A/N: See the first chapter for full notes. Feedback, including constructive critiques, is welcome and appreciated. Please enjoy. Thanks again to VirtualFaerie/MalfoyMyFerret for beta-reading.

Well, that certainly could have gone better. Leaning back in his chair, Commander Signas sighed. He looked around his office. Bare, linen colored walls caught and reflected light from the ceiling illumination pods, chasing all shadows from the room. Someday, I've got to get around to hanging some pictures in here. It looks like I'm just borrowing the room -- not a good image for a base commander. As soon as we resolve this problem, I've got to take some time to redecorate. If not for the window to his immediate left that looked out over the compound's grassy main plaza, he would have felt like he was locked up in an impenetrable capsule, sealed away from the world. Ha. That would certainly be nice.

As much as he hated to admit it, despite the golden pips on his shoulder, he wasn't a soldier. Sure, he went through ten weeks of basic procedural and combat training, but so had every other rookie who joined the Hunters in the last two and a half decades. He was quite comfortable with the automatic pistols at his hips, too. But he didn't have a scrap of real field experience. He wasn't even a diplomat. He was just a really good theoretical tactician, appointed by the UN Hunter Oversight Committee because its members thought he would be someone easy to influence.

But Signas was a smart man -- that's why he sat in the big chair, as far as the Maverick fearing public was concerned -- and he wasn't one to be easily had. He knew the paper-pushers meant him to be a puppet, but he was well aware of what strengths he did bring to the job. He made up for what he considered his command failings -- inexperience, lack of fieldwork, inapproachability -- by acknowledging that there were Hunters that had more experience than him, and asking them to stand at his side: Commanders X and Zero. With the two of them at his side along with Lieutenant Commander Alia, perhaps the most brilliant of the lot of them, he had enough backup to do his job while keeping the politicos at bay. But the arrangement had its problems.

X, Alia, and Zero all knew their place: they were only advisors. X and Zero, who had both served as Hunter Grand Commander at least once during their careers, loathed his position anyway. All final decisions rested with the big man in the titanium hat. Still, all three of them were used to having their say. Such discussions usually occurred in private, giving Signas the opportunity to get the input he needed while maintaining the strong public image that allowed the Hunters to keep a high degree of autonomy. But losing control of any of his senior staff during a teleconference, especially in such a grave situation, was unacceptable. Alia, Douglas and Lifesaver had kept their indignation and anger to a proper minimum. But X and Zero ... he shook his head.

X's reaction wasn't really unexpected. From everything Signas heard and witnessed, he usually had amazing self-control when it came to dealing with even the most smarmy of diplomats. But he was just a man, and he had his buttons, just like everyone else. The possibility of weapons of mass destruction being used against innocent people was a big red one. Today, someone everybody assumed to be Dynamo went and smashed it as hard as he possibly could. And to make matters worse, not only were the weapons loose, but the only reason they were in play was because the humans had circumvented a number of their own laws to build them.

Signas spent a great deal of time studying history and recent events. He knew about every recorded attempt by Maverick reploids to kill massive amounts of humans with unconventional weapons. He knew how many had been stopped, and how many had, unfortunately, succeeded despite the best efforts of humanity's guardians. The numbers weren't exactly one-sided: three out of four times, the nuclear bomb was disarmed, the nerve gas was neutralized before it flooded the city, and the hostages were rescued before anyone got too trigger happy. But it was the remaining twenty-five percent of incidents that accounted for the deaths of billions over the last quarter century.

But X -- the oldest of them all -- had been there for all of it. He watched the nuclear bombs explode, saw the masses of people struck down by chemical weapons laying dead and dying as helpless doctors looked on, walked in the carcass that was all that remained of Paris mere hours after the world's first and only working cobalt devices ravaged the city. For Signas, all but the most recent of such incidents were just unfortunate history book entries; horrible examples of what could happen if they screwed up. For the Commander of the Seventeenth Unit, they were vivid memories that he would never, could never forget.

X had been furious when he found out about the Ragnarok Protocol, Signas knew. He no doubt felt like history was repeating itself and wondered if he and his friends would be able to win the day, or if he was about to watch thousands, possibly millions, die a horrible, excruciatingly painful death once again.

Signas was, to be completely honest, impressed with the man for keeping his anger in check well enough to carry on a coherent conversation with Aya Misumi. His fury was plainly obvious to everybody, but he got his point across without slipping into a rage, and in the end he even managed to make the woman on the viewscreen feel so out of sorts that she started volunteering information they weren't even supposed to have. Breach in decorum or not, it's nice to have a legend around to intimidate the hell out of your superiors. It would have taken forever to pry the information out of her if X hadn't snapped.

On the other hand, he could find no such redeeming factors to justify Zero's outburst. Scratch that. The man was raging for five solid minutes. Now, Zero wasn't X, and no one expected him to be. He shared many of the same experiences, but for whatever reason internalized them differently. Everybody knew he was quicker to anger, but his best rages, the kind that terrified everybody but those that knew him best, were usually reserved for the field of battle. Which left Signas wondering why they had gotten a fairly powerful blast of one. He felt like he was missing something. Zero's mood had been getting worse for the past couple weeks, and he couldn't figure out why. Signas found this profoundly annoying, because he knew there were really far more important things he should be worrying about, like the neurotoxin they were supposed to be finding.

A chime cut into his thoughts, and he turned a curious eye to the door. "Come in."

The two chrome panels slid into the wall, revealing none other than Commander Mega Man X. Still in full armor, he wore an expression that was two parts dour and one part cowed. "Signas," he said after a silent instant, his dulcet, thoughtful (and here was a surprise) almost anxious tones bouncing off the empty walls, "do you have a minute?"

The bigger man shrugged. "Not really." He grinned gamely. "Sit down, please." X took a seat in one of the luxurious black leather office chairs casually slung around the room. Signas watched him carefully, expecting to see him shift a little and then relax into the seat. He did indeed fidget until he seemed more comfortable, but the relaxation never came. He reminded Signas of a spring wound too tight. Yeah, he thought sardonically, figures he'd find his way to my office. "All our standard procedures for a Code White possible mass casualty event are in place. I've also instructed our undercover operatives already in the field to contact their informants for information about Dynamo, and I've got the Intelligence Department monitoring communication channels he's been known to use. But so far, nothing's shown up. I'll be sending more agents out as soon as they're briefed. On the chance missiles will be used as the delivery mechanism, we've got the global missile shield on active standby, but I really hope it doesn't come to that. Those lasers are designed to shoot down solid-state warheads, like nukes. They're more likely to aerosolize the stuff than destroy it. Then again, we've only been at it for forty minutes. I assume you've put your unit on combat alert?" The question was rhetorical. At least half of X's unit was always on combat alert, whether they were supposed to be or not.

X nodded. "Everybody's ready to roll. I've told them we have a Code White and given them a quick overview of what we learned in the meeting and my spectacularly sub-par performance at the research facility -- the parts that are most pertinent to our mission, at any rate -- but I've left the details for the briefing in about," it took him a fraction of a second to check his internal chronometer, "thirty minutes. I didn't go into every little detail, like we will at the briefing, but," a frown quirked his lips, "I went ahead and told Stacy and Brent that we have no treatment for them if they're exposed. They asked me outright, and there wasn't any way I was going to lie to them." He shook his head. "Beth looked sick. I still don't think she's gotten used to just how vulnerable humans are compared to us. But I'm getting off the point. I wanted to apologize."

Signas couldn't help it: one of his eyebrows shot straight up. An apology was the last thing he had expected from X. Sure, the Blue Bomber had a few harsh words for their contact at the UN, but unlike his blonde brother in arms, he hadn't blown completely off his rocker. "For what?"

A sigh escaped X's lips, and when he spoke, he made it sound as though he thought it was the most obvious thing in the world. "I lost my temper. I know that put you in a difficult position. My behavior will probably hurt you with UNHOC if word spreads. And trust me, it will. We've discussed how important it is for us to present a united front when dealing with them, and I all but hogged the stage and nearly pulled command authority out from under you. I was way out of line, and I'm sorry."

Signas said nothing for a moment, and when he finally did speak, his voice was level, unperturbed. "X, you know you weren't the only person at that table that was ticked off at the whole bunch of those bureaucrats. Sure, you let our friendly representative have it, but you didn't yell and scream while you were at it. You were lucid and logical about the whole thing, and no one disagreed with a word you said, least of all myself. And you probably won't like to hear this, but it's the truth: you scared her into giving us a great deal of extra information that will probably be quite helpful. Since I'm the one who decides what the boundaries are, I'm perfectly comfortable saying that you didn't overstep your authority. At no point did you say anything that really undermined my command. I didn't stop you because I didn't want to, not because I thought I couldn't. So even though I don't need it, apology accepted. But to be perfectly honest, I'm a little jealous."

It was X's turn to raise an eyebrow. "Oh?" Signas noted that he looked a little more relaxed now.

The Grand Commander grinned mightily. "You can have no idea how much I wish it could have been me doing the blasting. Watching you work was very ... satisfying. And just a bit scary, to be perfectly honest. But it would be indecorous for the Grand Commander of the Maverick Hunters to be anything but completely civil even in the face of the utmost stupidity and idiocy." The smile dancing across X's lips got closer to his eyes than any that lit his face since he entered the room, but it didn't go all the way. Signas knew it probably wouldn't until their current crisis was over. Well, except maybe for one person, perhaps. But she's not here.

"And people wonder why I always wiggled my way out of your job when it came my way."

Signas chuckled. "Yes, it is a profound mystery. After all, we all know how much you enjoy being responsible for a few thousand people and filling out so many forms that, were they still done on paper, would have resulted in the complete eradication of every tree on the planet in about five minutes." He suddenly grew serious again. "You want to know who I'm really concerned about, X?"

X's smile faded into a thin line. "Zero."

Signas nodded gravely, wondering not for the first time if the blonde commando wasn't the real reason X was sitting in his office. "I don't think I've ever seen him act so ... volatile during a briefing. I understood that he was angry -- we're all angry about this -- but he was just so ... so full of rage."

X bowed his head. "That sounds about right." He folded his arms, suddenly deep in thought. He stared through Signas, watching some bitter memory unfold before his mind's eye. The younger man found himself reminded once again exactly how much older X was than him; at the moment, he looked positively ancient. "I knew this was coming. I was going to be ready for it this time. I always tell myself I'm going to be ready for it. But I never know exactly when it's going to start. It looks like the dam broke this morning. He'll only get worse before he gets better." The voice synthesizer in his neck pushed an exasperated sigh through his breathless throat. "Dynamo couldn't have picked a worse time to pull this stunt."

Signas felt like a complete idiot. He quite simply had no idea what X was talking about. The Azure Hunter, for his part, looked to be waiting for his superior to piece together the clues. X is making it sound like some sort of recurring event. Yearly, perhaps? He quickly tried to think of any serious incidents that occurred on or around early July. The end of the Repliforce War was on July thirty-first, but that's weeks from now. And we won that one, what could be -- oh, damn. I can't believe I forgot about her. What's wrong with me? A calm internal voice reminded him he'd been around less than three years and it wasn't his job to keep track of his subordinates' personal demons. But another one chimed in shortly after and just a little firmer, reminding him that Zero was supposed to be his friend, too.

