As Judy lay on the ice-laden shore, light and sound and thought came and went in a jumbled blur through her head. Darkness began to descend, and the world shifted as she was lifted into the air. Warm orange invaded her vision. Her last thought was to wonder if it was the light of day's end, or perhaps fur?
Misery gripped her head as she awoke, hot and pounding. It was dark, for which she was grateful. Then the familiar scent of her warren drifted into her nose, and she wondered if the last few weeks were just a fever dream.
She heard something shift nearby, and, still in a daze, called out for a mammal that couldn't possibly be there.
"I'm afraid not." Nick's masculine voice broke her momentary illusion. He sat next to her and smoothed his thumb across her forehead. "I'm glad you're awake, foolish rabbit. And your fever is down. Good."
She seized his paw by the wrist. He stared, flummoxed, as she turned her face into his palm and breathed deeply the scent therin.
Judy turned to him and asked, "Nick, why have you been digging?"
Nick pulled his paw out of her grip and turned away.
"I was widening the tunnels."
Judy leaned up, seized the fur of his shoulder. She tugged hard enough to really hurt. Still, Nick wouldn't turn to face her.
"Don't lie! I know fresh soil!"
"Rabbit, you need to calm down."
"Tell me why you've been digging!"
"I told you."
"You were burying them!"
"How many!? How many graves!?"
"Stop!" The fox turned and grabbed her up, trapping her in his arms.
"Tell me! Tell me!" She punched and scratched and shouted, but he remained stubbornly silent. Finally, she collapsed into his embrace, too exhausted to continue.
As she sobbed into his warm fur, he smoothed a comforting paw down her back, and he whispered into her ear.
"Knowing won't help."
They had no choice but to stay at Hopp's Hill until Judy gathered her strength. During that time, the usually chatty rabbit was entirely silent. Nick tended to her without complaint, patiently allowing her to work through her pain in her own time.
Two days later, they were sharing their evening meal, made from the provisions Nick brought in his pack, since everything remotely edible had been ransacked from the stores, either by the attacking wolves, or opportunistic neighbors. They sat together in what passed as the Hill's dining hall, which was really a wide space just inside the main entrance. With nothing but dirt floors, walls, and ceiling, it wasn't very impressive, but it kept the chill wind out, and a little fire pit in the center was perfect for cooking and keeping warm.
"It's getting warmer. When do you think the ground will thaw? Hm! That soon? I'm not sure about that."
As he had during every meal they'd shared since arriving at Hopp's Hill, Nick was chatting between bites while Judy stared stoically into the fire. He would ask her inane questions, nod sagely along to an answer she didn't provide, then continue on as though she had answered. At first, it upset Judy. Here was this fox, smiling and chuckling at his own jokes, carrying on like nothing was wrong, like her entire world hadn't just collapsed in on itself. She would have yelled at him to shut his mouth, if she could have summoned the spirit.
"Well, I guess a farmer's daughter would know more about dirt than I. As for me, well, these paws are too valuable for tilling soil. At least, I used to think so."
As time went on, her opinion gradually changed. All her life, Judy had known the Hill to be filled with the voices of family. Aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, and especially her parents, all playing, shouting, laughing, making a constant thrum of background noise that was as familiar as breathing. Now, there was only unbearable, frigid silence. Her home had become a tomb, and Judy felt as though she'd been buried alive.
"But, you know, I've been rethinking that. I wanted to ask your advice on making my own plot."
And now, Nick's warm voice was the only thing that brought relief, that broke the terrible quiet that weighed so heavily on her. Judy honestly didn't know what she would have done if he weren't there.
"Ah, you're right. Living by myself, I wouldn't be able to protect my produce, and it would all be stolen right off the vine. Curses! My plans foiled again!"
Actually, upon further reflection, Judy did know. She'd have done nothing, because she'd be dead. Nick had saved her life. For the first time, she contemplated whether or not that was a good thing.
"Oh, well. I'd make a terrible farmer, anyway. I just don't have the patience for it."
Why had he saved her life? That's right, he expected a payment from her clan. A simple trade, material goods for services rendered. But, now…?
"I see you emptied your bowl. I'm glad to see your hunger returned. It's a sign of good health!" And he smiled to show his pleasure.
Their meal was over. Nick went to clean up but was surprised when Judy seized his wrist as he gathered the utensils. For the first time in two days, she looked him right in the eye and spoke.
"Nick, why are you still here?"
The fox stared at her, lips pressed together in a thin line as he considered his answer.
"I suppose…" he started, slowly. "If I left you alone, you'd die."
"What does that matter?" Judy pressed.
Nick went quiet, chewing his lip thoughtfully. Finally, he stated, "You can't repay me if you're dead."
"My clan is scattered. Our stores are sacked. I have no way to repay you."
"Then you'll live with me until you can," Nick said flippantly, like it was obvious.
Judy recoiled, the paw on Nick's wrist flying off to clutch at her chest. Then her eyes lowered morosely to the ground. To Nick's alarm, tears began to gather in her violet eyes.
"I'm a thrall?" she stated faintly, more to herself than to him.
"No!" Nick barked, seizing her slim shoulders with his big paws. Startled, Judy's gaze jumped up to his. His intense green eyes looked deeply into hers, flickering with reflected firelight. "You are not a thrall!"
Judy had never seen this side of the usually reserved fox, never seen him this…passionate. She stared up at Nick, eyes wide and lips parted in awe. The fox released her and sank back down, ears drooping and an awkward smile on his lips, as though he were embarrassed by his outburst.
"You're just going to be a free mammal that happens to live with me," Nick continued at a lower volume, staring into the cooking fire rather than looking at her. "And, someday, you'll get your chance to repay me. Consider it a long-term investment on my part."
He saved her life, first from the wolves, then the infection in her side. And what did he ask for his reward? A mere bolt of cloth. And now, even knowing he would receive no reward, he opened his home to her.
This strange fox heaped kindness after kindness upon her, then pretended at indifference, like it was totally normal, even though any other predator would have made a meal of her at the first opportunity. Judy stared at his fire-lit profile, eyes sparkling with wonder.
Silence fell over them, different from the silence of the last two days. Strange and, yet, comfortable. Warmer. It was then Judy realized that, though she had lost everything, maybe she had gained something in return. Something worth holding on to.
A tide of emotion welled up in Judy's chest. Bowing her head, she rested her brow on Nick's arm and began to weep. The fox politely pretended not to notice, and, if his tail curled about the rabbit's waist and across her lap, well, that was merely coincidence.
"You rabbits. So emotional," he muttered to himself, the smallest of smiles curling his lip.
Notes: A huge, unbelievably big shout out to the amazing TheoreticallyEva, whose notes and editing were absolutely invaluable.
I'd also like to thank Classyrogue for their thoughtful notes, which are always very appreciated. You can find their work under she_dies_at_the_ end. Great stuff, I highly recommend all of it.
And I'd like to welcome back DrummerMax64! A valued friend from long ago, I'm glad to have you back!
I'd also like to mention QueenAmaranthus, The Unaccomplished Writer, Upplet, and StarfangsSecrets for their time and encouragement. I really appreciate you all.