WingedKatt here. I'm apologizing now: we didn't quite make it to the Ugly Bug Ball. Next chapter, we'll get to it, I promise.

Down in the music room, Melanie sat listening to the band practice when the door opened, and a couple of her siblings walked in to say they were ready for the band to come up. With a flick of her cottony tail, Melanie hopped up and said she would go get Nick who was with Ben and Aaron. Of course, she didn't go alone. Several of those who had been listening to the band practice jumped up with her, wanting to talk more with the fox who had somehow managed to win a place at their table and who would be singing and playing for the kits tonight. They had been surprised to see and hear how exceptionally well Nick was good at both as they watched him practice with the band.

Melanie bit her lip as they left the house, wondering how Ben and Aaron were going to explain Nick's absence when they got there. Since everyone with her believed Nick was helping her brothers out with Ben's classic Mustang, what could they say to avoid suspicion of where Nick actually was? Keeping such a huge secret in a burrow of so many rabbits with excellent hearing and an overactive imagination left her stumped.

Well, she didn't have to wonder for long. As they neared the car shed that Ben had claimed as his own, Melanie could hear a stranger's gruff voice with an occasional comment from Ben and Aaron. At first, she wondered who they could be talking to, but then she remembered Nick saying he planned to hook Ben and Aaron up with his fox friend who restored his Triumph. Was that who they were talking to? With a flick of her ear, Melanie heard the gruff voice say, "No, not that one! The other bolt!"

"This one?" Ben replied from the shed, accompanied by the soft clink of metal on metal.

"Yes, that one," the gruff voice answered. "It's a bit rusted, so to get it off, you'll need to get your wrench on it, then take your hammer and tap it to bust it loose."

As Melanie walked up to the door, they heard a light tap sound, a pause, and then another one.

"Not like that!" the gruff stranger's voice came again. "You'll never get it loose if you act like a sloth! Put your back into it!"

As the frequency of the tapping increased, Melanie stepped through the shed door to see Ben under the hood of his old Mustang, holding a wrench in one paw and a hammer in the other while trying to bust the rusted bolt loose by tapping the wrench with the hammer. Aaron was standing next to him while holding a phone up with a MuzzleTime call open. There was also a freestanding spotlight on and shining down at an angle, illuminating the spot where Ben was working.

Aaron glanced up as Melanie and the others walked in. With a flick of his ear, he asked, "Is it time for the Ball?"

"Yes," Melanie replied with a nod as she saw a sand-colored fox on the phone with exceptionally large ears. Was that Nick's friend Finnick? Melanie assumed it was, and then glanced around. "We're here to pick up Nick," she continued, while wondering what excuse they'd come up with for why Nick wasn't here.

"Marty took him to the bathroom," Ben immediately answered without looking up from tapping on the rusted bolt. It was nearly busted free of the rust, and he wanted to finish before going to the party.

Melanie was surprised by the quick answer, though she shouldn't have been, considering it was the easiest answer to come up with. And since there were communal bathrooms (boys and girls separately) on each floor, not to mention the many private bathrooms for the married couples, saying Marty took Nick to the bathroom was equivalent to sending them on a wild goose chase.

With a happy flick of her tail, Melanie turned to the bunnies with her and said, "Okay, let's go find the fox in the burrow!" Everyone agreed, and like Melanie, were excited for the 'hunt'. Being prey, it wasn't often they got the 'hunt' for a predator, and for such an unusual predator like a fox to be in the burrow—it was a novelty that made the 'hunt' all that more interesting.

As they left the car shed, Melanie tried to keep the knowing grin off her face, considering she already knew where they could find Nick. While checking the bathrooms, she'll try and steer everyone away from Judy's floor. With another excited flick of her tail, Melanie found this whole cloak-and-dagger type thing rather exhilarating. It wasn't something she'd ever really done before, so she found it somewhat thrilling.

At first, she was a little worried about trying to keep Nick and Judy's relationship in the dark (so many things could go wrong!), but now that she was in the middle of it, it was actually pretty fun, and Melanie wondered how long they could keep it up.

As the other bunnies disappeared through the shed door, Finnick asked Ben and Aaron, "Hey, is it time for that party Nick's singing at?"

