A.N. I know, another interminable wait for this chapter, but in compensation, you get my longest so far! It's broken up into convenient segments as we catch up with several of our dispersed characters and meet a new one. Some minor issues like the planet screeching to a halt, cancellations of my other activities, a recalcitrant relative who wouldn't take things seriously, (They do now) and general existential dread stalled my output until mid March. Then Homebound, my short story about shut-ins at the Hopps farm, awakened some of the plot bunnies residing there, and they kerfluffled me into finishing this installment!

HawkTooth, Hewhoislost, J Shute, Panoctu, and seakard left wonderful motivational reviews of chapter nineteen; thanks from the bottom of my ego!


Chapter Twenty:

Inside Out

9:23 A.M. Wednesday April 26th, near the Hampden Township main square.

Skye started to worry that she'd missed the old Carrel Foundation library, when she finally spotted it through the trees two blocks down to her left. She had given Concordia's outlying suburb's modest civic center a wide berth on the way there to avoid as much public exposure as possible. It had been a long retrospective passage back to a deeply buried fear.

Two nights ago, after Professor Ulric had departed, she'd ridden the bus around its route for hours; numbed by fatalism. At least she'd had mobile shelter on a night grown chill, and might remain free for awhile if her hunters assumed their quarry had gone to ground. Her fellow riders had dwindled in number until she remained alone past several stops at a time. Once the bus's run had ended for the night at its main station, she'd decided to remain there. Sometime pre-dawn, she'd been nudged awake and subjected to a crude pick-up attempt by a rather pungent and seedy aardwolf—which let her utilize the pawhold Jack had taught her.

That incident prompted her to find a place less exposed and reawoke the motivation to remain free and useful for as long as possible. An early bus got her to the stop closest to the post office where she and Jack kept an anonymous mailbox. Roughly between their homes, it had spare keys, ID's, a transit pass, and some emergency cash in generic sealed envelopes. It could also serve as a drop box, although she hadn't had anything to leave for Jack other than her continued appreciation for the precautions he taken to protect their relationship.

The printed papers taped above and below on the inside of the twenty-four hour box lobby said that it would now open at nine in the morning—probably to encourage homeless mammals to seek an overnight city shelter instead. That change prompted her cursory look around the dimly lit outer lobby for new security cameras, as they were generally made obvious in public buildings for deterrence. She'd seen nothing to preclude her later return.

The delay had given her time to find a modest diner and enjoy a rich breakfast—and to brood over her immediate future. Once back at the post office, she'd joined the group that formed outside and politely let the rest go in first to occupy the staff while she went to find her box. She'd taken some of the cash and left her ZBI ident and driver's license behind—no need to make it easier for other law enforcement to ID her. Her trusty student card would serve for now, and she could go back later if needed—or able to.

Or maybe not. She'd turned to find that a bushbuck in a mail service uniform had just mounted a poster into an open bulletin board case. Skye recognized her official agency photo from across the room alongside another image likely from her advertising days. She'd damped her momentary panic since no one had looked at her and both photos had shown her well-groomed in winter coat. Her night of fitful sleep at the bus station seemed to have provided sufficient camouflage, so she'd slumped her posture to reinforce that. A little refuge in audacity had then walked her over to gaze at her wanted poster.

Wanted for sedition, bribery, and incitement; also aiding and abetting a known fugitive, she'd read. Do not approach! Arctic vixen suspect trained in paw to paw defensive techniques and may be armed. $10,000 reward for information leading to her live capture.

She must have really put some fear of exposure into the conspirators, given how this exaggerated portrayal of her evil had been printed up and distributed overnight. It was to be expected since she'd just done that to herself. It had bolstered her decision to avoid further risk to Jack and Nick by not hiding out, even temporarily, at their places. The rather paltry reward posted for her—annoyingly less than half of that offered for Nick—also suggested they still needed to keep their finances under control. Her government employment also hadn't been mentioned, as that might shine some light too close to them.

Those thoughts had given her something to focus her efforts on. A cautious search for a thrift store in a less upscale part of the city had dressed her down to public scorn rather than approval. An old coat found there had doubled as a groundcloth in an overgrown corner of Greater Englewood Park, where she'd slept rough for the rest of that day—as Nick's term for it proved accurate. Once night had fallen, and shortly after the start of her wary fifteen-mile trek here, she'd been chased out of another actual street vixen's presumed 'territory'.

As desired, she'd at least looked the part Skye thought, thankful she'd avoided any propositions during her furtive journey. Now it was time to move back up the social ladder and get to work. She walked to the shaded side of the familiar neoclassical building common to so many communities, and found a darkened ground level window partially shielded by a bush. It would serve as a mirror—both for herself and to keep an eye out for any curious mammals behind her. No one was visible inside or out, so she shucked off her backpack, partially stripped, hurriedly groomed herself, and changed into her better clothes.

At the top of the wide steps with their heavy curved banisters, a neatly printed sign greeted her—New library hours: eleven to five—so there was still over an hour to kill. She scowled and sat off to the side mostly out of sight from the street, and considered that this intolerant and possibly irredeemable society—just might deserve its pending fate.

All right Skye; so you don't like your sudden fall back into that fearfully uncertain life that you thought was safely ensconced in your past. Got complacent, did we? Yes, we. It was a game for us, or just our place to keep others safe in their perceptions of reality. But although life remains fragile and fate capricious, you'll still try to improve society, knowing that change is everyone's greatest fear and they will resist it any way they can.

"You look lost in your thoughts, would you like to bring them inside?" said a somewhat raspy female voice from high above. "It seems neither one of us is used to the new hours…although I don't recall you from before miss…"

Skye looked up—well up—along tall narrow legs that sported knee braces, past a foreshortened skirt and conservatively clad body, to where the elderly giraffe's head looked down at her from an inclined, reticulated neck.

A flash of her student card and complaint about the college's full study hall covered her being an unfamiliar patron. After some sympathy over the poor fox's lack of even a smartphone, Skye was escorted to a pair of somewhat larger and fairly old computers on a broad high table. The librarian encouraged her to ask for help if needed, then went and carefully sat behind her desk with the aid of a sturdy pole next to her seat.

The library's high ceilings, and the giraffe's central location and lofty viewpoint allowed her to monitor nearly the whole first floor and some of the second through the open atrium. She seemed an ideal mammal for the job. Her curious nature was a concern, but fortunately the computer's monitor was angled enough to keep any work private without it having to be obviously turned away. Skye raised the oversize seat all the way and jumped into it.

First the morning news, she found a follow-up to the initial story about Bellwether's transfer to the Federal District, so either ZNN or the Growley's had continued to do their part. Most interestingly, the article noted that the Prairie River Prison's staff seemed surprised about their notorious new inmate, and it also included a distant telephoto shot of their own arrival at the airport. Skye was in it, partially obscured by another agent as they walked ahead of the convicted ex-mayor in orange.

That suggested Lionheart wasn't with his successor at the newer prison, since they were both involved with the savage predator crisis, and joint incarceration there shouldn't be unexpected. Her earlier search from the ZPD network hadn't found any records of his whereabouts, or that of the chemist who'd refined the serum, so determining those would be a good way to resume her resistance.

To start with, the Meadowlands prison near Zootopia where Bellwether had been incarcerated was close to the regional Federal facility—yet they'd flown her back to Concordia instead of doing a simple local transfer. Since the conspiracy wished to remain hidden and had their own problems with resources and trusted personnel, they seemed to want to keep important…assets closer to their center of power.

Our public exposure of Bellwether's move forced them to take her to PRP. Otherwise she would certainly now be sequestered with the other principals of the nighthowler plot for an as yet unknown reason. As to where…

Skye hesitated and decided to first open the word processor and type out a letter detailing her various suppositions. It could be amended and finished later and might save a few minutes, since she was about to expose herself again. It was still a bit before eleven, so unless someone had changed the interval or decided to make an immediate system request, her ZBI program had another hour before its next correlation summary would drop.

