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Familiar Fire: The Embers of the Past

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Chapter 28

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Over at Bushel Orchards, another day of work was progressing fast. Both with the squirrel workforce, Nate chief among them, and the empowered.  With the exception of Edmund Lanhoff, Skye Autumn and Nick Wilde, most of the mammals were struggling a bit from the hectic night before. Both tired and hungover.

Judy assembled with the rest, having dosed herself up with an aspirin, as the deer led them out to the second spot. His partner, looking very untidy, marched by him and channelled his power down. The bunny couldn’t help but flinch from the sound of the impact, which felt like one of Jack’s crushing attacks being used on her brain. Trembling down a bit, she soon noticed a paw on the back of her shoulders. “Feeling alright Fluff?”

She looked up and bit her lip. It was Nick. The red fox was standing by her, a look of concern on his face. “Just a bit of a headache,” she explained, the empowered vulpine nodding in response.

A different voice spoke up. “Judy?” Looking over, the bunny now saw Skye next to her, a look of concern on her face too. She felt Nick back off a little, and he paused before speaking.

“She’s just struggling a bit after last night.”

“Oh…” she said sympathetically, looking down. “Want any help Ju…”

“-I’m good,” Nick interrupted suddenly. Judy looked up to him, and saw his eyes look down and fix on her. “I mean… -we’re good. Together. Aren’t we carrots?”

Her nose twitched a few times as he said it. She did feel good. She felt good as she saw him look down on her, concern and nerves written on his face. “Sure,” she said, nodding.

“Yeah,” Nick replied, looking up at Skye and relaxing a bit. He let out a laugh, before shaking his head. “We’re all good. Thanks for the help though.”

She stepped back a bit. “Are you sure?” she whispered.

“Well… I… -We’re good for now,” he managed to say, before smiling. Though he was looking at the floor, away from either of the two enforcers, he spoke out warmly. “Really. Thanks for offering a helping paw though.”

Skye nodded a bit, her lower jaw wiggling around a bit in thought, before she replied. “You’re welcome. Always willing to lend one of those.”

“So am I,” Nick replied, a smug grin growing on his muzzle. “After all, they don’t take long to grow back.”

Both Judy and Skye broke down into a little giggle, the bunny rolling her eyes at the corniness of it. She looked over at Skye and gave a nod of her head. “Thanks for the offer Skye, but Nick can handle me.”

“Right,” the vixen agreed, nodding her head slightly. “I’ll… -do other stuff. See ya.”

“See ya,” Nick said a bit too loudly, causing Judy to wince down a little. The fox, seeing this, knelt down beside her and rubbed his paw on her temple. “This helping?” he asked.

“Not really…” she began, before stopping as his paw stopped doing its thing. “Though it was helping a little. So maybe keep on doing it.”

“You’re the boss,” he replied, as he carried on his massage. Judy relaxed a little, before pausing in thought.

“How come you and Skye aren’t hungover,” she asked. “Your healing powers?”

“Pretty much,” he replied. He paused, closing his eyes and thinking. “My healing powers were discovered fairly early on. -First skinned knee and all. They did a lot of tests to see what kind it was.”

“What kind?” She asked, curious.

He nodded back. “Yeah. What kind. Lots of types of ways to super heal. I mean, it could just be a sped-up healing process. However, my body heals without scars and does it properly, so it’s not that. At the same time, there’s the whole question of how it deals with cancer.”

“Cancer?” she asked, a bit nervous.

“The healing system could either ignore it, recognise and destroy cancer cells…” he began. “Or… it could be inside the cancer cells, which means you could get cancer with super healing.”

“Oh my…” she whispered.

“Yeah,” Nick replied frankly. “Fortunately, my healing powers try to correct my body to the state it is in the majority of my DNA. That means fixing the DNA itself if it ever has any faults.” He paused, looking up and away. “Kind of a lot of implications with that…” he said to the wind.

Judy paused, looking up at him. “So, does this mean it clears out the alcohol?”

“Not exactly,” he said, waving a paw about. “Toxins can still get into me and are carried by my bloodstream. I just fix all the damage they do. I still get drunk, but not hungover.”

“I so envy you right now,” she joked.