He looked back at X. Like most people, he didn't know all the details of the incident -- only X and Zero knew the whole story -- but he knew the name. "Iris."

X's nod was quick, and if Signas wasn't mistaken, more than a little pleased. "And the Colonel, but yeah, she's the important one here. It's going to be a long few weeks."

You're definitely a master of understatement, X. "Indeed. Unfortunately, time marches on, and we haven't the luxury of letting grief run its course uninterrupted."

The purely sardonic smirk rolling across X's face failed to reach his eyes. "Do we ever?"

Oh boy.

Harry knew he was openly gaping, but he really couldn't do much about it at the moment. His body and brain had gotten horribly mixed up, ran around like headless chickens for a few seconds, then crashed into each other with a mighty boom. The fox-man blinked his blue eyes patiently, waiting for some sort of response to his greeting. Harry managed to retake control of his senses and steal a glance at Hermione. Her eyes were wide, but the look on her face was far more like total shock than terror, with a splash of honest curiosity for flavor. He needed to say or do something, he knew. Bolting for the door seemed kind of appealing.

Hermione's mother taught her not to stare at a very young age. It was rude, insulting, and -- not that this was the key factor, by any means -- unladylike. For the most part, she always complied with that edict, taking it not so much as a command but as a good practice for living: there really was so much more to a person than appearance. After all, Harry, a small, nerdy guy by even the most forgiving of Muggle and Wizard standards was as brave, bold, and compassionate as the noblest Prince Charming. And in the Wizarding world (The 20th Century Wizarding World, her brain reminded her with a painful jolt), he enjoyed status as a jock. So yes, she was perfectly willing to look beyond the physical when meeting new people.

But even so, all she could do in those first few instants of contact was burn a hole into the animaloid with her eyes. Harry was right: she wasn't afraid. After all, her mind would remind her when her rattled and wounded rationality managed to reassert itself, no one else in here is acting like anything is out of the ordinary. And he looks pretty friendly ... I think. On a subconscious level, she realized that six-foot-tall fox-beings were normal in the 22nd Century. How or why, she had no earthly idea. It suddenly occurred to her that the seconds were ticking by, and neither of them were speaking. Harry looked about ready to overload, but she thought little of it, considering the resourcefulness and refusal to panic he demonstrated in the past few hours. He was entitled to a lapse of brain function. Nothing got around his awful timing, though.

She cleared her throat quickly, and prayed that her voice didn't come out sounding like a frightened mouse squeak. "Hello, sir. Sorry about the ... um ... silence. You startled us a bit." Not bad ... could have done without the clueless pauses. I should definitely leave the impromptu fibbing up to Harry.

The Boy Who Lived, for his part, finally found his tongue. It was funny. He'd seen (and fought) a full grown mountain troll, dragons, and all sorts of other creatures. A man-fox in normal clothes and wearing a library volunteer nametag really wasn't that horrible. Lord Voldemort was frightening. This ... this was just weird: strange enough to make keeping a straight face incredibly difficult, surreal enough to keep his mind from failing completely. "Yeah. Terribly sorry about that, Mister ..."

The animaloid grinned self-consciously, scratching the back of his furry head. "No need to apologize. My fault entirely for sneaking up so quietly on the two of you. You looked like you were in a deep conversation; I hated to interrupt. The name's Todd, by the way. Pleased to meet both of you." If Harry and Hermione had been used to reading non-human facial expressions (and the general fact that such things existed at all), they would have picked up on the knowing look he wore. They completely missed it, undoubtedly saving the two of them several minutes of fierce blushing.

Todd, Harry thought wryly, his mind having accepted the situation at face value and moved on -- he came here for explanations of such weird things, anyway -- of course. Because you would expect all the fox people to have such unassuming names. Perhaps all the mole people are all named Bob. He blinked; his thoughts rarely sounded so much like Ron Weasley. He didn't think he entirely liked the sensation. Shaking thoughts of his dead friend from his mind, Harry put out a hand. Todd's grip was firm, his skin felt human. "I'm Harry. Harry Potter. And this is my friend, Hermione Granger."

"A pleasure to meet you, sir." Hermione congratulated herself on such a flawless, confident delivery, and put out her own hand.

Todd took it and grinned, giving them an excellent view of his sharp teeth. "Well, like I always tell my friends, the library's one of the best places to meet new people. Oh, and I won't have any of that 'sir' stuff. I'm only five; I'm not ready to be an old fart yet. Check back in ten years or so. Anyway, Francine tells me you two haven't been here before. Care for the guided tour?"

Five years old? But ... but ... blast it. Harry mentally gathered up all the remaining preconceptions he had ever had about pretty much everything, collected them into a little ball, and banished them from his brain.

Hermione's eyes lit up. Human or not, this guy was offering to give her a guided tour of the Library of the Future. Bliss. "That would be wonderful, sir," she caught herself, "err ... Todd."

The young reploid grinned. "Sir Todd? Now that could be interesting." He pointed towards the library entrance. "Let's start at the main receptionist's desk. Feel free to ask me any questions you might think of. This is only the third time I've done one of these, so I might leave something out. This way."

Harry rose and picked up the robes at his feet, tucking them once more under his arm. If Todd thought this was odd, he held his tongue. After all, if the sight of a polished broom on a very expensive looking leather strap failed to draw a comment, it was highly likely nothing else would. Harry could feel the comforting weight of his Firebolt against his shoulder, and smiled a little. It occurred to him that leaving the stuff underneath the dumpster with Crookshanks might have been a good idea -- assuming, of course, that the cat didn't get bored and shred their robes. And did he really want to leave his broom just lying on a street corner?

Todd walked with Harry and Hermione on either side of him, running over the details of the tour route in his mind. "So," he said as they neared the desk, "Here's how it works around here." The tour was on. Hermione immediately gave the reploid her undivided attention, and Harry too listened carefully. "It's actually pretty simple. This is, as I'm sure you know, the south branch of the Tokyo public library system. The first floor is outfitted with information terminals, both arranged in this foyer and in a number of private research rooms. Those'll get you access to current and archived periodicals, journal databases, and more reference and encyclopaedic material than you could ever read. On the second through fourth floors, we have actual, paper books, with special collections on the remaining floors. Our collection of works in digital form is much larger. If you find something you like in the catalogue, just grab a reading pad from the front desk and punch in its ID number. We also have some interesting exhibits in the basement, one on the evolution of nuclear fusion reactors, and the other a collection of sculptures by Pierre Lombard, on loan from the Toronto Museum of Art. But let's start off with the basics. Come this way, and I'll show you how to get around on the computers and the catalogue browser ..."

Hermione and Harry traded pleased looks. If everything went according to plan, by the time they left the library they might actually have some idea what was going on around them. A pleasant thought, indeed.

Dynamo stared at what was left of his vodka with lime, and downed the remains in one quick gulp. The Red Letter might have been one of the cheapest gentleman's clubs in a five mile radius (the dingy, flaking yellow walls and absolutely nasty rouge carpet did nothing if not affirm that notion), but their bartender knew how to stock good liquor. The fire that raced down his throat was refreshing despite his immunity to inebriation. The five humans sitting with him were another story entirely: the mercenary thought it was a bit early in the day to be completely hammered, and wondered idly if any of them would even be able to walk by the time they finally decided to leave. It would certainly be entertaining. But not the most interesting thing, for sure. He watched an average-height, blue-eyed reploid girl head towards a pole-table of early arrivals, men in cheap suits catching an early lunch. She wore nothing more than a few well-placed strips of something shiny and red. What it was, exactly, he had no idea, and didn't really care. She reminded him of a present wrapped by someone in too much of a hurry to do it right, but still careful to hide the most important details of the package. Not the most interesting thing at all. He grinned, slamming his glass down on the dark oak bar and calling for another.

Tom the bartender, a middle-aged, balding, stocky man with twinkling brown eyes and horn-rims appeared from the stock-room, smiling at Dynamo, seemingly oblivious to the nakedness around him. "Straight again, D?" Sure, all the thugs and lowlifes that hung out at the Red Letter knew who and what Dynamo was, and even though none of them cared, yelling out the name of one of the most wanted terrorists in the world in a public place simply wasn't done. As for the clueless guys who didn't know enough to recognize Public Enemy Number Two by sight, there was no need to start a panic.

"Yeah," Dynamo replied absentmindedly. He pulled up his internal chronometer, and frowned slightly.

Tom suddenly didn't look too happy, either. He didn't like it when one of his best customers was in a bad mood. "S'matter D? Wanna try another brand?"

"What? Oh, no, this is excellent, Tom, as usual. An associate of mine was supposed to meet me here at half past the hour and, well, look at the clock. As much as I enjoy your company, buddy, now's really not the best time for me to be out and about." X and that lapdog Signas have probably called out the search parties by now.

"Ah," Tom said knowingly, "so you've got another project goin', hmm? Anything interesting?"

Dynamo's lip quirked up. "You don't really want me answer that, do you?"

Tom chuckled. "Nah. Just tryin' to be polite."

Despite their long friendship, Tom Shell was a mystery to Dynamo. He remained the only real human friend the platinum-haired mercenary had who wasn't a weapons dealer, drug smuggler, pimp, or otherwise so far outside the law that he would be arrested on sight. Indeed, Tom enjoyed a legal occupation. On top of that, he didn't have a bit of a problem with Dynamo's work. The mercenary had given up trying to figure him out months ago, and written him off as a cheery, friendly guy who served good drinks and happened to be completely and totally insane. I wonder what X would think if he knew there were guys like Tom out there. It'd probably just get his boxers in even more of knot. "Well then, I'll tell you this: this one's a real heavy deal. Certainly not the biggest I've done, but definitely heavy."

The human grinned, revealing a row of startlingly white teeth that couldn't, as far as Dynamo was concerned, possibly be real. "Sounds like you'll be comin' into a heap-load of cash, then. Any special plans?"
Dynamo smirked. "I'm sure I can think of something, buddy." He threw another glance at the door. Damn it, where the hell is this guy?

One of the day-shift drunkards, this one with way too much of slur for mid-morning, called for Tom from the other end of the bar. "Excuse me, D. Duty calls, and all that." Dynamo nodded, making a mental note to come up with a better nickname for himself.

The Red Letter's heavy iron door opened, letting in the sounds of the outside world for about five seconds before the newcomer was inside. He was tall, his clothes tight against his spare frame. Coal-black slacks and a matching silk shirt forced all attention to his pale-skinned head. Grey eyes at the peak of a long, sloping nose swept over the room with the utmost contempt, finally locking on the mercenary. Dynamo smiled, trying not to stare too intently at the black attachŽ case at his side. It's about damn time. He rose and crossed the foyer, offering a hand. "Good to see you again. I was a little worried you weren't going to show."

The man crossed his arms. "I never miss an appointment," he drawled lazily. "Though I'll admit, I don't usually do business in such ... low-key establishments."

Dynamo inwardly groaned, glad Tom wasn't around to hear that one. Maybe it was a cheap topless bar, but it was his, and he was a fiercely proud lunatic. "Well," he said coolly, "like I said before, what I do may be flagrant, but getting away with it requires a bit of discretion. You wanted to talk in a safe place of my choosing. This is it. No one will bother us here, and no one cares to listen. As long as we get this done before the Hunter Vice Squad comes in here looking for me, we're golden. And the sooner we get our business wrapped up, the quicker you can get back to your castle in the sky, or bog, or wherever the hell it is."

