Friendly Conversation

rating: +61+x

Site-17's main cafeteria has always been pretty shitty, having never gotten the aesthetically pleasing finishing touches the other parts of the site had. As a result, the ceiling was unfinished, it was much too high, the metal tables were unadorned, and the floor tiling was bland. All said, its most charitable comparison could be "cafeteria in a poorly funded middle school." This could all be ignored, provided you had someone to talk to, but if you were alone it was downright desolate. And in the early hours of the morning on some unremarkable weeknight, there were only two people in it, sitting beside each other but very much alone.

The taller one sat holding up a book of crossword puzzles in one hand and a worn pencil in the other, wearing a somewhat thoughtful expression, even though she had figured out the puzzle she was looking at several minutes ago. The shorter one sat hunched over a meager offering of cold, untouched pork chops, pressing her thumb up against her teeth. She was staring at the doorway to the Humanoid Containment Wing like she expected it to grow legs and start chasing her with murderous intent.

Neither of them moved. The only sounds were the ceiling fans and air vents. They could have been on different continents and it wouldn't have changed much about the scene.

Jaqueline, the taller one, peeked over the crossword book she had in her hands to assess her companion. They had just gotten back from an MTF operation, and it went well, for the most part. Iris shouldn't be in too bad of a mood, all things considered. It might finally be a good time to try get a rapport going between the two of them. Jaqueline just needed to look for an opening.

"You know what this whole thing is?" Iris muttered, barely moving her hand away from her mouth. Jaqueline was surprised she was the one starting a conversation for once, but Iris still didn't seem to acknowledge her.

"This whole thing is a scam," she continued without waiting for a response. "It's just fucking buttering up all these schmucks up since they don't know any better. Like, most of these guys got here after that fucking shitshow with the last task force, so they see all this shit and they're like 'wowee, the Foundation sure is nice, I should help them out.' And that's how they get you. Because once you do things for them, then they got you, you know? It's always some exploitative bullshit too. It's always bad. The only reason I'm working with you and all this is so I can make sure none of them get pushed into it. And now they're trying to go around me. Fuck that."

Jaqueline waited for that little stream-of-consciousness rant to end before deciding to respond. Iris didn't usually talk to herself, so she was probably looking for a response here. Jaqueline had to open up with something straightforward enough to seem genuine but reasonable enough to not be antagonistic.

She continued looking at the crossword book and replied in an even tone, "I think you sound a bit paranoid, sir."

Iris visibly recoiled, sitting back up with narrowed eyes. "Guh, nobody asked you," she said.

"Of course not sir." Typical sort of comment from Iris, Jaqueline thought, but at least her foot was in the door. Iris was reasonably intimidating during combat operations, but her constant abrasiveness became a bit less intimidating when she didn't have access to antimaterial rifles. Especially since Jaqueline was a good head taller than Iris, even when sitting down.

Iris looked up at what Jaqueline had in her hand. "And what are you doing with my crossword book, anyways?"

"You asked for help with some of the more scientific words, sir." Jaqueline turned the book towards Iris and smiled while tapping the page with a pencil. "It was 'nucleotide.'"

Iris scowled and snatched her book back with a pointed "Give me that," deciding that focusing on the puzzle was a good way to end the conversation.

"May I make a suggestion, sir?" Jaqueline chose to ignore the hint, earning a slightly more closed-off posture from Iris and exactly nothing else. Not expecting a response, she continued with "I think you could stand to be just a bit more hospit- no, just a bit less abrasive."

This earned a side-eye from Iris, which was, if nothing else, progress. At least they were looking at each other now. "And I should smile more too, huh?"

Jaqueline suppressed a sigh. "All I'm saying is that you might get in your own way. Nobody's going to listen to you if you just-" She reconsidered her next words. "If they don't end up caring for you."

"Fine by me," Iris said in a mock-uncaring tone.

