Disclaimer: Steam Powered Giraffe belongs to the Bennetts. I just do weird shit like this.
AN: This is one of the ones that is going to make you cry. Sorry.
"...often stop and think about them. In my life, I love you more." The Spine took a deep breath. "In my-y-y-yyyyy life... I love you moooorrrre..."
The audience was oddly silent.
They were supposed to be applauding for the finale.
He blinked at the clouds of steam and smoke. His clouds of steam and smoke. Something... something wasn't right.
Someone patted his shoulder. "That was beautiful, th' Spine," said Rabbit's voice. But the speaker was not Rabbit. She was a stranger. He knew Rabbit. He knew her every bolt and rivet. He knew all her faces.
This was not his sister.
"We were sing-ing One Way Tick-et," said the robot who looked like Hatchworth... but wasn't. Upgrade and The Jon were staring. Hands over their mouths.
What were they doing here?
They couldn't be here...
He was holding a guitar! Why was he holding a guitar? He broke things!
His hands flew away from it. Let it fall. The strap around his body caught it. Abraded against his spines.
Where were his chimneys?
Why did his body feel so... awkward?
"...pappy? Help?" The Spine couldn't stop breathing fast. He stepped backwards. Away from centre stage. "Mister Reed?"
"Cut his mike!"
Kind hands lead him away from the limelight.
"We're experiencing some technical difficulties, folks," said the robot who looked like Rabbit.
"This is what hap-pens when he does-n't take his med-i-ca-tion," said the robot who looked like Hatchworth.
The woman at his elbow looked a lot like Miss Iris. Like Ma.
"You're... you're not Ma..."
"No. You hired me because you said you could always trust this face." She un-hitched the guitar from his body. Gave it to a passing Walter Worker.
"Ah. Okay." He didn't remember. Why didn't he remember?
"You're among friends. It's all right. We're going to the repair stall. You've had... another episode."
"Rabbit! Rabbit, get up! You have to get up!" He couldn't tell if it was the elephant war or when... when he found her for the last time.
The Spine blinked. His face was the newer face. They upgraded him for military service in the Fifties.
He'd allowed the titanium alloy to tarnish. He was colourful, now.
He was letting himself go.
Not-really-Ma took off his hat. His hair. Gently removed some of his skull plating.
The Spine watched his eyes leak in the mirror. Rather than watch someone who looked like his mother going through circuitry that she could not have understood in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
"More blown-out solder. Hold still, soldier."
The technicians were replacing pieces of his brain. They were still Walter Robotics upgrades, but he could feel... He could feel the difference between the old Babbage engines and the new transistors. Between the cogs and the wires.
He had to wonder if he was still going to be himself when they were done.
The Spine blinked. This was... his face in the mirror. All rainbows and oil stains. He was the Glitchy One, now. The one who broke down. The one who had the most alarming flaws.
"Okay. You're back. Who am I?"
He looked at her face in the mirror. "You're... Miss Evans. You look after me, now."
"Correct. Now. Who's singing 'Turn Back the Clock' right now?"
Not Rabbit. Rabbit couldn't bear to sing it on stage. She always broke down. It took her five hundred trials to get it recorded for Mk III... "That's... That's Backup. Backup's singing Rabbit's song."
Yes. They were all different robots. Backup. And Demo. And Beta. And Hatch 2.0...
And Doppelganger. Sitting in his box and waiting for The Spine to copy his most recent and reliable memories. After the show.
Just in case he shut down for the last time while they were on the road.
The memories came flooding back. Making him sob like a small child.
Upgrade had died first. She had been the most shocking of all the robot deaths. They had been unable to function, knowing that she was no longer part of the show.
Technicians had fussed over all of them. Forcing them to take in water and oil. Trying desperately to get them to do something - anything! - to help them mourn. To help them over it.
And in the end, as a last, very desperate measure... they had erased her from their memory files.
Upgrade never existed.
And she continued to never exist for a further hundred years.
They were prepared when The Jon shut down. Crystal Pepsi was a limited resource. They knew it would run out. They enjoyed him while he lasted. And he didn't last for much longer.
