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Monkeys on Parade: Second Banana


Gizmo

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December 2020

The Smoothie Shack - Riverside, Freedom City

 

Continued from Monkeys on Parade

 

In the heart of Riverside the juice bar Ryder led Natalia to was afforded a little more street front real estate than it might have been further downtown, enough for a large arching sign with the name Smoothie Shack in bright capital letters, flanked by stylized palm trees and fruit silhouettes in a multitude of colours. Through the big front windows diner style booths in pastel colours could be seen, occupied by a smattering of patrons of wildly differing ages and aesthetics. The second storey of the building was given to more understated red brick and windows with shutters, presumably living space.

 

Ryder stopped on the sidewalk to heft his bag over his shoulder with one hand and gesture proudly with the other. "Tada!"

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Natalia made a noncommittal sound as she took in the lot of it, sliding her sunglasses down her nose a bit to let those golden eyes scan from sign to booths to decor.

 

"It's somehow everything I imagined it would be," she said at last, pushing her sunglasses back up. It wasn't clear if that was supposed to be a compliment. "I assume you live upstairs, unless you all sleep on the fruit pallets." She cocked her head, and then had to run a hand back through her hair to settle it back in place. "If we'll be waiting for food, I don't suppose we could pause long enough that I could buy a brownie? What I do laughs in the face of conservation of energy, but it does still burn calories - good for my figure, and an inconvenience otherwise."

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"Is it weird if I say I'm super interested in your biological processes? But yeah, I should help Jenny close up anyway, you can have your pick of whatever backed goods are left." Ryder wasn't going to give her a chance to argue over paying for anything and forged ahead and opened the door. Chimes over the door jingled as he walked through, waving to the pair of older women packing up their card game as he smoothly scooped up their used plates and cups on the way to the counter. "Hey! Surprise, I guess!"

 

The young woman behind the counter bore an unquestionable familial resemblance to him although she traded him broad grin for a confident smirk. Her long black hair was shaved on either side of her head and tied back in a ponytail with a pronounced poof over her forehead. Her apron was festooned with a number of buttons and pins with buttons, including pride flags and slogans summing her thoughts on certain institutions. "Hey dork, keeping out of trouble?"

 

"Nah, disrupting the military-industrial complex and gaming the broken prison system," he replied cheerfully, depositing the dishes near a sink and reaching over the counter to retrieve a spray bottle and cleaning cloth.

 

"Nice," Jenny congratulated, bumping a fist into the one Ryder presented to her. She looked back over to the entrance to give Natalia an openly appraising once over. "And collecting pretty private school girls? I'm so proud, Ry."

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"He's had a busy day," Natalia drawled. She stepped in after Ryder, though she was careful to stay out of his and everyone else's way - never deferential, just always somewhere nobody else was moving.

 

She'd given Jenny the same quick appraisal she'd received, but past a quick nod she'd moved to looking around at the dining area like it was foreign territory or full of traps. Or both. She hadn't removed her sunglasses. "I'm not sure I've been collected so much as invited, but he is very forward sometimes and one does have to wonder. It's a pleasure to meet you, none the less."

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"She likes to pick words that put people on the back foot when she meets them so--" Ryder began by way of explanation while simultaneously Jenny replied to Natalia, "Invited's an improvement, normally people just sort of get swept up in his--" They both stopped mid sentence as they realized they were talking over each other and turned from their guest. "Don't make it sound sinister, I just like to know if people can handle themselves before--" "Yes, 'invited'! Are you doing a hazing right now? Are you hazing me right--" "Oh my god Ry, I am trying to be cool in front of your cool sunglasses indoors friend so I don't embarrass--" "You're already cool, we're cool people! Natalia gets competitive about social interactions, it's going be weird if you--" "You know you didn't actually introduce us yet, right?" "Crap!" "Language!" "Shit, then."Better."

 

Simultaneously they turned back to the teen in the doorway. "Sorry! This is my sister, Jenny. Jenny, this is Natalia."

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Briefly wondering what it would be like to have a sibling, Natalia made her way halfway into the room, smiling a smile that at least looked genuine. "It's good to meet you, Jenny," she said, and that sounded concerningly genuine too. "They were fair words - we do go to a private school, and I am pretty. Ryder, on the other hand, might need to learn that socially competitive people probably don't want to be introduced as such."

