Nick Wilde knew that it was no use. He knew it the second he first glanced at his reflection in the mirror, that he was cursed, ruined, done for, that this weekend was not going to go the way he had hoped. There was no need to trouble himself by struggling against the inevitability of what was to come next; in fact, he wondered if this had been her plan all along, to catch him in a fish-out-of-water moment out of which he could not steer, even if he tried.
But who would he be without a little embellishment, regardless?
"Mmm?" He heard Judy Hopps' muffled reply from the other side of the bathroom door, where she awaited his departure so he could do some last-minute grooming before they left the house.
"Keep it," he grumbled, just audible enough for her to hear him through the door.
He caught the sigh she heaved. "Keep what, Nick?"
"All of it. The dance, this weekend, your crops, your—"
"Let me see you." She cut him off before he could name more things.
"Rude. You didn't let me finish. Ahem…"
"Get out here, Slick." Her foot was tapping against the slightly creaky hardwood floor of her childhood home.
Nick groaned. Or maybe he did not; maybe he imagined it, wanted to, meant to, but internalized it instead. But he most certainly did groan once he opened the bathroom door at long last, Judy laying eyes on him for the first time since he had entered.
Because then came the giggling.
Oh, the giggling.
"I'm glad you're having a good time," the fox sneered, promptly removing the tan, leather, wide-brimmed hat from his head – what was she had called it, a cowboy hat? What in tarnation did that mean? – and clutching it in his paws in front of him. "I – oh, sweet heavens, what is it now?"
"Oh my goodness," chattered Judy, reaching her paws toward Nick's snout, though she seemed to be aiming even further north. "Hat fuuuuuuur."
"Wha-?" stuttered the fox, both paws shooting to the top of his head. "What are you – oh, come on."
"Have you even worn a hat before?" Judy, doing her best to fend off a second round of snickers but having a fairly rough go of it, asked. "Not just one of these. Like, any one hat?" She reached up again to try to help Nick smooth out – or ruffle up, whichever worked best – the matted fur atop his head, but he waved her off with a flick of a paw.
"Ha. Get off. I think you've done enough."
"Niiiiiick," the bunny faux-whined, resting her paws against her hips. "I'm sorry. You've just never looked like this before! I was surprised."
She was right; he had not. And he may never have had he never made the trip out to Bunnyburrow that weekend, unless they decided to hit up one of the honky tonks in the Meadowlands sometime, and that seemed unlikely. He preferred the comfort of his dozens of Pawaiian shirts, reserving flannel for fleeting occasions. And jeans? Hard pass, especially if they were the regular blue denim kind. He could swing some all-black or all-white ones if they went with an outfit, but that was stretching it.
Hats, especially, were generally off limits. He barely even donned the cap he was given as part of his police uniform. Why was it necessary? The badge was enough, let alone the jacket.
He felt Judy take the hat out of his paws, glancing it over with concentrating, suddenly wistful eyes. "This one was actually my great-grandfather's."
"Ah. You hadn't told me it was an heirloom," Nick said, his tone softening.
"Hopps tradition, I guess," nodded Judy. "We hold on to 'em until… well, until…"
"They crumble into dust?"
"I mean, yeah, basically."
Nick delicately reached out a paw, brushing it against the article's brim and then around the small brown leather strap that surrounded the hat further up. He felt Judy's grip on the hat slacken a bit, and he recognized his option to take it back.
"Just remind me not to take it off all night, OK?" the fox ordered, eying the hat for a few moments before sticking it back atop his head.
"No argument," she replied with a small smile, the first he had seen her give that evening that was not a perceived slight on his choice of garment. "It looks better on you, anyway."
Nick had become so entranced by his own reflection in the mirror that he had yet to fully take in what Judy was wearing, finally opting to do so as they ascended one of the stairways that led to the front door. It was a skirt – a nice one, but patchy, or maybe patched up was the better descriptor. He assumed she kept it back home rather than having taken it to Zootopia, because he had certainly never seen her wear it before. It was mostly white and kind of… er, was flowing the word? Sure, flowing, but with patches of what looked like jeans or jean material sewn on at various places at the bottom, as though stitching up tears or holes from wear-and-tear over the years. Though, Nick recalled, some stores sold clothes that way these days, so who could say? Darn kids and their penchant for pre-ripped jeans. It was always the felines for some reason, too.
