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The Fire Triangle—A Zootopia Fanfiction
Chapter 6—Nick's Story
"She found out didn't she, Nick? Robyn found out that you went back to hustling."
Judy wanted to bite off her tongue almost as soon as the words slipped past it. It had always bothered her whenever someone stated the obvious—and now she had just related something only a little less plain than the fact that water is wet. But if Nick Wilde found her query grating, he gave no sign, only nodded, slowly and sadly.
"How could she not have found out, Carrots? It couldn't have been more evident if I'd left a trail of breadcrumbs."
UN-surprised as she was by that reply, Judy could feel a lump the size of a croquet ball rising up in her throat. When she tried to swallow it down again, it refused to budge. She tried a second time and felt it descending her gullet with the blinding speed of an antique elevator on tranquilizers.
She wondered if Nick had any idea; what he'd just described to her had been classic, almost textbook addictive behavior.
It was all there, the lies, the self-delusions; the constant promises of 'just a little more and I'll stop.' She had never realized it before, but her partner was hooked on hustling—'was hooked', not 'had been hooked'—and that brought to mind another, even more frightening prospect. If there was one thing Judy understood as a police officer, it was that addictive behavior doesn't just go away. Was Nick Wilde about to admit to something truly terrible, the real issue that could get him expelled from the ZPD?
She forced herself to meet his gaze.
"Nick, I'm dreading having to ask you this, but after everything you just told me, I need to know. Have you finally walked away from hustling or are you still into that game?"
His answer came almost instantaneously. "Yes Carrots, I'm still into it."
It should have hit Judy like a punch to the solar plexus; instead it made her ears stand up and her nose begin to twitch. Nick had made that admission with…what the…with a wink and a smile?
"Yes Judy, I'm still hustling," he went on, still wearing that impish expression, "only now I hustle for the ZPD."
"Wait, what?" Judy's nose was twitching faster than ever, "What the heck are you talking about, fox?"
He leaned forward, still smiling, but now his expression was slightly peevish. "Oh, come on Carrots, what do you think I'm talking about? Scamming the Rafaj Brothers into selling us a blood diamond, conning the Guilfords into coming in over that fireworks display—and all the other times I fast-talked a suspect into giving up the goods, that's what I mean when I say that."
Judy blinked and felt her mouth falling open. Sweet cheez 'n crack…why hadn't she seen it before? No, you couldn't just make addictive behavior go away, but you could learn to channel it in a positive direction…and that was exactly what her partner had done. Like a computer hacker who switches sides to become an expert on cyber-security, Nick Wilde had come to the good side of the force; he had become what you might refer to as a 'white-hat' hustler.
The next thing he said was, "Huh, what was that for?" Judy had thrown her arms around the fox and given him a ginormous hug.
"Just for being one of the good guys," she said, letting go and sitting back down again.
"Not so good as you might think, Carrots," he replied, also sitting back in his chair, but with a long, rueful expression stretched across his muzzle.
And then he closed his eyes and took in another deep breath.
"'The blackest day of my life started out on a high note.' Isn't that how it's supposed to go, Carrots? Not for me, it didn't. First, my mother let me oversleep, and when I finally woke up, I found out I'd forgotten to recharge my cell-phone. When I plugged it in, I discovered I had something like twelve voice-mail messages from Finnick waiting for me. After he finished chewing me out for not answering him earlier, he told me that our vitamin deal from yesterday was off; the buyer had backed out. "They heard about your arrest and got cold feet,' he told me. Aggghhh, grrrrrr…oh if I EVER got my paws on that no-good, backstabbing koala…!"
"When I came downstairs, I found my mother had breakfast waiting on the table. That was nice, but then as soon as I sat down, she started in on her favorite subject."
"'Will what happened yesterday put crimp in your plans to marry Robyn, Nick? I certainly hope it won't; she'll make such a wonderful mother…' and then off she went. You know the really awful thing, Judy? I actually had begun to think about us starting a family myself—but not like that, not just so my mother could have grandkits. I finished up quickly, telling her I needed to get home right away. 'I-I think I left the iron on.'"
