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The Tale of Crossfire and the Hustler

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Chapter 12—Like a Bullet's Path

A/N: I DID IT! I met a deadline that I set for myself! :D :D :D YAY ME!

Uh, fair warning… Some kind of dark stuff is covered in this chapter.

By the way, if you don't remember Killshot, he was introduced in chapter nine. And if you forgot about the caracal, he had a brief scene in chapter five. Nick purposely sneezed into his bowl of fried cicadas for sexually harassing Judy.

Mountains  of thanks to Camoss and Libious, who graciously reviewed this chapter immediately even though I threw it at them only twelve hours before intending to post it. You guys are  amazing  to me.

Love, loss,

Like a bullet’s path,

Tear through

The cavity of my chest.

Lights out,

Because the fuse has blown…


 - “From Heads Unworthy,” by Rise Against

Day 10: Wednesday, June 25 th , 2016, 8:00 p.m.

"Hi, welcome!" Judy chirped as she handed a pamphlet to a passerby. Behind her, other members of the Predators for Harmony Association were setting a few more boxes along a line of tables in front of the library. Each box was labeled with the name of a district and was large enough to hold several pounds of food.

The capybara before her took the pamphlet slowly, eyeing it warily. "What is this?"

"We're having a food drive for areas of Zootopia that are primarily populated by marginalized predators!" Judy replied cheerily, then pointed at the pamphlet. "This is some information about how predators evolved sentience alongside prey. We're trying to encourage everyone to work together."

Quirking a brow at her, the capybara stuffed the pamphlet into his back pocket with a sigh. "I take it you haven't been paying attention to the news?"

Judy wondered if her smile looked as stiff as she suddenly felt. "We're aware of the situation with predators going savage, but that's no reason not to help them."

"Something in their biology is making this happen," the capybara said, looking at the bunny grimly. "They could turn on us at any second. Literally any second. You realize that, right?"

When she actually stopped to consider the possibility, Judy's blood chilled. But she made herself shrug. "Biology or no biology, they still deserve to eat." She nodded at the capybara as she started to make her way toward other approaching prey mammals. "Just feel free to bring over some food to donate, okay? Hey!" she called out to a deer couple, holding out a pamphlet to them. "Welcome!"

As she conversed with the mammals, she couldn't help subtly casting glances around the crowd, hoping that her gaze would fall upon a certain pair of black-tipped orange ears, or a fluffy black-tipped orange tail, or—best of all—two vibrant green eyes.

She blushed when she remembered what had happened just before coming here.

And she hoped that he would make her blush again.

Day 10: Wednesday, June 25 th , 2016, 8:10 p.m.

"Isn't it kinda late for somethin' like this?" Finnick grumbled as he fiddled with some wires that he'd plugged between his laptop and a projector they'd stolen from inside the library.

"It was the only time they had available," Nick said as he peeked over the edge of the roof at the crowd milling near the library across the street. "Gazelle is a busy mammal."

Finnick snorted and mumbled something Nick's ears couldn't quite catch, but since it was probably something rude, he didn't care to ask. Instead, he scanned the crowd below until he found a certain gray bunny. As expected, she was practically bouncing from mammal to mammal, chatting and handing out pamphlets. He was aware of how his tail wagged for a moment as he smiled warmly. Somehow, he couldn't help quietly humming a merry little tune.

"I'm gonna choose to believe that this good mood o' yours is 'cause you kicked that bunny out," Finnick interjected at a pointedly loud volume.

"Believe whatever you want, big guy," Nick responded nonchalantly, resting his cheek on his forearms as he kept watching the bunny.

Then a movement snagged his attention. A disturbingly familiar movement.

He bolted upright, ears pinning themselves to the back of his head. Although the hyena was covered from head to toe in a mask and black clothing, Nick had spent years in the Den of Thieves getting to know those mannerisms.


Killshot was lurking in an alley near the library.

It took a moment for him to find his voice, which was colored with both dread and restrained fury. "Did you tell Killshot about this?" he asked without turning his head toward his friend.

Finnick didn't answer immediately. "I knew you would get upset, but I figured we could use the backup. And he's interested in this sort of thing."

"Of course he is," Nick snarled. "Plenty of prey to hurt."

He could almost hear Finnick rolling his eyes as he replied. "He ain't gonna hurt anyone. I made it clear that we're not here for that."

"After what he did to that police officer, you'll understand if I'm not inclined to trust him," Nick retorted.

