Judy’s feet kicked up a little dirt as she made her way along the pathway. The sun was out in force but the late autumn air left her exposed fur feeling chilled. Thankful she brought her coat from the precinct. She finally made her way to the old warehouses along the docks, without a single mammal in sight. In front of her was a familiar bridge that crossed a small creek that dried up long ago. It was here that she won Nick back during her first case, and now she would give him the chance to do the same.
She heard voices in the tunnel under the bridge, but they were not what she was expecting. She quietly creeped down the pathway and peeked her head around the corner, looking down the length of the tunnel. The first fox she saw was not the one she was expecting.
Finnick? she wondered. He was sitting on the ground leaning his back against the stone wall that lined the tunnel, staring at the other fox across from him. Nick was on a small box, leaning up against the stone wall as well with his phone in his paws and two crutches on the ground beside him. His leg was completely covered from his hip to his ankle in a bright white cast. His ear was covered in bandages as well that likely hid stitches.
“You've been working with Nick for long enough to know that he does not do 'sloppy',” Judy heard her own voice say. Her ears perked up and she focused in on Nick’s phone. She heard Wolford’s voice next.
“You've got hunches, Hopps. We've gotten lucky with them so far, but that's all they were. There are seven pieces of evidence showing Wilde has betrayed us: six of them were pulled from Fangmeyer's back, and one of them was lodged in your kevlar,” she heard come from Nick’s phone. Her eyes widened as she realized what they were listening to. This conversation took place in her hospital room after her fall from the train. Jack bugged her phone, so he must have recorded this conversation and sent it to Nick.
This wasn’t even a phone call! she thought. Then she remembered having her mother call her right before this conversation took place. She had placed her mother on hold, so her phone was on and resting just beside her while she and Wolford argued with one another.
"Fangmeyer believed in Nick" Judy’s voice continued.
“Then go ask her for help! She’s right down the hall!”
“Maxwell!” Clawhauser chimed in.
“What are you trying to say, Wolford?,” Judy’s voice asked. She looked up and noticed the mournful expression on Nick’s face as he listened to the conversation. He gazed sadly at the ground and gripped his phone a little tighter. If she had to guess, Nick had heard this conversation once already. Finnick patiently listened along, his arms folded across his chest.
“I'm saying that I won't help you hurt yourself any longer! I'm done!”
“No one is keeping you here, Maxwell.”
“But you're still going after him, aren't you?" Wolford grumbled.
“Yes,” she answered immediately. "I made the mistake of doubting him once, and I will never do it again. I know you don't understand it, and you probably never will, but I will stake everything I know and love on him: my career, my home, even my life."
“Why?” Wolford asked softly.
"Because I know Nicholas Wilde better than anyone on earth ever could. And if I have to choose between playing it safe and believing in Nick, I will always go with Nick."
Nick had enough and hit the stop button on his phone. He did not look up to see his friend’s reaction, only continued to stare at the ground without looking at anything really. His mind was elsewhere.
Judy chose this moment to make her presence known and stepped out from the edge of the bridge. Finnick’s ear twitched and he looked up at her with mild shock. His eyes darted between her and Nick for a moment, but Nick did not even acknowledge her yet. Finnick rose and nodded towards Judy knowingly. He placed a paw on Nick’s cast and gently knocked on it twice.
“I’ll be in the van,” his dark voice said calmly and he turned to leave. Judy approached Nick, observing the thoughtful gaze on his face. He stared down at his phone and fiddled with it between his fingers for a moment. Finally, after a long moment of silence between them, he hit the delete button and wiped the audio file from his phone.
“I assume old stripes got to you too,” Nick said softly.
“Too?” she asked back. He nodded and held up his phone slightly.
“Got a phone call from Mom a few minutes ago. Said she had the striped bunny stop by for another visit, and he told her everything. Though I highly doubt he told her e verything . She’s still mad I didn’t tell her, but she is sorry and wants to talk things over.”
Judy remembered watching Jack walk away from the park bench with purpose in his step. He had somewhere else to be, and more mess to clean up. He must have gone straight to Mrs. Wilde’s house to straighten things out with her.
“Good,” Judy said softly. “I’m glad things are better between you two.”
“Did you hear that? She said she was sorry. This would all be a lot easier if everyone else acted like Wolford from the start.”
