Chapter 16 – Backyard Scrap

Nick watched Judy and Julian leave the dining room, a ball of dread building in the pit of his stomach. “It was foolish to think you could just waltz into Judy’s family home and everything would be okay.” He contemplated whether it would be better for him to head back to the city, leave Judy to spend the weekend with her family. He had his keys to their apartment in his bag, and he was pretty sure his mom had nothing planned. He could catch up with her, maybe even Finnick too. The fennec fox had sent him a letter a few weeks back, letting him know that Judy seemed to be doing fine. She was anything but fine now.

Rubbing his face with his paws, Nick shakily exhaled. He was used to being called names, used to having stereotypes about his species thrown at him. He’d grown a thicker skin over the years, learned to mask the hurt with a lazy grin and witty one-liner, hustle the unsuspecting mammal into thinking he wasn’t bothered. This was no hustle though. This was Judy’s family.

Jasmine watched the fox as she descended the staircase, his distress evident. “Julian you idiot, what’ve you done?” She crossed the room, sliding into Judy’s vacant seat. Her sister had trusted her with this task, and her parents had trusted her to help them get Judy and Nick together. She wasn’t going to let any of them down. “Julian’s always been a little overbearing, don’t worry about it.”

Familiar with the voice and scent of the doe next to him, Nick dropped his paws, plastering on his trademark lazy smile, masking his emotions. “I’m not worried. I’m as cool as a cucumber.”

Jasmine shook her head. The fox might think he was smart, that he could trick her into thinking he was okay, but Jasmine wasn’t a fool. Her parents had briefed her quickly on the tod when they’d recruited her, and though they didn’t know much, they’d passed along some tidbits from their dinner with his mom. Nick wasn’t experienced in dealing with his emotions, and he masked his feelings with humor. “I don’t know who told you that you’re a good liar, but they need firing, and you need acting lessons.”

Lifting a paw to point at himself, Nick kept his smile firmly in place. He’d hustled many mammals in his life. Nick was excellent at it. At least he had been, until Judy. He was probably a little rusty now. “I’ll have you know I’m an excellent actor.”

“Yeah, and I’m the Queen of Bunnyburrow.” Jasmine shot back, shaking her head at the fox. He was amusing, but his inability to be honest about his feelings concerned her. She needed him to feel comfortable enough to open up to Judy, confess that he loved her. She’d need to work away at him a little more.

“If the crown fits.” Nick shrugged.

“Oh, it fits all right. Queens also don’t take mammals nonsense. You don’t have to pretend to be okay, Nick. I might not be Judy, but you can be yourself around me. You don’t have to try and win me over. I already like you. You can be my personal spy and tell me embarrassing stories about Ju’s adventures in the city.” Jasmine started to chip away at the armor Nick hid behind. She didn’t want to push her luck too much, didn’t want to risk frightening him off, so she finished with a touch of lightness.

“No embarrassing stories yet, I’m afraid. I’ll work on that though.” Nick offered the doe a smile, appreciating her openness. Though he didn’t know her well, he felt a little at ease around her already. Not comfortable enough to open up and tell her his life story, that level of comfort was reserved for Judy, but he could chat to her about this. “I didn’t want to cause any problems.”

Jasmine figured it was difficult for the tod to be around her family. He was like the proverbial cat amongst the pigeons. While some of her siblings would see him as fascinating and non-threatening, like Sasha did, others would see him as nothing more than his stereotypes. “I wouldn’t worry about it. Most of us ignore Julian’s antics. Like I said, he has always been overbearing. You mean the world to Jude, Nick. Don’t let Julian get to you. He’ll come around.” Nodding towards his plate, she stood. “Eat up. Jude spent an hour in the supermarket picking out the best piece of fish for you, and then spent all afternoon cooking.” Jasmine wasn’t afraid to sing her sister praise, let the fox know just how much Judy cared for him. With one last smile to the tod, she left him, heading back to the kitchen to help her mom.

Nick was still worried about Judy, nervous about what was currently going on between her and Julian. Knowing that worrying wasn’t going to get him anywhere, Nick turned his attention back to his dinner. Judy had worked hard cooking for him. It would be criminal for him not to try it. Knife and fork in paw he started to eat.

Judy reached for the back door, opening it for her brother. Julian had forced her paw and though she didn’t want to get into a fight with him, didn’t want to trade verbal barbs, Judy knew that it was the only way to get it through her brother’s thick skull that Nick was here to stay, that he was important to her. Julian needed to pull his head out of his tail, and Judy was more than happy to assist.

Julian passed his sister, crossing the back porch and taking the four small steps down to the grassy expanse behind the family warren. He didn’t want them to have this conversation on the porch, too many prying eyes and ears. He didn’t get very far, though.

Following her brother down the steps, Judy shot out a leg; hind paw catching her brother’s ankle, sending him sprawling onto the grass. The light thud as he hit the ground was satisfying.

Julian hadn’t expected Judy to get physical. They had fought as kits, playfully trying to pin the other, but his sister had never taken him down with any real intent before. Surprised, and experiencing a little pain from landing on the solid ground, Julian rolled over, springing up onto his hind paws. Ego and body a little bruised, he glared at his sister. “What the hell was that for?”

Incredulous, Judy wafted her arms through the air, paws splayed, unable to even comprehend her brother’s stupidity as she closed the distance between them. “For being rude to Nick! Jeez, Julian, you might as well of pulled a taser on him. There was no need for that.”

“Don’t tempt me,” Julian warned. He knew his dad had thrown out the fox taser they’d kept in the house since Judy’s departure, but he could pick another one up quickly.

Fury poured through Judy’s veins and her paws clenched at her side. She’d promised Nick no one would hurt him, and she always kept her promises. “You dare pull a taser on Nick, or any sort of anti-fox device, and I will beat you into the ground.”

“You wouldn’t” Julian was confident his sister wouldn’t lay a paw on him.

Judy didn’t even bother dignifying her brother with a verbal answer. He was so sure she wouldn’t start something that Judy wanted to prove him wrong. Light on her hind paws she crouched, shooting forward to grab at his legs, hoisting him up and then shifting her weight sideways, tackling him to the ground. Paw to paw combat at been part of her ZPD training.

Julian hit the ground with another thud, but this time he was winded. Gasping, he tried to pull in as much air as possible. Judy was fast, and he knew he wasn’t going to win in a fair fight. She was a cop and had been trained to fight. Thankfully, Julian had never liked to play fair. Paws finding Judy’s ears he yanked sharply. Judy squealed, pain shooting through her body as her ears were tugged. It gave Julian the chance to flip them. Pinning Judy beneath him, Julian sat all his weight across his sister. He went for her arms, trying to lock them to her sides so she wouldn’t be able to fight back, so she’d be forced to listen to him. Judy was faster, though. Grabbing her brother’s paws, she twisted them to an unnatural angle. Julian squealed, shocked by his sister’s willingness to play dirty too. With her brother distracted, Judy was able to overpower him, flipping them again.

