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Roommates - Ch. 44 (Home)

Dec 7th, 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. 44 (Home): http://i.imgur.com/uXr1Ymz.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. "So how was the convention?" Goose asks the empty chair next to you.
  13.  
  14. "Y'know, I suppose it wasn't all that bad," you reply with a smile, speaking up a little for her benefit. She quickly realizes that her estimate was off, and so she shifts to better face your direction. "Seems everyone had a good time for the most part. Heck, I kind of enjoyed it, even if I didn't win the costume contest."
  15.  
  16. "I still say you were robbed." Mango shuffles out of the kitchen, putting her paws on her hips in disgust. "I can't help but wonder if there's anything Foxglove or I could've done differently."
  17.  
  18. "Nah, the costume was fantastic," you insist. "You two did an amazing job, and I got a ton of compliments on it. I swept all the audience rounds, but when it came down to a judge vote, they just gave it to someone else. I don't really know what they were thinking, and neither did the audience -- there was a ton of booing."
  19.  
  20. "Awwww. That sucks, man." Goose offers up a breathy, sympathetic sigh, patting your hand. "I think you're plenty human-like; all the good stuff, anyhow. I'd know, too -- I used to work around real ones every day."
  21.  
  22. Rolling her eyes, Mango runs a paw through Goose's headfeathers as she takes a seat. "Silly Goose! The ones at Jeremy's aren't real!"
  23.  
  24. "Hmmph." Defiantly running her wings across her head, Goose yawns. "Certainly real enough for my tastes."
  25.  
  26. After enjoying a quiet but cozy winter breakfast together, both girls beg off to take care of some housework. You figure now's as good a time as any to unpack your luggage; you and both Bonnies came back from HumieCon exhausted, so you haven't even had an opportunity since getting in to unload Bonbon's swag from your suitcases. Besides, considering you're a vagrant without so much as a piece of furniture to your name, you need your suitcase and duffel to keep what few possessions you have organized.
  27.  
  28. Making your way into the bedroom you're sharing with Peanut, you set about unpacking Bonbon's overflow of HumieCon loot. If you didn't know better, you'd assume her merchandise was somehow multiplying. Figurines, comic books, vinyl toys, plushes -- it feels like every time you take your eyes off of it, the pile gets bigger. No telling how much money she spent in there.
  29.  
  30. You pick up a stuffed toy of Bob and give his nose an experimental poke. It makes an oddly satisfying honking sound. Grinning like a dope, you carry it and an armful of her other toys to her bedroom door, gingerly placing them inside her empty laundry basket. You briefly consider leaving the items inside her room, but you figure that even if it's Bonbon, it's better to err on the side of caution and not violate her privacy. You'd want her to show you the same consideration, after all.
  31.  
  32. On your last trip to redistribute her bounty, you stumble across the gift bag containing your consolation prize. You got so distracted having to calm Bonbon down after the contest that you never even got a chance to see what it was. Not that you're expecting much -- it's probably a coffee mug or an undersized tee shirt or some other trinket with the convention's branding. As you pull the tissue paper away, though, you're surprised to see that inside the bag is a cardboard box with bright colors, illegible foreign print, and the Legend of Bob series' logo.
  33.  
  34. "Ohhhh boy," you groan.
  35.  
  36. Your recompense for humiliating yourself on a stage in front of thousands of strangers is none other than a crummy Balloon Boy action figure.
  37.  
  38. The irony of your reward for badly losing a "Most Realistic Human" contest being a toy of an unrealistic human isn't lost on you. To add insult to injury, the damn thing doesn't even really LOOK like the character it's supposed to be -- it's done up in hideous neon pink and lime green paint. Some kind of knockoff, maybe? If it didn't say "BALON BOY" in large block letters underneath the show's logo, you almost wouldn't be able to tell what the hell the toy was supposed to be. Shaking your head, you scratch out a note to Bonbon, informing her that she's now the proud owner of a garbage Balloon Boy doll before dumping it in the pile with the rest of her plunder.
  39.  
  40. Turning back to your mostly-emptied luggage, you look at the state of your clothes with dismay. Having to share space with all of the convention merchandise left just about every article of clothing you own badly wrinkled, and on top of it all, it seems some of your dirty clothes got mixed in with clean, if the smell coming from your suitcase is anything to go by. Like it or not, at this point you're going to have wash everything.
  41.  
  42. Unfortunately, a cursory examination of the laundry room reveals that Mango and Goose have already staked it out, and judging by the baskets full of laundry in there, it's obvious they're not going anywhere anytime soon. Goose is reclining in a bean bag chair on the floor with a pair of earphones pressed to her head while Mango skims a women's magazine.
  43.  
  44. "Freddy and Bonnie are working late today," Mango says as you walk in. "We're doing their laundry for them as a favor since they're both almost out of fresh clothes. We might be in here a while, Mike -- but if you want, I'll gladly take care of yours as well!"
  45.  
