Chapter 8—Except for You and Me

A/N: Yes, I know, I know, I'm really sorry about another long pause. I've been wrestling with depression and some life changes.

However, I recently got a new job and have been finding ways of managing the depression better, so I'm not having so much trouble motivating myself to be creative now. I plan to hold on to my mental stability as long as possible. ;)

In fact, chapter nine is already well under way! :D

For now, please enjoy this one.

Also, many, many thanks to Camoss, The StarShadow15, and Libious for looking over it at the last minute and offering extremely helpful suggestions so that I could confidently post it tonight. They are all so very wonderful, and everyone would be better people by conversing with them.

Oh, and as a reminder, this story is also posted on AO3 with song lyrics at the beginning of each chapter because this website persists in being nonsensical.


Day 6: Saturday, June 21st, 2016, 8:43 p.m.


"You're insane."

"No, you're just scared."

"I have a good reason to be scared. Those are wolves, bunny."

"So?"

"Wolves are fast. They have sharp teeth and claws and excellent night vision. They also have a strong incentive to use all those things against anyone who might cost them a paycheck—like two careless vigilantes."

"You're not a vigilante."

"Do you seriously want to have that discussion again?"

"No, I want you to listen to me."

"But you're insane."

"And you are scared."

With an exasperated sigh, Nick turned away from Crossfire to peer over the boulder they were using for shelter so that he could scrutinize the wolf guards standing attentively in front of the Cliffside Asylum.

"There are too many of them," he said.

"You had no problem storming a police station," Crossfire countered.

"At night, when there are fewer officers around," Nick replied. "And they tend to take several steps to deescalate a situation before they attack—I wouldn't make the same bet about these guys."

"It was downright suicidal."

Nick decided not to chase that train of thought. He simply sighed, "This is too risky."

Beside him, Crossfire shook her head insistently as she slipped a spray bottle out of her utility belt. She waved it smugly at him.

He leaned forward to read the sloppily written print out loud. "'Citrus Spray'?" Although he knew she couldn't see it, he raised his brows at her. "Good, at least they'll have something to freshen the air with after they've relieved us of our intestines."

Behind the orange mask, Crossfire rolled her eyes before wordlessly lifting the bottle until the nozzle peeked over the boulder. Then she pressed her finger on the trigger for several seconds. The citrus spray hissed its way out of the bottle and toward the asylum.

Not long after she had returned the bottle to its place on her belt, Nick's ear twitched at the sound of the wolves gagging and coughing. It gradually grew distant as it became apparent that the wolves were clearing the area, hacking desperately.

It was a clever trick, Nick had to admit, as he suddenly recalled something he heard once about canines being unable to handle anything related to citrus. Part of him was inclined to feel impressed. But his eyes wouldn't leave the pocket on Crossfire's belt where he now knew the spray bottle rested. Within his chest, he was aware of a twinge of unease and… anger.

Still, he kept it out of his voice when he spoke. "Interesting, but they're definitely not going to think that a citrus cloud descended on them out of nowhere. They'll know somebody's here."

"We'd better be quick, then," Crossfire shrugged.

With that, she turned and leapt over the boulder in one impressively swift movement. By the time Nick had clambered over it, she had already sprinted several paces across the ground. He hurried after her, nose wriggling slightly as it passed through the lingering citrus mist.

Crossfire was already fiddling with the front doors when he came up behind her. Heart pounding anxiously as his ears remained stiffly alert for any sign that the wolves were returning, Nick elbowed her out of the way with a small grunt. He then fished a lockpick from one of his pockets and made quick work of the door, opening it just enough to allow them both to slide through.

They took only half a second to observe the dark foyer, making sure there were no large, infuriated mammals ready to charge at them before scurrying silently into a shadowed corner. Then, slightly breathless, they gave themselves a little time to look around more closely.

From what Nick could tell, a thin layer of dust coated nearly every surface, and the furniture was shrouded in plastic coverings. A stopped clock on the opposite wall gave the room an eerily timeless feeling. He nodded to himself when he noticed the decade-old computers on the reception desk.

"No wonder they only had that one lock on the door," Nick whispered lowly, close to the bunny's ears. "It looks like it's been abandoned for years."