"Oops, wrong thing to say, I should have known mom better than that. 'You're ironing your clothes now, Nicholas?' she said 'Why didn't you tell me? I could have given you some pointers. Here, come on down to the laundry room and let me show you the right way…'"
"'Mom, I really need get going, I'll call you later, okay?'" I kissed her on the cheek and then grabbed my jacket and laid for the door."
"When I got back to my apartment, there was a car parked at the curb and a striped skunk sitting on the bumper. I recognized her immediately."
"'Meffy? What on earth are you doing here?'"
"She looked at me, and then looked away….but not before I saw the tears in her eyes. 'Oh Nick,' she said, shaking her head at the ground, 'Oh Nick.'"
"For maybe half a second, I had no idea what was going on…and then then it hit me like an express train, the familiar aroma of a cross-fox vixen."
"'Oh no…oh, my God, NO!'"
"I pushed past Meffy and bolted down the stairs. Even before I reached the door to my flat, my nose had dispelled any lingering doubts; Robyn was inside and waiting for me."
"And she was onto me. I hadn't the slightest idea how it had happened, but deep down in my heart of hearts I knew that Robyn had somehow discovered the truth; she knew I was back in the hustling game."
"I found her standing at the kitchen table with her back turned towards me and her paws splayed out against the corners; she looked almost as if she was trying to prop herself up."
"I stepped forward and reached out with a trembling paw."
"I watched as her paws tightened up on the table-top, thumb-claws gouging furrows in the wood. And then her whole body went rigid; you could almost have sworn 110 volts were passing through her."
"'Don't you 'Sweetheart' ME, Nicholas Libelious Wilde!' She snarled. She was trying to sound angry, but all that came out was the voice of a broken heart…and that was a hundred times worse!"
"Then she turned around; her eyes were all puffy and red and her face was streaked with dark, wet lines. The worst thing was that ugly, brown splotch, pasted to the side of her muzzle; Robyn had cried so hard, she'd given herself a nosebleed."
"I've made some dumb-fox moves in my day, Carrots, but what I did next was a new low in stupidity, even for me. I actually spread my arms and pretended I don't know what was going on. 'Robyn? Robyn, what's wro…'"
"'Nick, stop it!' She cut me off with a throaty growl; somehow my words had managed to pull her back together, 'Just stop it, okay? Haven't you lied to me enough already?'"
"I tried to say something else but she bared her fangs and held out a fist with the pawlm turned upwards. And then she opened it."
"Inside was the key to the storage unit."
"'Just stop it, Red.' She said again, 'I've been inside, I know what's in there; you haven't been at work all this time, you've been running hustles again, haven't you?'"
"I tried to answer, but my voice had dried up in my throat."
"Robyn took that for more playacting and threw the key at me, 'HAVEN'T YOU!'"
"I thought at first she'd missed, but when I looked down, I saw blood on my shirt."
"And then she told me how she'd found out I was working the streets again. It had happened the previous night, while I'd been sleeping at my mother's house. Robyn and the Chimeras had arrived at Club Barramundi only to be told by the manager that their set had been canceled after all…by her. "And I wouldn't try to book any more gigs wi' us, if I was you, vixen. You and yer blokes aren't welcome to play Barramundi anymore. Matter of fact, I don't even want you comin' in here as customers.'"
"Loyal manager that she was, Meffy jumped in with both feet on behalf of the band. 'You're going to fire us without cause! What the heck is your problem, Sister?'"
"The manager, a female koala stabbed finger in Robyn's direction."
"'Her boyfriend got MY boyfriend sent to jail. That's the problem, Stinkweed.'"
"That did it; Robyn went off like a depth charge. "Nick…got your boyfriend sent to jail? Get yourself a blankety-blank clue, Cuddles! It was YOUR guy who tried to frame an innocent mammal, not the other way around.'"
"The manager only folded her arms and sneered, 'Innocent…HAH!'"
"'That's right, innocent!" Robyn snarled, 'Nick had NOTHING to do with that debt relief hustle.'"
"And then she was staring with her ears pricked up. Instead of coming back with something nasty, Hugh Vicks' girlfriend was laughing so hard, she could barely stand upright."
"'What the heck…?' Robyn goggled and the manager stopped laughing. A half-second later, her paws were on her hips and her lip was curling upwards in an icy sneer."
