Ted fidgets on his recliner, the television flashing meaningless colors and agitating him even more. He had turned it on as a distraction, to help him sleep, but now it’s doing the opposite.
He hates nights like this. But once animation gets in your blood, once you get to play God a couple of times, it’s like an addiction. And at the moment he’s suffering from a severe case of withdrawal.
He hasn’t been commissioned to animate a new toon in months. Months. Animators are few and far between, and cartoons are coming back. So what’s wrong with him? Are his designs bad? Are his toons not amazing enough in the personality department? Is he not even good for extras?
His thoughts turn nasty. Horrible toons running off and having babies. The born toons are the ones that get to be extras. No need to waste money and talent drawing background characters. It’s supposed to be empowering or whatever for the wretched humans made of ink, but Ted finds it has the opposite effect. It gives born toons a chance to be on a show, even for just a moment. Like toons have no other purpose in the world. There’s a steady, free supply of them, too, and it’s not like you’re stuck with them afterwards like you are with drawn toons. So they’re just as disposable as drawn toons, really more so, since there aren’t any grumblings about money spent on ink and turpentine like there is when a drawn toon needs to be scrapped.
Then there’s scrapping. Scrapping born toons is illegal, considered murder. Scrapping drawn toons once their show is done is the most normal thing in the world. Overpopulation looms now because of that.
Gah, and he has so many good ideas. Just call him, just call him. He can’t do anything unless they call him.
Well, he could, but of course whoever he drew would get scrapped. Of course.
Wait, is someone knocking on his door?
He glances over at his clock. It’s one o’clock in the morning. No one good can be knocking, if his mind isn’t playing tricks on him.
He imagines it’s a confused prostitute or drunk or something. It’s annoying when they’re humans and sad when they’re toons. He almost wants to get some turpentine and end their misery. But they’d probably be a born toon, so he’d get sent to jail or something.
The person knocking seemed sort of casual before, but now it’s a hard, steady pounding. Yeah, definitely a drunk or a druggie.
However, what stands before him when he opens the doors seems to not meet any of his theories. Three small toons shiver in the cold, the tallest gripping the wrists of the younger ones. The younger boy is staring off into space, and his sweater seems ten times too big for him. The younger girl seems to have fallen asleep standing up, and she sways for a moment until the oldest jerks on her arm. She jumps a little, but only opens her eyes halfway before closing them again.
“I heard you could do me a favor,” the oldest finally says.
“What kind of favor?” It just comes out. Ted really doesn’t want to say it. He wants to tell these kids to go away, but there’s something about the little boy staring into space, how starved all three look, and something about the hawk eyes of the oldest. He sort of looks like he might push the little girl forward to stop the door with her body if Ted tries to close it.
At this thought, he opens the door a little wider. The toon drags the other two in. It’s not that they’re fighting it; their dead weight just slows him down. Ted closes the door behind them and, feeling kind of jittery, clicks the lock he normally uses and does up the extra one.
“I heard you’ve redrawn toons before.” He says it very casually, like someone might say, “I heard you’ve gone dancing before,” not, “I heard you’ve murdered and cloned sentient beings before.”
Ted doesn’t know what to say for a moment. He stares at the gashes on the eldest’s arms. His fur is matted down from them bleeding. Finally, “Who, who told you that?”
“You’re not with the cops are you?”
His nose crinkles. “The human cops? No.”
“What about the toon cops?” Ted says, and the kid snorts, giving him this smirk. Ted decides he likes him. “What’s your name, anyway?”
“Yakko.” He yanks on the boy’s hand, though he doesn’t really lose his focus on what he’s staring at. “Wakko.” He doesn’t even yank on the girls hand, just nods toward her. “Dot.”
“I know. Straight out of the Bible.”
An hour later, they’ve shoved Wakko and Dot into a separate room and Yakko is watching Ted sketch. His frown is perpetual.
“Okay, so memory wipes. Easy.”
“It won’t remember anything? At all?”
“Not a thing. He’ll be a brand new toon.”
“There‘s this thing - there‘s a trick we use when we make copies, to make sure. There‘s this question we ask them, and all copies answer it the same. If not, I’ll just start over.”
There’s a certain thickness in the air, if only for just a moment. The words came so easily, but the meaning so harsh. He looks up at Yakko, and is not relieved to see him finally smirking again.
