A/N: He's alive! My apologies to all my readers. It's taken me some time to get the creative juices flowing again and the pandemic certainly hasn't helped. In between this and the last chapter, I managed to publish with my co-author, Nightwolf0179, two more chapters of Mammals of Freedom. I've been pecking away at this along with some other stories and now with the end of the COVID-19 lockdowns just lurking on the horizon, I should be able to get my muse to cooperate with me.

Now, this is a rather large update by my standards as my creative style has started to change. My original work appears to be a haiku in comparison to this monster. I do hope this meets with everyone's approval as I've been expounding more into Nick and Judy's backstory in their high school. And, because I've been watching a lot of high-school anime, you may see more of their influence in my stories.

I'd like to mention that I've referenced TGWeaver's Carrot Pop comic which can be found here: reddit dot com/r/zootopia/comments/4muubb/carrot_pop_weaver/

Speaking of my original work, True Love Defined v2.0, I will soon be taking those down as I've started to detract quite a bit from it and future chapters may not even bear any similarity to them.

I'd like to thank all those who commented and left notes last year (yep, it's been a year since I last published an update): Dakzoo, Seakard, BrutusDeagon, Gokaru, AnimeKing7777, and Chavira66 on AO3; Cody Furlong, Cimar, Frosty Ginger, InTheLionsDenOnDA, and Crouto on FF; jhonnybegood, and daria102205 in DA. Most were quite positive and for the one who left a negative feedback, I thank you as well. I hope that this update will be to everyone's satisfaction.

Thank you again to my wonderful beta-readers: DancingLunarWolves and Stubat007. They find the plot holes and stomp out the grammatical errors with the greatest of ease.

Disclaimer: All characters are owned by ©Disney except for original characters created by me. Any resemblance to actual persons or mammals, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Chapter Five

The Way We Were

Furonto General Hospital, present time...

Nick observed the little kit in his paws as she lay sleeping. He somberly reflected on the inescapable historical fact that paws like his, eons ago, would have unhesitatingly snapped its neck and snacked on it without a second thought. Yet, at this very moment, hurting her was the furthest thing from his mind. He intently gazed upon the small, innocent babe curled up in his palms, as an instinctive desire to protect her boiled up from deep within.

"Nick?" Judy called out. "Are you okay there? You're spacing out and… it's kinda creepy."

Startled, he looked up at a glaring Judy who appeared ready to leap out of the hospital bed and snatch the baby from him if he even looked cross-eyed at it. He opened his mouth to speak only to realize he had been holding his breath since she had deposited the young kit into his slightly trembling grasp. Inhaling quickly, he settled into a chair next to Judy's bed. Drawing a deep, contented sigh, he tenderly kept his gaze fixed on the fluffy miracle that he held. He couldn't fault Judy for being suspicious, given her motherly instinct. After all, he was far from acting normal himself. Glancing up at her, he mutely nodded in response in an attempt to reassure her. Satisfied he didn't pose a threat to one of her newborn, Judy settled back onto her pillow.

Refocusing his attention on the baby, he studied her more closely. Seeing as her eyes were still closed, he watched as the newborn breathed, her chest slowly expanding and contracting. The kit suddenly shifted, her cute little button nose wiggling as it caught his scent. Blindly, she dug her nose into his fur, her tiny paws grasping at the tufts of hair in his paw.

Time crawled to a halt as the continuously thundering din of multitudinous thoughts that had been waging an ongoing struggle for his attention inside his head suddenly lay silent as Judy's baby sought a more comfortable and warmer position within his grip. At that precise moment, Nick knew he had lost the battle as the babe wrapped herself around his heart. Carefully, he curled his paws so as to prevent the baby's body heat from escaping. The kit made a tiny gurgling sound and buried its nose deeper into his paw as it soon found a cozier position. Nick watched spellbound, marvelling at its innocence and fearlessness.

Raising his eyes to ask Judy if this was how all newborns acted, he was startled to see a change in her demeanor. Her aura of confidence had disappeared, replaced by a dark funk as she seemed to slip into a fuguelike state. Gone was the earlier look of pride in her eyes. She stared down at her babies with a lost, desperate gaze.

Gently shifting the babe into one paw so that she was cradled against his chest, he reached over to reassuringly grasp her shoulder lightly, and whispered so as not to wake the sleeping kits. "Hey, Fluff? Are you okay? Is anything wrong?"

Startled by his touch as if she had forgotten he was there, she looked up at Nick. Then, she looked down at her babies again. She closed her eyes and reached up to firmly grasp his paw, seemingly thankful that he was there.

"Yeah, Nick… I'm okay… just… drifted in and out of my thoughts again… thinking," she spoke hesitatingly. "I'm… I'm really scared, Nick… afraid of whatever lies ahead of me… I fear for me… for my little kits… I'm still a little kit myself, Nick… I'm so—" Abruptly, Judy covered her eyes with her paws and broke down as all her anxiety, fears, and insecurities came pouring out in a flood of tears.

"I'm so sorry, Nick" she sobbed as she looked up at him through her tear-streaked amethyst eyes. "I-I-I ruined everything… didn't I? I'm just… s-s-so scared right now… I-I-I mean… I-I-I don't know i-i-if I can do this a-a-alone." Judy stammered.

Covering her mouth with her paw, she intermittently blurted out in between sobs the pain that was consuming her. "Th-they'll g-g-grow up without a f-f-father… I-I-I don't know if I'm strong e-e-enough, Nick. I'm r-r-really scared… what am I e-e-ever g-g-going to do?" she hiccupped.

As if sensing her despair, the little kits in her lap started to cry. Judy rushed to calm them despite the gigantic stone weighing on her heart, picking one up and gently rocking it. "Oh…h-h-honey bun… I-I'm sorry… mommy's s-s-sorry… f-f-for making you cry… m-m-mommy's here… puh-puh-please don't cry."

Nick watched her as she wept, his own heart shattering as if someone had dipped it into liquid nitrogen and then carelessly dropped it onto the tile floor. He saw her once strong spirit crushed. His beautiful, broken bunny. He wanted to jump up, wrap his arms around her, and protect her from all the terrors the world had to offer. How he longed to be her knight in shining armour, her saviour.

Yet, he knew that would only be a mere band-aid over a gaping wound. She would hate him if all he did was to shield her from all the monsters in the world without helping her reclaim her dignity. No, she just didn't need saving. She needed to remember once more the brave, courageous, strong-willed, fearless bunny that had gone out of her way to try and make the world a better place.

Ten years ago, she could bring sunshine into a room just by walking into it. He recalled the optimism that she had freely dispensed when they were younger. Back then, life was simpler. She had her dreams and he wanted to be a part of them.

The damaged bunny that lay sobbing in bed, cradling her newborns in fear wasn't the Judy he knew. He cared for her so much it hurt. He hesitated as he wasn't sure of what course of action he should take. Out in the field, everything was so cut-and-dried; he could mentally calculate his many options and determine what would be the best outcome of his decisions. In that tiny room, though, he was stepping into an emotional minefield. A misstep could lead to more hurt. Not just for him, but for her as well. Yet, he was afraid that if he took no action, he would lose her once again.

Feeling a tiny movement in his paw, he looked down and saw that the little kit he was holding had managed to wrap its tiny arms around his thumb. He lovingly smiled at the small gesture. Seeing its bravery encouraged him to pick up his lance once more and go charging full tilt at those damn windmills.

He stood up and placed the sleeping baby in the bassinet next to Judy's bed. He signalled Judy to hand over the wailing kit she held. Reluctantly, she acquiesced. What transpired next made her eyes grow wide in astonishment.

She watched as Nick tucked the little one against his chest. She heard a rumble of sorts coming from him. It sounded like the remote chug of an outboard motor putt-putting across a sleepy lake in the dawn of a misty, fall morning. Soon, thereafter, the young babe quieted down and fell asleep. After he reunited it with its sibling in the crib, he repeated his actions with the remaining crying kits. Soon, the four young babies were peacefully sound asleep, their bodies instinctively pressing against one another in a bunny pile. Nick covered them with a swaddling blanket as he affectionately kissed the tops of their heads.

Judy sat dumbstruck in her hospital cot, unsure of what had just happened. What was that? And, how can he be so loving towards them? She wondered as she watched the fox carefully handle her babies as if they were the most fragile objects in the universe. They're not even his kits. Why is he being so gentle, so… fatherly?

Her thoughts were interrupted as the fox tiredly flopped onto the bed, nudging her with his shoulder. "Scoot," he quietly urged as his head made contact with her pillow. Involuntarily, her body obeyed as she fought to bite back a stinging rebuke at his apparent boorishness. As she began to inch away leaving a large gap between them, Nick's arm awkwardly flashed out to capture her shoulder. She squeaked as her head landed squarely onto his broad chest.

