Mable: This is a continuation of the ARI Nightmares series and takes place after Skin Deep, Running on Empty, and Lonely At The Bottom. Which, speaking of Lonely At The Bottom, the second half of that story isn't finished quite yet. It's a bit of a long one and inspiration struck for this one, but that's still coming, no worries. Enjoy!

ARI Nightmares #4:

Takes My Breath Away

He felt like he was going to be sick. At this point he wasn't even sure if he could with the swollen lump painfully stretching his skin. Every time he shifted, he could feel it sliding and shifting, pulling flesh that wasn't supposed to by manipulated like this. Stuck and unwilling or unable to move, and unfortunately there wasn't anything he could do about it.

He had been sitting in the parking lot for about ten minutes now trying to rationalize a way to fix this. He considered the hospital, but this situation was delicate. If they didn't believe him, if they took his history into consideration, he could very well get himself locked up. Sitting in a hospital ward while this festered inside of him, starving and or suffocating, feeling that painful stretch endlessly.

No, he had to do something. Frantically he reached into his glove compartment and shuffled through until he found a stack of business cards he had collected from various jobs. He clumsily shifted through them before landing on one in particular, Afton Robotics. People who fixed animatronics and problems associated with them; this was his one shot.

He ignored the phone number and went straight to the address.

Most of the work Afton Robotics got was through phone calls. Even the emergencies reached out through a call, though typically came later in the day compared to the standard work orders. It was seldom that someone just walked in with a problem and asked for help with how delicate these issues were. This was part of the reason that Lizzie was so willing to manage the front desk as it was basically free time.

Or it was until he staggered through the door. One look at him and Lizzie knew it wasn't a social call. It was going to be one of those cases.

The man was in a bad state. He was wheezing with each breath, cheeks flushed, and face and blond hair drenched in sweat. He seemed to hunch over as he walked to the front desk. Definitely in pain, but not visibly bleeding which Lizzie took as a good sign. At least he didn't look like he was going to die at the desk.

"I- Uh- Ahem." The man struggled to clear his throat. His voice was hoarse and raspy, and he struggled to get the words out. "I-I need help."

"Do you need me to call an ambulance?" Lizzie offered. She reached for the phone just in case; maybe this really wasn't a work call but an emergency that just walked into the closest business.

"No!" the man exclaimed. She was surprised by his cry and paused her hand in the air. He nervously licked his lips as he leaned forward against the desk, struggling to stand up. "No, I… I need help… It's- It's not something a hospital can help with. It's… Work related… Animatronic work related."

"Were you injured by an animatronic?" Lizzie asked. He looked reluctant to answer, awkwardly looking down towards the desk and coughing deeply. She sympathized; from his uniform, which she only now really looked at, he almost looked like a night guard from some robotics-based facility. The poor man was probably coerced to sign so many non-disclosure agreements that he was afraid to come out with it. "It's alright. We take care of situations like this all the time, whatever it is. Give me a second."

The woman pressed the call button for the back rooms under a perfectly manicured fingernail. "Michael, can you come up here for a minute?" Lizzie released the button and turned back to the strange man. "He'll be here in a minute. He should be able to help you, Mister…?"

The man coughed. "St-Stanley," he shakily answered.

"Stanley, right." She didn't mean to sound patronizing, but there was something unconvincing in the way he said that. "Can you at least tell me what happened?"

"I-I really just… It's kind of personal- not that I don't trust you, or that you're not helping me, but I just-." He broke into another fit of coughing and wheezed, struggling to breathe as he leaned over the desk. He coughed into his hand and drew it back to reveal spots of blood. Her green eyes widened, and he quickly wiped it off on the side of his shirt. "It's- It's nothing! Just a sore throat, sorry, I'm not sick."

"Right…" Lizzie would've tried to coax more out of him but just then Michael came in from the back. He took one look at the shorter blond and stopped in his tracks. Then, slowly, a befuddled look passed his face. It would've been amusing if the situation wasn't setting off so many alarms. "Michael, this is Stanley. He needs help with a work-related, animatronic non-injury," Lizzie recited. She made her doubt very known and swore that she could see Stanley's red cheeks turn darker.

"…And he's sure he wouldn't prefer to go to a hospital?" Michael bluntly asked. Stanley shook his head stiffly and the technician sighed. "Alright. Come on back." He propped open the door and watched the shorter man shuffle over and limp through. He kept his typical icy silence and apathetic look as he led the man into the room where he and Eggs had been working.

He came in to find Eggs leaning on the workbench, spinning a screwdriver with a bored look, having already finished up what he needed to do. He looked back in time to see Stanley coming in and his eyes widened.

"What happened to you?" he bluntly asked. Stanley, put on the spot, sputtered and wheezed.

"Nothing," Michael interrupted sardonically. "Which is why he's here and not, I don't know, driving to a walk-in clinic." He shut the doors behind him as he gave Stanley a quick, "Sit down and we'll get started."

Stanley looked around for a chair, but Eggs quickly sprang up from his own and wheeled it to him. "Here you go, Buddy. Just take it easy," he said kindly. Stanley smiled a little and sat down. The technician noticed how uncomfortably he looked as he did so. "You know, I've seen a uniform just like that before…" He snapped his fingers, "Circus Baby's Entertainment and Rental! I worked at one of those two way back when."

