Chapter 10—I Try So Hard Not To Know
A/N: Another update! YAY! I'm still an extremely busy lady, but as I said, I love writing this story, so I made time for it. :)
As always, thanks to Camoss and Libious for their encouragement and help. In this particular chapter, Camoss makes a cameo! See if you can find him. :)
Day 9: Tuesday, June 24th, 2016, 12:15 p.m.
"You got a what in yer apartment, Nick?!"
The memory of Weaselton's nasally voice shot through Nick's mind like a squirt from a water gun on a cold day. Frowning, he turned over a bug burger patty and slammed it back against the grill a little harder than necessary. He ignored the puzzled glances of his co-workers in the Basic Instinct kitchen as he half-mouthed the response he'd given the weasel.
"A couch, a table, a bed, some chairs—oh, and a bunny roommate. Why do you ask?"
He sighed. With that quip, both of his friends had started shouting at him at once about his stupidity, his irresponsibility, the danger in which he'd placed himself, the Den, and even the bunny…
It had taken nearly an hour for Nick to make it clear to them that he would not cave to their demands to kick Judy out or move away from the apartment himself, though he compromised by saying that he would think about it. And by "think about it," he meant that he would ignore them and figure out some way to keep Judy around.
For a moment, he squeezed his eyes shut. It wasn't that he could deny the possibility that having a Judy as a roommate could summon disaster for many mammals, including himself and—more importantly—her. His itching guilt was almost as strong as his determination to let her stay.
But why? How could he be so selfish?
At the sound of Judy's voice, Nick hurriedly pasted a nonchalant smile and hummed his acknowledgement as he glanced up at her over the service counter.
"Are you almost ready for lunch?" she queried, violet eyes softly meeting his as she placed an order ticket in front of him.
"Sure am, Carrots," he replied breezily. Then his heart tripped over itself when she sent him a grin.
"And after work," she chirped, "the meeting with the Predators for Harmony Association!" She bounced once, twice, thrice, fists shaking excitedly in front of her chest. "I'm so excited! Are you excited? I'm excited!"
A chuckled escaped Nick's chest. "If you're excited, then I'm excited, Carrots."
"Then that means you're excited!" Judy threw her hands into the air with one more bounce. "Because in case you didn't hear me, I'm excited!"
"All right, all right," Nick smirked, barely restraining a laugh, though he heard the other cooks snicker. "But for now, you should probably take your excitement over there—" he pointed at the puma waving a paw at one of her tables—"so that you can excitedly serve that excited customer."
"Oh, of course!" Judy nodded and bounded away with a salute toward the fox. "See you soon, Slick!"
"Predators for Harmony Association, huh?" Andy said. The otter was standing on a stool next to Nick, stirring a pot of stew. "I've been to a couple of their meetings. I hardly see prey there. It's really cool that she wants to go."
Nick nodded and huffed a genuinely warm smile—but it faded when he reached in Greg's direction to grab a few chopped vegetables, and the ram's hoof jerked slightly away.
Both mammals maintained poker faces, but Nick caught the faint scent of fear that had tinged the air between them. It reminded him of what he had discussed with Finnick and Weaselton after they finally dropped the topic of Judy living with him. Would that press conference change anything about the way the Den should run? How could they protect the predators on the outskirts and the streets when the pushback against them had grown stronger? Was there anything to be done at all?
He tried not to let himself take out his frustration on the bug burger patties again.
Day 9: Tuesday, June 24th, 2016, 5:58 p.m.
Only when Judy laid a paw against the glass of the library door did she notice that Nick wasn't next to her. She peered over her shoulder to find him strolling toward her with his paws in his pockets. His face wore a neutral expression—so carefully neutral, in fact, that Judy knew he was trying to conceal his testy mood. She had learned about many of his facial expressions over the past week. The pride and jubilance that rushed through her when she considered how well she'd already come to know him was rapidly replaced by concern; he'd been like this for most of the day. Of course, it was understandable, considering the major shift in the social and political atmosphere since Bellwether's press conference, but still…
She turned and beckoned him forward with an encouraging smile. "Come on!" she called. "Or we'll be late!"
"We'll be right on time, by normal mammals' watches," Nick replied. His pace didn't change, but Judy was gratified to see his eyes soften. She pretended not to notice.
