstructed by the pollution of society. With his sensitive eyes, he could see the whole environment in crisp, sapphire-tinted clarity.
The beach that Nick found himself on was unbelievably tropical; white sand, towering palms, and the ocean stretching in every direction filled his sight. He became immediately aware that the rigid object he was leaning against was the base of an enormous palm, and he could feel the trunk bow with the force of the wind, swaying above him. Feeling curious, he lowered his eyes down towards his side, wondering what could be the source of the warmth still buried in his side. To his surprise, to was Judy, sleeping happily against him, wearing a billowy white blouse and denim shorts against his rough, flowery collar shirt and turquoise trunks.
As if roused by his studying eyes, she moaned into his side, rolling her head around to look up at him lazily. She was sitting right next tim him under the gigantic palm, but all her weight had been bestowed upon his side, and her arms had wrapped around his chest as far as they could go in her slumber. A sleepy smile stretched up to her lidded eyes, matching the fox's similar expression. "You look like you slept well," Nick commented, chuckling at her.
Judy hummed, turning back into him. "You're one to talk," she replied breathily.
Nick's nose absently lowed to the top of her head as he watched her, and his snout found itself buried into her crown, causing her to giggle at him. "Quit it, you dumb fox," she said, not sounding the slightest bit serious in her demand, spurring Nick into nuzzling into her further. "If someone sees us they are going to think something weird."
Pulling away slightly to look at her, Nick cocked an eyebrow. "Who's going to see us out here, Carrots?" he asked. Forcing himself to look away, he studied his surrounding only to find that he was still nestled in a tropical treeline facing the ocean. There were no signs of civilization around, and he really didn't think there were mammals squatting in the brush, spying on them. "We've got the whole beach to ourselves," Nick said sluggishly, looking back down at the rabbit draped over his chest.
"Beach?" Judy's head turned against him again, and she looked up at him inquisitively, her eyebrows tinted up on her forehead in amusement. "What are you talking about?"
Nick's smile diminished slightly as she studied him. His head rose up to look around, doubt coming to his mind. "The beach that we're on?" he asked, his brow furrowing in confusion.
Giggling into his side, a smile split the doe's face as she closed her eyes. "Oh, sweet cheese and crackers," Judy replied, only barely being able get the words out as she laughed. "Earth to Nick!" Suddenly, a disembodied force started patting him on the top of his head, making his ears swivel backwards as a frown stole away his lips. "It's time to wake up!"
Nick's eyes shot open, and his vision was filled with the polishes sheen of orange colored steel. Immediately, the gentle sounds of nature and the beach had been replaced by the trains loud bouncing on the tracks, and the high-pitched hum of the engines slicing the locomotive through the air. Feeling more than a little aware that he was staring at the wall of the train, his eyes shifted upwards to view the bottom edge of a passenger window, long streaks of rain rolling horizontally across the glass in the momentum. The next thing he became aware of was that he was resting his chin on his folder arms, which were propped up on an overturned, small suitcase with carrots sewn into the face.
He was lying across the entire padded bench seat, stretched flat over the green material and using the suitcase for a pillow. Suddenly, he felt the paw that had been resting on his head move, and a padless finger started twirling in circles around a tuft of his fur, a dull claw lightly scraping across his scalp. Nick hummed deeply at the motion, recognizing it immediately as Judy's absentmindedly restless behavior. His eyes slid back closed as he flopped his chin back down onto his forearms, moving his hind paws back and forth to stretch out his legs. While he may have been using the suitcase as a quasi-pillow, it was quite clear to him, by the warmth in his chest and side, that she was sitting in the middle of the bench seat, under him.
"I fell asleep, did I?" he asked, keeping his eyes shut. Nick found it hard to believe, yet the evidence was right there in front of him by way of the fact that he just woke up. More than that, though, he felt himself troubled by his dream. He could honestly not remember a night that wasn't either enveloped in an exhausted, dreamless sleep or a horror show of imagery. It wasn't even the subject of his dream that made his brow furrow, though it was worth noting, it was the the fact that it wasn't a nightmare which gave him pause.
"You did," Judy replied lazily. Her finger continued to trace circles on his head, keeping a tuft of his fur separate from all the rest. Nick became aware of her other paw, resting between his shoulder blades, and he peeking out at the metal in front of him with one eye cracked open. "You talk in your sleep a lot."
Nick's head tilted to the side, so that he was resting on his cheek, and he looked over his shoulder at the rabbit in the corner of his vision. He smiled warmly at her with his lidded eyes. "I need to stop doing that."
Smiling back, she flashed the tips of her buck teeth at him. "Why?" she asked, bringing her shoulders up her long neck and fluttering her eyelashes at him. Judy brought the paw she had resting on Nick's back up to place over her heart theatrically. "I think it's sweet that you're dreaming about me and you on a beach."
Nick snorted loudly, his lips curling upwards as he lazily dropped his chin back onto his forearms, closing his eyes. "I have no idea what you're talking about, Carrots," he replied, taking to looking like he was going back to sleep, though he was very much awake. He had no intention of getting off Judy any sooner than he had to, and found himself wallowing in the feeling much like he'd done in his dream. Her powerful thighs against his chest and her stomach pressed into his side was enough to feel like a furnace of warmth. "I was dreaming about scamming a hippopotamus with a couple crows I painted to look like yellow-billed oxpeckers."
Judy hummed back at him, her paw having followed the motion of his head while still drawing her circle over and over. Nick felt her other arm drop back down onto his back, abandoning her show. "That was a strange dialogue you were having with that hippo," she teased him.
"What can I say?" he asked, raising his eyebrows without opening his eyes. Nick flicked his ears on his head for effect, swishing them back and forth quickly to hit Judy in her wrist. "Sometimes I'm too charming for my own good." Pulling his arms closer together, he stuck his nose down below his elbow, pushing it up against the canvas material on Judy's suitcase. He covertly breathed in a long take of air, catching the scents of her room, old wood, and her all intertwined into the carrots patterned suitcase. With Judy's scent filling his sense in the first time since the loft, he felt that much more calm.
"Uh-huh," she replied sarcastically, lightly batting at the ear that had hit her. Judy stopped circling her finger on his scalp, instead just resting the padless pad across his head, right at the base of his right ear. Nick could tell she was thinking about something, but could only guess what. After a moment, she ran her dull black claws through his fur where she had rifled it, smoothing it back into its natural position. "We're almost there," Judy said softly, halting her combing, much to Nick's disappointment, and taking to just running her paw flatly across the top of his head. "Maybe you should actually start getting up."
Nick's smile diminished slowly as her words sunk in. "Oh," he replied flatly. It took every piece of willpower he had to pushing himself up. As soon as his chest lifted off her legs, the chilly air of the train was sucked into his shirt, robbing him of everything but the lingering warmth in his fur. He sat back into the seat next to Judy, who was sitting in the middle, close to him, and looked through the windows of the locomotive. They had already entered the city, and from the sights of the sprawling low buildings of Savannah Central, he could tell they were almost there. "Would you look at that? I slept for a long time."
Humming next to him, and looking a little disappointed herself, Judy looked up into his lidded eyes. "Well…" she said, her voice trailing off with a half-hearted shrug. "You looked really tired, so I'm glad." Nick returned her gaze with a few small nods, sharing in her sentiment. However strange it might be, he felt more rested than he had since sleeping in the loft. "Did you stay up all night or something?" Judy asked him, patting her jeans and rubbing her paws into her thighs to try to maintain the dissipating heat.
A thoughtful breath left the fox's snout as he looked back over the city. If he were to guess, they had maybe ten minutes before they reached Central Station. He sincerely doubted that they would have a welcoming party of undesirables, but there was no recounting the possibility. There had been photographers waiting just outside the museum, after all, and Nick never even caught their scent. "You could say I was putting a bow on my old life," he replied, wondering if they should take the maintainance exit through the staff section. "Crossing the T's, dotting the I's, that sort of thing."
Judy nodded slowly, her erect ears swishing in front of Nick's face as he stared out their window. "I'm glad," she said, the beginnings of a yawn taking hold. Before she could stop it, she sucked in a breath as her jaw extended its full length, Nick looking down into her own dangerous looking maw. Judy's enormous buck teeth and rounded herbivorous nubs shone proudly on display as she stuck her arms up into the air, accidently smacking Nick in his chin as she did so. She clamped her jaw shut and retracted her arms to her chest swiftly, her ears dropping behind her as she looked up at Nick with wide eyes.
She extended her paws to help, but Nick just raised his own into the air, stopping her as he rubbed his chin with the other. He chuckled at her expression, moving the paw that was rubbing his chin down to run his claws through the fur of his neck. "You look tired yourself, Fluff," he commented dryly, looking down at her with a raised eyebrow. "Did I make it hard for you to get some sleep yourself?"
A paw shot behind her head to nervously smooth down one of her ears, her nose twitching rapidly as she gave him an embarrassed smile. "Oh, no," she said, waving her other paw through the air out in front of the pair. "You were fine." When she was done getting over the fact that she had hit him in the face on accident, her rich eyes took on the expression of lidded contemplation as she glanced away from the fox. "I was just thinking... About a lot of things."
Nick studied her behavior with his own lidded eyes, drinking in her little movements and twitches. He could tell something was bothering her, and he didn't think it was her leg. Another thing he noticed was how she had started avoiding looking at him. Cocking an eyebrow he continued to regard her in the lull between them. Nick felt his paws being drawn to his pockets. He wanted to show her the contents of his pockets, the carrots pen and the flexible rectangular shape, but he decided to wait a little bit more, weaving his paws together on his lap. "Are you nervous?" he asked her, tilting his head forward.
Finally looking up into his green eyes, she smiled warmly at him, the curl in her lips bringing her eyelids closed just a tad. "About going back to work?" she asked before waving her paw through the air dismissively. "Nah." Judy turned back to look out over the angular juttings of brick and concrete, power lines criss-crossing like spiderwebs over the bustling streets. The city's life had returned to it in the week since the revelations about their mayor, and life had all but returned to normal. "I think I'm just worried about being back in the public eye. I just really don't want to screw up again."
