A Ray of Hope Ch. 02 – Graduation Day

DISCLAIMER: The pirate I captured says he’ll grant me ownership rights of Zootopia if I let him go. He hasn’t come back yet, so I still don’t own Zootopia.

Special thanks to my friend and editor Daee17  for her help and inspiration in preparing this!

Also, a birthday shout-out to one of my readers, TheAssassin2! Head on over to his profile and read his fic!

This was it. The day Judy Hopps had been both looking forward to and dreading for months. Looking forward to, because she’d finally get to have her best friend by her side all day, fighting crime, and making the world a better place. And dreading, because they’d asked her to make a speech and be the one to present the badges to the graduates.

Judy hated public speaking, after that disaster 9 months ago at the conclusion of the missing mammal case. She even refused to say anything following the exposure of the Night Howlers conspiracy, deflecting all questions with something along the lines of “Please talk to a member of the of the PR department. I have no comment.”

This time, however, she wouldn’t be taking questions, so the burden was lighter. And she’d run her speech by several friends beforehand. And before that, she’d spent hours upon hours agonizing over what to say. Each attempt had ended with ripping a sheet off her pad of paper, crumpling it up, and tossing it behind her.

Finally, she’d settled on talking about her own preconceptions, and how real life didn’t always show through rose coloured glasses.

Cleaning up her apartment afterward was no fun either. Every time she thought she bagged all of the wasted paper, she found another pile. And another. And another. Until she had two fox-sized garbage bags full of paper (the store had been all out of smaller ones).

Carrying them to her building’s recycling dumpster and wrestling them in must have looked pretty funny to everyone who saw her. Walking into walls and doors and nearly falling down the stairs because she couldn’t see where she was going? Not so funny, to her.

Now, though, she sat on the Bunnyburrow express, rereading what she’d written over and over, trying to memorize every word. She was nervous, to be sure, but at least this time she wouldn’t be blindsided by the whole situation.

She knew that as long as she was the most famous (or infamous, depending on how you looked at it) officer in the ZPD, she would probably need to get used to this kind of thing. It didn’t make it any better though. The recruitment posters with her face on that had gone up after the Night Howler conspiracy were bad enough. Worse was that anti-predator groups had doctored that same image for their own use, and pro-pred and anti-prey groups had not forgotten what she had said at that press conference either.

The protests in the city had intensified lately, and violent and destructive species-related crime was also on a dramatic rise, stretching the ZPD thin. Most years, all of the precinct chiefs made the trip to the academy for the graduation ceremony. This year, however, mammal power was so tight that only the chiefs of precinct one and four others were able to attend.

Judy sighed as the academy came in to view. She just had to make it through the day, and Nick would be by her side as her partner and friend come Monday.

This was it. The day Nicholas Wilde had been looking forward to for 6 months. Because today meant the end of boot camp, and the beginning of a new phase in his life. One where he would be working alongside his best friend, sharing jokes, laughter, and as she liked to put it, making the world a better place.

Nick was the only graduate in his group that would be joining precinct 1. All of the other graduates had been assigned to other precincts. Unfortunately, the number of graduates in this class was less than the number of officers that would be retiring in the next six months, so several more precincts would be even more understaffed, or so Judy had been telling him.

Admittedly, Nick had not made any lasting friendships with his fellow cadets, preferring to keep to himself when Judy wasn’t around, with the exception of his dorm mate. Of course, his solitude and the amount of time spent around the little rabbit doe had started some rumours about their relationship that he would just as soon avoid if possible. Not that he didn’t wish they were true or anything.

The truth was, he did very much wish the rumours were true. Most of them anyway. But he wasn’t willing to compromise his friendship with Judy for the highly unlikely chance that she felt the same way.

The fox went through the day ahead in his mind. Breakfast in the mess. Where he was now. Change into the ceremonial uniform, freshly pressed and clean. Meet at the centre of the jogging track no later than 0930. Graduation ceremony at 1000.