Nick smiled back. “Then prepare to hulk out without the muscles Fluff. The same thing works for diseases. It means the closest thing to a cold I get is a light tickle at the back of my throat.”

“Jealous. But not fully.”

“I’ve never lost a day to a pad cut.”

“Pushing it!”

He looked at her smugly. “I’ve never gotten a mouth ulcer in my life.”

Judy looked at him, her nose twitching. “I so want those powers right now. Invincibility? Cool. But not having to suffer all those little annoyances? That’s just unfair.”

He laughed a bit, before shaking his head. “Tough luck Carrots.” He paused though, thinking. “It’s not quite invincibility though.”

“Isn’t it?”

“If enough of me is damaged or dies, it could tip me over,” he mused. “Diseases wouldn’t do it, but enough poison to wipe out most of my cells might overwhelm my healing, and then it’s…” He trailed off as he said it. “Ditto for my brain cells.” He quieted down, closing his eyes and thinking back. “If those attackers had stomped my head… -maybe my healing powers would have fixed it if left alone, but with all the fire, I don’t think my powers would have kept up. There’s… There’s got to be a point where it cuts off.”

“Maybe there isn’t?” she wondered out loud.

Nick let out a barking laugh in response. “Carrots, I wondered that when I was seven. So, I cut off this little sliver of my ear…”

“Ouch,” she winced, her ears going down. She rubbed one of them and looked up at him, wide eyed. “Why would you do that?”

He shrugged. “I thought it would heal and grow into another me.”

Judy looked at him blankly.

“Hey! Kit logic. Don’t judge.”

A grin grew across her face, and she managed to laugh slightly. “It’s a good thing it didn’t work. Imagine an army of Nicks!”

The fox smiled. “I wanted a friend, and who better than me? Certainly gives a new meaning to Me-tosis. Though an army is tempting. Imagine the look on Bogo’s or Fangmeyer’s face,” he said. “ Especially when they realised that they couldn’t tell who the original was, and we’d both have to be let free!”

Judy laughed hard. “I’d probably be mad at you for cheating!”

“In the words of my father, an avid trekkie mind you,” Nick stated proudly. “I merely did the James Piberius Kirk method of not losing.”

“Well,” she said, calming down a bit. “It didn’t work out that way.” She paused, before looking over at one of her ears, still in her paws. “Did you have to choose an ear though? Quite a sensitive spot for bunnies.”

“Kit logic. Don’t judge.”

She relaxed a bit, letting go of her ear, and smiled back. “I won’t. I’m guessing you need a bit more to heal. Probably your heart.”

“Kind of,” he replied, patting it. “The docs said that, if I ever had a heart attack, my body would heal the cells there. But as long as the artery was blocked, and it got no food or oxygen, it wouldn’t be able to beat. So, after a bit, my other cells would start to die. The healing would slow it, to an extent, but after a certain point it would all collapse and fail.”

Judy nodded solemnly. The conversation had gone a bit dark, though Nick didn’t seem to mind. Maybe, with how much he’d been through that would kill a regular mammal, he didn’t care. She paused, thinking about how to change the subject. “Before you fell into trouble, what did you plan to do? I know you didn’t want to join the ZED.”

“Not really then,” he said. “Especially not now.” He paused, closing his eyes and thinking back. “I knew about my super speed since I was eight. I was looking at some jobs that would let me use them.” There was a soft chuckle. “As my DNA healed itself, I could manage just fine in some pretty radioactive environments. A few space agencies actually said that, if they were planning a Mars mission or something, they might get in touch.”

“Woah!” Judy giggled. “That’s cool.”

Nick chuckled. “Yeah, well… -In reality, I was probably going to do a lot of clean up work at toxic dumps and nuclear facilities. My body can fix the damage and all…” He paused, sighing as he looked away. “You know, I didn’t really want to do that at the time. My old agent had all these well-paying jobs lined up, but it was just putting a hazmat suit on and driving a mini digger in old spent fuel pools. It paid well, but I wanted something more… Something exciting.” There was a pause and a chuckle. “Boy, did I learn to be careful about what you wish for.”

