Writer's note: Even though this story could be read as a standalone work, I feel readers should read my previous two stories (Never Time to Say Goodbye and Burdens of the Son) first to fully appreciate it.
All it takes is a single ember to start a forest fire. But what if the winds of change never have a chance to fan that ember into flames? A single cup of icy water, poured on the right place at the right time, and the forest remains untouched.
Nick slurped his drink noisily before he spoke. "Tell me again, why do we keep hanging out at this place?"
Judy looked around the coffee shop while she spoke. "Because you hate that tiny closet I call home that has noisy neighbors and no TV?"
Nick nodded. "It's true. But you never want to hang out-"
Judy interrupted him. "And, since you always forget, I hate your place because it's also a tiny closet that takes forever to get to on transit. Plus you're the world's biggest slob."
"Ok Ok… but," Nick subtly indicated a nearby table, "why do you think those two always come here?"
Judy watched the porcupine and lynx for a minute out of the corner of her eye. The porcupine smiled at the lynx when he leaned in close and whispered to her.
Judy shrugged before she spoke hesitantly. "I dunno."
But Judy did know. The coffee shop was close to ZPD headquarters, and always had a constant stream of officers coming and going. It wasn't likely anyone would make a fuss about an interspecies couple there.
Judy worried what Nick might say if she pointed that out. So she went against her nature, as she gave in to fear and feigned ignorance instead.
Judy watched the two hold each other's paws in their own. "Do you think they're a… couple?"
Nick eyed her and took a bite from his blueberry muffin. "Is that so hard to believe?"
She took a sip of her drink and her ears drooped. "I guess I can't imagine dating anyone who wasn't a rabbit. And I'm not even sure how they even make… things… work. Aren't they afraid of hurting themselves, or their partner? Besides, I want to have kids someday."
The tiny ember, so small that neither the rabbit nor the fox had noticed it, faded and went out. Judy felt ashamed of what she'd said, and Nick wasn't sure why he felt disappointed, so he did what he always did when his feelings bothered him.
Nick laughed. "What, you'd let a few quills and claws stand in the way of true love, Carrots? And as for kids, they could always adopt."
"A predator-prey adoption… huh, I don't think I've ever heard of that happening before."
Nick finished his coffee. "You know, Officer Fluff, some mammals just enjoy each other's company, without making things complicated."
Nick grinned. "Of course. What would you do without my good advice and our witty conversations? Besides, I'm glad you keep me from wasting my time and money on a girlfriend."
Judy pondered Nick's words, and then she felt terrible. She didn't want to be the cause of his unhappiness. Finding the right mammal for him would be tough, but she never shied away from a challenge. She also thought a cute vixen might be just the incentive he needed to clean up his apartment.
It took a few months, but she finally stumbled on a way to fix something she mistakenly thought she'd broken.
Nick and Judy made their way across the ZPD lobby as they hurried to the morning briefing.
"Everyone has a tell, sweetheart," Nick smirked when Judy looked at him doubtfully.
"Take Bogo for example. When he's about to deliver bad news at a press conference or in the bullpen, he always takes his glasses off first." Judy leaned in to listen while Nick spoke softly. "And if he puts them in his front pocket before he talks, look out."
"Oh yeah, what about me?"
Nick laughed and stopped walking so he could slap his knee and grin at her. "Carrots, when it comes to tells, you're an open book."
Judy moved with lightning speed and whacked him hard on the arm.
"Ow!" Nick wailed, as he put on his oh so sad, I'm such an abused fox face.
"What, you couldn't tell what I was about to do?"
She chuckled and pushed open the large door before she marched ahead of Nick into the crowded bullpen.
Nick smiled and followed her. "Sly bunny." He spoke while they walked to their usual seat. "Wanna make a bet on it? Bogo's tell, I mean?"
Judy looked at him skeptically, then her face brightened. She whispered back, "only if I get to pick the stakes." She hopped onto the chair and he clambered up beside her.
Nick studied her cheerful face carefully for a few moments, before he rolled his eyes. "Ok, fine. What do you have in mind?"
"Loser has to set the other up with a blind date."
Nick snorted and laughed, causing several other officers to stop what they were doing and look at him.
He waited for everyone to go back to ignoring him before he bent close to her face and whispered, "Are you serious? Even when I win that bet, I'll still lose."
"If… if you win. Are you afraid I might actually set you up with someone you'll like, with my crazy bunny matchmaking powers?"
"Pffft, seriously? Ok, I'll tell you what. In addition, the loser has to buy the winner blueberry muffins for a week," Judy raised an eyebrow and frowned, until Nick added, "or the carrot themed treat of her choice."
Judy looked thoughtful for a moment. "I gotta admit, I'm terrified of who you might match me up with if I win. We have to have rules about the species of our dates, and we need a time limit on the bet."
Nick nodded. "Trust me, you'll see I'm right within 48 hours, or I'll forfeit and you win. And… I agree. Only dates within our respective families are allowed. In other words, Canidae for me, and Leporidae for you. No setting me up with an angry wolverine or anything like that."