Nick accepted that answer, though he still believed there was something else going on. Nodding in understanding, he tapped her on the shoulder lightly, making her look back up at him with raised eyebrows. "You'll do great, Carrots," he said, a genuine smile keeping a firm grasp on his muzzle. Rolling his head around his shoulders in thought, he finally shrugged, not having been able to find something more reassuring than his immediate thought. "Just smile and pose for the pictures; that's the only thing that matters when it comes to public relations. Everything else they'll just make up, spin, or take out of context to support what they already believe."
Judy puffed out her cheeks as her eyelids dropped halfway down, ears flopping back behind her. "That's a very cynical thing to say," she replied flatly. Nick watched her for a moment, staring out into the cityscape absently, her mind obviously far away.
Chewing on the inside of his lip, he wondered whether she didn't appreciate the sentiment, or she just didn't appreciate it was him espousing it. Something told Nick that whatever was distracting her probably had to do with him, and he was not helping. "Doesn't make it wrong," he said, but she did not reply. Again he found himself wondering about how she would react to the contents of his pockets. Part of him believed she would be overjoyed, but something else, coupled with her thoughtful demeanor, felt worried. His life had prepared him for the worst, but that preparation would feel wholly inadequate in the face of her rejection.
A pensive sigh escaped the fox's muzzle, and his lips found themselves curling downward. Nick threw his arm over her shoulders and brought her in closer, making her finally look up at him. "Look…" he drawled out, attempting to capture her unmitigated attention, and by the way her eyes seemed to lose their strain, he guessed he was successful. "Your intentions are good, and that's all that counts. Mammals arguing on the sidelines while you do all the work? Forget about them. They're not worth your attention."
Judy looked down at her lap, her ears smushed up to the back of her neck with the weight of Nick's forearm. "You say that now," she replied, wringing her paws together. "What do we do if there are reporters?"
A lazy smile crept up his muzzle. "Just smile and pose."
Snorting, the doe looked up into his emerald eyes drolly. "That won't end up in a tabloid," she replied sarcastically.
The way she said it made the fox pause, his eyes narrowing slightly without his smile following suit. She seemed to catch the shift in his face, and immediately looked away, out into the deluge of water. Nick didn't move, despite the relative intimacy of their position, though he was beginning to think he should. "Does it bother you?" he asked, carefully pulling his arm up off her shoulders.
Without looking at him, her paws shot up to stop his retreat, grabbing onto both sides of his forearm. Nick watched her guide him back onto her shoulders slowly, laying it down across herself. She pulled it closer, so that his elbow was situated at the back of her neck and the rest of his arm was draped down over her chest. "It bothers me no matter what they're saying," she replied softly, her eyes falling down onto his orange fur hooking around her neck. "It's got nothing to do with the context."
They sat in silence for a moment, Nick watching her weave her paws around his wrist gingerly, keeping the appendage in place. She held it with just enough force to tell him she didn't want him to move, and he found no reason to object. It was still strange to him how easy it was to let her into his personal space when he had spent the last twenty years keeping it so closed off from others, but it was almost irresistible in how relaxing it was. He had practically starved himself of contact, and now that he had it, he couldn't help but indulge in the feeling of closeness. He hadn't really felt it in a very long time, and the enticing comfort that Judy gave him was more than a little alluring.
For whatever reason, Nick was reminded again of his grandfather, and his teachings about edges and roundness. Going far beyond shunning the debilitating affects of mind altering substances and what he called 'spineless' beliefs, his grandfather had warned him against one thing above all other: the disarming ruination brought on by comfortable companionship. He likened it to a blight that could ruin a mammal in mere minutes. The greatest rounding force, he had said, is yourself, and something that could make you want to be round, even for a moment, was a weapon you would use against your own mind.
The world is full of stuff like that, Nick could hear in a muddied voice near the back of his mind. Most of it whispers sweet things into your ear until it's too late, and then you know how you didn't just lose control, you practically gave it away. It was bizarre to think he had been right, in a way, but what was even more bizarre was how much he didn't care that he was right, and was actually unbelievably thankful. The truth was he had found something that made him want to be round, but it wasn't just for her. She made him realize that he could break the cycle of foxes falling into the trap of expectation, and it wasn't a weapon to be used against his mind, it was a tool he could use to better his mind - better the world - even just by a tiny bit.
Nick pulled her in closer, looking through the windows of the train to see Central Plaza rapidly approaching, the towering majesty of city hall stretching high into the air in front of the vast heights of downtown. "You'll get used to the celebrity treatment eventually," he informed her, an amused smile spreading up his lips. "Just give it time."
Snorting, Judy released her hold on his wrist to hug it in earnest, scooting herself closer into his side. "If I ever do," she replied, seriousness laced throughout her words. "You've got to smack me out of it."
A dry chuckle escaped the fox as a toothy smile split his face. "That won't end up in a tabloid," he repeated back to her, playfully.
The train pulled upwards on an elevated track, rising further above the brick buildings of northern Savannah Central. It was more the south and southwest side that held the orangish tint of the savannah it was modeled after. The northeast reaches around downtown reminded the fox of pictures he had seen of other cities, of gentrified apartments and elegant architecture. Although it was not widely considered to be a part of downtown, Nick had always believed the fairly cosmopolitan atmosphere coupled with the characterless buildings seemed like an extension of the towering heights of glass and steel.
Rounding a corner, the train sailed over an enormous mammal-made park, complete with fields of grass and trees. Tracks from all directions fed into the space, all curving naturally above Lake Zootopia, a masterful construction of mammalian design. It was a mammal-made lake in the shape of a seven-pronged palm tree, the length of several stadiums from base to tip. The tracks all fed into the grandiose open back of Zootopia Central Station, which, from the air, looked like the trunk of the massive palm. In the muted light of the storm, it looked even larger than it normally did, the station blurring in the distance behind the ribbons of falling water.
By the time the train was sailing over the deep waters of the concrete framed lake, Nick could see the flowery walkways on the inside of the station through the magnificent open back. The three archways that allowed for both locomotive and pedestrian travel were brightly lit from the interior lights, and the spiralling horns that flanked both corners were awash in glistening light from the many gleaming windows throughout the city. They disentangled themselves and Nick jumped off the seat just as the arching roof with a pillared wall of windows following the curve passed overhead, and the train slowly started coming to a stop just as it was shielded from the rain.
Stretching out his cramped legs and reaching his arms up as far as they would go, the fox let out a strained grunt before sighing in pleasure as he deflated. Nick turned back to retrieve the suitcase, but paused when he saw Judy rubbing her leg with a narrow look. "Is your leg bothering you?" he asked, tearing his eyes from her legs to meet her turning eyes.
"It's fine," she replied, though her frown and rougher massaging told him that was a lie. "You just slept on it funny and it's acting up."
Nick felt his ears drop back against his head. He was fairly upset that he had draped himself across her lap without even giving a passing thought to the fact that her leg had been badly injured. Trading his vision between her attempted look of sincerity and her fervent massage, he felt a frown take his face. "Can you walk?"
Scoffing, Judy gave in an incredulous glance before returning her eyes to her leg. "Of course I can walk."
He watched her for a moment, noting that the train had all but come to a stop already. Glancing around, he could see the other passengers already leaving their seats, several of whom shooting strange looks in their direction, which he ignored. Gazing back at the doe who was now attempting to grab her crutch without putting any strain on her leg, Nick made a split-second decision. He wasn't about to see her struggle to get across the platform on her return to the city, and certainly didn't like seeing her in pain. The option that immediately came to mind, the idea coming from one of her own siblings, made him think they were about to get stared at even more than they already had.
Nick flopped back down next to her, reaching over and snatching the crutch away from her reach and leaning back into the seat. Judy's brow furrowed as she looked into his eyes, silently demanding why he had just taken away her only means of mobility. The fox just smiled wickedly at her in turn. "How about you take a ride on the 'ol Wilde Express?" he asked, hooking a thumb up at his shoulder.
For a moment, Judy looked confused by the suggestion, as if he had spoken gibberish. "What?" she asked, not a trace of understanding in her tone. Almost instantly, however, revelation struck her like a lightning bolt, and her jaw dropped open to reveal her buck teeth as she stared, wide-eyed, at him. Judy reeled back in surprise, shaking her head fervently. "No!" she said a little louder than she should have, making her paws shoot up to her mouth as she glanced around.
Nick cocked an eyebrow at ther reaction, more amused than hurt. He payed no attention to the environment she had suddenly found herself absorbed in studying, and leaned in closer, his lidded eyes and lazy smile inching slowly towards her nervous expression. Soon, she could ignore his closeness no longer, and found her wide, amethyst eyes snapping to meet his gaze, her nose twitching endlessly, though she continued to lean away from him. "Let me pay you back for being a wonderful pillow." His voice rumbled out of his throat lowly, and he tilted his head slightly to the side the closer he got, stopping when there was just a short distance between them. "Come on, Carrots. It's just to the taxi."
Judy's eyes shifted from surprise to bewilderment, and then swiftly to irritation. Before the fox could think to retreat from the rabbit, her paws shot up from where they had been close to her chest, and clasped around his muzzle titly, sealing them shut. Nick's smile was almost instantly replaced with a frown as she pulled his snout downward to push her eyes as close as they could be to his own without their faces touching. "Yeah, and through the whole Central Station platform!" she whispered back harshly. "Do you have any idea what they'll be saying if they spot us like that?"
The smile that had vanished crept its way back over his tightly closed muzzle. "Again with this?" he managed to asked despite her hold on his jaw. Judy let him go and he pulled himself back up, though he still maintained a fairly small distance between them. "Fluff, you've got to stop worrying about what other mammals think of you." She made no sign that what he was saying was getting through, and he let out a drawn out sigh. "That's their problem," he said, waving his paw out the window before pointing at the doe beside him. "Not yours." Judy just stared at him blankly, searching his eyes.
Upon seeing that she still did not react in any way that he would describe as consideration of his words, he sighed loudly, dropping his paw down on the seat between them. Nick brought up his other paw to scratch the cream colored fur of his neck just as the train finally came to a halt in the station. A tone played over the rail car's speakers as he gave her a thoughtful gaze, and he brought his voice down to a husky whisper. "Do you remember my mantra?"
Judy nodded her head slowly, her large, lavender eyes shifting between the fox and the automatic train doors sliding open, though Nick showed no sign of seeing it. "'Never let them see that they get to you'?" she finally asked, looking up at him thoughtfully with her ears raising up above her.
