Cindy had no idea how to handle this.
Tofu had texted her that morning with a rather unique situation. His friend had been attacked by those rat things from the mall and was now homeless, and he was trying to help her get back on her feet, which he needed Cindy’s help to do. When she asked for more details, he explained that he wanted to get his friend a job with HH, but she was very shy, and understandably hesitant about joining a criminal organization, so Tofu needed help convincing her. For whatever reason, he thought that making meatloaf for lunch was the way to go about this.
Once Cindy understood the situation a bit more, and realized what Tofu’s plan was, she jumped on the chance to help out. This was half the reason she’d joined her mother’s organization in the first place. While HH was technically a criminal organization, it also often served as a springboard for people who just didn’t quite fit into Fortress City’s socio-economic dynamic. People like Gregor and Dillo, who’s mutations had lost them their jobs and almost everything else, or like Pebbles and Buzzer, who just sort of gravitated towards trouble and needed the henching job to ground themselves.
So, realizing that Tofu’s friend likely needed proof that HH was a legitimate, safe, and sane option, and that Tofu likely wasn’t the best person to sell the idea, Cindy dressed in her costume, and prepared herself to present a reasonable, respectable example of an HH employee.
The first hiccup occured when Tofu neglected to tell her that Mikey would be coming to this lunch gathering. She’d been thrown off her rhythm seeing one of the new friends she’d been hanging out with in a work setting, and training had kicked in. One of the most important rules for mask work that had been drilled into her from a young age was that you kept your civilian and cowl identities separate at all costs. Even in a situation where it was impossible (like with impractical mutations), you maintained the facade. Best case scenario was that you remained undiscovered and could go home after a day of henching with no one the wiser. In the worst case scenario your lawyer would at least be left with a legal leg to stand on, as a lot of Fortress City’s mask rules had been created with the separation between mask and civilian identity in mind. When Overlord had died, and Fortress City was forced to join United North America, it had been a shock to the U.N.A that they couldn’t just change those rules. When they had tried, parts of Fortress City’s infrastructure (namely the all-important wall) had instantly stopped working until the changes were undone, a last middle finger from Fortress City’s creator towards the U.N.A.
And so, with all those thoughts swirling in her head, Cindy had introduced herself as Ifrit to Mikey. When Mikey showed obvious surprise at meeting ‘Ifrit’, Cindy realized that she had never actually told Mikey that she worked as a powered minion. In fact, with her use of the inhaler to change her voice, and with all the smoke from Tofu’s burned food when they first met, she realized that Mikey had never even heard her natural raspy voice before. Combined with the powered minion mask and costume, it meant Mikey didn’t recognize her. To him, Ifrit was some masked minion that was Tofu’s coworker, and Cindy was a completely normal, non-mutant girl that just happened to have a parent in the accounting department of an evil villain’s criminal organization.
Cindy knew she should correct that misunderstanding of course, they would be around each other a lot both at work and in civilian life, and he already knew Cindy was involved in the cowl life anyways, even if he didn’t know the full extent. But, it had been kind of an awkward moment when she introduced ‘Ifrit’ to him, and then the moment passed, and then it would have just been weird to suddenly say she was Cindy minutes after introducing herself as Ifrit right? It wouldn’t do any harm to let him think ‘Cindy’ was just a normal girl a little longer, right? He’d probably figure it out himself later anyways.
So Cindy put it off for a little while. Besides, the important thing right now was to help Tofu’s friend, she needed to concentrate on that. Heck, this was the first time she had interacted with Mikey as Ifrit too. She would be able to show both of Tofu’s friends a good first impression as ‘Ifrit’.
That had been the extent of her plan, and then… well, needless to say Tofu had not at all mentioned Nicole’s special circumstances. Cindy had been dead certain she was witnessing a catastrophic mutation in action for a second there, and it had frightened her. Thank God the mask hid her face from Nicole at that moment, because she wasn’t sure she could have dealt with the embarrassment if she reacted fearfully to a fellow mutant in that situation. Especially someone she was trying to impress.
Now she was sitting with everyone around a table eating meatloaf, and she had absolutely no clue what to say. The silence had stretched as they all began eating, and apparently Tofu had taken this as a cue that they needed drinks. He’d blurted something about getting some from the cafeteria, not even pausing long enough to ask what they wanted. Perhaps he was nervous too, because if he had asked, he might have noticed that what they all wanted was for him to stay and lead the conversation. Now they were all stuck in silent awkwardness together.
