Friday, July 1, 2011

TAOM: Valerie - Line the Pieces Up

Showtunes, she muttered to herself. Why is it always showtunes?

Valerie nearly always had some form of music running through the back of her mind, though recently songs from Broadway musicals she'd seen proved most prevalent. Of course, this could be a remnant of her early and late childhood, when she burried herself in stories and books to escape the problems of her own life. Showtunes - basically songs about stories - seemed to accomplish the same thing. What Valerie was attempting to escape, however, wasn't going to be ignored without a fight.

"Come on," Terrie's plainative was accompanied by a light poke, "talk. I want details! I didn't think you went for blondes..."

Valerie sighed heavily. Terrie had cornered her in a remote corner of the Library's kitchen, where they were unlikely to be disturbed, after catching her looking wistfully after a young man about their age. "It's a crush, Terrie," Valerie said irratibly, "nothing more. It'll pass. And it's not like it would've worked out anyway, even if he felt the same."

"Well that's no excuse! Zanney and I make it work out, and we live on opposite sides of a continent!"

"That's what you said about Sam when you were dating him," Valerie felt compelled to point out, "And besides, for me it's moot point. It's unrequited."

"How do you know that?" Terrie asked impishly.

Valerie was sorely tempted to roll her eyes. "Trust me. I know."

Terrie blinked, then remembered: Valerie was an empath, someone able to sense the emotions of others. If anyone could tell what this guy was feeling, it would be her.

Valerie, for her part, was a little bit depressed by this fact. It wasn't often that a male really caught her eye, but rarely did those young men look back at her. She knew why too: she was ordinary. Straight brown hair that fell to her waist, small hazel eyes that pretty much looked like plain brown unless you looked closely, a plump frame too fat to be called attractive but not fat enough to be called ugly... not to mention her shyness. Empathy made it difficult for her to be in crowds (for obvious reasons), but even when well-shielded, talking to people she wasn't very good friends with was nearly impossible for the girl. Put it all together, and she was invisible.

'You can look right through me, walk right by me, and never know I'm there...'

Terrie thought for a moment, then said, "Well what about that guy from college? From what you've told me, he worships the ground you walk on!"

This time Valerie did roll her eyes. "Ter, he's eleven years older than me! If his constant flattery wasn't such a much-needed boost for my battered ego, I think I might file a restraining order!"

The shorter brunette giggled a bit. "Well it's good to know you won't settle, at least. Because if anyone deserves the man of her dreams, it's you."

Valerie didn't respond. Here's hoping... she thought.


"Okay, Danielle," the team leader said softly, so as not to disturb her redheaded friend's concentration, "Guide it through the maze."

She placed a small white mouse at the beginning of a relatively simple maze, and Danielle's eyes seemed to glaze over as she focused on the small creature's aura. To anyone else, this would look like a classic lab experiment, but the difference here was that bait for the mouse was placed at the maze's dead ends, not the exit. Danielle was attempting to force the mouse to move away from the food, toward the end of the maze.

It put a tiny pink nose in the air and sniffed for a moment, then immediately turned down the leftmost path, toward the first set of bait. It took a few steps in that direction, then froze, looking distinctly confused. Valerie felt, rather than saw, it's aura flare up momentarily (she had very little talent for seeing auras unless she knew exactly what to look for, which rather defeated the purpose), then pulse rhythmicly in the direction of the maze's exit. Slowly, as if unsure why it was doing this, the mouse turned in that direction...

...and immediately bolted for the second set of bait on the right. Danielle struggled with it for a moment more, but once it started eating the food pellets, it was a hopeless cause. She sighed.

"Well that was a complete failure," she said miserably.

"Hey, I wouldn't call it that," Valerie reassured her. "You've never done anything bigger than a spider before, let alone against the animal's food instinct. That was a fantastic first try."

The redhead tried not to show it, but Valerie could tell she was preening under the praise.

"I am getting better at this, aren't I?" Then she got more serious. "But I need to keep getting better."

The team leader nodded, thinking of the recent disaster with Tash's kidnapping. She was going to be fine, but Adrian's wounds were far more complex. With her shields let down she was able to tell exactly what hurt and where by feeling an echo of the same pain in her own body, but that wasn't much to go on with somebody that badly damaged, both externally and internally. And it was the internal damage that worried her. She had taken enough medical classes in the course of her college carreer that she knew how to repair the majority of his gut wounds, but the damage to his sense organs was something else entirely. The senses, she knew, were incredibly complex, incredibly fragile things - far too complex for her to attempt putting things back in order herself. The damage might even go all the way back to the brain. All she could do was send in as much energy as she could and hope Adrian's body would know what went where.

