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beauty of the beast (the night at last has ceased)

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They arrived far too late for breakfast the next day – and far too early for lunch – so Judy dragged Nick into the kitchens in search for something to snack on. He gave an impressed whistle upon stepping into the room. “Damn, Carrots, the place is huge.”

“Yup!” said Judy, huddling along before pointing him towards one of the fridges. “Here, there should be some salads… fruits, stuff like that.”

While Nick went ahead and searched the fridge, Judy watched the rest of the kitchen. It was calmer now than yesterday, being in-between meals, but there was still a dozen or so chefs and cooks running about: Mey among them. They spotted Judy through the crowd and beamed, making their way over.

As they came closer and their nose twitched, their beam morphed into a knowing look. “Mornin’, Judes, had a good night?”

Judy’s ears fell in embarrassment. At least they wouldn’t know about her more primal state. “Morning, Mey,” she muttered. “I slept – slept fine, yes.”

“Yeah, an’ we both know y’all did more’n sleep,” Mey said, and winked.

A slam of the fridge door closing. “Aight, Carrots, I think – oh.” Nick had spotted Mey, ears folding as he took them in. “Hello.”

Mey didn’t let the awkwardness sit for long, stepping forward and joyously grabbing his elbow (as his arms were full of fruit and berries). “Hoya, Mister Wilde, ain’t it? Good ta finally meet ye in person, we’ve ‘eard a lot about ye.”

“Nick Wilde, yes,” said Nick, inclining his head. “And you are?”

“Right, pardon mah manners. Name’s Mey Gardner, one of the Head Chefs ‘ere in the kitchens.” They nodded and smiled, adding, “my wife’s husband married one of the Hopps bucks a coupla’ years back, ah’ve worked ‘ere ever since.”

Nick, having never met Mey before, opened his mouth to answer. Judy hid her grin behind a paw.

Mey ploughed on. “Course, ah met Judy ‘ere yesterday, she wanted ta know when breakfast was, an’ ah told ‘er – don’t matter when breakfast is, darlin’, we all know y’all’ve got better thing to do!” They laughed merrily, attracting the attention of several rabbits walking by. Nudging Nick in the side – they were about the same height – and winking, they added, “an’ judgin’ by the smell of ye both, ah was mighty right.”

“Chef!” yelled a pale pika, his cooking hat askew on his round ears. “We have a situation!”

Mey threw a look over their shoulder, then grinned at Nick again. “Tha’s mah cue, y’all – have a good day!” They sprinted over to the frantic pika, then followed him over to one of the nearby ovens and began cursing loudly.

Judy glanced over at Nick and burst out laughing. “Oh, crickets, Nick, you should’a seen yer face!” When he turned his mildly terrified expression at her, she only laughed louder. “Mey is a pawful, but they’re a sweetheart, I promise. Cheery and open-minded – there’s space for anyone in their heart.”

“Impressive,” said Nick weakly. He blinked, dumbfounded, then raised the produce in his arms. “I… I got us food?”

Leading him out towards the dining hall, Judy teasingly said, “how thoughtful of you to provide.”

The dining hall was easily the largest room of the whole warren, having been built nearly two centuries ago when the farm was just starting up. As was custom when building new warrens, it had been built four times as large as it needed be – back then, able to house around two hundred rabbits if you squeezed.

Since then, a second floor had been added in the form of wide balconies running along the walls, leaving a rather large gap in the middle that allowed sound to flow freely between the floors. Since the dining room also served as the gathering hall for the warren, that had been a must. The floor had been added before the invention of microphones and speakers, but in recent times those had been built in, as well.

As it was, the room could comfortably hold five hundred individuals, and if you squinted and squeezed, there was space for nearly seven hundred.

Eyeing the long table in the center of the lower floor, Judy took note of several mammals Parsley had warned her about, and so she dragged Nick upstairs and towards a corner table – meant for six, but usually empty outside mealtimes.

