I like parties. There is food, sometimes games, and it’s easy to fade into the background and just observe. Social interaction is a lot easier to study when you don’t have to be a part of it.
The party went similarly to the last one HH hosted, but much more informal since there weren’t any potential clients to impress. Basically that meant there was a lot more alcohol consumption. Also no kobe beef, as it had all been either sold or consumed, but there was still meat to choose from, as well as several food items that were difficult to get in summer. Mainly fresh fruits or vegetables that were hard to produce during Odd Summer for one reason or another. I was right in my guess that fruits attracted organisms; even if fruit could be ‘farmed’ during Odd Summer, there were still difficulties with successfully ‘harvesting’ it. I found the concept of ‘food production’ fascinating, and once Odd Summer was over, I hoped to visit one of these ‘farms’. I knew that Hive City was rather far away, but supposedly the northern sectors of Fortress City had some indoor farms.
Food you could ‘grow’ without killing or buying. Such a fascinating concept.
I sat with my friends, and introduced Nicole to some of the minions who worked at HH, but otherwise we mainly focused on eating. Nicole because she had to regenerate (and was shy), and me because I wanted to sample more unique foods. We left carrying the conversation to Mikey and Ifrit.
As the party wore on, more of the ‘night shift’ minions joined, and the day shift minions slowly filtered out to go home. It was interesting to see the changes this caused to the party as it happened. There was less eating, more drinking, and the conversation and party activities became rowdier. You could literally see the change as it happened, since many more of the night shift minions were boneheads and their helmets stood out. One drunken minion challenged me to arm wrestling and subsequently lost, which prompted multiple rounds of different physical tests like “who can drink the most without collapsing” or “who can jab the knife between their finger appendages the fastest without maiming themselves” (normally Sandra would have been around to stop us from doing that one). Standard party games really.
After a few hours Mikey and Ifrit left, uninterested in the drinking or potentially dangerous games, and Nicole left soon after because she was “full,” an oddly obvious lie. Her regeneration was progressingly swiftly, and at its current rate I doubted she could out-eat her body’s ability to spend the calories. Why, you only had to look at her tail, where the next leg section was nearly ready to unfurl…
Ah! Maybe that was why. She had been very embarrassed when Mikey and Ifrit saw her legs grow in. Nicole became embarrassed over the oddest things. I’d have to help her overcome that mental weakness, lest it result in another critical situation like when she froze up against the ‘stitch zombies’. Hmm… well, maybe I would put that on hold. As today had already established, I was nowhere near experienced enough to handle even my own social maneuvering, let alone someone else's psychological problems. The fact that she was letting others even see her was progress enough for now. More importantly was getting Mikey to training sessions, as he was physically the weakest of my friends who worked at HH. Immediate combat performance first, group protocols second.
I was finishing my third portion of food, and considering leaving to see if Nicole was still up, when a minion I hadn’t talked to before walked over to me and spoke.
“Hey kid, boss wants a word with you,” he said.
I glanced at the table he was gesturing to. Hellion sat with a group of minions, mostly boneheads, few of which I had spoken to in my time at HH. Sandra had said that minions were grouped into teams according to who worked best together, but those groupings were by no means set in stone. The jobs I had been on involved minions from multiple teams, and Mikey frequently worked with members from teams two through five.
But the minions around Hellion were a different story. If the ‘gossip’ I got from other coworkers was correct, the minions sitting at the tables around Hellion were almost exclusively team one, and they rarely worked with the other minions unless they needed someone with a specific skill set, which they rarely did. The fact that quite a few of the boneheads weren’t mutants suggested that several powered individuals were hidden among them. These were the professionals that worked for Hellion directly, or with clients who were considered… volatile. Right now they were celebrating a job in E8 that they had just gotten back from, so in essence this party was actually for the successful completion of three jobs.
I followed the minion over to a small table in the center of the group, where Hellion sat alone. Close enough to the surrounding tables to talk comfortably, but far enough that the small embers and tongues of flame that every so often sparked off of her wouldn’t catch on anyone. Right now though, there was very little fire emanating from her.
