Saturday, August 17, 2013

Insert Jaw-Dropping Reveal Here (part 5 of 5)

"And I'd give up forever to touch you,
Cause I know that you feel me somehow.
You're the closest to heaven that I'll ever be,
And I don't want to go home right now.

"And all I can taste is this moment,
And all I can breathe is your life.
Sure, sooner or later, it's over.
I just don't want to miss you tonight."

—The Goo-Goo Dolls, "Iris"


Adrian the Librarian opened his eyes.

No one else even dared to breathe.

For a long moment, it seemed as though time had ceased, and the entire multiverse had shrunk down encompass five individuals with the shining walls of the little white room as its borders. There were no fandoms. There were no Sues to capture. There were no other Society agents. There wasn't even a Library Arcanium. There was only Adrian, blinking in confusion against the blinding white light and surrounded by those who were now bound closer to him than family.

Tash was the first to move, and her stride and demeanor looked dangerous. Michael was the second to move; he put out a hand to stop her.

"Give him a minute. He's probably disoriented."

The Leader rounded on him. "I don't bloody care if he's bloody disoriented! Adrian, you fucking bastard!" she shouted as her brother attempted to restrain her, "How dare you leave me behind! How dare you knock me out with the specific intention of going off to die! You know I'm supposed to die before you; how dare you break your promise! Well I've got news for you, mister—Tyler and Drake have found and broken through every one of your remaining booby traps, so you have no candy reserves left! None! And Phoenixia is hereby off-limits until I say otherwise! And you are grounded, with no Counter Guardian missions whatsoever; and if the Powers That Be have something to say about that, then I don't bloody care! And you're sleeping on the couch for a month, you bastard! And I'm filling your office with yellow Starbursts!"

Suddenly, the Librarian seemed able to focus, and his gaze stopped on the love of his life. "Oh, come on!" he whined, "The yellow ones are disgusting!"

Letting out a choked sob, Tash threw herself at her lover, trying and failing to simultaneously kiss the life out of him (or back into him, as it happened) and continue her rant, which began to involve expletives in multiple languages. When she finally managed to tear herself away, Michael took his turn with a great bear hug around his best friend, grinning from ear to ear. Aster was completely unable to contain herself—the fae took flight and immediately began circling her friends and zigzagging all around the room, whooping her joy to the world.

In the midst of all this, Adrian spent a long while simply being the most confused he'd ever been in his life. Looking around, he seemed even more puzzled by his surroundings—he could make out a little of the golden designs' meanings on the luminous walls, but that just confused him further. What was he doing here? What were his friends so happy about?

And then he caught sight of the broken Hoshikuzu pendant resting atop the fourth pillar.

Adrian's eyes went wide as everything came back to him in a rush of memories—the invasion, evacuating his friends to the Real World, the battle inside the Pillar of Knowledge, his own death, even his visits to hell and purgatory. He looked at Tash, who was still alternately hugging him and cursing his name. But when she saw his face, she knew.

He swept his lover up in a fierce hug, for once with the intent of finding his own comfort, rather than the other way around. This was a lot to take in, even for him, and he found stability in the familiar scent of her hair. "Tash," he whispered, his throat raw, "How did this happen?"

The slender blonde Leader—Librarian no longer—pulled Adrian down for another kiss, this one gentler than the others. "There'll be time for that later, love. Right now we need to celebrate."

Adrian could only nod as she began to lead him out of the room. Michael quickly followed, rapidly relaying everything the Librarian had missed in his absence and completely unable to stop grinning. Aster brought up the rear, still in flight and still shouting happily in Japanese.

And Valerie?

While Adrian was being welcomed back into the world, Valerie could only take a step backward, and then another, until she was leaning against the curved walls of the shining room. As silently as she could, she slid down the wall and hugged her knees to her chest, tears already pricking at her eyes. By the time the others had left and she was alone, she was sobbing uncontrollably. Tears rolled in rivers down her cheeks until her body trembled with the sheer weight of it all, and still she did not make a sound.

