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Mantis and the Fox

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June 2020 - Riverside


Joining the Claremont campus at the start of the summer meant Tori had plenty of free time to get to know her new neighborhood. She was enjoying the mixed bag of reduced parental oversight. It had been a relief to her mother to find a private boarding school that was better suited to her eldest new 'talents'. Shipping a problem child off to an elite institution was perfectly within her idiom but where her mother had been horrified, assessment at Claremont had deemed her new abilities well within Tori's control. She wasn't a danger to herself or others so there was no reason to restrict her to the campus and exploring Freedom City certainly took the edge off any homesickness. 


And it wasn't as if Tori was alone. In addition to the pair of fox cubs that she'd brought with her, there was no end to the creatures that called Claremont's grounds home. Still, it was nice to talk to the occasional human, as well. Tori was certainly looking forward to when Claremont would fill up in the fall. When the silence got a little too overwhelming, Tori would scoop up her wallet and keys and catch the bus from the campus into the city proper which was exactly what she was doing this morning. Tori settled onto her bus seat, ignoring the looks from the older couple across the way. Tori assumed that they were eyeing the tattoos that covered her skin. The woad swirls were impossible to cover up entirely even if she wanted to. Of course, it could have been the furry animal nestled in the hood of her sweatshirt occasionally poking his black muzzle through her red curls to catch the myriad scents. Flipping through her phone, Tori directed her conversation to her companion. 


"Where should we go today, Tango? Riverside? How does Riverside sound? Oh, look, there's some little bistros there. This one is vegetarian," Tori chattered away cheerfully only to have Tango snort in her ear. 


The teenager rolled her eyes as she went to stand up. She reached up to make sure that she wouldn't lose her passenger. "You're an omnivore, you know. We really have to expand your diet. It's what your mum would be doing in the wild. Just because you like burgers doesn't mean we eat those all the time."


Tori bounced out of the bus, tucking her phone back in her pocket as she wandered along the commercial stretch of the neighborhood. Eventually, her rambling lead her to a smoothie shop where she paused.


"Oh, hey. What about a smoothie, Tango? I bet we can get you some berries if we ask politely." Tori commented absently over her shoulder before she went to push open the door.

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Bells hanging above the door jingled as Tori and her little companion entered. The interior decor had enough palm fronds and paneling to nearly qualify as a forest, albeit an entirely plastic facsimile. Diner style booth benches wrapped in mint green and white vinyl stood beside rattan chairs woven from some synthetic material beside tables decorated with overlapping images of various fruits. The riot of colour extended to the variety of patrons chatting over smoothies, sundaes and cold pressed juices and to the teenager behind the counter.


"Hey, welcome to the Smoothie Shack!" Ryder greeted with a smile brighter than the summer sun outside. His tousled strawberry bond hair formed a sort of halo around his face and contested with the canary yellow of the loose top he wore under his fruit-splattered blue-and-white striped apron. With his hands on the counter in front of him Tori could see that his nails had been painted in a variety of iridescent greens, glittering blacks and swirled purples without any obvious pattern. "First time here? I definitely would have remembered those wicked tattoos!"

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"Hullo!" Tori replied cheerfully. She reached up absently to touch one of the blue lines decorating her cheek, her smile bright. "Yeah, stand out a bit, don't they? It is. We just moved here to Freedom City. The jet lag was brutal but I think I'm finally back to sorts."


Her accent was crisp and clear. Despite Tori's conscious effort to down play it, it probably made it clear that the move had been a long one. "Do you have anything you recommend? I-"


She was cut off by the chattering from her companion as  small black muzzle stuck its way through her curls to snuffle and chitter. "Dear Lord, Tango. We've talked about this. You can't just pipe up in a store out of no where... No, I told you there's no burgers. Honestly. I should have brought your sister. She's much better mannered in public. Sorry. He's just hungry. They're weaning off the milk, you see, and starting solids. I made the mistake of giving him some hamburger and now he's a bit of a junkie."


