Well then…. *UPDATE*

Hi folks,

I don’t know how many of you are still here, and how many of you still care about Ethereal Redemption, but I figured it was important to keep you all updated.

Its been nearly 10 months since I updated Ethereal Redemption, and in that time a lot has happened to me. I moved to a new city and new house, got a new job, and started cultivating a new social circle. Its been long and hard, there’s been ups and downs, but its also given me a lot of time to think, especially about this story.

After mulling it over for a while I’ve come to a decision.

I’m going to pull this story and completely re-write it.

I feel that since I started it back in 2010, my writing ability has improved a little. Looking at it, the story is too long and clunky, and I want to switch to 3rd person narrative.

I’m going to start pulling it this week, but hopefully everyone will see this post in the meantime. I don’t know how long it will take me to rework the story, but I hope to have a semi-regular update schedule as the bones of this fic are already in place.

I hope this rework will make the story even better for you guys! Thanks for all your love and support over the years, it really means an awful lot to me 🙂

~ x




Chapter 20 – Now or Never: Part One

Stretching, Judy felt sleep fading away. It hadn’t taken her long to fall asleep after crawling into bed with Nick last night, their disagreement and subsequent discussion exhausting her. Nick was a pretty great pillow, too, though the doe would never tell him that. Reaching out as she woke, Judy felt around for her fox. Coming up empty, she snapped to attention. Sitting up, anxious violet eyes searched the bed. Nick was nowhere to be seen. As Judy prepared to get up and find him, worried he’d had another panic attack and disappeared, the new addition to her nightstand stopped her in her tracks. There, next to her phone, sat a bouquet of white tulips and hydrangeas, with a small scrap of paper propped up against the vase. Reaching for the note, Judy snatched it up, bringing it closer so she could read it.

“Flowers are pretty, and I’d never say no to them.”

Underneath her quote from one of her many phone calls with Nick, a heart had been scrawled, followed by an ‘N.’ Unable to stop her stupid grin, and her ears from drooping at the sweetness of the gesture, Judy slipped out of bed, leaning over her nightstand to bury her nose amongst the sweet smelling flowers. “Oh Slick. You’re such a gentlemammal.” Tucking the note in her suitcase for safekeeping, Judy changed quickly, throwing on some jeans and a blouse. Paw brushing across the soft petals of the beautiful new bouquet, Judy forced herself to go and find her fox.

Bounding through her family home, she followed her nose, tracking Nick’s movements. It was still early, too early for her siblings to be awake yet. Judy briefly wondered how long Nick had been awake, and where he’d managed to find such beautiful flowers. “He probably knows someone.” Moving through the dining room, Judy could hear her mom and Nick in the kitchen. Taking the stairs two at a time, she found Nick stood by the island counter, her mom making breakfast while the pair of them chatted.

“Hey, bun-bun.” Bonnie had heard her daughter’s approach, a benefit of having large ears. Turning from her spot at the stove she crossed to Judy, pressing a kiss to her forehead.

“Hey, mom.” Judy accepted the kiss, watching as her mom returned to the stove before breakfast ended up a burnt mess. Eyes turning to Nick, she found the tod looking at her without his usual lazy grin. Instead, there was a new softness to the expression he wore. “Hey Slick.” Judy moved around the counter as Nick took a step towards her. He’d swapped the plain shirts he’d been wearing all weekend for one of his usual Pawaiian ones, throwing on a tie to go with it. Judy smiled, having missed seeing her fox in his trademark shirts. Reaching up, she pulled him down for a hug, arms wrapping around his neck.

Returning Judy’s embrace, Nick inhaled deeply, enjoying the way her scent flooded his nostrils. Her scent was so much stronger in the mornings. “Hey Fluff, sleep well?” Paws rubbing Judy’s back, Nick kept her in his embrace.

“I did, thanks. Didn’t like waking up without you though.” Voice muffled slightly by the fur peeking out of the collar of Nick’s shirt, Judy tightened her hold on him. She’d been worried, waking up to find him gone. Nick’s panic attacks were a new thing to Judy, and she had to question whether he’d alerted the medics at the academy about it. Once he graduated and joined her at precinct one, he’d have to keep the on-site doctor updated, have it noted on his record that he occasionally suffered from them. Judy only hoped that it wouldn’t become a cause for concern and that it wouldn’t leave her and Nick saddled with desk duty. Having a panic attack out on the beat or in the field wasn’t ideal, regardless of the fact that Judy seemed to be able to calm him relatively quickly.

“Sorry, I woke up early and then bumped into Julian, followed by your mom.” Nick explained, soothing Judy’s worries. Nick had been awake for a few hours, thoughts of the impending conversation about Judy’s bracelet making it difficult for the tod to fall asleep again. Rather than driving himself crazy in bed, Nick had decided to get up and start the day. As he’d stepped out onto the back porch and looked out over the fields surrounding the Hopps warren, he’d had the idea of getting Judy some flowers, recalling their phone call when she’d mentioned delivering flowers to a deer who’d gotten into an argument with her partner.

Having started to descend the steps off the porch, ready to go and search for a nice bouquet, Nick had been surprised by Julian’s sudden appearance behind him. “Rumour has it you and Ju got into a doozy of an argument last night.” The buck had opened the conversation. Sadly confirming it, Nick had explained that it had all been down to miscommunication, but that they’d talked about it and now he was hoping to find her some flowers to make her smile. Julian had thrown a set of farm cart keys at him. “Four fields over, mom has a flower patch. Choose wisely.” With that the buck had disappeared back into the warren, leaving Nick with the sense that they’d never be the best of friends, but they would be civil to one another for Judy’s sake. When Julian had first joined him on the back porch, Nick had half expected him to pull a taser, to threaten him and demand he leave, especially considering the fact he knew about his disagreement with Judy the night before. It had been a pleasant surprise not to be threatened, not to have an anti-fox device wafted in his face

As he’d returned from his excursion to the field, flowers in paw, Nick had found Bonnie in the kitchen. The doe had offered him a vase, given the fur on his head an affectionate ruffle, and then had gone back to her cooking. Nick had appreciated how she hadn’t brought up last night. He was feeling better this morning, lighter for having shared his story with Bonnie and Stu, for having come clean with Judy about how he bottled up his feelings, how he was frightened of losing her. Nick knew there was still a long way to go, that he’d probably still suffer from the fear of losing Judy for quite some time, but he could work through it with her now.

The mention of her brother put Judy on edge. “Julian?” Julian had seemingly come around a little last night, had said he was willing to try and be civil with Nick because he wanted Judy to be happy. However, the doe hadn’t factored in how the two would act around one another without her there to mediate. Julian could be hot-tempered when it suited, and Judy knew that Nick relied on jibes and sarcasm when faced with situations he wasn’t comfortable in. Putting the two of them together could only spell trouble.

Feeling the tension in Judy’s body, Nick sighed. It hadn’t been the worst encounter Nick had ever had, but it certainly wasn’t the best either. While picking the flowers for Judy, desperately trying to remember the meanings so he wouldn’t screw it up, Nick had tried to formulate a plan, a way to get Julian to like him a little more and be more accepting. In the end, he’d settled on simply showing Julian that he was a good mammal. After all, actions spoke louder than words. If Julian could see how much Nick cared for Judy, how he looked out for her and loved her, then the buck wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. “Don’t worry; we didn’t kill each other.”

“Please don’t joke about that,” Judy begged, shaking her head. Her father’s prejudice had been bad enough, but she’d believed Julian to be better than that. Her brother had threatened to hurt Nick on Friday night. Judy wasn’t sure she could live with the guilt if any of her family members decided to harm her fox. As it stood, she was grateful her mom and dad had ensured Pop-Pop wasn’t staying with them for the weekend. When she’d arrived on Friday morning to find him sitting in his usual chair in the living room, she’d been terrified. Judy hadn’t wanted Nick to experience her Pop-Pop’s hatred, hadn’t wanted her fox to feel unwelcome or unsafe in her family home. Bonnie had pulled her aside, informed her that he was only with them for the morning before he would be heading back to his own warren, where he’d stay for the rest of the weekend. So far they hadn’t run into him, the barn party wasn’t really Pop-Pop’s scene, but she had a sinking feeling in her gut that he’s turn up for the closing ceremony, that seeing Judy with Nick would send the old rabbit off on an angry tirade.

“It’s cool, we’re cool. I think. It was a very short conversation.” Nick clarified. Julian had been a little hostile towards him, but it hadn’t been anything major. The force with which he’d thrown the keys had been a little excessive, and his aim had been decidedly below the belt, but Nick’s quick reflexes had meant he’d been able to snatch the keys before they’d connected with his groin. The news that the disagreement between him and Judy had already spread to a few members of the Hopps family didn’t surprise the tod, but what had surprised him was how he hadn’t been chased out with pitchforks yet. “Maybe I’ve actually won a lot of them over.”

Thankful that her brother hadn’t attacked Nick, that he seemed to be all in one piece, Judy settled against him, tucked securely under his muzzle. “Thank you for my flowers.” She whispered, shutting her eyes as she enjoyed the sound of his thudding heartbeat. It had been a lovely surprise, to wake up to a bouquet of white tulips and hydrangeas, the flowers of forgiveness and gratefulness. Not only that but to know that Nick paid attention to everything she said in their phone calls and was able to quote it back to her filled her heart with joy.

Shrugging as best as he could with his country bunny in his arms, Nick gave her a gentle squeeze. “Eh, you’re welcome. I had to walk all the way to town for them.” He lied, a little embarrassed that he’d spent an hour on his paws and knees in a field picking the best ones for her. “Do you think Major Friedkin would count that as my morning cardio?” He mused, distantly aware of the fact his training regime had been slipping over the weekend, and he’d been eating a very different diet than the one provided at the academy. Major Friedkin would probably make him run a marathon when he got back, just to make sure he could still do it, all the while looking pleased with herself for finding something to torment him with.

As a cop, Judy had been taught how to be observant, how to eye up a mammal and deduce clues from their appearance. “Nick.”

“Yeah?” Nick spared a glance down to the rabbit against his chest.

Pulling back just enough so that she could look up at the tod and remain in his embrace, Judy smiled, trying her hardest not to laugh. “There’s dirt on your pants and your paws. You didn’t go into town.”

Grumbling as Judy caught him out, and unable to stop his grin as she started to laugh, he shook his head fondly. “Okay, you caught me, Officer. I found a field of flowers and picked a few for you.” It was still a partial lie. While Julian had recommended going to the flower patch and picking some for Judy, the tod wasn’t sure now if that were something Bonnie would be best pleased to hear. Though the doe was going about her business, fixing up breakfast ready for her kits, Nick knew she had her ears tuned in to their conversation.

As Judy’s laughter subsided the doe reached up, pushing herself onto the balls of her hind paws as she gently grasped Nick’s muzzle. Pressing a light kiss to his cheek, she gave the underside of his muzzle a light scritch. “You’re adorable. Thank you.” No mammal had ever brought Judy flowers before, not even the few bucks she’d been on dates with. Nick was the first mammal to give her flowers, and he’d given her two bouquets this weekend. “You’re setting a dangerous precedence, Slick.”

Heart thudding at Judy’s kiss, Nick smoothed a paw down her ears. “Don’t mention it, Carrots.” If bringing her flowers made her happy then Nick would bring her flowers every time he came home, and when he graduated he’d be sure to gift her a new bouquet every week.

Having been quietly listening in to the conversation between Nick and her daughter, Bonnie was grateful she was facing the stove as she grinned. Nick and Judy were back to being affectionate with one another, and Bonnie was preparing to lay the foundations for their talk this evening. She’d sent a quick message to Marian last night, and the vixen had called her back immediately, wanting to know everything that had gone on. Safe out of earshot, Bonnie had filled her in on the weekend’s events thus far, including Nick and Judy’s little tiff. The vixen had sighed sadly at the news of their argument, but hearing that they’d talked it out on the back porch had reignited the excitement in her that her baby would soon pull his head out of his tail and tell Judy that he loved her.

“Breakfast’s ready.” Bonnie didn’t want to interrupt, but she felt it was best to have Nick and Judy eat first, alone, and then spend the morning together. Though she was sure Sasha would ask for Nick when she woke, Bonnie knew Judy and Nick needed some alone time to gather themselves a little more after last nights fall out.

Taking their seats at the barstools at the island counter, both doe and tod licked their lips as Bonnie pushed a huge stack of pancakes towards them, along with their cutlery and all the accoutrements. “You’re spoiling me, Bonnie.” Nick complimented, letting Judy grab a pancake first before he followed suit.