"That was a year ago."

"And?" Nick spun around to face the fennec. "It's not like he's changed since then."

Sparing him a quick narrow-eyed glance as he unraveled a couple wires, Finnick sighed heavily. "Like I said, I told him—"

"And since when does he follow anybody's orders but his own? Or Big's?" Nick interjected. He jabbed a finger inches away from his friend's face. "If he hurts anyone, and especially if he hurts Judy, I'll—"

"You'll deal with it, 'cause the alternative is outin' yourself as a member o' the Den o' Thieves and gettin' us all put in jail or worse!" Finnick barked, shoving Nick's finger to the side.

For several seconds, the two foxes simply glared at each other, muzzles wrinkled with sneers. Then a casual, nasally voice snapped the silence.

"Hey, guys," Duke Weaselton said as he strolled onto the roof with his paws in his pockets. "I take it we're ready for some mayhem tonight, eh?"

Finnick huffed as he turned his eyes back to the tangled wires. "You're late."

"I had a job," Duke shrugged. "This sheep keeps payin' me to bring him some weird little flowers. Dunno what he got against pickin' his own if he likes his girl so much, but it's paper in the wallet, so who cares?"

"Didn't ask for your excuses," Finnick scowled, "just like I didn't ask for you to be late."

"Maybe you wanna stop bunchin' your panties there, eh, Painter?" Duke sneered. "Can't be a comfortable way to sit."

At that, Finnick growled, but he said nothing else.

"Thought you said we were ready," Duke said.

"The presentation is ready," Finnick corrected him tersely before throwing down the wires. "The technical stuff is your job, Bootleg. Get over here and do it already."

Grumbling, Duke plopped himself next to the projector and proceeded to nimbly pull wires under and around each other until he'd straightened them all out.

Nick returned to his previous spot at the edge of the roof, gripping the cement as he strained to see Killshot in the alley. He had moved deeper into the shadows.

For a moment, Nick let his gaze switch back to Judy. She was enthusiastically thanking a couple mammals who had just dropped some cans of food into one of the boxes behind her. As much as he preferred to continue watching her, he reminded himself that what she needed right now wasn't his attention, but his protection.

So, with a bristling tail, he kept his eyes on the alley.

Day 10: Wednesday, June 25 th , 2016, 8:25 p.m.

"Good evening, Zootopia!" a familiar voice rang out.

Gasping with delight, Judy spun around until she spotted Gazelle standing on a small wooden platform to the side of the tables. Though the singer wasn't dressed in one of her sparkly stage outfits, she still looked sophisticated and stylish with a pair of rhinestone-studded jeans, a ruffled pink blouse, and a form-fitting black blazer cinched around her waist with a single button. Her tiger dancers stood in a semi-circle behind her, casually dressed in t-shirts and jeans or button-up shirts and slacks.

How had Judy not noticed that she was setting up a spot for herself there? She must have been too focused on distributing pamphlets. Hopping up and down while clapping her paws, she barely suppressed a squeal as Gazelle continued.

"Thank you all for coming here tonight," Gazelle said into a microphone as every mammal's head swiveled toward her, expressions rapt. "We're all very grateful to have you. The Predators for Harmony Association approached me with this thoughtful project to support needy predators throughout the city and spread the word about their current predicament." She swept the room with a sympathetic gaze. "I know we're all scared and not sure what's going to happen, but we can't blindly assign blame. We have to remember that we all came from the same place, and we all want to stay in the same place. Predators are not so different from prey. We must support them as we try to understand what's happening to them so that we can find a solution."

"Pred lover!" shouted a snide voice from somewhere in the crowd.

But Gazelle didn't miss a beat, smiling genially in the general direction of the voice. "Thank you, sir. Yes, I am a pred lover. I hope you'll join me." She pointed at the boxes. "Please leave your food donations here."

As if to demonstrate, Gazelle motioned to one of the tigers standing behind her. He passed her a crate full of food, and she carefully lowered it into one of the boxes.

A few of the prey mammals in the crowd shook their heads as they walked away, muttering about how disgusting they found the whole display, how tasteless it was for her to use her position and influence for politics, how they had never really liked her music anyway. As her sensitive hearing picked up such comments, Judy's ears dropped.