The teenager reached up to pluck the fox cub from the back of her hood where he'd been riding and cradled him in her arms. It was a very young fox, still soot black with an infant's coat. "Do you think I could get him some berries? Almost any sort will do. I like your nails by the way. Did you do them? I've never been able to manage anything but a couple of fingers before there's paint everywhere. I'm hard on my hands so its not like they'd last but its pretty." Tori paused and then frowned. "Sorry, not every boy wants to be told they have pretty nails. They're handsome? Well, I like the colors, at least! And I mean that it the least gendered, most supportive manner possible."


Tori finally paused to take a breath, realizing that she'd fired an awful lot of words at the other teenager without any sort of pause. She really had to find a way to spend more time to socialize with other humans, clearly. "Sorry. Thank you."

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"Haha! You're welcome, I guess? Nothing to apologize for!" Ryder's laugh was easy and loud enough to cut through the background chatter in the room. "Don't know why anybody's paint their nails if they didn't want them to be pretty but I guess everybody's going for their own thing. I totally hear you about being hard on them; part of the reason I got okay at it is all the practice 'cause I always chip it, like, immediately, right?" He presented his hands for inspection and indeed more of the nails than not had seen wear and tear. "I do a lot of mechanical stuff, tinkering and fabbing so-- oh! His name's Tango, like Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?" Ryder clapped his hands in delight. "Phonetic alphabet jokes! That's so rad!" If customer's producing fox kits from their hair was an unusual occurrence worth remaking upon it evidently hadn't occurred to him yet. "We've got berries for days, absolutely. This is like berry central. Coming right up, little buddy!"


As soon as Ryder's back was turned to grab one of the shallow paper cups the Shack used for gelato and frozen yogurt something strange scuttled up from behind the counter and onto its top. About palm sized, it appeared to be a mantis rendered in chunky metal and plastics, all pristine white and bold magenta. The little robot cocked its triangular head before moving to get a better look at Tango, scurrying about the counter in a broad arc as it seemed to deliberate between wariness and curiosity.

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"You make robots?" Tori asked, instantly enthralled. She turned to confer with Tango before setting the fox kit down on the countertop to engage in sniffing with the bug-robot. She stepped closer, her hands easily down on either side of the kit as she provided both a physical barrier to crawl back to as well as emotional support. While Ryder's back was turned, her tattoos pulsed softly with light as she tapped her magic to communicate with her charge before switching back to verbal reassurance. "Hey, Tango, it's okay. Why don't you see if you can make a friend too. You know there's going to be a lot of new things when kids show up at Claremont in the fall. Not everything is going to be as familiar as the back of my closet and that's okay. New things are cool."


She rubbed her fingertips over Tango's fuzzy skull as he made that weird 'hee-hee-hee' noise that foxes make at the robo-bug. "It is. Though his sister didn't want to be Whiskey. So I named her Mochi instead. She's a little more shy so she's at home. That is super neat. I'm not so much a maker. I'm more into biology, ecology, that sort of thing but I bet that's handy. It's SO much better if you can fix something than have to replace it. It creates so much waste."

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"Huh?" Ryder turned around with a bowlful of berries and a bemused expression, giving a start when he spotted the Robug on the counter. "Gah! Mag!" Reflexively he tried to catch the robotic mantis under the cup he was holding, succeeding only in raining raspberries, açai berries, slices of strawberry and a variety of others across the surface while his quarry simply skittered away to one side and clacked its long forelegs together at him. 


"You know you're not supposed to be out where people can see you, come on!" Ryder groaned, surveying the mess of fruit glumly. "I know Tango is super cute, that's not the point!" The little triangular head cocked in the other direction as Magenta seemed to consider briefly before picking up a raspberry between its forelegs and turning about to present it to the fox kit. Ryder let out a exasperated sigh, then blinked rapidly and straightened up. "Wait, did you say something about Claremont? Like, the school?"

