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 36 – Seconds and Firsts

Leaving her family behind was tough, and this time was no different. Stood on the platform at Bunnyburrow station, Judy pulled Jasmine into a tight hug. Christmas Day had been three days ago, and it was time for her to return to the city with Nick and Marian. Her fox needed to study for his exams, the chaos of the Hopps warren would make that neigh-on impossible, and Judy could sense that Marian was aching to return home too. Though the vixen had enjoyed her time in the countryside and the chance to dote on Judy’s younger siblings, the doe knew that Marian was a city fox at heart and that she was starting to miss the bright lights and bustling streets.

“You’ll come back and see us soon, right?” Jasmine whispered in her sister’s ear, holding her close. Though they Muzzletimed regularly and sent one another care packages, nothing could compare to having her littermate by her side.

Pulling back from her sister just enough so she could catch her gaze, Judy gave a sharp nod, her large ears smoothed down as she tried not to get emotional. In truth, there wasn’t that much physical distance between them – just a few hours on the train – but with Judy’s grueling work schedule and with Nick soon joining her at the precinct, it would be a while until they’d be able to book time off and travel to the countryside again. Glancing over her sister’s shoulder, the doe watched Nick work his way through his own goodbyes.

Crouched down, the tod held onto the baby bunny in his arms, her little nose buried in the fluffy fur on his neck. Since waking this morning, Sasha had followed him around the warren like a small shadow, mirroring his every move.

“Will you keep sending me letters please, Mister Nick?” Sasha murmured, snuggling closer to the fox, still wholly unafraid of him. She’d kept every letter the tod had sent her so far and had tucked away safely in a box under her bed. Though Nick would only be returning to the academy briefly to take his exams, Sasha couldn’t imagine not receiving any more notes from him.

Holding back his chuckle, Nick didn’t dare hide his smile. “Sure, Cinnamon.” It was no issue for the tod to continue sending her letters, but he hoped that Bonnie and Stu would start giving her greater access to their phones and one of the warren’s many computers. Though Nick enjoyed handwritten letters, he had a feeling that his first few months at the precinct would give him little time to sit and compose something. Texts and emails were much quicker, and he could send them on the go.

“You better pass your exams so you can be Officer Mister Nick.” Sasha insisted, pulling back from Nick so she could look into his eyes, trying to convey her seriousness. It didn’t take a smart bunny to figure out that sometimes Nick didn’t fully believe in himself or his abilities, so Sasha was more than content to believe it for him.

Lifting a paw he crossed his heart, vowing that he would pass his exams. The tod was a little terrified of them, of what his future would look like if he failed. However, he had one advantage over his fellow cadets. Hearing the sound of Judy’s approach, the fox turned to offer her a smile. With her by his side, how could he fail?

“Ready, Slick?” Judy glanced back to the small gathering of family members behind them, watching as Marian said her final goodbyes to Bonnie and Stu. The three of them would no doubt keep in touch, but with Marian’s work schedule it would probably be a while before she could escape to the countryside again too. The break had done the vixen some good though, and Judy loved how her family had taken to Marian so quickly.

Rising up to his full height, Nick ruffled the fur on the top of Sasha’s head, earning himself an eye roll and a fond smile from the baby bunny. “Born ready, Fluff.” He swallowed the lump in his throat, seeing the wetness start to gather in Sasha’s eyes. He didn’t want a repeat of last time when she’d sobbed uncontrollably as he’d left, but Nick didn’t have anything to give her again as a reminder that he’d be back soon. Paw moving, Nick pulled Sasha close, pressing a reassuring kiss to the top of her head. “I’ll come back again soon, and in the meantime, we can write to one another and use MuzzleTime.” He bargained, knowing it was falling on deaf ears as Sasha’s arms wrapped around his waist, the little doe clinging to him.

Having said her farewells, Marian made to join her son and Judy, but seeing Sasha clutching at her boy made her pause. Nick had impacted the lives of all those in the Hopps warren whether he’d intended to or not, and he’d very quickly become a member of the family. Now that their trip was over, the vixen felt like she was part of the family too. Keeping her approach slow so as not to startle Sasha, Marian crouched down beside the crying bunny, reaching out to gently smooth down her large ears. “Nicky will be back soon, I promise.” She soothed as the memories of the first day she’d dropped her son off at nursery played through her mind. The separation anxiety had made him cry too.

“I know.” Sasha sniffled, feeling a little silly for getting so emotional, especially with her family watching. She couldn’t help it though. Nick had bolstered her confidence and encouraged her passion for drawing. It was hard to say goodbye to a mammal who’d done so much for her, even if it was only for a short time.

An idea struck the tod, and he offered a grin down to the little doe. “I have an extra seat at graduation.” He started, remembering Major Friedkin informing them that they each had four seats for the ceremony. With his mom and Judy taking two, he had some to spare. “Why don’t you come?” The fox offered. Graduation was only a few short weeks away, and it would give Sasha something to look forward to.

Lifting her head to look up at Nick, the baby bunny’s eyes widened at the offer. “I can come to your graduation?” She asked, seeking clarification. She hadn’t been able to attend Judy’s as her siblings had all snatched the tickets before she could get to them.

“Sure, I don’t see why not. One of your siblings will have to come with you though.” The tod shrugged. He didn’t want the doe catching the train by herself, trying to make her way through the crowds at the academy without supervision. “Be sure to ask them nicely.” He tacked on, not entirely sure what method of persuasion the baby bunny was cooking up.

Head whipping around, Sasha found Jasmine amongst her siblings, and she offered her older sister a toothy grin. She was confident that Judy’s littermate would take her.

“The train now approaching Platform 2 is the 09:25 Zootopia Express. Please mind the gap between the train and the platform.” The PA system announced, leading to a flurry of activity as the Hopps family members got in their final hugs and goodbyes, making Judy, Nick, and Marian promise to keep in touch and visit soon. Once they’d boarded and their luggage had been stowed, Nick found a cluster of four seats near a window. Looking out, he spotted little Sasha in the crowd. Rather than crying, though, the baby bunny was bouncing on the spot, paw waving madly. Offering her the chance to be at his graduation in a few weeks was no skin off his nose, and it gave Sasha something to look forward to. Deep down, the tod was also thrilled at the idea of having Judy’s family – his family – there for the important day.

As the train lurched to life, Judy lifted a paw to wave at her family. She was happy to be heading back to the city, to her job and their apartment, but she already missed Bunnyburrow. The train started its journey back to the city, and once her family was out of sight the doe relaxed back into her seat with a heavy sigh, brows drawn down.

“I’m sure you’ll see them soon.” Marian reached across the small gap between them to place a paw on Judy’s knee, giving it a reassuring squeeze. The vixen could remember when she’d first left home, and even now she still felt a wave of sadness after she visited her family for a few days. No matter how old a mammal was, it was always tough.

Lifting her gaze, Judy’s brow smoothed out, and a small smile crossed her lips. “I know.” She placed a paw down on Marian’s, silently thanking her for the comfort. “How did you find it?” She changed topic. Though Marian had been a little overwhelmed initially, Judy had noticed how quickly she’d adapted to always being surrounded by demanding kits.

“I had a wonderful time.” Marian smiled, her words nothing but the truth. Though she’d been prepared to spend Christmas alone, figuring Nick would be with Judy, the chance to meet the rest of the does family had been better than anything she could’ve imagined. The vixen had gained hundreds of new family members over the last few days, and she was certain she’d be seeing several of Judy’s siblings and her parents more frequently. Gaze moving from the bunny to her son, Marian extended her free paw to him. Though she would live and die by the idea of it being the two of them against the world, she couldn’t deny that knowing Nick now had a large soon to be in-law family soothed her old bones. It had always been her greatest fear that once she was gone, Nick would be alone.

Taking his mother’s paw, the tod gave it a gentle squeeze. He couldn’t have asked for a better vacation with those he loved.

“Are you sure she’ll be okay?” Judy nibbled on her lower lip, waving her paw as the taxi pulled away from Savannah Central.

Paw dropping to his side now that the taxi was out of sight, Nick chuckled, reaching for the remaining bags. “My mom has done more dangerous things in her time than getting a taxi, Fluff.” He shook his head fondly, starting to head towards the metro station.

Keeping pace with her mate, Judy resisted the urge to thump his arm. He was being a gentlemammal and carrying their bags, after all. “I know, but that devil seemed a little aggressive.” She pointed out, not overly comfortable with the vixen’s marsupial driver.

“Is my little bunny being speciest?” Nick teased, heading down the steps to the metro platform. Thankfully the trains were pretty frequent, and they’d be home soon. The tod had plans for this afternoon, and they were making good time. As soon as he’d told his mom of his plans the day after Christmas, she’d offered to take a taxi home, not wanting to slow them down.

This time Judy did thump Nick’s arm, but she had the courtesy to wait until he’d put their bags down on the platform. “More like listening to my cop intuition.” She corrected, gaze lifting to find the emerald eyes she loved so much.

“Ah, that old chestnut.” The tod’s intuition was more in line with survival, having been honed during his years on the streets. He knew which mammals to trust and which not to, those that would cause a problem and those that would flee at the first sign of danger. His street smarts and Judy’s textbook smarts would make them a formidable team on the beat. “I hate to say this, but I do need to put some study time in this evening.” The fox admitted. He hadn’t packed a single textbook for their trip, wanting to enjoy his time in Bunnyburrow, but he knew now that he’d have to cram.

Feeling the breeze of the approaching train, Judy took a small hop back, moving a little closer to Nick. The turbulent air for a mammal her size could be a significant problem. “That’s fine, we can put in a few hours this afternoon.” The doe glanced at her watch, noting it was only lunchtime.

“This evening. We have plans this afternoon.” Nick let the tidbit slip, picking up their bags as the metro train came to a halt; doors sliding open to let them on. They didn’t have many stops to go, so the tod was content to stand with their luggage for the trip. He ensured Judy managed to grab a seat next to him, though.

Once she’d taken her seat, ensuring there wasn’t a mammal more in need of it, the doe turned her violet eyes to her mate. “We do?” She blinked, brows drawing together again as she frowned, racking her brain for anything she’d missed. They hadn’t planned anything other than their Bunnyburrow trip since Nick had returned from the academy. Judy had plenty of free time now though, having stopped working for Mr. Otterton after the Christmas rush deliveries had been dealt with, and she no longer offered her kitsitting services.

“Yup.” Nick popped the ‘p’, offering Judy a sly grin as the metro train pulled away from the platform, hurtling through the underground tunnels towards their stop. “You’re good to go as you are.” He added, taking in Judy’s attire. She’d put on a simple pair of jeans and the jumper he’d made for her, and though she’d worn it a few times since he’d gifted it to her, the tod still felt his heart skip a beat. It was beyond satisfying to see his mate in something he’d made. Warmth rushed over him as he eyed her, and Nick surreptitiously lifted a paw to tug at the collar of his shirt, claws scratching through fluffy fur a moment later. Restraining himself had been hard work while they’d been away, and it had been made worse by the small spaces they’d occupied in the warren. Now, back in the city, the tod was hopeful that his urges wouldn’t be so prominent. His body wanted to rebel, his sensitive nose picking up on the fact that his scent was a lot weaker on Judy now, smothered by the smells of her family.

The metro train stopped at several stations before the PA system announced that the next stop was theirs, and Nick offered out a paw to help Judy stand. The doe graciously took it, rising to her small height. “If you need an itch scratching…” Judy dropped her voice to a whisper, concern in her eyes as she watched Nick pick up their bags and shuffle towards the train door. He might’ve thought that he was subtle, but the bunny could sense Nick’s discomfort. It hadn’t helped that during their time away they hadn’t been as pawsy as they’d wanted to be, aware of the hundreds of pairs of eyes and ears focused on their every move since news of their relationship had whipped around the warren.

“My scent isn’t as strong on you anymore.” The tod responded, not wanting to confess in public that he was struggling with his winter urges. He winced at how pathetic he sounded though, the sight of Judy’s secret smile in his peripheral not helping. He hoped that with the bonding bracelet firmly around his wrist he’d battle through the last of his extreme possessiveness, but with winter heightening his feelings and urges he doubted there would be any difference until spring.

Unable to respond as the train pulled to a stop and they were forced to disembark, the doe kept quiet until they reached the surface, weaving through the crowds to an empty side street that would lead them home. “I need to wash the travel grime off me when we get in.” She started, dropping a few proverbial breadcrumbs as they turned a corner, the steps leading down to their apartment coming into view.

“While you do that I’ll start unpacking and put a laundry load on. Our swimwear is in serious need of a clean.” Nick made a mental list of things to do while Judy showered. Mundane tasks would take his mind off the mental images his brain was concocting. They’d continued with Judy’s exposure to cold water while they’d been away, using one of the warrens many bathtubs before venturing outside to a local lake. However, they hadn’t wanted to arouse suspicion, so they hadn’t added their swimwear to the warren’s laundry pile. His doe had managed to overcome her fear enough to let the water lap around her shoulders, but getting her to dunk her head under was proving more challenging than Nick had anticipated.

Scowling at the back of her fox as he descended the stairs to their apartment, Judy huffed. “No, Slick.” She put her hind paw down as Nick pulled his keys from his pocket, pausing at Judy’s rebuttal. “That was a hint for you to join me.” The doe shook her head, wondering how her fox had missed it. She could wash away her family’s scent and take care of her mate at the same time, and she was pretty sure once she was dry afterward Nick would make quick work of smothering his scent all over her.

Emerald eyes focused on his mate and Nick blinked, stupefied. He’d never missed a hint before. “You want me to join you in the shower?” He clarified, hoping he’d heard her right. Swallowing, he tampered down on a surge of lust.

Plucking the key from Nick’s paw, Judy opened the front door, bending down to scoop up the small pile of mail that had formed behind it. Once she was upright, she nodded, stepping inside as she flicked through the post. “It’s a very big shower, and I’m a very small bunny. It gets lonely.” She teased.

Judy’s shriek filled the air a moment later as she was scooped up from behind, the mail falling to the ground with a light thud as Nick lifted her. The tod had abandoned their luggage just inside the apartment, and he kicked the door shut behind him as he adjusted his hold on his mate, moving her so that she was draped over one of his shoulders. Her small weight was nothing compared to the loads he’d had to lift at the academy, and the fox started to take long strides towards the bathroom.

“What are we, cavemammals?” The doe lightly thumped Nick’s back, trusting that he wouldn’t drop her. Though she protested, Judy didn’t put much heart into it. After all, this was exactly what she’d wanted.

Dried, dressed, and smelling distinctly like her fox, Judy smoothed down the fur on her ears as she watched Nick pull on a clean shirt. Their shower had taken a little longer than anticipated, and the doe moved her paw to her shoulder, feeling the slight indentation marks of her fox’s bite. He hadn’t broken the skin, but it was still a little sore.

“Ready?” Nick asked as he finished doing up the last button of his shirt, slipping his phone and wallet into his pockets. Turning, he caught his rabbit with her paw on her shoulder. A flash of guilt coursed through him. “I can get you some painkillers?” He offered, not wanting his mate to suffer. He hadn’t intended on biting her, but when Judy had pushed his muzzle towards her shoulder, it had been like a red rag to a bull.

Shaking her head, Judy’s paw slipped from her shoulder, and the rabbit reached for her handbag, slinging it over the other shoulder. “I’m fine.” She reassured Nick, offering out a paw to him. Once he’d taken it, Judy led him towards the front door, picking up his keys as they passed the small table in the hallway. “Where are we going?” She questioned as they stepped outside, letting go of Nick’s paw long enough to lock the door.

“Nu-uh, it’s a surprise.” The fox took his key from Judy, slipping it into his pocket before he took her paw, heading up the stairs to street level. They could walk to where they were heading, and the tod set off down the street, Judy falling into step beside him. It had taken a few calls to organize their afternoon activity, and Nick had cashed in a favor with a former street mammal that’d managed to turn his life around.

Knowing she wouldn’t get any more from her fox, Judy let the subject drop, trusting him. Casting her gaze around them, the doe tried to work out where they were going from their surroundings. The streets were quiet, almost too quiet, as most mammals were still at home with their families. Though Judy felt terrible for ditching Marian at the station, she relished the opportunity to finally be alone with her fox.

They strolled for a while, paws interlocked, swinging together between them until Nick brought them to a stop at the entrance to a side street. “Remember on your birthday, when you told me all the places you liked to visit?” He asked, earning a nod from his mate. “Remember during the closing ceremony, on the back porch, when I promised you two more dates?” He watched as realization dawned on Judy’s face, her violet eyes widening and lips parting in surprise. “I’m sure there’ll be plenty more dates in our future, but I figured it’s time to act on my promise.” The fox gave Judy’s paw a gentle tug, turning the pair of them down the side street. “See the narrow building?” He pointed with his free paw at a short building, only two stories high compared to the six-story apartment blocks around it.

Violet eyes following the line of buildings, Judy found the small house Nick had gestured to. It was light cream in color, contrasting the brick red of the buildings either side, and the domed roof featured an ornate spire. The rabbit had never ventured to this part of the city before, even when she’d been walking the beat with Wolford. Such a beautiful building would’ve looked more at home in the opulence of Sahara Square rather than the modern metropolis of Savannah Central.

Leading Judy to towards the building, Nick slowed their pace to give her the opportunity to admire it. A stroke of luck had seen one of his friends take ownership of it. Desmond had been squatting in the abandoned building for over fifteen years, having found himself on the streets after his divorce, and the dhole had started to repair the crumbling building over time, investing some of his hustling money. After ten years without the buildings rightful owner coming forward, the city courts had handed the aging predator the deed to the property. Since then, Desmond had utterly transformed the place.

“It’s a bookstore.” Judy breathed as they drew closer, her wide eyes taking in the window displays and the name painted above the door. “Desmond’s Den.” She read aloud, her mind providing her with images of a warm and cozy store, filled to the brim with all sorts of novels.

Taking the small step up to the store door, Nick offered his doe a smug smile. “It’s an independent bookstore.” He mentally patted himself on the back, remembering his rabbit’s love for them along with museums and galleries. Pausing just before he pushed the door open, Nick let Judy’s paw drop as he turned to fully face her, blocking the view through the glass panes of the door. “Close your eyes.” He instructed, tail swishing behind him in a mixture of anticipation and nervousness. “Trust me, please.” He tacked on at Judy’s raised eyebrow. As the doe obliged and closed her eyes, Nick wafted a paw in front of her face, checking that she couldn’t see. Satisfied, he took her paws in his own, shuffling backward to open the door with his butt. As the heavy wooden door swung open the bell above it chimed.

At the sound of the door opening, the dhole behind the counter slipped a bookmark into the page he’d been reading, closing it and putting it aside. Standing, he watched as the fox led the rabbit into his store. Rubbing at the greying fur on his muzzle, the predator held in his chuckle. When Nicholas had called him last week and asked to cash in his favor, Desmond had been curious as to what the young fox had wanted from him. The predator had initially thought he’d heard Nicholas wrong when the fox had asked him to close his store for the afternoon so he could enjoy a date with his mate. He’d even considered getting his hearing checked after the tod had informed him of his mate’s species.

Hearing the chime of the bell, Judy put all her trust in her fox as he walked her into the store. Large ears turned as she heard crackling, and her nose twitched as she inhaled, catching the scent of burning wood. “A fireplace.” She decided, tuning her senses to the rest of the room. Sniffing again, the doe relished the scent of old books, the light scent of hundreds of mammals lingered in the air, presumably customers, yet one stood out stronger than the rest. “Predator.” Her mind supplied. In the past that would’ve been enough to have the rabbit opening her eyes, not willing to be so vulnerable, but with Nick holding her paws she trusted that she was in no danger.

Spotting Desmond behind the desk, Nick offered the mammal a grin, continuing to lead Judy into the store. He wanted her to open her eyes near the center of the store, the most spectacular spot. “Nearly there Fluff.” He reassured her, giving her paws a squeeze. Continuing to take a few more steps back, Nick finally stopped. “Keep them closed.” He instructed, letting go of Judy’s paws so he could move aside, not wanting to miss her reaction. Nervous butterflies erupted in his gut, and the tod silently prayed that he’d picked the right place.

“Now can I open them?” Judy questioned, paws falling as Nick let them go. She brought them together in front of her, wringing them together. What was inside this bookstore that had led Nick to ask for her to close her eyes?

Unable to delay it any longer, and knowing just how impatient his bunny could be, Nick gave a quick nod of his head as he swallowed the lump in his throat. “Alright, now.”

Opening her eyes, the doe gasped she could finally see the inside of the store. Never in her life had she seen somewhere so beautiful. Right in front of her stood a grand staircase, climbing up and up until it split into two, curving around and leading to the first floor. It was made of solid wood, and a red carpet covered each step. Substantial wooden bookshelves lined the walls, shelves bowing under the weight of the books filling them. Sturdy tables littered the floor, stacked high with more books, and just off to the side sat a crackling fireplace with plush armchairs and sofas around it. “I’ve never seen so many books in my life.” She breathed in awe. While Bunnyburrow had a library, it was small and lacking, and Judy had struggled to find anything worth reading.

“You like it?” Nick grinned, emerald eyes watching as his doe gaped at the room, taking in every detail with kit-like wonder. He’d thought her reactions to the paintings at the gallery during their first date had been mesmerizing, but it didn’t hold a candle to watching her look around now.

Wanting to see more the doe took several steps towards the nearest table, lifting a paw to skim her fingers over the thick covers of the stacked books on it. “It’s wonderful.”

“It’s ours for the afternoon.” The fox explained, silently grateful for Desmond’s cooperativeness when he’d called in his favor. He wasn’t exactly sure what mammals did on bookshop dates, and his brief internet search hadn’t brought up much, but he was content to follow Judy’s lead.

Touched by her fox’s kindness, and the fact he’d remembered all of her favorite places, the doe took the few steps back to Nick before she pushed up onto the balls of her hind paws, pressing a kiss to his muzzle. “Thank you so much.” She whispered, unable to stop herself from stealing a chaste kiss.

As Judy’s lips met his, the fox flattened his ears back, trying to hide the blush he swore he could feel starting. He caught the faint sound of Desmond approaching, and while Nick had no problem with public displays of affection, he wasn’t entirely sure how the old dhole would take to seeing it. He’d met the other predator while on the streets, and the fellow canine had been somewhat of a knowledge touch-point over the years, guiding him through rough patches and showing him creative ways of making cash. Desmond had bailed him out a few times too when he’d had skirmishes with the law.

Having locked the shop door to ensure no one would interrupt them, the owner shuffled his way towards the lovers. “I’m glad you like it, young lady.” He drew close, his wooden cane tapping against the floor with every step, steadying him. The canine had spent most of his life on the streets, having married and divorced young. She’d taken the house and his heart, and he’d been left with nothing more than the clothes on his back and $50 in his wallet. Spending his nights sleeping in doorways and trudging the streets in the day had taken its toll on his body, and by the time he’d found the abandoned bookstore to squat in it had been too late to try and fix most of the damage.

Turning in the direction of the voice, Judy offered the other mammal a small smile. He stood a little taller than Nick, though his shoulders were hunched as he shuffled forward with his cane. His fur was russet, flecked with grey, and his kind eyes had turned blue-grey with age. It was clear that he was part of the canine family, but the doe couldn’t quite work out exactly what he was. “I never would’ve thought this was here.” She admitted, violet eyes looking around the room again.

“Judy, this is my old friend Desmond.” Nick started the introductions, slipping an arm around Judy’s waist to hold her close to his side. Desmond wasn’t a threat, but the tod still felt the natural instinct to stake his claim. “Desmond, this is my mate, Judy.”

Offering out his free paw, the dhole shook Judy’s. As her sleeve rode up the canine spotted the silver bracelet around her wrist, and he suppressed his smile. “It’s a pleasure to meet the mammal who’s tamed young Nicholas here.”

Laughing as their paws dropped, the doe turned her gaze to her fox. “I wouldn’t exactly call Nick young.” She teased fondly.

Free paw rising to his chest, the fox placed it over his heart, gasping in mock hurt. “Back to wounding me, after all the effort I’ve gone to.” He played along, the upward quirk of his lips conveying his amusement.

As Nick brought his paw to his chest, Desmond caught the flash of silver around his wrist too, and the dhole’s curiosity peeked. He held his tongue though, knowing it wasn’t the right moment to question the fox and his relationship. Deciding it would be best to leave them to enjoy their date, the old mammal smiled. “I’ll leave you two mammals in peace. Read whatever you like. I’ve left some refreshments near the fire, and if you need anything just shout.” He tipped his head in the direction of the back room, letting them know where they could find him. Cane in paw, Desmond set a steady pace, heading to the office he’d motioned towards. He’d fitted it out with a comfortable reclining sofa for his afternoon naps, and right now he could do with a rest.

As Desmond disappeared from view, the rabbit turned her focus back to the room. There were so many books that she wasn’t sure where to start. Nibbling on her lip, the doe settled on exploring the store, and hopefully, something would catch her attention. Heading towards the grand staircase, she placed a paw on the smooth wooden banister, keeping hold of it as she began to climb. The carpet was plush under her hind paws, and the afternoon light flooded in from the windows on the domed roof.

The upper level was just as beautiful as the ground floor, with ornately carved wooden banisters and bookcases stacked high with novels. Massive columns protruded from halfway up the walls, reaching up to support the ceiling. Ambient lighting and plush red curtains created a cozy atmosphere, and as the doe continued to climb, she realized that the stairs formed a bridge over the opening down to the ground floor. Pausing as the staircase split, she looked left and then right, unsure which way to go. Deciding to head right first, she finished her climb. The staircase delivered her to the ‘G’ section of the store, and Judy began to peruse the shelves. Fingers trailing over the book spines, the rabbit smiled as she came across J.K. Growling, her mind filling with fond memories of reading her novels with Jasmine during their kithood.

Following Judy up the stairs, the tod watched her lose herself in the shelves of books. Her tail bobbed as she walked, and it didn’t take long for the fox to pick up on her tell. Each time a book piqued her interest she flicked her tail – whether the action was subconscious or not, Nick didn’t know, but it made him smile. Reading hadn’t been a past time of his since he’d left home, the long hours of hustling leaving him exhausted by the time he’d managed to crawl back to wherever he’d been staying that week. Living with Judy, the tod had a funny feeling it would become a favorite pastime in their home. Perusing the rows and rows of books, Nick plucked one from the shelf, turning it over to look at the cover. “George R. R. Meowtin.”

Looking down the line of shelves, Judy grabbed a rolling ladder, moving it to the right position before she began to climb, violet eyes focused on a book she’d spotted high up.

Returning the book to its space on the shelf, Nick turned in time to see Judy clambering up the ladder. With a quickened pace he reached the bottom of it, putting a hind paw on the lower rung to stop it from potentially moving. “What kind of things do you like to read?” He asked, gaze lifting. Emerald eyes found Judy’s butt, and with a small sideways tilt of his head, Nick admired the view.

“A variety of things really. Far off places, daring swordfights, magic spells, a prince in disguise…” Judy rattled off, feeling Nick’s eyes on her. She’d let him stare. Now much taller, Judy reached out with one paw, the other clutching the ladder tightly. Prying the book she wanted from the shelf, she grinned. Judy had wanted to read this particular novel for years, but the library in Bunnyburrow hadn’t had it, and the few bookstores in the district specialized more in farming books. Clutching it, she began to carefully climb down.

Watching as his mate maneuvered her way down the ladder, the fox waited until she was safely on the ground, keeping his hind paw on the lower rung, not wanting to risk her falling and hurting herself. The paw she rested lightly against his chest in thanks brought a smile to his face. As she headed back towards the staircase, drawn to the cozy fireplace, Nick watched as she opened up the book in her paws to the first page, starting to read as she padded her way downstairs.

Shaking his head in amusement, Nick followed, finding her curled up on the couch in front of the fire. Taking a seat beside her he used his size and strength to his advantage, rearranging their position so that Judy’s head came to rest in his lap. Prying the book from her paws, ignoring her weak protests, Nick flicked back to the beginning. Clearing his throat, he held the book in one paw, the other coming to rest on Judy’s stomach. “The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing…”

Settling, Judy’s eyes closed at the comforting sound of Nick’s voice, and the doe moved her paws to cover his on her belly. The real world felt miles away as Nick continued to read, his tone rising and falling as he adopted the voices of the various characters in the tale, and the weight of his paw was a warm reminder of his love.

They spent a few hours by the fire in one another’s company; the tod continuing to read aloud even when it seemed like Judy was falling asleep. Contentment and happiness flowed between them, and the fox never wanted the moment to end. However, he was aware of the time and the building pressure to study for his final exams, so with heavy reluctance, he brought his reading to a close as he reached the middle of the book. Though Judy had picked the tale out, Nick had unexpectedly come to enjoy it. “You’ll have to wait until tomorrow for the second half.” He decided, knowing he would be purchasing it.

Playing with Nick’s paw on her belly, Judy playfully whined in protest, her large ears smoothed down as she slowly began to sit up, not wanting to stand too quickly and become dizzy. Eyeing the cookies and water set out for them, she reached for a treat, picking up a chocolate one. Bringing it to her mouth, she spoke before taking a bite. “If your cop career fails you could always be a professional storyteller.” She announced, finishing the treat in a few bites before she dusted her fingers off on her pants. Her mother would’ve smacked her tail with her cooking spoon if she had witnessed her action.

“Probably more money in hustling.” The fox made a mental note of the page number as he closed the book, not wanting to fold the corner of the page. His father had hated when mammals had done that.

With her cookie finished, Judy picked up a glass of water, taking a few sips before she set it back down. “More chance of me cuffing you in hustling.”

“Kinky.” The tod grinned, unable to help it.

Judy’s shoulders sagged, and she shook her head, a small smile tugging at the corner of her lips. Lifting a paw she landed a light punch on Nick’s arm, rising from the sofa as he moved to rub the spot she’d thwacked. While Nick had been reading to her, Judy’s mind had wandered, and the doe had started to question whether Desmond had her favorite book in stock. She’d left her copy in Bunnyburrow when she’d moved to the city, and she’d forgotten to pack it before they’d left this morning.

As Judy started to wander off, Nick rose from the couch, tucking the book under his arm as he began to follow her, his curiosity piqued.

Stopping at the ‘C’ section, Judy tipped her head back to look at all of the shelves on the giant bookcase. There, on the twelfth shelf up, sat the book she was after. Excitement had the doe bouncing on her hind paws, and she grabbed the nearest rolling ladder. With ease, she climbed up until she was in line with the shelf. Holding on with one paw, Judy reached out with the other, fingertips brushing the spine of the novel as she pushed herself just that little bit further.

It felt like slow motion to Nick, watching as Judy reached for a book, small fingers grasping the spine and pulling it from the shelf, just before she lost her balance and started to plummet towards the ground. Book falling from under his arm, the fox’s heart pounded as he raced to stand beneath Judy’s falling body, and if it weren’t for his honed reaction time and speed he wouldn’t have made it.

With a thump the doe landed in his arms, startled by her fall yet still clutching the book she’d been after. “Please don’t die for a book.” Nick forced the words out, swallowing thickly as he tried to mask his terror with humor. He could feel his arms shaking as he gently set Judy down, checking her over for any injuries. Other than looking a little surprised, she was okay. Scooping up the book he’d dropped, Nick tucked it back under his arm.

“Thanks, Slick.” Judy offered quietly before she cleared her throat, moving her attention to the book in her paws. She’d fallen from many heights during her training and even while on duty, but it wasn’t a sensation a small mammal like her would ever get used to. “This isn’t just any book.” She protested. Nick’s raised eyebrow had her turning the book around to show him the cover. “It’s Hans Christian Purrson.” She turned it back, carefully opening it to the first page, treasuring the new book smell. As she started to read the familiar words, she silently mouthed along, unable to stop herself from bouncing on the spot in excitement.

Watching his mate’s body language, Nick found himself almost wishing he could pull the book from her paws and start reading it, to find out what was drawing such a strong reaction from her. A few pages later she turned the book again, this time to point at a paragraph. “Oh, isn’t this amazing? It’s my favorite part because you see, here’s where she meets Prince Charming, but she won’t discover that it’s him ‘til chapter three!”

Seeing how much Judy loved the book, and the twinkle in her eyes as she read it, Nick knew he had to get it for her. Crossing over to the old till, he set the book under his arm down on to the counter before he pulled his wallet from his back pocket, counting out enough for Judy’s book and the one they’d been reading together on the couch.

“You don’t need to buy it for me, Slick. I’ve read it countless times, and I can get mom to send me the copy I have in Bunnyburrow.” Judy’s focus had shifted from the page as Nick had walked away, and she’d felt a flash of guilt as she’d watched him pull out his wallet. She already had a copy; he didn’t need to be wasting his money on another.

Tucking his wallet back into his pocket, the tod shrugged, switching his focus to Judy. “I haven’t read it yet.” He stated, moving back to stand in front of her, gently prying the book from her paws so he could flip through it.

“You want to read Hans Christian Purrson?” Judy couldn’t believe what she was hearing.

Humming his confirmation, Nick closed the book, offering it back out to Judy. From what little he’d skim read, it didn’t seem like something he’d hate. “Dad used to say that you can tell a lot about a mammal from their favorite book and that you can find pieces of them in the pages. I already know a lot about you, but I’m curious as to what other pieces I might find.” He shrugged. Realising how sappy it sounded the fox cleared his throat, moving on. “If you’re ready then we should probably head back, this fox has to study at some point.”

Hiding her smile at how adorable her mate was Judy nodded her head in agreement. Though she would’ve loved to spend another few hours in the bookstore, the real world was calling. “Should we wake Desmond?” She questioned, looking over at the back of the store. The doe had checked in on him regularly, tuning her ears into the sound of his heartbeat and snoring. He hadn’t stirred since he’d sat down after leaving them.

Emerald eyes quickly looked over the counter near the till and Nick found what he was looking for. Lifting up the key to the shop, he shook his head. Grabbing the book they’d read by the fire Nick handed it to Judy, and the two mammals silently made their exit, locking the shop up behind them before Nick dropped the key back through the letterbox. He’d call the dhole tomorrow and thank him again for lending them his shop.

Using one paw to clutch the two books to her chest, Judy slipped the other into Nick’s paw, lacing their fingers together. “Thanks, Nick.” She looked up her fox, offering him a soft smile. She hadn’t expected such a thoughtful date.

Glancing down at the doe by his side, the fox offered her a wink as he gently swung their paws, counting their afternoon as a win. “Anytime Carrots, anytime.”

“How am I meant to remember all of this?” Nick groaned, slamming the textbook shut as he dropped down onto the couch, jostling his mate. He’d been unsuccessfully trying for the last hour to memorize the first chapter, and all he had to show for it was a bunch of pencil scribbles on the pages. “I barely made it through high school.”

Having heard Nick’s approach, Judy had already put down her book, making a mental note of the page number. As the fox came to sit with her on the couch, the doe turned so she could face him. “You just need the right motivation.”

“Motivation? Fluff, I am motivated, trust me. There’s nothing I want more than being a cop.” Nick sighed, tipping his head back until it thunked against the couch. He was more of a practical mammal, something that had come in useful at the academy when 75% of their training had involved physical activity. Now faced with a thick textbook and four exams, he was stumped.

Well aware of how much Nick wanted to be a cop, the rabbit hid her smile. “Are you sure?” She quizzed. She’d anticipated that he would struggle, and it hadn’t taken her long to come up with an idea as to how to help him.

“Yes?” The fox’s answer was uncertain, Judy’s question having thrown him. Emerald eyes narrowed as he took in Judy’s expression – amusement and mischief combined. “I don’t like that look you’re wearing.”

Schooling her features, the doe leaned into Nick’s space. “You like making deals, right?”

“Usually for favors, yes,” Nick responded, unsure where the conversation was going.

Shuffling towards her mate, Judy dropped her voice an octave. “Then I’ll do you a favor. I’ll quiz you to find out what you already know, and what we need to work on.” She laid down the foundations of her plan.

Nodding, Nick reasoned that was a good idea. It would cut down on the amount he needed to study. However, Judy’s body language and the tone of her voice didn’t match up with her innocent offer, and Nick scowled as he tried to work out what exactly his little rabbit was up to.

“Once we know what you need to work on, we need to ensure it becomes long-term memory. Short-term memories can become long-term memory through meaningful association.” Judy continued, lifting a paw to smooth down her ears. It was one of the flimsiest explanations she’d ever come up with, and she hoped Nick would overlook that. She was determined to get her fox to study and help with his winter urges.

Still a little confused, Nick smoothed out his scowl and tipped his head sideways, the end of his tail flicking. “I’m not sure I’m completely following. What do you get out of this deal?” So far it sounded like Nick was the only one winning.

“You’re more likely to remember things if there’s a positive emotional association with it. So, I’m going to ask you ten questions about each subject you’re unsure about. For every one you get right, you get a kiss.” Judy explained. “If you get 8 out of 10 questions correct in a subject…” The doe reached for the hem of her jumper and removed it in one smooth move, tossing it onto Nick’s lap, leaving her in a thin t-shirt. “I get to lose a piece.”

As Judy’s words sank in, Nick’s eyes widening and he swallowed. The fox played with the soft fabric in his lap as he mulled over Judy’s offer. It was tempting, and certainly not what he’d expected from his rabbit. “It’s winter. That’s not a good idea.” He protested, torn.

Having anticipated that Nick would be uncertain about her idea, the doe reached out, small paws gently grabbing his muzzle. “I trusted you when you wanted me to get into the ice water, so please trust me with this.” Judy dropped a kiss to his muzzle. “You should also stop fighting your biology. You won’t break me. I trust you.” Violet eyes lifted to find emerald ones, and Judy held Nick’s gaze. She didn’t want to force the issue, or him, but the longer he fought his instincts, the more frustrated he’d become, and that wasn’t the right frame of mind for him to be in for his exams.

Judy’s offer was tempting, and though a small part of the fox was terrified that he could potentially hurt her, he trusted that his doe would let him know if things got too intense. With a small nod, he agreed, watching as Judy moved away from him, pulling on her jumper as she took the textbook and pencil with her. She dove right in, asking questions to determine his level of knowledge. They rattled through all of the topics in the book and compiled a small list of areas he needed to improve on.

Closing the book, Judy placed it down on the coffee table, just out of Nick’s reach. Deciding on her first topic, she picked the first question. “Alright Slick, who issues a warrant and what types are there?”

“A court usually issues them, and there are search warrants, arrest warrants, and…” Nick paused, racking his brain. He could faintly remember the classroom session with Major Friedkin when they’d gone over this subject. “Execution warrants.” He answered, offering Judy a grin. Lifting a paw as he turned his head ever so slightly, he tapped a finger against his cheek. He’d answered the question correctly, and he wanted his reward.

Obliging, Judy leaned across the small space between them, pressing a light kiss to her mate’s cheek. She had a feeling she’d be doling out a lot more of them over the course of the evening. Sitting back, she decided on her second question. “What’s a search warrant?”

Knowing that Judy would go through all the different types, the tod rolled his eyes at her question. It had to be the easiest one she could’ve asked, but it would earn him a kiss. “It authorizes law enforcement to conduct a search of a person, location, or vehicle, for evidence of a crime and to confiscate any evidence they find.”

Nodding as Nick answered correctly, the doe planted a quick kiss on the side of his muzzle before swiftly moving on. “How about an arrest warrant?”

“It authorizes the arrest and detention of an individual or the search and seizure of an individual’s property.” The fox rattled off the definition with ease.

Giving him another kiss, it wasn’t like it was a hardship for Judy to show her mate some affection. “Finally, what about an execution warrant?” She’d saved the hardest one for last.

Pausing, the tod gave it a moment of thought. The name of the warrant offered him some idea, but he wasn’t entirely sure. Bringing a paw up to his muzzle, he rubbed it in contemplation. “It authorizes law enforcement to use deadly force when bringing down a perp?” He answered, grimacing.

