Before we get on with the chapter, I'd like to give a huge shoutout to the slick devils over at Zootopia News Network.
We've seen this fandom grow exponentially since even before the movie aired back in 2016, but ZNN was equally quick to establish itself as its optimal content-sharing platform straight from the get-go. Being featured there feels absolutely amazing; in fact, I refuse to use any exclamation marks here lest anyone figures out how embarrassingly excited I am over this.
Keep doing your thing, Andy & Co. We're all rooting for you wonderful furballs.
And an even greater thank you goes out to the very Cimar of Turalis/WildeHopps, whose contribution as proofreader and editor proved invaluable throughout the making of this chapter. Not only did his assistance tremendously facilitate the tedious editing process, it also improved on the end result in ways I had not anticipated. He even managed to check my compulsive need to shoehorn semi-colons into every other sentence.
Truly a miracle worker.
I am certain you all know of him, but in the off chance that you don't, please do yourself a favor and check out his numerous widely acclaimed works; they are so for good reason.
And so, without further ado- Chapter 6!
(or half of it anyway)
"Who'd Ever Heard"
With a dancer, a fence, a prelate and a spy
along with two seperate tales of egregious maltreatment
"Oh, c'mon…! What the hell's taking him so long?!"
The sloth tardily raised his eyes from the cup he was wiping to the capped bunny seated cross-legged on the tall chair before him, head resting in one of her small paws with the other spread on the bar between them. Fingers tapped restlessly against the glossy varnish; but for once the languid innkeeper was not the cause of her impatience.
"Are you sure he's woken up, Flash?" Judy huffed, sinking further into her open palm.
"Yeah… he just… takes...his time… in...the mornings."
A grin laggardly spread on the sloth's face. "Why… combing… his… precious… tail… of course…!"
She blinked at him once, limp ears slowly perking; then her head fell back in uproarious laughter, merging with his own sluggish giggles. Adam knew what he was talking about…!
"Oh, well- can't rush perfection!" she quipped with a blithe shrug, still chuckling along; yet inwardly she was glad that Nick hadn't been there to hear that, even as a joke.
Judy's gloom of the night prior had all but vanished by the time she opened her eyes to the wooden ceiling of her spacey room, two doors down from where her vulpine partner was lodged. It was a late morning for both, nearing noon, but she could expect no better; it had been almost dawn when they had finally decided to tuck in, so late that even the predators reveling on the highest floor had given in to inebriety and dispersed to their respective sleeping quarters, meaning either some of the guest chambers adjacent to her own or the very room they had spent the night feasting in, sloppily collapsed upon its numerous tables amidst foul puddles of booze and vomit.
The bunny could feel the corridor shake to their collective snoring as she staggered out of her room and made for the stairs, absently noting how vital each of the inn's multiple storeys were to its soundproofing.
That careful design had evidently paid off, for when she got to the ground floor she was greeted by two small groups of prey mammals calmly enjoying their breakfast over pleasant chatter, blissfully oblivious of the affairs transpiring in the floors above; indeed, even her own sensitive ears were unable to catch any remote echo she would not have passed over as immaterial, had she not known better. The Rabid Drinker'sfacade was a fastidious one, and the success it enjoyed was a result of that.
The unlikely mastermind behind this propitious scheme, the owner posing as the sole, indolent server of the Drinker'sground floor, offered her a welcoming smile and a hearty breakfast as soon as he spotted her coming down the stairs. Judy happily accepted both, noticing the numerous different vegetables already lined up on his side of the counter. All he had to do was throw some of them in a small bowl and hand it over, so ten minutes later the bunny was already munching down bits of peas and spinach, making small talk with her server and finding that, if one was willing to ignore his slow pace, he did actually make for some stimulating conversation.
The first thing she learned pertained to the local predatory clientele, excluding those typically occupying the upper storeys. The ones who weren't in on the establishment's true raison d'etre belonged to the lowest standing in the Zone –namely, the ones who did not partake in any of the district's booming illegal activity- and it was them that would unsuspectingly visit its ground floor for a plate of decent food every now and then. There were none to be found there in the mornings, however, for each such predator had a job to get to, either in some nearby shop or past the brick fences separating them from the rest of Zootopia; that also explained why Judy could only spot flat teeth in the dining area to her right, chewing through green meals similar to her own.
That being said, Flash told her that the first predators of the day would start showing up as noon approached, and that was perhaps why the other patrons soon began taking off one by one, leaving the ranger and the innkeeper alone to converse more freely.
Flash took the opportunity to express his concerns to the bunny. The sloth was always eager to assist his gypsy friend any way he could, but revealing the clandestine intricacies of his business to outside prey, let alone a ranger official like herself, was something he had been understandably chary to agree to. Judy put him at ease, assuring him of the oath that bound her to secrecy.
"Besides," she added brightly, "far be it from me to strike at the Rabid Drinker! Your inn is a much needed touch of quality around these parts, Flash."
A few minutes later, when Judy suddenly found herself going through another fresh bowl of the most succulent verdure available at the inn, she discovered that sloths were as susceptible to flattery as the next mammal.
Their conversation had just shifted to Nick and his past with Flash –the bunny was delighted to confirm her partner's history as a jester and had already begun coming up with more ways to tease him over it- when their privacy was suddenly interrupted with the arrival of a new patron, forcing them to break off their jovial colloquy. One of Judy's ears rose to the soft creak of the entrance behind her as it swung open; then it stiffened attentively as Judy caught the echo of a distinctive, familiar speech. She twisted upon her seat to face the newcomer just as they noticed her back, jibbing momentarily.
They both recognized each other in an instant.
Mirroring the fond smile behind the newcomer's scruffy whiskers, Judy promptly hopped off her chair as the female otter darted towards her, reaching her and looping both arms around her to trap her in a tight hug. "Fancy seein' ya here, dearie!" Mary Otterton cried out in delight, failing to acknowledge her heavy earrings banging against the ranger's head in her momentum.
A hint of discomfort briefly danced on Judy's lips as she received the gypsy's aggressive affections. She nervously hugged the elderly mammal back, praying against all hope that the lice she spotted leaping off the latter's shoulder was a figment of her imagination.
"Indeed! It's good to see you again, Ms. Otterton." she responded, softly patting the otter's back. "I trust you're doing well?"
"Aye! My mind's at ease, dearie; word has it you and Nicky's lookin' for Emmett together now, right?" Mary pulled away an inch, flashing her with a wide, yellowed smile, eyes sparkling with anticipation. "That's great! So, have ya found anything yet? Do ya know what happened to 'im?"
Once again, the unchecked hopefulness of her tone caused Judy a light pang of guilt; Otterton himself hadn't occupied her mind in a long while. "We… well, honestly, it has been a- a challenging search so far, Ms. Otterton. Oh, but we're definitely making progress, though!" she hurriedly added, seeing Mary's expression instantly switch to disappointment. "We think we may have stumbled upon a lead recently. We're looking into it right now, and we believe it could prove promising."
The otter slowly nodded, earrings jingling as her smile gradually resumed. "Ah- well, with you two workin' on it, t'is only a matter of time! Yah?"
Judy smiled back even as she felt her chest grow heavier; as many "think"s and "may"s as she might employ, she couldn't seem to temper the pure yet tragically unfounded optimism of the small gypsy.
The plain truth of the matter was that things didn't bode well for any of the missing predators. Nick was aware of that and had resolved to stick through this investigation regardless, betting on the off chance that he would be able to bring his folk back with him alive and well by the end. Ms. Otterton, on the other hand, appeared to naively consider her husband's safe return an absolute certainty, refusing to even acknowledge the dreadful and much more probable alternative.
She was a distraught, hapless spouse desperately clinging onto hope, and the thought of swiping that hope away was as afflictive to Judy as the knowledge that doing so was, in all likelihood, inevitable.
As such, Judy's first instinct was to steer their conversation in another direction. "So, you take your breakfast at the Drinker as well, Ms. Otterton?" she asked, gently breaking their embrace.
Mary gave her a puzzled look. "Lunch, dearie! Sun's already high up!"
"A-ah… right, of course." said the bunny with an awkward chuckle; she was not used to feeling like a loafer. "It's quite the pricey crib, though. Are you sure you can afford it?"
"Oh, we ain't got to worry 'bout coin here, dearie!" she replied with a dismissive wave. "Little Flash 'oer here don't charge us null, long as we don't swing by 'fore noon." She accompanied her words with an appreciative nod towards the mammal in question, which he returned in kind with the expected time lag. Then Mary noticed the bunny's perplexed frown.
"We, Mrs. Otterton?"
"Oh…! Oh, 's right!" The otter beamed at her and grabbed her paw anew, excitedly pulling her towards the entrance. "Suppose you ain't met her yet, eh? Come, come!"
Offering no resistance, Judy allowed herself to be dragged with only a bemused simper curling her lips. It turned to surprise not a step after as she finally took notice of the mammal that had entered behind the otter now standing at the door, patiently waiting for the latter to conclude her genial greetings.
Her too, the bunny recognized immediately.
"This 'ere's the bunny ranger I told ya about! The one lookin' for my Emmett!" Mary enthused as they reached her friend, not concerning herself with the mild shock lining Judy's face as she beheld the latest guest to the tavern. Mary turned back to the bunny, giving her a light nudge. "C'mon, dearie! Say hi!"
Judy shook her head and forced her ears back up, trying to regain her composure. "Uh- um, right!" She cleared her throat, offering a paw to the taller animal. "Greetings! I'm Judith Laverne Hopps, ranger lieutenant from the Burrows province." she chimed, choosing to drown her daze in formality. "It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance, miss…?"
The horned mammal responded with a delicate chuckle that would have normally affronted the bunny. She stooped over and took the protracted paw into one of her hooves. "Gazelle, honey." she cooed. "Just Gazelle. An' the pleasure's all mine; Mary here wouldn't stop goin' on and on about ya."
Judy mirrored the ungulate's smile, noting the unstrained warmth in her tone. "Is that so?"
"Well, 'course! Judy 'ere ain't like the rest of 'em caps, Gazelle! She takes kindly to us chompers, she does!"
"I just condemn injustice, is all," the bunny modestly retorted. "And I am sworn to battle it despite the circumstances."
"Well, honey, that diligence does ye honor." Gazelle straightened her back and brought a dainty hoof to her chin. She cast the bunny a thoughtful glance, the faint curve on her lips unflagging. "… Pardon me, ma'am, but I believe I might have spotted ya down in Happytown yesterday? Can't imagine there'd be many capped bunnies runnin' around down there."
Judy blinked at her; she hadn't thought Gazelle could afford to look at the crowd amidst her wild dancing, let alone spot a mammal as small as herself in it. "Yes, indeed! I happened across your dance there, miss Gazelle; it was truly enchanting."
Gazelle's smile grew an iota broader. "Bless ya, honey, but I ain't no miss. Please, call me Gazelle."
Marry clapped her paws together with a squeal, visibly elated to have them getting along as such. "Say, won't you join us for lunch, dearie?"
"I'm afraid I cannot, Ms. Otterton. There's much work to be done today, and we're running late as it is. I'm just waiting for Nick to come down."
"Ah- so Nicky's here as well! That's great…! Well, dearie, wait for 'im with us, then! You go get the booth, Gazelle." Mary added, turning to the ungulate. "Imma go say hello to Flash."
And with that she turned tail and made for the bar where the sloth was waiting to greet her with a languid smile, leaving the two newly acquainted females to themselves.
