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Monkeys on Parade: Second Banana


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"He's a terrible liar but a surprisingly passable actor," chimed Natalia. This whole thing was delightful, but she was determined to not let it show on her face. Dry observations only, or else. "If you'll be watching the news anyway, you may want to see who is suddenly enthused by the idea of robot gorillas. You can laugh at them, knowing that's your brother's work."


And then she turned back to Ryder, arching an eyebrow up. "That is a good question, though. I was bored enough not to ask at the time, Cricket, but you found out where May was and got two invitations to go see her at a closed event. How did you manage that?"

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"Like I said, I’m good at making friends!” Ryder replied cheerfully, placing the back of his hand under his chin, parallel to the floor. He managed to hold the pose for a few second, even as Jenny’s cloth went flying just past his head, but quickly broke into a short laugh. "I asked my boss to let me know if she heard anything about where May was being held,” he explained while Yellow flew down from her perch in a loose spiral to retrieve the cloth and fly it back over to Jenny. "It seems like she hears about everything, especially if it’s about science and engineering. Plus she has some, uh, pretty specific opinions about weapon development.” He paused and tilted his head slightly, considering. "She did say to try not to cause trouble but everything worked out so that’s probably fine.”

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"Mm-hm." Natalia did not sound convinced, but she was at least convinced enough to let it be. For now.


"For what it's worth," she said instead, turning her head to look toward Jenny, "the evil cyborg has his face but not his name, and for all that Ryder is...distinctive..." She paused long enough to wave a hand at Ryder's entire deal. "...it's a very large city and stranger people have hidden from better. He's very probably safe from being kidnapped or experimented upon or used as a test dummy for some kind of evil labyrinth, provided he doesn't continue to make dangerous friends."

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Ryder threw his hands up and his head back. "As much fun as getting roasted indefinitely sounds, at some point we should actually go upstairs, yeah?"


"I could probably subsist off of you getting roasted for a while longer," Jenny supposed as she finished closing up the restaurant for the evening and put away her cleaning supplies with the enthusiastic help of Yellow and Cyan. "But as a dutiful daughter I shouldn't deny our father the opportunity to bask in the crackling warmth of this steady stream of savage burns, so sure."


"So extra." Letting Magenta hitch a ride on his shoulder Ryder stood up and indicated for Natalia to follow him around the counter and into the back of the first floor. "See? It's not like it's just me!"

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"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," said Natalia, remaining seated just long enough to be inconvenient to Ryder's head-start. "I wasn't roasting, I was helping. I feel I was rather complementary, considering." She paused, and then, "If I was to roast you, you'd know."


She slid out of her seat, coiling the strap of her bag in one hand to keep it close and out of the way. She was, in general, making sure she was closely-held and out of the way. "I'm not certain you have the high ground to call anyone extra, Cricket. I'm not sure I do, either, but while your sister is highly entertaining I'm increasingly concerned the behavior is genetic. Is there a drama gene?" she asked, following Ryder into the back. "An overactive enthusiasm gland, maybe. I might have to insist on meeting your family members one at a time. For safety."

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"How come you can talk about my glands but I can't ask about how your powers work!" Ryder objected rhetorically with a laugh as he led the way up the sort of narrow staircase common in buildings trying to make the most out of in-demand real estate. The door at the top of the stairs was a little awkward, flush with the last step up so that he had to reach up and lead forward to swing it open. It had a keyhole but evidently the family didn't keep it locked while there was someone manning the restaurant downstairs.


"Genes are overrated," Jenny chimed in, brining up the rear. She was making a point to give Natalia ample room in the cramped space, lagging a few extra steps behind without drawing too much attention to the fact. "The Fujioka charm is one hundred percent nurture over nature, hun."

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"Ah, well then," Natalia drawled, turning her head back to raise an eyebrow at Jenny. "I suppose I'll have to hope it isn't contagious. I'm not sure I have the budget to include so many colors in my wardrobe."


She didn't hesitate to step past the threshold of someone else's home, but she did display the same careful curiosity she's shown downstairs, scanning the place like it was alien and full of unknown dangers. "You don't ask questions about a girl's biology, Cricket, honestly. Still you can ask me about how my powers work, I'd never forbid it. I'm simply not inclined to answer those questions, or else I'd lose my air of mystery - and then where would I be?"

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  • 2 weeks later...

"A smart, attractive fashion designer with super powers?" Ryder supplied while opening the door to the apartment and taking an immediate step into the living room to the left, making room for the others to enter. He dropped his shoes off on a matt just inside that room and hung his bag on a wall mounted peg, leaving the Robugs to disperse themselves throughout the room. "I feel like you'd manage."


The hallway directly in front of Natalia had another three doors beyond the open entrance to the living room. She could see one end of a dining table at the far end and a kitchen beyond that. A deep, jovial voice called from that direction, "Hey, kids! Good timing, dinner's just about to hit the table, haha!"

