Zootopia: Breaking Bellwether
by Alex Reynard
"Bunny, I'm home!"
Nick Wilde leaned on the doorknob for support as he dragged himself into his apartment. "Hello!? Officer Toot-toot? Did you get here first again?"
"Just a jiffy!" Judy shouted from the bedroom. "And stop calling me that!!" She popped out, chuckling, having just dispensed with her ZPD uniform. She was back in a casual T and jeans.
"I am almost too worn out to appreciate how cute you sound when you say 'jiffy'," he remarked.
The bunny tutted sympathetically as she helped her tired foxy down the hall. Nick's basement apartment was not a pretty place, but it had loads more space than her first flop. The ceilings were low and full of crisscrossing pipes. The walls leaked. The neighbors boomed above. But, more important than any of that, it was theirs.
Not that they spent much time in it. Nick had always been the type of fox to keep on his toes, and Judy hadn't lost a drop of restlessness since leaving the farm for the big city. Both of them were busy mammals. This ended up being a workable arrangement. The couple rarely had time for nightlife, so their cases became their dates. A stakeout with donuts became a romantic dinner for two. Foot patrol became long walks on the beach. A fleeing suspect offered them the opportunity to dance.
And when they were both finally together alone, they made good use of the time.
Nick shed bits of his uniform like a summer molt, down to his undershirt and badge-printed boxers. Judy draped his arm across her shoulders to lead him to the couch.
"How do you do it?" he wheezed. "You get home first every day. Your energy's limitless. You're an Energizer bunny. Can I just go back to being a criminal now? The hours were shorter."
"They wouldn’t be if I caught you and put you in the slammer," she teased.
A chuckle, then they both collapsed like falling timber. The couch was a hideous yellow-plaid monster that creaked in agony whenever anyone sat on it.
Judy clicked on the TV remote and set the volume low, just for some background noise.
Nick closed his eyes, grinding his back against the ratty cushions. Happy to finally be off his feet. "One good thing about policework: it feels so good when I stop."
Judy positioned herself to lie on top of him. She liked how it felt to move up and down in time with his breath. "Admit it, Mr. Wilde. You love it. You're a predator. There's no thrill like chasing down some dirtbag, making the pounce, then giving 'em the cuffs."
A grin. "Yeah, that part is fun. It's just the waiting to get to that part..."
She nodded in complete agreement. Judy was a rabbit of action, and the typical officer's day consisted of 90% boredom. The 10% exciting part could come at any moment during that time. It could also get a bunny killed. A big risk, but satisfying when it paid off.
"Carrots, d'you mind us rolling over so we can do the footrub thing again?"
A cheek nuzzle. "Sure, you've earned it." As Nick sighed in contentment, Judy hopped off and let him rotate onto his belly. He tucked his chin over the couch's armrest. Judy climbed back on carefully, fitting her toned tushie into the curve of his lower back. Their tails interlocked like crossed fingers.
Nick mumbled blissful sounds into the couch fabric as Judy plopped both her big bunnyfeet onto his head and started massaging his scalp with them. The warm weight of his favorite herbivore resting gently on his aching back… The squeeze of her velvety toes... "Perfect."
She giggled. "Forgive me if I can't quite understand why you like this so much. Your headfur's gonna stink like my sweaty feet."
"Fair trade. You should try it yourself. Here." A grunt, a bit of repositioning, and he was able to reach his legs up to skritch behind her ears with his toeclaws.
She squeaked in surprise initially. Little claws dug furrows through her fur. "Allright, that's kinda interesting..." Even his canine scent was not unpleasant. Judy pushed back against the cushiony pawpads. Slowly, she leaned back against his legs until she was lying down. She let the weight of her head rest fully on Nick's two paw-pillows.
His girlfriend was laid out across him like a pool raft. Nick thought he might melt. "Yes. Better. Definitely better..."
Judy let her eyes close. They were both bone tired from a day-long patrol, but that was fine. They were together now, letting their different bodies complement one another. Judy shivered pleasantly at the sharp little claws raking across her scalp and along her ears. She ran her hands along Nick's sides, feeling his lean muscle. A body sculpted for quick, agile pursuit. All that predatory power. All for her...
"Someone's enjoying being in an interspecies relationship again," Nick noticed.
"How could I not?" Judy sighed. She turned her head to nuzzle into the magical fluff of his big, soft tail. "'Natural enemies make the best friends'," she quoted from one of their favorite movies.
A nod of agreement. "I like my end of the deal too. You're so little and squeezable. Curvy. Soft. I can just pick you up and do stuff to you." He felt her tremble, and smiled wider. "My little wiggly bunny."
Judy did indeed wiggle at that word. There was something about the way Nick said it. Almost infuriating, as it was so diminutive and patronizing when said by some Preds. Nick was aware of this, and so he knew how perfect a word it was to tease her with. To make her blush and squirm. "I am not just a bunny," she protested meekly. "I am the first rabbit police officer of the ZPD. I was top of my class at the academy. I am an accomplished, fearless young woman with a sense of duty."
"You're a sniffy-nosed, cotton-tailed little Easter basket bunny," Nick replied.
He grinned his ass off as Judy threw a tiny tantrum, playfully kicking the back of his head. He kept laughing even when she accidentally bonked his nose into the armrest.
She stopped right away. "Ooch. You okay?"
"Fine, fine!" he reassured. He reached up to caress her long feet, stroking the silvery fur and pressing his thumbs to the soles underneath. "Just watch it with these lethal weapons. You got a permit to carry cannons this big?"
