It took a great deal to reduce the Anti-Cliche and Mary-Sue Elimination Society to complete silence. And yet as Phoenixia proudly displayed her latest discovery on the view screen to the entire briefing room, it became so quiet you could almost count the number of people breathing.
Finally, Jess broke the silence, snorting in laughter and leaning her head against the table as her shoulders shook with glee.
“Sue Factor? Honestly, what are they going to rip off next?”
The page Phoenixia was displaying was a fan group on the Sues bastardised version of Facebook. The ex-hologram had been trawling through the website in boredom and had found an advertisement for what proclaimed itself to be the “greatest Sue talent show since Mary’s Got Talent”. She now smiled proudly at her discovery as the rest of the Society struggled to comprehend.
“So... what? This is the Sues version of The X Factor?” Harriet sat back in her seat, pressing her finger tips together in a manner that could almost be described as sinister, were it not for the large pink handbag sitting in her lap.
“Seems like it,” Phoenixia nodded.
“And for all us American’s who don’t watch British TV?” Jared asked. “What’s The X Factor?”
“Its like Pop Idol, or Britain’s Got Talent,” Phoenixia began. “And their respective American spinoffs. Basically it’s a singing contest that’s open for the general public to audition for. Like the others it has a panel of judges, including Simon Cowell, and is equally as fixed and corrupt as most talent shows are these days.”
“Utter waste of airspace...” Tash muttered from her seat at the head of the table (how a round table had a head, no one had ever bothered to find out).
“Not an X Factor fan Tashy?” Phoenixia asked, leaning backwards in her chair and propping her feet on the table. Harriet smacked them off irritably with a riding crop.
“Absolutely not,” Tash declared firmly. “I view The X Factor in the same way I view tapeworms and Nick Clegg.”
“So you won’t want me to book tickets?” Phoenixia asked innocently. Adrian’s head snapped back from the screen to face the entire Society.
“You are not booking tickets!” he said firmly. Moans of protest rose from the table. Most of the British agents were looking aghast.
“But imagine the crack we’d be missing!” Jess whined. From her bag, Leonard popped his head up and began trying to pull himself onto the table. He fell off with a screech of pain.
“Its far too dangerous!” Adrian retorted. “Its a known Sue hotspot, and we don’t know how many powerful people could be there!”
“Since when has that ever stopped us?” Alice muttered, wincing as a tiny ball of paper was flicked into her cheek from across the room. Stephen hastily stuffed the plastic biro tube down his sleeve, as Willie took fire with his own and scored a direct hit down Alice’s cleavage. Harriet’s whip cracked, the pen tube went flying, leaving Willie with a neat cut across his chin.
“He does have a point,” Phoenixia spoke up. “The judges alone are very dangerous... Runoa’s one of them for one thing...”
Everyone’s faces went dark at the mention of the biggest threat to the Society’s existence since Willowe Foxblade herself.
“Still,” Emily was getting into this now. “We could go in disguise and as long as we don’t draw attention to ourselves we could sit and watch it.”
“You can watch it just fine on the screens,” Adrian was arguing. “Without putting your lives at risk!”
“Come on!” Claire whined. “We’ve all been stuck in the Library for ages with nothing to do!”
“That’s because everyone was doing Nanowrimo!” the Librarian had risen to his feet, and looked sternly at everyone in the room. “And now we know why there have been no urgent problems in the last few weeks – the Sues have been focusing on this instead! No one is going. It’s far too dangerous, and that’s final!”
He strode from the room, trenchcoat swishing like a red cape behind him. Everyone watched him leave in complete silence. Even the big screen fell silent as Phoenixia muted it.
“...so who wants to go?” Harriet finally asked, watching as people checked their schedules and lifted their hands one by one.
“Stupid basement duty...” Ben was muttering to himself, as he spun on the swivel chair in the basement office. “It wasn’t my fault! Something that valuable shouldn’t be kept in a Library anyway!”
“No one told you to hold band practise in that room,” Valerie told him firmly, peering down the back of her patient’s throat. The Sue in question was up for parole soon, and had complained of a runny nose and chills, so the healer had been called down to inspect her. “And Adrian told me that statue was a priceless ice tribe heirloom. He was threatening to leave you down here till Christmas for breaking it.”
She pulled the tongue depressor out of the Sue’s mouth, and placed it in plastic bag. “Its a nasty cold. Nothing serious. Just keep warm and drink lots of fluids. I’ll take you off the exercise list for the next few days.”
The Sue muttered a shy ‘thank you’, before settling back on her bed, coughing hard.
“What Adrian means, and what Adrian threatens are two different things,” Ben commented. “For example, when he told everyone in the meeting not to go to Sue Factor, he said it was too dangerous. The truth is, he knows he’s going to be the one to face Runoa in the end and he doesn’t want to have to do it now.”
Despite the horrible chill she felt with those words, Valerie arched an eyebrow. “And you know this how?”
Ben shrugged. “Simple. He’s the one she’s been after from the very beginning. God knows he’s probably the only one who could match her in terms of power, but right now he’s vulnerable. He’ll wait until he’s powerful again to face her. Until then, he wants to keep everyone else away and not do anything to provoke her.”
It was simple truth, and Valerie realise, no surprise to her. She supposed she had always suspected deep down that Adrian would be the one to fight Runoa at the end... she just had never want to admit it after she had worked so long and hard to get him back. He might not survive this time...
“Umm...” the ill Sue cleared her throat, and both agents gave a start. They had completely forgotten where they were standing. Surprisingly however, the Sue had another agenda. “Did you say Sue Factor?”
“...yes,” Ben nodded slowly. “The final is on tonight apparently...”
It was like a series of lights being switched on. Suddenly every Sue in that block had their faces pressed against the bars.
“The final is on tonight?!” despite her cold, the Sue’s voice held something they did not normally hear in the basement – excitement.
