Chapter 4 – Late Night Conversations

Judy stared at the ceiling, hoping that sleep would take her soon. Her body was exhausted, but her mind was working overtime, trying to make sense of the new information. Nick didn’t have a proper home. The thought made Judy’s gut twist. The idea of him sleeping in a box under the bridge she’d found him at made her want to cry. He deserved better than that. He deserved four walls and a roof, a proper bed, somewhere he could truly call home.

“I was seven, when my dad died,” Nick whispered, his voice filling the silence. Judy froze, not daring to move or say anything for fear Nick would clam up and stop talking, stop sharing something important. “He was late home from work, and mom was worried. She paced around the living room while I played with my toys on the couch. When there was a knock at the door mom thought dad had forgotten his keys, he’d done that a few times, but rather than seeing my dad on the other side of the door she found two officers. I remember her crying; pleading with them.” Nick took a deep breath, and Judy glanced sideways, down to the fox on the spare mattress. He’d turned to face her and was curled up tight, sheet pulled taut around him and, though it was dark, Judy could see his emerald eyes focused on an empty spot on the floor. Judy longed to reach out and comfort him, but she restrained herself, wanting him to carry on. She had a feeling Nick had never spoken this openly to another mammal before.

“Mom shooed me in here so she could talk to them. I can remember the tear tracks on her fur, the way her whole body shook as she led me out of the room. I didn’t know what was going on, but mom came to see me once the officers had left and told me dad was gone. For a while, I thought he’d abandoned us, but the neighbors started talking, and they would look at me with pity. Eventually, I overheard them saying that dad had been murdered, simply because he was a fox,” Nick huffed in disgust as his jaw clenched. Judy could feel tears burning her eyes.

“We struggled financially, dad had been the breadwinner. Mom worked at a diner a few blocks away and took double shifts to try and make ends meet. There was still a mortgage on this place, and we needed to eat. My mom worked twice as hard as anyone in that diner but received hardly any tips from customers. Some even outright asked for a different server. Sometimes she’d come home and try to act cheerful like work had been great, but I could see how hard it was for her. We were only just scraping by. It took mom months to save for my Junior Ranger Scouts uniform,” Nick’s paw clenched around the sheet covering him, and Judy, unable to stop herself any longer, rolled over to face him, leaning down a little to rest her smaller paw atop his.

Nick startled, so lost in his own memories that he’d temporarily forgotten about Judy’s presence. The warmth of her paw comforted him. “I was twelve when I left home.” He still avoided her gaze. “Mom had had her double shifts taken from her, given to other mammals instead, and her tips were dwindling even further. She didn’t need the stress of feeding another mouth. I dropped out of school, started spending time with other mammals that were seen as low on the totem pole too. We worked a few hustles, my age making it easy to con animals out of their cash, even though I’m a fox.” Nick’s self-depreciation made Judy want to scream out at the injustice of it all. Nick was no different than any other mammal in the world. “I sent my mom whatever money I made, but it wasn’t enough, it was never enough.” Nick pulled his paw out from under Judy’s, hugging it to him.

Judy could feel the dampness on her fur, but she couldn’t bring herself to stop silently crying. Nick had been vulnerable once before with her, on the sky tram after her altercation with the Chief. She was honored he felt comfortable enough to open up again: She had a feeling he had so few people he could confide in.

“What happened next?” Judy asked softly, not liking Nick’s sudden silence.

The fox inhaled sharply, his eyes lifting to meet hers. “Quid pro quo, Carrots.” He slapped on a smile, but Judy saw right through it. Nick was deflecting. Judy indulged him, knowing it was a miracle she’d been given any answers at all.

“Go on, I’m all ears,” she teased, hoping to lighten the mood a little. She sat up, preparing for whatever questions Nick had. It worked for all of a few seconds, Nick’s lazy grin returning before his eyes moved to her left cheek, his smile dropping as he too sat up, pulling the sheet around him.

“Your cheek,” He started.

Judy sighed, “No, we don’t have cheek pouches to hoard food. Yes, we need to…” she started to rattle off the list of answers to the usual questions she received, but Nick chuckled lowly.

