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Chapter 17

The Wilde-Hopps Race Track

While the rest sat waiting for Gazelle and Linda to return from the kitchen, 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 smiled 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 actually 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 you 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 the 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 gaze 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 chose 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 finished just 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 blanché to use the land anyway we want.” He pointedly didn't mention Tyrone. A big group 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.

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