“I’ve taken down rhino’s, Julian. You don’t want to fight me.” Judy hissed, trying to talk her brother down, wanting him to give in. The buck was having none of it. On his back beneath his sister, pinned and without the use of his paws, Julian lifted a hind paw, bringing his knee sharply and squarely into Judy’s lower back. The action made his sister let go of him, squeaking in pain as her paws shot to her back. He threw her off him, grabbing her in a headlock before she had the chance to regain her composure.

He didn’t want to fight her, he didn’t want to hurt her, but she needed to understand. Julian was worried about her, concerned for her. Foxes were known to be untrustworthy; there was a reason for stereotypes. His sister was giving the fox everything, trusting him with everything, and Julian just knew that somewhere down the line he’d hurt her. Somewhere along the line he’d abandon her, leave her with a broken heart, crushed dreams, and probably an empty bank account. He couldn’t understand why she trusted him so much. A fox had mauled her when she’d been a kit. They were dangerous. Judy was already living a dangerous life as a cop in the city, risking her life every day for mammals she didn’t know. Judy didn’t need any more danger in her life. He didn’t want to see his sister traipse home in a few months’ time, ears droopy and suitcase in paw, broken-hearted because her best friend had turned out to be fraud. She was too good, too sweet. He couldn’t let that happen to her.

Physical fights weren’t something Judy liked to get involved in. Where possible, she preferred conversation and discussion to brute strength, but her brothers’ thick skull made it hard for her to get through to him with words just how much his actions in the dining room had hurt. He hadn’t just hurt her, she could live with that after all, but he’d hurt Nick too. Julian didn’t even know Nick, hadn’t even uttered a word to the tod before he’d picked on him. Judy knew that some of her siblings might not like Nick, and she’d been expecting some hostility, but she hadn’t expected it from Julian. Jasmine had accepted Nick with no questions asked; their mom and dad had accepted him too. Why did Julian have to be difficult? Judy knew what she was doing; she wasn’t some dumb kit anymore who needed her paw holding. She knew life with Nick would be tough at times; that he could break her heart and tear her down, but it was a risk she was willing to take.

Trapped in a headlock, Judy wiggled, finding a little free room. She used it to her advantage, striking quickly. Teeth sinking into her brother’s arm, she soon found herself free.

“You bit me!” Julian squawked. He couldn’t believe Judy had resorted to such playground tactics. She hadn’t drawn blood, but he could see the imprint of her teeth in his fur.

Both of them up on their hind paws, Judy wanted it all to end. Reaching for her brother she grabbed his shoulders, pushing against him to try and take him down. Julian was strong though, and he pushed back, the siblings grappling. Judy’s training gave her an edge, and she used Julian’s own weight against him. As he struggled against her, trying to stay upright, Judy switched tactics. Pulling her brother towards her, she threw one of her legs out, sweeping it around his ankle and yanking it forward.

Julian fell, unable to stop his momentum as he tumbled. With Julian on his front, sprawled on the ground, Judy pinned her brother down; twisting his arms behind his back as if he were a perp. “I can’t believe you, Julian. I never thought you’d so nasty to another mammal.” She forced more of her weight on her brother.

Thrashing beneath Judy, Julian knew he’d lost. Judy had a tight grip on him, all her weight on his back, thighs squeezing his hips to keep him from moving too much, arms twisted behind him. He was helpless. “You brought a fox into our home, Judy, how the hell did you think everyone was going to react?” Julian snapped, shoulders slumping as he realized he wasn’t going to get out of this hold unless Judy wanted him to. “Damn cop training.”

“He’s not a fox, Julian. He’s Nick. He’s my best friend, my roomie, and soon he’s going to my partner on the force. I expected more from my littermate.” Judy sniffed, trying not to get too emotional. Letting go of her brother she stood up. Her knees had grass stains on them, and her hind paws hurt, but thankfully her beautiful dress wasn’t damaged.

Free from Judy’s grasp, Julian hauled himself up too, grunting as pain flared in his chest from her last takedown. He was covered in grass stains, and he had a feeling he’d be sporting some serious bruises tomorrow. “None of us know him, and you expect us to be kind to him? That’s some poor logic. How do we know he’s not preying on you and using you? How do we know he’s not going to abandon you as soon as he’s got himself set up? How do we know Nick’s not going to break your heart when he walks away once he’s got everything he’s after? You’re too attached to him. Josh and Jackie will agree with me.” He rounded on Judy, finding her stood with her arms over her chest, posture defensive. Jasmine had already decided Nick was okay and Julian thought it was irresponsible of her to make her mind up so quickly. Josh and Jackie would join them tomorrow at the fair and Julian would be sure to bring them up to speed.

“You didn’t even try to get to know him, Julian! You wrote him off immediately.” Judy shot back, exasperated. Paws flailing she growled at her brother. “Nick doesn’t open up too quickly; you have to be patient with him. He isn’t using me, and he’s not going to abandon me.” She shook her head, hurt by her brother’s misguided beliefs. Her left paw reached for her right wrist, for the bracelet that still sat there. The reactions from her canine friends, and the perp she and Wolford had had the displeasure of arresting, was enough proof for her that her bracelet was unique, that it meant something. She was going to get answers this weekend, but she knew in her heart that Nick wouldn’t abandon her. He wouldn’t give her something so important otherwise. “Jasmine likes him just fine, and I’m sure Josh and Jackie will too. You’re just difficult.”

“You don’t know that he won’t abandon you, and when he does who’s going to be left to pick up the pieces? That’s right, us. Mom and dad, Jasmine and Jackie, Josh and I. He’s going to hurt you, and I love you too much to let that happen.” Julian knew that Judy saw the best in everyone and that she wasn’t willing to see that mammals could be cruel and use one another. He didn’t want his sister to be used, he didn’t want his sister to be hurt and have her heart broken. There was a reason foxes were seen as sly and untrustworthy. Stereotypes weren’t plucked out of thin air.

“If you loved me you’d let me make my own decisions.” Judy shook her head sadly. “See this?” She lifted her wrist, pushing her cardigan sleeve up to show Julian her bracelet. “This is a canine token of affection. It’s a pretty big deal. Every canine I’ve met has reacted to it. They’re rare these days. The gifting of one is a ridiculously old tradition that goes back centuries. The two charms symbolize how Nick and I met. Nick gave me this on my birthday, Julian. If he didn’t care, if he was just using me, why would he give me something so meaningful?” Judy tried to get her brother to see reason, sought to make him understand that Nick wasn’t like other mammals.