“Not what I meant, Carrots, but thanks for the interesting info.” Nick’s paw left the safety of his sheet, and he reached forward, across the gap between their beds, to cup Judy’s left cheek. He noted how she didn’t flinch at his touch, though he was certain she’d never willingly allowed a predator this close before. His tone slipped into something more serious. “Your scars,” he asked, smoothing his paw over her cheek. Nick had been angry when he’d first seen the three marks running across her cheek. He wanted to hunt down whatever mammal thought it was okay to hurt his sweet bunny, rip off one of their limbs and then beat them senseless with it. “Hey protective instincts, could you leave me alone, just for tonight?”

“Oh, it’s nothing, they’re nothing. I was nine and confronted the school bully as he’d stolen my friend’s tickets for the Carrot Day Festival and I demanded that he gave them back. He pushed me to the ground, I kicked him, he got mad, and then he clawed me,” Judy shrugged. It was so long ago now that Judy gave no importance to it, and Gideon had come a long way since then, even sincerely apologizing to her when she’d last been home.

“Who knew bunnies could be so vicious?” Nick tried to play it off, feeling irrationally angry that someone had hurt Judy. It wasn’t his place to get mad, and Judy’s response suggested it no longer bothered her. It didn’t stop him from frowning, though.

Judy looked uncomfortable as she played with her paws in her lap. “It wasn’t another bunny. It’s okay, though, Gideon apologized when I went home.”

Gideon…wasn’t that? Nick’s frown morphed into the start of a snarl, but he pushed it down, stopping before he could let out a noise of displeasure. Gideon. The fox Judy had mentioned at dinner. Why did a fox have to be the one who clawed Judy? No wonder she’d been apprehensive, carrying around that little bottle of repellent, reaching for it in a blind panic when he’d…

Nick paused, eyes widening and ears flattening as comprehension dawned on him. It all made sense now. After the press conference, when he’d confronted her, how Judy had reacted when he’d asked her if she thought he’d go savage, raising his paws to intimidate her. The last time a fox had raised a paw at her she’d been thrown around and scarred. Pain blossomed in his chest as he closed his eyes, angry with himself for not sticking around and hearing her out when she’d chased after him. Up until that moment, Nick hadn’t raised a paw at her, hadn’t seemed threatening at all. By mimicking the actions of her childhood bully, albeit unintentionally and unaware of what he was doing, Nick had made her feel like her nine-year-old self and forced her instincts to kick in and try to defend herself from being hurt again. He felt like a jerk. “My actions after your press conference speech. I’m so sorry.”

Judy slid from the bed, wincing a little as she put some weight on her bad leg. She ignored it, though, using both of her paws to cup Nick’s muzzle. “It’s okay,” She soothed, rubbing his fur. His scent transferred onto her paws with the rubbing action. “You didn’t know. It was my fault. I should’ve chosen my words more carefully, I should’ve explained everything to you.” She scritched under his muzzle and noted how he tipped his head back slightly, offering her a little more access. Judy felt awful for how she’d reacted when she’d spotted Nick in the ice-cream shop, preparing herself to possibly use her fox repellent. She’d contributed to the problem of discrimination against foxes. She’d been condescending, had spoken down to Nick and Finnick as they’d left the shop. Nick had changed her attitude towards foxes through his actions during the night howler case.

“I shouldn’t have left as I did,” Nick tried to argue, knowing that a miscommunication between them had led to their extended separation.

“You were hurting, Nick. I said some truly awful things that I’ll always be sorry for. It’s okay, I understand.” Judy stopped stritching long enough to smooth his ruffled fur down.

Nick huffed. “You were hurting too, Judy, reliving memories of being hurt by my kind.”

“Gideon was just a jerk who happened to be a fox. I know a lot of bunnies that are jerks too. I shouldn’t have let it get to me, and I didn’t even know that somewhere deep down it still did. Please let it go, Nick. We both made mistakes.”

Did Nick want to let it go? No, not really. Would he let it go, for Judy’s sake? Yes, yes, he would. Sighing, Nick’s shoulders sagged. “I’ll let it go if you do,” he bargained, knowing how emotional the small bunny was and how she would forever blame herself for the events following the press conference.