'How do you document real life when real life's getting more like fiction each day?'

"We all need to get better," she said quietly. "We have to."

Danielle was silent for a moment. "Well I'm gonna put this stuff away, and then I'm schedueled to practice weapons with Stacey."

Valerie nodded absently, still lost in her thoughts. "Just make sure you eat some chocolate first to restore your mental energy. In fact, I'll put the mouse away, you-"

"No, I got it!" she said quickly. With a wave she exited down the hall with the white mouse in one hand and the little maze under her other arm. As she went she began to singsong: "It was a dark and stormy night. The toilet light was dim. We heard a crash and then a spash, for Drew had fallen in!"

Her team leader gave her an exasperated look. "Danielle..."

Said redheaded looked back over her shoulder. "What?" she asked impishly. "It's catchy! And Drew deserves it a lot more than Blake does anyway."

"That doesn't mean I'm going to tolerate meanness. Now go on!" She made a shooing motion with her hand, but couldn't help but grin back. It was an amusing image after all.


Cree... thhhunk.

"So that's when I decided..."

Cree... thhhunk.

"...that I wasn't going to..."

Cree... thhhunk.

"...sit on the sidelines anymore."

Valerie reached over her back to her quiver, but her hand only found empty air. She was out of arrows again. As she trotted down the range toward the target to retrive them, she continued, "I mean, I hate fighting. Unless my shields are completely airtight, which they rarely are since it restricts my powers so much, I can't fight. Harming someone else is like deliberately hurting myself, and what sane person does that?"

"I can think of a few people who don't get that concept," her shooting partner, Monika, replied in a soft tone, "but I'm not sure if they qualify as sane, even by our standards."

The brunette nodded. "So I've been hiding out in the Emergency Ward, helping out whoever needs it, and telling myself that that's enough. And most of the time it is enough. But with all these new Sues and Stus showing up in greater numbers with greater threats to our cause and our lives, we need every agent we can muster." Privately she giggled at Tash's reaction when Valerie revealed to the Society about her healing ability, back when Adrian was injured in the Fate/Stay Night universe. "You've been able to do this for how long? And you never told us?" Valerie could only shrink under their leader's gaze. "I, uh... I was busy with schoolwork... Finals, you know?" It had been an interesting day, to say the least.

"Projective empathy can be used as a weapon if it's strong enough," she continued, "but I'm mainly receptive, so that's harming myself too. Archery is really my only choice, since it keeps me far enough away from my target that it's harder to feel that pain."

Monika nodded as well. Of all in Valerie's team, she had the fewest of what could be deemed "powers." Her only gifts were some mild projective empathy, enough to be very persuasive when she wanted to be, and a great deal of common sense. They had been best friends for as long as they could remember, and even though they had their spats, as all friends do, there was no one who's opinion Valerie valued and trusted more.

"I guess I'm just not sure what to do," the brunette finished lamely. "I don't want to fight, but it seems like, more and more, fighting is the only way to get this war to end." She returned to the beginning of the range with the collected arrows in her quiver and picked up her bow again. "But how is that right? How does violence against the Sues make us any better than them?"

'In my life, there are so many questions and answers that somehow seem wrong...'

Monika hesitated a moment before answering. "I could say that we're not the ones making violence," she said slowly, "that they're the ones who brought this battle to us. I could say that up until recently it's just been police work; that they made it into a war, and we're only defending ourselves. But that's not what you're asking, is it?"

Valerie couldn't meet her tall friend's eyes, so she mutely shook her head.

Monika drew back her own bow and continued practice. Valerie did the same. Neither of them spoke for a long time.


There was a sizable black and blue lump on Stacey's right wrist, and it seemed to be growing bigger even as Valerie examined it. "Yep," she said, "That's a bone bruise. And let me tell you, you're not gonna get rid of that in a hurry..." Muttering to herself, the healer opened a cabinet, selected an herb poultice, and handed it to her friend. "Keep that pressed on it as much as you can. And use ice on it when you can't. Not heat; that'll just make the swelling worse."

Danielle looked more demure than Valerie had ever seen her as she hovered over her blonde friend. "I am so sorry, Ami-chan," she said penitantly.

Stacey offered her a pained smile. "I'm hearing deafening appologies from Ezra, Danielle. I don't need them from you too."

The redhead let out a nervous giggle and took a small step back, no longer hovering obsessively. "Sorry," she said again.

