“Everything is fine, mom. I am in the city, I’m on the case and I’m safe…”
“You most certainly are not safe,” Stu’s voice and face blustered from the phone in her hand. She could all but see his blood pressure rising and released a slow sigh as he continued. “We saw the news! We know you were attacked, practically right off the train! And where were the ZPD? Nowhere near you, that’s where they were!”
“Yes, but we knew that already,” she commented when her father paused to take a breath, fixing a calm smile on her muzzle and keeping her ears erect. “That is why Nick is protecting me while I’m here. And if you were watching the news, I am sure you know that he is more than capable.”
She had known that the call wouldn’t be an easy one from the moment she had checked her phone and found sixteen missed calls and a dozen messages. All from her parents. Not to mention the three dozen from other members of her family. The only text she replied to had been the one from Allan, to soothe him while letting her parents spread the word to the rest. If she could ever calm them herself, that was.
“More than capable. Dangerous,” Stu continued, his voice no calmer and his mood no more cooperative than it had been when she had picked up the phone and had him yelling in her ear. “You saw what he did to that tiger. That’s not normal. That’s not right. A bunny shouldn’t be left in the paws of a predator, especially not a fox. They would creep in at night and eat little bunnies in their beds. It’s just…”
“Stu, dear,” came the ever soothing voice of her mother along with a soft paw on his shoulder. “Give me the phone and go calm down.”
“Calm down! How can I…” His voice was cut off when he glanced over his shoulder, then heaved a defeated sigh before he looked back at the phone. “Fine. I’ll just go ‘calm down’ outside.”
Almost wanting to tell him that she loved him, she stopped herself because she knew it might cause the waterworks to start up in an already emotionally charged call. Her father was right, of course. She didn’t think what he had done to the tiger was right either, but telling him that would only justify further arguments about why she shouldn’t be alone in Zootopia with a fox. Sitting alone on the bed in the dark, unfamiliar room, she knew she was wondering that enough all on her own.
“Hi, mom,” she said, ears perking when her mother’s face appeared. Thankfully, they hadn’t invited the entire clan in on this call. That would have been chaos. “I’m fine. Really.”
“You know we’re worried, dear,” the older doe replied, her voice much calmer than her father’s. Through the calm, though, Judy could see the disquiet in her mother’s eyes. “Where… Is he with you now?”
“He’s in the other room,” came her reply, as one ear twitched towards the open door. The shower was still running. He was in the other room. The fox. Orange and cream fur. Sharp teeth, large paws, and claws that historically had been particularly adept at hunting bunnies. A stranger that she hardly knew, nothing protecting her from him other than his word. Dangerous. So dangerous.
Naked in the shower, with no doors closed between them.
Catching herself trying to imagine what such a deadly male would look like naked, she quickly reset her mind to focus on her mother’s words. “Has he told you what he wants? Why he’s agreed to protect you?”
“No, not yet,” she admitted, intentionally keeping her muzzle from turning into the confused frown it wanted to form. “But I’m sure it’s just money. And I’ll find a way to pay him.”
“You don’t think he would want…”
“I’m just trying to understand. If he hasn’t told you what he wants, even if he does want money, an amount should be discussed. You’re not the wealthiest mammal in the world, you know,” Bonnie said, her tone more informative than it needed to be. She found herself using a great deal of courtroom facial tricks to keep herself from rolling her eyes and making her mild annoyance obvious. “And if he wants more than you’re willing to pay, I wouldn’t put it past a fox to ask for something more…”
“Alright, alright,” her mother sighed, deflating a bit as she placed one paw over her eyes and took a deep breath. “As long as you’re careful. I trust you.”
“Thanks, mom,” she replied, letting a little smile show as she squeezed the phone lightly in both paws. It was all she could do when the need to hug her mother struck her hard - all she could do when they were so much further away than they had ever been. “I’ll call you again tomorrow night. Right now, I have about three weeks’ worth of documents and notes to go over in twenty-four hours so I need to go.”
“Wait, there was something Allan wanted me to tell you,” Bonnie interrupted, glancing behind her into the hall that she knew led to the kits room. “He says he recorded something for you on your carrot pen. He wouldn’t tell me what, but he wanted us to tell you the first chance once you reached the city.”
She blinked slightly as she reached down to pick the pen up from on top of the notebook beside her, trying to remember a moment when she had been without her pen long enough for her little brother to run off with it to record something. Glancing at the door, she clicked the switch on the side of the pen and listened to the voice of the young buck.
