[Writing] Zero Context: Woolgathering

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[Writing] Zero Context: Woolgathering

Postby AmbushCat » Thu Feb 18, 2021 9:44 pm

I've been working on a Bahija-centric story for posting here and elsewhere. This will be the second part of the Zero Context series (with the first part being "Taking Out the Trash"). I got more done than expected, so I'll be posting the first chapter today. Second chapter will be up either tomorrow or Saturday, depending on my mood.

Originally I'd just intended for it to show a day in her life, but it spiraled out of control pretty quickly. Eventually I decided that by the end of this story, I want to see if I can turn Bahija into a legitimately decent being. The fun, as always, is in the getting there. 8)

Both Circe and Raleigh are mentioned, but neither of them make actual appearances. Ditto with Applepills; I guess the argument could be made that I can freely use her, given that she's not technically the same species as her source character, but I didn't want to take the chance and I didn't want to ask her creator for permission.

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Zero Context: Woolgathering
Chapter One

Approximate Date and Time: July of 2020, just before dawn
Location: Brotherhood HQ

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The expansive room was dark. A blue suit jacket and tie hung on a rack in one corner. A detailed map of Muffinville proper decorated all of one wall, and a smaller map showing points of interest outside the city was pinned to another. An empty wooden desk sat forlornly beneath it. A closet door was ajar close by, from which a dizzying array of child-sized suits could be seen hanging inside; another door next to it led to a private bathroom. The bay window on the south side was completely blocked by heavy curtains.

The center of attention was the bed in the middle. Queen-sized, adorned with a star-speckled purple comforter and arrayed with no less than six pillows that seemed to glow, it was a practical nightlight without having any actual light of its own. It was in this bed that Missy Coco Shanelle softly snored away, dead to the world amidst a veritable cocoon of blankets with only her nose and mouth visible. A metallic staff larger than she was, tipped with a magic orb of unknown origin, rested against the bedpost.

A door off to the left opened to admit a shivering Bahija. The sheep-girl secretary was dressed more warmly than she would've liked for the summer, a heavy bathrobe over a full set of pajamas and a pair of slippers. She double-checked a thermostat next to the door before nodding in resigned acceptance. 53 degrees Fahrenheit, she thought as she closed the door behind her. And here I was thinking that the temperature was too cold for summer. Why does she have it down so low? And why was I thinking that stealing those industrial-grade air conditioners was a good idea?

Bahija's eyes focused on her boss. I hate this part. "Boss?" she called as she stepped near the bed. "Boss? Missy Coco, time to wake up."

As expected, Missy's snores kept going. Seriously, I hate this. "Missy?" she called again, this time a bit louder. "You said you had something big planned for today. Come on. Would you please get up? We can't get started until you do. You've had almost 10 hours of sleep by now. You can't seriously still be tired."

Still nothing. Bahija huffed and folded her arms. She's being more stubborn than usual. "Missy, get up. I've got Reese's Puffs in the kitchen. I thought you liked Reese's Puffs! You don't want any, I'm sure someone in the East wing would be proud to have them! I'll even take it over there myself and risk getting blown up with people. You love seeing me get blown up, don't you?"

Nada. Bahija rested a hand on her hip, lost as to how to proceed. Thought for sure that would do it. Oh, well... She covered her mouth to suppress a yawn. Maybe I can get me an extra hour. Maker knows I need it. She turned away and headed for the exit---

"YOU KNOW WHAT I'M GONNA DO?"

The complete unexpectedness of the noise, which Bahija would later learn clocked in at 140 decibels, sent her skyrocketing with a scream. The humanoid blur cleared the seven meters between the floor and the ceiling, plowing straight through it.

"I'M GONNA GET MYSELF A 1967---"

The bundle of blankets came to life at last as Missy stirred, yawning.

"---CADILLAC ELDORADO CONVERTIBLE."

With a bit of struggling she pulled herself free of her cocoon, revealing the oversized headphones that adorned her cranium and protected her ears from the horrendous racket.

"HOT PINK, WITH WHALE SKIN HUBCAPS---"

She reached over, grabbed her staff...

"---AND ALL LEATHER COW INTERIOR---"

...and used it to shut off her alarm clock from a distance. "I love how that was made just for me," she chortled, rolling off the bed and getting to her feet. She removed her headphones and set them aside as she switched on a lamp, aiming to get ready for the day.

The floor shook as something crashed through the foyer's glass ceiling. What sounded like a screaming sheep kept up her racket until she smashed into the ground around a hundred feet below.

"Huh," Missy mused. "I had something big planned for today, and she goes and does it herself without my say-so. My secretary is awesome!"

"No, she isn't," one of the plushies guarding her door outside said. "You're just a jerk."

A cackle. "And don't you forget it!"

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Bahija was nothing if not durable. After landing, she was able to crawl into the kitchens and grab some hot water to restore her dragon-girl form. From there, her magic healed her wounds and allowed her to stand straight once more.

Twenty minutes later she was at a dining room table back in sheep-girl form, nibbling at a few cream cheese-layered bagels and some iced tea. Missy entered the room, fully dressed in her usual navy blue suit and dress tie, and claimed a box of Reese's Puffs for herself while humming something obnoxious under her breath. Bahija didn't react, long used to her morning behavior by now.

Olympia Andromeda, the Brotherhood's current financial advisor and financier, entered shortly thereafter to get her own breakfast. If the name sounded ostentatious, that's because it was meant to be. Olympia wasn't just a princess due to her Indigo-ness: she was legitimate royalty who had claim to a fiefdom somewhere outside Muffinville proper, with a few extra holdings both within and without the city limits that made her wealthy. She was already clothed in her armored dress and regalia, though her sword was nowhere to be seen. She glanced cautiously at Bahija before grabbing some bacon and eggs from the fridge, setting to work at the nearest stove.

Bahija clamped down on her urge to dunk herself in tea water, abduct Olympia, fly off somewhere, and wait for someone to rescue her captive. Now wasn't the time for that. "We're still missing one," she said. "Where's Missy's bodyguard?"

"She's keeping herself out of sight today," Olympia answered, occupied. "She said something about 'lacking permission', artistic creators, and elements of insanity. Then she stole my Advil and locked herself in her quarters with it. Sweet Xia, that crazed little giggle she does creeps me out..."

"You're on point today, then," Missy ordered, her tone discouraging any arguments. "Tell the Chibi Ninjas that they're tasked with looking after the Ovalisks from now until evening, and make sure they grab their protective gear to prevent transformations. You're on bodyguard duty." She jammed her head into the cereal box and happily munched away at its contents.

Olympia sighed, her head sinking, and for an instant Bahija actually felt a bit of pity for her. The advisor was a halfway decent combatant; no one capable of gracefully swinging a crystal-bladed zweihänder as big and wide as she was one-handed could be called anything otherwise. However, the sad truth of the matter was that of the four of them, her list of abilities was the shortest. "Boss?" the secretary piped up. "Mind if I try my hand as a bodyguard? You know I'd be much better able to defend you compared to her."

This caused the advisor to look up hopefully, but Missy shook her boxed-in head. The cereal within rattled a bit in response. "No, I'd like you to tackle something for me today."

Bahija put down the bagel she was working through, trepidation rising as she awaited her orders. "What do you want me to do?"

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Time: Three hours later

Creeeaak.

"AAAGH! I give, I give!"

Zapana Zquor released Bahija from the leglock she had her in and stood up, dusting off her hands. "I could have told you that was going to turn out poorly," she chastised her, making no move to help her defeated opponent to her feet.

"Missy told me she wanted me to tackle something today," Bahija whined, wincing as she stood up using a shelf for support. "I didn't think she meant it literally!"

A raised eyebrow as Zapana gestured at the small crowd that had gathered around them in the department store. "And her telling you to dress up as a wrestler didn't set off any warning sirens? ...That's an ugly uniform you chose, by the way. Just putting that out there."

Bahija 'hmphed', glaring off to the side. "I don't watch pro wrestling. Sue me."

"Alive for over two thousand years, and you've never watched pro wrestling? At all?" Zapana asked, not sure whether to believe her.

"Not that I haven't watched it. I just think it's a silly way for a grown person to make a living."

"Heh."

Bahija turned her glare on Zapana. "What's so funny?"

"You are. You show up on the Muffin Continent as a dragon-girl warlock who thinks that bracers, sort-of-skirts and greaves are the height of fashion, and you're saying that grandstanding and beating each other senseless in boots and tights are both ridiculous."

The sheepgirl huffed, choosing to ignore the subtle sign that Zapana wasn't a fashion expert herself. She wasn't in the mood to argue semantics. "Well, they are! And the worst part is, they actually get paid for all of that! How desperate can you get? Did they take too many hits to the brain as a kid?"

Zapana smirked. "Maybe they are and maybe they aren't, but it still makes you a massive hypocrite. And you know what I do to massive hypocrites?"

Bahija panicked, taking a few backwards steps but finding her movement blocked by a clothes rack as the wolf marched towards her. "No no no no no no no---!"

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SMASH!

"Ouch!"

SLAM!

"Hey---!"

SNAP!

"Agh! My horns! She snapped off both my horns!"

Kaoru whistled as the crowd cheered. --"Flowing DDT,"-- she said admirably. --"Nice."--

"Thank goodness I'm a little hypocrite and not a massive one," Callista murmured, not looking up from the jewelry she was browsing through nearby. She pulled a bottle of Dr. Pepper from her shopping bag and a $50 bill from her purse, handing them off to the store employee tending to her. "Pay you to give that soda pop to the sheep. Put the damages on my bill, and don't skimp on the estimate."

The man took both and hustled off.

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Bahija grimaced a few minutes later as she walked down the street next to a happy Zapana, her horns fully restored and her wrestling gear swapped for a modified Japanese schoolgirl's uniform that the store had in stock. "You realize that if I had access to hot water in there, I'd have left your mangled skeleton to rot."

"True," Zapana countered, not losing her smile, "but you'd have to weigh that against the fact that if you opened your mouth even once, you'd risk having a Dark Fire Bullet shot straight down your gullet. Your normal form might withstand star-level flames, but your insides sure can't. But hey; at least you'd have that warm and fuzzy feeling, right?"

Bahija's hand said 'hello' to her face, and her face reciprocated. "Today's just not my day..."

"You've got about eleven hours before nightfall. It's only going to get worse from here," Zapana warned, laughing. "How's your alcohol tolerance?"

"Poor."

"Great. C'mon. I know a good bar that's open 24/7. There's no better way to beat the stupid out of you than to get yourself well and truly smashed."

Bahija's grimace remained, this time for an entirely different reason. I can't shake the feeling that there's a double meaning in that sentence. Not seeing any other alternative, she kept up the pace.

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The "Brain Bender" was a bit off the beaten path. Zapana led Bahija into an alley, down a short flight of stairs, and left down another alley. Along the way she felt a tingle pass through her as the air and environment subtly shifted, Muffinville's way of telling her that she had passed into one of the city's many sub-dimensional areas. She suspected that it was of the type she wouldn't have been able to find if someone hadn't guided her in. Without saying anything, she made a note of the place for future surveillance.