Gazelle guided them straight to a booth at the left corner closest to the entrance, which she referred to as "their booth", took a seat and prompted the bunny to do the same. Judy complied, hopping onto the cushioned seat across of her and placing her cap beside her. The height of that specific booth had her head just barely sticking over the top of the table, but enough so to be able to mirror the gazelle somewhat comfortably. They allowed their gazes to meet above a shared smile, making use of the brief silence that ensued to measure each other up.
Gazelle was, by all accounts, an arresting female. Tall and slender even among her kind, boasting a pair of long, robust legs and a shapely figure that spoke of an accomplished dancer. The twin horns crowning her head were similarly long and thin, bending into a smooth curve all the way to their pointy ends. She had eyes of light brown, clear and iridescent, one of them covered by the single fringe of pale blond hair that shaded part of her face; that distinctly light color wasn't anywhere else on her body, as far as Judy could tell, so she deduced that the ungulate was using a tint of some sort. There was also a kind of crimson pigment pronouncing her lips, in a shade faint enough to miss under the wrong light.
Her raiment too stood out to Judy, who had begun noticing that for a mammal with such an unmistakable presence she came off surprisingly humble and unassuming; in many ways the polar opposite of the Garden's flamboyant lion, which was a contrast the bunny found most agreeable. She was dressed in thin layers of plain, creamy rags of the poorest quality, clearly inspired by the local gypsies' common outfit minus the telling grime that typified their lot. It came together with the long shawl draped around her upper half, held in place by her arms to keep her bust modestly covered.
Seated before her wrapped in these maidenly garbs, Gazelle looked as serene as she had passionate during her dance the day prior, and both of these vastly disparate facets left a lasting impression on the bunny.
Judy couldn't help but compare her to the other curvaceous females she had encountered back in Happytown's southern slums, the garishly attractive women shamelessly parading their nakedness and emitting flagrant cries of pleasure, and she instantly found them all lacking. The belle currently facing her instead managed to complement her physical allures with an engaging disposition, adding genuine charm to her comely features; a truly refined beauty, surrounded by an air of dignified maturity that set her apart from the predators she consorted with like a diamond in the mud.
This especially held true when one compared her to Mary Otterton, the jittery, unsightly mess of a mammal that had accompanied her to the inn. Judy was reminded of her first meeting with Nick, whose qualities had also made him and the otter an unlikely duo to behold back then. In fact, she thought that, apart from the flat teeth residing past her lips, the sultry dancer could have easily passed as one of the fox's crew-
Were it not for the pair of thin iron chains hanging from her ears, gently waving along every small movement of her head; the only piece of jewelry adorning her body, discreet like the rest of her attire yet serving as a clear indication of her allegiance.
Judy's brows furrowed in reserved bewilderment. Who'd ever heard of prey gypsies?
"You've got wonderful eyes, honey." Gazelle crooned out of the blue, catching her by surprise.
Judy found that her earnest smile was impossible not to return. "Aw, thank you." she giggled. "And your hair is gorgeous! I love the color."
They exchanged a few more pleasantries to loosen each other's tongue. It was Flash Mary was talking to, after all, so she was bound to take a while. Might as well fill the time with conversation.
Gazelle had evidently thought the same. "So- the Burrows, eh?" she asked, leaning in with polite interest.
"Yes, that's right."
The ungulate arched a brow. "Yer a long way from home, honey."
"Yeah, seriously! I was giving chase to a wrongdoer from back home and they ended up fleeing all the way to the capital, so… here I am."
"And they somehow led ya to the Rabid Drinker as well, eh?"
"Well, they led me to Slick, and then he led me here." she elucidated with a chuckle. "And I'm glad he did, honestly. It's a nice place, even with… you know." She let the words hang, using an ear to subtly point towards the ceiling.
Gazelle chuckled back. "I'm glad to hear that, honey. Not many caps would see it that way."
Judy suddenly felt an inexplicable hint of unease brewing in her chest. Gazelle was batting eyes at her sweetly, the shadow of her latest chuckle still lingering on her lips, yet the bunny got the sense of something incongruous woven into her tone. She couldn't quite place its meaning, though, so it was quickly shrugged off.
"You girls must be real friendly with Flash, huh?" Judy asked jauntily. "Mary mentioned that he doesn't charge you for the food."
"Ah, yes. Flash and I know each other pretty well." Gazelle's eyes flickered to the sloth still conversing with the jolly otter at the bar. "He puts together these events every now and then, see? Closes down the ground floor and arranges for music at the top; an' when he does, he sometimes calls me over to sing."
Judy found that easy to believe. Gazelle's voice was wondrously melodious despite her heavy southern accent, seamlessly alternating between consonant tunes that engrossed the listener to a uniquely placating effect. Listening to her sing would be nothing short of captivating.
She had been using the same uncouth speech as the rest of the local gypsies, but while theirs was brassy, rushed and boorish, hers bore a collected softness that made even its crude mannerism comforting and endearing; a sort of simple, understated elegance that rang almost motherly to the rabbit's ears. She thought that last impression fit her perfectly, although she couldn't have been more than a few years older than herself; her insistence on calling her "honey", not unlike the elderly otter she accompanied, also served to amplify that sentiment.
"Mary tells me you've been real nice to her, honey." Gazelle spoke up again, forcing her out of her musings. "Even takin' over the search for Emmett… That's noble of ya."
Judy shuffled on her seat. "Yeah… to be completely honest with you, miss- Gazelle, I saw some connection between my case and the missing predators. That's how I came to work with Slick, too." she confessed sheepishly. "So… not entirely all that selfless, I suppose."
Gazelle's long neck recoiled slightly. "Truly? Preds have been disappearin' since as long as I can remember, honey- although…" She paused, lips puckering in thought. "… I guess it's been happenin' somewhat more often as of late."
Judy's ears tensed to that, canting forward towards the ungulate. She sat up with renewed interest. "As in? Since when?"
Gazelle blinked at the bunny, taken aback by her reaction. "Oh, I… I couldn't say. I've just been hearin' folk talking 'bout it some more, but that don't mean much; as I said, things have always been this way. It ain't that odd."
Judy sat back with a low hum, deflating; but she made a mental note to look into this some more once she got the chance. Gut feelings were all she really had to go on, after all.
"In any case, Ms. Otterton's a mammal I'm truly glad to help." Judy continued, glimpsing over her shoulder at the elderly mammal with fondness in her eyes. "Predators here can be fairly… overwhelming, but she alone is nothing but sweet, the poor thing."
She turned back to the gazelle with a blooming smile, but it quivered as she met the taller mammal's gaze; the mirthful spark in it was gone, its welcoming brown suddenly clouded over.
"… Do ya know?"
Judy threw an ear to the side. "About what?" Gazelle subtly nodded back towards the otter, adding to her confusion. "You… mean Emmett? Yeah, uh- of course!"
"… So I guess you don't."
As Judy's puzzlement peaked, so did the shift in Gazelle's stance. She averted her eyes for a moment, pensively staring at a spot on the table before aiming them back to the bunny. She regarded her briefly.
"… Forgive me, honey. I can usually tell when a woman's given birth, but it's my first time seein' a bunny. Are you a mother?"
Judy had expected a number of questions from the placid gazelle with the courtly manners. This wasn't one of them.
It took her a second to realize her jaw had plummeted, and another yet before she actually began producing sounds.
"A- am I… Ugh, no, no, I- I haven't, um… I've been too, uh, too busy, for- for that." she eventually stammered through an awkward chuckle, shrinking into her seat. Her ears folded back to obscure their pinkish sear and her gaze darted across the room, resting everywhere but on Gazelle's face.
The latter merely gave a calm nod, waiting for the flustered bunny to recompose herself in polite silence. Then she spoke again.
"Me neither; but she was."
Now the melancholy in her tone was prominent. Judy saw her head tilt faintly towards Mary once again and her heart instantly sank. Was.
Her nose gave a single twitch before she forced it still. "… What happened?"
"They had a son, she and Emmett." Gazelle began, crystalline voice growing heavy. "Good lad, I'm told, but too reckless. Ended up getting involved with the wrong people, too far away from his own turf, and… one night he just never made it back."
Judy's nose broke free again.
"… After that, she and Emmett, they- they decided to try again. But she was too old by then, and it was…" She heaved a quiet sigh, horned head shaking miserably. "… She lost it early on. I hear it nearly killed her."
"That's probably when she snapped."
Judy's ears drooped so far that they seemed to pull the rest of her along, all the way down until the small rabbit had wilted upon her seat; a subliminal attempt to relate to a pain that she knew was worlds beyond her scope of understanding. She numbly stared back at the gazelle's dismal visage, then slowly looked over to where Mary was still happily conversing with the sloth, her sparse, yellowed teeth showing in a pure smile of unmindful joy.
An iron hand twisted her guts hard enough to leave her squeamish.
"She's not well, honey." Gazelle went on broodingly, reclaiming her attention. "At times she thinks her son's still alive. On others, she forgets 'im entirely; but she always remembers Emmett. And he's so tender, so patient with her…! I do what I can for her, but… she needs her man back, honey. Soon."
They locked eyes again and Gazelle's gentle smile returned. "I'm glad you came along, honey. It's good that somebody's finally searching for 'im seriously."
The tangible gratitude in her whisper threw Judy off even further. Clearly at a loss for words, the bunny eventually settled for a curt nod and a stiff, shaky smile which she hoped was at least somewhat passable. Gazelle, ever tactful, averted her eyes to listlessly scan the empty room, allowing her some time to take everything in and recuperate.
Judy was the next one to speak up when she felt ready. "She- hm!" Her voice broke and she swallowed thickly, clearing her throat before resuming. "She looks a bit calmer now than when I last saw her… must be a good day."
"She feels… comfortable around me, I guess." Gazelle replied in a somber tone. "I sing to her sometimes; plus, like you said, the local gypsies can be a- a bit of a handful, at times, but they don't bother her when she's with me."
It took a bunny's acute hearing to pick on the asperity of her voice amidst the countless subtle nuances she colored it with; as tranquil as she might be, she was clearly very protective when it came to the elderly otter.
Judy's lips curved into an askew smile. How can this woman not be a mother?
"You know, Nick was also pretty good at mitigating her fits; although he told me he had no connection to her."
Much to the rabbit's surprise, Gazelle's response came in the form of a scoff. "Yeah, ol' Slick has a way of manipulating people, for better or worse. In this case it's for the better."
Judy shot her an inquisitive look. "I get the impression you're not very fond of him, Gazelle."
"Oh no, I do like 'im and his folk!" she exclaimed, defensively enough for Judy to doubt her statement. "He's just a bit more… wily than all the locals I'm used to, I guess."
"You don't trust him, then?"
"I trust his ability to get what he wants." Gazelle responded with a wry smile; then she dithered a second before adding: "… Don't tell 'im I said this, but I'm almost glad his people went missing too. It's what got 'im involved in this story in the first place; and if he got you involved, honey, then I'm sure he knows what he's doin'."
Judy looked to her paws with a coy chuckle, continuously impressed by the ungulate's ability to weave compliments into their conversation.
They didn't speak for a while afterwards. Gazelle craned her neck to spy at the bar once more, smiling as Flash's comically sluggard giggle reached their booth; then she turned back to the bunny, expecting them to share a snigger over the sound.
Instead, she found the smaller mammal still frowning at her fumbling paws, as if struggling with indecision.
Her voice rang idle, skeptical. "Yes, honey?"
Judy's eyes rose to meet hers. "I gather you and Ms. Otterton must have known each other for a while now, huh?"
Gazelle cocked a brow in question, giving her a dubious smile. "... Yes? Some seven years now, I reckon."
"… I see."