  46. "Nah, no big deal," you reply amiably. "I'll run across the street and ask Bonworth or Fred if I can do laundry at their place. It wouldn't be fair to have you do even more work when you're already doing more than you have to."
  47.  
  48. Scratching her head, Mango nods. "Oh, um -- if you're sure, then."
  49.  
  50. Little point in procrastinating. You're already showered and dressed for the day -- might as well go knock your laundry out since you've got literally nothing better to do. Slipping your boots and coat on, you heft your luggage and set off across the street to Building 9.
  51.  
  52.  
  53.  
  54. "Thanks again, Bonworth! I'm sorry to stop by so abruptly."
  55.  
  56. "Shoot, Mike! No need to apologize, fella! We're happy to help," Bonworth grins, giving you a half-hug. "Everything you need's on the top shelf in the laundry room, whether it's suds or bleach or what have you. I'd love to stick around and catch up, but I'm afraid it'll have to wait 'till I get home from work. You think you'll be alright?"
  57.  
  58. Eyeing the top shelf, it looks like he's got everything you could possibly need -- bleach, detergent, fabric softener, even stain remover. "Yeah, absolutely. Thanks again, man."
  59.  
  60. "Sure thing! Everyone's out like a light right now -- I think that torpor stuff's contagious," he chuckles. "You should have your run of the place for a while. Just call the front desk if you need anything, Mike, and I'll come on over."
  61.  
  62. "Will do," you answer, setting your suitcases down by the laundry room. Bonworth gives you a wave before setting off, leaving you alone in the sterile, lemon-scented serenity of 93-B once more.
  63.  
  64. It's almost like you never left.
  65.  
  66. Dropping to your knees, you begin pulling out your clothes to sort into piles. You take care in making sure they're properly separated -- last thing you want is to accidentally turn half your wardrobe pink because a red shirt slipped through. On the plus side, everything you have is wash and wear, so you won't have to spend time hovering over the ironing board. You decide to start by getting your socks and underwear in the washer first -- you're not keen on the idea of leaving a pile of boxer shorts in the middle of the hallway.
  67.  
  68. "Don't want Cheeky getting the wrong idea," you chuckle quietly to yourself as you start the washing machine.
  69.  
  70. Once you've got your first load going, you wheel your empty luggage into the living room, taking a seat in one of the chairs. It's been a while since you've cleaned these things out, and they've accumulated their fair share of dust and dirt from your travels. Your rolling suitcase is definitely showing signs of fatigue -- it's probably getting close to needing to be retired. Still, you might as well take care of what you've got for now. As you run a damp cloth around the interior of your suitcase, your hand catches on something sewn into the lining. Curious, you run your fingers back and forth over it a couple of times before you realize the entire back wall of the suitcase itself (or the "bottom" if it's laid on its back) is actually just a large storage pocket.
  71.  
  72. "Would've helped to know that at the convention," you mutter, reaching your hand inside to see if anything's in the pouch. Sure enough, after rummaging around, you retrieve a thin manila envelope -- one of the old-fashioned types that seals shut with a piece of string. You toss the cleaning cloth aside, your previous task all but forgotten as you recline in your seat to examine this new find. Wherever it's from, it doesn't look terribly familiar -- you're not even sure you've seen it before. Come to think of it, did you get this suitcase used? It could be something left behind unnoticed by the previous owner. Flipping the envelope over, it doesn't seem to be marked or stamped on either side -- well, not unless you count the lovely decorative coffee ring on the back. Untying the envelope, you tip it upside down and shake its contents loose onto the table.
  73.  
  74. A bundle of newspaper clippings and other small scraps held together with a paperclip slides out of the envelope, landing on the table with a dull plop. Picking the stack up with interest, you pull the paperclip off and begin to skim the first article in the pile. As soon as you do, however, you can practically feel the color draining from your face.
  75.  
  76. Your breakfast instantly comes surging up your throat, and it's all you can do to keep from projectile vomiting all over the living room carpet. Next thing you know, you're hunched over your open suitcase, drenched in sweat. You hack and gag uncontrollably for several minutes before your body finally decides it's had enough; gasping for breath, you squeamishly close the lid of your luggage and haul it out the front door to dispose of it in the dumpster outside.
  77.  
  78. Looks like you'll be getting a new one sooner than you thought.
  79.  
  80. You barely blink and find yourself in the kitchen, splashing your face with cold water. Your veins are pumping ice and your shirt clings wetly to your back. Everything's clammy and gross. Your face drips with sweat. Only after a long moment clutching the edge of the sink do you finally turn. Burning curiosity overcomes fear.
  81.  
  82. You have to know. You have to be sure.
  83.  
  84. You stumble back to the living room to re-examine your terrible discovery. At a glance, it's just an innocuous classified ad from a local paper, but the alarmingly familiar face in the picture proves it's anything but another mundane job listing. A stocky, husky bear with sunken, moody eyes and a false smile stares back at you. His head's graced with a tiny top hat, his chest adorned with a black ribbon bowtie and a pair of chunky buttons to evoke the image of a tuxedo shirt.