Typical. Iris couldn't just listen to her for once. Jaqueline took another deep breath. "Look, I get it, but if they hate you, you'll just end up pushing them into the arms of whatever you're railing against." Shit. Hate was a stronger word than what Jaqueline had meant. Still, no reaction from Iris, ever focused on her crossword. Alright. One more time. "I understand it's been a while for you sir." About a decade since she had been speaking with other people regularly, Jaqueline figured. "But you've got to… work on understanding people-"

"People?" Iris snapped. Jaqueline tried to look reproachful, but Iris's eyes were cold now. Properly and genuinely cold. "What the hell do you know about people? People just…" The bitterness left her eyes, and she looked past Jaqueline with an unfocused gaze. "…leave."

After a few seconds of silence Iris seemed to catch herself, making an almost panicked expression for a split second before going back to her crossword. Jaqueline realized what Iris said was probably more genuine than she had intended. Alright, shit. She wasn't going to risk something like that again. Time to back off.

"Well, I'm needed back at 19 for more testing, so I should get going." Jaqueline stood up, looking back at Iris. Normally she at least got a grunt or something, but she didn't even seem to react to her company's departure. Fuck. Jaqueline fucked that up. She wanted to apologize but figured maybe it was for the best to just act like it didn't happen. She opened and closed her mouth before speaking. "Good luck, sir. I'll see you again soon." And then, she turned and left.

And then there was nothing but the hum of the ceiling fans and air vents. Not even the sound of a pencil against paper. And when the silence became too deafening, Iris barely moved her lips to say "…Bye." Not that anyone was around to hear it.

No, not deafening. Comfortable, Iris reminded herself.

Stacey knew breakfast started at 7:00 AM every day. The people who talked at her when she first came to wherever the hell she was made sure she knew that much, even though that would have been too early to wake up for even back when she used to wake up before noon most days.

But today, she was told, would be very different. Which is why she stood arm's length from the door to her cell, staring nervously at the alarm clock by her bed that read 6:58. No, wait, 6:59. Contrary to Stacey's wishes, time continued doing what it normally does.

She turned back to the door. The door would unlock when the time came, according to the papers that tall lady gave her when she told her about this whole thing. Socialization and enrichment opportunities for select anomalies, it had said, like Stacey was anything like whatever else they had in here. It'll be a good opportunity to make some friends, get to know some more people, her psychologist had said. Treat it like the first day of school. I'm sure it'll be good for you, like he knew what was good for her, having her locked up in this room. Like she went to school with anything other than normal people.

The sound of metal latching into place came from the door. Oh, no. 7:00. Stacey didn't move. She knew she had promised her psychologist she'd go out, but he wouldn't get mad if she just got cold feet, right? There's always tomorrow.

After a few seconds of hesitation, Stacey heard some indistinct sounds coming from the other side of her door. It sounded like… well, some people talking, and footsteps. Just regular voices and regular footsteps. Maybe she was in the area with all the normal people, like her. Stacey could do that. Probably.

She took a deep breath. She could do this. She said she would. Reaching for the door handle, she repeated all the benefits of talking to people in her head. She could do this. She could do this.

She pushed the door open and stepped out into the hallway.


Stacey found herself looking at a moving current of people. Most of them looked normal enough, and the ones that didn't moved past her before she could take a good look. She wanted to take comfort in that, but all the movement was almost nauseating compared to the four walls of her cell that never moved. The only things standing still in the hallway were the armed guards after every other cell. And, oh man, it sounded like everyone in front of her was talking at once…

"Wow, I never knew there were this many doors. Do each of them have a room-"

"Damn, I haven't eaten anything big enough to get my third arm back since-"

"All that money on the blast doors and they couldn't actually get a floor that went with the paint-"

"I swear to god Adams, if you so much as look at my fucking camera when I'm away I'll stick my whole foot up your-"

"Man, this sucks. Fish eyes were not meant for crowded hallways like-"

"You know, Watterson, after all that shit with the blood goddess, I thought Site-17 would be an easy assignment-"

And it was much louder than her room. Stacey's eyes were darting around, unable to focus on anything, and her head was spinning. Oh, god, she felt like she was going to throw up. Well, she was able to step out of her cell. That was something. She turned to go back-

-Only to jump when she saw another girl right in front of her.