The building's stone facade and pseudo-torches made her feel like she was entering a castle dungeon at first, though the neon sign advertising the bar blew that impression out of the water. The interior wasn't as drab and dirty as an actual dungeon, or even one of the old taverns: the floor and walls were stone, sure, but the place was clean, and there was adequate seating and a few paintings for decoration here and there. There was even a radio somewhere playing a country tune at low volume. The entire bar was well-lit, so she could see everything clearly. She counted eight customers scattered around, with three of them sitting in a corner engaged in quiet conversation.

Bahija looked at the bartender as she sat down at the counter, Zapana taking the stool to her right. He seemed humanoid from the neck down, but his bald head was reminiscent of an octopus. He even had a set of tentacles guarding his mouth from view. It was hardly the most disturbing thing she'd seen in her life---that honor went to the time she was forced to watch The Garbage Pail Kids Movie after losing a bet---but it was still off-putting. "So if you don't mind me asking..." she spoke quietly, deciding that offending him probably wasn't a smart move.

"That's Steve," Zapana said, making no attempt to lower her voice. A few of the customers looked up at the disturbance, then settled when they saw who it was. "Guy's half mind flayer. They're telepathic, they can do damage from afar if they sense others using telepathy, and if their tentacles get in contact with you they can eat your brain. Which means if they tried it on you, they could probably get arrested for sexual harassment."

"That joke wasn't funny when Ambush's kid first said it," Bahija snarled, traces of her true self heard around the edges. "It's not funny now."

"And yet it's still where a lot of your thoughts tend to gravitate. Am I wrong?"

"...Not really," Bahija admitted.

"Didn't think so. Hey, Steve? A Dark 'n' Stormy with extra lime for me, please. Give the lightweight here a bit of cider. She's new here."

The bartender grunted and got to work. Bahija ignored him in favor of a question that had been lurking around in the back of her mind since they had been kicked out of the store. "Zapana, I have to wonder. That Circe friend of yours is Blue, right?"

"Yeah. What about her?"

"So, why don't I ever hear about you insulting her the same way you insult me?"

Zapana snorted back a laugh. "I used to, for a year or two after I met her. I was forced to stop after people started getting on my case about it, then I had to leave for a while to grow up some after a prank gone wrong. Character development happened, we agreed to be friends, and here we are."

Huh... "So, what you're saying is that all this mockery I get from you whenever we meet isn't due to discrimination?" Bahija asked.

"Not in the fullest sense, anyway," Zapana answered cheerfully. "Kittenoans don't have mammaries like most humanoids think of them as, so when I first met female humans I thought those things on their chests were ridiculous." A shrug. "Most of my interactions with humans were limited until the 90's, so I never got much flak for my opinions until after I started bothering Circe."

Bahija started to say something, but Zapana held up her hand to stop her. "Let me finish. Strange as it may sound, it isn't due to Blue's romantic inclinations either. Aldonza-chan, Calli and I all hate that aspect of the Color, but it's not like Circe gushes over it in daily conversation, or talks our ears off about her love life or anything like that. She's content with having an all-female staff and a modest status quo, and that makes her situation easier to ignore. Like yourself, it's so firmly ingrained in her due to the Color's influence that simply talking her out of it wouldn't have been enough anyway."

That's nice and everything, but I'm not seeing what she's getting at. "Then level with me, Zapana," Bahija requested, unconsciously clasping her hands together on her lap. She barely acknowledged Steve when he placed their drinks before them. "Why do you persist in being an $^&@%& to me? What did I ever do to you specifically?"

"Me? Nothing," Zapana said without hesitation. "But considering that you've never shown any remorse for wanting to ruin Callista's life by ripping her away from home and adding her to your collection, you didn't have to. That's good enough for me."

Ch... so she wants to play that game? "That's rich coming from you. Your past as a super-soldier is a matter of public record, Zapana. Who knows how much damage you did to people's lives before you turned yourself in? How many hopes did you dash before you were forced into your parole?" She smiled victoriously. "Face it: you're just as guilty as I am. I wonder if I could call my phone while it's jammed between your ears?"

"Actually, there's a pretty clear difference between you and I."

Bahija gave a confused bleat, wincing ever so slightly at the noise before clearing her throat and translating it into English. "...Huh?"

Zapana raised her glass to her lips and drained her drink dry in one go before continuing. "I was yanked out of my own house against my will by a power-hungry madman; I was genuinely sorry for the crimes I committed, which I should point out included straight-up murder; I was willing to fulfill the conditions of my parole, and I wanted wholeheartedly to do whatever it took---short of death, of course---to redeem myself in others' eyes before moving on with my life. I was even able to gain the forgiveness of those whose relatives I'd killed, and you can bet that took some major heart on their end." She chuckled softly in disbelief. "Seriously, who even does that..."

Zapana's jovial tone was dropped entirely in favor of animosity. "You, on the other hand, are as follows: #1, an unrepentant mass murderer and galactic conqueror who's never shown the slightest remorse for the skulls you've crushed beneath your feet; #2, guilty of almost every crime in existence, and proud of it; #3, you're so much of a nymphomaniac that you'd gladly violate any parole just to fulfill your worst desires one more time; and #4, you willingly joined a group that are antagonists for antagonism's sake just because you thought it would give you a shot at getting on Callista's good side. You're trying to put Ali Al-Saachez on the same level as Heero Yuy, for the lack of a better comparison."

Her irises went dark, and she leaned forward to look Bahija in the eyes so quickly that the secretary had to scramble not to fall off the stool. "Simply put: if you were an actual sheep right now and not a humanoid with assorted sheep characteristics, I'd reduce you to a 'Futurama' head-in-a-jar, turn the rest of you into a roasted double-decker mutton sandwich (hold the relish), flavor it with the hottest sauces I can find, and eat it slowly over the course of thirty-five minutes while sitting in front of you. Then I'd re-humanize your head and stick your jar in some morally-deficient medic's refrigerator just for the inevitable 'Team Fortress 2' reference. And you know what the best part is? No one in the multiverse would care."

As Zapana turned away to stare into her empty glass, picking the slice of lime off the brim and eating it, Bahija straightened and regarded her own untouched drink. For a few seconds she was aware of the other customers watching curiously, which she dismissed. "Yeah, but... Callista's still beautiful," she murmured with a dreamy smile, an image of said girl in mid-shopping spree frozen in her mind.

Zapana faceplanted straight down, shattering her glass and cracking the counter. The eight patrons echoed the sentiment, though not with as much force.

"$285 for the replacement glass and the repairs," the bartender rumbled without looking up from the drink he was working on.

"Hai, hai," Zapana groused, brushing glass out of her fur; Bahija noticed that none of the shards had actually penetrated her skin. "You might as well up that to $350, because I need to see what's going on in the mind of this grass-chewer. This is beyond ridiculous."

Bahija's nostrils flared. "Do you take me for a fool? I've never touched pot in my life!"

"And of course that has to be your sole redeeming quality," Zapana growled, officially fed up. She lifted her left arm, raising it behind Bahija's head and causing her to freeze up. "Make that $705, Steve. For the bonus repair charge."

Bahija didn't have enough time to react before she felt a sharp impact on the back of her skull. A dark blur yanked her drink out of the way just before her head crashed off the counter with enough force to split the wood in two. She blacked out and slid off the stool, tumbling to the floor.

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Re: [Writing] Zero Context: Woolgathering

Postby AmbushCat » Sat Feb 20, 2021 2:06 am

Given the nature of Chapter Two, I decided that it would be best if I posted it at Archive Of Our Own instead of here. I'd rather not violate any rules if I can help it, so... here you go, and brace yourself.

You might have to click past a few things before it'll let you read it. Don't worry about those too much.
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Re: [Writing] Zero Context: Woolgathering

Postby AmbushCat » Thu Mar 04, 2021 6:49 pm

Zero Context: Woolgathering
Chapter Three

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Time passed in a blur.

Bahija had recalled the Blaster enveloping her in otherworldly fire and force point-blank, its makeup she couldn't comprehend in the seconds it took her to black out. She remembered an incident early in her career when she thought destroying a star to remove an enemy fleet from the equation was a good idea, something that ultimately proved successful but got herself caught in the resulting supernova. Comparing the two experiences, she felt she could safely say that her most recent trial was a thousand times worse. And that was in the most literal sense, given how much power she had been subjected to.

Acutus was arrogant and proud, but she knew the limitations of her power. If a mere fraction had done this much harm to her, what did that say about the full extent of the resources at her assailant's command?

There wasn't an inch of her that wasn't broken in some way after Callista had finished with her, and the CMB was just the exclamation mark at the end of the sentence. By the time the satellite's power had been expended and the Krypton Shield was deactivated, the park had been replaced by a large misshapen crater. The dragon-girl was embedded at the bottom, her once magnificent form caved in and stained a royal blue wherever it wasn't covered in dirt. A thick cloud of magic particles hovered in the crater, the Blue they embodied having been blasted free from their owner through sheer force. Most of her scales littered the ground near her, torn free much the same.

To add insult to injury, nature itself decided that the area was due for a natural disaster. A torrential downpour that spanned the horizons swept through shortly after everyone had left, pouring water into the crater. Floodwaters followed not far behind, and before too long the Muffin Continent had a new lake to its name, just as Callista had predicted. A week after the downpour subsided, someone had the bright idea to stock the lake with Color-resistant fish and other wildlife, expanding the boundaries of the park and renaming it from "Spring Valley" to "Spring Crater"... and the indignities continued.

Too weak to pull herself out of the lake's bottom, too drained of magic to even consider restoring herself and too wounded to care, Acutus could do nothing aside from occasionally staring up at the surface with half-shut eyes, fish swimming across her vision like an eternal screensaver. Most days were spent in a total daze as she was no longer able to keep her thoughts pinned down, unconscious 22 hours a day on average. So too did those brave or Blue enough to try fishing her scales out from the lake go unseen; before, she would have been enraged at their audacity.

Pretty much the only thing that saved her life was one of the biggest rules of the Muffin Continent: No one of any relevance dies an unnatural, cruel or unusual death, and neither does anyone experiencing a completely unexpected demise stay dead for long. During Acutus' last visit to her old home over three hundred years before, no such rule existed. Anyone could and did die, whether it was through violent or mundane means. The same change that Muffinville was known for had its way with the rest of the world in the decades preceding her return, the local deities doing as they pleased. Her personal defenses had protected her from the CMB blast, if barely, but if it hadn't been for that one rule, nothing would have prevented her from eventually starving to death alone in the lake.

'Alone.' Looking back, that word filled her with the sort of fear that Callista could never cause. Being Blue to such a degree that the Color's influence actually exacerbated, steadily claiming her piece by piece as her life went on, she would naturally seek other women for company at all times... often for the type of company that would have ensured twenty life sentences were she ever captured. Her entire life revolved around herself, having others around her, and controlling them. Totally deprived of contact with only non-sapient fish and other aquatic life for company, she would have plummeted into depression had she been in a position to care.