  85.  
  86. Even though the likeness in the photo is irrevocably Fred's, there are too many tells betraying its robotic nature: uniformly-sized fake plastic teeth; bolts holding his lantern jaw onto his head; exposed wires and metal framework visible in his arms from where the fabric of the costume that makes up his "fur" doesn't quite cover everything underneath. His eyes might be plastic and lifeless, but there's something deeper in them too, more than just a puppet on a stage. While it's hard to make all of the fine details out in the grainy photo, there's no mistake -- this is the mechanical, "animatronic" version of Fred Fazbear you saw in your hallucinations at the apartment directly below where you sit right now. And if you somehow had any remaining doubt as to the identity of this character, his name is even printed oh-so-helpfully just above his leering face.
  87.  
  88.  
  89. π™·πšŽπš•πš™ πš†πšŠπš—πšπšŽπš
  90. π™΅πš›πšŽπšπšπš’ π™΅πšŠπš£πš‹πšŽπšŠπš›'𝚜 π™Ώπš’πš£πš£πšŠ
  91.  
  92.  
  93. Reeling, you slump back in your seat, the scrap of paper trembling in your convulsing hand like a leaf in the wind. Fazbear's Pizza -- there's that godforsaken name again. You remember the dream you had the night of your huge meltdown downstairs; the one in which you were relentlessly stalked through a dilapidated restaurant by killers clad in moth-eaten fur. You remember the dead-eyed glares and oversized animal costume heads, the sounds of motors whirring juxtaposed against raspy gurgling, the fight to keep track of everything on a faulty CCTV feed. You'd just about managed to bury that nightmare, and yet right now, you're holding tangible proof that it wasn't a nightmare at all.
  94.  
  95. Well, not only, anyway.
  96. But if it wasn't all just a dream, what WAS it?
  97.  
  98. Forcing yourself to tear your gaze from the want ad, you set it aside on your armrest for now to look at the next item in the stack -- a large, glossy color photo. It appears to be a group shot of several colorful mascot characters -- and notably, even some human employees -- all assembled around a large party table. At the seat of honor in the middle of the table is the same robotic Fred Fazbear you saw in the want ad, his arms outstretched towards the camera. You're not sure whether he's trying to hug or strangle the cameraman.
  99.  
  100. "What's the meaning of this?"
  101.  
  102. You nearly jump out of your chair to see Faz hovering over you, still dressed in his silk nightclothes and robe. When the hell did he get here?! You'd forgotten how silently he can move -- especially given his frame and condition. The want ad dangles limply from one of his paws, but right now, he's fixated on the photos in your hands. Even though most of his lower mouth is bandaged, it's plain from what you can see of his face that he's confused and unnerved.
  103.  
  104. "I asked you a question," he drones, one finger to his voicebox for emphasis.
  105.  
  106. You struggle for words, for something to say in response. Some insightful assessment or commentary, but all you can manage is a pained whimper.
  107.  
  108. "I don't know."
  109.  
  110. He casts a hesitant eye over you and gently (but forcefully) plucks the group picture from your hand, raising it to his face. Holding it in his own shaky grasp, Faz scrutinizes it for the longest. You can hear him audibly gritting his teeth as his consternation builds. After what feels like an eternity of helplessly watching him, he abruptly lets the photo and the newspaper clipping flutter to the floor. Wordlessly, he turns on his heel and slogs out of the room, clearly unable -- or unwilling -- to process the shock of this newest revelation.
  111.  
  112. Somehow, you don't blame him at all.
  113.  
  114.  
  115.  
  116. Looking down at your hands, you realize you've been folding the same pair of jeans for the last five minutes. Side-eyeing the clock in the kitchen, you're shocked to realize it's been almost an hour since Faz abruptly left. Shortly afterward, your brain must've joined him in checking out, leaving your body to kind of run through the motions on its own. With a troubled sigh, you gather up what you've folded so far to store in your duffel bag before beginning your next load of laundry.
  117.  
  118. Returning to the living room, you begin collecting the photos and clippings from the floor, spreading them out onto the coffee table. You're still not sure what to make of any of this -- it's screwed-up and mindblowing, sure, but it's also tangible proof that you haven't lost your sanity. Even though you're now a stranger in a strange land, you really are still a human and not a delusional, furless ape. It wasn't that long ago that you'd almost stopped believing it, yourself. Your torments and your tormentors are (or at least WERE) real. All you need now is a picture of yourself shaking hands with Goldie and you'd have a pretty damn convincing "get out of asylum free" card right here. Everything in front of you lays it all out plain as day; vindication in the form of polaroids and newsprint.
  119.  
  120. The others are going to have to see this. Especially now that Faz knows, there's no sense in keeping it bottled up. In spite of the overwhelming emotion you're feeling, you allow a smile to creep across your lips as you imagine Bonbon's reaction -- a real, live human, right in front of her! Everything she's ever wanted, right? What was it she told that hen at the convention about "living the dream"? Man, if only she knew!
