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To Serve and Protect

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It was hot, and not just because they were testing the climate controls. Nick had been shirtless all day, almost panting in nothing but his boxers, trying not to just flop on the couch and never move again. Judy, though, was somehow fully-clothed, having changed into one of her flannel shirts and a loose pair of leggings right after work. He normally thought she looked delightful in anything, but it was pricking his street-smarts in a way she usually didn’t. Something was wrong. She always hid in her clothes when something was wrong.

Judy was in a Mood, capital-M, which was enough to give him pause on its own — she wasn’t, generally, the brooding type — but her stated desire to not take it out on Nick meant that she wasn’t really speaking to him at all, and he didn’t like that. Nothing good ever came of not communicating.

Then again, he thought, watching her scrub dishes like they had personally offended her, he had always been a talker. He hadn’t always been honest, but of the two of them, he was definitely more communicative. Whether it was a holdover from his days of information gathering or a genuine desire, he didn’t know, but he had to be careful not to project his own insecurities. That was an unattractive quality he’d had to actively choose to phase out during the first two years or so he had been with Judy.

She washed the same plate for the third time. No, they really did need to have a conversation. Even if he annoyed her into snapping. Even if she felt bad about it later. He knew the risks of invading her space and prodding at her boundaries, but he also knew her.

“I don’t know what these dishes did to you,” he began, sidling up to the sink and leaning against the counter so that he could see her face, “but remind me not to do it. Imagine if you scrubbed my tongue as hard as you’re scrubbing that plate.”

She frowned and dropped the soapy dish back in the sink. “I wouldn’t scrub your tongue at all, Nick, it’s one of your hard limits. I respect those.”

“Much to the appreciation of all parties involved,” he returned, reaching over and turning off the faucet, “but that’s really not the point. What’s wrong?”

“I told you, I don’t want-”

“You don’t want to snap at me, and you’re in a bad mood, so you’re avoiding this conversation until it goes away. Yeah, I get it. But you know that doesn’t work. The last time you tried to ignore something until it went away on its own, I had to tie you up and you still managed to hurt yourself.”

Her frown deepened into a scowl and she peeled off the rubber gloves before folding her arms across her chest. Oh, nice, an attitude. At least she wasn’t ignoring him. “That is a gross misrepresentation of the facts.”

He raised an eyebrow and asked, “Am I wrong, though?”

“Yes, you’re wrong!”

Nick watched her shift restlessly on her stepstool and then, without warning, snatched her up to carry her to the bedroom. She kicked ineffectively and told him to put her down, so he said, “I’m sorry, Ma’am, but I have a responsibility to you, and part of that responsibility is to shower you with love when you’re not feeling great.” He set her down on the bed and put his paws on his hips, grinning at her disgruntled expression. “I’m thinking I’ll start by rubbing your feet, and then I’ll get the brush out to make sure all your loose fur is out of your coat, and then-”

“I don’t need love,” she interrupted with a heavy scowl.

He scratched his bare chest and curiously watched her fret. “Why not?”

“Because I — I didn’t earn it!” Her voice went from a snap to a whisper. “I don’t deserve it, Nick. I really messed up.”

“Did you kill someone,” he asked rhetorically.

“No.”

“Did you rape someone or overlook someone else doing it?”

Her face took on an expression of disgust. “No!”

“Have you become a cannibal?”

“Nick what the he-”

“Have you hid something horrible from me or manipulated me in the name of protecting me?”

“Have you been reading Agent Savage fanfiction?”

He snorted. He’d actually been watching a one-star train wreck of a miniseries about a corrupt cop who found himself in worsening situations due to his own stupidity and incompetence, and it was hilarious, and he fully intended to inflict it on Judy as soon as she was feeling better. He had a choice to make: he could make a joke, play it up, make her feel better. She would jump on it, as she always did. Or, he could push her. Considering what had happened the last time they had allowed her to ignore things, though, he wasn’t inclined to let her get away with hiding again. “Later I’m going to annoy you into showing me all the creepy edgy fanfiction you wrote as a teen, but for now, I’m just trying to figure out what you could possibly have done to believe you don’t deserve my love.”

