Judy's “super villain” comment wound up on the 6 o'clock news that evening, sparking endless debates among the talking heads and a severe tongue lashing by Chief Bogo the next morning, followed by an equally unpleasant one from Mayor Lionheart. Neither of them appreciated hearing the news quoting one of their most famous detectives saying something like that. It made both the ZPD and the city look bad.
For her part Judy was appropriately chastened. She'd seen the news vans pulling up and hadn't realized they were close enough to overhear her remark, or considered how it could be interpreted. It reminded her of Lionheart telling that while she and Nick might not care about politics, politics was going to start caring about them and they needed to be careful.
It was a stern admonishment that her meteoric rise in the ZPD could end as swiftly as it began.
Nick was equally subdued, although for a different reason. It reinforced his trepidation about their future when their romantic involvement became public. He had no intention of backing down from their wedding plans but popularity was fickle; yesterday's hero could easily become tomorrow's outcast.
He doubled down on his plans for reaping a profit from their race track project. Judy had to agree it was the prudent thing to do.
For the rest of the week they poured all their energy into getting the gigantic dirt track ready for the racers, until paving trucks from the city street maintenance yards showed up at Lionheart's orders to lay down a single layer of asphalt. They hadn't planned on paving the track but the Mayor didn't know that and once the trucks arrived they didn't want to send them back so they let them proceed.
“The racers will really be able to build up speed on that thing,” Nick commented as they sat eating lunch on the newly installed bleachers watching the city crews laying down the steaming asphalt.
“Maybe too much speed,” Judy nodded around a mouthful of her FLT sandwich – fish, lettuce, and tomato – from the Hoof & Claw. Robert and Linda had more business than they knew what to do with since all the vendors working on the track started coming to their diner. They'd already had to hire one new waitress and needed another one, not to mention someone to help Robert in the kitchen. “If they're not careful they could have a huge wreck out there.”
Nick brushed the crumbs off his paws from his own sandwich and slurped on his drink. “We'll warn 'em,” he agreed, “but it's their cars and their lives. At least out there the only ones they're endangering is themselves.”
“You're right,” Judy sighed. “The whole point of this thing was to get them off the streets so they don't hurt anyone else. What they do to themselves is their problem, I guess.”
On a different note, Tyrone had gone through the blueprints for his and Gazelle's building and discovered an old, unused service tunnel that connected their building to the sub-basement of the train terminal downtown, the same one Judy had arrived at when she first came to town. The scarred brick tunnel, at least a hundred years old, was wet and covered with mildew but still usable. It provided the perfect way for the rest of them to get in to see Tyrone and Gazelle without anyone being the wiser.
Gazelle, desperately lonely, practically begged the rest of them to use the tunnel to come over every night for dinner. It was an easy decision.
The only fly in the ointment was that Robert and Linda usually had to arrive late because of booming business at their diner, but they made a point of showing up no matter what time it was. On Friday they arrived just as everyone else was getting ready to leave. They all stayed a bit longer to visit with them then had to leave to go home and get some sleep.
Their evening get togethers created a growing friendship between them as well as strengthening Nick and Judy's resolve to go through with their wedding plans before the first race at the track. Lawrence and Shelly were even considering doing the same thing. Both of them had tenure at the university so the financial consequences to them were virtually nil. The social consequences of course were another matter entirely. They were still debating it. It made for a popular item of discussion during their evenings as a group.
Nick's mother, Faye, appeared resigned to their wedding and was making the best of it but Judy's parents changed their minds seemingly every day. One day they were supporting it then the next they were dead set against it. They went back-and-forth like a push-me/pull-you out of the storybooks. Their continual mood swings on the subject were giving Judy emotional whiplash.
With so much going on they started falling behind on their paperwork at the office, to the point they had to go into work Saturday just to get caught up. The weekend desk sergeant waved at them as they went upstairs, but didn't warn them Bogo was in his office too, so his bellowing summons as he heard them going pass his door caught them by surprise.
“Hopps! Wilde! I know that's you out there! Get in here!”