 

She paused, one corner of the smile slipping down as she pondered that one. "...not that it would stop him. I suppose that blatant honesty's part of his charm."

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"Competitive's only a bad thing if you don't have a winning record, though, right?" Ryder reasoned with the particular grin that seemed to mean he knew perfectly well he was teasing and complimenting at the same time. Like adding salt something sweet to counteract the bitterness it was, annoyingly, all the more endearing.

 

Jenny shook her head in amusement and resumed closing up shop. "He could stand to have a little less charm. Might get into less trouble that way."

 

"Don't listen to her, sweetie," one of the two older ladies on their way out chimed in, giving Natalia a warm smile as she passed. Her hair had been dyed a vivid purple and permed, her blouse patterned like a Hawaiian shirt with hibiscus flowers. "The boy helps with the dishes without needing to be asked. That's a keeper."

 

"Don't you meddle, Lydia," her companion retorted, forcibly guiding the shorter woman toward the door with a hand on her back. Flaxen blonde braid streaked with silver reached down to the small of her back while a long hand-knitted cardigan reached down to her ankles.

 

"He's cute but he talks about bugs, Joanie. He can use the help!" Lydia protested in a lowered voice that wasn't quiet enough to prevent anyone in the room from hearing. Joan pushed her the rest of the way out with a noncommittal grunt and waved to the teenagers before flipping the hanging sign to CLOSED on her way out.

 

"Get home safe, ladies!" Ryder called after them before clearing his throat and shifting his weight a little uncomfortably. "Ah, full disclosure, technically I get paid to help with the dishes so..."

 

Jenny rolled her eyes hard enough to rotate her whole head toward the ceiling. "Anyway. I'm assuming you came by now for baked good draft? We've got... two brownies, a strawberry-kiwi danish, four flax seed cookies and a plant-protein-enriched pumpkin loaf with not-enriched-by-anything cream cheese frosting." She clacked her tongs expectantly, looking to their guest first.

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"That would be a good defense if I believed for a second that you wouldn't do the dishes anyway, Cricket," Natalia said, finally removing her sunglasses to lay her golden irises on the treats. She wanted all of it, which was entirely unacceptable and she'd have to stick to her guns. "I won't turn down a free brownie. Not after today, anyway, and possibly not ever."

 

"He could stand to be less endearing," she added, folding her glasses and hooking them on the edge of her bag. "One of these days your brother is going to start breaking hearts and I'm increasingly concerned he won't understand why."

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Ryder winced at the suggestion, his expression features foiling his attempt to hide it. "He'd better not, that's my thing," Jenny responded breezily before her brother's hesitation could become an awkward silence. She tossed the cellophane wrapped treat to Natalia in an underhand throw with practiced ease and impressive accuracy considering she was using the tongs. The danish was deposited onto a plate and slid down the length of the countertop. "Don't have to ask, you always pick whatever's the most colourful."

 

"I like fruit! The colourfulness is a side benefit," Ryder explained with a note of faint protestation but still accepting the pastry. He set his bag down next to it on the counter and unzipped it, letting the Robugs out to stretch their multitude of legs. Cyan was first out of the gate, bounding across the room to hop excited over by the pastry case until Jenny gave in and patted him on the head. Magenta followed, circling the danish before deciding she had no interest in claiming it for herself while Yellow buzzed up to a high shelf where she could perch and view the whole of the diner. Black toddled out leisurely behind them and set up on top of the bag itself, having nowhere he was in any particular rush to go.

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Unerring though it was, Natalia didn't even attempt to catch the brownie. She didn't have to: it slowed and slowed as it arced toward her, decelerating until it hung, turning, where she could simply grab it out of the air on her way toward Black.

 

Black was almost as much a prize as the brownie was and the gravity-controller didn't pretend an apology as she stole him off Ryder's bag, floating him closer to her side of the counter as she deftly freed brownie from plastic. "It's no wonder they're always everywhere," she mused, nibbling at her brownie with one hand and scratching Black's faux-chitinous hide with the other. "I would be too, if I was stuck in a bag all day."