She typed the address for the Terra mapping website into the browser from memory—her tail thrashed in irritation as the earlier generation machine leisurely loaded it. The index map of Laurentia finally displayed with its heavily pixilated coverage of areas around major cities, rivers, and seacoasts. Vast swaths of the interior still remained blank.

Well, let's see if that's improved recently. In went her memory stick with its ZBI access code for the restricted part of the site. She didn't bother with the basic anonymizer also available on it; that freeware wouldn't throw her program off the scent. It was a race now.

The refreshed index showed little change, so enhanced coverage seemed a low priority. There was supposed to be an earth-observing satellite in the works to address that, but Jack wasn't available to ask if it had been launched yet. Skye initially spent a minute trying to find Junction City—without success—that part of the interior still didn't seem to rate.

Or it had been obscured. Nick Wilde had obviously discovered something involving freight shipments out there. She was about to access a list of additions and updates to the photographic database to see if there was evidence of any deletions, when a sudden realization froze her paw. If I can't perfectly cover my tracks, it might tip them off that we suspect something going on out there—and Nick and Jack didn't want me to know about it!

Frustration at being kept uninformed was compounded by the certainty that it involved crucial evidence—that she couldn't be entrusted with due to her vulnerability. Skye stilled her tail again with a clenched jaw effort, as the librarian had begun to notice it flick about.

Ok, let's go thirty miles east from Concordia—the old prison should be out near Deer Trail south of the transcontinental highway. There's the town…further south. There we go! Skye knew that scrolling around the Terra index was innocuous—but zooming in on specific images might not be given her restricted and certainly logged access. She clicked and dove earthwards with lowered ears.

For a site abandoned forty-five years ago, it looked as she expected it to; sagebrush encroaching in the perimeter clearing near the fence, roads spotted and streaked with dirt and…faint tire tracks along that one! She followed them from the main access road—to a building with two partially shadowed vehicles parked alongside amid marks left by others.

This image was from almost three months ago, the low sun angle and small patches of snow in shaded areas confirmed that. There were two earlier ones in the archive—from two and four years ago—neither showed the more recent disturbances to the site.

Lionheart and some of the rest just had to be there. She'd likely involuntarily join them at some point. It was isolated without being too remote, and there would be no reason for anyone other than her to suspect nefarious goings on there. Various…deliveries would of course be nocturnal. That might be why they hadn't covered their tracks—literally—on the Terra site. Skye downloaded a few versions of the serendipitous image, zoomed from wide context down to the building within the prison, then finished her speculative letter.

"I'm sorry miss, we don't have the budget to provide a public printer or stationary," answered the kindly giraffe, "isn't there that Office Outlet closer to the college?"

Can't email from here or make hardcopies. Need to leave now—it's almost noon.

Skye removed what evidence of her activities as she could—the old machine struggled with her sweeper software and even hung up at one point. She was partially at fault; their development team had assumed this version of the operating system had already gone extinct. Once finished, she hastily left the nearly century old book palace behind.

The office store presented an unacceptable risk since the librarian knew of her and had recommended it—they might also keep a record of what she printed. Her nocturnal backstreet sojourn into this mostly unfamiliar area meant that she had no idea of what local businesses were where, and her phone remained with Ulric. So she was incommunicado with information possibly crucial to her own survival. Her tail started to twitch in frustration again—she glanced back at her agitated flowing pride.

I could send semaphore with it if anyone still understood that. Or just give up and scream—I wonder which would have greater range?

There was no choice but to head back down Hampden's main avenue towards Concordia and hope that something useful would turn up—before some of her corrupted co-workers did. She needed to distance herself not only from the library—chosen because it was likely beyond any initial search for her—but from this community as well, since she obviously didn't belong here.

Skye hadn't considered it last night, but this township on the edge of the metroplex was mostly home for larger cervid and bovid species—she'd seen no small mammals and only a few predators; and they'd been in cars. She paced off another three miles before the welcome sanctuary of an Omnivorium Buffet appeared. They served a diverse clientele and someone there might provide information to a now rather hungry fox—as she'd neglected breakfast earlier this morning.

A better mood hurried her toward the promised shopping center a block ahead—her full belly, inappropriate clothes and backpack restrained her from actually breaking into a jog over there. The helpful ringtail possum cashier had seemed—taken with her—with a friendly smile that had grown to reveal far more teeth than she possessed. Another species of male that she could add to her list of admirers.

Skye put that diversion out of her mind once she found the package service store. She bought two small bubblepack mailers and took them to the DashBok's Coffee a few storefronts away, ordered something she really didn't need, and sat inside to write. She smiled at herself and the impression Jack's spycraft had made on her, as she peeled each sheet off her notepad before writing on it to avoid doing that to the ones below.

Jack's was easy, send it to the Hopps Farm with a few stars drawn for the return address, disguise the lump of the memory stick with a couple of folded napkins, and add a brief backup note about the relevant files. Nick's required a lengthier explanation that hopefully wouldn't provoke rash action on his part—she cautioned that he needed to both contact Jack for more detailed information, and change his lodgings as soon as possible.

Because it's inevitable I'll be…induced to compromise everyone when they find me. And just like that, her mood soured again.

Skye took Nick's envelope, addressed it with the aid of the memory prompt she'd written on Jack's code card, dropped in the letter along with her post box key, then sealed it. A trip to the ladies disposed of the card—along with one from the AblePaws company found when she scoured her backpack and the pawbag stuffed in there for other items that might betray her. She sighed in relief as their fragments flushed away and felt even more once she'd dropped off the envelopes and left the delivery store behind.

Nick will get his overnight, but they only guaranteed three-day delivery to Bunnyburrow. Should've checked on that. And that business card! Carried it around with me for a week! That would have exposed most of us if I'd been arrested like I'd expected. Events have pushed me into recklessness—I absolutely can't afford that anymore!

Skye realized that those sometimes vexing, sometimes endearing habits that had enabled their clandestine relationship now had to become no margin for error survival skills. She needed to find a place to rest, recover her poise, and determine how to remain a useful renegade. A place that was out of the way and seedy enough to overlook whether their guests had identification or not, but that hopefully avoided offering rentals by the hour.

Unfortunately, this neighborhood seemed agreeable enough to not host such lodgings. The closest that might, meant a few more miles of mid-day exposure for her. Back streets wouldn't do, she needed something as soon as possible and they'd be on busier streets like this one. If she could find a phone store, that would be good too. Skye tried to appear inconspicuous while she walked and watched for any sinister traffic up ahead.

A half-hour later a flagpole signified something governmental up along the other side of the street—her cautious approach revealed a post office. She wondered when they would get their copy of her poster if they didn't already have…

"Hold up fox! Remain where you are and turn around!"

Skye couldn't help but react with the guiltiest of flinches to the harsh bray—she twisted back to see as she heard car doors open from just behind. A large black sedan had tinted windows and a white government plate; two equines and a ram emerged. They'd reacted so fast—maybe had her description from the library already—then coasted up while she was distracted! Don't stare, run! The 'phut' and sting in her backside came simultaneously—she reflexively yanked out the dart—which hurt more than it had going in. Two more steps, a stumble, and the darkness did something topologically weird as it enveloped her…

10:45 A.M. Wednesday, at the millstone outside the Hopps warren.

"What do we do now?" Judy asked plaintively. "This makes everything worse. I mean we still don't know who the instigators of this conspiracy are! They're supposed to be our villains, but with this, who is now?" Everyone's stunned faces around the table reflected back the despair she felt on hers.

"They won't be villains if they find out about this, it's a gift from the spirits for them," Jack Savage said tonelessly. "After this, any feral animals discovered only confirms this predatory guilt they promote. They've already primed the majority of the population for it!"