But I could still feel the radiating heat. It was like standing next to a human-sized heating coil.
Hellion’s horned helmet was off and placed to the side so she could eat and drink. She took a long pull from her beer as I arrived, and gestured with her other hand for me to sit across from her. I sat hesitantly.
She finished her sip and spoke, “Ha, don’t look so spooked. Here, have a beer. Just don’t tell Sandra.” She pulled another bottle from a cooler at her feet and slid it across the table. I had to catch it before it slid off the edge. “I don’t think we’ve been formally introduced. It’s Tofu right?”
“Hellion, but I’ll assume you knew that… Anyways, I called you over to thank you for your work last night, and apologize for having you do something like that. Shouldn’t have to rely on a teenager for the really dangerous stuff, but it was a uniquely complicated situation, and without you running point for Imp we wouldn’t have been able to act effectively.”
“No worries. It wasn’t difficult.”
She grimaced at my response. Apparently it wasn’t what she wanted to hear.
“Right, Imp mentioned your… upbringing. I guess…” she stopped talking, and glared at a few of the surrounding minions who had been listening in. They hurriedly returned to their own conversations, and she continued with a lowered voice, “I guess you’ve had practice with this type of thing.” She took another sip of beer, then suddenly asked, “Want me to burn them to the ground?”
“Whoever treated you like a lab rat. Want revenge?”
I paused to consider. It was an interesting offer, and definitely tempting, but New Dawn Inc. wasn’t a faction I wanted to deal with if I could avoid it. If my research was correct, they were a weapons producer that operated at a ‘nationwide’ level. Fortress City was already large, and New Dawn Inc. operated in multiple cities; therefore, they must be a massive faction. There wasn’t much value in antagonizing them, and while I wouldn’t say this to Hellion, I wasn’t completely sure HH could go up against them in the long run. Blowing up the lab I was made in sure, but a protracted engagement? No. Too risky, and definitely wasteful. As far as I knew, they thought I was dead, and I’d like to keep it that way.
“No. As far as they should know, I’m dead, so I’d rather just forget about it.”
“Tch, that’s too bad, I could use the stress relief. Just to make sure though, there weren’t any other kids in there with you were there?”
“Not that I know of. Besides the scientists, the only other living things I saw were the animals they made me fight.”
“Hmph, fine. If you’re done with it you’re done with it,” she said, then finished off the rest of her beer. “It’s been a rough couple of days for youngsters, hasn’t it? You, your friend, the Tots… It’s amazing really. You legalize all the big vices; drugs, prostitution, gambling, and yet some people still try to find the new line you drew in the sand and cross it. What about ‘don’t traffic people’ is so hard to understand? How is ‘don’t target kids’ so goddamn hard to understand? Those stupid zombies even went after my own daughter! And the fucker took kids hostage, so I couldn’t even go in and burn him to slag myself!”
The beer bottle in her hand melted suddenly, the last dregs of beer boiling away as the melted glass ran through her armored fingers.
“Ah damnit,” she stuck her armored hand in the cooler next to her, then flexed her fingers to break the cooling glass off. She took a few slow, deep breaths, before pulling a new beer out of the cooler and popping the cap off. The minions around us eyed their boss warily, but otherwise ignored the outburst.
“Sorry about that, it’s been a stressful few days.”
“Understandable,” and mildly terrifying.
“Mhm. Have to admit, you kids are taking all of this crap better than I am. Especially you.”
“Pfft, no kidding… and your friend? How’s she doing? I noticed she left early.”
“I think she is doing well. Nicole regenerates quickly, and she seemed excited about getting to work with Socket’s team.”
“Good, I’m hoping she sticks around. It’s nice seeing my girl with friends her own age.”
“Nicole is a year older.”
Hellion rolled her eyes. “You know what I mean… or wait, maybe you don’t. I’m guessing a lot of things go over your head huh?”
“...If you mean metaphors, then yes.”