"'Cor, you really are a dumb fox aren't yer, Vixy? You really don't know d'yer? Your Nick might not have been in with my Hugh on that debt relief business, but he's been at it wi' just about every other hustle you might care to name, hasn't he?'"
"'You're lying!' Robyn almost screamed. She would have ended up in jail herself right then if two of her bandmates hadn't grabbed her and held her back.
"'No, sorry, it's the truth,' the lady koala answered; she was clearly enjoying the hack out of this. 'Think about it, Sheila. Why would Hugh have told his blokes that Nick Wilde was partners with him if your fox was walking the straight and narrow, eh? What sort of sense would that have made? But if you don't want to take my word for it, go ask around for y'self; you'll find out soon enough what sort of innocent your darling Nicky is.'"
"Robyn didn't ask around, she had Meffy drive her straight to my place, intending to confront me when she got there."
"Well, because she assumed I'd head straight home as soon as the coast was clear, Carrots. And she was right, if I hadn't fallen asleep at my mother's, I'd have already been there, waiting for her.
"When she got to my flat, there was no sign of me, (or of any reporters, thank goodness for that.) But where the heck was I? She tried to call me, but like I said earlier, I had forgotten to charge my cell phone and she got taken directly to voice mail. And so she let herself into the flat—she had her own key—and settled down to wait."
"And that was when she'd spotted the other key, laying on the kitchen table; the one with the name and address of Ewe-Stor-It printed on the fob. She talked Meffy into taking her there and somehow bluffed her way past the manager by claiming that I had sent her. What happened next, I knew already."
"When Robyn finished telling me how she'd found me out, the next thing I remember is falling on my knees and clasping my paws."
"'Robyn please, I had no choice. I was broke and no one would hire me or do business with me. If I hadn't started working the streets again…'"
"She screamed louder than ever. 'You idiot! You dumb, dumb, stupid fox; I DON'T CARE ABOUT THAT!'"
"I tried not to stare, but couldn't help myself. 'Robyn, wha…?'"
"She grimaced and clenched her fists. 'You didn't need to lie to me, Red! You didn't NEED to lie. Dang you, I would have understood. I wouldn't have married you, but I'd have stuck by you until you got back on your feet. What's the MATTER with you Nick, don't you know me?'"
"And then she fell down to her knees and started crying again. 'Don't you know me?' she sobbed."
"I didn't answer her, Carrots; I couldn't…because something else she'd said had gone straight through my heart like a shaft of ice, 'I would have stuck by you…'"
"'Robyn, please…no.' Now I was crying too, 'I'm sorry please, I'll make it up to you. Please Robyn, please…don't go.'"
"She stood up, trying to compose herself. 'No Nick, it's too late for 'I'm sorry.' Remember what I said the first time you asked me to marry you, that I didn't ever want to go through this again? Well, guess what? I AM going through it again—right now. My worst nightmare just came true.'"
"'Robyn, please listen,' I tried to interrupt her but she brushed me off like a flea."
"'It's no good, Red. I can't be with you if I can't trust you.' She shook her head, and started to cry again, "And how can I ever trust you again after this? What am I supposed to do NOW if we get married? Every time you leave the house, I won't know if you're heading off to the store, or sneaking off to run another scheme." She grimaced and shook her head, 'I can't live with that Nick, not ever again. Dang you, I told you I couldn't!'"
"'Oh Robyn, please…please.' I was down on all fours with my head against the floor. 'I'll give up hustling for good this time…I swear I will. And I'll never lie to you again; I can change, let me show you…'"
"She lifted a paw and interrupted me again. 'Save your breath, Red; I've heard it all before.' Now she sounded more tired than hurt…or even angry, 'It's not just about me, don't you understand that? I won't see….I… My…' She sniffed and turned away from me as if she couldn't bear to see my face. And who knows? Maybe she couldn't. 'You'll never quit hustling Red, you can't,' she said, 'If you could, you wouldn't have lied to me about it in the first place.'"