“Yeah,” Judy agreed. “But it’s over now.” She paused, before scooting up next to him. She noticed that he flinched slightly from the contact, before settling down. “I wanted to be a cop when I was little. Then, I learnt I had my powers, so enforcer it was…. -It was nice, knowing what you wanted to be and getting it.” She looked up and smiled. “Life’s treated me very nicely so far.”

Nick smiled back. “Now I’m jealous.”

There was a brief pause, as Judy looked up into his eyes. Thinking. Wondering. She bit her lip, before taking a breath in. “Nick,” she began. “I understand if…”

She was cut off by a sudden shout, which sent her flinching back down in pain. “I THINK WE’VE FOUND OUR TREASURE!!!!”

Recovering, she looked over to see Jeb looking out of his hole. He’d punted up another set of holes in the meantime, and already the digger crew were coming close, ready to hook down beneath it. “It’s all melted together or something. We can just pull it out!”

Judy looked at him and nodded, before turning back to Nick. Her ears drooped slightly when she saw that he’d gone over to help his boss. ‘Another time’, she told herself. ‘Another time…’

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It didn’t take long for the treasure to be pulled out. It was about the size of a sheep and appeared as a black lumpy mass, its outside chard and burnt. They quickly hosed it down, before a large mammal working for Nate came over and tried to chip off a large nodule, about the size of Judy. But he struggled, and the squirrel then called over Jeb and Judy. The ferret sent a cutting pulse through the neck of the module, a hard ringing sound calling out. Judy flinched from it, feeling a little bit dizzy, and he let out a few more cuts, narrowing the neck down but sending out that ringing all again, before Judy fired a geyser spiral to finish it off.

It tore off and let out a loud ring, the bunny falling to the floor suddenly before standing up again, massaging her head. Screw her hangover… She’d done her job though, and the chunk had been torn off, flying through the air and landing in another part of the field. “I’ll get it!” Skye called, leaping up to fly. Up she went, the rest of the crowd gathered to see where the chunk had been taken from. A white and silvery surface shone out, strangely alluring to the crowd.

“My precious,” Nick joked, and he and the other mammals laughed as the odd tension dissolved. Together, along with Skye as she returned back, they looked at the massive chunk of long buried treasure, now recovered. Edmund, turning to Jeb, smiled.

“Despite our new expenses, I have the feeling that this will be very profitable for us,” he said.

Nate Bushell laughed. “Incredibly profitable for me, too!” he joked.

Soon a massive truck had pulled up, and the treasure placed down and secured. Skye, floating around it, made sure to take tons of pictures. Paws were shaken, and Judy watched the rhino driving of the truck, dabbing his eyes, get in and fire up the engine. Off it went, and the remaining mammals relaxed.

Their little job was complete.

“I may have blown out yesterday,” Jeb said. “But we can still do a campfire thing tonight!” He looked over at Edmund, a big grin on his muzzle. “Want to join in!”

The deer looked began, twitching his mouth about before sighing. “If you insist.”

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While the night before had been a giant party, this was a quieter affair. After spending some time sorting things out, Skye taking the time to email some pictures and stuff back to Brittany, the group made a big fire pit and, sitting around it, cooked some food that had been provided. The predators enjoyed it the most, getting to grill burgers, sausages and kebabs. Edmund stayed along too, for politeness’s sake, and he and Judy shared some vegetarian sausages.

“I must say,” the older deer noted, looking to Judy. “I think this is appeals far more to predators than us.”

Judy, who was eating her own hot dog, shrugged. “It’s nice enough. But it’s the social thing that you really go for here. That and the S’mores.”

There was a chuckle from Skye, and the cream coloured fox floated over them. “You can’t forget those. Can you?”

“No, you can’t,” she replied. She was cut off though as Jeb stood up. “Anyone got any good campfire songs?” he asked, looking around. There was a long pause, before Skye put her paw up.

“More a folky song, but if any of you have a guitar, I can plan.”

“I didn’t know you could play,” both Nick and Judy said at once. They looked at each other and giggled, before Skye flew down and flicked both of their ears.

“My father taught me,” she said, before going over to Jeb. He handed her the instrument, which was a little electric device designed to fit in his paws. It had an in-built synthesiser and a mode-switch, and she turned it to acoustic before giving some practice strums. A few practice chords, then some more, as she closed her eyes and tried to remember. “I’m horribly rusty,” she said, before launching into the song proper with a set of repeating chords.

