Chapter 19 – Hoppstervention

Rubbing Nick’s back, Bonnie gently soothed the agitated fox. Stu disappeared into the kitchen, returning with a bottle of water for Nick. Slowly, and with more of Bonnie’s back rubs, Nick was able to pull his breathing under control, his body relaxing and his grip on the railings loosening. “Better?” The doe murmured, slowing her rubs.

With a shaky nod, Nick gratefully accepted the bottle of water from Stu. Taking a few sips before he screwed the cap back on, Nick took a deep breath, which he exhaled slowly. “I’m sorry. I haven’t had an attack like that since I was a teenager.”

Leading Nick to the bench on the porch, she encouraged him to sit, taking the seat next to him. Stu stood, leaning against the railings. “Don’t apologize, dear, it’s fine. Do you want to talk about what set it off?” Bonnie lifted a paw to rub Nick’s shoulder, motherly instincts kicking in. Seeing Nick’s distress had broken the doe’s heart.

Avoiding Bonnie and Stu’s gaze, Nick looked at the floor, placing the water bottle down between his hind paws. With his paws now free, he rubbed his face. “I couldn’t find her.” He whispered, feeling pathetic for having freaked out over something so minor. Judy wouldn’t have gone far, she wouldn’t have left the warren, but the panic had set in before Nick could think rationally.

“Judy?” Stu sought clarification. He figured no other mammal could pull such a reaction from the tod.

Nodding, Nick sighed. “She disappeared down one of the hallways, and I lost her scent. I’m sorry if you overheard our disagreement. I hope it didn’t wake any of your babies.”

“Don’t be silly, all couples fight.” Bonnie brushed away his concerns. While Bonnie and Stu had heard the disagreement, none of their younger kits had been disturbed.

“We’re not, we aren’t-“ Nick stumbled, wide eyes looking to Bonnie. No matter how many hints Bonnie dropped, no matter how much she seemed to want them together, the doe had to know they weren’t an item.

“We’re aware, but we also know you love her very much. We have 312 kits, Nick. We know what love looks like.” Stu broke in. Leaning against the railings, Stu found a comfy position. He had a feeling this conversation could take some time.

Swallowing, Nick looked between Bonnie and Stu. Bonnie’s care package had been enough confirmation that the doe was aware of Nick’s feelings, but hearing that Stu was aware of them too had the tod nervous. “It’s fine. I was concerned at first, worried, but you’ve eased those concerns. What happened?” Stu soothed. Having watched the way his daughter and the fox interacted, how Nick stood up for Judy and encouraged her to follow her dreams, Stu knew his little girl had found her perfect mate. The tough part was getting them to talk about it, to take the next step.

Licking his lips, Nick sighed. Bonnie and Stu had been nothing but warm and welcoming. Judy trusted his mom, and Nick found himself trusting the doe and buck on the back porch with him in return. It was a foreign feeling, but then being around Judy was stirring up all sorts of feelings and memories he thought he’d long since beaten into submission. “She has this friend, Bandit.”

“The arctic fox, yes?” Bonnie withdrew her paw from Nick’s arm, letting it rest in her lap. Judy had mentioned Bandit a couple of times, how he’d helped her pick out some predator food for Nick, how he’d helped her buy essentials for the tod from the drugstore.

Not at all surprised that Bonnie was aware of the other fox, Nick nodded in confirmation. “They went for lunch a few weeks back, and Judy didn’t tell me. She usually tells me everything. Judy thought I’d overreact if she said anything. Guess she was right.”

“What is it you don’t like about them spending time together?” Bonnie kept her tone gentle, soothing. The doe had a feeling that Nick needed to get it all out into the open before he could work through it, overcome the feelings he was dealing with.

“I just.” Nick paused, giving himself a moment to think before he spoke again. “I’m worried that Bandit will take her from me, that she’ll realize I’m not as great as she thinks I am and that she’ll leave. I’ve been burned countless times. I’ve never trusted another mammal as much as I trust Judy and it terrifies me, giving her that power over me.” Nick rubbed his muzzle with a paw, feeling vulnerable. The only mammal Nick trusted as much was his mom, but she had created him, carried him, loved him, given birth to him. He knew that no matter what the world threw at him, he’d always have his mom to fall back on, that his mom would love him no matter what he did or didn’t do. She’d been the one constant in his life.

Bonnie and Stu knew little of Nick’s upbringing apart from the fact he’d lost his father at a young age. Marian had been willing to share that little bit with them over dinner. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that the tod was carrying some heavy baggage, and Stu found himself wanting to help him shed it. “Judy would never abuse that power, son.”

The term of endearment had Nick’s head shooting up, surprised emerald eyes finding Stu. “Don’t look at me like that, Nick. Judy brought you here because you’re the most important mammal in her life. I know you’ve been forcing yourself to act a certain way around us all weekend, putting your best hind paw forward. While we appreciate it, you don’t have to pretend. Judy cares for you enough to bring you here. You’re the first mammal she’s ever brought home. You’re family. It terrifies me, knowing I’m no longer the only male she relies on. I can be in the same room as my little girl, have her full attention, but the moment you walk in it’s like I’m invisible. While that should upset me, it doesn’t. Why? Because when the roles are reversed, when I see you without Judy around, the moment she walks back into the room your entire focus shifts to her. Bonds like that are rare.” Stu pushed off from the railings, closing the gap between them. Crouching so he was level with Nick, the buck held the tod’s gaze. “The power and role you have in my daughter’s life strikes more fear into my heart than I’ve ever been prepared for. You have the ability to help her flourish and have the capacity to crush her. Do you understand how scary that is for a father? Knowing his little girl trusts someone other than him that much?”

Nick swallowed, fighting back sudden tears as he nodded slowly. Hearing Stu call him son had stirred deep feelings in the tod; it was a term he hadn’t heard in a terribly long time.

“I know my little girl, and I know she’s not a fool. She wouldn’t throw away her friendship with you, she wouldn’t abandon you, betray you. You’re inseparable. You mean the world to her. I’ve never been a mammal of faith. I believe in this life we make our own luck, our own fortune, but I do think that sometimes karma or destiny, fate, whatever you want to call it, steps in to push us onto a particular path. I have a feeling she pushed you and Judy together. Judy needs you to keep her grounded, to remind her that life isn’t always rosy; to stop her being overzealous and ending up hurt. I get the feeling that you need my daughter in return to remind you that things get better, that happiness can be found even in the darkest of times if one only remembers to turn on the light. My little girl brought you home, brought you into the fold, trusts you implicitly. I trust her judgment, so, to me, that’s enough to warrant calling you my son, if that’s okay with you.” Stu knew he’d never replace Nick’s father, and the buck never wanted to, but he knew Nick lacked a fatherly figure in his life, had gone so long without having another male to turn to. If he could offer Nick that, if he could give him the support and love he needed, then Stu would.

