At this point, he knows what’s coming before it hits.
He and Eleanor have a rhythm, a legato bam-bam-bam of beats. He’s been through this enough times to know when it’s coming; the percussive snare of her eyebrows going wide, the betrayal that lances through her face like a particularly loud cymbal crash.
“This is the Bad Place!” She says, in a breathy solo so fine that everyone else on stage can only stand back. Aaaaand just like that, the concert he’s spent ages setting up comes crashing down; the violins screech to a halt, the soprano sings, the curtain comes down, and Michael’s hand goes up. First, he was pissed, then he was maudlin.
Now he’s almost amused by his part in this whole, doomed concerto.
He twists his fingers in time, hitting his instrument in perfect time for this elegy: Snap. They start over.
He’s back in his office; blue silk tie, grey suit. Doug Forcett on the wall; Viki’s eyes rolling into the back of her head, somewhere.
“Welcome Eleanor, everything is fine,” he says, thinking he must be a damn good actor to say this so many times without even sounding like he’s tired of it.
This time he’ll get it.
He is a madman possessed, tearing through documents as he constructs a new, hellish pen for his little sheep: he laughs, maniacal, as he makes the idyllic universe just a shade short of paradise; the clams now fire-roasted, the mayo fountain always overflowing and the ketchup fountain eternally broken. Janet doesn’t argue, because good Janets may be near-omnipotent but they’re still dumb little sheep. She isn't a proper Janet, anyway; she hasn’t even called him a fat dink, or questioned why they need six different stores for clams.
He plans it, down to the last, intricate detail. He will torture them slowly this time, move things in a slow-burn.
And then, once again, Eleanor figures it out. In less time even.
But: he’ll get it right, next time. It’s just learning to play the piano: he hit the wrong note this time, but no pianist can master Liszt's Campanella without practice.
That’s all he needs. Practice.
At this point, he’s pretty sure he’s the one in hell.
His plan is flawless; he should know, he’s checked it no less than two hundred, sixty-seven thousand, and five times.
“Welcome, Eleanor,” he says, and if he sounds a bit bored, well, even the best DJ has to phone in his performance sometimes.
She stares at him, wide-eyed and lost, as she always is when she comes to him. He chuckles a little bit, enjoying the hunt. There’s something about her eyes, so innocent of her fate, that he enjoys, no matter how many times they go through this song-and-dance. She's an Arizona dirtbag, a dress bitch, and yet: she wonders where, exactly, she is. He isn't sure why he likes it so much, that little trembling bit of hope in her. He supposes her presence here is the one comfort he has being stuck in this performance: if he’s trapped in this never-ending duet, so is she. He smiles at her, but says nothing more.
But he knows, immediately, that he's slipped, because she goes off-note, her eyes going wide and her body becoming very still.
“Are…are you the devil?” She leans back and laughs. “Ah fork, I never expected your office to be so...Crate and Barrel-y. Hey, why can’t I say fork? Fork!”
He sighs, holds up his hands. Snap.
They begin, again.
“I wanna team up with you guys,” he says; he is desperate, his voice thin and reedy. Discordant. The notes are new, but he is out of symphonies. He feels like he has been playing with this quartet so long that it is almost distressing not to know what notes to hit. He tries his best, anyway.
“Let’s not get to get all caught up on who lied to who or which one of us created an entire fake reality in order to cause eternal misery for the others.” He waves the flag of peace, and watches Eleanor. She’s the heart of them all. If he gets her, she can get the others. He's seen her turn the rest of the dummies against him often enough to know that much.
Her eyes look at him, but the snare drum doesn’t come crashing down on him, and he dares, for one long mad second, to hope.
He’s beginning to realize that Eleanor is the key to it all. Eleanor is the main singer in the group, and he isolates her voice, tortures her in ways based on her history:
He puts her in a room with naught but a wall of beige, as her father had done when she was a child: “Bad Place!” she cries, long before he can incorporate the others.
He puts her and the entire squad in a sort of hellish call center, makes her take calls from the Bad Place to soothe them in a sort of emotional torture-porn. “This is the Bad Place!” She shouts, standing triumphant in the middle of her cube.
He makes her work in a dental office that is full of strange smells; makes her run errands for him, then Vicky, then Glenn. Makes her his assistant (again); sends her through a variety of careers, tasks, objectives; “Bad Place, Bad Place, Bad Place!” she shouts.
Snap. Snap. Snap. Begin again, and again, and again.
He’ll get it right, someday.
He hasn’t felt as good as he does watching Chidi and Eleanor run through the trolley problem again and again and again in…well, a long time. Before this even started, certainly. It’s freeing, in a way, them knowing what he is; he doesn’t have to hide it anymore.
