rating: +12+x

After a long day of saving the world, dinner should be the easiest part. Yet, Jim is late for dinner. There's a probably a fifty percent chance that he's got a good story to tell, but also a chance that he won't. Anything is more interesting than the third re-run of whatever the television in the lounge is showing right now, so she gives it a try, "How was work today?"

"Hey, hon." Jim kisses her on the cheek. "Classified. You?"

"I spent an afternoon preparing data for the neural networks because there’s a flu going around in data entry. Putting my degree to good use, aren't I?"

Jim cringed. "Fun. Got no interns to do that?"

"Also flu. How have we not yet developed a cure for it? All those employees are off work because of the common flu… A waste of money, if you ask me." She shakes her head. "Spaghetti for dinner?"

"Fine by me." He drops his work bag on the floor. "Remind me to take you to that diner from the clean-up. They make the best pasta I’ve ever tasted. Super friendly owner, too. I think it’s family-owned. Support local, you know?"

They're probably not local to where we live, but details, she thinks. Xenia grabs a saucepan and the pasta. Turns on the kettle. Adds water only afterward and hopes she hasn't broken yet another one. "You made a friend on the mission, I hear?" she chuckles.

"You could say that, but she doesn’t remember me, so are we really friends?" Jim replies, taking off his shoes. "Should’ve gotten their sauce recipe, now that I think about it."

"Maybe it’s in the skip’s file? Who knows, maybe someone had the same idea?"

"Eh, doubt it. Wasn’t exactly a case of ‘anomalous spaghetti carbonara sauce’," he replies, "though that would’ve been a trip."

She laughs. "How’d you contain that?"

"How would you?" Jim challenges her. He drops onto the couch, exhausted.

Xenia rolls her eyes and turns on the stove. "You know, anomalous culinary arts isn’t exactly my specialty." God, we probably do have specialists for that.

"Nor is containment mine," he reminded her. "Maybe I should suggest that to my boss—do some strategic exercises on how we’d remove the evidence of an anonymous spaghetti carbonara sauce monster… Now I'm hungry."

"Already on it." She shakes her head. If he wasn't on the opposite side of the kitchen-living room space in their apartment, she'd lovingly slap him with the soup spoon she's using to make the sauce. Should she be using something else? Probably, but it's disappeared and neither of them is about to go and drive to a store just to buy that. Improvise, adapt, overcome. "When did it become a monster? Maybe it’s a cognitohazard? Or a friendly spaghetti carbonara monster? Like 999?"

"Aren’t they always some sort of monster?" Jim shrugs. "I’d say, eat it all. Contain it in your stomach."

"I’m sure that you’d be following all the Foundation regulations with that," she laughs. "Dinner will be ready in fifteen minutes. Take a shower. I can smell the twelve hours flight and it's certainly not helping my stomach." She smiles at him, teasing all as usual.

Devi and Lopez are exhausted. At six o'clock, two lab coat-clad researchers sit at a table in an empty breakroom. Neither of them is talking. After an hours-long meeting that went an hour past the scheduled time—and still could have been an email, going by Devi—they need the break from all that.

Devi checked the notice board earlier; the football match against Site 23 has been rescheduled and he plans to watch it because he’s betting on said site (over his own, much to Lorenz's dismay, but Devi knows better) and he—Blearing.


Lopez sighs. "Are they doing Keter testing today?"

"Maybe. They tend to do that later at night when there are fewer people on Site."

"Do you know which one? Do we have to hurry? I’ve been looking forward to dinner…"

"I mean, it is a C-lockdown code? We could take the food to the Breach Shelter. Probably should hurry a bit though."

"Ooooh yes."

The rest of their dinner is equally quiet; just set in the slightly more sticky aired and louder breach shelter, among other employees working overtime. They hunch over their food like goblins. Least anyone gets ideas of sharing is caring. It's his food, and he is eating it alone—as alone as you can in the Foundation.

Ibrahim is nervous. He hasn’t been on a date in a while, but every conversation he’s had with this particular man has implied a match. That’s what they did—match on a mere, non-anomalous app. Weird to think about, everything is so ordinary. So much, that it feels strange and foreign to him now. He smiles, as awkward as a high schooler at prom, at his date when he arrives.

"Sorry for being late," his date says. "Traffic was a mess."

"It’s all good," Ibrahim replies. "If I hadn’t gotten off work early, I would’ve been stuck too."

"Would you? You never mentioned your job," he notes, surprised. "You’re an engineer, aren’t you? What are you working on?"

"Just structural work. But let’s not talk about that—I spend my nine to five with it; I’d prefer my evenings focused on something else."

