"But I wasn't finished. Ruby said it was all I could eat."
"I don't see what is so funny Pebbles."
"Aha, aha... Tofu, you're the first person I've ever seen get cut off from the buffet and not the bar. They're set up to serve big hungry mutants like me, and you still made them flinch!" Pebbles started laughing again. I wasn't sure how my being denied food was funny. I'd even offered to pay a second time, but apparently that wasn't enough.
"Well, I'm going to go then." Mikey had wisely left ages ago, and Zaps and Buzzer had both wandered off somewhere in the Cyborg Panda, and Ruby had needed to get back to work greeting guests.
"Oh stop pouting and sit. Didn't I have a free lesson on social crap to teach you?"
"Are you sure you are sober enough for that right now?"
"Oh shush, I've barely had like twelve. Man you get snippy when you're hungry," he took a sip of beer, "Now then. Here's everything you ever needed to know about social interaction. You ready for this? Got your pen and paper?"
"I won't forget Pebbles."
"Good, cause all that crap they taught you, all the stuff you've pieced together since you crawled outta that hole, all the weird shit people do, it all boils down to one, thing..."
"Respect." He took another sip of beer.
"I don't understand. I thought respect was merely one of many factors."
"And all those factors boil down to respect. Here, pick any social event you've ever had, and I'll explain how it boils down to respect."
"Alright. Frankie from the Espada. Even after Sanguine basically abandoned him during our rescue of Jasper, he still went back to the Espada afterwards. I never understood why he did."
"Pfft, that's an easy one. Dipshit like Frankie can't get respect anywhere but the Espada. No one respects a loudmouth small-time purist a-hole who has to wave his power around like a baby-rattle to get attention. Let me guess, he tried to stab you with it the first time you met him right?"
"HA! Knew it. That's also why Sanguine abandoned him, you know. Didn't respect him enough to care.... come to think about it, I haven't heard much about either of them lately. Sanguine's pretty subtle, but Frankie can't keep his mouth closed to save his life. Maybe someone finally got pissed off enough to off him."
"Most likely. Alright, what about how Nicole can fight really well against rats and other animals, but can't fight against people?"
"She respects the sanctity of human life. If she accidentally injured someone she'd be infringing on their health and wellbeing, and she respects them too much to do that.
"Respect for something that a higher power says is worth respecting."
"A higher power? Like Hellion?"
"Pfft, ahaha!" he nearly choked on his beer, "Yeah sure, but don't let her hear that. Her head's big enough as it is."
"Hmm... so, when Mikey's grandma said to bring food when you are visiting someone's house, that is also respect."
"What about ribbing? When you and Buzzer and Zaps insult each other."
"Simple, we respect each other enough to know that it's all in jest."
"...What about when people who are mutants don't wear their armbands?"
That caused him to pause for a second.
"...Because they think you aren't respecting their humanity. Y'see Tofu, we people are social creatures. When the first group of cavemen fended off a sabertooth tiger for the first time, it wasn't because they were stronger, or had weapons or what have you. It was because they all stood together, screaming with their fists raised, and the tiger turned and ran. Ever since, we've relied on each other, and that's why respect is important."
"Because if you don't have it, you get ousted from the group, like Frankie."
He nodded, "Yes, and no one wants to be ousted from the group that is humanity."
"...I understand... how do I get respect Pebbles?"
"Pfft, don't you even worry about that. You've earned it several times over since you put on that mask, not least of which when you dived into a vampire filled sewer to rescue Buzzer with me. You're one of us Tofu, no doubts about it."
"Oh, that's good... I think I'm going to start heading home Pebbles. I have a lot to think about. Thanks for teaching me."
"Ha! No problem, I am a font of wisdom after all! Don't forget to tip the nice lady."
"Okay. Thank you for dancing for us ma'am." I handed a fifty dollar bill to the woman who had been dancing on our table since they cut me off from the buffet.
"Aw, thank you hun. Any time."