"With the numbers of pred immigrants, this couldn't be just foraging…I mean hunting," Jeremy mused, stuck on his historical puzzle, "It had to have been…fairly industrialized. You know, producers, suppliers…with regular transportation to…"

"I bet those Catmull's and Grey's were involved! Those families been threats here since we came!" Aunt Tyne snapped from behind. "Maybe this means we can finally be rid of em!"

Judy's guts turned to wet sand and anchored her to the bench as all their clandestine work against the conspiracy unraveled. This was irrecoverable—the secret was out—the family wouldn't hold it—they'd lost everything. Jack's open-mouthed face only confirmed that for her. She buried her own in her arms as her ears flopped forward onto the cool stone. This was it—predators—her Nick—would be vilified, expunged…it's inevitable…

Voices were yelling. The anger drew closer and buffeted her. Mom's became dominant.

"…rude, she's not at fault for what's happening here!"

"I wasn't blaming just Judy! She's liberal, naïve, and couldn't help but get used by those preds she had'ta trust! We have to do what's right, come together and protect the warren!"

"You swore that this would remain a private meeting, Tyne! They're in a very difficult position and telling us as much as they can!"

"Not when the warren's safety is at stake Bonnie! You and they brought this down on us! He said more federal agents will come! I won't lie to 'em cause of him." She glared at Jack.

"I gave Judy my word that I'd keep what she told me! I'm telling you she was right to ask that of me. Agent Savage too. This has to stay with us for…"

"No Bonnie!" Aunt Tyne stepped closer and pointed a finger. "We seen too much now to let you three keep your secrets on this. I think we heads all need to have a discussion about this warren's leadership! I'll get it started if you won't!" She wheeled about and stalked towards the side of the entrance porch, where a few pairs of ear tips quickly withdrew.

Bonnie hesitated, then gave chase and shouted back over her shoulder, "Jeremy! Find Stu, bring him in, Erin and Charlie too if you can. Judy, go on with your work, call us later." Uncle Ellery and Cousin Jackie hastily followed her after they exchanged brief glances.

Judy watched mom's rarely seen foot pursuit of another Hopps adult. Somehow their discussion had released something unexpected and ugly from Aunt Tyne. She'd always seemed reasonably pragmatic before now, so was this new or just long hidden?

"This all was too much for her to handle, she's scared and defensive," Uncle Galen said, reading her. "Bonnie n I didn't expect her to be like this. You've had time to investigate and accept your findings as they come—we haven't. They'll try to calm her down."

"Do you think she really understands the need to keep this secret?" Jack looked increasingly perturbed as the seconds stretched without either of them answering him. "Alright then, can they keep her from spreading this any further?"

"Don't think so Mr. Savage," Uncle Galen admitted. "She's runnin' on emotions now, an as you heard, our warren's safety outweighs any promise she made. They should keep this among the heads for now, but I expect if they try to hold her back after that, she'll get even more defiant."

"So my citing the criminal code about interfering with a police investigation might just push her into exposing us to what she sees as the…legitimate authorities?" Judy said, tossing out her useless high card.

"Probably…although she is worried about your warren," Jack said thoughtfully, "Maybe tell her that divulging this information will bring all those large, intrusive non-lapine government investigators over here to turn this place upside down! With interrogations for all! I mean, that…unfortunate field isn't too far away from here is it? So guilt by location."

"I should be there for the…discussion Mr. Savage, I'll bring that up. Meanwhile you two should do what you can while you can—you've got some names now." Uncle Galen took his leave and walked away with drooped ears—he never was one who relished conflict.

"Unfortunate field," Judy repeated slowly to Jack after Galen had gone, "You mean another possible…animal farm?" She was upset by her continued reluctance to accept that such a monstrous thing might have happened so close to home.

"Or at least a packing and shipping facility," Jack suggested. "It seems well located in this valley for that. On one paw, I'd like to know who started and ran that operation, and on the other, it wouldn't be good if anyone ever found that out. So who should we start with?" Jack glanced at his notepad. "Let's finish with your family first…this Nara Hopps in town?"

"Actually she isn't a relative Jack—Hopps is a fairly common name for rabbit families; there's at least six others that I know of in the area. We're just the largest and most prominent. Anyway, she's at the local history museum; I think it would be a waste of time there. They won't have much that goes back further than 1870 when Bunnyburrow proper was founded. I remember that from a field trip. About those other names; I think we should talk to Gideon Grey at least…he's another fox I know that buys produce from us."

"A nice relaxing road trip sounds great right now—ever since I arrived, I've found this rural home life of yours way too stressful to properly carry out our…assignments."

"My big sister might find that rather forward of you Jack." She gave him a tolerant smile, then an up-and-down appraisal; his eyes questioned that. "Come on inside, we need to country you up a bit first, you still look too federal for folks like Gideon to be comfortable with."

The warren's entryway, common room, and main hallway were far more crowded than the time of day warranted. It seemed like no one had left for work—or they'd been pulled back by tendrils of the grapevine. There were even several kits around that should have been off to school. The conversations near them muted as they passed through towards the dining hall—where only a dutiful few had remained to start setting up for lunch.

"Ah Judy, wait a sec," Emily said contritely from in back of them as she padded closer. "This really is a lot bigger than you and your…old ZPD partner now, isn't it? I mean I heard mom trying to shut up Tyne—something about a threat to the whole family and compromising your work!" A paw on Judy's arm halted her. "They're clearing the whole third floor, and got Farley and Uncle Brent watching the stairs! Mom also told me some more earlier, and to stop ragging on you…I'm so sorry Judy." She seemed to want a hug.

"Yeah, it is Em; thanks, I needed you back." Judy gave her one. "Aunt Tyne's blabbing is our biggest threat; you'll have to mollify her somehow, or she could focus a lot of government attention on the warren. She shouldn't have been at our meeting. If you want to help, we need to get going, but Mr. Savage here really needs to look a lot less…"

"Secret agenty?" Mell said as she joined them and favored Jack with a hesitant smile.

"Still stuck on kitchen duty Mellida?" Jack said as her smile grew. Judy didn't remember them meeting, but obviously they had.

"Just through lunch Jack Jack, so I don't have to sign up again for awhile."

Okay, that's a bit weird. And somehow their ear and facial patterns sorta…work together. One of us will just have to disappoint her later.

"See what you two can find for him; a regular shirt, maybe a hat; Devin's about his size. We'll also need one of our cars," Judy said as her sisters smiled at each other through Jack.

"The light green Lapilander has a full tank," Em said as Jack rather reluctantly followed her. Judy headed for the keybox back in the entryway to snag it before someone else did.

"They both wanted to see me in overalls and a straw hat," Jack grumbled as the Hopps warren receded behind them. "I'll be charitable and assume they needed a distraction from all the family conflict?

"Not necessarily. There's usually a lot more work than fun to be had out here; we've all learned to make our own whenever the opportunity arises. It does mean that at least those two finally decided to accept you. His blue, fine crosslined heavy cotton shirt and darker blue knee length shorts made him look far more relaxed and approachable than his suit had, although the 'Grow'n Greens' cap he'd been supplied with sat in his lap, not on his head. Judy knew he wanted time to get used to it. "Gid's shop is about a half-hour away."

"Can you give me some background? Your Aunt Tyrant hinted the Grey's might have some involvement in the food service industry? Other than as a present customer of yours."

"I don't know about that Jack. Not many pred families live in the Bunnyburrow area, the Grey's are about the closest foxes to town and that's not very. They've always been shunned around here, so that family's a pretty reclusive bunch. Gideon's been changing that recently, he's opened a bakery and found some local customers and acceptance for himself. He partners with my dad as a supplier—he only gave him a chance because of me."

"Was that due to your prior less scandalous partnership with Nick?" Jack asked.

