Chapter 18 – Barnyard Party

As the afternoon progressed, Nick and Judy explored the rest of the fair. Now, knowing Nick loved her, Judy found it even harder to keep her paws to herself. She grabbed at his paw as they walked, lacing their fingers together, refusing to let go of him. When 5pm rolled around, and the fair came to a close for the day, Judy led them home so they could quickly shower and change, dress for the evening’s celebration. Once ready, together they’d set off for the barns where the evening celebration was taking place. They’d left their phones at home, not wanting to be distracted from the evening’s celebrations. Again they’d decided to walk, and after trekking across a few well-maintained fields, they could see a cluster of barns lit up in the distance.

“Remind me again why we’re walking through fields?” Nick griped. He was playing the part, pretending to be disgruntled. In actuality, Nick was enjoying their trip across the countryside, the fresh air, and the earth beneath his hind paws. He loved the city, would always be a city fox, but the country was rapidly growing on him.

“There’s a party, Slick. Food, dancing, music…remember?” Judy gave Nick’s paw a gentle squeeze. She’d grabbed it the moment they’d left the house, lacing their fingers together. Knowing he loved her, she figured she’d get away with it. Besides, she was hoping it was another hint to him about her feelings. Judy knew they’d have to talk soon, but she wanted Nick to figure out on his own that she loved him back.

“I don’t dance.” Nick quickly shot the idea down. Lazily, he started to swing their paws between them, enjoying the way Judy’s smaller paw was dwarfed by his.

Scowling, Judy objected. “But-“

“Don’t think for a second Fluff that I’m going to be dancing this evening,” Nick warned. He could remember his mom and dad dancing together around their store – ballroom and jazz had been their favorites. Nick could remember the music they’d play, the way his father would sweep his mom up into his arms, the way his mom would tip her head back and laugh happily. His parents had tried teaching him how to dance, and through the few lessons Nick had been given, he’d been able to pick up a little bit. He hadn’t had the chance to use it in years, but he got a distinct impression a dance floor in a barn during a country festival wasn’t the place to indulge in some ballroom dancing.

Stopping suddenly, and having to yank Nick to a standstill, Judy’s ears drooped. Looking up at her fox, Judy pushed out her lower lip a little, widening her eyes. “Please, for me?” She batted her eyelashes, not above using her feminine charm to get Nick to cave.

The look on Judy’s face, the sweet way she asked him to dance with her, it was all too much. “She’s going to be the death of you. Your epitaph will read ‘killed by his adorable bunny’” Sighing, Nick knew he was going to lose. He figured it was better to concede. He could deal with dancing to one song, just for Judy. “One song, that’s all.”

Dropping the act, Judy grinned, continuing to lead Nick the last few hundred yards to the cluster of barns. “I’ll take that small victory.”

“She hustled you. Again.” Nick snorted, fondly looking down at his favorite rabbit. Gaze returning to his surroundings, he took in the cluster of barns they were now stood amongst. They were cherry red, illuminated by thousands of fairy lights and lanterns, and set out in a rough circle shape. The barn doors had been pushed open and the insides cleared. Long tables had been laid out, chairs lining each side. In the centre of the cluster, around where Nick and Judy stood, a huge space had been cleared. Nick noted a DJ booth had been set up nearby, along with a stage and band equipment. Behind the DJ booth, Nick was surprised to see a cougar. What surprised him, even more, was that when the cougar spotted them, Judy lifted a paw to wave. The cougar returned the gesture with a grin before returning to his job sorting out his decks.

As Judy led Nick into one of the barns, taking their seats at one of the large, long tables, she explained how Bobby Catmull, the cougar DJ, had been her friend in school. Judy elaborated, noting that during her performance at the festival when she’d been nine, he’d been the sound mammal for her. As the barn had started to fill up, Judy had placed her paw on Nick’s arm again, violet eyes scouring the crowds for familiar faces.

Looking down at Judy’s paw on his arm, Nick took a deep breath. His mind went back to his earlier musings, about how pawsy Judy was with him now. He’d been letting her lead regarding physical affection, only returning whatever she was willing to give him. He didn’t want to overstep, to misread something. Rabbits were physical creatures by nature, and Nick didn’t want to risk taking Judy’s natural need for contact as a sign that she wanted something more from him. While the book from Bonnie had been very useful, and he’d even brought it with him this weekend in case Tony or Randon decided to sabotage his bunk, it hadn’t explained what typical rabbit affection looked like compared to romantic attachment. Was paw holding standard?

Realizing rabbits surrounded him, Nick took the opportunity to look around and gauge the levels of affection shared between them. A lot of rabbits seemed to be holding paws, but it was hard to distinguish whether they were family members or romantic partners. “That’s not helpful.” He scowled.

He and Judy shared a bed, often falling asleep together. Was that common for rabbits? Nick recalled Judy mentioning that when she’d been younger, she’d been in a shared bedroom with her siblings. “So I guess bed sharing is normal for them too.”

Sighing, Nick felt so lost and confused. It was like he’d boarded a train that had derailed and now he was just along for the ride, waiting for the inevitable crash at the end. Nick had settled on mimicking Judy’s affection levels, letting her lead the show. Nick was taking all he could get from Judy, savoring every scrap of physical affection from the doe. Twenty years on the streets had seen him starved of any meaningful relationships, starved of any meaningful touch. There hadn’t been any affection with his flings, just the need to scratch an itch. Nick had almost forgotten what it was like to feel care from someone other than his mom. Nick craved the feelings, the sense of warmth and attention, value, and love that he experienced when Judy took his paw or when she brushed against him, and when she touched him to grab his attention.

Nick wasn’t an idiot; he realized how their pawsy behavior looked to outsiders. During the day a large number of mammals had given him strange and sometimes judgemental looks when they’d noticed he and Judy holding paws. Though uncomfortable with the attention, conditioned from his years on the street to try and blend in with his surroundings, Nick knew it was easier to go along with Judy’s paw holding than address the issue and risk Judy pulling back. He enjoyed holding her paw, enjoyed the way she now linked their fingers together, and it wasn’t doing anyone any harm.

Nick watched as a large group of rabbits brought food over, lining the middle of the table with it. They placed down paper plates and plastic cutlery, too. Hundreds of dishes were brought out, and though Nick wasn’t hungry, he knew he had to eat something. It would be rude not too, and suspicious.

As the mammals around him started to eat, Nick grabbed two plates and two lots of cutlery. He and Judy began to load up their plates, Judy’s stomach growling. “Ju! Oh my gosh!” The high pitch exclamation had Nick’s ears flattening, wincing at the sharp sound.