I left the Cyborg Panda and took a bus home, since Mikey took the van back hours ago. Pebble's concept of respect was... difficult to process, but it seemed correct. Everything humans did was in some way, shape, or form connected to their society, and their place in that society was determined at least partly by respect. The way Pebbles phrased it implied that it was a straight-forward affair, but I was already making correlations to previous concepts I'd come across. Take kayfabe for instance. Wrestling matches seemed like a simple fight if you knew nothing about them, but if you watched one you would quickly come to realise that it is much more a performance than a straight-up fight. Because of this, they could designate large auditoriums, sell tickets, attract an audience much larger than the one who would only be interested in a straight fight, and even create careers and jobs and expand the human social system. All because everyone respected the lie of it. Without that, the entire system might collapse, and then no one would benefit. Neither the audience or the performers.
This went deeper than I had previously imagined. I would need to go back and start correlating previous events to the concept of respect... but maybe in the morning.
I made it home without incident, stored my new souvenirs, watered my plant, made a sandwich, and then sent a few final messages to Nicole and Tim before crawling under my bed. It had been a long day.
I woke up early, as normal, feeling mentally refreshed. Today I didn't have anything special planned, so after I went to Adder's morning training, and filed my report with Sandra for the latest incident, I was going to maybe do some cooking and let Nicole test it for me. Apparently my sense of taste was off in comparison to most humans, which made it difficult for me to judge whether or not my creations were a success.
I filled out one of the spare reports, then headed for the door. Outside in the hallway though, I ran into a neighbor. It was the woman with brown scales, Natasha, as well as her two sons. She had them each by a hand, and seemed to be in some distress.
"Hello Natasha, Ollie, Lucas," I nodded to the three of them. I'd become somewhat acquainted with them over the past weeks, since they lived on the same floor as me, and Natasha seemed friendly with Cindy.
"Tofu! Hello. Hey, do you happen to know where Cindy is today? She didn't answer her door."
"I'm sorry, I don't. She might be at morning training already. Would you like me to send her a message?"
"I already did, but she didn't answer. I was going to ask if she could babysit for me, my normal sitter canceled... hey, do you think, you could maybe watch them for a while? If you aren't busy?"
"I'm really sorry to ask, I just have a really important interview I need to get to."
"Interview? Don't you already have a job with-"
"Ah! Um," she directed her eyes at her two kids, before leaning in to whisper, "they don't know about the business."
"I'm just, trying to find a new job that's a bit... safer, y'know? It shouldn't take more than an hour or two, it's just at seven so I need to get going. Please? I just need someone to keep an eye on them in case they try to burn the place down."
"Um, I suppose I can..."
"Thank you! Seriously, thank you so much! Here's my key, you can just sit on the couch and watch t.v, they're always tired in the morning anyways. And my fridge is stocked, feel free to make yourself breakfast. Again, thank you so, so much! I'll be back soon."
She eventually kissed her two sons goodbye (to their chagrin), and waved at them as she left on the elevator. I'd gone along with it since she'd said I could have breakfast, but strangely I was suddenly unsure of myself. Natasha obviously loved her sons, and now I needed to make sure they stayed safe. I hadn't had much interaction with children, although I'd talked a bit with Cindy about her babysitting. From her description, it didn't seem too hard?
I turned to Ollie and Lucas. They stared up at me, apparently waiting for me to make the first move.
"...Want to watch some t.v?"
They both shook their heads, no.
"We ate already," said Ollie.
"...already," mirrored Lucas.
"Do you play Gribblin Tamer?"
"We don't have phones," said Ollie.
"...phones," mirrored Lucas.
"...Want to see my knife collection?"
Nicole woke up, feeling like something was off. At first, she thought it might be because she was sleeping cushioned by a bed. But after a bit of thinking, that wasn't it. Then she thought it might be the embarrassment of having run into the sewer yesterday, and she was somewhat still embarrassed about it, but that wasn't quite it either. She felt different. Physically. It took her a little while to realize what it was.
She wasn't hungry.
She blinked a bit. That can't be right. I'm not even close to full size yet.
But as she checked herself over, it seemed to be true. Her regeneration had been working overtime since she'd been injured, and she'd been eating Rattleback's protein bars like they were popcorn. All of her essential limbs were back now. Head, claws, and all of her legs, it was just, smaller than before. Right now she wouldn't fit on a regular sized elevator, but one of HH's plus size ones?... Well, maybe. If she contorted herself, and used every inch of space?... maybe.