"Hi!" The girl said in such an upbeat voice that it honestly confused Stacey. "I didn't mean to scare you, I just saw you spacing out and wanted to see if you were okay."

Stacey tried to muster some kind of response but was still processing what had just happened. The psychologist was at least a little right when he said today was going to be like her first day of school: deeply awkward and slightly embarrassing.

"Oh, right I should probably introduce myself," the girl said after looking at Stacey expectantly for several seconds. Wait, she hadn't said anything for several seconds. Oops. "I'm Leora. I haven't been here too too long, but I'm an anomaly like you." Stacey thought she sounded like she was reciting something she had practiced in front of a mirror for several days.

Yet Stacey lacked the foresight to practice such a thing. Wresting with her tongue, she managed to force out "…Stacey." Fantastic work.

"You're Stacey? Alright!" Leora seemed determined to push ahead with this conversation, incoherence of her companion be damned. "Were you going to get breakfast?" The question was more small talk than anything, considering there wasn't really anything else Stacey could be doing, but she appreciated that Leora was giving her another opportunity to form a coherent sentence.

"Yeah." Okay, well, 'sentence.' At least she was talking normally.

"Great! I'm headed over to the cafeteria too. You want to go together?" Leora was almost painfully upbeat.

Stacey looked at her. She looked pretty normal at first glance, at least, even if her attitude was probably weirder than that fish-head person she saw earlier. Had she just gotten here or something?

After a short while of thinking, Stacey noticed a hint of doubt had crept onto Leora's face. She realized Leora probably thought she was trying to avoid talking to her or something, but honestly she figured this was going the most normal companion she was going to find if the people in the hallway were anything to go by.

"Okay." Nice one, Stacey. Knocking 'em dead out there.

Leora didn't seem to mind, smiling in spite of Stacey's one-word answers. "Alright! Let's go before all the good food gets taken!" Not waiting for Stacey to process that, Leora grabbed her arm and dragged her through the crowd.

Watching all those people fly by her, Stacey really did think she was going to be sick.

"Hey, c'mon, man. I used to own a restaurant back before all this." The dopey-looking man with the buzz cut put his elbow on the glass pane above the omelet station and leaned onto it. "I wanna help you guys out, man. I just want to grill."

The monotone near-person behind the counter didn't immediately react, but instead offered the most scathing look a person with no facial expressions could make. "I do not have the authority to accept you onto the dining staff. And even if I did, I would require further proof of your abilities." Based on the red-and-black eyes and exposed metal spine, Stacey figured this thing was another anomaly. Truly, she was watching the blind lead the blind.

"I get it, man, can't just let any old jagoff behind the counter. Here, I'll show you." Right when Stacey was wondering how he was going to do that without a stove, he just… tore his right pinky finger clean off his body.

The omelet-maker's head jerked to the side suddenly as if to assess the damage, their eyes going wide but expression otherwise unchanged. Stacey realized she had brought her hands to her mouth in shock when she heard the metal meal tray she had been holding loudly clatter to the ground. Everyone around her, save the cook, looked at Stacey. Great, now they thought she was the weird one and not the guy who just tore off his finger.

"No biggie, my guy. It'll grow back," the man said as if he was telling someone who the current president was, like she was supposed to know that. Turning back to the anomaly behind the counter, he gestured to the kitchen with the hand that wasn't holding his still-warm finger. "Just give this a quick dip in the deep fryer, and give it a taste. I was known for my finger fries, you know," he chuckled smugly.

