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Chapter 31

The Grand Finalé

“Are you ready, Zootopia?” Gazelle called in her famous, one-of-a-kind voice.

The crowd roared.

Fountains of sparks shot skyward from fireworks tubes placed around the stage as the band struck up the pulse-pounding music of her latest hit. Tyrone and his dancers cartwheeled into position around Gazelle, hoisting her into the air by her outstretched arms and floating her to the edge of the stage. They lowered her so her foot touched the ground just she began to sing.

Judy shook her head in wonder at the hours of practice it must have taken to get that maneuver synchronized just right with the music and yet make it look so effortless at the same time. She remembered Tyrone's complaint about Gazelle being a slave-driver during practice. The beautiful choreography onstage was the end result of it.

The stage crew herded them off the platform down the ramp into the giant tent behind it. One of them, a zebra wearing a headset, shouted in their ears over the music, “The press is in there. We couldn't keep 'em out. Sorry.”

Lawrence shrugged massively. “We can't avoid them forever, might as well get it done upfront.” The others nodded agreement.

“It's up to you,” the stagehand replied. “By the way,” he stopped them. “Most of us already knew about her and Tyrone and how much she hated keeping it a secret. Thanks for being willing to come out with her. It means a lot to us.” He stuck out his hoof.

Surprised, Lawrence shook with him. The stagehand shook briefly with Nick and Robert too. “And congratulations to all of you, too!” He dashed back up the ramp before they could say anything.

His warning prepared them for the worst when they stepped through the opening of the tent. They were mobbed the moment they walked in. Bogo and his officers had all they could do to keep the press at bay while they escorted them to the far side of the tent where a separate, smaller tent was set up inside the larger one with exactly this purpose in mind. Inside, it was lined with sound reducing green felt. At one end, a long table covered with a white cloth had a table-top podium sitting in the middle, facing ten rows of closely packed chairs. Lights were strung overhead. Two portable air conditioners were on metal stands on either side of the tent.

Gazelle had warned them ahead of time if they didn't have a designated area for talking to the press it would turn into an uncontrollable free-for-all. The mere fact of having rows of chairs and a small podium imposed its own unwritten set of rules the press was accustomed to, and would automatically adhere to. Sure enough, the press gang-rushed the chairs as soon as the curtains were pulled back and they spotted them, fighting to get the best spots closest to the podium.

Bogo led them behind the table and sat them all in their seats, then waited at the podium for the press to settle down. He tapped impatiently on the small microphone on it, causing a squeal of feedback in the temporary press room. With the curtains closed, there were two layers of heavy canvas, plus the thick felt, between them and the outside world, reducing the music to a dull roar.

Judy held tightly to Nick's paw, waiting for it to start. She kept glancing down at the wedding ring on her finger to convince herself it was really true. She wasn't Judy Hopps anymore, she was Judy Wilde now. No more waiting, she thought disjointedly, no more going to bed frustrated, no more . . . Too late she realized where her thoughts were leading her but before she could stop it, Nick suddenly chuckled beside her.

“I know what you're thinking about,” he whispered in her ear. “I can smell it,” he leered.

She blushed, then giggled helplessly. “That's right husband O’ mine, and don't try to tell me you're not thinking about it too.”

He ran his paw up and down her back, sending zephyrs of anticipation down her spine. “Of course I am. How could I not?”

Robert and Linda were sitting on the other side of the podium, on Bogo's left. Robert, his nose twitching, suddenly leaned back in his chair to look at them around the Chief's rear end. “Hey you two, cool it! If I can smell you, so can others,” he called softly in a locker room tone of voice.

Judy's eyes went wide as saucers. She clamped her paws over her mouth, wanting to sink into the floor from embarrassment. Beside her, she could feel Nick fighting not to laugh as he gave Robert a covert thumbs up.

“And you don't have to be a predator to smell it either,” Bogo rumbled down at her, an impish grin tugging at the corners of his mouth.

Judy wanted to die right then and there. “This isn't fair,” she gasped. “I can't help it!”

Robert was clearly enjoying her reaction. “Looks like you got a live one there, Nick. Have fun tonight.” He winked roguishly.

Bogo took pity on her then and called for order. Flashbulbs were going off almost constantly as the press took picture after picture of them sitting at the table. Judy just hoped the air conditioners, already straining to keep up with the body heat of so many mammals crammed into a tiny area, would blow her pheromones away from the reporters. She didn't need them writing about that!

“As I already mentioned, Tyrone was my partner when I was still a patrol officer,” Bogo said without preamble, “so it was natural for me to be sympathetic to his situation when he and Gazelle met and fell in love. With that background, it was easy for me to spot Nick and Judy's affection for each other when it happened to them.” He looked down at them and they nodded gratefully.

“They were the ones who brought the professors and their paper to my attention,” he gestured at Lawrence and Shelly sitting on the other side of Robert and Linda. “Then they came across Robert and Linda when they were working on the street racer case and trying to come up with a solution. And I believe it was Linda and Robert who told them about this piece of land right here.” He stomped his foot gently on the ground for emphasis. Robert nodded confirmation of Bogo's words.

“And it was this piece of land which led them to Gazelle and Tyrone, which in turn led them back to me,” Bogo concluded.

“That's quite a string of coincidences,” one of the reporters butted in.

Faye, Bonnie, and Stuart slipped in the door and stood in the back of the tent, listening.

Bogo fixed the ink-stained pig with a hard stare. “Hold your questions and comments until the end,” he rumbled, “but yes, it is. It happens that way sometimes, though.” He shrugged unconcernedly. “But for now I'm going to have each couple get up here and give you a brief history of their relationship, then we'll take some questions. First off will be Nick and Judy Wilde.”

