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Winter Romance

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Romance was facet of life one Nicolas Wilde was very familiar with. In his youth, he played the field. As a young male in his twenties, he’d had his dalliances and flings just like any other mammal in their prime of life. There hadn’t ever been “The One”. Most of his relationships had been single use, or short-term. Surprisingly, they’d all ended relatively amicably. Of course, he had the obligatory “crazy ex”, but once she settled down with her now-husband, she wasn’t Nick’s problem anymore.

 

When Judy found him, he’d been between relationships. That hadn’t changed much in the four-almost-five years since that day. He’d only had three “relationships” since the little grey juggernaut had barreled into his life. One was a fling during the time they’d been apart in the Nighthowler affair. It was passionate and angry and lasted three hours from meeting at a bar to never meeting again. Not his finest moment, he admitted, but not terribly bad.

 

The second was a “badge bunny” who liked cop hopping that he met three weeks after graduating the ZPA. Judy was very quick to berate him over is use of the term, citing its offensive qualities towards rabbits. She still laughed afterwards. The Ocelot was very sweet, but saw him as a good week, not a lifetime. Therefore, he called it another experience and let it go.

 

The third lasted six weeks during his rookie year and he really tried to make it work. His blistering work schedule saw it end via text after a fifth missed date. Judy genuinely felt bad about that one as it was largely her fault and Nick got coffee and Danish on her for a week in compensation, but he wasn’t overly fussed. He had higher priorities—learning the job and keeping pace with his partner were right at the top of the list and required he be and stay at the top of his game.

 

He’d been there since and it showed.

 

“We’ve discussed this.” Nick stated as they pushed into the precinct atrium. “You need to slow down a little.”

 

“No can do, Slick!”

 

“I’m serious, Jude. You work too hard.”

 

“I’m just doing my job and doing it amazingly well!”

 

“I know.” Nick groaned. “We’re up for promotion to detective after the new year, thanks to our efforts. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the excessive overtime and extra shifts…”

 

“Or the paychecks from them.”

 

“I’d appreciate them more if I had a day off once in a while to spend them.”

 

“Just save for a rainy day!”

 

“Judith Hopps, you’re doing it again.”

 

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

 

“Judy…”

 

“Can we talk about this later?”

 

“No. We can’t.” Nick trotted in front of her and stopped, facing her. “This is the eight time.”

 

“I’ll be better about it.”

 

“You’ve said that before.”

 

“You don’t trust me?”

 

“On this topic? No. Not after the last half-dozen times we’ve had this conversation. I’ve given you plenty of chances.”

 

“Nick?”

 

“No, Judy.” Nick stated as he pulled his phone out. “I don’t want to do this, but you aren’t listening to me. You’ve left me no choice.”

 

“Nick, come on!” She scoffed. “You know why I am this way. I can’t help it!”

 

“You can’t help how you were born. I’ve never begrudged you that.” Nick replied as he tapped away, sending a text. “You can control what you do about it.”

 

“I know….”

 

“I’ve asked you to reign it in. So, has Bogo.” Nick hit send before crossing his arms and staring his partner down. “You’re the consummate officer and a superb partner, but you are going too far too often.”

 

Before Judy could retort, a booming voice rattled the rafters. “HOPPS!”

 

Nick had done as instructed. Now, it was the boss’s turn. He traipsed off ahead of her, leading the way to what was usually one of his least favorite places. The door was open, so he strolled up to it and waved at his boss before taking his usual on-deck seat outside the office. Making himself comfortable, he waited for the fireworks to start.

 

~

 

Judy was feeling a bit put out and a bit guilty. She knew she was gung-ho about her career. She hadn’t thought she’d gotten that bad about it. Minutes after Nick had stopped her, the Chief was echoing her partner’s position, disabusing her of that belief.

 

“Officer Hopps, you need a vacation.”

 

“With all due respect, sir, I disagree.”

 

“I figured you would.” The chief snorted.

 

“I am within the guidelines for mental and emotional stress levels, I don’t over-do it in the gym or training areas, I haven’t been injured and I have no outstanding reprimands.”

