Nick came to a stunning realization about Carrots as they left Mr. Big’s place and went back to her meter maid car:
She did not stop.
Seriously, every time an obstacle presented itself in front of her, she found some way around it or pushed straight through, even if that path led directly into mortal peril.
Nick didn’t see that very often from anyone in Zootopia, and he'd seen a lot.
Not that he was ever going to tell her.
“Still don’t see why we couldn’t have hitched a ride from Big’s goons to the Rainforest District,” he muttered when they finally approached her sad little jokemobile.
“I didn’t want to say it in front of him, but I can’t afford to lose this cruiser.” Carrots wearily climbed into the driver’s seat and jammed her key in the ignition.
She never failed to baffle him. “What, losing a ‘cruiser?’ This dimestore piece of plastic?” He shook his head in disbelief. “Well, that’s very noble of you, Carrots.”
“Thanks!” she said, her ears perking up.
“It’s not a compliment.”
“Oh.” Her ears drooped back down, and Nick regretted what he said.
“Okay then, let’s get this show on the road.” He slipped into the passenger side, and they slowly – very, very slowly – made their way downtown, toward the tunnels between Tundra Town and Rainforest District. Nick rubbed his paws together to stay warm as the icy breeze ruffled his fur.
“What are you thinking?” Carrots asked after a while, her voice thick with drowsiness.
Nick shrugged. “Big’s place? Good cake. Lousy welcoming mat.”
“I mean about the investigation.” They finally turned onto the main road which, aside from a few rambunctious yells, almost seemed like a wintry ghost town. The snowy sidewalks were almost empty, save a few meandering pawprints, but the glaring neon lights of a few nighttime establishments and diners flashed so brightly that Nick almost forgot how late it was.
“Look,” Carrots added hesitantly as they jerked to a stop in front of a red light and a group of reindeer passed in front of them, swaying and warbling off-key, “I don’t blame you if you want out of this now. Things got kind of tense back there, and I didn't mean to put you in danger.”
Nick was surprised at her sudden offer, but he hid it with his usual mocking sarcasm. “Wow, is this what I think it is? An apology?”
She slumped down in her seat a little, then half-heartedly held out her pen recorder. “If you want me to drop you off at the train station, now's your chance.”
Nick contemplated his choices as he scrutinized her. Get the pen. Go back to hustling. Collect his 200 bucks a day. Say goodbye to more chances of getting killed faster than he could sell a dozen Pawpsicles.
Say goodbye to the fluffy gray thorn in his side, most likely for forever.
The red light changed to green, but the tiny ticketing ‘cruiser’ didn’t budge. Carrots looked torn, and more importantly, she looked tired, so Nick opened his mouth to ask for the pen and be done with all this.
“On second thought, I think I’ll stick around.”
He wasn’t sure who was more shocked at his response.
After a moment, Carrots began to smile and pushed on the pedal. “Good.”
“You’ll probably get lost five minutes into the Rainforest District without me, anyway,” he muttered, avoiding her growing grin.
She fell silent again as Nick thought about the case, which turned out to actually be something serious. He had to admit, Big’s story intrigued him. Something about a mild-mannered little otter going savage niggled away at the back of Nick’s mind. Maybe Carrots was onto something, as zealous and single-minded about it as she was.
She yawned loudly, shaking Nick out of his thoughts, and he cast her a sideway glance.
She waved him off feebly. “Yeah, I’m fine.” She blinked tiredly a few times and their tiny car started veering over to the left. Nick grabbed onto the wheel quickly and guided them back into their lane.
“Last time I checked, ‘fine’ doesn't equal driving into oncoming traffic. Let's stop somewhere so you can get some shut-eye.”
Carrots failed to stifle a wide, loud yawn with the back of her paw. “No – no, we shouldn’t.”
“Yes, yes we should. I didn't think you'd ever lose your batteries, Carrots, but they're draining faster than this go kart. C’mon, how sad would it be if we survived Mr. Big, only to die in a car crash going less than five miles an hour?”
“— I can see the headlines now: ‘World’s Most Embarrassing Accident Caused By Tired Bunny and Handsome Fox.’ Do you want that? I don’t want that.”
He thought he could hear the trace of a chuckle next to him, and he sighed in relief.
“Okay, handsome,” she said, then suddenly jerked the wheel all the way to the right, sending Nick nearly toppling out onto the street.
“Woah!” he clung onto the sides of the car as they swerved into a large, free parking garage. Carrots pulled to a stop toward the back, switched off the engine and leaned back in her seat.
“What, the force doesn't pay you enough to spring for a couple hotel rooms?”