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Jenny pointed a finger at the floating brownie, brow furrowed and mouth slightly agape as she tried to find the correct reaction. "That... is very cool. That is some full on mind power shit. Wow." Shaking her head and taking the pumpkin loaf for herself, the elder Fujioka sibling walked around to the other side of the counter and sat down on one of the stools, swinging one leg over the other. "And I notice you didn't shout your intention to do a thing like some people."

 

"Ish 'shtetick!" Ryder protested around the bite of danish he was in the middle of chewing, throwing both hands up. Swallowing hastily he tried to defend himself from both of them simultaneously. "It's not like I keep them in the bag when we're not out! They can't just walk everywhere, their legs are super little!"

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Whoever taught Natalia her table manners had done so with rigor; she hadn't even gotten her fingers dirty taking little bites out of her brownie, and she politely chewed and swallowed before answering. "Considering that you made them, Cricket," she said, more amused than genuinely admonishing, "I'm not sure that's the sterling defense you thought it might be."

 

She took another nibble of her brownie before continuing. "A fair point about the aesthetic, it is vital. I myself considered a foot-wide jeweled necklace that announced my every move," she mused, "but it did seem like it would rob me the fun of belittling my enemies directly."

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Jenny gave a little gasp and clapped her hands together quietly. "I wasn't sure I heard right the first time. She calls you Cricket. That is--"

 

"No," Ryder interrupted forcefully, gesturing warningly with the pastry in his hand. "That's a special became-friends-by-fighting-a-robot-gorilla thing. You don't get to use that, it'd be weird."

 

Cyan chirped inquisitively next to Jenny, hopping back and forth on the counter. She laid her palm down, inviting him to hop on then up to sit on her shoulder. "I know, bud. It's a great name. I don't know why he's so ashamed of his cricketness, it's sad, really."

 

Her brother groaned, leaning back and letting his arms hang loose behind him while he looked up at the ceiling. He swivelled on his stool to give Natalia a mournful look full of reproach. "And it's not like I'm the one who added the voice to the cartridge in the first place!"

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For just a moment, Natalia froze like a cat that had spotted something interesting in the grass, meeting Ryder's eyes as her eyebrows slid a half-inch up her forehead.

 

"I assume," she finally said, though not before finishing a bite of brownie, "that might mean your suit and aesthetics were some kind of collaboration. But that's boring, so instead I'm going to believe you built it out of a toy or movie prop. Did you turn a children's toy into a power suit, Cricket? Because that would be some very respectable engineering and also I would never let you live it down."

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"Okay, if it were made from a toy I would totally own it so bring it on," Ryder countered, making a show of brushing imaginary dust off of his shoulder, inadvertently dropping pasty crumbs onto his shirt instead. His usually unassailable optimistic confidence was apparently up to the task of dealing with Natalia or his sister, just maybe not both in combination. "But it's not. I mean, you're kind of on the right track but... Well, y'know! 'Dream in Colour!' Right?" He looked at her expectantly.

 

"She's not going to have any idea what you're talking about, Ry," Jenny sighed. She finished up with what she was eating and began packing up the rest. "Bear with him, he's got a very weird idea of what constitutes relevant pop culture."

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"One has to assume," Natalia agreed. She popped the last bit of brownie into her mouth, buying time with her chewing. The empty wrapping folded in on itself, crumpling into a little sphere in her palm.

 

"I am...tangentially aware of your broader inspirations," she admitted, in the very careful way one might admit something without laying their hand fully on the table. She was eyeing Ryder now, trying to measure his enthusiasm against what she'd seen of his sense of style. "But I've seen more Russian telenovelas than Japanese kids shows, so if you had anything specific in mind it might be lost on me."

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"Ooh, telenovelas!" Ryder almost got distracted by that but instead fished his phone out again and began tapping on the screen to pull up a video streaming site. "But it's not from that! I'll just show you." After a moment of searching he found was he was looking for, hit play and turned the phone around to show Natalia.