"Very well," the human said, not bothering to hide his annoyance. "I assume you've picked out a location offering a little more privacy."

"Of course. Follow me." Jerk off. Dynamo told Tom he was moving to a booth and wanted a pair of glasses of his best vodka, waited for their drinks, then led him through a half-empty maze of tables, noting with some satisfaction that his high-minded associate, despite his snide protests, was stealing more than a few glances at the less-than-clothed members of the staff. Not that the look of contempt ever left his face, but he could have stared at the floor. He finally arrived at the booth he was looking for. It was nestled in a small alcove, out of the line of sight of most of the rest of the Red Letter. And it was his booth, with a couple of custom accessories. Dynamo flipped a switch under the table, and the electronic sound-baffles lining the alcove entrance came online. They were free to talk.

"So," Dynamo began congenially, "you wanted to see me. Did something go wrong with the package?" Because, if it didn't, I'd kind of like to get paid...

"Not at all. My master is looking forward to making use of its contents. You've helped us come closer to putting an end to a long and costly struggle." And for the first time since his arrival, the newcomer sounded genuinely pleased. "The package, as you call it, was easily retrieved by my master's agents, and did in fact contain the toxin. The decoys you prepared were left in their place for your associates. I must admit, I was a bit surprised by your cruelty in your handling of them." He casually sipped his drink.

It didn't sound to Dynamo like his associate particularly minded the idea of cruel behavior, but found the circumstances interesting. "Oh?"

"Indeed. Were they really so useless that you felt it necessary to have them violently eliminated? I have some experience in these matters, and I've found that it's usually best to dispose of those who can't pull their weight quickly and absolutely."

"We've discussed this before, haven't we? The only way our little ruse was going to look authentic was if there was really someone there for X to kill. And trust me, he's smart enough to tell when his opponents are acting. He's called my bluff one too many times. If the people I sent to face him had known they were part of a decoy operation, there's no way X wouldn't have picked up on it. As for them all being useless, they all showed promise. They probably could have been great, given a few more years of practice."

The human sounded honestly intrigued. "If they had such potential, why have them killed?"

Dynamo did his best to keep a straight face. "I need people that can be good," Dynamo said flatly. "I'm only interested in working with one person that's got the potential for greatness, and you're looking at him."

The human sneered lightly. "I see."

"Now, as for the whole suffering thing, that tells me you really don't know a damn thing about what X is capable of. I know him, and I know none of them were still alive by the time their heads hit the ground."

"This makes you feel better about arranging their execution?" Another sip of vodka.

Dynamo shrugged. "Who said I felt bad about it?" He paused. "But if you don't mind, as long as we're on the subject I have to ask: if you're as concerned about being discreet as you say you are, why were you so willing to have your men flout their talents while X was watching? Come to think of it, if there was a satellite in range, his girlfriend was probably watching too. I'd be willing to bet the entire command staff knows about it by now."

The man waved his hand dismissively. "It doesn't really matter. As you said, most of them likely know the facts of the encounter, but not a single one of them knows what they mean. Very few Muggles are allowed to be as informed as you, Dynamo. You are fortunate my master does not see fit to Obliviate you now that our dealings are complete. And knowledge without wisdom, as any sufficiently preachy moron will tell you, is completely useless. Even now, they're probably sitting around a table trying to figure out what new technology you've got your hands on, what kind of weapons masquerade so effectively as sticks of wood. Just another layer of mystery; one that doesn't have a thing to do with the problem they should be trying to solve, but is far too interesting to ignore. They'll be nothing if not confused, and trust me, my master will see to it they stay that way. As for the lot of them even considering the truth, I'm sure you remember how difficult it was for you to accept the reality of magic," he finished, smirking knowingly.

Dynamo's smile evaporated into a thin line. "Well, what can I say? It was a pain in the ass admitting there was a whole part of the world I didn't know a thing about, but," he gestured at the briefcase, "I think it's been worth the blow to my ego."

The human's grin was feral. "I'm glad you feel that way. It's made doing business with you quite easy. Speaking of which," he lifted the briefcase onto the table, turning it to face the mercenary. Enjoy your prize, fool. There are far more precious things in the world; like power -- something you shall never have.

Finally, the fun part. Dynamo's fingers pried eagerly at the latches. He opened the case just enough for the dim lighting to catch the golden seals on the bound stacks of money inside. He snapped the case shut quickly. "Shiny."

"A total of 575,000 zenni, as we agreed upon."

Dynamo whistled. I don't believe it. Ether these guys are the greatest idiots to ever walk the earth, or they're the most well funded terrorists in recent history. Second biggest take I've ever gotten for one job, and I didn't even have to lift a finger. I wonder what I'd get if I actually did something. "Excellent."

"I believe our business here is concluded, then. My master may wish to make use of your services again in the near future, perhaps in a more direct capacity."

"Anytime. You know how to reach me."

"That we do." He drained the last half of his glass and got up.

Dynamo followed suit, once again offering his hand. "It's been a pleasure working with you, Mr. Malfoy."

The human nodded haughtily, his hands disappearing into his pockets. "I suspect we're going to be doing a good deal more business in the future. Such strict formality is likely to become tedious. For the sake of convenience, you may call me Draco."

Hermione rubbed her temples. She felt a nice headache coming on, and it had nothing to do with their now-departed tour guide's perennially chipper voice.

"Something wrong?" Harry asked from the console next to her.

"I'm beginning to think this wasn't such a good idea." She stared at the empty query screen on her own terminal, and frowned. "I'm not sure this is the best way to go about this."

Harry raised an eyebrow. They were only five minutes into their research, and Hermione was already expressing doubts? That wasn't normal. "What do you mean?"

Hermione scooted her chair away from the lush plant that dominated their secluded corner of the computer center and turned to look at him. "I don't know. I mean, we've got, what, an hour and a half before we need to leave? There's no way we can find out everything we need to know in ninety minutes. We probably couldn't get all the information we need in ten visits. Honestly Harry, we're talking about 150 years of completely new material here, not one of you and Ron's cram sessions before exams." Her eyes widened. It was the first time she mentioned Ron since their arrival in the 22nd century. She felt a familiar, cold force pulling down on every muscle of her face. She swatted at her dampening eyes.

Harry put what he hoped was a calming hand on her shoulder. "It'll be alright, Hermione." That was his new mantra, it seemed. Hermione was a genius, as far as he was concerned, but he had learned something for a fact in the last few hours he had only vaguely suspected before: she was at her absolute best when she had some degree of control over a situation. She didn't need to be in complete command; she just needed one good, solid handhold. Right now, she had nothing that tenable, and the stress was starting to show. "You're right. We can't just sit here and hope to absorb every single thing that's happened in the last century and a half. We probably don't need to. Think about it this way. How many times today have you seen something you were totally unprepared for and couldn't explain?"

"More than once," she grumbled.

"And how many times," Harry prodded gently, "have you simply seen something new and interesting but not exactly earth-shattering?"

"Since we've gotten here? Dozens." The Boy-Who-Lived was pleased to note the tinge of wonder in his friend's tired voice.

"So," Harry continued calmly (later, when he had time to think about it, he would be amazed at how logical he could be when he absolutely had to), "There's dozens of things we'd both love to have explained. But there's surely a much smaller set of information we absolutely have to have if we're going to be able to function here, isn't there?"

Hermione's eyes lit up, and a full grin -- perfect teeth and all -- lit her face. "I guess when you put it that way, it's not quite so daunting."

"That's the spirit." Harry found a grin of his own. Handhold. "So, any ideas? Right off the top of your head, what's something we absolutely can't afford not to know?"

"Let's see," she mused, "A brief overview of major historical events from the last 150 years is vital. With any luck, we'll be able to find a timeline of some sort. Don't give me that look, there's timelines for everything. We also need to know about how the government of Japan functions in terms of law enforcement, and even the most rudimentary grasp of international politics would be nice. Understanding the new money system would be useful, too. We don't want to end up getting scammed again. We know there's some sort of military organization out there called the Maverick Hunters. They seem to be pretty important, and their existence is common knowledge. Who are they? What do they 'hunt,' and why? I don't know, but doesn't a military organization with that kind of name seem a bit ominous? One of them is named Commander X, and looks to have quite a reputation around here, and I'm sure it has to do with something besides his odd name. I'm betting it would seem pretty bizarre if we didn't know who he was. And there's always the question of when foxes began to walk on two legs. Oh! And don't forget communications technology. They might not even use telephones anymore -- we didn't see what that nurse called the shelter with -- and we need to know."

"Excellent. And I've got a few ideas of my own. I'm interested in what kind of travel they've got. We're eventually going to have to figure out how to get back to the UK. But let's not get ahead of ourselves."

"Yeah. We've got plenty to get started with, and we'll probably think of more. Alright, then," she chirped brightly, "What do you want to start with?"

"Let's get the boring stuff out the way. How about money?"

Hermione smirked lightly. "Money's boring?"

"Reading about it is. Then again, I'm not the one who's committed every line of Hogwarts, a History to memory."

She giggled. "I know. Believe me, I know." She turned to her console. "Let's see ... zenni." She typed the word in, pressed submit, and was greeted almost instantly with a list of results. "Wow. That was fast, wasn't it?" She scanned the list. "Here's an encyclopedia entry."

"Hit it."

Hermione began to read aloud. "Says here it replaced yen after the monetary collapse of 2005. That doesn't sound too good, does it? Carefully controlled to stay competitive in value to the US dollar. It's available in electronic form, like the kind we have here, and cash made out of synthetic paper. Synthetic?" She grinned. "About time."

Harry raised an eyebrow. "What?"

"Well, before we got here, I sort of expected all the trees to be gone by the 22nd Century. It's nice to know we'll get our act together at some point." She looked back at the screen, pleased with herself. "There's plenty more here about current exchange value and printing history, but that's not important. I just wanted to know what happened to the yen. Well, that was easy, wasn't it?"

"Extremely." Of course, we weren't demanding much that time. "What next?"

"While we're doing simple things, how about current world population? It's not exactly crucial, but it's one of those things that would be really interesting."

Yeah," Harry said, "and we'd probably look really weird if it came up in conversation and we were off by a couple billion." He looked at his own console, beckoning him to input something. He started typing. After a couple minutes of sifting, he found the number. He stared blankly at it. "That can't be right."

"What?" Hermione pulled her head away from a query on modern communication technology that returned about 50000 results. Apparently, nothing much had changed about searching electronic documents in the last century and a half.

"What was the population in 1995? Somewhere around six million, right? I remember a teacher telling us that when I was really little. The memory sandwiched in between a couple of delightful run-ins with Dudley's gang."

"Six billion ... yeah, that sounds about right."

"Well ... this is just bizarre, then."

"What, Harry?" Spit it out, already.

"Listen to this: 'Global population, as of 2150: four-point-five billion.'"

"What?!" She kept her voice to a low sort of hiss, but got a few disturbed looks just the same. "That's impossible, unless there was some sort of plague or something."

Harry's eyes narrowed. "It gets weirder. This page lists several figures, in fifty year intervals. 'Record setting global population, as of 2100: seven-point-five billion. How do three billion people die in two and a half decades?" Even before the words left his mouth, Harry felt a chill run down his spine. Something in this ultramodern world was off.

