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Guardian Blue - Winter Hearth

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 Winter Hearth

Chapter 1:  Serenity and Simplicity

 

 

 

Judy smiled at her mate as he stared warily at his mother.  Vivienne sat across from them on the train with her canvas weekend bag.  The bunny furrowed her small brow at her fox’s uneasy expression as he regarded his mom.  The ride had started out quiet.  There was no teasing or banter, and that indicated, to the bunny, a possible grievance to which she’d not been made openly aware.  Her quiet patience finally expired.

 

“What’s on your mind, Slick?”

 

“Huh?” Nick glanced down at her and then flattened his ears in obvious scandalous indignation as he gestured at Judy, looking back to the vixen across from him.  “What, nothing?  I get a brain duster if I call Judy ‘Carrots’, but she can just call me ‘Slick’?”  The bunny grinned brightly at him, knowing very well that he was deflecting, not genuinely hurt.  It was better hearing the banter though.  It told her nothing was seriously wrong.

 

“Well, you were a con-artist, sweetie,” his mother pointed out.  Judy grinned victoriously at her vulpine lover.

 

“She literally farmed carrots!” the male fox huffed.

 

“…and yet is not actually a carrot herself, dear,” Vivienne pointed out teasingly.  She wore the patented Wilde Family low lidded smug expression.

 

“And I’m not a deer!” Nick crossed his arms, pouting.

 

“But you are dear to us both,” Vivienne crooned.

 

“Uh huh!” Judy chimed in agreement.  “Sure are!”  Nick slouched.  The bunny laughed at him, getting a few stares from other rabbits on the train. This one was headed to Bunnyburrow.  It was an early morning ride again, though not as unpleasant as the first time she’d gone home with Nick.  He didn’t fare well on that ride because he hadn’t had much sleep and ate just before the trip, but Judy still decided to cut her fox a little slack.  He appreciated that greatly. 

 

It had been just over two months since the harrowing events in the Interior, and things had calmed down significantly.  Judy was absolutely determined not to dwell on that mess, as her wound was fully healed and she had a happy weekend ahead of her.  It was a needed break for the two officers.  Chief Tora had not really warmed to the bunny and her partner yet, but she did not seem to be outwardly antagonizing them either.  The tigress seemed more content to leave them alone, so long as they were not actively bothering her or causing problems.  Her new duties as chief had completely dominated her time.

 

So far, little about the fox and bunny’s daily routine as officers had changed once Judy got off of Desk Duty from her injuries.  By that, it meant they had been on Fluff Duty for the past month.  It was not a surprise.  Nick was absolutely certain that Bogo would have done the same.  Besides, they couldn’t go back into active duty until they were cleared for it, and that was a bit of a process after that kind of incident.  The fox already knew all too well.  Bogo reassured them both at the Fall Festival party that everything would be fine.  The ZPD very much wanted them back on the streets, but had no intention of putting them right back into recovery in their haste.  Chief Tora had, at that time, gone home for a few days for a family event.  Despite still acting as Mayor, Bogo had been back at his desk at least for part of each day.  It had been a nice week of semi-normalcy with the bull fearing a pranking from Nick that never came.

 

Encouragement from the cape buffalo made Judy feel slightly better, as it reminded her that her real chief was not so far away.  Nick implored Judy not to complain to their very busy boss-turned-mayor about how Tora had initially reacted to them.  It was going to be handled.  The idea of how Nick intended to do that still frightened the bunny, but she let it go.  She felt like the chief could still do something, but agreed that their reputation might be on the line if they got him involved.  They had not demanded any special treatment up to that point.  If they asked the standing mayor for help, it would certainly be seen as a request for special treatment.  All those problems were falling away behind them, however, as the train raced away from the city.

 

Judy smiled kindly to her faux-grumpy fox beside her and murmured, “You never did say what was on your mind, Slick.”  She was pretty deliberately poking him.  He was not a morning fox, and getting his heart-rate up would bring him out of grumpy territory eventually.

 

“Just… Mom left Duke in charge of the bakery this weekend.  You have to know I’m a little uneasy about that,” Nick explained.