Do you remember… -the first sun glow …” she sung softly. “ Through the window… -at the back of… your sleepy mind .”

Mother above you…

-her warm pillow.

Father come and goes…

-with the feast -of -his no shows…”

There was a brief pause, before she hit down on the chords harder, and a new power entered her voice. She sung out louder, more confidently, and Judy couldn’t help but feel something heartfelt in what she was singing.

But like the Spring-Time Sun-sets, you’re grow-ing ol-der…

And you wake from the sleep, with strength in your shoul-ders…

- And with them be-hind you, you peer over the edge of… -your little nest ….” She trailed off, holding the last word for a few seconds before hitting down hard on her guitar as the whole rhythm hit the accelerator.

And you fly and you fly,

with the wind in your face.

A love and a care for,

your new time and place.

Fledgling wings, carry you with grace,

Free in your dreams, with that happy happy face.”

“LITTLE BIIIIRDDDD….

Flying ‘round the sky,

LITTLE BIIIIRDDDD….

So happy -and-I-know-why…”

Her guitaring trailed off into a little solo, though it didn’t go far. Struggling, Skye quickly went back into straight chords, ready to start singing again. The tune changed again, returning to what it was at the start.

“As. I’ve. Been there,

And I remember.

That. First. Sun glow.

Through the window.

And I pull back my tears,

-and I forget all my fears, for you….

As I raised you, to be hap-py and free,

And I bet you, that’s what you’ll all-ways be…”

She hit a few more powerful strums, returning back to the accelerated tune she’d used in the verse before.

“Little bird, little bird,

Fly up to the sun,

Be happy and joyous,

Loving and fun.

We always know that, -it’s in your heart…”

Her claws gave a finally strumming flourish with the guitar, and out came the last line. “-And it was such an honour, -to give you the very best start…” Her flourish built and built, before she released it in one. Skye broke off and took a quick bow to a round of applause, Judy making sure her claps were nice and loud. There were loud claps coming from beside her, and she looked over to see Nick.

“She’s good,” she noted, looking over to Skye. Edmund was discussing the song with her, wondering if the lyrics of the first verse were originally written for tune of ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’ or ‘ Apple Cider Reconstitution .’ The vixen couldn’t answer.

“Yeah,” Nick agreed, glancing between her and Skye. Jeb, having heard about the conversation between Edmund and Skye, was now bringing up ‘ Sweet Mary’s Cider’ , and his great enjoyment of it, much to the vixen’s amusement.

Judy giggled a bit and looked up to Nick. He was smiling, and he looked warm, and she knew that she owed it to him to confess her feelings. Especially as, more than ever, she felt that there was something coming back towards her. Starting with how he’d held her and cared for her during the war games, to how he’d looked around the meerkat markets with her. To their dancing the night before, and how he’d brushed Skye away to be alone with her this morning…

She just needed the right time to tell him. To see if it was true.

So, she waited.

She waited as S’mores were made, and the group enjoyed themselves.

She waited as Edmund said he wanted to go back to his lodgings. As he stood up to go, Judy asked if she could walk with him to get some stuff. It gave her an excuse to go and tidy herself up, making herself look just a bit better for Nick when she told him. That, and some time to try and figure out what to say. She mused as she walked up the hill, as she gave her fur a brush in her room, and as she walked back down. There were butterflies in her stomach the entire time, and nerves that she’d never felt in any battle before were beginning to taunt her. Her whole midsection felt knotted and tense. After all, she was in love with the mammal she’d hunted for years and was about to tell him that.

She arrived back down at the campsite, and she felt her heart get stabbed with a jagged knife of worry as she saw only Jeb. “Where’s Nick?” she asked, getting the attention of the dozing ferret.

“He… -I guess he went down to the river. Has a place he likes to sit.”

The ferret stood up and slowly made his way back to the camper, Judy giving him a quick thanks as he did so. There was a clear path up ahead, and she followed in as it passed through the thickening woods and undergrowth. The sun had set, it was getting dark and, while Judy could still see where she was going, she had to take care not to tumble or slip. Turning around a switchback, she smiled and relaxed as she saw a small beach like clearing up ahead. There, surrounded by small bluffs and thick trees, was a little flat semi-circle of sand that slowly sloped into the lazy river. By the water’s edge was an old tree root, toppled over, and on it sat Nick

“I know you’re there, you know,” he said smoothly.