Valerie rolled her eyes slightly. "Here," she said, putting a hand on Danielle's shoulder, "why don't you go file an accident report before the paperwork starts breeding again. And after that I want you to find Monika and practice your psychic abilities some more. If she's not around, see if you can annoy a swordwork lesson out of Terrie. Kay?"

Danielle's face split into a broad grin, and Valerie knew she would be seeing Terrie first. She left eagerly without a further word.

Back in the Emergency Ward, the two remaining girls chuckled appreciatively at their youngest team member's excitability. "She's been wanting to learn swordwork for nearly a year now," Valerie commented. The only reason Terrie - who loved new chances to show off her skills - hadn't opted to teach her was that Danielle might be too old to begin such complex training from scratch. Valerie privately disagreed. Danielle, though stubborn and impatient at times, had a near miraculous ability to learn almost anything completely on-the-fly, and had a resilience that bordered on the paranormal.

The blonde girl next to her scoffed. "As if she needs a bladed weapon to do significant damage. Her staff seems to work just fine." Valerie noticed the hard gray gleem in her friend's sea-colored eyes and realized that it was not Stacey, but rather her alter-ego Ezra, speaking now. The warrior side of the blonde shot Valerie an almost embarrassed look. "You do realize the spar was tilted in her favor, right? She was armed. I wasn't."

Valerie chuckled. Ezra's pride was the thing most wounded right now. "As if you could possibly do any better with a staff than with your own fists, Ezra. It was fair."

Ezra never pouted. Never. "I went easy on her..."

The healer did her best to suppress the giggle that welled up in her, but it was difficult. Instead, she busied herself with infusing healing energy into the bruised wrist. Her own power combined with the herbs from the poultice, making them that much more effective. Already the swollen area had lightened in color as the pooled blood under the skin resumed proper circulation.

"Next time," she said absently as she worked, "let Stacey fight some. She needs the practice just as much as anyone else, y'know."

"I'm perfectly fine, both of you!" Stacey exclaimed as she took back control. "Geez, I can take a little pain!"

Ezra returned to respond. "Yeah, that's great for you. But can you inflict any?"

Valerie put her hands on her hips. "You of all people should know the answer to that one," she said, addressing Ezra.

The brunette wasn't entirely sure which of them blushed.

"Valerie," Stacey said, suddenly serious, "Are you alright? I know something's bugging you. You've been in such a funk since Blake left."

The healer started, and then remembered that Stacey, too, was an empath. One more sensitive than herself, actually, though with a good deal less control of her abilities due to a complicated home life. Of course she would've noticed Valerie's turmoil, even if she couldn't pinpoint the entire cause.

'Think of me. Think of me fondly when we've said goodbye.'

"He was my friend," Valerie said simply. "And I'm going to miss him, even if he doesn't believe I will."

Stacey nodded, and then put her injured hand over Valerie's. "When he's ready to talk to you again, he'll know where to find you."

Valerie let out a half-smirk. "Is that precognition?" she asked dryly. The gift of prophesy was another talent of Stacey's. The girl had power - lots of it. And perhaps everyone in the Library except for her knew it. So even though the healer spoke somewhat sarcastically, part of her - more than part - hoped that Blake really would come back.

Stacey smiled. "Only if you want it to be."


What a day... Even though it was just business as usual in the Anti-Cliche and Mary-Sue Elimination Society, Valerie was feeling a bit more tired than usual as she climbed the stairs to her favorite retreat.

You should get some chocolate in you, dear, said a gentle voice in the back of her mind. You've been working with your mind all day.

Valerie smiled at the concern in her spirit guardian's mindvoice. Ari wasn't the most talkative of beings, but the things she did say were always worth paying attention to. I'll get some before I leave for home, I promise, she replied.

A mental nod was her only response, and Valerie continued climbing the spiral staircase to the top of one of the Library's towers. Even in the towers, she noted, books lined the walls in shelves upon shelves... though the brunette was a bit perplexed at some of the more obscure titles. "The Ancient Guide to Females"? Wasn't that in Xialin Showdown? Apparently this building housed not only all the stories, but all the stories within those stories. I wonder if I can find Nightblades in here somewhere? she thought absently as she climbed. Or maybe Windrider Unchained...

Finally, she had reached the last stair, and a grin broke across the girl's face as she headed for the balcony to claim her prize: the most spectacular view imaginable.