She snickered, but shivered also at the firm squeeze. "License to stomp on shifty, musky, hungry, bitey foxes. Any time, day or night."
"Good news for me." His tailtip tickled her face like a makeup brush. She nibbled at it with her buckteeth.
Nick glanced at their reflection in the TV screen. "Have I ever said out loud how glad I am to finally have someone who can keep up with me verbally? Making pithy quips is so much more fun with someone who can pitch 'em right back. I can only tease Finnick for so long before he just gives me the Death Glare."
Judy nodded (and had teased the grouchy fennec to that point too). "That makes sense. And it's nice for me too. You challenge me, Nick. You're unpredictable. It's like we're always playing tennis, or chess. And we both always win."
"Well said," he appraised. "Quite a sweet little thought."
She smiled warmly, leaning back and pressing her head against his strong paws. She reached up to rub them too, as he was doing for her.
Then out of the blue, the thought returned.
That bad little thought that kept returning, like a mosquito. Her eyes darted involuntarily to the calendar. It had been almost exactly a year since...
Her inner voice shouted, 'Just tell him, Hopps! I'm getting real sick of your dawdling!' It could sound an awful lot like Bogo when it wanted to.
His ears pricked up at the sudden worry and reluctance in her voice. "Carrots?"
"It's nothing wrong. Nothing you did to spoil the mood; don't worry." She patted his foot comfortingly. "Just... a crazy idea my mind won't let go of."
"I can usually go for those."
His reassuring tone made her tight stomach loosen a bit. "It's about what happened a year ago. To us. To the whole city."
"Our big first case."
She nodded. "About her, specifically."
A low snarl. "Ah. You mean Assistant Murderer Bellwether."
She snerked at that. "Yes. Actually I was..." She bit her tongue a moment longer. Her voice fluttered as she let it out. "I was thinking of going up to the prison and visiting her. To talk. So see if... maybe she feels any regret." Judy exhaled, relieved that the idea was finally spoken. Nick had felt her muscles tighten up like bowstrings as she’d said it. "So what do you think?"
He replied casually, "Well, I think I agree it's a crazy idea."
She mooshed his face into the couch with her feet. "Be serious for a moment, Fuzzbutt."
He craned his neck over his shoulder towards her. "I am. I think it's crazy to hope for anything but poison out of her. She's a maniac, and a bigot.” He sensed she did not want to hear this, and his tone softened. “Look, even if this is just so you can forgive her and get some kinda closure on the whole thing, she's sure as hell not going to forgive you."
Judy gulped. Nick's response had knocked her queen off the board. He'd nailed down her exact reason for fretting over this, then squashed it in the same breath.
Nick noticed how locked-up her body felt now. His scalpel might have cut too deeply, he realized. Gently, he slid out from underneath her, swiveled around, and pulled her onto his lap.
Even with feeling a bit upset, Judy had to admire how smooth the move was. And her foxy's lap always made her feel better.
Nick rested his muzzle between his ears. His voice created a tickly vibration when he spoke. "Sorry. I know you're Miss Optimist and I'm Papa Pessimist. I know I can be a little too good sometimes at crushing out your sunlight."
She placed her grey paw atop his russet one. "No. You were giving me your honest opinion, and I always value that. It's a sensible opinion anyway. I know I'm bonkers for wanting to feel any hope for her, and that's why I didn't bring it up for so long. This has been rattling around upstairs for a while."
He asked simply, "Why?”
Judy sighed, not really knowing. She intertwined her fingers with his. "Maybe it's because... I feel like I understand her a little."
His eyebrow raised but he didn't interrupt.
She leaned against his shoulder. "After seeing how Lionhart treated her, in hindsight, I realized... that was me and Gideon basically. But I left, and he changed, and I forgave him. Now he sells pies with my mom and dad. That makes me happy every time I think about it. But she... Her bully never left or changed. Was that what made her...? Am I naive for thinking it could be that simple?” She scowled down at her lap. “I look back and I wish I'd said something. Part of me knows her plan was already well in motion by that time. But if I'd showed her a little more compassion... Could I have, maybe, changed things? A little?"
Nick rubbed gently up and down the back of her head. "So that's it. Guilt. Judy, you know you can't save everyone. I keep telling you this. Half the force keeps telling you this. You haven't learned how to disassociate yet. You're gonna get your heart shattered sooner or later."
She winced. Everything he'd just said was true. "I know. But maybe I want to hold onto being a hopeful little dummybunny for as long as I can. It feels good."
He kissed her forehead. "Fair enough. I guess we don't need two of me."
A sniffle. "I'd look silly with one of your ties anyway."
A loving chuckle.
She liked knowing she could make him laugh too. Judy drew in a deep breath. "Allright. I’m glad I got it off my chest, and I’m glad you gave me your input. I think now, maybe it's even more important for me to do this.”
That wasn’t the conclusion Nick expected.
Judy sounded resigned, but resolute. “I'll try to go in with no expectations whatsoever. I'll just take whatever I get. Maybe she'll say she's sorry. Maybe she'll tell me she wishes I was dead. Either way, at least I'll know, right?"
Nick nodded. "Allright, I can understand that. Sometimes a question pesters you until you get an answer. Any answer. And this is one you can't just type into Zoogle. 'Does Dawn Bellwether still hate my bunny guts?' Click."
Judy snickered. "I wish it was that simple. Oh, wait, let's do a search for 'Nicolas Wilde's dirty shirts left on the bedroom floor'. Click! 163,000 results!"
"Why I oughtta-!" This immediately descended into tickles.