Questions began flying from the cells – who was in the final? What time was it on? Who had been voted out in the semi finals? Valerie eventually held up her hands, and everyone fell silent.
“Alright,” she smiled. She could sense how much this meant to everyone, and what kind of healer would she be if she did not try to make things a little better down here? “I’ll ask the leaders if we can bring a TV down for you all to watch it.”
“Thank you!” the Sue’s face was radiant, as everyone else began to cheer. The joy spread throughout the cells, giving Valerie a warm feeling inside. She would get these Sues their entertainment, and nothing Adrian said would make a difference!
The lights were dimmed in the Library as the evening slipped in. Quietly as she could, Emily crept from her room, closing the door softly behind her. She wore one of her nicer pairs of jeans, and a long black jumper with grey spiral patterns all over it. Tip toeing past the towering bookshelves and peeking around the next corner, she knocked on the two nearest doors with a soft rap of her knuckles. Alice and Louise slipped out. Like Emily, they were mildly dressed up, but not so much they would attract attention.
As they passed down the corridor, Emily tapped on the correct doors and one by one, figures emerged. Phoenixia was dressed slightly more conservatively than usual, with her hair straight and black, while Jess had gone for a waistcoat over t-shirt and skinny jeans. Michael and Claire held hands as they joined the ground, and Claire paused to tweak Michael’s glasses straight.
Finally they gathered around Harriet’s door, and Emily knocked on it gently. The leader appeared, a wide smile all over her face as she flattened her hair and held a black bra in her hands. It was snatched from her by Tash.
“Hati!” she whined. “What will people think?!”
“That you came here for a little bit of my lesbian loving, I imagine,” Harriet smirked, as the assistant Librarian began putting her underwear back on correctly. The leader herself bent down to pull her heels on. “Are we all here?”
“Everyone who said they were coming,” Emily confirmed.
“Nixie has tickets?” Alice asked, bouncing on the spot in excitement. Sure enough, the ex-hologram went fishing down her cleavage and pulled the aforementioned tickets out.
“With a little hacking,” she smiled. “We’re in the back row, so no one can sneak up on us.”
“Brilliant!” Harriet clapped. “Then my Tashy, when you’re properly dressed, if you would be so kind as to provide us with a door?”
Her friend finished replacing her shirt and jacket, and with a quick motion of her hand, a plothole slid into existence, spinning in every colour of the rainbow like a giant disco ball.
“And where do you think you are going?” came a stern voice. Gulping, everyone turned to see Adrian, hands on hips as he strode towards them. The only thing that stopped everyone from cowering was the sight of a long silk scarf still tied to his wrist trailing behind him like an invisible dog leash.
“Nice try,” he said. “But you’re not going to Sue Factor. There are far too many Sues out there and I won’t allow it.”
“Hey, this concerns Sues, and is therefore a Society issue!” Harriet stated, puffing her ample chest up indignantly. “Which means I make the decisions. And I say we are going!”
“I’m Librarian,” Adrian objected, folding his arms and adopting a firmer pose – again, ruined by the trailing red scarf. “And I decide if its too dangerous. And I say it is.”
It was pure crap. Adrian was only superior to Harriet in matters concerning the Library and Black Listed fandoms. It seemed he was hoping that this power would trump this matter. Before Harriet could retort, Tash stepped forwards.
“Well I’m your girlfriend, and I have a secret weapon!”
The Librarian arched an eyebrow in disbelief, before Tash reached into her handbag and pulled out a ball of yarn.
“Tashy...” Adrian’s tone was full of warning, but everyone saw how his tail stood up and his ears started twitching at the sight of it.
“Kitty...” Tash returned, before throwing the ball along the floor. “Get the ball!”
It rolled past the Librarian, who’s eyes followed it widely. He gave a soft “mrow?” before he morphed into kitty form and shot after his prize, stumbling over the silk scarf which still trailed from his front paw.
“Easily pleased,” Tash smirked.
“Apparently so,” Phoenixia agreed, her smile dirty. “Silk scarves Tashy?”
The leader blushed. “They’re gentler on the skin than cuffs and chains.”
“Stupid yarn...” kitty Adrian stood on his back legs, pawing in mid air behind the bookshelf. His prize had bounced and got wedged between shelf and wall, just a little too high for him to reach.
“You cannot escape Super Kitty!” he crouched down like a predator about to pounce on his prey, paws in front him, his behind wriggling as he shifted closer. “For I have special powers and can turn into a smart, quick-thinking, and very handsome man!”
He shape shifted back, and as he reached out and plucked the yarn from the bookshelf, his priorities shifted back to more human ones, and he remembered what he was supposed to be doing.
“...oh crap!” stuffing his prize and the irritating silk scarf into his trenchcoat pocket, he sprinted for the plothole and jumped through it just before it sealed up behind him.
“They are here.”
“Of course they are,” the reply was cool and curt. “No matter. The show must go on, as they say. Let’s leave the Society to their own devices. If they are stupid enough to show hostility...well, we more than outnumber them.”
“So unfair...” Adrian was thinking, almost pouting in his kitty form. Rolling her eyes, Tash scratched his head.
“Don’t look at me that way,” she said firmly. “No one asked you to follow us. And we only booked nine seats, so one of us had to be a lap cat or sit on the floor. It might as well be you.”
It had made sense. After realising that Adrian was easily the most conspicuous and infamous member of their party, it was only safe for him to remain in kitty form – it also meant that he was unable to articulate a proper complaint and could only communicate through grumpy facial expressions.
Meowing in a sulky manner, Adrian scampered off Tash’s lap and wriggled down her jacket to settle on her chest. She sighed and undid the zip enough for him to poke his head out of the top.
“Pervert,” she muttered, as she felt his claws twitch in a manner that could only be described as copping a feel.
“Shh!” On her left, and on the end of the row, Phoenixia elbowed her. “You’ll draw attention to us!”