Her shirt, meanwhile, was a red-and-white-checkered plaid thing, tucked into the skirt. He had seen that one make an appearance in Zootopia, but only a few times, and he mostly saw it in her closet when she forgot to close it when he came over, tucked in the corner with some other rarely worn garments.
Both of them, he assumed, looked the part for the occasion. But all of his knowledge of barn dances was hearsay or from what he had seen on television over the years. Chances were he might have never attended one, let alone seen one in passing, had the topic never come up in the squad car he often shared with Judy one summer day, about how she was considering going back home for the annual Bunnyburrow dance.
All he knew was that he looked kind of ridiculous in his eyes, but aside from the initial reaction, Judy did not seem to mind, so why should he?
They met one of Judy's cousins outside – Nick could not remember his name, but he was fairly certain it started with an A – and piled into his truck. They were only going a little way down the road, definitely not into town, but Judy's parents insisted they drive anyway; out in the more rural areas of Bunnyburrow, there were no sidewalks, and walking on the road was not recommended, lack of other cars or not.
"Whose shindig is this, anyway?" Nick asked, sliding into the far right passenger seat while Judy squeezed into the middle astride her cousin, the truck a mere three-seater.
"Family called the Cottons. You met some of them at the farmer's market last month." She slunk down in her seat, fastening her seatbelt, and gave Nick a quick glance. "The fruit-only farmers, remember?"
"Huh. I liked them," he said as the other rabbit, who apparently was not much of a talker or at least was not when he had a piece of straw sticking out of his mouth, as he did now, pushed the truck into reverse and backed out of the Hopps homestead driveway. Tires rolled over gravel and dusty stones, the vehicle shaking a little to the left and then to the right as it moved over the rough terrain. "Kinda expected this one to be in town, though. The Roundhouse by the fairgrounds, maybe?"
Judy shrugged. "That's the big one. This one's invite-only."
"Ya should be," Judy's cousin finally spoke, sniffing once. "The Cotton dance is better'n that one in town, anyway. Too crowded, that one, yeah."
"Maybe if you rabbits tried some population control every once in a while…" began Nick, receiving a sharp jab in the ribs from Judy to cut him off, though her cousin chuckled.
"Yeah," he said with a nod, shifting the piece of straw to the other side of his mouth, "s'pose you got a point."
After a few moments' silence, the cousin spoke again: "You look good, by the way, fox. Fer a city slicker."
Later, Nick would wear that last comment as a badge of honor, one he would bring up most of the first part of the evening to Judy, who shrugged it off as she did many of his little needles.
"He didn't even say anything about your get-up, Carrots," the fox said, continuing a conversation that had persisted ever since they stepped out of the truck toward the light of the Cotton family's biggest barn. "I've got a theory. You wanna hear it?"
"Saying no isn't going to change your response, is it?"
"Nope. OK, so picture this: Back at your house, during your little laughing fit, that was a front for you slowly going insane because I," he did a twirl in the grass, one paw holding on to his hat that was back atop his head, "look better than you do. Better than the little hick who invited me. How's that feel, huh?"
Judy sighed, folding her arms across her chest as she kept her eyes fixated on the barn they approached. "Amos was just being friendly," she droned, adding a quick shake of her head. "Trying to help you fit in."
"Oh yeah, that reminds me," said the fox, veering completely off the subject before he could lose any ground while mentally reminding himself to remember Amos' name that time. "How many foxes are gonna be here? Or am I going to have to be swatting fawning does off me tonight instead of vixens?"
He stole a glance at her face to see if that triggered anything, but if it did, the darkness of twilight masked the bunny's emotion.
"Gideon's probably coming. Maybe some of his family, I don't know. You won't be the only non-bunny, though."
"Darn. Wanted to get more compliments."
The next 20 minutes were a whirlwind for Nick, who met more rabbits in that span than he felt like he had in an entire lifetime. Some of those were familiar faces from the two trips he had made back to Bunnyburrow with Judy previously, but others were brand new, including some newfound cousins of the Hoppses that led him to wonder if every rabbit family in town was related in some way, distantly or otherwise.
