“You know you love me,” he drawled, that cocky grin spread up his muzzle regardless of the fact that he still had a little red from the pawpsicle around one eye.
“Do I know that?” she questioned, doing her best to look confused as she cast a glance in his direction. She was gratified to see that the ever present smug was wiped off his face for a few seconds. The straight fox face was so unlike him that she knew he might even be a little concerned as he waited for her to continue. She let it linger for a breath before lips curved to form a pleased smile when she leaned towards him. “Yes. Yes, I do.”
At the time she had secretly hoped that he couldn’t see the complete adoration on her face when she said it, even if the feeling had been dripping from every word. Having him back after so long at the Academy, seeing him in that dark blue uniform that she knew he deserved to wear, had been one of the better moments in her life. Then to have him as her partner, sitting beside her where she could talk with him anytime she wanted, doing the job she loved with the fox she loved just as much. The distraction of a certain sloth’s speedy buzz-by had removed her chance to really gauge his reaction to her words and how she had let her feelings slip into them. A missed opportunity, now that she thought about it.
And she was thinking about it a lot now that it was Valentine’s Day and she was walking out of the ZPD lobby beside Nick. For her entire life, she had been immune to the pull of the holiday. While other bunnies her age were going about the business of falling in love and getting ready to start their families, she had been too busy working towards her life’s goal. The hints from her parents, the many advances from bucks looking to catch her eye, and even the “secret admirer” cards that were often left in the Hopps Family mailbox addressed to her passed by without diverting her attention from what really mattered. She had almost believed that she was immune altogether when Nick had left for the Academy because the interest in anything other than her job and nightly chats with her dumb fox had just not been there. It had taken her much longer than an intelligent mammal should have to realize that “her dumb fox” was the reason. And now that she did know? The question was how to tell him.
“It’s called a hustle, sweetheart!”
Her own voice saying the phrase drew her narrowed eyes to the fox beside her as he pulled out his phone and checked the text message. “I can’t believe you actually made that your message alert.”
“Well,” he began, a slow smirk curving his lips as he tapped a reply to the message without losing the pace of their steps - a skill that she had not yet mastered. He turned amused emerald eyes to her as he tucked the phone into his pocket. “You did say it when I asked for a recording. What did you think I was going to do with it?”
Play it at night when you’re alone thinking about me?
Wistful thoughts, ignored as she shrugged and turned her gaze towards the lot as they made their way towards the metro station. “Use it to torment suspects as we take them into custody? I don’t know what goes on in that brain of yours sometimes, Nick.”
“Oh, that could be fun,” he quipped as they crossed the street. “’You’ve got nothin’ on me, copper.’ ‘It’s called a hustle, sweetheart.’”
The fact that he went from a deep, gangland voice to a girly squeak had her smothering a laugh into one paw while elbowing him with the other arm. His grin flashed brighter for a second before his phone chimed with her voice again. He wasted no time in digging it out and flicking one finger pad across the screen. It was one of those rare moments where she resented being so much shorter than him, because she had no chance at seeing what was on the screen without literally jumping up to see. She figured that might come across as a little obvious.
“Let me ask you something, Carrots,” he said once he had tapped another reply and tucked the phone away. “It’s Valentine’s Day. Which I’m sure you know because every store in Zootopia is selling cheap candy for insane prices to mammals desperate for love. Did I tell you I used to sell heart-shaped pawpsicles? They were a big hit in Central.”
“You were going to ask me something?”
“Oh, right!” he said, one paw on his hip and the other bopping the side of his head. “See, there’s someone I want to spend this Valentine’s with. And I’m looking for advice on how to tell her how I feel.”
A rather sudden and large amount of stone sank into her belly at his words. It took her a few seconds, as the feeling of being gut punched settled into a sick churning in her stomach, but the managed to force out at least one word.
“Advice? Come on. You know,” he said as they stepped onto the platform, his tail swaying behind him as he turned to lean against the rail facing her, “give me the female perspective on this. If a handsome buck was going to sweep you off your feet, how would you want them to do it?”
How was she supposed to respond to this? The first and most obvious reaction was the pain and sickness that rolled over her when she turned away from him to look out over the tracks at the metro. Her own thoughts of how to tell him how she felt crumbled in the face of the fact that he already had feelings for someone else. Someone else who was no doubt a long, lean, and beautiful vixen. Not some dumb cop who would always be a ‘cute little bunny’ in his eyes.
That was unfair and she knew it.
“Be yourself,” she said at last when she turned back to him and plastered on her best smile for him. “We, meaning females, like a male to be who he is most of the time. No surprises down the road. Just be Nick; you are the sly fox with a heart of gold and a silver tongue. Anyone who wouldn’t fall for that is an idiot.”
The fact that she felt like an idiot for falling for him herself was irrelevant.
“Well,” he drawled, reaching up with one paw to slide it over his ears slowly before he looked down at her with a grin. “I am pretty amazing. I can see your point.”
What normally might have been reluctant amusement manifested itself as resentment and anger that he could be so glib in the face of her heartache. She almost snapped at him. Almost let it all out in a rush before the commotion and noise of the arriving train allowed her a moment of distraction to gather herself again.