Unable to stop his low whine, Nick gave up his fight against his tears, letting them soak his fur as they fell. His heart hurt, the box he’d used to contain his emotions since he’d left home as a kit disintegrated. He’d never properly grieved his father, had never let himself feel the immense weight of his loss, but he’d carried with him every day the loss of no longer having a male to turn to. His mom was fantastic, incredible, but even she couldn’t understand the bond between males. The last time a mammal had called him son, Nick had been seven. It had been the last thing his dad had ever said to him, as he’d affectionately ruffled his fur as he’d left for work. “I’ll see you after work, kiddo. Don’t get into too much trouble at school. Be good, son.”

Opening his arms, Stu offered Nick comfort. Without giving it a second thought the tod dove into the offered embrace, seeking reassurance from the buck. “I got you, it’s okay.” Stu soothed, stroking the back of Nick’s head. Their size difference made things a little awkward, but the buck couldn’t find it in him to care. Nick needed the comfort, and he’d be damned if he’d stop offering it.

Clinging to Stu, Nick felt like a lost little kit. “Thank you.” He croaked, sniffling. Bonnie placed a paw against his back, rubbing again in a soothing gesture. “I love her, and every time I think about the possibility of her leaving me it feels like I can’t breathe.” Nick pulled back, paws rising to wipe at his wet fur, to remove his tears from his face. He hadn’t meant to have such an emotional outburst, but it had all come flooding out.

Arms empty now that the tod had pulled back, Stu let them fall, though he remained in his crouch. “Perhaps you’re letting the past cloud your future? I know that Judy has accidentally hurt you before, your mom told us over dinner, but she’d never intentionally hurt you. She learned her lesson. Is giving her that much power over you scary? Yes, I’m not saying it isn’t. That’s part of life, though. While it’s easier to close yourself off and remain withdrawn, hide your emotions, all it leaves you with is a lonely existence, and that’s no way to live. We have a finite amount of time on this earth, and we shouldn’t waste a second of it. Those three months you were apart when Judy came home? She was a mess, son. Judy was in a constant state of sadness that it was getting to the point where Bon and I were going to call a doctor, or a psychiatrist, whichever would’ve helped. She was beating herself up every day for having hurt you. It’s not something I know Judy will ever repeat. She wouldn’t turn her back on you or leave you. You’re too important to her.”

Bonnie took over, having been quiet for some time. “You know, Judy spoke to me on Friday afternoon while she was making you dinner. It took some coaxing, but she finally confessed that she really wanted you two to live together and that she encouraged you to sign up and be her partner. Not only does she want to make life better for you, to help you, but she wants to keep you in her life, have your lives entwined so that you won’t leave her.” She’d made no promise to her daughter to keep the information quiet. If it helped Nick see how much he meant to Judy, Bonnie would gladly share their conversations with him.

“I’d never leave her.” Nick’s quick response, the horror marring his face, was an indication that the thought of leaving Judy was unthinkable, a no go.

Offering the tod a gentle smile, Bonnie placed her paw on his arm, giving it a reassuring rub. “Does she know that? You worry about her leaving you, but have you ever stopped to think that perhaps Judy feels the same way, that she worries about you leaving her? As Stu said, you’re the most important mammal in her life, and while our daughter may be tough and strong, while she may be able to take down rhinos and elephants, she still has her insecurities. She’s never had someone as good as you in her life before. Before you, her entire life revolved around her job. She has only a few friends, no family in the city. As a kit she used to set goals, being a cop was always at the top of the list but right underneath it, Judy wished for a best friend. She has you now, and so long as there’s breath in our baby girl’s body, I know she’s not going to let you go. I know it, I can smell it.”

“You can smell it?” Nick frowned, perplexed.

The ace up her sleeve, Bonnie had to stop herself from grinning like a fool. “That sweet scent I’ve seen you chasing a few times? The one you can smell is coming from Judy? That’s not perfume, at least not the kind you can buy…”

It took Nick a moment, but soon his frown was replaced with surprise, eyes widening as he grasped what Bonnie was alluding to. “It’s…?” He couldn’t believe it, wouldn’t believe it. There was no way on earth Judy was attracted to him.

Bonnie nodded, enjoying Nick’s surprise. “You pick up on it during your interactions with Sasha because of how we does are wired. The whole ‘good at multiplying’ thing isn’t just a joke, Nick. It’s true. Our motherly instincts are some of the strongest in the world. The sight of a male we find attractive taking care of a kit is enough to stir those instincts in us. A lot of us have experience controlling them, take medication for it. Judy is my only kit over the age of consent not on suppressants. She’s never shown an interest before, too consumed with her job.”

Baffled by the new information, it took Nick a moment to fully process it. “So wait, the sight of me taking care of Sasha makes Judy want kits?”

“It’s something like that. It’s a primal thing, something years of evolution has yet to take from us.” Bonnie didn’t bother telling Nick that it was his kits Judy would no doubt be yearning for. There was only so much paw-holding Bonnie could do. Nick would have to figure it out for himself. “I’m surprised you find rabbit pheromones so attractive, but then again the pair of you are just full of surprises.”

Snorting, Nick shook his head. “I wouldn’t just use attractive to describe how I find it.” The scent, Judy’s arousal, called to Nick, demanded that he pay attention, ordered him to find her and make her his. Thinking back, Nick recalled the lazy morning in bed he and Judy had indulged in, before calling Bonnie and Stu. He’d caught a snatch of the same scent then, but Nick hadn’t been looking after a kit at the time. Instead, Judy had been staring at his teeth…

“I’m still here you know. I don’t need to hear about the scent of my daughter’s arousal, thank you.” Stu piped up jokingly, standing back up. His bones creaked, as he stood, moving to lean against the railings once more.

Bonnie and Nick laughed, the tod feeling lighter than he had in a long time. Judy was attracted to him, which Nick hoped would work in his favour when it came time to tell her he loved her. As their laughter died down, Nick felt it was only right to come clean. Bonnie and Stu trusted him with their daughter, trusted him to keep an eye on her and keep her happy. He needed to return that trust.

Taking a deep breath, Nick launched into his story. “I guess mom told you about dad?” Nick looked between Bonnie and Stu, both of them nodding solemnly. “We had a tailoring business. My father made the most incredible clothes in the city. After he died, mom tried to keep the business afloat and keep food on the table with only her diner wages. Mom could sew yes, but she’d never been as good as dad.” Nick could remember his father trying to teach his mom how to make a suit, how his mom had put more pins in her paws than the fabric on the mannequin. “I left home when I was twelve. Mom didn’t need the worry, she didn’t need to question whether she’d have enough money to feed or clothe me. I started hustling, conning mammals out of their cash and sending it home. I was good at it, for a kit.” Nick avoided Bonnie and Stu’s gaze, focusing instead on the outline of a tree he could see in the distance. “When I was sixteen I decided to go straight, or at least as straight as possible. I wanted to open a theme park for predators, call it Wilde Times. It would’ve been a place where predators could go without fear, without worrying they’d accidentally offend a prey mammal and end up behind bars. I went to every bank in the city, but none of them wanted to invest. In the end, I went to a loan caracal.”