Sufficiently silenced, Tash squinted down at the rows of people stretching out below them. She could not count the number of audience members, but a sufficient amount of them were all Sues. Each one was beautiful, and cast waves of perfection around the room. Scattered between them were a surprising amount of canon characters. This competition was clearly far bigger than they had first imagined.
Ahead of the rows of heads, lay a sprawling stage, flanked by three huge television screens. Currently the spinning letter ‘S’ dominated them in bright silver and red. At the front of the stage, a small square protruded into the audience, with a large desk and four chairs lined up neatly behind it. The ceiling was blanketed in lights, which brightly illuminated the stage and the audience as the last arrivals continued to find their seats.
“Seats two thousand people,” Phoenixia was saying. “Tickets were not cheap by the way... so I charged them to Adrian’s card.”
Snorting in laughter at the indignant look on Adrian’s face, the Society continued to scan the room. Down on the stage, production crews were racing back and forth. Cameras suspended on long arms from the ceiling were hovering, swinging from side to side in readiness. Men and women dressed in black were sliding off the stage, adjusting the cameras and throwing wires back and forth.
“Testing...testing...one two, one two...” a man with cropped hair was tapping away at the microphones mounted onto the desk. He gave a thumbs up and a woman in a black cap appeared on the stage, waving him off with her clipboard.
“Five minutes people!” though she had a headset strapped to her ear, she did not need the mouthpiece to make herself heard. Even on the back row the Society could hear her shouting. She jabbed her clipboard off to the left side of the stage, and suddenly the screens switched to bright vibrant red with gold stars exploding all over it.
“For Christ sake guys!” she roared to the unseen technicians. “It’s Sue Factor, not High School bloody Musical!”
Someone obviously heard her, because the screens suddenly flicked back to The Sue Factor logo before fading to a dark blue.
Up in the audience, Jess whistled lowly.
“Wouldn’t want to get on her bad side... Christ Leonard! Get back in the bag!”
She gave a vicious shove, and there was a shrieking hiss from the depths of her bag. Several people in the next row turned to look curiously. Thankfully none of them were Sues that the Society had encountered before, and so an apologetic smile from Jess was enough to appease them.
“So who are the judges?” Harriet thought to ask. “Simon Cowell?”
There was a snort, and one of the girls from the row in front turned her head.
“Where have you all been for the last two months? Simon Cowell was so disgusted that Bella won last year that he quit this season.”
“...Bella?” Harriet looked in horror at the rest of the Society.
“Yeah, Bella Cullen,” the Sue huffed. “Don’t you know anything?”
A nasty feeling of dread settled over everyone in the back row. Phoenixia’s eyes were flickering as she sent mental commands to the Library’s computer system via the building’s wifi system to update her knowledge of the show.
“Yeah, Bella Cullen is a judge this year too,” she informed everyone softly, as the girl in the front row turned back towards the stage. “Traditionally the judges are, the Lieutenant Mary Sue, the winner from the previous year, Simon Cowell, and another famous guest Sue... usually a Sue who can sing, or someone who’s done something worthy of recognition.”
“So... Bella Cullen,” Emily was ticking off on her fingers. “Runoa... who are the other two?”
“According to my intel...” Phoenixia frowned. “Edward Cullen is filling in for Simon.”
“Oh God spare us, there’s two of them,” Michael muttered, hiding his face in his hands. A tentacle of Darkness slithered out of his back and peeked around curiously. Further down the row, Louise was scowling at everyone for their continual bashing of her favourite books.
“And the last judge is Merle,” Phoenixia concluded, and Louise’s disapproving face was immediately wiped by one of terror.
“Relax Lou,” Alice squeezed her friend’s hand and resumed her excited bounce. “There’s about two thousand people sitting between you and her and eight of them are Society members...and that doesn’t include Emily, who I’m sure would join in in protecting you too!”
“As long as we stay quiet back here, no one is going to attack us,” Phoenixia agreed confidently. “They don’t even know we’re here. So everyone relax.”
“On in one minute!” came a yell from the clipboard wielding director. “Places everybody!”
She skipped off the stage, and a small, slender woman bounced onto the stage. She wore a dress of dark blue, and a wide smile on her face as she clutched her microphone.
“That must be the presenter,” Phoenixia admitted.
“You got a name for her?” Tash enquired.
“I was locked out of the wifi before I could get that I’m afraid,” Phoenixia admitted. “So I didn’t get the finalists names either. They’ve tightened their security on Suebook since I started prowling.”
On stage, makeup artists hurried on, adjusting the presenter’s dress, and brushing a few final touches of powder onto her cheeks. The cameras were pushed close to the stage, and the last few men and women in black quickly cleared the stage, scurrying into place by the edge of the stage, or backstage.
“Thirty seconds!” the director roared.
“I do know that there are three commercial breaks during the show,” Phoenixia informed everyone. “So we won’t be sitting on our arses for a whole hour.”
“Thank God,” Harriet muttered. “Mine is already getting numb.”
“The judges don’t get to vote in the finals, do they?” Claire asked, thinking of how The X Factor usually worked.
“Not in the finals,” Phoenixia confirmed. “Its just like The X Factor. In the previous weeks the audience all vote for their favourite. The highest votes go through, and the bottom two are decided between by the judges. The judges each have a category too, just like The X Factor.”
“I guess the audience can vote too,” Tash commented, pulling a small keypad up from under her chair with three brightly coloured buttons on it.
“What categories are there and who got them?” Michael asked curiously.
“There’s Boys, Girls, Groups and Over 25s,” Pheonixia ticked off on her fingers. “Runoa got – ”
“Fifteen seconds! Silence in the audience please!” the director roared. “Live in ten, nine, eight...”
“Seven! Six!” the audience roared with her, despite having just been told to be quiet. “Five! Four!”
“THREE! TWO! ONE!” even the Society joined in, and were surprised to find that they were enjoying themselves and the atmosphere already.