Judy giggled. "Deal," she said as she shook his paw.
As luck would have it, that very day Chief Bogo took off his glasses right before he stuck them both with night patrol for the next few days, to cover for Delgato and Snarlof. Nick's gloating didn't last long when Judy revealed who his date would be, and where he would meet her.
A week later, Judy put her plan into action when they went on vacation together.
Nick sighed and stared out the window of the train. "How did I get hustled by a dumb bunny? This doesn't feel like I won at all."
"Oh quit your whining. You already got a week of free blueberry muffins, and now I get to invite you home with me so you can see Bunnyburrow and meet Kaitlyn."
"Like I said… look, going to some carrot festival wasn't part of the deal. And you promised you'd pick a fox for my date." Suddenly Nick looked alarmed. "Wait, she isn't eighty years old and toothless, is she?"
Judy laughed. "Wow, now I wish I'd thought of that. No, she's your age, and a rather beautiful vixen, so just relax."
"There has to be something wrong with her."
Judy thought for a moment before she responded. "Well, she did agreed to go on a date with you…" Nick crossed his arms and slouched in the seat as she continued. "So, besides your tacky hawaiian shirts, what were you planning on wearing?"
"Alas, you wound me, Carrots. I've packed the perfect ensembles to impress any vixen, thank you very much." Nick turned to leer at her. "And what about you, my dear bunny? Anything new to show off that little bunny tail to… what was the name of that rabbit your parents wanted you to meet… Irvin, I think?"
Judy's ears burned bright red as she bounded out of her seat. "Oh look, we're here!"
Nick glanced out the window of the train before he stood up. "I'm glad you told me, Carrots, because I don't see anything besides a tiny train station to indicate we've arrived anywhere."
Nick was surprised at how much Mr. and Mrs. Hopps fussed over him, making sure his room was comfortable and that he had everything he needed. By the end of the first day, the fox had adjusted to the constant commotion all around him while hundreds of rabbits somehow managed to keep the household and farm running smoothly.
Nick and Judy didn't see each other much the first week, since they spent most of their time getting to know Kaitlyn and Irvin respectively. Nick liked Kaitlyn, though he was jaded enough that he didn't expect much beyond several enjoyable days in the company of a beautiful vixen.
Judy, on the other paw, was pleasantly surprised at how much she liked Irvin.
The day finally arrived for the two couples to go to dinner together. Nick had brought a rented a tuxedo with him, mostly to keep Judy from complaining, and Judy wore a flowing dress that she'd spent too much money on.
Nick looked at himself in the hallway mirror as Judy quietly walked up behind him and spoke. "Wow, at the risk of making your already inflated head even bigger, I have to admit you look really nice tonight, Nick."
He turned to look at Judy and whistled. "Same to you, Carrots. Teal is definitely your color."
Her ears blushed pink as she twirled in a circle to show off her dress. "Think he'll like it?"
Nick winked at her before he looked in the mirror again and adjusted his tie. "He'll be putty in your paws, Carrots." He turned again and looked at her. "You're really falling for this guy, aren't you?" Nick grinned mischievously. "It's because he has red fur, isn't it?"
Judy rolled her eyes. "Oh please. No, it isn't that. He… well, he isn't like any other bunny I've met before. Most rabbits are so timid and boring. But he's travelled around the world. He's not afraid to see new places and try new things." Judy paused for a moment before she continued. "Coming back home got me thinking. For all their faults, I have to admit my parents really do love each other. Is it so bad that I want that too?"
"Of course not, Judy. Just don't rush into anything, ok? I mean, you've only known him for, what, a week?"
Judy's nose twitched and she looked up at him. "You sound just like my brother. He told me the exact same thing earlier."
"You should listen to him. He sounds pretty smart, for a bunny."
"Yeah, well, just promise me you won't get all weirdly overprotective tonight."
"Don't worry, Jude the Dude," he said before he reached out and ruffled her ears. "I just want you to know, I've got your back."
She frowned and swatted his paw away. "Oh for Pete's sake, don't call me that, Nick."
At dinner, Nick chatted with Kaitlyn, seeming to give the vixen his full attention, though he surreptitiously kept an eye on Irvin. Nick noticed how Irvin complimented Judy, and "accidentally" brushed against her all through dinner… this guy knew how to keep a lady's attention. Which was fine, until Nick also noticed how Irvin's gaze lingered on the bunny waitress just a little too long, and how he watched her walk away while Judy obliviously laughed at the last thing he'd said.
Nick's concerns were confirmed later as he stepped out of the bathroom to catch Irvin standing a bit too close to the waitress, out of sight of their table. When Irvin noticed Nick, he hopped away from her, with a smudge of lipstick and a guilty look on his face. How dare he play with Judy's feelings like this? And how in the world did Judy not notice?
Nick wanted to beat Irvin senseless right then and there, but decided he should talk to Judy first. Unfortunately, before he got the chance, she snuck off with Irvin when Nick went to pay the check.