Listening to Nick talk about his kithood, Bonnie’s heart broke. She would never have guessed that he’d had such an upbringing, that he’d gone to such extremes to make money to send home. He had that entrepreneurial flair, she could see that, but she’d never thought that he’d used it in such a way, that he had honed his skills on the streets. Bonnie couldn’t imagine any of her babies out there, alone, doing such dangerous work. She knew foxes got a raw deal; Gideon had opened her eyes to that. Picturing a young Nick out on his own, without safety and love, made the doe reach over, pulling the tod towards her. She tucked him into her side as best she could, smoothing her paws over his fur. “Oh, Nick.”

Nick let himself be pulled in by Bonnie. He hated pity, hated how it would make him feel guilty and ashamed, but he knew Bonnie’s actions weren’t done out of pity, but out of concern. As Bonnie had mentioned, a does motherly instincts were hard to ignore. “I know, not my smartest move. He liked the idea, gave me $200,000 to go and buy the warehouse that needed to be converted. He promised me the other $200,000 once I’d secured the location.” Nick had spent every night under the bridge staring at the crumbling warehouse, dreaming of what it would’ve been like to own a business, to be successful. “I went home to tell mom, to let her know that once the park was running, she’d never have to work again. I found her crying, bills and letters piled up, debtors threatening her. I couldn’t leave her. I took the money and paid off the mortgage, used what was left to buy some stocks and shares and have a lawyer tell her that dad had left her them.”

“Nick…” Stu was unable to even comprehend what he was hearing. Judy hadn’t mentioned anything about Nick’s past to them, but the buck assumed his daughter knew. When they’d had dinner with Marian she hadn’t raised the subject either, and Stu mentally questioned whether the vixen was aware of what her son had done, the lengths he’d gone to to look after her. It wasn’t his place to say anything to Marian, and Stu knew it was taking a lot for Nick to trust them with this. The buck would take this story to the grave. It did, however, only further Stu’s resolve. Nick had taken care of his mom, put her needs above his own, and Stu prayed Nick would do the same with Judy. This time, though, Stu knew his daughter would put Nick’s needs above her own in return. After all, when she’d been a kit, he’d told her that that was what love was.

Lifting a paw, Nick shook his head. “Please.” He’d already told Judy the story, opened up to her about it. Bonnie and Stu deserved to know, deserved to know what they were letting their daughter get into by being friends with him. “The loan caracal wasn’t pleased, and after taking a beating, I managed to convince him into a payment plan. I had to give him $1000 a month, or he’d go after mom.”

Bonnie gasped, grip on Nick tightening. That was a lot of money for a mammal on the streets to find each month, a lot of money for an individual to have to scrounge up when they had no stable job. “Oh, dear boy…”

Nick powered on, feeling lighter the more he shared. Judy was the only mammal he’d told so far, and the years of keeping everything to himself were starting to weigh on him. A few months ago he never would’ve considered telling another mammal his story, let alone the parents of the mammal he wanted to pursue. “So I hustled, and I continued to trick animals out of their money. I cut back on everything, did everything I could think of to save money to make my monthly payments. I did that for sixteen years, and then your daughter came along and blew my routine to smithereens.” Nick smiled, remembering the moment he’d met Judy, how she’d stood up for him, and he’d repaid her kindness by hustling her. His smile fell. “Before Judy, I had nothing, I was nothing. I was crippled by debt, homeless, and a con-mammal. Judy has given me a home, a purpose, an honest job. I owe her my everything.”

“That’s not true, Nick. You still had your good heart, and your kindness, your strength, and courage.” Bonnie soothed, pressing a kiss to Nick’s temple. The tod closed his eyes, relishing the affection from Bonnie.

“You don’t owe her anything. Judy doesn’t like gathering favors, son.” Stu interrupted, watching his wife soothe the fox.

Lazily, Nick opened his eyes. “I know, but now you see why she’s so important to me. I had nothing before her, and she’s helped me gain everything I ever wanted. I’m scared that if she leaves, I’ll lose everything again.” Nick voiced his fear, looking at the buck.

“Judy’s not going anywhere without you, I know it. She’ll prove it to you soon enough.” Stu had every ounce of faith in his daughter. Her care for Nick was undeniable, the pair of them practically joined at the hip. Though they’d argued, Stu knew his daughter would come around quickly, would apologize and ask for forgiveness. She was inherently good, she always had been.

“Are you still paying off your debt? Stu and I can help.” Bonnie offered. Nick was family, and if he were in trouble, then they would do anything to help him. They didn’t have a lot of money, owning a farm and having 312 mouths to feed meant a lot of their cash went to keeping everything running, but they could spare some money every month to ensure Nick’s debt was being paid, to keep him and Marian from being hurt. Given how Nick spoke about his debt, the doe got the feeling that he hadn’t told his mom about his situation.

Touched by Bonnie’s kind offer, Nick gave the doe a small smile. Even if he still had his debt looming over him, he wouldn’t have taken any money from Bonnie and Stu. He knew what it was like to just be making ends meet, and he wouldn’t put Judy’s parents through that by letting them shoulder some of his debt. “I appreciate that Bonnie, I really do, but Judy took care of it.”

Surprised, and now concerned about what her ambitious daughter had gone and done, Bonnie gulped. “Took care of it?” She questioned. “Oh heck, what has Judy done now?”

“She renegotiated and saved my tail,” Nick explained, omitting any further details. Bonnie and Stu didn’t need to worry. Catstro was gone, and Judy was safe, along with his mom. Turning his gaze to Stu, Nick arranged his thoughts. “You said the role I have in Judy’s life terrifies you, but the role she has in my life is just as terrifying. My home had consisted of some ramshackle second-paw furniture and a cardboard box under a bridge before Judy came along. My life revolved around hustling from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to sleep. I have hardly any belongings, no money, no qualifications, no friends and only my mom for family. When Judy came crashing into my life, dragging me on her wild otter chase, it was the start of everything. She’s given me a warm and safe home, and a future working an honest job. Judy’s given me a whole new circle of friends, and a huge family. I don’t deserve it, but I’m not going to waste it.” Nick knew a gift had fallen into his lap, that it was a miracle he’d met Judy and been able to turn his life around. He wasn’t going to squander it, he wasn’t going to throw away what could be his only opportunity to turn his life around and make something of himself. Living on the streets and hustling hadn’t been his dream, and Nick knew he was lucky to have lived for so long out there. Many mammals on the streets didn’t make it more than a few years before they were found dead in an alley somewhere.

Lifting a paw, Bonnie cradled Nick’s cheek. Hearing that her daughter had given Nick so much made the doe proud of Judy, she’d raised her to always treat other mammals the way she would want to be treated. “You’ll always have a home here, Nick, no matter what. Even if, goodness forbid, you ever part ways with Judy, you’re always welcome here.”