Leaning against the counter, Bonnie watched as Nick and Judy loaded up their pancakes with fruit and sugar. She noticed that Judy kept stealing glances at Nick’s food before she leaned across, picking up another pancake, which she deposited onto his plate, along with another pawful of blueberries. Nick turned to Judy, lifting an eyebrow. Judy simply grinned in response before returning her attention to her own food. As Nick put a piece of pancake into his mouth, Bonnie turned back to the stoves. Keeping her tone serious, she couldn’t help but tease the fox. “We’re fattening you up for the slaughter, dear. We need the main dish for the ceremony this evening.”

Caught off guard by Bonnie’s comment, Nick ended up inhaling the piece of pancake that had been in his mouth. “What?” Nick wheezed as he violently coughed, choking.

Reaching over, Judy started to thump Nick’s back, pushing her glass of water towards him. “Mom’s joking.” Judy shot a glare at her mom’s back while Nick took a sip of water, clearing his throat. He coughed a few more times, Judy’s thumps turning into slow rubs.

“I am.” Bonnie conceded, grabbing some plates from a cupboard. “We’re serving up Gideon instead.”

No longer choking on a piece of pancake, Nick set Judy’s glass of water back down, shooting her an appreciative look as she withdrew her paw from his back. “You’re an awful liar, Bonnie.” He shook his head as he turned to glance at Bonnie, who was now stacking plates on the island counter in front of them.

Pausing in her work, Bonnie looked up, catching Nick’s gaze. Lifting a paw, she pointed a finger at him, a playful smile on her lips. “Yeah, but I had you for a minute there, didn’t I?”

Chuckling, Nick graciously conceded. “You did, well done.” Nick was 99.9% sure that the rabbits of Bunnyburrow wouldn’t serve up fox for dinner, they were vegetarians after all, but this whole experience was new to him. They could’ve told him they danced naked through the streets and indulged in mass orgies, and he’d probably have fallen for it. As Bonnie’s focus shifted back to preparing breakfast for her other kits, Nick turned his barstool so he could better see Judy, returning to his pancakes and blueberries. “So what’s the plan for today?”

“Well, there’s a parade this afternoon, followed by the closing ceremony,” Judy explained after swallowing her mouthful. The parade consisted of floats made by all the different families, and lots of treats were thrown out into the crowds. As a kit, Judy had collected as much candy as possible, having bags of it by the end of the parade. Unfortunately, she’d had to share the candy with her siblings most of the time.

“You want to go?” Nick asked. Personally, he didn’t mind what they spent their day doing; he’d happily follow Judy anywhere. It wasn’t like Nick knew what to expect either, with this being his first Carrot Day Festival. The tod silently hoped it wouldn’t be his last and that it would become a tradition for him and Judy to visit from the city every year for it. Maybe next time he’d ask if he could bring his mom along too. She’d love it.

“We could put in an appearance if you’d like?” Judy offered. The doe wanted to show her face at the two events, but she was very aware that she and Nick needed to talk, and the longer they spent at the day’s events, the less time they’d have to chat. Judy also knew that the weekend was busy, and though she was used to be constantly on the go and attending everything, she was worried Nick might burn out. It wasn’t like he could recover once he made it back to the academy, as Major Friedkin would no doubt force him straight back into training the moment he arrived tomorrow morning.

“Oh, bun-bun, before I forget, your dad and I would like you and Nick to come home and watch over the warren during the closing ceremony.” Bonnie set the plan into action, remembering how they’d suggested the idea to Nick the night before, even though she and Marian had been cultivating the plan for weeks now. She figured Judy would be more likely to go along with it if she was the one to suggest it. Bonnie kept her back to Judy though, busying herself with her prep work. If she turned around, she knew her observant daughter would be able to tell that she was plotting something.

Groaning, Judy pouted. “Are you kidding me? Mom, the fireworks are the best bit!” She protested. Bunnyburrow went all out for the closing ceremony, and the fireworks were the most spectacular part of the evening. Judy felt like a little kit again every time she watched them, oohing and ahhing as they exploded above her in a cacophony of color.

“You’ll be able to watch them from the back porch.” Bonnie pointed out. Though there was a line of trees in the distance, behind the fields that bordered the warren, Nick and Judy would have an unobstructed view of the night sky and the fireworks.

“But Nick’s here, he should get to experience the closing ceremony,” Judy argued. It wasn’t fair on Nick, as their guest, to be forced into watching the warren with her instead of joining in the festivities.

Realizing that Bonnie was following through with the idea they’d hatched the night before, Nick seized the opportunity to reassure Judy. “It’s alright Fluff, I don’t mind. We still get to watch them from the back porch.”

“Are you sure you don’t mind?” Judy put down her cutlery, her plate now clean as she looked at her fox, gauging his reaction.

“Nah, not at all,” Nick reassured his country bunny, throwing a pawful of blueberries into his maw.

Judy sighed, conceding with a nod. “So long as you’re happy.” She watched as Nick finished his mouthful of blueberries, putting his own cutlery down now that his plate was clean too. Rising, Judy collected their dishes, crossing the kitchen to the many dishwashers. With Judy suitable distracted, Nick cleared his throat, making Bonnie turn around. He caught her gaze, mouthing his thanks. The doe smiled warmly, nodding her head.

When the dishes had been put in the dishwasher, and Judy was sat back on her barstool, Bonnie wiped her paws on a kitchen towel. “Now bun-bun, your dad and I picked you and Nick up a little something.”

Surprised, Judy turned to her mom, watching as she started to make her way to the stairs down to the dining room. “Mom, you never buy presents for us on the last day.”

“Shush. We wanted to treat you both.” Bonnie admonished. Truth told, she and Stu had wanted to get Nick and Judy a little housewarming gift. Marian had explained to them about the blankets, how she’d purposefully gifted them blankets in the others fur colour. Not wanting to appear like she didn’t care, Bonnie had insisted on getting something for them too. It was better for her to give them their presents now before the rest of her kits woke and started to question where their presents were. Opening one of the tall cupboards in the dining room, Bonnie pulled out a medium-sized dark green box.

“Presents?” Nick whispered to Judy, not sure he was following.

“It’s tradition to give gifts to loved ones on the last day of the festival. With 312 of us, mom and dad don’t usually get us anything. It’s too expensive.” Judy explained, watching as her mom climbed back up the stairs to the kitchen, box in paw.

“Now it’s not a lot but…” The doe shrugged, offering the box out to Nick and Judy. Judy let Nick take it, wanting him to be the one to open it. Judy wasn’t sure how many presents Nick had received in the past two decades, but the doe knew she was going to make it her personal mission to make up for all the birthday and Christmas treats he’d more than likely missed out on. She knew Nick wasn’t a material mammal, that things held no real value to him, so instead, she was planning on adventures, experiences they could share together, things Judy hoped would put a smile on his face and let him know just how much she loved him.

Nick placed the box down on the counter, curious as to the contents. Lifting the lid while Judy and Bonnie watched, he pushed aside the paper tissue hiding the gifts inside. Reaching in, Nick pulled out the first item – it was a shallow dish, the edges sloping upwards, and painted in the center was a carrot and a pawpsicle.

“I have a friend who makes pottery, and I took some inspiration from Judy’s beautiful bracelet when I asked her to make a little key dish for you both. It’s not a lot, but I figured it might stop you from losing your keys.” Bonnie explained, watching as Judy’s ears drooped, expression softening.

“Mom…” Judy breathed, turning to look at the doe.

“Your dad and I realize that we didn’t get you housewarming presents. Now we weren’t sure what you already have, so we played it safe.” Bonnie elaborated, gesturing to the box. There was still another gift in there, but she could see Nick would need a moment.

Faintly aware that Bonnie was speaking, that Judy moved to hug her mom, Nick continued to stare at the dish in his paws, thumbs running over the smooth surface. Bonnie had gone out of her way to have this made special for him and Judy before he’d even met her in person. Setting the dish down, Nick dipped his paw back into the box, this time removing a silver photo frame. Turning it over, the photo inside was what struck Nick the most. Bonnie had somehow managed to get hold of the photo of Nick and Judy in the entrance hall of the city gallery, and she’d slipped into the frame. Smiling, and touched by the doe’s kindness, Nick noted that the detail on the frame matched the detail along the bottom edge of the purple dress his mom had made for Judy, the dress she was wearing in the image. “Thank you, Bonnie.” Nick handed the frame to Judy as she drew closer, giving him the opportunity to embrace the Hopps matriarch.

“Oh, it’s no problem dear. They’re just small little things.” Bonnie returned Nick’s embrace, pleased that he seemed genuinely happy with the two gifts. Pulling back from their embrace, Bonnie grasped Nick’s forearms gently, looking between the fox and her daughter. “Now, why don’t you two go and enjoy your morning while I take care of the fluffle?”

Liking the idea, Nick helped Judy gather up their gifts, offering Bonnie another thank you before they headed back to Judy’s room. Nick contemplating starting the ball rolling, getting the conversation about Judy’s bracelet out of the way now, but Bonnie and Stu had given him the perfect opportunity this evening, and the tod would feel bad letting it go to waste.

Placing their gifts in her suitcase, Judy wondered how she was going to get everything home. She had her two flower bouquets also. While at work tomorrow Judy could leave her bag in the locker room. She’d have to find somewhere else for her flowers, though. Perhaps Clawhauser could look after them for her, they’d brighten up his workspace, and he’d ensure they were kept in water. As she went to close her bag, Judy remembered the note and key from Mr. Big. Producing the letter and the pouch she’d slipped the key into, she offered them out to Nick. “Okay, so as mom started the gift ball rolling, this is for you.”

“Carrots, you didn’t have to get me anything.” Nick gently scolded. He hadn’t been aware of the gift giving tradition and therefore had nothing to give his country bunny in return.

“Oh, it’s not from me. It’s from Mr. Big.” Judy enjoyed the look of shock on Nick’s face as he sat in the middle of her bed, folding his legs beneath him.

“What?!” Wide emerald eyes looked between the letter, pouch, and Judy. As the doe sat opposite him on the bed, folding her legs beneath her too, he gently took the items from her. Curious as to why Mr. Big had sent him a gift, and a little nervous as he tried to recall whether he’d done anything to wrong the arctic shrew recently, Nick started with the pouch. Opening it, a key tumbled into his paw.

“The letter explains it all.” Judy could see the confusion clouding Nick’s face, and she took the key from him when he held it out to her, his paws going for the note.

Unfolding the piece of paper, Nick began to read. He couldn’t stop the widening of his eyes as he mouthed the words written on the paper. Nick couldn’t believe it. Mr. Big had found a chunk of the money he’d paid Catstro, and he was giving it back to him. “I have a safety deposit box. With money in it.” The thought was so foreign to Nick, the words strange on his tongue. Looking up, he caught Judy’s gaze as she hummed in confirmation. “How much is in it?” Nick had paid Catstro nearly the full $200,000 he’d borrowed, before the caracal’s demise.

“I don’t know,” Judy answered truthfully. She’d had the time to go look, and the key, but she’d refrained.

Blinking, Nick couldn’t understand why Judy didn’t know the amount in the safety deposit box. She had the key; surely she’d gone and checked? “What do you mean you don’t know? Didn’t you go and look?”

“No, Slick. It’s your account, your money. It’s none of my business.” Judy hadn’t wanted to risk standing on any hind paws by going and looking. The account wasn’t in her name; she didn’t have anything to do with earning the money that was in it. Sure she was curious, any mammal would be, but she wanted Nick to be the first mammal to open the box and count the contents.

Baffled by Judy’s response, Nick leaned forward towards the doe. “We live together, Carrots, what’s mine is yours. Of course it’s your business.” While endearing that Judy hadn’t been to look, that she didn’t think it was any of her concern, Nick wanted her to know that he would share everything with her, including the money. As Judy went to shake her head, to protest, Nick cut in and silenced her. “Whatever I have, I want to share with you.”

“You worked hard for this money, Nick. It’s yours.” Judy didn’t want to take anything from Nick. For so long he’d gone without, barely had any money to take care of himself. He could use the funds to buy all the things he’d ever wanted or save it for a rainy day. She didn’t want to influence his decisions in any way.