She kept her head bowed, but soon became dimly aware of Kuroneko's light footsteps, followed by those of her teammates. Concern emanated from all of them, but Valerie did not move.

"...It's probably best if we leave her alone," she heard Kuroneko say to the others.

There was a pause as Stacey and Monika exchanged a look.

"No it's not," said Monika.

Stacey and Terrie knelt down and wrapped their arms around their friend while Monika and Danielle, who did not do the hugging thing, sat down across from her and placed a hand on the empath's knees.

Valerie, who was finally feeling the impact of her grief at the death of a friend, grief she had so long suppressed for a death she had so long denied, merely leaned into their touch and cried until she had no tears left.


"And you can't fight the tears that ain't coming, or the moment of truth in your lies..."

Valerie sang to herself as she worked, for the first time in ages. She was cleaning up the section of the monitor room that had been "hers" for the past few months. In actuality, it had been almost a week since she'd seen it last, the last day or two of which had been busy indeed.

The moment Michael set foot outside of the shining white room into the calm ocean of shadows beyond, the Darkness had roared awake from its forced hibernation, determined to both catch the company off-guard and to make up for lost time. However, lightning-fast, Tash lit a controlled bonfire under the creature's nose, driving the parasite back into the safety of Micheal's mind in a manner that left Adrian both pleased and impressed. Not surprised though. He knew he'd left the Library in good hands.

When discussing how to break the news of his return to the rest of the Society, Adrian was all for simply showing up at breakfast the next morning and waiting for someone to notice (though Phoenixia suspected he had another reason for desiring privacy during his first night back). However, there was no stopping Aster—the little fae had zipped through the building, joyously passing the news around. Given her brief fling with insanity, most of the Library's occupants weren't exactly inclined to believe her, but little by little, they started to grow curious. Only a few hours later, Adrian's booming voice could be heard echoing through the halls in an exasperated shout:

"By the Powers That Be, if I catch one more person peeking into my bedroom door, I will make them dust the encyclopedia shelves until Phoenixia is straight and I'm not! Which is five days after the end of my immortal, eternal life!" This was followed by the sound of a door slamming shut.

In the silence that followed, a small, poorly restrained giggle managed to be heard.

"Can I glomp you?"

And all bets were off after that.

"When everything feels like the movies... Yeah, you bleed just to know you're alive..."

With Adrian's return, the title of Librarian was, by default, passed back to him. However, Tash wasn't exactly willing to step down—partly because she claimed that Michael was a thousand times better Chief Agent than she ever was, but mostly because, now that she had experienced some of what her beloved went through every day, she was determined to ease that burden in any way she could. In the end, the blonde Leader was given an intermediary position, temporarily dubbed "Assistant Librarian" until someone could come up with a cooler-sounding title. Her exact duties were still being worked out, but so far everyone was pleased with the arrangement.

In the end, it was kind of a surprise to find out that, even though everything was different now, very little had actually changed. Rhia still cooked, Tyler still ate, Aster still read manga, Shirley still beat up Ben, Phoenixia still showed off her body at every opportunity, and Valerie still kept mostly to herself and sang softly in the hallways. The worlds continued to turn, just like they had when a life was taken away from them instead of given back. None but those in the Library Arcanium would know of the miracle that had occurred that day. Only this time... this time it felt right.

"And I don't want the world to see me, 'cause I don't think that they'd understand..."

"I'd missed that."

Valerie whipped around in surprise to see Adrian leaning against the doorway, a small smile on his face. It still hadn't stopped being wonderful, seeing the man in mundane, everyday situations, alive as anyone could be, and she couldn't help but smile in return.

"The singing, I mean," he said, shoving off the doorframe and stepping towards her. "Wherever I was before you rescued me, one of the things I really missed was listening to you sing absently as you went about your day."

Valerie blushed, though she was secretly pleased by the praise. "It's not as though it's anything special..."