 

“You are correct, but that is not what this conversation is about.” The chief leaned forward, hooves on the desk. “Judy, I understand your condition.”

 

“It’s not a condition, sir,” Judy interrupted. “It’s a recognized sexual orientation, namely the absence thereof.”

 

He nodded. “Your status as asexual is not in question. Your work ethic is.”

 

“I don’t understand, sir. I have an excellent work ethic.”

 

“As far as I am concerned you defined the term, but this isn’t me. It’s Mammal Resources.”

 

Judy blinked. “What?”

 

“Sergeant Hopps,” her boss intoned as he plucked a file from his desk and opened it. “You have been on-and briefly off-the force for five years, now. You have logged hours on every holiday, optional training, support shift, coverage shift, emergency response, and voluntary activity to arise in that timeframe.”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“The sole exceptions have been certain rabbit festivals and the occasional family event.”

 

“Just doing my part, Chief.”

 

“That’s highly commendable.”

 

“Thank you.”

 

“Your partner has logged precisely the same.”

 

“He’s a credit to the force, sir.”

 

“Go check on him.”

 

Judy cocked her head in confusion and glanced at the door. Looking back at her boss, she received an encouraging nod, so she hopped off her chair and cracked open the door to peek out. “He’s asleep.”

 

“Don’t wake him, Hopps.”

 

Judy obeyed her superior but whispered, “It’s rude!”, as she reclaimed her seat.

 

“I’ll allow it in this case.” The cape buffalo removed his glasses and leaned back in his chair. “Hopps, you’re asexual, so all that energy that would be directed towards your sex drive is directed elsewhere. You are also aromantic, so you have no desire to pursue an emotionally intimate relationship. That’s how you explained it, correct?”

 

“Exactly so, sir. Thank you for remembering.”

 

He smiled in acknowledgement and nodded. “Well, your partner has been keeping pace with you without that excess of energy. Otherwise, he’d be awake and acting smug, instead of catching up on some badly needed sleep.”

 

“I understand. He deserves a rest.”

 

“Which brings me back to Mammal Resources. According to your file, you’ve accrued twelve weeks-worth of leave time. You’re taking two weeks starting twenty minutes ago.”

 

“Chief, I really don’t need to.”

 

“You might not, but if you don’t start the days you’ve accumulated will start to expire. You will not be compensated for them. Furthermore, if MR decides that you’re neglecting your work-life balance, they’ll require you to attend a workshop on the subject.”

 

“I would rather direct traffic in Tundratown naked, sir.” Judy realized too late she’d spoken out loud and cleared her throat.

 

The massive buffalo raised an eyebrow at her flippant reply. “Also, if you stay then your idiotically devoted partner—who has a questionable influence on you as it is—will feel obligated to, as well.”

 

Judy frowned. “This is emotional blackmail.”

 

“I believe it is.” Bogo grinned at his smallest officer. “You haven’t taken any serious time off in almost five years. That changes now. You will not set a toe inside the precinct for the next two weeks.”

 

“Sir!”

 

“You will take the time to direct your energy to one, single task.”

 

“I- Wha-”, Judy sputtered. “This is an assignment?”

 

“It’s the only way you’ll officially take the time off work and we both know you wouldn’t “rest” no matter what happens, so yes.”

 

“O-okay…? What’s the assignment?”

 

“For the next two weeks you are to make sure Officer Wilde relaxes.”

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“I don’t care how. Or where. Take him to a resort. Duct tape him to a sofa. Ship him to the moon if you like, just make sure he gets some R&R.” He fixed her with a hard stare. “Keeping up with you has him falling asleep in the hall outside my office when he should be terrified of being anywhere near here and I can’t have that. Furthermore, his humor helps keep the other precinct’s morale up. We need that, Hopps, just as much as your infectious enthusiasm.”

 

“I- Wow Chief. I didn’t know we were so appreciated.”

 

“And if a single syllable of any of what I just said is ever repeated, I will see you on parking duty in the Arctic Straits for the next three months.”

 

“It’s Mid-December. The average temperature there is below freezing.”

 

“Precisely.” His grin was disturbingly predatory. “Something to consider in light of your recent comment about parking duty.”