“So you’re saying I might die more than twice?”
“It’s happened before. Anyway, it’s not dieing when it’s a drawn toon. We call it ‘scrapping.’”
“Call a cancerous tumor a ‘happy spot,’ it’s still gonna kill you.”
“Political correctness, kid. It gets pounded into you.”
Yakko shakes his head. “Huh. Scrapping. Sounds gruesome.”
“It is. But it’s not a human word like ‘murder,’ so whatever.”
“Whatever,” Yakko repeats, smiling.
Ted rotates the paper so the sketches are right side up to Yakko. He points at his favorite. “What do you think?”
His features fall back into a frown. “It’s kind of fat, isn’t it?”
“If you were a normal weight, yes, he’d be a little chubby in comparison. But you’re a skeleton.”
“Actually, maybe he’s a little too skinny.” Ted goes for his pencil, and Yakko rolls his eyes.
“You win. Whatever. Let it be fat.”
Ted smiles then. “Anything else you hate?”
“It looks pretty stupid.”
“I’m sorry, that’s just the sketch. He won’t always look like that.”
“It better not walk around pulling that face.”
“He’s supposed to be smiling.”
“You know, it takes more muscles to frown than it does to smile.”
“My frowning muscles are far more developed.”
“That’s bad for a toon, you know, to be unhappy all the time. Especially drawn toons. Depressed born toons-”
“-Just age faster, yeah. But drawn toons go insane or die or both.”
“Most natural death a drawn toon can get.”
Yakko laughs. “If you’re trying to talk me out of this-”
“No, I’m trying to get you to understand why he needs to be happy. You want him to be happy and live and everything, don’t you? Get the perks of being a drawn toon - immortality, heck, practically invincibility. That’s the whole point of this, isn’t it?”
Yakko’s very still for a moment, looking down at the sketch. His nose twitches.
Ted just looks at him for a few beats, and then stares at the sketch along with him, taken aback. Especially by the way he doesn’t elaborate. Just, ‘no.’ “What’s that supposed to-”
“Oh well. We should get on with it. Maybe I’ll think of what’s wrong with it at the last minute.”
Ted shakes his head. He looks at Yakko, looking back at him expectantly. Ted’s eyes are drawn slightly downward, and he realizes at some point Yakko had sunk his claws into his arms. That’s were the gashes come from. It’s self-inflicted, probably a nervous tick. “The claws. You want me to try to get rid of the claws?”
Yakko dislodges and raises the sharp, bloody things to his eyelevel, examining them. He nods. “That’s not it. Something still doesn’t feel right. But you should try to get rid of them, too, anyway.”
“I’ll do my best.” He watches Yakko lower his arms and, to Ted’s surprise, detract his claws and simply rest his hands by his sides. “You sure you want to do this yourself? I mean, I’ve done it before, and…”
Yakko’s eyes flash. “No. I want to do it. They’re my siblings.”
Ted sighs. He knew this would be the hardest part. He keeps repeating to himself that all three of them will be better off this way as he meanders toward where he keeps his bottle of turpentine. They were using the oldest method in the book. It was sometimes a bit - well, most of the time very - slow and painful, but it used the least paint thinners, and he can only afford so much.
He winces as Yakko snatches it from his hands. No, this toon is definitely not normal. Normal toons tend to not want to be in a house that has any paint thinners anywhere in it, let alone willingly take a bottle of it and hold it.
Normal toons don’t really do any of the things Yakko has done or is about to do, though.
Though he really doesn’t want to watch this part, he follows Yakko into the room Ted had let Wakko and Dot sleep in. Well, Ted had provided and Yakko had forced. Yakko sniffs after he steps inside.
“You’ve killed toons in here before. It smells like-”
“I figured the fumes would knock them out. Make it easier.”
Yakko nods and steps forward, looking a little unbalanced. The fumes, Ted reasons. They mess with a toon’s balance and coordination and sanity and the like.
He kneels down next to Dot first, unscrewing the cap. She stirs a little from simply the smell of it, but all too quickly Yakko has the bottle to her lips, tilting it back.