Aaron turned the phone around to answer, saying, "Yeah, it looks like our time is up. When do you think you'll be here?"

Finnick shrugged through the phone. "I'll leave first thing in the morning, and then it's a three-day drive, so sometime Saturday evening probably."

Aaron nodded even as Ben finally busted the rusted bolt loose and got it unscrewed. "Finally," Ben muttered. After grabbing the bolt, he stood up and stretched, then turned towards the phone still in Aaron's paws, saying, "Okay, we'll see you Saturday, Finnick."

The small fox gave a nod. "See ya Saturday." After Aaron waved goodbye, Finnick put his phone back in his pocket, then clapped his paws together while a wide grin spread across his face. He couldn't wait to get his paws under the hood of Ben's Mustang Boss. With a happy flick of his bushy tail, Finn walked across the backyard of his sister's house so he could start packing.

As Ben took his phone back, he fired off a quick text to Marty letting him know they were looking for Nick, then put his own phone in his back pocket. Following Aaron to the large utility sink near the door, they washed the grease off their paws then left the shed, heading towards the house. They planned to stop in the kitchen to get a drink of water before making their way to the lawn on the other side of the burrow where the bandstand was set up.

They only made it halfway to the house when Aaron's phone rang with a familiar jingle. Pulling it out to see his girlfriend's pretty pica face lighting up the screen, Aaron grinned as he answered the call. "Hello, beautiful," he said cheerfully.

There was a pause on the other end, and then Sascha said softly, "Hi Aaron."

Aaron stopped walking as his girlfriend's usually cheerful voice was nowhere to be heard. "Sascha, is something wrong?"

Sascha gripped the phone a little tighter as she considered everything that was going 'wrong' right now. It wasn't anything new, but…she was tired of dealing with it. Taking a deep breath, she looked down the hill from the park bench where she sat, wondering why dating Aaron had to be so hard?

"Sascha?" Aaron repeated as his girlfriend didn't immediately answer, even as his ears drooped in worry.

Taking another deep breath, Sascha finally said, "It's nothing new… The same old, same old."

Aaron's ears perked back up, but this time in anger. "Your family's trying to convince you to break up with me again, aren't they?" There weren't many picas in Bunnyburrow, just five small families with fewer than ten kits each. They were also a pretty tight knit group who didn't really like outsiders (they were worse than rabbits when it came to ostracizing others!), so for Sascha to be dating a rabbit buck really rubbed their fur the wrong way and made it difficult to be around them.

"Yeah, they're saying some pretty awful things again and…I…just needed to hear your voice again." Rubbing her forehead from the stress of the latest argument with her family, Sascha murmured, "To get my mind on something better."

Aaron was quiet for one heartbeat, then asked, "Where are you at right now?"

Sascha sat up straighter and said hastily, "You don't have to come here, Aaron. I know you're busy with your family and everything."

Aaron's ears started drooping again, but he was still angry at what her specist family must have put her through. "My family doesn't need me right now, you do. So where are you?"

Reaching up, Sascha tugged on one of her short, round ears, saying, "Really, Aaron, I'm okay. I just need to talk, that's all—just to talk."

Aaron didn't immediately answer. When they first started dating, her family and the other picas in their tiny community grumbled about it, thinking Sascha was just going through a rebellious stage. They also assumed—incorrectly—that the relationship wouldn't last more than a few weeks before they broke up. When he and Sascha passed the two-month mark of dating, her family realized the relationship was serious and they started getting worried. And that's when the harassment started.

At first, they weren't very original with their arguments, simply stating that since Aaron was a rabbit buck he couldn't be trusted (since rabbits dated around a lot before marriage, many other species thought they lacked commitment), and that an interspecies relationship would never last, blah, blah, blah. Sascha was good at ignoring or arguing with her family over these stupid and senile reasons why she should break up with him, but recently they had gotten more creative with their excuses for her to break up with him and that had Aaron worried. Was she doubting his sincerity?

Curling his fingers into a fist at his side, Aaron took a deep breath and asked, "Do you not want to see me?"

This question took Sascha by surprise, and she hastily exclaimed, "No! I mean, of course I want to see you, Aaron. I really want to see you right now, but…" With her voice dropping back to a soft murmur, she added, "I don't want to seem clingy or bothersome to you."

