Drabble IV – The Never-Tiring Tail
With a gallant bow and an arm outstretched towards the townscape ahead, Clarice announced their arrival with a playful swish of her tail.
"Ladies, welcome to Onean."
Elaine seemed impressed by this and wagged her tail, the various adornments on her pack clinking due to the motion, "have you been here before?"
"Hah! Of course not! But it's always fun to pretend that I do." The Lynxlioness crossed her arms and tilted her chin up smugly as her tail tuff flicked in a circular motion. "No great explorer ever admitted to getting lost, y'know? And because of that, the lands themselves are named to null the fact that the explorer lost his way. Blaze the trail and name it into existence, yeah Hammy?"
The Rodent was somewhat hiding behind the Husky, still rather frightened of Clarice's presence. But at least she didn't squeak as loud or didn't completely freeze up unlike the day before, when they had to stop almost every hour to allow the small girl to get her wits back. It was a small improvement, although the brunette would rather be able to speak normally to the Hamster. Because of this, the Feline opted to act as naturally as possible and treat Mariel as she would anybody else. She wasn't sure if that would work at all but she also knew that if the interaction between them was fair and of equals, the Rodent might come around.
The Rodent certainly acted better around her during the day though. Maybe she was scared of the dark or something?
As she led her small group into the small river town, the disparity between Onean and the previous cities Clarice had been to became more and more apparent. Where there was uniformity in Ahkalin, there was this organized chaos in Onean. The latter town was comprised of a mix of clapboard housings and bare wooden cabins which, more often than not, have some sort of fishing equipment hanging on beams like drying laundry. She guessed that the more financially comfortable residents owned the houses that were well-maintained and painted to protect the pillars and the wooden parts from the salty and humid climate of the place. After all, they were very close to the sea and it was obvious that the unique chemistry of the air here was taking its toll on the buildings.
The rough gravel road made way to cobblestone roadways that were littered with potholes here and there, making it difficult for the occasional cart or car to navigate the narrow passages. Not that there were a lot of them. Clarice only saw one or two passing by and stopping at the five-car parking space of the local tavern.
"Alright," the Feline announced with a grin and her hands boldly situated on her waist, "here is the mission, so listen carefully."
"Yes, my fair maiden, we have a mission in this unknown town. Since our journey will be long and the next town is about a day or so away, we must restock here in Onean before moving on! And that means…" she paused for dramatics, eager to put some fun into the menial labor of, "finding jobs. Of course, I still have some money for a decent enough breakfast for the three of us but after that, we have to get funds. It comes with travel, y'know?"
The Lynxlioness led her friends towards the middle of town, knowing that wherever the town square was, there would be employment opportunities. It didn't matter how big or small the location was, in this time of global unrest, any help was appreciated and needed. Not to mention, the town grocer was typically located not too far from the square either, and just as she expected, Yvonne's Market came within their sights as they neared the modestly expansive plaza.
"My, my, aren't you girls geared for hiking," the shopkeeper observed as they entered the building, her triangular ears perked interest.
"Yep! We're trying to get into the mainland," Clarice smoothly spoke to her fellow Feline. She even leaned against the register counter by her elbows to chat with the older woman.
"Why would you want to go there?" Yvonne asked skeptically, as if the idea was utterly preposterous.
Which it probably was…
But she won't let the Cat know that.
The Lynxlioness leaned just a bit lower on the counter, smirking cockily and mysteriously, "that is classified information, milady."
Yvonne flicked the tip of her striped tail and chuckled in humor, entertained by her first customer of the day. "I see… so what does a secret agent like you need from me, hmm?"
Snickering, Clarice fetched her coin pouch from her jean's pocket and pulled out her last remaining silver coins. It was a modest amount but it should be enough to buy breakfast and lunch for all three of them. "Just the basic necessities for me and my companions, Miss Yvonne, some butter and those loaves of bread. Also, if you don't mind, we'd also like to refill our canteens of water."
"For such an unconventional person, you ask for very conventional things. What is your Agency? They've taught you how to be perfectly suave and charismatic, and still retain your good country girl image on top of it all? Can't say I'm not impressed at all." The striped Tabby smiled as she played along the charade and flicked her hair over her shoulder before she turned to fetch what her customer ordered.
"Hehe, that is also a secret~ I can't babble about my origins now, can I?" Chuckling, she glanced at her companions as the shopkeeper left the counter, and saw that they were looking at her weirdly, which made her chortle quite a bit. It must be strange for them to see her talk like this to a complete stranger.
"Journeyman 101 for you, Princess and Hammy," Clarice leaned back on the register counter, lowered her head a bit to procure a darkened image on her face that was reminiscent of those debonair anti-heroes in literature. Her chestnut eyes also glinted with mischievousness, barely containing the mirth that threatened to spill out.
Elaine blinked as she tried to process what her friend had just said, "Be sexy…?"
Unbeknownst to both parties, Clarice and Mariel both snorted at the same exact time, even if the reasons were different from each other. While the former snorted due to the Canine's naïve cuteness, the latter certainly did not. If anything, the Hamster looked rather irritated with the brunette's eccentric behavior.
The confusion that displayed on the Husky's face sent the brunette over the edge though. She laughed so hard that she doubled over in mirth, and soon enough, she found herself wheezing as she lost the ability to breathe properly. "Princess… you're killing me, stop being so cute!"
"B-but," the blonde lowered her ears, perplexed and quite lost about where the conversation was headed, "I-I do not understand and I did not do anything."
Clarice took a deep breath to regain some oxygen in her bloodstream, "by being sexy, I meant be friendly. Act like you're old pals with the people you meet! Most people appreciate that, y'know? A little chit-chat goes a long~ way, especially when it's with a pretty lady like yourself, yeah?"
"What's more," the Feline went over towards the Husky and draped an arm around her shoulder, "that's how you make friends. Same goes for you, Hammy." She smiled at the unsuspecting Rodent and poked her cheek with a finger, "a little smile can bring out the best in the people. Heh."
But just like a toy, Mariel squeaked and darted towards the Canine's other side, far from Clarice's reach. Although, as she leaned forward to take a peek at the shorter girl, she could just detect the slightest bit of annoyance lacing that fearful gaze. That was not there before, and the Feline deduced that the Hamster was not too impressed by her display, which was alright because she would always take irritation over terror any day.
Yvonne, the shopkeeper, returned a few moments later. "Sorry to say that we're out of butter, hun, but I still have a wedge of cheese that should last you a month."
"Wha…? A month?"
The rogue traveler was astounded by the large wedge of cheddar that was placed on the counter along with the three loaves of crusty bread. Just from the strong scent alone, Clarice knew that the cheese was of the sharp variety and would have a very long shelf life. The shopkeeper wasn't kidding when she said that it could last a few weeks. But where would she put the blasted thing in? The wedge was easily five pounds heavy and she certainly didn't want to put it in her knapsack.
"Whoa…" was her very articulate reaction.
"I can put it in a pouch if you want it," the grocer offered kindly, "if you're trying to go to the mainland from here, I'm guessing that you'll be going through the mountain pass. That's a week's trek and it'd be best if you take foodstuffs that won't go bad too quickly."
"Oh, I agree!" Clarice chuckled her assent, "we'll take it then, along with the bread. Although, do you mind telling us if there's a way to earn some pocket money quickly?"
Yvonne's expression was dubious, but it quickly changed to amusement a moment later. "I thought you were a high profile VIP? Anyway, right across the street is the town bulletin board. If anyone needs anything, they post it there so just check it out."
Snickering, the Lynxlioness handed her payment and accepted the goods, "naw, I wish I was, but thank you for the advice. Hear that ladies, after we get some chow we're gonna get some moolah. Heheh."
