A/N Hey my dears, I'm so so sorry for the delay in this chapter! I wanted to get it out within the month but a major project I've been doing at work reached a critical phase, and then there was chaos as the team I was working with messed up big time. I've spent the last two weeks fixing the mistakes, so this, unfortunately, took a back seat. I'm back now though, and I hope you'll enjoy this one - I had fun writing it :)

Big thank you to my patrons for coming up with a range of OC's for me to use in this chapter!

Fork coming to rest on his plate, Nick licked his lips. He had to give it to Bonnie; she knew how to cook a feast. Though most of the food at the table had been vegetarian, the Hopps matriarch had ensured there was a selection of bug and fish dishes for Nick and his mom. The tod had appreciated her kindness and, with his food issues slowly fading, he'd been able to enjoy Christmas lunch for the first time in years. He'd savored everything and hadn't worried that it would be taken from him or that his next meal would be days away. There was plenty of food on the table, and Nick knew there would always be plenty of food in the kitchen cupboards back home.

Sparing a glance around the crowded dining room, the tod could see that everyone was starting to put down their cutlery. "Good, Cinnamon?" Nick turned his attention to the baby bunny by his side, reaching for his napkin to wipe the remnants of chocolate cake from her muzzle.

"Mhm." The doe hummed, licking her lips before Nick could wipe away and waste any chocolate cake. She only put up a weak fight as the fox gently grasped her muzzle, removing whatever cake her tongue hadn't been able to reach.

Having finished her dessert, Marian watched as Nick wiped away the chocolate from Sasha's face, and a wave of nostalgia rolled over her. She could remember when he'd been that young, stuffing his maw with jam sandwiches, the sticky filling clinging to the fur of his muzzle. He'd been a messy kit.

"Didn't think you were a jewelry type of mammal." The comment broke Nick away from his task, and he looked across the table to Jasmine, following her gaze to the bracelet around his wrist.

Sparing a glance to his side as Judy put down her cutlery, Nick shrugged. "We've morphed into one of those matchy-matchy couples." He joked, earning a chuckle from Jasmine. His comment, however, made the whole room fall silent.

"I told you they were together!" The shout from the other side of the dining room set off a tidal wave of noise, and the vast array of rabbits made it difficult to pinpoint where the chaos had started.

Nick and Judy were swamped, hundreds of rabbits crowding around them at the table, all of them shouting questions and demanding answers. Overwhelmed, the two mammals shared a panicked glance.

"Enough! Back to your tables." Stu's booming voice echoed through the large space, and the kits that had been crowding Nick and Judy retreated at a fair pace back to their respective tables.

Feeling the weight of hundreds of pairs of eyes still on them, Nick let out a nervous laugh. "Well, I guess everyone knows now." He offered Judy a meek smile, which she half-heartedly returned, her attention still on the rest of the room. Nick's sharp hearing enabled him to pick up on a few disgruntled Hopps kits, and he bit his tongue to stop himself from offering a snarky response. The vast majority of her siblings seemed okay with them though, and that was enough to make the tod relax.

"You've never been much of a jewelry mammal either, Ju." Jasmine brought the conversation back on track, tapping between her collarbones. "Looks like someone did their homework." She aimed the comment at Nick, enjoying the way his ears flattened back with embarrassment. The doe had been pleasantly surprised when she'd spotted the symbol around her sister's neck during present opening. Though she'd already liked Nick, her respect for him had grown tenfold, knowing he'd cared enough to look into their customs and history.

Paw reaching up for the pendant around her neck, Judy ran her fingers over the cold metal, grounding herself as she felt the number of eyes on them start to diminish. "You're right; I wasn't. Not until Nick, anyway." The doe spared a glance at her mate, watching as his features softened. Judy had always been practical and had found jewelry too much hassle – it could catch on something while chasing a perp, or if it jangled as she was trying to sneak up on a mammal, then they'd be alerted to her presence. Now, though, with her bonding bracelet around her wrist and her new pendant, she found she couldn't care less about being heard or getting caught on something. They were gifts from her mate, and there was no way on earth she would take them off.

"Why don't I get any jewelry?" Sasha interrupted, frowning. Judy's necklace was pretty, and the baby bunny wanted one too.

Offering Sasha a soft smile, Marian leaned across the table to give the doe's cheek a gentle pinch. "You have to find a nice mammal one day; then they'll buy you jewelry."

"Or work hard and buy it yourself." Julian shook his head, looking from Marian to his little sister. "No boys." He insisted. Though a traditional buck, Julian had seen Judy flourish in the city on her own, working a job that any other rabbit wouldn't even think of taking on. If she could do it, then so could Sasha and his other younger siblings when they grew up.

Rolling her eyes, Sasha scowled at her brother. "Boys have cooties."

"Good, keep believing that for the rest of your life." The buck winced as Jasmine thumped his side, his littermate letting out an exasperated sigh. Julian couldn't help that he wanted his siblings to stay as young as possible for as long as they could.

Snickering, Nick winced as he too received a thump on his side, courtesy of Judy. Clearing his throat, he forced away his amusement, instead turning his attention to a tradition that had made him curious ever since he'd read about it. "Where's the giant carrot? I didn't see it when we arrived." He directed his question to Jasmine and Julian, noting how his mom tuned in to listen, having been momentarily lost in conversation with Hazel, who'd taken the seat beside her.

Spotting an opportunity to mess with the tod, the corner of Julian's lips quirked upwards. "It's back in the center of town, being guarded."

"Guarded?" Nick quirked an eyebrow, confused. He'd read up about the giant carrot that the residents of Bunnyburrow put together every year, ready to burn on Christmas day, but he hadn't heard anything about it being guarded.

Catching her littermate's train of thought, Jasmine hid her smile as she joined in. "Mhm, guarded. You see, every year someone tries to burn it down before it's meant to be set alight. It's become a tradition of sorts, and now we have to guard it to ensure it stays in one piece." She explained.