Aaron ground his teeth together as he was sure that was one of the new excuses her family came up with as to why they shouldn't be dating—that he would find her clingy or a pain if she called him up and wanted to see him every time she was feeling troubled or had a bad day. Talk about a lame excuse! "Tell me where you are, and I'll be there."

Sascha gripped her shirt over her heart as Aaron was squeezing her heart with love. She knew Aaron wasn't anything like her family was saying, but after hearing the same thing over and over again, it caused doubts to worm their way into her mind (which she now felt ashamed of—she should never have doubted Aaron!). With warmth and happiness replacing the worry in her voice, Sascha said, "I'm sitting at the park. In our usual spot."

"I'll be there in 10 minutes," Aaron answered. Usually, it would take 15 minutes or more to get to town from his family's farm, but since he had a dirt bike, it allowed him to cut through the fields without trampling the crops and shaved five minutes or more off his travel time. After saying goodbye, Aaron hollered ahead to Ben, letting him know something came up and that he'd be back later.

Ben waved goodbye, hoping his brother could get back before Aaron missed the whole party. After watching Aaron sprint towards the shed where his dirt bike was kept, Ben hopped up the steps to the back porch and walked into the kitchen to get a nice cool drink of strawberry lemonade from the fridge before making his way through the burrow to the lawn on the opposite side of their home, all while wondering when Aaron was going to pop the question to Sascha. With all the problems she was having with her pica family over dating a rabbit, it would be better for Aaron to just marry the poor girl, then they would no longer have to deal with her stuck-up, bigoted family and friends.

Ben was also interested in seeing how long Judy and Nick could hide their relationship from the family. After hearing of their clandestine meeting (and impromptu marriage) before dinner, and again just now in her room, Ben was intrigued to see how they were going to act around each other once Judy made her appearance at the Ball. With a wide grin on his face, he couldn't wait for the party to start!


Sitting on Ben's bed while flipping through one of Ben's car magazines, Marty got a text from his cousin letting him know he needed to collect Nick and head outside. Hoping the two lovebirds were at least dressed, Marty called Nick up and was informed that yes, they were dressed (mostly—Nick was only half-dressed) and that Claire was changing his bandages—again.

Marty's ears turned a shade darker at the implication, but otherwise ignored Nick's comment. With his nose twitching, he said he'd be there shortly, then called Brandi to scope out Judy and Ben's hallway to make sure the coast was clear so he could sneak out of Ben's room and into Judy's to collect Nick. As Brandi had stayed at the rodeo grounds after Nick and the others left, she had no idea what was going on. Marty simply told her that Nick was talking to Judy in her room and that they needed to keep that fact a secret for now, and if Brandi wanted to know 'why' then she could ask Judy herself after he collected Nick.

Brandi thought they were all being crazy, but since Nick was a fox in a bunny burrow with several rabbits who already wanted to hurt the poor fox, she decided to go along with Marty's crazy plan. After giving her sisters and cousins who she'd been hanging with a flimsy excuse for leaving, Brandi made her way down to the second married couples' hallway where Ben and Judy's rooms were located. Upon reaching it, she strolled down the corridor checking for loitering siblings, all while planning to grill Judy about the whole secrecy business between her and her foxy friend from Zootopia.

Passing her married cousin Anna and her husband Blake, Brandi informed them the party was starting and encouraged them not to miss it. Excited to see what all the hullabaloo was about (and interested in hearing how good the fox actually was when it came to music), they hurried on their way. Brandi waited for them to disappear down the connecting hallway, and not hearing anyone else coming, she opened Ben's door to see Marty waiting on the other side. The two then quickly made their way down the hall to Judy's room.

Marty and Brandi were both surprised to see Shaylee inside with Claire (Marty wasn't surprised to see Claire but was surprised to see Shaylee here). Nick was just finishing buttoning up his shirt, and once finished, Marty handed the tall todd his black Stetson and guitar. After slipping them on, Nick thanked Claire again for taking care of his back injury, gave Judy a lingering kiss that had her toes curling (Brandi was gaping like an idiot at seeing that), and then waved to the girls as he and Marty slipped out of the room before making their way upstairs.