"Dammit, Nick! Why the hell are you being a jerk?" Judy reflexively reacted, anger infused onto her features as she pushed him away. "Why I oughta—"

"Shhhhhh!" Nick nervously shushed as he covered her mouth with his paw. "You'll wake the kiddies. I just got them to sleep." As he nervously craned his head over the edge of the crib, she angrily bit down on the offending appendage.

"Nnnnghhhh!" Stifling the shriek building up inside him, Nick quickly rolled over onto his stomach, clutching his throbbing paw. He hurriedly grabbed a nearby pillow, and stuffed his mouth with it. He barely managed to keep his pained screams from reaching the sleeping kits. After a few minutes, his body relaxed as the hurt slowly ebbed away.

"News for you, Carrots. You bite like a girl bunny," he mumbled from his curled up position at the foot of the bed, not bothering to lift his head.

"Well, you started it," Judy groused as she wearily flopped back onto her pillow. Covering her face with an arm, she tiredly pointed out, "You were being a jerk. Again. As usual."

"You wound me, Carrots. Quite literally, in fact. I think I'm going to need a few stitches." Nick softly muttered into the pillow as he waved the injured appendage in her direction, not bothering to lift up his head. "I was just trying not to wake the kits. You were being quite loud."

Chagrined, a forlorn Judy rolled over to her side facing the bassinet, her paws clasped as she stared out into space. "Yeah, I kinda was," she mumbled back. "Sorry about biting you. But, you shouldn't have grabbed me like that in the first place."

Nick sighed as he shifted his position in the hospital bed so that he ended up lying on his side facing her. A hint of a smirk tugged at the corner of his lips as a twinkle lit up his eye. "Guess I should have explained, huh? I mean, it worked on the kits. So, why not you?"

Spurred on by the perplexed look on her face, he further elaborated. "Look," he hesitantly began as he scratched his neck, "when I was a kit, my mom used to calm me down when I was upset by purring."

"Purring? Is that what you were doing? I thought only felines could do that?"

"It's a trait we foxes have, too." Nick replied, shrugging his shoulders. "Anyway, guess I'm more tired than I thought. I should have said something before I acted on my impulses. The years have really dulled our mental reflexes, Fluff. We used to be so in sync with one another." Nick pushed himself up so his upper body leaned against the headboard as he wearily closed his eyes. "Sorry for grabbing you like that. I just wanted to help you calm down."

"Yeah, well, we both could work on being able to talk more openly." Judy tiredly agreed as she rolled over to stare up at the ceiling.

"Have I ever told you that you're a humongous pain in my tuckus?"

"Har, har," she deadpanned. "Yuck it up. Pick on the bunny who just went twelve rounds giving birth to her very first litter. I mean, who gives a fu—"

"Look," an exasperated Nick interrupted, "I get it. Geez, you're no fun anymore. You used to be able to give as good as you got."

"Well, excuse me for living! I mean, how'd you feel after having to squeeze out four basketballs out of you? Without anesthesia, to boot!"

"C'mon, Carrots. You're overplaying the pity card here. I mean, they're not that huge. Orange-sized maybe. But basketball? Really?" Nick smirked as Judy shot him a smoldering gaze that should have melted him on the spot. Instead, he straightened up and beckoned Judy to sit between his legs. "C'mere. Let me massage your shoulders. It's the least that I can do."

"Better not pull any funny stuff, mister, or else, 'Bang, zoom!'" Judy threatened as she waved her fist in front of his muzzle as she settled in on his lap.

"Perish the thought!" Nick chuckled as he nervously pushed her balled-up paw away with a finger. "Wouldn't dream of it."

After a few minutes of expertly kneading her tense shoulder muscles, Judy reflexively leaned back against him, hissing in pleasure. "Damn, that's good, Slick. I've really missed that."

"Kinda reminds me of our first time," Nick teased. "You certainly were very vocal about your appreciation."

"Oh, hush you," Judy playfully admonished as she tweaked his tail although the blush in her inner ears gave her away. "More fingers, less mouth."

"That's what you said back then, too."

"I'm really not in the mood, Wilde," Judy grated as she threw an elbow backwards. Satisfied with the grunt she heard, she settled back once more, and allowed her thoughts to drift down memory lane.

Bunnyburrow High School, ten years earlier...

"Oh, I can't believe Robby Peterson asked me to the dance! I'm so thrilled! I'm the happiest bunny alive! Oh, wait… what am I going to wear? I know! I'll ask one of my sisters! Oh, this is so exciting! Imagine… me! Out of all the other female bunnies, he asked me! I mean, I've never been to a dance before, and now, the most popular rabbit of the school is asking me to be his date for the Ball. Oh, my, I think I'm going to faint. Yet my heart just wants to explode out of my chest!"

Judy skipped around Nick, constantly gushing and swooning with joy. Nick tried to ignore the constant stream of prattle from her but, for some reason that he couldn't fathom, he wanted to lash out; make her feel inadequate and small.

I mean, who'd blame me? raged his inner demon. Robby's a jerk and a two-faced one at that. Can't see why she's head over paws with that dumb jock. I mean, sure, he's the captain of the Pawball team, stands a head taller than me, and rich, to boot. But he's got nothing on me when it comes to brains and charm, right? I mean, I could have any female eating out of my paw… if I wasn't a fox, Nick ruefully reflected. Why the hell am I feeling like this? It's not that he's better than me. No, it's just that she's special and she deserves more than that smug bastard who doesn't give a rat's ass for anyone but himself! And yet, she doesn't see it. All she cares about is that he's asked her to the dance. I should be the one to take her! He's never acknowledged her before. I was with her through thick and thin these last four years and all of a sudden, she's as giddy as a kit in a candy store who's won the jackpot. This really sucks. I mean, come on! I thought she was smarter than this. Typical bunny! Have a buck flex his pecs in front of you and all of sudden you're ready to jump into bed with him. That's really so not fair!

As he fought his internal battle, he wondered how he managed to keep his face neutral all throughout her joyful declaration. He actually wanted to get up in her face and scream at her for being fooled by the jock rabbit's faux suave veneer. Has she never seen how cruel that bastard can be? Or is she just too starstruck to even notice? he glumly thought as the inner turmoil slowly brewed to a crescendo.

And, as much as he tried to follow his own advice of not letting others see that they got to you, he couldn't help himself as he sarcastically proclaimed, "Congratulations, Carrots! You officially are now boring me with this. You've been going on and on for the last three days about Mr. Robby 'oh-how-wonderful-and-perfect' Peterson," he sang in a faux falsetto voice as he clasped his paws against his cheek while fluttering his eyelashes, "is going to sweep you off your paws."

Judy irritably slugged him in the arm. "Seriously, Nick! Can't you be happy for me? I mean, the way YOU are going on would make me think that you're jealous of Robby."

"Ha! Me? Jealous of that over-sized fluff ball with two peas for a brain?" Nick retorted as he rubbed his aching arm. "Please, Carrots. You wound me. I have my pride to think about."

"So what's eating you then?"

"Well...," Nick drawled as he paused mid-stride, tapping his chin with his finger, "you've been going on and on about him so much that you forgot we still have to finish up tomorrow's edition of The Bunnyburrow Gazette. If we don't hurry, we're going to miss the deadline."

"Oh, sweet cheese and crackers! That's right. I was so excited I completely lost track of the time. C'mon! Let's hop over to the office." Judy urged, grinning at her own pun.

Nick groaned. "You hang around me too much, Fluff. Those are my lines! I think I'm starting to rub off on you the wrong way."

"Why?" asked Judy. "Is there a right way?" she mischievously chuckled while waggling her eyebrows at him.

"Judith Laverne Hopps!" said Nick with as much fake indignation as possible, holding his paw to his chest while trying to slow down the sudden spike in his heart rate. "I am shocked. These virgin ears of mine will start to gush blood soon."

"Oh, come on, Wilde! Don't pull that con on me. We both know you're no virgin." Judy inadvertently blurted out. Suddenly realizing what she had just said, she clapped both paws to her mouth, dumbstricken, while Nick choked on the cola he was sipping through a straw.

"I-I meant to say…" stammered Judy, her ears starting to flush a bright pink as she struggled to correct her mistake only to flounder deeper into a verbal quagmire, "that you're no stranger to sex… I mean to the opposite sex… I mean… Oh, you know what I mean!" raged Judy as her face began to match the color of her blood-flushed ears.

"No, I don't know what you mean," Nick scowled. "Are you implying that this fox has all the females of the school wrapped around his little finger? Are you calling me a playah, Carrots?"

"Hey, I'm not being sexist, you jerk!" Judy hollered, attempting to swipe at him once again but Nick neatly sidestepped the blow this time.