At least the meatloaf is good. Still...
“Meatloaf for brunch is kinda weird isn’t it?” said Mikey suddenly. Cindy and Nicole both looked up from their food to find Mikey hesitantly grinning. “Like, I know I should expect odd stuff from Tofu by now, but for some reason eating meatloaf this early is the part that feels weird doesn’t it?”
“...It kind of does yeah,” replied Ifrit.
“I’ve kinda gotten used to it,” offered Nicole with a small smile.
“Have you known Tofu a while then?” asked Mikey.
“Oh, no. I’ve only known him for about two weeks or so. I met him when he was being chased by a rat swarm.”
“Oh! He told me about that! He said you helped him fight them off?”
“More like I saved him. He was being chased by forty of them into a dead end. It was lucky he ran past my tunnel,” said Nicole. Then she realized what she said about her tunnel and almost clammed up, but Mikey glossed over the detail.
“Haha. I’ll be sure to word it that way the next time he brings it up.”
“Heh... so how long have you known Tofu?”
“Also about two, three weeks or so. I met him at school earlier that week, and then he introduced me to this job like right before he got chased, so I guess I’ve only known him a bit longer than you. How about you Ifrit? Have you known Tofu for a while?”
“Actually I only met him at the orientation,” said Ifrit, as their attention turned to her. “He joined earlier that week I think. I’ve only been on three or so jobs with him so far.”
“Huh, I guess we’ve all only known him for like two or three weeks then. Dang, I was kinda hoping you two could tell me more about him. There’s actually a betting pool among some of the others on where he’s from.”
Nicole let out a small laugh, “Is there really?”
“Oh yeah. Last I heard the pool had hit five thousand dollars,” replied Mikey.
Nicole’s jaw dropped, and even Ifrit had to do a double-take. There was always a betting pool or two going on (they worked in the mask business after all, there was plenty to bet on), but five thousand? Already? That was pretty impressive… and somewhat rude, betting on a fellow employee’s secret identity. She might need to talk to Sandra about that later...
“Is that normal? That’s a lot of money,” said Nicole.
“I guess? But the pay is really good here so maybe it is?” said Mikey, “I’ve only been working for two weeks or so and I’ve almost paid for my entire first semester of college.”
“But how can they afford… oh, right. Crime.”
Cindy could tell at a glance how Nicole felt about that.
“Heh, yeah it’s quite a bit of that,” said Mikey, somewhat shamefacedly. “But to be honest I’ve only really done one big job, and the rest of it has been legit stuff like moving boxes around.”
“Really? Moving boxes,” replied Nicole disbelievingly.
“Yeah, like, at warehouses? Although the job kinda changes up a lot. One time Gregor and I, another guy who works here, stood in for some bouncers outside a club in the red zone. Another time I did some catering for a party at a casino, um, I delivered a few packages for some guy called the Mechanilizer, kind of a weird dude, and one of my first jobs I was setting up gizmos for Socket. That one I actually ran into Brick up close, dude is intense in person.”
“...You get to work with gizmos?” asked Nicole, her face lighting up in interest.
“Well, more like set them up for Socket. I don’t know how they work, I just get sent out with a box of them to set up every now and then.”
“Uh, some kind of network, thing?”
“It’s the masks,” answered Ifrit, glad to have something she could chime in with. “You need a stable private network so they can communicate safely. Providing coverage can be a challenge, and even when it works it needs to be changed out every now and then for safety reasons. The pieces are scattered all over the sector.”
“Oh, so it’s an ad hoc network?”
“Um, maybe? Socket tends to switch things up a lot.”
“Do you know if he’s ever used directional lasers? Oh! Or one of those C.B. quantum entanglers that went on the market recently? I’ve heard those are nearly hack-proof. Do you know if he uses a BT cipher or a DT cipher? Wait, don’t answer, that’s probably a security no no right? OH! I bet he’s used a sonic sender right?! Please tell me you’ve seen him use a sonic sender!”