 

“You and Duke have been getting along,” Vivienne interjected, “What’s this all about?”

 

“It’s not that… I mean… Duke’s tiny.  He can’t lift a full tray of muffins on his own.  I am just a little confused about how he’s supposed to manage all that.  He’s only been at it a couple of months as it was.”

 

Vivienne chuckled at that and shook her head slowly.  “Don’t you worry about that, Sweetie.  Rudy volunteered to help, half days.  Once all the baking’s done for the day, Duke doesn’t actually have to lift anything heavier than a cream-filled eclair.”

 

Nick sat bolt-upright.  “Rudy?  Spotsworth?  The bobcat?!” the fox cried scandalously.

 

“Yep, that’s the one!” Vivienne chimed.

 

“He’s a crook!” Nick barked, causing Judy to shush him as more bunny eyes trained on the louder vulpine.

 

“So were you and Duke!” hissed the fox’s mother.  “…and see there, I still trust you with my only daughter!”  The vixen indicated Judy.  Nick head-tilted, eyes widening.  Something seemed… off about that whole dynamic as illustrated.  It tickled the bunny, however, and she had to restrain her giggling.  With him distracted by that, his mom continued, “It’ll be fine.  We have an understanding.”

 

“What understanding?” demanded Nick, obviously not convinced as he snapped back into the moment.

 

“I might have told him that if he disappointed me, I would have to tell Sergeant Hopps that the bobcat made me terribly unhappy…”  Viv grinned meekly.

 

“That seems… almost sufficient.”  Nick nodded slowly, getting a growl from his bunny.

 

Vivienne looked away bashfully, “…then I might have also shown him the video of Judy taking down the bear that was resisting arrest.”

 

“Mom!” Judy snapped.  “That’s technically coercion!”  Nick burst into a fit of laughter.  The bunny then shrank back a little, realizing two things.  First, she’d been a bit louder than she intended.  Second, in a train car full of bunnies, she called Vivienne ‘Mom’.  Yeah, eyes were definitely on her now.  While the happy couple was not really hiding their relationship outside of work, they were not flying a banner either.  Most of the mammals at work knew about it after they had told Clawhauser, but they hadn’t even finished the paperwork in Zootopia yet because of concerns that if the forms were not very specific.  Some nosey spoil-sport might actually cause problems for the pair down the line if their documentation for their union was not air-tight and they both knew it.  It had to be absolute and beyond challenge.  While no one had given them a hard time about it so far, they didn’t want to invite that scenario either.

 

“He volunteered!” Vivienne offered, ignoring Judy’s slip.

 

“Before or after you showed me flattening a bear?” insisted Judy, refocused on the problem at paw.

 

“Are you really Judy Hopps?” asked a sweet little voice off to the side.  Judy’s attention whipped over to a small girl bunny in a train seat a little down the aisle.  The tiny doe was albino, like her sister, Sammie.  Judy tensed up.  They were off duty, but still very much representatives of the force, even on their well-earned vacation. 

 

“I am!” Judy said with as kind a smile as she could muster while juggling her family of mischievous foxes.

 

“I’m Whitney!” the doe beamed.  “Is that your partner?” she inquired.

 

“I am!”  Nick mimicked Judy even down to the tone, which made it seem directed as teasing.  He matched exactly the artificial level of cheerful that the bunny officer had used.

 

“Wow, it’s so cool to actually meet you.”  Whitney glanced at the bunny beside her, a chocolate-toned buck who appeared more than a little wary.  He nodded at the little doe however, and the girl moved over to where Judy and the foxes were sitting.

 

“Nice to meet you too, Whitney!” Judy offered, trying to level the deliberately sunny tone of her voice so it didn’t seem forced.  She would deal with her foxes later.  “Are you heading to Bunnyburrow for the holiday to see family?” she inquired.

 

“Yup!  We do every year.  My dad works in the advertising business.  We moved to Zootopia ‘cause he didn’t wanna advertise produce.”  Nick laughed at that, failing to restrain himself.

 

Judy shot him a look that could curdle Kool-Aid and then smiled at the white doe again.  “My partner and I are spending the holidays with my family too.  I’m from Bunnyburrow myself.”