Crossfire hummed her agreement. "But there must be a reason why an entourage of wolves is guarding it." Suddenly, her shoulders straightened. "Speaking of which, I can hear them heading back to their posts. Let's go before they decide to come inside." She paused. "Can you see another door?"

In response, Nick lightly touched her shoulder to turn her toward the door that he saw under the clock. "Straight ahead."

Judy took a few hesitant steps forward. Nick's paws hovered above her uncertainly for a moment, but before he could really think it through, his mind made the decision to gently take hold of her wrist and lead her along. Part of him wondered if he could get away with intertwining their fingers while he was at it, but another part of him pointed out that the only reason he wanted to do it was because there was another bunny on his mind, and the vigilante was no substitute for her, same species or no.

His heart lurched as his cheeks warmed. It occurred to him that he had no idea when he and Crossfire would be finished with this little mission. Would Judy already be asleep by the time he'd get home? Would she be upset with him for missing their movie night? It had already been a few hours since he told her that he was just going to visit a friend… Was she… Was she worried about him?

That thought—the thought that she might care enough to worry—swarmed his chest with both warmth and… guilt.

Once he had successfully led Crossfire to the door and opened it to let her inside, he couldn't resist reaching in his back pocket for his cell phone, which he'd left on silent. Although the darkness would have obscured it from the bunny's eyes, he also mentally congratulated himself for giving in to his paranoia by getting into the habit of switching the phone case to a different one whenever he was out on missions—just in case. He tapped one of the buttons on the side to light up the screen—and had to stem the disappointment that trickled through his heart when he saw exactly zero text messages or missed calls from his roommate.

"What are you doing?" Crossfire whispered with a touch of irritation.

Nick stared at her, unsure how to answer, but only for a moment. Fortunately, the hallway into which he and Crossfire had stepped was even darker than the foyer, so it was easy to come up with an excuse.

"Just figured you could use a flashlight in here," he said smoothly as he unlocked the phone and pulled up the flashlight app, "since you're a prey and all."

She paused. "Oh. That's… very thoughtful of you."

"I have thoughts quite frequently, yes," Nick replied as he shined the flashlight app down the hallway and indicated the dozen or so doors that lined the hallway. "So how about we keep trying random doors until we find something interesting?"

With a nod, Crossfire led the way.

It took several additional minutes of experimental wandering before the pair were stopped short by the distinct sound of a vicious growl coming from behind a door that they were passing in an especially long and wide corridor. Glancing wordlessly at each other, they tiptoed toward it, and Crossfire silently turned the handle so that they could both peek inside.

At first, even Nick couldn't see much. But once his eyes adjusted to the dim light source, he glanced at the floor—and froze.

He must have stiffened enough for Crossfire to feel it from her position next to him, because she hissed, "What? Do you see something?"

"Claw marks," he muttered. "Huge claw marks."

The bunny absorbed this news quietly for a moment. "I'm going inside."

She padded confidently into the room, as if she wasn't stepping on claw marks that were longer than she was tall. Suppressing a sigh burdened with second thoughts, Nick took a few seconds to steel himself before following her, eyeing the marks warily.

Another growl—closer this time—blew ice through his blood. As he blinked around to check on where Crossfire had gone, he found himself face to black feline face.

In the space of a second, Nick experienced relief to see the familiar lines, creases, textures, and colors of Manchas' face—and then the instinctive alarm bells that banged urgently in his head at the sight of the sharp teeth and bloodthirsty eyes.

He leapt back with a yelp, and Crossfire scrambled out of the shadows to keep him from falling over. "Who is that?!" she exclaimed.

"Manchas," Nick blurted. "That's Manchas." Despite having seen the savagery on camera, there was something soul-sinking about witnessing it in the flesh. Letting out a horrified sigh, Nick peered closer at the jaguar. "What happened to you?"

After allowing a few respectful seconds to crawl silently between them, Crossfire said gently, "I think there are more over here."