“Maxwell was wrong about you, Nick. He only did what he thought was best for me.”
“Can’t say I blame old Howler,” Nick said with a shrug. “I would have said the same.”
“He joined my team because he believes in you, Nick. They all do,” Judy said firmly.
“If they did before, they won’t now. Besides, they shouldn’t have believed in me in the first place,” Nick said darkly. He still refused to look up at her as he spoke. “They were supposed to treat a fox like a fox.”
“Is it really that hard to grasp?” she asked him, “that I’m not the only friend you have on the force?”
“Had,” Nick corrected her. “After all of this . . .”
“Don’t give me that self-pity nonsense right now, Slick,” Judy said harshly. “Maxwell is willing to give you another chance. So is the Chief. He says that if you’re willing to put in the work, you can earn your badge back.” Nick’s eyebrows went up a little for a moment, upon hearing he had not lost his job completely. But he immediately went back to his cold scowl.
“And what? Pretend like none of this ever happened? This isn’t something I can just say ‘woops, sorry!’ and go back to having donuts in the lobby with Benji like always. How could I ever make things right after everything?” he said with his paws splayed open.
“You can start by looking at me, Nick!” she spat. He hesitated at first, recoiling away from the hurt in her voice like it stung his face. After a moment, he took a breath and looked at her dead in the eye. That familiar green color was both terrified and firm. He was trying his best to hold his ground, but his usual front was failing him completely. Judy’s paws curled up into tight fists.
“You should have told me,” she said coldly. “We’ve tackled tough cases and we always got our guy. We’ve taken down worse than Victor Pumar before, and we’ve never been beaten once. We did all of that because we did it together . We are a team, Nick. But instead of treating me like your partner, you vanished without a word.”
Her words were cutting deep, she could tell. Nick’s jaw clamped shut and his paws curled in as she spoke. His eyes, however, did not waver at all. He kept his gaze focused right on her, quietly waiting for her to finish.
“You put yourself at unnecessary risk just to keep my name clean. What if something had happened to you? Would it really be worth your life?”
“Yes,” he answered softly.
“Nick!” she gasped. “I can’t believe you right now. What was going through your mind?”
“You would have done it,” he murmured.
“You would have given it all up! If they asked, you would have tossed your badge and spent the rest of your life in prison if it meant saving at least one stranger’s life. Years of hard work, of proving yourself, and all your future holds? All of it gone!” Judy could tell he wasn’t shouting because he was angry, but rather because he was scared.
“I had a choice to make,” Nick explained. “Either I go down in flames or we both do, and what kind of choice is that? You’ve got a massive family who loves you, and you’re an inspiration to smaller mammals everywhere. You are the best officer on the force, with years of potential in front of you. You’ll be Chief someday, Carrots! Me? I had you, so I did what I could to keep you out of this plan, if you could even call that cluster-rut a plan.”
Something about the way Nick used the word ‘choice’ struck her as odd. “Skye . . . that’s what she did to get you to join in, wasn’t it? She threatened to come to me, knowing I’d say yes and that it would force you to join in too,” Judy realized. Nick could only frown and nod at her.
“She was a hustler once, just like me. I can’t be too surprised,” Nick said and looked back at the ground thoughtfully. “It was the best deal I would ever see. One fox’s freedom for your safety and thousands of innocent lives? Fair trade. . . but you weren’t kept safe.”
“I’m a police officer, Nick. It’s a dangerous line of work,” Judy argued.
“You were never supposed to risk your life or your badge like that. The chase in midtown, the Dravec, the train . . . I could sit here and tell you all about my good intentions, how the plan backfired, and how that sack of scat Savage failed to keep you safe, but that’s all beside the point, isn’t it? My decision put you in danger. I almost . . . I almost killed you, Carrots,” Nick said. His paws curled into a fist again, and his snout shriveled as his face contorted in pain at the memory.
Judy quietly watched as Nick fought to keep his face straight. His eyes squinted for a moment, then relaxed. He breathed in evenly, but his breath out was shaky. His tail was as still as the dead behind him.
“Judy,” he said and looked back up at her again. “If getting on my hands and knees and apologizing would make any difference, I would. If strapping on some kevlar and giving you a free shot would make you feel any better, I would do it. I could spend the rest of my life trying to fix what I broke, but I never could. There is no world where what I did is okay. I can’t fix this,” he said with a shake of his head.