Stu agreed with his wife. Nick was family now, and even if he and Judy parted ways that wouldn’t stop him and his wife welcoming the tod into their home. Once you were part of the Hopps family, you were in it for life. “I know you’ll do the right thing, that you’ll talk to her about your disagreement.”

Nodding, Nick felt the tendrils of fear at the impending conversation he’d have to have with Judy, but he knew there was no avoiding it now. They’d clashed, butted heads, and they needed to talk it through. Nick knew he needed to apologize for his reaction to the message from Bandit. It had been impulsive, his emotions leading him. He’d given Judy the bracelet not only because he loved her, but to stop other canines from hitting on her. If they found out, though, that she was unaware of the bracelet’s meaning, then she would be back to being fair game. It was that which worried him the most. “I will.”

Pulling her paw from Nick’s cheek, the doe rubbed his shoulder. “When Judy was assigned to precinct one, Stu and I were so frightened. Judy had never left the borough before, and she was about to go and live in the big city. We lay awake each night she was away wondering whether she was being taken advantage of, whether her sweet, naïve nature was getting her in trouble. We worried about her not making friends, getting too engrossed in her work and missing out on the other important parts of life. Then she met you. We trust you to take care of her, to love her and treat her right. She’d be hard pressed to find a better mammal.” Bonnie and Stu had been worried about Judy wanting to join the ZPD, had tried to convince her to become a carrot farmer, stay safe in Bunnyburrow, but there had been no stopping their daughter. Judy had set her heart and soul on being a cop, so Bonnie and Stu had decided to support her. They loved her, and if they tried to hold her back, they’d worried they would lose her entirely. Though they’d rarely ventured into the city, Bonnie knew life there was much different than out in the country.

Listening to Bonnie and Stu speak about him and Judy, Nick smiled sadly. “You’re talking like Judy and I are together. I haven’t even told her how I feel.” It was a topic of conversation he needed to broach, hoped it would help explain to her why he was so possessive, why the thought of Bandit stealing her away pulled such a volatile reaction from him.

Bonnie and Stu shared a glance, knowing they now had an opportunity to get the Nick and Judy Train back on track. Clearing his throat, Stu made a suggestion. “Tomorrow night is the closing ceremony, with music and fireworks, and the whole borough gets together for it. Each year we ask some of our kits to stay at home and watch the fields, make sure no stray fireworks set the place alight. It’s a small lie, the fireworks no longer get close enough, but we’ve been assigning the job to our kits for so long now that it’s a habit we can’t break. Why don’t you and Judy watch the place tomorrow night? Everyone will be out; you’ll have a few hours of uninterrupted peace. Use the time to tell her how you feel, explain to her how much she means to you.”

Blinking, surprised by Stu’s kind offer, Nick felt his palms become a little sweaty, the nerves creeping in. “You think that would work?” He questioned, surreptitiously wiping his paws on his pants. If they were alone and guaranteed not to be interrupted, Nick reasoned that it would be easier to talk to Judy, to explain his feelings and the bracelet that had caused most of their problems.

Bonnie broke in, a soft smile on her lips as she recalled her mom. “When I was a kit my mom told me that the first simple rule of life is that if you don’t go after what you want, you’ll never have it.” Her mom had been full of wisdom, always giving Bonnie little sayings to help her see the bigger picture, help her navigate her way through life. When her mom had died, Bonnie had passed many of her sayings on to her kits, wanting her mom to live on through her babies.

“I think my dad used to say something similar, ‘what would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything.’ I believe he stole it from Vincent van Goat, though.” Nick mused. His dad’s fascination with art had never quite rubbed off on Nick when he’d been a kit, but now that he was older he was starting to appreciate it more, especially when he got to share his knowledge about the subject with Judy. Their afternoon in the city gallery was one of Nick’s favorite memories, and he hoped to take her back there one day, take her back to her favorite painting, and explore the rest of the gallery with her.

Bonnie and Stu chuckled. The buck offered the tod a grin. “I wouldn’t worry too much about it, son. Everything will work out how it’s supposed to.” He reassured.

Nick bobbed his head. He and Judy had a lot to work through, but they’d come so far already. Everything they’d been through had made them stronger. Nick prayed this would be the same. “Sir?” He asked, realizing he still had one question for the Hopps patriarch. Stu quirked an eyebrow, believing they were over such formal address now. Nick cleared his throat, catching Stu’s gaze. “If Judy returns my feelings…”

“Are you asking for permission to date her, or marry her?” Surprised, and impressed again by Nick’s manners, Stu threw the tod a curveball.

Eyes widening, Nick stammered over his response. “D-date, we’re not – marriage is a while off.”

“Oh, so you’ll be asking me if you can marry her at some point in the future then?” Stu knew it was cruel to tease Nick, especially as he could tell it took a lot of courage for the fox to ask for his approval, to grant permission. He knew Judy was an independent doe, that regardless of his own wishes she would date Nick if she wanted to, but the buck appreciated Nick’s politeness and the old school tradition. “He may have spent twenty years on the streets, but Marian still raised him right.”

Flustered, Nick tried to regain control of the situation. Did he want to marry Judy one day? Of course. Was it appropriate right now? No. While Nick stammered, grasping for a response, Stu chuckled. Helping his wife up from the bench, he smacked a paw down on Nick’s shoulder, giving it a squeeze. “I’m messing with you.” He revealed. Nick sighed, his whole body sagging in relief. “She’s all yours.” He parted with a wink, taking Bonnie’s paw in his own as he led his wife back inside.

Exhaling, Nick laughed quietly. Stu had pulled another fast one on him. Leaning forward, he let his elbows rest on his knees while he ran his paws over his face. He felt better, if not a little emotionally raw, for having spoken so openly with Bonnie and Stu. Knowing they saw him as family filled Nick with a sense of belonging, of acceptance. He had his mom, and she would always mean the world to him, but knowing he had such a huge extended family soothed the lonely part of Nick, the part that had been denied any sort of affection and care for the last twenty years. Reaching down for his bottle of water, Nick took another sip, depositing it at the side of the bench once he’d screwed the cap back on. Bonnie and Stu had made a lot of sense. He knew Judy wouldn’t leave, knew she cared greatly for him, but deep down he still had those insecurities, still had that worry. Once she understood what her bracelet meant, would her feelings change? Before Nick could dwell on it any longer, the sound of the back door opening captured his attention. Turning, emerald eyes found violet.

Judy hadn’t meant to run, but fear had taken over and she’d fled the scene before she could talk things through with Nick. The fear of saying something again that would upset him, like she’d done at the press conference, had driven her to seek solace in the little doe’s room. Sat on one of the benches in the huge shower room, Judy had calmed herself, worked through her emotions and feelings, and had then proceeded to head back to her bedroom, ready to apologize and explain herself. Instead, she’d been faced with an empty bedroom and the return of her fear. It wasn’t hard to track Nick through the warren, the smell of fox was so prominent compared to that of rabbit, and as Judy had been climbing the stairs to the kitchen, she’d bumped into her parents. “He had a panic attack, bun-bun. He couldn’t find you. Be gentle with him.” Her mom had advised, kissing her on the forehead as they’d passed. Her dad had offered her an encouraging smile.