“Eh, you’ll pick it all up eventually. You wouldn’t be the first that needs some catching up after being pulled out of a lair. Heck, Sandra will probably try to sign you up for sensitivity training or something once she realizes all the school you’ve missed.”
“It’s like, um, classes for etiquette. Oh, and classes are where you go to learn basic stuff.”
I nodded, “I snuck into Mikey’s school for a week. If it’s like that I would very much like sensitivity training.”
“Ha, you really have been living under a rock then. Listen, there’s only three rules a kid like you really needs to know. One: you follow my rules. Two: keep your mask on when you’re working. Three: stay out of my daughter’s pants. Think you can handle all that?”
“Yes. I already knew the first two rules, and Nicole warned me about that last one.” You weren’t supposed to copy friends and wear their clothes. Nicole was very specific about it.
Hellion laughed, “I like her already. Alright, I think that's enough talk for tonight. I’ve got a lot more alcohol to consume, and you’ve got socializing to catch up on. Go make more friends or something, shoo, shoo.” She waved me away, and I got up to leave.
“Oh wait, Tofu, one last thing,” she said suddenly. I turned back to her.
“Welcome to Fortress City.”
As far as I can tell, my disguise is secure.
My ability to shapeshift can be explained away as having a power. My lack of common knowledge can be explained by my ‘upbringing’ in a villain’s lair, and inconsistencies in my behavior are excused by the erroneous belief that I have been ‘traumatised’ by that same upbringing.
Even better, there are apparently countless cases of super villains creating new organisms in their lairs. Most of these are of the bio-weapon variety like myself of course, but enough of them involve human experimentation that my claim of being a human youth has gone undisputed. The fact that the humans came to this conclusion on their own merely cements the ‘fact’ that I am human in their minds.
So, for the first time in a long time, all the major threats to my continued operation are checked by acceptable countermeasures. Which means for the most part I’m… safe? Well, minus whatever random events can happen due to Odd Summer, but for the most part the odds of my survival have reached an equilibrium with the possible threats. It’s a strange feeling. I wonder if this is how humans feel most of the time?
Regardless, it means I can now more freely focus on less pressing pursuits. Like Gribblin Tamer, and cooking, and making sure Nicole assimilates into HH without problems. Which was why I was currently on my way to Babs’ store to pick up the rest of Nicole’s work clothes. Nicole was quite eager to get her hands on the equipment in Socket’s garage, and had been talking about the different devices she recognized all morning. Once I was done picking up her work clothes, she’d promised to go through some of the manuals Socket provided her with me.
I had a nice, relaxing walk to Babs’ store. Then I modeled a few items for Babs, since she was providing Nicole’s clothes at such a discount. I wasn’t able to test some of the fittings on Nicole’s items, since she had forbidden me from doing so, but I was happy to find that Babs and I both agreed she was just being ‘silly’ about the restriction. It was nice to know I wasn’t alone in thinking this was an illogical rule.
Still. Hellion had warned me against it as well, so I was going to follow her rules, or else.
Possible consequence for breaking: Barbeque.
I thanked Babs and left with my parcels, but immediately noticed a potential problem. Across the street, and half a block down, was a parked car with two men in it. Not that unusual, but I had noted them on my way into Babs' shop, and on my way out I saw one of them use a cellphone to take a picture of me (my new eye modifications made bystander tracking so wonderfully easy). I left, expecting them to follow and try to mug me for my parcels, but they didn’t. They just stayed in their parked car.
Once out of sight, I ducked into an alley to consider the situation. Normally when random human males showed such an interest in me, it wasn’t for any benign reason. In my case it was normally because of something I was carrying, or because my disguise didn’t match the ‘gang colors’ of the local faction. We were too close to Ashwood St. for it to be a minor gang causing trouble, and they hadn’t chased me for my parcels despite showing interest. They had also been waiting there for quite a while now... maybe they were planning on robbing Babs store? If that was the case I would need to intervene.