Just like the humble travelers they were, the trio ate while sitting on a bench just outside grocery with Elaine serving as the insurmountable barrier between Cat and Mouse. Clarice gave each of her companions a loaf of bread, food that should last them until dinner, and sliced the large wedge of cheese for them as they nibbled the simple course. The Feline and the Canine chatted about mundane nothings in between the former trying to speak to the Rodent of the group. The exchange was always awkward and rather nerve-wrecking at best, though it was nice to get a word or a phrase from the Hamster every now and then.
Regardless, Clarice didn't push Mariel too hard and focused on the task at hand.
It was a difficult chore in retrospect because the Hamster ate her share of the cheese so blissfully that it was hard not to poke or prod her. After all, it was so damn tempting to just jab a finger into the Rodent's puffy cheeks as she nibbled her bread and cheese.
After eating, she and her cohorts found themselves standing in front of a modest bulletin board that was pinned with so many flyers that it was nearly impossible to find the board itself behind all the paper. Granted most of the announcements were old and yellowed, but at least some looked promising. Elaine, especially, seemed eager to put her talents to work, whatever they might be. She was wagging her tail enthusiastically as she perused the listings.
"What are you good at anyway, Princess?" Clarice couldn't help but ask so she could assist the young noblewoman find a part-time job she could enjoy.
"I enjoy a lot of domestic work, like cooking and fabric-related things so if there is anything related to that then I would not have any problems, I think." The Husky smiled widely, confident about her skills.
"What about you, Hammy?"
"W-will you stop c-calling me that?" The Hamster's cheeks inflated indignantly, clearly displeased about the nickname, but her Rodent fear made her shrink behind Elaine and tugged at the pompoms of her tuque to hide her eyes.
"But your name is hard to pronounce. Hammy's much easier!"
"You think so?" The blonde Canine tilted her head, "I like her name and I think it is very elegant."
"Yeah, but…it has too many syllables! We both have just two!" Clarice whined childishly and folded her arms behind her head. "Even if we go by Kitty and Puppy we'd still have two syllables, so Hammy should just be called Hammy! Kitty, Puppy, and Hammy! See how nicely that rhymes? Heck, Hamham would work too… just not as poetic!"
Her animated flailing and dysfunctional rationale made Elaine giggle, "you really are silly, but I think Mariel must be the one to decide how she will be called. What do you think?"
The Hamster scowled and tugged at her pompoms even more, reluctant to respond. But after the Husky's affable encouragement and friendly tail wags, she finally muttered, "If it's really that hard for you, Mary's fine. Call me Mary."
"Mary…" the blonde parroted the word before beaming and swinging her tail side to side even more. "That is a pretty name as well."
Clarice crossed her arms over her chest and twitched her whiskers, "hmm…I'll still go with Hammy."
"What?!" Mary shrieked in righteous anger, her little fists clenched tightly and seemingly ready to pounce. But the Feline only pursed her lips stubbornly. She was already attached to the cute nickname she had given the Hamster and she wasn't about to let it go.
"Mary sounds too girly anyway," she grinned proudly as she twirled her tail tuff in circles, "while Hammy is gender neutral… sounds much cooler too."
"That's not for you to decide!" the Hamster shrieked once more out of irritation, "And what do you mean girly? I like my name, okay? Hammy makes me sound like—"
"Though come to think of it," she thought as she ignored the Rodent's angry protest and paid more attention to the Husky's very happy tail, "how the heck does Princess' skirt stay down? Friggin' magic skirt! It exists!"
"Unless they have lead weights down there…"
"You're not listening to me, stupid Cat!"
"Hey, that's not very nice. Don't call people stupid like that, tsk, tsk… very impolite." Clarice nodded sagely, like a disapproving old man. She then pulled at her whiskers as if it were a mustache and spoke like a sophisticated gentleman, "what is wrong with our youth nowadays? Tetchy and shrieking at their elders so uncouthly. Bah! Such rabble… the epitome of vulgar idiosyncrasies."
"Why are you so… so…Argh!"
"Now, now," the gentle clapping of hands somehow silenced the two opposing sides, "perhaps we should return to searching. We do not have all day, correct? So it is impertinent that we find a means of earning our rooms for tonight. Let us see here…" Elaine examined the bulletin board once more, her finger tapping her chin in thought as she read some of the occupation aloud.
"Roof tiler, plumber, service girl…"
"Pfft, yeah, Princess, you can do that one."
"Do you think so?"
You're already one, more or less…
"Hmm… babysitter, boat repair, bosom presser…"
"Pfft! What? Bosom presser? So… you… press bosoms in that job?"
"Of clothing, yes," Elaine helpfully explained to the highly humored Feline, "it is usually performed in laundrymats for more formal attire."
"What about this one, Elaine?" Mary stepped closer to the board and pointed to the topmost flyer.
"But it sounds like it requires a lot of manual labor. Are you sure?"
"Oh, then maybe not," the Rodent shrank back and chuckled sheepishly, "I don't have much upper body strength to support heavy racks."
Kill me now…
"Clarice… why did you hit your head on the board?"
"Hehehe… oh nothing~ I just can't decide that's all." There was no way that she would be able to explain those kinds of things to these two girls. It was quite sad yet fortunate that they knew not what they were saying, so the Lynxlioness just waved it off with a twirl of her tail tuff. "Ignoring those … uh… peculiar-sounding occupations, I think I'll go see who needs a roof tiler. I've fixed my share of roofs and ceilings in these past few years that I think I'll do a good job at it."
"Okay, so one is decided. Mary, how about you?"
"Yeah, Hammy, bosoms, racks, or bottom nailing?" Clarice snickered mischievously and grinned to control the spasms of her facial muscles.
"Um, I think I'll do boat repair." The Rodent decided with an astute bob of her head, "I spent many weeks on a ship to get here and my fare was basically helping to maintain it."
"Oho~ great! So, are you going to be pressing those bosoms then, Princess?"
"Well…" the Husky scanned the bulletin board one more time and finally settled on the very bottom flyer, "if the position for baker's assistant is still open then I will apply there. Not only is baking a hobby of mine, I have been making bread, cakes and other pastries since I was a little girl." She giggled as she recalled her experiences in the kitchen, "I believe I will do well in it."
"Haha...hmm… hot buns~! Great! Then we should all go and get our jobs done. Let's all meet at the Bakery later in the evening since it's near the center of town, alrighty?" She explained their itinerary with gusto, prepping her little party for the day ahead. "Once we meet up, we'll find an inn where we can stay for the night and, hopefully, we can get some hot dinner too. So look forward to it!"
With determined nods, the adventurous trio set out to replenish their supplies.
Elaine tried to stop her rapidly wagging tail as the three of them headed towards Greene's Bakery, which was only a few blocks down from where they had lunch. While the Husky was confident to face a potential interview, she was still grateful to Clarice and Mariel for accompanying her before they set out for their destinations. It was always nice to have moral support after all.
"This looks like a fine place," she gave the quaint little clapboard shop a quick glance, satisfied with the working environment. The store had a large window that displayed all the bread they sell, and the selection looked quite promising as well. She should be able to persuade the chef that she would be a useful helper.
"Yeah, we just had breakfast but those buns look tasty!" Clarice giggled merrily while patting the Husky's back, "Especially those golden ones~"
Indeed, the croissants by the window looked appetizing, which meant the baker must be capable so Elaine would need to really impress the person.
The blonde adolescent took a deep breath and tried to recall all the practical matter she'd learned in the academy. She used to work as a teacher's assistant in fencing, a few classes and some administrative matters, and she also helped out at her mother's conservatoire. The one thing she learned was that as long as you prove your proficiency at your job, the employer should treat you accordingly, with neutral coolness being the worst possible attitude. After all, the prejudiced ones won't even hire you in the first place, so the racism was not completely rooted. Having faced quite a few discriminatory people growing up, she should be ready to tackle anything.