"Yeah, I kept talking him up to get my parents to accept him as a safe partner for me on the force, although I think I overdid it. I'm sure a couple of my siblings still think he might be my boyfriend even after this morning." Judy slowed to turn onto the road that slanted back towards the train station. "I actually think one of them hopes he is!"

"Ah, a faint glimmer of acceptance pierces the dark mantle of society's intolerance to ease our shame!" Jack said theatrically. "Nevertheless, it remains wise to be cautious."

"About that Jack, you and Skye have a lot more experience dealing with it than we do. How is it that you two have…gotten away with it for so long? Skye didn't tell me much about that, she was more interested in my issues."

"Basically, we give mammals what they expect from us. If you asked any of our co-workers, they'd say we absolutely hate each other. Around civilians, we always exhibit the normal animosity, disparagement, and distrust found between our species. Skye and I play a constant and elaborate game of deception to keep it that way." Jack put the cap on.

"Jack! She was doing that when we went out! Playing the professional to keep attention off us. We were two females and society still wouldn't allow us to even act like friends in a restaurant! There's other mixed species pairs—even across pred-prey—that I see associate without disapproval, but our particular choice of partners is maligned by nearly everyone!"

"Because our hypocritical society has artificial boundaries, situational morals, plus all those fears, instincts, and species incompatibilities Dr. Barret lectured us about. We have to accept and yield to them to avoid censure or worse from our fellow unenlightened citizens. Skye and I have carefully explored where and how sharp those civic boundaries are to avoid cuts and stumbles. I'll gladly share our wisdom with you who follow in our furtive steps!"

"You've accommodated to society; Nick and I are still learning to live with it. But I don't know…about my…if I…Jack, you saw my problem back there; how were you able to deal with it?" She stared straight ahead; her paws gripped on the wheel to prevent any of her usual embarrassment-driven mannerisms.

"Skye and I have both avoided relative scrutiny altogether, my expectations burdened bunny! I've managed to give my distant and much smaller family the sad impression that I'm now a work-focused, confirmed bachelor! You've obviously tried and utterly failed at that with yours." Jack reached over and placed a paw on her shoulder. "I don't mean to be impudent Judy, I just think you and Nick are going to have a tougher time with your public relationship than we've had. Society's strictures ensure that." Jack let his paw linger.

He wanted her assent to continue. "How so? Just remember, since you're becoming part of our Hopps collective now, you'll eventually have to explain yourselves to them too!"

"A joint confession might make that easier…on the four of us at least." Jack chuckled briefly and released her. "That might not seem so bad after we've all sacrificed to save society from itself. Changing it will be a lot harder though; that's what I meant."

"Why is acceptance so hard for everyone—It's not like I want to intrude in their lives, I'd be happy if they just ignored ours!" Like I try to ignore Bucky and Pronk's...relations.

"They can't Judy. Beliefs and morals are a major part of most mammal's identities. Someone else flouting them is seen as a direct attack on themselves—and relationships are as personal as it gets!" Jack paused to remove his cap, and briefly rub the base of his ears.

"There's several things that can make any interspecies relations seem wrong to others without them considering the partners involved," he resumed. "Pred prey is a major one, excessive size difference is another. A dissimilar appearance will put off many, for some even fur patterns are enough, let alone wholly different morphologies. Cultural issues, and past histories between their species also come into play, like with ours, as do the political considerations. And then there's the really big one! Perceived physical compatibility issues for those with vulgar minds—and those possible abominations against nature; hybrid kits"

"Politics shouldn't intrude in mammal's private lives Jack. We do have some rights!"

"It may not impact things in your world Judy, but it's a huge deal back in Concordia! Numerous pairs or groups of rodent species—along with a few others—have very similar physical appearances and can sometimes hybridize! Each one shames wayward members and competes with others to preserve their identities, so they don't lose their seat on the Council of Delegates! Official species status is a bitter subject of debate in that chamber."

This was an interspecies issue she'd never thought of before, but it seemed obvious once considered. It had never come up in her academy training, or on the job; officers were supposed to remain publicly apolitical.

Gideon's bakery had come into view ahead; she silently drew Jack's attention to it. On her last couple of visits home, she'd either passed the converted gas station and minimart at night, or when she had a morning train to catch. Now that she finally had a chance to stop, it stood unattended with no vehicles present. She slowed, and turned their utility runabout in past a neatly carved sign that advertised 'Gideon Grey's Real Good Baked Stuff'.

"Might have to call the folks to get his number—not sure I want to do that yet." Judy parked by the side of the store and led their way to the entrance to see if that information was there—she smiled at the delightfully painted panel set in the window beside the door. It showed a running Gideon with a warm pie in his outstretched paw—the movable clock hands and lettering behind him said he'd be back at one.

"Twenty minutes, we can wait," Jack said, then peered inside.

Judy took a closer look at the well-done caricature, whoever had made it had left a small signature at the bottom just by the windowsill. She crouched to see…

"Sharla?" She stepped back with ears rigidly erect, as Jack turned in surprise at her exclamation. "Uh…someone I've known since we were kids! She's absolutely the last one—other than me—I'd have expected to make that for him!" Judy pointed at the panel.

"So you and this Sharla had past issues with Mr. Grey?"

"Yeah, past at least for me. Gideon was the school bully, but he went to therapy some time back and apologized, so we're good now. I'm surprised by Sharla's thing though, the last couple of times we spoke she didn't mention anything about him or this place."

"As long as it doesn't hinder us today—you've made the Grey's sound like a difficult family. Maybe we should wait out there." Jack gestured to the table and benches that had replaced the old gas pumps under the canopy in front.

They sat, and Judy took a moment to admire Gideon's landscaping efforts around his sign and table—they had supple wood shaving groundcovers with neat stone borders. Dad had mentioned that he'd turned out to be a hard worker. She turned back to Jack.

"You were saying that Nick and I would have a harder time with social acceptance than you've had. Why's that? We're in similar situations; I've just caught my fox, Skye's already got you, and we're all together in law enforcement."

"So true Judy; Nick and I are really lucky guys. First, it's that you're now more famous than I've been—so not only are you under a political microscope, but you'll also attract more media scrutiny. As for those other reasons I mentioned that set mammals off about inters; we tic off some of them, you two check off all of them.

"We're guilty of all of them? Why do you two get off with a lighter sentence?"

"For one thing, we're much less of a visual mismatch for the casual observer. We're closer in height and build, and at least in winter we have nearly the same shade of fur. Skye's an arctic vixen, her ears and muzzle, perfectly shaped as they are, are proportionally shorter than a red's. We're both also in the habit of dressing well, even outside of work, so the professional association aspect is always with us at some level.

"You unfortunately, have chosen a ruddy, seemingly unrefined vulpine partner who's over half-again your height and at least three times your weight! Anyone seeing you two out of uniform and…associating on the street will naturally assume that you're involved in something disgusting, or slightly more charitably, that the poor little gray bunny is being cruelly coerced and oppressed by…

"My pimp—we've already gotten those looks a couple of times," Judy complained.

"Exactly. So unless you two assiduously play our little avoidance and animosity game when you're out together in public, unenlightened mammals will get thoroughly squicked out imagining you two being together behind closed doors. Those more biologically ignorant will be extra horrified by the possible little mixed results of your behavior."

"That's ridiculous Jack! Those few hybrids anyone ever sees have to come from similar parents and still look pretty much like them. Look at us! Hares and bunnies are basically the same thing to most other mammals, and we still can't…procreate with each other."

"Certainly doesn't stop us from trying!" Jack emphasized with a knowing smirk. "There'd be lots more of us if we didn't have that outlet to gain…experience. Avoids all those adorable little surprises! Seriously, a lot more mammals than us choose temporary or even long-term partners from closely related or physically similar species in order to practice safe sex. It's society's not-so-secret that nobody admits to or wants to talk about, but that many still take advantage of."

