Forks

By Shahrezad1

Summary: "Oh, I'll be fine. I don't feel like murdering him with a fork or anything. Much. I'll get back to you in the morning." Judy receives another grim reminder that she's single. Nick tries his best to help, in his own way. Based on a true story.

Disclaimer: Pffft, as if I own anything Disney-related. I don't even own the puns I use as currency!

This chapter's theme music: Save the Last Dance For Me, by The Drifters.

P.S. There's a lot of fluff in this. You've been warned. ;-)

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Chapter 7: No Partner But You

"To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love."

-Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Previously:

"It's time to use your secret weapon. It's time…that I become your decoy boyfriend."

~/~/~

"We have to set some ground rules, first," Judy muttered the minute they escaped.

It had been a bit touch-and-go for a while. Not long after he had declared his intentions to her the whole of the family had been rounded up in preparation to go to the festival.

It was probably the closest he would ever get to participating in a parade, Nick decided. Well, aside from the times the precinct had been invited to be part of an event or two, rather than just directing crowds. Still…it had been an Event, with a capital 'E.'

They had taken three cars, went in four waves, with an equal distribution of mammals-to-produce in each vehicle. (Excluding those of her married siblings, who had their own vehicles and thus escaped early.) A couple of her brothers had set up the booth that morning, so by the time Nick and Judy arrived all was ready to go.

Somehow, despite everything, they'd found themselves thrown together in the end. He had a feeling her mother had something to do with it, but he couldn't put his paw on exactly how. In any case, the end result was Nick finding himself with armful of warm grey fur, tucked snugly beneath his chin, while being thrown into the back of her parents' truck. Turnips surrounded them on the sides they weren't hedged in by bunnies, creating a kind of buffering effect.

He'd had to fight the desire to envelop her more fully in his arms, Judy's scent surrounding him despite other interference. Twenty minutes stretched into a lifetime as his paws itched, the thicker pads of his digits catching every now and again on the fur just beneath the short-sleeved, pastel, green-plaid shirt she wore.

Just when he thought that he couldn't survive one more minute of torture they arrived, his partner and best friend jerking back into him for one brief, exhilarating moment. But it didn't appear to shake her like it did him, if the way she jolted away was any indication, hopping from the truck bed and to the straw-covered area sectioned off for parking.

Rather than have the festival among the streets of Bunnyburrow the town leaders had set up shop at the large fairgrounds nearby, Judy explained before they left. There was a large amount of open space for the large families, as married children and more cousins than she could count poured in for the holiday.

Still, the place looked almost like a bustling city from his perspective! Hovering a head above most of the crowd, he watched swarms of rabbits, prairie dogs, sheep, skunks, the odd mole, weasels, beaver, otters and any number of other mammals converge on a single point—a double-set of posts, bearing a heavy banner done up in simple red, blue, and green paint (hand-done, for that 'homey quality,' he thought with a smirk).

"There's a surprisingly large number of predators present," he observed. After grabbing a basket of vegetables apiece they walked toward the entryway and below the giant proclamation of, 'Happy Truce Day,' hanging above them.

"Well, they're farmers, too," at his quizzical look she explained. "Bug farmers. Where did you think Bugga Burgers came from?"

Still not understanding, he blinked at his companion.

She laughed and shook her head, loose ears tossed around from beneath her straw sunhat, "the lynx family walking in front of us, the Pawtersens, raise night crawlers, which are also used for the fish they catch and sell. That leopard family over there, the Leopolds, pay a small fee to walk with farmers when the soil is turned and they sift out all the bad bugs that destroy crops. Then there's those cheetahs—the Tailors—they raise bees," she paused to wave at the elderly matron smiling squintily at her from behind a pair of horn-rimmed glasses.

"But they make honey, they don't actually harvest the bugs," she admitted with a shrug. "And during the summertime all the kits in the Burrow help those wolves over there—the De La Luna family—comb their patch of the forest for insects that hide under logs and things. So that we can have extra cash for movies and dates and the carnival that comes by every year."

She explained this all rather matter-of-factly.

"Everyone helps one another here. And then when everything's been harvested they send it off to plants to be processed. My family does the same thing with the produce they don't sell at market or use to feed all the kits. It goes into canned food and supermarkets all over Zootopia."

Taking all this in, the Fox scratched his cheek absently, the other arm wrapped around a bushel of carrots, "I didn't realize…"

Judy laughed and patted his shoulder, for a moment stumbling a tad closer than she'd intended before stepping back. She tried to cover the blunder with a smile, "food's got to come from somewhere."

After navigating to the Hopps family booth, setting up shop, and leaving the rest to her siblings, Nick found himself drawn into the world surrounding him.

It was noisy, it was colorful, and it was all things he'd never experienced before. Even the air was filled with warring smells, from cotton candy to verdant grass. Everything and anything fascinated him—from the hay stacks surrounding the festival booths, to the homemade curios being sold, then on to the variety of mammals present.

He stared at the way the children played—running, jumping, dodging between adult legs without either a digital device in hand or a specific parent in sight. In the city it seemed like there was always that worry that someone would snatch a child up off of the street, but here there was an implicit sense of trust among the various families.

He also couldn't help blinking rapidly at the wide array of vegetables, deserts, pies, insects barbecued on a stick, and rows of beverage booths. Several barrels of root beer, amounting to the size of a small swimming pool, steamed off to one side in a haze of frothing white clouds while fireworks and sparklers were being sold across the way.

Off to the far, FAR left, in the fields surrounding the main thoroughfare, families were already setting up blankets and chairs in preparation for the fireworks which would come, handing out glow-stick necklaces and staking their claim until the whole field looked like one giant patchwork blanket.

A church booth sold bibles for a dollar and asked for donations. But its solemn presentation was belied by the way the Father, a grey-haired bull, laughed as he watched a dunking booth set up parallel to it—far enough away to avoid the splash but close enough that the near-sighted fellow could lean on his elbows in order to see, his horns brushing the sign above him. Further down the path a kissing booth had been set up, teenagers taking full advantage of their interest in one another, plus a ring toss and fishing game set up for the youngsters, complete with prizes.

It was anything anyone could have wanted from a small town event, and despite how he'd been trying to play it cool Nick could feel the excitement itching under his skin, having only ever seen things like this on TV. Frankly, it was all one new, amazing experience.

Nick couldn't help hoping that she would allow him to soak it in for a little while longer, but knew that probably wouldn't happen. He'd pulled his 'Fake Boyfriend' ploy out of a hat, but knowing Judy she would want to plan the thing to death, deciding the hows and whys and whens of their 'relationship.' So Nick would just have to pay the consequences for meddling.

He just wanted to keep on pretending that it was the real deal. That every time they held hands or walked side-by-side or shared a cup of soda it was because they really wanted to do it—as real a couple.

But that may have been too much to ask for.

At least the slight deviation from their usual behavior wouldn't send her siblings' tongues wagging. By this point the kits were largely occupied with meeting up with friends and enjoying the wonders of the festival—the novelty of Judy and Nick as a duo had worn off, so anything they did that might seem 'dating-esque' would be largely overlooked by the children and teens.

It was the rest of the town that they would have to sell it to.