Ifrit and Mikey were quickly overwhelmed by questions as Nicole got more and more excited over the gadgets and gizmos that might be only a room or two away from her. Cindy was just glad to have found something that might interest Nicole in working for HH. Nicole was actually really easy to talk to once the conversation got going, more so than a certain soy-based-product-name person that Cindy knew. The biggest problem seemed to be preventing Nicole from clamming up after she realized she was gushing over a topic that Ifrit and Mikey had no real knowledge of.
“Sorry, I’m being weird,” said Nicole.
“Pfft, no you’re not,” said Mikey. Then he noticed someone entering the door to the rec room. “...And even if you were trying to be, you’ll never manage to out-weird Tofu.”
Nicole and Cindy both turned to look, and found that Tofu had returned with his arms full of various soda packets, canned teas, water bottles, a pitcher of ice water, a carton of powdered milk, a stack of styrofoam cups, and one full coffee pot. He had to use his power just to hold it all.
“You sure you got enough there Tofu?” asked Mikey rhetorically.
“I can go back for more if we need it."
“Er, Tofu, you really aren’t supposed to take that much,” said Cindy.
“No worries, I asked first. Nicole needs calories to regenerate,” and with that said, Tofu started opening and dumping soda packets into the pitcher of ice water. Before they realized they should stop him he’d already emptied thirty packets into the pitcher.
“Whoa, dude, that’s wayyy too many,” said Mikey
“No it’s not. She’ll need a lot more than this to finish regenerating.”
“Tofu, I don’t think I want to drink that,” ascertained Nicole.
“But it’s good for you.”
“Dude, if someone drank that no amount of exercise would save them from diabetes,” said Mikey.
“Which reminds me Mikey, you’ve been skipping combat practice. Adder has been asking.”
The group continued eating and talking, the awkwardness of earlier forgotten. Ifrit answered questions for Nicole on how Hellion’s Henchmen worked as an organization and the benefits of the job, and Mikey provided a more… balanced viewpoint on what it was like to work as a minion than Tofu did. Then the discussion turned to less serious things like Gribblin Tamer, or Mikey daring everyone to try some of Tofu’s soda concoction (it tasted terrible, way too sweet and the carbonation didn’t come out right). It was almost a repeat of when she hung out with Mikey and Tofu at the mall. Less normal true, but this time she could talk about aspects of her life that included the cowls she grew up with, and it certainly didn’t hurt that Nicole was a girl around her age that was also a mutant. It was nice having someone who could relate.
“Wha! Whut, what’s goin on?” answered Socket. He’d fallen asleep at one of his workbenches in the garage. A common occurrence.
“We’ve got reports of low water pressure in parts of the base.”
“Ugh, o’course we do. You check the pump yet?”
“Already done boss. The problem’s somewhere in the sewer.”
“Bah. Alrigh’, give me a minute and I’ll grab some boneheads to check it out.”
Socket stood up and stretched, popping joints that had stiffened from a night spent sleeping hunched over a table. Truthfully he was a bit too old to still be pulling late nighters like this, but he hadn’t been able to sleep after yesterday’s excitement. HH’s top brass had been getting reports from Imp as he infiltrated the base with Tofu, and it wasn’t until they had confirmation that the rat-bastard was dead, and that the hostages were safe, that Socket had been able to relax enough to get some rest.
Whole thing’s been a lot o’ shite is what it’s been.
He cleared off his countertop, and started setting it straight for the day’s work ahead. A bunch of the widgets he’d made last night he threw into the scrap bin, most of it was crap anyways since he’d just been doing it to settle his nerves. If he could have he would have grabbed his wrench and a few of his gizmos and marched into that rat nest himself to bust a few skulls, fock his age, and fock his knees, but the situation had needed stealth to save the hostages.
What kind o’ arsehole kidnaps… agh, fock it, it’s done with.
He spat into the nearest trash can. This whole episode had left a rancid taste in his mouth. Half his crew had once been Tinker Tots, it was where HH recruited most of their mechanically inclined. Socket himself had been a Tinker Tot of sorts, although back then TT’s hadn’t been a thing, let alone a ‘gang’. Back then they were called scrap rats, or junk hounds, or just bastards. They’d banded together now and then, partly for safety, partly because the tinker twitch demanded scratching, and it was easier to do when you had others to exchange ideas and parts with, but they’d never had each other’s backs in the way the Tinker Tots or Hellion’s Henchmen did.
