Nick was nervous. It was not a feeling that occupied him frequently so it did show on his face, if one was paying attention. As smooth and collected as he could appear, Judy could always tell. His mouth would smile but his eyes stayed wide open instead of the usual half-lidded smirk he wore as often as his dress-shirt.
"How am I doin' so far?" he whispered to her as they continued through the burrow.
"Quit your fussing, sweetheart. You're doing just fine. Just relax, be yourself, and don't eat any of my brothers or sisters," she jested.
"Carrots!" he hissed as a few of her younger siblings, who heard the exchange, looked up at Nick with wide nervous eyes.
"I'm just kidding guys!" she reminded them, before turning back to Nick. "I honestly think they like you. It'll be hard for them not to stare because I don't think we've ever actually had a fox in the burrow before."
"Well good, cause these hallway ceilings are trying to kill me," he muttered. The Hopps Family Burrow was expansive on the inside, spreading out through endless hallways and corridors leading down dormitories, communal bathrooms, living-rooms and play spaces. But the hallways, while mostly tall enough for Nick to stand in, were all separated by low-hanging doors, so as they walked he was continuously ducking his head down narrowly avoiding an embarrassing 'conk' to the skull.
"Better the hallways trying to kill you than my parents," she said, which made Nick laugh.
"I honestly don't know why I was worried about your folks so much. They were super nice at the train station," he remembered.
"They are nice. They just . . . it's just a little strange for them I guess. Hundreds of kids and I'm the only one to bring home someone who is not a bunny. And . . . well they weren't always so open to foxes," she confessed.
"Carrots, you did tell them I was a fox before we came down here, right?" he asked.
"Of course I did, you dummy. But it's one thing to hear about it over the phone, it's another to actually see it in person I guess." Judy had told her parents the truth over the phone a few months earlier. They were shocked, to say the least, and it took a few hours to answer all of their probing questions. But she reassured them that Nick was not only a perfect gentlemammal but also her closest friend. Over some time, they got used to the concept. But when you see the actual fangs from mouth of the predator who frequently spends nights at your daughter's apartment, all of that can be easy to forget.
"Oh Nick sweetie!" Bonnie Hopps called out. She was carrying a few boxes of produce stacked just a little too high for her to see over. Nick wasted no time taking them from her and holding the stack under his chin.
"Thank you, hun. Would you mind carrying these with me to suite?" Bonnie asked.
"Not at all, Mrs. H," he assured her, even though he had no idea where or what the 'suite' was.
"Here, I'll take one of those," Judy offered.
"Actually honey-bun, Jake needs some help in the kitchen. Would you mind running back there and lending a paw? I'll take Nick and meet you there in a minute," she said, being oh-so-subtle about dismissing Judy's attempt at tagging along. Judy saw it though, and frowned. She leaned in closer to her mother while Nick was finding a better grip on his stack of boxes.
"What are you doing?" Judy asked quietly.
"Your father just has a question he'd like to ask. Don't worry, we're not going to run him out of town, we just want a quick chat," she reassured Judy. While she was hesitant to let Nick face both of her parents alone, her mother's genuine smile always seemed hard to argue with. She gave Nick a nervous glance, but decided to let it play out.
"Where to?" Nick asked.
"Right this way, sweetie," she said, and led Nick down another narrow hallway towards the suite. she looked at Nick closely as they walked by. He gave Judy a wink and a smile, feigning his confidence as best he could.
His confidence took a dive when they eventually arrived at the suite. He realized that by 'suite', she meant the master quarters where Judy's parents spent most of their time. Through a bigger door than the other bedrooms, he walked into a charming living room with a fire lit on one side. The glass doors to his right led to a tidy-looking office. He guessed that the room behind the fireplace to the left was their bedroom. Across the room were two sliding glass doors that opened onto a breathtaking view of their farm. He could see the setting sun turning the rolling hills a lovely shade of yellow on green.
"Stu? We've got the samples for ya," she called out towards the bedroom.
"I'll be right in, honey," he heard Judy's father call out happily from the bedroom.
"If you could just lay those down here," Bonnie motioned to the floor in the office. Nick obliged and took a quick peek at the produce inside.
"Samples?" he pondered.
"Hmm? Oh yes, these are all picked from different fields on the farm at random. We give them all a thorough inspection and taste test to make sure the produce is just as good in every spot," she explained.
"Quality control, I get it," Nick said.
