Friday, February 7, 2014

Insert Second Chance Here


The Library, unlike those in Real Life, was rarely a quiet venue. It was not unusual to hear raised voices in discussion, but full-blown serious shouting was a rare occurrence. It was for this reason that in the corridor outside Louise and Alice's rooms a small crowd had gathered.

"Who do you think she's angry at?"

"I hope it's not Alice in there with her."

"I've heard she's pretty vocal when she's got the bit between her teeth," Dave murmured in his soft northern accent.


"Maybe someone should check on her?" came the suggestion from the middle of the crowd.

"Are you volunteering?" their neighbour responded.


"Hell no, if she is in this much of a rage, she'll…" But the gathered crowd never found out what Louise might have done, for at that moment, a second raised voice joined the argument from within the room.

"Louise, you are being ridiculous."

They all recognised the voice of the Librarian. He wasn't shouting, but there was a firmness to his speech. Adrian, they knew, could deal with whatever Louise could throw at him, and no-one in the assembled gathering wanted to disturb him. Slowly they drifted away, so that none of them heard Louise's retort.


Inside the room, Louise was pacing. She did this when she was angry; it was a way of burning off her excess steam. Waiting patiently in the corner was Adrian. The Librarian had been in there for nearly fifteen minutes, and in that time he must have spoken less than twenty words. He was waiting for the junior agent to tire herself out before he spoke again.

It wasn't long before she turned to confront him. When she spoke, there was anger in every syllable.

"I'm the only person here who knows him… the only person who won't be biased against him."

"Louise…" Adrian started, but she cut him off.

"You're not listening to me!" she protested. "You want him back in the basement, and you are trying to stop anyone from defending him."

"Louise…" Adrian tried again – and when she tried to continue her argument, he interrupted her. "LOUISE!"

The young agent stared at him, as though angry at him for daring to stop her tirade.

"I have listened to you, and now you will listen to me."

Louise opened her mouth to protest, but Adrian pressed home his advantage.

"No one has a more vested interest in Robert's parole than me."

"I do!" Louise counted.

"Not including you. Have you forgotten, Louise, that it was I who decided that Robert should be put up for a chance at parole in the first place?"

She sighed, and slumped onto her bed. "Then why did you bother coming if you weren't going to let me help my friend?" Louise queried.

"Far from it, Louise. I want you to help Robert –"

"But how?" she demanded.

"By writing him a character witness," Adrian explained, watching the reaction in the female agent's face. Louise's jaw dropped, but her face remained curious with a hint of disbelief.

"And what good will that do if I'm not in the room to read it out?"

"I will read it out, at the very beginning of the hearing."

"Yeah right… you will read what you want to read, not what I have written."

"You will be able to watch the entire hearing in the TV lounge. I've set it up specially. You will be able to hear the words I say."

Louise appraised Adrian critically. She wasn't totally sure yet whether she trusted the Librarian, but it was true, he had been instrumental in Robert's parole hearing. So despite all the grumblings in the back of her mind telling her to continue her argument, she nodded.

"Okay, I agree."

Adrian visibly sighed. "Thank you. You'll need to give it to me before the hearing, because you won't be allowed into the room itself."

"Fine, whatever. Someone needs to act as a defence in this trial you have arranged."

Adrian saw himself out of Louise's room. None of the previously gathered crowd had lingered, and so the Librarian knew nothing about the audience his little scene with Louise had received.

Back in her room, Louise jumped up from her bed. If she was going to be Robert's only defence, then she would make damned-well sure that it was the best defence he could have. Within seconds, her laptop was open, and warming up. A quick search of the internet revealed the best way to write a character witness, and so, with her laptop quietly humming in the background, Louise began to type.

To whom it may concern…


Robert sat on the narrow bed in his cell, alone in the block and at least two barred walls and a wide corridor away from anyone else. The usual low murmur of the basement was not directed at him, though he could guess there would be some distasteful comments flying around. Especially since he was still the only inmate wearing green, the sign of apparent trust.

Outwardly he appeared calm, but deep inside his mind was in turmoil. Leaning against the bars that formed a corner around his bed, he was in the middle of his book but was taking an age to read each page. He read every sentence several times over, losing track with his tumult of thoughts.

He had been told this very morning, quietly by the agent on duty, that his parole hearing was going to take place today. Further to that, there was little other information; 'today' was practically meaningless in the basement, where the day-night cycle of the lights didn't really do much for one's time perception.

He didn't have much hope for himself. In the seven months he had languished in a five-by-eight-foot barred cell, there had only been five parole attempts; every one had been returned unsuccessful, back in the yellow T-shirts. After being almost overwhelmed by having been given a chance after the rather merciless interrogation, he felt sure that this was a mere courtesy from the Librarian, almost a cruel one; his deep, desperate and truth-be-told knowing involvement in the Basement Incident (as it was now being called) would certainly be a heavy bar to any concept of release he could achieve.

"What a way to ruin one's chances…" he thought to himself, staring momentarily at the barred but bare ceiling. He wanted, more than anything, a chance to speak with Mirani again; she had not been allowed in the basement ever since the Incident, and the conversation they'd managed to share. He wanted to ask more about what experiences she'd had since she left, her friends, but most importantly what happened to her in Warhammer Fantasy; just thinking of Merle's power over that world, and the terror Mirani must have went through – no, Louise, he corrected himself – sent a shiver up his spine.

After failing to read for several hours, and getting lost in his gloomy thoughts, he was snapped back to reality by a voice at his cell door.

"I – what?"

"Wakey wakey dear!" said a cheerful Tash. She gave a cursory glance at the safety measures before she unlocked his door. "It's time to go."

Robert sighed, steeled himself, and stood. They now had the attention of many of the other Sues in the basement. Most simply watched in silence, including Ryouga, who had been locked up for all of four days and still wore the unassessed orange. Tabitha clutched onto the bars of her cell and stared wistfully at Robert, who had until recently been her neighbour and closest friend. She called "Good luck Robert!" down to him.

On the other hand, there were those who began shouting loud insults, Ash's being most prominent. Robert wasn't the only one in the basement whose risk level had been hurriedly reassessed; all had undergone that past the Incident, but only one other had had their T-shirt colour subsequently changed as a result. Ash now wore the dreaded high-risk blue, much to Avak's grim satisfaction, the reasons being mainly for assaulting Alice and resisting capture.

Tash was used to ignoring the heckles, though she did flash a smile down at poor little Tabitha. She took Robert's arm and led him out, towards the exit corridor. He noticed that, unlike the other five parolees he'd seen go up during his time down here, they hadn't handcuffed him for security; he did notice however that a certain white-haired bibliothecary was shadowing them.

"You're so tense! Cheer up," Tash was saying as he was brought into the softer light of the Library proper.

"I… um, it's… I'm just finding it a little… difficult," he replied with effort.

"Don't worry. Seriously," she said, rubbing his back, "when it comes to this kind of stuff, we're never going to get any more solemn than a debate down the pub."

Robert smiled at that. Tash's sincere little grin was infectious.

At the top of the basement stairs, he blinked a little at the bright light, unused to it after being acclimatised to the dull, demoralising light of the basement. He looked around – wait a moment, it didn't look like this a week ago…

"Natasha?" he queried, staring at what used to be a T-junction on a corridor; what was now a large square with entrances to rooms either side.

"Oh… yeah. The Library shuffled itself around a few days ago. We were going to have your hearing earlier, then we woke up, went outside our rooms and went 'huh?' because we weren't where we were last night!" she chuckled. "Adrian of course was fine, strolling around and having a look, but the rest of us were blundering around, trying to find the kitchen, the Monitor room, the bathrooms… yeah it was fun. So we've had to postpone for a coupla days, sorry."

"It's okay."

Eventually she led him through the labyrinthine bookshelf-lined wood corridors to another open space, facing a large door. Tash stopped him.

"You ready?" she asked.

He took a deep breath. "What are the odds?" he asked, quietly.

"Good, I'd say. Just be honest."

He nodded, watching a white cat slink through Tash's legs and scurry into the room.

"Come on, then," she said, gesturing to the door.

The heavy, padded, Medieval-esque door was pushed open inwards, and Tash steered Robert into a softly lit room. A single cushioned chair sat in the middle, pushed underneath a small, empty square table. Directly opposite lay a long table with four places, of which only three were occupied. Robert had been in enough hearings – though not on this side of, and none within the Library confines – to know that was where the leaders would sit. Judge, jury, and maybe executioners too. On the far right of the table, Michael lifted his head, and Robert felt a shiver of apprehension and swallowed nervously. The glare he had pinned the Stu with was like ice.

In the middle of the table sat the same white cat from earlier, washing itself. The violet eyes settled on the pair entering the room, and the cat leapt below the table – and suddenly the Librarian and his undeniable aura was in the room. His face was stern and unmovable…until his eyes fell on Tash and her smile. The firm violet became soft, and Robert relaxed. The Librarian could not be made entirely of stone to look at someone with that amount of tenderness. Adrian then looked at him, and nodded politely in greeting; a gesture which Robert echoed.

A tall woman leaned against the table on the front side: Harriet. The Society's esteemed founder and leader, pleasant enough but a little eccentric. It was hard to tell, really, beneath that curly grey wig and flamboyant black judge's gown and red hood. He heard Tash give a barely audible sigh of exasperation – clearly this exited strangeness was a normal occurrence.

"Hati, baby," Tash sighed. "You look ridiculous."

"Yeah, this isn't a court room," came another voice. Robert jumped as he realised that the witnesses were milling around on the right hand side of the room, some still stood, and others sat down at another long table. There were five in total, and Robert recognised them all: the girl with glasses who was a close friend of Mirani; the girl who had jumped him with the frying pan at the brothel in Rome; a tall gentleman with an extensive moustache and beard, a comfortable-looking woman in a lilac Grecian top, staying close to the Chief Agent, and the dark-haired woman in a deep indigo corset; the three who had all been hostages in the attempted takeover of the basement a week ago.

As Tash led Robert forwards and parked him into the cushioned chair, everyone started to take their seats. Two more people filed in and took their places at another table on the left side of the room. There was a man with a goatee and glasses, whom Robert did not know. The second person was the woman who had seduced him into the store cupboard in the house of Atia. Blushing furiously, he tried not to look at her, and instead watched Tash take the vacant seat at the end of the leaders' table in front of him. He shuffled his rather comfortable chair in and leant his elbows on the table.

"I'm the leader!" Harriet declared huffily; she was the only one still in the space between the tables. "It will be a court room if I deem it so! And deem it so I do!"

"Give me strength…" sighed Adrian. He had long since given up trying to claim his Library as his own in the face of this rabble of teenagers and twentysomethings.

Harriet finally went to her seat – in front of the largest Baroque armchair that could have feasibly fitted through the door, placing her at least a head above the others. "I call this Anti-Cliché and Mary-Sue Elimination Society parole hearing to order!" Harriet stood tall banged a gavel on a coaster on the table.

"Bah. Only American courts use gavels!" Alice whined.