By then, they had a euphemism. Gone adventuring in Kazooland.
In reality, carefully packed in an alcove that maintained all the parts that no longer moved. Next to the pink-faced robot with the pretty flower in her hat that they didn't remember. In the hopes that technology would bring them back, one day.
He remembered begging Rabbit to accept the replacement parts. Arguing that Pappy wouldn't want to see her literally going to pieces.
He remembered Hatchy - the real Hatchy - dragging him away from Rabbit's immobile body. Screaming as Backup respectfully took up the keytar and bid her 'Mommy' farewell with a kiss.
Oil leaked down her face, too. "The show's gotta g-g-go on, The Spine."
The show must go on.
Part of him had died, that day. The rest of him was taking its sweet time catching up.
Peter the Twentieth made Demo in an effort to at least give The Spine something cheerful. The return of a robotic 'brother'. But The Spine had known... instinctively... that the robot returning to the band was not The Jon.
Memories of Upgrade had not helped with the introduction of Beta, either.
By then, Hatchy was the Glitchy One. Peter Sixth's repairs just... didn't cut it. He would fail and smoke to the cheers of the audience and every time... Especially after a bad one... Every time, The Spine would wonder if Hatchy would walk off the stage and 2.0 would walk back on in his place.
Until he did.
He was the last.
The last of the originals.
And the show must go on.
And he had to hold it together for one more show.
He made it through another tour. Kept the act together one more time.
Miss Reed helped him to the maintenance bay. Made sure he was in working order. Respected his wishes not to have any parts replaced. Just repaired.
There hadn't been a Mister Reed in the show for thirty years.
He had trouble remembering that.
"It's been the same dream, again," he told her. "Walking on the beach. All alone. And then... I see them... People waving to me. I know they want me to catch up. I can't catch up."
"They're getting closer, though, aren't they?"
He didn't have the heart to tell them that he recognised them, now. "Yes. They're so close... and so far away." He sighed. "Why do dreams have to hurt?"
"They just do." Miss Reed sucked on her lip. Her eyes were bright. "You need your rest, The Spine."
"Yes. Soon. I must do one more thing."
It was his ritual. Coming home. Going down into the cavernous depths where the originals were stored. Embracing the bodies of absent friends lost to the sands of time.
He always saved Rabbit until last.
Sang We'll Meet Again for her until he either crashed or wound up bawling into her skirts.
He was very much surprised to feel her hand on his shoulder.
"Aw, stop it, d-dummins. It's okay now."
He looked up. Blinked. "Rabbit," he breathed. Alive! Ticking! Warm and gently steaming in front of him.
It was hard to struggle to his feet and embrace her properly. But so worth it. It made him feel all new again.
Hatchy - the real Hatchy - joined in the hug with The Jon and Upgrade and he laughed and cried to hold them all again.
They weren't in the basement, any more. And that didn't matter.
"Come on, bro," said The Jon. "Ma and Pappy're waiting. We're gonna all have an ice cream parade!"
"Rex Mark-sley's there," said Hatchy.
"And Lilly Airheart," added Upgrade.
He ran with them, just for the joy of running. It felt so great to be with his family again.
Doppelganger came to fetch him for the customary backup process. Picked up his fedora from where it had fallen, near Rabbit's alcove.
The Spine had crashed again. Kneeling by his sister. Arms lax and awkward by his side. Face resting against Rabbit's striped knees.
Doppel gently shook him. "Come on, Pa. Wake up." He tried pinging The Spine's wifi. Nothing.
His boiler wasn't boiling. His core had finally winked out.
He sighed. "Pro to the end, Pa. You kept going for one last show." Very carefully. Very reverentially, he placed The Spine in the neighbouring alcove. Next to his sister. Put his hat back on and made him neat.
And then, because he shared The Spine's memories, he put The Spine's hand in Rabbit's and locked them in place.
Together again. For all time.
"Don't you worry, Pa," said Doppel. "I'll keep the show going the way you wanted it to."
The next concert, he would be taking up the role of The Spine. Playing at his 'Pa's part. And he would play The Song is Ended in his memory.
He would have wanted it that way.