"Yeah, and I'm the Crown Prince of Monaco." Nick sarcastically replied. "Face it, Judy. The very idea that all the girls in school could be throwing themselves at my paws makes you jealous."

"Ha! That's rich. Me? Jealous? In your dreams, Wilde!"

"Yeah? Well, that's a pretty low blow, coming from you. We've hung around each other all this time and yet you think I'm sleeping around?" Hearing no reply from her, Nick's scowl only deepened as he pressed on. "May I remind you that not only am I the only predator—and a fox to boot—in this school, but not one single mammal has spoken to me these last four years unless I'm with you. You think that the females are falling over themselves wanting to date this skinny runt of a vulpine when there are other male prey around?" Seeing her squirm in embarrassment only fueled his anger all the more. "Pssh. Forget it! I didn't think a dumb bunny like you would even understand."

Still clutching both her ears, Judy covered her face with them, embarrassed by what she had said as Nick continued his tirade. She mumbled irritably, "Okay, okay! Geez! C'mon, already. I said I was sorry. You're really laying it on thick. I'll admit it was a slip of the tongue. Can we drop it?"

He angrily hitched an eyebrow at her. "You think I'm laying it on thick? Oh, I'm just warming up, little missy!"

Judy squirmed in place. "C'mon, Nick," she pleaded. "I'm sorry for what I said. I didn't mean to hurt your feelings."

"Ha! Kinda hard to put that genie back in its bottle, eh?"

"Please, Nick. Don't be angry. I mean, is that how you treat a friend?"

"Ha! So, we're playing the friend card now, huh?" Nick contemptuously countered. He whirled on her, forcing her to back up against a wall. He slammed his paw next to her head, trapping her between the wall and himself as he menacingly glowered at her. As he opened his mouth in a snarl, the sight of her saucer shaped lavender eyes staring wide-eyed back at him, the uncontrollable twitching of her cute button nose, coupled with the sudden whiff of green grass on a wet spring morning stopped him in his tracks. Although her ears were upright and trembling, he didn't smell her fear. Suddenly uncertain as to why he was upset with her, Nick relented as he surly dropped his arm and turned to continue walking down the hallway. "Fine. C'mon, Carrots." he casually called over his shoulder as he beckoned with a finger. "Time's a-wasting. Let's just get to the Gazette, shall we?"

Dazed, Judy blinked, unsure about the sudden turn of events. She had never seen Nick so upset before. Granted she had made a fool of herself with her faux pas but he normally shrugged it off, not allowing anyone to see his inner self. What further surprised her was her reaction when he had her against the wall. She hadn't flinched even as he had bared his fangs at her but when his hot breath washed over her, her insides had turned liquidy gooey all of a sudden as her heart beat a mile a minute. If she hadn't been leaning against the wall, she might have collapsed on the spot. And now, he was walking away as if nothing had ever happened. Infuriated, she bounded up to him and slugged him on his arm.

"Ow! What was that for?"

"Nothing. Jerk!" Judy crossly mumbled as she tried to hide her blush.

"Sure," Nick groused as he rubbed his sore arm. "Must be that time of the month for—"

"Nick, I swear! Finish that sentence and you'll be wearing your ears down by your ankles!"

Grumbling under his breath, Nick wisely obeyed her order although she thought she heard him mutter something about females, tidal moons, and crazy rabbits.

They continued to walk apart in silence down the hallway. However, as much as they tried to hide it, they continued stealing glances at each other until they accidentally locked gazes. Quiet chuckles slowly crescendoed into guffaws which then culminated in belly slapping laughs. Wiping tears from his eyes, Nick hip-bumped her and then held out a fist to Judy who immediately reciprocated with a fist bump of her own.

"Here's to making the world a better place?"

"You betcha, Fluff. Oh, and one more thing… oh, my gosh! Look over there!" he shouted as he pointed down the hallway.

She quickly turned and saw nothing. However, she heard Nick call out just as he began running in the opposite direction, "Last one there pays for ice cream at the diner!"

"Hey! You sneaky fox! That's cheating!" Judy yelled as she took off after him.

"Never said I was fair, Hopps!" Nick yelled back as he sped down the empty hallway.

"You're gonna pay for that. You know you can't beat me in a race!" Judy hollered as she quickly closed the gap between them.

Nick knew that he couldn't outrun Judy and he was counting on it. She could never resist a challenge and, for the last few days ever since Robbie had asked her out, he had been secretly planning on how to pull off his prank. She was too trusting and he figured he'd teach her a lesson, once and for all.

As expected, Judy reached the door of the office first and triumphantly pumped her fist in the air while binkying about. "Next time, try running without your camera hanging around your neck," she laughingly pointed out as the tod caught up to her.

Nick smiled, panting as he leaned a paw against the wall. "You're right, Carrots. So I guess that means I'm paying for your ice cream. And as the winner, you get to go first, m'lady" he said with a bow and a flourish as he unlocked the office door.

"Don't mind if I do, m'lord." Judy smugly replied in return.

As she pushed it open, Nick reached for his camera.

The ice-cold water in the bucket that Nick had placed over the door prior to meeting up with her immediately drenched Judy. She screamed out in surprise and shock. She whirled on him, shooting him dagger-looks, while angrily leveling an accusatory finger at him. "Nick! How could you?"

Nick clicked the shutter as she stood in the doorway, soaked to her fur; a very wet, cold, bedraggled, and irate bunny. He chuckled loudly at her predicament. "Serves you right for being so trusting, eh? Now, that's gonna look good for tomorrow's headline photo: 'Judy Hopps: Wet Behind the Ears'."

Her lower lip quivered as her eyes began to mist over with tears. "Ho-how could you do this to me?" she whimpered. "I-I thought I was your best friend? What did I ever do to you to make you hate me? Please tell me, Nick. I… I..." Judy couldn't finish as she bawled her eyes out, covering her face with her paws, turning away, unable to face him.

A niggling of doubt settled in his chest. He would have been able to handle her anger. He was, in fact, counting on it. He wanted her to be so angry at him so that he could lash out at her for being so insensitive. That all she cared about was that stupid buck who had never bothered to notice her while he had been by her side all this time for the last four years, supporting her in her dreams and choices. But when her copious tears began to flow like a raging waterfall, he wasn't so sure anymore. He hadn't foreseen her being disappointed with him. The look of sorrow in those gorgeous eyes made his heart stop cold. Plus the fact that her body started to shiver and her teeth began to chatter wasn't a good sign either. Regret, followed by its sister, Guilt, started to painfully creep within just as Jealousy was ceremoniously and thoroughly booted out.

"Oh, shit, shit, shit! I'm sorry Judy. I didn't think this through. I-I don't hate you. P-p-please, forgive me!" he stammered. Unsure of where to place himself, he wrung his paws and tore at his head fur, the inner turmoil eating away at his gut. Now that he had succumbed to the temptation of pranking her, he saw, in hindsight, the mess he had created for himself.

Looking up from her paws, she saw through her tears the undeniable sincerity of his remorse. Recognizing it as one of those few times he let his inner feelings slip through, she momentarily paused to wipe her nose with the back of her paw. She sniffled as she sadly nodded her head in acknowledgement of his apology.

Belatedly realizing that her shivering had gotten worse, Nick panicked as he brought Judy into the darkened room whilst taking off his school jacket and shirt. "Here, take these. Get out of your wet clothes quickly and change into them while I wait outside. Let me know when you're decent, okay?" She miserably nodded her head while forlornly taking Nick's clothes. Nick, at that moment, so badly wanted the earth to swallow him up.

Stepping outside, the shame he felt over the immaturity of his actions and the realization of the damage he may have done to their friendship washed over him. He banged his head against the concrete wall. "You–are–such–an–idiot! Dumb fox! Dumb! Dumb! Dumb! How could you treat your best friend… your only real true friend like that? Ice-cold water in February? Are you seriously fucking nuts? If she ends up having pneumonia, it will be your fault! What if she can't go to the Prom because she's sick? All the more she's going to hate you! Stupid, stupid, stupid, jealous moron!" Nick quietly ranted as he tried desperately to think of how to make amends to her. He had acted out of jealousy and, now, he felt lower than a snail's belly for pulling a prank on the sweetest female he had ever known aside from his mother.

"Nick?" He heard her call out from the room a few minutes later. "You can come in now. I'm decent." Dreading the conversation, he stepped inside the low-lit room to find a morose, vulnerable, shivering Judy wearing his shirt and jacket, which—despite the fact that it was too large for her—made his heart beat way too fast for his liking. She shouldn't look so adorable in those oversized clothes, he thought as he raised his eyes to gaze in her direction and yet…

Catching himself staring, he shook his head, and—swallowing hard—he softly asked, "Are you feeling any better?"

"Not as wet but still a little cold," she sniffled as she shuffled her way to a nearby chair. "I thought I heard some banging outside. Was that you?"