She jumped off the bed and began pacing. Never a good sign, but at least she was willing to talk, even if the movement made it easier to avoid having feelings about it. “A boy is dead and Rivers is in the hospital because of me.”

That did surprise him a little. He shifted. “What, did you attack them?”

“No, I...our killer had a son.” She tugged on her ears, but thankfully, not with her nails. “When we arrested the father, the son was devastated — I’m not allowed to talk about details, but in the end, he grabbed a gun and put it to his own head. I should have tranqed him, but I tried to talk him down instead. I didn’t want him to feel like we were punishing him. I should have tranqed him. I should have — he shot himself, and his head…” She shuddered. “I’ve seen a lot of violent crime scenes, but that was...and Rivers got bitten by the perp, and she got a face full of brain and skull fragments, and now she has to get tested for all sorts of diseases, and we could have avoided it if I had just tranqed the little one!”

So she was angry at herself because she thought she had let a boy die. It was understandable, and so very Judy. She had acted with compassion in a moment of uncertainty, and because it hadn’t gone well, she blamed herself. It didn’t help that in her time in zoicide, she’d never seen anyone die; she had always come in after the fact and investigated, giving the dead a voice. This was new, and Nick couldn’t say for sure that he would react differently. “Ma’am, you couldn’t have known. Is there even a protocol for that?”

“Our best judgment,” she said angrily, gesturing up and down at herself. “My best judgment gets kits killed.”

“Yeah, a kit is dead. It’s not your fault. It’s your perp’s fault. If he hadn’t killed anyone, you wouldn’t have had to arrest him in front of his family,” Nick tried, because...well, she didn’t deserve to be angry at herself. “Kits...they’re not grown yet. They’re impulsive. And you can’t be sure what would have happened if you had tranqed him. Maybe the killer would have done worse than just biting to Rivers, and maybe the kit still would have died.”

“No,” she disagreed quietly, going still. Too still. “No, I was just too dumb to do the right thing.”

This again, he didn’t say, because it wouldn’t do any good. Last time they’d dealt with this, it had been a crisis situation — putting out more than one fire when neither of them were fully equipped to put out any fires — but it was different this time. They were safe this time. And this time, Nick knew what was wrong.

“You promised you’d stop calling yourself dumb,” he said.

She shrugged, looking sullen. “I promised to serve and protect, too. And a kit’s dead, and Rivers got exploded head in her mouth and teeth in her arm.”

As far as relapses went, this wasn’t even that big; the problem wasn’t the size of the relapse, but the cause. Judy had always taken her mistakes far too personally, but she was so quiet about it that it was easy to miss when she was doing it. Nick was now hyper-aware of this, but he still wasn’t sure how to…

Oh.

“I don’t know what to tell you except that you’re wrong,” he needled. In another situation, it might be called taunting or even bratting, but in this case it was just another challenge for Judy to rise to.

“Then I’m wrong about yet another thing,” she sighed, looking down at her feet. She fiddled with her shirt sleeve. She looked so small. Okay, maybe she was a little worse than he’d thought she was.

Making sure to keep his distance, Nick said, “This would be a lot easier if you would look at me.”

“It would be a lot easier if I weren’t stupid,” she retorted.

“Oh, so that’s how it is,” he asked, making sure to sound unimpressed. Judy looked scared, timid — not herself, and certainly uncertain, and Nick knew what he had to do. “You want to be scolded, is that it? You want me to tell you everything you’ve done wrong? Humiliate you?”

“Yes! Yes, exactly,” she blurted, punctuating her agreement by crossing her arms across her stomach and pulling her shoulders in. “Nick, please, I need-”

“I know what you need,” he said, pitching his voice low, “but if you’re really committed, you don’t get to talk. If you’re really committed, you’ll go into the spare room and bring me a gag.”

Looking fierce but still looking anywhere but at him, she murmured, “I...I can do that,” and left the bedroom at a slouch.

Yeah, he knew what he had to do.