"I'll admit it wasn't much of a secret in my family, those…kind of issues never are with as many members as we have. Personal privacy's a vague concept at the Hopps warren. Although I don't recall hearing that particular…option ever being discouraged." Judy had slowly become annoyed at the persistence of Jack's smile. "Alright Jack Ravage, I assume Skye knows about your past lifestyle choices?"

"Of course she does, we're completely open with each other. And I'll be open with you too Judy because I think you might need this. My past intimate adventures not only prepared me, but also were what likely saved me from having a major cardiac event when Skye decided our dates should become more serious. And we'd worked up to that point cautiously, as you and Nick need to; believe me you'll want that journey to last!"

Somehow, they were both already standing—she welcomed his hug. "Jack," she said over his shoulder, "I think…no, I know Nick expects me to lead; to be the vixen! I'm…not really confident I'll be able to handle that role."

"Are you forgetting your backups? Vivian would insist on being your vixenology coach—and Skye would be willing to help if Vivian would ever allow that!" Jack gently pushed her back to arm's length, then let go.

I can't ask Nick's mother for relationship advice! He'd find out somehow and make sure I'd never ever live that down! No, that's the old Nick, he wouldn't now, he cares too much about me to do that. But should I force him to live with that conflict? I already know Skye would be discreet.

She looked up at Jack—and gasped as his face collapsed to limp-eared lifelessness with dulled eyes that stared down past her. He wavered and looked ready to fall—she seized his arms and guided him unsteadily backward down onto the bench.

"Jack! What's wrong, c'mon look at me!" He didn't react at first—she resisted the urge to shake him, then tilted his chin up—his eyes slowly focused on her.

"Jack, say something, you're scaring me!" He expelled a breath and feebly waved a paw at her as she reached for her cellphone.

"I felt it…something bad happened," he said weakly. "I don't know what. Maybe just me." That was slightly stronger. "Just a…existential dread I guess?" He was breathing more evenly now.

I hope it's not Skye! He didn't say that and I won't! Maybe he can't admit it! Would I have felt something about Nick? We're apart too. Some mammals have a connection; how much time does it take to develop?

"I'm sorry I lost control again, it just seems like we're constantly chasing behind events." He slowly turned and stared fixedly out to the east.

It had to be about Skye. Judy felt a prickle between her shoulder blades at her close brush with something…paranormal. This had to be much worse than how she'd felt after Tyne's outburst, and still Jack held it in so it wouldn't affect her! He's in need…

"Jack, we've been so stressed out since this started; remember my nightmares?" She sat on the bench and held him. "We don't know when it going to build to be too much and just boil over on us. I got it twice this morning, now it's your turn. No one should have this stress, we don't deserve it but the world picks the heroes it wants. It's ok if we're like this with ourselves; we just have to be strong for everybody else. Need this again?" She started to work her paws up along his ears.

"I'm…better." He raised a paw and stilled hers. "Let's leave the relationship reminders for later, alright? We need to keep busy and see where this goes today."

Judy tried to invoke her own latent psychic powers and make Gideon hurry up.

He finally arrived after they'd spent an indeterminate time mired in their thoughts, and parked his van by the Hopps labeled vehicle. He exited and walked back towards them.

"I kin help you folks now…hey, hi Judy, whose your friend there?" Gideon looked Jack over and seemed to give her a slight nod of approval.

Not you too! "We're on special assignment together Gid, I'm afraid we're working today. We need to ask you a couple of questions about…."

"We could maybe get something for lunch first?" Jack jumped in; "It sure smelled good over by your bakery. I'm Jack Mr. Grey, we're just looking for some local background information that Officer Hopps thought you might help us with."

Thanks Jack—I did start off a little strong there. C'mon, think cabbage head, this'll likely be sensitive for his family if they were involved.

"Shore; mostly breads, pies, muffins and such, not so much on fixings, couple of jams and vanilla ice cream is all. C'mon in, you haven't seen my place yet!" he said proudly.

It was actually quite inviting inside; knotty wood paneling covered the walls and made up the sales counter, along with two simple but solid display cases for his wares. Two old but well refinished tables and several different sizes of mismatched chairs provided for those customers who didn't want to wait before indulging. They went with his suggestions, and Jack quickly paid for them with cash to Judy's relief—she'd felt Gid was about to offer them for free and it might help smooth the way if they supported his business.

Gideon waved them to a table and bustled about for plates and utensils before pulling back a chair and joining them. Judy kept his shop the subject of their occasional small talk for the next ten minutes or so of flaky, gooey goodness. Finally, her curiosity grown intolerable, she pointed at Sharla's sign by the door.

"She done the window curtains too. Her family don't live too far away, an she works part-time here on Fridays n weekends. Been a right help keeping this place up."

That begged more questions—best left for later. Sharla was still taking classes at Middleburrow Technical College, and seemed to be spending lots of her free time from that here. Not much ever seemed to change around the burrows, Judy remembered—unless you went away for months at a time. Gideon caught her attention again.

"Judy, don't mean to pry…seen the news…what happened to that fox fella you was working with?" Gideon said carefully, watching her.

Jack's face confirmed the gift she'd just received. Gid had given them a perfect opening for the likely unpleasant conversations to come. It wasn't even about her; he clearly wanted to know what had happened to a role model for his fellow foxes.

"Speciest authorities are targeting predators again; like the nighthowler thing last year Gid," she said, "only they're being sneakier about it this time. My ex-partner is just one of many they've falsely accused. We think he's in hiding—like several other pred officers we've lost from the force recently. Back in Concordia, prey politicians are changing laws to make doing that easier!" Her peripheral vision caught Jack's look of approval for her careful explanation. "We thought that sheep mayor was the only one behind this, but it turns out there were others she was working for. We're trying to find out who they all are!"

"Some of these prey officials and agents," Jack said, "are trying to find evidence that will support their cause. They think some of that is right here in the burrows and have come looking for it. We're here to warn you to be careful what you tell them—they will seek you out soon and ask questions," he then paused to let Gideon take it all in—she stayed silent too.

"What are they looking for around here? What are they gonna ask about, and what don't you want us to tell em?" Gideon's voice slowly grew warier.

"We don't want them to find out about the past history of this region—the valley before we came here," Judy said patting herself. Only a few here really know that history. If these speciest investigators get them to talk about it and look for supporting evidence, they'll know that local predators were running a…food serv…" She was stopped by Gideon's paw waving, open mouthed expression.

"Them's just rumors been used against us preds for years by you all!" he accused loudly as he held his paw in front of them. "Aren't they?" he then asked plaintively, as he pulled it back and looked contrite. "You need to talk to Gran, but I don't know if they'll wanna see ya." He looked really uncomfortable now.

"Gideon! We aren't here to accuse anyone of anything," Judy said hastily, "We just need to keep whatever happened back then secret, so these mammals can't use it to vilify and oppress all of you predators again!"

"If you can help us understand even some of what happened, we'll know better how to keep it away from them," Jack added.

"Can you let me be for a bit? I need to make a call." Gideon stood and wandered back behind the counter. They took his hint and went outside to wait.

They'd been back on the bench under the canopy for a good fifteen minutes before they saw Gideon adjust the sign in the window, lock the shop, and dejectedly walk over to them.

"I'll take you in my van, the family don' like seein strangers come up, cause we've been done wrong by folks around here for a long time." Gideon led them over before he got in—Jack had to stretch a little to open the door on their side. The bench seat was ample for the three of them—they all stayed silent as Gideon started up and drove down the road.

"Need to letcha know a bit about our own history Judy," Gideon finally spoke when they passed by the train station a few miles beyond his bakery. "We lived around here for a really long time til we got pushed out by your kind. You know the rails that were put into the Bunnyburrow packinghouse bout forty years ago? Those two small hills bout halfway along? That's where we'd lived—right between em. They had to put the line right through there—eminent domain," he said bitterly. "Plenty of land around, but they just had to go through where we foxes were! Oh, they paid us for it, cheap as they could since it wasn't prime land! Enough for us to pack up and move anyway. Bout broke my grandad, they told me he wasn't never the same after that. Family rebuilt n restarted the business this side of Middleburrow, but it never got back the way it was."

