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Silence and Valiance

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In this world of many seemingly constant flows, the only true constant was change. The change of traditions and ideals as regimes rise and fall or a new way of thinking poisons an old religion.

As the seasons change, so do the ways in which the civilized world works. And the world as it was now was a truly lackluster place. Prey ruled with in an iron fist in the lands of Savanna Shire. Whilst other lands were known to be fair to predators, the Shire was by far the largest and most populous region of the know civilized world of Animalia.

A red fox stared ahead blankly as he was dragged through the mud by two bulky rams in full mail and plate armor.

After trying to return a sack of grain to a merchant's cart after it fell on the road, the merchant cruelly accused him of trying to steal from him. Normally, such accusations would be punished with jail for a period of weeks to months, but being a fox entitled this poor soul to far harsher treatment. He was currently being taken to a lord who would barter him off as an indentured servant to a wealthy family. Such was the state of the world when taxes only paid its way so far with feeding criminals in a cell. A lord would buy the supposed fine imposed on a criminal and the criminal would be indebted to the lord until such a time as they deemed fit to clear the debt. Most lords used the situation to their advantage to indenture a mammal indefinitely or until their bodies become too broken to continue in any sort of productive fashion.

Such was the fate that awaited him. Though they called it indentured servitude, it was slavery at its most obvious core.

All because he chose to show kindness. All because he wanted to earn a mammal's respect. Even if just a little. The irony of all of this pushed him to the brink and a few silent, hot tears burned away at the corners of his eyes.

The path he was being dragged along became laden with stone. His eyes saw the main road they turned onto as his limp and tired body was pulled along towards a daunting manor. Nor large but by no means diminutive, it hovered on a small hill, the proper atmosphere of a noble emanating from the exuberant nature of the design.

"On your feet, fox!" one of the rams spat at him, batting a hoof against his already bruised back.

The red fox collapsed in a heap at the foot of the stairs to the manor, propping himself up by sheer force of will onto his elbows, letting out a huff of air from his muzzle. His paws were bound by old and frayed rope, which might make it seem as if it's easy to find a way out from. All that the old and frayed rope did easily was irritate and grind away at his skin. Much of the fur on his wrists were gone.

Before the hoof of cruelty struck again, the fox stood shakily as straight as he could. He couldn't muster much pride when dressed in rags and barely looking like he could stand.

He was goaded into the front doors to see the inside of the manor was far more dark and foreboding than the elegant exterior. With a stone flooring and vast foyer, the entryway looked more along the lines of a court, made more apparent by the stage and elevated podium with a large deer buck standing behind it in nobleman's attire.

"I see our guest has arrived!" the deer bellowed in over theatrical pleasantness. "Why don't we start our state of affairs, post-haste? Hmm?"

The fox remained silent and held a blank stare towards the deer. No contempt, no implied distaste or hatred, no false sense of smug satisfaction to incite their anger. He stared in silent acceptance, hoping they would continue their charade and quickly get it over with.

"Onwards then," he continued in all his persistent happy tone, "to our wondrous event."

The red fox was shoved forcefully forward by a ram again. He almost smirked at the other way one could take it.

"Now then Lords and Ladies," the buck yelled in greeting, talking in part to those in comfortable pews off on elevated sections to the sides, "we have gathered today to determine the destiny of this criminal, guilty of theft and assault of our fine prey citizens. With our poor guards and state supplied prisons being overburdened and overworked, we look to you, our kind and generous nobles to help in the correctional development of our fellow mammals."

Overly polite clapping and grunts of approval polluted the fox's ears. They flicked in irritation but his muzzle remained stoic and devoid of any emotions.

"Only a couple of nobles could not make it today, with our dear Lord Bogo and his lovely wife, Lady Gazelle, dealing with a recent desertion of three of their predator servants after graciously giving them a home. Otherwise, I welcome," the buck cleared his throat while reading a scroll of parchment he spread open on the podium, "Lord Hoofsteadler, Lord and Lady McHorn, the Countess Trunkaby, and our prosperous provider of many seasons of bountiful harvests, Lord and Lady Hopps."

The red fox dipped his tail and held his body firm against the urge to shake at the name of Hopps. They were known throughout the region as the largest noble family in the area and owners of the most abundant and prosperous fields of agricultural produce. Their many sons and daughters worked the lands themselves and those eldest in the family were eventually exempt from such labor and allowed to oversee hands that were brought in to work in their stead. The Hopps were well known for acquiring foxes, wolves, and any such old enemies of rabbits.

It was none all too surprising how cruel the ones once thought as diminutive could become once put in a position of power over those that once hunted them. With a plethora of offspring to carry on their legacy, it was near impossible simply escape from such a family as them.

Stewart Hopps was none exempt from such accusations of cruelty, with the fox knowing full well that he used the sublimation of predators under his care to provide a means of confidence for his children and validation of their place over them.

He could only expect that if he went to them, the level of suffering he would endure would be paramount to a slow death. He hoped he would go to the others. It did not matter which at this point. At best he could remember, the others in the room would simply give him slim comforts and let him be if he performed as they asked. It wouldn't be glamourous but likely without physical malice or care to see him more often than necessary.

"I shall be accepting bids to this fox's debt to society and ownership over his fate, though my aides will be around to accept them in silence."

The next few minutes were met with quiet murmurs as scribbles were made and parchment passed around to each lord and lady. The fox tried to quell his feeling of anxiousness in the face of such an uneasy silence.

The deer and his aides collected the written bids and looked them over. A wonderfully horrible grin spread like a crack in an ugly vase on the buck's face. The fox could feel his blood chill in apprehension.

"I am pleased to say," the deer looked over at the fox with an air of smugness at the answer to the fox's unasked question, "that our illustrious and laborious Lord and Lady Hopps have won our bid for this fox."

His mind stopped functioning as fear set in. He kept all outward signs of it on lockdown but he was still a torrent of emotions on the inside. None of which could coalesce into anything recognizable as of yet. He looked over to the Hopps, to which the male had a growing smile curling his muzzle. The wife gave him a short glance, meeting his inquisitive gaze, then looked forward to evade his eyes in disdain.

The next few hours passed in a tense haze to the fox. The shoving and prodding into the back of a barred wagon. The slow ride into the country and away from the decrepit but still comfortable density of the city, with its walls and battlements to keep some feeling safe from bandits and invaders.

At the very least, he was glad his travel accommodations didn't include the company of any of his new 'friends'. His stomach had its own complaints as the wagon rumbled over the well-traveled roads. The rabbit driving the wagon, pulled by other predators, looked his way and scoffed at his predicament.

"Be grateful you don't have to rot in a cell on the coin of the people, fox," spat the rabbit with as much poison in his tone as there was insulting energy behind it. The fox didn't mind or care. He'd been belittled most of his life. Even in his service as a soldier for several years, his fellow comrades of the prey persuasion would find notable ways to try getting under his skin. Some of them eventually respected him enough to keep the insults and physical abuse at his expense down to a more minimal, if not playful, level.

"So then, have a name?" the rabbit asked incredulously.

The fox stayed silent. As far as others were concerned, he was a mute. Sometimes, even he was sure he was. He hadn't properly spoken in a couple years. Since he temporarily lost his voice near the end of his tour as a soldier when an accident involving a fire and near suffocation left him literally speechless, he found that when he had nothing to say, he had less to get him into trouble. His snark and sarcastic humor earned him more than a few beatings from overly entitled mammals who viewed his existence as an affront to civilized society. The things he said only served as an excuse to vent their anger and misconceived notions of self-imposed justice upon him.

"Damn fox… who would give scum like you a name anyway," the rabbit replied to the fox's lack of an answer.

Soon enough they were hitting smoother, more traveled paths as they pulled through the Hopps fields. The fox sniffed the air upon being introduced to a sweet smell wafting gently into his personal space.

Blueberries. Strawberries. Raspberries? And maybe even pumpkins.

Of course, he could see the carrots too, as well as smell them, but they paled in delectable comparison to the tart fruits teasing his sensitive nose and hungry stomach.

When the red fox looked around, he saw many of the sons and daughters working the fields, content with the literal fruits of their labor. He also saw many predators working on harvesting produce in areas far from the others, and supervised by other rabbits, holding many tools to assure subservience to their command.

The fox flinched in sympathy to their plight and knew his might be the same if he incited them by any means.

The bars started to move as his prison opened to several smug and overly entitled rabbits waiting outside as he was pulled out by the wrists and thrown to the ground.

"Get this cur some semblance of clean and at least clothe him with something befitting a servant of the Hopps," One of the eldest said with sheer disgust as she looked over his muddied and sullen form.

A couple of the larger and more burly rabbits quickly dragged the sleek fox away, taking him to a large barn nearby to toss him in something resembling a washhouse, whereas they threw buckets of water on him and allowed him a few minutes privacy to clean himself accordingly. The leftovers of a rather aggressively acidic soap bar were on a shelf nearby, to which the fox reluctantly picked up and used in as gentle manner as he could on his aching body. He tentatively reached the tender wrists, of which were free of bonds for the moment, and whined in pain as the soap burned into the raw wounds.

While he could not see them, he could hear his two temporary overseer rabbits laughing at his pain, making derogatory jibes at his expense. He glared in their general direction through the wood walls. How can so many mammals take such cruel pleasure in how such beings as himself are treated? How can one family fester so much darkness within their minds? They may believe they are doing what is necessary to secure their 'rightful' place in a civilized world over predators, but at what cost do all these prey stop being the prey nature made them and become a new form of predator, of whom dole out oppression and cruelty to satisfy their hunger instead of claws and fangs.

The red fox found another bucket of water, colder than comfortably withstanding, and poured it slowly over himself to rinse away his filth. The burning in his wrists subsided, if not by a miniscule amount and he walked outside the washhouse area to see servants' clothes left on a stool.

Slightly big on his longer, thinner frame, the clothes fit well enough. He slipped on the long sleeved brown shirt, tucking it into the darker blue pants that he secured on his waist with a thin chord. Feeling well enough to face his new oppressors in his new garments, the fox braved the exit to be greeted by the conversing rabbits. He didn't listen to what they were saying nor did he care to.

"Not so mangy now, huh fox?" the taller rabbit scoffed at him. The other simply nodded in blind agreement at the poor jibe at his expense. If he dared to speak, he might have touched upon the predicament of his unkempt appearance being the responsibility of those over his care.

That might have earned him a mob style beating from any rabbit in the area willing to lend a paw. With the swords on the belts of the rabbits though, the fox figured it more likely they would kill him and claim he tried to escape or worse, claim it was self-defense against a savage fox. So, the fox merely nodded silently and stepped between the two to allow them to guide him wherever they wished it.

Many might think he was giving in to this oppressive state, that he was broken and beyond all hope. While that was partly true, the fox found it was more beneficial to his prolonged health to go with the flow of the world. If he chose to fight the current too hard, he would tire himself out and be bashed upon the rocks. However, if he went with the flow willingly, he would sometimes find that said flow would give him the momentum and opportunity to use its own force against it and propel him past the rocks.

No such opportunity presented itself yet, but he knew something good would cross his path if he kept up his mute ways at avoiding to purposely incite the violent tendencies broiling in many of these misguided rabbits.

They walked in relative quiet, with the occasional shoving to keep the fox's pace, even though he wasn't lagging behind in a such manner.

Soon enough they approached the massive hill that housed the Hopps warren. Burrowed and built over decades most likely, the large hill had many protrusions resembling doors and windows. It looked as if the whole hill was hollowed out to make way for the stylings and housing arrangements for all the family who lived here. The front door was the most protrusive piece constructed, being a set of large double doors surrounded by a large supporting structure with many windows and some structures akin to guard posts or defensive battlements. With several hundred sons and daughters to work the land or oversee more who do, it made this home easy enough to feel the need to defend. The fox surmised the guards were more siblings or family given the task to protect their own lands.

Just one big happy family. The fox only had his mother and even she passed early in his life. He silently thanked whatever force ruled this plane of existence that she died peacefully as opposed to how he heard his father died. The thought made him cringe slightly, steading his pace to keep from slowing in his reverie.

They passed this grand entrance, to no surprise of the fox, since he was sure entering through such 'majestic' halls would only taint their purpose of greeting family and those considered 'worthy' of visiting their home. A smaller door on the side of the warren, with no surrounding windows or openings in the immediate area, appeared to be where the fox was being led to.

Two more rabbit guards opened the heavy looking door and shoved him inside, closing the door shut.

A slot opened at eye level, at least for a rabbit, as one of the guards glared at him.

"These will be your quarters from now on," the rabbit said calmly, but with a venom that made the angrier rabbits seem more appealing by comparison. "Best to acquaint yourself with any roommates not working the fields and get some rest. You'll be put to work pretty soon so I would take this time we give so generously." The fox stayed silent and stared blankly until the slat closed.

His eyes adjusted to the dim light thrown off from a few candles. The room was laden with various beds, all of which were meant for more moderately sized mammals. They were bunked up to three levels and bedded with something that looked like straw lumps covered with a top sheet to keep the straw from clinging to the fur of those who sleep on it.

Not wanting to waste an opportunity at rest, the fox found a bed that looked unused and slumped heavily into it to rest. Sleep came all too soon for the exhausted fox, the day's issues acting like a metaphorical force of nature and pulling his eyelids down in a definitive manner.

0000000

A few hours later, the grinding hinges woke up the red fox to see a large, dark silhouette through the open doorway. Larger than a rabbit, he had hoped it was just some of the predator servants returning from their work.

It was another fox like himself… though far larger. Not in the muscular way either. He was portly. The fox was confused. Most everyone he saw on the way in that was working under the Hopps 'care' was thin and probably malnourished. The new fox approached him and as he acclimated to the dark again, he could see the features of the new fox. He was wearing a sympathetic smile.

"H-hey there," he stuttered. "I hear y-you're the new predator around here?" the red fox nodded silently.

The portly fox held out a large paw. He took it and shook firmly.

"My name's Gideon. Gideon Gray." He paused, hoping to hear a name in turn. The red fox clasped a paw to his throat and gestured away.

"Oh… I… I'm sorry. No voice?" He nodded in affirmation. Whether he could speak or not anymore, he wasn't about to try for a random stranger he knew almost nothing about. His name was a good start though. Not that he knew it from somewhere else in his life.

"Well… you look starved," Gideon stated rifling in the apron that the red fox only now realized he was wearing. His head perked upon sniffing out something delicious.

The other fox pulled out a cloth wrapped around something and unraveled it to reveal some bread, a mixed assortment of berries, and a carrot. The red fox's paw twitched out towards it and he stilled himself and drew the paw back to his chest.

Gideon handed it to him, giving him a warm smile.

"Take it… they don't give anyone here much in the way of food. So, eat that before they see it."

The red fox gave Gideon a skeptical look towards his pudgy belly, to which he put a paw on it and gave it a jiggle.

"I'm a special case, unfortunately," he muttered. "They like my cooking and baking. A lot in fact. But they make me taste a fair amount of the food beforehand so as to check whether I have poisoned it or just if has been poisoned in general."

The red fox lost his furrowed brow look of skepticism and adopted a manner of sympathy. Even in a more respected position, the Hopps clan found a way to demean those who served them.

"Don't worry," he mentioned, trying to allay the smaller fox's worries. "I have gotten pretty good at sneaking quite a bit of food back to the rest." He lifted the apron and under the roundness of his belly was a small sack attached to his belt. Given the amount of food he received compared to the size of the sack, Gideon could likely feed another twenty predators the same amount he was given. These quarters looked like they had bunks enough for double that.

The red fox stopped eating for a second to stare at his food with a sense of guilt.

Gideon chuckled, looking at the mute fox, as if knowing his reservations.

"You don't have to worry. I knew you were going to be starving, so I got a little extra for you. Everyone here gets some food but I bring this so no one ends up collapsing in the middle of their tasks. Otherwise, they withhold food and drink for that m-mammal… until they complete their tasks."

The red fox continued eating in solace, folding up the cloth and returning it to Gideon when he was finished, who kindly took it and put it in his apron pocket.

He then gestured to himself and to the door, trying to convey his need to know what will happen to him.

Gideon's face tried to keep up a smile, but it exuded a sadness about it as he seemed to understand what the smaller fox was asking.

"If you are wondering what they'll make you do," he started, "I'm afraid they don't put the foxes out in the field often. They like us to clean the residence and cater to the elder siblings needs. I cook for most of them, there's another couple vixens who clean around the areas where the elder daughters live. If I had to guess, that's where they would send you. But, I haven't seen another male fox since I've been here. Mostly just the vixens."

The smaller fox looked around, wondering about where the females sleep.

"In a di-different set of quarters," Gideon answered his mute question. The red fox had to give it Gideon. He was a good read of mammals. He turned to the portly fox to give him a gentle grin of thanks.

Gideon nodded and turned over onto the bed he was sitting to get some sleep.

"I have to be up in a short while to prepare for dinner. So, keep the talking to a minimum if you can." The small fox facepalmed as Gideon turned slightly to show a sarcastic grin. He couldn't hold in his own smile and laid down on his back, staring at the bottom of the bed above himself. He couldn't fall asleep again now, especially since this was probably the highlight of his entire week since being arrested and herded into a slave sale.

He smiled at nothing in particular and decided to bask in the light of the moment for a little while before he had to deal with whatever reality awaited him outside that barred door.

Another couple hours passed, or so the red fox imagined. He could only go by the progress of the bleeding slivers of light that moved over the floor from the edges of the door. He supposed it acted like a sundial. He was dragged in here around midday and the larger fox came in a few hours after. That meant he would have to leave soon to prepare dinner.

He heard a commotion and looked to the barred door again, fearing someone would be coming in to take him somewhere.

He felt no limit to his relief to see more predators shuffling in, tired but otherwise looking less broken than he felt at the moment. Most of the predators in question were wolves, leopards, jaguars, and a couple lynxes.

Some of them gave the red fox a questioning look of surprise, but remained silent as the whole entourage shuffled in. Once the door was shut and barred again, a couple of the others picked up the still lit candles and used them to light a few oil lamps in the room, giving the dim room a bit more permeating light.

To the fox's own surprise, Gideon rolled out of bed with an energy that made it seem as he was awake the whole time. He pulled out the sack he showed the red fox earlier and handed out more small clothed bunches with food. Everyone passed them around and quickly savored the contents with much fervor.

Once the cloths were cleaned of any food, they were promptly returned to Gideon, who stuffed it all back into the sack and sat down at the edge of his bed. Barely five minutes had to have passed in the whole transpired event. The red fox tilted his head at the sheer efficiency of it all.

"So, who's the fresh blood?" a nearby leopard said with a wry smile. "Not too many foxes get run through here."

The red fox caught the gist of why he said that. With a region filled with prey fulfilling such an oppressive role, many predators find ways to extradite themselves from the region to more friendly border provinces. Foxes were a more nomadic people, making packing up and moving easier for them than other more homebody species. The fox himself was more of a lost soul. After his roughly seven years of military service in an allied outlying province to Savanna Shire, he was discharged with a pittance as payment and became a wanderer throughout whatever land wasn't avoiding him, cursing at him, or chasing him off. He wasn't even sure how he made it so deep into this area from his mindless wandering anyhow. Might have been the months of stumbling through the dense forest dominating the north easterly regions. They weren't heavily populated and stretched for many dozens of miles from beyond the Shire's borders to near the center of the region. Many believed that feral mammals populated those woods as ancient savages.

Gideon piped up on the smaller fox's behalf, "Our new friend here is k-kinda… m-mute." The smaller fox nodded.

"Oh…," the leopard breathed, looking down.

The red fox forced a smile and waved in figurative dismissal of the leopard's guilt.

"Well, while it's not exactly great to see another poor soul being pulled into this place, we welcome you warmly all the same," remarked a grey wolf, twisting his paw in a flourish as if fancily welcoming him to a manor.

The red fox nodded respectfully and gestured a friendly hello to everyone who cared to be a part of the group greeting.

"He seems nice," said another wolf, whom looked older and more white than grey. "So, what's our new buddy's name? I mean… presuming he has a way to mime that."

The fox shrugged non-committedly. He could read and write very well but figured it would be better to keep that knowledge to himself. Letting them know this could lead to the Hopps knowing indirectly and he wasn't sure how that would affect him if they knew he had some level of scholarly training.

"Fair enough," the same wolf stated. "We can just call you Mime until we figure something else…."

The red fox gave the wolf a raised eyebrow, deadpan stare.

"…or leave the naming until a much later time," the wolf unconventionally continued, to which the fox nodded appreciatively.

After a few more greetings and some names being dropped, the conversational core shifted towards nostalgic memories of lives past and hopeless dreams of the future.

The leopard who spoke before was named Sabor. Apparently, he was previously a carpenter with experience constructing elevated housing. In other words, treehouses for mammals more at home amongst the branches.

The older grey/white wolf was called Akela, whom was a widower and former captain in a military of the northern province of the Tundra Federation. He was taken prisoner after being recovered from the battlefield and sold off to the Hopps. He seemed to be the implied leader/elder of the whole group to which most looked to for advice or respected greatly.

The younger grey wolf was named Nathan. His story seemed sadder simply because there wasn't much to tell. He hadn't had a chance at life before being roped into a life such as this. So, he could have supposed hatred for his oppressors that might be far more deep-seated than some others who hadn't been under their thumb all their life, not that the fox had a chance to see if that were the case yet. He seemed more entranced by other's stories about a life outside servitude then spiteful that he hadn't had a chance to experience it.

The fox heard a few other names and tried to commit them to memory along with faces for later but soon found that the door opened with a creak once more to reveal the guards coming in. Everyone became deathly silent and looked down, so as to avoid any potential confrontation.

Gideon stood up slowly but surely saying, "Dinner needs to be prepared?" to which a guard nodded. The other guard accompanying went over to the smaller fox and grabbed him by the arm to drag him haphazardly from the bed. The rabbit dragging him threw him out of the quarters into the open air.

"We are going to have you start a few duties as of now," the rabbit guard fired at him. "Kitchen cleaning." The fox sighed lightly as all hope of a few more minutes of peace were shattered. Gideon followed with far less abusive incentive to move. He didn't look any less disturbed by that prospect but he supposed Gideon was set in his role and the rabbits felt he didn't need any 'help' making the right decision to move to where he needed to work.

Entering through a thick, wooden side door to a large stone kitchen laden with tools, stoves and ovens of varying sizes, the smaller fox and Gideon were guided in differing fashions. Gideon started gathering all the ingredients, of which many seemed to have been already prepped for him, answering the unasked question for the red fox of why he wouldn't have been needed hours beforehand for prep work. He internally scoffed at the only thought he could entertain, being that Gideon must have been trusted only so far as to cook the food with prepping being a stretch.

The smaller fox was guided to a corner with a small stool, then forced down by the shoulders to sit on it.

"You're going to wait here and clean up as needed and nothing else, fox," spat the rabbit guard who took great joy in forcing most of his journey to this point from the servant's quarters. "If you do anything else NOT relating to that, you will be beaten to within an inch of your life." The rabbit raked his eyes up and down the thin form of the fox. "Not that you have much of one."

He turned away then stopped to look back and grin menacingly, "AND if you so much as scarf down a single morsel of food without our say, you won't be fed for a time determinate upon what we see fit." The fox's eyes narrowed in slight defiance but he looked to the floor to avoid giving the rabbit a reason to enact anymore cruelty on him.

The rabbit guards left the room and locked the door. Gideon hustled around the large kitchen with greater speed than he thought one as… unbalanced as he was could move.

Barely a few minutes passed before another door unlatched and opened, whereas a plethora of rabbits entered to assist Gideon. From the passing scents that the smaller fox could detect, all of them were female. He mentally huffed, finding the continued staples this family abided by almost laughable.

Most of the rabbits gave him gazes of pity and disgust, apparently viewing him as scum just for being as he was. The wafting scent of food graced his nose and teased at it much like the cool wake of a lake lapping at one's paws on a warm summer day.

Given the insubstantial, though graciously generous, meal he was offered earlier, along with the past couple of days dealing with the miniscule amount of prison food allowed to him, his stomach decided to become a rebellious spirit and growled almost menacingly in the presence of more substantial food.

A few rabbit does looked his way and giggled mockingly while covering their mouths. Their stares didn't bother him so much, but the condescending way they looked at him, much like a beast on a leash, unnerved him a bit. He could only surmise this is how the Hopps influenced their youth to confidently face the world as they do. By subjecting predators to their children's whims, they could sculpt them into the next generation of oppressors.

The rest of the evening came and went in bouts of too slow and too fast. The wait while smelling good food only drove time to drag its feet. The times he needed to clean after something only distracted him for too little time as his ministrations to clean spilled sauces and other mixtures kept his mind busy from the insufferable hunger he so wished to sate.

The only solace in quickly finishing his cleaning tasks was that the bunny females wouldn't be able to touch or pull his ears and tail in a curious and humiliating manner with his body tucked back in the corner he was given.

He was finally able to breathe a small sigh of relief when said does had to pile out so as to join the meal with all their siblings. Many of them looked him over with many looks he found confusing to say the least as they all left.

He proceeded to clean up as he was ordered, glad that the day was almost over and maybe it would get easier.

He was completely wrong.

After little sleep and even less food given to him, the red fox was forced to clean up after each of the meals, being just as present in the same fashion as the first night. For three straight days, he was forced to endure a torture that made being beaten seem like a holiday. He was closely watched and overseen, only being fed enough to keep him mobile and threatened with the potential to lose his life if he broke and ate anything that his eyes could see and nose could smell. For all the meals in a day he was forced to do his so-called duties for, he was forced to withstand the onslaught to his senses of good food being made by what seemed like a cooking god at this point.

Gideon could only watch in growing pity as the smaller fox became more and more lost with each passing meal. The portly fox was impressed with the smaller red fox's force of will to avoid eating anything in front him in a desperate and ravenous manner. Gideon had all too often seen this form of initiation upon becoming a servant to the Hopps clan, though never directly. They would feed new servants little, work them near the source of their pain, and to avoid others sympathizing with the new servant, they would be kept in a solitary quarter with no bed. Once a new servant cracked and ate what they were forbidden from touching, the ones overseeing them would be tasked with administering punishment. Such punishment was usually given in the form of senseless beatings to break the servant and bolster the confidence of the ones overseeing them. The only upside to such treatment, was that after breaking, the servant was allowed to heal and eat as all the other servants did, which was enough to satisfy.

The red fox was breaking by the fourth day, his belly simply giving up on groaning in protest and settled on a silent treatment, only giving a murmur upon receiving the measly scraps he was given to keep him in the most minimal of health standards. Breathing even became hard as his paws shook and his tail didn't even bother swaying anymore. But he was resolute. He wouldn't break, he wouldn't give them a reason to beat him, and he wouldn't let them get to him. Never.

Upon the ending of dinner on this fourth day, the fox sat sullenly upon his stool. He stared at the stone floor and traced the edges of the stones with his eyes, following the grout and taking a different path from one end of the room to the other each time. The one overseeing him had left the room to attend to something he hadn't cared to pay attention to.

He was expected to clean up as soon as they came back. His eyes perused the counters and tables, laden with the leftovers of food he could only surmise was delicious beyond all compare in his state. His tongue lolled out a bit as he stared, starting to lose control in the absence of any supervision to restrict him.

He got up to slink forward, almost falling on all fours with weakness. He couldn't resist any longer. And with all the leftover food in front of him, he had to sate his hunger. A rustle could be heard outside the door and the fox had to decide with slices of fruits, vegetables, and breads peppering the counter inches from him. He could scarf down what he must and try to hide or retreat back. He internally screamed and slunk back into the stool just as the door burst open to reveal a bunny barreling in, followed by his guard.

"Heather just needed me to grab the last tray of pastries from the oven," spoke the rabbit in a determined tone. "You don't need to…" she trailed off as her footsteps softly stopped somewhere in front of the fox, much to his apprehension. His mental state was hinged on a rusty nail, ready to break if anymore figurative weight was thrown onto the already massive load his mind tried to lift. He couldn't see her as his gaze locked onto the floor. All he could see was the light grey fur of her feet planted firmly in front of him.

In a moment that stunned him beyond any comprehension he could still muster, something gently tugged the underside of his muzzle, lifting it to face the new rabbit. The red fox tried to steel himself for the newest looks of disgust or jeers at his expense.

What he saw instead was two large and wide orbs of twin purple seas. The color reminded him of fields of violets in full bloom. Instead of the contempt or disdain he expected, the fox say true confusion and sympathy.

Her pupils darted around, in what he assumed was an attempt to get a good look at him. He was sure his eyes had bags under them, his nose dry, and fur was scraggly at best.

She released him quickly and darted over to the oven to pull out the tray of pastries, smelling wonderfully decadent and sweet.

"If you can hurry dear sister, I would much prefer not leaving you in the presence of this…," the rabbits eyes looked over to him with disdain, "filth… longer than absolutely necessary."

The female rabbit looked aghast at that comment.

"Well… dear brother," she seethed, "I will hurry after we give this fox here something to eat."

The fox's ears couldn't help but perk at the delightful prospect, but he tried not to let his hopes rise too far. He had been teased with all this food for days with little to live on himself. This could be a more in depth manipulation to torture him into breaking.

"You can't feed this mongrel," the brother chided to his sister. "he has not earned his share as of yet."

"Don't think I don't know of your monstrous methods to break this poor soul," she nearly shouted back.

"That's assuming such a creature has one…," the brother muttered.

"No, brother!" the sister yelled with an accusing finger directly in his face, making him cross his eyes to look at the offending digit. "You will allow this or I will tell of your many absences to visit town and get drunk when you were meant to guard your post. Don't think I don't know. Your post rests near my bedroom and I can see you leaving at hours far earlier than is proper."

The brother looked absolutely mortified at the accusation.

"I… how… did you know where I went?" he asked in a fearful tone.

"Oh please," she said in a condescending tone, "you reek of booze when you return and stumble your way back to your post with barely an hour to spare before shift change. Plus…," she paused to avert her gaze, "I followed you one time to figure out what you were doing."

Despite the brother being likely older and taller than the sister, he looked quite timid and shaken at the boldness of the younger rabbit.

"Now leave, while I tend to the fox. Take the pastries and tell Heather I will be out momentarily. If she pursues with more questioning, I stubbed my toe and wished to rest. Now go."

The brother harrumphed and grabbed the tray, only pausing with a twisted look of anger at both the fox and his sister while she grabbed one of the delightful treats and shooed him out the door.

The grey doe closed the gap to the red fox slowly, watching his paws clench and head lower.

"Hey…," she said softly, holding out the treat with both paws, having wrapped it in a napkin. "I want you to have this. Take it."

The fox eyed the treat and raised his paws tentatively, extending his fingers to the steaming pastry. He looked past the food before him and found the gentle smile of the violet eyed rabbit. She stepped a little closer and tried to goad him into grabbing the pastry. It was square and looked like a tart, swollen in the center with whatever filling was inside. It didn't matter to him at this point. If it wasn't poison, it was worth eating.

His paws drew back as he was still wondering if this was real or just a trick to come in and beat him afterwards.

She sensed his apprehension and grabbed a paw, placing the treat in it. It was warm and felt flaky on the surface. She stepped back and crossed her paws, tilting her head slightly with a kind smile. The fox stopped caring anymore and brought the pastry up to his muzzle to sink his fangs into it.

An explosion of flavor coated his tongue as the pastry's flaky exterior ripped open and poured forth a hot, sweet, and tart essence to his taste buds.

Blueberry… it was a blueberry tart. As much as he wanted to scarf down the food, he tried to enjoy this heavenly reprieve as slowly as he could. Swallowing the first bite after several seconds, the fox could feel a permeating warmth inside him that was devoid in his life these past few days.

Bite after bite later, the red fox licked his fingers of any leftover residue, thankful for his savior's mercy.

His eyes watered in relief as he tried to speak, thanking the rabbit for ending the torture. His throat rasped and tears fell as the rabbit's face seemed to look on him with profound sympathy.

"Are you alright," she asked. The fox nodded and opened his muzzle to attempt to try speaking to his savior again. A gurgled gasp came out.

"You can't speak… can you?" her voice sounded overly concerned and guilt ridden.

He waved to her, trying to convey he's trying.

"It's fine if you can't," the grey doe softly told him. "I think I know what you are trying to say. And you're welcome."

The fox grabbed her shoulders before she could turn to leave.

"th… …k. yo…ou," he rasped out. The fox then began coughing at the feeling that grated his throat like it was well and truly rusty.

"w… wh… oo...," he tried to begin in question.

"Judith," she responded, placing a paw on his chest.

"Ni…" the fox coughed again.

"Nigel?" Judith asked, hoping to spare the fox's voice.

"Ni… chol..as," the fox gasped slowly.

The grey bunny smiled warmly, her voice sweeter than the tart as she gently spoke.

"Pleased to meet you, Nicholas."

Chapter Text

Nicholas gave Judith a fleeting but gentle smile, his paws still resting on her shoulder. The rabbit seemed pleased with herself.

Suddenly her ears perked and turned to the entrance of the kitchen as another rabbit entered the room and gave a glare towards the fox.

"Heather!" Judith squeaked in a falsely excited tone. "What brings you back here?"

The new rabbit was a slightly taller, brown rabbit, much like the father, with blotches of white on her ears. She never broke her stare from Nicholas, seeming to size him up and determine what was going on.

The red fox dipped his muzzle down and kept his eyes on the floor, subsequently taking his paws off of the rabbit in front of him.

"I was told you suffered a minor injury," Heather softly stated with her chin lifted, as if making it easier to look down upon him. "I came to check on you. You always get yourself into things that seem…. Understated."

"Well I can assure you it was stated correctly, unless our brother decided to add his own details to the event…" the grey rabbit rolled her eyes.

"He merely said you hurt your foot when you did not look where you were going," Heather replied. "Since he came without your company, I assumed you were alright to a degree, seeing as he wasn't attending to your injury."

Judith straightened and tested her right foot on the ground, pretending it was a little tender.

"Still a little sore but I'm fine," she chirped. Nicholas kept his eyes low and made sure to keep out of the conversation for his and her sake, not that he was going to reveal he could speak to anyone else.

A thought struck him with a horridly icy stab to the chest. She knew he could speak… so that meant she might let it slip or even proclaim it like it was nothing. Regardless of her kindness, it could cause them both trouble if she released that fact.

"And what of this… filth?" came the bile tone of Heather, turning her fiery gaze back to the fox. "Why was he in such close proximity to you? No lying to your sister now." The kind smile at the end reeked of a poisonous tone that made Judith's tail shiver well within Nicholas's view, giving him comfort that he wasn't the only one jolted by the sudden change in manner.

Judith tensed up as the fox silently begged her to have a half believable explanation. It didn't take but a couple seconds before she seemed to force herself to relax and sighed heavily.

"I was unsteady on my feet, and this fox here caught me from falling seconds before you entered," Judith explained. "Which sight would you have rather walked in on? Me held up by him, or him lazily sitting around while I lay on the floor in pain?"

The red fox was sensing the sister was actually mulling over the thought in her head to a degree. So much for familial bonds. This family was looking more and more venomous with one another for no other reason than to have a paw up on the others. In a family this big, he supposed it was like a miniature hierarchy. The eldest or most useful family members gained the most status. The younger ones became either an extra workforce or supplemented the demands of the eldest. He couldn't figure out where Judith might lay yet. Heather seemed more competitive than dominant over the grey rabbit.

He would have to save the line of thought for later, since his gaze was becoming more inquisitive and likely to be noticed.

"Very well," came Heather's simple reply. "I shall take my leave then." She turned and headed back out the door. Nicholas leaned forward and caught sight of something he didn't before. A vixen had accompanied her and had remained by her side the whole time.

"Come, servant," she directed at the vixen, "I must attend to a few things."

There was almost silent but still polite, "Of course Mistress," as the vixen followed.

Nicholas followed for as long as he could before the vixen's tail flicked out of sight. His stare wandered back to Judith, who looked far more tired and frustrated than the spirited rabbit from before.

She caught onto his confused gaze and sighed.

"Don't worry about her…," she vented in a near quiet gasp. "She's only a year older but likes to play the chastising older sister, as if I were a kit."

The fox gestured lightly about the second individual accompanying her sister.

"The vixen?" Judith asked, her ears lowering quite a bit. Nicholas nodded.

"She's… Heather's personal servant. The eldest sons and daughters get the pick of new servants to have one for themselves. Some turn them down and others jump at the chance to… well you get the gist of it."

The fox solemnly nodded at her, understanding very well the nature of their supposed excitement at having another mammal to command.

Suddenly, Judith was smiling, as if realization of something dawned on her.

"You know," she started, looking directly at Nicholas now, who himself was a bit unnerved, "I am one of the eldest as well and certainly within my right to request a servant."

The red fox froze, unsure whether her thought process would spell doom for him or bring further prosperity, if the generosity of the blueberry tart was to be taken as example.

"I turned down the prospect before for obvious reasons saying I valued my privacy and deferred the decision until a later date. My mother has been pushing for me to find myself a servant for a couple months now."

And there it was. The fox felt he was going to get handed around like a dirty rag to everyone who wished to use him.

"Would you like to work with me?" she asked gently, her paw extended. The fox was a bit confused by the turn. She wasn't assuming she could take him as she wanted. She asked him. Not only that, but her wording said 'with' not 'for'.

"You wouldn't have to if you wish to continue as you have," her face looked thoughtful as her eyes averted for a second or two, "but I want to offer you a means to escape the direct cruelty of my family. I know they can be a bit much… so I want to help."

He wanted to scoff at her 'a bit much' comment but couldn't blame her for underselling. They were her family, even if she recognized their flaws. She couldn't outright direct hatred at them, and that probably made her kinder because of that knowledge.

He remembered a phrase spoken by his commander once…

The most torrential of sea storms can make the smoothest stones on the beach.

He could almost laugh at the sense it made now.

The grey doe waited patiently for his answer as the fox reached out to grip her paw, her smaller one greatly encompassed by his far larger one. He nodded with a slight smile that made her own wider.

"Great!" Judith squeaked. "You wait here, and I'll go confer with my mother. Alright?"

Nicholas nodded again.

Without another word, the rabbit took off out the door.

Nicholas sighed slightly as he looked around, a sense of apprehension slithering in to his mind. Would this go over well? Until she came back, could something else bad happen? What would this mean for him?

He took a deep breath and calmed himself as best he could, knowing the wait might be daunting but hopefully worth it.

Staring at the whatever he cared to in the room, with a surprising lack of resulting interference, for who knows how long. He was sure it was an hour, but time could be a deceptive thing indeed.

He heard the quick patter or feet on stone flooring as he turned to see Judith burst in. If there had been a door in her direct path, her enthusiastic entrance alone might have left it in splinters.

"Come with me," she spoke simply, a smile on her face. Barely waiting for the fox to get up, Judith grabbed him by the arm and dragged him out of the kitchen and through the mess of corridors.

As they passed by other rabbits and the fox had to deal with their hateful glares, he pinned his ears down and focused on following the grey rabbit dragging him along. It felt like several minutes before they reached a larger hallway with equally large doors at more distanced intervals than the other hallways they passed through.

"And here is my room," Judith said, gesturing to the ornate door behind her. She unlatched the old but sturdy looking door and swung it inside, to be greeted by a plethora of candles and mess of clothes laying everywhere.

Judith seemed to suddenly be aware of the mess and tried to back out of the room, seeing her siblings down the way. Groaning at the situation, she gave and stood aside to allow Nicholas in, whom was tentative to disturb the mood of the rabbit.

Inside was a larger room than he had previously assumed would be more fitting of a rabbit.

He supposed being among the elder siblings meant they got the rooms constructed first. Once the family grew past a certain point, he figured that meant the size and quality probably became more streamlined for efficiency.

In this room, the bed lay in the far corner, with a window nearby along that wall. Nicholas could see the last strands of light bleeding from the sky and figured she positioned her bed at the right angle for the dawning light to rake over her bed. The bed itself looked rather comfortable. Wide and longer than he would expect it would need to be considering a rabbit's lack of such height, the fox mentally calculated it could likely hold another half dozen rabbits comfortably.

Skewing his vision over the rest of the room, the fox could see a vanity display attached to a dresser, an expansive wardrobe cabinet, and something that looked like a… closet?

Judith followed his gaze to the supposed closet as she closed and latched her door for privacy.

"This here," she started, walking over to the strange looking closet and opening it to reveal it being used for storage, "is built as a sleeping arrangement for servants…"

Nicholas tensed slightly, upon seeing the space that looked like it could induce claustrophobia in an individual.

"Don't worry!" the rabbit nearly yelled. "I won't put you in here. It was made as a safety measure or something. My other siblings would lock their servants in that every night."

The red fox peeked inside it and saw a few things hiding in the back, barely hidden underneath clothing articles and other trinkets. He reached in, curiosity peaking as he saw the ribbing on it. Judith looked a little scared as her mouth worked open and close.

Nicholas grabbed the object and pulled it from its hiding place. It was a book. He read the cover. Homer's Odyssey. Quite the tale for a young rabbit. From what he could gather of her reaction and the fact it was hidden…

"They…" he strained, "don't let… females… read?"

Judith looked a bit nervous but nodded. "More like they heavily deter it but yes. I learned to read moderately well but it's… 'unladylike' of me to desire such leanings."

Looking quite morose at the memory of something the fox couldn't quite read from her, he chose to try picking her spirits up.

Handing the small rabbit the book gently, he pointed to himself and gestured to the book.

"I… c… could teach," he ground out, feeling his throat adapting to the more frequent use of his voice, but far from being able to keep it up.

Judith's eyes lit up at the prospect, her tail shivering and feet thumping happily.

"You would?!" she blurted a little loudly, shifting her tone a little lower. "I mean… you would? How extensive is your education?"

Nicholas was taken aback once more. Most prey around here assumed he was an illiterate and uncivilized skulking thief. In truth, in his nation of origin, he was taught quite extensively by a kind badger. Having basically raised him from a kit, Honey was basically a surrogate mother to him. She even started him off on his skill with knives and archery, allowing him quite the usefulness in his military service. He had read a great many books under her tutelage, including the rather ancient works of Homer. He was rather impressed she chose to read this.

In answer to her previous question, he held out his paws quite wide to convey he had much to contribute to her.

"That much huh?" she haphazardly inquired. "Not overselling yourself at all?"

The fox smirked roguishly for the first time since he came here, making the rabbit wiggle her nose a little. He wasn't sure what that reaction was and didn't want to become too inquisitive.

"I was… taught… much," Nicholas choked out. "Can… teach… you too." The fox started coughing a bit.

"Take it easy now," Judith chided him, placing a paw on his back and patting tenderly. "I can wait till you get your voice back. And I'll keep it secret… since it seems you don't want others to know I think." He nodded.

"For all… but you… I can't… read… either," the fox voiced softly, slowly losing his voice once more.

The rabbit looked contemplative for a second before nodding slowly in understanding.

"For now," she started, "how about some sleep?"

Nicholas grinned and looked around the room, shrugging to convey his confusion to where he would sleep.

The rabbit took his meaning and rushed around the room in a hurry, picking up her mess and clearing out space. Yanking open a chest at the foot of her bed, she pulled out a bundle of bedding and started laying them out on the floor. Using spare pillows for mattress like padding, she panted lightly and gestured to the finished product.

"Tada!" she said, much to the amusement of Nicholas.

"I'm sorry I can't give you better accommodations, but I'm sure you realize what it's like around here."

The fox nodded in silent understanding, passing her by and resting a paw upon her small shoulder as he slunk into the bed and let loose a ragged sigh at the relief he felt of being treated so pleasantly by this rabbit.

Sleep overtook him quite rapidly as the weight of the day crumbled off of him like flaking dirt.

Judith stared at him while his eyelids closed and her eyes were the final image he received in his repose state.

Violet. Like the flowers outside his childhood home.

Nicholas knew he was drifting through the realm of sleep. He had a few such dreams before where lucidity kept him aware but not awake. As long as it wasn't a twisted nightmare, he would enjoy the experience as long as he could hold on to the feeling.

It seemed that this time was influenced by those eyes. He was a kit viewing the violets outside a small cottage in the land of Animalia. Simply an outlying country to the larger nation of Savannah Shire, Animalia acted as a buffer between the Shire and other more hostile nations, as well as supplying the core nation with trade and troops when desired.

If Nicholas remembered correctly, this point in his life was when he was barely fifteen. Losing his parents at a young age that he couldn't recall, the fox hadn't felt the loss of his parents as other mammals had described during later years of their lives.

His youthful years were full of the one he referred to as 'Mother', in the form of a caring and skilled badger named Honey. She clothed him, fed him, taught him, in both blade and pen, and provided for his well-being. Their cottage may have been small, but their literary collection was quite expansive. Books overflowed from any space not used for food or drink. It was the only true obsession his mother had. Honey was wonderfully enamored with the art of a good story, always looking for the next thrilling adventure to delve into.

Such an obsession, his teenage self extrapolated, came from being injured in battle years before and having difficulty running or walking for long periods of time. Being the stubborn mammal she was, she refused to carry a cane or walking staff for her own benefit.

That didn't stop her from training him since his age could be counted on a single paw to hold a blade. Whilst his skills were vast by this tender age, he was still less skilled than Honey, and she was partially crippled with limited endurance. She taught him to wield daggers, short swords, hammers, shields, bow and arrow, rapiers, and even axes modified for his size. Suffice it to say, his knowledge wasn't only in combat when being trained by as determined a mother as Honey. She ground into him the skills and knowledge to survive in various situations.

"You are a fox," she once said to him, "to which most believe horrid and most untrue things about your species, but… it is because most fear and envy you." He had been quite skeptical to that ideal, seeing how others reacted to him just because he existed.

"Foxes are known to be intelligent, resourceful, adaptive, and someday you will be recognized for that."

It wasn't something he felt was reflected in the eyes other mammals as he would walk through town or see others on the road.

On this day in his life, his worth might have been recognized, seeing as a captain of the People's Army was coming up the road to speak with Honey. She fought with words against the captain's intrusion on her property, to which he produced an edict pulling in any mammals he saw fit to fulfill their duty to the land.

Accepting his fate with dignity, for being selected to fight for his country, Nicholas felt a swell of pride for being recognized. The captain remarked upon hearing that the once fierce badger had trained a protégé to take up her mantle. Apparently, Honey had made quite the reputation for herself before becoming his 'mother'. She didn't talk too much of her past concerning herself as a warrior.

She tried to play down his abilities, telling the captain that she trained him to defend himself. It was true. That was a point she drilled into him numerous times, sometimes getting her point across physically when he was overly aggressive with his thinking towards the use of such skills.

Nothing abusive was inflicted upon him, as she merely used his brief bouts of arrogance against him to humble him by defeating him in sparring using methods he refused to imagine and predict.

The captain would hear none of it and Honey had to acquiesce to the demands of the nation. Giving her last goodbyes, Honey vowed to remain and see him once more when all was done. He was to survive the war to come back to her.

"I promise… Mother," he voiced to her.

Thus, his dream began to spiral through the years.

Upon being inducted to the ranks of the People's Army, Nicholas became a recruit that basically catered to the whims of the higher ups. Proving his worth became a far more difficult game for him once others knew of his species.

Eventually, he was able to prove his worth, on a night with a new moon, the darkness permeating every corner of the camp that him and his fellow troops inhabited. Nearly a dozen soldiers were sent there to burn and pillage as much as they could before running away. Nicholas happened to be up attending to a request of the captain, much to his ire, when he was able to find and nearly single handedly defeat the interlopers without any real injury to himself. A couple night watchmammals joined the fray a bit late but still saw enough to know the fox knew his way around a variety of weapons.

While not made a full soldier, Nicholas was elevated to be the captain's private guard. Such a role seemed boring at first, until the captain gave him tasks to do outside of the scope of the frontlines. Much to the point, he was basically an assassin and saboteur. That did not sit well with some soldiers who only felt bolstered in their beliefs about the fox. To sway their opinion, he took up a skill he hadn't learned in Honey's tutelage.

Smithing. A reluctant rhino gave him the teachings to make weapons meant for smaller mammals, including himself. He later rescinded his distaste at having the fox help him. To such a large mammal, making smaller weapons became a daunting if not impossible chore. Having a mammal whose smaller paws could more expertly fine tune the functionality of a weapon or armor with great dexterity made for a useful assistant. He was by no means an expert in the art, but Nicholas could easily make and maintain new equipment for himself or others on certain scales with an above average skill.

Years of war and fighting alongside his brothers in arms earned him more respect than he ever dreamed. Both predator and prey alike could break through barriers when having to put their lives in another's paws on the battlefield.

It was nearly seven years later when Nicholas was able to return to the cottage he grew up in.

When he had returned though, the home… was decrepit. Abandoned for what had to be at least a couple years. He had frantically searched for any sign of what happened. The books that had remained, were ruined thanks to winters, storms, and exposure to the elements in general.

He did however find a note, locked away in an iron box under his old bed. His worst fears weren't realized but now he had no way to comprehend what to make of her note.

My dearest son,

I'm sorry that I could not remain here for you. I tried but the war took a dark turn I couldn't ignore. You were used to fight a war that made prey able to hold power over predators in a way that we will not see until it is too late. I seek out others who wish to find a way to stop this and hope you find this so that you can find me as well. You can find me to the south, for as long as my body is able, I will fight for the equality the nation we represented scoffs at. I can't tell you where I will be specifically, in case this falls into the paws of those that would harm this cause, but I know you can find me. Use what you learned.

Love, your Mother.

He remembered the pain and anguish of that moment. Betrayal and anger broiled to the surface as he read the letter over and over. He could remember every word the first time through, but he figured he missed something. She would never lie to him, so the betrayal he felt was directed towards the state that used him. He still felt anger towards her for leaving him to find his way himself.

He hadn't much left to him after being discharged from service, but traveled anyways, burning the letter at his first chance so no one could see it besides him. Over time, he lost the drive to keep searching but still wandered aimlessly south in search of… nothing in particular.

Nicholas drifted back to the present, now twenty-three and indentured to a family that so obviously reflected the ideals he thought he had fought against.

The red fox jolted awake, reaching up to gasp in a breath of air, as if he had been swimming in the deep. For all the memories he relived in one night, he might as well have been swimming.

As if his waking wasn't enough to labor his breathing, a soft paw pressed to his forehead, making him tense up.

"Quite the jittery one, aren't you?" Judith asked from the darkness. Nicholas's vision adjusted to the lack of light, with the time apparently being well before dawn.

He could see the worried expression of the rabbit, her own pupils wide as she tried to acclimate to the darkness as well. Her eyes darted around fruitlessly though, denoting that she could probably only see him as a silhouette in the near dim starlight.

"Dream," he croaked with a far less painful tinge to his vocal cords. He might be able to talk quicker than he thought.