In fact, she had been pretending not to notice a lot of things lately, but she was no dumb bunny—and because she'd been hoping for signals, she'd been watching for them. He always looked at her with a warmth that he never directed toward anyone else. He always seemed reluctant to end their hugs. In general, his touches lingered. She sometimes caught him staring at her while she was doing something else. If she listened closely, she heard his heartbeat quicken when she was close. He always seemed as happy to spend time with her as she was to spend time with him. In order to ensure that she gathered plenty of evidence of his interest before she demonstrated her reciprocation, she pretended not to notice any of these things.
As soon as he was close enough, Judy grabbed one of his paws with both of hers and pulled him forward. "Come on!" she exclaimed—and then she pretended not to notice the way that his thumb brushed over her grip. Just for a second.
Watching for a sign of his hesitance or disappointment when she dropped his paw before they approached the mammals—mostly predators—sitting at tables situated in the middle of the library, she suppressed a sigh of dismay when he didn't seem to react at the loss of contact.
She pretended not to notice that, either.
Nick pulled out a chair for her at one of the tables, and she sat herself in it with a polite nod. He took a seat next to her as a bespectacled male cougar stood up at the front of the room with a microphone.
"Wel—" The cougar paused to clear his throat. "Welcome to tonight's PHA meeting, everyone. Thanks for coming. Uh, first of all, do we have any newcomers today?"
Judy let her arm shoot straight up in the air as she grinned. With her other arm, she nudged Nick with a questioning expression.
He shook his head. "I've been here before, remember?"
As she started to nod, the cougar spoke again. "Oh, hey, back there!"
She snapped back to attention, jumping on top of her seat to see and be seen better. "Oh, um, yes!"
"What's your name?" the cougar asked with a kind smile.
The cougar nodded at her. "Nice to meet you. We don't get too many prey mammals in here. My name's Cam."
"Hi, Cam, I'm—" Judy paused and then laughed awkwardly. "I, uh, already said my name. Never mind. Anyway, I'm happy to be here."
"Thank you," Cam grinned as she sat down. "We're happy to have you."
He launched into a string of news and announcements regarding other members of the group as Judy leaned toward Nick, her cheeks aflame.
"Well, that was an embarrassing introduction," she whispered. "I guess I can come here approximately zero more times."
To her surprise, Nick's arm slid around her and squeezed her opposite shoulder. "You're fine. Happens to the best of us." Then he winked at her, which scrunched her heart into a bouncy ball that dribbled against her chest. "I, for one, thought you were adorable."
And then his arm was gone. Judy resisted the urge to complain about that. Instead, she studied him for a moment from the corner of her eye.
That's it, you dumb fox, she smiled to herself. If you keep this up, I'm going to tell you.
With a stab of guilt for having lost her focus on the purpose of the meeting, she returned her attention to Cam, who was moving on to a new topic. "So I know that a lot of you have already noticed the change in behavior among Zootopian citizens since Mayor Bellwether's press conference. Any particular observations we want to discuss?"
At first, no one said anything. Then a tigress raised her paw.
"I'm sure I'm not the only one, but I've noticed a lot more aggression and suspicion toward predators lately," she said. "Especially toward large ones, like myself."
Predators around the room nodded, murmuring their agreement.
"Right, that's definitely the biggest thing," Cam admitted. "I've heard about predators being refused service, having their homes vandalized, things like that."
"And little things, too," an ocelot said. "Prey keep looking at you like they're worried you're gonna snap any second. They try to keep their distance without making it obvious. Makes you feel ostracized, like they've already decided what you are and don't want to do have anything to do with you."
Once again, the room buzzed with grumbles of confirmation. Predators shifted in their seats to briefly mutter about specific experiences they'd had over the past few days. Soon enough, Cam regained their attention.
"Yeah, things have definitely gotten a lot worse very quickly," he said. "So how can we—"
"But it even comes from other predators, too," a caracal suddenly interrupted. "Even other predators are wary of each other, and they don't trust themselves. I catch myself constantly wondering if I'm going to suddenly go crazy, watching for any signs that I'm about to lose control of myself—and other predators have told me that they're doing the same thing. We're losing sleep over it."
More hums of understanding, accompanied by tired sighs.