Nick loved being humiliated. There was something in him that craved it. With every demeaning word, he felt better about himself; it helped him examine how bad he actually wasn’t after all, and yeah, it was a turn-on, sometimes, in the same way that being spanked was a turn-on sometimes and punitive other times. Judy was different. As much as she denied it, he needed to be delicate with her. What she needed, and what she thought she needed, were two separate things. He was going to take away her ability to respond, and then give her exactly what she had asked for. This was long overdue anyway; they should have done it nine months ago, and he hadn’t been brave enough. He was brave enough now. He was hers, and that meant something bigger than just being together.

Nick paced as he waited, tense and reluctant to go through with the plan. He was brave enough. He was strong enough, too. He just...didn’t want to do it. He was the only one who could, but the other side of the coin was that he didn’t do well with this kind of thing, especially verbally. He had spent so long being deliberately hurtful, using his words to scam mammals or cause them pain or both, that he had a distinct negative association. He could do anything for Judy, but he’d give her plenty of time to deal with this the old-fashioned way: by talking about her feelings and working through them instead of hiding the real problem behind misplaced guilt and internalized speciesism.

He felt like he should have known this was coming. What were the chances, realistically, of one conversation in a crisis situation being enough to completely turn her around? She had been pretty good about not calling herself dumb out loud, but he wasn’t a mind-reader. How many times had she said it inside her head and chosen not to use her voice? It was just...she always seemed so optimistic. It was easy to forget that when she made mistakes, she trended toward depressive thinking and she stopped talking. She just didn’t stop using her mouth. She just didn’t stop saying positive things. She just pushed and pushed and pushed.

He should have known.

But he wouldn’t apologize. It wasn’t the right time. Right now, it had to be all about her.

Judy slunk into the room again, a ball gag clutched in her paw. It was one of their oldest ones, something that he’d bought when they were still figuring themselves out. For Nick, it had been a step toward getting over his fear of muzzling, as the ball wasn’t big enough to do much but annoy him, but it came with an optional strap that went around the snout. For Judy, it was an object that would force her mouth open and keep her from speaking. Perfect for the situation, although Nick had a feeling she would have chosen something else had she known what he had planned.

She stood in front of him, silently daring him to make the first move. Using his submissiveness against him, probably, or at least trying to, which spoke to her state of mind; not only was that something she usually hated, but if she were thinking rationally, she would consider that he would shake the earth for her, force himself through thousands of unpleasant experiences if it meant keeping her safe. He took the gag from her and said, “Okay. Time to take off your clothes.”

This time, she took a step back and shook her head slightly. So she was fine being silenced, but not being naked? If that wasn’t a big warning sign, he didn’t know what was. She brought her paws up and clasped them in front of her chest and said, “I’d be too cold.”

“That’s bunk and you know it.” He snorted. “You could avoid it by talking to me — not just telling me what happened, but actually talking. How do you feel? Why don’t you want to get undressed?” He dropped the gag on the bed and stepped closer. She stepped back. He smiled with all his teeth. “If you can stand right there, look me in the eye, and promise me you have a handle on things, that you don’t actually think you’re dumb, if you can look me in the eye and apologize to yourself for being so mean, or if you safeword out right this second...then I won’t make you get undressed.”

“I…” She looked down. “Nick, that’s not fair. I’m not okay and you know it, and...and I…”

“I’m not hearing the safeword.”

“I told you what I need,” she snapped, throwing her paws up into the air and giving him an angry look. “Does it sound like I want to safeword out? I just...you can do that without undressing me. I know you don’t hate my body. Trying to humiliate me like that will just make you look silly.”

“Like I’d try.” He stepped forward, chasing her slowly every time she stepped back, until she was flush against the wall. He leaned over and caressed her cheek with one paw, careful not to put any pressure on her neck. They’d found out the hard way that she had made some unfortunate associations with Nate Snow, a murder suspect who’d cornered her exactly like this and choked her very lightly with his claws, and that was the last thing they needed right now. Nick kissed her forehead gently, reminding her that no matter how predatory he looked, he wasn’t hunting her. He would never harm her, even if he did cause her some necessary pain. “You have taken care of me for a long time, Ma’am. You’re always serving me. Let me serve you.”