As she took a step into the Bakery, she felt Mariel moving closer to her, even though the Hamster was trying her best to look brave. The young Rodent must have faced worse treatment, based on her inexplicable fear for Felines. Elaine was pleased to see their interactions improving since their meeting though. Nothing would change over night after all, so seeing how the girl's terrified paralysis decreasing to fearful glances was more than enough.
Being the entertaining jokester she was, Clarice was possibly the least scary Feline the Husky had ever met, so Mariel should fall for the roguish traveler's charms in due time.
"Look, Hammy, there are cheese-covered pastries~" The Lynxlioness twirled her iconic tail tuff at the plate of food.
"My…name…is not… Hammy," the Hamster grumbled through gritted teeth, her fists clenched and ready to pummel if it weren't for her fear.
Yes, all in due time.
"How may I help you?" A middle-aged woman walked out from the back and rested her hands on the counter, her cranky scowl shifting to an intrigued frown as she looked over the trio. "Dog, Cat and Mouse… you don't see that everyday."
"Are you the owner of this establishment, ma'am?"
"Indeed, my name is Joyce Greene. You three must be new to Onean. I've never seen you around here."
"Yes, we just arrived this morning," Elaine glanced over the baker, who was on the plump side of things like a person stereotypical of her profession, and noticed a tiny set of horns protruding beneath her curly hair. Before she could introduce herself properly, Clarice spoke up about something the blonde wanted to prevent.
"Are you a Cow, Miss Greene?"
Offended, the woman took out a rolling pin from her apron's pocket and threw it at the yowling Feline. "I'm a Sheep, you disrespectful furball!"
The weapon was easily dodged by the brunette and sailed towards the unsuspecting Hamster. Yelping in surprise, Mariel caught the object and immediately flung it back at who she thought was her attacker.
"Yow, my precious tail!" Whiskers twitching, Clarice instinctively slapped away the rolling pin with her tail.
The Feline swallowed sheepishly when the tool bounced off Elaine's chest and finally landed on the ground with a loud clatter.
"Dog, Cat and Mouse… a headache of a combo," Joyce stared at them, bemusement oozing out of her expression but at least she didn't seem angry by the earlier remark anymore.
"I-I am terribly sorry about what my friend said," the mortified Husky bowed with flattened red ears, "she is not accurate when it comes to species…"
"What she said, Miss Greene, I really didn't mean any harm," Clarice grinned and rubbed the back of her head, "Honest!"
The Sheep narrowed her eyes at the still twirling tail tuff and sighed dismissively. "Whatever. So what do you want?"
At least, Elaine's politeness worked to an extent, since Joyce's irritation gradually faded away as she explained the reason behind putting up the ad. There was a local gathering for a wealthy girl's birthday, so the baker was desperate for another hand in the kitchen. So far, none who had applied met up to her standard.
"I think I should just hire whatever hand I can get," she tapped on the counter top with agitation, "but there's always the fear of newbies messing up my kitchen."
"I believe I can be a good assistant, Miss Greene," Elaine spoke up firmly, seeing her opportunity to win over the grumpy cook in spite of their disastrous meeting, "I have been helping my mother in baking treats ever since I was tall enough to reach the counter."
"Is that so?" The Sheep glanced over her humble stance before squinting at the giddy Lynxlioness and quiet Hamster behind her, "if you can handle travelling with those two… okay, you're hired, Miss Elaine."
"Awesome!" Clarice threw an arm around the flushed blonde, giving her a congratulatory hug. "One down and two to go~"
Smiling, the Husky looked at Mariel, who was staring longingly at some honey-covered bread, so she made a mental note to ask the younger girl her favorite food later. There was so much they didn't know about each other, but Elaine was confident that the three of them would eventually get along.
Perhaps, some time in the future, people won't be surprised to see a trio of their species traveling together.
"Come on, let's go, Hamham, time to drop you off at your job!" Clarice folded her arms and nudged the Rodent out of the store with her tail tuff. Squeaking indignantly, the smaller girl sprinted out of the Feline's reach and ran down the street like a fleeing critter.
"Stop calling me that!" Mariel screeched angrily once she considered herself a safe distance away. "Crazy Cat!"
"Why you little-" Yowling playfully, the brunette saluted at Elaine and chased after the Rodent.
Certainly, their dynamic had improved a decent amount already. Even without her as the mediator, those two should be fine.
"Quite the troublesome companions you have," Joyce shook her head exasperatedly, "I'd love to ask more about you and how you three are together, but I'm afraid we're out of time. So, before we get started, I'd like you to make a simple snack for me, a demonstration of your skills if you will," she smiled at her amiably and gestured at the entrance leading to the moderate-sized kitchen. "So I know exactly how many tasks I can entrust you with."
"Certainly, Miss Greene," Elaine wagged her tail and rolled up her sleeves, eager to prove her worth. It will be just like those late afternoons when she would bake something with her mother, taking care to bake extra portions for daddy and Kura-chan if they visited later so they would have more than enough to gobble down. Instead of nostalgia or homesickness, she only felt prouder at the fact she was in this foreign town and applying her knowledge to accomplish something, far from their influence. Naturally, she would always miss them but she was more ecstatic to be able to walk on her own path.
And this was her first mission, as Clarice had put it. The Canine's tail wagged even faster at the thought of her two companions, determined to surprise them with her culinary skills.
"Oh hold on, Elaine, I think I have a spare uniform…" the Sheep shuffled to the small change room and called her over, "Yup, here it is. I wouldn't want your pretty blouse to get smudgy."
"Thank you very much, Miss Greene," the blonde was rather glad for the change of clothes because in spite of the spares she's brought in the backpack, none of them were exactly suitable for confectionary.
"I'll go check on the supplies. Just come back to the kitchen whenever you're done."
Sighing in relief, Elaine took off the iron greaves not because they were uncomfortable, but more like she felt anxious donning such get-up in this quiet town, let alone this familial bakery. After she unclasped her hair and brushed them back, she pulled on the chef's uniform, pleasantly surprised by the snug fabric and how it fit her form quite well.
Or so she thought.
Her ears flattened in mortification as she struggled to pull the topmost button into its slot because it proved to be difficult due to her rather endowed… chest area.
"Everything alright?" Joyce called when she heard a quiet whimper from the changing room.
"Y-yes, just one moment," the Husky took a deep breath and managed to button up after several more desperate attempts. Though the coat now felt awfully tight, she tried not to let it bother her and hurriedly fastened the striped tie under the collars. At least, she looked dignified and fit for the job, even if it was uncomfortable.
Fortunately, the bakery's owner did not comment on anything and went straight to business as she showed the blonde around the kitchen. Elaine methodically memorized the locations of the ingredients and utensils so the Sheep did not even have to repeat again, which must have pleased her due to the small smile on her stern face.
Even though the Husky was already hired, she also knew this small task was a test and so intuitively, she knew she'd have to impress her examiner somehow to gain more liberties with this workspace. The dessert's appearance, taste as well as its simplicity must be well balanced, thus she decided on making madeleine as her entry piece.
Since there wasn't a madeleine mold, she decided that a regular cookie pan would do. After placing her ingredients on the island in groups, she buttered and floured the container with practiced ease. She put a small chunk of butter into a pot and, while she waited for it to melt, she began mixing eggs, vanilla and salt in a bowl. As she rapidly beat the mixture, she gradually added granulated sugar until the concoction was thick. After she was satisfied with its viscosity, she sifted flour and folded the mixture over the addition repetitively until the required amount of white powder was infused. She repeated the same process again after pouring the melted butter around the edge of the batter. Gently, she spooned the concoction into the pan and placed the pan into the oven with an excited smile.