Judy felt a grin grow on her mouth, and she opened her mouth to speak, only to cut it off at the last second. Another voice had called out in response.

“I know.”

Skye.

Judy, moving into the overgrowth to hide herself slightly, watched as the cream coloured vixen walked in front of her, slowly making her way to Nick. She must have come down the same path, only to turn left at the end, blocking her from Judy’s view.

“Any reason why you’re here?” he asked.

There was a pause, a long pause, before Skye answered. “No reason. Other than that it’s a pretty spot.” She walked over to Nick and leant by his log, looking out over the river as it slowly rolled past.

“Just like your song.”

“Huh?”

“Just like your song,” Nick replied, looking down at her. “It was pretty.”

“Oh,” she said, pausing before shaking her head. “I… -my father, he wrote that song. For me. When I was little.”

“My father wasn’t a songwriter,” Nick replied, as he slipped off the log and walked out. His toes touched the edge of the water and, leaning down, he picked up a stone and threw it out. It bounced a few times, before sinking into the blackness. There was a sigh, as Nick felt down a bit. He breathed in, before speaking out. “I wasn’t that old when I lost him.”

There was a gasp, and Skye walked up next to him. He twitched a bit as he felt her arm over his shoulder and, taking a breath in and out, he carried on. “-Accident. He was doing some repair work for a friend and got shocked when some idiot put the power back on. It didn’t kill him, but… From what I gather, the friend put him down to recover and went off to scream at that idiot. He… -he choked on his tongue.”

“Oh gosh…” she whispered. “I’m so sorry.” Even from afar, Judy heard it and felt a wave of sympathy.

Nick breathed in and out, pinching his muzzle, and gave a shrug. “I felt so guilty, given that I could heal myself. Of course, I knew that it wouldn’t have saved him in any way but… -kit logic. It just seemed unfair. With help from my mother, she suggested I find a way to help mammals to feel better. That only made me want to join the junior ranger scouts even more.” He scoffed slightly, before shaking his head. “Turns out though that my local pack were all anti-vulpites,” he muttered, bitterly. “I was giving me oath, promising to be ‘Brave, honest, helpful and trustworthy,’ and then their leader said, ‘Even though you’re a fox’.”

“I didn’t know those kinds of jerks still existed,” Skye noted, looking down.

“They shoved me to the ground, and it looked like they were trying to reach for something, I don’t know what…” Nick began to say, before trailing off, a smile growing on his muzzle. “However, as I started to scramble back, the fear kickstarted my speed powers.” He gave a little laugh and shook his shoulders. “I guess karma was looking down on me that day. I remember shooting back into a cabinet, spraying up bits of the flooring and giving them all lots of splinters in the face. They were terrified and ran off while I, after getting over the shock and healing myself up, ran home.”

“Sounds like they got what they deserved,” she said, holding him a bit tighter. “You… you didn’t deserve that. You didn’t deserve many of the things that happened to you.”

Nick gave a quick hum, not really giving the statement much care. That whole event didn’t really affect him that much, given how quickly he got out and how little was done. Shaken a bit, for sure, but it wasn’t life changing. He just carried on with his story, skipping a few more stones as he did it. “Anyway, after telling my mother, she explained what happened to the scout master. I settled down a lot. I chose to never let bullies like that see that they got to me, but apart from that I was okay. I was too young for the police to really get involved, but the ZED did come around. This big chief, and I remember looking on, and getting scared. It looked like he was trying to scare my mother into sending me away there…” He paused and scoffed, shaking his head. “I’m surprised he wasn’t the first commander that she hand-bagged,” he joked. “She said no, but I never really trusted the ZED after that.”

“I… -I understand,” Skye said, letting go of him. She picked up her own stones and began skipping them. “I didn’t know my mother. Not really. From what I heard, she chose to abandon my father with me as a kit.” She spoke sadly, looking out. “I still have a few memories of my old home, and her there, but then they went. My father lost faith with a lot of things, and together we went to live at this hippy commune place…”

“Are cult organisations a trend with you,” Nick asked, smiling a bit as Skye scoffed.

