Hello, although I'm a static Zero,
I'm fighting all your wars,
While you dwell in your hypocrisy
You think the world is fine,
When all the Evil's overlined,
Before you wake up this morning...
-Sonata Arctica, Zeroes
I'm fighting all your wars,
While you dwell in your hypocrisy
You think the world is fine,
When all the Evil's overlined,
Before you wake up this morning...
-Sonata Arctica, Zeroes
Nine Months Ago...
The Library Arcanium was in ruins.
Lily hurried through the shambles, searching desperately for Ben. All around her, Agents either set about doing minor repairs to start the cleanup operation or just marveled at the ruin about them. Lily could hardly believe Adrian was gone, but at the moment the pain from his death was eclipsed by her worry for Ben. She'd been assured that he was perfectly fine and hadn't been hurt at all, but if Adrian was dead, then...
She finally spotted Ben, standing with his back to her, his hands jammed deep into his pockets, staring blankly at the destruction Adrian's last stand had caused. Relief coursed through her system.
"Ben!" She called out, rushing towards him. The Agent turned at her voice and the first thing Lily noticed were his eyes. They were dull and defeated. There was no spark of laughter or any of the energy that defined him left in them.
She frowned worriedly, slowing her pace as she neared. "Are you OK?" She asked, holding out her hand which he took, a gesture that was more automatic than affectionate.
Ben thought for a long moment. "No," He said at last, turning back to the waste around them. "I'm not."
"What's wrong?" Lily asked.
Ben was about to reply when Drake called over.
"Hey, Ben! Could you give us a hand with this?" Drake walked over, wearing his Neo Scale Dragon Suit. Lily could hear him panting through his helmet.
"We're trying to move one of the chunks of rubble," Drake explained. "It's blocking a doorway, but it's too big for us to move on our own. Could you...?" He trailed off.
Without a word Ben turned and pointed limply towards the offending debris. The Agents who were cleaning scrambled out of the way when they saw who was pointing their way. "Don't mess with nukes," He said flatly, too out of it to even conjure up a dramatic tone of voice.
Ben sat down on a chunk of broken stone as the localized warhead connected and blasted the rubble into smaller, more, manageable pieces.
"That's what's wrong," he said simply, unable to even look at Lily.
Lily frowned, sitting down next to him. "I don't understand. You nuked it just fine."
Ben turned his baleful gaze onto the former Sue. "That's just it," He said flatly, before staring down at his hands. "I have one of the most powerful weapons of mass destruction of all time literally at my fingertips. I can make myself virtually intangible at will and I have the power channel the power of music to destroy even the strongest of my enemies. But despite all of that, look what happened," he gestured around at the destroyed Library.
"But this wasn't your fault!" Lily protested. "You can't blame yourself for what happened to Adrian, there was nothing you could do!"
"Exactly! There was nothing I could do!" Ben stared at the dust covered ground as he continued. "I joined the Society to stop the Sues. I dedicated my life and very nearly lost it several times fighting them. But when the time for our biggest battle came I was completely powerless! I can't fight worth squat in the Real World so all I could do was run and hide!" He clenched a fist in frustration. "I feel like there's something tearing at my insides! When I think about what happened to Adrian, all I can think is 'I could have done more.' I should have done more! I'm so useless!"
"Ben..." Lily put a hand on his shoulder. He was shaking.
"I don't want to be helpless!" Ben ground out through a clenched jaw. "I want to fight! I want to make a difference and count for something in this war!"
He finally raised his head, meeting Lily's gaze. "I couldn't even keep you safe!" His voice was starting to quiver. "I was worried sick the entire time, not knowing if you were alive or dead and the thing that nearly drove me insane was that even if you weren't, I couldn't do a thing about it! I-I just...Dammit..."
Ben's legs finally gave out and he slumped to the ground, head in his hands, still shaking.
"Dammit!" He shouted again. "Why? Why do I have to be so pathetic?"
Lily sank to her knees next to him, wrapping his arms around his trembling form. "It's OK, Ben..." She whispered.
"No, it's not!" Ben snapped, close to tears. "There was nothing I could do to keep you safe!"
"But I am safe." Lily gently replied. "And right now, that's all that matters."
Their eyes met again for a moment, and Ben finally dissolved into tears. Lily said nothing, just held him.
And around them, the Library began to rebuild itself.
It had been about a week since Adrian's resurrection and with his return, it seemed that new life had been breathed into the residents of the Library. Colors seemed brighter, smiles became bigger and more common and even the most menial of tasks became almost enjoyable.
Although nobody ever said it aloud, many were sharing the same thought. Now that they had Adrian back, the Sovereigns didn't stand a chance. Only some of the more senior agents realized that even with Adrian's return, all they had accomplished at best was regain a lost edge, one that more or less put them right back where they had started, but even when this was hinted at, the majority of the Society chose to ignore this fact and the Leaders chose to let them, for now. It had been a long time since morale was this high and they saw little harm in letting the Agents cling to their precious delusion. In time, they would come around on their own.
In all, an air of good cheer and confidence permeated the Society. Ben seemed particularly rejuvenated by Adrian's return, throwing himself at projects as if they were his mortal enemy.