It was enough to distract him from how silly he still felt he looked, despite the growing acceptance of his outfit and his decision to take Amos' comment as the greatest compliment a fox could be paid in Bunnyburrow, even if he was overcompensating a bit. OK, a lot; he was nervous, that much was true, and any little detail onto which he could fixate to hide that was welcome.
Finnick's text had not helped. He saw it in the truck, picked up his phone with his right paw while Judy and Amos were discussing some song on the radio that apparently used to play at these dances a decade and a half ago but had since been shuffled out of rotation. The message was short, but he knew its intentions immediately.
"third visit eh?"
It was a true statement, one to which Finnick already knew the answer. Nick knew why he was asking it, too. It stemmed from a conversation the pair had the last time they saw each other, a quick coffee meetup in which Finnick reminded Nick, once again, that he did not like coffee and that they really needed to pick a new meeting spot.
At that point, Nick had been to Bunnyburrow twice, once for a short visit that stemmed from a certain declaration at a bonfire back in Zootopia one night, the other to help watch some of Judy's youngest siblings when her parents were unexpectedly pulled away from the house one weekend and her grandparents were, too, indisposed.
In this case, Finnick was equating this visit to the third date – the one where something was supposed to happen, whatever that was. Maybe it was the first kiss, first intimacy, something far past that. He had gone on and on about some of his traipses from there, Nick letting the small fox trail onward with an amused smirk on his face while he attempted to block from his mind the implications of what Finnick was implying. This was three visits. Not three dates, but three visits. The money visit.
Which was to say, the third trip was the one where Finnick expected Judy and Nick to finally hook up. He claimed to have been expecting it for weeks, months even. Claimed he could tell it was imminent, knew it from the way Nick talked about his work partner, how their friendship had progressed to trips outside Zootopia – to Judy's childhood home, no less.
Nick humored him that day and had practically forgotten about the exchange until that text creeped into his peripheral vision, and suddenly he was confronted with it all over again, the nerves finding their way to his head, branching out and laying down roots.
After all, this was indeed the trip where he expected – or, perhaps, hoped? – something would happen, something would change between them. He had no concrete plan, simply opting to wait for when the moment was right. And Finnick's text had dented his otherwise cheerful, happy-go-lucky demeanor, doubt creeping in instead.
She had elbowed him again, but it took him a few moments to register the pain.
"You know, that's gonna bruise by the end of the weekend if you don't stop."
"Pay attention, then," she commanded with the tiniest of shrugs. "My parents just walked away and you barely registered it."
He shot her a toothy, apologetic smile. "Sorry. So… what's there to do here?" He scanned the room, eyes resting at a large bowl that contained a red liquid in particular. "Besides drink heavily."
"Ooh, go get us some punch. Meet me at that table over there; I'm gonna go make camp." She nodded toward a vacant six-chaired circular table at the edge of the dance floor.
"10-4," Nick said, making his way over to the refreshment table and praying the punch in question had alcohol. The fact that a bespectacled sheep stood behind the table, eying those who happened to walk up and pouring cups when needed, seemed to indicate that it was; no chaperone needed otherwise, even though the dance seemed mostly full of adults, only the occasional tyke dashing across the floor in front of him.
"Oh, thank heavens," he remarked after taking a sip; it was a concoction of some sort, seemingly multiple liquors at once. Probably a house specialty.
He promptly downed one cup, avoiding the somewhat-judging look aimed his way by the attendant, and poured two more, one for him and one for Judy.
Nick had decided long before that he would need plenty of spirits that evening if they were available. Not because he could not have a good time without alcohol, but because it was just his way of partying, generally, liquoring up with a drink or two to kick his social interactions up a notch. He did not drink much anymore, especially in a party atmosphere, but he still had the instincts for it from his early 20s.
Plus, he always figured he was going to tell her about his feelings that night, and a little liquid courage was absolutely necessary, especially when it came to talking about one's feelings.
He had known it for a while. It started with a text he sent – a photo, actually, but in the form of a text. She was back in Bunnyburrow then, visiting family for an evening for some of her siblings' high school graduation, and he was stuck doing paperwork most of the day back at the precinct, though he had been able to get off work a little earlier than expected. He had not known what possessed him to do it at the time, but seeing the moon in the sky – the moon they often talked under, the one they would stare up at on lazy evenings where neither of them had much to do – led to him taking a picture and sending it to her, hoping he might catch her doing the same thing in that very moment, except in the country rather than in the city.