"I'm glad to see that you're enjoying yourself," Judy remarked with a smile, then sighed slightly. "But I really need you to pay attention to me here, Partner."

Tearing his eyes from the booth in front of him, complete with tennis balls and old fashioned milk bottles, Nick gave her his best conman smile, "of course, my dear Carrots. Whomever said I stopped?"

"Riiiiight," she said with a smirk. "Okay, if anyone asks, we go by the usual story of how we met—the truth—sort of, anyway. But for the dating stuff, we say that we live in the same building, and that carpooling and working as cops and spending time together naturally led to dating and then—."

"Or we could just play it by ear," he suggested, flicking one of his as he shoved both paws in his pockets.

"We could totally do that," she said with fake enthusiasm. "And then have completely different stories to contend with. Defeating the whole purpose of this charade." If he noticed her dig at his idea he ignored it. Which was probably for the best, given her prickly mood.

"So we'll just…stay by each other's side the entire evening," he offered, not looking perturbed in the least. He tried to keep the comment casual, hands in pockets, as though he was doing her a favor by playacting at being her boyfriend.

"Nick, that's not realistic and you know it."

Moving toward a stand full of little wooden figurines—a carrot with legs, arms, and a disarmingly disturbing grin. He wondered if the Carrot Of Evil was the town's mascot or something—Nick shrugged, "I dunno. There's quite a few couples that I know who can't seem to unglue themselves from each others' sides."

She followed him absently, sighing as she picked up a carrot-styled wristwatch. The band was made from woven bark fibers and dyed in a shade of rust. "True. But how 'in-character' would it be for us to do that?" Or just her, anyway. He could read between the lines.

He shrugged again. "Well, at least show me around for a bit, will you? I'm lost in a sea of rabbits here, and as much as I like—."

"As I live and breathe! If it isn't Judy Hopps!"

His partner froze, her paw outstretched to pick up a clay mug that was actually half-pretty, the orange and brown swirls on it reminiscent of…something orange and brown swirling together. But she never actually got to examine the knickknack as he felt more than saw a tap on her shoulder, and then they were turning as one to face the music.

~/~/~

By all that was Growing and Good, why couldn't it have been anyone else?

The thought was immediate and horrified, and didn't settle her stomach's lurch any. But they had to start somewhere, and she was…well…

"What are you doin' here in Bunnyburrow? I thought you'd given us up for good for that Zootopia ideal you were always spouting about."

She was the one mammal Judy hadn't wanted to run into, other than Steven and Brittany themselves.

Judy forced a neutral expression onto her face with some effort, paws behind her back to disguise how they were curling into fists. Nick observed this sudden change of appearance with quickly masked concern, blinking once at her and then once toward the oncoming couple.

Taking a cue from his partner, he opted for a casual stance—hands out of his pockets, as she'd pointed out once how lazy that looked to her parents' generation, but nothing so defensive as folded arms. Instead he hooked them in his belt loops, loose and at ease.

"It's been a while, hasn't it?" she remarked with a smile that didn't reach her eyes, resisting the urge to move back closer to the table behind her. "Nick, these are Steven's parents. Mr. and Mrs. Harrison, this is my partner, Nick Wilde."

Which explained quite a bit without saying much, she thought.

He appeared to agree, straightening slightly so as to emphasize his height, looming slightly in order to take another analyzing look at the portly couple. Before he could stretch out a paw for shaking, the missus threw her first punch.

"I was also her guidance counselor in school. Never did listen to my advice, nope she didn't," she stated with a steely frown that didn't match her fluffy brown visage. Mr. Harrison didn't appear to have anything to say about the matter, himself, except to take advantage of the awkward pause in conversation to clean his gold-framed spectacles.

Judy could tell that Nick wasn't quite sure how to proceed—not for lack of commentary, but out of indecision as to which type of commentary he should go for: sarcastic or super-sarcastic.

She forced a laugh.

"I appreciate your concern as you tried to…guide my future. All seven times you called me into your office Senior year," on top of the number of times she'd confronted Judy during her Sophomore and Junior years.

At her side, one bright fox ear ticked her direction. "But as I already knew what I wanted to do with my life, it seemed pretty clear. Even the aptitude test that I took said that I should become a cop," she offered as a slight peace offering.

Mrs. Harrison didn't take it.

"Aptitude tests have no bearing on common sense," Mrs. Harrison said flatly, her paws planting themselves on her hips. "Now, if you'd just become a farmer—of even one of those, what do you call 'ems? Pharmacists?—Like I suggested, well! Then it wouldn't be Brittany on all those wedding invitations I had to send out, would it!"

Judy's mouth dropped involuntarily, and she didn't have to look up to know that her partner was glaring down on them all.

Mr. Harrison had the grace to look embarrassed by his wife's bald-faced declaration, but still he remained silent.

Judy wasn't sure how to respond. Half of her was offended in her own name. For all that she had made the connection on her own—especially during late-night wallows, paired with ice cream—that her occupation may have ostracized her from any potential bunny match, it was quite another thing for it to be coming out of this does's lips—the same rabbit who'd sneered at her for four years from behind an office desk, muttered negative comments every time Judy went over to Steven's burrow to work on a project or watch a movie, and made a point of lamenting the cop's lack of homemaking skills to Judy's mother whenever they ran into each other at the supermarket or local library—made it a betrayal.

On the flip side, the cop couldn't help being offended in Brittany's honor. It was true, she hadn't expected for her and Steven to get together, what with the personality differences. But she didn't deserve to be treated this way by her future mother-in-law. Especially the day before their wedding! They would find very little support on his side, she imagined, a terrible prospect given Bunnyburrow's tradition of families working together to set up new couples.

With a start Judy suddenly realized just why her mother had been insistent on her attending the wedding reception—because there was a good chance few others would.

"Plus Steven doesn't have much support at home, and you know how Brittany is, so I was hoping that you'd be willing to go..."

For the first time in months she was grateful that she wasn't the one about to marry into the Harrison family, if this was to be the end result.

But her burst of thought and realization had gone on too long, the rabbit realized, and Mrs. Harrison's expression morphed into something sickeningly triumphant. She swallowed, searching for something to say—.

"I have to admit that I'm actually pretty grateful things didn't work out."

Judy blinked rapidly, as did her nemesis, when the words were spoken. Mr. Harrison coughed.

Then Nick was reaching down to grasp her around the waist, lifting the bunny slightly up and flush against his side. Judy blushed at the contact, visible even beneath the fur.

"If Judy hadn't become a cop we never would have met, and I wouldn't have the chance to fall in love with her beauty," the words were said with a debonair air, his stance confident and eyes half-lidded. "She changed my life, so call me selfish, but I'm grateful."

The whole thing was almost more than she could handle, her nose taking in his scent and heart pounding away as she was pressed up against him, her shoulder to his chest and each hip against slouchy hip. His athletic form was even more toned after months on the force, if that was possible, which she tried not to think about too much.

To explain her flustered state she said, "it's a recent thing. Did I forget to mention that Nick and I are also dating? Our friendship, ah, just…grew. Into something more. Isn't that right, Nick?"