Wakko is woken up by his sister’s screams, but Yakko is pushing him back down before he can even barely sit up. After just a bit of choking on the ink that rushes up to his mouth, as his baby sister is still screaming in agony, Wakko’s body relaxes. Eventually, Dot’s screams get weaker, and her pleas for help, her calls for her big brother, stop completely. Yakko has walked up to stand beside Ted without him noticing. As Dot joins Wakko, Ted is finally able to tear his eyes away and look at Yakko.
He doesn’t seem to be affected by it, at all. He holds the still-open bottle in his hands and stares dispassionately at the disintegrating bodies of his younger siblings. He’s having troubling breathing.
“I think I figured it out.”
“What?” Ted manages, though he isn’t sure how.
“What was missing, from Yakko.” Ted is a bit jolted by Yakko - or, what once was Yakko - leaving his side and plopping down next to the body that once belonged to his brother.
“And what’s that?” The former Yakko looks at the former Wakko, and then to the former Dot.
“Make sure he loves them.”
At that, he gives a little salute, takes a good swig of the turpentine, and smiles like it’s the best thing he has ever tasted.
Whenever a newly drawn toon opens his eyes for the first time, Ted forgets to breathe. It’s even worse with Yakko. He feels queasy, and actually starts shaking slightly. What if he remembers? What if he’s just some psycho through and through, and his upbringing just reinforced his natural inclinations? What if-
Yakko sits up as quickly as he can, and smiles at him.
Ted is flustered by this for a moment, and Yakko‘s smile turns into a half smirk, but his eyes stay entirely happy. Finally, he manages to remember protocol.
“Uh, hi, Yakko!”
“Hey there, chief.” Chief? Oh well. Ted attempts to compare the voice he remembers to this voice, but all he can decipher is that he likes this Yakko’s tone a lot better.
“My name’s Ted, and - well, you know who I am.” He knows he does. If a toon knows nothing else, he knows that the first person he sees is his animator. “We’re going to take this nice and slow, okay? Try not to move anymore than I tell you to.” Ted only notices that Yakko had been swinging his legs slightly when he stops all swinging at that. “Now, can you put your hands up for me? Like this.” He raises his forearms up to chest level, and Yakko mimics this, looking like he thinks this is silly but doesn’t mind going along with it. “And now wiggle your fingers, nice and slow.” Yakko does it, sniffing. “Good, good. Your nose feel okay?”
He nods, looking around the room. “Yeah, I guess. Are there any paint thinners around?”
“Wow, you have a great sense of smell. But you don’t need to worry about that. Now stretch your arms out-” Yakko drops the paint thinners right away and mimics Ted. Is that a good sign? Is he stupid, or just trusting? Ted knows he’s procrastinating, and he’ll have to ask him the question eventually, but right now this is still important. Even if he is some psycho, he’ll need to be able to move around and function correctly (if Ted doesn’t need to scrap him).
They go through every standard exercise. Ted repeats to himself - as soon as he can walk, as soon as he can walk. He’ll tell him to sit back down and ask him his questions.
“Okay, now, you think you can stand? Just slide off the table-” He stops talking and simply holds his hands out to catch him as Yakko demonstrates that he knows exactly how to go from sitting to standing. His knees wobble, and he falls slightly into Ted’s left arm. Without any prompting, he clutches the arm and reaches out to do the same with the other, and then gets steady with Ted‘s help. They both take a deep breath, and Ted smiles at him, realizing he had been frowning before. “Don’t worry, that’s normal. I mean, some toons’ll jump up and start running around the second they open their eyes, but most can barely stand. Bugs Bunny sure couldn’t, and he’s-”
“Wow, Bugs? Really?” He looks down at his legs, taking another deep breath. “I mean, he‘s just so…” He trails off. Okay, so he knows who Bugs Bunny is. No big deal. Lots of toons are animated with basic knowledge of the world.
“Yep. And that‘s not a story to make you feel better, you could ask him if you ever meet him and he’d tell you it’s true.” Yakko has managed to slowly start marching in place while leaning on Ted. He then stands on one leg while wiggling his toes on the other, and then switches legs. Ted remains still, not holding onto Yakko but simply acting as his crutch. Yakko eventually decides to try again, slowly making his grip more gentle and then sliding his hands off, shaking all the while.
Ted is there to catch him when he falls again. He pushes him back up onto the table. Yakko’s smile has become tired, but still happy, maybe even amused. “Is that normal?”