At the namedrop, Michael suddenly became a lot more curious. He wheeled over his own chair when Eggs' had been and sat down to listen in.

"Uh, actually-… Well, yeah. I think they were Circus Baby's once. Th-They go by Party Pantry Animatronic Rental now… Or they did, they just shut down. I was working as the nightguard at their warehouse and… Yeah…" Stanley noticed Michael watching him like a hawk and glanced over before dropping his eyes quickly, face even redder. Michael got a quick tinge of a smile.

"Just started closing, you look rough, connected?" Eggs coaxed. "Maybe an incident on the job?" Stanley seemed reluctant to speak. "You've got to work with me here."

"We can tell you're in pain, and you wouldn't have come here if it wasn't related to animatronics in some capacity," Michael added in. "Whatever they told you there, your life is more important than their threat of blackballing you. Especially since couldn't blackball you even if they tried. Circus Baby's reputation isn't good enough to do that."

Stanley nodded stiffly and took a wheezy breath, then choked, and then bowed slightly and coughed. Eggs gave him a firm pat on the back before noticing a speck of red on the tiling underneath him. His brows shot up and he looked to Michael, who had noticed it too, staring blankly at it. That was it, Michael was ready to call him out, and he leaned forward to do so.

But then Stanley beat him to it.

"I don't know where else to go… This- This is so screwed up. I don't know what I'm going to do," Stanley vented as he became more choked up. "I can't go to the hospital like this. They won't believe me; they can't treat me. I- Please. Please, you have to help me," he begged. He looked Michael in the eyes again and the technician exhaled slowly through his nose, then pushed his chair closer.

"Look, whatever it is, we will help you as best as we can," Michael assured him. Stanley looked away momentarily but regained eye contact when Michael continued. "But you will have to be honest with us. We can't help us if you won't even tell us what's going on," he pried. The other nodded stiffly and took a labored breath. "Trouble breathing, coughing up blood; could be broken ribs. Battered by an animatronic maybe?"

"O-Okay, I'll tell you what happened…" Stanley agreed. His hands tightened on his knees as Eggs leaned on the workbench and Michael back in his chair. "There were these… Dolls that they had. They were little ballerina dolls. About this tall." He showed with his hands. "They used to have a ballerina animatronic and the dolls, they went to it. It led them… And with it gone, they'd wander at night."

"Did they have white heads and tan bodies?" Michael asked. Stanley nodded. "Minireenas then. Continue."

"But there was one tiny one, she- it was a lot smaller…" He showed again, this time half the Minireenas' size. Only about the size of a fashion doll. "About this big?"

"A mini Minireena. Well, you see something new every day," Eggs chimed in. Michael gave him a look and Eggs waved it odd. "Sorry, keep going."

Before he could, Stanley wheezed and coughed, then gagged for a second. Both technicians recoiled back, but the blond recovered and straightened, wiping spittle off his chin.

"Ugh, sorry… These dolls used to move around at night and the little one used to climb up on my desk and watch me. It wasn't that bad, they're kind of cute. Or the little one was. During the day they'd hide in this old suit in the back that looked like a dinosaur. They'd climb in through… Uh… So, the guy who hired me told me-." Another fit of coughing and an uncomfortable swallow. "That they were closing and that it was going to be my last night. They cleaned out a lot before I got there… That old suit too. They got rid of it and the dolls… Except for one."

"The small one?" Eggs guessed. Stanley nodded.

"…I had a long day and I didn't sleep well, and I just… Uh…" Stanley was beginning to sweat more. His leg was bouncing, and he became more anxious. He kept catching on his words and fumbling.

"Take it easy," Michael encouraged. He reached out and laid his hand on Stanley's closer one, still clutching his knee. "Try to take a breath and keep going." The blond nodded slowly and tried to pull together.

Eggs, meanwhile, noticed the motion and stared at his hand in disbelief. "What in the…?" He couldn't remember ever seeing the technician acting so friendly to a stranger. "That's weird…"

"I fell asleep… And when I woke up, the doll was… Was, uh…" Stanley tried to swallow as he nervously rushed out. "Halfway in my mouth. A-And it went down my throat and I can't get it out."

A long silence followed.

"…What?" Eggs asked.

Michael looked a little disbelieving too, straightening up and looking at the blond in confusion. For a second, he thought he had been tricked and that this was an elongated prank- which if it had been, he would've been fuming. Except that Stanley's face showed that he was dead serious. He shakenly continued.

"I think… I think it got confused. I think she thinks I'm just that suit she used to hide in and…" With a shaky breath that sounded suspiciously like he was about to start crying, he dropped his head into his free hand. He just looked so frustrated and overwhelmed. "That's- That's why I couldn't go to the hospital. They'd never believe me. Even if they did, they'd… I don't want to get cut open."

"This is just a late April Fool's joke, right?" Eggs bluntly asked. Stanley shook his head and Michael was still silently reeling in disbelief, trying to fathom how an animatronic of any size got lodged inside of a human being. "How are you even breathing at all? You didn't choke on it or anything?!" Eggs sputtered out.

"It's lower. Here," Stanley said, pointing to his chest. "B-Below my windpipe… It's kind of… Stuck there."

There was a long pause as the two just continued to stare at him. He looked back to Eggs desperately. "I know it's crazy, but you've got to believe me, and you've got to help me. If it gets into my stomach. Or, oh God, if it tried to stretch out a-and broke through my throat…" He was starting to shake in growing dread, beginning to edge towards and anxiety attack. "I'm so stupid. I made a stupid mistake and now I'm going to die."