 

“Really?  I didn’t know that!” Whitney chimed.  “So… Uh… Anyway, I just wanted to say… thank you.  Thanks ‘cause you inspired me and everything.  A lot.”

 

“Oh?” Judy responded, sitting up straighter.  “Looking to become a police officer too?”

 

“Oh no!” Whitney chimed brightly.  “I’m not violent at all.”  Nick seized up with a sharp squeak to show that he was probably going to die if he couldn’t laugh, but he held it back.  “I want to be a TV and movie star, like Jack Savage.”

 

Nick finally managed to force himself to talk.  “Then… Then shouldn’t Jack have been the one… the one more inspiring to you?”  His voice was high pitched, proof that he was only barely keeping his mirth in check.

 

“Well, Judy is more like me,” Whitney explained.

 

“Oh?” the grey-toned doe asked, suddenly curious.  She was happy to take the floor away from her fox while he got himself under control.

 

“Yeah.  Daddy said it would be super hard for me to be on TV or in movies because there’s not a lot of albino bunnies who make it on there.  It would be like being a bunny cop.  But there’s actually a really great bunny cop.  So I’m still gonna try!”  Judy leaned back a little at hearing that.  She was sure that a few other bunnies had been inspired by her into taking jobs that bunnies were not normally chosen for.  That was a pretty natural assumption.  But, she had not considered that she might inspire some who wanted a future that they personally might have originally struggled to attain.  Judy tried to bury the flood of emotion from that realization.

 

“Thank you, Whitney.  I… I’m very happy to hear that,” the bunny officer managed to say without her voice cracking.

 

“Do you have… any advice that might help?” she softly pried, obviously nervous.  Judy froze up.  Even doing school visits she was not often asked that question.  At least, not in the scope it was being used now.  Whitney wanted life advice, not advice about dealing with bad grades, bullies, or getting in shape.

 

“Uhh…  Well…”  Judy folded her ears back and then finally thought back to some of the best encouragement she’d had since she left the academy.  It was by her old instructor.  “I would tell you… that if the goal you have your heart set on is really what you want… deep down inside… then nothing… and no one… will ever be able to push you back hard enough to keep you from taking another step forward.  You just have to keep moving forward.”

 

“Even if my dad thinks I shouldn’t?” inquired the girl.  Judy winced a bit, eyes shooting up to the anxious-looking older buck.  His ears were back.  He was very much put on the spot by that.  Judy remembered the misgivings of her own parents in her life choices.  She did not want to smear this doe’s dad right there.  Vivienne spoke up instead.

 

“Whitney,” she murmured softly, “Parents have a very natural and understandable aversion to seeing the ones we love struggle.  We want them to enjoy the lives that we brought them into.  When they suffer instead, even if it’s for something they really want… it makes us sad.”  The tiny doe gazed back at Viv with round scarlet eyes, unblinking.

 

“Yeah… I… I guess…” the girl sighed a little sadly.

 

“However,” the vixen continued, “That doesn’t mean that we want our kits to give up and not have their dream at all.  If he worries for you… rely on him to help you make that dream come true.  He may be worried, but any good father will do whatever he can to help. Your dream is the silver screen.  His dream is your happiness.  Be a team.  You can both get what you want if you work together.”  The young doe was silent, eyes wide in wonder.

 

“Th… Thank you…” whispered the buck, seeming shaken by that.  Vivienne nodded.

 

“Wow… thanks…” said Whitney, finally.  “Are you really Officer Judy’s mom?” she openly wondered.  The bunny cop tensed up.  This might be a hard one to explain to one so young.

 

“She’s my mother,” Nick responded with a smile.

 

“Wow!  Cool!”  The little doe bounced a bit.  She appeared to immediately dismiss it, just like that.  The expression on her father’s face was evidence that the clear connection had been made.  The girl continued.  “How about you, Nick?  Do you have any advice for me?  This is like getting my presents early!”