"Oh shut it," pouted Harriet, before grinning and flipping through her paperwork.

Robert's stomach felt like a sack of wet cement.

"Okay," continued the leader. "Prisoner under hearing, Robert. Leaders present, Tash, Adrian, Michael and Harriet. Minutes, Phoenixia –"

The woman on Robert's left paused to wink at him. Robert wished he could evaporate. She watched him, her head tilted on one side.

"– independent adjudicator, Marcus. Witnesses, Claire, Rhia, Dave, Alice and Jess…"

Robert's heart sank. No-one in this room had a good opinion of him. And where was Mirani? Surely she couldn't have been left out of this.

"We all swear to judge honestly, unbiasly…" Harriet paused as a few people giggled, and a few others groaned. "It's a word!" She cleared her throat and tried again. "And to the best of our knowledge and ability. This hearing is now in session. Keep it PG everyone."

She sat down and her wig slipped off. "Bollocks."

Even Robert had to smile now.

"Okay, before we begin, Robert," Tash took over, as Harriet adjusted her hairpiece. "Do you have any questions?"

"Yes…" the Stu nodded nervously. "Can we turn the air conditioning off? It's a bit chilly…"

He was surprised that his request was not laughed at, let alone listened to, but Harriet leaned around and zapped the humming machine with a remote before clapping her hands. A pair of scantily clad men appeared with a giant fan, and began to waft a cooling breeze at the leader.

"Hati…" Tash groaned.

"Hey, it was either this or Hampshire County Cricket Club!"

"I'm doomed…" Robert concluded to himself. The people who ran this Society were all mad, one way or another. God only knew how they had been so blindly successful so far.

Adrian got to his feet, with a sheet of paper in his hand. He smoothed it out and cleared his throat.

"Okay, first item of business. I have a character witness for Robert, written and signed by Louise."

Robert felt himself give a gentle nod. He understood now. The Society were not willing to let Mirani – no, Louise, he had to get used to her birth name – into the hearing. Too much wariness was still in the air around her, and she could be biased towards him enough that she might lie to help him. So they had her vouch for him in other ways… but what could she have written?


Louise had ensconced herself in one of the television lounges close to the hearing room. Several feeds plugged into the screens, allowing her several different views – and high-quality sound – from the hearing. She settled into a comfortable chair, with several notebooks and pens scattered on the table in front of her.

Her distant cousin's antics had made her groan. She could see the look of dazed horror on Robert's face as everyone settled. The Librarian, at least, seemed to share her frustration with the silliness. She waited for the first stage of the hearing to begin.

The door opened and closed, and Valerie stepped into the lounge. "Hello, Lou," she said gently. "I thought you might want some company?"

"Please," the older agent said, gesturing to another chair. Valerie took a seat, and smiled at Louise – but she was too focused on the hearing. Valerie could tell that inwardly she was shaking.

Adrian stood and announced that this was to be the reading of the character witness she had spent a good three furious hours on perfecting. She sat back with a notebook and her copy of the witness, ready to mark any errors he made.

"To whom it may concern," Adrian began.

"I have known Robert for a total of nine years, eighteen months of which I was working with him at Blackspire castle. When I first arrived there, at the age of nineteen, Robert was amongst the first to welcome me. He was there for me when I needed him the most, during some of the hardest times in my year and a half of service. I would frequently turn to him for advice, counsel and sometimes even a shoulder to cry upon, and I was never turned away.

"Robert was my superior officer, and yet he was respected by all the Witch-Hunters, regardless of rank. He was one of the men, and yet could command legions when necessary. And yet, with potentially hundreds of men under his command, he never acted rashly, and always attempted to protect the innocent and the vulnerable. He is honest, honourable and above all he is kind towards his fellow man.

"He treated us all in an unbiased way, regardless of whether we were a sergeant in the army, or the lowliest footman. If we had disobeyed a rule, then he saw to it that we were rightfully punished, and no more.

"When I decided to leave the Witch-Hunters, Robert was the first person I told. Whilst it was clear that he would have liked me to stay with them, he soon understood my need to move on, and did not try to dissuade me after that point.

"Signed, Louise," he finished.

There was a low hum of talk from the room, and Louise took the remote and zoomed in one of the screens to get a better look at Robert's face. There was a slight smile, one of nostalgia and admiration at the glowing report.

"Well?" queried Valerie.

Louise nodded. "Verbatim… practically. I can't believe he… word for word."

"It's a good start."



"All right, you lot, settle down! Bit of culture now!" shouted Harriet, and the startled witnesses quietened. Adrian gave the copy of Louise's testimony to Phoenixia, who added it of her pile of papers. Robert dared to look at her again, and now she was all business; she only afforded him a polite, quick nod.

"Righty-ho," the robe-clad founder continued. "Robert! You've been in the basement for a total of…" she picked up yet another sheet of paper that was a printout from his file using a hidden extended clip on the end of her gavel. "…seven months, three weeks and four days. Who keeps track of this stuff?"

There were some more chuckles.

"We're going to start from the beginning and work our way up till last week," said Tash, shaking her head at her friend's antics. "Should we start in Rome?"

"Naaaaww, I wanna know where he comes from!" said Harriet, smiling at him directly. It was a sensible comment in a silly context. "Is 'Robert' all you go by? Gotta be one of the shortest Sue names I've ever seen…"

Robert nodded, taking a deep breath; he had been nervous about the hearing before, and the lack of a truly serious atmosphere made him very uncertain of any real motive or attitude. "My full name… would be Robert of Ardenwyn, but I no longer use my family's name because I rescinded all claim to our freehold when I left."

There were several confused looks. Those who had some knowledge of the Medieval period recognised what Robert was saying.

"Tell us more?" prompted Adrian. "Where were you born?"

This was an important question, as any untruth or hesitation or an admittance of 'I don't know' could imply ulterior motives from afar, and not from Merle. It wasn't unexpected, however, when he was able to answer immediately and easily.

"I was born in Mistledale, in the Dalelands of Faerûn," he said. "My twin and I were the second and third sons respectively, fourth and fifth overall."

"Out of?"


There was a low rumble around the room.

"Okay," said Adrian. "How does a younger son from a peaceful farm end up with someone like Merle?"

Robert's breath caught in his throat. "Er…"

"Take your time."

"I… we… my brother and I were inseparable… we didn't want to sit on a farm neither of us would ever inherit, so when we were fifteen we left, and headed west to seek our fortune." Everyone was by now listening intently, and he was uncomfortably aware of it. "We ended up in the city of Waterdeep, and we lived for a while as hired swords."

Phoenixia looked up, initially taking that completely out of context. At her cheeky grin, Adrian screwed up a ball of paper and biffed it at her head.

"Ignore the children," said Harriet. "Please continue."

"We endured two winters in the city. Sometimes it was hard going; we were young and not always trusted…but in the second winter, um, let's see, I think we were seventeen by then, we came across a gentleman named Simon. Big man, said he had been looking for us. He took us to one of the large townhouses looking over the harbour, and there he introduced us to his lady… Merle."

On the far side of the room, Alice snorted softly. "Lady? My arse." Jess, on her left, elbowed her quiet.

"This Simon said he'd been looking for you," said Adrian. "How did he know of you? Had you met him before?"

Robert shook his head. "All I can deduce was that someone in Merle's employ must have been watching us. We didn't know why this lady wanted to see us; we were just glad to be fed well. When Simon eventually brought us before her, she was very interested in us, and what she called our 'potential'…"

"What kind of potential was Merle looking for? Did she ever explain?" queried Tash.

"I soon knew exactly what she was implying," he replied, closing his eyes. "Initially we were treated the same, and she told us of her demesne, far in the East, in the Hordelands… she had won the love of the nomads by banishing a powerful Vampire from a castle called Blackspire. Richard drank it all in, but I found it rather strange… she's two years my junior, she couldn't have been fourteen when she led her army to storm the castle."

There were some murmurs there as everyone listening saw the Sueishness in such a feat. Harriet broke the near-silence.

"Sorry to backtrack slightly, but just a quick question – when you first met Merle, what did you think of her? I mean, what was your first impression?"

"She has this… aura of intimidation. She does not suffer fools and she determines to keep a high level of information networked. Because we were of interest of her, she was pleasant to us, but she was always sharp." He paused, gathering his thoughts. "I saw what she was like to underlings, or people who crossed her. Richard refused to see it."

"Okay. So you didn't quite buy her story, but Richard did. What did she have you do while you were under her… interest? Employ? What do I call it?" Harriet looked at her fellow leaders, and then at the witnesses, and most of them shrugged.

Robert smirked. Talking was getting easier; what was holding him back was the tumult of emotion that stemmed from this time. "I felt that kind of limbo also. Richard drank in all her stories…I felt lost. I was simply living, allowed to go out to the city, but with nothing to do. I spent most of my time with the others: Simon was pleasant but distant; we would duel often, as if he wanted to test me. There was also Val, he was much more of a conversationalist."

There were some odd looks.


In the lounge, Louise smiled at the mention of the name, whilst the Val she was sitting next to looked rather bemused.

"Val? 'He'?" she queried, almost at the same time that Robert was explaining it also.

"Short for Percival. He would always tell us to call him the shortened version," said Louise.


Despite the ambiguous nickname, the leaders recognised these names. "Who were Simon and Val in the scheme of Merle's organisation?" asked Adrian. "Were they high up or in the same situation as you?"

Robert sighed. "Simon and Val were Merle's sons, firstborn and second respectively."

Harriet's face screwed up. "Merle had sons? Isn't she a bit young?"

Michael snorted. "Who would be desperate enough to sleep with her?"

Alice grinned. "Mark Antony."

"Ah," said Robert. "Not biological sons, sorry. Turned."

There were yet more confused looks, but this time the apprehension rose with them. Tash was chewing her lip.


Robert looked puzzled. "Turned. Changed. Merle is a werewolf, it's how she began to make an army of them."

Almost the entire hearing room gasped, and burst into shocked talk.

Robert was shaken by the unexpected response. "Forgive me, I thought this was common knowledge."

"Oh yes!" snapped Michael sarcastically, gesturing to the sides of the room. "This is the face of common knowledge!"

"I had a hunch," said Alice. "I think Tashy knew…"

Tash seemed to shrink.

"And you never said?"

"Of course I didn't! What kind of friend would I be if I blurted out all of Louise's secrets?"

Robert could only quail in his seat as the argument raged.


Valerie was just as shocked as everyone else, but the more she thought about it, the more it made perfect sense.


The elder agent just sighed. She had dreaded this moment ever since Merle had shown her face in Stargate SG-1.

The healer shuffled closer and wrapped an arm around her. "Why are you so upset over this?"

"Because now everyone's just going to ask why I didn't tell them sooner. I couldn't…" Her voice was choked.


"Order, order! Order in my court room!" Harriet's wig fell off again, and the comedic moment ended a lot of the shocked whispers.

Robert wasn't laughing. All he could think about was going back to that cold, lonely cell. He was certain his chance was over.