There would be speeches by buffalo butt and the ice queen – his nickname for the polar bear major that had spent the last 6 months yelling “You’re dead, Firefox!” or some insulting variation thereof in his ear. And then there would be the graduation speech and the presenting of the badges by Judy.

That was the part he was looking forward to the most.

The other mammal that Nick was looking forward to seeing today was his mother. She’d only managed to visit him a few times since they’d reconciled, but they talked no less than twice a week. Nick had still not been able to get his mom or Judy to admit to the latter tipping his mother off to the current direction his life had taken. But he was thankful the little rabbit had taken it upon herself to do so. He knew he should be angry at her for meddling in his life, but he just couldn’t bring himself to be upset.

His mother had managed to get time off from the pharmaceutical company she worked for to come see him on his big day though. Nick hoped she’d be proud of him, as proud of him as he knew Judy was.

Breakfast was an opulent affair this time, a rare instance of hot cakes, waffles, French toast, and turkey strips or chicken as opposed to the usual toast and/or cereal that the cafeteria offered. The fox supposed it was a “congratulations” gift to those that had passed the academy’s rigorous training regime – or survived it, as the case may be for some.

Nick had been surprised at the fact that in the three classes he’d seen pass through the academy during his time there – his own, the one that had started three months prior to him, and the one that had started three months afterward, there was not a single cadet smaller than a wolf, other than himself. The mammal inclusion initiative put forth by former mayor Lionheart was still in effect, so Nick supposed it had more to do with a lack of interest by smaller mammals. Judy had told Nick how she had fought tooth and claw to be accepted in to the academy in the first place, being rejected multiple times before resorting to the MII.

She’d also told him of the failures and humiliation she had suffered in her first few weeks of training. The fact that the records and achievements wall was half full of her pictures, and the fact that the Ice Queen had opened his first day with a rousing speech about how a bunny turned the place upside down and set a standard so high you needed a space craft to reach it – along with all the degrading daily speeches since – was a testament to how hard she’d worked, and one Nick hoped he could stand beside.

Nick was lost in thoughts when a voice jarred him back to reality.

“Mind if I have a seat, Red?” Nick looked up. His dorm mate, Arnie Pawson was standing there with his breakfast tray.

The fox gestured to the seat next to him. “Go for it.”

Taking his seat, the cheetah sat in silence for a minute, just enjoying his meal, before speaking.

“So, I hear your girlfriend is going to be giving one of the graduation speeches.”

Nick groaned in frustration. “Her name is Judy. Yes, she will be giving a speech. No, as I have said at least a hundred times before, she is not my girlfriend. She is a girl friend, with a space in the middle. A friend who is a girl.”

The cheetah chuckled. “Oh, come on, the way you talk about her? The way she is constantly calling and visiting you? How can she NOT be your girlfriend? Dude, even my girl doesn’t call or visit as often as yours does, and we’ve been going steady for two years now!”

Nick skewered the cheetah with a look.

“For fuck sake, Nick, you can’t tell me that you don’t want to bang that piece of ass!” Species didn’t matter to Arnie. And neither did manners.

“No, Arnie, I CAN tell you I don’t want to ‘bang that piece of ass’ as you so eloquently put it. I told you, she’s my best friend, and I’m not going to screw that up. Besides,”

The red canine returned to his meal.

“…foxes mate for life.”

Arnie quirked his eyebrow. “So, you wouldn’t consider her for a mate? A wife?”

The fox sighed. Obviously, Arnie wasn’t just going to drop the subject.

“Would I want her for a wife and mate? Yes, yes, I would. Would she consider it? No, I don’t think she would. She’s a bunny, Arnie. I’m a fox. I’m her natural enemy. The fact that we are even friends at all is a testament to her character.”

The fox sighed

“The best I can hope for is a lasting friendship. If she wants more, she’s going to have to initiate it. That’s how foxes do it anyways. The vixen leads.”