“Now, let’s see what you got your paws on,” she said as she slid into one of the seats. “I’m eating for God knows how many, it better be a lot!”

Chuckling, Nick chose the seat opposite her and poured his findings onto the table. “Some porridge, I believe that’s yoghurt, blueberries for me, get your paws off, you greedy thing – apples, one whole banana and… carrots, for you.”

The moment he looked up from the food, Judy snatched a pawful of blueberries and popped them in her mouth. Groaning in pleasure, she grinned at Nick’s flabbergasted expression.

After a moment he shook himself, a smirk spreading on his muzzle. “Oh, just you wait, lady,” he muttered, a hint of a growl at the back of his voice, “my revenge will be merciless.”

Judy snatched another few blueberries. “You were saying?”

Nick yanked the box of berries out of her paws and clutched it to his chest, turning away as if to shield it. “The betrayal,” he whined. “It hurts!”

“Oh, boohoo.” Judy grabbed one of the bowls of porridge and dragged it closer, stuffing some apple slices into the cool breakfast before happily digging in.

It took several minutes for Nick to gently place the box of berries back onto the table. He hesitantly tasted the yoghurt, and, upon finding it indeed to be yoghurt, nearly inhaled the rest of it.

Judy’s phone buzzed. She pulled it out of her pocket and glanced at the screen, only to groan and close her eyes. “Darn, I forgot about that.”

Nick paused with the spoon half-way to his mouth. “Forgot what?”

“I’m drowning in messages, emails and missed calls,” Judy sighed. “I should really look through them.” Quickly finishing the rest of her porridge, she got to work.

Messages from people she knew were answered – either with something simple, like, thanks for checking in, I’m doing okay! or something longer and more personal. If she didn’t know the sender, she ignored it.

Gnawing on her lip, Judy re-read a particular email. “The ZNN wants an interview with me,” she said, glancing up at Nick. “To discuss… me, it looks like. The cases, of course, but they’re also interested in who I am. Do you… do you think I should?”

Nick hummed, looking off to the side with his thinking expression before shrugging. “You did leave a lot of loose ends in the city. Have you even talked to Chief Buffalo Butt about… well, anything, really, since you woke up?”

She shook her head but saw his point. Muttering under her breath as she typed, she wrote out a response to the inquiry from the ZNN saying she was willing to consider it if they would give her more information.

Having gone past that email, she continued onto the rest of the list. Most of them were unfamiliar mammals who she was not interested in talking with at all, but one of them stood out.

Miss Hopps,

I apologize for being unable to personally meet and thank you for the service you have done for the city. It has been a busy few weeks of gathering evidence, interrogating suspects, and interviewing those involved. The Precinct has, quite frankly, been chaos.

I wish to remind you the offer of work at Precinct One – or any other Precinct in the city – still stands, and I can meet to discuss the details. The city needs good cops like you.

Chief Idris Bogo,
ZPD Precinct One.

She could get her job back. She could get her job back!

But – she was pregnant. Her kits… she still didn’t want to raise them in the city. And even if she did… the city had felt so strange to her, when she left. Huge. Loud.

Dangerous.

“Carrots?”

Nick was watching her intently, a frown on his brow and ears folded.

Slowly putting down her phone, Judy quietly said, “Chief… Chief Bogo wants me back on the force…”

His eyes went wide. “And… how do we feel about that?”

Mentally, she went over the email once more.

Anger began to heat in the pit of her stomach. “I don’t want to,” she said defiantly. “Not because it’s dangerous, not because I’m afraid, but – ” She fisted her paws, thumping them on the table. “How dare he! That insolent – not even an apology for how he treated me – how he treated you! Not even a call, barely even an email!” She shook her head. “No, I won’t come crawling back to him like some doe in heat. I’m staying here, thank you very much, and he can hear all about how I solve crimes in the countryside when I start breaking records!”