“Ours.” Nick corrected “We’re a team, remember?” Judy liked to peddle that line, and Nick was more than happy to use it against her now that the tables had been turned. “Will you go and check what’s in there when you get home, please? Let me know how much it is?” The thought of having any money, having some savings, was hard to process. He’d been living on a pittance for so long, and now he finally had some cash. Nick didn’t get ahead of himself, he still didn’t know how much was in the deposit box, but it was probably more than he’d ever had to his name before.

“Sure, I can do that.” Judy held the key tightly. She wasn’t sure about the protocol for gaining access to a safety deposit box, whether she’d be able to or not given that the box wasn’t in her name, but she had one of two keys needed for it, so surely that would be enough. If not, she’d simply ask Mr. Big.

“However much there is, can you draw out half of it for next time I come home, please? I want to give it to mom if that’s okay with you? We’ll save the other half.” Nick made up his mind. He knew his mom no longer had a mortgage, as he’d paid it off for her, and that her job made her enough to pay the bills every month and keep her fridge stocked, but Nick had borrowed a fair amount from her over the past few months that he needed to repay. He also wanted her to have a little nest egg of her own, maybe treat herself to a nice holiday, buy something she’d always wanted, or redecorate the house.

“Such a mommy’s tod.” Judy teased, reaching over to gently shove Nick’s knee. In all honesty, the fact Nick looked after his mom and did everything in his power to keep her warm, safe, and happy made Judy’s heart clench. The love and care he had for Marian made Judy wonder what it would be like should they start dating. What would it feel like to be on the receiving end of Nick’s love.

Folding the letter, Nick handed it back to Judy so that she could keep it with the key. He watched as Judy slid both into the pouch. “Says the daddy’s doe.”

“I can’t argue with that.” Judy chuckled, placing the pouch down on the bed next to her. “Now then.” Judy leaned down over the edge of her bed, rummaging around underneath it until she found the blue box she’d stashed under there when she’d arrived on Friday. Pulling it out, she lifted it up onto the bed as she sat back up. Holding it out, she offered it to the tod.

“Carrots, I didn’t get you anything,” Nick whined, taking in the big silver bow on top as he reached out for the offered item, pulling it onto his lap.

“You’re here, that’s all I need. Besides, we’re trying this whole not hiding anything thing.” Judy took a deep breath, knowing that the item inside had the power to cause another argument or bring them closer. She wasn’t sure how Nick would react, but she silently prayed the outcome would be good.

“You can keep surprises from me you know, they’re not surprises otherwise.” Nick pointed out, paws smoothing over the blue box as he plucked the bow from it. Leaning over, he placed it on Judy’s head. The bunny stared at him with an un-amused expression, and she looked so adorable that Nick couldn’t stop his grin, which in turn made Judy smile.

“Surprises are new bed sheets, or a freezer full of your favorite food. This is a lot more than that.” Judy reached up, plucking the bow from her head, wincing as the sticky underside of it tugged at her fur. With the silver item now in her paws, she played with it, swallowing nervously.

Perturbed by Judy’s demeanor, Nick lifted the lid from the box only to be met with a sea of shredded silver paper. Pushing is aside he found a photo album. The cover of the album was black, and embossed in silver scripture right in the middle sat the words ‘The Wilde Family.’

Judy had ummed and ahhed for ages about what to do with the front cover but in the end she’d kept it simple, wanting the focus to be on the photos inside and not the writing on the front.

Smoothing a paw over the cover, tracing the lettering, Nick looked up to find his favorite violet eyes. With a gentle nod of encouragement from his bunny, Nick opened the cover. Gaze falling to the page Nick inhaled sharply, caught off guard by the image he was seeing. His parents and his grandparents were stood together, right outside their family store. Dressed in their finest clothes, they were all smiling for the camera. Overwhelmed, Nick couldn’t pull his eyes from the picture. “Where did you get this?” He whispered, lifting a paw to trace over the image of his family, protected by a thin film of plastic.

“Remember when I mentioned that Wolford wouldn’t tell me anything about my bracelet? He made a comment about your family. I didn’t know what he was talking about so when my shift ended and I got home, I did my homework.” Judy kept her gaze focused on Nick, watching his micro expressions, judging his reactions to her words. “1437 Dune Street, Sahara Square. I ended up a little lost trying to find it, but I got there in the end. I only went to have a look outside, it’s still boarded up, but as I circled the building I spotted a small open window on the third floor. I shimmied up a drainpipe and managed to get in through it.” Judy came clean. She truly hadn’t intended to go inside, was content to simply look at the outside of the building and imagine what life would’ve been like all those years ago, how busy the store would’ve been. The building had looked structurally sound still, but Judy wasn’t an expert. The open window at the back of the building had proved too good an opportunity though, and Judy wasn’t sure if she’d have the chance to look around again. Her police training had helped her shimmy up the drainpipe, and with ease she’d slipped inside. Judy had briefly wondered whether it was considered breaking and entering, and when she’d later sought clarification online she’d discovered that by crossing the threshold without permission, even though the window was wide open, it was technically classed as breaking and entering.

“You went inside?” Nick looked up, a rush of emotions coursing through him. On one paw he was surprised Judy would do such a thing, that she’d break the rules to know more about his family, that she was so interested, but on the other paw, he felt as if she’d entered somewhere sacred to him, without at least letting him know first. It left him confused, unsure where he stood. He was touched that she wanted to know more but hurt that she’d gone behind his back and hadn’t simply asked him for information.

“I hadn’t intended to, but I was curious. All I did was walk around, peek into a few rooms. It’s like it’s stuck in a time warp.” Judy recalled the layout, remembered how everything had been covered in thick layers of dust. Sewing machines and mannequins had been scattered around the back rooms, the front of the building still set up like a store, clothes hanging in the display cabinets, a little moth eaten but otherwise still fine. The office had been Judy’s favorite room, the big wooden desk taking centre-stage, the countless photos on the walls and the journals on the desk adding a more personal touch. Judy watched as Nick flicked to the next page, revealing a picture of his grandparents stood together inside the store. “I know it was wrong. Rather than Zoogling your family I should’ve asked you, should’ve been content with whatever information you’d give me, but Wolford’s comment got me thinking. I didn’t want to upset you by asking too much, didn’t want you to relive painful memories. I know it’s hard for you to open up, and I just wanted to understand a little better.” Judy knew it was a pathetic reason, that she hadn’t had any right to go snooping, but there hadn’t been any malicious intent behind her exploration.

“I would’ve told you, Carrots.” Nick murmured, pulling his gaze from the photo long enough to look up at the rabbit sat opposite him. He appreciated that Judy hadn’t wanted to risk hurting his feelings and that she hadn’t wanted to possibly make him relive painful memories. However, he would’ve happily shared some of his better memories with her, told her everything she needed to know about his family. Nick couldn’t help but wonder what it was Wolford had said to Judy, and what she’d uncovered about his family. Nick knew that his family didn’t have a squeaky clean image.

“I know that now.” Judy dropped her head, paws continuing to play with the bow. “I should’ve spoken to you about it rather than looking into it alone. But we’re being honest with each other, and I want you to know that I did go inside the building, that I did look into your family.”

“You’re gung-ho, I know.” Nick flipped over the page, and all thoughts of being a little annoyed by Judy’s need to go snooping were eradicated. There, in the middle of the page, was a photo of him as a kit, being cuddled by his dad. The wave of sorrow that crashed over him contrasted with his excitement that Judy had found such a photo. The feelings had him fighting back tears. “Where did you get this?” He croaked, a paw moving to trace the outline of his dad’s face. Nick hadn’t had the chance to grieve once his father had passed. He’d locked up all of his feelings, shoved them into a box and forced himself to carry on. He’d had to be strong, had to be there for his mom as she’d fallen apart. It was a demon he knew he needed to face soon.

“It was in a frame, on the desk in the office.” Judy had noticed it on her second visit, and she’d recognized the emerald eyes of the sweet little kit the moment she’d picked up the frame. It had made her smile, and then it had made her cry. Nick had been so carefree back then, so unburdened, and Judy only hoped that she could help him get back to that, that one day he’d look as happy and carefree as he did in the photo. She couldn’t bring his dad back, no matter how much she wanted to, but she could help him work through his baggage, help him free himself of it all. “After the first time, I went back regularly. All I did was walk through the rooms initially, but then I noticed photos scattered around. Some were a little damaged, so I started to collect them. I didn’t want to risk them getting any worse, for them to be lost to time. I don’t think I got them all, but I grabbed all the ones I could see. There were some pinned on notice boards, some in frames on the walls, and a few were in the safe.”

“You opened the safe?” Nick asked in disbelief. It was one thing to slip in through an open window, another entirely to crack the safe. Nick didn’t even think Judy knew how to break into one, and he didn’t feel like telling her it was a skill he’d acquired on the streets. Shuffling, he moved to sit with his back to the wall, stretching out his legs across Judy’s bed, using them to prop up the album.

“It was wide open, I promise. There was a stack of photos left inside.” Judy vowed. Breaking and entering a building was one thing, breaking into a safe was something she’d never feel comfortable doing. “I gathered as many photos as I could find and found a reputable mammal to restore them as best as possible for you.” Judy had tried not to disturb the inside of the building too much, hadn’t wanted to go rooting through the place. She’d only picked up the photos she could see. Judy was pretty confident there were others hidden away in drawers and boxes, though. It was why she’d had a few albums made, tucked them away for the future, and she’d left some space in the back of the one Nick held in his paws. Moving, Judy sat beside him, thighs touching as she glanced down at the album.

Nick continued to flick through the album, eyes drinking in all of the photographs, the pictures of his parents and grandparents, of his mom when she’d been pregnant. There were quite a few of him as a kit too. “I feel like I should be mad that you researched my family yourself, that you didn’t think to ask me about them, but you found all these photos and had them restored for me.”

Sighing softly, Judy put down the bow, the once lovely decoration now a mangled mess of ribbon. “I know, and again I’m sorry.”

“I said that I feel like I should be mad, but I’m not. You found these photos, photos I thought were lost, and you had them restored for me, placed them in this album so I’d have them forever.” Moved by Judy’s gesture, Nick reached out, pulling her flush to his side so she could rest her head on his shoulder. Turning the page again, Nick found another photo of him and his dad, the pair of them sat at the desk that had been in his dad’s office. Smoothing his paw over the picture, Nick smiled sadly. “You know, I almost forgot what dad looked like.”

Head resting on Nick’s shoulder, Judy gazed at the photo. “I can see a lot of him in you.” She’d looked through all the photos when she’d been sorting them into piles, preparing them for the album once they’d been restored. She’d sought to create a theme, tried to come up with some sense of order, but in the end, she’d placed them where she’d felt they naturally went.

Nick had inherited his mother’s eyes, but he knew he took after his father more. It had been painful for his mom over the years, to look at him and see parts of her deceased husband. “You know, dad used to take me to the city gallery when I was a kit. It’s why I knew so much when we went. Dad was always talking about art, always telling me stories and giving me information about the artists. One time, when we went…”

Judy settled, making herself comfortable. She wanted to hear Nick’s story, wanted to learn more about his family from him, not from some Zoogle result. Judy knew they would still have some issues, knew that one conversation wasn’t going to solve it all, but sudy knew where Nick’s problems stemmed from now. She could actively try and help him, try and reassure him, prove to him that she would never leave. Paw moving to her bracelet as Nick continued with his story, lost in the memory, Judy smiled. Tonight, when they were alone, she’d drop the mother of all confessions on him, prove without a shadow of a doubt that she’d never leave him, that Nicholas P. Wilde was stuck with her for all eternity.

The morning passed quickly. Once Nick had told the story of one of his trips to the gallery with his dad, Judy had asked multiple questions – What was your dad’s favorite painting? What’s your favorite painting? Can we visit the gallery again when you’re next home? After, they’d headed out to the street parade. Jasmine and Sasha had met them there, and the fact Sasha was so small that she couldn’t see the parade floats had made the baby bunny cry. Hating her tears, Nick had scooped her up, sitting her on his shoulders so she would have an unobstructed view of the floats. Sasha had happily squealed her way through the parade, catching all of the candy thrown her way. Nick had even caught a few, passing them down to Judy. Judy had tucked herself against his side, and Nick had thrown his arm around her, pulling her in, holding her close and accepting the candy she kept plying him with.

Jasmine, phone in paw, had snapped a few pictures of the parade, and when she’d spotted her sister and Nick stood so close together, with little Sasha on Nick’s shoulders, she’d snapped a few photos of them together. Watching as her sister and Nick interacted, as Sasha sat happily on the fox’s shoulders, Jasmine had wondered what her sister’s kits would look like in the future. Would they be gray like her or reddish-orange like Nick? Would their ears be round or pointy? Would they have long, fluffy tails, or short cottony ones? Would they have a mix of all of the above? Ultimately, Jasmine didn’t care. She’d love her future nephews and nieces regardless. “Now if only the stupid idiots would confess their love.” Jasmine had thought, crossing her fingers, silently praying that everything would go to plan this evening.