First I needed a better spot to observe from. Babs’ store was on the ground floor, but being so close to Ashwood St, the surrounding buildings had many walkways to help reach the upper levels. The building her store was in sat in a sort of blindspot in said walkways, which allowed sunlight to easily hit the ground floor around the building (it "nicely drew the eye," Babs claimed it was good for advertisement). I made my way to the next level up while avoiding the line of sight of the two men in the car. Then I picked a discreet spot to observe for a while.
An hour passed as I watched them. They stayed parked the entire time. They also ignored most of the pedestrian traffic that wandered by, only taking pictures of anyone who enters Babs’ shop. Definitely suspicious.
I wasn’t sure what to make of this. All they were doing was taking pictures, which wasn’t harmful in and of itself, but that level of interest specifically in the customers of Babs’ shop couldn’t be a good thing. Most of her customers were mutants, and if one thing had been made apparent to me, it was that attention directed at mutants was rarely altruistically intentioned. I didn’t need another group of people targeting mutants right now. Hellion was already stressed from so many factions targeting mutants while her daughter was working as a minion. Another one so soon might be bad.
So, how to handle this?
I could kill them. I was reasonably certain that I could kill them before they even knew I was there; however, that was contingent on neither of them having a power. Plus, even if they were just normal humans, there were still possible repercussions. I didn’t know what factions these two might be aligned with.
I could continue to observe them until I understood what they were doing, but I didn’t want to be here all day... hmm.
...I needed to ask someone else what to do.
*Ring ring ring*
Sunlight hit Sandra’s eyes, and she flinched in pain. Somewhere else in the room, Lily groaned, and grumbled about turning off the alarm, but Sandra recognized her ringtone. She automatically reached for her pocket, but her phone wasn’t there, so she was forced to open her eyes to search the room. Her head screamed at the injustice of it.
Just how much did I drink last night?
The two of them had gone out last night and met up with some of their civilian friends who they hadn’t seen in what felt like forever. The bar they’d gone to had karaoke, and Sandra had stayed for longer than she intended as everyone gave it a try, even Lily. She remembered them all getting a cab together after the bar closed, and then she was reasonably sure she made it home, but other than that… nope. Glancing around what was thankfully her living room, she noted the bodies of several friends sprawled on various sofas and chairs. Sandra herself was on the floor, wrapped around several pillows.
God, I haven’t seen a crime scene like this since college.
Her cellphone was still ringing, sitting on the end table where she dumped her keys and wallet last night. She dragged herself over to check the number, despite her nearly overwhelming urge to bury her head under the pillows. Her phone was never off, and she had to answer it. You had to be professional when you were a super villain’s lawyer.
The caller I.D. read Tofu and she lurched upwards from her prone position on the floor, all the reasons why she had gone drinking in the first place coming back to her. Then she gasped in pain and held her head at the sudden movement.
“Tell them to fuck off,” came Lily’s muffled voice. Her head was wrapped in a blanket to block out the sunlight coming through the window.
“I know what I said.”
Sandra almost shook her head before stopping herself. Then she answered the call, her voice a bit hoarse.
“Hello Sandra. I have a problem I need your help with.”
A thousand thoughts flew across Sandra’s mind. Everything from Tofu having been arrested, to Tofu needing a therapist by the end of the day.
“There’s two guys in a car taking pictures, and I can’t tell if they are enemies or not.”
Tofu explained the situation in more detail, and Sandra slowly came to realize what was going on. It was obviously an investigation of some kind, although whether or not it was Central agents or a private investigation of some kind she couldn’t guess. Not her department.
“Lily, I need you to talk to him.”
“Time sensitive Lily.”
Sandra forcefully put the phone in Lily’s hand, and went to the kitchen to get glasses of water for both of them. She could hear Lily’s muffled voice slowly follow her from the living room.
“Alright twerp, what did you do this time?... Uh huh, sure you didn’t. Just give me the details… What's the license plate?...”
Lily asked a few more questions, and then accepted a glass of water from Sandra. She took a large gulp, before falling silent to consider the scenario Tofu described. After a while her scowl changed to a smirk. Sandra had seen that look before.