Cavemouth Correctional Facility was located in a far corner of Outback Island, isolated on purpose. Its lone charm was the rhythmic slosh of the nearby river. Otherwise, it was a stony slab built to quarantine Zootopia's cruelest beasts from the rest of the populace. The cell blocks were split into quadrants: male and female, Predator and Prey.
Even being on the good side of the law couldn't shake Judy's nervousness as she walked along its cavernous halls. Maybe it was just the sheer hugeness. Though other buildings made for larger animals didn't feel this imposing. Steel bars stretched high towards a fluorescent-lit ceiling. Everything in Cavemouth was stark, cold, and functional. The hippo guard's footsteps echoed like thunder as he led her along. Judy’s tiny paws sounded like raindrops in comparison.
Her ears twitched in circles at all the angry sounds surrounding her. Thousands of inmates. She couldn't see them, but still it chilled her bones to think there were so many of them in this same building with her. Hardened criminals who'd be more than happy to snatch her up and make her a bite-sized snack without hesitation.
The hippo directed her to a small beige door. "Normally visitation takes place in a big open room with a buncha tables. But we figured, for a fellow officer, you deserve a bit more privacy."
"Thank you very much, sir."
The hippo looked side to side, then leaned way down to her level. "Hey. Just out of curiosity. Anything 'official' about this visit? Anything I might be seeing on the news later, hmm?"
Judy opened her mouth to say no, but then figured a little white lie might be a better reason than, 'I just felt like it'. She gave him a stern glare. "Is this official ZPD business? I am not allowed to comment on that, sir."
The hippo nodded in satisfaction. A denial like that always meant a big fat yes. "Loud and clear, Miss Hopps.” He saluted, then opened the door. “Buzz me when you're finished. I don't think she'll give you any trouble."
Judy nodded gratefully, then stepped inside. She was a bit surprised to find it empty. The lock clicked shut behind her.
"Guess I just pull up a chair and wait."
The room was small and square and painted an eggy yellow that she guessed was supposed to prevent aggressive emotional states. Around a faux-wood table were four chairs: all sized for slightly larger mammals. But Judy was well used to that by now. At least this wasn't the same kind of bear-and-tiger table the ZPD usually stocked. She didn't want to have to shout everything across when Bellwether arrived.
"Bellwether..." Judy rested her elbows on the table and put her head on her palms. She had no idea at all how this was going to turn out. During the trial, the former Assistant Mayor (and briefly, Mayor) had looked fidgety and shellshocked, but that was no indication of remorse. Plenty of people said they were sorry in the courtroom. Not sorry for their crimes, but sorry they got caught. That was one of Nick's observations. She'd seen plenty to confirm it. Including from Bellwether herself, whose face soured to a hateful rictus when Judy had given her testimony. So the rabbit was not about to fall for some conniving sob story if the sheep planned on trotting one out. Judy had ears and empathy enough to know when someone was making an apology for the sake of another, and when it was just to save their own pelt.
'It would be nice if I could forgive her,' she hoped. 'But I'm prepared if she won't let me,' Nick added.
She idly worried for a few more minutes until her hearing picked up the sound of jangling chains. Quickly sitting up, she adjusted her uniform and put on a professional face. Neutral expression; paws resting atop one another in front of her. She wished she had a manilla folder in front of her to look even more official.
An otter guard had her paw clamped around Bellwether's forearm. She marched the sheep in brusquely. Handcuffs jangled as they bumped into the edge of the table.
Judy could see that this woman held an intense personal hatred of her captive.
The otter tossed a sneer at the sheep. Then an acknowledging nod at Judy. Then she left without saying a word.
Bellwether, keeping her eyes lowered, skootched around the side of the table and sat down.
The door clicked shut.
They were alone now.
The first thing she noticed was that Bellwether hadn't changed all that much. Still petite for her species. Still with that wobbly poof of wool on top of her head. Though her tidy little office dress was gone. Now she was wearing bright orange jammies, plus a pair of ugly, indestructible, square-lensed prison glasses.
And a collar.
Judy stifled a gasp. Bellwether was wearing a black and silver shock collar with a big green light on it. Just like in the history books. They'd used to make Predators wear them out in public. It was only a few generations ago that the collars had finally been outlawed. Crowds of Predators, and Prey, had gathered in celebration to stomp them to bits in the streets. Very few collars survived, or so Judy had heard. They were all in museums or private collections now. 'And here, apparently'. The rabbit felt both ashamed and offended that she hadn't known until now they were still in use in prisons.
Judy stared at the collar for so long she didn't notice when Bellwether was finally looking back at her.
The sheep didn't look scared; she looked far past it. Numb from constant dread. Her eyes were frozen open, like she hadn't slept in a month. Her posture was ramrod straight, hooves resting in her lap. Her face was pointed at Judy, but her eyes kept darting away from making contact.
It was dead quiet in the little yellow room.
Judy wasn't sure how to start. Of all the things she'd expected, Bellwether being catatonic wasn't one of them. Though perhaps that should have been an easy deduction. There were plenty of Predators in here. And they all had good reason to hate this little lamb. If anything, Judy was surprised Bellwether wasn't sporting any new scars. ‘Maybe the collars explain that.’
Bellwether hadn’t said a word yet, and showed no intention to.
Judy nibbled her lip, then figured it couldn't hurt to take a page from Nick. "Um… Those are some sweet new glasses you got there. Designer frames?"
