Pete dropped his breakfast tray on the table with a clatter, edging himself in between Patrick and Joe while reaching for the coffee carafe in the middle of the table. "Morning, everybody. What's on the Big Bingo Board today?" With one hand, he poured himself a mug of java. The other picked up the cinnamon roll on his plate and he crammed the pastry into his face. Thus far, with the barest hint of light coming through the tall windows of the finely-appointed dining hall, they were the only ones up.
Well, mostly up. Patrick gave him a sleepy side-eye. "What's got you so pert'n'perky this morning?" he groused, pushing eggs with bits of bacon and cheese mixed in around his plate.
Andy glanced up at the Big Bingo Board of Blurbs. "That." Copies of the Board hung on each wall, and a center-mounted display with three sides hung from the ceiling in the middle of the room. From anywhere in the dining hall, the Board was inescapable.
Patrick glanced up and groaned. "What the fuck?" Before his eyes, the columns on the wide board populated with glowing golden letters and numbers, color-coded bars in rainbow hues spilling down the very last column. "That was almost empty ten minutes ago! What the fuck happened?"
Pete's grin was wide, manic, and oozed with cinnamon filling and stripes of pearly white icing and it made Patrick think of Naughty Things, which he suppressed. Not off the clock, buddy. Not unless-- "It's September first," Pete said thickly. "Two months until Halloween."
"Joe's birthday," Andy pointed out.
Patrick glanced at his friend. "Happy birthday to your Original."
Joe ducked his head and toasted with his coffee. "May he be enjoying the day unmolested, wherever he may be." He glanced up at the Board. "Unlike us."
Andy followed his gaze. "Cheer up, my brother. I see a lot of supporting cast for us." He patted Joe's shoulder. "Ten bucks says at least two instances of being forgotten by chapter two."
Joe narrowed his eyes. "Maybe. But I dunno. I'm seeing some names I recognize, and those authors don't mess around. For my money, we'll get callbacks in the last chapter."
"You're on." Andy slapped Joe's outstretched hand.
"They've got another Halloween-themed challenge planned." Pete rubbed his hands together. "So what's up on the Trope Table? Do I spy, with my little eye, another vampire AU?" He squinted at the board while he finished his cinnamon roll and licked his fingers. "Mmm...yes!" He glanced at Patrick, his eyes twinkling. "I get to nibble your delightful neck more than once."
Patrick scowled. "I'm a goddamn twink in almost every one of those! Come on! I'm not that stupid. Nobody's that stupid. 'Young Patrick wanders into a dark alley in a Chicago infested with vampires and discovers more than he bargained for when he finds himself in the clutches of a dark-haired emo vampire rebel' Who thinks I'm that dumb?"
"Who thinks I'm that smart?" Pete grinned and waggled his fingers. "My clutches. Muhahaha."
"Aww, come on, Patrick. You always get this way when summer ends," Joe slid a mini cheese danish onto Patrick's plate. "I think I see some domestic fluff for you and me down there. It'll be fun."
Patrick stuffed the mini danish into his mouth whole. "That's because summer's a slow-down and I always think we're finally done, that this place will finally--" he glanced around, noting that the dining hall had become more of an intimate dining lobby than the cavernous airplane hangar it'd once been, "--vanish back to whatever strange dimension we came from." Glumly, he rested his chin in his hand and poured half of his orange juice into his half-full glass of cranberry juice and sort of wished for some vodka. "And then our Originals go and do something that shows up on the internet and all of a sudden, we're back in business again." He looked around. "Aren't these people too old to be writing about their teenage rock star crushes?"
Andy and Joe shared a look. "Patrick," Andy said carefully. "They made us. We wouldn't be here if it weren't for them."
"Plus, some of them are teenagers." Pete tore into a donut with his teeth. "Just a new crop. It means we still matter. I mean, look at this place. I remember--"
"Don't jinx it, man." Joe, who'd gone serious and pensive, glanced up to the ceiling, which was lit by elegant candelabras interspersed with skylights.
