The taxi driver stared at him when he swung open the door and hoisted the welding machine into the back seat. He stared back. “I said 42 Ansell Drive. Or do I have to fucking spell it for you?”
Silence. The man turned away again and Michael gave the machine an affectionate pat before slamming the door shut. He tried to ignore the little flinch, the way he shrank behind the wheel as he moved to the passenger door. The dart of his gaze when he yanked it open and collapsed into the seat. Red and blue flashed by in a wail of impending law enforcement, carving vampiric shadows into the sockets of Michael’s eyes. He knew the sort of picture he painted, and it was titled ‘slasher on the loose’.
He tossed a hundred into the driver’s lap and leaned back into—sweet Christ, padded seat covers. His back hurt. His legs hurt. His general throat area hurt like a bitch. And, well, what didn’t? If he felt like shit now, he had a date with hell in the morning.
… They still weren’t moving. He cracked open an eye. “Do you want the money or not?”
Did he? The question was clear in the man’s eyes. But greed won in the end—it always did—and he smoothed out the creases in the note, carefully wiped off the soot, the bloody thumbprint stamped into the paper. It occurred to Michael that it was probably the first time in at least a few weeks that he had even seen one. Then he tapped the address into his hands-free and flicked on the indicator to pull out onto the road.
Blood glucose low. Glycogen low. Urgent corrective action recommended.
Fucking—fine, fine. Taxi guy looked put out as he clanked and clattered in his duffel bag and withdrew the last full bottle of Lucozade from between the tools. “You know, it’s company policy not to—” But his words stuttered away at the look slanted in his direction, and he went back to doing what he did best in silence.
It was piss warm. But it was pure sugar in a bottle, the worst possible thing he could put into himself short of a cup of undiluted bleach, and exactly what he needed. His fingers trembled around the bottle—his fourth one today. He ran the numbers, knew he was for all intents and purposes running an extra half a brain from his body’s own energy stores, and brains were hungry organs to feed even without all the running around and the knocks to the head and the choking half to death. He’d pushed himself too hard. Worked without pause, without even stopping to eat and drink, for hours. Because he knew everything had to be ready. Because when the last ray of sunlight faded from the windows…
He almost fucked it all up, right at the very last minute.
That realisation made even sugar water taste bitter. It must have showed, in his eyes, in the lines of his face, because taxi guy opened his mouth to speak. “S—so…” He swallowed. “What’s got you using a taxi on this—uh—tonight?”
“Ran out of gas,” Michael grunted, fully aware that he did in fact smell very strongly of gasoline. The man’s eyes flicked to him in alarm.
Sirens—perfect timing. Another patrol car screamed by. A fire truck too, screaming, screaming, and chasing it into the rolling bank of smoke. He’d lost count by now. Maybe he overdid it. Maybe it was spreading to other buildings. But the fireworks stopped when the fire started, if only because there was no possible way to outdo it so they might as well all go home, and for that he was thankful. He had every cause to celebrate, and yet doing so just felt… wrong.
No one spoke. Now that he had to make peace with driving an arsonist away from the scene of the crime, taxi guy zipped up like a grandma’s purse for the rest of the ride. That was fine. Michael leaned over to prod at the gash on his forehead in the wing mirror, frowning. It was deep; a dried crust of blood ran down into his eyebrow. He couldn’t remember what he hit it on but it probably wasn’t hygienic. His frown only deepened as he pulled the collar of his jacket away from the welts on his neck, red and angry and most definitely finger-shaped. A bruise was already starting to bloom where the thumb dug in. He’d be black and blue all over by morning.
Morning. His lips twisted. The first day of the rest of his life.
He pretended not to notice the way the other man’s eyes lingered on the marks and softened. They came first to Ansell Drive, an old street with old trees and creaky houses huddled in their shadows, then to number 42. Its trees were pruned, the hedgerows trimmed and lawn neat, and a white picket fence separated it from the potholes on the road. It looked freshly painted. He stared out at it for a long time, at its four little windows all curtained and dark, its panelled front door with the stained glass insert, the flowers in their pots by the doorstep.