"Yeah, but we've cared about one another for a while now, haven't we Judy?" The full use of her first name, as well as the warm, fond tone he spoke in, made the female look up in surprise. As she did violet met green, his sincerity clear in his honest gaze.

It was true. It really was. Hustle or no hustle, they cared about one another. She relaxed beside him, patting his stomach gently—what she could reach of it.

Then she said, more to herself than the lagomorph pair in front of her, "yes. We've been close for a long time."

After giving her companion a cheek-to-cheek smile, the grey cop finally turned back to the couple, Mr. Harrison looking dumbfounded and his rotund wife was not-so-quietly fuming.

She was ready to leave by that point, having already proven that she wasn't alone—or lonely—thankyouverymuch. But Nick never could let an opportunity slide.

He clasped her tighter, his paw against her ribcage like it was meant to be there. Judy blinked.

"Congratulations on your son's wedding, by the way. His name is… Stan, right?" said the fox in his best smooth, peanut butter voice.

"Steven," the male rabbit corrected with a twitch of his whiskers. As well as something a bit like a smile. It was the first thing he'd said that day. His mate, however, was looking less amused. Her fluffy, chocolate fur was gaining volume, if that was possible, and her hazel eyes had become chips of amber.

Like the two of them were a math problem.

Bunny plus fox equals disaster.

What Mrs. Harrison did instead was wave a slender paw at the sign leaning against a nearby family booth, one of the biggest and loudest ones of the bunch. It bore an open invitation to the wedding in bold letters, Brittany's name only slightly smaller than her future spouse's, "his name is right there."

Nick turned, moving his hand to his coworker's shoulder in the process, and made a show of being shocked. "Why, so it is! I do apologize—I must not have seen it. I was probably too busy looking at Judy here to notice. Isn't that right, Darlin'?"

The sudden request for confirmation made her startle and flush, "oh. Ah. Yeah, Nick."

He looked down at her with a concerned frown, but beneath eyelids at half-mast his gaze was gleeful, "what's a matter, Snug-a-bunny? You seem a little shy today."

Her lips tightened just enough that someone who didn't know her well would have never noticed. But Nick was not one of those people. Then the officer smiled, "oh, nothing, Red. You just know how I am with pet names."

He nodded sagely, tapping his chin with a single digit, "always professional, aren't you, my little Honeybunny? I can't say the same for myself, but I couldn't be prouder of you. Top of your class. Precinct One. Recognized by the Mayor."

Okay, so he was laying it on pretty thick—and she wasn't sure if being recognized by either mayor counted, given that they'd both been corrupt, and she'd played into the latter's trap—but it had been a long time since they'd been able to pull a hustle on anyone. What's more, she was having fun now that they were on a roll, so Judy smirked back at him, practically bouncing on her overlarge feet. Until he spoke again—then she wanted to hit him.

"Although she's a closet romantic when you get down to it, aren't you BunnyBaby?" he remarked, eyebrows raised and an unconcerned smile stretching from ear to ear.

Oooooh, he is SO totally getting smacked, was the thought that went through her rapid-fire mind.

All her little town had ever cared to remember about her was that 1. She was one of Stu and Bonnie's kits, and 2. Of them, she was that crazy one who wanted to become a cop. A life of mediocrity would have hidden her from view, but wanting to be different than her peers has effectively made her a social pariah—especially among her parents' and grandparents' generations. Romance was not what she was known for—hard work, dedication, and determination were. That was how they saw her—one dimensional. To give any one or two of them any other view of her other than the hardened shell she'd created was to invite speculation and criticism; a crack in the wall, so to speak. Especially from this set of elderly rabbits.

Although, given the fact that Nick had openly declared their 'dating' status, tongues were about to wag regardless. She was more than willing to go along with him when he was pulling a prank, especially in defense of her honor, but what Nick was trying to insinuate was a bit much.

"You could even say that she's the instigator in most-," his sentence was cut off with the sudden elbow to his ribs.

"If you equate cooking with romance," she filled in smoothly, with a serene smile. "This guy can't cook worth a darn."

Fair point, the thoughtful twitch of his left ear said.

Steven's mother, the doe who had once demanded the PTA reject Judy's offering to a bake sale on the grounds that a rabbit who had so rejected their way of life couldn't possibly make a carrot cake worth eating, blinked, "cooking? You mean to tell me that you eat his food?"

She made it sound as though that was even worse than the fact that they were in a 'relationship.' Judy discreetly rolled her eyes as Nick coughed out his laugh.

"Foxes are omnivores, actually. I can eat anything a bunny can," he explained, expression and tone neutral as he spoke to the misinformed matron, years of bias leaving her assuming far too many things.

"Which is for the best, I think. I wouldn't want to turn off her family when we get to the point of a wedding, after all."

Nick smiled. It was all teeth.

Her blunted nails dug into his arm, but for his part he showed no sign of sustaining injury.

Still, the damage had been done. The gentleman rabbit's eyes bugged out, large teeth coming into view as his mouth fell open. Mrs. Harrison had a possible career on the stage as a professional gasp-er. Judy imagined that she would be highly successful playing the part of the nurse from Roarmeo and Juliet, or possibly Miss Possum from The Importance of Being Earnest.

Judy sighed slowly, letting the air out as she glared at her partner in crime. Rather than dignify his comment with any sort response—she had a feeling that no matter what she said he would find some way to dig them deeper into that lie of theirs—she chose to ignore it.

"Speaking of weddings, we look forward to seeing you both again tomorrow."

That comment seemed to shock them as much as anything else they'd said, and with gritted teeth the grey bunny smiled, made her excuses, and led her 'boyfriend' away from the ongoing disaster zone.

"I thought that went well," Nick remarked cheerily once they were out of range of long rabbit ears. She stamped down on his foot in response.

Hard.

Nick coughed, wincing, "I suppose I deserve that."

"Really? Do you?" she demanded, rhetorically. A pause, then…

"Nick! I can't believe you! ARRRGGH!" she growled, pulling paws down her face in frustration. "Now the whole town's going to think that we're…you're…I…"

"Yes, Judy-Honeybuns? Are you trying to say something?" he purred.

It was enough to set her off again, working past the tongue-tied state she'd found herself in while trying to discuss the idea of them being engaged…and liking it far too much. "Argh! Now they're all going to think that we're engaged! We agreed that this was a boyfriend-lie, not a fiancé-lie, remember?"

"Oh, yes. Because that is clearly going to make a difference in how much they judge you," he remarked dryly, pausing to pick a piece of straw out of his footpad. "Speaking of which, what a grand example of bunnyhood is found in those two. I'm definitely impressed."

She ignored his words, then punched his shoulder, "Nick. Having a fox for a boyfriend is one thing—if anything, those who know about Steven and I will just think that we're doing exactly what we're actually doing—fending off the glums and trying desperately to prove that I'm not a lonely, old spinster who—."

She cut herself off as Nick abruptly looked at her seriously for the first time that day, his eyebrows lifted and a strange sort of sad tenderness coming from him. Her heart jolted at the look, and she sternly reprimanded her nose as it began twitching with increased speed.