When the parade had ended, and darkness had begun to fall, Nick had reluctantly handed Sasha back to Jasmine. The baby bunny had asked if they would be at the fireworks, to which Nick and Judy had exchanged a look. “No Cinnamon. Your mom asked us to keep an eye on the warren and the fields.” Nick had explained. Sasha had pouted, lower lip wobbling. “Hey.” Nick had soothed, tracing a finger down Sasha’s cheek. “Ju-Ju and I are going to watch the warren, make sure no fireworks get too close, but I’ll still be here in the morning if you’re up early.” Head bobbing happily, Sasha had promised to wake up early so she could say goodbye. Taking Judy’s paw in his, Nick had started to lead them back to the warren, the pair of them waving at the various members of the Hopps family that they passed en route.

Now, as they approached the Hopps warren, their pace slowed. “So, that talk we were going to have last night…” Nick broached the subject first. It was time to mammal up, to face the music and the conversation the pair of them so desperately needed to have. There was still a lot left unsaid between them, some issues that needed rectifying and Nick knew that he’d have to spill his feelings this evening, would have to tell Judy that he loved her. The idea made him want to run away and hide. After decades of not sharing his feelings, showing any vulnerability, he was about to open up entirely to the small bunny by his side.

“You want to do that now?” Judy didn’t want to rush Nick, didn’t want to force him to talk about it. Last night had been a lot for him, for both of them, and Judy wasn’t sure how much emotional conversation Nick would be able to deal with this evening.

Biting the bullet, Nick nodded. “No time like the present.” He wanted to get it over and done with, not sure how much longer he could contain his feelings. “Do I want to? No, not really. Do we need to? Yes, I think we do.”

“Back porch?” Judy asked as they climbed the few steps up to the front door. Nick nodded, not at all bothered where they had the conversation, but at least the back porch would enable them to watch the fireworks once they were done. Nick had no idea how long the conversation would go on for, or what the outcome would be, but the tod hoped that by the end of it he and Judy would come to an understanding, that the doe would know why other canines called her a predo and why the bracelet held so much meaning.

Paws wringing, Judy led them through the warren and out onto the back porch. They’d have an unobstructed view of the fireworks from here later. In the distance, behind the fields that bordered her family home, the line of trees masked the chaos of the closing celebration, affording them some privacy, but the fireworks would travel up much further than the tops of the trees. Needing some light, Judy lit a few of the lanterns her mom liked to keep out on the porch. The soft, warm glow from them provided the doe with enough light to see Nick and pushed away the clawing darkness of the evening.

As Judy lit the lanterns, Nick made a beeline for the railings. Arms resting on it, he looked out over the fields behind the Hopps warren. “This is it, Wilde. You promised her you’d be more open with your feelings. You can do this.” Nick’s tail swished in agitation, palms feeling clammy as he swallowed, fighting back the chance of another panic attack. He had to keep it together, couldn’t afford to lose it again. Not only was it embarrassing, but Nick didn’t want Judy to have to soothe him through another episode. This evening was about her, about giving her the answers she deserved, answers Nick had purposefully withheld from her for months now. Fear started to creep in, the very real possibility that he’d overstepped and everything would fall apart, that he’d lose Judy for good.

Sensing Nick’s tension rising, Judy crossed to stand beside him at the railing. Lifting a paw, she let it rest on his arm. “Nick.” Judy called his name, pulling the tod’s attention to her. Nick looked down at the rabbit by his side and emerald met violet. Nick exhaled, body relaxing. “It’s okay.” Judy soothed, paw rubbing along Nick’s arm. “If you need a break at any point, if you feel like it’s getting too much, please tell me.” The last thing she wanted was for Nick to suffer another panic attack, for it to stress him out more than necessary. It was something Judy would have to keep an eye on, but now that she’d witnessed it first hand, had helped soothe him through one; Judy knew what to look for.

Touched by Judy’s concern, and a little embarrassed that she’d been able to read him that quickly, Nick slapped on his usual lazy grin. “Nah I’m good, cool as a cucumber.” He lied, not ready to face the fact that his sudden onset of panic attacks, after years of suppressing them and controlling them, was freaking him out. Judy held so much power over him, enough power to tug at things Nick thought he was long since over. However, Stu was right. Nick knew that Judy would never abuse that power, and while giving her it was scary, it was part of life, part of sharing himself with her and opening up. The bracelet around her wrist was a symbol of his intentions, his plans to woo her and ask her to be his mate. He couldn’t hide things from his mate, couldn’t hold himself back and hide parts of himself.

Not believing him for a second, Judy was a little disappointed that Nick felt the need to lie, to cover up how he was feeling. Hadn’t he listened last night when she’d asked him to be more forthcoming with her about his emotions? She knew it would take some time for Nick to share everything with her, that sharing his feelings with another mammal was a new concept for him, but she’d hoped he’d start now. Giving his arm a gentle squeeze, Judy shook her head. “Slick…”

The faint lilt of disappointment in Judy’s voice made Nick’s heart clench. He’d vowed to be more open with her, to tell her how he was feeling, and here he was hiding things from her. Smile faltering, Nick sighed. Now wasn’t the time for games, for pretending that he was okay. “You’re right, I’m sorry. I’m a little nervous is all.”

Pleased with Nick’s eventual willingness to come clean about his feelings, Judy offered him a reassuring smile. She had no idea what the upcoming conversation would entail, but she already knew that Nick, without a shadow of a doubt, loved her. All she wanted was some answers about her bracelet, and then she could tell him that she loved him too. “Don’t be nervous, it’s just me.”

This wasn’t some hustle; this wasn’t territory Nick was familiar with. This was Judy and his confession of his love for her. There wasn’t a mammal on the earth who could paw on heart say they weren’t nervous when telling someone for the first time that they loved them. It was part of nature, to be scared about being so open and honest with another animal, and for Nick, it was even harder. All the years of keeping everything to himself, the years of hiding his feelings, it all made the upcoming conversation much more difficult for him. “The fact it’s you makes me even more nervous.”

Not wanting her fox to feel nervous, and hoping to distract him long enough so that he could calm down a little, Judy employed a tactic that she hoped would work. “What’s your favorite movie?” She blindsided him, picking a topic far removed from their impending conversation. Pulling her paw away from Nick’s arm, Judy grasped at the railings, looking out over the fields behind her family home.

Judy’s sudden shift in conversation left Nick blinking in confusion as he looked at her, head tipping sideways a little as he tried to work out why the doe had decided to change topic. They were supposed to be talking about her bracelet, about his feelings, not about his favorite movie. “Um, Fur Wars. You?”

Having guessed that Nick would be a fan of the Fur Wars franchise if the conversations with his mom were anything to go by, the tod’s answer didn’t surprise Judy in the slightest. She could see that she’d thrown him off balance, though, successfully shifted his mind to a lighter topic. “Not an awful pick, I’ll give you that.” Judy teased. “Bad Bucks is mine.”

Groaning at Judy’s answer, Nick rolled his eyes, turning his focus back to the field. “Of course you’d like a cop movie.” Living on the streets with virtually no money meant entertainment was hard to come by. Nick had stolen a few bits over the years – a deck of cards, some books, and a skateboard amongst other things – but there’d been a few times when he’d managed to sneak into a cinema and watch a film. He hadn’t been able to see Bad Bucks, but he’d seen a trailer for it.

“Hey! It’s a good film.” Judy protested, reaching out to gently thump Nick’s shoulder with a paw. Getting to watch any movie in the Hopps warren was a miracle. With so many kits, there were many disagreements about what they were in the mood to see. Judy had managed to steal away with her littermates one night when their mom and dad had been out on the back porch enjoying the evening with some elderflower wine, and they’d piled into one of the warren’s many living rooms to watch the cop film. Judy had fallen in love with it. “We’re watching it next time you’re home.” She decided, paw returning to the railings.

“No, please. A weekend away from cop training won’t be spent watching cop movies.” Nick didn’t want to think about anything police related on his occasional weekend home. He knew that as soon as he graduated he’d never get away from it. During one of their classroom sessions Major Friedkin had informed them that though they would leave the precinct at the end of every day, they’d never switch off being an officer.

Spying an opportunity to get them back on track now that Nick seemed a little calmer and more collected, Judy lifted her arm to show her bracelet. “Then I’ll make you a deal. We won’t watch it if you give me a little more information about this.” She knew it was a little under-pawed, but it would hopefully get Nick talking.

As Judy brought the conversation back to her bracelet, Nick no longer felt as nervous. “Sly bunny.” Now her sudden conversation shift made sense. Though the nerves started to creep back up on him, Nick took a deep breath, able to better control them. “Mammal up Wilde, you can do this.” Licking his lips, Nick lifted his paws, rubbing his face as he nodded. He turned to look at Judy beside him, still leaning heavily against the railings. “Okay, deal. What do you want to know?”

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.”

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.

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.”

Chapter 17 – Fairgrounds and Feelings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 16 – Backyard Scrap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“If the crown fits.” Nick shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is the grass green?” Judy quipped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m eating salad.” Judy deadpanned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 15 – Welcome to Bunnyburrow

July 14th saw Judy standing at the train station in Bunnyburrow, hind paw thumping the bricked platform impatiently. She’d been given the day off work, had traveled home this morning to spend some time with her family before Nick arrived and the chaos of the Carrot Day Festival began. It was 5:46 pm and Nick’s train was due in at 6 pm. Though it was early evening the summer weather meant that Judy had been able to wear a dress, another beautiful garment made for her by Marian. This one was red, with a gray sash across her middle and delicate lace detail along the sweetheart neckline. She’d thrown a red cardigan over the top, just in case the temperature decided to drop. Judy lowered her gaze to her left forearm, to the gash that had been expertly stitched up by Zootopia’s emergency services. The drugs raid hadn’t gone to plan. “You should probably cover that up.” The soft voice from behind Judy pulled her from her thoughts. Casting a glance over her shoulder, Judy knew Jasmine was right. Her littermate had insisted on coming with her. “He might need help with his bags, Ju.” Jasmine had argued. Judy had protested, but their mom had shooed them both out of the house, worrying they’d be late if they argued about it any further.

“Yeah, he’d freak.” Judy sighed, rolling down the sleeves of her cardigan to hide her arms. The action hid her bracelet, still around her right wrist, and Judy hoped that she’d finally get some answers from the tod about it this weekend. She figured she wouldn’t be able to keep the gash a secret from Nick for long, though. He was too observant, too smart, and her mom had insisted that they share her old room for the weekend. Regrettably, none of Judy’s sleepwear covered her arms. “You’re just delaying the inevitable, Judy.”

Nick had managed to convince Major Friedkin to give him the weekend off, to let him go and see Judy and her family in Bunnyburrow. The weekend came with some stipulations, though. The first was that he wasn’t allowed to miss Friday’s training and the second was that he was to be back Monday morning at 7:30 am. Major Friedkin had decided to give him the Sunday night off too, and Nick couldn’t be more grateful for another evening with Judy.

The last two weeks had been hell for him. He’d have to tell Judy this time home about the bracelet. There was no way around it. They’d agreed to talk, and now Nick was beating himself up, cursing himself. He’d ran through the conversation in his head millions of times, thought about all the questions Judy would ask, the ways in which their chat might go. Judy could start shouting and accuse him of being high-handed. She could be disgusted, reject him and his advances entirely. She could return his advances, let him kiss her senseless and love her until the end of time. Nick knew which option he preferred.

Stealing a glance at the time on his phone, which he had clutched in one paw, Nick sighed. Another 14 minutes until the train would pull into Bunnyburrow station. His duffle bag was on the seat next to him, the train not as busy as he’d expected it to be. In his other paw, he held a big bouquet of flowers. He’d read the book from Bonnie several times over, familiarized himself with it as much as possible. He’d then taken her note about flowers and used it to draft a letter to Mr. Otterton, asking for a very specific bouquet. His mom had gone in to pay for him, and she’d proceeded to send him some cash for the weekend. Nick found himself owing his mom more money, and it didn’t sit right with him. He wasn’t comfortable with her spending what little she had left each month on him. The flowers had arrived this morning, and Major Friedkin had been kind enough to sit them in water for him. The look she’d given him after breakfast was enough to let the tod know that if he tested her patience, she’d get immense pleasure out of telling all his fellow cadets that he’d bought Judy a big bouquet of flowers.