"I don't like this, Harry. Something isn't right. Either there was a pandemic, or ..." she trailed off, looking suddenly horrified. "Or their deaths didn't have a thing to do with remotely natural causes."

Harry thought of the little talking trashcan, the five-year-old fox creature, and the picture hanging on the wall of what could only be a famous military commander. "I vote for war. Something critical changed while we were in limbo, and whatever it was, somebody didn't like it."

Hermione looked sick. "Everything was far too perfect looking. I think I fooled myself into thinking we'd landed in an utopia, or at least something that was a bit better than society circa 1995."

"Of course you did," Harry said reasonably, "so did I. I think we were probably both too thrilled that we didn't land in the middle of a Muggle labor-camp, even if we weren't really willing to admit we were thinking about the possibility, to consider that something genuinely terrible could be going on here."

After a long pause, Hermione spoke. Her voice dripped with anxiety. "I think we need to reorder our priorities. If you're right, we need to know what happened, and more importantly, if it's still going on. Harry, we could be sitting in the middle of World War III and not even know it."

Harry raised an eyebrow. "Now who's being disturbing?"

The brown haired girl sagged in her seat, putting her mouth. "I want ..." Her voice was muffled; Harry knew she said more, but couldn't make out the rest.

"Hermione?" Blast it! I've done it again. I've got to watch what comes out of my mouth.

She took a deep breath. "I'm okay. I just got caught up in some bad thoughts; I'm rid of them now." She took in another lungful. Time to get it together, Hermione. Come on. I just need to last a few more hours, then I can sleep. "Alright," she said finally, and Harry tried not to grin. There was the authority, the in-control Hermione he had been trying to find for the last several hours.

And why not? He thought wryly. We're in a library. "Ideas, then?" He was sure there would be a few, at least.

"A few. Anything that could catalyze the deaths of three billion people in twenty-six years has to be dramatic; something new maybe, or at the very least, having a high-impact on society. I have one word for you: Todd. Whatever he is, it's something relatively new. Dramatic goes without saying."

"So," Harry prodded, "what is he? I doubt we can go up and ask him. Aside from being rude, I'd be willing to bet we're the only two people on this planet that don't know. Too bad we can't search this thing for him." That'd just be too easy, wouldn't it?

Hermione rested her chin in her hand. "Genetic engineering's always a possibility," she said quietly, more to herself than anyone else.

"What, like in the Island of Doctor Moreau? Is that even possible?"

Hermione made a mental note to find out how Harry knew about the Brando movie. It must have been some sort of torture implemented by the Dursleys. "It was theoretically possible in 1995 to make cows produce milk with spider's silk in it. I'm not willing to say it couldn't be done. But I doubt that's where our answer is. I think we're overlooking the obvious. "

She had him on the hook now. "Enlighten me."

"The trashcan."

Now, everybody knew tugging the line just to aggravate the fish was considered cruelty. "What about it?"

"In 1995, it would have been bleeding edge robotics technology. Now it's probably nothing more than a tinker toy, as far as the science of it is concerned. It's the absolute pipe dreams of the 20th century we need to look at. It's those all-but-fictitious things that'll be bleeding edge now. I know those paranoid dolts that pass themselves off as your family never let much literature into their house, but surely you're familiar with one of the most common components of the scifi genre."

She was on a roll now. Harry knew she would be thundering if she wasn't in a library. Part of him wished they were outside; it would be fun to listen to her go. But the other, larger section of his consciousness managed to get the point. If talking, walking trashcans were child's play, only one thing could be state of the art. He felt the color draining from his face, all at once excited at the possibilities and horrified by the implications. "You can't be serious. There's no way."

"Harry," she whispered, "you're a wizard. I'm a witch. We don't have the right to dismiss anything as too fanciful. Harry ... I'm almost sure Todd was an android. It's the only logical explanation."

"Well ..." Harry struggled for a way to refute this -- the suspension of disbelief had to stop somewhere. He came up with nothing. "You realize what you're suggesting, don't you? If you're right, three billion people have died in a war over robots. Or," and here was the really horrible possibility, "against them."

Hermione swallowed, color having long since abandoned her own cheeks. "I guess we should stop talking and see if I'm right then, don't you think?"

Harry nodded. "Do you want to be right?"

No hesitation. "I don't know, Harry."

She turned to her console, slender fingers flying. "Robotics, history of."

After finding a promising looking document, they began to read.

"New York Times Editorial Archive: A Summarization of Conflicts Related to the 22st Century Robotics Revolution.'"

Signas calmly surveyed the auditorium from behind his podium, checking his internal chronometer. "Almost time to start. Is everybody ready?"

X nodded from his right. "Yeah."

"The sooner we get this done, the sooner we can get out there looking for that silver-haired bastard." Zero, standing at his commander's other broad shoulder, folded his arms across his chest and frowned.

"You'll both get your chance," Alia's voice rang from their helmet speakers. X looked at Signas, who was busy conversing with Douglas. Apparently, that last line was for their ears only. She was back in the control room, watching the presentation room on the main viewer. "Just remember not to let your feelings about Dynamo get in the way. He'll be expecting that."

"Don't worry," X whispered, "he's outsmarted us one too many times. He's got to be stopped, and we can't do that if we're dead. We'll be careful."

"I hope you didn't think that would sound completely reassuring."


"It's alright. I'm serious, though. If it comes down to just the two of you and him, be careful." X recognized the faint click that meant Alia had terminated her link with Zero. "Especially you." He heard the click again, and assumed everyone could hear her now.

The room continued to fill. The massive 7th Air Calvary filed in and took up a full four rows. "Excellent," Lifesaver muttered. "Pretty soon they'll all be here, and Douglas and I will be able to tell them just how screwed they are."

Douglas cut in nervously, "Boss, I've got some bad news. I've had a chance to look over that new data they sent us, and humans aren't the only ones vulnerable to it."

Signas balked, but recovered quickly. It wouldn't do to look completely clueless in front of every single Hunter on active duty. "Two questions, Lieutenant: just what exactly does that mean, and why am I just hearing about it now?"

Yow. Rank calling. I deserved that. Douglas shifted, glaring at Lifesaver. You so owe me, he mouthed. "I found it buried in the technical documents they sent us about five minutes before I got here."

Lifesaver apparently decided it was impolite to let his friend get glared to death without offering a little assistance. "Don't blame him, Signas. We didn't find it because it was almost completely hidden. I checked the list of indications and effects they sent almost immediately after the conference was over. I didn't find anything that looked like it affected us. It just wasn't there."

"But?" Zero asked. "Come on guys, we're gonna start to look pretty weird when the place fills up and we're having a private meeting."

Douglas took over. "I didn't worry too much about corrosiveness, since their documents didn't mention it as a serious problem and, idiot I am, I believed them. I wanted to check out the exact level of resistance, though, to try to get an idea of what kind of wear and tear my engineers and I would be dealing with, so I looked at the ingredients in question myself. At first, I didn't believe what I was seeing, but I checked it with our resident CMO, and he confirmed my suspicions. Apparently, the Stupid Scientist Brigade only tested for human skin and Titanium-X body armor corrosion."

"What else is there?" Alia asked. This time, everybody heard her.

"Not much," Lifesaver grumbled, "if you don't mind having your face melt off in ten seconds flat." X and Zero stood slack-jawed.

Signas' fists clenched, but he kept his face placid. "Explain. Now." No one seemed to care what their audience was thinking anymore.

Douglas frowned. "I don't know how they did it without realizing it, but they managed to build in a nice side-effect: this stuff will dissolve synthetic skin, and the semi-organics our eyes and other soft tissues are made out of faster than it'll eat human flesh. Get caught in a cloud of it unprotected, and you're all but finished."

"Shit." Everybody looked dumbly at Zero. "Well, what did you expect me to say? This sucks."

"No kidding." X looked out at their growing audience. Five, maybe ten more minutes, and they'll be expecting us to say something. "This is just great. How could they overlook something like this?"

Lifesaver looked at the seething Blue Bomber. "Try not to overheat."

"Well," Alia's musing voice flowed into her friends' speakers, "they meant this to be a weapon for use against humans, right? I'm sure the vast majority of testing time and simulations went into seeing how it would behave in the intended operational theater. I doubt they had enough incentive to spend vast amounts of time and money doing extensive testing on something they didn't expect to ever have a major chance of happening."

"Makes sense," X agreed, "after all, these are the same people who didn't bother to develop an antitoxin concurrently with their doomsday weapon. I still can't get over how that could have been greenlit."

Zero laughed darkly. "Haven't we already decided they're all complete nimrods? As for the lack of proper testing, if money was an issue, you know they weren't gonna spend it on us. We're 'just reploids.'" Everyone nodded grimly.

"You're probably right," Alia conceded, "but I wasn't going to say it."

Great, X thought grimly, now we're in even more of a mess. As if the situation wasn't horrible enough.

Signas seemed to have quashed his anger a bit. "This isn't your fault," he said finally. "At least you found it when you did. Ideas?"

"Yeah, don't be around when this stuff goes airborne," Lifesaver said. "Douglas came up with a pretty good stopgap solution, actually. Not anywhere near perfect, but I think it's the best we're going to get."

The engineer nodded. "It's a simple solution, and like he said, it's not perfect, but I really think it's our best option considering our time window. In fact, we got lucky: it's already partially implemented. Standard reploid combat armor is sealed up to the neck, so the only place we really need to be concerned about for most of people is the head. Now, here's where we get really lucky: the retractable face-plates built into standard reploid battle helmets for underwater operations are made of high grade plexi."

Alia was still listening. "You said standard combat helmets. Not everyone uses those. There's also a significant amount of people who don't use the standard airtight armor. What about them?"

X nodded, remembering his second in command. Lieutenant Commander Quinn didn't wear standard armor because he was built with a heavy-gauge defensive exoskeleton, and a lot of his body was exposed as a result.

Douglas' face fell. "That's where it falls apart. To be honest, the people fitted with non-standard, custom armor usually can't fit into the regular stuff, and if they can, it requires custom parts be manufactured. Protective solutions for them would have to be built on a case-by-case basis. I can protect the majority of our forces, but right now, I don't have anything to fit him, or several dozen other people, and it'll take weeks to get that many custom jobs measured, filed, and built. Either we send a lot of people out unprotected or barely protected, or we keep a vast number of our forces at home under lock and key. I'm sorry."

"Alia, are you still listening?" Signas was eerily calm. X and Zero traded quick impressed glances.

"Yes, sir. I'm here. I'm still listening, and I'm not liking what I'm hearing. This presents a whole new level of risk. I assume you want the number of troops with non-standard armor configurations?" The members of the command staff exchanged looks. Douglas mouthed, freaky.

Zero nudged X. "You've fallen in love with a telepath," he whispered. "You realize that, right?"

"Not now, Zero. Not now." X turned his attention back to Signas. He had to use the l-word. X did his best to force the blush from his face. He knew he wasn't entirely successful. Lifesaver and Douglas were looking interestedly at him. I must remember to hurt Zero when this is all over. He turned his attention back to the matter at hand.

The Grand Commander smiled thinly at their exchange. "That would be most useful, Alia."