However, they perked up again when she noticed that there was also a decent number of prey mammals who quietly lingered. There were some predators, too, dressed nicely enough to imply that they were financially comfortable. With simple nods and smiles at the PHA members behind the tables, prey and predators alike left food for the boxes, chatted amiably and briefly with each other, and then started off in the directions of their homes.

It seemed to Judy that the only way her heart could have felt fuller would be if Nick had shown up to watch the events unfold at her side. She sighed. Not too long ago, he'd sent her a text promising that he would meet her there soon.

I wonder where he

And then a small face with large triangular ears clad with a black mask and clamped with an electronic voice distortion box lit up the beige outer wall above the library's doors.

Day 10: Wednesday, June 25 th , 2016, 8:25 p.m.

"The prey would have you believe that predators are the problem," Finnick's masked face said. "That we are natural savages, biologically predisposed to murder, an entire genetic family o' psychopaths. How quickly an' conveniently they forget what they've done."

Vaguely, Nick was aware that his jaw had started to drop.

The image flashed away from Finnick to display an artist's rendition of Zootopia in its earliest stages, more than five hundred years ago. Mammals had already been sentient for maybe one thousand years or so before that, but hardly any community of predators and prey had dared trying an experiment quite like Zootopia. In the artist's rendition, they huddled together in like-family groups while passing each other on the streets.

"Oppression o' predators didn't start with prey deemin' most of 'em eligible for only the lowest-payin' jobs, then throwin' 'em to the outskirts o' the city an' forgettin' about 'em," the Finnick on the projector continued. "It started with muzzles bein' required in public spaces."

On the wall appeared a succession of several paintings depicting wolves, bears, cougars, tigers, jaguars, hyenas, lions, caracals, cheetahs, leopards, weasels, otters, and foxes, all wearing peasant garb and muzzles in different areas of Zootopia, eyes somehow both empty and devastated. Nick was immediately bombarded by his own memories of a scout troop forcing a muzzle on him years ago, and a sense of nausea assaulted his stomach.

But the video kept going as the crowd below murmured.

"Later, it was shock collars. Everywhere. Even in the privacy of their own homes."

Now the paintings gave way to photographs of predators in suspenders and suits looking stoic while sporting shock collars around their necks. Most of the photos were black-and-white, but the colored ones showed the collars' lightbulbs lit ominously green.

The image returned to Finnick's concealed face.

"Even when the prey were so gracious as to outlaw any type of restraint against predators, they found other ways to legalize an' systematize their prejudice. Nearly 60% of predators live in poverty, an' the rest rarely rise above middle class. Only 30% of predators get a higher education and often still struggle to find high-payin' jobs afterwards. They get longer prison sentences for the same offenses that prey commit, even when they have similar rap sheets. Many predators resort to illegal activity to get by, but prey only use this fact to demonize them further.

"And as if this ain't bad enough, have a look at prey killers who got off easy because they were prey, and remember 'em next time you're scared that a predator will go savage. Remember who the real enemies are."

Finnick's masked face was replaced with a mugshot of a glaring pig with a black eye.

"Paul Whitesnout. Corporate sales director who felt like he never got the pay he deserved, so he supplemented it by startin' an underground meat-selling ring on the black market. He kidnapped an' murdered the homeless, prostitutes, and anyone else he thought wouldn't be missed. He killed predators, but most of his targets were actually his fellow prey. Although most of his customers were predators, the private investigator who busted him was a predator himself—a wolf who was later stabbed to death in what's assumed to be revenge, but the police never spared enough resources to track down his killer. Paul was only in prison for five years before bein' released for 'good behavior.' His current whereabouts are unknown."

Now the projector displayed the mugshot of a scraggly brown rabbit with a lazy but mad smirk and a hole in one ear.

"Billy Rhinelander. An otherwise typical farmin' rabbit who developed an immunity to several poisons, then coated his teeth with them and injected them into his victims with a tiny bite. Took police and coroners years to even notice the bites through the fur, an' another year to think outside their biases an' realize they were rabbit bites an' not a pair o' lethal injections. Billy spent only a decade in prison for murderin' more than thirty mammals o' both the prey and predator families over the course of a few years. By comparison, an otter who killed a different rabbit that tried to rape her around the same time as Billy's conviction spent twenty years in jail. Although Billy is now required to wear an ankle bracelet with a GPS tracker, he was allowed to go back to farmin'."

Nick glanced down at the crowd. His keen eyes could see Judy trembling.

But the video played on, now bringing up a mugshot of a scarred pale gray rhinoceros.

