Everywhere outside of the city, a layer of freshly fallen snow three feet deep coated the ground in shimmering piles - soft, fluffy mounds of white. She knew this because of the weather reports, her parents calling to let her know to expect snow for her trip home, and because the weather near the waterfront of the Docks District was showing the first light dustings of snow flurries as the temperature dropped below freezing. Any other time, she would have enjoyed the way tiny white flakes of endless variety dusted the front of her car and splatted against her windshield to be swept away by the windshield wipers; the way the first few minutes of it touched the ground only to melt instantly until the ground was cold enough for it to stick; the way it suited the holiday by making everything seem bright and new; and the way it made her feel safe and cozy in her ZPD-issued, unmarked car with the heater keeping the cold at bay.
Chief Investigator Hopps would have enjoyed it a great deal. Except that she was staring through that windshield at the orange and cream fur of a fox huddled against the cold under a bridge. He sat in front of a tiny fire that broke three city ordinances against camping within the city limits and vagrancy, a blanket wrapped around his shoulders as he held his large red paws out towards what warmth he could find. The rolling in her stomach - a fluttery feeling that normally came for a completely different reason when she saw this particular young hustler on the streets of Zootopia - was one of a dozen quick reactions to the sight.
“I don’t celebrate Christmas, Carrots. I’ll just go home, cozy up next to a warm fire, and relive fond memories of our little chats.”
A warm fire. This was the warm fire he had gone home to in the home that he didn’t have? She knew he didn’t have any family left, and she had intended to surprise him. Pay him a little visit, maybe get a few things off her chest in the process. Such as how, in the two years that she had known the slick street hustler, she had come to see that he was more than a sly crook who danced right outside of the line of law. She remembered watching him perform sleight of paw tricks to entertain children. She had seen him slip his hard-hustled bucks into the pocket of a down-on-his-luck gazelle who had been too deeply asleep to even notice, much less thank the kind-hearted fox. She had planned to tell him that what had started out as an unfriendly relationship based entirely on her desire to catch him committing a crime had evolved into a friendship. And that friendship, at least on her end, had evolved further into attraction and a desire for more. She had even planned it all out, seeing herself standing at his door with every intention of wooing the rogue, and desperately hoping that he wouldn’t laugh in her face.
That had been before she realized that he didn’t have a door. He didn’t have a home for a door to be attached to. From the scattered but neatly stacked boxes and spread clothes under the bridge, this was his home and had been for some time. She had known him for two years and not once had it crossed her mind to check. He was always so cocky and smooth, so easy going and untouchable. The idea that he had been homeless this entire time and she hadn’t even bothered to check made her chest ache until she was forced to rub at the surface of her sweater with one paw in an attempt to ease it.
“Dumb fox,” she whispered to herself, though the little bit of anger that started to rise in her because he hadn’t told her this monumentally important detail was mostly focused on herself. Eight years in Zootopia. Eight years in the ZPD working her way up through the ranks to Chief Investigator despite every chip stacked against her, and she had been unable to see that the fox - the fox that she was falling for - was homeless.
The blast of cold that hit her when she shoved the car door open was hardly felt, even as the sharp drop in temperature caused her nose to flush and pinken. The red, Christmas sweater that her mother had given her last year, complete with a fully decorated Christmas tree knitted on her chest, and hip-hugging blue jeans were hardly enough to fend off the freezing temperatures. She didn’t notice the chill, though, as she crossed the road and walked into the little gully leading under the bridge. She saw his ears perk and head raise at the sound of her approach, green eyes instantly finding violet. The handsome vulpine face registering surprise in one moment, shame and mortification the next, and then - after a deep breath that she had seen him use to gather himself before - he put on the hustler face, a charming grin.
“Hey Carrots,” came his ever-smooth tone as he drew himself to his feet and unfolded what she realized was a clean, but torn and old, blanket. “Fancy meeting you here. I… just stopped for a little rest before heading home and…”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Tell you what?” he asked, but his tone lowered at the end and his ears dropped when she just held his eyes and said nothing for a long moment.
“That you’re living under a bridge, for one thing,” she said, trying to keep her tone even when she felt the telling tremble start to rise. “I know how much you make, Wilde. Why didn’t you at least get a hotel room? It’s freezing out here!”