 

Judy swallowed thickly and nodded. “I understand.”

 

“Good. Now… you have your orders, Lieutenant. He rests and you let him. If after two weeks he isn’t fully rested, I will extend your leave.”

 

“For how long?”

 

“Well… It says twelve weeks in your file…”

 

“Understood, sir.”

 

“Hopps?”

 

She flinched. “Yes, Chief?”

 

“Don’t forget Wilde.”

 

Judy’s mind flitted through a smattering of options as she roused her partner and dragged him off. The ideas her boss had offered were appealing, but they did nothing for her. Resorts were too limited, duct tape was horrible to get out of fur and commercial space flight was still a few years away from availability. The challenge was finding a place where Nick could get the rest he needed and she wouldn’t be bored to death. A small, wry smile grew on her face as she admitted there was one place that would work.

 

Home.

 

~

 

Fallow fields rolled by as Nick stared out the train window. It was picturesque in a bleak way. The early afternoon sunlight lent an impressionist character to the moving tableau. It was made all the lovelier for the transitory nature of it. As the daylight burned quickly, the view was constantly transitioning. It was quite delightful.

 

He shook his head.

 

He was clearly exhausted to be making such philosophical observations. It was better than the alternative direction his thoughts were traveling.

 

“Are you sure about this, Carrots?”

 

“I am. You aren’t.”

 

“Not really, no.”

 

“What has your tail in a knot?”

 

Nick sighed. “The last time I met your parents it was… uncomfortable.”

 

“Nice word choice.” Judy snarked unhappily. “They thought you were trying to sleep with me.”

 

“Not that I was against the idea….”

 

“I know, I know. The whole asexual thing scuttled that.”

 

“No harm done. I love you to death and if you were interested I’d be in favor. You are one hot bunny!”

 

“You’d never know it considering how often you tease me about it.”

 

“Sarcasm looks good on you, Carrots. The point is, I don’t need to sleep with you to stay your friend and partner. We’re awesome as it is!”

 

“Comforting, I guess.” Judy chuckled. “I am sorry about dad, though.”

 

“You only had to disarm him.”

 

Judy blushed in embarrassment. “I’m sorry about that.”

 

“I’m not! Him being disarmed was a better option than being tased, in my opinion.”

 

“That’s not what I meant, you goof!”

 

“I know, but I don’t blame you for his overreaction, so stop apologizing. It worked out at the end of the day.”

 

“But you’re still uncomfortable.”

 

“Yep!”

 

“Is there anything I can do to help?”

 

“I’ll be fine once we get past the initial awkwardness. Lets just get there and worry about it then.”

 

To Nick’s surprise his partner let the topic drop. It was a small relief. It wasn’t a lie that he was uncomfortable with her parents after their last meeting. Her unusual sexuality made their strange daughter an even rarer exception to the common conception of rabbit and, therefore, even more precious. Their assumption of his interest wasn’t entirely unfounded. He’d flirted with her pretty heavily in those early days, but that was before she told him about her orientation. Since then, he’d shifted to a more traditional sort of banter. He flirted, but it was of the “attention without intention” variety. Otherwise known as sport flirting.

 

In truth, Nick wasn’t worried about dealing with the Hopps family. They’d smoothed things over since their little misunderstanding. However, the level of regret Stuart Hopps had expressed had been effusive bordering on the absurd. He wasn’t worried about another taser incident. It was another tear-splosion he was afraid of.

 

He needn’t have worried. The head of the Hopps household was tentative until Nick offered his paw and asked about his latest attempt at homemade wine. Then, it was a Judy-style babble until Bonnie intervened, swatting her spouse.

 

“Stu, go check on the Scrabble competition. I’ll tend to our guest.” Bonnie then turned and frowned playfully. “Nicolas, you look dead on your feet. Did Judy let you sleep on the train?”

 

“I have trouble sleeping while traveling.”

 

“Well, you aren’t traveling, now.” Bonnie took one of his paws and guided him to a quiet family room not too far from the kitchens. “This is the private parlor for the older kits. Most of the ones still living at home are out visiting for the holidays or doing internships this year. I think we’re expecting maybe two this week?”