"We've had the tradition for forty years, and of those, it's only survived twelve times." Hazel chimed in, paying attention to the conversation while also helping one of her younger siblings wipe their muzzle.

Nodding, Jasmine put on a sad expression, dropping her shoulders. "Those who guard it have a tough job on their paws. A lot of the kits get so upset when it's burned ahead of time."

Realising where her siblings were going with the conversation, Judy bit down on her lower lip, lifting a paw to cover her mouth and hide her smile. Catching Marian's gaze, the doe tipped her head a little in Nick's direction, watching as the vixen caught on.

"It's still standing now though, which is a miracle. Mammals really up their efforts the closer it gets to 6 pm." Judy chimed in, noting the way her mate's tail started to swish in agitation behind him. He was a smart fox, and the doe had no doubt he was starting to put the pieces together.

"You know, as our esteemed male guest it's your job to take the last guard shift." Julian dropped the proverbial bombshell, barely containing his laughter as Nick's face fell, emerald eyes widening as his worst fears were confirmed.

Shaking his head, the tod objected. "I don't think that's a good idea. I've never done the job before, and I'd hate for something to happen and for the kits to be upset." He looked at Sasha and her happy smile, flashbacks of her crying on the train platform during his last visit playing through his mind. He couldn't be the reason for her tears again.

"You would break a long-standing tradition, Nicky?" Marian played along, shaking her head in disappointment. She knew her kit, knew he'd take the bait, and she knew he'd do everything in his power to try and stop the carrot statue from burning ahead of schedule.

Groaning, Nick had no choice but to accept the job now that his mom was questioning him. "Fine. What do I have to do?"

"Stand outside and make sure no mammal's jump the fence and get close to the statue." Judy made it sound so simple, hoping that it would ease Nick's concerns. While she enjoyed watching her fox sweat, she didn't want to stress him out. The last thing she wanted was for him to panic.

"Will someone else be with me?" Nick directed his question at the rabbits around him, and all of them shook their head. A ball of dread started to build in the pit of the tod's stomach, but he forced himself to remain calm. "Okay, I can do it."

Reaching out for her mate, Judy placed a paw on his arm, giving it a gentle squeeze. "You sure, Slick?" As much as she wanted him to partake in the guarding tradition, and as much as she wanted to see him sweat a little if it were too much for her fox, then she'd put her hind paw down and insist on someone else taking the final shift.

Sitting up a little taller, Nick nodded. "I'm sure, Fluff. Now, how do I get to the carrot?" He tried not to snort at the absurdity of his question.

Though the weather in Bunnyburrow was mild for the time of year, Nick had still decided to wear the thickest jumper he owned, hoping that and his winter coat would be enough to keep him warm as he stood outside on guard. "I never thought I'd find myself guarding a giant carrot statue." He muttered, rubbing his paws together to put some warmth into them.

Once the dinner table had been cleared, Judy and Sasha had led him out to one of the many fields in the district. The giant carrot statue had stood in the middle, with flimsy metal site fencing boxing it in. Sasha had given him a good luck hug while Judy had stolen a kiss, and the two does had disappeared and left him to it. Now, the fox wished he'd borrowed a book from the Hopps library to entertain himself. Though there was a lot of fencing to patrol, his sharp hearing and sense of smell would alert him to any trespassers and potential arsonists.

Turning on the spot, Nick observed the giant carrot statue for what felt like the hundredth time. It was thirteen meters tall, 7 meters long, and Nick didn't want to make any guess as to how heavy it would be. Painted a garish orange, the tod's eyes started to hurt if he stared at it long enough. It was impossible to miss amongst the dark green of the field. On the walk over, Judy had told him that the districts kits all worked together every year to make it, dedicating some of their school time and weekends.

"Impressive, isn't it?" The smooth voice behind Nick had the tod sighing, mentally kicking himself. He'd been so lost in his thoughts he'd missed the sound of another mammal approaching. Turning his head, Nick caught sight of an albino hare with blood red eyes.

"Gerald Grimsby the Third." Nick forced himself to offer the buck a smile. Judy had used some of their journey to the statue to fill him in on a few residents of the district who might try to get close. This particular individual had been mentioned, and Sasha had taken great pleasure in sing-songing his name, substituting 'third' for 'turd.' Though Judy had reprimanded her, the baby bunny had pointed out she was merely repeating the name Judy usually used for him. "It certainly is, the kits did a wonderful job with it." Nick turned his focus back to the statue, making sure to keep Gerald in his peripheral. The buck didn't look like he'd try to burn it down, but Nick wasn't willing to risk it.

Chuckling, a self-satisfied smile crossed the hare's lips. "They wouldn't have been able to make sure a wonderful statue without my considerable donation." He brushed some lint from his coat, missing Nick's eye roll.

"And a rich ass," Nick recalled Judy's description of the buck, finding that she'd hit the nail on the head. "There wouldn't be such a wonderful statue if it weren't for the kits willingly sacrificing their time to make it." Nick retorted, not willing to let the hare take the credit for it.

"You know, I don't remember ever meeting you before, and I know everyone." Gerald turned his attention to the strange fox. He was a little too preened to be a country jewelry like Gideon.

Biting his tongue to stop his comment about that being his line, Nick instead offered the hare a fake smile. "I'm not from around here." He pointed out the obvious, barely refraining from rolling his eyes. "Are Sasha's habits rubbing off on you, Wilde?"

"Ah, so you're from the city, then. Not many of us here speak with you city folk; you never venture this far out. We don't get many strangers around here." Gerald gave Nick a curious look and weighed him up, taking in his thick jumper and the collar of his Pawaiian shirt that poked out the top.