“Well, that’s kind of fucked up. If you want her, why don’t you just go and get her. To hell with how foxes do it. Be a male mammal!”

The fox dropped his head into his paws.

“It’s not about what I want, Arnie, it’s about what she wants. When have you ever seen a bunny be with a fox in THAT way? Hell, when have you ever seen a bunny even being FRIENDS with a fox? The answer is never. And there is no chance in hell I’m going to risk everything on the almost non-existent chance that she feels the same way.”

The cheetah sighed. “Your loss, dude, but if you wait for her, chances are, someone’s gonna snap her up and fuck her brains out before you do. She’s hot fuzz, and she ain’t gonna stay available for long.”

Nick shook his head, fighting down the jealous snarl at the thought of Judy with anyone but him.

“I’ll see you later, Arnie. I gotta get ready,” the fox said as he stood and moved towards the door.

Moving through the hallways to the locker room after finishing up his breakfast, Nick gave a friendly greeting to the few cadets and instructors roaming them. Most were trying to finish up last minute packing or organize transportation back to the city. Nick would be riding back with Judy and his mother after the unofficial after-grad party, which was being thrown at a bar in the nearby town.

Grabbing his uniform and bag from his locker, Nick quickly changed into the ceremonial blues. It wasn’t a particularly difficult task, as the uniform was fairly simple compared to some he had seen out there. Simple yet elegant. A look in the mirror reminded him of the last time he had donned a uniform for any reason. 24 years ago. And he’d only worn the uniform once.

That night was one of the worst of his life. He’d gone in to the meeting with hopes and dreams and left with a muzzle and a crushed soul. And for 23 years he’d thought that mammal with hopes and dreams was dead. Until Judy Hopps had bounced into his life and turned everything upside down.

The fox looked in the locker room mirror one last time before adjusting his tie and gold braids again and grabbing his duffel bag. He’d packed most of his things up last night before bed. Judy had been busy, so they hadn’t gotten their usual MuzzleTime call in, a rarity for them the last month or so. She’d also gotten a lot more touchy-feely, but Nick chalked that up to her rabbit nature.

The fox checked his watch. 0920. Time to head outside. He dropped his bag in his dorm to pick it up later, and headed out the door.

Judy Hopps sat on a polar-bear sized chair on the stage that had been set up in the middle of the running track, her stomach turning in knots. Flashes of the missing mammals press conference ran through her mind. She’d nearly had a panic attack just walking up to the stage, but a piece of advice that Wolford had given her on the drive up stuck out: “Pretend it’s just you and Nick. Pretend that no one else exists, and you’ll be just fine.”

That made things a bit better. It focused her on the reason she’d agreed to do this in the first place: for Nick. But sitting here with nothing to do but wait, her mind had decided to focus on the hundreds of mammals in the audience.

So worried was she, that she almost missed her cue. A nudge from Major Friedkin had clued her in though, and she hopped off the chair, and walked up the steps that had just been pushed on-stage for her, to stand at the podium.

Everyone looked smaller from way up here, the podium being built for a Cape Buffalo and the stage high enough that said Buffalo was above the eye level of even an elephant. It made Judy feel a bit like a giant.

A deep breath and a reminder to “pretend it’s just you and Nick” later, Judy spoke.

“When I was a kid, I thought Zootopia was this perfect place, where everyone got along and anyone could be anything. Turns out, real life’s a little bit more complicated than a slogan on a bumper sticker.”

Boy was that an understatement.

“Real life is messy. We all have limitations. We all make mistakes. Which means hey, glass half full we all have a lot in common. And the more we try to understand one another, the more exceptional each of us will be.”

“But we have to try. So, no matter what type of animal you are…from the biggest elephant, to our first fox…”

Her eyes fell to Nick, and she couldn’t keep the affection out of her voice. The red canine lifted the aviator glasses he wore and gave her a wink and a huge, genuine smile. One that said to how happy he was with her.

“…I implore you…try. Try. Try to make the world a better place.”

Nick’s smile got a little bigger.