 

“So, I have this room basically to myself for the moment?”

 

“This isn’t your bedroom, but Judy has explained the official reason for your trip. This is your recovery room.”

 

Nick snorted. “I’m not ill, Bonnie. Just a little tired.”

 

“And this is my opportunity to fatten you up properly.” Bonnie grinned as she settled him onto the couch. “I get to be a mother hen to someone who won’t whine about being fussed over, like some kits I know.”

 

Judy snorted derisively.

 

He barked a laugh. “Fair enough.”

 

The following hour was something of a blur for the intrepid fox. Judy ferryied items under her mother’s direction for a few minutes, until he was nearly buried in blankets. Then, a massive serving platter—by rabbit standards—was shoved under his nose carrying what he called “farm food”. Nick had visited the family farm a pawful of times with Judy. Each time, he’d been stuffed full by the lady of the house and chatted between mouthfuls with Stu and the kits. It was good, hearty food and made with field-fresh ingredients and preserves. It was, in a word, rapturous.

 

And then there was the cobbler.

 

When he’d cleaned his plate, he was served up a huge bowl of blueberry cobbler with a matching blob of equally homemade vanilla ice cream. He managed to finish his bowl in its entirety and set it on the floor beside the couch before he lost consciousness.

 

~

 

A grown doe of the Hopps family dragged her bag across the winter-desolate front yard, bemoaning the lack of activity. She was not a rabbit who enjoyed quiet. The liveliness of the farm was one of the best parts about coming home after a long semester. Sadly, this year was different. Graduation was immediately followed by an internship and her term as a student teacher. She hadn’t been home in almost a full year. Spring’s vibrancy was long gone. Summer, with all of its glorious activity, was long gone. Autumn’s festivals and parties had slipped passed. While she had been learning the finer points of her profession and earned her credentials the good parts of life at home had passed.

 

Now, it was winter. Desolate, boring winter.

 

As much as she enjoyed her family, there was a limit to it. In spring, summer and fall there was room to move and the fluffle could expend their energies romping about. In winter, there was no outlet—there was only the house and warren to contain the kits. It didn’t last long. Massive pillow fights, food fights and hall-racing were all common occurrences in the Warren, which led the twenty-two year old doe to prefer the upper house. It was a trade-off. Relative peace & quiet that came with uncomfortable isolation.

 

Outlier problems…

 

She chuckled to herself as she shoved her way into the house and out of the evening’s cold. Dusk would fall within the hour and she had no interest in the bitter chill it would bring. Her mother appeared almost immediately.

 

“Tim! We weren’t expecting you until tomorrow!” her mother effused. “Goodness, dear, you look awful.”

 

“Thanks, ma,” the doe deadpanned and grumbled, “No breaks for too long.”

 

“That seems to be a theme, these days.”

 

Her mother’s comment caught her off guard. “Huh?”

 

“You aren’t the only workaholic around here, sweety.”

 

“Oh! Judy’s visiting?”

 

“Yes, and she brought the comic relief. Now, hang your coat up and go settle in. I’ll call you for dinner.”

 

Still a little confused at her mother’s commentary, she shucked her coat, exposing her mottled tawny and grey fur. Not for the first time, she was amused at the needs her physique required of her in terms of clothing. She was very much her mother’s daughter, albeit a few decades younger—all curves. In order to both cover her and keep her warm, her coat was a full size-category higher than was normal for rabbits. It was also deep blue, matching her eyes.

 

Once her coat was hung, she made tracks towards her old room and unceremoniously dumped her bag. Then, she was off to her favorite spot for winter at home. She rounded the corner into the parlor, her eyes bugged, and she traipsed right out the door on the opposite side of the room before hastening to the kitchens.

 

“Mom!”

 

Bonnie looked up from a large stand mixer and asked, “Yes?”

 

“Why is there a fox in the parlor?”

 

“Oh! That’s Nick.”

 

“Nick… Nick? Judy’s partner, Nick?”

 

“The very same.” Bonnie replied absently, pouring over an old, stained cookbook almost as wide as her arm span. “He’s sending a couple weeks here, recovering.”

 

“From what? He’s a cop, isn’t he? Did he get hurt on the job?”