"Yeah. I may have made a hole in the wall." Nick said glumly. "Look, Judy, I-I don't know what came over me. I… like I said, I don't hate you and I'm really, really, really sorry that I pranked you."

"I… I don't know, Nick. I never thought you'd do something like that to me. It-it just kinda hurts, you know? In here." Judy forlornly touched her chest above her heart. From across the room where she pensively sat as she hugged her knees to her chest, she continued on. "I mean, I've always defended you from the others and this is how you repay my friendship? I'm soaked to the fur, my clothes are wet, it's freezing outside, and I won't be able to get home till they dry. On top of that, I'm going to get into trouble with my dad for coming home late because of you!"

Gulping as he only now realized the consequences of his actions, he shamefully bowed his head. "I'm sorry, Judy. I shouldn't have done that to you. I don't know what came over me. I… I wish I could undo what I did. You're the sweetest friend that a fox could ever want and I'm really grateful for your friendship. I… I really don't want to lose you. I'd do anything to make it up to you. But…" he paused as he hesitantly glanced up to catch her eyes. "But, if you don't want to be my friend anymore, I-I'll understand. I-I really am just a dumb fox," his voice catching as he hung his head once more.

The silence hung thick as a blanket of smoke from a forest fire. Suddenly, it was punctured by his tinny voice reverberating within the vacuous air—"I really am just a dumb fox (whirr)... I really am just a dumb fox (whirr)… I really am just a dumb fox."

"Gotcha!" she said with a smirk on her face, as she held up his junior spy-recording pen that she had found in his jacket. "It's called a hustle, sweetheart. Boom!"

He stood there with his mouth agape. There was a different Judy in front of him. Gone was the lip trembling, teeth chattering and body shivering. She triumphantly stood atop of the chair with one paw on her hip and a big grin on her face.

"W-what? H-how?" he confusedly stammered.

"I was the lead actress in our grade school plays for five years straight," she replied with a smirk, nimbly leaping off the chair and scoring a perfect landing in front of him. "Now that's what I call poetic justice; using the same trick that you used on me four years ago. So, how does it feel now that the tables are turned, dumb fox?"

Realizing that he had just been scammed, the stunned look on his face slowly morphed into a grin as he shook his head, not believing how easily she had manipulated him. "Sly bunny! The student has become the master. So," he frowned as he crossed his arms, "now that you have that recording, what do you want?"

"Well…" Judy drawled as she trailed her hind paw behind her, holding her paws behind her back, narrowing her eyes while evilly smiling at the same time.

"Uh, I don't like where this is going," Nick nervously backtracked as sweat formed on his brow. "Maybe we should get you home before you catch a—"

"What's wrong, Wilde?" Judy shot back, displeased as she approached him, forcing him to backup against the wall. "You did say, 'you'd do anything to make it up to me'. Am I going to have to add 'chicken' to your reputation? That you're not a mammal of your word?"

"It's not that, Judy," Nick countered, holding his paws up to his chest as he desperately sought to come up with a plausible excuse. "I… I just don't like giving you a blank check, that's all."

"Then you shouldn't have pulled that prank on me. Seriously, what are you? A ten-year-old? Besides, that prank lacked a lot of imagination. I mean, this could have backfired on you in many ways. Just be glad I went along with it."

Nick blinked in disbelief. "Whaddya mean, 'you went along with it'?"

"I knew you were up to something," Judy snorted, rolling her eyes. "You don't like losing as much as I do so you'd never have challenged me to a race unless you were a hundred percent sure you were going to beat me. And when you wanted me to go through the door first without even putting up an argument, my suspicions only grew."

"Yeah, well, you try coming up with something spur-of-the-moment, dumb bunny." Nick muttered under his breath.

"These ears aren't for decoration, you dope," Judy chastised him as she pointed to her head. "Don't think that I didn't hear that."

Pettishly, Nick stuck his paws in his pants pockets and stuck his tongue out at her.

Sighing, Judy crossed her arms. The penetrating look she shot him made him like he was a three-year old once again standing before a very disappointed parent. "I thought you wanted to prove to everyone that you're not what they say you are? That you aren't shifty, dishonest, and can't be trusted? If that's the case, why go back on your word?"

"Alright, alright! Geez! Thanks for the lecture, mom." Nick grouchily fumed. "What is it you want me to do?"

"Well," she giggled as she held up her phone, "you know that cute video going around Ewetube about this Carrot-pop band singing a real catchy tune with a predator in it. I wanna see you do the 'Hey, Mr. Fox' dance."

"No way, Carrots! I've seen that. That's too humiliating!" Nick gasped. "No self-respecting canid would be caught doing that."

Nick was well aware of the video only because of the mere fact that he had been in it. He cursed whoever had uploaded the video. Thankfully, his name hadn't been mentioned online. However, it wasn't one of his finest moments. He had only agreed to doing the Carrot-Pop video because he had badly needed the funds. He had just arrived in Zootopia and, at the time, the aardvark director had assured him no one would recognize his face if he was in costume. He had claimed it was for demo purposes only so Nick had agreed to wear the silly wig, glasses, fake buck teeth, and dorky clothes so no one would recognize him. To his surprise, it had become a well-known meme in social media. Sadly, he had not been given credit once it had. Knowing he had no way of fighting back because he was a new immigrant and a fox to boot, they took advantage of his naivete by paying him less than what had been agreed upon.

Despite his having done it several years ago, it continued to haunt him as it refused to die. Ever since Judy had discovered it online, she kept pressing him to do a 'live' performance for her since, she claimed, he was the only fox that she knew—even though she had never mentioned that she recognized him in it.

"C'mon, Nick. Just a private showing? For me? Pleeease? You'd look so precious doing it." She clasped her paws together and looked at him with soft, gleaming, wide-open eyes.

"Ack! Not 'The Look'! No fair, Carrots!" Nick held his paws up as he tried to look away. He was too late. The adorable image of Judy's face had been seared into his brain. "You're too cute when you do that."

"Well," she contemptuously huffed, "you really take the cake. First, you prank me, then you go back on your word, and now you just called me 'cute'. You know I hate being called that!" Judy crossly said. "I guess that means you're really not sorry. And here I thought you were really sincere about apologizing." She crossed her arms and turned her back on him, her right hind paw beating out a warning on the floor. "I don't want to work with you anymore if that's the case. You can leave your school reporter's ID by the door."

"Carrots, c'mon," Nick pleaded. "That's kinda harsh. I mean, it was only a gag. No one got hurt, right?"

"That's not the point, mister!" Judy vehemently dismissed, stomping her right paw while still keeping her back to him. "It just shows that you really don't respect me or value our friendship."

"But... I mean, c'mon, Judy, I'm begging you. Please don't make demands like that."

"My way or the highway, Wilde. Take it or leave it." She loftily sniffed.

As she heard his pawsteps walking away from her, she belatedly reflected on her actions and realized that she may have pushed things too far. Her best friend was about to walk out on their friendship. True, he had been a jerk for playing a prank on her but since she felt he really wasn't sincere in his apology, her sense of justice had cried out to be satisfied and she had placed their friendship on the line. Although it would appease her righteousness, was it worth it not to have him in her life? Her ears, which previously had been upright in anger, fell down against her back. She readied to whirl around to stop him from walking out of the room and her life when she heard instead the door's lock click into place. She froze, unsure of what it meant. She strained her ears to listen for any clue as she was afraid to turn around and face him.

Suddenly, she heard a falsetto voice singing a familiar melody—Hey, hey, Mr. Fox, what are you doing in the garden again? Hey, hey, Mister Fox, would you take me home to your den?

She squealed with delight as she whirled to face a scowling Nick swaying his paws from left to right as he continued with the refrain—Hey, hey, Mister Fox, can you be my lover boy? Hey, hey, Mister Fox, will you be my foxy toy?

Judy giggled as Nick mimicked the movements of the fox from the Carrot-Pop video as he continued singing the goofy tune. And, despite his red fur, she could see that the inside of his ears were quite flushed. As soon as he had finished, she bounded up to him, threw her arms around his middle, and nuzzled her face into his bare midriff fur.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you!" She squealed as she hugged him. "You were so adorable! I forgive you, Nick."

"Yeah, well, don't mention it. And, I really mean it. Don't mention it to anyone!" Nick half-growled although his tail betrayed him as it swayed from side to side as he tried to hide the happiness he felt from Judy's acceptance of his apology.

"Why?" She laughed merrily as she happily gazed into his embarrassed features. "Afraid someone will recognize you in that video?"

"Wha—? How? Who told you—? Uh, that's not me. I don't know what you're talking about." Flustered and caught off-guard, Nick hurriedly tried to deflect from his unexpected confession.

