Chapter 2: She Can Hang

The chatter in the locker room was loud and brash. It sounded like the inside of a hollow skull with reverberations, echoes, and stale tones filtering everything.

Everyone stood in an area of furbished cream white, an interesting contrast to the mass of different bodies and fur colors that shifted and maneuvered out of their blue clothing while being illuminated by blazing artificial lights. It almost looked like a mix up at the water hole, as if ten different groups of species accidentally stumbled upon one another and were shifting side by side for space, but this was different in that there was no animosity, no one-upmanship, just a simple desire to shed their working skins and leave as soon as possible for a festive evening.

The night was young, after all. While it was not an area that one would relax in for too long, the locker room itself was what anyone could expect from a top notch law enforcement department: double-door lockers (each fitted with a padlock) aligned the room in wall-to-wall fashion; a single slide-out bottom cubby, which was only accessible via a small key, hunched below its taller brother in case someone wanted to separate shoes from clothing; a clean, overhanging wooden bench set itself in the middle of the room for tired asses and aching legs; and a row of walk-in showers of varying heights situated rather uncomfortably in the back corner, where they would try to wash themselves so that the smell of stink wouldn't permeate them for too long. It all looked extremely official, as it should have. Top of the line for the top of the force; the gift that the tax payers kept on giving.

Nick stood next to his own opened locker and unbuttoned his uniform. He was lost deep in thought, pondering why the simple act of helping Judy move furniture this evening made him excited, so much so that his lethargic state of mind seemed to dissipate entirely. In her apartment. He would be in her apartment. That thought alone sent a shiver up his spine. He slipped off his shirt, revealing an upper torso toned from an academy that demanded physicality. Ever since joining the force, Nick found himself gaining more and more muscle definition from the required workouts he was expected to undergo. Hitting the gym four days out of the week put him in good stance with a more than healthy lifestyle, especially since his typical vulpine diet of eggs, steaks, and lean meat was normally consistent. In all honesty, his exercise regimen, something that started out as a simple "going through the motions" activity, was now an enjoyable luxury. He saw it as a timeframe in which he could clear his mind and set himself into a pleasant state of Zen, a time where he didn't have to ruminate about the worries of the world.

Sometimes he would exercise alone, other times with friends, and even on occasion with Judy. Had someone told him years from now that he would look the way he did, he would have laughed it off and called the mammal insane. But here he stood, nearly twelve pounds heavier and in all the right ways.

A certifiable "stud" as some girls would say.

He smirked at the time when Judy accidentally commented on this fact and nearly burst from being embarrassed. She had tried to play it off, like she meant something else, which Nick ridiculed her about for a good half of the day until she broke down with another "you win." Emotional rabbit, Nick thought.

But this new version of him—this chiseled Nick—was somewhat conflicting.

Hard as it may be for some to imagine, especially those who knew him during his conmammal phase, vanity was not a major component in his lifestyle: he exercised, he ran, and he aimed at improving all aspects of his physical prowess because, in his new line of work, if he didn't, he might end up beaten to a pulp, or worse.

While it may be hard for anyone to imagine him being anything other than overly confident in himself, it was not his true nature. It was a necessity. It was a defense mechanism built up from years upon years of swooning customers into thinking they hit the jackpot; it was a shield, a barrier, a wall he had built around himself to obtain power over those he felt insecure around; and it was an escape route, one he maneuvered his way through when presented with a situation that might have killed him. Violent he was not, until provoked of course. And this is what fooled so many mammals when he first arrived. Before them, they saw this fast-talking clown of a fox, gadabout and suave. But deep down…deep within the void… something stirred. It wasn't until the training session—the session that brought everyone into a state of complete shock—that proved he was one of the deadliest officers on the force.

Bogo would know.

An explosion of conversation suddenly erupted from over Nick's shoulder. He glanced behind him to see what the ruckus was about and was not the least bit surprised at what he found. It was Officer Catlahan, yet again, spewing his latest: "And so, I fuckin' tell the guy, 'Get outta hea!' Ya know, but he's gaht this look. Kinda like a cross between the walkin' dead and a junkie. And he keeps fuckin' comin' at meh. Like, just traipsing along, inchin' his way at meh. I'm thinkin' he's coked out, buzzed, whatevah. And meanwhile, to my right, there's this girl hea. Ya know, cracked out, totally off her rocker, nearly hanging onto Marcus for dear life, and she's fuckin' telling meh I gotta' take her to the precinct cause she's gonna' end up dead. This is what she says. 'Gonna' end up dead'. Said she's gaht some spooks after her. So, I says, 'Where's the black guys, ma'am,' but she's like 'No, sir, that's not what I meant. Demons!' Said that demons were chasin' her, the crazy bitch. I say, 'What demons, honey?' and she looks me dead in the eyes, serious as my ma's cancer, and says 'the Howlers, man. The Howlers are comin' ta get me.' And this fuckin' guy's still comin' at me! Stupid newt wants himself to get shot! I swea, I fuckin' swea, I shouted out to that guy five goddamn times. I thought, 'Shit, we got another fuckin' suicide-by-cop story comin' out. Get the presses ready! Silva Slithers'll be dissecting how shitty of a precinct we are on her milk toast show, the bitch!'" A small eruption of chuckles crackles around the conversation.

Catlahan is on a roll and is no holds barred.

"So," he continues, "Marcus tries to, you know, calm the chick down. He's tryin' to get her to cool off, and she's grabbin holda him, yankin' on his pants. Like tuggin' and shit, you know? I swea she had a serious cravin' for dog-dick! Ha-ha! 'Sneaky—little—hoe,' I'm thinkin'. And Marcus is so fuckin' spazzed out from all this he's like dropping to his knees to try and get lower than her, and she's droppin' lower too so they do this, like, weird voodoo drop dance and now I'm fuckin' laughing my balls off! They're practically rollin' around on the ground, he's got her hands in his, and she's still tryin' to grab his red rocket. He's gyratin' his hips backwards and she's givin' him a fuckin' handjob on the pavement! And all the while, I'm forgettin' this desert rat—this junkie—is comin' at me still like a zombie. I look up and our dicks are practically touching! I coulda' kissed the fucker!" Everyone is rolling, the laughs erupting in firework bursts. Nick's chuckling grabs ahold of Marcus, who looks embarrassed at the moment, but is still in good spirits, especially at how his partner's thick New York accent, which seemed to come off the front of his teeth, illustrated the story with a pizzazz only he could pull off.

Nick couldn't help but admire the natural charisma Thomas Catlahan had with an open room; it reminded him of himself whenever he got on his own verbal tirade or when he used to gather entire crowds around him to buy homemade cotton-candy swirl sticks before moving to Zootopia. Truth be told, Thomas was an interesting specimen and had somewhat of a vibrant history: one of the few Margay officers on the force and sitting at 34 years of age. He was a native of Zootropolis who previously served on their police force for the better part of six years before eloping to Zootopia with his longtime girlfriend. He'd been through a heavy grind during his last two years served back at his original home city, having been shot twice on two different occasions and stabbed once by a drunkard during an attempted B&E. He was a good cop, level-headed, but overly bold and possessed little to no filter. On their beat, Marcus called him the "unlucky lucky charm." And he was right in doing so: every so often they would have a bizarre ordeal occur just like the one Thomas had the entire room roaring about. Typical to what one would imagine a hardboiled officer of his species to look like: he was immensely tall, of pure pedigree, and exhibited a thick, light brown coat that seemed both soft and fluffy.

"So, what happened next?" Dominic, the literal elephant in the room, says.

"Shit!" Thomas puts a leg up on the bench, his red and white polka dot boxers hiking up to reveal a bushy upper leg. "We threw their asses in the cruiser. Booked 'em. The guy passed out. They was just crazy. I tried gettin' the girls number so Marcus could throw her a bone, but I think she had enough fun with em'." Marcus chucked a towel at Thomas's face before yelling out, "Enough, Catlahan! Jesus!" Everyone laughed.

The event lingered for only a few moments before dying down as each officer returned to shedding their uniforms and putting on their street clothes. Other conversations began bubbling in the background.

Marcus, a smile still spread across his muzzle, turned to Nick. "Yo, Nick."

"Sup." Nick turned around and looked at the smiling Siberian Husky.

"Hey, man. Me and some guys are goin' to the Black Raven for drinks. You wanna' hang?" Nick had a brief look of contemplation on his face. "Kind of embarrassing to say, but I don't think I know the place." "Ah, it's a pub down by 47th & Meadow. Like, near the Plaza Shopping center. You can barely see it. Small little dive. Good microbrews. Pretty chill vibe."

"Cool…" Nick trailed off.

"Yea, man. Thomas and I are going. So's some other guys. Some girls who are friends with Amy are going too. You should come down if you want. We're headin' there after we leave here."

Nick fitted himself through a plain black t-shirt. "Sounds fun. But…I'll probably meet you guys there later. I have to help Judy first. She's got…" Nick stopped for a moment, bending over to slip his pants on, "...she's got some furniture and shit she can't move. You know them rabbits—just tiny little things." A voice, not quite below a whisper, slithered toward Nick from several body lengths to his left and then coiled its way into his highly sensitive ears: "Bet that's not all she has trouble moving around when he gets there." In something akin to a scene straight from a high school drama flick, it appeared Nick wasn't the only one who caught on to the joke because several nearby officers let out a fairly impetuous set of snorts and "'ooh's", their eyes scanning back and forth to see how the situation would pan out. Nick crooked his head to the left, halting the latching of his belt, to find that Alexander Moreau, a meshed colored Mexican Wolf, was snickering with an equally grey, cream, and black swirled Indian Wolf, Derek Oppelt. The two were well known for their shenanigans.