 

“Sure!” Nick beamed, “Learn to target mammals in positions of power that make decisions about your future.  Find out who their friends are.  Make friends with them.”  Judy’s blood ran cold.  What kind of advice was her ex-con fox about to give this little girl?!  “Ask those friends questions about the things your target likes or even better… needs.  When it’s time, approach your target with confidence and knowledge, and make clear demands from your own position of power.  Don’t back down, because when you have something they need, they will listen to you.”

 

Judy’s muzzle hung open.  “Nick, she’s… like… twelve.”

 

“That’s… serious advice, Marshmallow,” Whitney’s dad intoned.  “Don’t forget any of that.” 

 

“What?” Judy glanced back to him, seeing the older buck nodding sagely.  Seriously?  It seemed so shady, the way Nick put it.

 

The doe’s father explained casually, “I’m deep in the advertising industry.  I’ve seen it.  It really does work like that.  You gotta kinda push the people up top to make things happen your way, but you gotta use the right push.  I think even I can use his advice, honestly.  It’s smart.”

 

This time it was Nick who got to broadly grin at his bunny in smug, smug victory.

 

 

 

 *************

 

 

 

Vivienne stood a little shakily, having been sitting for too long.  The train had stopped at the quaint Bunnyburrow station.  There were quite a few rabbits mulling about, but Judy was pleased to see that Charlie was there among them.  He’d driven the family’s station wagon out to pick her and the foxes up.  They disembarked from the train and Judy bolted out to her brother, throwing her arms around him. 

 

“Hey, Sis!  Good to see you again.  And, you know… not actually on the mend.”  He laughed.  Judy was aware that, at least behind closed doors, the family teased a bit about the doe’s frequent need for medical attention in the past year.  Such a thing wasn’t really meant to be funny, it just… was.  There was even a marker-board on the refrigerator at her mom and dad’s house with an “X Days since Judy’s Last Injury” written on it.  She supposed it currently stood at eleven due to a recent mishap cutting veggies.  That accident didn’t require real medical attention, but her dad had sighed and she was sure she heard marker squeaking when she told him.

 

“Hey Charlie!” Nick laughed as he came up to the pair.  The foxes had casually walked from the train instead of running like Judy had done.  Nick’s leg was certainly healed enough to do so, but he let his mother retain her dignity of just pacing happily over to them.

 

“Oh hey… Nick!  And you brought your mom, I heard.  Hi!  I’m Judy’s brother Charlie!”  He reached out a paw but got scooped in for a hug instead.  He eagerly hugged back, appreciative of the more bunny-friendly greeting.  Judy was reminded, in her brother’s surprise, that foxes didn’t typically hug that much because they were more scent-oriented.  There was decidedly a more familial or intimate suggestion in sharing someone’s scent.  Vivienne, however, was family, so it was fine for her.

 

Judy and Charlie walked together as they moved away from the station, the bunny hauling her little suitcase behind her.  She spoke pleasantly, feeling cheerful.  “Who else is gonna be at the farm this year?”

 

Charlie answered energetically, “Everyone!”

 

Judy paused.  “Wait, really?  Like… everyone, everyone?” she could not remember the last time all her siblings were even in the same place at the same time.

 

“Some of them didn’t even get to really meet Nick last time you were here, and now he’s a member of the family, right?  They wanna meet him,” the buck chuckled.  He had to talk a little louder just from the din of bunnies at the station all laughing, talking and excitedly greeting one another.

 

Judy sighed.  “And here I was looking forward to a nice, quiet holiday at home.  Is everyone already there?”

 

“Nah, just the ones that still live there plus Eli and Jessie,” answered Charlie.  “Well… Angela lives there too, now.  She moved back in because she’s going to college.  But that starts at the beginning of the year.”  Judy nodded at that, not sure what would have provoked her most reckless sister into going back to school, but she was glad to hear it.

 

“Well, you wanted to see all of us together, Slick, looks like you’ll get the chance.”  Judy turned to smile at her husband but he was missing.  She looked back some distance and cupped her muzzle.  There was a pile of bunny kits, squealing and laughing and cheering.

