[AN It's been awhile...and this isn't what I thought I'd be posting...

No...it's not a hiatus notice. :) I'm slow but this is still and will remain and active story. I remain grateful for your patience.

This chapter turned into a behemoth. At least for me. I'd originally planned it at 7K to 8K words with about a 50/50 split between Ralph/Nadine and Nick/Judy. The Ralph/Nadine portion kept expanding - and we threw in a little KaraCarl, everyone's favorite doomed water buffalo, some info about wolf culture in my interpretation of the world, at least some insight into what was up with those cards, and a whole lot more. Nearly 17k words.

The bad news is that the WildeHopps scenes got bumped to next chapter. I originally had them interlaced into what was happening in City Hall like I've done in other chapters. This time though...it just didn't work. It was too jarring. There's an emotional roller-coaster that one character goes through during this entire scene - interrupting it just didn't work. So while the bad news is no WildeHopps the good news is I already have a few K words written in scenes for next chapter. ]

[AN Review Comments

rpg fur, Brian01, carick of hunter moon: Thank you!

CAPTAINPRICE79: I love writing those little quips mixed in with everything else going on. Tee hee!

onewolfe: She's going to fall behind in the boop count this chapter; although the one's she does are pretty meaningful.

Zanrok: I have got to figure out how to work Go for the Eyes into this some how. Snort!

Starfang's Secret: You have more than earned a mention. =D

JKnight97: I actually did try to think of a way to work in spiderman (something about senses tingling) but it came out a little forced. Deadpool I didn't think of - I have to look at that one for the future. Glad you liked Bonnie/Nick - it's an interesting style to write in; a variation on where you know what each person is thinking as they say it.

Thomas Lindquist: This chapter continues the theme that recording their meetings would be a problem. Although portions of this next one are actually recorded - intentionally. There's a lot of backstory with the Hopps' that's still hinted. More and more clues are being revealed though. WolfEyer as a nexus gets explored (and implied) a lot more in this chapter.

DrummerMax64: It was hard to come up with a list of names. So many authors who could have been included and only so many I could realistically fit. Glad the conversation with Nick/Bonnie worked - but yes...it's a multiple read one I believe.

Gallantmon228: Bogo's journey continues in this chapter. WolfEyer is, at times, more 'fun' to write about then WildeHopps since they've had so little written about them. It's a much broader canvas to work with.

AcidArms: A Flight of the Valkyries reference just seemed appropriate under the circumstances.

Half-Elf: ikr? =D

TheGreatWaff: I was worried about that. It takes two or three reads I think. Once on the spoken, once on the unspoken, and perhaps a 3rd intermixing them.

Fox in the hen house: You have no idea. :)

ThatGuyNamedGuy: Like I PM'd you awhile ago. Duel conversation is so much better than dual. Very well said.

]


Sarah sipped her coffee as she scrolled through the search results on her phone. After dropping the pair off at ZPD she'd tagged herself out of service. She'd been a bit...spontaneous...in offering her card to the tigress. She'd been influenced, not completely inappropriately although it bothered her a bit, by the conversion she overhead as well as knowing of the other two she-wolves. What she had found on the web about the two officers alleviated her concerns. Most of them at least.

"Just one more thing to do." She took another sip as nodded to herself. One final search and a tap. She held the phone to her ear and leaned back in her chair - breathing out as she readied herself.

"Hello?"

"Mistress Wolford?"

"This is she."

"Mistress, my name is Sarah Fangley. I am your eldest's third."

"Already? I would say this is unexpected, yet somehow it isn't under the circumstances. Proceed."

"Thank you mistress. I am a Lyft driver. Your eldest and his companion happened to be my fairs this morning."

"Your impression?"

"At first I had doubts. She was bewildered, confused - especially after your call."

"You heard? Oh yes - I was on speaker wasn't I?"

"Yes Mistress."

"You said you had doubts, you have none now?"

"A situation with your eldest arose after your call. She handled it well."

"A single situation is sufficient?"

"There is a dynamic between them. Long familiarity and comfort. Trust. Overlaid by change. Newness."

"The first and second observed the same. There is agreement and concurrence."

"That is good to hear mistress."

"I also hear an unasked question."

"You hear well. You know what I must ask and that no disrespect is meant."

"I would only be disrespected if you didn't."

"Mistress, are you certain in this? A tigress? A feline in your pack? Beta? Alpha? This is unprecedented."

"You are correct."

"Their ways are not our ways. She has much to learn. She will make mistakes. Are you prepared for this to happen?"

"You know my eldest's history?"

"Yes Mistress. Such a horrible loss."

"My eldest has been alone for years. Mourning. In the last 24 hours he has rejoined the living."

"This is confirmed?"

"Confirmed by the first and the second who is blood."

"From first to third in a day?"

"Less than a day."

"This is also unprecedented."

"Yes it is."

"Mistress, precedence has a purpose."

"True; we also have discretion."

"Is it warranted?"

"They are long-known to each other and she to the pack."

"Is that enough?"

"My eldest laughed last night; true genuine laughter. Happiness. We have not seen this since her passing."

"Your eldest's companion has had quite an impact on him. Do we not need to know why? To understand how this has happened so quickly?"

"No. I do not feel it matters. If she were new, it would. We will give her the support she will need and will help her when, as you said, she makes mistakes."

"Mistress, one last question if I may?"

"Of course."

"The task you have given is trivial. Why?"

"She has already done what we could not, what we feared impossible. She has brought my eldest back. She is proven."

"You speak the truth mistress."

"We have agreement?"

"Yes. The third agrees."

"We have concurrence?

"Yes. The third concurs.

"Thank you. You will, of course, be informed when the date is determined once the task is completed. You would honor us with your attendance. And your attention."

"Mistress, I understand; the honor would be mine."

"A united pack is life."

"A lone wolf is death."

"Good hunting to you Sarah Fangley."

"And to you Mistress Wolford."

Click.


Nadine was having trouble focusing. Well, perhaps focusing was not the proper word. She was very aware she was sitting across from the mayor, Ralph at her side, along with multiple other mammals in a conference room in City Hall. Why, however, this was happening was still unclear. How this had come to be was even more unclear. Her head hurt. I wonder how Ralph is feeling?

Seating in the room had been shifted slightly; the mayor had moved her chair off of the end and onto the side next to Carl's. She wanted to be across from the two officers. Rob had slid around the corner and was now at the far end of the table as the two additional chairs for the officers - plus Amy and Maria's - filled that side. Chief Bogo had chosen to stand just off the end of the table.

When everyone had finished settling in and adjusting their seating the mayor began. "Chief Bogo, officers, thank you for joining us this morning."

"As you can imagine, the two of you starting dating right after WildeHopps becomes public creates a bit of a situation for the city and for the ZPD. Almost everyone expected Hopps and Wilde to eventually become a couple, so even though way they announced it has certainly created some...excitement, it wasn't that much of a surprise."

"In fact we'd been working with ZNN on the segment - providing input on how to structure it, the story to tell. So while last night didn't go exactly according to plan, the Rosie interview was not part of the program, we had been preparing for it for some time."

Nadine stared at the mayor, "You expected them to become a couple?"

"You didn't?", the mayor returned her stare.

"No, I mean yes - I did - I think we did," she turned to Ralph who nodded before looking back at the mayor, "It's just...why was city hall involved in it?"

"They're the Heroes of Zootopia. They'd already had a huge impact on this city. When, notice I didn't say if - it seems we all knew it even if they didn't - they officially began dating it would be a major story. Of course since they did skip the entire dating piece and jumped straight to being life-mates and effectively married that's ratcheted up the interest even higher."

Nadine didn't have a response to that; she just nodded. She's right; they did skip a few steps...even more than Ralph and I. Uh...

"Anyways - enough about WildeHopps. We need to talk about the two of you and how we respond to the press."

That broke Nadine out of her thoughts. "The press? Why do we...it's no one's business but ours!" Her claws extended and pressed against the table. Ralph's ears went back as he put a paw on her arm. Easy partner. Let's take it easy. We talked about this just a few minutes ago with the chief.

"It should be but it isn't. If the two of you weren't in ZPD, if the two of you weren't in the same precinct, if the two of you weren't in one of the videos we used in the WildeHopps segment," Nadine and Ralph exchange looks again,"yes...the museum one...very interesting coincidence isn't it?" The two officers studied the table in front of them. The mayor gave a soft huff before continuing, "As I was saying, if the two of you didn't go public with your relationship on the same night-"

"We didn't go public!" Nadine yelled; her claws started marking the table. Ralph's eyes widened and he started rubbing her arm. Easy. Easy.

"Images of you and a video from the bar hit social media shortly after the segment on WildeHopps ended."

"That wasn't us! I mean...it was us...but we didn't post them. We don't know who did it!" She turned to Ralph. "I bet it was Bill."

He shook his head while keeping a paw on her arm. "I'm sure it wasn't Bill and even if it was you still don't get to kill him." Nadine opened her mouth; Ralph put a finger over it. "It's non-negotiable. You do not get to kill Bill." She huffed and leaned back in her chair, pulling her arm away from his paw and crossing both her arms in front of her.

"It doesn't matter. And I'd suggest you listen to your partner. Whoever this Bill is...wait." The mayor leaned forward, "Is this the Bill who made the comment with all the likes on the video of the two of you?" Ralph turned to her as Nadine let out a low growl. "Yes, however let's not talk about him anymore, okay?" He tried to subtly tip his head towards the irritated tiger next to him; Nadine noticed and snorted. The mayor gave him a slight nod.

"Fine. Moving on. Did the two of you see the papers this morning?" Ears on both officers went flat.

"I'll take that as a yes. Those images are right next to WildeHopps. Like it or not you're now part of this."

"We've already had multiple requests for comments, requests for interviews with you - you name it. While the press certainly wants to talk to WildeHopps you two...well you two are something new. Another interspecies couple. In the ZPD. Who have worked closely with WildeHopps."

Ralph and Nadine snuck a side-glance at each other but said nothing.

"The speculation is all over the map. It ranges from you've secretly been dating for months to you've been thinking about dating but never took that step until you were inspired by WildeHopps going public to the two of you...well...it isn't a relationship at all; the two of you just got drunk and hooked up."