“Hey, Judy! I just want you to know that I believe in you and know you’ll win! You win in court stuff, right?” he asked, his voice fading for a second before it returned to full volume. “I love you, sis. We all love you!”
The sudden explosion of voices - all of them belonging to her younger brothers and sisters - saying that they loved her and hoped she came home soon, made her eyes sting as a smile grew. Clutching the pen to her chest for a moment, she turned her gaze back to her mother. “Tell him - them - that I love them, too.”
“And the being home soon?”
“I don’t know yet,” she said, deciding to be honest rather than needing to explain later why she had no idea when she would be coming home. “But as soon as I can.”
“All right, dear,” Bonnie said after a moment of silence, her smile warm if a little sad. “I’m afraid your father is off plowing a field in the dark, so I’ll let you get to your notes. Call me if you need anything, you hear?”
“I will, mom,” she sighed, wishing she could say goodnight to her dad, too. But just like her mother, she knew that it would just lead to another rant. And she was too tired for that now. “I love you both. Be sure to tell dad that I’ll be fine. I have my fox Taser, after all.”
“Yes, and we all saw how well that worked,” Bonnie murmured, drawing a grin from Judy before they said their goodbyes.
Setting the phone beside her on the bed, she stood for a moment in the dark. The shower had stopped running, but there was no sound of motion from the other room yet. Deciding to see if there was anything in the kitchen worth eating while she had a moment to herself, she set the carrot pen carefully on the notebook again before walking out into the main office. Running the idea of what he could want through her mind as she rummaged through the cabinet in the kitchenette, firmly avoiding the prospect of what her mother had been suggesting, she could only come up with two possible answers: legal favors in the future or simply money. Either one of the two would have been fine with her, as long as the legal favors remained legal and the amount of money wasn’t beyond her ability to pay within the next…
Her train of thought wrecked tragically when the fox stepped out of the bathroom. Orange and cream, no doors between. A lot more of it than she had ever anticipated seeing stood before her when Nick stepped out of the bathroom, towel in one paw raised to slowly scrub at one ear, the other holding his shirt at his side. The bare chest of the male held her attention for a moment longer than she intended and the jolt of surprise was overshadowed by pure fascination. The fact that his fur was still wet and only slightly rumpled allowed her to see the muscle tone beneath. Every line of muscle, holding a predatory strength and agility that she had witnessed earlier that day, trailing all the way down through the lightly colored fur until it started to thicken.
She realized that it was thickening because her riveted gaze had wandered below his belly. And that had her realizing that the pants of the seemingly un-phased fox remained unbuttoned. Heat raced through every inch of her as she straightened her back and quickly turned her gaze away from him, bracing her hands on the edge of the cabinet as she swallowed thickly.
“You could dress yourself,” she managed, though even she could hear how unsteady her voice was. Just the surprise of the moment. The fact that the heat lingered and crawled across her skin as she tried to banish the image of him from her mind was simply mortification. It had nothing to do with the way normally cool green eyes had seemed to sharpen and focus on her when her gaze had drifted lower than intended. Or the fact that she could hear the change in the pace of his breathing when he took a few steps away from the door to the bathroom. But he wasn’t moving away from her as she expected.
Instead, he leaned hip-shot against the counter no more than a foot away from her, slowly scrubbing the towel between his ears as he watched her. The flood of embarrassment caused by her own inability to form more words was overpowered by the fact that she could smell him. Soap, clean fur, something musky and rich. Entirely too masculine: more obviously male than she had expected. It dawned on her that he must have worn a scent mask in public. Whether it was to hide his identity or simply to remain less noticeable, she wasn’t certain. But the effects it had on her with every breath drawn in through a slowly twitching nose confused her. She fact that a sidelong glance at him showed her that his nose was twitching as well didn’t help. The flare of his nostrils, the way his gaze lingered on her even though she was doing nothing more than try to, and the fact that the towel slowly ran down the back of his neck, purposefully ruffling his fur, was as unnerving as it was strangely exhilarating.
“Did the talk with your parents go well?” he asked, his voice sounding an octave lower than normal. Or maybe it was the fact that she had blood rushing through her ears with every heartbeat.
“Yes,” she said, now managing to steady her voice as she tried to busy herself looking for food in the cabinet as she had intended, to begin with. The fact that there was food might have surprised her, had there not been a predator radiating his presence little more than a foot away from her. She refused to retreat, however. “I think they are handling it well, all things considered. Concern and warnings, as expected.”