"It was the unkindest cut of all Carrots…because I knew that it was true; if I'd told her that I was going back to hustling for good, she'd have left me anyway. And if I'd said that it was only temporary—that I was only going back to working the streets until I made enough money to walk away—it would have been a bigger lie than all the others I'd told her put together. It was only then that I realized; she was right, I could never quit the streets. I'd had one chance to walk away from the hustling life and I'd almost made it…but 'almost' only counts in ring toss and paw grenades. And then, just when I thought it couldn't get any worse, I saw Robyn pulling off her engagement ring. I tried to say something, but all I could manage was a choking sob."
"She dropped the ring on the kitchen table and then looked at me with an unreadable expression. What was she feeling, sorrow, anger, bitterness, remorse…or all of the above?"
"'Good-bye, Red.' She told me in a small, velvety voice, and then turned and walked out the door. For a second, I just stared after her, too overwhelmed to react. And then something inside me seemed to give way and I bolting for the basement steps with everything I had. But halfway to the top, I found Meffy blocking the way. I tried to move past her but she stamped her feet and waved me back."
"I called out, 'Robyn, wait!' I feinted left and tried to go around Meffy's other side, but she anticipated my move and got in front of me again, this time turning halfway around and starting to bend over. I could already smell her skunk scent."
"'Don't make me do it, Nick!' she told me in a shaky, cracking voice, 'I'll hate myself forever, but I swear, I'll do it!'"
"I heard the sound of a car-door slamming from somewhere up above…and then the sound of an engine revving and tires squealing."
"And just like that, Robyn was gone from my life; I never saw her again, Carrots. When I went by her apartment later, she wasn't there but a few of her bandmates were…and they made it very clear that if I knew what was good for me, I'd make myself scarce, the sooner the better. Less than a week after that Robyn left town…for good, as it turned out. She took the Chimeras out on the road and never came back—except for one brief visit to get her things. I didn't find out about it until after she was gone again, and I knew this time, she wasn't ever coming back to Zootopia."
"But by then Carrots, I had other problems…problems that nearly got me killed a short time later."
"After Robyn walked out on me, I started getting careless with my hustling activities, sloppy even. I made accounting mistakes, I missed deliveries, I got suckered by my buyers—and I didn't care one way or the other. Why should I, when SHE wasn't there anymore? How I managed to avoid getting busted during that time, I have no idea. Finnick must have threatened to quit our partnership a dozen times, but he never did; he knew he was the only real friend I had left. I didn't dare go anywhere near my mother. If she started in about grandkids again, I knew I'd end up saying something I couldn't take back, so I went out of my way to avoid her."
"Then, one day I got phone call from Mr. Big. He was looking for a present for his Grandmother's birthday, and did I happen to know where to find a nice, wool rug? I did, but it would be spendy, I warned him. And then, when …"
"Yes, Carrots…that was how I ended up selling Mr. Big a rug made from the fur of a skunk's butt. You knew about that, but what you didn't know was that I got taken too, something that never would have happened before Robyn dumped me. That was the only reason the Big Shrew didn't have me iced right away. I found that out when he had me brought in to see him."
"I was walking down the street in the Canyonlands District when a limo came screeching up to the curb in front of me. I saw the doors fly open and before I could even blink, Koslov had me in a choke hold and was throwing me in the trunk I had no idea what I could have done, but I knew it wasn't anything trivial. Mr. Big hadn't sent Kevin and/or Raymond to come get me, he'd given the job to his top enforcer…AND he'd had me grabbed off the street in the Canyonlands, a place way outside of his territory—and also Koslov's comfort zone. Last but not least I was riding in the trunk instead of the back seat. Whatever was going on, it was something VERY serious."
"After a long, bumpy ride, the trunk popped open and Koslov hauled me out by the scruff of my neck. I could see we were at Mr. Big's house, but I still had no idea why I was there. I kept trying to ask Koslov what was going on, but all I got for my trouble was a few low grunts; finally, he dug his claws into my neck to make me shut up. When he brought me into Mr. Big's private office, the Big Shrew was perched on his desktop, waiting for me, sitting with an arm propped on one knee, and looking like Shrewlius Caesar."
"'Put him down,' he said to Koslov, and the big bear dropped me like a sack of potatoes. When I got up again, I saw Kevin standing next to Mr. Big, holding the rug I'd sold him…"
"Mmmm, how come you never asked me that before, Carrots? No, you can't make a rug in OUR size from the fur of a skunk's butt, but a rodent-size rug is no problem, Think of something about as big as a table napkin and you get the idea."