"Hey, hey. Careful, Moreau," Thomas piped in. He jutted a thumb toward Nick in reference to him. "Hopps'll just sic The Beast on you and yer' finished! One-and-done, baby! You'll be Bogo numba' two on his list!" Marcus chuckled good naturedly, a slight sheen of concern on his face in not knowing how Nick would take the joke.

"Well…" Nick said, beginning to latch his belt, "I always did wonder how smooth wolf pelts felt like. Carpet-soft, I hear. Although, with yours, Alex, I might need to soak it in Raid first before it goes on my floor." The joke—or at least what everyone perceived as a joke—was met with a wave of laughs.

"Alright, man," Alexander said, nodding. He pointed two claws at Nick. "Touché."

"You going to the Raven too?" Nick asked.

"Yea."

"Well, maybe I'll just whoop your ass there instead," Nick said clasping his hand over Alexander's shoulder.

"C'mon, Wilde. I'm just bustin' yer' balls, man." Alexander was still smiling, but it was one of those looks that stank of slight fear. After all, he had been present during the training session. In fact, Bogo had nearly fallen onto him when Nick had proven himself.

"I know, I know, Moreau," Nick said with a smile and a nod. His voice had no underlying implications behind it; in fact, he seemed quite amused himself. To reassure that Alexander knew this, he said, "The busting is mutual, my mammal." They gave each other a friendly fist bump and squashed whatever perceived animosity may have been brewing.

Nick turned to Marcus. "I'll meet you guys after my errand."

"Okay," he said, and then as if having an epiphany, burst out with, "Hey! Bring her too!"

"Yea?"

"Dude, totally!"

Nick raised an eyebrow. "You do realize I'll probably have to carry her out on a stretcher. Rabbits aren't entirely known to have bodies built for too much drinking. I mean, you remember Clawhauser's birthday party, right?"

Marcus laughed at the reminder, deciding to not mention out loud when he secretly saw an utterly plastered Judy try and hop onto Nick's lap and latch his scruff with her tiny hands. "Ah, c'mon man! Hopps and Wilde? In the Raven? Shit's gonna' get all fucked up!"

"I don't know…" Nick tittered, "that's a lot of negatives in one room. We might tear open a black hole."

"Seriously, man. You guys should come."

"Alright," Nick nodded, "I'll see if she wants to."

"Sweet!" Marcus gave a friendly slap against Nick's shoulder. "See you there."

Nick finalized packing his items in his duffel bag, said his goodbyes, and then exited the locker room. He swerved into the commons and then navigated through the halls of the Zootopia Police Department offices, giving waves and hellos to the various staff members he recognized and even to those he did not know very well on a personal basis—every day-shift member seemed to be abandoning their stations, grabbing bags, purses, and exchanging positions with those who would be the overseers of the twilight hours. He noticed Benjamin Clawhauser, the obese cheetah receptionist and radio dispatcher, putting away in his bag what looked like a box of sprinkle doughnuts, and they gave one another a wave of recognition—Benjamin being the one to flash a massive set of fangs in what appeared to be overjoy like his typical self—before Nick turned down another hall. He pushed through the metal doors of the indoor parking lot and headed over to the reserved staff section where Judy's pickup waited, contemplating how amusing it was—ironic even—that the tiny, mostly soft-spoken partner whom had difficulties maneuvering large pieces of furnishing was so fixated on driving massive vehicles. It was her modus operandi in a way.

There were many things he learned about her he had not come to initially realize during their Howler incident, specifically about her designation of driving (her dogged insistence even) stemming from her prior experience of working day in and day out with carrot farming equipment as a child: rising at dawn to graze tractors across rich soil, cruising four-wheelers to gather tools for her father, or even, on a rare occasion, manipulating a backhoe to dig holes for irrigation were only several instances of her having no fear of operating machinery. If it could be driven, she could drive it. If it was large, she projected no fear. She was raised to be self-reliant, after all, a trait that no doubt put her in good stance with the department, but…set a bookshelf in her way and oh boy. Call for backup. How on earth could that small rabbit, an exercise machine, a fighter under pressure, a farm girl used to manual labor, even…manage…to…move…a… Nick nearly stopped in his tracks.

Wait a second, he thought.

He hadn't quite given enough scrutiny about what Judy's task for him was. Push furniture. Furniture. Was that it? Book shelfs, right? There had to be a clause to what she had asked, some kind of fine print he wasn't aware of. He had been so overjoyed to help her that he didn't bother thinking through what it meant for— "Ahem!" Nick's buzzing mind halted.

He looked over to see Judy standing near her driver side door. She was dressed in light blue form fitting jeans and her torso hugged a blue and white checkered long sleeve button up shirt with the sleeves rolled up to her forearms, reminding Nick of the first time she embraced him while in tears; it had been a bittersweet moment for either of them, but a revelation had followed soon thereafter, one that changed the course of their lives for the better. Her figure was thin, even her chest, but she was accentuated in a way that could not be ignored in the sense that she was curved yet lithe, a trait predetermined by her species; however, she pulled it off exceptionally well. It was a truism Nick could not ignore: she looked good to him right now, something he could not entirely rationalize, but he didn't fight it either, and it didn't help any that with his sensitive olfactory glands he picked up the smell of her fur conditioner from where he stood. It was fruity and sexy and fit her bubbly face and soft features. She had one hand resting on her side and in mock impatience was rapidly tapping her right foot which happened to be half clad in a more casual style of material protector similar to her footwear she wore while on the clock.

"Nicholas, tardy yet again," she said.

Nick gave her his signature smirk.

"Hey, now, Judith," he started, "First: no one has called me that since my mother got me in trouble for throwing a football through her backdoor screen. Second: just because a certain little rabbit spent her whole life waking up at hours that would drive a monk to commit Hara-Kiri doesn't mean we all are good at it!"

"Oh, please!" she waved him off, hopping up the foot step to open the driver side door, "I thought you forgot."

Nick made his way around the passenger side of the pickup, opened the door, tossed his duffel bag in the back, and jumped in the seat. He turned to Judy. "Forget? Me? I'm hurt. While I may not be the best at waking up, I damn well know how to prioritize my tasks, Ms. Hopps. You can bet your cotton tail on that."

"For your information, I value my tail. So…I won't take the risk." With a thunderous roar, the vehicle came to life and Judy steered it from the parking lot into the flowing stream of metal and exhaust that was Zootopia Main Street.

Nick could see a plethora of citizens from all walks of life rummaging about through the grid, from teenagers to club aficionados to homeless beggars —now seemingly darkening blobs shifting up and down like rippling waves, each veering off into different destinations; the hustle and bustle that he first fell in love with when he entered the city border so many years ago. His ears momentarily perked up, picking up the radio which was softly playing a tune that he could not decipher, but it sounded somewhat poppy, true to Judy's taste in music even though he has heard her on occasion listen to a variety of different genres, many of which she has tried to get him invested in. He nearly chuckled at remembering her insistence that he listen to Stevie Nicks and how he had her doubled over in a fit of laughter when he tried imitating the musician's lyrics. He turned his attention to the focused driver. "So, got your fur in a tangle over some pieces of wood I hear," he said, tapping the black claw of his index finger against the door.

Judy had a bashful look on her face. "Actually, these pieces of wood somehow made a union and built themselves a fortress. So, it's a little more than that."

"I see."

"I've got a mountain of books with no home. It's kind of embarrassing, actually. It would put the Leaning Tower of Pisa to shame."

Nick snickered. "Let me guess: police manuals and law books."

"Of course."

"The complete William Gibson collection."

"My inner-nerd."

"Dictionary and thesaurus for paperwork and such."

"That goes without being said, Sir Nicholas."

Nick tapped his chin with his claw. "Oh, and let's not forget those lovely trashy romance novels I sometimes see you hiding around your desk."

"Hey, as much as you make fun of my tomboyish tendencies, a girl's gotta' act like a girl sometimes!"

"Does she, now?"

"Yes!"

"And you just, what—choose to do this at your leisure?"

"When I'm not being harassed by a shady fox? Why, yes!"

Nick put both hands behind his neck, satisfied.

Judy shook her head. "You know what? I think I talk waaay to you too much for you to know all that stuff about me."

"Or," Nick said, putting his finger in the air, "I'm just a fabulous listener and digest so much information."

Judy giggled. "Maybe both."

"Maybe…"

Nick turned his smile toward the window, glancing out at the darkening buildings that towered over the exhausted setting sun.

"Come to think of it," Judy started, "I couldn't name one thing you read because I never have seen what your place looks like…"

Nick felt his heart skip a beat. It was a sudden phenomenon—quick, jolty, and voracious—but it was not so much the feeling that perturbed him rather than the cause of it. In the very same moment, he felt silly for the sudden change in his body chemistry; this was just conversation, after all, and she was well beyond the bounds of what any creature like himself could imagine pursuing. But he couldn't help but feel a sense of a hidden agenda on her part. She sounded as if she was just musing out loud…then why did he feel as though it was a loaded statement, a self-invitation of sorts? Did she want him to ask her to go to his place? Was it mere curiosity? Suddenly, Nick decided to do something unorthodox. He decided to take a risk. He allowed himself to not set up that emotional wall he was so used to constructing…to not talk to his inner self, to not tell it to go deeper or rearrange the pieces into his liking, and it made his breathing slightly alter when he let his mind wander and imagined her figure walking in his abode. She would scan through the kitchen, bathroom, bedroom. He would stand behind her and watch her every move, her every graceful step, and she would turn and give him this look. It was something only they both would understand, something only they would connect. This look. A thing riddled with longing. She would brush against him with her arm. She still smelled of her conditioner.

As if awoken, he suddenly realized his finger was rapidly tapping against the door so loudly that Judy turned to look at him. Then it just hit him. Holy shit, his mind screamed. I was just fantasizing about a rabbit. He quickly broke the silence as to not give her any ideas of what was going on. "Well," Nick started, clearing his throat, "Little Miss Fluff is always in such a hurry every morning that I normally burst from my apartment in a panic and dress in the hallways while on the way down. So, you know, sorry we can't stick around so that I give you the grand tour. By the way, you should hear the screams. Poor old Mrs. Dickenson; I could've swore she nearly died from a heart attack this Thursday after seeing my boxers."