They exchanged a “now what?” look then ventured in. They were surprised to find him wearing civilian clothes, the first time they'd ever seen him out of uniform.
“Close the door and sit down,” he ordered them gruffly.
“I didn't know you were here today, Chief,” Judy noted with surprise.
He shrugged massive shoulders. “I'm salary not hourly. I work until the job is done. Which sometimes, means a lot of extra time in the office,” he sighed. He looked her over. “What's your excuse?”
“Actually, the same thing,” she answered, squirming to get comfortable on the hard plastic chair. “Even if we're only temporary detectives we're still salary as long as we are. We won't go back to our hourly wages until we go back on patrol.”
He nodded absently. “That's kind of what I wanted to talk to you about. I was planning on hauling you in here Monday after morning roll call, but since we're all here, we might as well do it now.”
Nick and Judy held their breath, wondering if he was going to put them back in uniform before the track was finished.
“The Mayor and I agree the two of you are more valuable as detectives than patrol officers,” he said flatly.
“Wha . . . what?” they stuttered. He nodded, gaining a bit of satisfied amusement at their stunned expressions. “But, but, I made such a mess of things with that super villain comment,” Judy objected in disbelief. “How can you say that?”
“We all make mistakes,” Bogo shrugged. “You learn your lesson and go on. Leo and I were both impressed with the way you owned up to it and took everything we dished out.”
Nick beamed proudly at Judy and squeezed her paw.
“What really convinced us though was the way you flushed out Ramses and figured out what he was up to.”
Nick was confused. “But we figured it out too late,” he protested, “and he and Bellwether got away.” Judy nodded her agreement.
Bogo smiled paternalistically at them. “The fact you figured it out at all is the point. Tyrone told me what he said to you and he was right; deducing what Ramses was up to in the middle of a high-speed chase is more than anyone has a right to expect. Rhinowitz is right too, you are heavy hitters. You think fast and outside of the box.” He shook his head. “You'd be wasted out on routine patrol or handing out parking tickets.” He winked at Judy with a grin, remembering how he'd stuck her with exactly that on her first day on the job. He stuck out his paw. “Give me those temp badges,” he ordered.
Silently they handed them over. In return he gave them two brand new badges with their names already embossed on them. They took them in awe. He turned a couple of pages around, a promotion form for each of them. “And sign these,” he added.
They signed the forms.
“Congratulations,” he smiled. “You're now permanent detectives, junior grade, but detectives. And it comes with a raise. Not much of one,” he admitted, “but there it is.”
“A raise is a raise,” Nick said, looking on the bright side as he polished his badge on his sleeve.
“Say that after you see your first case,” Bogo said with bass chuckle, hefting a huge file. He dropped it on his desk with a resounding thud that shook the pictures on the wall behind him.
“Uh, is that what I think it is?” Judy ventured, feeling both excitement and dread at the same time.
Bogo gave her an evil grin. “Your super villains, the Bellwether/Ramses case. It's everything we've got on them from Day One. Find 'em, bring 'em in,” he ordered. He smiled down at them with an exaggerated smile like an alligator. “Dismissed.”
Judy and Nick staggered out of his office carrying the huge file between them. It weighed more than both of them combined. They boosted the unwieldy thing onto their combined desks in their office with a sigh of relief.
“It's a little bigger than my first case file,” she huffed, windmilling her arms from the strain of carrying it.
Nick grinned. “You think?” She slapped at him but he easily dodged her half-hearted swing. He sat down, patting his lap. “Come here, Fluff.”
She gave him an arch look. “Nick. We're at work.”
“On the weekend. In a private office. With the door closed,” he countered cheerfully. In spite of her objections and reproving tone he could smell her pheromones increasing rapidly. “Come on,” he cajoled her. “A promotion, raise, and our first big case deserves a little something to commemorate it.” Her pheromones were going through the roof and he knew he had her.
Her ears twitched at the increase in his heart beat as she sauntered toward him, unable to keep a sultry look out of her eyes. “Don't go getting ahead of yourself just yet, Mister Slick Nick,” she whispered against his mouth as she settled in his lap. “It's still a week until the track opens and we get married.”
