Chapter 17 – Fairgrounds and Feelings

Paw lifting to her mouth Judy stifled her yawn. “Remind me again why we got up at 6 am?” She asked, violet eyes finding Nick in the early morning light.

“Blueberries, Carrots. Stop slacking and get picking.” Nick bent down, plucking some more blueberries from one of the many branches of the bush he was stood next to. His body used to waking early, Nick had nudged Judy awake, remembering that she’d told him they’d pick blueberries this morning. The country bunny had grumbled, annoyed that her lie-in had been disrupted, but after some coaxing from Nick Judy had slipped out of bed, pulled on some jeans and a blouse, and proceeded to lead Nick up and out of the warren, to one of the many barns on the Hopps farm. She’d offered him a small basket, but the tod had snorted, reaching around her for a large one. They’d taken one of the farm carts, driving out to the blueberry patch they were now stood in.

“Jeez, slave driver. I’m picking, I’m picking.” Judy rolled her eyes, reaching down to pick some blueberries, adding them to her small basket. She grabbed a handful, slowly eating them while she watched Nick work. He’d dropped to his knees, basket on the ground beside him, rummaging in the lower branches of a blueberry shrub. Judy couldn’t hide her amusement as he added a pawful to the basket, then shoved the next pawful into his maw. Snorting, Judy shook her head. “Oh Nick, you’re too adorable.”

Though he was picking the berries from the lower branches, Nick could see Judy still from the corner of his eye. “You’re not picking.” He lightly reprimanded her. They’d bumped into Stu on their way to the blueberry patch, the buck starting his morning rounds. He’d promised Nick that if he picked enough blueberries, he could pass them on to Bonnie, who in turn would make him some blueberry cookies and muffins to take back to the academy with him. Nick wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Nick’s reprimand made Judy smile, and the doe moved to the next blueberry bush, plucking the berries off and placing them in her basket. Seeing Nick shoving blueberries into his mouth eased some of Judy’s worries. She knew he was still a little funny around food. Sometimes he’d eat without prompting, devouring the food, but most of the time Judy had to encourage him, and he’d eat slowly as if he was savoring it, unsure when he’d next get another meal. Seeing the voracious way he devoured her family’s blueberries gave Judy hope that she’d one day get Nick to have a more positive relationship with food.

An hour passed, the tod and doe chatting as they plucked blueberries from the bushes. Judy’s small basket had long since filled up, and now the pair were working on Nick’s large basket.

Nick took the opportunity to ask a question he’d been dying to know the answer to. “Hey, Fluff?”

“Mhm?” Judy hummed, reaching for a bunch of blueberries close to the center of the bush she was working on.

“What’re you doing when you make that strange grinding noise?” Nick inquired, throwing a few blueberries into his mouth, adding his next pawful into the basket.

“Strange grinding noise?” Judy frowned, pausing in her blueberry plucking to look over at Nick. She made a few noises, but not as many as Nick.

“Yeah, your jaw moves, and it sounds like you’re chewing.” Nick elaborated, finding a huge bunch of blueberries hanging near the center of the bush he kneeled before. He grinned, plucking them all from the branch. There probably wouldn’t be any blueberries left by the time they were done.

“Oh. Oh that’s…we rabbits don’t purr, so we do a thing called tooth purring. We grind our back teeth together in a rhythmic pattern.” Judy explained, having figured out what it was Nick was referencing. Her species lacked the ability to purr, so over the years, they’d developed other ways to show their gratitude and happiness.

Pausing in his blueberry picking, Nick stole a glance over at Judy, not quite believing what he was hearing. “Purring?”

“Yeah, or at least trying too.” Judy put a blueberry in her mouth, enjoying the delicious taste. She hadn’t had as many as Nick, but she wouldn’t pull the tod up on his berry consumption. He needed to eat as much as possible.

Purring. Nick couldn’t help his grin as he realized Judy had purred when he’d given her the bracelet. Knowing it had been a reflex action, the sound of her happiness, confirmed for Nick that it had been a great idea to gift her it. “That’s adorable.”

“Shut up. I’d like to see you try purring.” Judy challenged, appreciating that Nick still didn’t call her cute. Only bunnies were supposed to call one another cute, but Judy wasn’t sure whether it was something she could let Nick call her later on in their friendship, or if they started dating.

Ace up his sleeve, Nick stood, brushing the dirt from his pants. “Actually, since we evolved, we foxes can purr.”

“No way.” Judy didn’t believe him. She’d never heard of purring foxes before. “It’s not like you’ve had much contact with them, though.”

“Yup. Scratch here,” Nick closed the gap between them, gesturing to the side of his throat. It was a sensitive spot for him, one only his mom knew. “And now Judy, too.”

Judy abandoned her blueberry picking, wiping her paw on her jeans before she reached up, placing it on the side of Nick’s throat. Gently, she started to scratch.

It took a moment but the pleasant feeling of being petted swept through Nick, his eyes slipping shut as he enjoyed the light scritching. He’d had little opportunity to enjoy being scritched by another mammal. It didn’t take long before Nick’s tail started to thump the ground, a little purr rumbling in the back of his throat. “Heck, that feels good.”

Judy watched, fascinated, as Nick did indeed purr. Floofy tail thumping the ground, Judy was tempted to abandon his throat to stroke his tail. She restrained herself, but only just. Mixing up her scritches with strokes, Nick continued to purr for her. “Well, I’ll be darned.” Ears swiveling, Judy caught the sound of her father’s farm cart approaching. Slowing her scritches she smoothed down Nick’s ruffled neck fur. “Okay, you win.”

Lazily, Nick opened his eyes, saddened by the loss of contact. He’d enjoyed the feeling, lost himself in the sensations. He could purr without the need for petting, but he’d felt greedy, had wanted to feel Judy’s small paws on him. “You tell a soul that I purr, and your siblings may find out that you’ve been to a naturalist club.” He threatened playfully. Given how open Bonnie had been with him in her letters and notes, Nick figured they wouldn’t really care if Judy had been to a naturalist club. It didn’t stop him from threatening it, though. Word spread fast in the Hopps warren, and he could only imagine all the sniggers that would follow Judy if her siblings found out about her little adventure.

“On a case, because you tricked me.” Judy pointed out. She’d been pretty embarrassed when she’d first been faced with the naturalist club, and a part of her knew Nick had gotten a strange sense of pleasure out of her discomfort. It wasn’t that Judy had an issue with nudity, she had 311 siblings after all, but there a marked difference between seeing someone you know and love naked, and seeing a complete stranger in the buff.

Tutting, Nick wagged a finger. “I helped you with a clue.” He reminded her, visions of the horror that had been on her face when Yaxley had opened the doors to the Pleasure Pool making him smile.