"Rocky Hornton. Former politician. Kidnapped other prey mammals of various species that were close enough to his own size, shackling them in his basement so that he could—"

At that point, Nick had heard enough. As the mammals gathered before the library were covering their mouths in shock, some of them leaving with sickened or furious expressions, he whirled to face Finnick and Duke.

"This isn't what we agreed!" he snarled at them. "We were just going to draw attention to the predators who would be getting the food. Showing pictures and biographies. Showing Zootopia what they go through because neither the media nor some little food drive will really get the point across." He gestured at the images being displayed by the projector. "What the hell is this?"

Both Finnick and Duke regarded him in stony silences, their gazes unflinching.

After waiting for what he felt was more than enough time, Nick clenched his fists and growled, "Why?"

"You never kicked out that bunny, did you?" Finnick asked.

"What does that have to do with—"

"Cavortin' with the vigilante bunny!" Finnick interjected, his voice abruptly rising. "Lettin' her get away! Keepin' another bunny as a roommate! Insistin' that we don't kill anybody, even if it's for the greater good!"

"Greater good?!" Nick shouted. "You mean our good! Murdering mammals for our good!"

"The good of mammals like us, Hustler!" Finnick yelled. "The good of predators who ain't given a chance at a decent life if they don't take it for themselves! You don't think their rights are part o' the greater good?!"

"Of course they are, but this isn't the way to change things!" Nick exclaimed. "Trying to turn one type of mammal into the bad guys isn't going to fix anything! The fact that prey do it to us is the reason we joined the Den of Thieves in the first place! Doing it to them will just make everything worse!"

"Oh, poor prey!" Finnick scoffed. "They might actually get a taste o' their own medicine now!"

Nick glared. "The whole city is already extremely tense. You'll incite predators to start retaliating and attacking prey and—"

"You didn't seem so worried about predators getting attacked by prey when you an' the vigilante decided to expose mysteriously savage predators to the whole city!" Finnick shot back.

"I knew that might happen, but I—"

"You wanna know why we didn't tell you about the change in plans? It's 'cause you've gone soft, Hustler." Finnick sneered in disgust. "You've sided with the oppressors, just 'cause o' some dumb bunny."

"That's not…"

Nick's words faded as he resorted to hanging his head. Some small, childlike part of him was terrified of what he was about to say, knowing that he would be giving up what had once been his most important goal in life. But the rest of him knew it was inevitable.

He sighed heavily before meeting his old friend's gaze again—and releasing himself from his pack.

"I can't be part of this," he said quietly.

"I know," Finnick said simply, his determined glower never faltering.

Duke nonchalantly picked at one of his claws. He didn't even bother looking at Nick anymore.

The fox shook his head at them. "They're not going to listen now," he said. "You know that, right? The prey will never listen to us now."

"They never listened in the first place," Finnick shrugged. "And they were never going to." He drew a small radio from his back pocket. "But maybe they'll listen to this." Pushing a button on the radio, he directed his words to the receiver. "Have a good evenin', Killshot."

Eyes widening, Nick spun and frantically surveyed the crowd. Sure enough, Killshot had emerged from his hiding place, brandishing a large, illegal lethal.

Before he could even think, he was bolting toward the door that would lead him down from the roof.

As he sprinted, Finnick yelled, "Nick, he won't—"

But the rest of his sentence was slammed into silence behind the door.

Day 10: Wednesday, June 25 th , 2016, 8:48 p.m.

At the sight of a black-clad hyena that Judy recognized as Killshot pointing a large gun at the crowd, mammals started screaming and trying to hurry away. For a moment, Judy froze, everything else forgotten as she stared at it, every instinct pushing her to run and hide. Then she shook her head and blinked, checking that her bag was still where she'd left it under the tables.

As she was about to lunge for it, she heard a click that choked her chest with terror. She glanced up. Killshot was aiming in her direction.

But a caracal that she hadn't immediately noticed next to her frantically threw his paws in the air, "accidentally" pushing her closer toward the hyena in the process.

Despite the urgency of the situation, Judy allowed herself a moment to glare fiercely at him—and realized she recognized him. It was the same caracal who had harassed her at Basic Instinct, implying that she was "only good for one thing." What were the odds? And how dare he?!

She balled her fists.

Suddenly, the Hustler was there.

