Dinner at the Crab Shanty had been a dream come true.
After getting Huffer and Fürlong to agree to appear as “expert witnesses” for the “conference” then making a brief appearance at Bogo's press conference in the main lobby of the police station, Nick and Judy had hurried home to change and get ready for dinner. Nick, once again wearing his tuxedo and James Bone persona had arranged for a private booth for them. An overly generous tip beforehand also guaranteed their waitress would look the other way at anything she happened to see while waiting on them.
After a delicious dinner and several glasses of wine, soft music, and candlelight, Judy was ready to drift away on cloud nine she was so happy. But then Nick did the completely unexpected. Pulling out a small ring box he knelt on one knee and asked her to marry him. For a moment she was stunned into utter silence. Then she burst into tears saying yes, yes, yes, a hundred times over as he slipped the ring on her. She held on to him, her whole body shaking like a leaf from the intensity of her emotions. They kissed and cried, then kissed and cried some more. If the waitress noticed anything, Judy was too happy to care.
That morning she found herself humming and singing in the shower, stopped herself and grinned at her reflection in the glass door when she noticed, then promptly forgot and went right back to singing and humming again. She knew she still had to confront her parents about it, but knowing Nick's mother would be alright with it gave her the confidence they would come around too.
She dried off then pulled out the black pantsuit Nick urged her to wear. It wasn't a police uniform but despite a ruffled blouse under the jacket it had an official look and feel to it. She flipped open her detectives badge and slid the back cover into her left breast pocket so the shiny badge was displayed for all the world to see. She skipped down the hall to the elevator and rode up to his floor. He heard her coming of course, and opened his door just as she got there.
She whistled in appreciation. He was wearing a black suit, white shirt, and red rep tie. His badge, like hers, was hanging from the left breast pocket of his jacket. “Pretty slick, Nick,” she said approvingly.
“You're looking pretty good too, angel face,” he returned, kissing her as she came in. “Beautiful in fact.”
After breakfast she took off her engagement ring, slipping it into her pocket. They'd decided she shouldn't wear it in public just yet, but she wasn't about to leave it behind either. “This ring goes everywhere with me,” she told him fiercely.
“That's my girl,” he smiled.
In the elevator he handed her a copy of the morning newspaper. Yesterday's press conference to announce today's meeting with Gazelle was page one news above the fold. GAZELLE HOLDS KEY TO STREET RACERS, the headline screamed. There was a huge picture of Bogo at the podium, then two smaller pictures, one of her at the podium and one of Nick. The sub-heading said, “Race track for cars needs huge piece of land owned by pop star Gazelle.” The article took up half of page one, all of page two, all of page three, and most of page four. The sheer size of the race track seemed to hold almost as much interest for them as the problem it was intended to solve.
“Wow,” she exclaimed, flipping through it as she absently followed him to the car. “They really went all out didn't they?”
“That's nothing,” he laughed as they got in. “The news is running it 24/7 on every channel; the talking heads are going non-stop, and social media posts are off the charts – and climbing.” He gave her an off-hand salute as he pulled out of the garage. “All because of you, sweetheart.”
“This was your idea, Fluff. You get all the credit,” he smirked.
“Uh, not all of it,” she objected impishly. “Listen to this: Officer, now Detective, Judy Hopps and her partner, Detective Nick Wilde, who were so instrumental in solving the savage mammal case several months ago, both admitted the original concept for the gargantuan race track was Wilde's idea. 'I like to think big,' ZPD's newest detective told us.” She peered at him over the top of the paper. “I think some of the credit goes to you, Mister Wilde.”
“That's 'Detective Wilde' to you, sweetheart,” he said in his best Humphrey Boggy imitation.
He parked the car and they headed up to the main floor. They didn't recognize most of the weekend shift, and it was a bit unsettling for Judy to see someone else at what she thought of as Clawhauser's desk. Then Clawhauser came bustling down the stairs, confusing her even more. “There you are,” he exclaimed. “Bogo told me to bring you up as soon as you got here.”
“What are you doing here on the weekend?” she asked him as he practically ran back up the stairs.
“Overtime,” he puffed. “Bogo doesn't want to pull anyone off the streets, but we need security for the meeting so he called a lot of us in. It's actually double time because it's such short notice, so there's going to be a lot of happy officers around here come next payday.”