Shoulders dropping, the doe shook her head. “That’s a licence to kill. An execution warrant authorises capital punishment on an individual.” She reached for the textbook and pencil, scribbling a quick note for them to look over the topic again. Execution warrants were exceedingly rare, with judges preferring alternative solutions that didn’t spell death for the perp, but it was still written in law and therefore something Nick had to know.

“Damn it,” Nick growled, frustrated that he’d messed up. He’d been on a winning streak, and now that had gone to hell.

“It’s okay, we still have a few more to go.” The rabbit reassured her mate, kicking out one of her hind paws so she could nudge the fox. Returning her attention to the textbook, they rattled through the remaining six questions and by the time they’d finished the topic, Nick had answered nine out of ten correct. Proud of him, Judy stood, gesturing with her paws to her outfit. “Nine out of ten, Slick. Pick a layer.”

Looking Judy up and down, the tod contemplated which layer he wanted her to remove first. He could go for her pants, which the fox found a very tempting idea, or he could pick her jumper and keep the game going, giving him a better chance at actually learning something and driving them both a little crazy. Making his choice, the tod reached up to scratch at the fluffy fur on his neck, reining in his lust. “Jumper.”

Surprised by Nick’s choice, it took Judy a moment to get her tail in gear and remove the garment he’d selected. She wasn’t above lifting it a little slower than usual though. Down to her t-shirt, Judy took her seat back on the couch, picking up the textbook. “Topic number two…” They carried on, working their way through trials, sentences, health and safety laws, and standard forensic procedures. Nick had managed to achieve 8 out of 10 in trials and forensics procedures, leaving Judy now sat on the couch in her underwear.

The rabbit was trying her hardest to not look at her fox. His gaze was hungry, predatory, and she could hear the slight quickening of his heartbeat. A tinge of concern passed through her at the thought that maybe she was playing with fire, being almost naked in front of her tod during mating season, but she trusted him, which led to her powering on. “Topic six, property law.”

Not overly confident in the area, Nick tried to hide his wince. He was so close to having Judy naked, and she had to throw this topic at him? His responses were slower as he worked his way through the questions, not wanting to risk getting anything wrong, so giving himself a little time to think. By the time he’d answered the seventh question, he’d only got one wrong.

“Question eight, what is bailment?” Judy continued to scribble notes, circling things they would need to go over again tomorrow. While Nick had insisted that he wasn’t book smart, he wasn’t doing too poorly.

Nick had to stop himself from letting slip a yip of excitement as Judy asked the one question he could answer in his sleep. “It’s where physical possession of personal property is transferred from one mammal to another, who then subsequently has possession of the property. It usually arises when a mammal gives the property to another for safekeeping.” His father had transferred ownership of their home to his mother a few months before he’d been murdered, and though he’d only been a kit, Nick could remember hearing them talking about it late at night. Once he’d learned that his father’s death hadn’t been an accident, the fox had found it suspicious that ownership of the house had been passed solely to his mother, as if his father had known something would happen. Pulled from memory lane by the kiss planted on his muzzle, the tod focused on the next question, not wanting to dwell on the past.

Turning the page of the textbook, Judy picked her next question. “How many years must a squatter have lived in a property before they can apply for ownership?”

“10.” Nick’s answer rolled off his tongue with ease as he recalled Desmond’s battle for the bookshop. His knowledge earned him another kiss.

Realising that her fox had now answered eight out of nine questions correctly, the doe couldn’t help but wonder which item Nick would pick next. “If a mammal drops their gold bracelet in the street, and another mammal picks it up and brings it to the police station as lost property, how long is the wait before the mammal who found it can legally claim it as theirs should the original owner not come forward?”

Pausing, the tod hid his wince. It wasn’t like he’d ever handed lost property over to the police before – it was finders keepers on the streets – and he couldn’t for the life of him remember the lecture when Major Friedkin had gone over this. “Three weeks?” He tried.

Shaking her head, the rabbit offered her mate a sympathetic smile. “Two months.” She corrected, hearing her fox curse. “8 out of 10 though, Slick.” She tried to brighten his mood, but the nervousness crept up on her, and she had to make a conscious effort not to thump her hind paw. “Make your choice.”

Faced with the decision, Nick’s paws clenched. He’d been in some discomfort for a while now, his instincts screaming at him to take his mate, but he’d used that discomforted and had channeled it into their game, knowing the result would be worth it. Leaning forward Nick inhaled, drowning in his rabbit’s scent. Unfurling a paw, he reached out slowly, a clawed finger hooking around the strap of Judy’s bra to ping the fabric. “This.” He rasped.

Swallowing, Judy reached behind her, small paws finding the hooks of the garment as Nick pulled his paw back. Violet found emerald and with practiced ease Judy undid the hooks. Steeling herself, she began to remove the item, sliding it down her arms. Though she’d been confident when they’d stepped into the shower together in the past, and when she’d taken care of her fox back in Bunnyburrow, it felt different this time. The air was charged, tensions high, and there would only be one outcome to this evening.

Forcing himself to be a gentlemammal for at least a few seconds, the tod held the doe’s gaze, and only once she’d let the garment fall to the floor did his eyes wander, admiring her for a moment before he looked up. The temptation to reach out and touch her was indescribable, so to keep his paws busy Nick tugged at the collar of his shirt, suddenly feeling much warmer than he had a few minutes ago.

Though Nick had seen her naked before, they’d been on an even playing field then. Now, with him fully clothed, Judy felt a little self-conscious. She was out in the open and vulnerable, a state no mammal liked to be in. Wrapping her arms around her body, the doe tried to hide as much of her fur as possible. Logically, she’d known their little game would bring them to this moment, but that didn’t offer her any comfort. “It probably wasn’t wise of you, Jude. It’s winter, his instincts are probably screaming at him, and you’re stood here basically naked.”

Noticing how his rabbit tried to hide from his gaze, the fox abandoned his shirt collar, instead gently grasping one of Judy’s paws in his own to pry it slowly from her body. “Please don’t hide from me.” He whispered, making sure to hold her gaze as he removed her other arm from around her frame. He never wanted her to feel uncomfortable around him. Deciding to take Judy’s advice and stop fighting his biology, Nick chose to give in.

Abandoning his position on the couch, the fox stood to tower over the rabbit, and he brought both paws up to cup her face. Judy relaxed into his touch, her paws rising to cover his. “You have no idea how much I want you.” He reassured her as his tail swished behind him, thumping the couch. Giving in to his temptation to touch, he slid his paws down her body, smoothing them over the slight curvature of her waist. His actions weren’t driven by lust, no matter what his body wanted. Love drove them.

“Then take me.” The doe insisted, her words a little shaky with her nerves. She was tired of waiting, tired of having to tread carefully because it was winter. She wanted her fox, and he wanted her.

Permission was all he needed, and in one smooth move Nick scooped up his bunny, mammal-handling her. Carrying her through their apartment with ease, he kicked open the door of their bedroom with a hind paw, striding in before placing her down carefully on the end of the bed. As Nick went to take a step back, the fox halted in his tracks. Small paws were working at the buttons of his shirt, and as Judy tipped her head back to look up at him, the tod couldn’t resist stealing a kiss as he nudged his way to stand in the ‘v’ of her legs.

Slackening Nick’s tie, Judy made quick work of removing it, casting it aside. Paws moving to work at the buttons of his shirt, the doe finally managed to undo the last one, but to get the offending garment off of her fox she was forced to reluctantly break their kiss. As the tod pulled her close again fur met fur, and butterflies erupted in Judy’s stomach, but whether they were from anticipation, nervousness, or both, the doe couldn’t tell.

Finding the button of Nick’s pants, Judy struggled to get it undone, her mind focused instead on the insistent lips pressed to hers and the large paws holding on to her. She let her fox take the lead, surrendering to him as he tasted her, his kiss a promise of what was to come. When Judy’s fumbling fingers finally freed the button, Nick’s pants hit the floor with a dull thud, and he stepped out of them quickly, kicking them aside. Judy used the opportunity to break their kiss, needing a moment to catch her breath.

Nick, however, had other ideas. Lips trailing across Judy’s fur, the fox didn’t stop until he found her throat and the indents he’d made earlier in the day. Peppering kisses to them, he smiled at the sound of his mate tooth purring, her small paws grasping his thick fur. Remembering how much his rabbit enjoyed the feel of his canines on her throat, the tod bit down gently, applying just enough pressure to pull a mewl of desire from her.

Gasping at her mate’s bite, Judy clung to her fox, her small body pressed tightly against his. She wanted, no needed, more. “I want you to claim me.” She demanded, entirely sure of her choice.

Through the haze of lust that had threatened to overtake him, Judy’s demand caught Nick off guard, and the fox blinked in surprise. Letting go of her throat, the tod moved to find her gaze, emerald meeting violet. His body and mind were at war with one another. Though he wanted nothing more than to give in to what they both wanted, the thought of possibly hurting her put him off the idea. “I don’t want to hurt you.” He swallowed. It was one thing to leave a light mark behind, but to bite her enough to break the skin? “And once we reach a certain point, it’s impossible for us to part.” The nerves that he’d worked so hard to subdue started to raise their ugly heads. Sure he’d thought of claiming her countless times, but doing it? Wide emerald eyes watched as Judy took his paws in her own, linking their fingers together.

Giving Nick’s paws a gently squeeze, Judy offered him a reassuring smile. “If you don’t want this…” She didn’t want him to feel like this was something he had to do just to appease her.

“No! No.” Nick was quick to reassure her, tightening his hold on her paws as his tail subconsciously moved to wrap around one of her ankles, trying to keep her where she sat. “I want it. You.” The fox stumbled over his words, feeling like a blundering teenager again. Actions spoke louder than words though, so the tod slowly clambered onto the bed, forcing Judy to back up towards the middle, violet eyes watching his every move.

Agile fingers wrapped around one of Judy’s ankles, halting her movement and sending a thrill of excitement through the fox as her nose twitched. With her right where he wanted her, Nick’s paw skimmed up her leg, soft grey fur sliding between his fingers until he met cotton. The gentle upward curvature of his doe’s lips was all the encouragement Nick needed. Easing off the last garment of clothing his mate had on, the tod’s tail thwacked impatiently against the bedsheets, and the heady combination of their scents hung heavy in the air. With Judy finally divested of every scrap of clothing, Nick finally looked his fill. Gaze trailing over the expanse of grey fur presented to him, Nick was at a loss with where to begin, and his body screamed at him to make a move.

Exposed, it took every ounce of Judy’s will to not shrink back from her mate’s intense gaze. “You’re overdressed.” She stated feebly, trying to deflect some of the attention back to her fox. With nowhere to go, the rabbit stayed still as Nick prowled forward, coming to hover above her, strong arms supporting most of his weight and his thighs trapping her legs. The new position granted Judy the ability to reach down between them, finding the elastic of his underwear. With some tugging and a little assistance, Judy finally freed him from the cotton confines.

The aching tension between them built as Nick settled his weight, moving to rest on his forearms as he pressed their bodies together, suffocating any space that had been between them. As much as his body was screaming at him to take the doe beneath him, he refused to let it control him. She deserved better than that.

For a moment they were still, the room quiet save for the gentle puffs of their breath, until Judy finally made the first move, lifting her head a few centimeters to brush her lips against Nick’s in a soft caress. His scent overwhelmed her, strong and intoxicating, making her press for more.

He’d purposefully waited for Judy to make the first move, though the few beats it had taken for her to kiss him had terrified him. Now, with her lips pressed against his, the world fell away. It was slow and soft, comforting in ways that words alone could never be. One paw moving, the tod kept his balance as he cradled her cheek, clawed thumb sweeping over silky grey fur. At first, her paws sweeping down his spine didn’t register in his addled mind, but as she hauled him impossibly closer, back arching to bring their chests together, he could finally feel the frantic beating of her heart.

The pace quickened, their slow and soft kiss taking a sharp turn as Judy rolled her tongue forward, demanding more. Her fox was happy to comply. Rolling them over, he gave her control of the situation. The small laugh that slipped from between her lips as he flipped them made him feel disturbingly giddy.

No longer needing to support his weight, Nick was free to roam the vast expanse of grey fur on show, and he wasted no time in reaching for Judy’s hips. Paw curling around the curve of Judy’s body, Nick was reminded just how small she was. The size difference did wicked and wonderful things to him.

Though their lips had parted as they’d rolled over, Judy was quick to kiss her fox once again, desperate to taste him. His paws on her hips made her heart pound, and as he gave them a gentle squeeze her lips parted, a low gasp slipping between them, granting Nick just enough access to deepen their kiss.

Though distracted by the thorough kiss she was receiving from her mate, lips brushing together, sliding and parting, tongues meeting and exploring, Judy could still feel the heat emanating from her tod, and one of his large paws reaching down to grasp at her butt. Whining at the contact, Judy pushed back into his touch, hips rolling.

Dragging her mouth from his, the doe began to scatter kisses down his throat, peppering them across the planes of his chest as she moved further down. His scent grew stronger as she planted light pecks to his stomach, and when she finally reached her destination she risked a glance up. Lust-blown emerald eyes were watching her. Moving down the last few centimeters, the rabbit ghosted her lips over the tip of his length.

A low whine slipped from between Nick’s lips, and Judy felt a shiver of excitement at having her fox at her mercy. Giving an experimental lick, she inhaled sharply as a massive paw grabbed the short fur on the top of her head. Small tongue rolling forward again, the doe relaxed, giving herself over to the moment. The last time they’d been in this situation her mate had been tense, wound tighter than a coil, and afraid he would hurt her. That no longer seemed to be the case. “Look at me.” She demanded, knowing how much of a visual creature her fox was. She wanted his entire focus on her, on what she was doing, and Judy held his gaze as she pressed barely there kisses down his length, dragging her lips over the slightly swollen ridge of his knot.

Nick gave a harsh grunt, head falling back against the sheets as his rabbit’s small paws joined her lips, her touch confident as she wrapped her fingers around him. Hips stuttering, his eyes slid shut, and he swallowed hard at the first feel of soft lips drawing him in. It was all he could focus on, and the bold caress of Judy’s tongue coupled with the smooth strokes of her paw had him panting, the claws on his free paw snagging the bedsheets as he clenched, a low rumble of pleasure vibrating through his chest. Hips lifting as Judy found just the right spot, bold tongue tasting him, the fox whined as his knot throbbed.

Though reluctant to pull his mate away from her task, the fox knew if he didn’t get her mouth off him soon they wouldn’t make it to the main event. “Fluff.” The tod warned, relaxing the paw that had been clutching the short fur on the top of her head. As Judy broke away for a moment to catch her breath at the sound of her name, small paw continuing to stroke, Nick seized his opportunity. Capturing her chin with his paw, he led her back up his body, her paw falling from him as he pressed their lips together in a fierce kiss.

Nick’s attempt to roll them again, to pin his rabbit underneath him, wasn’t as smooth as he’d hoped. Their limbs tangled and the fox had to scoot them over to stop them from falling off the side of the bed. However, before his doe could comment on his less than slick moves, the fox buried his snout against her throat, canines dragging over sensitive skin as he traced his previous bite mark. When the moment arose, he’d have to break her skin, and Judy would have to do the same to him. It sent a thrill of anticipation through him to finally get to claim another mammal, to give himself wholly to another and have that dedication returned.

Lips sliding down, the fox followed the curve of her collarbone, breathtakingly aware of her skittering heartbeat as he left a trail of soft bites down her sternum, laving his tongue over her fur to soothe the sting of his nips. The small bite on her stomach made Judy laugh, the sound like music to Nick’s ears, but her laughter soon turned to a quiet moan as Nick settled between her legs, dropping a smattering of kisses to the fur on her inner-thigh. Her scent drove him crazy and as his eyes slid shut the tod inhaled deeply, savouring the smell. Soft lips met delicate skin, mouth parting a moment later as Nick gave a slow, long lick. The taste of her on his tongue brought forth a low growl, and the vibrations caused Judy to gasp, her hips bucking as one paw grasped the bedsheets tightly.

Senses assaulted by the taste, smell, and sound of his doe in the throes of passion, Nick found himself enjoying the act. In the past, he hadn’t cared much for it, but the reactions he was pulling from Judy were intoxicating, tugging at the primal part of him that wanted nothing more than to please his mate. Stroking fingers matched that of his tongue, and the long moan that slipped from between Judy’s lips as she tipped her head back urged him on.

Free paw finding the top of Nick’s head, Judy pulled him in closer, hips rolling and back arching. Her brain wouldn’t focus, her body at the mercy of the predator between her thighs. Clever paws continued to tease her, making her shudder and gasp, coaxing her to abandon. Every nerve in her body was alight, her earlier shyness blown away by her fox’s love. “Nick.” She breathed his name, paws flexing in the sheets as she glanced down, wanting to see the emerald eyes she loved so much.

The soft sound of his name had the tod looking up, his actions never faltering. His mate’s violet eyes were wide, lust-blown, and pleading with him to give her what she so desperately wanted. Nick had never been one to disappoint, and it was the least he could do for the mammal that loved him unconditionally. Though he had a vivid imagination, it couldn’t compare to seeing the real thing. Judy’s fur had been tousled from his touch, her chest rising and falling as she desperately tried to control her breathing, and her thighs quivered either side of his head. She was beautiful, uninhibited, and it had been his paws and mouth that had brought her to this point.

Slowing his assault on her body, the fox felt a tidal wave of love for the bunny that’d turned his life upside down. A deep rumble of contentment rolled through him, making Judy’s eyes fall shut, teeth sinking into her lower lip as she teetered on the edge. She freed her lower lip a moment later to beg him for release, and the sound of her plea was like music to the tod’s ears. Unrelenting, Nick let instinct guide him as his lips and tongue worked together in perfect harmony. The crooking of his fingers was Judy’s final undoing, and her cry of release rang out through the room.

Having balanced on the edge for a while, the pleasure that finally consumed the doe as she tipped over the edge had her back arching, paws clenching as she cried out. Nick continued to work her through the waves of her release until she collapsed, spent. Panting as she tried to regain her breath, Judy’s eyes opened to the sight of her fox licking his lips, prowling up the length of her body until he could settle atop her, careful to keep his weight off of her. A giant paw ran over her lax body, following the curves and contours, making her gasp as he squeezed her hip. She felt like jelly, putty in his paws as her fox dragged their lips together. Reaching up, Judy cupped his muzzle, eyes closing as she gave herself over to him.

Though swept away in the moment, Nick broke their kiss long enough to capture his rabbit’s gaze, silently asking one last time if she was sure. The soft smile he received and the gentle caress of her paw across his cheek made his head spin, heart thudding as he reached between them. The unmistakable itch of the season was stronger than before, the anticipation driving him wild. He pushed forward slowly, not wanting to cause his mate any pain. The tensing of Judy’s body and the slight scrunch of her nose as she closed her eyes made him stop, and the fox fought back his urge to continue. “Fluff…” Though it would drive him crazy to stop now, his mate was more important, and if it were too much for her, then he’d call it a night.

“It’s okay.” Judy insisted, forcing herself to take deep breaths through her nose to relax. The intrusion, though not unwanted, was foreign to her and she needed a moment to adjust. Eyes shut, she missed the flash of concern that crossed her fox’s face, but she couldn’t miss the feeling of light kisses being peppered across her cheeks, or lips capturing hers in a tender kiss. With her mind focused on the love she felt from her mate, Judy’s body went lax, and Nick used the distraction to his advantage, pushing forward just enough to finally feel some pressure on his knot.

Inhaling sharply at the stretch, Judy broke their kiss, arching her back to better accept him, pressing their chests together to finally find a comfortable fit. Small paws clung to his shoulders, blunt claws digging into fluffy reddish-orange fur, and though there was little room left between their bodies, the doe gave an experimental roll of her hips. Lust barrelled through her at the sound of the low grunt the action pulled from her fox.

Nick’s nostrils flared as the sweet scent he so desperately craved assaulted his nose, and his low grunt turned to a growl, paw grasping at her hip. He wanted to smother her in his scent, mark her with a bite, claim her and bond with her, and let every mammal walking know that the smart, beautiful doe beneath him was his. His mind was at war with his body over pace as he set a steady rhythm, urged on by Judy as she grabbed at him, pulling him closer, the rhythm of her hips desperately trying to match his.

The discomfort started to fade away, the burn of the stretch a distant memory now for Judy as Nick picked up the pace, body surging into hers, and she could feel the tension building. A particularly well-angled thrust made her whine, head tipping back, exposing her throat. The coil of desire inside of her started to tighten, and though her fox was giving her his all, she needed just that little bit more. Managing to work a paw between them, she went for the apex of her thighs, the back of her fingers brushing against Nick’s length with every roll of his hips as she found her sweet spot. A breathy moan slipped from between her lips at the added stimulation.

Paw abandoning her hip, Nick batted Judy’s fingers away. He could take care of her. Emerald eyes focusing on her exposed throat, it called out to him, and the indentations from their afternoon shower were just begging to be made permanent. Knot now catching with each roll of his hips, he chased his release. He wanted Judy to fall over the edge first, to be so lost in the moment that she wouldn’t feel his bite, but knowing his mate it would take a bite to push her over. Laving soft kisses to the grey fur on her throat, the fox found the most suitable spot near her collarbone to leave his mark. Taking a deep breath, he bit down, hard.

The coil snapped, the sensory overload pushing Judy over the edge. Body shaking, hips stuttering, the doe scrabbled for purchase on her fox, crying out in a mixture of pain and pleasure as she felt his bite break skin. She tried to re-find their rhythm, but it was hopeless. Instead, she completed the claiming, mind on autopilot as she picked a spot on Nick’s shoulder closest to her, sinking her teeth in. The feel of skin giving wasn’t pleasant, nor was the mouthful of fur, but it was what her mate needed, and what they both wanted.

Nick’s low rumble turned to a possessive growl, hips pushing home frantically one last time before a loud, high-pitched whine escaped him as Judy bit down. Knot throbbing, locking them together, the fox tipped over the edge, jaw tightening as he held Judy in place, hips faltering. As the shudders subsided, the tod let go of Judy’s collar, prying his mouth away. He didn’t dare open his eyes and look at the mess he’d probably made of her skin. Instead, he started to gently lick the wound, overcome by a deep sense of completion as he felt Judy copy his actions. Though the love he’d felt for the small grey bunny had been indescribable before, it was all consuming now. Heart pounding as Nick tried to steady his breathing, his tail thumped against the bed. She was his, and he was hers, and it was right.

As the side effects of her release wore off, the doe became acutely aware of the pain in her shoulder. Though Nick’s tongue soothed some of the sting, the rabbit knew she’d be popping painkillers for a few days. Slowing her licks, she pulled back from the wound on his shoulder; head thumping against the bedsheets as she closed her eyes, exhausted.

As Judy ceased her licking, so did Nick, but that didn’t stop the tod from pressing his nose to her throat, warm breath fanning over matted fur as he huffed, pulling in more of her scent. It was different now, carrying a more prominent layer of his smell. Pulling back enough so he could look down at his mate, emerald eyes opened to find closed violet ones, and the fox used the moment to his advantage to press a tender kiss to her lips. It would be some time yet before they would be able to separate and clean up.

Smiling against Nick’s lips, the doe brought a paw up to cup his muzzle. “I love you.” She whispered as they parted briefly for air. Opening her eyes, she watched as Nick’s whole face lit up, and she did her best to ignore the fact that her blood had tinged the fur around his mouth.

Tail still thwacking against the bed; Nick’s entire focus was on the mammal beneath him, the pain in his shoulder from her bite playing second fiddle. “I love you.” He reiterated, voice hoarse. Tipping his muzzle, he pressed a light kiss to her forehead, lips lingering a little longer than necessary. With Judy beneath him, having given him the most sought-after gift, he felt at ease, finally content, like a piece of him he hadn’t known had been missing had finally come home.

Moving them so that they could lay on their sides, the tod pulled Judy’s body snug to his, the pair of them enjoying the silence of their surroundings. Paws wandered slowly over damp fur, the two mammals exchanged soft kisses and sweet words, cementing the bond they had just created.

Chapter 35 – Burn Carrot Burn

Fork coming to rest on his plate, Nick licked his lips. He had to give it to Bonnie; she knew how to cook a feast. Though most of the food at the table had been vegetarian, the Hopps matriarch had ensured there was a selection of bug and fish dishes for Nick and his mom. The tod had appreciated her kindness and, with his food issues slowly fading, he’d been able to enjoy Christmas lunch for the first time in years. He’d savored everything and hadn’t worried that it would be taken from him or that his next meal would be days away. There was plenty of food on the table, and Nick knew there would always be plenty of food in the kitchen cupboards back home.

Sparing a glance around the crowded dining room, the tod could see that everyone was starting to put down their cutlery. “Good, Cinnamon?” Nick turned his attention to the baby bunny by his side, reaching for his napkin to wipe the remnants of chocolate cake from her muzzle.

“Mhm.” The doe hummed, licking her lips before Nick could wipe away and waste any chocolate cake. She only put up a weak fight as the fox gently grasped her muzzle, removing whatever cake her tongue hadn’t been able to reach.

Having finished her dessert, Marian watched as Nick wiped away the chocolate from Sasha’s face, and a wave of nostalgia rolled over her. She could remember when he’d been that young, stuffing his maw with jam sandwiches, the sticky filling clinging to the fur of his muzzle. He’d been a messy kit.

“Didn’t think you were a jewelry type of mammal.” The comment broke Nick away from his task, and he looked across the table to Jasmine, following her gaze to the bracelet around his wrist.

Sparing a glance to his side as Judy put down her cutlery, Nick shrugged. “We’ve morphed into one of those matchy-matchy couples.” He joked, earning a chuckle from Jasmine. His comment, however, made the whole room fall silent.

“I told you they were together!” The shout from the other side of the dining room set off a tidal wave of noise, and the vast array of rabbits made it difficult to pinpoint where the chaos had started.

Nick and Judy were swamped, hundreds of rabbits crowding around them at the table, all of them shouting questions and demanding answers. Overwhelmed, the two mammals shared a panicked glance.

“Enough! Back to your tables.” Stu’s booming voice echoed through the large space, and the kits that had been crowding Nick and Judy retreated at a fair pace back to their respective tables.

Feeling the weight of hundreds of pairs of eyes still on them, Nick let out a nervous laugh. “Well, I guess everyone knows now.” He offered Judy a meek smile, which she half-heartedly returned, her attention still on the rest of the room. Nick’s sharp hearing enabled him to pick up on a few disgruntled Hopps kits, and he bit his tongue to stop himself from offering a snarky response. The vast majority of her siblings seemed okay with them though, and that was enough to make the tod relax.

“You’ve never been much of a jewelry mammal either, Ju.” Jasmine brought the conversation back on track, tapping between her collarbones. “Looks like someone did their homework.” She aimed the comment at Nick, enjoying the way his ears flattened back with embarrassment. The doe had been pleasantly surprised when she’d spotted the symbol around her sister’s neck during present opening. Though she’d already liked Nick, her respect for him had grown tenfold, knowing he’d cared enough to look into their customs and history.

Paw reaching up for the pendant around her neck, Judy ran her fingers over the cold metal, grounding herself as she felt the number of eyes on them start to diminish. “You’re right; I wasn’t. Not until Nick, anyway.” The doe spared a glance at her mate, watching as his features softened. Judy had always been practical and had found jewelry too much hassle – it could catch on something while chasing a perp, or if it jangled as she was trying to sneak up on a mammal, then they’d be alerted to her presence. Now, though, with her bonding bracelet around her wrist and her new pendant, she found she couldn’t care less about being heard or getting caught on something. They were gifts from her mate, and there was no way on earth she would take them off.

“Why don’t I get any jewelry?” Sasha interrupted, frowning. Judy’s necklace was pretty, and the baby bunny wanted one too.

Offering Sasha a soft smile, Marian leaned across the table to give the doe’s cheek a gentle pinch. “You have to find a nice mammal one day; then they’ll buy you jewelry.”

“Or work hard and buy it yourself.” Julian shook his head, looking from Marian to his little sister. “No boys.” He insisted. Though a traditional buck, Julian had seen Judy flourish in the city on her own, working a job that any other rabbit wouldn’t even think of taking on. If she could do it, then so could Sasha and his other younger siblings when they grew up.

Rolling her eyes, Sasha scowled at her brother. “Boys have cooties.”

“Good, keep believing that for the rest of your life.” The buck winced as Jasmine thumped his side, his littermate letting out an exasperated sigh. Julian couldn’t help that he wanted his siblings to stay as young as possible for as long as they could.

Snickering, Nick winced as he too received a thump on his side, courtesy of Judy. Clearing his throat, he forced away his amusement, instead turning his attention to a tradition that had made him curious ever since he’d read about it. “Where’s the giant carrot? I didn’t see it when we arrived.” He directed his question to Jasmine and Julian, noting how his mom tuned in to listen, having been momentarily lost in conversation with Hazel, who’d taken the seat beside her.

Spotting an opportunity to mess with the tod, the corner of Julian’s lips quirked upwards. “It’s back in the center of town, being guarded.”

“Guarded?” Nick quirked an eyebrow, confused. He’d read up about the giant carrot that the residents of Bunnyburrow put together every year, ready to burn on Christmas day, but he hadn’t heard anything about it being guarded.

Catching her littermate’s train of thought, Jasmine hid her smile as she joined in. “Mhm, guarded. You see, every year someone tries to burn it down before it’s meant to be set alight. It’s become a tradition of sorts, and now we have to guard it to ensure it stays in one piece.” She explained.

“We’ve had the tradition for forty years, and of those, it’s only survived twelve times.” Hazel chimed in, paying attention to the conversation while also helping one of her younger siblings wipe their muzzle.

Nodding, Jasmine put on a sad expression, dropping her shoulders. “Those who guard it have a tough job on their paws. A lot of the kits get so upset when it’s burned ahead of time.”

Realising where her siblings were going with the conversation, Judy bit down on her lower lip, lifting a paw to cover her mouth and hide her smile. Catching Marian’s gaze, the doe tipped her head a little in Nick’s direction, watching as the vixen caught on.

“It’s still standing now though, which is a miracle. Mammals really up their efforts the closer it gets to 6 pm.” Judy chimed in, noting the way her mate’s tail started to swish in agitation behind him. He was a smart fox, and the doe had no doubt he was starting to put the pieces together.

“You know, as our esteemed male guest it’s your job to take the last guard shift.” Julian dropped the proverbial bombshell, barely containing his laughter as Nick’s face fell, emerald eyes widening as his worst fears were confirmed.

Shaking his head, the tod objected. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. I’ve never done the job before, and I’d hate for something to happen and for the kits to be upset.” He looked at Sasha and her happy smile, flashbacks of her crying on the train platform during his last visit playing through his mind. He couldn’t be the reason for her tears again.

“You would break a long-standing tradition, Nicky?” Marian played along, shaking her head in disappointment. She knew her kit, knew he’d take the bait, and she knew he’d do everything in his power to try and stop the carrot statue from burning ahead of schedule.

Groaning, Nick had no choice but to accept the job now that his mom was questioning him. “Fine. What do I have to do?”

“Stand outside and make sure no mammal’s jump the fence and get close to the statue.” Judy made it sound so simple, hoping that it would ease Nick’s concerns. While she enjoyed watching her fox sweat, she didn’t want to stress him out. The last thing she wanted was for him to panic.

“Will someone else be with me?” Nick directed his question at the rabbits around him, and all of them shook their head. A ball of dread started to build in the pit of the tod’s stomach, but he forced himself to remain calm. “Okay, I can do it.”

Reaching out for her mate, Judy placed a paw on his arm, giving it a gentle squeeze. “You sure, Slick?” As much as she wanted him to partake in the guarding tradition, and as much as she wanted to see him sweat a little if it were too much for her fox, then she’d put her hind paw down and insist on someone else taking the final shift.

Sitting up a little taller, Nick nodded. “I’m sure, Fluff. Now, how do I get to the carrot?” He tried not to snort at the absurdity of his question.

Though the weather in Bunnyburrow was mild for the time of year, Nick had still decided to wear the thickest jumper he owned, hoping that and his winter coat would be enough to keep him warm as he stood outside on guard. “I never thought I’d find myself guarding a giant carrot statue.” He muttered, rubbing his paws together to put some warmth into them.

Once the dinner table had been cleared, Judy and Sasha had led him out to one of the many fields in the district. The giant carrot statue had stood in the middle, with flimsy metal site fencing boxing it in. Sasha had given him a good luck hug while Judy had stolen a kiss, and the two does had disappeared and left him to it. Now, the fox wished he’d borrowed a book from the Hopps library to entertain himself. Though there was a lot of fencing to patrol, his sharp hearing and sense of smell would alert him to any trespassers and potential arsonists.

Turning on the spot, Nick observed the giant carrot statue for what felt like the hundredth time. It was thirteen meters tall, 7 meters long, and Nick didn’t want to make any guess as to how heavy it would be. Painted a garish orange, the tod’s eyes started to hurt if he stared at it long enough. It was impossible to miss amongst the dark green of the field. On the walk over, Judy had told him that the districts kits all worked together every year to make it, dedicating some of their school time and weekends.

“Impressive, isn’t it?” The smooth voice behind Nick had the tod sighing, mentally kicking himself. He’d been so lost in his thoughts he’d missed the sound of another mammal approaching. Turning his head, Nick caught sight of an albino hare with blood red eyes.

“Gerald Grimsby the Third.” Nick forced himself to offer the buck a smile. Judy had used some of their journey to the statue to fill him in on a few residents of the district who might try to get close. This particular individual had been mentioned, and Sasha had taken great pleasure in sing-songing his name, substituting ‘third’ for ‘turd.’ Though Judy had reprimanded her, the baby bunny had pointed out she was merely repeating the name Judy usually used for him. “It certainly is, the kits did a wonderful job with it.” Nick turned his focus back to the statue, making sure to keep Gerald in his peripheral. The buck didn’t look like he’d try to burn it down, but Nick wasn’t willing to risk it.

Chuckling, a self-satisfied smile crossed the hare’s lips. “They wouldn’t have been able to make sure a wonderful statue without my considerable donation.” He brushed some lint from his coat, missing Nick’s eye roll.

“And a rich ass,” Nick recalled Judy’s description of the buck, finding that she’d hit the nail on the head. “There wouldn’t be such a wonderful statue if it weren’t for the kits willingly sacrificing their time to make it.” Nick retorted, not willing to let the hare take the credit for it.

“You know, I don’t remember ever meeting you before, and I know everyone.” Gerald turned his attention to the strange fox. He was a little too preened to be a country jewelry like Gideon.

Biting his tongue to stop his comment about that being his line, Nick instead offered the hare a fake smile. “I’m not from around here.” He pointed out the obvious, barely refraining from rolling his eyes. “Are Sasha’s habits rubbing off on you, Wilde?”

“Ah, so you’re from the city, then. Not many of us here speak with you city folk; you never venture this far out. We don’t get many strangers around here.” Gerald gave Nick a curious look and weighed him up, taking in his thick jumper and the collar of his Pawaiian shirt that poked out the top.

Offering out a paw to be polite, Nick was tempted to slip back behind his con-mammal mask. It had been too long, though, for it to come naturally to him now. It felt uncomfortable and awkward. “Nick Wilde.” He introduced himself. “Now I’m not a stranger.”

Looking down at the paw offered to him, the hare dismissed it. “Gerald Grimsby the Third.” He stood a bit taller, adjusting the lapels of his coat. “Your name has been banded around this district for a while, usually when the Hopps cop is mentioned.”

“If by Hopps cop you mean Judy, then that’s understandable.” Nick let his paw fall back to his side, eyes narrowing. The tod wasn’t a stickler for manners, but when offered a paw one always shook it. “We’re partners.”

Eyebrow lifting, Gerald snorted. “They let you be a cop?” The thought of a fox as an officer of the law was highly amusing to the hare. “As if anyone would trust a fox.” He mused.

“They did.” Nick enjoyed bursting Gerald’s bubble, watching as the other male scowled at the information. “It was all Judy’s idea.” He couldn’t help but praise his mate. He was proud of her and grateful that she’d pushed him down this path.

Spotting an opportunity to get back to a topic he enjoyed, and rile up the fox, Gerald dropped his voice just a little. “Tell me, is she still as frigid as when she was a teenager?” The look of surprise on Nick’s face nearly made the hare laugh, and the frown he saw forming only prompted him to carry on. “Yes, she wasn’t very welcoming of my advances, which is quite ridiculous really. Her sisters, on the other paw…”

Anger spread through the tod and he only just held back on his need to throttle the albino hare. Amongst the frustration was a sliver of smugness that Judy had turned him down, but that didn’t make it acceptable for him to have tried to sleep with half of her family. “Made a bad decision.” Nick finished the hare’s sentence, enjoying the way Gerald’s smile dropped with his barb.

“Not as bad as the one Judith has made.” Red eyes narrowing, the hare dared Nick to challenge him. The other Hopps sisters had been more than willing to spend quality time with him over the years.

“She’s a grown doe and perfectly capable of deciding what’s best for her.” The tod was growing tired of having to repeat the sentence over and over, but most of the mammals in Bunnyburrow seemed to operate on some sort of pack mentality, whereby everyone else decided what was good for them. “Why are you here, anyway?” Nick questioned. Surely Gerald had been shown the statue before it went on display, given his considerable donation.

Knowing how the statue was often burned down before the scheduled time, Gerald had wanted to make sure it was well guarded, and that his money hadn’t gone to waste. He wanted the whole district to be gathered around it when it was set alight. “Just admiring what my money bought.” He responded, turning his focus back to the giant carrot.

“Which’ll soon be set alight and burned to the ground.” Nick couldn’t resist the jibe, only just containing his smile as he saw Gerald scowl.

Unamused by Nick’s comment, Gerald smoothed his paws along his coat before he looked the fox up and down. “Sooner rather than later if you’ve been left in charge of guarding it.” He gave a parting shot, turning sharply on his hind paws before he strode off.

Watching the retreating form of the hare, Nick shook his head. He’d met plenty of characters during his time on the streets, but none of them had been like Gerald. Curiosity still ate away at him though as to how Judy had come into contact with such an arrogant mammal.

Nick had hoped for a few moments to himself, but the universe had conspired against him. With an unusually strong breeze came a scent that almost made the fox gag. There were only one species on the planet that gave off such an odor. Following his nose, Nick prowled around the perimeter, coming to a stop as he saw a middle-aged skunk trying to climb over the fence. He paused for a moment, watching the mammal struggle before he cleared his throat loudly. The sudden sound caught the skunk off guard, and he tumbled to the ground, hitting the dirt with a loud thud and a groan.

“Not cool, fox.” The buck’s words were slurred, his movements uncoordinated as he tried to roll over and stand.

With a sigh, Nick took pity on the smelly mammal, and though he was sure he’d regret it later, he offered out a paw and helped the inebriated skunk up. “Dare I ask what you were trying to do?” He took his paw back, surreptitiously wiping it on his jumper.

“What’s it look like I was trying to do? Wanted to get closer to the carrot. I’m a reporter. Name’s Valdeon Lepeu.” The skunk introduced himself, patting at his pockets as he searched for his reporter’s pad and pen.

“Lepeu? As in, rainforest district Lepeu?” Nick clarified, knowing the surname belonged to a group of hitmammals in the rainforest district. This skunk certainly wasn’t part of their team as the only thing he’d seemingly been hitting was the bottle.

Pausing in his search to frown at the tod, Valdeon shook his head. “God no, awful district. Have you seen my pen?”

Head tipping sideways, Nick’s eyebrows drew together, lips pursing. “No, why do you need it?”

“To write about this.” He gestured wildly at the statue. “And how they put a pred in charge of looking after it.” From his pocket he produced his notepad, making a small noise of triumph. “Who’re you anyway?” Valdeon flipped through his notes, not recalling having met the fox before. He’d come across Gideon Grey as he’d been sampling some of Bunnyburrow’s wares, but foxes were few and far between in the populated rabbit district.

Plastering on an easy smile, Nick shrugged, not wanting any focus on him. “Who I am isn’t important, I’m just here for the next few hours. If you want to write about something interesting, you should interview the kits who built this statue.” He deflected the attention, figuring a story involving youngsters would probably earn Valdeon more credit with his boss than writing about a former con-mammal.