“You see, this is why I didn’t want to tell you,” he shot back, his muzzle pulled into a frown as he paced back to the little fire and crouched down to hold his paws out in front of it. “Lecture, lecture, lecture. I’ll be fine, Investigator. I always am. I don’t know why you suddenly care, anyway.”
A pang of hurt struck when he addressed her by her title in a matter of fact tone, rather than one of the many pet names he used for her. Combined with the truth of his words, the fact that she had never bothered to check on his living arrangements had her lowering her eyes to her paws for a long moment. The way he said it. It was almost as if he had been waiting for her to realize, or to care enough to check. She shoved the regret aside as she walked over to stand beside him, one paw resting on his shoulder. “Come on, Nick.”
“Come on what?” he said, shrugging her paw off as he drew himself to his feet, tail thrashing behind him in agitation. He moved for the blanket, but stopped when he found her standing unmoving in his way. They stood facing each other in the cold, snow drifting down around them in gentle swirls that had both shades of fur lightly dusted in white now. The gray-furred bunny in the cheerful red sweater, a respected and well-liked member of the ZPD, watching with a determined and slightly annoyed look on her face. And the young fox in black slacks and a navy-blue button up shirt, a street hustler that most people looked down on as a fox on the path to nowhere, looking a little ashamed and ready to end the conversation. They could not have looked more different if they tried.
“You’re going to have to come home with me,” she said at last, placing her paws on her full hips as she watched him for a reaction.
“I’m sorry, what?” he asked, clearly stunned for a moment. Then his face cleared into a grin that had the very tips of his canines showing and a playful light coming back into his eyes. Both of these things made that fluttery feeling return and hit her hard. “Why Carrots, I had no idea that your tastes turned towards fox. What would your mother say?”
“Don’t be a smartass,” she frowned, heat rising till she was forced to let her ears drop over her shoulders so he wouldn’t see the clear and bright blush rise in them. If only he knew how true it was… But now wasn’t the time to let him know that. She might have been at his ‘door’ but she wasn’t going to make it seem like her offer had anything to do with sex. “You know that’s not what I meant. And we’re going to find out either way, because I don’t mean my house. I don’t have time to take you to my apartment, so you’re going to come home to Bunnyburrow with me for the holidays.”
The looks on his face ran through several emotions; from surprise, to flat out fear, to annoyance for a moment, before he broke out into a laugh. “Oh, that’s a good one. For a second there, I thought you said you were taking me home to meet your parents for Christmas. I can see it now: ‘Oh, hello Mr. and Mrs. Carrots. I have no idea why I am here but I am a homeless fox that your daughter decided to take pity on and bring home for the holidays.’ ‘Mom, dad, can I keep him?’”
The little play where he acted out all characters was similar to another conversation between them in the past, where she had offered to help him find a real job, so the sharp edge of sarcasm in his voice didn’t bother her at all. His words about keeping him brought a little grin to her face as she slipped her paw into her back pocket. As he turned to walk away from her again, she shot her paw out and grabbed his. The fox stopped dead in his tracks at the sound of pawcuffs snapping onto his wrist and the clicks of the other cuff being tightened around her own so he couldn’t escape. He turned and stared down at their cuffed paws, raising his to dangle and wiggle it a bit in a silly moment where he seemed to be deciding if what he was seeing was real before he turned his narrowed gaze to hers.
“Did you just cuff me?”
She hadn’t considered it at first, but the idea of an arrest struck her as a good one. It might tone down his resistance, at least it might if she played it the right way.
“Nicholas Wilde, you’re under arrest,” she said in a tone of authority that she used very well after eight years on the force and a few hundred arrests.
“Because I don’t want to be dragged along to a pity Christmas? What are the charges?” he said, tilting his head as he leaned closer to her with one paw on his knee. “Hurting your feewings?”
“Vagrancy, as well as starting an uncontrolled fire within the city limits,” she said, and had the satisfaction of watching his eyes pop wide, and his smug look fall to one of shock, before she walked over to his little fire to kick some snow onto it. When she turned back to look at him, his brows had fallen to a single line of annoyance. She set her free paw on her hip again and she looked up at him with a sweet smile on her muzzle. “Unless, of course, you would care to join me at the Hopps family Christmas.”
“Fine,” he said, at last, raising his free paw to rub over his face for a moment. “I’ll come with you. Can you take the cuffs off, now?”