Cam nodded sympathetically. "Yeah. Yeah, I get that. So how can we use these changes to promote our cause? What do you think? Any ideas?"
After a pause, a lion spoke, thoughtfully stroking his mane. "Didn't Gazelle reach out to you about doing a benefit concert or something?"
As the room burst into a thrum of surprised mumbles—some sounding delighted, others less so—Cam sighed dramatically into the microphone, though he shot the lion a good-natured smirk. "You stole my thunder there, Pete."
The lion grinned back and spread his paws. "Don't blame me. You didn't need to wait so long."
With a chuckle, Cam once again addressed the room. "Yes, Gazelle has offered to do a benefit concert. She also wants to help us organize protests."
Several heavy sighs weighed down the air. "We've already tried protesting so many times," a wolf said. "They never seem to get us anywhere."
"They get other mammals talking," the ocelot from earlier remarked. "They put us in the news."
"We got to talk to the mayor once," Pete the lion piped up.
"Yeah, and then there's no follow-up," the wolf said. "Nothing really happens."
"But what else would we do?" the ocelot responded. "Protests may seem useless at first, but if we're persistent enough, we can pressure change into becoming reality."
"That doesn't always happen, though," the wolf countered. "In fact, the main problem with protests is that a lot of mammals are more likely to complain about them than to actually listen to the protesters."
"Sure, but that's not our problem," the ocelot retorted. "It's theirs."
"That's true," the wolf conceded. "But the fact remains that if we put our efforts toward demonstrations that they're not even going to pay attention to, then it's just a waste of time and resources."
"Okay, okay," Pete said, leaning his elbows onto the table where he sat. "So in that case, we have to think of something that they will listen to."
Rolling his eyes, the wolf continued. "There's no point. If we play nice, they ignore us, or they underestimate how hurt we are. If we protest, they call us whiners. It doesn't matter what we do. They don't listen."
At that, the lion leaned back and crossed his arms. It was clear that he was trying not to keep an impatient glower off his face. "Then why are you even here?"
A smirk twitched at the corner of the wolf's mouth. "Valid question," he admitted with a one-shouldered shrug. "Sometimes, we speak out to let other hurt mammals know that they're not alone. We know that we can't change anything, so we at least bond ourselves together as tightly as possible."
For a few seconds, no one seemed to have a response to that. Then Judy hopped onto her feet on the chair in one fluid motion. "Excuse me!"
When every head swiveled toward her, she made an effort to hurriedly squash the anxiety that suddenly seized her limbs and tried to pull her down. Hiding her discomfort behind a smile, she spoke.
"Uh, I think that's a wonderful point," she said, gesturing uncertainly toward the wolf. "Great point, uh… sir. Still, mammals—well, see, I'm not originally from Zootopia, and mammals back home used to say that I don't know when to quit, and they're right. I don't think any of us should quit. So—well, I've been thinking—"She glanced down at Nick, who was watching her curiously. He gave her an encouraging nod, and she continued. "What if we tried some kind of activity where we serve Zootopia and give it information at the same time?"
At first, her suggestion was greeted with silence. Then Pete asked, "What do you mean?"
Cam backed him up. "Yeah, could you elaborate on that, please?"
"Uh, yes," Judy nervously tapped the tips of her fingers together. "Well, I've been—um—I've been spending a lot of time exploring Zootopia lately, and I've seen what bad shape some of the areas are in. Maybe we can have a food drive, and at the same time, we can hand out pamphlets."
"Pamphlets?" Cam repeated.
"Yeah, like, informational pamphlets about predators or something," Judy explained. "Or about biology—something like that." When the other mammals kept staring at her, she went on. "I mean, pamphlets that explain how prey and predators are similar, how they evolved into sentience together—that sort of thing."
The predators' heads bobbed as they considered this idea.
"I think we could do something like that," Cam said. "Gazelle had mentioned that she wanted to organize some kind of event tomorrow before she heads out of town for a week. I know it's last minute, but it could be doable. Andrew—" He pointed to the ocelot. "Any chance you could use your scientific expertise to make some content on evolution for pamphlets by then?"
"Why not?" the ocelot added. "Could be worth a shot. Yeah, I'll get on that tonight."
"I agree," chimed in Pete.