“To lull you into a false sense of security! You don’t see it because you’re on the inside.” Julian grew exasperated with his sister. She was in too deep, too entangled with the fox. She needed to step away from him, make some new friends, preferably some doe’s that would help her and guide her, find her a nice buck that wouldn’t hurt her.

“There’s nothing to see! Nick isn’t using me. You can’t judge my relationship with him based on the ten minutes or so that you saw us interact.” Judy raged. Julian had only seen them sitting together at the dinner table. He hadn’t seen them embracing on train station platforms, hadn’t seen them in the gallery together on her birthday, and he sure as hell hadn’t seen how they were when they were at home, just the two of them, able to be open and honest with one another, completely vulnerable.

“He called you Carrots. He insulted you!” Julian didn’t need to see any more of Judy’s relationship with the fox. He’d heard plenty from his family and seen enough of their interactions to make his mind up about the state of their friendship.

Groaning in frustration, Judy rested her head on her paws. She couldn’t believe how stupid her brother was being. Lifting her head, she informed her brother that she actually liked the nicknames. “They’re not insults, Julian, cripes! He calls me Fluff too, and I love it. I love every time he uses one of those stupid nicknames because I know he says them with nothing short of fondness, regardless of what you believe.”

Fondness. It was the weakest line Julian had ever heard. You didn’t give someone a patronizing nickname out of fondness. You would call them something like sweetheart or darling, not Carrots or Fluff. “I’ve heard stories from mom and dad. You let him live with you, and he’s not even paying rent, you have to pay for everything, and you’re working three jobs to make ends meet. You helped him get into the training program with the ZPD, too. Without you, he’d have none of that. He’s slacking, letting you do all the work.” Julian didn’t want the fox to take advantage of his sister’s kind heart. Judy would run herself into the ground. There’d been a long standing saying in their family that Judy would give any mammal the shirt off her back, even if it were all that she owned.

“You think you know everything because of a few stories from mom and dad? Nick’s at the academy, Julian! He can’t go out and work to pay rent. Stop being so dumb. He’s begged me to stop working three jobs, but I told him no, I want to earn as much money as possible before he graduates, so we have a slush fund for rainy days.” Judy had opened up another bank account to store the extra funds in, keeping them separate from her wages. When Nick graduated, he’d have to come with her to the bank, to get his name on the paperwork so he’d have access to the account too. “But if you really want to talk about work, then how about this. Nick’s family owned a successful tailoring business in Zootopia, so successful in fact that predator kits are taught about it in school to this day. There are hundreds of Zoogle results for his family, maybe you should do some reading for once.” She couldn’t resist the barb, still smarting from her brother’s mean jibe at how she’d returned home after the press conference catastrophe.

Judy didn’t want to air Nick’s secret’s, he’d trusted her with them, but Julian needed to know the truth, needed to see Nick as she did, understand why she did as much as she could for the tod. He deserved happiness, and if Judy could help him achieve it then she’d give her last breath for it. “Nick was seven when his dad was murdered, locking up their family business for the night. The ZPD has never caught the mammal that did it, but they think his father was killed either because he was a fox or because he stood up for pred rights. At seven years old Nick found out his dad had been murdered. Can you imagine what it would be like to lose our dad? Can you imagine what our kithood would’ve been like without him?” Judy played on her brothers’ emotions, forced him to think about what she was saying and to try and imagine what life was like for Nick.

“Not only did Nick have to grieve his father and Marian had to mourn her husband, but they also struggled financially, and their tailoring business collapsed. The money dried up, debtors were knocking on their door. When Nick was twelve he moved out, lived on the streets and did whatever he could to make some money, all of which he sent home to his mom. He lived on the streets, Julian. Can you imagine Poppy living on the streets of the big city? Can you imagine what it would be like, to be so young and alone, to be so afraid, having to put on a brave face? To not know whether some mammal is going to attack you simply because of your species? The animals in the city are just as mean, if not meaner, than the ones out here towards foxes. I’ve witnessed it first hand. I contributed to the problem when I carried about that stupid fox repellent that dad bought.” Judy used the example of their twelve-year-old sister to drill the point him.

“Nick has spent the past twenty years, twenty years Julian, working every damn day to make enough money so that his mom could live comfortably, at the cost of his own happiness and wellbeing. He hasn’t had the luxury of a day off, hasn’t had the luxury of being able to have nice things like we have. Nick didn’t have a home to go back to at the end of the day for goodness sake, he didn’t have somewhere safe and warm to sleep. He could’ve been hurt, attacked by another mammal, and no one would’ve known. He was cold and alone on the streets, but he powered through because he needed to take care of his mom.” Judy purposefully omitted the fact that Nick had slept in a box under her bridge. She could remember the shame on his handsome face, back in his childhood bedroom, when Judy had figured out his living arrangements. It wasn’t her place to reveal that much information about Nick to her brother.

“You know, he often went without food. Didn’t eat for days at a time to try and save every last nickel. He still struggles with eating now because he’s so used to not doing it. I have to keep reminding him to eat, and every time I do it breaks my heart because he should have an appetite like a horse. It’s why I’m learning how to cook fish and bugs, how to make food as interesting as possible for him.” It was the one thing that upset her the most about Nick’s past. Judy had grown up in a house where there was always food available, where she could eat whenever she felt hungry. It had helped her, and her siblings, grow strong and healthy. She always worried that Nick would one day develop problems associated with a lack of nutrition – a weakened immune system, heart disease, osteoporosis, the list went on. Judy had made it her personal mission to make sure he ate well every day for the rest of his life.

“He didn’t have anyone to turn to, he had no friends. He couldn’t turn to his mom because he had to stay strong for her, so he’s had no one supporting him for twenty years, no one offering him a shoulder to cry on, no one listening to him. He built up all these walls to try and protect himself, shoved all his emotions into a box in a desperate attempt to stay sane and never let anyone see that they got to him. I’ve been doing my best to tear down the walls and coax out the real Nick, the one suppressed for twenty years, and I’m getting somewhere. I’m making progress with him. He’s smiling and laughing more, he’s more affectionate with me, and he opens up to me about damn near everything now. He trusts me. Then you come along and throw unfounded accusations at him, to his face, and accuse him of things he hasn’t even done, use speciest slurs against him. You’re not helping, Julian.” Worked up, Judy hadn’t even noticed that she was crying, hadn’t felt the warm tears sliding down her cheeks, soaking her fur. Her ears had drooped during her speech. Knowing everything Nick had been through was why Judy worked so hard for him, why she’d taken on Catstro, why she did everything in her power to make him feel comfortable, safe, and loved.