“I don’t…”

He tried something else. “Why don’t you want me to see you?”

“I just — I fell, and I didn’t, I don’t want-”

“You hurt yourself,” he concluded flatly.

His paws worked at the buttons of her shirt as she waved her own and babbled, “No, no, I didn’t hurt myself — or, I mean, I did, but it wasn’t — it was an accident, Nick, I...I needed to breathe and I couldn’t, and there was a nail, and I didn’t want you to see because — Nick, please, I don’t want to take my shirt off, I — I knew you were going to think it was on purpose, it looks bad but I swear I didn’t do it to myself. I swear. I didn’t.”

He believed her, not because of her babbling, but because she wasn’t fighting him. She was allowing him to take off her shirt. If she had done it to herself, it would be deep and ugly and angry, because she never did anything halfway, so yeah, he believed that it had been an accident. He was willing to bet that whatever scrape she’d gotten was part of her problem. He pulled her shirt down off her arms, dropped it on the ground, and saw—

Well. It did look damning, on the surface. The scrape wasn’t exactly superficial, but it had already closed up, and had before she’d arrived home, or he would have smelled fresh blood. It was a harsh line on her left forearm, too. But Nick made a living observing tiny details and drawing conclusions from them; the angle was wrong. In order to make that kind of diagonal slash, she would have had to bend both arms in funky directions, and even then, it would have been jagged and curved, not a clean cut and a straight shot. He could imagine her stumbling, bracing herself against a wall, getting grazed by a nail. It made the most sense. Quietly, he asked, “You did get a tetanus booster, right?”

“Officers all have to stay up on our shots,” she replied. “I swear, Nick-”

“I believe you. I’m annoyed you tried to hide it from me after everything we’ve been through, but I believe you.”

“I’m just not ready to talk about it, any of it. I wasn’t...hiding. I was waiting until I felt better.”

“That’s what you always do,” he said, trying not to be angry, because he knew her habits, and he knew how hard lifelong habits were to kick. It had taken him a few years to stop looking for ways out, to stop the self-deprecating jokes and the self-hatred and the shame, even with love and attention (and plenty of corner time) from someone who loved him enough to be firm with him. “You wait until you’ve convinced yourself it doesn’t hurt anymore. And then it doesn’t get resolved, because if you feel better it doesn’t matter anymore. Pants off.”

“I’m not taking off my pants.”

“Then I’ll do it, or you’ll safeword out. I’m giving you options.” He kissed her arm, right where the graze was, and dropped to his knees in front of her. He trailed his claws along the waistband of her leggings. “Ten seconds, Ma’am.”

“Stop calling me that! I can’t...you’re not supposed to...I’m. I.”

He slid her leggings and her panties down, careful of her tail. She wasn’t trying to stop him, and he thought he knew why. As much as she was fighting him, she wanted what she thought he had offered. He knew this exact feeling, fear of getting what he needed and anticipation of a well-deserved punishment. “You’re my domme, now and forever, and I’m not going to stop respecting you just because you don’t want to respect yourself. Step out, Ma’am.”

She did so. Without her clothes, she looked even smaller, shrunken into herself now that she had no armor. He grasped her paw and kissed her forearm again. “If we do this, it’s straight into RACK territory. You don’t get a safeword, obviously, and you don’t get a safe action, either. I won’t violate your hard limits, but you don’t get to back out. So please... just talk to me. Don’t make me do this. Just safeword out right now and let yourself go, I’m begging you.”

“I told you what I need,” she said again, defiant even if she still couldn’t look him directly in the eye. Maybe she thought he wouldn’t do it, because he was so reluctant. Or maybe she was in such a bad place that she would let him do anything he wanted, no matter how depraved, because she wanted him to hurt her more than she had hurt herself.

“Fine, then,” he said with a sigh, and stood up. He tugged on her paw, making her follow him as he headed toward the bed again. He pulled her around to stand in front of him, grabbed the ball gag from the bed, and said, “Open up.”