A waitress comes by and hands them menus. The restaurant they chose to meet in is a lovely one. Great reviews, too. If it wasn’t so far from the facility, he’d come here more often. Ibrahim orders a glass of water and wine. His date only chooses water.

He asks, almost concerned, "Aren’t you driving home?" Good impression, Ibrahim! Now he'll think you're an alcoholic!

He tries to clear his throat. "I have an apartment in town," Ibrahim replies, "in fact, within walking distance."

He nods.

"For when I get to visit the kids," he quickly adds.

"Not visiting a lot, then?"

"No, not really. We’re still not on good terms. Plus, with me living so far out on the base, it makes no sense for a fifty-fifty split custody. There's no school, you know? They're just getting to that age."

His date frowns at that. "That’s unfortunate."

"It is. I do love the kids. They’re the joy of my life, but they’re better up with their mother and step-father. I want what’s best for them, and that’s for them to grow up there. How about you? You mentioned being married before?"

They talk about this and that, their history and hobbies. Both bonded over Lego, which brings them to talking about which sets they have and want. It’s a nice conversation; Ibrahim wouldn’t mind a second date, especially if it's at this place. It's a good recommendation on his date's part. He's got good taste. He orders a steak. It’s much better done than the ones they tried to do in the cafeteria once. He isn’t surprised at that either, though.

"How is the steak?" his date asks.

Ibrahim replies, "The best I ever had. Maybe it’s the company though."

His date would never realize the double meaning in his words.

D-3828 receives a tray with food through the little window in the locked door.

"You know, the thing with the cafeteria is, have you noticed, that those arrogant shills upstairs are always there, like vultures?" he complains as if they've been talking for hours. They haven't. "They, like, never leave anything good for us!"

The guard—or whoever it is; D-3828 can't see them—doesn't respond.

The D-class is left alone in his cell to eat his dinner. It's not bad per se, but he's heard of what the cafeteria has to offer for non-D-Class. Like always, the chicken is fresh and doesn't taste like plastic and elastics mixed together. He's able to recognize every vegetable. He's not too fond of broccoli, but they made it taste good. That alone is a miracle! The sauce tastes like something. It probably has a name, but he doesn't know it. It's definitely not "an ambiguous chemical that's vaguely food safe". It's fucking good! If this is what this shady place serves their literal guinea pigs, he can only imagine what the cafeteria has.

Then again, this is still a universe better from prison food. Being a human test subject aside.

After dinner, he goes back to staring at the ceiling, waiting for this month to end. He's gonna miss the food, but can't wait to taste freedom again. D-3828 grins.

"Hey, Alex?" Deepak asks his co-worker. The lights in her office are still on, and the new Site policy is to turn them off when you leave. Apparently, the Foundation needs to save on electricity. A very strongly worded email had been sent out earlier on the subject. No way she'd forget. Not after the last time.

Alex doesn’t look up. As Deepak expects, she’s the only one left in her team’s office, and the floor is covered in her jacket, shoes, and a half-eaten apple that she probably had for dinner. Great!

"How long are you planning on staying?" he asks, but he's already got the answer. Maybe it’s the literal mountain of folders on the agent’s desk or her tired expression. Maybe it’s the third coffee cup that’s adding a circular, brown stain onto a freshly printed report on a colleague’s desk. "Want some food?"

The clicking of the keys pauses. Food is worth interrupting work for, after all. "Yes, always." Alex smiles. "What are you getting? Please don’t tell me you’re raiding the leftovers in the fridge. Fairly sure that some of them are biohazards by now."

Deepak shakes his head. "Gonna try and talk a janitor into letting me into the cafeteria kitchens. Planned to get whatever I can find there."

"Bring coffee."

Maybe, he should make a subtle hint about her obvious caffeine addiction. Not that he isn’t guilty of the same, but it’s not his dirty cup staining a report on potential-anomaly-that-got-investigated-and-turned-out-to-be-photoshop. "You’ve had three already." The cup on the report is a touch of personality to the cold, white office and hallways. A photo of an elderly couple, smiling and on the beach, has been printed on it. Most people don’t bring personal things to the office. It’s probably discouraged because of secrecy or something. Deepak didn’t listen too much at orientation. Nerves, you know?

"Nah, not three," Alex replies. "Four."


"Jones wants this report two hours ago."

"Yikes." No wonder she’s still at the office, on a Friday night. Deepak doesn’t have the statistics, but he’s fairly sure there are twice the anomalies reported this year than last year–and there’s definitely not been enough new hires to match that.

Alex tilts her head. "Do you think," she sipped, "that IT could make the time look different on the email? Retroactively change it?"

