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It hits her like a brick.

They are on a case together and Nick is talking up one of the witnesses, a pretty little thing with bright blue eyes and clean, white fur. Her voice is as svelte as her figure and face and she knows it, judging by the way she’s batting her lashes at Nick, who’s smiling his usual, lazy smile and maintaining a professional distance that this coy little mammal insists on breeching.

It is in that feeling– the tightness between her ribcage– that Judy knows.

When the girl sidles up to his side and slips her arms around his, Nick smoothly slides out of the vixen’s embrace, draping an arm on top of Hopp’s head instead. Judy feels pure relief wash through her, visibly deflating as if the weight of jealousy has literally been resting on her shoulders.

It is in the way her heart beats when their eyes meet– that bright, bright green, like her family farm in the Spring, mottled with warmer gold’s and electric flecks of yellow– two times her usual rapid pace. Her breath quickens. Her face flushes.

It is in the timbre of his voice– “You good, Carrots?”– smooth and warm. Every syllable wrapped in something comfortable and familiar, the same feeling she gets when she visits home in the fall and they roast marshmallows by a bonfire, or when all 275 of them gather in the living room in winter and curl into each other with mugs of hot chocolate in their paws.

“I’m good. We’re good.” She squeaks back.

When Natalie– Judy’s pretty sure that’s her name, at least– leaves, Nick’s paw drops from her head. But not before accidentally brushing down between her ears and the back of her head and between her shoulder blades, and Judy shivers. She swallows.

She is in love with Nick Wilde.

———

Suddenly, everything has changed.

She wonders what Nick thinks of her in her uniform. She wonders if her sweatpants are too casual. She wonders if the way she eats is attractive, but peas and carrots, it’s freaking takeout, who cares?!

She wonders if he notices the way she rambles in front of him now, or how she struggles to make eye contact with him without her entire face bursting into flames. Can he hear her heart? Can he see it in her mouth when she talks to him? Can he see it on her sleeve?

But he’s all easy smiles and clever quips. He’s all, “Here’s your usual, fluff,” in the mornings, waiting outside her apartment door like he belongs there, steaming styrofoam cup of her favorite brew. He’s all sunglasses and quirky, floral shirts and unbuttoned collars and loose ties, or he’s neatly pressed, heavily-loved and cherished uniforms with gleaming tie bars and shiny badges, sunglasses balanced precisely at his ears. He’s all auburn fur that smells just a little like the fresh, loamy soil her dad lays down every year.

Nick is home.

And when they sit next to each other on his couch or her bed and watch whatever movie, it takes everything in her not to climb into his lap and press her face into his chest and just inhale. It takes everything in her to drag her gaze away from Spring green eyes, lush with life. She spends all her strength on making sure she doesn’t reply too slowly when he talks to her because she’s so busy reveling in how he sounds.

When she finds out her neighbor has died– the kind granny who use to babysit her and let her pick the blueberries from her bushes (Nick’s even met her) and then bake them into pies for her, who used to sneakily hand her candies Sunday mornings at church when her mother couldn’t see– Judy cries and cries and cries in Nick’s arms. He is soft and warm and he speaks to her just as softly and kindly as he holds her. And as nice as it feels and sounds, she cries harder, because it reminds her so much of how Ms. Tailor use to talk to her when she scraped her knees.

She goes to sleep, eyes red and swollen and Nick curled in on himself, his back to her as he accompanies her for the night. They are crammed onto her tiny, tiny, tiny cot, and suddenly, Judy feels that every look, every touch, every word is just too much. She wants to take him in forever, drink in his funny little comments and those fond looks he gives her, fill herself to the brim with his affection and attention, care and concern. These moments replay in her head at night, and she can barely sleep, and oh god, Nick Wilde will be the death of her.

———

They are out, walking around a nearby park, ice cream cones in hand while Nick details Finnick’s latest conquest. Judy catches bits and pieces, but doesn’t really hear anything, because the way Nick’s face animates when he talks is amazing, and she’s trying to commit it to memory.

She does, however, catch it when he says suddenly, completely out of the blue, no warning whatsoever, as if purposely to derail her: “I love you, Carrots.” He doesn’t even look at her, face completely neutral as he looks ahead into the sky and then brings his attention to his sugar cone, spinning it around by its tip with his fingers, examining it. He says it the way someone might say that the sky is blue, or that the weather is very nice today.

Judy doesn’t know why he says it or what it means or how he means it, but she replies without a moments hesitation. “Love you, too, Nick!” She beams up at him, the sheer joy of just being with him practically dripping from her ears. Nick smiles his characteristic, slow, smug smile back at her.

Casual. Casual. They are nothing if not casual.

But her heart is beating a mile a minute, and she’s certain he has no idea. Absolutely no idea.