Out on the back porch, Judy’s first thought had been on Nick’s panic attack and how she could make it better for him. As he turned to look at her though, as their eyes met, all she could see was the dampness on his fur, the way his eyes were rimmed with red, how his ears were pinned back and his tail limp. Guilt consumed her, and she launched herself at her fox. Throwing her arms around Nick’s neck, she stepped into the space between his legs, pulling him close as she buried her nose in his throat fur. “Mom said you had a panic attack. I’m sorry, Slick, I’m so sorry.” She clung to him, pushing back her own tears. This wasn’t about her. This was about Nick.

With an armful of country bunny, Nick held Judy tightly, pulling her as close to him as possible. Relief coursed through him as he embraced her, the tension in his body dissipating. Breathing in her scent, Nick’s confidence grew. He could do this; he could talk to her about his feelings.

Pulling back so she could talk without her voice being muffled by Nick’s fur, the doe kept hold of him. “I shouldn’t have run away, that was cowardly and unfair. You need answers.” She started. While working through her feelings in the bathroom, she’d kicked herself. Judy had never run from anything before in her life, but arguing with Nick was the most terrifying thing for her. She’d knocked out rhino’s, been chased by a savage jaguar, taken on Bellwether and defeated Catstro. None of it held a candle to hurting Nick, though.

Bonnie and Stu had eased some of Nick’s worries, their conversation having proved enlightening. He guessed that Judy hadn’t meant to run away, knew that she usually faced everything head on. There had to be a valid reason for her running away from their disagreement. “It’s alright, Fluff.” He soothed, giving her a gentle squeeze.

“No, no it’s not.” Judy wouldn’t let Nick sweep it all under the rug, wouldn’t allow him to let her get away with it. “I hate fighting with you, look where it got us last time. Rather than sticking around, I ran.” Judy had hated how things had ended between them when they’d last fought, hated that they’d spent three months apart. She didn’t want that to happen again. “I was worried about saying something in anger that would upset you. I never even thought about the fact that running would upset you too. I’m so sorry.” She looked into the emerald eyes she loved, keeping her arms around Nick’s neck. “I shouldn’t have kept lunch with Bandit a secret. I should’ve told you. I realize now how keeping it a secret looked, but I promise you on my life and my badge that nothing happened. All I wanted were answers.” Judy poured her heart and soul into her apology, contrition painted on her features. She’d tried to get information out of the arctic fox but he hadn’t been forthcoming with it, and it had driven her crazy. No matter how much Judy had pouted, no matter how much she’d begged and bribed him with picking up the lunch bill, Bandit hadn’t budged.

Knowing he had his own apologizing to do, Nick held Judy’s gaze. “I’m sorry too. I shouldn’t have overreacted, shouldn’t have been so overbearing. You’re allowed to do whatever you want, to have lunch with whoever want.” Nick didn’t want to come across as controlling, didn’t want to seem like the irrational jealous boyfriend Judy had accused him of being like. She wasn’t his yet; he had no say in what she did. Heck, even if they did get together he’d have no say in what she did. Judy was an independent bunny. If she wanted to have lunch with her friends, he wouldn’t stop her.

“I’ll stop talking to him.” Judy offered. If Nick had a problem with her spending time with Bandit, then the obvious solution was to stop spending time with the arctic.

Shaking his head, Nick disagreed. “No, sweetheart. Don’t do that.” He moved a paw from around her waist, running it down Judy’s smoothed down ears. He wouldn’t let her give up a friendship because of his inability to work through his emotions, because of his irrational fear of losing her. “He’s your friend.”

“And you’re my best friend.” Judy pointed out, little paws grasping the fur on the back of Nick’s neck. Nick’s feelings were important to her; there was no other mammal she cared for as much. If cutting her ties with Bandit, who for all intents and purposes was only a casual friend, would save her friendship with Nick, then she’d do it.

“While I’m flattered that you hold me in such a high regard, I don’t want you to miss out on having other friends.” Nick wrapped his paw back around Judy, splaying it over her lower back. Taking a deep breath, he figured now would be a good time to start opening up. “My problem isn’t with you, or even Bandit. It’s just some old baggage, that’s all.”

“Then let me help you. Talk to me. Let me support you. You lock everything up, Nick.” Judy kept her tone soft, not wanting to upset the tod. She knew most of their problems stemmed from miscommunication, on both their parts, but it was so hard for Judy to try and understand Nick and his reactions to things when he didn’t let her in, when he hid his feelings from her.

Sighing, Nick’s lips curved downwards, closing his eyes. “I know. It’s an old defense mechanism.”

Letting go of the fur on the back of Nick’s neck, Judy brought one paw forward to cup his muzzle. “You’ve left that life behind, you’re starting a new one. You don’t need to be so defensive and closed off anymore, least of all to me.” She murmured, rubbing her paw along the length of his muzzle in a slow, soothing gesture.

“I overreacted because the thought of you abandoning me is terrifying.” Nick threw it out there before he could think about it, before he could change his mind, pulling courage from his chat with Bonnie and Stu. “So many mammals have ditched me over the years, once they saw that I’m not as great as they thought I was. I’m so used to it now that I hide behind the whole con-mammal persona, never letting anyone get close enough, never letting them see that they get to me. I thought I was doing pretty well, living like that, until a sweet gray bunny came along and dragged me into a wild otter chase.”

The thought of Nick being left behind by so many mammals during his life made Judy’s heart ache. Judy knew he hadn’t had many animals to rely on in his life. Bringing her other paw away from the back of his neck, she cupped the other side of his muzzle. Pulling his snout down, she let their noses rest together. The wetness of Nick’s nose felt strange, but Judy didn’t let it bother her. Closing her eyes, she inhaled his scent. “I’m not going anywhere, Slick. You’re stuck with me. No matter how many arguments we might have, I’m not going to walk out on you. I might need to go and cool down for a while, but I’m always going to come back.”

Nick panicked briefly as Judy pulled his muzzle down, wondering if this would be the moment he’d get to kiss her. Instead, she’d brought their noses together. The sweetness of the action made the tod close his eyes, his tail wagging. Paws rubbing her back, he smiled at her words. Being stuck with Judy didn’t sound bad at all. No matter how sweet her words were though, no matter how much she meant it, Nick knew it would take more than that for his insecurities to be dealt with. Judy had told him countless times nothing was going on between her and Bandit, and yet look at what had happened. “I appreciate that, but-“

“I know.” Judy interrupted. “Just saying it isn’t enough.” She would have to find a way to show Nick she wasn’t going to leave, to let him see for himself that she was here to stay. The bracelet around her wrist gave her hope, gave her an idea.