"Quite the contrary," Adrian interrupted, "Memories of you and Tash and Michael and Aster were what kept me sane. It was all I could think of—finding some way to get back here, to all of you."

The empath covered her reaction with a small chuckle. "Nine months is a long time to wait, I suppose..." Then she laughed. "You're lucky we only have a handful of new agents to introduce to you, Adrian. One of us could've had a baby in the time you were gone!"

A curious expression crossed the Librarian's face. "...Did any of you?"


A split second passed, and then they both burst out laughing, tears pricking at their eyes. "Though I suppose it's appropriate, in its way," Adrian decided. "Nine months must be how long it takes for a man to be reborn."

"We were all reborn, Adrian," said Valerie. "One way or another, very very few things are the same as how you left them."

"But it's the important things that are the same."


Adrian swallowed. "I... I don't know how I could possibly begin to thank you for everything you've done—"

She turned red again. "I just did what anyone here would have done, had they the right set of talents and information," she said hurriedly. "Besides, if you want to thank someone, talk to Kuroneko. She's the one who—"

"I've already spoken to Kuroneko," Adrian interrupted with a smile, "and believe me, she was not nearly so unnecessarily modest! But she did tell me to give you this, and Tash and I both agree you should have it." He uncurled his hand and offered its contents to her: it was the broken Hoshikuzu pendant.

Valerie was confused. "But... aren't you going to fix it?"

He shook his head sadly. "It wasn't just broken that night, Valerie, it was shattered. I doubt there are any sizable pieces left to be found, and everything else was swept away by the wind. It really is just stardust now."

The healer was silent for a moment, then accepted the gift with reverence.

"I don't know what I can begin to do repay you," Adrian said solemnly, "—and don't try to argue with me, because I will!—but I figure this is a start."

"Yeah, well..." Valerie said, her throat beginning to close up, "Just... You'd better not do this again! It was quite a lot of trouble bringing you back, so if you pull any more stupid stunts, then I'll—" but no more words would come through.

"Trust me," Adrian said after a time, "you're not the first person to give me incomprehensible death threats today."

Valerie let out a choked sound that might have been a laugh, and suddenly they were both swept up in each other's arms. And all Valerie was able to do was hold him tightly... and cry. He was here. He was real. He was safe. It wouldn't always be that way, she knew. As Zero had said, everyone dies. But for now, today, their own mortality seemed like such a far-off thing. And maybe, for a while at least, they could pretend it would always be that way.

"Thank you, mi'hala," Adrian whispered hoarsely into her hair. "Not just for this. For everything. I honestly don't know where we'd all be without you."

"Knee-deep in shit, that's where," the empath replied with a tearful laugh.

"And we'd all do best to remember it!" he finished, releasing her and holding her at arm's length. He looked her over a time or two, and smiled at what he saw. "You're different too, you know," he said finally. "I mean, you've always been different, but you're different than how you were before."

"Yeah," said Valerie. "I am."

After a moment, Adrian gave a small sigh. But the smile remained. "I should get going," he said. "There's so much I've got to catch up on, but I just wanted to come in and say that. The thank-you bit, I mean. And—"

"Relax, Adrian," Valerie said with a smile. "I will definitely be seeing you around."

"And that," he said, "is one of the best bits of news I've heard all day."

"Not the best?" she teased.

"Oh, I think you know what the best was," he replied, grinning. "See ya!"

Valerie watched him as he left, the familiar swish of his trenchcoat so wonderful in her ears. "See you, Adrian," she said softly.

And she was alone again.

Except... she wasn't alone. She'd never been alone in her entire life, and it had taken her twenty-two years and the uncannily accurate advice of a brand new ally to realize it.

In her life—but especially in the past two years of it—Valerie had met more people and been to more places than she might have ever imagined. As anyone in the Society could attest, life in the Library was a dream come true for those who wanted more from life than Reality could offer, for those who turned to books and stories for the release to travel to far-distant places... for those who wanted, more desperately than anything else, to believe that magic was real. And yet none of the, not one, spoke of a deep feeling of connection, of unity with something larger every time they used their powers or special skills. Of hopes and fears so basic and universal that they were impossible to ignore!