Carrots looked like she was fighting to stay awake for every second. “Even if I had gotten my first paycheck, finding a hotel would be a waste of time. I don't need to rest for long.” She glanced at him, then said slowly, “You should get some sleep too, you know.”
Nick pretended to look deep in thought, putting a paw up to his chin. “Hmm, come to think of it, after nearly being drowned to death in subzero waters, yes, I cannot wait to have some screaming nightmares!”
He got a weary eyeroll in response. “Fine. Then I’ll sleep, you drive.” Carrots stood up to switch seats with him, but Nick stayed firmly put.
“No, thanks; I'm good right here,” he said, crossing his arms after meeting her curious expression.
She nearly swayed with exhaustion. “Do you know how to drive, Nick?”
“I know how to do a lot of things.” He readjusted his tie and smirked as they met, eye-to-eye. “Half of which would blow your little meter maid mind. All legal, of course. But you’d be surprised at all the life hacks I could teach you. Chapter One is ‘How Not To Get Stuck In Wet Cement.’”
“So you don’t know how to drive.”
That wiped the smug smirk right off Nick's face, and it wasn't the first time. It was as if she kept grabbing his look right from him and plastering it onto herself.
“Don’t need to,” he said, maintaining his composure, “not when I’ve got my own personal chauffeur right here. And speaking of chauffeurs, Manchas still needs to be questioned, so the sooner you get some rest, the sooner we can go see him.”
Carrots looked at Nick for a few moments, her gaze a mixture of scrutinizing and sleepy, until she said, “Twenty minutes, max. Then we’re really leaving.” She lowered herself back down in her seat and curled up onto her side, facing away from Nick.
To his surprise, she appeared deep in slumber within seconds.
Nick couldn’t help but notice, not for the first time, her small can of fox repellent on her belt. It was good for him to keep seeing it. Good for him not to forget who he was with. Officer Fluff might’ve been sharper than he thought - and okay, he had to give her a little credit for wanting to be more than just a traffic cop – but she was still a cop, and she obviously still had something against preds like him.
Yet there she was, already soaring off to Dreamland right next to someone she’d called a shifty lowlife just hours ago. In some way, somehow, she'd clearly come to trust him.
Speaking of trust, Nick’s line of sight fell on the aggravating carrot pen in her pocket, the pen that had his one-way ticket to the slammer on it.
He had already run through nineteen different scenarios of lifting the pen and running with it. Hours ago – as Flash relayed his joke one by one to each co-worker in the DMV while Carrots nearly hopped straight through the roof with frustration – Nick played out all the pen-nabbing fantasies in his head, relishing Cottontail's reaction more than the actual crime.
He shook his head down at the nefarious pen, muttering, “Nah. Too easy.” His plans were all great, but he knew that the second he’d grab it, Carrots would be on him like spots on a leopard. And then she’d have an even better reason to throw the book at him. Nick had already realized it would be best not to give her any more ammunition.
Besides, for reasons he couldn't quite fathom, he'd already kind of decided he was in this for the long haul.
He broke his gaze away from the pen, switching his attention to Carrots. Her nose twitched slightly, and she frowned a bit, shivering despite the cement shelter around them. Then she sighed, and even though her small form quivered in the cold, her face relaxed as she slipped into what looked like a nice dream.
Nick wondered, as he had since meeting her, what it must be like to still have dreams.
She turned around and leaned onto his arm.
“Carrots!” he yelped, moving away and letting her head slide down. “What do you think you’re doing?”
She lifted her head and one of her eyes popped open. “I'm cold,” she said irritably, as if she hadn't just been in a deep sleep.
“Yeah, well, we're not in Sahara Square.”
“But you're warm. At least, part of you is,” she pointed out, and Nick only noticed then that his teeth were slightly chattering.
He sat there, glaring straight at the concrete wall of the parking garage as Carrots shifted closer to him to lean back down on his arm. Finally, he sighed and said, “If you drool on my shirt, I’m taking your pen and leaving without a word.”
“I do not drool.”
“Sure, you don’t. And this, what’s happening here? You’re not going to tell anybody, right?”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” she said quietly after a moment, then shut her eyes and fell back asleep.
Nick was in disbelief at how quickly she could zonk out right on top of him. Sure, she was only doing that because of the cold, but her arms slowly reached up to wrap around his sides for more warmth. He froze up for a moment, not really knowing what to do. The intimacy of it, the stillness around them, the sensation of her racing heartbeat slowing down against his chest – it was different, to say the least. Nick usually didn't do different, and in any other situation he would've high-tailed it out of there, but as he let his eyes drift to a close, he'd convinced himself that maybe it was okay, just this once, to let someone get this close.