 

“Sort of. He’s Judy’s partner.”

 

“Wha-”, Tim blinked as she caught on. “Oh… Is he ok?”

 

“He will be with a few more meals in him and some rest,” Bonnie commented over her shoulder as she continued to prepare the next set of meals for the warren. “Is he in the way?”

 

“No….” She shifted uncomfortably. “He’s taking up most of the couch.”

 

“Well, either sit elsewhere, or work around him. I have to finish cooking.”

 

“Fine. Fine.” The tawny and grey bun groused. “I’ll figure it out.”

 

Once back in the room, Tim realized she had a larger problem than one fox occupying her favorite piece of furniture. There were a large number of kits in the room. Most of whom were either curled up on some portion of the rather large vulpine or sprawled around him. She didn’t want to wake the kits, as she’d had her fill of cranky kits, already. However, she didn’t want to give up her spot completely, either. If she couldn’t sprawl as was her preference, she would still at least claim her seat of choice.

 

The fox on his own wasn’t taking up the whole of the couch, thankfully. He was occupying two cushions, but the third was covered by her siblings. It only took a few moments to move them. To her amusement, the moment she placed them on top of the fox, they settled in happily and he didn’t move. Tim claimed her seat, nestled in with her book and fell asleep before the first page was read. She woke up some time later, warm and comfortable, if a bit twisted in her clothes. She discovered the reason for her clothes being distorted was the same as the cause of her warmth. The fox’s head was in her lap and his muzzle had managed to worm its way under her shirt.

 

~

 

Judy hustled down the hall towards Nick’s parlor the moment she heard the shriek. Through her mind a long list of possibilities popped up and were summarily discarded. Her younger sibs were either napping after lunch, or snuggled up somewhere warm to pass the time. Even her most rambunctious brothers were fairly subdued and they hadn’t been cooped up long enough to get stir-crazy, yet. None of the older members of her family would bother Nick so long as he was under Bonnie’s protection as a recovering houseguest. Even the few detractors he still had among her clan would respect the matriarch’s wishes and leave him be. The shriek had also been definitively female, so the possibility of the fox being in distress was slim.

Judy finally decided someone had missed the memo about their guest and been startled by her partner’s presence. That idea was blown out of the water the moment she made the turn into the room.

“Tim!” Judy goggled at the state of her sister. “Tamsin Hopps, what exactly do you think you’re doing?”

“I’m playing tiddlywinks,” Tim growled as she wrestled her shirt back between the fox’s muzzle and her stomach. “What does it look like?”

“It looks like you’re getting frisky with my partner.”

The ears of the younger Hopps doe went from pink to red as she shimmied out from under the weight of Nick’s head and stood. “I’m not! I fell asleep reading and woke up to that!”

Judy giggled. “Let’s say I believe you. There’s an easy way to check.”

She walked over to the couch and started scratching under her partner’s chin. it only took a couple moments for his breathing to quicken and his eyes to flutter open. As usual when he was waking up, Nick was barely coherent. Tim’s story was holding up.

“Carrots. Wha-ha-” He yawned and stretched without otherwise moving. “What’s going on?”

“That’s what I want to know. Were you really asleep?”

“Until you started scratching my chin, yes. Why?” He looked around blearily for a moment and asked, “Where’s my pillow?”

“Pillow?” Judy asked, glancing at her sister with a smirk.

“Yes. Where’d it go?”

“I dunno. I can get you another.”

“Pass.” He grumbled, shifting into a more comfortable position.

“You sure?”

“I had it just how I like it.”

Judy struggled to keep her laughter contained as her sister tried to hide behind her scarlet ears. “What was so good about it? It’s just a pillow.”

“It was warm and soft. Smelled wonderful. I swear it was purring, too.” Nick sighed as he drifted off. “Need your mother’s detergent for home.”

Judy stayed quiet until he was snoring and led her mortified sister out of the room. Once they were in the hall and the door was closed, she turned to Tamsin.

“So...”

“Don’t start, Judy.”

“Start with what?”

“Your evil grin is all the answer you should need. Whatever you’re planning, don’t.”