“Thanks,” he said at last, digging in his pocket for another hundred and flicking it onto the dashboard as he pushed his way out of the door. “Take the rest of the night off, spend some damn time with your family. You never miss it until it’s gone.” He staggered when his feet hit the sidewalk. Grimaced as he limped to the back door and dragged the welder back out onto the street. He was about to slam it shut again when a voice stopped him.
“Hey.” The driver looked back at him strangely. It was… almost a smile, he supposed. Maybe the sort that said that he didn’t know what to think of him, that his perceptions had been challenged on this star-crossed night, and that he had some thinking to do when he got home to whomever was waiting for him.
Or not. He’d never been good with people. “I… you too. Happy new year.”
Michael didn’t smile in return. But he did nod before he shut the door. Shut it, not slammed it. And he stood there as the car rumbled and turned away, duffel bag in one hand and welder in the other, silhouetted against the light as it grew smaller, smaller, and disappeared into the night. And when it was gone, he shouldered his bag and walked to number 52.
The driveway was long and dark, and crunched off-rhythm under his aching feet. Hedges of English yew pressed in around him, wild, untouched by human hands or tools for at least twenty years. The trees here were the oldest of all, and there between them, beneath the boughs of a cherry tree that had stood for longer still, was a villa. It would have been a nice place, once. Now it was just… a place. It didn’t have a neat lawn or a white picket fence, or a little window in the door. Its porch sagged, and the paint peeled in big ugly scabs from its boards. But it was the place he called home.
His boots thudded on the stairs, the porch, then the doorstep. He heard barking inside as the keys jingled in his fingers. Into the lock, click. He breathed in, then let it all out and swung the door open. He set one foot inside. Thump.
This time it was the booming of a doberman or other equally large dog that sounded out from within the house, and much, much closer. “Foxy!” He hissed with a placating gesture into the dark. “It’s me, you idiot!”
“And where have you been?”
Oh. He grimaced. “A hello would’ve been nice.”
“A note would have been nice! You can’t just lock us in the system and disappear without a word, something could have happened, Freddy could have—”
Her voice was velvet, even when she was furious. And shit—was she. She’d slap the nonsense out of him right there and then if she could. He dragged the welder inside while she listed all the many and varied things that might have gone wrong in his absence, and stood it in the corner before shutting the door behind him.
“You’re not even listening to me, are you?”
“I’m afraid not,” he smirked up into the camera mounted down the hallway.
“I didn’t want you to worry.”
“Worry? I was worried sick! I’m accustomed to you coming and going at whatever odd hour you please, but you have always given at least some warning—” Ballora hesitated. The red light on the camera blinked at him in surprise as it tracked him down the corridor to the bathroom. “Michael, what happened? You’re…”
“I set everything up to unlock automatically,” he said, distracted, as he dropped the bag to the floor with a clank. The jacket went next, into an unceremonious pile. He wasn’t sure if the stains were dirt from that raging dumpster fire Mac called an ‘attraction’, or if they were blood—or whose, for that matter. Scraped and blackened fingers hunted for the light switch in the bathroom and he blinked owlishly when it clicked on. Uuuuuuuugh. “If I didn’t come back in three days—”
“I—IT’S THE B—BIRTHDAY BOY! HELLOOO MIKEY, Y—YOU’RE LATE FOR YOUR OWN PARTY!”
“Inside voice, Freddy—uh, in three days you would’ve been let out of the system, given free access to everything.” He twisted the hot tap onto full blast and left it running as he went hunting for antiseptic under the vanity. Drawers clattered and banged. He was sure he had some in here somewhere… and where the hell did he put the roll of gauze? Oh, there. “And I left a video for you, just in case—Jesus!” He yanked his hand back from the sink and sucked on now scalded fingers until he remembered that they were still covered in blood. “Fucking—uh, just in case I never came back, it would’ve explained everything.”
“Michael…” Ballora’s voice was softer now, concerned. A verbal hand on his shoulder, to take the place of the physical one she couldn’t yet give him.
“And all the blueprints for your new frames, so you could maybe finish them yourselves—”
“You… did it, didn’t you?” Just five little words. Yet they hung over him like a judge’s gavel, and the room, the world, held its breath. Watching, waiting for the answer to a thirty year old question.