Nodding in response with his lidded eyes still regarding her, Nick glanced over her head to see the bustling platform, full of mammals going in every direction. "That's the one," he replied, his eyes turning back to meet her gaze. Jerking his head in the direction of the window as he waved his paw at the hoard of mammal, he caused Judy to follow the motion, looking out into the busy platform, which caused her brow to only furrow more. "If you're going to walk on that leg all the way through the platform, keeping me at arm's length, just because of what some mammals might say, you are letting them see that they got to you."
She still didn't looked convinced, but when her eyes snapped back to look at him with newfound concern, instead of plain opposition, he regarded her more carefully. "What about you?" she asked, bringing up a paw to place on his arm softly. "Do you really not care that they might write about you like that?" It was her turn to see no reaction from the fox, and she darted her eyes between his, searching. "Remember the paper the other day?"
"I remember," Nick replied flatly. Taking in a deep breath, he glanced around the orange carriage. The fox saw that new passengers were beginning to board. "I think it's high time I stopped caring what other mammals think of me, too." Looking back down at the bunny beside him, he gave her a warm smile, but it held with it a depth that betrayed other feelings. "What are they going to say about me that they haven't said already?" Judy looked away, her ears becoming too heavy to keep up. "I'm tired of changing who I am for society, and I'm certainly not going to take back my offer of helping my friend because they'll drag me through the mud."
Judy wrung her paws together nervously, her lowered head glancing anywhere that wasn't the fox. After a few short moments she took in a deep breath, closing her eyes tightly and balling her paws into fists. When she looked back up into Nick's eyes, she held the look of determination that was so comfortable on her face, and he felt his own reflection relax into what he could only guess was a dopey smile, one ear taller than the other. "Okay," she said sternly with a slight shake of her balled up paws.
An amused breath escaped his snout as his smile grew wider. Nick hopped down off the bench seat landed on the ground with a thump. Straightening up, he held out his paw at the doe and swished his finger around in a circular motion, gesturing for her to turn around on the seat. Understanding lit up her eyes, and Judy swiveled around on the spot, spiralling on her rear to give the fox a clear view of her fluffy tail. He bent over, bringing his open paws into her sight before slowly lowering them onto her hips. Nick took a firm grasp on her, feeling her taut muscles just below her clothes.
Her stomach twitched at his initial touch, but she soon relaxed into him as he put more pressure on her. Finally feeling like he had a good enough hold, he lifted her up into the air like she barely weighed anything, causing her to squeak in surprise. Nick brought her up and over his head to sit comfortably on his shoulders, her powerful thighs pressed up against both sides of his neck and her stomach pressed into the back of his head, forcing his ears to sprawl upwards on her chest. "Comfortable?" he asked, raising his head up to look at the underside of her chin, seeing her twitching nose at full speeds as she orientated herself.
"Gosh," she replied bewilderedly, instinctually hooking her heels together over his chest and grabbing lightly onto his ears. Judy looked down into his emerald eyes, smiling broadly at him. It seemed that she had gotten over her initial inhibition, and was thoroughly enjoying herself. "No wonder Cotton liked it up here so much."
Nick snorted loudly, his head tilting back down to look at their stuff thrown about the seat. "I'll take that as a yes," he said lazily, grabbing the suitcase and the empty wicker basket (which had been left on the floor since they had eaten all of the contents) with one paw, and snatching the crutch with the other. He turned abruptly, feeling the rabbit on his shoulders sway slightly, and swished his tail back behind him. As he was turning onto the aisle, he swiped the umbrella that had been leaning up against the back of the seat, handing it up at the doe above him, who took it happily.
The sight that greeted them when he came into view of the rest of the passengers was actually pretty amusing to Nick. On his own, he could never have hoped to garner so many dumbstruck glares shot in his direction at once. He walked down the aisle slowly, as if flaunting the fact that, yes, he was a fox, and, yes, she was a bunny. Despite himself, a dopey smile captured his lidded features while he was passing the other passengers, their heads following their movement, gaping at them. Nick felt Judy squirm on his shoulders, leaning down over his head to look at him. "This might be worse than I thought," she said with a sheepish smile.
"We'll just have to enjoy it even more, then," Nick replied, lifting his eyelids so he could look up at her face. "Are you ready to show them what 'anyone can be anything' actually looks like, Fluff?"
Judy smiled broadly down at him, her buck teeth shining through her smile in a way that Nick could honestly get used to, if he hadn't already. "I was born ready," she replied as she sat back up proudly on his shoulders, holding onto one of his ears with one paw and the umbrella with the other.
Nick chuckled, rolling his head around his neck to find the most comfortable position sandwiched between her thighs, and walked out of the train and onto the platform. At first, it looked like they had gone unnoticed for the most part, but one by one mammals took double or even triple takes at the pair sauntering down the flowery walkway of the station, each one gaping at them as if they had two heads. It created an exponential effect that soon had the entire walkway looking in their direction, with more than a few scrutinizing gazing from the windows of the two trains framing the tiled path.
They just continued walking down the platform, pretending to not even notice the fact that they had become the center of attention for any set of eyes that could see them. Nick had kept his easy smile and lidded eyes impassive towards the judgemental gazes of mammals for a long time, but for whatever reason, this time he felt himself just smile wider. They couldn't touch him. Nick was a free fox with no worries and not a care in the world for the opinions of others, except for maybe one mammal in particular. He felt her tighten her grip on his ear, and he looked up at her a contented glance.
She looked back down at him with her same proud expression, her ears fully erect on her head with her shoulders back, but he could see the flush of red in both her long appendages and her face. Nick couldn't help but chuckle at her embarrassment, which just made her more flustered. Judy reached down and grabbed the top of his muzzle to point it back straight ahead, forcing him to look away from her. It just made him laugh harder when his eyes fell back on the now even more incredulous stares, and she swatted his ear with her free paw. A tactic wholly ineffective at tapering his amusement.
Nick stepped onto the escalator, allowing the metal staircase to take them up to the ground floor of the station. Each mammal passing them on the escalator going down found their features slacken in abject shock, their heads turning to keep them in sight well after they had passed them. There was the occasional that stared blankly, or were even amused by the sight, but the overwhelming majority of mammals could not believe what their eyes were telling them, and their faces clearly telegraphed their mixture of contempt and bewilderment. It would seem to Nick that his recent appearance in the paper might have exacerbated his public image more than anything else.
"Why do you think they're staring?" Judy whispered down into his ear, making the fox glance up at her.
He gazed into her eyes lazily for a moment before attempting to shrug his shoulders, turning his vision back up the escalator. "Who knows," he replied flatly. "Maybe they're just jealous."
Judy snorted at him loudly. "Har har," she returned. For awhile as they ascended, she remained quiet, and Nick could practically feel her thinking. "You'd think we were some kind of monster, the way we're getting stared at."
Glancing up to look at her, Nick could see her face had grown more worried and disturbed than embarrassed. Judy's ears had gone limp behind her, and she had taken one of them to drape over her chest to absently pet it in her nervous tension, abandoning the grasp on his own ear. Her rich amethyst eyes darted from mammal to mammal in building panic. The fox wondered if it was cruel of him to subject her to the same kind of stares her got. He had more than twenty years to get used to them, while she was just finding out what it looked like. Nick's ears pinned themselves as far back as they could go, which was just into her stomach.
Nick tilted his snout up highed, pressing the top of his head into her stomach. Finally, the doe shut her eyes tightly and took a deep breath before meeting his gaze. She looked down at him, searching his eyes quietly. "Don't worry about them," Nick whispered, his smug smile fading away to reveal a genuine curl in his lips. "It's you and me against the world, remember?"
Pursing her lips, Judy took a fleeting glance at her surroundings before her her eyes returned to him. After a moment, she nodded slowly, letting go of her ear and allowing her paw to softly return to his. Her fingers snaked around the edge of the dark fur that spread down from the tips of his knife-like appendage, lightly grabbing hold of it. She didn't need the help in balance, and the expression that relaxed into her features as she held it carefully told him why she was really doing it. Judy forced her proud expression back up as she straightened, and Nick smiled up at her for a moment before returning his eyes ahead.
The escalator reached the ground floor a moment after, and Nick was once again given the full view of the immense building. The wall of arching pillars and a stained glass tree mural rose high above the bustling hoard of mammals belonging to all sizes and species. On either side of the arching roof, where the curve met the walls, the windows were spotted with water, the storm clouds turning the sky above a dark gray. Nick could not see outside the row of glass doors in the front of the building, but he knew that the protesters were still there, even if their numbers were severely diminished over the past couple days.
Nick strolled through the crowd with a skip in his step. No amount of scrutinizing glares could ruin his spirit, it seemed, and he happily trotted towards the station's entranceway, Judy bouncing slightly with every step. "Slow down," she called down to him, taking a firmer grasp on his ear. "You're going to break our necks." The fox just beamed ahead, not deeming it prudent to reply.
They made their way through the sea of disapproving eyes without so much as a stumble after that, both looking the picture of contentedness despite the circumstances. Now that the fox did not deem their resentful glares noteworthy of anything more than simple perception, he found himself seeing gazes of a different variety. Through the vast expanse of intolerance, Nick saw smiles directed their way. Mixed among the hate, there were mammals that didn't see them as something weird, and even looked amazed. He could hear them turn to their companions and whisper in awe that the bunny of his shoulders was the hero Judy Hopps.
Perhaps it was strange to feel elated that the first thing they saw wasn't just a shifty fox when it was only a small minority in a vast swath of disdain, but for whatever reason, the little smiles and nods sporadically among the crowd seemed to shine a hundred times as bright as any one scowl. As they walked through the collection of many different species, Nick found an unfamiliar feeling bubbling up inside him. Looking up at Judy's proud posture atop his shoulders, he felt like he might have an idea what it was; it was pride. He had never felt it before, his feelings always bordering on shame, but now he stood tall, shoulders back, walking with the knowledge that he could feel proud to be himself.
Nick's ears perked up when he heard the faint sound of a kit no older than seven. "Aren't those the mammals that saved the city?" he asked to his mother, an aging beaver. The fox's eyes fell on the pair staring at them from the juice bar, the mother quietly running her claws through her kit's fur. She smiled at Nick, and he smiled back, warmer than he thought he could. The mother looked down at her kit and said something to him that Nick could not hear, but the the light that shone through the small mammal's eyes, he could tell that she told him they were. Grinning happily at the young beaver, Nick winked at him, causing the beaver to smile even brighter, point at the odd pair of mammals, and tug on her mother's shirt.