"Oh? That explains a lot. You were tossing and turning. It woke me up."

The fox looked apologetic and tried to say something to that effect before she continued.

"Don't worry though. I'm just glad you're ok. Right?"

"Yes," Nicholas softly sighed, followed by a yawn.

"Um…" the rabbit hummed, fiddling with her paws on her nightgown, "About the thing with teaching me to read. Do you know any good books to recommend? A romance preferably. My family doesn't have many and most of them are a little… narrow in their scope."

Nicholas nodded and realized she might not see it.

Grasping her paw with a slight gasp from Judith, he put the paw to his head and nodded an affirmative.

The rabbit took the opportunity to turn around and grab a candle from the nightstand. She used a matchstick on a rough stone to spark a flame and light the candle before setting back on the nightstand.

"Sorry," she said with a small voice. "I can't see as well as you can in the dark."

Nicholas smiled warmly in the flickering light.

"I know… many… books…" he forced out. Judith bounced a bit on her knees with a giddy grin.

"I do hope we have them," she stated with a more sobering expression. "Like I said, our collection isn't large."

Nicholas pointed to his head and tapped lightly, drawing a rather confused expression from her. A few seconds passed before she started to cover her muzzle and giggle in a hushed tone.

"Are you saying you remember the whole story to a book or two?" came her curious inquiry. The fox shook his head in the negative.

"Everything… I… read," Nicholas croaked out. Whether from his rereading of everything he had ever laid his eyes upon or some innate ability to remember every word his eyes rake across, he could near perfectly remember most everything he had ever read before.

The dumbfounded expression on the rabbit's face was quite the adorable look for her.

In the light of the candle, Nicholas grabbed some parchment and a piece of charcoal, meant for drawing, and wrote down a full page of the first book he could draw upon from the library in his mind.

Hoping she would know the generic book that he had hoped she would likely have, the fox handed the page to Judith, who took it and looked it over.

"You went with Homer's Iliad?" she asked with a bit of disappointment. Nicholas shrugged and gestured to signify his point that he wanted to prove to her he could do what he was implying.

Understanding reached the features of her muzzle as her grin renewed itself.

"If this isn't word for word then it's pretty darn close," Judith mentioned with growing excitement. "You are far cleverer than my family gives you credit for. Are all foxes this clever?" The rabbit's eyes dripped with sarcasm, even if her voice didn't.

The fox held up a paw and teetered it as if to say, more or less.

"Har har. You're very funny," Judith replied to him with a rolling of her head, letting her ears sway over her.

The fox gave an affirmative shrug, playing along with her sense of humor. He couldn't lie, this turn of events seemed to be far better than he could have ever hoped for. He was wary of it all falling apart but at least he could take what solace he could in the fact that one soul reflected a desire to know him beyond the gruff exterior that prey had been indoctrinating all to believe on a certain level.

He hadn't even thought about something that he certainly should have thought. Did he have an escape plan? Waking from that dream reminded him that he still had to search for Honey, his mother, his teacher.

Maybe he could work enough trust in, or something similar to it by acting subservient, and get far enough away that the figurative leash would be useless. He wondered if the siblings with servants were took said servants into town or other places of consequence such that he could slip away. He felt a bit guilty for potentially using this kind rabbit as a means of slipping the leash but figured he didn't deserve this life as it was. He'd think more on it later.

Judith gave him a knowing look, seeing that he was deep in thought.

"It'll be okay," she comforted. "I'll keep you safe. You won't have to suffer what you did until now."

The fox turned on his side towards her and pulled his covers back over his shoulder. Judith took that as a sign he was happy to hear it. Climbing back into her own bed after blowing out the candle, Nicholas could hear the rustle of her sheets as she tried to find a most comfortable position. She tossed and turned for nearly a full minute before finally settling on splaying herself out on her belly in a most unladylike fashion. Her arm hung lazily over the edge and her ears flopped down her back in a smooth manner.

Nicholas couldn't help but be entertained by the very appealing site. None so improper in the sense of appealing that he would have tainted thoughts, but she was intriguing in her mannerisms and how curious her mind was. She was an adventurer at heart imprisoned within her own cage of tradition and familial expectations. He surmised that she was probably to be promised to some arrogant and traditional buck who would treat her like a means of social standing within this nation.

If he was stuck by her side long enough, he made his own personal vow to make sure she be treated with respect by himself and others so long as she showed this level of kindness.

His own thoughts cascading like lightning rolling through the clouds, they eventually reached a calm as his eyes closed and sleep invited him once more to the peaceful darkness that would rest his weary mind and body.

A tugging sensation woke the fox, whom kept his eyes shut and merely listened for whatever may lie beyond his realm of sleep.

He felt it once more, the tugging. It was on his ears. He focused a bit more and was able to feel what was going on. Someone was taking their paws and making brushing and tugging motions on his ears.

He let an eye slit open slightly to see Judith stroking his ears and looking him over with curiosity. Her nose twitched as she moved a paw over his mouth and ever so gently spread his lips to look at the fangs he had hidden behind those lips.

Her head tilted as she leaned in for a closer look. Nicholas would have liked to embarrass her a bit by letting her know of his wakefulness, but decided to allow her the explorative actions, provided she didn't go too far. She probably had little experience with close contact of predators, aside from those serving her siblings.

Thankfully, she didn't spend long looking over his fangs, seeing as he was having a hard time keeping his mouth slack enough for her to believe he was still asleep.

Next, she ran her stubby claws over his snout and head, apparently petting him to feel the fur. Her mouth parted in a small 'O' as she seemed interested in the softness of his fur she felt. Considering the last several days he suffered through, he figured he must not have been at his best in terms of softness or general fluffiness, but she seemed satisfied by his current state nonetheless.

Keeping his eye open barely as a slit, he was able to keep from being discovered as being awake as her eyes moved to his neck. Her head moved in closer as she appeared to be sniffing, if the twitching nose and sharp intakes of short sniffs were any indication.

Now she was starting to embarrass him. He had to well and truly lockdown his body's wish to react to this newest development. Her nose touched the scruff of his neck as she sniffed further.

Something must have tickled her nose, because out of his direct view, Judith reared back and sneezed quite adorably, having made a squeaking 'achoo' into her hands.

He took the opportunity to open his eyes slowly and rub at them as if he was just waking up.

The rabbit stiffened where she sat on the floor next to him, giving him a nervous smile that he assumed was from her fear of being discovered.

Now he faced a new conundrum. Should he tease her with her previous actions or ignore them and move on. A sly grin spread across his muzzle as Judith saw and her ears lay down against her back.

"Get your…," he coughed slightly before doing his best to continue, "fill of… examining… me?"

The rabbit blushed faster than an arrow leaving a highly-strung bow and redder than a cherry. That was saying something, because her grey fur made it hard to see in normal levels. This circumstance was anything but normal. The blush even spread to her pink nose as it darkened a shade or two.

"I was… that… I didn't…" she stammered helplessly. After several seconds of this, Judith settled for fiddling with her paws between her thighs and flicking her gaze up and down on occasion.

"I'm sorry," Judith breathed. "I was curious. I've never been this close to a predator before."

Nicholas waved her down, smiling kindly to convey he wasn't mad.

"So…" she started, trying to break her personal tension, "want some breakfast?"

As if to punctuate a point and convey an answer without his voice, Nicholas's stomach grumbled in a most irate fashion. It was his turn to blush slightly and nervously look away.

The bunny merely chuckled.

"I'll take that as a yes."

Chapter Text

The next ten days became a source of far more preferable treatment for the fox.

Nicholas still suffered the slurs and stares of most every rabbit in the burrow, but because of some form of hierarchy he was beginning to understand, most everyone just allowed Judith to deal whatever treatment she saw fit.

On occasion, she would play the part and verbally berate him as necessary. He would also play into it, feigning shameful submission, averting his gaze and backing away slightly.

These past several days, he had been able to talk more and more, exercising his vocal chords any chance he could when they were most assuredly alone.

At this point, most of the burrow had heard of the mute fox that Judith had taken as her personal servant. Thankful that he didn't need to deal with the parents directly, he was no more excited to deal with the other elder siblings who had their own servants. There were a few vixens, a couple lynxes, and a few other small predators that Nicholas hadn't had a chance to examine from afar.

Heather seemed tame in comparison to the malice that some of Judith's other siblings were spewing.

It was a small price considering the previous potential future. Now he was fed well, especially considering he was expected by all others except Judith herself to fulfill all her needs and desires. They played the part well enough and had little in the way of skepticism directed at them.

He did do as much for her as she allowed, seeing as she saved him from a cruel fate. In the morning, he would allow her to dress without a wandering eye and helped her finish putting on any garments that were difficult for her to deal with. During her studies, which were far too limited in comparison to the scholarly level of training they gave the males of the family, Nicholas would patiently wait for her with the other servants in the rear of whatever room was being used.

He observed everything he could and made mental notes of the layout of wherever he went. On those times he wasn't eyed suspiciously for doing so, he would assemble and bring Judith a meal. Anytime he decided to show her the kindness she had shown him, she seemed disappointed to a degree as if he were forced to what he did.

On this day, he was allowed to accompany Judith and a small entourage into town for a shopping excursion. The small rabbit seemed overly excited about the prospect, though he could possibly understand that she might feel cooped up in this burrow. As large as it was, only a small portion of it was actually explorable without belonging to another sibling as their bedroom.

For his bedding situation, Judith had taken it upon herself to have a fairly decent mattress brought in to her room. Low to the floor and only just large enough for his frame, Nicholas had no complaints when he had slept on the soft surface the first night. For the sake of appearances and such, Nicholas had found and used a rope to tie himself to the bed.

It had worked in their favor, much to Judith's displeasure, when Heather decided to intrude with a clear goal in mind of checking upon her sister's 'disciplining methods' of servants. He feigned fear of Judith, to Heather's great satisfaction and was left alone. That was a sight to behold. Once they were alone, the small grey rabbit had looked as if bordering between anger and sadness. He received his first true chastising from her to which he smiled and agreed to tell her next time.

Interrupting his reverie, Judith tapped his shoulder and said, "Can you tie the back of my dress? I can't reach." The fox obliged and stood back to allow Judith to admire the outfit in the mirror.

"Thanks, Nicholas," she beamed at him.

The fox wagged a finger at her.

"Remember my lady," he chided her, "I cannot speak and nor do you know my name. especially if we are to spend our day in the company of one another AND your family. Privacy will be a luxury in short supply for either of us."

"Right… of course," the rabbit corrected herself, "Silence."

As unimaginative as the name may have seemed, Judith had to call him something. On a whim while referring to him in front of others, she called him Silence, and it stuck in both their heads.

At least it was better than Mute.

The fox nodded to her gently.

"Don't let it get to you, my lady," he comforted her. "You can take solace in the fact that you and only you know my name."

She gently smiled, murmuring to herself when Nicholas turned away to grab her coat. His ears flicked as they picked up what she said anyways.

"And yet you never call me by my name…"

He pretended not to hear her, so as not to embarrass her, and also because he didn't know how to respond to that. He hadn't called her by her name as of yet for reasons he had yet to ascertain and understand.

He assumed it was simply due to the fact that he didn't want to make a habit of it and become too attached to her. If he ever wanted to leave this place, he needed to make it easier to cut ties with.

This outing would seem like a perfect chance to leave, but with the density of guards and soldiers in this area and within the city, he would be remised to account for the likely mammal hunt and following burning at the stake if he should be cornered and caught.

No, he needed to make sure his escape would be met with as much of a gap between last sighting and the beginnings of a search. That likely meant leaving after dusk and getting as far away as he could by the next morning. The northern forests that he traipsed through weren't too far from the city. Once there, he could easily lose any tagalongs and make his way back to a more predator friendly area and continue the search for Honey.

The most difficult part of that plan, should it be called that, was finding a way past all the rabbits in the burrow that served as guards. Lax as some of them might be, their leanings towards predators definitely made it difficult to talk… or mime… his way out of trouble should he be caught.

He suspended that line of thought for the time being as he found Judith's coat and brought it to her.

"Thank you," she stated in a small voice. "So, we're going to find some new books to read. I'm so excited." The rabbit bounced on the arch of her feet, her toes very nearly leaving the floor.

"Of course, my lady. Don't worry. I know of many we could attempt to acquire, should they be in stock."

She put her paws through the sleeves and let the fabric wrap around her comfortably. Her eyes looked back upon him and locked with his own for a few seconds before averting and shifting down to something on the front of her coat. Nicholas believed it to be nothing until her ears seemed to wither and curl downward.

"Might I ask what is bothering you, my lady," the fox inquired.

The grey rabbit turned towards him once more, looking at his face, as if trying to read him. He kept his face locked in a neutral expression.

"Do you feel happy in my charge?" she asked. "I know it's not the most civil of circumstances… but I don't like the prospect of seeming an oppressive burden to you."

Nicholas sighed heavily, knowing he couldn't give her a logical and likely emotionless reply.

"I don't know if I am happy," he remarked in all honesty as Judith's ears wilted further, "but I am not the miserable mess that I have been for a long time, even before arriving here. In time, I believe I could call myself one that is… 'happy'."

The grey doe seemed to like what she heard enough for her ears to erect to their former glory, much the same as her smile.

"I never did ask…" she started, "how did you get sent here? I hear stories of many who have arrived here, but I am not so dull and witless as to believe every senseless tale that follows a predator here."

Nicholas could only chuckle at the rabbit's growing intellect. When he first met, and conversed with her, she seemed generally optimistic but naïve. As the days, and increasing number of conversations, came to pass, he found that she hid a certain amount of herself from her family, much the same as he did to the world. Lower their expectations of you, and they pay you less mind.

Despite her lack of scholarly knowledge, she was highly adaptive and intelligent to his best assumptions. Maybe she could even learn to hold a sword, if she wasn't hiding that talent already.

"I tried to help return a merchant's dropped cargo from a cart… and was accused of stealing," Nicholas divulged bluntly.

Judith looked utterly appalled at the prospect of what he had said. He wasn't even sure she believed him.

"That's ridiculous!" she seethed. The fox merely waited for her to possibly tell him off for saying such outlandish things. "How could they accuse you so readily like that? You seem so generous and kind."

This threw Nicholas for a loop. He was expecting tepid disbelief or maybe even skepticism, but not quite implicit trust in his words.

"How am I either of those things?" he asked, genuinely curious.

She shrugged slightly, looking for the right words.

"Your actions show as much," Judith explained. "You put yourself in compromising and quite possibly uncomfortable physical and emotional positions for something as useless as my reputation. You never ask for anything from me beyond making it easier to serve me as you insist upon doing. And you even forego your own dignity as a mammal without so much as a reservation, if it means that it benefits me."

"It is not as noble as you make it out to be, I assure you," the fox replied. "Such a concept as 'dignity' is an ever-changing ideal that mammals either imprint or inflict upon each other to serve as a means of shaming those who have it into staying away from certain social practices that are not… accepted. Such would be the view of our friendship."

The rabbit's eyes widened and Nicholas worried that he screwed up for a few seconds before her gaze grew soft.

"You believe me your friend? Not your captor or oppressor?"

"If saving me from my previous fate means you are my captor, then I wonder what treatment I garner as what you consider friend," Nicholas said with a gentle tone. Judith started to giggle, her paw coming up to cover her mouth.

"Now then, Let's away, my lady. We mustn't be late for the departure of your party."

He opened the door, closing his muzzle and assuming the state of the mute he pretended to be, while gesturing Judith out of it.

Walking at a decently brisk pace, at least for a rabbit, the two of them made their way to the foyer area and exited the large doors to see a carriage waiting for them.

A few other siblings shuffled in, their servants trailing behind as a plethora of larger predators heaved the reigns, readying to pull the carriage to the city. Nicholas and other servants would have to trod the ground behind them, not that he minded much. It might give him a chance to get a read on the others currently walking the same path as himself.

The only constraint to his inquisitive nature right now was that he couldn't speak to gather information. It wasn't a big obstacle since he never cared to anyways, but the prospect that he now knows he can but won't gave light to a minor flame of frustration.

He would have to simply rely on his observational skills.

Three vixens, two lynxes, and a mongoose. Most were keeping their gazes on the ground or the wheels of the carriage in an assumed attempt at keeping their heads down. All except one fox vixen. Nicholas remembered her as being Heather's servant. Her eyes wandered across the back of the carriage throughout the journey into the city.

When he looked down, her paws twisted around themselves, looking as if she might rub the fur from them with any more forceful grasping and nervous fiddling. What could drive her to be so nervous?

The red fox went a little wide-eyed upon a surfacing thought. Was she thinking about bolting? No, she wasn't looking around, searching for a moment to run from the guards that surrounded them in a loose rectangle.

The vixen stiffened as if realizing something and dared to dart her eyes towards him in a split second, then back at the carriage. She did a double take when she realized Nicholas was staring at her with a sideways glance and took to staring at the ground like the others, huffing a slow and deep breath to calm whatever nerves he touched.

Nicholas's eyes narrowed a bit as he resumed looking forward and trying to figure out what that was all about. He could have sworn that he saw a tinge of a blush beneath the white fur that wrapped right under her eyes. It wasn't from his gaze though. She was embarrassed. Of what, he could only assume and that he did. It was far more interesting to do so than stare at the ground while walking. Nearly a dozen ideas came to mind, but none really seemed liable.

The walk went quicker than he primarily assumed it would, seeing the borders of the city pass his peripheral. It felt like a lifetime since he was taken away from the not so welcome environment of the city. Honestly, he had forgotten the name, if it even had one.

The streets cleared rather quickly upon seeing the banner of the family arriving. Shops stayed open for the sake of profit, obviously, but many mammals, predators and prey alike, saw fit to slink away from the imposing presence of multiple Hopps' family members, both elder and guard alike.

At least it was a short and uninterrupted walk to the shopping district that was their destination. Looking more elegant and well-kept than the outer limits that the fox had frequented more during his rather short visit. The shops had their own glass displays, unlike the less appealing districts. Such was the way of a business catering to the wealthy and politically well leaned.

Most other shops he had visited himself were mostly just a small shutter and door entry way for guests. They served their function even if not in the most aesthetically appealing manner. Overly embroidered dresses and suits lined most of the displays. Others had cumbersome looking and unwieldy weapons, ranging from a dagger with jewel encrusting in the hilt to a spear with no sense of balance in the design whatsoever, looking more like an expensive toothpick for a rhino.

The carriage finally stopped and the rabbits inside spilled out, giggling and continuing a semblance of whatever conversation had started in the confines of the overcompensated version of a wagon. Each servant attended to their charge's safety descending the steps placed at the door. The vixen from before attended to Heather a little more nervously than the others and seemed more calmed once her charge was on solid ground.

Interesting, Nicholas couldn't help thinking, restraining himself from perking an eyebrow.

The fox tod pulled himself to the door and guided Judith when she chose to take her leave last. Her paw found his and he let her glide down the steps with moderate grace, her breathing stilled as each step was made carefully. Upon making contact with the cobblestone of the street, the rabbit hissed slightly at the cold that permeated her feet.

Getting used to the chill, the group formed together and Judith did her best to keep her and Nicholas lagging from the pack. Much to her chagrin, Heather felt it necessary to keep close to Judith and tried to guide them into her ideal choices for shops.

Judith could see the book shop they wanted to visit down the street. Just a short distance away but nearly impossible to head towards with the other rabbit overbearingly tugging them in the direction she wanted to go.

The red fox sent a look towards the vixen accompanying Heather, trying his best to goad her into looking at Judith's forlorn stare at the door of the shop they now vehemently wished to escape from.

The vixen was slow on the uptake but noticed the lost look in the younger rabbit's eyes and gave a tentative nod to Nicholas, who smiled slightly. Watching as the vixen found some dresses to catch the attention of Heather, who suddenly seemed enamored with examining and gabbing about each one to her servant, not really waiting for a reply. The red fox listened haphazardly for the vixen's voice and found her to be soft spoken, even if he couldn't properly pick out the words she said.

Grabbing Judith's paw, he heard her gasp slightly, but then tighten a grip over his own paw as she quickly seemed to understand what was going on.

"You sure she'll be kept busy?" the rabbit inquired, to which Nicholas merely shrugged as he pulled her into the street and tugged Judith into the lead, so as to avoid suspicious glances out in the open. A fox dragging a young bunny doe around might attract more than accusing glares. More like actual accusations against him and scandalous rumors that might sully Judith's reputation.

Nicholas huffed at himself. She was right… he did try protecting her reputation.

The walk towards the book shop was short but grueling. Judith desperately wanted to sprint with all due haste towards the heavenly haven that she dreamed about for the past few weeks. It wasn't until Nicholas showed up that her want to read more became more than a tickling flame. With his help, she would be able to expand her horizons and maybe her mind. Adventure, romance, suspense, mystery, thriller, and angst awaited her in the words of many novel texts. She might even pick up a most learned text to further her understanding of the world in certain manners.

Finally crossing the threshold of a very old shop that looked more aged than the rest of the district, Judith and Nicholas padded into the world of printed paper. The familiar scent of books bound in thick cloth or wood borders reached the fox's sensitive nose, eliciting a plethora of memories pertaining to his sessions buried in books. The rabbit crinkled her nose as she found the new scent of such a place intriguing. She barely smelled something like this unless her nose was almost literally in a book. It was refreshing and brought forth a calming feeling like being in a place with windows to other worlds.

All she had to do was open a book and a window would be revealed to show her something outside it. Grabbing the first book she could find, she opened it and proceeded to figure out what it was. A tale of a princess in a far-away place breaking all social etiquette and sneaking into the city from her closed off palace only to find herself in trouble, but saved by a common thief.

Putting the book back on the shelf, she grabbed another…

A story of two cities warring over a sacred treasure that turned out to be a farce to weaken their military so a third party could close in.

Another….

A collection of short tales pertaining to the woe of the main characters, likely meant to instill a moral understanding in the reader. Judith placed that one back on the shelf with less enthusiasm than the others.

Little did she know, until she turned to search for Nicholas, that the fox had already scanned the shelves rather efficiently, and gathered a short stack of books he found would be most intriguing to the intellectually curious rabbit. Some looked too small to be interesting or lengthy in their plot and others looked overly large.

Seeing the inquisitive and skeptical look, Nicholas opened one of the smaller books and showed her the smaller text, likely having been printed in a smaller press for smaller mammals. The larger ones had illustrated depictions of certain scenes in beautiful printed color.

After several minutes of perusing the shop, an old goat wandered in from the back and looked rather surprised to see anyone actually in his shop. Her shop? Neither mammal could really tell with the strange beard that most goats were known for.

"My my," a feminine voice exuded, clearing up the answer to that unspoken question, "I daresay I haven't seen a sight such as yourself here. Not many rabbits wander in here. Foxes even less so. How may I help you?"

The polite manner that the old goat addressed the two made Nicholas blink in surprise. He was used to the prey around here, save Judith, looking at him like a piece of filth that was scraped from the side of a ship left too long in harbor.

Nicholas remained silent, miming to Judith, whom was having trouble finding her own voice.

"I... I…" she began to stutter, working her jaw as she nervously searched for the words, "I wanted to… buy these here." The rabbit gestured to the stack of books the fox was still holding, with a couple more thrown on the pile that Judith found interesting enough to try grabbing. She trusted Nicholas to find her something interesting and fulfilling to read, but liked the prospect of making a few decisions based on her own speculations.

"Of course," the goat said, taking a peek at all the titles and flipping through a few books to see that nothing was being slipped in between the pages. "I believe this should cover it." The goat scribbled out a number on a small scroll of paper, handing it discreetly to Judith, who looked at it and seemed slightly deflated.

The red fox peeked over her shoulder and his ears pinned back at the seemingly steep, but somewhat fairly priced amount for the small library she was trying to buy herself.

Judith gave a heaving sigh and pulled out a small pouch filled with coin, sifting through it and counting away. Once she seemed satisfied with the result, she handed all but one silver coin to the shopkeeper.

"I'll be out of coin for a while, but this seems worth it," Judith voiced more towards the fox than the goat, her smile returning as she felt a rising feeling of satisfaction at now owning the books she came to get.

"Thank you so very much, my dear," the goat remarked, gathering some materials and beckoning the fox to set the books on a table nearby. She set them about in an organized fashion and used small wood slats to brace the whole bundle, wrapping it in cloth and thick paper, finally tying the whole thing together with twine rope. In its new form, the package was far easier to handle even if it did look hefty.

"Allow me to make this easier," the goat stated, pushing the fox to set the package back down. She trotted around to another shelf and pulled one of many odd cloth belts, attaching it to the package and raising it to sling the impromptu strap on Nicholas's shoulder.

"Well that seems rather useful," Judith seemed obliged to remark. The fox shifted the weight around a bit and felt comfortable that nothing would shift and cause him issues. The duo made a polite bow to the goat shopkeeper and readied to leave. Heavy footfalls could be heard entering the shop and the goat perked up to walk in a quick and brisk manner to the front.

Sounding quite different than before, the goat gave an almost giddy yelp as she said, "Well Lord Bogo, if it isn't a pleasant surprise to see you! You're usual I take it."

"Yes, that would be most ideal," came a low and gruff voice. Judith had never heard it before, but her gaze rested on Nicholas and she became confused. His eyes narrowed and he became stiff, almost respectful in his stance.

Turning and heading quickly around the corner of the bookshelf, the fox nearly knocked his shoulder and the package against the shelf.

He looked up to a towering buffalo that took a second to look down at him and take a shocked step back. His eyes bugged out as he tried to compose himself.

"What is wrong?" Judith inquired, following behind Nicholas. Upon seeing the buffalo, she took a tentative step back and nervously smiled, trying to show decorum to a Lord. What she saw when flicking her gaze down was a small mammal trailing the hooves of the towering buffalo. She couldn't see their body around the leg of Lord Bogo, but those ears… they stuck out with more size to body ratio than her own did.

Nicholas wasn't paying attention to the smaller creature behind the buffalo. He was busy locking his gaze with the stunned Bogo, making sure it was him. The last mammal he thought he would find here, as a lord no less. A mammal he respected above most others, except Honey.

Captain, he thought to himself, assured that this was the mammal. Captain Nyati was the name he grew to know him by. Whether this Bogo was his real name or not, he now knew they were the same mammal. The one who inducted him as a soldier. The one who gave him a chance. The one who showed him respect. And he was a subjugator of predators.

The look of shock dissipated from Bogo as he saw the look the fox gave him, sighing in resignation. He gave a glance towards the rabbit and seemed to understand a certain degree of what was going on.

"Is everything ok?" the goat interrupted, not knowing the silent communication being attempted between the two mammals.

"Quite alright, Miss Jocabi," Bogo replied kindly. "This fox reminded me of someone I knew." As he turned to face the goat, Nicholas finally noticed the little fennec fox that was trailing behind the buffalo. He was giving both the fox and rabbit a rather smug and bored look, closing the distance upon seeing the strange glare of the fox.

"Lay off buddy," he chided with a smirk. "Ol' Bogo here is a good guy. You can trust him."

Judith wasn't paying attention to their exchange as she followed Lord Bogo.

Nicholas however, was having a hard time deciding whether to laugh and guffaw, or be terrified of the rather deep voice that could give the captain a run for sounding intimidating coming from such a small mammal.

The fox took a calming breath and gave the fennec a pointed look.

"What?" he said irritated, "Rabbit got your tongue?" the fox tapped his throat. The fennec seemed to understand as he shrugged.

"No worries, pal," the fennec continued. "He's no slave driver. Can't say much more but I have a feeling we'll see you again." He held out a paw to Nicholas, who stared at it a second, noticing the annoyed look passing over the fennec's muzzle.

The red fox shook his paw and gestured to the fennec in an inquisitive manner.

"Name's Finnick," he grumbled, pulling out a tiny slat of wood to chew on. "Got it memorized?"

Chapter Text

"Who?" Judith asked curiously, popping her head and ears rather comically from behind Nicholas.

The small fox groaned at having his introduction moment ruined.

"Finnick," he repeated, a paw dragging down his small muzzle. A slight growl escaped him when he saw the red fox smirking with crossed arms, clearly amused at the anti-climactic response to his dramatic debut.

"Finnick," Bogo voiced from the side of their little exchange, "I hope you're not bothering these two."

"Oh, he's not bothering anyone, Lord Bogo," the young rabbit chirped as politely as possible. She seemed to fear that the buffalo might take action against the fennec. Both Bogo and Finnick seemed to read this in her expressions and voice, looking to Nicholas in confusion.

He simply shrugged and mimed a short flurry of gestures trying to say, 'she's one of the good ones' to which his point seemed to be made.

The buffalo was now holding a couple small books that looked more akin to journals. They were newly made and seemed small in comparison to his large hooves.

The fox gasped, frantically deciding whether to break his silence or not. Judith now looked concerned, as did Finnick. Bogo looked more confused and tilted his gaze down to the journals in his hoof, not quite understanding why the fox would be so disturbed.

On the cover was a boring design of a burning flame, of which Nicholas assumed was to create a false identity to onlookers. That wasn't what caught his eye though. Inscribed as a notation to the corner of the depiction… was a symbol he had only seen scribbled by one mammal… the one he had forgotten for too long.

"Honey," he spoke. Bogo's eyes bugged out, Finnick dropped the wood slat in his mouth, and Judith's nervous smile froze on her face.

Jocabi was apparently otherwise engaged and could be seen nowhere in the shop as Nicholas looked around to see that they were alone.

"Where is she?" he asked the buffalo.

"So," the massive buffalo started, "it IS you, Nicholas… the Rouge Rogue." The fox saluted in respect, but remembered the unclear bit about him being a predator subjugator.

"Uh… Nicholas?" Judith tried to politely interject. "Are they… friends?" Her question was ignored as the fox waited for an answer from the buffalo. Bogo snorted and sighed heavily, looking around.

"We served together in the war to the north, Miss…" Bogo said, goading the rabbit into an introduction of her own.

She dipped down and did a quick curtsy saying, "Judith… Judith… um… Hopps…" The last word was barely squeaked out as she very well knew her family's reputation among these parts and wasn't one to take glee in the nervous shuffling it might cause.

The buffalo's and fennec's eyes narrowed skeptically at the mention of that name, but they saw the stare of the fox, quietly telling them to give it a rest, and digressed.

"Well my dear Miss Hopps," he continued, "I would be most pleased if you would join me and my lovely wife for dinner on the evening this next morrow. I assure you we will arrange all means of travel."

The fennec perked up and gave Bogo an awkward look.

"Are you sure, my lord?" he asked in his deep baritone.

"Quite, and we can discuss the concerns of this fox here at that time," the buffalo confirmed, giving Nicholas a glance and seeing that the fox seemed to accept that for now. Bogo didn't want to discuss anything to that effect in public, as ideal as their current level of privacy may have been. "So, Miss Hopps?"

"I… uh… of course!" the rabbit barely choked out, confused and taken aback by whatever was happening around her.

The buffalo smiled gently, sighing in relief.

"Wonderful," he said, then turned to Nicholas. "I shall answer your future concerns… but you must understand this is not the place. I bid you good day."

Nicholas was silently seething. He desperately wanted to know more and the captain obviously knew a great enough deal about what was going on that he felt like deferring their exchange until more private means could be established for their rapport.

Nonetheless, he clenched and unclenched his paws, breathing in deep and letting the issue go for now, nodding slightly to the two vastly differently sized mammals as they turned to leave.

Judith padded next to him, doing her best to read his body language, as she had become learned at doing quite well.

"What was all that about?" she asked softly, hoping not to turn the fox into a frustrated mess, judging at the demeanor the buffalo left him in after not answering him properly.

"A past obligation has come back to make itself known again," Nicholas told the rabbit simply, hoping she would accept it for now. He wouldn't have proper answers to give her likely line of questioning until he got answers of his own. "For now, let us get back and await the carriage's departure home. You had no other shopping needs did you, my lady?"

The grey doe shook her head in the negative and allowed him to heft the books once more before departing.

0000000

Once back at the Hopps' manor, it took some finesse to lug books back to her room with little scrutiny. No one dared to make an overt examination of the strangely wrapped package, but looks were common and fleeting. Many businesses used similar wrapping and such to protect purchases, so Judith was about to play the collection of books off as clothing accessories.

Nicholas barely found that believable but stayed silent, of course, because her wardrobe barely compared a fraction to that her other elder siblings showed off. If she came across someone who paid more attention to her, which seemed fleeting of its own accord, then her newly acquired interest in expanding that wardrobe might seem odd to them.

Luckily, no one cared much beyond the initial inquiries.

In her room, the two spread the books out and bolted the door shut for their own privacy.

The giddy and clearly hippy hoppy rabbit was loving seeing the collection of stories in front of her. At one point, she rolled around on the floor, giggling and muttering to herself incoherently.

The fox could only smile kindly and swish his tail in mild amusement at the display, his eyes never wavering from the exuberant bunny. She started trying to read three of the books at once, switching between each book at points and laying small slips of parchment in the pages to mark her place.

Nicholas deigned to pick up one he was curious about and sat, pensive and his eyes glazed. Enraptured in a book he had heard of but never read before, the fox took great pleasure in discovering a new tale for the first time in a long time. He couldn't remember the last time he truly enjoyed reading anything since he started ambling aimlessly a couple years ago.

"What do you have there?" Judith asked innocently, having crawled up to him while not looking. Instead of being surprised, the fox looked over at her curious eyes as she worked her way partially into his lap to read a bit of what he was holding.

The poor fox was frozen in place, looking at an overly excited and small bunny crawl into his lap like an excitable kit without truly realizing what she was doing in her curious state.

"Uh… it's uh… a tale," the fox stammered, looking down at the jittery rabbit with her tail shivering against him. She giggled and looked up, her eyes shone bright and violet.

"Of course," she beamed, "but what's it about?" Her ears tickled the fur under his jaw as she gave him a strangely calm and happy look. She wasn't just comfortable around him, she was completely devoid of any irrational or rational fear of him. He couldn't comprehend such implicit trust as that which she showed him. It warmed his heart and set him a bit on edge as well. Besides the innocent intentions she most assuredly had, the fact of the matter was that she was a fairly attractive rabbit of the age of 21, as she had told him, sitting in the lap of her natural predator like he was a comfortable pillow.

"It's… so far as I've read… it's… about a mammal that is cursed to a hideous form and… ends up keeping a beautiful female as a prisoner. It's pretty dark for now… but it's supposed to be romance I think."

The rabbit looks a little downtrodden, her ears falling softly behind her head. Her tail also stops moving and she looks at the book in his paws.

"If you had the chance to leave," she starts, "would you take it?"

Nicholas stiffens at that question. He wasn't sure how to respond. He knew that he would take that chance, but he didn't know how to word it without making it seem as if he weren't grateful for her kindness.

"I would," the fox chose to divulge simply, hoping that she would understand the meaning he wanted to imply. The small rabbit seemed to be undisturbed by his admission. Instead, she seemed rather relaxed by it. Her body seemed to meld further against him, with Judith's head nestling right underneath his muzzle.

Nicholas had no mental capacity left to comprehend this anymore.

"If you had the chance, would you take me with you?" she near mumbled. The question was so surprising that he dipped his muzzle down to look at her and was met with the fur on her head.

The red fox nervously sucked in a breath and was met with a cloudy haze of emotions boiling to the surface. She smelled so bittersweet, like the taste of green tea. Before he could put up the mental walls against such an unconventional attack against his psyche, the scent permeated every corner of his brain, soaking into his mind like a poisonous venom.

Gaining a semblance of decorum after his mistake, he pulled his muzzle back up and tried to consider her request.

"Why would you want to leave?" he asked softly.

"No one here understands me," the doe replied. "I've done what I could to become what I want to be… but I'm told it's not lady-like and directed to other 'proper' endeavors for a 'lady' such as myself."

"But you're safe here…" the fox countered half-heartedly. He couldn't deny her wanderlust.

"Safety and comfort isn't happiness," was Judith's near instant and most likely practiced reply. "I would rather die young and happy than live a long and oppressed life, under the thumb of parents who only seek to grow an empire that burdens the backs of predators."

Tears started to form in the corners of the rabbit's eyes and she brought her paws up to rub them away, little whimpers escaping her.

"I'm sorry," she meekly said to him, "you helped me get to a happier point than I've been in so long… and I ruin the mood." From his vantage point, he could see the insides of her ears tinged red as they flushed with blood. Was she embarrassed?

"You didn't ruin anything. I'm glad I could help you achieve some form of happiness…" he took a breath, "and if I could… yes, I would bring you with me."

Judith turned her head in his lap and looked up at him with watery eyes, her muzzle parted slightly as her eyes darted over him.

"Don't look so surprised," the fox tried to chide her, "You've been so wonderful to me and I couldn't ask for a better…."

His voice was cut off, however, when a certain rabbit decided to close the small distance...

Kissing him on the lips, her nose shivering against his own. Nicholas was so shocked, he froze in place. Everything in the world faded away to leave him in a world only occupied by the both of them. His brain told him that he shouldn't do this but his muzzle parts against his will and he renews the kiss. A soft moan escapes the rabbit and sets Nicholas's blood ablaze.

Some part of him is able to brace against the onslaught of swirling emotions as he breaks from the kiss to see a very hazy eyed Judith leaning in closer to him.

"We can't," he breathed.

He got the point across with little resistance, but the bunny began to overreact, leaping from his lap in a panic and gasping with a paw over her mouth.

"Oh no… no no no," she murmured to herself mostly, lifting her head to address the fox, "I'm so so sorry. I didn't think about you or your feelings… or even if you would…. Er could… be interested in me..."

Nicholas sat confused and panting slightly. He broke away from her because he wasn't sure about her emotional state and if she would regret her actions.

"My lady," he gently tried comfort her with a paw on her shoulder, resulting in the rabbit shirking away with downcast eyes. "I was surprised… but you have no reason to be ashamed."

"But I took advantage of you," she whimpered. Nicholas clamped a paw over her muzzle, trying to keep her from getting so frantic that she draws unwanted attention their way with her rising volume. Her tears dripped down onto his paw as she squeaked in response.

The fox sighed heavily.

"I may not… know… if I am interested in you." Judith looks a little more dejected. "BUT! I have never truly had the opportunity… to fall in love that is. I only said 'we can't' because I didn't want to take advantage of you."

Finally, the rabbit's eyes seemed to brighten a bit.

"You… take advantage of me?" she giggled. Nicholas scowled slightly as the obviously rhetorical question seemed a tad insulting. "You're far too kind for me to even entertain such a thought."

He couldn't help but smirk slightly in relief. He mentally chastised himself for thinking she would become condescending in that manner.

"Well," the rabbit doe started, wiping away a tear of laughter, "I must admit, that I'm not even sure how I feel… I know we're… different."

"Fox and rabbit, yes, I've noticed," Nicholas mentioned humorously. "Go on." He flicked his wrist a bit to goad her on.

"Oh… uh… but," she mumbled, "I lost my thoughts on the matter I think…"

The fox chuckled heartily.

"No need to fret, my lady," the fox softly said. "I myself have been rendered quite… speechless by our current predicament."

"And yet you still find the words to speak so calmly," Judith joked. "I'm quite jealous."

Another hearty laugh echoed from the fox as he said, "I am nothing if not clever and collected."

"Cocky comes to mind as well," voiced the bunny.

"Fair point, my lady."

Having passed a rather emotional moment, neither were willing to tread back into those murky waters to figure out how to pursue such a revelation. Each chose silently to leave it be for now and touch upon the subject of their impromptu kiss when the subject arose again.

In their current situation, though, Judith stepped on something still wrapped up from their excursion. Leaning down to pick it up, she noticed that it was something her sister Heather had purchased, with the wrapping matching that of her other things.

"Oh," she groaned, turning to the red fox, "would you be so kind as to take this to my sister?"

Nicholas mustered a gentle smile and allowed her to press the package into his waiting paws, their fingers slipping past each other with a slow drag. The simple contact sent shivers up his spine and raised his fur on his neck a bit.

Judith's tail shivered slightly as she looked up at the emerald orbs of her charge.

"Of course, my lady," he responded kindly.

Taking his leave and making sure to stifle the grin on his face to that of a more demeaned and gaunt expression, the fox made for Heather's room. Having now made the trip there with Judith on a limited basis for various purposes, the fox made it a point to remember where it was.

He made such a note for the more ironic purpose to avoid the rabbit's room, not pursue its location. Heaving a low sigh, he expeditiously made his way to her room, only needing to circumvent a corner or two until he stood at the door to Heather's chambers.

He was about to knock softly when he heard a noise…

A whine? Whimper? Pained moan? Suddenly, he was filled with an indecision to act. He couldn't call out for fear of demolishing the façade he enforced that he couldn't speak.

Looking to the door again, he saw it cracked, like someone made their way in and forgot to bolt it.

There was another noise, louder than the first. Nicholas felt compelled to leap into action but had to remain objective. Reacting too readily might put him in a precarious position that could be warped against him…. Again.

Holding his breath and tentatively pressing the door to open it just barely a crack, he saw shadows flickering from candlelight on the wall that he could see. Another strained noise reached his ears, making them flick. It was still day out, so the window must have the curtains pulled.

Daring to open the door a little more, he saw something he hadn't been expecting and clamped a paw over his muzzle to deter the breath he was holding from escaping in a strange gasp.

Pulling the door closed again, but leaving it like it was before, the fox made to stealthily but quickly, walk away and back to his charge's room.

His breathing became quite strained and now a few things he noticed became rather clear and obvious in his mind. There was no way he should have known but it seemed obvious all the same.

Pausing at Judith's door, he slumped forward and went over it in his head again….

When he had opened the door enough, he saw a large mirror that gave him a clear and unobstructed view of something he never thought he would see.

Heather was in the throes of what he could only call ecstasy, wrapping her legs around another mammal he had seen around before. In only seconds he could see that what he witnessed was of an intimate and very secretive nature. Who would want to advertise that anyways, as much as it looked well enjoyed.

Another rabbit would have been nothing to be so surprised about. Goodness, the irony of the past several minutes with Judith came back to almost make him laugh at how much he was proven wrong in his reservations.

Even another male would have been less surprising, but the mammal wrapped up with Heather was none other than the vixen that served Heather.

If what he remembered about Judith's passing mention of her name... it was... the fox chuckled slightly.

"Rose."

Chapter Text

Nicholas opened the door and entered his and Judith's chambers. She instantly looked confused at the package still in his paws.

"She was… otherwise engaged," explained the fox in short, looking rather shaken and nervous. The rabbit's eyebrow quirked up.

"Prey tell, what was my dear sister engaged in?" she asked overly curiously, seeing the state of the fox and seeing an interesting story possibly being revealed soon.

"Oh, uh…" started Nicholas with a light stammer. "Heather was…." He snapped his fingers, trying to find the words… well… the more delicate words. "She was wrapped in the arms of… someone."

"Well that's not surprising," Judith deadpanned. "Heather always was a flirtatious one. Gives the bunny stereotype quite the forceful momentum in the wrong direction."

"So, you already knew?" the fox inquired further, hoping to avoid having to outright say the words.

"About her occasional trysts with rabbits from town? Yes, yes I did."

"Well…" Nicholas began again, twiddling his paws together with an averted gaze.

"Jacks then. I forgot she had a thing for the tall and lean ones," Judith snapped back lightly. The fox couldn't help but drop to the floor laughing at the near accuracy of the statement. (A/N I used Jacks as a term for Jackrabbits, for those thinking it was a name. I figured it would be redundant for a rabbit to say Jackrabbit themselves.)

The grey doe was starting to get a little irritated now and began thumping a foot, her violet eyes becoming slightly violent. The red fox coughed to cut short his tearful laughter and did his best to muster a sense of respect in his voice so he could explain himself.

"Sorry, my lady," he started with the dregs of a slaphappy smile remaining, "but while your description was on point, I'm afraid you had the wrong species entirely."

Judith sighed, "Just tell me, please."

"Rose," the fox divulged with a smirk. "Technically, she is tall and somewhat lean."

"Seriously?" was all the shocked rabbit could muster for the better part of a ten second pause.

"Quite so," he responded. "I nearly interrupted them and made a stealthy escape."

"Wow… just…. Wow."

"I know," Nicholas chuckled. "Talk about breaking the mold."

"But, isn't she taking advantage of Rose…?" the bunny nervously asked to no one in particular. Nicholas froze. He hadn't thought of that. Considering Heather's personality, it was possible the arrangement was only enacted through her command. If that was so, then it made the behavior he saw poor Rose display seem a little sad. Even if Heather wasn't invested in the vixen, Nicholas could very see that Rose had some innate attraction to the rabbit, be it romantic attachment or emotional dependence.

"I don't know," the fox conceded, "but we can't rush to judgement. Not yet. It would only serve to direct some form of Heather's rage on us if she found out we tried to interfere."

"But what about Rose?" Judith inquired pleadingly.

"I'll see what I can do," he offered to his lady.

The fox subsequently tapped a paw on his chin and lost himself in thought for a minute or two.

"We can address the issue after Lord Bogo's event comes to pass," Nicholas continued. The bunny gasped.

"I forgot to let my parents know about that!" she exclaimed, getting up and straightening out her dress.

"Didn't Bogo say he would take care of the arrangements?" the red fox piped up.

"He said travel arrangements," Judith corrected. "I still need to be polite about it and make sure my father and mother know of his arrival and can prepare accordingly."

She rushed out of the room, leaving Nicholas to his own devices. He sighed and waited for a what felt like hours. The sun was now setting and he set to picking up all the stray books, laying paper leaflets in the ones he was sure Judith had been reading to a certain degree.

Finding a place in the back of the cabinet/sleeping chamber, where the rabbit had hidden other things, he carefully placed the books and hid them beneath other objects and such already in there.

Lighting a few candles, Nicholas decided to use what little sunlight leaked through the sky to try repairing a dress that Judith had torn slightly a few days prior. It gave him something to do and if any mammal decided to intrude, he would look busy. Despite his inexperience sewing, luck favored him as it was just a hem tear. He set to work slowly and surely sewing the thing back together.

It was definitely passing the second hour or so since the rabbit ran off and the fox was getting a little worried.

It wasn't two seconds later when the door creaked open and Judith padded in, heaving a sigh.

"All go well?" he asked to which Judith nodded tiredly.

"My parents were oddly ecstatic at the prospect of Lord Bogo inviting me over, though all they took great pleasure in was that it was a chance to establish trade with them."

"Trade with Bogo?" the fox asked.

"I didn't really know but around here, he's the most able Lord that deals in establishing supply lines to other provinces and cities," Judith explained. "Even if they didn't care about trying to send their produce to other places using him, they seem to believe he will have many connections with others of importance if he has become as reputable as he is."

"Oh…" Nicholas sighed. "So, they want you to do your best to make all that happen?"

"Unfortunately," groaned the purple eyed doe. "They want me to dress accordingly tomorrow, but I was able to lie my way out of a full makeover. You're able to come too. They're reluctant but your silent act seems to mollify them into believing you won't say anything stupid."

Nicholas chuckled.

"Well I'm glad you get a laugh out of that," the bunny sighed with a small smile. "I had a hard time dealing with all the formal and pretentious language pertaining to the whole affair."

"Don't worry, my lady," the fox comforted, getting up and setting the dress he had just finished working on down. "We'll likely feel far less pressured by the whole situation once we're out of this place for a while."

Judith padded over to her bed and flopped down upon it, sighing heavily. After giving him an affirmative grunt, she lifted her head and gave him a mild glare.

"You haven't quite explained everything about what happened there yet," she started, "and I think I deserve an explanation."

"As well you do," Nicholas agreed. He took a deep breath, collecting his thoughts. "Lord Bogo, as he calls himself, was my captain when I served in the People's Army to the north. I knew him as Captain Nyati."

The grey rabbit perked her ears and listened intently.

"Why did he change names?" she asked simply.

"Not sure as of yet. I'm not even sure which name is his real one," he admitted to both himself and her. He looked at Judith and saw her curious gaze as he continued, "When I left the service, a pittance to my name, I found out the one mammal I looked forward to seeing for so many years was gone and went off to find something. I looked for her but… well you know."

"Honey?" Judith guessed. "I heard you mention that name."

"She was the closest thing I had to a mother," the fox divulged. "Said what I fought for was an illusion. Found out she was right later. The battles I helped win were against powers we were told conspired against our nations, but they were nations of rebellion against occupation by nations that had prey driven governments. By the time I figured that out… it didn't really matter. I was wandering aimlessly through the northern forests from Animalia."

"What does Lord Bogo have to do with that?"

"The book he purchased was hand written. If I am correct, then it was a cypher and the mark scribbled over the cover is the one I've stared at most of my young life when Honey would write her notes, journal entries, and overall musings." Nicholas was a bit worried the rabbit wouldn't be able to follow, but she proved more adaptable than he gave initial credit for, her jaw set and eyes contemplative as she mused silently.

"So, you want to know if he can lead you to her?" she asked almost rhetorically. The fox nodded.

"If I can find her…" Nicholas let out a breath, "then maybe I can find a way to help her with her goals."

"I do hope that means you can be free again," Judith stated hopefully. Nicholas turned to give her an inquisitive look.

"Were you serious in your wish to come with me?" he asked in a deadly serious tone.

The grey rabbit looked at him with a conflicted gaze. The turmoil in her raging more so than the sky during a thunderstorm. Leave her home… her family. She may have said she was misunderstood and felt so alone… but the prospect of leaving everything… it scared her. When she thought about it though, if Nicholas left, as he well deserved to, her life would be a melancholy path towards old age and death. No one has ever matched his kindness and made her feel so alive.

If she was afraid of the outside world that could kill her, she was more afraid of a life devoid of living in a place that would just suffocate her until she lost all light in her heart.

"I was and still am," Judith determinately stated, a clenched paw to her chest. "Take me."

Both mammals stared in silence at each other for several seconds, letting the words sink in.

Unfortunately, Judith's mind found an alternative that could be meant by those words and tried to keep herself from blushing profusely, to no avail.

Nicholas's reaction was as much delayed as hers but no less frustrating to her when he started smirking widely and giving her a half-lidded gaze fraught with smug satisfaction.

"with you…" she desperately amended. The fox leaned in closer.

"Take you?" he asked in a low voice.

"Take me WITH you," the rabbit corrected him staunchly.

"Aww," he teased. "Are you sure?"

"Yes, yes! Just be quiet!" she whisper yelled. Nicholas relented to her and sat with a grin from ear to ear.

"Your wish is mine to grant, my lady," he calmly said, finally pulling away from her.

The hours leading into the night felt much too long. The intermittent sleep was even worse. And the following morning, leading into the afternoon whereas Lord Bogo would dispatch a means of travel for Judith and Nicholas felt like an agonizing wait.

The Hopps patriarch pursued a course of trying to drop hints and tips to impress a Lord and earn their favor throughout the day, while Judith was given preparation to look her best. Nicholas helped as necessary and mentally scoffed at most of the advice. His captain was no fool for flattery. In fact, he rather despised it.