The bottle of antiseptic shook in Michael’s hands, the little measuring spoon… he gave up and tipped what looked vaguely like the right amount into the sink. No amount of scrubbing would cleanse the blood from the callouses, the cracked skin, from under his nails. Hands stained red, just like his father. But at least this blood was his own. He glanced up, up into the mirror. Into the pale eyes staring back at him, wild, savage, and the same blue as his. The same face, the same red hair. It was the lines carved into him by years and bitterness, the dark circles under his eyes, that made him Michael. And as the the mirror steamed over, those lines and shadows faded away until it was him looking back. Laughing. Mocking him. His lips twisted. “He’s gone. For good, this time.”
But his legacy remained. His weapon.
He wrung out the cloth and washed the blood from his face, his wounds. Chemical burning stripped him to the core. Pain was good, it reminded him that he was alive. And it was cathartic. A cleansing of all that remained of the man who made him. But he couldn’t keep his face from twisting into a grimace, the hiss that escaped between his teeth.
“Can… you l—let us out n—now?”
Freddy sounded different when he was quiet. “Ah, yeah. Give me a second.” A gauze on the worst injuries, and he was done. He didn’t know why he stayed to watch all the crimson drain away. But when it was gone, all of it, he stumped away into the main room.
He hesitated to call it the living room, though that was its intended and original purpose, because at this point most of it was taken over by a sprawling mass of computers and monitors linked together and there was nowhere really to do any living. Not outside of the system, at least. Inside, it was the only life the animatronics had.
One node was active. He went to the keyboard balanced haphazardly on top of its tower, because the desk was swallowed into the rest of the organism a long time ago, and tapped out a command into the dialogue box he left open. The bathroom light flickered—he really needed to look into that wiring—and the rest hummed to life. “There,” he said, stepping back. “You’re good to go.”
“YAAAY! I c—call dibs!”
The little rover parked between the towers whirred into action and zoomed away, barking.
“N—no! You can’t do that F—Foxy, I called d—dibs! I wanna drive!”
“Play nice, children,” said Michael, stepping over the rover as it did wheelies in the middle of the floor to the trumpeting of defiant elephants, and drifted into the kitchen. He found a half-eaten can of tuna when he opened the fridge, and it passed the sniff test as far as he could tell. And there was a jar of cheese spread.
“Are you all right?”
He’d… planned to sit down and talk with all three of them, together. Tonight. Discuss what would happen next, make plans. But Ballora knew him too well by now. “As good as I’ll ever be, I suppose.” He upended the tuna into a bowl and added some cheese. After a moment’s pause, he scooped out the rest and tossed the empty jar into the sink with a well-practised underhand.
“You don’t seem… happy.”
Well, he wasn’t. He wasn’t sure how he felt. He’d choreographed this moment very carefully in his head in the days leading up to the arson, and he’d pictured a sort of grand elation, a symbolic breaking of the chains he’d dragged around almost since birth. He thought he would be happy. Instead, he just felt… numb, like he’d wake up tomorrow and go to work, and the whole thing was a dream.
“I… guess this isn’t how I pictured it ending,” he admitted as he scrabbled round in the pantry for something to complete his weird fish… work in progress. It was empty save for some cobwebs, but he did find a bottle of hot sauce. Weird fish salsa, then. “Shit, when I burned it all down, I thought maybe… I’d see them.”
She said nothing, but she knew precisely who he was talking about. She only watched as he upended what was left of the sauce into the bowl, too. “Ascending to the heavens,” he continued, and took a mouthful. His nose crinkled reflexively. Edible. That’s all that really mattered right now. “Or walking into the white light. I don’t know, something?”
“And what did happen?”
He threw up his hands at the camera in defeat. “I don’t know! Nothing?”
And that’s what really got to him. The uncertainty. He was a problem solver, an engineer. He liked having all the variables, all the pieces to the puzzle. This… it was like trying to finish a thousand piece jigsaw, but every single one was blank. He could put them together but he would never know if they were the right ones in the right places until it was too late.
Too late for what? He didn’t know that, either.