“You trying to tell me how to do my job?” The skunk snapped, eyes narrowing at the cheek of the predator. He’d always hated how they often talked down to him like he was incapable of doing as well as them.

Seeing the shift in Valdeon’s demeanor, Nick raised his paws to show he meant no harm. “Not at all, you’re the professional.” He aimed to diffuse the situation, but the fire in the other mammal’s eyes was hard to ignore. He had a chip on his shoulder and combined with the alcohol it created a potent mix.

“Of course I am, and I worked damn hard to get here. I wasn’t handed anything on a silver platter.” The buck sneered. His colleagues had used him to climb their way to the top, ditching him as soon as they’d received a promotion, and often took credit for his work. Though both predators and prey were guilty of using him, it was predators who were the worst. Valdeon almost wished it were acceptable to spray them and then remove all the Musk Mask from the office.

“Never said you were, Valdeon.” Nick guessed that he’d have to watch his tongue around the skunk. The other mammal seemed to find ways to twist his words. “Getting to write about the statue is a big deal, though.”

Snorting, the skunk knew Nick was just trying to be polite, and that frustrated him further. “Out here in this country hovel sure, but back in the city? No one’s interested, hence why the story was given to me.” After he’d been assigned the Bunnyburrow statue story, the other journalists had drawn straws for the more interesting ones.

“Then you need to make them interested.” The tod suggested with a shrug. Before he’d been invited out for Christmas, he’d never heard of the carrot statue tradition, so it stood to reason that most residents of the city hadn’t either.

Regrettably, the buck could feel the effects of the copious amounts of moonshine he’d consumed starting to wear off now that the conversation had switched to work. “How exactly do you propose I do that? It’s not exactly a new thing, nor is it a fascinating spectacle.”

“Embellish the story.” Nick offered, the answer having been evident to him. During his many years on the streets, he’d been forced to come up with a multitude of tales to keep his targets interested long enough for him to hustle them. At first, his stories had been far too elaborate, the lies challenging to keep track of, but over the years he’d learned to tone them down, to pull mostly from his own experiences and then tweak them ever so slightly. It had been second nature to him by the time Judy had strolled into his life.

Catching on, Valdeon frowned. “You want me to lie?” In amongst the world of reporters all pushing their own agenda, he’d always prided himself on telling the complete truth and giving both sides to a story. It was probably why he hadn’t been promoted when most of his co-workers had.

“I never said that.” The fox pointed out, having purposefully not used the term.

Trying his hardest not to roll his eyes, Valdeon’s frown turned into a scowl. “You implied it.”

“Look, if you’re the only one sent out here to report on this giant carrot statue, and the paper is only published in the city, who’s going to know if you throw a bit of extra detail in?” Nick didn’t know why he was trying so hard to help the skunk, especially as he’d hadn’t been the politest mammal he’d met so far on his visit back to Bunnyburrow.

Mulling over the suggestion, Valdeon couldn’t deny that Nick’s idea was ingenious. “That could work.” He conceded though his eyes narrowed a moment later. “Why are you helping me, what’s in it for you?” He questioned. No mammal ever helped him out of the goodness of his or her heart, that wasn’t the way of the world anymore.

Valdeon’s question gave Nick pause, and he spent a moment thinking of a suitable response. “Nothing’s in it for me, just giving another mammal a boost.” It was partly the truth, but mostly just a way to get the skunk to leave. The sooner his questions were answered, the sooner he’d go and leave Nick in peace, and the tod could focus on protecting the statue. During their conversation he’d kept one ear turned towards the effigy, moving to stand downwind to catch any strange scents.

Still skeptical about Nick’s real motive, the skunk gestured towards the statue. “I’ll be back later when this thing is burning.” His paws fell into his pockets, and he searched for his pen and notepad again, wanting to write down Nick’s advice before he hit the moonshine. “Thanks for the advice, I guess.” He hated having to offer the fox praise, but he knew what it was like to have another mammal take his idea and not provide a word of thanks. Turning, the buck started to wander off back towards the town and civilization.

Watching Valdeon leave, the tod let out a long sigh, shoulders slumping as he shook his head. “All I ask is for no one else to bother me.” He muttered, heading back towards the makeshift entrance to the fenced prison. Taking a seat on the cold ground, he wrapped his tail around himself for extra warmth, rubbing his paws together.

As the sky grew darker and the wind picked up, changing direction, Nick had to stop relying on his keen sense of smell. Instead, he kept his eyes focused on the horizon, turning every now and then to keep an eye on the rolling fields around him, ears twisting to try and pick up on the sounds of other mammals under the steady rush of the wind.

“Mister Fox!” The greeting broke Nick’s concentration, and he turned to locate the sound, keen vision picking up on a small group of kits approaching him. As they drew closer, he was able to pick out a few of Judy’s siblings, but the otter pup, the goat billy, and the lamb were all new faces.

Figuring the kits would be the most trouble; Nick braced himself, pushing up against the fence to stand on his hind paws. “Hey there Tony, Rupert.” He greeted Judy’s younger siblings as they came to a stop before him. “Who’re your friends?” He spared a glance at the other youngsters, a ball of dread building in the pit of his stomach as he fought back the urge to ask them to leave.

“This here’s Martha,” Tony gestured to the lamb. “This is Mark,” He tipped his head towards the billy. “And this is Eleanor.” He finished by introducing the otter. All three of the new mammals gave Nick a quick nod but refused to move out from behind Tony and Rupert.

Offering them a nod in return, Nick focused his attention on Judy’s siblings. He’d heard a few stories about them in the letters that Sasha had sent to him during his time at the academy, so he was well aware of the fact that they liked to cause trouble. “What brings you out here? Thought mammals wouldn’t start gathering for another half an hour or so.” He played it cool, not letting them see that he was suspicious.

“We wanted to get the best view,” Rupert spoke up, bobbing his head, encouraging his friends to do the same.

“We wanted to ask you some questions, too.” Martha chipped in, wringing her hooves together.

Eyebrow lifting at the lamb’s statement, Nick crossed his arms over his chest as his tail flicked behind him with curiosity. His sense of dread hadn’t left, and he wasn’t entirely sure where they were going with the conversation. “You do? Well ask away, let’s see if I can answer them for you.” The tod played along.

The kits shared a look before Eleanor started with the first question. “I heard that you live with Judy. Isn’t it strange to live with a prey mammal?” The fellow predator questioned. While her social circle consisted of prey, she couldn’t imagine the trials of living with them.

With the cat was out of the bag, and knowing how quickly information spread in Bunnyburrow, Nick shrugged. “Judy and I are together, so it’s only natural for us to live with one another. Besides, we accommodate each other’s needs. It’s really not as hard as society wants you to think it is.” His tail flicked, still on edge about the kits sudden curiosity. Large ears swiveled as he scanned their surroundings.

“But she’s so tiny, and you’re not. Aren’t you afraid you’ll accidentally hurt her?” Martha questioned, thinking fast to come up with something that would keep the fox’s attention. She figured that talking about Judy would be a good distraction.

Martha’s voice broke the tod out of his surroundings check. Suppressing his smile at the fact the ladies wanted to talk relationships, Nick shook his head. “Carrots is a tough bunny. I’m a little more careful perhaps, but nothing drastic.” The tod looked down at his neatly filed claws. Whenever they got a little too long or sharp, he filed them down, having earned some playful ribbing from his fellow cadets at the academy. Now that he was back home, he’d continue the same trend. Judy would ask questions, and though the fox was happy to communicate and open up to her, he didn’t think telling her ‘your mom told me to file them down before we get intimate’ was a good idea. “What’s with the sudden interest in my relationship? You kits going through something similar?”

Wide eyes stared at the fox as all the kits shook their heads. “No Sir, we’re just curious. Judy left for the big city, first one of us to do that, and we hear all these stories about the things she gets up to.” Mark spoke up, hoping to leave enough breadcrumbs to make Nick curious. Keeping his attention was difficult, and the billy couldn’t help but feel nervous around the fox. He knew it was silly, that society had advanced to the point where the predator wouldn’t eat him, but his presence still unnerved him.

“You’re the most popular story.” Tony tacked on, bobbing his head.

Arching an eyebrow, Nick wasn’t overly surprised that he’d been the talk of the town. Many of Bunnyburrow’s residents probably hadn’t seen a city mammal before. “There are stories about me?” He questioned, wondering how much information he’d be able to glean from the chatty youngsters.

Rupert made sure to keep his gaze on the fox, though he couldn’t avoid noticing his friends behind the predator, climbing the fence now that Nick was distracted. “Mhm. Especially after the first time you visited.” He continued. The Hopps warren had been brimming with stories after Nick and Judy had left last time, each kit having seen and heard little snippets, which they’d weaved together to create a multitude of sometimes greatly exaggerated and inaccurate stories.

Lost in thought, curious as to the types of stories that had been told about him, Nick only just saw a brief flicker of amber light in his peripheral. Turning quickly, emerald eyes caught a group of kits trying desperately to light a large stick, the end wrapped in cloth. His heart felt like it stopped for the briefest of moments and Nick was frozen to the spot. The franticness of the kits as they desperately tried to get the lighter working to set the cloth on fire pushed the tod into action. Abandoning his post, Nick’s hind paws thumped the grassy ground as he sprinted towards the trouble. “Should’ve trusted my gut. Those kits were a distraction.” He mentally beat himself up, vowing to have words with Tony and Rupert later on.

Drawing closer to the two kits that’d managed to climb the perimeter fence when his back had been turned, Nick could hear the sound of their comrades following behind him. One of the kits up ahead was still struggling with the lighter, while the other berated him for being so slow.

Terrified that they would succeed and set the statue alight and that the residents of Bunnyburrow would hate him for not protecting their treasured carrot, Nick was grateful for his daily morning runs at the academy and the speed he’d developed. “Hey!” The tod shouted as the two kits finally managed to set the cloth on fire. Catching the youngsters out with his yell, Nick gained a few precious extra seconds, which was just enough for him to swoop in and snatch the torch, along with the lighter, away from the troublemakers. Holding the torch aloft he tucked the lighter into the breast pocket of his shirt, panting as he tried to regain his breath, adrenaline coursing through his body and his heart pounding.

“Give them back!” One of the kits shouted, jumping to try and reach it. They’d been so close to setting the carrot on fire and winning the bet. The fox was too tall for the young doe though, and no matter how much she stretched she couldn’t reach the torch. Her companion, a buck, also had little luck in trying to grab it.

Nick didn’t have any time to be relieved that he’d saved the statue, as the kits who’d distracted him began to crowd around, all of them now trying to jump for the torch and giving one another boosts. With one of his paws occupied, and not wanting to accidentally scratch one of the youngsters with the claws on his other paw, the tod relied on his tail. Using the fluffy appendage to his advantage he gently pushed the kits back, flicking it out at them in warning, making them spring out of its way. Able to clear a path, he strode back to the entrance gap in the fence, ready to put out the torch. However, an old Mangalitsa pig, with thick brown, grey, white, and black wool, blocked his path.

“Fire demon!” The pig shouted, pointing at Nick. Walter Graham couldn’t see very well, his old age not helping, but the flames gave off enough light to show him the silhouette of the fire demon that was here to cause trouble and destroy their precious giant carrot. The only weapon the mammal had to hoof was his cane, and so he raised the object, slashing it through the air in the direction of the mysterious being.

His years on the streets had taught Nick a thing or two about fighting, especially when it wasn’t fair, and right now he had a distinct advantage over the blind pig. Using that, and his ability to stay light on his hind paws, the tod dodged the cane as it sliced through the air. Being careful not to drop the torch, and aware of the kits that had followed him and were now trying to use the situation to their advantage, Nick split his attention between the two. First, he needed the elderly mammal to stop attacking him. “Sir, I’m not a demon.” Nick protested, narrowly missing another swing as the mammal took a shaky step forward.

Assessing the situation, Tony figured they could play on Mr. Graham’s beliefs. “Give us the torch, demon, before you set fire to the statue.” He demanded, hoping to rile up Walter some more. If Nick was focused on dodging the cane, Tony and his friends could quickly steal back the torch.

Usually calm and collected, Nick was starting to feel a little overwhelmed. Mammals had begun to arrive to watch the carrot burn and had now gathered around to witness him trying to fend off the pig and kits. With an audience, he didn’t want to accidentally hurt anyone and be chased out of Bunnyburrow by its residents, and he didn’t want to be assertive to stop the situation in case it was taken the wrong way, and he was accused of being cruel. Heard mentality was a genuine phenomenon in the countryside, and the tod had a severe aversion to pitchforks. The kits were starting to grab at his clothes, pulling to try and drag him down. As he turned to push them back, to move away, Mr. Graham’s cane came down with a sharp whack, connecting with the tod’s lower back. His yowl of pain echoed around the field, and the mammal’s surrounding him froze.

Judy had been walking across the field with her family, ready to watch the statue burn. She’d had complete confidence in her mate, and though her siblings had teased her mercilessly about leaving him out alone in the cold, Judy had stuck by her belief that he’d be okay. However, the yowl of pain that broke through the still night air make her gasp, icy fear coursing through her veins. She knew that sound. “Nick.” Deserting her family, Judy took off in a sprint, shoving her way through the crowds, uncaring if she hurt any of them. Her mate needed her. Pushing to the front, she caught sight of her fox, surrounded on all sides, Mr. Graham’s cane still resting on his lower back.

Anger flooded her system as she saw the pain and distress on Nick’s handsome face. Bunnyburrow’s residents hadn’t bothered to step in and help and had instead left her fox to fend for himself. Disgusted with the mammal’s she’d grown up with, Judy dashed in, putting herself between Nick and Walter, shoving the old pig’s cane out of the way. “Mr. Graham, how dare you hit my mate with your cane.” The doe adopted her officer voice, refusing to let go of the cane as Walter tried to pull it away.

“Judith Hopps.” The pig put a name to the voice. The young rabbit was often the subject of many conversations in Bunnyburrow since she’d abandoned the countryside for the fast-paced and cruel city. “He’s a fire demon!”

Knowing patience was needed when speaking to the senile mammal, Judy contained her huff of annoyance. “His name is Nick, and you were hurting him.” She pointed out, wanting nothing more than to turn and comfort her mate, but not willing to risk Walter lashing out again.

Relived by Judy’s presence, and the fact he no longer had to fend off Walter, Nick relaxed. Everything would be fine now that his mate was here. Shoulders slumping, the tod let his guard down for just a moment, but it was that moment that proved fatal. Before the tod could react, the torch was snatched from his paw. “No!” The sharp exclamation slipped from between his lips as he turned, watching in horror as the kits that’d tried to cause trouble earlier finally set fire to the bottom of the statue.

Amber flames licked their way up the giant carrot, and the fox watched on in disbelief, a feeling of shame washing over him. He’d failed in protecting the statue, and in doing so had let down his mate and the district. “I’m sorry, Fluff.” He muttered, the reflection of the flames dancing in his emerald eyes.

Having finally convinced Mr. Graham that Nick wasn’t a fire demon, the doe was free to attend to her mate. Hearing his voice she turned, violet eyes finding the burning statue before she caught the sad look on her mates face. Moving to his side, she let a paw rest on his arm, stroking his fluffy fur. “You didn’t fail, Slick.”

“I was meant to keep it safe.” The tod protested, unable to tear his gaze away from the burning effigy.

Shaking her head, the doe had to stop herself from teasing her fox. He was clearly frustrated, and the fact he placed so much importance on keeping the dumb statue safe warmed Judy’s heart. “Until 6pm.” She pointed out, reaching for her phone in her pocket. “It’s 6:02pm.”

Head lifting quickly, Nick looked first at his mate before his gaze dropped to her phone. The screen was illuminated, the time clear. “I kept it safe?” He clarified, emerald eyes finding violet as a slow smile began to spread across his lips.

“You did,” Judy confirmed, pocketing the device. She could feel the heat from the statue and knew that soon they’d have to move unless they wanted burning material to rain down on their heads.

Feeling accomplished, Nick stood a little taller, chest puffed. “Wasn’t too difficult.” He played it cool, his smile now a grin. “Do I get a reward?” He tried his luck, waggling his eyebrows.

Containing her snicker and eye roll, Judy instead offered her mate an indulgent smile. “What reward does the hero want?” She stroked his ego, figuring there wasn’t anything wrong with letting her mate revel in his achievement.

“Doesn’t he always want the girl?” Nick shot back, moving to stand a little closer to his bunny. The burning carrot had captured the attention of the crowd, and though he knew mammals with incredible hearing surrounded him, Nick found himself not caring. He’d spent most of the afternoon and early evening out in the cold, protecting the statue, and now he wanted his prize.

This time Judy didn’t bother to contain her eye roll, though the upwards quirk of the corner of her lips was enough proof that she was amused by her fox’s question. “You already have me, Slick.” The doe pointed out.

Feeling the stirrings of lust, the tod tried to trample down the feelings. The season wasn’t helping, and Nick was well aware that they were in public. “Then I’ll settle for this.” He reached out to pull Judy close before he dipped her down, ignoring the twinge in his lower back as he stole a sweet kiss, the warmth from the burning statue chasing away the chill of the night air around them.

“Missus Marian, will you read the bedtime story, please?” Sasha batted her eyelashes, trying to be as sweet as possible. She’d seen some of her older sisters using this method to get what they wanted, and it always worked.

They’d spent the last hour outside watching the carrot statue burn and then enjoying a firework show. Marian had been put in charge of a fluffle of bunnies and had successfully navigated them back to the Hopps warren while Sasha had stuck by her side, chattering away happily. Now, Marian offered the baby bunny a soft smile, holding in her chuckle as she opened the front door. The doe certainly knew how to play up the cute factor. “Adorable, Marian. They don’t like being called cute.” She mentally chastised herself.

The burning of the effigy had been quite the spectacle, and though Marian had been concerned about Nick being left out in the cold to guard it, she had to admit that she was impressed he’d managed to keep it standing. “Of course I’ll read the bedtime story.” The vixen racked her brain for a bunny-friendly story as the fluffle lead her into one of the large family rooms.

All of the rabbits started to settle down, grabbing pillows and blankets, getting comfortable in big cozy piles on the floor. Marian removed her coat and took a seat in the plush armchair positioned by the fire, watching with thinly veiled amusement as the fluffle bickered amongst themselves for the best spots. Seeing Nick and Judy at the doorway, Marian offered the pair a smile, gesturing to an empty place close to her.

“What story are you going to tell, Missus Marian?” One of the rabbits piped up, having found a comfortable spot.

As Judy went to take a step into the living room, Nick grabbed her paw, bringing her to a stop. Wide violet eyes looked up at him, and the tod swallowed nervously. “I’m just going to head to the little tod’s room, I’ll be right back.” He offered her a gentle smile, feeling bad for lying but knowing it was the only way to stop her from asking too many questions. “Save me a spot?”

Nodding, Judy pushed up onto the balls of her hind paws, pressing a kiss to her mate’s muzzle before she entered the living room, taking the vacant space Marian had gestured to. The doe was still concerned about her fox and whether he was in pain after being clobbered by Mr. Graham’s cane, but she didn’t want to fuss too much and make him uncomfortable.

“Once upon a time there were four little rabbits, and their names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter.” Marian started her story when all the kits were settled, gesturing with a paw to four bunnies in the crowd, selecting them as the characters in her story. “They lived with their mother in a sandbank, underneath the root of a very big fir-tree.” Moving her paw to Judy as she spoke of the mother, Marian withheld her chuckle as Judy playfully rolled her eyes. The vixen’s choice of story looked like it would be well received.

Knowing the key to keeping Judy where she was meant involving her more in the story, Marian pressed on. She had her suspicions as to what Nicky was up to, and he would need more time. Removing the scarf she’d kept on after shedding her coat, she leaned over, wrapping it around Judy as a headscarf; similar to the style her grandmother had once worn. “’Now my dears,’ said old Mrs. Rabbit one morning, ‘you may go into the fields or down the lane, but don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden: your father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor. Now run along, and don’t get into mischief. I am going out.’” Marian changed the tone of her voice when speaking as the mother, enjoying how Judy’s eyes narrowed as she was forced to wear the scarf and have her siblings snicker at her.

“Then old Mrs. Rabbit took a basket and her umbrella and went through the woods to the bakers. She bought a loaf of brown bread and five currant buns. Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail, who were good little bunnies, went down the lane to gather blackberries. But Peter, who was very naughty, ran straight away to Mr. McGregor’s garden, and squeezed under the gate!” Marian switched back to her storytelling tone, once again gesturing to the four rabbits she’d picked out earlier when she spoke of the characters. “First he ate some lettuces and some French beans, and then he ate some radishes. And then, feeling rather sick, he went to look for some parsley. But round the end of a cucumber frame, whom should he meet but Mr. McGregor!”

Following his nose, Nick pushed open the kitchen door, interrupting Bonnie and Stu. The couple had been locked in a discussion, the topic one that Nick hadn’t heard.

“Nick, my son, good job on guarding the statue this evening.” Stu had heard the fox’s approach, and he turned to offer the tod a warm smile as he entered the kitchen. He’d been impressed with Nick’s ability to keep the statue standing for so long, though Stu knew he’d have to give Rupert and Tony a stern talking to. It wasn’t fair of them to have tricked their guest.

“Thanks, Stu.” Nick offered the Hopps patriarch a meek smile as he closed the kitchen door behind him, taking a moment to compose himself.

Bonnie’s motherly intuition immediately informed her that something was the matter. Catching her husbands gaze, she gestured with her chin in the direction of the back door and out to the porch. A lot of important conversations had happened out there, and the doe felt like this was about to be another one. “I need a little more fresh air, why don’t you come and join us on the porch?” Bonnie lied with practiced ease, used to conning her younger kits into believing just about anything.

Relieved that there would be a little more distance between him and the rest of Judy’s family, and their big ears, the tod nodded in relief, following Bonnie and Stu out to the back porch. The night air was still fresh, and Nick was grateful for his fluffy pelt. Crossing to the banister, he leaned against it. The last time he’d stood out here had been when he’d confessed his love to Judy, and now…

“What’s bothering you, son?” Stu tugged at the straps of his overalls, taking in Nick’s posture. Nick’s tail was swishing behind him, his ears pinned back, and his body taut. The buck wasn’t entirely sure if he wanted to delve into whatever had Nick so tense.

Back in the family room, Judy frowned, surreptitiously trying to steal a glance at the grandfather clock in the corner. Nick had been gone for a while already, much longer than it would’ve taken for him to visit the bathroom and come back.

“Mr. McGregor was on his hands and knees planting out young cabbages, but he jumped up and ran after Peter, waving a rake and calling out, ‘Stop thief!’ Peter was most dreadfully frightened; he rushed all over the garden, for he had forgotten the way back to the gate.” Marian continued her tale, caught up in the memories of telling the same story to Nick when he’d been a kit. While he’d enjoyed this story, The Tale of Mr. Tod had always been his favorite.

Sensing Judy’s attention waning, the vixen upped her involvement. Reaching down she grabbed Judy’s bare feet, snapping the doe out of her funk and pulling her back into the story. Judy’s squeal of surprise made her siblings laugh. “He lost one of his shoes among the cabbages and the other shoe amongst the potatoes. After losing them, he ran on four legs and went faster, so that I think he might have got away altogether if he had not, unfortunately, run into a gooseberry net, and got caught by the large buttons on his jacket.”

Outside, Nick spent a moment looking out over the rolling fields and hills of Bunnyburrow. It was peaceful in the countryside, his mind much clearer now he was away from the chaos of the city. Taking a deep breath, Nick let it out slowly. Turning so he could face Bonnie and Stu, the tod reached up to scratch nervously behind one of his ears, his tail swishing behind him, thumping against the railings.

Concerned, Bonnie took a step forward, reaching out to put a paw on Nick’s arm. “Whatever it is, it’s okay.” The worst scenario’s imaginable ran through the doe’s mind, and the suspense set her heart racing. Nothing Nick could tell them would change her opinion of the fox, of that she was sure. Letting her paw fall from Nick’s arm, she kept her gaze on the agitated tod.

“I love Judy so much that at times it frightens me. I love that she believes in me, that she pushes me to be the best I can be. I love the way she thumps her hind paws when she’s thinking, and how her ears droop when something sweet happens. I love that she saw something in me when no one else did, that she see’s the best in everyone.” Nick could prattle on all evening about how much he loved Judy and all her little quirks, but he forced himself to stop before he went off on a tangent and lost sight of his goal.

Though Stu was pleased to hear how much Nick loved his daughter, the buck wore a frown, paws tugging at his overalls once again. “Where’s this heading, Nick?”

Rubbing his muzzle, the tod snorted. This wasn’t going quite as he’d planned. “Usually it’s the vixen who has to ask the tod’s parents, so forgive me for not being entirely sure how to do this.” He implored. Though Nick had spent some time researching, a habit of Judy’s he was picking up, nothing could truly prepare him for this.

It took a moment for the pieces to fall into place, but as it all clicked in her mind Bonnie gasped, paw shooting out to grab Nick’s arm once again. “Please tell me you’re trying to ask what I think you’re trying to ask.”

Sighing, Nick glanced between Bonnie and Stu, the corners of his lips curving upwards into a small smile as his tail swished once again. A quick bob of his head confirmed it. “I know Judy’s it for me, and she’s said the same thing about me. I would like her to be my mate in every sense of the word, but I know how much she loves you both and how much your opinion matters to her.” Emerald eyes focused on Stu, and the fox offered the rabbit a fond smile. “Remember when we were last out here? You asked me if I was asking for permission to date Judy, or marry her. Back then I was asking the former.” Looking between his mate’s parent’s, Nick took another deep breath. “I would like to marry Judy, and I’d like your blessing to do so, please.”

Bonnie and Stu remained silent, having been through this conversation countless times before with their older kits. The quick look they shared was all that was needed. After decades of marriage, they knew exactly how the other thought. The Hopps patriarch was tempted to tease the fox, to drag this out and make him sweat, but he swiftly brushed that idea aside. This was a big deal, and Nick was naturally anxious. The last thing the buck wanted was to cause him unnecessary stress. Stu wasn’t surprised by the request though; he’d anticipated it ever since Judy had brought Nick home last time.

Bonnie tried her hardest to hold back her smile and squeal of delight. She wanted nothing more than for her kit to tie the knot with Nick. “You know that we already consider you part of the family, Nick.”

“Promise to always look after our kit?” The buck questioned, lifting an eyebrow. Judy’s happiness was paramount, and though she was happy at the moment, life in the city could be unpredictable and much crueler than living in the country. His daughter was still quite naïve, and though she’d already learned a great deal since meeting Nick, he’d still need to have her back and guide her.

Emerald eyes found the buck, and Nick spoke with complete conviction. “With my life, Stu.”

The seriousness of Nick’s tone didn’t surprise the Hopps patriarch, but it did worry him. Though he wanted nothing more than for Nick to look out for his daughter, if anything happened to the fox then Stu knew that Judy would fall apart. Switching to a more playful tone, the buck shifted back to the big question. “Well don’t go dying on us, okay? Judy needs you around to keep her grounded, and she’s going to need you up at that alter.”

Heart pounding, the tod’s eyes widening as Stu’s words sank in. “Is that…?”

“Yes, you have our blessing,” Bonnie confirmed, an uncontrollable grin on her face as she clutched onto her husband’s arm.

The tod was grateful for the railings behind him as his whole body went lax, relief coursing through his veins as his grin matched Bonnie’s. “Thank you, both of you.” Nick looked between them; feeling like a weight had been lifted off of his shoulders. Now that he had their blessing, he had to figure out how to pull off the proposal.

Having been in Nick’s position before, the buck was familiar with the current look on the tod’s face. “Just make sure you have the ring on you.” He advised, remembering that he’d been so caught up in the moment that he’d proposed to Bonnie right in the middle of the cabbage field, her ring still tucked away in his nightstand back at the warren.

Paw diving into the pocket of his pants, Nick pulled out a small black box. “I’ve been carrying it around for days.” He admitted with a sheepish smile. “I’m going to wait a little while. I have a tentative plan, but if the right moment strikes in the meantime, at least I’ll have it to paw.” He elaborated.

“I had mom go to the same jeweler who made Judy’s bracelet and necklace. He didn’t want to make it at first, but mom can be very persuasive.” Nick chuckled; remembering the call he’d received from Mr. Jackson shortly after his mom had gone into his shop. The mammal had insisted on being sent ‘the damn design’ if only to get Marian off his back.

“Now that’s something I would’ve paid good money to see.” Stu laughed, his wife snickering by his side. “You should head back inside. Jude will be worried about where you’ve been.” The buck gestured with his chin to the back door.

Surprising Bonnie and Stu, Nick embraced them, offering his thanks once again before he slipped back inside. The two rabbits on the back porch shared a look, the corners of their lips curving upwards. “He’ll propose within the month.” Stu wagered.

“Two months.” Bonnie countered, wondering what they were betting. Knowing her husband, even if she lost she’d still win.

Silently entering the family room, Nick tip-toed past the kits who’d fallen asleep and over towards his mate. Sitting in the vacant spot next to her, the tod listened to his mom as she began to bring her story to a close.

“You were gone a while,” Judy whispered in a non-accusatory tone as she leaned towards her fox. Curious violet eyes looked him over to make sure he was okay, and her nose twitched as she picked up her parent’s scent on him.

“Your parents asked me to help with a few things in the kitchen, don’t worry.” He whispered back, pulling her close so he could press a kiss to her forehead. Over the top of the doe’s head, Nick caught his mother’s gaze. Using a code they’d had since he’d been a kit, Nick flicked his left ear, only just suppressing his smile as Marian’s paws clenched in silent triumph.

Chapter 34 – This Christmas, I gave you my heart

Judy had forgotten what it was like to live in a warren, where there was no sunlight streaming in through the window to wake her each morning. Blinking, Judy woke feeling warm and comfortable, snuggled up with Nick in her small bed. Her mate had curled around her, long fluffy tail cocooning her, the tip close to her face. A smile wove across her lips as his reddish-orange fur fanned out every time she exhaled.

Snuggling back, Judy yawned, contemplating whether it was worth trying to fall back asleep. The clock on her nightstand read 7am, and the doe knew that soon the warren would come alive with the sound of her siblings anxious for their presents. She had other plans, though. Before bed, Judy had managed to grab a quiet moment with her mom to ask her if she and Nick could be a little late in joining them. Bonnie had frowned, confused, but when Judy had clarified that she wanted to give Nick his present in private, Bonnie had been more than understanding.

Now, the doe lay staring at her bag, discarded on the floor when she and Nick had made it back to her room last night. They’d been too tired to bother unpacking, and Judy’s focus had been otherwise occupied on ensuring her fox was comfortable and wasn’t struggling too much due to the season.

Feeling her mate shift behind her and hearing his heartbeat change, Judy reached out, her small fingers brushing through his soft tail fur. A deep purr reverberated through the still air, and the tip of Nick’s tail flicked slowly every time she lightly ran her fingers across it. “Good morning.” She broke the silence, voice a whisper as Nick’s arm tightened around her.

“Morning, Carrots.” Nick’s eyes remained closed, and the tod stifled a yawn. He didn’t particularly want to leave the comfort of Judy’s kithood bed, but he knew that today he didn’t stand a chance of being lazy. A warren full of hyperactive baby rabbits ready to open their presents awaited them.

Turning over, the doe buried her nose in Nick’s extra fluffy fur. “Mom’s given us an hour; she’s pushing my litter a little further down the present opening queue.”

Paws coming up to stroke down Judy’s back, the tod frowned. “Why?” Given how family-oriented the Hopps family was, he’d figured their presence during present opening would be mandatory.

Pulling back just enough so she could tip her head and look up at her fox, Judy offered him a soft smile. “So I can give you your present away from prying eyes.”

“Now you have me curious.” Nick tried to play off his worry with a chuckle, but he still swallowed thickly. What did Judy have planned? Though his gifts for her were personal, he wasn’t worried about her opening them in front of others. What had she got him?

Paws running through reddish-orange fur, Judy shook her head. “Don’t be; it’s fine.” She felt the nerves creep up on her, but she stomped them down. What she’d bought Nick was perfect, and though it had been a nightmare to get hold of she knew it would be well received.

“Who wants to go first, then?” Nick stole a glance at the clock. Given how emotional his bunny was, the tod had a feeling she’d probably end up crying when he gave her his gift, and she’d need time to pull herself together before they ventured out of the room to spend time with her family.

Slowly extracting herself from the bed, Judy crossed to her bag. “I’ll go first.” She bit the bullet. Chewing on the inside of her lip as she found the neatly wrapped package in her luggage, Judy felt the weight of it in her paw. Turning back, she strode towards the bed, clambering up with ease to find Nick sat up, sheets pooled around his waist. Offering out the gold package, the doe smoothed down her ears once Nick had taken it from her.

Curious, the tod spent a moment feeling the item in his paws. There was a little weight to it but not much, and it was rectangular. It had been wrapped with care, decorated with a gold ribbon and a large bow. The little gold carrot tag on it made Nick smile, and he flipped it over to read the short message from his mate. With a claw, he cut the ribbon, and it fell away effortlessly, leaving him to struggle to get through the paper. “How much tape did you put on this?” He whined, prying it open.

“Enough to frustrate a fox.” Judy shot back, hiding her grin. As Nick removed the paper, she watched him frown as he turned over the blank black box. The doe had purposefully placed the item in another container, not wanting to give too much away when it was initially unwrapped.

Turning the item over in his paws, it finally came to rest right way up, and Nick lifted the lid slowly.

He hadn’t been expecting what was inside.

Jaw slackening, the tod blinked. Sat inside the box was a silver bracelet, similar to the one around Judy’s wrist though more masculine in design, with two little charms on it.

“I know males don’t wear them, but I wanted to get you one so that you know how serious I am about us. I wanted you to know for a fact that you’re it for me, that I love you and I want to bond with you.” Judy took a deep breath. She’d had a little script in her head for this moment, but the look on Nick’s face as he lifted his gaze to find her eyes made the doe throw her rehearsed words away. “I hope that it might help alleviate your panic, too. Mine has helped me countless times.” Subconsciously her paw moved to touch the silver around her wrist. “I know the charms are meant to represent how we met, but you already covered that. So instead, I changed it a little.”

Moving a paw to touch the two charms, Nick’s head tipped sideways with curiosity. How had Judy managed to convince Mr. Jackson to make a bracelet and go against tradition with the charms? “What do they mean?” He breathed, swallowing as he tried to push back the unexpected tears gathering in the corner of his eyes.

“The blueberry represents the moment I figured out that you love me. I was standing at Gid’s stand with all the blueberry pies, and you were helping my dad. Gid brought up bonding, and the pieces all fell into place. It’s also a reminder that I love you more than you love blueberries.” Judy teased, earning a snort of amusement from her fox. “The fireworks are pretty self-explanatory.”

Though still in shock that Judy had gifted him a bonding bracelet, Nick wasn’t able to let the opportunity to make his mate squirm pass him by. “I don’t think they are.”

Judy could feel her cheeks growing warm. Her reason for picking the fireworks had been corny. “The fireworks from the closing ceremony were going off during our first kiss.” She mumbled, playing with the end of one of her ears.

Feeling his heart swell, Nick abandoned his gift, blinking away his tears as he reached out to grab Judy. Their difference in size, and the fact he caught her off guard, enabled him to pick her up with ease, bringing her to rest in his lap. Paws cupping her cheeks, the tod pressed their lips together, pouring all of his love, affection, and his pent-up feelings from the season into their kiss.

He knew Judy loved him, knew it like he knew the sun would rise every morning, but this was a physical representation of it, something he could look at every day. Never in a million years had the tod thought that Judy would do something like this for him, but he couldn’t deny that it was the most meaningful thing anyone had ever done for him. It added more weight to the decision he’d made on their way to Bunnyburrow.

Judy’s scent flooded Nick’s nostrils as he kissed her, and a low rumble started in his chest as his doe wiggled in his lap, her small paws grasping at him. The taste of her drove him crazy, tugged at the primal part of him that wanted nothing more than to throw her down on the bed and claim her, but he battled back the need, not willing to let the season ruin the moment.

Caught up in their kiss, Judy lost track of time. The world narrowed until all she could focus on was her fox. She’d guessed that her gift would pull a strong response from him, but she hadn’t expected to see him almost cry over it.

“Thank you, Fluff,” Nick whispered as he pulled back, both mammals trying to regain their breath. Paws smoothing down Judy’s sides, Nick followed the curvature of her frame until he reached her hips. Squeezing gently, the tod offered his mate an affectionate smile. “What did I ever do to deserve you?”

Small paws holding Nick’s muzzle, the doe traced his lips. “I ask myself the same question every day. I never thought I’d love a mammal as much as I love you.”

“I’m not exactly the best catch in the world, Carrots.” Nick shook his head, snorting. Their relationship had been through a lot of ups and downs, mostly due to the skeletons in his closet. Most mammals would’ve left at the first sign of trouble, they would’ve given him a wide berth and ghosted him out of their life. Judy had stuck with him, though, and had helped him turn his life around.

Disagreeing, Judy stopped tracing his lips and instead held his muzzle firmly, forcing him to meet her gaze. It still hurt her heart to hear him speak so lowly of himself, but she knew that it would take a lot more than a few months and some sweet words from her to change his opinion. All Judy could do was stand by his side, reassure him when he needed it, and remind him just how much she loved him. She hoped, with time, it would help change how he saw himself. The world had beaten him down, and she was trying her hardest to rebuild him. They’d already made immense progress, but there was still a long road ahead. “To me you are.”

“Didn’t your mom ever tell you it’s rude to lie?” Nick quipped, uncomfortable with the compliment.

Refraining from rolling her eyes at Nick’s deflection, Judy shook her head. “Didn’t yours ever tell you that it’s rude to steal?”

Frowning, Nick felt a stab of pain in his chest. Judy knew his story, and the tod thought she’d understood why he’d turned out the way he had. “I did what I had to do to survive.”

“Not that, dumb fox.” Judy quickly interjected, never wanting her mate to believe she thought badly of him for the things he’d done. Reaching out for one of his large paws, she brought it to rest on her chest, the steady thump of her heart beneath it. “This.”

Nick’s shoulders dropped, and his features softened, the flare of pain in his chest disappearing with his rabbit’s words. He should’ve known she’d never make a jibe about his past, especially given the present she’d just handed him. “Oh Fluff, that’s so sappy.” He teased, earning himself a bashful shrug from his mate. Closing the small distance between them, he pressed a soft kiss to her forehead, lips lingering for a moment as he enjoyed their closeness and the feel of her heartbeat skittering beneath his paw. Her scent was incredible – sweet and strong – and Nick had to force down his urge to bite her and claim her and make her his in every sense of the word. “Emotional bunny.” He whispered as he pulled back, needing to put some distance between them, his paw leaving Judy’s chest as he reached for his bracelet.

“You don’t have to wear it. It’s more a keepsake than anything.” Judy wouldn’t be offended, and she didn’t want Nick to be tormented by their peers and other members of society for going against the grain and wearing it.

Snorting in disbelief, Nick shook his head as he tried to fasten it around his wrist. “I know what goes into making one of these, Carrots. Of course, I’m going to wear it.” He grunted, struggling to get the bracelet to fasten. Giving in, he offered it out to Judy, ignoring her amused expression as she took it from him, securing it around his wrist.

“You’re not worried that someone might say something?” Judy double-checked as she finished fastening it, taking a moment to admire the blue of the blueberry and the red and gold of the firework. Mr. Jackson had outdone himself.

Brushing aside Judy’s concerns, Nick knew any comments would be like water off a ducks back. “Not at all.” He was used to mammals making snide comments and giving him funny looks. He’d wear his bonding bracelet with pride. “You know, your present neatly leads into mine.”

“It does?” Judy frowned, eyebrows drawing down and together. What had Nick bought her?