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Tori had shifted forward to try and contain the fruit with her body before it ended up on the floor. Bringing one hand down, she cornered some of the berries on the counter top with a curved palm as Ryder asked about Claremont. She glanced up and offered a small, uncomfortable smile as she realized she was about to blurt out details of getting dropped off by Vanguard. It was cool, sure, but Tori knew there were things like secret identities and the true nature of the school that one didn't share with every cute smoothie clerk, no matter how nice they might be.


"Oh, uh, yeah. Yes," Tori agreed, her green gaze dropping to watch Tango carefully pluck the berry that was offered gingerly with his mouth. "Don't hurt the robot, okay? Watch yourself."


Tango whined softly at the reprimand. He had been careful! Plopping down onto his belly, Tango alternated between gumming the berry and snuffling at the bug. "He's just a baby. He's still kind of learning how to eat. They're weaning off of the bottle slowly," Tori appologized to Ryder's pet before she glanced up at Ryder. "I'm already on campus - its a boarding school, but its super empty." Glumly, Tori realized that she couldn't invite Ryder to check it out. Stupid secret identities clause.

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Magenta hopped up and down in apparent approval before scuttling about the counter to retrieve another berry. "Yeah, no, I'm actually registered to start there in September? Like, transferring, right?" Ryder gestured animated with his hands, pointing at nothing in particular as if to somehow illustrate his meaning. The teenager shifted from foot to foot with pent-up energy, apparently working though the same game of what-am-I-allowed-to-say. "So I was already building things but then I found a thing and figured out how the thing worked and used that to build a new thing but when I used that thing the person who built the first thing was worried I might break things if I didn't learn some things and it was sort of a whole thing." His eyes lost focus briefly while he repeated all of that back to himself silently, confirming that it all followed. Nodding to himself he extended a hand to Tori. "Anyway! I'm Ryder." 

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Tori's eyes crossed a little as she tried to follow that explanation but a big smile blossomed on her face at having found another student. She offered him a calloused hand, though not from fighting, just from being gnawed on by animals and digging in the garden; hard work callouses that didn't go at all with the posh accent. "Oh, that's just fantastic. I don't know anyone else in our class. I mean, sophomore, right? Campus is dead empty right now. If I didn't have Tango and Mochi to talk to, I'd be going right bonkers. My friends call me Tori. S'short for Victoria but only my mum calls me that, and then only when she's really mad."


She bounced on her toes a little in excitement. That excitement transferred to her pet quickly. Unfortunately, excited foxes tended to get a little noisy and Tori winced. "Oh, sorry, I can take him outside. Tango, hush. You'll get us in trouble," Tori chided gently before she looked up and offered, "I....fell into a thing and then sort of exploded our gardens. I mean, they're fine. Everyone's fine. It's just... gone a bit native now. Primordial, really. Mum was livid and she called a... family friend and so I'm here instead of there, now. Did you end up breaking things after all or did everything work out?


Someone was going to have to teach them a better code word than 'thing' in the near future.

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Ryder laughed again, released Tori's handshake and quickly set about tidying up the counter with nimble fingers and practiced movements; it certainly wasn't the first mess he'd made with fruit. "This is Riverside! People come in with little dogs in purses that are way louder than Tango. The dogs are pretty loud, too." The jazz hands might have detracted from the punchline a bit. "And nah, it was fine, I didn't even have to go to the emergency room or anything! I think they saw it as more of, y'know, an ongoing concern." He finished piling the berries into a little pyramid, having evidently given up on trying to corral the robotic mantis and retrieved a spray bottle and dishrag. "Wait, so you made some big tomatoes or whatever and your mom sent you to a different continent to live in an empty campus? That sounds... deeply lousy." For the first time since the conversation began Ryder actually frowned. "Are you okay?"

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  • 2 months later...