Chuckling to himself at the awe displayed on the tiny mammal's face, Nick turned back to look at his path, seeing the glass entranceway almost upon them. The fox flicked the ear Judy wasn't holding onto to grab her attention, jerking his snout towards the door when he felt her eyes on him. She immediately understood what he was talking about, and stuck her paws out in front to grab onto the push bar attached to one of the sets of glass doors. Nick slowed his pace only enough to allow Judy to push the door open without the force pushing herself off of his own shoulders.
The familiar sight of the Grand Plaza lost none of its luster in the haze of falling water, the towering heights of the Warren building and City Hall stretching far into the air, framed by the breathtaking view of the Downtown district beyond. The plaza was still heavily crowded with protesters, though the numbers had diminished greatly since Nick had been there just a few days prior. Pedestrian traffic of any regularity had returned to the plaza, and they all walked along the edges of the shouting masses with a variety of umbrella sizes, shapes, and colors. A good majority of mammals waited just under the awning outside the main entrance of the station.
Nick took a sharp right, keeping to the protection of the overhang, and made his way to the east entrance of the station. The front entranceways led out into the plaza, so there were no roads allowing for motorized transport just beyond the arching doorways. Instead, mammals had to make their way to either the west or east entranceways, which ran parallel to roads that fed out into the rest of the city. The tramline that ran the circumference of Central Plaza would not take them far enough to where he wanted to go, and he knew that taxis often sat in waiting for a passenger just on the curb.
They continued to pass through the crowd of mammals, garnering a lot of attention as they did. Looking out over the plaza, the odd pair passed enormous columns that kept the decorative awning in place, each space between them resembling a short hallway that fed out into the rain. As Nick passed column after column, he observed the sauntering mammals that stood at the rain's edge, their paws, hooves, or whatever they had stuffed into their pockets. It was a quiet day, in all honesty. Even the mass of protesting mammals could be drained out by the sound of the constant bombardment of falling water.
Just as they passed another column, Nick's eye saw too late a news crew standing just at the edge of the awning's protection, filming a report. The cameramammal lion had his back to them, and standing directly in his camera's path was a neatly dressed wolf, holding his paw out in front of him. Standing on the wolf's padded palm, in an extravagant outfit, was a tiny rodent, microphone in her grasp and beaming directly into the lense. The fox did not have to see the ZNN logo on the camera to know who it was. Nick tried in vain to duck out as quick as he could, even going so far as to bring up Judy's crutch to partially hide his face.
"As you can see behind me," the female rodent said, waving her tiny paw around in the direction of the plaza, where all the protestors were situated. "Protests are still in full swing here in Central Plaza. There has been a significant decrease in numbers over the past couple days, but the main lines outside both City Hall and Precinct One have, for the fifth day in a row, remained as strong as-" She cut herself off when her eyes met Nick's for a split second, abandoning her recording. "Hey." The rodent's eyes darted up to look at Judy. "That's Judy Hopps," she said in awe, pointing the paw that wasn't grabbing hold of the microphone at them.
Nick's ears flattened against his head as he turned to look back down the awning covered path, quickening his pace. From the corner of his eye, he could see the rodent gesture wildly at her crew, ordering them to follow the odd pair. "Uh oh," Judy whispered down at him, pulling open the umbrella to hide herself.
Trotting quicker still, he stole a glance behind to see they were rapidly gaining on them through the crowded path. Nick sighed loudly, realizing that they would not be getting away, but still continued trotting away. If they could grab a taxi as fast as they could at the east entrance, they might be able to only have to endure a couple questions. "Just smile and pose, Carrots."
"Officer Hopps!" The rodent yelled after them, her voice carrying far further than Nick believed a mammal of her size could manage. "Officer Hopps!" The fox finally rounded the corner of the building, finding the road that ran parallel to the station's main building. Lining the curb were yellow cabs of all sizes, each one with their light on. Nick finally made it to the edge of the awning when they caught up to them, the odd pair shielded from the rain by the umbrella that Judy held over their heads. The wolf that was carrying her swiftly made his way around the fox, walking backwards in front of him and holding out the tiny reporter towards the doe.
"My name is Vicki Vole; I'm with ZNN," she said cheerfully, firmly planted on the wolf's open paw despite the jostling movement and the rain. The cameramammal was the next to follow, sticking the lense just under the hem of the umbrella to point it at the rabbit. "What can you tell us about the events leading up to the arrest of Dawn Bellwether?" The rodent pulled the microphone away from her beaming muzzle and held it out towards the rabbit.
Judy looked surprised by the tiny mammal intruding on her visibility, reeling backwards as soon as she came into view under the umbrella, only to reel backwards again when the camera followed. Seeing that she was being recorded, she quickly cleared her throat before straightening up, putting a firm, cop-like edge to her voice. "Just that it's an ongoing investigation," she replied flatly. "If you'd like, you can call the ZPD with any questions you might have, and we'll try our best to answer what questions we can."
The rodent looked disappointed by the answer, puffing out her cheeks and furrowing her brow at the doe. She put back on her cheerful demeanor when her eyes locked back onto Nick's, an idea crossing her bright eyes. "So you have no statement about what happened?" she asked, turning back to look at Judy while alternating in which direction she was pointing it.
The rabbit nodded blankly. "That is correct," she replied.
"What about you?" she asked Nick, pointing the microphone down at the fox this time. When he didn't answer her besides raising his eyebrows, she clarified. "You aren't a police officer. Is there anything you can share with us?"
Chuckling, Nick reached out with the paw holding the crutch and popped open a cab door. The news crew had moved out of the way to their side when they had finally reached the yellow vehicle, retaining a close distance so that the wolf could still hold the reporter out towards the pair. "Only that it's an ongoing investigation," he replied. He tossed the suitcase and basket across the seat, watching them bounce into place as he lobbed the crutch in the same direction.
"Do you care to tell us about how your involvement came about?" the reported questioned, watching him grab Judy by the waist to lift her off his shoulders, gently placing her down onto the back seat of the cab. "We're all dying to know who you are."
Nick paused after letting Judy go, looking into her eyes deeply. The doe just cocked an eyebrow at him, darting her vision between him and the reporter next to him. With a broad smile, Nick turned to face the reporter, in full view of the camera that had been following them the whole way. "My name is Nick Wilde," he said firmly, his lazy smile growing even bigger at the giddy excitement in the tiny mammal's face, elated about the fact that she had gotten the scoop on his name. "And all you need to know is I am a close friend of Judy's." Nick jumped up onto the seat dexterously, smiling at the camera crew as he shut the door with a half-hearted wave. "Buh-bye, now."
Shutting the door loudly, Nick glanced back over to Judy, who was looking up at him in shock, her nose twitching incessantly. In her bewildered state, she had completely forgotten they were in a cab, and her head swirled around to meet the eyes of the ocelot driver, staring at them both indifferently through the rear-view mirror. "The Grand Pangolin Arms, please," she called up to the plainly dressed mammal, pointing down the street for him. The driver turned the ignition as he waited for further instructions. "It's off-"
"Scratch what she just said," Nick spoke up, cutting her directions off. The fox nodded his head down the other direction as he watched the ocelot in the rear-view mirror. "Take us to the corner of Grass and Verdure."
It took a moment for the bunny to process the fact that he was taking them somewhere else than her home, and she stared up at him in confusion. Judy's eyes narrowed at him slightly as her nose twitched on the forefront of her face, drawing Nick's gaze. "What's on the corner of Grass and Verdure?" she asked, cocking her chin up to look at him down her stocky muzzle.
Nick chuckled at the sight of her ears perking up in alertness high on her head. He brought his paw up and tapped her on her twitching nose, making her reel back slightly to bring her own paw up defensively, rubbing the spot he had touched. "Something I want to show you," he replied, leaning back into the seat to watch the camera crew from the window. From where he was, their retreating forms looked like they had started another recording, this time with their getaway as the backdrop. Snorting, the fox glanced back over to Judy, seeing she was staring at him with a worried look.
She searched his eyes for a moment, trying to see his thoughts through them. Despite their closeness, she seemed frustrated slightly that his eyes betrayed nothing, their indifferent lidded state halting her search before it could even get started. "Why did you give them your real name?" she asked, waving her paw back in the direction of Central Station. "Now you're name is going to be on all the papers with your face."
Nick watched her, and something inside him felt the need to keep the indifference on the surface, to block her out, but something more wanted so much to do otherwise. His piercing orbs softened slightly as he look into hers, clenching his jaw to press his sharp teeth together. After a long moment, he sighed. "I just figured it was time I stopped lurking in the shadows," he replied, turning his head to look back out the window. When he looked back, his features were heavier, set into his face. Nick looked tired, but not because of lack of sleep -because he had let go of his mask. "I'm not ashamed to be myself anymore, and I'm not going to act like it."
A moment of silence passed between them, both looking into each other's eyes. After a while, Judy grew timid, looking down at her knees as she pulled one of her ears over her chest to absently pet. Nick also looked away, gazing out into the stormy streets of Zootopia. It wasn't that long of a drive from Central Station to where they were going, and they would be there in no time at all. He wouldn't have half the time to help prepare himself for what he had in mind, and the nervous tension building in his stomach alluded to the fact that he desperately felt like he needed it.
To Nick, there did not seem to be very many constants in life. What often seemed grounded and steady was - in his eyes - usually a hollow front whose foundation was often shaky at the best of times. His life had for a long time been a dedication to crafting a reality around that unstable foundation, realizing that nothing lasts forever, and the only way to remain free from the consequences of that foundation's crumble was to make the rest of the reality as fragile as it; a life built on the idea that the only way to be sure is to be unsure, and exist on the cusp of all-encompassing detachment.
Whether or not it was a life worth living was a difficult question, even now. Sure, he never had to worry about his feelings being hurt, or things he cared about being taken away, but that usually meant that he held nothing close enough to feel bad about losing and he had nothing to take away. It had been a long twenty years, that was what he had decided, far too long. Every moment he was stepping away from his old life the longer it felt, and the grittier the details became. Still, now that he had something that could be taken away, something that he would feel bad about losing, he also felt more vulnerable.
