ABOUT SIX MONTHS LATER

Nick gets on the outbound 22, the express line to the Meadowlands. Across the bus, a swamp rabbit couple rocks their baby in a carrier and stares.

"Excuse me," says the father, "Aren't you the fox that worked with Judy Hopps?"

He looks up with a gentle grin. "I might be."

"It's Nick Wilde!" A young doe bunny gasps, rushing in from the back of the bus. "Oh my gosh it is! Can I take a photo with you?"

The eyes of the bus lock in on Nick.

"Go right ahead."

For the next fifteen minutes, Nick poses for ten photos, gives out seven hugs, and fields several dozen questions:

"You two were the ones who exposed Lionheart, weren't you?"

"Were we the duo that exposed Lionheart, Bellwether, and Coates? Yes. Yes we were."

"Did you ever get scared?"

"Was it dangerous? Yes. Yes it was."

"What was it like believing you killed Judy Hopps?"

Nick shrugs. There's no way he'll attempt to answer that one on a city bus. Not even with another question.

The bus slows down for his stop.

"It's been great talking to all you lovely folks." Nick flips on his shades and pushes his way through the crowd. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have some important business to attend to. See you later!"

"Nick!" A male elk calls after him. "I'd love to write your story. Can I buy the rights? Name your price!"

"If you're serious, DM me on Critter!" Nick climbs down the stairs to the curb. "WildeCard85!"

"Will do!"

The bus drives off, and Nick adjusts his tie. Damn, being a celebrity is fun. It will get old after a while, and it's certainly made hustling impossible— you can't scam anyone out of a Jumbo Pop or a fake car repair when your face is known throughout Zootopia. On the plus side, he's gotten free rides, free meals, and even an endorsement deal with a bulletproof vest company. Life has been good. Except...

Nick crosses the street and heads toward a generic strip mall that has seen better days. He strolls past the dollar store, the rent-to-own store, the off-brand cell phone store, and almost misses his destination: Cannady Investigative and Security Services.

It's a blacked out storefront with a tiny sign. "Please Ring Bell," requests the handwritten note. Nick does.

A coyote in a black tactical outfit answers the door. Jeez, really? It always seems to be coyotes.

"You're Nick, right?"

"I'm probably the only fox invited, so yes. I'm Nick."

"Marcus Astutez." The coyote extends his paw and delivers a bone crushing shake. "Hopps has told us all about you."

"Good things, I hope."

Astutez slams the door shut behind them. "Very good things."

The chairs and tables of the office have been pushed aside to create an open space for a party. Wolves, coyotes, dholes, jackals (and a badger couple) mill around with drinks in their paws. "WELCOME, JUDY HOPPS!" proclaims the banner strung across the back of the room.

"Can I get you a drink?" Astutez heads to a cooler.

"Cub soda, thanks."

He tosses the bottle to Nick. "Make yourself at home. You need anything, just ask."

Nick pops the top and takes a sip. That was probably the most civilized interaction he's ever had with a coyote. You've got a good crew, Carrots.

She's there, hidden by all those tall bodies. He can smell her for sure. She probably's too distracted by wolf scent to smell him, and she's probably too focused on her conversation to notice his footsteps coming closer. Strange how you can be so close to someone with them realizing it.

Okay, he's waited long enough. He's going in.

Nick pushes into the crowd, following the scent. There she is— chatting with a white wolf, wearing a kevlar tactical suit. Just like the old days, except the suit is all black. No ZPD badge.

Her ears perk up— she's heard his footsteps. Judy turns fast:

"Nick! Oh my goodness, you made it!"

"Couldn't miss something this big!"

She gives him a polite hug. "Nick, do you remember Gary?"

The white wolf waves his paw. Nick waves back tepidly.

"From the sanatorium? He almost caught you on the bridge, remember?"

"Until she howled!" Gary laughs. "Hopps is a smart one. I'm really pumped that she's working for us!"

"I'm glad I'm working here, too!" Judy pats Gary's thigh, and in turn he pats her back.

Good God, what if they're a couple… no, she wouldn't have told you that over text. Hinted, at the least.

"Carrots, can we… talk alone?"

"Um…" Judy looks around. "Sure! But we'll have to be quick. A lot of mammals want to say hello."

