"Once more," Scoutmaster Greene said, the deer beaming at the assembled troop 608, "I have to commend you all for your efforts today. This bake sale is going to help a lot of mammals that need it." The scouts were all in attendance and in their scout uniforms as they stood in one of the currently unused classrooms at the New Dawn facility.
All of the scouts sported grins, including Darryl, whom Eli had come to learn tried to keep a neutral face, all in an effort to cultivate a cool and aloof attitude. The chinchilla spotted Eli looking at him, and stifled the grin.
"And," the scoutmaster continued, "Lyla and Eli both deserve special recognition today. Lyla, for coming up with the idea for the bake sale in the first place, and Eli for bringing in the largest contribution of baked goods I have ever seen." Eli and Lyla both looked happy for the praise, and also both sported a blush. It was just as the scoutmaster informed them that he was going to go assist the New Dawn volunteers with the setting up of the various stalls, that Eli noticed that Lyla was holding his hand in her hoof. The zebra let go just as Mike, who was riding atop Eli's head, cleared his throat.
"Alright, troop 608," the mouse said, "it's time we split up into groups of two to begin manning the booths. Ned, Ted," the black bear twins snapped to attention, having both been snickering about something, "you'll both be in charge of mammaling the booth by the east door."
"Can do!" The twins enjoyed speaking simultaneously quite a bit, as Eli had come to find.
"Chuck, Darryl," the cougar and chinchilla both nodded, "you two will be handling the table by the western door. And Darryl, you are in charge of making sure Chuck doesn't go sneaking any of the sweets."
"Got it," Darryl said with a smirk, while Chuck looked sheepish.
"I wasn't gunna," he complained, not meeting Mike's gaze.
"Right," Mike said, looking skeptical, "Adam, Isaac, I'm assigning you two the northern door." Adam, the elephant, let out an excited trumpet from his trunk, while the coyote across from him let out a sigh.
"I still say that the play would have been more fun," Isaac said.
"Maybe, but this is for charity, plus, you can always re-submit the idea at our next meeting for consideration." That bit of news seemed to perk the coyote boy right up, and his tail became a happy blur. Mike rolled his eyes as he saw Kimi and Lyla shooting each other dirty looks on either side of Eli, just outside of his line of sight.
"Kimi, Lyla, you two will take the booth at the southern entrance," Mike said, trying not to take too much satisfaction from the dual shocked expressions of the two girls' faces. He had already decided on pairing them up a while ago, as the silent competition between them had gotten quite old, fairly quickly, at least to the mouse. He had also decided to have them working at the booth that Scoutmaster Greene was going to be at the most, to keep them from escalating things.
"And Eli, you'll be with me. We're gunna be checking on all of the booths, and of course helping out wherever we can. Understood?" Mike bent low over Eli's head just as the human boy looked up, the two making eye contact.
"Yes, Troop Leader!" Eli said, excitedly.
"Alright then, Troop 608, move out!" Mike called out, receiving a chorus of "Yes, Troop Leader". He kept and eye on Lyla and Kimi, the zebra and the white tigress wearing clearly fake smiles as they made their way to the southern booth. He shook his head before directing Eli over to where their parents were. Ned and Ted were already in place nearby, with Mike pointing out that Ted was working the cash box, and that Ned was standing behind the booth, awaiting customers. Once more, Eli wondered how Mike could tell the difference between the twins. Nick and Judy, both off duty and dressed casually, were directing various cousins and siblings of Judy, each carrying in trays of different kinds of baked goods.
"The mouse-sized cookies will be closest to the front, with elephant-sized ones in the back, and all of the other sizes in between following that pattern." Judy's voice floated over to the two friends as they approached. The other bunnies nodded towards Judy, and started to head towards the nearest booth, with Mike's parents just before it, meeting and greeting the smaller mammals that were entering. One of Judy's ears twitched in Eli and Mike's direction, and she turned. Her face lit up at the sight of her kit, and so the bunny officer bounded over, giving Eli's shins a warm embrace.
"This is such a wonderful thing you kids are doing," she said, "I'm so proud of you."
Eli blushed and leaned down to return the hug. "Thanks, Mom."
"Careful, Fluff, you hug any tighter and you start to cut off the circulation to his legs," Nick joked as he approached, reaching over to give his kit a hug as well.
"Oh hush," Judy said, letting go.
"Yes, dear," Nick said. He looked around, seeing the scouts setting up their booths, stopping to assist the volunteers of New Dawn, and smiled. For him, something like this had been the dream of a young kit. The fox felt a swell of pride and joy to know that, while he may have missed out, his own kit wasn't. He then noticed his mate looking at him, her ears drooping in worry.
"You okay, Nick?" she asked, taking a step towards him. Nick nodded, before scooping his bunny into his arms. She let out a short squeak of surprise, cut off as their lips met. Eli looked away, simultaneously happy that his parents loved each other, and him, so very much, as well as uncomfortable watching them kiss.
"Well, it was nice to see you again, Mr. and Mrs. Hopps, but Eli and I really need to make the rounds," Mike said, Eli feeling a couple little tugs on some of his hair. Judy, still in Nick's arms, broke off the kiss.