Finally, the arrival of the carriage for the two arrived. Pulled by a quartet of tigers, the carriage stopped in front of the large doors to the Hopps estate.

Without help and waving off the rabbits that tried to offer any, Bogo climbed from the cabin himself.

"I've come for the young Lady Hopps and her personal aide," the buffalo stated in his resounding and authoritative baritone.

"Why of course, Lord Bogo," Lord Hopps cheerfully answered. "My dear daughter is ready and awaiting you." He waved her forward, to which Judith more than eagerly complied. She had enough doting for weeks and just wanted to get away. "And Lord Bogo? Do you really need her personal aide to go with? I can offer you far better company to assist my daughter."

"That will not be necessary," Bogo gently denied. "I believe it is necessary for an aide to always be responsible for their charge. This fox will need to learn that. I will return them later tonight."

Still reserved but accepting that answer, Lord Stuart Hopps silently conceded the point and let his daughter proceed with departing alongside the fox.

The tigers began pulling at a brisk pace, wasting no time to carry them away from the Hopps estate.

Looking back, Bogo let out a low huff, casting a glance to the two mammals now in his charge for the evening.

"Why are you using predators for labor?" Nicholas asked in all bluntness, shocking Judith into tensing up with wide eyes as she now looked terrified. The buffalo looked rather unfazed. One could say he might have expected that question.

"It's a means to stay hidden here and they understand it," he started, "but I assure you… they are not slaves."

"And why are you hiding here?" the fox pursued. "More to the point, what does Honey have to do with this?"

"Haaa… I and many others, prey and predator alike, are using my title and status as 'Lord' to garner favor and acquire displaced predators looking to flee. The book you saw Honey's symbol on was a cypher of locations and paths to take, guiding the displaced away from the nations affected by predator subjugation."

"You're running an emancipation relay," Nicholas stated bluntly.

"Yes," was the simple reply. "But that's not all. Honey has something she's planning. She's keeping it to herself for the most part but it's pretty big. All I need to do is decrypt her cypher to get the new information."

The buffalo pulled out the book from before and waved it about for them to see.

The fox offered a paw and Bogo reluctantly handed it over to his former soldier. Nicholas flipped through the pages quickly and began using the blank pages at the end to write down letters and numbers, somehow sorting through everything like it was second nature.

"How are you doing that?" Bogo asked. "It normally takes me hours to get that much."

"I was raised by Honey, remember?" the red fox retorted slightly sarcastically. "She drilled this as much as you drilled our wake-up calls at the crack of dawn."

The buffalo snorted, "I forgot that crazy badger basically made you a walking library."

Judith watched as Nicholas's eyes flew over the pages and his paws scribbled at a rapid pace, figuring out the message like it was child's play.

The fox looked over the book. The story wasn't put together well and made no sense. But that wasn't the point. The cypher Honey used was simple, if not frustratingly time consuming. Each page was labeled with a number. Each number, however, had to be double checked. When a page number didn't correspond to the actual page, he had to check for spelling errors. Once he found them, he corrected them and used the intended letters that he corrected with to form a word. Miss a misspelled word and the message becomes altered and hard to understand.

The book was over a hundred pages or so, meaning he had plenty of pages to check and double check. Every page couldn't have an error so he had to keep an eye out for the mislabeled page number. the factor that denoted how the words were placed lied with the page number he found it on. The number that was used instead of the actual page told of its place in the message.

Once he unscrambled the message and wrote it out in full on a blank page, he read it and became confused. The buffalo held out a hoof and Nicholas gave it back with no delay. He had memorized the message anyhow.

Blaze the same trail, enact scorched earth policy, resistance is found.

Once Bogo saw the words, he sighed.

"What's all that mean?" the fox inquired sternly.

"It means that aside from our previous path remaining unchanged, we have to sever our operations and burn everything," explained the buffalo. "the last line though… it appears the resistance was discovered."

"Resistance?" Judith piped up with intrigue. Both fox and buffalo looked at her.

"Our ultimate goal lies in rebellion, Miss Hopps," Bogo said in resolute determination. The rabbit gulped with eyes spreading wide and the red fox set his jaw stiff.

"So, where is Honey?" Nicholas ventured to ask, hoping she was near enough for a reunion.

The carriage stopped as they had apparently traveled all the way to Bogo's property. The tigers dropped the towing lines they used and a crowd formed at the opening of the door.

Lord Bogo stepped out and gave a grunted thank you to all the tigers, resting a hoof on their shoulders. More prey and predators gathered around, all image and decorum forgotten as the intermingling of both types happened without malicious stares or jibes.

"Alright everyone," the buffalo yelled, "we have guests and I expect you to treat them well."

The crowd looked at the two mismatched mammals stepping out of the carriage.

"I ask again, where is my mother?" the fox repeated.

Bogo turned to Nicholas upon entering his manor, kneeling down and giving a thoughtful gaze towards him and the rabbit.

"She is hiding in the forests to the north," he revealed. "She maps out the safest paths away from prying eyes and patrol parties. Once I get the updated information, I send out more mammals on a path through various checkpoints and safe havens. Each point involved is run by a mammal or mammals who only know the next link or two in the chain."

"How can I find her?" Nicholas pursued once more. Bogo turned to him and snorted.

"We'll be packing up and leaving for the north with as many mammals as we can safely take with us. You are welcome to join us. Hopps here too, provided she wishes to leave."

"You would so readily accept me with you, even knowing who I am…" Judith solemnly stated.

"Nicholas seems to trust you," Bogo began, "and I learned long ago to trust his and Honey's judgement. I won't pretend I don't have my reservations, but that wouldn't bode well for the trust I have resting on me."

"Thank you," the rabbit murmured, "and I accept."

"Good. Because I may need your help. We were going to cover the escape with a few targeted attacks and rescue missions. Your family's estate is a nearby target and I know you would not like your family to be in danger. If you can somehow distract the guards, we can release all the trapped predators."

"Are you serious?" voiced Nicholas. "Their manor is crawling with guards all the time. Even if we found a way to distract some of them, you would still likely alert one of their many siblings."

"I don't really have any better ideas," the buffalo admitted. "Aside from a full-frontal assault that is."

"Fine…" the fox grumbled.

"While I go prepare something to eat, why don't you acquaint yourselves with a few mammals here?" Bogo invited. Both mammals nodded slightly.

Entering a living space adjoining the entryway, Nicholas and Judith found a throng of mammals making conversation.

"Well well well," a deep voice greeted them amongst the murmur of the crowd. Both mammals looked down to see Finnick, biting down on a wood slat, as was apparently the norm they came to realize. "Look who decided to drop in."

"Finnick," Judith happily cheered, holding out a paw to the familiar mammal. He took it graciously.

"Nice to see you too, little lady," the fennec greeted. The red fox grimaced at his name for her and nearly let out a low growl. Clamping his muzzle shut for a second, he let the feeling pass.

Finnick continued, "Why don't we introduce you to a few others?" the rabbit nodded enthusiastically.

The fennec started gesturing around the room to a few mammals who broke from their conversation to allow for proper introductions.

"This here is Wolfard, Philippe, Phoebus, and… the one stuffing himself with crackers is Meeko." Finnick gestured to a timber wolf, horse, lion, and a raccoon who was looking a bit guilty for his lack of decorum, respectively.

"A pleasure to make all of your acquaintances," the rabbit chirped politely. The entourage let out a collective murmur of greetings to the pair. Nicholas looked contemplative but offered a short greeting.

"There are plenty more mammals around here to introduce," the fennec fox began, "but these four here are sort of the ones in charge. Wolfard is our lookout and tracker, Philippe is our runner, Phoebus is quite the beast with a sword, and Meeko…" the raccoon perks up and grins, hoping to hear a pleasant title as well, "… is Meeko." His face falls into a deadpan look, making the red fox chuckle slightly.

"Actually," Meeko squeaks, swallowing a cracker, "I'm in charge of procuring provisions."

"I can tell," snarked Nicholas, crossing his arms as the raccoon freezes amidst having almost put another cracker in his mouth.

"Don't worry about him," started the lion. "He's just a bottomless pit." The whole room started laughing at the poor raccoon's expense. He seemed to be good natured about it though… or just uncaring, as he rolled his eyes and stuffed another cracker in his maw.

"Anyways," remarked the wolf, "it's very good to meet you. I'm sure you'll fit in well around here if what we heard about you is correct, Rouge Rogue." Nicholas twitched a little at that, making Wolfard tilt his head in confusion.

"For now, I'm going by Silence," the fox corrected kindly. "That is a life I don't feel as proud of now that I know what it served."

"I can respect that… sorry friend."

"No worries," Nicholas replied.

Philippe finally made his voice heard, "Why a name such as that?"

Judith answered for the fox, "He was mute when we met… and until we met Lord Bogo, he only talked to me." She blushed as the red fox shot her a small grin.

"I may not be so silent anymore, but this amazing mammal showed me a kindness I've lacked for too long," Nicholas commented to the horse. "So, for all who know me from now on, I am Silence."

"I thought your name was Nicholas though," the lion spoke, yawning a bit.

"Let's just say I prefer to keep that information as limited as possible," replied the red fox. "I don't want the wrong people knowing my name."

"Hmm," Phoebus huffed, "maybe we should do that. We'll call Meeko here Crackers."

"Oh, no you will not!" the raccoon near shouted through a mouthful of said crackers.

"Wolfard can be Howling Mad," resumed the lion.

"What? I'm not mad," the wolf rebuked.

"Philippe can be Stallion."

"As much of a double standard as that name seems, I like it," the equine calmly replied.

"And Finnick…" everyone stared at the tiny fox, who also glared back at the lion with deadly force.

"I wouldn't if I were you," the fennec warned while chomping down and cracking the slat in his mouth.

"Well I had one, but now I'm rethinking it," Phoebus grunted uncomfortably, clearly afraid of the much smaller mammal.

Saved by the bull, Bogo entered the room, carrying a large platter of food that he placed on the low table in the center of the room.

"I'm still working on dinner but for now, please enjoy these refreshments," he politely stated. "Just give me another half hour."

"You can cook, Captain?" Nicholas inquired with a raised eyebrow.

"What of it?" Bogo asked incredulously.

"Nothing bad, I assure you," the fox answered. "I just remember you always cursing at all the cooking utensils when you couldn't do much more than burn food at any time you tried to cook."

"A mammal can improve," was the belated remark after a short silence.

"Now that I believe," Nicholas conceded.

"It's so nice to see my husband getting along with everyone," a new voice softly spoke. It was like some exotic sweet permeating the room with a fresh aroma straight from the oven.

All heads turned to see a gracefully dressed and tall mammal. She glided over to Bogo and gave him a peck on the cheek, to which he blushed and turned his head to avert his gaze. All within the room were frozen in shock at the disarming display.

"I never get tired of seeing that," the horse remarked, breaking the awkward quietness. Bogo glared at Philippe, who shrugged innocently. The new mammal walked over to the fox and bunny, lowering herself to their eye level.

"I'm Gazelle," she introduced herself. "Welcome to our home."

"T-thank you," mumbled the rabbit doe. Nicholas politely nodded and bowed slightly in respect.

"I've never seen someone turn the Captain into…." The red fox gestured ambiguously. "…that."

"Well beneath that hard exterior lays a gentle soul," Gazelle softly said, looking over to her husband, who huffed in embarrassment, resigned to the whims of his wife. "Believe me."

"Glad you found someone to crack that thick skull of yours, sir" jibed the fox, grinning without restraint.

Lord Bogo snorted in mild annoyance as he trotted off to complete dinner.

To say the meal was delicious would be an understatement. With whatever training the buffalo received, he somehow became capable of such meticulous sensitivity to cooking with skill that it defied the red fox's known logic.

Who knew that a simple stew could be so savory and taste so meaty… but no meat was involved. Turned out Bogo got his hooves on something called Portabella mushrooms. While the fox didn't care much for the texture, he couldn't deny the taste that simmered into the rest of the stew.

Judith seemed intrigued at the new taste, becoming strangely gluttonous from the taste and politely asking for seconds.

More information was revealed about Honey by Bogo. He told the duo that the badger was coordinating some major exodus from various nations, wanting to find a homestead they could all call sanctuary. She had many little projects and few big ones she kept secret, not even surprising the fox.

His mother had always been fond of her projects, most of which flared out after a while, but some working out in the form of strange contraptions. Nicholas cringed at the memory of a few. The one he dreaded most was this stove on wheels that used some form of water or the like to move an arm with an axe at the tip. She meant it to be for cutting down trees without all the effort, but she forgot to install some way to disable the confounded contraption once she lit the stove. It ended up rolling down a slight hill and bashing into the cottage cellar, whereas it died a tragic end in fire and steam.

Apparently, Honey has also been making preparations for conflict. Supplies for armies, including weapons, armor, and easy to transport living accommodations.

Once his former captain explained himself and made sure the information the fox well-deserved was given to him and his charge, Nicholas and Judith were graciously given a ride back to the Hopps property, with a stern warning to keep what they now know secret and to prepare for a rescue operation the next night.

0000000

The two of them exited the carriage with little, in fact… no greeting. It was odd. Off to the side, a grouping of mammals could be seen gathered around a growing fire.

Judith padded over to the group.

"You guys having a bonfire?" Judith asked merrily, hoping to join the possible festivities.

All the rabbits around the fire turned to the grey doe, eyes blazing with contempt. She noticed one of them holding a book… the book Nicholas was enjoying.

On the fire, turning to blackened ash, were the rest of her books. The ones she tried so hard to hide. The guilty pleasure that made her happy… now feeding the fire before her.

"NO!" she wailed, breaking down and crying. She leapt at the rabbit holding the last book, ripping it from his grip.

"Give it back, Judith," came the deadly tone of her father, making the doe tense up and wrap her paws around the book.

"NO!" Judith screamed, drawing a look of concern from Nicholas. "Why?"

"You don't need this kind of influence poisoning your mind. It's unladylike for you to have such interests." Lord Hopps looked so sure of himself it sickened the fox how righteous he believed himself to be.

One of her siblings tried to grab at her, squeezing her arm too hard and trying to pry the book away. She made a pained gasp that drove the fox over the edge.

Nicholas leapt forward in a bolting flash and struck the rabbit across the face, knocking him out. Judith was more than shocked and took the chance to hide behind him.

"YOU DARE DEFY US, FOX!" shouted the elder rabbit patriarch. Then his tone lowered… "Get him."

The swarm of rabbits overcame him before he could defend himself, but before he was grabbed, he pushed Judith away, yelling "Run, Judith! Now!"

She darted away a certain distance at the words, looking back to see Nicholas being tied down, with more of her siblings coming after her. She dared to go back and save him, but what could she do?

"Don't you dare come back for me!" he shouted, bringing tears to her eyes.

She gripped her book tighter and ran away, knowing the only hope she had now to possibly save whatever fate awaited Nicholas…

Lay with Bogo.

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As Judith disappeared into the night, the red fox smiled sadly and looked back at the infuriated elder rabbit bearing down upon him with the most venomous of stares.

"So, you could talk, fox," one of the siblings spat at him. "Figures you would trick us like that."

Lord Hopps slapped him across the muzzle, twirling his wrist as the fire in his eyes reached a peak.

"What have you done to my daughter to turn her into such a defiant spirit?" the elder rabbit inquired of him angrily. "What trickery have you used on her? She is my daughter you damned fox!"

Nicholas took in a breath, slowing the hammering of his heart. He was likely to die now for the transgressions they believed him guilty of. Honestly though, he probably was. She became not a defiant spirit, but one that embraced a chance at life. She cast away the darkness in him like no other mammal had and he was just happy enough to know she cared for him.

Maybe… just maybe… she would be able to bring help. In the meantime, …

"She is no less defiant than you are pleasant," the fox softly spoke. He took a breath as the sign of anger in the rabbits' faces grew more still.

"One might even say she is the essence of valiance."

Chapter Text

The grey rabbit ran.

She should have had more to think on at the moment but she felt that weighing down her mind with the burden of everything she wished she could allow her mind to worry over might actually cause that burden to slow her down.

Faster than she ever even tried to run before, her feet were a blur on the road, desperate to catch up to the Lord's carriage. He couldn't have gotten far. But even so, what could he do in that moment. He had personally dropped them off with only himself and his entourage of tigers.

Everything felt more hopeless at that point with how dark it was. Damn her rabbit eyes. She couldn't see much further than a few dozen feet in front of her on the road.

Her breathing became ragged and strained as her legs were pushed further than she was used to. She never ran so hard or long before. She couldn't stop though. She couldn't give up, couldn't give in.

Judith tripped over a rock on the road and rolled to a painful stop. She was able to protect the book, getting up to catch her breath. Her foot twinged in pain as she put pressure on it, but she forced herself up. This wouldn't be the end for him. She wouldn't be the end for him. This was her mistake.

Standing as straight as she could, the rabbit scanned the outward. She searched for anything. A shape, a light, a single shred of hope that could help her save Nicholas from his fate, whatever it might be.

Tears made their way to her eyes as she felt the hopeless feeling sinking into her soul. She wiped a paw over her face and tried to blink away new tears.

In the distance, a flicker caught her attention… a glimmer that shook and swayed. She could only hope it was a lantern on a carriage.

Ignoring the pain as best she could, Judith took off with renewed vigor towards the source of her glimmering hope.

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Lord Bogo sighed to himself, lamenting the dim night that settled over the land.

Phillippe looked him over with a concerned stare. Meeko was sitting next to him. Both mammals had followed his carriage for safety reasons when Bogo dropped off the two mammals. It wasn't too strange for them to hitch a ride back, now that the seats were free.

"Something wrong?" the equine asked with a wave of his hoof.

"I'm worried I rushed my decision to have them try creating a distraction for us," the buffalo replied. "Rouge… Nicholas… Silence?... was probably right. It would be extremely difficult for two mammals to distract a family as large as that."

"If what you said about that fox is true," started Meeko, slumping into a lazy position on the seat, "then I don't see a reason to worry over him and his skills."

Bogo shifted and grunted ambiguously, saying, "I guess."

The horse chuckled a bit and remarked, "You are usually never so shaken in your resolve, even from the story I hear about your declaration of love to your wife back when…"

"Enough of that," the buffalo curtly cut off. Phillippe's ears perked up, his face becoming still.

"What?" Bogo inquired, wondering if he shouted that louder than he meant to.

"Shh!" the horse hissed. The buffalo complied begrudgingly and listened as well. Meeko perked up as well and tried to figure out what was going on. "Stop the carriage! NOW!"

To get his point across, the equine thumped his hoof on the hood and the tigers all stopped.

Phillippe got out and look every which way.

"Meeko," he called, "you have the night vision here." The raccoon poked his head out of the inside of the carriage and looked around, following the now extended hoof of Phillippe, pointing back the way they came.

"It's Judy!" he exclaimed, rushing down the road in a rare moment of energy for him.

Now that she was getting closer, everyone else could hear her strained yells and pleas for them to stop. She didn't have good night vision and wasn't sure if the entourage stopped, so she kept trying to hail them.

Meeko darted from the darkness and rushed up Judith, who was so relieved to see a friendly soul that she collapsed. The raccoon was caught off guard but easily supported the rabbit as she fell. It looked to him like she had fallen already and got herself scuffed up.

"What's wrong?" he quickly asked, hoping she had enough breath left to say what needed to be said.

"Nick," Judith gasped, taking a heaving breath. "Nicholas is going to be killed."

"What happened?" Bogo interjected, having heard what he needed to.

The rabbit gulped and tried to explain in as little words as she could. Time was short.

"I can't explain it all but Nicholas defended me and now he's likely going to be killed. Please please help him! We have to go back!"

Everyone was around her now, paws clenched and jaws set.

"You heard her!" Bogo bellowed. "Let's go. Phillippe, you run back to the manor and gather EVERYONE. Meeko, you four," he gestured to the tigers, "with me. We're going on a rescue mission. First, we'll grab Nicholas, then regroup with everyone else to free the other predators. MOVE IT!"

Phillippe took off in a dead sprint, running far faster than Judith had seen any mammals move, not to say she's seen a wide variety of mammals running.

Meeko stayed close to Bogo, acting as his eyes through the darkness. The rabbit wondered what she could do, ready to move with them, even if she was in pain.

"You stay here, Miss Hopps," the buffalo gently demanded her. Judith shook her head.

"No! I'm coming with," she said without relent. "Either I come along somehow, or I'll follow you as I am now." Bogo snorted in frustration, but scooped up the rabbit, ignoring her complaints about being picked up like a kit.

"Fine."

"Sir?" one of the tigers said in an inquisitive manner, "what will we do about the carriage?"

"Grab all the weapons in the compartments and burn it," the buffalo ordered. "I'm not making you tug that thing around any longer." There were a few whoops of approval as the tigers stripped the carriage of anything useful. Weapons in under seat compartments, rations, and small torches with matchboxes.

Using the lanterns hanging from the outside as well as the inside of the carriage, the tigers gave a shout of glee as they released whatever frustration they had with the object and started the fire. The resulting plume lit up the night around them.

Judith saw the tigers in a clearer light now. They were lightly armored to begin with, as she remembered, but now they used whatever was with them to add extra plating to their arms and chest. Each held a small buckler shield and a one-handed long sword. Meeko was dressed in chain mail and had daggers with a large bulb on the hilt of each blade. She surmised it was probably a way to make more blunt attacks.

The rabbit squeaked as Bogo took off, hooves pounding the Earth beneath him with a ferocity he hadn't yet shown in her presence. The tigers growled and followed suit, powerful leaps and strides vaulting them into the night and towards the Hopps manor. Meeko was gone from her sight but she imagined he was up ahead, blazing the trail.

The seconds passed by achingly, Judith's heart feeling like it would rip in two at the very thought that she was too late.

Lights flared into tepid existence in the distance, almost making the rabbit laugh at the ease it took them to run back here when she struggled to make it to them in the first place. She had to concede that they were larger mammals and probably used to such things as this.

Tears leaked from her eyes as she squinted at the wind lapping at her muzzle, silently begging for them to make it in time.

0000000

A clenched paw bore down from above and struck the fox in his chest. He gasped, all the air leaving his lungs as he tried to recover.

His paws were bound behind him and his body pinned to the ground as Lord Hopps himself decided to dole out the punishment, his questions repetitive and endless.

"Where. Is. My. Daughter?!" he yelled, each word punctuated by a strike to the fox. Nicholas turned his muzzle and spit out some blood, one of the strikes having been to his jaw.

"Wouldn't know… I just told her to run," the red fox wheezed.

"She would have to go somewhere," a much calmer Hopps assumed, looking down at him as if the fox were merely maggots in the dirt. "Where?"

Nicholas laughed with twinges of pain wracking his chest as he did so. It was all he could do to bare this treatment right now.

"Haven't a clue. Maybe if you weren't so… hopping mad… she might not have run."

Lord Hopps struck the fox again, and again.

"This is no use," relented the older rabbit. "Take him to the stone at the entrance and fetch the hammer. Bring out all the other filthy preds, too. We're about to make an example of this… fox." Hopps glared at him with a fire in his eyes that could only be hatred. Nothing could quell that flame now.

Forced to his feet, a multitude of rabbits shoved and kicked Nicholas forward, making the short trip back to the grand entrance. He had noticed the stone at the front but assumed it was a way to prevent mammals from ramming the gate from far away. Anything that wanted to make a running start would be stopped short by the moderately sized stone, only a couple dozen feet directly in front of the double doors.

Taken to the forefront of the stone, a jutting edge was low enough for him to be knelt over it like in an execution. He was held down by ropes and two rabbits that made sure he wouldn't fight it.

From his limited field of vision, Nicholas was able to see every predator herded out front and in plain view of his prostrated position. There had to be around fifty or so predators in the grouping so far and more were being pushed into the crowd.

It was then that the fox saw Rose being forced to attend as well, closely watched by Heather from a distance, her eyes glazed and contemplative. She saw a similar look on Rose's face back when they had gone shopping, smiling a little inside at the hopeful revelation that Heather cared for the vixen as she did the rabbit.

Even all the rabbits of the property, excepting those on guard duty or away on daily duties, had gathered to see the coming display. Looks of disgust, shock, fear, and even somber sympathy came in equal measure from everyone present.

Lord Hopps had returned, sans the bloodied attire from earlier from beating the fox. He was not clad in heavy armor, probably as a means of making a show of power to the other predators.

One of the elder looking siblings brought out a large war hammer, hefting it into his father's waiting paws. The old rabbit lifted it with practiced precision, testing the weight. It wasn't overly large, but the thing didn't need to be to turn his head into a flattened version of itself.

Approaching the stone, Nicholas closed his eyes, not wanting his last thought to be of staring at a hammer or an angry old rabbit.

His mind flicked through images of the precious smile he chose to cherish from her muzzle. Those brilliant eyes as beautiful as violets in bloom and fur as grey as the sky during a coming storm. Such a wondrous soul pulled him from the darkness and shone on his life with a light not even the sun could compare to. If such a light dared to burn him to ashes, he would be happy with that.

No… he wanted more.

He wanted a life beyond this, a life filled with her laughter and more of that light. Her friendship meant everything to him now. His love….

His love.

The fox shed a tear as he made the final realization. All the stumbling in his own head, all the pain in his chest, all the moments he felt compelled to ask for more.

He had fallen in love with a rabbit. He had fallen in love with Judith. With his valiant spirit.

"You red devil," spat the old rabbit. Nicholas pulled his ears back, focusing on anything else. Everything else. He wouldn't let his final moments be poisoned by his sight or his voice.

"You devious savage," he continued. "You shall be cleansed as an example to all here…" he could hear the armor shifting as the rabbit lifted the hammer, grunting at the weight.

"Die you heathen!"

THUMP!

0000000

The entourage of mammals thundered down the road, seeing the lights of various flames burn brighter as they drew closer.

As they reached the edge of the property, the grand entrance only a few hundred feet away, Bogo was halted by Meeko, who was listening and watching. The group had no torches lit and were hidden by the thicket of brush near the road, not that the lookout rabbits could see much from the distance they were watching.

"They're bringing out all the predators it looks like," Meeko whispered to the rest of them.

Judith turned her ears towards the fracas and tried to listen in. Not much was being said yet and she could see the flames from a distance from the entrances torches. She couldn't make out all that was going on though.

"Why would they do that?" Bogo belted out in disbelief. He then grunted and said, "No matter, this makes it easier to save everyone at once. Let's just hope help comes soon enough to make a difference."

"It looks like Nicholas is bound and being held down to that stone at the front," Meeko relayed. "I think they are planning to make a public execution."

"No!" Judith squeaked, clapping a paw to her muzzle as she teared up again. The large buffalo set her down gently on the ground and put a hoof on her shoulder.

"We will do what we can to help, but I need you to stay here," he told her softly. "Alright, Judith?" She reluctantly nodded and sat down to give her aching feet rest.

"Just please…" she pleaded, "if you can… try not to kill my family…"

Bogo gave her a curt nod to confirm he heard her and motioned for the others to follow.

Judith could only watch as they skulked forward, getting as close as they could without alerting the congregation.

Bogo was able to find a place to watch from whereas he could see and hear most of what was going on.

The predators were all apparently out now as the rabbit guards seemed to secure their circle around them, still allowing audience to see the fox on the stone being killed in some savage display.

It was then that the buffalo saw Lord Hopps sauntering up in full regal armor, carrying his hammer and shouting brutal accusations at Nicholas, who was closing his eyes and seemingly in another world. He felt a twinge of guilt for having put him in this position and turned to the raccoon.

"Meeko?" he asked, to which the shorter mammal perked up. "Ready to ruin the mood?"

The raccoon smirked deviously as Bogo held out a hoof, to which Meeko stepped into it, bracing himself and holding his daggers close.

The buffalo reared his hoof back, letting out a might snort and giving it his full effort as he launched the small mammal in a low arc.

Twisting and spinning in the air, the raccoon struck the elder Hopps from the side and pushed off. The force shocked everyone looking as Meeko landed deftly on his haunches a few feet away. Lord Hopps went flying to the side, in a crumpled heap.

The hammer he had lifted high fell to the soft ground with a resounding….

THUMP!

Nick opened his eyes as he heard the noise but felt no release from his mortal shell.

"M… Meeko!" he whimpered in relief.

"In the fur!" the raccoon exclaimed. He was about to rush to Nicholas's aid when the other rabbit guards finally overcame the shock of their patriarch being floored. Meeko became a spinning furious mammal of glinting steel, parrying and deflecting the spears and swords of multiple rabbits. Most of them seemed to have little actual experience handling an opponent that actually fights back and were off put by the display.

The four tigers barreled on through the ranks and tried to break the formation. The rabbits recovered well enough and huddled together to block their path. The rabbits holding down the fox never relented, unsure what to do other that what they had been doing.

Bogo made his entrance, ramming on through a few surprised rabbits.

Everything fell into chaos quickly but some refused to move from their posts. Namely, those guarding the fox and all the other predators. They had to keep order else a source of reinforcements might be found in their own prisoners.

Nicholas saw the Hopps patriarch stumble back to his feet, groaning and throwing a glare in all directions.

"Lord Bogo!" he cursed. "You dare risk everything for this fox?! This… scum?!"

The buffalo heard the shout but didn't even bother to reply to it. There was nothing to say at this point. Neither mammal would be caring what the other had to say about their views.

Hopps lifted up the hammer once again.

"If you want him so badly… you can have his corpse!"

0000000

Judith saw her father rise after taking such a forceful hit, and could see he wasn't going to relent. None of the others were going to be able to get to Nicholas if her siblings kept up their defense.

She steadied herself on aching feet and looked up. A single eagle circled overhead, letting out a beautiful screeching cry.

The rabbit remembered a line from a book she read, one that felt like a form of blessing at this point. It couldn't hurt. Try everything, right?

"Eagle help my feet to fly."

She took off as steadily as her feet allowed, the pain burning through her as she felt herself pushing through some lack of force in her stride.

Pushing through with each step, she finally found a rhythm and ignored some semblance of the pain and fatigue, bolting forward with renewed speed and determination.

She leapt through the brush and slipped in between a gap left by two of her siblings. They barely had a chance to react to her presence before being distracted by the others once more.

Seeing her father lift the hammer once more, she didn't have time for doubt or words.

Doing the only thing she felt was right, she rammed her body at full speed into the two rabbits holding Nicholas down, toppling them awkwardly. She hurriedly recovered and threw herself on top of the fox.

"NO!" Judith screamed at the top of her lungs, to her father, to all the Hopps, to all the world.

Her father went slack at the mouth at her unconventional return and dropped the raised hammer to the side.

The grey doe's grip was almost deathly on the fox, who gave no complaint, nor could comprehend her actions. She wouldn't be removed from him. She wouldn't be denied this.

"If you kill him," she stated with all the compassionate force she could muster to her father, "you'll have to kill me too."

Her eyes burned into her father's, his resolve and anger faltering, but not fading.

"Daughter!" he yelled as if to chastise her. "Stand back."

"I won't!" Judith shouted in all due valiance. Her gaze flicked down to the fox, who eyed her from beneath her, his eyes wide and afraid for her. His breathing was rapid and fearful. She wished she had a far better time to say this, but the words flowed from her before she could help it, tears flowing freely and paws clenching in resolve.

"I love him, father."

The words, while not spoken so loud, were heard by many of the rabbits around them.

Lord Hopps sputtered for a brief second or two before musing in silence, glaring down at the fox who corrupted his daughter against him. Many other rabbits had stilled their paws and taken interest in the exchange.

It didn't take long for the ensuing violence to die down, leaving the tigers, Meeko, and Bogo rather confused. They hadn't the focus at the time to hear Judith's confession, but could make the assumption that something occurred to give the family pause.

Meeko was huffing and puffing nearby, relieved to have a chance to catch his breath. The tigers remained guarded but initiated no further attack. Bogo, now wielding two spears he stole from the rabbits in the fight, snorted and looked around.

Meeko could see in the distance, and a bunch of silhouettes now approached them from the main road. No torches were lit and no alarm was sounded.

The massive force approached cautiously, with Phillippe at the front of the charge and keeping up a guard. Bogo waved them down, wondering what the exchange between father and daughter would hold.

"You… love him?" he said softly, not actually expecting an answer. He heard her perfectly well the first time. He was simply repeating the idea in his own head.

"I do," Judith confirmed. A murmur broke out amongst the rabbits and predators alike. Nicholas blinked through some tears as he let out some ragged breaths of relief, as if he hadn't the ability to breathe since being put against the stone.

Lord Hopps wanted to argue this point, wanted to list all his hate filled reasons why she couldn't very well fall in love with a creature that was supposed to be her natural enemy. Her eyes shined so pure in her steadfast gaze at him that he knew in that moment… there was no corruption in her from this decision. She wouldn't be swayed, she wouldn't be convinced, and she would remain undaunted in her decision.

The elder rabbit finally noticed the forces surrounding his own. He couldn't count them all in an instant, but he estimated there were at lease fifty or so mammals, mixed between predator and prey. All of them were armed and ready to fight together. His family would be destroyed… slaughtered, if he chose to continue his adamant desire to slay the fox.

He didn't need to be told what they wanted. Despite everything, he valued his family above all else. He wanted their continued survival and well-being.

"Take him," he breathed at last. Judith's own breath hitched at the words. She couldn't believe they came from her father. She didn't think he would relent, even with the prospect of death.

"And the other predators?" Lord Bogo asked, taking the chance to step forward, the rabbits backing away and closing a circle around their father.

Lord Hopps looked back to his wife, who nodded in understanding.

"They are free," he said, staring at the earth at his feet. "Stand down, my children… let them pass."

Meeko walked over and handed Judith a dagger, seemingly reading that she should be the one to free the fox. She thanked him nearly silently, a smirk crossing the raccoon's features slowly, and cut Nicholas's bonds. The fox barely became free when he turned and pulled Judith into a forceful but still mindfully gentle embrace. He said nothing.

The other predators shuffled slowly and patiently to the mammals of their salvation, passing Nicholas and Judith on their way.

Nicholas spotted all the mammals he grew to know in passing. There was Gideon, giving him a teary grin, Akela, who gave Judith a low bow, Nathan, who could barely contain his joy with skipped steps and near stumbles, Sabor, who looked at the pairing fondly and nodded. The last familiar face he saw was Rose, who looked so torn that Nicholas could almost feel her heart breaking.

He spared a glance back to Heather, the rabbit tapping her feet and nibbling her own claws. Tears streaked her face as she tried to keep the rear of the grouping and hide her emotional state.

Separating from Judith, he walked slowly and with purpose over to Heather, who saw him and stiffened with fear.

The rabbits surrounding her saw his goal and stepped tentatively in his way, protecting her.

Nicholas smiled kindly and gestured to Heather, allowing her to make the choice herself. She let curiosity get the best of her and stumbled forward.

Upon exiting the fray and calming her siblings with whispers and vacant stares, she stepped up to Nicholas, who leaned in and whispered something in her ear. It was so low that none of the other rabbits around could hear it, but Heather's eyes widened and the tears flowed far more freely as she put a paw to her mouth and started to sob.

The patriarch Hopps wanted to know what was going on, but kept himself silent.

Nicholas gestured to Rose to come back for a brief moment.

The two mammals were looked at with many looks of curiosity and intrigue.

"I'm so sorry!" Heather bawled, hugging Rose around her midsection and not even caring to contain herself at this point. A few mammals seemed to be getting the idea of what was happening and looked away awkwardly. "I'm so very sorry. I treated you so terribly and abused my power over you in the worst manner."

Rose silenced her with a kiss and let the tears fall from her own eyes. Judith looked over at Nicholas with a most appreciative gaze, to which he grinned slightly.

"I love you, Rose… and I didn't tell you because I…" Heather stammered. Rose pulled her into a hug and let her weep once more.

When the exchange settled down, Heather turned to her father, his look full of fear. He knew what was coming.

"I'm going with them," she said simply. Judith approached her father as well… sharing a look with her sister, to which they both smiled sadly….

Lord Hopps… Stuart Hopps… was stunned by the hug both his daughters gave him, silent in their action but all the meaning in the world making its way to his heart. Despite everything, they loved him. He still didn't agree with their choices… but what parent fully ever does.

He had to let them go… he had to give them this decision. He wouldn't fight it… for the sake of the love they still showed him that he wished never to lose.

Embracing them tightly, starting to let out tears of his own, he whispered words of farewell only the two daughters could hear, backing away after what seemed like an eternity.

"I can't force my daughters to stay, under these circumstances," Lord Hopps said sternly to both Nicholas and Rose, "but I can demand one thing as a father…" he sucked in a breath.

Both mammals tensed for a second, worried about a last second change in heart to try killing them or restraining his daughters from leaving.

Tears dripped from his eyes, the words he spoke apparently so pained him that he wished never to speak them in this manner again, "Take care of my daughters…"

The red fox tod walked up to Lord Hopps and offered a paw, to which the elder rabbit eyed him.

"I am Nicholas, son of Honey," he said respectfully. The old bunny tentatively grabbed his paw and shook with a firm grip, nodding slightly.

The vixen went a little wide-eyed in fear as Nicholas ushered her over.

"I… I'm … uh…" she stammered, unable to look her subjugator for years. She cleared her throat and took a breath.

"Rose… Rose Enchantee," she finally spoke softly. Lord Hopps took her paw and pressed it between both of his for a few seconds before turning to hug his daughters one last time.

"Lord Hopps," sounded Bogo. The rabbit turned to face the buffalo.

"I know this isn't… ideal… but thank you for sparing the bloodshed. Your daughter here," he gestured to Judith, "may have called upon us to aid in saving Nicholas here… but she begged us not to harm you. She loves you very much. All of you. We promise you no harm provided none of you attack us and prompt us to defend ourselves."

Hopps nodded and turned to walk away, his kits confused and lost as to what to do. Both respective leaders of their clans beckoned their forces to separate and Lord Bogo led everyone away from the Hopps manor.

His troops, predator and prey alike, helped the displaced predators keep pace as a group as they all made their way back to his estate.

Bogo and Nicholas shared a look as they knew they couldn't stay there long, but everyone could rest up and get fed properly, readying for a long journey together.

"Know anyone who can help me cook for a large group such as this?" the buffalo inquired to the fox. "Sad to say I don't have much in the way of good help on that front. My wife would be ideal but I don't want to over burden her."

The red fox smiled, as did Judith, as he opened his muzzle to say, "I know just the mammal."

0000000

Arriving back at the estate late in the night, everyone able was working double time to make accommodations for the multitude of newly freed predators. By the count that was made, seventy-two mammals were released, including Heather and Judith.

Gideon was tired, but more than willing to help prepare food for everyone come the following morning. Nothing extravagant was made, but no one complained when a hearty soup was served to all the inhabitants welcomed into the Bogo home.

After explaining their cause and goals to all, as well as pushing the point that it was crucial they leave as soon as they could, Bogo and his resulting council offered safe passage away from the Prey ruled lands and into new lands run by systems that allowed predators rights beyond all of their dreams. The made sure to let all know it was now their choice to come and if they wished to make their own way, it would be respected. Their goal was simple. To allow a mammal to choose their life.

They did say their cause was growing and needed more to support it, to which a resounding amount of support was given. Most if not all of the predators rescued wished to help more like themselves. Maybe they wouldn't fight, but Bogo said they wouldn't be forced to. Supportive roles were needed and many positions were vacant.

By midday, Bogo was done making rounds explaining everything personally and left it to his colleagues.

Bread, cheese, and fruit were passed around to all to sate their hunger until dinner could be prepared later, to no one's complaint.

Nicholas walked up next to Bogo, giving him a knowing smirk.

"You've gotten soft, Captain," he quipped. The buffalo eyed him back and snorted.

"War tempers the hide but never the heart," he replies. "That… and my wife has a good hoof in all that makes me what I am now."

"So, what now?" the fox asked. "I know we're heading north, through the forest… but we must be making a few stops to supply ourselves for a journey that far north and with this many mammals."

"Honey is waiting for us…" the buffalo stated. "The plan was always to find her and she would have a relay point set for us, as well as joining us to guide us past all the possible obstacles that would hinder us."

"Where would this 'relay point' be?"

"It'll be near a city at the edge of the forest," he explained.

"and then?" Nicholas inquired.

"We're going to be headed back to Animalia," Bogo revealed. "You're going home."

Chapter Text

It was accurate to say that the next three days were quite the flurry of activity.

For the day after being fed and rested, Bogo's group made for preparations to leave. Altering their original plan, they quickly raided and freed the predators in surrounding areas. For a full day, the mammals rescued from the Hopps manor waited while more predators were rescued.

Bogo's forces cut a quick path of destruction, using hit and run tactics, going full force to overwhelm other Lords. It was fairly simple, and debatably easy. Other Lords weren't so well protected or watchful as a large family of rabbits. The family may not have been the most skilled combatants in a real fight, but they worked well together. Other Lords simply used their wealth to hire mercenaries. It was easy enough for Bogo to empty his coffers to a certain point to keep them away for a day or two.

They saved another forty-two mammals from a collective five lords. After that, and Meeko's group procuring and storing goods and supplies for their trip, the entire crowd moved en masse from the Bogo estate and left it a burning husk.

It took a full day to traverse the distance from the estate to the borders of the northern forests. Once inside, travel became rather slow. Many were worried they would be followed and tracked, though Bogo had already taken care of that.

Sending Phillippe and several other enduring mammals in a different direction, they left an obvious track of hoof and paw prints to follow, doing their best to cover for the exodus of the rescued mammals and their escort. They would make for a different path and rejoin the main group further ahead. Hopefully, any pursuing forces would take the bait and press forward in the wrong direction. Once they make it far enough into the forests, it wouldn't matter much anyways. Even armies didn't like trying to circumvent the large number of obstacles that came with moving through the large forest. Aside from legends of cutthroat marauders and tribal groups, the forest was a difficult terrain to traverse for the unprepared.

Honey's written directions and coded reports made it much easier for them to travel without much delay and still avoid any spots that might prove difficult in many ways.

On this day, Nicholas took in the surrounding beauty of the forest and rising cliffs in the morning mist. Sunbeams pierced the mist and canopy, raking the soft loam with warming rays. The fox could feel his fur radiate warmth with each beam he walked through.

He wondered what Judith was on with now. Ever since her declaration of love at his near execution, the lovely doe had been 'busy' with doing her best to help his captain and everyone to get accommodated. He couldn't deny it was necessary nor inappropriate, but he did lament slightly at the lack of resolution with the boiling emotions that clearly spilled from her when she was willing to die with him.

He knew she was avoiding him. It was clear in the passing glances she gave when he entered the same room or passed each other while walking. He would have addressed it, but each time she found some way to busy herself and assist a mammal… any mammal with something they needed. That wasn't difficult to do since plenty of the mammals traveling had one trouble or another to need help with.

Nicholas also knew, she wasn't regretful of her actions. Embarrassed seemed a more accurate description. He could see it in those eyes. Those wonderfully vibrant violet eyes. She didn't know how to approach him after that unconventional admission of love and while he wished to respect her space… he also needed to resume some sort of rapport with her before she lost all her nerve to even be near him entirely.

He asked around and learned that Judith was going out to collect some kindling and nearby vegetation for provisions. So now, he was skulking around trying to find her.

Spotting a waterfall in the distance, he figured he could stop over and splash some water in his face before continuing. The fox took a swig of his canteen, noticing it was near empty, shrugging at the convenience of the moment.

Approaching the waterfall, Nicholas noted it was rather tucked in, nestled between two cliff edges and pooling slightly before spilling over into a stream. He dipped his canteen into the water and let it fill, bubbling as the air was replaced with cool fluid.

The tod looked over to the side and noticed there was a basket laying there, filled with small, dry twigs and various fruits and mushrooms. Judith must be nearby, if that was her basket. He dared to hope, especially since she wasn't the only one out and about gathering provisions.

Looking around, lifting his now filled canteen to his muzzle, Nicholas raised a brow at seeing something he was rather not expecting.

A dress…

More specifically, a dress with no mammal wearing it. It was laying on a rock next to the edge of the water. The fox dared to pick it up, wondering who it belonged to and swiveled his head around to scan for the owner of the garments. Nothing.

He sighed and gently tried to place the dress back down on the rock….

The surface of the water in front of him erupted to shock the fox into dropping the dress… right into the water.

He wasn't too concerned with it at that very second as a blush flooded his cheeks and he stumbled back, with a very naked rabbit climbing her way from the waterfall's pool. Landing on his rump, the fox steadied himself as Judith slicked her ears back and shook her hips. Water dripped from every inch of her and even her tail shivered to shake loose droplets.

Judith wiped away the water from her eyes and froze. Noticing Nicholas for the first time, she saw him drinking in her form, a blush so powerfully filling her cheeks that she and the fox could have sworn the dampness in her face should have evaporated in a burst of steam. Her jaw worked open and close as she tried to find the words to address him.

Instead, she clenched her eyes shut, as if that would diminish her shame at being seen like this, and fell to the ground, her legs bent back at the knees and both paws covering her most vital areas. One paw darted between her thighs and the other covered her breasts. In the moment of shame, her ears flopped over her face and covered her eyes. A meek whimper escaped her, striking a chord within Nicholas that sent pleasurable shivers up his spine.

Turning to the side, he averted his gaze but the image was already burned into his mind. If he weren't already in love with the doe, he might have fallen in love with her all over again. He always noticed her beauty, but this was almost too much for him to take in.

"I'm sorry, my lady," he gasped, scrambling to a kneeling position and turning the opposite direction. "I did not know you were… uh… yeah…"

"Judith," her small voice came back. The fox dared to turn, seeing a most appealing and heart wrenching sight. Still naked and covering herself haphazardly, one of the grey doe's eyes peeked from beneath an ear, shining bright as her head was tilted down. Her breathing was ragged and strained from the shock of the whole situation. Her nose even twitched rapidly. Nicholas felt a savage mammal within him trying to claw its way out at the unintentional allure of the display that Judith exuded.

"What?" he asked after a moment's hesitation.

"You never call me by my name… always, my lady," the rabbit spoke in mild disappointment.

"I… I'm sorry," Nicholas said once more… "Judith."

The rabbit smiled slightly.

"Why have you avoided me?" the fox dared to ask, knowing the doe had no means of fleeing or avoiding him this time. Her eyes swayed from side to side as she seemed to be mentally mulling over a plethora of excuses to hand him.

While she sat there, gathering her wits, Nicholas got up and sighed, seeing the dress soaking at the pool's edge. He began to remove his vest, drawing a worried glance from Judith as her legs clenched together and eyes widened.

"What are you doing?" she squeaked, blushing further as the fox removed his shirt. Pulling it over his head, he revealed the creamy fur of his chest and belly. She couldn't find the courage to move from her current predicament as Nicholas approached, a pleasant chill running through her body.

The fox lifted the shirt in his paws over Judith's head and slid the oversized garment to her over her body. The whole thing acted like a loose gown and covered her whole body enough to allow her the comfort to stand.

Rising to unsteady feet, the red fox tod helped to keep her from falling.

"Don't run," he near pleaded. The doe's nose twitched as she looked down in shame once more. She knew what he wanted to talk about. Her confession was true but she didn't know how to follow up on something like that when she didn't know his feelings on the matter. They may have shared a kiss but everything between them seemed tepid and complicated at best.

"I'm sorry," she whispered, padded over to a sun warmed rock to sit. The heat felt pleasant as Nicholas collected her dress from the water and laid it out to dry.

"Now then," the fox spoke, drawing a breath, "I think you and I need to have a conversation that is long overdue."

Judith nodded a little numbly, fearing that she was going to hear what she hoped to avoid for as long as possible.

Nicholas stared at her for a few seconds before continuing, "I want to properly respond to that lovely declaration of love you so wonderfully laid for all to hear." The doe pulled her legs under the hem of the shirt and pressed her face to her knees, running her arms through the sleeves and hugging said legs. She couldn't look him in the eyes right now. She feared those emerald orbs might pierce her heart and leave it in shreds if she stared too long once more.

"I just wanted you to know," the fox kept on, sliding closer to her, "that I'm touched you think of me that way."

"But you don't think the same of me," Judith stated, tears falling before she could stop them. Nicholas could only smile kindly as he took a breath.

"Actually," he smirked as the rabbit's ears perked, "I do love you as well, Judith."

The doe felt her heart soar, though instead of stopping the flow of tears, they renewed with newfound meaning.

"I love you too, Nicholas." The words left her before she could stop them, digging her face further into her knees as her toes curled over the stone. She felt so vulnerable and naked now… well more in an emotional sense now.

She felt a tug as her muzzle was lifted and she whined slightly upon seeing Nicholas's eyes staring deeply into hers as he stood in front of her and tilted her chin up.

Their lips met gently, a slow kiss sparking a torrential storm of emotions between the two of them. Their fur raised and stood on end as chills ran through them both and the kiss deepened. Opening their muzzles slightly their tongues intertwined in a heated display. Judith's smaller, smoother tongue was overpowered by the rougher one of Nicholas. She whimpered a bit into his mouth, making him press further against her and making her lean back, her legs wrapping around him for balance.

Judith's paws found purchase on his chest, her claws raking pleasantly up and down through his fur as he wrapped his paws around her waist and neck. They separated to take a breath, with the grey doe running a paw over Nicholas's muzzle.

"I'm really glad no one else found me," Judith whispered. "I think I might have actually died of shame otherwise." The fox chuckled.

"Careful what you say, my lady," the tod chided her, "there is still a chance someone may intrude upon the both of us yet."

The grey bunny looked around nervously, hoping he was wrong.

"I'm just teasing, my dear Judith," Nicholas laughed. "Now, would you like to explain why you were so… aversive these past few days."

His inquisitive manner might have ruined the mood any other time, but the rabbit was riding high on the knowledge that her fears were assuaged. She sighed happily but with a tinge of regret for her actions.

"I feared that you wouldn't feel the same as me," Judith divulged tentatively. She started to bury her head into Nicholas's chest fur, breathing in deeply of his musky scent. "I guess I didn't know what would happen… but the overwhelming idea that my confession meant nothing if you didn't return my feelings made me so afraid to face you."

"I'll bet you feel like a dumb bunny now, huh?" the fox teased, to which she rolled her eyes at him.

"Yeah, maybe I do," she sighed. "Just don't hold it over me too much, or I might be forced to beat you until you forget it."

"I wouldn't mind forgetting that, as long as I can keep the image of your beautiful…." the tod cut himself off before letting that thought leave his muzzle. Judith's face heated up once more as she realized what he might have been saying. "…your… beautiful… form…" Upon finishing the thought carefully, he looked down and saw the doe looking up at him, her buck teeth biting into her bottom lip.

"Just…" she started to murmur, "just don't… d-don't judge m-me too harshly…."