“I’ve never put as much faith and trust in another mammal before you, and it’s scary Fluff. The thought of losing you, of losing my new life.” Nick shook his head, inadvertently giving Judy an Eskimo kiss. With his eyes still shut, Nick found comfort in the darkness. He could feel Judy holding his muzzle still, could smell her all around him. It soothed his nerves. She wanted him to open up to her, to talk to her. He’d start now. “Everything changed after dad died. Before, we had a great life; we were comfortable, happy, and complete. Then dad was taken from us and my life just spiraled from there, until you came along. You’ve given me back some of the stability I’d lost, and the very idea of losing that, of ending up back on the streets.” Nick inhaled sharply, sucking in more air and more of Judy’s scent. He didn’t want to end up back on the streets, didn’t want to return to the loneliness, the cold, the hunger and the fear. “Those first few years out there were the worst. I hardly slept, too consumed with terror, too frightened that someone would harm me. The guilt of conning mammals out of their cash was crippling and the shame of being on the streets…sometimes it was too much.”

“You’re safe now. No one can hurt you.” The thought of Nick being hurt, especially when he’d been a kit, made Judy’s blood run cold. She’d had a lot of nightmares after Catstro had been iced, and some of them had included the caracal hurting Nick. Those nights had been the worst. “You did what you had to to take care of your mom.”

“I know that now.” Nick knew there were several mammals out there that still had a grudge against him, but he’d been able to avoid them and not anger them further. Once he graduated and become a cop, they wouldn’t be able to touch him. “I should’ve found a better way to take care of mom, though.”

Opening her eyes, Judy pulled back a little. Nick, losing the contact with Judy, opened his eyes too. Emerald and violet met. “You were twelve, Nick. The fact that at twelve years old you felt you had to go and do all of that breaks my heart.” Judy felt like no twelve-year-old should ever feel like they had to hustle on the streets to make money.

“Mom didn’t have dad anymore, I had to mammal up and fill his boots.” Nick’s father had been the leader of the house, and when he’d died Nick had felt the need to prove to his mom that he was capable and responsible, that he could be just as good a mammal as his dad.

“You were a kit, Nick. No one expected you to fill your father’s boots, least of all your mom.” Judy’s shoulder’s dropped, expression softening. Bringing their noses together again, she shut her eyes once more. “You’ve turned everything around, though. In a few short months, you’re going to be Officer Wilde.”

Nick chuckled nervously, mirroring his bunny by shutting his eyes again too. It was a massive undertaking, becoming a cop, and though Nick was excited for the next chapter of his life, he was worried too. Nick would be the first fox officer. The mammals that he had lived on the streets with would be even more apprehensive of him now. Nick had dirt on them all and though he’d told Finnick to spread the word that he wouldn’t spill any secrets unless he were given a reason to, Nick knew that plenty of mammals out there would see him as a threat, and might try to harm him, to remove him from the picture. “That terrifies me too.”

“Nah, you’re made for it.” Judy stroked the sides of Nick’s muzzle. Nick had proved to her during the night howler case that he had the skills to be an officer, and Judy knew he had the heart for it too. Bringing their conversation back to the main point, Judy stopped smoothing her paws over Nick’s muzzle, instead ducking away from their current position to tuck herself under Nick’s snout, wrapping her arms around him. “Is there anything I can do, to prove to you that I’m not going anywhere and that you won’t lose everything you’ve gained?”

Resting his muzzle atop Judy’s head, Nick appreciated Judy’s offer, but he knew there was little she could do to help. “No, it’s something I need to work through.”

Disagreeing, Judy pulled back from their embrace enough to look up at the tod. “It’s something we need to work through. We’re a team, Nick, partners. We have each other’s back. If there’s anything I can do just tell me and I’ll do it, no matter what it is.” Judy would walk to the ends of the earth for Nick, and she would do whatever it took to make him realize that.

“That’s a dangerous thing to say.” Nick knew how powerful words were. On the streets, when mammals had nothing to their name, their word was the most important thing they had.

Holding Nick’s gaze, Judy refused to back down. “I trust you.”

Feeling the weight of Judy’s words, Nick thought about it. There wasn’t really anything she could do to make him realize that she wasn’t going to leave. Thinking rationally, she was already doing an awful lot for him. She’d stuck around so far, had brought him home, which Nick now knew was a big deal, and had done everything in her power to make life easier for him. However, there was one thing that might help. Nick took a deep breath. “There’s one thing…”

“Name it.” Judy’s quick response left no room for doubt or questions.

Licking his lips, Nick thought about his request. It wasn’t a lot, and he didn’t believe it was unreasonable, but perhaps it would help him work through his insecurities. “Can you be honest with me, about everything? Don’t hide things from me, even something as inconsequential as grabbing lunch with Bandit, or our parents having dinner. I trust you, I do, but having things hidden from me hurts and makes those old defense mechanisms rear their ugly head. I wish it didn’t, but until I can work through it all, wrap my head around it and start dismantling those old mechanisms, knowing you’re not hiding anything from me will help. I don’t need a play by play of your day, I don’t need to know where you are every second, that’s not healthy, but if something might have an effect on me, then I’d like to know about it.”

Judy knew Nick’s request wasn’t unreasonable, figured if she were in his position she’d want the same too. Nodding, she agreed. “I promise. I’m sorry again. It was so stupid of me to hide lunch from you. I never meant to hurt you, but I know you don’t like him. I thought it would be easier not to say anything, to not mention it, I guess I didn’t really consider how that would look.” Judy’s lips pulled down, small frown lines marring her face. “This is all new to me, having a best friend. I’ve cared about mammals sure, but never as much as I care about you. I don’t know what I’m doing half the time, I’m winging it, trying to work out what I’m supposed to be doing. I’ve spent my whole life focusing on my career, crossing it off my goals list, wanting nothing more than to be Officer Hopps and make the world a better place, have mammals see that a bunny can do everything any other mammal can do. I’ve never had the chance to make a proper connection with someone, to have a best friend. I know it doesn’t excuse my actions, but I hope it helps you understand why I did what I did.”

Nick nodded. He could relate. “That makes two of us. I was so engrossed in hustling, in making enough money to keep Catstro away from my mom, that I never bothered making any actual friends.” It had been hard to make friends when his life had revolved around making money. No mammal wanted to be friends with a fox, let alone a fox who could possibly take their money from them because they were desperate. Nick had never stolen from the mammals he’d worked with, though. They always received their fair share.

“You know everyone.” Judy reminded the fox, remembering how he’d smugly informed her of the fact when she’d hustled him.

“You’re right, I know everyone, but none of them are my friends.” Nick clarified. He’d worked with Finnick for a while, had a stronger bond with the fennec than he’d ever had with any of his previous partners, but he couldn’t really call the other fox a friend. He was a business partner, not a confidant.