Judy considered his words closely. She stood there, gazing at him. She was not sorry for him, despite the sad look on his face. He was right in a lot of ways. It would be impossible for things to go back to the way they were completely, but despite his actions and everything he risked, he did so to make the world a better place. Bogo’s words were echoing in her brain as she looked back at him. If he was unwilling to risk having her to save lives, then he didn’t deserve her in the first place. She looked at him with a firm glare. She wasn’t angry when she spoke, she was hopeful.
Nick’s eyes went a little wider and his mouth fell open. He looked square at Judy in disbelief, his paws relaxing their grip and his eyes finally beginning to moisten. He stood, wavering for a moment on his good leg and hobbling towards her, abandoning his crutches. He stood before her, the same look of disbelief plastered on his face, and she stared right back at him, hoping above all else that he would make something work.
As slow as sunrise, he knelt down on his good leg, wobbling again as he shifted his cast around. His paws found the ground and supported his upper body as he knelt down and bent his head down low. She saw his ears fold back over his head and his tail swoop down over his broken leg. She was surprised, knowing that he did not think this would work.
“I was afraid,” he began, “of what you would have given for this op. But it was not my place to make that decision for you. If we took on Pumar together, if we both got busted and lost our jobs, if we both got charged, we would have found a way through it like we always have. We would be okay because we would have done it together . But all because I was a little scaredy-kit, and didn’t trust you to make your own calls, you were put in danger and Fangmeyer was hurt.”
He gripped the dirt beneath his paws and shook his head, as if telling the dissenting voices in his head to keep back and let him finish.
“I won’t blame you if you walk away, Carrots. I know it’s not enough . . . but I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Judy. You deserved so much better.”
Judy stepped forward and gently cradled his head into her chest. She wrapped her arms around the fur on his cheeks and ran her paws over his ears. She felt something warm and wet hit the tops of her feet. He leaned his head forward, pressing in deeper into her. His breath was shaky, and he brought up one arm to hold onto the back of her shirt, gripping it in his fingers tightly.
“Skye . . . we kissed and we played lovers, but we didn’t . . . we never . . .” he choked.
“I know,” she said soothingly, continuing to run her paws over the fur on his head. He gripped her shirt tighter and pulled her closer. She enjoyed the feel of his coarse fur along her fingers, and the way he held on to her tightly. Judy guessed that perhaps two mammals had ever seen Nick like this.
“Judy . . .” his voice broke. He was done trying to maintain his tough guy facade. He let her see plainly and openly that she was the one mammal that got to him. She shushed him softly and continued running her paws over his head. It was all she could do to keep from breaking herself.
She let him breathe a few more times, gently calming him. “Don’t worry, Slick. I left the carrot pen at home.”
His broken laugh was music to her ears. It was weak at first, but it built into a familiar chuckle with shaky breaths in between. She felt a smile creep onto his cheeks through her paws, and she laid her head down on top of his, trying to usher it out further. “There we go, deep breaths,” she urged him with a smile on her face.
“How do you bunnies do this all the time?” he said after a half-laugh/half-sob. “It’s exhausting.”
“Years of practice and conditioning,” she joked. “And lot’s of coffee in between.”
Nick relaxed his grip on her shirt and sat up on his knee, keeping his other leg propped up behind him. He looked at her with a warm smile on his face, wiping his eyes with the back of his paws. She smiled back up at him, thankful to have her fox safe again. After almost losing him in more ways than one, it was a victory to see his face again at all. He stood up, wobbling a bit to one side so Judy caught him at his side and helped him grab his crutches.
“How long will you need these?” she said as she handed him the metal stilts.
“12 weeks, doc says,” Nick responded with a sniffle. “I’ll need to head back sooner though to get the stitches in my ear removed. Hopefully the doc kept me pretty . . . hold on, what time is it?” he asked, his brow furrowing suddenly.
“Hmm?” Judy said and pulled out her phone. “Ten after four.”
“Perfect! Follow me,” he said with a slight smile on his face. His eyes were dry now and his voice less shaky. He hopped on one leg and swung his whole body in strides up the hill along the bridge. Judy was impressed he could move so quickly, she actually had to maintain a light jog to keep up.