They grinned at each other behind his back.
He led them to the second floor conference room instead of Bogo's office. Bogo was there, working the phones. Professors Huffer and Fürlong were already there, along with Officers Snarlof, Fangmeyer, and Rhinowitz. Mayor Lionheart was sitting at the head of the table along with Meredith, his sheep secretary and a couple of nameless functionaries from City Hall. He waved at them as they came in but continued dictating a letter or something to his secretary.
Judy looked around. “Where are Robert Padfoot and Linda Stepps? I thought they were coming too.”
Clawhauser nodded, trying to catch his breath. “Captain Tongas sent a car out to get them,” he wheezed. “They're on their way.”
Lionheart finished whatever he was doing with his secretary. She gathered her things and rushed out, followed by the two bureaucrats. The Mayor waved them over. “You two don't do things in a small way do you?” he began in his movie star voice. “Not that I object, mind you; actually I wish I had more like you on my campaign staff.” He waved it off. “But never mind that. Do you think you can get Gazelle to agree to this? Condemning her property just to get it for a race track is out of the question. My predecessor did that kind of thing and I ran against him by promising not to.”
“Mayor Bogo and the railroad through old McDonald's farm,” Nick interjected smartly.
Lionheart blinked. Ever the consummate politician though, he recovered quickly. “Exactly! And I like to keep my campaign promises.”
The door opened just then and Robert and Linda were escorted in by one of the detectives. Nick said, “Excuse me Mister Mayor,” and hurried over to greet them, leaving Judy and Lionheart alone.
“Yes, Detective Hopps?”
Judy bit her lip. “I just want you to know, Nick and I don't care about politics. We really don't. And whatever is between you and Chief Bogo is none of our business. We like both of you. All we really want is to protect Zootopia and keep everyone safe.”
He stared at her thoughtfully for a moment. “I admire your honesty and passion, Hopps. But the way you and Wilde are going, you'd better start caring about politics, because it's going to start caring about you. Not everyone on the City Council likes this idea – and they know your names,” he added warningly. “And . . . they're not all as forgiving as I am. A word to the wise, eh?” He walked away to talk to Bogo before she could think of an answer.
Nick was waving at her and she hurried over. Lawrence and Shelly had joined him, carefully, to greet Robert and Linda, aware of the crowded room. The six of them formed a little rump group away from the growing crowd of big wigs around the conference table.
Bogo finally rapped on the table and called for order then nodded at Lionheart.
“We all know why we're here,” the Mayor began. “These street racers are becoming a serious problem, and from what Dr's Huffer and Fürlong tell me it's going to get worse and other mammals may start exhibiting similar behavior in other fields.” Lawrence and Shelly nodded timidly at the assembled crowd of dignitaries. “But the only way to solve it is one problem at a time,” he emphasized, glaring sternly at some of the council members at the table. “Therefore officers Hopps and Wilde have come up with a possible solution for the street racers; this race track idea that's in the news. For that we need Gazelle's cooperation, so they're taking Huffer and Fürlong with them to a meeting with her, as well as some local citizens who live in that area,” he added, indicating a nervous Robert and Linda, “to try persuading her to let the city use her land.”
An elderly pig with heavy, horn rimmed glasses perched on his nose, wearing a rumpled tweed suit, peered over the top of them. “And if they can't?” he asked in a quarrelsome voice.
Lionheart sighed in exasperation “One thing at a time, Elmer, one thing at a time.”
“That's Councilman Fudge, to you youngster,” Elmer snapped.
“We're not in chambers!” Lionheart roared angrily.
“Oh dear me, how right you are,” Elmer pretended. “My mistake,” he said with false humility and an even falser smile.
Lionheart gritted his teeth. He looked at the clock over the door. “It's time to head over to the Horn Spire building so our emissaries,” he indicated the six of them with a sweep of his paw, “can get to work and hopefully come to an arrangement with Gazelle.”
Everyone trooped out of the room heading for the garage. Nick gave Robert a police jacket. “Wear this until we get inside the building,” he said quietly. “Anyone who sees you will think you're just another cop.” He nodded and slipped it on.