“I'm sorry,” he says, wiping tears from his eyes. “Old habits die hard.”
Eleanor has the gall to look disappointed at him, and he’s irritated by the sour note it puts in his mind. If a cat is trapped on a life-boat with mice, what choice does he have but to give chase?
And furthermore, he thinks, glaring at her: since when did he care even slightly what she forking thought of him?
...Did he just think fork?
He makes Eleanor his soul-mate this go around, just to try to understand how she ticks. It’s always Eleanor who’s the metronome of this particular group of humans. Where she goes, the others follow. And, of course, she always figures out his game, sooner or later.
In his less than kind moments (which, being a demon, are all of his moments), he wonders if she was designed as a form of torture for him. Perhaps she, herself, is a demon, disguised as a human in some kind of colossal joke from the suits upstairs in Dis; perhaps she is simply a modern-day Sherlock savant. It does not matter, truly; if he can figure out the melody of Eleanor Shellstrop, he can figure out how to hum it long enough to go undetected.
If. If. If. Sometimes he wonders if he isn’t the one being tortured by some cruel, bemused maestro, tapping out a dance that he, the monkey, always dances to.
He narrows his eyes, tries to suss things out of her. He knows her entire history, more than she does, and it's him who makes the mistake, mentioning something that happened in a reboot, not in her short and miserable life. (Though, in fairness: she had spent many birthdays in a bar, how was he to remember this one didn’t involve her kidnapping a rainbow shrimp from an aquarium? He’d barely remembered making Tahani throw her an almost-forty birthday party, all the more galling given that she didn't look a day over 33. He certainly didn't remember giving Tahani an aquarium, or Eleanor kidnapping and naming her purloined shrimp Punchy.)
He sighs, snaps his fingers, and tries not to be disturbed that even he’s starting to forget the details of all his reboots.
He can’t kill Janet. He can’t kill Janet.
He should; the literal fate of their miniaturized pocket dimension depends on it. It may be hell but it is home, too, and he's in no hurry to leave it.
“Don’t make such a big deal out of marbleizing me,” she says, but it doesn’t make it easier, though it should. He is a demon. For fork's sake -- he's long since given up correcting himself on that -- he used to handle the hot-dog jamming department. How much trouble could killing one Janet be?
Janet is not a human, not a girl, not even, demonstrably, at this point, a robot. He has remade this universe a thousand times, put the humans through unspeakable torments and this-this is the moment he’s laid so low he can't even summon the strength to kill a Janet?
But he can't do it. Not this Janet. Janet who is his friend, Janet who re-made the world for him literally eight hundred and two times. He is a demon, and demons do not love, but...He appreciates Janet. He does not want to lose her. He is an immortal being and now, at this very instant, he fears for his friend's mortality. There is an uncomfortable rhythm to that thought, but it's there.
He realizes, jarringly, that he’s been caught hiding among humans so long that he's actually forking assimulated.
“Come in,” said the spider to the fly. Eleanor sits down. He gives her the everything is fine speech. She smiles, trusting him. He can just tell by looking at her that she isn't thinking of a demon or anything close to that: she feels safe, taken care of. She looks at him like he's an angel.
His stomach flops and he’s unusually flustered, and he tells himself it’s because in 152 reboots, this is the first time she isn’t nervous to sit down with him.
He fumbles getting into his chair and sits on the remote.
“Hey,” he says, arms folded around her shoulders. “I figured out the trolley problem.”
300 years, 800 attempts, and at the end, he wants to laugh, because the truth has been in front of him all along: it’s Eleanor who’s important. Not because of who she is, or what she's done, or even where she is, but because she is Eleanor, and she is his friend.
He wouldn't have gotten this far without her. Somehow, in 300 years of adversarial reboots, they have become friends, a failure of a demon and a terrifying Arizona dirtbag. He knows what he is going to do and he smiles. He doesn't know how the song goes, not anymore, but the note he plays in this symphony finally feels right. Michael has found a religion of a sort, and the choir in his mind sings hallelujah as he puts his pin on her.
“The others need you,” he tells her, and he shoves her through the portal without a second thought and for the first time in years, he hears the right melody in the portal sucking her through.
He isn’t sure how they’ll deal with Shawn, but he’ll meet up with her, someday. He isn’t sure when or how, but he knows: they’re connected. The song isn't over yet.
They’ll begin, again, and maybe this time, they’ll finally get it right.
His powers won't work here, but as he turns to face his boss, he snaps his fingers, a warning as much as it is a promise.