She points the way to a back office which doubles as a mail room. "J. HOPPS" already has papers in her box. She shuts the door.

"Nick, I'm… shocked, honestly. I didn't think you'd come! I would have… I don't know, been more prepared!"

"Prepared for what?"

"I mean… it's been so long! You haven't… well… I stopped texting because you stopped writing back!"

"I took a break." He scratches his head. "After all, it was a big deal, and…"

She touches his paw. "It was."

He exhales. That bunny fur… He had thought of ten thousand things to say to her this morning. None of them come to mind.

"You don't have to be here if you don't want to." Judy holds tight to his paw. "And you don't have to see me out of a sense of obligation. You don't owe me…"

"I wanted to be here, Carrots. Really." He clasps his other paw around hers. "We haven't been this close since the cellar on Moleholland Drive."

"And in court."

"Court doesn't count!" He smiles. "If I tried to hold your paw, the bailiff would have tackled me in seconds."

She chuckles politely. "Thank you again for testifying at that hearing."

Nick rolls his eyes. "If anything, I probably hurt your case. Foxes aren't exactly great character witnesses."

"But you went on public record to say that my intentions were good. You didn't have to do that."

He shrugs.

"It hardly mattered in the end— my plea bargain went through, as you probably guessed."

"You mean this isn't your prison uniform?"

"Six months house arrest, five years probation with this thingie tracking my every move." Judy lifts her ankle to show an electronic bracelet underneath her kevlar. "Monthly check-ins with a parole officer."

"Oh, those guys are fun. I was always such a saint when they came over. 'Yes, sir, I've been a good little fox. Looking for a job, sir. See all these fake job applications, sir.'"

"My parole officer is a skunk who just graduated college. She's a little starstruck."

"Can't blame her." He lets go of her paw and leans against the wall. "So how did you manage to get hired at a security company with a conviction?"

She shrugs. "Celebrity goes a long way."

"It does."

"Apparently we're heroes, Nick."

"I hope not. Wouldn't that be terrible."

"Why?"

"We'd have to be perfect."

"Well, we aren't." Judy looks into space, deep in thought. "This wasn't what I had in mind when I came to Zootopia," she whispers.

"Hey, a rent-a-cop's better than being a not-a-cop. Will the ZPD ever hire you back?"

"Not without a pardon."

"Eh, you'll get one eventually."

"Why do you say that?"

"Because you're cute."

Judy rolls her eyes and Nick chuckles.

"You said that just to annoy me!"

"Uh huh!"

"You dumb fox!"

She punches him playfully, and for a moment, he's returned to those wonderful moments of following the Night Howlers together.

"I'm quite proud to be dumb, Carrots."

"What about your charges? How did they end up?"

And now back to reality.

"I paid a fine for the dine and dash. The drunkenness wasn't exactly my first offense, so they gave me a little something called court ordered rehab."

"What's that like?"

"Like dying. Minus the fun parts."

"You still doing it?"

He nods.

Judy takes his paw again and looks into his eyes...

No, it's still too much. He lets go. "Did you hear about Coates' appeal?"

"Uh huh. Denied!"

"Of course. Hope he likes his life sentence."

"I hope he rots in hell."

"Ooh, strong language for a little bunny! Did they ever find out who I… you know."

Judy sighs. "Yeah, they did. She was a runaway. Apparently his thugs found her on the streets, OD'ing. He gave me her identity while I was staying with him. Poor little thing."

"Poor thing is right. How's your family?"

"Doing fine. Better than you'd expect. They never believed I was really dead!"

"Really?"

"They insisted I was working undercover for the ZPD on a top secret mission and my death was a hoax to throw off the bad guys. Even refused to have a funeral! They thought my partner killing me was too convenient. Turned out they were kinda right."

"So maybe denying reality is a good thing?"

"A stopped watch is right twice a day." Judy steps back. "Nick. Why did you wait so long to get in touch with me? We could have Muzzletimed when I was under house arrest. I would have loved to see your face!"

"Are you sure? This face?"

"There's only one Nick Wilde in Zootopia." Judy struggles to hold back a grin. "You know I… missed you. And I hoped you weren't staying away because..." She bites her lip. "I really am trying, you know. I stuck to the rules of my sentence and the probation. No more rogue bunny. Never again."

