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Roommates - Ch. 37 (Facade)

Aug 30th, 2016
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  1. Roommates has moved! You can now read it at Archive of Our Own: http://archiveofourown.org/works/11250126/navigate
  2.  
  3. Roommates - Ch. 37 (Facade): http://i.imgur.com/Fljc3l9.png
  4. Inspired by Weaver's Five Nights at Freddy's Apartment AU: http://i.imgur.com/LnDJVNL.png
  5. Part of an ongoing series written for the /5N@F/ General Discussion Thread at /vg/.
  6. Sincerest thanks to Weaver (http://tgweaver.tumblr.com/) for all of the invaluable assistance in writing, proofreading, and editing this story as well as for illustrating the chapter title cards.
  7. Additionally, thanks to Systemeth (http://pastebin.com/u/Systemeth) for proofreading and editing this chapter.
  8. Questions or comments? Drop me an ask at http://roommatesau.tumblr.com/
  9.  
  10. ---
  11.  
  12. Never before in the history of the world has the phrase "as different as night and day" been as applicable as it is at this exact moment. Unlike your previous visits, Jeremy Human's is bustling with patronage during the day shift. Children run to and fro like tiny soldiers off to war, with their cardboard marching band hats and rings of prize counter tickets draped across their chests like bandoliers. Animal workers of all species and sizes flitter around with platters full of pizza and soft drinks, struggling to keep pace with the endless deluge of fussy kids and fussier helicopter parents. Confetti flutters and streamers twirl as the restaurant's dining hall proceeds in full swing with the day's scheduled events.
  13.  
  14. You fearfully observe the cheerful chaos from your vantage point in the entrance right next to the front door. It was all you could do just to climb out of Fred's car and drag yourself into the building. The dread of having to come back to this hellhole so soon after swearing it off made every single step across the parking lot sheer agony -- to say the least. To his credit, Fred was patient with you; far moreso than he's ever been. If you didn't know better, you'd assume he was someone else entirely -- someone far gentler and much more patient than the gruff, stern, all-business bear you're accustomed to dealing with.
  15.  
  16. Then again, it wouldn't be the first time you've confused him with someone else.
  17.  
  18. Even though you've taken your pain medication, your chest's still aching. You're not sure whether it's psychosomatic or if you're getting worse, but the cold weather's probably not doing your body any favors. You'd much rather be nestled up at home under a blanket. Any home, in fact. At this point you're not picky; literally anywhere would beat standing in the middle of a deafening restaurant with robotic mascots that could pop out from around the corner and gut you at the drop of a hat.
  19.  
  20. Right now, you have a deep appreciation for exactly how physically frail and vulnerable you truly are as a human. Fred could crush you in his enormous paws or rip you to pieces with his massive jaws without breaking a sweat. And yet, you wonder if he'd be able to hold out for even a few minutes against just one of the "humanimatronic" mascots. Though the circumstances in which it happened might have been different, even Faz was ultimately reduced to invalid status by one of these things.
  21.  
  22. Fred casts you an aside glance as he straightens his tie and cuffs.
  23.  
  24. "You've come this far," you hear him rumble to you over the din. "Don't turn back now."
  25.  
  26. You scan the crowd for the fiftieth time in the last two minutes only to find that there's still no sign of the infernal machines anywhere. With a reluctant breath you shakily nod the affirmative. Fred wraps an arm around your shoulders, keeping you close like so many of the fathers in this restaurant are doing with their own children. Looking up, you see something in his eyes -- some brief shimmer of expression that doesn't quite fit into easy terms, but it's familiar. You've seen that same look on April's and Chiclet's faces whenever they're looking at Bonnibel. You saw it again in Faz when he towered over you during your blowup with Cheeky and Bonworth at 93-B.
  27.  
  28. It's the countenance of someone forced to grow up far too soon, thrust into maturity well ahead of his time. It's hard to believe that you and Fred aren't even a year apart in terms of actual age.
  29.  
  30. "Nothing's going to happen to you," he says, conviction thick in his voice. Conviction, not condescension. Completely devoid of his usual accusatory tone. He's not trying to convince himself; he's stating it as declaration of fact -- no, rather, declaration of intent. He's not just saying nothing will happen to you, he's letting you know he'll enforce that promise.
