"The Li-Library's gotten very big. It's, ah, it's going to take both of us."
She'd known. He'd told her, oh, long ago. Before Flynn, if only just. There'd been a reason they'd refitted security just before Edward's breach, while they'd been between Librarians and as weak as they'd ever been. There'd been a reason her marriage had failed only months before Flynn became the Librarian. It put some strain on a relationship to know that your workplace was weak, and fragile, and might require your lifeforce to cut its dimensional ties and banish itself for its own protection. It made explaining things to a spouse just a little difficult.
She'd chosen the Library then. Over her marriage, over the outside world, over everything. Judson had explained it to her, what he might have to do someday if they were ever threatened that badly, what he might need from her to help him do it, and in the wake of that, she'd still chosen the Library. She'd still chosen him. If she had to die, if she had to give her life, there was nothing else she'd rather give it for. The Library was her world.
Then Flynn had come, of course. Flynn had come, and Flynn had pushed that necessity back and back and back again. Flynn had given them ten whole years, longer than any Librarian since the first, he'd made Library stronger and livelier than she'd ever seen it. He'd ... he'd given them so much. He'd made the prospect of defeat seem so distant, just by being there. He'd given them hope, the both of them. He'd sacrificed as much as either of them, and somehow, between the three of them, all those sacrifices seemed somehow smaller, less important than what they'd gained. The Library had always mattered. Flynn had made it live.
It hadn't changed what was out there, though. It hadn't changed the fact that there was only so long that Flynn, on his own, could hold it off. They'd still known the breach was coming. She'd known what she'd have to do eventually, provided she was still there to do it. She'd always been prepared for this.
Or she thought she had. She thought she'd been ready. Apparently there were some things you just ... you just can't.
She felt Judson's strength against her hand, against her soul. She felt his will and his strength and his age, she felt the depth of him as he reached out, and then she felt the Library. Her Library. She felt it. All of it. She gave herself over, she made herself part of it, she felt it as they gathered it up between them and folded it away into an emptiness so unutterably vast that even here, even linked to Judson, even part of something so huge, she couldn't remotely hope to grasp it. The space outside reality yawned open around them, her world and her life and Flynn torn away by the last fraying of the Library's threads, and it hurt. It hurt like nothing in her life had ever hurt her. It was vast and amazing and terrible and it tore. For an endless second, there was nothing except that link, that communion, that tearing, while the universe realigned around them, and then ...
Then something snapped inside her head, inside her heart, and she felt herself fall back into a body that promptly folded itself up like a concertina and pitched her unceremoniously towards whatever surface it was nominally still attached to. The Library vanished from her mind and, as if from very, very far away, Charlene felt herself start to collapse.
That floor better not crack her skull, she thought ominously. Inanely. After what she'd just done for the Library, the least it could do was not kill her in such a damned silly way!
"... You're amazing," a voice murmured softly, while something warm and strange and tingly-feeling wrapped its arms around her and stopped her fall. "You ... you really are. You know that, right? You're incredible."
"For God's sake, Judson," she moaned, letting her head fall with a thump onto something that couldn't actually be a shoulder, owing to the fact that its owner was too dead to have those anymore. The not-shoulder held her up regardless, while the not-arms cradled her close against a not-chest. She scrunched her eyes shut, reaching out to wrap her arms around him in turn, and fisted her hands in whatever not-cloth comprised his not-jacket. "You pick now? Of all moments, you had to pick now?"
He laughed, a soft, whispery sort of chuckle, and she tucked her nose into the crook of his neck. He smelled like ozone and old books, which she supposed made a sort of sense for the magical ghost of a Librarian.
"Well," he said, scooping her up with annoying ease. "Yes? I mean, after what we just ... With the Library. With us. You ... It seemed the perfect time. You don't- You don't think so?"
She laughed. She couldn't help herself. It wasn't pretty, it wasn't a nice sound at all, more tears in it than joy, but it came out regardless. She curled herself up into his arms, scrunched herself in against him, and sobbed out something that might, somewhere, be considered laughter.
"... I thought Flynn had it bad," she managed, rolling her head to look up at him at last, to blink up through watery eyes at his rumpled, intangible, infinitely familiar face. To look up at the smile he was sending down at her, that soft little something in his ancient eyes. "I thought Flynn had the worst sense of timing I'd ever seen. I guess I was wrong."
He looked away, biting his lip. He'd moved them out of the Library's heart, out among the shelves in search of ... something. She didn't know. Honestly, she didn't care. She had no idea how he was suddenly solid enough to carry her anywhere, but so long as he felt like doing it, she wasn't going to complain. Her head felt like someone had exploded its contents and then shoved them back in her skull with no care whatsoever for the order they'd originally come in. Judson could have carried her right down to Hell this moment, and she wouldn't have given even the slightest resemblance of a damn.
He wouldn't, though. She knew he wouldn't. He'd ask her for her life, but he wouldn't ever take her somewhere unsafe. Not while he still had a choice.
"... You don't know, do you?" he said softly. He wasn't looking at her. He was still searching among the shelves, looking for whatever it was. Talking to himself, as much as her. He was smiling, though. His face was creased all soft and warm. "Librarians need a Guardian. Sometimes we ... It's not enough. Our strength. We need someone to lean on. Someone ... amazing. Someone strong. You ... What we did, just now. What we felt. I---"
"I know," she said, dry and heavy. "I thought it would kill me, actually. That was okay. It's my Library. You, and Flynn ... It would have been okay. Punching those bastards in the nose. Coming in here, taking my things, hurting--"
She cut off, trying not to remember the sensation of the Library, its knowledge of Flynn's blood on its floors, the echoes of his calls as they closed it around him and tore themselves away. She couldn't think of that. She couldn't. He was fine. He was Flynn. Ten years hadn't killed him, and they weren't going to start now. He'd find a way to be fine. Somehow. He would.