"But that's beside the point," she hastily went on, furiously ignoring the heat that was warming her cheeks at the expression he was giving her now, as though he was about to pick her up in his arms and…well, actually, she could easily see him drawing her to his chest in public, given the track record they'd had so far, and if anything it would just support the farce they'd were hiding behind.

"Dating is one thing. If anyone does take it at face value they'll just think that I'm trying to live on the wild side—no pun intended, wipe that smirk off your face—but that ultimately I'll settle down and do what's 'proper' for a bunny. Give up the Force and become a homebunny. But engagement is serious, especially in a small town like Bunnyburrow. There's no going back on it. Not without becoming the main topic of conversation for the rest of your life."

The longer she was talking the less he seemed to be paying attention, sighing, rolling his eyes, and finally turning to lazily follow a dragonfly as it flew closer. If he was any other mammal she imagined that he would aim to catch a fly-by snack. But Nick was 100% city mammal—he liked his protein in tofu format. Nothing that once had eyes.

Judy was already far gone as realizations pounded into her like waves on the beach—paired with a horrifyingly intimate knowledge of her small town. True, Bunnyburrow was a safe place, content to keep on going as it always had. But folks' memories were as long as their ears were, here. Once you had a reputation it stuck around for life. And mammals weren't always kind in expressing their thoughts on the matter.

"People will take sides, and everyone will want to share their opinion, and then I'll get hit with questions and suggestions about the best place for cakes and dresses. I will end up drowning in them, I swear. And then! When we 'break up' I'll become 'Poor Judy,'" she added, in paw-quotes, " 'Couldn't find anyone to marry her—not even a predator would take her.' Not to mention that the whole dynamic of predator-prey relationships in town will be thrown on their head again, as everyone assumes that you, as a predator, probably broke my heart. And there'll be backlash all over, spilling into the lives of my predator friends and…I…I…"

Her words broke off, the arms she'd been waving dropping to her sides.

"…I can see that you are taking everything I'm saying very seriously."

This time around Nick had actively left her, trying to blow the bug out of its path while the dragonfly bravely attempted to soldier on. After she spoke he had the sense to at least pause, his left shoulder lifting in a half-shrug, too lazy to even remove his hands from his pockets, "Judy, is it really that terrible to be engaged to fox?"

Okay, he was entirely missing the point! That wasn't it at all!

She didn't know how to respond, given that the concept sent a thrill through her in that moment—and it wasn't a bad sort of thrill, either. She hastily shoved the feeling down.

"Besides, the mammals who matter the most know the truth," he went on.

"What?" the bunny stared at him in irritable confusion. All he did was point, and with a heavy sigh she followed the line of his finger.

Straight toward where Mrs. Harrison was confronting her mother and father on the matter.

"Oh no…" she groaned, paws dragging down her cheeks. But her companion's hypothesis proved correct.

Her father's reaction was to be expected—he stiffened, then jerked around in search for the fox in question. As for her mother, Judy could see one pretty eyebrow rise, but Bonnie Hopps remained serene. She responded with a smile, and strong-armed her husband into standing up straight beside her. From the angle they were at the two of them could even see her poke the bunny in the back—he stiffened and nodded, just once.

All this mystified Judy, but beside her Nick was chuckling, arms folded across his long torso.

"It looks like your Mom is willing to go along with the hustle. At least long enough to get everyone off your back and make a jab or two at them while she's at it. This 'Steven' must've really hurt you, Carrots, for her to just roll with it."

At the return of her well-worn nickname she looked up, brows still furrowed over a furiously twitching nose. Her best friend appeared relaxed and laid back, but there was an element of his expression—maybe the tightness of his smile, or the way he was watching the interaction in a not-quite-friendly way—that should have worried her. But it didn't—her mind was still stuck on his question:

Was it such a bad thing to be engaged to a fox? Or maybe it wasn't so much the engagement as the fact that it was fake and she would have to deal with the fallout that distressed her?

She knew without a shadow of a doubt that if it had been a real engagement then she would have taken on the naysayers and gossipmongers head-on, taking the bull by the horns, so to speak. Dealing with the repercussions wouldn't have worried her one bit. But maybe it was that she was going to have to deal with all of the stress and yet none of the happiness, all for the sake of her pride.

Being married to Nick would be a happy thing, she decided in an instant. For all his hustling ways he was kind and loving. Anyone he married would be lucky to have him—they would find in him a relationship founded on friendship and trust (although much pranking). And should he ever have kits (she was captured by the thought, and couldn't quite understand why. Maybe it had to do with the the fixation she'd had lately regarding her own chances at becoming a mother?) there was no doubt in her mind that he would be an excellent father, never mind how she'd tried to brush off her Mom just that morning.

If anyone deserved that joy—it was him.

She just wished that he would give love a chance.

(Despite the fact that the idea of Nick being married to someone else made her heart hurt as much as Steven's actions ever had. Why was that? Shouldn't she be happy for him?)

With someone—a friend—like Nick in her life, who needed bucks like Steven?

Much less a town full of gossips that had never treated her right and never would. So what was she really worried about?

"Yeah, he did," she answered the not-quite-question, "but it really doesn't matter."

Both eyes and a left ear swiveled toward her, "are you sure about that, Carrots?"

"Yeah, I'm sure," letting out a heavy sigh, she came to a decision, "Okay, Nick. We can do this…engagement ruse if you want. But let's at least try to be consistent, can we?"

"Really?" he perked up far more than she would have expected at such a simple concession. Then again it wasn't often that she allowed him almost-free reign in a scheme of his. Not since their last time undercover, anyway.

A particularly vulpine grin graced his maw and in that moment she was reminded that foxes were seen as tricksters in many species' cultures. This was it. This, Exhibit A, was why. She resisted the urge to roll her eyes, settling for a sigh.

"Then you don't mind being engaged to an old fox like me?"

"Well, I didn't mind 'dating' one, did I?" she responded drily, "Engagement is just one step up from that. And if we're about to set the town on fire, we might as well do it 100%."

"Yes, Ma'am! We are definitely about the 100%," he saluted her smartly, and if he'd had his sunglasses in that moment she imagined that now would be the time to flick them smartly down upon his beaming cheeks.

"And once we're done with this chaos I can continue dreaming about death-by-forks. I might even add a couple more names to my list," she prodded him, both literally and figuratively. But even that couldn't sway the return of his good mood.

A smirk lifted the corner of his mouth, revealing a canine, "I see that we're back to murder via silverware."

The observation was made with some approval.

"Well, as long you clean up after yourself," he remarked, going along with it.

"No worries, there," she said. Then, more realistically, "and in the meanwhile I can at least trick all the Granny bunnies who said I'd never get married and become a proper buck's wife."

His expression was the very definition of wicked, "because you're the making of a proper tod's wife."

She didn't know why her heart stuttered in her chest when he said that, but it did. Plus there was that strange hiccup in her stomach to contend with when she realized that Nick had somehow made it back to her, his arm around her waist.

"E-exactly!" Judy stuttered, then hip-checked him, "not being able to find the rabbit of my dreams makes perfect sense if the one I'm supposed to be with is really a fox, right? I've just been searching in all the wrong burrows."

He chuckled along with her, but something he saw over her shoulder caused it to catch in his throat.