His safety net had been dismantled (by his own paws), his income streams had been abandoned (by his own choice), and - at least, as far as Judy was concerned - his mask was in utter shambles. The questioned had stopped being 'what was he going to do?' some time ago, but his choice had stuck with him every waking moment since it was set into stone. In just five short days, he had gone from one of the most successful homeless mammals to ever live to just a homeless mammal, and the implications of it did not hit him lightly. He was just a short distance away from being just like everyone else walking the streets.
A lot could be said about Nick Wilde's resolve and his perseverance through times of hardship, but that was through a kind of hardship not often see in the modern world. It took the form of something far more primal than just the day-to-day grind, as he was the modern equivalent of a wild animal. He slept in the dirt and small nooks away from prying eyes, ate whatever food he could get his paws on, and did it all without a care in the world for what others might have to say about it. Now, he was faced with a hardship that did not technically concern his life; it was a choice based on preference, and he had very few of those.
Nick supposed there might be something inherently insane about just abandoning a life that he had lived for twenty years. He was shooting for the antithesis of what he had been, embracing the foundation he knew to be far too fragile, and then pursuing a life atop that foundation. It opened him up to disappointment, grief, and pain. He knew these feelings all too well from his time before shunning the shaky base, and at least some part of him knew just how crazy it was to willingly put himself in that kind of harm's way once again. Despite all of that, he was glad to have done it.
You can't make the world a better place by sitting around, watching it pass you by. Nick knew that there was a price for everything, and doing good was unfortunately among them. He could not do good at the same time as keeping himself from pain; it was just a natural truth. That did not bother him, though. He had taken enough from this world, and he felt that it was time he started giving back, to make a difference. The price it demanded seemed so inconsequential in the eyes of what it bought. It was like the smiles in the train station. All it took was just a few in an ocean of disdain to make a difference, and he could be one of those smiles.
Nick glanced over at Judy, seeing her gazing passively out her own window. He studied her for a time, and as if she could feel his eyes on her, she turned to meet his gaze. The todd lost himself in her eyes, and by the look of confusion writing itself on her features, he could guess he was probably making a strange face. Nick knew he was being weird for staring, but he honestly found that he couldn't help it. Everything about her just made him feel numb in his bones when she was in his sight. Every detail was bewitching, but her eyes most of all put him under a spell. She was his best friend. It was still weird to think about.
He decided in that moment that she would like his surprise, the rectangular object burning a hole in his pocket. His worries melted away as he continued staring, and for the first time in his life, the vulnerability did not fill him with a sense of unease about possible betrayals, but instead instilled a sense of nervousness that only stretched as far as he was embarrassed. More than that, he wanted Judy to see him, not just his mask of hollow indifference. It felt wrong hiding stuff from her now, and consistently had to keep himself from putting back up his walls out of habit.
Nick's contemplation was swiftly brought to a halt when a tiny, grey paw shot up to grab him by the snout. His unfocused eyes came back to life, and he looked at the bashful blush that spread across the rabbit's face, her ears pinned against her back. He believed he may have been staring for a little longer than he thought by the way she puffed out her cheeks, and was powerless to stop a genuine grin that spread up his face. As he was only breathing through his nose, every breath he took snaked its way through the fur of her padless paw, filling his nasal cavity with her scent. Nick was about to say something when she pushed his nose upwards.
The purple tip of his snout was thrust into the air by the rabbit's shoving, pulling his lips up to reveal his canines just underneath. Nick tilted back with a groan by the forcefulness of it, teetering over for a split second before falling into the door. When he was finally out of her reach, his snout shot back downwards to look at the mammal that had just assaulted him, rubbing his nose as he watched her cross her arms and pout. "You're a weirdo," she said flatly, leaning forward to glare at him, her face and ears flushed a deep crimson. Even her nose was a delightful shade of red, which just made the laughter come harder.
Judy just narrowed her eyes at him as he laughed, puffing out her cheeks more. Her face had gotten even redder at his outburst, and he could see her start to fidget in embarrassment. "I'm the weirdo?" he finally managed to say through a toothy cackle, spreading one of his paws flat over his heart in mock disbelief.
Turning away from him with her arms still crossed, she closed her eyes and turned up her nose, refusing to look at him. "At least I don't stare at mammals like that," she replied, though her brow furrowed slightly when he reacted by descending into another fit of chuckles.
"Admit it," Nick said playfully, sitting back up on the seat, close enough to Judy to see the crimson skin even through the black tips of her ears. The fox smiled wickedly at her turned figure, running his eyes over the thoroughly tinted ears that draped over her back. "You're just a sucker for my attention."
Judy snorted loudly at that, still refusing to look at him. "In your dreams, Wilde."
Her words made the fox pause for a moment, his mind wandering back to nap he had on the train. Why yes, he kept to himself. That is actually pretty accurate. None of which he would dare say out loud. Nick found it fun to tease her like this, but that seemed to be crossing some kind of line that he found himself vaguely aware of. Instead, he decided to see how red she could get. "I didn't know you could turn that color, Carrots," he said, watching her squirm. "Maybe I should start calling you 'Tomato'?"
Nick's comments just seemed to exacerbate the problem, and her ears flushed an even darker red. Judy pulled her shoulders up to her neck and tightened her crossed arms, closing herself off. "Stop it," she begged, leaning away slightly while peeking out to look at the fox with one eye.
"I take it back," Nick replied, running his green eyes over the once-grey bunny, an impish grin curling his lips. "You're even redder than a tomato."
"Nick..." Judy pleaded.
The fox chewed on this inside of his cheek in thought, letting his eyes wander in a way that was deliberately obvious. Nick started to lean over, closing the distance between them inch by inch, and he saw her brow tent up on her forehead in worry at his antics. "Can we go deeper?" he asked in a husky voice, his breath blowing onto her fur. Nick's green eyes snapped up to meet her gaze, leaning further into her personal space "I wonder." He looked back at her now thoroughly crimson skin and brought his muzzle just a hair away from her ear. Opening his jaw slightly, he made himself look like he was going to bite her, before snapping his jaw shut loudly right next to her ears.
The gratification that he got from the even deeper blush that his action caused was short lived, however, as Judy spun around faster than he could pull away, slapping him across the muzzle. The force made Nick reeled back and land against the door, rubbing the side of his muzzle with a lazy, lidded smile. "Alright," he said, bringing up both of his paws in surrender "I deserved that. I'll own up to it."
Judy puffed out her cheeks again, whipping around to stick up her twitching nose away from him. The mammal next to her couldn't help but chuckle at her reaction as he sat back up on the seat. Turning his gaze back out the window, Nick could see that they were almost there. In just a few short minutes he would have to actually follow through with his plan, and the nervous tension began building in his stomach once again. Something inside of him warned against it, tried to reason with his conscience and explain how much better it would be if he just kept his walls up, but he paid that voice no mind. He could barely even hear it anymore.
A ways down the street, the first glimpse of their destination could be seen through the pouring rain, a overgrown, empty corner lot surrounded by a chain link fence. It was a bitter sight to see in his days of introspection. Where he had once ignored the lot's context, in the days that followed the press conference he could ignore it no longer. What had once been such a grounding location for the fox had withered in decayed in its forced atrophy, and the tall grass and speckles of trash littering the edges, it was a sight that filled him with the all-too familiar feeling of guilt. It just wouldn't stop coming to him.
Nick stole another glance at Judy, who had resumed staring out her window, but he did not allow his eyes to linger this time. Short glimpses would be enough to sate the guilt for now. Soon, the cab slowed to a crawl at the curb of the lot, and Judy's head spun around to see where they had stopped. It wasn't a surprise to Nick that her eyebrows furrowed in confusion as she studied the mangy locale, her purple eyes falling on Nick for answers. He offered her nothing but a smile as he payed the driver. After he had gotten his change, he reached over her to grab the suitcase and basket, handing the crutch to the bunny.
Popping the car door open, he hopped down onto the wet concrete. Nick turned around and gestured for Judy to get close, which she obliged. Wrapping one arm around her middle, he lifted her up carefully, pulling her off the seat and into the rain. When he had gingerly placed her down, allowing her to get her balance, he shut the cab door, thumping the side with his balled up paw. The cab took off down the street, needing no more prompting than that, and Nick turned around to look at the lot in front of them. The rain pooled around the uneven dirt, and the glistening scorch marks on the adjacent buildings left nothing to the imagination.
"What is this place?" Judy asked next to him, and Nick glanced down to see the rain soaking her fur. In one swift motion, Nick pulled the umbrella from her grasp with his free paw and unfolded it above their heads, shielding them from the rain. He watched her curious face for a moment, studying her features.
"I figured since I've seen your home," Nick replied, turning his head back towards the lot, his smile growing weaker. "It was only fair that you got to see mine." The fox glanced down at the mammal next to him, and saw her stunned expression as she traded her sight between Nick and the empty lot. After a moment, he jerked his head in the direction of the gate. "Come on."
Judy followed close behind him, limping with her crutch under her arm, and the fox held the umbrella out in a way that made sure that she still stayed dry, sacrificing his own protection from the rain, an act that was not lost on the bunny. When they came upon the gate, Nick handed the umbrella out to Judy, who took it with her free paw, and went to work digging around his pocket for the key. Brushing past the carrot pen, he fished out the old piece of metal, unlocking the padlock and allowing the chain to slide free with a heavy clunk onto the soaked ground.
Retrieving the umbrella, he beckoned her through the gate, and followed close behind her as they passed through the opening. Nick shut the gate behind them, Judy waiting for some kind of direction, and he turned to look at her again. Seeing Judy standing where she stood now was a strange sight. This place meant a lot more to him than just some plot of land. It was the manifestation of all his mistakes. It was the embodiment of all of his forgotten dreams. If places could be the doorway to a mammal's soul, then this place would be Nick's, and Judy was standing right in the middle of it.
Nick felt the creeping of vulnerability once again, but he did nothing about it. Instead, he just nodded his head towards the back of the lot, where a weathered looking shipping container sat idly in the dirt, rain pattering off its sides and roof, pooling around its base. Judy looked confused again as she looked back up from the container, into his eyes. Reluctantly, she followed his instructions, limping in the direction of the blue container, the fox trailing behind for a moment before catching up to her. Nick stopped right in front of the doors, handing over the umbrella again so he could unlock them.