“What are you going to do now?”
Michael wolfed down what was left of the fish salsa, made a face, and set the bowl aside. “I could do this place up. Make it look like a house instead of a hovel,” he offered, staring up at a patch on the ceiling left by a leak at some point in the past, “and I have all the time in the world to work on your platforms.”
“I would like that.” He could hear the smile in her voice. And then it was gone. “Michael, your phone is ringing.”
It took him several minutes of turning the kitchen upside down to remember that he left his phone in the duffel bag. By the time he upended the whole damn thing on the floor and sorted through the hammers and screwdrivers and empty bottles of Lucozade, his good mood was soured. Even more so when he saw the name on the missed call alert.
“Oh, fuck off!” He threw the phone onto the side table and stormed off, crashed down onto the couch. It groaned beneath him and popped a few springs. Whatever—the last thing he wanted to deal with right now was Mac and his whining and his stupid Cool Dude™ schtick. And probably legal action. He did kind of burn his debut enterprise down. It was something he could easily settle out of court, but he had a headache and could something go the way he planned for just one day? His eyes closed. Please.
“I’m fine, Freddy,” he muttered, fumbling in his jacket for a cigarette. Except he wasn’t wearing it. It was still on the floor in the hallway, and of course his smokes were in the pocket. Fuck it. He wasn’t getting up now. “Just… it’s been a long day.”
“Foxy w—won’t share the car, can I play on y—your computer?”
“You can do whatever you like as long as I can’t hear you.”
He felt the monitor flick on in his bedroom more than he saw it, as his eyes remained obstinately screwed shut. Talking could wait until tomorrow. He felt blindly for the coffee table, until his hand closed around the squared-off shape of a familiar bottle.
“I need this,” he snapped at the dark.
“You need rest, and a proper meal. If you keep going like this—”
He opened his eyes, scowled at the ceiling. At the stains of cigarette smoke and despair, the cobwebs, the bulb hanging bare on its frayed cord. And the camera watching him. “Valkyrie, status readout.”
Blood glucose stabilising. Glycogen low.
Blood oxygen at eighty percent.
Damage detected in left kidney. Damage detected in right kidney. Damage detected in liver, cirrhosis possible. Analysing.
Cirrhosis detected in liver.
“Okay okay, that’s enough. I can take a hint.” He ran a trembling hand over his face. God, he was tired. And not the sort of tired that sleep alone could fix. It was in his bones, his soul. He’d been fighting for so long that he didn’t know how to stop any more. But he was made that way, wasn’t he?
Ballora couldn’t hear the diagnosis, but she guessed from the look on his face that it was grim. “It’s not too late,” she murmured, “you can still stop this.”
“Yeah, well, I did what I set out to do, so maybe I don’t care if I drink myself into an early grave.”
“You might not care… but… other people do.”
She did. She meant that she cared. And Freddy, and Foxy. He knew all too well that they wouldn’t be able to get by without him, not yet. That was a slim hope, a branch thrown to a drowning man, just enough to get him to Fazbear’s Fright that one last time and do what he had to. His mouth turned down at the corners, and he pushed the Jack Daniels away.
“I’m calling it a night,” he announced, fumbling for the loose charging cable he always left by the couch—because he ended up crashing on it more often than the bed—and felt over the implant at the base of his skull until he found the port. He needed Valkyrie to patch him up as much as possible overnight, and even with food in his belly the risk of running out of energy reserves was too high for his liking. “Valkyrie, put yourself into recovery mode—and don’t even think about waking me up unless it’s for a good fucking reason. That goes for you lot, too.”
“Night night, Mikey!”
He rolled over on the cushions until he came face to face with the photo on the coffee table. The frame was silver, thick with patina in all the whorls and grooves of its design. An ugly, old-fashioned thing, just the way father liked it. The faces that smiled out at him were long gone, now: a kind-eyed woman he barely resembled, a smattering of young children who all had red hair. Right in the middle, an eleven year old Michael with his arms around everyone. His eyes were still wild, even then, but they crinkled in a smile. And at his side…
His face twisted, and he turned the photo down on the table so he didn’t have to look at it any more. “Goodnight.”