“Alright,” said Lily, “Here’s what you’re going to do.”
“Damn, look at the horns on that one Harris.”
“Wonder how he even gets his shirt on in the morning.”
“I think that’s a woman.”
“Pfft, as if I can tell. Just make sure you get the picture Spence.”
Spence took a picture of the mutant entering the store, while Harris lowered his window a bit to get some airflow going. The two agents had been parked in front of the clothing store all morning, and the sun was finally high enough that their car was getting cooked. Bad luck they picked the one spot not covered by an overhang, but their shift ended in a few minutes anyway. As they watched the store, another mutant approached and entered.
“Shoot, I didn’t think there’d be this many,” said Spence. “How many of those cockroaches do you think work for Hellion?”
“Who knows Spence? Could be all of ‘em, could be none of ‘em.”
“No way it’s none of them. I’d bet half the mutants in this sector have ties to Hellion.”
“Wouldn’t be surprised… then again, I’m more concerned about the normal looking shmucks that went in there. You know what kind of business a normal person has in a mutie clothing store? The kind who isn’t really all that normal. Unregistered powers, mark my words.”
“Could be…” Spence grinned,”...or maybe they’re just a bunch of freak fuckers.”
“Getting freaky lingerie for their freaky girlfriends.”
“Stop, don’t make me barf.”
“Look there goes another one, you can just ask him.”
Spence pointed to a man who was walking to the front of the store, already laden with shopping bags, and apparently about to enter the store and buy even more. Harris went to snap a picture of the guy, when the burdened shopper suddenly turned in their direction and stared right at them.
The man was Spence. Well, not Spence, but it was his face. He could have been his twin brother.
“What the fuck?” asked Spence, as he stared at the reflection of himself.
“Shit. It’s the shifter.”
“That’s him. The guy Davidson saw. The reason we’re out here.”
“Fuck! Start the car then man! We’re sitting ducks!”
“Don’t shit your britches. All he’s doing is letting us know we’ve been had. He could have been any of the people who walked into that store today. Hell, he could have been all of them. We’ve been wasting our damn time.”
“Crap,” mumbled Spence, “So what now?”
“I’m calling it in. Hopefully the supes aren’t busy with their thumbs up their asses. Keep your eyes on him wouldya?”
Spence watched the shifter, who hadn’t entered the store, and was instead slowly walking away. Harris finished his call and hung up.
“What did they say?” asked Spence.
“Keep eyes on him. Cape is on the way,” answered Harris, starting the car.
“Huh. Guess sometimes the supes really are around when you need them.”
“That, and if he gets away we’re gonna have to start implementing anti-imposter procedures. That face trick puts him in the mimic category.”
“Yup. Passwords and check-ins.”
“Cameras and a buddy system at all times. Maybe even off duty.”
“...Can’t we just shoot the guy? Like damn.”
“Dispatcher says suspected high regen.”
“...Can I shoot myself?”
“Pfft. Me first.”
Lily’s solution to this problem was interesting. All I had to do was show that I knew the two ‘investigators’ were there, display my shifting ability, and then the entire investigation comes to a dead end since I’ve destroyed their ability to make a ‘case’ against any of the individuals who frequent Babs' store. Alibis and video proof become suspect due to my ability to mimic people, and ‘reasonable suspicion’ (used to launch an investigation of a person) becomes unreasonable, since they knew I was there and actively using my power to mess up the investigation. Admittedly, it all seemed rather convoluted to me (most human laws did), but if it meant I could remove the threat without even a fight then I was all for it.
Still, this could have gone badly if I hadn’t noticed the two men in the car. A good reminder that every detail mattered, and to not become complacent. I would definitely need to ask Lily to teach me more about ‘information warfare’ in the future. Right after Nicole taught me more about electronics… and after I learned more cooking recipes… and once I was done with sensitivity training.
So many things to learn.
I made my way to the nearest entrance to Hellion’s lair, quickly losing the two agents who tried to follow me in their car. There were too many walkways and side streets, and they weren’t willing to follow me on foot. I changed my disguise the moment they were out of eyesight.