“I know that you’re acting like this out of some misguided but well-intentioned notion of protecting me, of keeping me safe and away from any heartbreak, but I’m willing to risk my all for him. Nick is the most important mammal in my life. Did mom and dad tell you the story of when I gambled my badge on the night howler case? Chief Bogo gave me 48 hours to find a missing otter, and I blackmailed Nick into helping me. He was my only lead, and he was a pain in my tail, but when Chief Bogo demanded my badge, with ten hours still to go of my allotted time, Nick stepped up. I was about to hand over my badge, and you know how much it means to me, how hard I worked for it, when Nick stepped forward. He told Chief Bogo that I wasn’t going to hand it over and that we had ten hours left, that we were going to solve the case. Nick saved my job, Julian. He didn’t have to, but he did. He’s a good mammal, the absolute best.” The conviction in Judy’s tone left no room for argument.

“If you can’t accept that then so be it, but you will not talk down to him and belittle him, you will not make him feel like he’s unwelcome here. He’s my guest, and if you make him feel so uncomfortable that he wants to leave then I’m going with him, and I won’t come back.” Judy threw down her ultimatum, hoping it would be enough to make her brother realize that she wouldn’t stand for any more insults against Nick, that if Nick went then so did she. It was a little extreme, threatening to never come home again, and Judy wasn’t sure if she’d even be able to follow through with it, but she needed Julian to see just how serious she was.

Julian had never seen his sister like this before. He’d never seen her so passionate, so driven, so emotionally invested in another mammal. She was crying and the sight of her tears hurt Julian’s heart. Judy had given him an awful lot of new information, information that made him question his initial reaction and judgment of the fox. Julian found himself overwhelmed, wondering if perhaps he’d jumped the gun a little. He only wanted what was best for his sister; he only wanted her to be happy and safe, loved and valued. Julian adored her, they’d shared their mother’s womb, grown up together, had done everything together. It was ingrained in his very being to keep her safe and ensure she was happy. Julian battled with his conflicting emotions, his need to protect his sister and the realization that trying to force her away from Nick would only lead to pain for her. He was stuck between a rock and a hard place. He didn’t know what to do. Underneath it all though, he came to a very sobering realization. “You’re in love with him.”

Julian’s voice was soft, no trace of anger or resentment. He was stating a fact, and though Judy’s silence would be enough confirmation for him she took a deep breath, exhaling slowly. Meeting the eyes of her brother, she nodded. “Yes. I am.”

The confirmation came as no surprise to Julian, but it left him with a few more questions. “Why?”

“Why what?” Judy asked, not entirely following her brothers’ line of thinking.

“Why him and not some buck?” There was no heat to Julian’s voice, no aggression or demanding. He was genuinely curious. Their mom had sent plenty of suitable bucks Judy’s way; Julian himself had even sent some of his friends to her. Billy and George would be disappointed that they wouldn’t be getting second dates.

A million reasons ran through Judy’s mind, and she couldn’t just pick one. There was something about Nick that called out to her, something that drew her to him, like a moth to a flame. “I could stand here all night and tell you why, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll say this. I love him because he accepts me just the way I am. He doesn’t try to change me, doesn’t try to make me into someone I’m not. He treats me like an equal, lets me make my own choices and supports me regardless. He’s given me his all, and I’m giving him my all in return.”

Judy had never been in love before and Julian knew that. The thought of his sister falling in love was foreign to him. She’d been so focused on her career, so focused on making the world a better place that Julian had long ago assumed her only love was for the ZPD. However, Julian knew there was a difference between love and lust. Was Judy merely lusting after the fox? Was she confident that what she was feeling was love? He sought clarification. “Are you sure you love him?”

“Is the grass green?” Judy quipped.

“What?” Her question made the buck frown, confusion painting his features.

“I thought we were asking one another stupid questions. I love him, Julian. Nothing you say or do will change that.” Though Judy wanted her brother to approve, wanted all of her family to support her, she wouldn’t let them stop her from living her life. She wasn’t a kit anymore; she didn’t need to be tied to her family’s apron strings.

Julian swallowed, thoughts scattered and ideas shattered. It was a lot to take in. He couldn’t imagine living on the streets at twelve years old, couldn’t imagine spending twenty years being homeless, going days without food. “I need some time.” He told Judy, finding the violet eyes he knew like the back of his paw.

Judy didn’t know whether to count her conversation with Julian as a small victory, but she knew she’d at least given him some food for thought. That was all that mattered. After all, her gran had once told her that you could lead a horse to water, but you couldn’t make it drink. “I’m sorry for throwing you around, it wasn’t kind.” She extended the olive branch.

“I’m sorry too. I shouldn’t have said everything I did about you at the dinner table.” Julian accepted the olive branch, meeting his sister halfway. He knew it had been rude, to criticize his sister when his problem had been with Nick. The fox had pulled him up on it, defended Judy. Julian reasoned that if the tod were prepared to stand up to her family for her, he’d stand up to strangers too.

“It’s okay.” Judy offered her brother forgiveness. He hadn’t meant to hurt her, not intentionally anyway.

Nodding, Julian glanced out at the land behind the warren, into the field of crops that had been harvested in preparation for the fair and the market. Night had settled in, but Julian felt like he needed some air, some time to think. “I won’t say anything to anyone, I promise, but I’m going for a walk. If I don’t see you before bed, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Relieved Julian wouldn’t go around blabbing, Judy nodded. “Okay. Night, Juli.” She murmured, turning to make her way slowly to the back door. Nick was probably wondering where she was, and he probably needed rescuing from her younger siblings.

Julian watched his sister leave; brain a mess of information and his heart hurting. He hadn’t meant to upset her, to make her feel like she couldn’t be comfortable in their family warren. He hadn’t realized just how important Nick was to her. “Night Ju.”

 “Mister Nick.” Sasha had been quiet for most of their meal, but as Nick was nearly finished, she spoke up, curious eyes on what was left of the fish on his plate.

Indulging the small kit, and needing another distraction now that he was nearly done eating, he turned his gaze to the bunny by his side. “Yes Cinnamon?”

“Why do you eat fish?” Sasha lifted her gaze from the food to Nick’s eyes. She’d finished her bowl of salad and rice, and it had only just occurred to her that Nick hadn’t had the same dinner. Did he not like salad? If he were living with Judy then he’d have to eat lots of it.

“Well, you know how you’re a prey mammal?” Nick didn’t want the conversation to sway too far into the differences between their species, and he didn’t want to scare the poor kit away by discussing the fact that he needed fish and bugs to survive, seeing as how his species no longer felt the need to eat hers. He watched as Sasha nodded. “I’m a predator, and I need to eat fish to stay healthy, just like you need to eat your greens to stay healthy.”