Abandoning her plate of food, Judy turned to the sound. Grinning at the sight of her siblings Judy was enveloped in an intense hug. She gave her sister a squeeze back. “Hey, Jackie.” She glanced over her sister’s shoulder at her brother, who elbowed Jackie out of the way so he could steal a hug too. “Hey, Justin.”

“Mom said you might be coming back for the festival, and here you are!” Jackie and Justin had started their own families and had their own warrens, and though they kept in regular contact with their mom and dad, they were both out of the loop when it came to most of the goings-on in the Hopps warren.

“Here I am, Jackie.” Judy laughed nervously. Justin and Jackie had been a bit more vocal about how much they disliked Judy living in the city, always finding a reason to complain about her never coming home to visit them. It wasn’t that Judy didn’t like coming home; it was just the expense of it, and the fact she always left more exhausted than when she’d arrived. She had no idea how she was going to deal with work on Monday morning, and she wondered how Nick would cope with his training on Monday too.

Nick listened as Judy spoke to the two rabbits. He figured they were Judy’s littermates, and the tod clenched a paw. Nick hoped they’d take to him like Jasmine had. Though he’d tried not to let Julian’s outburst get to him, Nick couldn’t deny that he’d been hurt by the mammal’s stereotypical comments. Julian hadn’t given Nick a chance to prove him wrong.

Having spotted the fox sat beside his sister, Justin gestured with a thumb towards him. “Want to introduce us to your friend, Ju?”

“Oh sure, sorry! Justin, Jackie, this is Nick. Nick, this is Justin and Jackie, my littermates.” Judy introduced them all, paw going to rest on Nick’s arm once again.

Justin and Jackie both spotted their sister’s possessive grip on the fox but neither of them said anything. Julian had grabbed them as they’d arrived for the event, taking them to one side to give them the low down on Nick. Justin hadn’t been surprised that his sister had formed a bond with a fox; she was always willing to give any mammal the benefit of the doubt. Jackie, though, had her concerns.

Nick offered out a paw to Jackie first, and after giving it a gentle shake, he offered the same paw to Justin, who shook his paw with surprising strength. “Pleasure.” He offered them both a smile, unable to resist elbowing Judy. “Any more littermates I need to be aware of?”

Rolling her eyes, Judy used a hind paw to nudge Nick under the table. “Har-har. Nope, you’ve met them all now.”

“So Nick, how long have you known Ju for?” Justin observed their interactions, noting the familiarity between them. Judy looked comfortable, entirely at ease around the tod, and Justin had never seen her acting in such a mammal around a male who wasn’t part of their family before.

Surprised that Justin was asking him questions, and not making accusations like Julian had, Nick offered the buck a grin. “A couple of months now. We met when she first moved to the city.”

“You’re a cop too?” Jackie questioned, giving the fox a quick once over. He didn’t look like trouble, but Jackie couldn’t shake the feeling that Judy was making a mistake. For a prey mammal to be so attached to a predator was largely unheard of, and if there was something more between them then how would Judy have kits? Every doe got the urge to start a family at some point.

“Training to be one at the moment. Your sister managed to cajole me into joining.” Nick joked, earning himself a light shove from Judy.

“Hey, all I said was that it would be nice to have a partner.” Judy clarified. Turning her attention back to her siblings, Judy expanded on her statement. “When Nick graduates we’re going to be partners.”

“So any information on ways I can annoy and embarrass your sister would be greatly appreciated.” Nick grinned, getting the distinct feeling that Justin might be willing to share a tip or two with him.

“Oh I have a whole host of information, how long have you got?” Justin returned the fox’s grin, chuckling as Judy gasped.

“Just!” Judy protested.

Though Jackie felt a little uncomfortable about her sister having a predator for a partner, she couldn’t deny that the easiness between her and Nick would no doubt translate well into the work environment too. Jackie was also pretty confident that most of the other mammals working for the ZPD were much bigger than her sister, and it would be impractical for her to be partnered with them. “I’m sure it’ll be wonderful for you to have a partner, Ju. Keep my sister in line, will you?” She directed her question to Nick. Indeed, Jackie hoped Nick would keep Judy out of trouble. Her sister was known for going into things gung-ho without stopping to think things through.

“More like she’s keeping me in line if I’m honest.” Nick quipped.

Justin laughed, his whole body shaking. “Why doesn’t that surprise me?” He shook his head. He could remember Judy being a bossy kit, making sure all of them were doing as they were told. Some kits grew out of their annoying habits. Judy wasn’t one of them.

Another bunny approached the group, quietly letting Justin and Jackie know that Lukas was looking for them. “Oh gosh, let’s hope he’s not got his paw stuck in the dang mayonnaise jar again.” Jackie sighed. “It was lovely to meet you, Nick. Justin and I will come back later and catch up with you two properly.” Judy’s littermates offered Nick and Judy a wave as they departed, leaving the doe and tod alone again.

Judy’s paw was still resting on Nick’s arm as she turned back to the tod. “You know, I could always ask your mom for ways to annoy or embarrass you in return.” She teased.

“You wouldn’t.” Nick was pretty sure Judy wouldn’t ask his mom for any information. The fox prayed she wouldn’t. Nick had a feeling his mom would be more than happy to give Judy as much information as she wanted, at the expense of Nick’s pride.

“You never know, Slick. I’m full of surprises.” Judy gave Nick’s arm another gentle squeezing, giving him a broad smile.

Unable to stop himself from broaching the subject any longer, Nick spared a glance down to Judy’s paw on his arm. “You’re feeling very pawsy today, Fluff.” Nick had no issues with her paws on him, craved her touch if he was honest, but her increased physical affection was confusing the tod.

Judy froze. Was she being too forward? Was she making her feelings too obvious? Was she overstepping and making Nick uncomfortable? Pulling her paw back quickly, Judy let it rest in her lap, offering Nick an apologetic smile. “Sorry, physical bunny and all.” She tried to laugh it off. She couldn’t shake her worry, though. The fact Nick had gifted her a bonding bracelet, only exchanged between mates, had made her believe that he loved her. It stood to reason if he loved her that he wouldn’t mind her being a little pawsy with him.

Frowning as Judy pulled away, Nick reached out to her, grabbing her wrist. He missed the contact, didn’t want Judy to think it was unwelcome. She could put her paws all over him whenever she wanted and he wouldn’t mind. Bringing her paw back to his arm, he placed it there. “I didn’t tell you to pull away, Carrots.”