The majority of those inflicted with Colors could resist the effects if their wills were strong enough, and even if they couldn't, many lived their lives without being as defined by their Color as Acutus was. Being too obsessed with power and control, she never cared as long as she had what she wanted. She was called a Blue girl before, but by the time of her latest visit to the Muffin Continent she well and truly embodied the Color.

In light of the damage she inflicted on the universe with her conquests, sometimes there was such a thing as being too social.

Finally, a year and five months after her forced exile, she gained her freedom. Several powerful entities, one of whom was part of a long-lived race that Acutus had briefly crossed paths with early in her life, were able to yank her out of the lake. While getting her healed from the lingering battle damage, the two of them got the full story out of her. Raleigh was quick to lay down the law and put the fear of him in her, making it absolutely clear what would happen if one of his godchildren were harassed again. He then bestowed a Jusenkyo curse on her, turning her into a sheep (and getting the world's Goddess of Nature to bust her sides laughing); a transfusion of Blue from the lake later, and Bahija walked the earth for the first time.

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Switching places in the metaphorical food chain took some getting used to.

Where Acutus had been a stuck-up power-hungry snob at the top of the heap, Bahija was starting from the bottom of the barrel. If you were judging them strictly by their faces, one looked fit to smack someone gleefully at any time whereas the other looked as if she would cry if she swatted a mosquito. And if you judged them by their physiques, one could benchpress all of the Autobots at once while the other struggled to carry a full load of groceries through her front door.

You couldn't say that she wasn't adaptable, though. As the weeks and months passed, she quickly developed a reputation as a good-natured humanitarian with a heart larger than Muffinville itself. Time and again she was sighted at kitchens around the city, providing food for the homeless and performing community service whenever the opportunity presented itself. No one bothered asking her about her origins; interdimensional visitors and new residents from beyond the veil were a dime a dozen, so she was able to give the impression that she was from another universe and had just taken a shine to Muffinville. Even the one-story dwelling that she was renting was as humble as any, being seen as a sign that she didn't believe in exploiting her goodwill for her benefit.

What Bahija never told anyone was why she always looked green around the gills at the end of each work day, making vague utterances about some unidentifiable autoimmune illness or another. At her core, her long-standing belief that the universe revolved around her remained unmoved. Never once did she think about what she had done across her life and say "there's fifty thousand things I should have done differently". She felt justified in her words and actions, maintaining her view that she was superior to almost all mortal life. If anything, rendering aid to others---the deeds she would delegate to her generals after another conquest, if only to keep her empire stable---made her want to vomit, and it was rare for her not to do so as soon as she returned home.

In addition, Bahija had always operated by the standard of "might makes right". For twenty-odd centuries she had the most power in her section of the universe (discounting that one encounter with that member of Raleigh's race), and thus she made everyone submit to her, be they enemies or acolytes. It wasn't necessarily restricted to her might, either; meeting Callista enthralled her, but almost getting killed by her made Bahija want to be submissive herself. The tiger had proven her might, so it was only right that the dragon gave herself to her.

Thus, when Acutus became Bahija and regained her vitality, she let herself be manipulated by her healer and the Goddess of Nature into accepting a certain silver ring. The ring would prevent any telepaths, most of all Callista, from sensing her thoughts and discovering her intentions towards her. With a blessing bestowed on the ring by Viridi, citing the importance of it not getting erased by Callista's "sheer reality hax" in the event of its discovery, she would be all set to do as she pleased.

So in her months as a humanitarian, she spent the bulk of her free time getting whatever information on Callista that she could, starting with her full name and all her known powers. With everything she learned seeing the scope of her holdings and activities, Bahija became more and more convinced that she was right to try and attach herself to the younger girl. She decided that even if she hadn't underestimated Callista and fought with all her might from the get-go, the cat's chances of victory were much higher than hers. And that was without getting into that Blaster she was hit with; she'd paled after doing the math and determining just how much damage a full-powered shot could do.

Really, considering how much Callista had at her control, Bahija was surprised that she didn't throw her power around more often. She certainly could've had anything she wanted, that was for certain, but for some reason she chose not to. It was only during the "Last Rites" affair in 2020 that she received a clear answer, and much like Marc she had trouble comprehending it. Callista didn't give a second thought to her riches or possessions, and finding honest work didn't appeal to her; she was too free-spirited to care about any of that more than she really needed to, and that just didn't make sense to Bahija's hoarding sensibilities.

...

During her time engulfed in the "swamp of good will", as she called it, several noteworthy events came to light.

Plans to submit herself to Callista notwithstanding, Acutus had always intended to return to her empire someday to reclaim any worlds that had broken away in her absence. In mid-August, she learned from her former summoner that there was no longer an empire to return to. The Infinite Defense had nabbed Jennifer and forced her to cooperate with them earlier that year, telling them everything she knew about her master's forces. The "consultation" snowballed: the organization hit hard and fast, striking at every major world in the empire and every essential facility more or less simultaneously. This was followed up by an extensive sweep that managed to capture all of Acutus' loyalists, much to the citizens' relief. Jennifer had no choice but to go along with them and watch as everything that had been accomplished across Acutus' entire life came crashing down within just a few weeks (literally, in the case of the palace on Dryukl'ava IV), after which she was released from their custody.

The sheep-girl had felt the world fall out from under her after hearing the news. She struggled to come to terms with her loss: her empire, her "family" as she liked to call it, nearly everything she possessed... they had all been ripped away from her. She still had her birth form and all of its power, but everything she now owned fit in the confines of a simple one-story house. For a time she wondered if there was even a point to continuing her personal quest, seriously contemplating throwing herself into her new life no matter how much it made her sick. She had a mental image of herself permanently locked in her cursed form, smiling at small children and playing with babies all day before going home and crying herself to sleep every night.

But one look at her bootleg Callista body pillow, and all of her doubts went away. Don't ask the narrator what goes on in her brain, because he has no idea what the Michigan.

The second event of note was the retirement of someone named "Colonel Caprice". What reports Bahija could find about her were conflicting. Allegedly she was a Violet, tomapple-happy airhead who took over the once-mighty Brotherhood after her "husband", the 'glorious and awesome Himitsu', and his associates disappeared for reasons unknown. She was supposed to have a claim to it after the Brotherhood's previous head, someone named "Black Dragon" (or "Snow Dragon" depending on the reports), had his Last Will & Testament probated. There were other reports that said that Caprice never received any share in the Brotherhood, that the only thing she'd gotten from Black Dragon in his will was the Spamlady Supreme title. And there were others that...

By the time she'd finished reading everything on Caprice and the Brotherhood---which had spanned two worlds in different universes, not just the one she'd assumed---she was left thoroughly dazed. When did the concept of violence get so confusing? When did the Muffin Continent get so confusing? It wasn't always like this! And what the #$+%&*'s a 'Spamlady Supreme'?

Reading between the lines, the best Bahija could determine about the Brotherhood was that they'd long deviated from their original goals, whatever they were (though there were vague mentions of an opposing group called the 'Sisterhood' and an event known as 'First Impact' at Spamville), and had become focused on spreading chaos and violence for the sake of both, often trying to kill each other as much as their enemies. As one example of their absurdity, Himitsu's battle cry had been "Death to the fuku!" Bahija decided that if that wasn't chaotic, nothing was. What could anyone possibly have against school uniforms?

...Though she did revise her opinion some after seeing footage of the Sailor Senshi. Their do-gooding grated on her nerves something fierce.

As for Caprice herself: after divvying up her belongings and personas to anyone willing to partake in that endeavor, she'd waved good-bye to the Villes and disappeared into her box, which shrunk in on itself to the point of non-existence. It was seeing the footage of this that made Bahija decide that logic in Muffinville didn't matter as much as it used to, because that was something that she hadn't believed was physically possible.

Ultimately though, none of that was important. What was important was that for reasons Bahija couldn't understand, considering that they flew in the face of everything she knew about the girl, is that Callista had asked Caprice for full control of what was left of the Brotherhood... and received it.

Callista had also received the 'Spamlady Supreme' title, but Bahija chose to ignore that. If she couldn't figure out what in blazes that was about, and if the human never flaunted it, then it probably wasn't relevant.

Bahija continued to keep track of everything in the news concerning Callista and her control over the Brotherhood. There was a vast amount of resources and minions at her beck and call, up to and including a dangerous minion-producing device called the Cosmic Plushie Forge. Thing was, Callista never seemed to do anything worthy of being the Brotherhood's leader. She tried to be antagonistic, she really did, but everyone could tell that her heart wasn't in it. The few times she caused actual damage, she paid for repairs out of her own pocket and made whatever amends she could. After one event she even made a formal apology, and those who couldn't tell that she meant every word needed to have their ears cleaned.

For all her unscrupulous shopping habits and ferocity in combat, Callista was clearly too nice to be a supervillain... and it was on realizing this fact that Bahija perceived what she saw as a way to get the kitten's favor. If being good-natured was holding her back, then those aspects of her personality would have to go.

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Date/Time: Mid-morning, early-to-mid August 2017
Location: Tenth Alley Mall

"Excuse me, Miss Wilson?" came a meek, almost nervous voice.

Callista didn't look up, intently examining six different brands of stopwatches at the sporting goods store she was in. "Yeah? What do you need?"

"I'm... kind of a big fan of yours. I watched your last match against Archie Foster..."

For a moment Callista debated ignoring her and going about her business, but decided she was better off humoring her instead. At least she wasn't being overly obsessive with her like some fans she could name... though she did wonder why she hadn't sensed the girl's approach. Maybe she just has excellent control of her thoughts? "I don't do selfies, but I'm okay giving autographs," she said, placing all six stopwatches in her shopping bag and holding out her hand. "You got something for me to sign?"

A glossy, laminated photograph was given to her. It showed her hybrid form engaged in combat against an Archeops-man who was using Ancient Power to counter her Ice Beam attack. That match had been just two days ago, so the details were still fresh in her mind. She had ended up losing, but no one accidentally made her angry throughout it all, so she felt like she'd enjoyed herself. That in itself made it worthy of remembrance. "Good choice. Who do I make this out to?"

"Bahija, Miss Wilson," the voice confirmed, spelling it out for her.

Callista took a permanent marker from her purse, scrawling "To Bahija - Best Wishes!", her name and personal logo in one corner before handing the photo back. "Here you go."

A barely repressed squeal reached her ears before the person got a hold of herself. Callista reached over to grab a pedometer, aiming to dismiss the encounter from her mind and keep shopping.

It took about fifteen seconds for her to realize that not only was Bahija still there, but she was shuffling her feet restlessly. Turning to look at her for the first time, Callista quickly skimmed over her appearance: short and wavy light brown-silvery hair, almost white; irises and pupils in different shades of green; the anxious face of someone way out of their element. The girl was doing a good job of hiding it given how modest she appeared to be, but the shopaholic had been around Muffinville long enough to recognize someone Blue when she saw one.

And I was under the impression that ewes didn't have horns shaped like that... bah. The continent's transformations are weird. "Need help with something?"

"Right," Bahija said, swallowing nervously. "Um... I work here at the mall part-time. I know today's my day off, but do you need any help picking something out?"