“I guess so. I remember more of that place. I also… -I also remember some of the mammals not being nice to my father, and some of the kits to me. Because he had his powers, and there was this whole mess with the internal politics.” She sighed, looking down. “When I started flying it got worse. There were other cubs who’d try and tie weights to me, and say I needed it so that I’d be equal to them. In the end, my father called it quits and became an enforcer, entering me into the academy. We finally found a home…”

This time it was Nick who, tenderly, comforted Skye. He cautiously placed one of his paws down on hers, only to see it flinch back. “Sorry,” she said, looking at him. “Made you really cloudy there, didn’t I?” She looked away shamefully. “Didn’t need to do that.”

“I’m glad you told me.”

“Tchhh… You’re just saying that,” she dismissed.

Nick looked on at her for a few seconds, before his muzzle twitched. “What’s this whole cloudy- sunny thing anyway?” he asked. “You keep on saying sorry for making me cloudy. Why?”

“Because I’m putting you on a downer,” she explained. “My Dad always used to say that you could be a sunny person for other mammals, or a rainy person. But it was always a good thing to be nice and sunny for everyone, to help make their day a bit nicer.”

Nick looked on unconvinced. “That sounds like faking your emotions or something. Not a good idea.”

Skye looked over at him slyly. “Didn’t you say ‘never let them see that they get to you’?” she sassed.

“Never letting them see is not ‘not feeling’,” he explained, paw to heart. “In private, I’m very well versed in both letting them get to me and getting said feelings out. I just don’t give them the satisfaction of seeing that in person.”

Skye nodded. “It’s like that with me,” she said, looking away. “He said it was like being polite. That’s how he viewed it. But he said that, if you ever needed help, family would be happy to get wet as you cried yourself out.” There was a pause. Then a sniff. Nick looked over as Skye wiped a tear from her eye, then another. “He’d always be there for me…” she said hoarsely, as her eyes misted up and she sobbed some more. Nick edged himself over and put his arms around her to hold her tight.

“Skye?” he asked. “What’s wrong…”

She sniffed some more, before trying to pull it all in. “It’s… -It’s too cloudy…” she said, waving a paw at him. “Don’t… don’t worry about it.” She shifted, trying to move away, but Nick held onto her, keeping her in place.

“I don’t mind,” he replied. “Besides, we’re ‘family’. We’re joined by blood, aren’t we?”

She scoffed a little through her tears, though she remained quiet. “Give me a bit of time,” she said, and Nick waited. Waited as she cried some more, and tried to compose herself, before finally being ready.

“You know… you know Jack and I were partners. Both enforcers. Battling the bad guys.”

“Yes,” he replied

“Well,” she sniffed. “We were friends to begin with. Good friends. And… -and then, we became more…” Her voice hung in the air, receding into silence as she sniffed, wiping her eyes here and there. “I fell in love with him... And him with me... And I did love him... I really did. He was charming, and he was kind, and funny. He was always this little… -this little bit pompous, or…” She broke off, pulling in another sniff, only to sob out. “I… -I don’t know how to say it. He was just cute when he… -when he did it, you know… -and I… -and I liked it.” A little guffaw came out, even through her tears. “You’re not supposed to call a bunny cute and… when I did it to him, he’d go all proud like… -just like what I was saying… ‘I’m not cute Skye’… -but he was his most cute then and…. -he’d smile afterwards, letting me… letting me know he enjoyed the joke.” Nick’s paw rested on hers, and she held it back, holding it tight. “He’d… He’d lift a table and chairs with a feast set out… up… up into the sky…. Into the stars, and we’d…. dine above the clouds with the stars above and the city lights down below, and he’d be this charmer and I loved him and we’d then tango in the air…. I loved him with every… -every part of me.”

“He fooled a lot of mammals,” Nick said, gently stroking the top of her paw with his thumb. He sniffed too, out of sympathy for how much worse his betrayal was.

“They test us. Test us for ‘the call’ quite often,” she said blankly. “All the other mental things. They… -they did that when he started to slip, and it came back negative.” Turning up, she looked Nick straight in the eyes. “He was like that… that… all along. Don’t you understand? He didn’t change… He didn’t turn into… That was who he really was, and I couldn’t see. No-one could. No one… Only you.”

