Night Wolf0179 A/N: Hey! I still exist! Can you believe it? XD

Existence has been interesting lately, but we finally got this one out. Thanks again to Stubat and Dan for their editing assistance! I don't understand how I miss so many of the things they find. It's like I've gotten so used to this document that I gloss over any error and think it's just fine. XD

So, they're priceless. Without them, you poor readers would be subject to so many little mistakes that our apparent awesome writing skills would not be so awesome anymore!

Also, to clue you into some of the things I've been up to… I've taken up streaming over on Twitch! I took a break from it when a lot of stuff went down, but I am getting back to it soon. So, if you guys ever wonder just where I go when a chapter takes almost a year to be uploaded, you can find me on Twitch! Just look up Nullight and hopefully by then I'll be up and running again! You'll find some of my other socials as well on there!

But yeah, one of these days I'll stop having to apologize for the long ass months between uploads. But not today! Nooooo. So yeah, sorry! Life has been wild. XD

I kinda wish you guys could see the writing process on these chapters, 'cause by god, it is a mess and I love it. At any given moment, there's just so many mismatched and intertwined ideas that it is a miracle that anything comprehensible comes out of this story. It is comprehensible, right? I'm not imagining it?

Also, I promise you there is more conflict coming that will drive the story along. I like to think it is actually a really big surprise that will hopefully be quite intriguing to read! I know it's intriguing in my head, but I guess only time will tell!

I just hope what my friend and I have here is any good. I think it is. It's been a lot of fun, and I am really proud of it. I've never written so much on any single project. I've had one story that I began writing when I was in middle school, but it was my own original story and it only passed a few chapters. I remember showing it to my parents, to my grandparents... I think even my cousin. They all seemed to like it. I wish I still had it with me. I wrote it down using pencils and paper, and I think that is precisely why it is lost! I do everything digitally these days. XD

If I had it right now, I'd certainly go ahead and upload somewhere just so that I could keep it and see where I came from. But this story does a good job at showing me how far I've come. I feel like I've improved greatly from that very first chapter JKnight and I ever uploaded. This story has really become a series of snapshots in my life and my writing.

I hope this chapter continues that trend, and I hope years later, that I'll look at it and smile for what it was. And I hope this story has some sort of impact on you guys, too. I don't write only to entertain. I write to invoke deeper emotions and to encourage self reflection... I write to give others an idea into what I believe in... I write to be meaningful, somehow, to someone.

I think that is why so many of my favorite scenes are the ones that I write abstractly. Ones that leave a lot of interpretation up to the reader. You can guess and figure out what I intended. You may never get it right - hell, I might not even have a solid intention sometimes - and I find that beautiful. Stories aren't just the author's story… it is the reader's as well. Whatever you take from it, even if it is different from me or someone else… it is just as valid and significant. I love multiple meanings and leaving enough room for multiple interpretations.

Well… My fingers hurt now. I did not mean to write so much for this A/N. Oops? XD

I'll let ya get to JKnight's A/N, and to the story. Thank you for reading my little rant. I hope you enjoy what we've got and I hope you'll come away with some interpretations of this story that I never intended. I'd love to hear them!

Thank you! Have fun.

JKnight97 A/N: So, here we are… on the cusp of writing a baker's dozen of chapters after more than eight months have passed since our last update. I can only apologize for the slow writing as trying to stay sane in the pandemic while earning a living can be quite challenging. Not having much free time wears on the soul but we've gotten twelve chapters now under our belt after more than four years (yes, I kid you not!) since we started writing this story. There have been lots of redrafts and things that we originally planned got chucked out the window to make room for another plot twist here and there. We can only ask that you remain patient with us, dear readers as we worry away at the little plot bunnies hiding underneath the bed to create a near-decent story to capture your imagination.

Many thanks to Wolfx1120, Seakard, Cimar, InTheLionsDenOnDA, and various guests for your comments and kudos. And, as usual, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious thanks to our beta readers, DancingLunarWolves and Stubat! As usual, we ask for any feedback or comments so that we can either answer you directly or else adjust the writing to make the story simpler.

And now, as the saying goes, on with the show!

Disclaimer: All characters are owned by ©Disney except for original characters created by us. Any resemblance to actual persons or mammals, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Stu looked around the building housing the farm's machinery. Unlike the old wooden barn where the foxes were staying, this one was built of concrete and steel girders meant to withstand the weight of the massive machines needed to cultivate and maintain the extensive acreage that the Hopps clan had accumulated over the years. Yet, no matter how modern a barn was, there would always be the ever-present smell of hay that permeated its walls.

Peering through the open barn door, he was once again reminded of just how lucky he and his family were to have their home here. Fluffy clouds were settled in the distance, gently moving along without a care in the world, much like him at the moment. There was also a moderate breeze sweeping through the fields near him, creating a mesmerizing wave pattern. And the little patch of sky just above him was just the most wondrous blue that camera nor television could ever hope to replicate.

He had the latest batch of "organic crop wine" that they had just finished that morning, and he was quite eager to enjoy some downtime, taste-testing what had become, in his opinion, the best hooch in the Burrows. Swirling the alcohol in its glass, the elder buck took a swig, squeezed his eyes shut, and relished the bite and warmth of the rawness coating his throat. He looked at the clouds again and smiled lazily, eyes grazing the horizon as he took in the fresh air.

