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Affirmative Action

Chapter Text

Brenda trudged toward her cubicle, dripping wet and filthy with street muck. Her cubicle neighbor, Abby, made a squeak of distress and delicately took Brenda’s purse and coat, hanging them in their proper place. “What happened?”

“Bus, puddle, all the rotten luck.” Brenda explained, shivering. The muddy, polluted water had soaked her through top to bottom and to top things off; ruined her coffee.

Abby made sympathetic noises, her hands hovering as she wanted to help but didn't want to get dirtier. Then, her eyes lit up. “Oh! I have an idea!” Abby grabbed her cell and dialed. “Susan, you told me about that new janitor? Can you send him over, please? Thank you.” She hung up and grinned. Brenda just looked down. She’d left a trail of wet footprints from the elevator to her cubicle and was now creating a puddle on the industrial carpeting. The janitor wasn’t going to be happy. Janitors were never happy about wet carpets.

Brenda had nothing to clean up with. Without a towel, she didn’t dare sit at her desk or touch her computer. “Donna’s not going to be happy.”

“Forget her. Here comes the janitor.” Abby said, dancing a little with excitement. Brenda initially wondered if the janitor was attractive enough to have Abby so enthused, but that wasn’t the cause. She looked up and stared, mouth gone slack. It looked like they were being approached by an overlarge mop bucket being carried by a turtle… except not.


“Washua! Hi! Can you help Brenda out here?” Abby called the bucket turtle over. It walked toward them. The bucket was filled to the brim with sloshing water -and rubber ducky- but none of it spilled despite the four-legged gait.

Washua burbled, his little not-turtle head looking from the muddy puddle on the floor to the even muddier Brenda. Brenda was ashamed at her ignorance when she finally figured it out. “Oh!” It -he?- was a monster! This was the first she’d met. People were scared of these guys? Washua barely came up to her waist. He was cute. Brenda felt even worse for leaving a mess he’d have to clean up.

And then Brenda was blasted a second time that morning with a jet of water. Thankfully it was warm, like she’d been shoved beneath a hot waterfall. It startled her into closing her eyes and holding her breath as water crashed over her face and ears, rushing through her clothes. Before panic had time to grow, the water was gone and something was brushing past Brenda’s face. She flinched and stepped back, peeking an eye open to see bubbles rising all around her, floating toward the ceiling and vanishing into tiny, splash-less pops that pinged musically. Brenda was fully clean, dry, and lightly scented with something new and faintly sweet.

Brenda looked down at Washua. He smiled a tiny turtle smile and burbled happily, then politely inclined his head toward Brenda’s cubicle. She stepped back, closer to Abby who was uncharacteristically silent. The Washua went into Brenda’s workspace and glared at her coat, burbled, and spat a jet of water at it. The water hung over the jacket rather than pouring off, then dissolved into those musical bubbles, taking the street muck and leaving the coat looking and smelling better than the dry-cleaners ever had.

Brenda looked from her coat, to the Washua. She’d gone from cold and miserable to warm and enchanted in less than a minute. She couldn't stop smiling. “That was wonderful, Washua! You’re my hero! Thank you!”

Washua beamed under her praise, the little eyes on his head -and the rubber ducky’s head- squinted with pleasure. The monster burbled again, then waddled away leaving employees, clothing, carpeting, even the cubicle dividers clean in his wake.

“That was so cool!” Abby gushed.

“I know!” Brenda checked her purse and was delighted to find the contents all perfectly clean and dry -her phone was even still working! “This is amazing! Thank you, that was a brilliant idea…” Brenda trailed off when she turned to thank Abby. Her friend was full of excited wonder. Her face… her face. Once Brenda realized what was different she snorted softly and failed to smother a giggle.

Abby frowned, her hands reaching to check her precious -and still perfect- curls. “What is it?”

“He got you too? I’ve never seen you without makeup before.”

“What?” Abby put one hand to her face and pulled a compact out of her pocket with the other, flipping it open and examining herself in the mirror. Not only was her face free of artificial color, the foundation in the compact was gone too. “OH!” Abby dove for her own cubicle, digging for makeup.

Brenda chased after her. “No! Abby, no! You look great! I promise! Please, don’t.”