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"Now, Cricket. Compliments will get you everywhere." Natalia stood to the side of the hallway, brought each foot up behind her to undo her shoes, and proceed to step out of them like they'd decided to glue themselves to the floor. It was a good trick, only slightly marred by taking a moment to make sure they were neat and well out of the way. "Besides, wouldn't it be much better to be all that and mysterious?"


Which only left entering the place proper, and she was going to have to do that eventually so it may as well be now. "Do you take last-minute reservations?" she asked the voice down the hallway, pausing a moment to inspect the living room. "I couldn't find any reviews for this half of the establishment, but the word of mouth is good and I'm not picky about the menu if the price is right."

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She was met with a booming laugh that reminded her of Ryder with the bass somehow turned all the way up. "Haw! I can tell you our regulars basically live here!" Towelling off his hands with a dishcloth Mr. Fujioka stepped into the view and came down the hallway to greet them in person. "You must be Natalia, then! Ryder said 'smart and funny'. Oh, or should I not have repeated that?" He tossed the cloth over one of his broad shoulders and gave his son a quizzical look that his luxurious moustache seemed to exaggerate.


"Everybody makes such a fuss about me saying nice things about people, man." Ryder rolled his eyes with a soft scoffing noise before giving his father a hug and stepping past him toward the kitchen. He turned on his heel and continued to walk backwards to call back, "She knows she's smart and funny!"


"Just an absolute sack of hammers sometimes," Jenny sighed quietly enough that only Natalia could hear her. She clapped the younger girl on the shoulder as she too passed by. "Good luck with that!" She leaned over to give her father a quick kiss on the cheek before following Ryder.


"Hey now, I can't keep up with what you two think is or isn't embarrassing!" Mr. Fujioka laughed before turning his attention back to their guest. "Regardless, welcome! I've been at Ryder to bring some of his new school friends over, happy to have you! You can call me Shawn." 

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That seemed to surprise Natalia, eyebrows rising up into her bangs. "Then it pleases me to be the first," she said, and meant it, "and how wonderful to have my reputation precede me. It's nice to meet you, Shawn."


She did not attempt to hug him or kiss his cheek. She did try to make her way to the kitchen door without looking like she was entering or avoiding his personal space. "I'm not convinced Ryder feels shame or embarrassment," she said. "More and more I worry he just doesn't know how. To be on the safe side, you and Jenny may have to tell me as many of his most mortifying stories as possible so that I can find out for sure." Her eyebrows had long since dropped back down out of her hairline, but one of them arched back up as she looked sideways at Ryder's dad. "For science, and all that."

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  • 2 weeks later...

Shawn laughed again and followed her into the kitchen. "Well, if it's for science, how can I argue?"


Ryder gave Natalia a small shrug while placing plates on the table. "Well y'know. Family stuff is sort of a lot for Utsuwa, Eira convinced herself that I'm trying to set her up with Jenny..."


"Is this girl cute, too?" his sister asked innocently, making an exaggerated expression of consideration and setting a large bowl of mashed potatoes down.


"Sure but so is her boyfriend." Ryder retrieved a sort of oversized charcuterie board piled with toppings that ranged from slices of tomato and onion to a wedges of fruit and unusual cheeses. He looked back to his classmate. "How many burgers did you want to start with?"

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Five, said Natalia's stomach. "Just one," said Natalia, busying herself with staying out of the way of a well-oiled family dinner machine. They hadn't known she was coming, this couldn't be a special occasion. Was dinner always like this? "Eira and Pan are cute enough, I suppose, depending on how much time you have to spend talking to them. Perhaps that's just me."


That was probably too mean for a guest. "Speaking of which, this -" - she paused to gesture vaguely at Ryder - "- isn't just me, apparently? He really is like this, all the time? Always honest compliments for people who aren't there? It must be exhausting."

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Jenny barked a laugh at Natalia's quip while Ryder gave her a flat look and slid two burgers onto open faced crusty buns before handing her the plate. The patties had an unusual spiral pattern to them.


"They're a little crumbly," Shawn warned as he sat down at the head of the table. "I'm experimenting with a spiral of beef and black bean! The seasoning's where I want it but the binding agent needs some iterating."


"Drinks? Also who would that be for, Dad?" Jenny asked from the refrigerator, pulling out a can of iced coffee for herself.


"Art dictates its audience, not the other way around," her father instead, emphasizing the point by pointing a sausage-like finger upward. "I suppose he gets that from me," he continued, turning to Natalia with a broad grin and familiar dimples, emphasized by his moustache. "I've always been the kind of man who sees the glass as half full and the empty space as an opportunity to try out new cocktail recipes!"

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"Water," said Natalia, "thank you. A full glass without cocktail." She'd very deliberately not met Ryder's look, instead pondering the array of burger accessories available to her. Not that she'd pick first, but some of those cheeses held promise.


"I suppose cooking for your family dictates the audience," she observed, looking back at the worryingly disarming patriarch, "but I appreciate the point. Sometimes making something is worth it for the making. If someone else can appreciate it, so much the better; if they can't, they may not have been worth it in the first place."