The wolf simply shrugged, and the other mammals in the room nodded. Giddy with relief and joy, Judy grinned around at them—and let her eyes linger on a raccoon who was gazing at her rather… admiringly. The raccoon looked familiar, but before she tried to figure out why, she let her eyes flick away. A blush blossomed on her cheeks as she sat back down.
Then she turned to Nick to ask what he thought about her idea, but the question faded in her throat. He was already beaming at her with the most openly affectionate expression she'd ever seen him wear. It seemed that her heart had burst into joyous song at the sight of it.
If I didn't know better, Slick, I'd say you were begging for a kiss, she mused as she smooshed one cheek against her palm, returning his smile. Fortunately, I'm eager to give you one.
Day 9: Tuesday, June 24th, 2016, 6:40 p.m.
In short order, Cam had delegated assignments to various group members, assuring that there would be pamphlets, boxes for food, flyers, and mammals to post the flyers. Additionally, the librarian promised them that they could use the library again. Judy volunteered to arrive early to help set up. Nick said nothing, but he furtively texted Finnick under the table to inform him of the event. It could be something that would interest the Den, or at least his little subgroup.
After the details had been worked out, the mammals were treated to a very pleasant surprise.
"There's cake, Nick!" Judy gasped at the table that had been rolled into the room. It held various paper plates topped with white cake with raspberry filling, accompanied by dainty plastic forks.
The millisecond after the librarian finished warning the group that they could lose the privilege of using the building if they left even a single crumb on the floor, Judy bounded toward the table. Nick watched her quietly for a moment, not moving from his seat.
He'd tried to focus. He really had. But he'd been to these meetings before. They always went the same way. Come to think of it, they'd been going the same way that the Den of Thieves meetings always seemed to go these days.
But when Judy stammered out her idea—not a perfect one, certainly not a guaranteed step in the right direction, but still, an idea—Nick was jolted out of his reverie. He listened as she fought through her nervousness so that she could participate and offer support. She was sincere. She was trying. She cared.
As he watched her, he'd asked himself again why he kept her close, knowing what it could do to them both.
And then, when she'd turned toward him and smiled, he realized.
By joining the Den of Thieves, he'd proven his willingness to put himself in danger every day just to feel like he belonged somewhere and had a purpose.
The last nine days with Judy had given him that sense of belonging and purpose that he'd been seeking—far more powerfully than the Den or anyone else had. Of course he was willing to put himself in danger to keep her, too.
He sighed, sure that his face looked as sagged as his soul felt.
Just because he was willing to place his own safety at risk didn't mean he had the right to do the same for her.
Finnick and Weaselton were right. He had to—
Wait. Wait just a second.
Who was that raccoon who was sidling up next to Judy with that… that smirk on his face?
Unconsciously glaring, Nick strode over to the table, delightedly munching on cake while the raccoon talked to her with a big, stupid grin on his face, like he was actually worthy to so much as look at her pinky with his naked eyes, like he had the kind of capacity in his brain to—
"I'm Lars," the raccoon was saying to Judy as Nick approached and nonchalantly stopped next to Judy.
"I'm Judy," the bunny replied, holding out her paw. As Lars shook it, she chuckled and shook her head in embarrassment. "Aaaand that's the third time that I've introduced myself tonight. Sorry."
"Oh, don't worry about it," Lars said, letting his paw hold hers for just a touch longer than necessary. "I think it's cute."
Nick hoped he could hide the burning in his ears by pouring all of his attention into figuring out which of the identical cake slices would be perfect for him to take. He spared a quick glance toward Judy, but she was merely smiling amiably at Lars. When her eyes flicked toward his, he immediately looked away.
"I also really liked your idea," Lars went on.
"Oh, thank you so much!" Judy responded sweetly, prompting Nick to stab his cake with his fork. Crumbs flew in a few different directions, but no one seemed to notice except him.
And Lars was still talking. "It's a great idea that we haven't tried before. It would spread information, just like protesting does, but maybe in a more, like, palatable way, you know?"
Nick rolled his eyes. No kidding. Think that's why she suggested it?
"Yes, that's why I suggested it," Judy nodded, and Nick allowed himself a small, triumphant smirk.
Lars pointed at the bunny with his own fork. "You know, something else that I'd been thinking about—and I realize this might be crazy, but—" He paused to stuff a bite of cake into his mouth and swallow as he looked at the ceiling with an exaggeratedly thoughtful expression. "But I think it would be great to have Crossfire on our side."