“Promise you won’t run off?” she said, the same sweet smile still plastered on her muzzle as she reached into her pocket. Beyond that smile she was a jumbled mess of emotions. Guilt at forcing him to come with her, sorrow at seeing the anger in his eyes, hope that she could get past it to show him that she wasn’t doing this out of pity. She paused with her paw in her pocket when he rolled his eyes and gave her a halfhearted affirmative answer. Drawing her paw from her pocket, she tugged on their linked paws. Maybe it was just because of the tug of cold metal on his wrist, but he followed the careful pull of the chain until he had lowered to one knee in front of her. When she reached up with both paws to rest them on either side of his long muzzle, she saw a little flicker of… something… in the bright green when her fingers slipped through his untrimmed whiskers. Surprise, obviously, but something else. A little thrill, a little heat, a little bit of longing. She refused to dismiss it as her imagination, but didn’t press for it to return once his expression relaxed when she spoke. “Please, don’t be mad.”
“I’m not mad, Carrots,” he said at length, leaning a bit into her paws in a way that made her heart trip a little in her chest. “Not really. I just didn’t want anyone to know. Especially not the infallible Investigator Hopps.”
A little rush of warmth came at that, and most of it was affection. He really was a good fox, a sweet and warm-hearted young male who just needed to be shown that someone knew it. Maybe she hadn’t tried hard enough, because she had obviously missed too much. It was time to show him that someone knew who and what he really was. And that he was wanted. Even loved. The other part of that warmth was embarrassment.
“It’s funny you should call me that, Slick,” she said with a sheepish grin as she held up her empty paw. “Because I lost the key.”
“I said I was sorry,” she mumbled again as they sat in the driveway of the cheerfully decorated Hopps House, the windshield wipers keeping the still-falling snow from blocking their field of view as surely as the snow itself was keeping the car from being swarmed by her family. She could see the ears of over a dozen different bunnies through the many green-and-red decorated windows, all no doubt curious about her guest for the gathering. She turned her gaze to the sulking fox, who had kept his brooding gaze turned out into the night for the duration of the three-hour drive. “Sulking is not going to help.”
“I’m being brought into a den of bunnies,” he stated, finally breaking the silence as he turned his gaze to her and raised their shackled wrists, “in pawcuffs. A fox paw-cuffed to a bunny, who also happens to be a ZPD officer. You tell me, Fluff. What do you think will be the first thing running through their cute bunny heads? It’s going to be exactly what this is: the fox was arrested, but oh no! The key is gone! And now the family is stuck with an unwanted passenger for the evening.”
“Don’t call them cute,” she sighed and leaned back in her seat with her eyes closed. He had stopped calling her cute months again and she was sure he was doing it now because he was annoyed. She couldn’t blame him, though his anger wasn’t expected. He was always such an easy-going fox, with a wise crack and a quick grin or a smart remark to keep her on her toes. Was it because she had found out that he was homeless?
“Sorry,” she heard him mumble, causing her to open her eyes and turn her head to face him. The handsome fox was staring down at his paws, his eyes a little distant and sad. “I don’t like being anyone’s burden. Christmas just isn’t a good time for me. I have been on my own for a while now and you get used to it. Save a little here, hide away some more there, get a big score eventually and I’ll be right back where I need to be. I know we’re friends, at least I like to think we are. But I know you don’t really want me here with your family.”
Save a little, hide a little more. Then give money to someone who’s even more down on their luck than he is. She remembered seeing him slip the gazelle money, money that he might otherwise have used to get out from under that freezing bridge for a few nights, at least. She stared at the downtrodden young fox and felt a swell of that love that she had known was hiding inside of her. She had known because she had been hiding it, even from herself. Because he was a fox and she was a bunny. Because he was a street hustler and she was a cop. Because she had decided for a while that the comfort of the comfortable was preferable to those dangerous feelings. But that time had passed. The night had not gone at all how she had expected so far but that didn’t mean she had to stop short of letting him know what he deserved to know.
Her face softened, letting the resolve steady her quickly beating heart as she shifted her body across the divide between the seats. When he registered that she was moving, she saw him reach for the door handle, assuming that she was ready to get out and step into the line of family fire. Because her eyes never left his face, she could see the surprise when she placed her much smaller paw over it and drew it away from the handle. The curious look he directed at her became wide-eyed shock when she drew her leg over his and straddled his hips, directing his touch to her hip. The only way to describe the look on his face right then was open-mouthed shock, his paw hesitating and hovering away from touching her as green eyes searched her face.