"Okay…" she continued. "So Merle is a werewolf? That's interesting. How did this happen, then?"

"Umm…" Robert thought for a moment, trying to drag himself out of his misery. "As far as I know, she was the ward of the Everqueen of Ulthuan, and when she was young she was cursed by a sorcerer, who turned her into a werewolf. She was still accepted by the Elves, strangely, but as she grew her powers caught the attention of others… eventually she found her way to Faerûn."

"Textbook Mary-Sue," said Tash.

"Transform with the moon and howl, that kind of thing?"

"The elders don't need to rely in the lunar cycles. Merle even less so; she is the Moonrunner, invisible in moonlight…"

There was an uncomfortable shiver as those who went on the rescue mission to Warhammer Fantasy remembered Alice's warning: stay out of the moonlight…

Adrian shook off the worrying feeling. They could update the files later. "Okay, you say Simon and Val were her sons… so they were werewolves too?"

Robert nodded. "Yes."

"And Richard?"

They saw Robert's face drop. Several could already guess what had happened. "Richard… as I was living aimless for a while, I was growing farther and farther away from my twin. I don't know if it was idolisation, but he certainly had become her favourite."

"In what way?"

"She found Richard was very like her, in mind and thought…she indulged this, this lust for power which I had only ever noticed briefly before. He became her aide, her sounding board…almost starting to push Simon from his place."

"How did you feel when he became her favourite?" asked Tash, aware of the sadness in his eyes.

"Lost. Alone… so alone. It was as if half of myself had vanished. Val helped me a lot." He continued after a long pause. "She… eventually, she turned him too. The Richard I once knew died that day."

"That's how he jumped over that wall…" murmured Michael.

"I witnessed the change. It wasn't pleasant." He looked up. "Finally, several months after we met her, we left Waterdeep and crossed Faerûn, bringing us to Blackspire at last. Richard was ensconced in a place of power, now Merle's second in command. I… I was adopted into the Witch-Hunters, Merle's private mortal army. Their commander, a man named Vincent, became almost like a mentor figure to me."

"Hang on," said Tash. "Now the Witch-Hunters too? What about Simon and Val? Were there any other armies? How do they fit into this master scheme?"

"As well as Simon and Val there was now Richard too… they turned others in succession, building Merle an army of werewolves." There were uneasy looks all round. "Then there was us, the mortals, not always human – there were Elves, half-Elves, half-Drow, all sorts. There was also the Elite Guard, hand-picked from the Witch-Hunters and the most loyal to Merle. Other than that, there is her extensive network of spies and informants…"

Harriet sighed. "Will we be here till Christmas trying to name them all?"

"Her contacts?" said Robert, grimacing. "Say 'everyone' and perhaps that will suffice…"

"Okay, we'll ask more about the organisation on another occasion," said Adrian. Robert gulped. "Tell us about when Louise entered the picture. When did you meet her, and what did you think of her?"

"I had been there… perhaps two years by then? I knew her as Mirani, and Merle herself brought her to Blackspire. She seemed as Richard had done long ago; a favourite. Kept close to Merle. I had little contact with her for the first few months of her time with us; I knew what I knew from reports, as by then I had made Captain. I believe I was first introduced to her by Simon, and I thought she was just another pet of Merle's – but when she spoke, she was open, and accepting…"

"Why am I getting the impression that she wasn't favoured for long?"

"Merle's interest in her seemed to… wane somewhat. I think Raven's Bluff was one of the major turning points…"

"Raven's Bluff…" said Harriet, frowning. "Why does that so not sound like a Disney attraction?"


In the lounge, Louise covered her face.


Robert shifted uncomfortably. "Raven's Bluff… one of Merle's castles on the Sea of Fallen Stars… when Mirani was in Merle's favour, it meant that Richard was being pushed aside…and he didn't like that one bit. They argued, up there on the roof… and Richard killed her. He tore out her heart."


Valerie stared from the screen to Louise and back in utter shock. "You – no…"

She heard Louise's dismayed whisper. "Oh Robert, why are you bringing this up? You're just digging me a deeper hole…"


The gasp this time ended in utter silence. Not even Alice had known this; Tash looked just as shocked as everyone else.

"He did WHAT?" Harriet spluttered.

"How – how is that even possible?" demanded Adrian.

"What do you mean, 'how's that possible'?" muttered Dave softly. "You did it."

"Merle brought her back," said Robert. "She knows necromancers, she's worked with them, there's a couple in her employ…she was cursed by one once and she killed him for it…but she knows the art herself, and she brought Mirani back."

Now the whispers began. Alice looked up to where the cameras in the room fed the proceedings to Louise's lounge, meeting the gaze of the lens – she was blinking back tears at the very thought. Jess and Dave, on either side of her, rubbed her back and offered her some tissues.

"I think this is something to ask Louise about later…" murmured Adrian.

"She won't tell you…" Tash replied.

"…Okay, back to you, Robert. What happened after Merle brought Louise back? You say she wasn't her favourite any more?"

"She began to fall out of favour after that point. Four months after she arrived, she began to seek solace more and more with the Witch-Hunters, and eventually joined us. Vincent was happy to take her in. I had just been made his lieutenant –" he pronounced the rank 'leff-tenant', similar to the Royal Navy, "– and Mirani and I became friends… like she said."

"But she wasn't there for long," said Michael. "She left."

Robert took a deep breath at the accusatory tone. "Yes… she left us just over a year later."


He swallowed nervously. "She realised that she couldn't remain, and had to return home. I was her confidante, and she told me she had 'grown up' and knew she couldn't spend her whole life under Merle's thumb. I accepted her decision, and saw her leave."

"How old was she?"

"Twenty-one years. She was the same age as myself."

"So she left, and Merle didn't take that well?" asked Adrian.

"Not well at all. She knew to not take it out on us, but we knew she was not happy…"

"So Louise had gone. What happened next?"

Robert shrugged. "Little of note… more castles, more bases, more contacts, more Witch-Hunters. I saw less and less of my brother but heard more and more rumours of his exploits, none good. I didn't see Mirani again until… until five years later, when we were ordered to take a small contingent into Nosgoth in Merle's service."

This made everyone sit up. Alice yelped.


"No. You can't have been there," said Michael. "We picked up two Sues, Merle and Richard. Not you."

"I was there, but nowhere near Merle."

"Tell us what happened in Legacy of Kain," said Adrian, his voice suddenly serious.

Robert gulped at the Librarian's order. "I was the commanding officer in Vincent's stead. I was at the back, I didn't see much…" he sighed. "My brother took away a woman, kicking and screaming… and then Merle taunted Mirani, overpowered her and dragged her after Richard. I saw nothing else; I had the soldiers to look after."

"Wait, wait wait," interjected Alice. "When I was caught there was a guy who pointed his weapon at me until Merle came. I couldn't see his face – that was you?"

Robert immediately shook his head. "No'm. That was Kelam, he's a captain of mine." Yet another name that the leaders had heard of. "He's Nosgothian by birth, and when we leave Faerûn we make a point of giving positions of honour to those whose home is the same place as our deployment."

"Why didn't you stop Richard?"

"I –" He was taken aback by the accusation. "I didn't know what was happening, and I doubt I could have done anything anyway."

"He nearly killed me."

Robert's head dropped into his hands. "Richard… never used to have this sadistic streak…" he murmured. "I heard some screams… but I daren't go to confront him."

Alice scowled, about to snap further, but the other witnesses hugged her and soothed her enough to quieten. Her time at the hands of Richard had been one of the worst moments of her life, but she had spoken to Robert a lot during his time in the basement, and she knew he was unlike his brother…the Basement Incident notwithstanding, that is.

Robert's heart was thumping. He wondered if he was doing the right thing. The betrayals flowing from his lips was only signing his death warrant.

"All right, I think we'll leave the distant past for now," said Adrian. "It's time for a break. Go stretch your legs, get some tea…"

Harriet clapped her hands, and her small legion of scantily-clad slaves came in. With several grunts of effort, they lifted the armchair and its occupant and bore her, giggling, out the door. Well, they tried, but the width of the chair saw them get stuck; several had to get up and give it a shove to get it through. There was a 'wheee! Ow' from Harriet, nearly falling out as she exploded through the jambs, almost breaking them.

The room half-emptied rather quickly.

"Umm…?" Robert was unsure on what he should do.

"You need to stay here, Robert," said Adrian. "Feel free to get up and walk around the room if you want. If you want anything, just ask. Tea? Something to eat?"

Robert shook his head but murmured his thanks anyway. He hadn't had breakfast and he was hungry, but he felt that if he ate he might not be able to keep it down.


Louise had been watching the proceedings like a hawk. She had half-expected all the sordid details of her past to come out…but now it was, she had the terrible sinking feeling that she was going to be in a lot of trouble. Or was going to have to answer lots of questions on it…which to think about it, would come in the former anyway.

As she sighed and flopped backwards, Valerie appeared in her view. She proffered a plate of nibbles – sausage rolls, cheesy crackers and other little things. Louise started to devour one of the rolls, and Valerie sat next to her, nibbling on a cracker.

"Thanks," Louise said, smiling at the healer.

"It's going pretty well so far, I think…" said Valerie.

"Is it?" Louise sighed. "Seems more to damn him further…why are they delving into his past anyway?"

"He's telling us more about Merle and Richard, and he's being open and honest. And polite; one of the last parole hearings was cut short after there was a lot of swearing…Reena and Kerrie failed theirs because they were unrepentant, and Robert seems to be."

"Unrepentant? What does he have to be repentant for? You heard him, he couldn't do anything for Alice! If only I knew he was there…"

"I think we'll answer that when we get to Rome…"


Robert shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He didn't like this waiting. It felt like everyone was watching him out of the corner of their eyes, and the time just crept by slowly. The woman taking minutes was changing her hair up and down to see which looked best, and the five witnesses were talking amongst themselves (though he swore he heard the word 'pancakes' being squealed by Alice). He sighed and ran a hand over his face. He'd only ever felt this alone once before…

A glass of water appeared in his line of sight. Attached to it was a small girl in dungarees, with short hair caught somewhere between light brown and auburn. He recognised her from the basement, and quickly he remembered that her name was Emily. Despite the offering, she was holding the water at arms length as though she expected Robert to jump up and bite her.

"Thank you…" He took the water slowly. He wasn't sure if this was a friendly greeting or not, but his throat did feel like sandpaper, so he took a long sip. She shrugged awkwardly.

"S'okay…I snuck in when Harriet fell out of her chair. Her wig had fallen over her eyes, so she didn't see me. The leaders said I'm too young to be in here…" she huffed, clearly disagreeing with this statement. Robert did not quite know what to say, so he settled for drinking more.

"Is it always cold?" Emily asked suddenly, and Robert looked up from his glass with a curious expression.

"Excuse me?"

"In the basement." She scraped a booted toe across the shagpile. "Is it always that cold?"

He couldn't look at her as he replied. "All the time."

"…and dark?"