Offering out a paw to be polite, Nick was tempted to slip back behind his con-mammal mask. It had been too long, though, for it to come naturally to him now. It felt uncomfortable and awkward. "Nick Wilde." He introduced himself. "Now I'm not a stranger."

Looking down at the paw offered to him, the hare dismissed it. "Gerald Grimsby the Third." He stood a bit taller, adjusting the lapels of his coat. "Your name has been banded around this district for a while, usually when the Hopps cop is mentioned."

"If by Hopps cop you mean Judy, then that's understandable." Nick let his paw fall back to his side, eyes narrowing. The tod wasn't a stickler for manners, but when offered a paw one always shook it. "We're partners."

Eyebrow lifting, Gerald snorted. "They let you be a cop?" The thought of a fox as an officer of the law was highly amusing to the hare. "As if anyone would trust a fox." He mused.

"They did." Nick enjoyed bursting Gerald's bubble, watching as the other male scowled at the information. "It was all Judy's idea." He couldn't help but praise his mate. He was proud of her and grateful that she'd pushed him down this path.

Spotting an opportunity to get back to a topic he enjoyed, and rile up the fox, Gerald dropped his voice just a little. "Tell me, is she still as frigid as when she was a teenager?" The look of surprise on Nick's face nearly made the hare laugh, and the frown he saw forming only prompted him to carry on. "Yes, she wasn't very welcoming of my advances, which is quite ridiculous really. Her sisters, on the other paw…"

Anger spread through the tod and he only just held back on his need to throttle the albino hare. Amongst the frustration was a sliver of smugness that Judy had turned him down, but that didn't make it acceptable for him to have tried to sleep with half of her family. "Made a bad decision." Nick finished the hare's sentence, enjoying the way Gerald's smile dropped with his barb.

"Not as bad as the one Judith has made." Red eyes narrowing, the hare dared Nick to challenge him. The other Hopps sisters had been more than willing to spend quality time with him over the years.

"She's a grown doe and perfectly capable of deciding what's best for her." The tod was growing tired of having to repeat the sentence over and over, but most of the mammals in Bunnyburrow seemed to operate on some sort of pack mentality, whereby everyone else decided what was good for them. "Why are you here, anyway?" Nick questioned. Surely Gerald had been shown the statue before it went on display, given his considerable donation.

Knowing how the statue was often burned down before the scheduled time, Gerald had wanted to make sure it was well guarded, and that his money hadn't gone to waste. He wanted the whole district to be gathered around it when it was set alight. "Just admiring what my money bought." He responded, turning his focus back to the giant carrot.

"Which'll soon be set alight and burned to the ground." Nick couldn't resist the jibe, only just containing his smile as he saw Gerald scowl.

Unamused by Nick's comment, Gerald smoothed his paws along his coat before he looked the fox up and down. "Sooner rather than later if you've been left in charge of guarding it." He gave a parting shot, turning sharply on his hind paws before he strode off.

Watching the retreating form of the hare, Nick shook his head. He'd met plenty of characters during his time on the streets, but none of them had been like Gerald. Curiosity still ate away at him though as to how Judy had come into contact with such an arrogant mammal.

Nick had hoped for a few moments to himself, but the universe had conspired against him. With an unusually strong breeze came a scent that almost made the fox gag. There were only one species on the planet that gave off such an odor. Following his nose, Nick prowled around the perimeter, coming to a stop as he saw a middle-aged skunk trying to climb over the fence. He paused for a moment, watching the mammal struggle before he cleared his throat loudly. The sudden sound caught the skunk off guard, and he tumbled to the ground, hitting the dirt with a loud thud and a groan.

"Not cool, fox." The buck's words were slurred, his movements uncoordinated as he tried to roll over and stand.

With a sigh, Nick took pity on the smelly mammal, and though he was sure he'd regret it later, he offered out a paw and helped the inebriated skunk up. "Dare I ask what you were trying to do?" He took his paw back, surreptitiously wiping it on his jumper.

"What's it look like I was trying to do? Wanted to get closer to the carrot. I'm a reporter. Name's Valdeon Lepeu." The skunk introduced himself, patting at his pockets as he searched for his reporter's pad and pen.

"Lepeu? As in, rainforest district Lepeu?" Nick clarified, knowing the surname belonged to a group of hitmammals in the rainforest district. This skunk certainly wasn't part of their team as the only thing he'd seemingly been hitting was the bottle.

Pausing in his search to frown at the tod, Valdeon shook his head. "God no, awful district. Have you seen my pen?"

Head tipping sideways, Nick's eyebrows drew together, lips pursing. "No, why do you need it?"

"To write about this." He gestured wildly at the statue. "And how they put a pred in charge of looking after it." From his pocket he produced his notepad, making a small noise of triumph. "Who're you anyway?" Valdeon flipped through his notes, not recalling having met the fox before. He'd come across Gideon Grey as he'd been sampling some of Bunnyburrow's wares, but foxes were few and far between in the populated rabbit district.

Plastering on an easy smile, Nick shrugged, not wanting any focus on him. "Who I am isn't important, I'm just here for the next few hours. If you want to write about something interesting, you should interview the kits who built this statue." He deflected the attention, figuring a story involving youngsters would probably earn Valdeon more credit with his boss than writing about a former con-mammal.

"You trying to tell me how to do my job?" The skunk snapped, eyes narrowing at the cheek of the predator. He'd always hated how they often talked down to him like he was incapable of doing as well as them.

Seeing the shift in Valdeon's demeanor, Nick raised his paws to show he meant no harm. "Not at all, you're the professional." He aimed to diffuse the situation, but the fire in the other mammal's eyes was hard to ignore. He had a chip on his shoulder and combined with the alcohol it created a potent mix.

"Of course I am, and I worked damn hard to get here. I wasn't handed anything on a silver platter." The buck sneered. His colleagues had used him to climb their way to the top, ditching him as soon as they'd received a promotion, and often took credit for his work. Though both predators and prey were guilty of using him, it was predators who were the worst. Valdeon almost wished it were acceptable to spray them and then remove all the Musk Mask from the office.