"Thanks, but this isn't my first trip through." Callista started to turn away, then paused as an idea came to mind. "Though I guess if you're offering, mind helping me carry some stuff?"

A slight tilt of the head. "Not to say no, but don't you have telekinesis? Can't you just carry everything with your mind?"

Callista snorted lightly. "Hah. What's shopping if there's no real challenge? I'm out to buy today, not to think. I'll save the telekinesis for when I believe it's needed."

The air was rife with confusion, but to her credit Bahija didn't let it get to her. "Okay... well, I guess I don't mind playing pack mule---WAAAAA!"

"TERRIFIC!" Callista hollered with a grin as she yanked Bahija off her feet without warning, charging past several other shoppers further into the store. The sheep-girl held on tight to Calli's hand while waving about in the air like a flag, the force threatening to pull her arm from its socket. "As the first fan who's ever asked for time with me without being pushy about it, you'll get to see first hand how a superstar works! Where's the golf clubs?!"

"Hel-l-l-p-p-p m-e-e-e-e someone-e-e-e!"

Everyone else, who knew better than to get between Callista and a potential purchase, stayed as far away from them as possible and tried not to hear Bahija's frantic cries.

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This is going to be worth it. This is going to be worth it, Bahija repeated to herself as she watched Callista haggle with the clerk, something which normally should not have been allowed. It was as if reality bent around her, letting her do anything she wanted as long as it expedited her shopping trips. She'd even cut in front of several people who were already in line at the counter, and they didn't seem to care. This is going to be worth it.

"---two old sticky notes and a rubber band!" Callista was declaring, slamming the items in question onto the counter. "You can't resist the siren call of a more efficient process, Johnny boy!"

"Well, I was just going to take the notes, but as long as you're leaving the rubber band---"

This is going to be worth it.

"It's agreed, then! Come on, sheepy! We've got four more stores to hit before the food courts!" Callista piled her purchases thus far into Bahija's arms and took off across the hall into a toy store. "Ooh~, the latest 'Trivial Pursuit' cards! MINE!"

This is going to be worth it, but %&$@ if it's not going to tear my muscles apart first, Bahija complained as she stumbled after the exuberant shopper, trying not to drop anything.

...

...

"Once again," Zapana sighed as she paid for Callista's purchases in full a minute later, "I'm really sorry about this."

"For the 70th time, don't worry about it," one of the clerk's co-workers said. "This is Muffinville. You could do worse for a friend."

"Doesn't really make me feel much better..."

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/-/-/-/-/-/-/

The passage of an hour and ten minutes found them at the mall's food court. Bahija admitted to feeling a bit peckish (though her own definition of the word didn't fit the situation), so to sate her appetite she bought herself a tofu burger and some water. It wasn't her first choice, but as a sheep-girl she was supposed to give the impression that she was a vegetarian who cared about her figure.

In contrast, Callista's appetite was locked in at max acceleration. Three large chocolate milkshakes. Five hot dogs with ketchup and mustard. Two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Two slices of cherry phosphate pie. Six cheeseburgers, each as big as her head (and with no pickles or tomatoes, Bahija noticed). Four slices of gooey, cheesy deep-dish pizza loaded with meat. Seven cups of macaroni & cheese. A serving of shepherd's pie. Two dozen assorted doughnuts, plus one bear claw. Five servings of French fries. Three large brownies. Five chimichangas. Four bags of chicken nuggets. Four scoops of 'Extreme Moose Tracks' ice cream. Two roast beef sandwiches. Three servings of meat loaf. Six servings of mashed potatoes, complete with margarine. A two-layer lemon cake with chocolate frosting. A serving of chicken alfredo. Three thick slices of lasagna. Two egg-and-sausage croissant sandwiches. A lone grape-flavored Skittle. And all of it washed down with a pitcher of water as large and wide as the chairs the two of them sat in.

...

Bahija blinked herself back to awareness when Callista waved her hand in front of her face. "Hello~? Anyone home~?" the somehow-still-average-weighted girl called. "C'mon, wake up. You've been sitting there slackjawed for, like, half an hour! Seriously, I had to swat a few flies that were trying to land in your mouth!"

It was understandable to those watching when the first words out of Bahija's mouth were a high-pitched "How have you not exploded yet?! That's positively gluttonous!"

Callista snorted back a laugh. "Pffsh. You'd be surprised just how much energy it takes to be as awesome a shopper as I am. Besides, this is nothing compared to what Garfield does every other week."

"Garfield's a comic-strip housecat, you're a real-life human!" Bahija protested. "That's nowhere even close to being the same thing!"

"And you're stating the brutally obvious why, exactly?" Callista took a moment to check her teeth in a pocket mirror that she kept in her purse. Around her, assorted mall employees cleaned away all the trash she'd left in her wake. "And speaking of 'brutally obvious', are you going to eat that or can I have it?"

Bahija was about to say something in response to the first question, but stopped when she heard the second. From the moment she'd seen how much Callista had ordered for lunch, her tofu burger had remained untouched. "I'll eat it," she said before putting actions to words, taking more measured bites than the Shopping Queen ever did. "Be patient with me, please?"

"Yeah yeah, sure sure." Callista leaned back in her chair, staring up at the skylight far overhead and sinking into some kind of daydream.

...Seriously. How has she not exploded yet? That's going to bother me for the rest of my life, I just know it.

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And so it went throughout the morning and early afternoon. Callista darted throughout her domain and did what she did best: bamboozling everyone she crossed paths with and getting her way without any complaints.

Bahija did her utter best to keep up with her, even as she struggled to drag everything Callista bought behind her. The bipedal wolf that was following them around took mercy on her a few times and took the heavier stuff off her hands, handing them off to several associates who would see to it that the purchases went to their proper destinations. However, the third time it happened the wolf took her leave, claiming prior obligations and leaving the sheep-girl to press on. Bahija was thankful for that, as the prey side of her was afraid that she'd be seen as dinner.

In the meantime...

...

"Ninety-nine cents for coffee?! That's a complete ripoff! I bet I could get an actual coffee maker for ninety-eight!"

...

"Trade you this pocket calculator for those diamond earrings!"

...

"Sorry for running you down, but you'll let me get away with it because I'm cute, right? ...Thought so~! Here. A 'Dr. Pepper', free of charge!"

...

"An autograph? Sure, if you let me buy this MP3 player for free!"

...

Throughout it all, Bahija subtly tired Callista out by pointing out stores that were either across the mall, on different floors, or both. This made her waste energy by ignoring more convenient shops that were close by, and by forcing her to use stairways and ramps whenever there was a line on the escalators and elevators. The sheep-girl was happy that even in the face of online shopping's ascent, there were still plenty of people who wanted to take care of their business in person. All the better for me to achieve my goals.

At some point, Callista's mad spree finally slowed down to a pace that vaguely resembled normality. The Queen's desire to shop had been fully sated, her enthusiasm reducing itself to a dull roar. About an hour and a half after lunch, she was walking around just for the sake of humoring someone she perceived to be an earnest and friendly fan. Once this started happening, she began behaving less like a jerk to everyone. At her final stop, she even paid the full price for what she'd taken.

It was when she stumbled a little exiting the store, yawning for the first time since the two had crossed paths that morning, that it was time to move ahead to Phase Two.

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/-/-/-/-/-/

Bahija regarded Callista with a veneer of concern as they left the mall. The latter's arms were starting to sag, not from the weight of her purchases but through hefty tiredness. "Are you going to be alright? Maybe going to stores that were closer together would've been a better idea."

"Hardly the first time I've done that," Callista gently rebuked her. She blinked a few times as she doggedly fought off her exhaustion. "I'll probably end up doing it again tomorrow. The thrill of bargain hunting, pushing the limits of how much the Villes legally let me get away with... it makes me happy." She forced back a yawn. "Though I'm thinking that I'll call it a day. I've got a date..."

Behind her back, Bahija's face turned blue with shock. Someone actually---!

"...with a hot water bed," Callista finished, oblivious.

---oh. Whew. For a moment I thought I was going to have to break cover early. "Um... a hot water bed?" Bahija asked, her curiosity genuine. "How's that any different from a regular water bed?"

Callista recovered enough of her energy to look around, then turning to Bahija after being satisfied that no one was in earshot. "It's not exactly a secret, so I'm assuming you know I keep a few subterranean apartments around the Villes, right?"

"Yes. What about them?"

Callista lowered her voice some just to be on the safe side. The way she spoke, it sounded like she was describing some kind of guilty pleasure. "Don't let the public know about this, but... I like staying clean, but I love sleeping just as much, and years ago I learned to combine the two. My bathtubs are designed to keep water warm for pre-set amounts of time, and to automatically drain if the water level rises above a certain point. That way I don't have to worry about the water getting cold too soon, or me sinking low enough to drown." Her face sported the same gleeful smile she had when storming through the mall, though it was tinged with tiredness. "Sleeping for thirty to sixty minutes in hot water, absolute solitude, no light of any kind, with my favorite music in the background? Second-best feeling in the world. ...Discounting the time I accidentally blinded myself, of course."

"..." Bahija was taken off guard, though she wasn't sure if it was the mental image or the defiance of common sense that did it. Her past acquaintances would have said the former, but the latter couldn't be dismissed so easily. "And you've never gotten heatstroke or the like?"

"A few times, but that's what my Dr. Pepper's for. Yay for full restores."

Beat. "If you don't mind my honest opinion, Miss Wilson?" Bahija deadpanned. "You are disturbed."

"Yeah, I do believe I am. Whew!" Still smiling, Callista knocked back a bottle of Hawaiian Punch that hadn't been in her hand a moment previous.

Bahija ignored the feeling that there was a reference she was missing. "So, how far out is your apartment? The closest one, I mean? Will you be okay getting back?"

"It's about eight blocks west of here," Callista said, waving off her concern and putting the bottle away. "No big deal for me. I like to run."

"Hmm... actually, if you want to rest for a bit, you're more than welcome to use my couch," Bahija suggested, channeling just enough emotion into her voice and face to indicate genuine worry. "My home's just a block and a half down this street..."

"I dunno." Callista was visibly reluctant to accept the offer. Bahija guessed that it had something to do with the fact that they'd known each other for only a few hours. "I've never liked imposing on others. I mean, I already make their lives interesting as it is, no need to take more than that..."

"I'm serious, Miss Wilson," Bahija said, making it clear that she wouldn't stand for anything else. "I've got a spare blanket in the coat closet, you can just nap or something while I run some errands, then leave once you're well rested. I'm not kidding when I say it's not a problem."

Callista sighed, but nodded. "Alright, Bahija," she decided. "You win. An hour of napping before I head home isn't going to hurt me."

"Ba-a-a-a-e-e~?!" the sheep-girl delightedly bleated. Realizing what she just said, she cleared her throat and coughed into her fist. "I mean... yes. Alright. I'll let you in."

A chuckle. "Sheesh. Try not to sound too disappointed." A playful smile. "I bet you save a fortune on lawn mowing."