Folding her arms over her chest, Judy quirked an eyebrow. “And you knew exactly what you were doing.” Nick had warned her it wasn’t the place for a ‘cute little bunny, ’ but she hadn’t been smart enough to ask him what he’d meant.

“Eh, can’t blame a mammal for wanting to see a sweet little country bunny venture into her first naturalist club.” Nick had been to the club several times on business, always remaining firmly clothed. He had no issues with being naked, being on the streets had opened his eyes to a lot of things, but there was something he found a little uncomfortable about bearing himself so fully to a group of strangers.

The sound of the horn from Stu’s cart broke the two mammals apart, and the buck parked up, making his way across the blueberry patch to them. “How we doing kits?” He took in Judy’s full basket, and Nick’s nearly full one. There were plenty of blueberries still in the bushes, but if Nick was such a quicker worker, the buck wondered whether he’d have any blueberries left by the end of the weekend.

Offering her dad a smile, Judy noted the mud stains already on his overalls. Her mom did so much laundry, and her father needed his own wash just for his overalls. He always managed to get them filthy. “Good dad, I think Nick’s plucked every bush in this area clean.”

Snorting, Nick shook his head. Judy had little faith in his ability. “I’m sure I can find some more.” He looked around, spotting a huge bunch on a nearby bush. “See, here.” Reaching over, Nick pulled the berries off, adding them to his basket

Stu chuckled. “Here Nick, let me show you a trick.” The buck knelt down by a bush, finding another large bunch of blueberries. “Best way to pick the berries is to put your basket under the bunch, then roll them between your fingers.” Stu placed Nick’s basket under the bunch, cupping the fruit in his paw. “The ripe ones will fall off and into your basket, while the unripe ones will stay attached to the bush.” Stu rolled the fruit, showing Nick how it was done, and sure enough, the ripe ones fell into the bucket, the unripe ones remaining on the bush. “Now you try.” Stu rose back to his hind paws.

Moving the basket underneath another bunch on a nearby bush, Nick mimicked Stu’s actions, cupping and rolling the blueberries until all the ripe ones fell off. It was much easier than plucking each berry off one by one. “Sir, you’ve just doubled my productivity.”

Judy watched as her dad taught Nick the little trick, heart clenching at the sight. This was what she’d wanted, for her family to bring Nick into the fold, treat him like one of their own. Her father looked so at ease around Nick, and Nick, in turn, seemed comfortable around her dad.

“I’m glad to see you enjoy them, Nick.” Stu gave Nick’s shoulder a firm pat, pleased that the tod was happy to get dirty, willing to do some work on the farm. He’d thought as a city boy that Nick would dislike the countryside, wouldn’t enjoy getting his paws mucky. The buck had been pleasantly surprised.

“Best blueberries I’ve ever had, Sir,” Nick answered honestly. Though he hadn’t had much money over the last twenty years, he usually managed to snatch a handful of blueberries from street stalls, or his mom bought some whenever he went home to visit her. He’d sampled a lot of blueberries, but none of them were as delicious as the Hopps berries.

“Oh come on now, we’re past the whole Sir thing.” While Stu appreciated how polite Nick was, how respectful he was, the buck knew it time for the tod to use his first name. Stu knew there was no way in hell that Judy was going to let the fox go, that he was going to become a permanent fixture in his daughter’s life, and he felt like letting Nick know he was considered family. “Grab your baskets and head on up to the warren, I think Bon’s about to make breakfast.”

Surprised by Stu’s request, Nick stood, dusting off his pants once more. “Thanks, Stu.” Getting the chance to use the buck’s first name was a positive sign for Nick; it was progress in integrating with Judy’s family. Now he just had to ask the buck for permission to date Judy, as custom dictated.

Clapping Nick on the shoulder, Stu picked up the large basket and handed it to him. “We’ll make a farmer out of you yet.”

Laughing, Nick and Judy headed back to their cart, loading up their baskets. Though Judy had driven them to the blueberry patch, she instead threw the keys at Nick. Reflexes honed from his training, Nick snatched them from the air. “You’re driving, Slick. Don’t get us lost.”

The corners of Nick’s lips quirked upwards, and the tod slid into the driver’s seat, waiting as Judy took her place in the passenger seat. “Challenge accepted.”

Nick managed to get them back to the Hopps warren easily, the only issue being a fork in the road. Judy’s not so subtle cough as she’d tipped her head to the right had helped Nick make the right choice.

Cart parked and baskets in paw, they made their way through the back door, through the many common rooms, and to the kitchen. Bonnie was stood by the island counter, mountains of bowls stacked before her. Nick stole a glance down to the dining room and noticed there were large crates of cereal laid out, along with huge jugs of milk. “Hey bun-bun, Nick.” Bonnie greeted the pair, offering them a smile.

“Hey, mom,” Judy responded, moving around the counter to give her mom a kiss.

Watching Judy and her mom, Nick felt a pang of homesickness. He missed his mom, not used to being away from her for so long. He’d call her this weekend, before heading back to the academy. “Good morning Bonnie.”

Bonnie glanced between Judy and Nick, her smile still in place. “Did you have fun down at the blueberry patch?”

“Bonnie, your blueberry patch is my new favorite place,” Nick responded earnestly, lifting his basket of berries and putting them on what little available space was on the counter.

“Oh goodness, look at all of those! You’re too sweet, Nick. I’ll bake you some cookies and muffins this afternoon, and you can take them back with you on Monday morning.” Bonnie had a small window of opportunity to bake this afternoon, and she’d use it wisely.

“Thanks, Bonnie.” Nick appreciated the gesture and the tasty treats he’d get to take back with him. They’d keep him going for a while.

Bonnie moved to the stoves, returning to her cooking. The smell was undeniable. “Mom, you’re making pancakes? What’s the occasion?” Judy sniffed, feeling her mouth water. Her mom only made pancakes on special occasions; it was too much fuss otherwise. Breakfast consisted of toast and cereal for the Hopps kits. Easy and quick.

“Well, I figured you might like them with your blueberries.” Bonnie started plating up the pancakes she’d had going, creating two large stacks. When Stu had called her this morning to let her know Nick and Judy were heading to the blueberry patch, the doe had decided to break out the pancakes. Since her and Stu’s dinner with Marian, the doe and vixen had been exchanging letters, texts, and phone calls regularly. They kept the information from their kits, but it gave them the chance to conspire. Marian had mentioned how much Nick loved pancakes drizzled in lemon and syrup when Bonnie had asked if he had any dietary requirements, and knowing he loved the family blueberries too had made pancakes a clear decision.

Handing over the two stacks, one with lemon and syrup and the other with just sugar, Bonnie also slid a bowl across the counter. Judy, taking the hint, placed several handfuls of blueberries into the container, grabbing that too. “I’ll put the rest in the fridge, go eat while they’re warm.” Bonnie shooed them out of her kitchen.