As the door shut behind the boys, Brandi stood staring at the door for several heartbeats longer. Hearing Shaylee giggle behind her, followed by Judy's embarrassed groan, finally snapped her out of her shocked stupor. Spinning around as her nose began twitching furiously, she saw Claire and Shaylee smiling hugely at Judy who was hiding behind her flaming red ears. "What just happened here!?" Brandi exclaimed.

Claire chuckled while Shaylee giggled again, even as Judy peeked between her bright red ears to see Brandi pointing at her with one finger while pointing at the door with a finger from her other paw.

Gripping the ends of her ears a little tighter as she held them in front of her face, Judy mumbled, "Nick and…I…are…mates…"

Brandi thought she misheard her younger sister and stammered, "You're what?"

With her ears turning a brighter shade of red (if that was possible), Judy paused as she licked her lips hiding behind her ears. As Nick's taste still lingered there, she desperately wished he was still here kissing her so she wouldn't have to deal with her sisters' inquisition on her brand new love life.

As much as she enjoyed her time with Nick (unimaginably so), Judy had never been in the habit of talking about her 'love life.' Not that she had one before to talk about, and maybe that's why she found talking about it now so embarrassing. She was completely out of her element and seeing Brandi's shocked gaze and Claire and Shaylee's knowing glances had her nose and tail twitching in further embarrassment.

When Judy didn't immediately answer, Brandi said, "Judy, what did you say you and Nick are? Did you say you and he were…?" She couldn't even bring herself to say the word.

Although Shaylee had said Judy wanted to be mates with Nick, he was still a fox, so Brandi found the idea a little hard to swallow. That didn't mean she would stand in her sister's way if that's how Judy really felt—Brandi definitely supported Judy in her love of the fox—but still—they just met after months of being apart. And putting Judy's feelings aside, Brandi had talked to Nick earlier today and he wasn't sure how he felt about Judy, though he was definitely leaning towards dating Judy. But dating and mating were two completely different words, no matter how much they sounded alike! So how could Nick and Judy already be mates!?

Biting her lip briefly, Judy reminded herself that she was an adult and therefore had to take responsibility for her actions. She was not ashamed that Nick had claimed her, nor did she regret it, so she shouldn't be acting like she had done something wrong. Taking a deep breath as some of the red left her ears and nose, Judy released her ears and stood up straighter. Crossing her arms over her chest, she started thumping her foot as she looked towards the wall next to the door where Nick had claimed her for the second (and third) time today.

With her ears turning flaming red again at the memory, Judy stated clearly and in her no-nonsense cop voice, "Nick and I are mates."

Shaylee giggled again as Brandi's jaw dropped once more before she exclaimed, "Since when!?"

With a shrug as if to say it wasn't anything big, Judy replied, "This afternoon. We were having a very emotional discussion about the past, present, and future. To show Nick how much he meant to me and that I was a hundred percent committed to him, I scent marked him. Nick scent-marked me back and…yeah…now we're mates."

Brandi could only stand there staring, slack-jawed, at her younger sister as if she'd grown a second set of ears. Judy had never been intimate with a male before! She wouldn't even snuggle with one, and if one tried getting touchy-feely with her, Judy would always reward them with a bruising punch or dislocated fingers! Where did her boundaries go that she would hop in bed with a fox so quickly!?

Jumping off the bed, Shaylee waltzed over to Judy with a huge, buck-toothed grin gracing her lips. Putting her arm around Judy's shoulders in a side hug, Shaylee said eagerly, "Now come on Judy, don't downplay your time with Nick. You can't deny that you just had an earth-shattering, life-changing experience, can you?"

Judy couldn't deny it. Her time with Nick—both times—had certainly been earth-shattering, and now, her whole future had changed. There were so many possibilities opened to her now that hadn't existed before. Judy couldn't wait to hop and skip further into her new future with Nick.

With her wide smile still in place, Shaylee turned to Brandi and explained how scent marking for foxes was part of their marriage ceremony, so Judy was now Nick's wife, and he was her husband.

This was even harder for Brandi to accept than the fact Judy and Nick were mates. Judy had always sworn off marriage, that there wasn't a buck alive who she would ever marry… Well, Judy was now married to a fox, so in that respect, Judy had been right. But even so, it was a hard pill to swallow to think of her cop-crazy, career-oriented sister as being married now with no warning to the fact. Then again, Brandi couldn't deny how much Judy had enjoyed that goodbye kiss from Nick before he and Marty had slipped out the door.