Because the Library Arcanium existed everywhere and everywhen, the space surrounding it was consequently both nothing and everything. The blackness of space was layered with images both beautiful and fearful, astonishing and ordinary, profane and profound. Every thought in her own mind, as well as every mind that ever existed, was projected onto that midnight sky in a myriad of colors and symbols too chaotic to imagine. And it was never the same twice.

Once, Valerie had tried to take a picture of the vision before her, but the photos had only shown black nothingness. The beauty of the universe was in the eye of the beholder, it seemed.

'The courage of a dreamer, the innocence of youth...'

She looked in the direction of a small woosh sound, and smiled as Ari - in her most commonly used form, a small queen fire-lizard - flew lazily toward her chosen and backwinged to land on her shoulder. Valerie smiled again as her guardian nuzzled her neck affectionately, and stroked her back. Been keeping busy? she asked.

Oh, you know. This and that. Valerie chuckled at Ari's deliberate obtuseness. The little dragon was always up to something, but rarely did she see fit to inform Valerie of her activities. Valerie was always left curious, but always gave up asking eventually.

You've been visiting the basement again, haven't you.

The abrupt change of subject surprised Valerie, and she turned to look at her guardian with a start. "Why do you ask?" she said aloud, not wanting to speak with her jumbled thoughts.

Because you are invariably attracted to people in pain and bad spirits, Ari said plainly. And though the Mary-Sues in the basement dungeon only barely merit being called "people," you will still feel compelled to help them and comfort them to the best of your ability. Even without empathy to compel you to ease such disturbances, it's just in your nature to want to help those who need it and help them avoid further harm. Am I right?

Ari was exactly right, but neither of them needed to say that. The fact was, Valerie had been visiting the prisoners in the dungeon once or twice a week for over two months now, talking to them and bringing them cushions or blankets, things to make their accomodations more comfortable for them. They were, after all, only acting as they were created to act, so didn't they deserve the same fair treatment as everyone else? And though they inserted themselves into fandoms, they only did so because they didn't have a home to call their own. They were drifters, hopping from fandom to fandom in an attempt to make something of themselves. And, when you got right down to it, they just wanted to make things right in the storylines.

Valerie would never admit it, but she sometimes wondered if they even had the right to persecute people who only wanted a place to belong.

'...The failures and the foolishness that lead us to the truth...'

And what about Runoa? Ari interjected, picking up on her thoughts as she always did. She's the reason Adrian nearly died twice. Or Harold, who beat Michael into a bloody pulp without batting an eye? Or perhaps Willowe, the diabolical mistress behind everything we've gone through so far? You've sensed their minds and hearts throughout your journey, Valerie, and you know without question that perfection is not what they're after. They want control.

Valerie felt some of the tension leave her stomach, and nodded. Once again, Ari was exactly right. There was no compassion in the hearts of Mary-Sues, only a desire for domination. Characters and fandoms are so much easier to manipulate if they're content, after all. And if all the characters are content with their lives, there would be nothing left for them to strive for. No story at all! That was how fandoms were destroyed in the presence of Sues: the storyline simply... stopped.

What Willowe and her kind don't see is the perfection that's already there, Valerie thought. Everything happens for a reason. Every story, even the most deadly of blacklisted fandoms, has a plot that's already worked-out and perfected. All the trials and hardships... if not for them, how would we know what happiness even is?

Ari blinked at her with swirling blue draconic eyes. You cannot know warmth if you have never known cold, she quoted. You cannot know know happiness if you have never known sadness. You cannot know love if you have never known fear.

And you cannot know peace if you have never known war, Valerie finished. I understand. Fandoms... our lives, even, are based around the fact that everyone has to have encountered both ends of the spectrum in order to recognize either when we see it. If all there is is Sue-manufactured happiness, then there's no happiness at all.

'...The hopes that make us happy, the hopes that don't come true...'

Ari nodded her triangular head. But there's something else that's bothering you tonight. Tell me.

Valerie laughed. Compared to everything else that's going on even as we speak, my everyday little troubles seem kind of petty...

They matter to you, Ari said firmly, That's all that counts.

The brunette sighed. I guess I'm just feeling lonely, she admitted, and maybe a little jealous. So many of my best friends are just deliriously happy with their romantic lives. Tash and Adrian. Michael and Claire. Danielle and Felix. Stacey and Don. Even Terrie and Zanney. Sometimes I feel like I'm not good enough to be... wanted like that.

It was impossible to hide anything when speaking mind-to-mind, and Valerie suddenly found herself on the receiving end of a surprisingly penetrating blue gaze. No, Ari said in a tone Valerie couldn't quite place. She almost sounded angry. No, Valerie. Never think that sort of thing. It was all she seemed able to say.