So it wasn't just mindless bullying on Gid's part, all the Grey's had good reason to hate us, Judy realized. He's bitter over events that had to have happened close to twenty years before he was born. She agonized over what to say back to him, and came up with nothing that wouldn't sound disingenuous. Just as well, her posture and face seemed to satisfy him.

"They're only agreein to this cause of you Judy, you Hopps was the first bunnies to give me, and by that my family, any help at all. You got respect from foxes that know bout you, you trusted one to work with n kept telling other folks to treat us like people too!"

"Trust you too Gid, you helped me more than you know." She smiled at him to thaw the ice some more. Thank the spirits he didn't seem to have seen my press conference!

"I got em to agree to listen to you, but your friend here should be careful, maybe just keep quiet at first." Gideon gave Jack a good look before he put his eyes back on the road. "Mr. Jack, you some kind of wrestler or something? Whatever—and don't neither of you show pity for em! My family's proud!

They drove up a short extension of the valley toward a more forested part of the eastern foothills. Once past the last small farm complex, the road turned to gravel and Gideon slowed. Later, they went by what appeared to be a small lumberyard, with cribs of wood under rain shelters, and a longer building open at one end where two red foxes in overalls watched them go by. The Grey's planked house was set into the slope beyond. It seemed to have undergone periodic expansions or renovations based on how weathered various parts of it looked. It was all so rustic that the poles with electrical service looked out of place.

This explained the utilitarian woodwork in and around Gideon's pie shop—it had likely been a family effort to reestablish a presence closer to their original property. They parked below the house and were met as they walked up by what were presumably Gideon's parents. They stood on their porch as if to defend it, so she and Jack stopped short, as did Gideon. The vixen of the pair glanced past them briefly; Judy turned to see the two foxes from the sawmill as they walked up behind them. They stopped and folded their arms.

The tension stretched until Gideon yielded. "Ma, dad, this here's Judy Hopps and Mr. Jack."

"Savage" added Jack. One of the foxes behind them snickered.

"Stifle it Gareth!" Gideon snapped. "This here's serious, she try'n to help us again for things go bad." His father on the porch nodded and pointed at her.

"Thanks for seeing us Mr. Grey, we're here because there are teams of prey ZBI agents up in Bunnyburrow right now trying to dig up evidence to justify more discrimination against preds. It's only a matter of time before they come here and question you, because they'll find out from others that you've lived here long enough to likely know about it. If they think you do, they won't stop until they squeeze it out of you."

"What evidence might that be?" said Gid's father. Judy noticed that neither of the haggard foxes looking down at them had offered their names.

"That there used to be primitive small mammals living in this valley that were exploited to…supply pred workers back in the gold mining days." Judy said, deciding to lay it out and get this over with. The reaction she expected didn't come; the pair merely exchanged glances before the vixen spoke.

"So you do know. We'll get my mother; you two sit right here." She and her mate moved a small bench on the porch over close to one end, then went inside.

She and Jack sat and Gideon followed to lean on the porch rail. His two brothers also stepped up into the house.

"Sorry," Gideon whispered, "They don't want you in the house ta…smell it up with bunny." His brothers returned carrying an old wingback chair—their parents followed with their own smaller seats. They turned it to face them and gingerly set it down—slouched within was a shrunken vixen ancient enough to likely qualify for Kristen or Dr. Alder's preservation skills.

The breeze by the house was fitfully weak right now—but they were still downwind of the foxes in front of them. Judy felt Jack's paw briefly on her arm, he also knew bad blood remained here. This whole—presentation of the elder—dragged her back to an earlier one, with a far smaller head of family that demanded respect.

The younger vixen sat close and filled in the older on their recent conversation—distinctly and slowly. Again, no introductions were forthcoming. Judy forced herself to look at Gid's Gram—her experiences with various elderly Hopps members hadn't prepared her for this example of pushing the boundaries of age. The wizened vixen had extensive bare patches of mottled skin on her forearms, neck and the crown of her head. Her ears looked like veined wrapping paper where the slanting sunlight caught them. What remained of her sparse tail fur was nearly white. However, the fox's eyes remained bright and aware as she whispered at length back to her daughter.

"Those who have wronged us now offer easy help that also benefits them," Gideon's mother repeated while he looked uncomfortable. "Now they ask for what they say will hurt us more than what they have already done." More whispering went on between them.

Dad's partnership with Gideon came at a cost none of us realized, to his family; he dealt with the enemy! Yet they obviously support his business; are they that in need, or is it that desire to reassert themselves?

"You are here because you are one of the few that has offered acceptance of us. The rest accuse us of doing what they have always done to us. What of him?" The younger spoke, the older pointed a fragile stick arm at Jack.

These vixens spoke frankly. Was part of their attitude resentment at opportunities denied over a lifetime? Unlike her safe and prosperous upbringing, this family had long been persecuted for what they were. Even Nick had yet to open all the way up about his past. She was still learning about fox's lives. Jack took her rumination as a deferral.

"Like Officer Hopps, I try to work for the equal benefit of everyone. I've met her fox partner and call him my friend and am proud to call an Arctic fox another." Jack spoke clearly for the elder vixen's benefit, then pulled his badge and gave it to Gid to pass along. "I, and others like me in the agency, are opposed to those above us who wish to unlawfully restrict other's rights. Knowing that, you could now turn us in to those prey agents when they come. Trust for trust."

Woah! You pulled this one at the clinic, Jack! You think there's really something here worth risking our exposure? You'd better…right. Skye already pointed a big arrow at us.

"During my life, I've always kept some of what my grandfather told me from the family story you all know," Gideon's mother relayed and pointed out her family. "You could've told that part to the bunnies without me, so you want to know the rest. Do you want ta trust em with it?"

"We don't want to know what your family's specific involvement was, just what went on in the valley back then so we know what needs to remain hidden," Judy said. "We aren't here to expose names and assign them guilt; that all ended generations ago."

"But that's exactly what these prey conspirators want!" Jack stressed. "Solid evidence of past predatory guilt to justify further restrictions on all of you today! For them, any names would be a publicity bonus."

The vixen's whisper conference lasted a couple of minutes before Gid's mom issued the verdict. "She says maybe you're one reason she was told and made to remember for so long. She'll tell ya, but feels she's only got this one time in her, so listen and don't interrupt us whenever we hafta stop." She gave Jack an affirmative nod when he held up his notepad. Judy distinctly felt the younger vixen was eager to hear more as well.

"We Grey's came here when the valley was first being cleared for planting. Those dumb oxen n elks were pulling down and burning off most of the trees; we started taking some of the wood off their hooves an set up our first mill. Business was good, we'd brought better tools and the natives and newcomers were happy to trade for our cut timber. We provided materials and sometimes labor to help build some of those first farmsteads around here.

"There was some native foxes here too, we joined to work together right quick so it's hard to tell whose who these days! That first place grew 'til we had over a dozen families living around the mill. Mostly us foxes, but some coyotes too, and even bobcats. Things were good; those large mammals mostly weren't bothered by us—until they moved out and those smaller mammals start..." A bony arm stopped Gid's mother's opening narrative and the whispering resumed. The younger vixen's face slowly soured as she listened.

"Getting ahead of myself," she said in a more subdued voice. "There was lots of those small ferals living here then, and I guess we all had…agreements with the grass munchers to help hunt 'em down and keep 'em out of their grains. The native foxes really took to that and…reminded us how to…appreciate them. Mind! Those rodents weren't real people like today's and this was long before both of our times! Life was tougher; with bad seasons n such." The next pause for whispered history didn't improve her expression.