"Well, it's not the BEST, but, I mean, I was at a boarding school before so it's not really different. New country, though, for sure," Tori shrugged, a little uncomfortable but she probably didn't look exactly okay.  It was pretty sucky. She fidgeted a bit before lowering her voice and whispering, "More like I turned our hedge maze back into a chunk of forest and it won't let them manicure it back into the grounds. I mean, there's something of a metaphor there, if you think about it. It's okay, though. I have Tango and I have Mochi and there's lots of little critters always coming around to poke their heads in. There's a possum family under the eaves that I sneak a little bit of food too after I go to the dining hall. I mean, it's real nice to talk to people for a change. Are you looking forward to starting or nervous? Both?"

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"I've never actually seen a hedge maze in person," Ryder admitted, looking thoughtful, "but that sounds kinda awesome? Like, here I am, walking into the backyard a few steps and boom, now I'm in a cool forest maze! Seems like the same thing but, like, more?" He gestured with both hands held parallel to each other as though illustrating the maze path. 'Hedge maze' and 'boarding school' suggested a pretty wealthy family but then again he was enrolled more or less at a boarding school now, too and he didn't really have a good sense of how many people in Europe just had mazes.


He continued wiping down the counter while Magenta played with Tango. "Anyway, definitely excited! I don't really get nervous which is probably a big part of the number of things I've accidentally set on fire?" He laughed cheerfully. "Meeting a bunch of new people from all over the place who can all do cool stuff? How cool is that!"

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  • 2 weeks later...

"When you come to school, I can show you what it looks like!" Tori offered with unbridled enthusiasm, "I'm much better now at getting the plants to do what I ask rather than just taking it as open invitation to go all 'reclaim the earth'. That is one of the AWESOME things about school. You get to practice without people freaking out."


Tori paused for a long moment, tipping her head to the side before she amended, "Well, most of the time, at least."


She glanced around the room, as if deciding to suddenly be a bit more discrete than loud enthusiasm over the ability to move plants. "So, uhm, is it fire that's your 'thing' or ...?"

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  • 2 weeks later...

The question was nearly lost in a wail of sirens as several FCPD cruisers sped past enroute to some nearby crisis.  It had to be close as moments later people were rushing past outside in the opposite direction as the police began to establish a cordon around an art gallery a couple blocks away.


The teens could overhear the crowd talking about some kind of terrorists or possibly hostages as they fled the scene but it was so garbled as to leave it very unclear if there was an ongoing threat or just a rescue operation underway.

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Ryder straightened up at the sound of the sirens, craning his neck to see out the shop's front windows in the direction from which the crowd was hurrying away. "Hey, Mariel? Can you keep an eye on things for a minute? I better make sure everything is locked up out back." An older woman in a tracksuit with her hair dyed bright purple gave him a thumbs up without looking up from the card game she was playing at a table full of retirees. Ryder grabbed Tori's hand in his own and pulled her around the counter and through the swinging door to the kitchen area.  Magenta made a series of impressive hops from display case to sink to floor to follow.


Once they were out of sight Ryder let Tori go and turned around to face her with a sunny grin. "This is my 'thing'!" He pulled his apron over his head with both arms, his shirt rising above his waistline as he did to reveal a sliver of stomach and a chunky, oversized belt buckle that looked an awful lot like a printer ink cartridge. Tossing the apron to one corner he pressed the tops of each chamber of the belt with a small flourish, a tinny voice announcing as he did, "CYMK! Dream in colour!" Ryder planted his feet and spread his arms wide, commanding, "Chitin! Online!"


A burst of displaced air blew back from where he stood, pushing at Tori's sweatshirt and Tango's fur, while lines of light criss-crossed over Ryder's figure, quickly expanding into broad ribbons. With the sound of electronics powering on and ratcheting connectors fastening into place a black jumpsuit appeared from the pocket dimension, followed by armour pieces cast in white and silver. As the wind and light died down his face was concealed by a smooth helmet dominated by multifaceted oval eyepieces which glowed faintly.


Rolling his shoulders and hopping from foot to foot energetically he asked his new friend, "So? Wanna go see what's up?" Magenta jumped up to his waiting hand and clacked her forelimbs together enthusiastically.

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