"Never said you were, Valdeon." Nick guessed that he'd have to watch his tongue around the skunk. The other mammal seemed to find ways to twist his words. "Getting to write about the statue is a big deal, though."

Snorting, the skunk knew Nick was just trying to be polite, and that frustrated him further. "Out here in this country hovel sure, but back in the city? No one's interested, hence why the story was given to me." After he'd been assigned the Bunnyburrow statue story, the other journalists had drawn straws for the more interesting ones.

"Then you need to make them interested." The tod suggested with a shrug. Before he'd been invited out for Christmas, he'd never heard of the carrot statue tradition, so it stood to reason that most residents of the city hadn't either.

Regrettably, the buck could feel the effects of the copious amounts of moonshine he'd consumed starting to wear off now that the conversation had switched to work. "How exactly do you propose I do that? It's not exactly a new thing, nor is it a fascinating spectacle."

"Embellish the story." Nick offered, the answer having been evident to him. During his many years on the streets, he'd been forced to come up with a multitude of tales to keep his targets interested long enough for him to hustle them. At first, his stories had been far too elaborate, the lies challenging to keep track of, but over the years he'd learned to tone them down, to pull mostly from his own experiences and then tweak them ever so slightly. It had been second nature to him by the time Judy had strolled into his life.

Catching on, Valdeon frowned. "You want me to lie?" In amongst the world of reporters all pushing their own agenda, he'd always prided himself on telling the complete truth and giving both sides to a story. It was probably why he hadn't been promoted when most of his co-workers had.

"I never said that." The fox pointed out, having purposefully not used the term.

Trying his hardest not to roll his eyes, Valdeon's frown turned into a scowl. "You implied it."

"Look, if you're the only one sent out here to report on this giant carrot statue, and the paper is only published in the city, who's going to know if you throw a bit of extra detail in?" Nick didn't know why he was trying so hard to help the skunk, especially as he'd hadn't been the politest mammal he'd met so far on his visit back to Bunnyburrow.

Mulling over the suggestion, Valdeon couldn't deny that Nick's idea was ingenious. "That could work." He conceded though his eyes narrowed a moment later. "Why are you helping me, what's in it for you?" He questioned. No mammal ever helped him out of the goodness of his or her heart, that wasn't the way of the world anymore.

Valdeon's question gave Nick pause, and he spent a moment thinking of a suitable response. "Nothing's in it for me, just giving another mammal a boost." It was partly the truth, but mostly just a way to get the skunk to leave. The sooner his questions were answered, the sooner he'd go and leave Nick in peace, and the tod could focus on protecting the statue. During their conversation he'd kept one ear turned towards the effigy, moving to stand downwind to catch any strange scents.

Still skeptical about Nick's real motive, the skunk gestured towards the statue. "I'll be back later when this thing is burning." His paws fell into his pockets, and he searched for his pen and notepad again, wanting to write down Nick's advice before he hit the moonshine. "Thanks for the advice, I guess." He hated having to offer the fox praise, but he knew what it was like to have another mammal take his idea and not provide a word of thanks. Turning, the buck started to wander off back towards the town and civilization.

Watching Valdeon leave, the tod let out a long sigh, shoulders slumping as he shook his head. "All I ask is for no one else to bother me." He muttered, heading back towards the makeshift entrance to the fenced prison. Taking a seat on the cold ground, he wrapped his tail around himself for extra warmth, rubbing his paws together.

As the sky grew darker and the wind picked up, changing direction, Nick had to stop relying on his keen sense of smell. Instead, he kept his eyes focused on the horizon, turning every now and then to keep an eye on the rolling fields around him, ears twisting to try and pick up on the sounds of other mammals under the steady rush of the wind.

"Mister Fox!" The greeting broke Nick's concentration, and he turned to locate the sound, keen vision picking up on a small group of kits approaching him. As they drew closer, he was able to pick out a few of Judy's siblings, but the otter pup, the goat billy, and the lamb were all new faces.

Figuring the kits would be the most trouble; Nick braced himself, pushing up against the fence to stand on his hind paws. "Hey there Tony, Rupert." He greeted Judy's younger siblings as they came to a stop before him. "Who're your friends?" He spared a glance at the other youngsters, a ball of dread building in the pit of his stomach as he fought back the urge to ask them to leave.

"This here's Martha," Tony gestured to the lamb. "This is Mark," He tipped his head towards the billy. "And this is Eleanor." He finished by introducing the otter. All three of the new mammals gave Nick a quick nod but refused to move out from behind Tony and Rupert.

Offering them a nod in return, Nick focused his attention on Judy's siblings. He'd heard a few stories about them in the letters that Sasha had sent to him during his time at the academy, so he was well aware of the fact that they liked to cause trouble. "What brings you out here? Thought mammals wouldn't start gathering for another half an hour or so." He played it cool, not letting them see that he was suspicious.

"We wanted to get the best view," Rupert spoke up, bobbing his head, encouraging his friends to do the same.

"We wanted to ask you some questions, too." Martha chipped in, wringing her hooves together.

Eyebrow lifting at the lamb's statement, Nick crossed his arms over his chest as his tail flicked behind him with curiosity. His sense of dread hadn't left, and he wasn't entirely sure where they were going with the conversation. "You do? Well ask away, let's see if I can answer them for you." The tod played along.

The kits shared a look before Eleanor started with the first question. "I heard that you live with Judy. Isn't it strange to live with a prey mammal?" The fellow predator questioned. While her social circle consisted of prey, she couldn't imagine the trials of living with them.

With the cat was out of the bag, and knowing how quickly information spread in Bunnyburrow, Nick shrugged. "Judy and I are together, so it's only natural for us to live with one another. Besides, we accommodate each other's needs. It's really not as hard as society wants you to think it is." His tail flicked, still on edge about the kits sudden curiosity. Large ears swiveled as he scanned their surroundings.