Ben's hand was nothing more than a blur as it whizzed across the paper, his handwriting becoming increasingly more illegible as he wrote. He and Jess had decided to split up creative duties for their fledgling band. Jess was put in charge of writing the band's music, since she was familiar with the symphonic element that would be crucial in creating their unique sound, while Ben, who was more familliar with Death Metal, wrote the lyrics, providing half of one of the corners of the extreme side of their music.
The music itself would be a fusion of the heavily downtuned throbbing, grindingbeat of Death Metal combined with the technical melodiousness of an entire orchestra. The actual lyrics to the songs would flip between operatic-style wails and croons, and Death Metal growling and shrieking as the situation, and the vocalists taste, permitted. A vocalist which they still needed, not to mention a bassist.
Ben set his pen down, shaking his cramping hand with a grimace. "Come in!" he called in response to a knock at the door. He looked up, expecting to see Lily in the doorway and was surprised when Jess walked in.
"Hey, ready for practice?" she asked.
Ben glanced down at his watch and blinked in surprise. "Is it time already?" His brain had kicked into overdrive as he was writing, spitting out ideas for lyrics and titles faster than he could scribble them down on any scrap of paper at hand. He had gotten so swept up in his writing, he'd failed to notice the time.
"Alright," he said, grabbing Bahamut from it's stand by his bed. "Let's go."
Jess nodded and opened the door, only to find Lily standing in the doorway, her hand raised to knock. Jess blinked. "Oh, hey. What's up?"
"Um, Ben was going to take me shopping. Is he here?" Lily asked, peering around Jess to see into the room.
Ben slapped his forehead. "That's right," he groaned. "I was gonna take her to 104 in The World Ends With You." he let out a sigh. "Sorry, Lily, but I've got band practice right now. I'll take you some other time, OK? I promise." Lily started to say something, but thought better of it. She was obviously disappointed but she nodded anyway.
"Sorry!" Ben called over his shoulder as he and Jess hurried towards the band's designated practice room, Jess throwing Lily a sympathetic look over her shoulder and shrugging helplessly.
Lily sighed. She'd been looking forward to visiting her home fandom for the first time in over a year, but it looked as if she was going to have to wait a little longer yet. Plopping herself down on one of the Library's many couches in the commons, she pulled out Ben's DS and returned to playing Golden Sun. After several minutes of flashy Psyenergy spells and spectacular divine Summons though, a dull ache began to blossom behind her eyes and no amount of rubbing could dispel it. With an irritated sigh, she set the handheld gaming device down and headed for the infirmary. Valerie should have some aspirin...
Valerie glanced over her shoulder and sighed. Avak was back. Again. He apparently thought he was invisible, hiding on the other side of one of the infirmary beds, most likely reading again.
Over the past few weeks since his creation, Avak had apparently bonded with Valerie and spent all day hanging around the infirmary, ducking into one of the back rooms to avoid anyone who came in. When news that Ben's new character was hiding out in the infirmary though, there was a constant stream of gawkers trickling in and out, trying to catch a glimpse of the elusive newcomer. This made Avak so nervous that Valerie had to restrict access to the infirmary.
At first she was content to let Avak stay hidden in the infirmary for as long as he liked and read, something he seemed to have picked up from her, but a time went on, it became increasingly more apparent that Avak had no intentions of leaving the infirmary unless he could help it, which prompted Valerie to kick him out for a while, hoping he would start talking to some of the other members of the Society and gain a little confidence. Seeing as how Avak had snuck back in however, this seemed unlikely.
The healer set down her work and silently moved over to Avak's cover, peering over the bedsheets. Sure enough, Avak sat huddled in the corner, his nose buried in a thick book.
"Avak?" Valerie asked gently. Avak jumped so badly the book went flying out of his hands.
"Oh... Hi, Valerie." He said sheepishly.
Valerie raised an eyebrow. "I thought I told you to stay out of here for a while," She chided gently.
"I know, but I was just getting to a good part in this book and I-"
"Avak, you can't hide in here forever."
The newborn character sighed. "I know..." He said sullenly.
"I told you before," Valerie said, half-sitting on the edge of the bed. "Nobody here is going to hurt you. In fact, most of them are eager to meet you. Why else do you think so many people have been coming through here lately?"
"But I... I just... Oh, I don't know..." Avak sighed, staring at the floor.
Valerie sighed again. "It's OK," She said. "I know how you feel. But at least try to talk to someone other than me or Ben sometime soon, OK?"
Avak nodded, though he looked far from thrilled at the prospect. "OK. Thanks, Valerie." He picked his book back up and located his page as Valerie reached across the bed to pat him on the shoulder before turning and walking back to her desk.
No sooner had she sat down than Lily walked in, rubbing her temples and grimacing. "Hey, Valerie," She said. "Got any aspirin?"
The healer sighed. "I told you," she said, standing abd pulling a bottle of pills from a cupboard. "You shouldn't hold those video games so close to your face! Especially not without glasses! Or contacts at the very least."
"Sorry," Lily shrugged sheepishly as Valerie drew a glass of water for her at a nearby sink.
Valerie frowned thoughtfully as Lily swallowed the pills and washed them down with a drink of water. "Say, Lily, could you do a favor for me?"
Lily nodded. "Name it."
With a glance back towards where Avak sat hidden in the corner, Valerie gently took Lily by the arm and drew her aside. "Do you think you could try talking to Avak for me?" She asked quietly so Avak wouldn't hear. She needn't have worried though. Once Avak started reading, there was little that could distract him. "You know, make friends with him?"