Bellwether stared past the rabbit and blinked a few times, then seemed to come into focus. "What? Ha ha. No. These are..." she reached up to rub the bridge of her nose, "standard issue. They're heavy."
Judy nodded, showing a bit of sympathy. "Do you have any idea why I might have come here to see you today?"
The ewe stiffened up like a board. Her mouth opened and closed, considering several replies. Then she looked down at the table, shoulders slumping. "No. Not really, no."
Judy's ears perked. Was there a grain of repentance in that tone? She tried not to be too eager. She'd need to keep herself wary in case Bellwether was putting on an act. 'Actually, she might be thinking the same thing about me.'
Bellwether stared mostly at the table, but kept sneaking tiny glances at Officer Hopps. Her body language suggested she expected a bullet through the head at any moment.
"I am here," Judy said in a calm, neutral, professional tone, "because it has been a year since you were declared guilty of a laundry list of crimes. The department thought it might be... of interest, to check up on you. To see if there have been any changes in your situation." She inwardly congratulated herself. That sounded plausible enough.
"Oh, well sure!" Bellwether said, faking nonchalance. She let out a sharp, quivering laugh. "I'm terrified all the time now instead of just most of it! Plus I don't sleep anymore. At least, not when I haven't bribed the guards with the remaining scraps of my life savings to put me in solitary for a few days." She chuckled lifelessly, then froze in panic as she realized she'd just admitted to a crime in front of a police officer.
She lunged forward, hooves clasped, pleading. "Don't tell anyone, Judy! I have to! They'll KILL me!!"
Judy bit her lip to keep her expression stony. "I'm not interested in any petty transgressions you've committed in here, Miss Bellwether. I can only imagine the lack of goodwill towards you, so I understand taking precautions. What I'm more interested in, is if you fully understand why you're here, and why they want to kill you."
The ewe listened, then sank back in her seat like film rewinding. Looking away again, she nodded. "Sure I do. There's lots of time to think in here."
Judy scooted her chair forward, leaning closer. "Tell me. I want to hear it in your own words."
For the first time, Bellwether looked up into the rabbit’s eyes fully. Scanning them. Trying to sense if this was all just a prelude to revenge.
Then she decided, even if that were true, it wasn't like she didn't deserve it.
She took a deep breath. She wished she had a glass of water. "The important thing you have to understand is, it was all like playing a game."
Judy twitched at that. Over a dozen innocent Predators drugged and turned into snarling monsters. Attempted murder. A city torn in half with distrust and hatred. A power grab based on manipulative fear. All of that was just a game!? Judy still remembered Nick breaking down in tears one night. Admitting to her that, if they hadn't swapped out the night howler serum and he had really been forced to kill her, he couldn't have lived with himself afterwards. She remembered having to hold him for hours while he worked through the horror and sorrow.
Bellwether saw Officer Hopps' muzzle curl into a snarl. "I understand your reaction. I do. But please, I won't ask for anything else: allow me to finish."
Judy simmered. Her toes clenched, wanting to kick the table away and tell this sheep up close what harm her 'game' had caused. Instead, she held her hands tighter together, blanked her expression, and nodded for the sheep to continue.
The look of gratitude Bellwether gave her for that was genuinely surprising.
The ewe composed herself. "I said it was like playing a game. That's what it felt like. That's why it was so easy, you see. I've always liked games. As a lamb I had so many board games! I was always begging my parents and my sister to play with me. Kids at school too. I started with checkers, then moved up to chess and go and backgammon. It was the one thing I had that I was good at. Besides, y’know, being clumsy and nearsighted and timid." She spat that word with particular venom. "My parents taught me how to be a good girl and I always did as I was told. Or else. And at school I got very good grades. Meanwhile, I was the other girls’ entertainment. They'd sit together and giggle and watch me, waiting for me to mess something up. Or stutter. Or trip. Or lose my voice when the teacher called on me. Or cry." She trembled silently for a moment. "...I did a lot of that."
Then her tone lightened. "But whenever there was a puzzle or a riddle to solve, I was on it! No good in gym class of course, but you bet I was Quiz Bowl team captain!"
Judy felt her heart crack a little. She'd always been an athletic kid. Not exactly popular, but accepted. And she remembered a bunny in her class who'd been a lot like the girl Bellwether was describing.
The ewe pushed her glasses back up her nose. "And later, I always had my phone with me. All my little games on it. All the puzzles I could ever ask for. All mine, in my little secret place." She twitched. "A place Lionhart didn't have to know about. Ha ha. I left my rotten home and went right back to it in a way. Isn't that funny? I went to work with a man just like Dear Old Dad."
Judy was not too surprised at this revelation.
Bellwether was back to avoiding eye contact. "I mean, I guess the job worked out for me in some ways. Without everything I learned there, I'd be dead for sure in this place. Half the reason I'm not's because of my solitary nights like I said, and the other half is that I spend every minute I can in the prison library, helping psychos with their appeals."
Judy noticed she'd gone from tongue-tied to motor-mouth.
Bellwether clenched her hooves. "Oh sure, NOW I realize Lionhart was just like my pops! Woulda been useful information to me THREE YEARS AGO!!!" she suddenly yelled in a scorching tone. "Maybe then I would have QUIT!! Maybe then I wouldn't have been so wool-headed as to blame his stupid species instead of stupid me!"
'Now we're getting somewhere!' Judy thought, a bit stunned at how quickly the anger had come out.