He nibbled at her lip. “I know,” he whispered back. “Just think of this as . . . practice.”
Her eyes fairly glowed. “Oh. I think I'm going to like prac . . .” Her words trailed off as his lips claimed hers. His heart was a kettle drum in her ears as they sank into each other.
That night they had time to snuggle some more on the couches in Gazelle's living room with the rest of their predator-prey friends. The last light of the setting sun streaming in through the picture windows lit them in a warm, soft glow.
“The physical track itself is done,” Judy reported from the warmth of Nick's encircling embrace, reveling in being able to openly express her affections for him without fear of public rebuke. The others, snuggled up two-by-two shared her feelings.
“Which means the rest of it, the concession stands, tickets, and such is in your paws,” Nick told Tyrone.
The big tiger seesawed one paw in the air. “Kinda,” he temporized.
They were puzzled. “What do you mean?” Linda asked him lazily. Since she and Robert weren't involved with prepping the track it really didn't matter to them who did what. Lawrence and Shelly had the same detached attitude toward it as well, for the same reason.
Gazelle sat up with the air of someone bursting to tell a secret. “Tyrone and I have been talking it over the past several days and finally decided to put on a mini-concert before the first race begins,” she announced brightly.
Stunned silence was broken by a hubbub of exclamations and gasps of amazement.
Lawrence sat up quickly, nearly dumping Shelly off the couch. “Sorry, hun,” he told her quickly. He pulled her back up. “That'll turn this thing into a major event!” he blurted.
Nick burst into laughter. “Where have you been hiding, Professor? This thing already is a major event! A concert by Gazelle is just the icing on top.”
Gazelle gave him an arch look. “Just?”
“The wonderful, creamy, finger-licking good icing,” he corrected smoothly. “Come on,” he protested cheerfully, “you know what I meant.”
“I know,” she giggled like a school girl. “I just wanted to see how got yourself out of it.” She glanced conspiratorially at Judy. “Now I see why you call him 'Slick Nick'.”
They shared a girl's laugh between them at his expense. He put on his best wounded expression but they only laughed harder at him, so he tried changing the subject. “There's going to be a lot going on at that race, so what happens first; our wedding or the concert?”
They settled down. “Does it matter?” Judy asked, craning her head to look up at him. “I thought you were only interested in the wedding night?” Oohs and aahs ran around the room at his sudden embarrassment.
“Actually I think it does matter,” Shelly butted in, saving him from the moment.
Judy gave her a quizzical look. “Why?”
Shelly shook off Lawrence's arm, sitting up primly like the teacher she was. “Larry and I specialized in anthropology but there's a lot of psychology wrapped up in it too. We had to use it when we were doing our research on predator-prey relationships.”
They all nodded, wondering where she was going with this.
“And psychologically speaking there's a lot to be said for having the marriage first, then the concert.” Nick and Judy leaned forward intently, hanging on to her every word. “A predator-prey marriage, done so publicly, is going to generate a lot of controversy and heated emotions, but when it's wedded – if you'll forgive the phrasing – to a concert by Gazelle along with all the positive emotions from it, that will take a lot of the steam out of things. When two strong emotions are joined, they inevitably water each other down. AND,” she continued, “mammals have a tendency to remember the last thing they saw the best. Whatever happens last tends to overshadow whatever came first.” Beside her, Lawrence was nodding in his best grandfatherly, professorial mode.
Robert leaned forward, eyes narrowed in thought. “You may be on to something,” he added. “This whole race track thing was brought on by our altered biology due to that asteroid or meter impact. Predator-prey relationships are a direct result of it too. If you and Lawrence could make a public statement about it before Chief Bogo performs their wedding ceremony,” he gestured at Nick and Judy, “it would go a long way toward changing everyone's perception of things.”
Tyrone raised an eyebrow at him. “So you're convinced it was the asteroid thing instead of evolution that created us?”
“It's the only explanation that fits all the facts,” he shrugged. “Speaking for myself, I'd say it's a done deal.”
Lawrence bestirred himself. “Remember that wolf and sheep couple who were so afraid of coming forward?”