And with that terse, nondescript response and a suchlike nod, Judy simply blinked away, offering no further comments; but inwardly she was biting down a string of additional questions as they came bubbling up her throat, begging to be released.
What is your story?
How is it that you're here?
How on earth does a kindly Gazelle like yourself get so deeply involved with the gypsies?
These thoughts had been nibbling at her mind ever since she first spotted her dancing in the streets of Happytown, and just minutes earlier when she was still reeling in shock after unexpectedly meeting her at the Drinker they were the first ones to return to her in force, vehemently urging her to voice them as soon as she could utter again. It had taken all her willpower not to give in right away, and again now to stop this line of questioning in its tracks. Nick's allusions had led her to believe that these inquiries were more personal than what she'd consider appropriate.
Still, she was satisfied with herself, considering her fervid curiosity artfully concealed; but that was only because she wasn't looking towards Gazelle, where she'd find herself pierced by an incisive gaze and a knowing smile.
She would have likely ascribed them to a perceptive mother's intuition.
"I used to be a prostitute, y'know."
Judy's eyes froze on a random spot on the wall, wide and unblinking. For a long moment she was completely motionless save for the long grey ears quivering above her head, stiff with surprise for the umpteenth time that day. She gulped dryly, neck slowly twisting to meet Gazelle's patient gaze.
She had managed not to ask, but the sharp performer had apparently decided to indulge her regardless.
"Yes, until about… a little over ten years ago." she went on calm and unabashed, ignoring the bunny's newest discomfort. "The brothels here in the Zone make sure to take good care of their- their staff, so to speak. It's a good business, really; there's always high demand here because predators aren't allowed in most brothels in the rest of the city. Not as customers, at least."
"But I never enjoyed it." she added with a light scowl. "I mean, it kept me alive well enough, but the men there were always so…" She paused to smirk at Judy, who was still struggling to get her bearings in regards to the subject at hand. "It's hard to explain."
"My brothel was a pricey one, see? The men there were usually posh prey who wanted to keep their nightly exploits a secret, so they came all the way to the Zone, far from their homes. Always eager, always getting to the point, always quick to leave."
"And they did it all with no emotion, you know? Not that I was any different, of course; I was simply making a living. But still, they were all just so- so shallow about it. Cold. And if they ever bothered to speak to me, it was mostly to put me down, because even though I was sharing a bed with them, I was so very much beneath them."
"… I never quite liked prey men, honey."
Now gradually finding new footing, Judy was beginning to notice that the more Gazelle was absorbed in her reminiscing the more she unconsciously abandoned parts of her raw accent. This told her that it was artificial, likely developed by the years she'd spent at the Garden in the company of inarticulate gypsies.
"… Then one night, this tiger comes in." she continued. "I had never gotten a predator before -like I said, it was hard for them to put away enough coin for my brothel- so I remember I was rather nervous."
"And I was right to be."
She pulled back and her tone shifted. Judy recognized the hue of her voice, the same that had briefly put her off when the two had first sat down. Curiosity overcame any lingering awkwardness as she leaned closer, giving Gazelle her undivided attention.
"This one had lost his younger brother some nights before, after a few rangers caught them opening up a house in Rockwood." she explained. "My tiger had been with him, but he had managed to get away; his brother, however, was caught by one of the rangers. A rhino."
Her frown deepened, forming a thin wrinkle between her eyes. "The ranger headbutted him against a wall and broke his leg; then he sped up and headbutted him again. He was shouting his surrender when the rest of the caps caught up."
"… He went quiet a minute later."
Judy was still.
From the attentive furrow of her brows to the forward stoop of her torso, every single inch of her body failed to react to Gazelle's words. The first perceptible hint of numbness only came when she felt her limp ears draping over her back.
Then, finally, she blinked.
"He had lost his mother to prey as well." Gazelle went on evenly before the rabbit could register her own thoughts. "Lynched down by Softstream when he was a kit. Drowned by some gnu."
"… He didn't take his brother's death very well."
"He came into my room wanting to kill prey, and I could tell as soon as I saw him, and I was terrified like I had never been before. I tried to scream, but he jumped on me right away, muffling me with a big, clawed paw –I swear it felt like knives digging into my cheek- and he bared his fangs and he was growling, and I was so sure I'd die-"
"… then he stopped."
Her eyes lost focus, absorbed into the memories that hid beneath their lustrous gleam. A frown took shape over them, slow and uncertain, portraying the lingering confusion of that old, frightful haze. "I- I think he saw how terrified I was. I believe he took pity on me for a second."
"And then he just started crying."
She paused and cast a solemn look back at the wide-eyed bunny who could form no thoughts because her brain was mush.
"I was paralyzed, honey. I watched him get off me, sit at the corner of the bed and break down, sobbing with his face in his paws like a little kit."
"My first thought when I could move again was to run to the door and call the guards to deal with him; but when I got there and looked over my shoulder, I saw that he hadn't gone after me. He was still just sitting there, looking so- so small, so hurt. So...broken."
Gazelle's voice had now dropped to a tense whisper. "He had just tried to kill me, honey. He would have, had I not happened to look so weak, had I been faster to react, to call for help; but I went back to that bed, sat down next to him and let him bawl and tell me his tale."
"… We didn't sleep together that night."
"I left the brothel the next day. Threw all my stuff in a sheaf and made for the Garden, where I had heard only predators lived, because I never wanted to see prey again." She sat up and crossed her arms, eyes now sparkling with the same harsh resolve they must have harbored back then. "For all I knew, prey lived their happy, safe lives somewhere pretty, jigging their way through the days and squashing chompers with every step, never sparing them a second glance."
"Prey didn't need my comfort. Prey didn't deserve my comfort; only tigers did. Only predators. And frankly, honey, I kind of wished to be seen as a predator myself."
Gazelle's eyes lidded to a slit, woeful and bitter, as they met the wide, sheeny purple of the ones looking up at her from below.
"I cannot describe to you, honey… how ashamed I am to be prey."
Silence decisively reasserted itself between them. There were still hints of muffled snoring reaching the room from the floors above, a lively palaver ongoing near the bar –as lively as palaver with a sloth could be- and myriads of inconsequential sounds poking in from the street outside. Yet all these noises simply bounced off their booth; at least that's how it felt to the roundly shaken bunny who was left staring in the general direction of her companion with eyes of glass, feeling nothing but the short fur bristling at her nape. She was only then beginning to guide her turbid thoughts towards a series of acknowledgements.
First was disbelief. A powerful surge of denial rose, as if by instinct, to contest these notions that confused and appalled her to the core of her being; and it held strong for a time, assuring her of the fallacy of it all, standing as a solid barrier between herself and this immense wave of disgust that threatened to wash over her.
It kept the repugnant notions at bay. It kept her safe; so of course, the first had to be disbelief.
Then the second one came, and Judy found her incredulity fading as the memories Gazelle had just shared began coming together with her own, every connection made chipping away at her precious denial, shaking it at its foundations.
There was something about a rhino ruthlessly striking an incapacitated tiger and an ox crudely shoving away a tiny, frail old otter that was begging for his help. Something about a hurt, inconsolable tiger helplessly sobbing at the edge of a bed and a resentful mob chanting their fierce hatred at a bunny ranger, asking for her demise.
Something about a beaver, a boar, a hippo, a panda speaking of untrustworthy predators. Dangerous predators, wicked, vile and undeserving of any lenience or pity. Something about a wallaby scoffing his contempt in the face of a fox she had taken a deep liking to. Something about abject predators apprehensively shuffling away from a tiny rabbit simply because of the feathered cap resting between her ears, the symbol of a threat they had long learnt to steer clear of.
Something about suspicious glances as they made their way down a street, about flat-toothed mouths contorting in fear and disgust and uninhibited hostility as they glimpsed at the mammal at her side long before he could do or say anything to justify these sentiments.
Something about that same mammal, the remarkably equable vulpine she would soon come to call her partner suddenly kneeling before her, overcome by emotion. She remembered the way his fangs had frightened her as he pushed his face into hers, the way his imperturbable gaze had been set aflame, taking her aback, prompting her to listen, to reconsider, to accept.
And she remembered his low voice, the smoothest she had ever heard, bearing formidable tension as he spoke to her, his words communicating their meaning through tone alone. She remembered that meaning, this tangible vibe of bitterness and desperate aggression and plea, for that was precisely what had tempered her ire and ultimately led to her oath; yet the words themselves she had somehow never paused to consider.
But she did so now despite herself, for these same words came back to haunt her ears, echoing hollow and loud and unrelenting, as unforgiving as they had been when he was growling them against her twitching nose.
Rangers are given credit for killing chompers, motive notwithstanding.
The second thing Judy acknowledged was "something wrong", and the mental barrier she had unwittingly erected came down with a thunderous crash, leaving her bare and exposed to the horrors that lay beyond.
She believed it. Every word; worse yet, it was a truth that seemed to fall neatly into place like she had known it all along, like the picture was spread before her eyes long before the ungulate had pointed it out, forcing her to look upon its turpitude in all its atrocious might.
Her third and final acknowledgement came in a flash, a natural, unavoidable consequence of her previous ones, mercilessly tearing down intrinsic worldviews that had stood for as long as the bunny could remember.
She was righteous. She was just, a venerable warrior dedicating her life to a fair and noble cause, faultlessly conscionable in the fulfillment of the sacred duties entrusted upon her in the name of peace and order; a long series of turgid words liable to stoke the arrogance of the countless supercilious rangers across the nation who thoughtlessly flaunted them, but when it came to the sole rabbit within their ranks there was no vanity to them.
For all the pride it rightly engendered, this conviction wasn't something to be bumptiously paraded, not a thought worthy of granting her any amount of petty self-satisfaction; it was simply true.
Because she fought for justice.
Because she was a ranger.
Because the scum she so restlessly pursued were in the wrong, and she and her refulgent order were in the right and that was the indisputable truth-
Until it wasn't. Until the ground disappeared from under her feet, leaving her infirm and discomposed, stranded in the forbidding void lurking underneath.
She caught a slight movement from across the booth. Gazelle had moved her eyes to the set of stairs at the opposite end of the room, following the mammal that was now descending them. Judy's lifeless ears recognized the sound of silk as Nick affably greeted the two mammals at the bar. Their conversation was reaching its end.
"You said you were a lieutenant, correct?"
Gazelle's gaze shifted back to the doe to find her shriveled, nose once again giving a weak, unremitting twitch. Her violet eyes were blurry, left unblinking for an impossible amount of time, and a near imperceptible tremor had her lower lip quivering over the edge of her joined buckteeth.
Seeing her like this, the ungulate couldn't help a soft, apologetic smile which Judy should have found confusing given the context. But she didn't; somehow, she understood it perfectly. She saw in it a discreet, non-hostile form of contempt, the only kind the benevolent mammal before her could possibly harbor; and it was meant for her.
Her, the brilliant ranger lieutenant, the star of her region, the pride of her hometown, Judith Laverne Hopps herself; and she received this mellow sentiment, so reminiscent of pity, from the ragamuffin gazelle who used to work as a whore, dressed in gypsy fashion and lived by dancing for, and possibly pleasuring, lowlife predators in the notorious hellhole that was Zootopia's Chomper Garden.
"You look like a nice person, honey," she began in little more than a sorry whisper, flawlessly measured yet thick with that mysteriously unsettling tone which Judy had just managed to construe, "so I hope you won't misunderstand me, but…"
"Would you please keep your distance?"
Liberty District had oftentimes been described as "radiant" when viewed in the light of day.
The term was likely used in a literal sense, for the pristine white marble of its numerous palatial mansions truly seemed to emit a dazzling, almost eerie glow under the burning sun; a property which, as many of its affluent residents liked to think, further brought out the resplendent ambience of the streets and added to the awe they inspired to the visitor. It was –in their own words- a heavenly sight to behold.