Hopps might as well have been an empty chair. Bellwether was simply too revved up now from finally getting to say everything that had been caged up inside her so long. "Do you SEE!? I had to blame Preds because I was still too much of a coward to put it where it belonged! Lionhart was a moron. A useless, smirking blowhard. His office woulda collapsed on his head without me behind the scenes. I did everything without a speck of thanks, because I thought that was just how a normal job worked. 'This is how bosses treat schlubs like me.' Except, no, this is how Predators treat Prey. You see? You see how the idea starts?"
Judy nodded slowly with her mouth shut, trying to hide her alarm at the blazing gleam in the sheep's eyes.
"I kept at my rotten ol' job day after day, hating Lionhart more and more. But never showing it. Oho, never showing it! I got really good at pretending to always be my clumsy, timid self around him. He never knew. Not for a second. And it started out as just daydreams. Harmless, right? Little plans to give me a chuckle on my lunch break. How to pull the rug out from underneath him. Maybe schedule his appointments wrong one day and let him stumble around trying to save face. I did that a few times! Faked like it was just an accident. Let him roar at me a while, then laughed till I threw up once I got back to my apartment.” A laugh hissed through her clenched teeth. “But then came my BIG idea! Because what would really cook his goose? A scandal! A big, gory ugly one! About predators." Her eyes lit up, as if the idea were occurring for the first time. "Maybe I could make the whole city hate him as much as I did!"
A chill ran up Judy's spine.
"But it couldn't be about him directly, y'see. That'd look suspicious. Obviously. Nothing could be traced back to me, so I had to get very clever. Vague and clever. Although my first idea was assassination. With all my Quiz Bowl knowledge, no duh I knew about midnicampum holicithias. A dash of crushed petals in his bodyguard's coffee, and that should've done the trick. Except Lionhart had good reflexes. He survived. So I tried again. He was panicky when he told me about the second attempt, blubbering about, 'Why are predators going savage around me!? The press can't know about this! We have to hush it up!'" Bellwether's eyes twinkled. "What a good idea, boss! Right then, my frustration turned to inspiration. Why not sprinkle a little of that little blue flower everywhere? I considered mass food poisoning, but no, that'd be too random. Might catch some Prey too. That wouldn’t suit the story. So I searched a while through the ZPD criminal database. Found Doug. A sheep just like me! And with all the skills I needed to do the legwork! Perfect!" She let out a squeaky giggle. "From then on, the game was a race! I'd send Doug out to tag a Pred and watch Lionfart scramble to play catch-up. How quick can you cover up this one? Or this one!? Sometimes I even helped him! 'Good for you, sir! Round them all up in one place! Someplace a brave bunny cop just might find out about, thereby ruining your career forever!' Oh, it was a dream come true! All the pieces were falling into place!" That manic sheen remained in her eyes for a second longer.
Then it fell flat like a busted tire. "Except they weren't pieces. They were people."
Bellwether turned very slowly towards Judy, looking lost. "People. Not game pieces. But it was easy to get confused. Do you see?"
Judy had been holding her breath. She let it out slow through her nose, trying not to appear as creeped-out as she felt. "I think I do."
A slight shake of the head. "You don't. You're just saying that to make me feel better, but that's fine. I didn't expect you to."
The rabbit's cheeks flushed.
Bellwether licked her lips, trying to find some better way to explain. "I almost never left my office. I mean, throughout the whole thing. I talked to Doug on the phone. I kept track of all the little details with my computer. I watched the results on the news. So you see? It was all behind a screen. I was just moving puzzle pieces around until they connected. Far away from ever having to get my hooves dirty."
"...You were disassociated," Judy suddenly realized.
The sheep's eyes lit up, daring to hope that someone was finally understanding. "Yes! YES! Exactly! If you step on an ant, you feel it squish and you're the one who has to scrape it off. But I wasn't there, remember? I was way up high on my office! Looking down at all the ants below and relaying orders about which ones to step on. It was all a game. That's all. A harmless game. And it felt GOOD." She clenched both hands together on that word, grinding it out from between her teeth.
Judy's nose twitched rapidly. The craziness was flowing off Bellwether like heat from a furnace.
"I was winning at something! Do you understand!? Me! Little 'Bawling Bellwether'! I was playing Dart The Pred with the whole city as my game board! At first I was outraged that Lionhart kept countering me, but then I put on my thinking cap and whatever he did, I incorporated it into the plan. Just like I incorporated you into the plan."
Bellwether nodded at Judy, grinning. "I'm very good at adapting."
"You s-sure are," Judy replied, feigning a smile.
"I didn't start out hating preds," the sheep continued, not noticing. "That was just going to be the cover story. "Look how dangerous they are! Fear for your safety, Prey citizens! Think of the cubs!!’ Except... I started believing it. I was winning, remember. Lionhart was tormenting me even more than usual, but that just made me smile. I could tell the stress was getting to him. I was doing that to him. I was playing tic-tac-toe with all the city's preds. So maybe they really were inferior. How else could I be winning so easily? I started resenting them for playing the game so poorly. I started thinking, 'maybe prey are just better.'"
"I don't-" Judy interjected.
Bellwether didn't hear. "Or maybe just sheep! Or maybe just me! Maybe I was born smarter than everyone else, and it'd taken so long to notice because of how small and shy and fluffy I was. But maybe I could show everyone. Or better still! I could stay in second place where I was comfortable and let someone else take the spotlight..." Her head turned towards the rabbit across the table.
Judy looked like a doe in the headlights.