They got into a police van along with several officers, while more officers piled into two other vans, one in front and the other behind them. Fangmeyer was one of the cops in their van. “Bogo is going to be paying a lot of double time on this one,” Nick told him with a grin.
“And I ain't complaining one bit,” Fangmeyer laughed. “I got bills to pay.” The other cops in the van added their agreement
The drive to the Horn Spire building took less than five minutes. When the back door of the van opened the sound of the crowd told them it was huge. When Judy climbed out she saw more mammals than she would have imagined. It looked like a larger crowd than Gazelle's last concert. Pressed up against the barricades she saw Flash and some of the street racers, grinning like baboons, giving them a frantic thumbs up.
Flashbulbs went off everywhere as they emerged from the van. Judy was thankful she'd listened to Nick and worn sunglasses like his as the flashbulbs went off like chain lightening. Lawrence and Shelly blinked and had to shield their eyes to keep from being blinded. Robert, playing the part of a cop with his own cop glasses, helped Linda out of the van as she shielded her own eyes. Cops from all three vans swarmed around them, providing a protective barrier three rows deep as they moved toward the main entrance.
They made it safely inside, down a corridor then through a door to the private elevator that would take them to Gazelle and Tyrone's home on the upper floors. Bogo crowded into the elevator with the three couples. “Give me those,” he told Robert as the car started up. Robert dutifully took off his police jacket and sunglasses.
As the elevator neared the top Bogo looked around the group, sensing their nervousness. “I've known both of them for over twenty years,” he said gruffly, but not unkindly. “They're just mammals like everyone else. Treat 'em that way and you'll be fine.”
The elevator stopped and the doors opened. They found themselves facing a short hallway that ended at a plain set of double doors. Bogo marched up and banged on the door with a fist. “Open up in the name of the law you double crossing sidewinder!” he roared.
Before they could react the door popped open and Tyrone grabbed Bogo in a huge bear hug. “You remembered!” he crowed, pounding him on the back.
Bogo was hugging and pounding him too. “How could I forget,” he laughed. “You scared that poor little sheep out of a year's growth!”
“Nearly got suspended for it too,” Tyrone chuckled fondly.
Nick and Judy exchanged amused glances. “Therein lies a tale worth hearing,” Nick mused lightly. She giggled.
It broke up Bogo and Tyrone's reunion. Bogo turned around to them. “Everyone, may I present my former partner Tyrone Stripeson and his wife Gazelle.” Her lithe figure had been hidden behind the two bigger mammals but once she came into view she suddenly seemed larger than life.
Bogo did the introductions. “Detectives Judy Hopps and Nick Wilde.” They shook with each of them in turn. “Zootopia University Professors Dr. Lawrence Huffer and Dr. Shelly Fürlong.” They also shook. “Hoof & Claw Diner owners, who are also your country neighbors, Robert Padfoot and Linda Stepps.” They shook their paws nervously. Bogo took a step back. “Call me when you're done.”
Tyrone stopped him. “Whoa! You're not leaving are you?”
Bogo smiled a little sadly. “You know this isn't for me, Ty. It's for all of you.”
Tyrone paused then nodded. “Yeah.” He looked hard at him. “But don't be such a stranger from now on, partner. I mean it.”
“You got it partner.” Bogo turned and marched away.
Tyrone closed the door and for a moment they all stood silently, looking at each other awkwardly, wondering what to do, then Nick came to the rescue. “Well, as much as I've always wanted to stand around doing and saying nothing, I think we've 'been there, done that' by now. Any chance we can find a seat?”
It broke the tension of the moment and they all laughed. Judy grabbed his arm and impulsively kissed him on the cheek. “Now you can see why I said yes, when he asked me to marry him,” she said with forced gaiety. They broke into a stunned babble of congratulations and hugs and more shaking. Judy pulled out her engagement ring and put it back on, explaining she couldn't wear it in public.
The group pleasure in their announcement dimmed. Gazelle's eyes filled with tears. “Tyrone and I have been married nearly ten years and we can't tell anyone,” she sobbed quietly. All at once she was no longer a pop star in their eyes, but a female in pain. They gathered around as Tyrone hugged her, patting her back and murmuring it would be alright.