Silence for a moment, then Nick chuckled. “That’s my Carrots,” he said fondly. “Righteous, hungry for justice, and hard as stone.” He leaned onto his elbows, giving her an honest smile. “Just how I like it. What are you gonna say to him?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” she muttered, glancing away. “I… the truth, I suppose. That I’m not interested.” She sighed, tapping the reply button and staring at the blank screen. “I don’t have to tell him I’m pregnant, do I?”

Nick shook his head. “You tell him what you’re comfortable with, Fluff. Not a damn thing more.”

“Right,” said Judy. “Right.”

Chief Bogo.

Thank you for the offer, but I am not interested in working for or with you in any of the foreseeable future.

Feeling a bit cheeky, she couldn’t help but add, you’ll see me on the news.

Judy Hopps.

“And… sent. It’s nearly time for us to go with Jessica to Whiteside, are you done?” Slurping down the last of the yoghurt, Nick nodded. “Great! Let’s go.”

*

The only time Nick was not glued to the windows was while he was sending an email to Doctor Griffin; the rest, he was eagerly keeping up with the outside surroundings and asking a thousand questions about settlements they drove by: farms, stables, the odd house and so on.

Between Judy and Jessica, they managed to answer most of his questions, and the ones they didn’t know he quickly brushed off. This was how Judy learned he was a bit of a history fanatic: not in the sense of great wars and the huge strokes, but the small, local things.

When asked about it, he admitted, a bit embarrassed: “it’s about understanding why we are the way we are… knowing the roots and ancestors of somewhere tells you a lot about the current mammals living there.”

Though he did not say it out loud, Judy figured the truth behind the statement anyways: to hustle someone well, you had to know them. Suddenly, his interest in Bunnyburrow and the warren made sense – as did how quick he’d been to shove her into boxes when they’d just met.

Not that she thought he was out to hustle anyone in the Tri-Burrows. She assumed (and assumed so correctly, though she did not know at the time) that it was partially instinct, partially a survival skill, and partially sheer interest developed over time.

As Jessica took a left turn, the road turned from pavement to gravel. “Right!” she cheerfully said, as they drove past rows and rows of wheat and corn. “We’ll be there in a moment. Missus Graysnout said she’d set you up with a local real estate agent, she’s waiting for you at Burrower’s Corner. You know the way, right, Judy?”

“We’ll figure it out,” said Judy, who did not know the way.

“Great! I’ll drop you off at Gideon’s bakery, you guys can check out the village before you go to the Corner, and I’ll enjoy some delicious pies. Win-win!”

Judy blinked, then leaned forward in her seat and grabbed the back of Jessica’s headrest as she asked, “Gideon’s bakery is here?

“Yeah,” said Jessica, trying – and failing – to turn her head to look at her. “Gideon lives in Whiteside. Didn’t you know?”

“No,” said Judy, nose twitching in surprise. “No, I did not.”

“Either way. We’re here, now!” Jessica parked the car by the side of the street. “Out you go! Into tastebud heaven, I go.”

Before Judy had the time to unbuckle her seatbelt, Nick had sprung from the car, rushed around to her side, and gallantly opened her door. She snorted and shook her head. “Charmer,” she teased.

His wagging tail gave him away. “I live to serve.”

She stepped out, accepting his assisting paw as she retrieved her crutches from the backseat. Offering him a genuine smile as he shut the door, she began to hobble along the street. “So, this is Whiteside,” she cheerily said. “Small, local, surprisingly warm to outsiders.”

Nick nodded, looking about with careful, analyzing eyes.

The streets were cobblestone, rather than pavement. Lining them were one- and two-floor houses with mostly clay walls and straw roofs, though in some instances switched out with brick or tiles. There was a decided note of age about the place, though not in a bad way: just one that spoke of charm.