  31.  
  32. Your mental theater's filled with an image of Fred seizing Jeremy Human by the ankles and viciously hurling the tin demon into oncoming traffic.
  33.  
  34. Suddenly, you don't feel quite as defenseless next to the behemoth of a bear.
  35.  
  36. "Let's make this quick," you reply quietly.
  37.  
  38. Satisfied, Fred grips your shoulder, serving the role of both bodyguard and shield as he pushes past a row of people lined up at the child check-in station, waiting their turn to get into the restaurant proper. A single employee stands by the front counter -- a lanky teenage fruit bat, wearing the Jeremy Human's employee uniform. Of particular note is a pair of 3D glasses pushed up into his messy headfur.
  39.  
  40. "Back from lunch already, Mr. Fazbear?" he asks with a laid-back smile as he gently presses his wrist stamper against the ink pad on his podium.
  41.  
  42. Fred tips his hat to him as the two of you pass by. "We're the face of family fun for this town; timeliness is everything. Keep up the good work."
  43.  
  44. "Yessir, Mr. F," the bat says with a lazy salute as you and Fred press on into the dining hall.
  45.  
  46. "He seems nice," you mutter nervously as you step out of the way of a wandering rabbit kit obliviously nibbling on a slice of cheese pizza.
  47.  
  48. Fred sweeps the massive room with a piercing gaze, looking at the rows and rows of full tables before turning back to you. "Good kid," he replies. "None of us thought he'd last longer than a week, and yet he's been with us almost two years. Loves video games, so an arcade was practically his dream job."
  49.  
  50. You cast a furtive glance over your shoulder at the bat. He's managed to make it here for two years? The guy must have nerves of steel.
  51.  
  52. "Speaking of jobs, I need to do mine." Fred pats his pocketwatch for emphasis. "I rearranged my schedule so I'll get off in an hour or so. You can take a seat out here with the customers if you want, or you can go spend some time in the arcade."
  53.  
  54. "I'd -- I'd actually prefer to stay with you," you reply, deliberately avoiding looking at the hallway leading off to the show stage.
  55.  
  56. "Alright. If anyone asks, just say you're in training. You might be expected to refill drinks and bus tables, though."
  57.  
  58. You nod, taking off your jacket and rolling up your sleeves only for Fred to nudge your forearm with a half-smirk -- probably as close as he gets to a playful smile.
  59.  
  60. "I'm joking. You're my guest, not an employee. You aren't going to be exerting yourself here."
  61.  
  62. "O-oh, right," you chuckle weakly. "Sorry, force of habit after staying with Bonbon. Her place is kind of, uh..."
  63.  
  64. "God. I can't even begin to imagine," he mutters, smoothing out his waistcoat. "Well then, let's get right to it."
  65.  
  66.  
  67.  
  68. As much as you want to stay close to Fred, he's clearly in far better shape than you are and he doesn't have cracked ribs and a sore leg slowing him down. After twenty minutes of hobbling around behind him, you're eventually forced to confine yourself to one of the empty tables against the front wall of the restaurant.
  69.  
  70. Music blares from the adjacent stage, and you can vaguely make out the racket of the mascots screeching along to one of their insipid child-friendly songs. Clutching the edge of the table, you try to keep your attention fixed solely on Fred, watching him expertly duck and weave through the room. You're no calmer now than you were when you walked in, but you at least have something to focus on and that should get you through the rest of his shift.
  71.  
  72. For his part, Fred's the model manager. He's obviously been doing this for a while -- employees listen to his every word as he calls out directions and orders. Nobody in the house is a harder worker than he is, and even young teenagers struggle to match his level of energy. Watching him, it's probably an overstatement to say he seems happy, but he clearly possesses genuine enthusiasm for his job.
  73.  
  74. "We should be running low on paper towels, make sure a buy order's placed for them before close of day," he tells one of the waitresses, a fresh-faced sloth girl with a retainer jutting out of her mouth. She doesn't even look old enough to work here -- probably a student hired on as part-time seasonal help. "Tables eight and fourteen need a refill on pepper seeds and grated parmesan, and six is out of ketchup."