Lily frowned. "I'll try," The emerald-haired girl replied. "But I doubt he'll let me." Truth be told, Lily didn't know what to think of Avak. After he first introduced introduced himself just after her mission to Aria of Sorrow, he suddenly grew very nervous, stammered something, then scuttled away before either Lily or Karissa could say anything. At first Lily thought he was just another recruit and it was only later from Ben that she learned who, and what, Avak was. Lily couldn't help but feel uneasy about the fact that he was created specifically to wage war, but Valerie had saved her life though, so she was indebted to the healer.
Valerie looked releived. "Don't worry about that," She said. "I'm going to kick him out in an hour or so, so try to catch him before he holes up somewhere else. See if you can't get him to talk to you some, OK?"
Lily nodded. "Okay. See you, Valerie!" Upon exiting the infirmary, Lily ran into Karissa in the hallway, who frowned. "I thought you were going shopping with Ben?" Lily shook her head. "He had band practice." Karissa's frown deepened and she started to say something, only to be interrupted by the alarm. Shrugging, the two girls headed for the briefing room.
Taking a seat next to Karissa, Lily was surprised to see Avak slip into the room a few minutes later and take a seat near the corner, trying to appear invisible. Valerie must have used the alarm as an excuse to kick him out of the infirmary early. She made a mental note to catch him after the breifing.
As surprised as she was to see Avak already there, she was even more surprised to see the door open Ben, Shirley, and Jess walk in several minutes after the meeting started. "Sorry," Ben apologized in response to Michael's glare. "But the practice room is pretty far away from here and we didn't hear the alarm in time."
Lily and Karissa glanced at each other before returning their attention to the meeting. At least Karissa did.
Lily barely been paid attention, thinking about her Pins instead. The main reason she'd wanted to go shopping in The World Ends With You was because she wanted to buy some new Pins. She'd noticed during her past few training sessions that compared to her other Pins, Anguis was unwieldy and the narrow radius of the Nexus Ray made it ineffective. She had been hoping to purchase some replacement Pins for her Deck in 104. She was in the middle of debating the merits of a Pin with an Entanglement Psych compared to one with a Spark or Flame Core when Ben volunteered for the misson at hand and her attention snapped back to reality.
She sat up straight in her chair and turned to look over at Karissa, whose eyes widened. They were both thinking the same thing.
Michael raised a suspicious eyebrow. "Have you finished cleaning the Crimean War section?" Ben groaned and rolled his eyes. "Michael, I've polished the floors so much, I caught Phonexia using the hallway as a mirror the other day. And if I have to dust the Oceanography section one more time I'm going to grow rabbit ears and start hiding under couches." He yelped in pain as Shirley grabbed him by his hair and slammed his head into the table with a bang. Lily growled, but nobody noticed.
"Okay, fine you can go," Michael sighed in agrement once Ben shook the stars from his vision and climbed up from where he'd fallen under the table. "No more monkey business though. Don't forget what happened the last time you went out on a mission alone."
"Oh, he's not going alone," Shirley said, cracking her knuckles. "I've been craving Sue artery for a week!"
Everyone else in the room paled.
"Sorry to bail on you like this, Jess," Ben apologized to his bandmate, rubbing his forehead.
"Mm, no problem," Jess shrugged. "I'm pretty sure I can find another way to amuse myself," She said, smiling suggestively at Avak.
"I take it your leaving immediately, then?" Michael asked as Ben stood.
"I need to stop by the band room to pick up Bahamut first, but yeah. C'mon, Shirley!"
"Okay, meeting dismissed, I guess," Michael said as Ben and Shirley walked out.
Standing, Lily and Karissa shared a meaningful look before joining the rest of the Society as they shuffled out of the room and back to what they were doing before the alarm went off.
Lost in thought, Lily stumbled when Avak, who had been looking over his shoulder, ran into her from behind.
"Oh, geez! S-sorry!" Avak stammered.
"Y-yeah," Avak said nervously, glancing behind him. Lily followed his gaze just in time to see Jess wink at him. Avak paled even more.
Lily frowned and made a split-second decision. "Hey, you busy?" She asked. Avak frowned. "Not really..." He said slowly.
"I was just getting ready to go shopping in The World Ends With You. You wanna come?"
Avak opened his mouth to protest... then felt the smoldering eyes of Jess burn a hole through the back of his shirt. His mouth snapped shut and he nodded vigorously.
"OK, so I'll meet you in the commons room in about...10 minutes?" Lily asked, glancing at the clock. Avak nodded again and sped out of the room, more to escape from Jess than to get ready to go shopping.
Turning to meet Karissa's inquisitive gaze, Lily shrugged. "Hey, if Ben's busy..."
Ben threw himself onto the dusty, ruined street, gasping for air, his chest heaving. Shirley came walking up a second later, covered with fresh blood. "You idiot," She growled, planting her hands on her hips. "What were you thinking?"
"H-hey!" Ben wheezed. "It's been a while since I've played this game! How was I supposed to know that Deathclaws weren't friendly?"
Shirley rolled her eyes. "Well, whatever. It's not like I'm complaining, I haven't had an esophagus like that in months," she said, licking the blood off of one of her claws. "Well, at least one of us is happy," Ben groaned as he hauled himself to his feet and tried dusting himself off. Unfourtnately for him, the fandom he was currently in was approxamately 90% dust, so it was a futile battle and he eventually gave up, adjusting Bahamut's strap and trudging down the street and continuing through the ruins of what had once been Washington D.C.