That impression was given further substance by the streets themselves. They were paved with finely cut stone, making them ideally comfortable for a leisurely walk, and gratuitously wide throughout their length so as to avoid any kind of traffic no matter the time of day; and indeed, despite the abundance of carriers going to and fro with their posh clients riding on their backs, there was always ample space along the streets' breadth for even the largest of strollers.
Not that there were ever too many mammals in the district, of course; on the contrary, it saw the least traffic in the entire city. This wasn't due to a legal restriction of some sort or even the extravagant price lists of the local establishments, but rather a question of belonging; for even in the grand city of Zootopia, few were the mammals who felt like they belonged in these sumptuous streets, able to saunter through them unaffected by the overbearing splendor they embodied. Instead, the vast majority found it easier to regard the district in its entirety with envious resentment and thus tended to avoid it. For their part, the locals took joy in this silent arrangement as it kept their illustrious district mostly clean of the staining presence that was the average commoner.
With lowborn prey being shunned as such, the locals' views on predators need not be stated; the children who were too young to have ever left the district had never seen a single pointy tooth in their lives.
So it was that a general sense of unrest permeated Liberty's northwestern wing near the entrance to the Royal Garden, for every passerby that day spotted a glaringly jarring element in this most orderly of districts, one so fundamentally disruptive to their precious routine that many contemplated notifying the local rangers. Namely, a fox;a russet-furred male fox garbed in the cheapest clothing, casually leaning against the stone fence enclosing one of the district's mansions, arms crossed over his chest and full tail languidly swimming in the air behind him.
Considering that his sight offended every single prey mammal that crossed that part of the district, Nickolas Wilde looked infuriatingly at ease that late autumn morning.
Riders and carriers alike stared at the reposed predator in disdain and bewilderment as they passed him by, but their hostility seemed to fly right over his head, rendered null by a disarming indifference that kept him stoic and unperturbed, his own eyes fixed on a particular establishment across the street. He appeared oblivious to the narrowed gazes resting upon him from every direction, but he truly wasn't. It was simply that his indifference was wholly genuine.
Much like the rest of the Zootopians, he didn't like the haughty residents of Liberty one bit, to the point where their enmity towards him felt almost gratifying. There was, however, the fact that a chomper could never, no matter how surreptitiously they might carry themselves, go by unnoticed in those wide, elegant streets; and that alone was cause enough for him to feel uncomfortable there. With attention gathered on him like such he was half the mammal, stripped of the low profile through which most of his opportunities typically arose.
So it was that he had agreed to leave most of their work in the district to his capable partner. Granted, she wasn't one to go by unnoticed herself, not there or anywhere else, but at least she was more likely to strike potential adversaries as an oddity rather than a threat.
From his experience, that impression typically came shortly after.
The Duke had put in some real work during their brief escapade in Happytown. When they visited him the day after the weasel had provided them with a list containing most of the mammals who had worked with Gavin, the bear from Nick's group who had first vanished from his job at a booth in northern Avenue nearly a month ago, including their current whereabouts. They spent the rest of the day tracking down the mammals on the list, some of whom had found new employment as far away as Rockwood, and commenced their questioning regarding Gavin and any suspicious sheep he might have consorted with prior to his disappearance.
Both ranger and gypsy were glad to resume their investigation, but at the same time recognized that their elected course of action was an inauspicious one. Nick's notes on Gavin's illicit affairs with the sheep described the wooly criminals as exceedingly cautious, fastidious when it came to preserving their anonymity; they had always been furtive in approaching him and kept their faces well hidden, to the point that the bear couldn't tell whether he was dealing with a large team or a mere couple of individuals. In other words, the chances of them having been noticed by his coworkers were tragically slim.
Furthermore, and likely in another act of precaution from the sheep's part, they had been asking for minute amounts of the merchandise Gavin was handling on a daily basis. Just one or two crates among hundreds could be easily purloined without anyone taking notice, and as Gavin had disappeared less than a week into his systematic larceny, the missing goods never had a chance to pile up. The owner of the booth had sold out and left the city without ever finding out about them.
And sure enough, their first questioning got off to a disappointing start. The rhino they had accosted told them that, as far as anyone could tell, Gavin had vanished completely out of the blue, simply not showing up to work one day, and the ensuing investigation was focused solely on the fugitive predator who had failed to meet his curfew. At no point had suspicious sheep or stolen crates come into the picture.
After another week went by with no sign of Gavin, the rangers concluded that he must have perished in some dispute between chompers gone sour –for how would a living bear possibly go by unnoticed north of the Zone for so long?- so they abandoned the search and went on to invest their precious time elsewhere. The booth's owner hired himself a beefy replacement and things went straight back to normal.
Heavily dispirited, they were preparing to round up their questioning when the rhino spoke up once more, taking them by surprise with an offhand question of his own. More specifically, he told them: "Wait- you two ain't together with that squirrel, are ya?"
Nick and Judy shared a glance to that, each seeing their befuddlement reflected on the other's face; then they eagerly pushed the rhino for an explanation.
"A few days after the rangers left, this squirrel showed up at the booth." said the rhino with a shrug. "We hadn't seen him before, 'least I hadn't. He asked us all about the bear, if we had any idea what had happened to him and all that, but none of us knew a thing so we told him to take it up with the rangers who had been looking into it. He just muttered something nasty and cleared off right after that. Ain't seen him since." He paused to give a loud snort, horned nose scrunching in distaste. "Don't want to, either; uppity little fuck, he seemed."
This squirrel was a new, thoroughly confounding parameter to the bunny and fox duo, one they couldn't make sense of right away. Most other mammals on their list also recalled him, so they chose to stay on his description which was, by consensus, that of a shady-looking, fidgety, unusually plump for his species and ritzy mammal; a visibly well-off individual straight out of the fancy Liberty District, which was conveniently close to the booth Gavin used to work at. It also happened to be the one district in all of Zootopia where sheep were commonly abound, so it fit with their premise well enough.
And so, after short deliberation, they settled on Liberty as their next stopping point, where they'd sniff around for a local squirrel with some strain on his belt and a disagreeable conduct who may possibly frequent the southern districts as opposed to most of his upstanding neighbors. The mysterious rodent's interest in Gavin betrayed some involvement they could only surmise to, being that he was never mentioned in Nick's notes, but he would hopefully be able to set them on the sheep's trail. That was, of course, if they actually managed to track the guy down; but by that point they had long resigned themselves to the idea that no inch of progress on this case would be achieved via promising means.
Yet progress was, unexpectedly, made with an unhoped-for stroke of luck. Having learnt not to expect much in the form of help from her colleagues in the city, Judy was pleasantly surprised to have them prove useful for once; or at least their thorough filing system did. A quick run through the documents of Liberty's headquarters yielded a half dozen scrolls containing reports on rodent-sized outlaws known to be active in the district, one of which happened to fit the squirrel's description to a tee. Bingo.
The squirrel's name was Filbert Corn. The available reports on him were strikingly plain, filled mostly with trifle offenses that had seldom warranted a hard pursuit, but that appeared to be due to his own mindfulness more than anything. He had oftentimes been connected to cases of tax noncompliance by local innkeepers, where the latter were found guilty of procuring the food they served from clandestine sources. Filbert had been suspected of being one such provider, but nothing had ever been proven so he was ultimately cleared of all charges.
Nick, who had naturally not been allowed into the headquarters to read the reports himself, was delighted to hear of all this from Judy. "A fence, lieutenant!" he had exclaimed right away, rapt in the thrill of sudden clarity. "He's a fence for stolen goods around these parts; and a damn good one too, if he can keep himself out of the cells for so long. I'd bet half my bushy tail that he was buying the crates off the sheep! It must have been a good deal on him, that's why he went asking about Gavin as soon as the caps cleared out; he was looking to continue business!"
Knowing full well how unwilling her partner was to compromise his beloved tail, Judy decided that his theory held water. This small breakthrough lifted both their spirits, at least for the short time it took for them to realize that Filbert had not been seen in his residence, or anywhere else for that matter, since a couple of weeks ago, which coincided with the time he had visited Gavin's booth. They figured that the bear's sudden disappearance must have put the squirrel on edge and caused him to go into hiding for a time, laying low until he was sure the whole thing had blown over. It was the kind of wariness that had kept him out of trouble for so long, after all.
Standing in the middle of Liberty's wide streets after an entire day's worth of fruitless searching, the two investigators had mirrored each other with a shared groan, taking a moment to gnash their teeth in justified exasperation. Then they quickly pulled themselves together and began planning their next move because, as Judy had phrased it: "By Marie, we will find that damn squirrel if we have to tear down all of Liberty!"
Nick had found this burst of stubbornness refreshing after the two days she'd spent visibly withdrawn, lacking her characteristic exuberance and prone to long silences that would draw out endlessly if he didn't take it upon himself to break them. Happytown, it would seem, had done his partner more harm than good.
Despite all that she had managed to work her investigative magic once again, consistently narrowing down the search all by herself, her vulpine partner debilitated as he was in those parts of town, until three days later she had led them to the enormous, single-storeyed inn he was currently facing; the only one in all of Zootopia catering exclusively to elephants, where the richest of the pachyderms could enjoy a comfortable stay conveniently close to the beauty of the Royal Garden. That conclusion had naturally come with some degree of guesswork from her part but, as was often the case with the astute doe and her sharp instincts, Nick was inclined to put his faith in her.
Certain that a predator's presence would only impede her progress, he had chosen to stay put and keep an eye out from across the street when she went in to question the innkeeper; and there he was now, stifling yawn after yawn as he patiently waited for his bunny to exit through the inn's gigantic doors, struggling to convince himself that he had not been entirely useless in their search or the elusive Filbert Corn.
He honestly couldn't wait to finally leave that blasted district behind them.
An armadillo suddenly rode past him on a skinny zebra, his neatly polished armor reflecting a sunbeam straight into the fox's sensitive eyes. He looked away with a quiet snarl –which the armadillo noticed and immediately spurred his ride to a gallop-, blinking rapidly to clear his vision before squinting back towards the establishment that had been holding his attention.
Which was not the colossal structure Judy had entered, as one might expect, but rather the far smaller building cozily nestled at its side; a tavern built for mammals of his approximate stature, meaning it was nearly lost to the eye in the shade of the adjacent inn. Nevertheless, it was one of the most popular ones in all of Liberty by virtue of their distinguished cook, widely considered the best one in all of Zootopia. Nick wasn't sure if he remembered their species correctly –it had to be a relatively small one for them to work there- but he was certain of their supposed specialty: pies.
Quality pies of all sorts and fillings; such as, let's say, blueberry.
The more Judy had kept him waiting the more he found himself losing focus, his thoughts inevitably drifting to the juicy blueberry goodness that was purportedly served in that small tavern. He hadn't had blueberry pie since he was a kit, back when his mother had laboriously managed to put together a couple of slices for him, bless her paws, but he could still recall the taste and texture of what had stuck with him as his all-time favorite dish; and this famed cook, with his superior ingredients and culinary artistry, was sure to produce even greater results.
He somehow failed to notice the effect these gluttonous thoughts of his had on the passerbies, all of whom would twist their neck as they went to keep the shady vulpine safely in their sights. A chomper in Liberty was disconcerting enough as it were, but the sight of one constantly licking his lips from the side of the road with such a ravenous look in his eyes was downright terrifying to most.