Staring at the bouquet, he ran through their meanings once more. “Purple stock for affection and a happy life, lavender roses for enchantment, purple lisianthus for appreciation, white hydrangeas for heartfelt gratitude, white alstroemerias for friendship and devotion, and Judy’s favorite tulips, in red, for love.” It wasn’t lost on Nick that the bouquet consisted of a lot of purple flowers, but the meanings were perfect, and they reminded him of Judy’s eyes. “You’re still a lovesick fool.”

The PA system broke Nick from his thoughts. “The next station is Bunnyburrow. This service terminates here. Please remember to take all your belongings with you, and mind the gap between the train and the platform. We thank you for traveling on the Zootopia Express.”

With a deep breath, Nick stood. Sliding his phone into his back pocket, pleased to have received it back from Major Friedkin for the weekend, and terrified by the sheer number of Furbook notifications he had. He used his now free paw to pick up his bag. Flowers and bag in tow, Nick made his way to the train doors.

The train slowed to a stop, the doors sliding open a moment later. “You got this, it’s just Carrots and her family.” Nick stepped off the train; hind paws finding the brick platform. A few mammals milled around on the platform, and he searched for Judy.

A blur of gray and red ran towards him, and Nick soon found himself engulfed in a hug, Judy’s arms around his waist, the side of her face pressed to his chest. Depositing his bag onto the platform he wrapped his free arm around her, pulling her close. “Slick!” Judy’s grip tightened, eyes closed. She’d watched as the train had come to a stop, searched every door to see which one Nick would emerge from. It had been instinctual, running along the platform to greet him. It had been two months since they’d last been able to touch one another, and Judy found herself greedy with the need to be near him.

Glancing down at the rabbit embracing him, Nick didn’t bother hiding his grin. Tail flicking; he wrapped it around Judy’s ankles. It had to be the sweetest welcome he’d ever received. “Hey, Carrots.” He breathed, unable to stop himself from pressing a kiss to the top of her head. “I missed you.”

“I missed you too, so much, and-“ Judy pulled back from their embrace, refusing to move out of the grip of Nick’s tail. However, she stopped mid-sentence as she saw the bouquet of flowers.

“For you.” Nick offered them to her, paws suddenly a little clammy as he did his best to calm his nerves. Bonnie’s advice swam around his mind that flowers and their meanings were important in the Hopps family.

Judy blinked, surprised. Letting out a small noise of appreciation she gently took the bouquet, bringing it to her nose to smell the flowers. They were beautiful, their scent making Judy close her eyes to savor the sweetness. Nick had brought her flowers. Flowers! And not just any old flowers, but her favorite tulips too. “Thank you, Nick. They’re beautiful.”

“Not a problem, Fluff.” He watched as she buried her nose amongst the petals, his shoulders sagging with relief that he’d managed to get this right.

“How did you know I love tulips?” Judy asked, looking up from her bouquet to find the emerald eyes she knew so well.

“Educated guess.” Nick skirted around the topic, not willing to reveal his paw and confess to having been tipped off by Bonnie.

Pushing up onto the balls of her hind paws, Judy planted a light kiss on Nick’s cheek. “You’re the best.”

Eyes widening at the brief kiss, Nick watched as Judy sank back to her usual height. His heart pounded, paws even clammier than before, and he felt a little lightheaded. “If a cheek kiss does this to you, what on earth will happen if you finally get to kiss her properly?”

The sound of a throat clearing to their left had Nick and Judy turning, breaking them out of their moment. Jasmine had stayed back, watching as her sister had greeted the fox. Bonnie had recruited her into helping a few days ago, filled her in on the plan to get Judy and Nick to tell one another how they felt. Jasmine had jumped at the chance to help her littermate, but having watched their little platform exchange she had a feeling it wouldn’t take much pushing to get the rabbit and the fox together. “So you’re the mammal all the fuss has been about?” Now she was closer Jasmine could look Nick over properly. He was in good shape, his fur clean and brushed, and his eyes bright and tail fluffy. She could see why Judy was attracted to him. “Oh my goodness, he’s wrapped his tail around Judy. How adorable!”

Having been unaware that Judy had brought one of her siblings with her, Nick flushed, his fur thankfully hiding it. Quickly and surreptitiously wiping a paw on his pants, he then offered it out to the other doe. She was the same height as Judy, had the same fur color too, but instead of violet eyes she had brown ones. “Nick Wilde, hi. There was a fuss?”

Jasmine took the fox’s outstretched paw in her own, giving it a firm shake. “Jasmine Hopps, pleasure.” Letting go of Nick’s paw, she folded her arms across her chest. Unable to stop her smirk, she decided to tease the tod. “Oh yes, our warren became an immense hive of activity when everyone learned that Judy was bringing home a friend.” She glanced quickly at her sister, noting that Judy was giving her the stink eye. Brown eyes settling on Nick, Jasmine smoothed her smirk into a smile, not bothering to hide her amusement at the way Nick gulped.

“Jasmine’s joking, don’t worry.” Judy jumped in to reassure Nick. She knew the weekend would probably be a lot for him, and she didn’t need him panicking before he’d even stepped paw inside the warren.

“That’s reassuring.” Nick chuckled nervously, picking up his bag.

“Come on, mom’s waiting.” Jasmine tipped her head towards the station exit, taking the lead as they started to walk back to the pickup truck.

Bonnie had pushed dinnertime back a little so that Nick could eat with them, and Judy had spent all afternoon in the kitchen preparing food for him. Bonnie had offered to help, Jasmine had even offered a paw, but Judy had politely turned them both down. Judy knew that her mom and sister had never handled fish before, but she’d been practicing while Nick was away at the academy.

Clutching her flowers in one paw, Judy’s free paw took Nick’s as they walked. Nick glanced down at their joined paws. Her response to the flowers, the way she was holding his paw, it reassured him that their talk would go well, that she possibly returned his feelings. She still wore the bracelet around her wrist; he could see it peeking out from under her cardigan. He took in her dress, not having seen it before. “New dress?” He questioned, admiring how it hugged her body.

Judy looked up, ears smoothed down behind her as she nodded. “A present from your mom.” Marian had visited Judy last night, a large gift bag with her, filled with several new dresses. Judy had cried and had hugged the vixen like her life had depended on it. She’d brought all the dresses with her to Bunnyburrow, unable to chose just one or two.

“You’re going to have a whole new wardrobe soon.” Nick couldn’t help but smile. It meant the world to him that his mom got along with Judy, that she liked the doe. He’d never brought a girl home before, never felt close enough to another mammal to let them into his family home. He’d had some flings, some one-night stands, but they meant nothing compared to his relationship with Judy.

“I’m not complaining. Your mom is an excellent dressmaker.” Marian’s sewing machine had been out the last time Judy had gone over for dinner, and she’d spotted a few new pieces the vixen was working on. Judy loved hearing about Marian’s latest sewing escapades, loved watching the way the vixen’s face would light up, her paws animated whenever she spoke about her latest projects.

“I think you might be her muse. Mom hasn’t sewed in years.” Nick couldn’t remember the last time his mom had pulled out her sewing machine, but it had been before his dad had passed away. His mom had lost her love for sewing when she’d lost her husband.

“I’ll ride in the bed. You two can take the cab.” Jasmine offered, pulling the keys from her pocket. She threw them at Judy, suppressing her smile as her sister was forced to let go of Nick’s paw to catch them. “You can throw your bag in the bed with me, Nick.” Jasmine offered, clambering up into the back of the truck. Nick offered her his bag, and Jasmine secured it to the floor of the truck bed with bungee cords. Judy could drive, yes, but sometimes her driving was a little scary.

Judy took her place behind the wheel, her flowers resting on the bench seat beside her. Nick slid into the passenger seat, glancing around. “No blueberries?” He pouted as Judy started the engine.

“Sorry Slick, don’t want you ruining your dinner. Besides, I thought we’d go and pick some ourselves tomorrow morning.” Judy pulled the truck out of the car park and started the drive home. She knew they would be attending the fair tomorrow, but she’d set aside some time for Nick to gather his favorite blueberries. She’d ask her dad for a large punnet of them on Sunday afternoon so Nick could take some back to the academy wth him.

“You know the way to my heart, Carrots.” Nick would take every opportunity he could get to get his paws on the Hopps Family Farm blueberries. They were far superior to any blueberries he’d ever eaten before.

The back window of the cab didn’t slide open, but with both driver and passenger windows rolled down Jasmine was able to eavesdrop on the conversation between her sister and the fox. “Carrots? He calls her Carrots?” Jasmine frowned, not sure if she would ever understand cutesy pet names.

“Oh, by the way, I found this in a punnet of blueberries I received from your mom.” Nick pulled out the small pink toy he’d found in his last care package from Bonnie. It was cloud shaped, with a cartoon face on it. He had no idea what it was, but he was pretty sure it wasn’t meant to be in the punnet and wasn’t meant for him.

“Mom sent you a package?” It was news to Judy. Her mom had never mentioned sending Nick anything. Sparing a glance at the item in Nick’s paw, Judy snickered, eyes returning to the road. A quick inhale told her who the toy belonged to. “That’s Sasha’s gnaw toy, she thought she’d lost it.”

“Yeah, she’s sent me a few.” Nick glossed over the subject of Bonnie’s care packages, his attention returning to the little pink cloud. “How do you know it’s Sasha’s?”

“The smell. It carries Sasha’s scent.” Judy explained, watching as Nick lifted it to his nose to sniff it.

Nick frowned, pulling the toy away from his nose so he could stare at it. “I don’t smell anything.”

Shaking her head fondly, Judy explained. “That’s because you don’t know Sasha’s scent. When we get home, your nose will tell you when she’s nearby.”

“What’s a gnaw toy?” Nick turned the toy over in his paws, as he had done many times since he’d found it at the bottom of one of his blueberry care packages.

“Rabbit’s teeth don’t stop growing, so we have to wear them down all the time, or they become painful. As kits, we’re given gnaw toys to chew, and as adults, we use special wooden dowels.” Judy explained, realizing that she’d never told Nick about that little rabbit quirk. She kept her wooden dowels in her bedroom, chewed on them once a week to keep her teeth in good shape. There were plenty of dowel choices, especially in Bunnyburrow, but Judy preferred maple dowels.

“Wait, your teeth never stop growing?” The book from Bonnie hadn’t mentioned that little snippet of information.

“Yup,” Judy confirmed.

Thinking back on their time together, Nick realized he’d never seen Judy chewing on any wooden dowels in front of him. “I’ve never seen you use a wooden dowel.”

“I only use them once a week, and I missed last week, so I’m afraid I’m going to need to chew on one this evening. It’s why we give kits cute looking gnaw toys, to encourage them to chew often and keep their teeth healthy.” Judy didn’t really want to use her dowels in front of Nick, it wasn’t an attractive thing, munching away on maple wood, but she didn’t want to stray any further away from her chewing schedule. Judy also figured that she and Nick were living together now, that once he graduated they would be around one another 24/7, so it was inevitable that he’d see her chewing on her dowels.

“Your sister has chewed this?” Nick looked a little more closely at the cloud, spotting small bite marks. He tried to hide his grimace. Judy’s sister had chewed it, and it had been in amongst his blueberries.

“Yeah. Don’t worry though, you won’t get cooties.” Judy snickered.

Snorting, Nick grinned at the doe. “I’ve probably already caught them from you.”

“Oh ouch, Mr. Wilde.” Judy let go of the wheel with one paw, gently swatting Nick as she laughed. Nick feigned hurt, rubbing the spot Judy had hit while he laughed with her. As his laughter died down, he kept his eyes on her, taking her in. He’d missed her, missed the sound of her voice and her scent, the way she was always reaching out to touch him.

Feeling Nick’s gaze on her, Judy blushed, flustered by the weight of his stare. “Focus on the road, Ju,” Jasmine complained loudly as the truck jolted over some potholes. On the best of days Judy always ended up finding all the potholes in the road, but with Nick distracting her it was even worse.

“Sorry, Jas.” Judy apologized with a sheepish smile, returning her attention to the road. She took the next right turn, the tarmac becoming a dirt path that led to their family home.