Michael snapped to attention and reached out to grab his shoulder. "Stop," he said firmly. The command was so abrupt that it almost did snap him out of his spiral, if only for a second. "That will not happen as long as you stay calm. If you panic and start tightening around it, it might start to fight. We don't want that," he slowly talked him through it. Stanley looked towards him and Michael's features softened at his fear. "You can still breathe which means we have time to figure this out."

Stanley nodded shakily and Michael stood and went to retrieve the flashlight. He then returned, standing over the man, and gestured for him to raise his head. "Let me take a look," he said.

"I don't think you're going to be able to see that far down," Eggs reminded as Stanley obediently, cautiously, opened his mouth and let Michael look inside.

"That's not what I'm looking for." Specifically, he was looking for evidence that it happened and to see what he had to work with. From the sore, reddened look on the back of his throat it was obvious there had been trauma, looking irritated and swollen. "No tonsils," Michael muttered.

"Is- Is that a bad thing?" Stanley asked. "Or… You think that's how she, uh… Got stuck?"

"No, just a mental note," Michael remarked as he clicked the flashlight off and held it back to Eggs. "Tell you what, we're going to play doctor. You are going to climb up on the workbench, lay on your back, and let me feel it for myself. It's not going to set it off, Minireenas are rather docile."

"Yeah, when they're not tampering with wiring or crowding up air ducts," Eggs remarked. Michael sent him an unenthused and scolding look, to which the technician shrugged. "Unless he's carrying around a fuse box in there, yeah, it should stay docile."

Michael rolled his eyes visibly as Stanley tried to climb onto the only uncovered worktable. He was clearly uncomfortable as he laid down, cringing as something moved inside him. It wasn't until Stanley laid flat on his back that he looked truly uncomfortable. His face tightened as he anxiously tapped his fingers on the workbench beneath him. Feeling the weight in his chest as his esophagus stretched painfully under his ribs.

He jumped when Michael first touched his neck. He slowly followed down his chest and tried to detect this so-called doll, and now he could tell something was off. He couldn't find it exactly, but there was something warped on the inside. He exhaled slowly through his nose and Stanley's heartbeat quickened nervously.

"Here is what we're going to do…" Michael said slowly, as though he was coming up with it on the spot. "…Eggs, find the audio lure. That one we used to put out in the alley. I need to run to the store and get some things. You," he laid his hand on Stanley's shoulder, "need to just stay calm until I get back. Keep breathing and stay on your back so it doesn't slip down any further."

"You don't think it will fall into my stomach, do you?" the man asked with creeping panic.

"No, but it's not the end of the world if it does. It looks like you could use a good meal," Michael remarked. Stanley was so wired that it took him until he saw the small smirk to realize he was joking. He managed to get a strained smile of his own.

"Heh, yeah. Y-You got me. I forgot my lunch and the doll didn't go down right," he lightly joked. He shuffled uncomfortably, resting a hand over the pained spot in his chest. "Can't really get a full meal with my pay."

"I'll tell you what, you promise to never sleep on the job again and I'll buy you dinner when this is all over," Michael offered. Eggs was utterly floored. He slowly looked towards the brunette as he headed to the door and watched as he walked out like it was nothing at all. "I'll be back shortly."

As soon as he was sure Michael was gone, and was done just staring at the door, Eggs realized he needed a second opinion. "I'm going to go check the other room. You stay put, Bud. I'm not going far," he assured as he followed out the door. Stanley agreed and then rolled on his side to cough violently. Normally the technician wouldn't have left him, but he had something important to do.

…If swinging by the front desk and getting intel from Lizzie was vitally important, which it wasn't. He leaned in close over her shoulder, nearly whispering into her ear. She didn't even flinch, used to his antics, instead eyes glazing over a novel in her lap and trying to pretend like she hadn't been listening in to what was going on in the other room.

"You are not going to believe what just happened…" Eggs lowly muttered to her.

"I don't know why you're surprised. There's plenty of animatronics who've tried to get inside of humans. They're just not usually this suicidal about it," Lizzie off-handedly remarked.

"Not that," the technician clarified. "I just saw Michael flirting."

"…With a guy?" she asked in disbelief and looked back from her book.

"With that guy," he said. She pursed her lips thoughtfully but didn't seem entirely convinced, so he upped the ante. "He offered to buy him dinner right in front of me, and he had his hands all over him."

Lizzie quirked a brow. "Are you jealous?" she asked. Not in a mocking tone either, she asked genuinely. Eggs made a scoffing noise.

"Are you kidding? I don't know where his mouth's been." He paused a moment before getting a playful smirk. "And the other one's eating toys, so I'm not too sure about him either."

Lizzie wasn't entirely sure what she thought. Maybe a little peeved that she had ben left out of the loop. "Well, he looked normal enough. He gets a pass from me," she decided as her eyes returned to her book. "Shouldn't you still be with him? Or doing something?"

"Right, audio lure." Eggs sat upright and grew serious enough. "All jokes aside, I think I know what Michael wants us to do and I don't see it going well. Keep an ear out and call 911 if it sounds like we're losing him."

"I will. Just try to be careful with him. He looks… Fragile," Lizzie said. She covered her concern well as Eggs tiredly stepped back into the hallway and went to find the audio lure.