The ewe moved like a cobra, suddenly grasping Judy's paws in both of hers. Judy shrieked, but Bellwether didn't let go. Her eyes were pleading. "We were supposed to be on the same team, Judy!! I looked at you and I saw ME! The me I wished I was! The smart, confident, good-hearted me who actually did the kind of things I was too shy to do more than dream of! I would've groomed you to become the new mayor after I stepped down! You, out there in front of the cameras, with me right behind you, running everything from behind the scenes! We could've been a political powerhouse!"
Judy’s instincts were telling her to rip her paws away from the deranged sheep's sweaty grip, but instead she kept them where they were. A rejection like that might make Bellwether stop talking. And Judy could not deny that she wanted to hear this all the way to the end.
The unstable ewe looked down at their interlocked paws. "That first time we met, at your graduation from the police academy, I was in awe of you. I really was rooting for you all the way, honest. That was why, once I realized you were on the missing Predators case, I helped you in every way I could. Even a few ways you and Nick never realized. Little things. I wanted it to be you who solved the big mystery. You joined the ZPD to show 'em all that Prey were just as good, and I wanted to make sure you did."
Judy tried to keep her trap shut at that, but couldn't. "Actually, I joined to make the world a better place."
The ewe replied, "I know that. Now, at least."
There was quiet between them for a moment. When Bellwether looked up, Judy saw tears shimmering at the corners of her eyes.
The sheep’s voice cracked a little as she spoke. "Can you believe I was so crazy at one point, I actually thought that when I brought you in on the game, you'd be proud of me?"
Goosebumps prickled all through Judy's fur. A monsoon of emotion swirled inside her. That idea was, without doubt, insane. Yet the sheep was admitting to it. And her eyes were now clear, and sincere, and desperate.
"I'm not asking for your forgiveness, Judy." Bellwether shook her head. "No. You don't owe me anything at all, especially not that. But I meant it when I said I always liked you. And I lost my marbles when you said no to me. Remember when you hung up your badge and left? I couldn't understand. Why didn't you want to play the game with me just like I planned?" Bellwether let go of Judy's hands and slumped back in her chair. "Soon enough, bewilderment turned to contempt. 'Fine then. If she wants to take her ball and go home, then I don't need her anyway!' It was easy to turn on you, Judy. Make you into just another game piece. Easy as everything else had been. And when you came back, I thought for just a moment you might’ve come to your senses. But nope! You were gonna be the hero cop and save the day! You were going to RUIN my GAME!"
Judy was frozen solid, unable to do anything but keep listening.
Bellwether cocked her head, shuddering a little as she looked into the rabbit's eyes again. "You weren't a real furson when I trapped you in the pit at a museum. Do you see? Just a game piece. You and Nick both. I wasn't thinking about anything else but how clever my winning move would be. I'd dart him! Oh, it was brilliant! That would solve all my problems at once! It’d tie up all the loose ends, create a perfect scapegoat, and show that stuck-up Judy Hopps that I was smarter!" She bleated a triumphant chuckle.
Then the smile on her face fractured. Her eyes lost their triumph, showing only hollow pain. "Somehow, it made perfect sense in my head that after I shot him and he ate you and took the fall for everything, then you and I could have a good laugh about it afterwards. I'd reset the board and you'd shake my hoof and say, 'Good game!'"
More tears came. "Except it wasn't..."
A shaking grey paw covered Judy's mouth without her fully realizing it.
Bellwether continued to stare back at her. Needing a reply of some kind. Any kind.
Judy finally took her paw away, tried to speak, and couldn't. She was horrified. Both by the sheep's insane internal logic, and that it was actually followable. There was no excusing it, but Judy could at least see the trail her enemy had led herself down.
She had gotten her answer. Now she just wanted to go somewhere quiet and lie down and forget it.
Flatly, she croaked, "Well. I'm glad you realize that now." She turned to leave. "I think that’s all I have time for."
Bellwether suddenly reached out, her cuffs clattering on the table. "Judy! Please!"
The rabbit narrowed her eyes. She wanted to be out of this room now. "Please what?"
A desperate gaze. "Let me thank you before you go!"
Judy blinked. Her body had been leaning towards the door, but now curiosity sat her back down. "What would you possibly want to thank me for?"
Bellwether sputtered, as if it should have been obvious. "For SAVING me!! ...Twice!"
Judy squinted in disbelief. "Okay, you've lost me completely now."
The ewe held up her palms in a 'bear with me for a moment' gesture. "For one, you stopped me before I could become a monster-" she winced, then hastily added, "I mean an even BIGGER monster than I already was."
Was this remorse? Judy wasn't sure if that whole rant from her before had been confession or gloating.
Bellwether made gestures trying to convey the enormity of what she was trying to say. "I could have... Do you even... Judy, I cracked that last time we met!! Me trying to kill you? That was me leaving the planet! All contact with reality: gone! I was so furious when they arrested me, I actually passed out a few times! I'd lost!? How was that POSSIBLE!? I had so much more I was going to do! I’d been drafting up plans to redistrict the whole city: Preds on one side, Prey on the other. Just to see if I could make people support it! Just to see how far I could go! For FUN!!"
This was definitely not bragging now. Judy could see nothing but a panicked revulsion in the ewe's eyes.
"That's what I almost turned into. That's what I would've turned Zootopia into. These things!?" She grabbed her shock collar. "They would have come back! They would have been mandatory! And I'd have done it for no reason other than winning the game!”
She took a moment to calm her breath. "But you stopped me."
The sheep then looked at Judy with the most powerful gratitude the rabbit had ever seen from another furson. "Thank you for making sure that didn't happen. Thank you for outsmarting me and saving the day. Thank you for tricking me with that serum bullet, and Nick too. Thank you both. Thank you."