It was gradual from there, building upon him like snow accumulating atop a mountain. He knew he was falling for her, and maybe he had been for a while – like back at the bonfire for two he made for them to help her not feel so homesick, or the night at the company holiday party when she fell asleep on his shoulder in the cab ride home.
At first, he shrugged it off as nothing more than a deep affection, a closer friendship than he had ever managed before, but as time sped forward, he realized it was more than that, and there was a small part of him that felt confident she felt the same way too, or at least thought that it was worth giving it a try, despite their obvious differences.
"Your drink, madam." Nick was at the table before he knew it, his apprehensive thoughts nearly causing him to forget where he was, noticing just in time to hand Judy the cup of punch.
She, too, downed it immediately, perhaps faster than he had. If he had not been sure of his admiration for her before then, he certainly was now.
"C'mon, finish yours," she said, wiping her mouth lightly against her sleeve. "Song's starting up. You should dance with me."
It was a forward proposition, but he was not in any mood to say no. Finishing his second cup of punch in two swigs, Nick joined Judy on the dance floor, where the DJ, a cougar Judy had pointed out earlier but whose name, again, escaped him (something about the younger brother of a classmate), had flipped on a ballad, replete with a deep male voice bellowing over what sounded like a mandolin.
"Let me make this perfectly clear," the fox stated as he walked a few steps behind the bounding rabbit, "you're gonna have to lead, Carrots. I can't dance."
"Sure you can," Judy replied, waving a paw dismissively.
"Er… no, I actually can't. Or haven't. Not in a while."
"So?" she asked, whirling around to face him, holding out her paw. "No one cares. I definitely don't. It's a barn dance, Slick. No judgment."
She beckoned him toward her with her held-out paw. "C'mon," she said. "It's easy. Take my paw."
Her paw was soft in his, light. That was probably how it was supposed to be, anyway; no one wanted a dancing partner who was forceful, heavy-pawed, tough to move, right? He lowered his right paw to her back, meaning to rest it against the small of her back but unable to reach it without really straining, and he was already hunched over slightly anyway to accommodate their height differences. He ended up settling it further up, between her shoulder blades.
"You're gonna have to lead," he repeated.
"You already told me."
"OK, but still."
She reached up her free paw, the one that had been about to wrap around the arm that was pressed tenderly against her back, and put it to his lips, shushing him with a minuscule, knowing grin.
He decided to listen to her.
A disco ball hung from the ceiling of the barn, something Nick had not noticed before right then, when it began to rotate slowly, the reflection of the lights off its many shards of glass illuminating the dance floor around them. Occasionally, one of those beams would shine across Judy's face, and Nick would catch her staring up at him with a genial gaze, one that seemed to betray her own intentions – or perhaps Nick was simply reading into them too much, seeing what he wanted to see.
In doing so, Nick had barely noticed he was moving. Well, they were moving, the two of them, together. Nick had no doubt in Judy's strength, and she had been able to move the bigger fox without much of a fuss as they swayed, left then right, forward and backward. The fox soon found himself easily acclimating to the movements, rocking in earnest to the mid-tempo country-and-western tune that he was pretty sure he had heard before but of which he could not recall the name or the singer. Keith Wolfley, was it?
He heard her chuckle.
"What, is it the hat again?" He was half-joking.
"Nah," Judy said, glancing up at him like a proud parent. "You're just leading now, that's all."
"Huh? No, you've been –" he started, glancing down at the floor in protest, but it was true – he could feel it in every little muscle movement, twinge of a paw against the dusty concrete. "Well, would ya look at that?"
"Yep! Just in time for the song to be over."
"Which makes it my turn."
Nick had not been expecting Stu Hopps' voice, so its sudden appearance nearly caused him to jump, despite the din of the evening's music and discussion.
After regaining his wits, he met the gaze of Stu, who stood beside the rabbit and the fox, and smiled. "All yours, sir."
The evening progressed with a few more of those little moments – those slow dances, where Nick gradually worked up an ease on the floor to the point that it became increasingly tougher to know that he had been out of practice for as long as he had; the square dances, which he did not quite understand and tended to have more fun watching; the audience participation-led numbers he was not allowed to skip, lest he incur Judy's wrath.