“About me. I assume,” he added, sounding slightly amused. This drew her gaze from the box of oatmeal she had been pretending to read to him. His lips were parted in a lazy sort of smile, more a show of canines than anything. It was enough to have her gaze lingering on the sharp points of ivory, at any rate. Had her wondering how a fox kept from cutting themselves, which was silly. They weren’t needle-like or knife sharp. She imagined they could slide right over skin without so much as a scratch if it was gentle enough. This had her wondering what it might feel like, how it might affect her, which had her averting her gaze back to the box of oatmeal.
“You were mentioned, of course,” she admitted, not feeling the desire to tell him that he had been the only subject on her parent’s minds.
She realized how silly that was, suddenly. Here she was, in a city full of foxes, and her parents were only worried about the one… closest to her. She glanced back at him again, her gaze almost instantly drawn to the easy movement of muscle under fur when he drew himself away from the counter and narrowed the distance between them by half. She was forced to tilt her head back further to look up at him then as he gave a noncommittal grunt, tossing the towel onto the counter beside her. She felt cornered, trapped, and - realizing that she very literally was backed into a corner - was surprised that she wasn’t frightened so much as terribly hot.
Not so silly, after all.
“We’ll have to go shopping,” she commented, her voice little more than a whisper. The sound of cardboard creaking drew her attention from the predator’s green gaze to the box she held. A box that she had crushed between her paws. Blushing hotly, she turned away from him too quickly slide the ruined box back into the cabinet. “There is food here, but there are still things that I need.”
She nearly jumped out of her fur, nose twitching furiously when two large paws came to rest on the edge of the cabinet next to hers. Lavender eyes widened for a moment at the shadow of him consuming hers on the wall, the presence of him all too obvious even without it. Then she closed her eyes when the sound of his breath came closer, so close that she could feel the whisper of each exhale at the base of her ears. The sliver of heat that curled in her belly was not embarrassment. It was a combination of terror and something else she desperately wanted to ignore.
“If this is what I wanted,” he began, the low tone of his voice humming through her ear as she could have sworn she felt the feather-light touch of his nose against her fur, “in exchange for my protection? Would you give it?”
Her stomach tightened, turned. Dread and something else crawling through her until she felt that her knees would give out. Had he heard the conversation with her mother? How long had the shower been off before she’d come out into the main room?
“You… You heard?” She wanted to beat her head against the wall for the fact that her voice sounded so tiny and weak just then, but before she could correct herself he did touch her. Just the barest pressure of his chest against her back, but enough for her to feel the heat coming off him, to surround her in the smell of clean fox. She could hear his heartbeat he was so close to her now, and it made her ears drop only to rise again when they landed on his shoulders.
“Answer the question.”
His voice wasn’t cool now. Wasn’t sarcastic or amused or impatient. She couldn’t place the tone at all. But it was tempting when combined with the hum against her back where only a single layer of fabric separated them. The heat that pooled between her thighs as a rising ache almost had her pressing back into him. The emotions that struggled through her body in just a few moments of closeness to him left her thoughts a jumble for a moment, and she almost considered answering ‘Yes’ just to see how he would react. To see how far he was really looking to go.
“No,” she said in a rush of breath that she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. Another, deeper breath filled with the smell of clean, wet fur and fox was taken before she continued more firmly. “No, never. Never for that.”
The breath at the base of her ear, that near touch that tormented her, became an actual touch of his warm nose. Rooting into fur, quick, short huffs sending waves of heat rolling over her. She was forced to stifle a whimper when she felt his lips, then the slow drag of teeth against that sensitive flesh of her ear base. Now she knew what they felt like, how gentle they could be. Her eyes fluttered closed, the shock of how tempting it would be to change her mind dragging her thoughts away from the fact that she should have been resisting him.
And he was gone. His body, his heat, his breath, his paws, those teeth. She slumped against the counter, breathing the deeply appealing scent of clean, masculine predator as she tried to right the world around herself while staring down at her own paws. She wanted to be disturbed by the tingle that remained where his teeth had touched her. She wanted to be angry that he had been so bold. She wanted to lash out, tell him to get out for ever coming that close to her. But she felt the cold because his heat was gone, her body felt itchy and her mouth was so dry that she was forced to lick her lips before she managed to speak again.
“What the fuck was that, Nick?”
“I haven’t decided what I want from you yet, Carrots,” came his reply, now coming from the desk on the other side of the room. She turned to look over her shoulder at him, still not trusting her trembling legs enough to let go of the counter yet. “But I will clarify this now, as you just did: sex was never an option as payment. So you can assure your parents of that much.”