“Deal.” Judy pulled her paws away from Nick’s muzzle, offering her right paw out. Nick snorted at the gesture but shook on it anyway.

Nick braced himself. It was Judy’s turn once again to ask a question. “I’m not going to ask anything. You tell me whatever you want, whenever you’re ready to,” Judy offered, knowing it had taken a lot for him to open up as much as he already had.

Nick was grateful for Judy’s offer. There was plenty in his colorful past that he would never share, even with Judy. They were secrets that he would take to the grave. However, this little rabbit, with her big violet eyes and big ears, deserved some more answers. “When I was sixteen, I decided to put my hustling skills to good use, to start up a business, try to be an honest mammal. I figured I’d make more money for my mom that way,” Nick picked up his story where he had left off.

Judy’s injured leg ached, so she slid back onto the bed to sit once more, to listen to Nick and give him some space.

“I dreamt of a theme park, just for predators. It was to be a place where we could go and be ourselves, without fear or any repercussions. I taught myself the ins and outs of operating a business, made a business plan and cash flow forecasts, and then I went to every bank in the city and pitched my idea to them. Unfortunately, prey mammals owned all the banks. None of them wanted to lend money to a predator, let alone a fox,” Nick snorted, sighing as he recalled all of the rejections he’d faced. His idea had been solid, his business plan and cash flow forecast perfect, but his species worked against him.

Judy felt tears gathering in her eyes again at the injustice of it all. Nick was smart, she had no doubt his dream would’ve worked out, but small-minded mammals had crushed it.

“In the end, I went to a loan caracal in the Nocturnal district,” Nick explained. Judy’s paws went to her muzzle. She’d heard about the Nocturnal district, located deep under the city, and home to all sorts of creatures who partook in shifty business. She’d never been herself, but the thought of a sixteen-year-old Nick down there, striking a deal, made her pulse race. “It took a lot of negotiating, but I finally got him to agree to a 70/30 split of the business, in his favor of course. He lent me $400,000 and stipulated that he and his gang have access to the park whenever they wanted. I was so desperate for the investment that I agreed. It was going to be in the warehouse next to the bridge where you found me. I was going to call it Wilde Times,” Nick chuckled, finding humor even now in the name he’d chosen.

Judy appreciated the pun and couldn’t stop her small laugh, her paws falling to rest in her lap. She couldn’t hide her sadness, though, that Nick had been forced to sign a dodgy deal just to make his dream a reality. “They gave me half the money upfront. I left with a small briefcase of cash, ready to go and buy the warehouse. I stopped here first, to tell my mom that I was going to pursue my dream and that she wouldn’t have to worry about money once the park was operational,” Nick wrung his paws, emerald eyes glassy for a moment as he recalled the memory. Though it was dark and Judy’s night vision was nowhere near as good as Nick’s, she’d adjusted to the minimal light.

“She was crying when I got here. She’d just been fired from her job at the diner. The owner, an old deer, was receiving too many complaints about having a fox for a waitress. The bills were stacking up, debtors threatening her. I couldn’t leave her. I took the $200,000 I’d been given and paid off the $150,000 mortgage remaining on this place, so she’d always have a roof over her head. I invested the remaining $50,000 and hired a lawyer to tell mom that dad had some stocks and shares and that he’d left them to her in his will. It makes her some money each month, tops up her income. It’s not a lot, but it’s something.”

Judy smiled sadly at Nick. She’d guessed from his interactions with his mother that he was a momma’s boy, but knowing now the depths he’d gone to keep her safe, to keep a roof over her head and food in her belly, it made Judy’s heart ache. All the nasty things mammals said about foxes, all the cruel taunts they made, foxes deserved none of them. Nick deserved none of them. He was a good mammal.

The darkness comforted Nick, afforded him the chance to bear his soul to Judy without fear of seeing her pity him. He hated being vulnerable, hated it almost as much as he hated being discriminated against simply because he was a fox. Judy though, something about her made him want to bare his soul, made him want to share parts of himself he’d never shared with anyone else before. Maybe it was the way she was happy to share parts of herself with him, maybe it was the way she inspired him to be better. Nick didn’t know, and he didn’t want to examine it too closely. Instead, he simply let his emotions guide him.