How she always enjoyed the waiting for the products to bake!
"You love cooking, don't you?" Joyce remarked with an amused glint in her eyes, which were focused on the Husky's happily wagging tail.
"I-I do," Elaine chuckled bashfully, knowing it was futile to still the expressive and seemingly tireless appendage. Besides, she had no need to hide how content she was. Like gardening, cooking cleared unnecessary thoughts and transported the participant to a serene place of mind that made everything simple and free of worries.
Such humble joy was very much appreciated in life.
After baking the butter cakes for fifteen minutes, the young chef carefully took out the pan, pleased by the product's golden exterior. She lightly pressed the top with her pinkie and nodded in approval when it sprung back to demonstrate its solid yet soft texture. She efficiently loosened the madeleine from the container with the tip of a knife and inverted it onto a rack to cool. Without wasting a moment, she sprinkled the warm cookies with the decorative sugar she'd prepared while waiting for them to cook.
"I must say they look quite appetizing, Elaine, but let me see if its taste is just as good as it looks," the Sheep then examined a piece and blew on it before taking a small bite.
And promptly froze.
"Miss Greene?" The blonde spoke worriedly at the woman, who was staring blankly at the cookie. Was the snack not up to her palate? But the Canine had been baking madeleine for many years now and she was certain she did not mess up on the recipe. She recalled making the butter cakes for the Rebels too so the flavor wasn't just popular with Canines. In fact, if she added carrot shredding in the final step, Kura-chan would inhale the cookies within minutes!
"…this is incredible, dear," Joyce smiled blissfully as she glanced between Elaine and the madeleine, "I love how it just crumbles in your mouth, and it's not too sugary either. The softness and sweetness are just right."
If any doubts and animosity still remained from the less-than-smooth introduction, they've definitely melted away with her success. The Sheep even dug out a spare chef's hat from the locker and charged her with the task of creating the sale items for today.
"If everything goes well later, I might even add your recipes to the menu for the gathering!"
Delighted at such enthusiasm from the confectionary owner, Elaine busied herself with baking several of her personal favorites as well as the specialty buns the shop usually sold. With the Sheep's help as well as the blonde's systematic stations, they were able to finish an ample amount of pastries by the time noon arrived. The humble town of Onean seemed to enjoy simple bread or similar food as lunch, for she found herself standing behind the cash register when the bell chimed precisely at noon, signaling the arrival of her first customer.
"How may I help you, sir?"
The Elderly Kodkod was evaluating the new items displayed by the windows, apprehensive with the way his thick eyebrows furrowed in concentration. "You new here, girl?"
"Yes, I am Miss Greene's helper for the day. My name is-"
"Yeh yeh, I get it. More importantly," the Feline waved her off before she could introduce herself, but it didn't seem like he was being deliberately rude. He appeared to be more interested by the desserts near the entrance so everything else became trivial, "what are those… dark, flat cylinder thingies? They smell pretty damn good."
"They are called canelés, sir," Elaine paused patiently while the elder absorbed the foreign term and stroked his beard, continuing only when he flicked his tail in assent, "it has a soft custard center and a thick caramel crust. It's flavored with rum and vanilla, so it especially goes well with either tea, champagne or wine."
"Beh! Ain't got no high-class drinks in my home," the bearded man chuckled pleasantly though, his crinkled eyes finally smiling at the adolescent, "but I do have some tea. I was just in the mood for something with caramel and these look good enough for me. I'll take a bunch, Miss."
"Oh, what's this? Old man's trying somethin' new?" A young Kodkod grinned cheekily as he sauntered up to the older Feline with his hands stuffed in his pockets. He looked like he just got a break from working in the nearby fields, judging from the dirt-smudged linen and his sunburned cheeks, which darkened a shade when he turned to look at the blonde. This shop must feel stuffy for the poor man, especially after a whole morning of toil Elaine nodded in greeting and noted to herself to open a few windows later for better air circulation.
"Hush, respect your grandfather," the elder harrumphed and hobbled out of the bakery after paying for his dessert, not bothering to wait for his kin.
"S-so… you made these?" The young Feline didn't seem to notice his exit and gestured at the various pastries with his eyes still trained on the Canine, "All by yourself? That's really impressive, uh, I'd like to get to know-"
"I'm here too you silly furball," Joyce came out from the back and stood in front of Elaine with a bemused frown, "None of that in my shop. Just choose your lunch and you can shoo."
"Yeesh, grumpy as ever," the Kodkod seemed invigorated by subtle threat though, because he leaned against the counter and swished his tail leisurely instead of relenting, "So which dessert do you recommend, pretty lady? I like munching on things."
The Sheep groaned loudly, confusing Elaine because so far the patron hadn't done anything wrong other than being rather forward. "Well sir, I would recommend the oatmeal cookies by the granola bars."
"Great, I love oatmeal cookies!" The Feline winked and displayed his pristine white fangs again, "It's like you know me so well even though we just met! Maybe we shou-"
"Four copper coins for half a dozen," Joyce shook her head exasperatedly, "There are people waiting behind you."
"Oops," the young Feline cringed under the glare of the large Kharza behind him. He quickly glanced at Elaine one last time before exiting the shop with the new cookies.
Before she could ponder about his strange behavior, the muscular Marten slammed his hand on the counter top rather impatiently and held her complete attention right away.
"Say, if my nose isn't deceiving deceive me, those cookies don't smell like the ones I usually buy here," he sniffed suspiciously, but he didn't seem to mean any malice in spite of his rugged demeanor, "could I take a bite?"
"Alright," the Sheep shrugged, "Only because you're a regular customer, Harry."
The Kharza swished his long tail like a pendulum while he munched on not one but the whole box. Helpless at such callous display, Elaine moved towards the huge man to remind him that the snacks weren't free. Before she could speak though, he patted her shoulder roughly and laughed. "I don't know what you did and I'm still not used to the new flavor yet… but! They're fucking addictive, bahaha!"
Taken aback by the reaction, she could only blink as he purchased all of the cookies they had on display before swaggering out of the shop, which made the few other customers whisper heatedly.
"Hey Greene! I want to try out a box of the cookies Harry just bought!" A Birman stroked her whiskers thoughtfully, "my Kittens would probably love them."
"Sure thing, Mrs. Whiskerson," Joyce, delighted, greeted the other patrons and was met with the same request. "I'll get started on them right away."
Elaine was about to return to the kitchen when Joyce lightly nudged her to the cashier again, saying she should stay out here to introduce her new recipes. "You're like a charm, dear. There are more people coming to the shop already! You only need to come to the back if I really need help or when the rush hour's over."
Perhaps word had already spread that there was a new assistant at this bakery and the townspeople were simply curious? It could be possible, the blonde concluded with a content smile. So far, her mission had been successful!
Mothers seemed quite fond of the various biscuits while the éclairs were particularly popular with women in general. The pretty doughnut-like pastry was filled with a variety of cream and topped with different toppings. From fruit, chesnut, chocolate, vanilla and coffee to caramel toppings, the wide range of combinations was able to suit a customer's taste. Due to the customized assortments, the prices were higher than regular doughnuts yet the patrons were willing to pay and wait for their orders. Therefore, Elaine and Joyce were kept busy well into the afternoon before they were able to take a break.
"Busy day eh!" Harry the Marten had come back to chat with the two bakers now that the line had receded. The tough-looking lumberjack turned out to be quite the sweet tooth and, upon learning Elaine would only stay in Onean for a short time, he was determined to try out all the new items. "Well, I ain't surprised. Everything's delicious!"
It was truly rewarding to see the man's soft smile as he enjoyed his snack. The blonde's cheeks were flushed in delight as she cleaned and organized the bakery, while the owner conversed with the Marten about the local gathering. With her tail wagging, she turned to greet several more patrons when the door chimed.