Judy, who had been to Whiteside only three times before, showed Nick what she knew. It included a surprisingly large marketplace full of diverse wares – a pretty cherry blossom tree covering the village well in the center of it – the local grocery store, the Sherriff deputy’s office, and the town hall. They made sure to take note of what other stores existed: some clothing, an arts-and-crafts, a smattering of cafes, a bookstore, and the like. Nothing overly big or fancy, but enough to feel like a homely place.

It was while exploring a path behind the town hall they stumbled upon Burrower’s Corner: a niche, cozy little place nestled into the hills. Three buildings were visible at first glance, wooden walls and straw-tiled roofs peeking out from the rock and dirt. Small, round windows were set in the walls, and porches in both wood and brick were laid out before the front doors. Lush bushes and trees littered the area both above and between the dwellings, and in-between them, on the flat ground, was an open area with a small well in its centre.

Judy’s heart practically grew three sizes at seeing it, her ears draping down her back in her gentle shock. “Oh,” she said softly. “Oh.”

“My goodness, Judy, is that you?”

Judy turned towards the voice, finding the speaker – wearing a pink flannel shirt, denim shorts and a straw hat – pushing away from a barrel in surprise. Recognizing her immediately, Judy exclaimed, “Sharla?”

“I’ll be darned! It is you!” Sharla crossed over to her, a merry grin on her muzzle. “Never thought I’d see you again after you moved away for college!”

Handing her crutches over to a mildly amused Nick, Judy hobbled over to her childhood friend and wrapped her into a hug. A familiar scent tickled her nose, though, and she drew back, the realization rattling her to the very bone. “You’re Gideon Grey’s wife!?”

She chuckled, tipping her hat back from her eyes. “Aye, that I am.” Throwing Nick a sly look, she raised an eyebrow. “Though it doesn’t look like that’s much of a problem. You gotta be the interspecies couple Missus Graysnoute mentioned. Y’all here to look at a place to live?”

Quickly gathering her wits – if Sharla didn’t want to spend too long talking about it, then Judy wouldn’t, either – Judy nodded. “That’s the plan!” Her ears heating slightly, she added, “I figured the kits would be better off in a small, inclusive place than the big city.”

A moment, then Sharla’s eyes widened. Her gaze dropped to Judy’s abdomen – there was a noticeable bump there by now, if you knew what to look for – before quickly fastening back on her face. “That’s gotta be the wildest thing I ever heard.” Sharla broke into a beam. “Judith Laverne Hopps, settlin’ down in Whiteside of all places – pregnant. An’ don’t tell me, they’re with the fox, aren’t they?” Seeing Judy’s blush, she chuckled and shook her head. “That’s Judy for you, challengin’ all the odds an’ comin’ out on the winnin’ side. You never change.”

Turning to Nick, Sharla held out a hoof. “Sharla Grey, a friend of Judy’s. Known her since childhood – she’s my biggest hero and inspiration, an’s been so since the Gideon incident.”

Judy’s protests at the words hero and inspiration were completely ignored by both ewe and tod as they shook hoof and paw. “Nick Wilde,” said Nick. “Judy’s mate and boyfriend.”

That made Judy’s protests shut up with a quiet squeak. Mate and boyfriend and mate and boyfriend – warm as though she’d soaked in the sun the whole day, Judy put a paw to her chest and smiled so widely her cheeks would hurt for several minutes afterwards.

“Well! Y’all wanted to have a look at the burrow? Come on then, an’ remember to wipe your paws, we just cleaned the floors!” The last part was yelled over her shoulder as she set a brisk pace towards the middle burrow.

Nick threw Judy an amused look, handing her crutches back. “I thought I was supposed to be the one who knew everyone.”

“Look at me,” said Judy. Nick did, raising an eyebrow. “I am the captain now.”

Groaning, Nick screwed his eyes shut and threw back his head. “Oh, Carrots, no,” he moaned, “how could you betray me like this?”

Judy happily made her way towards the burrow. “Come on, Nick! We’ve got a house to look at!”