  121.  
  122. Sure, it'd probably take some getting used to for the others -- some of them have voiced their disdain for humans, like the conversation you had with Peanut a while back. You can't blame them; all they've got to go on are bizarrely inaccurate fictional versions and murderous "humanimatronic" mascots. Even so, surely they MUST know there's a difference between the Jeremy Human characters and you. After all, you've been able to tell the difference between the robot facsimiles in these pictures and the friends you've made here.
  123.  
  124. ...well, most of the time, anyway.
  125.  
  126. Still, what a find! You turn your attention back to the large group photo; Faz's earlier interruption prevented you from really examining it closely, but now you can definitely start to see a few parallels. For one thing, Fred's still a man of strong, commanding presence no matter where (or what) he is. A robot hen that resembles Chichi stands at his left side; nestled in her wings in front of her chest is a silver platter bearing a fake plastic cupcake. It's brown with pink "icing" and googly eyes; the resemblance to the cupcake the real Chichi served you the night you met her is uncanny. To Fred's right is a tall, slender violet rabbit that can only be Beanie, considering the robot's rail-thin frame and general demeanor. Interestingly, clutched in her hands is a large prop electric guitar.
  127.  
  128. You idly find yourself wondering if the real Beanie plays. Might be something to ask her sometime.
  129.  
  130. As you allow your eyes to wander the picture, you notice that in the far right corner of the party room is a large, circular elevated stage; a curtain made of vibrant purple star-patterned fabric enshrouds the platform. Something hazily pricks at the back of your mind -- you're pretty sure you remember seeing something like that in your nightmare. (Come to think of it, doesn't Haddock have a blanket with a similar print?)
  131.  
  132. Peeking out from between the fabric flaps is a grumpy-looking robot in disrepair that can't be anyone other than Rackham. Even here, he's still a surly piece of work. Some things never change, huh. Below his feet is a sign announcing that the attraction he's at (or maybe HE's the attraction?) is "out of order".
  133.  
  134. Thinking about it, that's an extremely fitting way to describe everything you're seeing: out of order. Everything's existent -- but not necessarily correct.
  135.  
  136. At first look they're all smiles, but it's obvious something's wrong with these characters. Uncanny resemblances aside, these aren't the friends you've come to know and love. Sure, you already knew that much from your nightmares, but even in these pictures, there's something wrong. Their fake eyes are open a little too wide, their teeth too polished. Dark red splotches of what you're hoping is pizza sauce mottle the fabric of their costumes. "Beanie's" fingers are closer to razor-tipped claws, clutching protectively at her guitar; likewise, "Chichi's" digits don't resemble feathers so much as knives or blades. And at the center, "Freddy Fazbear" doesn't just look grumpy -- he looks empty, as if whatever spark of life that drives the Fred Fazbear you know is missing entirely from his duplicate, leaving just a crotchety shell of an oversized teddy bear forcing a smile for the camera. Even the "Rackham" in the far corner looks miserable and jealous, forced to watch from the sidelines while everyone else has their time in the spotlight.
  137.  
  138. As for the humans in the photo, they're all presumably employees of the pizzeria as they're wearing matching purple work uniforms embroidered with the "Freddy's" logo. There's a diverse array of your own species represented, but beyond any of the usual attributes that humans divide themselves by, the one thing that especially seems to bind this group together is that none of them really look like they have any desire to be part of the picture.
  139.  
  140. Or part of the restaurant.
  141.  
  142. Though the walls are painted brightly and decorated with colorful posters, there's a generally grim aura over this entire scene. Like some innate sense of melancholy that seems to reach through to you beyond time and space. Unlike the popular-but-mismanaged Jeremy Human's, you can't really imagine anyone actually wanting to come to this restaurant, a sentiment that seems to be echoed by the general lack of customers.
  143.  
  144. No, wait. Not just customers -- children. The one element you'd expect a place like this to have in spades, and yet, where are the kids? There aren't but a few human children present in the background of the photo.
  145.  
  146. Why?
  147.  
  148. Why wouldn't kids want to come to a kids' restaurant? Hell, even Jeremy's might be a deathtrap, but at least that place seemed to be making mad bank the day you were there in the afternoon. Parents and kids alike were lined up out the door to get in, and there were hardly any seats available in the dining hall. Fazbear's Pizza, on the other hand, looks like it's teetering on the brink of closure.
  149.  
  150. That's it -- that's what's so wrong about this whole thing. Everyone gathered, from the humans to the mascots, looks like they're barely hanging on.
  151.  
  152. No wonder they're so miserable.
  153.  
  154. After a few seconds, you hear the sounds of floorboards creaking; this time, for whatever reason, Faz hasn't masked his presence as he approaches. He dips his head at you as he walks over to his chair, collapsing in the one directly next to yours.
  155.  
  156. "Sorry," he rasps, not bothering with the electrolarynx this time. "I... needed a moment."