"Welcome to Greene's Bakery!"
"So you're the Dog everyone's been talking about," the Margay sneered dismissively at her friendly smile, "trying to bring some Fenrisyran culture here huh?"
Elaine's ears drooped slightly inside her hat as his Feline friends glanced around the shop with condescending scowls. Even though she's heard of worse treatments around the world, she was hoping that discrimination didn't reach south of central Riphaeus but it seemed that the small town of Onean was not untouched.
"What the hell are those colorful things?" One Margay snorted and jabbed his thumbs at the éclairs, "figures people like you and women like'em, heh."
Out of the corner of her eyes, she saw Joyce and Harry bristle at the remarks. The Marten was growling dangerously, ready to start a brawl, so the Husky spoke up hurriedly using the calmest tone she could muster to diffuse the tension. "Would you like to try them, sir?"
The trio of Felines guffawed. "Those disgusting looking things? Are you kidding me?"
"Look you bastards, those pastries are-"
"What the fuck did you call us, fatass?"
"Please," Elaine stood between the two angry sides and faced the Margays with determined eyes. "If these new snacks truly do not suit your taste, then I will resign from my post after baking whatever pastries you order, free of charge."
She apologetically glanced at the surprised Sheep, but she stood her ground and did not waver under the Felines' glares. It was impulsive and irresponsible to give an offer like this, possibly jeopardizing her mission, but she wished to get through people's unfounded discrimination without resorting to violence.
Though scornful, the Margays were obviously tempted by the prospect of getting free snacks. "Sure, give us somethin'."
"Just one moment please."
As the blonde headed to the back, she overheard the Felines mumbling that they will just lie anyways. Harry bared his teeth furiously but huffed in resignation when he caught her pleading glance.
"What are you doing?" Joyce whispered worriedly as she walked past the plump woman, "You don't have to concern yourself with this, some of the Cats in this town are set in their ways-"
"That may be true," Elaine held up a tray of buttery biscuits and small éclairs, "But I still want to try, Miss Greene. Forgive me for taking so many liberties."
She was putting her faith in this special assortment of pastries, perhaps even groundlessly, but she believed that the food she had poured all her heart into making might be able to make a bit of difference.
"What are these supposed to be?" The leader of the Margays frowned at the dainty looking desserts, though his real opinion on the pretty arrangement was unreadable.
"Petit four," the Husky said calmly, "please, take one and try."
The Felines exchanged sly grins and popped one in their mouths, ready to defame the snacks. However, after they chewed and licked their fangs, they glanced at one another again, this time with conflicted frowns.
"It's alright," the leader finally said, shrugging and trying to appear unimpressed, "but… say, my wife likes caramel so maybe she'd like one of these."
"My pa likes coffee-flavored stuff," the other shuffled his feet, "though I'll have to tell him it's the usual fat baker who made these so he'd eat them-"
"Who're you calling fat?"
Heated argument set off again, yet this time, instead of the spiteful cusses, there was a playful quality about it that made the atmosphere light and free. It was almost as if the Felines were reluctant to start anything around the pastries. Temporary truce was reached between the two sides since the racism didn't exist in good food, for now at least.
"I'm surprised it actually worked on these idiots," Harry commented as he gnawed on a hard biscuit. "Really, I didn't expect them to come around."
"I was not completely certain either," Elaine smiled at the three Felines, who were now looking around the shop with lesser scorn and perhaps even acceptance in their narrowed eyes. "I merely believe that food is meant to be enjoyed, so no matter what the heart will speak the truth."
The Marten seemed to recall his skeptical behavior earlier and laughed heartily, "You're right, little Miss… though I think it's my goddamn belly that's speaking the truth."
As if on cue, the large man's stomach rumbled, making her giggle in amusement.
"Hey don't just stand there!" Joyce stormed to the kitchen, seemingly fed up by the Felines' taunts and was now back to her grumpy self, "we've got orders to bake, dear, and you, Harry! If you have nothing else to do for the day, help us out with the basic jobs and you can eat around for half-price, or get the hell out of my shop."
"That's cheap," he smiled smugly at the happy Husky, "right after ya, lil'Chef."
With her tail wagging briskly, Elaine held up her fists and nodded to herself. She still had the whole day left to bake enough pastries for a decent amount of people so it was no time to relax!
"Are you two coming or not?"
"I will be right there, Miss Greene!"
After dropping Mary off at the docks, or rather chasing her all the way there, Clarice made sure that the Hamster was getting settled at her job before leaving. After all, there were many Felines in this town and if she had left the Rodent alone, the poor girl might meet a rude one or freeze in fear in the middle of the street where she could get run over by something.
Or both. Both were also quite likely to happen.
Fortunately, the Hamster's employer at the docks seemed quite laid back, so she felt confident that Mary would be alright. She couldn't loiter there for too long anyway. The morning was going to end before she could even reach her own potential job. And so, with the flyer in one hand and her confidence in the other, the Feline marched to the other side of town where the directions had taken her.
"Yeesh, I hope they're not going to make me work on all of these houses." Clarice said to herself as she scratched the back of her head. She was strolling down Perit Street, where the dwellings all looked like they have been struck by a major hurricane. Their roofs were all tattered, whether it was torn tile or punctured wooden planks, they all looked in need of some carpenter TLC. The families that lived underneath these damaged homes probably battled with leaky ceilings and rotting house frames.
Not to mention that distinctive damp wood smell.
The Lynxlioness searched for a Mr. Simmons who supposedly lived around here, and while doing so, she felt sorry for the people who resided in this part of town. From the ambient scent, the residents of Perit St. made a living off fishing in the nearby river or bay and dried their catches to be sold somewhere else, probably in the inland cities and towns near the mountains. They obviously didn't make much and it showed at how unmaintained their homes were. Fortunately, many of the cases could be repaired given some time and new materials, so if Mr. Simmons and his neighbors have replacement parts, she could do the work for them without any need for further actions.
She approached a gangly man by the roadside and observed the pile of nets he was repairing. He was most definitely a fisherman, for even his residence reflected his profession. The small clapboard abode was unpainted and showed wear and tear from being unprotected from the damp air of Onean. An oar also stood by the house's door, and while Clarice doubted that it was still used, an old river kayak that was propped up next to it screamed that this man lived closely with the river system.
"Hey, Pops, do you know a Mr. Simmons around here?" The Lynxlioness asked coolly as she showed the flyer she took from the bulletin board.
The man chewed on the toothpick in his mouth as he looked at her skeptically. He then continued his fishnet knitting as he answered, "I'm Simmons."
"Oh, great!" The Feline hopped over the low fence that separated the residence from the sidewalk, "I'm here to take the repair job."
"Eh…" Simmons grunted, "You just look like an annoying brat."
Instead of being insulted, however, Clarice only grinned and laughed, "Well, people do say I'm annoying, but I assure you that I'm not a brat. I saw your 'Help Wanted' sign and took it, so I'm here! I guarantee that my skills will be of great help to you. I've been repairing roofs since I was a Kitten."
"You sure have that Feline arrogance," the man stopped his chore and placed his net aside. "Since no one has taken that job for weeks now, I might as well give you a try. See the houses around here? We all need some roof patching. Not a lot of wood workers and carpenters pass by here anymore, and even when they do, they don't stay long or just flat-out refuse to help out."
"Heh, well I won't be staying in town for too long as well, but I will do my best to make repairs on as many roofs as possible before I move on. Is that okay?"