A little numbly, Nick followed her farther down a hallway lined with cells separated from the rest of the world by thick glass. At least a dozen savage mammals glared or snarled back at them as they walked slowly past. His stomach dripped further to his feet with each step. He tried to imagine such a fate, knowing that these mammals had once been sentient…

The flashlight flickered across another familiar face, and Nick found himself rushing toward it, paws pressing against the glass.

"Otterton!" he said.

Crossfire was immediately at his side, staring intently at the otter. "Otterton?" she repeated. "He's the missing otter from the Den of Thieves, right?"

Nick could only nod as he tried to absorb the reality of what he saw before him. Otterton's normally kindly crinkled eyes gazed at him with an unnervingly blank ferocity, an eerily impersonal loathing that he rarely encountered in sentient mammals. In his current state of mind, Otterton didn't hate consciously; he hated because he couldn't feel anything else. Or so it seemed with all these mammals.

To see such an expression on the face of someone who had once been a friend… It was…

A light touch on his arm caused Nick to blink away the rest of his thoughts.

"Hustler?" Crossfire intoned softly. "Are you okay?"

He glanced briefly at the concern in her eyes before gently tugging his arm away from her fingers.

"Otterton was the only mammal everyone in the pack could get along with," he found himself saying. "He took care of all of us. Didn't matter who we were or what we'd done. He treated us like we had a future." He sighed as the otter hissed at him. "So I wanted to bring him back, but… I can't. Not when he's like this."

"Then what will you tell everyone?" Crossfire asked.

"I don't know that it matters," Nick replied with a shrug, expression stony. "You heard them. A lot of them don't even want to look for him. I'm not sure they really care."

The bunny refocused her attention on the otter. "But I bet his family does." Her tone hardened. "We need to tell someone."

Nick couldn't conceal the impatience from his sigh. "Who? The police won't do anything, and you know it."

"We have to try," Crossfire insisted as she pivoted and started marching back down the hallway and toward the door through which they had entered.

Wrestling between feelings of admiration toward her conviction and exasperation with her stubbornness, Nick didn't move as he watched her go. Then he noticed her lingering by the cell of a savage bobcat, who thrashed and clawed at the few threads of his clothes that were left. It seemed he had been there for a long time.

Crossfire's paw lifted slightly toward the bobcat and stopped when he caught her eye and froze. Before Nick could ask her whether she knew him, a thunderously deep voice rumbled from down an adjacent hallway.

"Now I call that awfully far from doing everything!" it was yelling.

In unison, Nick and Crossfire sprinted into a nearby empty cell. Slowly, they raised their heads just enough to peek over the glass and watch the unmistakable Mayor Lionheart stride inside with a stout badger doctor scurrying beside him.

"The only thing they all have in common," the badger was saying, a little breathlessly, "is that they're predators. We need to let the city know about this. Everyone, prey and predators alike, are in danger until we figure out what's causing the savagery."

"They'll be in even more danger if we tell them that it's only affecting predators," Lionheart retorted. "Have you considered what kind of panic that could cause? Have you considered what it could do to the credibility of my administration?" He roughly slapped his own chest with his enormous paws. "I am a predator! How am I supposed to keep order—or my job—if the entire city is too scared of me to listen to me?"

"What about Chief Bogo?" the badger replied. "You told me the assistant mayor told him to make the missing mammals case a top priority. You think he won't find them eventually? What will that do to your administration?"

The mayor snorted. "You worry about the science. I'll worry about the politics."

The badger opened her mouth, but before any sound could leave it, all four of the sentient mammals jumped when the bobcat suddenly slammed himself against his cell. His tongue left a trail of frothing saliva on the glass, his crazed eyes locked on Crossfire directly across from him. Hurriedly, Nick ducked beneath the glass of the cell he shared with Crossfire, yanking her down with him—

But not before Mayor Lionheart's glowing eyes spotted them.

"Those vigilantes are here!" he exclaimed. Nick heard him take a heavy step toward the cell.

"No, no!" the badger cried. "I'll call security, but you need to leave. You can't be seen here."

The mayor and doctor rushed out of the room, locking the door behind them while calling for the guards. Without missing a beat, alarms blared as the room was blurred in alternating, urgent shades of yellow and red.

"Great! We're dead!" Nick barked, throwing his paws exasperatedly in the air. "I'm dead, you're dead, everybody's dead!"