“IT IS FIFTEEN PAST NINE. That should be more than enough time to settle down and get to work.” Both women cringed. Abby abandoned her search for makeup and Brenda dashed back to her cubicle just before Donna strode around the corner. Well over six feet tall in sensible flats, their section manager towered over the cubicle walls with an eagle eye for misconduct on company time. Donna was the driving force behind their section’s efficiency, and a little scary.

The section fell silent save for the familiar clicking of keys, shuffling of paper, and the frequent hum and whir of the Xerox machine. Brenda opened her daily agenda and listened as Donna settled into her desk. Section supervisors had large, open desks beside their appointed cubicle sections. By luck, Brenda’s desk was right next to Donna’s cubicle with only a single cloth and foam partition between them. Proximity to her supervisor certainly intimidated Brenda into efficiency.

They’d hardly been working for an hour before Donna broke the silence, her stern voice easily carrying in the focused quiet of the office. “Mandatory meeting in the conference room, fifteen minutes. Everyone in the section must attend.” Donna immediately began cleaning her space, then left to be first to the meeting.

Brenda wheeled her chair over and stuck her head out of the cubicle, coast was clear. Abby’s head appeared from her cubicle, face still clean. “Any idea what this is about?” Brenda asked. Abby, despite her raw talent gathering office gossip, shrugged. They ducked back into their cubicles to log off and clean their space -Donna insisted work areas be tidy when left for any length of time.

The section workers trickled into conference room four, snagging seats or choice spaces along the back wall. They remained silent: Donna standing near the ‘front’ of the conference room reminded everyone of elementary school assemblies with the principal watching. The entire section was present by the designated time, but they had to wait nearly ten minutes before the company’s HR executive, Roger, walked in with a big smile.

He began speaking without greeting. “As you all know; your former section executive, Andrew Blackwell, moved to another branch last week and we’re running a little behind on announcing his replacement. I will do so now.” Roger gestured grandly to the door he’d just come through.

A monster took his queue to step in. This monster was… not a cute little Washua. This was a skeleton monster. His skull angular, sharp toothed with a jagged cracked scar above and through one darkly shadowed eye socket. Within these eye sockets glowed small, fierce red lights that scanned the room of shocked humans. The tailoring of his stark black suit made it clear that there was no musculature beneath the material. The skeleton monster moved with militant confidence as he marched into the room and stood near Roger and Donna -dwarfing Roger and even rising well above Donna. The room was intimidated into silence at his appearance. Those in seats struggled not to sink down and some of the standing workers scooted to subtly hide behind others.

Large and terrifying as Papyrus was, it didn’t stop everyone in the section from also seeing just how horrified Donna was. Her skin had gone sickly pale and there was a tension between her eyes that indicated a barely restrained look of disgust. “This is Papyrus, he will be your Section Executive moving forward.” Roger explained. Donna twitched unpleasantly.

Papyrus stood proud, either ignoring or oblivious to Donna’s reaction. He spoke in a subdued tenor, roughened from either overuse or injury sometime in his past. “Section Four has the highest efficiency rating in Adams Corp.. I expect to maintain that record. In order to do so,” He tilted his skull just a little and most of the workers were sure a crease above one eye socket lifted as human brows would. “We’d better not waste anymore time on this meeting.”

There was a beat of silence, and then some snickers. “Hear, hear!” someone called. The tension broken.

Without further comment, Papyrus left with Roger trailing behind, looking bemused. The meeting hadn't lasted three minutes. That had to be a record by more than ten minutes.

Donna, whose lips had nearly vanished for how tightly she was pursing them, took charge. “Despite the delay I expect everyone to finish their work on time. Get to it.” She barked before sweeping out of the room.

A murmur arose as the workers began filing back out of the room and back to their cubicles. Abby caught Brenda, “Did she seem… you know…?”

“Very uncomfortable?” Brenda asked.

Abby nodded. “Do you think it’s because… well…”

Brenda was about to say ‘the monster’ but corrected herself, “The new hiring policy?”

“I don’t think this is going to end well.” Abby fretted.

Before agreeing, Brenda remembered who she was talking to, “You’ve heard something?”

“Ben Patterson in accounting?” A couple other people heard Abby slipping into gossip mode and slowed down.