Judy tapped her watch. "And look what all this circles back to."

"Oh, my fault?"

"Punctuality."

"I'm a fox who used to make his own hours."

"Pssh. Excuses."

"I work hard!"

"Lame."

"I give it my all?"

"Desperate," she said in a sing-song voice.

Nick waved her off. "Goddammit. Fine. You win."

Judy pumped her fist.

Nick had a look of pure disgust splayed on his face. "I hope your happy with yourself," he oozed.

"I am!" she stuck her tongue out at him.

"Dumb bunny."

"Stupid fox," she cooed.

Nick sighed and shook his head before asking aloud, "What is this monster I've created?" And the only response from the other side of the vehicle was a smile only the pupil of a sly fox could muster.

Evergreen Glades was constructed as a 15-story art deco apartment complex slightly on the Eastern side of Zootopia; it was well kempt, an undeniable upgrade from Judy's previous living conditions (especially in regard to room space), and boasted an exterior aligned with tall shrubbery and small black lampposts. 'Homey' was the only proper term that came to mind when examining its features; in fact, it had an old-town vibe to it, almost something one would associate with some small seaside village home. It fit Judy's personality perfectly and took a mere ten minutes of researching on her phone to find after making the decision that she needed more space. It rested comfortably in the vicinity of the Zootopia Police Department and was at a close enough distance from Nick's living quarters that she didn't have to put up too big of a fight with morning traffic to pick him up. She recalled the move from Grand Pangolin Apartments as being an arduous task for her, one she was thankful involved the help of Nick's strength, and while on a rare occasion she missed the banter from Bucky and Pronk, her newfound privacy was a luxury she was not ready to discard. The fact that she could now talk to her parents via FaceTime without hearing background commentary was a breath of fresh air.

But the move had been difficult.

Remembering the beginnings of the transition and how accommodating Nick had been with gathering her materials and hauling them down and up and down and up again from one building to another made her smile. He had helped her get rid of the more unnecessary items lugging around her old apartment and made the journey fun rather than a job, prodding her with jokes along the way, one of the many things about him since their blossoming friendship she has come to appreciate. His charisma was unmatched in her eyes. He was a natural speaker, welcoming and warm. And as she sat in her apartment watching Nick once again help her out, shifting the large bookshelf into its proper position, she was reminded once again as to why she liked spending so much time with him.

He made her feel good.

He made her feel welcome.

They just seemed to fit together.

The apartment she resided in was 930 square feet and consisted of four interconnected rooms: the most spacious area, her living quarters, connected with an open kitchen packed with cool chrome lined lights, vegetable produce on the counter, knives, and a smooth mock-oak countertop island surrounded by two stools; her bedroom flaunted a soft mattress gushing with stuffed animals all sitting atop a blue bedsheet which suffocated fluffy pillows; her bathroom had a stand-in shower paired with a small toilet but was nothing exceptionally immaculate save for the medicine cabinet filled with extra strength rabbit tooth whitener; and her most favorite of the "rooms", the area she found herself spending the most time, was a small foyer connected with a snug balcony she absolutely adored, having spent many evenings sitting on the small outdoor table with a book in hand. It was all just enough for her, not too boastful yet not too plain. And it would soon be even more complete once she organized the massive piles of books splayed out around her couch which Nick leaned next to as he shifted the bookcase where she had directed him.

She sat on one of the kitchen stools and leisurely watched him work.

"I will say, Carrots, you weren't kidding. This is one helluva book rack."

"Told you so. Can you imagine if that fell on me?"

"Yep. Bunny bits," Nick grunted as he twisted the case as close to the wall as he could.

"Hey, I really do have to thank you. I know you probably have more exhilarating things to do with your evening than move this stupid thing around."

"Not a problem. I live to serve. Or is it serve to protect?" Nick stopped for a moment and looked upward as if in thought. "Or protect and serve? Who knows…" Judy tittered at Nick's silly joke. Nick finally got the bookcase in line with the wall and turned to Judy. "How's that?"

"Perfect!"

Nick clapped both paws together, satisfied, then sauntered over to the couch where he casually flipped among the literature stacked in clusters of large piles. "So, is this supposed to be some kind of new art movement you're creating?"

"Why? Do you think it would sell?"

"Well…" He let out a chuckle and slowly brought up a smaller book titled Forgotten Desire in between his claws as if picking up a filthy piece of clothing. He made a face as if smelling something bad. "Probably not," he jeered.

Judy blushed, her ears drooping behind her head. "Yea, yea. That one will probably go on the bottom."

"Good choice," Nick said while setting the book down. "Or maybe behind the case?"

"Shut up," she laughed. "You want a water after your hard work out?"

"Sure."

Judy hopped from one of the stools and then pattered over to the refrigerator. She opened it, letting a beam of white light rush out, and as she leaned over to grab Nick his beverage, he couldn't help but yet again free himself from his mental shackles and sneak a glance at her cotton tail poking from her jeans which was connected to a more than delightful curve. Then the realization of what he was doing hit him. Why was he allowing this to happen? Not now. He had to stop. It wasn't natural for a predator. But try as he might, the darker side of his mind didn't seem to care—it completely took over and forced his eyes to stay honed-in on her ass. Almost as if on instinct, he pictured that, if her blue button up shirt was slightly shorter, it may have hiked up as she was bent there and reveled some risqué undergarment…a black or red thong perhaps. Red, his mind told him, definitely red in order to accentuate her grey and white fur color.

He could literally feel his face flush, his head shake, and a stirring develop in his loins as he tried to pry his eyes off of her, a slight frustration building in him at realizing he was now thinking of what it would feel like to run his hands up along her hips. The evolution of his current state with her made him yet again feel lightheaded. Sure, he had in the past sneaked a look at her every now and again, but it was getting harder to deny the fact that he was becoming increasingly infatuated with her figure, her smell, her voice, seemingly every mode and factor that surrounded her. And now this…these fantasies. It was extremely strange to cope with because he had never in all his years experienced such a wane in his desires for his own species; in fact, it had almost completely fallen off the wayside. This was not how the world would view the two of them—it wouldn't allow it. Or at least he thought it wouldn't allow it. After all, the scenarios of a predator attracting prey and vice versa was so miniscule nowadays that he couldn't picture it actually happening. He had to remind himself that this sudden attraction to her physical being would pass.

It was a pent-up urge due to the length of time it has been since he has been with a vixen.

A fetish of sorts.

That's right…a temporary fetish.

It had to be.

"Think fast!"

The water bottle came tumbling toward Nick and he swiped his hand out too late. It thudded against his chest and fell to the floor before finding balance and stopping entirely. "Shit."

"Ha! What're you dreaming about over there?"

Nick bashfully looked to the carpet and then picked up the bottle with a shake of his head. "Chicken wings," he joked. "I've had a hankering for poultry lately."

"Spicy?"

"Always." Nick took a long chug of his water.

"You do realize that in some areas of the world they may consider that murder?"

"Mm. So tasty though." Nick then extended his finger, continuing with, "And not if they're feral, by the way. Zootopia District code 52-4 dictates that."

"The fact that you have to memorize a law to make it alright is pretty sick, Slick."

"I didn't make it, Sweetheart, I just follow it."

Judy rolled her eyes. "You predators."

"Seriously. You shouldn't knock it 'till you try it."

"God. I can't imagine that," Judy said as she walked in the living room. Her large flat screen television reflected a black image of Nick who was now sitting in between mountains of novels and law literature. He had a random book in his hand and was looking at the synopsis on the back. She shifted her way into a blank space on the couch and then turned to Nick. "So…what does it taste like?"

"Chicken specifically?"

"Yea."

Nick tapped his lips with his index finger claw. "Well…amazing for one."

"Obviously, the way you nearly drool before you eat it. Remember that little ordeal?"

"Hey! For your information, Cluckin' Chuck's serves what I would say is the best feral hot wings this side of Zootopia. Don't be givin' me crap just because they couldn't wrap their minds around a rabbit ordering at the drive thru for her friend."

She giggled. "They looked so confused when I pulled up. And that expression on your face. You literally looked like you were ready to devour someone."

"I was."

"But really…if you had to describe it in a couple words, what would you say?"

Nick's eyes were slits now. "I don't know. It's hard to explain if you've never eaten meat before. It's…rich, I guess. Filling. I don't know. Sexually gratifying?"

Judy's face was blank for a moment and then she held onto her stomach and started laughing. "You're such a vocabulary connoisseur, Mr. Wilde. Sexually gratifying!?" She had one eyebrow raised, as if slightly intrigued.

"Yes. Okay, yes. It gave me a boner, alright? It was fantastic."

Judy was now doubled over in laughter, tears streaming down her face.

Nick joined in as well.

"You freak," she said in between breaths.

"Whatever, bookworm."

Judy leaned back on the couch and let out a happy sigh. "Yea," she started, "I think we can take chicken and such off the docket of my things to eat in life."

"How's that fair? I've tried eating your salad mush and rotisserie veggie surprise!"

"Yea, and wasn't it soooo good?" Judy patted her fists against the couch like an excited child, a goofy motion Nick found incredibly cute.

"No! It was like chewing on a handful of dirt."

"As opposed to mauling a defenseless creature alive?"

"I didn't hear any screams. All I felt was tingly strands of goodness and spices… damn, now I'm hungry."

"Well go out there and find a poor homeless chicken then," Judy said pointing toward the door.

For some reason, Nick found this hilarious and started laughing. This only spurred Judy on further to continue her good spirits, her smile broadening and her eyes gleaming.