She opened her mouth wide and waited, patiently but restlessly, for him to insert the ball. It was big enough that it would keep her mouth wide open, but small enough that it would fit behind her teeth without either of them having to worry about safely getting it out. There were a few holes in the ball, with tubes woven through, to make sure there was enough air going through, but the straps were versatile, and the smallest setting made it uncomfortably (but not dangerously) tight around her head. She could make noise, if she wanted, but she was completely prevented from talking.

Perfect. The point was to make her listen.

“Okay,” he said reassuringly, although he wasn’t sure which of them needed the reassurance more. Probably him. This was new territory, and it was testing limits he hadn’t known he had until this very moment. It was for Judy, though, and nothing was more important than keeping her safe.

He picked her up and carried her to the corner of their room, where the mirror was, turned her around, and set her down so that they were both facing it. Her brow wrinkled, but he didn’t see any fear in her limited expression until he kicked her legs open from behind and trapped one of them between his, effectively halving her movement. He wrapped his arms around her, trapping her arms inside his hug, and she struggled a little, but it was more of a test than an attempt to get away. They were both vulnerable like this. One quick kick of her strong leg to his knee and he’d have to let go, but she loved him too much to harm him and he knew her well enough to know when to stop, even if she didn’t get a say.

She examined their reflection briefly and looked away, so he said, “Look at yourself, Ma’am.”

Her eyes flitted to the mirror and then away again, like she couldn’t even stand to see herself.

“I said look at yourself,” he snapped, holding her head up with his finger below her chin and tightening his grip around her torso. Her eyes took in her reflection once again, and he dipped his head to speak into her ear. “That bunny in the mirror has done some very harmful things.”

She whimpered softly. He continued, “You have taken something precious and scratched it up. You have come so close to destroying it, because you believe you can rebuild it better than it was before. Your behavior has been reckless and thoughtless and senseless. If someone treated me like that, you wouldn’t stand for it, but you think you’re different.”

He watched as her brow furrowed in confusion. He had hoped that she would get it by now, but maybe she couldn’t yet. She was so divorced from the problem that she was calling herself dumb again.

“You don’t deserve to be treated the way you treat yourself, Ma’am. What you’re doing is another act of self-harm. And you’re asking me to be a part of that because you can’t even see that it’s bad for you. You think being chastised and humiliated will fix it all, because it works on me, but you’re not me. You’re an entirely different phenomenon. Phenomenal.” She shook her head, eyes widening, struggling against his arm for real this time, and he grabbed her chin more firmly so that she couldn’t move her head; this was exactly why he’d gagged her. This was why she didn’t get a safe action. He knew her well enough to know that right now all she wanted was to deny it, to correct him, to tell him to address her mistake. By removing her ability to speak, he was forcing her to listen. Taking away every bit of control she might have over what he said. “You’re a strong mammal. You’re brave and you’re stubborn and you have an inner fire that nobody can put out — no one but you. You’re compassionate. You love this city enough to struggle with your doubts and play nice with mammals who don’t share that love because you want to protect and serve.”

She struggled more, going so far as to lift her free leg off the ground, so he dug the tips of his claws into her shoulder — not enough to hurt her, but enough to remind her that she didn’t get to escape her punishment. She halted, but when she did so, he could feel that she was shaking. He smirked at her in the mirror. “You expect everyone to be better than they are. The best version of themselves. You don’t stop at wanting everyone to get along, you want everyone to be the good mammal you believe they are. And the one you’re hardest on is yourself. Your expectations for everyone else are high, and you inspire those around you, but your expectations for yourself are impossible. Perfection isn’t a standard, it’s a pipe dream, and the more you strive for it the more you hurt. You called yourself stupid tonight because you didn’t know something. When you’re in this place, you can’t forgive yourself, because you think it means you’ll make the same mistake again.”

Tears welled up in her eyes, but he kept going, kept holding her chin still, and when she closed her eyes, he squeezed it. “No, you don’t get to look away from this. Open your eyes. Look at you — look at how beautiful you are.” He kissed the scars on her cheek and tasted the salt of her tears. “Look how much you’ve overcome on willpower and belief in a better world. Look at us: you taught me how to love myself.” He kissed her neck next, scraped a fang against her pulse point. “Look at how much trust you have in someone who could hurt you. Because you believe I’m good. You know it like you know everyone else has that same capability. Everyone except, apparently, yourself.”