Judy's ear twitched with interest as Nick turned to fully face the raccoon.
"Really?" Judy said.
"Yeah," answered Lars. "I met her once. She saved me from a couple of rhinos who got mad at me when I accidentally wandered into their turf or something. They were the rhinos in that video that went viral. Lots of mammals love her. If she spoke for us, I'm sure they'd listen."
"So…" Judy was staring raptly at him, and Nick tried not to frown. "So you like her, too? I did see her on TV, and I thought she was interesting."
"Like her?" Lars sighed dreamily as he set his empty plate onto the table. "Crossfire is one of the most amazing mammals I've ever met. I haven't stopped thinking about her ever since I met her." Then he shot Judy a charming smile. "Even so, if she were standing next to you right now, I'd have a hard time choosing which one of you to ask out first."
Nick glanced again at Judy. He couldn't tell if the elated expression on her face was inspired by the raccoon's comments or her fascination with the vigilante. Either way, he was finding it difficult to keep from grinding his teeth.
"Speaking of which," Lars plowed on like the idiot he clearly was, "I was hoping you might be free this Friday night. I'd like to take you somewhere nice."
At that, Nick tossed his plate into a nearby trash can a little more forcefully than he intended. He immediately regretted it when he remembered that there was still cake on it.
When he looked back at Judy, he froze. She was directing a strangely sly smirk at him.
But it only lasted a moment. She turned to Lars again.
"That's so flattering," she said warmly. "But I'm afraid that I'm taken."
A couple of icy beats passed as Nick tried to get his heart beating again.
"Oh, well, he's a lucky mammal," Lars replied graciously, though his grin faltered.
"Well, I'm very lucky, too," Judy said. Gosh, that smile was so lovely, but…
"Of course," Lars responded. Then he started to turn away. "Well, again, it was nice to meet you, Judy. Maybe you'll let me know if you ever change your mind."
"I sure will, Lars," Judy nodded. "Nice to meet you. Take care." Then she pivoted to face Nick. Her mischievous smirk was back, and she clasped her paws behind her back as she swung her shoulders from side to side. "Ready to go home, Slick?"
Taken? By who?
But Nick made sure that the question that was burning a hole in his mind wasn't manifesting in a single atom of his face. He kept his eyes half-lidded, his mouth lazily curved upward on one end—his favorite mask. "Sure am, Carrots."
In a few minutes, he had followed her outside in a sort of daze. Silence hung between them as they walked next to each other in the direction of their apartment, several blocks away.
Finally, Nick heaved a deep, quiet breath.
"So…" he said as he stuffed his paws in his pockets and kicked a pebble without pausing to watch it skitter. "You've never mentioned anything about a boyfriend. Some nice buck back home in Bunnyburrow, is it?"
Judy blinked up at him. "Huh?"
Furtively clenching his teeth in frustration, Nick tried again. "What you said to Lars back there—you said you were taken." He forced a casual sigh to brush past his lips. "Haven't seen anyone else around you here in Zootopia, so I assume it's a buck waiting for you back in Bunnyburrow." He hesitated. "Or maybe not waiting, since you're staying here, but—" Suddenly, he noticed Judy's amused half-smile, and he narrowed his eyes at her. She couldn't possibly know how irritated this topic was making him feel, so his next word came out a little more curtly than he intended. "What?"
Shaking her head with a shrug, Judy appeared unfazed by Nick's mood and answered affably. "Oh, I don't have a boyfriend."
Nick furrowed his brows. "You said you were taken," he repeated.
"I am," Judy said, then leaned toward him conspiratorially. "I'm taken with someone."
It took a moment for Nick to blink away his consternation before he offered her an impressed smirk. "Sly bunny."
"Dumb fox," she returned, lightly bumping her hip against his thigh. He stumbled more from the strength of his relief than from the force of her weight. His legs were jelly while his chest felt feathery light, and he almost wanted to laugh.
The stone settled in his heart once again.
"Taken with who, then?" he inquired.
Judy hummed. "Wouldn't you like to know?"
"That would be why I asked," Nick frowned. "I don't know about you, but I generally only ask questions when I want them answered."