The cook's eyes darted to the man's face, but they didn't shift their face from his finger. "I am incapable of tasting food." Their eyes went back to the finger. "And that is assuredly a health code violation. Please move yourself to an infirmary at once and do no such things in the vicinity of food preparations." The cook's voice sounded insistent, breaking from their almost robotic cadence.

"Yeesh, it's not a hazard or anything, I'm tellin' ya. You can even have them raw, but they still might be sorta crunchy, what with the bone n' all." He said lackadaisically, stuffing his finger into his back pocket oh my god Stacey was going to throw up.

The cook's eyes darted over to her, and, seeing an opportunity to send whoever this guy was away, called to her. "Do you need something?" Noticing he was pointedly being ignored, the man walked away… towards the other food service counters and not the infirmary. Well, shit.

"Ah, yeah. I wanted an omelet," Stacey answered as if there was anything else she could have gotten at that station.

"I would need a tray to place it on," they said humorlessly. Oh, right. That was still on the ground.

Stacey went up to the counter and told the cook what they wanted. They prepared it with such efficiency and so little flourish that she started to suspect they actually were a robot. Honestly, compared to the man with a ball for a stomach and whatever the hell that last guy was, that was kind of cool. The cook handed the food over with a well-worn platitude, and Stacey turned to go look for-

"Hey! Glad I found you so quick!" Oh, lord, Stacey was going to have to tie a cowbell around Leora at this rate. She's two for two on scaring her and this time she almost dropped her food. "We should go pick out a spot to sit." First day of school indeed.

Meandering through the tables of the cafeteria, Stacey realized that unlike school, there were pretty much zero friend groups. Everyone, save for a few people making awkward small talk, was sitting with at least one seat in between them. Although it was decidedly inconvenient for a group of two, she did take a bit of solace in the fact that most people seemed about as nervous as her.

Leora eventually nudged Stacey (which somehow still made her jump) and nodded towards a table near one of the walls of the cafeteria. Mostly empty, too, only one person sitting there, working on sudoku or something. And they looked totally normal, too.

The two made their way over, getting within arm’s reach of the person sitting down at the table, although they didn't look up, making it sort of hard for either of them to see who they were.

Stacey didn't know what to do, but Leora cleared her throat a couple times. No response. They looked at each other a couple times. Maybe she just didn't hear them over the noise of the cafeteria. Leora decided to reach tap them on the shoulder lightly…

They sat bolt upright, their hand shooting up to swat Leora away almost before either of them could notice. "I swear to god if one more person tries to talk to me in this rat-fucked laboratory I'm going to-"

Oh. Oh, shit. Those were kids. Like, 15-year-olds. What's my fucking problem, Iris asked herself. Why am I like this?

Iris realized she was going to have to ditch her usual methods for conversation. Goddamnit, her whole plan was just sitting in her corner until this birdbrained program crashed and burned and things could go back to normal.

Upon seeing how scared the one who touched her was, and how the one behind her was shaking like a small dog, Iris figured she should probably say something. "Uh…" Her voice was painfully uneven, but at least neither of these kids looked like they were about to give her any shit for it. "…Hey." Great work.

The girl in the back seemed to stop shaking. Maybe Iris's inability to string words together had actually caused the two of them to be less scared of her, which was something. The one in front seemed to be puffing her chest out to say something - oh, right, Iris had just cussed them out.

"Sorry," she hurried out before either of them could say anything. "It's just, ah… I'm not really used to… that." Well, it sounded pretty pathetic when she phrased it like that.

Jesus, Iris really just wanted to move the conversation forward. "Did you… need… something?" They were probably hoping to sit at her table. With any luck she at least scared them enough that they'd-

"Can we sit with you?" The girl in front was way too happy after just getting yelled at. This was going to be a problem. But what the hell was Iris supposed to do, cuss out a teenager and then tell her she couldn't sit with her?

The girl beamed and took a seat across from Iris, and her friend(?) took a seat right next to her. Hell, Iris had this table to herself since she was 13. the only other people who sat there were Adams on a bad day and Jaqueline on a worse day. Now there were two… little cretins staring at her like geese waiting for bread. Well, if they were anything like her when she first got here, they'd probably just be content to sit there until she left. Iris looked back down at her crossword.