 

“Oh noes, they got ‘im!” Charlie laughed loudly.  Vivienne was actually holding her sides, in hysterics, struggling to grasp her phone to record the carnage.  Nick was laid out flat, buried under all of them.  Judy was pretty sure she knew what had happened.  The little albino doe had told some other kits that Nick Wilde was there.  Because of the action-packed video that had rekindled the love of Munch in Bunnyburrow, that specific fox was really popular with local kits.

 

Nick got a paw up out of the pile, flailing it a little, and then it melodramatically sank back down.  Judy laughed harder at his antics.  This was not so unusual in terms or reception for a lapine family member.  Little bunnies swarmed.  That’s just how it worked.  With his mate’s help, the fox eventually finally got out of the fluff-pile and reveled in the attention for a little bit, answering questions about his munch games in his youth and the kinds of mammals he’d played against in the city.  Judy didn’t want to deny him that.

 

They finally made it back to the family’s green station wagon.  It was a vehicle large enough for Nick and his mother to ride in comfortably.  Even so, Charlie helped Vivienne get in.  She appreciated the care shown, and accepted the help despite being a lot more spry than her age would suggest. 

 

The ride toward the Hopps farm featured conversation mostly between Charlie and Viv, as she’d never been to Bunnyburrow and was absolutely shocked at the field of view.  The region was so incredibly flat and vacuous.  It was open land and the occasional hill or farm as far as the eye could see.  Trees were sparse and the vixen was just not used to that.  There were more trees as they got closer to the Hopps farm, but Charlie took an unannounced detour to let Judy and Nick see the empty plot where the Tuber farm had been. 

 

It had burned down the last time the pair had come to visit Judy’s family home.  Nick and Judy had risked their lives in the burning house to save five bunny kits still inside.  That was the other reason that Nick got piled on at the station.  It was a quiet and somber moment, and Nick answered a few questions from his mom about the rescue itself, filling in gaps or just things she’d forgotten.  It seemed so long ago, even if it had been less than a year.

 

Charlie informed them that Doc Tuber had opened a new partner-practice in Deerbrooke, so he didn’t live in Bunnyburrow proper anymore, but that he visited all the time.  His oldest, Sadie, played Munch at her school and was on track to be the best player in the county.  Nick said that it felt appropriate. 

 

After that detour, they strayed from their course just slightly once more to go into town.  He was picking Sammie up from work to take her to the farm for the weekend.  This suited Viv just fine because she was delighted with the holiday decorations that were up everywhere.  The evergreen trees and chains of holly and lights added a festive atmosphere to what was, at that time of day, a quiet little main street.  Charlie pulled into the parking lot of the pharmacy, which was the best place to park and wait in that location.  And they waited, the buck in the driver’s seat texting his sister.

 

“Now, this isn’t the only little downtown area for Bunnyburrow, right?” asked Vivienne.  “There’s a bunch of them.”

 

“Right!” chimed Charlie. “There are six, but this is the largest.  There are little pockets with shops and the like spaced pretty evenly away from each other.  That was done to reduce travel time and traffic when we are all very busy tending to the farms.  The different little towns inside Bunnyburrow cater to things a little differently.  Angora specializes in dining and pubs and the like.  Hareton is the go-to for farmers markets.  You want building materials, you can find everything you need in Warren.  If you fancy branding yourself a ne’er-do-well, Cedar Creek is the place to be.”  Judy flinched at him sharing that little tidbit.  A tour guide her brother was not.

 

“Oh, is that Sammie?” inquired Viv, seeming unfazed by that.  Judy looked out the window and saw her sister.  Sammie was dressed nicely in a blouse and skirt with a denim jacket, but she had a few bandages up along the rims of her ears.  Judy wondered with a pained grimace if Sammie had slammed them in a door or something.  That happened to bunnies sometimes.  The doe officer then recognized that she was walking close alongside another fox.  That got her attention.  She was aware of her albino sister’s completely understandable and perfectly relatable fondness for vulpines.  With that little bit of background, Judy knew she was not likely just sharing the sidewalk with this one.  She got out so she could politely meet him, honestly wanting to provide the attention that deserved.  Nick and Vivienne did the same, likely just following the bunny’s lead.  Sammie immediately darted away from the fox she had been walking with and hugged Nick and Judy each in turn.