“Look inside yourself and recognize that change starts with you. It starts with me. It starts with all of us.”

That line made Judy reflect briefly on her own changes in the last 9 months, since she’d first joined the police force. She’d gone in believing everything was going to go the way she’d dreamed, only to be slapped with harsh reality. And prejudice, something she thought herself above, but even she wasn’t immune to. Her first days with Nick, and her words at the press conference were proof of that.

Judy, still in thought, moved off to the side of the podium, allowing the polar bear major to take her place to call the names of the graduates. Normally, this would be the mayor, but with the city in political strife and the newly-instated mayor Peter Clawheed unavailable, it fell to the chief instructor instead.

The rabbit doe took a deep breath and let it out, ignoring the applause from the audience at the conclusion of her speech, and picked up the box with the first badge in it. The easy part. It took Judy a bit to figure out how to pin the badges on the larger mammals, but she found that jumping up on the podium first solved that issue. 19 badges pinned and only one to go

Nick’s badge. He’d done it, just like she knew he would, and now he was her partner. The polar bear began to speak.

“If anyone had told me 15 months ago that a rabbit and a fox would make some of the best academy graduates I had ever seen, I’d have laughed at you and told you to do 100 crunches and 100 push-ups, and an extra 5-mile run. But times change. Mammals change. And it always comes when you are least expecting it. So, it’s my honour to introduce this year’s valedictorian, the first fox graduate we’ve ever had. Nicholas Wilde.”

Judy locked her gaze on the fox as he walked from his seat and onto the stage. As he approached her, she opened the felt-lined box with the felt cushion and his name tag and badge inside. On the shield, the words “Trust, Integrity, Bravery.”

“I, Nicholas Wilde, promise to be brave, loyal, helpful, and trustworthy.”

Nick would finally get the chance to honour the pledge he’d made so many years ago on that ill-fated night. And she promised herself she’d help him every step of the way. Removing the shield from the case, she walked up to him. The smile on his muzzle was even bigger than the one on her own. Pinning the badge to his chest felt like she was giving him something of his that he’d lost.

And when she saluted him, the smile threatened to split his face in two when he returned the gesture. She could see the pure joy and happiness in his eyes, but what was the other thing? She could see something else in his eyes when he looked at her…but what?

The noise of the suddenly celebrating graduates drowned out any further thought on that matter, and the two startled mammals turned to look at the audience. Peaked caps flew, and the elephants trumpeted the completion of the harrowing ordeal of the ZPD academy.

As the celebrations continued, the two smallest officers wandered about the crowd, looking for the one other mammal that Nick wanted to see today. She would be heading back to Zootopia in the afternoon, while Nick and Judy planned to stay until the early evening.

They finally spotted her, closing the distance between them in a heartbeat, gathering her son into her arms. Judy had to fight to hold back tears. After Nick had told her about the falling out he’d had with her, and how they had not spoken in 15 years, she had decided to look Marian Wilde up and see if she could help them mend that relationship.

The rabbit doe had felt a little bad about going behind Nick’s back, but seeing the result before her eyes right now, she felt it was all worth it. Now, a mother and a son were reunited.

“Look at you, Nicky.” The vixen smoothed over the creases in Nick’s uniform. The look of love in her eyes could not be described. “I’m so proud of you. Your father would be proud too.”

Normally, when it came to emotion, Nick just put up a set of walls and a grin. Not this time. For the fox that spent the last 15 years on the streets, Judy knew that the only mammals that were allowed to see any sort of emotion from him were those he trusted implicitly. The rabbit’s tears finally fell when Nick’s own eyes welled up, and he pulled his mother back in for a hug.

Judy stood off to the side for a while, until Marian looked up and opened one arm for her and beckoned her in, to which the rabbit happily obliged. The three stood there for a long while, just enjoying the embrace.

When they finally separated, the three elected to take a walk around the grounds, away from the clamour of the celebrating mammals. Judy felt a bit like a third fiddle, this being one of the few times she knew Nick would get with his mother. After a while, she excused herself from the conversation, knowing that this was time they needed alone.