Letting Nick put her paw back on his arm, Judy sought out the emerald eyes she knew so well. “I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.” She dropped her voice to a whisper, expression softening.

“You couldn’t make me uncomfortable even if you tried. I was just wondering what’s happened. You’ve never been this pawsy before.” Nick reassured her, digging a little for some information. She didn’t have hormone cycles so he couldn’t blame it on that and considering they’d been together all day it wasn’t like she’d missed him and was making up for lost time.

Judy swallowed. It wasn’t the right time or place to talk about their feelings, to have the chat they’d agreed to have. She couldn’t tell him, in front of a barn full of people that she knew he loved her, that he’d gifted her an important canine present. Knowing all of that, Judy settled for a different answer, though she remained truthful. “I’m just happy you’re here, with me.”

Caught off guard by her response, Nick leant towards her, pulling her close. Pressing a kiss to her forehead, he offered her an affectionate smile as he pulled back. “No place I’d rather be, Carrots.” Lifting a paw, he ran it across Judy’s cheek.

Judy’s heart skipped a beat, her breath catching as Nick pressed a kiss to her forehead, as he ran a paw over her cheek. She leaned into his touch, longing for the day when he’d not only kiss her forehead but her lips too.

The arrival of Jasmine, Sasha, and Hazel interrupted their little moment, and Judy had to stop herself from snapping at her sisters. Forcing herself to smile, she turned to them, breaking apart from Nick. “Hey Jas, Sash, Haze.”

The arrival of Judy’s sisters made the tod sigh. He’d been hoping that he could broach the subject of their talk, ask Judy if he could speak with her this evening. That looked less and less likely now her sisters had found them.

“Mister Nick!” Sasha’s happy greeting made Nick feel sorry for wishing they’d leave he and Judy alone. Turning to his favorite baby bunny, he offered her a warm smile, remembering that he’d left the carrot teddy for her back at the warren.

“Hey Cinnamon. How was your day?” Nick asked, remembering the plate of food before him. He started to eat, picking at his food. Judy tucked into her own food, keeping her ears on the conversation. Beneath the chatter that filled the barn, Nick could hear the band out on the stage playing covers of popular songs with a country twist. “Country music. Why doesn’t that surprise me?”

“It was good thank you, Mister Nick. Jas and Haze took me around the fair. I got to play some of the games and eat lots of yummy food.” Sasha had a plate in front of her piled with greens, and the small rabbit munched happily on some celery.

“I’m glad you had a lovely day,” Nick responded sincerely, watching as Sasha ate her celery stick. Jasmine took the opportunity to pipe up.

“Nick, this is our sister Hazel. Hazel, this is Judy’s future partner, Nick.” Jasmine introduced the brown bunny beside her. Nick took her in, the same brown eyes as Sasha and her fur a few shades darker. Offering his paw over the table, he shook Hazel’s paw.

“Nice to meet you, Nick. Sasha hasn’t stopped talking about you.” Hazel greeted the fox. When she’d met up with Jasmine and Sasha in the morning to head out to the fair, Sasha had talked avidly about ‘Mister Nick the fox’ and hadn’t shut up about him all day. Hazel had found it endearing, while it had driven Jasmine crazy. Jasmine had briefed Hazel on the tod, on his connection to Judy.

“That makes two Hopps sisters, then.” Jasmine muttered under her breath as she loaded up some rice onto her fork. The sharp kick from Judy under the table had Jasmine wincing.

Gaze flitting to her Judy, Hazel admired her dress. “Your dress is beautiful, Jude. Where’d you get it?” Hazel didn’t have the funds to buy new clothes all the time, so she’d taken to making her own. She would spend hours behind her sewing machine, losing herself in mountains of fabric and stitching. She loved it, loved using her paws to create beautiful things.

“Oh, Nick’s mom made it for me.” Judy smoothed a paw over the soft green fabric. Marian was churning out dresses for her like there was no tomorrow, and Judy had a feeling she’d need to get another wardrobe soon.

Shocked, Hazel gasped. “This is her paw work? Dang, I’m even more grateful now that she’s teaching me dressmaking over Muzzletime.”

Nick looked at Judy and Hazel, eyes wide and surprise painted on his face. His mom was showing Hazel how to make clothes? She hadn’t mentioned it to him, and neither had Judy. Had Judy put them in touch with one another? “My mom’s teaching you?” Nick had long since lost his love for tailoring and dressmaking, the passing of his father sapping the passion and drive from him, but if his mom were happy to teach another mammal, then Nick would support it. His mom was talented, and knowing that talent was being put to use not only in making Judy clothes but also in teaching another mammal made Nick happy. Besides, it wasn’t like tailoring and dressmaking were in his future anymore. He was going to be a cop, protect and serve, make the world a better place.

“Oh yeah, I’m sorry it totally skipped my mind amongst all the raid stuff. My parents came to the city to look at farm equipment and wanted dinner, but it was a Wednesday when I usually have dinner with your mom. Long story short, your mom joined me for dinner with my parents and Mom mentioned Hazel’s love of dressmaking. Your mom offered to teach her a few things.” Judy explained feeling sorry that she’d accidently kept Nick out of the loop. With all of the raid planning, and the unexpected attack from the henchman on her and Wolford, along with Delgato’s broken hind paw during the raid, it had totally slipped her mind.

Nick was still stuck on the fact their parents had already met. His mom had never been one to meet new mammals, had always preferred sticking to her tried and trusted small social circle. It was difficult for a fox to trust another mammal these days; too many out there had it in for them. “Our parents have met?!”

“Mhm, mom says they had an excellent time. Your mom mirrored the sentiment when I met up with her the following week.” Judy elaborated, popping a piece of cucumber into her mouth. She’d been slowly working her way through the food on her plate, trying her hardest not to keep reminding Nick to eat. She didn’t want to point it out to him in front of others, unsure how he would react if another mammal were to start picking up on the fact he had issues with food.