 

“I’m so happy you all could make it!” she cried, and then smiled brightly at Vivienne who was obviously trying not to fixate on the soft-formed doe’s red eyes.  “I’m especially glad you could make it back, Viv.  I didn’t get to hang out with you nearly enough back in New Reynard.  Welcome to our neck of the not-woods.”  She hugged the vixen as well, super tight.

 

Judy heard her partner speak up.  “I’m Sammie’s brother, Nick.”  The bunny cop snapped her attention to her mate as he introduced himself to the other fox, holding out a paw.  She tensed up hard.  She knew that her fox had done that for the shock value to prompt the other vulpine into speaking up about his own purpose for walking with Sammie.

 

“Oh, I know who you are!” he laughed in a light and friendly tone.  “Sammie’s told me a bunch.”  The slightly heavier fox took Nick’s paw, giving it a very firm and confident shake.  He looked a little older than Sammie, though maybe not quite as old as the fox he was greeting.  He wore glasses, which made him seem a little older, however.  His fur-color was a little lighter, and he had a white tipped tail which was a lot more common with foxes in the Bunnyburrow area.  He wore a blue gingham shirt and tan cargo-styled pants that made him really fit in with the usual casual attire in town.

 

“You have us at a disadvantage then!” Nick chimed.

 

“I’m Mike Russettail,” he answered pleasantly.  “I’m one of Sammie’s friends.”

 

“Are you coming to the farm with us too?” requested Charlie, seeming a little confused.  It was going to be a tight fit, even in the station wagon, with three foxes and three bunnies.

 

“Naw, I’m stayin’ here, unfortunately.  I sure want to, but we’re short on paws.  I gotta stay here.”  He laughed in a kind tone to show he was genuinely okay with that.  Vivienne slipped back into the back seat of the car as Sammie crawled in.  That would put her in the middle between Nick and his mother when he got back in.

 

Charlie nodded at that.  “Sammie mentioned you - I just didn’t know you were a fox.  I certainly hadn’t recognized you!  Thanks for takin’ care of my sister.  She can be a real paw-full.”  The white doe put her tongue out at her brother.

 

“Hah!  Yeah, she sure can be, but I love her anyhow.”  That got Judy and Nick’s attention instantly.  Oh.  It really was that kind of friend.  That he was a fox wasn’t a huge surprise to Judy, but she was very surprised that Sammie hadn’t even mentioned that she was dating again.  The white doe rather nervously told Mike she’d see him Monday morning, and he gave her thumbs-up and cheerfully resumed his trek down the sidewalk, tail waving in a likely intentional fashion at the white bunny in the car.  Nick got in beside Sammie and closed the door.  Judy hopped in as well, and Charlie pulled out of the parking lot.

 

While the bunny cop figured Nick would be the first to say something, or at least Charlie, to prompt Sammie to explain herself, it was actually Vivienne who spoke up.  “There’s uh… There’re actually not enough foxes for every bunny to get one.  We are on comparatively limited supply.”  Charlie laughed at that.

 

“It’s not common in Bunnyburrow, I promise,” Sammie chuckled uneasily, likely not understanding that Vivienne was being cute.

 

Judy felt the ice was broken enough for her to ask.  “So it’s a thing then, you and Mike?”

 

There was a shy pause from Sammie and she took a deep breath and answered. “Yeah, it is.  Not something we share all over the place, obviously, but Mikey figured you and Nick would probably not frown on it, out of anyone we knew.”

 

“Of course we wouldn’t!” barked Vivienne quickly, eager to make sure that the uncertain doe understood that there was no ill feeling about it.  She had only been teasing a little.

 

Judy leaned back, talking toward the back seat.  “I just figured you would have emailed me about him or mentioned something on the phone is all.”

 

“I didn’t want everyone thinking I was just… you know… doing it because you were with a fox.  And not everyone in Bunnyburrow would be totally friendly about the idea anyway, so we’ve kept the nature of our friendship pretty private.”

 

“Not another patient, I hope?” pressed Judy.  She remembered how much Sammie’s former boyfriend had messed her up, even about trusting other foxes.