The Fallout series of games took place in an alternate timeline that had split off from reality right after the second World War, creating a planet that combined cathode-ray monitored computers, cars powered by nuclear reactors and laser rifles with cultural norms last seen in the 1950's. Through a series of events nobody was exactly sure about, war had erupted between the United States and China, resulting in both sides firing their entire stock of nuclear arms. The result pushed mankind to the brink of extinction, and reduced culture to a thing of the past. By the time the events of Fallout 3, the current fandom Ben and Shirley were in, took place, mankind, while not quite flourishing, had begun to beat back fate and reclaim their place on the planet. They weren't the only ones though, thanks to the effects of the fallout radiation leftover from the atomic bombs, mutants and freaks of all kind developed, nearly all of which were extremely dangerous as Ben's encounter with the Deathclaw attested.
D.C. itself had become little more than a ghost city, with the occasional scavenger or group of raiders setting up shop here and there. The buildings themselves lacked both life and color, as if the bombs hundreds of years before had killed them as effectively their myriad inhabitants, or had the life bled out of them agonizingly by the radiation that claimed the lives of just as many more. Many structures had collapsed entirely, barracading entire streets and forcing Ben and Shirley to take long detours. What little sunlight there was was obscured by the dust that still hung in the air, covering everything it touched with the ever-present twin shrouds of death and forgetfulness.
"How long is the narrator going to ramble on about how depressing this place is?" Shirley grumbled. "My legs would be killing me if I actually had any."
Ben glanced behind him at the Cliche Stick. "I thought I was supposed to be the one who makes the fourth wall comments?"
"Sue me, I'm getting sick of trapsing around this stinking city," Shirley growled. "Where are we even heading, anyway?"
Ben shrugged. "No idea."
"WHAT? Are you telling me you don't even know where you're going?"
"Shirley, look around," Ben sighed. "Every building looks just like every other building, of course I have no clue where we are. But I figure I'll be able to get my bearings if we find some kind of landmark or something I can use to orient myself."
"Do you even know where this Sue is?"
"Nope. That's why I want to figure out where we are exactly before we start off in the entirely wrong direction."
The Cliche Stick rubbed her eyes. "So let me get this straight. We're wandering around blindly, so that we WON'T be wandering around blindly?"
Ben shrugged. "Pretty much,"
"OK, now I know I've been hanging around you too much, that actually makes sense to me."
Ben glanced over his shoulder again. "Cool it, girl. D.C. isn't exaclty a big city in this game. At the most we only have ten more minutes of walking before we reach something I recognize." "We better, or else I'll start using your intestines to make a ball of string and tie it to something so we won't get lost,"
The 104 skyscraper was an icon of the fractured Shibuya depicted in The World Ends With You fandom. It was known primarily for two things, being the cutting edge of fashion in an ever changing city of trends, and a massive electronic flatscreen bilboard that adorned it's front that invariably had the most popular brand of the second flashing across it's LED surface. The inside of the mall itself was constantly packed with hordes of swarming shoppers who were all ready to pounce on what they thought was a deal or what could be the next big fad. No one brand or fashion ever reigned here for long. It would spend it's time as king, then be knocked down off it's perch by the next 'breakthrough' (which was usually just a new twist on something old), and would take it's place in one of the many specialty stores inside 104, biding it's time until the cycle repeated itself and it was time to be back on top again for another 15 minutes of fame.
Avak, upon seeing the crowds of people packed into 104, stopped dead. "Something wrong?" Lily asked, then she followed his gaze and realized her mistake. "Oh, sorry," she apologized, turning to leave. "C'mon, let's go home. You don't have to come if you don't want to."
Avak nearly agreed, but then he remembered Jess and he shook his head. "N-no. We don't have to go, I'm fine!"
Lily frowned. "You sure?" she asked.
Avak swallowed and nodded. "I'm fine..." He insisted.
Lily shrugged. "If you say so."
Winding her way through the eternal crush of ameture fashion models, Lily headed for Lifestyle Selects, one of the few non-speciality stores in 104, with Avak in tow.
"What do you think of this?" Lily asked, pulling a minty-green top off the rack and holding it up.
Avak shrugged. "It's OK," He mumbled
"Well, how do you think it would look on me?" Lily asked, holding it out at arms length so she could get a better look at it.
"...Fine, I guess..." Avak shoved his hands into his pockets.
"C'mon, Avak," Lily sighed as she put the top back on the rack. "You're supposed to be giving me your opinions here."
Avak blinked. "I am?" He asked.
"Well, why else do you think I asked you to come shopping with me?" Lily asked
Avak blushed. "I-I thought..."
Lily sighed. By not doing anything, Ben had screwed up Avak just as badly as if he had actually done something. "Let's try this," She suggested. "Take a look around and see if anything catches your eye. You don't have to like it, it just has to ineterest you."
Avak turned in place, letting his gaze sweep across the store. The merchandise on the racks and shelves weren't exactly fancy, but they did have a certain unique type of style to them. The only problem was it wasn't his kind of style. He widened the range of his gaze and frowned when he noticed something. "That looks kind of cool..." He said slowly, starting out of the store and across the hallway.
Lily frowned as she realized where he was heading. "That?" She asked before following him.
