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The Pelt We're Dealt

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It was late.

Okay, well it couldn’t be THAT late, not that he had any way to check.  But it seemed late, it felt late.  To be fair, it had been a long day, one that involved stealing and crashing a train car, tricking a confession out of the mayor, giving endless statements to various police officers, and now waiting for hours outside of a hospital.  Nick instinctively tried checking the time on his phone but the screen was blank, the battery had died.  Just like the last time he’d checked it.  And the time before that.  

He sighed and pretended to drink out of his empty coffee cup.  It was a blessing to have something to hold in his paws, but more importantly, it was a prop.  It made it look like he was doing something, something besides loitering on a bench outside of the small to medium-sized entrance to Zootopia’s largest hospital.  He had been getting more than his share of suspicious looks since parking his tail on this particular bench, even though he’d chosen one a respectful distance away from the entrance.  Also, that broad-shouldered, broader-antlered caribou of a security guard was passing by this way an awful lot, glaring daggers at the red fox with his coffee cup.
But Nick was used to suspicious glances, they didn’t bother him.  Or they shouldn’t bother him.

Admittedly it was easier to deal with them when he was keeping busy.  A suspicious glare when he was in the middle of a hustle became a challenge; act suave, speak smoothly, play the victim, walk away with money.  That last part was his favourite, obviously.  But a suspicious glance now, while waiting outside of a hospital...  

Thus the empty coffee cup.  Nick took another sip.

The small door a ways down the sidewalk opened.  Nick deliberately did not look over to see who was walking out of it.  He was afraid to make eye contact with the wrong mammal, and give that grumpy-looking caribou a reason to kick him out.  He did, however, have his ears at their maximum attentiveness.  A shuffle, then a step. Limp?  A small mammal, or large rodent, big feet.  Could it be her…?

“There you are!”  A feminine voice exclaimed and Nick nearly collapsed with relief as a familiar grey bunny limped towards him.  

“Carrots!”  Nick said smoothly, hiding everything under a smooth façade of smug indifference.  “You took your time, I was beginning to think they’d have to amputate.”

“Might have been simpler. There are a lot of stitches.  I don’t know how many. I asked the doctor, but she lost count.  I guess it’s a deep cut and they had to do the stitches down on the different layers of tissue?  Or something?  I didn’t understand it all.  The ones underneath will dissolve, but the ones on top have to be removed in seven to ten days.  My parents are going to freak.”  Judy frowned as she took her phone out of her pocket.  Blank screen, dead battery.  Just like his.

“You got somewhere to sleep tonight?  Some way to charge that phone?”  Nick asked, glancing down at the device in her paw.  It looked to be the same kind as his, so he could probably find a charger for it at his place.

“No, but I can just sleep in the produce truck tonight”  

She folded her ears down along her back and for some reason the sight of that was particularly endearing to a certain red fox.  He had the sudden urge to stroke his claw down those ears, towards her back, her tail.  It wasn’t an entirely unexpected thought.  He’d had them on and off (and on) since this bunny came into his life.  But, he was an adult and perfectly capable of controlling himself around females, of any species.  Especially rabbits.  He filed his thoughts away in a folder labeled ‘interesting, to examine later.’

“Bad idea, fluff.  You and that rust bucket of yours will be a meal if it’s parked in Zootopia at night.  Something will get stolen and if you’re lucky it’ll be something replaceable.”  His words were light, but his tone carried a warning neither of them could ignore.  

“I left my wallet at my parents’ house, I guess I was in a bit of a hurry to leave this morning.  My parents will wire me a transfer for a motel room, if I can find a way to charge my phone. I wish I hadn’t given up my room at the Grand Pongolin Arms.”  She tapped her injured foot on the ground impatiently a few times before remembering that such a movement would cause pain.  Her sigh turned into a scowl.

“You can charge your phone at my warehouse, and crash on my couch for a night or two, if you’re okay with that?”  Nick asked, unusually tentative.  It wasn’t every day he invited a prey animal into his place.

Judy, however, was no ordinary prey animal.  Her eyes brightened and her ears perked up.  “A warehouse?  A real one?  Can I see inside?”

“You’re so weird.  Come on.”  He grinned his sharp teeth at her and motioned her to follow to where he’d parked her parents’ produce truck, binning his empty coffee cup on the way past.  The wood-paneled truck with shovels and hoes sticking out the back stuck out like a sore paw amongst the shiny, purple and red city cars parked on either side of it.

“Weird?  Weird how? And is it a real warehouse?”  She kept up decently well even with her injured leg and scrambled into the passenger seat.