 

Sammie sighed at that and shook her head.  “No, this one’s not.  And we don’t call them patients.  I’m a social worker most of the time, not a doctor.”

 

“So how’d you meet him?” interrogated Charlie.  The tone of protective brother was thick on his voice.  Judy could understand.  Usually, if one of her sisters avoided talking about a prospective mate, there was a problem.  He was wise to be guarded.

 

“That’s actually… kind of Nick and Judy’s fault,” Sammie chuckled awkwardly.

 

“Oh, do tell,” Nick stated.

 

“Well, a few months ago I was at a Shrew-Value hardware store picking up floor cleaner and a new mop for the station because it was real quiet that morning and I didn’t want to fall asleep.  Sometimes it gets that way in the week.  There’s not a lot to do even for the sheriff!  The social worker can only water the plants so many times before she has to go outside.  It was that kind of morning, but it was too early for lunch so I couldn’t just go to Mama’s Kitchen up on Third Avenue; I had to think of something else to do-…”

 

“Tangent, Sammie!” Judy and Charlie both cried simultaneously.  Nick laughed.  When their albino sister got nervous talking about something personal, she would wander around the conversation aimlessly and had to be knocked back on the rails sometimes.  Judy often wondered if she ever did that talking with others, or if it was something she did only when talking about herself.

 

Sammie laughed awkwardly again at herself, then continued, “Right… Sorry… So, I was in the hardware store.  And I was looking around and got a text message.  It was from mom.  It said “Judy found fox.  Nick ALIVE.  At hospital now.”  The grey doe jerked slightly at that.  She had not really thought much about how all of her sisters reacted when that news went out.

 

“It was a mass message.  She sent it to the whole family,” Charlie explained.

 

“I know, she didn’t even remove my name from the list,” Judy informed.

 

Vivienne interjected.  “I imagine that came as a big surprise right then.”

 

Charlie responded, “I was at home and got stuck answering the phones because Mom and Dad turned theirs off.  It was completely nuts.  Don’t do that again, please.”

 

The white doe nodded at that slowly and sighed.  “So yeah… I uh… I made a bit of a scene, I’m afraid.”

 

Vivienne covered her muzzle.  “Oh dear… Yes, and you were in a store too.  That had to be rough.”

 

“I cried,” Sammie admitted.  She sounded choked up about it even then, months later.

 

“I’m sorry I put so many of you guys through the wringer on that,” Nick stated softly.

 

Vivienne put a paw on her son’s shoulder.  “Not your fault.  Dumb mentally unbalanced cervine,” she growled.

 

“So, you were upset in the store, then what?” Judy interrupted, not wanting her partner to become gloomy.

 

“Yeaaaaah, when I say I cried, I mean… I… was hysterical,” Sammie clarified.  Judy gritted her teeth a little trying to imagine that.  Sammie had felt guilty for preventing Judy from getting to admit her love for Nick before it happened.  She thought that the fox died without ever getting to know and there was an ocean of guilt on her for it.  Sammie sent so many text messages of support and joy when it was discovered that Nick had actually survived.  The doe spoke softly, “Even worse, I was in the section of the store where they had the PVC pipe.  That amplified me like some kind of insane musical instrument.”  Vivienne cringed at that visibly.  “So… Well, Mike’s the manager at that store and he was immediately afraid I’d managed to take one of my paws off with one of the display power-tools so he came running with the emergency first aid kit and everything.”

 

“Oh my goodness!” cried Nick’s mom.

 

“He ended up taking me to the ‘office slash break room’ to help me calm down,” Sammie explained.  “It took a while for him to get me to a point where I was even understandable enough that he could find out what was going on.  Turns out, he was well aware of the uh… incident… and he’d really been pulling for Nick and Judy too.  He was pretty shaken by the news also, and we just stayed in the back a while and talked about things, pulled up news feeds, and digested what was going on.  Like… We did that for over an hour.  After I calmed down, I insisted that I really needed to go back to work before they sent deputies out to find me.  And right there, he offered to make dinner for me.  He’d been so sweet and all, I couldn’t refuse.  We got to be friends, and then more after that, I guess.  It’s been… nice!”  Sammie was easily identifiable as blushing.