Robert nodded, along with the rest of them.
“He called me earlier today after seeing us on TV,” Lawrence told them. They all sat up with interest. “He finally unbent enough to give me some personal information. His name is Buck. In his younger days he used to work as a sled dog delivering dry goods to stores up north in gold rush country. His lover, Mary, was one of the store owners he delivered to. He was pretty rough and tumble until he met her, and after they fell in love she taught him to read and write. He's actually quite brilliant in his own way,” he added admiringly. “He's a bit of a self-taught geologist and he called to say he thinks he has a piece of the meteor.”
They all exploded with a million questions at the same time.
“Whoa! Slow down, slow down!” he bellowed at them, waving for them to sit down. “He called less than an hour before Shelly and I came over. I haven't had a chance to meet him or see the sample or anything.” They finally settled down to hear him out, but their eyes were alive with barely suppressed excitement.
Satisfied they were listening, he continued. “The Dean of our Geology Department is Dr. Gerald Hippocore. I've known him for years. He's a strong advocate of the meteor strike theory but aside from trace elements he's never found any solid evidence for it. If I can talk Buck into letting us come over to collect his specimen, Gerald is our best bet for confirming whether or not it's what Buck claims it is.”
“But you're not going to tell him about us are you?” Linda asked quickly, broaching the question on all their minds.
“Of course not,” Lawrence agreed reasonably. “And there's no need to. I'll just tell him that my being on TV gave Buck a name and face for someone to contact about his find. Which, in a way, is the truth,” he mused.
“That's great,” Nick enthused before anyone else could, “but could we get back to Tyrone not being able to take care of the vendors and such at the track? We kinda veered off the topic.”
Judy elbowed him in the ribs. “It was a worthwhile detour, mammal O'mine.”
He kissed the top of her head. “Yeah, but I still need to know.” He looked at Tyrone.
The big tiger nodded. “Practice sessions,” he explained. “If we're going to put on a concert, even a small one, we always need to practice. It takes hours every day. I can give you all my contact info, but you'll have to make the arrangements. I won't have time.”
Gazelle nodded along with him. “I didn't get where I am by faking it,” she said firmly. “It takes a lot of work.”
“That's reasonable,” Judy interjected. Her ears perked up. “And since your band is going to be there, can I make one request?”
Gazelle smiled sweetly at her. “Of course.”
“Can they play 'Here Comes the Bride' for me?” she asked, suddenly feeling timid.
Gazelle's eyes widened then filled with sudden tears. “It would be an honor,” she whispered, wiping at her cheeks.
“And for me too,” Linda added with tears of her own.
Robert jerked. “Are you sure, babe?” he blinked in surprise. “Last night you said you weren't sure.”
“I'm tired of hiding,” she sniffled. “I'm so sick and tired of it I want to scream. They're getting married in public and it's only a matter of time until those comments on the message boards go viral so yes, let's get married and be done with it.”
“Uh, what comments on what message boards?” Lawrence asked.
Robert compressed his lips with anger. “Some of our old buddies from the Garlic & Clove Trucking Company saw us on TV at our 'conference' last week and started posting comments about us all over the social media boards. Then somebody else must have seen us at the diner and put two and two together. They're tying to out us. With all the publicity around the race track it's bound to happen sooner or later.”
Judy pressed her paws over her mouth. “Oh sweet cheese and crackers!” She glanced around the room desperately. “We had no idea this would happen! I'm so sorry!”
“No!” Linda nearly shouted. “No. I told you, I'm tired of hiding. I'm tired of pretending we're freaks or unnatural or whatever else they say about us. I'm tired of it!” She sobbed into Robert's shoulder, then sat up wiping her eyes fiercely. “Whatever happens, happens, but I'm done hiding.” She grabbed Robert's paw, clutching it tightly to her. “Robert is the love of my life and I want him to be my one and only husband forever and ever, and I want everyone to know it!” she finished firmly.