Sasha mulled it over for a moment. Nick’s explanation made sense. Her mamma was always telling her to eat her greens, or she wouldn’t grow up to be a big and strong rabbit. Feeling brave, Sasha glanced back to the fish. “Can I try some, please?” She’d never eaten fish before; her mamma had never cooked it either. It smelt a little funny, and it looked a little odd, but Sasha was curious about its taste.

Though Nick found it adorable that the small bunny wanted to try his food, he wasn’t entirely comfortable letting her try some. He didn’t know what it would do to her, whether it would make her unwell or not, and he could only imagine the outrage from Bonnie and Stu if his actions led to Sasha becoming sick. He would need to do some more research into it. Reluctantly, he denied her request. “It might make you unwell Cinnamon, and I don’t want to risk you getting sick.”

“Oh.” Sasha couldn’t stop her pout. She’d really wanted to try Nick’s food, but it probably wasn’t worth her getting sick. Her mamma wouldn’t be pleased if she missed the weekend because she was ill. “Oh well. I’ll stick to my salad and rice.” She shrugged, idly playing with her cutlery now that her bowl was empty.

Relieved that Sasha hadn’t had a meltdown over his refusal, Nick put the last piece of fish in his mouth. The meal had been excellent, on par with his mom’s cooking. Nick couldn’t cook to save his life, years on the street meaning he hadn’t had the chance to practice. Perhaps he could learn now that they had a well-stocked kitchen in their apartment. Judy could make his dinner, and Nick could make hers. He knew he still had issues when it came to food, but perhaps being more involved in the kitchen would help.

Movement in the corner of his eye caught Nick’s attention, and he turned, watching as Judy came down the staircase. Julian was nowhere to be seen. Tail flicking up as he watched Judy re-enter the dining room, he frowned as she disappeared down one of the hallways. “You should probably go to Ju-Ju, Mister Nick.” Sasha had watched her sister’s return too. Judy looked sad. Sasha knew her sister smiled more when Nick was around.

“Yeah, you’re right. I’ll be back soon.” Nick stood, stepping over the bench seat, thoughts entirely centered on his favorite bunny. As he crossed the room Nick noted several sets of eyes watching him – some belonging to the kits he’d met earlier, and some belonging to Judy’s older siblings. Ignoring them, he slipped into the hallway he’d seen Judy head down.

He didn’t have to walk far to find her, leaning against the wall, one arm folded across her chest, paw propping up the elbow on her other arm. She had her face buried in the palm of her paw, and she was thumping the ground. “Carrots?”

Judy’s foot stopped thumping, and she lifted her head, offering Nick a small smile. She hadn’t meant to reveal so much to her brother, and she felt guilty for airing Nick’s secrets. It had been the only way to get her brother to understand though, so she’d gladly take the heat from Nick should he find out. “Hey Slick.”

Approaching Judy, Nick slowed to a stop before her. Her small smile concerned him. Standing closer now he could see the grass stains on her knees and the tear tracks on her cheeks. Her ears looked red and tender too. Nick couldn’t help but feel guilty that his presence had caused her to fall out with her brother, that it was the cause of her forced smile. “You were crying, sweetheart. Are you okay, or do you want to talk about it?”

Judy shook her head, wanting to soothe Nick’s worry, but she couldn’t stop herself from nodding quickly afterward. Julian had been so rude to Nick, had been so speciest towards him. She hoped their little chat would make her brother rethink, he’d only been acting out because he was worried about her.

Heart aching, Nick reached out. “Come here.” He took a step forward, encircling Judy in his arms. He tucked her under his muzzle, leaning down a little for her, not pulling her away from the wall. His tail wrapped around her ankles, offering her comfort.

Judy burrowed against Nick’s throat, her own arms reaching up to loop around his neck, to hold him close. “I’m so sorry about Julian.” She whispered, paws playing with the soft fur at the nape of Nick’s neck. “I talked it out with him, and I hope I managed to change his mind. He’s gone for a walk.” Judy sniffled, trying her hardest not to let any more tears fall. She didn’t want to cry again, didn’t want to live up to her emotional bunny stereotype.

“It’s okay, Carrots. Your brother is entitled to his opinion.” Nick kept his voice quiet and soft, soothing the doe in his arms.

Judy shook her head as best as she could from her position under Nick’s muzzle. Julian’s opinion was wrong, misguided. “Not when it’s wrong he’s not.”

“You can’t force mammals to feel a certain way, no matter how much you might want to. I know that some of your siblings aren’t going to like me, I accept that, but I don’t want it upsetting you or causing friction in your family.” Paws moving to rub her back, Nick dropped a small kiss on the top of Judy’s head. “I’m sorry that my presence has caused so much fuss. I’m happy to go home and let you enjoy the weekend with your family if it makes things easier.”

Panic coursed through Judy and she pulled back sharply, violet eyes finding emerald ones, distraught at even the thought of Nick heading back home without her. “No, Nick! I want you here, please stay.”

Bonnie had watched as her daughter had returned from her chat with Julian, kept her eyes on her as she’d crossed the dining room and headed down one of the many hallways. Bonnie hadn’t bothered to hide her smile as Nick had followed after her, but after a few minutes without them reappearing she’d started to worry. She’d followed them into the hallway, unable to stop the fluffle of bunnies that had traipsed after her. Seeing Nick kiss her daughters head, the way he held her in his arms, Bonnie felt her heart swell and had to stop herself from cooing. They were so perfect together, and she couldn’t wait for them to finally come clean about their feelings. She’d have a word with Julian and ask hm to back off. Bonnie was about to interrupt them, to insist on Nick staying, but Sasha beat her to it.

“Please don’t go Mister Nick!” Sasha threw herself at the fox, wrapping her arms around one of his legs, clinging on for dear life. She didn’t want Nick to leave. She liked having him around.

“Don’t go!” The chorus of voices behind Bonnie shouted.

“Nick, dear, we’d like you to stay. Julian needs to pull his head out of his tail.” Bonnie put her paw down. She wouldn’t have Julian chasing Nick away, wouldn’t let him jeopardize the flourishing relationship between Judy and the tod.

Looking down at the small bunny holding his leg, Nick freed one arm from around Judy, reaching down to stroke across Sasha’s head, offering the kit a gentle smile. She was too sweet. Emerald eyes finding Bonnie’s, Nick let out a soft sigh. “I don’t want to cause any trouble in your home, Bonnie.”

It was endearing, Nick’s concern, but Bonnie brushed it aside. She liked him, Stu was warming to him, and he was incredibly important to Judy. Nick was more than welcome in their home. “You’re no trouble at all, Nick.” She reassured him. “Stu and I love having you here, the little ones love having you here, Judy loves having you here.”

“I really do,” Judy whispered, Nick’s gaze flicking to her as she spoke. “Please stay.”