Simmons sighed and chewed on the stick in his mouth, "that's what I thought. I'll be frank, the pay wouldn't be that good since this job is funded by the people who live in this street. You'll probably only get ten silver coins a day at most. The rest of the payment will just be our gratefulness. We're all fishermen here and if we don't set out in the sea for days at a time, we won't eat. On the other hand, if these roofs don't get fixed, we probably won't have a home to return to. I feel like the rainy season this year will be particularly bad since the downpour last year was heavy enough as it was."
"Hey, don't worry about it. As long as I get paid fairly…" Clarice flicked her cloak over her shoulder, "you won't hear me complain. So, where should I start? The earlier I begin, the more I can work on, yeah?"
"Right… good to know you're easy to talk to." Mr. Simmons bobbed his head then turned around to bark at someone in the house, "Addy, c'mon out here and show this lass around. I need to finish this net!"
The Lynxlioness perked her ears when a girl who looked about her age came out of the tattered house. Addy had short brown hair that almost looked grey under the shades and her eyes were just as sharp as Simmons, perhaps due to their relation. And just like the older man, this girl's gaze didn't look very impressed of her.
"Dad, she's Feline."
"Hnff, so what? No one had answered our flyers for weeks, and even though Jon and the others made some progress, their handiwork leaves room for a lot of improvement. Go and show her around…" the father waved his daughter off and expected her to be obedient, "if anything at least she'd be an extra pair of hands."
"No but… just do it," Simmons spat out the toothpick from his mouth, "or get your sister to do it if you're so damn busy."
"Nellia is at Joe's right now, playing with—"
"Then you're the only choice now, isn't it? Don't be difficult, just go."
Clarice watched this exchange between father and daughter, and scratched her cheek in uneasiness. It didn't feel right to just watch this bickering unfold, especially since she didn't know either of them well enough. Even then, she supposed, a stranger shouldn't watch this kind of familial disagreements.
"Ugh, fine!" Addy grunted and stomped towards the Feline, "c'mon, Cat. This way."
"Right behind ya…" She followed the girl without any more complaints.
Once they were out of Simmon's earshot, however, she was confronted by her client's daughter.
"Just so you know, I don't like you Felines." Addy barked with her fists clenched and her face contorted in pure irritation.
"Heh… I… got that impression very early on," Clarice folded her arms behind her head as she walked leisurely, trying to ignore that pang of hurt in her gut. "Do you mind if ask though?"
The Fisherman's daughter carried on and didn't bother to look at her as she said, "Because you're all the same."
That statement made the Lynxlioness' ear droop, "C'mon, you don't believe that… right?"
"Yes, I do." Addy whipped around and accusingly pointed a finger at her, "isn't that exactly how you Cats look at us as well? The ones in this neighborhood do. The ones in the mainland do! You're all nothing more than bloodsuckers, that's what you are!"
"Hey," Clarice growled warningly, "I've done nothing to you. In fact, I came here to earn money with honest work! You have no right to accuse me of such a thing!"
"Yeah, right," Addy sneered scathingly, her long rudder-like tail whipping side to side in aggression. "Once you're done 'helping' us, you'll just turn around and rob us, won't you? Well, I'll have you know that we don't have anything worth your time, so just leave and earn your 'honest' living somewhere else. My father is already frail as it is, and the catch hasn't been great lately."
The Lynxlioness sighed raggedly and flicked her own tail, "Look… just answer me this. Did you wake up on the wrong side of the bed this morning? I'm just here to help. I saw the flyer in the town square and came here, that's all, yeah? And before you go on and on about me being Feline, tell me what the heck you are first, because I don't want to mistake you for a Mongoose and make you even angrier. Sheesh!"
"I'm not a Mongoose!" The girl barked furiously.
"See? That's what I thought…"
"I'm an Otter!"
"Okay, okay… chill, yeah? You're redder than the Queen of Hearts going bonkers." The Feline held her hands up as a sign of surrender, "and there's no one here to paint your face white, so calm down."
Addy took several deep breaths before she managed to control her temper, ending it with a long sigh and slowly massaging her temple. "Whatever, I'll just get you to Joe's so I won't ever see you again— Joe? What are you-?"
"Quick, Big Sis!" The little boy who had just sprinted towards them tugged on Addy's sleeves, "they're back again! T-those Cats… a-and Nel stood her ground so I can get help. It's that Sandy again A-Addy and—"
"Again?" The Otter shrieked as examined the boy's grimy body. He was probably shoved around on the road before he managed to escape.
Unwilling to waste any more time, Clarice quickly kneeled beside the kid and tried to talk to him in spite of his hysterics, "tell me where they are, quickly!"
"Ah, a Feline!"
"Nevermind that!" The Lynxlioness insisted, "Where's the trouble? I'll stop it!"
Joe shakily pointed down the road but couldn't make out another sentence. Deciding that there was no point in making a frightened child talk, the brunette just sprinted down the street and ignored Addy's calls and insults. This wasn't just about race anymore. It never was. Though she didn't like being accused, Clarice vowed to help if there was trouble brewing, knowing that these crimes were the ones responsible for the hate.
Responding to hate with hate only begot more hate. She learned that long ago.
And she was determined to stop it.
Even if it's just one person at a time… I'll definitely end it!
She ran as fast as she could, her hand gripping the Teresa's hilt in fortitude. Thinking back to all the instances where she had to resolve violence like this, all she could recall was the fact that the bad guys were always Felines. Always. And then, after saving the underdog –hah, underdog—the hate and fear the victims had reserved for their attackers were suddenly transferred to her. That wasn't fair, was it? Rarely was there gratefulness returned; a "thank you" or even a smile was just as uncommon as giving back a gesture of kindness.
Yet, she still ran towards the sound of the gunfire, wherever she was needed the most.
Because it was exhilarating, rewarding even, and it gave her a good excuse to beat up some bad guys like Robin Hood or Zorro did.
With her cloak fluttering behind her like a hero's cape, Clarice hastened her steps after she located the scene of the crime. There, by the street sign, a bunch of young teenage boys was harassing this young Otter girl, taunting her with racial slurs that shouldn't even exist to begin with. Behind them was another girl, a Feline whose arms were crossed and looked like she was thoroughly enjoying the sight of a non-Feline getting persecuted by her little gang.
The Lynxlioness woefully sighed, for the scene was truly the epitome of teenage bullying... sort of. She certainly would have tried to resolve this matter peacefully if the guys weren't about her age—they were probably just a year or two younger—and weren't totally bruising the poor kid. Who in their right minds would abuse a little girl anyway? She chuckled to herself as she pushed memories of her own unfortunate childhood in the back of her mind and went into full throttle in her sprint. She then lowered her right shoulder and barreled through the small mass of humanity crowding the girl called Nel.
"Aaaaaaaaaaaaand STRIKE!" Clarice whooped after she sent the rather gangly guys flying a few feet away. "Yeesh, you boys should try and eat more… I think I weigh more than you do and I'm the one who starves every now and then."
"Who the fuck are you?"
She scrunched up her face and flicked her tail tuff in thought. "I really should come up with some sort of introductory catchphrase. It seems like every time I barge into something, people always ask who the hell or fuck I am. That'd probably make things easier, don'cha think? Hehe…"
"You're a Feline… just like us," the ochre-haired girl arched a fine eyebrow as Sandy looked at her and swished her own long tail, "could it be that you're saving this Rat?"
Clarice grinned at the question, flashing her sharp fangs and throwing her cloak over her shoulder. "What if I am?"
The Wildcat twirled a lock of her hair around her finger nonchalantly, "why would you do that? And you're a Lioness too… Did your mother drop you on your head as a kid? Such a waste. Someone like you shouldn't bother with these… animals."
"Are you okay?" The brunette asked the young Otter as she assisted the girl back on her feet and disregarded the antagonistic Feline behind her, a move that clearly frizzled the snobbish bully.