Nick found himself leaned back against the couch like Judy and turned his head toward her. "What are you planning on doing with the rest of your evening?" he asked.

"You're sitting around them."

"That's boring."

"Well…what do you suggest?"

Nick latched onto the rhetorical question. It was a perfect out now. "I was talking with Marcus earlier. He and a bunch of guys and girls are going to the Black Raven. They suggested we tag along. I believe the terminology he used was 'shit's gonna' get all fucked up' if I remember right. That could mean many things, but I'm assuming it was meant to be positive."

Judy giggled. "Yea?"

"Yep. Wanna' go?"

Judy jumped up from her seat. "Yea! Let's go!"

Nick rose from the couch and a stream of books flushed in where he had been sitting. "Sweet beets."

"So, where's it at?" Judy asked.

"47th and Meadow. I think that's pretty close."

"Yea it is. We can walk."

"Probably a good idea anyway…if it's as 'bumping' as Marcus claims."

Judy opened her door and twisted the knob to make sure it was locked. "You may have to carry me home, you know," she said matter-of-factly.

"Don't have to tell me twice, Ms. Hopps." Secretly, Nick couldn't wait.

The pub sign was dimly lit by yellow lighting and looked old timey with a mock-medieval stamp of a black raven silhouette bunched around veils of vines. Chunks of wood were burned at the edges of the thick display to give it a rustic look, and the building itself was quite squat and small, barely being distinguishable from all of the other busy markets and larger than life structures surrounding it. Metaphorically, it slightly reminded Nick of Judy's ventures into Zootopia: a bright and vibrant rabbit miniscule in stature encountering enormous obstacles, feeling hard pressed— pushed down even—in this massive society, yet managing to overcome all odds and finding a home among chaos. And to top it off, just like her, the building they were about to enter was choked full of interesting things the closer you looked. In a way, the pub appeared "bullied" by its neighbors, resembling a pit stop one would take in between an alleyway to piss, but there was a sense of cleanliness and coolness as seen by the chrome lining hugging the frames of the small overhanging roof and the door which was tall and wide.

Marcus had been entirely correct when he had said it was barely noticeable—it may have very well not existed except for those who were already acquainted with it.

Nick opened the door for Judy. After she thanked him, they made their way into a mostly wooden haven: the floor was oak, lined with black and brown fake knotholes, and a series of mahogany tables of varying heights garnished the entrance they walked through—the seating was mostly high-stool tables with several customers, two being giraffes dressed in casual clothing, sitting and sipping at tall brews. Some customers clasped their beer steins and drank alone, a look of blankness washed over their busts, while others appeared to be having a genuinely exhilarating time and were jeering and yapping about. A boom of laughter made Nick's ears stand straight up; in the distance, he saw a larger section of low circular knight-of-the-round-table style seating which appeared to attract a large group of off-duty officers and some animals Nick did not recognize, more than likely the guests Marcus had mentioned in the locker room.

Nick briefly looked to his left as he made his way over to the group, admiring the bar lined with wooden shelfing and what appeared to be an army of glass figures—every bottle style imaginable, every beer and scotch concoction one could think of. Nailed to the massive shelfing system were black chalk boards boasting the special drinks for the night in pink and blue chalk colors: Jumbo Lager, Stevie's Knockout Surprise, Love Potion 669, and a slew of other bizarre names. A large wooden feral raven figurine hung above the barkeep, clearly chiseled by crafted hands and suspended by fancy wiring, and a television on the left side hummed with a barely noticeable volume level which was vastly overpowered by some kind of Soundgarden song playing from the overhead speakers. All in all, Nick liked what he saw, and by the look on Judy's face, so did she.

"How ya' doin'?"

Nick's head turned to the owner of the gruff voice.

The bartender, a tall fattish otter wearing what looked like some kind of tattered brown vest lined with strange pieces of flare, gave the two new customers a nod of his head, his shaggy black hair jiggling underneath the yellow lighting of the room. His muzzle was short, and his white whiskers jutted out in crazy directions. His weak smile showed off a cluster of very sharp incisors.

"Good!" Nick and Judy said.

"Y'all just let me know when you need something."

"Okay, thanks!" Nick waved.

From the large group he and Judy were approaching, Nick heard a recognizable voice pipe up from within.

"Ohmygahd! Nick! Judy! Fuck! Drinks! Drinks for my pals!" Marcus, clearly already buzzed, was gesturing wildly with his hands toward the otter bartender, a trait he often adopted when inebriated. "Guys pick up a squat! C'mon over!" Everyone greeted Nick with claps against his shoulder and handshakes. Among the group was a majority of the officers that were in the locker room an hour ago, including Alexander, Derek, Thomas, Fangmeyer, and a very noticeable Dominic, who at the moment took up not only a monumental amount of space but also a Jumbo XXXXL chair with steel reinforcement; his silly red and white Where's Waldo? Shorts showed off tree trunk sized legs that were callused and wrinkly with grey elephant flesh, a sight that made Nick inwardly chuckle for a reason he could not pinpoint. Perhaps it was his massive body contrasted by the bright clown-esque clothing that a small vehicle could fit in. Yea, that had to be it. The ladies of the group were giving Judy hugs and appeared to be genuinely excited to see her, some bending down to wrap their arms around her because of the difference in height. Nick noticed that Amy, Marcus's blonde and tan coated Siberian Husky girlfriend, had brought along a slew of her friends, one of which was a thin and well-formed vixen that momentarily caught Nick's eye. Her black shoulder length hair stood out like a sore thumb due to the purple strands of highlights lining it, and her white muzzle accentuated her charcoal-lined ears which jutted out in an exceptionally long angle, almost fennec in a way. She had one glittering piercing in her nose and gave Nick a smile once his green eyes locked with her own Caribbean blues.

"Nick! Hi!" Amy said joyfully. She gave him a light and friendly hug.

"Hi, Amy. How have you been?"

"Good! Glad you could make it! Oh! Have you met my friends?"

Nick shook his head. "I can't that say I have."

Amy grabbed Nick's shoulders and edged him over to the group of females. He looked down at Judy, who stood next to the group, and rose his eyebrows which she warmly smiled at.

"So," Amy started, "this is Francine! Francine this is Nick Wilde." Nick shook the poodle's hand and they exchanged a hello.

"And this is Shanna." Nick gave a nod and wave at the mare.

"This is Rachel." Nick greeted the Calico feline.

"And this is Samantha." The vixen stuck out her hand and Nick shook it gently.

"Hi," she said. Her voice was gravely but in a sexy way.

"Hey," Nick responded. He glanced down at Judy to see that she was making conversation with Francine.

Up close, Samantha had clasped around her neck a green gem pendant that rested snugly in between her cleavage which was pronounced by the tight fitting short sleeve t-shirt she wore emblazoned with a rock band he was not wholly aware of—by the looks of it, they were probably a metal genre of some kind and no doubt spat blood or another type of strange fluid at the concert goers due to the mass number of skulls surrounding their name, which in huge crimson letters read: BloodFist! She definitely had a rocker-chick vibe to her, the way her shoulders were broad not in the sense of beefiness but rather toned muscularity, and Nick noticed that she sported three piercings on each one of her ears, two of which were small black gauges. Her chest fur faded into a snow-white color, far off from the natural red shade her entire body was save for her forearms and feet paws, and Nick had a difficult time deciding if she had a mixture of species in her due to the length of her muzzle and her very noticeable fennec-esque ears… perhaps she was a product of the very thing he was trifling so hard with recently: the attraction of something forbidden, something beyond his grasp.

Perhaps she was a glimmer of hope that things would just sort themselves out.

Perhaps… Looking at Amy, Nick jabbed a thumb toward Marcus.

"I see your bf is, as the youth say, 'off the chain' right now." Samantha and Amy giggled.

"Yea…" Amy glanced over at Marcus who right now had a small cocktail umbrella set atop one of his ears. "He's definitely pushing for a volcano hangover tomorrow."

"How have you been?" Nick asked.

"Good! Just adapting to the new house, you know. We've finally got everything transferred over. Took us a good month! But…it's getting harder and harder to find space for Marcus's Star Wars collection."

"Ha! You may have to resort to a little friend called eBay."

Amy's eyes went wide, and she put a paw to her muzzle. "Jesus! He'd cut us off right then and there."

"At least you guys know your limits, eh?"

"Very true. Hey, I'm gonna' get another drink. You want anything?"

Nick rubbed underneath his muzzle. "I'm feelin' frisky," he said while handing her some money, "Get me the Love Potion special, will ya'?"

"Oooo…is Mr. Wilde feeling lucky tonight?" Nick stuck his claws out and made a goofy growling sound which caused Amy to laugh. She then sauntered over to the bar.

Nick turned his attention to Samantha who looked as though she was ready to engage in conversation.

"So," she started, "you a cop like everyone else here?"

Nick chuckled. "Yea. If you were out and about looking for variety, sorry."

Her smile and light titter told Nick she had a sense of humor. "No, it's fine. I just didn't realize you guys migrated together."

"Yea. Brothers and sisters to the end, you know. Honor. Glory. All that shit." Nick glanced over at the table Marcus sat at with Alexander, Derek, and Thomas. They were getting cards shuffled and appeared to have poker chips dealt out to one another. "So, what do you do?" Nick asked.

"I work as a secretary at Callibaras."

"I may be wrong," Nick said raising one eyebrow, "but isn't that a publishing house?"

"It is."

"I thought so. What's that like?"

"Pretty much what you would imagine," she laughed.

"Reams of pages."

"Yea."

"Do you guys get, like, health care and extra pensions for paper cuts and such?"

"No! Hey! There's a little more to it than that!"

"I know! I'm just pullin' your leg." A drink appeared in front of Nick's face. He took it from Amy's paws. "Thanks!"

"No prob," she said cheerily.