Nicholas looked confused now.

"Whatever do you mean?" he asked, perturbed.

"I mean… I'm not… that… that great… compared to other rabbits," she replied in a slight stammer.

"If I might be so bold," remarked the red fox, "I dare say you are the most ravishing mammal I have ever laid eyes upon. And that display earlier only solidified my claim. You were and still are the cutest female I've ever had the pleasure to know."

Judith tilted her head back down upon being called 'cute' feeling overly flush at the delightful accusation.

"You know…" she started, "it's a little…. Insulting for another mammal to call a bunny 'cute'." The doe looked back up to a smugly grinning fox.

"Oh? Really?" came his snarky tone. "I wasn't just calling a bunny cute though… I was calling YOU cute. There's a difference."

"I… fine." She wouldn't fight it nor did she want to.

Giving the bunny another quick kiss, he picked her up and set her down in a more comfortable position, sighing and lying next to her on the warm boulder.

"Do you think…" Nicholas's voice faded as he tried to collect his thoughts.

"Usually, but sometimes my mind decides to be take some leisure time," she sarcastically commented to his half-finished thought.

"Oh, har-har. No, I meant… would your father be a future problem? He seemed to turn around too quickly on the whole deal from trying to kill me to shaking my paw. Just a thought…"

Judith gave her fox a soft look as they both lay on their sides, half-dressed and reveling in the warmth of the sun with the sound of the waterfall nearby.

"I doubt it, honestly," she bluntly replied. "My father didn't like anything that happened. That much was clear. Even having to let us go, but… he's no fool. My father is many things but I've never doubted one thing… he loves his family. As vindictive as he might have been and possibly still is…. He wasn't going to risk the safety of his children in a fight where he would have lost many of my siblings in battle."

"That's… great to hear," the fox sighed. "I can't say I haven't been worried that your father would pursue us himself and try taking you back by force."

The doe chuckled.

"It's not something to entirely rule out. I'm very sure though… that we won't have to worry over him for a long while."

"Just in case," Nicholas said, running a paw over her head and raking his claws along her long ears, eliciting a shiver from the doe as her toes curled, "maybe you should go by a different name. Hopps isn't well received and easy to follow should others hear it and share that knowledge."

"What did you have in mind?" the rabbit asked, guiding the fox's paw to a spot on her ear she wanted scratched more, making her foot thump the air as he took the hint.

"Well you called me Silence… which is what I'm going with from now on, excepting a few mammals that can call me Nicholas, but I've been thinking… and I believe Valiance suits your radiant spirit."

Judith could have melted under his loving gaze as he gave the base of her ears a good scratch. She returned his gaze and let out a soft purr of approval at his actions.

"I like it…" she whispered.

"Good," the fox chirped, pulling her in to press their noses together in an endearing display, nuzzling his wet nose against her smaller, twitching one. "So, it's settled… we are Silence and Valiance."


While taking longer than they expected, it was no less unwelcome that the dress Judith wore took a while to dry properly before she donned it once again and the two traversed back to the main camp.

Bogo and Gideon were making preparations for lunch for many of the mammals, graciously welcoming the introduction of more ingredients. Nearby, Heather and Rose had taken to help cut up the things that various mammals had acquired and made sure to cut away anything hazardous or dirt laden.

Meeko had made it an annoying habit to lick his chops and try stealing a taste of certain things now and then, only to be promptly and properly chastised by Gideon by way of a wooden spoon to the head, much to Bogo's approval and subsequent laughter. The two happened to become fast friends with such a common ground between the two being their culinary leanings. Despite them being predator and prey, they were able to agree well enough in their dietary decisions concerning cuisine. It didn't hurt that Gideon wasn't really much of a meat eater, even before his indenture as the Hopps cook.

Luckily for most involved, the predators of the group kept any such requests for meat to a minimum, knowing full well that even trying to ask that bugs or chicken be cooked might make the prey unnerved, despite their obvious acceptance of them.

Nicholas saw the wondrous smiles on mammals faces and the intermingling of predator and prey. Everyone was getting along well and any rifts that might have formed seemed to be healing.

He spotted Nathan, the rambunctious wolf energetically chatting with every new face he could find and barely hiding his newfound excitement at being free. His tail swished behind him in such a blur that the fox couldn't tell if it was swaying or vibrating.

Judith found her way back to Nicholas, after having dropped off her helping of supplies. Her paws were in front of her as she fiddled with them, drawing a look of bewilderment from the fox as he wondered what she was getting her heart strings tangled around now.

In a flash, one of her paws darted out to slip into his own and held on. She did a double take, looking up into Nicholas's emerald pools before settling on sliding next to him, still holding his paw, and leaning her head against him.

"Bout time!" came a deep voice with resounding laughter behind the duo. They jumped and turned, their paws separating with a delayed tug. Finnick had at some time padded behind them and admired the view of their fumbling romantic leanings, much to both mammal's embarrassment.

"Oh, don't mind me," he stated with a growing grin, reeking with a smug attitude. "I wouldn't want to intrude on all that sickly sweet lovey dovey stuff."

"Aren't you supposed to be gathering certain herbs and such for medicinal uses?" Nicholas jibed at the small fox, a little annoyance creeping into his tone as his eye twitched. He was less than enthusiastic at his rabbit's courageous intimacy being cut short by the diminutive creature.

"Yeah yeah… stupid, gross plants," he grumbled. "Why do I always get stuck with the icky jobs?" The fennec begrudging stomped off into the forest, groaning and whining until he was out of earshot.

"Are you sure you needed to be snippy with him?" the doe asked with a raised brow. The tod turned his head with a 'hmm'.

"Uh... I suppose not…" Nicholas remarked, scratching at the back of his neck. "I was a little annoyed he ruined the moment. Foxes are pretty possessive over their mates… just warning you now. Besides, I think he's a tough guy. He can handle it."

"Possessive huh?" Judith inquired in passing with a digit to her chin. "Would you believe a rabbit is too?"

The red fox raised an eyebrow and responded, "If you're asking the question as if you don't know… I doubt I should think so either. But, yes, I could believe it. Though I must say… foxes are rather…." he flourished a paw as he tried to come up with the words to properly convey his next thought, "unusually attached to those they chose to be mates with."

"How's it unusual compared to any other pairings of mammals?" she inquired curiously, the duo finding a log to rest upon while waiting for the supposed meal to be finished and distributed.

"Well," he began to explain, taking a sip of water from his canteen, "foxes tend to spread their populations out in a nomadic fashion, making finding mates difficult. So, when we do find one… we're usually very protective and attached, more so than other mammals with more populous options."

"Foxes don't have homesteads or close knit communities?" Judith asked in confusion. She hadn't really looked into too many social structures concerning other mammals but this one seemed out of place.

"We do… though they are few. Certainly none around here. Most foxes don't like to stick around populous areas due to stereotypical tropes that follow them around, so many take to the road as nomads and traveling merchants."

The small doe mulled those thoughts over as she looked out from her relaxed position and spotted Rose smashing a few raspberries in Heather's face, laughing as the rabbit looked confused then made a mocking gesture of being a savage rabbit with blood on her muzzle. A few other around her laughed, taking in the display, making Heather suddenly self-conscious in knowing others besides the vixen had seen that.

Judith smiled. Despite her sister's obvious displays of contempt and lording her elder sibling status on her, she couldn't help but be befuddled, yet happy, that her sister had this other side to her that seemed far freer and kind than what might have been a façade all these years.

Meeko took a break from getting twacked on the head by a wooden utensil and padded over to the duo, holding a small package in his paws. He was rubbing a smarting pain on his head, likely from a fresh hit to the head, as he approached Judith specifically.

Holding out the package, the rabbit and fox both stared in wonder and curiosity.

"What's this?" the doe asked simply, pointing to the package.

"You dropped this in your desperate attempt to reach us," the raccoon replied, dropping the package gently in the bunny's waiting paws. She unwrapped it and found it to be the book she was clasping to herself for dear life when she ran away. It was frayed a bit at the binding and the cover looked to be cleaned but still stained with dirt.

"I'm sorry I couldn't do better," Meeko said with an apologetic shrug. "Joseph… one of the tigers from that night, found it when we made our way back to Bogo's estate and I wanted to make sure it was more presentable before giving it back."

Tears filled the rabbit's eyes as she hopped down and hugged the raccoon. He looked surprised and gave Nicholas a nervous stare, to which he rolled his eyes and gestured for him to get on with it. He returned the hug and patted the doe on the back before separating.

"It's wonderful, thank you," she breathed. Sitting back down on the log, she opened it and flipped through the pages, reveling that she now had something to read.

"I'll leave you to it then," Meeko said with a bow and slipped away to follow his twitching nose.

"I wonder how that mammal gets anything done sometimes when his stomach seems to do all his thinking for him…" Nicholas mused aloud to Judith. The grey bunny didn't look up from her book as she kicked her legs and let them sway back and forth.

"I'll bet some lucky girl will sweep him off his feet with the most marvelous cooking imaginable," she mentioned in passing, still focused on her book. The fox couldn't help a certain thought crossing his mind as he barked a few good laughs, drawing Judith's lopsided gaze.

"If that's the case… I think Gideon is already ahead in that race." Nicholas clutched his sides as he laughed harder.

"I doubt Meeko is into that," the doe said, rolling her eyes.

"Want to make it into a bet?" her mate inquired with a teasing stare and roguish smirk.

"That Meeko will fall for Gideon? Because of his cooking?" she stared at the raccoon, who was happily hovering near the pot that the portly fox was stirring. She shrugged. "As much as that would be fun… I don't doubt that little ringtail might actually not care as long as it gets him delicious food as a bonus. So… no. I won't be betting against that."

"Boo…" Nicholas groaned, "you're no fun."

Judith giggled.

"Relax, Nicholas," she comforted him with a small pet down his back, "I'm sure you'll find something else to turn into… 'fun'."

The fox tod smiled deviously.

"I already have a few ideas," he stated, looking down at Judith, who stopped reading long enough to look back at him and grow a bit disconcerted at his stare.

"W-what?" she lightly stammered.

"Well, I was just thinking… you might want to acquire some skills that might benefit you in the future."

"Like what…?"

"Archery, swords, daggers, medicinal aid, etc. Take your pick," Nicholas explained.

Judith's eyes became a brilliant pair of beacons as she took quickly to loving the idea.

"Yes!" she exclaimed, bouncing on the log and thumping the air with her feet as she set down the book.

"To which one?" the tod asked, feeling he already knew the answer.

"All of them!" was the immediate reply. She threw her arms around her fox.

"Of course," Nicholas chided himself, deigning to pet the bunny latched onto him as she purred with excitement. "But just so I'm clear… which one first?"

Judith seemed to mull that decision over for a minute or so in silence, with the fox waiting patiently, until…

"Swords?" came her tentative decision, to which he nodded.

"Good, we'll start after we eat and let ourselves digest," he told her.


After having eaten a very filling and savory stew, the duo found a few practice swords to borrow from a cart hauling their weapons and armor.

They found a secluded spot near the camp but out of clear sight to practice as they wished. Judith tossed her wooden sword between her paws, testing its weight and smiling at being able to train with her newfound mate.

He took his own stance a few feet away from her, holding his sword two-pawed and letting the tip point downward as he stood sideways and pulled the handle close to the side of his muzzle.

A glint shown in both of their eyes as the rabbit became excited at the prospect of becoming a swordsmammal and the fox felt a renewing surge of energy he hadn't felt in years at having an opponent he was happy to spar with.

"Let's begin," he said.

Judith let loose a yelping battle cry and lunged forth with her sword, a grin evident on her muzzle.

Nicholas could only smirk in return at her vigor, her ferocity… her valiance.

This was going to be entertaining. 

Chapter Text

Judith let loose a yelping battle cry and lunged forth with her sword, a grin evident on her muzzle.

Nicholas could only smirk in return at her vigor, her ferocity… her valiance.

This was going to be entertaining.

Watching the false sword approach straight and true towards him, Nicholas had to give the rabbit this… she had a sure grip. A sure grip wouldn't ensure a target stood still though.

The red fox side stepped effortlessly, knowing this would be the first move, as many amateur sword users would attempt a first strike. He didn't completely avoid the strike, instead whipping the tip of his sword from its downward position, raising it to parry and redirect Judith's stabbing strike.

The practice swords made a short grinding sound of wood on wood as he let the tip glide past his shoulder and twisted on the pads of his feet to rotate his sword over his head from behind, disconnecting the glance and using his momentum to arc the blade at surprising speed towards the doe's exposed back.

Judith could see from her peripheral in that split second what he was about to do and clenched her teeth in preparation, unable to avoid anything in midair as she was.

The sword approached mercilessly…

Until Nicholas slowed at the last second and turned the sword to its flat side to slap her rump with a wooden thwack.

The bunny landed less than gracefully, nearly tumbling and falling. Once she got a semblance of her bearings, she turned a glaring gaze to Nicholas and used a now free paw to rub her behind with a growing blush.

"You suck…" she breathed.

"You wanted to spar," the fox defended, his paws splayed out. "And I'm not in the habit of striking a lady. This seemed like a fair compromise."

"My butt though? Really?" the frustrated rabbit inquired with a paw still rubbing her rump.

"Oh, come on, my lady…" Nicholas started before seeing the doe give him an angry stare, "Judith," he quickly corrected. "All I wanted to do was spare you unnecessary pain. Was that so bad? A hit to the behind sounds a sight better than your back or legs."

Judith looked as if she considered the thought, the fox's repressed snark starting to resurface after having been forgotten for years. He tried to stop it but couldn't help uttering the following line…

"And a sight better it was."

The doe blushed further and began staring daggers at the smiling fox.

"YOU! You know that was an accident!" she bellowed, leaping forward and slashing her fake sword at the fox, who defended and parried the rabbit's rapid and haphazard strikes with relative ease.

In between strikes, Nicholas decided to ask, "I've been meaning to ask… but why… were you swimming in the water… and naked I might add?"

Judith's strikes faltered for the briefest of moments but her ferocity did not.

"I was… hot," she mumbled between thrusts and strikes. "I didn't have a change of clothing so I took a chance at going… you know."

"Naked," the fox supplied with a parry and tap to the rabbit's head, causing her to groan from the pain and the unsolicited correction to her aversion of using that word.

Hearing her growl, Nicholas tried and barely succeeded in holding back a laugh at such a small mammal trying and utterly failing to growl aggressively at him. It only made her more adorable, not that he would ever tell her that… well maybe, but not now.

The red fox was using one paw to wield his blade now, using a more fencing like style to defend against the furious rabbit. her strikes were getting less powerful as her reserves of energy depleted and his ears flicked at hearing her panting.

"You're so insufferable," she belted out, poising for a strike as she tried to twirl on a foot. Nicholas took advantage of her temporary defenselessness as she drew her blade back and gave the back of her knee a tap, moving up to her arm and snapping lightly at the wrist as well. The double hit wasn't powerful, but with her weight displaced on one leg, hitting behind the knee made it buckle in reflex and the wrist hit made her paw open in surprise as she dropped the sword.

Judith was falling backward with a wide-eyed expression of shock on her muzzle. Nicholas used his free paw to wrap around her waist, catching her mid fall and directing the false blade to her throat. Said rabbit barely recognized the tip an inch from her collarbone as she looked into the fox's emerald eyes and tried her best not to swoon. An effort that was betrayed by a squeaking whimper that only made Nicholas lean in closer and smile deviously.

"You'll learn to love it," he replied without any real hitch to his breath, which slightly angered the bunny as her chest heaved with labored breaths.

"I don't suppose you would care that I want to skip any lesson teaching that?" she asked in an attempt to be snarky.

Dropping the fake sword, Nicholas leaned in close, feeling the wash of Judith's breath and seeing her nose twitch anxiously. Still supporting her in a reclined position he ran a paw over her head and slicked back her ears as he opened his muzzle…

"Frankly my doe, I don't give a lamb."

He dipped his muzzle in to kiss the stunned rabbit. She let out a surprised squeak into the fox's mouth, raising her paws up to grab at his chest, her legs going limp.

As much as she squirmed in his arms, Judith didn't resist or push him away. When their muzzles parted, her tongue made errant licks at his nose, giving it soft and short licks as her eyes gently shut. Nicholas was stunned by the turnabout and while he didn't know everything about other mammals' courting methods, he was slightly familiar with this one. In courting between rabbits, they might reach a point where they will 'groom' each other. Judith was apparently lost in such a manner at that moment as she moved lower to lick the fur underneath his chin, nipping slightly but not actually hurting him. She was now supporting herself as she stood on her toes, nuzzling her head up under her fox's.

Nicholas was still trying to get a mental grip on the situation. He'd never really had to deal with affection like this. He knew foxes did something similar, but the fact remained that he wasn't raised by a fox or in a nurturing method that favored a fox idealism. So, he followed his instincts and wrapped his paws tentatively around the doe, feeling her shiver and tense up, adding more licks to his collarbone and neck as she picked up the pace and started panting again. Her warm breath seeped deep into his fur and tickled every nerve that he had.

Suddenly, he sniffed the air and took in a scent that became dense in the air around him. It smelled like the rabbit in his arms… but far stronger than usual. He darted his gaze down and saw her eyes still closed, her chin running itself all over his neck and shoulders.

His eyes widened in realization. She was marking him. As her mate.

Fueled by a sudden urge to not be outdone, the red fox tod pulled Judith's head up under his chin, to which he rubbed all over the top of her head. She leaned back and tilted her head to the side, exposing her neck. Nicholas took the invitation and marked her there too, getting both sides. Her nose twitched as she breathed in and out, taking in his exotic scent.

All at once, her eyes shot open and she stumbled backward, tripping over her own large feet and rolling once before flopping painfully on her rump.

"I'm sorry!" she squealed. "I didn't mean to do that… it was… just…"

"Instinct," the tod finished for her, making it a statement, not a question. She mulled the thought over and blushed profusely, crossing her feet over each other.

After a few seconds of nothing, she nodded.

"So," Nicholas began, dropping to a knee in front of Judith, "we've confessed our love for one another, kissed in a rather passionate embrace, had our first 'fight', and now marked each other as mates." He let out a curious 'hmm' at his own list.

The doe tried to make herself smaller under the fox's loving gaze, unable to deal with him and his antics, even if she kinda liked it.

"We keep going this route like we are in such a short time and we'll be old, married, with grandkits in a year," he explained with a guffaw of laughter. "Laws of time be damned."

Judith let out a nervous chuckle and saw her marked mate holding out a paw. She took it and he pulled her up.

"I'm sorry…," she mumbled out once more. "We can try and wash the marks out…" Nicholas thumped his paw a little hard on the rabbit's head. She winced, more in surprise than in pain. He barely thumped her hard enough to cause any pain, instead shocking her into shutting up for a second.

"You think I would have returned the favor if I wanted to wash it out?" he chided in question to her. His tongue clicked in a chastising manner towards the doe as he smiled. "Bad bunny."

Her brow furrowed as she went from anxious and timid to potentially frustrated pretty quickly, at least as far as looks were concerned. Before she could utter a word in response though….

A snap of a twig made both mammals turn their heads to the source of the sound.

"You idiot, now they'll see us…" a voice in the brush said.

"It's not MY fault," another whined. "Someone put a stick there…"

"There's sticks everywhere!" a third voice whisper yelled. "It's a forest. They tend to show up a lot."

"Will you three be quiet!" a fourth voice joined in. "I was enjoying watching them 'fight'."

"Yeah, like that's happening anymore," the second voice came again. "They already know we're here."

The group of misfit mammals stepped out of the brush to a very annoyed rabbit and fox, both tapping a foot and giving them glares.

In order from the first voice, as Nicholas recognized them, to last…

Meeko shuffled his feet in the dirt, looking guilty. Nathan averted his eyes away and tried to whistle… terribly. Surprisingly, Heather was the third voice, with a silent Rose accompanying her. The fourth was evident to all, being Finnick, as recognized by the deep baritone that belonged to no other mammal.

Rose, to the surprise of all, stepped forward and spoke up in her sweet and gentle tone.

"I'm sorry we intruded on you," the vixen began. "We heard you were sparring and this group wanted to see. When we approached though… you two were…" Rose blushed at the fresh memory, "engaged in other activities… we didn't know if leaving might make you aware so we chose to stay put until you left. I promise we… well most of us… had no intentions of violating your privacy."

Both Nicholas and Judith's expressions softened at the sincerity of the potentially most sensible member of the group. The rabbit sighed first, followed by her fox, as she waddled forward and gave the shy vixen a hug.

"You are way too sweet for your own good, you know that?" the bunny doe asked Rose in rhetoric. "I can see why my sister is interested in you." Despite the red fur, everyone present could swear Rose blushed a bit with an awkward smile.

"As for the rest of you," Judith continued, barely looking the rest of the entourage but knowing they probably tense up upon hearing her tone, "I highly suspect your intentions were nowhere near as pure."

Finnick barked a laugh and said, "While I enjoyed the show… I actually came for a different reason. Bogo has something for you two when you're…. done 'sparring'."

Heather gave the small fox a good slap to the back of the head.

"Ow! Watch the ears you stupid..." Finnick started, growling low until he looked around and huffed a breath, seeing the raised eyebrows and near death glares boring into him. "Just watch the ears… please."

"Well," Nicholas piped up, "before anything else either embarrasses us or Judith here begins to consider beating all of you to a pulp, I think we'll take our leave." He then roped an arm around the bunny and led her away from the ensemble.

"Oh, we're way past considering," the doe mumbled to herself, knowing full well that the mammal with the largest ear to body ratio could hear her. Finnick grumbled something under his own breath that no one could make out and padded off on his own.

The group exchanged awkward looks and glances, unsure what to do now. Rose led Heather away, obviously knowing it was best to leave well enough alone.

Nathan turned to Meeko and waved an enthusiastic 'hello'.

"I don't mean to sound like I'm ditching you kid…" Meeko mentioned, scratching the back of his neck, "but I have to return to my original scouting duty." With that, he meandered off on his own, much like Finnick had.

Poor Nathan looked around with his tail swishing happily, until he looked around and saw he was alone once more. He whined and started to run back to the main camp.

00000000

Nicholas and Judith approached Bogo, following the directions of a few nearby mammals who last saw him. He was outside a wagon loaded with weapons and armor. He himself had pulled it along most of the time they had traveled, purposefully giving the tigers or anyone else for that matter, a break.

The buffalo was shifting a few objects around, as if looking for something. He noticed the duo coming towards him and turned back to the wagon, pulling two satchels he had on the edge into view.

"Glad you came," he greeted them. "Though, I won't deny I wasn't expecting you for a good while since you were sparring."

Both mammals frowned.

"We were interrupted," Nicholas bluntly stated. Bogo shrugged and didn't seem to care if that was the whole story or not.

"Regardless, I have something for the two of you if you so wish to receive it." The captain handed the satchels over to the rabbit and fox.

Judith was confused but opened it, unclear to what she had received. Nicholas, on the other hand, was giddy and expectant. He knew what he was hopefully about to see. Opening the satchel, he let out a ragged gasp.

Though folded up and difficult to gauge it's look as such, the red fox knew it was his old armor and gear. He pulled the items from their refuge. The upper portion was a forest green tunic with layered padding over most of it. The shoulder, bicep, and hip areas had metal scales that were woven with chain mail but still allowed the piece to be light. Anything that wasn't dyed the forest green was an earthy brown. It allowed the fox to take advantage of natural camouflage in both night and day environments. Arm wraps were removed next with small metal plates inserted in both sides of the part that enveloped the forearm. The portion that covered the paws were without tips, allowing him to extend his claws when he wore them. Rummaging around once more, the tod pulled out the green and brown pants. They looked more form fitting than the rest of the outfit, with heavy padding on the outer portions of both thighs and shins.

"It's your old garments," the buffalo explained. "I kept a hold of them, per Honey's request, and was able to find them before leaving my estate. I would have given them to you sooner… but Leonis," he pointed to one of the lions nearby, who waved back, "was making alterations to some rabbit armor for Judith here to wear."

The bunny doe perked up and began sifting through her satchel with far less confusion and more enthusiasm than earlier.

She pulled out all the parts and smiled. It was mostly just a bland brown but she figured she could dye it as necessary at a later date. The arm wraps looked thick but still conservative, looking perfect for both extremes of weather and usable with a bow if she went that route. The chest piece was a multi-layered sleeveless tunic. There were various plate armor pieces attached to the chest and shoulder areas, spread far enough apart to give her free range of movement and block most bladed weapons from dealing effective wounds to her. The portion for the legs embarrassed her slightly. She was used to a long skirt but the tight fitting pants presented to her were much like Nicholas's, a thin stretchy material with padded armor outer leg attachments. There were also feet wraps, simple and well-padded on the bottom, Judith couldn't wait to try everything on.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you…mmm mmmm mmm," she started blathering until the fox clapped a paw over her muzzle.

"We very much appreciate everything and will wear these with pride," Nicholas responded more coherently than his babbling sparring partner. Bogo smiled gently and nodded, turning to continue fussing with the contents of the wagon.

"You might want to give your outfit some upkeep, Rouge," the buffalo said, "but it seems to be in good condition."

"Dually noted, Captain," the fox replied heartily. "Now I believe I will take this bunny here to try on her garments before she loses all sense of reason and tries to change right here for all to see."

Bogo raised an eyebrow at the fox, who tilted his head and sent him an awkward, lop-sided smile. Judith looked up and was close to staring daggers at him.

"Don't give me those looks," Nicholas sighed wearily. "I was mostly kidding."

Neither one let up on their gazes.

"Come on, my lady," voiced the tod, pulling the doe away, "Let's see how you faire in actual armor." Judith dropped her glare and giddily followed the fox, clutching her new garments like a kit with a new toy.

"One more thing," the buffalo stated mildly, patiently waiting for Nicholas to turn back and give his former Captain a curious glance. "I was trying to find this earlier but didn't until you were walking up."

Bogo reached back into the wagon and lifted a long, thin bundle. It was a cloth wrapping around something that looked to be a blade.

This time, it was the red fox's turn to be over exuberant. He darted closer and nearly impatiently took the bundle from the bull. Unwrapping with a colliding sense of care and urgency, Nicholas dropped the cloth as the handle of a sword was revealed. He gripped it and pulled the sword from the remnants of the cloth, allowing the furls to fall.

It was his old sword. One he was unable to keep after his discharge from the army. Since it was made with materials provided by the army and under the care of such… it was their property by default. Under the tutelage of the leading blacksmith, Nicholas was able to spend months constructing his own blade. This was the fruition of all his lessons and labor.

Made of steel folded upon itself over a dozen times, the fox's blade was forged by his and the captain's request to supply him with a weapon befitting his role at the time. It was a straight blade with only one bladed edge. The other side was blunt. It served him well enough to use as a means to stun opponents her never wished to kill. The blade itself had a differing shade of color between the spine and actual edge. The edge of the blade had a grain to it that seemed to mimic wood, with dark grey and even darker grey cascading down the edge. The hilt was long enough to use with two paws and then another inch of so, but wasn't so long it made wielding it one-pawed difficult should the need arise. The notched metal of the hilt was wrapped in dense cloth strands that gave it a very good grip. Connecting the blade to the hilt was something akin to a ball of steel that acted like a guard.

Since most mammals he might fight would be larger than himself and more powerful, Nicholas didn't feel the need to put a weighty and oversized guard on it that might ruin the flow of his sword skills and fluid movements, instead relying on parries and redirects to avoid his opponents strikes.

"It's best to allow you these now, since I'm sure we will face troubles in the near future," the buffalo explained. "And since I hear you are training the young rabbit here, I think she should have this." Bogo handed Judith a short sword that looked more like a long dagger, depending on the mammal that wielded it. It wasn't all that impressive, but she didn't care that much. The doe was never really entrusted with a real weapon before and would value the trust placed in her. Carefully sheathing the blade on a scabbard Bogo offered her, she and Nicholas offered their thanks once again and wandered off to other duties.

"Think you can handle that?" Nicholas asked her when they were out of earshot of most other mammals around them.

"Oh, please," scoffed Judith with an endearing smile. "I'm sure I'll be fine… I think."

The fox smirked at her and rubbed paw on her head, watching her tail shiver in delight.

"Well, we have a few days until we get to out next checkpoint to the north," he started, wondering how to best train his new mate. "I think we should start at the basics of training you."

Judith's ears perked up.

"Basics of what?" she asked, her nose twitching a little. "I thought you were training me with a blade?"

"I was but only so far as to gauge what you need to work on," the red fox tod explained, leaning in to kiss her cheek, drawing forth a blush to her face. "And you need to learn balance as well as gain some endurance."

"Hey!" the rabbit retorted, obviously offended. "I have plenty of endurance."

"You have spirit but when it comes down to something requiring you to exert yourself for a long time, like our sparring match… you lack stamina. Not an insult, I assure you, and I have a few ideas in mind."

Judith's eyes widened and eyebrows lifted in curiosity as she gently inquired, "Like what?"

Nicholas smirked devilishly.

000000000

A red blur traversed the gaps between trees as it leapt from branch to branch, using each one like a spring board. Occasionally, the blur would bounce with all due force from the trunk of a tree and vault their way to a higher branch.

Judith followed, panting and extremely tired, but determined. Her leaps were more sporadic and less graceful.

"Wait up!" she yelled. "Just because you are used to this doesn't mean you can leave me in the dust!"

Nicholas stopped his furious movements and stilled himself on a tree trunk, holding onto a branch, gazing out towards the grey rabbit.

"I thought you said you would beat me this time?" he shouted back from a fair distance away.

The doe growled, making the fox chuckle as he heard it clear across the expanse between them.

Four days had passed and a good distance had been covered by the group of mammals heading for Animalia. In that time, Nicholas and Judith had been able to establish to most of the mammals around the entourage that their names to be spoken outside the group was Silence and Valiance. Hopps was a fairly well-known name around the regions and Rouge Rogue had a few tales attached to it. Neither wanted too many to know their real names so Silence and Valiance it was.

The group was on their way to a border city that served as a gateway into the forests. Once they arrived, the plan was to pose a small number of mammals as merchants looking for supplies. Their own were dwindling and while none wanted to leave the valued protection of the forest, Bogo and a few others had to remind everyone that their supplies were not endless.

There was only so much that could be foraged from the forest itself and scouting missions turned up less and less as the days went on. Luckily, there was no shortage of fresh water with all the streams and falls that littered the forest with its pristine beauty. Nevertheless, they needed actual stores to draw from and the gateway city of Moosebridge was the nearest city to find.

They were still a good two days' journey away from it and had plenty of time to temper their plan.

In the past four days, Judith was almost mercilessly trained by the frustratingly irritating fox. He had done nothing untoward as a mentor, but the constant training from sun up to sunset took its toll on her mental capacity to deal with his strange humor.

Most of her training thus far included morning runs and endurance exercises. This morning was a more evolved method of that training as Nicholas had shown her that as small mammals, they could go where most larger ones couldn't and use their smaller stature aligned with speed and reflexes to take advantage of the environment.

At first, he had trouble trying to resurrect his skills long out of practice as his body was recently malnourished and somewhat abused. Once he got in the groove of running and training with her, he found a rhythm that allowed him to tap into the skills that never truly left him and quickly regained a level of talent that the doe didn't think he had. He tried to tell her as well that she could likely do the same if not potentially better with her naturally strong legs as a rabbit. All she lacked was balance and experience.

She was also allowed to spar with him in a limited fashion as she bettered herself slowly, failing to land a single blow thus far. She couldn't be too frustrated at that aspect though, since the fox had years of combat experience and she barely held a weapon before.

"Well, I wasn't expecting you to go so hard on me this time!" Judith yelled back. Hopping around with relative ease, the fox found his way back towards her, landing on an adjacent, slightly higher branch and leaning against the tree with a roguish smirk, not even out of breath.

"And why would I go easy on you?" he inquired gently, but with a teasing grin. "If I did that, you would only get angry that I let up on you. Wouldn't that be true, my dear Judith?" his head tilted towards her as he cupped an ear to await the answer they both knew.

"Fair point," the bunny grumbled, clenching her fists.

The branch she rested on made a cracking noise and the doe reacted by hopping up, to be grabbed by the wrist by Nicholas. She chanced a glance downward and saw the branch give way to twist and hang awkwardly.

Pulling her up, the red fox tod put her firmly on the much stronger and thicker tree branch that they both now stood upon.

"Nice to know you're just fine hanging out," the fox jibed at her, ruffling the fur on top her head. Judith couldn't decide whether to slug him or happily mumble under her breath. Despite the odd ways he showed affection at times, she found such displays as that quite endearing in their own way. It definitely rivaled the prim and proper methods of courtship she had been taught and told stories about, denoting them as romantic and such. All these other ways that he showed his love for her seemed to add some semblance of discovery and exploratory curiosity that made these unconventional shows Nicholas made towards her all the more enticing in their exotic nature.

"At least I heard it coming," she defended, to which Nicholas nodded in all fairness and gave her a nod of recognition to her reflexive reaction.

"I think you did well today," the tod complemented his mate. "We didn't make it to our goal but I'm hungry and I'm sure there might be a few chores they'll want us to help with." Judith nodded in agreement, denoted by the fact that both their stomachs grumbled in protest to staying away from food for long.

It didn't take long to find their way back, the duo having eaten a pouch of nuts and berries to dissuade their bellies from further protest until they got back to the convoy. Finding a vantage point on a low-lying branch, the two watched the mammals walking forward in a long column, the ones at the forefront blazing a trail and clearing away any nuisances that might hinder slower, smaller, or less maneuverable mammals that trailed behind.

A few mammals saw them and waved enthusiastically. They waved back and shouted their good mornings to all. Given their display when Nicholas was nearly executed, the duo had quickly become a beloved pairing that everyone talked about in rumors and as an example.

In that spirit, Heather and Rose had become something of a subject to talk about, but mostly with mixed reception. Thankfully, no mammal wished to express their views if they happened to be insulting and respected their space.

On that note, Heather saw the two of them and seemed to be waving them down.

"I need to talk to you two," she shouted from afar. Looking to one another, Nicholas and Judith shrugged and made their way down, making a moderate rush over to the darker bunny.

"Is everything alright, Sister?" the younger doe asked with all due concern. Heather waved them off as she smiled at them. She had become quite outgoing and far kinder since leaving home and being able to openly express her love for the vixen. Turns out that while their relationship started off on rather dark circumstances, Heather had always harbored an affinity towards the sweet and gentle Rose.

"Quite alright, Judith," the elder doe replied. "Bogo just expressed a desire to see you when you could spare the time and I wanted to let you know. It didn't seem too urgent but I advise dealing with whatever it might be sooner rather than later."

"Sounds like a good idea," Nicholas conceded. "By the way, how are you and Rose doing? I can't say I've seen the both of you much these past couple days."

Heather smiled. A rare sight for the fox indeed. Judith seemed equally stunned by the image, being used to her sister merely sneering at her or giving her a condescending stare down the bridge of her nose.

"I thank you for your concern," the elder bunny politely replied. "We are doing quite well and I don't believe I truly thanked you for pushing us together. So, from me and Rose, we thank you for everything you did. And I'm also sorry for all the stress I put on you through my words and actions."

"Think nothing of it," the fox rebuked her kindly. "I've heard and suffered far worse than your icy tongue."

Heather snorted a good laugh and cupped a paw to her muzzle.

"I'm glad you aren't a vindictive mammal," she voiced. "I'm very glad and comforted in the fact that my dear sister has found a gentle soul such as yourself to keep her safe."

"Sure… gentle," Judith jibed in his direction, pushing an elbow into his side slowly and jokingly. "Anyways, we'll get going and see what Bogo needs. Thanks for telling us and let Rose know we said 'Good day' in case we don't see her."

The elder doe nodded and waved as the duo took off towards the front of the convoy.

It didn't take long to find Bogo. He was using a broad sword to hack and slash at plants and roots that hindered their progress, trying to keep the path clear for the wagons being pulled behind them.

"You called for us, Captain?" Nicholas inquired upon walking to his side, Judith in close pursuit.

"Hmm," the bull grunted, turning to them, but still focusing on making a path. "I did. I had a concern that I hoped you two could resolve, since all my scouts are already out keeping an eye out on our path ahead and watching our flanks."

"What concern would that be?" the doe asked, occasionally having to hop forward to keep up with the long strides of the bull.

"Meeko," Bogo bluntly stated, making both of the small mammals have deadpan expressions. The raccoon had caused a few notes of concern as of late, having fallen asleep on a scouting mission twice and nearly being left behind. Another time he got hungry and ate a weird mushroom, ending up running through the camp and spouting nonsense.

"What did he do now?" both the fox and rabbit voiced in sarcastic tones. The buffalo huffed in mild amusement.

"I sent him out to scout further ahead and find any source of food or water we could divert towards," the bull explained. "He was supposed to come back last night after being sent out early yesterday… but hasn't returned. I'm worried he may have gotten himself hurt or worse. He may be a bit… odd but he never outright gives me reason to doubt his abilities."

"So, you'd like us to…" the bunny began, hoping to hear a finish to her unspoken inquiry.

"I'd like you both to go further ahead and check for his well-being, please." A glint of worry reflected in Bogo's eyes as he turned to lock his with both Judith and Nicholas's eyes.

"You got it, Captain," Nicholas remarked without pause. The bunny doe nodded in agreement.

00000000

"I don't understand how that creature could be so good at what he does but leave a trail like an elephant," Judith complained. The two mammals had been searching for nearly two hours before finding a rather strange but still quite obvious trail left by the raccoon. There was a trail of crumbs from what could only be his stash of crackers that he kept, then a dropped pouch when he ran out, followed by broken branches and paw prints in the soft, loamy forest floor.

"He's deceptively heavy?" Nicholas supplied as more an inquiry than an observation.

"I could believe that," the doe belted out, "but shouldn't he know how to be stealthy when his job is to search ahead without alerting others to his presence? Correct me if I have misunderstood the skills he bragged about most recently."

"No, you are correct," the red fox replied with his attention divided between the rabbit's rantings and examining the blatant path before them. He then heard a crunching and series of shuffling noises.

"I mean he could have just…"

"Shh!"

"Did you just…?"

"Shush you? Yes, yes I did," he responded quietly. "Now please clap the trap." The bunny reluctantly snapped her muzzle shut, glaring at the back of her fox's head with a fire in her eyes.

The fire died when her own ears perked upon hearing what she could only assume Nicholas had already heard. The two of them approached the source in silence, hiding behind the trunk of a large and dying tree.

Looking around the tree, Nicholas loudly groaned, confusing Judith.

"Come on, Meeko!" he loudly grumbled. "Haven't you eaten enough?"

The fox walked lazily over to where he saw the raccoon, sitting on a stump, shoveling food into his maw, while taking in the heat from a fire.

The doe followed him a little timidly, still a bit unnerved by the situation. Meeko turned and grinned in embarrassment.

"But she made such great food and offered me some," the raccoon mumbled while twiddling his paws together. "How could I refuse?"

"Who?" Nicholas asked. He turned to see another mammal with their back turned to them, chopping ingredients and mumbling to herself.

"I take it this bottomless pit is a friend of yours?" the mammal half asked, half complained.

"Unfortunately," the fox relented. "I apologize if he has eaten you out of all your stores."

The mammal perked her ears and turned, revealing a smoothly furred muzzle with twinges of grey fur around her eyes and nose. Nicholas sucked in a breath and tensed up.

The badger that stood before them started to smile deviously in such a manner that it almost reminded Judith of her mate's when he got playful.

"Honey?" the fox asked, nearly breathless.

She nodded slowly.

"Mother…."

Chapter Text

"Mother…"

Nicholas's breath and step stuttered as he stared with a slightly parted maw at the badger holding a wooden spoon.

Judith looked on in confusion. Wasn't she holding a knife and cutting up ingredients?

The fox ambled towards Honey with increasing speed and more stable steps….

To be smacked heavily on the head by the wooden spoon. The doe's ears fell and her eyes went wide, wondering what and why.

Nicholas tensed up upon being hit squarely on the head with the flattest part of the spoon, his head bouncing downwards like a snapping branch. Everyone looked on for a second or two before the poor fox let out a long hiss and squatted to hold his head in pain.

"What was that for?" he near yelled, not outright shouting as he knew the badger still had the spoon at the ready.

"You had it coming…" she trailed off, spinning the wooden utensil in her paw. "I think you're coming to find me and I hear from a few sources that you're wandering aimlessly around with no clear goal in mind, getting drunk, and 'befriending' certain unscrupulous females."

The fox tod shot up, still rubbing his head, his ears pinned back and a face full of shock as he held a paw out in defense.

"Woah!" he vented, trying to keep all mammals present from letting their thoughts go the wrong route. He threw Judith a worried look and turned back to his mother. "I did NOT get drunk or 'befriend' females as you put it…"

"You aren't denying the first thing," Honey mentioned with a raised eyebrow.

"Yes… that part… mostly true," Nicholas stated in short bursts as he rubbing his still throbbing head. "Damn, your swing is still as painful as ever, Mother."

"Language," the badger chided him with a light slap of the spoon to his arm.

"Right, right, sorry," the fox replied hurriedly, flinching away from the threat of a wooden spoon. Judith, now having recovered from the initial shock of everything, cupped her paws over her muzzle as she tried her best to stifle a giggle that threatened to escape her rather loudly.

It was strangely humorous to witness the fox being chastened as an imposing and well-rounded specimen of a mammal by a somewhat smaller and seemingly less threatening badger. 'Seemingly' being the key word. The rabbit snorted and drew the attention of the two mammals, temporarily diffusing their abrasive exchange.

It was too much for her as they both raised an eyebrow and both gave her the same deadpan stare, as if asking 'Really?'. Despite not having been related by blood, the similarity between their mannerisms and the hilarious exchange made the doe grasp at her gut as she let loose a chain of hearty giggles that devolved into full on laughter.

"I… I can't…" she rasped, rolling into the soft loam and kicking her feet as her laughter reached an almost squeaky nature.

Nicholas might have found it adorable if he weren't so split between the head pain and mental pressure of his mother bearing her gaze upon him.

"Who is she?" Honey asked, flicking the end of the spoon towards the ball of fluff and giggles. Nicholas flinched a bit as the utensil came within inches of his nose as it passed by, his eyes locked on it like it was a bee ready to sting.

"Oh… OH! Right…" the fox spluttered, going over to haul the rabbit up and on her feet, dusting off her dress, with her protesting and giggling.

He gestured to the doe, "This… is Judith. My mate." Judith looked up towards her fox and felt her heart swell at his vocal claim…

Then in the same moment felt her heart stop, seeing the squinty look on the badger's muzzle as she looked her over, from ears to toes. Honey stepped closer to the doe and tilted her head.

Judith had lots of rampant thoughts going through her mind, like if this was acceptable to her. Sure, she raised Nicholas, despite being of a different species, but they were both technically predators. She could very well view this as some affront to nature… though… she apparently heads up some sort of means of helping predators escape their captors… so she might not be so standoffish about such things as this. But then again, she 'was' saving predators from subjugation by prey. And Judith had technically kept Nicholas in such a way by the loosest of implications. The rabbit kept going around and around in her own head with these insecurities as Honey eyed her.

A painful thwack pulled the rabbit from her reverie, to notice another devious smirk on the badger as her head felt a searing, splitting pain. She hit her… she hit her as she had with Nicholas. Tears pricked the corners of her eyes as she wondered if this is what her fox felt before. It was indeed a bit… infuriating.

She also felt ready to shed tears because she feared this was a form of rejection by Nicholas's mother.

"Mother!" the red fox chided the shorter badger, stilling upon seeing her grin.

"Mates always bear each other's burdens, right? Share in their pain?" the badger asked gently, but with a slightly playful tone. Judith's eyes drifted to Honey, who seemed wholly satisfied by the doe's stupefied reaction and Nicholas's jaw drop.

"What? Don't give me those looks," Honey dismissed them with plenty of sass. "I'm not really in the mood to explain myself, so if you must flap your jaws…" the fox's mother gestured to the food she was still preparing, "use them to help me finish off the food."

The badger went back to her prep work, throwing annoyed looks at Meeko on occasion, whom was giving her endearing looks and making the fox and rabbit confused.

"You think she has a chance to outclass Gideon?" Judith inquired, rubbing her head much like Nicholas had. The fox let out a low chuckle. Honey spared them a narrow-eyed glance. The fox leaned down to her ear, his breath raking over it in a way pleasant to the doe.

"Let's just say I grew up on some wonderful cooking from that mammal right there," the fox tod pointed out with a whisper. Judith let out a curious 'huh', mulling over the thought in her head.

"If I had known that…" she started, "I might have taken your bet earlier. Still up for it?" the bunny gave her fox a half-lidded smile, still facing forward but giving him a sidelong glance.

Nicholas leaned back and eyed her skeptically.

"Now I'm the one who doesn't want to take that bet," he breathed, trying to hold in a chuckle. Judith rolled her eyes playfully.

"Boo… you're no fun," the doe said in an intentionally bad mockery of the fox's tone when he had previously said that.

"You know," Honey started, "I may not hear your conversation, but I can still see you gesturing towards us like kits." Both the mammals being accused tensed up and felt their heads pulse in a slight remembrance of pain when they saw the badger raise her utensil once again, pointing towards the food.

"Yes'm," Nicholas quickly mumbled, shuffling himself over to help cook, as well as eat. Judith followed suit but almost couldn't stifle a giggle once more because of the effect the smaller badger had on the fox.

"I see that old bull gave you your armor?" Honey asked, more or less looking for a conversation starter than actually not knowing the answer to her own question.

"Aye, he did," started the tod. "Which reminds me… this fool has apparently gone missing and we were sent to retrieve him." The fox jerked a thumb towards the raccoon who returned the gesture with a sheepish grin.

"Shirking your duties, Meeko? For shame…" the badger sarcastically chided Meeko.

"I smelled food! And good food!" the raccoon tried to defend himself, mumbling further, "made me eat all my crackers so I came to look…"

"That explains that," Judith sighed. "But I don't suppose you just 'let' him eat everything?" Honey let out a laugh.

"Astute rabbit, aren't you?" she asked with a grin. "No, he mentioned scouting for Bogo and I offered to feed him if he told me all Buffalo Butt has been up to for the past while. Gotta have something to tease him about when we meet again."

Nicholas shivered, making the rabbit doe wonder what could cause that.

"Nicholas?" she inquired gently.

"Sorry, Fluff," he remarked. "Just remembering how good she is at that. And you can tell where I get that from." Judith turned away and nodded slightly to herself in recognition.

Suddenly, she squeaked as a clawed paw gently tugged at her tail.

"Something wrong?" Meeko voiced in concern. The doe turned to give the best false smile she could.

"It's…. it's fine… just stubbed a toe," she forced out. Her eyes burned bright purple as she turned to glare at the fox, who smirked devilishly and grabbed some food.

"Careful of the forest floor, my lady," he chided in a smug tone. "Sticks and stones lie in wait where you least expect them."

"Says the fox who has the stones to stick his paws on me," Judith murmured in a murderous tone. Only Nicholas could hear her, with how close he was, and only smirked wider as the two sat down to devour the delicious stew that had been bubbling in a pot over a fire.

"You love it," Nicholas confidently commented, having swallowed a few spoons worth of stew. "But point made. Paws off. No more of these claws and paws giving you a healthy amount of affection."

"Har-har," Judith replied with another roll of her eyes. "It's not like I can't go a short while without your 'affection'."

"When you two are done," Honey interrupted, "we'll need to clean up camp and meet up with Bogo. I'm sure he's worried over you two now… and maybe Meeko here."

"Hey!" the raccoon yelped from across the fire indignantly. The fox and rabbit chuckled light heartedly at the expense of Meeko.

It took a nearly an hour to pack up camp and head back towards the group. The other three wondered how a smaller mammal such as the badger had so much and still stayed so mobile.

"Oh, I have my ways," was all she would divulge, clearly loving keeping the group curious and frustrated trying to figure it out.

Each member of the group bore a small pack on their back as they made their way back in the direction of Bogo and everyone else.

"I'll bet she has drop points in the forest," Nicholas explained in a whisper to the bunny doe walking close to him. "Makes it easier to ditch a campsite when it's discovered by enemies and move on without being dragged down. You leave packs filled with camping needs in various locations so you can make camp wherever and still travel without worrying about taking it with you. Usually only works when you plan on coming back towards the drop point though."

"Oh…" was all Judith could say to that, unsure how to react.

Most of the journey back was made in silence.

Well except the humming of both Nicholas and Honey, to which the rabbit was fairly sure neither was aware they were doing. She smiled knowingly upon realizing how much they took after each other… though more so for the fox taking after the badger. It was quite the oddity to imagine and even odder to witness. It was also endearing because, while strange and unconventional, it was clear that the two cared deeply for each other. Especially so considering Nicholas's initial reaction to seeing his mother. He looked pretty close to giving her a hug that might have lasted days. Maybe she could tease him over that later.

Looking between the two, Judith took them both in. Their gait, the way they carried themselves, and even the occasional curious glance in random directions when something grabbed their direction, all of it was so similar that she could only ever see the two being influenced by the other.

The small giggle that escaped her in the silence drew the gaze of the other three mammals. She simply waved them off and mumbled something about 'realizing something'.

Meeko didn't seem to care much and continued to walk. Both Honey and Nicholas gave her the same raised eyebrow, skeptical stare, nearly drawing another bout of laughter from the poor doe…

Before something a strange stretching sound made her ears perk up. She noticed that her fox's did as well, clearly having more of an idea what it was than she did as he jerked around to look at the source of the sound and crouch low.

"Archer!" he hissed, "Take cover!" Honey and Meeko didn't need to be told twice, bolting into action and finding cover behind a couple of large tree trunks. The rabbit froze up and was promptly tackled by Nicholas.

An arrow loosed with a 'thwing' and a resounding 'thwip' through the air. With a final 'thunk', the arrow pierced into the tree bark that was right behind where the rabbit was standing. It wasn't that large of an arrow. Quite possibly from a moderate sized bow for a mammal the size of a wolf or deer.

Nicholas turned back to look at the offending party who loosed an arrow on his mate. His pupils narrowed to slits to zoom in a bit on the distant figure or figures. He snarled a bit upon seeing a small group of deer bucks.

"Stay here," he commanded of Judith, who numbly nodded.

In a flash of red fur and green and brown armor, the fox tod launched himself away from her. The doe dug herself in behind the fallen tree that her fox had tackled them into the nook behind.

Running on all fours for a few bounds and leaps, the fox easily flanked the slightly shocked buck who fired the arrow, with said buck frantically trying to get another nocked and ready to loose.

Nicholas pulled his sword out in mid leap from all fours, slicing to the side and catching the bow near the top. It didn't break through the bow itself, but the string snapped as the fine edge sliced through the line, whipping downward and snapping the deer buck in the thigh.