"'Mr. Big…sir?' I asked, trying to sound meek as possible, "I'm sorry, i-is there something wrong with…?"
"That was as far as I got before Raymond threw a wristlock on me and Kevin shoved the rug in my face. With the next breath I took, I understood everything; now I could smell it, the same odor that had come from Meffy when she'd threatened to spray me. This rug was NOT made of wool, it was made from…oh fox, I was in worse trouble than I ever could have imagined."
"'Let him go.' Mr. Big signaled to Kevin and Raymond, and they dropped me to the floor again. For moment, he just sat there looking down on me. Finally he said, 'Did you smell that Nick, what was it?'"
"I got up again, but very slowly, 'I-It's the odor of skunk's butt, Mr. Big.'"
"He leaned forward in his chair, 'That's right Nick. And so I have only one question for you.' He bared his teeth, 'Did you KNOW, fox? Did you know when you sold me this rug that it was made from the fur of a skunk's butt?'"
"'No Mr. Big, I didn't know,' I said…and it was the way I said it that saved my life. I didn't look or act scared, only ashamed of myself. When I told him that I hadn't known the rug I'd sold him was a skunk-butt rug, I had spoken it as a simple statement of fact. And honestly, at least a part of me was hoping that he'd ice me. What was the point in going on with my life if Robyn wasn't part of it?"
"Wha…? Oh, for crying out loud Fluff, that's not how I feel NOW! And anyway, I didn't try to push him into having me iced; all I did was tell him the truth, and then whatever happened was going to happen."
"Mr. Big nodded and then lapsed into a brooding silence. I had no idea what he was thinking; he had his paws clasped in front of his muzzle, and I couldn't see the expression on his face. When he finally spoke to me again, he sounded almost hurt."
"'Nicholas Wilde, I cannot believe this. Everyone had the highest regard for you Nick, and look what happened to you; look what you done to yourself, nothing but a shadow of the fox you used to be.' He shook his head, mournfully, and then gave me a penetrating look, 'such a waste…such a waste. Very well, I believe you when you say you didn't know where that rug came from, and that's why I'm going to give you a pass, BUT…!' He stood up and jabbed a finger at me; now he was angry, 'Don't you ever show your face around here, or in any of my other establishments, ever again. From now on The Thaw is off limits to you, understand? An insult to my honor is bad enough, but you've also insulted my Gramamma, and THAT I will not tolerate!' He was really getting worked up now, Carrots. I wouldn't have been surprised if he'd changed his mind and ordered Koslov to ice me after all."
"'As a matter of fact,' he hissed, snapping his teeth together, 'I think you could use a nice, long vacation somewhere else besides Zootopia, Nick. So here's what I'll do; you'll be free to go when we're done here, but if I find you on the road tomorrow, heading south on the way to Los Antelopes, or you're going east on the way to Zoo York, and you stop for anything but to pee and a cup of coffee and gasoline, I'm going to kill you. Koslov, get this volpe folle out of my sight!'"
"And with that, I was hauled back outside and thrown in the trunk of the limo again. They drove me to the Rainforest District and threw me out into the gutter in front of the Rainbow Falls metro station. And then they drove off and left me without another word."
"No, I wasn't worried that I was being taken for a 'last ride' Carrots. Mr. Big's an old school boss, remember? If he told you that he wasn't going to kill you, he meant it. His promises always came without loopholes, not like some of his rival bosses on the other side of the Climate Wall. On the other paw, that pass he'd given me was a limited-time offer, good only if I got my tail out of town right now."
"And so I hurried home and started packing. I was about halfway done when Finnick called. When I told him what had happened, he insisted on coming with me. I tried to talk him out of it—he hadn't had anything to do with that skunk-butt rug—but he wouldn't budge. 'Forget it Nick, where you go, I go.'"
"Yes, you're right Carrots, he was…he IS a real friend. And I'm really glad to see he managed to hook up with another good fox for a partner."