He enjoyed watching the line dances the most. There was a chaotic element to them he could not quite pinpoint, a beautiful disaster waiting to happen in the flailing legs, almost-but-not-quite-uniform dance moves and the occasional collisions that ended in delighted guffaws from those affected as they hobbled back into the rhythm.
Judy was practically a natural at it; he had already decided to ask her more about it on the train ride home, because he had never seen her imply even a lick of that talent in Zootopia. She was a dancer, certainly, but a carefree one, spontaneous, loose. Back home, she often lacked the rigidity of the line dancing in which she now partook, the commitment to form, as though she was rearing back and recalling old muscle memory from years before that he just had never seen before then. They would have to make it to a honky-tonk sometime. Maybe Finnick knew a good one. He knew all the good bars, right?
Ah, Finnick. Nick stared back down at his phone, which was beside him on the table at which he sat, alone, watching as about half of the dance's attendees – Judy and her parents included – clapped and hollered their way through some song about a river. There was another text from the fennec, this one far more invasive than his previous attempt – which, Nick surmised, may have been alcohol-addled, given that it was Saturday night.
"kiss yet or what" came the first text. A "?" was added in a second message for good measure. Then three more question marks, since apparently Nick was not responding in a timely manner.
He rolled his eyes, opting to shove the phone into his pocket and turn off the vibration setting. The show was better in front of him, anyway.
"Who was that?" The dance had ended, and Judy had seen Nick reading the texts before he stuffed his phone away as she bounced over, her breathing slightly ragged.
"Eh, Finnick's drunk texting again. How you doin'?" the fox asked with a grin, nodding toward the dance floor, where another square dance was starting up.
"I'm having a great time! Don't really like this song so I figured I'd come over and check on you." She nodded to her left, motioning over her shoulder. "These are pretty easy to learn, you know. You should come out for some."
Nick shook his head, sighing with a small laugh punctuating the end of it. "Nuh-uh. Way more fun to watch you."
"Hi, that's not creepy at all!"
"Oh, can it."
She took a seat beside him, pulling one foot onto her knee and massaging around the ankle.
"Tired?" he asked.
"A little bit." She shrugged. "But I'm game to stay as long as you want to."
"Heh," Nick chuckled. "Are we a package deal? This isn't a date, is it, Hopps?" He did his best to mask whatever hopeful inflection might have creeped in at the end of the sentence.
"You're my guest, Nicholas," she replied, dodging his bait. "Unless you'd like me to leave you alone with Gideon for the rest of the night. Go back home, hang out at his place. Do… fox stuff."
"Psh. That awkward silence earlier was more than enough. I'll pass."
Judy took to her other ankle while Nick glanced out into the crowd, gaze eventually resting somewhere between the dancing Bunnyburrow folks and that spinning disco ball. The effect was mesmerizing and many-colored, and he found himself falling into a daze until Judy's voice pulled him out of it.
"Hey. Listen," she said, waving a paw in front of his face.
Rolling her eyes, Judy stood up from her seat. "I said, would you like to dance again?" She held out her paw as Nick took in the opening notes of another slower tune.
"No old boyfriends to beat me to the punch this time?" asked the fox with a snicker that was meant to mask the contempt he had for that particular question, since it had already happened a few times – not that he tried to let her notice. "Cousins? Grandparents?"
She took his paw and dragged him to his feet, pulling him onto the dance floor as he continued: "Old classmates you barely remember? The DJ? Are you really putting me in, coach?"
Her paw was to his snout again, and he shut up right away.
As usual, they were far from the only mammals out there swaying to the beat. Gideon was dancing with a sheep, Sharla, Nick had met earlier, and he caught Judy glancing at this, seeming enthralled at the prospect. The other fox caught her line of sight a few moments later and, with a small flicker of a grin, nodded to Judy and then to Nick.
He would have to ask Judy about the backstory there later.