"That's it, Nick," Stewart Hopps said, joining them in the office. He had changed out of his overalls and was now wearing a button-down shirt tucked neatly into his jeans. He offered Nick a smile and nodded towards the boxes.
"Sometimes we find that the night-howlers aren't working to keep the bugs off the produce, so we test out samples to know where to dust, if we need to."
"Smart," Nick complimented. "Let me know if you ever need a mammal to taste-test some blueberries."
"Oh, of course Nick," Bonnie chuckled and walked into the living-room area. Stu followed her and took a seat in a custom-made chair across from Bonnie.
Nick's nerves returned as a silence formed in the room. Here he was alone with Judy's parents, who looked like they had no intention of leaving the room. His fears were soon realized when Bonnie beckoned him to join them.
"Have a seat, sweetie," she offered. Nick anxiously took a seat on the couch across from them, thankful that it was just big enough for him to sit comfortably on. He looked at the two of them, who exchanged glances with each other with a knowing nod.
"You sure can make a fine farm, Mr. and Mrs. Hopps," he said, nervously trying to break the tension.
"Thank you dear," Bonnie offered.
"It does take a lot of work and constant care," Stu said rather sternly. "Building a home is no easy task."
Stu's tone darkened the mood somewhat. Nick could tell that he was getting at something serious. While his schmoozing instincts were screaming at him to crack jokes and break the ice, he kept his maw shut and let Stu continue.
"On that note, we have a question for you, Mr. Wilde," Stu began.
"Of course, we mean no offense to you!" Bonnie assured him. "You've given us no reason to distrust you."
"And we know Judy trusts you, and she's a good judge of character," Stu continued for her.
"Oh yes, absolutely," she said with a nod.
"It's just that . . . well . . . Bon, how do I put this?" he asked his wife.
"We've heard some things about your past," Bonnie said with a concerned look on her face. "About what you did before you joined the force." Nick's ears dropped and he tentatively put us paws up.
"Mrs. Hopps, I can assure you that those days are long behind me," Nick began.
"I'm sure they are," Stu said, not sounding totally convinced. "But you have to understand, we are concerned about Judy. We've been concerned for her ever since she left for the academy. We love her dearly, and we want to make sure that your intentions are . . . sincere?" he suggested, raising an eyebrow at his wife again.
"Nick, we just want to know what Judy means to you. We can tell she's smitten, there's no denying her feelings. But . . ." Bonnie drifted off. Nick rejected the urge to scoff. It was not what he was hoping to hear from Judy's parents, but at the end of the day he could not blame them given all of the circumstances.
"You just want to make sure she's not getting hoodwinked by a fox on the prowl?" Nick suggested.
"That's it!" Stu said with a smile. Bonnie frowned at her husband and shook her head.
"Sweetie, you being a fox means that you're both going to face difficulties moving forward. Not all mammals are accustomed to inter-species pairs, and some even despise it. Not to mention that if you were to stay together, you two could not have kids, and some places wouldn't even recognize a marriage between a fox and a rabbit. We just want to know that you care for her enough to face those challenges," Bonnie said confidently. She folded her hands in her lap and smiled at him, patiently waiting for his response. Nick didn't take long.
"How do I feel about Judy?" he asked no one in particular. "Do you want the short version or the long version?"
"Short first," Stu said with a nod.
"I love her more than anything," he said simply. Nick was a capable liar, but there was a certain satisfaction to how the truth could flow freely from the mouth like wind through fur.
"That's so sweet," Bonnie said with a smile. "But, if it's not too much trouble, I would like to hear the long version as well."
"Are you sure? It's a bit of a long story," he said carefully. Bonnie did not answer, nor did Stu. They simply reached across their chairs and gently took each other's paw, waiting for Nick to continue. They sat a little more deeply into their chairs as well, making it very clear that Nick could take his time. So Nick took a deep breath, and began.
"Ok," he breathed.
"My father was a tailor. He owned a little shop on the corner of South Broad Street and Saltlick, and he called it 'Suitopia'. Suits, shirts, jackets, buttons, zippers, the whole shebang. My mother told me he always had this idea that in order to change the way people saw foxes, we had to be as trustworthy and loyal as possible to prove the stereotype wrong. He'd apparently go out of his way to help folks out, even giving away some of his merchandise for free to his regular customers.