Suddenly Marcus's voice rang out. "Nicholas! Over here! Cards! We need a good bluff. Thomas can't play for shit!" Nick turned to see Marcus waving him over and Thomas giving the drunk Siberian Husky a punch on the shoulder.

"Is this like some giant conspiracy?" The fox opened his arms and with a confused expression on his face continued with, "First Judy and then you with the Nicholas shit. I feel like I'm back in the 1980s! Have you guys been talking or something?"

"Yes! She's told me every dark secret about you, including your love for Golden Oldies and how you like being pegged while getting your knot massaged. Now, c'mon! Samantha, you can play too! And Judy. Get yer' ass over here!"

Nick shook his head and looked at Samantha who was laughing. "That's totally offensive. I absolutely don't like Golden Oldies." Samantha exploded with a fit of giggles. Nick then bowed in gentlemanly fashion. "Shall we?" he asked.

"Why yes."

The table was crowded with blue, green, red, and black poker chips in clusters of piles reminiscent to what it looked like back at Judy's apartment. The game of choice at the moment was Texas Hold Em', a favorite of Nick's, and he slyly glanced at his lagomorph partner who was sitting next to him organizing her distributed chips by color; she looked ready to play, the fiery and competitive part of her brain overtaking all other aspects of her surroundings. Unlike the other girls who were sitting and wildly talking at a smaller high-rise table next to everyone, she was not one to engage in too much girly talk and would rather hang with the guys, a personal taste no doubt inherited from the insurmountable number of brothers in her family. Nick smiled at her concentrated passion and began organizing his own chips, glancing around the table at the closest individuals he has ever come to have since he was a child. In secret, his thankfulness for the force radiated within him every day he stepped foot into his uniform because it created something he had not experienced since his mother had been sober long, long ago: family. Brothers and sisters in blue—they were the glue that helped hold him together. It almost made him cry when he thought about it too hard, so he only attempted to do so at home. Across from him, Thomas was shuffling the cards and puffing away at a thick brown stogie, ashes dribbling underneath his chin and onto the floor below, and he was jabbering on to Dominic in his quick voice about his past work with construction. Alexander and Derek were in mid-conversation but stopped and gave Nick a friendly head nod, which Nick mimicked to yet again reinforce that there were no hard feelings about the locker room joke. Alexander took it well and boldly leaned forward, whispering to Nick "You ready to get your fuzzy ass beat at some cards, Slick Nick?"

Nick responded with his trademark grin and said, "You wish, fleabag." They both chuckled.

"So, here's the stakes," Marcus began loudly, the little pink cocktail umbrella shaking as he bobbed his head around. He dribbled his hands against the table like a drum-roll. "No limit Hold 'Em. Minimum bet has to be equal to the big blind. Whaddaya' think, Thomas…20 chip low-stakes, for the amateurs here?"

Thomas took his H. Upmann cigar from his mouth and exhaled a slithering trail of gray smoke toward the ceiling. "Sounds good ta' me," he said. "You lay 'em down, I'll rack 'em up."

"And to make things interesting," Marcus started, his finger raised in the air, "each loser takes a shot."

Derek patted both of his paws against the table quickly and then said, "Now we're talkin'!"

"Uh-oh. This is trouble," Fangmeyer said with a toothy smile.

"That okay with you, light-weight bunny-baby?" Marcus asked, his eyes staring directly at Judy.

She shot Marcus a glance. "Hey, I'm fine. You assholes will be the ones drinking anyway." The entire table whooped and cackled.

"Oh boy! Hopps brought her A-game!" Marcus cheered and then pointed at Nick.

"That's a direct challenge to the Sly Man here!"

"I may be in trouble tonight, boys," Nick nodded.

"Thomson!" Marcus shouted, slapping the table and turning around in his seat toward the bar. "I wanna' buy out a whole bottle of tequila! Bring 'yer best over here! And could we please get some shot glasses?"

The bartender brought over a bottle and tiny glasses for the table. "Abandon all hope…" he said spookily, eyeing the sunflower tinted bottle.

"Thanks, grim-reaper," Marcus said, slipping Thomson a fifty-dollar bill.

"That was Dante, ya' fuckin' mook," Thomson grumbled before snapping the cash from Marcus's paw and waddling back to the bar.

Everyone laughed.

"He's an eccentric one, that man," Marcus said with a smile on his face. He began dealing out the cards. "Get ready, bitches. Time to get—" Marcus suddenly stopped, his ears poking straight up, and then he stood up.

"Hey, HEY! Look what the dog catcher dragged in!" he shouted with open arms.

Nick looked toward the entrance, and immediately his face fell. Shit, his mind screamed. Shit and shit and shit… Bernhard Hotch. Fucking-Bernhard-Fucking-Hotch. This…was…not…good.

The white and brown spotted rabbit was not who Marcus had been so excited to see, but rather his German Shepherd partner, Officer Norris McKentry. But it was Bernhard in all of his four-foot glory that sent a wave of melancholy all throughout Nick's being, practically crashing his evening altogether in a single step through a pub doorway. Having been known to ebb flirts and hints toward Judy, he was what a typical rabbit female would find attractive, or at least what Nick believed one might find attractive: well-muscled for his species, tall, soft eyes, a large brown spot covering his entire right eye and cheek, he appeared to be equipped with an entire handbag of traits that could have ended him up in the bed of any lagomorph he wished…that is, if he played his cards right. And he always tried playing his cards with Judy. This was something Nick saw all the time. The male rabbit never failed to seemingly float across a room, suspended by confidence and courage, and his good posture made him appear taller than he actually was, coupled with the habit he had of keeping his ears stuck straight in the air regardless of his emotional state; it all seemed to be a script, a mathematical formula with the summation being one thing and one thing alone —pussy. At the tips of his ears were black tufts of fur, and his smile, which he tried projecting wherever he sauntered, was immaculate.

Nick recalled the bubbling animosity first starting when he and Judy were initially partnered after their Howler incident; it had been only three weeks after working together when Bernhard had joined the force and began making advances toward Judy, softly at first, but then more openly until he would habitually stop by her office and ask questions about her or tell her jokes, placing his hand on her shoulder in the process, and even—the one thing that pissed Nick off so much he nearly pulled his head fur out in one yank—calling her by Nick's favorite name: Carrots. In no way, shape or form, would Bernhard stand a chance against Nick's ferocity, but that didn't stop him for exuding an almost one-upmanship attitude toward the vulpine; it was as if he secretly knew of Nick's growing attraction and sought to jeopardize it.

At least this was what Nick's paranoid mind thought. In reality, it very well could just be that he wanted to fuck Judy and Nick wholly disapproved. Either way, this dude was bad news.

Marcus was giving Norris a brotherly hug and patted Bernhard on the shoulder. He then pointed toward the group and the three made their way over.

"Norris," Fangmeyer boomed, "what's this shit I hear about you getting your ass handed to you by some kids?"

Norris cackled, his loud and unique laugh echoing throughout the pub. "Getting' rusty," Norris said while shaking his head. "And if my partner here wasn't tryin' to practice his game on some 'hotties' I might have had a chance."

"Oh, please," Bernhard said, waving Norris off. "I had to come to your rescue regardless, pup-dog."

Norris let out another cackle. "True, true," he said. After calming down, he looked to the other guests at the table and then said, "What's up, Nick?" Nick extended his paw to Norris and he took it.

"Just getting prepped for the slaughter you're about to see," Nick said waving his arm across the table.

"Got room?"

"Hell's yea!" Marcus interrupted. "Grab a seat!" Nick's eyes darted over to Bernhard who was being introduced to Amy's friends.

After the formalities, he then made his way over to the table. "Nick," he said with a nod.

Nick's only response was a point of his finger, the only thing he was willing to do in a gesture of welcome for this animal. He was well aware of how cold he was to this particular male rabbit, and he had no doubt the rabbit understood this from his own side as well.

Bernhard turned to Judy. "Well, well! Look who came out of her rabbit hole! How you doin', Carrots?"

Judy straightened up. "Good! You?"

"Fine. Just checking out the establishment. Nice place, huh?"

"Yea it is," Judy said, bubbly as ever.

Bernhard pointed to an open chair next to Judy and then asked, "Mind if I take a seat there?"

"Go ahead!"

The male rabbit slid into the seat. Nick tried to not look bothered by this.

"So…check this out." Bernhard brought out his phone and was flipping through some photos to show Judy one in particular. He tilted the illuminated screen toward her and began telling her a story about their beat the other day, the picture being something that was affiliated with his tale. Samantha took this moment to begin talk with Nick, which he responded to, but he would occasionally look back at his partner to see their talk uninterrupted. This in itself wasn't entirely bothersome, but rather the thing that caused Nick to nearly grasp ahold of the table with his claws was the fact that the little prick had his hand rested on her shoulder as he narrated. She didn't seem to mind or notice, a fact Nick wrestled with in his mind. He couldn't stand it.

"We gonna' get this game rolling?" Nick blurted out, trying his mightiest to mask his frustration.

Marcus's face lit up and he immediately stopped talking to Thomas. "Yes! YES! Wilde's right! Let's roll! Strap up!"

"Okay, I'll tell you the rest later," Nick heard Bernhard whisper. He looked over to see the rabbit stuffing his phone back in his pocket and then say, "Need some chips here, Fields!"

"On it!"

Nick let out a breath of air. It appeared this would be the battle tonight. This was the actual game being played, and he was not in the mood for it.

In a sweeping moment, it sounded like an 80s disco with "Genius of Love" by Tom-Tom Club playing on the overhanging speakers. Everyone seemed to be in brighter sprits because of it. Even the bartender, Thomson, who according to Marcus was utterly stoic when it came to anything that involved opening oneself up, slightly bounced back and forth to the beat.

Nick's eyes darted back and forth. He tried not to stay pinned on Bernhard to long.