“You’re the best, Bonnie,” Nick yelled back to the doe as he and Judy descended the stairs to the dining room. Eighty or so of Judy’s siblings were already having breakfast, the affair much more subdued than dinner.

Finding a quiet spot, Judy slid her plate of sugared pancakes onto the table, putting the dish of berries down next to her. Nick sat to her right as Judy reached over to the middle of the table, grabbing cutlery from the massive pot of utensils. Handing Nick his knife and fork, the doe let him have first dibs on the blueberries.

Paw dipping into the dish, Nick grabbed a handful of the berries, scattering them over his lemon and syrup-drizzled pancakes. The warm, fresh smell made him salivate, and his stomach growled. As Nick started to eat, Jasmine and Sasha slid into the seats opposite them with their bowls of cereal.

“Good morning Mister Nick!” Sasha chirped, Cloudy nowhere to be seen. The young doe had hidden him under her pillow.

“Good morning Cinnamon. Did you sleep well?” Nick paused in his pancake eating to greet his beloved baby bunny.

Mixing her cereal and milk a little more, Sasha nodded. “Yes thank you Mister Nick. Did you sleep well with Ju-Ju?”

Jasmine snorted, and Nick noticed a few ears flicking their way. “Yeah, we slept fine thanks,” Judy responded, trying to give off a casual air.

“That’s good. I can’t believe mom forgot to put out the spare bed. She’s getting senile.” Jasmine didn’t bother hiding her smirk, earning a blush from her sister.

Nick got a distinct feeling that Bonnie hadn’t even attempted to put out the spare bed. Given the book he’d received from her, it wouldn’t surprise the tod if Bonnie had planned to have them in the same bed all along. “Sly bunny.” He didn’t really mind. He slept a lot better when he was curled up with Judy.

Sasha spotted the bowl of berries and licked her lips. “Mister Nick, could I have a blueberry please?”

“Sure you can Cinnamon.” Nick offered the bowel to Sasha, watching as she grabbed a small pawful, depositing them on her cereal.

“I’m impressed Slick, sharing your blueberries.” Judy gave Nick’s hind paw a nudge under the table. They’d picked so many blueberries that Judy couldn’t be mad about the fact Nick would miss out on a slack pawful.

Tail flicking up to wrap around Judy’s waist Nick shrugged. “What can I say, Cinnamon has grown on me.”

“Thanks, Mister Nick!” Sasha returned to her cereal, spooning a large amount into her mouth, the odd blueberry mixed in.

Breakfast continued with idle chatter between the three does and the tod. Judy filled Nick in on the fair, Sasha interrupting every now and then to throw in her opinion. Once breakfast was over and their dishes cleared away, Judy led Nick back down to her bedroom so they could clean up and change.

Nick took his clothes to the bathroom once again, washing the dirt from his paws before changing. He’d brought his aviators with him, and after throwing on a clean shirt, tie, and pants, he added his gift from Bonnie. Heading back to Judy’s room, a little more familiar with the route now, Nick wasn’t surprised to see Judy had beat him back and left the door ajar.

Upon entering the room, though, Nick paused. Judy was stood checking her phone, her back to him. She was in another dress, this one yellow with a delicate white floral pattern to it. It was clinched at her waist, and Nick couldn’t help but tip his head to the side a little, eyes following the curvature of Judy’s waist. Feeling a little creepy after staring at her for a few seconds, Nick took the few steps down into Judy’s room.

“You ready?” He tossed his clothes onto his bag, still discarded on the floor near the bed. “Another dress from mom?”

“She’s made me several, I can’t pick which I like the best. I just need to grab my bag.” Judy turned to her bed, rummaging underneath it until she pulled out a little yellow bag. Slipping her phone and purse into it, she rounded to face Nick.

Face to face, Nick was able to admire the front of the dress, with its sweetheart neckline and large bow under the bust, the way it hugged Judy just so. “Damn. You’ve outdone yourself, mom.”

Too fixated on Nick’s aviators to notice the way his eyes raked over her, Judy took the few steps between them, rising up onto her tiptoes to pull the aviators from where Nick had propped them, on top of his head. Holding them in her paws, she examined them. “These are new, Slick. Where’d you get them?”

Finding his tongue, Nick stammered through his response. “O-oh, your mom sent them in one of her care packages.”

Judy’s jaw dropped a little, eyes widening. “Mom sent you them?” She couldn’t believe it, that her mom was sending Nick awesome things in his care packages. “All I got in my care packages was bandages, cherries, Sudoku puzzles, dowels, and birth control.” Judy continued to look over the aviators, unable to resist trying them on.

Eyes widening, a small noise of surprise escaped Nick before he could stop it. He’d known that Judy had received packages from her mom, but the contents of hers sounded vastly different to his. “Birth control?”

“Yeah, mom had it in her head that because we all shared a dorm, we were getting freaky with one another.” Judy shrugged, finding Nick’s aviators a little too big for her. She offered them back, Nick’s jaw slack. “Anyway, let’s go.”

Shaking himself from his stupor, Nick took his aviator’s back, sliding them onto his head as Judy grabbed her bag. With the rabbit leading the way, the pair of them started the journey back to the surface. The problem with walking behind Judy, however, was that it put her tail right in Nick’s line of sight. It bobbed as she walked, tempting the tod. Nick found his mind wandering down less than pure paths as he contemplated whether Judy was still on birth control. “Why does it matter? You haven’t even plucked up the courage to tell her how you feel yet.” He berated himself. “But, would rabbit birth control actually work for us? Would it prevent an oops?” Nick shook his head as his mind fell further down the proverbial rabbit hole. “Great, now you’re thinking about pregnant Judy. Marvellous.”

By the time they made it to the fair, it was lunchtime. “How long does this thing go on for?” Nick questioned, glancing down at Judy. They’d decided to walk to the fair; unsure whether they’d be able to find somewhere to park one of the Hopps family trucks. Nick had enjoyed the stroll through the countryside, arm in arm with Judy. As they’d approached the fair, he’d believed she’d let go of him. It was one thing for them to loop arms or hold paws in the city, but another entirely in the insular Bunnyburrow. Judy had surprised him, keeping their arms locked as they’d approached a small ticket booth near the entrance.

“Until 5 pm, then we have a barn party. We don’t have to stay for the whole time, though. We can leave whenever you want.” Judy wasn’t too fussed. She’d been to every Carrot Day Festival since she’d been born, but she appreciated that it could be a bit too much for Nick. Whenever he wanted to call it quits she’d happily head back home.

“A barn party?” Nick questioned, looking up at the large banner over the entrance – ‘Welcome to the 121st Annual Carrot Day Fair.’ To his right sat a large red barn, and to his left there appeared to be a maze made out of hay bales.