He moved his mouth to her shoulder where her academy scars began and kissed there, too. “A lesser mammal would have quit when she got ripped open by someone two and a half times her size. You were too passionate and strong inside to quit. You’re good at everything you do because you try everything and keep trying until you either succeed or write it off for good. You’re smart. So smart. You’re clever enough to have hustled a professional hustler after knowing him for only a couple of days. And you’re good. It’s unreal, how good you are.”

Judy began to sob into her gag, and she shook in his grip, and he did not back down even though he hated to see her cry. “Whether you’re physically attractive isn’t even a question: you’re stunning and you fill up every room you enter. But there are lots of pretty mammals. You’re the most beautiful mammal in the world because you shine. You’re so radiant on the inside that it wouldn’t matter if you had a literal turnip for a head. And you expected me to tell you about how bad you are, because none of this matters to you if you’ve made a mistake.”

She was sagging against him now, big heavy sobs muffled by the gag, saliva dripping out of the corners of her mouth, ears drooping against his neck. Some of what he was saying was an exaggerated version of the truth; she had plenty of character flaws, an annoying level of optimism, and most notably, a penchant for tunnel vision. Her ability to throw her whole self into things was both a strength and a weakness, and she could get downright obnoxious when she misread situations or tried to overcorrect. But this wasn’t about that. Her punishment was having to listen to him say what she didn’t want to hear. “I can’t forgive you, because there’s nothing to forgive. You made an honest mistake. You acted out of love and it backfired. You want me to tell you how stupid you are, right?”

To his surprise, she was crying too hard to respond, so he put his mouth at her ear again and whispered, “You’re not stupid. Nothing anyone says is going to change that. Speciesist idiots can try to make you believe it, but no matter what they tell you, or what you tell yourself, it just isn’t true. It’s time to face reality, Ma’am. It’s time to admit that self-harm is your safety net, and that it’s unhealthy, and that you don’t deserve it. It’s time to admit that you deserve better.”

She was boneless, still sobbing, but this was enough. He picked her up and carried her to the bed and sat her on his lap while he leaned against their big pile of pillows, and as he touched the straps of her gag, he said, “I’m going to remove this, but if you say anything, it’s going right back in, understand?”

She didn’t answer, but he took it out anyway and immediately pulled her head to his chest. Her tears were hot in his fur and her breathing was irregular; however, as he had predicted, it evened out as she naturally breathed with him. She had always been comforted by the sound of his heart.

He wasn’t happy about having had to do this, and he was uncomfortable with the fact that he’d violated his own unknown boundaries, but maybe it was for the best. The last thing he wanted was for things to get swept under the rug. Judy was good about regulating herself, until something happened that she couldn’t do anything about. He knew her; he knew it would weigh on her, and she would want to blame herself because she was otherwise powerless. It was her MO, but he was wise to it now. He petted her ears and breathed deeply, guiding her out of her tears.

Once her breathing was under control and she was no longer shaking, he pushed her up and cupped her cheek. Her eyes were red and puffy, and her ears were still drooping, and she was beautiful. “How do you feel?”

“I hate crying,” she replied quietly, but she nuzzled his palm anyway.

“Why?”

“It hurts, and it’s scary to feel that much at once. It makes my body do things I don’t want to do. I don’t like feeling so out of control.”

That was a little surprising to hear. He had expected her to say something about defying bunny stereotypes, but it was deeper. The act itself scared her. That explained why she didn’t do it very often, though, and it made a lot more sense than just not wanting to be judged. Judy had grown up being told to settle for less, and in a lot of ways, had felt trapped in a home that was too small for her. Bunnies didn’t like to feel trapped. Whether it was true ancient instinct or a genetic byproduct of the food politics era, he wasn’t sure, but finally he understood that last piece of the puzzle.

“Why did that session make you cry,” he asked.