He gave a short nod, and she gave a small shiver.

"My sisters lived down there," she mumbled eventually, and Robert saw her gaze drift to the table of witnesses. "I'm not saying they were angels before going in, coz they weren't, but when its dark and cold in a place, it makes people a little more crazy… sometimes I think everyone conveniently forgets that."

Robert watched as at the table, Jess gave a wriggle of her eyebrows and a suggestive cock of her hips. Dave covered his eyes in mortification, and Alice began to giggle in a slightly maniacal tone. Living in an environment full of smiles and laughter like this, Robert wondered how it was even possible for Emily to sound so down. Surely she had others to confide any bad thoughts to?

"What made you come in here?" he asked her. "Why would you slip into a hearing to talk to…to one of your enemies?"

Emily's nervous shuffling ceased, and she chewed hard on her lip as she thought. Robert expected her to protest or scurry away to join the witness table. Instead she met his eyes with a contemplative expression.

"Being me…and having my family – blood and adopted – has a weird way of making me see people differently," she admitted. "Some people…it's like there are two sides to them. One that everyone else sees; and one that only a few people see."

She turned to where the leaders had been sitting. Though the seats were empty now, she gestured to each one as she spoke. "The Society's Chief Agent slaughtered all these mafia members and Gary Stus. He didn't care. He just ripped them apart. But when he's not being Chief Agent…when he's just Michael, he teaches me how to play Yu-Gi-Oh and he makes me laugh."

She pointed to the next seat along. "The Librarian…who knows how many he's killed? But Adrian gave me a home. Willowe Diamond Honeysuckle Allisonette…" she launched into a name that sounded utterly ridiculous but carried an undertone of a serious threat. "…tried to take over real life and murdered Adrian. But Willowe…" a small tear appeared in her eye. "was the best big sister ever…"

The pieces slotted into place neatly in Robert's mind. Now he knew where he had seen her before. She had the same face structure as the woman who was rapidly becoming a saint to Mary Sues everywhere. He had never met Willowe of course, but tales of her exploits were infamous in the basement, and he had of course seen video footage of her when the Society had let them watch Sue Factor. He wanted to comfort her, to rub her back and soothe her tears as he would with his own young sisters long ago, but wisely he stayed in his seat.

"And me?" he prompted. Any hint of tears vanished quickly, and Emily shrugged, now looking a little embarrassed.

"Prisoner A-three-six-five-five took me and my friends hostage." A wave of shame flooded Robert, and he swore he'd find a way to make up for the fright he must have given her.

"But…" Emily paused, smiling, her cheeks going pink. "Robert let me dance on his feet at the Sue Factor party."

The shame was instantly wiped, and Robert had to smile back. That had been the first night in months that he had actually had any fun. The poor girl was shattered but was determined to not miss the party, and he and the others made her very welcome.

"Emily." Marcus appeared from nowhere, and the moment was over. He had been so silent that Robert had forgotten he was there. "I've got to cross-examine Robert now. And you shouldn't be here anyway. Skedaddle, young lady."

Though she left, her hands thrust deep into her pockets, Robert had to fight down a laugh as Emily turned and stuck her tongue out at Marcus' back before leaving.

"So," said Marcus. "I'm just going to ask a few questions."

"Er…" Robert mumbled. "Okay… you're the independent judge, aren't you?"

"Yes. I want to get a measure of you before the leaders convene… so how do you feel right now?"

"Nervous." Robert answered immediately. "I'm… just worried that I'm just making it worse for myself. And it's… difficult to think about some of my past…"

Marcus nodded. "Are you remorseful about your actions?"

"Remorseful?" Robert stared down at the table top. "What have I done? I've had no charge, no trial; I've just been locked up arbitrarily."

An eyebrow lifted. "You sound desperate to escape."

"Who wouldn't be…"

"Okay. If your parole is granted, how do you think you'll spend your freedom?"

Robert didn't give an immediate answer, as he had to think about that one. "I'm not sure. Shine up my sabre skills, maybe… I really don't know. Sorry. Being in jail does dull one's senses something chronic…"

"What about going home?"

Slowly, he shook his head. "I don't know if I can… I don't think I'd stay alive."

"Hmm." Marcus carefully studied the man. "If you do go back to the basement, what would you do differently?"

Robert sighed. "Ask if I could go back next to Tabitha… it was so lonely in A block by myself."

"All right," said Marcus, nodding thoughtfully. "What's your biggest fear?"

"Losing someone I have responsibility for. Letting them down. Disappointing them."

"Does it keep you up at night?"

"All the time…"

"I see," said Marcus. All his questions, asked rather bluntly and with no explanation as to why he wanted to know, had been answered clearly and with no argument.

"Okay… I think I've heard enough. Thanks."

As Marcus returned to his seat, Robert despaired slightly, not knowing whether he had done himself any good. Then he espied Emily grinning from the doorway, and smiled; at least he had some support.


There wasn't a clock in the room, but Robert wasn't bothered. He hadn't been able to read the time for the last seven-and-a-half months; his entire day in the basement was controlled by the dimming and brightening of the lights. It made him feel tired, but unable to sleep.

After several more minutes, the leaders and the few witnesses settled back into their seats (Harriet and her armchair included) and the low murmur died down. Harriet grabbed for her gavel and she dropped it.

Her curse was quite colourful, as her too-small wig slipped over her eyes. Tash was near howling with laughter as she handed the wooden mallet back up. Harriet struck the coaster with the handle.

Robert was getting the 'I'm surrounded by idiots' feeling, but it was making him feel sick. It didn't help that Michael looked grumpier than before.

Adrian rolled his eyes. "Okay. Let's talk about Rome. At least that's a bit more recent."

Robert took a deep breath. "Rome…Merle came to me and told me that I had a special mission. She was going to put my brother and I together for the purposes of gaining popularity in a certain fandom…I didn't know what she meant until she dropped me off in Gaul, next to the Legion. I was there a number of months. Merle eventually gave me my orders - to get one Marcus Antonius to come to her door."

The Librarian had a thoughtful look on his face. He had read the reports from the big Society trip into Rome with great interest; part of him wished he could have gone too, but that was by-the-by. "What was it like?" he asked. "Fighting in Gaul, a war you probably didn't believe in or know anything about, for a cause that you weren't even sure of, and for someone you didn't really trust that much?"

"A soldier always trusts his superiors," Robert simply replied.

The leaders exchanged looks.

Harriet leaned forwards. "How did you get Mark Antony to come to your door? Befriending him can't have been easy… was there some kind of Stuish influence there, or did you just bond over wine?"

"I knew nothing of the concept until I was in your basement, and even then it was explained to me by the denizens. So it's up to you, the experts, as to whether my behaviour was, as you say, 'Stuish'. I however, feel that it was quite easy to befriend the man, as I had plenty of military experience and a good strategist is always rewarded in the XIII. So yes, I imagine it was over wine, some of it."

"Or prostitutes," giggled Rhia, remembering the brothel. Alice snorted.

"Oi! Behave yourselves!" said Tash, before she giggled herself.

Adrian noticed Robert pink slightly, and cleared his throat to get their attention.

"Anyway, you befriended Antony. Then what?"

"When the XIII returned to Rome, I brought Mark Antony to Merle's door, as I was ordered. Then the dynamic changed, as in Rome identical male twins are regarded highly, so my brother and I became quite wanted guests on the public scene, and Merle along with them…" Robert sighed softly.

"I suppose it helped that she was acting the hot, rich and widowed…" said Harriet with a grin.

Tash looked puzzled. "What was she doing in Rome in the first place? Did she just get bored of Legacy of Kain? For that matter, why did she go there? What made her start trawling fandoms? From what it sounds like she had quite a nice army and power base in her home fandom. Why just up and leave it?"

"Start trawling?" said Robert. "Her contacts extend to outside Faerûn, certainly, but even that's not her home. I do not presume to know Merle's plans…I couldn't even begin to guess."

"All right," said Harriet, steering the hearing back on topic; it was veering off course more than a drunk train driver. "So Merle manipulated the fandom. And you and Richard just…did what?"

"We did what most male patricians did. Places to be, people to see, appearances to keep up…" Robert's pink cheeks were not vanishing.

Michael's sneer at the response was wiped by Tash's scrunched-up paper landing on his head.

"Okay, and then the illustrious us showed up," said Harriet. "Did you have any idea who we were?"

"No. Not at all. I think Richard knew."

"But he didn't tell you?"

Robert shook his head. "It was… nice to be with him again. It was like old times. I hadn't been this close to my brother in years."

There were a few uncomfortable looks. Those who had seen him remembered that cruelty in his eyes. "Richard is a very dangerous man – even more so, with your information on him. He's nearly killed Alice –"

"He nearly kidnapped me in Rome!"

Adrian grimaced at the interruption, but knew Alice was correct. "And he's injured a number of other agents. He fights dirty, and was happy to leave several of them to escape an inferno."

Robert closed his eyes.

"And yet you speak of him with high regard."

He nodded in response.

"Is your loyalty to your brother going to prove a liability?"

"I don't know," Robert replied eventually. "If you want an honest answer, I don't know."

There was a rather annoyed sigh from Michael.

"Anyway, I think we've danced around the issue long enough… tell us about the brothel!" said Tash.

There was a long, red-faced pause… "It was Richard's idea!"

"We're not here to judge you about it. Tell us about the fight, from your own point of view."

Again came the strong longing to sink into the floor. Robert mumbled softly. "I… er… I didn't know what was happening, really… I was just pulled back from behind. I couldn't see a face initially; I had to think of the girl's safety, I didn't know…"

"During the fight you injured one of our agents," said Harriet, nodding at Rhia. "Do you remember what you were thinking at the time?"

Robert blinked at the question, and stared slowly in the agent's direction. "I… excuse me?"

"You kicked out at Rhia's knee. She had injured it earlier that year in Babylon 5. It was fractured quite badly."

Robert's hands went to his face. "I'm sorry. Please, I'm sorry. I didn't know. I wasn't deliberately – I'm sorry. Please forgive me…"

Rhia was silent at the rather profuse apology, but Michael snorted. "Bollocks."

Harriet threw another ball of paper at him.

"So you didn't know it was us attacking you?" asked Adrian.

"How was I to know who the hell you were? I thought I was fighting for my life!"

"All right! Calm down!" Yet another ball of paper littered the floor after bouncing off Robert's head.

Adrian sighed. "Do not abuse the defendant, Harriet…"

"My courtroom! My rules!"

Tash broke the argument. "Okay, we know what happened during the fight. What happened when you left the brothel? Where did you go?"

"Back… back home with Richard. Merle wasn't happy, but she let me go to my room. I knew nothing about what was going on until Richard came to my door and told me to start getting dressed."

Phoenixia's professional composure broke and she snickered. "You mean you weren't dressed before? Oh wait, you weren't!"

"Ri-Richard threw a tunic at me before we went onto the Forum."

"Phoenixia, behave," said Adrian. "The minute-taker is supposed to be quiet!"