“Where are we going?” she wondered.
“First, to Finnick’s van. After that, you’ll just have to wait and see.”
“Please don’t start keeping secrets from me right now, Slick,” Judy groaned.
“I promise, fluff. From now on, no secrets! Only pleasant surprises.”
“No secrets?” she said skeptically.
“Okay then. Were you serious when you said you’d give me a free shot?”
Finnick was gracious enough to drive them back into town while Nick directed him where to go. As they drove, Judy explained all about the Chief’s offer to give Nick another chance on the force. He took it all in with a thoughtful look on his face, contemplating his options. For a moment, Judy wondered if he would refuse the offer. After all, Nick did not realize how much the ZPD trusted him until after he left. It brought a new weight and pressure onto proving himself as a capable officer to more than just Judy.
“Up here,” he said and pointed to a parking spot beside an office building down the road. Finnick parked his van and undid the back doors for Nick, sarcastically offering him the ramp like he was cargo.
Judy quietly followed Nick as he led them both down the street a little further along a few well-kept garden hedges. He continued to hobble on his crutches in front of her, occasionally glancing behind him to see that she was still following.
“Just up this way,” Nick said, pointing at the corner of the next block.
“You going to tell me where you brought me yet, Slick?” Judy said with her hands on her hips.
“To the specialist’s office,” he explained. “Same guy who worked on my leg was helping Skye.”
“Why are you taking me there?”
“You’ll see,” he said and shot back a familiar smug grin. It was the first one she had seen since the day he vanished, and it felt as warm and familiar as her childhood bed.
“You and Skye go back a ways?”
“Waaay back,” he said. “Remember when I told you about after the whole ranger-scout muzzle fiasco that I fell in with a bad crowd?”
“Yeah,” Judy remembered.
“Well, Skye was part of that bad crowd. She was our resident pickpocket before her dad sent her to live in Zoo York. She hated my guts when we first met, so you’d like her. I didn’t realize this until after she moved away, but she had it rough as a kit. Real rough. She never hurt anyone, but she never really got straight until she met stripes.”
Nick finally stopped at the corner of the street where the hedges took a sharp turn around the bend in the road. He leaned on one crutch as he peered around the corner towards the medical building that listed a private practice specializing in canines and larger predators. Judy saw him smile.
“Ahh, like clockwork,” he said quietly. He looked back at her and ushered her closer. Judy snuck beside him and peered around the corner, getting a closer look at the building across the street.
Standing out front near the lobby doors was Jack Savage, who leaned up against his car with his foot impatiently thumping against the ground. He snuck a look at his watch, glancing up at the doors to the lobby, then back down at his watch.
“The ZBI have been keeping a close watch on Skye while Savage has been cleaning up loose ends. She had her final appointment with the doc today so she should be all done,” Nick explained softly, making sure to speak quietly so that Jack could not hear them. He laughed softly as Jack continued to anxiously wait.
A moment later, the lobby entrance opened and a vixen with snowy-white fur hobbled through the automatic doors. Her leg was injured as well, but she was strapped into a boot instead of a full cast like Nick. Her midsection looked bandaged as well underneath her torn t-shirt. Jack’s ears were immediately tall and stiff, his foot finally stopping it’s impatient thump. Judy kept her own ears tall as well, hoping to hear what she would say.
“Jack,” Skye say softly, her eyes widening upon realizing it was him.
“Hey, Skye,” Jack breathed with a warm and content smile growing on his face. Skye dashed forward, dropping her crutches and hobbling quickly down the parking lot.
“Jack!” she cried out.
“Easy!” Jack said and darted forward, quickly making his way to her. “You’re gonna rip your stitches!”
“Jack!” she called out again, blinking back tears. He guided her down so she was now sitting on the pavement with her leg propped forward. Jack held onto her carefully, making sure she was not hurt by gently checking for any blood seeping through any of her stitches.
“Crazy fox,” he scolded her, taking her cheeks in his paws. “You feel any pain in your abdomen? Can you flex your arms inward for me?”
“Jack,” she practically whispered and leaned her head forward. He wrapped his arms around her neck and practically buried himself in her fur. She grasped onto his frame with both arms and pulling him off of his feet. Her eyes were squeezed tightly shut as she took in the feel of his form and the smell of his fur.