“I hustle because I have to. The loan caracal wasn’t happy that I’d spent his money on something other than Wilde Times. He and his gang roughed me up a little, but I managed to sweet talk him into a payment plan of sorts. He keeps adding interest to the amount I took, though. I make just enough each month to meet the terms of the payment plan. If I don’t keep up, he’ll hurt her.” Nick glanced towards the bedroom door before he sighed, head dropping as his ears flattened. “So yeah, can’t afford a nice apartment,” he teased, offering Judy a wry grin, trying to force his vulnerability back into its box.

Judy inhaled sharply. The thought of Marian being hurt made her paws clench. The loan caracal had backed Nick into a corner, threatened the only mammal that mattered to him to get his compliance. The fact Nick couldn’t even afford a roof over his head made her sniffle. She wanted to fix it. Maybe her old landlady, Dharma, would let Nick stay with her in her old apartment. At least he’d have somewhere safe to sleep. Then again, her fox would probably hate the idea, would probably refuse her charity. “Oh, Nick.”

Nick was on a roll. While sharing his story wasn’t pleasant, he could feel the weight that had long ago settled in his chest lighten. At least someone would understand why he did what he did; at least someone would know that he was only trying to help. “I met Finnick in a bar in the Nocturnal district, and we decided to team up. The dad and son con was his idea, the elephant suit was mine,” Nick spared a rueful grin, remembering the way the fennec had threatened to castrate him the first time he’d suggested it. After swiping the elephant suit from a baby shop, Nick had managed to talk him into it, and the fennec actually seemed to enjoy it now. It was effective, to say the least.

“You split everything you make, right?” Judy broke into Nick’s story. Nick needed as much money as possible to keep the loan caracal off his back and away from Marian. Did Finnick know of his predicament?

Nick raised a paw. “Quid pro quo, Carrots.”

Judy sighed but conceded with a nod. Nick had spoken at great length, giving her more information than she’d ever expected, shared much more of himself than she’d hoped for. It was only fair he had the chance to ask his questions now.

Nick thought about his question. Not because he was concerned he would never have the opportunity to ask Judy anything again, but because Nick had so many questions he wanted to ask her. “Why did you want to become an officer?” He settled for a relatively easy one.

“I want to make the world a better place,” Judy responded with her usual line, offering Nick a smile.

Nick shook his head, saddened by her party line answer. “I don’t doubt that, Carrots. What I meant was why do you want to make the world a better place, why did you decide to be an officer rather than a carrot farmer?”

Judy thought about it for a moment, paws going to her thighs as she gently scratched. “When I was eight, I had hundreds of siblings. Mom and dad did their best, tried to give us all the same amount of attention, took care of us all the same way, but I felt different. While my siblings were fine with things staying the same, with helping to work on the farm, I wanted to do something bigger, to make a name for myself. I was one of hundreds, and others saw me as just another Hopps kit.”

Nick listened as Judy spoke, unable to relate due to his own lack of siblings. He could imagine, though, how hard it would be with so many siblings, how hard it would be trying to stand out amongst the crowd. Judy had always been different, it seemed.

“We only had a few other species in Bunnyburrow, and they were all predators. They were treated differently; most feared and shunned them. I remember Mrs. Veasel trying to buy groceries, and none of the assistants in the supermarket would serve her because she was a ferret. She was just a kind old lady; she didn’t deserve to be shunned. Seeing how she was treated upset me, I couldn’t see the problem with serving her. I decided that I wanted to change how mammals saw one another, but that change had to start with me. I wanted to be the first bunny officer, to prove that any mammal could be anything. If a bunny could be a cop, something unheard of before, then maybe other preconceptions could change too. Maybe prey animals could start trusting predators, something else relatively unheard of. I wanted to start challenging ideas, to encourage everyone to get along. After all, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Nick shook his head. “You were carrying fox repellent when we first met,” He pointed out. He couldn’t fault her for carrying it, seeing that it was her first time in the city and given her incident with Gideon when she’d been a kit. She’d continued to carry it even after they’d formed the start of a friendship though, even once they were back at the precinct before the press conference.