“Don’t blame yourself,” Nick said. “I… -I didn’t see it in those ranger scouts. Some mammals can hide their inner monster well. He was your boyfriend, but that’s all. He’s gone now…”

She looked at him, lines of pain growing in her eyes as she broke down into more tears, collapsing into him. Nick hugged her tight as her body racked from the choking, teeth baring, sobs, until she finally spoke. “I was going to propose…”

“Oh Skye…”

“I’d got the ring,” she said, her voice hoarse and painful. “I was waiting, and my Dad gave me the thumbs up… -Was looking forwards to it…” She broke down into a new round of sobs, before screaming out. “And then he went mad…. -he went mad, and called on me to come with him… -I didn’t tell him, but… but he asked me to be his queen and… -and when I said no… -when I said no…”

“I know,” Nick replied, remembering what she’d told him.

“No,” she said. “You… You don’t.” He looked on at her, her body doubled over and her head almost between her knees. Her paw slipped from his grasp, and she held her head tight, her claws digging in. He winced slightly as he saw pricks of blood coming from them. “That battle… we… we were even. I knew his style, and I could dodge, and things were even. He… he was getting angrier, and I thought I’d win. Fangmeyer was returning back… Together…” She trailed off. “He then launched an attack, not at me, but the west wing.”

“Of the ZED?”

She nodded, before whimpering. “My… my father’s room…”

Nick winced back, feeling like an icy dagger had been thrust into him and twisted around. He could feel so much pain and sympathy, desperate to make it right, but it was only made worse as he knew he couldn’t. That, and it was so much worse for her. She’d lost so much that terrible, terrible day.

“He was on the nocturnal shift,” she whispered through her tears. “He was fast asleep. He went to bed, and…”

“Skye…”

“-I saw it, and I turned to help, but he planned that. He planned it, and caught me, and…”

She let loose a new round of tears as Nick held her tight. Just being there for her.

“I miss him…” she eventually said. “I miss him so much…” The red fox listened to it all, helping to hold her while managing to wipe away some of the tears pouring out of her eyes, and those out of his. She looked up at him, then down shamefully. “I’ve… -I’ve gone and made you rainy too,” she said harshly, scolding herself. “Stupid dumb old Skye…”

“No,” Nick said. “No. Don’t say that. Look. It’s over. You’re healthy now. You’re alive and… -and my healing powers, they stop aging. You’ll have all the time in the world to get over it…” He paused, managing to smile. “Why do you think I cared so little about my time as a fugitive. It… -It’ll fade Skye, I promise. It’s all over.”

“No,” she whispered. She looked up at him and shook her head, before wincing back down.

“Why not?”

“You.”

Nick’s ears stood up, and he felt the sadness he’d felt get blown away, replaced with an empty shock. A hollow shock. As if he were a suddenly blank canvas, ready to be filled in again, yet unsure what the first brush stroke would be. He opened his mouth to speak, but Skye spoke first.

“Nick, I…” she began to say, only for her lip to tremble and another sob to flow through her. “Nick… -I think… -I know… -I… -I love you Nick. I love you. You… you…. You gave me my life back, and then you were my friend, and you saved me and my sister. That… -that meal we had… -I felt it then but…” She sobbed and stood up, pushing Nick away. He stumbled back, narrowly avoiding a fall into the river, as Skye ran over to a tree trunk and leant against it. Forehead to the bark, arms crossed across her eyes, she stood there as tears fell down her like rain, dripping off her muzzle and onto the sand. “I’m scared!” she sobbed out loud. “I’m so scared! Ruttin’ terrified and… and… I don’t know what to do…. -I want to love you, and you… you’re probably great and kind, I know you are… -But I’m… -You can’t… -Not again.” She choked back a sob and shook ahead. “Not again… I don’t want it to happen again. I’m scared… I’m so scared….”

.

.

“Skye,” Nick said, walking up beside her.

“Go,” she told him, half barking it out. “Go… Go with Judy… -I…. -I saw you today… -I saw how she looked at you, and… -Be happy with her, please. I’m too broken for love. Too scared.”