"Please forget I did that," Bahija pleaded. "Ignore me."

The smile widened. "If I said 'ok', do you promise not to pull the wool over my eyes?"

"IGNORE ME!"

/-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-/

((03-07-2021 -- edited to account for a memory error.))
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AmbushCat
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Re: [Writing] Zero Context: Woolgathering

Postby AmbushCat » Sat Mar 13, 2021 12:03 am

Zero Context: Woolgathering
Chapter Four

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After letting Callista into her house and pointing out where the spare blanket was, Bahija excused herself to her bathroom under the pretense of getting herself clean ("My own fault for not using antiperspirant before running around carrying stuff all over the mall", she'd said). Callista looked at her funny for a moment, tilted her head a little as if she were listening to something, then shrugged and let her go about her business.

...

It was no coincidence that her shower was just large enough to accomodate Acutus after the curse was triggered, provided she kept her wings folded up. She weaved a spell into the air to make it seem to outsiders like her water was still running after she shut it off, then gingerly stepped out and opened a window on the pretense of removing any steam. Being careful not to let her talons scratch or click against the floor, she walked over to the bathroom door, stooped down to press the side of her head against it, and waited.

Two minutes later, a noise like that of whale song made Acutus flinch away from the door. What in Xia's name is with that? Does she have sleep apnea, or are her sinuses just clogged? I don't think I've ever heard it sound so terrible!

I guess I should count my blessings, though. Acutus disabled the noise spell, its purpose served. With that much snoring, she won't hear me coming and rouse herself. Moving carefully, she slowly opened the door and made her way to the living room, bracing herself in case of the worst-case scenario.

She needn't have worried: Callista was out like a light, curled up into a ball on her couch with the blanket covering everything except her nose and mouth. Her purchases lay on the floor nearby, carelessly discarded but not in a position where they would be tripping hazards.

Acutus' heartbeat echoed in her ears as her long-suppressed desires tried to surge to the fore, but she forced herself to stay calm and keep herself from over-acting. Doing so when my goal is within my reach is only going to put my life in jeopardy. She allowed herself a smile, blushing. But if I can either destroy her good qualities or modify her bad ones, well... no reason why I couldn't indulge myself then.

Acutus double-checked to ensure that her ring was still where it was supposed to be, then carefully seated herself on the ground. Uttering a spell so softly it was impossible for mortal ears to hear, she pointed a finger at Callista's forehead. With a rush of magic that took her breath away, she felt a whoosh of air and a mind-bending twist yank at her insides...

/-/-/-/-/-/-/-/

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...and found herself deposited into an entirely new environment.

Acutus surveyed her surroundings as she got to her feet. In her experience, everyone's mindscape was different. Some had little to no substance. Others were locations from the subject's life that factored heavily into how they viewed the world; she knew that her own centered on Dryukl'ava IV, with her palace at the forefront. Callista's was primarily of the former. A green laser-like grid marked the translucent floor she stood on, reminding her of a computer simulation she saw back when technology began to catch her eye. Far beneath her feet, an endless sea of fractals stretched, curved and twisted as they drifted along like clouds. In the distance was nothing but the void.

There was a wooden stand situated close by, with a set of framed photographs on them. Prior experience told Acutus that these were of people who had impacted Callista's life in some way, so she allowed herself a quick glance to satisfy her curiosity.

The first showed a laughing blonde humanoid with black-tipped fox ears, what had to have been at least five long ponytails, and visible fangs. A bottle of some unidentifiable alcohol or other was clenched in one gloved hand. Acutus rested one hand near the frame to see what sort of sensation she would get from it; when she withdrew it a few seconds later, she felt both wistful for her former clan and grief-stricken from learning that her empire was demolished. A missing sibling, and one she holds dear. She has to be.

The second could only have been a family photograph, each of the nine humans in it well-dressed. Seven of the faces were blurred beyond recognition, with the only clear ones belonging to a boy of around eleven years of age and an elderly woman that Acutus estimated to be in her mid-80s. On brushing the frame with her hand, she wondered what things would have been like if she had stayed with her clan instead of leaving to seek out power. Neither of them look anything like Callista, she pondered as she withdrew her hand. Their features are bland compared to all the humans I've ever known. And why are their faces clear compared to the rest of the family? Maybe she was adopted, and they were the only ones she has fond memories of? Did she run away from home? I thought I knew everything about her, but this raises too many questions...

Acutus stepped away from the stand with some reluctance, deciding to ignore the remaining photographs. Much as she would've liked to examine them more closely and see what served as Callista's motivation in life beyond shopping and fighting, she was here on business. She picked a random direction and walked off, her long strides carrying her forward quickly.

She'd been walking for about six minutes before she got the impression that she wasn't alone...

"Swing Sonic!"

Acutus didn't have to look behind her to detect a blast of energy woven with air pressure flying at her. With a haughty 'hmph' at Powered Buttercup's attempted sneak attack, she raised her hand over her shoulder and flicked at the projectile before it could strike her back. The pained yelp as Buttercup's own attack (plus interest) hurdled her across the mindscape had the makings of a fine sonatina; it would have been a concerto if she had been able to get up again and keep fighting. One down. Who's next to party with me?

A swirl of blackness took a Delcatty-esque shape before a humanoid being threw itself at Acutus with a roar. If this had been in the physical plane she would have been worried at its raw speed and lethality, but in the mindscape she had many more options available to her. As the Dark Copycat slashed at her, Acutus' index and middle fingers twisted.

DC's claws passed through a thin portal... and its roar became a scream of pain as they inexplicably raked across its own face. Bits of what looked like crystalline dust were thrown off, the entity lacking a true flesh-and-blood body. Unfurling one wing, Acutus pivoted and struck DC full in the side with it, launching her away...

...straight at the Light Copycat while it was in the midst of materializing. A happy coincidence, that, since it saved Acutus the trouble of fighting it. Their heads collided together as they toppled, dazing them. A leap and a stomp from her crushed them both against the floor before they could recover. Already damaged, the DC did not wake up again; the LC was still conscious, but it was not in much condition to move either. Two and three.

Acutus' fingers twitched, and Buttercup's unconscious body drifted to a stop nearby. Just to make sure I can keep an eye on her if she wakes up, she told herself, eyes examining the Dark Copycat. This is my real target. She ignored the LC's futile attempts at getting up, instead pointing her fingers at its counterpart.

A spiralling helix of energy struck the Dark Copycat, particles rising from the construct clear into the unknown. Acutus lowered her hand and waited for the particles to completely fade, then let her gaze sweep across all three figures. "You saw nothing," she intoned, her mental energies willing themselves to life.

The LC's eyes became a bit unfocused, and it looked around itself from its prone position in confusion. "Why am I..."

Acutus' danger sense erupted just before she felt an invisible force smack her forehead, prevented her from hearing the rest of LC's question. Nothing had appeared in the mindscape in the past few seconds to engage her, but she didn't view that as a good thing; someone was attacking her true physical body. Snarling at the interruption, she broke her concentration and pulled herself back to the real world...

/-/-/-/-/-/-/-/

/-/-/-/-/-/-/-/

...just in time for something to nail her between the eyes. It didn't cause any real pain, but it was still mildly annoying. Acutus shoved whatever it was out of her face before checking to see what was bothering her.

The groggy yet perturbed child next to the couch couldn't have been more than seven years old. There didn't seem to be any visual indicators that she was related to Callista, given that the face, eyes and hair were all wrong, but the signature Acutus detected proved that she was indeed her clone. The child was inexplicably clothed with jean shorts and a black T-shirt, the latter advertising some amusement park or other that the dragon had never heard of.

None of that was what puzzled her, for all of that was small stuff and made sense given both prior experience and the local laws. What confused her was that there was a rubber trout in the clone's hand that was larger than she was. What the...?

The child got straight to the point. "Alright, knight breath. Who am I, who are you, where am I, and why should I not rip your tail off and make a salad out of it? And speak quickly. I'm craving chicken."

Even if you filled a fleet of freighters with it, Acutus would still have arrogance to spare. Adorable. And me without my Sunday best. I'll just have to settle for Saturday instead. "You're a nameless clone of my crush's bad qualities," she said bluntly, striking an eye-catching pose that had once sent an entire battalion either running for the hills or screaming her name in adoration, gender depending. Given that she had also used it in the past to put small children in their place, she didn't see any reason why it would fail her now. "I am Acutus, Blue dragon and retired warlord. I've been masquerading as a humble sheep for two months in the hopes of catching and securing the most beautiful girl on the Continent."

The clone didn't say anything, which Acutus took as permission to continue. She raised a finger, and a spark of Blue energy gathered on its tip. "Since I created you, that effectively makes you my daughter. And with a touch, I can make you the same as me. How about it?" She gestured at the still-sleeping Callista. "Want to help me make it a family of three?"

The little girl focused on Callista for a few seconds, her chin in one hand. "My mom, huh...?" Nodding conclusively at whatever her thought process was, she steeled her expression and gave Acutus her undivided attention. "Tell her."

"Huh? What are you---eep~!"

With a jump, the clone grabbed Acutus' nose and used it to yank her down to eye level, making her fall to her knees on the way. The Blue energy she had gathered sunk unused back into her hand. "Tell. Her," the child hissed. "Tell her why you decided to help her on her trip today. Why you deliberately exhausted her. And more importantly, why you thought cloning the Dark Copycat to create me was ever a good idea."

Acutus' eyes dilated even as one hand moved towards her sore nose. Wait, she actually has memories of that? I thought she was a clean slate... but that means...! "But I---"

"Or so help me..." The clone's face slammed into hers, radiating enough fury that Callista shifted uncomfortably in her sleep. "...I'll splash you with cold water right now, break off your horns and make you eat them, you sorry Sisterhood reject. Add a bit of sunshine sprinkled with dew, and I'd bet they'd taste delicious!" She pointed at the sleeping shopaholic. "NOW TELL MY MOTHER!"

Lacking any doubt that the child would find some way of carrying out her threat, Acutus hastily saluted her. "Y-Y-Yes, boss! At l-least let me switch back first!" she squeaked. She didn't so much as acknowledge me...! She doesn't even care about the power difference! I was positive that I copied the form and not the mind, but something still gave her all of her source's memories! I didn't plan for any of this!

"Boss, huh..." The child's angry frown shifted into a smirk that was half insane, half smug, and all sinister. No seven-year-old, fake or otherwise, ought to be sporting that look. "I could get used to hearing that."

...

As she doused her hand in cold water in the kitchen, Bahija heard a munching noise. She turned, then stared in stark disbelief as she saw the child stealing her cereal out of her cupboard. "Hey, hey, stop! That's mine!" she whined.

"Yeah, well, you snooze you lose," the child said, disregarding her worries around a mouthful of shredded wheat. "And for the record, you've been eating way too healthy. You ever consider stocking up on Fruity Pebbles?"

A soft whimper. What, Bahija thought, did I just unleash?

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It took a bit of doing from both parties to try and rouse the tired Callista. Neither cajoling nor loud noises seemed to work, though the latter made some sense in light of how much the clone was yelling at Bahija. They finally succeeded when the clone climbed onto the back of the couch, reached down with her feet, and kicked Callista onto the floor.