Nel looked up to her wide-eyed and slightly teary. The poor girl had scuff marks on her arms and dirt on her clothes, but at least she wasn't seriously hurt. If anything, she was just scared, although Clarice couldn't tell if the Otter feared her or those other Felines who had attacked her.
"Don't be scared, 'kay?" The Lynxlioness rubbed Nel's head comfortingly, "I'm not like them."
"Hey," the Wildcat hissed, "how dare you ignore me?" She then yowled at her cronies, "what are you idiots doing? Get her! I'm not paying you for nothing!"
"But she's one of us, Sandy," one of the boys said, clearly reluctantly to attack another Feline. "That's not what we agreed on."
"Don't you see that she's a traitor? She's one of those Rat-loving idiots who threw away their privileged bloodline to be all nice to these lowlifes!"
"Heh, stay here Nel." Clarice instructed the younger girl before she stalked towards the Wildcat, her chestnut eyes flaring in rare rage. She growled at the boys, who all looked younger now that there were reluctance and confusion in their eyes. Obviously they were only in this because Miss Fancy Pants here bribed them with compensation and some hateful fun.
So she told them and admonished the wrong they were doing. "Wouldn't it be nice if you can say that for everyone and not just Felines? Why would you hurt another person just because someone told you to? More importantly, why would you bully another just because she's not like you? Well… I guess she is much cuter, hehe."
The boys shrank back, ashamed of their actions, but after a moment, one of them replied, "because we have the right to! We Felines own this land now!"
The Lynxlioness snarled forebodingly, "Says who? No one owns anybody!"
"My grandma said that they're not even human."
"Yeah, my uncle told me they're stupid anyway. It's not like they'll know what the heck is going on in the world."
For a moment, Clarice felt a ball of lead sink in the pit of her stomach like a hopelessness that painfully knotted her guts into ribbons, but the disbelief was instantly replaced by rebellion and the urged set things right. The world she dreamed of didn't contain this kind of ignorance, and it shouldn't. Drasgard should not think this way.
"See?" Sandy flicked her tail smugly, justifying her views with the collective mindset of united prejudice. "They're—"
She wasn't able to finish her sentence.
Clarice made sure of it.
"They're people!" The brunette literally slapped those very words into the bigot by backing it up with her hand. "And if you want to be treated like one, then act like it! You!" She snarled at the boys, "whatever you've heard is wrong. I don't care if it's your parents, your grandparents, your uncle, or your nanny… for Drasgard's sake, think for yourselves! Do you honestly think that hurting this girl is right?"
She was answered by silence.
"Well?" She stared at their guilty faces and drooping ears, hoping for even a whisper of agreement, but it seemed that pride prevented them from seeing their faults. They were all raised in a society that emphasized such ways of thinking, making them feel privileged and superior, when in truth they were just as poor as this Otter. They even wore similar clothing, worn down by constant use and incapable of spending money on new clothes. Prejudice was comforting in a way, wasn't it? It gave a sense of being better than someone else.
But it was still wrong.
"The Golden Emperor once said," Clarice spoke when no one else did, "what you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others. If you lot still has any real pride at being Feline, then you should at least heed our greatest ruler's words. He was the one who made us great in the first place."
She then turned towards Sandy, approaching her with easy steps now that her anger had quelled into a curious feeling of kinship towards these Felines, no matter how narrow-minded they were. Tentatively, she touched the Wildcat's reddened cheek to alleviate the sting of the blow earlier. "And, because I respect those words, I apologize for hitting you."
"D-do not touch me!" Sandy hissed and stepped back, humiliated so much that she seemed to burn in enmity. She glared at Clarice until the very last moment before she turned around to leave the scene to lick her injuries. The boys followed her while throwing admiring glances at the Lynxlioness who knocked even the slightest bit of sense in their minds, or at the very least, took them all out with one tackle.
"Heh… man…" the brunette scratched her cheek after they were gone, "I sounded so damn sappy."
"Yes," Addy harrumphed as she checked on her younger sister's injuries, "yes, you were."
"That bad, eh?" Snickering, Clarice approached Nel once again and grinned, "you hurting anywhere, little lady?"
"No…" the young Otter shook her head and surprised the Feline by beaming back, "I think you're really cool for a Feline."
"Eh?" Her older sister gave her a skeptic look, "you just got bullied by Cats and now you think this one is cool?"
"Yeah, Sis," Nel tapped the ground with her muscular tail in assent, "she stood up for me and that's good enough, don't you think?"
Addy stared at her sibling with a disbelieving look, "this is why you always get caught up with those damn Cats. You're too nice."
"Heh, I actually agree with your sister, kiddo. While it's great to be kind to everybody, even your enemies, you have to be more careful." Clarice chuckled as she twirled her tail tuff, "you're Nel, aren't you?"
"Oooo, pretty name. Tell you what, since your sis can't stand me and I'm supposed to be under your care for the rest of the day because I'll be working your rooftop, if you can show me the ropes around here so I can do my job I'll have you two come with me later. I have a friend who is working for Miss Greene today and—"
"Ma'am Joyce?" The younger Otter perked up at the mention of the Sheep Baker, her eyes lighting up in admiration, probably because the Sheep was a town icon in her own right.
"Yeah," the Feline grinned in a friendly manner, "I'll get you a cookie or two after I'm done… for being brave, yes? I heard you save lil' Joe over there."
"You don't make sense, Cat," Addy spoke up as she tapped her tail on the ground, "aren't you broke already?"
"Hmm… yes, pretty much but there are just some deeds worth rewarding."
After Joe had gone home, Clarice and the Otters returned to their house where the Feline began working in earnest. She climbed on the roof with agile ease that impressed even Addy, who gradually warmed up to her as the day went on. The family even shared some of their dried fish with the brunette, a lunch treat that the Lynxlioness would never forget because it was so tasty! And in her defense, she, being Feline, had a weakness to fish, a trait that the Otters laughed at in mirth.
Her favorite assistant was definitely Nellia though, for the girl was so enthusiastic and had an optimistic glimmer in her eyes. It was almost as if the young Otter had high hopes for Drasgard's future as well, and if Clarice wasn't mistaken, she would definitely pave the way for a better neighborhood relationship in Onean. Not to mention, Nellia was also a quick study and, in almost no time at all, she was already hammering nails like a professional, helping the Feline finish repairs faster.
By the end of the day, the duo managed to patch up three rooftops before the sun began to set, leaving plenty of time tomorrow to finish up the remaining two households.
"That'll do for today," Clarice wiped her brow with her forearm after she jumped down from the last rooftop. "I would recommend that you guys paint your houses or put some sort of sealant to protect it from moisture, but for now this fix should last you a year or more. Hopefully there wouldn't be any bad storms."
"Thank you so much, Clarice," the owner of the final home, a humble Dormouse, smiled at the Feline as she gave the latter her payment. "Now my family can sleep without worrying about leaks."
"Hehe, you're welcome, ma'am. At least now if you have roof problems, you can call Nel to help ya out. She learned lots today, yeah?"
The young Otter grinned as well and bobbed her head, "I'll be happy to help again."
"Okay then!" The Lynxlioness announced so loudly that Addy winced, "time for some sweets!"
The elder Otter flicked her ear and turned to leave, "you two go on and enjoy the treats. I need to get home now and report to Dad about our progress."
"Aww~ you don't wanna come?"
"I'd rather not—"
"Psst, Clarice, she's dieting." Nel whispered for effect but she also made sure her sister heard her.
"Eh? Dieting for what?" The Feline looked at Addy from head to toe and couldn't find a fat inch on her body. Unbeknownst to her though, the latter had already reddened a shade and was only able to hide her embarrassment by turning around and stomping away.