Sharla waited for them by the door. “Welcome to Burrower’s Corner seventh,” she said jovially, pushing the door wide open. “The smallest of the burrows with only two floors and five bedrooms, this gem sits at a startin’ price of a hundred and fifty thousand dollars.” At their stricken looks, she hurried to add, “not because the burrow is lackin’, mind you, but the Graysnoutes are movin’ into the elderly homes in Bunnyburrow, an’ want the burrow to go to someone who needs it – not someone with money.”

Judy and Nick shared a wide-eyed, amazed look. One hundred and fifty thousand dollars? That was actually doable – even with them both lacking jobs, Judy was well aware of (and had already explained to Nick) that with the funds of the clan in place, they’d barely even need to take up loans to cover such a cost.

“The first floor,” Sharla began, stepping into the burrow and gesturing for them to do the same. Judy was immediately taken: the polished, dark wooden floors matched with the rounded clay walls were just to die for. “Here we have an open floor plan with an intended dinin’ and livin’ room at the left side, an’ a kitchen separated from the rest by a wall.” She guided them past mentioned wall and gestured at the kitchen, furnished with a rustic, round iron-cast oven and rich amounts of storage space.

“The space is open like so to allow heat from the oven to drift into the livin’ room,” Sharla explained. “In spring or autumn it might be too warm to light the fireplace, but too cold to not have any heatin’. For that purpose, puttin’ a kettle on to make some tea, coffee or hot chocolate is just perfect.”

She continued opening and displaying all the various shelves, drawers and cabinets the kitchen had to offer.

“While there of course is electricity in the house, the appliances that are here are meant for a more old-fashioned livin’ style,” said Sharla, gesturing at the wood-fired oven. “Which is not a challenge for the weak-willed, and not much for even the strong-willed, considerin’ our day an’ age. For that reason, the appliances are easy to move and replace, should that be what y’all want.”

Moving on to the downstairs, things became a bit more convoluted. “Now,” said Sharla, clapping her hooves together, “this burrow wasn’t made with large families in mind – I’m lookin’ at you, Judy – but with five, an’ possibly six, bedrooms, there is enough space for even a medium-sized rabbit family.”

“These two rooms are the largest ones. Only downside is that you have to cross through one to get to the other. The inner room could be a master bedroom, while the outer is a hobby room or somethin’ similar. The rest of the rooms are rather small…” And so it went on, through all the potential bedrooms, storage rooms, offices, libraries, and more.

At the end, Sharla gave the intrigued couple a knowing look and said, “I’ll be waitin’ outside. Y’all can take all the time you need to look about, discuss things, whatever y’all want.” She gave them a brief wave, then made her way up the stairs.

Judy already knew what she wanted. Holding her breath, she turned to Nick. “Well?” she asked slowly, worrying the handles of her crutches. “What do you think?”

“I think, if we have too many rooms, we could tear down some of these walls,” said Nick, gesturing at the walls separating the smallest rooms. “And if we don’t have enough, we could build some in either the master bedrooms – maybe move the hallway a bit, make space for more.” He shrugged. “The kits can always sleep in bunk beds until their teens, and we can take it from there.”

Judy gasped, ears shooting straight up. “You like it?”

“Like it?” Nick asked, surprised. “I thought we agreed to buy it when we heard the price! Of course I like it!” He started tallying his fingers as he continued. “It’s supportive of the kits, it’s close to Bunnyburrow without being overrun by one and the same species, it’s cheap, it’s underground, it’s pretty, it’s rustic, it’s local – I mean, come on, Carrots, it’s a far cry from Finnick’s van – not to mention, your apartment!”

Ignoring how he still thought her apartment was worse than Nick’s van, Judy hopefully said, “we’ll take it?”

“God, yes, we’ll take it!” Nick laughed in equal parts disbelief and relief. “Crickets, Fluff, I thought for sure we’d have to look at a few different places and settle for a cramped apartment in central Bunnyburrow!”