  157.  
  158. "I understand." You place a hand on his shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze. He nods, gesturing for you to pass the photo to him. You do so, and he gives you an appreciative nod as he reclines in his chair, gently tracing the edge of the photo with an absent finger as he studies it.
  159.  
  160. "Start from the top," Faz says at length. "These pictures, what do they mean? I want to know everything."
  161.  
  162. "Me too, Faz, but I know about as much as you do," you answer earnestly, massaging your smarting chest. "I'd just found them in my bag when you came in earlier."
  163.  
  164. "You're kidding." He insistently raps the photo with a knuckle as if doing so will somehow jog your memory. "You have no idea what these are."
  165.  
  166. "Not a clue. I wish I did, but..." You shrug. "It's like trying to see through fog, Faz. None of this is ringing a bell with me."
  167.  
  168. His brow furrows, but to your relief he drops the subject, choosing not to press you any further. As bizarre and reality-shaking of a revelation as this is for you to see, you can't really wrap your mind around what Faz must be going through.
  169.  
  170. "So... this is your home," he whispers after a long while.
  171.  
  172. Unsure of what to say, you nod. And yet, it doesn't at all feel familiar or comfortable, like a home should.
  173.  
  174. "And you really have no idea how you got from there -- to here?" He gauges your face with interest, but again, you simply shake your head without a word.
  175.  
  176. "These people, like you..." He gestures to the employees in the photo gathered near the animatronics. "Either you're contagious, or... they're humans. You're a human."
  177.  
  178. "Yeah, Faz," you laugh unsteadily, running a hand through your hair. "Bit different from the cartoons, aren't we?"
  179.  
  180. "Just a bit," he replies dryly.
  181.  
  182. Having fought so long to hide it, it feels good to confide in someone -- even if it's the last person you'd have expected to tell. You'd half-heartedly tried once before with Bonbon on a whim, just to see her reaction, and of course she didn't bite then. Over time you've come to appreciate the fact that she didn't, considering how much trouble it could cause you -- but in the back of your mind there's always been the temptation to let SOMEONE know.
  183.  
  184. After a moment, Faz points to a person tucked away in the crowd in the far corner of the room while giving you an inquisitive look. Leaning over his shoulder, your eyes widen -- you have no idea how you missed it, but sure as day, there you are in the thick of things. You've got a badge pinned to your work shirt and a peaked cap that reads "SEC" on your head.
  185.  
  186. "H-ha, look at that ugly mug," you weakly joke. "God, I don't even remember this."
  187.  
  188. To your surprise, though, Faz simply takes it in stride, gesturing to the animatronics.
  189.  
  190. "This is what bothers me the most," Faz remarks, leaning forward far enough to pick the want ad up off the table. Comparing it side-by-side to the group picture, he turns to you. "This ad has his name. This is supposed to be Fred Fazbear? The same Fred Fazbear from...?"
  191.  
  192. "I think so, yes," you admit.
  193.  
  194. "And... Bonita?"
  195.  
  196. "Looks like her, yeah," you respond as he points to the synthetic version of Beanie.
  197.  
  198. "So why are they... like this? Why are all of the normal people animatronics, but the humans aren't?" he ponders. You can't help but feel slightly jarred by such casual usage of "normal people" -- and perhaps quickly realizing his error, Faz nods apologetically to you. "Sorry. Thinking out loud. This must be hard for you."
  199.  
  200. "That's alright," you respond shakily. He nods, hovering his index finger over the robotic hen.
  201.  
  202. "Chiclet?" he asks, seemingly uncertain.
  203.  
  204. "Nnnnooo, I think that's Chichi."
  205.  
  206. "Ah. Of course." He taps the cupcake in realization. "Because she's a baker."
  207.  
  208. "Also because they look alike...?"
  209.  
  210. "Hhn... no, don't see it," he muses, causing you to nearly laugh out loud. With a shake of his head, Faz leans forward, picking up another photo from the table. "There's Bonworth, of course."
  211.  
  212. You hadn't even really gotten to this one, but sure enough, against an unfamiliar checkerboard wall covered in children's drawings and pinned newspaper articles, there stands a smiling robot that does vaguely resemble Bonworth. He's got the same buck teeth, the same square-tipped ears -- even thick, dark circles under his eyes. Though upon closer inspection, it just looks like the costume's in poor condition.
  213.  
  214. "Sure, I can see it," you agree.
  215.  
  216. "And this is Bonbon," Faz says, pointing to a portrait poster on the wall next to him. "Who's next to her, though? Is THAT Chiclet?"
  217.  
  218. "No, that's Goose. Chiclet's much taller and her, um -- well, her beak, you know?"
  219.  
  220. Faz scoffs, shaking his head. "I don't at all comprehend any of this, Mike," he groans wearily. "Some -- bizarre, alien world where everyone's a robot... mechanical people exactly like us? My friends? My neighbors? Is there a robot me there, too?"
  221.  