“Yes it’s a real warehouse.  What other kind is there?  It’s near where you found me under that bridge this morning.”  He couldn’t resist a smug wave at the security guard, who looked horrified to see an injured bunny get into a truck, especially this truck, with a fox.    

“Okay, and what do you mean weird?”

“Rabbit, you are about to follow a fox to the industrial side of town.  Nobody knows where you are, you have no phone and no way to call for help, and you are excited because you’ve never seen a warehouse.  What would your parents say?”

“They’d be horrified.”  She said cheerfully.  “But, they’ve never met you!  I have.”

That same flutter of emotion cruised through his body.  Shuddering, tingling, up one end and down the other, finally ending up somewhere below his stomach.  Behave , he told himself, not that it did any good.  He was in it deep, and now he was bringing her back to his place, to get her scent all over his couch, when he was developing feelings for her.  He wished that he could just turn it off and be done with it, but of course that was impossible.  He couldn’t help but feel like he was the rabbit being dragged into the fox’s den, and not the other way around.  This was a bad idea.

But they kept driving anyway, mostly in silence. It had been a long day after all.  He had night vision and familiarity with the city, neither of which she had, so it was a relatively quick ride back to his warehouse.

“Here we are!”  He announced, hopping out to unlock the gate.  The warehouse was big and imposing-looking, especially at night.  It wasn’t much to look at from the outside; it had some broken windows and was pretty dirty.  Nick wondered what Judy must think of it.

Judy, for her part, didn’t seem to mind any of that.  She slid to the driver’s seat and drove, awkwardly with her injured leg, the last few meters and under the smaller of the garage doors that he had opened for her.  It was dark in the warehouse, which didn’t bother him but for her sake he turned on the side lights.  Fascinated, she looked around at the collection of treasures. 

“Nick?”  She asked suspiciously, peering at the vehicle closest to her.  “Are these stolen?”

“What?  No!  You injure me.  What an accusation, what an insult!” He held his paw up to his chest dramatically.  “We run a legitimate business. To the best of my knowledge, nothing in here is stolen.”

“To the best of your knowledge?”

He shrugged innocently.  “I don’t actually own the warehouse, a friend of mine does, but she needed to skip town in a hurry and I needed a place to stay.  Win-win.  We lend it out to various mammals to do modification work.  Ten dollars a job or sixty dollars a week to use the space and equipment.  Enough to cover upkeep and taxes.  Most of them just pay by the job, except Dave, I guess.  That guy is fast.  Anyway we do a lot of vehicles.  You know, raised seats, elevated gas pedals, angled mirrors, that sort of thing.  A lot of blended families use our services.  I know a buck deer who married a marmot.  The size difference alone makes things difficult for them.  Everything in their house needs to be modified just so they can live together.”

Feeling a little uncomfortable talking about inter-species romances with her, he motioned to a row of windows near the ceiling that overlooked the warehouse floor.  “Up there is where I live.  It used to be offices or whatever.  Where the big boss used to make all the big, bossy decisions. I’m not sure exactly what it was before, but it’s mine now.  Everything I need, including a couch that’s big enough for you to stretch out on.  Your family’s truck will be safe here overnight.  Come on, can you manage the stairs?”

She nodded and hobbled up behind him.  Again, he flicked the light switch for her benefit.  Several of the bulbs had burned out.  He didn’t use lights very often.  Mildly embarrassed, he made a note to get them replaced.  Thankfully the place was otherwise clean and cozy and he couldn’t help showing it off a little, pointing out the wide window that looked out over the warehouse floor, the open kitchen that he had installed himself, the couch that he had “bought” at discount, and the tacky floral curtains that his mother had sewn for him. He even took an extra minute to pretend to be a big boss man, scowling down at the empty warehouse and muttering something about photos of Spider-Ram.

She laughed, twirled happily and flopped down on the couch.  “It’s wonderful.”

“Hey now, flopsy.  You’re covered in soot.  No sleeping on the couch until you’re clean.”

She nodded, standing up from the couch, but then smoothed her flannel shirt, bashfully.  “I, uh, don’t have anything to change into.”

“Ah.”  He said, sharing in her embarrassment.  How could he not have thought of that?  And also, could he please get those naughty thoughts out of his head?  The silence dragged on a little longer than was comfortable as he tried to not imagine her clothes on a pile on his floor.  “Right, well.  Bathroom is in there, so is the washer and dryer.  The towels folded on top of the dryer are clean, go ahead and use one.  We will wash them tonight.  Your clothes, I mean.  We will wash your clothes tonight.  So they can be clean by tomorrow, so you can wear them again.  Ahem.  One of my shirts will be big enough for a nightshirt for you.  Sorry I don’t have any soap suitable for a rabbit.”  He cleared his throat again, even more embarrassed now.  Small consolation was that Finnick wasn’t around to see the usually articulate red fox at a loss for words.  He’d never live that one down.