Judy threw her arms around his waist and pressed her face into his chest, letting out an excited squeal. “Yes, yes, yes! Ooh, amazing, Nick, I love you!”

She froze.

Hesitantly, she pried away from him, glancing up at his expression – hoping desperately she hadn’t overstepped.

Nick was watching her with warm eyes. “And I love you,” he said softly. “Judy. I promised you, in the hospital, I would support you in anything.” Catching her chin with his paw, he leaned down to kiss her. “I meant it.”

“Yeah,” Judy whispered. “Yes, okay. Okay.” She drew a deep, rattling breath. “It’s just a bit difficult to believe.”

“Well, believe it, honey-doe, ‘cuz it’s true.” He straightened with a grin. “Come on, let’s tell Sharla the good news.” On his way up the stairs, he added, as though an afterthought: “and don’t think I’m not waiting on an explanation for what the Gideon incident is. Sounds promising enough.”

“Sure thing, Slick,” said Judy. Her heart wasn’t in it, though. The Gideon incident still had her waking after nightmares, at times. She didn’t hold it against Gideon, not at all, but the feelings, memories and trauma was still there.

She was not looking forward to re-living it.

Hurrying up the stairs after Nick, she arrived just in time to hear him say, “so, where do we sign?”

*

Forty minutes and a lot of legalities later, the three of them found themselves seated at one of the local cafes, A Thousand Paws. Nick was onto his third blueberry muffin, content on enjoying his food while Judy and Sharla – with a cup of tea and a slice of brownie, respectively – caught up on what the other had been up to, the last few years.

“ – graduated top of my class – ”

“Of course.”

“ – and, as you said, you saw the rest on the news.” Judy smiled, raising her cup in a brief salute before taking a sip. “But I’ve monologued enough for today – the thing I’m wondering about is how on Earth you ended up with Gideon!”

Sharla chuckled a bit nervously. “It musta been about two years now – I heard he was openin’ his bakery out here an’ I figured there was no way that’d been done legally.” Turning to Nick, she hurried to add, “not because he’s a fox, because of his history.” Back to Judy. “So, inspired by you, I marched on over an’ decided to investigate.”

She shook her head, a small smile on her muzzle as she traced circles around her plate. “He still remembers what I wore. Pink flannel shirt tied up by the buttons, white headband and cotton skirt. Says it’s the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. I marched in there fully determined to kick his butt if I had to, but lo an’ behold! The violent bully had become a gentle, kind tod that stumbled over himself in his haste to apologize.” She laughed. “I was so shocked I asked him to come here an’ have a chat with me after work, an’ he said yes. We got married just last year… still go on dates here once a week.”

Nick, busy licking his fingers from blueberry juice, looked up. “Sounds like terrible business strategy.”

“Nah. In Whiteside we support the other locals, not oppose them. Our customers aren’t tourists, they’re the other shop owners – it’s not like in the big city, Nick.”

“Huh. Didn’t know that was possible,” said Nick, only half-joking.

Judy’s phone buzzed with a message. While checking the notification – and noting she’d gotten an email at the same time – it buzzed again.

Jess: Gideon’s takin me for a trip round the farms, I’ll be busy for another hour or so. I’ll txt when im done, y’all have fun, ok? Xoxo

Jess: ive got smthn to talk abt when we finish here

“Jessica says she’ll be busy for another hour or two,” Judy said, glancing up at Nick. “Sound good?” He nodded.

Judy: fine by us! See u later xxx

“On the topic of messages,” said Nick, who’d fished out his own phone and was scrolling with his thumb. “Doctor Griffin has time to meet with us this Wednesday.”

Opening her email to check the new one, Judy glanced up at him. “It’s Monday now, right? That sounds good! I’ll let mom know.” Reading the mail, her ears drooped a bit before perking back up. “And… wow, how lucky! The ZNN wants to have the interview on Thursday… think we can find somewhere to stay for two nights?”