It wasn't often that he had free time on his paws, and normally, when he wanted to take a load off, he would do so with Bonnie by his side, rocking on the porch swing, sipping iced tea as a gentle breeze ruffled their fur. But, lately, with how often his little Judy visited that old barn of his from years past, he was feeling a little reminiscent and decided to take a stroll through one of the newer barns on his property. Things were so different now compared to when Stu first handled the reins on the farm. Back then, it was just him and Dan, his old wolf friend, who used to get up at the crack of dawn in order to do the back-breaking manual labour. Dan had been a great partner, but with the passage of the Predator Slave Law, Dan had signed over his assets to the rabbit over Stu's vehement objections so that it wouldn't go into some stranger's paws, much less the government's. He only wished that the old canid had been able to see how their initial venture had blossomed into so many acres of well-cultivated prime agricultural land.

He took a few steps inside and looked at some of the biggest purchases of his life: a tractor with a rotary tiller attachment, a cultivator, a swather, and lastly, a multi-crop harvester. Stuart remembered bringing up the idea of purchasing some of the larger-than-elephant sized machines to Bonnie, and to this very day, he could not forget the image of her face when he told her their asking price. Admittedly, on the face of it, he might have been able to get by with his children helping him out on the farm but he felt that they had a right to choose their own paths. Not wanting to burden them with the guilt of being forced to help him out, he decided that the machines would lessen the mammal-power needed to oversee tilling the soil. He had been wanting to expand his farm for a good while, and he had plenty of funds saved up to support it. He had so much that he could've purchased a beach front property. But farming was his life, and the machines before him were a testament to that.

Somehow, the idea of purchasing the very first tractor had snowballed into more and more things they wanted to purchase, and soon enough, they realized that they would need to expand their storage. Even back then, their older barns were not in the best of shape and certainly would not have had space for all the fancy, new things that were coming out. It was essential they get several new barns to keep everything safe, or just one really large barn to keep things centralized. Bonnie had insisted on a particularly large barn, and Stu had agreed so as to not argue, and thus, the structure he now stood in was born.

Stu should have known that any new addition to his farm would have gathered the interest of his younguns. The moment it had been declared safe to enter, it was packed with a hundred tiny bunny kits hopping about excitedly. He almost had a heart attack when he noticed some of his more rambunctious kits managing to shimmy their way up the support beams to get to the rafters overhead.

As he looked around at some of his children gathered in the barn, he couldn't help but smile. Before him was the next generation of Hopps farmers, and they seemed more than eager to one day operate the machinery that occupied the barn from front to back. It filled him with pride.

It harkened back to when he finally became of age to help around with his father's farm. Back then, it was even smaller and less impressive than Stu's own farm just before they had decided to expand. All they had was enough land to grow just the right amount of crops to put food on the table and to pay the bills. They even had to hire some equine and bovine labourers to help with pulling the paw-held ploughs back then.

Times then were hard, but luckily, things eventually stabilized and allowed Stu to make a good living for him and his family. After his parents passed, his wife and kids were all he had left and he'd be damned if he didn't give them everything he wasn't able to have as a child. As it was, he did feel a little selfish about spending so much of his savings on the farm instead of them, but he knew it'd pay off in the end. And he saved up just enough for one last surprise. Stuart could still remember how their little eyes lit up when he told them that he managed to convince Bonnie to let them throw a little party in the new barn.

It took him and Bonnie weeks to clean up the mess that ensued, but to them in the end, it was more than worth it.

Basking in the memories, the elder bunny went over his morning chore list. There was still much to do—as there always was in the Hopps Clan and life never stopped on a farm—but the day just felt too good to just rush through. He almost considered taking the entire day off for himself. The harvest was going well, and he felt that with how well everything was going, he could let his many children handle it from there. Maybe he could order some ice cream! Or take some of the young kits to the local swimming hole! Or even just watch a movie together in their theater.

"Daaaaaaaaaad! F-f-f-f-foxes!"

Stu sighed forlornly. He knew the peace wouldn't last forever; it never did. Stu wearily looked up as Albert ran screaming into the main machine barn, dishevelled and out of breath. Stuart knew he should've expected this, considering his brood had grown much bigger than when he and Bonnie had started the underground slave train. He studied the harried and panicked look of his son who stood shaking before him, eyes bulging out of their sockets, mud splattered along the legs of his jeans, and the amount of straw and leaves stuck in his fur. He stifled a sigh. I can never have one peaceful day. Can't even remember the last one. Shaking his head, he reached into his pocket and took out his phone. He quickly scanned his directory, pressed a button and announced into it in a dull and sorrowful tone, "Violet, Code Orange. Please broadcast a general alarm on the farm's radio frequency. Everyone out in the fields is to meet up in the warren's main theatre. Those on critical duty, keep them at their posts but have them tune in on the general frequency. I repeat, Code Orange."

Albert looked upon his father and was perplexed to see he was not panicking. He didn't appear scared or alarmed, nor did he seem particularly concerned about the safety of the warren. What made things even more confusing was that he hadn't asked where he had seen the foxes.

Instead, all he seemed to be expressing was extreme disappointment.