She couldn't see his face, of course, but his body language screamed fury, with his chest heaving and tail bristled. Without hesitation, he punched the caracal squarely in the jaw. The caracal collapsed to the ground and didn't move, leaving the fox flexing his fists over him as though itching for an excuse to hit him more.

Telling herself that she would process this interaction later, Judy scrambled toward the tables as she heard the Hustler address Killshot. He was saying something about how the hyena needed to stop and leave, but Judy wasn't paying much attention. She grabbed her bag and darted into the alley next to the library, hurriedly changing into her Crossfire outfit with shaking paws.

In case anyone had seen her enter the alley and would make a connection between her private and public identities, Judy took the time to run around the back of the library to emerge from the alley on the other side. As soon as she did, she sprinted toward Killshot, who was now aiming at the Hustler.

She jumped and let her foot connect with the side of Killshot's head.

It didn't knock the hyena unconscious, but it did buy them some time. As though they had planned it, the Hustler snatched up the gun and ran next to her in the opposite direction of the library. The mammals around them screamed even louder when they saw the fox now had the gun, but both he and Judy ignored them.

Once they were a good distance way from Killshot, who was just rising to his knees while rubbing his head, Judy turned toward the Hustler and motioned furiously toward the video that had been created by the Den of Thieves, still droning on about horrific prey serial killers and other prey criminals, although no one was paying attention now.

"What is that?!" she snapped at him in her farmer's drawl.

"I didn't have anything to do with that," the Hustler quickly assured her.

"Really?!" Judy exclaimed. "Because I'm pretty sure that's the fennec from your team!"

"He didn't consult me!" the Hustler fired back.

"But you let it happen, didn't you?" Judy demanded.

The Hustler crossed his arms. "What do you mean?"

"It's still going, isn't it?" Judy gestured at the video again. "Are you telling me you couldn't stop it?"

To both her satisfaction and dismay, the Hustler hesitated. But only for a moment. "Well, let's go stop it now."

He pivoted and started walking into the building right across from the library, a former department store that had recently gone out of business. The building was up for sale, but no one had bought it yet. Judy followed him inside and up a few staircases before reaching the roof.

It was empty except for a projector plugged into a laptop. The Hustler sauntered toward it and yanked the power cord from the projector, cutting off the video just as the fennec was launching into his conclusion about prey being the true enemy.

Now the only sounds were the distant screams of the mammals that had cleared the area. At this point, there were only a few stragglers left, but they were hastening away as well. The fox and bunny heard Killshot raise his voice, though they were far enough from the edge of the roof to be out of his sight.

"Hustler?" he called out. "Crossfire? Here, bunny, bunny, bunny…"

Crossfire shook her head, fists balanced on her hips and foot thumping. "You realize this is going to worsen the chaos throughout the city, right?" She looked up to see the Hustler rubbing his temples, eyes squeezed shut behind his orange ski goggles. "Why didn't you stop that video sooner?"

The fox sighed heavily, letting his paws fall to his sides as his shoulders slumped. "I don't know. I'm sorry."

"Being sorry doesn't cut it!" Judy snapped more harshly than she intended, but she suddenly felt simultaneously exhausted and energized by stress. "Do you not care at all about the lives of prey?!"

The Hustler immediately fixed a fierce glare on her. "How dare you ask me that! You dismissed my concerns about predators suffering for exposing the ones who'd gone savage like it was nothing!"

"I did not!" Judy replied indignantly. "I just said that we needed to support the cause of justice, and we could take care of the fallout for the predators! And I've kept my promise! I've been stopping hate crimes, breaking up fights—but you know what? that situation isn't even like this one!"

"Oh, it isn't?"


"That video—" The Hustler pointed at the wall of the library, now blank. "I didn't have anything to do with it, but let's be honest—it makes a good point that predators have more reason to fear prey than the other way around!"

"A few choices made by corrupt prey can't demonize the entire family!" Judy exclaimed. "Predators are going savage randomly, and that is not the fault of prey!"

"Is it predators' fault that prey haven't learned to regard them as equals after more than two thousand years of sentience?!" the Hustler shouted as he stepped toward her, paws rising.

The sight of his claws suddenly so close to her abruptly opened a gate for Judy's childhood memories to flood into her mind. An angry fox, a scared bunny trying to do the right thing, a swipe, a stinging sensation, blood—

Gasping, she jumped back, grabbing a pocketknife that she had always kept in her utility belt but hadn't yet found a reason to use.