He died when I was very young, so I never really knew him. But Mom would never shut up about how proud he was of being a fox. His father fought in the war, and won himself the Medal of Loyalty for his actions on the field. When my grandfather died, he passed the medal onto my father who wore it every day. Mom said dad fashioned the medal into a pin and wore it under his shirt collar. I . . . guess he felt weird wearing on his chest when it was his father's medal. But he wanted to keep it around, maybe as a reminder that foxes are really trustworthy and loyal creatures, despite what some might say.
When I was young, I used to believe the same thing. I was eight, or maybe nine, and all I wanted to do was join the junior ranger scouts. My mom scrapped enough money together and got me a brand new uniform, because by god I was gonna fit in. Even if I was the only predator there. The only fox in the troop. I was going to be part of a pack, and I was never so proud.
I spent months preparing myself and training with the group, earning their trust and giving them mine in return. I was so sure I had done it all right, just like dad would have said. But when the time finally came for initiation, they turned on me. They pushed me to the ground, held me down, put a muzzle over my snout and told me that they would never trust a fox without one. So I ran. I found a spot on the street where I tore the darn thing off my face and . . . well, I learned a few things that day. Not the least of them was that dad was wrong. I tried, but if the world is only going to see a fox as shifty and untrustworthy, then there's no point in trying to be anything else."
Nick paused for a moment. Both Stu and Bonnie had looks of deep concern on their faces. It was almost scary, because it was the same expression that Judy wore when he told her the same story. The thought made him feel a little more comfortable in front of the two of them. He sighed, and continued.
"So, I got good at being a fox in the worst way. I started hanging around the shifty guys at school, began cheating on a few tests, and practiced my sweet-talking to the owners of local businesses. I was a cute little kit, so it was easier to appeal to their nicer instincts at the time. Even now I have to admit, it felt good getting what I wanted. I found that getting my hands on elephant-sized popsicles was easy when you begged the right way. I'd melt them down, make a ton of smaller popsicles, sell'em and pocket the difference. As I got older I began to try bigger scams. I'd take my mom's hair dryer and some plastic-wrap and fill VCR boxes with rocks and shrink-wrap them so they looked and felt new. Selling them one at a time would have been a waste because I'd never sell them to the same chump twice, so I packaged them in bulk. Made a killing at first, but eventually I got caught.
My mother was furious of course, but I did not want to hear any more of it. The constant reminder that I'm not the fox my father wanted me to be did not feel too good, so I decided to leave it all behind. I dropped out of school, left home, and started pulling smarter scams. I'd sell merch to tourists at extreme prices, I'd pawn off items I found in dumpsters where the rich-folk lived, and I found myself a business partner who could pull off the cute-fox-kid scam indefinitely. It was all technically legal, cause I had the right paperwork, but it was not exactly a honest living either.
The years went by like that. I got really good at talking my way out of sticky situations. I also knew practically everyone in the city, so I knew who I could pull a fast one on. Sure some mammals spat insults at me, and more than once I was threatened by mammals much bigger than me, but they never got to me. I guess that was because they were right. I was shifty, disloyal, and untrustworthy, because it was easier to give people what they expected."
Stu's face looked stern, and he shot a nervous glance at Bonnie. They looked confused as to why he was telling them this story, since it just re-enforced exactly what they were afraid of. They became even more confused when Nick smiled at them.
"But then one day, something weird happened. I was pulling my usual hustle with my business partner at an ice cream shop meant for large mammals. Finn was small enough to look like my son, so I pretended to be his dad to get the owner to sell us a large popsicle for the scam. But this elephant was not having it. He refused service to foxes in general and no matter how thick we laid it on, he wouldn't budge. I was just about to give it up when . . ."
". . . This bunny walks in wearing a meter-maid outfit. She flashed her badge and actually threatened the store owner with a health-code violation to get this giant meanie to sell us a jumbo-pop. She even paid for it! It was a small miracle for me because we made a killing on that pop. I remember thinking to myself, 'what a sucker,' that cop," Nick said. Bonnie gasped and held a paw over her mouth. Stu looked a little angry at Nick, but did not interrupt at all, waiting for Nick to finish his story.
"When she told me that she hated how folks had 'backwards attitude' towards foxes, I knew she was hiding something. After all, she was wearing Fox-Away on her hip! That's like having someone say they feel safe around you from the outside of a cage." Stu's angry look immediately faded as he looked nervously back at his wife, keeping his mouth shut. Bonnie gritted her teeth as well.