She'd been more confused than upset by the action, and Bahija had taken it upon herself to explain everything that happened. She did her best to disguise her dragon-girl form's involvement, but Callista was no dummy. It was evident by her thoughtful gaze that she was doing the math the entire time, having access to information that Bahija didn't.

By the time the nervous ewe was finished explaining everything, Callista... couldn't work up enough anger to let it show on her face. Bahija guessed that the Dark Copycat was still out of commission, affecting her emotions appropriately... though that was cold comfort in light of the girl's rage being tranquil instead of volcanic. "...Everything makes sense now," Callista spoke softly. "Last time I met with Viridi at the Mungojerrie, she and Raleigh told me that you had resurfaced and been placed under a Jusenkyo curse, saying I would find it funny when I met you again. In most circumstances I would find it chuckle-worthy."

Bahija's hand twitched. She looked down to see what the matter was, noticing that her ring was gone. "Hey---!"

"But I know what your game is now," Callista said, the ring disappearing within the confines of her purse. "There's nothing you can hide from me anymore. You played everyone for fools for months just to get to me. You met me at the mall, got my autograph, willingly played a sidekick while I ran around, offered to let me sleep it off here... all out of a single-minded obsession with something you're not allowed to have. If cloning the Dark Copycat hadn't worked out, you would have tried to erase her counterpart just to turn me into the Brotherhood's ideal leader. Probably would have tried to reshape my personality from the ground up just to make me more susceptible to your charms, and thus more likely to accept you. Does that sound right?"

The Goddess of Nature had warned me that she was a powerful telepath... "You're not going to try to kill me again, are you?" Bahija asked nervously, her recent experiences burned into her mind. What is it with me being intimidated by people I love?

"Please say yes." The clone sprouted black-furred ears on her head, a half-inch coat of cream-colored fur growing out of her skin. A newly-materialized tail lashed about eagerly. "Gimme an excuse, Calli! C'mon, gimme!"

Callista ignored her for the moment, focusing on her stalker. "You have no idea how much I want to drag you somewhere off-world where the death would actually stick. But by incapacitating the Dark Copycat, you've ensured that I'm able to think things through without my anger getting the best of me. And I admit to being violent, but I'd prefer not to kill if I can avoid it. As the situation stands, I'm willing to let this incident go provided three conditions are met."

Bahija felt an unexpected weight pull at her, forcing her down to her hands and knees. She didn't have to look to know that the clone was experimenting with her capabilities, or that she didn't have full control of them just yet. "Name the-m~!" she yelped as the telekinetic force slipped, yanking at her ears for a second before stabilizing between her shoulders. "Please, just tell me! I'll do anything for you, I promise!"

It was no one's guess as to why Callista's eyebrow was so fascinating. "Anything?"

"Anything!" Bahija cried, tears threatening to fall as she looked up at her face. "Anything! Please, just don't leave me to die again!"

"Grandma on Deer Herd Island," the clone griped. "For someone who can swing pre-Super Frieza around like a baton, you sure don't have much dignity."

"Quiet a moment, lil' missy," Callista ordered, her voice still not rising any higher than normal. "We're going to incorporate part of her original plan into this. I realize I'm placing a lot on you considering you were born less than half an hour ago, but I'd like to designate you as my proxy for all Brotherhood operations. You will be its face from here on out, answerable only to me. Do everything in your power to restore the organization to its original status. I'll provide you with some funds to get things started, but after that you're on your own. Trying to run it myself and live my life free is too tiring."

The clone waved her off. "No need to worry. I've got this in the bag."

"That's what worries me the most." Callista's eyes turned down towards Bahija, causing her to shiver. "And as for you..."

"Y-yes?"

"Condition #1: join the Brotherhood. Treat all of my clone's orders as if they came from me, and obey them accordingly. No exceptions. Also..." Callista directed her words to thin air. "Hey, Curtis? Whenever you get online, I need a fourth-wall break. Do you know whether her appearance is based on anything in particular?"

Before Bahija could wonder what she meant or who she was talking to, an illustration of her appeared close by. Callista quickly assessed it, then nodded. "That'll work. Continuing, I want you to design a uniform for yourself worthy of the Brotherhood, starting with that cardigan. I don't care how shameless or proud you are; your manner of dress reflects on me, and I'm not going to associate with someone who flaunts their body just by walking around. If I catch you anywhere as a dragon-girl, I'm going to drop you back into that lake and make sure you stay there until the universe dies a natural death."

Bahija hung her head with a sob. "Ye... yes, boss," she forced out, her voice heavy as she began to realize what she willingly got herself into.

"Good. I'll hold you to that." Callista gestured, and the image disappeared. "Condition #2: No one with the Infinite Defense wants to be affiliated with the Brotherhood, which is fine by me. I'm going to need a capable bodyguard on standby if I ever feel like dropping in. I want you to design and create one for me via the Cosmic Plushie Forge. I don't want it run-of-the-mill; I want it to be strong, capable, and one of a kind. I'll have my clone provide any assistance she can offer."

"Actually, you can knock off the 'clone' ID," the person in question interrupted with a smile. "Something you said gave me an idea."

"Oh? You got a name for yourself now?" Callista asked, interested.

"Sure do," the little child confirmed, preening. "As of now, I'm The Spectacularly Cool Missy Coco Chanel. The title's a work in progress."

Callista thought the name over, frowning. "It works, but I'm wondering about something. How do you spell 'Chanel'?"

"...I dunno," the newly-named Missy confessed. "It just sounded amazing. And familiar."

"I guess it doesn't matter," Callista decided. "Could've been someone famous, or it could've been one of my birth parents' cats... it's irrelevant. However you want to spell it, that's how we'll render it. Anyway, I'll take the both of you to the Forge in about two and a half hours and show you how to operate it. I want that bodyguard created inside two weeks."

"Alright, boss," Bahija said, feeling her spirits lift a little. That at least doesn't sound so bad. Maybe I can get used to being a Brotherhood cog. It will at least give me something to do with my life. "What's the third condition?"

"The PFL president's taking a producer of bootleg merchandise to court for using our images without consent. The manufacturer's reach was fairly extensive, so if you have anything of theirs around here, hand it over. You can't have it anymore."

Bahija buried her face in the carpet, bawling. Following a quick scan of her mind for the reason why, the remaining parties facepalmed.

...

...

...

...

That night before turning in, Bahija stared forlornly at the Callista bobblehead she was given as consolation. It's just not the same.

/-/-/-/-/-/-/

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Location: Unnamed local creek
Time: Shortly after Bahija's confession

"...So," Callista said, having some trouble believing the words exiting her mouth. "You're my daughter."

"Yeah," Missy answered in the same tone. "I am. And before you say anything, no: I don't particularly want to live with you, and yes: I have all of the Dark Copycat's memories, and by proxy a decent chunk of yours. Inflicting me on any school is a bad idea."

Callista facepalmed as she leaned against a stone barricade for support. "Is this a bad time to say that I have no idea how to be a parent? I promised myself when I was young that I was never going to marry or have any kids."

"Well, plus side: that failsafe of yours worked."

"After the disaster that happened the last time my mind was attacked? I wasn't taking any chances." Callista brought herself down to eye level and clasped Missy's shoulders, an action the child flinched and frowned at. "At the very least I can do one parent-y thing for you before we part ways. Feel like popping into Spamville with me right now and getting a head start on a new wardrobe before I take you to see the Forge?"

"...Do I have to?" Missy complained, not liking the idea. "Doesn't sound very fun."

"Kinda do." Callista reached into her hair, tapping a clip that was hidden there. A few paces away from them, a dimensional portal blazed to life. "And trust me, it's very fun."

"Why do you say that?" Missy asked, not convinced.

"Well, let me put it this way..." Callista closed one eye and smiled, waggling a finger. "Sore wa himitsu desu."

Missy caught the hidden meaning in that phrase, smirking dangerously. "Okay, now I'm sold." The smirk faded back to a frown. "Just don't ruffle my hair, mom. You get me?"

Callista laughed as she pulled her daughter into the portal after her. "I make no guarantees, Missy Coco. None whatsoever!"

/-/-/-/-/-/-/

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Image

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Location: Abandoned warehouse complex
Time: Two days later

"Good. You made it. There's a specific dance I'd like you to do." Missy climbed onto a chair as she addressed Bahija, the wind ruffling her hair a little. A squad of Space Marines were scattered around the property, setting up some recording equipment and lighting. "I'll be sending a video to everyone you used to work for to 'notify' them of your altered allegiance. By tomorrow, your reputation as a good Samaritan's going to be blown wide open."

Had to happen sooner or later. I was tired of playing 'little miss nice girl' anyway. Bahija clipped a microphone to her cardigan's collar. "Sure, boss. What sort of dance is it?"

Missy smiled in that creepy way of hers... and in answer, a plushie stepped out from behind her chair. It was designed to resemble a male human wearing an expensive suit and a mask over its head, with a piece of burning paper instead of a cigarette sticking out of its mouth. "Gentlemen..." it intoned, a slight French accent coloring its voice.

Bahija's skin turned as white as her hair. Now this is something that cannot be happening...

...

...

And so it was that the news of Bahija's joining the revived Brotherhood, complete with a video of her doing the Spycrab walk set to dance music, made the rounds. With that bit of humiliation complete, there was no going back.
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AmbushCat
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Re: [Writing] Zero Context: Woolgathering

Postby AmbushCat » Mon Mar 22, 2021 8:37 pm

Zero Context: Woolgathering
Chapter Five

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PRESENT DAY

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The first things Bahija noticed when she woke up were the sharp ache in her skull and the queasy feeling in her stomach. This was followed by the realization that she was not sitting on a stool anymore but was instead covered up in a bed. Guess "beating the stupid out of me" by giving me a literal 'hangover' makes sense, but it's still not something I want to deal with. Her lips curled in disgust at the bad taste in her mouth. This is why I don't touch alcohol. They must've force-fed me my drink after I was knocked out.

"Took you long enough," Zapana's voice barked in her ears. "Rise and shine, sleepyhead."

Bahija groaned and turned in bed, one hand on her head and the other over her ear. Zapana was seated close by, seeming as if she had been stewing over something. "Ugggccch... don't you have a mute button? It's hard to think past all this pain."

Visibly suppressing some obvious anger, Zapana took a glass from the stand and handed it to her. "Here."

Bahija grimaced at the revolting concoction within. "What is this?"

"It's a Prairie Oyster," Zapana explained tersely, though mercifully she was keeping her voice down now. "Helps deal with hangovers." She looked up at the ceiling in thought. "Or so they tell me. I've never had one before."

"Never had a Prairie Oyster?"

"Never had a hangover."

That didn't make sense to Bahija, but like many other things she decided not to dwell on it. Deciding to take the wolf at her word, she downed the concoction in one gulp.

...And very nearly threw it back up, barely managing to choke it back down through force of will. "Uaagh! What was in that?! Zapana, if that was poisonous, I swear---!"