A low rumble, not quite a snarl, from Nadine stopped when Ralph put a paw on her arm. She shifted in her chair and was about to respond - loudly - to the mayor's insinuation when a slight shake of the head from her partner stopped her. She settled back into her chair - ears still flat. Chief Bogo's eyes narrowed at what seemed to have almost happened.

The mayor had paused when Nadine started rumbling, watching closely for any other reaction. Well if that got a small reaction, this should be interesting. When the tigress seemed to settle back down she continued.

"As if that isn't complicated enough - there's the matter of Officer Wolford's late wife."

Nadine's growl was interrupted by a bellow from the chief. "Officer Fangmeyer!" She snapped forward sitting upright in her chair. "Sir." He took a step towards the table and put both hooves on it, leaning towards the tigress. "You will behave in a professional manner. Are. We. Clear?" Her lips pursed and ears snapped down; "Yes sir!". He grunted and took a step back away from the table. "Apologies madame mayor; my officers are out of sorts this morning it would seem."

"It's understandable; I think we're all a bit out of sorts in our own way." Do not look at Carl. Do not look at Carl. "A lot of things have happened recently."

Nadine rolled her eyes and snorted while muttering "yeah" under her breath. Pfft. You have no idea. Ralph reached up and rubbed her shoulder. "Nadine - remember, they're on our side." She let out a sigh and collapsed a bit in her chair, eyes down. "We're going to have to face the press at some point; all of this is going to come up." She let out a louder sigh and nodded. She raised her eyes to the mayor, "My apologies ma'am...it's...things...", she licked her lips, "...the last day...it's-"

"Been filled with events and coincidences you can't explain, your head is spinning trying to keep track of it all, it feels like nothing makes sense anymore, you have no idea how you and your partner ended up here, and at the moment you aren't certain if last night you drank too much or not enough?" The mayor flicked her eyebrows and smiled at the stunned tigress. Chuckles came from the mammals around the room, except the chief. He harumphed and shook his head. The mayor still seems to think is all a joke. She'll learn. He did his best to ignore the "Doomed!" bouncing around just under his thoughts.

"Believe me...we understand. Recent conversations we've been having have been...colorful," she snorted and chuckled as she looked around the room.

"With everything that's happened to the two of you yesterday and today I know it's not fair to put you on the spot; the press - however - won't care about fairness. They care about the headlines. Papers sold and online views. Some of them far more than others. At some point the two of you will need to go in front of them. The question is when."

"So we need to do two things - first we need to get enough information to put out some sort of statement, and second we need to see if we can put you in front of the them to take questions. I don't think you're ready, but we'll see."

Ralph and Nadine glanced at each other and nodded; both sitting slightly more upright in their chairs.

"So, we're going to start with some - hmm - I guess you'd call them easy questions. Who's asking them will shift just like would happen at a press conference. Reporters may direct their questions specifically to one of you or may leave it open. From what I've seen this morning I'd suggest that you," she gestured at Ralph, "take questions when you can; your partner already seems a bit hostile towards the press." The mayor held up her paw as Nadine started to react. "It's understandable Officer Fangmeyer; it truly is...but it won't help you with the press to get antagonistic towards them." Nadine sighed and rubbed her face with her paws before nodding, sighing again, and shaking her head to clear it. I should have taken more pain-killers. I bet Ralph feels the same way.

"One other thing you should know. We are going to be recording this - just audio. For two reasons. First - assuming it doesn't go well we can play it back and then come up with additional coaching for you for when you do face reporters. Second - if some parts of it do go well we might use it for sound bites. We can certainly say something from the my office and your chief can say something from ZPD - like we did with WildeHopps. However it's much more powerful if there is something in your own words - your own voices - that we can use. Does that make sense?" Both officers nodded again. "Thank you for understanding. Rob - why don't you start."

"Officers, how long have the two of you been dating?"

Ralph and Nadine looked at each other - both gesturing for each other to answer.

Carl shook his head, "Okay, that won't work. Like the mayor just said - if the question isn't targeted let Officer Wolford take it. Keep in mind, it's very important that the two of you do not contradict each other. Try to control any negative reactions even if one of you says something that surprises the other."

"Officers" they turned towards the chief, "both of you have had to testify in court. Think of this the same way. Consider the reporters to be the attorney for the defendant who are looking for you to make a mistake they can pounce on. Answer only what is asked - nothing more, nothing less." Bogo made eye contact with each of his officers in turn. Hmmpt. I may not agree with any of this but they can do better than that. And they should.

They nodded - in unison. "Thank you chief. That's a good reminder", Ralph looked down the table at Rob, "could we start again?"

Rob cleared his throat, "Officers, how long have the two of you been dating?"

"It just began last night." Ralph took the lead in responding.

"Really? From the photographs and the video that surfaced it certainly seems like something that's been going on much longer."

"I...can understand mammals thinking that. As I said, although it didn't start out that way, last night did end up being our first official date." Ralph's head dipped and bowed a bit while he was speaking.

"Officer Fangmeyer, would you agree? Last night was your first official date?" Rob leaned forward a bit to make eye contact with the tigress.

"Uh...yes. As Ralph said, last night was our first date."

"Was this something you'd been planning?" They turned towards Louise, who had taken over the questioning.

Ralph laughed. "No, I can say for certain it wasn't planned."

"Hey!" Nadine turned to look at her partner - eyebrows scrunched.

"Well it wasn't," Ralph chuckled as Nadine grumped at him, "Officers, especially partners...we often get together outside of work or after shift."

"So what happened? How did you start the evening as partners in the ZPD and end up on a date?" Louise mimicked writing down notes as if she were a reporter.

"We've honestly been wondering the same thing. Well, I have. You have too right?" Ralph asked as he turned to face Nadine.

"I've asked myself almost the exact same thing." She nodded with a small shrug.

She looked down at the table before continuing.

"A lot has happened in the last day. Not just to us - to the city. To Zootopia. A lot of things that have been a surprise."
"Things that seem to build on each other." Ralph jumped in.
"Exactly. They build and gain momentum." Nadine looked at her partner as she finished their exchange. This finishing each others sentences is odd.

"I don't think that really answers the question." Louise pressed for follow-up.

"Okay. Look at it this way. We happened to end up at The Pack House-" Nadine started.
"Where they happened to have ZNN on-" Ralph continued.
"Bill made that comment during the museum footage. About you."
"Yes. Bill. Lucky for us he was there."
"It was. Later in the evening he asked me for your number if we didn't work out."
"HE WHAT?"
"He was joking. He wanted me to see my reaction. It was...um...unprofessional."
"Really."
"Let's leave it at that. It made me think though."
"Your cousin said something that me think too."
"You know, she normally wouldn't have been there."
"Really?"
"She was covering for someone who was out."
"At one point when you'd...uh...left the table she made a comment. Something about how if it worked for WildeHopps why not the two of us."
"Really. Huh." Ralph finished.

They looked at each other before Nadine began speaking - cutting off Louise who was going to ask another follow-up.

"That's just a few of the things that happened last night. It wasn't any one thing; it was a whole bunch of little things - a question, a comment, something from the news segment all put together. I know I'm making it sound like...I don't know. Like it was a well 'why not?' That makes it sound...wrong. It doesn't-"

"It's not that. It wasn't a 'why not?'" Ralph looked directly at her.
"I know I just don't-" She spread her paws as she stared back.
"It was a 'why haven't we?'" Ralph took one of her paws.

Nadine stared at him for a few seconds. "Yes. Why haven't we?" She squeezed his paw as she smiled. "That describes it perfectly."

"Let's pause there for a minute. Thoughts?" Carl looked around the room as he asked the question.

"A little wordy at times - and the whole finishing each others sentences is kind of freaky - but I liked it," Maria noted.

"I agree. A little awkward at the start but it smoothed out. A good mix of some banter and humor as well as seriousness." Tom was nodding towards the Lynx across from him.

"That last piece 'why haven't we?' a lot of mammals will relate to that," Amy looked around the room; more nods of agreement.

"Agreed, that went very well.", Kara leaned forward and rested her paws on the table. "Okay. Those are pretty likely to be the easy questions. Any press conference would probably start with something along those lines. These next ones are going to be more uncomfortable. Pointed might be a better word." Ralph and Nadine took a breath and nodded; Nadine tilted her head - a crack echoed through the room. "Sorry."

The mayor opened her mouth but just shook her head and smiled. She gestured towards Tom at the far end of the table.

"Officers...so...the video of the two of you that's surfaced-"

"Do we have to talk about that?" Nadine asked.

"Yes...we do-"

Nadine groaned and put her head down on the table; Ralph started rubbing the back of her neck.

"What led to it and why did you post it?"

Nadine's head shot up but Ralph answered before she could.

"First - we didn't post it. We didn't even know anyone was recording it."

"I still say it was Bill." Nadine jumped in.

"Hush. It wasn't Bill." Ralph rubbed her arm; her neck was out of reach.

"Hmmpt."

"Okay, some other mammal posted it. What's the story behind it? It was...ah...rather let's say intimate."

Nadine groaned and closed her eyes.

Ralph turned towards her. "Do you want to answer this one?"

"Do I have to?"

"Probably?"

She groaned again but opened her eyes and leaned forward in her chair.

"I had to prove a point."

"Could you expand on that?"

"Someone in the bar...uh - madame mayor?" Nadine looked across the table at the smaller feline, "How...uh...explicit can I get?"

"Do I want to know why you're asking?" Her eyebrows were up.

"Well-"

Kara held up a paw. "Nevermind. Try to keep it PG-13...we can give some coaching afterwards if you'd need to leave certain things out."

"Yes ma'am. Okay...where was I?"

"Someone in the bar..." Ralph prompted her.

"Right. Okay. After Rosie's interview finished - and everyone stopped laughing - some mammal said something about how Rosie must hate them. Hate WildeHopps."

"Do you think she does?"

"Not at all! I'm sure almost every feline watching knows exactly why she said what she did."

"Really?"