Judy leant forward, paws shooting out to rest on Nick’s chest, violet eyes finding emerald ones as she felt the pounding of his heart beneath her paws. Feeling his bare chest beneath her paws made her blush, eyes widening momentarily before she forced herself back on track. “That’s going in the trash as soon as I get my belt back. I don’t want to carry it around you.”

“It doesn’t bother me, Fluff.” Nick shrugged. Judy could do what she liked. She was a grown mammal. If she felt she needed to carry it then so be it. He didn’t like the idea, but it was her choice. The weight of her paws on his chest brought back the warm and pleasant feelings he’d experienced when he’d caught sight of her in his shirt.

“Yes it does, Nick, or you wouldn’t have mentioned it. I don’t need it anyway. I know I’ll never need to use it against you. I trust you. I know you’ll never hurt me.” She held his gaze for a moment longer than necessary, needing him to understand that she meant it. Nick offered her a warm smile. Pulling her paws back, Judy settled them in her lap. “Besides, if any other foxes come skulking around I’m sure you’ll scare them off for me.”

His smile disappeared. “Like Gideon.”

“Gid is harmless, Nick. Besides, my parents are friends with him now. They’ve come a long way. When I first moved here, my dad tried to give me fox deterrent and a fox taser. I only took the repellent to make him shut up.”

Nick would need to make his own assessment about whether Gideon was harmless or not before he left him alone with Judy, but he snorted, offering Judy a small smile. “Remind me to never meet your father.

Judy brought a paw to her chin, looking at Nick as she made her assessment. “Nah, I think he’d like you.”

“Before or after he tasers me?” Nick deadpanned.

“Nick!” Judy’s paw fell from her chin, and she laughed. Nick’s laughter joined hers moments later.

As their laughter died down, Nick fell back on his old defense mechanism. “I understand now that your experience with foxes wasn’t great until you met me of course.”

“Careful Slick, someone might think we’re friends,” she teased, gently kicking out her good hind paw so she could prod Nick’s shoulder across the gap between their mattresses.

Feigning injury, Nick dramatically fell back onto his bed, his paws going to his shoulder as he made wounded noises. “Assault, Officer, assault!” He gasped, earning a giggle from the bunny, which made his heart clench. “Stop it, Wilde.”

Laying on his back, Nick stared up at the ceiling of his childhood bedroom, his night vision enabling him to pick out the faint marks on his ceiling from the time he’d stuck glow in the dark stars up there. The silence between them was comfortable and allowed him to think over Judy’s words. If he was honest, her reasoning didn’t really surprise him. Since the moment they met, when Judy had stood up for him in front of the elephant ice-cream shop owner, he’d noticed how she always wanted to help mammals. Sure, she’d blackmailed him a little, led him on some wild otter chase, but she’d been doing it because she wanted to help, she genuinely wanted to make the world a better place for all mammals. Nick found her drive inspiring. It was why he’d happily filled in the application form to be her partner. In hindsight, it had been a horrible idea. Police training took months, months in which he’d have no income to pay Catstro and keep him away from his mother.

Knowing it was now her turn to ask a question, Judy opted for something she thought would be a bit easier on him, phrasing it as a statement more than a question so as not to push her luck. “You were pretty hungry at dinner, Slick.”

Comfortable on his back, Nick focused on the outline of Jupiter on his ceiling. The glow in the dark paint had long since faded, but the outline his mom had drawn in marker pen was still visible. “I told a lie when I said that I make $200 a day. Most days Finnick and I only make around $80 bucks, but after we split it, I have $40 in my pocket. Pretty pathetic, I know.” He shrugged, raising his paws to put them behind his head, using them as a makeshift pillow. It was getting increasingly easier to open up to the small bunny. She trusted him, and Nick trusted her in return. It was a new feeling, but one he was growing to like.