"That's not what you said the other night…"

Adrian blushed, and turned back into the white cat – which zoomed to hide in Tash's blouse.

"Oh quit it before I get my camera!" quipped Alice, to the laughter of the witnesses.

Tash continued, trying to ignore the ball of fur scrambling around in her chest area. "I assume you realised who we were once we had slapped the Prohibitor on your wrist?"

"No! You are not as infamous as you presume. Your intent or purpose is not immediately obvious; certainly no-one in Blackspire below Merle, Richard and Simon knew of you, probably Val doesn't even know! Richard only half-explained it to me as we were preparing to visit the Julii."

Tash grimaced, scooping the cat out of her blouse and tickling his neck. She then grinned at Dave. "We're working on our PR…"

Adrian changed back, and sat back down. "Excuse me. Ahem. What happened when you got to Atia's place?"

Robert glanced at Phoenixia ever so briefly. "Your typical Roman party…food, wine and politics…"

There were some giggles. Robert's red face returned.

"Go on…" prompted Adrian.

"Must I? I'm sure you know this part…"

"Not all of us were there at the time," said Harriet, gesturing to Marcus and the rest of the leaders. "Besides, I'd like to know more about how you felt at that point. Gives us a measure of you."

Robert closed his eyes, certain he was damning himself with every sentence.

"How did you feel about the party? How did you feel about Merle at that point?"

"Her… temper when Mirani was mentioned scared me somewhat. Merle had spoken to me before we went in… she told me some rather cryptic orders. I didn't really think about them… The party, well, it was a party, they bore me somewhat. But uhh, when um…" he glanced at Phoenixia. "…when she showed up…"


Robert could only stare at the grain in the tabletop. "…I followed her through into the kitchens… It seemed like a good idea… but then, well, I believe it was… 'night night Robert'?"

Rhia snickered.

"What were you thinking when you went after Nixie?" asked Tash. "You had appearances to keep up. Merle would have been so pissed if she found out."

For the first time, Robert let a small smirk escape. "I decided that I'd had enough of her growling at me all night…"

"That and you just wanted to finish up what you couldn't in the brothel…" muttered Michael.

"Well, we can't blame him. She is pretty damn hot in a ripped tunic," giggled Tash.

Robert, mortified, dropped his head into his hands.


"Oh for Pete's sake…" sighed Valerie.

"What the hell is this?" raged Louise. "How the hell is embarrassing him supposed to let him persuade them to grant parole? This is ridiculous!"

"I think they're going to let the witnesses speak now. They seem somewhat more sensible than those four right now…"


It was now Claire's soft voice that sounded in the hearing room.

"I saw Robert in the atrium of Atia's house," she was saying. "He looked a little grouchy. He was staying far away from Merle and Richard. We had to go around and do the pleasantries so we spoke briefly. He was very polite, easily charming…" she ignored Michael's growl. "…but not in a bad way, just, well, naturally. And that was it, really." Now she paid her husband attention, smiling at him and reaching for his hand. He softened almost immediately.

"What about you, Rhia?" said Adrian. "You had more contact with him during the mission. How did you find him?"

"Well, there was the fight in the brothel." She saw Robert's face drop again. "But, well he may have a point, if he didn't know who we were – and why should he? We were dressed like ordinary Roman slaves." Rhia looked away from the leaders, and fixed her gaze squarely on him. "It's okay about my knee. Thank you for apologising."

Robert bowed his head at the woman's graciousness, then met her eyes again.

"At the party, well. We had him half-captured, we had to finish the job. Not much to say there, really… we had him hook, line and sinker. Not even a chance to fight."

He rubbed the back of his head. The frying-pan blows he had received left him with a severe concussion, which had seen him as sick as a dog and unable to stand for several days. He had slowly recovered, thanks to Valerie and her tender and unprejudiced medical assistance.

"You're recorded as his official captor, Rhia. Was there any issue with processing him?"

"Nope. Compliant as anything. Think that was the headache though."

A ripple of laughter spread across the hearing room.

"Okay," said Adrian. "His file reads that there were no problems during the seven-and-a-half months he was in the basement. Can the witnesses concur with that?"

All five of them nodded. Robert had never joined the expected heckling and was one of those more than content with a book.

"So… now we get to the Basement Incident."

Robert shrank into his chair again.

"We all know the details, and we all know the reasons behind why Louise did what she did. We are not here to discuss that," Adrian continued. "But what we are here to discuss, is why, Robert, why you were so complacent. Surely you knew you would be in serious trouble?"

Robert's breath caught in his throat. "I – we – I…" For the first time he seemed recalcitrant, reluctant to speak. Several eyebrows rose.

"You just can't say, can you?" said Michael.

"I… I knew that there would be trouble if we failed. It has been… evident, over the past week."

"And knowing that, you still went along with it."

"Someone had to protect the hostages, and that was me."

"Did you even think the plan would work?"

Robert chewed his lip. "I don't know…"

"So by not knowing, you were risking a lot," said Adrian, keeping his voice gentle. "A big risk. Why? Why did you go through with it?"

Several noted that Robert was finding it difficult to speak, even though it was clear he knew remaining quiet was bad. His breath was halting.


"Mirani's… Louise's offer was… was very inviting."

"Via threats? McLaren ended up back in a cell because he protested, if I recall," said Tash.

"You just wanted out?" queried Michael. He had spotted the sudden hesitation too, and was curious. "Is that it?"

"It… wasn't via threats…" Robert began. "We're… constantly bored, down there in the basement. Some try to keep books and read, like I do; others play games, and call out their moves across the cells, if they can get hold of pencil and paper. But, that's it."

"The entire Incident was because the inmates were bored?"

"Tash…" said Harriet, her face suddenly very serious. "I want to hear this. Let him finish."

"I…" Robert swallowed. "We… there's no consistency. We're dancing around shattered glass. Every agent who comes on duty has a different mannerism: some let us get on with it, providing us with the books and paper; others ignore us completely; but some are utter tyrants who scream at us if we so much as breathe loudly. Problem is we don't know how to act. The day-night cycle is irregular; so much so that most of us have to disregard it to stay rested. Getting a shower or exercise is a rare treat. But the thing that we really wanted to escape… we don't always know when we're going to be fed. I was told when Rhiannon first processed me that we are fed three times a day… but with the changing of agents, the laziness, forgetfulness or sheer vindictiveness of some, the lack of routine – we're not. Twice a day is what we hope for; sometimes it's once, and on some occasions not at all. Three times a day? It doesn't happen. The last time was at Christmas; and you wonder why we all ate so much at the party and tried to hoard the leftovers. Mirani gave us a clear opportunity to escape that hell. So if you really have to ask the question of why we were so complacent in the Basement Incident… this, this is why."

The hearing room was silent.

Phoenixia and the up-till-now silent Marcus both groaned.

For the first and only time Robert had made a complaint, just like all the other captive Sues in the basement…but for the first and possibly only time, the complaint was genuine and uncomfortably valid. There was no way to deny it. Several of the agents squirmed as they felt a twinge of indisputable guilt – had they been part of such mistreatment, that could, no, probably did lead to the Basement Incident?

"Who hasn't been feeding them?" Adrian sounded scandalised.

"Oh don't sound so shocked…" sighed Dave under his breath.

"When were you last given a meal, Robert?"

"Yesterday. Not long before lights-out."

"So you weren't given breakfast today."

"No sir."

The Librarian stood, his hands smacking the table. "I will NOT stand for this! Good grief! No wonder we've had a rebellion!" The anger was short-lived. "Robert, thank you for bringing this to our attention. I respect that it took a lot of courage. I promise you we will sort it out no matter the outcome of today." He sighed and sat down when Tash slipped round Harriet's armchair – the occupant had her head in her hands – and wrapped an arm round his shoulder. "Suddenly the Basement Incident has a lot more merit than it did…"


Now it was Valerie who was upset. Even though Robert was several rooms away and she was watching him through a screen, the sheer frustration and hopelessness that Robert's words carried were almost palpable, and the facts they carried had all hit her like a slap in the face.

Louise had shuffled closer and wrapped her arms around her. Valerie was trying not to burst into tears.

"Adrian's right, you know…" she said, her voice thick. "I wondered why some of them were getting thin… I could have done something!"

"Well, now we know. And now we can do something about it."

"I tried to check on them all at least once a month… they tried to tell me, I know it… I feel awful!"


Valerie calmed down slowly with Louise's back rubbing.

"I think I have an idea…" murmured the healer eventually.


Harriet thumped her gavel again, but there were no funny quips this time. The hearing room silenced.

"Okay. We have the reason why. Now I want to know the what. Dave, Jess, how about you start us off?"

The pair glanced at each other; Alice, between them, sat back to allow closer communication.

"Well, Robert was the one who caught me," began Dave haltingly. "He was armed, and when Jess came down not a minute later, he used me against her so Roxelana could capture her." He looked apologetically at Robert; he knew that his tale would be extremely damning to Robert's case.

"He was armed?"

"With a knife. I imagine it was something Louise brought down."


"Yeah. Rob had the knife to Dave's throat. Don't think he hurt him though. It was mostly that bitch who dealt with me."

Robert leant over his table, sadly accepting the witnesses' stories. He stiffened a little when Jess mentioned his name.

"So what about when the Incident started in earnest?" Tash glanced to Claire; Michael's eyes followed.

"Robert seemed annoyed. He was at the back when Emily and I came down. He stayed close to us four, and at first I thought Louise had him posted as guard; but after it started raining in there –" there were some giggles, "– he remained close to protect us. Louise ordered him to take the tape off and gag us with rope, and he was very gentle with me."

"Not with me!" said Jess.

"That's because you were struggling, silly." Claire's hand squeezed her husband's. "He admitted he didn't know what was going on, and he didn't replace Emily's gag either. He kept guarding us from people like Ash and Roxelana. When Michael and the others came down, he surrendered immediately."

"Okay," said Harriet, fiddling with her wig which was becoming itchy. "Alice, anything to add there?"

"Not much. Robert tied me up, but it was mostly Roxelana who was doing the threatening. I concur that he was protective, and I know he saw me working my gag off and did nothing about it."

Robert looked up at the slightly more supportive statements.

"Allie, you know Merle and her ilk enough," said Adrian. "What do you think will happen to him if she finds him again?"

Alice sucked in her breath; Robert went pale.

"Yeah. Merle had a pretty big plan by the looks of it, and Robert had a big part in thwarting it. I don't know what she'll do, or if she'll talk, but I don't think it will be pretty."

"Right. For this reason, if Robert passes his parole today, I will grant him amnesty and permit him to stay in the Library. Similar to Lily."

Robert had already been told this at the interrogation, but to hear it spoken on record made him feel a lot more reassured.

"Anyone have anything else to say?"

A murmur rippled around the hearing room.


"That sounds like a no."

"Alrighty," said Harriet, standing up and waving away her human air conditioner. "Leaders, away! Time for secret banter."

"Marcus, will you come too? We'll want your statement first," asked Tash.

"All right."

"We'll be back soon."