Only because it was cold.
Carrots shifted a little, and for a second Nick thought she might pull away, realizing that she didn’t actually want to be caught dead snoozing with a fox in public. He felt a sudden stab of disappointment, and wished he didn’t.
But instead, she was burrowing her face into his arm even more, and if it were possible, Nick thought it began to feel kind of nice.
Oh no, he thought.
“Yeah?” he said cautiously.
“I’m glad you’re still here,” she murmured, and Nick looked down at her.
“Okay, you really do need some sleep. Getting more delirious by the minute.”
“I mean it,” she insisted, through another long yawn, leaning more of her body against his and tightening her grip around him. “It feels good, y’know. Not to be alone.” Right after that, she was already back in la-la land.
If someone had told Nick Wilde 24 hours ago that he’d wind up cuddling with a bunny cop in Tundra Town, he’d have laughed in their face. Then sold them a bridge or two, while he was at it.
But with the heat emanating from her small, compact body, her arms gripped around him, Nick wasn’t in a laughing mood.
He thought about the basement again, and winced. He thought about being muzzled, mocked at, and kicked around. It came back to him in flashes on the rare occasion someone would extend a genuinely kind paw to him. It had served as a grim reminder - what Nick had come to think of as a survival mechanism, a necessary memo - that no one really cared. No one really believed he could be someone to trust, to do the right thing.
But maybe, just maybe, one person did.
Almost as if Carrots could sense his thoughts, she snuffled in her sleep a bit and huddled even closer to him, her breaths and heartbeat slowing to an even, soothing cadence.
It was selfish. It was probably stupid. But Nick allowed himself to give into her peacefulness, her bright-eyed, burning resolve and silent trust. Soon enough, he too began to slip into slumber.
Somehow, he didn't feel so cold anymore.
When Nick awoke, it was still dark. It made little difference to him, but he was off his sleep schedule and wondered, with a bit of growing concern, if the 48 hours were up. Nick stretched out his left arm, looked down, and he gasped.
He rubbed his eyes, patted the side of his snout to make sure he wasn’t dreaming, looked down, and gasped again.
Carrots was practically sitting on his lap, having wrapped herself completely around his torso. One of her paws was around his stomach, the other clutching his shoulder. She looked tranquil and happy, and to Nick’s horror, his other arm was around her, and his bushy tail was covering her legs like a blanket.
Her eyes snapped open at his surprised gasps, and she met his even more surprised gaze for a second. They blinked at each other wordlessly, and then she flung herself back into her seat as Nick pushed his traitorous tail to the side.
“Cheese and crackers!” she groaned, rubbing her eyes. “How long have we been out?”
“I don’t know!” Nick said, his heart thumping as he smoothed down his rumpled shirt and tried not to think about how well he'd slept. Contrary to what he'd said, he didn't have any nightmares. In fact, it was the best sleep he’d gotten in years.
Carrots fumbled around awkwardly for her phone and lit it up. “Great. We’ve only got two hours until dawn. Hopefully Mr. Manchas will still be awake by the time we get there.”
Nick snorted. “Oh, I’m sure he hasn’t gotten any shut-eye since getting his tail handed to him by a sweet little otter.” He felt a bit of relief at being able to say that, knowing he could slip right back into his protective sarcasm. It was comfortable. Normal.
Carrots rubbed her paws over her closed eyes and groaned in frustration. “Okay, well, you were right about driving there. It'll take us forever to get to Manchas in this thing. I’m going to ask our new friend for a ride to the Rainforest District. The wedding's probably still going on, anyway.”
“What about losing the most important cruiser in the force? And did you just say I was right?” Nick asked.
“I’ll come back for it when we’re done with Manchas,” Carrots said distractedly, tapping out a text to Mr. Big. “Or maybe, after we crack this case, I’ll be able to ask the chief if someone can come pick it up for us.”
“Huh, not so noble, after all. Good for you, Sleeping Beauty. And speaking of which, this? It never happened, right?”
Carrots sent the text and turned to him, looking slightly hurt.
Then she sat up straight and put her phone away, avoiding his half-lidded gaze.
“I would agree with you,” she said slowly, “except I have no idea what happened for you to even suggest that it did.”
“I’ve already forgotten about it,” he said, trying to sound as casual as possible.
“It’s completely erased from my memory,” she insisted.
“Never talking about that again,” he confirmed.
“Never doing that again.”
“Doing what? I don’t know.”
“Me neither,” Hopps said.
“Okay.” Nick nodded. “Good.”
And they didn’t talk about it – not even after the next time it didn’t happen again.