The three huge screens burst into action, text scrawling across the screen as a loud booming voice narrated through speakers to dramatic music.
The audience went wild as the screen flashed to images of the previous week. Face flicked across too quickly to identify, with flashes of lights and the ghostly haze of smoke dominating the dark picture.
“Only three survived!” the voice proclaimed.
The images scrolled across the screen again, of the previous weeks results, each time pausing on the faces of the contestants, as the voices of the judges announced their names.
The girl on screen was fairly tall, with long ash blonde hair and light blue eyes. The shot was of her gasping in shock as her name was read out. The word had sent a shiver down the spines of every Society agent. They knew she was one of Runoa’s Sovereigns.
“WHAT?!” Harriet’s voice could have carried right to the stage, were it not eclipsed by the screaming fans in the studio audience. But sure enough, the screens were filled with the joyful face of one of the oldest Sues in existence, tears glistening in her deep blue eyes as her name was called out in the previous week.
Even before his image came on screen, Tash felt Phoenixia freeze next to her. She too could not take her eyes off that face, so handsome and charming, but beneath it (or perhaps because they all knew better) lay an undertone of menace and cruelty. Edward Casanova was punching the air onscreen as it was announced that he was through, confidence oozing out of him.
“He’s back...” strangely, Phoenixia’s terror carried the whisper to every person in the row. Confused, Adrian tried to wriggle free of Tash’s jacket, but was roughly impeded by his girlfriend leaning over to wrap an arm around the shaken ex-hologram.
“Do you want to leave?” she asked seriously. Phoenixia grasped Tash’s free hand and squeezed. In the dim glow of the studio lighting, her face was ashen.
“No...” Phoenixia finally swallowed. “I... I’ll be okay...”
“Are you sure?” Tash’s voice was down. “I know how you must feel, but no one will think any less of you if you leave.”
“I want to stay...” Phoenixia’s voice was thin, but somehow she managed to keep it steady. “I won’t let him frighten me away... besides, we’re safe back here...”
Despite her words, she no longer sounded convinced of their truth. The assistant Librarian was frowning, but she nodded, giving her hand a squeeze in return.
“If at any time you want to leave, let me know. I will open up a plothole and let you straight back. I promise.”
Adrian was watching the two curiously, his head flicking back and forth, and Tash muttered a curse instantly guessing what the look was for. Phoenixia had obviously never got around to telling Adrian the specifics of her first mission to the Devil May Cry fandom, or the details about the Stu that had almost raped and killed her. As soon as they had a spare moment, Tash would make sure the Librarian was brought up to speed, but for now, she scratched his ears, and turned her head back to the stage, still holding Phoenixia’s hand.
The screens had moved on from the shots of the other contestants who had been knocked out, and was now showing shots of the judges commenting on different acts, with the dramatic music still echoing through the audience. Currently Harmony’s image was all over the screen, pausing on a shot of her singing a long note, before jumping to the image of Edward Cullen.
“She’s brilliant, she’s talented, she’s got style and the most incredible voice. She’s shown all of that to us. But she needs to step it up tonight if she’s going to win.”
“I hope I can do this,” Harmony appeared on screen suddenly, sitting before the camera and looking calm despite her words. “I’d be letting everyone down, and I’d be letting myself down if I couldn’t do it.”
The face of Edward Casanova filled the screen next, hand on heart, gripping the microphone so hard it looked as though he might break it as he sang.
“This would be the best thing to ever happen to him,” Merle was saying seriously to the screen. “It would change his life forever if he were to win.”
“I know I have what it takes,” Edward’s expression was deadly serious. “Now everyone else just needs to see it too.”
Again the shot jumped to the next contestant, Ardelisa surrounded by smoke, looking for all the world as though her life depended on her words.
“Ardelisa has been consistently strong throughout this competition,” Bella Cullen spoke next, her face passionate and enthusiastic. “She’s put in so much hard work, and she deserves this so much.”
“To be the winner of Sue Factor,” Ardelisa was smiling. “Would mean so much to me. It would be a dream come true.”
The image faded back to text and the booming voice returned.
“But there can be only one winner!”
The screaming reached a new pitch as random shots cascaded across the screen.
“IT’S TIME TO FACE THE MUSIC!”
Runoa appeared on screen, a serene look on her face. Her eyes seemed to fix on everyone in the audience, and the entire Society felt a shiver of apprehension at the sight of those green eyes.
“It’s going to be a very exciting night.”
The screen went blank for a second, and then the familiar sound of The X Factor theme music appeared, with the introduction sequence rolling across the screen. The X was of course replaced with an S. In her seat, Harriet muttered something about Sues ripping everything off, though thankfully only the Society heard it as the audience broke into a fresh wave of cheering. The cameras began to move, as they swept down the rows of spectators towards the stage, where lights started flashing back and forth.
“Live from the Talent Shows fandom, it’s The Sue Factor Final, with your host Sparrow Castella!”
The bouncy woman in blue stepped up to centre stage, and waved to the screaming audience, before turning her full attention to the camera that had swooped down in front of her.
“Good evening everyone and welcome to the Sue Factor live finals! Your Christmas celebrations start right here!”
The audience erupted into fresh cheering, as fireworks exploded from the front of the stage, shooting fountains of sparks into the air. Sparrow faced the camera and swept her hand towards the lenses, her fingers outstretched and her thumb and little finger tucked in.
“Just three acts remain from the thousands that auditioned for this series. It has been a long contest, and each of our three finalists are so near to the end of their journey now. They still have one last chance to impress you at home, and you still have time to pick up the phone and vote to see your favourite act crowned Sue Factor champion!”
She strode off to the left side of the stage, still facing the camera.
“While here in the studio, our audience will also be placing their votes, but for now, they’re going to make some noise, as they welcome four people who have had just as long and hard a journey as the contestants. Please welcome, the Sue Factor Judges!”
The screen exploded into life again, and an image of the calm and collected Lieutenant Mary-Sue appeared.