After a moment of walking in silence, Marian spoke up.

“She seems like a very nice mammal.”

Nick looked back in the direction Judy had gone. “Yeah…”

The vixen grinned. “You like her, don’t you?”

Nick couldn’t help the smile that graced his muzzle. “Yeah, I do.”

His mother’s grin turned predatory, before Nick realized what he’d just said. “I mean as a friend! Not THAT way! Besides, even if I did like her THAT way, and I’m not saying I do, she’s a rabbit, and I’m a fox. There’s no way she’d like a fox THAT way.”

The vixen rubbed her son’s back. “There’s no shame in it Nicky. I can tell you have feelings for her. Whether or not she’s a fox shouldn’t matter. Let her decide for herself if that matters to her.”

The fox sighed. “She saved my life, in more ways than one. She believed in me when no one else would. And she’s the nicest mammal I’ve ever met. How could I not love her?”

It was several hours later, after things had calmed down, that the pair found themselves at the local bar at the “official unofficial” after-grad party. Judy had skipped hers when she’d graduated, so she was taking the opportunity to enjoy the atmosphere.

Originally, she’d been adamantly opposed to any sort of alcohol, but after the night howler conspiracy, Nick had brought her to one of the bars in Savannah Central. Over time, she’d learned the importance of just taking a load off, loosening up, and enjoying the company of her friends and co-workers without the responsibilities of the job.

And on one particularly embarrassing night, the importance and value of controlling her alcohol consumption.

For now, though, she could just kick back and relax for a few hours before Nick, Marian, and herself would all pile into Marian’s car for the trip back to the city. Nick had introduced them to his dorm mate, a cheetah named Arnie Pawson who had been in a different unit and was now assigned to the rainforest district, and was busy regaling the three of them with the tales of his time in the academy, though the bunny suspected he was conveniently leaving out some of the less flattering details.

“So, anyway, here we are, first day on the obstacle course, and Trunkson has never been outside Savannah Central. And he gets to the Tundratown portion of the course and just stops. And slowly walks to the wall and tries to climb up. But you know, slippery ice, new experience, big elephant. He came down in that lake so hard he broke the refrigeration pipes underneath. It took them a week to fix it.”

The rabbit and vixen got a good chuckle out of the story. As they were starting to calm down, Nick’s mother hit him with a look. Evidently, she had reached the same conclusion as Judy.

“So how about you? Any embarrassing tales about yourself that you’d like to relate?”

Nick’s hustler’s grin was evident on his face as he responded. “Nope! Pure class from front to back, Mom! No embarrassing stories here!”

Judy was about to object when a fourth voice broke in to the conversation. “That’s not how I remember it, Redtail Wannabe.”

The three looked up to see Major Ursula Friedkin and Chief Bogo staring down at their table, the former with an amused expression and the latter with his characteristic stoic look.

Judy saw her opportunity. “Oh? Do tell, Major. I need some good teasing material.”

The major’s expression turned almost evil. “Oh, you just have to ask me. I have enough material for you for a year or two. Anyway. So, academy training, day 4. Our fox friend is running the obstacle course. And he might have been doing quite well, if he wasn’t gloating the entire way. So, he goes through the sandstorm, the ice wall, the canals, the rock climb, and the pine forest just fine, and he gets to the rainforest section.”

“Of course, he’s gloating the entire way. And just as he’s in the middle of the climbing frame, he slips and falls, but instead of hitting the muck, he grabs Howly’s tail instead, and pulls him off too, along with Pawsovich. I still don’t know how, but in the end, he had himself and 10 of his classmates in the muck.”

The vixen and rabbit were laughing at this point, and polar bear turned her attention on the fox, who was exceptionally glad his fur was red in the first place. “It’s the first time I’ve ever had to call a multiple death on that training course.”

Now the fox wished he could dig a hole in the seat and crawl in.