“Yeah?” The guy was basically THE last word in number crunching.

“Fired. Complained too loud and too long about the new hiring policy.”

“What? Can they do that? He was getting ready to retire, right?”

“Two and a half years.” Abby confirmed. “Apparently he was too cocky that they wouldn’t fire him that close.” Brenda huffed her shock, somebody nearby whistled in agreement. “There’s a lot of people in other sections -like, more than twenty- who’ve already been told to fix their act or turn in their resignation.”

“They’re really serious about this.” Brenda murmured. “You think this is one of those things…” She started. Abby hummed and waited for Brenda to finish her thought.

“LUNCH IS ELEVEN FORTY-FIVE. CHATTER ON YOUR OWN TIME.” Donna called. The remaining section workers rushed from the conference room.



“It’s like having two dictators!” Abby hissed a couple weeks after Papyrus took charge, quietly venting in the break room. “I can’t even tell the difference between them sometimes!”

“Easy;” Jason intoned darkly. “One has unnatural, glowing eyes from pent up murderous rage,” He shifted to a cheeky grin. “The other has a crack in his skull.” A few folks acknowledged the humor with tired smiles.

Brenda glanced at the clock on the wall as she dropped her garbage in the bin. “Eat fast, Papyrus makes his lunch-time rounds at twelve forty.” Everyone in the break room groaned as Brenda left.

On the way to her cubicle Brenda passed Donna’s desk. Previously, Donna was in the habit of giving a small nod when she noticed one of the section workers returning from their breaks early or in a timely manner. Now, she just punched at her keyboard with sharp, irritated clacks that signaled she was composing an email for Papyrus. The two of them hardly spoke, if ever. Most communication was digital and when they did interact it was mostly silent and seething with animosity. Brenda still wasn’t sure how the human and the flesh-less skeleton managed to mirror each other’s expression of ‘I’m far too professional to sneer at you’. Further, they seemed to be trying to assert dominance through micromanaging the section into further imagined efficiency and tidiness.

Their section had always been strict, but now it was downright miserable.

Brenda unlocked her computer, briefly prioritized her assigned tasks, then set to work. She focused and in a good working momentum when Donna’s phone rang, shattering her concentration. Disgruntled, Brenda leaned back in her chair and told herself to get back to work, but the irritation at being knocked off her groove made her reluctant. So, when she heard Donna cleaning her work-space Brenda gave into temptation and peeked over the barrier to watch as Donna went into Papyrus’s office where he and Roger were waiting.

“O-o-oh.” Celeste hummed from a couple rows over. A few more heads popped up.

Donna delivered some binders and the three spoke about… well, whatever. Papyrus said something and Donna turned sharply to him. They clearly had some kind of back and forth but it was impossible to read lips on a skull and Donna’s back was to the cubicles. Roger did the tennis match bit, growing more and more displeased as Donna and Papyrus sniped with raised hackles. Finally, Roger barked some kind of a reprimand. Donna and Papyrus flinched and turned to him as if they’d forgotten he was there.

“Snap!” Somebody hissed.

“How is that wall so soundproof?” Someone else demanded, irritated that their nosiness was blocked.

Roger spoke for a little longer, gesturing angrily at the binders before turning to leave. He was slow and gave the cubicle snoops plenty of time to drop before they were seen.

A few minutes later Donna returned to her desk and set back to work, all sounds from her sharp and angry. She continued to work efficiently for the next hour despite exuding thick waves of anger that distracted the entire section.

At five o’ clock, Donna’s movements shifted and she briskly put her work away, locked her computer, and left with her attaché case. She didn’t notice the line of heads popping out behind her and goggling. Donna always worked late. She was always the last to leave no matter how late anyone else stayed to fix mistakes or problems.

The other section employees left at their usual pace. Brenda caught an elevator down, but it was overfull and she stepped out again a few floors down to get some air. It was a lounge floor, technically for all employees of the nearby companies but the cafés and bars were so expensive usually only the executives spent any time here. By nutty coincidence, Donna was sitting at the bar nursing a drink.