Clarice scratched her head and swished her tail in confusion, but shrugged and grinned at her little partner, "so shall we, little lady? You can just take some cookies back home for her."
"Okay," Nel nodded and followed the Lynxlioness' lead, "Addy actually likes sweets, but I think she doesn't want you to spend your money needlessly. I… don't want you to do that as well."
"Aww, shucks, the worth of a couple of cookies is a cheap price to pay for great company," the Feline chuckled as they walked towards the middle of town, "and I had a lot of fun today with you and Addy. In fact, I can't wait to introduce you to my friends! They're both working in town somewhere, y'know? They're my traveling companions."
"Yes, you mentioned, um… Elaine and Hammy?"
"Yeah! Elaine is the one working at Miss Greene's right now," she then winked at her little friend, "hopefully we'll get a discount so we can eat more."
Nel beamed brightly and attempted to twirl her tail just like the Lynxlioness, but since her appendage was stiff and rudder-like, it only moved awkwardly in circles, which made the two girls laugh.
They spent the rest of their stroll in mirthful conversation, with Clarice telling stories about Kaltrea and Nel expressing her fascination about the metropolis because she had never been in one before. The Feline told her companion that while it would be nice if she could remain in this town where she grew up in and make things better for everyone, it was still important that she go out and see the world, even for just a while. Such experiences widened horizons and made people wiser. She believed that open-mindedness would, one day, remove all the prejudices and bullying.
For a moment, Clarice remembered Kura and chuckled to herself. If Nel would somehow take her words to heart, then she could consider that as a great victory already.
One person at a time.
They entered Greene's Bakery just as a customer left. The place looked emptier now that most of the pastry on display that morning was gone, but the fact that they were no longer there was evidence that the Bakery had a great day today, which meant Elaine had been successful with her mission.
"Honey, I'm home~" the Lynxlioness called and smiled to her blonde friend, who quickly came out of the kitchen to greet her.
"Welcome back, Clarice." As expected, Elaine's excitable tail wagged like there was no tomorrow. "How was your day?"
"Hehe, it was quite fun actually. I made a bunch of friends in the neighborhood." She then gestured towards the young Otter beside her, "this is Nellia, Princess. Nel, this is my friend Elaine, the one I was telling you about earlier."
"She's so pretty…" the younger girl stared at the elegant Husky, who giggled amiably in return.
"It is my pleasure to meet you, Nellia."
"I took her along because I promised her some cookies," Clarice explained as she held her arms akimbo "think we can purchase some for her?"
"Oh, most certainly. I do not think Miss Greene would mind."
As if on cue, the Sheep entered the shop, "oh, I see that you're back, Cat."
"And I see you brought young Nellia with you," Joyce was smiling more good-naturedly than she was earlier when the brunette met her, showing her satisfaction with the Canine's performance at their work and the amount of goods they were able to sell. Not that Clarice expected otherwise. From the way her friend was dressed, it was easy to guess that the blonde was probably like an attraction to this place, luring customers with her beauty, adorableness, and freshly baked golden buns.
Speaking of buns, the Husky didn't look as rosy and toasty as the merchandise she made and sold.
"Err, Princess, you look a little pale," Clarice observed and tilted her head, "you okay?"
This confused the Canine, who blinked curiously, "yes, I do not think there is anything wrong with me. However, I do feel a little breathless, for it has been a long day."
Scratching her cheek, the Feline looked away after letting her gaze wander downwards, where she figured out the cause of Elaine's said breathlessness.
"Well, since I'm guessing you're about to close the bakery soon," the brunette reached over the cash register and loosened her friend's tie, "there… oh, wait." She then unbuttoned the topmost button of the Canine's uniform, a feat that was harder than she thought it would be. The uniform was too tight! For a second there she thought she was choking the poor girl.
"There!" Clarice chuckled as she scratched the back of her head, "can you breathe now?" She then giggled in earnest, unable to contain her mirth. "What were you thinking? Forcing it like that? I'm surprised you lasted this long!"
Mortified, the Husky's cheeks glowed red and she crossed her arms over her chest, her eyes slightly teary in embarrassment. "I-I… i-it is…" she tried to justify her earlier decision but couldn't quite find the words to articulate it properly, so she just whimpered so cutely that made the Lynxlioness try to subdue her laughter as much as she could.
But that action only made her choke on her own saliva.
"Gah—ack!" Clarice coughed and gasped for air as Nel stroked her back, "Don't cry, Princess. Sheesh, why are you so cute!"
"Stop bullying my employee!" Joyce chastised the Feline before shaking her head and patting Elaine's shoulder, "I am sorry, dear. I didn't know you were that uncomfortable. You should have said so earlier!"
"But I did not m-mind…" Clarice could almost see the Canine's tail curling between her knees, "not until she pointed it out."
She took a deep breath and bounced back up from the floor as soon as she regained enough oxygen from laughing too much. She then smiled charmingly at her friend, "bah… as long as you're okay now, yeah?"
Though still red, Elaine nodded as her tail resumed its never tiring pace.
Grinning, she pulled out a couple of coins from her pouch and presented it to the Baker, "we'd like some cookies, Miss Greene, and also pack some up so Nel can take them home to Addy."
Though exasperated, Joyce chuckled and instructed her assistant, "Pack their order with the misshapen cookies, Elaine."
"Eh? Why?" Clarice yowled, thinking that wasn't fair. They were paying customers and should get the good stuff!
"So I have a way to get rid of them," the Baker said haughtily as if it was the most obvious thing, and turned away from the offered coins.
"Hnff, I wouldn't call it 'free'. You should thank your friend here for being so wonderful today that my sales exceeded my usual revenue. You can call it a tip, if you will."
The Feline and Otter looked at each other in disbelief, then they both exclaimed like little children, "Thanks, ma'am!"
Pleased at their happiness, Elaine gathered her composure and told her friend, "Miss Greene also mentioned that we can stay at the inn free of charge, courtesy of the Mayor."
"My ex-husband," the Sheep clarified and clucked her tongue, "he's that old Goat who just left actually. He really liked those granola bars, and since you mentioned that your friends were helping out the citizens by taking jobs that no one wanted, I managed to convince him to let you stay for free while you're here."
"Awesome!" The Lynxlioness nearly jumped and whooped, "I can't wait to tell Hammy! We're all set for today!"
"I'm happy for you, Clarice," Nel beamed vibrantly at her friend and savior.
"Will you stop calling me Hammy?" The familiar voice from the door grumbled as Mary entered, but like clockwork, the Hamster shrunk back again before sidling towards the smiling Canine by the register. "I-I'm glad to hear that though."
"It's great, yeah?" The Feline snickered as she munched on some peanut butter cookies, "today's our lucky day apparently. Great munchies and great company. Life at its fullest!"
"Yes, yes," Joyce Greene waved off the cheer with adult apathy, "we're still open, so if you two want to be useful, I have a lot of trays in need of cleaning at the back as well as dough that needs kneading. Help out and you can have this morning's leftover bread and some warm soup for dinner. That offer extends to you, Nellia."
"Really…?" The Otter's ears perked in surprise and gratefulness. The poor girl probably rarely had other food to eat aside from dried fish.
"Yes," the Sheep smiled softly, "it is nice to have exuberant youngsters around every now and then."
"Alright~ Hammy, you heard that? Free food!" The Cat caterwauled.
"Stop calling me Hammy!" The Mouse shrieked.
While the Dog giggled and simply watched her friends while her tail wagged ceaselessly.
Clarice stomped at the floor with her fist clenched in gusto. She even plastered a solemn expression on her face, as if she was going to fight a great foe. However, this seriousness could not be taken seriously, especially with her bold declaration.
"Let's go knead some buns."
A/N: welcome back to some more CC randomness and fun! Hope you've enjoyed it XD