The game ensued, and the first four rounds were fairly well split among the group with Nick leading everyone else by one. Each time a loss or fold was revealed, the player took a shot of the Fire-Bird Bomb tequila Thomson had brought over, dribbling the urine colored drink into their small glass and downing it in a single gulp; it burned going down and sloshed in everyone's belly like hellfire, but the liquid was doing more than its job by getting all the players—even the seemingly well-reserved Samantha who sat to the left side of Nick—riled up.

Nick would occasionally crack a joke her way and every time she tossed back a snicker.

Even Judy, who at this point had already taken three shots, was getting rambunctious and talking back to anyone who decided to fling sass in her direction, including Dominic and his feeble attempt at tapping her right shoulder with his trunk to get her to think it was Nick.

Nick made sure to keep somewhat of an eye on her as a result of a slight fear gnawing in the back of his mind that she might overdo things due to being caught up in the moment, but he was always reassured by her smile and sparkling purple eyes, or the way she would nudge him with her body and sigh after a good hand. It was enough to make Nick forget entirely about Bernhard, and he would shoot her a little smile he was sure only he and she saw. There was a definite closeness she was exhibiting toward him the more intoxicated she became, and while Nick was quick to brush this off as something she just did, as something her personality dictated, he couldn't help but recall time after time she acted this way only toward him when they went out together.

It was a pattern at this point.

Nick glanced over to see Bernhard whisper something in Judy's ear. She put her hand to her mouth and laughed. Nick could feel his fist clench. What the fuck are you doing, Nick, he thought. Is this really jealousy? Seriously!? Remember your mantra, stupid. Remember. Nick's fist unclenched, and he took a sip of his Love Potion 669 drink. He even managed to squeeze out a forced look of content. "I raise," he said, tossing a handful of chips in the pot.

As the rounds continued, less and less cards were being played and more of a drinking challenge started. So far, the largest of the animals, Dominic, had no problem downing what would have been a cauldron of alcohol with his grey and twisty elephant trunk, and Thomas was hooting and hollering at this phenomenon, nearly biting his shortened cigar in half. Marcus slapped his partner's back which sent the Margay into a fit of coughs, the cigar sputtering red ashes and twisting on the table now, and everyone burst into hearty laughter at how foolish the mammal looked with his twisted whiskers and saliva dribbling down his chin. Even Thomas was in on the joke, his coughs becoming a laughing metamorphosis. At times, Nick would feel the warmth of Samantha's leg brush against his and he would look over to see her giving him a suggestive look. It appeared the alcohol was getting to her as well.

Fangmeyer called out Judy for a challenge, and the two started downing shots; Nick gave her a look of trepidation, but with her own adopted sly look she took from Nick, he knew to not worry as her control would prevent her from doing anything stupid. Four shots in, Fangmeyer was looking sluggish and Judy sucked down her fifth before slamming the butt of the glass against the table and hopping up on the wooden surface. She threw two index fingers at him and shouted, "BOOM, BITCH!" Everyone cheered her on and were laughing hysterically at the defeated Fangmeyer who collapsed in his seat and spread both arms wide. Nick slapped at the table in his laughter and managed to calm himself before looking up at Judy. In a moment of clarity, he saw something surreal happen: everything seemed to slow down for only a moment, as if time was suspended and gravity lost its foundation for rules. It was like a photograph.

A moment captured in the flow and ebb of space. All he could see was the joy everyone was directing at Judy; it was as if they were all newfound friends of her now, and nothing but one continuously echoing message emanated from all of their faces, and it said this: she can hang.

Judy somewhat toppled on the table, making everyone blurt out a "Woah!", but Nick was quick and reached out, grabbing her sides and lifting her up before setting her down on her chair.

"Okay, Coyote Ugly, enough table-dancing for you," Nick said.

Judy slapped Nick's shoulder and then hopped up at him, practically jumping in his lap. She then attempted to bite at one of his ears.

"Holy shit! Howler alert! She's gone savage!" Thomas yelled.

"Get my fuckin' gun!" Marcus shouted.

Everyone was rolling, drunken laughter filling the room in rivulets.

"Carrots, sit! Stay!" Nick shouted, grabbing at her arms.

After a moment, she calmed down and sat back in her seat. She took a drink of her beer and then nudged Nick's ribs. "Hey, gonna' go to the ladies' room. Be back."

"Don't fall in the toilet, now," Nick said.

She responded by punching his shoulder; this sent a grin across his face.

After she left, Nick let out a breath of air.

"That's one crazy bunny," Thomas said while shaking his head.

"Your telling me? I have to work with her," Nick said brining his glass to mouth and in the same motion realizing he had nothing left. "Gonna' get a refill," he announced.

After excusing himself, he walked over to Thomson who at this point was cleaning out a beer stein and was watching a football gaming play out on the television screen.

"Thomson, my mammal," Nick started, placing both elbows against the bar table, "another one of your fine lagers, you wizard!"

"Aye' aye'," Thomson said with a salute.

"Wrong genre, dude."

"Ah…fuck it all."

Nick guffawed with the sudden realization that he actually liked Thomson. Suddenly, he felt a presence beside him. He quickly twisted his head to see a figure that shot him out of his content state with the force of a cannon.

"Nick," Bernhard started, "can I talk to you for a second?" Without a word escaping his lips, Nick tapped his fingers from his thumb to his pinky across the bar table several times, and then finally said, "Yea. What do you want?" Bernhard mirrored Nick's stance, setting his elbows up on the bar, and then leaned closely to the vulpine.

"So, your partner, Judy…" Bernhard trailed off.

Nick's eyes looked from left to right. Was this little snake waiting for something? He didn't feel like playing games with him, but he had no choice but to take the bait.

"What about her?" Nick asked, more frustration coming out of his tone than he initially intended.

"Well…I don't want to be out of line by asking this, but…you guys aren't seeing each other, are you?" Nick was sure his shocked look registered from Bernhard's side as seen by the rabbit's smile.

"Say what?" Nick asked.

"Well…I mean, you know. This isn't really coming just from me. There's a lotta' talk always with the other guys. You know, Hopps-this-Wilde-that. And the way you guys talk and interact. It just…isn't outside the realm of possibility, is it? I was just curious is all."

Nick took his arms off the bar and turned his body toward Bernhard. "What you getting' at, Hotch?"

"Just that. Are you guys dating?"

Nick's eyes were slits. He was trying to figure out Bernhard's angle, but even his quick mind, albeit drunk, could not solve this puzzle. "No," Nick said flatly. "No we aren't."

Bernhard let out a breath of air and slapped Nick's shoulder before saying, "Ah, good, good…"

Nick stood staring at the rabbit who was now inspecting the drink choices displayed on the wooden shelves, his elbows still set up on the table. It was as if he was suddenly done with the conversation entirely.

It was then that Nick decided he wanted to play the game. And in order to do so, he got back in his comfortable position, attempting to mask any dislike toward the worm he stood next to. He cupped at his drink which Thomson brought over and took a small sip followed by a slight turn toward Bernhard. "Why do you ask?" Nick asked in a friendlier tone.

"Huh?"

"I mean, what does it matter."

"Oh. It doesn't. I was just wanting to know."

Nick's brow rose. "Just an inquisitive mind, eh?"

Bernhard nodded and then suddenly opened up. "And…" he started, leaning closer to Nick. "Well…you know…I wouldn't want to try and break any bonds you two had going."

Nick tried his mightiest to not clench his fist.

It was out in the open. The little snake's den was found out.

"Ah…" Nick said. "I see. You plan on getting that going soon?"

Bernhard let loose a devilish grin. "We'll see," he said.

Nick's mind was working quickly now. He wanted in deeper.

"So…" Nick started. "What do you think of her?"

"Fuck." Bernhard nodded and then made an okay sign with his hand. "Let's just say if I was a meat eater, I'd stick my face in that."

Nick was nodding and then slyly added, "Well, you don't have to be one to still do that, sir."

Bernhard let out a laugh and patted Nick's shoulder. He seemed to be buddying up now, the rigid stance of his body gradually fading with each sentence. "Very true," he said. "Very true indeed."

"You think she's responsive to you?"

Bernhard scrunched his face. "Pretty sure she is. I mean, c'mon, she doesn't have anyone around here she knows besides us. I'm one of the few rabbits in the force besides her. Her box has to be a little pent up, right?"

"Probably. And you'll be the one to fix that, huh?"

"Let's hope so, bro. Let's hope so."

"And who knows," Nick shrugged, "She's in a damn good mood. Say the right thing, sing the right tune…and it may very well be your lucky night."

"Could be." Bernhard tilted his head toward Nick's side and with a whisper said, "And if it is, man, I tell ya'…I'm gonna' fuck her little bunny pussy until her brains fall out."

Nick lightly slapped at the table, realizing what he just did and quickly masked his anger as joy for Bernhard's sake. He let out a laugh and with a claw pointed toward the ceiling said, "Be careful though. I hear tale about your species and your…uh…sexploits."

"Oh. Don't you worry about that. Don't worry, my man. I'm fine when it comes to that department. She'll be the one who has to keep up."

"This is coming from one mammal to another: don't forget your protection, my good friend."

"Ha! Yea. Well, if she's in as good of a mood as you say, perhaps a good nuttin' on her face is in order, huh?"

"Right."

Bernhard stood straight up and gave Nick a wink and pat on the back. "Thanks for the chat, man."

Nick tilted his glass and bowed his head. "The pleasure was mine, Hotch."

Bernhard walked back over to one of the smaller tables and waved Judy over once she exited the bathroom. She patted over to him and he took out his phone, presumably going back to telling his story that he started with her earlier.