"But getting back to the story, early the next morning, we hit out on the highway…and it would be three long years before I saw Zootopia again. Yes, that was the road trip I mentioned on the train ride to Bunnyburrow; it was the first time I'd ever been outside of the city and I had no idea what to expect. Luckily, I had plenty of cash, the money I saved from my hustles that I told you about. Honestly though, I had no idea how long it was going to last."
"That trip remains kind of a blur to me, Carrots, most of the time we kept to the backroads and it was anything but a pleasure cruise; eating in some dirty dive, keeping out of sight, sleeping in the back of that cold van, and then in the morning we'd roll. I never drank more bad coffee or ate more pieces of cardboard pie in my life. After a while, I really grew to hate those crummy, little one-gas-station towns we passed through. Not like Bunnyburrow, I mean the ones with half the storefronts boarded up and the movie theater all closed down, the ones where you were likely to get pulled over by the local law just because you were driving with out-of-state plates. We never dared to run a hustle in any of those little, hick-town burgs. It was only when we'd hit a big city that we'd go to work, but we always kept a low profile and always made sure to hightail it after making a score. That wasn't only because of the cops, Carrots; the local hustlers didn't like it very much if they found out a couple of outsiders had been poaching on their territory. In New Orlions, we nearly got shaved, tarred, and feathered."
"Did I ever try to catch up with Robyn again? Yes…and no. Whenever Finnick and I hit one of the larger cities, I'd always make the rounds of the local music stores and clubs, asking if anyone had seen her. But then whenever I'd get a line on her, I'd always find some excuse not to follow up until it was too late. I know why I did that, Carrots, I was too ashamed to face her again…that, and I was scared that I might find her in the arms of another fox. I don't know, maybe eventually I would have gotten up the courage to face her again, except after only a couple of months on the road, her trail went cold as a stone. I'd ask about her and get, 'Robyn…who? The Chimeras…sorry, never heard of that band.' It wasn't until near the end of that road-trip that I finally learned what had happened to her."
"I remember everything about that day, Judy. Bright but hazy, temperature in the low 60's; we were in Bearbank, Califurnia, topping off the gas-tank at a Chevre station on Otterside Drive, when a car pulled into the lane on the opposite side of us. And there, sitting behind the wheel, was Meffy Newsome."
"Finnick had gone inside to grab a drink and some snacks, so I was out there by myself. I was still trying to decide whether I should duck behind the pump or go over and talk to her when she spotted me and saved me the trouble."
"'Nick,' she called, 'Nick Wilde is that you?' And then without waiting for an answer, she began walking in my direction. I could see right away that she had moved up in the world since the last time I'd seen her, silk blouse and designer jeans; she had traded in her Preyus for a Lepus."
"'Hello Nick, how are you?'"
"How WAS I? Couldn't she see that for herself? I would have looked perfectly natural, sitting at the top of a freeway ramp, holding a 'Bet You Can't Hit Me With a Quarter' sign. I felt…shabby in her presence, Carrots. I almost told her she had the wrong fox; instead I just blurted it out."
"'Hello Meffy…H-How's Robyn?'"
"She bit her lip and turned away from me; I could hear her sucking air between her teeth. 'Dangit, I was hoping you knew already,' she said, and then finally she looked at me. 'She's gone Nick…cancer, six months ago. I'm so sorry.'"
"It should have hit me like a sledgehammer, Carrots. Instead I just kind of went numb all over. You know those five stages of grief they always talk about? I went through every single one of them in the next two seconds. Yes, Robyn was gone…and this time she was really gone for good."
"After we finished gassing up the van, Meffy took me to a coffee shop and told me the full story; Finnick waited in the van while we talked. Less than three months into her road trip with the band, Robyn had started feeling sick when she woke up. When they got to Purrtland, Boaregon she finally gave in and went to see a doctor. He wrote her a prescription and it did the trick—and Meffy had thought that was the end of it."