 

The video in question was grainy and a little washed out, formatted for a four-by-three screen. Synthesized music swelled over an aerial view of a snow topped mountain range while a narrator began, "We live in a world of vivid colour." The shot changed to a low shot of a tangle of rainforest plants with a bright red tree frog leaping across the screen. "From the natural world..." Again the video cut away, this time to a bustling city street and a group of youths passing a basketball back and forth as they walked. "...to a world of vibrant cultures." Finally the scene changed to a home office done up with pastel pink painted walls and beige computer equipment. "So why should your printer be work in just black and white?" A woman in a power suit with shoulder pads approached a bulky office printer and inserted a fresh ink cartridge with an audible clunk. As she did a familiar voice could be heard from the cartridge cheerfully announcing, "Dream in Colour!" The music ended with a catchy series of notes as a logo for 'KitaColor' appeared over the scene, along with some distorted artefacts from whatever recording media the commercial had been transferred to and from before making it online.

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Natalia watched the video impassively, and she remained poker-faced after it ended. She should probably be mean. She didn't want to be mean. Why wouldn't she want to be mean?

 

She wouldn't be mean.

 

"Inspiration does come from unusual places," she ventured, setting the almost perfect sphere of cellophane down on the counter's surface. "Actual, honest, big-money fashion shows have done a lot less with a lot more. That's an...odd thing to build an identity off of, Cricket, but you've clearly done well with it. Credit where it's due for making something useful out of corporate marketing."

 

She paused, and then: "Do you ever worry," she added, turning a flat look back toward Jenny, "about how close your brother came to running around as a fax machine."

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Ryder leaned back on his stool, blinking several times. "Oh, wow. You're doing the thing where you're being carefully considerate and even equating my stuff to your hobby. That, um." He ducked his head slightly and gave her a small, vaguely embarrassed smile. "I know that's not, like, your go-to. Thank you."

 

"Oh right, I'm going to make it weird, Mr. Feelings," Jenny muttered under her breath rolling her eyes with a severity that seemed like it must be physically taxing. "Our mom had one of those printers in her home office when we were little.  Like, Ry would have been just a baby and there was only so much space so his crib was in the same room, right?"

 

Her brother spun back around to face toward her before his cheeks could colour too noticeably. "I don't even really remember that or anything but I was going through some stuff that was packed away last year and found one of the cartridges in there with a huge stack of that paper that has the holes on either side? And I'd been looking for a cool case for what I was working on and one thing led to another, ha!"

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Natalia shook her head, waving a dismissing hand. "Don't suck up, Cricket. Though I suppose he isn't a cricket at all, then," she amended, looking back toward Jenny. She'd been neglecting poor Black, and returned a hand to petting the little creature's back. "He's really more of a duckling. A gosling?"

 

She looked up, rolling that one around in her head. It was only mostly for show. "'Duckling' might be better. If your mother had kept something like betamax tapes or an especially talkative scanner around, do you suppose he'd be themed appropriately? I can almost imagine the design. I suppose having your belt chew tape couldn't possibly be more embarrassing than getting a paper jam mid-fight."

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"Aw, I wouldn't go with that. 'Duckling' is definitely condescending, sure but it also sounds way more affectionate. 'Cricket' at least gives you some plausible deniability when you're trying to pretend you don't think I'm great." Ryder gave Natalia a broad, almost challenging grin, any momentary embarrassment evaporated like snow landing on the hot skillet of his natural enthusiasm. "And sucking up implies I'm not nice to everybody! May tried pretty hard to kill us and I'm nice to her."

 

Jenny made a long note of frustration in the back of her throat. "Ry. Don't let people try to kill you."

 

"I can't stop them from trying! Just from succeeding! Hence: armour." He raised his palm outward for Magenta to bat at playfully, not unlike a cat. "I probably could have done a tape deck theme. Sound instead of colour?"

 

"Make it look like tape was wrapping around you when the armour came out?" Jenny offered, taking a spray bottle to one end of the small restaurant to wipe down the tables. He brother bounced a little on his stool and pointed an approving finger in her direction, visibly working out the engineering behind that sort of effect.

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"I think that may be a different genre," drawled Natalia. "Similar, but distinct."

 

Tired of standing, the teen waited for Jenny to finish a nearby table and slid into one of its seats once she wouldn't be in the way; she sat sideways, one leg up on the seat and one arm propped against the seat's back to avoid touching more than was necessary. "Don't worry too much about someone trying to kill Ryder - I'm sure it's a common enough problem, but I'm not sure May tried all that hard. Plus, he rewarded her by helping her get out of jail for it." She made it sound very reasonable. "So I'm certain that will be fine."

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