Humming his confirmation, Nick looked over the bracelet now around his wrist. It didn’t weigh much, but it was enough for him to notice, and it gave him a strange sense of comfort. Gaze moving to Judy, he lifted her up, placing her down on the bed before he left the confines of the sheets, making his way to his bag. Rummaging through it, he produced two gifts – one medium-sized and the other small. Both were wrapped in purple paper, and the curious expression on Judy’s face as Nick handed them to her had the tod shrugging, ears flattening a little with embarrassment. “I know it’s not very Christmassy, but it reminded me of your eyes.”

Cooing as she took the presents, Judy gave Nick a moment to clamber back into bed before she spoke. “Now who’s the sappy one?” She teased, weighing up the two packages. “Any particular order?”

“The bigger one first.” Nick decided, believing the smaller present would pull the strongest reaction from his doe.

Judy gave the larger gift a gentle squeeze, and whatever was inside gave way underneath her paw. She spared a moment to try and work out what Nick could’ve possibly got her. He hadn’t been home enough to see if she needed anything. Removing the decorative silver bow, Judy couldn’t resist leaning over to smack the sticky side of it to Nick’s bare chest, snickering as her mate stared down at it like it was poisonous. Returning her attention to the present, the doe undid the tape, noting that Nick wasn’t as heavy-pawed with it as she was. Distracted, she missed Nick removing the bow from his chest. Destroying the last piece of tape, Judy tore at the paper to reveal a lilac colored jumper, with a scoop neck and a raised pattern of loops and interlocking geometric shapes on it.

“Mom has your size, so I borrowed it. I worked out the pattern myself, though.” Nick explained, lifting a paw to tug nervously at one of his ears, scratching at it a moment later.

Blinking in surprise, Judy inhaled sharply as she put it all together. Gaze moving from the jumper to her slightly embarrassed looking mate, the corners of her lips started to curve upwards. “You made this?” She breathed, watching as Nick nodded. Looking down at the jumper in her lap, Judy ran her paws over it, enjoying the softness of the material and the fact that her fox had made this for her with his own two paws. He came from a family of tailors, so it shouldn’t have surprised Judy, but she knew that it hadn’t been his thing since his father had died. “It’s beautiful.” Judy could feel tears starting to gather in the corner of her eyes. Sure Gram Gram had knitted her jumpers when she’d been a kit, and Marian made her new clothes all the time now, but this wasn’t Nick’s strong suit, and it held a lot of painful memories for him. Memories he’d pushed aside for her. Moving the jumper so as not to crumple it, the doe reached out for her mate, pulling him into a strong hug, pressing herself as to close to him as possible. “Thank you, Slick.”

“It’s not much.” Nick protested, giving himself over to Judy’s embrace, wrapping his arms around her to hold her tightly.

Shaking her head as best she could, Judy disagreed. “It’s everything.” She pulled back from their embrace enough so that she could press their lips together in a tender kiss, the doe trying to convey just how much the jumper meant to her. Sitting back, she removed her nightshirt, rolling her eyes at Nick’s rumble of appreciation as she gave him an eyeful, before she pulled the jumper on, violet eyes closing in bliss at the softness of the garment.

Nick had thought it couldn’t get better than seeing his mate in the clothes his mom had made, but seeing her in something he’d made? His paws clenched at the bed sheets, claws catching the fabric as he battled back his lust. The urge to reach out and touch her was intense.

In tune with her fox, Judy’s eyes opened to find him struggling. Reaching out, she stroked the back of her fingers across his cheek, offering him a soft smile. Taking one of his paws with her free one, she brought it to her waist, hoping the physical contact would help soothe Nick. As his shoulders dropped with relief, Judy picked up the smaller gift, feeling her mate start to gently stroke her side.

It didn’t take her long to undo the wrapping, and she refrained from sticking the bow to Nick again. This time, when the paper fell away, she was met with a black box similar to the one Nick’s bracelet had been in. Head tipping sideways in curiosity, her ears flopped over. Pushing the lid up, Judy gasped as she caught sight of the item inside, ears drooping. “Oh, Nick…”

“I know you’re not a big jewelry person, but I thought this might be better.” The tod shrugged, nerves clawing at his insides. It felt like nothing compared to the moment he’d given her the bonding bracelet, but it was still enough to make him bite down on his lower lip, his paw on her waist tightening.

Nick’s wording confused the doe, and she pulled her gaze from the silver necklace inside the box long enough to find the emerald eyes of the mammal she loved. “Better?”

Paw leaving Judy’s side, Nick ran his fingers over the bracelet around her wrist. “I know you’ve received a lot of abuse because of this, and I know that it’s essentially me marking you as mine. We’re working on my possessiveness, though, and I don’t want you to have to listen to any more slurs.” With his other paw, he touched the pendant in the box. “This is simply a token of my affection; there are no possessive connotations to it.”

“I’m not taking my bracelet off. I don’t care about mammals throwing slurs at me; I don’t care if people stare. It’s part of your culture. I love it, and I love you.” Judy put her hind paw down. She couldn’t imagine being without her bracelet. Looking down at her gift, she sniffled, feeling the tears threatening again. “I love this too, and I love what it represents, how far you’ve come.”

“How far we’ve come.” Nick corrected. Both of them had grown since they’d met.

Agreeing, Judy spent a moment admiring the shape of the pendant. “How did you find this?” She whispered, paw moving to stroke the cold metal.

“Well, you see, I intend to bond with this amazing rabbit. She’s got these beautiful violet eyes, likes to see the good in every mammal, oh and she likes to do her homework…a trait which might be rubbing off on me.” Nick could sense that tears were imminent, so he pitched for humor instead. His attempt was futile as tears started to roll down Judy’s cheeks, falling and splashing on her gift. “Emotional bunny.” He teased, wiping away her tears.

Snort laughing; Judy sniffled as she let Nick wipe away her tears. The pendant in her lap was shaped like a heart, but engraved on it was a looping pattern that continued from its shape to form another smaller heart, that in turn interlocked with a smaller rounded upside down heart – an old rabbit symbol for ‘mate.’ It hadn’t been used much since they’d become a civilized species, but every rabbit was taught about it in their high school history classes. Removing the necklace from the box, she offered it out to Nick, her ears pricking upright. As her fox fastened it around her neck, their noses booped together, making Judy laugh. The pendant came to rest between her collarbones and the cold metal contrasted with her warm fur. Before Nick could pull away, the doe stole another kiss. “I love it. I love them both. I love you,” she whispered against his lips.

Nick melted. His rabbit was playing with his heart like it was putty, and it felt incredible. He looked at her for a short while, imprinting the moment to his memory, to call upon should things ever get rough. He couldn’t get enough of her soft smile, filled with love and gratitude, or her button nose, wiggling with emotion, and her wide violet eyes, sparkling with unshed tears of appreciation. It would never cease to amaze him how many times he could fall in love with her again every day.

Leaning forward, Nick stole yet another kiss from her. It started slow, just their lips connecting with each other, but soon both mammals began pushing for more. Judy licked Nick’s lips with her small tongue, seeking his larger and rougher one to deepen their kiss. She didn’t have to wait long; Nick opened his mouth almost instantaneously. His already touch-starved body, coupled with the seasonal hormones, made it impossible for him to deny her. At the same time, the fox started caressing Judy’s thighs, wanting to feel as much of the doe as he could.

A small shiver ran down Judy’s spine as Nick’s claws brushed her fur and teased her flesh, making her release a soft moan into her mate’s mouth.

That did him in. Moving his paws to her rear, Nick brought her back onto his lap, focusing his ministrations on her butt and her short, fluffy tail. Not one to be outdone, Judy moved one paw behind Nick’s head to scritch lightly behind his ears, while the other slowly caressed his chest, blunt claws running through coarse fur.

A familiar low rumble started in Nick’s throat, and he deepened their kiss even more. Judy wouldn’t believe it possible if she wasn’t experiencing it right that moment. His tongue fought for domination over hers, and he started raking her back with his claws, causing the doe to shiver under them. Nick’s nostrils flared when the unmistakable scent of arousal started coming from his rabbit.

However, the doe couldn’t be blamed. Who wouldn’t be excited by their mate hitting almost every sweet spot they had? It wasn’t like Nick was fairing much better either. From where Judy was sat on his lap, she was in very close contact with his groin, and a familiar bulge was starting to make its presence known.

Judy knew this couldn’t go in the direction they both desperately wanted it to. Present opening was about to start, and if they didn’t show up her family would ask questions she didn’t want to answer. Regretfully pulling away, she heard Nick whine as she broke their kiss. “We should go and join the others.” Judy didn’t want to leave their little bubble; she was far too content to spend the day in bed with her fox.

Nick knew it would be rude for them to ignore Judy’s family. “You’re right.” He huffed, nostrils flaring as he savored the sweet smell of his mate. Begrudgingly he moved Judy from his lap and rolled out of bed, stretching as he stood. Judy joined him, and the pair dressed slowly, enjoying their last few minutes of bliss together before they faced the fluffle.

“Ahh, here they are.” Marian couldn’t help but announce loudly as her kit and Judy tried to slip quietly into one of the many living rooms in the warren. When Bonnie had told her that the two of them had wanted some time alone this morning the vixen had snickered, hiding her smile behind her paw.

“Ju-Ju! Mister Nick!” Sasha abandoned her position on the floor by her littermates, rushing across the room to throw herself at her sister and her favorite fox.

Reactions sharpened from the academy; Nick opened his arms in time to catch Sasha, scooping her up and swinging her around. The baby bunny shrieked happily, hind paws kicking through the air as Nick turned her around until he finally put her down. “Hey Cinnamon.” He cooed, smoothing down her ears.

“Look what Susie got me!” Sasha grabbed Nick’s paw, dragging him through the crowd of rabbits and towards the tree. Her littermate had bought her some coloring books, filled with images of all her favorite princesses. “This is Moolan, and this is Rabunzel, oh and this is my absolute favorite princess, Mareida!” Sasha chattered away happily, showing Nick the pictures in her coloring book.

Marian watched from her spot on the floor as her kit was dragged across the room, hiding her amusement. As Nick took the coloring book from Sasha, his sleeve slid up, and Marian caught a flash of silver around his wrist. The vixen barely contained her gasp, eyes widening. Finding Judy amongst her siblings, Marian noted the necklace around her neck. The vixen had been tasked with picking up the item from Mr. Jackson, so was very familiar with it. Nick and Judy had exchanged gifts in private, and Judy had bought her son a bonding bracelet?

“Are you okay, Marian?” Sat next to Marian, Jasmine had heard her small inhale. Concern was etched on her face as she looked over the vixen, making sure she wasn’t physically hurt in any way. The question had everyone in the room turning to look at them, including Nick and Judy.

Uncomfortable now that she was the center of attention, Marian shook her head, composing herself. “I’m okay, just sat on my hind paw funny.” She brushed aside the doe’s concern, offering an apologetic smile to everyone in the room. Nick caught her gaze though, and the small tilt of his head made the vixen feel momentarily sorry for lying, but he was soon pulled back into the conversation about princesses and Marian’s shoulders slumped with relief. She’d have to get Nick alone later and ask him about the bracelet.

It took two hours for the remaining presents to be opened, and by the end of it, every mammal in the warren had a small pile of goodies. Bonnie and Stu had gone out to purchase a few gifts for Marian and Nick, not wanting them to miss out and only have gifts from each other and Judy. Now that the warren was filled with scraps of wrapping paper and the sound of kits playing with their new toys, Bonnie turned her attention to their guests. “Nick, dear, how are you in the kitchen?” She quizzed, hoping he’d be able to partake in one of the Hopps Christmas traditions. In her peripheral, the matriarch caught sight of Judy shaking her head.

“Okay, I guess. Still learning.” Nick opted for an honest answer, feeling a weight settle in his gut. What did Bonnie have planned?

“Oh, that’s perfect then! You see, there’s this tradition whereby any guest we have at Christmas is to be my sous chef…” The doe watched Nick closely, hiding her smile as she saw him swallow, a flicker of fear crossing his face.

Unable to resist another chance to tease her kit, Marian laughed. “Do you have warren insurance, Bon?”

Unamused, Nick scowled at his mom while she and Bonnie chuckled together. “I’m an acceptable cook.” He protested, turning his gaze to Judy. “Right, Fluff?”

“The few times you’ve cooked for me, it’s been great.” Judy conceded, figuring it was best to flatter her fox to get him into the kitchen. She didn’t dare mention the mess he’d left behind in his wake, though.

Standing, Bonnie helped Marian up before she turned her attention to Nick. “I’ll be the judge of that. Come on.” She instructed, leading the way through the maze of hallways to the warrens huge kitchen, each mammal bringing their little pile of gifts with them. Stashing their presents in the corner of the kitchen, all eyes swung to Bonnie as she took control, putting on her apron. “Okay Nick, here’s your apron.” She grabbed for Stu’s, knowing her husband’s slightly rounded figure meant the apron was a little larger than intended for a rabbit.

“Do I really need to wear it?” Nick eyed the item suspiciously.

“Do you want food all over your shirt?” Bonnie asked in return, quirking an eyebrow.

Pursing his lips together in contemplation, Nick could feel his mom and Judy staring at him, the two ladies having taken up positions on the other side of the island counter to watch him work.

Spotting a way to ensure her fox would put on the apron, and provide her and Marian with a chuckle, Judy spoke up. “I bought you that shirt.”

Glancing down at the Pawaiian shirt he had on, Nick grumbled under his breath. Judy was right. He couldn’t let it get dirty when she’d lovingly picked it out for him. “Fine, I’ll wear the apron.” He conceded, holding out his paw for the offending item.

Bonnie suppressed her smile as Nick took the apron from her, watching as he passed it over his head and tied the strings at the back. His size difference to Stu meant the item was a little tight, and the matriarch felt a bit guilty for making the tod wear it, but the look of amusement she could see on her daughters face eradicated all of that guilt.

“So most of the food has been prepared – I like to do things ahead of time – but there are a few things I’ll need your help with.” Bonnie reached for the notepad she kept next to the stove, flicking through her scribbles. “We have potato and sweet potato dauphinoise left to make.” She put down her notepad and pen on the island counter as she moved to the fridge to gather the ingredients.

Completely lost, Nick stood at the stove, where Bonnie had left him, and looked over his shoulder to catch the violet eyes he loved so much. “Dauphinoise?” He mouthed, baffled. At least Bonnie had given him a clue that the dish somehow involved potatoes.

Though the grey bunny was well aware of what dauphinoise was, she shrugged, pretending not to know. It was a traditional rule that the sous chef wasn’t allowed outside help, and as much as Judy loved her fox, she loved not having her tail whacked with her moms cooking spoon even more. Reaching for her mom’s notepad and pen once Nick had returned his attention to the stove and the pile of ingredients her mom had put down, the doe scribbled a quick note to Marian, informing her of the rule.

Glancing down at the note slid across to her, Marian bit down on her lower lip. Her son was well out of his depth, and the vixen knew it would be difficult to hold back on offering assistance.

Taking the vegetable peeler that Bonnie offered him; Nick started to peel the potatoes, making sure that he removed all of the skin. The task was more time consuming than he’d anticipated, but as a kit, he’d watched his mom perform this task hundreds of time, so he was quick to pick it up and find a rhythm. Once the regular potatoes were done, he turned his attention to the sweet potatoes, finding them a little more challenging to peel. From the corner of his eye, he saw Bonnie put a colander down next to him, and he paused his peeling to put the potatoes in it, adding the sweet potatoes as he worked, until the colander was full.

Putting down the peeler, he carried the colander to one of the sinks, figuring they’d need to be rinsed. The tod was winging it, trying to emulate his mom, and she’d always been keen on washing fruit and veg. Giving the potatoes a quick rinse, the tod returned to his place at the counter, finding a chopping board and a knife where he’d left his peeler and the potato skins.

“You’re better at this than you give yourself credit for.” The Hopps matriarch complimented as she watched Nick remove a few potatoes from the colander, putting them down on the chopping board before he picked up the knife.

Snorting, the tod stared at the potatoes, unsure how he was meant to cut them. “All you have me doing is prepping vegetables, Bonnie. It’s not like I could mess that up too much.” He turned the potato on the chopping board over, biting the inside of his lip.

“Don’t forget to make the layers nice and even because we need to make sure the milk and cream fills all the gaps.” The doe threw Nick a small lifeline, knowing he was smart and would pick up on it.

Connecting the dots, Nick started to cut the potato into thin slices, stacking them on the counter ready to layer in a dish. He could feel the weight of Judy’s gaze on his back, and his ears honed in on the conversation between his mom and Bonnie. The two ladies were discussing plans for the rest of the day. Focusing his attention back on his work, he kept chopping, wanting to make sure every slice was the same thickness. He was mid-chop when a shriek from the dining room pierced the air.

The sudden noise made Nick jump, and the knife clipped his finger. A sharp yip of pain slipped from between his lips as he shoved his finger into his mouth, hoping to stem the blood flow from the small cut.

Hearing Nick’s noise of pain, Judy was up and out of her seat, rushing around the island counter to her mate. “Careful Slick, you need your fingers.” She reached up to pry his fingers from his mouth, checking the wound.

The sight of his mate tending to his injury had a low rumble starting in the tod’s chest, a wave of lust barreling through him. “Damn straight I do.” His voice dropped an octave, emerald finding violet as Judy looked up at him in surprise.

Clearing her throat, Bonnie stared at Judy and Nick. The matriarch wasn’t a prude, not in any sense of the word, but an opportunity to tease her daughter and Nick was worth taking.

Nick’s eyes widened at the sound from Bonnie, reminding him of where he was. “For writing up tickets for bad mammals, and driving, and holding my tranq gun, and…”

“Scratching Judy’s itches.” Bonnie cut him off.

Mortified, Judy’s ears dropped in time with her jaw. “Mom!” She hissed, stealing a quick glance around the room to make sure none of her younger siblings were around. The last thing she wanted to do was have to explain to them what their mom meant.

“We can smell you two a mile off.” Marian chipped in, having been doodling on the notepad once she’d been confident that Judy was taking care of her son’s injury. Her maternal instincts had wanted her to move and tend to him herself, but she knew he was old enough to cope with a cut, and Judy would probably be able to offer him more comfort.

Pulling her ears over her eyes to hide her blush, Judy groaned. “Not helping.”

Wafting a hand through the air, Bonnie brushed aside Judy’s protest as she moved to one of the many cupboards to collect a dish. “It’s a mother’s prerogative to embarrass her kit. Besides, it’s nothing your father and I haven’t-“

“MOM!” Judy interrupted, ears springing up as she held out her paws in a stop gesture, violet eyes wide. The doe was comfortable with the topic, she had to be in such a large household, but she didn’t need to know the more delicate details of her parent’s intimacy. She could hear Nick chuckling behind her, and she let the tod grasp one of her paws in his.

“What haven’t we done, Bon?” Stu quizzed, having caught his wife’s comment as he’d come through the back door. He’d had to leave just before the end of the present opening to head across town and pick up Pop Pop. Last night, once everyone had gone to bed, he and Bonnie had stayed up late talking about the best way to keep Pop Pop away from Nick and Marian. The old rabbit still held onto his prejudices and they hadn’t wanted their guests to feel uncomfortable. In the end, they’d agreed to quickly introduce them and then lead Pop Pop away, where he’d be distracted by his grandkits. At lunch, he’d be seated as far away from the Wilde family as possible.

Leaning heavily on his walking stick, Pop Pop shuffled into the kitchen. “What’s all the ruckus?” He demanded, old eyes narrowing behind his glasses as he scanned the room. The elderly rabbit scowled as he noticed the two predators in the kitchen. “What on earth are they doin’ here? You know they eat us!”

“Used to. We live in harmony now.” Bonnie sighed, putting down the dish she’d collected from one of the cupboards.

Shaking his walking stick in the direction of the two predators, Pop Pop disagreed. “They’re designed to kill us. You know, foxes are red because they’re made by the devil!”

“We’re not even religious, so I don’t know why you keep bringing up the devil.” Bonnie rolled her eyes, aware that they needed to get rid of Pop Pop now. Giving her husband the stink eye, she gestured with her chin towards the dining area.

Grabbing the elderly rabbits elbow, Stu attempted to guide him away from the kitchen. He knew following his wife’s wishes would make everything more comfortable for their guests, but Pop Pop was defiant.

“I ain’t done here, Stuart.” Pop Pop objected, and though he was old and a little frail, he moved his elbow out of Stu’s grasp.

Marian had experienced her fair share of verbal abuse in the past, you didn’t campaign for pred rights and marry their poster mammal without having a few slurs thrown your way, but she’d never expected a member of Judy’s family to have such a strong adverse reaction to her and her kit. Surprised by Pop Pop’s outburst, the vixen was frozen in her seat.

Instinct had Judy moving between Pop Pop and Nick, taking up position right in front of her mate, as the old rabbit’s eyes found her fox. Standing defiant, the grey bunny felt Nick’s tail brush against her ankles, and she watched as her grandfather looked between them, eyes hardening when he saw their joined paws.

“You better not be rolling around in them barns with a fox, Judith. Surely you’d rather be with a nice buck. Say, I know a couple that would be great.” The old buck shook his walking stick at his granddaughter. She’d always been too out there and always wanted more than a rabbit was meant to have.

Giving Nick’s paw a squeeze, the doe found strength from his presence behind her. She loved Pop Pop, but his old views were harmful and wrong. Opening her mouth to speak, Judy was cut off by her mate.

“Judy deserves better than a barn to roll around in, Sir.” Nick kept his tone as polite as possible, though under the surface he was itching to be sarcastic and snide.

Raising a paw, Pop Pop pointed a finger at the fox stood behind his granddaughter. “Judith deserves better than a fox, too.”

“You’re probably right.” Nick shrugged, noticing that Judy had turned her head to look at him, lips parted in surprise. However, he kept his gaze on the old rabbit. “But she’s an adult, with her own thoughts and opinions, and she’s able to make her own decisions. I might not be the best mate in your opinion, or anyone else’s for that matter, but Judy’s decided that I am. I’m not going to question her decision because I trust her and her ability to weigh up the pros and cons and decide what’s right for her. You have every right to be concerned about her, she’s your granddaughter and you love her, and you only want the best for her, but you have to trust her. To you the best for her might be some young buck, but would Judy think that’s the best for her? Would that make her happy?”

Shaking her head, Judy looked away from her mate, finding Pop Pop observing them, a look in his eyes that she’d never seen before. “It wouldn’t make me happy. I can’t think of anything worse than being tied down to a buck. He’d probably want me to give up the job I love, move back from the city, and spend the rest of my days carrying his kits. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it’s just not me. It’s not what I want from life.”

Tightening his grip on Judy’s paw, the tip of Nick’s tail flicked, brushing over her hind paws. “She’s not a kit who can’t make up her own mind. Sure at times she can be reckless and make snap decisions, but I also know that she does her homework. Judy knew exactly what she was getting herself into with me and she’s not run away, she’s not abandoned me, and even if you make my time here hell, even if you continue to insult my species, I’m not abandoning her. She’s too important to me. She means too much to me.” Nick made his stance known, cutting off the old rabbit before he could say anything else.

“These old notions you have are harmful, Pop Pop,” Judy spoke up, slowly letting go of Nick’s paw so she could take a few steps towards her grandfather. “Things have changed, we’ve all changed. I thought Zootopia was this perfect place where no bad could happen, and I only ever saw the good in mammals. Nick taught me that isn’t always the case, and that we’re all capable of doing bad things, even if we don’t mean to. That’s part of life. We grow and we learn from our mistakes. We pick ourselves back up and we try again.” Judy’s mind flashed back to the press conference, to the subconscious prejudice she’d had.

Taking a few steps forward, Nick came to a stop behind Judy, sliding an arm around her waist as he spoke to her grandfather. “I was the lowest rung on the ladder, the very bottom of the totem pole, until Judy crashed into my life and made me realize that all it takes is one mammal to believe in you for you to change your life. She taught me to believe in myself, made me see that I’m enough, that I deserve to be treated just like any other mammal. I may have taught Judy a thing or two, but I’ve learned a lot from her in return.”

“I never thought I’d have a family again,” Marian spoke up, having been silent since Pop Pop’s arrival, too shocked and then too worried to say anything. “After my husband passed and it was just Nicky and me, I thought that would be my family until the end, that my kit would be alone once I’m gone.” The vixen shook her head. “Until they both showed up on my doorstep, until I saw the way they look after one another, support one another, and love one another.” Marian’s gaze moved from Pop Pop to her kit and his mate. “When Nicky brought Judy home, he wasn’t just bringing her home, he was bringing all of you too.” Marian spared a glance around the room at Bonnie and Stu, and even to Pop Pop. “You’re my family now, species be damned.”

Pop Pop’s gaze moved between Nick and Marian. While it seemed most of his family had taken to them, the old buck had heard too many tales about savage predators in his youth, especially the dangers of foxes, to be won over yet. “I still ain’t too sure. You talk a good game, but I don’t know if you can walk the walk too.”

“I’ll vouch for them.” Julian appeared at the top of the stairs that led down to the dining area. He’d heard the shriek of one of his siblings and had come to check out the noise, several others in tow, and then he’d heard Pop Pop’s arrival. Given the keenness of rabbit and fox hearing, the buck had remained silent, instructing his siblings to do the same, while they’d listened in on the conversation.

Taking the final step up to join her littermate in the kitchen, Jasmine stood by Julian’s side. “Me too. Nick and Marian have been wonderful towards us.”

“And me.” Hazel reached the top step with Sasha in her arms. The young doe had spent the previous evening with Marian. She’d shown her all of the clothes she’d been working on, and the two ladies had talked well into the night. Marian had taught her some new sewing techniques and had written down a few tips for her too.

Squirming in her sister’s arms, Sasha scowled at Pop Pop. “I like Mister Nick and Missus Marian. Lots of us do.”

“Nick and Marian don’t have to prove anything to you, Pop Pop,” Stu commented. “Marian has been nothing but gracious and kind, looking after our Jude in the city, making sure she’s eating well and sleepin’ properly, and keeping her in beautiful clothes. As for Nick, he loves Jude and she loves him. Couldn’t ask for better than that. Whatever goes on between them is between them; it’s not our place to get involved. They’re not hurting anyone and they’re happy. Isn’t that what we all want for Jude? Nick’s already proven himself over and over again, so cut the boy some slack. You may be her grandfather, but I’m her father, and I couldn’t think of a better mammal for our Jude to be with.” Stu tugged at the straps of his overalls, rocking on the balls of his hind paws as he spared a glance to the tod.

Still unconvinced, but seeing that he was outnumbered, the old rabbit shook his head, turning his focus towards the stairs. “We’ll see.” He muttered, shuffling forwards, reaching out for the handrail with his free paw.

Though both a little frustrated with their grandfather, Jasmine and Julian didn’t want to risk him falling down the stairs and hurting himself, so the littermates went to his aid, helping him down to the dining room. Hazel and Sasha followed behind them, ready to start gathering their siblings for lunch.

Once Pop Pop was out of sight, Nick’s shoulder’s dropped, and the tod let out a small sigh. “Thank you, Stu.” He offered the buck a smile while he tightened his hold around Judy’s waist, pulling her back flush to his front.

“Anytime, son.” The term of endearment slipped off Stu’s tongue with ease, and the buck reached out to pat Nick on the shoulder as he passed him, heading towards the family rooms to check on some of his kits. The warren had been uncharacteristically quiet for a while, and that usually meant trouble.

Marian’s ears pricked at Stu’s comment, and the vixen blinked in surprise. She’d known that Nick and Stu got along well, had heard from both of them that they enjoyed one another’s company, but to hear Stu call her kit ‘son brought a smile to her face. Since his fathers passing, Nick had been without a strong male role model in his life. Stu was now filling that gap, and Marian couldn’t be more grateful that the buck had taken her boy under his wing. She’d tried to raise a well-rounded tod, but some things could only be learned from a father-like figure.

Turning his attention back to the kitchen and the work he’d been doing, Nick went to resume when Bonnie shook her head, batting his paws away from the utensils before she started to undo the ribbon at the back of his apron.

“I’ve got this.” Bonnie insisted as the apron straps came loose.

Having no choice but to wiggle out of the apron as Bonnie pulled it over his head, Nick frowned. “But it’s tradition.” He was perfectly capable of carrying on with his work. He wasn’t that bad of a sous chef.

“One that can be broken this year. Go and relax in one of the family rooms, please.” Bonnie shooed Nick, Judy, and Marian from the kitchen. They probably all needed a moment, and the doe wanted an opportunity to speak to her husband alone once he returned. Though they loved Pop Pop, they needed a better plan. They wouldn’t force the old rabbit into liking Nick and Marian, but at the same time, they didn’t want him making their guests uncomfortable. Perhaps a sit-down discussion with him once all the kits were in bed was the way forward, so long as he didn’t fall asleep from all the food and elderflower wine first.

Grabbing Nick’s paw as they left the kitchen, Judy pulled him to a stop. “Little doe’s rooms, I’ll be right back.” She pushed up onto the balls of her hind paws to plant a kiss on his muzzle before she disappeared down another corridor.

Mother and son left alone, they made their way into one of the family rooms, finding it surprisingly vacant. Taking his seat on one of the couches, Nick sank back into the soft fabric, eyes closing.

“Nicky.” Marian took the spot next to her son, reaching out with a paw to touch his shoulder.

Emerald eyes opening, the tod looked to his mom, a frown crossing his features a moment later as he saw concern etched across her face. “It’s okay, mom, I’m used to it.” Nick shrugged, not wanting her to worry about the things Pop Pop had said. After spending most of his life on the street, there were very few insults the tod hadn’t heard.

The vixen shook her head, moving her paw to take her sons wrist. “What’s this about?” She brushed a thumb over the bracelet, noting the charms. She knew the story of how her kit and Judy had become a couple, so they came as no surprise to her. “It’s not very traditional.”

Quirking an eyebrow, Nick wondered where his mom was going with this. She’d been one of the biggest cheerleaders of his relationship with Judy. “Carrots and I aren’t very traditional anyway.” He pointed out, knowing that their pred/prey pairing made them an oddity.

“True.” Marian agreed, moving to take Nick’s paw in her own. Emerald met emerald and the vixen offered her son a small smile. “What if others mammal say something when they see it?” She couldn’t shake the fear that her son would be targeted like her husband had been.

Though the tod understood his mom’s concern and knew it stemmed from her fear, the thought of mammal’s saying something didn’t bother him. They’d always talk and would always find something cruel to say. “Like they’ve been saying things to Judy?”

The vixen couldn’t argue with that. She’d heard several stories about Judy receiving verbal abuse from mammals on the street because of her decision to wear her bonding bracelet. “You’re right. I guess I was just caught off guard, that’s all.”

“What do you mean?” Nick couldn’t hide the confusion from his voice, eyebrows drawing together. What was there to be caught off guard about?

Letting go of her kit’s paw, Marian examined the bracelet a little more closely. She could see that Judy had put considerable thought into the design. “Mr. Jackson wouldn’t have made this for her without some serious convincing, you know how stubborn that mammal is. Whatever she told him, it must have been impressive.”

“It’s a conversation I would’ve liked to see.” Nick snorted, shaking his head. Mr. Jackson was a stubborn old mammal, but his bunny could be just as determined. Once his exams were over and he’d been sworn in as an officer, Nick would pay him a visit and try to get the story out of him.

Chuckling, Marian agreed. Bonding bracelets were so important to their species, and Judy was well aware of that, so the fact she’d gifted Nick one made the vixen excited for the future. There was only one logical step forward. “Things are getting quite serious, eh?”

“I think things were serious the moment I gave her her bracelet.” Nick deadpanned.

Unable to argue with that again, Marian nodded. Lifting a paw to cup her kits muzzle, she had to tamper down her grin. “Just, don’t make me wait too long for grandkits, okay?”

Letting out a long-suffering sigh, Nick was used to his mom pestering him now. He knew she meant well, but he and Judy weren’t ready for that yet. “I want to claim her first, and bond with her, and marry her.”

Wafting her free paw through the air, Marian let go of Nick’s muzzle. “Details, details.” She brushed his concerns aside with a smile.

“What details?” Judy entered the family room, catching the tail end of the conversation. She’d been gone a little longer than intended, as on her way back from the bathroom she’d been accosted by Jasmine. Her sister had informed her that she’d positioned Pop Pop as far away as possible from her, Nick, and Marian for lunch.

Before Marian could respond, Sasha came bowling into the room, shoving past Judy. “Lunch is ready! Mister Nick, can I sit next to you pretty please?” The baby rabbit bounced on the spot, large eyes focused on her favorite fox. Since she and Nick had become friends, her siblings had started to include her more during playtime, and she was feeling a lot more confident about her art.

Relieved that he and his mom didn’t have to lie to Judy, Nick silently thanked Sasha for her impeccable timing. “Sure Cinnamon, so long as I can have Ju-Ju on my other side.” He bargained, wanting to make sure his mate was with him for their first Christmas lunch together.

“She’s always by your side, so there’s no change there.” Sasha rolled her eyes, a bad habit she was picking up from Julian, and crossed the room to grab one of Nick’s paws. Giving it a tug, she tried to haul him off of the couch.

Nick went willingly, letting the small rabbit tug him off the sofa and out of the room, and through the labyrinth of corridors. Behind him, he could hear Judy and Marian’s pawsteps and their combined laughter. The tod didn’t bother to hide his grin as he was dragged towards the kitchen and dining room.

Chapter 33 – Deck the Burrows

Staring out of the train carriage, Marian watched the countryside fly past. It was dusk, and the world around them looked even more mesmerizing as the sun started to set. With the holiday season in full swing, there had been chaos on the train lines, and their morning train had been pushed back to an evening one. Marian had never left the city before, had never had the means to do so or anywhere to go once she did. Now, though, she had enough money for hundreds of train tickets and a vast warren of rabbits was waiting to welcome her. The vixen couldn’t deny the fact that she was nervous about meeting Judy’s siblings. Bonnie and Stu had taken to her quickly, and Marian hoped the rest of the Hopps family would follow suit.

Catching movement from the corner of her eye, Marian shifted her gaze to the two mammals sat on the bench seat opposite her. Judy had taken the window seat, which meant Nick had taken the aisle. Though the arm he had thrown around her shoulders along the back of the seat seemed casual, Marian knew it was also a protective posture. They were lost in conversation, talking about things Marian had no idea about, throwing around names the vixen couldn’t put faces to, but none of it bothered her, none of it had her focus. Instead, she concentrated on the lazy grin her son wore and the way Judy’s wide violet eyes looked up at him, a smile tugging at the corner of her lips as she chattered away happily. If someone had told her a year ago that her kit would fall in love with a determined country bunny, she would’ve laughed. Yet here they were.

“Now approaching: Bunnyburrow. Please mind the gap between the train and the platform.” The PA system announced, prompting a flurry of activity in their carriage as mammals stood up to gather their belongings. Nick and Judy rose from the bench, stretching.

“Ready, mom?” Nick asked, reaching up to grab their cases from the rack above their heads. He’d take the suitcases belonging to himself and his mom, while Judy would carry her own and the one filled with Christmas presents. The tod wanted to be a gentlemammal and take his mates case too, but with only two paws he was stuck. His mom was carrying gifts for Bonnie and Stu, the vixen having insisted on taking flowers and some elderflower wine with them.

Moving through the carriage as best as possible with their luggage, Nick led the way to the doors. As the train pulled to a stop, the tod allowed several families to disembark before them. Stepping off the train, he used his height to his advantage as he looked over the array of rabbits gathered on the platform. His mom and Judy disembarked behind him, the platform starting to empty as mammals rushed to get home. The fresh air was a welcome relief from the stifling carriage and the overwhelming scent of his mate. With winter firmly set in, the tod’s body was rebelling, demanding he claim her, but he refused to until Judy gave it the okay. In the meantime, he’d take a lot of cold showers.

“MISTER NICK!” The girlish squeal broke him from his thoughts, and a grin crossed his lips as he put the bags down to the sound of rushing hind paws heading his way. Crouching he opened his arms, and through the few remaining rabbits on the platform, his favorite baby bunny came hurtling towards him. With a light thud, Sasha threw herself into his arms, burying her face in his chest.

Wrapping her up in his embrace, Nick chuckled. “Hey Cinnamon.” He stroked her back as his tail wagged. He’d kept in contact with the small rabbit while away at the academy, but everyone had agreed not to tell her that he would be visiting for Christmas so that he could surprise her.

Nose buried in Nick’s fur, Sasha clung to her favorite fox. She’d kept his tie safe since his last visit, though the doe was sad that she would now have to give it back. “You’re here!” She exclaimed, pulling back just enough so she could look at him properly. Excited, she bounced on the spot.

“Did you think I’d turn down the opportunity to see my favorite bunny?” Nick shook his head, trying not to chuckle at the sight of Sasha’s excitement. She’d grown a bit since he’d last seen her, and the tod could tell that she’d be breaking some hearts once she hit her teens. Stu would probably have to chase away a few bucks with his shotgun.

Clearing her throat, Judy lifted an eyebrow at her mate. Folding her arms over her chest, she tapped her hind paw on the ground. In truth, the doe was only jesting. She didn’t mind Nick laying plenty of fuss and attention on her little sister, but the opportunity to tease her fox was too good to miss.

At the sound of Judy clearing her throat, Nick tipped his head to look up at her, a cheeky grin on his face. “My second favorite bunny?” He corrected, his comment pulling a sad noise and a pout from Sasha. Turning back to the baby rabbit, the tod lowered his voice to a stage whisper. “I have to say that Ju-Ju is my favorite, or she’ll make me do everything at work.”

Scowling, the small rabbit glanced up at her sister. “That’s mean Ju-Ju. Mister Nick shouldn’t have to do all the work.” She scolded.

The tod only just held in his laughter, but he was unable to suppress his grin. “Yeah, that’s really mean, Ju-Ju.”

Marian had remained silent since stepping off the train, watching the scene unfold before her. She’d heard about Sasha from both Nick and Judy, and had been told countless stories about the baby bunny. Now that she could witness Nick and Sasha together, the vixen could see how the rabbit had Nick wrapped around her little finger. “Oh if you ever have a daughter, Nicky, she’ll be daddy’s little princess.”

Jasmine had decided to stay back, to remain at the entrance and watch the reunion from afar. It had been easy to keep track of Sasha as she’d weaved through the crowds, her unique fur pattern standing out. Now, with the platform empty, she had an unobstructed view of the goings-on. Brown eyes moved to the vixen and Jasmine gave her the once-over. Her parents had spoken highly of her and trusted her so Jasmine would follow suit. After all, Marian had raised Nick, and the tod wasn’t a bad mammal. The pencil skirt and blouse that Marian was wearing reminded Jasmine of her high school teachers and the pearls around her neck only furthered her wholesome image.

Though the baby bunny had been distracted by the return of her favorite fox, it didn’t take her long to notice the vixen stood behind him. Wide brown eyes looked up, blinking. Sudden shyness had the doe lifting a paw to put her thumb in her mouth. She didn’t know the lady or why she was with Nick.

Judy gently took the items Marian had been carrying, and the vixen crouched down next to her son, offering the little rabbit a soft smile. “Hi sweetheart, I’m Marian.” She introduced herself.

Still staring at Marian, the baby bunny tipped her head sideways, one large ear flopping over. The vixen looked a little like Nick. “Are you Mister Nick’s mommy?” Sasha asked around her thumb.

“I am. What’s your name?” Marian tried to get the kit to talk some more, reaching out to gently pry her thumb from her mouth. It had been a long time since the vixen had been around little ones, but her motherly instinct was still there. Even though Nick was an adult now and more than capable of taking care of himself, he would always be her kit.

Trusting the vixen because she was Nick’s mom, the doe offered her a toothy smile. “Sasha. Ju-Ju is my big sister. I’m five.” She proudly declared. Her mom had always told her it was rude to ask an adult their age, so Sasha picked a different question. “Are you staying for Christmas, Missus Marian?”

Sasha’s confidence and sweetness were endearing, and Marian understood now why Nick had taken to her so quickly. “I am. Nicky and Judy asked me to join you all.”

“I don’t know about you, Ju, but I don’t want to be late home and worry mom,” Jasmine called out, knowing they needed to get moving. It was getting late and the doe didn’t want to drive home in the dark.