“Sometimes I can spare a few bucks for some fruit or a Snarlbucks, most of the time I need every cent for my payment.” Nick had long ago come to terms with hunger, especially as it meant that he was meeting payments and his mother was safe. Her comfort and safety were paramount to him. He’d go hungry, cold, and lonely if it meant she was safe. She’d brought him into the world, loved him unconditionally, and had gone without when he was a kit so that he would have a few nice things and a full belly. It was the least he could do.

Tears clung to Judy’s cheeks as she slipped from the bed again, padding across the small distance between their mattresses. Lying down beside Nick, she stared up at the ceiling with him. There was little she could say to comfort him, little she could offer. Nick would brush off her verbal attempts at soothing him. He didn’t want sympathy. This was the life he’d been dealt, and though Judy could hear from his tone that it wasn’t the one he had planned on, she sensed that he’d come to terms with his lot. Instead, she offered her physical presence as comfort. Rolling onto her side, Judy brought her paws up together under her head to form a cushion as she watched Nick quietly.

Tentatively, and after a short period of silence, she extended a paw, resting it on the cream fur of his belly. The contact spooked Nick, who startled at the touch, having been lost in his own thoughts. Glancing down, emerald and violet met. “Thank you, Nick, for forgiving me, for helping me close the case, for bringing me here, and for confiding in me,” she whispered, not wanting to shatter the comfortable feeling encompassing them.

Nick held her gaze and Judy could see hundreds of emotions in his expressive emerald eyes. He turned back, looking up at the ceiling; his voice was soft as he spoke. “Thanks for coming back for me Judy, for giving me a chance.”

“That’s what friends are for.” Judy had to stop herself from scritching Nick’s exposed belly; the temptation to stroke the surprisingly soft fur there was overwhelming.

Eyes now closed, Nick stretched, moving one of his arms to sling it around Judy, pulling her tight to his side. She made a small noise of surprise though she settled quickly, burrowing against him and sliding her paw along his belly to wrap around him. She too closed her eyes, enjoying the contact. Nick’s paw rested respectfully on her waist, the thudding of her fast heartbeat amplified by their close contact. Judy nuzzled closer, pink nose buried in reddish-orange fur, at ease with Nick and comforted by his musky scent.

“Hey, Carrots?” Nick whispered after a moment of silence, removing his other paw from behind his head to throw it lazily over his stomach, claws gently brushing against Judy.

“Mhm?” Judy mumbled, finally feeling tired.

“When’s your birthday?” Nick’s tail flicked lazily, wedged between his side and Judy. When he’d been a kit he’d been comfortable sleeping on, now he was a bit heavier it hurt to lie down on it. He’d taken to moving it aside, finding it more comfortable.

Judy’s sleep-fogged brain wondered why Nick wanted to know about her birthday now of all times. Her mind worked on autopilot. “May 18th.”

Nick made a small noise, smiling. “Makes sense. May kits are smart and loyal, hardworking and emotional.”

Judy made a half-hearted attempt at swatting him with her paw that was wrapped around him. “When’s your birthday?” Her words started to slur.

“March 27th.” Birthdays held no real significance to Nick; it wasn’t like he had many mammals to celebrate with. His mom usually took him out for dinner as a treat and bought him a new shirt or tie, but it was a low-key occasion.

“What’re March babies?” Judy smacked her lips together, tightening her hold on Nick.

Nick knew she was trying to fight off sleep. “That won’t do.” Nick wanted her to sleep. It had been a long day, and she was injured. She needed her rest. “They’re sleepy.” He tried to end their conversation in the hope that Judy would finally fall asleep.

“And?” He only just made out her mumbled response. Tired Judy was adorable.

“I’ll tell you another time. Sleep.” He freed his tail from between them, flicking it over her small frame. It covered most of her body, and Nick cracked an eye open to glance sideways, looking at Judy curled up against him, under his tail. The tip of his tail flicked happily at the sight. Using the paw that he’d thrown over his stomach, Nick grabbed at the discarded bed sheet, pulling it over them.

“Night, Nick.” Judy shuffled, tightening her hold on him.

“Night, Carrots,” Nick whispered back, his paw on her waist gently stroking her side through his shirt.

Comfortable and warm, safely tucked up against Nick, Judy fell asleep.

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