Judy started, then smiled at being introduced that way. It had a nice ring to it. She caught her parent's eyes as she and Nick stood up to take the podium. They forced themselves to smile. Faye was smiling more easily, dabbing at her eyes in joy for her son.

Judy and Nick took turns telling their story, each from their own perspective, as well as giving a brief overview of the steps they'd taken solving the savage mammals’ case and how their growing feelings for each other were a key ingredient to solving it, as well as helping them solve the street racer problem, and track down Bellwether and Doug. Several reporters tried to sneak in some questions but Bogo was a stern disciplinarian. His imposing presence kept things under control. When they were done, Lawrence and Shelly got up, then Robert and Linda.

Linda had one thing to add before they opened the floor for questions. “You outed Robert and I a few days ago in some of the most lurid terms I've ever seen,” she said to the reporters with a touch of bitterness, “writing about us like we were three-headed aliens or something, and now you sit here wanting to interview us as if nothing happened. It's just water under the bridge, for you, I guess.”

Robert gently tried to steer her away from the microphone but she wouldn't budge. “No! I'm going to tell them what I think about them,” she protested. He held up his paws and backed away.

She turned angrily back to the massed reporters. “Well, it's not water under the bridge for me. This my life we're talking about! And you tried to destroy it with your tabloid journalism.” She paused to get herself under control. There was dead silence in the tent. “For years Robert and I were terrified of what would happen if anyone found out about us, then you splashed it all over the front page without even asking us!” Her chest was heaving with emotion. “I'll . . .” she wiped at her eyes, “. . . I'll answer some of your questions today, but this is the first, last, and only time I'll ever talk to the press. And I'll never trust any of you! No one ever should!” She buried her face in Robert's shoulder.

He gently led her back to their chairs. The reporters in the audience had the grace to look abashed at what they'd done to them.

Bogo gestured at the technicians to turn on the individual microphones set in front of each one of them at the table, then stepped back up to the podium. “With that in mind, we'll take some respectful questions,” he said.

Every paw in the place shot up.

Lawrence and Shelly's predictions that incorporating four predator-prey couples, three weddings, Gazelle's concert, and the race altogether at one time would help prevent discrimination against them, seem to be bearing fruit. The reporter's questions steered clear of the more sensationalist ones and focused instead on pragmatic ones involving surviving the life-and-death struggle needed to trigger a predator-prey relationship. Linda's emotional outburst probably tempered their baser instincts and when the day was all over, only a few ink-stained wretches tried to follow them away from the track after the race.

Outside the large tent, Gazelle's concert had put the overflow crowd in a good mood for the rough-hewn, edge-of-your-seat racing that immediately followed her singing. No one really knew what to expect, so aside from a few prohibitions against deliberately wrecking your opponents, there were very few rules in the race. It turned it into a wild ride, involving several wrecks, restarts, and hair-raising near-misses. The feverish activities of the pit crews changing tires and adding gas to the cars drew almost as much attention as the race itself.

After 200 laps at speeds in excess of 180 mph, Lance Furbur squeaked out a photo-finish win over Ho Nan and Lance Slothmore. The rest of the field crossed the finish line only seconds behind the top three.

After the race, Judy and Nick managed to slip away from the press, their friends, and their families. By the time they reached the fancy hotel they'd booked for their wedding night, they were alone. The kangaroo clerk at the desk recognized them instantly, of course, but had the tact to keep his comments to a minimum, straying only so far from his duties as to awkwardly congratulate them.

Upstairs, Nick insisted on carrying her across the threshold into their suite. Up close like that, Judy could feel his heart pounding in his chest as well as hear it. Now that the moment was finally here, her raging desire for him was tempered with the faintest amount of trepidation. Nervous eagerness was the best way she could describe it to herself.

He held her in his arms as the door clicked behind them, kissing her slowly and gently, taking his time about it. Shivers ran back and forth across her body. He sniffed delicately then whispered softly in her ear, “I think you're on fire, Carrots.”

She smiled seductively, no longer fighting her passion. “Then you'll have to help me put it out.”

“I think I can handle that,” he nodded, his eyes alive with anticipation.

She slithered out of his arms and turned her back to him. Looking over her shoulder coquettishly, she purred, “Unzip me?”

He smiled like slow syrup. The sound of the zipper was very loud in the room.

She pressed her arms tight to keep the dress from falling off. Still looking back at him she asked softly, “Do you know what comes between me and my wedding dress?”

He shook his head mutely.

She turned and released the dress. It pooled at her feet. “Nothing.”

Epilogue: six weeks later

Nick was waiting outside the bathroom door when she came out. “Are you alright, Carrots?” he asked with a worried frown. “That's three mornings in a row you've been sick. We ought to take you to the doctor to see if you've come down with something.”

Judy shook her head resolutely. “No, no. As soon as I throw up I feel fine. In fact, I feel great.” She padded back to the bedroom to finish getting dressed.

Nick trailed behind her, then shoved his hands in his pockets as he leaned against the door jam. “But why is it you're only sick in the morning? That doesn't make any sense. It’s almost like you’re pr . . .” He trailed off as he realized what he was saying.

Judy stared at him in shock, feeling her ears go limp as she saw where he was going. “Nick! That's impossible! We're different species!”

He shrugged helplessly. “The meteor mutated us and made us intelligent, gave us all the same diets, and everything. Who's to say the mutations have stopped? Maybe we're still changing.”

She sank down on the edge of the bed. “But no one else has ever . . . ever, you know,” she protested weakly, refusing to actually say it. She folded her paws protectively over her still-flat abdomen.

He came over and sat down, sliding an arm around her. “There's a first time for everything, Fluff.” He leaned closer with a rakish grin. “And just in case it is, make it a boy!”

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