The afternoon wore on, and Judy told Nick of the increasing riots and protests in the city, what to expect come Monday morning and his first time in the bullpen hot seat. Both were looking forward to their first day on the job together, wondering what assignments they would get. Patrol? Speed trap? Maybe something more exciting like a Nip raid?

The trio were just thinking about heading back to the city, when Nick happened to glance over at another table. Bogo and several other precinct chiefs had nabbed a booth and we’re talking amongst themselves. But what was REALLY interesting was how close Major Friedkin was sitting to Bogo. Almost touching hips. How interesting. Nick nudged the rabbit next to him, and discreetly pointed out the scene.

After a moment, the fox leaned over to the rabbit and whispered, “Think they are an item? The Ice Queen and Buffalo Butt?”

“I’ve never seen Friedkin outside the academy, but I suppose it’s possible. I’d honestly rather not think about my boss’s love life, though.”

Nick’s smirk was evident. “What would we call them anyway? You know, how when movie fans think two mammals should be a couple they come up with a nickname for them? So, what would theirs be? Fried Bogo?”

The rabbit burst into laughter. She loved how Nick could easily make her laugh. Still, she had to punish him for that remark. She punched Nick’s shoulder.

“OUCH! Damnit, Carrots, I need that arm for work. Your super bunny muscles are going to punch it right off!”

The rabbit snickered. “Oh, come off it, you big baby, it wasn’t that hard.”

Actually, it had hurt, quite a bit. The fox spent the next five minutes rubbing the very sore spot on his arm. Nick knew Judy was far stronger than she looked. She had to be to compensate for her species’ small stature in a very physically demanding profession dominated by much larger mammals.

The party wound down as evening wore on. Marian left early, taking Nick’s belongings home with her. After learning that Nick was living in a literal box under a bridge, she set him back up in his old room until he could find a place of his own. Personally, Nick hoped that that wouldn’t be a long process.

A few of Nick’s classmates came by to wish him good luck, but the majority didn’t bother. Some distrustful and jealous looks told Judy that there was a good chance that they didn’t think a fox could uphold the virtues emblazoned on their badges, or they were jealous of him being assigned to the prestigious precinct one.

It was close to 8 PM when Arnie called it quits and hailed a cab to take him to his girlfriend’s house, a few miles out of town. They’d be moving to Zootopia together, the latter taking a job at the Zootopia national bank in the Rainforest District, where Arnie was now assigned as an officer.

Meanwhile, Judy and Nick meandered over to the train station, taking a longer route than they normally would, just enjoying the ambience and the company of their best friend. Judy broke the silence.

“You did it, Nick. Just like I knew you would.”

The fox smiled at the bunny beside him. “I couldn’t have done it without you, Carrots.”

The bunny shook her head, disagreeing. “Yes, you could have, Nick. You had this in you all along.”

Nick looked at her, the bunny he was in love with. The way the street lights and the moon reflected off her eyes, the way her ears stood erect, twitching, turning occasionally to take in a sound he couldn’t hear. The smile on her muzzle and the slight bounce in her step as they walked. The scent of her was intoxicating to the fox, clean, and yet at the same time, all Judy. Her movements entranced him. Her voice hypnotized him. The fox shook himself out of his stupor. Maybe in the confines of mind he could be with her, but there was no way he would jeopardize the closest friendship he’d ever had.

“Maybe so, fluff. But without you, I wouldn’t have had someone to believe in me.”

The two arrived at the station, and purchased their tickets just in time to board the train. The journey back to Zootopia, was a quiet one, the two finding a seat in the second carriage, and settling in for the journey. The rocking motion lulled the fox into an easy sleep, his dreams dominated by a single gray rabbit. Unbeknownst to him, however, the rabbit in question had taken the opportunity to snuggle in

close to him, breathing in his own scent, before the rabbit found herself on a journey to dreamland as well.

No one caught the pop-culture reference in the last chapter! Can you find any in this one?

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