“I wasn’t planning anything. I was just going to ask you a question.”

Tamsin sighed in defeat. “Ask. Just get it over with.”

“Do you know the most interesting part of that whole interaction was?”

“No, but I know you’re going to tell me.”

“First, foxes have among the most sensitive noses in mammalia. They’re ranked fourth of fifth after elephants, wolves and one or two types of hyenas.”

“That’s nice. And the second part?”

“Winter is mating season for his species. Being scent-centric, they pick up on desirable females primarily by their personal aroma. Nick thought you smelled wonderful, Miss Pillow.” Judy was rewarded by her sister’s face inflating with blood. “He’s single, by the way.”

“Why should I care?”

“An unattached, older, attractive male in your home for the next couple weeks expressly for the purpose of rest and relaxation? You have nothing planned, either, I’m sure.” Judy winked, adding, “I’m also sure you could use the relaxation.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Tim-Tam, you rarely give males the time of day and you never react to them. Right now, your face is tomato-red and you’re acting like a high school doe. You’re attracted.”

“Attraction doesn’t mean relationship material, Jude.”

“No kidding, but it’s nice to see you’re thinking it.” Judy held up her paws disarmingly. “I’m not saying your soulmate is snoring back there under a pile of kits, but I think you could do with spending a little time with him.”

“Why do you care, Jude? You aren’t interested in males or anyone else for that matter, and you’ve been hands off about everyone’s relationships since grade school. What changed?”

“He’s been keeping pace with me. That’s why he’s so tired. I don’t have an off-switch, Tim, and he’s so loyal that he’s killing himself keeping up.”

“So, you figured I’d be his keeper for you?”

“I figured that since you were attracted, you’d help me remind him that there’s more out there than the job. It might snap him out of it and it’s been a while since you dated, right? Where’s the harm in getting to know him and seeing where it goes?”

“I don’t like being set up like this.”

“I’m not setting anything up. Just pointing out an option. I’m supposed to be keeping an eye on him, but I can’t stop working or I’ll go crazy. I’m asking you to give me a hand and keep him company. If you like what you see, then it’s your call what you do with it.”

At that moment, to Judy’s delight and Tamsin’s dismay, Bonnie chose to announce herself. “I think that works just fine.”

“Mom!”

“Don’t ‘mom’ me. It works out wonderfully. You’re only back for three weeks. That’s not enough time to get you acclimated to the roster for the farm and you’ll get stir-crazy if you don’t have a project for long enough. You can take care of Nick while Judy stays busy.”

“I’m not a nursemaid!”

“You’re in need a break as much as he is. Considering he’ll be sleeping for most of his time here, that’ll help you out, too.”

“I don’t like this one bit.”

“Tamsin Juniper Hopps, what is the problem here?” Bonnie admonished. “We want you to keep an eye on Nick for us. He’s barely sensate and will be asleep more than awake for at least the next two days. How is this a hardship?”

“That part I’m fine with.” She stared daggers at Judy. “It’s the rest of it I object to.”

Bonnie looked perplexedly between her kits. “Rest of it?”

Judy snickered. “Me thinks Tim-tam doeth protest too much.”

Bonnie blinked in confusion. “Judy?”

“I caught them in an awkward moment, shall we say?”

“Judy!” Tamsin barked.

“Really? I didn’t think he was your type.” Bonnie shrugged. “It’s nice to see you can move quickly when you want to.”

“Mom?!” Tamsin squeaked. Judy was crying silently with mirth as she slid down the wall.

“It’s all settled, then.” Bonnie continued. “Tim, you’ll take care of Nick and enjoy yourselves. Judy, you’re in the laundry and machine shop the rest of the week, then the kitchens and kit wrangling next week. Does that work?”

“Yep!” Judy chirped.

 

“Nope!” Tamsin replied.

 

Bonnie sighed. “What is it now?”

 

“The same thing it was a minute ago.”

 

Judy snickered. “All I’m asking you to do is sit with my partner while he recovers. Get him a blanket if he needs it and remind him where the bathroom is if he forgets. Either mom or I will bring meals for you both. Otherwise, it’ll be as demanding as watching a potted plant.”