The image changed to one of the most well known characters in the world, a smirk on his marble-skinned face.
His wife was up next, her own face a pouting, beautiful image of perfection.
Finally the smug and self assured final judge appeared on screen.
The screen seemed to scroll up, and from behind it appeared the four judges, walking out from a long corridor lined with a bright white glow. The spotlights in the ceiling went mad, and fountains of sparks shot up along the stage.
On the far left was Runoa, her long ebony hair neatly pinned back over the long emerald green and silver dress she wore. It hugged her form generously, and her face was masked into a blank expression. Beside her stood Edward Cullen, looking positively drool-worthy, in a smart fitted black suit. His dress shirt was a deep shade of blood red. Beside him, Bella’s dress was a matching shade of red, only the bust was adorned with a million sequins that seemed to glitter like diamonds. Finally, there was Merle, wearing a strapless dress that was somewhere between blue and purple. It shimmered as it caught the light, and her hair was neatly curled around her shoulders.
“Lieutenant Runoa!” Sparrow announced chirpily, and the audience roared in approval. Runoa’s eyes swept over the crowd, before going back to their blank state.
The screaming hit a new pitch as the female audience members shrieked their undying love for the whole studio to hear. Edward for his part merely stood with his hands held behind his back, pausing only to lift one and wave at a few members of the audience. Down in the front row, it was possible to see several girls fainting in joy.
Wolf whistles filled the air, and Edward suddenly looked less than happy. Bella just blushed prettily and waved back to the cheering audience.
“And Merle Ravensclaw!”
The wolf whistling continued, and Merle smirked at it, tossing one random curl over her shoulder and winking at the audience.
“They love this,” Harriet said, her voice almost lost to the cheering audience.
“Runoa doesn’t,” Michael commented from further down the row. “Did you see how bored she looks?”
“She probably hates this,” Tash scoffed. “Sues acting cheerful. Too bad for her she has to be a judge.”
She glanced down the row, as the judges walked towards the front area of the stage and began to sit down behind the desk. Sure enough, Louise had been paralyzed into her seat at the sight of Merle. It was not the paranoid agent that Tash was interested in however, as she saw the hunched up figure next to Louise and immediately became alarmed.
“Alice?” she leaned closer. “What’s wrong?”
The Society’s resident Glomper and pet search engine had her head down her shirt, though it was hard to tell immediately, as she was also bent over double, pressing her face into her lap.
“No like flashy!” her voice was muffled but understandable. Tash swore, and Harriet threw her drinks bottle at Louise.
“Snap out of it girl, and help your friend!”
Louise’s irritation at Harriet’s violent tactics were wiped away as she realised the problem, and threw her thick black coat over Alice’s head. The rest of the row watched anxiously, fearing that at any second Alice’s body may stiffen into a seizure.
“Is she okay?” one of the Sues in the row in front of them had turned around, and dropped her voice to a worried whisper, as the audience’s cheering began to die away, and Sparrow began to speak again on stage. Thankfully all the way up in the back row, no one paid any attention to them.
“Mmm fine...” Alice’s head reappeared from underneath Louise’s coat. “I’m epileptic... as long as there aren’t any more flashy lights, I’ll be okay.”
“Alright...” the Sue smiled gently. “Well if you need another coat, feel free to use mine.”
She turned her head back to the stage, and Louise blinked slowly before voicing what they were all thinking.
“That was... nice of her,” she whispered softly.
It was surprising to say the least. Sitting back in her seat, Harriet frowned in thought. They had gone so long hunting Sues down that they had never received a warm reception from any of them. To be smiled at and offered help from one was strange... and nice too.
“There they are!” Sparrow had stopped applauding and was smiling at the camera again. “Tonight the contestants will sing one song each, after which we will temporarily freeze the vote, and the lowest scoring contestant will have to leave the final. We will then reopen the voting lines, and the final two acts will sing one last time for you. There is no bottom two, and no judges votes. Tonight it is all about you and your votes at home!”
“But first,” she strode to the right hand side of the stage now as she spoke, the camera following her on its arm as she went. “When the live shows first began four weeks ago, we had ten contestants, chosen from the thousands that auditioned. One by one, we saw them leave the competition. But now, it gives me very great pleasure to welcome them back to the stage. Ladies and gentlemen, the Sue Factor top ten finalists!”
The audience roared their approval as the stage lights dimmed, and smoke began to ooze across it. The spotlights swept slowly over the mist, and a corner of the studio was illuminated to reveal a familiar Sue, as a familiar piano tune filled the studio.
“We’re walking in the air...” Rhea was perfectly in tune, though her voice wavered on the higher notes. “We’re floating in the moonlit sky... the people far below are sleeping as we fly...”
A second spotlight illuminated the middle section of the stage, towards the back and off to the left. Two figures, one Sue and one Stu, stood a little apart from each other, their singing a little out of tune. The Society recognised neither of them.
“I’m holding very tight... I’m riding in the midnight blue... I’m finding I can fly so high above with you...”
Up in the back row, the Society were falling one by one, under the spell of the voices. The brief instrumental allowed the lights to rise again, smoke now coating the stage. A group of three Sues, immaculately dressed, stepped forwards to take the next verse.
“Far across the world... the villages go by like dreams... the rivers and the hills, the forest and the streams.”
Alice gave a sudden squeak as the next group stepped forwards. All of the Sues were dressed in identical dressed, all in a different colour. One of them was Peony, the Sue Alice had failed to catch in The Shadowleague. She and the rest of the group smiled sadly at the audience, and Alice wondered when they had been voted off.
“Children gaze open mouth, taken by surprise... nobody down below believes their eyes...”
The next pair stepped forwards. It was Nameless and another unfamiliar Stu. Harriet had a notebook out and was frantically taking the names of all the Sues they recognised. She paused to wince at the men. One of them was out of tune, and the other was so quiet he could barely be heard.