Friends. Always friends. Don’t do anything stupid because your feelings are hurt.
With this repeating through her mind, she moved towards the train. Pausing when she realized he wasn’t beside her like he always was, she paused and looked back. “You’re not coming?”
“Not right now,” he said, looking down at his phone for a second before he raised his eyes to her again. His ears were high, his stance one of excitement and energy as he waved a paw for her to carry on without him. “I have some things I need to do before the big night. Catch you later, Fluff.”
“Yeah,” she murmured to herself as he turned to wander off of the platform. She watched the fox in his uniform, with his confident shuffle, high ears, and happily swaying tail, move away from her and out of sight as the doors to the train slid closed between them. “Good luck, Slick.”
The quiet of an apartment that had never seemed quite so empty was thick and lonely. The unavoidable truth of it was simple to her as she sat in the dark staring at the orange glow of her phone. She hadn’t spoken up soon enough. Or maybe there had been no chance at all. She wasn’t so vain as to think of herself as special enough to make someone cross species lines. Someone like Nick, who could easily have any vixen he wanted. Vixens that would be witty and sexy. Who were as long bodied and beautiful as he was. Vixens that he could bring home to his mother and promise her the grandkits he said he knew she wanted. Someone who was closer to his own age and wasn’t an adorable fluffball.
All in all, it was better for him anyway. Not that she believed he was out of her league or anything silly and self-deprecating as that. She just wasn’t for him. There would be no social stigma, no second glances or hateful glares from strangers who wondered why a fox and a bunny were together as more than ZPD partners.
Not that he cared what others thought. Not anymore. She stared down at the picture of the two of them on her phone, two fingers popped up behind her head to make little bunny ears between her real ones. Just a random snapshot where the two of them were out of uniform. He had dropped down to one knee beside her so she could move in close, laughing when she had smooshed them closer together until their fur had mingled. She could still smell him…
The drop that hit the screen made her frown, reaching up to angrily swipe away the tear that followed it. The ache in her chest tightened when she set the phone down on the desk and tried to push the lost feeling away. She had meant it when she’d wished him good luck. He deserved to be happy and she wanted him to be happy. Sooner or later, the weight in her chest would fade away and she would be perfectly happy being his friend. And whoever he had fallen for, she would accept. That’s what friends did.
It would just take a little time for her to believe it.
She leaned forward, resting her head in arms folded over the top of the desk as she tried to convince herself that everything was going to be alright. Forcing herself not to think of him cuddled up to a vixen. A vixen that Judy knew would never be able to resist his charms. The cheerful blip of her phone, telling her that she had a text message, was ignored as she closed her eyes. When it blipped again, she rolled her head to the side to look at the display.
Two new messages.
Three new messages.
Frowning, she shook off the pity party and sat up, taking the phone in her paw and sliding her finger over the display.
11:57 pm N: Carrots?
11:57 pm N: You there?
11:58 pm N: I know you’re there. I can feel your eyes on my messages from here, Office Hopps.
She gave a weak laugh as she leaned back and settled the phone in both paws.
11:59 pm J: I’m here. How goes the date?
11:59 pm N: I’m on my way to her place now. Just need some last-minute help if you have a second.
She frowned at the message for a few seconds. Why would he only now be going to his date?
That little niggling feeling of petty jealousy wanted to rise again. Why should she help him woo some vixen? For that matter, what made him think that she knew what a vixen wanted anyway? She dropped her paws and the phone into her lap as she leaned her head back, resisting the urge to scream at the ceiling for no other reason than to release some of the frustration and heartaches. Closing her eyes, remembering that none of it was his fault, she released a slow breath before she sat up and typed her reply.
11: 59 pm J: Sure. I have a minute. What do you need?
“It’s called a hustle, sweetheart!”
Her finger was still on the Send button when her own voice reached her ears, ears that radared towards the door a split second before she turned her head in that direction. Confusion and the light catch in her chest was delayed when her phone blipped again. She stared down at the message.
12:00 am N: For you to open your door.
There was a little moment of ‘Don’t get your hopes up, Hopps. He might need help with his tie or something.’ But it was uncertainty that had put her in this miserable state, to begin with, so she allowed the sudden surge of hope to squash it when she jumped out of her chair and dashed across the room. Her paw hesitated for half a second on the lock before she flipped it and slowly pulled the door open, peeking out around the threshold with her heart in her throat.
Nick stood there in his uniform, though not looking nearly as pressed and neat as he normally kept it. He looked downright disheveled, in fact, and out of breath. His tie was completely missing and there seemed to be some brown and green stains on his slacks. Curiosity wanted to take over, but with more than half of the buttons on his shirt open and a ridiculously appealing amount of cream colored fur exposed down the center of his heaving chest she found herself at a loss for words.
“You told me to be myself,” he said, drawing her attention from his state of his clothes to his eyes as he held one paw to show himself off while the other remained behind his back. “I seem to be failing at that right now, but I want to be selfish, too.”
“Selfish?” she whispered, her hopeful eyes moving over his face as she swallowed thickly.