Two whole seconds passed before the she heard "Hi! I'm Leora. What's your name?" Sunovabitch. She was really going for it. "Oh, uh, sorry, Stacey, did you want to introduce itself?" Iris glanced at Stacey. From the looks of it, she was more than happy to just let this conversation happen without her input. Honestly, she just looked panicked. Iris sighed internally, debating whether or not to spare her from the pain of having to contribute.

"I'm Stacey," she mumbled before Iris could manage to introduce herself, speaking with such little confidence that Iris wouldn't have know what she said if Leora hadn't already said Stacey's name. It looked like she was having a hard time looking at Iris but was nonetheless forcing herself to try. Iris fought the feeling she was almost scared of her, and she supposed it made sense. Everything was scary when you first got here, even other people. They were for Iris. Despite the fact that Stacey was looking at all the space around Iris rather than making eye contact, she still felt some odd sort of pressure she'd almost forgotten. Oh, right, it was her turn to talk.

"My name's Iris," she said in a tired voice. God, all this has been sounding like an AA meeting. Gotta move the conversation forward. That's what… people do, right? Yeah. Just gotta find a good question to ask. "So… what brings you guys here?"

Iris felt that perhaps that wasn't the best question to have picked.

Leora, however, seemed to be expecting it. She closed her eyes, and made a… smug expression? "Well, I can make anything I want out of hardlight."

Stacey looked up at her. "What?" She asked in a small voice with a moderately concerned expression. "What does that even mean?" She looked tired. Iris could sympathize.

"You know, like, umm… like I can just make anything when I have a light source," Leora replied, seeming as if she had just expected Stacey and Iris to act impressed with her original assertion.

"Light's not hard, though," said Stacey, pointing towards the fluorescent tube above her. "I can move just fine." Iris repressed a chuckle. She remembered from her time with her little brother that kids got defensive when you laughed at them.

Leora huffed. "Well, watch this," she said as she lifted her hand up and made a fist. After a few seconds, it started glowing.

"Alright, none of that sh- stuff." Iris leaned over the table and pushed Leora's hand down. At the very least, she didn't want things to go sideways right in front of her. Although, Iris did remember her now. She had gotten her file with an application for Alpha-9. An application that was promptly thrown out alongside any respect she had for the task force's leadership when she saw how old Leora was.

Stacey was thoroughly impressed, however, if a little taken aback. "Woah… you're, like, a superhero."

Leora chuckled. "Well, I-"

"Type Purple psionic energy projection. The fact you can't make your own light makes containment easier, though." Iris was absolutely not going to have any of them think they're superheroes. That's how the Foundation gets you to willingly join task forces when you're a teenager and can't possibly understand the repercussions.

Leora looked back at Iris. "They have a name for this? You mean this isn't even… cool?" Oh, god, now she looked sad. At least Stacey looked like she frowned a lot, but coming from Leora that was just depressing.

"Well, er, most Type Purples use thermal and electrical energy. Hardlight is… certainly something." Iris hoped she didn't catch how forced her enthusiasm was.

"Neat!" Leora seemed… almost too positive at this point, and Iris got the feeling that if she pried, the conversation would get a lot more difficult… but Iris knew that cavalier attitude was going to start shit down the line. Better to nip it in the bud.

"You know, you probably shouldn't be doing… that. At all, really," Iris said, trying to not sound too upset with the teenager. She realized it was much easier to tell someone off when they were your subordinate and also an adult.

Leora looked a little confused. "What's the issue? I'm not hurting anyone."

"Well, that's what landed you here, isn't it?" Iris internally kicked herself for failing to keep the tone of that question from sounding like she was talking down to Leora.