Zapana held up a hand to stop her, taking the glass from her. "Raw egg, Worcestershire sauce, vinegar, salt and pepper."

Aside from the raw egg, that didn't seem too bad.

"...Oh, right: there was also a teaspoon of neuron essence mixed with a dash of powdered goat bladder. Steve's own make."

Bahija immediately felt everything from her stomach on up rebel on hearing those words, and the grotesque sensation of bile rose back into her throat. Her eyes widened in panic and urgency. "Where's---!" she managed to say before she clamped her mouth shut.

"Down the stairs. First door on your left."

...

...

Zapana watched Bahija flee the room, then listened to multiple doors slam open. "Had no idea that mind flayers had such an extensive list of home remedies," she told herself, the spoken words helping her screen out the sound of cookie tossing. Or Oyster tossing, as the case may be. "Or that they had such mean senses of humor."

"In the name of everything...! Who forgot to flush this last...?!" came a high-pitched disjointed wail.

"Oops. Sorry!" someone in the bar proper shouted back.

Zapana snorted softly and got up to follow. "Though I don't think Steve's to blame for that one."

/-/-/-/-/-/

/-/-/-/-/-/

Bahija refused to believe that what she'd tried (and failed) to drink was responsible for her headache fading away. With no exceptions, that was the worst thing she'd ever willingly tried to ingest. She exited the restroom about six minutes after she'd entered, wanting little more than to return to headquarters, give her report to Missy, and find something else to do for the rest of the day to take her mind off of the experience.

"I saw it all."

Because of course I wasn't finished here yet... "Saw all of what?" Bahija asked warily as she stopped walking, her peripheral vision detecting Zapana slouching against the wall.

"Your summoning to the Continent," the caninoid growled, no longer trying to suppress her fury. "Your rescue, and the events that led to you creating that Brotherhood brat. I was trying to figure out how your mind works, so Steve copied some of your memories while you were unconscious and mixed them into my second drink."

"Shouldn't have done that, Miss Zquor." Bahija folded her arms defensively. "My mind's not a pleasant place to be."

"So I noticed." Zapana grabbed one of Bahija's arms ('standard grip', the sheep-girl thought with a wince) and dragged her off towards the bar. "Those were some seriously funky mental gymnastics you were doing if you thought all of that was going to make Callista happy with you."

Bahija tried and failed to pull herself free. "They keep me in shape, alright? Let me go!"

"'In shape', right," Zapana scoffed. Entering the bar, she pushed Bahija in front of her and placed a finger on her head to keep her facing forwards. "We've gone over this already. Listening to you is like trying to sit on a window. Seriously, it's basic logic: you don't like being part of the school of hard knocks? Stop enrolling yourself in it. Stay away from Callista."

A blink as she braced herself for what she knew was coming. "...'to sit on a window'?"

"It's a joke, lamb chop. Because when you get right down to it, you've always been a pain..."

KER-PUNT.

"Eeeeeeeeeee~...!"

"...IN THE #$&%!"
Zapana howled at Bahija as she was punted out of the bar like a football, smashing through a window and the stonework around it. A ripple in the air as she cleared a three-story building told Zapana that the sheep-girl had exited the neighborhood's sub-dimension and been displaced back into the local reality.

...

"$2,735 for the bar repairs," Steve stated from behind the counter. "And on a personal note, an extra $1 for the pun."

Zapana sighed, but reached for her wallet. "Like I didn't know that was coming a mile away..."

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"---eeeeeeeeaaaa---OOF!"

Bahija's flight across the Muffinville skyline was mercifully cut short after a mile when she clipped the edge of a seven-story building, tumbling head over heels across the rooftop and cratering an air conditioning unit on impact. After a minute she forced herself to sit up and lean against the unit, her breath hissing through her teeth as she fought off a wave of pain. "Thanks, Zapana," she grumbled. "I totally didn't want to sit down again anytime soon today. Guess I'd better get to my chiropractor..."

Something poked her face; growling in annoyance, she went to swat it away. Whatever it was maneuvered around her hand and dabbed beneath her right eye, eliciting a yelp that she couldn't suppress in time. When the object withdrew, Bahija saw that it was a tissue stained crimson... with a few tiny shards of glass embedded in it. A shiver played "Chopsticks" on her spine as she realized how she'd nearly experienced much worse than lower back pain. "Too close, w-way too close," she stammered.

"...I'm not hearing a 'thank you'," a young lady's voice said.

"Oh, sorry." Bahija straightened and bowed politely in the voice's direction, adopting her 'innocent sheep' demeanor on reflex. "Thank you. That could've been terrible if I'd lost my eye."

"...Terrible being a matter of opinion, of course," came the dry response.

"What are you talking about?" Bahija straightened, flinching as she did so. She took another offered tissue and pressed it against her facial wound. "Of course it's terrible, why wouldn't it be---" She gave the speaker her full attention... and recoiled when she saw who it was. Her demeanor reversed itself back to the default 'dragon' setting. "Ellen! What are you doing here?"

"...Being happy that you didn't call me 'Roddy'," Ellen snarked, the tissue knotting itself on its own and flying into an open hip pouch. The bibliophile was seated on a blanket, leaning back against an umbrella that had been planted in the rooftop. A notebook was in her lap, but Bahija couldn't discern anything important about it. Her clothing was loose enough to help keep her cool, but not enough to show anything off. "...I take it Zapana gave you a well-deserved boot?"

"Something else that's a matter of opinion," Bahija muttered, rolling her eyes. "Seriously, what are you doing up here?"

"...Enjoying my summer vacation. Or I was, until you came along."

Bahija began shuffling towards the roof's edge towards some emergency stairs. "Wasn't by choice. I'll just get myself down and get out of your hair, if you don't mind..."

"...May want to wait on that," Ellen stated firmly. "...Though if you want to struggle down seven flights of stairs in the state you're in, that's fine with me."

Bahija paused, considering this. "Fine," she admitted, instead walking towards the rooftop entrance and trying the door. Locked... "I can't get out this way," she told Ellen. "Unless you've got hot water on hand..." She waited until the quiet girl shook her head. "Then I'm stuck. I can't fly or teleport like this."

Ellen stared down at her notebook, her eyes not seeing it. Bahija sweatdropped as she nervously wondered whether or not Ellen was contemplating just leaving her on the roof. It's getting to be one thing after another today, and it's not even lunch yet...

She needn't have worried. After a minute of deliberation, Ellen closed her eyes and sighed before standing up and sticking her notebook beneath her arm. "...You can owe me," she said, handing her umbrella over. "...Follow me."

Bahija slowly followed along as Ellen approached the roof's edge, wincing with each step and stowing the tissue she'd been holding away as she went. "I'm seriously hoping you're not suggesting I impersonate Mary Poppins."

"...Yes," Ellen answered in all seriousness. "...That's exactly what I'm suggesting."

"I thought you were supposed to be stoic, not sadistic," Bahija complained, having the face of someone who realized that their blind date had stuck them with the bill. "Are you trying to kill me?"

Ellen didn't react to the accusation as she stood on the edge. "...Do you trust me, Acutus?"

"NO."

"...Zero hesitation on that one," Ellen commented. "...You must think I'm just like my mother. Look, you can either hold on to that umbrella, follow me over the edge and get down in no time at all, or you can spend upwards of an hour struggling down the emergency stairs." She stared at her over her left shoulder. "...Don't turn a nothing equation into a calculus formula. Unlike Sledge Hammer, I know what I'm doing."

"No idea who that is."

"...A shame. You don't know what you're missing." Ellen shook her head, taking a few steps forward. She kept going until she was standing two meters out on open air, then turned and gestured for her former assailant to follow her.

Stunned, Bahija's mouth fell open. "...What."

A soft snort, which was the closest that Ellen was going to get to expressing amusement. "...Just to reiterate what I told you the last time we met, I'm not the weak child that I was in 2016. A lot can happen in four years."

"That's not magic," Bahija objected. "And you're obviously not using pure physical ability or technology. How in Muffinville are you flying? Are you some kind of mutant?"

"...Poor little dragon in sheep's clothing," Ellen chided her. "...As long as I have even a sticky note on my person, I'm never powerless. Now are you coming or what?"

A vein twitched. "THAT DOESN'T TELL ME ANYTHING!"

"...It wasn't supposed to."

Bahija groaned. I don't know why I bother. Fine, I may as well spend the rest of the day in traction. Why not? At least then I'll be put out of my misery for another day. Tightening her grip on the umbrella, she stepped off the roof.

Bahija's feet gave way beneath her, and she gasped in terror at the sudden drop... or what was supposed to be a sudden drop. It took a few seconds for her to discover that not only was she not losing any height, neither was the umbrella she was holding on to. Her expression shifted to puzzlement. "Why am I...?"

"...Paper strip embedded in the handle," Ellen explained matter-of-factly. "I'm using my cartakinesis to control it..."

"...and by extension the umbrella," Bahija finished, breathless. And that answers how she's flying. Last I saw her, she needed to use playing cards as moving platforms smaller than her feet if she wanted to traverse gaps. Now it's advanced into...

"...You're not as dumb as you look," Ellen admitted, her tone such that Bahija couldn't tell whether her comment was meant as a compliment or an insult at first. The younger girl let herself slowly drop, her passenger not far away. "...Now don't let go, or I'll retract my statement."

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/-/-/-/-/

True to Ellen's word, she didn't let Bahija plummet. The both of them touched the pavement safely half a minute later, after which the former reclaimed her umbrella and entered the office building they'd been sitting on, presumably to let someone know about the damage to the air conditioner. She never so much as said good-bye.

Guess my time is mine now. Checking to make sure her phone hadn't been damaged, Bahija dialed up her chiropractor to set up an appointment. She put the phone away a minute later, secretly pleased: one of the chiropractor's regulars unexpectedly cancelled due to some emergency or other, so she could get into the office immediately if she liked.

Better get moving. Zapana's kick isn't helping my speed any, so the sooner I get there, the better. She pointed herself at a bus stop at the other end of the street and started down that way, idly scanning the streets for anything out of the ordinary.

"Hi, sheep lady! Hi~!"

Bahija stopped after twelve steps and looked around, first to check for any other 'sheep ladies' in the area before trying to see who was calling her. She got her answer in the form of a middle school-aged boy who was jogging up the street straight towards her. He was fairly nice looking for a kid, with raven-black hair, facial features that suggested that he would be eyecatching when he grew up, a Florida Panthers T-shirt, a set of oversized black cat ears and a spectacularly fuzzy tail to match.

She immediately set herself on guard. Ezekiel Harrison, she recollected from the Brotherhood's file on him. Has eight different forms, four for each gender, and he has no control over which form he takes each week. Official 'birth' form is that of a male human. Low threat level since his powers are in mid-development, but he's the youngest of the Harrison kids. Ellen's going to read me the riot act if I interact with him too much. "Hello, Mr. Harrison," Bahija acknowledged him casually when he got close enough, intending to just walk past him and move on. "Nice day today---"

But Ezekiel didn't intend to pass her by without delivering his standard greeting. "HUGS!" he shouted as he all but tackled her, forcing her backwards against a lamppost.