"Feline's...we have...a reputation. During...uh...intimate times with our partners. Noise, injuries, things like that. So I was explaining...er...a bit about felines - you know...naturalists and modernists...and a bit about feline anatomy. You know. Uh...spines."

There was a pause before several snorts were heard.

Kara turned to Carl. "Spines are coming up far too often in conversation lately."

"Right? I mean...wait. Wait!" He half stood as he turned towards Nadine.

"Let me make sure I heard this correctly." He held up a paw and ticked off points on his fingers as he spoke. "Last night, while you were drinking - and maybe a bit drunk - and in a bar full of wolves you gave an impromptu lecture on feline mating habits including details about male feline anatomy?"

"Uh...yes?" Nadine's ears were down; a soft blush tinged her fur.

Carl dropped his paw and sat down; he turned towards the mayor shaking his head.

Kara rubbed the side of her muzzle. "Well, I guess that explains dcp."

Carl spread his paws and mouthed "boom" at her. She shook her head. These two are collecting coincidences just like WildeHopps. That's...that's just...I'm just not going to think about that. Other mammals around the room shook their heads as well. There were a few muttered "wows" along with chuckles.

"Dcp?"Ralph asked.

"Long - Rob don't even think about saying it - story. We'll explain later. Please continue." Kara gestured at Nadine with a paw.

"So a friend of Ralph's - Bill," she turned and glared at Ralph; he smiled weakly, "he...commented...how feline's were...unlucky...in the intimacy department."

"I don't understand. How did that lead to what we saw on the video?" Tom was continuing to ask the questions.

"I was not going to allow feline's to be mocked like that. It was a challenge. I had to show him he was wrong."

"That led to a video and a near riot in the bar?"

"I might have overdone it a bit."

Snorts and laughter broke out in the room; even the hint of a smile showed on the chief's face...for a few seconds at least. Tom tried to ask another follow-up but had to pause, his head bouncing as he muffled his laughter with a hoof.

Ralph filled in the silence. "What's kind of funny is that it all started with that question about Rosie that I asked."

"That's right...it was you. What made you think that anyway?"

"Uh...well...I was really trying to figure out how to ask you if we were on a date...and I chickened out so said the first thing that popped in my head." Ralph laughed and shrugged.

Nadine's claws came out slightly, resting on the table. Her head tilted a touch to one side and an eye began to twitch.

"Ralph." She licked her lips and turned towards her partner looking slightly down at him.

"Yes?" Ralph's ears had gone flat.

"Are you telling me...that if you had just asked me...what you were thinking...instead of making something up...then that video would never have happened?"

"Maybe?" He licked his lips. I really need to learn to just be quiet. He tried to keep from panting.

Nadine closed her eyes and blew out a few short breaths; then they snapped open and fixated on Ralph. Her arm was a blur.

Ralph yelped and had a paw on each ear; he whimpered softly.

"Uh...is that...his ears...normal?" Amy was leaning backwards and away from Ralph her eyes wide.

"Apparently. Several she-wolves told me about it last night. They said it was useful to keep them in line." Amy nodded and shrugged. "Okay. Sure."

The mayor rapped her knuckles on the table to get everyone's attention. With one last small growl at Ralph Nadine turned to look at her directly. Ralph's whimpers grew softer. How the heck did she get both my ears with one paw? And they were down! This does not bode well.

"So...some coaching. Officer Fangmeyer, leave out the references to spines. Both of you - leave out the fact Ralph asked the question...and the ear-flicking. Otherwise I think it went fine. Anyone else?"

"The 'I might have overdone it a bit' is a great line. That will get some chuckles from the press; always a good thing." Louise added.

"I liked the explanation about Rosie. I'm a feline and even I didn't think about that. I completely agree with her though - it makes sense. It will also help explain at least a little bit to all the non-feline viewers. I'd keep that in." Maria had leaned forward while she spoke.

The mayor nodded at her - "Same here. I didn't think of it either. It's a good point."

When no other comments were added the mayor gestured towards Amy, "Let's keep going."

"Officer Wolford, I have a question about...well...a sensitive topic, if I may."

"You want to ask about Jamie don't you?"

"Ralph you don't need-"

"Shh. It's okay. It's okay. It's an understandable question."

"But-"

"Sooner or later I'll have to answer it."

Nadine grumbled softly, her ears down.

"Go ahead." Ralph said to Amy.

"Thank you. Officer Wolford, you were life-mated. It's unusual, isn't it, for a widowed wolf to find another partner?"

"It's...I don't want to say rare; it's uncommon. It's a deeply personal decision."

"Is there anything about it you could share?"

"He answered your-"

"Nadine. Please."

Nadine's grumble was much more audible. It only softened slightly as Ralph put a paw on her arm. When it was mostly silent he turned back to Amy.

"When a wolf couple forms it's often a discussion - if something happens - what should the survivor do. Especially if they're young. Jamie didn't feel a need to talk about it. If something happened she'd stay single. Alone. She was very traditional in that way. I was the one that kept insisting." He'd been gesturing slightly with his paws and his voice was soft as he'd spoken.

"Why was it so important to you?"

"Everyday when I walk into Precinct One I...well actually we", he gestured towards Nadine and the chief,"all of us - we pass 'The Wall.' It's a memorial to all the officers who have fallen in the line of duty." He tipped his head before continuing - not quite a shrug. "It's never been a question of if I'll be wounded. It's a question of how often and how severe it will be. That's true for all of us who serve." He stared directly at Amy. "I wanted to make sure that if something happened to me, if my shield was added to 'The Wall', she'd eventually move on - keep living.

A soft gasp from Nadine drew his eyes to hers; he could see the wetness. He took her paw and squeezed it gently, before looking back at the gazelle.

"Jamie had a strong personality - even stronger than your typical she-wolf. It was quite an...intense...discussion. Eventually she agreed...but...she made me promise as well. If something happened to her then I'd do the same. I'd mourn and then move on." This time he did shrug and blew out a breath.

"It's...ironic I guess. I made such an issue of this in order to try and protect her. In the end she wound up protecting me. When the time comes, when the survivor moves on...well we wolves are very ceremonial; it's a carryover from the past. We have a...call it a 'goodbye' ceremony...that we do. I'd been thinking it was time for awhile. I performed it yesterday."

Amy stared at him. "Officer are you saying...just yesterday...and then..." her gaze moved to Nadine and then back to Ralph.

"Looks horrible doesn't it? The timing? Just...none of it was planned. None of it. I know that doesn't change how it looks - I say goodbye to Jamie and then somehow before the end of the night my partner and I are dating." He shook his head. "If you're not a wolf it won't make any sense. Maybe think of it like this. If we're going to perform that ceremony then by the time we do we're ready."

"Ready for what?"

"To rejoin the living."

Amy opened her mouth...but then closed it. She shook her head.

"I know...extreme way of looking at things isn't it?" Ralph's muzzle had a thin smile. "It's related, an extension, of our most important saying; one that's part of all of our high ceremonies: 'A healthy pack is life; a lone wolf is death.' We are, and always have been, pack mammals. We don't do well alone. In primitive times it was a death sentence. In our modern world...you'll live...but you aren't...you're not really...alive."

Amy looked over at the mayor and spread her hooves. Kara nodded - "let's hold there." She looked around the room. "Comments?"

"It looks and sounds bad," Carl rocked in his chair. "I've known a lot of wolves - and know a fair amount about your ceremonies and rules. You hit the key points and you acknowledged how it looks...probably in the most effective way you could given what's happened." He turned to Kara, "I don't like it but there's way to avoid it. That question is going to be asked. I think his answer - it's as good as it's going to get."

"What about leaving out when he performed it?" Louise asked.

Rob responded. "It won't matter; someone will ask or it will come out sooner or later. Better to just call it out at the start. I agree with Carl," he turned towards Ralph, "you did an excellent job with a very difficult question. You did well too officer Fangmeyer."

"I did? I was almost growling. I just...I saw...I was with Ralph yesterday. I saw what it was like for him." She turned to the mayor. "You told us not to react...I just...it's hard."

"You want to protect him."

"I know he can protect himself...it's just...", she trailed off as she looked at Ralph and hung her head. He stroked her neck again; she rested her muzzle on his shoulder.

"It's okay officer. I understand. I do. And I think it works. It shows you care. Deeply. The same with your reaction when he mentioned 'the wall' - which by the way Officer Wolford, was another very well spoken piece." Ralph half-nodded; he was focused on Nadine.

"Are the two of you ready to continue?" Nadine pulled her head away from Ralph's but not before one paw wiped away a few tears. She smiled at him and shook her head a few times before nodding at the mayor. Ralph did the same, "Yes, we are." The mayor turned to Carl. "Go ahead."

"How did the two of you end up at The Pack House together? Did you plan to meet there before you left work?"

"No. Nadine followed me."

"Ralph!"

"Well you did!"

"You didn't have to tell them that!"

"Wait - Officer Fangmeyer...you followed your partner?"

"Well...I was...Ralph...he'd been acting off all day. Something was bothering him. A lot. So I was worried! He's my partner. We watch out for each other."

"So you followed him? To the bar?"

"Well...uh..."

"She didn't know where I was going or what I was going to do. I hadn't told her. So...she followed me to the cemetery where Jamie was buried."

"Oh my." Carl leaned back and looked at Nadine.

"Exactly!" She spread her paws. "When I realized where we were...I was mortified. Terrified. I kept thinking 'Run away! Before he sees you!' I was frozen. Then Ralph came out from the entrance."

"I'd known you were following me all along."

"WHAT?" She turned towards him her mouth dropping open.

He tapped the side of his nose as he grinned. "You can't hide from this. I know your scent too well after all these years."

"So you just let me follow you? Why?" Her paws went to the top of her head - as if to keep her from exploding.

"While we're allowed to say goodbye alone it's not recommended."

"Allowed?" Nadine's eyebrows almost touched she was so confused.

"Wolves have a lot of rules. We like rules. A lot." He shrugged.

Carl chuckled; a few others did as well. He held up a paw in apology - Ralph just smiled. "We have our high ceremonies, low ceremonies, and a lot more. Even other canids think we're a little peculiar. We know this. We're okay with it."