"But she's so tiny, and you're not. Aren't you afraid you'll accidentally hurt her?" Martha questioned, thinking fast to come up with something that would keep the fox's attention. She figured that talking about Judy would be a good distraction.

Martha's voice broke the tod out of his surroundings check. Suppressing his smile at the fact the ladies wanted to talk relationships, Nick shook his head. "Carrots is a tough bunny. I'm a little more careful perhaps, but nothing drastic." The tod looked down at his neatly filed claws. Whenever they got a little too long or sharp, he filed them down, having earned some playful ribbing from his fellow cadets at the academy. Now that he was back home, he'd continue the same trend. Judy would ask questions, and though the fox was happy to communicate and open up to her, he didn't think telling her 'your mom told me to file them down before we get intimate' was a good idea. "What's with the sudden interest in my relationship? You kits going through something similar?"

Wide eyes stared at the fox as all the kits shook their heads. "No Sir, we're just curious. Judy left for the big city, first one of us to do that, and we hear all these stories about the things she gets up to." Mark spoke up, hoping to leave enough breadcrumbs to make Nick curious. Keeping his attention was difficult, and the billy couldn't help but feel nervous around the fox. He knew it was silly, that society had advanced to the point where the predator wouldn't eat him, but his presence still unnerved him.

"You're the most popular story." Tony tacked on, bobbing his head.

Arching an eyebrow, Nick wasn't overly surprised that he'd been the talk of the town. Many of Bunnyburrow's residents probably hadn't seen a city mammal before. "There are stories about me?" He questioned, wondering how much information he'd be able to glean from the chatty youngsters.

Rupert made sure to keep his gaze on the fox, though he couldn't avoid noticing his friends behind the predator, climbing the fence now that Nick was distracted. "Mhm. Especially after the first time you visited." He continued. The Hopps warren had been brimming with stories after Nick and Judy had left last time, each kit having seen and heard little snippets, which they'd weaved together to create a multitude of sometimes greatly exaggerated and inaccurate stories.

Lost in thought, curious as to the types of stories that had been told about him, Nick only just saw a brief flicker of amber light in his peripheral. Turning quickly, emerald eyes caught a group of kits trying desperately to light a large stick, the end wrapped in cloth. His heart felt like it stopped for the briefest of moments and Nick was frozen to the spot. The franticness of the kits as they desperately tried to get the lighter working to set the cloth on fire pushed the tod into action. Abandoning his post, Nick's hind paws thumped the grassy ground as he sprinted towards the trouble. "Should've trusted my gut. Those kits were a distraction." He mentally beat himself up, vowing to have words with Tony and Rupert later on.

Drawing closer to the two kits that'd managed to climb the perimeter fence when his back had been turned, Nick could hear the sound of their comrades following behind him. One of the kits up ahead was still struggling with the lighter, while the other berated him for being so slow.

Terrified that they would succeed and set the statue alight and that the residents of Bunnyburrow would hate him for not protecting their treasured carrot, Nick was grateful for his daily morning runs at the academy and the speed he'd developed. "Hey!" The tod shouted as the two kits finally managed to set the cloth on fire. Catching the youngsters out with his yell, Nick gained a few precious extra seconds, which was just enough for him to swoop in and snatch the torch, along with the lighter, away from the troublemakers. Holding the torch aloft he tucked the lighter into the breast pocket of his shirt, panting as he tried to regain his breath, adrenaline coursing through his body and his heart pounding.

"Give them back!" One of the kits shouted, jumping to try and reach it. They'd been so close to setting the carrot on fire and winning the bet. The fox was too tall for the young doe though, and no matter how much she stretched she couldn't reach the torch. Her companion, a buck, also had little luck in trying to grab it.

Nick didn't have any time to be relieved that he'd saved the statue, as the kits who'd distracted him began to crowd around, all of them now trying to jump for the torch and giving one another boosts. With one of his paws occupied, and not wanting to accidentally scratch one of the youngsters with the claws on his other paw, the tod relied on his tail. Using the fluffy appendage to his advantage he gently pushed the kits back, flicking it out at them in warning, making them spring out of its way. Able to clear a path, he strode back to the entrance gap in the fence, ready to put out the torch. However, an old Mangalitsa pig, with thick brown, grey, white, and black wool, blocked his path.

"Fire demon!" The pig shouted, pointing at Nick. Walter Graham couldn't see very well, his old age not helping, but the flames gave off enough light to show him the silhouette of the fire demon that was here to cause trouble and destroy their precious giant carrot. The only weapon the mammal had to hoof was his cane, and so he raised the object, slashing it through the air in the direction of the mysterious being.

His years on the streets had taught Nick a thing or two about fighting, especially when it wasn't fair, and right now he had a distinct advantage over the blind pig. Using that, and his ability to stay light on his hind paws, the tod dodged the cane as it sliced through the air. Being careful not to drop the torch, and aware of the kits that had followed him and were now trying to use the situation to their advantage, Nick split his attention between the two. First, he needed the elderly mammal to stop attacking him. "Sir, I'm not a demon." Nick protested, narrowly missing another swing as the mammal took a shaky step forward.

Assessing the situation, Tony figured they could play on Mr. Graham's beliefs. "Give us the torch, demon, before you set fire to the statue." He demanded, hoping to rile up Walter some more. If Nick was focused on dodging the cane, Tony and his friends could quickly steal back the torch.