“Mhm. With food, music dancing…the whole nine yards.” Judy held her left arm out to the ewe manning the entrance, and the mammal quickly tied a colored wristband around her wrist. Nick mimicked her actions, reviving his wristband too. Parties weren’t really Nick’s scene, dancing wasn’t something he willingly partook in, but if it was part of the festival and would make Judy happy then he’d follow her anywhere.

Nick’s height gave him a slight advantage over all the rabbits. Peering over their heads, he could see stalls lining the dirt path they were about to walk down. The road seemed to fork further down, and Nick could see more stalls in the distances. “You really go all out.” He commented as Judy grabbed a map from the ewe manning the gate.

“Of course we do, it’s our biggest festival.” She shook the map out; holding it so both of them could see it. “So, we have a bounce house, carrot toss, carrot catch, spin the carrot, whack a carrot…”

“You can do all that with carrots?” Nick sassed, glancing at the map.

“Har har. What do you fancy doing first?” Judy wasn’t bothered, happy to simply stroll around the fair with Nick, but if there was something, in particular, he wanted to see or do she’d go along with it.

Nick took a moment to read the map. Along with the stalls that Judy had mentioned was a variety of others, though they were more food and produce related – lemonade, pies, fresh agricultural products, carrots on sticks, best in show produce, and flowers.

“There’s a talent show and a pie eating contest too,” Judy added.

“Please tell me you were in the talent show as a kit,” Nick begged. He could see little Judy now, spelling out ridiculous words like onomatopoeia or conscientious to prove how smart she was.

Hiding her smile at the memory of the talent show, Judy folded up the map. “I was nine, and my friends and I put on a play about what we wanted to be when we grew up. I wore the police hat that hangs over my mirror.”

“Oh Fluff, that is adorable!” Nick teased, free paw coming to his chest. He dropped it a moment later, lazy grin in place as he snickered. “Do your parents have it on tape?”

“Even if they did I wouldn’t let you watch it.” Judy shook her head. Nick would soon realize that Judy’s dramatics in the museum were lifted straight from her kithood play.

Humming in contemplation, Nick weighed his options. “I think I could convince Jasmine to let me see it.”

“Do you want those blueberry goodies from my mom?” Judy threatened, nudging Nick with her shoulder.

Playing along, the tod put on a look of mock horror before he grinned. He knew Judy well enough now to know she’d never withhold Hopps blueberries from him. “You know what, I don’t want to see it that badly.”

Judy laughed, paw holding the folded map coming up to lightly box Nick’s arm, still looped through her own. “That’s what I thought.”

Together they walked around the fair, stopping to chat to some of Judy’s friends. Nick felt a little uneasy with all the curious glances being sent their way, but with no open hostility, he tried his hardest to ignore it. It wasn’t like he was unused to getting strange looks – foxes were still disliked in the city – but being surrounded by hundreds of rabbits made him a little uneasy. They might have been prey mammals, but pack mentality was a very real thing.

“Step right up mammals! $2 gets you three throws. For each carrot ring you get onto the poles, you win a prize!” A stall owner called out to the crowd as Nick and Judy were passing. The Carrot Toss, according to the sign above the booth. The prizes were bright, colorful carrot teddies. An idea struck Nick.

With a gentle tug, Nick led Judy to the stand. Rooting in his back pocket, he pulled out his wallet. “Go on then, I’ll have a go.”

Surprised, Judy watched Nick pull out his wallet. “Nick, what’re you-“

“You’ll have to take an extra stride back from the stall, Sir. Longer arms and all.” The stall owner explained as Nick handed over the $2.

Figuring he had some advantage over rabbits, Nick shrugged. “I can live with that.”

“Nick, seriously?” Judy chuckled, watching as the stall owner handed the fox three-carrot rings. As instructed, Nick took an extra stride away from the booth.

“You’ve heard about my aim, now I’m going to show you.” Moving to stand front on to the stall, Nick felt the weight of the ring in his paw. Bringing his forearm close to his body, he snapped it forward letting the ring go. He watched as the ring sailed through the air, clipping the pole but falling just short. The stall owner watched on amused.

“Thought you said your aim was good?” Judy couldn’t resist teasing Nick.

“It is. Now I know the trajectory of the ring based on its weight.” He repeated his stance, second ring in paw. Taking a deep breath he held it, snapping his forearm forward again. The ring sailed through the air, and this time it landed right on the pole, sliding down it to rest at its base.

“Well look at you!” Judy was impressed, smile wide and eyebrows raised.

Preening a little at the praise, Nick repeated the process, the third ring joining the second around the pole. The stall owner’s smile was a little forced as he handed over two carrot teddies.

“Okay I admit, your aim is very impressive, and I’m glad you’re putting your ZPD training to good use, even if it’s on winning teddies and not taking down perps.” Judy grinned. Nick had told her he was the best shot out of this year’s entire intake, and seeing him in action made her proud.

“I’m working myself up to the big stuff.” Nick pocketed one of the carrot teddies. “A carrot for Cinnamon Bun.” The other teddy in paw, he offered it to Judy “And a carrot for my Carrots.”

Judy’s expression softened, touched by Nick’s sweetness. Gently, she took the teddy from him, clutching it close to her chest. “Thanks, Slick”

About to respond, Nick was sidetracked by the most incredible smell. Sniffing, Nick scanned the surrounding stalls, looking for the source of the warm and fruity scent. “What is that amazing smell?”

Having to suppress her laughter at how adorable Nick looked, tipping his head to try and inhale more of the fruity scent; Judy stole a quick glance around, immediately locating the source. “That’s Gideon’s pies.” She tucked the fair map into her handbag before gesturing to the stall manned by the portly fox.

“Gideon, as in clawed-you-as-a-kit Gideon?” The corners of Nick’s mouth turned downwards, frowning. Why did the incredible smell have to come from the pies that Judy’s kithood bully had made?

“Yeah. Gid’s different now, though. Come on, I’ll introduce you.” Judy knew that the variety of species in Bunnyburrow was limited, and it had probably been a long time since Gideon had seen a fox outside of his family. Judy wasn’t sure whether Nick socialized with many foxes apart from Marian and Finnick, but it was worth introducing the two, if only so that Judy could purchase some pies.

“I’m not sure I want to know the fox that mauled you.” Nick retorted, paw grabbed by Judy as he was dragged through the crowds and towards the pie stand.

Confident that Nick and Gideon would get along, or at least be civil to one another, Judy tugged the fox towards the stall. If all else failed, she’d ply Nick with pie. “Once you try his blueberry pie, you’ll want to know him.”