Avak plunged into the store like a swimmer into a pool, his hands sliding across the fabric on the racks like a musician at a keyboard. When Lily caught up to him, he was pulling a shirt off the rack and when she looked into his eyes she could see the glimmer of confidence shining in them for the first time. She smiled.
One thing Ben had always been proud of was his skill as a climber. His strong legs rarely failed him and he had a knack for finding paths up, down, or around where others couldn't. The pile of rubble he was currently ascending though was pushing tim to his limit. It wasn't a particularly complicated climb, but it was hard and long, forcing him to find new ways to support his weight as he as he reached for the next foothold. Shirley had an easier time of it, sinking her impossibly sharp claws into whatever she could and pulling her relatively light body up with ease.
Ben and Shirley had wandered around downtown D.C. for several minutes before they both finally lost patience and decided to try their hands at scaling one of the hundreds of mountains of obstructing rubble that filled the streets of D.C.
Shirley reached the top first and waited as her partner gasped and wheezed his way up the face of the rubble and finally flopped onto the top of the jumble, gasping for air.
"You really need to get out more." Shirley said, keeping her eyes fixed on the land that lay before them.
"G-give me a break," Ben panted as he lay on his back, gasping for air. "It's not my fault I've been stuck on cleaning duty for a month and haven't been outside." He tugged his flask from it's holding place and wearily took a long draught.
"Actually it kind of is," Shirley noted. "But at least we've finally found some kind of landmark."
"What do you mean?" Ben asked, still staring at the sky.
"Take a look for yourself."
With a groan, Ben rolled over to look across the city. What he saw made his eyes widen and made him sit up. "Wow..."He breathed. Ben had never seen the National Mall in Real Life, but doubted it was half as impressive as the sight that greeted him here. The Mall had once been a park several miles long with finely manicured lawns, lined on both sides with prestegious art galleries and musuems. Now, it was little more than a muddy hellhole. Trenches had been carved deep into the surface of the ground, streching from the Capitol building on one end, to the Washington Monument on the other, flanked by the decripit ruins of what had once been monuments to great men of the past.
Neither Ben nor Shirley said anything for a moment. "The game does not do this justice..." Ben murmured at last. Shirley snorted and folded her arms. "Eat your heart out, Nvida," Then something far to the left caught her eye, she turned. "Hey, what's that?" Ben frowned and shaded his eyes. "...That's the Reflecting Pool..." He said at last, and pulled out his Communicator. Shirley frowned. "What's wrong?" She asked.
"Why is it we can see the Reflecting Pool from this distance?" Ben asked, fiddling with the Communicator.
"I don't follow...aren't we supposed to be able to see it? I mean, it is reflecting."
Ben shook his head. "You don't understand, after the bombs fell all the water around here became irradiated, toxic, pure poison! It's supposed to be all green and murky!"
He raised the Communicator to his mouth. "Hey, anyone there?" He asked. There was a pause, before Tom's voice came out. "Ben? That you?" Ben frowned. "What are you doing on monitor duty, Tom? I thought it was Jared's turn!"
"Fourth Wall comment," Tom grumbled. Ben sighed. "OK, seriously, that used to be MY schtick! What happened?"
Shirley smirked "I think a certain three-headed dog got a hold of the author."
"Three-headed...WAH!" Tom's question was cut off as a burst of static came across the Communicator. Ben glared at Shirley as the Communicator squaked. "Thank you. Really." Shirley bared her fangs in a disturbing grin as the static faded and Tom came back on the line.
"Shirley!" He shouted. "I'm going to have a flamethrower with your name on it when you get back!" Shirley snorted. "Please do! Napalm does wonders for my bark!"
"Tom, you've got our chrono-geographical location locked on the computer, right?" Ben asked, preempting any further jibes.
"You better believe I do! Remember what happened the last time you went on a misson?"
"And just when I thought everyone was starting to forget about The World Ends With You..." Ben groaned.
Tom chuckled. "But, yeah, we've got you locked in. Why'd you ask?"
Ben sighed. "I need to know at what point in the game's timeline I am exactly."
"You're in Fallout 3, aren't you?" Tom groaned. "You know how hard fandoms like that are!" "I know, but I need to know!" Ben insisted.
Fallout 3 was what was known as an open-ended game, meaning that it not only had a main storyline, but had virtually hundreds of smaller side-quests that the player could embark on, ignoring the main quest entirely if they wished. This meant that the game continued even after the main quest had ended, so the game had no definite ending. The result was that gauging chronological locations in the timeline in games like these were extremely difficult.
Tom sighed. "I hope you don't mind waiting, this could take a long while."
"We've got time." Ben replied, sitting with his back to a section of broken girder. The sound of keyboard keys clicking breifly came across the Communicator for a moment before Tom cut the connection.
"So what, we just wait here?" Shirley demanded. "You know, this would've gone a lot faster had we taken care of all of this back at the Library."
Ben shrugged. "Hey, if we had, we would've missed all the description up there."
Shirley glared at him askance. "You know, there is such a thing as trying to hard."
Ben shrugged again. "Tell that to the writer."
Shirley paushed. "Okay, that one was pretty good."
Ben leaned back and was preparing to take a nap when Tom came back on the line. Ben quirked an eyebrow as he picked the Communicator back up. "That was fast..."