"Give me a second." A moment later, she was speaking again, her soft, urgent voice filling their ears. "This isn't good. Not at all. I'm staring at the percentage of non-standards, and combining this number with the one I gave you for humans and undercover operatives who can't wear anything at all just makes the picture look worse: according to my calculations, we're still looking at a total of fifty-one percent of active Hunters who will be unprotected in the event of exposure, as opposed to my original estimate of twenty-five percent. Again, it looks like it's spread unevenly across various units."

Zero whistled. "Damn. Any more bad news?"

"Well," Lifesaver ventured, "I don't know why anyone hasn't made the point that those forty-nine percent that we can theoretically protect are only safe so long as their armor remains airtight. If they're seriously breached while the agent's in the air around them, it won't matter what they're wearing. I've been trying to convince UHNOC to authorize funding for reploid-compatable hazmat armor for years, but situations like this are so few and far between they haven't been able to justify the expense. As for suggesting this is just all a contingency plan, just in case we don't intercept the stuff before its used, while that may be true, we've got to look at the difficulty of the task in front of us. It's going to be a close one. We're just as likely to pull it off as end up watching on a viewer when the news channels start running footage of an attack. Damn it."

"Zero," Douglas groaned, "you should really learn when to shut up, you know that? Now look what you've started."

X wasn't really paying attention to the whispering match. "Thanks, Alia." He turned to Signas, "Well, it's your call. What's the word?"

Silence reigned.

Signas looked at his command staff, thought of their missing member sitting in command and control, likely twiddling her bangs nervously and wishing she wasn't stuck overseeing a bunch of technicians. He looked out at the now fully assembled body of Hunters waiting for their leaders to say something, then he looked at X. This is it, isn't it? The snap decisions that effect whether or not hundreds of people under your command are likely to live or die. This is why you hated my job. Well, right now, I don't like it much either. He turned back to his staff, the decision made. Not that I can ever say that.

"The situation," he began quietly, "has not changed since this morning's conference. The only thing that is different now is the magnitude of Hunters possibility affected. We've gone from twenty--five percent to all. Actually, this only validates my decision. I cannot justify sending some Hunters into action while sidelining others because the threat to them is increased. This policy, while at first seeming kind, would be nonsensical. Those that were in the field would be in danger because their numbers would be abnormally small and several components of our forces would in fact be ineffectual. This would increase the likelihood of casualties in those who did see action. And most importantly, crippling ourselves now would mean severely reducing our chances of successfully intercepting the toxin, which as Lifesaver pointed out, are already less-than-good.

"Therefore, I am about to announce that, despite the risks, all active duty Hunters will be placed on full standby, in accordance with standard Condition Red and Code White protocols." He fell silent, waiting for a reaction.

"Understood." No emotion, not that anyone expected any. Alia had her orders, and she agreed with them. In her mind, there would be no need to mince words.

X nodded solemnly. "As unfortunate as it is, you're right: we can't cripple ourselves."

"Yeah," Zero added, "there's no way we can win if we destroy our capability from the inside out."

Douglas nodded. "I'm behind you one-hundred percent."

"Me too," Lifesaver, "but if this does turn into a bloodbath, I'm afraid it'll be worse than anything we've seen in years. Let's hope the Fates are with us on this one."

"Let us hope, indeed." Signas looked out at his assembled army; defenders of humanity and innocent reploids everywhere. They were all volunteers, arguably the most highly trained soldiers in the world. He was about to start them on what could easily become a suicide mission. Angels and ministers of grace, defend us. He checked his internal chronometer, and decided the thing had to be busted. There's no way this entire exchange only took ten minutes. "Lifesaver, I'm going to introduce you before we get to the meat of the briefing. I want you to briefly summarize the climate of increased risk. Don't go into too much detail -- I want to save that for later -- but let them know that no one's safe around this stuff. I don't want to panic them, but I want them to know immediately, so they have plenty of time to get used to the idea and it doesn't look like we're springing it on them at the tail end." Douglas shifted uncomfortably; he knew there was a jab at him nestled somewhere in that comment. "When you're done, mention that we'll go over the relevant safety information before we dismiss them." Everyone nodded in agreement. "Alia, any last minute input?"

"No, sir. Good luck, guys."

"Let's get started, then."

X watched his commanding officer began to speak. Well, here we go. The legendary Commander of the 17th Unit sent up a silent prayer, then turned his attention back to the briefing.

Harry leaned back in his seat, the strength suddenly gone from his body. He managed only one word. "Whoa."

Hermione's voice reeked of stunned amazement. "Yeah. Whoa."

"I guess," Harry managed, strength returning to his vocal cords, "that explains the massive population decline."

"Among other things." She ran her fingers through her hair, surprised at how oily it felt. "Unbelievable. This is absolutely unbelievable, Harry. When I said we should think about science fiction, I had no idea the truth would be so ... so ... outlandish. I mean, I've read a dozen novels about this sort of thing. Campy novels. Everyone liked to write about it ... I don't think anyone ever thought it would actually happen, except Asimov. I didn't either, come to think of it. But really, I think the world could have come up with a more subtle way to prove me wrong."

Harry had no idea who Asimov was, and thanks to the bastions of paranoia that were his aunt and uncle, his exposure to science fiction literature, decent or otherwise, was practically nil. I don't know how this day could get any more surreal. He raised an eyebrow at Hermione. "You didn't? Why not?"

"I don't know," she said simply. "The whole idea of sentient androids," she stopped herself when Harry's eyes bugged out of their sockets a bit. "Sentient. It means, at its simplest, being able to think and understand one's place in the world. Sentient things can think 'I am' and mean it. It's what separates humans from every other animal. And reploids too, I guess." Reploids. Even the word itself was mind-blowing. And as much as she was loathe to admit it, given the information about the awesome violence caused by the proliferation of androids and the Maverick movement, the word and all its implications were exciting.

Harry grinned. "Thanks. Go on with what you were going to say, please."

Hermione looked lost in thought for a second. "I wonder why Ron always thought my ability to pull word definitions out the air was annoying." She blinked. Bloody -- I didn't mean to say that out loud.

Harry's expression didn't change, but Hermione didn't miss the sadness that flashed across his eyes. "Nonsense. He thought it was cool, too. For whatever reason, though, he hated having to admit it." There was an uncomfortable pause. "Go on, then."

"Well," she began, "I guess I just thought of the whole idea of sentient androids," Harry grinned and gave a thumbs up, and she giggled, "as a sci-fi clichŽ. It's been done so many times on books and TV, and the stories are always so much alike, I just got desensitized to it. The artificial intelligence research of the twentieth century really didn't have anything to do with creating a working artificial person. I thought of that kind of research as real, I guess; it was plausible. All the stuff in the science fiction books, that was just fantasy. Thought provoking and enjoyable, but nowhere close to ever being real." She stopped again, and giggled at some private joke. "You know what the problem is with being right almost all of the time, Harry?"

Harry shook his head.

"When you are incorrect," she said, "you aren't just off by a little bit, you're all but completely off the track."

Harry smiled. "I think I get your point. But if you were right all the time, life wouldn't be nearly so interesting, would it?" He looked at the set of documents open on the terminals in front of them. "And if nothing else, this is certainly very interesting."

"I can hardly believe it. Someone actually did it; Doctor Light created a child of the human mind. He must have been an absolute genius."

Harry nodded. "I'm thinking that's a major understatement." His tone grew more serious. "Maybe it's a good thing he wasn't around when X was activated, though. Everything he feared came to pass. One power mad man, thought of as a prodigy by his fellows, declared himself and his followers superior and tried to take over everything. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?"

Hermione knew Harry was thinking of Voldemort, and was forced to agree. "Scarily so. But I think Doctor Light would be proud. I understand why Commander X's picture is on the wall. The way this stuff reads, if it weren't for him ..." she trailed off, searching her mind for a euphemism.

Harry didn't give her time. "We would have found ourselves in a world where humans were nothing but slaves, if they were still around at all. Pleasant thought." Well ... that sounded great, Harry. What the hell's wrong with me? The cold, cynical little voice he had discovered earlier in the day chimed in. You're wearing down. How much longer do you expect to keep up this detached, panic-free state-of-mind? You shouldn't be surprised that you're starting to crack. You may have escaped one inferno, Harry, but you've landed in another one that just might be hotter. Harry blinked. It occurred to him in a flash that this was an infinitely worse place to be, and not just because of the circumstances of their arrival and current situation.

When Voldemort was the enemy and he and Hermione were at Hogwarts, they were part of the fight. They certainly weren't at the front lines, but they were in a position to know what was going on and make relevant contributions when possible. Now -- now they were stuck just wandering around without a clue about what was going on, hoping an intractable enemy that they knew almost nothing about wouldn't decide it was time to rain death down on the city. According to the files they dug up, it tended to happen with alarming frequency. They were almost completely helpless, and Harry suddenly found himself hating that. He was beginning to feel more and more like what he really was: a confused kid with no home, only the shakiest of plans, and no real power to effect the world around him.

But I can't admit that. Not now. I've set myself up to be the strong one, the one with the plan. I've made the commitment, now I've got to play the role.

At length, Hermione nodded. Harry wasn't the only one doing a good job of tamping down all traces of doubt and worry. She looked calm and interested, like she always did when she was researching something in the library. "You're right, of course. It's a horrible situation. They've been doing their best to protect everyone for twenty-seven years, and still, three billion people have died. But Harry, we can't just look at it like that. You can't just focus on the worst of it. If we do, we'll be overrun by our own emotions. And yes, I know I'm one to talk. I'm horrified by what we've found here ... Harry, we've been spending the last hour reading about a group of people trying to systematically eradicate humanity. It's terrifying!

"I'll be honest: I ... I'm scared." Harry listened and watched her closely. She really did sound like she was fighting a battle with her own fear, and her eyes now danced with a mixture of sadness and shock. "But ... I can't believe I'm saying this, we have to remember that what we've read isn't just about the bad things. If we let the actions of a horrible few taint our whole picture of the world we're in, we'll be missing out on all the wonderful things we have a chance to see; the people we could meet that couldn't even exist in the 20th century. We're in a horrible situation. If we do lose sight of the good things, what's left?"

"Not much," Harry conceded.

"Exactly." She sighed. "Saying all that doesn't make it any easier to digest, does it? I think ... I think we just made everything official: we're stuck here, and here is a dramatically different place than where we belong. We were never supposed to be here, Harry. We were thrown out of time and ended up in a world so different than the one we know that it might as well be alien. It's ... exceedingly difficult to focus on the positive."

Harry suddenly felt the need to put a comforting hand on her shoulder. When he did, he could feel it shaking under his palm. "You're not the only one who's afraid," he whispered. "But I still know we'll be alright."

She blinked her moistening eyes. Wonderful. I've worked myself into another crying fit. "You really think so? And swear to me you're not just saying it because you think I'm about to collapse into a blubbering wreck."

"I know so," Harry said, banishing every bit of doubt in his mind. He realized, deep down, that he really did believe it, with every fiber of his being. If he didn't, nothing could have kept him going. "We've both got our wands and our wits, and now we know more about the world around us than we did when we got here. We might not have time to answer every question we have, but we're infinitely better off than we were at 10:30. We'll figure out how to get back to Hogwarts. It'll just take some time."

Neither of them spoke for a few minutes. Finally, Hermione sat bolt upright and spun in her chair to look at Harry. "Time. What time is it, Harry?"