"Thanks for sitting in, Marcus."

"Ehh. I had nothing better to do this morning."

"Okay, so, what did you think? Do you support or oppose his parole?"

"That's your decision to make. But, from what I've heard today, he's honest, thinks more of others, and he's braver than I initially gave him credit for. He has some bursts of angry frustration, but nothing that's not understandable."

"Anything more?"

"Hmm. Do I think he'd be a threat if he's released? No, not really."

"All right. Thanks a lot. Go on, we won't keep you any longer."

"Okay, so guys, what do we think?"

"I like him."

"Me too, Hati. He's always been really nice… unnoticed, but nice…"

"Oh Michael, snorting is not really a discussion, is it?"

"We found him in a brothel! What does that say about a man?"

"That's true…"

"Adrian – think. One, he said it was Richard's idea. Two, he comes from a completely different culture than us…"

"The Dalelands are akin to Medieval England, all things considered."

"Yeah. And three, I can distinctly remember him saying 'I had to think of the girl's safety'."

"If you ask me, that's only a good thing. He was so nice to Emily after Sue Factor."

"No. Being nice isn't enough."

"He betrayed Merle for us, to help us with Louise!"

"If it wasn't for Robert, I don't think we would have solved the investigation so soon."

"I don't trust him."

"Michael, are you protesting because you think he will be an actual threat, or are you just still pissed that Claire ended up in the Basement Incident?"


"There's been enough mitigating circumstances to explain his actions there."

"I don't know… he was armed, and he tied up the first two hostages. Not everyone was as directly involved."

"But he defended my Emily!"

"He didn't hurt anyone, to be honest."

"But it still happened. If you ask me, none of them deserve parole."

"Oh dear…"

"And what about his brother?"

"Ah. Yes. I agree with Michael here… I'm more than just unnerved that he can't say whether he'd support Richard's actions or not. Not even in the face of what Richard has done – killed Louise, nearly strangled Alice… he still can't say."

"Well Richard is nowhere to be seen, and we should put on his file that he's more risky than he should be."

"It's fraternal loyalty, and especially to an identical twin, we shouldn't really fault Robert for that."

"We'll see, if it ever comes to that."

"I'd rather not see…"

"I confess myself surprised he was in Legacy of Kain, though…"

"Ah, on the contrary. Robert going undetected in Nosgoth just proved that what made him show up on the radar in Rome was his proximity to Merle and his brother."

"Have you seen how much his Prohibitor rattles? It's as if there's not much for it to be there for."

"Er, blending seamlessly into social situations, sword expertise?"

"Not exactly the most Stuish traits in the Multiverse."

"Agreed. I doubt there'll be much of a change at all."

"That's true, I reckon."

"Wow, support!"

"I didn't say that."

"So, let's go from the beginning…"


The entire room plunged into silence as the leaders returned. They had been deliberating for half an hour, or maybe even less.

Everyone sitting around the sides quietened as if they had been caught mid-conversation in class and the teacher had just entered – even for those for whom school was now a fond memory. It was a reaction that would not go away easily. Robert, however, alone in the middle of the room, bowed his head and awaited the judgement to be proclaimed.

The four returned to their seats, Harriet flumping quite comfortably into her armchair. Only Adrian remained standing.

All eyes were upon him, except him whose fate relied on the Librarian's next words.

"Okay, well, I'm going to get straight to the point. Robert, your parole has been granted."

The atmosphere in the room softened, as though everyone in the room had let out the breath they were holding at once. Robert, hardly daring to believe his ears, looked up in amazement.

He was free…

"There are a few conditions to this, as you'd expect," Adrian continued.

Robert nodded, still in slight disbelief. "Permanent Prohibition?"

"Mm-hmm. Although from what I've seen of you it'll just be a formality. You will also be assigned a parole supervisor from amongst the Society agents, someone who knows you and how you work; for the next three months, they will be your shadow, your supporter and if necessary your guard. You will be with them at all times, or else with a Leader. As you will be staying in the Library we will build you a room next to theirs."

"But one wrong move and you're going straight back down," snapped Michael. Robert quailed under his glare.

"Not quite…" said Tash. "You got to this stage. Just keep up your good behaviour and you'll be fine."

Robert nodded, wondering who this supervisor was going to be. He dared to hope that it would be his old friend…

"Anyway," said Harriet gleefully. "we have decided that your parole supervisor shall be Alice."

Everyone's gazes shot to the agent in question, who woke up from being half-asleep on her elbow. "WHAT?"

"Yes Alice, now you have something to do. You'll be helping Robert rehabilitate from his time in the basement. You know him and yet there's little bias."

In the viewing room, Louise stared at the screen in shock. "But – " was all she could choke out. The disappointment twisted like a knife.

"And so I reckon that's the end of this hearing. Thanks folks, you can bugger off now. I think Rhia's got a big plan for lunch to treat everyone," announced Tash with a note of humour, amid Alice's splutters.

People stood and started to file out of the hearing room, some sauntering lazily, a couple sprinting for the bathroom and most chattering jovially. Rhia remembered she'd left the oven on and went off cackling evilly about her lunch plans. Alice went immediately to protest to the leaders, and all but one (the one having swept up his wife and left) were rather smug in being adamant about her new role.

Alice's complaints did not bode well for Robert. As she turned to storm away, he stood politely and said her name.

She turned towards him, taking in his face…and then she gave him an almighty slap. The sound rang through the whole room and made everyone wince.

"That was for the basement," she snapped, before flouncing off.

Robert rubbed his cheek – she hit hard. "Little bias?" he queried of the leaders, trying to keep the apprehension from his voice and failing.

The three gave a unanimous sigh. Harriet, still resplendent in her silly gown but now minus a wig, went chasing after the elder agent, passing Louise on her way.

She entered the hearing room without argument, and went straight to Robert; and they hugged at last, him sagging against her in sheer relief.

"Well done, Robert…" Louise whispered.

He could only nod against her shoulder.

Phoenixia sorted through her minutes and slipped them into a plastic wallet. She walked round her table and went to confer softly with Adrian.

"What's going to happen now?" Robert asked.

Louise tried to reassure him, telling him some plans and ideas she'd had; but Phoenixia and Tash intervened, the latter drawing Louise aside and answering Robert's question for her; but Phoenixia put a hand on Robert's back and steered him gently out of the room.


Robert followed Phoenixia down the corridor leading away from the hearing room, still a little dazed from the unexpected proclamation. He passed a few other Society agents – Ben, Inara, Tom – but none of them were really alarmed, as Robert expected; Phoenixia with him indicated quite clearly that he had been successful. Dave caught up with him deliberately and shook his hand in congratulations.

Eventually the pair reached a comfortable computer room, which had a large-screen terminal and several squashy couches. Phoenixia closed the door, bade him to sit down, and she went rummaging in a locker under the desk.

Robert was still a little wary of the ex-hologram. He would not take his eyes off her. He jumped when she turned around.

"Okay," she said, giving a reassuring smile. "Robert, relax. You did well today."

He did relax a little. She was not acting the sultry sex siren that he had feared.

"What I'm going to do," she said, pulling a silver object from a box and fiddling with the wiring. "is Permanently Prohibit you."

Robert stared at the instrument suspiciously. "Please tell me I won't have to wear that for the rest of my life…"

"No, no. It doesn't hurt, and won't take any more than two hours to work."

"Then what?"

"Then we can take both that and this one –" she dinged the normal Prohibitor on his left wrist. It spun around the arm loosely. "– off you for good, and whatever powers you had that made you show up on our radar will be gone."

Robert shrugged, and offered his right hand. He had nothing to lose there, he decided. Phoenixia clipped the new Prohibitor around the wrist; there was a soft whirr, and a bright green light lit in the mechanism.

"When the light goes out, you're done. We put it in as an easy identifier. They're a bugger to fit a lock to as well; they're still free to remove."

"These things never get warm, you know."


"They're close to your body all the time. You'd think the metal warms up, but they don't. Not even in the shower. Makes it hard to sleep sometimes, the chill." Robert glanced at the steel around both wrists, and lowered his arms out of sight.

She patted his shoulder, and went to the computer. He watched from the couch as she opened four files: his, with the green numbers, Merle's and Richard's, and one set to save notes, on which he could see names from his past. She was updating them, and he watched her do it, unable to really see what she was writing.

She caught him trying to crane his neck to see what she was writing. "Sorry…" he murmured.

"Aww, that's okay. You can give me a hand, if you want."

"No… I'm sure you have all the information."

Phoenixia kept typing. "Going on the new information, I'm tempted to open a debate as to whether we should give Merle a second Sue rating for night-time and full moon…" She paused as she opened the notes file wide. "Tell me, Robert, Vincent bedridden?"

He sank into the sofa with a sigh. "He's an old man, pushing sixty. He was getting ill… it's why I took his place in Nosgoth. By the time Merle pulled me out of my duties to go to Rome, I was practically running the Witch-Hunters…"

"And that was eight months plus ago…" she murmured. "Do you think he's still alive?" She marked a box in the notes against Vincent's name that estimated non-Stu – 'old' and 'bedridden' weren't really adjectives associated with them.

"I'd like to think so. He was really tough…" he sighed. "He was like a father figure to most of the army."

"You seem to fit well with the military side of things."

Robert nodded. "I like the structure, the regulation…"

"Hmm. Well… uhh, let's see… Harriet would probably be… what's Vincent?"


"Harriet's Commander, then. Tash would be her lieutenant. Michael is Sergeant Major, in charge of the troops; Adrian is Quartermaster General, in charge of the stores. Valerie is the Chief Medical Officer, and myself the Intelligence Corps."

Robert nodded, but at that moment, Louise and Tash came in the door. Louise immediately went to his couch and hugged him again, and he reciprocated.

"Well, I think that's the news spread. You're good to go around without people trying to jump you," said Tash, flopping backwards onto a second couch.

"No news on Alice though, I think Hati's trying to get her to come back. I'm sure she will," said Louise.

"I'm… just a bit worried… if she really doesn't want to, then maybe…"

There was a small tap on the door, and the occupants quietened, as they do mid-conversation. The door opened, and Valerie peered through.

"Sorry, it's just me," she said. "I was wondering if I could have a word with Robert?"

He stood to meet her as she entered, aware of the bright green light in the corner of his vision.


"Hello, Valerie," he replied.

"Hi. Um, look," She looked uncomfortable. "The things you said about the basement standards…it's true, isn't it?"

All those who listened now realised why her usually soft voice had such an awkwardness to it.

"I wouldn't lie," said Robert, quietly.

"Why didn't you say anything?"

"We did. Nobody listened." There was a strange, haunted look in his eyes that Louise had never seen before.

Valerie sighed, shaking her head. "Who? Who's done this? Who keeps forgetting or ignoring it?"

"I don't want to name names, Valerie. Finding someone to blame is not going to help us."

"You still consider yourself to be one of them."