"Yeah, well it was easy, but I'm not entirely sure this is right." Tom sounded confused. "According to the computers... the time period you're in right now is before the game even started!"
Ben frowned. "Are you sure?"
"That or it either a glitch on the computer's part, but either way..."
"Do you know where the Sue is now?"
"Uh... yeah." The keys clicked across the Communicator again. "The Museum of History."
Ben frowned. "You sure?"
"Positive. Can you handle it from here?"
Ben nodded. "Yeah, we got it. Thanks!"
"Good luck! I'll be watching you from here!"
Standing, Ben tucked his Communicator away and stared down the rubble pile balefully. "I hate climbing down," He muttered as he gingerly began his descent.
Shirey on the other hand simply rolled her eyes and leapt from the top of the junk pile to land effortlessly on the ground two stories below.
Ben turned awkwardly from where he clung from a scrap of wire mesh to glare over his shoulder at his muse. "I hate you. Seriously."
"Sure you do," Shirley rolled her eyes. "Now get a move on, Peter Parker, time's a wasting."
"You know, some people get a hot chick for a muse..."
After several minutes of careful descent, ten curses, two bruises and a semi-shallow cut, Ben finally reached the ground on the other side of the rubble.
"So which way are we headed now?" Shirley asked. Ben raised a finger to his lips in a 'hush' gesture as his eyes scanned the Mall before them. "That way," Ben half-whispered, pointing to their left. "We should keep as close as possible to the buildings too."
"What? Why? And why are you whispering?" Shirley demanded.
"The Mall is swarming with Super Mutants." Ben replied, readying Bahamut.
"Take The Hulk, and give him a chaingun."
Ben kept a tight grip on Bahamut as he and Shirley skirted the edges of the National Mall, heading for the Museum. Neither said anything for several minutes as they moved furtively torwards their destination, Ben constantly looking around nervously.
"What are you so jittery for?" Shirley growled, "There's nobody in sight!" "Exactly!" Ben hissed back. "There should be Super Mutants everywhere! You see all the trenches cut into the ground and the fortified hills? This place is supposed to be a warzone!"
"Looks more like a graveyard to me," Shirley said, looking across the mud. Ben didn't reply, keeping his gaze fixed on the Mall. "So what's so importaint about this Museum of History anyway?" Shirley asked.
"It's home to Underworld, the city of ghouls. And keep your voice down."
"Ghouls? As in zombies?" Shirley asked, ignoring his order to be quiet.
"Don't call them that to their face," Ben advised. "They don't like that."
Shirley rolled her eyes, kicking a rusted can aside...somehow. "Ok, then. So what are they?"
"In short? People who've been bombarded by ridiculous amounts of radiation. Their skin starts to rot and their hair falls out. They're completely immune to radiation as a result though.
"Bet that's a big comfort." Shirley snorted.
"It's not," Ben replied, peering around a corner before proceeding. "Most people are prejudiced against ghouls because they're so ugly. So a group of sentient ghouls have created a hidden city in the Museum of History called Underworld."
"It comes from an exhibit," Ben explained. "The Museum was hosting an exhibit about the afterlife when the bombs fell, and, well... there wasn't anybody left exactly to change it after that."
"Wait, you said 'sentient' ghouls?" Shirley asked. "There's a non-sentient kind?"
"Some ghouls end up going feral as a result of the radiation. They're little better than wild animals, or even real zombies."
"How do you tell the difference?"
"The sentients wear clothes."
"...Okay. I did not need that mental image."
Once Avak got the hang of the mysterious female ritual known as "shopping", he quickly began to enjoy himself. He soon discovered a preference for the skater/hip-hop style of clothing offered by the Wild Boar brand, which surprised Lily, given his quiet personality.
Now, after two hours of intense shopping, the two sat in a fast food restaraunt in Shibykyu Stationside, located near the famous Statue of Hachiko, not far from 104 surrounded by their shopping bags. Avak had fewer bags, mostly because he was wearing his purchases, the muted red T-shirt with the "WB" logo known as "Sabotage" and a pair of baggy camoflagued shorts.
Lily had made more purchases, but had decided to save them for a special occasion. A bag marked "D+B" contained a new plaid miniskirt and skinny black jeans while a bag obtained during a repeat visit to Lifestyle Selects held a pair of red tennis shoes named "Young American." Despite the wide variety of stores contained in 104 Lily had been unable to find a Pin she liked.
"Avak, can I ask you a question?" Lily asked, setting her soda down. Avak swallowed a mouthfull of cheeseburger and nodded. "Go ahead."
"Why did you choose to join the Society? No offence, but you don't exactly have the type of personality I'd expect from someone being groomed to become a soldier. Why didn't you turn Ben's offer down?"
Avak shrugged. "Because I couldn't."
"But... Ben said he gave you a choice!"
"Oh, he did... but I couldn't take it."
"Did he force you?"
Avak shook his head. "You don't understand. It's like..." He trailed off and his eyes got a far-away look to them. "When he made his offer," Avak began slowly. "He made it clear that I could refuse him if I chose, but he had this...look in his eyes when he looked at me. It was like he was... hungry almost, his eyes had this almost mad quality to them. At that moment, I knew that there was nothing I could refuse him." Avak stared blankly at the plastic tabletop, his cheeseburge forgotten. "Ben can give me all the options he wants, but in the end he's stil my Author and I'll never be able to deny him or do anything except what he wants."