Usually calm and collected, Nick was starting to feel a little overwhelmed. Mammals had begun to arrive to watch the carrot burn and had now gathered around to witness him trying to fend off the pig and kits. With an audience, he didn't want to accidentally hurt anyone and be chased out of Bunnyburrow by its residents, and he didn't want to be assertive to stop the situation in case it was taken the wrong way, and he was accused of being cruel. Heard mentality was a genuine phenomenon in the countryside, and the tod had a severe aversion to pitchforks. The kits were starting to grab at his clothes, pulling to try and drag him down. As he turned to push them back, to move away, Mr. Graham's cane came down with a sharp whack, connecting with the tod's lower back. His yowl of pain echoed around the field, and the mammal's surrounding him froze.

Judy had been walking across the field with her family, ready to watch the statue burn. She'd had complete confidence in her mate, and though her siblings had teased her mercilessly about leaving him out alone in the cold, Judy had stuck by her belief that he'd be okay. However, the yowl of pain that broke through the still night air make her gasp, icy fear coursing through her veins. She knew that sound. "Nick." Deserting her family, Judy took off in a sprint, shoving her way through the crowds, uncaring if she hurt any of them. Her mate needed her. Pushing to the front, she caught sight of her fox, surrounded on all sides, Mr. Graham's cane still resting on his lower back.

Anger flooded her system as she saw the pain and distress on Nick's handsome face. Bunnyburrow's residents hadn't bothered to step in and help and had instead left her fox to fend for himself. Disgusted with the mammal's she'd grown up with, Judy dashed in, putting herself between Nick and Walter, shoving the old pig's cane out of the way. "Mr. Graham, how dare you hit my mate with your cane." The doe adopted her officer voice, refusing to let go of the cane as Walter tried to pull it away.

"Judith Hopps." The pig put a name to the voice. The young rabbit was often the subject of many conversations in Bunnyburrow since she'd abandoned the countryside for the fast-paced and cruel city. "He's a fire demon!"

Knowing patience was needed when speaking to the senile mammal, Judy contained her huff of annoyance. "His name is Nick, and you were hurting him." She pointed out, wanting nothing more than to turn and comfort her mate, but not willing to risk Walter lashing out again.

Relived by Judy's presence, and the fact he no longer had to fend off Walter, Nick relaxed. Everything would be fine now that his mate was here. Shoulders slumping, the tod let his guard down for just a moment, but it was that moment that proved fatal. Before the tod could react, the torch was snatched from his paw. "No!" The sharp exclamation slipped from between his lips as he turned, watching in horror as the kits that'd tried to cause trouble earlier finally set fire to the bottom of the statue.

Amber flames licked their way up the giant carrot, and the fox watched on in disbelief, a feeling of shame washing over him. He'd failed in protecting the statue, and in doing so had let down his mate and the district. "I'm sorry, Fluff." He muttered, the reflection of the flames dancing in his emerald eyes.

Having finally convinced Mr. Graham that Nick wasn't a fire demon, the doe was free to attend to her mate. Hearing his voice she turned, violet eyes finding the burning statue before she caught the sad look on her mates face. Moving to his side, she let a paw rest on his arm, stroking his fluffy fur. "You didn't fail, Slick."

"I was meant to keep it safe." The tod protested, unable to tear his gaze away from the burning effigy.

Shaking her head, the doe had to stop herself from teasing her fox. He was clearly frustrated, and the fact he placed so much importance on keeping the dumb statue safe warmed Judy's heart. "Until 6pm." She pointed out, reaching for her phone in her pocket. "It's 6:02pm."

Head lifting quickly, Nick looked first at his mate before his gaze dropped to her phone. The screen was illuminated, the time clear. "I kept it safe?" He clarified, emerald eyes finding violet as a slow smile began to spread across his lips.

"You did," Judy confirmed, pocketing the device. She could feel the heat from the statue and knew that soon they'd have to move unless they wanted burning material to rain down on their heads.

Feeling accomplished, Nick stood a little taller, chest puffed. "Wasn't too difficult." He played it cool, his smile now a grin. "Do I get a reward?" He tried his luck, waggling his eyebrows.

Containing her snicker and eye roll, Judy instead offered her mate an indulgent smile. "What reward does the hero want?" She stroked his ego, figuring there wasn't anything wrong with letting her mate revel in his achievement.

"Doesn't he always want the girl?" Nick shot back, moving to stand a little closer to his bunny. The burning carrot had captured the attention of the crowd, and though he knew mammals with incredible hearing surrounded him, Nick found himself not caring. He'd spent most of the afternoon and early evening out in the cold, protecting the statue, and now he wanted his prize.

This time Judy didn't bother to contain her eye roll, though the upwards quirk of the corner of her lips was enough proof that she was amused by her fox's question. "You already have me, Slick." The doe pointed out.

Feeling the stirrings of lust, the tod tried to trample down the feelings. The season wasn't helping, and Nick was well aware that they were in public. "Then I'll settle for this." He reached out to pull Judy close before he dipped her down, ignoring the twinge in his lower back as he stole a sweet kiss, the warmth from the burning statue chasing away the chill of the night air around them.

"Missus Marian, will you read the bedtime story, please?" Sasha batted her eyelashes, trying to be as sweet as possible. She'd seen some of her older sisters using this method to get what they wanted, and it always worked.

They'd spent the last hour outside watching the carrot statue burn and then enjoying a firework show. Marian had been put in charge of a fluffle of bunnies and had successfully navigated them back to the Hopps warren while Sasha had stuck by her side, chattering away happily. Now, Marian offered the baby bunny a soft smile, holding in her chuckle as she opened the front door. The doe certainly knew how to play up the cute factor. "Adorable, Marian. They don't like being called cute." She mentally chastised herself.

The burning of the effigy had been quite the spectacle, and though Marian had been concerned about Nick being left out in the cold to guard it, she had to admit that she was impressed he'd managed to keep it standing. "Of course I'll read the bedtime story." The vixen racked her brain for a bunny-friendly story as the fluffle lead her into one of the large family rooms.