  75.  
  76. "Underthtood, Mr. Fathbear," she eagerly lisps, slowly trundling off towards the supply room to get the necessary condiments.
  77.  
  78. A tall deer shouts out to Fred from the far corner of the room. "Boss! These folks want the manager's special for their birthday party. How many arcade tokens come with it, twenty-five?"
  79.  
  80. "Make it thirty," Fred hollers back over the ambient noise. "And wish them a happy birthday."
  81.  
  82. "Gotcha!"
  83.  
  84. In spite of keeping busy, he still manages to find time to break away every so often to check on you. "How're you holding up?" he asks as he bustles past your table with a tray loaded with birthday cake. "Want anything to drink? Soda, malt maybe?"
  85.  
  86. You gingerly uncross your leg to help stimulate the blood flow. "I'm alright for now, thank you. Last thing my heart needs is more sugar or caffeine."
  87.  
  88. "Hm. I don't say this callously, Mike: you're strong-willed. The others would've run screaming by now." Leaning down, he spends just a moment sizing you up. "It's your choice to believe me, but this is helping you overcome."
  89.  
  90. "As long as you don't expect me to go hug it out with the band." You force a shaky smile that probably looks more like a worried grimace. "At that point I'm out of here even if I have to run home."
  91.  
  92. Snorting, he hefts his platter over his head. "Sense of humor's still intact. Good sign. I'll be back shortly."
  93.  
  94. You watch him take off for one of the adjacent private party rooms only for an employee to accost him by the hall. You're not sure what the hell species she even is -- she's got ears and a tail like a fox, but the shape of her face and muzzle seems closer to that of a dog's. It's impossible to make out what they're saying, but this canine (debatable) lady (also debatable) is screaming and waving her arms incessantly, clearly flustered and uptight about something.
  95.  
  96. It's hard not to stare, and the drama is a welcome distraction from your fears right now. Just by the way she's carrying on, it's blatant to you and probably anyone else who's spectating that this girl has no idea who she's trying to go toe to toe with. You begin to wait with bated breath as if you were watching a soap opera. You're practically giddy, silently rooting for Fred to lose his temper and lower the boom on her.
  97.  
  98. "How disrespectful," an older bunny comments from the table next to yours. He looks like he's probably some kid's grandfather with his thick wrinkles, wiry white moustache, and old-fashioned clothes; almost like you'd imagine Bonworth will look when he's well advanced in his years. "Kids these days have absolutely no respect for the working class. None."
  99.  
  100. "Don't stare, Pap," a young mother anxiously whispers next to him -- probably his daughter or daughter-in-law, if you had to guess. The kit from earlier is now seated in a high chair next to her, still gumming on what appears to be the same piece of pizza, having worked most of its sauce and cheese into her fur.
  101.  
  102. "When I was her age, my parents would have given me two black eyes for talking to a superior that way regardless of whether I was in the right or not. Deference and humility, that's what mama always used to say." The grandfather rabbit grips his walking stick with white knuckles as he leans forward, growling under his breath. "Look at that uppity mutt."
  103.  
  104. Raising a paw to her mouth, the mother hisses at him. "Pap! This isn't the forties! You can't SAY that word in public anymore!"
  105.  
  106. Groaning, he leans back in his chair, rubbing his temples out of frustration while you bite your tongue trying not to laugh. You've grown desensitized to being around animal people, but every now and again the culture shock has a way of sneaking up on you. In this case, you realize that particular word would indeed have a different connotation here than back home. You make a mental note to try to hold back on animal insults; last thing you want is to be branded a specist.
  107.  
  108. As you continue to silently observe Fred and the disgruntled employee, you realize he's visibly fighting to keep his calm while he's addressing her. It's to the point where the din in the restaurant is beginning to taper off as families and other employees turn to stare. The smile playing at your lips dies in an instant as the gravity of the situation hits you -- this isn't funny anymore. Fred really IS just moments away from blowing his top and doing something he'll regret later.
  109.  