"So…we're good with the fake engagement thing, right?" he made sure, tone neutral.

"Yes?" she was puzzled, "Didn't we just say that?"

"Just making sure. Because your parents are coming this way."

She'd almost forgotten. But then there they were, making their way over, and if that wasn't enough two of Judy's siblings were tagging along to witness their humiliation (with a third borne on her mother's back).

Bonnie smiled sweetly as the small group of Hopps family members meandered to the curio booth, gaze calm as she maintained her grip on her husband's arm. For his part he looked disgruntled. But not as though he was intending on launching himself down either of their throats, at least.

Nick's arm removed itself from her person…then slid back to grip her paw. She was surprised—both by the move and the fact that his palm seemed moist. She wondered for the first time if Nick was nervous and, if so, why? They were just pulling off a hustle, and the sooner her parents knew the truth the sooner they'd cut off the interrogation. Why should he be worried about what they thought?

"I just had a word with Mrs. Harrison," her mother began sweetly. She couldn't help noticing the omission of Mr. Harrison's name. "Is there something I should know, Judy?"

And her gaze was knowing. With a flush Judy was reminded of their conversation in the kitchen. Suddenly she wanted this conversation to end as quickly as possible.

"Nick offered to be my date to the wedding," was what she opted to say, deciding in an instant that even the explanation of their scheme was more than she was willing to share, "and Mrs. Harrison took it to mean more than that."

Bonnie's lips quirked slightly at the admission. But it was Nick's words which arrested her attention, taking the step forward that she'd just pulled back on.

"We're enacting a hustle, Mrs. Hopps—."

"Bonnie."

"Bonnie. And when Mrs. Harrison took it upon her to question Judy's career and life choices, I may have taken it a bit too far. I apologize."

He sounded as sincere as he'd ever been in all the time she'd known him, and both Judy and her father blinked. But her mom just beamed.

"Good on you, Officer Wilde," she remarked.

Stu swallowed hard and nodded, spine straightening a full inch and a half, "that Mrs. Harrison—you'll tell me later what she said about our Jude."

It was more demand than request, but Nick agreed anyway, saluting him with his unoccupied paw, "of course, Sir."

~/~/~

Judy's siblings had soon after declared themselves bored, dragging her off with them to bob for carrots in a barrel that had been cut in half for their shorter stature. After a deliberate look her way that he managed to catch (and wasn't he grateful that they'd been let off the hook with nothing more than that! Especially if Judy's Mom started realizing that his feelings were more real than pretend) Bonnie Hopps led Stu off to check on their booth, leaving Nick to his own devices.

Which naturally tugged him in the direction of pie.

Sweet, delightful pie.

He'd caught a glimpse—and a smell—right before the Harrisons bowled them over, and found himself irresistibly drawn back now that Judy wasn't there to reassure and distract. And if he couldn't be with her, then he might as well indulge in his second love.

Skittering and dodging through the crowded mass of fur the way only a fox could, Nicholas Wilde skidded to a stop before several long tables of pie, pastries, and freshly baked bread. Much of it had towels or domes overtop to keep away the bugs, but there were several glazed marvels that had been left out to cool in the early evening air. He wouldn't be surprised at all if this booth had been making a heavy profit since the early morning, as the animals around him set up shop.

Still, the fresh product was there, and Nick couldn't help bowing before the heavenly presence, green eyes alight with the many glorious creations, glazed with butter and dusted by sugar. Fruit glowed like rubies and deep amethysts from the window-like slits of their golden crowns, and as much as he was occupied with worshiping the table before him Nick found himself at a dilemma: which one should he try first?

From behind the stand a ferret smiled slightly at his open-mouthed amazement (careful not to drool on any of the product), her blues crinkling as she dusted her hands on her apron. But he hardly saw her or anyone else, fixated on his prize.

Which was why the booming voice presented right in front of him was such a surprise.

"Well, Ah'll be! Ah haven' seen 'nuther fox around this place since mah cousins came ter visit. Welcome to Bunnyburrow, friend."

The words were paired with a large, round paw presented for him to shake. Caught up in the glory of good food, Nick jolted in shock before slowly straightening, forcing his ears and tail to remain level.

He coughed. Then grasped the limb.

It belonged to a slightly rounded, jolly-looking fox at least a couple of years his junior. He had a thicker mop of orangey-red fur up top and wore a shirt the exact same shade of blue as his eyes.

What was it with these mammals and plaid? He couldn't help wondering.

"A pleasure. Nick Wilde."

If anything, the country fox's eyes seem to light up more, "oh! Judy's partner from Zootopia. I 'eard 'bout ya on the news."

Well! At least one mammal in this town approved of the two of them. Behind the baker, for he assumed that the 'Gideon' written on the side of the pink truck backed up along the length of the booth must be him, his ferret employee looked up with more interest, setting down the loaf she'd just started wrapping in paper.

He allowed his expression to become more congenial, hooking paws into his pockets, "the one and only! And you must be Gideon?" he waved a hand at the truck, making the other tod laugh.

"Ya must be sharp as a tack, feller. Tha's right—Ahm Gideon Grey. Well, any friend of Judy's must be som'in great. Here—pick a pie, on the house."

Well, who was he to say no to something like that? Maw wide in a grin, mouth watering, Nick picked his way through the delicious deserts before eventually settling on a mixed berry pie. His preference was blueberries, all the way, but that one looked too delicious to let go of.

"Are you…Mr. Wilde? From Zootopia?" the question had him looking down…and then down some more, at a tiny field mouse, her homespun dress a pale yellow pastel with what he imagined were pink roses embroidered on—from his standing they might as well have been pinpricks, but he couldn't ignore the fine hand that had made it. She carried a tiny basket on one arm and already had a miniature tart from Gideon's cart tucked into it, folded in a pink napkin.

The question required a pause out of him, and he respectfully kneeled in an effort to get closer to her level. She smiled at the gracious move, and in the corner of his eye he could see the other fox nod in approval.

"Why yes, Miss. What can I help you with, today?" his words were paired with his lightest tone, the one he usually saved for Mr. Bigg's daughter, eyebrows lifted and smile polite.

She giggled at the 'Miss' part and nodded to him in turn. "Well. I don't know if you saw me, but I was just at the Samson's booth—you know, the bison? With the carrot sculptures, so very clever of them to make. Well! I couldn't help but overhear that you and Miss Judy are engaged. Is that correct? Do I owe you my congratulations?"

Ah. Apparently news was catching on fast. Like wildfire, practically. Nick coughed, then put back on another of his gracious smiles.

"You are correct. But no congratulations are in order—it's a pretty new thing. And despite all my teasing, Judy's never been one for…people making a big deal about things, really."

She smiled knowingly as though this matched the image she had of his partner, and a part of him could feel his smile cracking with the effort it took to keep it pasted on.

'Mrs. Churchmouse,' as he'd come to think of her, reached out to touch his knee regardless, and said, "in any case, I wanted to wish you both well. You seem well-matched. I'm so glad that she's finally found someone who can appreciate her for her true merit."

Which made the wince in his chest hurt all the worse. But he accepted the compliment graciously and asked if there was anything he could do to help her while he was in town.