“Thanks Nick.  Actually, could you please get something from the truck?  There should be a fur brush stashed away there, and some shampoo.  We bunnies get dusty in the fields, we’ve always got stuff like that hidden around everywhere.”

Thankful to have something to do, Nick disappeared back down the steps, turning the warehouse lights back off as he went.  He was also able to find an extra phone charger and plugged both of their phones in while he shooed her into the bathroom.  Then he found some extra pillows and blankets for her little nest on the comically oversized couch.

Like any fox, his hearing was decent, but sense of smell was better.  This was a bad idea.  He told himself again as he heard the water running and smelled her shampoo.  While soap for a fox is harsh and designed to counteract their distinct musk, hers was softer.  It smelled of damp earth and crushed leaves.  The effect was intoxicating and he allowed himself a brief indulgence into imagining what she was doing in there.  How he wanted to taste that warm water as it ran down her fur.

“And that’s enough of that.”  He muttered to himself, shaking his head and ambling over to his bedroom closet to try to find something for her to wear to sleep.  This brought its own wave of thoughts that also needed to be shaken out of his head.  A very bad idea. 

He was able to find a t-shirt that should suffice for her though.  Finnick had gotten (stolen) it for him as a joke and he pretty much never wore it, though he did appreciate the humour.  It was a novelty, gift store t-shirt; pastel blue with a drawing of an ice block printed on the front and the words ‘Chillin’ like a Villain in Tundratown’ written underneath.  He thought she would get a kick out of that, and hung it on the door handle for her.

He wasn’t disappointed, as she came out of the bathroom wearing that shirt, grinning like a banshee.   For a moment they were both distracted from the awkwardness of the situation by the ridiculous t-shirt.  It came down to the floor so that only the tips of her toes poked out from underneath. It made her look mildly absurd, and a little bit cute, though he knew better than to say as much.  They laughed for a while, a good, stress-relieving chuckle that wasn’t fully about the shirt.  Finally, he excused himself for his own shower, tugging affectionately on her ear on the way past.  He almost missed her quick inhalation of breath as he did so.  Almost.

His shower took longer than hers.  His fur and tail were longer and required more lathering, more rinsing, more grooming and more drying.  At least the movement was familiar, soothing.  His bathroom was in no way glamorous.  At one point it had been an employee bathroom, with multiple stalls for multiple mammals, but he’d had the stalls and all but one toilet removed.  A washer and dryer stood in one corner and a showerhead had been installed in another with a drain in the middle of the floor.  The sink was too tall for him so he had a small staircase-type stool shoved up underneath the counter.  It was a large area, too large for one fox, but it had everything that he needed so he had never bothered changing it.  He rather wished that he had now that Judy had seen it though, there was nothing cozy or inviting about it.  

Whatever Judy thought of his bathroom she was keeping to herself.  She was cozied up on the couch, phone in paw, chatting with her parents when he emerged from the shower, his fur still damp and clinging to his mismatched pajamas.

“No really, I was safe.  Nick was with me the whole time.  Yes, Nick the fox!  The one I told you about I… yes, you can trust him. I trust him.  Anyway, it all worked out.  You and Giddeon Gray gave me the clue that I needed to solve it.  Night Howlers were being used to turn all those predators savage. Night Howlers! Midnicampum holicithias .  They were distilling it into capsules, or something.  I never would have figured it out if it weren’t for that, and it turns out that Mayor Bellweather was spearheading the entire thing.  Yes, the sheep, she’s been arrested.  Turn on the news, you’ll probably see footage of her.  No, that was after the train thing.  Can we forget I said anything about the train?  There was no train.  Nothing happened on a train.  It was just me and Nick and a bunch of harmless sheep and then the real cops showed up to arrest them.  Yes, the fox! I already told you he’s a fox.  He was there for the whole thing. Yes, even on the train.  Oops, gotta go, I’ll call you tomorrow, love you, bye!”  She sighed and pressed the red button on her phone, ending the call.  

“Real cops?”  He asked, bemused.

“Quiet you.”

“Harmless sheep?”  Nick pressed, not quite willing to let this one go.

“They don’t have to know everything.”  She grumbled.

“Yet you told them about the train?”

Judy groaned and flung herself backwards onto the cushions. “They saw it on the news.”

“What else did you tell them?  Did you tell them about your leg?”

“What?  No, are you crazy?  I’m not going to tell them that I had to go to the hospital!  I’d never hear the end of it!”