He shrugs. Sounds like something that could get her in trouble with someone. "No clue. Ask?" Then again, he also knows that Jones got off three hours ago because it’s his anniversary. He made sure to tell everyone. It sounded like he was fishing for something, but Deepak doesn't have a clue what. Compliments? For being married? Maybe that is a success in our field…, he thinks.

"Will do." She continues typing. "Ask Janitor Joey for help. Tell him that tomorrow’s dessert is strawberry shortcake and that they arrived at eleven o’clock. Let him have one and he’ll help. Cafeteria staff snacks on them early all the time, nobody will notice."

"How do you know?"

"I do it all the time. I’d miss them if not. Research always pounces first."

"Valid. Want one?"

Alex points to a plate with crumbles on it, balanced on a stack of filing boxes. "Oh, Joey already got me one earlier. But yes. Always."

Why am I telling him about the— Deepak shakes his head. He's too tired and hungry to question it. "Gotcha." He replies and leaves to find the janitor. "Hey, Mr. Joey?"

Ahmed misses dinner. Testing has revealed new properties that require further research. The odd, missed dinner is a small sacrifice for the pursuit of science.

Long’s grin is sheepish. He’s up to something. "Hey, Dr. Jules?" She has a suspicion of what it is.

"… Yeah?" There’s a one in two chance between him having messed up bad and needing her help, and him wanting her car again. On-site quarters mean nobody owns a car. Jules doesn’t live on-site, but with her family. She’s got a car. That’s made her the designated Uber Driver for everyone in her division.

"You done with that test proposal yet?"

She pauses and re-reads the last sentence she typed. Technically, she is. Practically, not. "Almost. I just want to double-check it for errors and typos."

"You always triple check. It’ll be fine." He rolls her eyes. "When you’re done, wanna go to McDonald's?"

Jules looks up because she knows exactly why her co-workers are asking her. Getting a Foundation car just to drive to the nearest town for McDonald's is probably not a high priority in getting one from Vehicle Logistics. Especially not on short notice. Jules tried, back when she was new and unmarried.

"I’ll buy you nuggets?"

"Sure." Jules sighs because she knows that Long knows that nuggets could convince her to do anything. "We really need an on-site McDonald's," she mutters. "But you drive. I’ll do the double-checking on the way."

Long’s smile widens. "Thank you! You’re the best! Let’s go!" He grabs her, without letting her even grab her coat. Thankfully, she’s got a Foundation-issued laptop in the car that she can work on.

Therefore, Minutes later, in the car, he lines up to leave the site, ID in hand to show to the guards. "You know what? I wish McDonald's was a front company."

She shrugs. "The Foundation can’t own everything." (Then again, they probably could, if they tried.) "Maybe, one day, we’ll find an anomalous McDonald's and buy it off them? Like they did with that one Ikea?"

"I wouldn’t be surprised if there already is one, but it’s classified," Long replies and passes through the checkpoint. "Do you know anything? You’re Level 3."

"If I knew anything, I couldn’t tell you," Jules hums. "Now, let me read this." She starts a secure connection and begins to reread her proposal.

She finishes that and two replies to more extensive emails from Containment asking about the anomaly they’re studying right now. Slow and steady wins the race, so she takes her time in responding with suggestions on how to resolve a potential future containment issue. It’s just a safe anomaly, but they've considered classifying it Euclid for some time. Long complains about her being a workaholic.

"At least I don’t live on-site," she reminds him with a laugh. She only works so diligently, so she can spend her time off with her partner and child. Thinking of them, she should take them out for a romantic dinner. "Why did you bring three cooler bags?"

"Oh, I’ve got orders from the entire division."

"… The entire division?"


"We’re going to spend the entire evening at McDonald's if that’s true."

"Probably, yeah, but employee morale?"

Thank god, she’d brought her laptop.

(Lies; they're doing it every week. This is an act that Long promised to agree to, to absolve Jules from any "skipping work to drive to McDonald's" faults. It was the only thing that could convince her to agree—besides her own desire to eat more nuggets.)

It's the little things, you know?

"Take some more potato. What did you do at work today?"

"… Huh. I don't actually remember. Weird."

"Must've been a boring day, then?"

"Must have… but you know, sometimes, I do wish for a more exciting job."

"I mean, you are just a cleaner in the admin building, Andrew. I didn't expect James Bond explosions."

Dr. Scharf has fucked up again, and she knows it. This is just damage control.

The door is still unlocked, and the lights inside are on. It's a perfectly ordinary suburban house, with mowed lawn, a pretty bush cut perfectly circular and a clean letterbox indicating the house number, 42. Inside, the smell of wine and candles fills her nose. She feels just as deflated as the dying seven- and four-shaped party balloons.