  222. "Well, no, they're not exactly like you -- these guys were pretty unhinged, Faz," you argue.
  223.  
  224. "You do remember something, then?" he asks with a tilt of his head.
  225.  
  226. "Sort of. I had a dream the night of my, uh..." You stomp your foot twice on the floor, and he seems to take your meaning. "In it, I was being chased by these guys. And they were -- honestly, they were awful. They were NOTHING like any of you. They wanted to kill me. Faz, if you don't believe anything else I say, believe this -- whatever semblance there is, it's skin-deep."
  227.  
  228. "So they're -- what, they were all... 'evil'?"
  229.  
  230. "I don't know if they were 'evil' or not, but -- they acted every bit as horrible as Jeremy Human and Fritzine."
  231.  
  232. Faz scratches his throat, going back to the first group photo again. "Sounds like evil to me."
  233.  
  234. "Well, I'm not sure if a robot is capable of morality," you muse with a shrug.
  235.  
  236. "No, I mean--"
  237.  
  238. Faz rasps all of a sudden, hoarsely sucking wind and stiffening in his seat.
  239.  
  240. "Fritzine."
  241.  
  242. You jolt at the point-blank declaration, glancing around the room in a panic before turning back to Faz -- his finger's on one of the human employees in the crowd who admittedly bears a striking resemblance to the robotic handywoman. In amongst the employees is a pudgy lady with thick, curly orange hair, wearing overalls and holding a toolbox in her arms.
  243.  
  244. You can't read her nametag in the grainy photo. You don't need to. "Holy shit. That's her."
  245.  
  246. "Has to be," Faz says. "But if she's here..."
  247.  
  248. There's a sudden pause as the two of you warily glance at each other. In the photo, Fritzine is standing directly next to you.
  249.  
  250. "Mike..." he whispers, voice hoarse.
  251.  
  252. "Schmidt," you mumble under your breath. "My last name... it's Schmidt."
  253.  
  254. Setting the photos aside, Faz reaches into the pocket of his bathrobe and produces a worn, creased postcard bearing the likenesses of the Jeremy Human's animatronics. Having become intimately acquainted with the things during your various trips to the restaurant, you recognize Jeremy and Fritzine standing next to each other at their show stage -- though the third robot that's with them is one you'd only seen passing glances of: a bright green humanoid with a square-shaped jaw and a policeman's hat.
  255.  
  256. This must be the missing "Safety Schmidt" character that you briefly impersonated. No wonder Fritzine was so fooled by you -- it was more than just a case of mistaken identity.
  257.  
  258. "Uncanny," Faz murmurs, holding the postcard next to your face. Your eyes widen as you look at it.
  259.  
  260. "Are you serious?" you sputter. "Is that -- we look nothing alike!"
  261.  
  262. "Mike, come on."
  263.  
  264. "Faz, no," you argue. "There's not -- he's not even--"
  265.  
  266. "He even has your hat."
  267.  
  268. Grumbling, you take the postcard from him, staring furiously at the photo. The thought that there's now a fake "you" running around out there -- somewhere, wherever the hell it's gotten off to -- it's enough to light you up. You're still coming to grips with the fact that there really ARE fake copies of your friends -- and now you're finding out that the "Schmidt" they've been referring to all this time didn't just HAPPEN to share your name, he was supposed to BE you?
  269.  
  270. "What sort of sick-in-the-head asshole would make a robot copy of Mike Schmidt? What could they possibly get out of it?!" you blurt. "And -- if here's where the 'real' Fred and Bonworth are from, and where I'm from had the fakes -- then shit, Faz! What does that mean for me?! Am I just some shadow of a -- of a damn pizzeria puppet? Some freaking piece of shit PROP?!"
  271.  
  272. Goose's words from the breakfast table about working around "real humans" every day return to the forefront of your mind. At this point, could you even know "real" from "fake"?
  273.  
  274. "Mike, you think I'm happy about any of this?" Faz grunts, finally resorting to his electrolarynx. "It's fascinating -- but also horrifying. Imagine how you're feeling right now, knowing there's something out there that looks just like you! Talks like you! Now imagine how the others would feel seeing these pictures!"
  275.  
  276. He waves the group photo of Fazbear's Pizza in your face, and you stop cold -- that's not even an angle you'd considered.
  277.  
  278. Fred's already suffering from emotional trauma that's caused him all kinds of mental problems. No telling what kind of damage this would inflict on him -- at least he's otherwise functioning at the moment. Bonworth would be appalled -- to say nothing of Beanie. After everything she's been through, this would absolutely break her. You've at least had SOME forewarning, but what if all of them had to come to grips with the fact that somewhere out there, they had some kind of animatronic body double? There's no way Bonnibel would be able to process the news -- it'd traumatize her. She'd probably go into an immediate panic attack.
  279.  
  280. One by one you run through the faces of your friends, roommates, and companions. Chiclet, Rackham, Peanut, Chichi -- none of them would likely handle this well at all. At the very best, they MIGHT be amused -- if not a little repulsed. At worst, you could send any one of them potentially off the brink of madness.