"I… Aren't you concerned? What if they attack us? I mean, they almost ate Randy, Abi, Jared, Oscar, and Mary! I'm surprised they made it back at all!"

"Almost?" queried Stu, hiking an eyebrow in his son's direction. "Are you sure about that, son? Did you see it?"

"Yes! I… mean, uhm," blinking, he hesitated under the intense scrutiny of his father. "C'mon, Dad! There are foxes in the old barn over by the west side! Bet they're red like the devil, just like school said! We shouldn't be organizing a meeting! We should be securing our burrow and sending out a group to kill them!"

Stu sighed once more and stood up from his chair, stretching out the kinks of his back. Sagely, he stated, "That is not how I raised you." He was definitely getting too old for this, he woefully mused. Spying Judy as she was making her way to the underground kitchen, he called her over as he assembled all the bunnies inside the main barn around him. He stood up on a bale of hay and after scanning thirty or so of his children within hearing range, he spoke up.

"Now, listen up!" Stu yelled, his paws resting on his hips as he eyed them like a drill sergeant in front of new recruits. "Do you remember what Code Orange stands for?"

Judy stiffened as soon as his words left his mouth while her siblings could only scratch their heads in confusion.

"Dad, you don't mean…?" Judy hesitated.

"Yep, as patriarch of the warren, I'm invoking the Warren Clan Rule! Your mother will back me up on this as soon as Violet informs her of the situation." He took a moment to let them all take it in. "There will be an official meeting later tonight once everyone is freed up, but until then, this will have to do for now. What I say right now cannot and will not be disobeyed, and come tonight, everything can be argued until a final decision is made. Disobedience carries very harsh punishment: expulsion from the Warren. Am I clear?"

"Dad, Warren Clan Rule has never been invoked since… since…" Judy racked her brain, trying to draw upon her old history lessons.

"Since before the time of the Predator-Prey Treaty roughly about three hundred years ago, yes, I know. However, in our family history, we have used it from time to time, whenever an emergency has come up. Like the Potato famine in the 30's, the Great Carrot Plague of the 60's, and the Mad Cow Disease Scare in the 90s. This here is the same thing. It's allowed our family to survive as long as it has.

"Judy, I'm appointing you as my second-in-command after your mom. Is everyone clear about that?"

"No way!" opposed Daryl, one of her oldest brothers from the first litter. The large muscular buck waded through his siblings; parting the crowd before him like a ship's prow through water. "I don't accept Miss Goody Two-Paws' authority over me. Why, she can barely lift a bale of hay over her head. Now, take me, for example," the male declared, thumping his broad chest with a large paw. "I'm a prime example of leadership material! Everyone will listen to me! Besides, you're going to need a strong mammal to take those foxes down. Am I right, fellas?" Daryl declared to the cheers of his other male siblings. "I challenge her to a duel as per clan tradition!"

Stuart dragged a paw down his face. Why, for the love of Serendipity, is it always the boys with the stupidest ideas?

Just as he was about to override his eldest's challenge, his jaw dropped when Judy yelled out, "I accept!"

"You… what?!" Flabbergasted, Stu stared at his daughter. "Leadership is not about physical ability! There's more to being a leader than brawn. Maybe back then there was a need, but now that concept's about as dead as a—"

"I said, 'I accept.' I'm not backing off from this." Judy was not quite sure what had gotten into her, but she felt a strange feeling of assertiveness come over her with no idea why it did.

"You heard her, Dad! Let's get on with this."

Dread filled him, but since he had declared Warren Clan Rule, he had no choice but to go with the traditions. They were there for a reason, after all.

"Fine! Everyone, form a ring for them using those bales of hay. Clear a space for them in the centre. Daryl, since you're the challenger, you have to either push Judy out of the ring or make her surrender. That simple. Judy, since you've been challenged, you can choose the weapons."

"No weapons. Paw-to-paw combat." Judy firmly stated.

"What? Why, I could push you out with just my little pinky." sneered her eldest brother.

Stu assessed Judy's chances of winning. Daryl was one of his biggest and strongest children. He stood well over five feet and weighed in at over one hundred pounds. He had been working in the fields ever since he was a young buck of fifteen and now he had the muscles to show for it at the age of thirty. Judy, on the other paw, stood barely three feet at age twenty-four, and weighed in shy of forty pounds.

Hopping down from the bale, he strode over to where the two opponents were glaring at each other inside the impromptu hay bale ring roughly thirty feet in diameter. "All right, just a quick reminder of the rules: the winner of the challenge is the one who can make their opponent surrender, knocks them out, or else pushes them out of the ring. If I believe that someone is going to get maimed or extremely injured, I'll call off the fight. Is that clear?"

"Very," asserted Judy.

"Alright! Let's get it on!" yelled Daryl eagerly, thumping a balled paw into his palm.

"Okay, then. No rough stuff, ya hear?"

"Sure, Dad. I won't hurt Little Miss Muffet here. Just shake her up a bit."

"I wasn't talking to you, Daryl." commented Stu drily.