“Mmm,” Nick murmured with a smile as he watched them embrace. “Skye would lay awake in bed at night with this sad look on her face. We would spend hours into the night quietly talking about our bunnies, just trying to pass the time before we could get back to them. Any time I felt like I missed you, I reminded myself that she was really hurting too, not having Jack there.”
Jack brought Skye’s face down towards him, kissing her sweetly and holding the fur on her cheek with one paw. She eagerly kissed him back, her eyes closing and holding back happy little laughs that bubbled up from her chest.
“We were apart for a few days. They were apart for months ,” Nick said softly.
Judy gazed up at Nick, who watched with a passive satisfaction as the two former ZBI agents embraced. He sighed, happy to know that at least one of them got their rabbit back. Try as he might to hide it, Nick was really a sap underneath it all. He dragged her all the way across town just to watch them be happy.
She reached out and folded her paw into his palm, lacing her fingers with his. He looked down in surprise at her as she smiled up at him, giving his warm paw a light squeeze. He turned away from the street corner to face her more directly, looking suddenly nervous.
“I want my partner back, Nick. You think you can take Bogo up on his offer?” She asked him. Nick nodded slowly.
“I know it’s going to take time for me to fix this, Judy,” he confessed softly. “But to be honest, I’d scrub toilets at the precinct for the next twenty years if it got me closer to seeing you during the day.”
“Nick,” she said sweetly, stepping closer to him. “We can make this right, but we’ll do it together, okay?”
“Okay,” he said weakly, bowing his head down towards her.
“Baby steps,” she whispered and gave him a soft kiss. It was not the full force embrace the other two were sharing, rather it was as brief and as soft as a shared breath. She was there just long enough to feel the warmth of his lips against hers, pulling away and gazing up at him.
“How am I doing so far?” he asked her, holding on to her paw with both hands.
“Keep at it, Slick,” she said with a wicked smile. “You’re in the right direction.”
Despite everything Nick had said to reassure her, her foot still tapped nervously. Her mind was reeling with all the little details she could be overlooking, and she was worried about the consequences if everything did not go well. If he asked about it, she’d tell him the hot sidewalk was bothering her foot. He finally caught up to her at the stoop and leaned on one of his crutches, giving her a skeptical look.
“It will always confuse me how you can approach a hostage situation with a cool head, but this is what makes you nervous,” he said with a shake of his head.
“I just want it to go well! Sue me,” she said and fiddled around with her shirt, making sure it wasn’t too wrinkled.
“Fluff, trust me, it’ll be fine. I talked with her when I was here yesterday, she’s ecstatic to meet you.” Nick gave her his usual relaxed smile and began ascending the stoop, being extra careful not to hit his cast against the stone steps.
“Are you sure you don’t want help with that?” Judy offered, knowing full well it was a fruitless effort.
“Let this broken fox keep some dignity, Carrots. Besides, I’ll be free of this thing in a few days and I need the practice.”
“What is undignified with letting your girlfriend help you out? Besides, wouldn’t your mom want to see that I can help you when you’re hurt?” she asked, and bit the back of her finger anxiously.
“Carrots, come on. If I can show my face in the precinct, you can have lunch with Vivienne.” He placed a comforting paw on her shoulder and planted a quick kiss on her head between her ears. She finally sighed and shook the tension out of her shoulders, giving him a knowing nod.
“Ready when you are, Slick.”
Nick smiled and hit the doorbell, which range with three lovely notes before Judy heard a soft female’s voice call out through the door.
“Just a moment!” she called out, opening the door a second later and smiling at them.
Vivienne Wilde had a gentle smile and a pale blue dress, making the orange in her fur seem brighter. Her fur had a few traces of white running through her face, but she carried herself with a air of youthfulness despite her age. She looked over at her son and gave him an oddly familiar smirk.
“She’s gorgeous, Nicky,” she said softly. Judy immediately blushed and looked over towards her partner.
“Was there ever any doubt?” he smirked back, more than a little proud. “Mom, this is officer Judy Hopps. Judy? Vivienne Wilde.”
“Please to meet you Mrs. Wilde!” Judy said and held out her paw. The old fox gently shook it and smiled at her.
“It’s been a long time coming, Officer Hopps. And please, call me Vivienne.”
