Gazelle took the sheath of glossy printouts from her personal assistant, a melanistic coyote with brindled charcoal and ash grey fur, smiling her thanks. While the canine retired to a laptop set on a small table in one corner, the antelope laid the pictures on the much larger table she and her dancers were sitting around. “Cover suggestions. Thoughts?”
The four tigers leaned in, silently studying the topmost image, a light sketch of Gazelle walking away from the camera to the right, and a set of shackles that lay on the floor in the middle foreground, dominating the composition. To the left sat her name and the title, Unfettered, in a simple, elegant font.
“The idea's decent,” Geraldo noted, “but...”
“But Elle should be the focus, not the fetters,” Alfredo added. “Maybe she's walking towards the camera with them forgotten behind her?”
“Could work,” Alberto agreed, Raymondo nodding along.
The second cover idea was a hugely dramatic, shoulders-up painting of the antelope with her paws just above her head, explosively pulling apart the shackles that bound them and screaming as she did so. The title blazed in garish letters amidst the metallic carnage.
Four brows rose.
“Maybe if this was a heavy metal album,” Ray ventured.
“Can you imagine that?” Bert snorted a laugh. “A metal Elle?”
The antelope herself chuckled. “Maybe for a costume party.”
The third, loosely sketched image showed Gazelle floating a short way off the ground, her arms spread and her head tilted back in an almost beatific posture. Shackles lay, small and ignored, beneath her, and the title hung between them and her peacefully dangling feet.
“You know,” Fred commented, “I actually quite like this one.”
“Got the right kind of feel,” Ral agreed. “Definitely the best one yet.”
Number four was an abstract mosaic of bits of Gazelle's face and bits of shackles, with no pattern or logic anyone could find and the artist's name and the title crammed in at the edges; it was put aside without comment. Fifth and last was a backlit scene of a nude, almost entirely silhouetted Gazelle in a coy and sensual kneeling pose, her figure a lot more pronounced in a few areas, and one outstretched paw releasing a set of shackles; the title glimmered teasingly in red.
All four tigers groaned, paws rubbing temples.
“Is this the fourth or the fifth time the label's tried to sex you up?” A weary Bert wondered.
“Fifth,” Gazelle replied. “I'll admit, this is one of their more restrained efforts, and you all know I'm not averse to a little sensuality, but...”
“But it has to be on your terms,” Ray finished for her.
“Exactly. It has to be real.” She took a quiet, settling breath. “So...are there any ideas here you all think would work for this album?”
There was a long pause, then four heads slowly shook.
“The closest is the floating one,” Fred told her, “but even that doesn't quite seem...” He trailed off, searching for the word.
“Enough,” Ral supplied. “It's not enough.”
Nods came from the other tigers.
Gazelle straightened up a little, nodding as well. “Agreed. This album needs something more.” She flashed a coy smile. “I believe I've an idea what...but...”
The tigers exchanged looks.
Fred spoke up. “You don't think the record company's gonna like it.”
“No.” The smile turned impish. “I think they'll hate it.”
The tigers leaned forward, ears perking.
“Go on,” Ray prompted, with the beginnings of a grin.
Gazelle selected the floating image and the sensual one, setting them before her. “I suggest we take the floating idea, and add one particular element from the glamour idea. That way, I will be truly unfettered.”
A thrill of excitement ran through the big cats.
“That'd do it!” Ral agreed, enthusiastically.
“Work a treat!” Bert concurred.
“It's just a pity,” Ral sighed.
“That the label will never allow it,” Ray concluded.
“I know.” Gazelle chuckled dryly. “Ironic, in a way. I think we can still make it work, though...if we're clever. They have set a precedent, after all. Imagine, for example, that pose from the back, and the hips up.”
Ral left the table for a second, returning with a pencil. He flipped one of the rejected designs over and roughly sketched an outline of a cover with Gazelle posed as she was in the floating image on the left, if a lot closer in, her flank brushing the edge, a hint of her tail at the bottom, and her right arm stretched fully across the space, shackles falling from her paw. Her name he wrote above her limb, the album title below it.
He slid it across to the antelope. “Something like that?”
“Yes, yes!” She beamed, nodding. “That's it!”
“Or maybe...” Ral was on a roll. Turning over another reject he drew out a variant of the first with Gazelle centrally positioned, a gracefully symmetrical image, the text on her back, half a set of shackles falling from her left arm, half from her right. It too was slid over.
“Ooh!” The antelope's eyes shone. “Bonito! Either one would do the job beautifully.”
“Do you want it to have a backdrop?” Fred asked. “Because I think I know just the place.”
Gazelle gave a nod. “Where?”
“A stretch of beach across the lake to the north-west, just above the Marshlands. It's open access but no-one's ever there; it's untouched and secluded, the sands are soft and gold, and you get stunning views of the sunrise over Zootopia.”
Gazelle beamed, clapping her delight. “Maravilloso! That's ideal!”
“If we can get there unnoticed,” Bert cautioned.
“We'll manage it, don't you worry!” the antelope assured him. “Ray, I want you to take the photographs.”
“I'd be delighted,” he grinned. “When are we going to do this?”
Gazelle cogitated a moment. “This Saturday. We'll make a trip of it, I think; get there ready for the sunrise, then stay as long as we want.”
That drew a host of enthused nods and grins.
“Beach party!” Ral laughed.
“Well, a beach chill out, at least,” Gazelle chuckled. “I'll bring Juliana, and Nia...” She looked to her assistant. “I'll ask even though I'm pretty sure of the answer – do you want to join us?”
“Definitely,” the coyote responded, with a firm nod.
The antelope blinked, her head cocking to one side. “Is everything all right, cielo?”
The canine's ears dipped a fraction as she faintly shook her head, her eyes and voice wavering ever-so-slightly. “No.”
Gazelle's expression softened with sympathy. “If you ever want to talk about it...”
“Thank you.” A smile briefly surfaced. “Maybe if we get a moment to ourselves at the beach.”
“We will, one way or another,” the antelope promised. “You're a part of our strange little family, whether you want to be or not.”
Nia blushed. “Thank you. What's the plan for getting there?”
“Be at the dance studio by six Saturday morning,” Gazelle instructed, a faintly roguish smile curving her muzzle. “And I'll take care of the rest from there. Geraldo, bring your makeup kit; everyone bring costumes, whatever drinks and snacks you feel like, towels, and anything else you think necessary.” Her smile grew, and her eyes shone. “We'll make this an album to remember.”