It took a few seconds for her breathing to even out again. Only then did she register the hurt look in the Hustler's eyes. Based on the position in which he was now frozen, it was clear that he was just going to put his paws on her shoulders—and she had thought he was going to attack her.

Her heart plummeted. It plummeted repeatedly as she tried to find a way to explain her actions, but no response that came to her mind seemed good enough.

The Hustler's distorted voice was quiet. "Even now, you…"

Without finishing, he turned and walked toward the door leading away from the roof. But it opened before he got there.

Killshot's silhouette filled the entryway.

"Boy, you two are loud," he chuckled. "But I can shut at least one of you up."

Then he aimed a small pistol at Judy.

The Hustler lunged at him, but Judy knew he wouldn't be able to tackle the hyena in time. She ducked and rolled away. A shot rang out, and hot, sharp pain jolted across her left arm when a bullet skinned it. Crying out, she held onto it, stumbling toward the edge of the roof. Another wave of terror coursed through her when her ears picked up the sounds of distant police sirens, but she gritted her teeth and forced herself to think straight. She noticed a tree below. It seemed close enough. But was it?

Another bullet grazed the edge of the roof.

So she leaped.

She couldn't help screaming as her arm protested her grabbing the tree trunk when she managed to land on a thick branch. It trembled beneath her, but she remained steady. With a few more quick and nimble jumps, she felt her feet hit the ground. Wonderful, wonderful ground.

Still gripping her arm close to her body, she half-sprinted and half-stumbled on her shaky legs. She didn't stop until she reached the apartment and pulled the door shut behind her.

The apartment was dark. Nick wasn't home.

She hadn't seen him at the food drive, either. Maybe he'd managed to miss the commotion. Thank heavens.

Judy slumped against the door and sank to the floor. She only let herself cry for a few minutes before wiping her tears away with a determined sigh. Life didn't wait for trauma to be processed.

She would need to make sure she was ready for whenever she did see Nick next.

Day 10: Wednesday, June 25 th , 2016, 9:54 p.m.

Trudging through the lobby of the apartment building, Nick checked his phone for the news. Several outlets had already reported on the mysterious hyena who had threatened the crowd of mammals at the food drive held by the Predators for Harmony Association. After finding the hyena unconscious and tied to a pole on the roof of the former department store across the street from the library, the police pawcuffed him and brought him to the holding cells in Precinct One. Several articles promised that Zootopia's finest would find out more about the purpose and motivation behind his actions. Others speculated that the hyena might have gone savage, which made Nick snort with disgust.

All of the articles made sure to mention that no one was hurt.

Nick sighed heavily as he reached the floor for his apartment. Well, except for one little bunny.

He'd watched Crossfire leap from the roof with an injured left arm. Since he didn't see a flattened bunny lying in pool of guts when he left the scene and changed into his normal clothes, he assumed that she'd somehow got away safely.

That was a relief, but…

He rubbed his closed eyelids, grimacing as he held back tears. He'd lost his pack and someone he'd come to regard as a friend all in one day.

Fortunately, the day wasn't quite over.

Slowly, quietly, Nick opened his apartment door. The moment he passed through, his body was engulfed in a deluge of comforting sensations. The smell of hot food on the stove. Sizzling sounds accompanying it. Warm air. The sweet and earthy scent of a bunny. A certain bunny.

His bunny.

He drifted across the living room like the embodiment of a long, relaxed sigh and rounded the corner leading to the kitchen.

There she is.

She had her back turned to him, adding a pinch of something to whatever was in the pan and then stirring it around, dressed cozily in a loose pine-colored cashmere sweater and dark blue jeans. The fact that she apparently still had the strength of mind to cook after such a terrifying ordeal at the food drive was amazing to him.

As usual, she was pouring all of her focus into her task and hadn't noticed his arrival. Leaning against the wall, he took advantage of her singlemindedness to let himself simply stare at her for a while, submerged in sheer, ardent joy merely by watching her do something so mundane. It was a warm jubilance that washed him entirely clean from the dark sadness and rage that had clouded his mind throughout his walk back home. He named the feeling after her and repeated it over and over in his mind.

Judy, Judy, Judy

How could he ever live alone again when he knew that he could have this?

At last, he stepped forward slowly, quietly, until he was directly behind the bunny's small frame. He didn't pay attention to what she was cooking. It didn't matter. All he wanted to do was slip his arms around her waist and bury his muzzle as deeply as possible in her fur. So that's what he did.