Nick felt sick, his stomach doing flops, and it was not from the alcohol. That was the last thing on his mind. At this point, he may very well have structured a blueprint for the male lagomorph's success, and there was absolutely nothing he could do about it—his desire to go deeper with this sub-mammal he has come to know as Bernhard Hotch seemed to backfire; if only he had somehow twisted the little worm's question into a vague answer, perhaps he might have backed off entirely. Of course, that was his angle in asking Nick if he and Judy were an item. How could it not have been? You idiot. You've seen how he acts around her.

Nick's eyes widened at the deeper possibilities. Would she follow him? Excuse herself for the night and let him take her by the arm outside? Would she succumb to his charm and eventually sleep with him? It was all very macabre for him to imagine. He and Judy had built up what he felt like was a relationship not many police officers could say they had with another coworker, and for some reason, he felt as though trailing off with another individual and getting romantically involved would be an act of betrayal. It was a silly thought, he realized, as the two of them had nothing but a platonic relationship, and she was free to do what she pleased with her body, but it still corroded away at his inner shell, like acid against soft flesh. It ate him, and it hurt. He could feel a lump forming in his throat, images of his mother and everything else horrible in his life pouring out of the little holes this trifling moment was creating, and he had no alternative but to mentally rush to patch those holes up. Rearrangement was necessary now.

He chanted the mantra in his head.

Never let them see that they get to you.

Never let them see that they get to you.

Never let them see that— As he sat there brooding over his presumptive mistake, he did not even pick up on Marcus's presence.

"You, my fine furry friend, are due for a banging." Nick turned to see a completely shit-faced Marcus who now had two cocktail umbrellas hanging from each of his ears. His eyes were half-lidded and he no doubt was a stein away from collapsing.

"What's that, Marcus?" Nick asked, putting his hand on the Siberian Husky's shoulder and squeezing.

"I said…on what Earth…do you think of Sammy?"

Nick's teeth made themselves visible from his wide smile. "Marcus, my young Yoda," Nick began, "I would say you're due for a glass of water."

Marcus suddenly bumped his glass against the bar table. "Thomson! Swimmer of the sea! Give thyself a drink. A drink for me!"

Thomson's face was stagnant as he continued watching the game. He simply asked, "What'll it be, Lloyd?"

"Who?" Marcus asked.

"Technically," Nick started, "it should go 'What'll it be, Mr. Torrance', Thomson."

"Ah…fuck it all."

Marcus grabbed at Nick's shirt. "Dude…" he nearly drooled.

"Yes? Marcus?"

"Bro, I gotta' tell you somethin'."

"Go ahead."

"So…fuckin'…" his fingers were in front of Nick's face, his gesticulations becoming something only a fogged mind would understand. "Fuckin' Samantha…so…get this. She is totally down to fuck you tonight. Totally."

Nick snorted and took a swig of his drink. "That a fact?"

"Dude…like…so get this…" Marcus seemed to be searching his mind for the only vocabulary his inebriation allowed to filter through his sluggish muzzle. He finally found the words and shot them from his mouth. "She said you're hot. She's single, man. And she's totally…totally down for a bonin'. Like, I'm talking raw, porno, knot-style fucking."

"Hey, thanks for the heads-up man," Nick chuckled.

Marcus slapped Nick's back several times, pleased with himself.

"My man is getting' it tonight, Thomson. The good stuff!"

Thomson pointed one finger at Nick without taking his eyes away from the television and said in a toneless voice, "Congratulations, Mr. Wilde."

"Thanks, Thomson," Nick laughed.

"The good stuff," Marcus nodded, repeating himself.

"That's right. Yippee for me." Nick raised his glass.

"An' another thing…" Marcus slurred.

"Yes, Marcus. What words of wisdom do you have for me?"

He was practically hugging Nick now and was silent for a long while until he blurted out, "I love you, man. Seriously…like a brother. You inspire me, man. You…you…" Marcus stopped midsentence and in a quick motion grabbed his empty glass and then shouted, "Back to the drunk board! I'm fuckin' hosed! Hoses hosed!" With that, he turned and left.

Smiling, Nick shook his head, a slight part of him being flattered about Marcus's response. He sat for a good five minutes, contemplating everything that was happening. Every once in a while, he would glance over to see Bernhard trying to put the moves on Judy. A loud sigh escaped his maw.

"Welcome to my world," Thomson suddenly said in a bitter tone. He was still watching the television.

"At least I can empathize now, Thomson." The football team scored, and the otter didn't even bother reacting. Rather, he said, "It don't help none, now does it?"

"Nope. Not a fuckin' iota." From his peripheral vision, Nick could see Samantha approaching. She sat down right next to him on one of the swivel barstools, lightly propping her beer against one of the coasters, her tail sticking straight up behind her, and Nick had to be honest with himself by conceding she looked extremely attractive sitting there with such good posture. She was positioned in such a way that her backside and breasts were accentuated in the manner of some type of erotic sculpture. Her thighs were robust and the thin pink skirt she wore, now slightly wandering up because of how she sat, revealed that the inner parts of them were white fur complementary to her chest; it would an easy task, here and now, for him to properly seal his fate with her, if in fact Marcus had been telling the truth about her comments. Besides, it had been what felt like eons since Nick has been with a vixen, and he did have to come to terms by admitting that a small part of him, the pent-up animal within, was rattling his cage and trying to find a way to escape. It wanted meat, and now.

With her paw, Samantha moved a strand of purple hair way from the front of her muzzle and gave a smile to Nick. "Hey," she said.

"How you doing, Samantha?"

"Just taking a break from the craziness over there."

"Craziness? What do you mean? Marcus being disorderly? That doesn't sound anything like him."

She laughed, setting an arm upon the table. "So…" she began, "What'd you and him talk about earlier? Looked like a real heart-to-heart."

Nick chuckled. "You wouldn't want to know, honey."

"C'mon! I can take it!"

Nick raised an eyebrow and took a hefty swig from his beer. "I'll have you know, I'm brutally honest and have no filter when it comes to someone requesting that I repeat something."

She looked amused, putting her chin atop her hand which happened to be propped up by her elbow. Her simple nod of approval was her answer.

"Oh-kay…" Nick took another drink of his beer before setting it down with moderate force. "If you insist. So, we talked about his current state of mind, only for a moment. He asked Thomson for a drink, which he miraculously forgot in about two seconds flat. And then, we talked about you."

Samantha's eyes widened. "Is that so?" she asked, but her expression was coy rather than surprised.

"It is."

"And…what exactly was said, Man of Mystery?"

"You sure about this?"

"The suspense is killing me."

"He said four things. One: he loves me like a brother and I give him inspiration. Two: you're single. Three: you think I'm hot. And four…you're down to fuck tonight."

Samantha slightly flinched at the last remark.

Nick's eyebrows flashed upward in a facial expression that said, "I told you so." But much to his surprise, she didn't look shocked. In fact, she had a somewhat amused, albeit slightly embarrassed look on her face. She seemed to be trying to gain her bearings and then finally did.

"Well…aren't you two naughty."

Nick put both hands up. "Hey, I didn't initiate or steer the conversation, sweetheart! I was just riding along."

"But even the rider can ditch the vehicle."

Shrugging, Nick said, "What can I say? The scenery seemed interesting."

Samantha laughed lightly. Then she leaned forward and said in a whisper, "I will admit that two of those things you two talked about are correct."

"Is that so?" Nick asked, setting an elbow up on the table.

"Yea," she leaned forward slightly more, her muzzle resting against her paw again, and then said seductively, "Would you like to know which ones?"

"I'm captivated."

Her smile oozed sex. She was making this very clear and easy for Nick. "I can't say for sure your friend, as you said, loves you like a brother. He seems like a nice enough guy, but…I can't read minds. And his mind right now doesn't seem too clear. I also can't say for sure that I don't have a boyfriend out on business for the next two days…but for tonight…" her finger trailed up the counter and then found its way on Nick's forearm. She gave it a light stroke, "… for tonight, I think the last two things you guys talked about are one-hundred percent true."

Nick looked down at her hand trailing against him. It would be so easy to fuck her right now. The cards were out on the table. He could feel her foot paw pressed against his leg. In ten minutes, it could be arched over his shoulder. But his smile slightly faded. He took a deep breath and then looked over at Judy. She was back at the poker table and still having so much fun, laughing, sitting next to Marcus and Bernhard with a massive pile of poker chips crowding her face. Her optimism and want for approval from other species made Nick appreciate her even more, and as she sat there giggling, her smile made Nick's stomach fill with butterflies. To him, she was the epitome of what it meant to be a mammal, an individual. She was in every sense of the word, "Animal." Her priorities, her love for challenge, and her understanding and empathy for others made Nick want to be a better fox. In all his life, he had never met someone like her, and the logical side of his brain interpreted for him the hypocrisy that was about to take place, that if in fact he truly believed her involvement with another animal would shatter what they had building, his similar actions would result in just the same destruction.

And it was this revelation that made Nick feel a warmth that dug itself into the pit of his stomach. It nestled there are waited. He turned his attention back to Samantha. "You know," Nick started, taking another long drink of his beer, "I wasn't always a cop." There was something in Nick's voice that made Samantha straighten up. She didn't look taken aback, but her demeanor changed in such a way that she knew he was getting at something. She held on to her seduction though— through her eyes and body she still left herself open for Nick, waiting for him to change his course, waiting for him to make a proper move.

"Oh?" she asked.

"I was a sludge ball, really. Been through hell and back. Had a shitty upbringing and thought I could make it big where no one else was willing to, and…other people saw that, so they took me under their wing."

Samantha nodded at Nick, going along with his story, but she was trying to figure out his intent.