All of the rabbits started to settle down, grabbing pillows and blankets, getting comfortable in big cozy piles on the floor. Marian removed her coat and took a seat in the plush armchair positioned by the fire, watching with thinly veiled amusement as the fluffle bickered amongst themselves for the best spots. Seeing Nick and Judy at the doorway, Marian offered the pair a smile, gesturing to an empty place close to her.

"What story are you going to tell, Missus Marian?" One of the rabbits piped up, having found a comfortable spot.

As Judy went to take a step into the living room, Nick grabbed her paw, bringing her to a stop. Wide violet eyes looked up at him, and the tod swallowed nervously. "I'm just going to head to the little tod's room, I'll be right back." He offered her a gentle smile, feeling bad for lying but knowing it was the only way to stop her from asking too many questions. "Save me a spot?"

Nodding, Judy pushed up onto the balls of her hind paws, pressing a kiss to her mate's muzzle before she entered the living room, taking the vacant space Marian had gestured to. The doe was still concerned about her fox and whether he was in pain after being clobbered by Mr. Graham's cane, but she didn't want to fuss too much and make him uncomfortable.

"Once upon a time there were four little rabbits, and their names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter." Marian started her story when all the kits were settled, gesturing with a paw to four bunnies in the crowd, selecting them as the characters in her story. "They lived with their mother in a sandbank, underneath the root of a very big fir-tree." Moving her paw to Judy as she spoke of the mother, Marian withheld her chuckle as Judy playfully rolled her eyes. The vixen's choice of story looked like it would be well received.

Knowing the key to keeping Judy where she was meant involving her more in the story, Marian pressed on. She had her suspicions as to what Nicky was up to, and he would need more time. Removing the scarf she'd kept on after shedding her coat, she leaned over, wrapping it around Judy as a headscarf; similar to the style her grandmother had once worn. "'Now my dears,' said old Mrs. Rabbit one morning, 'you may go into the fields or down the lane, but don't go into Mr. McGregor's garden: your father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor. Now run along, and don't get into mischief. I am going out.'" Marian changed the tone of her voice when speaking as the mother, enjoying how Judy's eyes narrowed as she was forced to wear the scarf and have her siblings snicker at her.

"Then old Mrs. Rabbit took a basket and her umbrella and went through the woods to the bakers. She bought a loaf of brown bread and five currant buns. Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail, who were good little bunnies, went down the lane to gather blackberries. But Peter, who was very naughty, ran straight away to Mr. McGregor's garden, and squeezed under the gate!" Marian switched back to her story telling tone, once again gesturing to the four rabbits she'd picked out earlier when she spoke of the characters. "First he ate some lettuces and some French beans, and then he ate some radishes. And then, feeling rather sick, he went to look for some parsley. But round the end of a cucumber frame, whom should he meet but Mr. McGregor!"

Following his nose, Nick pushed open the kitchen door, interrupting Bonnie and Stu. The couple had been locked in a discussion, the topic one that Nick hadn't heard.

"Nick, my son, good job on guarding the statue this evening." Stu had heard the fox's approach, and he turned to offer the tod a warm smile as he entered the kitchen. He'd been impressed with Nick's ability to keep the statue standing for so long, though Stu knew he'd have to give Rupert and Tony a stern talking to. It wasn't fair of them to have tricked their guest.

"Thanks, Stu." Nick offered the Hopps patriarch a meek smile as he closed the kitchen door behind him, taking a moment to compose himself.

Bonnie's motherly intuition immediately informed her that something was the matter. Catching her husbands gaze, she gestured with her chin in the direction of the back door and out to the porch. A lot of important conversations had happened out there, and the doe felt like this was about to be another one. "I need a little more fresh air, why don't you come and join us on the porch?" Bonnie lied with practiced ease, used to conning her younger kits into believing just about anything.

Relieved that there would be a little more distance between him and the rest of Judy's family, and their big ears, the tod nodded in relief, following Bonnie and Stu out to the back porch. The night air was still fresh, and Nick was grateful for his fluffy pelt. Crossing to the banister, he leaned against it. The last time he'd stood out here had been when he'd confessed his love to Judy, and now…

"What's bothering you, son?" Stu tugged at the straps of his overalls, taking in Nick's posture. Nick's tail was swishing behind him, his ears pinned back, and his body taut. The buck wasn't entirely sure if he wanted to delve into whatever had Nick so tense.

Back in the family room, Judy frowned, surreptitiously trying to steal a glance at the grandfather clock in the corner. Nick had been gone for a while already, much longer than it would've taken for him to visit the bathroom and come back.

"Mr. McGregor was on his hands and knees planting out young cabbages, but he jumped up and ran after Peter, waving a rake and calling out, 'Stop thief!' Peter was most dreadfully frightened; he rushed all over the garden, for he had forgotten the way back to the gate." Marian continued her tale, caught up in the memories of telling the same story to Nick when he'd been a kit. While he'd enjoyed this story, The Tale of Mr. Tod had always been his favorite.

Sensing Judy's attention waning, the vixen upped her involvement. Reaching down she grabbed Judy's bare feet, snapping the doe out of her funk and pulling her back into the story. Judy's squeal of surprise made her siblings laugh. "He lost one of his shoes among the cabbages and the other shoe amongst the potatoes. After losing them, he ran on four legs and went faster, so that I think he might have got away altogether if he had not, unfortunately, run into a gooseberry net, and got caught by the large buttons on his jacket."

Outside, Nick spent a moment looking out over the rolling fields and hills of Bunnyburrow. It was peaceful in the countryside, his mind much clearer now he was away from the chaos of the city. Taking a deep breath, Nick let it out slowly. Turning so he could face Bonnie and Stu, the tod reached up to scratch nervously behind one of his ears, his tail swishing behind him, thumping against the railings.