It was hard for Gideon to miss the approach of another fox, their scent undeniable. Ears forward and tail up a little, Gideon searched for the other vulpine. Finding him, his curiosity was piqued. Judy Hopps was tugging the other tod towards his stall. As they drew close enough, Gideon stepped out from behind the stall. “Well howdy there Judy!” He took in the rabbit, noting that she looked well. “Hey, you brought along a friend!” His gaze flickered to the other fox while he wiped his one of his pie-covered paws onto his apron, offering the same paw out to the tod. “Gideon Grey, it’s a pleasure.”

Taking Gideon’s paw, Nick gave it a firm shake, falling back on his old con-mammal persona. Lazy smile, relaxed posture, charm offensive. Back in Zootopia Nick knew everyone, knew exactly how to act around each mammal, but here? Here it was all new

“Nick Wilde.” Nick introduced himself, pulling his paw back. Judy had let go of his other paw, instead opting to hold onto his arm, watching the exchange.

Tendrils of familiarity gave Gideon pause. He wasn’t the brightest crayon in the box, but the name rang a bell… “Now hold on a second, Wilde as in Wilde & Son?”

Judy felt Nick stiffen, posture tense for the shortest of seconds before he relaxed again, easy smile never faltering. Judy knew it was a sore spot for Nick, and that he’d perhaps hoped no one in Bunnyburrow would recognize his family name. “The very same,” Nick confirmed.

Surprised that a member of the Wilde family was in Bunnyburrow, Gideon grinned. “Well, I’ll be darned. My grandpappy will be all shook up knowing I got to meet cha. Your grandpappy made him a coat a long time ago. He stills wears it today. Says it’s the best thing he ever bought save for grandmamma’s bonding bracelet.”

Nick’s whole body tensed. “Don’t you dare say anything else about the bracelet, country bumpkin.”

Feeling Nick tense again when Gideon mentioned his grandmamma’s bracelet, Judy frowned. “Bonding bracelet?” She stole a glance down at her right wrist, mind racing. “Is that what this is?”

Mollified by the compliment, Nick gave a quick bob of his head. His father and grandfather’s clothes had always been well made. Nick still had several items they’d made for him when he’d been a kit, but they were tucked away in a box at his mom’s. “Well, I’m glad it’s stood the test of time.”

Before Judy could think about her bracelet some more, she was pulled back to the conversation as Gideon reached for one of the pies He took a slice, putting it down on a paper plate. “Rumour ‘round here is that you’re a fan of the Hopps blueberries. Here, I baked a few pies with them. Try some.” Gideon offered the plate to Nick, along with a plastic fork.

Waging an internal battle for a few seconds, Nick reached for the plate when Judy let go of his arm. He wasn’t too comfortable with the idea of eating right now, but the look on Judy’s face of excitement and hope pushed him to at least try a bite.

Breaking off a small piece with the fork, Nick speared it, popping it into his mouth. Immediately the taste of tangy blueberries burst onto his tongue, the warm goodness of the delicious pastry made him close his eyes for the briefest of moments. It was good, so good. “Oh jeez, I’m gonna need all of these.” Nick knew it was impolite to speak with his mouthful, but all sense of decency left him.

Chuckling, Gideon breathed a sigh of relief. Though he was confident in his pies and ability, he still held his breath every time a new mammal tried them. “I’ll box some up for ya Nick. I’m sure Mrs. H will be able to warm ‘em up for you later.” Gideon’s gaze moved to Judy while she watched Nick eat, and the sun caught something shiny around her wrist. Finding the source, Gideon almost let out a noise of surprise, eyes widening. “Well, I’ll be darned. Lil’ Judy Hopps datin’ a fox.”

“Judy! Oh my goodness, is that you?” The sound of a female’s voice grabbed the doe and both tods attention. Locating the source, Judy was surprised to see Sharla and Gareth approaching. The two sheep hadn’t changed a bit from when they’d been kits.

As her old friends pulled Judy away, Nick shook his head fondly, watching as his favorite bunny placed her carrot teddy in her handbag for safe keeping. A lot of mammals had approached them during the day, all of them wanting to catch up with Judy now that she was living in the city.

“You two are tighter than peas in a pod. Y’know, I’m real glad Judy ain’t scared of foxes no more.” Gideon commented, boxing up an apple pie for a young doe that’d since approached the stall.

Plate and fork still in paw, Nick broke off another piece of pie. “Hm, I have heard that incidents in kithood can have a scarring effect in later life.” He commented, putting the pie piece into his mouth. He chewed while Gideon waved goodbye to the doe that had bought the apple pie.

Gideon might’ve been a bit slow, not altogether too smart, but Nick’s comment told him that Judy had shared the fact Gideon had clawed her when they’d been kits. He’d bullied a lot of mammals when he’d been younger, said a lot of nasty things, but Judy was the only one he’d ever used his claws against. It had taken several sessions with his therapist to talk through his use of violence. “I’ll be first to admit I was a major jerk. My therapist has been helpin’ me sort through my issues. I find solace in baking. It was real good of Judy to forgive me. What I did to her was wrong. I’m just glad she’s over it. Y’know, you’re the first mammal she’s brought home. How long you two been together anyhow?”

Pleasantly surprised by Gideon’s willingness to share, Nick spared a moment to feel a little sorry about his jibe. The other fox seemed genuinely contrite. “A few months now, we’re living together.” Nick didn’t bother correcting Gideon’s assumption. Besides, it wasn’t like he’d asked how long they’d been dating, just how long they’d been together. They’d been together since the start of the night howler case if one were pedantic.

“Cripes didn’t think lil’ Judy would get so serious so quickly. Well, I’m glad you’re dedicated enough to her to ‘ave bought her a bonding bracelet. Not many folks carry on the tradition these days. My grandpappy says it’s a shame.” Gideon spent many nights talking with his grandpappy, even encouraging the old fox to help him bake pies. They hadn’t had much of a relationship when he’d been a kit, he’d been a ball of rage and aggression, but he’d mellowed out now.

Nick was torn. Part of him wanted to tell Gideon that Judy was blissfully unaware of the bracelets meaning, ask him not to open his mouth and ruin it, but the other part of him was selfish and liked the idea of the other tod thinking Judy was his. Nick decided to stick with neutral territory. “She’s the best doe I know.”

“Amen to that.” Gideon agreed, turning his attention back to his stand and the few mammals milling around, wanting to purchase baked goods from him.

Judy returned, her smile wide and eyes bright, a flurry of yellow and gray. “Sorry, that was Sharla and Gareth. We went to school together, but I haven’t seen them in years. Gosh, they’ve changed.”

Finishing up his pie, Nick tossed the used plate and fork into a nearby bin. “I’m sure you have too, Fluff. Big city cop now.”

“With my big city partner.” Judy reached up, giving Nick’s shoulder another playful box. She couldn’t stop herself from constantly thumping him, and no matter how many times she told her brain to stop it, that every rabbit in the area knew what it meant, she couldn’t refrain.