But Crossfire wasn't paying attention to him. Instead, she was studying the gigantic toilet behind him. "Can you swim?" she asked.

Some minutes later, the fox and bunny pulled themselves exhaustedly from the river and collapsed on the bank. For a while, all they did was breathe heavily, but gradually, they wobbled to their feet and stared at the old asylum looming a safe distance away. The alarms were loud enough to hear even from there.

"So did you notice that the mayor himself referred to me as a vigilante?" Nick finally broke the silence, hoping Crossfire could hear his smirk.

But she wasn't in the mood for jokes, apparently. She whirled to face him, folding her arms.

"Zootopia deserves to know," she said.

And just like that, Nick's sense of humor evaporated. "Let's not get into an argument about what Zootopia deserves," he snarled.

"Excuse me?" Crossfire fired back.

"It's really easy for you to say, isn't it? No one's going to worry about a savage bunny attack."

"What are you talking about? This concerns all citizens of Zootopia!"

"Oh, really? Of course that's what you think! No,it's the predators who will suffer here."

"That won't happen."

"Don't you dare pretend like you know that! You have no idea what we go through!" Nick snapped. Then he stepped forward and pointed an accusing finger at her utility belt. "Do you really think you're not just as bad as they are? Who carries around a spray bottle with a chemical meant to ward off specific predators? Scared prey, that's who!"

For a second, sincere hurt flash across the bunny's eyes behind the orange mask. "I try to be prepared for any danger!" she protested.

"Fox repellant, citrus spray," Nick plowed on, ignoring her. "You don't seem to invest in materials targeted at prey, do you? It's just the big, bad predators that you think are dangerous, right?" Despite his better judgement, his tone waxed in intensity. "Most of us predators are already treated like second-class citizens just for who we are! The majority of the population is prey, and they're constantly acting like they think we're still secretly primitive, bloodthirsty savages, and you want to risk worsening that?"

"No, I—"

But Nick wouldn't be interrupted. "You essentially want to give them a reason to think that they're right?" He was nearly yelling now. "You can't have a secret on your conscience, but you can handle making life even more miserable for marginalized predators everywhere?"

"Hustler, please—"

"No, this is a perfect example of why I fight against this society!" Nick interjected, his paw cutting through the air with the same angry edge that now defined his voice. "Because we're treated like we're expendable for the greater good! Because we get hurt, but as long as the prey and the rich are okay, it doesn't matter! You say you want change, but from what I can see, all you're doing is keeping everything the same!"

The last word fell heavily on the rushing waves of the river. Nick's lungs heaved with the stress of keeping tears from spilling out of his eyes as he stared at Crossfire, who didn't move.

Only when Nick's breathing had returned to normal did Crossfire speak.

"We'll figure out how to deal with the fallout for the predators," she stated softly but firmly. Nick almost didn't hear it over the roar of the river. "But for now, we have to tell the truth." She stepped closer to him. "Will you trust me?"

The question only reignited Nick's ire. "How can you ask me that when you're the one carrying a chemical meant to hurt me?"

A tense beat passed. Then Crossfire nodded decisively, ripped the fox repellant out of her belt, and threw it to the side, not bothering to see where it ended up. Her eyes remained on Nick, who listened with a frozen chest to the dull clang of the repellant as it landed on what he assumed was a rock somewhere.

He hoped he didn't look too awkward as he tried to fold his arms nonchalantly. "Okay, fine. We'll try it your way."


Day 6: Saturday, June 21st, 2016, 10:20 p.m.


It was with a quiet sense of mutual satisfaction that Judy knelt next to the Hustler behind the very boulder where they'd first hidden upon seeing the wolves guarding the old asylum. After calling in an anonymous tip, the police had arrived quickly, and the fox and bunny now watched as a pair of burly officers escorted the mayor to a squad car in pawcuffs. Judy's excellent hearing picked up snippets of conversation—the mayor furiously saying that Crossfire and the Hustler had been there and should get arrested, too, Chief Bogo ordering a couple spare officers to search for them, wolves lamenting that they should have sounded the alarm sooner but hadn't wanted to get in trouble for leaving their posts. One glance at the Hustler's perked ears told her that he was probably hearing the same things, though he had to strain a little harder than she did.