"I think I will for a long time…"

She studied the young man for a moment. "See, I was thinking… now that we know, I won't let it stand. I want to sort out the basement's welfare, make it less feared… as you know the people, and the ins and outs, will you help me? Would you want to?"

Robert's eyes widened a little, surprised at such an offer. His mind went back to poor little Tabitha, now sad and lonely without him to make her laugh… "Of course I would."

And then, a smile. "Thank you."

"Oh dear," Tash piped up. "Val's on a crusade."

"Tash… of course I am. We've got to make checks to see what we can do about this. We have to make it better than 'the cupboard under the stairs where we bung stuff'."

"And with Rob helping you I'm sure we can make it better."

Valerie watched Robert wince at the shortening of his name, and her head tilted to one side quizzically. He turned to face the Society Leader.

"Natasha, I do not wish to be rude, but…my name is Robert. It's not 'Rob'. Please, I would…appreciate it if you didn't condense my name."

"Fair enough," said Tash. "It's like how Michael goes to find a mace if he ever gets called 'Mike'."

There were some chuckles, and a half-smile from Robert, who rubbed his wrist unconsciously.

"He doesn't shorten others' names either, Tash," said Valerie.

Robert shook his head. "I was always taught that it was a great affront to abbreviate a name; if not to the owner, then to the parents or elders who thought them worthy of carrying it."

There were some nods and a couple of shrugs. "Anyway I need to scoot," said Valerie, half-through the door. "Robert, I'll be in touch… don't forget to let your parole supervisor know that I might need to borrow you."

The mention of Alice made Robert feel rather melancholic again. He sat back down next to Louise, and smiled again at his old friend.

Some time passed, with Phoenixia's tapping sometimes the only sound. Then there was a third tap on the door, and the white kitty-ears of the Librarian poked through.

Adrian was glad to see four smiles of greeting, in varying definitions of warm. It had been a nasty few days after that mess of an investigation, several rendered aghast that he could be so callous. In truth such an intimate hostage situation and successful infiltration of an unwilling sleeper agent happening under his watch had shaken him a lot, had affected his judgement…

Luckily, that seemed to be dying down, now that people knew he wasn't going to explode any time soon. He had helped by trying to be extra nice, and kicking himself for being too heavy-handed. Surely it only proved that he was not infallible, as many hoped.

Besides, the major factor in the return to normal was the more vocal of the pair – the one more at risk secluding herself in her room for most of last week, except to bug him for permission to see Robert – started talking civilly to him again. He was a little bemused at how quickly their panic buttons could be pushed when it came to each other, and he wanted to see how he could help them with that. But right now, other things mattered first.

"Hello, guys," he said, accepting half a sofa offered by Tash. "Don't mind me…"

The light banter continued around the room, but Robert remained mostly silent. He noted that they were avoiding the events of a week ago and this morning. He leant back into the so-soft furnishing, barely able to remember the last time he'd been able to be properly comfortable. Even Rome had flat, lumpy couches.

"Robert?" said Louise eventually, rubbing his shoulder.

"Sorry. I'm not used to… being out yet."

"It was a brave thing you said," she continued.

"Yeah, I think it'll be good if you and Val work together," said Tash.

"Mmm." He nodded, but it was a weary nod.

"Do you want anything?"

He breathed out slowly, his hand drifting to the Prohibitor on his wrist – not, as they worried, to the one with the light, but to the one he'd worn for nearly two-thirds of a year.

Adrian studied it for a moment, and slowly the violet gaze rose to Robert's face. It didn't take him long to make a decision. As the only one here who could do it, he reached to Robert's arm and, without pomp or circumstance or really anything much more than a snap and a ping, he undid the Prohibitor and removed it from Robert's wrist.

Tash looked slightly alarmed; but Robert looked at the redness around his newly-freed arm, merely rubbed it and sank back into the cushions. He paid the Permanent Prohibitor no heed whatsoever. Adrian's trust in him was indeed warranted.

"Thank you," Robert murmured.

"Better?" the Librarian asked.


"Now, what's wrong? You passed your parole, and you've given us more information than we even knew we needed. You've done well."

"I'm… just a little nervous about this supervisor of mine. I don't know how to deal with Alice. She's been affected by my brother, and I haven't done myself any favours to do with her."

"Trust me when I say we really did discuss it at length," said Tash. "Our first choice was Louise, but… well, you have an extensive past together, it might not do well with integrating. Alice is close enough, yet far removed from your past."

Louise's scowl began to deepen, but her expression softened as she considered Tash's words.

"What should I do?" said Robert, with a little dejection in his voice.

Louise and Tash then glanced at each other.

"We can help there," started Louise, thinking of her housemate's mannerisms. "Well, basically, Alice… uhh…"

"Alice can be a judgemental little moo at times," said Tash, saying what Louise couldn't.

"Yeah; well, sort of. She forms a lot of her perception of a person on her first impressions," explained Louise. "She doesn't hold grudges if you got off on the right foot, but a bad first impression means you'll never get any peace."

"What can I do?" asked Robert, trying to keep the desperation from his voice.

"The best thing you can do is acknowledge that. Tell her it hasn't been the best start and you want to try again."

He nodded, absorbing the information and beginning to phrase how he would say that to Alice. Louie continued, and he listened carefully.

"No-one's ever done that. She told me once that she just wished the person in question would realise that she's colder towards them, and wonder why… she hates blind communication."

A cold Alice was a hard thing to imagine for everyone in the room.

"We have tried it," said Tash, "with Adrian last week when all she wanted to do was knee him in the balls!"

"Did it work?"

"Yes. All he did was engage her interest, get her talking and apologise for being a dick –" began Phoenixia, smirking.

Adrian pouted slightly. "Well, it wasn't quite like that –"

"Wordlessly, but just admitting it didn't go so well was enough for her."

"Yes, but now I'm her favourite victim. Just – there, massive hug in the corridors! No warning!"

"You'll get used to it. Soon your pulverised ribs will reconstitute and you'll develop some resistance."

There were chuckles all around, but Robert remained deep in thought. "So all I have to do…"

"Acknowledge your first impression sucked. Listen to her and engage in whatever random topic she's obsessed with that day. Talk to her, and above all, be honest with her."

Robert nodded.

"Oh, and the best thing you can do? Ask her for a glomp. That'll endear you to her nicely," said Tash.

"A glomp?"

"Trust me," she grinned.

"Hold on a moment…" said Adrian suddenly. He leaned forwards and lifted Robert's arm – the light on the Prohibitor was off.


"It's only been half an hour, hasn't it?" she said, examining the mechanism. "Let's have a look…" She took the Permanent Prohibitor off Robert's wrist and looked at the wiring inside. "May I? Just a second?"

He nodded, unsure.

She reattached the Prohibitor on Robert's other wrist: the light blinked on, but then dimmed instantly.

"Half an hour, he's done," she proclaimed, triumphantly.

"I thought it took two…"

"Well as we said, there's hardly anything there for it to work on," said Adrian, happy with the result. "Robert, do you feel any different?"

"No, not really."

"There you go, then."

The door soon opened for the last time – no knocking this time – and there on the threshold stood the becloaked figure of Robert's new parole supervisor, silhouetted from the light outside.

"Right! It's time to get to work," she said, a hard edge to her voice.

Louise stood and went to her, and Alice came into the light with a beaming smile.

"Dumpling, you're alive!" and the arms went round Louise's neck.

And then Alice spotted Adrian.

Ever since they had had their introductory chat, Alice had determined to hug him almost every single time she saw him. The Librarian had hoped that his love would defend him from that glomping monster, but to his dismay, instead of being the protective Tashy she simply laughed at the sight. But Tash knew Alice and her romantic innocence well; she knew that her glomps were merely her way of saying 'Friend!'. He had also learned that running away, which he could very easily, was a bad idea as she would always, uncannily, find a way to glomp him later; often double, and often when he was eating. Turning into a kitty and clambering into his girlfriend's shirt for safety instead only ever resulted in both of them being glomped instead – it was too painful and rather suffocating for him to even appreciate that he was being well and truly squished between two pairs of breasts. While it was something he would usually enjoy, he didn't enjoy it when Alice was the one doing the squashing.

So he stayed where he was, sighing and going limp, as the rather large Alice practically threw herself on him and wrapped her arms round his ribs.

"Urff…" he fought to breathe.

"Alice! Detach! Detach!" giggled Tash.

She did, and turned to Robert. He stood, trying to read her expression and mindful of the rather personal advice he had been given. He smiled.

She echoed it in return, but it was short-lived. "C'mon then, you," she said.

He followed her without argument.

With Robert gone, everyone else filtered away, presumably to help Rhia prepare for dinner. Eventually only Phoenixia and Adrian remained.

"You all right?" she asked, a hand on her old friend's arm.

"Yeah…" he sighed, and then he smiled. "I'm glad Robert was successful. Here's hoping the madness of the last week is gone, eh?"

"Mmm." She glanced back at the screens, and the newly updated files. "I was yelled at too. Calling my treatment of Louise 'mind rape'."

"I know, I got that too. You wouldn't have been able to get in like that if you didn't have her permission."

"She did give it, eventually."

The pair sat in companionable silence for a time, until the noise from the corridor had died down.

"Did you look at what else the sleeper agent spell entailed?" he asked, quietly.

Phoenixia nodded, pulling a hand-written note from inside her bra. "The words on the surface of the shell. She'd been used, Adrian, used by Merle more than we thought. She's been made to go and look at some pretty esoteric topics."

Adrian's breathing quickened. "Industrial espionage?"

"I don't know why. The research is not something Louise would otherwise be interested in…and as far as I can tell she was just leaving packages of notes for Merle or an associate of hers to pick up. Her trip to Stargate was her latest drop-off – hell, she probably did it in Sue Factor. We know Merle was there. Louise didn't even know she was doing it."

"Phoenixia… what topics?"

She was quiet for a moment. "Metaphysics and hypotheticals. Portal physics, fandom structure physics, parallel and intersecting universes… pocket fandoms. All sorts like that."

"Good lord."

"What does it mean, Adrian? What could Merle want with that kind of information?"

"I don't know. But she has it. And I don't like it…"


"Where are we going, Alice?" Robert queried warily as they walked, preparing to duck if she swung at him again. Thankfully she seemed calmer than before.

Indeed, the only hint of her irritation at being lumbered was merely a sigh. "Well, I'm sure you don't want to hang around in a basement T-shirt all the time. I'm taking you to the Wardrobe to get some things to wear."

Robert was expecting to see some sort of wooden cabinet, or at least a collection of cabinets, from the name; but as Alice led him past the first reading rooms quite some distance from the more central hearing room, he certainly did not expect to see a massive room filled with racks of clothes of all colours and designs.

"I'm not sure what you'd want to wear, so have a look around and grab a few things," she said nonchalantly.

"Wow. It's… there's a lot here."

"Yeah, this is the unisex floor. Women's above, men's below. The Automatic Tailorisation Machine's here too, in that corner, and I can show you how to use it if it ever comes to that."