As the road surface changed, Nick moved his attention to his surroundings. Up ahead, the looming building of Judy’s family home made his jaw drop. “Holy heck…” he muttered. The building was huge, painted in a bright cherry red. It was protruding from a large mound of earth, a sprawling front porch wrapping around it. As they drew closer, Nick could see several windows emerging from the side of the dirt mound. The feature that caught his attention the most though was the cladding on the front of the building, shaped at the top like giant rabbit ears.

Judy pulled the truck to a stop beside the front porch. “You think this is impressive, wait until we get inside. All of our communal space is in the mound, and all the bedrooms are underground.” Judy couldn’t stop her smile at the look of amazement on Nick’s face. Killing the engine, Judy grabbed the keys and her flowers, opening the door and sliding out of the driver’s seat; her hind paws finding the grassy ground that surrounded her family home.

Jasmine jumped down from the bed of the truck, freeing Nick’s bag and bringing it with her. Nick was last to leave the vehicle, eyes still trained on the imposing structure before him. Judy rounded the car, truck keys now in her pocket. Reaching out for Nick she took one of his paws in her own, clutching her flowers in the other. “Ready?” She asked, knowing that the weekend would probably be a lot for Nick.

Broken from his admiration by the feel of Judy’s paw in his own, he glanced down to her, offering her a smile. “Born ready.” He turned to Jasmine, nodding towards his bag, holding his paw out for it.

“I’ve got it, don’t worry.” Jasmine shrugged, the bag not at all heavy. She had a feeling Nick would need his paws free. Besides, she’d run it down to Judy’s room for him.

“Thank you.” Nick offered Jasmine a small nod. If Judy’s 274 other siblings were like the brown-eyed doe, then he had a feeling things would be okay.

With a gentle tug, Judy led Nick towards the house. They climbed up the porch steps together, the front door ajar. No one locked their doors in Bunnyburrow, crime was virtually non-existent and everyone knew one another. Judy led Nick through the entrance hall, weaving through other hallways, past many family rooms, playrooms, and the library. Nick only managed to snatch the occasional glance into the rooms they were passing, but he already knew that he would have to follow Judy everywhere, else he’d get lost.

Deeper into the house, Judy came to a standstill in front of a large white door. Giving Nick’s paw a squeeze, she pushed the door open.

Noise. There was so much noise. Nick’s ears flicked, flattening as he tried to drown out some of the sounds. They were in the kitchen, a bright and colorful room, the walls covered in drawings done by the Hopps kits. Nick stole a quick glance around him. To his left was a railing in place of a wall, and Nick could see rows and rows of tables and bench seats on the split-level below, a massive staircase leading down. Lining the wall opposite the door sat countless industrial sized stoves, and the wall to Nick’s right was lined with cupboards. Before him, between him and the stoves, was the largest island counter he’d ever seen. It was cooking on a monumental scale.

Jasmine took the opportunity to disappear down the stairs to the dining room, slipping through one of the many archways off of it and towards the bedrooms. She’d leave Nick’s bag on Judy’s bed.

“Nick, it’s so good to see you.” Bonnie had turned at the sound of the kitchen door opening, hearing finely tuned from years of watching over unruly kits. Abandoning her post by one of the stoves, the pots and pans on a very low heat just to keep the food warm, Bonnie bustled around the island counter. Reaching up, she tugged Nick into a hug. The kitchen fell silent.

“It’s great to see you too, Bonnie.” Nick greeted the Hopps matriarch, letting go of Judy’s paw so he could return her embrace. Over Bonnie’s shoulder, he could see lots of wide eyes, at least twenty young bunnies all looking right at him. Swallowing, Nick gently pulled back from Bonnie’s embrace.

“How’ve you been dear?” Bonnie asked, taking a moment to look Nick over. She’d only seen him once, during her Muzzletime call on Judy’s birthday, but he looked well. During their embrace, she’d been able to feel how strong he was, and Bonnie had to hide her grin. He’d need that strength to keep up with Judy.

“I’ve been well thanks, how about you?” Nick was comfortable with small talk and comfortable around Bonnie.

“I’ve been good dear, no need to worry about me.” Bonnie offered the tod a smile, resting a paw on his arm. Turning her attention to Judy, Bonnie caught sight of her flowers. “Oh Judy, what beautiful flowers!”

The familiarity between her mom and Nick made Judy question just how many care packages Bonnie had sent her fox. “Nick brought them for me.” Judy spared a glance up to Nick, offering him a warm smile before she crossed to one of the cupboards, using her free paw to open the door and pull out a vase.

Bonnie gave Nick’s arm a gentle squeeze, pleased that he’d listened to her advice. “Good boy.” She mouthed, enjoying the light blush that tinged the inside of Nick’s ears at the praise.

Nick’s nostrils flared as he suddenly caught a new scent. “Sasha?” He asked, looking over the top of Bonnie’s head towards all the little faces that were still staring at him. Now he knew what Judy had meant back in the truck.

Bonnie turned, looking between Nick and her kits. “Sasha, come on sweet pea.” She held out a paw, gesturing for her baby to come forward. She had no idea how Nick knew Sasha’s name, or why he was calling it, but she trusted the fox.

With Bonnie’s back turned, and Sasha’s attention momentarily on her mom, Nick slipped the chew toy from his pocket up into his right sleeve.

Sasha’s gaze moved from her mom back to the strange fox in the kitchen, but as her mom offered out her paw, she skittered out from behind the island counter. “This is Nick, he’s a friend of Judy’s.” Bonnie introduced them, gently pushing her daughter towards the tod. Sasha was a little scared of the fox, he was so tall, and his scent was unyielding, but if he was a friend of Ju-Ju’s, then he had to be nice.

With her flowers in a vase, Judy watched as Sasha approached Nick. She’d worked out the meanings of the flowers while arranging them, and though she wasn’t sure if Nick knew what they meant when he’d picked them out, the sweet meanings of them all made her smile, made her heart swell with love for the fox.

“Hey, Sasha.” Nick knelt on the floor, bringing himself down to Sasha’s height. He was careful not to show his teeth when he offered the little bunny a smile. The young rabbit had brown fur with splotches of cream fur scattered across her body, she also had a cream stripe down her chin and throat, and her eyes were the same color as Jasmine’s. “I heard a rumor that you lost something recently.”

Sasha nodded shyly, wringing her paws in front of her. She’d lost her favorite chew toy a few weeks ago, and no matter how hard she looked she couldn’t find it, and none of her siblings said they’d seen it. Sasha wasn’t sure if she believed them.

“Hmm…” Nick slowly lifted a paw to his temple, as if he were deep in thought. “Was it blue? No, wait…it was pink.” His dad might have been an awful magician, according to his mom anyway, but Nick’s years on the streets had taught him numerous ways to trick mammals. There was nothing malicious about this trick though.

Stu ventured into the kitchen from the dining room, Jasmine by his side, figuring her return meant Nick and Judy had made it back to the warren too. He took in the scene before him, pausing at the top of the stairs to watch Nick and Sasha. Stu wasn’t sure what was going on, but he used it as an opportunity to observe the fox. He’d take all the chances he could get this weekend. The plan that had been concocted during dinner with Marian was still firmly in place, but Stu wanted to double-check that the fox was good for his daughter.

Bonnie kept her gaze on the scene unfolding before her, unsure as to what Nick was doing. Her confusion showed with a frown, but one glance at Judy, whose broad smile was almost splitting her face, told Bonnie that she didn’t need to worry.

Sasha gasped, nodding her head more vigorously. Her pink gnaw toy!

Nick pretended to think for a moment longer. “Was it shaped like a giraffe? No, wait, was it a cloud?”

“It was!” Sasha couldn’t remain silent any longer, and she rocked on the balls of her hind paws with excitement.

“Did you look everywhere for it?” Nick quizzed.

“I did Mister Nick.” Sasha couldn’t believe how much Nick knew about her gnaw toy.

“Are you sure?” Nick double-checked, lifting an eyebrow.

“Mhm.” Sasha hummed her confirmation.

Believing her, Nick smiled. “Well, I think you missed a spot…” He lifted his right paw, slowly bringing it to sit behind Sasha’s ear. With his palm shielding his actions from the other bunnies behind Sasha, he quickly hooked the toy with a claw, dragging it out of his sleeve. “It’s here!” He exclaimed, pulling his paw from behind her ear, the gnaw toy between his fingers.

Sasha squealed as her little paws shot out to grab at her favorite gnaw toy. She wasn’t afraid of how huge Nick’s paws were or that he had sharp claws. “You found it Mister Nick! Are you magic?” She asked in awe, taking the toy from Nick’s grip, reflexively bringing it to her mouth so she could use it.

“I might be.” Nick offered her a wink, suddenly finding himself with an armful of little brown rabbit as Sasha hugged him tightly. Chuckling, he wrapped her up in an embrace.

“Thank you, Mister Nick.” Sasha pulled back, giving Nick a toothy grin.

“No worries Sasha.” He gave one of her cheeks a quick and gentle brush with his thumb, already fond of the kit.

“Momma look! Mister Nick found Cloudy!” Sasha turned to her mom, showing her Cloudy before she shoved the toy back in her mouth, gnawing on it, reacquainting herself it.

Judy’s grip tightened on the counter. “Oh cheese and crackers.” She’d suddenly envisioned Nick as a father, how sweet he’d be with his kits. “Your kits.” Her brain tagged on. Judy’s heart skipped a beat at the sudden thought, a flush of heat coursing through her. “You said you don’t want kits yet.” The angel on her left shoulder pointed out. “Oh, but you’d happily have Nick’s right this second.” The devil on her right shoulder tempted her.

A light sweet scent had Nick turning his head, locating the source. It was coming from Judy, and he inhaled deeply, savoring it. The smell was incredible. He’d only smelt it once before when he and Judy had taken a nap after she’d cried to him about the Catstro mess. Nick found himself wondering again which perfume Judy used.

Jasmine and Bonnie shared a secret smile over the scent coming from Judy. Stu had caught it too, but he studiously ignored it. He didn’t want to think about his daughter having less than pure thoughts.

“That’s great sweet pea, I know you’ve missed Cloudy a lot.” Bonnie cooed, running a paw over Sasha’s head, smoothing down her fur. She’d bought a few other gnaw toys for Sasha since Cloudy had gone missing, but the little kit had refused them all. Sasha made a beeline for the stairs down to the dining room, her siblings chasing after her. She couldn’t wait to tell everyone that Nick was magic.

Spotting her dad across the room, Judy let go of the counter. “Hey, dad.” She hadn’t seen her father all day; he’d been too busy in the fields gathering the last of the produce for the family stall at the fair tomorrow.

“Hey, Jude,” Stu replied, giving his daughter a warm smile. He’d missed her since they’d last seen one another two weeks ago.

Nick rose back up to his full height, turning at the sound of Stu’s voice. “Mr. Hopps, Sir.” He greeted the buck.

“Nick, we’re glad you could join us this weekend.” Stu crossed the room, offering a paw out to the fox. Nick’s little interaction with Sasha had been endearing, and Stu could see the tod had a soft side. “Good, I’m glad he’s not afraid to show that side of himself.”

Giving Stu’s paw a firm shake, Nick offered him a small smile. His heart rate had escalated the moment Judy had addressed the Hopps patriarch, his nerves kicking in again. “It’s lovely to be here, thank you for inviting me,” Nick remembered his manners, knowing his mom would scold him if he forgot them.

Letting go of the fox’s paw, Stu glanced at Judy before his eyes settled on the tod. “Jude wouldn’t come home without you.”

Pushing off from the counter, Judy crossed the room to stand with Nick and her father. “It wasn’t like that, dad.” She rolled her eyes. She’d have come home without Nick, but she might’ve grumbled about it a little.

“Now, before I forget, we only have one rule in this warren, and that’s no cussing in front of the little ones,” Bonnie remembered. Given how polite Nick was, and how lovely Marian was too, Bonnie knew the tod wouldn’t cuss in front of her babies. She still felt like it had to be said, though.

“Don’t worry Bonnie, I wouldn’t dream of cussing in front of your little ones. Is that why you say cheese and crackers?” Nick turned to Judy, teasing her.

Paw shooting out; Judy gave Nick’s shoulder a gentle thump. “Possibly.” She was a little embarrassed, but Nick laughed, tail flicking to wrap around her ankles. He thought it was adorable that Judy never cussed.

Bonnie watched as Nick’s tail wrapped around Judy, and she hid her smile at how cute the exchange was, noting how her daughter had boxed Nick. “Alright, dinner is ready, so if you want to take your seats in the dining room, I’ll serve up.”