The Boy-Who-Lived paled. The appointment. I almost completely forgot. He glanced at his watch. "We need to leave. Now."

"How much time do we have?"

Harry got up and collected their things. "Our bus will be here in exactly one minute."

Hermione was instantly at his side. "Well then. Run."

Harry couldn't figure out quite how they did it, but the proof was irrefutable. He looked over Hermione's mass of hair and saw buildings passing by. How the two of them had managed to get to the bus stop in time, he would never know.

Hermione was busy fussing over Crookshanks. "We're sorry we left you under that nasty dumpster for so long. You must have been so uncomfortable."

Personally, Harry thought Crookshanks looked quite happy when they yanked him out from under the dumpster. He certainly seemed to be enjoying the large rat he had eviscerated. For his part, Harry found the image quite satisfying ... at least until Crookshanks had decided to be generous and drop the bloody rat carcass on his shoes. At that moment, his appetite abruptly abandoned him, and it was still missing.

He reached over and stroked the animal behind the ears. I'll bet you're still hungry, though. He still wasn't sure the shelter they were going to even allowed animals, but he knew Hermione was probably thinking the same thing, so he had no intention of bringing it up. We'll deal with that problem if and when we have to. Too bad I don't still have my invisibility cloak. I could just wrap him up and sneak him in.

"Harry," Hermione ventured, having finally convinced herself Crookshanks was still in perfect condition, "what are we going to do next? After we check in at the shelter, I mean?"

Harry scratched the back of his head -- and frowned sharply when his nails raked over a rather deep scratch. Ouch! "I'm not sure, actually. I figure we should try to get something to eat again. We never really got a chance at the library, and we really shouldn't go too much longer without food. We should probably try to get some rest, too. "

"Yeah, I'm finally starting to feel like I could eat something. Actually, I don't think I've felt this hungry in a long time."

Harry nodded. Excellent. "I know what you mean."

Hermione suddenly began discreetly looking around the bus. "I wonder if there are any of them on here with us," she whispered.

Harry cottoned on almost immediately. "I'm not sure. I doubt it, not if most of them can do that teleporting thing."

"Still," she mused, "we wouldn't know, would we? Unless they were like Todd, we'd have no idea." She paused. "Amazing, isn't it?"

Harry nodded. "Yeah." But frightening, too. Harry was almost certain that if he had not met Todd before he and Hermione discovered the existence of reploids, it would be that second feeling that colored his perception of the whole lot of them. But he knew that would make him a kind of racist. He glanced at his closest friend, reminding himself of all the times Malfoy had called her a Mudblood to her face; how much it hurt her even if she never gave Draco the satisfaction of seeing anything but her own contempt and disgust. She even tried to keep it from he and Ron, if she could help it. No matter what, he would never let himself become a racist.

Hermione yawned. "I could definitely use a nap."

She turned her head to look out the window, and Harry caught her reflection in the glass. She looked absolutely exhausted. Never.

Harry stared out the window again, and waited.

Harry was so deep in thought he almost didn't notice it when the bus stopped moving. "Well," Hermione said, breaking into his thoughts, "I guess this is it."

The wizard looked out the window. The building was huge. Emblazoned on the side, in clean white letters in English and Japanese, were the words "Juuban Women and Children's Shelter." Well, that's subtle, he thought suddenly, they might as well have put up a neon sign. He smiled reassuringly at his companion. "You ready?"

She shrugged, but got up just the same. "Let's get out of here before the bus starts moving again. I don't want to have to drive by the glue factory again."

A few moments later, they were standing in front of the wide double doors, neither of which bothered to open automatically. Harry put his free hand on the cool wood.

Hermione cradled Crookshanks tighter, and the cat purred at his nervous owner. Harry pushed.

The reception area reminded Harry of a hospital, right down to the furniture. The lights were that weird kind that managed to illuminate everything and simultaneously drain almost all color from the room. The comatose tope on the walls didn't really help that much. At least the receptionist's desk was a splash of color -- then again, olive green had never been one of his favorites.

Not that either Harry or Hermione cared even the slightest bit whether or not the place was going to win any interior decorating awards.

Harry took the lead, slowly walking towards the desk. The woman working there was immediately everything he had expected: she looked in her late forties, with blue eyes and curled brown hair. She wore jeans and a black shirt emblazoned with the name of the shelter, and smiled at them.

She couldn't speak, though: she looked to be stuck on the phone with someone performing a rather long monologue. She nodded, making an affirmative sound at whatever the phone-voice was saying, and looked the two of them over. Picking up a pen, she jotted down a note on a piece of paper and showed it to them. One moment, please. On phone with incredibly obnoxious boy who thinks he's a man. Cute kitty, dear. Harry and Hermione looked at each other and grinned.

Finally, it looked like she was going to get to speak. "Yes," she said finally, "I understand that. But it isn't our fault the payment got there late -- it was submitted on time. Look, you admit it's there. You said it'll be processed by the end of the week, anyway. You'll get your money. I'm going to ask you one more time: please don't cut off the electricity. As many people who live here -- even if we didn't have it for twelve hours, it would be a disaster." She listened for a moment, a look of triumph spreading across her face. "Yes, you go talk to your supervisor and call me back. No, thank you." She hung up the phone. "Twit." She turned her attention back to Harry and Hermione. "Sorry about that, dears. The fun never stops, as they say. I'm Mrs. Dawson. What can I do for you?"

"We have an appointment to see about rooming here, ma'am," Hermione said simply.

She smiled kindly. "Oh, of course! I sort of figured, but I didn't want to jump to conclusions. What are your names, honey?"

She reminds me of Grandma. Only younger. The thought was comforting and sobering all at once. "I'm Hermione Granger," she replied confidently, "and this is Harry Potter."

Harry nodded. "Good afternoon, ma'am."

"Pleasure to meet you. Give me just a second, let me pull you up on my screen here." Mrs. Dawson stepped over to a terminal, the most modern thing in the entire room, and began to type. She read the display for a moment. "Oh! It looks like we've been expecting you. And you got here with time to spare. Wonderful! How're your new glasses, Harry?"

"Excellent, ma'am."

Such a well behaved pair, the matron thought, and so clean looking. Don't know why that boy's carrying a broom, though. That's a bit weird. Maybe he's been working as a street sweeper, or something. It's not like he could fly on it or anything. "Now," she said, picking up a black tablet, "I've got to get you registered. It only takes a few minutes. Why don't we go over here and sit on one of the couches? If anyone comes in the door, they can ring the bell, otherwise, we shouldn't be disturbed. Unless that loon manages to get his supervisor to call, but that's beside the point. Would either of you like something to drink?"

Hermione spoke first. "Water would be splendid, ma'am. It's a little warm out there."

"That sounds good."

"It is a bit warm, isn't it? You're in luck: I won't even have to run to the kitchen." She knelt down and pulled open a door under her desk, producing two bottles.

"Excuse me, Mrs. Dawson," Hermione ventured as they walked towards the couches. Harry glanced at The World's Most Anti-Social Cat (and given the nature of cats, that was saying something) and figured he had a pretty good idea why.

"Yes, dear?"

"My cat -- his name is Crookshanks -- he won't be a problem, will he? I mean, can he stay here?" She wasn't happy with the way her voice was fluttering, but there was a sizable part of her that absolutely abhorred the idea of losing him. Something that was almost desperation tainted her voice.

Oh. Well, I should have seen this coming, shouldn't I? I hope I don't have to say no. "Well, now, let's see. Where did you get him, dear?" Probably a stray. If he hasn't had his shots, he'll have to go. Look at that smashed face. Poor thing looks like a hover-cycle hit him.

Hermione seemed to realize where this was going. She took a deep breath. "My ... my ..." Suddenly, Harry's hand was in hers, squeezing gently. She steadied herself. "My parents gave him to me ... years ago, for my birthday. We bought him at a pet store. He's had all his shots, and he's very healthy. But," she decided she might as well be as honest as possible, "I haven't been able to renew his registration since it ... expired."

"Oh." Well, Amy, that was a brilliant move. I'll have to work on being even less subtle. Oh, dear; I've really trampled it up this time. "Well, Hermione -- such a pretty name, by the way -- I'll take your word for it. You don't seem like you would lie to me. We let our guests keep pets here, as long as they're not sick. Now, you'll have to be careful, though. You said he wasn't registered. Do you mean he doesn't have an identification implant anymore?" That's a bit unusual. Those don't 'expire.'

"Yes, ma'am," Hermione said quickly, trying desperately to think up some sort of reasonable way to get out of the hole she was digging, "He got in a little accident -- it was damaged, and I had to have it removed. I don't have enough money to get it replaced yet." She crossed her fingers in her pocket. I hope I just made some sort of sense. At least I sounded like I believed it. Harry must be rubbing off on me.

Fair enough. "Oh, well, that's certainly unfortunate. Like I said, we don't mind healthy pets here, but you'll want to be careful. I'm sure you know that if he gets out alone a drone from animal control is likely to pick him up."

Drone?! What in blazes is that supposed to mean? "Oh, yes, I'll be careful with him," she said smoothly. Looks like I pulled it off. "We've already had a few close calls. I'm not going to let that happen again anytime soon."

"Well, then," Amy smiled, "I'll get him a litter box later. We keep a couple of extras around."

"Thank you, ma'am." Hermione grinned.

Crookshanks was pleased. Apparently, this old one was smarter than he thought. If she was going to try to separate him from his Hermione -- well, she had another thing coming. And it was likely to be quite painful. He looked at his front paws, and retracted his claws. Maybe another time.

"Of course, dearie. Now, we'd better get to work on these forms. Now, are either of you seventeen?"

Harry shook his head. "Not quite yet."

She nodded, and tapped the tablet with a stylus. "Well, neither of you are going to have a national identification number, then. But judging by your accents, I'd say the two of you aren't from around here, are you?"

"No, Mrs. Dawson," Harry responded, "we're from England."

"Well, you're certainly a long way from home, then, aren't you?"

Harry nodded solemnly. "A very long way, I'm afraid. As for how we got here ... it's a long story. It doesn't look like we'll be able to get back anytime soon, unfortunately." Hermione shot him a dark look. Oops. Should have phrased that differently.

Well, so much for them being in any of our databases here, the older woman thought. "Let me enter in a little preliminary data," she said. She began to work with the stylus again, all the while thinking hard about her newest arrivals.

Amy had worked at the Juuban shelter for nearly fifteen years, and she enjoyed her job. It wasn't always pleasant, and the shelter was only open because something was drastically wrong with the world, but she loved helping people, especially children. She had dedicated her life to the task, going at it with all the vigor she could muster.

In the last three decades, she had taken care of a great many children, every one of them different. Looking at the two before her now, though, she had the feeling she was looking at an especially unique pair. Their eyes gave away the amazing amount of stress they were under and a deep sadness that convinced her they weren't runaways -- she recognized that look all too well. Their loved ones had been taken from them, and somehow they ended up on the streets. But there was something else. There was a courage lurking there, beaten down but still standing. Well, whoever you are, kids, I'd be willing to bet you've both had some pretty interesting lives.

She began leading them through questions over the most basic of information: full name, age, medical history, and all those other vital statistics she needed for her files. The two of them did reasonably well, as far as they were concerned -- they only ended up having to fake about half of their answers. Among the more audacious of fabrications were, by necessity their dates of birth and the fates of their parents (Hermione managed to keep a straight face while claiming they were "taken from them" several years ago, letting the woman assume what she pleased). Eventually, it came time for Harry to finish his story.