E13 had been a mean place back then. Now it had real orphanages, and good hospitals, and a real hero team (even if they were a bit threadbare), and HH helped fund two out of three of those, while trying not to put too much of a strain on the third. That was the thing idiots didn’t understand; it wasn’t about money and profit, or fame and glory (even if those things were part of it). It was about working, sustainable systems. Hellion had known that, which was why a younger (but not young) Socket had thrown his lot in with the young spitfire. He’d never regretted it.
Socket finished up cleaning his workstation, then pulled out his phone to check the schedules. For most things he could just throw wrenches at his pit crew until problems got fixed, but if the problem was with the water main out in the sewer then he needed to pull a few boneheads in. Funnily enough, a bunch of eggheads with circuits for brains didn’t fare too well with sewer beasties gnawing at their legs while they tried to repair a finicky gizmo.
Buncha wussies. Back in my day we had to wrestle rats taller than we were for our parts. Should send them out there without the boneheads. Put some hair on their chests.
Then he became distracted by the priority message in his inbox. Brass only. It was a report of the results of last night’s job with the rat-bastards, with a warning not to share with the regular employees. If Imp was sending it to lietenants only then it meant it was probably a bit too gruesome for the day to day workers. He opened it up and wasn’t disappointed.
Ha, that’ll show them bastards not to mess with… what’s this then?
He read the message in the included picture. Then Imp’s message. Then he looked at the picture again.
Then he started laughing his ass off.
“HAHAHAHAHAHA, he made- AHAHAH, he made a message outta him! AHAHAHA. Fockin’ polite little ankle biter ain’t he?! AHAHAhaha *cough cough* aha, ha.”
Socket had to wave away the crew that came over to see what was up, claiming cowl business, but when he saw Viper come into the garage he had to share.
“Viper! Viper didja see this?” he asked, showing her his phone when he walked over to her.
“Ugh, yes I saw.”
“Glimmer bolts that is brilliant right?”
“More like psychopathic. Could you stop waving it in my face please?”
“Bah, he ain’t no psycho, ain’t got the right look in his eye. You young folk just need to grow a thicker skin. Back in my day this would'a been a right laugh around the trash fire.”
“If you say so.”
“I do say so. Anyways, what brings you down here?”
“Gonna give Tofu’s friend the spiel. Sandra was up all night putting it together.”
“Good! We could use a few more like her. Girl’s got grit and a brain, UNLIKE SOME PEOPLE I KNOW DAVY!”
“SUCK IT SOCKET!”
“Bwahahaha. Anyways, just tell her I’ll let her use the fabricator if she signs up. That’ll save you some time.”
“I’ll try to mention it.”
“And send me a bonehead or two. Got a water jam in the sewer that needs fixing.”
They parted ways, and Socket started shuffling through his schedule for the day, every now and then still chuckling about the politely worded message Tofu had carved out of the kidnapper.
Good crop of newbies this year.
The lunch (or brunch as Mikey called it) went rather well I think. By the time Mikey and Ifrit had to leave for their jobs, Nicole had been speaking with the group comfortably, and the conversations had adopted the same patterns I observed at both the mall and at school. I’d had a decent amount of practice maneuvering through social situations, but I was glad that Mikey had been around to lead the conversation. I had yet to decipher exactly what was ‘normal’ to talk about in a group setting with friends, so letting someone else pick the topic and following along worked best. I still needed to work on laughter though. I never picked up on jokes at the right time, and I had long since learned that it was better to just smile or grin when others were laughing, rather than to follow up with fake laughter myself.
I was playing some Gribblin Tamer with Nicole, and trying to get her to drink more soda, when Viper walked into the rec room. She was carrying a folder in her hand, and approached our table.
“Hello there,” Viper greeted Nicole, “My name is Viper. I’m here to inquire about a possible interest in joining Hellion’s Henchmen?”
“Um, well, I’m not sure, I mean...”
Viper gave Nicole a friendly smile ( I didn’t know she could make that expression). “I know, Viper isn’t exactly the name you want to hear from a recruiter, is it. Normally Sandra is the one doing these interviews but I’m standing in for her today. Later on I can introduce myself for real, but we like to stick to our codenames while in mask. I’m sure you can understand.”