———

They are on a case together, tracking down a big shot bad boy. His house is as big as his name, and Judy has no idea how nobody has known about this place until now.

But the size of the house is lost on Judy and Nick as they stand in a cramped supply closet that is conveniently right where the meeting of criminals is being held. Judy is pressed up against the wall, the pads of her paws cold against the damp stone, one ear straight up and flat against the barrier as she listens intently, the other ear drooped down her back. It is only when she is working in the heat of the moment that she is completely oblivious to Nick, despite the fact that his entire body curls around Judy like a comma because he is stooping to fit into this tight space. His tail occasionally flicks against her, and his chest brushes against her at each slow rise and fall of breath.

Judy turns, opening her mouth to whisper what she’s just heard, but the words catch in her throat when she sees how close Nick is. Her snout is just centimeters from his, and his warm breath fans across her face. His eyes stare straight into hers, and even in the dark, they shine. And there it is: that ever present smell, subtle and stealthy and earthy. She wants to inhale it in deeply, completely submerse herself in it, but he is so close that she can barely breathe as it is.

Then, for a second, his eyes flicker away from hers. It’s just a second, but she sees them dart to her mouth and then back up.

Suddenly, she wonders what it would be like to kiss Nick Wilde. And, in a fit of insanity, she brings herself up to her tip toes and presses her mouth to his.

She may regret this for the rest of her life– at the very least, she’s certain there will be dire consequences, judging by the intensity of the fireworks going off in her head. But Judy is sure they’ll recover, because they’re best friends before anything, and, oh god, maybe she won’t recover, because now she knows what it’s like, and how could she live another day without this?

But she doesn’t need to dwell on that thought any longer– Nick groans into the kiss, and she feels his paws around her waist, squeezing and pulling her flush against him before wrapping himself as fully around her as he can. “Finally,” he mumbles into her mouth. And his voice may be muffled, but she can still tell that it’s several registers deeper and just a little rough around the edges. Her breath catches at the sound of him as he continues kissing her and rumbles from his chest while doing it,

“Took you long enough, fluff.”

———

Chapter Text

(Stop) Just Wait

———

Contrary to what people think– those pesky rumors floating around, born from who knows what, invading his aggressively low-maintenance life– Nick Wilde knows what love is.

His mother loves him; his father did, too. He knows love takes time, and he's learned from several heartbreaks that love is a lot of compromise, a lot of letting an individual be an individual, a lot of growing up, a lot of giving in, a lot of sacrifice, a lot of accepting someone as they are.

A lot of waiting.

He's just been in a phase for the past 15? 20? years where he doesn't want to wait. So he sets love aside and builds a few fences around that part of his heart.

Fences become walls though, because the world does not love. It does not wait for mammals to learn, just shoves them in a direction and tells them to run as fast and as hard as they can. He's had a taste of this ruthlessness before: at the tender, ripe age of 7, watching his dad succumb to an illness that could've been cured if they'd only had the money, the status, the species.

Love was his father, teaching him how to hit a nail with a hammer without banging his fingers up. It was learning how to throw a punch in the middle of the night when mom was sleeping (for self-defense, his dad whispered and winked, just don't let your mom know), and it was him laughing good-naturedly when Nick couldn't assemble the furniture quite right without help for the first time or when he sent the entire neighborhood into darkness because he'd messed up the electricity in their own home.

You'll figure it out, his dad had said. There's plenty of time. Just stop and wait and be patient, and you'll figure it all out.

Love is his mother, working double-shifts and waiting for tips to be calculated at the end of the night, just so she can put food on the table before she's out for another round of work to make enough for Junior Ranger Scout uniforms.

Love is hoping and waiting for something to come around that will soften her son up again. It's smoothing down the fur between his ears and pressing her muzzle against his forehead, it's trying to find the balance between being pushy and being caring.

These are the things Nick reflects on the second before he accepts a deal from a high schooler. He's only 12, but he's already getting a little tired of waiting. And when he finishes out his night of heisting with this guy, he takes the wad of cash without a word and decides that this may not be love, but at least he has what he needs.

He does this for 20 years: replacing his fences with towering walls that nobody can see over to find the heaping pile of things that get to him while he grasps impatiently at the next hustle.

Which is why it's annoying when Judy hops in, leaping unabashedly over said walls with her dumb bunny thighs. Those first hours are god-awful. She is annoying and cluelessly persistent. He wonders if she even knows anything about life at all, or if her entire existence has just been one smooth joyride.

But when Bogo tries to take away her happiness, something in him sparks a little. And the next 10 hours are significantly less miserable–

until she slips up some time after. And he is angry, and he is confused, and he wonders if he likes her a little too much, because he wouldn't be this disappointed unless he cared.