Eventually she recovered enough to lead them into a large living room. Couches and sofas were scattered about in a loose circle. They paired up and sat down, watching each other curiously.
“I've always wondered what we looked like together,” Linda said, looking around the circle, “but I never had the chance to see until now.”
“And?” Shelly prompted.
“We look pretty darned good!” she said firmly. Smiles answered her from around the room.
“Well, we're the ones who made a study of us,” Lawrence replied, pulling Shelly into his lap. “Would anyone like to know what we found?”
“Yes!” Gazelle practically shouted. “We didn't know there were any others until Bogo called us earlier this week. We thought we were the only freaks.”
“We're not freaks,” Shelly told her sharply, a bit of the school teacher coming to the fore. “We're rare, but not freaks.”
Gazelle and Tyrone nodded. “Explain away,” he said for both of them.
Lawrence proceeded to repeat most of what Nick and Judy already knew from reading their published paper. Then he added to it. “Mayor Lionheart's family is descended from Mars, one of the founding fathers of Zootopia. Mars kept a diary detailing his love affair with a zebra named Venus. According to his diary they were attracted to one another when they met at the watering hole during the signing of the New Beginning treaty, which of course is how we date everything. A few months later they were nearly killed by a forest fire that was started by lightning. Their love affair started soon afterwards, a love affair he wrote about in very detailed terms.”
“The Mayor told us he didn't want the diary becoming public,” Nick interjected. “He said it's pretty embarrassing.”
Shelly gave a nervous laugh. “Embarrassing isn't the word for it. It's as graphic as anything I've ever read. I'm not sure discretion was part of Mars' vocabulary.” She saw Gazelle and Tyrone's puzzled looks. “Lionheart's grandfather donated a copy to the University, on the condition that it would never be released to the public,” she hurried to explain.
They nodded in understanding.
“The only other historical predator-prey relationship we know of for sure was the pirate, Redmane the wolf and his sheep lover, Elvira Blackstone, around 1000 NB,” Lawrence continued. “They were simple villagers who'd been friends all their young lives until they fell into a pit full of poisonous snakes and had to work together to get out alive. They made it but when their family and friends found out about their love they tried to lynch them.”
Linda gasped in horror, shrinking back into Roberts arms. “Their own family tried to kill them because they loved each other?”
“I'm afraid so,” Lawrence nodded. “They managed to escape though and swore revenge on the villagers and all others like them. They went on to become the most notorious pirates in history, raiding up and down the ocean lanes for five years before they were finally caught and executed. Their captured shipmates confirmed their relationship and how it started. The University has the original manuscripts in a helium-filled glass case in the vaults.”
“Why helium?” Tyrone asked curiously.
“The manuscripts are so old they're almost falling apart,” Shelly explained. “Since helium is an inert gas it doesn't react with anything and protects them from further decay.”
“Shelly and I have pretty much the same story as them,” Lawrence continued, “but without all the drama. We grew up in the Article Circle, in a village called Icing Dale. We were always friends, and as we got older we began to be attracted to each other until the day we were almost killed in an avalanche. We became lovers but very quickly realized we wouldn't be able to keep it a secret in such a small village. We moved to Zootopia and majored in anthropology as a means of researching what happened to us. Our final, joint paper on the subject of predator-prey relationships cemented our tenure as professors but for the most part has been ignored by the rest of the world.”
After that, one-by-one, each couple explained their own history to the others. When they were finished, Lawrence added, “Now you can see the same pattern we did; an initial attraction followed by a period of growing trust and closeness, then a violent life-and-death experience that tears down the final barriers between us and lets us fall in love.”
“Why does it have to be so extreme?” Robert wondered.
Lawrence shrugged his shoulders. “Well, predator-prey relationships are extreme. It'd take an extreme experience to break through our biological and cultural taboos against them, especially after the example of Hannibally.”
“The example of who?” Judy asked in confusion.