“Ah… I mean, are… Wha..?”
The silver-tongued fox at a complete loss for words was pure delight for her, but she kept her face calmly serious as she tipped her head to the side and let her ears drop. He offered no resistance when she raised the cuffed paw to rest her palm on the navy blue covering his chest, feeling the quick beat of his heart as clearly as she could hear it in the snug space of the car. She had never been this close to him. Some unspoken rule between predator and prey had always kept them a step apart. Now she could feel the warmth of him, so close and inviting that she just wanted to burrow into him and soak it in. The scent of violets mingling with the scent of male to fill her every breath with the scent of fox in a way she had never experienced before. His scent. She would have rolled around in him just to keep that scent for another day, but was soon distracted by the feeling of his fur between her fingers. She realized that she had caressed from the blue of his shirt up into the off-white cream of his neck ruff, her paw all but vanishing into it. Rougher than a bunny’s fur. Still soft, but just course enough compared to her own that she realized it suited the salty young fox.
The rumble that left his throat surprised her on so many levels that she almost jumped. Her paw did pause as her eyes lifted to his face. His eyes were closed. That long, narrow, and dangerously appealing muzzle was partly open to expose the teeth of a predator and his expression was one of simple pleasure. Then as if he realized what he had just done, his eyes opened and his mouth snapped closed. The apology was written all over his face, and when he opened his mouth to express it in words, she struck.
It was a little easier than she had expected, kissing him for the first time. She was no rank amateur, where other bunnies were concerned. Dates had come and gone, but had been far between. Actual relationships had been even further between, but she knew her way around a kiss. But it was so different with him. Everything. His muzzle was narrow, but so large compared to her own that she was almost intimidated by the first simple brush of her lips over his. There was a jump in the next breath he took, almost a hiccup it came so suddenly, but she felt the paw that had been hovering over her hip finally rest on her jeans. She nudged her muzzle against his until their mouths were locked together in the clearest way she could possibly let him know that it was not a test or a passing impulse. The scent of him lingered to blend with the taste of him on her lips, making every nerve in her body fire in ways that she had never experienced. Half of her was screaming that he was a predator - a fox - while the other half of her savored that very fact for a mixture of sensations so intense that she felt high.
It surprised and delighted her when he was the one who parted his lips first. The warm caress of his mouth over hers was so incredibly gentle and she was so lost in it that she had no control over the little whimper that escaped her when his tongue darted out. It teased her lips apart, a task made easy by her own desire to deepen the kiss, until tongue met tongue in a duel that was half playful and half curious. The taste of him was like nothing she had imagined. It was wild and sharp on her tongue, reminding her faintly of a spice she couldn’t quiet place and she loved it. As the kiss lingered, going no further but losing none of its intimacy and sweetness, the paw that was cuffed to his searched his out. She raised them as her smaller fingers ran gently over the pad of his palm until his paw closed over them. The contrast of it, how large and warm and rough his paws were compared to her silky and tiny ones, was fascinating and somehow enchanting to her. They stayed linked like that even when she reluctantly broke the kiss and nestled her cheek against his chest.
“You’ve never been a burden, Nick,” she said in a slightly husky voice while she listened to the quick, strong beat of his heart and the whisper of his breath against her ears. “You’ve been my heart’s little secret for a long time now.”
“Judy,” he began, making her own heart do a little flip when he used her name for the first time in longer than she could remember. He was going to say more, but she placed her paw on the tip of his muzzle lightly to silence him.
“We’ll talk more later, Nick, I promise,” she assured when he frowned a little. “But right now, the family is waiting. And watching.”
“Watching?” The edge in his voice might have held just a touch of panic, causing a grin to grow as he looked out to see the unclear but obvious ear-shaped shadows in various windows. “But, they can’t really see…”
“No, not really,” she replied, still grinning as she leaned up to peck his nose before she checked her watch. The way his eyes warmed and softened only lasted for a moment when she finished in a teasing tone. “But I have been sitting in your lap for fifteen minutes, and I am preeetty sure they can see that much.”
“Oh,” came his numb reply, followed a moment later by, “Wait, fifteen minutes?”
“Time flies when you’re having fun,” she laughed, then opened the door to the cold of the falling snow.