Carl had to cover his muzzle, he turned towards Kara shaking his head. She rolled her eyes.

"Ralph, seriously, why did you let me follow you...something so...personal. So private. Why would you want me there?"

"There's no mammal I trust more than you."

"Ralph..." it was almost a whisper; her paws went over her muzzle. He placed one of his on her arm.

"We have been partners for years; we've had each others back for years. Who else would I want there?"

She clutched at his paw with one of hers, the other still pressed over her muzzle; her eyes had a sheen.

"I meant it when I said I was glad you followed me. I'd have wanted you there even if all this...everything else hadn't happened." His eyes had their own slight sheen. She reached over, paw trembling, and stroked the side of his muzzle while her other paw squeezed his even harder.

He tilted his head to nuzzle her paw before turning back to Carl.

"I don't understand how we got here...to this...to being a couple. It's like we said earlier with one of your other questions; when I think about the sheer number of things...of strange little coincidences...of random chances. I can't explain it. And you know what...I'm okay with that." Nadine's paw had dropped from his muzzle and she held one of his with both of hers.

"I am too." Nadine sniffled.

The room was silent for a moment. "Let's stop there," Kara said. "I um...I know what I thought. What about the rest of you?"

"I think I'm gonna cry," Rob chuckled, his voice a little hoarse.

"I already am," Maria was dabbing at her eyes.

"Those two lines...'There's no mammal I trust more' and 'Who else would I want there?'...", Carl looked at the mayor, "those are sound bites. Very powerful; very high impact. The negativity from the previous question...from the timing...these offset. Maybe not all of it...but most of it."

"You know," Tom waved his hoof slightly, "I'm not sure we'll want to do a press conference, I'm thinking an interview - like a segment on a talk show or something like that." He tapped his hooves together in front of his muzzle as he thought out loud. "There's a story here to tell, and like Carl said, some parts of it are very powerful. That will get lost in a question and answer session like a conference."

Kara nodded back, "I've been starting to think the same thing. Out of context some of the answers look bad, the situation looks bad. In context - with the story told; completely different." Murmured agreement went around the room. "Amy, after this reach out to your contacts and check interest. See how much they're willing to work with us. I'd want to go taped instead of live to take some of the pressure off." Amy tapped a note into her phone.

"Are we ready to keep going?", Kara asked.

"If we're switching to an interview do we need to?" Carl was rubbing his neck.

"Absolutely."

"But-"

"Carl, you know we do."

Carl clicked and frowned at her, holding her gaze for a few seconds before nodding and looking away.

Ralph and Nadine looked at each other and then over at the chief during the exchange. The chief gave a small shrug and frowned.

The mayor set both of her paws on the table and took a breath. This is not going to be fun.

Then why are you doing it.
We need to know. They need to know.
You already know what's probably going to happen.
They've done better than I expected. I could be wrong.
Not likely; she's exhausted, her emotions are all over the map, and you're about to threaten her mate.
You think they've mated?
Emotionally - absolutely. Physically not certain. She's picked.
All the more reason to do this.
This is the type of thing that caused that dream you had. The 'Job'. It turns you into a bitch.
At least I'm a bitch who's on their side even if they don't know it.
Keep telling yourself that. It's worked out real well with Carl over the years hasn't it?
NOT NOW.

"Kara, are you okay?", Carl had been watching her; her tension obvious to him.

She put on a smile; from the way his eyes narrowed she knew he saw through it. I'll deal with that later. Tonight.

"Officers, how long have you been partners on the force?", the mayor was driving the questions.

"A little more than three years," Ralph replied.

"Is it normal for partners to be assigned together for so long?"

"We've had other partners at times, training rotations, when one of us was recovering from an injury - at the end of them we'd be assigned back to duty together."

"That didn't answer my question. Is it normal for partners to be assigned together for so long?"

"Ah...I'm not sure...there are a few other long term partners. We've always worked well together and our skills and species ability complement each other; that's one of the considerations when partners are assigned - how effective of a team are they," Ralph's head titled slightly as he replied. These questions are different. What are you getting at? What are you after?

"Chief Bogo, would you agree they've been an effective team during their partnership?" the mayor looked up and over to the chief who was still standing off the end of the table.

"Ah...yes. Wait. I thought this was a session for the two of them?"

Ralph and Nadine shared a quick glance along with raised eyebrows and lowered ears. Nadine frowned, Ralph matched it as well. This is very unfriendly sounding. This must be the hostile part of the interview. She didn't give us a warning. Or the chief. This is...concerning.

"You are their commanding officer aren't you?"

"Of course," his posture stiffened as he responded.

"You would be present at a press conference wouldn't you?"

"Yes I-"

"Then shouldn't you be ready to respond or intercept if needed?"

The chief locked eyes with the mayor for a few seconds before he slowly nodded. "Yes. Fine. Please repeat the question."

"Would you agree they've been an effective team during their partnership?"

"Yes. Extremely effective. It is standard ZPD practice to measure and monitor the efficiency of all partners; how they interact, close rates, public feedback, adherence to policies and so on. As Officer Wolford stated one element that is considered are the skill sets and species-specific abilities of each officer as well as other characteristics such as their physical size."

"What do you think makes them an effective team?"

"They are both distinguished officers with an excellent track record. Officer Wolford's talents - such as scent tracking - combined with Officer Fangmeyer's larger stature and natural feline agility and capabilities provides them with a great deal of flexibility in dealing with situations that arise while on duty. They also, as is obvious from their responses earlier, trust each other. Trust is critical component for any effective partnership within the ZPD."

"Really? Why is trust so important?" That worked perfectly. That'll be the hook.

"Without trust a partnership will end. In the best cases it ends with a simple reassignment; in the worst cases it results in injury or even another shield being placed on 'the wall'." Nadine's head snapped first to the chief and then to her partner. I...we're both officers. I didn't even think about that. What Ralph said! Why he and Jamie had talked about it! Her paw began trembling; she pulled it off the table and down into her lap.

"Like all first responders, ZPD officers put their lives on the line as they serve the city. Trust, of your fellow officers, and an even deeper trust in your day-to-day partner is essential." The chief's voice faded out; Ralph was completely focused on Nadine. Her scent is spiking. What is going through her head?

"Do you believe they will continue to be effective?"

"I do. However the answer is no different then what I said about Officers Hopps and Wilde. Officers serve the city. The department has standards. All officers are expected to uphold those standards. If they are unable to do so then they will be reassigned."

Nadine held her paw still with the other. He's my partner. He's been my partner. He's still my partner. But more. A lot more. Feelings don't change overnight do they? Ralph reached over and held her paws in his. Maybe I need to just stop this. Call a time out or something.

"Chief Bogo, let's be realistic. Being in an officer in the ZPD means serving the city first and foremost. Aren't you concerned that partners who are in a relationship are going to put that relationship first? I mean...seriously...isn't it basic instinct to protect your mate? Would you really expect any of these officers to allow their partner to be severely injured or even killed in the line of duty?"

Nadine's vision narrowed; she felt dizzy. All she could focus on was Ralph's paws holding hers. What would I do?

Uh...hey there.
I mean before tonight I know what I'd do. I think I know. Knew.
Yoo hoo. Hello?
Not like I think about it a lot. But it's always been there. For both of us.
This is really not the best time to be thinking about this.
But would I have? Would I now? Could I now? It's been one date.
I guess we're going to do this now. Okay. Need to move it along though.
How could that change things so much?
It hasn't.
What?
It hasn't changed things.
Of course it has! Yesterday, last night, everything's different!
Why do you think you were always the one to cut it off with the other guys you dated?
What does that have to do with anything? It just didn't work out!
Of course it didn't work out. They weren't Ralph.
...no...they weren't...were they

"That is a question every officer faces every day; partners - whether they are in a romantic relationship or not - there is a bond. There's a bond between every officer - it's even stronger between partners, between the mammals who work together day after day. All of us know that if we are unable - for whatever reason - to do our duty we place the public, ourselves, our partners, and other officers in danger. It goes back to trust. Trust in ourselves. Trust in our partners. Trust in all the other officers."

He felt a change; smelled it. Nadine lifted her head and looked at him; her eyes piercing. Her paw slowly reached up to his muzzle stroking it before a finger wrapped over to his nose. Boop. He froze - except for his tail; it wagged slowly.

So...ah...something just happened.
Uh huh.
What Bill said last night? 'Your kitty.'
Yeah.
Feels like she's picked, she is your kitty. Or you're her wolf. Or both.
So we are dating. At least.
Felines get possessive. Protective.
I'm scared to breathe.
I don't think you're the one who needs to be worried right now.
The mayor!
Yeah...if these questions go where they seem to be going...get ready.
Ready for what? And how?
Probably something not good. And I have absolutely no idea.

"Officer Fangmeyer? Do you need a moment?" I really don't want to do this but we need to know. So do they. She in particular. I hope she can handle it.

Nadine's eyes dilated and then narrowed; she lowered her paw from Ralph's muzzle back to her lap and turned towards the mayor.

"No. I do not." she rested both of her paws on the table in front of her.

The mayor's ears flicked down before snapping upright. She's...well now. That changes things.

"Are you certain? Perhaps these questions are making you uncomfortable?" Well Ralph talked a bit about wolf rules. Looks like we will demonstrate a few feline ones.

"There's no need for that. Ask your questions."

Her eyes never left the mayor; the mayor's never left her.

"Um...I think-" Carl stopped as the mayor raised her paw. He looked across at Ralph who gave him the slightest dip of his muzzle. He clenched his jaw. Wonderful. Just what we need.

"Officer Fangmeyer, what do you think? Are you certain the two of you are going to remain effective partners on the force?"

"We've been partners for several years. This doesn't change how we work together." Of course we'll still be effective. Ralph stared at the mayor. You're a feline. You must know this a bad idea don't you?

"Well you have to be able to rely on your partner don't you? In life and death situations?" Her emotions are just under the surface. Protocol calls for a display...good thing this table is wide enough.

"Of course we rely on each other. We have throughout our partnership. We trust each other. Always have." He'd never let me down. Not before this and certainly not now.