"Later that day, after cashing out, who do I see again but little miss meter-maid? She saw the scam and she was furious. She tried to arrest me for all sorts of things, but I was prepared. I had the right paperwork and I was no stranger to cops trying to pin me for it. But she wouldn't let up. She held this sort of pride for the city that died for me many years earlier, and it was almost funny to see. I made fun of her dreams to be a big-city cop, telling her that she'll only ever be a bunny and not a real cop. You know what she told me? She looked me dead in the eye and said 'No one can tell me what I can or can't be.'" Bonnie and Stu knowingly smiled at each other at that last remark.
"She had this fire in her eyes that was both admirable and stupid at the same time. She just didn't know yet, I thought. She'll learn that once no one would see her as anything more than a cute little bunny, she'll go crying back to her farm and live out her life as a carrot-farmer, which by the way was just a guess, I didn't actually know she grew up on a carrot farm," he admitted.
"I was so confident that her spirit would break that when I saw her again a few days later, I had no idea what I was about to get into. She wanted some information about a missing mammal case she was working on, and I gave her lip. So she did something I never expected."
"What?" Stu asked.
"She hustled me! She got me good on something I overlooked in my quest to be technically legal, and said that if I didn't help her out I'd be selling popsicles in the prison cafeteria. So I reluctantly agreed to help this energetic little spitfire on her quest to be a respected cop. The entire time, I was waiting for her to call it quits. I made it super-frustrating for her as well, causing more problems than helping for the most part. I wanted to see her crack, because when she did, I'd be right and she'd be home and the world would be as it should be.
But you both know Judy. If stubbornness was a drug, she'd be a junkie. She fought with me the whole way through, and never once lost hope of finding that missing otter and proving herself as a good cop. At one point she mentioned she only had 36 hours to solve the case, so I guessed that she was gunning for a promotion or breaking a record or something. Every time I thought she had enough, she proved me wrong. Eventually we go to the Rainforest District to question this jaguar, and I'm sure you know about how he went nuts and chased us through the canopy." Bonnie closed her eyes tight and gave Stu's paw a squeeze at the memory.
"She saved my life four or five times over the course of two minutes, and chained that jaguar to a lamp-post. I couldn't believe it, but not only had she proved me wrong about not breaking her spirit, but she was actually a terrific cop. When backup arrived and we took them up to the spot where she cuffed the jaguar, he was gone. The chief, who is this giant terrifying buffalo with a short temper, was furious. He said that since she had not found the otter in the two days he had given her, she had to turn her badge over.
I was stunned. I had no idea that her job depended on this case. She had done so much to find this otter, and the other cops looked at her like she was nothing. It felt surreal, like I was watching myself get muzzled all over again. Deep down, I thought I'd enjoy watching her fail, because it was how things were supposed to be. But I cracked. I found myself wishing that she would make it; that she'd prove me and all of those blues wrong."
"So what happened then? She didn't resign at that point, we know that much," Stu asked. Nick shrugged a bit and shook his head.
"She just . . . she reminded him that he promised her 48 hours so she still had a few left. So I followed. I wanted to see her get it right. We went to the mayor's office, found out where the jaguar had vanished to, and she snuck us into this highly guarded hospital where we found the missing mammals and blew the mayor's scheme sky high. And also for good measure, she saved my life one more time. It worked, it was all amazing. I watched her achieve the impossible and even the chief respected her after that. It felt strange, like even if I couldn't be the fox my father hoped I could be, at least some mammals could change minds.
That's when she suggested I become her partner on the force. No fox had ever been a cop before because no one thought a fox could be trusted enough. But she pushed the application in my hand and looked at me as if it would be silly of me not to, as if I was her partner already. In that moment, she was more than another friend to me. She was special," he explained.
"What did you think after her press-conference ordeal?" Bonnie asked.
"It hurt, Mrs. Hopps. Despite everything she said and did, I was reminded that deep down, she was still a bunny, and I a fox, and she was afraid of me. It felt a bit like being muzzled again. So I left. It wasn't easy for me, because I wanted so badly to believe in her the way she believed in me. But I was wrong again. I went back to my street corner and started hustling again, content to live out my life reminded of who and what I am.
But hustling didn't feel the same. I tasted what it felt like to be trusted, to do some good in the world, and to have mammals believe in me again. How could I go back to the way I was before when I knew what I was missing? The weeks went by, and I found that deep down, not only did I miss that feeling, I missed her. So I gave up hustling, 100% ready to be a bum on the street.