He was forced to abandon his mouth-watering reveries as Judy finally reemerged from the elephant inn's doors. He smacked his tongue and swallowed, shifting his gaze to the capped bunny as she began towards him; twice she almost bumped into larger prey hurrying away from the fox in patent alarm as she crossed the street, but she eventually made it to his side in one piece, looking only mildly troubled.
Nick's pointy ears folded at her sight. "Oh, no." he sighed as she wordlessly came to a stop. "That's not a good face, lieutenant. What happened?"
"Our innkeeper claims ignorance." she sighed back with a shake of her head. "Never heard of any Filbert Corn, and certainly never seen him."
Nick hummed. "So he's not gonna cooperate willingly, then. He must be deeply involved with the guy, if he's been harboring him all this time."
"That, or my assumptions were simply wrong."
Nick didn't answer right away, instead taking a second to regard her more closely. He was unaware of the mental record she kept of his numerous grins but had developed a similar methodology for reading into her expressions as well, involving mainly the energetic movements of her ears. Now he found them still, lowered but rigid, while her eyes were half-lidded and distant, lacking focus.
Judy was deep in thought, but not the least bit dejected; and as much as he despised her need to pull into herself while cogitating, this was as positive a sign as she could give.
"… But you don't believe that, do you?" he tossed back in an incisive tone, tacitly prompting her to speak her mind.
Her eyes rested on his for a moment; and sure enough, there were gears silently turning behind them. "… What do you make of this?"
She crossed her arms and turned back towards the inn, nodding at a spot near the entrance. "It's strange." she remarked. "I've seen lizard livestock cooped outside most establishments down at the Zone, but I didn't think any folk in Liberty would share these dietary preferences; especially at an inn known for housing only elephants."
He followed her gaze to the inn's entrance and scanned it for a moment before finally spotting what she was referring to. Indeed, there was a tiny wooden cage there which he hadn't noticed, so small that he had to squint anew to see it clearly all the way from across the wide street; and trapped inside it was an even smaller blur of green shuffling around, which he also recognized once his eyes found proper focus.
Another hum escaped his lips. "Oh, this particular breed isn't meant for consumption, lieutenant." he mumbled to his partner, noting the yellow shade at the back of the lizard's head; then he faced her, letting a faint smirk communicate his praise. "What you're looking at there is a typical mount-lizard." But you knew that already.
Judy made sure to keep her expression solemn –Nick knew by then how much she liked to play humble- but her eyes seemed to smile right back at him, alight with satisfaction. "Still, I doubt an elephant could ride one of those…"
Nick cackled to that. "Wouldn't that be a sight to behold…!"
"… But a squirrel just might." she continued. "In fact, I'd say this lizard is the perfect size for a rodent; and judging from our descriptions of him, Filbert doesn't strike me as the kind of mammal who'd enjoy walking to places."
Judy waited for the fox to respond, but received only silence. She turned her head to find him staring, the sharp grin on his face flashing her with a mouthful of sardonic amusement.
She eyed him guardedly. "… What?"
"Oh gee, Nick!" he mocked in a high-pitched drawl, batting his eyes at the bunny. "What if my assumptions were wrong, Nick! What do you think of that lizard, Nick! Why Nick, I don't suppose you think I was right all along now, do you Nick?" He only stopped when he heard her snigger, settling back against the stone fence with a chuckle of his own. "That's exactly how you sound, lieutenant."
"Oh, shut up, stupid." she retorted, eyes rolling above her twitching nose. "I just wanted to get your angle on all this!"
"Well in any case, you were indeed correct! You've hit the nail on the head yet again!" he exclaimed in exaggerated admiration that had her biting her lip still. "Truly, you are a peerless investigator, miss Hopps. There's just no equal."
"Okay- okay, well… thank you, Nickolas, but there's no need for such- aggrandizement." Judy managed through a snort, trying to kill the bashful simper steadily crawling up her muzzle. His antics had caught her off guard. "This isn't what I-"
"Ah, did I misconstrue…? My bad, then; but I suppose I don't have your flawless intuition though, do I?"
"Oh my God."
That did the trick; she looked away to try and stifle what had grown into a full-blown spastic giggle, a paw raised to her eyes and ears dropping to obscure the red of her cheeks. Nick held off any additional comments, choosing instead to savor the coy titters of the bunny with a deep sense of accomplishment welling in his chest; it had been too long since he'd last drawn a good laugh out of her.
He also noted that his partner was unexpectedly weak against compliments, and put that information away for future use.
"So- you done teasing me now, mister Wilde?" Judy asked after finally bedding down her laughter, giving him a smile not quite as wry as she would have liked. "Had your fill yet?"
"Are you done bragging, lieutenant?"
"I wasn't-okay, no." She shook her head hard, resisting the urge to keep playing along, and shot him an austere look. "Seriously, Nick, we've got to focus here!"
"What's left for us to focus on?" he asked her lightly. "We pretty much know our squirrel's in there, don't we?"
"Yes, but that was only half the work." Judy fixed her gaze back at the inn and the erect stance of her ears signaled Nick that playtime was officially over. "The innkeeper's left that lizard out in plain sight for everyone to see. Either both him and Filbert are insultingly incompetent, or they're confident that the squirrel won't be found either way."
"Maybe they aren't too worried." Nick suggested, following her gaze. "There's no widescale search underway, after all. It's only us."
"And neither of us goes by unnoticed around these parts, Nick." she pointed out. "Chances are they've heard of the fox and rabbit going around asking about him; in fact, considering how cautious Filbert's known to be, I'd be shocked if he hadn't."
Nick rubbed his chin, slightly cross at the bunny's accurate observation. Useless, useless.
"… Fair point. So I'm guessing you didn't ask the innkeep about the lizard then, huh?"
"No, I didn't want to alarm him any further; he'd probably just gush out some lie we wouldn't be able to refute anyway."
The fox nodded his assent. "Mm, good thinking. Alright, then, lieutenant; you've been in there." he said evenly, narrowed eyes now pinned on the frontage of the massive inn. "What are we looking at?"
Judy was glad for the neutrality of his tone; he could joke around and goad her for hours on end, but when that stolid calm overcame him she knew she could count on him to deliver.
"Single floor, naturally; elephants and storeys don't go well together." she began. "There's a huge dining area by the bar and a total of four rooms behind it, each holding up to two patrons. Three are currently occupied. There were five elephants eating there, six with the owner."
Nick threw an ear to the side. "Only four rooms in the entire inn?"
"Space is an issue for them, I imagine." she shrugged. "No matter how big a building it may be."
A guttural sound of concern rumbled in his throat. "And big it is, I'm afraid. There must be literally hundreds of excellent hiding spots for such a small mammal to hole up in; and if he's as careful as we expect him to be… No wonder they're so relaxed. We'd need an entire team to turn the whole place upside down, and I doubt our little off-record investigation on a guy who's not even currently wanted would warrant such drastic measures. Not without hard evidence, at least."
"Indeed; but I don't think we'll need to go that far."
A pregnant statement, if Nick ever heard one. He cast the bunny a searching glance. "Sounds to me like you've contrived a plan already, lieutenant."
"Mm… sort of." Judy slowly mirrored him, a faint curve dancing at the corners of her lips. "And I think you're gonna like it."
His brow shot up. "I'm all ears."
"Well, I was thinking- the guy clearly knows his way around local procedures, right? We'd have a hard time getting to him via conventional means; but we happen to have something very unconventional at our disposal, Nick. Something no ranger has ever had before." The curve suddenly bloomed into a roguish smile, the kind that seemed both out of place and strangely appropriate sitting under her feathered cap. She took a step closer, bumping his chest with the back of her paw. "You, Slick."
He blinked at her. "Me."
"Yes, you." she repeated, grin widening. "See, the locals, Filbert included, aren't at all accustomed to predators and their unique talents. You, for example, are supposedly a natural-born hunter." She moved her paw to lightly tap at his snout. "So hunt."
Apprehension dawned on his face, stretching his mouth into the toothiest smile Judy had ever seen on him; yet another new variety for her to classify. After some brief consideration, she settled on "delight".
"I do like that." he purred against her pointed finger. "But I don't think me and my trusty nose would get far in there, even with a lieutenant's authority. You bring in a chomper to sniff around against the owner's wishes and it's sure to cause a proper scene; we'd have maybe a few good minutes before he calls your colleagues on us."
"A few minutes might do fine, actually." she replied, lowering her arm. "I don't think Filbert would hide in any of the back rooms; it's quiet in there, a guest could potentially hear him scurrying about and start asking questions. So it should be enough if you cover just the front, try to catch a whiff around the bar and dining area." Judy concluded, stepping back with expectant eyes. "Do you think you can manage that?"
Nick brought a fist to his mouth and glanced from the bunny to the inn, contemplating. "… This place is sure to smell heavy of elephant." he muttered aloud to no one in particular. "A squirrel's scent would stick out; unless he's on higher ground, the ceiling… But even so, I should pick a trail, at least. If he's come down at all those past two weeks…"
His voice gradually faded to a whisper, words slurring into one another until Judy could no longer make them out; she simply waited to hear his assessment of her plan. She had devised it with little sense of how a canid's nose functioned, so it was up to her partner to take every element into account and decide whether this stunt was worth trying out; and if against her hopes it wasn't, they'd have to spend even more precious time in Liberty working out a different approach.
Her ears perked with anticipation a few moments later when Nick finally dropped his arm and focused back on her, having reached a decision.
"I should be able to pull it off." he declared, earning him a beaming, bucktoothed smile. "Like you said, I doubt they'd have taken precautions against that; but there's no telling just how strong the scent will be. I need you to make sure I'm not stopped right away, and if I have to get as far as the dining tables… well, it might end up getting messy with the local rangers after all, whether we find him or not."
"Aw, when has that ever stopped us!" she enthused with a lively hop, setting off towards the inn and motioning him to follow. "C'mon, let's go…! Oh, or do you need some time to prepare first?"
"Oh, I've had plenty of time already, believe me. Lead the way!" He followed after her with a smirk, enjoying her overt excitement as they began across the street; his presence appeared to clear open a path for them as they went. "I've had enough of being dead weight in this fucking place anyway. Time to justify that fictitious pay of mine!"
Judy jibbed to his quip, turning to him with a chiding scowl. "You're not dead weight, Nick! Don't be foolish!"
"Well, I sure as hell haven't been much of an asset lately either." he grumbled back with a click of the tongue. "But don't you worry about my self-esteem, lieutenant; it'll take more than that to temper it, I assure you." he jested anew as they clambered up the oversized steps to the inn's entrance. "Plus, I'm giving it a good boost today, once I sniff out our little felon of a squirrel."
"That's the spirit!"
Each panel of the inn's doors literally towered above the two of them, but luckily one had been left slightly ajar, just the way Judy had found it when she had first entered. Now she paused before the wide crack and turned to mirror Nick with a firm, sober gaze that portrayed unfaltering professionalism.
"Alright… game face, on." she announced in her distinctive tone of composed efficiency.
He grinned to that. "Mm…! That's a potent one!"
One of his paws rose as he spoke, padded palm facing the sky, and the bunny understood right away. She struck down on the open palm with force, invigorated by the satisfying slap it produced on contact; then, failing to notice Nick wince and clench his stinging paw behind her, she gave each of her limbs a good shake and exhaled deeply, readying herself for the task at hand. Finally, she puffed up her chest and crossed into the enormous inn with a resolute gait and her fox in tow.
The street outside became a little calmer.
The interior of the inn was just as Judy had described it; an overall standard layout only with everything that comprised it, from furniture and decoration to the staff and patrons, drastically enlarged to elephantine proportions.