"... It was okay," she whispered fiercely, grabbing hold of Judson's collar with pale, hard hands. "You could have taken it all. You can have it. I was okay with that. You know that, right? You didn't ... you didn't do something funny just to keep me ...?"
"Nothing funny," he said, and it was so quiet, she wouldn't have heard it except that her ear was right next to his mouth, her head tucked under his. She felt his chest move under her, felt something she had no right to be feeling, and she felt his voice against her ear. "I didn't have to. You, you're stronger than you think. And the Library, it likes you. It's your Library. We didn't do anything funny. You gave more than enough. You were ... amazing."
She stayed quiet for a second. Just a small one. She closed her eyes, safe against his throat.
"... He'll get us back," she whispered, holding onto him. "Flynn. He'll, ah. He'll make it happen. He'll figure something out. He has ... He has a Guardian now. She'll keep him safe. She'll fix him, and then he'll ..."
"Yes," Judson said, and they'd reached what he'd been looking for, apparently, because he jostled her gently in his arms, and leaned forward to set her carefully onto one of the Library's leather couches. She made a little sound, something that was emphatically not protest, and he looked at her with that quiet, crooked expression of his. He touched her cheek, already fading from the effort of what he'd done, and managed a little smile, just for her. "He's a good boy. He'll figure something out. I know it."
He stood up, this strange spirit-body that echoed his real one so strongly, and her heart clenched just from the sheer familiarity of him. Just from how much she knew him, how easily she knew every motion and thought and expression across that intangible face. He'd been there. He'd always been there. He was the Library, and the Library was hers, and that meant ... that meant ...
"And, you know," he went on, smiling faintly at her. "While we're, ah, while we're waiting? For Flynn to do his thing? I'm glad that you're here. I'm glad ... that it was you. That it's always been you. You are ... Well. You know."
She bit her lip, reaching up with one hand to scrub at her cheeks. She'd left her glasses somewhere. She wasn't even sure when it had happened.
"Amazing," she agreed, because he meant her to. Because he wanted it, and just for that she wanted it too. "I'm the best Guardian you and the Library have ever had, and you love me, I'm sure. God, Judson. You are such a kiss-ass."
His face lit up. Damn near literally. His face seamed open in a brilliant, translucent grin, and she stared at him in dumb stupefaction. She could almost feel it, she thought. She could almost feel the joy in him, in the Library, a vast, cavernous, and strangely timid feeling that flooded every molecule of the space they were in. She found herself reaching out before she realised it, found her hand resting over the place in his chest where his heart dwelt, and she could have sworn that she felt him. Judson. The Library. Both of them.
"Yes," he said, feathering his hands across her face, brushing her hair out of her eyes. "Yes," he said. "We do. Love you. We really do."
And then he kissed her, age and ozone and knowledge and power, familiar lips that had never before touched hers, all the joy and the hope of a two thousand year old heart, and she just ... she couldn't ...
You can't prepare. You can't be ready. Sometimes, some things, you just can't. So sometimes, you just do it anyway. Sometimes, you just let go, and you do it.
She'd chosen them, all that time ago. She'd made them hers. She sure as hell wasn't going back on that now.
She kissed him for as long as she could. She held him until he really couldn't help but fade, until all his strength ran out and he ran like water between her hands, and if she could have shoved her own strength into him once more, she'd have held him longer still. She'd done it once. She'd poured everything she had into the Library and into him, and she'd have done it again in a heartbeat if she'd still had the tank to do it, and if he hadn't somehow sensed the thought and swivelled out from under her hands like the sneaky, incorporeal, intangible bloody Librarian that he was. She growled at him, snarled at the loss of him, and he snorted, a short, startled chuff of laughter. Not quite at her. Not mocking. Just amazed.
"I hate you," she said, hanging off the edge of the couch and glaring up at him. "You have no idea. Most men start with a ring, Judson. Not an invitation to merge souls in order to squirrel away their damned inter-dimensional Library."
He scratched his cheek, rumpled and happy and buoyant on his toes, despite the pain and the exhaustion and the loss still humming in both their veins. She looked up at him, and despite what had happened, despite the silence around them and the memory of Flynn's blood on the floor, she saw a hope in him, her Librarian, and for some reason she felt it might not be unwarranted.
"Yes, well," he said, shuffling on his toes. "Be that as it may. I'm not exactly like most men. And you, well. You're not like most women, either." He smiled, tilting his head. "I thought ... I thought it might work. For us. For Librarians. No?"
She shut her eyes. She passed her hand in front of them, dropping back in a heap onto the couch, and waved her spare hand in his general direction. She didn't look at him. She didn't have to. She knew his face, his heart and his soul as well as she knew her own.
"Go find Flynn," she managed, pressing the heels of her hands into her eye sockets. "Go do the dimensional math and check up on our Librarian, will you? I have a headache. I have the worst headache in the universe. Come back when you've got some good news, and an idea how long we'll have to be here, hmm?"
She didn't hear him move. Maybe he didn't. Maybe he'd just faded out to rematerialise elsewhere. She didn't feel him go. But she didn't have to. She trusted him. With her heart and her soul, she trusted him. She didn't have to feel a damn thing.
He touched her anyway. He touched an invisible finger to the back of her hand where it lay across her eyes, and then he leaned down, and he touched his lips to hers. It tingled, and the tingle lasted, a phantom mouth breathing soft and warm against hers, long after he was gone.
She didn't have to feel him go. Instead, she held on to the part of him that had stayed, and always would.
Best damn choice she'd ever made in her life. Her Library, her Librarians. They made all sacrifices feel so small, and all the pain a thousand times worth it.
Now. If they could just remember to keep their damned receipts.