Fighting a losing battle, and feeling the weight of the conversation bearing down on him, Nick slipped back into humor. “Are you sure you can handle me all weekend, Fluff?”

Judy pretended to think about it for a minute, well versed in Nick now to know he was a little uncomfortable, and that he was masking it. “I don’t know, I mean, you do like to hog all the bed.”

“Says the bunny who likes to sleep on me.” He fired back, not at all caring for their audience. Bonnie had seen Judy sprawled across him during their phone call, and the kits were too young to understand any implications that arose from sleeping together, or so Nick thought.

“You sleep together?” Sasha blinked up at Nick and Judy. They weren’t related, as bunny siblings liked to sleep in big piles, and they weren’t married either, which meant sleeping together was strange.

Glancing down to Sasha, who had yet to relinquish her hold on his leg, Nick nodded in confirmation, dropping his voice to a stage whisper. “Your sister likes to use me as a giant pillow. She’s a user.”

“Hey!” Judy protested, moving a paw from behind Nick’s neck to playfully punch his shoulder. The action made Nick laugh, and the sound drew a smile from Judy.

Pleased the tense situation had been diffused; Bonnie enjoyed the playfulness between her daughter and the fox. Wanting to try and return her warren to normalcy, she encouraged them back to the dining room. “Bun-bun you need to eat.”

“I’m not hungry, mom.” Judy had lost her appetite while sparring with her brother, and all she wanted to do now was run away with Nick to a quiet part of the warren and curl up with him.

“Carrots.” Nick protested, removing his paw from Sasha’s head to wrap his arm around Judy again. Emerald eyes found violet, and he held her gaze, silently imploring her to eat.

“Okay.” Judy conceded knowing Nick would win this battle of wills. Glancing down to her sister, who still clung to Nick’s leg, Judy sniggered. “Looks like you’ve got the start of a little fan club.”

“I’m like the pied piper.” Nick grinned, giving Judy’s sides a quick squeeze with his paws. “Come on, before your dinner gets cold.”

“I’m eating salad.” Judy deadpanned.

“Details, details.” Unwinding his arms from around her, Nick grasped one of Judy’s paws in his own. Reaching down, he offered his free paw to Sasha. The kit let go of his leg, reaching up to take his paw. Leading both doe’s back towards the dining room, Nick heard Bonnie bringing up the rear, hearding the other kits into the communal space. He returned to their table, the dining room now empty save for Jasmine, who sat waiting for them.

While Judy ate, Nick entertained the kits, telling them a story about the adventures of Robin Hood and Maid Marian, two foxes who’d fallen in love. Judy had shoved more lettuce in her mouth to stop her snicker, enjoying how the main characters conveniently had the same names as Nick’s parents. Jasmine stole some lettuce from her sister’s plate every now and then, deeply engrossed in Nick’s tale. Once Judy’s plate was clean, Nick brought his story to a close.

“Okay everyone, say goodnight to Nick, Judy, and Jasmine,” Bonnie instructed, coming down from the kitchen. She would hand the little ones over to Stu so he could help them settle down for the night, while she dealt with the second dinner sitting. She’d been listening to Nick’s story while cooking, enjoying the fact that the heroine shared the same name as his mother.

“Night Mister Nick, Night Ju-Ju, Night Jassy.” The chorus of little voices sang, earning smiles from the two does and the tod.

“Goodnight, sleep tight,” Judy started, glancing at her sister.

“Hope the bed bugs don’t bite!” Jasmine finished, laughing as the little kits squealed, running off in the direction of their bedrooms.

Sasha had started to run off to bed, following her siblings, but she stopped midway to the corridor that led to her room. Turning sharply, she raced back to her sister and Nick. Flinging herself at the fox, she grabbed his legs in a tight hug. “Night Mister Nick.”

Surprised by the sudden baby bunny attached to him, Nick reached down, smoothing a paw over her head and down her ears. She was adorable, and Nick found himself seriously contemplating having kits, wondering what it would be like to have little ones of his own. He wanted Judy as his mate, knew she’d be a great mom, but he wasn’t sure if interspecies couples could even have kits. For now, though, he’d just be grateful that he could dote on Judy’s siblings.  “Night Cinnamon.”

As Sasha scampered off, Judy, Nick, and Jasmine were left alone in the dining room. Judy reached over to start stacking plates, knowing her mom wanted to prepare for the second dinner sitting. Before she could pick up any dishes though, Jasmine swatted her paw away. “You two should catch an early night; it’s been a long day for you both and tomorrow will be even longer. I’ll deal with the plates.” Truth told, Jasmine had a feeling Judy’s confrontation with Julian had taken its toll on her sister, and she’d probably want to spend some time alone with Nick.

Every kit pulled their weight in the Hopps warren that was the rule. Judy wasn’t going to let her sister pick up her slack. “Jas-“

“Nope, go. I’ve got this.” Jasmine argued, staring at her sister. Judy held her gaze but she eventually conceded, nodding her thanks. Taking Nick’s paw, Judy led him down one of the many hallway offshoots.

Deeper and deeper underground they went, twisting and turning through corridors, and Nick now fully understood the phrase ‘like a rabbit warren.’ He’d have to stick close to Judy for a while. It would take him some time to accurately map out the vast Hopps warren, especially in areas filled with several scents.

Judy brought them to a standstill before a simple looking white wooden door. ‘Ju’ painted on the outside in purple paint, a few flowers drawn around it. “When we reach our teens, mom and dad move us out of the shared bedrooms and give us our own,” Judy explained. The door only needed a light shove to open, and Judy took the three steps down into her room with practiced ease, tugging Nick along with her. Nick’s bag sat on Judy’s bed, the beautiful flowers he’d bought her now in their vase on her desk. Jasmine deserved a sister of the year award.

Nick took in the room. Judy’s scent was strong, heady. The exposed underground walls were painted yellow, cheering up the place. Her furniture was white, a little loved and worn looking, but sturdy. A bed, nightstand, desk, chair, dresser, and floor length mirror were all she had. Judy’s bedsheets kept with the yellow of her walls, little daisies embroidered on the quilt cover. A soft cream rug had been placed on the floor beside her bed, which was pushed up against the far wall. Her phone sat on her nightstand, along with a long and thin plastic container and a small lamp. There was little on her desk save for a few notebooks, a pen, and the bouquet of flowers Nick had bought her. On top of her dresser were some photo frames, filled with pictures of her family, and looped over the edge of her floor length mirror was a small police officers hat. Nick didn’t bother hiding his smile. Shelves had been put up on the walls, lined with trinkets and some rabbit teddies, a few trophies and books too. It was the posters on her walls that caught his attention though. Some were of the Zootopia skyline, while others were focused on the ZPD – recruitment and promotional posters. Nick had seen similar ones in the academy corridors. “I get the feeling you always wanted to be a cop, Carrots.” He mused, letting go of Judy’s paw to walk around her room, examine all the trophies – spelling bee, bunny scouts, judo, and a few more. Nick couldn’t remember ever receiving an award as a kit. He moved to her mirror, gently picking up the small police officers hat.