Valerie didn't know whether this feeling was unique to herself or something everyone had the potential for but didn't quite know how to access. She certainly hadn't had access to it before, although she knew deep down that it was there. Everything is connected, deep down, she thought. And now, because of what happened, we've drawn that connection a little closer to the surface.

It was at once the loneliest and least lonely feeling in the world.

Without knowing precisely why, the empath turned to her monitor and keyed in a set of coordinates that she had come to know quite well of late. A small plothole opened behind the monitor, and through it she could see that familiar grassy knoll where she knew someone was awaiting her return.

"When everything's made to be broken, I just want you to know who I am..."

Valerie gripped Hoshikuzu tightly, smiled, and stepped through the plothole.

"I just want you to know who I am..."


The man who called himself Zero was waiting for her.

Valerie looked at him and resisted the urge to smile—he looked so like Adrian, it was hard not to. There were several key differences though: light, mousey brown hair instead of white; pale pink eyes instead of violet; and, of course, the distinct lack of cat features. Of them, the latter probably made the most sense. Zero was a genetic replica of Adrian created by Runoa, and the Librarian's furry features were added by Tash and not an inherent part of his DNA.

When he saw her, he stood up and approached her, all the time wearing that odd little half-smile she'd come to associate with him. "Did it work?" he asked.

She nodded. "But it's probably best if Adrian's return is kept a secret for now. We finally have an advantage that Runoa doesn't know about. I'd like to keep it that way for as long as possible."

Zero nodded in understanding. "With the Sovereigns and Silri running around, you'll need every ace-in-the-hole you can get your hands on."

Valerie clasped her hands behind her back. "I... I also wanted to thank you. For what you said before. Empathy may be a calling, but any calling requires passion... and passion is the first thing to go when you calling turns into your job. It made me bad at what I do, and everyone almost suffered for it."

He smiled. "Nah, you would've found a way."

She rolled her eyes. "How, oh smart one?"

"I dunno. I just know that you would have." He continued grinning at her.

Valerie drew in a breath to retort... and then let it out as a sigh. Zero was nothing like Adrian, but something told her he was good all the same. "I know it's kind of a funny thing to say, since I'm not going anywhere, but... I'm glad I got to meet you." She bit her lip in thought, and then smiled as she looked up at him again, drawing something from her pocket. "Adrian gave me this, but... I get the feeling you should have it. Tash doesn't need it anymore and... well, neither do I, really. So here." She handed it to him and smiled when he took it gently in one hand. "Maybe you can think of something appropriate for it."

Zero looked at the Hoshikuzu pendant thoughtfully. Valerie noticed that the cut in his hand had already healed over. "It's good," he said slowly, "knowing I have a friend around somewhere. You don't come across those too often, especially not in my case."

"What do you mean?"

He chuckled and pocketed the trinket. "I'm on the run, remember? Maybe Runoa doesn't think I'm worth chasing, but Order isn't going to let me live, and neither will Creation. And in case you hadn't noticed, it's rather difficult keeping your whereabouts a secret from a pack of near-omniscient beings."

"Then come live at the Library," Valerie said earnestly. However, the smile fell from her face as Zero burst out laughing. "What?" she asked, vaguely insulted.

"Don't misunderstand me," he said, still chuckling, " Technically, I am a Gary-Stu. Even if it's not the basement I hang out in, I'd still be a prisoner there. No matter how pretty it is, a cage is still a cage."

"We'll prohibit you. After two hours, we'll know you can be trusted and you'll be free to come and go as you please. We can protect you, Zero!"