That's when she found me. She was frantic, telling me all about how the night-howlers were flowers and how she needed fix things. At first, I didn't want to hear it, but she apologized for everything. The guilt was clearly tearing herself up inside. She admitted that I was right, and that she'd understand if I just walked away. But I didn't. Instead, I fell head over heels for her. This stubborn little meter-maid took me, the cold-hearted street hustler, and made me believe in myself again. That I can be a loyal and loved fox."
Bonnie and Stu smiled at each other and at Nick, who's story clearly spoke to them.
"So" Nick said and cleared his throat. "The point of this long-winded story is this: Judy Hopps is the most important person in the world to me. Do I love her? the answer to your question is this: Yes, more than breathing. I cannot imagine a future with anyone else but her. Even if she eventually gets sick of my nonsense and dumps me, I will happily live out the rest of my life trying to prove to others what she proved to me," Nick said and reached up with one paw to his neck and unbuttoned the flap on his shirt collar.
"I owe her that much," he said and lifted his collar up. Underneath his collar rested a gleaming silver and white medal with the word 'Loyalty' printed around a gleaming golden star. Nick did not show off his grandfather's medal lightly, but he wore it beneath his tie every day since he joined the force.
"Oh," Bonnie gasped and placed a paw on her heart. "Nick, darling. Thank you so much for telling us all of this."
"Yes, that was very brave of you," Stu commended. "Especially the part about your hustling days."
"Yeah, I'd be very grateful if you did not mention that part to Judy's siblings. I'm not sure if the older ones would try and run me out of town with pitchforks and shotguns," he jested.
"Aha! You won't need to worry about them. If they try anything, Judy will have their ears for it," Stu said, eliciting another chuckle from the three of them.
"I'm glad you could be so open with us, sweetie. Thank you for telling us the truth," Bonnie said.
"He didn't," Judy said.
Nick quickly stood and wheeled around to find Judy standing at the door to the master suite with a warm smile on her face, wiping a stray tear from her cheek. She smiled and sniffed as she moved closer to Nick, who was still surprised she had eavesdropped on them.
"What do you mean? He wasn't telling the truth?" Stu said, a little in shock as well.
"Not the whole truth," she said as her smile grew. "When Chief Bogo asked for my badge after the jaguar attack, I was about to hand it over to him. I was so scared and heartbroken I could barely move. But it was Nick who stood up to him. He looked Bogo dead in the eye and said 'no'," she confessed. Stu's look of shock eased into a smile as he regarded the now bashful fox, who was still staring at Judy.
"I'll never forget what he said. He said, 'you guys gave her two days and a three-wheeled jokemobile to solve a case that you haven't cracked in two weeks? It's no wonder she needed my help, since none of you guys were going to help her!'. Then he counted off the hours we had left and he led me back downtown with a smile on his face," she explained. She kept her loving gaze on Nick as she recalled his bravery. "In that moment, he became the first mammal in all of Zootopia to stand up for me."
"Judy," Nick murmured.
She didn't answer. Instead she simply walked up to him and plopped her head onto his chest, sniffling once and dropping her ears. He wrapped his arms around her and gave her a light squeeze.
"I love you too Nick," she whispered, and quickly gave him a squeeze back before letting him go. She turned to her parents, but the next sight made her roll her eyes.
Stu was in tears. He babbled a bit about true love or something and blew his nose while his adoring wife consoled him. Bonnie smiled up at the two of them and got to her feet.
"Well, I think that's enough for one day. I believe I can speak for everyone present that Nick answered our question perfectly. Now let's all move to the kitchen since it's almost dinner time and I could use a few spare paws . . . Oh honey, quit your bumbling," she said as Stu continued to wipe tears away from his face.
"What? I like a love story, sue me," he defended himself and rose to his feet. Bonnie took Judy by the paw and led them out of the master suite and towards the kitchen. Nick followed with her dad beside him, who began apologizing that the doorways were all too short for him and how he'll gladly begin working on taller doorways.
"You naughty girl, listening in on his story like that," Bonnie scolded her with a sly smile.
"Hey, I wanted to make sure everything was going okay. You called him for a private interrogation and expected me not to intervene? Come on Mother," she jabbed back.
"I told you we weren't going to grill him or anything, we just wanted to hear his story!" Bonnie defended herself. "Have you so little faith in your dear Mother?"
"Honestly, I still wasn't sure if you liked him or not. I'll admit, I was nervous that when I first told you I was dating a fox you might disown me," Judy said.
"Judy," her mother said with a scoff. She turned back to glance at Nick who was patting her father on the shoulder to keep him from falling apart again.
"If you ever dump that fox, I just might."