“Oh! Right, of course. Er, my name’s Nicole.” She stuck her hand out for a handshake, but Viper merely wiggled her fingers to display the claws (that would make handshakes difficult). Nicole pulled her hand back, embarrassed, and Viper took a seat at the table.
“I have with me here some preliminary papers and our standard package to go over with you Nicole. Tofu, we’ll need some privacy for this. Socket needs a powered minion for a bit anyways, could you check in with him?”
“Viper are you alright? You’re talking strangely.”
“...Just get going twerp.”
Oh good, she was fine. I was almost suspicious for a second there.
“Um, actually,” interrupted Nicole, “Could Tofu stay? To go over the options with me?”
Viper raised an eyebrow, “If you want. It’s your privacy. Now, I assume you’re over eighteen?”
“Er, yes, nineteen.”
Viper gave Nicole a similar explanation to the one that Sandra gave me, including the warnings about working as a minion. I was glad I had stayed, as the warnings almost made Nicole decline the job, and I needed to help assure her that she faced more dangerous conditions in the tunnels every day. Frankly the most dangerous part of the job was encountering hostile villains, and unless something went horribly wrong she would never be in close proximity to them.
Viper skipped a lot of the questions that Sandra asked me (likely because she couldn’t confirm the answers without Sandra’s power), but did have Nicole look through the papers that needed signing. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as useful to Nicole as I would have liked to be for this part of the interview. During my own interview I hadn’t known how to read, and had basically just signed on the dotted line wherever Sandra told me to. But, I was able to help when it came to the special accommodations that Nicole would need. Viper brought up the possibility of an apartment, and Nicole had needed to admit that she wouldn’t be able to use one.
“Won’t be able to use… what do you mean?” asked Viper
“Er, well, you see…”
“Nicole won’t fit into the apartment buildings, or the elevators for that matter,” I supplied.
“What? Why?” asked Viper, confused. “We have handicap accessible apartments.”
“I-I, um, it’s my mutation. It’s… oh jeez.”
Nicole had trouble talking about the full extent of her mutation with a stranger, so I helped explain to Viper the dimensions we were dealing with. Easily done since I had a total measurement of Nicole’s size and weight. Viper assured Nicole that they would figure something out.
As for myself I couldn’t stay any longer. One of the pipes in one of the bathrooms had burst, which meant Socket’s problem had been bumped up in priority, and he needed my help with it.
Something about a clog in the sewers?
Even with all of Sandra’s prep work, Nicole’s interview was still a doozy to get through, but Lily was determined to make hiring Nicole work. Lily had known the details of Nicole’s mutation ahead of time of course, thanks to the incident report Sandra had found, but she couldn’t well admit that to the person in question, so she had needed to go through the song and dance to get to the point where she could discuss accommodating Nicole. The hardest part of the interview had been stopping Tofu from jamming things up whenever he embarrassed the poor girl.
I don’t care how close they are, no guy should ever know your weight in such detail.
Once the twerp was sent off and out of her hair, Lily had a much easier time keeping the interview going. As it was, Nicole was far more mature and level-headed than most teens that walked through HH’s door, and despite the (frankly massive) steps HH would need to take to accommodate her, Nicole wasn’t even half the headache Tofu or Tedic were. Lily found she actually somewhat enjoyed talking to her, especially since she turned out to also be quite tech savvy, and knew all the latest internet happenings. Girl had lived in a damned sewer and still kept up with current tech trends; she could see why Socket wanted Nicole on his crew.
“Um, thank you for doing all of this for me,” said Nicole, gesturing at the spread of papers on the table.
“It’s just so much stuff…”
“Hey, seriously, don’t worry about it. HH has never turned someone away just for being a mutant, and we aren’t starting today.”
Lily started to gather up the papers, in a surprisingly good mood. She could kinda get why Sandra loved this part of the job. If anyone could use a break it was Nicole, and it felt nice to help with that. Maybe she would consider doing more interviews in the future...
“Hey Nicole, look who I found!”
Tofu’s voice rang out in the open rec room like the clarion call of a dark harbinger, and was quickly followed by a terrible squealing noise that Lily couldn’t place. She turned to witness Tofu dragging what must have been the ugliest, grossest, most terrifying nightmare beast Lily had ever seen through the door. It seemed Nicole had a different opinion about it though.
Kids and pets...wonderful.