“Oh, yeah, sure.” Not really. Almost all toons can at least stand on the second try, if not even begin walking around once they’re good and stable. “You just need a little rest. You feel okay everywhere else, though?”
“I guess so. I mean, well - no, it’s stupid.”
“No, what? Come on.”
“It’s just, I feel like something’s missing.” Ted’s eyes light up.
“Yes!” Ted scurries to a side table and begins riffling through papers.
“Is that, uh, good?”
“Yeah! Well, no. Sort of. I have something to show you.” He comes back over with just two pieces of paper in his hand, and almost lets Yakko grab them before thinking again and yanking it away. “Wait, you have to promise to tell me the truth about what you think of them. I can change almost anything you want, okay? You just have to let me know. Some toons don’t and it ends in a lot of heartache.”
“Sure, sure.” He seems almost like he can already feel it, feel them. Ted hands him the two papers, both visible at the same time. And time stops.
Time stops because Ted can tell just by looking at Yakko that he loves them already.
“These . . . Are these my sibs?”
“Yep. Remember what I said about fixing any-”
“No. No, they’re perfect.” Ted smiles and simply basks in Yakko’s complete adoration. Eventually, though, it’s back to business.
“I think this is why you can’t walk. Sometimes when the bond between siblings is strong, the oldest could have physical problems before the younger ones are drawn. Trouble balancing and not quite being able to keep your weight up with your legs is usually what happens to the oldest of three.” Yakko gives him a sideways look. “I don’t know, something about feeling like two other toons should be next to you.”
“Toons are interesting.”
He doesn’t respond, just starts swinging his legs again. “How long will it take you?”
Ted turns, making sure everything is in order. “Oh, maybe a few hours.”
“Well, don’t rush, I guess.”
He smiles. Definitely more patient than his previous self. “I won’t. I guess. You can keep those sketches, by the way. I’ve got plenty more to work off of.”
“Who’s your favorite president?”
Ted‘s head snaps up. He‘s not sure exactly how his face looks, but Yakko seems a bit taken aback. “What did you say?”
“Whoa, touchy subject?”
Ted shakes his head, trying to calm himself. “No, no, sorry. I couldn’t hear you. What did you say?”
“Your favorite president. Who is it?”
“I was just about to ask you that. You tell me first.”
“I asked you first.”
“It’s the thought that counts. Besides, you should know.”
He answers almost immediately. “Calvin Coolidge.”
Ted just stares at him for a few beats, not sure what to do. Yakko smirks back. He bursts out laughing.
“Hah, the look on your face! I’m kidding, your favorite president is Abe Lincoln. I sort of prefer Coolidge myself, but I suppose that’s not allowed.”
Ted smiles. He doesn’t even have to force it. Yes, he’ll be an excellent toon.
He leaves. He draws the girl first. She jumps up and runs to Yakko the second she opens her eyes. She almost doesn’t see Ted. He hears Yakko talking to her, though. He calls her Dot and talks about Ted. He leaves them alone. Yakko would know if something was wrong.
But the boy.
It’s hard for Ted to get the image out of him mind. The blank expression, the starvation. How quickly and calmly death had come over him. The first time he’s so nervous he ends up drawing at dead toon. It never even breathes. But that’s the best. He can recycle the ink, easy.
But the next attempt isn’t right, either. He breathes and moves, but Ted scraps him the moment he sees his eyes. Dead, always dead.
“Third time’s the charm,” echoes through his head, and indeed it is. His eyes are full of life and coherency and he smiles. But he doesn’t even try to get up. He seems to balk at the idea, withdraw. Ted has his hand on the bottle of turpentine when Yakko and Dot appear. He keeps his hand on the bottle, but he doesn’t get a chance to tell them to go away. They - especially Yakko - aren’t supposed to go to him. He’s supposed to go to them.
But Yakko pulls him off the table and he stands perfectly fine. Ted pushes some nagging feelings away, because all three are talking to each other and happy and loving. The bond might be a little messed up, but fixing it would mean scrapping all three of them. And he just can’t do that. Not to Yakko, especially.
Not yet, at least.
He expected them to get rejected. He expected them to get scrapped.