And it was a good thing I did, considering that Magenta passed overhead almost a minute later. I hadn’t realized she was in the area.
Not good. I had ducked into an area without many people to change my disguise, so there wasn’t a crowd to get lost in. I tried to act like any other civilian would upon seeing a hero, but after she made a large loop of the area she zeroed in on me. Likely because I was still holding the bags full of Nicole’s things that the investigators saw me with. I hadn’t wanted to leave them somewhere on the chance they would be stolen.
Seems I would get to test my modifications after all.
“Hello ma’am, mind if I talk to you for a second?” asked Magenta when she was in range.
“Omigosh, you’re Magenta! I mean, yes! It’s sooooo cool to meet you!” I responded, trying my best to imitate the young women I’d heard talking at the mall. Currently my disguise was of a young mutant woman, with two arms on my right side and one on my left.
“Er, right. Sorry to ask this, but could I get your name and identification?”
“My name's Toffee. I-is something the matter?”
“Just need to see your I.D. ma’am.”
“R-right. One sec.”
I fumbled with my pockets and bags, stalling for time as I searched for an I.D. I didn’t have. Internally I began shifting chemicals around that I might need to escape. Disguising myself as a female mutant had been a mistake. It was the most believable disguise to excuse the bags I was carrying, but I didn’t have a matching I.D. for a woman, only males. I’d need to see about getting a few.
“Ma’am is there a problem?” asked Magenta. She had been scanning our surroundings, but focused on me when I failed to produce an I.D.
“I’m sorry, I can’t seem to find my wallet. I must have left it at the store.”
“In that case I’m gonna need you to come with me to the station to verify your identity."
“What!? What’s this about? Couldn't we just go to the store and get my wallet? I’m already late as it is.”
Her eyes narrowed, “I’m going to need you to come with me.”
“I’m afraid I’ll have to insist.”
“This is because I’m a mutant isn’t it?”
“What!?” said Magenta, suddenly thrown off her rhythm, “No! Ma’am this is a legitimate investigation.”
“Oh please, you could have picked anyone to stop. Do you think I stole these? I have a receipt!” I waved it at her.
“That’s not what this is about ma’am.”
“So what is it then? I have the right to know what I’m being charged with!”
“You aren’t being charged with anything!”
I pulled out my cell phone and started dialing.
“H-hey! Stop that-”
“Or what? You’ll beat me up? I’m calling my lawyer.”
“Ma’am, this isn’t-”
“Hello? Yeah, I’m being detained by a really rude cape and I want to press charges.”
“Lady! You can’t just-”
I pretended to flinch and cover my ears as the sound of the explosion roared past us. I couldn’t see it from our position, but it sounded loud and close by. Magenta immediately flew a few dozen feet in the air, forcefield blazing as she tried to source the blast. Smoke started to drift over one of the buildings in the distance, and Magenta rapidly began talking with her hand to the side of her head, presumably to a dispatcher. Her gaze shifted between me and the smoke.
“Well? That sounded important,” I prompt.
She pointed down at me, “Don’t move from that spot. We aren’t done here.”
“Oh you can bet on it!” I replied, “My lawyer will have a field day with this!”
She gritted her teeth and flew away. The moment she was out of sight I left, leaping down from the walkway I was on to the ground floor below, and running for the nearest secret base entrance as fast as I could. Ifrit’s explosive distraction was likely all sound and little damage, which meant Magenta would be back soon. Not soon enough to find me again though.
This had been an interesting exercise, involving subterfuge and knowledge of legal rules to remove a threat rather than physical force. It resulted in a lot less blood shed, and fewer wasted resources (which I always approved of). I also hadn’t expected my disguise to bring about so much confusion in my enemies considering they had a reasonable idea of who I might be hiding as. I would definitely need to expand my wardrobe of plausible disguises.
After I learned more about social interactions.
And sensitivity training.
And information warfare.
And more cooking. Definitely more cooking.
So many things to learn. So much room for improvement.