“It’s Zootopia, Carrots,” said Nick drily. “You’ll find anything if you look hard enough.”

Sharla tilted her head. “The ZNN wants an interview?”

“Apparently they want to know the life of Judy Hopps,” Judy explained. “Ask some questions about me, some about the Bellwether case, a bit like that.”

“How fun! Are you going to be working, too? I wouldn’t peg you as someone to give up your dream that easily.”

Now Judy’s ears truly fell. “Well… no. I still want to be a cop, and I still want to make the world a better place, but… not in the city. At least not for now. I doubt it’d be safe for the kits, being hybrids, and all…”

A timid voice spoke up. “Ex – excuse me? I couldn’t help but overhear…”

They turned to face the newcomer: a timber wolf, small for his species, dark gray and spotted with brown. “Sure,” said Judy with a smile. “What can I do for you, sir?”

He managed a meek smile in return, then held out a paw. “Name’s Coleman, Coleman Moore. Are you really Judy Hopps?”

She shook his paw. “That’s me.”

His ears folded against his head as he gripped her paw tightly, leaning forward and harshly whispering, “you have to help me – my son’s gone missing.”

There was true desperation in his voice; Judy could smell it on him. Her nose twitched for the briefest of moments before she settled into the familiar cop-mode. “Sir, calm down. Have you registered him as a missing mammal yet?”

Coleman nodded frantically. “The Sherriff says he’s just ran away, but I know Rusty, he’d never do something like that – they’ve ransacked the forest and Old Dorian’s Cave and everything but there’s nothing, and I – I’m so scared for my baby…”

“Nick,” said Judy, holding out her free paw without looking away from Coleman. “Notepad.”

Coleman’s eyes lit up. “Oh, God bless you, please, I just want my son back…”

Her notebook landed in her paw. “Listen,” she said, covering his paw with her much smaller one. Keeping her tone light and gentle, she continued, “I’m not a cop anymore. I have no authority and no access.” When Coleman’s expression fell, she quickly jotted down her number on a free paper, tearing it out of the pad and handing it over. “But I will try my very best. Here’s my number. Send me a text so I can save yours, and I’ll get in contact with you.” She gave him a warm smile. “I will figure this out for you.”

He was welling up when he accepted the paper. “Oh, thank you,” he whispered, “thank you so much! I’ll text you right away, and then I’ll bother you no more!” Fishing up his phone, he quickly tapped the numbers in.

Judy glanced down at her own phone when it announced a message from an unknown number. “Yep, I got it. Wonderful, Mister Moore.”

“Please,” he said, “call me Cole.” His tone turned hopeful. “I’ll hear from you?”

“Absolutely.”

He rushed away, batting at his eyes.

Judy turned to find Sharla blinking in surprise and Nick with a dry grin. “Couldn’t keep it in, could you?” he teased. “Miss Goody-two-shoes.”

Judy rolled her eyes. “His son is missing, and the Sherriff is obviously not doing his job right.” She raised her chin, pounding a fist on the table. “I’ll help in whatever way I can.”

“Yes,” said Nick, and gave her a serious look. “Yes, we will.”

He reached over and put a paw over Judy’s, looking at her intently. Her nose twitched as her ears rose, flushing slightly at the intensity in her eyes. They said nothing: they need not.

“Right!” said Sharla loudly, and pushed aside her empty plate. “I think we’re done here. Do y’all – uh, do y’all wanna go look at the stables for rent, at farmer Dickinson’s? You did enjoy your birds when we were younger, Judy.”

“For sure!” said Judy, and smiled. “I wouldn’t mind riding again.”

Nick hesitantly followed them out the doors, excitedly saying, “you guys have birds?”

Judy and Sharla exchanged knowing, smug looks. In unison, they sighed, “city mammals.”