“We’re surfing in the air...we’re swimming in the frozen sky... we’re drifting over icy mountains floating by...”
The very centre of the stage lit up suddenly revealing the three finalists standing up from their places crouched in the smoke. Edward Casanova stood in the middle, a dress shirt of shimmery blue, and black trousers completing his look. He pulled it of stunningly, but none of the Society fell for it. They only felt the violent urge to jump to the stage and separate the man’s head from his body.
Ardelisa stood on the left, a beautiful smile on her flawless face, her long fair blonde hair cascading freely down her back, her dress a delicate shade of icy blue layers of silk flowing with every move she took. White ribbons twined around her arms and wrists fluttered in the smoke, and she stood perfectly straight and proud.
Harmony was on the right, her own dress an elegant silver that seemed to shimmer like a rainbow whenever it caught the light. Unlike Ardelisa, her hair was piled on top of her head, and fixed into place with a string of white beads.
“Suddenly swooping low, on an ocean deep.”
Edwards voice was deep and seemed to command the lyrics into the perfect note. The female audience members shrieked, even as the next line was taken up by Ardelisa.
“Rousing up a mighty monster...”
Harmony took a deep breath to finish off the line, her voice surprisingly powerful for a girl of her frame.
“...from his sleep...”
While their attention had been fixed on the finalists, the rest of the contestants had moved to centre stage, and they all lifted their microphones in unison to join the three finalists in the final chorus.
“We’re walking in the air... we’re floating in the moonlit sky... and everyone who sees us greets us as we fly...”
As the music slowly died away, the audience erupted into screaming applause. The Society too were applauding heartily. The song had been beautifully sung, and no one really cared any longer that the singers were Sues, or that if they knew the Society were there they would all probably be lynched before you could say “oh crap”. None of it seemed to matter after hearing those beautiful voices sing, the pain and tragedy of their perfect lives so clearly displayed in each breath they took...
The smoke clearing and the lights coming back seemed to snap the agents out of their trance...or maybe it was the author pausing to douse the characters in cold water before resuming. As the agents shook the icy droplets from their hair, Sparrow Castella reappeared on the stage, her smile wide and sunny.
“Wow! That was the kind of performance that Sue Factor was made for! Thank you to all of our former contestants!”
She turned smiling towards the main camera which had dropped in front of her face again.
“And now with the wonderful intro over, we can get started on tonight’s performances, which means that the phone lines are now, open!”
As soon as she said the last word, the sound of a phone being dialled filled the studio, and the audience gave another cheer.
“Numbers across your screens now!” Sparrow continued. “For Harmony its o nine o double one, forty one, forty one, o one. Ardelisa, o nine o double one, forty one, forty one, o two. And for Edward, o nine o double one, forty one, forty one, o three. Calls cost thirty pence from a multiverse landline. Calls from local networks may be higher, and mobile phones will be considerably more. Suebook streamers can vote by clicking the voting buttons on the bottom of the screen right now, and digital and satellite viewers can vote by pressing your red button! Studio audience, your keypads are now active!”
She said this all in one breath, and everyone was suitably impressed. Phoenixia reached under her seat and pulled out her voting keypad, examining each coloured and numbered button curiously.
“Voting will continue all through the first acts, after which we will freeze the lines, and the performer with the lowest votes will leave the competition,” Sparrow’s face was pouting at the thought of voting off another contestant, but she continued in her chirpy manner. “The voting lines will then be reopened, and everyone can continue voting. Your votes from before the lines were frozen will still count towards the final score. Studio audience, you can only vote once, so choose wisely!”
She beamed even further, before spinning around to face the judging panel.
“And now, to introduce the first act of the evening, its Bella with the over twenty fives.”
The audience applauded, and Bella Cullen gave a gentle smile, her eyes fixed on the camera in a way that was clearly supposed to be a silent plea for more votes.
“She’s fought so long and hard to be in this final, and tonight she’s going to show you her best. Its Ardelisa.”
The cheering exploded again, and the screens flashed into what appeared to be a clipshow, the first image of Ardelisa smiling sweetly before wiping to a shot of what looked like the auditions from several weeks ago.
Ardelisa stood on the stage, which was brightly lit unlike tonight, and she wore the casual clothing of an eighteenth century aristocrat. She looked incredibly out of place, especially when compared to the studio audience who were dressed in jeans and casual shirts. As the camera snapped to a shot of the judges, it was clear from their expressions that they were not expecting much.
“Name?” Runoa asked.
The image shifted to one of the Sue singing, each note perfect, and her voice beautifully carrying the pain and suffering that the lyrics depicted. None of the Society recognised the song, but it was hauntingly beautiful.
“What a surprise!” the shot changed to one of Bella, her hands clasped together in delight, and Ardelisa glowing with pleasure as the audience cheered.
“Four yes’s,” Runoa reported, managing a look that while not a smile was not her usual distain. “You’re through.”
The screen wiped again, this time to the live shows, where Ardelisa stood on stage, in a slightly more modern (and yet still conservative) outfit, performing yet another song. This time most of the Society recognised the song – it was Broken by Seether.
“Absolutely, stunning!” Edward was professing.
“Its like nothing you’ve sung before,” Bella’s face was glowing. “You’re still getting used to modern music, but that was a brilliant performance.”
The joyful Sue beamed at them, before the screen wiped once more to another week. This time, Ardelisa sang Electric Storm by Delta Goodrem, and seemed to be handling the louder parts of the song very well.
“You were shaky a few times,” Runoa was saying, turning to glare at the audience as they booed her. “But, you did carry on I suppose.”
Another shot, this time of the stage lit with flashing lights, and a huge smile on Ardelisa’s face as she sang. Surprisingly the song was Evacuate the Dancefloor by Cascada.
“This week was about challenging you,” Bella was saying. “We gave you a dance song, a genre completely foreign to you, and you managed to pull it off in my eyes.”