“Do you need a paw, Bonnie?” Nick offered. He didn’t want the older doe to struggle, and it was the least he could after she’d been so kind to him.

“Oh no dear, you’re too sweet. Please, go take a seat with Judy downstairs, and Stu will help me. I’ve put you both on the first dinner sitting. I can imagine after your training today that you’re hungry.”

“Starving. Thank you.” Nick had no idea what Bonnie was going to serve for dinner, but he was happy regardless. He wasn’t in any position to be fussy with his food.

“Come on Slick.” Judy took Nick’s paw in her own, passing her dad and leading him down the stairs to the dining room. The room was huge, twice the height of the kitchen thanks to the split-level. Four large tables ran the length of the room, bench seats on each side. The walls were a bright and cheerful yellow, the floor beneath Nick’s hind paws made of wood, keeping the warren cool. Massive archways in the shape of rabbit ears led to hallways off the dining room, and Nick could see the hallways sloped downwards, heading deeper underground. “They lead to the bedrooms,” Judy explained, coming to a stop at one of the tables. Climbing over the bench seat, Judy sat. Nick followed her over, sitting on her left, thighs pressed together. He couldn’t stop looking around, taking in the immense size of everything around him. For such small mammals, Judy’s family lived in a huge house.

“Overwhelmed yet?” Judy teased, nudging Nick’s shoulder with her own.

Jolted from his amazement at his surroundings, Nick offered Judy a lazy grin. “Nah, you know me Carrots, I’m as cool as a cucumber.” He flicked his tail around her waist, tightening it around her. Judy’s paw went for the end of it, stroking the soft fluffiness. Nick let out a small noise at the contact, but this time he wasn’t embarrassed. Judy was the only mammal he let touch his tail, and they were much closer now than when he’d taken her home after hustling Bellwether.

“Contentment, that was a noise of contentment.” Judy thought, her research proving useful. The sound, along with the flowers, the paw holding, and the kisses at the train station, gave her immense hope that this weekend would go well. “Not for long, Slick.” Judy’s grin was a little too wide for Nick’s liking, but the sound of a high-pitched alarm shocked him, making him jump. The floor beneath his hind paws started to vibrate, his emerald eyes searching the room as a thudding noise began to get louder and louder. “Three, two…” Judy whispered.

Through the archways leading to the bedrooms came hundreds of rabbits. Nick’s eyes widened at the sudden cacophony of noise, the room filling up with bunnies, all racing in for dinner. “Oh hell. Bunnies. Bunnies everywhere.”

“Mister Nick!” It was a miracle Nick heard his name being called in amongst the chaos. Ears twisting to locate the source of the sound, he saw Sasha barreling towards him. He only just managed to open his arms in time to catch her in a hug, the small doe having thrown herself at him.

“Hey there Sasha.” He lifted her up, bringing her over the bench seat to sit beside him. The kit grinned at him, Cloudy clutched in her paw. He could see a few more teeth marks in the toy.

“It’s the magic fox!” The sound of one of Judy’s siblings shouting from across the room set off a frenzy. Within moments a whole fluffle of bunnies was heading straight for them.

“Mister Magic!”

“Magic, can you help me find my toy bunny?”

“Can you make a balloon animal for me Mister Nick?”

“Mister Nick-“

“Can you show me a card trick?”

“Can you levitate?”

“Mister Nick!”

Judy had to hide her laughter behind her paws as Nick was swarmed by thirty or so of her siblings, all of them vying for his attention. Word always spread fast in the Hopps warren, and it seemed that it hadn’t taken long for Sasha to tell the others that Nick had magically found her gnaw toy.

“Um, well, I used up all my magic for today finding Cloudy, I’m sorry.” He squirmed, stumbling over his excuse as he turned in his seat to look at the little ones, not used to so much attention and fuss, Nick gulped as he realized that he was surrounded. “I’ll help some of you tomorrow.” He tacked on, not wanting to upset any of them. Thirty pairs of eyes were staring at him, little faces filled with curiosity and awe. “Note to self, whatever you do in this warren, everyone will know about within minutes.”

“Look how big Mister Nick’s paws are!” One of the kits squealed. Before Nick could stop them they were clambering all over him, Judy, and the bench seat, grasping at his paws and hind paws, lifting them and examining them.

“Look at his claws!” Another small voice interrupted, a couple of kits moving to touch them.

“Oh no no, careful!” Nick warned, terrified of them getting too close and ending up accidentally hurt. He wouldn’t be able to cope if any of the sweet little kits ended up scratched by his claws. “You could kiss away any chance of Bonnie and Stu letting you date Judy, too.” Nick had filed down his claws a little, heeding Bonnie’s advice, but they were still somewhat sharp. Asking his mom to send him a claw file had resulted in Marian looking at her son like he had two heads. It didn’t matter though; he’d do whatever it took to make sure he didn’t hurt Judy.

“Be gentle,” Judy warned her siblings, watching as more and more kits started to join them, all clamoring to see Nick, all wanting to see his claws and his giant paws. She was trying to fight off some of her siblings who’d clambered all over her too, wanting cuddles after she’d been gone for so long.

“Why’re your ears so small Mister Nick?” Another kit asked, reaching up to tug on one of Nick’s ears. He winced a little in pain.

“I said be gentle.” Judy reiterated, shooing her brother’s paws away from Nick’s ears. She could see Nick was slowly starting to become overwhelmed, and all of his focus was on the kits that were fascinated with his claws, making sure none of them ended up hurt.

With Nick’s attention elsewhere, he didn’t realize that a few kits had gone for his tail until it was too late. “It’s so fluffy!” Several kits all grabbed his tail, wanting to feel the softness of it. Nick let out a sudden sharp yip of pain, the kits not aware of how much their grip hurt, or that it wasn’t common for foxes to have their tails touched.

Nick’s noise of pain was the final straw. “Enough!” Judy snapped, the sound of her voice making her siblings pause, the dining room falling silent. “Nick is not a climbing frame. Foxes aren’t as grabby as bunnies. You’re hurting him.”

“It’s okay, Carrots,” Nick reassured Judy, knowing the little ones didn’t mean to hurt him.

“No, Nick, it’s not. I know what that sound means.” Her expression softened for a moment at the realization that he was willing to power on through the pain just so that he wouldn’t upset her siblings.

The fact that Judy knew his vocal cue for pain only furthered Nick’s belief from the last time he’d been home, that Judy had been researching his species. It made him a little hot under the collar, thinking about her sat at home reading up about foxes, learning more about him, probably wrapped up in her blanket from his mom. “Wait, do you have a thing for Judy doing her homework now?”

Judy turned her attention to the kits around them, who’d all slowly let go of Nick and were now backing away. “You’re all going to apologize for mammalhandling him, and then we’re going to have dinner. Nick is here for the weekend, so you’ll get a chance to meet him properly later, okay?” She knew that her siblings hadn’t meant any harm and that they’d just been excited to meet Nick. As a fox, he was novel to them. That didn’t excuse their grabby behavior, though. While it was common for rabbits to grab at one another, her siblings knew better than to paw at guests.

“We’re sorry Mister Nick.” All of the grabby kits apologized, looking genuinely contrite.

“It’s alright. I promise I’ll spend some time with you all this weekend if you all take your seats now so your mom can serve dinner, how does that sound?” Nick bargained, looking at the sea of small faces around them.

As soon as the words were out of his mouth, all the little bunnies started to scamper towards the tables, pulling themselves up onto the bench seats. Slowly, Nick exhaled, letting out a shaky breath. He’d been so worried that the little ones would hurt themselves on his claws; terrified they’d ask questions about his teeth and start pawing at his mouth.

“Hey,” Judy reached over, paw finding Nick’s arm. “It’s alright.” She soothed, the shaky expression on Nick’s face making her gut twist. She knew her family could be a pawful, but if it was too much for Nick she’d insist they go home for the weekend.

Nick swallowed, sparing a glance at his claws before he looked at Judy. “I was just, I was worried they might hurt themselves.” He confessed, his tail curving around Judy’s waist again, finding comfort in touching her.

Offering Nick a soft smile Judy gave his arm a gentle squeeze. “Don’t worry, we bunnies are made of sturdy stuff.”

Bonnie and Stu stood together at the railings, looking down into the dining room. They’d witnessed the whole exchange, from all the little ones greeting Nick to now. “He’s a good boy,” Bonnie commented quietly, impressed with Nick’s patience and concern for her kits. She’d wanted to see how he acted without her around. She knew how trying her kits could be, and Nick had handled it like a champ.

Stu had had his doubts about Nick, not because he was a fox, but because Judy was so inexperienced. He wanted to make sure she gave her heart to the right mammal, someone who would take care of her and treasure her. Stu had agreed with Marian and Bonnie’s plan on the caveat that he would have the final say in whether Nick and Judy were suited for one another. Having watched Nick interact with his kits, the way he now interacted with Judy when he thought they weren’t being watched, he realized his doubts had been for nothing. “That he is Bon, that he is.”

“Mister Nick?” The gentle voice from behind him had Nick tearing his gaze away from Judy, looking down at little Sasha. She’d moved away during the commotion her siblings had caused, but she wanted to be close to the fox again.

“Hey Cinnamon Bun.” he greeted Sasha, offering her a soft smile. The nickname had slipped off his tongue with ease.

“Cinnamon Bun?” Sasha’s nose twitched, not sure why he’d called her that.

“Yeah, because your fur color is similar to the color of cinnamon, and you’re a bunny. Hence, cinnamon bun.” Nick elaborated. It made perfect sense to him. If he were going to remember the names of some of Judy’s siblings he’d have to get creative with nicknames. Judy snorted, biting her lip at the atrocious nickname. She was grateful Nick only really stuck to Carrots and Fluff with her.

The nickname made sense to Sasha now that Nick had explained it, and she didn’t mind it. If anything, she liked that he’d given her a special name. “Is it okay if I sit next to you?” She glanced at the vacant seat to Nick’s right, the rest of the table having slowly filled up. She was worried that by telling her siblings about how magic Nick was it had led to him being hurt.

“Sure it is, come on.” He offered her a paw, helping her up onto the bench seat. She took the spot to his right, offering him a toothy grin.

“Thanks.” She placed Cloudy down on the table between her and Nick, knowing he would be safe there. If her siblings tried to grab it, she had a feeling Nick would stop them.

“You can always come and sit with your sister and me, okay?” Nick didn’t want Sasha to feel like she had to ask every time.

Sasha nodded, hind paws swinging under the table. She liked Nick, he found her gnaw toy, returned her hugs, gave her a nickname, and didn’t mind spending time with her.

“Sorry for the slight delay with food, Nick. I run two sittings with 139 bunnies in each, and it can get a little crazy.” Bonnie apologized, appearing behind them. She reached over, placing down Nick, Judy, and Sasha’s plates.

“Don’t worry Bonnie, it’s fine.” Nick soothed, knowing that preparing so many meals was a huge undertaking for the Hopps matriarch.

Bonnie gave Nick a gentle pat on the shoulder before she disappeared back in the direction of kitchen, Stu placing down more plates in front of hungry kits.

Nick turned to his meal, expecting a vegetarian dish of some kind. Instead, he was faced with a piece of smoked salmon on a bed of crisp salad. He blinked, gaze turning to Judy to question whether her mom had actually cooked him fish.

“Mom’s not the only one who knows how to cook,” Judy confessed with a shrug, leaning over to grab the salad cream from the middle of the table. She had to lift her butt off the bench to reach properly.

Surprised, Nick’s voice dropped to a whisper of disbelief. “You cooked? For me?” He’d never had any mammal other than his mom cook a homemade meal for him before.

Having grabbed the salad cream and now with her butt firmly back on the bench, Judy’s eyes found Nick’s. “Yeah, I’ve been practicing while you’ve been away. I don’t know what it’s like as I can’t taste it, but it looks like the pictures in the recipe book so…”

Stunned into silence for a moment at the confirmation that Judy had cooked for him, that she’d been practicing cooking for him, Nick felt a swell of love for Judy consume him, and he found himself itching to kiss her. “You’re too good to me, Fluff.”

Judy dipped her head bashfully as Nick’s tail tightened around her waist, offering her a quick squeeze. She dropped a paw to his knee, under the table. Lifting her gaze, Judy found Nick’s eyes. The feel of Judy’s paw on his knee made Nick swallow, heat coursing through him at the light touch. He yearned to reach out and touch her, to run his paws all over her body. “Stop it, Wilde. You can’t think about Judy like that with her family around.”