Definitely not gonna test that just yet.
She blushed. Her coworkers had already teased her for panicking during the drill, and if they knew she could fit on the emergency elevators anyways? That would be just too embarrassing.
She flexed her limbs, and everything felt natural enough. Her legs felt just as limber as before, her claws were heavy and shield-like, but not the vault doors they had been before, and her vision was back to normal.
But it was kinda true. Until her second head and eyes grew back, she had felt like she was half blind, and had constantly kept trying to unconsciously open eyes that weren't there. Perhaps she'd taken that vision for granted a bit. But, now everything was back to normal it seemed.
Nicole smiled. And today I get to use the fabricator again!
She got up and readied herself for work. Right now she was still using the room Tofu had dumped her in days ago, and she only had a few odds and ends she'd made herself using the fabricator, things like a hand mirror, that were small and easily carried away. But, if she wasn't growing anymore, maybe she'd be able to keep this room?
Best to not get carried away though. It might have just slowed, not stopped. No sense getting my hopes up.
Still, she was humming a tune as she left her room, walking backwards. She'd gotten into the habit since everyone had met her real face first... and perhaps because there had been a few accidents when she went around a corner the normal way.
"Hey there Nicole, you're up early."
Nicole looked over to one of the tables in the common room, where Spikes was sprawled out, having slept in her seat from the looks of it.
"Good morning Spikes. I just thought I'd get a head start on the fabricator while no one's using it. I want to try a new circuit board design I saw in the book I'm reading."
"Ugh, it's too early in the morning for that kind of thing dear. Never could wrap my head around all that techno babble stuff."
Spikes leaned back and stretched, working out the kinks from sleeping in the chair. Ever since Nicole had come to the villain base, Spikes had taken it upon herself to introduce Nicole around the place and get her settled in, and Nicole had learned a lot about her and the others who worked as minions. For example, Spikes was actually married to Dillo, and both of them were actually sixty years old! You'd never guess it, because Spikes had the body of an athletic thirty-year-old, a result of the high regeneration rate her mutation required to produce her spikes. They actually had a son, Hedge, who was older than Nicole! It seemed henching had become a family business with them, and Spikes seemed determined to teach Nicole all the tricks of the trade, despite some of them being... less than legal. Still, Spikes was like a combination of hippy, ride-or-die biker, and doting grandma all rolled into one, which made it strangely endearing even when she was explaining the finer points of kicking heroes in the balls and running for it.
"I'm just excited I guess. Socket said he was going to teach me how to put together a short-wave scrambler."
"Well, you have fun with that dear. Want a piece of nutrient bar? I managed to sneak one off of Rattleback."
"No thank you. I'm actually not hungry! I think my regeneration is finished!"
"Oh that's wonderful! Glad to hear it. Swivel girl, let me get a good look at you."
"Um, I should get going actually," said Nicole, suddenly overtaken by a bout of shyness, "Don't want to have to wait when Davy tries to load a whole wafer tray into the fabricator."
"Well alright, but if you don't learn to show off the goods how are you gonna impress the boys?"
Spikes chuckled as Nicole scuttled out of the room before Spikes could tease her further. Spikes had been helping her get used to being around other people again, but she wasn't quite comfortable enough in her own skin just yet to... even joke about such things. But still, progress. She had friends now, and a roof over her head, and an interesting job that she very much wanted to be the first one to this morning. Before someone else hogged her newest love in life; the Parcel Corp Deluxe MkIII Fabricator.
It's going to be a good day.
It's going to be one of those days.
"GET THOSE LEGS UP YOU MAGGOTS!"
Warhead (or Uncle Bert as Cindy knew him) had made a surprise showing at the early training session, and had decided that Adder's stretches weren't enough of a warm-up for the unlucky people he'd caught there. Utterly unfair is what it was. This was supposed to be her zen time, where she put herself together for the day, not a forced march!
Because of course Uncle Bert wakes up for morning practice. Thank god I didn't have breakfast yet.