“To say that you hadn’t listened to this kind of music before the competition that was a pretty good performance,” the screen shifted to Merle, who’s face was serious, but honest.
Now the image shifted to one of Ardelisa sitting before the camera casually dressed.
“I first heard this song when I was wandering around other fandoms looking for my husband. It moved me to tears the first time I heard it. I can’t wait to sing it tonight.”
“She’s going to give it her all,” Bella appeared next. “And I know she can do this. She can be the Sue Factor winner.”
The audience burst into applause as the screen faded to black, and the stage lit up again. The smoke was back, blanketing the floor of the stage in a white haze. In the middle, framed in a single white spotlight, was Ardelisa, her head bowed, her eyes fixed on the floor. There was no music, but she began to sing anyway.
“If I should stay, I will only be in your way...”
“Oh dear...” those sitting nearest to her heard Harriet muttered under her breath, massaging her forehead with her fingertips as she recognised the lyrics. The rest of the audience just kept staring at the Sue, thirsty for more.
“So I’ll go, but I know... I’ll think of you, every step of the way...”
Finally, she raised her head, and looked out at the audience with tears filling her blue eyes. The melody of a piano drifted gently into the studio.
“And I...will always love you...”
“Of course...” Tash sighed. “It would be a love ballad wouldn’t it?”
“Shh!” someone in the row in front of them hissed.
“I will always love you... you my darling you...”
“Whitney Houston eat your heart out...” Louise muttered to Alice.
“I hope life treats you kind. And I hope you have all you dreamed of.”
It was pretty clear to everyone in the Society why the tragic heroine of the trashy eighteenth century romance novel would choose this song. Harriet wondered musingly if her husband was somewhere in the audience, and then supposed not. It would have raised some serious alarms in the Library if a canon character had been removed from their fandom.
“And I wish you joy. And happiness. But above all this, I wish you love.”
There was a moments pause, where the music ceased, and the entire studio was filled with a tense silence. Ardelisa took the moment to smile at everyone in the audience, as the tears began to roll down her cheeks. The previously gentle voice suddenly exploded out of her with the next line.
“And I... will always love you...”
The line was powerful and strong, despite the sadness that her tears betrayed, and the audience erupted into ecstatic applause, some of them wiping tears from their own eyes. As she continued the final chorus, even the Society found themselves applauding.
“She’s quite good,” Phoenixia whispered.
“She’s a Sue,” Tash pointed out. “What did you expect?”
“Well obviously not all of them can sing,” Emily pointed out rationally. “Otherwise there would be no point in this competition, would there?”
“Who are you going to vote for, Em?” Jess asked curiously. The eleven year old shrugged.
“Well not Edward, that’s for sure. I’m thinking of Ardelisa, but I’ll see how Harmony does.”
Phoenixia had flinched at the mention of Edward’s name, and focused hard on the stage, as Ardelisa’s song finally came to an end, and the cheering burst out of every member of the audience. The judges were all on their feet, applauding the Sue, as she wiped tears from her cheeks and smiled at them, mouthing her thanks into her now muted microphone.
“Wow!” Sparrow appeared on stage again, patting Ardelisa’s shoulder and examining her face. “Is your mascara waterproof darling?”
The Sue gave a laugh and nodded, still wiping away tears. “I’m a complete mess...”
“No you’re not,” Sparrow assured her. “Let’s see what the judges thought. Merle?”
The Sue leaned back in her chair and gave a smile.
“Best performance you’ve ever given,” she declared firmly, and the audience once again screamed their approval. Sparrow could vaguely be heard through them asking Edward what he had thought.
“Your strength has always been in romantic ballads and tonight was no exception,” the vampire said. “Those are hard notes to keep going, and you pulled them all off. Excellent job.”
“The emotion you poured into that song was amazing,” Bella was saying, struggling to hold back her own tears. “I am so proud of you, and how far you’ve come.”
The audience clearly agreed with this, as they continued their rowdy cheers, until Sparrow turned expectantly to Runoa, and the noise dimmed somewhat.
“That was...” Runoa paused before continuing. She looked as though she dearly wanted to be nasty, but lacked a credible reason to do so. “...much better than your last few weeks.”
This seemed to be about as nice as the Lieutenant ever got, so the audience resumed their screaming, and Ardelisa looked completely thrilled. In the row in front of them, the Society heard a voice scoff.
“Well of course you don’t like her Runoa,” it was the Sue who had offered Alice her coat. “You’re just miserable that none of your groups are left!”
“Is she usually this... bitchy?” Jess asked curiously, and the Sue nodded.
“She’s like Simon Cowell... only he actually likes things occasionally. Runoa only liked the groups because she was the judge that was in charge of them this year. But after the last group was voted off last week, she’s been in a right little mood... though she does like Harmony a little more than the other two...”
“No surprise there,” Emily stated. “Harmony is one of her Sovereigns.”
“Is she?” the Sue was surprised at this. “Wow... that never came up.”
“One last time, its Ardelisa!” Sparrow appeared finished talking to the contestant as she called to the audience, and they cheered once more, as the theme music played and Ardelisa walked off the stage.
“After the break we have Edward and Harmony singing for your votes, so don’t go anywhere. The final is just beginning!”
The music played again and the audience cheered their way into the commercials.
“And cut!” the director jumped on stage again, followed by the make up crews who immediately began to touch Sparrow up. “Commercials rolling. On again in five minutes!”
"That was... interesting..." Ben stated. He had never been a fan of 'mainstream' music as it was, and this contest was doing nothing to help change his opinion. But the competition itself was proving to be a great way to pass a Saturday night shift in the basement...the trouble was, he was no longer alone.
Aside from the less dangerous Sues and Stus who had requested to watch, the room was now filled with Society agents who were skiving off their own duties to come and see the strange little talent show. The large flat screen had been dragged from one of the reading rooms and into the basement room where the Sues and Stus were let out for exercising every day. Despite the fact that there were several chairs were clustered around the screen, some of the Sues were content to just sit on the floor, their eyes glued to the screen like excitable children.