There were a few great tables positioned in the dining area to their right where five neatly dressed pachyderms were engaging in lighthearted chatter over a late breakfast. At the wall behind them was an empty fireplace, about twice the size of Nick's cubical wagon, and on its hearth lay a couple of hefty tree trunks quietly waiting for the chill of the afternoon to be lit aflame; the result would have qualified as a destructive wildfire in the country, but here it would merely serve to bestow the inn a nice, homely ambience in the day's later hours.
The space at their left was mostly bare in comparison, holding only two sets of the largest armed chairs either of them had ever seen, richly cushioned and with a thick crimson rug covering the floor beneath their feet; a clear emphasis on superfluous comfort and vapid grandeur, as befit an acclaimed establishment of Liberty District. The wall at their back, much like the entirety of the inn's interior, was teeming with framed paintings big and small, most depicting relaxing pieces of scenery for the paying customer to gaze at and admire.
Lastly, facing the entrance was another twin-paneled door leading to the guest rooms, and right next to it an enormous wooden counter with a grey male elephant standing behind it. He looked to be in his early forties and was immaculately dressed, wrapped in a clean, wrinkleless black vest worn over a white shirt of the most expensive fabric, sleeves pulled up over his thick elbows. His proboscis was notably long and slender in contrast with the rest of his build, allowing for nimble and precise handling that would have been impossible to his blunt front feet; at the moment he was using it to wipe a large cup he had just finished cleaning, sliding a dry rag in and out of its bowl with a mechanical ease that portrayed his experience in the business.
Looking down at his work and with no creak or movement from the door to signal their arrival, the elephant failed to notice the two smaller newcomers as they entered his inn, which the latter viewed as an act of providence. They immediately looked to each other, communicating their tacit understanding of the plan with a shared nod. Judy began her slow advance towards the bar as quietly as she could, meaning to stall having to call out and announce herself, while Nick traced the wall leftwards all the way to the far corner of the room, safely distanced from both the occupied tables and the distracted innkeeper. There he assumed a stooping posture and put his nose to work.
Judy took a moment to glimpse at him whilst dragging her feet, noting how well his red fur blended in with the thick carpet; it could very well be her excess optimism talking, but these small consecutive strokes of luck made their chancy endeavor feel more and more promising. He was walking on two legs still, bent to a near ninety degrees to keep his long snout close enough to the floor, and Judy barely managed to make out the faint snuffling he produced as air was greedily sucked into his nostrils. He progressed along the rich carpet in a hasty meander, making sure not a single hint of a scent would escape his nasal inspection.
Focused and committed, just as she liked him to be; meaning that she needn't concern herself with his part and could focus solely on her own.
It took several seconds before the innkeeper finally took notice of the bunny laggardly approaching his bar, blinking at her in mild surprise. Judy instantly abandoned her sluggish mosey and built a normal pace, stepping lightly to the right as she walked to guide his gaze away from the fox secretly sniffing at his rug. She reached the counter and looked up to the frowning elephant with a polite, formal smile. "Hello once again, sir." she greeted. "Please excuse my persistence, but I'd like us to go over everything one more time, make sure neither of us forgot to mention anything. Would that be okay with you?"
The look he shot her next gave away that it wasn't. "Ma'am, I already told you all there was to tell." His voice, gruff and deep by nature, was further charged with a tint of annoyance as he addressed the tiny ranger. "Now would you mind? I've a business to run, and you're disturbing my customers."
"Your customers don't even know I'm here, sir." she replied, motioning to the elephants at the tables and the sustained buzz of their calm, indistinct speech. "And they don't need to. We'll be done in a jiffy, I assure you."
Between the new smile she slung at him and the red feather sitting on her cap, the innkeeper found himself with little ground to protest. His trunk fluttered to a disgruntled huff as he eventually obliged, setting his rag aside and propping both arms against the bar, leaning forth to properly face the rabbit. "Alright, then." he sighed. "Let's get this over with."
Her eyes found his and locked them in a keen stare, claiming their undivided attention; yet another mute ploy to keep them off her partner, masqueraded as advertent questioning. She stood upright, paws tied behind her back and an apposite touch of authority in her tone when she next spoke.
"Thank you, sir. Now, as I mentioned earlier, the mammal I'm looking for goes by the name Filbert Corn-"
"Never heard of him."
"-a local squirrel recurrently suspected of receiving stolen goods-"
"I don't associate with any squirrels whatsoever."
"-and bootlegging them to numerous inns and taverns around the district. My search strongly indicates that he may have recently visited your establishment."
"Might want to review your search then, ma'am."
Judy's ears gave a quiver of irritation. "I do wish you'd be more cooperative, sir. To our mutual benefit."
"And I wish you'd stop pestering me with baseless accusations, lieutenant ma'am."
"No one's accusing you of anything, sir." she sighed, finding her comity challenged in the face of the elephant's unsavory demeanor. "I am just trying to do my job here. No need for aggression, if you please."
"So that line about our "mutual benefit" was supposed to be reassuring, or what?" he sneered with a jerk of his trunk.
"You mistook me, sir. I meant that you, as a law abiding civilian, would naturally benefit from the apprehension of a known criminal; especially one whose transgressions revolve around your line of work."
The innkeeper's frown tensed into a plain scowl. "See, ma'am- that, too, rings a bit too much like an accusation. And I do not," he intoned, leaning further down until he could reach the bunny with his long trunk, "appreciate being accused in my own business; not without adequate cause. So unless you got any, I'll have to ask you to leave the premises. I've said all I had to say."
Judy held his minatory gaze in silence for a second. The black tips of her ears connected high above her head, her nose was stuck in a nervous spasm and her foot gave four audible taps before she could will it still. She gave the elephant another smile, so patently forced that it might as well have been a furious glare; the tiny ranger looked about ready to explode and aggravate the situation into an all-out argument against her better judgement.
But inwardly she was giddy with delight; the innkeeper was clearly set on antagonizing her, which further diminished the chance of him noticing Nick. The latter had already moved past the four chairs and would have soon covered the entirety of the rug before proceeding to the tall counter, and the elephant at its other side was still completely oblivious to his presence. She hadn't dared hope for such positive development.
Antagonizing it is, then.
"… Your frustration is understandable, sir." she said eventually, taking extra care to make herself sound nettled. "You have answered all my previous questions, after all, so let's try something we have not yet touched on."
"And what would that be?"
Some of the strain wore off her smile. "I couldn't help but notice the creature you have cooped up outside the entrance. Care to explain?"
Once again his trunk jerked to a mild fidget. Judy didn't miss it. "… Why, of course. That's my pet."
She didn't answer right away, letting a blank stare speak for itself. "Your pet."
"Yeah, that's right." he confirmed, chin rising in a haughty bridle. "Purchased it a couple of weeks ago from a booth down in St. Marie's Plaza. Is that a problem?"
"Oh no, not at all! Only… could I ask you what his name is?"
Another fidget. "I fail to see how that is pertinent, ma'am."
"Just innocent curiosity, sir; I've never owned a lizard myself." she replied with a light chuckle. "So, what have you named the little guy?"
"… I haven't named him." he said curtly. "Saw no reason to; not that many lizards around here, as I'm sure you've noticed."
Improvisation isn't his strong point, Judy thought. Nick would have given me a name and a story to go with it.
Still, the aim of her question lay elsewhere. She allowed her smile to flatten and a reserved strictness shone in her eye. "Sir, the lizard outside is a female."
Judy had no idea if it were true, of course, but what mattered was that neither did the elephant. The blunt statement visibly threw him off, causing his long trunk to twirl anew. "Funny how you wouldn't correct me there…" remarked the bunny, adding to his bewilderment.
"Well, I never cared to know its bloody gender, ma'am.!" the innkeeper lashed, raising his voice; this attracted a couple of glances from his patrons, but they were incurious and short-lived. "I just wanted a lizard as decoration for the shop, but I decided against it so now I keep the damn thing outside, that's all there is to it!"
"Easy now, sir." Judy spoke placidly, lips curving into another friendly smile with patently unfriendly intent creeping underneath. "We don't want to upset the customers, remember?"
The elephant grimaced like he had just swallowed something very sour. He glanced at the tables and cleared his throat, making an effort to compose himself and relax his unruly trunk. He glared at the doe and leaned back down, lowering his voice to what accounted as his species' equivalent of a hiss.
"You were trying to bait me." he accused. "And you still claim you're not suspicious of me?"
"I'm only as suspicious as the situation dictates, sir." she replied matter-of-factly. "I wasn't when I first entered your inn; now, however, considering how unwilling you are to assist my investigation…"
She allowed her voice to trail off, her unspoken words conveying an abstract threat that she knew the innkeeper would want to avoid. Her gaze, avidly emotive in its neutrality, was held by the enormous mammal for a time, lips pulling back and the skin between his eyes wrinkling in disdain. He shut his eyes for a second, letting a deep breath course through his trunk until it was released in a gust that almost blew the bunny away.
"Very well, lieutenant ma'am." he said eventually, raising his head. "Wouldn't want to give you the wrong impression. I've nothing to hide, so ask away."
Judy staggered to her feet and set her cap straight, noting the shift in the elephant's tone; still clearly vexed but now somewhat collected, ready to conjure satisfactory and innocuous answers to her upcoming questions. Just as well; that too would require his focus, and with the corner of her eye she could see Nick already closing in to the near edge of the carpet with his nose tirelessly glued to the soft material. If she could divert the owner's attention for five minutes or so longer the fox would manage to reach her position at the center of the bar without being noticed.
There was no avoiding a confrontation after that, of course, but by then he would have covered nearly half of the candidate area; the latter half would simply have to be checked throughout the mayhem that would doubtlessly ensue. She would try to contain the owner and possibly stall the arrival of her local colleagues who, judging from her experience, would most likely side with the local entrepreneur and have her and her partner removed, possibly even arrested.
It was a realization long overdue, but Judy suddenly found herself contemplating the trouble they'd be in if her assumptions truly were wrong and Filbert Corn was nowhere to be found in that reputable establishment.
She didn't allow for any of that meddlesome anxiety to show when she opened her mouth again. "I'm glad to hear that, sir. Now, then… the squirrel."
"Right; this notorious… um…" The elephant faltered, eyes narrowing in thought. "Phil- Phillip, uh-"
"Filbert." Judy firmly corrected him, scanning his face with an intent look in her eyes. "Filbert Corn. Thirty seven of age, plump, with expensive taste in clothing. He was last spotted visiting a vegetable booth in northern Avenue some two weeks ago."
"… Uh-huh. I see." The innkeeper puckered his lips at her, blinking innocently. A still moment went by in quiet. "… Well…"
"Well, sir, I'd like you to tell me anything that you may know about him."
"But we've already established that I don't know anything about him, ma'am." he responded in a tone of subdued exasperation. "That's why I find this questioning to be so pointlessly tiresome in the first place. I've told you that I know nothing, so what exactly-"
"He is a squirrel, sir." Judy cut him off. "Small, however fat. I reckon he could have snuck in without your noticing. Could we explore that possibility?"
He guffawed loudly to that. "If the guy managed to sneak into my inn and go by completely unnoticed for the past two weeks, ma'am, I'd say he's earned his amnesty!"
His jest was obviously meant to draw some reaction, but the bunny didn't respond; on the contrary, her expressionless stare killed the elephant's chuckle before it could even begin. "Yes, indeed. It is rather unlikely."
He didn't miss the trenchant allusion sprinkled in her words. He smacked his tongue with displease, face once again contorting into a deep scowl; this lieutenant was constantly teetering between reassuring and threatening, and by that point this inconsistent fickleness irked him more than anything.