A fresh burst of pain from the impact made Bahija hiss, and her vision swam for a moment. With some force of will, she kept herself from blacking out. "What's the mean---... Wha~?!" she gasped, freezing in place as she felt a pair of arms wrap around her.

Those weren't metaphors in that statement. For one, if you tapped something mettalic against her, you would likely hear a 'tink, tink' sound. For another, Ezekiel's arms had stretched to double their length, all the better to keep her ensnared. If her mind hadn't stopped working momentarily, she would have taken note of that oddity.

Bahija had always made it clear which side of the fence she was on, so having any sort of romantic relationship with a boy was off the table. She started to try to pry herself loose, mortified... but after a second, she realized that puberty wasn't effecting Ezekiel's actions in the slightest. He wasn't acting perverse in any way, whether for laughs or otherwise: she'd been alive for too long and experienced it too many times to forget what those actions felt like. If anything his hug felt comforting, like one given from a family member to another after a long and distressing day at school or work... or like the ones her clan-mates used to give her when she was scared out of her wits. Her mouth moved, trying to form words but failing.

Behind her, Ellen exited the office building. She immediately caught sight of the two of them and closed her eyes for just a second, wanting to erase what she was seeing. "...Please not this again," she murmured before raising her voice loud enough to be heard, jogging towards them. "...Ezekiel? What are you doing?"

Ezekiel's arms unwrapped themselves from around Bahija and returned to their previous length at Ellen's call, though he didn't leave just yet. The sheep-girl looked down at him, thoroughly perplexed and wondering why he would hug someone he didn't know out of the blue. Why? ...Just... ... ...WHY?

As if sensing her confusion, Ezekiel locked eyes with her and fixed her with the kindest look she'd received since before she joined the Brotherhood. His eyes were gentle, his smile even more so. There wasn't a trace of animosity to be had. "... ...... ..." he said softly, nodding before turning his attention to his sister. "Hi, Ellen!" he greeted her with a beaming grin, breaking into a run and racing past her with all the enthusiasm that someone his age had. "Bye, Ellen!"

Ellen sighed, forever bemused at Ezekiel's existence. "...The first thing I'm going to do when he stops growing is get him addicted to decaf," she stated as she approached Bahija, "because putting up with this everyday is just too tiresome. Just so I'm clear, what was happening here?"

Bahija sluggishly edged around the lamppost to face Ellen, her face unreadable. "...He hugged me," she whispered, unsure how to react to what had just happened and disbelieving what she was saying. She grabbed her left wrist in a futile attempt to prevent it from shaking. "He went right up to me out of the blue and hugged me. No catch, no return. Just like he'd known me our entire lives. That's... that can't be normal. It isn't normal. Something's not right with that kid."

Ellen stared at her long and hard, obviously trying to come up with a reasonable response. For once, Bahija couldn't bring herself to be unnerved by her silence. "...I agree," Ellen finally spoke. "...It's not normal. Aside from those monsters that are twisted in their evil beyond unraveling, Zeke wants to believe the best in everyone. Did he say why he was hugging you?"

Bahija trembled, a chill running through her despite the heat. "He said, and I quote: 'You needed it'."

Another long silence. "...Your life is the best example of what not to do," Ellen said. "...But Ezekiel's perception of other people has only improved over the years. It's possible that he saw something in you that none of us are able to see, yourself included. As random as his hugs are, he never does it to anyone who's entirely beyond redemption."

And he thinks that I'M not beyond redemption? The little fool doesn't know me. "You don't think it's possible that he misjudged me? No one's perfect. And you know about everything I've done across my life. I've already made it clear to your wolf friend today that I've never had any regrets about my accomplishments."

The third silence was the longest. Was it her imagination, or were Ellen's eyes glinting? "... ...No. I don't believe he has. And not just because I believe his words over yours. Somewhere buried deep in that ramshackle mess you call a brain is something that could be remotely construed as good. When you have some time on your hands... I suggest you dig for it. It's there; you could probably find it if you really tried hard enough. And had some decent construction equipment to help you."

Bahija frowned, folding her arms. "And supposing I don't want to?"

"...Callista was scanning your thoughts when she first fought you." Ellen took a few steps away as she spoke. "...She knows what you most fear. It's not death itself that bothers you the most. It's the prospect of dying alone, without anyone close by to love or comfort you as you fade away. To call out your name, eager to see you again. ...Between your current allegiance, the fact that everyone in Muffinville tolerates you at best and hates you at worst, your empire being dead and gone, and your tendency to ignore any epiphanies that try to reach you... are you really prepared to see your worst nightmares come to pass?"

"No one would try talking to me like this unless they had something to gain from it," Bahija retorted, not adjusting her stance despite the bead of sweat that slid down her temple. "And you're certainly not trying to make a pass at me. What's your game, Ellen?"

"..." Ellen slowly shook her head. "...My game? Speaking as someone who might want to be a hero someday, I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I didn't at least try to instill a token amount of decency in you. Answer me this, Acutus: do you have the guts to tell me straight to my face that receiving a friendly hug from someone who neither had anything to gain from it nor was coerced to do so in any way, shape or form didn't rattle your Blue-laden draconian brain? Are you really so far gone, so fully immersed in your role that you continue to believe that you can regain what you've lost simply by being yourself?"

...Urgh. Why does this brat have to be so good at talking? "Well," Bahija weakly tried to counter, "it is said that if you want to get anywhere in life, you have to follow your heart..."

"...If that was perfect advice," Ellen stated bluntly, "we wouldn't need prisons or asylums. Let me try this one more time: your twisted attraction towards Callista survived that beatdown four years ago, and you've gone on record as saying that you would do anything for her. This is in spite of the fact that she has about as much love for you as Viridi has for Missy, and would very happily put you in a coma given the chance."

Bahija rolled her eyes at the common knowledge. "And your point would be what? Because I would like to get to the chiropractor at some---"

"...---Which means," Ellen interrupted, "that if Callista told you to work towards purging your twisted beliefs and desires from your mind, you would do so without a moment's hesitation."

"--grrhhkk!" This brought the sheepgirl up short. "#%^$ no!" she shouted, one fist clenched.

Ellen used that opportunity to move in for the kill. "...And that would in turn mean admitting you lied. You, who loves Callista more than life itself, lied to someone who values the truth as much as she values her shopping trips. Those lies weren't for the sake of protection, either, so you don't even have that excuse... not that it was ever a valid one. Face it, dragon: you don't care about Callista beyond her sheer cuteness. You've only ever loved yourself, and everything you do is for the sake of enforcing that love. That's why you're so confused by my sibling's oddities. You wouldn't understand true goodness even if you struggled your entire life---"

"SHUT UP!"

Bahija immediately slammed both hands over her mouth, her eyes wide. She wasn't expecting a scream of that volume and with that level of denial to escape her throat. Wha... what did I just...?

If Ellen was perturbed by the interruption, she didn't show it. She watched as Bahija lowered her hands from her mouth to her throat, perhaps wondering why her vocal cords had betrayed her. Finally the bibliophile nodded and turned away, walking off at a fast clip to see if she could locate where Ezekiel had gone. Further words would have just made things worse at that junction, she knew.

...

...

...

...

-Impressive,- Viridi's voice sounded off in Ellen's mind. -Have you been playing the Ace Attorney games recently? Getting her to question herself like that was pretty clever.-

-...I can do without comparisons to Athena in any way regardless of their origin,- Ellen said. -...And I didn't do it to support the Forces of Nature, either.- She caught up to Ezekiel at a hot dog cart, waited as he received his snack, and decided to buy one of her own. -...Zeke was able to detect something in her heart that warranted him giving her a hug when she was feeling stressed. My goal was to see if I could use it to make Acutus doubt herself and her motives. After all...- She took a bite out of her hot dog, closing her eyes as she savored it. -...Who says that revenge has to be antagonistic in nature? Feels like an excuse to carry a grudge to me.-

The next few minutes were quiet as the siblings ate. Ellen closed her eyes again, this time out of mild annoyance. -...Though as long as we're talking about honesty, Viridi, I did just finish my playthrough of 'Dual Destinies' recently...-

-HA! Knew it!-

/-/-/-/-/-/-/-/

/-/-/-/-/-/-/-/

Bahija was a bit slow to understand certain topics, but she wasn't stupid. It was the work of a few seconds to figure out why she had snapped at Ellen, seeing the heavy implication that she was only after Callista to enforce her own desires. For several long moments she was utterly infuriated at the emotionless girl's accusation that her love for the one who had bested her was anything but genuine.

How dare she...

How dare she...


The fury began deterioriating as somewhere deep in her brain, rationalizations were spun that tried to re-enforce her personal standards and counteract Ellen's statements. Some of those rationalizations were anything but, instead telling her that she was under no obligation to listen to the fools who had no right to challenge the truly dragon-hearted. Regardless of their intent, the thoughts wore the source of her anger down to the point of negligibility.

How dare...

How...


Bahija squeezed her eyes shut, her hands tightening enough that her fingernails were starting to dig into her hand. When she opened them again, her pupils burned with the sort of fierce determination that only the truly single-minded possessed. Power and Desire Above All Else, she thought, reciting her personal creed. I'm not going to waste my time arguing with those who don't understand the intricacies of my thoughts. Strength and longing are the driving forces of my life, and right now all I long for is Callista. Until she accepts me and loves me in return, I am not giving up. I don't care how long it takes.

You can try to psychoanalyze me all you want, little girl, but you are not going to manipulate me that easily.

The fire in her eyes died down as she double-checked an overhead clock at the street corner. Well, I'm not going to get anything done hanging around here. Chiropractor's office first, then back to HQ. It's almost lunchtime. Her decision made, Bahija shuffled slowly down the street towards the bus stop.

~~~

"You lied to me! YOU LIED TO ME!"

"No! Please! Callista, try to understand---!"

"Oh, I understand, all right. I understand you're only in this for yourself! Consider yourself fired from the Brotherhood, Acutus. You can expect a restraining order from my lawyers tomorrow, and I'm going to call Raleigh right now to borrow his locking ladle. Try and salvage your life after THIS!"

"CALLISTAAAA!"


~~~

...But the one nagging doubt Ellen had managed to plant refused to be uprooted so easily. "Leave me alone," Bahija murmured despondently as she forced her feet to keep moving, and continued to do so as she climbed into the bus that pulled up. "Please, just leave me alone..."
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Re: [Writing] Zero Context: Woolgathering

Postby AmbushCat » Thu May 06, 2021 11:11 pm

Depending on how long it takes them to stick the place in read-only mode, this might be the last time I'll be able to talk here, so...

Chapter 8 is on hold until further notice. Part of it's the usual writer's block, but I also have Ellen sporting a new outfit there, so I'm going to be keeping an eye out on DeviantArt for someone who can provide some artwork of her. That's going to take a bit of waiting, I think.

The story can be found at Archive of our Own as part of the Zero Context series here.

In the meantime I've got stuff I need to be doing, so I'll be using my break to the full. Take care, stay safe, and...

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