"I don't get it," Judy said behind him, watching him work the lock until it clicked open. "You live in a shipping container?"
Chuckling, Nick glanced behind himself as he pulled the padlock off the metal door. "You could say that," he replied, pulling open the cargo doors with a screech of metal scraping on metal. The grey light of the storm slowly spread throughout the interior of the container as he pulled the door all the way open. Next, he grabbed the other door, pulling it open as well. The odd pair of mammals stared into the interior of the container, listening to the thunderous sound created by the rain's deluge onto the thin metal roof. With a careful step, Nick brought himself up into the container, leaving the rabbit to follow him.
The weathered wood beneath his hind paws creaked with every step he made into the container, surveying the interior. That morning, he and Finnick had followed through with their intentions, taking the contents of his bags around the city to various locations: giving the canned goods to the food bank, the tools and things to Goodwillet, and a lot of things to the mammals living in the poorer areas of the city. Just about the only things he kept was a single blue rucksack and his assorted Hawaiian shirts, as Finnick seemed to think nobody else would want them. The mountains of items were gone, and the interior was once again mostly empty except for the piles of junk push up against the back.
Reaching the edge of the junk, Nick heard Judy step up into the container behind him, staring in awe at the collection. "Look at all this junk!" she called out, and the fox glanced over his shoulder to see her waving her paw through the air incredulously. Chuckling, he pulled off the green lawn chair from the top of the stack in front of him, struggling to disentangle it from the mound. When he was finally successful, he turned and made his way back over to the bunny. "What do you even do with all of it?"
"It's all from past hustles," he informed her, unfolding the chair promptly and pushing up up against the container's wall, patting the seat for her to sit down. "I've kept it in case we ever felt like we needed to use any of it again." Nick watched her plop down tiredly onto the chair, the old material creaking and protesting at the weight. She seemed relieved to be sitting down again, and he smiled down at he for a moment before turning away. "Never really did, though."
Nick kneeled down onto the wooden floor, fishing around his pocket for a pen. Instead of the sleek carrot, he brought out a dented, dark blue ballpoint and stuck it into a scuffed up hole in the floor, probing around for the mechanism within. He could feel the rabbit's eyes on him as he found his target, the spring clicking upwards with the board. Tossing the pen away, he pulled the board off the floor completely, revealing the dark, hidden interior below. A moment passed before he stuck his arm into the hole, unlatching the metal clamps that kept the facade in place. When he was done, he straightened out, pulling the connected boards with him.
In the floor, there was now a large rectangular hole where the planks of wood had been, and Nick stared down at the contents as he tossed the facade next to the other board, banging against the floor. Nick placed a paw on the precipice as he leaned down into the interior, reaching his paw down to grab the aluminum handle on a small, rounded metal box. He pulled himself back up into a sitting position, gazing at the box in his paws. After a moment, he pushed a claw into the keyhole, prodding around until it clicked, and the lock releasing its hold on the lid of the container.
Lifting the lid gingerly, he studied the contents of the box, from its useless knick-knacks to its overtly sentimental objects. His whole life and more was in that small metal box, and as he reached his paw into the interior to gently retrieve a worn, beaten wallet held together by rubber bands and duct tape, he gently turned around to look at Judy. She was staring at him cautiously, her lavender eyes darting between him and the secret compartment with worry drawn across her face. "What's all down there?" she asked as the fox inched closer.
"Just things," he replied, setting the metal box down by the chair's legs, holding onto the wallet with his other paw. Nick was now kneeling in front of her, his eyes slightly below hers, as he snapped the rubber bands off the wallet and handed it to her. "Stuff I couldn't afford to lose." Judy accepted the offered object gingerly, her ears flopping back against her back as she stared at it. Slowly, she opened it up, revealing two pictures of the fox in front of her; one being his smug, lazy smile on his driver's license, and the other was a beaten newspaper clipping with three foxes in handcuffs.
"That's them - Gramps, Mom and me," Nick said quietly, his voice barely audible above the rain. His paw had come up to point them out, though he knew she could probably guess. The picture had often been a reminder of what mammals would always think of foxes, but now it didn't really look like anything. An expression of fear stared back at him in the form of his younger self, and it wiped away what faint smile still resided on his face. Nick looked up to see Judy's wide eyes studying the picture, her nose twitching wildly as a paw came up to her face. "Lovely picture isn't it?" he asked.
Judy's paw trailed back down to the clipping, her padless fingers running over the image of his mother. "Your mother is really beautiful," she whispered, looking up at him only to find he was staring at the picture sadly.
"Yeah... She was," Nick replied flatly. After a moment of staring, his eyes slid back up Judy's chest to meet her gaze. Her nose was twitching again, but this time her expression betrayed the grief that she felt for the knowledge he had just given her. "It's the only picture I have of her." Nick's eyes fell back onto the picture with distaste, his brow furrowing as he gestured at it with his paw in exasperation. "Nothing but slander I chopped out of a newspaper."
One of her paws shot out to grab onto his arm lightly, and she leaned towards him with sad eyes. "What happened to all the rest?"
Nick did not answer. He just sat staring at the wallet in her lap with his brow furrowed. His lidded eyes did not take on their usual look of indifference, and had grown wary, even exhausted, as the conversation went on. After what felt like a long time, the fox's paw rose up to be placed on the one Judy had on his arm, enveloping it gently. "Can I ask you a quid pro quo?" he asked, his emerald eyes rising to meet her gaze carefully.
Her other paw rose to grab him by the shoulder, leaning even closer towards him. "Of course," she reassured him, searching his eyes for any sign that he didn't believe her.
Nick nodded slowly. "Do you remember why you wanted to do this quid pro quo?"
Judy seemed taken aback by the question, her brow furrowing on her forehead as she thought about it. For a moment, she just stared into his eyes, and he could tell she was wondering why he would ask a question like that. "Because I wanted to know more about you than nothing at all," she replied quietly.
Nodding again, Nick's eyes dropped away from her. Carefully, he pried her paws off of him as he got up, walking away from her. The fox sauntered over to the edge of the container, weaving his paws together behind his back as he gazed out into the falling water. "Alright," he said flatly. "I think it's time we bring it to an end."
He could feel her gaping at him from the chair, though he did not look at her. "What?" she asked, her voice laced with both confusion and worry.
"It was an exchange, right?" he asked, turning around to regard her with his lidded eyes, not even a ghost of a smile on his lips. "You tell me something about you, and then I tell you something about me." Nick waved one of his paws between them to accentuate his speech before weaving it back behind him. "You made it under the assumption that you would have to coerce, or even buy, information out of me. I don't think we have to do that anymore." He watched her stunned expression for a moment, her nose twitching faster than he could ever remember her doing it before. "So, let's end it."
It took a moment for Judy to wrap her head around what he was saying, and slowly her ears perked up from their position of lying flat against her back. She put on her best confident expression, puffing out her chest. "Okay."
Nick nodded again, running his green eyes over her. How someone so strong and powerful could look so vulnerable, he did not know, but she was trusting what he was saying without question. It made that unfamiliar feeling bubble up again as he turned away from her. "This next thing isn't me wanting something in return now. It's not a part of some game. It's me wanting you to know." Nick let his words sink in for a moment as he prepared the one thing he never thought he would do. His piercing eyes slid closed and he took a deep breath. "More than wanting to know more about me, you wanted to know what I meant when I said I haven't had a home in twenty years, didn't you?"
She sucked in a sharp breath behind him. "Nick, you don't-"
"It's a long story," he said, cutting her off. Nick remained where he was standing, just before the protection of the rain with his back to her, eyes closed. "I don't think you'll be able to appreciate it unless I start from the beginning." Finally, he turned around to look at her, searching her expression. "Do you want to hear it?"
Judy's twitching nose slowed on her gaping face, the surprise of what he was implying taking her features completely. After a moment, she regained her composure and looked at Nick with worried eyes, but her nose did not twitch. It was still on her steady expression, and it drew his attention more than when it had been in perpetual motion. "Only if you want to tell me," she whispered out to him.
Nick smiled at her, his expression haggard in a way that only great sorrow and years of accumulated pain could muster. "I do," he replied.
Puffing out her chest, she sat up straight, giving him the most reassuring nod she could. "Then I want to hear it," she stated confidently, knowing full well what it meant.
The sad smile that spread across the fox's face saw cracks of genuine happiness. He didn't have anyone to share his life with, the troubled pieces of his past that put him on the path he had walked. But now he had Judy, and he wanted nothing more than to show her what he really looked like below the calculated masks and multiple personas. Nick finally felt like that not only did he finally have someone that would listen to him, but he had someone that wanted to listen to him, and that same unfamiliar feeling was there again, just below the surface. He looked away from her, out into the storm of rain.
"I wasn't actually born in the city; I was brought here at a very young age," he said plainly, settling into the past he had shunned for so long. It felt weird to hear it out loud, like it was some kind of secret that should never be said. Even stranger still was how good it felt to finally talk about the past that he never put into words. "My father was a tailor out west, and he moved here with my mom to give me a shot at life. Out there, he could only find work at a tailory owned by a family friend, and foxes were not appreciated outside their tightly knit communities."
Nick watched the ripples in the pooling water. He watched the ribbons of water cascade from the sky. He watched anything in front of him so that he did not have to watch her face. It was no mystery to him how she would feel about his past. It was spotted with far too much pain to not guess her reaction, and he honestly didn't know if he could stand seeing it in her eyes. "So, he took my mother and me and moved here, where he opened up his very own tailor shop." Nick's eyes surveyed the lot in a quick motion, feeling the emptiness for the first time in a very long time. "'Wilde & Son's Suitopia', he called it. I guess he thought I'd grow up to be a tailor like him or something like that."
His eyes dropped back onto the ground, where his clawed toes hung off the edge, dangling above a rippling pool of water, his reflection distorted and noisy. "I don't remember him," he said flatly. The fox rolling his head around his shoulders in deliberation, staring into the noisy surface of the water as if it held the answers. "Vague stuff, sure, but his face is lost to me. When I was five years old, I caught a cold. A terrible fever that I had to be taken to the hospital for." When Nick spoke again, his voice dropped below a whisper, consisting of almost a faint droning noise that would be unintelligible if it weren't for Judy's large ears."When we got back, he was already gone."