Back in the barn, Nick started gathering up whatever food and water bottles he could find. "C'mon, Fin! We gotta get outta here now! I knew we overstayed our visit here. No telling who's coming back. Hell, the Pred Patrol might be the next one busting down the door. Oh, gods…," Nick suddenly looked up in shocked realization. "Judy. Her family. We've put them in danger! No! No! No! I didn't mean for this to happen. What am I going to do?" he whimpered as he collapsed on his knees, his face in his paws.

Finnick raised an eyebrow at his friend from the bale of hay he was sitting on. "Whatchoo talkin' about, Nick?" the smaller fox unconcernedly asked. "Cottontail's pop is the head of the family, right? I'd say, before anything happened, they'd let him know and he'd be the one making the decisions. Let's not hurry out just yet."

"Yeah, maybe, but can we trust him? I mean, yeah, Judy's been taking care of us and all, plus he's let us live in this barn, but what do you think he's gonna do to us knowing we went and scared his kits?"

"Nah," Fin nonchalantly said as he pricked up his large ears, tilting his head to the right. "Usually, I'd be the paranoid one, but if her old mammal was that quick to turn on someone, we woulda been dead a long time ago. If he planned on turnin' us in to da Pred Patrol, he'd a done so from the start and not waste food and water on a couple of pelts. He's gotta be holding a meeting or sumthin' to talk to the family first before the place erupts into chaos. Been keepin' an ear out and can't hear nuthin'."

Nick grumbled to himself, but remained quiet and put his ear against one of the barn's walls. "Now that you mention it, it's as silent as a mouse creeping through a pack of sleeping felines. I can't hear anything except the wind. Bit like a ghost town."

"Mhm, this place never sleeps. Usually, you'd hear or see some sort of activity going on somewhere over the next field or so. So if they're gone, they're either having a meeting, which gives us time, or they're not, which would mean the two of us are probably as good as dead anyhow."

"So, you're saying we have time. What do you think we should do, then? I still want to do something; I'd much rather be shot running than shot hiding. If they're going to get me, it won't be in a cruddy old barn in the middle of nowhere."

"Flopsy. We find your girlfriend, and figure things out from there."

"Alright," the fox enthusiastically clapped his paws, "Let's get goin—… are you outta your dim-witted mind, Fin? And for the last time, she is not my girlfriend!"

"Knowing her," Finnick chuckled, continuing his teasing tone as he faced his friend, "she's already cooking up some plan to get us moving or save us yet again in some new, spectacular way. And with those big ears of hers, there is no way she hasn't heard the news. She's gotta be up to sumthin' to save our hides."

"Let me get this straight… you wanna march up to some bunnies, tell 'em we've holed up in their barn, living off the backs of their Dad and sister, and expect them to let us pass on by without getting our hides skinned off our backs? I swear Fin, if you've been sneaking off to smoke some of the locally grown smokeleaf, I'm going to bust your ass real hard. There's no way in hades that's going to fly!"

"Doncha think there'd be even more panic if we just up and left? Not even bunny girl could help us. If we work with them, she might be able to."

"We just can't waltz up to them like we're in some sort of high school reunion. We'd be deader than a fish out of water or else they're going to run screaming from us and then, we're going to have to run from the Patrol!"

"Ya know," the fennec nodded as he cupped his chin in his paw, "you're right. So, we won't march up to them. We'll just have to find your girl. We can hide in them there fields while lookin' for her.

"Fine, but I'm bringing the knapsack with me, just in case we have to hoof it. Where are we going to start looking?"

"Not we," the little fox snarkily grinned. "You are."

"What!" Nick stopped in surprise, his eyebrows threatening to fly off his face. "What the hell does that even mean?"

"You and her have been spending a lot of time together, I figure you'd have memorized her scent by now." Finnick snickered.

Nick rolled his eyes at his suggestions. "Now I know you've been smoking that weed. There's no way I—"

"Shut it, Nick!" Finnick growled as he yanked the taller fox down to his level. "Stop being an idjit and open your eyes! I've sat over there and watched the two of you making googly-eyes at each other. Heck, just now thinking that she might be in danger has gotten you all in a tizzy. Now's not the time to be lying to yourself. Mammal up and just admit ya care for her as well. I can tell ya she definitely does."

"Fin," Nick started when Finnick loosened his grip on his shirt, "she's a bunny. I'm a fox."

"Duh! Gee, ya think, Captain Obvious?"

"That's not it! It'll never work. A pred-prey relationship will be doomed from the start! She deserves better than a mammal like me. She's better off finding another bunny to raise a family with. She'll be happier and safer that way."

"Dumdum!" sighed Finnick. "Have you asked her what she wants? If she wanted safe, she wouldn't have taken care of ya these last two weeks! She would have gotten rid of us as soon as you could have stood up. Besides, I may not be an expert, but her smile... it's like the sun breaking through the clouds every time she looks at ya," the smaller fox mused. "Nuthin' like them sourpusses back at the farm. She'd be good for you. Plus, if it's happy she's looking for, I think she's found it in you."

Nick shook his head at his best friend. "I'm going to ignore this conversation for now. But, I can certainly try your suggestion." He raised his snout, closed his eyes, and took a long whiff of air. He repeated this several times as he walked in a circle around the old barn. "There."

Finnick's eyes popped in the direction his friend's finger was pointing. "Shit, Nick! That's the way that spooked rabbit ran! Think we'd be walking into a trap if we followed him?"