Knowing Nick’s concerns, knowing he’d confided in her, Judy felt it was time to return the favor. “You know how you said that you’re scared of losing me? Sometimes, I’m afraid of losing you too, that once you have your life in order, you’ll ditch me.” It was a very real issue for Judy. She was putting a lot on the line to give Nick a chance, to give him everything he’d missed out on during his twenty years on the streets. Though her fear was nowhere near the same level as Nick’s, it was still there.

Moving a paw, Nick stroked it down Judy’s ears once again. Bonnie and Stu had alerted him to the fact that Judy might feel the same, so he was prepared for her to raise the issue. Responding in the same way Judy had to his need, Nick soothed her. “Then what do I need to do in return, to make you see I’m not going anywhere either?”

“You’re here, that’s all I need.” Judy knew Nick’s continued presence in her life would be a huge reassurance and that once he graduated and stayed with her, then her fears would ease.

“Carrots…” There had to be something the tod could do to ease Judy’s worries, and the fox needed her to tell him so they could move forward.

“Just, tell me how you’re feeling, come to me when you’re upset or confused, when you’re angry or happy. That’s all I want, for you to confide in me. I know trusting someone is hard for you, but you need to open up too. We both need to work on communicating with one another.” Judy found something Nick could do for her.

Nodding, Nick figured it was something he could try and do for her. It wasn’t some ridiculous request, and Nick knew that if Judy was going to try and be honest with him, keep him in loop, then the least he could do was open up to her in return. “I think you’re right. A lot of our issues could’ve been solved had we talked it out.”

Offering Nick a reassuring smile, Judy moved her paws to the back of Nick’s neck once again, playing with the fur there. The tod kept his arms around her waist, keeping her close. Judy had an idea, and though she wasn’t sure how Nick would take it, whether he’d agree with it, she offered it up anyway. “I know that your issues with Bandit are rooted in your fear that I’ll leave, that he’ll snatch me from you. While that’s nowhere near the truth, I know you can’t just turn those feelings off. But, would you consider meeting Bandit, getting dinner with Bandit, Akita, and I next time you’re home? Perhaps meeting him yourself might help, let you see for yourself that nothing is going on, that he’s so totally enamored with Akita and that you’re stuck with me.”

Rolling the idea around, Nick wasn’t sure how comfortable he felt meeting Bandit. “Do you think that would help?”

“That’s for you to decide. I’m not a psychiatrist, I can’t say for sure. I don’t think it would hurt to try, though.” Judy didn’t want to make the decision for Nick. This was important, something that could help him overcome his fears. Judy hoped that once Nick met Bandit for himself, he would no longer see the arctic fox as a threat.

Taking a deep breath, Nick continued to think about it. On one paw, meeting Bandit would help him gain a better understanding of the mammal, scope him out for himself, but on the other paw, he was concerned about how he’d react to the sight of the arctic, whether it would just further cement his issues.

“You don’t have to make a decision now, there’s plenty of time.” Judy gave Nick an out. She knew it was an important decision, and it would probably be a while until Nick would be allowed home again.

Not wanting the moment to pass, not wanting to risk forgetting about it when he was back at the academy, Nick made his decision. “No, you’re right. I pulled a Julian and judged him before knowing him. I’m not sure whether it would help or not, but there’s no harm in trying, right?” Judy opened her mouth to respond but the tod cut her off. “I swear if you quote Gazelle right now…”

Judy laughed, and the sound pulled a snort from the tod. Both mammals appreciated the momentary relief, and soon Nick found himself laughing along with his country bunny. He hadn’t been a big Gazelle fan before Judy had shoved her way into his life, but now he couldn’t escape the pop stars music. Laughter subsiding, Judy was the first to speak. “Thank you for keeping your promise, by the way. I heard you calling Billy and George idiots.” Judy willingly gave up the information, not wanting to keep it from Nick. She was going to start actively trying to keep him informed.

Nick swallowed. If Judy had heard him calling Billy and George idiots, then it stood to reason that she’d listened to the rest of the conversation too. “You did?”

“Big ears, remember?” Judy removed a paw from behind Nick’s neck, gesturing to her ears. She’d kept them down, not wanting to smack Nick in the face with them. That, and when they were smoothed down, he was more likely to stroke them. Hearing Nick tell Billy and George that they wouldn’t get to date her, that they’d been fools for tearing down her hopes and dreams instead of encouraging her, it had been the single sweetest thing any mammal had done for her. “I would’ve throttled them if it weren’t for you shooting them down.”

Recalling how he’d gripped the stall when Billy and George had thrown the offensive slur at Judy, Nick grit his teeth. “I was close to, when they…”

“Called me a predo. I could see you refraining.” Judy finished Nick’s sentence. The slur still hurt, but the doe knew that if she and Nick were to get together, she’d be hearing it a lot more. Judy was trying not to give the word power over her. There was one other element of Nick’s smack down that the doe wanted to touch on. “You let them think we’re together, alluded to it.”

“Yep, she heard the rest of the conversation.” Nick swallowed, feeling nervous. He’d been trying to get them to back off, to leave Judy alone, and he figured the one guaranteed way to get that to happen was to let them think he was dating her. “I’m sorry. That was high-pawed of me.”

“Don’t apologize. It made them give up. Besides, it’s not the first time I’ve had that slur thrown at me.” Since the incident with the coyote, Judy had been subjected to it a few more times. Once when she had been grabbing coffee one morning for her and Wolford, before they went out on patrol, and again in the aisle of the local supermarket, when she’d been reaching with her right paw for some rhubarb.

Guilt swept through Nick, and the tod kicked himself again for not realizing the abuse she’d receive for wearing it. “I’m so-“

“I swear if you apologize one more time I’ll kick your butt.” Judy cut him off. Nick needed to stop saying he was sorry. She wasn’t angry with him, not in the slightest. He’d managed to get Billy and George to leave her alone, and it didn’t matter to her if they thought she was a predo.

“I’d like to see you try, Fluff.” Nick appreciated the change of mood, and he offered his bunny a grin. He’d seen the video of her taking down a rhino, knew she was more than capable, but he was a sly fox, a former street mammal, if there was one thing Nick was good at it was evading cops.

“I took down a rhino, Slick. You’d be a piece of cake. Though, you have filled out a little since I last saw you.” Splaying her paws on Nick’s chest, she enjoyed the way his muscles felt under her paws. Sliding one paw up to his shoulder she swept it down his arm, admiring the quiet strength she could feel there.

Judy’s paws on his body were doing wicked things to Nick’s imagination, and he had to stifle a groan as she felt him up. She really would be the death of him. “Is that your way of calling me fat?” He aimed for humor, hoping to distract Judy from her current fondling.

Snorting, Judy grinned up at Nick, her paws stopping their exploration. “No, Slick. More like healthy, and strong. Don’t think I haven’t noticed how shiny your fur is, either.”