Rising back to his full height, Nick helped his mom up. The vixen took back the flowers and wine from Judy, and the group of mammals walked together towards the train entrance. When they reached Jasmine, Judy took over. “Marian, this is my littermate, Jasmine.” The doe started. “Jasmine, this is Nick’s mom, Marian.” She watched as the vixen transferred everything to one paw, enabling her and Jasmine to shake. With their introduction done, the group headed out to the truck.

The logistics of getting five mammals home when the cab of the truck could only hold two led to an unusual arrangement. Marian, Nick, and Sasha all sat in the truck bed. The vixen had wanted to be out in the fresh air and had Nick refusing to leave her side. In turn, Sasha had refused to leave Nick’s side. With all their bags in the bed, there wasn’t much room for them to sit, leaving Nick to perch Sasha on his lap. Judy and Jasmine sat in the cab, the latter driving.

“Mister Nick, why are you so fluffy?” Sasha asked, small paws reaching out to touch the thick fur around his neck as the truck started to rumble down the lanes of Bunnyburrow.

Not thinking it was appropriate to tell the baby bunny about mating season, Nick instead settled on a different explanation. “It’s winter now so it’s much colder. My thick fur keeps me warm.”

“Why don’t rabbits have thick fur in winter?” Sasha didn’t understand why it was something only Nick’s species was allowed to have. She wanted thicker fur too.

Remembering one of his phone calls with Judy, the tod settled on an answer that sounded reasonable. “You rabbits sleep in a fluffle, so when you’re huddled together with your siblings, you don’t lose too much body heat, as you’re all sharing your warmth with one another. We foxes tend to live alone, and we don’t like huddling together, so instead, our fur gets much thicker.” He explained.

Nick’s explanation made sense to the bunny, but it still made her wish she had a winter coat. Rummaging in the pocket of her dress, Sasha pulled out Cloudy, lifting it to her mouth so she could chew.

“You still have Cloudy,” Nick commented. Lifting a paw, he gently smoothed down the rabbit’s ears.

Nodding as she nibbled, Sasha pulled the toy away from her mouth a moment later, the edge of it now covered in saliva. “I still have your tie too, Mister Nick. Do you want it back when we get home?”

Chuckling, the tod shook his head. “You can keep it, Cinnamon.” He offered her a smile as she snuggled back into his chest, continuing to chew on her toy.

Having watched the whole exchange, Marian had to hold back her coo. Instead, she turned to look out over the countryside. Her night vision enabled her to see more clearly in the fading light. Green fields trundled past them, and the rolling hills on the horizon were covered in tall trees. There wasn’t a skyscraper in sight, and Marian savored the fresh breeze as it rustled through her fur. The wind carried with it the scent of crops, and though it was Christmas the weather was mild, and the vixen could see rain clouds on the horizon.

The vixen found herself wishing that she and Robert had visited the countryside when he’d been alive, perhaps even brought Nick out to play in the fields and fill his lungs with the fresh air. Her husband had always liked going for long walks in the park, and Marian was confident he would’ve loved learning how to grow crops. He’d always been good at crafts that involved his paws. Marian was also certain that he would’ve loved to meet the family of the mammal his son was involved with. Thinking about her husband made the vixen smile with nostalgia.

Though only a kit, Sasha had always been in tune with the emotions of those around her, and as she saw the expression on Marian’s face she left the safety of Nick’s lap, ears pinging up as she crawled across the truck bed to sit in the vixen’s lap. “Why are you sad, Missus Marian?” The doe blinked up at Nick’s mom.

Amused by the little rabbit’s courage, Marian lifted a paw to gently smooth down Sasha’s ears in a move that mirrored her sons. “Oh, I’m not sad, sweetheart.” The vixen reassured the baby bunny.

“Your mouth was down, like this.” Sasha made a sad face, sticking out her lower lip for added effect.

Chuckling at Sasha’s impression, Marian shook her head. “I was just thinking about how much Nicky’s daddy would’ve loved it out here.”

Frowning, Sasha wondered why Nick’s dad wasn’t with them. Surely her mother and father would’ve invited them both? Unless his parents weren’t married anymore. That had happened to one of her school friends. “Where is he now?”

Lifting the paw she’d been using to stroke down the silky fur on Sasha’s ears, Marian pointed up to the sky. “He’s up there.”

Sasha tipped her head all the way back, staring up at the sky. Thinking, she tipped her head back down, catching Marian’s gaze. “Momma says that’s where Gram-Gram is too. Do you think Gram-Gram and Mister Nick’s daddy are friends?”

Knowing little about the Hopps family as a whole, the vixen had been unaware that Sasha’s grandmother had passed, and though she wasn’t sure how long ago it was, she still tried to offer the baby bunny some comfort. “I think they might be.”

Pleased with the answer, Sasha gave Marian a toothy smile before she twisted to face her favorite fox. “Mister Nick?”

Having been listening to the conversation between his mom and Sasha, Nick had tried his hardest to stay out of it. Though there had been lots of deep conversations between him and Marian, they were yet to touch on the subject of his father’s death. The tod had a feeling it would be a long and painful conversation. “Yes, Cinnamon?”

“What was your daddy called?” Big brown eyes blinked at Nick.

Though the tod was apprehensive to talk about his father he offered the bunny a small smile. “Robert, but everyone called him Robin.”

Gasping, Sasha’s eyes widened. “Like the character in the bedtime story you told us last time!” Turning her head to Marian, the baby bunny excitedly bounced in her lap. “Mister Nick was telling us a story about Robin Hood and Maid Marian. Did you actually play badminton with your lady in waiting?”

Rolling her eyes at the tales her son told, the vixen decided to play along. She didn’t want to break little Sasha’s heart. “Every weekend without fail.”

“Will you teach me how to play, please?” Sasha asked as she snuggled against Marian, noticing that the vixen was a little fluffy too.

Cradling the rabbit with one of her arms, Marian smiled down at the small ball of brown fluff. “I’d be more than happy too, sweetheart.” The vixen was careful to watch her terms of endearment. Nick had kindly pointed out to her that rabbits hated being called cute, and Marian had been distraught when she’d remembered calling Judy that the first time they’d met. Her son had soon soothed her though, telling her that it was fine.

Sasha’s lack of fear made Marian’s heart swell. The little rabbit hadn’t known her thirty minutes, and yet she felt comfortable enough to snuggle against a mammal that was supposed to be her enemy. Gaze lifting from Sasha, Marian found Nick watching them, and she offered out her free paw to her son. Nick took it without a moment’s hesitation, giving it a gentle squeeze as they turned their focus back to the world around them.

As the truck rounded a corner, Marian gasped. A huge, looming building had come into view. The structure was much bigger than anything she’d seen in the city and was painted a bright cherry red, reminding her of her front door. The structure was protruding from a large mound of earth with a sprawling front porch wrapped around it. As they drew closer, the vixen could see several windows embedded in the side of the mound. However, the feature that caught her attention the most was the cladding on the front of the building – it was shaped like giant rabbit ears.

As the vehicle came to a stop beside the front porch, Nick smiled at his mom’s reaction. “You think this is impressive, wait until we get inside. The communal space is in the mound, but all the bedrooms are underground.” Nick parroted the information Judy had given him when she’d first brought him home. Sasha clambered off of Marian’s lap, dropping down to the ground, and Nick followed behind her. Once he was steady on his hind paws, he helped his mom out of the truck bed before he reached in to start unloading their bags.

Getting out of the cab, Judy circled the truck, giving Marian back the wine and flowers before she helped Nick with their bags, taking two while he took the other two. As a group they moved towards the front door, little Sasha leading them, Cloudy clutched in her paw.

Captivated by her surroundings, Marian couldn’t stop looking at everything as they entered the house. They weaved through hallways, passing many family rooms, playrooms, and a library all decked out in Christmas decorations. The vixen could see and hear kits in the rooms, and as they passed, the baby rabbits would stop playing, curiosity leading them to abandon their toys and books to follow her through the house instead. She could hear the fluffle behind her, and though it made her a little nervous, she was too engrossed in the beauty of her surroundings. The house was filled with life and love, from the rabbits behind her to the kit drawings in frames on the walls. It was the kind of home Marian would’ve loved if she’d had more than one baby.

As they moved deeper into the house, they came to a large white door. Marian watched as Jasmine gave it a shove, unprepared for the cacophony of noise that assaulted her eardrums as the doors opened. Ears flattening to try and block out some of the sound, the smell of food cooking made the vixen’s mouth water. Marian looked around the kitchen, in awe at the sheer scale of it and all of the gadgets on the counters. The vixen had always loved cooking, and she’d kill for a kitchen like the one she was currently stood in.

“Oh, you’re here!” Bonnie’s large ears swiveled at the sound of mammals entering her kitchen, and she quickly wiped her paws on her apron, abandoning the dough she’d been rolling out on one of the counters, ready to make Christmas cookies. Bustling around the counter, the Hopps matriarch greeted her guests. Hugging Judy and Nick first, the doe then turned her attention to Marian while Sasha disappeared to find the drawings she’d made for Nick, and Jasmine left to inform her dad of their guest’s arrivals.

Offering out the wine and flowers, Marian gave her friend a fond smile. “Just a little something.” She explained. It had taken the vixen some time to pick out what to take, unsure as to what was customary in Bunnyburrow. Thankfully, her son had thrown her a lifeline by informing her of the importance of flowers to rabbits, so Marian had bought a bouquet of Alstroemeria, as they represented friendship.

Cooing at the sweet gesture, Bonnie took the items from Marian, lifting the flowers so she could smell them. They were beautiful and smelt delicious, and Bonnie couldn’t wait to put them in a vase on her dresser. “You’re too kind Marian, thank you.” She placed both items down on a clear bit of counter, embracing the vixen. “Whatever you want or need during your stay, please let us know.” Bonnie insisted, pulling back from their embrace. “I hope the guest room just down the hall from Nick and Judy will be okay?”

“It’ll be absolutely fine Bon, please don’t worry,” Marian reassured her, grateful to have even been invited in the first place. She was a laid back guest and didn’t want to cause a fuss. Whatever room Bonnie had set aside for her would be perfect.

Still dragging their bags, Judy couldn’t wait to be rid of them. “We’ll show you where it is.” She offered, tipping her head in the direction of the staircase down to the dining area. The doe led the way, Marian following, and Nick taking up the rear. Judy kept their pace leisurely, giving the vixen time to look around as they descended the stairs and headed towards one of the many corridors leading to the bedrooms.

Rationally, Marian had known that Bonnie and Stu would need a large home to house all their kits, but she’d never imagined a dwelling as large as this. The dining area was decked out with Christmas decorations, just like the communal areas they’d passed on their way to the kitchen, and Marian noted that there were several massive Christmas trees in the space too, all of which had presents under them. Following Judy down one of the corridors, they descended further underground, twisting and turning along corridors until they came to one which ended with a dead end. “Nick and I will be here if you need anything.” Marian’s ears flicked towards Judy as the doe spoke, catching Judy gesturing with her chin to a white door with ‘Ju’ written on it. They continued past it, finally stopping outside the brown door of one of the many guest rooms.

Releasing one of the bags, Judy opened the door for Marian. It wasn’t huge, but it was comfortable. The walls were duck-egg blue, the floor wooden, and a large double bed sat to the left of the room. It had been made up with cream bedding and duck-egg throw cushions. Her mom had put a vase of fresh flowers on the dresser, and clean towels on the bed. There was a wooden wardrobe too and a door that led to an en-suite. When her parents had been building the guest rooms they’d deemed it unfair to expect their visitors to have to use the same bathrooms as the hundreds of Hopps kits.

As Nick was carrying Marian’s bag, the doe let her mate put it down first before speaking again. “We’ll let you freshen up, then when you’re done just knock on our door and we’ll head back upstairs.” Though Judy reasoned that Marian’s sense of smell was just as good as Nick’s, she didn’t want to risk the vixen getting lost in the maze of rooms and corridors in the warren. After Marian offered them her thanks, Judy led the way back out of the room, Nick close behind her.

Pulling the remaining three bags behind them, Nick and Judy made their way to the latter’s bedroom, taking the few small steps down into the room once they’d crossed the threshold. Nothing had changed since the last time they’d visited, except for the fact that Nick was now stuck in a closed room that had no windows, with his mate, during mating season. Her scent was stronger with the lack of ventilation, and Nick’s keen sense of smell made it hard to ignore the heady aroma. Needing something to distract him, the tod lifted their bags onto the bed, starting to unpack his case. There was space in the wardrobe for him to hang his clothes, and the drawers were empty save for a few of Judy’s summer clothes.

Observing Nick’s body language, the doe knew it would be difficult for him to restrain himself. She didn’t want him to feel like he couldn’t reach out to her though, that he couldn’t touch her whenever he needed too because he was concerned about others finding out about them. “We should tell my parents this evening.” She decided. It would make any physical contact between them easier and would enable Nick to soothe his mating season urges whenever they crept up on him. “Mom sends you care packages and dad pretty much sang your praise after you chased off George and Billy last time so I can’t see them having a problem with us.” She swallowed, feeling a little nervous. Though she was her own mammal now and had cut the apron strings, her parent’s opinion was still important.

Nick listened as he continued to unpack, unable to stop the agitated swishing of his tail. As Judy became nervous, her scent spiked, and Nick had to bite down on his tongue to stop himself from acting on his impulses. In the past, the season hadn’t been too bad for him, the urge more like a frustrating itch that needed scratching, but now that Judy was his mate he was battling his body’s natural instinct to claim her.

Unable to stand seeing Nick so on edge, Judy reached out, grasping his paws to stop him from removing anything else from his suitcase. “Nick.” She whispered, pulling him away from the case so they could stand facing one another. Letting go of one of his paws she reached up to cup his muzzle, violet finding emerald. “How bad is it?”

“It’s okay, I can handle it.” The lie rolled off his tongue, but it tasted foul.

Not believing him, and feeling disappointed that he felt he had to lie, Judy shook her head, moving her paw to cup his cheek. “Please don’t lie to me.” She murmured, sensing how tense her fox was.

“The small space makes your scent stronger,” Nick explained with a sigh, hating that he wasn’t able to stop it from getting to him.

Knowing they would be spending a lot of time underground in confined spaces, Judy decided to do something about it. “What do you need?”

Mulling it over, the tod came up with something he hoped would help. “This.” He moved to embrace his bunny, pulling her small frame close, pressing their bodies together. His tail stopped swishing, instead moving to curl around Judy’s ankles. Holding her close, he rubbed his muzzle across her face and neck, smothering her in his scent. It wasn’t exactly subtle, but his possessive instincts were heightened and shy of claiming Judy, this was the next best option. A low rumble started in his chest as his doe let him mark her, and the tod tightened his hold. The urge to bite was strong, but Nick forced himself to keep his mouth shut, not wanting to hurt Judy accidentally.

Bringing Nick’s snout to her throat, Judy tipped her head sideways to reveal more of it. “It’s okay.”

Swallowing, the fox screwed his eyes shut. “I can’t. We’re not…” he trailed off. A bite now would be meaningless as they weren’t in the midst of love-making.

“It might help.” Judy reasoned. She wasn’t afraid of Nick’s bite. Instead, a shiver of anticipation swept down her spine.

Apprehensive, it took Judy whispering words of encouragement to push Nick into action. Pulling back a little from their embrace, the tod crashed his lips against Judy’s, the low rumble in his chest turning into a growl.

Licking across the seam of Judy’s lips, the tod demanded entry as he took a few steps forward, pushing Judy until her back hit the wall. Picking her up with ease, he lost himself in their kiss, vaguely feeling his doe wrap her legs around his waist and her arms around his neck as he gave himself over to his instincts.

Swept away by Nick’s kiss, Judy mewled against his lips, paws grasping at thick fur. “Nick.” She managed to whine as her tod moved to scatter kisses down her throat, mouth reaching the curve where her neck and shoulder met. “It’s okay.” She soothed. “Bite.”

Encouraged, the tod followed Judy’s command, biting her as he growled, paws holding her tightly. He didn’t break skin, but his canines left a noticeable indent. His mates breathy moan and the roll of her hips as his jaws locked around her soothed his instincts, and after a minute he pulled back, feeling calmer and more centered now that Judy carried his scent and his mark, albeit temporary.

“Better?” Judy whispered, lust-blown violet eyes searching Nick’s face. His eyes were still closed, but she could feel that the tension had drained from his body, and instead his tail was swishing happily.

Nodding, the tod opened his eyes. Emerald met violet and Nick smiled. “I love you.” He declared, grateful that his doe was so understanding.

“I love you too.” Judy pressed a kiss to the side of Nick’s muzzle, feeling a slight twinge in her neck. The discomfort was worth it though to know that Nick was feeling more relaxed. “If it gets too much again, please let me know.”

“I will. Thank you, Fluff.” Nick captured her lips in a gentle kiss, rubbing his muzzle across her cheek once more when they pulled back. A light knock at the door had Nick putting Judy down, the pair of them smoothing out their clothes and fur. The tod grabbed the suitcase with the presents in, figuring they might as well take it up with them. Together they moved to the door, and Judy opened it to reveal Marian. The vixen had brushed out her fur and changed clothes.

The three of them made their way back through the maze of corridors, emerging into the dining area. Steering the group towards the Christmas tree’s, Judy led them towards the correct one. The Hopps family broke down the trees by letters; so only certain litters put presents under them. There were six trees in total separated into A-D, E-H, I-L, M-P, Q-T, and U-W. Her parents were yet to have another litter that would push them into the X’s and beyond. Kneeling before the I-L tree, Judy unzipped the case with their presents in and started to stack them underneath. When the job was done, the doe left the bag by the tree for her and Nick to take back to their room later. Judy’s present for Nick was still in her room. Standing, Judy led the three of them back up the stairs to the kitchen. Bonnie wasn’t alone, and what little space had been available on the counter was now covered in baked goods. Judy smiled as she realized who their guest was. “Hey, Gid!”

Turning at the sound of his name, the portly fox grinned at the gray rabbit. “H-hey there, Judy.” He caught sight of the other tod stood with her. “Nick, I heard ya were coming to town so I brought you more of them blueberry pies you like.” He’d sent several care packages of baked goods to the fox while he’d been at the academy.

“You spoil me.” Nick grinned, inhaling the sweet smells of the warm goods.

Spotting the vixen stood just behind Nick and Judy, Gideon turned his attention to her, offering her a smile as he held out a paw. “H-howdy Ma’am. I’m Gideon Grey, pleased to meet ya.”

Marian recognized the name, recalling Judy’s story about being clawed as a kit, and as much as she wanted to scold the fox opposite her, she instead plastered on a smile as she shook his paw. Judy seemed okay with him now, and so did Nick. “Marian Wilde.” She introduced herself, taking her paw back.

“I-is there anything, in particular, you like Mrs. Wilde? I’d be happy to bring you some.” Gideon gestured to the counter laden with food. He hadn’t been made aware of the fact the vixen was coming too, so he’d focused most of his efforts on making treats that he knew Nick and Judy liked.

Stealing a glance at her kit, Marian caught his nod. “I do enjoy lemon meringue pie.” The vixen offered Gideon a small smile.

“Well I ain’t ever made a lemon meringue pie before, but I’ll give it a go for you!” The opportunity to branch out and try something new excited the tod.

Glad she hadn’t come across as too demanding, Marian nodded. “Thank you, Gideon.”

“Well I-I best be heading back to my shop now. But you enjoy them treats and let me know if you want anymore. I’ll try and get a lemon meringue pie to you soon Mrs. Wilde, but if I don’t see you ‘fore, have a good Christmas.” Gideon offered his well wishes to all the mammals in the room, who said their goodbyes too before he left through the back door, heading towards his truck.

Glancing to her pans on the stove, Bonnie reasoned that dinner would be ready in five minutes. “Okay, go and wash paws and take your seats.” She instructed, gesturing with a thumb towards the kitchen sinks.

“Do you need a paw, Bonnie?” Marian offered, uncomfortable with idly sitting by while the doe worked away.

Shooing her guests away, Bonnie shook her head. She was used to cooking for her hundreds of kits, adding a few more mouths to feed was a piece of cake. “No no Marian, please go and sit. I’ve got this.”

Ushered away, the vixen followed Nick and Judy down the stairs to the dining area. Her son and his mate led her to one of the long tables, and the vixen sat with Nick to her left and Judy to his left. Taking some more time to look around her, a small rumbling sound started to get louder and closer, and Marian frowned.

“Brace yourself for the fluffle.” Nick whispered to his mom, grinning. He couldn’t wait to see how she would react to the multitude of bunnies that were heading towards them. If the way they’d responded to him when he’d first arrived was anything to go by, then his mom was in for a treat.

From the corridors leading to the bedrooms came hundreds of baby bunnies, chasing after one another, tumbling into the room in a maelstrom of noise that had Marian’s ears flattening. Some of the rabbits broke off to find their seats, but a significant portion made a beeline for Marian, Nick, and Judy. The vixen was well aware of the size of Judy’s family, but seeing so many kits together, all eyes locked on her, was daunting. Amongst the fluffle she found Sasha, her fur pattern unique compared to her siblings. It didn’t take long before Marian was surrounded, kits crowded around her, clambering onto the seat and table to get closer to her.

“Do you actually wear a fancy headdress?”

“Is your lady in waiting really an old goat?”

“Has Robin Hood taught you how to use a bow and arrow?”

“Gee, you’re very beautiful.”

“Are you and Robin Hood sweethearts?”

“Do you live in a castle?”

“Did Robin Hood come here with you?”

The plethora of questions was overwhelming, and Marian silently cursed her son and his tall tales. Nick had always had an overactive imagination, and the vixen wanted to hear the full story her son had told before she gave any concrete answers. The ones about Robin being with her, though, made her smile falter. The kits were so excited at the idea of him being around, bouncing on their hind paws, eyes wide, and grins fixed firmly in place. She didn’t have the heart to tell them that her beloved husband had passed away, yet they needed to know, if only so they’d stop asking.

“Robin Hood is with Gram-Gram.” Sasha broke through the cacophony, her siblings falling silent. The little doe had perfected the art of silently observing mammals around her, and using their body language as cues. The hush that fell over her siblings told her that they understood, and as a unit they all moved in, grabbing onto whatever part of Marian they could reach to cuddle her, being mindful of her tail. Sasha had reached for Marian’s paw with one of her own and was now holding it while her siblings hugged the vixen.

“Alright kits, give our guests room to breathe.” Stu had arrived just as his offspring had swarmed Marian and had started bombarding her with questions. His large ears had honed in on the conversation, and he felt it was time to step in before Marian became too emotional. Shooing away his kits, who all scrambled to get to their seats, the buck offered Marian, Nick, and Judy a warm smile. “Hey Marian, Nick, Judy. Sorry I couldn’t greet you when you first arrived, the tractor isn’t going to fix itself!” He tugged on the straps of his dirty overalls.

Laughing, Marian brushed aside Stu’s apology. “It’s fine, honestly. We understand that you have a lot of work to do as you prepare for next season.” She’d picked up a few books from the library on her way home from work over the past few weeks, curiosity prompting her to read up about agriculture.

“If you need a paw with anything Stu, I’m happy to help.” Nick offered. He didn’t know the first thing about fixing tractors, but he’d helped Finnick repair his van several times, and the tod figured a tractor couldn’t be too different.

Large ears turning at the sound of a commotion on the other side of the room, Stu shot Nick a smile. “I might just take you up on that offer, son.” He glanced over to the other side of the room, sighing when he saw some of his kits fighting over their seats. “I better go and deal with this lot before they kill one another. I’ll catch up with you later!” He waved his goodbyes, striding across the room to deal with his unruly kits.

Spotting that Sasha hadn’t run off with her siblings, Marian offered the baby rabbit a smile, noting that she was holding a few pieces of paper in her paws. “Hey sweetheart, what’ve you got there?”

“Drawings,” Sasha answered, playing with the edges of the paper. She’d mentioned in one of her letters to Nick that she’d been running low on drawing paper and would have to get more soon, and with Nick’s response had been $20 – enough to buy a new sketch pad and some pretty coloring pencils. The doe had decided to draw a few things for Nick first, as a thank you. “I drew them for Mister Nick.”

Hearing that they were for him, Nick twisted in his seat and opened up his arms, helping Sasha clamber onto his lap. She smoothed out the pile of drawings on the table and started to talk through them, only to be interrupted a moment later by the arrival of Jasmine and Julian, who sat opposite. After Julian and Marian had been introduced, Sasha continued with her explanation. There were drawings of Nick and Judy out on patrol and of them in their apartment, amongst others. Sasha reached the final one in the pile and grinned. “And here’s you and Ju-Ju with your kits.”

The whole group froze, Nick and Judy’s eyes widening while Marian tried to stifle her laugh, going so far as to lift a paw to her mouth to hide her smile. Jasmine and Julian blinked in surprise before they shared a look, and the littermates leaned towards Nick and Judy in sync, not wanting to miss anything. They’d had their suspicions, but now they wanted confirmation.

Nick was first to speak, trying to hide behind his con-mammal mask but finding it hard to do so around the baby bunny. “Remember when I told you Ju-Ju was my girl friend, with a space in the middle, a girl who’s a friend?” The tod figured it wasn’t wise for Sasha to know about their relationship status yet. The whole warren would know by the end of dinner, and that wasn’t how he and Judy wanted Bonnie and Stu to find out.

Scowling, the young doe shook her head. She hated that because she was a kit, adults assumed that she didn’t understand. “Nu-uh. You and Ju-Ju smelled like one another when you last came to visit, and it’s even stronger now. Momma and daddy smell just as strong and they’re married, so that must mean you two are getting married soon and are going to have lots of kits.” She rationalized.

The whole room fell silent, eyes and ears turning towards them.

Marian tried so hard to stifle her laughter, biting on her lower lip. She’d adored Sasha before, but the little rabbit had climbed even higher in her ranking of favorite mammals, all because of her ability to embarrass her son.

Nudging Judy’s hind paw under the table, Nick sought her cooperation. “We live together and work together, that’s all.” He tried to backtrack, hiding his wince as he saw that Sasha didn’t believe him.

“Shared living means we carry one another’s scent like you carry your littermates scent.” Judy stepped in, turning to look around the room and scowl at her siblings, prompting them to return their attention, and their ears, to the conversations on their own tables.

Curious, Julian inhaled deeply, nostrils flaring. Sasha was right; they did smell more like one another now. Nick’s scent was especially strong on his sister. Eyes narrowing, the buck’s mind started to work through the limited information he’d been able to pry from Gideon about fox’s after Nick and Judy’s last visit. “You muzzled her.” He whispered. Gideon had been forthcoming about the fox equivalent of chinning when Julian had pushed. “You two are together.” Not bothering to wait for an answer, he looked to Marian, seeking clarification. He wouldn’t put it past Nick and Judy to try and lie again.

“I’ve known for a while.” Marian let the cat out of the bag with a shrug. They were Judy’s siblings, and the vixen was sure they wouldn’t go running off to Bonnie and Stu and ruin it for her kit and Judy. Besides, Bonnie and Stu already secretly knew anyway.

Folding her arms over her chest, Sasha pouted. “I was right!” She kept her voice down, figuring that if the grown-ups were whispering, then she should too. Eyes finding Judy, the baby rabbit tipped her head sideways as she noticed something odd. “What’s that?” She asked, leaning over to prod at the indent in Judy’s neck, her fur having flattened and parted when Nick had bitten her.

Curious, Marian shifted so she could see better, eyebrows rising as she realized what Sasha was pointing at. Nostrils flaring, she thankfully couldn’t scent blood. Her kit shrank down, tail flicking nervously behind him, and Marian sighed softly as it all made sense. Mating season no longer had much of an effect on her – she’d found her mate, though he was now gone, and they’d had a kit together. Her body was satisfied with what she had, so it no longer drove her crazy when the colder months rolled around. For Nick, though, with a new mate and still in his prime, his hormones were driving him crazy. Reaching out, she brushed a paw over one of Nick’s ears, scritching behind it in a show of understanding.

“Are those teeth marks?” Julian hissed, leaning over the table to get as close as possible to his sister.

Before Julian could grab the wrong end of the stick and all hell broke loose, Marian interrupted. “It’s how we claim our mates.” She clarified, guessing that the buck didn’t know much about fox customs.

“By biting them?” Jasmine asked, horrified.

Figuring showing them would have a greater impact; Marian moved the collar of her shirt, revealing her claim mark. Small patches of fur that no longer grew where her husband’s teeth had broken skin. “It’s very common.” She moved her shirt back over the area, concealing it once again.

“And you’re okay with this?” Jasmine asked her sister, concerned for her safety. Sure she trusted Nick, but he was still a predator, and he was biting his prey mate…

Judy beat down her anger at her sister’s question. Jasmine didn’t know better and was being an overbearing and protective sister, thinking the worst. “It’s fine, honestly.” She reassured her sibling. Judy watched as Julian and Jasmine shared a look, and though the doe had grown up with the two mammals opposite her, she couldn’t decipher what the look meant. Had she really been away from home so long that she’d forgotten how to take part in her litter’s silent conversations? She didn’t have time to dwell on it before both Jasmine and Julian were nodding, sitting back in their seats, seemingly satisfied with her answer.

Swallowing, Nick spared a moment to think about how strange his customs must be to Judy’s family. She’d adapted to his species a lot, but he was yet to take on more of her customs. Nick silently vowed to change that. Turning his attention to the quiet baby bunny in his arms, Nick offered her a gentle smile “Cinnamon, sweetheart. You know I don’t ask much of you, but please promise me you won’t tell anyone else about this. Ju-Ju and I need to speak to your mom and dad alone about it, and we don’t want them hearing it from anyone other than us.”

“I promise Mister Nick,” Sasha vowed, sensing it was serious by Nick’s tone. She didn’t want to accidentally upset him.

Kissing the kits forehead, Nick’s shoulders dropped in relief, and from the corner of his eye, he could see Judy do the same. “Thank you, princess.”

“How long?” Jasmine demanded, wanting all the details. She spotted her mom coming down the stairs with some dishes and figured conversation would soon have to cease. She wanted as much information as possible between now and then.

“Since their last visit here.” Marian chimed; taking a sip of water from one of the many glasses that had been laid out.

Astounded, Julian blinked. “You’ve been keeping it a secret for that long?” The buck felt a pang of hurt this his littermate hadn’t felt comfortable coming to him with the information, though he understood she could have doubts given his reaction to Nick during their last visit. How could she have kept such information from their parents, though?

“We wanted to tell mom and dad face to face, and this is the first opportunity that’s come up. That, and being apart while Nick’s been at the academy has been difficult for us. We didn’t want to add the stress of having to tell others.” Judy explained, sparing a glance to her mate. Thankfully, their time apart was in the past now. Nick would only have to go back for a week to sit his exams, and then they wouldn’t have to be separated again for any length of time. “Way to sound co-dependent, Judy.”

Jasmine and Julian exchanged a glance, and the buck nodded towards Nick and Judy. “We won’t say anything.” He vowed, realizing how important the reveal was to his sister. The rabbit knew his parents would be okay with it, they adored Nick, but telling a parent that you were seriously involved with someone was a big deal, even more so when it was interspecies.

Both doe and tod sighed in relief, offering Jasmine and Julian smiles as Bonnie started to put down plates of food at the far end of their table. “Okay Sasha, you need to take your seat now.” Judy tried to make her little sister move so that Nick would be able to eat without her perched on his lap, but the baby bunny refused. Instead, she clung to the fox.

“I don’t wanna go.” She whined, lower lip wobbling.

Knowing it probably made her seem like the evil big sister, Judy shook her head. “There’s no space for you here, Sasha. You can’t sit on Nick’s lap while we eat.” She tried to be gentle, to coerce her sister into agreeing with her.

Watching the conversation, Marian knew she’d have more time with Nick once he’d passed his exams, and the amount of time he’d get to spend in Bunnyburrow would decrease. Making a decision, the vixen looked over to Jasmine and Julian, gesturing to the space between them. “Think you have room for an old vixen on your side of the table?”

As Marian was their guest, Judy didn’t want her to feel like she had to move to placate Sasha. Opening her mouth to say as much, the vixen cut her off.

“It’s fine, Judy, really. I’m happy to move.” Marian shrugged, not at all bothered. Sasha offered her a toothy grin, and as the vixen moved to the other side of the table, the baby bunny took her seat.

“Thank you, Missus Marian.” The little doe kicked her legs where she sat, grin still in place as Marian took her seat opposite Nick.

Picking up Sasha’s drawings, Judy folded them neatly, putting them in her pocket for safekeeping. They had space on their fridge, and she was sure Nick would stick them there.

As Bonnie reached them, the Hopps matriarch started to set down their meals. Judy had sent her an email with some recipes appropriate for Nick and Marian ahead of time, and her mom had dipped into them for dinner. The doe became a silent observer to the scene around her, watching Nick and Marian interact with her family, brain stuck on Sasha’s drawings and the bite on her neck. Mind whirring, Judy came to an important decision. It was time.

Once dinner was over, and the plates had been cleared away, Marian was elected as the bedtime story teller, and the vixen led a giant fluffle of baby bunnies towards one of the upstairs common rooms. She had a few stories in mind to tell the kits, fox tales that she’d told her son during his youth.

“I think your mom handled that like a champ.” Judy commented as the room emptied, turning in her seat so that she could face her fox. During dinner Marian had maintained conversation with them and Judy’s siblings, speaking to any rabbit that had approached her and introduced themselves. Hazel had come up mid-way through dinner, keen to meet the mammal who’s clothing she loved. Judy had been sending her photos regularly of the outfits the vixen had made for her. The two had chatted away for some time, and when Hazel had left, she’d been wearing a broad grin.

Reaching down, Nick grabbed Judy’s legs, bringing them up so they crossed his lap and she sat sideways on the bench seat. Paw stroking the silky fur on Judy’s calf; Nick shrugged while wearing a smile. “She’s used to kits, she had me, and I was a pawful.”

“Some things never change.” Judy teased, unable to resist.

Chuckling, Nick gave Judy’s leg a gentle squeeze. “Always wounding me.” The tod spared a glance around the room, spotting Bonnie and Stu nearby. “Bonnie, Stu.” He called out to them, gesturing for them to come over. Nick watched as the doe and buck shared a look before they moved to join them. “Judy and I were wondering if we could perhaps steal a moment of your time. We have something we’d like to talk to you about.” The fox kept his reasoning vague, but he still swallowed nervously.

Bonnie and Stu hid their smiles, and both mammals bobbed their heads in agreement. “Sure Nick, give us five minutes to make sure that Marian is okay with the kits and then we’ll join you on the back porch.” Bonnie offered, wanting to drag this out a little longer and torment them.

Agreeing, Nick and Judy waited for them to leave the room before they made to move. They’d decided to tell her parents soon, and she didn’t want her fox suffering anymore, feeling like he couldn’t touch her or kiss her in the public areas of the warren. Now was as good as any time to bring them up to speed. Once her parents knew, it wouldn’t be long until all of her siblings found out and they’d face a litany of questions. Swinging her legs from Nick’s lap, Judy stood, offering out her paw to her fox. He took it without hesitation, and they headed towards the back door, exiting the warren.

The cool evening air ruffled Judy’s fur, and the doe gave her arms a quick rub to warm up. She’d forgotten how chilly it could get in Bunnyburrow during the winter. “How do you want to approach this?” She asked as she stood at the porch railings, looking out over the fields. Her night vision was poor compared to Nick’s, but she knew the land so well that she could picture the trees in the distance. From the corner of her eye she spotted the support beam Nick had pressed her against last time they’d been here, when they’d finally shared their feelings and first kiss. The memory made her smile.

“They’re your parents, you know them better.” Nick moved the ball back to Judy’s court, tail swishing with nervousness. He could feel the urge to stand close to Judy again, to reach out and touch her, kiss her and love her. He settled for standing by her side at the railing, tail flicking to wrap around her ankles.

Thinking it over, Judy decided on the best approach. Her parents were no-nonsense and didn’t like being led on some wild chase for the truth. “We just have to be honest and come out with it.”

“Come out with what?” Stu asked, having caught the end of Nick and Judy’s conversation as he and Bonnie had stepped out onto the porch. Marian was settled with the kits, all of them enthralled with her story, so he and his wife had exchanged a knowing look before stepping outside.

Eyes widening, Judy spun on the spot, aware of Nick’s tail and being careful not to step on it. “Oh, um, hi.” The doe winced at how awkward she sounded, spotting the small movement of Nick’s shoulders in her peripheral as he quietly snickered.

“What’s bothering you, Judy?” Bonnie settled for the concerned mother act, taking the few steps towards her daughter and the tod so she could place a paw on Judy’s shoulder, just as Nick turned to face her and her husband too.

Shaking her head, the corner of Judy’s lips quirked upwards at how her mom automatically assumed something was wrong. “Nothing’s bothering me.” She reassured the other doe. Judy had to actively stop herself from thumping one of her hind paws. Though she was an adult, Judy felt like a kit now that she was faced with the prospect of telling her parents about her first serious relationship.

Tail still curled around Judy’s ankles, Nick remained quiet, leaning back against the porch railing. He’d been the one to break the news to his mom; it was Judy’s turn to break it to her parents. The tod wasn’t completely heartless, though, and he reached out to grasp one of Judy’s paws in his own, giving it a gentle squeeze. Violet eyes turned to find him, and Nick offered his mate a reassuring smile. He watched as she took a deep breath, never breaking away from his gaze.

Judy found comfort from Nick’s touch, and courage from his gaze. “Nick and I are together.” She declared, offering her fox a soft smile. If her parents objected she would fight for them, and if it made them uncomfortable then the doe was ready to leave and head back to the city. She loved her parents, and though she respected their opinion, she knew, deep down, that being with Nick was right. They were meant to be together.

“We know.” Stu blurted out, earning himself a sharp thump to the chest from his wife.

Shaking her head, Bonnie tutted. “We were going to drag it out, Stu, and make them squirm!” She scolded lightly, turning her attention back to Nick and Judy, finding her daughter staring at them with slightly widened eyes and a slack jaw.

Nick wasn’t overly surprised, he’d come clean to Bonnie and Stu about his feelings for Judy all those months ago in this very spot, but he hadn’t kept them updated as to how his conversation with Judy had gone. He hadn’t told them that they were dating or given them any indication that the conversation had gone well.

“You knew?” Judy turned to look at her parents, seeking clarification, wondering why they hadn’t said anything before.

Nodding her head, Bonnie chuckled. “Of course we did, why do you think we kept pushing you two together?”

Judy blinked as everything started to make sense. “You were setting us up.”

“Marian was in on it too, and so was Jasmine,” Stu added, trying to spread the blame.

“You sent us back here to watch the house on purpose.” Judy breathed, turning her attention to Nick. Her fox looked a little guilty. “Were you in on that too?”

A nervous smile crossed the tod’s muzzle, “Last time we came to visit, after I panicked and before you came out here to speak with me, they found me out here.” Nick admitted. “I told them about my feelings for you then, and they suggested I find an opportune moment to tell you…”

Scowling, the doe folded her arms over her chest. “Which just so happened to be when the fireworks went off?”

“I mean, it was kind of romantic if I do say so myself.” Nick joked. He couldn’t have timed it better if he’d tried.

Features softening, Judy couldn’t be mad at her fox. Her parents, on the other paw… “Why didn’t you say anything?” She turned her attention to them, lifting an eyebrow as the corners of her lips curved downwards.

Bonnie took the lead, not wanting her husband to put his hind paw in it again. “We just didn’t want to be pushy.” She explained. Judy was an adult, and though she still needed guiding every now and then, they tried to let her find her own way most of the time.

“Like that’s stopped you before.” The retort was out before Judy could stop it, and the does eyes widened as she realized how rude her comment was. Time away from her family and dealing with her boisterous coworkers had resulted in the doe learning to be a little sassier.

“Judith, don’t get snippy with your mother. All we wanted to do was help.” Stu scolded, noting that Judy’s ears drooped as she apologized. Though his daughter was a grown mammal, she was still his kit, and he was well within his rights to tell her when she was overstepping the mark.