“Only if you call me Judy,” she replied with a smile.
“Deal. Come on in! I’ve got pasta on the stove and blueberry muffins in the oven,” Vivienne said and ushered them inside.
“Hahh,” Nick moaned as he hobbled inside. His nose bounced joyfully as he caught the smell of his mother’s cooking. “I confess it openly, Carrots. The broken leg was just an elaborate ploy to get more blueberry muffins.”
“Huh,” Judy said as she followed them inside. “Don’t you think asking politely would have been easier? I would have made you some.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure you could make a mean muffin, but I’d sell my soul for these.” Nick eagerly swing his body through the living room and headed towards the kitchen. His mother grabbed a hold of his shirt on his shoulder and stopped him abruptly.
“No no, you’re going to sit right there and wait. I believe you have more studying for your police exam anyway.”
“You’re denying me muffins to make me study? I know I’m in my thirties but this has got to be some form of child abuse.”
“You heard your mother,” Judy said and gave him a light shove to the nearest armchair. His books were still left over from the last time he had studied there, resting on a small table under the lamp. “And if you can’t remember the age statute for child-abuse charges, then I’d say you need the extra study time.”
“18,” he grumbled and sat down with an annoyed sigh.
“Judy, would you mind helping me set the table?” Nick’s Mother asked politely. “Normally I would never ask a guest to help, but Grumpy McBrokenleg over there won’t be much use.”
“Hey, that’s Mister Grumpy McBrokenleg, ma’am,” Nick said gaudily.
“Well get reading,” Judy demanded. “I want to make that Officer McHealthyleg by the end of this summer.”
“Oh, I like you,” Vivienne said in a hushed tone as Judy joined her in the kitchen. She smiled back at the older vixen and began helping her set up for lunch.
Mrs. Wilde’s house was very charming. The wallpaper was a familiar green pattern that reminded her of Nick’s favorite shirt. It dawned on her quickly that it must be the reason why he loved that particular garment so much. The kitchen was built for taller mammals, so Judy used a small stool by the door to help her fetch placemats and silverware.
“He was a pawful growing up too,” Vivienne said quietly. “Sometimes more so than others, but he had heart, even if he hid it from everyone.”
“Mmm,” Judy agreed. “Don’t let his lazy front fool you. He’s been working hard every day.”
“Oh I know,” Vivienne said, stirring the pasta with a wooden spoon. “Though if I keep feeding his sweet-tooth, he’ll need to work even harder to burn off the flab after the cast comes off . . .”
Vivienne stopped stirring and gazed down at the stovetop thoughtfully. Judy caught her change in demeanor and looked over at the elder fox with a concerned look on her face. Vivienne smiled meekly, shaking her head.
“I never thought I’d be so grateful it was just a broken leg,” Vivienne said softly.
“Me too,” Judy said. She remembered just how horrifying it was to see Nick in the jaws of a savage predator, yelping in pain. She was thankful his mother did not see that.
“Judy,” Vivienne began, placing her spoon down and turning to her. She had a somber look on her face, and had trouble looking Judy straight in the eye. “I know I don’t know everything about what happened. When he left . . . I was so afraid that I had lost him again. But you never lost faith in him, even when his own mother had. I can never thank you enough for bringing Nicholas back to me.”
Judy smiled and placed a gentle paw on her forearm. “He brought his life around once. He can do it again, I’m sure of it.”
Vivienne smiled at her, placing a warm paw over Judy’s and nodding gratefully. She quietly got back to her cooking and Judy began placing placemats on the table. Through the kitchen door, Judy could see Nick on his father’s armchair, thoughtfully flipping through a copy of ‘Felonies or Misdemeanors?’ that was already worn down from the first time he studied for the officer’s exam. She smiled at his fervor and resolve, knowing he’d be working very hard for a long time even after the exam.
On his leg was a white cast that itched like crazy. It covered the whole of his limb from his hip all the way down to his heel. Over the months, it collected a few dings and spots of dirt, but what really stuck out were the signatures all over it. A few friends had written him messages and doodled jokes in some areas. Others were reserved for family, like his mother’s love that rested on his kneecap. But above that, right along his thigh where he could always see it, was a message from a special group of coworkers, followed by their names.
See you on the beat, Foxy