Shelly shook her head sadly. “What are they teaching in school these days?” Lawrence touched her shoulder gently. She sighed. “Okay, okay. Hannibally was an elephant, a general beyond compare, who marched his troops across the Alps in the dead of winter around 700 NB to conquer the city-states on the western side.” She looked around; seeing she had their attention, she went on:
“After Mars and Venus died there weren't any more confirmed stories of predator-prey relationships, but there were unconfirmed rumors by the score, enough that most historians think it's more common than most mammals believe. Hannibally was a great general because he was a purist. He focused on one thing and one thing only, victory in battle. Anything that interfered with that goal had to be destroyed. So, when he discovered two of his troops were in a predator-prey relationship he was so shocked, angry, and outraged he had both of them drawn and quartered. This drastic punishment must have been told and retold over the centuries because throughout the world there are stories, legends and fables about predator-prey couples being drawn and quartered after the example of Hannibally.”
Tyrone was frowning. “How come we've never heard this before?
Lawrence smiled paternalistically. “We're in the 'modern age' my young friend,” he said, making quote marks in the air. “Most of these stories have faded into the dustbin of history. They're not taught any more. No one but historians and a few lonely researchers even know about them these days.”
Robert raised his paw like he was in class.
Shelly smiled. “Yes?”
“You said historians think predator-prey relationships are more common than most mammals believe. How common?” he asked. Everyone perked up at his question.
“Ah! A real student,” Shelly sighed with delight. “By the time Redmane and Elvira were executed – for piracy by the way, not for their relationship – there seems to have been approximately six to ten couples every fifty years or so. Today . . .” she paused, “. . . I'd have to say it's probably about one couple for every 400,000 mammals. We're not sure, but it seems to be a good estimate.”
“That's impossible!” Gazelle exclaimed. “Tyrone and I have been together for nearly twenty years, married for almost ten, and we've never seen another couple until today!”
“And you were so out in the open about your relationship,” Linda quipped, the first thing she'd said in quite a while. Gazelle had the grace to be embarrassed, but Linda wasn't done. “I don't know about that example of Hannibally stuff, but I do know the moment mammals at work found out about Robert and I, we were fired on the spot. We've been keeping a low profile ever since. Who wouldn't?” she asked reasonably.
Shelly nodded her sympathy to Linda. “We kept out of sight for pretty much the same reason. In fact, if it weren't for Nick and Judy, we'd still be hiding in our ivory tower.”
Gazelle giggled unexpectedly. Everyone looked at her. “That's what Tyrone calls this place,” she explained. They all laughed.
“Linda and I wouldn't have come here if it weren't for Nick and Judy,” Robert added quietly. She snuggled tighter against his chest.
“I certainly wouldn't have let anyone come up if Bogo hadn't told me about them,” Tyrone added. He looked them over. “So, it looks like the two of you are responsible for all of us being here.”
“So what makes you two so different?” Gazelle quizzed them.
Nick and Judy exchanged a quick look. She indicated for him to answer it. “I don't know that we're necessarily any different per sé, but . . . we're cops. We follow the evidence and solve riddles, puzzles, cases, whatever you want to call it. It's what we do.” He looked to Tyrone, the only other cop in the room, for back up.
Tyrone frowned, thinking about it. Gazelle shifted in his arms, turning her head to look up at him. “Babe?”
“Yeah,” he said slowly, “but I never brought us all together like this.”
“Nick and I are both cops,” Judy pointed out. “Gazelle isn't, and you retired to be with her.”
“It was the right decision,” he defended himself. “But yeah, I see your point.”
“Judy and I also had the advantage of working a strange case right out of the starting gate,” Nick continued. “It forced us not only to work together, but to really put on our thinking caps, find answers outside of the box.”
“Then we got this street racing case just as we were falling in love,” Judy put in, seeing where he was going with this. “Then almost immediately after that we found the paper about predator-prey relationships and boom!, done deal.”
“We were the right mammals in the right place at the right time,” Nick concluded.
“It was like dominoes falling one after another, because they're all connected,” Judy argued, warming to her theme. “The meteor or asteroid strike theory explains so much; it explains how mammals could go from bored businessmen to maniac street racers who can't stop themselves, it explains how predator-prey relationships are even possible, it explains why the diets of predators and prey have overlapped to the point they're virtually indistinguishable, it even explains why the night howlers were able to affect mammals in a way no other drug ever has!”