“Ever since I was nine.” Judy shrugged, watching as Nick looked around her room. She knew it wasn’t much, she’d never been a hoarder, but it was comfortable and clean and Judy was thankfully her parents had let her redecorate once she’d entered her late teens. It would’ve been embarrassing to show Nick her old bedroom.

“And look at you now.” Nick teased, playing with the small officer’s hat between his paws. Turning it over, he caught the label inside. ‘Officer Hopps’ had been scrawled on the tag, and the tod couldn’t help but wonder what nine-year-old Judy had been like. He would’ve been seventeen when Judy had turned nine, having already spent five years on the streets and a year of that paying back Catstro. The realization made him briefly question whether the age gap between them would be a problem.

Judy moved towards Nick, reaching out to give him a gentle shove. “And look at you, too. You’ll have a shiny badge and a hat of your own soon.” She was so proud of him, how far he’d come in such a short space of time.

Nick still couldn’t believe that he’d agreed to join the force. It all felt like a surreal dream to him. The idea that he’d soon have a badge, that he would be Officer Wilde, it was so foreign to him. He’d spent twenty years on the streets. He’d never imagined that on day he would have a home and a job, a best friend and potential mate. “Heh. I won’t have to wear the hat all the time, right?”

“Ohh maybe.” Judy teased, enjoying the scowl on Nick’s face. She knew he wouldn’t have to wear it unless it was a formal occasion, but she couldn’t resist tormenting the tod. Prying the hat from Nick’s paws, she rose up onto her tiptoes, placing it on his head. Taking a step back, Judy looked her fox up and down, forcing a look of contemplation. “You know what, let’s hope not.” She teased. Her hat was a little small for him, and he looked adorable in it, but Judy had other reasons for hoping Nick would never have to wear an officer’s hat. It suited him. Judy hadn’t seen him in his police blues yet, but she had a sinking feeling that it’d be even harder to keep her paws off him then. “Oh no, Jude. You’ve become one of those doe’s that have a thing for a mammal in uniform!”

“Oh Carrots, you’re back to wounding me!” Lazy grin in place Nick lifted a paw to his chest, feigning hurt. His other paw went to the hat on his head, which he returned safely to the mirror. As Judy snickered, Nick seized his opportunity.

Paws shooting out he grabbed her by the waist, tickling her sides. Judy’s shriek of laughter was like music to his ears, and Nick set about doubling his tickling efforts, leaning down to better grasp her, keeping his hold on Judy as she tried to make him let go. Her hind paws skittered along the ground as she tried to get away. “This is what you get for wounding me.” He tutted, finding a particularly sensitive spot that caused the doe to squeal loudly, paws finding his as she tried to pry him off her. Her nose was wrinkled; eyes squeezed shut as she squeaked, tears running down her cheeks as she laughed. “Beautiful.”

“Mercy! Mercy!” Judy pleaded, laughing still as Nick’s paws slowed. Chest heaving from the sudden onslaught, Judy sought to catch her breath, resting her forehead against Nick’s shoulder. The vibrations of Nick’s chuckles shook Judy’s small frame.

Pulling back from Judy, Nick gestured down to his outfit. He’d put on his best shirt and pants before he’d left the academy, hoping to make a good first impression. They weren’t anything to write home about, but he’d wanted to make an effort. “Fancy showing me the little buck’s room? I can’t sleep in these clothes.”

Paws finding Nick’s shirt, Judy started to play with his tie. It was a habit now, and Judy wondered just how many ties she could buy him before he’d catch on to her obsession. “You don’t have to run away to the bathroom to change, Slick.” Judy figured they’d been through so much together that changing in front of one another shouldn’t be an issue.

“As lovely as that is, and I trust you’d turn around to spare my blushes, I don’t think your parents would be pleased with me relieving myself in your bedroom.” Nick glanced down, watching as Judy played with his tie. He’d only ever worn them to give off a more professional vibe when hustling, and now he was no longer living that life there was no need for them, but Judy seemed to like them.

Judy snorted, shaking her head, lips curving upwards. “I think you might be on to something there. Come on, I’ll show you the way.” Breaking away from Nick, Judy made a beeline for the door.

From his bag, Nick pulled out his sleep pants and wash bag. He’d brought a sleep shirt with him in case Judy had shared a bedroom with her siblings, but knowing now that it would just be the two of them made Nick abandon the shirt. His country bunny seemed to like sleeping on his bare chest, and Nick enjoyed the fur-to-fur contact their intimate sleeping arrangement gave them.

Following Judy, Nick was led down several more corridors until they came to another wooden door, this one painted with a blue bunny. “The little buck’s room.” Judy declared, glancing over her shoulder at the fox. “Think you’ll be able to find your way back?”

Nick gave the air a quick sniff, able to pick up Judy’s scent easily. There weren’t many other scents lingering at present. Bringing a paw up he tapped his nose, making his way through the bathroom door. “I’ll hunt you down, don’t worry.”

Judy made her way to the little doe’s room, where she proceeded to take care of her ablutions. She washed her knees as best as possible, removing most of the grass stains, washed her face, and brushed her teeth. Tasks done, Judy headed back to her bedroom, changing into her nightshirt. Judy knew her nightshirt left her stitched left arm exposed, and she knew Nick would panic the moment he saw it. Sighing, Judy grabbed her maple dowel from its box on her nightstand, gnawing on it to not only wear down her teeth but to help with her nerves. Using her free paw she flicked on the bedside lamp, turning off the main overhead one, before she picked up her phone, checking her texts and Furbook while waiting for Nick. She had no new messages or notifications.

With his business taken care of, and dressed in his sleep pants, Nick followed his nose back to Judy’s room, easily tracing the doe’s movements. With Judy’s bedroom door ajar, Nick slipped inside. Depositing his clothes and wash bag into his duffle on the bed, he tossed it onto the floor, clearing the bed for them. Turning back to Judy, Nick caught sight of her gnawing on a wooden dowel, teeth chewing along the length of it, her bracelet jingling as she moved the dowel around, changing the area she was gnawing on. Nick knew he’d have to tell her about the bracelet soon, but he was waiting for the right moment. For now, though, he enjoyed how adorable she looked in her nightshirt, chewing on a wooden dowel. “Oh Carrots, if you wouldn’t scold me I’d say you look ridiculously cute right now.”