Her parents sit side-by-side at the dining table, opposite her sister and the empty seat reserved for her. "Andrea, you’re late."

Even today, when she is a leading epidemiologist studying illnesses that the public isn’t allowed to know of, hearing the disappointment in her mother’s voice makes Dr. Scharf feel like a seventeen years old teenager being scolded for staying out too late.

"Sorry. We had some problems at work."

Damage control fails. That excuse stopped working twenty years ago. "Andrea, what sort of issues does a pharmaceutical lab—which produces flu vaccines—have that stop you from coming to your father’s birthday dinner on time for once?"

A suspected breakout of 6090, but she can’t say that. They wouldn’t understand anyway.

Sometimes, she wants to tell them, because it’s hard coming home late and seeing the disappointment in her family’s eyes. That’s a sacrifice she has to make when she’s saving the world with her research. She’s doing it, so her beloved family can live in safety, after all.

"Look, I’m sorry. I got carried away."

"Aha." Her mother doesn’t hide her disapproval. The Scharf’s Family First motto has long been replaced with Secure. Contain. Protect. in Andrea’s mind, and even if her mother doesn’t know with what, she knows it’s been replaced.

So, she comes along and merely joins them for dessert. They must have waited for her as if this wasn’t the third birthday this year she either missed or came late to. She politely eats while the questions come. Her dear little sister, Veronica, must have gone through this already—she imagines, or rather, wishes—because all the attention is on her.

She tells them her lies, all the while trying to enjoy the ice cream. It’s home-made, by her mother, who’d been making it since her childhood. If it wasn't for her parents’ disappointed faces, she would have enjoyed it. Memories of an easier time, when she didn’t know how close the world is to ending every day.

"Veronica is driving your father to the hospital tomorrow. It’s very kind of her, don’t you think?"

"The hospital? Why—?" She frowns–why does dad need a hospital?

There’s an ambient feeling of discomfort and frowning. "Andrea, I have cancer."

"What? Since when! Are you–"

"They found it three months ago," her mother interrupts, curt. You should’ve known, it feels like she wants to add, and you would, had you come to your own birthday dinner—two months ago. We’ve been suffering.

"I– I’m sorry to hear that. What kind? I know a very good—" Heaven, she has studied medicine herself. How come he never called? (Maybe he did, all those missed calls went unanswered in favor of work…) She knows a lot of good people. Maybe could get him linked up with Foundation healthcare, even.

Her father clears his throat. "I already have a very capable doctor, Andrea. It’s fine."

But ours would be covered by my contract, she wants to say, but that would involve explaining why a simple pharmaceutical company like Samson & Coulson Pharmaceutical has whole hospital systems set up to treat their employees…

"I… I see. I’m sorry," she replies like a scolded child.

Her mother sighs. "How has your life been, Andrea?"

She tells them about her husband and how he’s away on a mission. Claiming that he’s military explains why he’s not here—that’s easier than saying that he was potentially exposed to an anomaly and has been in quarantine for four weeks already. She mentions a breakthrough at work but doesn’t go into the details.

Later on, she’d think that she sounded like she believed that they wouldn’t understand. They wouldn’t, yes, but that’s not the point. How arrogant of her, they probably thought. We didn't raise you like that, Andrea.

She closes her eyes and finishes with a simple. "It’s been busy, but I enjoy work." As if that's the reason that'll magically convince them. At this stage, even thaumaturgy won't help.

"You only ever mention work," notes Veronica with a bitter voice—the first thing she’s said to her. "I’m thinking of taking the kids to Disneyland next summer. Delilah has been consumed by Frozen, you know." Veronica continues telling the tale of an ordinary life, ordinary dinner with parents, and the implicit message: your life is only your work. "I think, it'd help her get out of her shell. What do you think?"

She has no idea. No idea about the girls' life, her father's health, or her mother's days. She could list countless diseases that could cripple humanity in days, but she can't advise her little sister on what to do with a video-game-addicted third grader.

But she loves her work in the Foundation, you know? Andrea loves it.

Andrea leaves as early as she reasonably can, without risking outright confrontation. When she eats on-site with colleagues, with her husband, or on her own, she doesn't feel like this. She isn't left out, as if she lives in a different world. Of course not—they live in a different world together—but it hurts nonetheless to sit here and feel like she’s the odd one out. She’s the anomaly to her family’s normalcy.

Unlike in the real world, there’s nobody to contain and protect her family from her.

It's just dinner, she told herself before she came. You work with monsters every day. Dinner is easy.

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