"Thank you, no, but aren't you a polite fellow," she tittered, voice barely carrying. "But I'll make sure to let all my friends know that you offered. Thank you, Mr. Wilde."

"It was my pleasure," he intoned, bowing his head slightly until the diminutive matron had skittered away. Only then did he let his shoulders drop and release the sigh within him.

Then he stood back up for pie, knees creaking.

Gideon faced him dead on, jaw open and a plainly astonished look on his face. Behind him his ferret associate had paws covering her mouth, but even that couldn't hide her grin or the joy in her eyes. And then the fox was once more reaching across the table divide, pumping Nick's paw up and down as though they'd known each other all their lives.

"Mr. Wilde, why didn' ya tell me! Ah'll be! Ah'll be. Judy Hopps, engaged to a fox. Ya could'a blown me over wi' a feather. I can't even begin ta tell ya how happy Ah'm fer the two o' ya."

"Uh. Thanks…"

"An' fer good measure, go 'head an' take TWO pies—one fer ya, an' one fer Judy."

Well!

"You just tell Mr. an' Mrs. Hopps that I'll cover the cake, no cost!"

Okay, this generosity was getting a bit out of hand. Suddenly he understood what Judy had been talking about earlier, a sense of panic starting to develop.

"I can' even tell you how happy Ah'm," this was punctuated by the other fox starting to tear up, and with some awkwardness Nick felt the desperate need to save his paw from further shaking. "I'm sure glad that mah actions didn' get in the way of the two of ya findin' true love."

"Excuse me?"

The other fox faltered a moment, free paws suddenly halting. Then they tucked themselves into his chest abruptly, whereupon they took up twiddling as a hobby. Behind him the ferret's eyes widened, and she attempted to busy herself with picking up her abandoned loaf, paper once more in hand, "ya mean she di'n tell you?"

The comment of, 'well, obviously not,' was stifled along with other impatient feelings. The police officer shook his head instead, not trusting himself to speak for fear of what would come out.

"Oh, well, gee. I dunno if I'm supposed ta say, but…" the other vulpine deliberated, looking uncomfortable as he dragged things out. However, just as Nick was starting to imagine him shaking the other animal, Gideon continued, "…when we was young, ya could say we had a…well, we di'n get along. Frankly, I was a jerk ta her. Once I even took a swipe a' her."

The confession took the wind right out of Nick's sails, leaving him gaping at the baker, mouth open and ears thrown back. After a couple of seconds of processing, during which Mr. Grey never stopped fidgeting with anxiety and guilt, Nick resisted the urge to run a paw over his face before quietly speaking.

"You're…you're joking."

The uncertain addendum of, 'right?' was left unspoken.

The pie maker merely blinked into a slow, hesitant hunch, "I've bin feelin' awful bad fer years. 'specially with the scars. They was good an' bright in high school, but it looks like the fur's filled in. I'm glad fer her, an' it's real kind of Judy that she's let it go enough ta move on and find the right mammal. 'Specially since yer a fox, too. I wouldn' 'ave wanted to git in the way of tha'."

Clapping Nick on the shoulder hard enough to knock him sideways (giving him a pretty good idea of what Kit-Gideon might have been able to do to Kit-Judy), his opposite smiled, "I guess what Ah'm tryin' to say is that Ah'm happy fer ya two. Good luck with all the preparin' an' things. I'm yer fox if yeh ever need anything made up special-like."

~/~/~

She wasn't quite sure if the effort of bobbing for carrots was worth the drenching she got, her shirt front dripping with water and a shared community of germs that could be only found at a town festival. But it made her sisters happy, so who was she to complain?

Futilely trying to ring the moisture out, she absently began searching for a figure incongruously wearing a Hawaiian shirt.

"Judy!" her name was said in an excited shout and then suddenly a tall figure was loping toward her, feline limbs long and fast as light golden fur rushed toward her.

The rabbit felt the sudden need to brace herself for moment until the dust settled and she looked up…and up…and up.

Then a grin broke across her face.

"Well, if it isn't Bobby Catmull!" she said in a shout, and before he could crouch to her level she jumped up on top of the wooden roof of Joseph Hogarth's onion and potato cart. Unlike many of its brothers, made of straw and sticks, this one was sturdy enough to hold her weight as she continued the conversation muzzle-to-muzzle.

Both of them immediately dove into a hug which resulted in the larger animal grasping her like a stuffed animal and the smaller one almost suffocating in his dark blue T-shirt. But the couple of seconds that passed were quick enough that she was able to mask her shortness of breath as a side effect of the height.

"How are you?"

"How've you been?"

They laughed and took a moment. He answered first.

"I'm doing really well. I'm working as a sound artist for Hyena Gomez."

She let out an honest gasp, "you're kidding me! That's fantastic to hear. Wow! I'm just—wow!"

The cougar let out a humble laugh, hands in his pockets, "yeah, I know, right? Big shock."

"You're telling me," she laughed, fake-punching his arm in which she knew probably had all the effect of a gentle poke. "Everyone's so different, and it's only been a couple of years! I just saw Jag—he's become a Tax Consultant. And Sharla—!"

"I saw the NASA shirt," the cat nodded with a smile. "Did you catch the engagement bracelet?"

"No!" Judy gasped. "Not her, too!"

"It seems to be catching," Bobby chuckled, "and look who's talking, it seems you've found someone, too." He nodded his head in the direction Nick stood—not that she could follow his gaze. It was easy enough for the tall predator to find her gingery fox in the middle of the crowd, even if she couldn't. "I have to admit that I'm surprised. Especially after Gid…"

"Gideon apologized a while ago," she said quickly, hoping her friend would take the hint and roll with it. She wasn't sure how news of her 'engagement' had spread so fast, but it had. "He's really changed. Gid and my parents are actually business partners now."

"I'm happy to hear it. I remember how upset we all were when we found out what he'd done," something in his nonchalant tone caused her to pull back in surprise. Bobby seemed to sense her uncomfortable confusion and took in a deep breath, paws on hips. "I mean, I know that you didn't want us to make a big deal about it at the time, but…still…"

Her expression was neutral, but she attempted an encouraging smile. It was better to find out what people had been really thinking all this time—rip the Band-Aid off all at once.

The big cat sighed and folded his massive arms, "my mom was really worried for a while. That someone would say that it wasn't safe for preds and prey to go to school together, and then my sister and I would have to drop out and start homeschooling. So I'm glad that it all turned out okay."

The part of her gut that ached sometimes when she thought of her mistakes decided to flare up, and without realizing it the grey bunny started wringing the edge of her shirt, "Bobby…I'm so sorry, I didn't even…I mean…I had no idea that was…that was even a thing that anyone would need to worry about. Especially back then."

Noticing her anxiety, he coughed into his fist, then waved a paw, "well, it all blew over, so it was okay. The fact that you just explained it as standard Bully behavior kind of took the edge off of it, I think. It was just the first time that I really realized that we—my family and some of the other kits and cubs in school—were different. And that something that I had no control over—my felinity—could cause problems. It was a wakeup call."

"Oh, Bobby," she murmured, trying to reach out to him with her paws, but he was too far away. He kindly met her in the middle, allowing her to pat his forearm.