  110. "Sorry to interrupt, but I think you raise a good point, sir," you interject, standing up from your table. "How about I head on over there and go see what the trouble is?"
  111.  
  112. "Please do, son," the rabbit huffs as he looks up at you. "That poor bear's done nothing to deserve that kind of ire. If she has a problem with him, you send her my way and I'll deal with her myself."
  113.  
  114. "Pappy, please! That's enough!" The mother's now completely red in the face as she scrambles to reel her spitfire of a senior citizen in. You quickly get up from your table, collecting your jacket from the back of your chair. By the time you make it over to Fred (having gone the long way around to make sure you didn't go anywhere near the stage room) the two of them are bickering loudly enough that nearly everyone in the vicinity has stopped what they're doing to spectate.
  115.  
  116. "I'm not going to tell you again! Put the cake down, pal! That's NOT your job!" the canine ("Roth" if her name tag's to be believed) squeals, standing on the tips of her feet to try to get close to Fred's imposing height.
  117.  
  118. "It's BEEN my job to take cake to the children since before you were out of middle school, 'pal'," Fred vehemently fires back. The veins in his forehead and neck look like they're going to burst open, and his cheeks are flushed red with rage. "My brother built this chain years ago from NOTHING. You don't tell me what my role here is. Go to your locker and pack up your things, your services are no longer required!"
  119.  
  120. Leaning around him, you place a hand on his shoulder in an attempt to calm him down. "It's just me, Fred," you whisper as he whirls on you. His face relaxes slightly upon seeing you. "What's, uh, what's going on here, Roth...?"
  121.  
  122. "It's RUTH. My name is Ruth! I think the guy that does the tags is frickin' blind and typed an 'O' by mistake," Ruth continues to shriek, clearly unfamiliar with the concept of an indoor voice. "And what's going ON here is that this guy doesn't WORK for us, he's NOT in uniform, and he's trying to ruin our guest experience! Only authorized Jeremy Human's employees are allowed to carry the birthday cake and HE AIN'T AUTHORIZED!"
  123.  
  124. "You see the shit I have to deal with?" Fred barks a little too loudly, teeth bared. "I'm the regional manager. That means I'm the one who authorizes EVERYTHING here, from purchase orders to the color of the plastic fringe on our toothpicks -- and that goes for every other location in the state. See why they say good help's so hard to find, Mike?"
  125.  
  126. "Good help?! GOOD HELP?! I read the employee manual cover-to-cover twice! Do you have any idea how hard it is to get a job in this economy?" She's practically foaming at the muzzle as she tugs at her frazzled headfur. "I'm not about to let some -- some LUNATIC get me fired just because I'm being pranked! What, are you his accomplice? Is this a hidden camera show?! You gonna blame the missing animatronic on me now?!"
  127.  
  128. Raising a hand, you get between her and Fred before he loses it and punches her into the ceiling. "Lady, you REALLY need to settle down," you insist cautiously. "I'm sure whatever's going on here is a huge misunderstanding. Look, you're new, right?"
  129.  
  130. "That's right," Ruth snaps back at you. "But I know everyone here. I memorized all the faces in the employee registry and I didn't see his ANYWHERE. Or YOURS for that matter." Okay, she's obviously crazy AND hostile. Good combination.
  131.  
  132. "That's because he's a guest, and I don't work exclusively at this location." Fred reaches a hand up to his tie, tugging his collar loose to vent some steam. "I work for corporate, and I'm registered in the corporate database. This is the store closest to my home, though, and I spend the majority of my time here."
  133.  
  134. "See? There's your answer," you add in what you're hoping sounds like an agreeable tone.
  135.  
  136. "Bullshit." Ruth folds her arms, stalking off towards the front of the restaurant. "I'm going to go get the day shift manager."
  137.  
  138. Fred waits until she's gone before saying anything else. Exhaling deeply through his nose, he glances over at you. "Stupid kid. Sorry you had to see that."
  139.  
  140. "No need to be sorry," you calmly reply as he shifts the cake tray around in his arms. "You didn't do anything wrong."
  141.  