A loud crash broke through the usual sounds of the fair, and quick reflexes had Nick and Judy honing in on the sound, eyes locating the source. Stu had been carrying a large crate of carrots to the family stall, and the box had split on him, crashing to the ground, spilling the contents. Judy made to move, to help her dad, but Nick’s paw on her arm stopped her. “I got this.” He crossed to her family stall with ease, bending down to help Stu collect the spilled carrots.

Watching as Nick helped her father, cleaning off the carrots and placing them in a different crate, Judy’s features softened, affection in her gaze.

“You done picked a good one, Judy,” Gideon commented, having been watching the commotion while he finished serving the last customer of the sudden rush.

“Huh?” Judy’s response was ineloquent, eyes focused on her dad and Nick while one of her ears swiveled to listen to Gideon.

“Nick. You picked a good one.” Gideon repeated, stepping away from his spot behind his stall, wiping his paws on his apron. “Not many foxes these days too willing to help a bunny in need. They’re worried they’d be accused of somethin’” He knew his kind were still widely seen as untrustworthy, and it would take more than a few kind foxes to change the opinion of the masses. Gideon hoped other mammals would soon see his kind as more than shifty, sly, and untrustworthy.

The line at her family stall had built up while Nick and Stu had been collecting the carrots, and Judy watched as Nick offered to help her dad out. Her father clapped him on the shoulder, giving him a quick explanation of how the stall was run before he put Nick to work.

Gideon watched the scene too. When Bonnie and Stu had first approached him, shortly after he’d set up his business, he’d been apprehensive about partnering with them. Gideon had worried that they were trying to pull a fast one on him, get some sort of revenge for how he’d treated Judy. Once they’d explained how Judy had opened their eyes, he’d been more comfortable partnering with them. Gideon’s business had flourished since. “Looks like your dad has warmed to him. That’ll make your bonding easier.”

“Bonding. There’s that word again.” Judy decided to steal the opportunity to dig for more information. She felt a brief moment of guilt as she hoped Gideon would be loose-lipped compared to Wolford and Bandit. After all, Gideon had never been the sharpest tool in the shed. “Yeah, about that….”

“Don’t worry about it Judy, it doesn’t bother me.” Gideon wafted a paw through the air. “No real surprise that a family like the Wilde’s still carry on the bonding bracelet tradition, though.”

“You’ve never bought a cute vixen a bonding bracelet?” Judy looked down at the carrot and pawpsicle charms. Gideon’s grandpappy had purchased a bracelet; it stood to reason that Gideon might have bought one too.

Gideon shook his head, the idea absurd. He wasn’t that fortunate, no vixen had come near him in a long time. “Aw heck no. Only suppose to buy ‘em if you intend to follow through and form a bond.”

“Form a bond?” Judy was now even more confused, but she kept her cards close to her chest. She couldn’t risk Gideon knowing that this was all new information to her. “You mentioned your grandpappy bought one for your grandmamma?”

“Oh yeah. He saved up for months; them things cost a pretty penny y’know. He traveled to the city for it, had it made special. He told grandmamma she had to be careful with it, for if she lost it, he couldn’t get her another one. She was always losing things. Never lost that bracelet though. Guess the fact a tod can only ever have one made in his lifetime reminded her how important it was.” Gideon chattered away, enjoying the fact his relationship with Judy was so much better now. Looking back, he admired how brave she’d been squaring off to him all those years ago.

Judy had to stop her squeal of delight. Gideon was a goldmine of information, and he didn’t seem to have any problem sharing things with her. “You can only have one made?”

“Yeah, they’re custom, so don’t you go losing it, Judy. Mr. Jackson keeps a detailed record of who buys ‘em. Stops us canines buying another; otherwise, it cheapens the meaning. Gotta be absolutely sure before you buy.” Gideon started to rearrange the pies on his stall, moving them forward, so they were more accessible to his shorter customers.

Nick was still working the booth with her dad, and Judy’s heart flip-flopped at the notion that Nick had bought her such an important bracelet, a bracelet he could only ever buy one of in his life. “I didn’t realize he felt that much affection for me.”

“Affection?” Gideon snorted. “Gosh Judy, bonds need more than affection to take.”

“Bonds?” Judy threw caution to the wind and tossed down her cards, needing answers. The book she’d borrowed from Marian hadn’t said anything about bonds.

“Mhm. We foxes mate for life you know; we form a bond, usually during claiming and all that, and it can’t ever be broken. You’re real lucky, Judy, with Nick being so forward with his intentions to bond with ya, claim you for life.”

“Claiming? Bonding?” Judy’s mind raced. She’d thought it was just a beautiful trinket at first, and then had surmised from Wolford and Bandit that it was a token of affection, a symbol of their friendship, but now…

Looking down at her bracelet, Judy worked through everything Gideon had just told her. She was still unsure about what bonding was, but from the sounds of it, it was linked to claiming. Judy remembered what the book from Marian had told her about claiming, that it was related to knotting, which in turn only occurred when a tod took a mate…

Judy felt like a freight train had hit her. Swaying, she reached for the edge of Gideon’s stall, using it to steady herself. “Nick gave me this because he wants me as his mate. Which means he must love me. Oh, holy cheese and crackers. Nick loves me.”

Judy’s eyes widened, heartbeat picking up as the realization stole her breath away. Nick Wilde, the charming, witty, street smart, handsome fox, loved her. Casting her mind back, Judy recalled everything between them since Bellwether’s arrest. “He looked after me when I was injured, wraps his tail around me, and let me stroke it. He opens up to me, agreed to live with me, and signed up to join the ZPD with my encouragement. He holds my paw all the time, is always reaching for me, he kisses my head and cheeks, he holds me while we sleep, calls me every week, gave me a bonding bracelet, took me to a gallery and for dinner on my birthday – oh cripes that was like a date! He fought off the fox at the station hitting on me, brought me flowers with beautiful meanings, and he agreed to meet my family.” Overwhelmed, Judy sought out Nick amongst the crowd of mammals around her family stall, needing to see him, to ground herself. As if he sensed her gaze, Nick looked up. Violet and emerald met, and everything fell into place for Judy. Nick loved her, loved her so much that he wanted her as his mate. Her fear that he wouldn’t feel the same melted away replaced instead by hope and joy, the possibility of a future where she could call Nick hers, introduce him to everyone as her mate.