Ignoring Brandi's dazed stupor at Judy's sudden marriage (she was so confused right now!), Shaylee glanced sideways at Judy and asked if she and Nick were planning to hold an actual wedding or if they were fine with just the private fox wedding? With a bright smile, Judy explained how she and Nick still wanted to hold a real wedding so family and friends could attend, but then admitted that she didn't have a wedding dress.

Shaylee was ecstatic to hear that Judy was going to have a real wedding. Stating her desire to be one of Judy's bridesmaids, she then offered to let Judy wear the wedding dress she had started making in high school and finished last year. She and Judy were about the same size, so Shaylee figured her dress should fit Judy pretty well.

As Judy thanked her for the use of her dress, Shaylee led her over to the bed and sat Judy down between her and Claire so they could better interrogate Judy on her 'marriage' to Nick.

Claire had been watching her sisters interact while thinking of Aiden and wondering how soon she would be able to kiss him. After dreaming about it for so many years, it might finally become a reality! Knowing that starting tonight, Aiden would be living with her made it hard to contain her excitement.

This desire to see Aiden had her torn in two. A part of her was happy to spend time with her sisters and hear more about Judy's romance with her fox, while the other part of her just wanted the day to end so she could pick up Aiden at the train station. Waiting to take him home with her and hopefully start her own romance with the handsome, wonderfully sweet jackal she had fallen in love with back in med school was a true test of her patience. She couldn't wait to see him again!

Shaylee asked Judy a bit more about the wedding as they sat down, and Judy mentioned she was hoping to have a traditional rabbit wedding they had back in their great-grandparents' day, but other than that, they didn't have any plans yet. She and Nick would discuss plans for the wedding during their trip, so when they got back, they could have a better idea of what they were doing.

This idea piqued Shaylee's interest as she hadn't heard much about the weddings that were performed several generations ago. She would have to ask her grandparents more about them while Judy and Nick were away. Of course, thinking of Nick and Judy's marriage made her think about Marty's friend Jarod. They were meeting in the morning, but if they started dating, would their relationship last long enough to consider marriage? Having met Nick and seeing how fun and reliable he was, Shaylee truly hoped things worked out between her and Jarod.

Before Shaylee could start her interrogation on the 'intricacies' of being mated to a fox, Judy turned to Claire and asked her about the predator love-interest Nick had assumed she had. Claire was surprised Nick had figured it out so quickly, but then a wide, delighted smile spread across her dark lips as she pulled out her phone and proceeded to show her sisters pictures of Aiden, the black-backed jackal she had secretly been in love with for over seven years. "You have no idea how long I wanted to talk to someone about him. He was my best friend and my life saver back in med school. I swear, I would have flunked out the last two years if not for him deciding to become my personal tutor."

"Do you think he likes you back?" Shaylee asked, her ears perked forward as she waited to hear more about the jackal who had stolen Claire's heart.

With her nose and tail twitching happily, Claire replied, "I'm pretty sure he does." Grabbing one of her ears, and petting it, she explained, "I know Aiden turned down a lot of dates in order to tutor me. Some of the girls were pretty popular, too, but Aiden didn't bat an eye about turning them down if I needed help studying. And those he did date—I always got the impression that it was more for show than anything else."

At her sister's confused stares, Claire explained that like their mom Bonnie who couldn't wait to get her kits married off, Aiden's mom was always calling him up and complaining that he was still single. It was one of the things they had in common—meddlesome moms who couldn't leave their love life alone.

Claire then explained how Aiden was coming to stay with her for a while as he'd been driven out of Zootopia due to the savage attacks and the subsequent mobs of angry, specist prey which had formed to harass and hurt predators in their quest to rid the city of the 'filthy, blood-crazed animals'.

Judy and Shaylee were saddened to hear how Aiden had been treated, but were very much wanting to meet him, especially as Claire asked if Judy would mind having a double wedding—provided Aiden actually did feel the same way about her that she did about him. Judy was ecstatic to have a double wedding with Claire and Aiden if their relationship progressed to that point. Claire then asked more about Judy's time with Nick. Since Aiden and Nick were both canids of a similar height and build, she really wanted to know how her younger sister felt being claimed by Nick.