“I was scared too,” he said, looking at the floor as he did so. He fumbled with his paws, slowly finding the words, before speaking. “Scared of this being… -So real. Remember last night? When Jeb punched through your foot and I caught you?”

She nodded her head.

“I… I looked into your eyes, then away. I was scared at first for you, and I looked at the others, and as I did so this thought came into me. About why I was scared of you getting hurt. Then a certain word just popped in there, and then everything was suddenly clear. And then I was scared because I…” he said, looking away. “-Because right then I felt the same way you do now.”

Skye let out a painful sound, as if she’d been kicked in the stomach, and shook her head. “No… -just… -it’s too… Too weird, you and I… -Imagine a… a… -head doctor vet mammal… -whatever they’re called, asking about us and… and how you gave me your blood and fixed me and… -too crazy or…”

“You freed me,” he said. “I freed you. Both times from Jack. Both our lives cut down… Maybe it is crazy,” he said, looking up as his fur bristled and his muscles tensed. “I don’t care Skye… Not anymore. I felt that I wanted to be around you since we met, but I didn’t know why until last night. When I saw your eyes then, I was afraid too… Of… of it getting too real, so I backed off a bit. I spent some time with Judy, as I wanted some distance.” He paused, looking away slightly. “She’s fun, she’s nice. Maybe I do have some feelings for her.” He let out a strong guffaw. “-Though if you want crazy relationships for a psychiatrist, being with bunny ex-Javert is a bit higher than ours.”

This time Skye managed to giggle, though she stayed looking away.

“Skye,” Nick said, not with comfort or cynicism or humour, but truthfully. Heartfelt. “Skye. I love you, and I promise. I promise that I’ll never leave you or hurt you like Jack did. On my father’s grave, I won’t.”

She’d stopped crying, and stood up, turning down to face him. Her fur was a horrible mess, all unkempt and tear stained, while her eyes were raw. Her muzzle still trembled though, and her whole body shook, even though her feet were planted to the ground.

“If anyone, even you, is cruel to me,” he said, “I can outrun them. But Skye… Angel… -Lava Girl, you can do one better… You can heal from any wound, but you don’t have to get them in the first place.” He smiled, and waved a paw up to the night’s sky. “Do your thing, Lava Girl.”

She stepped forwards, and her paw never touched the floor. She flew up, rising above Nick and out of his reach, before gliding back down, landing in front of him. She was trembling, and new tears were coming down her. “I’m scared,” she said, her voice cracking and wavering as her paws met his and they held together.

“I’ll do all I can to help that,” he promised. “Because, Skye, you’re an angel whose wings need fixing.”

She flinched slightly, her trembling increasing, before she leant forwards. With a scared sob, the tip of her muzzle touched Nick’s and they joined, embracing for just a second. She broke it off though, a seed of doubt having dragged her away harshly. But looking at Nick, she felt the will to do this and buried that seed as far down as she could, however hard it was. She tried again, and this time her tongue came out, sliding into his warm mouth only to flinch back as it caught one of his sharp teeth.

She stepped back, shaking, as she looked into Nick’s eyes in front of him. Night had rolled in around them and the wind had stopped. Embers from the campfire, golden and still warm, drifted between them like fireflies and she, like and angel, stood there. The fear was still there, but as she gazed into his eyes and felt her body, all fixed and new, she felt good. She was an angel, holy again, and through one last fear laced sob she pushed forwards. Their mouths hit, and their tongues embraced, and soon they were dancing in the warmth, sending flows of passion into each other. Still kissing, Skye let go of his paws and hugged him so tight her claws dug in, holding on for dear life. She felts his arms around hers, and his tail around her body and hers around his, and she held on and kissed tighter. She was still crying and, as they broke it, she pushed her head over his shoulder, holding him hard as she cried out. Not out of fear anymore, and maybe not out of joy either, but of a blessed sense of relief and freedom and a hundred other things she couldn’t name. Nick, hugging her back, let a few tears drip down his muzzle too, as he held a mammal he loved and never wanted to let go of.

Neither of them knew of a third mammal who was crying, making her way back to her bed. She’d cried for her friend and was happy for them. Both of them.

But it still hurt…

And she still cried.

She left them alone though.

Now was their moment, not hers.