Judy had been prepared for a lot of things when she came here. That was not one of them. "You're actually serious? I mean, this isn't just some... mind game?"
A vehement head-shake. "I promise it isn't!! I mean, I know you don't have much reason to believe me, but for what it's worth, I do promise!"
It did not seem like this was an act, or a con job. Judy did not sense any segue into asking for illicit favors. Remarkably, all her senses told her that Bellwether was being genuine. She nodded to the sheep. "Well allright. Then... you're welcome." She pointed at the collar. "And I'm sorry that anyone still has to wear those awful things, including you."
Bellwether waved the concern away. "Hey, I'm fine with wearing mine so long as everyone else in here has to wear theirs. Saved my life a couple times already." She chuckled unsteadily and made a finger-across-the-throat gesture. "Errrk!"
Judy uttered a weak laugh too. "So what was the 'twice'? You said I saved you twice."
Bellwether blinked. "Isn't it obvious?"
"Nope. Not really."
A lopsided smile. "Well jeepers! Why do you think I'm sitting here telling you all this instead of ranting like a lunatic about how you foiled my master plan?"
A shrug. "Idunno."
Bellwether sighed at the bunny's modesty. "When they paraded out the evidence at my trial, I either ignored it or tried to justify it. All of it. I shut down inside. I plugged my little earsies and said 'lalalalalala'.”
‘So you were lying your tail off when you begged the judge for leniency!’ Judy thought with a miffed grunt.
The sheep went on. "When they slammed me in here... boy, if I’d never had a real reason to hate Preds before, I sure did now! There's killers and rapists and the worst scum you can imagine in here, and all of them hate ME! Well, except for the Prey Supremacists. Lotsa tattoos on them. They like to sidle up to me real close in the cafeteria, saying, 'I'm such a big fan of your work!'"
"But the others all told me I was a monster and a menace and a fearmonger. It was easy to get defensive and just hole up in my cell, pretending it was all unfair.” She closed her eyes. "Except, someone I knew had said all the same things. Not in the same words. But I remembered you on the witness stand. Judy Hopps. My hero. Answering all the lawyers’ questions and laying out, in a calm, dispassionate way, exactly what you thought of me."
Judy remembered the venomous scowl on Bellwether's face all throughout her time on the witness stand. She’d tried her best not to look in that direction, but kept seeing the sheep’s gritted teeth out of the corner of her eye.
Bellwether looked down at her cuffs. "Everyone else said it with anger. You said it like... Like you didn't want to believe anyone could ever be so awful to their fellow citizens." She sniffled. "That was what got to me. That was what I kept feeling in my nightmares. You were the puzzle piece that wouldn't fit. I wanted to hate you so bad. I wanted to hate you just as much as Lionhart. Yet another part of me knew that you were good-hearted, and an incorruptible cop, and someone I admired. Eventually the day came when it finally broke through: 'If she said all those terrible things about me too... then maybe they're actually true'."
Judy fidgeted. She couldn’t believe her words had made such an impact. "I wasn't even trying to reach you then. You're right; I was still dumbfounded over the enormity of everything you did."
"You got through anyway," Bellwether countered. And for the first time, her smile actually looked peaceful. She remembered a line from grade school: "'A good example is the best teacher'."
Judy chuckled. "I'm glad I was yours then.” Her paw hesitated for a moment, then reached across the table and patted Bellwether’s hoof. “And... I'm glad for you too."
"Thank you," the sheep said softly.
Judy thought she liked the sound of the sheep’s voice at that moment. It was actually gentle now. The rabbit felt a shiver in her chest. ‘Just the thought of me, when I wasn’t even there, helped bring about this moment.’ Her modesty didn’t allow her to know how to feel about that.
Bellwether smirked. "And, if you're not getting sick of hearing it by now, thank you one more time for stopping by. I'd been thinking of calling you, or sending a letter, but I thought there was no way in the world you'd ever want to speak to me again. When they told me you were here, I just about tinkled my pants. I couldn't fathom what it was about. Maybe some new charges against me? Maybe you wanted to be sure I was properly suffering? I mean, it literally never crossed my mind that you'd want to just talk!" She snorted a laugh. "Not after everything I did. Not after..."
The smile died on her face. Slowly it was replaced by a horror so complete it was nearly awe. A thought had entered her mind that she was only now able to face in its entirety.
"Judy... It's a miracle I didn't kill anybody."
The rabbit nodded. “Extraordinarily lucky, yes.”
"No no no... I mean..." The sheep stared all around the room as if seeing invisible data. "I mean... Fourteen predators. I took away their sanity. Made them into murder machines. And no one actually died because of that! How!? I could have destroyed families! Prey AND Pred! My stupid game almost ended people's lives forever! And you, Judy! You wouldn't be here! I would have... Gleefully! I would have..."
Bellwether fell apart like cracking ice. The ewe suddenly slumped over with her head on the table, beginning to sob painfully hard. Her shoulders shook with every bleat.
Judy stood up, instinctively wanting to rush over and comfort her.
But she stopped herself.
She checked her tazer. The clerk at the front had removed the battery, but Bellwether might not know that. Good to keep in mind, just in case this was all a huge, complicated ruse. A trick to draw Judy in close. Maybe so the sheep could get her cuffs around her throat and strangle her.
'Or maybe not,' her mind countered. Could anyone admit so much about themselves and still hold onto vengeance? Could anyone fake sincerity so well? Judy knew she was an easy mark for sympathy. She consulted her inner Nick. He was shaking his head.