"Doesn't the fact that he's gone back on the commitment he made to his late wife concern you?" This is not one of my best plans. She's doing okay so far though. Let's slide back a few inches just in case. All part of the dance. Ralph's ears dropped and both his paws moved to the table. Oh. Oh no no no. You're going to go there? This is nuts. She's like the 3rd largest predator in the world! Only bears are bigger! Carl slid his chair a few inches closer to the mayor, he was a bit closer to the table than she was now. His eyes were locked on the wolf across from him. When he moves...

"Excuse me?" She did not just say that. Jamie is off limits. Ralph's suffered enough.

She's trying to get a reaction out of you.
She's about to get a reaction.
That's the point of this.
She knows this is off limits.
Someone in the press is going to ask things like this.
Someone in the press is going to have a bad day.

"Wolves life-mate; it's supposed to be a major commitment. If you did just start dating, as you claim, he seems to have set that aside rather spontaneously for you." If this doesn't get her to react any more strongly then maybe, just maybe we could put them in front of cameras. This is touch and go though. They're going to very unhappy with me. Well, he will - she'll understand. Ralph moved one paw to Nadine's arm; she ignored it. Glancing at his partner out of the corner of his eye he saw the muscles in her arms and legs tensing as she shifted slightly in her seat. He did the same, shifting forward to the edge of his seat with his free paw bracing against the top of the table - claws leaving marks. Is this some feline power battle? Just what we need. Okay...I guess we're doing this. So any second now...

"Ralph did not-" Do. Not. Dare.

"With all this talk about trust, aren't you at least a little worried he'll abandon you at some point just like he did with-"

Ralph was already in motion as Nadine's chair bounced off the window behind her when she jumped out of it - claws on both of her paws digging into the table as she snarled. His own jump, plus having one paw hooked on Nadine's arm, allowed him to spin up and onto the table ending up kneeling facing his partner. That actually worked. Wow. Of course this is really not a safe place to be at the moment. Nadine's head bounced side to side as she tried to look around him at the target of her ire.

As he'd moved he'd idly noticed, in a 'that's interesting' kind of way where you see something but it doesn't quite fully process, the coyote that had been sitting across from him - What was his name? Carl wasn't it? - push the mayor's chair away as he moved in front of her - between her and the tigress. He was snarling although it was mostly drowned up by the much louder - and angrier - sounds from Nadine. Ralph's head snapped back and forth trying to make eye contact with his partner. Well...it worked earlier...so...here goes.

Ralph smacked her nose, hard. BOOP! She glared at him, ears still back; she let out a hiss. Ralph narrowed his eyes matching her stare. Okaaaayyy...that's new. Well I got her attention. Which, all things considered, may not have not been a good thing so...now what?

Kara found herself staring at Carl's back. How...Carl? He...shoved my chair behind him and just jumped in front of a tigress? Okay...we'll...ah...we'll think about what that means later.

Boop, firmly - but not quite a smack. "BAD KITTY!" Nadine blinked and rocked her head slightly. Ralph leaned in a little closer. Progress. I guess it's more like an interrupt than a reset. Sometimes you need to hit it more than once.

She did say it's like foreplay.
Why by all that's sacred are you bringing that up right now?
I'm not - she is though.
What are you talking about?
Her change in scent. Subtle but it's there.
We're...we're...we'll worry about that later.
Just be careful how many times you boop her. This table wouldn't be comfortable.
She is not going to ravage me on a conference table in city hall!
Uh huh. Are you really certain about that?
Fine! Alright! Focus! On the angry tiger! Can we do that?
She really does turn you on when she's like this doesn't she?
That is SO NOT what I need to be thinking about right now.

Kara put a one paw on Carl's side and leaned her head around the other so she could see. Bad Kitty? Just...wow? Did he say that last night when they were at the bar? And is he booping her? Now? In her state? That's going to make her- She almost jumped as she felt something brush her back and neck. What the... Carl's tail had wrapped around her.

Boop, slightly softer. "BAD KITTY!" He waved his finger at her nose; her eyes tracked it. The hisses and snarls had stopped as she stayed focused completely on her partner. Ralph raised his ears and leaned slightly back. Later you and I are going to talk about this.

As the tigress became less threatening Carl began relaxing as well. He'd felt Kara move closer and lean around him. He shifted slightly - keeping himself between her and Nadine but allowing her a better view. His fur slowly started going flat.

I guess Elmo was right.
Little busy here.
That was an interesting reaction.

What?
Pushing Kara out of the way; jumping in front of an angry tigress.
I'm...protecting the mayor.
Sure. That's why your tail's wrapped around her?
...It's what?

Boop. Boop. Two more boops and Nadine leaned back, her eyes crossing and focusing on his finger tapping her nose; her mouth dropped open slightly. He wiggled his finger side-to-side making sure her eyes continued to track it. Finally. That was close. He let out a slow breath as he studied his partner. Why is her face and neck all flushed? And her eyes...oh..uh...no. No no. You gotta be kidding me.

Remember the whole physical violence and blood sport analogy?
This cannot be happening.
Emotional tiger? She thinking you were being threatened or attacked?
This cannot happen. This must not happen. At least not here anyway.
How many times did you boop her? Some of those were pretty rough ones too.
Think think think. Options. This wasn't part of training.
Seems like she likes it rough and tumble. As in likes it a lot.
Redirect. Get her attention somewhere else.
Good luck with that. At least the table's big enough.

Ralph both of his paws on Nadine's shoulders. Ah...ah...oh she smells good. Stop. Bad wolf! Her head dropped slightly, her ears flat. She was breathing quickly as her eyes darted around the room before returning to Ralph's. He squeezed both her shoulders - gently. "Nadine", the seriousness of his tone made her blink a few times, "Do. Not. Eat. The mayor."

Kara couldn't hold in her snort. I approve of this plan. It's much better than what I just did. It might even work. She leaned her head against Carl's side; he looked down at her shaking his head, "You went off script; this is a lot more than we discussed." She nodded and held up both paws. That could have gone much worse. One more insane thing to add to the list. Carl just shook his head again; without thinking he put one paw on her back rubbing it softly. She pressed a little more against him. John certainly wouldn't have jumped in front of a tigress for me. Carl smells nicer too. We're not going to think about how much I think I'm liking being this close to him. I'm not moving yet though.

The other mammals in the room exchanged eyebrow raises, head shakes, and soft whistles as the tension in the room dissolved.

Nadine opened her mouth - and then closed it. What...he's... Her eyes flicked around the room again. Chief Bogo. The mayor! Conference room! I almost...I was going to... She blinked a few more times and shook her head.

Ralph was staring at her closely. Good. You're almost back. Uh...what else can I say. He glanced over his shoulder; the mayor and that coyote he'd sort of noticed hadn't moved apart yet. They were still looking at each other - she pressed into his side and the end of his tail flicking where it wrapped around shoulder.

Ralph grinned and nodded. Well now. I thought I was picking up more than just us. That will work.

He turned back to Nadine, "Or her boyfriend."

For a few seconds the only sound was the panting of various mammals; heads darted between the mayor and Carl - still in contact, Ralph kneeling on the table in front of Nadine, Nadine herself, and each other.

Chief Bogo found his voice first. "Officer Fangmeyer! That was the most-"

The mayor drowned him out in a tone that left nothing to disagreement. "Chief! Stand down! Now." He took a step back and turned to her; she still hadn't moved away from Carl.

She continued in the same tone,"Officer Fangmeyer's reaction was entirely appropriate for what I did. I'm the one that was behaving unacceptably. I'm the one who needs to apologize."

"Now," she pulled away from Carl and placed her paws out on the table in front of her, "let's all just take a few deep breaths and sit back down, shall we?"

Ralph, keeping eye contact with Nadine until she nodded, slid off the table and back into his chair; he didn't let got of one of her paws. Carl slid his chair over while the mayor moved hers forward. Other mammals - who had slid their chairs down the edge of the table - away from Nadine, slowly rolled back. The chief stood rigidly at attention at the end of the table; his jaw clenched.

"Excellent. Thank you." She cleared her throat. "First - officers, I hope you will accept my apology. I wanted to give an example of the types of questions - the type of hostility you are likely to encounter when you face the press." Nadine gave curt nod, Ralph glared. She sighed. That's better than I thought. I can't blame them. Do not look at Carl. I do not want to see his expression after what I just did. I can imagine what he's thinking of me right now.

"Second - clearly we're going to need to do a press-release and skip any press conferences or interviews for the time being. Are we all agreed?"

"Uh...madame mayor...are we going to ignore what just happened?" Tom asked what every mammal in the room was thinking.

"We are. Officer Fangmeyer's reaction - while it may have looked extreme to a non-feline - is understandable under the circumstances."

"Uhhh..." Tom looked around the room for support. The mayor continued before he found any.

"One part of this, of what we planned, was for us to see their reactions. This other was for them to see it - in particular Officer Fangmeyer. She needed to understand what she was dealing with. What she would need to manage when the questions were actually asked."

"Now - let's be honest. Was I expecting a reaction? Perhaps even a strong one? Yes I was - we talked about this when we were planning the questions. Was I expecting something that strong? That intense? No. It certainly speaks to just what these two officers have been through in the last few days and how committed she is to her partner."

"You understand, don't you Nadine?" She locked eyes with the officer again.

As all eyes shifted to the tigress, Kara let her tail hover and flick just above Carl's shoulder - not touching, but close.

Nadine's focus shifted, imperceptibly to everyone else, from the mayor's eyes to her tail and back. So it's a not yet. She allowed her own tail to drift upwards and come to rest on Ralph's shoulder, the tip lazily flicking. Yes, I do. Ralph absently reached up to stroke the end of it; she held in a purr.

"I do." She let her tail drift down and back to the floor as the mayor did the same. "You were still taking a risk. You know our protocols aren't all that rigid."

"Do you think I didn't calculate the width of the table and your strike range? There's a reason I slid my chair back a few inches. Just in case."

Nadine snorted and tipped her head towards the mayor. Well played mayor, well played.

"Wait, just wait." Amy was waving a hoof at the two of them. "If Ralph hadn't jumped in front of Nadine and Carl hadn't jumped in front of you...you'd have had some weird feline stare-down?"