He yelped loudly and tumbled back to avoid the fox's blade.

Honey had followed him, though more slowly and lower to the ground. She had gone in a wide circle, pulling out a small metal club with notches on it for stunning opponents when they were hit with it.

Approaching another buck that had gone around to try flanking them, the badger swiped her club with quick precision, buckling the deer at the knees and causing him to shout and curse as he fell harder than a drunk rhino. With another hit over the back of the head, the buck was out and slumping lazily in the soft dirt.

Meeko took cover and watched the two mammals making quick work of the group of… he counted… five deer bucks. One was knocked out by Honey and one was being dealt with by Nicholas. The other three were spreading out and trying to encompass the red fox, having not quite noticed the badger as of yet, excepting the loud yells from their comrade having fallen.

The red fox had since delivered a swift and powerful kick to the deer's head that didn't outright knock him out but smacked his head by deflection onto a nearby rock, that which had knocked him out.

Noticing the surrounding bucks making their move to entrap him, Nicholas took a guard stance, holding his blade with one paw and letting the other splay out in readiness to intercept or redirect any blows incoming that weren't edged weapons. Two of the bucks held long spears, nearly as tall as they were, and the last one had a bow slung over his shoulder with a pair of daggers ready in his hooves.

He wondered why all of them didn't have bows but he supposed they weren't hunters or dispatchers of some kind. Maybe vagrants or simple bandits looking for an easy mark. If that was the case, maybe he could scare them off. Choosing for the moment to keep to his code of silence in front of unfamiliar muzzles, the fox growled low and swiped his blade to keep the bucks at bay.

They were only slightly deterred, but deigned to shuffle closer, the two with spears jabbing lightly to put the fox on the defensive. He feigned stumbling back and allowed them to step closer, looking down to see they were stepping over a few errant roots. The buck wielding the dual daggers kept his distance circling around to try and take the fox from behind.

Once both bucks with the spears stepped fully past the awkward knots of roots, the fox unleashed a flurry of swipes and jabs in their direction. Thankfully, they were less experienced fighters and took a couple tentative steps back…

Right into and over the knobby roots. Both mammals fell back with varied yelps as Nicholas leapt towards them, cleaving the bladed tips of their spears just below the joint area of metal and wood. If they tried to pick them up and use them as improvised daggers, they would be hard pressed to keep a stable grip on them without hurting themselves badly in the process.

When he landed, the tod slammed the hilt of his sword down upon the nearest deer's head, making him go limp. The other tried to scramble upwards, crawling at first, then running away as his hooves found purchase on the forest floor. The dual wielding buck was now engaged with a very irate badger, clearly thrown for a loop as the badger effortlessly batted away his strikes with calculated parries and a reactive smirk.

"Mind telling us why you decided to attack us?" Honey asked coolly as she continued to practically toy with the flailing deer. "I promise I will let you go if you stop now and explain."

Surprisingly, the last buck halted his attack and backed up, still on guard and breathing heavily.

"You… you will?" he tentatively asked. He had obvious fear in his eyes as he scanned around to see his brothers in arms unconscious or running away. Nicholas closed the distance quickly and took up a fighting stance next to his mother.

"I sure will. We have no quarrel with you," Honey said with all due sincerity. "I just need to know if this was opportunity or a planned attack. Hmm?" The buck was taken aback, clearly believing that after seeing his comrades being taken out in various fashions… that he might be no exception.

"I… We just saw you and attacked… no real plan," the deer explained with a slight stutter to his tone. "We've been short on coin and were desperate… I'm sorry…. Truly."

"If you were that sorry, you wouldn't have raised a blade… or arrow to us in the first place," the badger stated with a little venom in her tone. The buck dropped his blades and held out his hooves in surrender as she raised her club a bit.

"I'm really really sorry," he pleaded. "Don't hurt me…"

"Oh, stop being such a baby," Honey chided the would-be bandit. "I don't care to hurt you, unless you provoke me again. Besides… someone is gonna need to tend to your friends and I don't think I'm going to waste my small supply of medicinal herbs on them."

"Oh… right," the buck breathed, clearly tentative about whether to trust her or not.

At this point, Judith and Meeko found the mental clarity to know it was safe to approach the exchange with little possibility of reprisal.

"Are they… are they still alive?" the bunny doe asked with clear reservation of the answer in her voice. Nicholas nodded slowly.

"Go on," the badger goaded the buck, "get to it. They need your help. Oh, and best to clear away from here soon. We have a grouping of 'friends' coming this way and they won't be as lenient as I am." The buck's eyes widened as he nodded frighteningly. He then picked up his daggers and knelt down to quickly drag the two previously spear holding deer away, calling a name none of them caught, probably trying to call back the one deer who ran away to come back and help him.

In his hurried state, the buck dropped a knapsack that seemed the wrong fit for a mammal such as himself and Honey dared to open it, curious of its contents.

"Oh… momma like," she stated, chuckling a little as she stuck her head in the sack, making Nicholas slap himself in the muzzle, with the rabbit and raccoon tilting their heads in wonder at what could be so interesting.

Pulling herself out of the sack, she pulled with her a small bow and quiver of arrows to accompany it.

"Looks about your size, son," Honey said, tossing the effects to the fox. "Or the bunny's, should she know how to aim… or even nock one of the arrows for that matter." Judith threw her a tepid glare.

"Mother…" the tod began.

"Don't worry," the badger interrupted, "I was just teasing."

"To be honest," Nicholas began, "I was going to teach her, but for now… I'll hold onto them. They look like a good quality. Wonder where they got it from."

"We can only assume it was a previous victim," Meeko piped up, shrugging.

"We should return it," Judith offered. The other three shot her a deadpan look. "What?"

"It's not like we know who they stole it from… or if those mammals are even… alive?" the raccoon explained slowly, hoping to not upset the rabbit. She took the information in stride and looked at the ground in contemplation.

"Oh," the doe breathed.

"Okay, let's get out of here before more morons show up," Honey voiced, shooing all of them into moving along, turning to rifle through the sack a bit more and pulling a few odds and ends out to load in her bag.

As they continued their walk, the four of them could see the mass of mammals approaching them in the distance.

"You know," Honey began, looking over at her son, "It's strange for you to be so silent during a fight. You used to be very vocal when we sparred."

Judith looked at her fox, wondering if she should let him explain or help interject on his behalf. The fox took in a breath and let it out slowly, making the doe's decision for her as she kept her muzzle closed and listened intently.

"I've made a personal promise to myself to remain silent for all except those I trust," Nicholas explained. "During my service, I got into a situation that made me lose my voice for a bit and found I got into less trouble with prey when I kept it shut. Spent two years not talking and now I'm going by the moniker of Silence." Honey looked sullen and shocked at first while she let the rushed summary of info sink in.

Then she let out a single, loud 'HA!'

"Look what happens when I don't see you for years," she stated, giving the fox a light slug to the arm. "You go on a strange adventure and end up being mated to a rabbit. Would love to hear how that one happened by the way."

"Uh… let's leave that for another time," the fox tod drawled. "I would much prefer to get back to the captain before…"

"There you all are," the aforementioned buffalo voiced in a deadly tone.

"That," Nicholas finished, closing his eyes in a silent wish that ignoring the problem might mean it goes away.

"I didn't ask you look for Meeko, only to take hours and not check in," Bogo vented low and slow. "It's practically the first rule of scouting. Check in."

"They were held up by me," Honey piped up, making the bull still and tense up.

"Honey…" he breathed.

"Careful with the way you say that Buffalo Butt," the badger snarked with a lop-sided grin. "If you have more mammals around like this one," she jerked a thumb towards Meeko, who froze and meekly smiled with a wave, "then they might assume I'm made of it or covered in it." Meeko then scowled at Honey, to which she winked at him, turning the raccoon into a sputtering mess of awkward apologies for non-existent transgressions he hadn't even committed.

"Definitely a front runner against Gideon…" Judith whispered in her fox's ear. It flicked in response as he smirked dubiously and turned to give her a view of him rolling his eyes.

"I'd like to keep that image out of my head for now, thank you… Since she is my mother," Nicholas replied.

Pulling their attention back to the exchange between Bogo and Honey, all mammals present were curious to see how the bull took being called such an… 'odd' name by a mammal like Honey.

A forced grin tugged the corners of his mouth, the effect of which made everyone who was witness shiver slightly, excepting the badger who laughed so hard, so suddenly, she almost started rolling on the ground.

"You never could take a joke very well," she wheezed. After a few seconds of laughing and trying to catch her breath, the badger caught herself and resumed her train of thought. "Anyways, where were you and your group headed?"

"A small town on the edge of the forest about two days north of here," Bogo began.

"Nope, not good," Honey rebuked him.

"What?" the bull slowly asked.

"That place is already crawling with guards and soldiers ready to apprehend everyone here. Too much risk. I have a better idea and I only recently came across this option, which is why I was out here, trying to find you and catch you before heading there." The mammal crossed her paws across her chest and paused for effect.

"Where?" Bogo inquired simply.

"Not much for elongated speech right now, are you?" Honey complained as she made a pouty face to mock the buffalo.

"Just please tell me," he replied in kind. "We have plenty of tired and soon to be very hungry mammals that need supplies to continue."

The badger sighed, "Fine… there's a small city right here within the forest. Mostly occupied by predators and tight lipped traders that bring in supplies. We can easily find sanctuary there, without the need to endanger everyone. It's a friendly place that seems to love all mammals."

Most of the mammals present were very surprised to hear about such a city within the forest that had no rumors or whispers heard before. No one even knew the forest held any cities whatsoever. It was believed to be a savage infested region, of which is one of many reasons that armies and the common folk don't venture too far within its borders.

"It's only a day's journey from here and is quite the pleasant place if I do say so," Honey continued upon seeing no one might interrupt her.

"What's it called?" Nicholas and Judith asked at the same time, amusing his mother with the inkling of an answer to some riddle neither of them were told.

"Upendi."

Chapter Text

"Are we there yet?" a certain voice asked, quite possibly for the hundredth time, now making those mammals within hearing range internally and externally groan with exasperation.

"Nathan?" Bogo called. The grey wolf perked up happily, clearly not hearing the irritation in the bull's tone, being one of the few mammals who didn't pick up on tones and social cues of the deep voiced mammal. It rather disarmed the buffalo, seeing such a spritely young wolf unfazed by his chastising voice.

"Yes!" he chirped, tail wagging indiscriminately. The bull was about to give him a stern warning, much like he would others under his command, but he had to remember that this wasn't a soldier. The wolf was young and inexperienced in social etiquette. Making a few mumbling noises, Bogo tried his best to adjust his normal tone to a more considerate one, hoping to make Nathan understand that he should try… very hard… to calm down a bit and take the journey as it comes.

"You should be mindful of those around you," came a much softer voice. "They might not appreciate you asking that question so often, dear." Gazelle stepped closer to her mate, grasping his hoof in hers and giving him a knowing look, to which he sighed and smiled gratefully.

"Oh," the young wolf breathed out, looking around to see the now averted stares of quite a few mammals, having been too polite to say anything. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to cause…"

"It's quite alright," Judith spoke up from nearby, holding paws with Nicholas. "You just need to be a little patient… a little more patient."

"I'm glad somebody finally said something," Honey barked from further ahead. "He was making Meeko here look damn near saint-like in comparison."

"Hey!" the aforementioned raccoon yelled in offense to the statement, pausing as he added, "wait… was that a complement or an insult?"

Nicholas was now barking with laughter, trying to get a word out until he cleared his throat to say, "I'm pretty sure she just did both… at the same time!" the fox devolved back into laughter, to which the rabbit holding his paw thumped her free paw against his chest, doing nothing to stop the tod's fit.

"Well at least this one's mouth is corked with food when he is annoying," the badger continued, jerking her thumb back at Meeko, who turned his head and tried not to let any of them see his pouting expression.

"Is there something wrong with liking food?" he murmured to himself mostly.

"Of course not," was Honey's honeyed reply, thick and bittersweet with sarcasm, "but most mammals who like food tend to try enjoying it slowly. Honestly… I'm surprised you're not as pudgy as the other fox… Gideon, was it?"

"I have an active lifestyle," Meeko defended. His eyes turned back to the grouping as they walked, seeing the badger eyeing him from ears to toes.

"I can see that," she spoke, a light tinge of sass lining the flirtatious tone in her voice.

The red fox turned his head, not wanting to let his mind play into the game his mother was obviously setting up. No kit truly grows out of being somewhat uncomfortable at seeing their parent or parents being flirtatious or mushy with others or each other.

Judith, on the other paw, was coaxed by Honey's comment to look at Meeko a little closer now. Instead of the normal armor he wore, which usually gave him the look that his chest and belly were more pronounced, she could see now in his less armored attire that he was slimmer than initially believed. He still had some meat on the bones, so to say, but his overall form was less prodigious than previously indicated.

"You guys are extremely entertaining," Nathan piped up, holding back a few sporadic chuckles at the elongated exchange. The grey wolf seemed to find a rather large assortment of mammals he enjoyed conversing with over the last several days of freedom. Despite the way he was kept away from the social order, Nathan was quite the curious optimist. Naïve to the workings of the world, he found every experience outside the confines of his previous residence of labor and imprisonment a refreshing one.

Most mornings, he woke up to spend several minutes sniffing the air for all the new smells. The way the forest smelled with dew on the ground, the food most likely being prepared, or the scent of several mammals he hadn't had extended contact with wafting past his tent. Akela became somewhat of a parental figure for him in the past days, seeing as his rambunctious and unfiltered nature could be seen as impolite or overbearing. In all honesty, the older wolf had usually acted in a parental role for him, but being under guard as they all had been, it was difficult to act as one would normally, limiting what Akela could instill in Nathan.

Aside from the disarming quirks, the younger grey wolf was well liked and viewed by others as a welcome well of energy that was sorely needed when some mammals lacked the will to trudge onwards with aching feet and battered souls.

It was that energy that drove Bogo and a few others to give Nathan random roles to fill. Taking food to those who were having a tougher time moving around than others, helping said mammals to other destinations when needed, and etc. The energetic wolf was more than happy to oblige.

"I'm glad you are enjoying yourself," Gazelle spoke softly to the young wolf. "My dear mate was worried you would feel out of place or unsure what to do with yourself." The bull stiffened as most of the other mammals turned their heads to look at Bogo. No one stopped walking, but all eyes were on him, even Nathan's.

"Really?" the wolf asked tentatively, unused to the concern and affection he was recently being afforded. The buffalo didn't dare to address the stares aimed his way, choosing to ignore them until they went away, giving his mate a pleading look to stop revealing certain details about his demeanor.

Turning back to the endearingly expectant wolf, Bogo huffed in resignation.

"Yes," he near quietly and bluntly replied. There were plenty of smug grins spreading all around. The bull chose to focus forward and wait.

"If ya'll are done with the cuddle party of emotions," snarked Honey, "we're here."

Everyone stopped on a dime and looked around, confused, with a few heads tilting.

"All I see is more forest, vines, some rock faces, and that bluff over there," Nicholas pointed out. The badger didn't even turn as she back paw thumped him in the chest.

"You don't 'see'," she corrected her son. "Even if you do look." The fox rubbed his chest, grumbling something about two females giving him abuse now, to which Judith gave him a slightly apologetic glance.

"What should I be seeing, then?" Nicholas replied. "A secret door?"

"You're kitting me…" Honey said, rolling her eyes at the red fox. The badger ambled over to the wall of vines in front of her, sweeping a clump to the side, revealing a dark cavernous passage.

"How'd you know that was there?" Bogo asked. "Have you been here before?"

"Always with the blunt questions, huh, Buffalo Butt?" Honey sassed at him. "I was given a location and a riddle. In Upendi, where the passion fruit grows sweet… yatta yatta. Anyways, these vines here have a type of passionfruit that only grows in deep caverns. The vines come out like so…" She pointed at vines attached to the wall in the cave, with orange and purple colored bulbs hanging from them.

Looking around, everyone saw that a few stray vines with the same bulbs seemed to converge on the cavern entrance, having apparently grown from the cavern itself.

Nathan and Meeko both licked their muzzles as they walked up to the bulbs and plucked the oddly colored fruit. Both looked to each other smiling hungrily and opening their maws to take a bite…

At some point, Honey wordlessly snuck up right between the two and reached up to clamp their muzzles shut, subsequently slapping the fruit from their paws.

"Are you trying to act this stupid?" came her annoyed question. The young wolf threw her a look of chastised despondence, while Meeko… looked rather frustrated himself at having food tossed from his own paw. "Maybe I should have explained the whole riddle… Where the passionfruit grows sweet, and it's so divine that you'll lose your mind."

"So… it's poisonous?" Judith piped up. "Like the Midnight Flower?"

"You mean Nighthowlers?" her fox clarified, mostly to himself than correcting the rabbit. The doe nodded in the affirmative.

The badger teetered a paw ambiguously.

"More like a persistent hallucinogenic," she mumbled. "Many a mammal has eaten this fruit and gone very… insane. It's part of why this place is hard to get into, not counting the supposed labyrinth that awaits us. Many mammals get too curious about the abundant food source and eat it."

"So, we avoid eating it, problem solved," Bogo spoke, using a clipped tone, as if to try cutting the conversation short. "Now, about this labyrinth…"

"It's supposedly not very expansive…" started the badger, "but it is very difficult to traverse, if tales are correct."

Gazelle stepped forward slowly, saying, "Should we take a small scouting party in to make sure it's worth the trip?" Honey snapped her fingers.

"That's my plan," she confirmed. "From what I hear of this place, we would have to take this alternate route in to gain access, but if we can convince the locals to let us in, there's supposed to be a larger entrance that can only be opened from the inside."

"How do they get mammals in and out if it can only be opened from the inside?" Meeko inquired. "Don't they have lookouts to signal a bridge drop or something?"

"Not a clue," Honey instantly replied. "I assume they have assigned times they open whatever gate is there. As for lookouts…" the badger shrugged. "I don't have all the answers."

"I thought you said you have been here before," the buffalo bull said in a mildly accusing manner.

"I never said anything to that effect," the badger stated defensively, tilting her head in acknowledgement a moment later, "though I may have implied it unintentionally."

"The point… please?" the bull nearly begged, with Gazelle lovingly touching a hoof to her mate's chest, cooing something soft in his ear and making him grumble in forced patience.

Honey sighed in partial compliance as she spoke, "I talked to a few of the traders who frequent the city. Heard it straight from their maws… Satisfied?" Everyone nodded. "Good. Now let's move."

Roughly an hour later, a scouting group was assembled. Bogo and Gazelle stayed behind to tend to the group, keeping them orderly and fed. Honey led with Nathan, Meeko, Nicholas, and Judith in tow. When asking the why of their team, the badger simply stated the most prevalent reasons as quickly as she cared saying that Nathan had a good nose, Meeko had decent night vision, Nicholas had the best night vision and is very good with a sword, and Judith had spectacular hearing. Honey hadn't known her long enough to surmise that well enough so the red fox figured she wanted the rabbit along for more personal purposes. Scoping out a potential daughter-in-law was her thinking, of which Nicholas had no doubt.

Leaving the convoy of mammals behind and donning armor, as well as small packs that weren't over encumbering to each mammal, the five of them headed into the dark cavern, lighting a torch or two upon reaching the entrance.

"Remember, no touching or eating the passionfruit," Honey reminded them.

"No need to repeat that," Meeko complained. "I heard your paw well enough the first time when it slapped the thing from my own paw."

"Just making sure that stomach of yours doesn't convince you to ignore my warning," the badger snapped back sassily.

Nicholas and Judith both snickered at the poor raccoon, who smiled in favor of being a good sport at the jibe. Nathan was more engrossed with the surrounding cavern than the social exchange, sniffing the air and twitching his ears at every drop of water. Whether he was excited or anxious was hard to tell from the other mammals' respective perspectives.

Following along the single route before them, avoiding the vines lining the wall with oddly colored but delicious looking fruit, a sweet scent wafted through the winding bends as a rush of cool air flowed past them. Nathan took a long draw and looked confused.

"What's that?" he asked simply. "It doesn't smell like the fruit on the wall."

"Lotus bloom," Honey answered. "It grows along the walls of the city and must be wafting through the caves. Hopefully that means we're closer than I would have assumed."

At that point, the group came upon a fork in the path…

More like a honeycomb…

The chamber they entered was still a natural part of the cavern, but had eight new caverns to venture into. A small pool sat in the center with a huge stalactite hanging from the ceiling dipped down until it almost touched the water's surface.

"Ideas? Anyone?" Judith prompted the group. Everyone scanned the chamber, both trying to look for markers as well as the more olfactory inclined trying to track the source of the lotus bloom scent. It seemed to emanate from all the potential paths to take. Airflow seemed to pass rather evenly through each of the caves as well, stumping the mammals as to where they should go.

Splitting up was a big problem, seeing as any mammal that took a wrong turn or got lost would be hard pressed to find their way back.

"This…" the fox began, "is going to be frustrating."

"Oh shush," Judith and Honey spoke at the same time, sparing a blinking stare to one another in slight surprise.

"Great. I have two of them now," groaned Nicholas.

"Call it a mental exercise," the badger provided with an optimistic inflection. "You'll come out smarter because of it."

"You and I both know you don't believe that," the tod snarked back to his mother, to which she snorted in amusement.

"Can't deny that."

Honey, Nicholas, and Meeko were the holders of the torches for now, waving them around to get a better look at the walls of the chamber, getting increasingly annoyed at the lack of direction they all wanted.

The bunny doe stuck close to her fox, holding onto his tunic from behind. Nathan kept near Meeko and Honey kept to herself mainly.

"Hold this," the tod demanded suddenly, pawing off the torch into the rabbit's paws, her grip barely registering before the fox let go. Before the doe could voice her objections and curiosity at what he was doing, Nicholas cupped his paws over a portion of the cavern wall. He then leaned in to press his eyes to the gap created by his cupped paws. Judith arched a brow in confusion but stayed silent, hoping he would explain when he gave up whatever he had going.

The red fox stepped back with a sigh.

"Sorry, my lady," he breathed. "I thought this cave might have some of that glowing lichen I've seen before. It usually clings to the walls and originates from deeper caves. Might have led us to Upendi, if I had been right."

Tilting his head back in defeat, his ears lowering, the fox let out a small whine. The bunny doe found it rather cute, but kept her muzzle closed on that note.

"It'll be fine," she tried to comfort. "We'll find a way further in." the rabbit reached out and held his paw, squeezing it as she looked around to see how engaged in other activities the others were. Seeing no onlookers as the other three were rather entranced with various boring elements of the chamber, trying to find a puzzle meaning from nothing of note, Judith rose high on her toes to give her fox a chaste kiss just under his muzzle.

Nicholas smiled slowly, finding the short and sweet way she kissed him rather endearing. He tilted his muzzle back down to offer a kiss of his own in return on her nose. It twitched in reaction and the fox found it rather adorable.

In her surprise at the nose kiss, Judith dropped the torch she was given to rub her nose, attempting to get it under control. Neither mammal could react in time as the torch plopped into the water of the pool, after making one or two hollow thumps against the rocky floor.

"Oops," the doe said, giving the tod an apologetic grin.

Nicholas wasn't worried about that at the moment. He was looking up, confusion filling his face now as he tilted his head several different ways. He could make heads or tails of it. Why would the ceiling of the cavern… his ears perked up suddenly.

"Honey. Meeko. Put out the torches," the fox tod ordered. Both mammals exchanged glances and looked back to the fox, who was now looking up again.

"Why?" the badger inquired, splaying her paw out in a gesture for her son to explain himself.

"Just trust me."

Exchanging another glance, the two torch wielding mammals sighed and used a metal cap Honey carried to extinguish the flames. The chamber entered utter darkness and silence followed.

No mammal dared breach the newfound silence for a solid minute, thinking it might ruin whatever the red fox was waiting for.

"So… what?" Nathan finally asked curiously.

"Just give it a second," Nicholas assured them. "If what I'm thinking is correct…"

A twinkle.

"There it is…"

Another twinkle followed, then another, and another, and then a slew of twinkles lit up the ceiling of the chamber, though not the whole ceiling. The first sparkling of lights spread forth from the stalactite hanging from the chamber's ceiling. The lights grew brighter and seemed to spur more into existence at a rapidly increasing pace.

Going in a spiral outward from the stalactite, the twinkles blazed a path or light across the cave ceiling and zigzagged down the wall towards one of the many paths they had been trying to decide between. It was a path that was off center and to the left from where they had come in.

The path of light continued in this matter deep into the cavern and into the unknown.

"Guess the part of the riddle where your heart will take you there was correct… ish," Honey said with a bit of her usual sass, giving Judith and her fox a knowing stare.

"What?" Nicholas asked in defense.

"Don't think I didn't notice your little display a second ago."

At the badger's mention of that, the red fox tod turned his head and scratched the back of his neck. The grey bunny doe pulled her ears over her face and tried to will the blush in her cheeks away.

"I'm liking her more and more," the badger divulged with a hearty chuckle to accompany her statement.

"Great, now I have two of them teasing me…" Judith moaned in defeat. The fox couldn't help smirking a bit in pity at her predicament and leaned down to kiss an errant ear over her face.

"You know you love it… at least when I do it," he whispered in the ear he kissed. The doe seemed to attempt shrinking further behind her ears over her before peeking out from behind them.

"Do I know that?" she paused, mulling it over before nibbling her lower lip. "I suppose I do."

The group packed away their torches, pursuing the course laid out for them by what appeared to be crystals inlaid into the cave ceiling as a guide.

"What do you think they are?" Nathan dared to ask in the tepid silence of the cavern, with only the occasional sound of drips to accompany them.

"I'm guessing it's a variety of bioluminescent crystals that become fluorescent when light is lacking," explained Honey. She looked back to see a very confused raccoon and wolf. Nicholas seemed to understand well enough, being taught by her after all and Judith at the very least got the context and appeared to be void of due confusion the other two exuded.

She rolled her eyes at the two confused mammals stating more to herself at first, "Thank goodness you two are blessed in looks at least." Meeko looked rather happy at that remark, while Nathan smiled in false understanding of what was going on but wanted to look on board with it all.

The badger continued, "I think they are rocks that glow when the light is gone." Both mammals voiced a slow 'Ohhhhh' of understanding.

"Is she always this…." Judith started, making wild gestures towards Honey. Nicholas withheld a laugh and coughed instead, not wanting his mother to hear the two.

"Eccentric, sassy, flagrantly over the top, or snarky?" the fox provided. The doe gave him a deadpan expression and crossed her paws.

"You just described yourself on certain days," the bunny revealed to her fox. He gave her an insulted look, maw agape at the accusation.

"I… you… that's…" he sputtered.

"You are your mother's son," Judith whispered to him. "Sass and all. It's fun though."

Nicholas resigned himself to biting his tongue and throwing the rabbit a roguish smirk.

"Sly bunny," he breathed.

Once the new path was followed, the group came out into a new opening with much the same routine. Five new openings and a path of luminous crystals that went down the correct cavern exit.

This routine was followed for the next hour another three times. They debated what the continued use of the light crystals was if it was highly unlikely any mammal would repeatedly find the correct path this many times without putting out their torch. Their collective reasoning was that even a drunk mammal might make a few correct and lucky decisions before running out of said luck. In the end, they couldn't complain, seeing as it made everything easier.

They finally reached a point that looked to be an end to their wandering, when the light crystals ran their path to encompass a spot on the wall in a circle. Within the circle was a large stone door that had an engraving on it. A lion and lioness encircled a signet in the center, much in the manner of the Yin and Yang symbol.

"What now?" Meeko supplied.

"I'm honestly stumped here," Honey replied in earnest. "The riddle didn't seem to mention this. I think."

Nicholas sighed, "Can we hear the whole thing? Or read it if you wrote it down?" He held out a paw to illustrate his point. Honey shuffled her pack off her back and pulled out a roll of parchment to hand off to her son. The fox wasted no time unrolling it and reading.

"Passionfruit… Love… yatta yatta. What about this part saying 'It just takes two to make it true'?"

"Yeah, I didn't get that part much," his mother mentioned reluctantly. "Does it make sense to you?"

The fox held up a digit as he examined the door, running his paws over the edges of the door and into the molding surrounding it. Judith padded next to him and helped scan over the door. In the dark, her eyes only worked so well, being a rabbit, but the crystals helped her be at least a little useful in her endeavor.

Everyone else looked at the doorway from afar, using the distance to provide a more all-encompassing perspective as opposed to the pair or mates making more minute observations up close. there wasn't much to see on the door itself, besides the engraving. No switches, release levers, or pull chords. It took a good long while, or so it felt like, to finally take a few steps back and see a strange pair of openings high above the stone door.

The openings were within a recess that was above the door. It was too far apart for any of the present mammals to try walking up the sides of it.

"I think I know what we should be doing to get up there," Judith offered tentatively. Nicholas and Honey gestured for her to continue. "Help me up, Nicholas."

The red fox obliged and lifted his mate up to hang off the top ridge of the molding around the stone door. Turning back around when she got situated, the doe pulled her fox up when he leapt up to grip the top edge with one paw and his doe's with the other.

Standing up to look at the walls of the recess, he examined their options and looked to Judith, shrugging.

"What's the plan?" he asked.

"This," she said simply as Judith guided her fox to the center of the recess, facing him to one side, then facing the other herself, putting her back against his. She then roped her arms back and around his, keeping their elbows locked together.

"Now we walk up and see what's in those openings," the bunny explained in short. Nicholas nodded, a curiosity washing over him as well as a certain amount of respect at her ingenuity.

Pressing their backs together more firmly, the pair put a paw each to their respective wall, thanking whatever higher power that they weren't craggy or overly smooth. It was a balanced level of porous and not so knobby as to be painful to walk up.

They then took their other foot off the ground and slowly, tentatively, walked their way up the walls of the recess.

"Where did you get this idea from?" the tod inquired with amusement lining his tone.

"When Heather and I were kits… we did this between two large cabinets in the kitchen area to reach the sweet snacks they kept up high," Judith happily explained. "We pilfered so many sweets."

"I knew you were a little rebellious, my dear Judith, but that right there is adorably so," Nicholas stated with a light-hearted tone of affection.

"If we weren't so high, I would elbow you for calling me adorable."

"You know you love it, my lady."

The two were now a good thirty feet off upwards from their starting point and probably a little under forty from the cavern floor. The openings were just a couple feet away and more clearly seen now. Inside them, it appeared that they housed a release lever of sorts. Probably a counterweight that would pull the stone door aside or up.

The problem was that in their current state, the levers were too far apart for either of them to effectively grasp, making them reevaluate their predicament.

"Above you," yelled Meeko. The two looked down to follow the raccoon's outstretched paw, pointing to a pair of grab bars that hung from the ceiling directly above them.

They each disengaged one arm from their linkage and reached up to grab the bars closest to themselves. With the pressure on their backs and legs relieved, they sighed a bit, not worried about the strain that now built in their arms.

The two swung easily to use their other free paw to grab their lever, glancing at each other and exchanging a look.

"Together?" Judith asked. Nicholas nodded and they pulled together.

A resounding and somewhat satisfying sound of sliding stone surface upon stone surface echoed throughout the cavern. Unnerving at first, it was more than welcome as the stone door rolled to the side, into a vacant space within the cave wall.

Before the fox and bunny could think reluctantly about the effort it would take to climb down safely once more, the bars they were holding on to dislodged from the ceiling and slowly dropped downward. It worried them at first, but they saw they were actually being lowered by ropes, giving them a far less strenuous return to the ground.

Reaching solid cave floor once again, Judith stood on shaky legs, the nerves of being that high finally getting to her. She looked over to see Nicholas experiencing a similar thing but trying his best to hide it. She smiled and leaned over to hug him.

"Something wrong?" the tod asked with a tinge of concern. "Scared of heights?" Thankfully, he wasn't teasing her this time.

"No, I'm just realizing how well we work as a team and I'm glad for it."

The red fox's facial expression softened into a gentle smile as he wrapped a paw around his mate.

"I'm very glad to hear that. Thank you, Judith." Her tail wiggled at his mention of her name. it made her immeasurably happy to hear him utter it in any circumstance. The way he said it with such sincerity and conviction, as if each utterance were itself a declaration of love from the fox. It was as if her name carried some weight within his heart that he didn't want to take for granted. She could appreciate that. A name could be just a name… but still carry the meaning of a mammal within its mention. The meaning she could hear in her name from the maw of her fox was no shortage of endearment and adoration.

"Well then," piped up Honey. "Shall we press onward?" All mammals of the party nodded in agreement, making their own mentions and complaints of the journey thus far.

Padding through the doorway they had opened, the group was met with a healthy amount of brilliant light from above. It appeared to be a larger form of the crystals from the cave behind them.

They couldn't focus on that for long though, as a grouping of mammals with spears and bows enclosed them in a tight circle, every point within inches of their fur.

"Is this Upendi?" Nathan said, getting the hint to hold his paws in the air. The mammals sieging them gave each other a look or two before turning back to the party.

"Why are you here?" the panther closest to them asked slowly and with a heavy accent painting his voice.

"We're looking for refuge for our fellow mammals trying to escape prey controlled regions to the south," Honey explained evenly, barely looking at the spear tips offending her field of vision. "We're short on time and supplies and hoped we could gain your assistance… or at least hope you were open to trade?"

At this point, a voice was shouting from behind them, telling the mammals holding weapons to the group to stand down.

All of the guards reluctantly pulled their weapons back, most keeping them trained on the group and a few standing their spears upright on the ground. None of them took their gaze from the group however.

Parting the crowd of spear toting guards, two lions made their way through, followed slowly by an elderly looking baboon.

"They opened the door! You can all relax. It takes a special variety of mammal to make it here through that old passage," the larger male lion chastised the guards. "My goodness it's been years since I've seen it used."

"I dare say I haven't seen it opened since you were a cub," the baboon mentioned, offering the party a smile.

"Is it safe to say you aren't going to play pincushion on us with your spears?" Meeko asked with a twinge of fear as he lowered his raised paws cautiously.

"Oh, my dear guests, of course not," the lioness gently offered. "We just don't see this passage open often and are cautious of it, but you said you were in need?"

"Yes," the badger answered, trying to grab the reigns of attention again. "We have others on the surface in need of supplies and refuge from prey armies chasing us. I don't want to impose and we have items to trade for the things we ask."

The lion and lioness exchanged a few looks, their tails swishing lightly behind them. The male was a dark tan with a near black mane. The lioness had a lighter tone to her tan coat with varying degrees of dirty cream fur on her paws, belly, and under her muzzle.

"Well then, a welcome is in order then," the baboon spoke, softly pushing the two lions forward.

"Ah, right then," the lioness said, trying to find her words. "I am Kiara."

"And I'm Kovu," the lion voiced for himself, who then gestured to the baboon behind the pair, "and this is our advisor and longtime family friend, Rafiki."

The one labeled as Rafiki stepped forward, using a tall staff with various baubles and charms hanging from it to walk, and with arms spread wide, pulled the two lions together as they all said in unison, …

"Welcome… to Upendi."

Chapter Text

It took surprisingly less time than one would have imagined to convince a secluded culture to break said seclusion for the sake of a large grouping of mammals many times the size of Upendi's normal trade convoys.

That didn't mean getting in wouldn't take a fair amount of time. In order for their safe haven to stay in that realm of reputation, Kovu had to insist that all their cargo and personal items be inspected. To refuse would mean rejection into their city. They agreed with only minor reluctance, not wishing their items to be searched but most of the mammals trying to gain entry had no real semblance of items noteworthy of needing to remain private.

The armor and weapons brought with them were allowed in, but only under guard and supervision. Bogo agreed, seeing no real need to have them in a city with its own guard.

Nicholas and Judith helped guide mammals through after being inspected by the many guards. Since the city wasn't prepared for such a large grouping of mammals to show up, they were all being directed to a vacant district within the expansive underground area.

While not much was known by the mammals coming in, they were told a short summary of why they had an excess of housing to provide.

Apparently, the underground city of Upendi has been expanding and shrinking in population and the past few decades have denoted a fall in population due to emigration to northern provinces by many of their members. To allow greater social cohesion and keep a watchful eye over their populace more effectively, a couple small residential districts were all but abandoned. It worked in their favor, allowing the vast group to easily occupy one of the vacant residential districts.

Food and water, however, was a tougher resource to offer in the quantities they needed. Honey was able to broker a deal of sorts. The city made foraging trips to the surface for food with experienced scavengers and hunters. The deal included that several of their group could serve as pack mammals or help in the scavenging to acquire larger amounts of what they needed to supply their stores. As long as their stores remained at a healthy supply, the city of Upendi was happy to provide them with refuge.

The process of relocation from outside was a daunting one, but relatively short. It took only a couple hours to get everyone inside and guide them towards their assigned area. Everyone was free to explore the city but all were asked to remain in populated areas. Upendi hadn't gained a reputation as hard to reach and such by being overly lax with their security.

"Ah, to be free of indentured labor to wander the world below," Nicholas lamented sarcastically, both he and the grey doe slipping away once duties were done to explore the cavernous city they had neglected to get a good view of when they first came in.

The absence of the sun made it difficult to tell the time down in the cavern, though the luminescent crystals in the walls and the large light up at the very peak of the ceiling of the cave made if feel so night like. They hadn't the chance to examine it before but it appeared to be a giant crystal that radiated a bioluminescent glow like the other smaller ones.

"The 'world below' is brighter than I expected," Judith mentioned, letting her gaze wander the ceiling above, eyes straining a bit against the unbalanced light emanating from everything.

They were walking through something amounting to streets. It looked as if a series of stone tables had been carved into the cavern floor over the years, to allow for a flat foundation to put buildings and streets on. With how uneven the cave floor had to have been in the beginning, it left the city with varying levels that were linked by stairs, ramps, or even pulley lifts. Torches lined the street they explored now, with merchants and vendors selling wares and offering a variety of services.

One of them had a sign out front that had the symbol of a plate and fork, denoting to those who couldn't read that it was an eating establishment.

"Care for a bite?" the rabbit offered, gesturing towards the establishment. A small smirk lined the fox's muzzle as he flicked his eyes down to the bunny and licked his lips lightly, making her shiver just a tiny bit.

"Don't mind if I do," the tod replied, leaning in close to the doe. Her ears flopped back as she blushed slightly at the inference from her question.

"Not what I meant," she mumbled half-heartedly. "I meant…"

"Oh, I know very well what you meant," Nicholas breathed into the grey rabbit's downturned ears. "I have a hunger for something else though." The fox nipped lightly at an ear, letting his fangs barely graze the skin beneath her fur. She withheld whatever noise she dared not allow past her lips, instead letting loose a slow sigh to relieve herself.

"Mammals can see us…" the doe whispered, her gaze darting up to her fox tentatively. Nicholas looked around, seeing quite a few mammals going about their day… or night… with several of their own group mingling with the crowd. Conversations appeared very enthusiastic and attention was split between many things. The street looked about as busy as it could be considering the company.

The thing he didn't notice though, was there was little to no interest in a fox and bunny standing to the side and having a low toned conversation.

"No one seems to care," he continued to breathe in her ears. "I doubt any mammal here cares that much." He straightened up, watching Judith's nose twitch and shiver as he blew a small amount of air on it. "But you're right… I am famished."

The grey bunny doe nodded, relieved her fox let up on the teasing now, trying to will her nose and tail to settle down for now.

The two of them made their way into the restaurant, finding an appropriately sized table to use.

A snow leopard approached their table, placing two small plates and two goblets. She carefully poured water into each, hefting up the pitcher she had as she rested a paw on a protruding hip.

"What can get the two of you?" she asked in a sweet voice, smile soft and heterochromatic eyes of blue and green.

"Would you have any suggestions?" the fox asked kindly, taking a sip of his water. "Wow… this tastes… great. What do you put in this?"

"We have plenty of choices, both pred and prey alike," the feline replied smoothly, setting down the pitcher elsewhere and wiping a paw on her apron. From the stains, it looked as if the leopard did all the cooking and serving herself. Quite possibly, she even owned the place. "And that's just how the water is down here, for the most part. The lotus flowers grow along the water's edge where we gather our fresh water and it adds this latent sweetness to it. We even use it with those passionfruit you probably saw on the way in to brew a tea."

Judith looked a bit shocked.

"I was under the impression those things were dangerous?" the doe said with an inquisitive inflection.

The feline didn't miss a beat as she replied, "Oh, they are, but we found the lotus flower acts like an anti-toxin to it and the result when brewed is a very calming and pleasant tea. Promise."

"In that case," Nicholas started, "bring us some leafy greens and some various fruits, and we'll try some of that tea as well." The rabbit turned to give an admonishing glare to her fox for making that decision without her.

"Sounds great. I'll be right back."

Nicholas turned his gaze back to Judith, who seemed a bit lost.

"Something wrong?" he asked. The rabbit shifted in her seat.

"I just feel a bit… anxious about trying a tea made from a poisonous fruit," she divulged with an averted stare at the wall.

"Well, I wouldn't think mammals here would drink it unless it was safe," the tod explained. He sipped his water, then followed up with, "So, try everything. Am I right?" he chuckled good naturedly.

They didn't have to wait long as the snow leopard returned with a platter of food and drink. Two small cups steamed as a pleasantly sweet and slightly bitter smell wafted into their noses.

Giving them the food furst, the feline lowered two bowls with greens in one and fruit in the other for the two to share.

She then placed a small saucer down with the two tea cups on them, holding out a paw to stay theirs as she spoke up.

"Be careful with this stuff," the leopard began. "We call it Veri-tea for a reason." The fox and bunny exchanged confused stares as they looked back to the mammal, ears poised to listen.

"Why?" both asked in unison.

The feline heaved a short breath to explain, "You know… like verity? Honesty. The tea isn't gonna do anything bad to you but those unused to it feel the effects more heavily the furst time. Most mammals drinking it have a tendency to be… looser with their tongue than normal, saying whatever they will or answering questions asked with less trepidation. It helps the healers in town talk with some mammals afraid to speak up about their problems. To others, it's a nice way to calm down and let the mind become… slack."

"We're not going to be spilling out secrets like a waterfall, are we?" laughed the fox. The feline shook her head and giggled slightly.

"Nothing that drastic."

Nicholas dug around in a small pouch and pulled out a few silver coins, raising his paw to the snow leopard, who offered a paw in return and graciously took the coins, nodding in thanks.

"Before we forget," Judith interjected, "might we know your name?"

"Oh, of course," the leopard yelped, as if she was embarrassed. "Forgive me for not saying so earlier. I'm so used to everyone around here knowing everyone else."

"No worries," the tod waved her off.

"Right, well my name is Penny. This find eatery is my own place, Penny's Plate. Unimaginative, I know, but it's easy to remember for those who aren't fond of tongue twisters."

"Well thank you," the doe offered. "We're…" she looked over to her fox, who shrugged, knowing she was curious as to whether they should use their new names or not. "Judith and Nicholas."

"Nice to meet you," Penny answered. She then ambled away to attend to her other, potentially drunk, customers, both old and new.

Nicholas lifted his cup of tea, sniffing the contents and letting his tongue lash out to give the surface a dip.

"Mmm," he cooed. "Gonna try it?"

Judith grabbed the cup and sniffed it tentatively, her nose subsequently twitching in trepidation of the deceptively sweet-smelling fluid. She sighed.

"Try everything?" came out the nervous question, the rabbit tipping the cup to her muzzle to take a sip….

00000000

"Wait… so, you never kissed a male before me?" Nicholas blurted, genuinely shocked. Judith nodded with a fairly heavy blush tainting her cheeks and ears.

The two were walking along the edge of the city, where the cavern walls curved down into an underground river. They could see the lotus flowers mentioned, growing along vines on the edge of the water and with a few tendrils roping under the water's surface.

"Is that so odd?" she asked in a clearly defensive manner.

The two of them liked the Veri-tea so much, that they had a few servings of the stuff and were now having a very free flowing conversation. Not much of note had been revealed yet, but the freedom felt by the two to talk as they were was… liberating. Nicholas had been forced to hold his tongue for too long and Judith had to bend to her family's wishes and try not to seem too… deviant to their overall plans.

To be honest, it felt a bit like being drunk, but without the haziness. The inhibitions were lowered and though both of them knew it, they barely cared.

"I suppose not," replied the fox tod. "I'm just surprised because you don't see a bunny like you every day. No bucks lining up to court you?" He looked a bit surprised the words left his maw, but shrugged as he realized he didn't care anymore. It was fun to not keep his tongue on lockdown.

"Sure, plenty," the grey bunny fired back evenly. "Most of them were very…" she twirled her paw around at the wrist, coming up with the words, "boorish and barely capable of keeping their eyes off certain aspects." The doe threw a wavering glance over Nicholas, giving him a cursory examination.

He was dressed far more relaxed than before, a slim fitting blouse pulled taut over his broad chest and pants cut right below the knee. It was basically the outfit he wore under his armor. He usually wore loose clothing and in the crystal light, Judith felt it right to get a good look before he hid his physique once more under armor or large shirts. His arms appeared lean before, but when he moved his arms in this state, the grey doe could see the larger volume in his upper arms. His shoulders were broader than she thought as well and his legs… were rather powerful looking. She laughed internally. They would have to be to jump as he does from tree to tree. She wouldn't even mind if he pounced on h….

"Woah!" the bunny blurted. Nicholas jumped a bit.

"Something wrong?" he asked. Judith was a bit too entranced in her own thoughts and the misdirection of such to focus on his question. Instead she searched for something to take her mind off the recent trail her mind tried to blaze. She found something soft and red to look at. The fox's tail wavered in front of her vision, looking rather plush and cuddly. She wanted to hug it.

"Talk about eyeing some tail…" Nicholas spoke softly to her, whipping said tail up to her face and flicking the black tip across her nose, causing it to twitch uncontrollably. He had seen her gaze and smirked slightly.

Recovering in an abrupt realization of what he said, Judith shot back, "Ha! As if you have room to complain. You saw me naked!"

Both of them went quiet, expressions slack for a moment as the words set in.

Then, both of them started to laugh almost tearfully.

"I sure did. Don't regret it either. You have a fantastic figure."

Judith wanted to be angry at his free expression of that fact but couldn't find it in her. She instigated that and all she could do was blush till it showed beneath her fur, her ears burning as well.

"I… uh… you… no I don't…" her voice trailed off as it got smaller in tone.

"Oh, please," Nicholas sassed in a tone worthy of mimicking Honey, "I saw everything, Sweetheart." The grey bunny doe pulled her ears over her muzzle. As if the reaction were an invitation, the fox leaned in with a slaphappy grin. "I saw the cream fur running down your belly, the swell of your hips, and those beautiful legs that I wish I could see a little more often."

"Nooo…" Judith squeaked, squatting down and making herself seem as small as possible.

"Seriously," the tod continued, drawing a whimper from the burning bunny, "I'm baffled how you could look as soft as silk and still have a color to it that reminds me of clouds during a summer storm. I almost pounced on you then and there." The fox would have tried to clamp down on his mouth to prevent more stupidity from gushing out like a busted dam, but he was enjoying his mate's reactions far too much.

Shocked at his admission, brilliant violet orbs peeked from beneath her ears, getting an eyeful of his emerald orbs staring her down with plenty of confidence, tea or not.

"Why didn't you?"

The words left her before she could even sense them leaving her. She clamped her paws over her muzzle and watched in pure horror, though tempered with the smallest degree of satisfaction in the darkest recesses of her mind at seeing Nicholas's face twist into one of amazement and embarrassment.

"I… that was…" he mumbled, unable to comprehend the question, let alone come up with an appropriate answer. The fox tod would have tried to write it off and let the awkward moment bleed away, but the look, that pleading look, in his bunny's eyes. She may not have meant to ask that, but she was hoping for an answer nonetheless.

The red fox cleared his throat, "I didn't… want to…" her eyes looked about to water, so he tried to finish quickly without stuttering, "I didn't want to take advantage of your trust in me. It's hard to explain." He scratched an ear, while averting his gaze.

He couldn't do so for long though. Those amethyst irises pulled his eyes back to her as she got up to pad the short distance, burrowing her head in his chest.

An unfamiliar scent reached his nose, though the fox knew what it was to a certain degree.

Damn, Penny wasn't kidding about the tea, mused Nicholas as he tentatively wrapped his paws around Judith.

She shivered upon contact but didn't shrink away or tell him to back off. In fact, that scent from before spiked a little. Raking his claws over her head, the red fox pet his mate slowly, unable to properly form a coherent thought to say anything.

"You could never take advantage of me…" she murmured into his chest. "You have my complete trust."

"In that case, while I have all of that on the table…" the tod said. He then reached down to grab Judith's tail. Her rear hiked up and breath hitched as a strangled gasp left her.

When he had tried that before, there were witnesses and he realized the small appendage had the softest feel he could ever ask for. Now they were alone at the edge of an underground city with crystals lighting up the darkness, hugging by a river bank. No one could see them.

"Nicholas!" the doe gasped up at him, digging her claws into his chest.

"What's wrong?" he asked in return, staying his paw but not removing it from the shivering tail.

"It's sensitive. Just… not so rough. Please?"

Nicholas gulped and gently moved his paw over her tail, feeling the trembling in his paw as Judith stood on her toes and touched her nose to his. Her panted breaths washed over him, rustling the fur on his muzzle as the fox felt her nose twitch against his.

He was tempted to kiss her, but the sheer aura coming from her gesture made his mind lose its grip with forming thoughts.

Her eyes closed as she nuzzled her nose further against his, gaining some comforting sense of fulfillment the red fox didn't quite understand.

The both of them finally separated, Nicholas's paw removing itself from his mate's tail.

"Um… well… that was…"

"I'm sorry," Judith murmured. "I couldn't help it."

"No! no…" he rebuked, trying to keep her from regretting anything, "I liked it, loved it. You're just… amazing."

"Thank you," the grey doe spoke softly.

In their sweet embrace, they lost a sense of time, eventually making their way back to town.

Kovu and Kiara approached them as they traversed the streets near the center of the city.

"Why, if it isn't the two mammals we wanted to see," Kiara supplied. "We were actually just looking for you and wondered if you could join us."

"Sure," both mammals replied in kind.

"What did you need?" Nicholas continued.

"Well," Kovu began, looking to his mate, "Honey was asking for a meeting to determine a few things and you two were mentioned as being vital to some of it. She's actually setting up now in our conference chambers."

Judith looked to her mate and shrugged. The fox returned the gesture, seeing no reason to refuse his mother.

"Gotta say, I wasn't expecting a pairing such as yourself," Commented the darker lion. Kiara patted his chest with a paw in admonishment.

"You don't approve?" the doe carefully asked.