Sighing, Judy’s shoulders dropped. While she appreciated that her parents had wanted to get her and Nick together, their way of going about it still made her uncomfortable. “I know… It’s just frustrating that you guys went behind my back.”

“Bun-bun, if we hadn’t of set you up and forced you two to talk, you would’ve continued to dance around the issue and would’ve driven us all crazy in the process. I think it all worked out for the best in the end though, no?” Bonnie pointed out. While watching Nick and Judy try to navigate their feelings for one another had been endearing, it had also been frustrating. There had been many times when all Bonnie had wanted to do was smack their heads together and demand they kiss and get it over with.

Turning to look at her fox, violet found emerald and Judy’s featured softened as she offered him a gentle smile. Head tilted to the side a little, the doe reached out for him with a paw, and Nick took it without a moment’s hesitation. Her mom was right, they’d needed that little extra push, that small dose of courage, to get them to finally come clean with one another. Giving Nick’s paw a squeeze, the doe took a step closer to him, letting him pull her into an embrace, her head resting against his chest as she tucked herself under his muzzle. “Yes. Yes it did.”

Chapter 32 – A Wilde Always Pays His Debts

Christmas; the most wonderful time of the year. At least that was what the song on the cruisers radio was warbling. Judy wasn’t feeling too wonderful, though.

“I’m sorry again Judy, I didn’t think he’d take that shortcut,” Wolford broke through the stony silence between them, sparing a quick glance towards Judy as he drove her home. They were meant to report back to the precinct first before clocking out, but the rabbit in the passenger seat was in no condition to be walking through the shiny, clean corridors of the ZPD. The timber wolf’s sensitive nose had been forced to smell the disgusting odor coming from Judy for the past thirty minutes as they drove from the Canal District back to Judy’s home.

Trying her hardest not to focus on the fact she smelled like a sewer and her fur was starting to mat, Judy failed to hide her grimace of disgust at her current state. “It’s fine Connor, it’s not your fault at all. I didn’t know he was going to use that route, and you wouldn’t have been able to fit down those drains anyway.” The doe knew her size made her a valuable asset to precinct one. She was able to get into the small spaces that her colleagues couldn’t. Sometimes, like today, that wasn’t necessarily a good thing.

The day had been quiet for her and Wolford until they’d spotted a raccoon slinking down the street they’d been parked on. His face had been familiar to them both, a picture of him pinned to the board in the break room. There was a warrant out for his arrest. In her usual manner, Judy had tackled the problem head on and confronted the raccoon, only for him to start running. The doe had given chase, and Wolford had used the cruiser to get ahead and block the road. Both officers had believed to have him cornered when he’d been trapped between Judy and the vehicle, but the criminal had given them the slip, diving down a storm drain and into the sewers. Judy had been forced to pursue him, and Wolford had called for backup. By the time Judy had tranquilized the raccoon and dragged him out of the sewer, she’d been covered in muck, half of which she didn’t want to know the source of.

As the cruiser came to a stop outside her apartment, Judy thanked Wolford, the pair of them wishing one another a lovely Christmas as Judy had booked time off to visit Bunnyburrow with Nick and Marian. It was already December 20th, and time had flown past since Nick’s last trip home for Halloween. Gingerly exiting the vehicle, Judy made her way down the steps to the basement level and her front door. While fishing for her keys in her pocket, Judy wondered how she was going to get to the bathroom without traipsing all the muck on her fur into the carpet. Just as she pulled her keys from her belt, the front door swung open.

“Hey Fluff, you’re hom-” Nick had heard the sound of the cruiser pulling up outside, and being a gentlemammal he’d gone to open the door for his mate. However, the sight and smell that greeted him were not what he’d been expecting. “What the hell happened?” He looked Judy up and down, nose wrinkling as pungent smells wafted his way.

Surprised to find Nick already home, Judy went to hug him, stopping short when he took a step back, nose crinkled and eyes fixed on her matted fur. “Chasing a perp,” she sighed, the sting of rejection faint. She knew that any other time Nick would jump at the chance to embrace her, but she currently smelt like a sewer.

“Did you get him?” Nick questioned, already formulating ways to get Judy into the shower. His doe nodded, humming her agreement. “Well, at least you didn’t get filthy for nothing. Wait here, I’ll grab some towels, and we’ll make a mini walkway to the bathroom.”

As Nick disappeared, Judy started to remove her uniform, first her belt and then her vest. It would all need to be disposed of, there was no way she could salvage it and get the smell out. She’d need to shampoo herself several times just to get her fur clean. Not wanting the scent in the house, she ditched her belt and vest by the front door, grateful for the fact they had a basement apartment and no one on the street would be able to see her. Stripping off her pants and shirt too as Nick arrived back, arms laden with towels, Judy looked up to find him with a raised eyebrow. “I’m not bringing the smell into the house,” she explained, watching as her mate nodded in understanding and set about creating a walkway of towels. Once the three towels were down, Judy set foot inside, walking to the end of the last one. Nick picked up the other two and moved them in front of her, and so they continued until Judy reached the bathroom. “We’ll probably have to throw out those towels too,” she sighed, grateful for the tiled bathroom floor that she could just wipe clean later.

“You shower and let me worry about this. I’ll empty out your belt and get rid of everything else,” Nick offered, not wanting his mate to worry. He also wanted her to hurry up and get in the shower so the smell would go away. With a nod, Judy shut the door, and Nick heard the water running a moment later. Satisfied, he turned his attention to the filthy towels and the ruined clothes outside. “The things you do for those you love.” He shook his head fondly.

It took four lots of shampooing for Judy to feel like all of the muck was out of her fur, but even then she still thought she smelled, so she shampooed once more before she stepped out of the shower, using one of the clean, fluffy towels to dry herself off. Judy had to go slow and be gentle as her fur was a little matted from the rough treatment. Leaving the bathroom in a cloud of steam, Judy trudged to their bedroom. Nick had come home with two bags, and both of them were placed on the end of the bed. Excitement bubbled up inside of Judy as she realized they were so close to him being permanently home. He was home for three weeks now, and after New Year he’d only be returning to the ZPA for a week to sit his final exams. With a smile still on her face, the doe changed quickly into her underwear. As she went to grab some yoga pants and a shirt, though, she caught sight of herself in the mirror. “Oh, sweet cheese and crackers.” Changing tactic, she picked up her brush from the dresser and made her way to the living room.

“Hey Slick, I hate to be a pain but do you think you could brush some of these mats out please?” she asked as she walked into the living room, finding Nick sat on the couch. Her fox looked up, and his jaw slackened. “What?”

Caught off-guard by Judy’s sudden appearance in the living room in only her underwear, Nick’s brain could only focus on the fact his mate was half naked. “Have I ever told you how beautiful you look in your underwear?”

Blushing, Judy’s ears drooped, and she pulled them over her shoulders to try and hide behind them. She was more comfortable wearing less clothing around Nick now, especially after their shower the last time he’d been home, but she’d never had another mammal give her such a compliment before. Bucks had called her pretty in the past, flattered her with sweet words, but the sincerity in Nick’s voice and the weight of his gaze were very welcome. “Thanks, Slick.”

Sliding off the couch, Nick sat on the floor, back to the sofa as he placed a pillow in front of him. “Come on, let me brush those mats out,” he offered, patting the pillow. As Judy came and sat before him, the tod swallowed. “The world is testing me by putting me in the same room as my half-naked bunny during mating season.” Taking the brush from his mate, Nick started to brush the fur on the top of her head, working methodically to ensure he caught every little mat.

They sat in silence for a while; the only sound in the room their breathing and the strokes of the brush. Judy started to purr, grinding her back teeth together as Nick gently combed out all the knots in her fur. The tod couldn’t stop the end of his tail flicking in contentment as he worked the brush over Judy’s small frame. Coming home this time had been a nightmare. He’d had to empty out his wardrobe and locker at the academy, and his mom had ended up sending him a suitcase to go with the duffle bag he’d arrived at the ZPA with. His mom had also been helping him buy Christmas presents, and in his suitcase, he had gifts for Judy, Bonnie, Stu, Jasmine, Julian, and Sasha. Judy had picked up his gift for his mom.

“Your winter coat has come through,” Judy commented, breaking the silence. She’d noticed how much fluffier her fox was when he’d opened the door, but the sludge on her fur had taken priority. She was itching to take the brush from him and return the favor, to run her paws through his soft, long coat.

Nodding as he worked on Judy’s left side, Nick hummed his confirmation. “It’ll stick around for a few months, so there’s plenty of time for you to enjoy it,” he teased, remembering how his doe hadn’t been able to keep her paws to herself the last time he’d been home, always running her fingers through his fur. Silence settled between them for a few minutes as Nick swapped to Judy’s right side, her clothes having stopped her fur from matting too much. “Tony left his mistress, by the way.” Nick filled Judy in on some of the ZPA gossip. During their phone calls, he often touched upon the goings on in the lives of his fellow cadets.

“Did his wife take him back?” Judy questioned, remembering everything Nick had told her about the tiger and his antics. Part of her hoped the tigress had told Tony where to shove it, that she wouldn’t tolerate him playing the field anymore, but from what little she’d heard about his wife, Judy had a feeling she’d eventually forgive him.

Moving to brush Judy’s lower back, Nick shrugged, even though the doe couldn’t see the action. “I don’t know, he hasn’t said much since he told us that he broke things off with his mistress. I think he’s hoping to grovel over Christmas break and try to show her how sorry he is.”

Scowling at the information, Judy’s hind paw began to move as if she were thumping the ground. “I hope he doesn’t think he can ‘show her how sorry he is’ by just buying her something nice for Christmas. That’s a cheap tactic.” The doe didn’t know Tony’s wife, but she knew females in general. If he really wanted to buy her something, then purchasing a meaningful gift was better than buying an expensive one.

“Tony can be a pain, but he knows he messed up and it’s going to take a lot to earn his wife’s trust again. I think he was planning on taking her out dancing and then for a walk through Marsh Park tomorrow night,” Nick said, relaying what little information Tony had shared with him before they’d parted ways at Savannah Central. The tiger had been uncharacteristically subdued on the journey back from the academy, and Nick’s years on the streets had taught him how to read mammals, so it came as no surprise to see that Tony was nervous, possibly even scared.

Leaning forward so Nick could reach her lower back, Judy stretched, touching her toes and undoing all the kinks in her back from her long day. “I don’t know whether her decision to give him another chance is foolish or admirable,” she mused. The rabbit knew that if she were in the shoes of Tony’s wife, and knew her husband had kept a mistress, he would soon become her ex-husband.

“Everyone deserves a second chance, Carrots. I gave you one, remember?” Nick pointed out. He’d spent the best part of eight months in Tony’s company. The tiger was an idiot at times and had no filter, but he was an all around okay mammal. Having a mistress was a huge mistake, and Tony had realized that now and was actively trying to fix it. In Nick’s eyes, that was admirable.

Body tensing, Judy remembered the press conference and all the damage it had caused. Most of all, she felt a rush of guilt as she remembered how much she’d hurt Nick.

Seeing Judy freeze, Nick stopped brushing, abandoning the tool to wrap his arms around the doe’s waist, holding her as he rested his chin on her shoulder. “I didn’t mean it as a dig, Fluff. Mammals make mistakes, and yes some of them are foolish and could’ve been prevented, but it’s what makes us who we are. We learn from those mistakes, and we grow from them. Some of us then end up prancing around our feelings until eventually, we end up shacked up with the mammal we accidentally hurt, living in interspecies sin, and loving every moment of it,” he teased, hoping to lighten the mood.

Caught off guard, Judy snorted as a grin crossed her lips. Sinking back into Nick’s embrace, she forgot about her guilt. “It was hard to resist your charm, Slick.”

“I am quite charming, it has been said.” The tod dropped a kiss to Judy’s shoulder, hiding his smile in her fur.

Snickering, Judy twisted, turning in Nick’s grasp until she sat facing him. “Careful, or your head won’t fit through the door.”

Inhaling sharply, Nick brought a paw to his chest, letting it rest over his heart. “Wounding me again! You really need to stop this, Carrots,” he dramatically admonished. In truth, he enjoyed Judy’s teasing and had missed it while away at the academy.

“I’ve got to keep you in line somehow.” Judy was on a roll, and the joy at having Nick home was hard to contain. Their apartment wasn’t the same without him, and his scent had just been starting to fade. Judy had tried to preserve as much of it as possible over the last month and a half, but it had been futile as Nick had so few belongings. Their bedding had lost his scent after the first wash once he’d returned to the academy, and no matter how much of her face Judy had smushed into the pillow, she hadn’t been able to catch a trace of it. When loneliness had struck, she’d turned to their wardrobe, grabbing one of his Pawaiian shirts to bury her nose in. She would never admit to having occasionally fallen asleep clutching the gaudy fabric.

Shaking his head fondly, Nick dropped his paw from his chest, reaching out to touch Judy’s knee, needing the physical contact after spending so long without her. “There she goes again,” he tutted. Corners of his lips quirking up into a soft smile, Nick knew their alone time was limited. Tonight they would be heading to his mom’s to give her the case full of cash, and tomorrow they would be heading to Bunnyburrow for a week. “I’ve been talking to mom a lot about the past.”

Surprised, Judy offered the tod an encouraging smile to keep him talking. She knew how much he hated bringing up the past, but opening up to his mom was a good thing. He couldn’t solely rely on Judy, couldn’t just open up to her, that wasn’t healthy. “Yeah, what have you talked about?”

“I’ve been telling her a little more about my hustling and life on the streets.” Nick had been drip-feeding his mom information during their weekly calls, trying to weave it into their general conversation. The last thing he wanted was to overwhelm her again, to upset her and make her cry. “She seems to be taking it okay, but I can see she still feels guilty.”

Paw finding Nick’s on her knee, Judy gave it a gentle squeeze. “She’ll probably always feel a little guilty, Slick.”

“It was my choice though. She shouldn’t beat herself up about it.” Nick wasn’t one to whine, he’d always made the best of a bad situation, but the fact his mother still acted like it was her fault upset him. No matter what he said, she didn’t seem to think any differently.

Sensing her mate’s need for comfort, Judy reached out, fingers brushing his cheek, stroking the thick fur. “She’s your mom, she’ll always feel like she could’ve done more. We know she couldn’t though, that things were tough for her too. We just have to remind her all the time that we love her and that everything is fine now, that the past is the past and we have to move forward.”

“When did you get so wise?” the tod sighed, his paw leaving Judy’s knee to stroke her cheek in return, claws dragging lightly. He half expected her to flinch away, to think of when Gideon had clawed her as a kit, but instead, she leaned into his touch. It was a testament to how much she trusted him, and it warmed his heart.

Spotting an opportunity to tease Nick and lighten the mood, Judy took it. “When I started dating an old fox.”

“With age comes experience,” the tod shot back, offering his bunny a wink, which had her laughing. Nick had missed the sound.

Picking up the brush, Judy threw it onto Nick’s lap. “Get back to brushing, fox.” She offered out her other leg.

“Yes, rabbit,” Nick mock saluted before the two mammals shared a grin. Picking up the brush, he started to work on Judy’s legs. After this, he only had the brush her chest. He’d purposefully saved his favorite part for last.

“I had lunch with Akita a few days ago.” Judy picked a new topic. She’d been going out for lunch a lot lately with friends, even catching up with Bandit on occasion. The doe had felt it best to keep Nick informed about her comings and goings if only to try and soothe his insecurities and show that she wasn’t hiding anything from him. She’d half expected him to still disapprove of her spending time with Bandit, but Nick surprised her. The first time she’d told him they were going for lunch, he’d wished them a good time and told her to pass his regards on to the arctic fox. The second time, he’d asked how the first time went, but the tone of his voice hadn’t held any of its previous jealousy. Judy could tell Nick still wasn’t entirely comfortable with it, but he was making progress, and the more he was able to see how harmless it was the less it bothered him. She hoped in the future that she wouldn’t have to tell him her plans to soothe his insecurities, but because she simply wanted to keep him in the loop.

Finding a tangle, Nick focused his attention on it, ears pricked forward still to listen to his mate. “How did it go? Did you ladies have fun?”

“Mhm,” Judy hummed. When Akita had broken the news to her of her engagement shortly after Nick had returned to the academy, the doe had filled him in during one of their calls. She’d been unaware, however, that the tod already knew of Bandit’s plan to propose. “We spent a lot of time talking about the wedding. They’re thinking of getting married in May and are in the process of picking a venue. She’s also asked me to be the maid of honor, and she’s gone for a pastel theme. We’re planning on going dress shopping after New Year, and I can’t wait to see Akita trying on wedding dresses. She’s thinking about of an off-shoulder dress, sticking with the white theme, but she’s still undecided if she wants a train or not…” Judy trailed off, catching the amused smile on Nick’s lips. “What?”

“Has anyone ever told you how cute you are when you get excited?” The sentence slipped out before Nick could rethink it, and the tod’s eyes widened as he realized what he’d just said. “Sweet! I meant sweet,” he corrected himself, praying he hadn’t insulted Judy too much as he paused brushing.

Habit had Judy opening her mouth to correct Nick, to ask him not to call her cute, but she shut it as another thought hit her. If Nick were a buck and they were dating, he’d be able to call her cute all the time, and it would be fine. Would it really be bad to let her fox use the term? Mulling the thought over for a moment, the panic on Nick’s face prompted her to start talking. “Do you know why we don’t like being called cute by mammals who aren’t rabbits?”

Rather than risk putting his hind paw in it again, Nick shook his head, brush still in his paw.

“It started off as a derogatory and condescending term towards us, and it mostly still is amongst other species, but we rabbits began to reclaim it. Amongst rabbits, it’s now a verbal cue as to the bond between us, be it friendship or something more. We don’t like those who aren’t rabbits using it because of the context they usually say it in, it’s not meant with endearment like it is within our species, and others often use it to try and hurt us and make us feel inferior.” Judy explained, trying to come up with an example for Nick. “Consider the use of ‘sly’ to describe your species. When another fox says it to you, how do you feel?”

Nick didn’t need to think about his answer. “It doesn’t bother me.” He and Finnick used to joke about which of them was the slyest. Usually, the fennec fox won that argument, his small stature and ability to act as a kit worked in his favor when tricking mammals out of their cash.

“And how does it feel when other mammals use it?” Judy questioned, hoping her example would work.

Recalling the many insults that had been hurled his way since he’d left home as a kit, Nick sighed. He acted like it didn’t bother him, as if the words bounced straight off, but they still hurt. It was better to not let other mammals see that they got to him, so he often countered their abuse with a witty comeback, or he’d hustle them. “As if they’re talking down to me, like I’m less than them.”

“That’s what it’s like for us.” Judy took the brush from Nick’s paw, setting it aside.

Feeling guilty for having used the word, especially now that he understood why it was a sore point for rabbits, the tod reached out to gently grasp Judy’s waist. “I’m sorry, Fluff. I didn’t know.”

“It’s fine, please don’t feel bad about it.” Judy brushed aside his apology. It wasn’t that she didn’t appreciate it, but that the comment hadn’t really hurt her. He had no need to apologize. “In all honesty, as long as you don’t abuse it, I don’t think I’d care if you did use it.”

Incredulous, Nick shook his head. “I’m not going to use a word that insults you, Carrots.”

“And yet the nickname you just used started off as an insult, and look where we are now,” She offered him a smile. “You’re my mate, and if you were a buck, you’d have free rein to use it whenever you wanted. I don’t see the harm in you saying it, because I know you don’t mean it in a derogatory or condescending way.”

“Fluff…” Nick started to protest.

Realising she wasn’t getting through Nick’s thick skull, Judy shifted and straddled his lap. “Okay, let’s try something else.” Reaching out she brushed her fingers across his muzzle. The momentary surprise on Nick’s face as he suddenly had a lap full of bunny almost made Judy laugh. However, she held back on it, knowing this was a serious conversation. She was unsure how Nick would take her idea, but she dropped her voice to a murmur and ran her thumb over his lips. “My sly fox.”

Nick had expected to be insulted by Judy’s use of the adjective, but instead, it didn’t bother him like it did when other mammals used it. Giving himself a moment, the tod rationalized that it probably had something to do with her being his mate, that he knew she trusted him, and that she didn’t mean it with cruel intent. It was teasing, a show of their bond. Understanding crept up on him, and the small bob of Judy’s head in encouragement had him returning the rabbit equivalent. “My cute bunny.”

Judy offered him a reassuring smile. “See, I’m not bothered. Did that bother you?” she questioned, hoping she hadn’t accidentally hurt her fox in her attempt to make her point. The shake of Nick’s head had Judy turning to scritch his snout. “Just be careful when you use it, okay? While I’m not bothered by it, I can imagine a lot of my siblings might be if they hear you say it.”

“Yeah, I don’t need them chasing me with flaming torches and pitchforks. I doubt I’ll use it often anyway, Fluff.” Nick appreciated being given permission to use the word, and he wouldn’t dare abuse that.

The vision of her family chasing after Nick with pitchforks made the doe scowl. She had a feeling it would never happen, most of her family adored her fox and those who didn’t were slowly being brought around by Julian. It didn’t make the picture in her mind any less worrying, though. “I don’t want you thinking any word is off limits to me or worrying that you’re going to accidentally offend me.”

“You know the same applies in return, right?” Nick didn’t want Judy thinking she might end up hurting him. Her little exercise had proven that he took no offense to the usual slurs thrown at foxes when his mate spoke them. Watching as Judy nodded, Nick accepted the chaste kiss she pressed to his lips. The tod wanted a little more, their separation having weighed heavy on his heart, but he was distantly aware of the fact they didn’t have long until they had to head to his mom’s place. If Judy started being enticing now, they’d end up late.

As Judy pulled back from their kiss, Nick found the violet eyes he loved so much, holding her gaze. An overwhelming feeling of love washed over him as the rabbit in his lap offered him a soft smile. She’d been so patient, helping him through his issues, never thinking it was too much and leaving him to deal with it on his own. It was that which had spurred him into asking Friedkin to find Bandit’s number for him, and though the tod had ended up calling the hospital, the arctic fox had passed along his private number and his home address. They’d exchanged some letters and calls since Nick’s last trip home, and together they’d been working through a few more of the tod’s issues. While Judy was doing an incredible job at helping him, he didn’t want to depend on her entirely, didn’t want to keep weighing her down with his problems.

Nick had contemplated seeing a psychologist, but he’d shot the idea down quickly. He wasn’t ready for that intense level of intervention, and he didn’t want to talk to a complete stranger who would probably pity him. Bandit was the next best option, and though he didn’t know the arctic fox very well, if Judy were willing to trust him then Nick would too. The other tod had a good understanding of his relationship with Judy and their situation, and his medical background had proved useful on more than one occasion.

Nick had even been able to use the time to speak to the arctic fox about his positive association therapy with Judy. Their distance had made keeping up with it hard, but they’d decided that each week when Nick called, Judy would fill the bath with ice water and slowly submerge more of her body into it, all the while Nick distracted her by talking about the goings on at the academy. It wasn’t as effective as their trips to Tundratown, and some weeks Judy had made zero progress, but she was able to sit in waist high ice water now, which was something.

Bandit had opened Nick’s eyes to some of the more negative results of his issues. The tod had still had Finnick watching over Judy for him, even though Catstro and his gang were gone. When Bandit had informed him that it was a possible indicator of Nick’s lack of trust in Judy’s ability to look after herself, the red fox had immediately called Finnick and told him to abandon his watch. He needed to start trusting Judy and her judgment, especially as they were going to be partners once he’d graduated.

“I’m sorry about being so difficult,” Nick whispered, breaking the silence. As well as coming up with new ways to tackle his issues, Nick and Bandit had spoken at length about the way Nick had acted towards his rabbit when they’d first met. They’d come to the conclusion that he’d been jealous and had been lashing out at her for it. How could a rabbit become a cop when a fox was left to hustle? They were both seen as incapable of achieving much, so Judy having achieved something had frustrated him. That, and the fact she’d out-hustled him. They joked about it now, and Nick saw the funny side, but for him, it had been his income and his talent, and a little country bunny had bested him.

Confusion clouded Judy’s features as she tried to work out where his apology had come from. “You’re not difficult, Nick.”

“I beg to differ, but I’m talking about the missing mammal’s case. I didn’t take it seriously; I was treating it like some game and had no regards for your feelings or you, until Bogo wanted your badge. It hit me then how genuine it all was, and how much it all meant to you.” He hadn’t been lying when he’d told her that seeing her fail had made him feel better about his life, but when it came down to the wire he’d realized how his petty jealousy could’ve led to Judy giving up her dream. He knew how heartbreaking that was, and Judy had grown on him a little during their time together, so he’d felt compelled to mammal up and stop being a thorn in her side.

“Which is why you stepped in,” the doe had spent some time once she’d handed in her badge and returned to Bunnyburrow going over the events leading up to the press conference, from the moment she’d taken on the missing mammal’s case. It hadn’t taken her long to come to the conclusion that the street hustler had disliked the fact she’d become a cop, and had purposefully tried to slow her down and cause her as much grief as possible. With a shrug, Judy knew the past was in the past. They couldn’t change it, but they’d managed to make something better of it. They’d made up, solved the case properly, and Nick was now in the final stage of joining her at the ZPD. “It’s okay, Slick. I blackmailed you into helping anyway. It wasn’t like I was expecting you to cooperate.”

Shaking his head, the tod frowned. “And I hustled you, even though you’re a cop.” At the time he hadn’t cared, and even now he found it amusing, but he could see how much of a stupid move it had been. It was one thing to hustle an unsuspecting member of the public out of cash but to con a cop who could arrest you in a second? Not a good idea.

“I was a dumb bunny and fell for it,” Judy pointed out. Nick wasn’t to blame; he’d just been trying to make ends meet. He’d spotted an opportunity, and he’d taken it, she couldn’t fault him for that.

Reaching out, Nick brushed a clawed finger across Judy’s cheek. “You’re not a dumb bunny, Carrots. Please don’t think about yourself that way.” He hated hearing her put herself down. Figuring they were in the midst of a deep conversation, the tod had something he wanted to talk about, but he knew it was a bit of a topic leap. “Can I ask you something personal?”

“Slick, I think we’re way past personal now,” Judy snorted. There wasn’t anything they couldn’t talk about.

Nodding, Nick phrased his question in a way to not sound accusatory. “Why did you feel the need to be on suppressants?” It had been bugging him ever since he’d found the little container of pills in the kitchen all those months ago.

Having not expected that to be Nick’s question, Judy bit the inside of her lip. “We rabbits have high drives. I didn’t want to jump into anything right away, and I didn’t want to force you into any awkward situations.”

“I wouldn’t have objected, Fluff.” If anything, the tod would’ve relished the opportunity to get his paws on Judy sooner, but he didn’t want her to have any regrets, which is why he was happy to wait and take it at a pace she was comfortable with.

Judy shook her head. Nick’s offer was sweet and all, but she had her own reason for not wanting to subject him to her raging hormones. “That’s not the point, I didn’t want you to feel like it was something you had to do for me, like it was an obligation.”

Sensing there was more to Judy’s comment than she was letting on, the tod pushed a little more. “I guess bucks have a high drive too. Has it ever felt like an obligation for you?” The fox only knew a little about Judy’s past love life, but there were still some blanks he wanted to be filled in.

Judy considered lying, not wanting Nick to know how lacking she was in comparison to him, but they’d promised to be honest with one another, and it wouldn’t do their relationship good for her to lie. “In the past, yes. When I was a teenager I dated two bucks, but I didn’t love either of them, and they didn’t love me. It wasn’t even something that crossed their minds; they were only after one thing. I was so afraid of being left out, I was already seen as strange for wanting to be a cop and move to the city, so I did things I didn’t really want to, but felt obligated to do, to fit in.”

“That’s not how its supposed to be.” Nick’s jaw clenched at the thought of those bucks using Judy like that. She shouldn’t have felt pressured by them or her peers into doing things she wasn’t completely on board with.

“We were teenagers, Slick. I didn’t want to be seen as more of an outcast than I already was, and it wasn’t like bucks were falling over themselves to date me. They always preferred Jasmine.” Judy had taken what she could, wanting to at least gain some experience before becoming an adult. When she thought about it that way, she’d used the bucks in return.

Judy had seemed pretty confident in what she’d been doing the last time he’d been home, but curiosity still had Nick firmly in its grasp. “What did you do with them?”

“Everything you and I have done,” the doe admitted.

Concerned that Judy might see the intimacy between them as a duty or that she may feel she has to push herself to do more than she’s comfortable with, Nick gave her an out. “You know we can slow down, right? I’m not going anywhere, so there’s no rush.”

It didn’t take a genius to figure out why Nick had made such an offer, and Judy’s heart swelled at how much he cared. “It’s not like that between us, Nick,” she clarified. “I’ve never thought that. Whatever we do together isn’t an obligation; I don’t feel like it’s my duty. I want to do it because I love you. I want to share everything with you.”

“I just thought, considering how shy you were at the beginning last time…” Nick trailed off. Judy was a confident bunny, but she’d been a little apprehensive to strip off in front of him.

Smoothing down her ears, the doe tried to hide her blush. “It’s different when you’re with the mammal you love.” She hadn’t stripped off in front of the two bucks she’d dated in her teens, hadn’t wanted to expose herself to them. She hadn’t loved them, so they hadn’t gotten to see her so vulnerable. Nick, though…

“Yeah, I can understand that. I’ve not exactly been celibate. Like you said though, I never loved any of them. They knew that from the get go. I never wanted them to think there was anything more.” Nick felt like he needed to make that clear. He and his past lovers had simply used one another for stress relief.

Curiosity piqued, the doe stopped playing with her ears. “How many?”

“Six.” Nick could remember them all, his first being the most memorable. “All vixens.” He wasn’t sure if that mattered, but he offered the information anyway. Interspecies dating hadn’t been something he’d ever considered until he had met Judy.

The number of partners her fox had had made the doe feel a little lacking, but she had the comfort of knowing that he hadn’t loved any of them, that she was the first in that regard. His experience would also come in useful. “Do you still talk to any of them?” The last thing Judy wanted was to be caught off-guard if they were out and approached by a vixen that seemed a little too friendly with Nick.

“No, and they probably wouldn’t recognize me now anyway. Don’t worry.” He offered Judy a reassuring smile. “I’m more than happy to answer any other questions.” He left the door open in case his rabbit had anything else playing on her mind.

Not wanting or needing to know more, for the time being, Judy shook her head. “I don’t have any, it’s okay.” She couldn’t ignore the pang of jealousy she’d felt hearing that six vixens had got to have Nick before her, but knowing that the relationship the two were sharing now was more intimate and meaningful had eased her mind.

Gently grasping at Judy’s waist, he grinned as the doe reached out to touch him in return, her small paws losing themselves in the fluffy fur peeking out from the collar of his shirt. “Back to suppressants though. You’re off them now?” he double-checked.

“I’ve moved onto Bun-Provera. I have to go back every month for my jab. The ones for other species last longer, but given that we don’t have a mating season and we have a high drive, we need to be topped up regularly.” There were a wide variety of options available to her species, but most of her sisters were on Bun-Provera and hadn’t had any sort of problems with it. Judy had figured that if it was good enough for her sisters, then it was good enough for her. “Regarding having kits, I’d just stop going for my jabs every month, if they’re something you want one day…” she trailed off, unsure.

The tod tried to phrase his answer in a way that wouldn’t put pressure on Judy. He wanted kits, but he had a feeling Judy was trying to break away from the stereotype of does having hundreds of kits by the time they were thirty. “I wouldn’t mind having them one day, but I’m more than happy with what I already have.”

“Slick,” Judy shook her head, finding it endearing how he never wanted to force her into anything. “Yes or no. Do you want kits?”

“Yes.” Though Nick was a little afraid of what kind of father he’d be, the urge to have kits was strong. He wasn’t sure whether it was the season that made him want them so badly, because he was already in his early thirties and kitless, or because the idea of Judy being their mother was very appealing.

Judy didn’t bother hiding her smile, the thought of Nick as a father too sweet to ignore. “Then we’re on the same page. I can’t say for sure when I want kits, but I know I do.” Now wasn’t the best time for them to add a kit to the mix. Nick was about to graduate and start his first honest job, and Judy wanted to spend a few years building up her career before taking time out to start a family.

“My lack of internet access means I haven’t been able to do much research, is it even possible?” That was the million-dollar question. While they could discuss kits until the end of time, it would all be for nothing if they couldn’t conceive.

Remembering the meeting she’d had with a nurse before being given her first jab, Judy nodded. “It’s possible. The nurse told me she’d never heard of a case between a fox and a rabbit before, but interspecies couples can usually have kits. It’s not as common because of the stigma, which is why you don’t see many mixed kits around.”

Hearing they could have their own kits should they desire made the tod relax, shoulders slumping. Spotting an opportunity for a joke, he took it. “Well, then I’m glad we’re taking precautions, so we don’t end up with an unexpected bun in the oven.” The hefty punch to his shoulder caught the fox off guard, and he lifted a paw to rub at the sore spot. “Okay okay, that was bad. I deserved it.”

Laughing, Judy shook her head. “No more rabbit jokes, Wilde.” She wagged a finger at him, violet eyes catching sight of the clock on the wall behind Nick. Gasping, she shot up off his lap. “Oh my goodness we have to go in ten minutes, your mom is expecting us!”

Arriving at Marian’s, Nick was carrying the briefcase with his mom’s half of the deposit box cash. He had no idea what her reaction would be, but he knew that this time he had to be as honest as possible about where it had come from. If his mom thought he’d stolen it, she’d never take it. It would be a lot for her to handle, and she’d need to put it into her bank account tomorrow morning before leaving for Bunnyburrow. While the neighborhood he had grown up in was safe, Nick didn’t like the idea of $150,000 lying around. Fox homes were notorious for being burgled as most times the cops turned a blind eye to it, an issue that Nick was hoping to tackle head-on when he graduated. Standing beside Judy, he waited with her for his mom to open the door, the doe having knocked for them. It didn’t take long for Marian to let them in.

“Nicky, Judy, I’ve missed you both.” Marian cooed, pulling the rabbit into a warm embrace before she turned her attention to her son. The briefcase in her kit’s paw confused her, but it didn’t stop her from wrapping him up in her arms. The last time he had visited, it hadn’t been pleasant, and it had taken numerous phone calls and deep conversations between them for Marian to understand the true extent to which Nick had gone to keep her safe and to pay off the debt he owed. The vixen was still struggling to come to terms with it completely, but she was trying her hardest to offer Nick support and create an environment where he could tell her anything and everything. The fact he’d felt the need to hide the information from her for over ten years had hurt the most. She understood he hadn’t wanted to worry her, but she could’ve shouldered some of the weight with him.

Ushering both mammals inside and to the living room, Marian went to the kitchen to get them some water. “What’s with the briefcase?” she asked as she returned, placing the two glasses down on the coffee table.

Nervousness had Nick licking his lips, but as Judy’s paw grasped his, he found the courage to get the ball rolling. They didn’t intend to stick around for long, it was late night shopping in the city, and they needed to pick up a few decorations for their home and some last minute presents, so he’d take the bull by the horns. “We need to talk to you about its contents.”

Pausing, Marian felt her heart start to pound. Surely they’d talked about everything? “Nicky, the last time you said something similar, you dropped one heck of a bombshell on me.”

Wincing, Nick shuffled on the spot. “I think I’m about to drop another on you.”

Taking a deep breath, Marian sat down in the armchair, letting Nick and Judy take the couch. Paw rising to rub at her ears, the vixen chewed on her lower lip, watching her son as he fidgeted in his seat. “Go on then,” she sighed, bracing herself for another horrible confession.

Glancing to Judy, who nodded in encouragement, Nick passed the briefcase to his mom. “The code is my birthday.”

Shaky paws took the case, and the vixen let it rest in her lap. Inputting her kits birthday, the latches clicked free. Swallowing, Marian lifted the lid enough to peek inside, and immediately slammed it shut. “Nicholas, where did you get this?” she demanded, wide, panicked eyes finding emerald.

“Remember the loan caracal?” Nick knew it was painful to bring it up, but he wanted to be honest with his mom. Marian’s sharp nod had him moving on quickly. “He died, and someone found his stash of money and the book he used to keep track of those paying him. They returned this money to me, along with the cash that belonged to other mammals that had died and had no next of kin. I worked for it over the last twenty years.”

Confusion clouded the vixen’s features as she stared at her son. “Who returned it to you?”

As much as Nick didn’t want to lie to his mom, she didn’t need to know about his connections to the mob. The fewer people who knew that he and Judy were friends with Mr. Big and Fru Fru the better. “I don’t know.” He slipped back on his old con-mammal persona, feeling strangely uncomfortable adopting it now.

“Nicholas, a mammal doesn’t just willingly return $150,000 to another mammal.” Marian had been around a while and had come into contact with a lot of different animals in her line of work. She’d never come across one who’d willingly hand back a life-changing sum of money to a stranger, especially a fox.

Needing to stop her asking any more questions, the tod put his hind paw down. “Mom, in all honesty, I’m not questioning it. The bulk of it I worked for, so it’s mine, and the rest was gifted.” He shrugged. No one would come asking for the money, of that he was certain, but his mom needed that reassurance.

“What’re you doing to do with it?” The vixen looked down at the briefcase on her lap. There was so much Nick and Judy could do. They could buy a house, go traveling, and start up a savings fund for their future kits.

Knowing his next answer had the possibility of causing a whole heap of trouble, Nick spared a glance sideways, catching Judy’s gaze. She’d been silent so far, a pillar of strength and reassurance, and Nick reached out for her. Holding her paw, he turned his focus back to his mom. “It’s yours.”

“Nicky, no. Don’t be ridiculous. I’m fine, you need this money.” Marian couldn’t believe what she was hearing. There was no way on the planet she was going to take such a vast sum from her kit.

“There’s the same amount sat in a deposit box at the bank for Judy and me,” Nick admitted, not wanting his mom to worry. Between the deposit box and their wages, he and Judy would be comfortable.

Jaw dropping; Marian sank back into her chair. She couldn’t believe that Nick had made so much money on the streets. Surely with that amount, he’d cleared the debt he’d incurred paying off the mortgage? “I can’t take it,” she decided, closing the latches on the case before she offered it out to Nick and Judy. Her kit had already been through enough for her, and she didn’t want him in any more financial difficulty. He deserved a large nest egg. It would never be sufficient to compensate him for all he’d done to keep her safe, but hopefully, it would let him buy and experience all the things he had missed out on.

Neither Nick nor Judy made a move, instead shaking their heads. “We don’t need it,” the tod stated, getting the feeling that his mom was about to protest and be difficult.

“Please, Nicky. You’ve done enough for me, paying off the mortgage, working to pay back the loan, being hurt to keep me safe. I can’t and won’t take this money from you,” Marian insisted, holding the case out a little further towards them.

Sighing, the tod offered his mom a warm smile. He knew she was stubborn, but he’d never believed her to be this stubborn. “You’re not taking it, we’re giving it to you.”

Sensing she wasn’t getting anywhere with her son, Marian turned her attention to the sweet rabbit by his side, offering out the case. “You take it and give it to your parents, please. They need it more what with hundreds of kits” she worked a different angle. It wasn’t that she didn’t appreciate what her son was doing for her, but knowing how much he’d already done made Marian wary of taking anything else from him. Besides, Bonnie and Stu would be able to treat themselves for once with the cash.

“Mom and dad don’t need it. We want you to have it.” Judy didn’t know how many more times they could tell the vixen that it was for her. As Marian went to open her mouth again, Judy interrupted. “Sure you don’t have a mortgage anymore, sure you make enough to pay the bills and put food on the table, but you don’t have much left at the end of each month to do the things you like to do, Marian. That’s what this money is for. Isn’t there something you want to do that you couldn’t before because you didn’t have the money?”