When they weren’t rejected and they weren’t scrapped, he expected some family member or some former acquaintance to recognize them on their show and expose them as copies. He expected them to get scrapped and himself to get thrown in jail.
After over a year, he expected to not see them in person again, maybe even after their show was over. They seemed like they could handle themselves, that they could make themselves useful after their cancellation. They certainly would never warrant a scrapping now.
But he especially never expected Yakko to be knocking on his door in the middle of the night.
Yakko standing there gives Ted some strange flashback. Three starved, nasty-looking toons with a shaking, fierce-eyed oldest.
But Yakko is alone and Yakko looks neither starved or nasty. His eyes aren’t fierce- Ted’s not even sure if he can contort his features into an expression anywhere near fierce. He is shaking, though. But it’s a chilly night.
“You shouldn’t be here,” Ted says as he lets him in.
“I know, but they only would have let me come if I had hurt myself.”
Something inside Ted is very, very satisfied that hurting himself on purpose just to talk to Ted, even if it’s urgent, is entirely out of the question to Yakko.
Yakko rubs his forehead. “You should move. This place reeks.”
Ted takes a moment to realize he’s talking about the smell of the paint thinners, and another to figure out that he’s dealing with an extremely stressed out toon at the moment. Toons’ senses tend to go more acute the more frazzled they are. Yakko would only slightly notice if he were calm, but at the moment he looks like he might pass out.
Yakko sways a little. He looks like he’s having trouble breathing.
“I’m a copy.”
Ted almost throws up when he hears it. Yakko keeps swaying and breathing, slow and steady.
“I’m sorry,” is all he can manage.
After a while, he realizes he’s breathing with Yakko. In, out, in, out. If he doesn’t move soon, he’ll go insane.
So he moves.
One step leads to another, and eventually he’s in the back room, and there’s a bottle of paint thinner in his hands. He doesn’t even try to hide it on his way back. Toons, especially toons like Yakko, are smart, and they have a considerable amount of survival instincts, but unless he’s gone completely over some kind of mental ledge, he’ll trust Ted. If everyone Yakko loved was telling him to do one thing, and Ted told him to do the complete opposite, he would go with Ted. It was a special bond between animator and toon, stronger than anything.
“Now, Yakko-” Ted begins, but stops. Yakko sees the bottle and steps back. But he doesn’t run. If it was anyone else but Ted, he would have run.
“What are you doing?”
“Nothing.” Ted puts it down. Yakko relaxes. Somehow. “Now tell me how you found out.”
“I - I don’t know. I just,” he’s staring at the bottle, and Ted tries to shift around to block it from his view, “remembered.”
“Too much. I killed them.”
“No. He killed them.” The words trip out of their mouths before either can stop and feel any weight. “You’re two completely different toons.”
“We’re not. We’re exactly the same. Except I’m not even as good. I’m just some kind of echo or something.”
“It- That’s not true. You’re better than him. An improvement.”
He flinches. Ted stares for a few beats before speaking again.
“There’s not much I can do for you. I can call the studio, tell them your brain’s checked out and we can end it fast.” Yakko gets his meaning quickly. Horror takes up the majority of his face, but then Ted sees it, creeping into his eyes. He’s thinking about it. Considering. “Or you can forget about this.”
“Yeah. Just pretend it never happened.” Ted pauses and watches Yakko trying to wrap his mind around such a concept. But then he continues. He hates the way his voice sounds. “Of course, that puts everyone - especially your siblings - in a lot of danger. You could get another flash of memory in an unfortunate moment, or maybe you won’t be able to forget and you’ll go insane. I’ve even seen copy toons seem like their original personalities took over again. And you know what he did to your original siblings.”
“I think I can take it.” He seems strong when he says that, but wilts when he glances back toward the bottle. His voice shakes when he speaks. “I’m not killing myself any time soon.”
Ted nods. “Then all I can do is wish you good luck.” Yakko nods back. He starts shuffling toward the door, backing away. Smart toon, not turning his back on a man with the means and probably the willpower to kill him. Something comes to Ted’s mind, and it seems rather stupid, but he wants to give Yakko some kind of assurance, so he speaks once Yakko finally turns his back, halfway out the door. “This is really selfless of you, to go through so much for your siblings.”
Yakko stops. He tenses.
“I’m more selfish than he ever was.”