Judy eyed the venue warily. "If you quote Gazelle about 'trying everything', I'll kick the snark out of you."
Nick smirked but kept his peace as they entered the old Opera house. The marquee overhead advertised, "Differences United: Diversity Exposition and Auction".
She kept silent for all of ten seconds. "Okay so yes, I did agree to try this and yes, you agreed to come along so I wouldn't feel totally out of place, but that doesn't mean you can lord it over me."
The prolonged silence deepened and she itched to fill it. "I could just as well have said no and gone to see Rabert Plant, you know."
Nick nodded sagely but remained quiet.
Judy growled. "Damnit Nick, say something!"
"You threatened to 'kick the snark out of me' if I did; well what else would be left of me then?" He passed his tickets to the door mammal as they entered the foyer where a small acapella ensemble used their natural animal vocalizations to give a haunting, but strangely compelling, background tune to the somber event.
Judy huffed. "A head-on with a commuter bus couldn't knock all the snark out of you." She saw Nick begin puffing up. "Though fitness quals are coming up, so I might just give it the old 'College Try' in the ring."
The back-and-forth bicker banter continued in subdued tones as they moved further into the exhibit. Nick paused alongside several other canids, and several suidae and bears to admire an 'olfactory sculpture'. Judy listened as the various mammals commented on the subtle differences in smell from different angles due to the several types of wood used in the sculpture. Nick waited patiently as Judy and several other leporidae, and an elephant couple stood inside a glass enclosure, just listening to their heartbeats reflected. They both paused and tried not to stare at the squirrel poetry slam that was too fast for either to understand.
All throughout the old performance hall were exhibits of species' unique expressions through art. While most of the demonstrations were solemn, reflective affairs, there were a few less formal displays that mammals could participate in. Judy and Nick were passing one of these, a complicated set that allowed brave mammals to enter, cover themselves in watercolor paint of their choosing, and shake it off on a mounted canvas. The newly christened artists signed their work and left with the canvas as a souvenir of their foray into the art world.
This was where they finally managed to meet up with Abby and John.
Abby was in a pair of old work overalls that were splashed in a technicolor riot and tank-top, holding one such canvas. Beside her was John Thimbul in a simple blazer and slacks.
"Nicky! Judy! Check it out." She held up her artwork for them to see, a mad splattering of fluorescents and pastels exactly matching the rainbow palette on her person. "A masterpiece, don't you think? How much do you think this'll be worth in twenty years?"
"If you really intend to keep that long term," John said seriously, "you'll want to hit it with a layer of UV protective clear-coat; otherwise, it'll fade within five."
"Well, I think I'll do that, because this is going up in my living room." Abby gave an obnoxious grin and motioned at the two detectives. "Gonna flex your artistic muscles in there too? It's fun."
Judy just shook her head while smiling. "Not really my speed. I prefer performance art, really."
"Yes," Nick sidled up beside her, "her dramatic scenes are to die for." He happily weathered the toe kick to his shin without losing the smirk.
Judy gave an overly dramatic, long-suffering sigh before looking at John. "Mister Thimbul, it's good to see you outside of a legal setting. How have you been holding up?"
John grimaced. "Getting by. I've sold off most of my original work, plus Dolly's old studio and gallery so I'm not in any financial straits. I was having trouble finding my creative spark again for the longest while." He perked up and smiled at the three ZPD officials. "But that was until last week. If you'll all follow me?"
They all made their way to the Symphony Pit to find several works on display by several artists, all tagged for the charity auction.
"I realized I was trying to recreate the same feeling as my old style, but I'm not that style anymore." They wove through sculptures, paintings, blown glass work and pottery. "It still informs my style, but I can't be tied to it. That's what Dolly was trying to do, and I think it helped drive her a little more over the edge than she was already. My style is my life, and my life is my style. Both have to evolve with time."
They came to stop in front of a piece that was clearly in John's painting style, but not the same grotesque subject matter. There weren't even any mammals in the painting at all. The focus of the piece instead was a scene they were all intimately familiar with by now: Dolly's abattoir in the Canals. The sharp lines of the desiccated shack met the suffocating greens surrounding it, the locust trees overhead bright and blooming. The windows were painted dark with reds that might have been reflections of the overhead sunset, but for the subtle drips and black tendrils curling from the sills. A small plaque on the bottom of the frame read Fertile Ground, and a blacklight shined on it from overhead to allow all mammals to see the Volish message written in an almost oozing script below the foundation.
"Roots fed with blood will always bear bitter harvests, but from the darkest soil come the sweetest fruits," Nick translated for Judy.
The piece was simultaneously haunting and beautiful, possessing peace and sinister promise in equal measures.
Judy stared for a moment, eyes drinking in every little detail. "It's... it's... what's the minimum bid?"
Nick's jaw dropped. "Are you serious?"
She waved her paw at him. "It's for a good cause, isn't it? Besides…" She looked it over again. "How can I not? It speaks to me."
Nick gaped a second longer when John gave the opening bid. "This may be a good cause and all but-" his tail puffed up in alarm as Judy casually pulled out a checkbook and began writing. "No way Hopps; we're on the same pay-scale and I know I couldn't afford that!"
"Mom and Dad would consider it a worthwhile investment." She swung her gaze to John's hopeful face. "And so do I. An original work of art making the world a better place? Everybody wins!"
John took the check and placed it in a nearby lockbox. "Thank you, Officer Hopps."
He smiled. "Judy. You know, it's hard to take the first step toward something unknown, even when it's away from something that's been awful for so long. You tend to stick with the monsters that you know rather than face the new, because what if it will be worse? Dolly reinforced that so often I really believed it. Thank you, all of you… for being the ones to prove her wrong."
John sighed as he looked at the painting. "That, I think, was a part of Dolly's problem; she was in the business for the money, not for art's sake. Art is passion and pain and triumph and sorrow and everything we feel but can't just describe until it bursts out in song, or dance, or onto the canvas." He looked back at Judy. "You and I weren't speaking the same language before; I didn't know the words, and you weren't ready to listen. But now..." He smiled and looked out over the milling crowds that, only a month earlier, would have sent him scurrying for the safety of his studio. "Now we're all on the same page."
"And speaking of pages," Abby said with a nod up at the mezzanine above, "the demo for boaragami is about to start. Any interest or am I broadening my mind all on my own?"
"I'm game, since it's about all I can possibly afford here," Nick said. "Maybe I can get a little folded bunny for my desktop?"
Judy smirked. "It'll get lonely without a friend, so I guess I'll have to whip one up for it."
"Ohhh, Hopps doing something with paper that isn't crumpling it into an angry little ball and throwing it at Nick, or scrawling all over it?" Abby grinned wide. "This I've gotta see."
Nick swept his paws out. "Even more culture awaits. Lead the way, Ms. Scutto."
The technicolor bunny skipped ahead, earrings jingling cheerfully a melody all their own as she led the troop of mammals through the gallery of all the different expressions life could take. Friendships bolstered, new ones formed through appreciation of what each had to offer to the world, to the many mammals searching for something to give their own voices volume, or simply to see through eyes that were not their own.