Concerned, Bonnie took a step forward, reaching out to put a paw on Nick's arm. "Whatever it is, it's okay." The worst scenario's imaginable ran through the doe's mind, and the suspense set her heart racing. Nothing Nick could tell them would change her opinion of the fox, of that she was sure. Letting her paw fall from Nick's arm, she kept her gaze on the agitated tod.

"I love Judy so much that at times it frightens me. I love that she believes in me, that she pushes me to be the best I can be. I love the way she thumps her hind paws when she's thinking, and how her ears droop when something sweet happens. I love that she saw something in me when no one else did, that she see's the best in everyone." Nick could prattle on all evening about how much he loved Judy and all her little quirks, but he forced himself to stop before he went off on a tangent and lost sight of his goal.

Though Stu was pleased to hear how much Nick loved his daughter, the buck wore a frown, paws tugging at his overalls once again. "Where's this heading, Nick?"

Rubbing his muzzle, the tod snorted. This wasn't going quite as he'd planned. "Usually it's the vixen who has to ask the tod's parents, so forgive me for not being entirely sure how to do this." He implored. Though Nick had spent some time researching, a habit of Judy's he was picking up, nothing could truly prepare him for this.

It took a moment for the pieces to fall into place, but as it all clicked in her mind Bonnie gasped, paw shooting out to grab Nick's arm once again. "Please tell me you're trying to ask what I think you're trying to ask."

Sighing, Nick glanced between Bonnie and Stu, the corners of his lips curving upwards into a small smile as his tail swished once again. A quick bob of his head confirmed it. "I know Judy's it for me, and she's said the same thing about me. I would like her to be my mate in every sense of the word, but I know how much she loves you both and how much your opinion matters to her." Emerald eyes focused on Stu, and the fox offered the rabbit a fond smile. "Remember when we were last out here? You asked me if I was asking for permission to date Judy, or marry her. Back then I was asking the former." Looking between his mate's parent's, Nick took another deep breath. "I would like to marry Judy, and I'd like your blessing to do so please."

Bonnie and Stu remained silent, having been through this conversation countless times before with their older kits. The quick look they shared was all that was needed. After decades of marriage, they knew exactly how the other thought. The Hopps patriarch was tempted to tease the fox, to drag this out and make him sweat, but he swiftly brushed that idea aside. This was a big deal, and Nick was naturally anxious. The last thing the buck wanted was to cause him unnecessary stress. Stu wasn't surprised by the request though; he'd anticipated it ever since Judy had brought Nick home last time.

Bonnie tried her hardest to hold back her smile and squeal of delight. She wanted nothing more than for her kit to tie the knot with Nick. "You know that we already consider you part of the family, Nick."

"Promise to always look after our kit?" The buck questioned, lifting an eyebrow. Judy's happiness was paramount, and though she was happy at the moment, life in the city could be unpredictable and much crueler than living in the country. His daughter was still quite naïve, and though she'd already learned a great deal since meeting Nick, he'd still need to have her back and guide her.

Emerald eyes found the buck, and Nick spoke with complete conviction. "With my life, Stu."

The seriousness of Nick's tone didn't surprise the Hopps patriarch, but it did worry him. Though he wanted nothing more than for Nick to look out for his daughter, if anything happened to the fox then Stu knew that Judy would fall apart. Switching to a more playful tone, the buck shifted back to the big question. "Well don't go dying on us, okay? Judy needs you around to keep her grounded, and she's going to need you up at that alter."

Heart pounding, the tod's eyes widening as Stu's words sank in. "Is that…?"

"Yes, you have our blessing," Bonnie confirmed, an uncontrollable grin on her face as she clutched onto her husband's arm.

The tod was grateful for the railings behind him as his whole body went lax, relief coursing through his veins as his grin matched Bonnie's. "Thank you, both of you." Nick looked between them; feeling like a weight had been lifted off of his shoulders. Now that he had their blessing, he had to figure out how to pull off the proposal.

Having been in Nick's position before, the buck was familiar with the current look on the tod's face. "Just make sure you have the ring on you." He advised, remembering that he'd been so caught up in the moment that he'd proposed to Bonnie right in the middle of the cabbage field, her ring still tucked away in his nightstand back at the warren.

Paw diving into the pocket of his pants, Nick pulled out a small black box. "I've been carrying it around for days." He admitted with a sheepish smile. "I'm going to wait a little while. I have a tentative plan, but if the right moment strikes in the meantime, at least I'll have it to paw." He elaborated.

"I had mom go to the same jeweler who made Judy's bracelet and necklace. He didn't want to make it at first, but mom can be very persuasive." Nick chuckled; remembering the call he'd received from Mr. Jackson shortly after his mom had gone into his shop. The mammal had insisted on being sent 'the damn design' if only to get Marian off his back.

"Now that's something I would've paid good money to see." Stu laughed, his wife snickering by his side. "You should head back inside. Jude will be worried about where you've been." The buck gestured with his chin to the back door.

Surprising Bonnie and Stu, Nick embraced them, offering his thanks once again before he slipped back inside. The two rabbits on the back porch shared a look, the corners of their lips curving upwards. "He'll propose within the month." Stu wagered.

"Two months." Bonnie countered, wondering what they were betting. Knowing her husband, even if she lost she'd still win.

Silently entering the family room, Nick tip-toed past the kits who'd fallen asleep and over towards his mate. Sitting in the vacant spot next to her, the tod listened to his mom as she began to bring her story to a close.

"You were gone a while," Judy whispered in a non-accusatory tone as she leaned towards her fox. Curious violet eyes looked him over to make sure he was okay, and her nose twitched as she picked up her parent's scent on him.

"Your parents asked me to help her with a few things in the kitchen, don't worry." He whispered back, pulling her close so he could press a kiss to her forehead. Over the top of the doe's head, Nick caught his mother's gaze. Using a code they'd had since he'd been a kit, Nick flicked his left ear, only just suppressing his smile as Marian's paws clenched in silent triumph.