"Well, that's where Judy is so, hopefully, she's not the bait if there is one."

"...So you already know her scent so well you're able to pick it out like that?" Not getting a response from a blushing Nick, Finnick continued, "You've got it, bad!"

"Not the time, Fin," Nick hissed, rolling his eyes and opening the barn door. Here we go...

The crowd of bunnies began to holler and whoop as Judy and her eldest brother marched into the hay ring and took positions facing each other. Daryl strutted about like one of their prize roosters over on his side of the ring, showing off his muscled biceps and chest to his male siblings while Judy waited on her side, arms crossed, and tapping a tuneless beat into the dirt with her hind paw. The noise her brothers were making was getting on her nerves, not to mention the jibes and sneers she was receiving. She impatiently huffed as Daryl continued to preen in front of his adoring fans.

"You can do it, Aunt Judy! I believe in you!"

Her ear swiveled in the direction of the tiny cheer and she looked amongst the forest of legs and spotted a tiny little figure. She hastened over to the edge of the dirt circle, knelt down on one knee, and reached out to grasp her little niece's paw. "Cotton, honey! What are you doing here?"

"Mee-maw told me to look for you 'coz of the meeting tonight. I heard all the noise and that's why I came here."

"Sweetie, I don't think you should be seeing this sort of… grownup business." She found the whole situation more childish than adult, though she was the one who accepted the challenge. "You go back to your grandmother and tell her we'll be there in time for the meeting."

"Nuh-uh," Cotton firmly declined. "I wanna see you kick Uncle Daryl's butt. He's always saying girls shouldn't be seen or heard unless they're in the kitchen or bedroom."

"Oh, does he now?" intoned Judy as she straightened up and headed back to her previous position. "Seems I have to remind him about our little sparring session ten years ago."

"Alright, already! Enough with the chatter! Daryl, Judy, take your places. Because of the urgency of this meeting, you only have five minutes for this challenge. Judy, if you don't win within the time limit, Daryl will be my second-in-command."

"What!" Judy whirled on her father in surprise. "That's not fair! He's the one who challenged me."

"Yes, I know but this is all part of bunny tradition. It was always survival-of-the-fittest before the Pred-Prey Armistice so the one being challenged has to show that they can be victorious and not just run away from a fight."

"Stupid male-egocentric rule," she muttered under her breath, hoping her father wouldn't hear her over the din of her brothers' voices. His hiked eyebrow at her effectively confirmed the opposite.

"There's a reason for those traditions, Jude."

"Fine!" Judy resignedly threw up her paws.

"Pshh! As if I need five minutes," commented her eldest brother. "C'mon, little sis! I'll go easy on yah!"

"Oh, that's so sweet of you, dear, kind, brother of mine," Judy trilled as she held clasped paws to the side of her tilted head with one of her legs slightly bent at the knee. "How can I ever repay the favour?" she tremorously asked while batting her eyelashes at him.

Daryl eyed her suspiciously. As a dim memory resurfaced, he immediately backed up, pointing an accusing finger at her. "Oh, no you don't! I remember the last time! You kicked me in the nuts! Well, you ain't getting nowhere near me this time, lil' missy. Two can play at that game. You'll just have to catch me if you want to be second-in-command," he dared, sticking his tongue out at her, for emphasis.

"Fine, here I come then." Judy deadpanned, dropping her Mary Sue act and, in one smooth motion, almost too quick for the eye to see, launched herself at her brother's hulking figure.

Daryl figured he'd keep avoiding her, let her impatience grow and when she was so frustrated as the time began to run out, he'd give her an opening and, once she was within range of his reach, he'd knock her out. Just a little love tap, he internally grinned. However, if she refused to stay down… well, a few more wouldn't hurt. After all, she was always in the family's store anyways and wouldn't be needed for any physical labour.

He ducked and weaved about as Judy kept throwing a few kicks and punches in his direction. There were a few times where he felt could have grabbed her wrist or ankle and then she would have been at his mercy but he stuck to his plan. Soon, she was panting for breath, her movements were slower, and he could see sweat dripping down the sides of her head.

"One minute." Stu announced.

This is it, Daryl thought. She can't afford to wait any longer. She's going to do something stupid and… ah, there it is!

He watched as Judy made a sudden lunge at him, leaving herself wide open. He cocked his arm and struck out for her chin.

Only, it wasn't there.

Judy had suddenly ducked underneath his massive arm so that she was behind him, grabbed his upper bicep, and then quickly whipsawed her legs around his neck, effectively scissoring it. Before he could react, her forward momentum had carried her upper body over his shoulder and next thing he knew he was flat on the ground with her legs wrapped around his outstretched arm. Her legs pushed against his body while at the same time she had his paw in hers bent it painfully at the wrist. Any attempt at movement only resulted in excruciating pain.

"Call it, Daryl! Slap out now!" Judy demanded.

"Never! I'm not going to give in to—"

The rest of his sentence went unfinished as he yowled in pain. His arm felt it was going to be torn from its socket.

"Give up!" Judy screamed in frustration. "You lost!"

"No!" Daryl stubbornly refused. "You'll have to kill me first!"

"Twenty seconds, Judy." Her father monotonously declared.