  142. Shaking his head in disgust, Fred takes a breath before affixing himself with a more pleasant expression. Gone in an instant is all of his rage and frustration, replaced with the friendly and gentle Fred you saw accompanying you into the restaurant. It's like someone just flipped a switch and he's suddenly a completely new man. Stepping inside the party room, he's greeted by a chorus of cheers and laughter. You keep your distance out in the hall as he delivers the birthday cake to the enthusiastic partygoers, brandishing a polished cake cutter. Paper plates begin circulation around the room as Fred quickly and efficiently doles out generous servings of the sugary pastry.
  143.  
  144. You'd never have pegged a grump like Fred for it -- the same Fred who refers to his own neighbors and friends as "degenerates" -- but watching him almost smiling, he seems truly alive. This is unquestionably his calling in life, and it's hard to despise him for it when he's so good at his chosen line of work. Maybe it's because of that same feeling of family and camaraderie that most of this place's victims toughed it out as long as they did.
  145.  
  146. Thinking back to what Fred said during lunch, you're beginning to understand the appeal of Jeremy Human's even if you'd still just as soon burn the place to cinders -- "humanimatronics" and all. This is his brother's work, and it's probably all he has left of Goldie. You can see why he's not ready to throw it all away. Hell, with a little remodeling it could be made into a nice, safe venue, and besides -- the local music industry would probably love a shot at performing on a live stage again once certain undesirable elements were removed. Familes certainly seem to enjoy it anyway, based on how packed it is even now.
  147.  
  148. Wait a second.
  149.  
  150. This place IS packed, isn't it. Like, almost to bursting. There was a line to get in and the dining hall's filled to capacity -- your table's already been claimed by a family of four. Glancing down the corridor, there are kids and teenagers of just about every species you can think of running amok in the arcade, riding rides and playing games.
  151.  
  152. So why the hell does this place have so many cut corners? It should be turning an insane profit and expanding its business, not just scraping by with faulty, ramshackle equipment and the most basic of accommodations. For instance, even WITHOUT the murderous robots stalking the halls at night, the guard room's an absolute deathtrap between the leaky ceiling and the rat's nest of cables and wires that carpet the floor. It's a wonder the building hasn't gone up in an electrical fire yet.
  153.  
  154. And speaking of the animatronics, unless one's turned up in the last day or two, a replacement for your terrifying mechanical doppelganger still hasn't been ordered in. Not that you want any more of the damn things running around, but that's not the point. Even "Safety" Schmidt's temporary replacement Darky was in pretty run-down condition last you saw him. The company could at least have touched up his costume before bringing him out of retirement.
  155.  
  156. No, something doesn't add up here. There's no conceivable reason Jeremy Human's should be in the state it's in now. Granted, they were supposed to be repainting the arcade or something recently if you remember hearing right, but that's a drop in the bucket considering all of the mishaps and accidents that have claimed your friends. And that's not even to mention all of the other employees who have been on the receiving end of misfortune here.
  157.  
  158. After Fred makes his excuses and leaves the party room, he checks his watch as he greets you in the hallway. "We're getting close to the end of my shift. You look like you're doing better."
  159.  
  160. "I could say the same about you," you retort good-naturedly. "That whackjob had you looking like you were going to blow a gasket."
  161.  
  162. "Yeah. I damn near came unglued on her," Fred admits as he fidgets with his vest. "Anyway, I just need to make sure the kitchen staff has everything they need for the dinner hour. We'll be out of here in no time."
  163.  
  164. Another song starts up from the show stage, and you can hear Fritzine breaking into a yodel even over the noise of the crowd. Chills run down your spine as her grating southern twang reverberates through you.
  165.  
  166. "S-sounds good, Fred."
  167.  
  168. As Fred pushes into the kitchen, you start to limp off towards the dining hall only to crash into something warm and soft. Instantly you fall to the ground in a tangle with another person, and in the process of tripping, you smack your already wounded shin against a nearby chair. Between the physical pain and your already frayed nerves, it's enough to cause you to cry out in alarm.
  169.  
  170. "My goodness! I'm so, so sorry!" a bubbly, gossamer-soft voice coos from underneath you. Looking down, you blush as you realize you've come face-to-face with an ample set of mammaries wrapped in a very snug-fitting business jacket.