Judy made a valid point, and it gave Marian pause. There was one idea in particular that stuck out, something she’d wanted to do for a very long time but hadn’t had the cash for. The amount in the briefcase would be more than enough. Feeling overwhelmed and touched that her favorite kits wanted her to have the money, and wanted her to follow her dreams with it, the vixen sniffled as she put the case down on the floor. “I still can’t take it,” she protested weakly.

Letting go of Judy’s paw, Nick rose from the couch, crossing to his mom so he could crouch on the floor beside the chair. Reaching for her, he took her paw in his own. “Carrots and I are fine, we don’t need it. Seriously. We both have jobs we love that make us enough to be comfortable, and the rest in the deposit box is rainy day money. I know your job is wearing on you, even though you like it, but with this, you could quit and take a few years out – go travel, relax, do everything you’ve wanted.”

Pursing her lips, the vixen thought on it some more. The opportunity to quit her job was tempting, even if she did like the work she was doing, but what Nick was offering was a lot of money. She could take it and save it, leave it to her kit in her will, so he would eventually get it back. Marian pushed aside that thought. That wasn’t what he was giving it to her for, and it would be insulting for her not to use it when he so obviously wanted her to. He wanted her to fulfill some of her wishes. Reaching out with her free paw, Marian stroked Nick’s cheek, finding the emerald eyes that matched her own. “You know, when the doctor said that I was with kit, I was so excited. Your daddy cried when I told him. We felt like the luckiest mammals on the planet. When you were born and the midwife put you on my chest, this teeny tiny little bundle, I knew then that you were the most precious being in my life. As much as I love Robert, nothing will ever come close to the bond we share. Whatever I did to deserve such a compassionate, strong, and handsome kit I’ll never know.” Leaning down, Marian pressed a gentle kiss to her son’s forehead. She could feel the vibrations as he purred, and the sound of his tail happily thumping the floor made her smile as she pulled back. “Would it make you happy for me to take this?”

Nodding earnestly, the tod squeezed his mom’s paw. “I want you to be comfortable, I want you to be happy and not have to worry about anything.”

Making up her mind, the vixen gave Nick’s paw a squeeze in return. “Then I’ll take it on the condition that you help me with what I want to spend it on.”

“What are you thinking?” Nick raised an eyebrow, curiosity piqued.

Scritching under her kits muzzle, Marian laughed softly as he tipped his head back, giving her more access. “I’ll tell you after graduation. You have more important things to focus on now.”

“You know by saying that, it’s going to play on the back of my mind. It could distract me.” Nick tried to get the information out of his mom, offering her an innocent smile.

Not falling for her boy’s game, Marian shook her head. “Oh, I’m sure my idea wouldn’t be what distracts you.” Her gaze flicked to the quiet rabbit sat on the couch and Marian did her best to suppress her smile as she looked back at her kit.

Eyes widening, the inside of Nick’s ears went red with his blush as they flattened against his head. The embarrassment that his mom knew he and Judy were intimate caught him off guard. The rational side of Nick’s mind pointed out that of course his mom would know, she had one heck of a sense of smell and they weren’t exactly hiding it, but it was still awkward for him. They’d been pretty open about most things over the years, but Nick had never talked to her about his partners.

Enjoying her son’s embarrassment a little more than she probably should, Marian couldn’t resist tormenting him. “Oh don’t be such a prude. You know, before you were born, and after come to think of it, your father and I wou-“

“Stop!” Nick lifted his paws, begging. “I love you and dad, but Judy and I don’t need to know that,” he insisted.

Still sat on the couch, having been more of an observer during the conversation this time too, Judy snickered. She wasn’t at all bothered with whatever Marian had been about to say. Her parents talked about being intimate all the time. It was hard not to when you had hundreds of kits, all of whom needed educating on the subject once they asked the inevitable “where do kits come from?” question.

“Oh Nicky, you’re still so easy to embarrass,” Marian chuckled, pinching his cheeks as she smiled at him fondly. It would take her some time to emotionally work through the money he’d just gifted her, and there were moments where she felt overwhelming guilt for everything her son had been through. Sometimes she stayed awake into the early hours of the morning wondering if she could have done better, if there had been another way. Yet, the vixen was learning that her stubborn kit, so much like his father, would always find a way to try and help her.

For Marian, things were looking up. Though the news Nick had delivered last time had driven a momentary wedge between them, it had since brought them closer together. Her kit had a good home and job, and a loving mate by his side. He was filling out, a lot more talkative and animated than before, and he was financially stable. There were no longer any major secrets between them, and Marian felt like she finally had her baby back.

Chapter 31 – Try Honesty

The journey to Marian’s house didn’t take long, and given the pleasantness of the evening, Nick and Judy decided to walk there. They would have to return home to pick up Nick’s bag after dinner, but the tod wasn’t scheduled to catch the Zootopia Express until much later in the evening. “How’re we going to tell her about us?” Judy questioned as the building Marian lived in came into view.

“How do you want to tell her?” Nick stole a glance down to his side, at the rabbit holding his paw. Given how much his mom knew about his intentions towards Judy – a tod didn’t buy a bonding bracelet for just any old mammal after all – he figured she wouldn’t be too surprised at the news.

Shrugging, Judy stole a glance up at her fox. “She’s your mom, Slick. You know her better than me.” The doe wasn’t sure how Marian would react to the news of them dating. The vixen was very fond of her, Judy knew that much, but Nick was her kit and mothers could get funny about their sons having other ladies in their lives.

“I don’t think it’ll be much of a problem, Fluff. I’ll come up with something, don’t worry,” Nick offered. They wouldn’t need to sit his mom down and give her some grand talk about them now being a couple. That was overkill. His mom was smart; so Nick could try and drop a few hints at first, see if she’d catch on.

Curious about her mate’s plan, Judy couldn’t resist a jibe. “Now I’m scared.”

“Oh Fluff, wounding me again!” Nick gasped, the corners of his lips quirking up into a smile. He’d missed his doe teasing him; it wasn’t the same over the phone. As they reached the building, Nick pushed open the front door, holding it open to let Judy in first. Once his mate was inside, Nick followed behind her, heading up the stairs and to the third floor. Stopping in front of the cherry red door of his kithood home, Nick lifted a paw and knocked. He felt the urge to wrap his tail around Judy’s ankles; the instinct to stake a claim on his mate was strong, even around his mom. However, Nick forced his tail into submission. Judy had reassured him she wasn’t going anywhere and he had to trust that. Besides, his mom wasn’t about to take Judy from him, even when they told her about their relationship. Marian adored Judy, and Nick was confident she’d be happy for them.

Hearing the knock at the door, Marian double-checked the food on the stove and in the oven. It would only be five-minutes or so before everything would be ready to be served. Tampering down her excitement, Marian hoped that tonight would be the night Nick and Judy would tell her about their relationship. If they hadn’t told her by the time they were ready to leave, Bonnie had insisted she let the cat out of the bag. Heading to the door, Marian unlocked it, swinging it open. “Nicky!” she cooed, reaching for her kit. He’d always come to visit her at least once a month before he’d left for the academy; so going for months at a time without seeing her son was hard. Their weekly phone calls were great, but nothing would ever compare to holding him in her arms.

Engulfed in his mom’s embrace, Nick wrapped his arms around her, hugging back tightly. “Hey, Mom.”

Pulling back from their embrace, Marian held Nick out at arms distance, looking him over. “You look so well.” She couldn’t hide her sad smile. Nick had been so scrawny and tired looking before he’d met Judy. She had no idea what he’d been doing before he’d enrolled at the academy, but meeting Judy had been the turning point. Eyes raking over her son, Marian could see now for herself how he was filling out. Judy had made a few casual comments during their dinners about how Nick was getting stronger, and Marian got the distinct impression that the little rabbit had a thing for that. Inhaling, her nose picked up on the strong scent of Judy on his muzzle, and the vixen’s tail wagged happily at the realization that Judy had chinned Nick. Letting go of Nick, Marian’s focus turned to Judy. Reaching for the rabbit, she hugged her, picking up on Nick’s strong scent on her cheeks. “Judy, my dear. How’ve you been?”

“All well. Thanks, Marian. What about you?” The doe asked as they broke their hug. Marian’s winter coat was coming in too, though she wasn’t as fluffy as Nick, perhaps a side effect of her age.

“Oh much better now that my favorite two kits are here.” Marian ushered them inside, playfully pinching Nick’s cheek as he passed her on his way to the kitchen.

Swatting gently at his mom as she laughed, the tod rolled his eyes as the three mammals entered the kitchen. “I’m not a kit, mom.”

“You’ll always be my kit, even when you’re married with your own little ones.” The vixen moved to stand at the stove. She was aiming for subtle with her comments, even though she knew it wasn’t her forte.

Wide violet eyes turned to find him, and Nick met Judy’s gaze. Marriage and kits were a serious conversation they still needed to have, but given the lack of time left this trip, it would have to wait until Christmas.

Holding Nick’s gaze, Judy’s mind started to wander. Thoughts of what Nick would be like as a father flitted through her head. He’d been so fantastic with her younger siblings, especially Sasha. The baby bunny would be over to the moon to hear that Nick would be coming back for Christmas. Any time she called home her sister would butt in, wanting to know how ‘Mister Nick’ was doing.

The tod could almost see the wheels turning in Judy’s head, and curiosity gripped him. Now wasn’t the time or place to ask what was on her mind though, so he broke their gaze to help his mom, reaching for the cutlery drawer.

Eyes falling to Nick’s paw as he reached out, Judy wondered what it would be like to have Nick as her husband, to introduce him to everyone in such a way. It would be unorthodox, frowned upon even, but Judy didn’t care for wider society’s thoughts on their relationship. Still staring at his paw, Judy imagined a band around one of his fingers. Plain gold would probably suit her fox, though she’d have something engraved inside it, just for him.

“Judy and I had dinner with Akita and Bandit on Friday night, and yesterday we painted our bedroom,” Nick answered his mom’s question about what they’d been up to, managing to drop a hint about their changed relationship status.

Catching her son’s choice of words, Marian hid her smile. The opportunity to torment her boy by ignoring the comment was too great to miss. “Oh, that sounds lovely. Did you enjoy dinner?” Marian was genuinely curious. She’d sensed from conversations with Judy that Nick and Bandit didn’t get along. She couldn’t blame Nick – foxes were possessive by nature – but at the same time, she could see how hard it was on Judy.

Irritated that his mom seemingly missed his hints, Nick scowled. He’d have to think of something else and up his game. “It went well. We had a good time didn’t we, Fluff?” He turned, cutlery in paw, jolting Judy from her thoughts. The slightly glazed expression she wore concerned him, but he figured if it were important she’d let him know.

Snapped out of her thoughts, and trying to figure out what Nick and Marian were talking about, Judy nodded. “Yeah, it was great.”

“How wonderful! Nicky sweetheart, will you go and set the table, and Judy my dear could you grab some plates for me please.” Marian gave them tasks, and they both stepped up. Nick disappeared into the dining room to set the table, while Judy removed three dishes from the cupboard and helped her plating their food. The vixen had settled on smoky hake, beans, and greens for her and Nick, and had made mushroom buckwheat risotto for Judy. Carrying her plate and Judy’s, Marian let the doe take Nick’s.

Having set the table and sat down, Nick watched as his mom and mate entered the room. Marian put down the two plates she was carrying first before she took her seat, and Judy delivered Nick’s meal to him. With his subtle comment not having worked, Nick decided to grab the bull by the horns. As Judy went to move away and take her seat, the tod reached out for her, feeling his mom’s eyes on them as he tugged Judy back until he was able to press a soft kiss to her lips. Judy momentarily froze as she was caught off guard, but he felt her relax moments later. “Thanks, Fluff.” He whispered as they parted, enjoying the blush that colored the inside of her drooping ears.

Feeling her blush and the weight of Marian’s stare, Judy ducked her head. “You did that on purpose,” Judy whispered at her fox.

“You don’t have any evidence to back up that claim,” Nick spoke softly, grinning at his mate. Cautiously, he turned to look at his mom.

Though Bonnie had filled Marian in on seeing Nick and Judy sharing a kiss, seeing it with her own eyes was so much better than hearing about it. Deciding to ditch the ruse, Marian knew she would have to call Bonnie this evening and fill her in. “It’s about time!” The surprise and shock that crossed the faces of the kits opposite her nearly made the vixen laugh. “You’ve been dancing around one another for months. I mean Judy, darling, you weren’t subtle in taking the book on our cultures. Then again, I don’t think it was subtle for me to buy it and leave it there for you…” She mused. “And Nicky, asking me to order a bonding bracelet wasn’t subtle either, especially as it’s around Judy’s wrist. I don’t know how long you two were going to pretend around me that you aren’t together.”

“I guess we were a little worried about your reaction,” Judy admitted, rubbing one of her hind paws over the floor. Marian’s outburst suggested that she’d already figured out their feelings for one another and that they’d inadvertently given them away at some point. “Do mom and dad already know too?” The thought gave Judy pause. Her parents had been more than welcoming towards Nick when he’d stayed with them, and Judy knew her mom was always sending letters and care packages to her fox. “If they already know, that would be a lot easier.”

Turning her focus to Judy, Marian offered the doe a soft smile. She was too cute. “Oh, sweetheart. I gave you a reddish-orange blanket, and I gave Nicky a gray one. Most of the dresses I make for you are green, I’ve shown you Nicky’s kithood photos, and though I might be old, my nose is still sharp.” She looked between the two of them, spotting a blush marring the inside of her kit’s ears. “I’ve known for a long while, and I’ve been rooting for you two since the day you first appeared at the front door.”

Body working on autopilot, Judy took her seat, at a loss about the fact that Marian had wanted them together even before they’d realized their feelings for each other. As the vixen picked up her cutlery and started to eat, Judy’s gaze moved to her fox, and they shared a look. “She’s known all this time and was purposefully dropping hints. Oh Judith, what use are you as a cop if you can’t even spot clues!?” Turning her focus from her mate and to her dinner, Judy picked up her cutlery and started to eat, Nick following her lead.

“When did you two pull your heads out of your tails?” Marian questioned. She knew the answer, of course, Bonnie had called her the moment Nick and Judy had left Bunnyburrow, but she didn’t want to let on just yet that she’d been scheming with Judy’s parents.

Between mouthfuls, Nick used the opportunity to answer. “The Carrot Day Festival. Things were a bit intense.” The tod looked over at Judy, recalling their argument and subsequent make up on the back porch. A lot of their meaningful conversation seemed to happen there.

“In other words, I backed him into a corner and demanded to know the meaning of my bracelet,” Judy clarified. It had all come to a head when they’d been at Bunnyburrow, and there was no way they could’ve continued to avoid having the conversation.

Laughing, Marian shook her head fondly. “I told you hiding the meaning from her would drive her crazy.” Over their dinners together, Marian had noticed Judy’s continuous agitation, and on occasion, she’d seen the doe touching her bracelet then opening her mouth as if to ask a question before she would rethink her decision and close her mouth. She’d told Nick countless times to be honest with Judy, that the doe wouldn’t throw it back at him and deserved to know, but her son had been resolute in his decision.

Rolling his eyes, Nick shook his head. His mom had been on at him from the moment he’d bought it, insisting he tell her. “Yeah yeah, you were right.”

“I’m just glad everything worked out for you two.” Marian let the subject drop, knowing it was a sore point for her kit. The important thing was that Judy was aware of the bracelet’s meaning now, and she’d chosen to continue wearing it. Returning to her food, she waited until Nick and Judy had resumed eating before she spoke again. “So, when am I going to have grandkits?”

Nick’s sharp inhale at Marian’s question sent him spiraling into a coughing fit, and Judy was fast to react, rising from her seat as she reached for her mate, thumping his back. It seemed a common occurrence for him to be caught off guard and end up choking while eating. As a glass of water appeared before them, Judy looked up to find Marian trying to suppress her smile. Handing Nick the glass, Judy slowed her thumps, beginning to rub his back instead. “We haven’t talked about that,” she murmured once Nick had stopped coughing, gaze on her fox’s profile, as she made sure he was okay.

“Yet,” Nick wheezed, pulling his breathing under control. His mom had purposefully waited until he’d had a mouthful, he was sure of it. Judy nodded in is peripheral.

Retaking her seat, Marian couldn’t resist teasing her son one more time. “Well, I’m not getting any younger.”

“Mom.” Nick’s tone dropped, eyes lifting to catch her gaze. The last thing he wanted was for his mom to push and for Judy to feel like they had to have kits to make her happy. It was their decision, no one else’s.

The change in Nick’s tone was all the warning Marian needed. She liked to torment her son but knew that she sometimes pushed it a little too far. “I’m playing, Nicky. I love you both no matter what.” She held her kit’s gaze, making sure he understood the weight behind her words. Grandkits or not, she loved them dearly and would respect their decision. It was their lives that would be changed forever, after all.

Needing to change the subject, Judy moved back to her seat, sure now that Nick was okay. “I was planning on spending Christmas in Bunnyburrow with my family, Marian. I was wondering if you and Nick would like to join us?” She took her seat.

Caught off guard by the question, Marian blinked, surprised. “You want Nicky and I to come and spend Christmas with you and your family?” The idea of getting to see the countryside for the first time in her life and experience the world beyond the city limits excited her.

“If you’d like. I know you two always spend Christmas together.” Judy gave Marian the option to back out if she wanted. The doe understood if the vixen wanted to spend Christmas with Nick in their family home.

Looking to her son, Marian received no help from him as he merely shrugged, leaving the choice entirely up to her. “Bonnie and Stu won’t mind?” Marian questioned. The last thing she wanted to do was turn up to spend Christmas with them when they’d planned just to have their family around.

“Not at all, you’re family.” Judy hadn’t asked her parents yet, but given how well they got on with Marian, the rabbit couldn’t see it being any bother.

Family. The word gave Marian pause. For so long it had been just her and Nick, and even then her kit had been slowly slipping away from her, lost in whatever he’d been doing before he’d met Judy. Getting to spend Christmas in a busy house, to be surrounded by festivity and family, was too good an opportunity to miss out on. Perhaps it would be the start of a new tradition. “We’d love to. Thank you, Judy.”

When dinner was finished, and all of their plates were empty, Judy excused herself to visit the little rabbit’s room, leaving Nick and Marian alone. The tod picked up the plates, helping his mom carry them into the kitchen. Knowing how keen his mate’s hearing was, Nick lowered his voice to a whisper as he asked his mom to send him a care package next week, containing a few specific items. The surprise on the vixen’s face had been all the confirmation Nick had needed that what he had planned was perfect. Having finished stacking the dishes, Nick and Marian headed to the living room, meeting up with Judy. “Mom, there’s something I want to talk to you about.”

Having taken a seat on the sofa, her son’s comment put Marian on edge. “Nicky, what’s happened?” She frowned. Hearing that her son wanted to talk to her was never a good thing, especially as his voice had taken on a somber tone.

Knowing her mate would need her support; Judy sat beside him on the couch, opting to sit close so she could press her thigh against his. The doe had no idea how Nick planned to tackle this conversation, but she wouldn’t intervene unless necessary. This was between Nick and his mom; she was just on the sidelines.

Deciding to start a little into the story, Nick took a deep breath. Judy’s reassuring presence encouraged him to tell his mom the truth. His mate had been right, he couldn’t go on lying to his mom about it all, and he couldn’t hide it from her any longer. The truth would always find a way to come out, better for her to hear it directly from him first. “Back when I was about sixteen, do you remember when I came home to find you crying? You’d just been fired from your diner job, the bills were stacking up, and debtors were threatening you.”

Marian nodded sharply, sparing a quick glance to Judy. Curiosity burned through her veins as to where Nick was going with this, but a small feeling of dread was starting to build in her gut. Their family had a lot of dirty laundry, and though the vixen loved Judy like a daughter, she wasn’t sure how much the doe knew. Losing her job had been embarrassing, their lack of money after Robert’s passing even more so. She’d tried her hardest to give Nick the very best, to ensure he was well fed and dressed, but it had been tough.

“Judy knows everything, don’t worry.” The tod caught his mom looking to his mate, and he too turned to gaze at her. The reassuring smile she offered him encouraged him to continue, and he turned back to look at his mom. “I had decided to start up my own business and make an honest living that.”

The last part of her son’s sentence gave her pause, mind trying to work out why he would use such a phrase. “An honest living?”

Steeling himself, Nick decided it was better to rip the Band-Aid off than dance around the subject. “After I left when I was twelve, I needed to make money, so I started hustling.”

The vixen’s blood ran cold. “Nicky…” The thought of her twelve-year-old kit out on the streets hustling mammals for cash horrified her. She’d figured that he might not be doing anything good as it was hard for a kit to get a job, let alone a fox kit, but she’d hoped he’d end up working for a businessmammal as an errand boy, or washing dishes in some restaurant.

Seeing the horror on his mom’s face, and knowing everything else he had to tell her was much worse, Nick pushed on. He’d started the ball rolling, and he couldn’t stop now. “I wanted to leave that behind. I had this idea to make a theme park just for predators. It was going to be a place where we could be ourselves, without fear; I made a business plan, cash flow forecasts, and a multitude of other documents. I went to every bank in the city, and no one would loan any money to me, even though my documents were solid. Prey mammal’s owned all of the banks, and none of them wanted to lend to a predator, let alone a fox.” He snorted, shaking his head. “So I went and found a loan mammal.”

“No.” A paw came to land across Marian’s mouth, the vixen not wanting to believe her son had been so foolish. Loan mammals were the worst, a law unto themselves.

As much as he wanted to comfort his mom, Nick knew he had to carry on talking. If he didn’t, he’d lose his courage. “He gave me $200,000 upfront to go and buy the warehouse the theme park was going to be in. I came straight here to tell you, to let you know that I was going to do something that would take us into the green, but when I saw you crying…”

Paw falling from her mouth, Marian reached across the small distance between them to rest her paw on Nick’s knee, finding her kit’s gaze, fear unlike anything she’d known before consuming her. “Nicky. What did you do?” Hundreds of thoughts went flying through her mind, each one worse than the last. She needed to know what her son had done, where that money had gone.

“I used it to pay off the mortgage on this place, so you’d always have a roof over your head. I wasn’t about to let the debtors take it; I wasn’t about to risk you ending up on the street or losing the one place you, me, and dad lived together.” For Nick, the decision had been a no-brainer. The theme park had been his dream, but reality had taken over.

Frozen, Marian stared at her son. A lawyer had come to her one day and told her that there had been an error with her husband’s estate, that he had savings which had paid off the mortgage, and stocks and shares which made her money every month. If Nick had paid off the mortgage for her… “The lawyer was lying,” she whispered in disbelief.

Nodding, Nick reached out, placing one of his paws over his moms. “I hired him. I knew you wouldn’t take the money otherwise.” Marian had always been stubborn, a mammal who insisted on taking care of herself, so there wouldn’t have been any chance of her taking the money if Nick had of just handed it to her. Getting her to take the $150,000 he’d set aside for her would be his next challenge.

“Nicholas.” Marian pulled her paw back, torn between being angry and upset. “That money was for your business.” She’d never wanted Nick to feel like their lack of funds was his responsibility. She’d never wanted him to give up his dream because he felt like he had to take care of her. It was supposed to be the other way around. Marian was meant to do everything to take care of him. “How’re you paying it back without a business?” The thought made her features fall, eyes widening. $200,000 was an awful lot of money for any mammal. Even when Nick graduated and became a cop, he wouldn’t have that much spare cash floating around.

“I was hustling until I met Judy.” He figured that he’d already confessed to hustling as a kit, it couldn’t be much worse to admit doing the same as an adult. Keeping his gaze on his mother, Nick felt Judy take his paw in her own, giving it a reassuring squeeze.

Though part of Marian didn’t want to know any more, she felt like she needed to understand what her son had been doing all these years. He’d placed himself in danger by using the money for some purpose other than what it had been intended for, had he put himself at risk working for money to pay it back too? “What sort of hustling?”

“Selling pawpsicles, mainly. I’d get a jumbo-pop from an elephant cafe, melt it down, and make little ice pops in the shape of paws. Then I’d sell them to small mammals as they left work.” Nick explained his hustle. Though he’d toed the line between legal and illegal with his hustles over the years, this one had always been his favorite. It had been easy to execute, legal so long as he had the right permits to paw, and reasonably rewarding.

Dismayed by her son’s confession, Marian couldn’t believe Nick had gone to such lengths. It hadn’t been his job to find money to pay off the mortgage; it hadn’t been his job to take care of her. Tears gathered in Marian’s eyes. When she’d brought Nick into the world, she had vowed to do everything to make sure he was safe and happy, and she’d failed. She had failed as a mother.

“It’s how Judy and I met. I hustled her, and then she hustled me.” Nick had been telling the truth when he’d told his mom about him helping Judy with the missing mammal’s case; he’d just omitted the fact that they’d met before Judy had pulled him into helping. The dismay on his mother’s face had Nick turning to look at Judy, needing to see something positive or reassuring. His mate didn’t disappoint. The small smile on her face was encouraging, but she reached up with her free paw to stroke his cheek, leaning in to press a kiss to the side of his muzzle. Persuaded to continue, the tod turned back to his mom. “I did what I had to to meet payments every month. They were going to hurt you otherwise. I would never let that happen.”

Marian missed the interaction between her son and Judy, her mind too focused on the information Nick had just revealed. However, the mention of being hurt snapped her out of her thoughts. “The bruises…” The vixen could remember Nick coming to see her now and then sporting a faded bruise, wincing as he got up from the dinner table, or walking with an ever so slight limp. To the untrained eye, it wouldn’t have been apparent, but a mother never missed anything regarding her children, especially not one that worked in the medical profession. She’d always asked him about it, but he’d brushed aside her concerns. “You didn’t get them bumping into your furniture, did you.” The question was rhetorical, voice hardening at the thought of Nick openly lying to her every time she’d asked.

“Kind of hard when you don’t have any furniture,” Nick muttered under his breath with an eye roll. It had been a flimsy excuse back then, and he’d questioned on more than one occasion how his mom had bought it. Opening his mouth to give her a more reasonable answer, he stopped at the hard glint he could see in her eyes; freezing at the anger he could see welling up in her.

“What do you mean no furniture? Where were you living that had no furniture? If you were in the Nocturnal District, so help me, Nicholas, I will smack your tail. Your father and I raised you better than that.” The thought of Nick living in the district under the city had always terrified the vixen. It was dark and dirty down there, and mammals with little to no morals enjoyed the fact the cops mostly ignored the shady business taking place over there.

Needing to backtrack, Nick tried to force himself to relax, to seem nonchalant. “It doesn’t matter where I was living, mom.”

“Nicholas Piberius Wilde. Don’t you dare ignore my question.” Marian put her hind paw down. If Nick had been living in the Nocturnal District, then she wanted to know. The only saving grace was that he was no longer there, that Judy had pulled him out of such an immoral place.

Judy had sat by, watching and listening to the conversation, monitoring her mate so she could offer him comfort whenever he needed it. She knew Nick’s former living arrangements were a sore point for him, that the admission of his old ‘home’ would break Marian’s heart even more. Catching Nick’s gaze, she held it, starting the confession for him, tweaking it to fit. “Soon enough those dreams die, and our fox sinks into emotional and literal squalor…”

Nick didn’t want to finish the sentence, didn’t want to voice where he’d been living, but his mom was ruthless. She’d force it out of him or Judy. Not daring to look at her, he kept his gaze on his mate as he took a ragged breath “…living in a box under a bridge.”

It was like someone had ripped out Marian’s heart. Her son hadn’t been living in some ramshackle apartment in the Nocturnal District. He hadn’t had a home at all. Lips parting in distress, Marian screwed her eyes shut, paws clamping over her mouth as she tried to stop herself from sobbing. “You were homeless? Why didn’t you come to me? You have a home here!” she wheezed between shaky breaths, unable to stop a few tears from slipping out, sliding down her fur to leave a damp trail behind them.

It was a gut reaction, the need to reach out to his mom. Nick hated to see her cry, and he hated it even more when he’d been the one to cause her tears. Letting go of Judy, he grasped his mom’s wrists, trying to gently pry her paws from her face so he could see her. He needed to look into the emerald eyes that matched his own. “I would’ve added to the bills, and they would’ve known exactly where to find you. It was safer to be where I was,” he explained, praying that his mom would understand. Everything he’d done had been to protect her.

Too weak to fight off her son’s grip, Marian let him pull her paws from her face. She wasn’t sure which emotion was more prevalent – anger, sadness, or guilt. Staring into the eyes that matched her own, the vixen shook her head. “I don’t care about the bills; you’re more important. You were under a bridge, Nicholas! That’s not safe! How much do you still owe?” she tried to do the math in her head, tried to figure out how much she could contribute every month to keep her kit safe, but the numbers weren’t adding up, and her brain felt like it had been in a blender.

“I don’t owe anything.” At least Nick was able to give his mom some good news. She didn’t have to worry about any mammal’s coming after them.

Knowing her son had hidden so much from her for so long, Marian found his answer hard to believe. “Nicholas…” she warned, not wanting him to lie to her anymore. Her heart was already hurting too much.

Realizing that now was an opportune moment for her to jump in and help her fox, Judy spoke up. “I dealt with it. The loan mammal and his gang won’t bother Nick again. The debt’s gone.”

Furious eyes turned to Judy. Marian had hoped that the sweet doe hadn’t been pulled into her son’s mess and lies, but that didn’t seem to be the case. Fear gripped her at the thought of Judy being hurt too. The rabbit was like a daughter, and she couldn’t risk anything happening to her. “What did you do, Judith?”

Wincing at the use of her full name, having not been scolded for a long while, Judy decided to stick as close to the truth as possible. This was Marian they were dealing with. “I renegotiated. Then the loan mammal died.”

“You killed him?!” Marian felt shell-shocked. Surely the tiny rabbit opposite her hadn’t gone toe-to-toe with a loan mammal.

Knowing she would have to lie, as she couldn’t risk dragging Marian further into her mess, Judy shook her head. “No. He and his gang died in a shoot out at The Cloven Hoof. They were all trying to kill each other.” Judy omitted what they were fighting over; throwing in the location, as she knew it had been broadcasted on the news. Marian was smart; she’d put two and two together and figure it out.

Mind going blank, Marian stared at the two mammals opposite her. A lot had been going on in her son’s life, and she hadn’t known anything about it. She’d suspected a few things, but none of it had come close to the truth. Shaking her head solemnly, silent tears rolled down her cheeks. Disappointment welled inside of her that it had come to this. Nick should’ve come to her; he should’ve told her about everything going on in his life and let her help. Judy shouldn’t have been dragged into this either. Paw rising, Marian pinched the bridge of her snout, eyes screwing shut as her heart ached, heavy with the knowledge that her kit had endured so much because he’d felt obligated to help her. She’d failed him, failed as a mother. She was supposed to protect him from the harshness of the world, but instead, he’d suffered because she hadn’t been able to get a grip on things and manage their finances. Her silent tears turned to sobs, her whole body racking with the intensity of her crying.

Hating the sight of his mother’s heartbreak, Nick left his seat, moving to comfort her. Crouching next to the couch, he reached out to pull her into a hug, yet his mom’s paw shot out, and she grabbed his chin tightly, eyes opening to reveal rage in her gaze. “You’re an idiot, Nicholas.”

Used to hearing such a phrase thrown at him, the tod nodded, the corners of his lips curved downwards. “I know.”

“If anything had happened to you…” Marian didn’t even want to entertain the idea. The streets were dangerous for any mammal, but more so for foxes. Other species sneered at them and thought they were a blemish on society. Nick would’ve been a prime target for any animal, and he hadn’t had anyone to protect him.

Trying to nod as best as he could in his mom’s iron grip, Nick sighed, shoulder slumping. “I know.”

“No, I don’t think you do! I’ve already lost my husband. I will not lose my son.” That was the crux of the issue for Marian. When Robert had been murdered it had only been Nick that had kept her going, the need to provide for her only kit taking priority. Over the years her family had broken contact with her, disliking her association with the Wilde’s. It had been just the three of them, and when Robert had died, they’d been down to two. Marian couldn’t stand the thought of losing Nick, the kit she’d grown and nurtured. Being alone frightened her, and losing the last link to her husband was an unbearable thought.

The mention of his father put Nick on edge, even after all this time it was a sore topic for him. He could understand his mom’s worry, but she didn’t need to be concerned now. Everything was okay. “I’m safe now, mom.”

“Yes, now. What if Judy hadn’t have come along? How long would you’ve hidden this from me and continued to live on the streets, conning mammals out of their money?” she demanded, seeing the rabbit in question from the corner of her eye. She’d always believed Judy had been a blessing in her son’s life, but now she could see just how much of an impact the doe had had on Nick.

Still with his chin held in his mother’s grasp, Nick shrugged. It was a stupid question as far as he was concerned. There was only one answer. “However long it took to pay off the debt. Keeping you safe is my priority.”

“I’m your mother. It’s my job to keep you safe, not the other way around! You’re all I have,” Marian cried, needing Nick to understand. It was her duty to care for him, to provide for him, to ensure his safety. She hadn’t been able to do any of that. Guilt consumed her. Her kit had suffered because of her.

Anger flooded Nick’s body, and he yanked away from his mother’s grasp, paws tightening into fists at his side as his jaw clenched. “You’re all I have too! You lost your husband, but you forget that I lost my father. Every kit in school was talking about their dad, and all I could do was sit there quietly and pray no one asked me about mine because I didn’t want to be the only one who’s father was dead.” Emotions Nick had been trying to keep under lock and key burst forward. He hadn’t had time to deal with the grief of his father’s death, hadn’t had the opportunity to mourn him properly, and it had left a gaping hole in his heart that nothing would ever fill. His mom had been so wrapped up in her sadness and stress that Nick hadn’t wanted to talk to her about it, hadn’t wanted to bother her or weigh her down more. What little friends he had hadn’t wanted to spend time with the sad fox kit, hadn’t wanted to listen to him pour his heart out and cry. They’d abandoned him at the first available opportunity. He’d had no one to turn to. The only way he’d been able to cope had been by pouring his heartache into trying to help his mom. He’d rationalized that at least if she was okay, then life could perhaps regain some semblance of normalcy. “I didn’t want to lose you too. I didn’t want to lose this house and the memories of dad cooking at the stove, or reading ‘Fox in Socks’ to me to help me sleep, or playing chess with me at the dining table. I didn’t want to lose th-”

Pain erupted in Marian’s chest at the painful memories of her husband, and she had to hold her paws up, fingers splayed, sobbing as she listened to her son’s tirade. “Stop, Nicky, please.”

Trembling with a mixture of sorrow and rage, Nick angrily wiped away the silent tears that had fallen during his spiel. He didn’t want to raise his voice at his mom, didn’t want to hurt her any more. Softening his voice, he unclenched his paws, running them over his face before he met his mom’s tear-filled emerald eyes. “I chose to pay off the mortgage, I chose to live on the streets and hustle, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. You’re my mom and I love you. I will do anything to make sure you’re cared for. I will do anything to make sure nothing destroys our memories of dad.” His mom didn’t stop crying, and the tod was a loss. He didn’t know what to say to make it all better, didn’t know how to make her stop crying. Reaching out for her, he noticed his paw shaking. “Mom…”

“No! Enough!” Marian snapped, shrinking back from Nick’s touch, paws rising to hide her face as she tried desperately to stop her tears. It was futile. She felt too delicate, like her heart had been ripped out of her chest and stomped all over.

It was like someone had burst a balloon. Nick’s paw dropped to his side like a lead weight, tail falling between his legs as his ears flattened back in submission, head hung in shame and sorrow. His mom wouldn’t even let him offer her some comfort.

Though Judy had been little more than a bystander in their conversation, she felt her heart break for the mother and her son. Wanting to soothe her fox, knowing his fears of abandonment, she reached out for him. Nick must have sensed her coming though, as he pulled his paw away just before she could reach it. Unperturbed, Judy reached out again, this time forcibly grabbing his paw. She could see him wanting to shake her off, wanting to withdraw into himself, but Judy would be damned if she was going to let that happen. She’d spent far too long pulling Nick out of his shell to let this set them back. Refusing to let him go, she gave his paw a tight squeeze.

“You should go. I don’t want you missing your train.” Marian needed some time alone; she needed to process everything Nick had just told her and work through her feelings. She couldn’t do that with Nick and Judy around. Forcing herself to try and get some composure, the vixen sniffled, wiping at her eyes.

Nick felt like a rhino had sucker punched him. His mom was sending him away. Fear crashed through him that his confession had done irreparable damage to their relationship, that his mom would abandon him now like everyone else had. No matter what though, he would always love her. Leaning down he pressed a kiss to her cheek. “I love you,” he whispered, but when he didn’t get a response he turned, head still bowed, feeling tears slide down his cheeks as he moved to leave the room. Had he just made the biggest mistake of his life?

Up and out of her seat, Judy looked between the two foxes. This hadn’t been what she’d wanted or hoped for. Telling Marian was supposed to lift a weight off Nick’s shoulders, help his mom understand what had been going on in his past, not tear them both down. Perhaps it had been naive of her to think that things would work out for the best, but she’d thought Marian and Nick were stronger than that. They’d overcome so much together already. Moving to the vixen, who had her head bowed, Judy placed a small paw on her knee. “We both love you,” she murmured, releasing Marian a moment later to flee after her mate, who’d already left the apartment and was making his way down the stairs.

Pulling in a few ragged breaths, Marian tipped her head back, staring at the ceiling as she sniffled, the sound of the front door slamming shut echoing around the apartment. For a moment all was quiet, until the vixen’s brain managed to work itself out of its funk long enough to remind her that she just sent Nick away, and he was due to go back to the academy tonight. Something could happen to him while he was away, he could be hurt or die, and they’d have parted on a sour note. Up and across the room in the blink of an eye, Marian yanked the front door open, panic coursing through her as she leaned over the stairwell banister. “Nicky!” she cried out, seeing her son and Judy at the building door. Nick turned to look up at her, and the pain in her kits eyes had her feeling like the worst mother in the world all over again. “Please come back, sweetheart!” she choked out, wanting to erase his pain and hold him.

Wavering, Nick didn’t know what to do. A light push from Judy had him moving through, trudging back up the stairs with his doe following behind. As he reached the third floor, he kept his head dipped, tail down and ears flattened in submission. Primal instincts almost had him bearing his throat. “You sent me away.”

Reaching for her kit, Marian pulled him into a tight hug, arms clamping around him, not daring to let him go. The fear of losing him was too great. “I shouldn’t have,” she whispered, tail curling to wrap around Nick’s ankles, stopping her son from leaving. “I’m s- so sorry Nicky. I’m so sorry,” she cried, tucking him under her chin, rubbing her muzzle over any of his fur she could get to. Disappointment at herself was her primary emotion. She’d pushed her kit away after he’d done so much to protect her, as if his struggles had been meaningless.

Tucked under his mom’s snout, Nick felt like a kit again. The reassuring scent of home filled his nostrils; he could feel the reassuring thud of his mom’s heartbeat on his cheek from where it was pressed to her throat.

Reluctant to let go, but needing to look into the eyes that matched her own, Marian slowly pulled back. Unwinding her arms, her paws came to cup Nick’s face, clawed thumbs smoothing over his damp cheeks. He looked so much like Robert, and he acted just like him too. “I failed you,” she started, carrying on before Nick could interrupt. “It’s a mothers job to care for her kit, to provide for them and protect them, shelter them from the evil of the world. I didn’t do that.”

“It’s not your fault,” Nick butted in, not wanting his mom to blame herself. That hadn’t been the purpose of their conversation. All he’d wanted was to get rid of any secrets between them, fill in the gaps for her.

“Shhh, Nicky.” Marian moved her paws, one cupping his chin while the other stroked along the top of his muzzle. “I could’ve lost you. The world is such a dangerous place and you were knee deep in some nasty business. I’m not angry with you, though. You did what you thought was right. I’m just relieved that you’re here, and you’re okay. I need some time to sort through everything you’ve told me, that was a lot for your old mother’s heart to handle, but I know you’re safe now.” She leaned in, pressing a kiss to his forehead. “No one will ever be more important to me than you. I love you, so much.”