"Oh, please," Judy smugly said as she continued to hug him, her head comfortably perched on his stomach, her soft, fluffy ears lazily resting on his chest. She picked up her head, parking her chin on his abdomen, and peered up from her position, laughter dancing in her violet orbs as she further explained. "Like I said, these periscopes aren't for decoration, ya know? When I first saw the video, I thought the fox's voice sounded familiar but I needed to confirm it. Now that you've sung it, I'm one hundred percent positive that you and he are one and the same. Why'd ya think I kept bugging you for a 'private' show?" She snickered as she further relaxed onto Nick's fur.

Nick, on the other paw, was stiff as a board. Not only was he shocked that Judy had caught him but they were in a position that he had had many pubescent dreams about. And those dreams had often ended up with him waking up to a mess. His mind a-whirl, he tried to slow down his exponentially accelerated beating heart as he sorted out his jumbled thoughts.

Okay, this is just normal for bunnies, right? I mean, they like to pile on top of each other. She's got two hundred seventy-five brothers and sisters. It's probably quite normal for them to snuggle like this. It's not like this means anything. She's just probably cold and needs me to warm her up.

Yeah, that's probably it, Wilde. Don't read too much into it. I mean, it's not like she's into you. You're both friends and she's happy to be snuggling up to you. Nothing bizarre like some pred-prey relationship. I mean that'd be sick, right? What prey would want to be in a relationship with a predator? And a fox, to boot? Don't go messing up the only decent friendship you've ever had. Be satisfied with what it is you have with her. Am I right?

But, what if she really wants to be in one? Would that be so bad? After all, if two mammals love each other, it shouldn't matter what species they are?

Yeah, right! Keep lying to yourself, pal! Not a snowball's chance in hell would she even consider you as anything more than a friend. So, we're good, right, Wilde?

Right. So, why does it hurt?

Weak-kneed, Nick slowly slumped against the wall as he plopped onto his rear, dragging Judy down with him. She clung tightly, giggling all the while like a Mad Hatter in a Tea Party. In a daze, Nick tried to gather his thoughts, very much aware of the laughing lapine still latched onto him. Her titters soon died down and silence settled comfortably around them as Nick pondered his next move.

"Okay, you got what you want. So, now we're even. Wanna get off me?"

"Hold on there, bub!"

Nick oofed as he suddenly found his lap filled by an indignant bunny. "There's still the matter of explaining to my dad why I'm gonna be late tonight. I'm not going to be grounded because of your idiotic prank. Better start thinking up excuses for me, or else, 'Bang, zoom, to the moon' for you, Wilde!" She punctuated her threat by slamming one dainty paw into her palm and sending it off careening in a skyward direction.

Being on the receiving end of many of her punches, Nick didn't doubt for a moment that she'd carry out her threat to the letter. However, he still let out a chuckle as he shook his head in amazement. "What is it with you and old TV show quotes, Fluff?"

"So sue me. You're deflecting, Nick. I'm serious!"

"Yeah, yeah, and I'm a fox. I get it. What with one thing after another, let me just get my thinking cap on, 'kay?"

Judy groaned as she face-planted onto his chest, her ears flopping onto his muzzle. "You and your dad jokes. That was horrible, even for you."

"Hey, I'm at a disadvantage here. I've got a cu—, erhm, adorable female sitting on my lap threatening me with physical harm if I don't find a way to get her out of a dilemma with her fox-hating dad who happens to own a shotgun."

"Don't forget that it was your fault in the first place." Judy smirked.

"Hey, wait a minute! If you knew that it was a trick, why'd you step into it? You're to blame as much as me."

"'Coz you changed, Nick," Judy bashfully admitted. She looked away as she twirled one of her ears through her fingers. "You wouldn't let me in and tell me what was wrong, so I figured I'd go along and see where it would lead to. You always were there for me and I just wanted to be there for you but—Oh! You boys make everything so complicated!" Judy huffed as she turned her back on him while still seated in his lap. She hugged her knees, trying not to sniffle as she didn't want him to see her tears of frustration.

"Oh, you bunnies. So emotional." She squeaked in surprise as his arms encircled her and brought her to his chest. With her back to him, he placed his head between her ears and sighed. "You really are a pain in my tuckus, you know that, right, Carrots?" Nick sighed.

"'Coz you're a pain in mine, Slick." Judy fondly replied as she tightly gripped his arm with one paw, and reached up to stroke his muzzle. "But, you know I love you, right?"

"Sure," Nick snorted, "throw the poor predator a bone when he's down. Kinda late for you to tell me that, what with you going to the dance with Robby."

"Is that it?" Judy turned around, stood up between his legs, and placed her paws on his shoulders so that she could look into his emerald eyes. "Is that why you've been acting so strange lately? You really are jealous of Robby?"

Shamefacedly, Nick looked away. "Well, yeah, kinda. I mean… we've been best buds all these years and I thought we'd be together, thick and thin, no matter what. I mean, not that I'd ask you out on a date, or what. That'd be weird, right? It's just, I thought maybe… we'd go stag together." He asked as he cast a sidelong glance at her.

Judy snorted in exasperation. "Dumb fox. Stupid, dumb, loveable, idiot of a fox. If you thought that I'm gonna leave you just because I'm going out on one date with Robby Peterson, you've got another think coming, mister. Sure, I've been obsessing over him. I mean, who wouldn't? All the girls are gaga over him and despite the fact that I've never once spoken to him, he chose me over all the others. I mean, that's some kind of honour, right?"

Nick could only shrug in silence, not wanting to interrupt her.

"Listen up, you doofus. What I'm saying is that you'll always be my friend, no matter what. I just want to enjoy what every girl dreams about—having that one memorable high school date at the prom to cap one's graduating year before I go bury my nose in books to get ready to enter the ZPD. Because after that, I've gotta be focused if I ever want to be the first bunny to ever join its ranks. I just wish you'd come with me. We'd make an awesome team,… partner."

Swallowing the lump in his throat, Nick nodded, willing himself not to cry. "Thanks, Judy. It means a lot to me. But, yeah, that's a hard pass. You've seen what I've had to deal with as a fox here in Bunnyburrow. It's just as bad, or even worse, in Zootopia. There, it's the unwritten rule that foxes can't be trusted. That's why my father never went back there after my mom died, even though he was born there. He thought he could make a better life for the both of us here."

"But, what are you gonna do after you graduate from high school, Nick?"

"My dad's been trying to get me to join him in his store. Means that I'll be apprenticing under him right after graduation."

"Are you sure that's what you want to do? Or is it just a convenient choice?"

"I don't know, Fluff," Nick sighed, resting his head against the wall as he stared up at the ceiling. "I mean, it makes sense for me to take over the old man's business. After all, there's no one else he can turn it over to."

"But is that what you truly want?" Judy asked, standing once more before him, between his legs, placing both paws on his shoulders as she looked deep into his eyes. "Deep down in your heart?"

"When you're a fox, you really don't have that many choices in life."

"Well, that's one of the things I'm going to change once I'm in the ZPD. Just you watch me."

"I don't doubt it for one second, Hopps." Nick grinned.

They smiled comfortably at each other, absent-mindedly gazing into each other's eyes. After a few moments, both mammals realized what they were doing and hurriedly looked away in embarrassment.

"So…" Nick stammered, scratching the back of his head, "how about those Cubs? Think they have a chance to make it to the finals?"

She huffed as she reclaimed her perch on his lap and curled up into it, her back to him. "You've been deflecting all this time, Wilde." Judy grumbled as she ground her rear into his groin area. "You still haven't told me how you're gonna get me off the hook from being punished by my dad for coming home late."

Nick hissed both in pain and frustration as her actions made him see stars. "Not helping, Judy." He complained, trying to hide the growing evidence in his pants as he moved her onto his thigh.

"Shut it, Wilde! Don't force me to use this." She threateningly waved the recording device in his face.

"Okay, okay! Sheesh, makes me wonder who's the real predator in this relationship." Her scowl only made her look more adorable in his mind. "Here's what you're gonna tell him. You stayed behind so that I could help tutor you. He might be initially upset but seeing as it's school related, he might cut you a little slack. You got cold while I was tutoring you so I lent you my jacket to keep you warm which is why you smell like a fox."

"Fine," Judy relented as she leaned into his chest. "Now, keep me warm as I really am feeling cold."

"Demanding, aren't we?"

"Remind me whose idea it was to douse me in water?"


"Oh, and you're accompanying me home. I'm not good at hiding the truth so you'll have to be the one to explain it to my dad."

"...Did you just imply that I'm good at lying since I'm a fox?"

"Idiot," she sighed, adjusting her position as she grabbed his tail and wrapped it around herself, unmindful of Nick's yipped objections. "You know how to tell enough of a story to make it sound convincing. Not really lying but bending the truth a bit. Plus, you have a great talent for reading other mammals. That's why I think you'd make a great cop."