Brenda turned to go back to the elevators but hesitated. After a fierce internal debate she walked over and took a seat next to Donna, who sat with her back perfectly straight, clutching a glass with both hands. Still not really sure of her motives for being here, Brenda ordered a drink and waited, hoping Donna might speak first. They sat in silence for several minutes. Brenda sipped her drink. Donna strangled hers. When Brenda emptied her glass she decided to bite the bullet. “So, you’re not happy with Papyrus as your boss?”

Donna flushed, her face twitching towards a snarl. “Of course not!” She snapped, putting her drink down a little too hard and splashing some of the contents over her hand. Brenda braced herself for the vitriol that was sure to come.

“Darn it! I worked overtime for months to get the Amsterdam Project through! Adam said I was the best, the only candidate to replace him but the next thing I know that… that…” Brenda figured she was about to get a crash course in monster slurs. “That!” Three that’s. Donna was all kinds of pent up. “SMUG churl shows up with his, his -I don’t know! He doesn’t even have a nose but it’s still so high in the air he’d drown in the rain even if he was Cerano di Bergiac! Smug, self-satisfied jerk-face!” Literature references, dated metaphors, and schoolyard insults. This wasn’t what Brenda had expected. “And ROGER! He just waltzes right in and -and –‘Hey everyone! Meet the guy taking your job!’ I don’t CARE how qualified he is! That was my job! I’ve been earning it for years! Hiring from within for open executive positions is policy! They said the mayor’s initiative wouldn’t change standing policy but here he is, no prior experience in ANY corporation…”

As Donna ranted, Brenda gave into an impulse. She snaked her arm over and snagged Donna’s drink, then sipped it experimentally. Ginger Ale, maybe with lime.

“No warning! No explanation of his qualifications! Just… AUGH!”

Brenda replaced the drink and tried to wave Donna down. “Okay wait, wait, wait…” She said. “You’re not mad that Roger hired a monster?”

Donna rolled her eyes. “Okay, maybe he’s not that bad. Just too full of… him…” She stopped as something started to click into place. “Oh, that kind of monster. No. I mean, that grin looks even more smug on a skeleton but…” She cut herself off again as the rest of the implication settled into place. Her back straightened from the slight curve she’d permitted whilst venting her wrath, then she turned to Brenda in utter mortification. “Oh my gosh.” Gosh? “Have I been acting like that?”

“Uh… a little?” No, that was too nice. Honesty’s usually better. “I mean, now that I know you’re pissed they passed you over it makes sense, but with all the news about monster protests and the company’s hiring policy…people assumed.”

Donna clapped her hands to her mouth, her office-pale skin going still paler. “Oh no. Oh no.” She left the stool, striding forward with purpose. “I have to apolo-” She stopped and returned to the bar. “I have to pay.” She corrected herself, handing the bar tender her debit card. “And then I have to apologize. I -I was so mad at him.” Donna scowled. “Of course, it had to be a him.” Feminism darkened the air for a moment before she returned to her previous panic. “I never really thought how I was acting… Heavens, I’ve been such a -a-”

“Do-onna.” Brenda sing-songed, putting a hand on her supervisor’s shoulder. Donna turned to her, still chagrined. She suddenly looked hardly any older than Brenda. This was the battle ax who ruled their section? “Breath. I’ll go with you. You can apologize to Papyrus knowing there’s somebody on your side.”

Donna slowly relaxed. Finally, she managed a small smile -the first Brenda had ever seen from her. “Thank you, Brenda. I would appreciate that.”

They returned to their floor and section. Most of the section workers had gone home by then, but of course Papyrus was still in his office. He was obviously ready to square off when he saw Donna approaching but he permitted her to enter.

Brenda stood nearby, not bothering to hide as she watched. A couple stragglers poked their heads up out of their cubicles.

As soon as Donna began speaking, Papyrus’s eye lights flared, giving the impression of his eye sockets widening. Donna maintained her dignity, but did duck her head at the point Brenda assumed was the apology. The two spoke for a few minutes, peaceably and without obvious hostility though Papyrus’s eye lights darkened a time or two.

Finally, Donna left the office and returned to her desk. She offered Brenda another smile before shooing her off home.

Brenda pulled out her phone as she waited for an elevator and texted Abby. Details later: There will be peace in our times!

She sent it with the same naïve optimism Neville Chamberlain might have felt.