Sniffling, Nick leaned into his mom’s touch. Emerald held emerald and the tod nodded. He couldn’t expect his mom to be okay with everything he’d told her; it had been a lot of unpleasant information. However, hearing that his mom wasn’t angry with him soothed him, pushed away his fear of being abandoned. Eyes closing as she kissed his forehead, Nick felt a shaky smile cross his lips. “I love you too, mom.”

Chapter 30 – A Song of Ice and Fire

The morning light crept through the gap in the curtains, throwing a narrow band of warmth across the bed. Judy had been awake for an hour now, watching her fox as he slept. Now and then he’d snuffle, shifting a little, and it brought a smile to her lips. Their conversation last night had been somewhat cumbersome, but Judy hoped that Nick now realized that he didn’t need to be so possessive. Shortly after their discussion, they’d decided to head to bed, and with Nick’s room still uninhabitable due to the paint fumes, they’d retreated to Judy’s old room, now the spare bedroom.

Violet eyes memorized the slope of Nick’s snout and the tip of his canines just visible through his slightly parted lips. In his sleep, her fox looked carefree, but Judy knew that there was a small storm battling inside of him. His list of issues was diminishing, and Judy felt like they’d made some more progress last night, but there were still a few more hurdles to go. Pride swelled within her at how far he’d come.

The slight change in Nick’s heartbeat alerted Judy to the fact he was waking up, and her smile returned as she reached out, gently brushing her fingers across his muzzle and up to his cheek, down to his throat to a sensitive spot. Scritching lightly, Nick’s tail started to thump against the mattress at her affection, bed sheets rising and falling with the movement as he lazily opened his eyes, a low purr vibrating through him. “Good morning sleepy.”

“Morning Fluff.” Nick smacked his lips together, head tilting back a little to allow Judy more access to his throat, his purr intensifying as she scratched just the right spot. “How long have you been awake for?”

Still fascinated with the fact that her fox purred, Judy moved her paw to a different part of his throat, enjoying the blissful expression that crossed Nick’s face as she hit the right spot. “A while.” She admitted, hoping it didn’t come across as creepy. Something was soothing about watching him sleep while enjoying the stillness of the morning. It was like the rest of the world ceased to exist and their problems faded away to nothingness.

“And you haven’t made me breakfast?” The corners of Nick’s lips quirked upwards, but the sudden thump to his chest had him wheezing. “Jeez, ouch. Okay, I deserved that.” Reaching out, Nick grabbed Judy’s waist, hauling her closer. Noses coming to rest together, the tod stole a kiss, uncaring about morning breath. “I’m sorry.”

Judy could never stay angry at her fox for long, and his teasing nature was a trait she adored. “You’re forgiven.” She let him off the hook with a roll her eyes and a fond smile on her lips.

Grinning, Nick adjusted his hold on his rabbit, and in one fluid motion, he flipped them, pinning Judy beneath him before he buried his snout against her throat, the bed sheets landing in a heap on the floor from his actions. Judy’s squeak of surprise was adorable, and the fox chuckled, tail swishing happily at the sound. Having the advantage, Nick laved kisses across his mate’s throat, his sharp canines occasionally nipping at soft skin as his bunny tipped her head back, revealing more of the smooth white fur on her neck. Small paws grasped at his shoulders, blunt claws digging in every time he used his teeth, and little pants of pleasure helped Nick find just the right spot to focus his attention on. Nostrils flaring, he finally caught the strong scent he’d missed last time he’d been home.

Reluctantly, the tod slowed his ministrations, pulling back enough so that he could look down at his panting bunny. “Come on; we have a busy day.” As much as he wanted to carry on, as much as his instincts screamed at him to love his mate, they had a lot to achieve this morning.

Blinking, Judy started at her fox in disbelief. “Nick!” He couldn’t just stop now, not when things had been looking so promising. Grasping his shoulders tightly, she refused to let him go. “You can’t just leave me like this!”

Playing dumb, Nick adopted an innocent expression, one he’d worn countless times during his hustles. “Like what?”

“Needy.” Judy snapped, hind paw flexing as if she were thumping the ground. She’d gone for months without being able to touch Nick, and though they were still relatively new to the physical side of their relationship, the thought of more was enticing. No longer on her suppressants, the does needs were difficult to ignore. During Nick’s absence she’d been taking care of them herself, but now that he was here, he could scratch the itch for her.

Making a show of scenting the air, the tod smirked. “Hmm, I can tell.” He couldn’t resist teasing, enjoying the red hue that flushed the inside of Judy’s ears. “Don’t worry; I’ll take care of you later on.” Nick twisted out of Judy’s grasp, hind paws hitting the floor as he retreated from the room, but not before the sound of Judy’s frustrated squeal reached his ears. With a chuckle, he made his way to the kitchen, peering into their freshly painted bedroom as he passed it. A small part of his mind pointed out how unfair it was to rile Judy up and then leave, but the other part of his brain reminded him that it would make his plans for later that much sweeter.

Groaning in frustration, Judy brought her paws up to her face, rubbing at her eyes. “Stupid handsome fox and his stupid knowledge of my weaknesses.” Forcing herself out of bed, Judy left the room, pausing in the doorway of their shared bedroom. Wincing as she was finally able to see the color scheme in the cold morning light, Judy shook her head. “Slick, the color combination is…” She called out, pausing to try and find the right word. Green and purple may have worked for their eyes, but it didn’t work for the walls.

“Terrible. I know.” Nick yelled back from the kitchen with a laugh, sending a text to his mom to check they were okay with dinner this evening. Phone in paw, he moved back through their apartment to stand beside Judy, looking around their bedroom.

Even though Nick had insisted that the room had to be suitable for them both, Judy still wanted it to be more a reflection of Nick than her. “Want me just to forest green everything?” She offered. It was only two walls that would need painting over, a task she could complete in a weekend.

“Nope, it may be an awful color scheme, but it’s us.” The tod shrugged. It was an odd combination, but for Nick, it represented how different he and Judy were, and yet they were happy together. He couldn’t tell Judy that, though. It was a bit too mushy, even for him. “Besides, I don’t know what you do in bedrooms, but I don’t spend much time staring at the walls.” Nick couldn’t resist, glancing down at Judy as he suggestively wiggled his eyebrows.

Boxing Nick’s shoulder with her left paw, Judy shook her head, trying her hardest to suppress her smile. She had a feeling that once she and Nick finally crossed that line, his statement would be accurate. “Insatiable.” She scolded, no heat behind her words.

Lifting his free paw to his chest, Nick plastered on his innocent expression again. “Who, me?” He asked, mock scandalized. The slight curvature of the corner of his lips gave away his amusement, though.

As their Zuber came to a stop at the small park in Tundratown, Nick tipped the driver before helping Judy out, the bag from yesterday slung over his shoulder again, fresh towels at the ready. Once the car had pulled away, they started to walk in the direction of the pool, paw in paw. “Please don’t try and push yourself today,” Nick warned. He knew how gung-ho his mate could be, and the last thing he wanted was for his plan to backfire because she tried to bite off more than she could chew.

“I have to push myself a little, Slick, or I won’t make any progress.” Judy pointed out, swinging their joined paws as the snow crunched beneath them with every step. The doe knew it would be tough, but she was willing to put in the effort. She needed to overcome this, mainly so she could keep her job, but also because she didn’t want to disappoint Nick.

Judy’s playful swinging of their arms made the tod smile, but the innocent gesture contrasted the seriousness of their conversation. “Just don’t overwhelm yourself, okay?” He asked again, needing Judy to get the message. This wasn’t some game; it had the ability to make her issues even worse if it went wrong. Kit steps were needed.

Violet eyes finding the pool from yesterday, Judy nodded on autopilot, not paying attention. To overcome her issues she needed to face her fears and step out of her comfort zone. If that step was more like a stride or a jump, then so be it. “At least Nick is here to help.”

Sensing that his mate wasn’t listening, Nick refrained from rolling his eyes. “Massive ears and she doesn’t put them to good use.” He shook his head fondly, silently vowing to keep a keen eye on Judy and intervene should it get too much for her, no matter how much she protested. Reaching the edge of the pool, Nick let go of Judy’s paw, dropping their bag onto the icy ground before he stripped down to his swimwear. Following the same pattern as yesterday, he stepped into the water first, hiding his wince at the cold, before he turned and offered a paw to Judy.

Hind paw thumping the ground as her nerves set in, Judy wasn’t frightened about stripping off in front of her fox anymore, but she was a little unsure as to how much she’d be able to achieve today. “This is ridiculous; it’s just water.” She mentally scolded herself, removing her outer garments until she too was left in her swimwear. Taking the tod’s offered paw, Judy stepped towards the edge of the pool. “Nick is there, if he can get in the water then so can you. You’re fine. You can breathe.” Judy focused on the rhythm of Nick’s breathing, large ears honed in on the sound, and she mimicked him. In and out. In and out. Letting Nick guide her, Judy came to sit near the edge of the pool, slowly lowering her legs until her hind paws were submerged, the water lapping at her ankles. It was much easier today than yesterday, and Judy looked up at her mate with a grin.

“Well, would you look at that.” Nick returned his mate’s smile, feeling a rush of love for the rabbit sat opposite him. “Proud of you, Fluff.” He praised her, remembering the journals that had explained that it would help build her confidence. Leaning in, he stole a kiss, the sweet press of lips distracting Judy long enough for him to wrap a paw around her waist, gently tugging her forward. Judy’s body stiffened, however, and Nick abandoned his plan. “Slow and steady, Wilde.”

Frustrated with herself, Judy took a deep breath. “You can do this.” She gave herself a pep talk before she scooted her butt across the ice, drawing herself closer to Nick and the edge of the pool. The action caused her legs to sink into the icy water a little more, and Judy bit down on her lower lip, feeling the tendrils of fear whisper through her mind.

“Carrots,” Nick warned, observing Judy as she pushed herself, ready to swoop in and stop everything should Judy push too far.

Shaking her head, Judy lifted a paw, gesturing for Nick to stop worrying. “I’m okay, I promise.” She took a deep breath, moving forward a bit more, legs sliding into the cold water. Nick let go of her waist, his paws coming to rest on her knees, and Judy appreciated the contact. Slowly, making sure to keep her breathing under control and focusing her thoughts on her fox, she was able to scoot right to the edge of the pool, submerging her legs up to her knees.

“So gung-ho.” Nick couldn’t resist teasing, hoping to bring a smile to Judy’s face as he gently stroked his clawed thumbs over her knees, offering her some comfort as she adjusted to the cold.

Judy couldn’t argue, Nick was right, so instead, she offered him a smile, shrugging her shoulders. The cold water made her feel uncomfortable as it lapped at her knees and Judy shuffled a little before she forced herself to remain still and adjust. “You need to get over it to keep your job, and Nick put so much thought and effort into this. You need to make him proud with your progress.”

Monitoring his mate, Nick watched as Judy bit down on her lower lip, shuffling before falling still, staring at her legs where they disappeared into the water. He contemplated calling it a day, but as Judy released her slightly swollen lower lip, Nick noticed her shoulders sag and her hind paws start to move through the water. She was getting used to it. Closing the distance between them, he swooped in for another kiss, the press of his lips soft and sweet as he tasted his mate, hoping to soothe her. “What do you want for Christmas?” He asked as he pulled back, throwing her a curveball to keep her mind occupied.

Confused, Judy lifted her gaze to stare at her fox, eyebrows coming together and mouth agape as she tried to figure out where that question had come from. “I don’t want anything.” She answered honestly. Getting to spend Christmas with her family would be more than enough for her.

“How about a necklace to match your bracelet or some beautiful lingerie?” Nick threw some ideas out there knowing they were stupid, but hoping it would distract his mate and hopefully lead to him being able to bring her a little further into the water. Judy wasn’t big on jewelry, and as much as he wanted to see her in beautiful lingerie, he knew it was a slightly selfish present. The tod already had an idea as to what Judy’s Christmas present would be, though it would involve some planning.

Shaking her head, Judy switched the focus from herself. “What am I going to get you?” She mused. Nick had a lot of things now, things he hadn’t had before, and with the money in the deposit box, he could buy anything he wanted. What could she purchase for the mammal that could now have it all?

“I don’t need anything. I have everything I want here right.” Nick winced at how corny his words were, but he was telling the truth and wouldn’t dare take them back. Reaching out for Judy, he wrapped his paws around her waist, holding her as he leaned in to rest their noses together.

The inside of Judy’s ears turned a light shade of red with her blush, and the doe ducked her head in embarrassment, feeling the heat reach her cheeks. “Sap.” She whispered as their noses came to rest together, eyes falling shut as she honed in on Nick’s heartbeat, small paws reaching out to cup his muzzle, enjoying their closeness. She hadn’t forgotten about her legs being in the icy water, and she gave them a gentle kick, swirling them in the pool. “It’s not too bad.” Getting used to the water bit by bit seemed to be working, and Judy couldn’t wait for the day when she’d no longer fear it and could dive in headfirst. “By the way, if we ever have to chase a perp in this district, you’re doing the running.” Judy pulled back enough to gaze into her favorite emerald eyes, paws dropping to land on Nick’s arms.

This time, the change in topic confused Nick, and the tod lifted an eyebrow. “That’s not fair.”

“First, you’re the probie, so you automatically get a raw deal and secondly,” Judy lifted her legs out of the water, bending her body in such a way as to show Nick the underside of her hind paws, and her lack of paw pads and sharp claws. “I don’t have any traction.” She explained as she submerged her legs in the water again to her knees, without a second thought.

Noting how quickly Judy returned her legs to the water, Nick had to hide his smile. He didn’t want to draw attention to it and risk Judy’s nerves coming back. “Fine I’ll do all the running, but only because I’m a gentlemammal.” He conceded, but the disbelieving look on Judy’s face made him gasp in mock hurt. “Oh Carrots, you wound me! Haven’t I been a gentlemammal towards you this whole time?”

“You have.” Judy nodded. Bolstered by the confidence of being able to push herself a little more, Judy moved her paws to Nick’s bare chest, lightly running her fingers through his fluffy fur. “Though I’m curious to see what you’re like when you’re not a gentlemammal.” She mused, feeling her blush but studiously ignoring it as she moved her paws up, sweeping her fingers along Nick’s throat and up to muzzle before she ran them underneath his lower lip.

The unexpected and brazen comment from his mate had Nick’s grip on her tightening, emerald eyes widening as the implication of her words sank in. A low growl slipped from his lips before he could stop it, mind wandering as lust barreled through him. “Carrots…”

“What?” The faux innocence wasn’t fooling either of them, but Judy still enjoyed falling back on it. She had hundreds of siblings, her mom had been pregnant for most of her life, and her siblings weren’t known for being quiet. Judy may have been inexperienced in comparison to her fox, but she wasn’t oblivious.

Realizing that Judy’s teasing could be payback for the way he’d left her needy this morning, Nick gladly took it. “Fair’s fair, Wilde.” The tod smiled. “And you call me the licentious one.” He shook his head fondly before he captured Judy’s lips in another kiss, unable to get enough. He’d lost track of how long they’d been in the water for, but he was starting to lose feeling in his tail. Breaking their kiss, Nick let go of his mate. “I think that’s enough for today.” He smoothed down her ears, offering her a warm smile.

Pleased with her progress, Judy extracted her legs from the water, offering her paws out to help Nick exit the pool. Once her fox was out of the water and they were drying off, the doe’s mind wandered. How would she carry on with this once Nick went back to the academy tonight?

“Ladies first.” The tod offered, gesturing with a paw towards the bathroom. The trip back from Tundratown had been uneventful, but they both needed to clean up before dinner.

Shaking her head as she emptied their bag of towels, Judy refused the offer. “Nope, I went first yesterday. You go first.” The showers at the academy were communal, and though their bathroom wasn’t luxurious, it was better than the ZPA had to offer. Nick should enjoy it, and most of the hot water, before heading back.

“Carrots,” Nick warned, not wanting her to argue with him. More of his body may have been in the water, but his incoming winter coat had helped keep him insulated.

“Slick.” Judy shot back as she crossed her arms over her chest while her left hind paw started to thump the floor. She would gladly argue this out with Nick, and she would make sure that she’d win.

Knowing how stubborn his bunny could be, and perhaps wanting to push his luck a little, Nick’s lazy grin settled firmly in place as an idea struck him. “Fine. How about together?”

Caught off-guard by Nick’s suggestion, Judy’s hind paw stopped mid-thump, violet eyes widening as her arms fell away from her chest, swinging down to her sides. “You want to shower together?”

“We’d save water.” It was a flimsy excuse, and the look on Judy’s face suggested to the tod that she knew it too. “It sounded better in my head.” He shrugged, lazy grin still firmly in place as he watched Judy contemplate his offer. Her hesitation suggested to him that it had been a bit too forward, a bit too much for the doe, so he started to backtrack. “You know what, it’s okay. We’ll go separately.” He made to move, to concede and give in by going first. He didn’t want to push, wanted her to know she had an out if she wasn’t ready.

It felt like Judy had been mulling it over for an eternity when in actuality it had only been thirty seconds or so. However, she’d made up her mind. “No!” She threw out a paw, stopping Nick in his tracks. Finding the emerald eyes she loved so much, Judy nodded. “Together.”

“You sure?” Nick checked, giving his mate one last out. He had no idea what would happen once they were both in the shower, but he was positive it wouldn’t remain completely innocent.

Determined, Judy tugged at the bottom of her jumper, lifting it up and over her head before she abandoned it on the floor. Turning on the spot, she headed off in the direction of the bathroom, leaving Nick to traipse after her. Large ears picked up on him ditching his own jumper as he slipped into the bathroom behind her.

Taking the lead, Nick turned the shower on, letting the water start to warm-up. As he turned back around, though, he was greeted with the sight of Judy left in only her damp swimwear, having removed her pants and thrown them in the general direction of the laundry basket. Realizing it was his move, Nick took off his pants too, casting them aside to join Judy’s, leaving him in his damp swim shorts. Watching his mate, he noticed the rise and fall of her chest, her breathing had picked up, and her ears were smoothed down behind her. Not wanting Judy to feel shy, Nick reached out to her, pulling her close so he could wrap an arm around her waist, the other coming up to sweep along her cheekbone. Wanting to soothe Judy’s nerves, because no matter how brave his bunny said she was he could still tell she was nervous, he cupped her cheek and closed the distance between them, pressing a feather-light kiss to her lips.

Needing more, Judy brought her paws up to hold Nick’s muzzle, this time pressing her lips to his more firmly, demanding more from him. She could gladly spend all day kissing her fox, but her anticipation for more was growing with every passing second.

Paw moving from its place around Judy’s waist; Nick used the distraction of their kiss to tug lightly at the fastenings of Judy’s swimsuit. The top half came away with ease, and the fox threw it aside, a low purr slipping from his lips, muffled by Judy’s kiss, as she pressed their bare chests together. The feeling of small paws letting go of his muzzle to creep down his body, toying with the waistband of his swim shorts, made the tod break their kiss, needing to catch his breath for a moment.

“If you ask me one more time if I’m sure, then you’re showering alone,” Judy whispered, knowing her mate would hear her. She wanted this, needed it, and though Nick’s concern for her was endearing, she wasn’t a wallflower. Watching as Nick’s eyes opened, Judy met his gaze, emerald and violet locked together as the doe blindly pushed her mate’s swim shorts down, letting him kick them aside as they pooled at his ankles. Not daring to steal a glance down just yet, Judy rose to her tiptoes, seeking another kiss.

Nick had no problem with being naked; it was a situation he’d unfortunately been in several times while working jobs and living on the street. He knew he wasn’t bad looking, wasn’t too out of shape either thanks to the academy, so if took him stripping off first to encourage Judy, then so be it. He would do whatever it took to make her comfortable, and if at any moment she changed her mind then he would respect that. Lips parting, the sweet taste of Judy was intoxicating. Tongues meeting, Nick slipped his paw from Judy’s cheek, skimming the curvature of her waist, claws dragging lightly through her smooth fur until he reached her swim bottoms. Not wanting to risk incurring Judy’s wrath by tearing the garment off, the tod slowly pushed the fabric down until gravity took it and it landed around her ankles.

Kicking aside her bottoms, Judy felt the insides of her ears burn as she realized she was completely naked in front of the fox she loved. Though she’d fooled around a lot as a teenager, she’d never let herself be completely naked before. Tongues slowing in their exploration, Judy reluctantly pulled back, eyes opening at the same time as Nick’s. For a moment they simply gazed at one another, and Judy felt like time had come to a standstill. “You’re really going to do this, Judy.”

Staring into the violet eyes of the rabbit he loved with every fiber of his being, Nick couldn’t quite believe that this was his life now and that Judy was his. A flurry of emotions overcame him – happiness, excitement, awe, anticipation, and love all crashed together to make the tod feel dizzy. Large paw reaching out, Nick tried to ignore how shaky they were. Clawed fingers making contact, Nick traced Judy’s collarbone to her throat. She was tough and sturdy, but underneath all that Nick knew there was a softness to his bunny. Fingers brushing down Judy’s throat, Nick kept his touch light, watching as his mate shivered as he reached her chest. A small whimper came from Judy as he dragged his fingers across the swell of her breasts, his massive paw dwarfing the petite mounds.

Judy’s grip on his chest tightened with his touch, blunt claws digging in as she sought more. It was only once Nick started to trail his paw down the curvature of her waist that Judy let him go, and only long enough for her to start her own exploration.

The feel of small paws smoothing down his body, settling on his belly, made the tod swallow. As much as he wanted to carry on, the room had steamed up, and the water was still running. Reluctantly he pulled back, grasping his mate’s paw in his own and leading her into the shower. It took all of his willpower to keep his gaze up, to not openly ogle her like she was an all you can eat buffet.

Reaching for the soap, the water crashed down on Nick. With some gentle maneuvering, he had Judy standing under the warm spray, back to him. With tender touches, he started to wash her, rubbing her back, stroking her ears, and smoothing his paws down her limbs. From his position, he could see her cottontail flick with her contentment, and under the sound of the shower, he could faintly hear her grinding her back teeth together, purring. There was only one part of Judy’s back left to wash, and large paws moved to grasp at the butt he’d spent countless hours staring at. Judy jumped at the contact, paws reaching out for the wall to steady herself. “Easy, jumpy bunny.” The tod teased, soaping up the globes in his paws, the water sluicing away the suds.

Trembling under Nick’s touch, Judy knew she’d have to turn around. As his paws left her butt, she took a deep breath and turned, violet eyes finding emerald ones. Nick held her gaze for only a moment before his eyes lowered, taking her all in. Feeling a little self-conscious under her mate’s intense stare, Judy moved to wrap her arms around herself, but Nick’s paws shot out, stopping her.

“Please, don’t.” Nick couldn’t handle the thought of Judy hiding behind her arms. She was too beautiful. Soft gray fur covered most of her body, but the white patch that started around her mouth continued down her throat, over her chest, and to her belly. Her hips were wide, ‘kit-bearing’ rattled through his mind as he followed the curvature of them, down supple legs to strong hind paws. “You’re so screwed, Wilde.” Since the moment he’d met her in Jumbeaux’s Café he’d known Judy was attractive, but seeing her soaking wet, looking up at him from under her lashes, didn’t hold a candle to the picture of her naked that he’d had in his mind.

Squirming, Judy let Nick take his fill, keeping her eyes up and on his face the whole time. Her time to check him out in return would come soon. The thumping sound of Nick’s tail hitting the tiled shower walls made the doe laugh quietly. “Are you going to wash the rest of me, or just stare at it?” She broke the silence between them, eager now for him to get on with it so she could touch him.

“Pushy bunny.” Nick tutted, the corners of his lips quirking upwards into a lazy grin as he soaped up his paws. Cleaning his mate’s belly first, Nick worked his way upward, being extra thorough when he reached her chest. His attention pulled soft sighs from Judy, and when she was putty in his paws he headed south, fingers creeping as he washed her hips. Turning his paws inward, he focused his attention at her core. Her small paws scrabbled at his shoulders as he rubbed, using the guise of cleaning her to bring her pleasure.

Body shaking as Nick paid attention to her center, Judy tightened her grip on him, breath ragged. “Nick…” She whimpered, eyes screwed shut as she felt the pleasure increase. “Your turn.” She didn’t want Nick to stop, not really, but she knew if he continued she wouldn’t get the chance to wash him, wouldn’t get to feel her soapy paws explore his strong frame.

Reluctantly, Nick obeyed Judy’s demand, slipping his paw from between her thighs long enough for the water to wash away the remaining suds, and for them to swap positions.

Staring at her fox’s back, Judy took her time soaping him up, her paws covering less area than Nick’s, and his incoming winter coat adding a layer of thickness Judy hadn’t accounted for. Soon though, she was left in the same situation as Nick had been. Deciding to start with his tail first, she gently grasped the damp appendage, smoothing her paws along its length, transferring the suds to the soft fur. A high-pitched whine, similar to the one Nick had made the first time she touched his tail, left the fox. Emboldened, Judy continued, washing the suds away before she turned her attention to his butt. “In for a dime…” She grasped the firm flesh, Nick’s tail walloping her side as it wagged. Paying very close attention to the job at paw, the doe was disappointed when it was time for the water to wash away the suds. With the back of her mate clean, she watched as he turned to face her.

Judy kept her gaze on Nick’s eyes for a moment before she finally let them wander. She admired the full length of his physique, taking in the broadness of his chest, the cream fur that blended in seamlessly with his reddish-orange coat, and the narrowness of his waist. Continuing south, the doe was finally met with the sight of Nick’s arousal. Judy inhaled sharply, caught off-guard by the red tip peeking out from his sheath. Sure she’d done her homework, but diagrams online were nothing like seeing the real thing. Flushing as she realized she was staring, Judy’s gaze lifted, finding amused emerald eyes watching her. Shyness overtook her and Judy bit down lightly on her lower lip.

Nick knew he was averagely endowed for his species, but Judy’s open staring at him was adorable. Her lip bite, though, sent lust barreling through the tod and in one smooth movement he had his rabbit pinned to the slippery tiled wall of the shower, mouths crashing together with his desperation to taste her. One of his paws found purchase on the wall beside Judy’s head, and the other grasped at her waist, holding her tight.

Giving as good as she got, Judy returned Nick’s kiss with equal vigor, paws running over his body, skimming down his belly until her fingers brushed against his length, now plumb and fully exposed. Her touch pulled a shrill noise from Nick, and her fox’s hips stuttered. Encouraged, Judy wrapped her paw around the length; giving an experimental stroke, thumb sliding over the tip. Nick broke their kiss, panting as he buried his nose against her throat, his hips taking up a smooth rolling rhythm.

Shuddering, Nick tried his hardest to clamp down on his noises. He’d always been a little vocal, and it had bothered some of his past partners. Driven to please his mate as she pleased him, Nick’s paw slipped from Judy’s waist, sliding between her thighs to find the apex of her legs. Brazen fingers stroked her, coaxing mewls of rapture from her lips, which Nick soon silenced as he pressed their lips together. Long tongue licking forward, Nick was firmly in charge, and Judy was so lost in his kiss that he felt her paw stop moving. Uncaring about his own pleasure, for now, the tod pressed a digit forward, warmth and tightness engulfing it. The doe’s gasp as he crooked his finger was music to his ears. He wanted to pull every imaginable sound from his mate, wanted to touch her until the end of time, show her just how much he loved her.

Nick dragged his mouth from Judy’s and her head fell back, thunking against the tiles. He watched as her eyes slid shut in ecstasy, fascinated by the sweet noises she made as he pressed another digit forward. She was tight, and the fox silently questioned if she’d be able to take him when they took the final step. Though he was average for his species, he knew he was packing more than a buck. The sweet scent of his mate’s arousal flooded his nostrils and Nick inhaled deeply, eyes falling shut too as he savored the smell. Knowing he was able to pull such sounds and scents from his mate did wonderful things to his ego. Licking his lips, Nick opened his eyes, moving his paw from the wall to extract himself out of Judy’s grip, never once slowing the rhythm of his other paw. Wide violet eyes looked up at him, concern mixed with pleasure clouding Judy’s features. “Ladies first.” He insisted.

Slowly pulling his paw back from between Judy’s thighs, she whimpered at the loss of contact, but Nick wasn’t so cruel as to leave her hanging. Stooping, he slid his hands under her butt, lifting her with ease to pin her between himself and the wall, holding her up like he’d done on the porch in Bunnyburrow. Lips meeting, the tod slowed the pace, taking his time to taste his mate, to coax her tongue into meeting his. Judy wasn’t a one-night stand; she wasn’t some random vixen he didn’t care about. She was his mate, the strong bunny he wanted to tie himself too in every sense of the word. She was his future. “Nick…” Judy’s voice quavered as their mouths parted, her pleading tone and thinly veiled need spurring him into action. Lifting Judy just that little bit more; the back of her legs came to rest on his shoulders, paws grasping at the fur on his head as he was overwhelmed by the strength of her scent, snout buried between her powerful thighs.

Eyes widening as it finally hit her what Nick had planned, Judy’s head fell back at the first contact between her mates lips and her center. Heat and excitement coursed through her veins, setting her nerves alight. A few bucks had done this for her before, when prompted, but never a predator. “You really do have a pred kink, don’t you Judy?” A slow, long lick up her core caught the doe off guard and her hips bucked, body shaking as her fox continued to boldly taste her, one of his clawed thumb finding the bundle of nerves at the apex of her legs, making her convulse with every rub. Whining, her paws tightened their hold in Nick’s fur, back arching as she pulled him closer, encouraging him to carry on.

Chuckling lowly at his mate’s eagerness, Nick wasn’t one to disappoint. Pulling back for a moment, he peppered kisses along the inside of Judy’s thighs, throwing in a gentle bite here and there. Judy’s wild reaction was a beautiful indication of her ecstasy. Returning his attention to her center, he coaxed her to abandon. Damp thighs quivered either side of his head and, adjusting his hold, the tod pressed agile fingers forward, working them in time with his mouth.

This had never been his favorite act as he had never cared much for his old partners, but the sounds he was able to pull from Judy’s lips – her cries, whimpers, and pants – along with the way she demanded more from him, had the tod reevaluating his opinion on the matter. He wanted to please Judy, wanted to push her towards release, leave her a quivering mess and him with the taste of her on his tongue. The whispered sound of his name had Nick glancing up, emerald finding lust-blown violet. Judy was beautiful, desperate and needy and looking at him like he was the most valuable treasure on the planet. Heart skipping as he held her gaze, Nick watched, enraptured, as she reacted to his ministrations.

Eyes falling shut, Judy’s teeth sank into her lower lip as Nick loved her, a deep rumble vibrating through her from his chest as he growled. The bucks in her past hadn’t had the first clue what to do, but her fox was far more capable. Hips rolling, Judy desperately sought out more, teetering on the edge. “Please.” She begged, eyes opening to find Nick still watching her. The sight of him between her thighs, of a strong and deadly predator loving her so intimately, was dizzying and empowering.

Judy begging was like the sweetest symphony. Wanting to give her release, wanting her to let go completely, Nick upped his attentions, lips, tongue, and teeth working together as he crooked his fingers, finding the right spot.

Back arching as she ground down, the snapping of the coil that had been slowly building inside of her had Judy crying out, swept away with the crashing waves of her release. Nick didn’t let up, though. He worked her through it, and soon the doe was shaking, whining her mate’s name at the overstimulation.

The honeyed noises and the obvious pleasure on Judy’s face filled the tod with a sense of accomplishment. Pulling back, he licked his lips, enjoying that his mate was boneless in his grasp, her small body relaxed and pliable. His length ached, desire nearly uncontainable, but his primary focus was on his rabbit.

Judy felt like jelly, like her legs wouldn’t be able to hold up her weight. Testing the theory, she made to stand, and Nick let her down in one fluid movement. She was unsteady on her hind paws, needing to lean against the shower wall for a moment. Reaching up, she grasped the underside of Nick’s snout, pulling him down to press their lips together. Their kiss was soft and gentle, lips dragging along lightly as they shared her taste. Gathering her strength, Judy broke away, turning them so that her fox was pressed against the tiles.

Sinking to her knees, Judy ignored how uncomfortable and slippery the shower tray was. Instead, she lifted her eyes to look up at her mate. This wasn’t the first time she’d been in this position, but it was the first time she’d been here with a mammal she actually cared for and loved. It made her unexpectedly nervous.

Starting slow, the doe dropped her gaze; scattering light kisses across the left side of his hips, her small paws grasping at his strong thighs. As she dragged her mouth over to give the same treatment to the right side, the plushness of her lower lip skimmed the underside of his length. The sudden tight grip on the top of her head had Judy looking up, finding her fox watching her, jaw clenched as he tried to retain control. “Not happening, Slick.” Holding his gaze, Judy gave the other side of his hips the same treatment, trailing kisses inwards until she reached her destination. Licking her lips, Judy swallowed. Though her large ears were smoothed back, she could still hear the quickened beating of Nick’s heart, and she hadn’t even got to the good stuff yet.

The sight of Judy down on her knees was doing such wonderfully wicked things for Nick. The way she held his gaze as she dragged her mouth over him, feather-light and so innocent looking, had him tipping his head back, swallowing hard. The mental images paled in comparison to the real thing. Concern had him restraining himself though, forcing his hips to not surge forward with her caresses. Female anatomy hardly changed between species, but the same couldn’t be said for males. This was all new to his rabbit, and he didn’t want to spook her. Blindly he reached out, large paw settling on the top of her head as he felt the first tentative lick, a deep rumble starting low in his chest.

Her fox was tense, and Judy knew he wouldn’t get much pleasure from this unless he relaxed. He had no reason to be so on edge; she was perfectly capable and willing to return the favor. “Let go, Slick.” She breathed, voice just loud enough to be heard over the sound of the water that continued to crash down around them. The doe had all but forgotten about it, had been too lost in the feel of her mate loving her, but now the sound of it roared in her ears, the dampness helping her as she reached with a paw to run a finger along him. The paw on her head disappeared; leaving Judy with no other option but to chuckle, warm breath fanning over plumb length, making Nick shudder. “Not of me.” She clarified, feeling the paw return a moment later. He still had his head tilted backward, so the doe tried a new tactic to get him to relax, to give himself over to her. “Look at me.” She demanded, soon met with the lust-addled emerald eyes she loved so much as Nick tipped his head forward. Curious fingers found his slightly swollen knot, and petal-soft lips followed after, the doe never once breaking eye contact.

Nick’s resistance crumbled, hips thrusting forward as his mate kissed his knot. “Damnit.” He growled, giving in to her, trusting her to take care of him. Wet heat soon enveloped him and the sensation was all Nick could focus on.

This had never been Judy’s favorite act either. She’d always felt used afterward, like all her partners had wanted were to get their rocks off, not caring about her feelings or needs. Nick, though, was different. He’d taken care of her first, given her pleasure without asking for it back. Instead, Judy had wanted to return the favor. The way he smoothed his paw around the back of her head, stroking her ears as he rolled his hips encouraged her. His rhythm stuttered as she found just the right spot, laving her tongue over the sensitive tip, and Judy heard her mate start to pant. His knot in her paw continued to swell, the rabbit having not forgotten to use her fingers alongside her mouth. The loud growls and yips that had been tumbling from Nick’s lips were growing closer and closer together, and she bobbed her head, searching for another sensitive spot. She found it as she dragged her tongue up the underside of him, and that seemed to be the final straw.

“Fluff.” Nick was only able to give her a few seconds warning. Part of him felt bad about it, but mostly he was so consumed with his release that little else mattered. Paw tightening on Judy’s head, his body tensed, hips driving forward as he let out a loud yip, finally falling over the edge. “Ungh,” He groaned, eyes sliding shut in ecstasy as he rode the waves of his release.

Even after he’d warned her, Judy stubbornly didn’t move. She had no problem tasting her mate. The trembling of Nick’s legs as he crested, coupled with his loud yip, was empowering for the doe. The salty tang on Judy’s tongue was all that remained as she stood, guided up by Nick’s paw, which had slid from the top of her head to cup her cheek. A lazy grin decorated her fox’s lips, body slumped against the tiles. As she rose, the doe left a light trail of kisses up his chest, her small stature stopping her from reaching any further. Nick’s other paw came to rest on her waist, pulling her close as he ducked down, capturing her lips with his own in a gentle kiss. The tastes of them mixed and Judy mewled, surprised as Nick broke their kiss to rub his muzzle over her face, scent-marking her. When the opportunity arose, Judy chinned him in return, both mammals purring in contentment.

Towels trailed over clean fur and touches lingered as Nick and Judy dried one another off after their shower. Though they hadn’t gone all the way, both mammals were sated. With all of Nick’s things in Judy’s old room, it didn’t take long for them to dress. “We should move everything back into our room,” Judy suggested as she pulled on her jumper, ears springing up once she’d put the garment over her head.

“We can do that now.” Nick decided as he stole a glance at the clock on the nightstand. They had time before they had to leave for his moms. Turning, he left the room for a moment to discard the damp towels into the laundry basket. Upon his return, he and Judy set about moving their belongings into their shared room. “Do you think it would be a good idea to give mom the money tonight?” Nick asked, finding the briefcase of cash stashed in the gap between the wardrobe and the wall.

“We’re planning on telling her this evening how you paid off the mortgage, right?” Judy double-checked that they were still going ahead with the plan. The doe had no idea how the evening would turn out, but she crossed her fingers that everything would be okay. Watching as Nick nodded, emerald eyes still on the briefcase, Judy gave his question some thought. “As much as I want her to have it right now, it might not be best. If she reacts badly to the news, she’ll probably react badly to the cash too.” Presenting a mammal with $150,000 was no small thing.

Seeing Judy’s point, Nick bobbed his head, gaze turning from the briefcase to look at his mate as she approached him. “I just don’t want her struggling while I’m gone.”

“I think she’s doing okay, Nick.” Judy reached out, stroking a paw down his arm. Every time Judy went over for dinner the fridge and cupboards were well stocked, Marian was clean and healthy, and there didn’t seem to be an extortionate amount of bills on the kitchen counter.

“The next time I’m home should be Christmas. We could give it to her before we leave for Bunnyburrow,?” Nick wasn’t comfortable traveling so far on public transport with such a vast sum of cash. They could present it to his mom and have her put it in her bank account before leaving the city, that way ensuring it was safe and Marian would have easy access to it should she want anything during their stay with Judy’s family.

A month and a half without Nick would drag, but they were nearing the end of his training now. He’d be home soon for Christmas and New Year, during which time she’d force him to study, and after that, he’d return to the ZPA for his exams. He was so close, and it filled Judy with excitement every day, knowing that she was one step closer to having her fox by her side again. “I’ll put it back in the deposit box until then so that it’s safe.”

“Thanks, Fluff. What would I do without you?” The tod teased, turning to wrap his arms around his bunny, lifting and carrying her to the bed, sitting her on the end of it.

Paws around her fox’s neck, Judy played with the thick fur at the nape. “Oh I don’t know, you’d probably forget to buy new shirts.” She tugged playfully at the collar of the blue shirt he had on. Jasmine had visited the city a few weeks back hoping to meet up with a buck she’d been talking to online. When he hadn’t shown up for their lunch date, Judy had stepped in and taken her shopping to cheer her up. In the end, Jasmine had walked away with several bags for herself, while Judy had been carrying one for Nick. She hadn’t needed anything for herself, but with Nick gaining more muscle he’d been in need of some new clothes. Judy had picked out a few for him, including the shirt he now wore, and she’d even found a few of his trademark Pawaiian ones too.

Chuckling, Nick gave Judy’s waist a gentle squeeze, emerald and violet locked together. During one of their scheduled calls, Judy had taken great pride in showing him all of the new clothes she’d bought for him. The only mammal who’d ever bought him new clothes before had been his mom, so to have his mate pick things out for him was a strange yet welcome experience. “You love my shirts.”

“I love you.” Judy countered. Nick’s dress sense left a lot to be desired, but it was part of him, and she wouldn’t change that for the world.

“Same thing.” The fox shrugged, smile firmly in place as he ducked down to steal a kiss from his mate. “I love you too.”