He wasn't aware, but every ranger the world over tried for unbalance in a questioned party, one way or the other.
"Okay then." he grunted. "As you've certainly put together, there's been no squirrels hiding in my liquor stash that I'm aware of. So how exactly are we to "explore the possibility", ma'am?"
"Well, a thorough search should do the trick." she tossed casually. "I'm sure you'll have no objections, sir?"
He stirred. "I do, actually. A "thorough search", as you say, would surely make my customers uncomfortable. I can't allow that."
"I fear it cannot be avoided at this point, sir." Judy offered with an apologetic smile. "I understand your concerns, but this regards a ranger investigation, so… I must ask you to kindly comply."
The elephant's trunk jerked once more as he shot her a spiteful glare. "Is this common practice in the east, ma'am? Harming local businesses on a whim?" He paused and cocked a brow at her before adding: "And come to think of it, how is a b- a Burrows ranger here in my inn, harassing me over some obscure local outlaw? Were you really sent halfway across the country just to catch this measly little squirrel?"
Judy didn't dare look to her left, but she allowed an ear to cant sideways in a discreet motion, masking it as an unconscious reaction to the elephant's words. The incredibly light shuffling she caught coming from the edge of the rug told her that Nick was making his last run across its width. Just a couple more minutes, Jude.
"That is not relevant at the time, sir." she replied dryly, pursing her lips. "My duties in the capital are what led me to the pursuit of mister Corn. That's all you need to know; and I am not out to harass anybody. As I told you, sir, I'm only trying to do my job here."
"Well then, your job directly impedes my own, ma'am."
Both mammals lay silent for a second, their reciprocal challenge issued through gaze alone. "And I regret that deeply, sir." the bunny said eventually. "But now we must ask ourselves: whose job here is considered official state business?"
This unprofessional pettiness was wholly deliberate at the time; her goal was to poke the guy, to peeve him, to force a reaction that would keep him occupied for just a second longer. And as far as she could tell, it had worked; his features tensed further, his scowl deepened and the long trunk hanging over his mouth resumed its spastic dance, just as Judy had anticipated.
But then the elephant did something she couldn't have accounted for.
The scoff had his large head suddenly turning away from Judy, whipping to the right in a perfunctory motion; then his eyes flickered towards the near corner of the carpet where he thought he spotted a faint rustle that wasn't supposed to be there. A second later he made out what appeared to be a slithering speck of darkish red wrapped in light green, ill-defined in the font of crimson but undoubtedly present.
So it was that he never saw the bunny wince. Here we go.
The innkeeper recoiled whole with a blaring toot, eyes widening in shock. "What the-"
Nick's head jolted upwards, ears stiff with alarm. He saw the giant mammal behind the counter gawking his way, looking positively stupefied, and his partner standing with a paw to her face, lips pulled to a silent hiss. He understood immediately.
So much for subtlety.
He dropped back down in a hurry and resumed his sniffing, tracing the final inches of the rug with his snout before guiding it over to the corner of the bar. He was already going up and down its exterior, all the way from the floor to as far as a fox's height would allow, when the elephant's sputter began producing intelligible sounds.
"Is- is that a… a fox…? Wha- what the hell is it-"
"Calm down, sir." Judy cut him off, raising her paws. "There's no cause for alarm. The tod is with me."
The elephant turned back to the ranger, looking her up and down with the same stunned look he had shot her partner. "With you?!"
"Yes, that is correct." she confirmed in a placating drawl. "He's my- an asset I'm employing for the purposes of this investigation. Please, pay him no mind."
Her words sent his trunk into another uncontrollable fit. For a second it was all he could do to blink at her in utter confusion. "An a-you've brought a chomper here?! In my inn?!"
The chatter from the tables had by then subsided, replaced by low murmurs and curious looks aimed at the bar, but the lack of scandalized gasps told Judy that the patrons were yet to identify the cause of the innkeeper's outburst.
"I found it expedient, sir." she replied. "We were just discussing how a squirrel could have furtively snuck into the premises, weren't we? Well I figured, since you didn't wish to cause too much of an uproar, a single mammal with an excellent nose could see the job through much more discreetly; and I was right!" she added brightly, smiling up at the aghast pachyderm. "You yourself didn't even notice him, much less your customers! So, if you'd just lower your voice and give us a few more minutes, I'm sure my associate will-"
"Y-your associate…?" he stammered, clearly at a loss for words. "Wha- what even…. Who'd ever heard of rangers employing chompers, dammit?!"
"Ah, well- who'd ever heard of bunnies outside of the Burrows, am I right?" she quipped, stubbornly rejecting his indignation with casual levity. "In any case, let us return to the matter at hand. So, if a rodent were to be hiding somewhere within the building, where do you suppose they-"
"Oooh, no! I don't think so, lieutenant ma'am!"
The elephant shook his head vehemently and forced his trunk still, glancing towards the vulpine with aversion in his eyes before looking back to the doe. "You," he began, voice trembling with anger, "are stark. Raving. Mad, bunny. You think you can just go and sneak a fucking chomper in here, I- this crosses every goddamn line! You are harassing me, and I will not stand for it!" He straightened his back in a peremptory manner, pointing to the exit with the flat end of his foot. "Out, both of you. Right now!I want you out of my inn this instant!"
His shout carried the intransigent hue of a mammal whose patience had dried out, but it was not the focus of Judy's attention. One of her ears caught the perturbed exclaims that came from the patrons' side, some of whom had finally spotted the crouching red figure that belonged to Nick, while the other nibbled at the constant sniffing he emitted whilst running his nose against the bar, growing progressively stronger as he approached.
"I'm afraid this won't do, sir." Judy narrowed her eyes to a menacing slit, opting for a harsher tone; it was clear that more level-headed responses weren't gonna cut it anymore. "There's refusal to cooperate, then there's obstruction of a ranger's duties. Is your personal bias against predators really worth such trouble?"
"Youare the only one getting trouble out of all this, rabbit!" he retorted. "I don't know what kind of sick ideas your order encourages in the east, but this is Zootopia! Our rangers know to protect us from the critters, not invite them into our businesses! This is preposterous; I'll see that you lose your feather!"
Judy felt her confidence fizzle out. His threats held merit and she knew it; that's why it had been so paramount that they avoided getting the local rangers involved in the first place. Now, however, she saw that the elephant was more forceful on the subject than she had expected, even exacerbating the situation in front of his patrons; either she had vastly underestimated the prejudice of local prey or she had provoked the man too far during their prior exchange. Either way, a gross miscalculation on her part; one that could cost them dearly if the elephant truly sent for the rangers right away, before Nick could even go through the counter.
And then, just when a tinge of panic had begun working its way up her bosom, a new thought occurred to her: maybe the cause of this acute reaction lay somewhere else entirely. Maybe there was something other than anger riding the cadence of the innkeeper's voice.
She was certain that Filbert Corn was hidden somewhere within the gigantic structure, and while that was enough to explain the elephant's alarm it did not justify such frenzied urgency; he still had ample time to summon the local rangers before Nick could scour through the whole inn. Unless…
"Make him stop, dammit!"
Nick had sensed the danger and responded by redoubling his efforts, head moving frantically up and down as he progressed towards the bunny with a steady pace. Judy saw that the elephant was looking at him now, and a swift glance at the enormous mammal's convulsing expression corroborated her latest impression.
Perhaps there was no need to cover the entire room after all.
"I apologize for the inconvenience, sir, I really do." Her tone had inexplicably softened once again. "It's just that I must conduct a search here, one way or another. I have an oath to uphold above all."
"I'm not against you upholding any oath, bunny; I just demand that you take this chomper out of my shop- I told you to cut that out!"
His last command was aimed at Nick himself; it was the first time he had addressed the fox directly. There were audible complaints echoing from the elephants in the background, but Judy payed them no mind; she was entirely focused on monitoring the innkeeper's voice, trying to assess it, to judge if the slight waver was truly there or if she had just imagined it. She was strongly leaning towards the former.
"You say that, but I don't have much of a choice here, sir. He's the one doing the searching."
"Can't you have rangers do it instead?!"
She arched a brow at him. "You would permit a thorough search if I were to bring my colleagues, then?"
"Well- yes, whatever!" he exclaimed, cringing at the fox now below him. "If you absolutely must then bring in some proper, flat toothed mammals for Marie's sake; just get the blasted cur out of my inn…! Are you deaf, fox?!"
Judy's ears gave a light quiver. He had been so adamant in rejecting the notion just a minute ago; what could have triggered such an abrupt change of heart?
Flat toothed mammals, he had said.
Mammals with inferior noses.
"Mm, I see. That would complicate things for me, though." Judy drawled, eagerly observing the ever growing disquiet on the elephant's face. "I've brought him all the way up to Liberty, after all, and I can't very well leave him alone in the street; people get… anxious. Listen, sir, could we perhaps-"
"Okay, that's it!"
She was cut off by the elephant's grunt as he suddenly stooped over his counter, long trunk whipping down towards Nick who was by then just close enough for him to reach.
This development caught Judy off guard. She had not anticipated that he'd resort to physical force -that was what rangers were for, after all- but him doing so could only evince great panic; and she would have appreciated how positive a sign that was if it weren't for the immediate prospect of her partner getting squashed into two dimensions.
She was too slow to dash forth and protect the fox in whatever way she would, but her cry alerted him just before the dreaded strike could land. It didn't actually carry much momentum, just enough to swat him away without causing serious injury, but Nick didn't have the time to assess that. He also didn't possess the reflexes to dodge it, and he knew that all too well. So, lacking any other options, he instinctively settled on doing what he did best.
His fanged jaws snapped at the extended trunk at the last moment, forcing the innkeeper to collect it with a sharp gasp. The fox tossed in a growl for good measure, making sure to forestall any subsequent attempts before hurriedly resuming his work at the bar.
A fraught silence followed Nick's short but effective display, filled only with his own incessant snuffling.
Rangers, and by extension their cooperators, were entitled to the occasional use of violence, and Nick's little demonstration was among the mildest Judy had seen in her active years; truly, it was an intimidation device more than anything. If he were prey it wouldn't have even been noteworthy.
But it was different for a predator in Liberty, and especially when the act concerned the owner of an upstanding establishment within the district; not to mention her own terrible standing with the city's rangers. Chances were that her vouching for him in case this matter was reported would only make things worse for the gypsy. For both of them.
It was infuriating to contemplate, considering that the absolute worst a fox could manage against an elephant was an uncomfortably deep scratch while each of the pachyderms could potentially flatten such small animals during an absentminded saunter.
Judy's mind raced. The patrons were too far, Nick was too small and their vision was partly blocked by the mass of the bar, so they likely didn't understand what had just transpired; they only seemed dissuaded from further complaints by all the yelling, adhering to the local principle of avoiding unnecessary trouble. Whatever mess the innkeeper had gotten himself in, it was up to him alone to sort it out. They had no reason to interfere.
She breathed a sigh of relief; any repercussions they would have to face hinged solely on the elephant in question, and if all went well they would have more than enough leverage to shut him up. For now he was still recovering from his fright, a foot brought to his chest and his near-afflicted trunk yet again waving around with a mind of its own.
Nick's sniffing was what seemed to ultimately pull him out of his trance.
"… He attacked me." His voice rang coarse to the bunny's ears, coming through rapid bursts of uneven breathing. "You- you saw it. He attacked me."
"… I'm afraid I cannot attest to that." Judy declared. "You're the one who made the first move, and he didn't even touch you- and by the way, I would advise against another such attempt, sir." she added severely, cutting off his response. "Whatever name you decide to call him he is still my associate, and I bear the feather. You will not be excused twice."