Still surprised that his mom had agreed to meet Bonnie and Stu, Nick pushed away his feeling of annoyance at the fact he’d been out of the loop. Judy had been occupied with work, and his mom had probably assumed that Judy had told him about it. That was the one thing Nick hated the most about being away at the academy, the fact he was missing so much at home. He wasn’t used to being out of the loop. For twenty years he’d known everything about everyone, knew about anything going on in the city. The academy was isolating, and while Nick understood it had to be like that to make cadets focus, to remove all distractions, he couldn’t help but feel lonely while there. Sure he had his fellow cadets, mammals he could chat to every day, but away from his home and without his mom and Judy he felt a little lost. Nick was happy, though, that his mom had gotten along with Bonnie and Stu, that his mom was teaching Hazel all the tricks of the trade. He’d heard plenty of horror stories about in-laws hating one another, about them driving a wedge between couples. Once he mammaled up and came clean about his feelings, asked Judy to be his mate, he wouldn’t have to worry about their parents getting along. It was a weight off his shoulders.

Their conversation was interrupted by Julian’s arrival. The buck placed a paw on Judy’s shoulder, dropping his voice to a gentle tone. “Ju, you got a moment, please?”

Glancing around at her companions, they all gave her a quick nod. Excusing herself, Judy followed Julian out of the barn and around the corner, to a quieter spot. Hay bales were stacked against the side of the barn and Julian sat on one, gesturing for his sister to sit beside him. He’d spent Friday night and today thinking through everything Judy had told him, working out his feelings and where he stood on the matter. Julian had come to some sort of conclusion, and he felt it was only right to share it with Judy. Julian was aware that his opinion probably mattered little to his sister, that no matter what he said she’d still hang out with the fox, would still work with him, and would invariably ask him to be her mate.

Taking a seat next to Julian, Judy wrung her paws. She had a feeling her brother wanted to talk to her about Friday night’s events.

“I know that whatever I say probably won’t matter.” Julian broke the ice, starting the ball rolling.

Sighing, Judy shook her head. “Don’t be silly, Julian. You’re my brother, my littermate, whatever you have to say matters to me.” Julian’s opinion had always mattered to her, it was why it had hurt so much when he’d written Nick off without getting to know him, thrown unfounded accusations at him.

“It might matter when it comes to most things, but I get the feeling it doesn’t as far as Nick is concerned.” Julian knew now how deep his sister’s feelings went for the tod. He had a feeling nothing would ever change Judy’s mind about Nick, nothing would get her to see him in a different light. It was futile for Julian to try and roadblock them. Judy would just find a way to batter through.

“I love him, Julian. I can’t just switch it off or ignore it.” Judy didn’t want to ignore her feelings, didn’t want to stop loving Nick. He was everything to her.

“I know, and I’m not asking you to.” Julian took a deep breath. “What I did was wrong, throwing accusations at Nick without getting to know him first, and I promise I’m going to apologise to him later.” Julian planned to find the right moment to speak to the tod alone, to let him know he was sorry for stereotyping him. ”I haven’t had the chance to talk to Nick personally, to get to hear the story from him, but based on what you’ve told me, I can see he had it rough for a long while.”

Judy remembered Nick’s angry words in his mom’s kitchen, the way his emotions had shifted so quickly. “Nick doesn’t want pity, Julian.”

“I know, and I don’t pity him. If anything, I admire his strength. You were right, I can’t imagine what it would be like to have lost dad when we were kits, I can’t imagine Poppy living on the streets, feeling so scared and alone. I can’t imagine spending twenty years without a home, going days without food.” Julian sighed. Judy’s spiel had given him a lot to think about. It had made him feel guilty that he hadn’t bothered to get Nick’s side of the story, hadn’t bothered to get to know him first before judging. Hearing that Nick had spent twenty years surviving on the streets had impressed Julian. He had a feeling so few mammals made it that long. “I spent today observing the pair of you at the fair. You’re very pawsy with one another, comfortable together. I also overheard Nick defending you to Billy and George, defending your hopes and dreams. I can see that he cares a great deal for you, that he values you, that he’d protect you.”

Judy smiled at the memory of Nick berating Billy and George. It had been unexpected, hearing Nick follow through with his promise to call them idiots, but Judy couldn’t deny how great it had felt to watch the two bucks be put in their place. “Can I tell you something? Right before Bellwether was arrested, she had her hench-mammals push Nick and me into a pit in the Natural History Museum. We couldn’t escape. She shot Nick with what she thought was the night howler serum, hoping he’d kill me. Nick though, being so smart, had swapped the serum for some of our family blueberries. He had to pretend to go savage so we could get a recorded confession out of Bellwether. I put all my trust in him, in his plan, and it worked perfectly. He’s pulled me out of so many tight spots, Julian.”

The information was new to Julian, and though he was shocked to learn the particulars of the case, he couldn’t deny that Nick’s quick thinking had saved his sister’s life. “So you returned the favor by asking him to sign up to the ZPD? Moving in together?”

“I guess. But it’s more than returning the favor. I want Nick to be happy, I want him to have everything he missed out on while he spent twenty years on the street. He deserves so much, Julian. I have the ability to help him.” Judy had known, the moment Nick had told her about his situation, that she wanted to help, wanted to do something to make life a little better for him. Nick was the best mammal she knew, he didn’t deserve to be on the streets, didn’t deserve to be cold and alone, hungry and scared.

Judy had always had a big heart and Julian didn’t bother stopping his small smile. “And falling in love with him?”

Snorting, Judy shook her head, lifting her gaze to look up at the night sky. The inky blackness was filled with thousands and thousands of twinkling stars, no city lights for miles. “That wasn’t planned, and while I usually hate it when things don’t go to plan, I can’t find it in me to be mad about it.”

“Do you know if he loves you too?” Judy had mentioned that the bracelet Nick had given her was important, and while it obviously meant a lot to his sister Julian needed to know if her love was returned. He didn’t want her being hurt, didn’t want her giving away her heart if she wouldn’t get anything back.

Judy glanced down to her bracelet, playing with the charms. Knowing the weight it now held, how meaningful it was, Judy had no doubts in her mind. “Yeah, he does.”

“You’ve talked about it?” Julian hadn’t seen them doing anything other than paw holding. Surely if they were in love, if they’d talked about it, they would be all over one another. Julian spared a moment to grimace at the thought of seeing his sister making out with another mammal.

“We’ve agreed to talk this weekend. I’m waiting for the right moment.” Judy clarified. She knew time was running out if they didn’t talk this evening, then they’d have to tomorrow. She wanted, no, needed, to talk things through with Nick before he went back to the academy and they were separated again for a few months.

“Don’t wait too long, okay?” Having observed them all day Julian could see how much Nick cared for his sister, could see that whenever Nick looked at her his whole body relaxed. If Julian were a betting mammal, he’d say Nick had it pretty bad for his sister. “I’m going to be honest, I’m still not 100% okay with the idea of you dating him. You’re going to get a lot of abuse for it, Ju. A lot of mammals are going to be offended and I know it’s none of their business, but it could make you a target.”