"Mmmh. Yeah, pretty much." Nadine answered while nodding at the still nervous gazelle. "I wasn't going to strike, but I was going to stop what was happening." She turned back to the mayor,"I assume madame mayor, you would have then-"

"Exactly."

"Hmmpt. Fair enough." Nadine leaned back in her chair.

"So...again...we're just going to ignore this happened? Here? In City Hall?" Carl's paws gripped the table. Ralph's eyes narrowed and locked on him. Your kitty caused the problem here. Not mine. I...probably need to stop calling her kitty. That must be some type of slur.

"Carl, it's okay. Felines have our own rules, our own protocol. It doesn't come up too often these days, it's a little more arbitrary than most, and we can be a bit capricious about it, but we have it. What just happened was part of it."

"You have a protocol for a tiger leaping across a table at you?"

"She wasn't attacking me; that was defensive posturing."

"THAT'S DEFENSIVE? What the hell happens if one attacks?"

"A lot of flying fur and blood." Everyone turned back to Nadine. She shrugged. "There's no hissing, no snarling, there's...nothing. If we're serious, we stalk and ambush. Like most felines." She waved a paw towards the mayor, "Like the mayor just did with her questions."

While the rest of the room slowly realized what Nadine had said - and what the mayor had done, Chief Bogo had had enough. "Madame mayor," he almost snarled, "that doesn't change anything. There was a clear threat of physical violence. You just baited my officer, a very good one, into committing a felony."

"No Chief Bogo, I did not. The Legacy Reciprocal Nullification clause applies here."

"The...you cannot be serious!"

"I'm completely serious. It's one of the reasons I'm the one who asked these questions."

"Uh...for those of us who don't have law degrees...the legacy what?" Louise asked.

"The Legacy Reciprocal Nullification Clause. Paraphrasing...we have our modern laws and the old laws. If an action or series of actions under the modern laws would result in mammal A committing a crime against mammal B, however the same action or series of actions under the old laws would result in the opposite - mammal B committing a crime against mammal A then both actions, provided no physical contact actually took place, are nullified. Therefore no crime occurred. From a legal standpoint nothing happened. There are a lot of exceptions however that's the core principle."

"So...look at what occurred. Under our modern laws Nadine 'lost control' and issued a physical threat against another mammal. The fact I was intentionally baiting her might be a mitigating factor at trial, however from a legal standpoint - she committed assault. A felony, as the chief points out, given she is a predator and our size difference."

"However, under the old laws, I was the aggressor. As Officer Fangmeyer pointed out, what I did in feline terms, and species matter greatly under the old laws was to stalk and ambush her. This is the essence of an attack for felines. Therefore I committed the crime and she was the victim; her response was defensive in nature. Even if she had struck, under the old-laws it would still be considered self-defense - those scenarios fall under a different principle but the outcome would have been the same - she was still the victim of the crime."

"Given all of that the nullification clause applies. Therefore nothing just happened."

"This wasn't what we discussed." Carl snapped, angrily.

"No it wasn't - at least not completely. As the questioning continued...things changed. I adjusted. Just like reporters would in a press conference."

Carl looked down at the table shaking his head. "You know I'm right Carl." He kept shaking his head.

"I was threatening something she cares about - her partner. It doesn't matter that it wasn't a physical threat; she took action to protect him. She made it crystal clear that if I didn't stop it would escalate. So yes Amy...it was...as you put it...some weird feline-stare-down."

"Or it was supposed to be." She put a paw on Carl's shoulder; he turned his head to look up at her. "I didn't expect what you did. Or Officer Wolford. But he was never in danger...you though...what were you thinking?" You could have been... "Jumping in front of a tigress?" Are you insane? She could have killed you!" And how did you even know?"

"Officer Wolford warned me to be ready while you two were having your 'stare-down.'" Her face scrunched in confusion, before she could ask he continued, "it's a canid thing. I'll explain it later." He clicked and shook his head, "as for the why...well...I'm not going to just sit there and let you - let the mayor - possibly be attacked. It's not that complicated Kara." Did you really not think about this? After earlier?

"Carl, why do you think I was the one asking the hostile questions? I'm feline. I knew what might happen, I was prepared for it. I know the law - that clause wouldn't have applied to you. I'm also sitting across from her. That keeps her focus on me, keeps the threat near to her, and allows me to respond as needed to diffuse the situation. I had a plan - and it didn't involve you putting yourself in danger!" Her paw was rubbing his shoulder.

He looked down and nodded a few times. "That's fair," his voice was flat. "You always do have a plan, don't you?" Her paw froze. Carl...

"Would have been nice if you trusted me enough to share it." She had to fight the urge to pull her paw back.

"I didn't want you - any of you," she added looking around the room before looking back at Carl, "to own any part of what I was going to do, what I just did." She gave his shoulder a squeeze before letting her paw drop.

"It might not have been physical but what I did, as Nadine said, make no mistake - it was an attack. It was malicious."

"It doesn't feel good. I can call it part of the 'Job', and I can rationalize it, but I don't like it. They've done nothing to deserve what I just did to them. Never mind the feline aspect of the law, never mind anything else I said. I wasn't going to ask any of you to do that."

"You also know we wouldn't have allowed it," Carl's voice was still flat.

The mayor sighed and looked down at the table; her ears down. "You're right - that was part of it. We didn't have a lot of time to prepare - we needed to focus on the questions to ask and how we were going to do it given how much the press was driving for answers, for access to them. So, I made a judgment call. I thought the chance of something like that happening was negligible; so much so that I didn't even bring it up earlier. That gave us more time to work out our approach. I did plan for it, just in case - I didn't expect to need it."

"I was...wrong. On both counts. I should have discussed the possibility. We easily could have asked the chief and the officers to delay coming over for another few minutes or however long it took for us to finish preparing."

Carl turned his head just enough to make eye contact, "Yes, you were." We will talk about this later, whether you like it or not.

Kara open her mouth but just nodded instead; her ears flat.

Carl grunted. "Fine. So...given-"

"Wait." Nadine raised her paw slightly.

All eyes moved to her, some nervously.

"I've-," she put a paw on Ralph's arm, "we've...we've had a long day. I'm still overwhelmed with all of it...everything that's happened...so this may not come out right but I need to try. All of you are right...kind of. The mayor was right in her approach. The rest of you are right to be upset about it. There's something you're forgetting though."

Carl snorted, "What?" He leaned back and crossed his arms.

Nadines eyes met his for a moment. He may be pissed at her but he's more pissed at what I almost did to her. He does care. But they haven't...grrr. Males.

"Imagine if what just happened...here...did happen at a press conference. Or an interview." She looked around the room making eye contact with each mammal before returning to Carl. "We're already in the papers. On the web." She tilted her head and clicked. "There's already consequences Ralph and I have to deal with. You talk about the impact on the city...don't forget the impact this is having on us. Already. Now imagine what I did, how I reacted, on the news...and the web...and in the papers." Carl's ears went down, slightly, as she continued. "Imagine if Ralph couldn't get in front of me to stop me like he did...and it wasn't another feline asking the questions. It would have been worse. It could have been much, much worse." Carl broke eye contact, looking down at the table.

"So," Nadine shifted her gaze to the mayor - her tail drifted up to Ralph's shoulder again, "while you probably could have handled it better madame mayor...thank you; I did need to understand."

While Nadine had been talking Ralph's expression had shown more and more disbelief. He couldn't hold his tongue any longer. "Wait. Wait. She sets you up. She ambushes you. And you're thanking her?"

"Exactly."

"That makes absolutely no sense."

"It does...more or less...under feline rules."

"That makes even less sense."

"We're felines. And female. By definition we're fickle. You'll get used to it." She looked across at Carl, pinning him with narrowed eyes "So will you." He swallowed nervously. Kara held in a thin smile. Thank you Nadine. The tigress' gaze shifted to the mayor who quickly broke eye-contact before returning it. Nadine grunted softly.

"See...all this...this right here?", Ron had leaned forward, "This is why I switched teams. Male felines are a lot more predictable."

Nadine leaned forward and turned to him, "You're gay?"

"Absolutely."

"But...spines? How-"

"CRIMINEY!" Maria's paws hit the table. "Can we stop talking about spines? This is not a normal conversation topic! Ever! I'm twitching over here!"

"Me too. Whenever I think about them."

"Rob...", Maria's paw snapped towards Rob's head.

"OW! You...you flicked me! Lion's don't get flicked!"

"Well maybe you should. You deserved it!"

"I...I...kinda liked it. Would you do it again?"

"Rob!", Kara shouted. I don't know if I should laugh or cry. Maybe both.

"Sorry Kara."

"Remember when we used to talk about budgets and normal things in these meetings? It seems so long ago", Louise idly asked.

"Pepperidge Farm remembers," Amy quipped back.

"What?" Kara yelled as she looked at her. Yep...both. No question.

"Sorry ma'am; just trying to lighten the mood." Amy lips were twitching as she tried to hold in laughter. She failed. Her snort and laugh set off everyone in the room. Except for one.

Bogo was still standing rigidly at the end of the table; his gaze moved across all of the mammals seated in front of him - most of them snorting or laughing to the point of tears. They've all gone mad. Completely mad.

Doomed?
How can they be laughing at this? Acting as if this is all normal?
Doomed!
None of this is normal!
Well, there is extensive scientific literature around the psychological effects of 'impossible' situations. The psyche will go to great lengths to protect itself in order to ensure the mammal is able to continue to function - at least to some degree. The alternative, of course, can be a complete psychological break leading to multiple negative outcomes that range from hallucinations and a simple denial of the reality around them which puts the mammal at risk, no matter how unlikely or impossible it may be the events are still occurring, to far more serious sociopathic or perhaps even psychotic episodes. From a practical standpoint their humor, their laughter, is a reasonable coping mechanism under the circumstances. Within the context of a group it dissipates stress and tension, promotes group cohesion through mutual acknowledgement of the reality of the situation they find themselves within, and allows the group to align around some common course of action. Irrespective of how absurd the situation may be it still needs to be addressed.
...
Doomed?
That's better.
Doomed!
[giggle]

After a few moments the laughs, hoots, and snorts dissolved into the occasional titter and giggle as mammals wiped tears from their eyes.