Looking at Nick now, knowing that he loved her back, Judy could finally see it. She could see it in the way his lips parted ever so slightly when he looked at her, how his gaze would try to stray down her body but he’d force his eyes up, to hold hers, as if he were stopping his mind wandering. Judy flushed at the thought. Whenever their gazes met Nick’s features would soften, shoulders dropping as he relaxed. Judy thought back to the book she’d borrowed from Marian. Nick had followed her around for a while now, letting her make all the decisions and going along with whatever she wanted. “You’ve been such an idiot, Judy. How did you miss all of that? You’re such a dumb bunny! It was staring you right in the face the whole time. You’ve been acting like a couple for months. Julian was right; I didn’t see it.” Offering her fox a soft, affectionate smile, she watched as he returned it before his attention was pulled back to the stall and the mammals clamoring to be served. “Nick loves me. Oh, sweet cheese and crackers!” Judy’s teeth sank into her lower lip, trying and failing miserably to stop her wide grin.

Her mind continued to race, but this time she thought about all the ways she could tell Nick that she was madly, irrevocably in love with him too. “Hey, Gid?”

“Yeah, Judy?” The portly fox started to serve some customers, cutting up pie slices for them.

“Have I ever told you how great you are?” Judy would need to send the tod a huge thank you basket when she returned to the city. Not only had he helped her crack the night howler case, but he’d also just told her about her bracelet, helped her realize that Nicholas P. Wilde was in love with her. Part of her wanted to be mad at Nick for not telling her how important her bracelet was, that it’s meaning held so much weight in the canine world, related to something so serious as taking a mate. Another part of Judy, though, found it so heart-achingly sweet that Nick had gifted it to her. It wasn’t just a token of his affection, but of his deep love for her, and he’d had it made just for her, held her in such a high regard that he wanted to make a lifelong commitment to her.

Gideon blushed at the praise, ears flattening in embarrassment. “Aw shucks, Judy. You’re too kind.”

Nick had offered to help Stu run the stall while the crowds were crazy. He figured it was an opportunity to show Stu that he was prepared to help out, ready to integrate with the buck’s family, and he hoped it would put him in good stead for when it came to asking him for permission to date Judy. If he could show that he was capable and reliable, Stu might see him as an advantageous mate for Judy.

The fur on Nick’s neck prickled, the feeling of being watched all too familiar. Lifting his gaze, his eyes locked on to Judy, finding her looking at him. Fur flattening in relief, he held her gaze, lips parting. The rest of the world fell away as he focused on the beautiful bunny. Eyes drifting down to her dress and the way it hugged her oh so sweetly, Nick forced his eyes back up. “Don’t be creepy, Wilde. Ogle her only when her backs turned when you can enjoy her adorable tail and the way her hips sway and…”

Nick mentality berated himself for wandering down a less than pure path, again. It was getting more and more difficult not to picture what Judy would look like without her little dresses on.

As Judy offered him an affectionate smile, Nick felt his heart clench, breath coming a little bit quicker as he returned it. He was still so unsure about her feelings, so many mixed signals – she snuggled with him, yes, but her hold was familiar rather than intimate, she kissed his cheek but never strayed near his lips, she would be pawsy with him but she was a rabbit, and they were physically affectionate creatures. It made his head hurt.

A ruckus in front of him pulled Nick away from staring at Judy, and the tod was roped back into helping, bagging up carrots and rhubarb, celery and his precious blueberries. When he next looked up, scouring the crowds, he saw Judy swamped by a sea of bunnies, helping Gideon serve the sudden surge of mammals at his stall. Unlike Bandit, Nick didn’t feel threatened by the portly country fox. It was apparent he and Judy had patched things up, but the doe showed friendly concern for him and that was all. Besides, Nick figured she’d never run off with the mammal that had mauled her when she’d been a kit, no matter how forgiving she was.

“Hey Mr. H. Is Judy around?” The mention of his bunny had Nick dropping his gaze to locate the source. Two bucks stood at the stall, looking up at Stu. Ones fur was black, and the others were cream. Nick disliked them immediately. His years on the streets had made him good at reading shifty mammals.

Though elbow-deep in customers at Gideon’s stall, Judy still heard her name being mentioned nearby, large ears proving useful. Turning them, she located the source. “Oh no.” She withheld her groan of annoyance, channeling her efforts into helping Gideon’s customers, though she kept her ears on the conversation at her family stall.

“Hey Billy, George. Afraid I haven’t seen her, but Nick here was with her a moment ago.” Stu was surprised to see the two young bucks at his stall, especially without Julian around. They were his friends, after all.

Billy and George turned to the fox helping Mr. Hopps, giving him the once over. “Fancy helping a mammal out and letting us know where she is?”

As Stu uttered the buck’s names, Nick’s mind reminded him that he’d heard them before. “Judy’s awful dates…oh, Wilde, it’s your lucky day!” He shifted back into his con-mammal persona, lazy grin, and relaxed posture, leaning forward over the stall a little so he could talk directly to the pair of bucks. “Billy and George as in, the bucks who went on a date with Judy, Billy and George?”

Billy puffed out his chest, smug smile on his face. “Yeah, that’s right. Seen her around? We want second dates.”

“She’s so going to pick me over you.” George mimicked his friend’s posture, the two mammals standing a little taller, trying to make themselves look impressive.

“You wish.” Billy retorted, giving his friend the stink eye. They may have been friends, but not when it came to winning over Judy. There, they were competitors.

Nick thanked every deity he could think of for dropping such a golden opportunity into his lap. He had a promise to keep. “Actually, you both wish. See, here’s the thing. I know exactly where Judy is, but I’m not telling you. Why I hear you ask? Well, because you’re idiots.”

Unable to stop a paw from clamping over her mouth, Judy’s eyes widened. Quietly excusing herself she moved from behind Gideon’s stall, standing a little to the side, eyes and ears on the conversation Nick was having with Billy and George. “Cheese and crackers, he actually did it!”

Oblivious to Judy’s eavesdropping, Nick enjoyed the indignation and anger that flared across Billy and George’s faces.

Stu’s eyes widened, not believing what he was hearing. “Oh, Bon is going to want to hear about this! Marian too!”

Rolling on without giving the bucks a chance to respond, Nick’s grin morphed into a smirk. “You won’t be getting second dates. I mean, when Judy told you about her hopes and dreams you rained all over them, rather than encouraging her to pursue them. Who the hell does that to another mammal? It says a lot about your character. If you really cared and genuinely wanted to date her you’d want her to peruse her passion, want her to be all she can be, not demand that she be barefoot and pregnant her whole life so you can puff your chest out and feel pleased that something came from being a two pump chump.” It was below the belt, mocking another mammal’s stamina, but the reminder that these two imbeciles had made Judy upset, had laughed at her hopes and dreams, made his blood boil. Nick didn’t know much about relationships, had no experience with them, but as a kit, he’d watched his parents, observed the way his mom and dad had built one another up. Relationships were supporting your other half, through thick and thin, encouraging them to do whatever makes them happy, being there for them when things went wrong, not forcing your will on them.

Judy leaned against a nearby flagpole, constructed to string bunting over the stalls and walkway. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Nick was scolding Billy and George, standing up for her, fighting for her. It gave Judy butterflies.