Judy had taken down rhino’s and regularly took down perps much bigger than her. A few bigots didn’t scare her. “I can handle it, Jul.”

“I’m not saying you can’t, I just want you to be careful, okay? You’re my sister, my littermate, and I love you so much. I want you to be safe, but I want you to be happy too. I see now that Nick makes you happy. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you smile as much as you have today.” Julian took another deep breath. “I’m not totally convinced he won’t leave you, and I’m still not happy that you’ve done all the leg work in your relationship so far. However, I know how much he means to you, and I want to support you.”

“He won’t leave me, Jul. I know that for certain.” Judy’s paw went to her bracelet and she ran her fingers over the warm metal. Nick had given her a bonding bracelet, had chosen her as his mate, wanted to claim her and make her his.

“Perhaps, but it’s a worry for me. Just, be careful okay?” Julian grabbed his sister’s paw, holding it tightly

“I will don’t worry,” Judy vowed as Julian pulled her close, pressing a kiss to her forehead.

“I miss you.” He whispered. Life with his sister in the city was hard. Julian was so used to having her around, to having her in the warren with him. They’d never been apart until Judy had left for the academy.

Judy loved the city, loved the vibrancy of it, the mix of mammals she met on a daily basis, but she missed Bunnyburrow too. She missed the familiarity, knowing every face around her, and how no one seemed to have any cares in the world. Judy missed having her siblings on call, too. She missed being able to pop to their rooms whenever she needed something or wanted to chat. It was part of growing up, though, striking out on her own. “I miss you too, Jul. Living in the city is so different.”

“You’re happy there, though?” Julian asked, hugging his sister tightly.

“Yeah, I have a great job, some wonderful friends, and a lovely home.” Judy was happy in the city, happy with how her life was shaping up.

“And Nick.” Julian tacked on, grinning.

“Yeah, and Nick.” Judy agreed. Though Julian had told her that he wasn’t 100% sure when it came to Nick, Judy could see that her brother had made some progress and that their scrap in the backyard along with her monolog had forced her brother to reconsider. It was a small victory, and she’d take it. “It’s a day for small victories, it seems.” She knew change would take time, and she hoped once Julian got to know Nick that all his worries would be washed away. Judy was aware that when she and Nick came clean to one another, started dating, that they’d be targeted for it. So long as they had one another, though, Judy would take all of the abuse thrown at her. Nick was worth it.

“Come on, he’s probably wondering where you are.” Julian untangled himself from his sister, standing and offering her a paw. He led her back to the barn he’d collected her from, returning her to her seat. Giving a small nod to Nick, the buck disappeared to re-join his table.

As Judy sat down, Nick found himself taking her paw, linking their fingers together while his tail curled around her waist. He’d been worried the whole time Judy had been away, concerned that she’d end up in another fight with Julian because of him. “Everything okay?”

Offering her fox a smile, Judy gave his paw a gentle squeeze. “Everything’s perfect, don’t worry.” She reassured him. Before she could ask what they’d talked about while she was away, the sound of the band playing her a slow song made Judy gasp. “Oh gosh, this is my favourite song! Come and dance with me Slick, please?”

Ears flicking in the direction of the music, Nick had to stifle his groan. More country music. Of course, his bunny would like country music.

“You promised one song. This is the song.” Judy pointed out, standing up. She started to tug Nick up from the bench, wanting him to dance with her. She knew it was a slow song, and Judy felt a thrill at the thought of slow dancing with her fox.

Sighing, Nick resigned himself to having to dance. He’d promised, and he’d hate to break a promise to Judy. “Alright, go on.” Rising from his seat, he let his excited bunny pull him out of the barn and out to the dance floor.

It took a moment for Nick to pick up the song, but as Judy tugged him to the centre of the busy dance floor, he had to stifle another groan. It was a slow song, a romantic song. Judy brought them to a standstill in the middle of the dance floor, turning to face Nick. Holding up her right paw, she lifted her left arm, looping it around the back of Nick’s neck. She had to stretch up a little more to reach him. Taking Judy’s right paw in his left, Nick laced their fingers together. Sliding his other paw around Judy’s waist, he let it settle on her lower back, paw splayed possessively.

Starting to dance with Judy, Nick recognized the song. He’d heard it coming from one of the bars he’d been scoping out on a hot summer afternoon, wondering how many unsuspecting fools he could hustle some money out of. “Didn’t think you were a Justin Timberwolf fan,” Nick commented, emerald eyes finding violet ones.

“You’re not a fan?” Judy teased. Nick didn’t strike her as a Justin fan. He didn’t strike her as a fan of pop music full stop.

Shaking his head, Nick grinned. “I’m more of a Guns N’ Rodents and Fleetwood Yak kind of mammal.”

“That doesn’t surprise me.” Rolling her eyes, Judy kept her eyes on Nick’s. There was a lot about the tod that surprised her, but his music choice? He looked like a classic rock kind of mammal.

Curious and hoping he could somehow bring their conversation to their impending chat Nick leaned down a little. “What would surprise you?”

Breathing a little quicker as Nick dipped down, Judy couldn’t help but think about how close they were. She was slow dancing with her best friend, the mammal she loved, and who she was sure loved her too. “Well, I’m pretty surprised you know how to dance.” Judy stuck to neutral territory. She’d had plenty of other things that she would’ve loved to say – you telling me that you love me, you kissing me, you coming clean about my bracelets meaning – but instead, the doe stuck with something simpler, less emotional. Now wasn’t the time, in the middle of the dance floor surrounded by lots of large ears and curious bunnies.

A little disappointed that Judy hadn’t given him the chance to switch their conversation, Nick masked it with a chuckle. Gently he twirled Judy, lifting one of her paws above her so she could spin. Her dress fanned out around her as she turned and Nick felt like he’d had his breath stolen from him. “Look at you. Twenty years on the streets, over two decades of not letting mammals see that they get to you, and this one beautiful bunny came along and changed it all.” Pulling Judy back towards him, Nick wrapped his arm around her waist again, holding her paw so that they returned to their previous position, slowly dancing to the music.

Her height meant Judy couldn’t rest her cheek on Nick’s shoulder, so instead she settled for his chest, dropping her ears so as not to smack the tod in the face with them. The position enabled her to listen to his heartbeat, the reassuring thud reverberating against her eardrums. They let the music carry them for a few beats as they continued to dance, pressing their bodies as close together as they could. “I used to watch my parents dance when I was a kit. Dad would put on some Whitney Horseton songs and dance around the store with mom after closing each Saturday. It was a little ritual they had.” Nick’s kithood memories were patchy at best, but the memory of his parents dancing together would always stay with him.