Bellwether kept on crying.
Judy’s paw held the edge of the chair, quivering. Sit back down or walk over? Every cynical cop-part of her mind said that this could easily be a trap by a heartless criminal schemer.
But she wasn't just a cop. She was also Judy Hopps. A rabbit who believed in forgiveness. Believed in it enough to laugh with Gideon Grey whenever she stopped by his bakery for fresh-baked muffins.
Enough to let certain criminals off with a warning when Nick had urged her to bring them downtown.
Enough to seek Nick's help when she’d been alone. A fox. Her natural enemy.
Judy glanced up at the ceiling. There was a black plastic dome in the corner. She nodded, making her decision. The camera was caution enough. If anything bad happened, someone would see it and come rushing in. An acceptable risk.
Her inner Nick wasn't happy, but gave a reluctant go-ahead.
All of these thoughts passed through Judy Hopps' head in a matter of seconds. Dawn Bellwether was still sobbing her eyes out when the rabbit walked over and knelt beside her.
Judy put her arm around the ewe's shoulders. "Hey there. The worst didn't happen. I'm proud of you for facing what you did wrong."
Bellwether turned to hug her and Judy tensed when she saw those metal cuffs move towards her neck. But the sheep realized exactly what the gesture might be interpreted as. She quickly put her arms down, far away, as she leaned in to rest her head on the rabbit’s shoulder.
A relieved smile came to Judy’s face, even though her shirt got soaked almost immediately. She patted Bellwether gently. "It's allright."
The sheep tried to reply but couldn't squeeze any actual words past her sobs. She couldn't make her jaw stop bobbing up and down. So she turned away and quickly wrung out her cheekwool and blew her nose on the side of her shirt. She looked back, glasses streaked. "I guess n-now you know how I got the nickname 'Bawling B-Bellwether.'" She tried her best to laugh.
Judy smiled in understanding. "Mine was bullseye for a while."
A head-tilt. "Why?"
"Big ol' zit," the rabbit said, pointing at her forehead. "Right there."
This time Bellwether's laugh was real. She snorted so hard she blew a tiny snot bubble. Then she collapsed against Judy's shoulder again, jiggling as she chuckled and cried at the same time.
Judy gave her another hug. "Not enemies anymore?"
A vigorous head-shake.
"Good.” A pleased sigh. “Y'know, I honestly didn't let myself hope for this when I came here today. But maybe a little tiny crazy part of me did."
"Ditto," Bellwether sniffled. "Though you really didn't have to."
"I'm a police officer," Judy said simply. "It's my job to help people."
Bellwether smiled at that. Then snickered. "You couldn't maybe help me find a shovel then? Perhaps some heavy drilling equipment?"
Judy cocked an eyebrow. "I think I would get in trouble for that. So, no."
Both of them giggled together.
"Though what I can do is talk to the warden about letting you request solitary whenever you need it. Without needing to bribe anyone."
The sheep nodded enthusiastically. "Yes, yes!! Oh geez, you can't know how much I'd appreciate that!!"
Judy enjoyed seeing the sheep’s eyes light up. "And," she added, sweetening the pot, "I'll keep coming back to visit sometimes. If you continue to impress me, I may even speak on your behalf at your next parole hearing. Whenever that is."
"Not for a while," Bellwether admitted. "But thank you so much for offering. You really don't have to. I've accepted my sentence. Though, hey, us politicians always slime our way out eventually!" she weakly joked. "My trial was so long, Lionhart was already out before I got in. Thank my lucky stars for that, I guess."
"He tried running for office again," Judy remarked.
Bellwether gawked at her, aghast.
The sheep crumpled with relief. "Good!!"
A giggle. "DeVoss moved up, actually."
Bellwether made an 'I can deal with that' sound. "Allright. He's a sweet guy. Although the amount of mayo he puts on his sandwiches… Yecch!"
"I would not have guessed that by looking at him," Judy said.
Bellwether nibbled her lip, deliberating with herself. "Judy... I feel like a heel for asking, but... could you do me one small, teeny favor?"
The rabbit's hackles went up. Was this where the con began? "...What, exactly?"
The sheep fidgeted a bit, blushing. "I don't have a lot of friends on the outside, as you can guess. It's harder for me to get... certain items."
Judy's nose wrinkled. She narrowed her eyes.
Before the rabbit could make any unfortunate assumptions, the sheep squeaked out, "D'you think you could mail me some of those stress-relief coloring books!? They're a godsend! I blaze through 'em like popcorn!"
Once again, that was not what Judy had been expecting. She grinned as she let her guard back down. "I think I can probably work something out there."
"I'll even cover the cost," the sheep offered. "I still have a dab left after all the restitution payments."
Judy glanced at her sopping shoulder. "Can you pay for a new uniform shirt? You got boogers all over this one."
Bellwether burst out laughing so hard she had a coughing fit.
Judy had to pat her on the back, then gave an 'Everything under control' nod towards the security camera.
The bunny looked back down at her cuffed, jumpsuit-wearing nemesis. The sheep who'd nearly killed her. Who'd tried to tear her beloved city in two. Who she never would have met Nick without.
Funny how good things could sometimes grow from bad.
She knew some people would never understand why she was willing to forgive Bellwether. Some of the others on the force might even give her dirty looks for it. But there was something to be said for sticking to one's principles. In Judy’s case, it was a desire to see the hope in everything. Even at times when it wasn't there, it was still worth taking a peek to check.
'If nothing else,' Judy thought, 'forgiveness just feels better.'