 

Tim sulked under Judy’s smirk and her mother’s glare. “Fine.”

 

Judy leaned in to whisper, “If you get a little more snuggling in, no one will mind.”

 

“Peas and rice!” Tam relented. “I’ll watch the fox. Does he need to be watered or anything?”

 

Satisfied with the results, Judy and Bonnie left. Tamsin grabbed her book and relocated to the bean bag chair cattycorner to the sofa where the fox was snoring away. She was able to drift off into her novel for about two hours before the vulpine stirred again.

 

~

 

Nick drifted back to consciousness on the slow tide of his rising hunger. He didn’t know how long he’d been asleep and vaguely remembered Judy bugging him about a pillow or something at some point, but that was about it. He felt groggy and decently rested, but nowhere near refreshed. Whatever recuperation he’d managed with his little siesta was still coming up short—he was a long way from one hundred percent. This was further reinforced as he tried to make sense of his surroundings.

 

Lounging not far from his head was a rabbit that for a split second—in his sleep-addled brain—was Judy. Her face was the same shape as Judy’s. Her build was the same, but where Judy was lean muscle this rabbit was a bit more padded and curvier. Her fur looked lighte and her eyes looked to be lighter too, but the angle and soft lighting weren’t doing him any favors.

 

The longer he looked the more differences he saw, but he had to make sure. “Carrots?”

 

The rabbit cleared her throat. “If you’re hungry, food will be along soon.”

 

The difference in voice snapped him a little further into reality. Judy’s voice was an energetic soprano. This doe’s, though, was warmer and a touch lower pitched.

 

“Different Carrots,” he mumbled with a yawn.

 

She cocked her head, confused. “What?”

 

“What?” He parroted on reflex.

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“Third base!” Nick chortled.

 

There was a moment’s quiet before the rabbit responded. “Judy was telling the truth. You are odd when you’re barely awake.”

“She usually says I’m funny.”

 

“More amusing than funny,” the rabbit rejoined. “Nice Abbot & Cowstello reference, by the way.”

 

Nick smiled sleepily. “At least someone got the joke on the first try.”

 

“You’re kidding.”

 

“Nope!” Nick stretched again and yawned before continuing, feeling a little more awake. “I had to show Carrots the bit on EweTube before she got it.”

 

The doe in the bean bag chair giggled. “It’s nice to know someone else around here appreciates the classics of comedy.”

 

Nick shimmied himself out from under the pile of sleeping kits and found his feet. “I’d regale you with my encyclopedic knowledge of dad jokes and puns, but I-“

 

“Bathroom is five doors down on the left,” the doe cut in. “And you’re still tired.”

 

“Thanks,” he replied with a bleary wink and shambled off.

 

~

 

Tamsin watched the bleary fox wander off into the hall. Very much against her better judgement, she was warming to him. He was barely conscious and bumped into the walls as he made his way along, but somehow it was endearing. She had to admit, quoting one of her favorite comedy routines went a long way towards improving her opinion of him. The fact that he managed to get up while still groggy and not wake any of the kits was another. Maybe waking up with his muzzle buried in her shirt was just a fluke of bad luck.

 

Taking a leaf from the fox’s book, Tim stretched and immediately regretted it. She’d been fine sitting still, but once she moved her bladder made its own need known. With a sigh she slipped her bookmark into place and traipsed off to the restroom in the opposite direction. When she returned, she was visited with the sight of the fox curled up on the bean bag chair she’d vacated. He’d fluffed it into a nest and settled right in.

 

“Nick?”

 

“Mmh?”

 

“You stole my seat.”

 

“Mine.”

 

“Real articulate, aren’t you?”

 

He cracked an eye. “Articulate happens after coffee, unless a jumbo pop is on the line.”

 

Tamsin snorted a laugh despite herself. “Can I have my seat back, please?”

 

“No.”

 

Mildly annoyed, she asked “What possessed you to steal my seat anyway?”

 

“Smells nice.”

 

And the room suddenly felt very warm.

 

The fox lifted his head to look at her. “Look, I’ll give it back if you want, but first I have to ask—who are you?”