  171.  
  172. "No -- my fault," you sputter, exerting all of your strength just to force yourself off the ground. Your leg's screaming at you in protest, and your fractured ribcage isn't really all that thrilled either even though it was mostly cushioned by the other party. "I wasn't watching where I was going. You okay?"
  173.  
  174. Your fellow crash victim turns out to be a harried-looking female black bear. While you're getting better at guessing animal ages you're not quite sure of how old she is, but Beanie and Chiclet would look young next to her. As you help the bear to her feet, it quickly becomes apparent that she's significantly taller than you; not quite April's height, but certainly close.
  175.  
  176. Her figure is more curvy than trim, though she's by no means obese. Her face is round and gentle, with pale blush applied to her cheeks and gold lipstick at the tip of her muzzle. Her black fur's as dark as the night sky, standing in sharp contrast to both her expressive rose-colored eyes and her curious choice of a banana yellow woman's business suit that just barely fits her. Adorning her head is a slightly askew matching yellow tea hat with a black flower tucked into its ribbon band.
  177.  
  178. "I'm fine, Mr. Schmidt," she titters softly as she tries to straighten herself out, still looking a little dazed from having just been bowled over.
  179.  
  180. "Um, have we met?" you ask, knowing full well you haven't. Then again, there's a lot of things you thought you knew until just recently.
  181.  
  182. "Ahhhnnn, not -- um, not personally, no?" the lady bear mumbles as she tucks the clipboard she's carrying under her arm, tugging her skirt back down not-so-subtly. "I'm, um -- my name's Nisha. I work at the corporate office."
  183.  
  184. That explains the outfit, anyway; she's probably higher up in the company than the wage slaves running around here. Maybe someone's secretary or something. "Ah, well, nice to meet you, Nisha," you respond, still a little wary of how she knew your name.
  185.  
  186. "Likewise," Nisha responds bashfully, smoothing out the rest of her clothes. "I've, ahhn, I've heard a little bit about you from him, actually. Mr. Fazbear, I mean. You're, hmmmm. Just a teensy bit different than how he described you to me."
  187.  
  188. Gee, thanks, Fred.
  189.  
  190. "Hopefully you've only heard the good." You muster up a weak, hesitant chuckle. She smiles in kind, gently prodding the tip of her muzzle with the end of her ink pen.
  191.  
  192. "Oh! No, no -- don't worry. He's the perfect gentleman."
  193.  
  194. "Perfect employee, too. I overheard one of the customers in the dining room earlier, and he, y'know, he seemed really impressed with Fred -- had all kinds of glowing praise for him." You nod appreciatively in his direction as Fred exits the kitchen, stopping to answer questions from the sloth girl from earlier. With a smirk you notice she's just now making it back towards the tables with the parmesan and other things Fred sent her for.
  195.  
  196. "Yeah, I'd ignore whatever you hear from 'Ruth'. She obviously doesn't know him," you continue.
  197.  
  198. Nisha draws a deep breath as she observes Fred, smoothing out her headfur. "Ohhh. That's... kind of a shame."
  199.  
  200. "Yeah, I agree," you reply, slipping a hand inside your jacket to surreptitiously massage your sore chest. Standing up for so long is starting to cause your muscles to ache, and your fall just now only exacerbated your pain. "Everyone else seems to be super friendly to him, and I mean, I know he's kind of a gruff guy sometimes but he's--"
  201.  
  202. "Ummm...! N-no, sorry, that's not quite what I meant," Nisha falteringly interjects as she turns her focus back to you. "I-- I mean it's a shame about him being a perfect employee. Um -- considering he really isn't one, technically."
  203.  
  204. "Sorry, what?" you ask, not quite taking her meaning. "Well, yeah, I mean -- he's not really a regular employee because he's from corporate, but you know what I mean. Regional manager. Whatever."
  205.  
  206. "Former regional manager," she replies softly. Her knees knock together as she leans down to you, lowering her voice conspiratorially. "He -- he took early retirement a few years ago. After the founder -- I mean, um, his brother's..."
  207.  