"Like I said, hard pass on the cop thing. And, yes, fine, I'll accompany you home tonight and explain everything to your dad." Nick relented as he gave up on trying to make her let go of his tail.

"Good. We'll also start with you buying me ice cream every day for one week at the diner for starters. You can do my math homework for me as well 'coz you're a whiz at numbers."

"I thought rabbits were good at multiplying." Nick snickered. Judy's elbow into his midsection cut him off mid-revelry. "Look," he groused, rubbing his aching nid-section, "I'll buy the ice cream but I'm not doing your math homework. If I do, you'll never learn and what kind of friend would I be?"

"The kind that almost gives them pneumonia?" she retorted.

"...Okay, I deserved that. How about this? I'll tutor you in math every day after school if you need my help. Deal?"

"One last condition," said Judy, lowering her ears behind her back in order to hide the blush, "I told you I was still feeling cold. My winter fur never came in. I'd like you to continue doing what you were doing earlier… you know, embracing me? It's just until I get warmer since there doesn't seem to be any heater in the room and I don't want to get sick. Just don't read anything else into it, 'kay?"

Nick was beside himself with joy. All the years he had known her, he had always imagined what it would be like to hold Judy intimately in his arms. He never showed her how he felt because he was afraid that she would reject him and then he would lose the only friend he had. He always kept up a façade of aloofness whenever he was around her and never let on how he really felt about her. Now that one of his dreams was about to come true, he felt like he had died and gone to heaven. He pretended to think about it while tapping a finger against his chin, making it appear that he was thinking about it.

"Ok, Fluff," Nick mock-sighed. "You win. Come in here." From his sitting position, he leaned against the wall and held his arms open to her. She settled into his lap and snuggled up to him, her head underneath his chin. He wrapped his arms around her dainty form and settled his muzzle between her ears, sighing contentedly. "You're going to be the death of me, Carrots."

She punched his chest lightly. "And no hanky-panky. Remember, you're one kick away from singing falsetto in the choir."

A month later…

After pulling the prank on Judy, Nick made it a point to be extra nice to her all the time. He felt that if it would make her happy to go to the Prom with Robby, then, as her best friend, he would make sure that she had the best time of her life.

A few days before the prom, he noticed her looking sad and dejected. He saw that her ears were drooping and she wasn't her usual perky self. On top of that, she seemed to have been crying.

"What's wrong, Carrots?" asked Nick. "I thought that you'd be bouncing off the walls now that the Prom is almost upon us. Why the sad face?"

"I-I'm sorry, Nick. I-I can't talk about it," she sniffled, trying to hold back her tears.

"Hey, no more tears! Come here." He sat them both down on a nearby bench along a deserted hallway, smoothing down her ears as he gently pulled her into an embrace. "Tell Uncle Nicky what's wrong, my cute, widdle hunny-bunny."

Judy laughed at his teasing and gently elbowed him in his stomach as she wiped her face. "Stop that, Slick. I'm not a kid anymore. And don't call me cute!"

"Says the very emotional bunny," smirked Nick. He sat her down and cupped her face with his paw so that they were eye-to-eye. "Come on, didn't we say best friends wouldn't hide anything from each other? What's the matter?" he asked her seriously.

"Oh, Nick, I was so looking forward to the Prom. To be elegantly dressed and to have Robby sweep me off my feet while we danced. But when I mentioned it to my dad, he said he couldn't afford a new dress for me, plus he needs me to help out at the farm now that the crops are coming in," said Judy as tears threatened to fall again.

"What is he? Some sort of Amish bishop?" he grumbled. "Never mind, don't answer that. Seriously, I've never seen you have any fun back home whenever I went there to tutor you. Everyone was always so serious. Your dad practically drilled a hole in the back of my head as he glared at me from across the room while cleaning his shotgun," he shuddered at the thought. "It's like he expected me to grow horns and a tail and..."

"And what, Nick?"

"Never mind. It's nothing," Nick testily shrugged as he leaned back against the wall.

"Don't 'nothing' me, Nicholas Piberius Wilde!" Judy scolded, her own troubles forgotten. "We're besties, so spill!"

"It's just that we've been best friends for close to four years and he still treats me as if I'm going to do something bad to you." Nick complained, resignedly throwing his paws up in the air.

"You know what? You're right," she said, slipping her paw into Nick's even as he tried to pull away. "You don't deserve that. You're the only one who's been there for me all this time. I really appreciate your friendship."

Nick wanted to cry out that he wanted more. That he could give her more if she let him. That he could be more than just a best friend. However, aware of the societal norms, plus the fact she seemed to be genuinely happy with Robby, he put on his warmest and most sincere smile, despite the pain in his chest. "Thanks, Fluff. I appreciate you, too."

"He's just different," Judy glumly continued, hanging her head as she dejectedly swung her hind paws back and forth where she sat on the bench. "Things are still tough on the farm. He's been so busy working and even though my mom's there, she has to divide her attention among my other siblings. It's only been because you've been there to support my dream of getting into the ZPD that keeps me from going bonkers."

"You know me, Carrots. I'm a regular laugh track. Anyway," Nick dismissively waived off the tension, "let's stop making this about me. Let me get this straight. You don't have a dress for the Prom?"

"No," sighed Judy. "And even if I borrowed one of my sister's dresses, I wouldn't have the time or the money to have it altered."

"What if I could find one for you?" asked Nick, cupping his jaw with his paw, deep in thought. "I know this very skilled tailor who would love to meet you and I'm sure he could manage to have it ready in time for the Prom. Then, all we need to do is to sneak you out of your house for a few hours and then back in so your dad won't notice. Can any of your siblings cover for you?"

Judy's ears perked up at this thought. "I'm sure they can. Oh, Nick! Thank you for being such a great friend!" said Judy as she jumped up on the bench to hug his neck. Nick hugged her back with a heavy heart. He wished it was him who was taking her to the once-in-a-lifetime school event instead of Robby. But he didn't show it and casually remarked, "Hey. For you, Fluffbutt, anytime."

Then another thought came into Judy's mind and her ears started to droop again. "I just remembered… I don't know how to dance. I never found the time to learn what with studies and helping out on the farm."

Nick started to laugh. "Is that all?"

Judy angrily punched Nick on the arm. "No, that's not all, jerk! If I don't know how to dance, what will Robby think of me? That I'm a backwards country bumpkin who's only good for having babies? I want him to see me not just as another pretty face. I want to make a good impression. And aside from you, he's the only buck who hasn't laughed at my wanting to join the ZPD."

"Look Carrots," Nick winced as he rubbed his arm to get the feeling back, "I've only seen you as an exceptional, intelligent, thoughtful and loving mammal and I wouldn't have you any other way, flaws and all. Don't sell yourself short. If Robby can't see that, then he's not worthy of you. Now, as for dancing, you've come to the right person. I can teach you enough in order to get by at the Prom."

"You know how to dance?" asked Judy. "How come?"

Nick simply shrugged his shoulders, preferring not to comment. Judy could see that something was bothering him. Reaching out again for his paw, she softly asked, "What's wrong Nick?"

He simply shook his head, refusing to answer as he slumped on the bench and hung his head.

"Hey," Judy whispered as she tilted his muzzle towards her so that they were again looking eye-to-eye, "Best friends don't hide anything from each other, remember?"

Nick tried to hide the trembling of his nose as he breathed in her scent. She was so close that he could just lean in a little, closing the small space that separated them and taste those sweet ruby lips. If she objected, he could always play it off as an accident. If she didn't—

Nick hesitated. His thoughts raced like an over-revved race car engine at the Speedy Gonzales 500. We've been friends all these years and not once did she ever indicate that she was interested in me. I mean, why should she be. She's prey. I'm a predator. It would never work out. Besides, what would I ever have to offer her that Robby can't? She deserves to be treated like royalty and I can't give her that. Sighing dejectedly, Nick decided that keeping his feelings from her was the best for everyone involved. So, nodding in agreement, he gave her an answer that wasn't technically a lie but not the whole truth either. "It's just… there are still some painful memories… dancing is something I picked up from my mom."

Judy knew very little about his mom. It was a subject he didn't want to talk about so she didn't push him on it. Nick shook himself out of his funk and said, "Anyway, that's in the past. Let's get you set up with the dress first. Come on, follow me."

"Where are we going?" Judy asked, as she got off the bench and caught up with him.

"To a place."











"Hey! You take that back," Judy berated, smirking as she popped out a fist to catch him on his arm. "That's speciesist and offensive to all equidae."

"Yeowch! Really? I should be reporting you for bodily assault." Nick complained as he rubbed his arm once more. "What's with you and punching me? Do I have a sign that says, 'Feel free to whomp on the fox anytime'?"