“Whoa! Wait a minute there,” Tyrone sat up abruptly, dislodging Gazelle from her comfortable position. She squawked in protest. “Sorry, babe,” he told her apologetically. “What do you mean in a way no other drug has? Bogo and I worked Vice for three years. Drugs can make mammals do all kinds of crazy things, just like those night howlers.”
“But the effects always wear off,” Judy reminded him. “The night howlers were permanent until they came up with an antidote.”
There was a babble of confusion from around the room but Tyrone shouted them all down. “Hold it, hold it!” They subsided finally. He turned a grim eye on Judy. “I don't remember anything in the news about the night howlers being permanent.”
“Why did you think they needed an antidote?” Nick asked sarcastically.
“To help them get over the shakes or withdrawals or whatever,” Tyrone growled.
“Nope,” Judy shook her head. “If you don't believe us, call Bogo and ask him. We'll wait.”
He glared at them suspiciously then pulled out his phone and dialed quickly. A few minutes later he hung up in shocked disbelief. “He says it's true,” he told the others, who'd only heard his side of the conversation. “The night howlers are permanent without the antidote, but they didn't want to scare the public by coming right out and saying it.”
Shelly held up a timid paw. “Can I say something?”
He gestured helplessly. “Sure, why not?”
“The University was called in to interview the victims after they recovered. Lawrence and I were part of the team they sent,” she told them. “We discovered none of the victims could remember anything after being hit with the night howlers. They remembered the initial impact of being shot, then a rising sense of anger and rage, then after that – nothing, until they woke up in the hospital.”
“Nothing?” Robert shook his head. “Why not?”
“We don't know,” Lawrence added. “The University's medical team is still working on it, but so far they don't even know how the night howlers work, let alone where all the side effects come from.”
“That's not a very comforting thought,” Nick mused.
“No it isn't,” Lawrence agreed readily. “But it's what we're stuck with.”
“Which brings me back to the point I was trying to make before we got sidetracked,” Judy put in.
Tyrone shook his head. “Sorry, I don't even remember what you were saying.”
“About everything being connected to the meteor or asteroid strike theory,” she reminded him.
“Oh! Yeah, that,” he nodded. “Didn't mean to change the subject. Sorry. Go ahead,” he told her contritely.
She nodded her forgiveness. “That's alright.” She returned to her theme, “Since everything is connected it means the street racer problem isn't going to go away, and if Lawrence and Shelly's theory about modern technology giving us time to be bored is right, it means there's going to be more problems cropping up in the future.”
She paused to take a breath, then addressed Tyrone and Gazelle directly. “You know, Nick and I set all this up mainly so we could ask you about using your property south of town for a race track.” She paused again. “But I didn't expect to enjoy meeting all of you so much.” She smiled brightly at them.
Everyone smiled their agreement.
“But we really do need to set up a race track,” Nick said, taking up the burden. “We need to solve this problem before the next one rears its ugly head.”
“Of course you can use it,” Gazelle said, glancing at Tyrone for confirmation. He nodded. “We haven't really needed it for several years now. Treat it like it's yours,” she invited them.
“Thanks,” they said together. “But you know,” Nick continued, “depending on how it's done, we might make some money off it.”
Judy shook her head. “Nick.”
“I'm not being greedy,” he protested, “but there's nothing wrong with making money while you help mammals.”
She eyed him suspiciously. “As long as the helping part comes first,” she conceded. “But no funny business!”
He kissed the tip of her nose. “Come on, you know you love me.”
She recognized their favorite repartee. “Do I know that? Yes, yes I do.” She reached up to kiss him then suddenly remembered they weren't alone. She looked around to find everyone watching them with undisguised interest. She blushed furiously.
“Don't stop on our account,” Linda breathed. “It's beautiful to see.”
“You don't have to hide it from us,” Shelly reminded her.
“No, but some things are private no matter what,” Judy answered, blushing even harder.
Tyrone whispered something in Gazelle's ear, too low even for Judy to hear. Gazelle turned beat red. “Tyrone!” she protested, poking him in the ribs. He laughed low in his throat. Trying to change the subject she jumped up. “I never offered you anything to drink,” she exclaimed. “Forgive me. What would you like? Name it and we've got it.”
They all rattled off their preferences and Linda got up to help her. “I”m a waitress,” she reminded her when Gazelle tried to protest. “It's what I do at our diner.”