For her part, Leora seemed to pick up on that, bristling slightly. "I-" She started speaking, but stopped abruptly, looking down to her lap. This being the first time her momentum had been kneecapped, Iris felt a twinge of guilt in her chest. No, this needed to be said, she reminded herself. That kind of attitude with anomalous abilities will have bad things happen to you. Like getting recruited into a task force at 13.

Leora looked back up at Iris, a shaky resolve in her eyes. "I know that, but… I'm not ashamed of them. With great power-"

"Alright, I'm gonna cut that shit out right there," Iris said, not bothering to correct herself this time. "Whatever you can do isn't a 'power' or whatever the hell. It's just some weird fucking thing that netted you a shit life." Iris found her words were coming out easier now that she was beginning to settle back into her usual attitude. Maybe a bit too easy, judging by the way Leora seemed to be taking it.

She huffed and made a stern expression that was even more obviously a facade than before. "I didn't have any say in this. I'm just trying to do the best I can with it."

Iris shook her head. "I never said any of this was your fault. Don't you ever tell yourself that. Either of you." She scooted forward in her seat before continuing, "but that also means you don't owe anyone a damn thing. You're responsible for nobody but yourself here." Yeah, good job. Just gotta shift this into a teaching moment. Iris knew exactly how it felt to blame yourself for what the Foundation does to you. The least she could do was help a little… even if it did seem like Leora didn't want to hear it.

A few seconds passed in relative silence before Stacey nudged Leora. "Hey, uh, Iris was just trying to give us some advice, right? It's uh, not really that big a deal." A surprising showing from her, considering the fact she had mostly been looking at whoever was talking rather than speaking herself, but it was clear from her shifty posture that the sudden silence had made her a little uncomfortable, especially from Leora.

Leora didn't seem nearly as eager to restart the conversation as she was after she first sat down. Great, Iris had wanted a quiet meal to begin with. Fine by her if Stacey and Leora didn't want to talk. Iris opened her crossword book again.

Oh, what the hell. Now Iris felt weird with the two of them staring at her. The silence was deafening.

Iris looked at the two of them. Leora was staring at her plate, and Stacey was looking at Leora. Iris conceded it was sort of weird to not see her talking. Feeling she was going to regret it, Iris cleared her throat. "You know, we never got around to what Stacey here does."

Leora looked up to Iris, then turned back to Stacey, her face perking up again. Iris knew she should probably be annoyed that the conversation was going to drag out more, but mostly felt relived in spite of herself. "Right, I haven't asked you yet? Why are you here, too?" Ah well, that was blunt. Stacey didn't seem like she was quite so enthusiastic about her living arrangements.

"Oh, um…" Stacey probably saw this question coming, but seemed nervous despite the time she had to formulate a response. "Well, ah, it's really, pretty weird… and it's not that interesting, like yours…"

"I've seen weirder," Iris said in a deadpan. She hoped it came off more as reassuring than dismissive, but she had no real idea how to sound reassuring and a lot of practice in sounding dismissive.

Stacey continued on, just as nervous as before. For the love of god, it's not like they were comparing sporting medals or anything. "It's, uh, like… well, I know this sounds stupid, but I have - well, there's this… Snapchat… account… that says it's me."

Leora didn't move. Iris blinked. "The hell's a Snapchat? Uh, heck," Iris corrected herself.

This earned her a weird look from Leora. "Wait, how long have you been here, Iris?"

"Uh, eleven, going on twelve years," Iris replied nonchalantly.

The two teenagers balked, staring at Iris with worried eyes and open mouths. What? Of course she's been here since- Oh goddamnit. Iris had almost forgotten that she had been hoping to get out the first few years. Hearing the first skip you talked to say they'd been here for over a decade probably wasn't the most exciting thing. Uh, shit, just change the topic.

"I still don't get what Snapchat is," Iris said in her most normal voice. Kids have poorly developed object permanence and short attention spans anyways.

Stacey replied, somehow even more shaken. "Uh… it's like a… texting app. You can send pictures and videos too."