"I have no objections," Kovu replied, giving his mate a raised eyebrow stare. "I've just never really seen it. Most of our city is predators who have escaped the troubles of the surface. We usually induct new members to our society by word of mouth. your usage of the old passage was quite refreshing though. Last time I saw it used, Kiara's father Simba was in charge down here."

"That reminds me," the red fox started, the group now walking towards a large log building in the center of Upendi, "How does your hierarchy work down here? Royal lineage?"

This time Kiara spoke up, "Actually, It's far more tribal. A leader trains a protégé and treats them like the leader when the time comes for a swap. The two of us have only been at this for about six months honestly. Our family has generally led but that doesn't preclude others from taking the spotlight should a leader not be up to the expectations of their people."

"Luckily," Kovu said, "we don't have an exceptionally large group of people to deal with, making leading and getting to know our populace easier. There's only about twelve hundred of us down here. The city once held up to two thousand five hundred back when Simba was younger. I suppose the prey controlled states surrounding us are causing the predators here to try migrating North."

"Who knows," Judith supplied, "maybe some of our group would rather stay here than move onward to the North with us."

"I won't deny it'll give this city a little more life to have some new faces," the dark maned lion conceded. "Anyways, we're here."

Having padded their way into the building and turned a few corners, Kovu opened a door and let everyone else inside.

Honey, Bogo, Meeko, Akela, and Gazelle awaited them. Kovu and Kiara took a pair of seats at the end of the room, a table with a map in the center of the area.

"Now that the others are here," Honey began, "I can give you all some information I've been working on dealing with for a while." She gestured to the map and let everyone present lock their gazes on it.

"While I have been trying to get mammals to northern provinces, through various means, in order to allow them safety from persecution by prey controlled governing states, my efforts may very well be made much more difficult soon." She paused. "Our efforts have not gone unnoticed and various governing states are trying hard to stop our exodus routes. That's why I had you turn and burn, Bogo. I had to think of another plan and I may have come up with one."

Honey used a small staff to point out a position on the map.

"While other provinces don't want to risk war by openly accepting refuges from the prey states, making out efforts difficult, I found a small neutral area that is well protected by natural elements and is exempt from any war right now. From what I have heard, it's a gleaming city with a kindly outreaching ideal to accept all mammals who wish to join their city. It was started as a monastery in the mountains and grew into the city it is now."

"Why haven't we heard of them before?" Bogo asked skeptically. He got bopped by his mate with a hoof to the shoulder.

"They go by a name that seems right when said but is spelled to honor the species that started the monastery by which the city was founded. Most look it over on a map and don't associate it with the 'legend' as I'm tepid to call it."

"So, what is the name?" Meeko excitedly asked.

Honey pointed to the map at a name above the city symbol.

"Ewe-topia."

Chapter Text

"Ewe-topia?" Meeko repeated in slight skepticism.

"Yep," Honey chirped back.

"Why would we leave when we can be safe here?" Akela inquired, with a raised paw.

Kiara cleared her throat, drawing the attention of all in audience.

"I believe I can answer that concern," she started with a reassuring glance from Kovu. "Our city may be diminished in populace but in the amount of mammals Honey here has been telling me, we would be overpopulated within months if an exodus happened that brought mammals here."

"Couldn't the city expand?" the old wolf followed up. He meant no ill will with his line of questioning, but was curious all the same.

"As you can probably see," Kovu cut in, "our city is positioned in a wondrously protected place, but it is limited in its capacity for expansion. And trying to expand the caves through construction might cause a collapse. It's how we lost one of the furthest districts nearly a hundred years ago."

"Alright," Akela relented, nodding politely. "I see your point." He then turned to Honey. "So then, how will we make it there with all the mammals we have now? We're not exactly fit for travel under the mammal hunt that's going on. It's only a matter of time until an army dares to venture the forests here to look for us."

"Actually, our two lion patriarchs here have agreed to let anyone here, that wants to, stay here for the time being, as long as we don't go sending more their way," Honey explained. "As they said, they can only handle so much. Meanwhile, we and whoever wishes to, provided they are strong enough to, may come with us and help establish a line of communication to Ewe-topia. Mammals from everywhere will hopefully follow and we can take refuge there."

"Who will come with us?" Gazelle asked in her soft tone.

"With Kovu and Kiara's permission, I will have Bogo make an announcement to that effect later," the badger pointed out. "They feel that their own populace should get a choice in that matter as well."

Bogo looked surprised, Nicholas noted, apparently having not been told of his role.

"Why can't you do it?" he grumbled out slowly. Honey turned and placed a paw on her hip, giving him a sassy look.

"Do you think my tone of voice is the best to set the scene for all of that?" she snarked. "No, you're far better a choice than I in that regard." The buffalo seemed to accept that but still groaned slightly at the prospect.

Nicholas and Judith felt fairly unnecessary to the proceedings going on. They merely sat back and let it all unfold. The fox understood where this was going though, leaning down to whisper to his bunny.

"We're likely going to try and keep the group small and quick to move," he said softly into the rabbit's perked ears. She nodded in understanding and turned.

"You know I don't need you to simplify everything for me, right?" Judith remarked with a raised brow and thin smile. The tod shrugged.

"Sorry, you just seem so lost in some of these conversations," the fox reasoned to her. "Figured I would lend a paw to helping you understand."

"I'm not practiced in the ways of the world, but I'm a quick learner," the doe replied swiftly.

"If you two are done over there…" Honey interjected, her arms crossed and foot tapping the ground as both fox and bunny grinned nervously, "we would like to include you two in this discussion."

"Of course," Nicholas politely replied to his mother. "What do you need from us?"

"Furstly," the fox's mother started, "we need you to meat with a few of the locals and see who would be willing to lend us some provisions for travel. We have coin to pay them, but some would prefer trade of goods rather than coin. Get a good idea what would be best and what we can work with."

"Why us?" the grey doe piped up. "I have no objections honestly… but I don't see how we're fit for that role?" Honey tapped her chin in thought and raised a digit to point at Judith.

"You are quite likable and honest, so mammals would be willing to talk to you easily. And him…" she pointed her son, "well… he won't let you get swindled."

Nicholas looked rather taken aback and hurt for a moment before sighing and waving Honey off with a smile.

"You sure know how to butter me up, don't you, Mother?" the fox tod spoke with all due class and sass. The badger rolled her eyes.

"If only you were as sweet at Judith there," she commented in mock lamentation. The red tod's face turned sour as the rest of the room laughed at him.

0000000

Despite having a plethora of confidence in themselves, neither Nicholas nor Judith had much of an idea how they were going to go about their task.

Both were too tired to think about it and headed to their own assigned living quarters for the night. Each were given a scrap of parchment with directions to their temporary living quarters. Nicholas became suspicious though, as his directions appeared to mimic Judith's. He tried to peek over at his mate's parchment, but she had the worst timing with her ears or head blocking the way every time he tried.

The tod pretty much gave up and went with the expectation that they had neighboring rooms.

He was slightly surprised, but none so much, as the duo ended up looking at the same door in a small complex for smaller mammals.

"We get to be roomies again?" the grey bunny chirped excitedly, her previous fatigue lightened a small amount.

"I suppose we do," confirmed the fox.

Judith opened the door, making the red fox's ears pin back a bit as he saw the inside of the room.

It wasn't badly decorated or terribly worn. In fact, it was quite the cozy, but still somewhat spacious, living quarters…

…with one bed.

"It looks so comfy," the rabbit remarked, flopping forward and splaying her arms out like she was making a snow angel, face down in the sheets. She then turned over on her side and stared back at the tod, still frozen in the doorway.

"Aren't you coming?" she goaded him with a welcoming wave. He hurried inside the door, closing it and turning to see the darkened room feeling that much more stifling. Judith's violet eyes were almost glowing in the dim lighting that leaked in from the cave crystals outside. The red fox gulped, looking around.

"I'll… uh… I'll sleep over here," Nicholas stuttered, grabbing a spare blanket and heading for the chair in the corner of the room. A paw gripped his wrist, pulling him back. He could easily break the grip and continue onwards, but the action surprised him into tensely stilling himself.

"Why?" came a question that sounded almost pleading from the young bunny. Nicholas turned to give her many reasons why he shouldn't…

They were all forgotten when he saw the trembling nose and lip of Judith. Her posture on the bed, with her knees together and ears heavily drooped behind her head. Her eyes were inquisitive and thoughtful, pleading him to not turn away from her.

His eyes almost unwillingly locked onto hers as his jaw tried to work itself into speech. Words failed him and the fox's tail flicked in a combination of irritation at himself and happiness at the display of need the doe showed in favor of his presence. The tod lamented to himself that he wished the Veri-tea was still working its magic in his system. He felt he needed the boost to be brave enough to play right into her paws, but he was fearful.

Pulling away after nearly a minute of being still, the red fox tod walked over to the chair and sat down, covering himself in the blanket he took for himself.

His eyes flicked over to Judith, looking rather despondent and disappointed. It nearly broke his heart, but despite everything they had been through, everything they had divulged to each other, he didn't trust himself as much as she did. In the past, he had killed mammals. He sometimes swindled money for his next meal when traveling with no coin to his name. He would be no good to her if he was the cause of future conflict because of the difference in their species. Sure, Lord Hopps accepted defeat back at his estate, but Nicholas knew he hadn't quelled the furious rage at stealing his daughter. He said what he had to in order to keep the rest of his family from massacre.

Acceptance had been a lucky thing to come by so far, especially for Heather and Rose, both being of the female persuasion and different species. In traditional provinces, they might be stoned in the streets and never given a second thought. Even those in the refugee group they travelled with had glares and mumblings to throw his and Judith's direction, but it was tempered by relief at being free and escaping from oppressive states.

Snapping himself out of his reverie, Nicholas tried to focus on sleep, only to be interrupted by a grey doe climbing her way up his legs underneath the blanket. She slunk up, much like he once saw an otter when hugging, and curled up under his chin to place a kiss in the nook under his jaw. It sent a shiver through his body as he let out a sigh and attempted to regain some semblance of mental clarity.

"Why?" the doe repeated her question from before, much more gently and with a determination to it that made him tense to answer.

"I'm… worried about you," the tod divulged.

"Okay…" Judith hummed in response against his chest. "How?"

"I don't trust myself with you…" Nicholas stated slowly and softly. "And I don't want to get you hurt just because I'm with you."

"Because you're a predator?" she asked kindly. "Didn't we already go over this?" the fox nodded tentatively.

"But when I see the stares and hateful intent towards me, I fear for you when others will see that you are 'with' me as my mate. You will be treated like some heretic to an imagined crime that they believe is some unspoken natural law of the world… and I…" his voice was rising now, growing in volume and slight desperation…

The grey bunny doe pulled his snout down to silence him with a kiss, lowering herself into his lap and raking a paw down the back of his neck. The fur on his neck and tail fluffed up in response as a tingling chill pleasantly worked its way up his spine. He tried to pull back to speak again, but the little bunny doe yanked his muzzle back to her.

She began licking his nose in a feverish rush, letting out little squeaks as she caught her breath time and again. Her paws made their way under the hem of his tunic, feeling his belly and chest fur as her claws dragged upward slowly.

By sheer instinct, his tail played the traitor and curled around to encompass the grey bunny. She giggled slightly and smiled as she broke her close contact to gaze deeply into his eyes.

"I… sorry," he mumbled. "My fear got the better of me."

"And now?" Judith asked, leaning in again to kiss under his muzzle, alternating between pecks and little licks.

"I think you're getting the better of me…" Nicholas whispered to her.

The red fox was unsure what was going on before, but now he was sure…

She was grooming him. A pleasant bubbling feeling surged forth from within and warmed him from the inside out. Grooming was a bit of a strange custom and usually frowned upon by the more high-class populace. Mainly because it felt to many like a throwback to the primitive tendencies of old. While those not of a high-class standing weren't overly opposed to it, the overwhelming stigma of being shamed against it was there from various angles in many cultures.

Nicholas was taught differently though. He was taught that to let instinct such as that take hold and to release the restraints pertaining to that around a mammal one loves… is to show them that a mammal truly loves them. While he didn't believe the cliched line was ingrained into all, the tod was swept away knowing that Judith wasn't any mammal and was willing to make this display for him.

He closed his mouth and his eyes, feeling her claws dig in to his fur, combing through it and sending tingles cascading over him. At furst, he imagined he would have to fight some rising sense of arousal at her actions, but they were so devoid of any ulterior motives, that both his mind and body found no recourse to betray that intention with impure thoughts.

Judith propped herself on her knees as she tilted her mate's muzzle up, nuzzling and nipping at the fur where his jaw met his neck. Her stubby claws trailed the lean musculature of his upper arms and shoulders, as she roped the other paw around the back of his neck.

Her head brushed by his as the grey bunny doe found an ear and gently nestled her nose into the base of it, giving timid licks and nips at the edges. Nicholas did his best to keep his ears from reflexively flicking at the slightly ticklish feeling he got, but the overwhelming sense of affection he felt at his mate's actions helped him quell the recurring urge.

"You are… amazing…" Nicholas squeezed out in a low growl. The doe hugged him tighter and giggled nervously.

"I've never done that before," Judith admitted rather timidly. "I barely know what I'm doing."

"Then I would be a goner if you actually did," the tod snarked back softly. His mate let out a short laugh.

"Can you… return the favor?" the grey bunny asked tentatively, her paws gripping him ever so slightly more than before as she awaited his answer.

He said nothing, but instead let his claws unsheathe and drag them over the back of his rabbit's head and down her neck, to trace a claw in circles in the divot above the doe's collar bone. Her shuddering purr and thumping foot definitely denoted a sense of innocent pleasure from the ministrations.

Opening his maw, Nicholas gently closed his teeth around an errant ear, a gasp escaping the doe as his teeth raked and dragged up and down the ear. The fox let his paws migrate down to her hips, where he dug his claws in slightly, scratching and kneading her soft, pliant flesh, feeling her full thighs and letting her press against him. She was purring and cooing softly in his ear as her own were played with.

Nicholas continued to rake his claws over many parts of her, doing similar combing motions as she had done to him. He had to be more careful though, being that his claws were somewhat more pronounced than a rabbit's short and stubby claws.

It wasn't long before…

"You pretty much became a bunny puddle, huh?" the red fox tod mentioned in passing, to which Judith nuzzled against him and nodded.

"Now come to bed and stop your worrying," the bubbly sounding grey doe ordered, tugging her paws at his chest and pulling the fabric of his tunic.

"Fine, you win," the tod fake grumbled, "but be warned, I'm a cuddler." The rabbit turned to give him a raised eyebrow stare.

"Do I look like I'm complaining?" she sassed. "And are you speaking from experience?"

"Fair point, and no, more like my sleeping habits when I have a pillow," Nicholas answered.

The fox hesitated as Judith crawled into bed, but was quickly overridden in his decision making by the pull of a rabbit paw on his collar. Stumbling into bed, Judith quickly latched onto him, keeping him from running away from her. Her legs wrapped around his waist and arms encircled his chest, head buried into the tuft of cream colored fur that peeked from the V of his tunic.

He could feel her slow and deliberate breaths, obviously being so that she could take in his scent. It made him want to do the same as he tilted his head down to dig his nose into the crook of his mate's neck and breathe deeply. Nicholas's tail wrapped around them both, pressing up against Judith's back and rump.

Neither cared to actually pull the covers over themselves as the warmth they felt pass between each other was like nothing they ever felt before. To slip into the realm of sleep, cradled in the arms of the one you love, tis the sweetest of all nectars one would taste in a lifetime.

0000000

Blinking slowly, Nicholas awoke, feeling rather dazed but wholly refreshed.

He wasn't sure how long he had slept, with the time gone by down in a cavernous city being difficult to pin down, but the fox was at least sure it was probably the best sleep he ever had.

Looking down at the bundle of fluff that shifted from wrapping around him, to becoming curled up against him, the tod placed a small nuzzling nose kiss upon his mate's silky soft head.

Instead of waking, like the red fox had hoped to gently do, Judith instead stirred a bit and nestled herself in further against his chest and legs. She also let out a light groaning moan, quite effectively signifying her distaste in getting up.

"It's time to…" the fox tod began…

"Wakey, Wakey!" came his mother's voice with a loud rap on the door of their quarters.

"What do you want?!" Judith yelled, perking up immediately, as if she were awake since the red fox's first attempt at doing so.

"Oh, my… feisty this morning, are we?" came the sweet and sour reply. "I have some news and we need to get a move on as soon as possible."

"What's the word?" Nicholas interjected. "Need us to move along with the provisional procurement?"

"No," the badger replied bluntly through the door. "A trade convoy was let in and brought word that scouting forces are probing the forest for our group. They know to look for Upendi by name. Soooo, if they by chance find this place, then it'll be 'goodbye new checkpoint'."

The fox groaned, releasing the rabbit, to which she whimpered at the loss of contact, and padded to the door to pull it open a little forcefully.

"Thanks for at least respecting that the door doesn't have any locks by not opening it yourself," the son respectfully sassed.

"I'm not interested in seeing my kit tied up with a bunny," Honey remarked, putting her paws up. Nicholas looked back to Judith with horror and a blush in his ears, noting that the bunny didn't get his mother's very crude humor.

"Mother!" he exclaimed. "It was nothing like that! Just tell us what you need." The tod's paw ended up on his muzzle, dragging down in exasperation, making the badger chuckle.

"I need you two to get up, get ready, and prepare to move," Honey spoke with a mildly demanding tone to her voice. "I don't want scouts thinking they can get in here and bringing a whole army here. They just want us… so, we'll take our group and lead them away, then lose them as soon as we can."

"What about talking to the populace here about coming with?" Judith inquired, slipping gracefully off the bed and walking with her haunches raised over to stand next to her mate, grasping his arm.

The fox tod had to both wonder and stare in wonder at how great that made her legs look. He suddenly felt the reason why only her hind paw toes touched the floor. It was a stone floor that was pretty cold.

"You two already missed that earlier," the badger spoke. "It's not so late in the morning but enough of the city was awake to get a good feel about who wants to leave, stay, or is willing to support our journey with supplies. From our recruitment, we now have 28 mammals total coming with. A balanced team, if I do say so myself."

"Just… let us clean up and we'll be right out. Okay?" Nicholas requested, his mother nodding curtly, turning away to pad off. Before she was out of earshot, she near shouted down the hallway…

"Try to wait a while before giving me grandkits… I'd like to feel young for a bit longer if you don't mind."

"Mother!" the tod whined in embarrassment, slamming the door shut and turning to see his mate still hanging off an arm, blushing and nuzzling him slightly. "Sorry about her… strange sense of humor…"

"it's no big deal," Judith said, writing it off. "Now, let's get ready."

0000000

It wasn't too long, probably less than an hour, before the duo was fully prepared and dressed in their light armor.

They had sprinted along the roads and alleyways of Upendi to find the grouping gathering in the center of town, with Bogo, Gazelle, and Honey giving various orders and assigning mammals in the group their duties.

Nicholas and Judith noticed a recently familiar face among the crowd.

"Penny?" both questioned in unison.

The snow leopard beamed at them, dressed in brown, padded, armor and armed with a multitude of throwing knives and a few short swords.

"Aren't you supposed to be running a bar?" the tod asked bluntly. Penny deadpanned from her previously happy grin.

"I'm not just some pretty bar maid, Little Red," the feline said in a biting tone at the fox.

"Sorry," he apologized, "I didn't mean that. I meant that your place was only really run by you… who's to care for it?" The snow leopard's expression went back to smiling brightly.

"Well, I have a few frequent visitors I bribed into taking care of the place in exchange for some free drinks," Penny explained, sliding a blade into a small pouch, "as long as they don't abuse the privilege, of course."

"That'll do it," remarked the tod.

"Aye, that it does."

"I take it you know your way around throwing knives?" Judith asked, trying to get her own paw in the conversation. Penny nodded.

"That I do," the feline confirmed, then gesturing to the bow and quiver the doe was carrying for Nick. "I could teach you to wield that properly, if you haven't any skill with it?"

"That would be wonderful, but Nicholas here has offered to teach me already." Judith grabbed his paw in a show of validation. The leopard grunted approvingly but held up a paw.

"Quick question for you then," Penny started, pointing to the fox, who nodded. "Ever taught a bunny? They can't see as well as predators and need to rely on other senses… like hearing. Know how to teach others like that?"

Nicholas frowned as he hadn't thought of that. He was an expert marksman when he needed to be, but never really had to teach other mammals. Close combat like swordplay was fairly simple and didn't play upon a distance that would be disadvantageous to his teachings of the rabbit, but he had to agree that archery would be far more… difficult in that respect.

"I do now, but I take it you have done so?" the fox tod inferred. The feline grinned wider.

"I used to be an adventuring mammal a while back," she explained. "Had to teach a few mammals accompanying me on occasion how to fire an arrow. Archery is probably the simplest thing to pick up. Swordplay takes too long and my knife throwing abilities are through skill and experience. Archery takes some fundamentals and understanding of basic wind patterns."

"I didn't think archery was that easy," the grey bunny chirped in slight excitement. Both Nicholas and Penny laughed a bit.

"I never said it was easy, just simple," the snow leopard clarified. "Like I said, the fundamentals are simple to understand but you need to practice. Other combat skills you could learn are more dependent on reading your opponent and accounting for their weaknesses, circumventing their strengths, and turning both to your advantage. That takes many years to perfect. So does archery, but it's quicker to pick up in the beginning."

"I think I get the point," Judith voiced with a little less confidence than before. She turned when she heard a voice approaching and spotted Honey coming towards them. "What's going on?" the doe asked in concern.

"Sorry Judith," the badger remarked. "I don't mean to worry you but I thought you should know…"

"Know what," Nicholas spoke from beside his mate.

"Another trade convoy arrived with some clearer details about the forces searching for us…" Honey started. "They said that a mercenary army is on the march this way, with a lord in the south having sent them to acquire lost mammals…"

"I don't understand…" the grey bunny doe tepidly voiced, feeling unnerved by the badger's uncharacteristic nervousness. Honey shuffled a bit and spoke.

"Your father has hired mercenaries and is leading them into the forest to… 'save' you and Heather from my son and the one you called Rose. Lord Hopps is attempting to bring you home by force…"

Chapter Text

A blanket of fog covered the landscape, painting the loamy forest floor with dew, as sunbeams broke through the thick canopy of the high rising various trees. Mist crept along the mossy ground as it swirled with the light breeze around roots and rocks. A paw stepped into the milky fume, disturbing it as the paw left the ground as quickly as it had stepped down.

"I thought you said we needed to divert their attention?" Judith yelled back to an irate fox.

"Mother said that actually… and she didn't mean for us to so directly engage them!" Nicholas fired back, leaping to dodge a rock thrown their direction.

After having left the then relatively safe confines mere hours earlier, the unconventional group dared to tread north, but not before trying to make their path known to the scouts trying to track them. If they believed the rabbits in question were not in Upendi, they wouldn't likely expend the resources or thought process to care about finding the underground city. It was working somewhat…

...until Judith misunderstood the whole plan and waved a scout over.

The doe thought it was a fantastic idea to wave one of the scouts that were spotted towards them. As a reflex action, the tod wrapped a paw over her muzzle and dragged her away to keep her quiet and hope they didn't notice. That hope failed. Instead, the scout saw the whole exchange and probably felt pretty bolstered with the idea that Judith was 'kitnapped'.

"Couldn't we knock him out?" came the optimistic reply of the shrugging bunny as the two ran. They had been left to their own devices to leave an obvious trail for the mercenaries to follow. After having supposedly left a trail, the teams would reconverge to travel further north, leading the forces trying to chase them away from Upendi. So, for now, the two were alone but running from a stray scout to rejoin the main group at a rendezvous position.

"Of course not," Nicholas belted out. "He hasn't even been able to let the others know. He might be the only one to have picked up on our trail." As if to spite the fox, a loud noise sounded as he looked back to see the ram chasing them blow into small metal horn, with similar sounds following only seconds later. The tod groaned to himself and averted his gaze from the smirking bunny doe, grumbling between them both, "NOW we can knock him out."

On a dime, both mammals turned down into a thick patch of brush, temporarily going on all fours to slink into and underneath it. They turned around under the brush, peering out from under it.

"Quick question," the grey rabbit whispered to her fox. "Why is this ram using a slingshot instead of a bow and arrow…?"

"Hooves aren't great for holding a bow and drawing a string, so mammals like him use slings to compensate," the red fox tod explained in short, then putting a digit to his mouth to shush his mate as hoof steps sounded, crunching leaves and twigs. In response, the doe pursed her lips and lowered her ears, hunkering down and waiting for the mammal to get close.

"Come on out," sounded the ram, tentatively closing in on them, but not exactly sure where they were, if his scanning head movements and tentative steps were anything to go by. "Lord Hopps wants his daughters back and you dead… So, if you hand over the rabbit, I'll pretend you're dead and I get the reward. Besides, I really don't like cleaning predator blood off my blade. Especially fox blood."

Judith's paws clenched as she withheld the bubbling rage within her at other's views towards her fox. Looking over to her mate with puffed up cheeks, the bunny saw Nicholas was as stoic as ever. Not a trace of insulting hurt nor furrowed anger lined his muzzle. How did he stay so neutral?

He turned to the rabbit, raising a brow at her expression but shaking it off. The tod made several gestures that Judith couldn't properly translate, but got the gist of once he finished. She nodded once, vaguely understanding flurry of signals as, When I give the signal, we both take him down.

They both watched with slow, steady breaths as the ram in question trotted slowly in their general direction, carrying a warhammer with a small head. It was probably meant for quick strikes instead of bashing armor, like the larger ones.

Nicholas mouthed the word 'go' and leapt forward, when the ram turned his back to them, giving him a good kick to the back and trying to grab for his hammer, to keep him from properly being armed against them. Judith followed with a fairly good reaction speed, running up to the ram and getting a hold of his hammer, as her mate failed to get a grip on it when he kicked the mammal.

The male sheep went flying forward, retaining a grip on his hammer for the briefest of moments before feeling it get yanked back by the rabbit. He tumbled into a nearby tree, his head giving it a good 'thunk' before falling over.

"Now then," the red fox breathed slowly, pulling out his own sword and hefting the hammer to dual wield it, "let's shear a sheep…"

The grey doe pulled out her own short sword, taking a defensive stance that Nicholas had taught her. With her left foot forward and weight leaned back on the right, the stance allowed her to quickly dart backward from a strong opponent, when they delivered an attack, so she could bounce forward directly afterwards and deal a backlashing blow. It was one of her mate's lessons when facing larger foes. Let them deal a strike first, since they are slower, and use their time recovering to dole out your own strikes, wearing them down.

The ram got up pretty quick after his muzzle time with the tree, turning towards them and charging the two with the intent to spear them with curled tips of his horns. Both mammals dodged the attack that lacked any grace, rolling or bouncing off to the side.

"How are we supposed to knock out a ram?" the grey bunny inquired to the fox, readying her stance once more. With how the male sheep charged them, unrelenting and not stopping, it gave neither any real chance for instant retaliation. "He doesn't exactly look like a mammal that takes a bonk to the noggin to knock out effectively… or even five…"

Nicholas flicked a paw under his chin, tapping the jawline. The doe instantly got it and nodded vigorously.

"Right, but he tucks his chin down when he attacks…" Judith said in slight lamentation. Her mate pointed at the tree, then her, then into the higher branches. Just before the bunny was going to ask why he was being so non vocal, she almost face pawed in realization that the ram might hear. He was doing his 'Silence' thing by not talking when other unconcerned parties might hear.

Turning back to address her mate, Judith was slightly stunned to find the fox was nowhere within sight, having disappeared to parts unknown. She furrowed her brow and huffed in annoyance.

The doe didn't get much chance for reprieve, as the ram came after her once more, head down and hooves pounding the forest floor. She 'eeped' and turned tail towards the tree Nicholas pointed out before, standing at its base and looking around for help. At the last second, she jumped up as high as she could, underestimating the newfound strength in her legs she never had prior to this whole journey. She sailed past her primary target for a branch to grab onto but found purchase with her paws on another nearby branch. The whole tree vibrated ever so little as the rotund tree stood firm against the onslaught of a comparatively tiny mammal trying to make it move.

Judith looked down, sticking her tongue out at the male sheep, who looked up just in time to see her display and stare daggers at the rabbit. She smirked nervously, but quickly wore a stunned expression as the furious furry fist of Nicholas came up to meet the jaw of the ram, his padded and slightly armored paws protected from being harmed in the assault. She barely saw his skirt around from the other side of the tree with a speed that made him only look like a red and black blur, before planting a foot and delivering one sweet honey of a blow.

The uppercut didn't lift the ram very far upwards, but the resounding crunch told all that was needed as he rolled back and slumped to the mossy forest floor like a limp sack of vegetables.

"You set me up!" Judith seethed down at the triumphantly smirking fox.

"I gave you fair warning," he chided her in kind. "You've been pretty good at reading my paw signals til now, so I found it rightful to assume you would still understand well enough." A light chuckle from the tod gave the bunny doe, now climbing down from the tree, a pervading feeling of annoyance at her mate.

"Oh, now you talk?" the rabbit angrily asked. "I could've used with some vocalized warnings to my future predicament, because goodness forbid, you could let me know before you go off on your own and leave me to figure out what in blazes you had planned while a deranged ram tries to make me into a pancake against a tree!" Nicholas's mouth was slightly agape in sheer shock and confusion at how angry his mate was being towards him. Looking around, he could have tried to talk it out there, but other scouts or soldiers were sure to come looking for their comrade, seeing as he did blow a horn to call others to him.

"Alright… alright," the fox said, trying to wave her down. "I get it, but can we have this conversation later, when we're away from danger. The rest of the group is waiting and we need to go before we get surrounded…"

The tod waited with tentative patience as Judith bit her lip, anger still seeping from her glare, then nodded curtly. Her feet padded heavily, leading the way, as she did not want to look at him right now. She didn't dare to turn as she ran, but knew his more silent footfalls were directly behind her, eyes probably contemplative and jaw sternly clenched. She understood his vow of silence, she really did, but sometimes he would need to break it in order to get a point across, which he has done on rare occasions.

With both of their sensitive ears, they could hear the encroaching scouts closing in on their previous general location, likely going to be surprised a comrade was taken out. In response, the two went into a full on sprint, hoping the trail they left would be enough to point them in their direction but wouldn't outright give them a clear cut path to apprehend them… or worse.

0000000

Returning to the group was a simple, though lengthy, task, denoting a zigzagging trip through the forest to throw off any trails left by their paw prints or scent, not that there was much prey around with a track worthy sense of smell, but still a precautionary measure.

Judith stomped off, away from her mate, towards the forefront of the group. With some thirty odd mammals, instead of the group before, it felt like everyone was keeping a much better pace.

Once again, Bogo and Honey led the group, with Gazelle lagging behind them. Contrary to her previous gentle demeanor, the bovid was now geared for battle. Aside from the more aggressive attire, dark and slimmer fitting as opposed to the casual dress she wore before, she was sporting a long curved sword and small buckler shield attached to either side of her hips. A battle skirt flowed evenly down her rear, being cut high in the front and ending in a tapered point near the back of her knees.

The rabbit made a mental note that she would have to ask about that later on. It looked rather cute to her.

Nicholas hung back, sulking slightly and mulling over a multitude of ways to try striking up a conversation with his mate to smooth things over. He kept throwing out ideas as soon as his line of thought began to stray towards more manipulative methods to a quick resolution. He knew he screwed up and, in the moment, he probably should have pledged more than a second's thought towards his ends. In this case, it did not justify the means. Honesty and facing up to his mistakes seemed the most appropriate options but so unsavory.

Besides, his main obstacle was his own reservations about…

"You look depressive enough to bring down a dank bar, Little Red" a soft, rolling voice spoke from next to the fox. He looked up to see the snow leopard walking at a brisk pace next to him. Something he missed noting before, that slightly amused him now, was that Penny was pretty small for her species. She appeared to be fully mature and grown, if her voice and mannerisms were any indication.

"Not sure what you mean," the red fox deflected, following up with, "and why 'Little Red'? I'm rather tall for a fox." the feline smirked knowingly, irking the tod, as she rested a paw on his shoulder.

"Just call that my name for you, like it or not," she divulged cryptically, drawing out a huff from Nicholas. "And don't skirt the issue. I saw your cute bunny heading off in a rather unstable state herself. What did you do to draw her ire?" The fox raised a brow to Penny and twisted his head to avoid her inquisitive gaze, her mismatched eyes boring into him.

"She wouldn't like you calling her cute and I didn't know you… went that direction."

Penny scoffed a laugh at him.

"Of course not," she mused, ruffling the fur on Nicholas's head with a paw, "but I can observe and see why males find her attractive. Doesn't have to mean I actually find her attractive." The tod shrugged and sighed.

"I guess…"

"Now, back to my original inquiry, what happened?" the snow leopard pursued. "Normally a female being just plain angry might mean giving you a glare or accusing stare. Maybe even berating you some. If I had to guess… you scared her or worried her and she can't look you in the eyes right now."

The red fox tod scowled at her with thoughtful eyes, replying, "You might be right. By the way, how are this good at reading mammals?"

Penny winked and smirked, saying, "A bar is full of many faces. I learned to read as much as I can from them. Some want to drink in private and some want an ear to complain into. You figure out the difference and also gain insight to many problems one might not experience on one's own. Now stop deflecting and tell me."

Heaving a languid sigh, full of a day's misgivings, the tod finally relented in full.

"I've taken this vow of silence to reflect my new moniker," Nicholas began, "and left my mate with a mild understanding of a plan using crude paw signals. She was chased by a ram scout and likely didn't know where I had gone off to. In the end, we knocked out the scout and she was quite furious that I didn't break my silence to give her a better understanding… I think."

"You didn't kill the scout?" Penny asked, perking up. The red fox shook his head in the negative. She sighed. "Why go through the trouble of knocking him out? We left a good trail to follow, just enough to pull them towards us but not catch us. Knocking them out won't do much except give them further reason to track you down to exact their own personal vengeance." A look or realization passed across the feline's muzzle. "Or… oh… dear Judith hasn't seen you kill another mammal, has she?"

The tod's tucking of his chin to his chest was all the confirmation Penny needed.

"I wish you would stop that…" he replied meekly. "Starting to feel a little exposed here." Nicholas's eyes scanned the ground, watching his own paws tread the ground, as he contemplated what to do or say next. "I planned to kill him… ducked behind a tree to let Judith pull him in and go up into the branches. I couldn't quell one single fear though… what would she think of me?..."

Unbeknownst to the fox, Penny had subtly guided him away from the main group, allowing them a semblance of privacy that was out of earshot, even if not out of sight. When he looked up to realize this, he was silently thankful, though said nothing to that effect, simply taking solace in the fact that it was.

"I spent what felt like an eternity in my own mind, trying to find the balance I usually had to when on the battlefield," Nicholas continued. "I'm sure you know… it's that mindset you try to attain to make sure you don't take pleasure in killing, knowing that you did it in the name of something else or to protect someone dear. But… I couldn't get her eyes out of my mind. The potential look of horrifying realization on her face that I am the same as any other mammal with a blade. We can kill. So… I dropped my weapons and gave the ram a good uppercut to the jaw."

"You know you can't protect her from that forever," the snow leopard chided him gently. "From everything I've heard of your journeys thus far, Meeko is quite a chatterbox when he isn't eating, you've been very fortunate. I'm not saying it won't last… but you can't go on expecting it to."

"I know," the fox tod sighed, "but how do i tell her that? How do I make her understand without taking some other meaning from it that could drive a wedge between us?"

There was a permeating silence between the two, occasionally tainted by the sound of paws or hooves cracking twigs and crunching leaves underfoot. Both mammals were absorbed in their own thoughts, slowly breathing and contemplating their next words carefully. It was Penny who took a deep breath, vented it out, then turned her sharp gaze to the despondent fox.

"Let me talk to her a bit," she breathed. Nicholas perked his head and ears back up from a less than optimistic display. "I'll see if I can't open her up to your problems, then let you come in and explain yourself in full…"

Tempering his slight relief with cautious optimism, the fox asked, "Why would you do that for us? You've known us for… a day." the feline shrugged.

"I'm a big supporter of romance," she simply stated. "Why do you think I made my way into a city literally named for love? Aside from all that though, I have a belief passed down from my father that I pass off to any who need this little bit of wisdom… Let live the love that lives no lie." The tod flicked his gaze over her and a few mammals in the distance, mulling over the phrase. It made some sense to him, but didn't mean he still wasn't fearful of Judith's reaction to everything he needed to talk over with her.

Let live the love that lives no lie.

If he forestalled his explanations or even simply hid them from her, then that would still mean his love lived some sort of lie. His paw reached up to scratch the back of his neck, claws unsheathed to dig in a little.

"I'll accept your offer at help then," the red fox finally relented.

At that, Penny began to walk faster, not wasting any time in letting this estrangement fester like an open wound. Nicholas stuttered some form of incoherent objections, which were swiftly ignored, as the feline made her way to find Judith. The tod settled for grumbling a bit and resigning himself to waiting with a strained sense of apprehension after seeing that his objections fell flat in the leopard's ears.

Penny smiled to herself, striding a bit faster to the rabbit ahead of her, ears down and head lowered.

0000000

Judith slicked her ears back for what felt like the hundredth time since making her way to the front of the group. Luckily, for her own privacy, no one appeared to pay her much mind, or possibly saw she was in no mood and let her be. Either way, she got the solitude she wanted for now, trapped alone with her own thoughts. Not ideal, but still something better than inadvertently snapping at someone else just because she didn't want to talk.

A paw tapped her shoulder gently, causing the doe to withhold a groan and turn to meet the green and blue eyes of Penny.

"Mind if we talk?" she asked softly. Judith looked down and ran a paw over an ear, nodding with a slow blink. "Great! Forgive me if I seem blunt, but you appear to be having a disagreement with how Nicholas did something recently?" The mention of her mate made a few emotions swirl on her face, though having another intrude on their problem by proxy made her outward appearance most reflect anger.

"Why does it matter to you?" the grey bunny led with a small amount of venom in her tone. "Did Nicholas put you up to this?"

"I'm here because I think a third party could do you two some good in establishing something like… a line of communication," Penny explained. "And no, he didn't put me up to anything. Little Red actually seemed very keen on not telling me anything in the first place, much less having me intervene, but I like the two of you and want this to work out. So…"

"So?" the rabbit incited with a paw wave.

"So, what's the problem you have?" the feline continued. "I already got a good feel of Red's end of the problem but want to know your side so i can compare."

"He just…" Judith started, clenching her paws, "...it was… I can't… UGH! He gave me vague paw signals and left me to face the ram on my own, for as brief a time as it was. I didn't know where he went or what he was doing and there was no communication from him. I was scared… of what would happen to him, to me, to us…" Penny nodded in understanding.

"I think I get what you mean," the snow leopard spoke with a small smile. "Would you believe he was having his own conflicting crisis at the time?" Judith tensed slightly at that, unsure how to respond but concern for her fox surfacing all the same.

"What are you talking about?" she simply asked.

"How do you feel about killing a mammal? In self defense of course…" the feline let the question hang in the air, waiting for either an answer or some form of recognition from the bunny.

"I… I guess I don't like it," the doe started, "but I know it happens."

"Yes," replied Penny, "but what if Nicholas killed the ram? What would have been your take on that?"

"There's no need to think about that, since we were going to knock him out and did," Judith quickly fired back. "Killing him wouldn't have served any purpose."

"Don't deflect," the leopard chastised the grey doe. "Little Red already did that to me and I still got him to talk, and he's far more emotionally closed off than you." The bunny grumbled something unintelligible, then let her ears stand up, growing a little more comfortable talking to Penny.

"I guess I don't like to think about that… sorry. I know Nicholas said he's killed before, but I don't want to think about if it happens in front of me… because then… it becomes real. In my defense or not… he will have taken a life."

"He told me he planned on killing the ram," divulged the feline, "but stayed his blade because he was fearful what you would think of him. He values your view of him more than you realize. That's what he was mulling over before. I would explain further, but he should have a chance to do that himself. Would that be ok?"

Judith gave a single nod, but was still processing that statement. Nicholas planned to kill the ram… he wasn't going to knock him out? And the fearless warrior… was afraid of her thoughts concerning him? If he had killed before, what would her opinion now matter to him?

She felt a pit in her heart beginning to ache.

Penny guided the bunny doe back, letting their pace slow to lag back and allow the fox to catch up.

"Try to give him a little leeway," the snow leopard offered with a smile. "He doesn't seem like one for emotional moments and might take a chance to run or deflect if he can… But… if all goes well, come back to me and we'll get to teaching you how to wield a bow. Alright?"

The grey bunny smiled earnestly, with a slight notation of trepidation, saying, "Sounds great."

Chapter Text

Nicholas twisted his paws around within each other, mouth open and panting slightly. He was nervous… anxious… fearful, his head down in supposed shame.

The doe eyeing him wanted to think he probably deserved to be as such right now, but everything Penny said thus far brought his actions into a different light. Before her was not just a mammal rightfully regretting his actions, but a fox emotionally torn between what he could do and what he should've done. Judith now realized that his trepidations were mostly focused on her. What she thought and how she would see him should things have not worked out in their favor.

The grey bunny now felt the pit in her heart ache further. Her fox was so fearful of her reprise and view of him in that respect, that she almost felt a slight tinge of happiness at how much her word and mental visage of him meant to Nicholas. Her ears once again flopped downward, the doe mentally giving in to the part of herself that wanted to give her mate a chance to explain himself.

With Penny staying a short distance away, both a comfort and a curse, should she hear anything potentially private, the bunny got in close and nudged her mate. He turned slowly, paws stilling for a moment before the tod went to wipe them off on his pants. He tried to smile but looked no less despondent and trepidatious of what was to come, and the emotional exposure pulled at the doe's heart strings. Smiling back in an effort to comfort him, she saw his paws noticeably stopped fidgeting.

"So…" Judith began, "who goes furst?"

"Me!" The tod near exclaimed, all too chipper for the moment. He lowered his head and ears again, giving his bunny a guilty look. "I meant me… please… my lady."

Given the moment was a bit somber, Judith chose to brush off the irksome feeling at being addressed as 'my lady' once more. She assumed he felt he didn't deserved to call her by name at the time. Besides, she had neither the patience nor mental focus to divert towards that argument, so she let it go.

"Go ahead," was Judith's soft reply. The red fox breathed out in a rush, as if he were holding his breath, sucking another in before speaking.

"I'm terribly sorry for my actions," Nicholas started. "I was so caught up in my own thoughts that neglected to properly give you a better understanding of my plan at the time…"

"You were thinking about killing the ram… i know," interjected the grey doe. The fox looked slightly surprised but figured Penny told her. He nodded solemnly, averting his gaze from the rabbit. "Why?"

Releasing a groaning sigh, Nicholas looked forward to see Penny's ears flicking, her head tilting in a belated nod.

"Because he will return to fight us," he tried to reason to the grey bunny, who appeared resolute in her thinking.

"You didn't have to kill those bandits…" Judith retorted evenly. "They didn't come back." The tod stifled a frustrated growl that threatened to come out.

"Those were idiots in over their head with mammals they assumed would be an easy mark for thievery, thus, no reason to pursue us further," he bluntly explained. "That scout will come back and make an attempt to kill or capture, especially since he was paid to do so." The doe now looked contemplative, her reasoning suffering a crack in the armor.

"But we don't have to kill…" she replied with a faltering false bravado. "We're better than that and will always show mercy…"

"That's a delusion!" Nicholas snapped, now watching in slight fear as his bunny's eyes widened in shock, then in full realization at what he said.

Trying to temper his resolve, the red fox continued as steadily as his voice allowed, "When it's down to you and an opponent, to which only one can come out alive, you can't count on mercy to change their mind about you. Even worse, when someone you love is in danger, you may have to make a decision you don't like. I was close to such a decision earlier… and I got lucky. Extremely lucky. I couldn't take the idea of you coming to hate me because I did that… but next time, I won't be hesitating again."

"Next time…" she mumbled, gaze drifting away with empty eyes. "You would take a life to protect me? But… how far will you go, how many lives will you end to accomplish that end?" The grey doe's eyes became watery as she tried to lock her gaze with his once more, wavering in resolve.

Nicholas's own emerald pools became dull for a moment as he thought that over.

"You shouldn't ask me that," he breathed in a near whisper. Judith bit her lip and fought back a gasp, sucking her teeth instead.

"Just… tell me," the rabbit half-heartedly demanded. With a slight smile and sad eyes, Nicholas looked back at her.

"To keep you safe… I'd trade the world in its entirety."

Out of context, and in most other situations, the words might have appeared romantic. In this case, it was a bitter and stale taste in Nicholas's mouth and jarring for Judith to absorb. She felt that maybe she should have been comforted by that ideal. That she would be secure and safe by his side if he was so resolute. All she could think though, was all the murder the fox would be willing to commit in her name.

"Why would any mammal need to kill another…?" the doe mumbled almost incoherently, with the tod unsure if she were even asking him at all. He pulled in a breath, ready to answer anyways.

"It's not really a need," Nicholas stated, getting his mate's eyes to slowly train on him again. "Nor a necessity. It's a right to live, but when someone abuses that right by trying to take it from others, they forfeit the right against any who wishes to defend themselves. That ram, in my eyes, forfeited that right when he chose to attack us with the intent to maim and kill us. He didn't even appear concerned with capturing you, when it came down to it."

"I guess…" she replied simply and slowly. The red fox took the chance to try holding the ground he believed he was gaining.

"Before every battle… when I was a soldier," he began, "I would recite every mantra I could think of, remembering the value of a life. I did it… so that I would never lose myself to heat of battle, slaying with no conscience and no mercy, even to those that truly wished for it. I never wanted to lose myself and what it means to be me. Every death that I have caused, has been in defense of something, be it an ideal or to keep an army from marching on a innocent village."

Nicholas chose to stop there, hoping to all the good in the world that Judith would see the light in this darker part of his life, his heart, his mind.

His paws began to fidget somewhat again, as the rabbit walked onward, eyes still and sullen, contemplative of everything her fox said. Her eyes blinked many times and mouth parted and closed randomly, as if making to speak but having no words come to mind. Finally, after several minutes of silence…

"I want to be alone for a bit…" Judith breathed.

Nicholas felt like a weight was dropped into his stomach, feeling that he was losing her… with no more words or arguments in mind to potentially sway her. Everything was blank. All he could do, though quite mechanically at this point, was nod and allow her to break away.

The fox tod's paw went outstretched, desperate to try and bring her back, but he stilled himself and resigned to walk onward, sighing and clenching his eyes shut.

"She just needs time," spoke up a voice from beside him. Nicholas opened his eyes to see the small snow leopard closing the distance, remaining next to him and giving the tod a pat on the back.

"Didn't you hear anything?" the fox nearly hissed at Penny. She didn't even blink, her smile annoying him greatly.

"Heard it all and quite the sad sounding turnabout," she replied evenly. "Although, did you look at her?"

Nicholas turned his head away in slight shame as he stated, "I couldn't bear to see her face when she said that…"

"Then you didn't see what I did," revealed the feline in a somewhat smug tone. "Her face looked like that of someone who had her potentially delusional ideals broken and now needs to reevaluate. What?... Did you think she would instantly change her mind and rush into your arms, swooned by your words?" Penny raised her brow, as if almost expecting the fox to have thought exactly that. He shrugged half-heartedly.

"I… sorta?" came his tepid reply, giving the leopard an awkward, lopsided smile.

Penny began to laugh, a clear but still soft sound that both seemed pleasant and inopportunistically annoying. She slapped him hard across the back, testing the rigidity of his back's armor padding. He tripped forward a bit, but remained relatively steady as he glared at the feline, who was apparently quite immune to non verbal threats as she only laughed harder.

"You, my dear fox, are an idiot," Penny laid out for Nicholas, unabashed and seemingly prideful in her accusatory remark. Even knowing it wouldn't work, the tod glared further at the beaming leopard, her heterochromatic eyes gleaming as bright as her smile. The red fox couldn't restrain himself anymore and was able to crack a tentative grin. "There you go," the feline comforted. "Just give her time to work through the revelations you made her face. She'll come around."

"Yeah…" the tod vented in a low sigh. "I'll just hold onto that hope…"

0000000

Judith spent the better part of the day alone with her thoughts, staying at the stringent edges of the group, barely within view at many times. While it should have been simple, her mind worked through all the information afforded her with the efficiency of a sloth trudging through a swamp. It was both a relief and a rude awakening to see that her musings bypassed the entire day, as everyone made ready to camp before the light of the sun waned beneath the treeline.

She was about to ready herself to pitch her tent for the night… when she remembered that the grey rabbit had agreed to share one with Nicholas. A small growling groan left her as she mulled over what to do.

Sighing upon coming to the conclusion that she needed some more time to think, Judith mumbled to another mammal about getting kindling. Only when they nodded did she hurriedly pad off on her own into the darkening forest. The sun was still well above the horizon, giving her plenty of light and time to work with, but the lengthening shadows did unsettle her slightly.

As she walked, her thoughts seemed to find coalescence in the visage of various personalities that seemed to reflect certain conflicting portions of her psyche. Her sense of logic came around to having to agree with her mate. Her morality and sense of justice disagreed with her logic though. Other voices seemed to whisper strange and conflicting things, but the aforementioned two were the most prevalent in her mind as of yet.

We can't just allow ourselves to believe that murder is right and just, Judith's morality shouted in the recesses of her mind, a room of sorts being the imaginative and figurative foundation for her internal debate.

It isn't murder if it is done in defense of those who would die otherwise, her logic rebuked.

It's still taking a life, Morality fired back. Your blade, your arrow, your paw… snuffing that light out when, if you have the strength to take a life, you should have the strength to spare it.

Life is rarely so simple and you know it, Logic calmly argued. As Nicholas said… it is deluded to think otherwise. Besides, he never said it was right or just. Only that it was necessary sometimes. He never condoned it nor said it wasn't potentially conflicting to him. In fact, he very heavily implied that it was difficult for him to even think about it. He put his very life at stake when he dropped his weapons to knock out the ram instead of doing the assured move of killing him.

Judith's morality remained eerily silent within her mind, the doe phasing out of the internal debate to pick up dry twigs and branches to use for kindling. She even found some exceptionally dry bark that would serve well to light on fire quite quickly.

She had to admit to herself, with a sigh, that her mate appeared more conflicted about the potential ordeal than she did. Not so much over the action itself… but the result. He did consider options and weigh them accordingly, always giving consideration, proven by his admission that he planned to kill the ram, but changed his mind when presented with the issue that now plagued them.

Judith lamented that she was probably keeping her fox worried sick about her unresolved thoughts concerning their differences. She would never give him up, that much she knew. Although, the poor tod probably feared anything and everything that concerned their relationship. He deserved to know she wasn't planning on breaking away from him, at the very least.