  208. You blink, tilting your head at her. Shades of protesting to everyone about Goldie the other night are coming back to you.
  209.  
  210. "So let me get this straight," you interrupt. Swallowing, you point an unsteady finger in Fred's direction. "Y-- you, you're saying Fred's not employed here. But he works here anyway."
  211.  
  212. "Ahhhn, ummmm, yes, that's -- that's what I'm saying, yes." Nisha makes a sour face like she's just now realizing she let something slip she shouldn't have. "His doctor told us that he has -- ohhhh, I don't have the paperwork in front of me, but it's basically like -- a fancy term for clinical denial, I think. After his breakdo-- sorry, after his, um, -- well, he's kind of blocked some things out of his mind."
  213.  
  214. You're suddenly wishing you had a thicker jacket. The blood in your veins feels like it's turned from hot to cold.
  215.  
  216. "W-we allow him to work here as a special dispensation -- hoping that he'll, you know, um -- come to terms with, uh, it. And move on." Nisha smiles apologetically as she stumbles over her words. "It became -- ahhhmmm, it was easier than having to have security, y'know, escort him out every time he'd come in to do his old job."
  217.  
  218. "I think -- I think I've heard enough, thank you," you mutter, still trying to absorb the information you've just been given. Hanging her head in embarrassment, Nisha awkwardly takes a sudden interest in her clipboard.
  219.  
  220. "So-sorry. I, um, that all just came out of nowhere. I should've -- should've used more discretion, I'm always just going off at the mouth and I--"
  221.  
  222. "It's fine." You fake a smile you don't feel, gently brushing a straw wrapper off of the forearm of this babbling, vivacious stranger. "It's fine, you didn't -- you didn't know that I didn't know. Haha, um, I just need some time to kinda -- look, it's been a real rough week."
  223.  
  224. Nisha shyly nods, stepping back politely. "Sure. I, um, I -- I kinda need to get back to headquarters. It's a long drive, I just had to stop in for a few things. It was nice meeting you, Mr. Schmidt."
  225.  
  226. "Mike." You extend a hand to her. "Please, just Mike."
  227.  
  228. Smiling, she shakes your hand with a blush. "Alright then. Mike. I like that better; I'll have an easier time keeping you separate from our character in my head. Say, speaking of which -- have you seen our band sing? They've, ah, they've got a great interactive show going on right now if you wanted to watch...?"
  229.  
  230. Your eye twitches and your heart begins to palpitate at the mention of the dancing droids one room over. "I'm good," you reply forcefully. "Hey, um, don't let me hold you up. I'm sure you've got a ton of work to do, right?"
  231.  
  232. "O-ohh, right. Ahhnn, er. H-have a nice day then, Mike," she says, expression drooping a little as she collects herself to leave. Unable to keep your facade going, you turn on your heel to seek Fred out in the crowd. You've had enough conversation, enough overcoming for one day. Right now you just want to bail out to the safety of Fred's car, and subsequently home.
  233.  
  234. Making your way through customers and patrons flitting about obliviously, you're forced to pass by the stage room. You don't even have to look to know that the humanimatronic band is still out on their stage, performing for a sizable throng of colorful animal people. As you pass by, you try to keep your head down -- but in a spill on the floor, you can just barely make out the reflection of Jeremy's face in your peripheral vision.
  235.  
  236. Startled, you involuntarily jerk your head up to look at him. He's in the middle of a solo performance, marching in place in time to the music as Fritzine beats a drum and Darky pretends to play a flute. As Jeremy continues to dance he cranes his neck ever so slightly until he's looking dead in your direction. The crowd doesn't seem to notice as they laugh and clap along to the music, but you've frozen in place like a deer caught in the headlights. Jeremy's usual dark-tinted lenses obscure the majority of his synthetic face, but for a fraction of a second you catch sight of the twin red beacons underneath his visor glimmering. It's all you need to know exactly what he's thinking.
  237.  
  238. I see you.
  239.  
  240. All at once, he turns back to the crowd to finish his routine with a flourish. Tearing your gaze away from him after several moments of breathless gawking, you redouble your efforts to hurry to your escape.
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