“I guess...because I expected you to make me feel guilty. And you made me feel naked instead, and I thought I knew what humiliation felt like, but I was wrong. It’s not motivating, it’s horrible. You just kept digging and digging until I had to look at myself.” She sniffled, but did not look away. He moved his other paw, the one not on her cheek, to the back of her head to stroke her ears as she continued, “What I saw was ugly.”

He scowled. “Hey-”

“No, please, I need to say this,” she begged, so he fell quiet. She took a deep breath. “I’m really upset about the kit dying. I’ve been jumpy and weird all day, and I hate that I can’t do anything about it. He’s just dead, and there’s no mystery to solve. There’s nobody to arrest, even, because the mammals to blame are either dead or already in holding, and…”

“And you care about getting justice for dead mammals, so there has to be someone to blame, even if it’s you,” he concluded softly. It was exactly as he had suspected. It even made a twisted kind of sense, even if he didn’t agree with the logic there. “Someone needs to be punished. But — it’s like I said, this kind of thinking is an act of self-harm.”

She ground her teeth for a moment and closed her eyes before answering, “I like hurting myself, Nick. Not because I like being in pain, but because I don’t. Nobody can be harder on me than I am. Nobody can hurt me more than I hurt myself. I know it’s unhealthy, and it’s a learned behavior, and it is a safety net. But I know it’s not safe, and I need to stop; I just don’t know how, because it’s easy. It’s so easy to go to this place because if I’m dumb then obviously it’s my fault and...I don’t want him to be dead. He was still in high school; he could have done anything. Now he’ll never grow up and no one will ever know what he could have done. I know it’s not my fault. I just want it to be, because if it isn’t, then nothing makes sense.”

He pulled her back onto his chest, because she was starting to cry again, and the last thing he wanted was for her to feel unsafe again. Slowly, rhythmically, he said, “Every time you catch yourself thinking like that, replace it with something good. Okay? It’s going to be hard. You’re not going to want to do it, because at first it won’t actually make you feel better, it’ll make you feel powerless. Do it anyway. If you’re really feeling awful, do something nice for yourself. And if that doesn’t work, tell me. I’ll brush you and love you and remind you why you’re worth it.”

“I’m worth it,” she said hesitantly, but it wasn’t a question.

“You’re worth it,” he repeated.

This wasn’t going to go away any time soon. It was possible it never would. Judy loved too hard and too much to protect herself from a world that wasn’t better, and that unfortunate truth would follow her forever. He couldn’t fix this for her. He didn’t think he would even if it were possible. But he would make damn sure she knew that she wasn’t alone, like she had done for him. They served and protected each other, even when it was hard. Especially when it was hard.

“I almost passed out,” she confessed into his neck. “At the scene. That’s why I scraped myself; I didn’t see the bare nail on the table that had been tossed in the alley behind the apartment. My heart was going so fast — I wasn’t even scared, I just...it was like I was starting to drift out of my body. I couldn’t breathe. I can still see everything happen, it’s happening right this second. Rivers got to throw up, but bunnies physically can’t do that. I thought I was dying.”

“I’m sorry you had to see that,” he acknowledged with another gentle stroke of her ears, “but I wouldn’t take it away from you even if I could. This is the last piece of your job, Ma’am. Now you know everything, and you can make a fully-informed decision when you talk to Fangmeyer again.”

She nodded. Her voice was morose when she murmured, “I don’t want that to ever happen again. I can’t see that again. You can tell me it wasn’t my fault all day, and I know you’re right, but I can’t stop thinking that if I had done something different...if I had moved, if I had tranqed him, if I’d made sure our perp was alone before we arrested him…”

“Sometimes bad things happen.” He kissed the top of her head between the bases of her ears. “You’ve been lucky so far. We both have. And we can talk about this more now, if you want, or we can wait until later, if that’s easier. Either way, please let me serve you, okay? I can’t protect you from the world, and I wouldn’t want to, but I can love you. Please let me love you.”

“I don’t know what I’d do without you, Nick,” she sighed, and he knew that was as close as she could come to a yes.

Because he was Nick, he already had a few ideas about how to dote on her until she felt better. Because she was Judy, she’d be ready to continue saving the world by this time tomorrow.