"After we lost them," Harry finished quietly, "we didn't have anyone. We were on our own. It's been years since then, but we've stuck together. Somehow, we ended up moving around a lot. Without getting into unnecessary details, we eventually ended up stuck in Japan. We've been here ever since, moving around as necessary." He wiped tears from his from eyes. Real tears. Everything he had said, in some way or another, was completely true. He looked at Hermione. She had her eyes closed and her hands over her mouth.

Amy was stunned. If what they told her was even a fraction of the truth (and she believed it to be more than that, even if they were hiding certain information), they were braver, cleverer, and closer friends than she had ever imagined. Some parts of their story were almost comically outlandish -- the idea that they could have migrated from Surrey to Japan, for example. But she had seen a great many children that were absolute experts at lying, and the two in front of her were simply not. She believed them. "Well," she finally said, "it sounds like the two of you have been through a lot together."

"We certainly have," Harry said quietly. "I don't think I could have done it without Hermione. She always keeps me from getting in too much a fuss when we get stuck in bad situations."

Hermione blushed, and playfully swatted him on the arm. "Hush, you. You're a lot more capable than you believe."

Amy smiled brightly. Most importantly, as far as she was concerned, they were both relatively happy. At least most of the time, she thought darkly. That stress in their eyes has to come to the fore every once in a while. "Well, now that we've got all your paperwork done, I'm happy to say that you're officially registered here. Now, and I'm not trying to suggest anything, I promise, I assume the two of you are used to sleeping in the same place."

Harry blinked in confusion. Hermione's mind was moving at warp speed. Based on the story we told her, we usually would. Not together, but in the same room, if possible. We've painted ourselves as really, really close. Not that much of a stretch, really. She was perfectly comfortable with the idea of sleeping in the same room as Harry, assuming of course they had separate beds and she could change in private. Besides, it's not like he would ever try anything. The idea of Harry making a move on anything was almost giggle-inducing.

"Alright, then," Amy said, and both of them failed to catch the impish look in her eyes. "Now, normally we don't allow unrelated girls and boys to share rooms. But it sounds like the both of you are used to doing that." Harry's eyes bulged.

Oh my God, we did suggest that. Bloody hell. He looked at Hermione, expecting her to be suitably scandalized. Much to his surprise, she looked totally at ease. What in blazes?

"Yes, ma'am," Hermione said calmly, "we share sleeping quarters all the time. As long as there's more than one place to lay down and somewhere private to change, of course. But it's nice, I think, not having to sleep alone, or in the company of some complete stranger, especially as much as we move around."

Harry's brain continued to stall. He expected smoke to begin bellowing from his ears at any moment. Amy nodded. "I understand completely, dearie. You two are also two of the most respectful and mature young people I've met in a long time. Given that and the uniqueness of your situation, I'm going to do something I don't do very often, but you can't make a big deal out of it. I'm going to give you a room with two twin beds, like a double at a hotel. But there's a condition, and I don't think you'll have any problems complying with it. Under absolutely no circumstances is there to be any canoodling. Do you understand?"

Hermione nodded eagerly, despite her blush. "Yes, ma'am. Thank you so much."

Harry nodded dumbly, his own skin the color of the Gryffindor flag. "Yes ... yes, there will be none of that." What just happened here?

"No problem, dears. Just don't make too much of a fuss about it around the other children." She got up. "Now come along, dears. Doctor Thompkins will want to give you both a full once-over, and then we'll need to get you some food. The two of you look positively famished."

The phone rang.

"Oh," Amy hissed. "Just a minute. It better not be those idiots at the power company again."

Alia ducked just in time; she could feel the coolness of X's boot as it brushed against her scalp. Crap! He's really going at it this time. And the look on his face! He looks so relaxed. The voice of her subconscious cut in. You're getting distracted. Watch out! X's foot abruptly made contact with her abdomen. She doubled over with a yelp and found herself looking down his buster. It was charging. No!

X lowered his arm cannon, and smiled. " Excellent. You've got to remember, though: never stop moving. You're going to be, unfortunately, slower and weaker than almost anyone you fight. You were designed that way. You read incredibly well, though. But you've got to remember to keep your distance, and never stop moving until you're ready to attack. But you did great. Four minutes that time."

Alia straightened up, deactivating her own buster. Don't know why I even bother with the thing. I only got two shots off, and managed to miss both times. I don't know how he puts up with me. "You do realize I'm still dead, technically."

X nodded. "Yeah, but look at it this way. You held me off for four minutes. When we started this, you couldn't last more than thirty seconds. And I was holding back then even more than I am now."

Alia grinned. "You're amazing, you know that?"

X raised an eyebrow. "What?"

She tapped his helmet playfully. "There's no way you should have been able to make that sound like a compliment."

The Blue Bomber shrugged. "Sorry ... I think. But it's true. You've really improved."

She smiled. "Thanks." There was a pause, and she suddenly looked uncertain. "Do you ever stop to think about how weird this is? I mean, we're dating now, and you spend an hour a day teaching me to beat you up. Is this unhealthy?"

He nodded. "I think about it a lot, actually. I know why its worth doing, but I'll be totally honest: I'm glad it was your idea."

Alia walked to the cabinets next to the door of the white-walled training room and scooped up her headset. She put it on, but didn't activate it. "Oh? Why?"

"I don't think I was ready to admit that it was necessary," he said with a frown. "Everything you said when you asked me to start training you -- none of it was new to me. I'd thought about all of it before, but there was no way I was ready to say it. I wanted our relationship to be as normal as possible, and I wasn't ready to talk about the complications. I knew we needed to, but I just ... didn't want to ruin the illusion or normalcy, I guess."

Alia didn't like the uncertainty in his voice. For one thing, she didn't like the idea that she had anything to do with putting it there. For another, there was the whole matter of her not picking up on it six months ago. No one person should be allowed to be so secretive. "Why not?"

I can't believe we're having this conversation now, of all times. Oh, well. There's no time like the present, as long as something doesn't blow up while we're talking. "It's a bit of a long story, actually. Are you sure you want to hear me act depressed?"

"I wouldn't call it acting depressed. The things we do ... most of it's not pleasant, but we do it anyway. Like you tell the newbies, Hunters do what we do because it has to be done. I think talking about this kind of unpleasant stuff is a required part of being more than friends. The only relationships that don't have their serious moments are in the heads of little girls. That makes it something you and I have to do, doesn't it?"

X smiled thinly. "When you put it that way ... it still sounds like the most enjoyable thing since income tax forms. You're right, though." The smile flickered and died. "I'll be perfectly honest, Alia. You're the first person I've really dated in almost fifteen years, and the first person I've had a serious relationship with in almost twenty."

Alia's mouth was moving, but she couldn't manage to get any sound to come out. What? Why? "I'm not sure I understand. Why wouldn't you date for so long?"

X chuckled. "Oh, I tried. Well, it's not like I was out trying to gather a harem -- despite Zero's advice -- but I was interested in meeting people."

Okay. Now we're standing in a training room, in the middle of a Condition White, talking about his love life before we met. My life is so normal. Nevertheless, "Go on. Why didn't it go well?"

"I didn't have much time to even think about it for the first few months of my life. By the time I actually got the chance, the first Uprising was in full swing, and the next thing I knew, I was a Hunter Lieutenant. I still don't know how I ended up starting with that rank. I mean, there were only ten of us that were rated for field duty. But that's beside the point. By the time I actually had time to sit down and even think about meeting someone, just before the Third Uprising, I was," his voice deepened, and he did his best to sound like a monster truck rally announcer, "Commander Mega Man X, man of action."

He shook his head. "I think that was the problem. Whether I liked it or not, I was a media popstar. That intimidated a lot of very nice people, and I ended up attracting a horde of people who were just interested in dating a celebrity. Almost none of them cared a thing about dating me. Those few that did," his face darkened, "didn't work out. As much as they might have liked me, as much as I liked them: they were afraid of me, I think. Getting close to me ... getting close to me means my enemies are your enemies. No one really wanted that kind of complication, and I can't say I really blame them. After a while, I just sort of ... forgot about it. Does that sound pathetic?"

Alia clenched her jaw so tightly it almost hurt. How could anyone ... ? But he's so ... Damned sycophants! How dare they try to use him like that. As for the others ... they'll never know what they gave up on. She blinked. Which is good for me, I guess. I mean, if he'd been dating when we met ... whoa. "That doesn't make you pathetic at all, X. Emotional injuries are a lot tougher to bounce back from than the physical kind you're so used to. As for the added risk: I don't know about those other women, but I am a Hunter. I may not be a field operative, but I've already embraced the rules of the game. I'm not afraid of sharing your enemies with you," she smiled at him, "because that means I get to share everything else, too. And it is worth it. Even with all the risks and after the promise we should have never had to make each other, it's worth it."

X grinned, and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "I think so too. Now that we've gotten though all that, there's something else I think I should tell you, as long as we're talking about this kind of stuff." He looked suddenly serious.

Alia blinked. "What?" What now?

"I think it's vitally important you know," he intoned, before losing it and breaking into a maniac grin, "I love you. There's no one I'd rather spend my life with, past, present, or future."

Alia smiled widely, dimples plainly visible, and promptly elbowed him in the gut. She grabbed him by the shoulders, leaned forward, and finally managed to nail him with something, albeit not inactive plasma. When they finally separated, she was pleased to see that X was blushing. If she hadn't been crimson herself, she might have considered gloating. "I love you, too."

They stood that way for a long time, the sharp, experienced emerald eyes of the reluctant champion gazing into soft, brilliant sapphires of the seasoned spotter. The younger reploid wished they could have stayed like that forever, but they were in the middle of a crisis, and she didn't have that luxury. One of the unpleasant things beckons. Finally, she spoke. "I wanted to ask you -- are you feeling better? You seemed frustrated this morning, after the meeting. More than usual. Is everything alright?"

X raised an eyebrow, but he didn't look upset. "Was it that obvious?"

She shook her head. "I think everyone else was a bit too preoccupied with Zero's performance. I know you were angry," I felt the chills go down my spine to prove it, "but I couldn't shake the feeling there was something else bothering you." And sense you're usually so damned hard to read, I can't help but think you wanted me to figure it out.

X nodded. "There is." He sighed. "After this morning, I got a wicked case of dŽjˆ vu."

Alia's eyebrow shot up. "Oh? I'm assuming this wasn't the pleasant kind."

"You've been hanging around me too long. You're getting really good with vicious understatements." He leaned against one of the white walls and seemed to lose a battle with his mouth. It broke into a full frown. "I know you're familiar with the Paris incident."

She nodded, watching her boyfriend's skin slowly turn green. She felt her own stomach knot. "I read about it when I was in school. Not that it said much. Most of the details prior to the detonation are classified. Once I got here, I got clearance to look them up, but I never have."

"Why would you? They aren't pleasant. But the thing that got me this morning: Paris never should have been destroyed. It was one mistake after another on our part, and the situation was just like this one. The only thing that was different was the source: Sigma's scientists came up with the design on their own. We wouldn't have found out about it before the detonation if he hadn't announced it. He dared us to find his bombs. He knew we wouldn't be able to. He'd planted so many decoys and too much bad information ...