"Oh, shush, and take it like a mammal."

"Is this…?" Judy hesitantly asked, her eyes blinking in disbelief at the sign above the door as they stood outside a tailoring shop.

"Yup, welcome to Wilde Style." Nick smirked as he ushered her into the shop, holding open the door for her, the bells jingling as they entered.

"Now I see where you get your sense of humour from—or lack thereof." Judy mock-groaned as she eyed the interior of the store from the vestibule. Bolts of cloth were stacked up against the wall while several mannequins wearing suits and dresses were sprinkled around the shop aside from the two in the display window. In the centre of the store was a worktable where various scraps of cloth, along with various tools of the tailoring trade, lay about on top of a bundle of kraft paper patterns. A doorway stood off to the side which she presumed led to the workshop part of the store. "Why didn't you tell me your dad was a tailor? And are you sure he'll be able to help? I don't want to impose on him."

"Hardy, har, har, Ellen D. Yuck it up. Anyway, first, you never asked. Second, he may not look like much but he's a whiz when it comes to clothing. And, third, we're not imposing. Business is slow right now so it won't be a bother."

"Are you sure?"

"Ask him yourself," Nick smiled as he waved a paw towards an approaching adult red fox impeccably dressed in iron-grey tailored vest and pants, white-long sleeved shirt, a blue tie with red diagonal stripes, and a smile as infectious as the twinkle in his eyes. She could see a measuring tape hung around his neck. "Here he comes. And watch out. He'll rob you blind if you're not careful."

"Is that my no-good son I hear denigrating me? Why, I ought to disown him but for the fact I need him as an organ donor for myself." John Wilde mischievously grinned while holding a paw out to Judy. "And, to whom do I owe the pleasure of bringing such a mammal of such wondrous beauty to my humble domain? Her mere presence outshines even the finest diamond."

"Dad, this is Judy Hopps, my classmate and friend. Judy, meet the mammal who calls himself my father because he holds a piece of paper saying that he is. But I seriously doubt a parent would only feed bread and water to their only son while keeping him locked up in the basement all night."

"Enchanté, mademoiselle Judy. Please don't believe a word this boorish young fellow is feeding you as it is I who slaves away for him and yet all I get are insults in return. You should see the whip marks on my back. Why, just yesterday, he laid into me just because the milk in his bottle wasn't warmed to the exact temperature. Would you like me to show them to you?"

"You see what I put up with?" Nick gestured towards his father with a flippant smile on his muzzle as he looked at her. "That's why I don't bring anyone over—" He was interrupted by Judy's gasp as she pointed a shaking finger behind him.

Nick turned to see his father crouched on all fours, mouth open in a snarl, ready to pounce on her. He immediately stood in front of his friend, arms spread out, and yelled, "Dad, stop this! We had an agreement!"

"But, she looks so tasty, my boy," John whined as he slowly began to approach the couple. "I can't help myself."

Growling, Nick charged his father who immediately stood up and locked paws with him. Judy stared wide-eyed at the two foxes who stood snarling face-to-face, mere inches from one another with their claws extended. Sweat formed on her brow, her heart thumping wildly, unsure of what to do.


"Judy, run!"

"But what about you?!"

"I'll be fine! Just go!"

Spying a wooden dowel about three feet in length, she grabbed it and, rushing underneath the outstretched arms of the two canids, thrust one end into the stomach of the older fox causing him to let go. He yelped as he stumbled backwards and landed on his rump.

"You get away from Nick!" Judy yelled as she lifted the rod to hit the elder Wilde across the head.

"Whoa, whoa, easy there, Carrots," Nick laughed as he caught her around her middle and lifted her off the floor. "Don't kill my old mammal."

"But he went savage, Nick, he was going to kill you if I didn't stop him from—" She was interrupted by laughter from the sitting vulpine.

"Oh, she's good, my boy. One of a kind. In fact, she's the only one who's never run away. Well done, my dear, well done."

"I don't understand. What does he mean by, 'I'm the only one'?" A puzzled Judy asked as Nick set her back down on the floor and relieved her of her impromptu weapon.

Nick huffed as he stuck his paws in his pants pockets. "It's a running gag with him. He likes to see how my friends react when faced with a supposedly 'savage' mammal in order to test them. Now you see, Fluff," Nick began as he turned to face the doe, "why I don't bring friends over that—Yeowch! Dang it, Judy! That hurt!"

"Deal with it, jerk," fumed Judy. "You could have at least warned me. And you should be ashamed of yourself, Mr. Wilde, behaving in such a manner!"

"But, my dear," John grinned as he wiped a tear from his eye, "Didn't you feel alive at that very moment? I mean, sweaty palms, pounding heart, and a desire to live? Didn't your instinct kick in and make you want to run?"

"Yes," Judy hesitantly agreed, "but—"

"Exactly! You didn't. You stayed to help my son thinking that his life was in danger, forsaking your own safety. You, my dear, are truly one in a million. Now I see why Nicky talks about you all the time. I'm even more surprised he never told me how beautiful you are. I must say that you certainly keep him hopping about."

"Daaadddd!" Nick groused as he rubbed his aching arm. "You're embarrassing me here! Plus, you agreed not to pull that stunt anymore."

"Hmm, if I recall, it was only you that did. I never agreed to anything," grinned John as he painfully winced as he rubbed the area where Judy had hit him. "In fact, you stormed off the last time before I could even say anything."

"Well, can we now agree to stop this stupid prank? You see what can happen when you mess with the wrong mammal?"

"Alright," John acquiesced, both paws up in the air, "I surrender and I agree not to pull the 'savage' prank anymore with your friends."

"Karma's honour?"

"Karma's honour. Now, help an old mammal up. My bones aren't what they used to be."

"Now I see where you get your love of pranks from. Too bad his was better than the one you played on me."

"Wait, just a minute!" John interrupted, eyes affixed on his quarry. "Judy, are you telling me that Nick pranked you?"

"That's correct, Mr. Wilde. Quite harmless really."

"Did you do something to him that made you deserve to be pranked?"

"Uhm, dad," Nick nervously fidgeted, "it's okay. We worked things out—"

"Shush, son!" John admonished, holding a finger up. "I wasn't speaking to you. Now, tell me, young lady. Do you feel that you deserved to have been pranked?"

"Well," Judy looked guiltily over at an uneasy Nick who seemed to be tensely awaiting judgement on a death sentence about to be passed. "Not really. There was a bit of misunderstanding but we're okay now."

"I see," the older Wilde nodded sagely. "Nick, come here."

As soon as the younger fox tentatively approached his father, John solemnly intoned, "What did we discuss before about pranking?"

"Dad, come on. It was just a silly tiff among friends. We're both good now, right, Carrots?"

"That's not the point. It seems to me that you've forgotten what I've taught you. Now, repeat to me the Golden Rule about pranking."

"Do I have to? It's really cheesy."

"If you've forgotten it, that means the punishment will just only be much harsher, my boy. Now, repeat it to me."

Wistfully sighing, Nick mumbled something under his breath that not even Judy could hear.

"I'm sorry," John bent at the waist while cupping a paw to his ear. "Your father's hearing is getting worse in his old age. Can you speak up a little louder?"

"With great power comes great responsibility." Nick whined; head bowed.

"Correct. Now, kneel, and accept your punishment."

Reluctantly Nick did as he was told. He hesitantly closed his eyes as John reached out and expertly flicked the tips of his ears.

"Yeowww! That stings!"

"Good. Only through pain can you achieve your greatness. I hope you have learnt your lesson well, padawan."

"Really, Dad? Spider-mammal was bad, but Fur Wars as well?"

Judy's infectious laughter interrupted their discourse and the two vulpines joined her in her merriment. Catching her breath after a while, Judy happily commented, "Nick, you and your dad are really a pair of goofballs."

"Fear not, milady," declared John as he valiantly struck a pose, "I, Sir John of Wilde, shall defend thy honour against such treacherous villainy. He shall further taste the fruit of my wrath."

"Nay, stay thy paw, good Sir John. He is but a misguided mammal who has seen the light and now comes before thee seeking a favour on my behalf. Thou hast already purified him of his sins." Judy replied.

"Ay, good Lord," agreed Nick in turn. "I beseech thee, hear this lowly mammal's petition for yon maiden's plight is dire and needeth our intervention."

"Ah, a quest 'tis it? Pray tell, how mayeth I beeth of assistance to such a fair damsel in distress?"

"Okay, dad," Nick chuckled as he stood up. "I hate to ruin the mood but I need to be serious for a moment. Judy needs a dress for the Prom Dance and her father can't afford one. I remember seeing a dress at the back of the shop that a customer returned last month, and I was wondering if you would allow her to use it? I'll pay you for it by running errands around the shop for you," Nick offered.