Nick didn’t talk about his dad very often, he only gave Judy the odd tidbit of information every now and then, but the doe felt an ache in her heart that she’d never gotten the chance to meet Robert Wilde. “I wish I could’ve met him.”

Touched by Judy’s comment, and crestfallen that his dad would never meet Judy, at least not in person, he smiled sadly. “He’d have liked you.” Nick knew in his heart and soul that his dad would’ve adored Judy, just like his mom did. Perhaps one day he’d take her to visit his resting place, introduce them. Nick hadn’t been to see his dad in over twenty years, it was probably time he changed that. “He would’ve clipped me around the ear for how rude I was to you initially.” His dad hadn’t suffered fools gladly, and rude mammals had been his pet peeve.

Judy snorted, giving Nick’s left paw a squeeze. “It’s part of your charm.”

It was Nick’s turn to snort, and the tod couldn’t resist giving Judy’s waist a gentle squeeze in return. “Now you’re just sparing my feewings.”

Lifting her head from Nick’s chest, Judy looked up at her fox. Laughing quietly, Judy marveled at how far they’d come. “You’ll have to start filling in your tax form honestly now.”

“You mean, you’re going to fill in my tax forms honestly now.” Nick corrected. He didn’t really know how to honestly fill the form in. He’d simply entered in his personal information and put a zero in every box requiring a figure. Job done.

Free paw moving to light thump Nick’s chest, Judy tried to dwell on the fact his chest was a lot firmer than the last time he’d been home. Come to think of, Judy realized that Nick’s arms felt stronger holding her too. While pleased he was evidently gaining weight and muscle mass, the doe mentally cursed. Nick’s new muscles were making him even more attractive. “As if he wasn’t attractive enough to begin with.” Bringing her paw back to its former position around the back of Nick’s neck, Judy maintained eye contact. “You’re hard work, Slick.”

“You wouldn’t have me any other way, Carrots.” Nick was confident of it. It was what drew him to Judy, what kept him coming back. She liked him exactly as he was, ugly backstory and all, and instead of trying to shape him into her vision of him, she was giving him the tools to build a better future for himself. “A better future with her by my side, hopefully.”

Head tilting sideways a little, Judy’s expression softened into one of fondness, the corners of her lips pulling up into a gentle smile. “Dang straight.” She held Nick’s gaze for a moment, drilling the point home, before she returned her cheek to his chest, letting them sway to the music. The song would end soon, and Judy wanted to cherish every second she got to spend dancing with her fox. Eyes slipping shut, she lost herself in the rhythm of his heartbeat and the music.

Nick watched as she held him while they swayed, her eyes closing. He contemplated whether it was the right time to tell her that he loved her, that she drove him crazy with love and want and need. Opening his mouth, ready to ask Judy if they could find somewhere private to talk, he struggled to get the words out. Unexpected fear took over and left him speechless. He’d be bearing his whole heart and soul to Judy, and though he trusted her with his life, trusted her with his heart and soul, it had been so long since he’d last let a mammal get so close to him that the fear was hard to shake. Nick was used to being alone, to not letting any mammal get too close, not giving them the power to destroy him. Swallowing, he resigned himself to bringing it up at a later date, once they were alone and he could let himself be as emotional as he needed to be.

Instead, Nick held Judy close, enjoying the feel of her in his arms. In the glow of the thousands of fairy lights and lanterns around them, the shine of Judy’s bonding bracelet drew him in. Seeing it still around her wrist, knowing every canine who saw it would know Judy was loved and desired, off the market to them, made a surge of possessiveness flow through him, followed by a quick wave of heat. Seeing Judy wearing something he’d bought her did all sorts of things for his instincts. Content with the comfortable silence between them, Nick relished their closeness. Tuning out the rest of the crowd, he focused in on the song, figuring it was about time he paid attention. If this was Judy’s favorite song, he wanted to know it off by heart.

“‘Cause I don’t wanna lose you now
I’m lookin’ right at the other half of me
The vacancy that sat in my heart
Is a space that now you hold
Show me how to fight for now
And I’ll tell you, baby, it was easy
Comin’ back into you once I figured it out
You were right here all along.

It’s like you’re my mirror,
My mirror staring back at me
I couldn’t get any bigger
With anyone else beside me
And now it’s clear as this promise
That we’re making two reflections into one
‘Cause it’s like you’re my mirror
My mirror staring back at me, staring back at me.”

As the song drew to a close, Nick couldn’t help but notice how it seemed to reflect his own feelings. While art had been his dad’s thing, music had been his mom’s. “Music says the words we can’t, Nicky. It comes from the heart.” Tipping his head down to look at Judy, he found her gazing up at him, head tilted back so she could see him properly. Their noses were dangerously close and as Nick inhaled his nostrils were flooded with Judy’s scent – sweet and addictive, calling to his very soul. All it would take would be for him to lean down the last few centimeters, and he’d be able to kiss her, to taste her. Nick’s body tried to disobey him, tried to lean down and steal a kiss from the doe in his arms, but he fought it tooth and claw. Just as he was about to win the battle, the sudden loudness of the next song starting broke his concentration and stole the moment from them.

Not ready to let go of Judy, and somewhat enjoying his time on the dance floor, Nick leaned down to speak into Judy’s ear, the music a little louder now. “Think you could keep up with some more dancing?”

The pair stayed out on the dance floor for another hour, recognizing song after song. Bobby had mixed it up, interspersed fast and slow songs, and Nick and Judy danced to them all.

Hind paws hurting and grin fixed in place, Judy finally pulled Nick back to their table. She needed some water, and to rest her hind paws for a moment. Sasha and Jasmine were still sat on the other side of the table, and the former was trying to stifle her yawn. “Someone’s sleepy,” Jasmine commented as Nick and Judy sat down.

“I’m not,” Sasha whined, pouting.

Jasmine was used to the battle of wills with her younger siblings, used to their mood swings when they were tired. “Yes, you are, moody pants.”

Sasha stomped one of her hind paws, rubbing at her eyes. She was trying her hardest not to fall asleep. The day’s activities had caught up with her. “Don’t be mean!”