Neither of them spoke for a long moment, then Lily reached out and put a hand on Avak's arm. "Look at me," She said softly. Avak raised his eyes to meet her jade gaze. "There are only two kinds of choices in the world," Lily said. "There are the kind other people give you, and the kind you make for your own. If you can't bring yourself to take the choice Ben gives you, then don't be afraid to make your own. OK?"
Avak stared into Lily's eyes for a long time, then nodded. "Good," said Lily, standing up. "Now c'mon, I want to go check out that jewlery store over there," Picking up his bags, Avak followed Lily.
Up until that point the only emotions to pass through Avak's eyes were fear and confidence, but if Lily had looked behind her at that moment, she might have been in time to see a third emotion flash breifly to the surface.
Julia Roberta Oppenhimher's eyes widened as she looked at the two figures standing before her. She sat on a throne erected in the largest room Underworld had to offer on the second floor, surrounded by beautiful people all dressed fine clothes. The people were former ghouls who had apparently had their radiation sickness 'cured' by Julia, who had also restored the Museum of History to it's former glory, driven all the Super Mutants out of the National Mall, single-handedly eradicated every member of the evil Talon Company mercenaries and purified all the water within five miles.
The former ghouls flanking Julia glared suspiciously at Ben, many of them openly placing hands on their weapons, while an observant few eyed Shirley nervously, unsure as to what exactly she was. Unfourtnately for them, Shirley noticed their stares and gave them a disturbing grin, showing every fang in her mouth.
"Agent Ben of the Anti-Cliche and May-Sue Elimination Society," Ben began, flashing his Society badge. "I'm here to place you under arrest, Julia Roberta Oppenhimher, for Fandom Mutilation. Come quietly and I won't give Shirley the keys to your cell."
The former ghouls all started shouting at once, each trying to make their threats to this person who dared confront their goddess heard over the other. Julia bit her lip, considering. "Y-you said your name was Ben?" She asked, in a voice so gentle and beautiful that the shouting ex-ghouls stopped their yelling just to hear it.
Ben nodded. "That's right."
"Oh, thank goodness!" Julia cried, flying out of the chair and wrapping her arms tightly around Ben's chest, tears flowing down her cheeks. "I-I don't know what's wrong with me! All I want to do is... you know, help people and stuff... I-I'm nothing like those other Sues who do everything for their own gain, seriously I am! I'm so sorry!" She buried her face into Ben's chest, her slender body heaving with loud sobs.
The 'cured' ghouls stared at each other in shock. "M-miss Julia? What's wrong?" One of them, a gorgeous red-haired woman dressed in pristine leather armor and carrying a laser rifle asked.
Ben gently pried Julia's arms off from around his torso and took a step back, gently placing a hand under her chin and raising her head, staring into her gentle doe brown eyes. He took a deep breath.
Instantly, Julia's face twisted from an expression of teary regret to a grotesque mask of rage-filled hatred. With a shriek, she shoved Ben away and pulled a Mini-Nuke Launcher from nowhere.
Ben's eyes widened. "Oh, sh-" His expletive was cut off by the detonation of a miniature warhead that sent him flying out the throne room door and tumbling backwards down the 2nd floor stairs. Julia raced across the throne room to peer over the second floor railing, searching for Ben, but the first floor where he'd landed was filled with smoke from the minfi-nuke. With a growl, Julia quickly loaded a second mini-nuke into the launcher and fired into the smoke.
Suddenly, there was the warbling scream of a series of guitar notes, and a flurry of lime-green energy bolts pierced the smoke, one of which clipped the air-borne explosive, knocking it off course where it blew a hole into the wall of the museum, causing the entire building to shake and sending bits of plaster tumbling down from the ceiling. The others caught Julia in the shoulder, stomach and knee, knocking her to her knees, driving the breath from her lungs, and forcing her to drop the Mini-Nuke Launcher.
"Let's get one thing straight," Ben said as the smoke cleared, revealing him with Bahamut in hand. "It' one thing to take away my fourth wall comments, but there's only room for one mad nuker in this fic!" He leveled a finger a Julia. "And that's me! Now let me show you the difference between a true master of explosives and someone like you!"
"Don't mess with-!" That was when Shirley appeared from nowhere and clapped a Prohibitor on Julia's wrist.
"Hey!" Ben protested over Julia's shreik's of rage. "I was totally about to redeem myself!"
Shirley raised a woody eyebrow. "Would you rather redeem yourself or not be chewed out by Michael for causing property damage?"
"Fine..." Ben sighed as the Museum, free of Julia's influence, began to revert to it's decripit condition. "What happened to the ghouls?"
"Oh, they're still trying to figure out where their left kidneys went." Shirley's grin vanished as Julia a desperate bid for freedom. "OK, you know what?" With a growl, Shirley grabbed Julia by the hair and bashed her head into the stairs railing, instantly rendering her senseless.
Ben started to protest, but Shirley cut him off. "You still owe me the keys to her cell, remember?"
"C'mon," Shirley grunted, throwing Julia over her knobbly shoulder. "We've still got a band practice to get back to."
Ben's eyes lit up. "Oh, yeah!"
Ben had a feeling his neck would be aching in the morning, but he didn't care as he head-banged as hard as he could, his fingers almost choking Bahamut's neck as he pounded out the main riff of a song he had mentally nicknamed "Effortless Annihilation." His mission report had been filled, Julia was locked up in the basement, and best of all, Michael had released him from cleaning duty. (At least for now) As a result, he was finally free to rock out as hard as he could.