Pete snapped his mouth closed, donut crumbs falling from his lips back onto his plate. Patrick followed Joe's gaze up and finished Pete's thought silently. Remember when this place was the size of a single, cramped room in darkness? That ceiling was the roof of a van and our meals were gas station snacks and red vines? The four of them sparking into existence and right back out again, terrified and possessing only the barest hints of self-awareness before being dragged into a wormhole to a Story and spat back out again as the factory engines sputtered and stuttered to life.
Becoming aware of who they were--or who they thought they were--and then learning they weren't those people at all. In fact, they weren't any people. The times of forgetting everything and re-learning it countless times until the memories stayed (and not all at once, either--Pete had pioneered that particular leap alone and he still wouldn't say how many times he had to re-teach Patrick who he was).
"Buddy, I know you're predisposed to not like this, but the four of us?" Pete gestured with the half-eaten cinnamon roll. "We've come so far. And--and it's a good life, Patrick."
"But it's not our life, Pete." Patrick took a few bites of his eggs and pushed the tray away. "We're not Originals. And we never will be." He looked around at the nicely-appointed dining room, the sophisticated Bingo Board, the doors leading to other places on the Factory grounds, and the portals leading out there, to the Stories. "The real Fall Out Boy is out there, making real things, real music, real lives. All we'll ever be are--are shadows of them."
"That's not true," Pete said. "We're not just their shadows. We're their possibilities. Their potentials. All the choices they didn't get to make." As he spoke, a soft chime echoed through the grounds and over their heads. "This is a season we're going to be in good hands, I can feel it."
The doors leading to the dormitories glided open and Patrick could see others making their way to the dining room. Others like them, other thems.
He saw himself, dressed in a t-shirt five sizes too small and a girl's cheerleading skirt. Glittery writing scrawled across the front of the shirt, but Patrick couldn't make it out. But he had no trouble seeing the younger him's furious facial expression.
Next to him, Joe apparently could read the writing on the t-shirt. "Some of the decisions they would never have made."
Patrick rolled his eyes and hoped that iteration of himself was destined for a comedy. "Well, at least it's well-trodden ground for us." As he stood, his features shifted. His hair grew out, sideburns sprang into being on his cheeks, and the ball cap he was wearing popped clean off his head. His features lifted, the crinkles at the corners of his eyes and the laugh lines smoothing out as the adult stubble at his cheeks and chin thinned and became the patchy growth of youth.
Pete dropped the second cinnamon roll onto his plate and took a last swig of coffee as he rose to his feet. "That's the point, Patrick." He slung his arm around his best friend's shoulders. His own features grew younger, the man-bun disappearing while the emo fringe lengthened. "It is well-trodden ground for us. Remember they're not like us. Not exactly." He tipped Patrick's chin up with a gentle touch. "Can you keep it together?" He gestured to Joe and Andy. "For us? The four of us?"
Patrick sighed again. "You know I can." He glanced around at the wormholes beginning to open and the others coming into the dining room. Other Petes, other Patricks, other Joes and Andys. "I mean, I haven't imploded myself yet, and the four of us have been here since the beginning."
"That's the spirit!" Andy held out his hand for the traditional pre-show high-five.
"Remember to stay in character," Joe said.
Patrick nodded in exasperation. "I know. Look--we've kept the secret for this long. No one will ever know about--us." He stuck his bottom lip out. "Sometimes I wish I didn't even know about us." He glanced at the Board again. "Oh look. I get to be a demon in one of these, that'll be an interesting tale to not-tell anyone else here."
Pete high-fived him as the pre-show ritual dictated. "You've got us." He linked arms with Patrick as they headed towards the wormhole. "Hey." He paused before the swirling portal that would lead to a Story that called for him to drink blood when all he wanted was coffee (until he crossed the threshold). "For what it's worth," he said with a slight lisp around the fangs already growing where his canines were, "I'm glad we've got each other."
"Me too," Patrick said in a resigned voice. But his face, youthful as it was, showed a mix of relief and devotion that only an entire existence of living in each other's orbit could produce. "And for what it's worth, I'm glad you're not remembering this all alone." He followed Pete through the portal. "But if I ever meet any of these Authors..."