Pulling a small length of chord from her side pouch, the grey doe tied the bundle of kindling together, slinging it over her shoulder and making her way back.

Thinking back on her original problem, it wasn't like she avoided the idea of death. She's lost extended family and siblings, with some of the predators serving under her family dying if pushed too far. It was the thought that her or Nicholas could cause it to someone else that made her trepidatious over it. She knew the pain of loss and… she supposed… she didn't want to be the cause of that for others.

But what if your 'mercy' causes your own or Nicholas's death in turn? Logic calmly argued.

Judith hissed at herself and shook her head violently, willing away tears. The bunny didn't want to entertain that thought.

She finally found her way back to camp, pawing over her bundle, to which a few 'Thank you' mentions were made. Multiple fires were started, with other mammals having found wood of varying sizes to make a few sustainable fires for the night.

Not feeling up to eating, she turned down all but a portion of bread, offered to her by her own sister. Whilst she was against it, Heather and Rose made to accompany the group, so as to give the mercenaries following them as little reason as possible to care about trying to find Upendi. Their reasoning aside from that is that they were great at gathering and helping prepare for meals and such. Neither were fighters, but both were willing to support as needed. Both even expressed willingness to take up such crafts as fletching to provide the archers of the group with arrows.

"What has you looking so down?" Heather asked, guiding her to sit on a log that another mammal took the liberty to roll into the camp for such use as they were making of it.

"Just my own stupidity, I think," Judith answered, averting her gaze. A new thought occurred to her, upon seeing Rose walk around, pawing out some hot stew to a few other mammals. "Why do you think we turned out so different with our views in respect to predators…? At least in respect to our other siblings."

The elder sibling breathed in, loosing the breath as she contemplated the question, answering, "Honestly, for me, I was the same as all of them. I used poor Rose for my own selfish ends… but… I ended up caring for her more than I ever thought I could. Through that… I found a new array of questions to ask that led me to see my previous teachings and behavior as wrong." She clutched her legs to her chest, leaning her head on her knees and giving her sister a curious look with a tilted head. "I don't think you were anything like that though, Judith. You've always been kinder. A lot of other siblings were either annoyed or jealous of it."

"I guess I never saw the point in being like our siblings, or listening to father's teachings about predators," Judith revealed. "If I remember right… I was like ten when I began asking the simple question 'Why?' in concern to the treatment and views we were taught to have towards predators. We were told they were dangerous beings with the capability to eat us whole if we gave them the chance and should subjugate them, but I've seen prey do so much to predators with no real intent to be as savage as we claimed them to be. Prey in that respect were more frightening to me than predators were."

Heather began laughing, much to the grey doe's ire.

"What?" Judith asked in annoyance, furrowing her brow.

The brown bunny calmed herself, clearing her throat to explain, "You make it sound like prey were more savage in respect to predators, which… I agree with. And, as it turns out, it was a rather funny revelation to think about." The two sisters gave each other warm smiles, a bit of Judith's previous tension and anxious trepidations waning now. "So…" Heather resumed, "was that all?"

"I suppose not," the grey doe divulged. "I had a disagreement with Nicholas that has had me in a knot, trying to make sense of everything. He was willing to kill to protect me, though I probably overreacted to that revelation, with delusions that everyone can be reasoned with."

"That is a delusion," her sister agreed. Judith looked over to her with a renewed expression of frustration. "What? It's true. I won't say it's right, pure, or good… but it's true. I've never really been in that position but I heard things from our brothers and father. Here's what I think you should mull over, from your sister… He is willing to carry the guilt of such an action to save you. He doesn't sacrifice his life, but maybe a part of himself. It's hard to explain."

"No… no," the younger bunny waved her sister down. "I actually get it… and it makes some sense. Thank you." Heather leaned over in response to give Judith a tight hug, with the grey doe returning the embrace.

"I love you, Judith," the elder sister whispered.

"Love you too, Heather," the younger returned in kind.

0000000

WIth the night sky showing an increasing number of bright stars in the sky, Judith made her towards the tent that Rose had pointed out as being set up earlier by Nicholas.

She stood at the precipice of the entrance flaps, sucking in nervous breaths, as all the words she practiced in her mind suddenly flew away. Her throat was suddenly dry and a renewed sense of guilt upon leaving her fox without an inkling to her leanings rose in her gut. She gulped and turned around, rubbing her head in an effort to purge her mind of the terrible thoughts. The doe then turned back towards the flaps, taking a deep breath and blowing it out slowly.

Judith entered the tent, becoming a little surprised to see her fox lying wrapped in a blanket on the tent floor, body facing away but with his head turned back to stare at her.

He jumped up almost immediately, eyes downcast but somewhat expectant of something good. The fox's tail flicked sporadically in reflection of an emotion that the grey bunny couldn't yet read from him. It didn't matter at the moment. The good thing was he wasn't giving her a cold shoulder or treatment that would seem abrasive. He was patient and waiting for her.

The thought made her heart stutter its beats for a few seconds. He'd been so understanding of her, despite her refutations and previous arguments against him.

Knowing words alone wouldn't likely ease the tension that Judith could read from Nicholas, the grey bunny doe padded lightly over to her red fox tod, lifting his muzzle with her paw, and nuzzling him right underneath his chin.

"I'm sorry," she murmured against him, the vibrations of her voice seemingly continuing after she stopped speaking. Judith then realized with a smile, that her mate was purring.

"I'm sorry, too," the tod vented almost breathlessly. "I'll make sure to be clearer with my paw signals… or better yet, just speak when I must. This 'Silence' thing shouldn't endanger you…"

The rabbit was about to renew a continuance of her apology, when Nicholas stiffened and a large ripping sound cascaded through the tent. She was pushed to the ground as a yelp echoed in the small space. The tent was tall enough to stand in, with it being several feet from one side to the other, probably made for larger mammals, but luxuriously spaced for smaller ones. Judith rolled to a stop against the opposing edge, recovering as quickly as she was able to look at her mate.

Her eyes widened.

Though it was night, flames from the fires outside still bleed through the fabric, illuminating the space within. It allowed her to see Nicholas…

...and the ram from before holding a blade to his neck. The fox made a move to struggle, but the blade held against him only pressed further against his neck. No blood was drawn yet, though, with how little room the ram left, the tod could no longer make any moves without harming himself.

Judith looked down to see her fox's sword lying next to her. She grabbed it and pulled it from the scabbard, pointing it with shaky paws at the male sheep. He laughed at her, keeping his voice low.

"One wrong move, little bunny, and the fox gets to be colored a new shade of red," the ram threatened. "I was told to bring you back alive… and I won't feel guilty at all making this pelt a forest floor decoration to get to you." He gestured with his chin for her to drop the sword. The doe very nearly complied until…

"Don't you dare do it, Val," Nicholas spoke sternly to her. "He'll kill me either way…"

"Oh, come on…" chastised the sheep playfully. "You're ruining my fun. It's not like she'll do anything with that sword anyways. Probably can't even use it properly, eh? Little spoiled daughter of a Lord with a big sword."

Judith gripped the sword tighter, unsure what to do. He was right, though it wasn't like she wouldn't do anything. She couldn't. The ram was larger than the fox, but, with the sword so tightly pressed to his neck, any move on her part would be met with a slashing of her mate's throat before likely parrying any blow she would land.

Patience, the grey bunny saw Nicholas mouth to her. It took her a few times running the memory in her mind to fully grasp what he said, but she understood… and waited.

She now understood so much from this moment. The value of a life versus the hesitation that mercy allowed. Her mate was right. Penny was right. Heather was right. It wasn't good… but as she read in a book before…

The path to good is sometimes paved by evil deeds, made with the best intentions.

Nicholas darted his eyes up to the ram, trying to formulate a plan.

"Hey powder puff?" he called mildly, keeping his throat from moving into the blade. The ram turned his head with a grunt.

"What do you want, pelt?" he spat, almost literally, into the fox's face.

"Mind if I have any last request?" Nicholas snarked, smiling slightly.

The male sheep looked rather flabbergasted, breaking out into laughter.

"You're such a dumb fox!" he guffawed, the blade moving ever so slightly away from his neck. The fox willed him to move it a bit further, needing room enough to try something…

A gurgling sound suddenly made the red fox tod's eyes dart up to the ram, widening greatly in shock and surprise. The ram adapted a similar widening of the eyes, albeit with different pupils.

Judith was heaving deep breaths, eyes determined and quite possibly hiding a boiling layer of anger beneath them. Her paws were in a death grip on the Nicholas's sword, blood seeping downward and dribbling over the tips of her fingers.

She stood inches away from her fox, the sword buried into the ram's neck, just to the right of his windpipe, but severing it from the side just the same. The tip made its way through the soft flesh and out the back of his neck… piercing through the spine and severing the connection with his body.

The male sheep's arms and legs buckled, with the red fox avoiding the bladed edge previously pressed close to his neck, as it now fell towards his feet. With the tod shuffling back, the blade thumped softly into the tarp laid out on the forest floor for their tent.

The ram fell into a heap, the life gone from his eyes and sword still embedded within his flesh. Judith released the hilt and collapsed to her knees, starting to hyperventilate.

Nicholas knelt down to her level and wrapped his paws around her, pulling her close.

"Shh shh…" he cooed. "You're okay… I'm okay. I'm here for you."

"I… I…" she began to sob, "I killed… *hiccup* killed him."

The red fox pulled her closer, tilting his head down to whisper in her ear, "No… you saved me." He then went to pet her head, her ears falling behind her head.

A furling flap sounded, drawing Nicholas's gaze.

Bogo and Meeko were at the tent entrance, mouths agape and weapons ready. The raccoon with his twin daggers and buffalo hefting… a fairly sizable battle axe. Nodding their understanding as the tod vaguely gestured the ram was no longer alive, Bogo turned to Meeko.

"Get everyone you can to keep on guard and search the area," the bull softly ordered, his eyes locked on the crying doe. "I highly doubt he was alone."

The raccoon nodded and took off with surprising speed. The buffalo stayed a moment.

"You can use my tent right now," he offered softly, drawing a tepid nod from Nicholas. "Use some water to clean off if you so wish."

Without waiting, the fox tod scooped up his mate, her sniffles and hiccups waning but also somewhat stifled against his chest, taking off out of the tent.

He crossed the campsite, finding a large metal flask of water, shaking it to test how much was in it. Realizing it was near full, he set down his mate gently on a stump, letting her stare blankly at the ground. Nicholas took advantage of her docile state and held out her slightly bloodied paws, drizzling water over them and quickly washing out the substance before it could get dried and sticky. It took a couple minutes of rinsing and teasing the fur, but her paws became clean enough that he didn't feel she would renew her tears and sobbing fit from looking at her paws.

The red fox looked his mate over, making sure there was no injuries or blood. He then checked himself as well. Besides still feeling aches from the pressure the ram put on him with his hooves, Nicholas was fine. It wasn't the furst time his life was threatened, even if this was a closer call than he was used to. The tod did worry profusely over his mate.

Tears run dry and breathing becoming normal, her eyes reflected this emptiness that made her mate unsure how to approach her.

"I understand now," Judith breathed. "I get all of what you meant… even if I still disagree with a lot of it." Nicholas felt a great deal of relief that his bunny wasn't going catatonic, kneeling down in front of her to clasp her paws in his.

"I never said I liked it either," he spoke in agreement, leaning in to kiss the top her head. The bunny doe lifted her head in response, gazing deeply into her fox's eyes, life returning to her amethyst gems.

"I couldn't lose you…" the grey rabbit stated with a revitalized sense of determination, still tempered with her recent guilt, but not pervaded by it. Her paws wrapped around the tod's neck, lips planting themselves on his own.

Her actions ended up unbalancing him, bringing them both to the ground, Nicholas on his back and Judith on top of him, never releasing her mouth from his. The red fox's paws were now outstretched, digits extended, as he hesitated to embrace her, wondering if this was still some emotional reaction.

Judith then vented out a breathless, "I love you." His paws closed the loop, lacing together around her back.

"I love you, too," Nicholas returned in kind, with all due sincerity.

"I realize now," she began, "the lengths of which you would go for me... and that which you have already gone." The grey bunny doe's head nuzzled underneath her mate's own, pressing into him and switching sides on occasion, with the fox enjoying the feeling, as well as the ever present night sky.

Nicholas lifted his bunny up and set her to the side, both lying on their side, staring at one another.

"You're just like the night sky…" the tod sighed with a growing smile. Her nose twitched in confusion, drawing a short chuckle from the fox.

"How do you mean?" she asked bluntly, truly uncertain as to whether she was being made fun of… or complemented.

"When you look at the night sky, the longer you look, the more stars you see," the red fox explained, taking in a breath as a glint of moonlight reflected in her violet eyes. "The longer I look at you… the more I see and the more I love."

A slow grin spread across her muzzle, Judith's paw reaching out to pull her fox in by the back of his head, their foreheads touching in a most primal display of affection.

Forgetting the lack of proper sleeping arrangements, lying on the soft forest floor, the two curled against each other, Nicholas's tail wrapping around his valiant spirit.

Chapter Text

A resounding 'thunk' echoed through the area, rains having stopped their cascading flow over the land and leaving the sun to peek through the clouds and warm the land with its wondrous glow.

Not a few seconds later, an arrow cut the air and sank into the same tree that a knife had been thrown into.

A larger paw gently patted Judith's shoulders, the bunny looking up to see the toothy smile of Penny beaming down to her. The snow leopard let out a congratulatory laugh.

"I told you that would work!" she nearly bellowed with a grin. "With the unfortunate truth being that a bunny's eyesight is fairly poor in general, using your exceptional hearing can help you pinpoint an enemy."

The grey doe returned the vibrant smile in kind, relishing the praise in humble silence.

"I've trained a few mammals in such things but you have by far learned the fastest out of any I have taught," revealed the feline. "You're no expert, mind you, but it has only been a fortnight and you can follow my knives with decent accuracy. It's quite impressive."

"Thanks, Penny," voiced Judy in kind. "You think Nicholas will notice my improvement?" Penny belted out another warm laugh.

"An annoying fox he might be, but he is no dullard," the feline chided. "He will surely notice, given the chance to see. Though, do not take your progression in archery as a measure precluding you from practicing. As skilled and driven as you may be, I would rate you at a three out of ten in my book." Judith frowned upon hearing such a low account pertaining to her ability. "Oh, don't scowl at me. From humble beginnings with no experience in archery, you have made significant progress. Make no mistake."

In a grin worthy of her mate, the doe's muzzle curved in a lopsided smirk at hearing all of that.

"Where is he, by the way?" the grey rabbit asked cautiously, looking around for her vibrantly red companion. Nicholas did not appear to be nearby, watching and waiting like he sometimes did when she learned from the skilled feline.

"Not completely sure," Penny responded, giving the area her own survey for the fox. "I imagine maybe he's scouting the path ahead or foraging for food."

"Actually," began the smooth and charming voice of an equally infuriating mammal, "Meeko and I happened to be sparring for fun. That glutton of a mammal is quite the demon with his daggers."

Both Judith and Penny looked up to see Nicholas hanging by the legs from a branch in the tree above them both, arms crossed and roguish smirk plastered on his muzzle. He rolled back and released his hold on the branch, falling in an arc and landing gracefully with his haunches raised.

"Show off…" both females murmured with deadpan expressions. The previously prideful tod grimaced with a look denoting sarcasm.

"Har har," he sassed at the pair. "I actually came to return the sword you so generously provided me, seeing as I only had the one to wield against a dual wielder." The red fox began to unlash a scabbard with a short sword in it, until the snow leopard waved him down.

"Keep it," she said, surprising the doe and tod. "I have plenty of swords I brought with and that one was a gift that never really suited me. If it is comfortable to wield, you may keep it."

Nicholas stopped in his ministrations, looking down to the sword then back to Penny, shrugging as he backtracked to tighten the cords that lashed the scabbard to his belt. It was a fairly decent sword with a small guard and a double edged blade, as opposed to his primary sword, which had only one. The hilt had a knobbly grip, allowing for easy manipulation of the blade in various situations. With his fighting style, the tod used the shorter blade for parries and deflections, while using his primary blade for strikes and stabs, upon having deflected his opponent's guarding motions.

"My gratitude," voiced the fox. "I actually did enjoy the ease by which I could use this. It is deceptively lighter than one might assume from its looks." He looked around, surveying the markmammalship of Judith's multiple arrows having struck several trees. Near and far, she had pinpointed and followed the feline's knife throws with relatively stunning accuracy. It was somewhat more baffling to consider the skill that Penny had in order to sink several knives into trees ranging from 10 to 50 yards away with such accuracy as she demonstrated.

"Then, as I said, it is yours," the snow leopard made clear once more, padding around to the trees to retrieve her throwing knives. She then turned her eyes to the rabbit doe, remarking, "We're done for today. Go have fun with your mate. He seems a bit impatient to spend time with you presently." A devilish smile curled her muzzle, making Judith blush slightly at the implications.

"I'm not sure if I like how insightful she is," Nicholas commented, the two of them walking away slowly, paws held together. The doe situated her bow over a shoulder, the string remaining over her chest.

The grey bunny laughed, replying in kind, "You just don't like being exposed." The red fox gently nodded, scratching at his neck. "But, I'm glad to know she was right. I like knowing that you are in a hurry to spend time with me."

"I'm always eager to spend time with you, my dear Judith," stated the red fox simply, his snout closing in to kiss the bunny right on her head, at the base of her ear closest to him. Whether by accident or design, the reverberative 'smeck' sound that came from the press of his lips upon her echoed in her ear. It sent pleasant shivers up her spine and made her amethyst eyes go glassy with the errant thoughts now gaining form in the doe's mind.

She willed away the thoughts for now, wanting to return the favor in kind, and Judith knew exactly how to do so. Turning to her mate, the grey rabbit reached up to scratch under her fox's chin, inadvertently making him raise his head. The bunny doe then stood on her toes, stretching her legs to reach up with her muzzle, ears slicked back….

...and kissed Nicholas underneath his muzzle, where the nook beneath his chin flows down to meet his neck. It was like a hollow point that no mammal dared ventured, and while she couldn't very well discover as many weaknesses for him as he did with her, this was one that she took great pleasure in using for herself. To say it was a form of exploitation would be oversimplifying it. Nicholas greatly enjoyed the short and sweet action, the kiss upon that region usually causing him to purr indiscriminately, and this time was no exception.

The fox tod began to purr low and evenly, the pervading rumble in his chest allowing a warmth that the air lacked to settle in his flesh.

"Careful," the red fox gently chastised her. "I might think you're starting to abuse that privilege." His own eyes became as glassy as she perceived hers must have looked before, calm emerald locking onto her own violet orbs.

"You know you love it," Judith snarked back at him, letting her ears perk back up again. Her confident smile faltered ever so slightly under his intense gaze, drinking in her form and features.

"Do I know that?" he asked in rhetoric, pausing as if mulling the question over in his own head. The doe rolled her eyes. His fingers snapped dramatically, as if he had an 'Aha!' moment, saying, "Yes!... yes I do."

0000000

A few hours later, the duo, along with Meeko and Honey for support, were padding the cobblestone streets of the market in a nearby town. Having spent the last two weeks on the move and outrunning the mercenaries set upon them by Judith's and Heather's vindictive father, the party was finally out of the forest region and outside the borders of Savanna Shire.

Those two weeks prior, Bogo and company found another few scouts nearby, apparently having had orders to spy but not engage. The lone ram that attacked was simply starving for vengeance and ruined their entire surveillance mission. While the fox and bunny were unsure what Bogo did with the captured scouts, it was implied to both that they may have been 'silenced' to keep their numbers and specific path a secret.

Since then, clues were left for a good week, dragging them further away from Upendi. According to latest reports from runners and rumors, the mercenaries had curbed their forces away from the city, having never cared to search for it nor attempt to breach its defenses. Nicholas, as well as others, surmised that since they were paid for a certain goal, getting distracted did their coin purses no favors.

Their true numbers were still a mystery, with Judith knowing that her family had fairly deep coffers to spare towards a mercenary force. If other rumors were to be believed, other lords had pooled their resources as well, as retaliation for having had their homesteads sacked and 'property' stolen. If that were true, then many of their group agreed that they might also sway their government to intervene using military force.

For now, the mercenaries were no issue, seeing as their ground covered has been great since neglecting to leave any more trails for them to follow. They currently had to resupply and find either suitable lodgings or information leading to regions safe to camp for a few nights.

Wearing thick cloaks with raised hoods to shield themselves against the renewed fall of rain, all four mammals split into their respective pairs, coin in paw and with a scribbled list of necessities they needed to acquire.

Judith and Nicholas approached a shop that appeared to have what they needed, if the display on the front was anything to go by.

Since few mammals of the common folk could properly read, signs for businesses were instead denoted by simple illustrative displays. In this region, an inn would use a sign displaying a bed, fork, and plate, since most inns doubled as eating and drinking establishments. A blacksmith would use the sign of a hammer and anvil, or, in some cases, hang a representation of their work outside.

The establishment they entered now had a wagon wheel hanging outside, which was one of the several different signs used to denote a general store. As the heavy door was pushed inward by the fox, a bell chimed and tinkled with a ringing series of dings, surprising the doe.

To further surprise her, a large wildebeest popped his head from a doorway in the back of the well lit establishment, large candles giving off a pervading glow.

"Welcome! Welcome!" he bellowed. "How might I help you this fine morrow?" With a big smile and leaning heavily upon the counter at the rear of the store, the wildebeest gestured widely to his wares.

Crates of various bulk shipments lined the walls and shelves, jars and bottles glinting in the candlelight, with sacks also organized in groupings around the store.

"We're looking to buy a large order of food and supplies," Judith voiced, pulling out a parchment with a small list. Nicholas was to remain silent, per the usual, though the pair's communication skills through such silence had greatly improved in the past fortnight.

"Of course," he responded in a loud and cheery voice, holding out a hoof to the bunny. "The name is Roderick. Roderick Huffstead. I shall do my best to tailor to your needs."

Judith took his hoof, to which he displayed a gentle demeanor in shaking it. The gnu turned to her mate, offering him the same courtesy, to which Nicholas drew back his hood and took the hoof.

"A fox and a bunny," Roderick mused aloud. "An odd pair to be traveling together…" Both mammals looked a bit trepidatious of his unreadable expression.

A smile broke out over his features.

"No matter," he vented happily. "All manner of folk are welcome in this town. Pleased to meet you…."

"His name is Silence, and unfortunately he is mute," explained the grey bunny doe, to which the fox bowed low and offered a quiet smile. "I am… Valiance." Judith was tentative about referring to herself by a name that feels self serving when coming from her own muzzle, but her fox felt it was about time they used their monikers, if they are to throw the pursuers off their scents.

"An odd name, that," came the somewhat expected reaction of the wildebeest.

"A title given to me by my comrades," the doe replied in kind. "I protested, but was pleaded to accept." A gentle smile upturned her lips, making the gnu laugh lightly.

"Fair enough," came his chuckled response. "Let's get you sorted, shall we?"

0000000

Nearly an hour later, the two were carrying small parcels with them and a signed letter of credit. They paid in part for the goods of which they requested, awaiting for the merchant to properly measure the quantities, as per their demands. They deigned to return later in the day, letting Bogo know so larger mammals could effectively transport the goods to their lodgings.

It turned out that Honey and Meeko found no inns capable of accommodating such a diversely sized group of mammals. However, they were redirected to a landowner with an old manor on the edge of his property. He agreed on a rental arrangement for a week. They did not believe they'd be spending as much time there, but such arrangements were rarely so short as to reflect compensation for so few nights stay.

"What was this place called again?" Judith inquired curiously. With their hoods up once more, walking side by side towards the supposed manor of their future stay, Nicholas turned to his mate.

With voice low and in a near whisper, so as to avoid being overheard by passer-bys, the tod said, "Its name is Hirstreach. Basically, a small trader's town. It's outside the borders of Savanna Shire, but make no mistake… We are still within prey controlled territories."

"Hirstreach?" she questioned in a mild tone, more to herself than her mate, but he still answered.

"It's synonymous in meaning to equate to something like 'Woods Edge'," the tod explained in short. As they left the veritable throng of the town and into the outskirts, following the directions of others, Nicholas's tone picked up in volume. Since there was none nearby to hear them, he felt it unnecessary to keep silent, knowing that doing so had no point or cause.

"If we are free of the realm of Savanna Shire," Judith began, "then pray tell, where are we?"

"Suffice it to say, we are in no realm of consequence," the red fox made clear. "After the war, of which I took part, many outlying regions were either assimilated into the whole of Savanna Shire, or left to fade away into the lands of which they resided. The northern regions were of those that resisted reformation the most. So, you could say, we are in a grey region as of now."

"You know, I never truly asked, or you never truly explained in full, but what was this war?"

"You don't know of it?" the tod asked in slight surprise. "I figured they would have proudly taught the history of their victory in that war."

"I know of it," Judith told her mate, "though all I remember being told was that it was a glorious acquisition of more territory and bountiful lands for the good of the Shire's sovereignty. We were never truly told of the details beyond those that favored the realm." the fox let out a languished chuckle.

"I should have presumed as much," he sighed. "In all truth, I fought on behalf of the smaller region of Animalia, which was under the protection by proxy of the Shire's forces, only asking for troops from the citizenry in return for their continued protection. I was conscripted and given a cause to fight for. So prideful a fox I was to be a part of a noble cause… or so I thought."

"What happened?"

"My country was promised its sovereignty and independence from Savanna Shire's influence, if we fought as a buffer against their enemies. I only learned later that the enemies we fought against sought our freedom and many such realms became proxy nations ruled by the Shire and their courts. We broke their offensive and the Shire held control over many such states, invoking their laws and influences slowly. My discharge from the military was the beginning of all of that. Predators in a position of physical or political power became a threat to the prey controlled states."

"That's terrible," voiced the rabbit, feeling a swirl of conflicting emotions.

"Ah, my dear mate," Nicholas said with mirth, "such is the state of our world. All we can do is attempt our changes for the better."

"You aren't… distraught over such travesties against you and your home?" the grey doe continued her line of inquiry. The tod stopped his forward treading upon the now muddy path, paws feeling the wet earth between his pads.

"I… was most definitely distraught for a long while," he revealed. "As my mother mentioned in passing, I wandered for a long while with no real purpose or direction. Spent the better part of two years in an emotional, and sometimes literal, squalor."

Judith turned to approach his front, looking up into the dark shadow of the cowl over his muzzle, rain beading off the oiled material. She slipped her own lips under his hood and connected with Nicholas's lips.

"You've no need of such sadness now," the bunny comforted her fox. "We may travel with little to our names, but it is together that we find our true values. If you had not tread the path by which was lain, your restless paws would never have found their way at my stead."

Nicholas leaned down and cupped a cheek with his paw, kissing her more feverently, their tongues intertwining and wrapping around one another. With a raspy breath, they separated, though only by the fur of their muzzles. Panted breaths fogged the air, with the fox and bunny nuzzling one another, hoods brushed aside and heads now subject to the sprinkling of dew that fell from the sky.

Neither cared as their fur became matted down by the rain, both of their ears either pinned or slicked back. The tod's ears flicked reflexively to rid themselves of excessive moisture. The grey doe giggled lightly, violet eyes penetrating the rain that obscured the fox's vision.

"Such beautiful words," Nicholas finally responded. "Are they yours?" Her paw wrapped around his neck, pulling him in for another short kiss.

"I should wish it, but no, they are not," Judith divulged slowly. "I read them in a book once. It taught me that for all the bad in the world, if one finds their destination upon the steps of a foundation of good, then the journey will have been worth the strife suffered."

"Then by that note, might I call you my foundation?" the red fox gently asked of his bunny. Returning her gesture, he wrapped his paws around her middle, pulling the doe close. A hearty laugh escaped her, like a sunbeam bursting forth from the grey skies, it brightened the otherwise seemingly dismal weather.

"Only if it is not solely to treat me as a pedestal," Judith joked at her mate.

"I would never treat you as such, Judith," the tod returned in kind to her jibe. He then looked down and smiled awkwardly. "I would, however, like to find a place to free myself of the increasingly difficult to tread terrain. At this rate, we'll both be swimming in the Earth to make it to our destination."

Looking at her own feet, the grey bunny snorted slightly in a stuttered laugh, saying, "Agreed."

The two then ran paw in paw, attempting to outrun Nature itself to keep their bodies free of more mud caking into their fur. With their cowls back over their head and feet splashing into the mud, both smiled wholeheartedly as they closed in on the manor a short distance away.

0000000

"I see you two had fun," Bogo mentioned with a raised brow, eyeing the two mammals before him, soaked and caked in mud from the knees down. Jerking his head, he gestured ambiguously for them to come inside the dusty manor. "There's a well out back, covered by a gazebo. Get yourselves washed up, but try not to tarry. The rain isn't known for being warm his time of year."

"Aye aye, Captain," sassed the fox with a lazy salute, padding quickly through the door and making his way towards the back of the house.

"Uh… Nicholas?" called his mate. The tod turned back, ears perked in inquisitive curiosity.

"Yes, my lady?" came his questioning reply. Judith stood at the door, tentatively staring at her feet.

"I would prefer to leave the floor free of our filth, if we can… so will you…" She didn't get a chance to finish. Her fox had picked her up, carrying her across the threshold and through the manor to the backdoor. "Not what I had in mind."

"Well," Nicholas began, "this way there are only one set of dirty paws on the flooring." The doe sighed and shrugged in resignation.

Leading her outside and bolting through the rain once again, the red fox tod settled in under the protection of the old gazebo roof. With fresh rope and a bucket having been set in the pulley above the well, Nicholas set to work, pulling a pail up from the depths.

With a bit of effort, the fox lugged the large bucket over the well lip, setting it down as gently as he was able.

Judith sat down upon a stone bench, a fair amount of vines and growth over whelming the once ornate structure, now smoothly worn and cracked. She raised her feet to attempt to clean them, being stopped by her mate.

"Allow me," the tod softly told her, kneeling down to grab her legs. His eyes shined brightly in contrast to the grey skies, her head nodding slowly. Turning a bit, he picked up a ladle that was left beside the pail, using it to liberally pour water in a stream down her legs, clearing away some of the caked on mud.

Seeing that water alone wouldn't clean her fur, Nicholas pushed the pail in front of himself, dipping a foot of hers into the water and kneading her fur and flesh. The mud clouded the water over the course of several minutes, the cleansing feeling more like a massage to the grey doe, who was breathing slowly and surely in pleasure at the lovely feeling. A purr threatened to escape her throat, the bunny swallowing to stifle it, knowing her mate would hear.

Feelings of regret and lamentation filled her as a clean hind paw greeted her sight, with her fox moving onto the other one. The tod quickly realized that it was difficult to do his work with dirty water, dumping out the muddied fluid and taking a minute to shuttle another fresh bucket from the well. The process became repeated, with Judith wishing it would never end.

Though pure in his intent to help her clean herself, the grey rabbit enjoyed the feeling nonetheless, feeling such large paws compared to her work their way into her fur and jar loose any and all clumps of earth. He even made sure to get her stubby claws and in between her toes clean.

In her mind, she already decided that her fox was well deserving of similar treatment and would get something of fair trade from her later. A massage of the back, grooming his fur after a long day, or even cleaning his own paws here and now.

Bringing her mind back to the present, Judith clenched her paws as Nicholas stopped his ministrations and began to dry her legs off.

"Gotta say you are quite skilled in all that," mentioned the small doe. "Do you have an affinity for such things?" The tod raised a brow.

"For what?" he asked. "Massaging, washing, or a lady's feet?" He smirked roguishly at the last mention.

"I… that's not what I…" Judith stuttered, knowing full well he was joking with her and also that she pretty much meant exactly all of those things. The red fox cut her off with a laugh.

"The furst two, yes," revealed Nicholas. "The last… not so much. I'm more a fan of legs than feet, and yours are divine. However, if the faces I saw from you were any indication, I could be persuaded to massage your feet more often."

Judith blushed so much, in such a short span of time, that she worried her face might burn. She couldn't properly come up with a snarky retort, made worse by the lopsided smirk he wore, emerald eyes piercing into her own. The bunny wanted to look away in embarrassment, but those eyes… his eyes… her mate's eyes… they commanded her attention, and she had not the will to refuse them.

Rising to his feet, the fox stepped closer to her, making the grey doe lean back on her bench. He placed a paw on either side of her, pinning her braced paws to the stone bench, as Nicholas tilted his head and kissed her deeply.

Light smecks sounded in the midst of the cascading noise of the surrounding rain. Judith couldn't move from her strange position, but she didn't care to complain. It was nice being like this, exchanging small kisses in rapid succession.

On the last such instance, the bunny's mate lightly kissed her nose, making it shiver and twitch involuntarily, much to Judith's ire.

"Are you two done yet?" a voice bellowed from the manor's backdoor, making the two freeze and turn. Nicholas groaned but kept his cool. Judith, however, went beet red and hoped for goodness sake that Bogo hadn't seen them kissing.

"Oh shush you," a chiding, but still gentle tone chastised the bull from behind him. "It's not like we need them right now. Let them be." It appeared to be Lady Gazelle, from the fleeting glimpse of her horns from the open doorway.

"Ugh… fine," Bogo grumbled, closing the door and leaving the two frozen mammals to recover from their position. Nicholas turned back to his bunny.

"I think I like the idea of being left alone out here," he divulged with a wiggling brow. "What do you say?" Judith pulled a paw free and thumped his chest playfully.

"I'm not playing into that," the rabbit stated. "Let's get you cleaned up as well and get you in bed."

"Oh, boy… I support that idea wholeheartedly."

The grey doe stopped and blushed heavily once more, a rising frustration making her groan.

"Not what I meant… dumb fox!"

Chapter Text

"Ow!" a cry rang out. "What was that for?"

"We're here to supervise the acquisition of the goods that Nichols and Judith reserved for us… NOT to eat the merchandise and increase our debt to the merchant," an irate badger chastised her accompanying raccoon, of whom was trying to reach into a crate to pick up a piece of fresh fruit.

Honey had smacked his paw and pointed a digit barely an inch from Meeko's nose, with him going cross-eyed to properly focus on the extended claw obscuring his vision.

"Look… don't touch," she warned. The raccoon nodded fervently, paws up in surrender and subsequently stuffing them into his cloak.

Waiting for the badger to turn away and gesture for the larger mammals with them to pick up certain prepared crates that were labeled for them, Meeko eyed her, mumbling, "Does that logic apply to you too?"

Honey whirled faster than he thought the somewhat stout mammal could, giving him a look.

"You say something?"

The raccoon shook his head rapidly in the negative, smiling nervously.

"Nope. I said nothing. Just clearing my throat."

Whether or not Honey believed the excuse was a detail left infuriatingly unclear to Meeko. She turned slowly, a light twinkle in her eye that made him wonder if he was imagining things.

I'm doomed, the mammal thought to himself with a deadpan look to the badger. She's messing with me.

"Now help me secure some maps and charts," Honey rather briskly, though still with a tinge of politeness, demanded. "The shop we passed earlier should be open now."

"Wait," Meeko started, "why do I need to come with? I'm no map mammal."

A paw gently patted his head in an almost childish way. Though gentle, it did not make the raccoon feel better in any form. Especially since Honey had a coy smile lining her muzzle that had no intent towards comfort or relief to him.

"Why… I need you to help me carry anything and everything I might purchase for our journey," was her overly sweet reply, tone full of a falsehood worthy of her namesake.

"Of course," came the male's reply, his eyes rolling with the sigh that escaped him. "Well, let's get going."

With the entourage of larger mammals lugging the plethora of goods and supplies back to the manor, Meeko and Honey began to walk away, with the raccoon having snuck an apple from one of the crates that belonged to them. The female badger gave him a look and sighed after he bit into the apple with a soft, crisp crunch.

The two walked from the general store, along the street and in near total silence, of which was only interrupted by the occasional crunch of the red fruit being devoured greedily. Luckily, the rain had stopped none too soon before, making the trek easier for the pair as well as the mammals going back to the manor.

"What is a mammal like you playing at?" Honey spoke, shattering the silence. Meeko paused in mid bite, utterly thrown off by the oddity and generality of the question.

"I… what?" he stuttered. "Do clarify for me."

"I mean you play the fool. You pretend to be this dullard with no real goal in mind, but when others aren't looking, you display this odd sense of... competency." The last word was spoken as if it were foreign in its concept to her. "I saw you spar with my son on occasion. You are quite ferocious with your daggers."

"Why thank you," Meeko mentioned with a raised brow, still waiting for the 'but' that he felt had to be coming.

"At furst," the badger began, "I thought you a childish, rude, and somewhat selfish idiot, but now I've seen enough to know you do that for some twisted sense of entertaining others or distracting them from more morbid moods."

"Sounds like you answered your own question," he retorted, resuming his eating of the apple, which was mostly gone at this point.

"Au contraire, my dear Meeko," Honey burst with a raised paw. "I have merely stated the cause and effect of what you do, but not the why. Mind enlightening me?"

"And if I refuse?" the raccoon bluntly stated, turning to toss the core of his apple in a thicket nearby. He turned back to stare at the female badger, who appeared to be looking a bit stunned.

"I would say you have some claws on you, kit."

"Why?" Meeko asked with a cheery smile. "No one says no to Honey?"

"Oh, plenty have," she clarified. "But none that do have lived to tell otherwise." The badger winked at the raccoon.

Meeko gulped, unsure whether this was a jest or a warning. Honey burst into laughter upon seeing his face contorted oddly.

"Relax! I'm clearly not serious," she bellowed in the midst of her continuous laughter. The two were luckily between districts of the town, with it being divided by three small groupings that had a residential district in the center as the conjoining hub. They now walked along a heavily worn but well traveled path laid with flat stones. "Though, I am still asking."

Meeko sighed, shoulders rolling as he pulled together the comprehensive vocabulary to properly respond to her strangely worded and explained inquiry.

"Let's just say family life was full of strife and lots of depressive moods," started the raccoon. "I took up the so-called persona of the 'fool' to brighten the atmosphere as best I could and distract from our problems, ignoring my own in the process."

"That bad?" the badger further pushed.

"Nah, none so much as others, actually. My family was just a pessimistic lot. Accidentally found out that made things more bearable and even good at times, so I kept it up whenever possible."

"A deeper mammal than you pretend to be, huh?" Honey giggled. Meeko eyed her suspiciously.

"Tell anyone and you won't be the only one can instill fear," the raccoon warned with a devious smile.

"Noted."

0000000

There was a crack that sounded through the stale and chilled air, a fresh draft having cut across the frayed curtains and causing them to lightly sway. A groan of mixed pain and pleasure accompanied the noise, the creak of a bed frame echoing within the dusty room.

A grey bunny was straddled on top a red fox, digging her paws into his fur as she felt every lean muscle and enjoyed the feeling of the fluff to his coarser, longer fur.

"Wow, you weren't kitting about the built up tension," came Judith's breathy observation, her paws finding another knotted bundle of wiry flesh in the fox's back. Pressing and kneading it, there was another series of small cracks and Nicholas let out a whine followed by a long sigh of relief.

"I stretch plenty but that doesn't mean I don't end up with a few… ah… spots of… stress," the tod stated, the end of his sentence punctuated with a couple sighs as his mate worked through a couple more less strenuous knots.

With his body faced downward, head hanging from the edge of the bed, the grey doe straddled his back, putting all her weight into her paws to elicit an effect on the much larger fox. She had lifted the back of his shirt up, revealing the russet fur for her manipulating paws to work through.

"By the way," Nicholas resumed, "why the sudden offer to 'relieve' my stress?"

The smaller doe ran her paws up her mate's spine, pushing her digits deep into the fur just under his shoulder blades.

"You were so… wonderful with your cleansing of my paws that I wanted to return that feeling," Judith explained slowly, grinning slightly as she felt the tod melt into a puddle of flesh beneath her. Pushing her paws together, the bunny started making little circles with her thumbs on the back of the fox's neck, watching his hackles rise a bit. "Did I hit a bad spot," she asked, knowing little about hackles raising but at least as much to know it's usually a bad thing.

"Huh?" he murmured, groggy from the feeling he was enjoying immensely. "Oh. No, you're fine. It happens sometimes, like a 'goosebumps' feeling. To be honest though, I didn't know a bunny's feet was such a sweet spot."

The grey doe's paws slowed a bit as she contemplated her careful answer.

"It's… a rather intimate thing I suppose. Bunny's have sensitive ears and feet…" Judith trailed off as she realized she might have made a mistake. Beneath her, Nicholas shifted, the rabbit knowing he was most definitely grinning maliciously with devious intent.

Her trepidations were made reality when the tod reached behind himself and gripped her waist with a larger paw, flipping over to pin her near expertly under him. Her mate's breath tickled the fur of her neck, giving her a tingling feeling that cascaded down to her toes.

"Ears, huh?" he asked rhetorically. "Can't believe I haven't really given them attention yet. Think I should make up for lost time?" The tod let the last words vent from him in a raspy whisper, tickling her ears as they were splayed on upon the bedding.

"N.. No?" came her tentative reply. Nicholas began chuckling in short, shaking his head.

"You do know you just nodded, right?"

"I… just do whatever it is you plan on doing," Judith demanded near silently, closing her eyes and waiting for her fox.

Using a free paw, he lifted a limp ear from the bed, rubbing his paw pads along the surface and underside, drawing forth a slow gasp from his mate. Upon reaching the tip, the doe arched her back slowly.

Nicholas started at the base again, repeating the process with a little more pressure than before. The response was quite entertaining.

Judith clutched her paws to her chest loosely, biting her bottom lip and closing her eyes, savoring the feeling. As the red fox allowed his other paw to join the fray, applying force to her other ear, the grey rabbit couldn't help herself and began thumping a foot in the bed. Her nose twitched as she pulled in her mate's comforting scent surrounding her, his body brooding over her with a curious glint in his emerald gems.

"You are quite the cute and wonderful individual," the tod sighed, resting a paw on her cheek and brushing a thumb through her fur. A gentle kiss occupied her lips, delaying her from responding to his conflicting complement to her.

At furst, the doe wanted to chastise the use of the word 'cute' but quickly forgot and cast her care to that effect away as their kiss deepened.

Several seconds passed, with a breathy sigh escaping both mammals upon parting.

The heavy press of paws on creaking flooring pervaded the air around them, signalling the return of the others from picking up the supplies they reserved from the merchant only hours before.

Nicholas got up and rolled his shoulders, enjoying the newfound elasticity in his muscles and smooth movement with his joints.

"Sounds like the others are back," he spoke in slight regret at having their moment interrupted. The bunny under him nodded slowly, still enjoying to afterglow of her ear massage, said appendages flicking a bit.

The red tod hopped off the bed, adjusting his shirt back to a more presentable method of display. Judith dragged herself to a sitting position, turning her head heavily to glare at her mate. He shrugged, knowing she felt a bit cut off from further affection.

"Next time… next time for sure," she mumbled to herself, eliciting a laugh from the fox. The two stumbled lazily down the stairs, still a bit slack from the relaxed feeling that permeated the two from their various methods of stimulating the other.

Bogo was at the door, welcoming in and helping the mammals bringing in the supplies.

"Leave the food just outside the kitchen area," the bull softly demanded. "I'll be needing that for dinner preparations. Then you guys rest up." One of the tigers carrying in something nearly tripped, to which the larger mammal helped to steady him, taking the crate full of baking supplies and giving him a pat on the back. "I got it."

"He's like a gentle giant," the doe commented evenly. The fox only nodded, looking around for Honey and the worrisome raccoon. "Why do you look so unnerved?"

"Huh?" Nicholas vented, more occupied with watching the doorway. "What do you mean? I'm fine."

Judith shot him a knowing look, crossing her arms while saying, "You know if anything happens between those two, you can't really do anything about it."

He began to chuckle nervously, pulling at the collar of his shirt.

"Right… right."

0000000

"Why do we need all these charts again?" Meeko groaned, hefting a deceptively heavy sack full of charts, maps, and a few journals, both full of scribings and empty for writing. "I thought we already knew where we were heading. Isn't this just some sense of overdoing it?"

Honey sauntered along happily, humming a happy tune that the raccoon knew neither its origin nor how to follow along. Several seconds of walking in pause and the badger finally decided to speak up.

"I may have a map of the region denoting a general direction," she started to explain, "but maps of the immediate region always gives one a more intimate understanding of how to proceed further. With a vast array of travelers and such that I've heard this town has passing through, I was right in assuming many would trade their knowledge of the region for such things as food, shelter, and maybe even arms."

"Fine, fine," relented the raccoon with a sigh. "I'm too old for this."

Honey let out a very sarcastic laugh, following up by eyeing him and saying, "You? Old? Prey tell how that applies to you."

"I'm thirty-eight," Meeko bluntly stated, hefting the bag at his back once more. "Old enough." At this revelation, the female badger stuttered her steps and stopped rather abruptly, whirling with a lack of grace to face the now surprised raccoon.

"You're what?" she vented, keeping her expression as void of tells as she could muster the will for.

"What?" he asked with an exaggerated shrug. "Don't look so surprised. I figured you would have already asked around and knew exactly how old I was by now."

"I… honestly thought you were barely the same age as my son…" Honey murmured, looking rather ashamed with herself. Her paw went up to brush against her chin in thought. "This makes your flirtatious advances seem less childish… or more? Either way, I feel like a fool now."

"Flirtatious what now?" Meeko questioned flatly. He got a small glare from the badger.

"Oh, you know very well what I mean, Ringtail," chided Honey, ambling up to him and giving him a soulful smile. "Don't think I haven't noticed your eyes wandering over me like a teenage kit seeing females for the furst time."

"Right… about that. I wasn't trying to…"

Meeko was cut off as a paw clapped to his maw, closing it as the badger dragged him to an alley and poked her head around the corner.

"Shh!" she told him, watching him nod before unclasping her paw from his muzzle. "I see two mammals with similar garb to those mercenaries we captured."

The raccoon peeked around the corner, to see that, sure enough, there was two mammals with similar armor motifs to the mercenaries that had been captured those two weeks prior. A deer buck and goat ram were talking up a merchant very vigorously.

"...in your best interests to tell us," voiced the goat angrily. "It is by the Shire's will that you remain as you do with free trade. We could end that with a single mention to our Lord."

"We are under no influence of the Shire," the boar shopkeep started with a dismissive wave to the two. "And even if we were, you are no militants of their government. I would have no obligations to you either way. So,... get lost."

"Why you…" growled the deer buck, grasping the boar by the throat and pushing him back. The buck then reached down to pull out his sword, aiming it threateningly at the merchant. "Listen here you unhelpful swine... We are looking for fugitives from the Shire and you will provide us with the information we seek. We know from other merchants that you directed those we seek to a means of board. Tell us where it is and we will provide you with fair compensation…. Your life."

"I've heard enough," Honey huffed, pulling out her knobbly metal stun stick. A paw grasped her own, stopping her. She turned with a venomous look to be met with the stern expression of Meeko. A sight by which she had little to no experience viewing. It was disarming.

"No… they don't even know who you are yet," the raccoon told her. "Let me. If they see you come out of nowhere and assault them, they will make assumptions. Considering it was Lord Hopps who sent them, they will have likely been told a great detail about me. I did kind of kick the guy in the side of the head."

Nodding, Honey took the satchel of maps and charts that Meeko offered her, gripping the hilts of his two daggers as he walked off in the direction of the two offending mammals.

The badger watched from around the corner, knowing she did not like being sidelined but couldn't argue with Meeko's rare moment of actual logic. Exposing herself meant one less mammal who could go out publically without drawing the attention of those searching for them. It was likely Nicholas, Judith, Meeko, Bogo, and any company seen during the attack on the Hopps estate would be in the scribings of wanted posters that the Lord himself probably provided details to when hiring the mercenaries.

The raccoon closed in and unsheathed his daggers, cutting into their cloth belts and weapon holsters.

"Looking for something?" he sassed, just as the two mammals clutched in reaction to their clothing, trying to keep it from falling. "You know… that's probably a much better look for you two."

"Is that…?" the buck began.

"Our payday? You bet," confirmed the goat ram. Quickly adjusting their clothing and tying off their cut belts, they pulled out their weapons and advanced on the smaller mammal. He was smiling, making the two a bit tentative to close in completely. Bravado was one thing but the raccoon hadn't even flinched at their advance, which was what gave them pause. He willingly picked a fight, by himself, without support.

The goat charged furst, a short sword and buckler at the ready. Meeko used the bulbous end of a dagger to bump the buckler and the other dagger parried the sword, to which he then twisted around and let the stunned goat stumble into a patch of mud.

"You buffoons need to give the merchant some space," the raccoon chastised them sarcastically. "They may suck in the money from our coin purses, but that doesn't mean they don't breath the same air."

The buck huffed angrily, slashing and slicing wildly with his longer sword. Meeko did a rather skillful back shuffle and ducked under a haphazard thrust, giving his own dagger an upward strike to knock the sword from the hoof of the deer. He yelled out at having his digits pulled and strained at an odd angle.

Continuing his offensive, the raccoon spun around and slashed with his blades in a spiral, cutting a few shallow cuts into the armor and flesh of the buck. He wailed in pain and collapsed, his legs bleeding liberally.

"You filth!" he yelled. "When the rest of our troops get here…"

"They'll what?" Meeko cut in asking. "Hmm? Do as poor a job as you have trying to kill a mammal half your size?"

Before the buck could retort, the goat had recovered and launched himself at the raccoon once more, having not adapted or learned anything from his previous embarrassing display. Meeko parried once more and tripped up the ram, letting him roll into his injured companion.

"Anything the two of you like to add?" he spoke again. "I've got all day here. I'm waiting for you to apologize to the merchant for your rude behavior.

A whooshing sound cut through the air, followed loudly by a clanging thunk. Meeko spun around almost violently, a crossbow bolt piercing his shoulder armor and embedding itself within his shoulder blade. Honey could see the origin of the bolt shooter, being a crossbow wielding beaver mercenary with the same garb as the others.

Before she could come out to assist the raccoon, she heard him gasp in pain and yell out, "Sourbelle! Get the Blazes out of here and warn the others!"

Honey knew she might be able to help, but her skills in combat were limited with a fellow warrior needing help and the degree of close and long range combatants around. She wouldn't last as long as she would wish.

With trepidatious paws and a reluctant spirit, she turned tail and ran down the alleyway, smiling a little at the misdirecting nickname she was given by the raccoon, so as not to reveal her name. The smile quickly faded as she worried over Meeko. They would likely make life difficult for him until they found what they wanted.

That thinking led her to hope that he would be kept alive and well enough for the time being.

After a ways, she turned a street corner and stopped running, trying to match the pace of the crowd. A couple of the mercenaries, standing out due to their matching garb, poked their heads from respective alleys' trying to ascertain where the raccoon's supposed partner went.