It was quite remarkable to see how quiet they had all become when Ardelisa had begun singing. Valerie too had felt the Sues influence in the song tugging at all of their heartstrings, but she had not minded. Ardelisa did indeed have a phenomenal voice. She had to wonder what kind of state the rest of the Society were in having actually been there in person.
Thinking about the contestants reminded her of Edward and she hoped Phoenixia would be alright. She had no doubts that the rest of the agents would protect her if she was in danger, but she could not help but worry. None of them could possibly guess why Edward was still alive. Had he survived being blasted into atoms by Incandescent Silverreign? Or had his author brought him back to life? Both were dangerous possibilities – if he could survive that blast, what else could he survive? And if his author had brought him back, then they were clearly not an enemy who planned giving up any time soon.
"Y'know what we need, now its the commercials?" Tyler stated. "Popcorn."
"Say no more. Who wants popcorn, tortilla chips and my homemade salsa?"" Rhia asked, pulling herself upright, Cristoph following suit. Ben was tempted to make a snarky comment about the ninja being housebroken, but Rhia had only agreed to come down to watch on the condition that her boyfriend did not leave her side, and that Roxelana was kept firmly behind bars and as far away from her as possible. Ben may have liked baiting Cristoph, but even he knew where the lines were.
Most of the Sues and Stus put up their prohibited arms, while a handful of Society agents did the same.
"Kyaa~ Valerie-san!" Aster was flitting above the crowd keeping an eye out for any troublemakers, and had spotted something she did not like the look of. "One of the Stus has a piece of paper and a pen!"
Worried, though not sensing any malice in the room, Valerie got up and hurried over. The Stu in question turned out to be Robert who was having his hair viciously pulled by Aster, to stop him from writing any further. Valerie shooed her away, before examining the paper with a raised eyebrow.
"...a betting pool?" she finally said in surprise. "Who's idea was that?"
Rubbing his sore scalp, Robert pointed at Willie, who shrugged. "What? I was bored, and you said I'm not allowed to torture any of these guys."
Rolling her eyes, Valerie handed the paper back to Robert, as Ben slipped to her side.
"...twenty bucks on Edward."
"What?!" Valerie could not believe what she was hearing.
"Hey I don't like the guy!" Ben held up his hands in defence. "But he's the only male contestant on that show and us men have to show a little solidarity! The poor guy's practically drowning in a sea of oestrogen out there!"
Valerie glared at Ben and rolled her eyes.
"And we're not betting money," Robert said, before Willie interrupted.
"Yeah, they're betting their rations."
Now that, Valerie was not happy about, and she rounded on Willie. "You let them bet their rations?!" Ben looked disappointed.
"Its just a bit of fun!" Willie protested. Deciding that it was pointless to argue any further, Valerie marched back to her seat, planning on talking to Tash about putting Willie on monitor duty for a significant period of time.
As soon as she was out of earshot, Ben turned back to Robert.
"...so what are the odds on Runoa killing Bella before the evening is out?"
“So what do we think?” Phoenixia asked.
“Yeah, what are we going to do?” Louise peered over from the far end of the row. Everyone was staring at Harriet, who’s gaze was still fixed on the stage where Ardelisa had been standing not a minute ago.
“...nothing,” she declared finally.
“...what?!” several people demanded, causing a few curious looks from people in the row in front of them. Fed up of having to raise her voice to a level where it could be easily overheard, Harriet squished a little further down the row, wedging herself right in the middle, on the arm between Michael and Claire.
“Nothing,” she repeated, folding her arms sternly. “We’re going to sit here, watch the show, and then go back to the Library. Maybe order Chinese food when we get back.”
“But Harriet,” Tash whispered. “Runoa’s down there! We can’t just let this opportunity pass!”
“You can, and you will,” Harriet said sternly, knowing that Tash’s motivation for going after the Sue was more personal than precautious. She waved a hand out towards the stage, encompassing the entire audience in her gesture.
“Look at them all. They’re happy. Its Christmas, and they’ve all been enjoying themselves. They’re not doing any harm – this is the talent show fandom. Its empty all the time anyway. There are no canon characters to screw around with, and nobody is getting hurt. They’re not planning on taking over the multiverse. They’re just here, to sing, and have a bit of fun.”
She fixed them all with a stern look. “Who are we to deny them that?”
Tash slumped back in her seat, but she did at least seem to accept her friend was right. Everyone else looked torn.
“But...” Phoenixia piped up. “Edward...”
“Doesn’t know we are here,” Harriet pointed out. “Believe me, the English student in me wants to run down that stage and slam Bella Swan’s head in a door...”
“Cullen,” Louise corrected irritably, clearly upset that she was not allowed to do something about Merle now that she had the perfect opportunity.
“But I’m not going to,” Harriet continued as though she had not been interrupted. “Because I don’t want to start a fight and ruin their evening. Just for once, you’re all going to listen to me, and not do anything.”
“...yes ma’am...” everyone muttered sullenly. The mood was broken by a soft patting noise. Adrian was half hanging out of Tash’s jacket, and patting his kitty paws against her chest, apparently in the closest thing to a clap he was able to accomplish.
“Now if you’ll excuse me,” Harriet slid back along the row. “Nature calls. Tashy, come with me?”
“Sure thing,” the assistant Librarian handed Adrian to Phoenixia before hurrying after her friend. A small trickle of audience members were leaving to stretch their legs, or to use the facilities themselves.
“Harriet,” Tash said as they walked, and the leader sighed.
“Look, I know you don’t agree...”
“I do!” Tash protested. “I do agree. I was just going to point out that the bathroom is that way...” she pointed over her shoulder.
“Oh we’re not going to the bathroom yet,” Harriet explained. “I need to catch up with a friend first...”