Stu stood by in awe, watching as Nick ripped into Billy and George. True his daughter had come home angry after her dates with the two bucks, Bonnie had complained about it to him one night when they’d been getting ready for bed, but he’d never even thought about what could’ve happened to make her so angry. He’d assumed it was simply because Judy hadn’t wanted to date when in actuality, her dates had been misogynistic fools.

Nick was on a role, fired up and enjoying the way Billy and George looked gobsmacked that someone dared slap them with some home truths. “Judy’s a cop, and she’s a damn good one. It’s what she’s always wanted, and she’s out there living her dream, making the world a better place. She doesn’t need negative mammals in her life telling her what she can and can’t do, wanting her to give up her hopes and dreams.”

Stu started to see the tod in a whole new light. Sure he’d been warming to him, he was a good mammal who wasn’t afraid to pitch in, Nick played well with his family, and he had Judy’s back, but Stu had had some final reservations. Nick had just shattered them. The older buck could see now how driven Nick was, how he wouldn’t tolerate anyone crushing Judy’s dreams. Nick would support his daughter, would build her up and encourage her. He would look after her and ensure her happiness. That was all Stu wanted, for his little girl to be happy. If Nick gave her that, who was he to try and stop them?

“So, unless you’ve miraculously changed your minds about Judy working and now respect her and her decisions, consider her happiness and her wants in the grand scheme of things, you can kiss away any chance of a second date with her.” Nick smoothed out his expression, having felt himself scowling through most of his monolog, losing his con-mammal cool. “You’re getting rusty.” He plastered back on his lazy grin. “What’s it gonna be?”

Spluttering, Billy and George glared at the fox, highly insulted. George was first to find his tongue. “We’re rabbits, fox. We’re more than two pump chumps.”

Nick snorted in disbelief, shaking his head. They really were idiots. “Out of my whole little spiel that’s what you’re focusing on? Wow, Judy had a lucky escape. You don’t give a damn about her, you only care about yourselves. Probably explains why she never called you back.”

Indignant, Billy chipped in. “What? Think she’d ever call you back? You’d be lucky to get a first date.” He scoffed.

“Actually.” Nick’s smirk was back as he leaned forward a little more as if he were about to share a secret. “You might want to log on to Furbook, take a glance at Judy’s page. Think you’ll find we’ve already been on a date.” He winked. When he’d been en route back to the academy after his visit home for Judy’s birthday, his phone had exploded with notifications. It had been so overwhelming that after seeing what the fuss was about and liking the photo Judy had uploaded, he’d turned his phone off. Since turning it back on yesterday, he hadn’t dared to look at his Furbook. They’d celebrated Judy’s birthday, and it technically hadn’t been a date, but the bucks didn’t need to know that. An afternoon at an art gallery followed by dinner out sounded believable enough as a first date. “Here’s the kicker. Judy and I? We live together now. Yeah, bummer. For you, that is.”

“Nick!” Judy mentally screamed, clamping her paws over her mouth to stop herself from howling with laughter. She’d been close to crying when Nick had passionately stood up for her, told Billy and George they’d never have a chance with her, but Nick’s little lie about their date and the way he baited them with the information that she lived with him was too much. It was taking all of her strength not to fall over laughing at the way Billy and George looked at one another in surprise, caught completely off guard by Nick’s revelation of their living arrangements. Now that Judy could look at their relationship with fresh eyes, so to speak, she could see how her birthday celebrations could’ve been perceived as one long date. Breakfast in bed, jewelry, paw holding, the art gallery and Nick’s need to whisper information in her ear, and the dinner they’d had afterward. “You’re going to have a hard time topping that, Slick.”

“What?! Urgh.” George’s face took on a look of utter disgust once the shock wore off. “You know what, I can’t believe I even wanted to date that predo. You can have her.”

Billy grimaced, the corners of his lips turned down in contempt. “So wrong.” He shook his head, sneering, as he looked Nick up and down.

Seething at hearing them use such a slur against Judy, Nick contemplated reaching across the stall and throttling them. Instead, his grip on the stall tightened while his jaw clenched. Forcing himself to relax, to let it go, for now, he plastered on a cocky smile, dropping his voice to a low, somewhat husky tone. “Oh no, trust me, it’s so right.”

Judy’s anger flared as Billy and George insulted her, and she barely stopped herself from marching over and giving them what for. Nick’s response, though, had the doe gasping, paws still clamped over her mouth, eyes widening. Nick was making it sound like they were sleeping together! “You are sleeping together, idiot. Just, not in that way….yet.”

Billy opened his mouth to fire back an angry retort, but George grabbed his sleeve. “Come on Bill, we’re not wasting our time dealing with this when there are plenty of pretty non-predo does to woo.”

The two bucks stormed away from the stall, Nick’s grin seemingly never ending as he mockingly waved them off. The clearing of Stu’s throat, though, felt like the buckets of ice water Major Friedkin had thrown over Nick. Frozen with fear, Nick mentally cursed himself. “Wonderful, you stupid idiot. You’ve just gone and blown it. That’s it. Stu isn’t going to let you date his daughter now you’ve made lewd comments.”

Seeing Nick freeze, watching as his body tensed, Stu knew the tod had forgotten about his presence while he’d been fighting Judy’s corner. Stu wasn’t bothered about the fact that Nick had alluded to him and Judy being intimate. If anything, knowing now how the two bucks had treated his daughter, seeing the shock on their faces as Nick slapped them down was marvellous. Their open dislike for Judy working and their speciest comment only cemented to the buck that Billy and George were bad choices for his daughter. “Where did all that come from, Nick?” Stu’s curiosity got the better of him.

Nick remembers Stu’s presence. “I’m sorry Sir, that wasn’t polite of me. It’s just, Judy told me about her awful dates with them. They were idiots, wanting her to give up her dream so she could be a housewife. That’s not what Judy wants, at least not right now.” Nick’s apology was contrite, but the silence from the buck unnerved him. Worried, he flew into another apology. “I didn’t mean to allude to anything, Sir. I’m sorry. Pants have stayed firmly on like I promised.”

Stu knew it was cruel, remaining silent and stony while Nick panicked, but he enjoyed watching the usually calm and smooth fox lose his cool. “It’s fine, Nick. Thank you for looking out for Judy.” He clapped the tod on the back, offering him a grin. Nick visibly relaxed, smiling in return.

Watching Nick and her dad interact, Judy felt a wave of contentment wash over her. She still couldn’t believe that Nick had followed through and called Billy and George idiots, even when he’d assumed she hadn’t been listening in. Head still swimming with the information she’d received from Gideon, thank goodness the country fox was loose-lipped and hadn’t put two and two together, Judy felt an indescribable amount of love for Nick. He wanted her as his mate. Nick loved her too.


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