 

“Does Mom know?” asked Charlie.

 

Sammie waved dismissively.  “I told her I met someone, but she’s not pushed.  She was honestly too busy with other stuff so I’ve enjoyed that too.”

 

Nick laughed playfully, “By the time Judy decides to actually make any kind of formal announcement about us, bunny-fox pairings will be falling out of fashion again.” 

 

“It’s just two pairings!” Judy scolded.

 

“Uh, Jack and Skye?” prompted Nick.

 

“Oh… Why did I forget that?”  She covered her face shamefully.

 

“You know she’s starring in a movie based on that mess in the Interior, right?  Skye, I mean,” informed Charlie.

 

Nick nodded.  “Yeah, she told us about it.  When she was moving out.”  He playfully pouted.  He didn’t like losing one of the only neighbors he actually talked with in his building, but he understood.  When they came out as a couple publically, Skye was almost never in her apartment in the first place.  There were some fireworks on social media for a bit, but as Jack predicted, it died down almost instantly when his new movie was announced a few weeks later. 

 

“Who are they gonna cast for you and Nick?” asked Sammie.

 

Judy’s mate laughed.  “Oh, it’s only based on what happened there, it’s not what actually happened there.  There’s still too many open investigations going on to pull that off!”

 

“Oh… Then what’s it about?” the white doe pressed curiously.

 

Vivienne answered, “It’s one of Jack’s usual spy-movies, but it’s about protecting a secret out in the Interior.  While some panning shots are being taken by a crew out there, apparently Jack and Skye won’t even have to go out there.  Something about Skye… not liking spiders?” the vixen stated.

 

“I hear they’ve got big ones,” Charlie informed.

 

“Judy fought one,” Nick said.

 

Judy grumbled, “We so aren’t discussing this right now.  We are here to not talk about work.”

 

Charlie glanced up in the rear-view mirror at Nick.  “Oh man, you and me with cider later, fox.  I can’t not know about that!”

 

Judy shot a look back to her mate.  “If you talk about work in front of me, I tell everyone about your affair with the topless hyena that Skye walked in on.”

 

“Don’t say it like that!” Nick huffed.  “You are intentionally misleading them!”

 

“Nick had an affair?” whimpered Sammie in a horrified tone.

 

The fox cried out, “See what you did!  No!  She was holding me down treating my spider injuries!” Nick flailed a bit.  Vivienne laughed heavily.  She was obviously already aware of the story since Nick told her literally everything.

 

“This is not how you encourage us not to pry, Judy!  Nick had spider injuries?!” Sammie pushed.

 

“Hey look, fields!”  Judy pointed out the window.

 

“Would you look at that?” Nick gasped.  His mother smiled and marveled at the furrowed and bare winter fields.

 

“Yes, quite nice, dear.”  The nearly automated response got a very hard laugh from Charlie for some reason.

 

Nick, seeming to get the message, changed the subject.  “So… for the holidays, I know bunnies kind of have family traditions even more prevalently than the typical things like decorating.  What traditions are unique to the Hopps family?”

 

“Fire dance,” Charlie answered quickly.

 

Nick glanced up.  “What?”

 

Judy smiled at that.  “We make a very large fire and we all meet around it with family, direct and extended, and we dance and hang out.  Usually some drinks to enjoy too.  It’s all for fun.  There’s a tradition for the kits too where the grown-ups tell the kits something they learned new that year as a reminder that you never stop growing.  It usually ends up being a contest to see who learned the crazier thing that year.  I’m looking forward to the dance though.  I missed it last year.”

 

“You know I don’t dance,” Nick offered in an uncharacteristically meek tone.

 

“I’m so dancing,” Vivienne laughed.

 

“That’s the spirit!” Charlie laughed.  As he said that, they pulled up the tree-lined drive leading up to the Hopps residence.

 

Judy smiled brightly as she looked out at it.  She was home.  She was home with her mate.  She had been looking forward to this so much.  Hopefully things would be quieter and less dramatic than they were during their last visit.  Was that really too much to ask?