Sighing, Jasmine stood. As an older sibling, it was part of her job to take care of her younger siblings, and that included getting them home at a reasonable time and tucking them into bed. Her mom and dad had so many kits that it was impossible for them to do everything themselves. “Alright, come on, I’m taking you home. It’s time for bed.”

“No!” Sasha struggled as Jasmine tried to lift her up and remove her from the table. “Mister Nick!” Sasha cried out, arms outstretched towards the fox. She didn’t want Jasmine to take her home. Lower lip wobbling, Sasha’s eyes started to fill with tears.

“Shh Cinnamon, it’s okay.” Nick soothed, standing and reaching across the table to pick up the baby bunny. The sight of her watery eyes tugged at Nick’s heartstrings and he felt a compulsion to soothe the little kit. Lifting her over the table, he brought her close, holding her against is chest. Sasha wrapped her legs around his waist, arms looping around his neck as she let her head rest against his shoulder. “Tell you what, why don’t Ju-Ju and I take you back home and get you tucked up in bed?” He offered, gently bouncing the baby bunny. One of his arms was underneath her, supporting her, while the other moved to stroke the back of her head, smoothing down her ears. Sasha nodded sleepily against Nick’s shoulder.

Watching Nick cradle Sasha, the way he soothed her, Judy felt a flush of heat course through her. Nick was displaying fatherly tendencies again, and the doe found it ridiculously attractive. Judy had no doubts in her mind that Nick would one day be an incredible father, and she felt a new ache, a new yearning, to one day have kits with him. “Oh cripes. You’ve gone from not really wanting kits to a broody mess.” The warmth that spread through her at the idea of having kits with Nick was unstoppable.

Nick’s nostrils flared, the sweet scent he snatched on occasion making him inhale deeply. Gaze turning to Judy, he took another deep breath. The heady scent drove him crazy, and Nick vowed to ask Bonnie what perfume Judy used. He’d buy her an endless supply; ask her to wear it every day.

Wishing Jasmine goodnight, Nick and Judy made their way back to the warren with a sleepy Sasha. The gentle motion of walking sent the baby bunny to sleep. With both of Nick’s paws occupied, making sure Sasha wouldn’t fall, Judy found herself picking flowers on the walk home, needing something to fill her paws. Their walk home was conducted in silence, neither mammal wanting to risk disturbing Sasha. When they made it back to the Hopps warren, Judy led Nick down to one of the shared bedrooms.

The room was huge, and Nick was grateful for Judy’s directions as she led him past many beds to the far end of the bedroom. A small pink bed was tucked in the corner, Sasha’s name painted on the footboard. “I’ll change her into her PJ’s, don’t worry,” Judy whispered, aware that some of her other younger siblings were sleeping in the room.

Gently placing Sasha down on top of her bed, Nick turned to face the room while Judy changed Sasha into her PJ’s. “Slick.” Judy’s whisper had him turning around. Sasha was now in a little pair of cream PJ’s with carrots on them. Nick gently picked up the baby bunny while Judy flicked the covers back, and together they tucked Sasha in. Before they left, Judy dropped a small kiss on Sasha’s forehead, and Nick couldn’t help but copy her. Sasha snuffled, turning over in her sleep, smushing her face into her pillow.

Quietly they tiptoed out of the room and Judy drew the door shut behind them. “We could always head back to the party if you want?” She whispered as they headed down the hallway, throwing the idea out there.

Nick mulled over the offer, but he saw their current situation as a golden opportunity. Most of the Hopps kits were out at the celebration, and the younger ones were zonked out. Nerves had Nick swallowing, but he felt it was time to mammal up. “Perhaps we should have that talk?”

Stunned by Nick’s suggestion, but figuring they couldn’t put it off much longer, Judy agreed. “Sure, I want to go and grab a bottle of water though. Meet you back at my room?”

Nodding, Nick and Judy split up once they reached the dining room. Nick followed the route to Judy’s room, knowing the way off by heart now, while Judy climbed the stairs to the kitchen to grab a bottle of water.

Entering Judy’s room, Nick took a deep breath, steeling himself. “This is it. You’re going to mammal up and tell her what her bracelet means, you’re going to come clean and tell her how much you love her.” He gave himself a pep talk as he removed his tie, chucking it onto his bag. “You can do this. You’ve hustled mammals for twenty years, dealt with mob bosses and loan caracals. You can have this conversation with Judy.”

A flashing light caught the tod’s attention and he turned, seeing the screen of Judy’s phone light up. Concerned it might be something important, that Jasmine might be asking if they got back okay or if Bonnie and Stu were asking for a paw, he crossed the room, stealing a glance at the screen. Judy had received a new text message, and the sender made Nick’s blood boil.

Bandit:
Hey Judy, was nice having lunch together a few weeks back. I’ve found the most amazing taco place, so let me know when you’re next free and we can check it out. Hope you’re having fun back home!

With her bottle of water in paw, Judy made her way back to her room. Her heart was thudding, her paws feeling a little sweaty and she found herself using her old yoga breathing techniques in a desperate attempt to calm herself. They were finally going to have their talk, at last, and clear the air. She’d have to come clean and tell Nick she loved him, tell him that she knew now what her bracelet meant.

Pushing her bedroom door open, Judy took the few steps down. “Okay, so-“ Judy stopped mid sentence. Nick was sat on her bed, her phone in his paws. His jaw was clenched, his eyebrows furrowed, and his posture stiff. “What’s the matter?”

Turning Judy’s phone, he pushed the button to light up the screen again. “Bandit.” He spat. “You had lunch with him a few weeks ago.”

Judy had to hide her groan. She’d worried that keeping her lunch with Bandit a secret would come back to bite her, and now it seemed it was. Quickly reading the text, Judy spared a moment to feel angry about the fact Nick had read it. He shouldn’t have been messing with her phone. “Yeah. He knew this café near work so we went for lunch. Why were you going through my messages?”

“I wasn’t going through them. Your screen lit up with a message so I read it, I thought it might have been Jasmine checking we got back okay, or your parents asking for a paw.” Nick explained. He’d had no malicious intent when checking her phone, and he figured given how comfortable Judy was in stealing his phone and using it, that looking at her phone was fine for him to do in return. “Why didn’t you tell me you had lunch with him?” Nick placed Judy’s phone back on the nightstand, standing.

Putting her water bottle down on the desk, Judy sighed. Lifting a paw, she pinched the bridge of her nose. “I didn’t mention it because I know you don’t like him. Honestly, we just went for food, nothing major.”