Michael returned a little over fifteen minutes later with a plastic bag of goods. He sent Lizzie a brief nod of acknowledgement, noticing that she was studying him a little closely as he passed by but ignored it as he entered the workroom again. There he found Stanley still laying on the workbench, half twisted in an uncomfortable pose. Eggs was already sitting in the office chair again and held up the audio lure to show him.

"Good. Then we can begin," Michael said as he approached a table just past Stanley's head. He opened the bag and got out a box of surgical gloves, a bottle of antiseptic, a bottle of some sort of spray medicine, and an unmarked brown bottle that had a layer of dust settled on it. He lifted the spray bottle and came back to the workbench. "I'm going to spray this into the back of your throat."

"Is it, like, numbing spray or something?" Stanley guessed nervously. He was almost shivering.

"Exactly. Strong grade, so you might have a little trouble swallowing even once the doll is out. Just don't try drinking anything until you get some feeling back," Michael instructed. His fingers brushed his jawline and coaxed him to open. The blond obeyed and allowed him to spray the cool fluid generously into the back of his throat. "Ben, if you could do me another small favor and find those… What are they- the tongs that we used to use to remove lost items?"

Stanley's mouth snapped closed at the comment. His face began to burn in anxiousness at the words and he sputtered, "You're not going to-?!"

He gasped for breath suddenly and grabbed at his chest. Michael waited tensely and Eggs watched with bated breath, both prepared to help if this suddenly went very badly. Thankfully, Stanley caught his breath and coughed a little, trying to swallow around the literal lump in his throat. "Not going to put it down my throat, right?"

"Relax, we're not getting that invasive," Michael assured. He set the spray aside and grabbed the dusty bottle.

"Then why do you have gloves?"

"Sterilization precautions… As sterile as we can be with wherever this Minireena has been." That did not comfort Stanley in the slightest. "The plan is this: the audio lure Ben brought in runs a frequency that tends to attract most animatronics. If we turn it on, it should inspire the doll to climb back out on its own, and then we can grab its legs so it can't go try to get back in." Michael looked up from the bottle and back to Stanley, his face dead serious. "I'm not going to mince words; this is going to be very unpleasant."

Stanley felt a chill down his spine and tried not to mentally imagine the feel of the doll creeping up his throat again. Let alone the suffocation that would come when it passed his windpipe.

"Which is why there is another option." Michael raised and lightly shook the bottle. "This is chloroform. Enough of this will put you out, but it comes with its own risks."

"Where did you get that?" Eggs asked. Michael glanced out of the corner of his eye.

"…The house," he briefly answered. Specifically, his father's house, but the other technician understood that and thus didn't need anymore clarification. He just got a disturbed look and let his co-worker continue. "Again, has its own risks. It doesn't work like it does on television and chances are you are going to have side effects. A pounding headache for one, but what I am more concerned about is that your breathing will become shallow, more than it already is, and that your body will become too relaxed to assist if we need it."

Stanley wasn't liking the sound of those options either. He was already feeling the panic returned, disappointed that his small window of an out was already being closed again. He was brought back by Michael's hand on his shoulder. "But having you panic through this can be just as dangerous, so I'm leaving the option up to you," the technician offered.

"…I… I think I should stay awake," Stanley reluctantly decided. He tried to swallow and couldn't. "You don't think it's going to hurt…?"

"Not tremendously, no. Not with numbing. Not as long as you try to relax your muscles and work with us."

"Okay," he agreed with a labored breath. "Then let's do it… Should I move?"

"No. Just sit tight, lean your head back a bit, and try to stay calm," Michael finished. He tossed the box of gloves to Eggs to put a pair on and then turned on the bright light above the workbench. Normally fit for repairs on animatronics, it would do well enough in their makeshift surgery room.

The audio lure was set on the table above Stanley's head and he was guided to lean his head back further. Unfortunately, there could be no cushioning under his head as to keep the throat as straight as possible. He didn't complain, but it was clear that it was another discomfort. He was also beginning to breathe more unsteadily, possibly from nervousness. Michael continuously checked his pulse, noticing it was consistently high but marginally healthy sounding. A healthy heartbeat was a good sign.

Apparently, Michael didn't notice how much he was fussing on their patient. Eggs noticed it though and tried to keep the urge to smirk under wraps. It was less difficult once they started the task at hand.

The audio lure let out a high frequency that would coax animatronics to approach, but it did so by making its own obnoxious slurry of garbled sounds. It was like if circus music, humming, warbling chatters, and white noise was tossed into a blender- and included the blender noise as well. The moment it turned on Stanley felt a squirming in his chest. It was a disgusting feeling rolling inside.

"I think-." Stanley couldn't continue. He cut off when he felt the sensation of something large and firm starting to rise in his throat. There was slight pain as sharper points pressed against his flesh and he realized it was its hands and feet helping it climb. He could feel the vibrations as it climbed through him, and the ache as it forced past tight muscles. "I can't," he choked like he was begging.

"Easy. No talking, deep breaths," Michael affirmed as he checked into his throat. "Keep your mouth open and breathe and try not to swallow."

"How about giving him even more directions?" Eggs chimed in. Michael sent him an icy glare, but he continued trying to lighten the mood. "Just relax. Just think about how much better it's going to be in about five minutes where this thing's out of you. Then you can fill that empty void with a couple pounds of greasy comfort food… Mike's treat, of course." That disapproving glare returned but stayed only briefly.