"Alright then...now - ooh. Let's stop the recording and let's make sure we delete that whole last section, agreed?" Amy nodded. "I'll take care of it."

Thank you, okay now that we're done with that," Kara shook her head and wiped away a final tear with the back of her paw, "let's get back to-"

"Madame mayor, one moment - there's one other item we need to talk about," Maria interrupted.

"Will it cause us all to lose it again?"

"No - it's actually something important. Perhaps quite serious."

"Wonderful...go ahead." What now?

The lynx leaned forward to make eye contact with Ralph. "Officer Wolford, why did you say Carl was her boyfriend?"

Kara's mouth dropped; Carl's ears went flat.

"Uh...well...it's...pretty...clear...he is? Right? He jumped in front of her to protect her? She leaned in and against him, almost wrapping around him, he draped his tail over her. Those are all canid signals." Ralph was looking at Kara and Carl who were looking at each other, "Plus the scents the two of them were giving off are almost as strong as Nadine and mine."

Kara felt her ears tinging red; Carl was staring at her. "So...I mean you're dating right? You're you're both acting like it and thinking about each other that way."

Ralph looked between the two of them.

"You...actually haven't...you're not yet are you?" I really need to learn to keep my mouth shut until things get back to normal.

"Heh heh. Oops. Sorry."

Nadine's arms were a blur. The blur was followed by two very different yelps - Ralph and Carl were each holding one of their ears. Kara's ears flattened. How did she...huh...that's a longer reach than I calculated.

Her claw tip was on Ralph's nose. "Did you already forget Worgten this morning? You know better than to use scents like that." He whimpered and nodded.

She spun towards Carl - bracing on the table with one paw as she reached across; he also found a claw tip on his nose. "And you...that's for not telling her how you feel." She grunted, "Males," and sat back in her chair crossing her arms and alternating her glare at the two of them.

Carl glared back at her. "Ears are a wolf thing! I'm a coyote! We don't do that!"

"You don't?" Kara asked.

"No! We don't!" He'd spun towards her still holding his ear. She pouted and let out a small grumble. He waved a finger at her. "Not funny Kara! Not funny!"

"I think it's funny," Rob piped in from the end of the table. Louise snorted. "Me too." Maria was nodding; Tom and Amy waved a hoof and nodded as well. Rob tipped his head towards Carl and gestured grandly with one paw, "It appears to be unanimous Carl. It was funny."

Bogo's hooves hit the end of the table pulling everyone's attention to him. "What is wrong with you mammals?" One of his eyes was twitching. "This...look at you! All of you! You're acting like this is normal. WildeHopps has been all over the news! We now have Wolfeyer to deal with. Whatever is happening - it's spreading. Did any of you actually look at the papers today?" His nostrils flared as he glared around the room.

"Adrian. Calm yourself."

"Madame Mayor I warned you that there was no controlling-"

"Chief Bogo! Enough!" Her paws hit the table.

The chief stood up straight and glared at the mayor.

"We are well aware of what's been happening. In fact there's far more that's occurred then I think you are aware of."

His eyes widened. We're doomed.

"In the last 24 hours things...have been...different. As you pointed out. We've had hackers take down websites, far too much discussion about male anatomy of different species, what seem to be leaked dossiers from the ZBI leading to council mammals resigning, and - although it wasn't on the agenda - spent a fair amount of time talking about Rob's ass. That was before we needed a new conference table thanks to Officer Fangmeyer digging her claws into it when she was going to leap across the room."

"So believe me when I say we get it. Things have not been normal since WildeHopps pulled their stunt in your atrium. Or with WolfEyer here this morning."

"Carl, did I leave out anything significant?"

"You forgot the singing goat."

"Good point. Singing goat. Can't leave that off the list."

"Hey! The goat has a name, thank you!"

"This, this is what I mean." Bogo waved his hooves around the room before turning to his officers and pointing at each of them in turn. "This is the type of thing that happens when Hopps and Wilde are around. Not you two." Ralph and Nadine slouched in their chairs, ears flat. Chief's having a bad bad day.

"It all started yesterday morning didn't it? When you saw WildeHopps?"

Kara and Carl glanced at each other, eyebrows raised. "Adrian, what are you talking about?", the mayor asked.

"When I was reviewing the events of last night and the content of the morning papers with my officers before this meeting they mentioned how they bumped into WildeHopps yesterday morning. In fact, Hopps told Officer Fangmeyer to keep an eye on her partner."

"Based on the video she kept more than an eye on him." Carl snickered as he commented.

"You're missing the point. Officer Fangmeyer was told by Hopps to keep an eye on her partner. Who's a wolf. Hopps told her to be a-"

"Wolf-Eyer..." Carl whispered.

"Exactly. Now, less than 24 hours later WolfEyer is all over the news. And here in City Hall."

She turned towards Carl. "Yet another coincidence."

"I know it may sound a bit 'out there' madame mayor, but look at what's happened this morning. Since they've been here in City Hall."

"It's like you're some supersize version of WildeHopps that brings chaos with you wherever you go!" Bogo yelled as he rested both hooves on the end of the table and leaned towards his officers, his breathing heavy. Kara's eyes snapped back to the chief. Bogo calls it chaos too...huh. Yet another coincidence? I've lost count of how many just in this one meeting. Kara looked over at Carl; he saw her head turn towards him and spread his paws in another small explosion. She frowned but nodded. His chaos bomb theory makes more sense every hour that passes.

Nadine looked down at the table, away from everyone. I'm...I can't... Last night. This morning. The mayor and her stupid questions. What I almost did to her before Ralph stopped me. What I almost did to Ralph before he stopped me. And now this? I can't take this anymore. I won't. I've worked so hard for so long and it's like it's all falling apart. She slowly let out her breath and closed her eyes.

What's falling apart?
Everything!
What? What about Ralph? You now-
That's one thing. But the paper? That video? My career? And now Bogo calling me-
He didn't mean it like that.

Oh really? He said it earlier too! How much bigger I am than Ralph!
It's just a saying!
He's not the only one who's thought that.
We already know your mother is a little off - she's a naturalist!
You leave her out of this!
Wha...you brought her up!
I wonder what Ralph thinks. It really matters now. I booped him! I meant it!
Ralph's had a rough morning already. You have too. Maybe-
So it doesn't matter if he thinks that? Shouldn't we know? Especially now!
I'm sure he doesn't! He's-
So then it doesn't hurt to ask does it!
Okay. Easy. Just...be gentle.

Nadine looked at the chief before turning to Ralph, "Did he just call me fat?" Her claws dug slightly into the table again. Everyone took a step back or rolled their chairs just a bit away from the wide-eyed tigress except for Ralph. Of course that was more because her other paw was on the arm of his chair verses any lack of trying.

Ralph's ears dropped for an instant before he perked them up and forward. "What? No! No he didn't. He called you super-size - like a...you know...a bigger or giant version of Hopps. That's completely different!" Not good. Not good. Not good. I can only pull her back from the edge so many times. And not have a heart attack in the process.

"Hmmpt. Still sounds a lot like fat." She turned and glared at Bogo who took another step backwards and held up his hooves. She looked back at Ralph - her eyes narrowed as she leaned towards him. Ralph held in a whimper and worked to keep a smile on his muzzle and his ears up. Please don't. Please don't. Please don't. Oh god please don-

"Do you think I'm fat?"

"What...no! No no no! You're not fat! You're...you're..."

Answer her! Come on!
Uh...uh...what? What do I say?
WHAT DO YOU MEAN WHAT DO YOU SAY? ARE YOU AN IDIOT?
Maybe?

"...completely..."

SAY SOMETHING! ANYTHING!
What if I say the wrong thing?
That's it. We're going to die. Right here. In city hall.

"...proportional!"

ARE YOU KIDDING ME?
IT'S TRUE! SHE'S IN GREAT SHAPE!
PROPORTIONAL? SERIOUSLY?

IT'S THE FIRST THING I COULD THINK OF!
OUT OF ALL THE WORDS THAT EXIST? YOU PICK THAT ONE?
IT'S BEEN A LONG DAY!
WELL IT'S GOING TO BE OVER REALLY SOON!

Amy rolled away from Ralph and bumped Maria's chair. "Sorry. I'm wearing white - it's hard to get blood out." Maria nodded and then did a double-take looking at the gazelle next to her with a raised eyebrow. "Long story." Maria nodded - slowly. Okaaay.

Nadine stared at Ralph; her eyebrows almost touching and her whiskers dropping in disbelief. "Proportional." Ralph was trembling, his mouth a bit open, tongue hanging to one side. He was letting out something between a whimper and a moan. "Gyaa wwanaa oosh"

Nadine leaned in closer; their noses almost touching. "Proportional." Ralph still couldn't form words. "Aaahhahhah."

She leaned back in her chair. "He thinks I'm proportional," she said as she looked around the room. Every female had pursed lips and was shaking their head. Males were doing their best to avoid eye contact, paws and hooves rubbing their forehead.

"Huh. Well, I guess I shouldn't be surprised since you did COMPARE US DATING TO LOSING YOUR KEYS!" She dove towards Ralph stopping nose to nose again. "Arwooohoo" was all her partner could manage.

"Officer Fangmeyer," she turned towards Carl, "what I believe your partner meant to say is that he finds you exquisite and there is absolutely nothing about you that he would change."

Nadine's head tilted, Ralph's echoed it as he turned to look at the coyote. "Oh, well now. That's different."

"Ralph. Is that what you meant?" Ralph's head snapped back to look at her; he nodded vigorously. "Yes." His voice was back. We live! This meeting. This day. It needs to end. Soon.

"I see."

"Ralph."

"Yes?"

"Maybe you should ask this nice gentlemammal for his card? You can start your own collection." Her tail was snapping over her shoulder; her smile was one of those that made other mammals nervous.

Ralph whimpered.

"Wait...you know about cards?" Carl asked. How would she...why would he have her told her already?