“Don’t laugh.” Judy sighed, pulling the dowel away from her mouth for a moment, chewing her lower lip. She knew chewing on her dowel wasn’t the most attractive thing she could be doing.

“I wasn’t planning on it, Carrots.” Nick crossed to her, plucking the wooden stick from her paw. It wasn’t a huge piece of dowel, a few inches at most; Judy’s teeth marks were firmly embedded it in. It had been stained red, and Nick lifted it to his nose to sniff. It smelt like radishes.

“I prefer maple wood, it’s a lot more durable. They make it in a lot of flavors.” Judy explained, giving a quick shrug. She figured that Nick probably didn’t have a clue when it came to rabbit customs and culture.

“Is radish your favorite?” He gave the dowel a tentative lick. There was no denying the flavor, and the tod was surprised to find that it didn’t taste as awful as he’d thought it would.

Judy shook her head. “I prefer cherry, but they were all out at the store.” The stores in the city didn’t have as many dowel variations as the ones in Bunnyburrow, and Judy figured she’d have to raid the family stock before heading back to Zootopia. She watched as Nick stopped licking the dowel, biting down on it instead, testing it. “And you were worried about getting cooties from Sasha…”

Nick couldn’t help himself; the temptation to chew on the dowel and see what all the fuss was about was too much for him. The wood gave a little under his sharp teeth, so he softened his bite. It probably wasn’t doing his teeth any good, but it was strangely soothing. The radish taste was a little stronger now. After a few seconds, he stopped chewing, offering the dowel back to his bunny. “We live together, your cooties are my cooties now.”

Reaching out with her left paw, Judy grabbed her dowel. The action exposed the inside of her arm, and the stitched wound there. Gaze dropping to Judy’s forearm, Nick’s heart felt like it stopped. His eyes narrowed in on the wound, gut twisting. “Carrots.” He grabbed her left paw, ensuring her arm remained outstretched. “You’re hurt. What happened? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“It’s nothing, Nick. Don’t worry.” Judy brushed his concerns aside. The wound really wasn’t that bad, and it would’ve been a lot worse if Wolford hadn’t have been with her.

Flabbergasted by Judy’s blasé attitude, Nick shook his head, frowning. “You have stitches, I wouldn’t call that nothing.”

Judy had known this conversation was coming, but that didn’t make it any easier. “Remember the drugs raid I mentioned? It didn’t quite go to plan.”

Nick swallowed thickly, looking up at her. Pushing Judy back gently, he forced her to sit on the bed. Dropping down to kneel on the floor, he kept his hold on her left paw, keeping her arm outstretched while he examined the wound. “What happened? You were only meant to be backup.” He dared to ask.

“The Chief had Wolford and me in an unmarked support van a block away from the drug den. We were only meant to engage if they needed help, so we were sat waiting in the back, radios on, listening to the others. Turns out Chuckles, the ringleader, had some of his mammals patrolling the area. They saw our van, and I guess they thought it looked out of place. Long story short, they threw open the back doors and caught Wolford and I off guard. They both had knives, and one nicked my arm as he lunged at me. I managed to kick him out of the van, and he hit his head, went down like a lead balloon. His accomplice jumped for me too. Wolford pulled me out of the way, though, grabbed his taser and sent 30,000 volts through the other mammal.”

Heart pounding, Nick tore his eyes from the wound on Judy’s arm to look into her eyes. Two animals had attacked her with knives, assumed because of her size she was weaker and more vulnerable. Nick wasn’t a fool, he was aware that being a cop was a dangerous job, that Judy’s small size made her a prime target for criminals. “I owe Wolford. His quick actions saved her.”

“We called for a medic before Wolford cuffed the two who’d attacked us, and we radioed through to the others. They carried on with the raid but went in heavier. Delgato still ended up with a broken hind paw, though.” They’d managed to arrest Chuckles and his team, had caught them moving tens of thousands of dollars worth of drugs. All the ZPD had suffered was a cut to Judy’s arm and Delgato’s broken hind paw. It could’ve been much worse.

Acting on instinct, Nick pulled Judy into his arms, wrapping her up, tucking her under his muzzle. Eyes squeezed shut he held her tight, moving a paw to cup the back of her head. “Always in the line of fire.” He whispered, smoothing his paw down her ears.

“It’s okay, I’m fine. It was just a cut.” Judy soothed. Reaching behind her with a paw she flicked the quilt back, gently pulling Nick into bed. They moved together, Nick’s grip on her refusing to lessen. She’d expected him to be angry, to tell her to be more careful, to complain that he wasn’t there to watch her six. Judy had never expected him to suddenly become so clingy, to hold onto her as if his life depended on it. Leaning over, Judy flicked her bedside lamp off, her eyes needing a moment to adjust to the dark.

Lying on their sides, Nick let out a shaky breath. “I know it was just a cut but if anything had of happened to you…” Paws tightening as Nick pulled Judy even closer, he tangled their legs together. Seeing her injured had spooked him, a cruel reminder that her job, their job, was dangerous. It had been bad enough when she’d injured herself in the museum, running away from Bellwether. Now though, now that Nick knew what his feelings for Judy were, knew that he loved her, the thought of losing her was unbearable, like a knife to his heart. “I need to tell her, she needs to know. We need to talk about the bracelet, too.”

“I’m okay,” Judy reassured him again, left paw moving to scritch and stroke his chest, reminding him that she was with him and that she was alright. “If Nick’s like this over a cut, I hate to think what he’d be like if I were ever shot. Oh gosh no don’t think about that, you’ll jinx it.” Nick lifted her left arm a little, bringing his muzzle to her wound before he pressed a kiss to the stitched injury. “Thank you, it feels much better now.” Judy cooed, finding the sweetness of the gesture endearing. Her mom had often kissed her cuts and grazes better when she’d been a kit. Seeing Nick do the same to her made Judy wonder again what he would be like as a father. “Don’t start thinking about that Jude. You can’t get worked up. He could smell it last time.”

Pulling back, Nick drew Judy in, tucking her under his snout once more. Arms around her he felt her nuzzle against him, cold nose rooting through the cream fur of his throat. Tail moving, he flicked it over them, draping it over Judy’s waist. “Promise me you’ll be more careful next time?” Nick knew it was futile asking Judy to take more desk-related jobs between now and his graduation, and he didn’t want to be domineering, didn’t want her to feel like he was asking her to change, or that he didn’t think she was capable of holding her own.

There was nothing Judy and Wolford could’ve done to be more careful, they were caught by surprise, not expecting Chuckles to have mammals patrolling the area. Judy wondered whether someone had tipped them off. Knowing though that Nick’s worries needed soothing, she nodded as best she could, yawning as a wave of tiredness swept over her. “I will, don’t worry.”

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