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 the reporters crowding around and hadn't even thought about them overhearing her remark or considered how it would be interpreted. It reminded her of Lionheart telling her 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. “Work is piling up and we’ve got to get it done. 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 hoof. “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 a 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 halfhearted 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 heartbeat 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 is already 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 schoolgirl. “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.
Shelly butted in, saving him from the moment. “Actually. I think it does matter. In the long run, the timing may be the most important thing of all.”