“Mister Nick?” The moment was broken by the sound of his name, and Nick turned, finding Sasha watching him and Judy. He had a feeling the kit would be like his shadow all weekend, and while that was endearing, he wanted some time alone with Judy. He needed some time alone with Judy. “How come Ju-Ju can touch your tail?” Sasha questioned, innocently wondering why he was so comfortable with Judy stroking his tail when he’d been hurt by her siblings.

“Well you see Ju-Ju and I are best friends.” Nick couldn’t resist using the nickname, and it was worth the clump he received under the table from Judy’s hind paws. The nickname list he had for his favorite bunny was growing.

Sasha thought about it for a moment. Judy was very protective of Nick, and he liked being touched by her. “Is Ju-Ju your girlfriend?”

The conversations that had been going on around them at the table suddenly stopped, multiple sets of eyes swinging to look at the tod. “No, but she’s my girl friend. With a space in the middle. A girl who’s a friend.”

Judy’s snicker made Nick gently kick her back under the table with his own hind paws, memories of her trying to arrest him the first time making him smile. He had to admit that he’d been impressed with her, how she’d known all the laws he could’ve been breaking. Thankfully he’d covered his tail several months earlier after a tiger had tried to arrest him for the same offenses. It was only his ability to move quickly and silently that had allowed him to escape the cop and saved him from being cuffed and spending the night in a cell.

“Oh.” Sasha pouted, disappointed. She wanted her sister and Nick to be together. They were cute, and Nick was nice. Instead, she turned her attention back to her dinner, stabbing her food with her fork. Conversation at the table started back up again.

“Smooth, Slick.” Judy couldn’t resist teasing the tod as he turned back to face her. She tried to hide how the idea of being Nick’s girlfriend made her feel, how her heart sped up, how her breath caught in her throat.

Nick tried his hardest not to laugh as he remembered the incredulous look on Judy’s face when he’d corrected her about the red wood. “Thanks, Carrots.”

“Did you just call her Carrots?” A deep voice from across the table broke into their conversation. Nick and Judy turned at the sound, though the doe was very familiar with the voice and its owner. Amongst the kit chaos, they hadn’t noticed the buck taking his seat.

“Yes, he did. It’s a nickname, Julian.” Judy moved her paw from Nick’s knee to rest it protectively on his arm. Julian had been acting a little cold towards her lately, ever since she’d phoned her parents to let them know she and Nick were sharing an apartment. Usually, she spoke to Julian every week, her littermate one of her closest siblings, but he hadn’t returned her calls and texts for a while now.

Nick recognized the buck from Furbook, Julian had sent him a friend request the last time he’d been home. Given his ‘J’ initial, Nick guessed that Julian was Judy’s littermate. Judy hadn’t told him much about her littermates, hadn’t said much about her family as a whole if he were honest. Nick got the distinct feeling from the look in the buck’s eyes and the coldness of his tone that the mammal sat opposite him really didn’t like him.

“Little insulting isn’t it?” Julian commented. He’d watched the way the fox had interacted with his siblings, tried his hardest to not reach over and pull them away, scold them for getting so close to a predator. He didn’t want the fox in his family home, didn’t want him anywhere near Judy. She was naïve and too trusting, and foxes were nothing but sly and conniving. Julian believed that Nick was using Judy, letting her do all the legwork while he got a comfortable ride. After all, he’d overheard from his parents that it was Judy’s idea for them to live together, for the fox to become a cop. He was using Judy to further himself, and Julian believed Nick would ditch her as soon as he could. He and his siblings would then be left to pick up the pieces of their sister.

“No no, it’s not meant that way at all. It’s said with fondness.” Nick corrected the buck, sparing a quick glance to Judy. Was the nickname insulting? Judy had only told him once not to call her it, back when they’d first met, but along the way it had stuck and Judy hadn’t mentioned anything since. Nick meant no harm whatsoever with the name.

Julian snorted, not quite believing what he was hearing. The excuse was weak, even for a fox. “Fondness, seriously? That’s the line you’re going with?”

Not liking her brother’s tone, Judy addressed him sharply. “Julian. What Nick and I call one another is none of your concern.” Since he’d been ignoring her calls and text, Judy figured her brother had no right to interfere. By ignoring her he’d hurt her, and Judy couldn’t think of any valid reason for her brother’s sudden nastiness. Besides, whatever did or didn’t happen between her and Nick was their business, no one else’s.

“You’re my littermate, which makes everything you do my concern,” Julian argued. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Judy had always come to him for help and advice, had always taken his opinion into consideration. They’d shared their mother’s womb together, grown up together, done everything together.

“Maybe when we were kits, but not now.” Judy shook her head. When she’d been younger Julian’s opinion had meant the world to her. He’d always been smart, but now that Judy was older and able to think for herself, to step away from the family unit and look at everything with an outsider’s perspective, she realized it really wasn’t a healthy way to live. She could still love her family, could still keep them up to date and ask for their help, offer advice when they needed it, but she no longer needed to live in their pockets.

Having been silent, observing the exchange between Judy and her brother, Nick felt like he had to interject. “I’m pretty sure Judy can make her own decisions.” He knew Judy was an independent doe, that she didn’t like mammals telling her what she could or couldn’t do – she’d made that very clear to him – and the fact Julian felt like he had any say in Judy’s private matters irked the tod.

Hearing the fox talking, Julian’s eyes moved over to him. He would be trouble. Judy would end up hurt. “Yeah, bad ones.”

“Julian.” Judy’s voice dropped an octave; fell into something a little more dangerous. A warning. She wasn’t an idiot; she could see that her brother didn’t like Nick.

“What?” Julian switched his gaze to his sister, clocking her tone. She wouldn’t start anything; she’d never been good at verbally sparring with him. Judy was too sweet and kind. She could throw witty phrases and puns around, be silly and funny all day long, but she’d never been good with insults and put downs.

“If you have something to say, say it. Don’t prance around it.” Judy had hoped nothing bad would come from bringing Nick home, but she knew it had been foolish hope. While her parents and Jasmine had taken to him, along with her younger siblings, Judy had guessed that her older siblings would be harder to crack. They’d been exposed to her parent’s old speciest way of thinking, been brought up in that environment. They didn’t know any better. It didn’t excuse them, though.

“Fine. What the hell were you thinking bringing a fox into our family home?” Julian had no problem coming out with it, gesturing wildly to the predator sat next to his sister. His sister was playing house with a fox. It made his stomach churn.

Julian was unbelievable, and Judy hated the way he said the word fox as if it were dirty. “What I was thinking, is that Nick is my best friend.” She placed emphasis on Nick’s name, reminding her brother that the tod sat beside her was still a mammal, still had feelings and thoughts, and her brother was being downright rude. “We live together, and soon we’ll be working together. He’s family.”

Nick had fallen silent again, not wanting to step in and risk making things worse. He’d had time since accepting Judy’s offer to visit her family to think about everything that could go wrong. Statistically, Nick knew some of Judy’s siblings wouldn’t like him, it would be impossible for all 311 of them to think he was great, and even though Nick didn’t know Julian he was strangely hurt by how fast the buck had disregarded him, how he hadn’t even given Nick a chance. He’d at least wanted Judy’s littermates to like him.

Julian snorted, incredulous. “You were so quick to leave your family behind and run off to the city. Then when you put your hind paw in it, you came scampering back and acted like nothing had happened.”

Nick couldn’t remain quiet any longer. Bringing up the press conference and the issues in the city following it wasn’t cool. Judy had been naïve, yes, and she’d been repeating the words she’d heard in the asylum before they’d arrested Lionheart, but she’d learned her lesson. Nick knew the doe still blamed herself for what happened, no matter how much she pleaded otherwise. Judy didn’t deserve such abuse from her brother when Nick knew his presence was the real problem. “That’s not fair. If you have an issue with me, that’s fine, but don’t attack your sister.”

Brown eyes rounded on Nick. “I wasn’t talking to you.” Julian snapped, not wanting the fox to butt into the conversation. This was between him and Judy.

“Maybe not, but that doesn’t mean I won’t step in and defend Judy.” Nick felt a fair of anger at the way the buck spoke to him, at the way he was talking to Judy. No mammal should talk to another in that way, lest of all siblings. In the past, Nick would’ve backed away from conflict, anything to keep his nose relatively clean, but he’d walk through the fires of hell to defend Judy.

“How cute.” Julian sneered, giving the fox a once over. He looked strong, and the buck had to admit that his sharp teeth and claws frightened him, but he knew the tod wouldn’t dare hurt him. His mom and dad would kick him out of the warren if he used them on anyone, Judy would abandon him, and he’d go back to wherever he came from. “Maybe you should provoke him a little more, see if you can get him to leave.” Julian had an idea. “I’m disappointed you picked him over us, Jude. I mean he’s sneaky, sly, untrustworthy…”

“Julian!” Judy was up on her hind paws, leaning over the table towards her brother, paws spread either side of her plate. Ears pricked upright with anger, she started to grind her teeth. “I never picked anyone over anyone else. I moved to the city to follow my dream and meeting Nick was the cherry on top. Don’t you dare start throwing around stereotypes.”

“Judith. Julian.” Stu boomed, crossing the room to break up the argument. “Whatever you two are bickering about take it outside. Now.” He hissed, looking between his kits. He hadn’t heard the start of their argument, but he didn’t want them to get into it around the little ones. Their disagreement concerned him. Stu knew that Julian had been ignoring Judy for a while, but it had never been clear why. Seeing the way his son was looking at Nick, though, gave him a rough idea as to what the argument was about.

Judy started to climb over the bench. She was going to have this out with her littermate. Nick was her guest, and she didn’t want him feeling unwelcome. She loved him, loved him so much that it hurt her when someone insulted him. Nick was good and sweet, kind and funny, he was handsome and witty, and he didn’t deserve any of her brother’s hatred. Judy was ready to give Julian a piece of her mind, ready to fight Nick’s corner. She’d even tell her brother that she loved Nick. That’d probably shut him up; make him reevaluate his glaring speciesism.

“You actually want to have this out with me?” The buck couldn’t hide his surprise. He hadn’t expected his sister to argue with him so incessantly.

“Get up Julian. We’re dealing with this now.” Judy wanted her brother to let rip, to get all his misguided feelings out of the way. They could move forward then and enjoy the weekend. Plus, she wanted to make it abundantly clear to her littermate that Nick was here to stay, regardless of what he thought about it. Mom and dad both seemed to like Nick, and as it was their home, they had the final say in whether he stayed or not.

Julian shrugged, rising to his hind paws. Deftly he stepped over the bench. “After you, Jude.” He gestured towards the staircase up to the kitchen. He had a feeling his sister would lead them to the back porch. It wouldn’t do to argue out front, too many nosy neighbors around. They’d already be gossiping about the fact Judy had brought a fox home to meet the family.

Not comfortable with what was happening, and not liking where it could possibly go, Nick reached out, taking Judy’s paw in his own. Shaking his head, he caught her gaze, implored her to rethink. “Let it go Carrots, please.”

“I won’t have him talk about you like that. It’ll be fine, just give us ten minutes.” Her mind was made up, and though Nick could usually weaken her resolve, there was no way she was letting this go. She wasn’t going to let her brother push her around any longer, wasn’t going to let him get away with being cruel to Nick.

Keeping Judy’s gaze for a moment longer, Nick realized that nothing he could do would change her mind. While part of him was in awe of her resolve, the defiant jut of her chin and how she stood tall, another part of him was worried, concerned, and angry. Angry at himself. He shouldn’t have accepted the invitation, should’ve realized his presence would cause friction within Judy’s family. He’d hoped it wouldn’t, but that had been foolish of him.

Watching the emotions flitting across Nick’s face broke Judy’s heart. She gave his paw a gentle squeeze, leaning down to whisper in his ear. “Wait here, I’ll be back soon.” She pulled away, reluctantly letting go of Nick’s paw as she headed towards the stairs. She could feel Julian’s presence as he followed her, and she also felt Nick’s gaze as he watched her leave. As she passed through the kitchen, Judy caught Jasmine’s eye, her sister having been leaning against the counter chatting with their mom. Flicking her ear in the direction of the dining room, Judy silently asked Jasmine to keep an eye on Nick. Her sister caught on, excusing herself and heading for the stairs down to the dining room.

As Judy led her brother through the warren’s many corridors and towards the back door, she took a deep breath, steeling herself. Julian needed to understand that Nick was a good mammal, and he needed to learn that she and Nick were a package deal now, that they were inseparable.