“Did you tell them where you’re staying tonight?”

“No.”  she said in an unusually small voice.  “I didn’t tell them that, and they never thought to ask.  I think they were too hung up on the train thing.  They might have thought of it though by now, ah.  Here it is.”

Sure enough, her phone started vibrating again.  She wilfully ignored it, but it was only silent for a few seconds before it buzzed again.  After that was a series of shorter vibrations, probably text messages. 

“You going to answer that?”  He asked.

“Nope!”

“How about that one?” Her phone was still vibrating on her lap.

“Definitely not.”

“And that one?”

“Am I going to answer the…”  She turned the screen back towards her face and jammed the pad of one paw at it impatiently “twenty eight missed calls, seven voice messages, one hundred and twenty two text messages from eleven, no, twelve different family members tonight?  No.  No I am not.  They know I’m safe now, everything else can wait until morning.”

“Well maybe I should start returning all of my messages.  It is the responsible thing to do, after all.”  Nick teased, retrieving his own phone from where it was charging on the kitchen counter.  “Oh, this might take a while.  Looks like I have, let’s see, zero missed calls, zero voicemail, zero text messages and, oops, six unread emails. Hmm, looks like they’re all from foxbox.com.  I really should unsubscribe from that.”

He gave her his characteristic half-lidded smirk, inviting her to share in his amusement, though she didn’t appear to see the humour in it.

“Nobody checked in on you?  Nobody at all?” It wasn’t pity in her tone, not quite.  She just seemed sad.  Either way, he hated it.  He plopped down on the floor to lean against the couch, facing away from her, completely rejecting the look of sorrow on her face.

“Nobody had reason to think that I was mixed up in all of this.”  He grumbled.

Thankfully, she seemed to take the hint.  “Hey, you still have blueberry in your fur.”

“What, no I don’t!”  He brought his paw up to his neck where Mayor Bellweather had shot him with that blueberry.  Had he seriously just had a long shower and somehow missed his neck?

“Nick, you just pulled off the most important hustle of your life, I think that we can forgive a little bit of blueberry.  Here, come on, I’ll get it for you.”  She was still behind him on the couch, so it was easy enough for her to lean forward and start brushing out the fur of his neck.  She still had her little bunny brush, which was much smaller and finer than he would have chosen, but it worked okay for such a small patch of fur.

Nick sat still for her and leaned his head to the side to give her better access to his neck.  It felt…good, to have her grooming his fur like that, wonderful, even.  He was swimming.  Floating?  Sinking?  Whatever he was doing, he didn’t ever want to stop.  She must have gotten the blueberry out by now, but he didn’t care.  His mind cleared and his head felt heavy as she worked her paws through his fur.  He had enough self-control left to stop himself from purring, but it was a close thing.  She probably didn’t even know that foxes could purr.  Maybe one day I’ll purr for you. He thought lazily.  It was an exciting thought.

As if on cue her paws stilled, still tangled in his fur.  He forced his heavy eyelids open and twisted back around to look at her.  Her face was close to his, eyes wide, breath shallow, the bases of her ears were pink.  

Well sh--- He thought, suddenly a little panicked.  It was one thing to deal with his own dumb hormones, he didn’t think he could handle hers too.  Especially not this late at night.

“Thank you, that’s much better.”  He said quickly, shifting away from her.  “Extra blankets in the hallway closet.  The crew usually starts coming to the warehouse around eight.  Sometimes later, if we’re lucky.  Goodnight.”

“Nick…”

Nick shut the door to his room and flopped down on his bed, staring at the ceiling and thinking about what had just happened.  Now, he was a sensible fellow, decently introspective, and not one to use metaphors when plain language would do just as well.  Which is why he was ready to admit that he was in love with Judy Hopps.  And that was fine; really, it was fine.  He could deal with loving her quietly from a distance; being there for her as a friend, helping her out with whatever investigation, following her into whatever dangerous situation, occasionally baiting her and watching her get riled up, then going home, separately , and thinking about that amazing little bunny.

But now he couldn’t deny that they had shared a moment back there, and whatever it was, Judy had felt it too.  And suddenly the whole situation felt a lot more complicated.  Loving Judy quietly, from a distance, became a lot harder when he would always be wondering if she was doing the same.  Especially so now, when he could still feel her paws on his neck, still smell her scent on his fur.

He had to fight the urge to go back out there and gather her into his arms.  Thankfully he was tired, so the urge to go to her was overpowered by the comfort of his bed and the desire for sleep.  He touched the other pillow gently with one paw and imagined her head on it next to him.  Maybe she’ll come to me. He thought dreamily as he drifted off to sleep.