Judy saw Shelly dabbing at her eyes in response to Linda's ringing declaration. Gazelle was crying quietly in Tyrone's arms, his soothing whispers to her like the distant rumble of thunder. Nick's heart was beating strong and firm behind her, his arms around her like steel bands, holding and protecting her. She leaned forward to take Linda's hoof in her paw. “Then they will,” she said quietly. “It'll be the best double wedding this city has ever seen.”
Linda nodded gratefully, blinded by her tears. Judy's vision was blurred as well.
Nick pulled her back into his arms, dabbing at her cheeks with the tip of his tail. He waited until the ladies calmed down then cleared his throat to get everyone's attention.
“How's this then; on Monday we'll call a press conference to let everyone know the first race will be a week from tomorrow, next Sunday, and that as a special surprise, Gazelle will be performing at the track before the opening race. How's that sound?” he asked.
They all nodded in unison.
“Good,” he continued in a business-like tone of voice. “Tyrone can give me all his contact info on the vendors and such, and once word gets out that Gazelle is performing, they should be happy to work with us.”
Tyrone cocked his head thoughtfully. “Most people outside the music business don't know it but I'm also Gazelle's business manager. During our press conference Monday I'll make a public request that all my vendors work with you. That should grease the skids for you.”
Nick brightened. “Say, that'll help a lot. Thanks!”
Tyrone smiled. “My pleasure.”
“And we'll ask Chief Bogo if he can do a double wedding,” Judy added.
“If ole sour puss gives you any grief about it, tell him I said I'll come over there and flatten him if he doesn't,” Tyrone smirked.
“Uh . . . nope,” Judy said smartly. “You tell him that. He was your partner but he's my boss.”
Tyrone laughed, “Sure thing.”
Lawrence and Shelly were whispering. He looked up at them. “Make it a triple,” he said firmly. Instantly they were the focus of everyone's attention.
“You've decided then?” Gazelle asked.
They nodded. “We're tired of hiding too,” Shelly answered for both of them. Lawrence nodded agreement. “Our tenure protects us from being fired and universities are usually a little more open to alternate life-styles than the average mammal on the street, and, with three couples getting married all at once, it might dilute the overall impact on any one couple.”
“Divide it between us, so to speak,” Lawrence added.
“As well as going a long way toward normalizing it,” Robert put in thoughtfully, his brow furrowed in scholarly concentration. “One predator-prey couple is a unique event that rocks the boat. Two is really unusual, but when you get to three,” he shrugged, “it moves it into the category of 'rare but not unheard of'.”
“What about four?” Gazelle asked suddenly.
Tyrone was immediately concerned. “Babe, are you sure? It could be the end of your career, everything you've worked for.”
“We've got enough money to live on for the rest of our lives,” she told him.
“I'm not talking about money and you know it,” he countered quickly. “Singing is your life. It's the only thing you've ever wanted to do.”
She bounced to her feet to pace around the room. “Being a cop was the only thing you ever wanted to do. You told me that early on, the second or third time we ever spoke. But you gave it up.”
“To gain something,” he countered, rising to take her by the shoulders. “You.” He gently tilted her head up to meet his eyes. “If you loose your singing, what would you be gaining to make it worthwhile?”
She smiled, looking deep into his eyes. “Oh Tyrone, don't you know? I can't loose my singing, I can sing whether anyone listens or not. It doesn't matter. As to what I'll gain?” Her smile deepened. “I'll gain the freedom to love you without having to hide it ever again. I'll gain you.”
They saw the wind go out of his sails. It was a trump card and he knew it. “Four it is,” he sighed, signaling defeat.
Gazelle snuggled against him. Her eyes twinkled at the rest of them. “Never thought you'd see the day when a gazelle could beat a tiger, did you?” she asked mischievously, enjoying her moment of triumph.
He growled something in her ear too low for them to hear. She turned bright red. “Don't you dare!” she exclaimed indignantly. He laughed. “Alright, so it's a tie,” she amended, giving him a dirty look.
Nick looked around the room. “Well then, a week from tomorrow all of us will be out of the closet.” He bounced to his feet, scooping up his wine glass. “A toast!” Everyone gathered around, glasses held high. “To new beginnings!”