"Not happening," Zero said as the healer's eyes widened. "First of all, don't make the mistake of thinking I need protecting—I said it'd be difficult, but not impossible. Not even remotely impossible. And second of all..." he paused to gather his thoughts. "Even though world domination does not interest me the way it does most Stus, I take enjoyment and pride in my abilities and have no wish to relinquish them." With a smirk, the replica summoned a plothole behind him and slowly stepped through. "I get the feeling we'll meet again soon, Valerie. I certainly hope we do."

And he was gone, leaving Valerie wondering in increasing apprehension if she had just made a grave mistake.


Zero smiled as he stepped out of the plothole and surveyed his surroundings. He had arrived at a craggy cliffside, somewhere near the ocean if the smell of salt water was any indication. That was good, he liked cliffs. They made him feel as larger-than-life on the outside as he did on the inside.

This one, however, was doubly nice. There were boulders and other such giant rocks, but there was also greenery and plant life—grass beneath his feet and leafy branches overhead, even a handful of rosebushes, though the Powers That Be knew how they thrived in the salty air. The sunset darkened the budding red blossoms a deep indigo color, almost violet, and Zero just had to laugh at the irony.

He took Hoshikuzu out of his pocket.

Valerie was right, of course. There was no more need for stardust in the world, because stardust was everywhere—hell, people were made of it. So was everything else, for that matter. It connected everything in the universe, deep down. So what did it matter if one sword, however powerful and symbolic, was broken? It just meant that it was time for a fresh start.

It was then that Zero realized that Valerie was right about something else as well: he did know what to do now.

He looked around for a moment, and spotted a tree growing on the edge of a narrow piece of rock jutting over the cliffside. It was a young tree, barely a sapling, really, and the cliff hung so far over the side it was dizzying. It would break apart and fall into the ocean below someday, he knew. But for now, it suited his purposes just fine.

He chose a branch at about eye level, and hung Hoshikuzu by its string, where the little pendant dangled and swung in the breeze. He then took a moment to dig around in his trenchcoat pockets until he found a small, unlined notebook bound in black. In actuality, it was one of Creation's unused sketchpads, and Zero had nabbed it the day before he left Runoa's fortress as one last "Take that" to his creator. A cheap and probably useless shot, he knew, but he hadn't exactly been in a proper state of mind that day. But there was a miniature pencil attached, so it too served his purposes, even if he hadn't known that at the time.

In spiked, slanted handwriting, he wrote:

Journal: Final entry.

I doubt anyone will read this. By the time this book is found, it'll probably be underwater somewhere, completely illegible. Regardless, fictional characters don't mean much in the grand scheme of things, but that doesn't mean it doesn't mean something to me.

Willowe said that Sues and Stus lock themselves into a never-ending cycle corrupting and conquering. Silri said that she and I were born as nothing but weapons for those who would use us, and that it's impossible to escape that. Runoa said it was my purpose in life to be a relentless hunter who would never stop until I achieved my goals. All three of them were right, but Valerie helped me realize something else:

Every door swings both ways.

Runoa and the Sovereigns are powerful, far more powerful than anyone save Adrian might realize. Silri is confused, but she's a loose cannon and loose on the worlds; there's no telling what havoc she might cause. Willowe... Willowe died a broken woman, and there was nothing anyone, not even herself, could do to save her from that. "Being born into perfection eventually corrupts us all," she said. "We keep doing the same thing over and over again, always expecting a different result. And yet we can't stop."

I wasn't born into perfection—I was created. And that puts me in a unique position indeed.

There Zero paused in his writing a moment, pondering to himself exactly what that position would be...

Adrian had a purpose in life from the moment he was born to the moment he died, he wrote, and that purpose defined him in ways even he didn't realize. But I think I understand now, what it means to be a hero. It's not about giving up your life in order to save others, it's about being the kind of person that others would go to impossible lengths to save.

The Society's enemies are powerful, but so am I. Runoa thinks she's always three steps ahead, but I'm the one thing she can't predict. I'll be the wild card in this game of hers, and when the time finally comes that she backs herself into a corner, I know exactly where I'll be standing. Look out world. I won't be in hiding for much longer.