Behind him, Shirley's arms were a blur as she soundly abused the drumskins, creating a sound not unlike that of rolling thunder. Wringing the last few chords from growling Bahamut, Ben's fingers suddenly slid down the fretboard, the music changing from a down-tuned pulse to a higher, faster, and more melodic riff.
Mentally, he counted down the seconds until Jess came in on her keyboard before shifting to a slight variation of his previous part. To his surprise though, Jess came in a split-second too late. Frowning, Ben slowed his own playing only to have Jess speed up in an attempt to catch up with his. Meanwhile, Shirley's beat had all but fallen apart as she tried to decide whether to follow along with Ben or Jess.
Finally Ben released his grip on Bahamut, letting it dangle from the it strap as he threw up his hands in defeat. "Okay, okay, hold it, hold it!" Jess frowned as her keyboard fell silent. "I thought I was supposed to come in on 7?"
Ben shook his head. "That's on 'The Weapon', you come in on 5 on this song."
"Oh, sorry." She winced.
"It's not your fault." Ben sighed. "We need a bassist. Otherwise we're all over the place."
"Yeah, but who are we gonna get to play?" Shirley asked, biting the head off her drumstick.
As soon as she learned they were officially forming a band, the first thing Shirley did was vanish into a Plothole and emerge half an hour later, dragging a fully-grown tree behind her. She then spent her free time over the next several days slicing the wood into drumsticks with her bare claws. She kept a bucket full of drumsticks beside her drum kit and often snacked on them between songs. "In case you hadn't noticed, there aren't many Metalheads in the Society besides us. We still need a vocalist too."
"I know," Ben sighed. "I should've thought of this earlier."
Jess shrugged. "We could always grab some random character from a fandom." She didn't mention that this would make it easier for her to find 'recruits' for the Den of Sin.
"Yeah, but how would we get them into the Library?" Ben asked. "Besides, Tash and Adrian would never go for it..."
"Well they don't have to come here," Shirley suggested, gnawing on the end of another drumstick. "We could always start practicing in a fandom or something. You know, go to them?"
Ben thought about it for a second, then shook his head. "Too much trouble," He explained. "And besides, how would we get the character to remember us after we left?"
Jess folded her arms and huffed. "Pity Avak doesn't play bass."
"Well who says he doesn't?" Shirley asked.
"What?" Ben frowned.
"He's still your character, isn't he?"
"So, just write in that he knows how to play bass! Wouldn't that work?"
Ben scowled, thinking hard. "I suppose... but are we absolutely sure we want him for the band? I mean, I'd hate to string the guy along..."
"Oh, that's IT!" With a yowl, Shirley leapt over her drum kit at Ben who tore out of the band room, leaving Jess shaking her head, wondering what it would be like when they got on stage...
Jared turned from his browsing of the Library's collection of Robert Ludlum books at the sound of a plothole opening. Avak and Lily walked through, both lauging and weighed down with several shopping bags each. "Hey Lily," He greeted them, trying not to stare at Avak. Just seeing Avak outside of the infirmary was strange enough, but now he was smiling, something nobody had seem him do yet. "Have a good time?"
She nodded. "I even found a new Pin! It's called Egg Bomb." She held up her wrist, showing the pin that had replaced Anguis in her arsenal. Egg Bomb itself had the stone-etched style of Top Gear, but looked something like a cookie covered with angular crumbs.
"So... what does it do?" Jared asked skeptically. Lily grinned mischevously. "Watch this!" Reaching into her shopping bag, she pulled out a bar of chocolate. She grasped in her hand for a moment, and after a moment, both Egg Bomb and the candy bar glowed a fleshy pink before fading. Jared raised an eyebrow. "Is that it?"
"Nope," Lily turned to a passing Tyler. "Hey, Tyler! Catch!" She called, throwing him the bar of chocolate. Tyler's eyes lit up as he saw what was being thrown to him and he stretched out his hand to catch it. As soon as his fingers touched the wrapper however, the candy bar exploded, sending him flying backwards through a nearby wall.
Jared's eyes widened as Avak double over in laughter. "What the-?"
"It's a Pressure Mine Psych!" Lily giggled. "Egg Bomb can turn anything I touch into an explosive!"
"You've been hanging around Ben too much..." Jared said, eyeing Lily warily.
"Speaking of Ben, have you seen him?" Lily asked. Jared shook his head. "I think he's still in band practice."
Just then, a panting and out of breath Ben raced up.
"Oh, hey! There you are, Avak!" Ben gasped, bent double. "Listen, are you interested in playing Bass for our band?"
Avak blinked. "But I don't know how to play bass..."
Ben waved his protest aside. "No matter, I can just write it in for you. You interested?"
Avak shrugged. "I guess so..."
Ben beamed. "Great!" He glanced over his shoulder and paled. "Whoops! Gotta go!" With that he sprinted off, Shirley got on his heels.
"AAAGH! Hey... is that a-? ACK! NO FAIR MAKING WHIPS OUT OF MY OWN TENDONS! NO! NO! OWOWOW! HEEEEELP!"
"...What was that?" Avak asked, clearly flustered.
"I think you were just the victim of a drive-by recruiting..." Jared replied.