Judy’s ease at keeping things from him made the fur on the back of Nick’s neck bristle. They were meant to be partners, best friends, and they were living together. They were supposed to be able to share everything with each other. “If nothing major happened, you would’ve mentioned it.”

Folding her arms across her chest, Judy pulled her elbows tight to her body. “No Nick, I wouldn’t have. You always get so worked up when it comes to Bandit.” Even the slightest mention of the arctic fox upset the tod. Judy still couldn’t understand what Nick’s issue with Bandit was.

“Because he has ulterior motives!” Nick exclaimed, paws animated as he threw his arms out in aggravation.

Unfolding her arms, Judy mimicked Nick’s body language, voice rising. “He doesn’t! Cripes, Nick. I don’t know what the hell you think he’s after.”

Clenching one paw, he pointed at Judy with the other, nostrils flaring as he took a step forward. “You. Making you his.” The thought of Bandit taking Judy from him, of Judy leaving him behind once she realized he wasn’t as great as she thought he was, those were Nick’s biggest fears. He hadn’t had many mammals in his life that he was terrified of losing, just his mom and dad. When his father had died, the fear of losing his mom had crippled the tod. Now, the fear of losing Judy was paralyzing. He couldn’t lose her; he couldn’t go back to his old life without her. He knew it was foolish, putting all his happiness in another mammal’s paws, but Nick loved her, loved her so much that he wanted her as his mate, wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. Even the idea of another mammal having her, of another mammal loving her, was enough to drive the tod crazy.

Reining in her anger, Judy took a few deep breaths. It wouldn’t do to get angry with Nick. Words screamed in anger were harder to take back. “He doesn’t want that, Nick.”

“I wouldn’t put it past him.” Nick scoffed, the corners of his mouth pulling down as he scowled.

“He’s crazy about Akita,” Judy reassured him, repeating her words from the last time Nick had been home. Their landlady had been on several dates with the arctic fox, and things were going great for them. Bandit had asked Akita if they could go steady, and the pair of them were exploring their new relationship. Judy was happy to cheer them on. After the loss of her parents, Akita had withdrawn into herself, or so she’d told Judy when they’d grabbed drinks together after work one night. Dating Bandit was doing some good for her, and he treated her well.

Nick wasn’t entirely convinced. The arctic was still a competitor until he took a mate of his own and was off the market. The way Bandit was seemingly fawning over Judy made Nick growl. “Are you sure? He randomly approached you in the supermarket, he runs to help you at the drop of a hat, and he seems to know your schedule.”

Judy wasn’t getting through to her thick-skulled best friend. Raising her voice, she started gesticulating wildly, fed up of trying to reassure Nick. Judy had never given him any indication that she was interested in the arctic, had never even suggested it because it wasn’t true. The dumb red fox she was arguing with held her heart, but she’d be damned if she screamed that to him in the middle of their disagreement. “Because he saw that I was struggling! I told him I was coming home, Nick. I said that you and I were meeting up here for the weekend!”

It didn’t matter if Judy had told Bandit that she was coming home with him, Nick knew the arctic was unaware how he felt about Judy, believed they were simply friends who would soon be work partners. Something about the arctic fox rubbed Nick the wrong way. He didn’t like Bandit skulking around Judy. “He’s bad news!” Nick shouted, paws clenching, ears pinned back, hackles rising as his tail swished angrily.

That was the final straw for Judy. With a yell of frustration Judy squared off to the fox, one of her hand paws thumping the ground quickly. “For heaven’s sake, Nick! You’re acting like some irrationally jealous boyfriend. You haven’t even met him and you’re judging him. You’re almost as bad as Julian. Do you want to know why I asked him to lunch? I wanted to talk to him about my bracelet!” The look of surprise on Nick’s face as Judy yelled at him made her feel victorious for a split second, but the rabbit was on a roll. For months she’d been filled with frustration at not knowing what her bracelet meant, annoyed at her canine friends for refusing to tell her anything. It all came rushing out. “No one would say anything, least of all you. I figured Bandit might be more forthcoming, but he wasn’t. He outright refused to tell me anything. If anyone had the ulterior motive at lunch, it was me!” Judy exploded. Refraining from saying any more, Judy knew she had to get away from Nick before she said something she’d regret later. “Screw this.” She spun on her hind paws, stalking out of the room.

Blinking in surprise, it took Nick a moment to realize Judy had left the room. “Wait, no, Carrots!” Nick raced after her, leaping over the steps up to the door, head snapping left to right as he looked down the hallway. Catching her scent, he let his nose lead him. “You stupid idiot. This is your fault. You should’ve listened to mom, should’ve told Judy what the damn bracelet meant when you gave it to her. Your ridiculous fear stopped you though, didn’t it? Now, look where its gotten you, having a shouting match with the mammal you love. Idiot.” He cursed himself. Judy’s scent was getting harder and harder to follow the deeper he went into the warren, hundreds of other scents muddling together.

Nick was terrified that he’d lose Judy, that another mammal would snatch her from him. “Your own actions are pushing her away. You could lose her because of your own stupidity.” Nick felt his heart race, sudden pain blossoming in his chest. Reaching for a wall, he pressed a sweaty palm to the exposed stone as a wave of dizziness overcame him, the ringing in his ears deafening. “Air, I need air.” Stumbling back the way he’d come, Nick retraced his steps to the dining room. Oblivious to Bonnie and Stu stood in the dining room, having come back to put some more of their kits to bed only to hear the explosive shouting match between their daughter and the fox, Nick hauled himself up the stairs to the kitchen with the aid of the pawrail. Spotting a door he opened it, struggling for breath. He felt lightheaded, the tightness in his chest crippling him as he burst out onto the back porch. Paws grabbing the railings, the cold night air washed over him. Gasping, Nick pulled in as much air as possible, the trembling of his body subsiding. Screwing his eyes shut, Nick let out a little whine of distress. “Damn it all to hell.” The last time he’d had a panic attack he’d been fifteen, terrified of being caught in the middle of a serious hustle. Pulling his tail close to his body, Nick heard the wooden railings beneath his paws creak with the force he was exerting on them. He needed to slow down his breathing, pull it under control.

A paw on his shoulder spooked the tod, but the scent filling his nostrils didn’t belong to the one mammal in the world he wanted to see more than anything else. It was comforting nonetheless. “It’s okay, Nick. Breathe. It’s alright.” Bonnie soothed, rubbing the tod’s shoulder. Her paw moved to rub his back as she tried to comfort him, tried to help him get his breathing under control. “It’ll be fine, just breathe. There’s plenty of air, dear.”

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