Stanley wasn't paying attention any longer as the mass moved upwards and suddenly, he couldn't breathe again. He tried to stay calm, holding his breath as it continued towards his mouth, but his gag reflex suddenly kicked back in. He heaved and retched, body trying to force the foreign object out and failing. He grabbed the edges of the workbench as he continued to shudder and broke into panic. He was now outright choking.

As he started trying to sit up, Michael quickly shoved him back down, not wanting to risk the Minireena sliding back down deeper. Stanley's throat was swollen, and his eyes were wide as he began to suffocate. He grabbed at Michael's wrists and clawed at them as he wheezed.

"This isn't working. We need to turn the lure off, get him breathing, and get him to a hospital," Eggs said. He had completely sobered up in a matter of seconds, now seeing the danger in the situation. Michael didn't respond at first, so he started to reach over. "I'm turning it off."

"Don't touch anything," Michael said firmly. He reached up and forced Stanley's mouth full open to see inside. Right before his eyes something white began to slowly slide up through the top of his esophagus. Much to his horror it was the Minireena's head staring out. It was smaller than average and smeared with a tinge of blood. Stanley's story had been completely true.

One glance from Eggs and he was forced to turn away in disgust and began to hack violently. Michael grew two shades paler but didn't have the luxury of looking away. With another gag and heave from the man on the table, the doll was forced out until her head hit the roof of his mouth. Michael realized that this was the closest thing he had to an opening.

"Ben, get me the tongs," Michael called. He was answered by Eggs' own retching as he tried to hold himself together on the other side of the room. "For heaven's sake, Ben! Pull yourself together!"

The Minireena started trying to climb back in and while Stanley's body was trying to expel it, it could not. His eyes were starting to become glazed as well and Michael knew he couldn't risk it getting back inside, tongs or not. He held Stanley's head back and reached his fingers in as far as he could. He just barely caught the Minireena by the neck between two fingers. It had been silent up until then but let out a cry as he grabbed it.

"Uh!" Little noises that sounded almost like a child to the unknown ear. "Uh!" He tightened his hold and began to guide it forward. Another choke from Stanley expelled it further and Michael capitalized by pulling it further. "Uh!" Once its head was out, Michael gave a firm tug and the Minireena slid out in one motion. Stanley gasped in gulps of air, finally able to breathe.

Michael's gloved hand tightened around the doll to keep it from sliding out of his grasp. Its body slicked by saliva and throat spray and it tried to wriggle and squirm its way out. He turned back to look towards Eggs who was hunched over near the door trying to catch his breath.

"Thanks for the help. I knew I could count on you," Michael said sardonically. He then looked around the room. "Where's did we put the taser? I need to get this under control."

Stanley had been laying on the table gulping in air and grabbing at his throat when he heard the comment. He looked towards the technician wide-eyed while Eggs pointed off towards one of the nearby shelves. The taser sat in plain sight and Michael reached to grab for it. As though waiting for the moment he'd have his guard down, the Minireena twisted itself and suddenly slipped right out of his hand and dropped to the floor.

The small doll was impossibly fast and in seconds it pattered across the floor and squeezed behind a heavy tool cart. Michael swore under his breath and took after it, momentarily trying to reach behind before pulling the cart out. The Minireena climbed up the back atop the cart and leapt from the cart onto the nearby table, the one beside the workbench that Stanley was still on.

Eggs had recovered enough to sprint over and tried to block the doll's way with his arm long enough for Michael to catch up. The Minireena froze momentarily before running in a circle, darting towards him, and then jumping for a turned off desk lamp and swinging off it to throw itself over his arm. The lamp fell off the table with a crash and she landed on the workbench.

Stanley was upright and watching with shock as the Minireena landed beside him. It turned towards him with her pale face and empty eyes and in its look alone it was clear nothing would stop it.

It dove right at Stanley before it could be stopped.

And buried itself against his chest. Its frantic crying returned as it pressed into him and pawed at its shirt desperately. Almost reflexively, Stanley clasped a hand over its back, but he made no attempt to pull it away.

Eggs noticed all of that and stared wide eyed at the scene as it suddenly clicked. He looked at the Minireena's posture, Stanley's reflexive and comforting hold, and then the look on the man's face. It was anxiousness again, but this time it was an entirely new kind of anxiety. Not aimed at the doll but toward the two technicians in the room. Afraid that they would notice something, something that Eggs figured out before Michael.

"It climbed down his throat feet first?" Eggs asked. He smacked Michael's arm with the back of his hand to catch his full attention before announcing, "He swallowed it on purpose."

"What?" Michael looked to him in disbelief. The technician nodded and his co-worker looked back at the blond again, ready to disprove the baseless accusation. Except that his eyes met Stanley's wide ones- filled with dread while he coddled the doll to his chest- and he realized the truth. "I'll be damned… He's right, isn't he?"

Stanley looked between the two with a look of guilt and shame before croaking out, "I-It's not what you think."

His voice was quiet and terribly hoarse after the strain he went through. They could hear the pain with every word, but he would survive talking.

"Oh? Enlighten us," Michael said. His voice was a touch colder. "Maybe with the truth this time."

Stanley winced at the comment and took a shaky breath. He owed them that much considering that they saved his life- both of their lives really. He looked down at the tiny animatronic guiltily before explaining.