Years on the streets had taken their toll on his body, but knowing that Judy had spotted it too served as a reminder that the doe was keeping an eye on him. She thought she was smart, filling the freezer with his favorite food, gently encouraging him to eat all the time, but the tod knew Judy had cottoned on to his odd eating habits, that she was trying to fix them. It was another reason he loved her. Judy noticed the little things and tried to fix those too. “She’d probably try and singlehandedly fix every mammal’s problems if she was given a chance.” He shook his head fondly. “Three square meals a day will do that to a mammal, Carrots.” Nick had noticed the changes too. He was sleeping better; feeling better, had more energy and a spring in his step. After he had graduated, when he got to sleep in his own bed and eat more of Judy’s cooking, he knew it would get even better.

Bringing her paws to his chest again, Judy started to play with the collar of his shirt. “Now for the tricky part.” She took a deep breath, hoping to lead them back to the topic of Nick making Billy and George think they were a couple, back to the subject of them. “You know, this whole trust and honesty thing is a two-way street, right?”

Perplexed, Nick nodded. “Of course, I wouldn’t expect it to be any other way.”

“Now or never, Judy. Time to pull on your big bunny panties.” Raising her right arm, Judy brought her bracelet into the line of sight between them. “You should’ve told me about this, Nick. I wish you had told me how important my bracelet is when you gave it to me. I wish you hadn’t kept something so serious from me.” Judy felt Nick tense, watched as he looked at her bracelet, his eyes widening as his pupils contracted. “It’s been driving me crazy for months. No one would tell me anything. Wolford was surprised, but he kept shtum. Bandit laughed, said it was about time. It was infuriating, knowing I was wearing something that was obviously important, that held a deep meaning, but being completely unaware of what it was.” Dropping her arm, Judy placed her paw on Nick’s arm, holding him. He still had his arms around her, and the doe was grateful she had him penned in against the bench. Nick was looking decidedly twitchy, agitated, and she could see his chest rising and falling quickly. Violet met emerald, and Judy came clean. “Gideon told me what it is this afternoon, what it means.” Nick’s reaction was instantaneous. He started shaking, borderline hyperventilating, and Judy could hear his heart pounding.

Judy knew. She knew what the bracelet meant. “This is it. Judy might be attracted to you, but she might not love you enough to feel comfortable wearing it anymore.” The panic set in before Nick could stop it. Already strung out from the evening, it didn’t take much to send Nick spiraling again. Screwing his eyes shut, he tried to stop himself, tried to halt the yip of distress. He failed.

Spurred into action, Judy let go of Nick’s arms, lifting her paws to cup his muzzle. “Nick. I’m here. Breathe. It’s okay.” Tipping his head down, Judy felt his paws tighten on her back. Wincing as his claws dug in, she forced herself to continue reassuring him. Resting the underside of her chin on the end of his snout, she hoped her strong scent there would help. Paws rubbing along his muzzle she continued to coo softly. “You’re alright, it’s okay. Breathe. Nice and slow, take deep breaths.” Judy lifted a paw from Nick’s muzzle, reaching around. Grabbing one of his paws she gently pried it from her back, bringing it to rest on her chest, over her heart. “Breathe with me, come on.” She took a deep breath in, chest rising, and then let it out slowly, chest falling. She repeated the action several times, encouraging Nick to mimic her, to feel what she was doing.

Slowly, Nick’s breathing began to mirror Judy’s, her heartbeat beneath his paw, the rising and falling of her chest, and her scent in his nostrils all helping him, until the tod eventually pulled his emotions back into line. “Thank you.” He whispered, clearing his throat once he felt able to talk.

“I’ve got your back, remember?” Judy lifted her chin from Nick’s muzzle, pulling away so she could look at him. She kept his paw on her chest though, just in case he started to panic again.

“You can take it off. I understand. I shouldn’t have kept its meaning from you.” Nick continued to whisper, eyes still screwed shut. No longer seeing it around her wrist would be torture for the fox, but Nick didn’t want her to feel obligated now she knew it’s meaning. It had been beautiful while it had lasted.

“Why on earth would I take it off? It’s a gift from you.” The thought was so absurd to the doe that she wasn’t she whether to be offended or not that Nick thought she’d be so callous. Even if she didn’t return his feelings, she’d still wear it. Nick had bought it for her, had put love and time and thought into it. It was the most precious thing she owned.

Eyes opening, Nick shook his head, features soft and sad. “It’s not just a gift, Carrots, it’s-“

“A bonding bracelet. I know.” Judy put it out there, finally called it by its name. Nick inhaled sharply and, worried he would fall into another panic attack, Judy carried on, not giving him the chance. “I also know that you can only have one made in your lifetime and that you had it made for me. I know it holds an awful lot of weight for your species. I know too that it acts as a symbol to other canines, that the wearer is off the market, which we’re going to have a nice long discussion about later, but I’m not taking it off, Nick. I just want to understand why you felt like you couldn’t tell me how important it is, why you hid that from me. It hurt me, knowing you were hiding all that.” While Judy had been ecstatic to learn that her fox loved her, that she was so important to him, when she’d been changing for the barn party she’d had time to think. Knowing now what she did about the bracelet, she was hurt that Nick hadn’t felt comfortable telling her about it, telling her what it really meant. She still would’ve worn it, would’ve probably pounced on Nick right then and there and smothered him in kisses. They’d lost so much time already because they hadn’t talked about their feelings, had been stuck in some weird mating dance.

Watching Nick flounder as he struggled to give her answers, seeing the fear in his eyes, Judy pressed a kiss to the side of his muzzle, dangerously close to his lips. She never wanted to see that fear in his eyes again. “We’ll shelve this conversation for now because it’s late and I know you’re feeling emotionally drained. We’ll pick it back up tomorrow because I’d like some answers. For now, though, sleep is calling.”

Grateful for Judy’s thoughtfulness, and dizzy from her kiss, Nick nodded. He wanted to talk to her about the bracelet, knew he needed to, but he couldn’t right now. Letting her help him up from the bench, he followed her back into the warren, back through the kitchen and the dining room, twisting and turning down the hallways until they reached her bedroom. He was tired, emotionally drained, and he needed to clear his head for tomorrow, think about how he was going to tell her everything about the bracelet. Ditching his shirt and swapping his evening pants for his sleep ones, Nick didn’t even stop to consider the fact he was changing in front of Judy. The doe had done the same, turning her back to him while she removed her dress, slipping on her PJ’s. Yawning as he climbed into bed, Nick soon had his favorite bunny in his arms, snuggling close. Paws stroking her smooth ears, Nick closed his eyes, focusing on her scent. He was exhausted, so many feelings and emotions coursing through him that he’d thought he’d long since boxed away. Tightening his hold on Judy, he felt her nuzzle against him. It would take him a while to properly sort through his feelings, but tomorrow he’d give her answers, tomorrow he’d tell Judy that he loved her, that he wanted her as his mate. “No more secrets, Wilde. No more running away from your feelings.”

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