“I have flowers,” he said suddenly, drawing his paw from behind his back. The dozen plus one purple tulips wrapped in heart-covered pink paper made her own heart beat a few times quicker as she reached out to take them. She could tell that he was nervous and that fascinated her almost as much as his somehow getting her favorite flower. His ears were just a little below fully upright, his tail was unmoving behind him and his voice was uneven. He watched her, doing his best not to look like he was watching her for a reaction. For the normally cool and slick spoken Nicholas Wilde, this was abnormal. She hadn’t seen him this nervous since their faceoff with Mr. Big.
“They’re beautiful,” she said softly, feeling warmth spread through her from head to toe as she buried her muzzle into the flowers for a moment to breath in the scent with closed eyes. She paused as she breathed in the warm, floral scent. The smell was familiar. Not the sterile and sometimes chemical scent of a florist’s shop. They smelled earthy and wild, mingled with the lingering scent of grass and… Home. The memories that came with them made her want to melt into that spot. She raised her eyes to the now smiling fox, feeling her throat tighten as she hugged the bouquet to her chest. “Nick? Where did you get these?”
“Oh, well,” he said, running one paw over the top of his head, ending the motion with a light tug on the tip of one ear. “Just a flower shop downtown. It wasn’t that hard to find them.”
She would forgive the lie because it was made perfect by the fact that he refused to meet her eyes when he told it. She buried her nose in the tulips again, breathed in the scent of a home over two hundred miles away again, and looked up at him. “How is this being greedy?”
“Because I want more than what we already have,” he blurted out, spreading his paws in front of him as he took a step towards her. “You’re my best friend and I don’t want to lose that, but I feel more. I have for a while now and I’ve been trying to find a way to tell you. I even considered hustling you into a date, if you can believe that. Tricking you into having dinner…”
“We have dinner all the time,” she reminded him, watching him watching her take her own step closer to him.
“Yeah, but this wasn’t going to be a ‘Want to catch a bite after work?’ sort of deal like always,” he insisted, and she was gratified when his words came to a momentary halt when he looked down to watch her paw sliding slowly up his chest. “I was going to wine and dine you. Candlelight. Maybe a band with soft romantic music. If you give me thirty minutes, I can still set those things up. I still have connections.”
“I don’t need to be wined and dined.” Her fingers gripped the front of his shirt, and she saw the pleased smile spread over his muzzle as she tugged him down. Then she pulled him further suddenly and he stumbled a bit until he was forced to drop onto one knee to keep his balance. Adjusting the flowers in her arm so that they were not between the two of them, she released his shirt and reached up to slide her fingers into the fur of his cheek. “I know where you got these, Nick.”
“You do?” he said, glancing down at them nervously as if afraid he had somehow offended her.
“You have dirt and grass on your pants,” she said, leaning in closer to him until their noses almost touched, watching his eyes widen and his ears lift. She breathed in the scent of fox and grassy wilderness that just didn’t exist in Zootopia like it did in Bunnyburrow. “And you smell like home. You didn’t have to do this, Nick.”
“You’re irreplaceable,” he murmured, tilted his head to the side slightly as the distance between the closed another half inch. “I had to get at least this right.”
Kissing a fox in her doorway had been the last thing she’d expected to do when she came to Zootopia, but it was by far the best thing. Even if it took a second or two, and an adjustment of muzzles, before their lips finally met around his longer nose, it hit her belly with a sudden heat that reminded her of her first taste of liquor. That heat washed away the weight and the ache believing he found someone else had brought to her in a wave of pleasure. His scent – a scent that was currently laced with the scents of a hilltop covered in purple flowers, green grass, and memories – replaced that of the flowers. The thrill of it caused her fur to stand on end in a very noticeable way when his large paw slid down her ears and cupped the back of her head to draw her in a little deeper until tongues touched and flavors mingled.
When their lips parted, both looking just a little stunned and a whole lot happy as his tongue licked his lips once in a way that made her eyes linger on his mouth.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured finally, his ears flicking back and causing her head to tip slightly in confusion. “I was too late for Valentine’s.”
Turning to glance at the clock, she saw the time: 12:06 am. Leaving the saddened and ridiculously romantic fox where he was, she crossed to the clock glowing on the side table and made an adjustment to the time. A small laugh escaped her when she turned back to him, stepping closer until she could nestle against his chest. His smell was so nice now. Foxy musk deepened by exertion (how far had he run?) and the smell of earth and wind and flowers. She turned his face into the fur of his chest and breathed in deeply to savor the scent before she spoke. “It’s still Valentine’s in here,” she said, reaching up to grip the collar of his shirt to tug him through the door, into the apartment where the clock now read 11:49 pm.
“Clever bunny,” he said, following her without resistance as one of his killer grins growing up that long muzzle.
“You know you love me,” she said, a cheeky grin spreading over her muzzle.
“Do I know that?” he asked, his tail wagging happily as his expression became one of contemplation. It pleased her almost as much as his extremely successful attempt at romance that he remembered that little moment enough to quote it as he reached back to swing the door closed as he replied, “Yes. Yes, I do.”