She watched him take a bottle from the bag he had brought in from the trunk of the car, the amber liquid and expensive label holding her gaze only for a moment before she returned them to him. He was facing away from her now. A sea of red fur down his back to his jerkily swaying tail, lose pants telling her that he still hadn’t bothered to button them. A full day with him, where his stance had always been calm and seemingly at ease, told her that he was tense. His ears may have been upright, but there was a noticeable tremble in them in the effort to keep them upright. Because of this, she almost found herself questioning the ‘as payment’ qualifier that he tacked onto the end of the statement. Instead, she focused on the relief that flooded through her. Relief and curiosity.
“You don’t know what you want?” The frown came as she straightened herself and ignored the ache that refused to fade, walking towards him as he poured the whiskey into a small shot glass on top of her desk. “How do you not even know what you want? You’ve been driving me around all day. You’ve killed someone. Risked your own life. And now you say that you don’t know?”
Leaving the glass where it was, he moved to the window without turning to face her still. The twitching of his tail seemed to slow as he gazed out into the night. His ears turned in multiple directions, though never in hers before he finally let the shade snap closed. When he turned back, his eyes were calm again. Cool and quiet as they focused on hers. She forced herself to hold them, to keep her gaze from wandering lower as he moved behind the desk and took a seat. He picked up the glass.
“You should get some sleep.” The glass was raised and held under his nose for a long moment though his eyes never wavered from hers. Seeing how his pupils dilated as he breathed in the scent of the spirits, how a hunger came into them that she was certain had nothing to do with her, concerned her. Then he licked his lips slowly, his eyes cleared and calmed, and he set the unconsumed drink on the desktop again. “You have a lot of work to do tomorrow. And it has already been an impressive day for the only bunny in Zootopia.”
She wanted to argue. She had to go over her notes, review files, plan the next day. But just the mention of her day and the one following it seemed to remind her body of how exhausted it was. The desire for answers remained, but the weight of her own limbs seemed to drag her down. And the gaze of the fox was overwhelming and made her body want to react in ways that she wasn’t at all accustomed to.
“You’re right,” she admitted, rolling her head back in an attempt to ease the tension in her neck. “I’m in no condition to work. Where will you sleep?”
“Who says I sleep?” he drawled lazily. She sent him a slightly irritated look, one of those ‘get real’ smirks on her muzzle. When his muzzle turned upward in a grin, it eased her somehow. Relaxed a great deal of the tension, even forgiving the fact that her eyes still wanted to wander over him. “I’ll sleep out here. Don’t worry. I have slept in worse. I’ve also slept in better, but I’ll sleep.”
She had to accept that, for now, even though the idea of a where she could put a fold-out couch in the office was running through her mind as she undressed for bed once alone in her room. After she had crawled into bed, thankful that she had packed a full-length nightshirt given the open-door policy, she lay awake despite her exhaustion. There was no sound from the office now. Or if there was, it was drowned out by the sounds of the night. The chirp of crickets, the call of a nightingale, the rustle of leaves in the wind. It left her mostly alone with her thoughts, questions that needed to be answered. About the case, about the fox one open door away from her, about her sudden and intensely sexual reaction to him, and his lack of an actual cost for his services as her guardian.
Too much. Too many questions about him. She curled tighter under the blanket as she tried to sort it all in a mind that liked to have answers to every question. A mind that rebelled against the fact that he gave her almost none. The weight of it slowly dragged her near sleep before she heard soft footfalls in the office. Drowsily, she twitched her ears a bit and halfway tried to hone in on what he was doing and where he was going. She woke up, eyes opened though she remained unmoving when she realized that they had stopped at her door. Then all she could hear was his breathing. Deep breaths. In and out. In and out. Slow, drawn, held and released slowly. She could almost feel his eyes on her as he simply breathed for a few seconds. And she wondered as he did: how keen was a fox’s nose?
After a few moments, moments which seemed to last forever to her, the breathing slowed to normal and he withdrew from the door. Tension fled her, followed by a foolish feeling that she decided to ignore. She realized her nose was twitching and that her fingers were gripping the sheets so tightly that it was almost painful. Forcing herself to relax, it only took a few seconds of berating herself for sleep to crawl over her.
His voice from the other room, as if from a dream. Distant. Too far distant to drag her from sleep again. Reminding her of her own father’s words to her.
They would creep in at night and eat little bunnies in their beds.
And though she wouldn’t remember the question the next morning, in that moment it was an echo in her mind as blackness claimed her.
Why was she so disappointed that this fox had not?