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  • 2 weeks later...

"'Audience' implies I'd be performing for family! Now that sounds exhausting!" Shawn replied with a belly laugh, topping his own burgers with a mix of mushroom, zucchini and bell pepper he'd had simmering in a pan on the stove then sprinkling them with crushed nuts.


"Different families have different dynamics, though," Ryder interjected quickly. He let slices of swiss cheese sit atop the patties on his plate long enough to begin to soften before covering them with slices of pineapple and some sort of stone fruit, followed by a deep violet drizzle that smelled of berries. "Do we have any green stuff left?"


Jenny placed the requested glass of water down next to Natalia then rummaged around in the fridge, producing a pitcher with a thick, verdant smoothie. "Yeah, just remember to blend some more this time if you want it for the morning." She poured her brother a glass the set about layering pickles and jalapeño slices on her own burgers. "You get it, though," she told Natalia. "It's about the creating, not producing a product."


"You're making us sound a lot more, like, philosophical than I think we actually are," Ryder snorted with a grin. He took a massive bite of his burger and gave their guest a sheepish shrug.

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Natalia blinked for a moment, caught for a moment between the unusual culinary creations and a family dynamic that was so deeply alien that she barked an uncharacteristic laugh - but only the one before she squashed it, covering her mouth with the back of one hand while the other managed her burger. She immediately pretended it never happened.


"I think I make you sound more philosophical than you think you are," she countered, collecting a far more conventional array of burger toppings - cheese, tomato, jalapeño. Lettuce to protect her bun from a concerning mix of otherwise conventional condiments. "I've known you long enough to get at least a small, horrifying glimpse into how you approach the world, Cricket, and I get the impression your family's not so different. If you think that you aren't philosophical, you lack introspection, not philosophy."

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  • 2 weeks later...

Ryder froze at the sound of Natalia's laugh, one thumb on the edge of his lower lip in the middle of wiping away a bit of berry sauce, eyes wide with a sort of surprise.


There was a beat of silence broken by rattling cutlery as Jenny not-so-subtly kicked her brother's shin under the table. "'Horrifying glimpse' is a new one but I kinda like it." She proved to be a tidier eater than Ryder even with a burger in one hand and her can of iced coffee in the other but it was clear their family didn't stand on ceremony around the dinner table.


"Yeah, no, you're right," Ryder hurriedly admitted after clearing his throat. "We've got pretty strong, uh, opinions. Principles? I dunno, it just feels weird to be too pretentious about it?" He bounced back quickly with a short laugh of his own. "And hey, my 'approach' hasn't let you down yet, right?"

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Natalia's table manners were, in a word, clean: back straight, elbows off the table, no unsightly mess. It wasn't formal or awkward so much as ingrained, and apparently unconscious. "It hasn't," she admitted, though only after finishing her bite of burger. "That may be why it's horrifying. It's a bit like watching someone flip 'heads' on a coin over and over - an amusing mystery that gets more and more concerning when you see it done with any random coin."


She punctuated the thought by wiggling an upright finger in a circle as she took a drink of water. "At some point, Cricket, one starts to assume it's some kind of actual super power. Is it? Does it run in your family? You have to tell me if it does."

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Shawn had taken a few bites of his first burger, seemed to consider for a moment then removed the top bun and smeared some dark mustard across it with the back of a spoon. He guffawed at Natalia's question while reassembling it. "I think you're thinking of cops, kiddo. Do we seem like cops to you?" The notion seemed to amuse him greatly as he set back into his food.


"It's not a superpower. Mostly we're all just very cute," Jenny offered with a wink so precisely calibrated it called her first assertion into immediate question. "Really, though, I guess the thing you're actually talking about, like talking people down or convincing them to go along with an idea? That's a skill, something you can practice."


"I keep telling you, people are actually mostly okay!" Ryder told her with a shrug. "But they're used to thinking things are a zero-sum game, yeah? And that's not actually true at all. The only time things actually get significantly better for anybody is when people cooperate."


"Not including the one percent, obviously," Shawn clarified as he nodded along to what his son was saying. "Parasites benefit by tricking people into forgetting about their collective strength."


"Oh, sure. Eat the rich, no question. But still, mostly okay!" 

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"Please," countered Natalia, wrinkling her nose. "I assure you that I spend as little time as possible thinking about law enforcement." She was, despite conversation and manners, halfway through her first burger; she took a moment to grab some pickles and tuck them into the yet-untouched second.


"You're all very attractive and I'm certain that helps," she said, seemingly entertained by the conversation, "but we'll have to disagree on the average goodness of the human heart. Even then, if Ryder was..." She paused partway through picking up her water, trying to search for useful words. The words she got back weren't good ones, and she used them anyway. "....if Ryder was playing diplomat at people, I would get that. I can do that. I've just never gotten that impression - he just seems to Ryder at people and is instantly their good friend and I fundamentally do not understand how that works."

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