 

“Oh!” Tim started and held out her paw on reflex. “Tim. Hopps. Tim Hopps!”

 

Nick raised an eyebrow. “He does, does he?”

 

“He-ugh.” Tamsin groaned. “My name is Tamsin Hopps, but almost everyone calls me Tim.”

 

“Tamsin?”

 

“My mother was a big fan of Downton Abbey and the like when I was born. My littermates are Darcy, Fanny, Bennett, Georgiana, Emma and Elton, too.” The look of bemusement on the fox’s face was rather fetching, she had to admit.

 

“Uhhuh… Did your mother insist on giving you a peculiar middle name, as well?”

 

“Yes…?” She replied uncomfortably.

 

“You’re a Hopps girl, then.” Nick commented as he sat up.

 

“Am I?”

 

“When I woke up, I thought you were Judy for a moment. The resemblance is there for certain. Between that and how uncomfortable you are talking about middle names, it’s a safe bet.” He smiled disarmingly. “So, what did Bonnie saddle you with?”

 

“Juniper.” Her paws slapped over her mouth a moment too late.

 

“Tamsin Juniper Hopps. It has a nice ring to it.”

 

“Try hearing it shouted across the house,” she sassed, trying to cover her embarrassment.

 

“Yeah. You’re definitely a Hopps girl.”

 

“Is that a good thing?”

 

“I don’t know you well enough to say, but if your sister is anything to go by? Yes. Plus, you’re already being cheeky.” He smiled winningly at her, adding “That’s a hell of a start.”

 

Tim tried very hard to ignore how her stomach fluttered at his compliment. “So, that’s a Hopps doe to you? Curves and wits?”

 

“I’d say something about your eyes, but it might get me slapped.”

 

Tamsin couldn’t help herself. She laughed. Clearly, he was still waking up and shaking off the cobwebs, but from what she was seeing this Reynard was quite the charmer. He was ridiculous and flattering, but not saccharine or slimy. It was refreshing. And very attractive.

 

“There’s nothing like making a pretty doe laugh.”

 

The fox’s comment made her blush and blink in surprise.

 

“I hate to cut this short, but since I’m not going to get any more sleep right now, I’d like a shower before dinner.”

 

“Oh! Okay.” Tim stammered. “Showers are the next door past the bathroom.”

 

“Thanks, Berry. Hopefully, I’ll see you at dinner.”

 

“Berry?”

 

“Juniper.”

 

Tim stood flummoxed in the middle of the den, staring at the door the fox had departed through. There wasn’t a clear thought in her head and she couldn’t keep herself from giggling sporadically. Finally, she got annoyed with herself enough to move and promptly jumped straight out of her skin. Judy was standing right behind her with the biggest, most self-satisfied grin on her face that Tamsin had ever seen.

 

“Tamsin and Ni-ick sittin’ in a tree.”

 

“Oh, for cheese’ sake…”

 

“What? I’m happy for you,” the grey doe gushed.

 

“Happy for what? That I successfully flirted with your partner?”

 

“No. He’s like that with everyone.”

 

“Oh…”

 

“Everyone being female rabbits in this room.”

 

“Judy!”

 

“He’s a flirt, but never that sincerely.”

 

“That was sincere? Uhhuh.”

 

“It was and you’re doing a bad job of hiding your hopefulness.”

 

“Oh, shut up.”

 

“Want to know how I know he was serious?”

 

“Fine. How?”

 

“He complimented your eyes, not your ass. If He’s being silly, he’ll make a joke about you having a nice butt. The eyes, though? You’ve got his full attention on you, not your assets.”

 

“My assets? Really?”

 

“His joke.”

 

“Oh gods… Really?”

 

“Really.” Judy confirmed. “But all this begs a question.”

 

“What’s that?”

 

“Do you prefer the ‘K’, the ‘L’, or the ‘R’ version of the song?”

 

“You little-“

 

The rest of her verbal response was lost in the scuffle as she attacked her older sister with a couch pillow. The commotion woke the kits who immediately joined in, creating pandemonium. The last she saw of her Judy was her sister’s gleeful grin as she scampered out of the room, leaving Tim to wrangle the wound-up kits into the dining room for dinner.