  281.  
  282. You look up at Faz, and for the first time in this entire conversation you take note of just how troubled he looks -- he's handled the news with exceptional grace, but this'll probably haunt him for years.
  283.  
  284. "They -- I can't," you mutter, shaking your head. "They can't know. It'd break them. Hell, I'm probably going to have trouble sleeping just knowing that I'm not the 'real' Safety Schmidt. I couldn't possibly inflict that on anybody else." No matter how vindicated you'd feel.
  285.  
  286. Faz's eyes narrow, and for a moment you catch a glimpse of the same irate, terrifying bear that caused you to limp out of his home the night you went off in this very living room. But as you lock onto his gaze, you realize that he's angry -- but not with you.
  287.  
  288. "And what about Fritzine?" Faz wonders aloud.
  289.  
  290. "What ABOUT her?" you grumble. "What's she got to do with anything?!"
  291.  
  292. "No, no -- your Fritzine. The real one -- the human one." He looks you square in the eye. "If you're 'Schmidt', but you're good, then -- was the real Fritzine good, too? Was there a Jeremy Human in your world who was kind to you?"
  293.  
  294. Deflating, you drop your shoulders. "I... I can't remember. I wish I could. I know I must have worked with her at some point, but it's -- it's blurry."
  295.  
  296. "Nothing?" He sounds oddly hopeful.
  297.  
  298. "I just know she wasn't-- they weren't like this." Jabbing the picture of Fritzine, you wince. "She wasn't like this Fritzine."
  299.  
  300. "And you said that those animatronics were nothing like any of us."
  301.  
  302. "Absolutely not," you insist. "I've had my disagreements here, but nobody here's tried to kill me. Yet."
  303.  
  304. "Then I don't see why you're worried about what's 'real' and what's 'fake'."
  305.  
  306. Jolting your head up, you frown. "What the hell, Faz? I just had a hell of a bomb dropped on me -- shit, we BOTH did. This is some -- some existential shit I hadn't even considered before today."
  307.  
  308. "Mike, look -- I worked with this thing," he wheezes, pinching the Jeremy's postcard between his thumb and forefinger. "I spent days in a row in the same room with it, hours watching it on my screens at night. I am more familiar with him than you. I've known him for far longer."
  309.  
  310. You flinch as he snaps his fist shut around the postcard in one fluid motion, crushing it into a small, paper ball.
  311.  
  312. "And without a doubt, you are more real than he could ever be," Faz says gently. "You're not a living version of HIM. He's a fake version of YOU."
  313.  
  314. Faz opens his immense fist, staring solemnly at the paper scrap in his scarred, blistered hand.
  315.  
  316. "He's the shadow."
  317.  
  318. "Faz..."
  319.  
  320. "You're right, Mike. Nobody can know about any of this." He exhales heavily, tossing the crumpled-up card onto the coffee table. "I give you my word it stays between us, if you do the same."
  321.  
  322. You nod, standing up from your chair. "No, yeah -- absolutely. I'm not going to inflict this on anyone else." Gathering up the photos and newspaper clippings from the table, you stuff them back into the manila envelope. "You have a paper shredder around here, Faz?"
  323.  
  324. Straining a bit under his own discomfort, he forces himself from his chair and onto his feet. "I actually have an idea -- something better. Don't suppose you've eaten breakfast."
  325.  
  326. "I did, but, uh, it didn't stick," you reply, tossing a sheepish glance to the front door. "I think I've got my appetite back."
  327.  
  328. "There's a courtyard between Building 9 and Building 10," Faz says as he treads toward the kitchen. "I'll meet you out there in a few minutes, I just need to get a few things."
  329.  
  330. "You need any help carrying anything?" you ask.
  331.  
  332. "Oh, I think I can manage a few extra pounds. You're already carrying enough of a burden as it is."
  333.  
  334. Sighing, you look down at the envelope. Somehow, you can't argue with that.
  335.  
  336.  
  337.  
  338. The "courtyard" as Faz refers to it is really closer to a small park; there are a few firepits and barbecue grills set up outside along with some patio furniture. Even a swingset for the kids, though it looks like it's been a while since any of it has seen use judging by the thin layers of rust and dirt.
  339.  
  340. As Faz descends the staircase, he's carrying a grocery bag in one paw and what looks like a small bag of charcoal in the other. It's suddenly obvious what he intends to do with the envelope.
  341.  
  342. "Giving new meaning to the term 'cooking the books'," you reply as he approaches you, having discarded his nightclothes for his usual day attire plus a thick winter coat.
  343.  
  344. "Maybe not that new." Faz motions for you to remove the cover from one of the grills. "Layer some of this charcoal inside."
  345.  
  346. You do as instructed while Faz unscrews a can of lighter fluid. Once you're finished, he douses the coals with the lighter fluid before turning to his grocery bag.
  347.  