The interior of the shipping container felt dead-silent despite the rattle of the rain hitting the metal walls and roof. For a moment, Nick believed he was alone it was so quiet, but he knew that Judy was right behind him, waiting for him to continue, and his eyes slid closed again."Some punk with a shotgun forced his way through the door. He took the register and left behind… Well, he left behind a whole lot." He kept his eyes closed, but he focused on listening to her breathing. "They found him strung out on morphine. Just another junkie robbing and killing innocents for poison... I still get letters from him, from time to time... groveling."
The way he bit out the last sentence made him pause and compose himself, forcing down his hackles and closing his bared lips. When he felt like he could continue, he began again in a soft tone. "We got by for awhile, just me and her," he said out into the falling water. "She ended up keeping the tailory, but we moved into a little apartment a couple blocks from here." He paused again as the memories of that small apartment came flooding back, the faintest glimpse of a smile returning to his face. "An old anteater lives there now. I went buy a couple years ago in a repairmammal's uniform, just to take a look around."
After a long moment, Nick shook his head slowly, the smile falling away once again. "Anyway, after the thing with the Junior Ranger Scouts happened, it all started to go downhill," he lamented, his eyes finally opening back up to the falling water in front of him. "Mom ended up working two or sometimes three jobs at a time, and finally we had to move back into the second floor of the tailory." Nick could clearly recall the look on his mother's face when they returned to the old building, seeing how she refused to look at the counter where she had seen her husband, mangled and limp. "She didn't like living there. She was always really scared of going in that front room."
"When I was nine, she collapsed during her night shift," he said over his shoulder, turning his head enough to make his voice clearly understandable without looking directly at her. He more looked off to the side, and he could only see a grey blur in his peripheral vision. "Lung cancer," he continued flatly. Nick's ears flattened back against his head as he thought, scoffing loudly with a shake of his head. "She didn't even smoke." Pausing again, he relived the day in his mind, allowing it to pass through him without sticking. "Like a lot of mornings, I got up and went to school on my own, not even knowing something had happened... They showed up while I was in class."
Again, the shipping container fell into a relative silence, neither of them speaking. By the sounds coming from behind him, he knew Judy's breaths were catching in her throat as she got more and more emotional. It seemed like he made her cry a lot. "I remember walking over to the principal's office wondering what it was that they lied about me doing this time," he said, pulling a paw up to smooth down his ears in an effort to make sure he remained composed. "And when I got there, two ZPD officers were waiting."
Nick finally turned around to look at her, and he was saddened by the look of shock written across her face. Tears were streaming down her cheeks as she stared on in horror, unable to believe how someone could have so much bad luck. "She died when I was ten," he said flatly, studying her reaction. Judy sniffed loudly, bringing up a paw to try to wipe the tears away with the base of her palm. Nick looked away, strolling past her towards the back of the container. "Near the end, she couldn't stop crying. She thought she was abandoning me."
He finally stopped when he had reached the stacks of junk, looking up impassively at his life's work. "We had the funeral out west, where my father was buried," he said, picking up a broken lamp and turning it over in his paw. "Mom didn't know where else to put him." Nick's lips pulled up in hate as he tossed the lamp back onto a pile away from him, turning to give Judy a harsh expression. "That's when Gramps came into my life. I knew who he was, and he had - on occasion - visited, but that was it. I didn't know what he was." A bad taste filled his mouth and he turned back towards the junk. "Arthur Wilde is a murderer. He's a psychopath that evaded incarceration."
"Back during prohibition, when Big's father was a small time hooch peddler, Arthur came looking for fame," Nick said, the story of his grandfather giving him no pleasure to recall. "He had followed in my great-grandfather's footsteps and became a moonshiner, making more money than you would believe. If it wasn't for him and his brother, the polar bears would still run this city. The leader of the mafia back then was a bear by the name of Boris Koslov, and my great uncle killed him. They were as criminal as they could possibly come, and he was the one to raise me after Mom was gone."
Nick scoffed, glancing over at a cardboard box at the base of the piles of junk. It was filled with glass jars that held within them a clear liquid that glistened in the grey light of the storm. "After the funeral, the first thing he made me do was walk back to the city. You can imagine what that'd do to a mammal, burying your mother at the age of ten and then being forced to walk for four weeks back to your home." The fox shook his head slowly, remembering the long nights and days of walking, his tiny suit being torn to shreds the more miles he traveled. "When I got there, he had his hind paws up on the couch. It... didn't really get better after that."
The sound of the rain taped in the time it took for him to continue. "Sometimes, he would lock me out and make me find someplace to sleep on the streets," he said quietly. The memories came back to him in waves now, each one piling on top of each other. It had been so long since he had even thought about them, let alone really run through the events in his life. Despite that, he didn't feel sad about all of it, just numb. "Others, he would come up with these horrible ways to teach me some kind of life lesson. He taught me how to lie, cheat, steal, and survive."
For a long while he just studied the piles in front of him. When he had finally gotten his fill of seeing the clutter, he turned away from it, keeping his eyes focused on the floor so he could not see her face. "I still attended school until I was in my teens," he said, passing her swiftly so he could stand back on the edge of the shipping container, looking out into the diminishing storm. "Gramps always thought it was a waste of time, but I liked learning about things that didn't make me want to throw up. It ended up being that even though I was bullied pretty badly for being what I am, I liked it when I was in school far more than I did when I was at home."
Nick watched the cars pass by, sparkling lights of whites and reds trail down the streets and reflect off the water. "That continued for a while," he said flatly. "And I grew up pretty fast in that time. Again he could hear her sniffle, and again his ears were forced even lower on the back of his head. It wasn't pity; he had felt pity many times, and this wasn't it. She was genuinely saddened by what he was saying, and it made his reflection even more troubling. "By the time I was twelve, that little kit that wanted to be a Ranger Scout was gone. He killed him. That didn't mean that I had turned into my grandfather, though. I hated him… Still do."
The storm of water continued to lighten in front of him, the battering assault slowing to a crawl of droplets pattering across the soggy ground. "When I was twelve, something snapped in me, I guess," he whispered, the memory he had repressed for so many years feeling clearer than the day it had happened. "I just couldn't take it anymore. My life had been bad for almost four years, three of those a living nightmare, two of those feeling like Hell on earth." Nick turned around to look at Judy's crying eyes, seeing the emotion bubbling up inside her as she shook on the chair lightly. "And I was done."
"He had locked me out again," Nick said nasally, his eyes darting over to an old door that sat just before the piles of junk, leaned up against the container's wall. He slowly started making his way over towards the door, passing Judy again. "And I waited." Coming to a stop just in front of the door, he studied the scorched edges, running his eyes over the dark smears, cracked paint, and smoke damage that covered the piece of wood and glass. "I waited for a long time just out of sight, downwind. I watched him leave, and I didn't move. I watched him walk down the street, and I didn't move. He was gone for a long time, and I still didn't move."
Slowly, Nick's paw trailed upwards, shaking slightly. It finally made contact with the glass, and the pads of his fingers traced the faded golden lettering written across it. "At some point, I had gotten up. I broke into the house, and I walked around and looked at everything. Just looked for a time." Something inside the fox screamed for him to stop. To leave the memory be. It wanted nothing more than to forget, but Nick would not allow himself to. It was a part of his story, and he wanted Judy to hear all of it, to see who he really was. "After I was done with that, I gathered up all the liquor in the house and I torched the place."
A deathly silence spread across the interior of the shipping container. With the rain slowing even more in its attack, the silence felt all the more suffocating. Nick tore his eyes from the door to look at Judy, seeing the shock in her eyes. She had brought both of her paws up to cover her mouth, and she sat there, wide eyed, staring at his exhausted visage. Sighing loudly, he looked down at the floor, allowing his paw to drop back to his side. "I burned everything," he mumbled. "The pictures, the memories, all of it." After a while of staring at his feet, he passed Judy again to stand at the edge of the container.
"This is where the tailory used to stand," he informed her sadly, waving his paws out in front of him towards the rest of the lot. "Right here." Nick brought one of his clawed paws up to point at a rocky flat near one of the adjacent buildings. "Over there was the back entrance." His eyes fell on the corner of the street, trailing downward to another rocky spot just at the corner of the lot where the grass met the sidewalk. "Right on the corner there was a flight of steps that went up to the front door." Glancing up to the brickface of the building next door, his paw again gestured up the dark scorches on the wall. "It was as tall as the others. I honestly thought they would have cleaned the scars off the sides by now. Twenty years is a long time."
He turned his back on the lot, keeping his eyes on the floor as he weaved his paws behind his back. Slowly, he made his way towards the back of the container. He felt like he had been pacing, but the motion was helping him let the memories come without sticking. If he let them stick, he would feel even worse. "He came back to the fireball with me standing outside of it," he said as he passed her. "Just watching it all burn." When he reached the piled of junk again, he put his paws out in front of him to support his weight as he leaned into it, feeling even more tired. "He patted me on the shoulder, told me I had finally learned, and then just walked away. I wouldn't see him for five more years, and by that time I was already well established in what I was doing."
Nick took another deep breath, feeling the story come to a close. "Since the day he walked off, I slept in the streets," he continued, closing his eyes again. The rain above had slowed even more, coming to his ears in a light drizzle. "I had already gotten some practice for it already, so it wasn't honestly that big of a change. For twenty years, I have been homeless." He opened his eyes, seeing a blue rucksack stacked on the pile in front of him. Nick swiped it off the stack rough, turning it over in his paw. "I kept all of my belongings either in here or in one of these bags, hidden throughout the city," he said sternly, gesturing around him before tossing the bag back over the collection. "The first couple years were hard, but after that it was a cakewalk of routine."
Turning around to look at her again, he could see the hurt in her eyes. In some strange way, she probably blamed herself that he had continued staying on the streets even after they had become friends. He thought she was probably kicking herself for not forcing the information out of him. "I started making money I just didn't know what to do with, so I bought more bags, and made more caches," he said, walking directly up to her. "When I was nineteen, the bank put this place up for sale, and I gave the money to a lawyer friend of mine to buy and keep hold of. I'd pay him the taxes every year, plus a little extra, and he'd keep it for me."