Iris squinted. "And someone on there is pretending to be you? That happened to my mom once, but that was just something with the credit card company."

Stacey shook her head. "No, it's like- it's just its own thing, it just acts like me, and talks like me, and makes pictures of me and it just- " Stacey took a shaky breath, but it failed to slow her down as her cadence became more erratic. "Nobody can even tell which one is supposed to be me, so they just… they just…" She wasn't even looking at Iris or Leora anymore, just staring at the ground, babbling.

Leora seemed to be trying to form a sentence but was doing a poor job at it. She looked genuinely worried now. Probably because her question got her friend like this, Iris figured. Ah, fuck. She was the adult here, wasn't she? It was her job to handle this too, wasn't it? She should probably do something. Come on, Iris. You were an older sister once. You can do this.

"Well, you're right here. I see you. You look like Stacey to me." Iris shrugged. "I seriously don't care about what any shitty texts say. My dad said people only use social media to fu- uh, mess with you anyways," Iris said, hoping she didn't sound too forced. It had seriously been, like, a decade since she had to comfort someone like that.

Stacey looked at Iris with a mixture of cringe and confusion. Alright, maybe she did sound a bit forced. After a moment, though, she let out a weird cough-laugh, and said "Uh, thanks. I, ah, appreciate it." Well, it's the thought that counts.

Now that things seemed to be moving again, Stacey seemed eager to shift the attention off of herself. "Hey, you never told us what you do," she said. Ah, hell. Iris's turn to actually contribute to the topic at hand.

"Well, I, ah," Iris said, looking off to the side, "I can reach through- or, I guess I can make pictures like little…" anomalous special distortions, Iris wanted to say, but best to keep things simple for the kids. "…Like little portals to the thing or place in the picture." Well, 'portals' maybe wasn't the best word to use after scolding Leora for treating her anomalous traits like superpowers, but whatever.

"Oh," Leora said. Oh. Like that little thing hadn't completely fucked over every little aspect of Iris's life.

"What? I know it's not Spidey-Sense or anything, but it's got to count for something, right?" Iris was passively confused as to why she seemed to be seeking the validation of a couple of kids a decade younger than her.

"Well, it's just, I figured it'd be something a bit more… exciting than my thing, considering what you said earlier," Leora said in a very diplomatic voice.

Stacey chimed in with "well, I kinda thought it would be something that would be more interesting for testing. The way you were talking earlier, it sounded like you almost worked here."

Ah. Ah ha. 'Almost worked here.' Hilarious. "Well, I have done a lot of…" Killing. "…Testing."

"Testing?" Stacey smiled. "What, do they give you different types of film? Really good paintings? What do you even do?"

Well, twenty hours ago I blew out the power core of a White Suit from an impossible sniping angle. "Just, like… basic stuff. It's pretty boring."

Iris patted herself on the back for lying to the two children so deftly, but while Stacey seemed only moderately interested in what Iris was saying, Leora looked a little confused. Iris avoided eye contact in the hopes that she wouldn't bring up whatever she was thinking.

"Testing? What do you mean by that? I figure they'd have everything they need from you down by now," Leora asked, looking at Iris with an expression that seemed a little more that just questioning. Iris was hoping she would just be able to gloss over all of that, honestly.

"Well, uh, it's not exactly just testing for the sake of it," Iris said, thinking of her words as they were leaving her mouth. "It's more like… practical applications?"

"Practical applications?" Leora's face was becoming less quizzical and more cold as she talked. "You mean the kind of thing you were telling us to avoid earlier?"

Huh. Uh, well, yeah, the things Iris did were the exact types of things she didn't want them doing, even if she couldn't outright explain it. And besides, more open-ended testing always gave way to people trying to exploit it. "Um… well, sorta, yeah. Yes."

"What, so you can go ahead and do whatever you want with what you have, but we just have to shut up and take it, is that it?" Leora's words sounded too cold for her. Iris squirmed a bit in her chair. It wasn't like she could just tell them exactly what was up, especially sitting in a crowded hall like this.