Zero paused again, biting the tiny pencil in thought before continuing.

It's a strange feeling. I suppose I should be nervous, or at the very least questioning my own existence, what with being Adrian's replica and all... but there doesn't seem to be a point to either exercise. Sure, I'm different from everyone else, but who isn't? That's another decision I've made lately: it's not the destination that counts, and certainly not the starting point—the former is the same for everyone, and the latter does nothing but give you the basic tools for your journey. And it's the journey that matters the most in life, because of the people you meet and the person you become along the way. Simple as that. If nothing else, that is what I will remember.

I wonder what adventures I'll have?

I guess I'll find out, won't I?

And he closed the book.

Gently, carefully, Zero set the little notepad against the trunk of the tree so that it rested directly beneath the pendant, nestled between two roots. It wasn't much of a marker, since neither the pendant nor the book were particularly noticeable unless you were looking for them. In fact, he realized with a small chuckle, it wasn't even a marker for anything anymore—Adrian was alive now. But then, maybe it could mark something else entirely: not a death, but new life. More than one, actually.

"Damn-fool lucky is what you are," Zero said softly. "Type IV Immortal or not, you would have died, but for an extremely unlikely set of circumstances. You really gotta wonder what that says about the validity of destiny. Not that I'd trade places with you for anything, but I gotta admit, you've got some pretty cool friends." A wind blew up, and he chuckled to himself. "We'll meet someday," he said. "Maybe not someday soon, but when you're ready to meet me and I'm ready to meet you, we'll find our way to each other... And then I've got some questions for you. After all, what kind of Librarian leaves his help desk empty?"

He did not expect an answer, though, for all he knew, there might have been one. This cliff was narrow and uneven, destined to break apart and be swallowed by the ocean someday. And yet the trees were strong and unyielding, and their roots ran thick and deep. Roots break rocks apart, but they can hold them together too. Just as the rosebushes shouldn't have been there, but were, perhaps the cliff itself would defy all logic and cling to life. Maybe the trees would die, and the ocean would claim this place, as it eventually claimed everything. Maybe the little crystal pendant and the notebook would wash away, never to be seen again. But maybe they wouldn't. Maybe this place would survive.

Hoshikuzu swung back and forth on its string, and the pages of the little black book fluttered in the breeze. Zero smiled, and turned to leave.

Maybe someone would find it one day.


Valerie quickened her pace as she strode up the Library's hallway. Despite being worried about Zero, she had decided to keep his existence a secret for the moment. He certainly wasn't against the Society, and while he wasn't quite with them, he still had a right to his own path in life. She just hoped that it wouldn't force Zero and her friends to cross swords someday... because she wasn't quite sure which side would need her most if it came to that.

But that was put out of her mind as she rounded the corner, for something else had caused the healer to quicken her step. Mingling with her own worry was an air of tension, of fear and worry in the Library. Something had happened while she was out... something bad.


At the sound of her name, she stopped as Adrian emerged from a doorway, a silvery trenchcoat flapping on his heels. Though barely a few hours ago, he had been laughing and relaxing and happy, it was like that had never happened now. Every inch of his body was in combat readiness, but she could feel the hot anger roiling just beneath the surface and the fury burning in his violet eyes.

"What is it? What's wrong?"

"Go get Aimee and Miriku and equip yourselves with whatever healing kits you think you'll need. Then give field first aid kits to all the Agents, ASAP. We're probably not going to have time to evacuate back to the Library on the battlefield."

"What? I don't think we have anything—Adrian what are you talking about?" Valerie had to hustle as he moved past her, pulling out his communicator to talk to someone. "What's happening?"

"I know it's sudden, but we're mustering the entire Society into this mission." His grip tightened on his communicator so much it creaked in protest. "Aster's been taken... by Runoa."

Note: This Zero is not to be confused with Agent Zero. Agent Zero was a one-off villain and is now dead. This Zero shall be around for quite a while yet...

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