Those are the thoughts Nick wrestles with for three months while he wonders if Judy might show up again. And when she does show up– Finnick is sure to let him know– he realizes: he's been waiting.

And when Judy presses the crown of her head into his chest, sniffing and trying not to sob too hard or get snot on his shirt, he realizes that he'll have Judy whatever way she is, even if she has been– maybe even still will be– a little ignorant. There's plenty of time for her to understand and to see and– oh god, this is happening. He's pretty sure he loves Judy Hopps. He's only known her for three months, most of which they hadn't even been speaking.

But if this is how it's going to be– if his heart is fine with sitting on the sidelines of Judy's parade, unacknowledged but waiting eagerly for whatever might come next– then it's all or nothing. So he begins disassembling walls, taking them down brick by brick, because Judy shouldn't have to jump. Or at least, he doesn't want her to.

Nick's pretty sure Judy's it for him. He's never handed out his trust to just anyone (even Finnick can't say he's much of a shareholder), but Judy takes it like it's her own every time she spews her own vulnerable little guts to him between bites of salad or licks of ice cream, watching and waiting for his response with her burnished gaze, completely unaware.

It is disgusting and the worst and he just loves her so much.

But he doesn't tell her any this because he wants her to go at her own pace, figure herself out without him pushing her along in some possibly misguided direction since even he's not sure how any of this is supposed to work.

And maybe Judy's a little slow, but it's as if every hour he's rushed between the ages of 12 and 32, every minute he's sped through, every second he's impatiently sprinted past, comes hurtling back to him just for her.

All of it is time well spent. Nick discovers just how delicate his trust really is, but also finds that Judy's childhood, marked by tilling hard soils for the fragile saplings her soft, padless paws will cultivate, makes her the perfect candidate for a project like him.

And while Judy is all shades of capable, he becomes the perfect sucker for the coaxing encouragements and affectionate eye rolls she offers for all his hang-ups and glib commentary. Even Finnick says Nick is going soft: I can see it in your eyes, he says, and Nick laughs it off, because he and Judy are best friends who love each other and trust each other and if that's making him soft, fine. For her, he'll take it (though he'll be hard-pressed to ever admit that).

The fifth time Finnick brings it up, though, there's a strange tug in his ribs and his laugh falls a little short.

I can see it in your eyes, Finn scowls.

Nick stares at the fennec. He stares at his pawpsicle.

When he's at home, he stares at his bedroom ceiling.

And during their time together, he stares at Judy.

He hopes that she can see it, too.

———

Consistent with what people think– those unnerving sidelong glances paired with frenetic whispering and knowing looks, born from the all too obvious way his posture straightens and his tail flicks into the air like an antenna and how his gaze lingers just a little too long when Judy's by his side and invading every sense he lays claim to– Nick Wilde is falling in love.

His peaceful affair with platonic love– which he was only just getting used to, Nick thinks bitterly– gives way to something a lot more assiduous. Late nights spent texting and smiling at her quirks turn into late nights texting and smiling at her quirks and picking up his phone every second because maybe this time she'll have replied.

Somehow, the rush from a successful scheme or clever hustle cannot compare to the rush of hearing his phone beep. The adrenaline that results from cuffing criminals and making torturous puns at them is incomparable to the adrenaline that results from feeling his phone vibrate. The speed at which he lunges across the room for a stupid cellular device makes his days of running from Mr. Big's cronies look like practice.

And suddenly, Judy doesn't smell like just violets and lavender laundry detergent. She smells like violets and lavender laundry detergent and sweaty palms and musk and– oh wait. That's him.

And purple is suddenly not just purple. It is thrill and faith and amusement and certainty that we are best friends and I trust you and you love me and do I know that? Why-yes-I-do. It is every shared moment bottled in a single color, as if memory is a marker and all he has to do to draw is look her in the eye.

But Judy doesn't know yet– she doesn't know his feelings yet, or even her own. So he Stops. And he Waits. And every time she gets that look on her face, he wants to shake her and tell her, but he's not about to rush her.

Just stop and wait, he tells himself. She'll figure it out.

So he settles for using her head as a hand rest. Settles for surreptitiously trailing his paws down her back. Settles for casually letting slip that he loves her.

And all of his waiting is finally rewarded in a cramped room that barely passes as a closet, despite the fact that they're in a situation that can be easily compromised. Or worse. Bogo can take them aside for a talk.

But it's a risk he's willing to take now that he's finally able to wrap his arms around her in more than a you-know-you-love-me kinda way and kiss her in a you-have-to-know-I've-loved-you-this-entire-time kinda way. He leaves no room for doubt, just tries not to thrash his tail too roughly against the door or whine from the back of his throat.

"Finally," he breathes.

Finally, finally,

finally.

———