"I can break your fingers one at a time! Do you want that? Submit!" hollered the exasperated doe as she placed more pressure on his paw.

Daryl only screamed louder, both in pain and rage.

"Five seconds."

Judy let go of her brother's arm in disgust. She knelt down in the dirt, disbelieving eyes searching his out. "Why?" she asked, near tears. "Why would you want me to kill you? I mean, it's not that I don't love you. You're my brother after all. And it's not that I don't respect you."

"Hmphh," her brother replied, gingerly sitting up as he painfully rotated his shoulder, "You wouldn't understand. I'm the eldest. It's my responsibility to take on the burden of decision-making, not you. That way, if anyone gets hurt, I take the blame, not you. You're my little sister after all. I'm supposed to protect the lot of you, not the other way around."

Daryl suddenly felt strong fingers placing pressure on the torn shoulder muscle, massaging away the pain. Judy's head gently bumped his as tears fell on his shoulder. "Idiot!" was all she whispered.

"So, I guess I won?" grinned her brother.

"Fine," Judy said, rolling her eyes as she playfully shoved him. "You can take charge, you big oaf."

"On the contrary," Stu drawled as he approached the kneeling duo while the rest of the audience stood mutely by, most of them in shock over how the fight had ended. "Judy showed exemplary leadership skills and mercy towards her opponent while you just showed how you're more stubborn than our mule neighbour and don't know when to quit. She saw through your plan from the beginning and countered effectively with her own. Not only did she have you at her mercy, she clearly obeyed my instructions when she chose not to hurt you. In the heat of the moment, she could have easily snapped a finger or two in order to pressure you to give up but she chose instead to show consideration. And when it appeared that she had lost, she didn't strike out in anger at you. She chose to comfort and heal you. She even brokered a truce between the two of you so that you could work together in harmony. So, Daryl," he turned to his eldest, piercing him with a stare, "who do you really think should be second-in-command?"

"Look, Dad, I get it," a disgruntled Daryl replied. "Judy has the brains and the moxie to be a good leader. But, I still won under clan rules, and," the buck insisted as he unflinchingly stared at his father, "as the eldest, it's still my duty to protect the family. Besides, the rest of the mooks here won't follow her even if you left her in charge."

"Dad, dad, it's okay." Judy inserted herself between the two, a paw on each of their shoulders. "Daryl has a natural charisma that the other boys gravitate to. Plus, I can't fight their unconscious bias against me." She paused to give her other male siblings the stink eye who, in turn, found the floor or walls of the barn suddenly very interesting to look at. "Besides, if the emergency is about Nick and Finnick, then I really shouldn't be in command as I won't be able to make any impartial decisions regarding them seeing how involved I am." Though, I doubt Daryl will be any more impartial.

Stu sighed as the onlookers gawked at her unexpected announcement. The murmuring began to crescendo until Stu cut it off with his raised voice. "Alright, shut it! Yes, both Judy and I know about the two foxes. More will be explained at tonight's meeting. But until then, not a word of this gets out. I want a total communication lockdown for the safety of our family. Judy, for now, go with several of your brothers and escort our fox guests over to the grand meeting hall. In the meantime, the rest of you get your tails over there as soon as you finish locking down the barn. Daryl, since you insist on taking command, assist your sister. However," he sternly warned, "follow Judy's lead with respect to them, is that understood? That's it. Dismissed!"

Unbeknownst to the bunnies, said pair of foxes had overheard everything as they watched the proceedings from their vantage point atop of the hill across and downwind from the barn.

"Didja see that move, Red? Didja? Didja?" A wide-eyed fennec asked in amazement, poking his partner repeatedly. "I mean, shit! How in the hell did she do that? Her brother's like twice her size and she managed to take him down like a straw doll! Damn, I wouldn't wanna be you ifen she gets angry. My balls still ache after the last time I tussled with her."

"She's definitely… agile, I'll give her that. But, I'm even more amazed at how quickly she defused the situation with her brother. She's good. However, that's not the problem right now. We got to head back without them spotting us or else this whole thing's gonna blow up in all our faces. C'mon!"

"Your girlfriend's gonna be the one wearing the pants in the relationship."

"For the love of—she's not my… argh, never mind! We'll argue about that later. Let's just get going."

This was exactly not what Judy wanted.

In her head, she imagined nursing Nick back to health and stealthily delivering him and Finnick to some safer land, well past Bunnyburrow and Zootopia, much like her own parents would've done back in their day. It was supposed to be clean, smooth, and quiet. Now, her whole family was at risk, and it was all because she had a heart. Why is it that good mammals keep getting dealt the short end of the stick by life's diabolical designs?

She knew better than to expect it to be easy, of course. Her best option was Deerbrooke, and it would've taken at least a few days to drive there, and that would require taking busy roads. The vehicles she had access to were built for bunnies and not foxes, so they'd have to hide in some probably uncomfortable positions to prevent any onlookers from taking a peek and noticing them. Judy entertained the idea of covering the windows, but it was illegal to do so for the same reasons windows couldn't be tinted past a certain darkness. So, there was one problem she needed to address before they committed to their journey.