"You're right… The truth is, I-I was trying to smuggle her out," Stanley admitted to them. He lowered his hand so they could see the Minireena better. "This is Lolly… And she's not like other Minireenas, and not just because she's so small. Even since I started working at the rental she would climb up on my desk and visit me until we sort of became friends…" She slid down further behind his hand and he covered her to keep her comfortable.

"Truth is, I don't really have any friends. I've got to work double shifts just to scrape by and my family only calls when they need something… I don't have anyone to go home to and nothing to look forward too. I can't even get a better job because I was already blackballed… So, when I met Lolly it was a breath of fresh air. She would wait for me in the office and spend my whole shift on my desk. She kept the other Minireenas away, she woke me up if I fell asleep, and it was just… So nice to have someone care about me."

"I hear ya," Eggs agreed quietly. Michael just listened silently.

"…And then they called me into my shift early and told me that they were closing down. That they needed to get rid of everything. By time I got there they had already burned the suit… And whatever was inside." Stanley held the Minireena a little more protectively. "They were melting down everything. Getting rid of all evidence… But not her. She snuck under the radar, but I had to get her out of there, and they would've never let me walk out with her. They were patting down employees… And then I remembered they would climb into the suit-."

"So, you just assumed if it climbed into an empty suit and got out fine that it would be able to do the same to a human body?" Michael asked firmly. Stanley stuttered a little and the technician strode closer, folding his arms across his chest. "You do realize that you could have killed yourself, don't you? And I don't mean just now. She could've torn you open from the inside the moment you swallowed her."

The Minireena hissed at his raised voice and Stanley tried to shush her by cupping his hand around the back of her head and tucking her against his shirt.

Michael briefly acknowledge her with a wary glance. "As utterly pleasant as she is, you put your own life on the line. You couldn't have thought that was a good idea."

"…Honestly, I didn't. I was just so desperate that I would've done anything…" Stanley admitted. His face couldn't get any redder. "I'm sorry I wasted your time like this."

"Please, we weren't doing anything," Eggs said. He gave a tired exhale and briefly exchanged a look with Michael. "And other than giving me nightmares for the next month, I think things turned out pretty good… You're not still bleeding, right? Here, let me take a quick look."

Michael was surprised at how quickly Eggs had brushed this all off. He began to peer into Stanley's throat with the flashlight only a foot from the squirming doll, which was now making fussy noises at him. He didn't even seem to care anymore even though he was the one who figured it out.

Meanwhile, Michael couldn't get over it. He just couldn't understand how someone could do something so bafflingly naïve, putting their life on the line for an animatronic. It was hard enough believing that Stanley had just accepted that the doll was alive. There was only one thing that could leave a person that jaded and reckless.

"Be honest, did you used to work at Freddy's?" Michael asked. Stanley looked surprised by the question, but then got that shaky and strained smile again.

"You can tell?" He could. "Yeah, for a while… But didn't work out." Mystery solved.

"Small world! You could call us a couple of former employees as long as you stretch it a little bit," Eggs said. He clicked off the flashlight and set it aside. "Okay, so I'm not a doctor and I can't see that far into your throat, but it looks pretty good from here. Can you feel anything like bleeding? Fluid in your throat, copper taste?" Stanley shook his head. "Great! Then it's unlikely you're going to suddenly die on us. Tell you what, there's a couch in the office. Why don't you lay down for a little while and take a breather?"

"I don't think I should. I'm okay to drive. I drove myself here with all this going on," Stanley reminded timidly. He clearly didn't want to stay, but the technician was insistent.

"Hey, look, I get it. This is a weird situation, you're feeling awful, and he's not helping much," he paused to point a thumb back at Michael. The same hand then dropped to pat Stanley's shoulder. "But we need to keep an eye on you for a little while, alright? Just to make sure nothing goes wrong."

As reluctant as he was, especially with the Minireena coddled against his chest, Stanley agreed.

"Great! I'll go fix up the couch. Or at least get some of the junk off it," Eggs chirped. He turned and headed out of the room. Michael followed him out without another word and Stanley assumed he was still upset.

"What did you expect?" Stanley asked himself. Honestly, he expected to get kicked out a lot sooner than this, so he supposed it was worth being grateful that they hadn't thrown him to the curb yet. His throat was still painfully sore, and he rubbed his neck to no avail The Minireena must've noticed his distress as she gave a little sad noise and nuzzled under his chin. He smiled and pet the back of her head with his finger.

"Shh, it's okay, Lollypop. We're going to go home soon," he assured her. "It's going to be great. You're going to have the whole apartment to explore and I've already made a bed just for you. You're never going to have to hide in that dark suit again." She gave a small giggle and tried to hug him with her long, thin arms; it was adorable. He could barely believe that she was an animatronic. "Love you too, Lolly."

He might've not said that as loud if he had known Michael was going to step into the room right afterwards. He was carrying a water bottle and offered it to the flustered Stanley. The Minireena, thankfully, didn't hiss again and instead climbed down to the opposite side of Stanley and hid herself against him. He used his free hand to cradle her and accepted the water with the other.