"No, well, that's… not really it. I'm not just doing it for the sake of doing it," Iris said.

Leora crossed her arms and sat back in her chair. "So, what? You got some reward for it, right?"

Iris shifted around. It's not like she could just lie about this, the fact she leaves the site regularly would be a hard thing to hide. "Yes, but that wasn't really-"

"What was it, then?" Leora wasn't letting up.

Stacey, for her part, saw where this was headed, and tried to interject. "Hey, guys, come on, it's not a big deal. Iris probably just gets more stuff since she's been here longer, right?"

Leora didn't shift her gaze from Iris. "Stay out of it, Stacey," she said, clearly still expecting an answer from Iris.

Iris narrowed her eyes. Christ, Leora just couldn't be content, huh? Had to start shit? Wrecking this little back-and-forth they had didn't seem like 'doing the best she can' with this, but fine. Fuck it. "I had privileges similar to the ones you have now as well as frequent off-site excursions."

Leora sputtered for a moment, but at least Stacey did a decent job of covering up her surprise. "What, you can get all that, then, but not us? How come you get to have all that and I have to keep everything under wraps?" Leora was clearly getting pissed.

"Well, at least I understand what it is I'm getting myself into." How the hell could they know? Iris was around their age when they suckered her into Omega-7, and they just let that fuck her over before locking her back up. She wished she had someone to at least warn her against it, and now Leora wanted to get pissy with her?

"What the hell do you mean I don't 'understand?'" Leora glared at Iris as she asked the question. "Do you think I'm stupid? That I can't think for myself, and I'll just go alone with whatever I'm told?"

Iris's posture straightened out so that she was looking down at Leora. "I didn't say any of that. But you've got to be some kind of stupid if you think you know more about how things work here than I do. You've been here all of, what, a few weeks? Couple months? The biggest thing you've seen here is a goddamn holiday bonus," Iris scoffed. In the back of her head, she was aware her mouth was moving a bit faster than her head.

Leora looked like she was trying to think of something to say. Stacey looked like she was about to duck under the table. Leora seemed to feel as though she was on the back foot and sputtered to get a response out. "W-Well, you can't just… expect everything to be the same for you. We're not the exact same."

Iris sneered and shook her head. "No, no, that's bullshit. You and me, and every single person locked up here are on the same exact boat. You wanna know how I know?" Iris tilted her head to the side and didn't wait for a response. "You can go back to your cell - your cell, not your room - and go look right next to the door. You know what they put there, instead of a name? A number. I've got a number, you've got a number, every single one of us here has a number. It's not a thing for a person, like a name. It's a thing for spreadsheets and reports. The only difference to them between you and me is what cell in a spreadsheet we're in."

Several seconds passed without a response. Stacey looked in between Iris and Leora like she was afraid either one of them might drop dead in front of her. After looking at Leora's expression for a few seconds, Iris's brain caught up to her mouth. Oh, shit. She let herself get mad at a kid. What kind of fucking loser does that? She should take that back. Well, nothing she said was wrong per se, but the delivery could have been better. Could she just redo it somehow? Maybe if she-

Iris's train of thought was interrupted as Leora stood up in one swift motion and looked at Iris with a strange expression. "I… I know. I just…" She let out a shaky sigh between turning and walking off.

Stacey looked at Leora's slowly shrinking back before looking at Iris and trying to find something to say. Before she could, Iris nodded her head in the direction Leora walked off and said "Just go." Stacey got up, took two steps forward, turned around and picked up both Leora's and her cafeteria tray, and then continued walking after Leora.

Fuck. Iris fucked that up. That was, uh… that was fine. No net loss from the start of the day. And, hey, she got her point across, and that was the point, right? Yeah. Okay. Well, back to crossword. Right.

Despite the constant background noise of the crowded hall, Iris found her personal silence more deafening than ever.

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