As the latest song flowed on, a sweet female-fronted melody giving way to a soaring steel guitar solo about two thirds in, Nick noticed Judy staring up at him again with… well, it was not really a smile this time, but it was not a frown either. Contentment, maybe, with pursed lips and eyes that seemed to tell the story: wide, glimmering against the light of the disco ball, comfortable, relaxed. Maybe there was a note of admiration there? That was certainly how Nick figured he came off as he looked back down at her, unable to suppress a happy grin – an earnest one, the kind that she drew out of him more and more these days.
By now, any reservations Nick had possessed about dancing with a partner had melted away, and if any lingered, they did not show. Their movements were almost mechanical, but in an easygoing way rather than robotic, each sway, every little rock and motion pulled from the energy of the other mammal, shared as though it was of one movement and not two. In the back of his mind, Nick recalled the middle school dance lessons all those years ago, and how something must have stuck after all that time – or perhaps it was just that easy with her.
After a little while, Judy opened her mouth to speak. "You know, don't take this the wrong way…"
"Already have. How dare you?"
"…but I kinda like it when you don't talk."
"…uhhh, there's no way that came out right."
Judy shook her head. "You're right. It didn't. I'm sorry! Ugh. Let me explain…"
"Funnily enough, I think I liked this moment better when you weren't talking too," countered Nick, playfully enough that she would, he hoped, catch on that he did not actually mind her slip-up.
"Nick! I'm trying to be serious."
"Ugh, do you have to?"
But he fell silent after that, giving the bunny a small wink to let her continue.
"OK, so, it's like…" Judy started, looking up above him for a few moments, as though the words for which she was searching were above them, in the rafters or simply dangling in the air, "I've had a lot of fun tonight, with you and with everyone else, but there's something that just feels… right when we're out here. When there's nothing but the music."
Another ballad, slightly slower than the last but not by much, had started up, and Nick and Judy compensated for the change in tempo, slackening their slay ever so slightly.
Judy continued: "It's really hard to explain, and it might have been the punch that's getting me to this point, so please don't judge me. But…" she glanced into Nick's eyes, readjusting her paw that was in his, possibly tightening her grasp, though Nick could not be totally sure, "I'm a talker, you're a talker… there aren't a lot of quiet moments in our lives, I think, for those who know us or when we're together. And that's… that's OK, because it's us, it's our friendship.
"Every time I've danced with you tonight, though, every slow dance… I love it because I don't have to say anything, and you don't either. It's like…"
"Effortless," Nick finished the sentence with a calm vocal, unsure if that was the word she was looking for but not caring too much because it was most certainly how he felt. "Easy."
The rabbit nodded, a sheepish smile spreading across her muzzle. "And I look up at you and… I see you, Nick, a friend. My best friend. And I see how much you care for me and in the reflection of your eyes I swear I see how much I appreciate you, and… I don't know where I'm going with this, Nick, I just, everything feels right, you know? More right than it's ever been."
Finnick's texts replayed through Nick's mind, and every little rehearsed conversation the fox had ever considered bubbled to the surface, threatening to spill off his tongue all at once in a jumbled mess that would almost certainly never make a lick of sense strung together.
But before they could, the barn's lights, dimmed to set the mood of the slower musical segment, brightened at once, and the sharp sound of a fiddle line reverberated against the wooden walls and across the concrete, woops of excitement rising from the party.
"JUDY!" Sharla was careening toward them at a speed the fox had seen few mammals move when it had nothing to do with an actual race or fleeing from the cops. She skidded to a halt in front of them and grabbed Judy's arm that had been wrapped around Nick's, pulling the rabbit deeper into the crowd. "It's our song! Graduation! Ohmygoodness, where's Bobby?!"
Judy barely had a second to say goodbye or to explain what fiddle-fueled mayhem was about to be wrought, shooting Nick an apologetic glance as Sharla pulled her away. She was gone a few moments later, part of a teeming mass of 20-something mammals who were, apparently, reliving the jam of their high school years.
Nick chuckled to himself, smoothing out the flannel collar around his neck and, absentmindedly, pulling out his phone. Nervous tic, maybe, but he was a creature of habit.
The texts Finnick had sent from earlier were still there, with even more question marks added, as well as a repeat of the earlier question as though it had not gone through earlier, asking for details of the lip-locking variety.
"nah," he texted the fennec fox. "but I think I've got time."
He straightened his hat on top of his head and decided to go see if he could learn a new dance move or two.