He opened his mouth, closed it and opened it again, but all that came out was a short, throaty sputter; and all the while Nick's snuffling went on, unabated, inexorable.
"Ma'am, I will not say it again." he eventually managed, meeting the rabbit's piercing gaze. "I demand that you leave my property this instant, or I will be forced to report this to your order."
"Go right ahead then, sir. You've every right." Judy's eyes remained fixed on his own, clear and unblinking. "In the meantime, my asset and I will proceed with our search. That should be fine with you; I mean, we won't be finding anything either way, so you should get your way by the end of all this. Correct?"
"… You don't understand how damaging this is to my business, bunny. You cannot do this to me!"
His tone was harsh again. Hostile, aggrieved; almost convincing.
"I cannot do this to innocent civilians, no; but you have been far too intent on hampering my associate's progress, sir, and you appear inordinately stressed for whatever reason. Frankly, one cannot help but wonder…"
Nick was now only a few meters away. Sniff. Sniff.
The elephant leaned back down and brought their faces closer, trying, and failing, to intimidate the mammal that was small enough to fit in his pocket. "This is my reason, ma'am!" he raged, trunk pointing over to the fox. "And it's a damn good one, too! Not to mention all your continuous slandering!"
Judy hummed. "You do seem rather shaken, sir."
"Lieutenant, are you even listen-"
Both heads, one tiny and one huge, simultaneously whipped towards the fox to find him frozen, ears flagged and neck recoiled as if he had just received an invisible hit. He was squinting to a faint new stimulus that may or may not have been there, snout pulling back ripples as the signal traveled through.
Cautiously he brought the tip of his snout back to a high spot on the towering counter. His sensitive nose, wet and tender, gently felt the brown wood as it ran circles over it, looking to retrace the weak scent that had thrown him off. He found it impeccably smooth and pleasant to the touch, a result of excellent woodwork on material that was ideal for the craft; likely birch or walnut wood, as far as he could tell.
In any case, it had no business smelling of acorns.
Judy witnessed his pointy ears perk and his rich tail, slightly bristled for some time now, commence a subtle yet energetic wag. His snout firmly anchored on a point at the counter then began marking a sure line upon its glossy surface without a hint of hesitation, guided solely by the rush of primal excitement that had suddenly washed over him.
Judy took in his sight and, before she could even make proper sense of it, heard a deep gulp as it escaped the stooping elephant across of her.
And that was all it took. Just like that her confidence was reignited in force, flaring up in a feral sensation not unlike the one she had just recognized in her partner. This unequalled satisfaction was familiar to her as the ultimate payoff to all her hard work, the fulfilling, intoxicating triumph of a job well done. She couldn't have known, but it was similar to the feeling that compelled the lion to roar and the wolf to howl at the full moon, a lingering remnant of the thrill that would surge through the predators of old as they bit down on their bested prey.
And truly, when she turned her scintillating eyes back to the innkeeper the latter thought that she looked more predator than the fox frantically sniffing at the base of his counter. Her lips had curled up ever so slightly, and as the elephant saw the protruding tips of her buckteeth he couldn't help picturing them closing around his neck.
"W-what? What's with that look, bunny?" He was shooting for defiance, but his voice betrayed him. "What is a-"
This time the elephant didn't even bother to look; he just averted his eyes with a hard wince, letting his trunk go haywire. Judy, contrarily, looked to her partner and saw that he had moved his snout away from the counter and was now pressing an ear against it, facing her way. He was holding a bent finger in the air, ready to land a second jab against the flat wood.
Their eyes locked as he knocked again, this time with more force.
They arched a brow at each other. Hollow.
Triumph thrilled through Judy's body anew, fixing her ears in a frisky salute; yet her expression didn't change as she slowly turned back towards the elephant, smirk unabated and brow still aloft. She regarded him without a word, silently requesting explanation.
The elephant wanted to oblige, but his mouth felt excruciatingly dry all of a sudden. He swallowed thickly, sniffled and cleared his throat before speaking; and all the while Judy kept the twin violet spears pointed directly at him.
"Likely termites." he finally managed to squeeze out. "Nothing serious."
A second brow rose to meet the first, giving the bunny a mockingly horrified visage. "Termites…!" she exclaimed, mouthing the word with exaggerated revulsion. "Why, I don't think that's something to be passed over, my dear sir! You ought to look into it…! Actually- please, allow us."
A new wave of confused alarm flashed across the innkeeper's face but Judy barely acknowledged it; she simply cast the fox a glance rife with meaning and a curt nod, certain that he would catch on.
And she was right. Nick gave the bunny his most impish grin –because wasn't she just lovely when she acted mean- and nodded back his comprehension, slowly raising an empty paw to the air. He held it still for a second and then suddenly whipped his sleeve with a sharp flick of the wrist, producing one of his small throwing daggers; to the unsuspecting onlooker it would have seemed as if he had conjured it out of thin air. He took a moment to savor the elephant's bedazzlement before spinning the knife into a reverse grip, ready to stab at the hollow spot on the counter.
Judy had seen his little demonstration coming and was expecting to roll her eyes, but instead found her thin smirk growing; the gypsy was feeling especially showy that day, but she could hardly blame him. There was no denying that he had earned it.
"Hey- no, wait just a-"
Ignoring the innkeeper's complaints, Nick brought his paw down with a swift motion, putting in just enough force to test out the counter's resistance. He met almost none; the thin blade ran through the plank-thick wood with ease, and all three mammals heard a startled squeak echo from behind it.
The elephant's voice died out. The enormous mammal shrunk from behind the counter, eyes lowered to the floor and trunk wilting miserably, just as a third rush transformed Judy's smirk into a full, broad smile.
Nick too seemed overcome with childish glee, tail wagging anew as he twisted and pulled at the blade, cutting out chunks of wood until he had made a hole large enough for his paw to slide in; then the knife disappeared back into his sleeve and he went on expanding the opening with his bare fingers. Timber snapped and splinters flew as he worked, and a few seconds later his entire head could fit through with ease.
He peeked into what appeared to be a luxury chamber carved into the counter, equipped with a miniature bed, a couple of armed chairs, a table and even a little carpet spread over its base for added comfort. There were a few tiny candles burning on the table, and on a chair right next to them sat the chubbiest squirrel he had ever seen, swirly tail visibly bristled and shock lining his features.
Nick thought it appropriate to give the slippery rodent his grandest, toothiest smile. "Hi~"
The fox's head disappeared before the squirrel could muster a response, replaced by that of a female bunny. She looked every bit as elated as the vulpine, but at least made an effort to moderate her smile.
Judy glanced into the tiny chamber and, after verifying that Filbert Corn was every bit as fat as his descriptions claimed and had no obvious escape route, pulled back to shoot the elephant one last pointed jape. "Well!" she exclaimed. "That's one big termite you've got here, sir! Real comfy-looking, too."
She saw his lips move but no sound reached her ears. There would be no more antagonizing to be seen from him.
Satisfied, Judy turned back to the squirrel in the hole. "Filbert Corn, I presume…? It's a pleasure to finally meet you, sir. We've been looking all over for you." She reached into the opening as she spoke, grunting as her feet left the ground, but finally managed to get a firm hold of the smaller mammal while he was still too dazed to offer any resistance.
"Hey!" Filbert squeaked as he was pulled out of his hiding place, secure in the bunny's iron grip. "I- I have rights!"
"You most certainly do, mister Corn; and we'll be having a thorough discussion over them somewhere more private." Judy turned back to the elephant. "I trust you can provide, sir…? If possible, I'd like to avoid having to report your little pest issue, if that's alright with you."
The pachyderm meekly raised his eyes with a shaky frown, unsure if he had understood right. "…T-then… You're saying that…"
"I'm saying that you still have a chance to be cooperative here, sir; and I see no reason to bring trouble upon cooperative civilians."
He stared at her numbly for a time, absorbing the reality of the unhoped-for recourse he had just been offered; then, naturally, he decided he would jump on it with everything he had. The vexing bunny had just earned herself the world's most servile elephant.
"So- I believe you had an empty room available?"
"I- uh… certainly, yes! Y-yes!" The elephant gulped and began nodding rapidly, limp trunk lashing at his black vest. He moved out of the counter on stiff legs and pushed the doors to the back rooms open. "Right this way, please. Lieutenant ma'am."
"Good. And as for you, mister Corn…" Judy held the squirming rodent before her eyes, forcing him to face her. "We have a few questions for you, and I strongly advise that you answer them to the best of your ability. Depending on how well you choose to cooperate, you may still walk out of this a free mammal."
He wasn't given a chance to respond as his captor immediately stepped after the elephant, jibbing only to glance at the fox behind them. "Nick, I think we ought to do something about them," she said, motioning to the tables and the deeply concerned mammals sitting there, murmuring their displeasure. "Think you can handle it?"
"Oh, I don't know, lieutenant…" he sighed abjectly, avoiding her eyes. "I've just been feeling so… ineffective as of late, you know?"
This time Judy did roll her eyes, but still couldn't help a half-smile. For someone who had been calling themselves dead weight not twenty minutes ago, the gypsy was entirely too pleased with himself. Oh, well- she did owe him a session of teasing praise anyway.
"Excellent work today, Slick dearest." she cooed in a syrupy voice. "You're just the best, sweetheart. An absolute gem."
Nick dropped the act with a wide grin –"excess smugness #4"- and gave a theatrical bow. "Well, if the boss believes in me that much, I'm sure I can manage." He straightened his back, tossing the bunny a sly wink. "Go on ahead, lieutenant. I'll wrap things up here and join you in a second."
She did as he said and passed through the open door with a snorting laugh while he turned around and walked up to the dining area under the rancorous gazes of the seated patrons; some of them apprehensive, some appalled but all undeniably hostile. He stood before them and audibly cleared his throat, raising both paws to hush their mumbling.
"Ladies and gentlemammals, we would like to apologize for the disturbance." he began in a clear voice, seizing their attention. "There was a small misunderstanding, but everything has been settled now. No cause for alarm, we will be leaving you to your peace."
He paused and let his words sink for a second, during which more heavy glares rested on him, less concerned now but still endlessly suspicious. Undeterred, the fox opened his mouth to add one more conclusive declaration.
"The owner asked me to inform you that desserts today are on the house, as compensation for your inconvenience. He will be with you in a minute to take your orders."
That got through to them; this inn was the only one of its kind in the entire city, and its prices were accordingly extravagant. The glares were gradually replaced with nonchalant shrugs and dismissive scoffs, which Nick took as his cue to bow and shuffle away from the tables.
"Please, enjoy the rest of your meal."
And with that he turned tail and hastily made for the guest rooms, meaning to join his bunny in questioning Filbert and inform the innkeeper whose trunk had nearly smacked him of his newly acquired, ungainful workload.
-Chapter 6 Continues-
Yes, chapter 6 does continue- not right now, though.
Not to complain, but life has been rather... challenging, these past few months. Or rather, busy; which is by no means a bad thing in itself, but it did inevitably shave off of my writing time quite a bit. And sadly, this state of affairs is looking to continue well into the summer.
So, when I realized that the Tale had gone through two whole months of inactivity, during which I had barely managed to put together the first half of the next chapter, I decided it would have to be a good enough installment by itself. Studies will keep me enaged for the better part of the coming month, so it was either this or another two months of dead silence. I opted for the former.
This story is always on the back of my mind -even when it shouldn't be, I fear- and as I've stated before, writing may just be the single most cathartic practice in the world. So, rest assured: contretemps might slow down the Tale's progress from time to time, but will never halt it completely.
I hope I'll be able to bring you the second half of this chapter soon. Until then-