"It was hard, time wasting work for the one's what protected those crops and it didn't pay well. Those civilized folks knew what some of us did with the ones we caught, and despised us even though they needed us! We were all the same to em—even those of us who worked in the mill or didn't eat meat. Then some mammals came willing to pay more to take the ferals off our paws. They wanted as many as could be caught alive, quick as we could, and wanted us to build boxes for them. So we did—the immediate killing stopped, but not the shunning, we've stayed marked although most now have forgotten why."

So the Grey's were deeply involved and confessed their personal guilt after I said we didn't want that. Do they want absolution from me, or are they just unburdening themselves? This doesn't make sense unless this is so personal for them it's the only way she can tell it.

"We were so busy, we had to go to hardwood boxes boiled in creosote to cut down on them gnawing through it too quick. Some needed dividers to keep em from gnawing on each other! They really was just animals. We couldn't keep up with demand, the better ferals kept getting harder and harder to find, so we set a grain field to pen and breed more of them. We built our packinghouse right in that field along with capture boxes for em to hole up in.

"That only lasted for a few years. We knew they'd build up the boats n curehouse, it was just a matter of time for they had salted and smoked fish rolling up into the mountains. But what really stopped it for us all here was those tall white cats what brought in those real big water rats and raised them over by the mountains! Our valley's business was gone like that, the bigger natives had already started to move away and you bunnies and others were about to come in. Money had been good enough that some of us could move away from their sins and start over. Those like us who stayed burned and buried ours. Every bit of em."

Those tall white cats—the words echoed within her skull as she pawed her forehead and slowly absorbed them. Everyone on the Grey's porch remained silent—the ancient vixen in the wingback sipped from a cup with her daughter's help—Gideon traded glances with his brothers. She turned to Jack—head down, phone in paw, he texted with grim determination.

"What do we do now?" Judy asked plaintively.

5:50 P.M. Wednesday, at the Bookwyrm's Cave author's week promotion.

Nick admitted to himself that it hadn't been a bad afternoon of hustling…marketing his…uh…Rafe Holcroft's books. He finished his…Rafe's signature on the last of the thirty-odd copies the bookstore had scrounged up after he'd been gratefully added to today's group of obscure writers. All of the bigger names were scheduled for the weekend. Nick reached the book over and thanked the retired jackal firemammal who'd decided to take it—after he'd spent fifteen minutes relating his life story to the unexpectedly knowledgeable red fox.

The canid wandered off to make his purchase as the other three authors on today's panel—an elderly goat fantasy writer, a prairie dog new age purveyor, and the self-improvement donkey with the very down-market radio program—gave him annoyed looks. They still had numerous books on their tables, with the goat's stack the smallest.

Not my fault my life experience gave me an unfair advantage—the best kind of advantage! While you spent months or years cooped up writing, I was out hustling, selling! Getting lost in fantasies is easier than trying to improve yourself, and Holcroft's are at least more widely relateable than those 'Capricorn's Realm' books likely are.

It had been so easy to outdo his competition. Their large neat stacks of books just showed to passersby a continuing lack of interest from others. A clever fox knew to always keep a smaller untidy number on his table as if he were running out. Whenever potential customers were in sight, he would often pretend to consult a list and autograph one at length, then set it in the box down beside him with a note stuck in its pages. Only he knew it was the same copy each time. Add his well-honed schmoozing skills, and he generated fairly steady sales. The old goat at least had started to catch on towards the end of the day.

Nick's satisfaction was at odds with the fact that not a single dollar had crossed his paw. Finn would've been scandalized. Finally venturing out in public to exercise his neglected skills, along with the bits of information he'd gleaned from some of his customers, had been sufficient compensation for now. The real Mr. Holcroft's meager cut should come off of his publisher's sales.

At least he hoped so; this was a…novel avocation for him—the effort to payoff ratio he'd observed here didn't seem like it would keep these writers fed, let alone sheltered. Still he'd discharged his obligation to Mr. Holcroft for his…identity donation, and word of that diligence would eventually filter back to mom too.

Nick leaned back in his chair and stretched a few kinks out—he'd been planted there since one. His eyes followed the painted slender scaly thing that slithered around the walls of the main room just below the ceiling. It had owlish glasses on one end that made it a friendly beast. The free quarterly community guide that had informed him of this event a few days ago had noted this was Concordia's most patronized bookstore.

Which had also made it an opportunity to arrange a relatively safe meet-up with Kristen—although it was late enough now that she was likely a no-show. He consulted the community guide again, and found a seemingly decent restaurant where they might blend in. It wasn't too far away, so he sent her a text about it that hopefully wasn't too cryptic. He finally picked up his bag, went to the bookstore manager to collect his token appearance fee—it would at least buy him that dinner—and left to walk over there.

His satisfaction at being out in public again and involved—he'd found separate lodgings for Professor Ulric yesterday and had sent off his specimens to Jack—lasted just past his hope that Kristen might still come by.

Skye's still missing; she hasn't checked in since she turned over the prof. Jack's got to be frantic for information I don't have. I owe him something!

That nagged him throughout his stroll, even after Kristen's affirmative reply finally arrived. He had nothing, and the vixen's disappearance wouldn't exactly make the news.

Nick was willing to wait awhile for a booth for two to open; he needed to give her time to arrive. Once tucked away back near the bathrooms, he delayed ordering as much as he felt was reasonable while he eyed the entrance. He finally selected a generous casserole with veggies and tuna chunks, to be followed by a slice of blueberry pie. It was the first opportunity since he'd left to avoid having boxed or late night convenience store fare.

Kristen made it before his dinner did—the skunk sashayed through the restaurant in an electric blue top and slightly more subdued turquoise skirt, a white necklace complimented the visible part of her stripes. Numerous pairs of eyes followed her progress, so Nick set his bookbag up on the table as she slid into the booth with a final swirl of her tail.

"Here you go Ms. Mosswood, invoice's inside." Nick said distinctly enough to be heard by those few nearby. "They were getting antsy, so I've already ordered—got you a salad to start." Kristen gave him a small smile and nod as he beckoned the waiter over, then she set the bag down beside her and perused the menu. With Deflection Inc.'s business concluded, the waiter took her choice away and the other diners returned to their meals. They'd now leave the two less-than-popular mammals near the corner to each other's company.

"Sorry I didn't come earlier Nick," she said furtively. "I spent the afternoon over at ZBI headquarters asking around." Her small smile returned.

Nick's breath caught and the questions piled up on his face—her smile broadened with an affirmative nod. Their apprehensive, reluctant volunteer had just pulled a not so minor 'gotcha' on him! That young skunk across the table seemed to enjoy being a mass of contradictions. Dull researcher or flamboyant hot-rodder—nervous Holli Homemaker or junior agent Flirt—maybe she was a bit manic-depressive?

Or he was being unfair to a more complex mammal. Dinner arrived and he had to wait while she tucked into her salad. Halfway through it, Kristen condescended to release him from frustration.

"Relax rookie," she teased, "I took the day's last public tour!"

That actually made sense. She'd already had a run-in with the agency—this would have to be seen as open and natural curiosity from an inquisitive scientist. Great idea, but worthwhile? "And what secrets did you pry away from the heart of darkness?" he asked.

"I went because of Stella; to see if I got any reaction when I asked after her. There were enough visitors that we got broken into small groups and I made sure to be in one with a pred guide. I don't know if I was spotted going in or already had someone tailing me, but I realized it when they needed to stay close on the tour."

"Excuse me, but this all seems a teensy bit out of character for you," Nick said, leaning closer to keep his voice down and because it seemed to bother a Roan antelope pair several tables away. "How did you uncover your admirer?"

"She was taller than everybody in my group. I'd stood sorta between two of them so whoever was watching me wouldn't know which I'd go with. It was good confirmation, but what I really noticed was a flash of recognition toward her from our Coati guide when he came in! Kind of a 'why are you here' thing."