"Alright you two, we'll be right here, helping get everything ready," Judy said, having to take a moment to catch her breath.
"Now, why did he assume that I took your last name?" the two boys heard, just as they made their way towards the southern door, per Mike's directions. As they walked, different bunnies would call out to Eli to say hello, and usually give him a hug, provided that their arms weren't full of baked goods. After the thirtieth cousin, Mike was more than a little amazed that Eli knew all of their names so far.
"Your family is really close," Mike observed as he directed Eli towards the southern booth, wanting to check in on Kimi and Lyla.
"Y-Yeah," Eli said with a smile, "your mom and dad seem really enthusiastic." Eli recalled the two dropping Mike off, both hugging him and embarrassing the mouse boy by making sure his scout uniform wasn't wrinkled, before they excitedly ran off to begin helping.
"Oh yeah," Mike said, enjoying the view from atop Eli's head, "they are at that. Any after-school activity that I'm a part of or show any interest in, they like to encourage. Partly, I think, because it'll look good for college, and partly because they want to make sure I have a lot of fun. A lot of mice are picked on by larger mammals in school, and I think my folks both went through that when they were growing up." Eli thought about this as a certain tigress and zebra came into view, both setting up the displays for the baked goods, while each resting a paw, and hoof, on the money box.
"Hi, Eli," Kimi purred, her tail swishing.
"Uhm, h-hi again, Kimi," Eli said as he approached.
"How're things here?" Mike asked.
"Just fine," Lyla said after setting a basket of chocolate muffins down, "we're almost ready for Kimi start taking orders while I run the cash box."
Kimi let out another pur. "That's very nice of you, Lyla, but you can be the one who takes the customers' orders, and I'll take care of the cash box." Kimi's voice was sickeningly sweet.
"Oh no," Lyla said, mimicking the tigress' voice, "I insist."
"Actually," the Scoutmaster said, stepping in as Kimi was about to retort, effectively silencing the two, "I'm expecting that this booth will get the most foot traffic, so it's gunna have to be all hooves on deck. I'll mammal the cash box while you two both take orders."
The two girls looked at each other before looking away.
"Yes sir, Scoutmaster Greene." They both looked miffed at speaking simultaneously, but said nothing further. The deer gave Eli and Mike a wink before sending them on their way.
"Wh-where to next, Troop Leader?" Eli asked.
"The western booth next, we gotta make sure that Darryl is keeping Chuck out of the sweets," Mike said. Eli chuckled and the two started to make their way there.
"So a troop of Ranger Scouts just up and decided to organize a bake sale for your favorite charity," Chaz said, looking over at Arnie with crossed arms, "the very same troop that Officers Hopps and Wilde's son just so happened to be in, and you expect me to believe that a certain rhinoceros partner of mine had absolutely nothing to do with it?"
Arnie looked around his horn at the timber wolf, and let out a snort.
"I didn't, Chaz," he said with a sigh. The two were in uniform as they pulled up in front of the New Dawn facility, Arnie wanting to stop by and check out the bake sale, as well as check in on the place in general.
"Uh-huh," Chaz said skeptically, getting out of the cruiser as Arnie put it in park.
"I honestly had nothing to do with this!" Arnie was starting to get annoyed. He was happy about the bake sale, and all of the attention and the funding that it was going to garner for New Dawn. He was simply annoyed that his partner had decided not to believe him.
"Oh, puh-lease," Chaz said, sporting a smirk as he needled his partner and friend, "you push this place harder than most drug dealers we bust push their own product."
Arnie rolled his eyes. "I do not. When it does come up in conversation, organically, I only bring it up because this is a wonderful organization dedicated to helping our fellow mammals."
Now it was Chaz's turn for an eye roll, but Arnie spotted the tail wagging and chuckled.
"Have you ever thought of getting your Aunt Phyllis and maybe Baily involved in this place? I'm sure that a lot of these mammals would appreciate a free paw or hoof reading." Chaz continued to smirk. "Or maybe they could pass around some free crystals imbued with luck energy or something."
"That's not even funny," Arnie said, stopping to regard his partner.
"It's a little funny," was Chaz's reply.
"No, it isn't, and you'd better not mention luck crystals around her, or else you will be treated to a lecture on the different types of crystals and the different types of energies that can be housed in them for over an hour." Arnie walked past the wolf.
"Over an hour?" Chaz questioned as he followed his partner inside.
"There are quite a few mammals already inside and out," Edwin said as he looked out the rear van windows with a pair of binoculars, watching the New Dawn facility. He was currently dressed in an old faded and worn green military jacket. He had on a fake black beard, with a ragged black toupe.
"It'll make for the perfect cover," Honey said. Today, she had on a black beanie, with a navy blue windbreaker, and a pair of ripped and torn jeans.
"But what if someone sees?" Edwin asked, worried about them being caught just before they could grab the specimen.
"Oh, don't worry, they'll all be looking in the exact opposite direction," the badger said. She grinned, and the armadillo felt a chill rush down his spine. "You just wait five minutes after you see me enter, and start up the van. Keep the back doors unlocked and the engine running."