"Nick! I can't let you do that," exclaimed Judy. "Let me work for your dad until I can pay it off."

"Nuh-uh," said Nick. "Consider it my way of saying sorry for the prank I pulled on you."

"Well, you kinda messed up there but I already forgave you for that. Besides, I did warm up to you, Slick," she mischievously remarked with a waggle of her eyebrows.

Nick flushed at the memory of Judy in his lap. He didn't know how to respond to her except by flippantly saying, "Ehhh, you weren't a big deal."

"Neither were you," Judy shot back with a smirk.

"Ouch, Carrots! You really know how to hurt a guy."

John smiled at the playful banter between the two. The fact that Nick was offering up his free time to work in the shop as payment for her dress only reinforced his conclusion that this girl was more than just a friend to him. The question was, did she even reciprocate his feelings.

He knew the Hopps family by reputation. Her father was an old-fashioned carrot farmer and quite set in his ways. In Stuart Hopps' mind, prey and predators never mixed. Every so often when they would bump into each other, the elderly buck would never fail to give him a piece of his mind as to why their children shouldn't even be friends. If it weren't for the fact they were schoolmates and that Nick was helping Judy, he would have made sure that Nick would never even set foot on their property at all.

"Nick, quit lollygagging around," John said, interrupting the playfully bickering duo. "Go back to the storage room and get the dress. I'd like to see how much alteration needs to be done to get it ready for your lovely partner to the Prom. Chop, chop! We're burning daylight. C'mon now! Two shakes of a duck's tail!" urged John.

Nick face-pawed in embarrassment. "Daaaad! Please stop with the idiomatic bombardment already! You're such a slave driver. Sheesh!"

"Oh? You mean I should whip you into shape because you march to the beat of a different drum? I'll soon have you paddling your own canoe."

"Dad, stop!" Nick groaned once more. "Those aren't even remotely funny!"

"Of course not! They're pun-ny!" John chortled with glee, basking in his son's discomfort.

"Uhm, Nick isn't my partner for the Prom, Mr. Wilde," said Judy hesitantly announced, fearful that Nick's father would refuse to let her have the dress.

"He isn't?" queried John, stunned by the bombshell announcement. "Now, that's rather interesting," he said, cocking his head to the side, paw to chin, a suspicious gleam growing in his eyes. "Not too many friends would sacrifice their time for just anyone especially if they don't expect anything in return."

"Look, I just want to make sure she enjoys the Prom, okay?" Nick huffed at his dad. "Don't make a big thing out of it." He walked to the back of the store with his paws in his pockets, kicking at an imaginary pebble on the way.

Judy felt the tension emanating from Nick and wondered what was bothering him.

After Nick had disappeared into the storage room at the back, John turned back to Judy. "Well, this really is a pleasant surprise. To finally meet the girl who made a difference in his life."

Judy was taken aback. "What do you mean, Mr. Wilde?"

John sighed and rubbed his temples as if he was reliving a painful memory. "Judy, this playful bantering you see between me and Nick wasn't there for a long time. When we first arrived in Zootopia, he was a sullen teenager who constantly disobeyed me. We were always bickering. I was afraid he would turn out to become a juvenile delinquent and further promote the negative stereotype of a fox. I didn't want that for him. I had gone through a lot of that in my lifetime and I wanted something better for him." He suddenly beamed at her. "Then, I noticed a change in his behavior that apparently coincided with having met you on that first day of school. Since then, I can definitely say that you've had a positive influence on him as he has made every effort to try to better not only himself but the lives of others as well. A very unfox-like behavior, wouldn't you say?"

Judy didn't know what to make of his praise of her. She knew that, as friends, they had been there for each other through thick and thin. She did admit to herself that, although Nick could be snarky and annoying at times, he was always there with a helping paw without her even asking him. Then, a memory from the first week when they had met came flashing back...

Judy and Nick were seated at the cafeteria table during their lunch break. Nick had brought his lunch with him, which was a cricket, lettuce, mayo, and tomato sandwich, a blueberry muffin and a juice box. Judy was nibbling on two carrots that she had brought from the farm. Nick was frowning at her. "Carrots, I know bunnies like carrots but isn't this carrying things too far? All I've seen you eat this week are just two carrots every day for lunch."

Judy blushed and hung her head. "I didn't want to say anything, Nick. It's just that we had a poor harvest last time so my dad started rationing the food in the house. After all, there are two hundred seventy eight mouths to feed in the Hopps household. And I really don't mind eating carrots," she said with a small smile. "They're high in glycemic value so at least I'm getting enough fuel for my body."

Nick scowled and shook his head. "I've seen how the other rabbits at school eat and they have way more on their plate than you do. Given the amount of energy you expend, it's a wonder you haven't fainted from hunger. Plus, you should be adding some protein to your diet. You can't just keep eating carbs. Your blood sugar is going to come crashing down and then you won't be able to concentrate. If there's anything I learnt from my dad, it was to eat healthy."

"Nick, it's ok, really. It's no big deal." Judy insisted. "I-I'm used to this. I'll be fine."

Nick shrugged and started to eat his sandwich. That was when her body betrayed her. When the delicious aroma of the sandwich and blueberry muffin hit her nose, her stomach growled so loudly that even Nick was startled. He couldn't pretend to ignore it. He sternly looked at her and pushed his sandwich over to her side of the table. "Eat this," he commanded.

"Ewww! Nick! Crickets! Besides, that's your lunch."

"Judy, you're starving. Even I know that. So, stop being a baby and eat. Besides," he added, "I won't have you fainting at the table. It'll hurt my reputation as a cool dude." Nick smirked.

Judy looked undecided. She really was hungry but she didn't know if she could bring herself to eat predator food. But she also didn't want to offend Nick. So she decided to take a small bite of the sandwich as a compromise. However, as soon as she did, her eyes opened wide as her taste buds were flooded by the rich flavours of the meal. She immediately wolfed down the whole thing in several mouthfuls. Nick smiled and pushed the muffin and juice box over to her. She shyly smiled at him and murmured, "Thanks Nick." He just smiled back at her, slipped his shades on, and fingergunned her.

Judy recalled that, ever since that first week, he would always bring her an extra sandwich everyday for lunch. Even when the Hopps farm recovered and her father did away with the rationing, Nick would still have something for her. When he discovered that carrot cupcakes were her favourite, he always brought one for her to eat as they walked to school each morning. She suspected Nick had feelings for her but she was confused as to whether she felt the same way. On top of it all, he was a fox and she was a bunny.

She sighed. "I really like Nick a lot, Mr. Wilde but… we're not of the same species. Heck, you know foxes and rabbits have been historical enemies. He's a predator and I'm prey! It would never work out! Why, my dad would have a heart attack! Or kill Nick." Judy sadly cried out with anguish in her eyes.

John Wilde merely smiled and said, "Give it some thought, child. There is no need to rush into anything. I know society frowns on such things but you both have your lives ahead of you. Just remember this: The heart wants what the heart wants."

"So, Dad," they heard Nick say as he stepped back into the main shop, struggling with the dress bag, "have you totally embarrassed Judy? Or do I have to rescue her from you?" Nick said with a grin.

John walked over to his son, took the bag from him and hung it up. Suddenly, he wrapped his arm around his son's neck and proceeded to give him a noogie. "Impudent pup! I'll teach you to disrespect your elders!" John said laughing. "You're still young enough to receive a spanking from your father."

"Watch the fur, Dad! Not cool!" said Nick with a fake grimace as his father released him. He stepped into a boxing stance as he raised his paws. "You're messing with the wrong fox!" Nick called out as he nimbly dodged his father's obvious attempt at a left jab and threw one of his own.

"And you'll find out why they called me 'The Shifty Fox' back in high school," countered his father as he easily blocked it with his right and continued through with a sound spanking on Nick's rear.

"Hey, not fair!" yelped Nick as he rubbed his now sore bottom. "That's way below the belt."

John merely grinned as he attempted to land more swats on his son's derriere, chasing Nick around the store until he had him cornered. "Say 'Uncle'," the larger male ordered as he continued to spar with his son.

"Never!" cackled the younger tod as he attempted to flee.

"Who's the greatest dad that ever lived?" John demanded as he tackled Nick and began to tickle him mercilessly.

"You are! You are! Uncle! Uncle!" Nick pleaded, laughter and tears flowing from his face as he squirmed on the ground, trying to get away.

Judy laughed to see the father and son roughhouse. She was envious of Nick's closeness to his father, one that she wished she had with her own.

"So, back to the business at hand," said John, dusting off his paws as he stood up. "Judy, hop on over here onto the stool so that I can measure you. Ooops. Did I just say that?" John remarked, his eyes sparkling with merriment.

"Daaaadddd!" Nick groaned as Judy doubled over with laughter.