"Just in case," Nick turned his muzzle toward the doors, "What is she—and wearing?"

"A Puku, although I wouldn't expect to see her anymore, I made her thoroughly reveal herself today!" the skunk said proudly.

"Puku? And do remember to keep it down." Nick cautioned.

"Just one of those three hundred and forty-one species you're supposed to know so well," Kristen snarked. "Really fox, I'd have expected you to at least browse through the list by now. They're uncommon here, but in the same genus as waterbucks and kobs. Old World antelopes—in her case small whitetail deer sized with a somewhat broader muzzle."

"You're the biologist. Now how exactly did you ask about our…Stella, and what kind of reactions did you get? Do you anticipate any problems as a result of such…forward behavior on your part?" Nick leaned in some more—Kristen responded in kind.

He heard a faint snuffle of annoyance from the buck of the roan pair seated in the middle of the restaurant, and Kristen winked at him. All right then, let's see how well we coordinate with this! His answering smile prompted her to slowly raise her tail and start an even more leisurely wave with it. He lifted his in response. Nobody besides the antelopes seemed to have noticed that, and when the buck began to mutter something they whipped their heads around to stare him down for a second—Nick also briefly put a possessive paw on Kristen's.

The buck started and almost upset his beverage; the bumped table and his hoot of outrage drew other diner's attention. When some turned around to find the cause of his ire, he and Kristen had already dropped tails and slid back into normal postures—they watched the antelopes with bemused expressions like the rest.

"They gave me a condescending look when I came in," Kristen noted, turning back to her dinner. "There's nothing wrong with the way I publicly present myself! Thanks for helping me tweak those jerks."

"You are…quite colorful sometimes. I thought you were trying to keep a low profile."

"It's just this one outfit, the rest I brought are suitably plain. So far I've given those speciest conspirators of ours no cause to see anyone other than ol' boring researcher me, just like Martin suggested! Tonight I could become someone else and pull some attention away from you!" Kristen looked rather pleased with herself.

"As one male having observed another's discomfort, his attention wasn't just on you as a member of a distasteful species, but on who you were with, another he likely despised." Nick placed a paw at his throat. "That buck; he is jealous! Old scruffy me just doesn't deserve this kind of personal attention from a fine young specimen such as yourself. That masculinity-disparaging trauma supersedes his dislike of filthy mixers and inferiors!"

Kristen laughed aloud and he joined in briefly—as he fixed his gaze on the antelopes to justify it. They scowled back most satisfactorily. "Now that our break from reality is over Miss flirtatious, how did you hustle the ZBI?" he said more cautiously.

"Right at the end of the tour, I asked my guide how I could contact this agent, and gave him Skye's business card. I told him that she'd been responsible for the transfer of my specimens to the national museum, and that I needed to talk to her as some of my included research notes were missing. Said I'd called her number several times without getting an answer!"

"So you let a pred employee know that one of theirs was unavailable?" Nick surmised.

"Yes, then that Puku jumped in and asked who—he told her, then she told me Skye was on assignment in Zootopia. I said no, she'd flown back here with them last Friday and given me her card; they didn't think to ask me when she did! Then she said there were major realignments going on and that Skye had likely been immediately reassigned."

"That last bit—was that exactly what that Puku agent said?" Nick said eagerly.

"About the…major realignments? Or Skye's…" Kristen seemed oddly thoughtful.

"Yeah, that," Nick interrupted, "That's an interesting word choice since Professor Ulric mentioned the same to me regarding his office and home break-ins. Some group he'd never heard of had left flyers behind demanding, get this, a 'realignment of past academic doctrine about mammals moral evolution'. We talked about it and decided this was a connivance to cover up those attempts to seize any Fairfield evidence he might still have."

"Hold on," Kristen pulled out a tablet and started to work it intently. "I hope it's still here; didn't screenshot that one, she muttered. "Yeah! Here it is, you'll love this." She turned her tablet and pointed at the screen, then let him take it.

It was part of an address yesterday by the Chief Arbiter to the Commons Committees. Any irritation about his being subjected to political verbiage evaporated when he spotted 'Justice Department initiatives' and 'societal realignment' embedded within the text.

Kristen took back her tablet. "I only recalled this when you said Ulric had mentioned it too. I'd noticed it in passing earlier because the Puku had stressed the word just a bit."

"Do a search on that will you? It's still possible this is only a chance thing; see if you can find any significant correlations!" Nick noticed their ocelot waiter on the way over and drew Kristen's attention. "I've got dessert coming; order something, we're more secure now." The dinner crowd had thinned; the booth behind Kristen was already empty and the nearest table seemed soon to leave as well. The Roan antelope pair was already up and gave them a last dirty look as they exited.

She concentrated on her tablet until her dessert's arrival made her smile a little. Nick made sad fox eyes at her ice cream volcano with its chocolate lava until she spooned a slumped foothill onto his piece of pie. He watched her read and indulge for several minutes—the skunk appeared to have quite a sweet tooth—then she slid her tablet back over.

He found several in just a minute or two as he scrolled down a long list of otherwise trivial hits. There were seven mentions of realignment in transcripts of Chief Arbiter Garwood's recent speeches, two in a Justice Department press release, and four more in editorials under a ZBI byline Jack had disclosed. "I say no coincidences here; seems like internal signaling or maybe related to a name for the conspirator's organization. Shadowy cabals and gangs do like their cryptic names. Do tell me if you think I'm wrong doctor?" She shook 'no' and shoveled in another mouthful of her dessert.

They both remained silent until the plates were gone and the waiter had left with his cash. They had possible names now—one of them up in the governmental stratosphere, above mere delegates, representatives…and mayors. They'd been dealt an Ace, but there were more cards to come and they were already all-in.

"Did you hear anything at all about Skye's whereabouts during your infiltration?" Nick asked forlornly.

"No, nothing. Although I did find that a recent acquaintance of yours had unfortunately made the regional newsfeed this morning. This is the main thing I wanted to show you tonight." They exchanged the tablet again and Nick read:

Mr. Arvie Lamont, sheep age 37, has been arrested in Junction City and charged with ovicide in the second degree. The victim—name withheld pending notification—was apparently stabbed in the neck with a broken bottle during an early morning altercation outside of a convenience store. According to responders from the sheriff's office in town, alcohol was involved. Both individuals were employed as warehouse…

"Nick, remember, they tried to kill you," Kristen said, misinterpreting his expression.

"I know, it's not that. I drew blood, but the punctures were shallow, in no way life threatening on someone his size. I dropped him by taking out his knee! Kristen, this is much worse—the conspirators aren't covering up an accidental death—they gave a terminal interrogation to a crippled failure! His death is also a security warning for the others. They now know I was there, have a good description of me, along with my likely destination and arrival time!"

"Nick, I was on that same train."

"It's only a matter of time before they make that connection and they also know where you're staying. This is what we'll have to do." Nick reached across the table and held the now trembling skunk by her shoulders. "We both go back to your hotel right now and pick up your stuff—if it's safe! Then you're coming and staying with me, I'm sure they don't know where I am, at least for now. We should be safe for tonight but that won't last."

"How will they really recognize who you are! Your mom and I did a really good job on you."

"When I disembarked there, the railroad scanned my ID. Here, I'm probably caught on security cams. Holcroft is compromised, I'm compromised, and so are you! We are so very very screwed since I spent all day publicly exposed in the bookstore down the street and you were tickling the dragon in his cave." Nick got up, then urged Kristen to her feet. "If we don't go now, we'll probably find out where Skye is sometime tomorrow!"

And there we have it! The cliffhanger hat trick. At least I didn't tie little Nell to a railroad track, although our plot train continues to accelerate!

Our next exciting installment—Chapter Twenty-one: Predilections