"Uh...not really? I mean, I've had 3 different she-wolves give them to me since yesterday. Ralph's supposed to explain it all after we leave here."

She turned back towards Ralph. "Aren't you?" He nodded. Several times.

"Three. Since last night. In less than 24 hours?"

"Yes?" What is it with these things?

"Was one of them from a she-wolf in the pack?" I'd say it's not possible but given what's already happened...I'm sure the answer is yes.

"One was Ralph's cousin so...maybe?" She looked at Ralph for confirmation; he nodded.

Carl turned to the mayor, "When the press learns this it will make things even more complicated."

"Why?"

"The Wolford pack is one of the oldest ones in Zootopia. It has significant stature and weight in the community. Officer Wolford is the eldest son of the pack leaders. The Alphas."

"Please tell me you're joking."

"I wish."

Carl turned back to Nadine, "Have you spoken with Mrs. Wolford?"

"Well yeah, I've...I've known her for awhile. I mean...Ralph and I are partners. I've been over to their house lots of times."

"Today. Have you spoken to her today?"

"She called Ralph this morning and we talked a little. It was a weird almost surreal call. I'm supposed to make sure Ralph calls her back later since he didn't have time to...explain...what's...ah...been happening."

Carl leaned back in his chair pressing his paws against each other and tapping them on the end of his muzzle. He spun towards the mayor. "She-"

Ralph's phone rang. He fumbled in his pocket and dismissed the call. "Sorry."

It rang again almost immediately; Ralph's ears went flat.

"He should answer that."

"Why?"

"Trust me."

The mayor nodded at Ralph. "Officer Wolford - why don't you put it on speaker." Ralph paused...but nodded; he set his phone on the table and clicked to answer it.

"Officer Wolford here."

"Eldest. This is your third. Sarah Fangley."

Ralph shot straight up in his chair and stared at the phone in front of him; ears pressed even flatter. Nadine stared at the phone. Why is she calling Ralph? Eldest? Third? What's third? Her eyes widened and she looked at Ralph; he was staring at the phone his paws gripping the table.

Nadine's breath caught. He looks terrified. Is this the cards? She gave me the third one. What...okay...Ralph is the oldest son. So...eldest. All right...what else? She looked back down at the phone. At least maybe we'll learn something about these cards and what's going on.

"Greetings Third."

"Greetings Eldest."

"This call is unusual."

"Yes, but not forbidden. I have discretion."

"I understand. Third, there is an audience."

"This is also allowed. Do you require a moment?"

"If I may."

"You may."

Nadine kept looking and back and forth between the phone and Ralph. Why are they talking like that? Ralph never talks like that. One of those ceremony things he was talking about? So...whatever this is must be important. Why is he so scared? Is it about us?

Ralph tapped the mute button on his phone. His speech was rushed and his officer voice came out. "I do not have time explain. You can listen but I need you to all remain silent. I'll explain later. Okay?" His head snapped around the room looking at the gathered mammals.

Stunned looks followed by nods went around the room. Everyone rolled their chair closer to the table and leaned in resting elbows or arms; even the chief moved closer and leaned down on the table.

After a final look around the room - and a weak smile at his partner - Ralph tapped his phone again.

"Third. Thank you. Please proceed."

"I have spoken with Mistress Wolford."

Nadine frowned. Mistress Wolford? Ralph's mother? Must be...but why would a Lyft driver call her? She gave me a card. In the car she reacted when I said already had two of them. Okay. Cards really matter. I think I knew that. But why?

"I see. And?"

"There is Concurrence."

"That's...how...already?"

"Yes. Everyone feels there is something to be seen. And more still unseen."

Nadine started to speak; a raised paw and shake of the head from Ralph as soon as she opened her mouth stopped her. She licked her lips and tilted her head. Hmm. His mom's involved. He's the oldest son. Three she-wolves and three cards. Concurrence - strange word. So some type of agreement. What would they need to agree about?

She-wolves seem to have a lot of clout.
That seems to be an understatement. I really don't need this after everything else this morning.
And wolves have a lot of rules.
That's also an understatement. I'm way too hungover and emotionally spent to be thinking this hard.
And they have a lot of emphasis on community. On their pack.
Oh. Pack...yes. And if Ralph and I are dating...a tigress in their pack? That would be big deal wouldn't it?
I have to think so. I imagine they'd care. A lot.
I really have to care about this don't I?
I think you do. Maybe it's some sort of approval to date? A couple she-wolves have to agree?
That's...really odd...and archaic...
...but?
...but it kind of makes sense. I think. Okay...yeah.
So what do we do?
Try to follow along and not screw up? Try to make sure we don't get Ralph in trouble? I guess?
So...we're going to wing it.
Yep.
Last time we ended up on video.
Hush.

"I understand."

"Do you see as well?"

"I didn't. Now I do."

"Perhaps you were not looking."

"Perhaps I was unable to see."

"Are things clearer now?"

"Clearer than in many years.

Nadine's breath caught again. That's...that's me. They're talking about me. Ralph seeing me? And Jamie! We were partners for years but he was still mourning. So he...just like I didn't. Oh Ralph...okay...later...emotional tiger later. Now I really can't screw this up. Stilted and metaphorical speech. Got it. I hope.

"That would explain it then."

"Yes it would."

"May I speak to your companion?"

Ralph's ears flattened as he looked at Nadine; hers matched. He gestured with a paw for her to move closer to the phone.

"Uh...I'm...yes. Sar...Third?" Well that was a wonderful start. If this is a test I just failed. Shoot me.

A soft laugh came through the phone. "It's alright companion. I understand this is not known. There is a question I would ask."

"Plea...you...may ask." Maybe I'd be clearer if I shoved a paw in mouth. I'm going to totally blow this.

"Have you completed the task the mistress gave you?"

"Uh...no?" What is she talking about? I'm mumbling and confused. Focus. Or it might be a one-night-stand without the stand part.

"That's unfortunate; it would have been an honor."

"Wait...task...you mean what...what Mistress Wolford asked...of me...this morning? This task...it...has importance?" Betterish. Still need to be more precise when I talk.

"Yes."

"I see. Third, please allow me a moment. Ralph-" Damn! Should I have called him eldest? No...that doesn't make sense. For her yes. For me he's my partner. So Ralph.

"Nadine wa-"

"Call your mother." Should I have said Mistress? Ooh...probably. She'd call her mistress and I would but to Ralph it's mother. But since it's to Ralph about her then maybe mother is okay. This is hard. I need a drink.

Ralph let out a soft whimper, eyes-wide. He trembled a bit. "This task is yours. What are you asking of me?"

"With everything that has occurred, and while I do not fully understand what is happening, what I do know is that I do not want Mistress Wolford to be upset or disappointed with how I act. So, Ralph, call her. Now the responsibility is yours. If you neglect this then you will need to explain why it was not done." She leaned back, crossed her arms, and let out a soft huff. Talking like this is painful. I think I did that well though. And forget getting a drink or running a tab...I need a bar. My very own bar. But...I...uh just gave the task to Ralph. Is that allowed? Oh no...

"Spoken like a true member of the pack."

"Thank you Third. I am trying. Although I now have a question if I may?" I hope I didn't just screw this up. Would that mean we can't date?

"Of course."

"Third, I know I do not know. Were my actions on this task appropriate?" Please please please?

"They are allowed and that is enough. Your task is complete."

"Thank you Third." YES!

"Companion, another question if I may?"

"Of course." Can't we be done already? I don't know how much longer I can take this.

"Yesterday. Why did you follow the eldest?"

"He...was...not himself. Something was wrong." How would she even...she must have talked to Cindy? Or Natalie. Or maybe it's a hive mind. At this point nothing would surprise me. She-wolves are terrifying.

"Surely there is more than that?"

"Does there need to be? The eldest has been and is my partner. Something was disturbing him. More than I have seen in the years I have known him. How could I not act and claim I am his partner? Any mammal would have done the same." This is really, really weird. It does kind of flow though.

"No. Either they would not or the eldest would not have allowed it."

"Then they are not worthy of being called his partner." Huh. Didn't have to think about that one as much. I guess it get's easier? Plus...well...it's true.

"You speak truth. You will be a welcome member of his pack."

"I hope mistress Wolford will agree." So I guess I'm doing okay?

Another soft laugh came through. "You truly have no knowledge of any of this do you?"

"Third...I do not understand all that has happened or is happening. It will not prevent me from trying. This matters to me. Greatly." Please? Partial credit? Do they grade on a curve? God I hope so. I'll need all the help I can get. She did laugh so maybe I'm doing well? Is humor allowed? Do I get bonus points if I make her laugh?

"It shows. You say you do not understand yet you perform your role well. As if by instinct. Perhaps in a past life you were a pack-sister."

"You are too kind. The last day has been...hard. Confusing. I am trying to get through it. Through this morning. Through the next few minutes."

More laughter, louder this time, "Well spoken sister, well spoken." There was a short pause. "Eldest."

"Yes."

"You know what remains?"

"I know."

"And?"

"And so the task is done."

"Done and witnessed."

"Worth is proven."

"Proven and witnessed."

"You have done us a kindness."

"I will inform the mistress. Your companion would strengthen any pack."

Nadine clamped her paws over her muzzle to keep from squealing. Proven? Strengthen? I passed? I must have passed! YES YES YES! We can keep dating. Or start. Whatever. She leaned back in her chair and looked at Ralph; he was staring back at her - with a half smile and wet looking eyes. His tail was slowly wagging. She wiped at her own eyes. Fine. Emotional tiger. Now I can be one. At least a little. He SOOOO owes me a fancy dinner for this.

"Thank you Third."

"May your pack always run strong and hunt well."

"A healthy pack is life."

"A lone wolf is death."

"Good hunting to you Sarah Fangley."

"And to you eldest. And your betrothed."

Click.


Boop Count (still in support of 100 Boops by Zanrok):

Ralph - 9
Nadine - 2 (although hers had a lot of meaning so it should get some bonus don't you think?)

Flicks (the anti-boop):

Nadine - 7 (+1 for Maria's flick since Nadine inspired it; it's my rules so I keep the score the way I want :p)