She was forced to run twenty laps as fast as she could around the large auditorium, and could only thank her lucky stars that she wasn't one of the people who couldn't even finish. Those people received such a loud ear full from Warhead that Adder actually stepped in to mercifully save them. Something told Cindy that the training room would probably be rather scarce for the next few days, and maybe the base in general as well.
"Bah, if they don't know how to run they shouldn't have signed up," grumbled Warhead, as he walked up to Cindy. "Hey there squirt. Glad to see you've been keeping up with it at least. Sorry about all the yellin' but I can't be playing favorites you know?"
Cindy sighed, "No worries Uncle Bert, I get it. But you know we want to actually keep some of our employees, they aren't forced to be here."
"Bah, if they want to be paper pushers that's one thing, but if these mooks think they can wear a bonehead mask and not know how to run, they'd better get used to taking their licks. Where is everyone anyways? Don't tell me we've only got the fifteen of these losers," he thumbed over his shoulder at the gasping group.
"We have over a hundred Uncle Bert. This isn't the only training session of the day, and it's not like everyone comes in all at once, or everyday."
"Tch, things have been growing slack while I was gone. I'll have to whip these maggots into shape before I go back south."
"You aren't staying?"
"Ah, I'll probably get nicked again at some point. Or they'll come begging me to go smash bugs one way or another. You know how it is."
"Uh, not really."
"Anyways Cin- er, what were you going by anyways?"
"Ifrit?... The hell's an Ifrit?"
"A type of demon in ancient Islamic mythology. It's similar to a jinn, and has several different spellings depending on where you, um..."
Warhead was looking at her blankly, his face having gone slack.
"...It's a fire spirit Uncle Bert."
"Huh, always knew you'd be a smart one. Anyways, mind showing me where Socket is holed up? Need him to fix my helmet; got all scuffed up because of that stupid vampire."
Cindy led Warhead to the garage, where it was unlikely that Socket would be up already, but maybe someone else would be there to help. They rounded the corner, and instantly Cindy spotted Nicole, who was over in her favorite corner of the garage.
"BUG! Cindy get back!" Warhead suddenly grabbed Cindy's shoulder and threw her back.
"W-what?! NO! Uncle Bert stop!" she grabbed his arm, and almost had her arm wrenched from its socket as Warhead accelerated forward, smashing into a steel table that went carreening at Nicole. Nicole screamed and lifted a claw to block the heavy object, but when it hit, it was with enough force that her clawed arm cracked in three places, not yet big enough or strong enough to take the hit. Luckily, it was deflected enough that it didn't smash into the rest of her, and instead went on to smash into one of the machines against the wall next to her.
"WARHEAD, STOP!" yelled Cindy, desperately running forward to catch him before he could further hurt her friend in a misunderstanding. Luckily he didn't make another move, nervously looking between a shivering Nicole (who he now realized was not just a bug) and at Cindy, who was yelling for him to stop.
"I... shit, I..."
"Bert! This is Nicole, my friend! She works here!"
"Shit. I'm, I'm sorry... shit, reflexes. I didn't mean..."
Cindy grabbed his arm, not sure whether she was going to yell at him or hit him, but when she did, she realized that he was trembling. He wrenched his arm free, then took a deep breath and faced Nicole.
"I'm sorry. I didn't realize. Army reflexes. You alright?"
Nicole tried to say something, but she didn't seem able to get words out.
"...Sorry. Cindy, can you... I'll talk to Socket later. Need a damned drink." He turned and left in a hurry, which was probably for the best, but which left Cindy to clean up the mess he'd made. She turned to Nicole, who was nursing her bleeding claw. Cindy's eyes went wide at the extent of the injury, and she rushed up to Nicole.
"I'm so, so, so sorry about him. He didn't mean anything by it, I promise. Are you... we should get that looked at."
"...s'fine. It'll be fine," said Nicole. "It'll heal, I just... I'm going to go have breakfast. I'm hungry."
"I'll come with you."
"That's okay. I think... I'd like to be alone for a while."
Cindy watched as Nicole trudged away, heading for Rattleback's office instead of the cafeteria, which she would have needed to follow Warhead's path to get to.
Just one of those days.