  348. "I've been marinating these since last night," he explains, pulling out a package of what appear to be salmon fillets along with some asparagus. "I was going to oven-bake it, but there's nothing like grilled salmon. After you taste some, I'm certain you'll agree."
  349.  
  350. "A December barbecue for breakfast," you reply with a grin and a shake of your head. "I love it."
  351.  
  352. "If you'll do the honors," he says, handing you a packet of matches. "Careful, though. Mind the flare-up."
  353.  
  354. Striking a match, you toss it inside, watching in satisfaction as the coals begin to blaze. As you raise the envelope to throw it onto the fire, Faz places a wary hand on your shoulder.
  355.  
  356. "Mike."
  357.  
  358. Looking up at him, you nod.
  359.  
  360. "Yeah, Faz?"
  361.  
  362. "Point of no return." A foggy mist erupts from his nostrils as he sharply exhales, pondering his words.
  363.  
  364. "What do you mean?"
  365.  
  366. "You're going to be carrying this burden with you from now on. That may very well be your last link to -- whatever, wherever it is you came from. Your past. Throw that envelope in the fire and it's gone forever." Faz thrusts his paws into his pockets as he stands next to you. "You can't tell anyone. In the back of your mind this'll always be there. You'll always know about this other place. It'd be enough to drive someone mad. Those photos are the only proof of it all."
  367.  
  368. You nod quietly. He turns his head, gazing off into the distance. The winter wind ruffles his fur, playing at the flaps of his coat's collar.
  369.  
  370. "Maybe there's still a way. I don't know how you got here, but however you did, maybe you can still go back. Be around your own people. Your family. I know this is probably a bad time to be asking this, Mike, but -- will you miss it?"
  371.  
  372. "Miss what?" you ask bluntly.
  373.  
  374. "Your home?"
  375.  
  376. "Faz, this IS my home," you reply without a moment's hesitation, pointedly tossing the envelope into the fire.
  377.  
  378. Pulling his facial wrappings loose, his tight lips stretch into a smile. "Well, welcome home, then."
  379.  
  380. "Thanks, Faz, it's great to be here. Now let's have us some salmon," you chuckle as you begin layering the food across the grill. "You've been talking it up, so it must be good, right?"
  381.  
  382. "The best."
  383.  
  384. The sound of footsteps crunching along the rock salt on the ground causes you to look up; to your surprise, a tall, familiar hen is jogging toward you with a grin, wrapped up in a track suit and a thick, puffy hooded jacket.
  385.  
  386. "You boys are having a barbecue and you didn't invite me?" Chiclet chides, rubbing her wings together feverishly. "And hey, you were able to get Faz out of hibernation for it? What's the occasion?"
  387.  
  388. The first day of the rest of your life, for one. You exchange a glance with Faz, who extends his paw to hers for a shake.
  389.  
  390. "Very nice to see you, Ms. Chiclet. Common misconception, though -- bears don't truly hibernate," he explains. "But we do love salmon."
  391.  
  392. "Oh, I know you guys don't, it's just a metaphor," Chiclet laughs as she pushes aside his paw and wraps him in a careful hug. Turning to the grill, her eyebrows raise. "Holy shit, that looks good. I want a bite."
  393.  
  394. "There's plenty. By all means," Faz says, giving you a wink. "Wonderful fish -- very healthy and nutritious, too. Did you know all Atlantic salmon sold in the country are farm-raised?"
  395.  
  396. "No kidding," she replies. "I take it you're an enthusiast?"
  397.  
  398. Faz nods authoritatively. "And then some."
  399.  
  400. "Well, thank you for sharing your bounty with us! I'm still pretty hungry -- SOMEONE ate my strawberries this morning. Something about yours not being available, Mike," she laughs. "By the way -- hi. Love the mohawk. Very rebellious."
  401.  
  402. "Thanks," you reply with a smirk. "How're things back home, Chica?"
  403.  
  404. "Pretty good," she grins, running her feathers through your hair with interest. "Oh man, so -- funny story. Let me tell you about what Bonnie did this morning. You're never gonna believe it."
  405.  
  406. "Bonnie -- is that 'Bonnibel'?" Faz inquires. "I don't believe we've met."
  407.  
  408. "Whaaat? You still haven't met Bonnie yet? Oh, that's no good," Chiclet replies, wings on her hips. "You'd love her, Faz. She's cute as a button. How about you come over for breakfast some time this week and I'll introduce you to everyone?"
  409.  
  410. He nods. "I think I'd like that a lot, actually. I've heard Frederick is quite the cook."
  411.  
  412. "Oh, he's amazing," she replies. "So anyway..."
  413.  
  414. You stick your hands in your pockets to keep them warm, basking in the crisp morning sun and the smoky smell of grilling salmon. Faz smiles softly, listening to Chiclet's story unfold. Down the courtyard, in the distance, you catch a glimpse of a window planter box. Even in this winter morning cold, the flowers are in bloom.
  415.  
  416. It's going to be a good day.
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