Then there was the problem of getting past the border at all. She didn't own a travel Visa, and kicked herself many a night recently because of that. The bunny trusted them enough to find their own way past the border once they got there - it wasn't like the border was impenetrable, even if they walked it by paw - but she would've felt a lot better if she could see their journey through to the end. What were they supposed to even do once they got there? Take up a job? It wasn't like they had any sort of identification, let alone a home address. What employer would take them? Would the Deerbrooke government even step in and help? Judy really didn't want to leave them to figure everything out on their own. That, and they'd essentially be homeless, which doesn't help them.

It was a terrible reality, and it was something that she knew Nick and Finnick would need help with.

She also didn't really want to lose them just yet, but she had so many ties to Bunnyburrow and ditching her family for a couple of individuals she had just met left a bad taste in her mouth. And yet... she couldn't tell herself that she wouldn't. The past few nights, she had lain in bed and imagined what exactly would happen if and when they finally crossed the border. Would she go with them? Would she regret it? Why was she even considering it? When... if she did, how would they find a home? She'd be homeless too, and she wouldn't have the excuse of being an escaped slave looking for sanctuary.

Judy didn't exactly fancy the idea of being homeless. She had lived her life in relative ease. Of course, she was expected to contribute to the family the same way everyone else was, which of course involved a ton of hard work, but she always had a home; a roof over her head. She had a bedroom, toys, good food, and a loving family who would always accept her. Her government also wasn't out to get her. Compared to Nick and Finnick, she had lived the life of luxury and bliss. She had everything that they didn't, and Judy wasn't eager to just give it up.

Yet, the idea of struggling to survive, of being on the streets without an easy means to tend to their basic needs, almost excited her, which in turn was terrifying. That wasn't something to fantasize about, and she couldn't pin down why she was entertaining the idea. In the past, Judy had nightmares about being homeless. Each one would start the same: she'd be under a bridge in some unknown part of Bunnyborrow. She'd be curled up in a ball with a newspaper covering her body as rain poured all around her. There would be this sense of despair permeating the air around her, causing her to toss and turn in bed. Sometimes, she'd get up and try to find someone to help. She'd ask for just pocket change and nothing more. But each time, she'd only be met with upturned noses and disgust.

Lately, those nightmares had come back, but they were not nightmarish anymore; Nick and Finnick were there, and it was okay. Nothing else had changed about the dream. It was still raining, she was still covered in a newspaper, and although mammals reacted the same way to her it was somehow okay. The dream felt content.

It was perplexing. And made her heart beat like crazy.

A groan to her side brought the bunny back to reality. Daryl was walking next to Judy, holding his injured arm with the other. His expression seemed neutral, which was, undoubtedly, not how he felt on the inside. A couple more of her brothers followed behind, but they refused to get anywhere near her, which was fine by Judy. She'd be lying if she said she was tired of being thought of as a weak and inferior female.

Judy noticed Daryl would sometimes open his mouth to talk, but each time nothing came out. She wasn't sure how exactly things had gotten so awkward. Something must've been on his mind, and Judy was content with waiting for him to air it. She wasn't feeling up to talking anymore herself, really. The reality of the situation was setting in. The whole burrow was about to be made aware of her little secret. Of Nick and Finnick. It was dangerous. The situation could end in the loss of innocent lives if someone talked to anyone else outside of the family. And where would that leave her? Foxless? A traitor to her own species? I'd rather be a traitor to my own species than leave two innocent mammals to die.

"So… you've, uhm… you knew about the foxes. How long have they been here?"

Judy kept her gaze forwards. "Longer than you'd like to know, I'm sure. They were sick and injured. I wasn't going to just leave two innocent mammals to die. So, Dad and I took them in."

"Innocent? How can you be sure? The radio keeps announcing a reward for their capture, dead or alive. How do you know they aren't lying to you and Dad?" her brother mumbled, shaking his head.

"For Gaia's sake, Daryl! Wake up!" Judy heatedly retorted. "Bellwether's forced emancipation is unjust and cruel. They escaped from an all-predator slave camp where their only crime was having a different biological makeup! I was with the two of them for some time treating their sickness and they never lifted a paw against me. And when Nick was being hunted down like a quail for sport by the Predator Patrol, he made sure to run in the opposite direction so that they didn't see me. I saw all of it happen in front of me. What reason would they have to lie to me?"

"You've always been weird, Judes. I remember when you would play with that fox, what's his name? Gideon? I never understood it. My fur would stand on end anytime I saw him."

Judy flinched at Gideon's mention. Daryl was always hating on Gid. "He was my friend. You never gave him a chance."

Daryl looked back at his brothers behind him, who just shrugged. "I… Anytime I see a predator, which isn't often anymore I guess… my body screams at me. Run, hide, scream. They can kill me in one bite. We're bunnies, Jude… The only thing we have going for us is how fast we are when we're found. Have you ever looked at your own paw and a predator's? Hell, most other prey's? We're tiny. Weak."

Judy gave him a disapproving look. "Then why do you act all macho? Are you just talking about the girls in our species, cause if so, that'd make so much more sense, wouldn't it?" Judy said sarcastically. She stopped for a moment and stared him in the eye. "Being weak does not give us the excuse to be cruel and hateful, nor does it give you the excuse to look down upon me or your sisters for being girls. Gideon was a good mammal, end of story. I don't care how often you flinch or twitch when you see a predator. I don't, cause I see them for who they are, not for what nature built them for.

