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Nick had already seen Judy die again and again, but it never got any easier to watch. Each and every time it happened, Nick felt like a piece of himself was being ripped away, and each and every time, he was the one who killed her by letting go. Like a reverse Grim Reaper, Judy needed Nick’s touch to stay alive, and he could never hold on long enough. He was forced to let go because it was the only way forward (or was it the only way back?). Except the final death (or maybe the first death… Nick could never work it out) when his touch wasn’t enough.

It all began and ended with death #1 (or #149, depending on how you looked at it) on a stormy spring night. Nick held Judy’s mangled body in the street as sheets of rain washed over them. Her body shuddered out her final breath, and with crystal clarity, Nick would see the last time they’d held each other earlier that day. Then there would be a flash of light, and he was there.

The sun was still trying to break through the stormclouds that had rolled in that morning as they pulled each other close for a kiss. Not a chaste peck on his cheek, like Judy had done a few times before, but their first real kiss. They clung to each other in an embrace that was almost desperate.

The scenes after that unwound, like Nick was watching a movie of his life, until that night when the rain fell by the bucketload and she died again. He held her before the flash of light took him, and they pulled each other close again. Over and over, Nick held her broken body and the light took him back, like a never ending nightmare. Nothing he did could change the outcome until eventually Nick gave in and pulled away before their first kiss.

Then she always looked at him in shock and took a step back, and another, until she slipped on the curb and fell into the street. Nick could only watch in horror as a car ran over Judy, killing her instantly for death #2. Then there was a flash of light and he found himself two days earlier.

Nick and Judy crouched behind a car as stray bullets ricocheted off the walls of nearby buildings. She stood and started to race across the open area towards the wounded officer behind a nearby police cruiser. Nick grabbed her arm, preventing Judy from stepping into a sudden volley of automatic gunfire that peppered the spot directly in front of her. When Nick finally did stop himself from grabbing her arm, there wasn’t much left for him to hold afterward before the bright light took him again after death #3.

Judy was hanging over an abyss. He held her paw and was finally able to drag her into his lap. They embraced. The scenes unwound until he couldn’t stop her from being decimated by automatic gunfire. Eventually Nick would just stand silently and watch her grip loosen, and the surprise and confusion on her face before she fell to death #5 was the worst. He’d mostly stopped trying to save her in these situations because then he just had to go through the previous death (or was it the next death?) all over again. The only one he could never change was the last final death. So far it was inevitable, no matter what he did.

And so it went. Every hug, every touch, every caress: Nick remembered them all. And every time he avoided them, it led to Judy’s death, one way or another.

Death #123 at the Gazelle concert was the weirdest one. When Judy moved to hip bump him as she danced enthusiastically to the music, he would dodge away. Judy would overcorrect and tumble over to fall under the trampling feet of a nearby elephant.

Death #128 occurred before he got on the train to the academy. When he avoided giving her a hug, she tried to follow him and would end up getting accidentally pushed from the train platform onto the third rail. Trying to avoid getting on the train didn’t work either. If he tried to change things too much, Nick would wake up as if from a brief and restless nap, the same thing that happened if he somehow died. Just like that movie about the groundhog whose day kept repeating, Nick discovered even his own death couldn’t break the cycle. He had some leeway to alter things, but not enough to stop fate. Like an ant on a Mobius strip, no matter which way Nick went he ended up at the same place eventually.

The times Nick avoided her touches in the pit at the museum were the worst, where he would inevitably accidentally smash the blue night howler sphere in his pocket and go savage. These were the only times he was directly responsible for her death, and he made sure to skip through them quickly.

The time under the bridge was almost as bad as the museum. Once Nick finally stopped himself from hugging her, Judy just assumed he’d never forgive her before she walked away and disappeared. Nick never saw her again. Eventually there was a blinding light and he found himself climbing out of the water.

Nick and Judy had just escaped the hospital. He barely made it to shore, and she grabbed his paw before she was pulled into a storm drain. Eventually, Nick would have to let the water take her for death #149. Weirdly enough, this was the happiest death, because it meant they were almost to the beginning of the end. Or was it the end of the beginning?

They rode in the battered gondola as it soared over the rainforest district through the early morning. Nick said, “If the world is only going to see a fox as shifty and untrustworthy, then there’s no point in trying to be anything else.”

Judy replied, “Nick, you are so much more than that.”

She reached out to place her paw on his arm. Nick always wanted to move away to avoid her touch, but this was the one time he never would. Deep down, he knew that without this touch, none of the others would happen. Even with the pain and heartbreak ahead, he selfishly couldn’t give up the rest. Nick was finally at the wellspring feeding the river that tore through his barren soul on its way back to his Sea of Misery. But now that he’d fought his way upstream, Nick felt the trip back was worth it.

The cycle began (or ended) again and the scenes of his life would unfold. Nick would grab her paw and pull her out of the water. He’d hold her as she wept and asked for forgiveness. He’d play his part in the ruse at the museum. Nick would hug her tightly before he went off to the academy, and he always smiled when she’d hip bump him at the Gazelle concert. All of these touches and more he would savor, treasures to be stored away for dark times ahead.

Inevitably they would stand in the morning rain again while they kissed for the first and last time, and his heart would sing with joy. This time things would be different, he just knew it. He’d shove aside the doubt until that night when he found himself standing over her broken body, sheets of rain falling around them.

He was afraid to touch her, but he could never force himself to let Judy go without holding her, because what if this was the last time? If he didn’t hold her now, would she be gone forever?

Nick held her and wept. “Don’t leave me again, Judy. I can’t let you go.” But he knew he would, just like he always did. Judy’s last breath shuddered out in a final gasp. There was a flash of light, and Nick was gone.