She couldn't help smiling a little.

Nudging him lightly, she said, "Looks like we actually make a great team, huh?"

The Hustler didn't respond, and Judy's happy mood rapidly deteriorated. Despite agreeing to contact the police, the fox's body language as Judy called in the tip spoke of hesitance and discomfort. She noticed that his shoulders were hunched now, and his tail was stiff.

"You're still not sure we did the right thing," she murmured.

It took a moment for the Hustler to reply. "Too late for second thoughts."

Not knowing how else to address the Hustler's concerns without repeating what she'd already said, Judy let silence fall between them again. At length, the Hustler turned to sit on the ground with his back to the boulder and look at his phone screen. He didn't unlock it, but he did spend a good amount of time simply staring at it, his shoulders sagging slightly.

It reminded Judy that she hadn't checked her own phone in a while. She discreetly slid it out of her belt, keeping it out of her companion's eyesight, and clicked the home button. Spam emails, texts from her family, a notification from an app, but nothing from Nick.

She let herself sigh as she returned her phone to her belt. It was late. He was probably angry at her for not being there for their movie night. How could she explain her absence to him?

Well, sticking around here any longer wouldn't help matters.

"I think our work here is done," she said to the Hustler. "Want to meet up later to talk about handling any potential fallout for the predators?"

The fox didn't look at her. After several seconds, he said quietly, "I don't know."

At this, Judy's heart plummeted to her toes. She reached out to lay her fingers on his arm again.

"Hey," she said, and continued when the Hustler didn't move, "I understand that you're worried, but I promise we'll find a way to take care of everyone. I won't rest until we establish peace."

His electronically altered voice sounded tiredly amused when he huffed at her. "Then you'll never rest at all, bunny. Good thing you're so full of energy." Then he sighed. "But I'm not." He checked his phone again and didn't visibly react to whatever he saw there. "I'm ready to go home."

Nodding, Judy sat down next to him. "We should probably clear out before someone finds us anyway." She paused and barely managed to stop herself from fidgeting. "But seriously, do you want to meet up later, or…?"

She trailed off as the Hustler stood and dusted off his pants. "Maybe," he answered. "We'll see." He tossed her a single wave as he sauntered away without glancing back. "Thanks for the help, Crossfire. Stay safe."

It didn't take long for the shadows of the night to swallow him beyond what Judy's prey eyes could see. As quickly as their truce and partnership had developed, it suddenly seemed to collapse.

Judy let herself rest against the boulder for a few more minutes, absorbing the events of the evening.

She, a vigilante, had teamed up with a criminal.

She, an advocate for mammals' rights, had willingly set aside the concerns of a marginalized predator in the name of justice.

She, a farm bunny still getting used to a new way of life, had just found more than a dozen predators who appeared to be savage for no reason.

"Keep looking for them!" Chief Bogo's distant voice slashed through her thoughts. "They may still be here!"

And she, a wanted fugitive of the law, was being hunted by the very organization she hoped to join one day.

Well, she seemed to be doing a lot of things lately that didn't make any sense. Time to go and seek out the one part of her life that did seem to make sense:

Nick.

In the space of a single breath, she hopped up and bolted away at a crouching run until she jumped onto the back of a passing truck as it slowed to turn a sharp curve in the highway.

After settling onto the huge bumper—she'd been lucky to catch another vehicle meant for much larger mammals—her heart leapt with relief when she saw a text message from her roommate.

"Sorry I'm running late," it said. "Have you started without me?"

Grinning, she tapped out a reply.


Day 6: Saturday, June 21st, 2016, 11:03 p.m.


"I'm running late, toostuck in traffic," Judy's text message read. "Be there soon!"

Nick couldn't help smiling to himself. Even such simple words from her felt like a drink of water in the desert.

By then, he had already hitched a ride in the back of the truck of a blissfully unaware elephant motorist, and he was now making use of a dim alley on a sleeping street to change into his regular clothes. After stuffing his black outfit into his backpack, he hurried home as fast as he could without appearing suspicious.