"I'll tell you what," Judy said, skipping ahead and turning to walk backwards in front of him with her paws clasped behind her back. "I'll answer your question if you answer mine."
Nick raised an eyebrow at her. "Okay, shoot."
Lifting one shoulder coquettishly against her cheek, Judy grinned and asked, "Why do you want to know who it is?"
A few seconds passed as Nick made sure that his expression was schooled perfectly to suggest a harmless sense of unattached curiosity. "Are you saying that I must have an ulterior motive, Fluff?"
"Are you saying that you don't?"
She suspects something.
The jolt of alarm that stumbled through Nick's gut was all it took to remind him why he'd needed to starve this crush in the first place. Why hadn't he done it? What was he thinking? She'd made it so easy for him to relax and gradually give into it, but…
He cursed himself for letting his guard down and sinking so deeply. It was only fun and games until she knew that she was playing. Now the game was even more dangerous—to both of them.
Especially to her.
Slowly, he came to a stop. So did Judy, and her cheerful, self-satisfied smile faded as she watched him. Nick wondered what he must look like when he had to pretend this hard that he didn't care about what he would say next. Judging by the confusion and dismay in her eyes, he must be pulling it off well. Perhaps too well.
"I'm saying that you should stop thinking what you're thinking," he said quietly. Then he stepped deftly around her and picked up his pace. "And forget I asked."
Once he was several paces in front of her, he heard her call after him in a small, uncertain voice.
"Nick? I'm sorry if I…"
He gritted his teeth, balled his fists in his pockets, and kept walking.
Day 9: Tuesday, June 24th, 2016, 7:33 p.m.
Judy didn't keep track of the time as she sat by herself at the little table she'd taken at a nearby coffee shop, watching the swirls of the cream in her coffee as she gently stirred them over and over again. Absentmindedly, she took a bite from her half-eaten cream cheese Danish.
Nick's reaction was… unexpected. The way his eyes had hardened, the way his easygoing smile had disappeared… He may as well have impaled her through her gut with an icicle. She shook her head, rubbing a paw through the fur on her forehead as she felt heat igniting her cheeks. It was as devastating as it was mortifying. Had she been that wrong about him?
Just think about something else, she told her. Remember what he said—don't let them see that they get to you. Don't let him see that he gets to you.
She took a deep breath and closed her eyes for a moment.
Don't let anyone see. Not even yourself.
Then she exhaled, pursed her lips, and picked up her phone. She stared at the notification she had put in her calendar app about the food drive that the PHA would organize tomorrow.
Biting her claws thoughtfully, she read the words once, twice, and thrice. As happy as she was that her idea had been accepted by the PHA, she couldn't help thinking that it was too little, too late. They had hardly any time to put together an event that could really catch the citizens' attention, even with Gazelle's help.
Lars had mentioned that Crossfire could be a great ally for the PHA. Judy smirked to herself as she realized that she was inclined to agree with him.
Maybe it was a crazy idea to consider, but as she fought to push Nick's stony face from her mind, "crazy" sounded pretty great at the moment.
Day 9: Tuesday, June 24th, 2016, 7:33 p.m.
Sighing heavily, Nick closed the apartment door and slumped against it. Judy hadn't come home with him. The vast majority of his body was screaming to run back outside, to find her, to apologize, to say that he was "taken with" her, too, to… maybe lift her feet off the ground, spin her around, and see what a bunny's lips taste like.
But with the discipline that he'd spent twenty years honing as a hustler and criminal, he clenched and unclenched his fists, stomping down all those desires until they were more like distant shouts in some far-off dungeon of his mind.
When he was sure that he could keep his voice steady, he whipped his cell phone from his pocket and called Finnick.
"What?" the fennec answered in his usual rough tone. His familiar coarseness was almost comforting.
"You saw my text?" Nick inquired casually.
"Yeah," his friend replied. "What're you thinkin'?"
With a shrug, Nick lightly kicked himself away from the front door and ambled into his bedroom. "Well, we were trying to figure out something to do to fight back after Bellwether's press conference. I think this food drive would be a great opportunity."
A/N: OH NO THEIR LOVE IS THWARTED FOREVER WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DOOOOOOO
Well, hold onto your hats. Remember that we're just barely over halfway through. ;) And I'm already about a quarter of the way through the next chapter, so definitely stay tuned!