Shaylee was just as interested to find out, too, as she was hoping to date a fox starting tomorrow. Seeing the support of Claire and Shaylee, and knowing she was no longer alone in her love of a canid, Judy no longer felt embarrassed as she told her curious sisters about her love of Nick, his criminal teeth and claws, his incredible stamina, and then that long, divine tongue of his. Their married and mated sisters who liked to brag about their bucks were truly frogs at the bottom of the well who had no idea how big and wonderful the world really was.

Although Claire and Shaylee were excited to learn about all of Nick's foxy features, this last one was a new concept for them, but one they were both eager to experience should their own relationships progress to them becoming mates with their own long-tongued canids.

While Judy, Claire, and Shaylee discussed the idea of being mated to a canid, Brandi sat back and listened to the conversation in disbelief. Having stumbled over to Judy's desk chair, she had plopped down in shock. Learning about Judy's interest in a fox had been strange, but this was Judy who was already strange, so it wasn't too hard to believe. But learning about first Claire's, and then Shaylee's, interest in a canid—a predator—had completely blindsided her.

Although Claire had always been cheerful and happy to help any mammal, prey or predator alike, she was also a clear-headed and practical rabbit. So, learning about her love of a predator was a shock. But even more shocking was Shaylee's sudden interest in dating a fox as she had never had any dealings with predators outside of an occasional 'hi' and 'how are you?' when she was in town and buying something from them at the stores. So why was Shaylee suddenly wanting to date a fox?

Listening to Judy describe the benefits and pleasures of being with a fox answered her question, though. If Brandi wasn't already dating a jackrabbit, she might consider dating a canid as well. Maybe. A big maybe. Judy's glowing review on Nick's skills in and out bed definitely made the idea of being with a fox an interesting one.

But that wasn't here nor there. Brandi was currently in a relationship, and she wasn't about to breakup with her boyfriend Dan out of mere curiosity about canids. If her relationship with Dan didn't work out, Brandi might think about looking further outside her species, but she really didn't see that happening. Dan made her happy and she enjoyed spending time with him. He was comfortable to be around and fun to hang with. Furthermore, Dan absolutely adored her five kits. Finding a buck willing to raise another buck's kits wasn't easy, so Brandi wasn't about to mess the best thing that had happened to her in the last three years (her former husband ran out on her and the kits back then which resulted in a nasty divorce—he didn't want to pay kit-support).

As Brandi finally overcame her stupor, she started asking a few questions herself and the girls got lost in the conversation. The conversation had moved on from interrogating Judy to Claire wondering how it would be to live with Aiden, while Shaylee wondered how it would be to date Jarod. Brandi merely listened in and found it interesting to hear about some of the differences in culture between rabbits and canids (Judy had mentioned a few of the things she'd learned about red fox culture while Claire mentioned some of the things Aiden had told her about black-backed jackal culture).

Of course, when they finally realized the time, they panicked at having missed about half of the party already and then scrambled to make their way outside to the lawn so they could watch Nick sing and play.

I'm sorry this chapter was so late. School started back up for my son and the early mornings are kicking my fluffy tail. I've hardly written anything the last 2 weeks because I was too tired to write. With that said, I'm going to take a short Hiatus for this story so I can get a back log of chapters built back up so I'm not stressing over the chapters and losing further sleep because of it. I'll be taking six weeks off and coming back (hopefully) on Oct. 1st. I will be posting one last chapter of Z:AtB next weekend (I might be a day late posting it, too), and then that story will go on Hiatus for 6 weeks.

Just a quick question: Are you guys interested in me combining the stories of the side character couples that I've already written about into their own separate side-stories? I would be using what I've already written and then adding a bit more detail. So it would be side couples like Ryan and Daisy, Claire and Aiden, and Camellia and Jaxon from ADB; and then Kimberly and Leland (I still have their first date to finish writing), and Delilah and Landon from AtB?

Next chapter will post on OCTOBER 1, and we'll finally get to the Ugly Bug Ball, I promise.

I hope you all have a great week and that the coming month will treat you well. If you have any thoughts or questions, let me know.