The apartment was dark, cold, and empty when he arrived; apparently, Judy was still held up. He stowed his backpack away in his closet before texting her again.

"Hungry?" he asked her.

"Starving!" she soon replied.

He checked the cupboards and fridge and settled on making vegetable stew with some chunks of chicken for himself. Nice and easy, low maintenance—perfect for this time of night.

And right when the vegetables started to soften, Nick heard the telltale click of the front door. He tossed a pinch of salt into the pot before peeking around the corner and letting his face melt into a warm smile when he saw his roommate smiling back at him, looking absolutely lovely in a knitted maroon sweater.

"Welcome back," he said.

Judy bounced up to him and wrapped him in a tight hug before he could say anything else—not that he could have formulated any coherent sentences at that moment.

"I missed you!" he heard Judy say.

Yep. Words gone. All gone. No more words.

All Nick could do in response was let his arms slide around her and grasp the fabric of her shirt for a moment. His body relaxed into the embrace, his muzzle resting on her shoulder.

"I missed you, too," he finally mustered.

Too soon—but it would have been too soon no matter when it happened—Judy pulled back and cast him one more bright smile before turning to examine the contents of the pot on the stove. "Stew?" she clarified.

Unable to tear his eyes away from her, Nick watched her waft the steam into her nose and sigh contentedly. "Yep," he managed to say around the squeeze in his throat.

"Thank you!" she said sweetly over her shoulder before finding two bowls and two spoons. As she set the table, she continued chattering. "I'm sorry I took so long. I told you I was visiting a friend, right? Yeah, and I was just helping them with some project, but it ended up taking a lot more time than we anticipated. Sorry, I should have kept in touch."

"It's okay," Nick shrugged as they both took their seats at the table. "My friend had a lot going on, too. I didn't even realize how late it was."

"Is your friend okay?" Judy inquired before lifting a spoonful of stew to her mouth.

Nodding, Nick took a bite of his own stew. "Yeah, they'll be fine. Well," he amended, "I really hope so."

Some minutes later, they stood at the sink, having settled into a pattern without breaking the light conversation they'd carried over from their meal; Judy washed the dishes, and Nick dried them.

But inevitably, there was a lull. And in that lull, Judy gazed thoughtfully at the dishwater.

"Nick," she suddenly said.

Then nothing else for a moment. Nick raised his brows at her. "Hmm?"

"What would you do if you could do anything at all?" she asked, turning her eyes to focus on him.

Nick blinked, his mind floundering confusedly. "Uh," he replied. He stared dumbly at the towel in his paw, but when he caught sight of Judy's patient smile, he tried again to find an answer. "I'm honestly not sure. No one has ever asked me that before. I mean, there aren't too many options available for foxes, as you know by now."

"Well, yeah, but…" Judy gestured distractedly with the sponge. "What if you weren't limited? What if being a fox didn't matter?"

Allowing himself a more seconds of thought still didn't bring to mind any answers for Nick, so he decided to evade the question with a new one. "Why do you ask?"

She shrugged. "Just wondering. I mean, I really think that you could do anything you want, Nick."

The deluge of surprise and soothing warmth that crashed through Nick's chest halted his movements immediately. He stared with wide eyes at the bunny, who apparently didn't notice.

"You just have to decide on a goal and then go after it," she continued with a one-shouldered shrug. "And we'll work hard at it. We'll force doors to open for you, and then we can open them up for other mammals. There's just no good reason why you can't be anything you want to be."

By then, Nick's mind had already snagged on the word "we."

We.

"Anyway, you should think about it—think about something you're passionate about, something you'd want to, you know, consecrate your life to," Judy finished. Once more, her radiant smile threatened to stop Nick's heart even while it seemed to revive him. "And then we can talk about how to make it happen."

We.

Having no idea how to respond but not wanting the silence to drag until it became uncomfortable, Nick turned to something easy and familiar—humor.

"Consecrate my life to something," he repeated with a smirk. "Interesting word—consecrate. If I didn't know what it meant, I'd say it sounded like a crime." He waved the towel in the air. "Help, I need to file a police report! I've been consecrated!"