"U-Understood," Edwin said to his partner. He was starting to feel a similar feeling on the day he had shot the creature with the Nighthowler pellet. He couldn't quite place it, especially as his left eye began to twitch, but it was a very unsettling feeling.
Honey grunted as she opened the back doors, pushing the trolley cart with her. On it was a series of, very apparently, hastily made cakes and cupcakes, some burnt and slathered with icing, others uneven, and others still falling apart as they jostled. She then reached down and unzipped a black bag in the back of the van, pulling out the tranq pistol, and tucking it into a pocket inside her jacket. And with that, she was off. Edwin watched her go, and for the oddest reason, thought of his siblings. Mainly Charlie, as he was the only one who was still on speaking terms with him, or at least had been.
The inside of the New Dawn building was a hive of activity. With all of the booths set up and the bake sale underway, there was a festive atmosphere all around. Eli and Mike continued to drift from booth to booth, offering help to anyone who needed it. As they did their rounds, the two started to drift over to the northern entrance where a small crowd was gathering. Eli smiled as he saw both sets of his grandparents, and started to quicken his pace. They were standing next to two additional sets of tables that had been set up at the northern entrance. On one were cakes and cookies and pies expertly stacked taller than a giraffe standing right next to it.
On the other was a massive cake easily as big as the table itself that was a work of art. It was in the shape of a castle, complete with a chocolate moat and a working cookie drawbridge with black licorice chains. It was iced a bright lavender for the walls, white for the crenelations up top, deep blue for the tops of the towers, with green icing made to look like individual blades of grass with multicolored icing roses surrounding it. Overhanging the moat were two identical and perfectly sculpted lion heads.
Eli slowed down as he came within earshot of his two grandpas, who were discussing something.
"I thought that you said that you were going to talk to your wife, Stewart," Robert said, frowning at the bunny farmer around his glasses. Stu thumped his foot as he looked the arctic fox up and down.
"I did, and it's the reason why we didn't need to rent an elephant-sized eighteen wheeler to deliver everything!" Stu said.
"No, you just needed to rent out an old school bus," Robert said.
"Well, what about you? You said that you were gunna talk your mate down!"
"I did! If it wasn't for me, she would have incorporated a chocolate fountain to make chocolate and vanilla waterfalls streaming out of the carved lion heads!" Robert said, noticing Eli approach, his glasses allowing him to spy the little mouse on his head.
"Oh, hi there, sport," Robert said, putting on a nervous smile. Stu hopped in the air and turned around, looking up at his grandkit also with a nervous smile. "Hiya, Eli!"
"Hi, grandpas," Eli said, not once looking away from the cake castle which, even if it hadn't been on the table, was still easily taller than he was.
"There's our grandkit!" Marian's voice brought Eli out of his amazement as he turned to regard his grandmas. "And it would seem that he's already spotted something he likes, perhaps even something he likes the best."
Bonnie regarded the vixen with a wry smile. "Or maybe he spotted something so gaudy that he couldn't help but look at it? Something other than a tried and true classic cake, or pie, or batch of cookies."
"Mom," Judy's voice cut through the tension like a knife as she strode forward, Nick trailing behind her and looking up at the tower of sweets and then at the castle in awe.
"Oh wow, you both really outdid yourselves this time," Nick said.
"Nick, you're not helping," Judy hissed before turning to regard her mother and Marian, her foot starting to thump in annoyance. The two older females started to look embarrassed under Judy's gaze.
"I'm nipping this competition in the bud, right here and now. This is a bake sale, not a bake-off. This is for charity, not trying to show anyone else up, okay?"
Bonnie looked abashed, as did Marian.
"We're sorry, Judy," the vixen said, wringing her paws.
"I guess we just let our competitiveness get the better of us," Bonnie finished, a little annoyed at the collective nodding coming from the many assembled bunnies, some of whom she heard muttering in agreement.
"That's okay," Nick chimed in, slipping a paw around Judy's waist in order to pull her in closer for a hug, "a little competition can be a good thing from time to time." There was a general nod to that statement.
"Besides, seeing what you two are capable of competing against one another, just imagine if you two ever worked together on a project like this," Nick joked, his ears laying flat at the collective gasp from all of the bunnies.
"Hmm," Marian sais, a sly smirk on her muzzle, while Bonnie seemed to be considering what was said as well.
"My little Nicky certainly makes a good point, Bonnie, with my love of design and your baking legions."
"We could absolutely crush all of our competition," the matronly bunny said, Marian nodding happily as her tail wagged. Stu and Robert simultaneously let out a groan and clapped their paws to their faces.
"Good goin', son," Robert said to the surprised Nick, "you just went and opened a very dangerous door."
Everyone was surprised by Eli bursting into laughter just then, Mike joining in.
Near the northern entrance...
And in place, Honey thought as she unloaded the messy baked good onto the table, watching the human boy sharing a laugh with those present. She felt inside her jacket and fingered the tranq gun, one paw resting on the handle of the trolley.
Now to wait for the distraction...