Gazelle smiled. “I was a waitress when I met Tyrone.” They hurried off to the kitchen.
While they sat waiting for them to return, Robert had a question for Nick and Judy. “This thrill of the hunt thing; does it only affect predators or do prey get it too?”
They both chuckled. “Oh we definitely get it too,” Judy smiled. “Chasing down bad guys is a rush like you wouldn't believe.”
Tyrone smile fondly in remembrance. “Amen to that. I still miss it, and the other day Bogo admitted he misses it too.”
Judy nodded at him. “The thrill of the hunt is just what Lance called it. We didn't know what else to call it so we stuck with the name, but it's not really a hunt so much as a huge adrenaline rush mixed with endorphins mixed with who knows what. It's like having a supercharger plugged into you.”
“That is an understatement,” Nick added feelingly.
“I wonder if that's what happened to us when we had our brush with death?” Robert reflected thoughtfully. “Maybe we got that . . . thrill-charge long enough to cut through our defenses and let us fall in love with each other.”
Lawrence blinked ponderously at him. “Youngster, that is about the most succinct summation I've heard in a long time. You should have been a philosopher.”
“I nearly was,” Robert told him.
“Nearly was what?” Gazelle asked as she and Linda returned with trays loaded with drinks and snacks. They began handing them out.
“I was nearly a philosopher,” he responded. “I was working on my graduate thesis when we got fired from Garlic & Cloves and I had to drop out to make ends meet.”
“You should go back and finish it, finish your degree,” Lawrence urged him.
Linda poked Robert in the ribs as she snuggled up to him again. “See?” she said triumphantly.
“Keep poking me in the ribs lady and I'll tickle yours until you pee your pants,” he mock growled at her, winking at the others.
She gasped. “Robert! I can't believe you told them that!” She buried her face in her hooves.
Judy's eyes were wide and round. Watching other predator-prey couples indulge in their love play and intimate looks was an earth shaking experience for her. Is that what they see when they watch us, she wondered? She glanced up at Nick to find his gaze on her. She could tell he was wondering the same thing. Then – his eyes darkened, his heart sped up and his breathing deepened, and she knew he was about to do something rash; something wonderful, incredible, exhilarating, and liberating – but rash.
“Let's have Bogo marry us on the race track right before the first race,” he suggested.
Her jaw dropped. “What?!?!?”
“I'm serious,” he said. “I don't want to sneak around for twenty years pretending I'm not in love with you. No offense to you guys,” he added to Tyrone and Gazelle. They nodded. “That's just not my style Fluff, and you know it,” he added before she could protest. She deflated and he knew he'd won that argument before it started. “If everything is connected like we've been discussing then trying to hide it isn't going to work; it'll come out eventually anyway. So let's have it come out our way.”
He sat up, then couldn't contain himself and sprang to his feet to pace back and forth before them. “If Bogo, Chief Bogo marries us in front of all those racers and whoever else decides to come, just as they're getting ready to initiate a safe outlet for getting their own thrills, maybe it'll be the push they need to start accepting predator-prey couples instead of having us drawn and quartered.”
“You're talking about taking a big chance there, youngster,” Lawrence argued slowly. “What if they turn against you?”
“They may not like it,” Nick conceded, “but no way will they turn against us; we're heroes,” he smiled cockily. “We solved the savage mammals case and now we're solving their problem for them too.”
“He's actually making sense,” Linda said unexpectedly.
Robert glanced at her in surprise. “Babe?”
“I'm tired of hiding,” she sniffled, trying to stop tears from forming. “I'm tired of being afraid someone will find out. I hate having to pretend that loving you is something to be ashamed of. I don't blame him for wanting to get it out in the open. I wish we could.” She buried her head in his chest.
Judy was taken back by Linda's emotional declaration, by the obvious pain she was in. She felt an answering quiver in her own heart. Looking around she saw tears rolling down Gazelle's face and Shelly seemed to be having a hard time restraining hers as well. Her gazed settled on Nick. He was abashed at the floodgates he'd opened up but he stared back at her unflinchingly. Something turned over inside her and she stood up, moving to stand resolutely by his side. “If that's what you want, that's what we'll do,” she told him, letting the others hear the steel in her voice.