"Thanks…" he said. Michael nodded in acceptance, but Stanley couldn't just leave it like that. "…I really am sorry about all this. Getting you involved in my issues…"

"It's fine," the technician dismissed. Maybe a little too harshly, as he exhaled and reiterated. "It's fine, just try to be more careful in the future. Whether or not you believe your life is worth living doesn't mean you should throw it away. Regardless of the situation Freddy's put you in. Plenty of people have recovered fine from Freddy's."

"Yeah, I guess…" Stanley agreed half-heartedly. He looked down at the Minireena and rubbed her back. She grabbed his shirt and buried her face into it with a tiny chirp-like noise and Stanley chuckled warmly.

"…Maybe I can understand why you've become so attached. I haven't seen animatronics act this docile in years. Not even to the Ballora they're programmed to," Michael admitted as he watched the scene. "We've dealt with so many aggressive ones looking to maim and manipulate that you become accustomed to it. But she genuinely seems attached, even if it is just because you are her new protector."

"I'm kind of attached to her myself," Stanley admitted with that same smile. "…You know, I did think about it before going through with it… The taking her home part, not the- not the smuggling her home inside of me thing. Trust me, that's not something I would've planned out. I'm not that dense." In the middle of his ramble he noticed that Michael's expression had changed. No longer a look of apathy, he had gotten a slight amused smile. "What's that look?" Stanley asked semi-jokingly.

Michael shook his head. "Nothing. Do you think you can walk with me to the office?"

Stanley nodded and tucked Lolly comfortably into the crook of his arm. She held to him well, so he wasn't worried about her falling. He then sat up completely, body feeling sore and tired as he did, and paused to take a breath. His attention went back to Michael still standing there, who had willingly come back even though he had every reason to still be upset. Stanley took a deep breath to steady himself and took the plunge.

"Hey, I know you were probably joking earlier about buying me dinner. I was joking about the starving thing- obviously. I'm not that desperate yet- I mean, I just lost my job, but that's neither here nor there. I was just thinking, maybe…" His throat was burning from talking so much and he coughed shallowly into his fist. Thankfully, no blood came up. He took that as a sign to keep going. "If you weren't joking, maybe we could go out to eat sometime at someplace. I don't have any preference…"

Michael looked only moderately taken aback and only then did Stanley really think about what he was doing and the timing of it. Considering that he just told this man that he had willingly swallowed an animatronic.

"…I probably should've asked that before you found out about her. Okay, never mind! Just, uh, thanks for everything… And the water too." He felt like he could die on the spot, his face was on fire, and his throat was killing him. He couldn't keep eye contact and instead just stared at the bottle of water in his hand. It spared him Michael's reaction, who obviously hadn't expected him to take the offer seriously.

But apparently, he did, and he must've held some weight if he was willing to fight past his crippling embarrassment to ask. That fiery blush coating his skin and burning brighter than even when he was choking.

Forget the Minireena, he was adorable. Michael would've been willing to go against that better judgement to smuggle him home. So, he did go against his better judgement.

"Alright but only after you take a few days to heal. I'd rather not pay for an excruciatingly painful meal," Michael agreed. Now it was the blond man's turn to look utterly floored, bringing out a small smirk. "You don't have to look so shocked. I wouldn't have offered if I didn't mean it."

"It could've still been a joke," Stanley defended. His face brightened considerably, "May-Maybe next week? It probably won't be hurting after that long, right?"

Michael decided to avoid answering that. "We'll work out the details later. For now, let's get you into the office. See how you're feeling in about an hour and then you should be safe to head home."

Stanley seemed to have a perk in his step as he dropped down from workbench, readjusting Lolly in his grasp, and followed the technician towards the door. Before he slowed to a stop. Michael noticed his hesitation and looked back to see a torn look on the other man's face.

After a moment he raised his eyes to show that the guilty, shamed look had returned. "There's something else."

"…I'm assuming you couldn't fit another animatronic into your body, so it must be in your trunk," Michael flatly said. He was concerned by the lack of an answer to that. "…Stanley?"


"Excuse me?" Michael asked in confusion.

"It's Jeremy. Stanley's just the name I use to get jobs," Stanley, or Jeremy, admitted to him. "I guess I should've said that earlier too, but at least I caught it now before we tried splitting a check." Michael was giving him a funny look. "…Please tell me you're not reconsidering already."

"On splitting the check, maybe," Michael said. In the back of his mind he wondered, "Where have I heard that name before?" but said nothing of it out loud. "You look more like a Jeremy than a Stanley anyway."

"I'll take that as a compliment," Jeremy said with a half-smile. Though the second Michael turned his back he breathed a sigh of relief. He then looked down at Lolly who was looking up at him expectantly, smiled reassuringly at her, and then followed Michael out of the room.

Eggs heard the two walking in the hallway and peered down from the front desk to see them walking by. He smiled a little smugly and returned to the desk, leaning against it. Lizzie looked up to see that look on his face and was already fed up with it. "What did you do this time?"

"Heh, I left the room," Eggs said slyly. "So, I'm probably going to have the apartment to myself tonight. You want to come by and watch some sitcom reruns?" Lizzie pointed her fingers and jabbed her nails into his arm. "Ow!" Eggs recoiled with an offended look. "What was that for?!"

"Stop giving me mental images of my brother dating. It's going to make everything awkward," Lizzie scolded lightly.