He continued, reflectively.

"I saw some of that in Zootopia last year—during the Savage Attacks—and I know that you probably feel guilty about that, but don't be. Sometimes mammals just need an excuse to be their worst selves. So don't blame yourself. I saw you, way back then, and could tell that you meant well at the time. So consider this my late attempt at reassuring you," he shrugged and smiled slightly, his shoulder rolling smooth and lithe. "And don't let people get you down if they knock you for your relationship with him," he waved a gentle paw into the crowd, "just focus on the 'Happy' of life. If you guys are happy together, then all the Specism won't get you down."

She didn't even know what to say to that, especially in light of their fake relationship. So she simply nodded.

"I go by Rob now, by the way," he added with a slight smile, brown eyes thoughtful, "and congrats for making it to Precinct One in Zootopia."

"Thanks. Thank you B-Rob. I appreciate it."

~/~/~

After her talk with 'Rob' she'd been snatched up by a handful of hens—not the literal kind, but the nosy busybody kind—who tried to disguise their need to get all the 'details' from her about her relationship with a predator from behind a veil of sweetness and motherly concern. She'd managed to escape with all limbs intact, but it had been a near thing.

With that in mind, she was ready to call the evening done—and it wasn't even dark enough yet to set off any fireworks. A true low mark if there ever was one, given that her family always stayed for the whole thing, turning on the radio on their cars to add musical accompaniment to the show. But that was just how it was.

So there she found herself scrambling through the crowds with a body that was already tired…and a temper that was very, very short. And a heart that was heavy at the same time. It was an exhausting combination.

"Nick. Nick," she said as she tried to maneuver through the crowds to where her partner was. Usually she was better at this kind of thing, after having lived in Zootopia, but she'd gotten out of practice when it came to crowds of mammals her own size. At least Nick, with his orange fur and slightly taller height, wasn't someone easily lost. Many of the other predators present were much the same—rising above their neighbors like trees, looming overhead while she was trapped in a "grassland" of bunny ears.

When she finally managed to squeeze past that last gaggle of giggling adolescents, she came stumbling to a stop beside him. Paw immediately outstretched to tug on his sleeve, "Nick, I think that we've made enough of an appearance. I'm ready to blow this joint if you are."

Something in his expression cut her off.

It had a conflicted-ness to it that wasn't what she expected. His mind was processing something he'd heard—that much she could tell. She hadn't come this far as a partner without learning his 'tells.' But it was colored with an emotion similar to sadness.

"Hey, Nick…you okay over there, Partner?"

"What?" he started. "Oh, hey Carrots. You enjoying yourself so far?"

She hesitated, not wanting to lie, "well, I—."

Whatever she was about to say got cut off from behind.

"Hey, ya two! Yer missin' the best part!"

The words were her only warning, and then she found herself being escorted by Gideon Grey toward the festival 'square.' She tried not to suffocate on the fur surrounding her, his arm wrapped around her shoulders (Nick appeared to be just as trapped under the other arm, she noticed in the few moments when she jostled slightly in that direction). Various faces in the crowd also did double-takes as their incongruous trio passed by, visible in flashes.

Then, with no further ado, they were shoved forward.

"It's the couples' dance!" he explained his actions with a grin, "I made 'em wait fer ya!"

She didn't have the heart to let out the groan that was desperately building in her chest, instead putting on a weak smile and giving him a limp wave, "alright. Thanks…Gid…"

Well. If the whole town wasn't aware of their 'engagement' before, they definitely were now.

Exactly what she had always wanted, she thought sarcastically.

Nick, not understanding the magnitude of the dance, was solemnly caught in his thoughts as he led her toward the group of couples, and the rabbit could practically feel his sigh of gratitude when it turned out that this wasn't a complicated square dance, but a slow cover of an old country song (something about the buck losing everything important in his life, from his truck to his farm, but that the thing he missed the most was the love of his life. Judy wasn't quite sure how this constituted a 'love ballad,' given its depressing nature. But that was country music for you). Which meant that her partner didn't have to worry about learning new dance steps, and they could actually carry a conversation without worry about being overheard.

He started by hoisting her up with one arm, locking just behind her hips the way that she might pick up a kit. This might have been the cause of the heat which rushed through her, or it could have been that other paw of his, which guided her own to rest against his upper chest.

The rush of whispers was instantaneous and obvious, even below the strum of several guitars and a banjo. Judy traced it to the edge of the crowd where a herd of matronly rabbits, plus four or five sheep, were whispering among themselves while their eyes followed the interspecies couple. It was group made up of mothers of schoolmates, former schoolteachers, with a smattering of concerned community members—most of which she'd already offended off and on again in her exuberant desire for justice.

To be honest, when she'd moved to Zootopia she'd put most of her small-town experience behind her, surrounding herself in the culture and speed of the environment she now lived in. But it was easy for old feelings—of being a loner, a misfit, an oddball—to come rushing back in the face of their disapproval.

She groaned, dropping her head against his chest, "I am never going to live this one down, am I?"

"Sounds like you're ashamed of me, there," he commented with humor. But something in his smile was missing, she realized as she drew back to look up at him.

Her response was instant, "no, of course not. It's just…Bunnyburrow's a small town, and they only have so much news to…rehash. Continually. On repeat."

"Ah, the small-town curse, I see," he nodded with sage thoughtfulness, "well. Truthfully, I've never experienced it, myself, but according to Daytime Soaps it can be a killer."

She groaned yet again, "Nick, just…stop."

"Hey, I'm just trying to be the understanding fiancée you need me to be."

"Right, of course," she remarked with some humor, which then settled into something softer. They were already caught in the middle of small town scandal, so…might as well, take advantage of it, right? Shifting her arms from his upper chest to around his neck, she continued the floating two-step he was directing, her arms resting against his ruff, her fluffy cheek leaning into him just over his heart. It was something she might have died from embarrassment over, but after waking up beside him just that morning…it felt completely right.

In for a penny, in for a pound.

"Nick. I know that I've been kind of…cranky. And complaining a lot. But…I just wanted to thank you. For trying to protect me. I know that you made that 'fake boyfriend' offer a while ago, but I don't think I ever really thanked you for it. So…I appreciate it. And for the 'engagement' stuff—well, it was definitely a surprise! But I appreciate your quick thinking. I mean, it was definitely one of those 'fake your death' kind of moments—going for the extreme reaction. But it seems to have worked. Mrs. Harrison backed off. And, if anything, there's no pity."

"True," he murmured, leaning in close to move his paws to wrap around her shoulders, "who would pity you being engaged to a foxy Copper like me?"

She punched him in the shoulder, earning both an 'oof' and a belated laugh. They continued twirling for several minutes, content to enjoy each other's company, until something hesitant crept into his expression.

Judy, finally relaxed after an evening of stress, registered it around the same time his paw went to cup her left cheek, brushing the fur slightly back. The move might have been construed as romantic by their spectators at large if not for the worry she could see up close and personal.

At her questioning look he sighed. Then spoke, not quite looking her in the eyes, "why didn't you tell me, Carrots?"

"Tell you what?"