Valerie was caught up in the depthless blue for a moment longer, then let out a small laugh. Well, I know it's not really true, she said, but you know me. My confidence has never been very high. I just have trouble going out and meeting people, is all.

Your confidence skyrockets when you're defending the ones you love, Ari said in that same almost-angry tone, When it really matters, you have no hesitation at all. You will happily lay down your life to save a virtual stranger - Don't deny it! I've seen you. The real you comes through when you're helping someone else, and that makes you more precious than anything else in all the worlds.

Valerie had absolutely no idea what to say.

'...And all the love that ever was. I see this all in you.'

Never feel like you're not good enough, Valerie, Ari said, because you are the most good person I know. And if you don't believe me... Her mindvoice gentled considerably, and her depthless blue eyes focused on a point behind her, ask your friends.

Valerie turned around, and was stunned to see all the members of her team, plus Tash, standing at the top of the tower stairs behind her, waiting for her to notice their presence. "How... How did you guys know I was here?" she sputtered.

Tash was grinning. "I was sitting in the common room, going over the blueprints I found for some of Adrian's booby traps, when I heard singing coming from the west tower. The others said it was you, so we came to visit you. You sound nice!"

"Wait a sec," Valerie interrupted, confused, "I wasn't singing! In fact I haven't said more that five words since I got up here! How could you hear me?"

Terrie walked over and put an arm around the taller girl's shoulder. "Hun, take our word for it. You were singing."

"You do it all the time," Stacey said. "You really couldn't tell?"

"How do you not know when you're singing?" Danielle asked, giggling a bit. "You do it so often, I think everyone in the Library recognized your voice by now!"

"I can sort of see why it's a Sueish trait to have a nice voice," Monika commented, leaning against the railing. "It's nice to have it around, always in the background like that. Kind of calming, you know?"

For the second time, Valerie was rendered completely speechless. I've been singing without realizing it? All day?

More like all your life, Ari commented dryly. Valerie flushed, and was profoundly glad she was the only one who could hear her guardian.

"Listen Val," Stacey said, "Why don't you come back downstairs. Tash has pretty much figured out how to disarm the trap in the autobiography section, so we'll have plenty of cookies to munch on. Ezra wanted to know if you had another poultice for me, 'cause I think this one's worn out." She help up her bandaged hand to reveal a worn, lumpy herb poultice in need of replacement (though the wrist itself looked just about healed).

"And I've got some more drawings to show you!" Danielle said eagerly.

"And I was wondering if I could enlist your help in rounding up all the plot bunnies that have been breeding in the animal pen," said Tash. "With all the publicity we've been getting and all the new rookies that keep coming in, they've just been breeding like mad!"

"Hey," Terrie replied, "it's better than dealing with writer's block."

Tash looked skeptical. "With the way they've been biting everybody, I'm not so sure. Some of those bunnies have some pretty weird ideas..."

Valerie looked among her friends, the closest people in her life. They might not always get along, but they were, without question, standing behind her. With her. Through thick and thin. She looked out once again at the swirling not-void, mesmerized by the shifting colors and designs. In the chaos that is the known universe, how could anybody not find perfection in little wonders like this? In everyday miracles that fit flawlessly within the disorder and cacophany of life, in perfect moments in time that made the rest of it worthwhile?

Never feel like you're not good enough, Valerie, Ari had said. Never feel like you're alone.

"Come on, guys," Valerie said with a smile. "Let's head back downstairs."

Her friends smiled back at her, and she felt like she could take on the world.

"Always look on the bright side of life..."


Ari watched her chosen go back inside with a feeling of mild regret. What she had said was true: a person cannot truly know a thing until he or she has learned it's opposite. But although Valerie had encountered her opposite many many times, in many different forms, she had yet to realize how extraordinary she really was.

Who else would see perfection in a world so troubled, Valerie? she said silently. Who else would find the pinpoint of light when everyone else is drowning in darkness?

That was her destiny, Ari knew. When all else was in darkness, Valerie would help them - all of them - rediscover the light. It was Ari's mission to protect her until she was ready, and guide her along her path. Valerie was a true Healer, and she would fulfill her dream of healing the worlds... one close friend at a time.

A soft soprano voice floated up the stairwell and past Ari's ears. It sang of love and healing, joy and sorrow, but most of all it sang of forgiveness, and hope for a better future. A hope that resided in Valerie, and the lives of everyone she touched.

"For out of what we live, and we believe, our lives become the stories that we weave."

The dragon flew off into the distance.

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