The halls certainly were decked in the Hopps home. It was what anyone might have expected from a traditional holiday-loving family, with a few minor alterations that kept with the times. From the green and red of the holly wreath that adorned the front door, to the fake snow that was sprinkled on table tops that held miniature figurines of bunnies playing in the snow and huddled around a fire listening to some old buck with a ceramic book in his paws or waiting at the base of a chimney for some mysterious figure to climb down and deposit toys under a Christmas tree. Just like the sparkling Christmas tree almost as tall as a rhino was situated in the center of the circular main room to complete the effect, covered from tip to base in multi-color ornaments - ornaments that themselves ranged from homemade cutouts to the mirrored balls of red and green and gold - white lights and silvery tinsel. At the base of this massive tree, in the equally massive main room, was the reason the tree would have to be so large: presents. Presents for a family that consisted of hundreds of bunnies of all ages were stuffed under this tree in an array of colorfully wrapped boxes and the occasional odd shape, in sizes from large to tiny, to a stack of envelopes that contained the hundreds of cards to be pawed out the next day.
It was like nothing that Nick had ever seen and he was more than a little stunned when he had been led into the burrow by the paw. The two older bunnies that greeted him, both of whom he recognized from the pictures he had managed to squeeze out of Judy, did their best to welcome him without obvious signs of their unrest showing. Honestly, he was fine with the occasional nose twitch or alert ear set: this wasn’t the most comfortable moment in his life for a variety of reasons. A few of Judy’s siblings were sitting around the room in little groups, chatting away in very effective whispers as they cast not so effective secret glances as the fox. A swarm of tiny, curious bunnies hovered just beyond what they seemed to have decided was his visual range. Like piranhas waiting for him to be foolish enough to stick his paw in the water before they struck. Trying to take it all in at once - So. Many. Bunnies! - left him feeling dizzy.
Or that could have been the aftereffects of the kiss.
Even with everything around him, he continued to cast quick glances at Judy while she greeted her parents and a few dozen siblings with hugs and holiday wishes. It was… beyond words, what he felt. From that first moment, where he had been sure her closeness had been an accident or a product of her excitement to see her family, he had been reminded why he had been keeping his distance to begin with. Chief Investigator Judith Hopps, the well-known and hard-edged cop, interested in some homeless street hustler? Ha! The very idea of it, which had been persistently locked in the back of his mind for as long as he had known her, was just… impossible.
But it was her taste that lingered on his lips. It was her scent that still perfumed his every breath. And it was her words that had him desperate to know more.
“You’ve been my heart’s little secret for a long time now.”
What did it mean? he wondered as he was offered another paw to shake. Her family certainly seemed to be doing their best to accommodate him, even if a few of them certainly made it clear that they had no interest in meeting the fox. And some of them were all too eager to meet the fox that was currently paw-cuffed to their sister, though their intentions seemed far less friendly and far more protective.
“So what’s with the cuffs?” one of her brothers asked without so much as a pause to make the question seem less accusing than it was.
“A little accident, Jason. That’s all,” Judy replied with a cheerful smile that was a poor way of hiding the warning glare she sent at the offending brother.
“So this isn’t the criminal that you’ve been telling mom about? Ow!”
The cry came when Bonnie Hopps, with a smile so sweet and charming that Nick might have given her his shirt if she’d asked for it, grabbed the buck by one high ear and gave it a sharp pull. Her voice was sing-song sweet when she said, “Jason, dear, I need some help in the kitchen. Come help your mother, would you?”
After casting another warm smile Nick’s way and extracting another “Ow, mom! I’m coming!” from the clearly unhappy buck, she dragged him towards what Nick assumed was the kitchen. He could hear the scolding in progress, though over the hum of the other little conversations in the room he couldn’t make out exactly what was being said. Watching it, playing over the words ‘the criminal you’ve been telling mom about’ he decided that if he was going to be a part of this celebration, he was going to…
The thought was cut off when he felt her smaller paw slip into his, drawing his gaze to her when she hesitantly leaned against his side. He was young, but he wasn’t stupid: she was testing the waters as surely as he was. And from the downcast eyes and low-set ears, she was worried that they had just been stirred the wrong way. He spread his fingers, reaching down a bit more until her paw was covered by his before he gave it a gentle squeeze. When those vibrant purple eyes raised to meet his, he grinned softly. If he was going to be a part of this celebration, if he was going to find out exactly what that kiss meant to her, he was going to have to stop behaving like he didn’t want to be here.
“Are you two gonna kiss?”