Honey blended in, playing to role of a commoner with her nose out of trouble. It appeared to work as none of the mammals appeared to be able to pick her out from the others. Maybe they would take his shout to seem like a distraction tactic and give up looking for an unknown accomplice.

The only thing she knew she had to do now was get to the manor undetected and find a way to track and rescue Meeko.

Steadying her pace and mapping out the route back in her head, Honey set off to warn the others.

0000000

It was getting late, with the sun lowering over the treeline and edges of the sky turning darker shades of orange or red.

Nicholas was sitting on the lip of the worn stoop, awaiting the return of the last two mammals that had yet to arrive from town. His paws were laced together, with Judith standing behind him and patting his head in comfort.

"Why are you so wound up about this?" the doe asked with a gentle grin. "Worried Meeko will take your mother from you?"

"No… of course not," he pouted. "Besides, I feel like I should be more worried over the potential future of having Meeko as an adoptive father…" The tod feigned a shiver for comical effect. His ears then perked up in realization. "Wait… at least Mother won't be bothering me anymore about clearing my plate. Meeko could take the rest." The grey bunny couldn't help but to giggle at the strange results of the wheels turning in her mate's head.

"Are you trying to see the bright side or escape into some delusion?" Judith scoffed jokingly at the red fox.

"Let's pretend both," he sassed in return. "Anyways, I prefer to…"

Nicholas trailed off, standing slowly upon seeing something through the fading sun beams of the early evening.

Honey ambled towards the manor with unsteady paws, heaving a few breaths.

"I'm getting too old for this," the badger lamented out loud, sighing heavily. The younger fox and rabbit leapt to her aid, helping her up to the stoop. The doe bolted inside to grab a cup and fill it with fresh water, returning with haste. The red fox helped his mother shed the satchel she was carrying and set it aside.

"Is everything alright?" came the concerned voice of the badger's son. Taking the cup from the bunny, Honey sipped at it for a good minute before replying.

"Afraid not," she sighed heavily. "Go get Bogo. We need to go rescue Meeko."

Chapter Text

The manor was a vigorous nexus of movement, with the entirety of their group making and enacting measures to rescue the gluttonous raccoon. The maps Honey brought back happened, by fortunate grace, to include a very detailed layout of the surrounding local. Those maps were laid out for all to examine, with the more scout worthy mammals setting off the find the mercenary camp. Huddled around it was Bogo, Nicholas, and Honey, with the last uncharacteristically silent.

The other two were exchanging information and notes with other members of the group, updating their search areas and trying to ascertain a means of zoning down where the mercenary camp lay. Thus far, it appeared that half the surrounding regions were scouted and eliminated from the likely places the camp would be.

"I should have fought with him…" the badger whispered more to herself than anyone else. Bogo sighed and her son looked in her direction. With a nod from the bull, the tod went back to his task.

"You couldn't have known it would end like it did," the buffalo tried to comfort her, walking closer to her and resting hoof on Honey's shoulder.

"But he asked me to stay behind for stupid reasons," she lamented. "I could've called him an idiot and tagged along anyways." Bogo snorted a laugh at the badger's still present sass.

"He had a valid point at the time," came the bull's retort. "I mean… the mercenaries and Lord Hopps have no Earthly clue who you and a few others in our group are. To have attacked their warriors would have given them another face to look for, further interfering with our ability to operate."

"And now I'm safe here while he's probably getting a crossbow bolt twisted in his shoulder to torture him into telling them where the rest of us are!" Honey exclaimed in a rising tone. A few mammals looked on, but none voiced any such inquiry or concerns. After several seconds, all of them resumed their previous tasks, not wanting to incur any more wrath from the angry badger.

"We'll find him…" came a soft voice from beside Honey. She whirled with a twisted expression, ready to unleash her fury…

Upon the kind and caring expression of the fox standing before her. Rose was grabbing her paw now, sky blue eyes staring gently into Honey's own brown amber ones. Her furious energies faded away before she could muster the will to cast them aside herself. Tears pricked at the edge of her vision like hot needles, the full weight of the guilt she felt bearing its prodigious load upon her finally reaching a point she could no longer support alone.

Doing what Rose does best, the vixen pulled Honey into a tight hug, not knowing what else she could do to help. It turned out that it was the best thing, considering the circumstances, with the badger returning the embrace in kind and weeping near silently into the fox's chest.

Bogo chose to turn his gaze away and refocus upon the map, his sight darting between the several possible locations for a camp to remain hidden but also provide enough space for a multitude of mammals. They still hadn't much a clue how many mercenaries were after them, with the scouts that were questioned that fortnight prior having only divulged that they had a few dozen at the time. That would have been deemed a rather definitive number, if not for the foreboding revelation that reinforcements were meant to join them, potentially doubling their numbers. 'Potentially' being the key word in that respect.

"Let not the pyre of the Blazes take you, my friend," the bull spoke softly to himself.

0000000

A dull thud echoed within the chamber, underscored by the something that sounded like bone on bone crunching together but not breaking.

"Is that all ya got?" teased Meeko from his tied position to a pole, armor and padding removed, along with the bolt that was lodged in his shoulder. "My mother hits harder than you, even on a good day. Good for her that is." There was another hit as the mammal working him over went for the gut. Knowing to brace himself and exhaling slowly on the clenched hoof striking him, the raccoon was able to mitigate the pain to something tolerable.

"Tell us where your friends are and you go free," voiced the deer buck striking him, his voice far less friendly than his features might have said otherwise.

"Aw, but I like you guys too much," Meeko replied in a falsetto sweet tone. "Why would I ever want to leave?" The buck grumbled to himself as he rubbed his wrist, the last strike doing more to hurt himself than he would have figured. The raccoon was solidly built for his deceptively small size.

Leaving the alcove the raccoon was tied up in, a beam of light bleeding in from the assortment of breaches in the overhanging rock formations.

He was taken to a series of tall, cavernous, and craggy rocks near the outskirts of town. It was well hidden against intruders but very difficult to traverse. The uneven ground made it terribly uncomfortable to attempt such things as walking or sleeping upon it. From what he could see though, they had set up cots and a semblance of living conditions nonetheless. There was little chance anyone would think the region was worth checking out.

That made things problematic for Meeko. He huffed slightly in annoyance, trying to come up with a means of escape or at least a way to signal the others. Knowing Bogo, he would be scouting the area. Rescue measures aside, the bull would at least be figuring out a way to eliminate their mercenary problem once and for all. That potentially made his means of escape irrelevant and the idea of revealing these scoundrels position more prevalent, even if it cost him his life in the process.

Sourbelle.

He let out a short chuckle, wishing he got to use that endearing term as intended. The raccoon could only surmise the level of trouble he would be in for saying that under more normal circumstances. The tongue lashing he might have received would have been well worth the hopefully conflicted look he wished would appear on her muzzle.

If nothing else, Meeko thought to himself, I'll survive if only to call her that once more.

Cut short of his own internal musings, a large sheep ram ambled in, looking rather irate and exasperated, though not entirely focusing those energies upon him. Meeko assumed it was the 'inability' of the deer buck to extract useful information from him.

"I am Captain Douglas Ramses of the Prey Partisans Mercenary Corps," the ram needlessly explained. "I must know where your companions are so that I may apprehend our quarries and dispatch of the trespassers that Lord Hopps noted."

"Are I not on your list of quarries to dispatch as well?" inquired the raccoon. "Then again… I did knock him in the head pretty hard. Maybe he forgot." There was a chuckle that followed his murmured musings.

"Ah," came the sound of realization from Douglas, "you're the bulky raccoon he mentioned? To be honest I was expecting someone…"

"Bigger?" Meeko supplied.

"Fatter…" the ram corrected venomously.

"Yeah, my armor is a bit ill-fitting as of late, after losing some weight a few years back," the raccoon responded. "I never really cared to resize or replace it. Haven't the coin to spare, honestly."

"Indeed," was the ram's tepid answer, eyes scanning the mammal before him with lackluster interest. "What say you to my demand?"

Meeko tilted his head back and forth, pretending to mull over the thought.

"You have a foot right?" he said with a smile. The room was silent with unamused expressions bearing down upon him. "Yes? Well, shove it in your mouth and choke on it. Same goes for your 'demand', Craptain."

The ram attempted a semblance of a growl, spitting back, "It's Captain, you filthy cur."

"Really? What did I say?" the raccoon questioned with a sarcastic smirk. "I do hope I haven't offended."

Douglas walked up to Meeko and knelt down, using a hoof to lift his muzzle up to face the ram.

"By the order of our contract, we are to kill you and bring back proof of death," he began. "You will die, but the question remains… will you die after being slowly tortured until you give us what we want? Or will you tell us now and die quickly? Your choice." The ram flicked his wrist to the side, skewing the raccoon's line of sight as his head turned.

"Let me think on it…" he muttered in kind. The captain gave a curt nod with an upturned sneering grin of supposed victory. He quickly ushered the two guards with him from the area, allowing for solace.

"You have an hour."

At that, a large barrier of wood and steel was placed over the opening to the alcove, keeping him trapped. Meeko rolled his eyes at the redundancy, seeing as his paws were tied behind him, around a wood pole of a rather sturdy nature.

Making a few rustling noises, that were thankfully unheard, Meeko's paws were freed from the rope that bound them together. He grinned at his captor's lack of experience with dealing with raccoons. Unlike many mammals, raccoons had slim paws with slender, dexterous digits. When pressing their digits together, the overall thickness nearly became less than that of their wrists, depending on the raccoon. Suffice it to say, Meeko was able to writhe his paws from the ropes constricting his wrists with moderate ease.

He rubbed his paws where the rope bit into them, the process of wiggling free may have been simple but not exactly painless. Looking around, he found the triage of items he spotted earlier. A lantern, a bow, and a quiver with two arrows. Some idiot guard must have assumed it would be no consequence to leave it there, what with the prisoner being tied up and all.

It was too little for a proper defense, but enough for a means to signal any of the mammals he hoped were looking for him. Keeping an ear perked towards the door, Meeko ran quietly over to the aforementioned items and grabbed them.

The bow was a little too big for him, but he could work with it. Same with the arrows. Pulling the wick from the lantern and ripping a small portion of his now tattered clothing, Meeko poured some of the oil from the lantern on the cloth, wrapping it and tying it off near the arrowhead. Hiking up a pant leg, he then proceeded to pull a small pouch strapped to his shin. Inside were a couple of flint stones, likely missed in their lackluster search of his body after stripping his armor.

Brutal these mammals may be, but no geniuses they were either. At least it was working in his favor, for now. Then again, who looks up a mammal's pant leg for stones?

Striking the stones together, a stuttered spark spit out onto the soaked cloth. Nothing happened, making the raccoon try again. The same effect leading to the same problematic result. A few more strikes and the cloth finally flared up with the beautiful amber tendrils of heat that permeated the air.

Nocking the arrow as quickly as he could, Meeko braced himself as he steadied the larger bow, getting a good degree of aim out of the largest of the gaps in the ceiling of the craggy alcove. The pain in his shoulder spiked, but he gritted his teeth and bore the ache for the time being. He couldn't escape by conventional means…

But he could send a warning.

Loosing the arrow, it flew with fair accuracy, missing the edges of the opening by mere inches and launching into the twilight of the setting sun.

Come quickly, Meeko prayed silently.

He then placed the items back in their previous place, slipping his paws haphazardly back into the restraints, keeping them removed enough to escape or fight in immediate need.

Now…

He just had to play a waiting game. As if to spite him in the wake of his silent patience, Meeko's stomach decided in that moment to give a momentous growl of protest.

"Not now…" he muttered in frustration.

0000000

With the sun setting below the viewable horizon, letting the light bleed into night, a mammal clad in mostly black to hide her brighter fur streaked across the landscape.

Penny had a knife drawn and sword at the ready, prepared to take on a foe of distance or close range in tandem or concurrently. The fading light was both a boon and a curse, given the circumstances. While she was a predator with excellent vision in the night, properly scouting the land for hideouts was made more difficult. Despite her ability to see well in low light, the strength of such an inherent skill was that moving things were easier to focus on. However, when it came to the land, everything would blend together for the most part unless one knew exactly where to focus.

The snow leopard stopped and scanned the area, trying to find some sign of a camp. Smoke trails from campfires, guards making their perimeter sweeps, or even a mammal making a trip to a nearby water source. She saw nothing except the seemingly infinite forest, a lake to the west, and a collection of rocky spires clumped up near the edge of the aforementioned lake.

With the sun now fully dipped below the horizon, the last dregs of light only painting the sky with warm colors, Penny could now see something odd lighting up a portion of the fading day.

Out of one of the lower collection of crags came a small beacon of flickering light, looking like a miniature flare of orange and red arching through the sky in a lazy high arc.

With her paws rising at the haunches, pads and claws the only thing touching the earth at this point, the feline powered forward as fast as her legs could carry her. Still falling slowly but surely, the beacon was headed for the bank of the lake.

It wasn't Penny's intention to catch or retrieve the light, but to ascertain whether it was what she thought it was.

Sure enough, she reached the location where it had struck the earth only seconds before she arrived. The fire she assumed that consumed the tip of the arrow she could now see appeared to have been extinguished by it being buried in the dirt. Looking around, she retrieved the arrow and darted off, coming to several possible conclusions and not wanting anyone else to see the arrow.

It appeared that there was no mammal that saw her or even noticed her traversing the landscape. Once she was a safe distance away, she sniffed the air for any sign of encroachers of her personal space and looked at the arrow. A charred piece of what could have only been cloth was attached to it, still partially drenched in a sappy oil. The arrow was lit on fire then fired with purpose. The mercenaries would NOT have done such a thing to risk revealing such an impromptu hiding place, thus leading her to assume it was hopefully Meeko who was sending off a way to find him.

Her face fell at the prospect of thinking that he might not be the only mammal held captive. News had rolled in from some frequenting town saying that a few random individuals had been detained for questioning. That made Penny temper her optimism that Meeko was still alive. Either way, it was clear that this was a place of interest to investigate. Given that there was no time to tarry though, Bogo would most likely make a quick plan and charge in.

Taking a few slow and deep breaths, the leopard sprinted at full speed away from the area, keeping low and to the shade of the trees. She had already sheathed her weapons for a more fluid and faster run back to the manor.

0000000

"We've searched the town, the river, the lake area, and even that foggy valley to the south," complained an irritated Bogo. "Why can't we find their blasted hideout?!" His hoof slammed into the table, shaking all the loose items on it and knocking a couple things over.

"Maybe, there are some caverns or crevices large enough to make camp in," Nicholas offered, crossing his paws in thought.

"No…" Honey interjected softly. "I've already thought of that and gone over all the maps. Anything the locals know and maps show are far too small for even a tiny group to comfortably use as an overnight means of shelter. We're missing something…"

A door opened and shut with surprising speed and force, to which a black clad mammal pulled down a cowl from their muzzle and stabbed a somewhat burnt arrow into the map.

"Not anymore," Penny boldly proclaimed. "I think we have our location. Call all the scouts back." the badger perked up with obvious hope, though trepidatious optimism furrowed her expression as well.

"Where is he?" she asked in a deadly low tone. The feline pointed to the lake, picking up a piece of charcoal to circle the markings for the craggy rock formations at the edge.

"I couldn't see anyone, but this arrow was fired as a signal from the gaps. It wouldn't take a genius to assume someone wanted to reveal their location."

"What if it's a trap?" Judith supplied, to which multiple mammals looked at her in realization she might be right.

The snow leopard's face remained rather determined as she continued, "Doubtful. If I hadn't been looking or in the area, the arrow would likely have gone unnoticed by any mammal. It was on fire when loosed and was put out when embedded within the ground. For all any passerby could tell, it was fired weeks prior when a fight broke out or hunter missed their mark."

"Hunter?" the bunny doe asked, clearly confused. The red fox patted her on the back, ready to explain.

"We may not hunt each other anymore, but some predators still go after things like ducks, turkeys, and chickens for sustenance." A silent 'Oh' formed from the rabbit's mouth in realization.

"Back to matter at paw," Penny resumed, "I'm very sure this isn't a trap and that Meeko is here, along with much of the current complement of mercenaries chasing us."

"Well then," the tod started in a rising tone, "what are we waiting for? Let's get going."

"We need a plan of action," the bull rhetorically stated. "We don't even know what the area in there is like, much less so what defense have been set up." The snow leopard raised a paw, bringing attention to bear upon her.

"I saw the crags myself," she began. "They are treacherous in appearance and I suspect no more comfortable for camp arrangements. My thinking is they would much rather fight outside than be caught in there. So, we draw them out."

"How in the blazes would we do that?" one of the tigers present remarked. Other mammals were nodding in silent agreement, at odds in their minds of how one would draw a force from a position of fortification, no matter its level of supposed comfort.

"Actually…" Nicholas spoke up, smiling, "I have a few ideas about that."

0000000

"Your hour is far from up," Douglas said in a low tone, his irritation rising as the barrier was removed from the alcove. The raccoon remained deathly still, looking as if he hadn't moved since leaving. "I gave you ample time to decide though, I honestly expected you to give me what I wanted within minutes of leaving you to yourself."

Along with his entourage, the Captain walked into the area, closing in on the raccoon. He made no moves to recognize there was anyone near him. He let a hoof drape under his snout, trying to feel if he was breathing.

There was nothing.

Letting out a sigh of exasperation, the ram gave the mammal a side long hit to the muzzle. He expected a shout of pain from having faked being unconscious. To the sheep's surprise, the raccoon merely limply swayed to the side, reacting more like a ragdoll than a mammal faking it and breaking under duress.

"Wonderful," he muttered. "Get him out of here. I don't want his corpse stinking up the place."

The two mammals accompanying Douglas hurried to his side and unbound the raccoon, beginning to drag him out of the chamber and out of sight.

"Right away, sir," one of them mumbled in response.

As the pair rounded the corner, a sudden scuffle sounded, drawing the ram's attention, causing him to turn abruptly.

In the entryway to the alcove stood a rather smug looking raccoon, holding a rope in a paw. The two mammals meant to accompany his 'body' were on the ground… bleeding. In the other paw, Meeko had the broken shaft of the second arrow braced firmly in his grasp, the arrowhead dripping periodically.

"Really?" the raccoon started with a wince as he shrugged for dramatic effect. "You couldn't bear the thought of checking whether my heart still beat, so you assume I was dead?" He clicked his tongue in admonishment, Douglas sputtering to rebuke him as he attempted to close in.

Meeko gave him no chance as he unwound the rope from its anchor and allowed the counterweight to rise, lowering the barrier over the door with the ram trapped inside.

Kneeling down, he took a dagger from the smaller of the two mammals, the goat unlikely having any true use for his small weapon anymore. It felt wrong in his grip but the raccoon would have to make do.

Annoying bleating sounded from the closed off chamber, with the ram captain making an attempt at warning the others about a prisoner escape. Knowing he didn't have time to find and don his own effects, Meeko made for a direction and committed to find a way out. Rounding a corner quickly, he locked gazes with two gazelle a few dozen paces away, their stunned looks only lasting a second as they went to draw swords.

The swords made it halfway from their sheaths before something bright shined from above, distracting the three mammals. Unlike the alcove he was trapped in, Meeko could see the rest of the layout of the crags was far more sporadic and with a vast array of openings in the upper tiers of the rocks.

Coming in from above and entering quite a few of the large openings was flaming baubles of sorts. One of them smashed into a craggy spire directly above the two gazelle and spilled out something black and tar like over them. The fire consumed it, snaking across the substance and turning it into a blazing inferno, to which the two screamed and flailed around.

Meeko took cover by ducking under an overhanging ledge, surmising the substance was hot pitch, poured into fragile containers, and lobbed into the crags with oil soaked rags wrapped around them. More screams and yells permeated and echoed within the rocks, pulling at the merciful part of the raccoon that could feel a bit of sympathy for them. Subsequently, he could smell an acrid stench filling the atmosphere. Meeko assumed it was the gazelle's bodies, but quickly cast that thought aside when he remembered that pitch usually smoked quite a prodigious amount when it burned.

"Those clever mammals," Meeko whispered to himself with a smile. He now realized they hadn't planned on invading the crags, but smoking out the mammals within. The battle would likely be more tilted in their group's favor that way. With the smoke obscuring their senses and the night hindering the all prey mercenaries already lacking sense of sight compared to more perceptive mammals in low light, they would be forced out into the open. An ambush was likely waiting for them all.

The raccoon wasted no more time and took off in another direction, the previous path being blocked by burning mammals and oozing pitch.

Thankfully, any other mammals he came across were dismissive or unaware of him, coughing and blinking away the acrid smoke as they stumbled, fumbled, and trampled their way out by any path or means available. A few other mammals were getting trodden under hoof and paw, the frantic prey trying to selfishly care only for themselves.

Knowing that following the largest crowds would mean getting caught up in whatever ambush was happening, Meeko took to following a couple of stragglers who appeared to know where an alternate route lay, instead of wandering aimlessly in the smoke.

He wasn't exactly sneaking behind them, but he wouldn't make his presence known so obviously if he could help it. The two the raccoon followed took a couple of jerky turns, as if remembering on the fly how to get out.

Finally, the uneven rocks and jagged paths opened up into the dim light of the stars painting the shore of the lake. The side exit they used appeared to go right into the shallow water a short ways from landfall.

Meeko paused, watching the two in front of him splash and wade their way to the shore. The taller one, a yak, suddenly clutched at his chest, falling limply into the water. The other mammal, a beaver, tossed and turned looking for the unseen source of his comrade's assailant.

He couldn't see it, but the raccoon saw it. A black shade against the dark scape. It closed in, barely making a ripple, then grabbed the beaver from the side and twisted his head, a sickening crunch echoed over the water.

Meeko was pretty sure he knew who the mammal was, kicking a stone to splash in the water. The mammal whirled around, two knives cutting through the air and whizzing by the raccoon, who barely flinched. He smiled, seeing that her skills were rather sharp. While missing him entirely, the mammal had been perfectly accurate, throwing the knives over the exact area where the stone hit the water.

"Relax Penny…" He chided gently. "It's me."

The figure stood straight up, looking perturbed.

"Oh... OH! My goodness… By the blazes, I am woefully sorry for my actions," came the fumbled words as she waded closer. Meeko let out a slightly pained chortle, his shoulder and lungs ablaze with dull pains.

"It was no consequence," he comforted. "I knew that might happen."

"How did you escape?" came her expected inquiry.

"I faked… you know what… later." Penny nodded in agreement and the two waded the way back to shore.

0000000

Honey stood with Judith, the two occupying a small bluff a safe distance from the resulting fight.

Using a spyglass, the badger surveyed the skirmish. The mercenaries were flooding out into the open, coughing and hacking from the smoke. With some knowing what was to come, they readied their arms and found cover, avoiding projectiles like arrows and knives.

Upon regrouping behind any rocks or cover and taking a breath that wasn't poisoned by smoking pitch, Honey could see that there was a good twenty or so mammals that weren't felled by arrows or burned by pitch.

"What do we do?" the doe asked. The badger turned to look at her shorter companion.

"In the dark, there is little you can do," Honey told her. "You would be at a disadvantage, though, to be sure, the mercenaries are as well, being all prey it would seem." Judith let out a sigh.

"I guess," was her languished response, a paw rubbing up and down her other arm.

"Hey…" the badger cooed as softly as her usually abrasive voice allowed, "don't get too down about it. Even Bogo has to sit this one out, for the most part. He's a pretty big target. He's actually throwing javelins from the rear of the group. Rose and Heather aren't fighting either, though they can barely wield a blade larger than those meant for food preparation." She waved a paw dismissively. "Nevermind, I'm making some terrible examples. Besides, the two of us are supposed to close in and help once we find Meeko. Last I saw of him, he had a bolt sticking out of his shoulder."

Honey gasped as her scan of the battlefield let her sights land on the darkly dressed Penny, guiding a shorter but still easily identifiable mammal.

"Speaking of, we gotta go," she quickly mentioned, darting off to the side and leaving the bunny to do a double take before bolting off to catch up to the badger.

"Woah… wait up, Honey," Judith called out, struggling to keep up with the slower but more deftly moving mammal in the downhill path to the shore. "How do you move that… smoothly?"

"Comes with years of experience in the wild, Sweetheart," the badger answered rather bluntly. The grey doe facepawed at the strikingly similar use of the word 'Sweetheart' that she used in reference to her mate.

"Everyday, I'm reminded how much those two are alike," the rabbit whispered to herself.

Few enough minutes later, the two reached a predetermined meeting spot to take care of Meeko, should he need assistance. Even before the battle started, a few things were talked about in correspondence to the raccoon's potential condition. If he were rescued or found in the course of the battle, it was agreed he would be escorted away for treatment. Another course was to clear the region of all hostiles, capture those who surrendered, and bring in any such mammals to tend to him.

Turns out the former was fortunately the case. The spot they chose was an enclosed thicket with a mossy forest floor. Small sacks were left there with poultices and salves, along with bandages and wooden splints.

They were quickly met by the approaching snow leopard and raccoon, the latter's face looking very relieved upon seeing Honey.

He sauntered over to her as well as he could, extending his arms in open expectation of an embrace.

The poor raccoon was met with a paw to the muzzle, making him upturn his nose to avoid hurting that sensitive flesh.

"Before we engage in pleasantries… a question," Honey fired off, to which Meeko rubbed his chin and nodded tentatively. "Besides the shoulder, how are you faring with injuries." The raccoon gave himself a once over and smiled.

"I think I'm mostly fine...OOFFF!"

A clenched paw made its way into Meeko's gut, with the concerned mammal doubling over and making a rather surprised sound of pain.

"That… was for calling me Sourbelle," Honey spoke, rubbing her paw as she hadn't expected the solid build of his abdomen to hurt her since she was the aggressor. Giving him a second or two to recover, the badger then grabbed his tunic's collar and pulled Meeko in to plant her lips on his. It was short, but rather passionate and electrifying. Unfortunately, it was also over before Meeko could have a proper chance to enjoy it, with him leaning further into the kiss, while Honey backed away, a blush evident on her cheeks, visible even beneath her fur.

"And that… was for everything else."

The stupefied look of satisfaction on the raccoon made the badger's eyes narrow at his inability to refocus. Judith and Penny, on the other paw, were rather slackjaw at the whole exchange, completely caught off guard by the display.

Tapping her foot now, Honey was getting impatient with Meeko's lack of recovering and pointed to the bedding that was made, shouting, "Get your tail over there right now so we can treat you! Or so help me… I'll put a bolt in the other shoulder."

The raccoon perked back up and rushed over to lay down and allow the stunned bunny to jar herself back from her previous state and begin taking a look at his wounds.

Meeko, smiling like an idiot, tilted his head towards Honey, giving her a wink and letting out a chuckle at her reaction of turning and grumbling to herself.

"I'm never gonna hear the end of this…"

Chapter Text

The last volley of pitch bombs had been thrown, causing a waiting game to be enacted.

Nicholas’s ears twitched at the sound of screeches and screams, the burning fluidic substances likely having done their work. It wouldn’t be long before a deluge of the mercenaries would be flooding from the more substantial gaps in the crags and into the ambush they set up.

Pulling back on the bow he held, the fox took a breath and let the nocked arrow rest, arms tensing and flexing as he waited patiently for his target. Smoke and flickering light of sporadic flames poured from the crags, as many other mammals next the tod did as he had, shakier paws than his own trying to keep steady.

“Only release your arrow when you exhale…” the red fox explained to those around him that could hear his voice. “And only do so slowly. It will keep you calm enough to make your aim truer than firing from stress.”

There were some grunts of appreciative approval as a few of the mammals around him took deep breaths, their paws steadying slowly.

I take no life for my own benefit, nor for my own pleasure, the fox mentally prepared himself in such a fashion as was ritual for him. I do so to protect others from their wrath and their indifference for life. I do so against their greed and their spite. I will not fall to such poison and may this knowledge keep me humble in victory… or resolute in defeat.

The first mammal exited from a larger crevice in the crags, doubling over to catch their breath, followed by another, then a whole herd. Most of them appeared to be medium to smaller prey, probably a selective means to have an easy to feed and relatively quick force to command. Too much diversity meant too much food to bring of varying types.

The mammals in wait kept their paws steady, waiting for a steady crowding to reach a peak. When it was clear that few more mammals would be vacating the jagged housing of rocks, the tod loosed his arrow, a whistle following to tell the others to do as well.

Nicholas missed…

The heart at least. He still struck the deer that he aimed at, but only punctured a lung. He shrugged, figuring it would be the same effect. He would be immobile and die quickly enough.

Everybody around the fox had loosed some form of a projectile. Unfortunately, bows were not able to be used by all. Bogo and Gazelle were among those without a bow, the two taking improvised shafts with tips sharpened by knives shortly before paw and throwing them into the crowd of mammals. They hadn’t the night vision the predators of their group had, but apparently, Gazelle was a skilled scout and of course Bogo was a powerful fighter with battlefield experience.

Penny was around somewhere as well, though it wasn’t entirely clear as to where. It was made crystal clear, mainly by her wordings before the battle, that she was no soldier. Her strengths lie in being a saboteur and stealthy fighter.  

The red fox nocked another arrow, trying to find a viable target. His eyes narrowed, focusing upon a beaver popping their head over a boulder to scan outwards. The volley of projectiles around him ceased in response to a lack of targets, or lack of visible ones.

“What’s going on?” the bull inquired in a low tone, with his vision rather limited in seeing the finer details upon the battlefield in the pervading darkness. Even the moon gave a lackluster amount of light to help such a mammal as himself.

“They’re hunkering down behind some cover,” Nicholas explained. “We have them pinned, so they’re not going anywhere, but we can’t approach without compromising our position.”

“Any more of those hot pitch bomb things?”

“Not a one, Captain,” the fox replied. “We could continue firing arrows… but… we have no line of sight.”

None too soon after saying that, a series of rumbling battle cries were heard and the remaining mammals darted from their cover, weapons and shields held aloft. Either they came out ready to fight to a certain extent, or a couple mammals snuck back in the crags to equip the others with the nearest arms.

The tod nocked and loosed another arrow, grazing an antelope in the thigh, dropping the bow and arrows directly after to unsheath his two swords, yelling in the process, “TO ARMS!”

All other mammals did as he did, charging into the fray upon dropping their ranged weapons. Now within even a prey’s limited line of sight, the battle became more on equal footing. Bogo and Gazelle let out dual cries and powered forward, hoping to use their taller stature to frighten the oncoming leftover forces.

The mercenaries seemed cohesive, as a unit, though lacking in leadership. Nicholas hoped that meant they killed him or her in the pitch bombings, leaving them without a proper leader to coordinate a defense. The point of their lack of direction came when the bull charged first into the battle and used his axe to break the shields of three mercenaries, brutally wounding two and knocking back the third. It was unclear as to whether the two were still living, but their unmoving bodies made for enough evidence to continue moving.

The four tigers that accompanied the buffalo and his mate followed in and formed a delta formation to break the group into two.

With their size and heavier armor, they acted much like a defensive barricade to keep the enemy at bay....

Allowing Nicholas and company to swoop in from their flanks and try to decimate their charging assault. Akela, old as he was, was the quickest to a kill, using a two pawed sword to knock an armored leg out from under a mercenary and bringing the follow up blow to their chest, crushing their armor in on their ribcage and causing too much damage for recovery. The red fox tod twirled his blades, using the short one to knock a shield to the side and the longer one to stab straight through the chainmail into a beaver’s abdomen. He gurgled a passing curse that was unintelligible and fell to the side, bleeding out slowly.

Even Nathan was closing in, hoisting a buckler shield and hammer, with the grip capable of being wielded both one or two pawed as needed. He swung the hammer, missing a mammal that backstepped to avoid his blow narrowly. Another mercenary, a gazelle, charged forward to take advantage of the slow recovery, swinging down with a halberd.

“Nathan!” Nicholas yelled out, swapping the hilts of the swords in his paws to backpaw them. He crossed the blades and intercepted the smaller axe blade of the hybrid weapon.

While the fox held back the blade, the young wolf recovered enough to swing his hammer again, knocking into a leg and bending it backwards in a sickening crunch. The gazelle screeched out in pain and collapsed in a heap, clutching their shattered joint in agony.

Nicholas braced himself and used the short blade in a backward thrust to go though his neck padding and pierce the spine. Both life and pain severed from the mortal coil, the gazelle slumped over.

There was no time to lament his dealings as the tod was engaged by another mammal.

With the mercenaries at a disadvantage, their group closed the gap and fought in rotating shifts. Certain mammals would deflect or parry blows, with others like Nicholas switching in to deal a devastating counter strike. Nathan acted as his shield breaker for the short while they fought, with the tod feeling like he needed to watch out for the younger fighter.

It was too bad he couldn't fight with his mate, but her sight wasn't fair enough in the dark to properly attribute to the battle in that way. Her role was helping with Meeko's supposed wounds after they would apprehend him from his captivity, should be hopefully be alive.

In the distance, the fox could see a fallen member of their group. It was one of the people that came with them from Upendi. An ocelot named Flora, if he remembered correctly. Akela stood next to her in a protective manner, using his sword to swing in a wide arc, keeping three mercenaries from closing in for the kill.

“Nathan, Captain, need some help here,” the red fox called out, pulling Bogo’s attention. He snorted an affirmative and gestured for one of the tigers to follow him.

Flora stirred, an indication that she was still alive, for the time being. Coming to the rescue, the multiple mammals were cut off by the remnant of their forces, either too stupid or devout in their loyalties to surrender. Roughly a full dozen were left, the rest having been dispatched by various means.

Akela saw this, as did the three mercenaries closing in. Taking a deep breath and a steady stance, blade held close to his chest and upright, both paws gripped tightly at the hilt, the old wolf prepared for the inevitable advance.

The tallest of them, a kudu, made a stabbing strike with his halberd, the weapon being parried by Akela’s own. The second, a ram, made a quickly following strike, with the wolf’s rising block skewing the thrust from hitting his gut. The third of them, a shorter goat, finally hit his mark, the older wolf letting out a yowl of pain as a spear struck his hip.

He nearly dropped his sword, only able to brace it when his pain addled mind processed that the other two would take advantage of this lapse in defense. The kudu made another lunge, stabbing Akela in the chest, under his rib cage, a glancing parry from his sword kept it from going too deep but made way for the ram to get the final strike into his midsection.

The pain was excruciating. He felt like some sort of pincushion.

It was over and he knew it….

But this old wolf wasn’t going down without a fight. Seeing the shafts of their spears intersecting in front of him, the wolf grabbed it and staggered back, yanking the weapons with him. The three mercenaries were pulled forward and stunned at the move, fully expecting the mammal to keel over and die.

Akela quickly pulled the weapons from his flesh and hefted up his own, knowing he had but seconds before his body’s strength would leave him entirely. He twisted around, using the spinning momentum and shocked stillness of his adversaries against them. His longsword swung around in a final, powerful strike to cleave through armor, fur, and flesh. All three suffered a similar and very deep gash that bled liberally, giving them only slightly more time than the wolf knew he had.

Stabbing the sword in the ground as a final act of defiance, he smiled at the three, their expressions turning to a horrified recognition that he dealt them all a killing blow. It was satisfying to him in his final moments, to know these mammals would be dying for naught but monetary gain… and he… he would die for the family that he had so come to love.

“Bogo!” he yelled with a sputtering breath. The bull was still desperately trying to dispatch the interfering mercenaries, ferocity rising as he saw his compatriot collapsing to the ground. “Take care of Nathan for me!”

“You stay alive, you daft old wolf!” the buffalo fired back. “Don’t you dare give up on us!”

Whispering to himself, as he saw the wounds in his body, “If only it were that simple… my friend.” Akela chuckled softly, looking back to see the ocelot opening her eyes and getting up slowly. “At least I protected her. Wish I got to know her.”

With the last of his vision being of approaching friends with concerned expressions, the old wolf let it all slip, embracing the fall into the abyss.

Bogo caught Akela from falling in a heap on the ground, his sword firmly planted in the soil, swaying slowly with the wind that now flowed over the landscape.

The last of the mercenaries were either captured, chased off, or killed.

“You old fool,” the bull spoke softly in lamentation. “You fought bravely. We won’t forget this.”

Flora got up slowly, with the buffalo nodded for someone to help her up. Nathan rushed to her aid, dropping his hammer in the process. He looked at Akela, eyes squinting shut at the sight.

A paw landed on his shoulder, with Nicholas offering him a cautious glance.

“I’m sorry, bud,” he voiced gently.

The injured ocelot gripped the younger wolf around his waist, using him for support. It appeared she was knocked over the head after suffering a small cut to her leg.

“We have more to worry about,” Nathan spoke in an uncharacteristically low tone. “Let’s get you patched up…. What was your name again?”

“Flora…” she muttered in a haze, still groggy from the head wound. The wolf scooped her up in his arms, not willing to let her attempt walking with her leg and head messed up as they were. With tears pricking his eyes, he focused instead on the individual in need of his assistance in his arms, walking off to find someone to help tend to her injuries.

The red fox turned to the rest of the group, their expressions somber as they saw the result of their victory.

“How many did we lose?” came the simple question, to which all became nervous and looked around to survey others and themselves for wounds and whoever may have been missing.

The tigers approached… at least three of them did… with the tod attempting to remember the names of them. Apparently they were four brothers of the same litter, saved by the Captain years ago from being bought and sold off in separate parts of the provincial state. If he remembered correctly… they were Darren, Daniel, Damian, and….

“Daryll is gone…” one of them stated in a raspy voice. “Got his leg cut up pretty bad near the beginning and just… fell over eventually. If we only knew… we could have…” The large tiger began to break down, letting his tears fall freely. The other two did as much too, comforting their more vocal brother.

“Anyone else…?” Nicholas dared to ask.

“I don’t see Penny anywhere… you think she…?” Gazelle dared to ask from nearby.

“Oh, don’t write me off yet,” a soft tone purred from nearby, closing in on them all. “I made sure those taking less obvious routes would be dealt with. Also… I found Meeko and took him to Honey and Judith. So… mission accomplished?”

As the snow leopard approached, she noticed the sullen expressions and Akela’s body being slowly lowered to the ground by the bull, making sure his eyes were closed properly.

“What do you mean by ‘I found Meeko’?” the fox inquired with a tilted head. “You went in there and got him out?” The feline shook her head in the negative.

“He found his way out,” she began to detail, “and apparently used our rescue as a distraction to sneak away. I didn’t have much time to ask before trying to get back here to help. I’m sorry I couldn’t be here sooner.”

“No sense regretting what we can’t change,” Bogo spoke up, stepping over to the sword Akela planted in the ground and pulling it up, carrying it carefully to set it in the paws of the dead wolf. “You did well and we needed to be void of these pests on our rear. They would have found us and eventually caught us on their terms.”

Most mammals present nodded their heads in agreement, leaving the thought unvoiced but all feeling rather relieved that those chasing them were finally dealt with. It was over.

“We have one more little loose end to tie up,” Meeko’s voice cut clear across the air, his grunting permeating his tone as he used a walking stick with one paw and had the other cradled to his chest in a sling. “I believe I trapped the leader of this little outfit within the confines of my previous impromptu prison.” Bogo straightened up and stared down at the raccoon, hooves clenched tight as he ran some thought through his head that no other mammal had clear insight to.

Honey and Judith walked up next to Meeko, surveying the battlefield with their own eyes.

The bull heaved a breath, steeling himself before saying, “Alright then. You…” He gestured to Nicholas, Judith, Honey, Meeko, and his mate, “come with me… and the rest of you do what you can for your injuries and get ready to make our way back to the manor.” A cacophony of salutes and mumbled confirmations met him, the group knowing they had much to do before they could properly grieve their fallen in peace.

0000000

With Meeko leading the way, as well as he could in his condition, the small group staggered and crawled their way over the rocks and uneven surfaces in the crags. Honey and Bogo both held up torches, properly lighting the way for them all.

The buffalo made impulsive and repeated mentions that he could hold Meeko to spare him further trekking, but the stubborn mammal refused him every time.

“Sorry, boss,” he chided the larger mammal, “but the only arms I want wrapped around me are Sourbelle’s here.”

“Hey!” Honey yelled from the rear of the group. “What did I say about calling me that, you idiot?!”

“Not sure, I wasn’t exactly listening,” the raccoon unabashedly admitted. “Besides, your beauty was being louder than words.”

“Are you being serious?!” the badger lividly shouted at him. “That doesn’t even fit! You are just asking for me to beat you senseless.”

“Sense?” Meeko coyly asked with a wide and devious grin. “Surely, you do not accuse a mammal such as myself of having such a thing.”

Judith giggled as quietly as she could, heavily entertained by the exchange. She flicked her gaze up to her mate, who appeared complacent and thoughtful of the same exchange. The doe nudged her fox in the side lightly.

“I think they’re a thing now,” she mentioned obviously. “You gonna be okay with this?”

Without missing a beat, Nicholas grinned wide and his eyes settled into a half-lidded stare as he spoke quietly to her, “I’m actually on board with this whole idea now. Anyone who drives my mother that insane, is alright in my book. Plus,... when he screws up enough, I’m sure I’ll also enjoy these ‘senseless beatings’ she mentioned giving him. Win/win for me.”

“You have a strange measure of worth for who can date your mother…” the grey bunny observed with a raised eyebrow.

“....AND that’s another thing,” Honey resumed to some jibe or comment the fox and bunny missed. “You willfully defy me all too often.”

“Oh come on,” the raccoon replied confidently. “If I followed your will, wouldn’t that make me less ‘attractive’? I’m sure you’re all too used to getting others to do or say as you please. I’ll bet my rambunctious nature is what made me stand out a bit more than others.”

The badger began to grumble something almost unintelligible.

Judith caught it though, hearing it as, “Damn it… I hate when that goofball actually makes sense.”

The doe looked up at her fox, rolling her eyes in recognition of knowing all too well how that goes.

The exchange continued on quite loudly for a few more minutes until…

“Oh, by the blazes!” a mammal’s voice echoed from a nearby chamber. “Would you two…. SHUT… UP!”

“Oh…. found him,” Meeko mentioned anti-climatically, pausing for a second to add on in a louder voice, “No?”

A resounding, frustrated yell echoed outwards, the mammal that lie beyond clearly having had enough of hearing the strange flirtations by the badger and raccoon.

Leading the mammals to the doorway, Meeko pointed to the broken mechanism, with Bogo gripping the remains of the counterweight and using it to pulley up the door enough to allow the others to wiggle in.

The bull then anchored the doorway open and stood in it, clearly large enough to block the ram’s escape.

“Question time for you this time,” the injured raccoon cheerfully chirped at the surprised sheep ram, with him having been caught off guard and standing defensively at the back wall of the chamber.

“What do you want?” he muttered in a low tone, doing his best impression of a growl, with bleating bleeding into the tone.

“Well, my dear Craptain…”

“Captain,” Douglas impulsively corrected him, wincing as he noticed the weapons trained on him, including Judith with her bow and arrow aimed menacingly towards his body.

“If he would like to correct me again…” Meeko started with a devilish grin, “feel free to use him for target practice.”

“My pleasure,” the doe responded, holding her own mischievous glint in her eye, though internally hoping she wouldn’t have to do that. She might have come to terms with defending her mate’s life, but willfully taking another’s when she had the obvious advantage was a bitter root to chew on. Thankfully, she knew the raccoon wasn’t actually going to ask her to hurt him aside from saying it as a threatening measure…. Maybe?

“Now… back to our matter at paw,” he resumed, “are there any other groups in the region for us to worry about?”

The ram was about to speak before Honey cut in, “Do remember that if we hear anything else other than what we perceive as truth, we WILL let our steel do the talking and leave you to paint the rocks here a lovely crimson.”

Douglas cleared his throat to speak once more, “You make a fair point. And though I might be inclined to lie… I hold no real loyalties here. Lord Hopps hired only us, a complement of about two score of mammals. I’m guessing you’ve dispatched with them all?”

“I’m asking the questions here,” the raccoon reasserted to the ram, “but yes… most of them. We have a couple captured, though I suspect they know little except what you order and tell them.”

“And what makes you think that?”

“Everything,” Meeko simply stated. “Your gait, overly cautious and contemptuous regard with your underlings, and the way you speak as opposed to their lack of obvious education. I’m guessing they are simply cheap hired blades with the basic level of fighting prowess but competent enough to command into an objective. You… Captain… are probably an ex-military officer sent on this errand as a favor and paid handsomely. Stop me if I’m wrong.”

“You are right on all but one account…” Douglas carefully spoke. He took a breath, several seconds passing before the stares bore into him with enough awkward discomfort to force him to continue. “I am actually still with the military. This was meant as a scouting operation to follow your open rebellion and incite war with the kitnapping of two daughters of a well respected Lord of the Shire. We were to find out your contacts and pursue all necessary course to root out your runners and rebel cells, passing on that info to a waiting army that is to march upon the countries helping you.”

All mammals present were struck speechless by the revelations lain out before them. If they had known this beforepaw, would they have cared to react sooner to the threat?

To Nicholas, something wasn’t adding up.

“Why have a mercenary accompaniment trusted with such an apparently important task?” he voiced.

The ram laughed in sullen revelation of his own, explaining, “My thinking is that I’m just a scapegoat to blame when things go wrong and the whole operation gets ousted. Using the state’s military with their tabard would be easily recognizable and political fallout would be enormous.”

Bogo waved over Honey, to which the badger followed his lead as Meeko and Nicholas kept up the line of questioning.

“Do you think this is why we haven’t heard back from my runners?” the bull asked.

The badger rolled her head ambiguously, replying, “I honestly couldn’t tell you, but it’s as good a guess as any. I’m still of the mind they fell back on the back up plan. Barring a lack of contact, they round up the other cells and head north as fast as they can for the Tundra Federation. I made some friends up there that are more than willing to take in our rebels.”

“I see,” the buffalo sighed in some form of relief. “So, when we get to this Ewe-topia, should we dispatch a courier to let them know where we are based?”

“Ewe-topia?” Douglas asked, suddenly interested in their conversation. He hadn’t heard anything other than that name, but it was enough. He began laughing madly.

It was with great patience, combined with an overwhelming sense of curiosity, that they left the ram to his own recovery time to illicit a more natural response as to why he found the mention of the city so funny.

Finally, he calmed down enough to wipe a tear and explain himself.

“Sorry… it’s just… it’s been so very long since I last heard of that place. And rightly so. Are you going there to seek some form of refuge or sanctuary?”

“First of all,” the fox tod cut in, “it’s basically just a checkpoint to go elsewhere. And secondly, why is it so funny?”

“Because it’s been razed to the ground,” Douglas bluntly spoke. “At the end of the war, many nations were either absorbed into the Shire or taken under it by proxy. Some others…. Were abandoned. And that place…. Was destroyed entirely.”

“How would you know?” Meeko piped up in a deadly tone.

“Because I was there when it happened!” spat the ram in response. “I was one of the many who lit the pyres that turned the city into ashes. The state deemed it too much of a threat and thusly wished it erased as one.”

“You think he’s lying…?” Judith asked hopefully. If any of this was true, she felt it would be but an empty pilgrimage to another land.

“I doubt it,” the raccoon muttered. “He seems quite forthcoming. And Honey here is actually a pretty good mammal about rooting out liars. She would have said something.”

To underscore his point, Honey nodded in affirmation of what Meeko was saying. The doe felt an anxious knot swell within her chest, fears and reservations now surfacing. If she hadn’t started all of this in the furst place, maybe events would have been different. She left her home, dragged her sister with, pulled Nicholas into something he wanted no part of and put everyone in danger. Her missing would quite possibly push her province towards war with anyone they pleased.

Through her plethora of self depreciating thoughts, a paw rested on her head and ruffled her fur.

“Lay off the depressive aura, Fluff,” Nicholas jibed. “You know you can’t blame yourself for any of this. They would have found some way to forward their plans, with or without you.”

“But it’s because of me that they…” Judith began in a frantic rush, interrupted by the laughing ram once again.

“Don’t think so highly of yourself, little rabbit,” Douglas sneered at her. “The state would have spun some elaborate lie if you hadn’t come along as a lazy excuse to send soldiers North. Making this seem like a personal vendetta was just a way to get a scout force this far north without others taking action against them. Their thinking was the force would either succeed and come home or get decimated. Looks like my confidence we would succeed was for naught.”

“What’s the point of sending anything?” Gazelle spoke up from her previously sullen silence, voice as soft as ever.

The ram grumbled, “I wasn’t told this… but my guess is it was to gauge the potential strength of the rebel forces we’ve heard are gaining power and influence.”

“So, since your forces were dispatched,” the fox said, “I should think that means the state won’t care to fight without first shoring up its own forces?”

“You’ll have a crusade on your paws,” the sheep spoke in a low tone. “They will use this failure to stir fear in the masses… tell them that predators are gearing for war and call for equal action in kind. Families will be called en masse to battle and a many tens of thousands will be made to march to rival and overcome what remains of the Northern provinces.”

Silence.

All present wanted to say this was a lie, to believe it could be, but the evidence was clear. No matter the outcome of their venture, Savannah Shire and their controlling powers sought war and to expand their influence ever further. They would use a success to their advantage or a failure to incite the masses to fear driven pleading for the state to protect them.

Nicholas let out a snarl and slammed a clenched paw against a wooden plank that leaned against the stone spires.

Seeing that no one seemed to wish to speak, Douglas sought to further talk, “You will all die beneath their trampling hooves and paws, cursed to be subjugated as all predators must be to keep the peace and mitigate the fear of the overwhelming masses of…”

There was the glint of steel and slice of flesh, causing the ram to stop talking, but continue some form of terribly disgusting noises. All mammals present turned to see the blade that wrought its edge upon the Captain.

Gazelle stood there with steely eyes and a saddened expression.

“Such ideals do not belong in this world… and so… I’m sorry you had to die for them,” came her gentle voice, tears pricking at the corner of her eyes. “This is not the world I see… the world I can see…. Is better than that.”

Bogo laid a hoof on his wife’s shoulder, turning her around to pull her into an embrace.

Nicholas left the chamber, to which everyone else followed, worried over their comrade.

“Nicholas,” the grey doe called out behind him. He turned, but didn’t stop walking forward. The rest closed in, but said nothing as the fox finally slowed to a stop. “What are you thinking?”

The tod’s eyes raked over something unseen, as if speed reading a map or book with exceptional speed.

With eyes still giving a piercing stare, his muzzle curved in a tentative smile.

“We don’t give up… we don’t give in. Not until we reach the end, and then we start again,” he detailed to them. “If, as the ram said, this place was such a threat, we still go there and find out why… then rebuild, revitalize, and rally to that advantage. If these power hungry mammals want a war…”

The red fox paused to take a small breath…

“We’ll make them regret it…”