"Okay, yeesh. I didn't think you were going to be that sensitive about it. I'm the one who lives with him, and works with him, and is going to see a mental image of a Minireena climbing out of that guy's mouth every time he brings him home." Lizzie was unamused. "I'm going to go out on a limb and say we're not charging this guy today. He's going to have a hard-enough time finding another job…"

Eggs trailed off as he got this thoughtful look on his face. He had gotten an idea on how they could recoup their very few losses. "…Do me a favor. Look up the address for Party Pantry Animatronic Rental."

She didn't like that sound on his voice. It was even worse than the smug tone, it was that determined tone he got whenever he had an idea with a high-risk factor. While she already knew what he was planning on doing, she went ahead and turned to the computer. "Just don't take anything that you can't fit in your pocket."

He had that smile again, but she wasn't going to be the one to reach into his throat and pull something out.

Party Pantry Animatronic Rental ran out of a shoddy warehouse outside of town. There were no signs to indicate that he was even at the right place, and apparently it really was abandoned because they hadn't even gone through the trouble of locking the door. Eggs knew to be careful and took a flashlight with him just in case. It turned out to be a good decision as the power to the building had already been shut off.

The inside of the warehouse was almost completely barren. There were some tools left, dollies and carts which gave away that they had been moving heavy machinery, but not a shred of paper. Or maybe not on the first floor. Eggs had gotten some information out of Jeremy without making him too suspicious and had been nonchalantly informed that most of the work done in the warehouse was down on the lower floors.

The large elevator in the front room was out because the power was off, so Eggs was forced to take the stairs down into the darkness. The stairwell was completely emptied out except for a scrap of a receipt left on the steps. Nothing of interest on it and Eggs continued to the lower floor and let himself into the same level that Jeremy had been working in. He looked around carefully before stepping inside.

The stairwell door closed behind him with a clatter that sounded too loud in the silent building. He winced at it and listened for a second to hear if there was anyone still there, and after a few seconds continued on.

Only to be stopped by a low thump somewhere further down the hallway.

"Is someone down here?" Eggs thought with paranoia. His mind skipped past any workers coming back to scavenge and instead went onto the next possible thing, active animatronics. Except that Jeremy had said the only animatronics that moved on their own were the Minireenas. "He didn't say he saw all of them get burned, right? Maybe there's one of them left…"

That should've been a sign to leave right then, but Eggs was much too curious to do so. Especially after seeing Jeremy coddle with his little friend. It hadn't gotten comfortable enough to let him get a closer look before Jeremy left, but it had showed signs of childlike innocence that he hadn't seen in the sentient bots. It had even drawn a picture on some printer paper when it had gotten bored, just like a little human.

And as terrible as it sounded, Eggs wanted one. The thought of having a living animatronic of his own that wouldn't kill him was so tempting that he was willing to come down into this ghastly basement to find it.

So, instead of immediately throwing up his hands and leaving, he began to quietly creep down the hall. He could hear the noises increase the closer he got to a pair of open double doors. There was a shuffling noise, the sound of something being dragged, and then a loud clattering like a bunch of metal parts had been knocked over. He came up on the door and cautiously peeked in, then lifted his light when he couldn't see.

Whatever it was had moved further back into the room, which Eggs now recognized was a furnace room. A scattered amount of half-melted metal bits had been knocked out of a cardboard box and scattered across the floor. Almost like something had knocked it over, like a curious Minireena, but it had sounded like something was going through the stuff.

A loud clanking noise came from the back and Eggs cautiously leaned in further. The noises grew louder, a shifting and frantic scuttling, as something tried to escape the room. The noises grew quieter and more distant until it sounded like whatever it was had passed into another room.

"That sounded too big to be a Minireena…" Eggs realized. He still dared to cautiously step in, as he couldn't hear whatever it was any longer.

As he got around the corner of the room, he saw the source of the sound. There was a vent on the far wall sitting against the floor. The clattering had been something pulling the cover off. The cover didn't look too damaged, which either meant the creature was strong enough to yank it off easily or the more likely outcome, that it was just lose. Lose vent covers weren't exactly something new. He crouched down a safe distance away and shined the flashlight down the shaft.

"…What the hell is that?"

But something was blocking the end of the vent. Not a Minireena either nor anything that the technician would recognize as an animatronic, it just looked like a mass of wires squeezed into the tight space.

"What is that?" Eggs muttered under his breath. He reached the light closer and it glinted off something inside. He recognized that familiar glow. "Is that an eye?"

The mass of wires suddenly disappeared upwards into a vertical shaft ahead of it. Eggs could only stare for a moment before he heard something loud and much bigger than those wires sliding up through the wall. Next thing he knew, he was running for his life back up the stairs, trying to beat whatever it was before it could cut off his escape route.

Right as he was running out the front door, Eggs heard another loud bang as something forcefully broke through another vent cover. He didn't dare waste the time in looking back and instead ran for his car, turned it on, and threw it in reverse before peeling out of the parking lot and back onto the highway. His heart was pounding in his chest as he looked in his rearview mirror. It hadn't somehow snuck into the back seat.

"I don't know what that was, but that wasn't a Minireena," he muttered as he looked back to the road and sped towards home. He didn't even get a good look at it, just hearing its mass working through the walls. Something made of wires- and not just any wires either, but Afton grade endoskeletal wiring. He would recognize it anywhere. He shuddered inwardly and focused on the road.

They were bound to get more calls with that thing on the loose. In the back of his mind he knew he should've done more to try and contain it, but another part told him to keep driving. So, he did.