"'Except it wasn't the end, Nick,' Meffy told me. 'Three weeks later, Robyn called the band together and said she'd have to leave the tour. 'I have to go home, my mother's dying,' she said, and no one argued with her. But then she never came back, and after the first few calls and e-mails, we never heard from her again. So, the band broke up, I moved to Los Antelopes and wrote Robyn McFerral and the Chimeras off as piece of bad luck…until late last year, when out of clear, blue sky I got an email from her. I almost deleted it Nick, and I'm glad I didn't. That was when Robyn finally told me about why she'd left the tour. When she got back to Pawvidence, she'd found out she had stage 3 pancreatic cancer. 'I didn't lie about my mother Meffy, she really was dying, but the cancer IS why I never came back. And now….I don't know how to make this any easier, so I'll just come right out and say it, now it's my turn; the chemo and the radiation treatments only slowed things down. The docs say I have another month left, maybe two.'"
"'And that's why I'm sending you this email, I don't want to go without having told you the truth. Goodbye Mef, you were a great manager and always a good friend.' (That hit me hard, Carrots. Unlike Robyn, I hadn't come clean with MY secrets.")
"'There was no address or phone number included in that e-mail, Nick,' Meffy went on to tell me, 'and when I e-mailed Robyn back, she never replied. I finally managed to track her down through her doctor, but by the time I did, she was gone; the cancer got very aggressive towards the end. I tried to get away for the memorial service, but had a commitment I couldn't break. I'm planning to go and visit her gravesite on the next anniversary of her passing.'"
"I said nothing to any of this, Carrots…only stared with an expectant look on my face. There was a question I desperately wanted to ask Meffy but didn't dare. It didn't matter; she knew what it was without my having to tell her."
"'No Nick,' she said, reaching out and taking hold of my paw, 'Robyn didn't mention you in that e-mail, I'm sorry.'"
"She could have stuck me with a thorn, I winced so hard. But that was when I finally accepted that Robyn was gone, Carrots. I had only been pretending up until that point but now I believed it for certain…and the odd thing was, I didn't feel guilty for not having been there when she passed. She wouldn't have wanted me there anyway, not mentioning me in her e-mail to Meffy proved that much if nothing else. In fact, believe it or not, I actually felt a small relief; at least now I wouldn't be torturing myself over what might have been. Cancer doesn't believe in such things as extenuating circumstances, Judy. \ I would have ended up losing Robyn even if we had gotten married."
"'Thank you so much for telling me, Meffy,' I said, 'I really needed to know.'"
"'You're welcome Nick, I only wish it could have been better news," she said, and then I saw her eyes drop down to the table top for a second. When she looked up again, it was her turn to admit the truth. 'I don't have too many regrets in my life fox, but one of the biggest is having kept you from following after Robyn when she walked out on you. Since then, I've never stopped wondering how things might have turned out if I hadn't interfered. Can you ever forgive me?'"
"I got up and laid a paw on her shoulder, 'Nothing to forgive, skunk-lady. You were right to do what you did. Robyn didn't belong with a street hustler, especially one who lied to her like that. I'll see you around, okay?' It was another lie; we both knew I was never going to see her again."
"I was halfway to the door when she called out after me, 'It wasn't only about her, Nick.'"
"I turned and looked back for second, "I know Meffy,' I said, quietly, 'I know. And thanks again.'"
"When I got back outside to the van, I found Finnick dozing in the driver's seat. I rapped on the window to wake him up, and then hauled myself in beside him. 'Fire it up Mini-Me, we're leaving town.'"
"He gave me an irritated look."
"'We was leaving town anyway, Nick,' he groused, 'and what the heck happened in there?'"
"I gave him the short version of what Meffy had told me; I think that was the closest the little guy ever came to hugging me."
"'Awwww Nick, I'm sorry. You okay, fox?'"
"'I'll get there,' I said, 'now come on, let's go.'"
"'Okay, okayyyy,' Finnick started the engine, 'but first, mind telling me where we're going?'"
"'Back to Zootopia', I said—and he shut it down and whipped off his sunglasses.'"
"'What, you got a death wish or something, Nick? You wanna end up with your pelt tacked up over Mr. Big's fireplace?"
"Finnick couldn't talk me out of returning to Zootopia but he was at least able to persuade me to let him go on ahead, 'to check the water first.' Even in my current state of mind, I couldn't argue with that idea; he had NEVER been on Mr. Big's hit parade, that skunk-butt-rug mess was mine-all-mine. So I saw him off, booked myself into a cheap motel and settled down to wait. It didn't take long. Three days later, I got the call."