Correction. Three massive rooms filled with racks of clothes. Somewhat unsure of himself, he followed Alice down a spiral staircase to the men's floor. She started wandering through the racks, throwing questions back at him – and soon enough, a basket too. The large wicker receptacle nearly landed on his head.

"Did you catch that? Sorry," said Alice, weaving out through the racks with an armful of shirts on their hangers. She held one up against his chest. "Let's see… too big," the first shirt went over her shoulder. "Mmm, also too big. That one looks good." She glanced at the shirt's size and plunged back into the racks.

Robert was at a loss for words – mostly because he just couldn't get Alice to slow down. She wasn't engaging with him at the moment, all talk and bustle. He suspected that this was a superficial mood to simply tolerate him. He didn't dare make comment on the clothes she'd left on the floor.

She re-emerged, bringing a jumble of shirts, this time without the hangers. "How're these?" she asked, without much enthusiasm. "Loose fit, button cuffs, poet's collar."

He took one and examined it. Much nicer and more breathable than the mass-produced basement T-shirts, the finer cotton was cut in a style he was used to, especially the large, flat collar. He smiled; Alice had recognised that, and he appreciated her for it. He accepted the shirts – one white, one tan, one black and one cream – and folded them into the bottom of the basket.

The positivity gave him a little confidence. He went over his carefully-chosen words once more.

"Alice?" he began.

She heaved a sigh and turned towards him.

"I… I know that we have not had the best of introductions." He swallowed, watching Alice's curious face. "I'm sorry. You were always pleasant, and I wouldn't like for there to be coldness… If it's all right with you, I'd like to try again. A… a second chance, for a good impression."

Alice was silent, her eyes wide.

"If you and I are to be working together, well… I have to rely on you, and your good nature, to keep me from getting into trouble. Please…" He finally looked up, meeting Alice's shocked face.

Her face softened as their gazes met. For a long moment she couldn't speak.

"…Really?" came her quiet voice.

He nodded. "Yes. I would hate to be just a burden to you."

A smile spread slowly across her face.

"Okay," she said, sitting on one of the sofas behind them. She offered him her hand. "Hello, I'm Alice. Nice to meet you."

He took her hand, and lifted it to his lips – he remembered himself just before he completed the archaic method of greeting a lady, but Alice flushed red all the same. "Robert," he replied. "It's a pleasure."

Alice mumbled, and he perched on the sofa next to her. "Sorry. I don't mean to embarrass you."

"It's okay." She looked at him, meeting his expressive brown eyes, so unlike the chill of his brother's she often had nightmares about. "Look… I didn't mean to be so… I think it was more a shock of having the leaders pick me. It was okay up till that point…"

He nodded again. "Truth be told, Alice… I was, well, hoping for Mirani."


"Yes – sorry. Louise. I will get it right."

"That's okay, Lou and I have rooms next to each other. And we live together. It's not like you won't be seeing her…" She glanced away.

"But I'm happy to have someone like you watching me for three months. You're forgiving, kind…"

"Ohh…" Alice sighed, grinning wryly. Then she thought, her face falling, and she looked at him again. "I'd just like to ask… the things you said about the basement, about you not being fed. Was I… I mean, I didn't…?"

Robert smiled. "There were some agents whom we looked forward to seeing," he said. "They would be the ones who'd come to say hello, who allowed us to play games, who never forgot their duties. They made life down there just a little more bearable." Almost instinctively his hand moved, and gently settled on top of hers. "You were one of those."

Alice's face coloured pink, and she drew her hands in close to her chest, mumbling softly.

"Anyway," she said finally, standing up and beckoning Robert to bring his basket into the clothing racks. Working together and now talking animatedly, they wove through varying aisles, selecting clothes and other items: pairs of green cords and pairs of dark-coloured linen trousers, a set of pyjamas and a spare pair of shoes and slippers. They seemed to stick to a vaguely common casual Medieval style, adding a couple of sleeveless lace-up vests known as jerkins. It was Robert's turn to blush slightly when Alice found a collection of spare underwear and quite cheerfully loaded boxer shorts and socks into his ever-increasing pile of clothes.

"Okay, I think that's all you're gonna need. You got all that?"

Somewhat bemused, he rebalanced the towering pile in his basket and prepared to follow Alice back. He watched her walk past him, only just catching glimpse of her glowing smile before she disappeared from view. He stumbled around, and lurched forwards.

As he trailed her through more corridors, he could just about see Alice over the large pile of clothes, trying not to trip at the corners. Her baby-blue floor-length cloak rippled as she walked. Her long wavy hair, a lustrous light brown with glints of copper and burnished gold, swayed ever so slightly at the merest move of her head…

Alice's bad mood was rapidly evaporating, leaving her as her usual bouncy self. She had not expected Robert to be so… nice. But then again, except for the insanity in the basement, he had been lovely before. She had just never thought about it.

They re-entered the central hub, which had left most of the reading rooms behind. Alice brought him to a corner of this area, located along a stretch of corridor leading away from one of the sweeping staircases to an upper floor, and better yet close to Rhia's kitchen. There were two doors in the bookcase-lined walls, one with a neat executive sign printed with Louise's name and a slider currently marking 'away'. The only thing that spoilt the neatness was a yellow smiley face in the corner. However the other office door was utterly festooned with signs: a blue acrylic square with colourful letters spelling out 'Alice's Room', a larger and newer porcelain sign beneath that gave the affectionate title of 'The Library's Pet Search Engine', a small jokey plastic notice with 'It's A Great Day Until Some Bastard Spoils It' (which gave Robert pause when he read it) and a large number of glow-in-the-dark turquoise stars.

"Robert!" came a familiar voice from behind.

Recognising his old friend, he tried to turn – his pile of clothing began to slide, falling off and landing on Alice as she tried to catch it. She was laughing, and Louise took that as a good sign.

"They're okay, they just need an iron!" giggled Alice.

"Never known you to bother with ironing, Allie," said Louise. She gave Robert a quick hug, but his smile told her that their advice may just have worked.

"Just how many clothes are you expecting him to wear, Alice?" A fourth voice broke into the laughter. It was the Librarian, leaning against the bookcases near Alice's door.

Louise quietened, but Alice bounded forwards; Adrian sighed and braced himself for the tornado-like glomp – the second Robert had seen today, and it wouldn't be the last. The long-suffering Librarian let out an 'oomph!' but he patted her head and she detached.

"Right, well I can build you a room down here, Robert. Umm, let's see…" he began pulling great bundles of books from the shelves and placing them on the adjacent ones, which suddenly had the space available. "Any colour preference for the walls? Nothing too insane like Octarine or stuff like that; you have to do DIY yourself if you want anything fancy…"

"Erm… orange? Like terracotta?"

"Sure, easy." Adrian flipped a few hidden catches as the three stood back; he seemed to push an entire four-foot section of shelves back and into the wall… but it revealed a new door. Opening it, he allowed Robert through, and into a true space he could call his own.

It was a bit spartan, though warm and bright. A bed with a plain bedspread, a desk and chair, and a chest of drawers; a door led to an ensuite with a bathtub, a sink and a toilet. There was no decoration and all the furniture was empty. The walls were indeed painted orange, a subtly-mottled surface oft found on Mediterranean houses.

Alice and Louise bustled in behind him, the former dumping the pile of clothes on the bed and sorting them for the latter to fold neatly and file away in the chest of drawers, giving the furniture a reason to exist.

Robert dithered in the middle of the room, examining every corner and the cream stone of the bathroom. They gave him a moment of privacy to take some of the new clothes and change out of the hated basement uniform; he glared at the fabric, quelling a sudden desire to burn it. As the girls finished, he sank onto his bed – a bed that had a good foot of width on the thin, uncomfortable bunks of the basement – and looked somewhat overwhelmed at the rather forgotten concept of freedom.

And then…

"You can't sit in here all day!" said Louise. "Come on, it's time for lunch."

Robert smiled, and followed her outside, back into the corridors which he would soon call a home. Alice had slipped into her own room, which was very blue and a bit of a mess. She held her cloak in her arms, and stared with puzzlement at a pleasing purple glow on a shelf.


"Uhh, yeah. Just a sec." She hurled her cloak onto her bed, and with a final glance, left her room. "Nice purple candles. Let's go!"

"Oh dear," smiled Robert. He knew there was going to be a lot of exploring, but it surely wasn't any worse than memorising the passageways of the castle.

"We're going to the new lounge. It's got this completely awesome thirty-three-piece sofa as its only furniture!" said Alice, suddenly rather hyper as she skipped ahead. "I can't wait! I've got a fantastic idea to arrange it!"

"It's only a couch in bits," said Adrian, rather bemused.

"It's modular furniture, Adrian," said Louise. "Of course she loves it. Alice loves anything with that level of customisation."

"Why is the lounge… 'new'?" asked Robert.

"Well it's not new per se, it's just they've never seen it before recently," explained Adrian. "Y'see, every so often the Library shifts its rooms around. You wake up one morning to find your route to the kitchen has changed."

Robert nodded. "Natasha mentioned. It happened last week?"

"Yup. Pool moved and got bigger, it's got flumes now too. Different décor, new rooms. Neighbours generally remain neighbours, though, so you three'll stick together."

"The Library's learnt to leave Rhia's kitchen the hell alone, though!" said Louise with a grin.

"Oh yes."

Alice had long gone, heading towards the large navy-blue lounge that lay ahead, disappearing inside to join the fun. Laughter and the smell of very good food emanated from within.

The sofa Alice kept gushing about was all in large, square modular blocks of puffy cushions, about three feet by three each. Some were simply ottomans while others had a single back, or even two to make a corner. Three of the collection were even styled like armchairs with three walls of cushion. They were all upholstered in large patchwork squares in all shades of blue and in all kinds of blue-themed patterns, from paisley to Piet Mondrian and pinstripe to polka dots.

The sofa was currently arranged into two groups, making solid rectangular puffy platforms; a large number of agents were in the room preparing to move them around and make more space to have lunch. Harriet and Claire had enclosed the giggling Emily in the box created by two armchair-modules, and Alice claimed an ottoman to stand on while she orchestrated the shifting of her favourite furniture.

"…it's like you need to pair up the corners! If we can make a big loop – Tashy-ma-lashy-lingles, you're in charge of the ottomans!"

There was laughter as they proceeded to make a big mess. Tash turned to Alice and started to push the ottoman she was stood on towards the slowly-forming ring of seats.

Robert glanced to Louise, and she gave him a hug, pressing her face against his chest. "I'm so glad so see you again…" she whispered softly.

He rubbed her back, and she detached. He mirrored her smile, and nodded to the young Emily and her beaming face. There was only one piece of advice he had yet to take…

Weaving through the crowd, now flumping down on the large ring of sofa they had created, he ended face to face with Alice.

"I do have a small question…" he began.

She stood, a smirk on her face. "What, has someone put you up to this?" She glanced to Louise, who flashed the thumbs-up.

Most of the crowd knew what was coming.

"Could… er, could I have a 'glomp'?"

Alice's grin spread from ear to ear.

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