That's good to hear, Carrots. I missed you too. But I needed that time apart. You got close to me in the best and worst ways, and if I pretended you didn't cause me a tremendous amount of pain and anger, I'd be back to denying the truth. And that's how I'm trying— I'm learning how to face it.

"I don't really know why I stayed away."

You're lying.

"You do know." She points. "I know you know."

"How do you know I know I know?"

"Because someone like you doesn't go silent unless they have a good reason."

Damn it, bunny. You don't miss a beat.

"Okay. I had to dry out. And... I was scared that when I saw you again, I'd feel the urge to drink."

She looks up at him, eyes wide with concern. "Do you?"

Tell the truth.

"A little."

"Are you going to?"

Am I? There's a cooler full of beers out there.

"Nah."

She grabs him and presses her face to his chest. "I'm very proud of you."

Too close, too close...

Nick slips out of her embrace. "Ugh, God! You keep talking like that and you'll force me to drink!"

Judy steps to the back of the room, horrified.

"That was a joke, Carrots."

She exhales loudly: "Oh thank goodness! If I get out of line, just call me on it. Please. I don't want to make you feel like... "

"Of course not..."

"It's not that I'm trying to hurt you— it's just that I don't know when to quit!"

"I'm quite aware."

They stare at the floor.

"Seriously, though," says Nick. "It's great to see you again."

"It's great to see you, too."

The stare at the floor until the silence becomes painful.

"I should go back." Judy puts her paw on the door handle. "My team members will wonder what happened. They're completely fascinated with me, you know."

"What do you mean?"

"They can't believe Cannady actually hired a bunny."

"Doesn't that sound familiar."

"You bet. I'm going to be pairing with wolves, mostly."

"So how's your howl these days? Still convincing?"

"Yeah, it's still good..." Judy looks at him as though she remembered the most wonderful thing in the world. "But I would… you know, prefer working with a mammal... more my own size."

Do you mean it, Carrots? Partnering with you every day, just like we would have at the ZPD? Just like we did catching Lionheart, following Bellwether, escaping from Coates...

It would never be like the past, since nothing can erase what happened. But that would be the best possible reset button. A second chance at a career together. A partnership!

Nick does his best poker face to hide his excitement. "Huh. Sure. Why not."

"Oh, yes!" Judy attacks him with a hug that sends the air from his lungs. She runs to her slot in the mail sorter. "I'm so glad you said yes, because I filled out an application for you, just in case you showed up…"

She thrusts a piece of paper in his face: there are his name, address, and the skills he listed on the ZPD application so long ago.

Nick blinks. "You did this just for me?"

"If you want. No pressure. It looks like pressure, but really, no pressure!"

He grins. "Carrots, are you trying to manipulate me?"

"Oh heavens no!" Her eyes bug out, and she snatches the paper away from him. "No, I'll never do that again! No fake investigations, nothing like that!"

"Sure. You know what I think? I think you're a rogue bunny." Nick gives an obvious wink, and Judy nods with understanding. "But you know what?" He leans into her face. "I like rogue bunnies."

"Oh, you do?" Judy backs into the mail sorting table.

"Do you like working with sly foxes, Carrots?" He grabs her by her waist and lifts her up. "Because I'm afraid I'll never stop being your sly fox."

"Is that so, Slick?" She grins and embraces his neck. "I don't think you're quite sly enough for a rogue bunny."

"Is that a challenge?"

"Is it? Yes. Yes it is."

"Okay, Fluff." He presses his face closer. "Let me show you some proof…"

The door to the mail room opens— Astutez startles and backs out. "Crap. Sorry, didn't see anything."

The door slams and Nick and Judy look down at their compromising position. They burst into laughter.

"Oh sweet cheese and crackers!" Judy wipes away tears. "It feels so good to laugh!"

"Doesn't it!" Nick lets her down.

"That's the only way we'll move on, I think. We'll have to find the humor where we can."

"I think we're already off to a good start. Oh, come here, bunny..."

He draws her in for a hug, and Judy jumps up to kiss him on the cheek.

That's fine. Just let it happen. You can trust her. You can trust yourself.

"Come on!" Judy drags him to the door by his tie. "Let's meet your new team!"

"Wait a second, I'm already hired? Without a background check?"

She hurries him out into the reception.