"Intelligence narrowed the list down to several possible locations for detonation -- not that we had any idea where in those cities the bombs might be, or even how many there were. So, we went to work. I personally found decoys in Dallas, Toronto, and London. London. I was so close. Eventually, we'd checked everywhere we wanted to check. Nothing. Later, we found out most of the information we'd used to try to track them down was planted months in advance. The second night after his announcement, Sigma apparently decided we'd been shown just how powerless we were without the proper intelligence, and he called us up and pressed the button. Paris went up in flames while we watched."

X's fists were clenched now, but Alia couldn't tell if he was furious or on the verge of tears. Neither possibility was very appealing. "Now it's happening again. Dynamo's gotten away with stealing a weapon capable of killing millions. We have no idea how he did it, where he is, or who his employer is. No one's going to say it in a briefing, Alia, but there's only two ways this can be resolved. Either Dynamo's slipped up and left us some sort of clue we haven't found yet, or ..." He shut his eyes tightly.

She nodded, suddenly pale. "Or." I hadn't even thought about that. Of course, I wasn't there. I wasn't even born yet.

X sighed. "Alia, I'm afraid. As the situation stands, our probability of success is terrifyingly low. Without intelligence, we're paralyzed. Last time, we didn't get lucky." He chuckled darkly. "But don't tell anyone. I pretty sure I'm not allowed to be afraid." Bitterness tinged his voice.

Damn it. He's right. Either Dynamo slips up, or we lose. And he's seen us lose this one before. This must be awful for him. She moved so she was looking him straight in the eye, wrapping her arms around his waist. She soon felt his arms encircle her abdomen. "But you won't give up, will you?"

"Of course not, but that doesn't make this any easier."

"Maybe not, but remember this: I don't give a damn about what people think you're supposed to act like. If you're afraid, that's fine. I fell in love with you, not your image." She paused. "And besides, at least I'm not alone this way. I'm terrified, and I like being able to admit it. As much as I'd love for you to tell me everything's going to turn out fine, I'm glad you didn't. We couldn't have a relationship if you tried to shield me from everything that goes on in your head. Does that make sense?"

"Yeah. It does. I'll always do my best to be honest with you. Promise."

"Cool. Now come on. We've got places to be. If we don't show up on time, they'll pick on us again."

X grinned, in spite of himself. "I swear, I'll get Zero for that. I didn't need a horde of rookies giving me the wink and that smarmy clicky sound for two weeks."

"Ha," Alia giggled, "at least you didn't have to deal with Beth. If she ever retires, she can make a living writing torrid romance novels. Let's get going ... happy pants." She smiled, turned on her heels, and left the room. A fit of giggles could be heard in the distance.

X blinked twice, and then followed after her. Thank God it wasn't Zero.

Harry frowned and looked at his watch. 3:00. How much longer is this going to take? She's been in there almost forty-five minutes. He was done with me in thirty. He looked around the small waiting room. The white floors were spotless; the lights just a little too bright. Definitely just like a hospital. And I do just love hospitals. Shifting in his seat, he looked at Crookshanks, currently curled up at his feet and staring fixedly at the examination room's closed door. "If she doesn't come out in five minutes, I'll let you attack." The cat didn't move, but seemed to relax. Harry found himself wondering if his furred friend actually knew how to count. Probably. He shook his head. Well, I am the bigger, stronger one. I should be able to stop him if he decides to try to eat the fellow. Maybe.

Fortunately for all involved, and the staff physician's vision and reproductive capacities especially, the exam door hissed open abruptly. A disgruntled Hermione walked out, frowning and rubbing her arm. Crookshanks shot from his place by Harry's feet -- once again making The Boy Who Lived feel like yesterday's squeaky toy. "Well," she snarled, "that was pleasant."

Harry's eyebrows furled. "Are you alright, Hermione? You look ... disgruntled. Really, really, disgruntled. You didn't like Doctor Neal? I thought he was perfectly reasonable." Then, quieter, "he totally bought into the I'm-a-streetsweeper business. I think I'll make that my standard cover story."

Good idea, Harry. And you think you aren't clever. "Oh," Hermione hissed, positively fuming, "he's a wonderfully friendly man, and I liked him very much. His blood drawing techniques, on the other hand, were awful. Apparently, I have 'rolling veins.' It took him twenty minutes. Honestly!" She held up her arm. The bruise on the inside of her elbow made Harry wince.

"Hermione? You might want to calm down. You're turning red." He grinned. He hadn't seen her this flustered in years. He knew exactly when, too: the memory was quite vivid. The grin faded some. Thinking about that meant thinking about Ron. Thinking about anything that happened less than six hours ago meant thinking about Ron. Thinking about Ron -- or any of his long dead friends ---- was not conducive to maintaining self-control. "So, what do you want to do now?"

Hermione opened her mouth to speak, but her stomach beat her to it. A deep rumbling sound filled the air, and she blushed. "Oh, my. Excuse me."

Harry smirked. "Well, then. I think that settles it. Good thing, too. Now that I actually have time to stop and think about it, I'm starving." He began to move towards the main hall, then stopped, a slightly embarrassed expression on his face. "Hermione?"

Her smirk rivaled his own. "You have no idea where the cafeteria is, do you? Weren't you supposed to ask the doctor?"

He scratched the back of his head, suddenly very interested in her shoes. "I ... um ... got distracted. I'm not very used to being around needles. And no, the needles of the future didn't help my anxiety any. I refuse to relax when glowing, humming gun-like devices are about to pierce my skin. Why don't we just," he looked in the direction they had come, "go ask the receptionist? I'm sure she wouldn't mind."

"That won't be necessary, guys." The two of them jumped about two feet off the ground, and Harry resolved to never be snuck up on, ever again. It wasn't so much an ego thing, but even his heart had its limits. He turned around just before Hermione, who was busy trying to corral Crookshanks before he tried to attack, and beheld the newcomer. He found himself looking into a handsome young face replete with shining eyes and neatly coiffed black hair. He thought the jeans and shirt the boy wore looked clean, if not a little aged. They reminded him off the things Petunia would sometimes send to the charities when she felt she needed to "act philanthropic." This only happened every three years or so, and seemed to require a bizarre alignment of the planets and concurrent lunar eclipse. "I'm Lee," he chirped. "I take it the Sultan of Saline is done with you?"

Harry put out a hand, smiling. Anyone who thought saying "Sultan of Saline" was cool couldn't be all that much of a threat. "I'm Harry. Harry Potter."

"Hermione Granger. Pleasure to meet you." She hugged Crookshanks closer to her chest, trying to calm him.

Lee nodded. "I take it everything went well? Amy sent me to check on you. She said you'd probably be ready for some food. The doc can be very ... thorough. I know this from experience."

Hermione raised an eyebrow. "You say that like it's a bad thing."

He almost frowned, but his heart obviously wasn't in it. "I have one word for you, kid. Iodine."

Hermione grimaced. "Ouch." Harry threw in a sympathetic nod. Because of Dudley, he was well familiar with such instruments of pain.

"But," Lee blurted, "that's neither here nor there. You two must be starving by now, I'm sure. After we're done eating, I'll show you around. We've got a bit of a maze on our hands, but hey, it's better than nothing."

"We have no complaints, I assure you," Harry said. "Do you work here?"

The older boy shrugged, face neutral. "Sort of. I've been around long enough that I know how things work. I help out where I can."

"Ah." Harry glanced at Hermione. The look on her face told him she was thinking the same thing: time to change the subject. Now.

Luckily, Lee did it for them. He looked at Hermione, and leaned towards Harry. "Nice cat," he whispered.

"Not really," Harry shot back. Hermione was, thankfully, too busy taking in her surroundings to notice them. "He likes you, though."

"You think?"

Harry smirked. "He hasn't tried to gouge your eyes out yet, so yeah, I'm pretty sure."

Lee's eyes widened, and he looked at the furry animal currently purring Hermione's arms. "Ah. So he's one of those cats. Thanks for the warning."

Harry nodded slightly. "Anytime."

Harry took a bite from his second chipped beef sandwich, idly wondering how ravenous he looked to Lee and Hermione. Well, maybe just Lee. Hermione's eating uncharacteristically ... Ron--like. The bushy haired girl's head was currently lost in a sandwich approximately the size of Gryffindor tower.

Lee finally couldn't stand it anymore. Amy had ordered him to try and find out more about the mysterious pair, so he did his best -- a seemingly inconsequential question here and there, plenty of observation -- and these two were really starting to worry him. "Guys, don't take offense, but when was the last time you two got to eat real food?"

Hermione looked at him from over her giant pile of barbequed meat. "Too long," she said, and it was obvious to Lee that he wasn't going to get anything more out of either of them on the subject.

Odd. What have they got to hide?

Harry swept his eyes over the room, desperate to find something -- anything -- to talk about. He knew perfectly well that Lee was likely under orders to get more information out of them, and really, he didn't blame Amy for being concerned, but he needed time to go over a suitable alibi with Hermione. They had almost been completely tripped up one too many times in the last several hours.

His eyes fell on a photo hung on the far wall. Not only was it a perfect distraction, he was honestly thunderstruck. "Hermione, check out the picture on the wall behind you. "

"What?" She turned around, and her eyes widened. "Wow."

There, on the far wall, was a picture of Amy. She was much younger -- she looked barely as old as Hermione -- and she was sitting up in what looked like a hospital bed. But the thing that caught Harry's attention was the man standing beside her: Commander Mega Man X, replete in every piece of his blue armor save his helmet. They were both smiling at the camera. It struck Hermione again just how much he looked like Harry, and she was surprised to find the thought more than a little unsettling.

Lee traced their gaze, wondering just what was so interesting. When he realized what they were looking at, he grinned. "I guess you would have found out eventually. Amy's good friends with the Blue Bomber."

Hermione sighed inwardly. Personally, she thought it was totally foul the way the media gave Commanders X and Zero such names. It was a seriously inappropriate glamorization of violence, as far as she was concerned. Part of her was very curious to find out how they felt about it. But the question she found tumbling out of her mouth was much different. "How did they meet?"

Lee shifted uncomfortably. He knew Amy well enough to know she wouldn't mind them finding out, but didn't feel comfortable giving them every detail. That was her right, not his. He cleared his throat, and went forward with a highly edited version. "When she was about your age, she was badly injured in a Maverick attack. X saved her life and made sure she got to a hospital. Her parents were out of the country at the time, so he checked in on her for a few hours a day for the next week, until they could get back." He shrugged. "By the time they got back from the US, Amy had managed to bond with the big guy."

Harry gulped. "Not the best way to make friends."

Lee smirked. "I see you enjoy understatements."

Hermione raised an eyebrow, seemingly oblivious to the banter. "He kept her company for a week? That's an awfully considerate thing to do. It's not ... not ..." she trailed off, looking for a word that wouldn't sound too offensive.

"Not something a battle-hardened soldier like X would do?" Lee was grinning again. "X is a study in contradiction. He's capable of -- well, you know what he's capable of, I'm sure -- but he's one of the coolest guys I know. Mind you, I don't know him nearly as well as Amy, but anybody who's willing to dress up in a padded suit and costume and play Santa for four-dozen kids has to be pretty easy going."

"He did that?" Harry was intrigued. It went against the Rambo-like fa