"Father figures. Friends. Whatever you want to call them. I tried really hard to get there. I tried to scrape against the grain, you know. Fight the system like they did. And that meant I was associated with a lot of different people along the way. Lotta' different people…lotta' bad people. Now, you might think this path that I took all came from the typical poverty-stricken shithole you see on T.V. A cliché, you know. The…the same story all these lowlifes face. You'd be partially right. But the truth is…she never did realize that when I was left in the car to go to those pubs and bars and dives, that I was very perceptive for my age." Nick took another drink and then breathed deeply. "Very perceptive. I would listen, you see…I had good ears. Still do. I would sometimes sneak in to see what was going on and hear the shit she would say to those random…foxes. It was… atrocious. Pornographic. She took care of me well. But she was like everything else I had come to hate. And eventually I did…" Nick stopped for a moment and could feel his head nodding. He was actually nodding to himself now. No longer was he talking directly to Samantha, or at least he felt as though he wasn't. He tried his mightiest to fend off the glaze that was coming over his eyes. "Pretty impacting stuff for a nine-year-old to hear, I must say. Fuckin'…fondling and…" Nick trailed off for a second. "New fox every night. New fox, new shit, new pieces…new…phrases. And now that I think back on all this…do you know who she reminds me of the most?" Samantha shook her head.

Like a predator, Nick quickly turned his muzzle toward her and stared directly into her eyes. She nearly flinched at his motion. "A whore," he said. "A skanky little piece of chicken, like yourself."

Samantha let out a light gasp, all seduction melting away from her face and body entirely.

"You don't know the first fuckin' thing about me. I could be the worst mistake of your life, and here you sit, like she did, talkin' a big game for some dick you don't even know. All the while, you got someone. And he doesn't know shit. Doesn't know you're what you are. I feel bad for him—I really do. But you know what? I feel worse for you. Because you're talking hollow words. And you're gonna' wake up hollow just like those words and just like she did because in the end that's who you really are." Nick downed the rest of his beer. Before he could look at her response, he felt a cool wash of booze hit him in the face. Her glass was now empty, and he could hear her say in a vile tone,

"Fucking asshole!" She angrily rose from her seat and marched out of the bar without saying anything to her friends. They all seemed to notice her leaving and were chatting among one another, some even attempting to follow her and ask what had happened.

Nick stood up and shook his head like a dog. He clapped both hands together loudly and spread his arms out. "I think she likes me!" he shouted to the ceiling.

"I would agree," Thomson suddenly piped out, pointing one finger at Nick with his eyes still glued to the television.

Shaking the excess beer special off his head, Nick made his way to the bathroom where he washed up and took a long look at himself in the mirror. He nodded at his reflection and felt a sudden confidence enter him. He would not be beaten by himself. It would simply not happen. That was the only thing that stood in his way. Alright, old boy, he thought. Back out there. He dried off his paws and then stepped out from the bathroom, searching for Judy. He couldn't see her among the group and felt his heart race. Where was she? He scanned over the remaining group of girls. Nothing. Had his nightmare become a reality? Had she been swept away? Fuck, fuck, fuck, his mind roared. His ears suddenly perked up when he heard her voice, and he tilted his head to the side to see her standing close the entrance of the bar with Bernhard. She was nearly pressed up against the wall and Bernhard stood right next to her, seemingly blocking any out she had for room.

Nick's teeth clenched. The worm was holding onto her forearm. But it was not this that caused a fury to boil within Nick. There was something far more angering. This was far worse than holding, far worse than touch. She looked displeased. Without any questioning, Nick bee-lined his way toward the two. His sensitive ears, standing straight up, identified every syllable spoken. He could hear Judy say, "No, I can't. Really." He could hear Bernhard say, "C'mon, Carrots. We'll just hang. See what happens." He could hear her say, "Look, you're nice, but I'm just not interested. I'm tired." He could hear him say, "I'm not saying we have to do anything. I just want to see you. Check out your place, you know." And then it happened—the recipe for chaos.

"Bernhard," Judy said with mild frustration, "just let go of me." She tried softly yanking her arm away, but Bernhard's grasp wouldn't allow it.

"C'mon," he said. "Just trust me." His face was so close to hers.

"I said let go!" she said more forcefully.

Nick saw red. It was a flash. It filtered in his head and washed over his vision. Nothing anymore mattered. He was brought back to a primal state, to where animal met animal and nothing else—no rationalization, no self-analysis, no compassion. Pure and electric. Hatred at its deepest. It was now that he actually saw Bernhard as true, undisputed prey. His paw jerked out to Bernhard and clamped down around the rabbit's bicep, digging into the skin with enough force to cause him to let out a faint gasp.

Nick's mind was racing. It was a speed beyond comprehension. He had just witnessed something he has come to realize as precious to him being tainted. But it was worse than tainted. It was unwanted by her. It was against her wishes. The fear, her ears pinned back, her eyes…it all came rushing in. It was the eyes, just like the eyes of the boy in the Nocturnal District. It was the eyes that spoke the loudest to him.

It was the eyes of his mother.

As Nick stood behind Bernhard, he leaned down toward the male rabbit's ears and let the words just flow from his mouth in a low but stern tone as to not make too big of a scene. "Fuckin' fuckin' let go of her. You hear me? Let your fuckin' hands go. Or else I'll eat you alive, right here, right now." Bernhard obeyed, his hands unclasping, and he was trying to turn around, but Nick did him the service of pushing the rabbit's entire arm forward, thereby making him bump against the side of the nearby table and knock over a glass causing it to shatter against the floor. It was a forceful throw, not even close to the full power capable of Nick but enough to give a loud and clear message.

Bernhard flung around with both palms facing out, his hands up in a gesture of fear and defense. "Chill, man," was all the male rabbit could say. "Chill." From a distance, some of the other officers could see the event transpiring.

Marcus, with his ears pinned straight up, slowly walked toward the three and stopped, waiting to see if a fight would ensue. The moment seemed to have given him temporary sobriety.

Nick pointed a claw at Bernhard while his other hand held onto Judy's forearm, putting her behind his back in a show of defense for her. She didn't flinch or falter with Nick's touch, but her eyes still showed how scared she was before her savior arrived. The churning in Nick was surging. He hadn't ever been this angry in his entire life. Not at his mother. Not at his father, whoever the fuck he was. "You…" Nick shook his head, nearly trembling. "You ever do that again…you ever go near her…and I'll eat you alive! I'll fuckin' ravage you in front of everyone, Hotch!" Nick turned and took Judy out of the pub without another word.

Bernhard stood, his heart beating so hard that it was in his throat, and he couldn't even bring himself to speak as the voices and questions came barraging at him from all angles. To him right now, they sounded of filtered mumbles. To him, they were proof that he had just cheated death.

Outside, Nick was steaming. His walk was brutish, and his face stared ahead at nothing. A void. It was all a void, spiraling, unending.

Judy tried to keep up the pace alongside him by walking closely, still slightly overcome by what had just transpired, but she appeared to be awakened by the whole ordeal. She would every couple of seconds look up at him to try and find the fox she knew so well, but all that remained was this…thing of visceral emotions and power that she had not seen since he faked being savage, nearly biting her throat in an act of spite toward the now incarcerated Dawn Bellwether. Her heart was thumping against her ribcage rapidly because this was no act, not like they had planned out before. There was no stage, no script. All that remained was truth and a lingering decay. His green eyes radiated hatred, pure and ferocious, and his muzzle was in a semi-snarling fashion, his sharp teeth slightly peeking from the black upturned flesh that were his lips. She knew none of this was meant to be directed toward her, but she so desperately wanted the Nick she adored to resurface that she was about to gently hug his arm in an attempt to awake him before he made a quick change of plans.

Out of nowhere, he let out a loud breath and suddenly turned around toward the pub they had just left, his step now getting furious.

"NO!" Judy yelled. She jumped toward Nick and grabbed his forearm. "No, Nick! Jesus, you'll kill him. Just stop!" Nick stopped in his tracks and put both hands to his sides. His breathing was still erratic. "Just turn around," Judy begged. "Please! He's a prick, yes, but just don't. I…I don't want to see you go to jail." A long breath of air could be heard from Nick. She could see he was now trying to control himself. "Please! Please, Nick!" Judy said, her voice almost cracking. Her eyes were glazed over at the emotional rollercoaster she was experiencing, and she seemed to be a fraction away from breaking into tears.

Nick turned back toward Judy and his face immediately softened at seeing her current state. He then made his way toward her. "Okay," he whispered, waving her to follow. "Let's go." Instinctively, she grabbed ahold of his forearm and hugged it with both arms, walking alongside him. He let out a sigh and put his arm around her shoulder, pulling her close to him as they made their way to her apartment.

There were very little words spoken until they arrived at her door, but there didn't have to be. They both understood what had happened. Unveiling her apartment keys from her pocket, Judy turned to look up at Nick. Their eyes were locked onto one another for a long time. There was utter silence in the hallway, but there was no awkwardness in their staring. She suddenly shot forward, clasping him in a hug, her head nestling into his stomach. He closed his eyes and wrapped both arms around her, letting out a long sigh. The miniscule sniffling sounds coming from her made him smile, but before he could say anything, she incited the first spoken word.

"Don't you dare say what I know you're going to say."

Nick chuckled. "I won't. But you know it's true."

She turned her head and rested it against his stomach. He brought his paw up and rubbed the side of her head gently, trailing along her long, droopy ears.

"You've saved me yet again," she whispered.

"Yes."

"My knight in fuzzy armor." Judy could feel Nick's laugh come from his stomach.

"Go back to your stable house, wench," he said.

They both started laughing and let go of one another. Again, they found themselves standing, staring.

Nick reached his hand out and wiped underneath Judy's eye. He then did something he did not plan on. Uninhibited, unfiltered, it burst forth from his stomach, from the pieces he rearranged, from that pit that was nestled deep down. It was a thing he could only do in his dreams. He leaned toward her and kissed her cheek lightly before whispering, "Good night, Carrots." He turned around and walked toward the stairwell leading out of the apartment building. In that time, everything seemed fake to him. A cardboard cutout for cardboard lives. And it felt fantastic.

Had he looked back, he would have seen that Judy's door only closed when he was completely out of sight.