He chewed on his bottom lip for a moment, before making eye contact. Nick's green gaze was neutral, "I spoke with your pal, Gideon Grey."

"Well, that explains why he felt comfortable enough to shove us into the circle. He's the one that baked the blueberry pies they have for sale, you know," she remarked, still confused.

"I am aware," Nick's chuckle was a tad rueful.

"He and my parents are business partners, now. They made the change when I first became an officer. I honestly couldn't be prouder of them."

"Really," he murmured, "well, that explains the free cake comment."

"What?"

"Nothing." Nick sighed. "He told me about some of your escapades, from when you were young," the fox explained lightly.

"Oh?" head tilted in confusion, Judy frowned. Then nearly jumped out of his arms in sudden realization. "Oh! He didn't…what did he tell you, exactly?"

His thumb brushed against her cheek pointedly, one eyebrow going up as though to say, 'what do you think, Carrots?'

The grey bunny once again sighed, face-planting into his shirt for the second time that night.

"Why didn't you tell me that you had your own 'Muzzle Experience', Carrots?" he murmured, running the pads of his paw over her long ears soothingly. Judy didn't say anything, but he must have felt her shiver.

"Maybe because I was hoping that I could forget it, too," she said, muffled, before pulling back and trying to flatten the creases she'd just created in her fur. "You know how I reacted at the press conference. That was bad enough without adding personal bias into things."

"I'm not sure if bias and a response based on trauma are the same thing, 'Bun Bun.' If you'd told me then…"

Maybe I would have been more understanding. The words went unspoken. But she hadn't wanted any excuse for her actions—she'd reacted badly, and would take responsibility for it.

"Don't call me that," she kicked him lightly in the stomach, causing Nick to grunt. "And don't give me a way out. I was a jerk, and you know it."

"Well, if there's nothing I can do but agree…" he teased.

"I just…I care about you," his fingers stilled on her long appendages, "and I didn't want something that happened with one fox to affect my interactions with every other fox I meet. I mean, you're a conman but you're not going to outright hurt me; I knew that even then. Okay, Finnick might, but that's another story," her smile and his were matching shades of ironic.

"And besides, there are plenty of jerk bunnies out there without me using my childhood experiences as a crutch."

Nick's expression was deadpan, "which leads us back to this evening's shenanigans, courtesy of dear old Mr. and Mrs. Harrison."

"Oh, I do not want to talk about that—don't you even dare!" she challenged, and by the wicked grin on his face she knew that he wasn't going to listen. Which she somehow loved, anyway.

"What, you mean the fact that Mrs. H was shocked that we ate the same food?" he said with a smirk. "Can you imagine what she was thinking? You, a vicious killer rabbit, turned to the dark by your bloodthirsty true love."

He pulled her in close, wiggling his eyebrows, but the effect was rather opposite of what he'd expected—in moving forward his lips had brushed against the fur of her cheek. Both her eyes flew wide and her ears shot up, as something zinged through Judy's veins at his proximity. This obviously was not what he'd been aiming for, and she could see how arrested he became by the way his grip seemed to tighten around her, his heart rate almost as rapid as her own bunny one was.

He'd been shocked to the point of coming to a standstill in the middle of the dance. But eventually Nick coughed and restarted his feet when a pig couple almost bumped into them, the flamboyant male in gold dancing circles around his much shier—if beaming—blonde, partner. (If she didn't know any better Judy would have said that she'd seen the female pig before somewhere in Zootopia...?) Somewhere in Judy and Nick's conversation the 'serious couples only' song had switched to a catchy popular tune—"Everybunny's Got Some Bunny But Me"—a local favorite.

"You okay there, Carrots?" he asked slowly, beneath the sound of strumming instruments, the chatting and shuffling feet as the 'dance floor' filled up.

"Yeah," she finally said, a little breathy. "I was just…imagining me. Murdering everyone here. Blood in my teeth. With a side of cabbage. The usual."

Her attempt at levity—and her usual morbid sense of humor—took the tension out of him.

"Well, if you feel the need to unload those feelings…let me know. Maybe I can help with them," his words were somehow less of a joke and more serious than she was comfortable with, green eyes intent on hers. "Anyway, if you've got anything else you'd like to get off your chest—fox related trauma, a fox stealing your lunchbox and also your heart, stuff like that—don't feel like you have to tiptoe around my feelings to do it, alright? I care about you, too. So I don't want your allergy to, oh, handsome devils to get in the way of our ability to…to work together," he finished, although she was pretty certain that wasn't what he'd intending on saying.

"Roger that, Officer Wilde," she quipped quietly, hugging him to show her affection. This time his arms went around her to hold on for several seconds, and in that pause her best friend buried his muzzle into the fur at her collar, breathing her in.

Her heart stopped in her chest. His voice was a rumble against her neck.

"Good. Now let's go scandalize some more herd animals."

~/~/~

AN:

Firstly, MRS. HARRISON IS NOT BASED ON 'STEVEN'S' REAL MOM. She's actually based on a woman from my mother's hometown. My mom has a learning disability so, when she was fostered into the family that later adopted her, she was in sixth grade on a second grade reading level. Rather than help her, the Resource room teacher, as well as various others, believed that she was "retarded" (this is a quote), comparing her to my Uncle with Down Syndrome, and that she would (and I quote, again), "Never Amount to Anything."

But my mother is awesome and has never let things like that get in the way. :) So she now has a Degree in Paralegal Sciences and is an avid reader, encouraging us to do the same.

But that is just one of many experiences that she had in that small town of hers.

On that note, no offense to anyone who lives in a small town and loves it—my descriptions are based off of my mother's experiences growing up in a small (dying) town. Where the minute you make a mistake everyone knows about it, and no one forgets it…even after nearly forty years, in her case.

If Judy seems indecisive in her responses, it can all be attributed to the fact that she's now a Zootopian…but is still stuck remembering the trauma of her Bunnyburrow childhood/young adulthood.

Other notes:

-I was Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest in my senior play, so there you go with that reference.

-The concept of an engagement bracelet instead of a ring for Judy's sheep friend is actually not my idea—I got it from another person's fanfic, in the "Sing!" (Illumination Studios) fandom. Because putting an engagement ring on an elephant is pretty much impossible. XD

On that note, if all ye of the Zootopia fandom are interested in reading more stories about interspecies animal couples, that's not a bad place to go. It's a rather small fandom right now, so it deserves some love. ;) I'm more of a JohnnyXMeena fan, but a lot of people are into JohnnyXAsh. Either way, show it some love if you can. :D (If you also like the idea of JohnnyXMeena, check out my sister's fanfic. It's called, "Our Fame and Fortune." Aaaaaand I may have created a music video for her on Youtube. You can find it under "Sing 2016 – You Matter – By Shahrezad1." See, I'm not just a one-trick pony. XD )

-Thank you, HawkTooth, for all of your editing help. I tried my best to follow your advice in this chapter. No promises on the quality. :S Still, I did my best, and if there are mistakes then at least I tried to meet you in the middle. –shrugs helplessly- There were a few instances where I felt that a sentence was being cut in half during a conversation, so needed no capitalization, but otherwise tried to follow your instructions exactly. :D Thanks again!