The question, which came in the high tone of youth, came from a little cream-colored bunny who couldn’t have been more than six. Like most of the younger generation, who he now suspected were supposed to be in bed already, the tiny buck was wearing his pajamas; a little green one-piece with the ever-popular Rudolph the Flying Reindeer winking on the cover and a tiny cotton tail poking out of the back. As charmed by the curious brown-eyed bunny as he was confused by the question, Nick lowered himself to one knee. The tension in the room was palpable, but the tiny bunny showed not a bit of fear as he looked up at the now kneeling fox.
“I’m not sure,” he admitted, casting a glance to Judy. She watched him with a warm expression, giving him a little nod to turn his attention back to the kit. “I’m not sure if it would be polite to kiss her in a room full of her family, anyway.”
“But you hafta,” came the matter of fact reply before one little paw raised to point over their heads. They both followed the direction of the paw with their eyes until they saw the little sprig of green leaves and white berries hanging high above them in the rafters.
“That’s more of a bunny tradition, sweetie,” he heard Judy say softly. Her expression was apologetic when he returned his eyes to her, and he couldn’t help but notice that she looked almost as crestfallen as the little bunny did when she said the words.
“Well, hold on,” he cut in, causing both sets of ears to perk towards him (along with a good dozen sets of ears around the room). He increased the volume of his voice just a little, to let the curious eavesdroppers hear his every word as he placed his free paw over his heart. “We are in your house, after all. Surrounded by your family. It would be rude of me not to follow such a sacred tradition.”
Seeing that slow smile spread over her face made his heart thump against his chest in a way that he should have expected. It only quickened when she turned to stand in front of him and for the first time he really understood what it meant to have the world fade away. Like everything else - every bunny in the room, every light, and sparkle, every whispered word around them - faded from his world as it centered around her and the warm affection in her expression. The light jingle of the pawcuffs as they raised their paws together to cup each other’s muzzles caused matching smirked to tug at their lips before those lips met.
Like that first kiss, every nerve in his body came alive just from the touch of her mouth on his. The sweetly alluring scent of bunny filled his nose as he breathed in deeply and exhaled in a warm flood of breath against her cheek. When her silky fingers slid into his whiskers, the rush of sensory input sent a shot of sensation down his spine and caused his tail to puff out. This went unnoticed as she tipped her muzzle a bit more and he felt her lips part. The gentle and quick meeting of tongues was kept brief but left him on one knee with his eyes still closed as she drew away. Drew away and left him knowing that he had to have more. He needed kisses, needed more of this new closeness that he had never expected to be more than a dream.
When he did manage to open his eyes, he was aware of the silence in the room. Then he was aware of multiple “Aww”s from a few of the more open-minded bunnies in the room, which made the insides of his ears redden. This made him grateful for two things: first, the fact that the insides of his ears were too dark for anyone to notice; and second, the fact that the beautiful bunny in front of him did not, allowing him to clearly see the pink rise as she released a breathless little laugh.
That was when all hell broke loose.
He never even saw it coming. There was a sudden thunder of dozens of feet running on the floor as a mass of bodies came charging at him. The rain of giggles and cheers did nothing to alleviate the feeling of panic that shot through him and caused his fur to stand on end before he was tackled to the ground by a stampede of tiny bunnies.
“I wanna touch his fur!”
“Ohhh, look at his tail! It’s so long and fluffy!”
“His ears are too short, though.”
“Can we see your teeth, mister?”
“He smells like flowers!”
“His fur is so pretty!”
“Are you gonna marry Aunt Judy?”
“Of course he is. They kissed, didn’t they?”
“So I’ll have a fox for an uncle?”
“Save me,” he begged when he managed to pull himself into a sitting position and located Judy’s eyes through the storm of curious little bunny paws and questions. And of course, she just looked amused and… something else. “I’m being assimilated!”
“I think seeing you kiss their brave Aunt Judy just assured them that you’re welcome here,” came the soft voice of her mother, stepping up to stand beside her grinning daughter with a look of curious amusement on her face. There was enough warmth and welcome in her eyes to have him surrendering himself to the swarm of tiny fluffs with a soft laugh. That warmth spread through him, head to toe, and he gave all of it back and more when he turned his gaze to Judy and found her still watching him with humor sparkling in her eyes. Humor, and something else that he couldn’t identify. But whatever it was, whatever the feeling it caused to rise in his chest when he saw it, he hoped it never left that beautiful shade of amethyst.