She flinched in surprise, but only a little, and only for a second. Then she relaxed against him, and his heart soared as his breaths deepened.

"Hey," he murmured. "I heard someone brought a gun to that food drive. I'm so sorry I wasn't there. Are you okay?"

"Hey, there," Judy replied in a soft voice that rang sweetly in his ears. She lifted her nose to nuzzle his neck. "Don't worry, I'm fine. I'm really glad you weren't there, and I'm relieved to see you."

"Likewise," Nick replied, only dimly aware of how his voice rumbled as he gently returned her gesture.

"Food's almost ready," she continued with her lips brushing the underside of his chin.

Some kind of vague grunting noise was Nick's only answer. He was far more interested in exploring her body with his nose, relishing the way that she felt and smelled. He took his time naming each precious component of her scent. Lavender. Raspberries. The earth after rain. Something metallic—

He froze. Held a breath.

"Are you bleeding?" he queried.

"Hmm?" said Judy absently. The way that she was gently rubbing her head against his chest was distracting, but he forced himself to focus.

"Bleeding," he repeated the word as his lungs started working again, although they felt tightened. Finally, he managed to raise his head and back up a little to study her, his eyes roving her figure as his paws remained on her hips. "Are you bleeding?"

"U-Um," she began haltingly, a bit dazed from the abrupt end to their snuggling. "A little bit. It's just my arm."

Her arm?

And just like that, a puzzle crashed into place in Nick's mind like an avalanche of snow. All the warmth in his body fled.

He stared at her for a moment. "I thought you said you were fine."

"Well, this is unrelated to the food drive," Judy shrugged. "I am fine."

But Nick saw the way the corner of her mouth twitched, the way it did whenever she was nervous. "May I see?" he asked quietly.

Judy smiled at him. "You don't need to worry. Just a scratch, that's all."

"Still…" Nick trailed off as he moved his paws from her hips to her shoulders and gently turned her to face him. His gaze was already trained on her left arm, but he let her tell him anyway. "Which one is it?"

Sure enough, she lifted her left arm, and his entire stomach lurched.

She pulled her sleeve back to reveal gauze wrapped tightly around her forearm.

"It looks worse than it is, I promise," Judy assured him, but he barely heard. Only when she laid a paw on his shoulder did he look up at her tented brows and worried eyes—rimmed with red, like she had been crying not too long ago. "Nick, are you upset? I promise I'm fine."

It couldn't be.

"How did you get that?" he asked flatly.

She glanced away.

Don't do that, he begged in his mind. It makes you look guilty.

Then she met his eyes with a shrug and a small smile.

A fake oneNoNo, no, please, no.

"I wasn't watching where I was going, so I ran into a tree and scraped my arm up," she said, punctuating her story with a self-deprecating laugh. "Silly, right?"

That's a lie, Nick's mind whispered. Forced tone. Too much blood. There's only one explanation. She's… She's really…

"Cro—" he began, but then clamped his mouth shut.

It felt like an hour passed as they both stared at each other—Judy with a concerned and questioning expression and Nick just trying to quell the second rise of nausea he'd experienced that night. A kaleidoscope of memories filled his thoughts and pilfered his breath.

Suddenly, as he looked into those lovely violet eyes that he adored so much, it was easy to imagine them behind a colored mask.

Finally, he cracked a convincing smirk at her.

"Crazy," he corrected himself. Then he turned away and lumbered toward his bedroom, willing himself to ignore her widened eyes—those beautiful, beautiful eyes—as he went on in as casual a tone as he could muster. "Glad you're okay. Anyway, I'm actually not that hungry tonight, so I'm just going to bed, all right?" Before she could respond, he tossed her a single lazy wave over his shoulder. "Good night, Carrots."

He shut his door behind him without daring to look at her. Then he slowly leaned his back against it and let himself slide silently to the floor.

For a long time, all he could do was stare blankly at the middle space before him.

A/N: And they all lived unhappily ever after. THE END.

*Chief Bogo voice*  Just kidding !

We're not at the end yet, my friends. Don't fret. :)

I'll be with my family in a cabin in the middle of the woods this weekend. I'm hoping that being away from civilization for a while will give me the time and inspiration that I need to get a  lot  of writing done. We shall see.

know  I haven't caught up on comments yet, and that probably won't happen this weekend because I won't have Wi-Fi, but I  will  do it as soon as I can!

See you next week!