He observed Judy's fit of giggles with immense satisfaction. Then, grinning, Nick wet his paw and flicked droplets of water at her face. She gasped, drawing a delighted chuckle from him.

"Oh, you messed up, Wilde!" Judy exclaimed as she scooped a cup into the dish water and threw it at his face. Nick's immediate response was to grab the sleeve of her sweater and dry his fur against it, provoking her to issue an indignant squeak.

Determined to get the best of him, Judy moved with all the swiftness her evolutionarily advantaged rabbit ancestors had granted to her. She filled the cup with more water, yanked the top of Nick's shirt toward her, and poured it all down his chest before he could properly react. He let out a yelp of surprise and jumped backward, mouth hanging open as his eyes bulged at her pleased, maniacal cackling.

"This is war, rabbit!" he declared. As soon as he pulled up a mixing bowl that had sunk to the bottom of the sink, Judy squealed and ran away. He gave chase as quickly as he could without spilling the water.

Eventually, he managed to corner her in the bathroom, where she crouched in the tub near the faucet and held her paws defensively above her head, giggling madly as she waited for the inevitable. Nick stepped into the tub and approached her slowly, trying to look mildly intimidating even though he couldn't wipe the grin off his face.

"Any last words, Fluff?" he asked. The bowl was poised above her, and her eyes were locked expectantly on it.

"Gazelle is the best singer in all of Zootopia!" Judy yelled defiantly.

Nick gasped. "Oh, you really have this coming," he said as he tipped his paw and watched the dirty dishwater drench her. She screamed and laughed, covering her head with her arms in a futile attempt to protect herself.

With a satisfied smirk, Nick rested his paws on his hips and leaned forward as he regarded her. "That'll teach you to mess with a fox, won't it?"

Judy quirked a self-confident eyebrow at him. "Or maybe it just teaches me to up my game a bit."

Before Nick could ask what she meant by that, she answered him by reaching toward the faucet and turning on the shower. Stumbling backward in surprise, Nick's head thumped against the tiled wall, and he slid down onto his rump. The water was rapidly drenching him, but Judy had already sprung out of the tub and sprinted out of the bathroom. He groaned in pain as he clutched the back of his head with his paws.

After only a few seconds passed, he heard Judy pad back to him and kneel beside him. She gently touched his paw, and he glanced at her sweetly concerned expression.

"Nick, are you okay?" she queried. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to—"

Nick interrupted by snatching her into his arms and pulling her into the tub. She screeched as the water hit her back. Although they both burst out roaring in laughter, it gradually subsided as they looked at each other and realized their position. Judy's chest was pressed against Nick's, her arms around his waist and paws clasping the fabric of his shirt. Nick's arms held her tightly against him, initially to keep her from escaping, but now for a completely different and far more uncomfortable reason—he just didn't want to let go.

He knew he should—but not while her violet eyes were inches from his, and not while he could feel her light breaths against his muzzle.

Fortunately, she broke away from him, smiling sheepishly. "Clever fox," she said as she smoothed the wet fur on her face and ears and glanced away from him.

"Sly bunny," Nick replied with a smirk, hoping that he didn't look as mesmerized as he felt.

"Well," Judy turned to him with a dazzling smile. "We've made quite the mess. I guess we should start getting everything cleaned up."

Against all rationality, Nick gave in to the twinge of panicked sorrow that bit his chest when he watched her stand up, turn off the shower, and start walking out of the bathroom.

She was different. She was different from everyone else, and he couldn't… let…

He sighed inwardly.

He couldn't let go.

"Hey," he blurted.

Judy half-turned toward him, expression warm.

For a second, Nick didn't know what to say next. Then he grinned slyly.

"Remember when I asked you to pick green or brown, and you picked green?" He waited for her to nod. "Well, want to see the brown?"


A/N: For those who don't remember—and I definitely don't blame you if you don't—Judy had a bobcat co-worker at the diner who went missing. His name is Randol. He hasn't been brought up much, but his disappearance is the reason there was a job opening for Nick.

Anyway, I've been trying to keep a balance between staying true to the elements of the movie and exploring the unique elements of this particular AU, but from here on out, things will diverge much more from the original story.

See you all again soon, hopefully!