He kissed her – slowly and deliberately, he kissed her. “That's what I want, angel face,” he whispered against her lips. “Now and forever.”
She nodded, wondering why her vision had suddenly become blurred. He dabbed at her cheeks with a handkerchief and she realized she was crying. “Oh you bunnies, you're so emotional,” he muttered smoothly.
She sniffled softly, remembering the last time he'd told her that, under the bridge when she went looking for him to apologize and beg his forgiveness. “If you pull out that stupid carrot pen I'll stab you with it,” she threatened. He laughed low in his throat.
Eventually the ladies stopped crying and dried their tears. Once everyone had settled down they ate lunch, engaging in small talk, visiting and getting to know each other. Toward the end Gazelle offered to sing for them.
“As long as it's not Try Everything,” Linda cautioned. “I'll start crying again.”
Gazelle nodded her understanding. “Now that you mention it, I might start crying again too.” She choose a medley of some of her most popular hits, singing a cappella without any musical accompaniment.
Finally they had to go. Judy made a quick phone call to let Bogo know the meeting was over. After an endless series of hugs and shakes they left off as the elevator doors opened to admit the Chief onto their floor. Wisely he didn't comment on their tears or try to resurrect the “hail fellow, well met” back slapping routine he and Tyrone had engaged in previously.
Once the elevator doors closed Bogo handed Robert his borrowed police jacket and sunglasses to hide behind again. Linda burst into tears as soon as he put them on. A bewildered Bogo watched helplessly as Judy and Shelly rushed to dry them, then gave her some garish sunglasses unearthed from the depths of Shelly's giant purse.
“I'll look awful,” Linda protested feebly.
“Here,” Robert said, giving her his. “Try these.”
She nodded and put them on just before the doors opened again. Bogo instructed his officers to escort Lawrence, Robert, Shelly, and Linda straight to the van. He'd take Nick and Judy to the press and while they were talking to them the van could make a careful get-away.
Lionheart, hastily called from his office, met them as they emerged from the building. Bogo spoke to him briefly then the Mayor stepped up to the forest of microphones growing out of the podium. “And now, here with their report, are two of Zootopia's finest, Detective Judy Hopps and Detective Nick Wilde. They'll tell us how it went.” He stepped aside, beckoning them to take the stand.
The press exploded with a raucous cacophony the moment they stepped up. Nick tried several times to quiet them down but none of them were willing to let the others go first. Judy finally got exasperated with them and let out a shrill, piercing whistle directly into the microphones. The resulting feedback nearly peeled the skin off her nose but it got them to shut up long enough for Nick to jump in.
“It was an excellent meeting,” Nick started quickly. “Gazelle, who is a wonderful hostess by the way, was very generous with her property,” he smiled. “She loves Zootopia and wants to help in any way she can, so she gave us carte blanche to use the land anyway we want.” He pointedly didn't mention Tyrone. A number of street racers thronging close to hear what happened erupted into cheers at the news.
“Is she going to be making a statement?” one of the reporters screamed out over their noise.
Nick smiled benevolently at him. “Does Gazelle make up her own mind about she says? Yes, yes she does,” he deflected smoothly, putting his own advice to Judy into action. He took several more questions, doing the same thing with each of them, then turned the podium over to Mayor Lionheart.
The Mayor gave him a private wink as they passed. “Smooth as butter,” he whispered admiringly.
Judy also leaned over to whisper, “Pretty slick, Nick.”
“Sly fox,” he whispered out of the side of his mouth. She restrained the urge to poke him in the side. Lionheart was speaking so she turned her attention to him.
“. . . says we'll have clear skies for the next couple of weeks so we'll start work first thing Monday morning. Detectives Wilde and Hopps will be on hand to supervisor and handle any questions from the press, but don't crowd them too much,” the Mayor warned. “They've got work to do.” He paused with a devilish gleam in his eye. “And since they've been so instrumental in figuring this whole thing out and providing a solution, I hereby declare that this race track will be called The Wilde-Hopps Race Track!”
Nick and Judy were stunned as cheers and applause broke out on all sides. The warm sound and enthusiasm washed over them in one warm wave after another.