"Did you know Gideon used to bite at his claws? Sometimes, after a bad day at school, I'd catch him hiding in his backyard, chewing his claws until they bled. Can you give me one good guess as to why he did that, oh weak brother of mine?"

"It's not just the claws, Judes! It's the teeth, the muscles, the—"

"Oh, so you expected him to just remove his own teeth?! Just tear them right off?!"

"We don't carry weapons into school, Judy! I wasn't allowed to bring a knife or a gun into school, so they shouldn't have been allowed to bring their fangs!"

Judy wasn't expecting to get so heated, that quickly. In a flash, she punched him square on his nose, knocking him on his behind. She didn't know she could hit so hard, nor did she feel it. "Then what do you tell rhinos or deer with 5-point antlers! Predators aren't the only animals that bring what you call weapons around! Gods, Daryl, I saw the Predator Patrol chase Nick with guns on a jeep not too far from town! They were shooting at him, Daryl, right next to town with a machine gun! Not only that, but they were deliberately toying with him! An unarmed mammal being hunted down! For sport! Are you okay with that, dear brother?"

"He's dangerous! They had to take him out quickly, and now, you've got the both of them hiding in one of our barns! I imagine they're struggling with the scent of rabbit in the air, filling their nostrils with the scent of weak prey! Just you wait; if you keep them around, we'll find one of our siblings missing! It could be Louis, Sasha, or even little—"

"—If I pointed a loaded gun at you," Judy sharply yelled, "I'd be far more dangerous than any predator could ever be with just their fangs and claws," Judy hissed. "As it stands right now, I'm the threat you should be worried about. When we get there, I'll handle Nick and Fin. You do anything that could harm them—now or at any point in the future—you're going to think they're angels compared to me."

"Judy… are you really going to choose two foxes over your own family?"

"Why does it have to be a choice?" Judy murmured, looking down. Will they ever accept them? she thought. "Why can't you see what I see?" She shook her head just as she felt emotion start to bubble up within her. "Just… go. Go wait for me with dad. I can bring Nick and Fin alone."


"Go! Please, Daryl, just go." Her brother was about to resist, but one look at the pain in Judy's eyes told him everything he needed to hear.

Nick wasn't all too happy about seeing Judy. It wasn't that he didn't want to see her—rather, there was an air of sadness about her that he just couldn't stand. Her ears were drooping behind her, her shoulders were slumped, and he could smell the faintest hint of tears. The way she held herself would've told anyone with a brain that she was going through something right then.

Judy's eyes locked upon Nick's as the barn door closed behind her. Then, they drooped. From her ears to her toes, her entire body slumped uneasily and her gaze left his own. Her expression morphed from determination to sadness to stubborness back to sadness in the span of just a few seconds. Nick knew he had to do something, but at that moment, the fox could only look on in silence.

Coughing to clear his throat, Finnick was the first to get Judy's attention. "Hey, bunny," Finnick started, glancing at Nick and then back to her. "So, uh, I think I know what this is about."

Judy nodded, looking at anywhere besides them. "Y-Yeah, I suppose you do, huh?" She wrung her paws. "My whole family will know about you guys soon enough. There will be a meeting. What they'll decide to do with the both of you… I-I don't know what's going to happen." She slid down the barn door behind her and held her knees to her chest. "All I wanted was just to protect you two."

Finnick padded up to her. "What happened, cottontail?"

"Several of my siblings thought it'd be wise to go and flush you guys out. They didn't care that you're mammals. You're," she gestured at the two, "monsters to them! I've tried not to think about it, but I knew many would object to you being here." She took a moment to breathe in a deep breath. "The things they s-said—" her voice caught in her throat, "H-How could they t-think such things! They want you to die!"

Nick stepped over to Judy and sat next to her. Slowly and carefully, he put a paw onto her own. She jumped for a moment and stared at his paw atop her own. She studied how tiny her paw was compared to his, the size of his claws versus her tiny nails. Before she could catch it, a single tear flowed down her cheek.

"Oh, lots of mammals want us dead, bunny, but we're still here, ain't we?"

Nick rolled his eyes. "What Finnick is trying to say is, well… we aren't dead, Judy; not yet anyways. You've given us more time in this world, and that is time we wouldn't have without you." He stared at the ground. "I don't know if I'll be here a week or a year from now, but…" he looked back at her, "you've given me more hope than I've had in a while."

Judy snapped her head towards him and looked into his eyes. What she saw in them was the sort of tenderness one reserves for only one mammal in their life, a very special one. Judy wanted to turn away, but something else in his emerald eyes stilled her; he was, indeed, alive. She remembered how hollow his eyes looked back when she first met him, but now, they were positively glistening with kindness, compassion, energy—life.

Nick was alive, and so was Finnick, and it was her paws that brought so much life to their eyes. She closed her eyes, leaned into Nick's chest, and let herself feel the emotions that were threatening to break her if she didn't let them out. The quiet thudding of his heart, his soft inhales and exhales, the press of his paw over hers made her feel so much better. The weight of his paw over hers made her smile at that moment as salty tears gently caressed her cheeks like an early summer rain.

It was warm.