Nick kneeled down in front of the doe, reaching out with his large paws to grab onto hers, rubbing the pads of his thumbs across their backs, staring into her eyes. "It's been that way for a long time now. I had been doing the same thing every single day for virtually twenty years. I met Finnick when I was twenty-three, and we formed our partnership. We made a lot of money together." A genuine smile spread up the fox's muzzle, and he squeezed her paws lightly. "Then - one day - when we were trying to get our paws on a Jumbo Pop, a little grey bunny came through the door, and she showed me how I could be better than that. And that's what I'm going to be."
Judy lunged into him, wrapping her arms around his neck and burying her face into his cream colored fur. The fox was surprised for a moment, but then he felt his features relax as she burrowed her nose deeper into his fur, and he brought up his arms to snake across her small back. "N-nick," she managed to say between sniffles, and he could feel the warm dampness of her tears soak all the way to his skin. "I d-don't know w-what to say-"
"Not yet, Fluff," he replied easily. Nick pushed her back to look in his eyes, taking one of his paws away to disappear inside his pocket. He used his other paw to cup her cheek, wiping away the tears with his thumb. As he stared into her sad eyes, the paw that went into his pocket came up between them, and in his grasp was a carrot shaped pen. "I'm not done." Judy couldn't believe her eyes, darting her deep amethyst orbs between the carrot and Nick with her mouth hanging open in shock. Slowly, she disentangled her arms from his neck and accepted the offered pen with shaky paws, holding it as if it could breath.
Pointing at the playback button, he watched her eyes light up and stare back down at the pen. Judy took a deep breath before pressing her padless thumb into the button, filling the space between them with the familiar scratching, electronic sound. "Hey, Carrots, it's me… Nick." The fox's voice came clearly through the pen in her grasp, and she stared at it in awe. "You know, as confident as I was about recording this thing, I don't actually know what to say. If you're getting this, then I guess that means I missed our phone call. I didn't mean to make myself a liar, I just didn't think through the promise. Truth is, I guess I might have bitten off more than I can chew this time."
Judy's eyes snapped up to the fox inches from her face, and her nose started twitching endlessly as they searched each other's eyes, Nick gazing at her with his usual lidded smile, though now it looked genuine. "I gave up control of the situation. I showed them my hand, and now it's their move. I've never been afraid of dying, despite how much energy I've put into staying alive. It's just this time I feel like I've got unfinished business, like I don't want to leave. I'm glad I met you, Carrots. If nothing else, you made it all worth it for this old fox. None of it seems so bad anymore if it means I got to meet you. I-"
Before the rabbit could say anything, Nick's massive paws came up moved to clasp over hers as she held the pen. She looked at him blankly, her mouth moving without any words coming out, still trying to process the recording. "I couldn't remember what I was going to say at the end there, but I think I figured it out," Nick said quietly, gazing into her eyes. "It was 'I just wish I was a better mammal'." He held onto her paws between them tightly, and his green eyes fell down onto the jumbled mess of fingers and an orange pen. When he looked back up into her eyes, he saw the emotion bubbling over again, tears just on the brink of escaping her eyes. "I'm ready to be that mammal, if you'll help me."
She buried herself back into his neck in one swift motion, pulling her paws free to wrap around his head with need. "Of course I will," she whispered into his fur, her breath warming him to his core. "I'll always be there. Trust me."
Nick smiled happily, wrapping his own arms around the bunny in front of him for a deep hug. His long neck allowed him to drape his head over her back, pressing down her long ears as he pulled her in deeper. "I do. I do trust you," he whispered back.
They sat silently in each other's arms for a long while, Judy sitting down on the lawn chair and Nick kneeling in front of her. It took a long time for Judy to stop crying into his neck, and the fox was just happy to hold her close to him. He felt lighter than ever before. Now that he had laid his past out, and she still accepted him, a lightheaded feeling permeated through his mind. It was as if a tremendous weight had been lifted off his shoulders, and this two-and-a-half-foot bunny in his arms had been the one to do it. Nick had to wonder if he would ever be able to repay her for all she had done for him, but some part of him didn't mind the idea of being indebted to her for the rest of his life.
Judy buried her face even deeper into his fur, shaking her head from side to side as if she was burrowing into him. When she spoke, her hot breath was right on his skin, and muffled into the crook of his neck. "I'm sorry-"
"You have nothing to be sorry about," he said, cutting her off. Nick tried again to deepen the hug as far as he could without hurting her, but it still didn't feel close enough for him. Instead, his tail came out from behind him and wrapped around her hind paws that dangled off the edge of the chair. "Didn't I already say it in the recording? You made it all worth it." Nick felt her flex her toes into the fur of his tail, and one of his arms trailed down her back to pull her stomach flat against him. "I would happily live through it a second time if it meant you would be there at the end." It eventually had to come to an end, though, and he felt her squirm in his hold, causing him to loosen his grip on her.
She pulled back only slightly, grabbing onto both of his shoulders and looking up into his piercing emerald eyes deeply, searching them for any hint of playfulness of insincerity, but found none. "That doesn't make it okay," she whispered, her eyes falling down on the damp, matter patch of fur she had made in the cream colored fur of his neck.
A reminiscent look captured the fox's eyes as he looked down at her. "It's not right to change the past," he replied, watching here beautiful eyes snap back up to meet his gaze. "It's what makes us who we are."
Judy smiled warmly at him, her paws sliding up from his shoulders to either side of his face. A long moment passed between them of just gazing into each other's eyes, drinking in the moment. Finally, much to Nick's disappointment, Judy's paws retracted back down to her pants, fishing into her pocket. "I have something for you," she said, beaming at him. What she brought out caught Nick off guard, and he traded his vision between Judy and the offered piece of folded paper.
With shaky paws, he took it from her, unfolding it carefully to reveal the police academy application that he had filled out all those months ago. His jaw dropped and his features ran slack as he studied the official looking paper, having trouble believing his eyes. "You kept it…" he said softly, an elated smile curling his lips upwards. Nick's eyes shot up to see her staring at him hopefully, and the smile that split his face grew even wider.
"That's funny," he said cheerfully, taking one of his paws away to disappear into his own pocket. The flexible, rectangular object that he pulled out to offer the bunny was actually a folded piece of paper itself. "I had something like this for you." Judy stared stunned silence at the piece of paper, carefully taking it from him to unfold it. When she saw that it was the same as the paper she had given him, she choked on her breath, a smile larger than he had ever seen shining brightly on her face. A paw had reflexively come up to cover her mouth, but it was wholly too slow to arrive in time before she threw herself back around his neck. "I think I'll keep this one, though," he mumbled into her ears.
Another long moment passed between them, but when Judy finally pulled away, she looked into his eyes pleadingly. "Oh, Nick," she begged, placing one of her paws on her chest. "Come live with me. I won't let you sleep on the streets anymore."
Nick's smile shrunk at the thought. He would like nothing more than to spend more time with her, but he had no intention of intruding on her home. He could clearly remember her saying that it was smaller than her room back at her warren, and that was a shoebox compared to most. "I can get a hotel until I find a place," he reassured her, tilting his head to the side.
"With the money you got hustling?" she asked, and Nick knew it would be better not to answer that question. She already knew what it was. "Nick, you're not supposed to have that." Judy pulled herself back into the hug, burying her nose into his shoulder. "Come live with me," she mumbled into his fur, her hot breath sending a shiver down his spin. "Just until you become a cop."
"What if I wash out?" he asked, returning the hug.
"You won't," she replied, completely sure of what she was saying. "I know you won't."
Nick still wasn't sure. If his moving in would mean even the slightest bit of an inconvenience, he did not think he should do it. Still, the thought of waking up somewhere comfortable and warm, near someone he actually cared about was alluring, but he had to be sure he wouldn't cause her any grief. Who am I kidding? he thought. I'm a fox moving in with a bunny, she would get grief no matter what I did. Nick searched her eyes, hoping to find an ounce of reluctance. He found no such luck. His only pause now was a story she had told him almost a week ago. "I thought you said you couldn't sleep with predators around?"
She snorted into him, the reverberation sending another shiver down his spine. Judy pulled away slowly, maintaining their connection, and looked into his eyes, begging. "Did I have any trouble sleeping in the loft?" she asked, looking deep into his reluctant eyes. "Nick…" A tiny grey paw rose up to touch the side of his muzzle, and despite himself he found that he was leaning into her touch, gazing into her eyes. "Please."
After a long moment, he sighed. "Alright, Carrots," he replied, nodding his head with a hopeful smile. "Let's go home."
Outside the shipping container, the light drizzle had taped off completely, and the rain stopped falling on the city for the first time in days. From the stop where the fox and bunny were tangled together, they could see the clouds roll around in the sky, creating cracks between the blotches of grey and black. Shimmering streaks of amber light reached down into the city, and as Judy stuck herself back into him, Nick looked out at the first rays of sunshine he had seen in what felt like the longest week he had ever lived. The storm had finally broken, and the warmth of the sun once again radiated across the city.
The smile that spread up the fox's muzzle as he shut his eyes and buried his own head into hers was one of unbelievable relief. Twenty years was all it had to be. It may have been a long, and incredibly dark time, but his shining future would be the penance for his gloomy past. Like the rain, it was fleeting, and the sun's rays always found a way to shine through the darkness eventually.
And that's exactly what had happened. Judy was his ray of sunshine, the first to break the storm's iron grip on his reality and crack its solid face, bringing with her other rays of sunshine that made him feel alive again. He was finallyfree, and it was all because of her.
Much like Nick, as confident as I was to write this post-credit note, I don't actually know what to say. So instead of saying something profound and heartfelt, lets just jump into the numbers and see if I get there on my own. As of the time I am writing this Quid Pro Quo has gotten 184 reviews, 170 followes, 117 favorites, and a whopping 24,000 views! I don't think I can express how suprised I am. It's deeply humbling to know so many people read and enjoyed my work. When I started, it was just as a neat little project, and now it's a 230,000 word story. It blows my mind, it really does.
What can I say except I am grateful for every single one of you. I may not have done this for the feedback, but it helped me through many chapters, and it gave me the motization to continue. I never expected this much, and the idea that people from all over the world had read my tiny little fic is astounding. I may not be the best writer in the world, but I'm glad it was enough to entertain. In writing this, I have learned a lot, too. I cannot stress enough how happy I am for all of the positive feedback. Thank you. Each and every one of you. Even the simple follow warms my day.
Here's to all of you.
Quid Pro Quo might be ending, but the story of Nick and Judy (as well as my adventure into writing) continues. I'll see you all in the next story.