"'Good news Nick, it's cool for you to come back to Zootopia, long as you stay out of any place owned by Mr. Big. He's got bigger problems than you right now. Guess who just got made Boss of the Sahara Square crime family? Rocco Peccari, the Red Pig.'"
"'Whoa, yeah, that'd get his attention, all right,' I said. If the Big Shrew had never gotten along with the Sahara Square mob before, now he'd be one step away from declaring a vendetta. The Red Pig represented everything he loathed in a crime boss, loud, crude, arrogant, and with a fuse about as long as a mole-rat's eyelash. Finnick was right; as long as I kept out of Mr. Big's way, it'd be safe for me to come home again."
"Why? I just told you why, Carrots; even after everything that had happened, Zootopia was still my home—and I missed it terribly. I took a cab to the Greywolf Terminal and caught the first bus headed back there."
"When I got to Zootopia, I moved back in with my mother and started working the streets the very next day…only things were never the same as they'd been before I left. From that time on, I was strictly a small-time operator, making just enough to support myself and no more. Remember what you said to me, the first time we met? 'No one tells me what I can or can't be—especially not some jerk who never had the guts to try to be anything more than a pawpsicle hustler!' No, don't be embarrassed Judy, you were right…that is who I was back then. Not before and you better believe not now…but back when we first met, yes, I WAS a fox with no ambition. After all where had ambition ever gotten me before?"
"And...I guess that's all there is, Carrots. You already know what happened next."
For several long moments, a deep, dark silence filled the train car, and then Judy reached out to put her paw on top of the fox's.
"Nick, I know how hard it was for you to tell me that. Thank you so much for sharing it with me."
He lifted a brow and tilted his head sideways.
"But…?" he had caught the inflection in her voice.
Judy took her paw away and let out a slow, rumbling sigh between her teeth.
"But…there's another reason why you told me all this besides just wanting to be honest with me; what is it?" She could be perceptive, too.
By way of response, Nick got up and went to the window, the reflection of his face split into a Picatsso painting by the streaks of rainwater slashing across the surface.
"Nick?" she asked him again
He turned to look over his shoulder.
"Carrots, I've come to a decision. I lived a lie once, and I'm not going to do it again. When we get back to Zootopia I'm going to go to Chief Bogo and tell him the truth about my arrest and what happened to me afterwards." He turned to face her once more, "But I wanted you to know the story first, Judy…so you'll understand why I have to do this."
"Nick," she started to say, feeling the croquet ball in her throat again. Yes, she understood, but that didn't mean she had to like it. She coughed hard, and the lump went away, or at least enough of it so that she could speak again. "Nick, if the Chief doesn't fire you for lying on your job application, the Zootopia Police Board will. You know what a bunch of by-the-book sticklebacks they are."
He nodded, but then folded his arms and leaned back against the wall.
"Maybe, maybe not, Carrots; I like to think that I've built up a pretty decent record as a cop since I joined the ZPD." He allowed himself a wan smile. "Even the Police Board might think twice before letting someone like that go."
Judy Hopps was smiling too, only hers was more of the sardonic variety. Helping to foil the Savage Predator conspiracy, saving the Carrot Days Festival, and everything in between—and he called it a, 'pretty good record'? Sweet cheez n' crackers, whatever happened to the cocky, bigheaded Nick she used so know? Judy had no idea but was more than happy to see that fox was gone, or at least on hiatus. She could really learn to like this new version of Nick Wilde…but then her smile faded as she realized, HE might not be around much longer either."
Her change of expression was not lost on the fox and he came over and put a paw on her shoulder.
"I know Carrots, but you know I have to do this—and you also know you'd do the same thing if it was you."
Judy nearly pushed him away. Yes, she would—dangit! Ohhhh, why did this sly so-and-so have to know her so well?
"And if they fire you?" she asked, looking up at him, bleakly.
His washed-out smile came back again.
"Then as Robyn would have said, whatever's going to happen is going to happen."
Just then, a low hiss of white noise came over the train's PA system and a canned voice spoke in a monotone.
"Now arriving, Zootopia Central Station. Bunnyburrow Express—now arriving, Zootopia Central Station. All passengers are advised to please using the appropriate-size exits when disembarking…"