A.N: I'm not even going to try to explain why this took so long. It's my fault, Triad was ready months ago. But eh... here it is? No more long hiatuses, scouts honor!


CHAPTER TWENTY

A General Encounter


Grey metallic walls shimmered into view as the group rematerialized in the Resistance Base's command center. Rock stepped down from the platform, feeling a surge of relief speed through him. Though the base was not his home, it felt like paradise after a mission like that. The blue bomber had been in many dangerous situations over the years, but that weapons factory was perhaps the worst action he'd ever seen. Being in a calm, safe place and seeing Ciel approaching with a smile was a huge relief.

"Welcome back, everyone," the young scientist said, halting a few feet away as the group finished exiting the trans-server. "Good work. You really pulled through on this mission."

"The refugees are safe, then?" Zero II asked, without bothering with pleasantries. "No problems?"

Ciel nodded, then brushed back a few strands of hair that had fallen loose from her headband. "A few of them had minor injuries, so we sent them to the medical ward to be checked over, but everyone's alive at least. What happened there, Zero?"

Zero II hesitated and looked away for a brief second. "There were Golems loose in the factory. One of Wily's robots was there, so I can only assume they were activated to try to stop him."

Ciel's expression immediately darkened, understanding the implications. "So… they were all you could find?"

The Resistance fighter shook his head. "No, there was another group that escaped into the city. Giving them a transfer wasn't feasible. The area was too dangerous."

"They should be okay, right, Zero II?" Rock asked.

Again the warrior hesitated. "I don't know."

That was not the answer Rock was hoping to hear. Possible fates of those workers who had fled through the doors ran through his mind. Would they escape safely? Or would they be shot down by Pantheons seeking to lock down the area? Could they even escape the grounds to begin with? They had never checked outside if any of the Golems had escaped outdoors, either… Rock fought away a shiver. Just contemplating it was unnerving. He blinked as Blues suddenly put a hand on his shoulder, obviously noticing the worried look on his little brother's face.

"So the robot master… what was he doing there?" Ciel asked, cutting through the silence that had fallen over the group.

"Stealing weapons, just as we thought," X replied, folding his arms. Then he frowned. "Though... it was very strange. Quick Man had already taken what he needed from the factory before we arrived, but he was still hanging around."

"Why would he do that?" Ciel asked, also frowning.

"No idea," Bass shrugged. "He probably just didn't want to go back to base and deal with Wily's old man smell." Rock stifled a snicker.

Zero rolled his eyes at Bass, then said, "But it is strange that he would continue to poke around such a dangerous area once his mission was complete. I guess we'll never know what he was doing."

"Any luck tracking Wily's location yet?" Blues asked Ciel, rubbing his fingers over the hem of his scarf.

The young scientist shook her head slowly. "I'm afraid not. We have a few leads, but it'll take more time before we can get a reliable read on his trans-server signals. I'm sorry, but you'll have to wait just a little longer."

"Great, more boredom," Bass muttered, sounding every inch the jaded teenager. He folded his arms. "Don't you have anything to kill time?"

"Bass!" Rock hissed.

Ciel put up a hand. "It's okay, Rock." She turned to the Wily-bot, her expression heavily apologetic. Rock noticed Zero II's eyes jump to Bass, the future warrior's expression becoming slightly sourer than before.

"I'm sorry, Bass," she said quietly, shrugging apologetically. "I really wish there were something we could offer you, but outside of the personal possessions of our members, this base doesn't have much in the way of recreation. We've had to be pragmatic." She broke eye contact with the black robot, gazing toward the floor. "It took a miracle to build this base in the first place, let alone get it fully outfitted." She grew more distant, her eyes darkening into deep reminiscence. "All our funding goes into getting Energy Crystals, power cells, and armor to make sure our forces are equipped."

Ciel paused, looking like she wanted to say something else on the matter, but she instead gave a sigh. She paced over to a computer console and rested a hand on it. "It hasn't been without its fair share of trouble," she finally continued. "Boredom has hurt morale quite a bit; not to the point where there's any danger of mutiny, but it is definitely a problem. We've been trying to fix it, but even Neo Arcadia has a shortage of anything recreational, with Weil's recent crackdowns."

Bass's expression actually softened somewhat. Surprise welled up within Rock in seeing the normally selfish robot somehow empathize with the young scientist. The blue robot noticed Bass open his mouth slightly, but he halted his speech when Ciel continued speaking.

"Anyway, enough about that," she stated, confidence returning to her voice. "You know, I believe some of the Reploids you rescued would be quite happy to see you all again." She approached the group again, glancing at each of the warriors one at a time. "You did help them, after all." She fixed her gaze on Zero II last. "Would you go visit them? They should still be in the medical bay."

"I guess," Zero II replied, sounding much less than ecstatic.

"I know you're not really fond of such things," the scientist replied, sounding stern but with a twinkle in her blue eyes that Rock thought might be teasing. "It would mean a lot to them, though."

"All right," the blonde warrior relented, though Rock suspected it was just to make Ciel happy rather than the newcomers.

Rock, however, was much more enthused about meeting the people he'd helped rescue. "Do you mind if I go too?" he asked, looking up at the Resistance warrior. He also hoped that having someone else around might make the experience less of a trial for Zero II.

"If you want," he returned simply. Rock grinned happily, but his expression quickly returned to neutral the Resistance warrior turned to his younger brother. "Though, X… I think it'd be wiser if you and Zero didn't come."

The blue reploid's expression darkened. Rock could tell his sibling wanted to go as well; Zero II's refusal visibly disappointed him. "Well, if I remove my helmet most people don't even recognize me," X retorted, finally.

"Is that risk worth it?" Zero II asked. His tone was slightly chilly. "Every person that sees you is one more who could figure out who you are. Some Reploids are far more perceptive than others."

"And that could complicate everything for all of us," Blues added, folding his arms lightly. His tone was serious, though he was obviously avoiding sounding caustic or commanding. "I know that's not exactly something you want to hear, X, but it's true."

"To be fair, they didn't notice when we rescued them," Zero cut in.

"Zero, they were more concerned with getting out of there safely than figuring the identities of their rescuers," Bass returned, saving Zero II or Blues the trouble. "I'm with Zero II on this one. The less they see of us, the better." The Wily-bot glanced over to the Resistance warrior, who gave him a short approving nod. "You shouldn't go either," Bass continued, looking directly at Rock. "You'd find some way to screw everything up, and we don't need that."

"He's kept everything quiet so far," Blues cut in before Rock could argue. "I don't see the harm. But if you're that worried about it, Bass… why don't you go with him?"

Bass snorted. "I have better things to do with my time."

"Like what?" X said, still looking annoyed. "Wreck another room?"

"For a warm up," Bass returned with a rather frightening smirk.

"Of course," Blues sighed, putting a hand to his head. Rock knew that if his brother wasn't still wearing his helmet, he'd be rubbing at his temples. "Fine, I'll go along too. We may be able to find out something useful, anyway."

"I'll look after Bass and Zero, then," X sighed.

"You sound like we need to be babysat," Zero muttered.

"You do."

Zero II ignored the exchange, glancing at Rock. "Come on," he stated simply, and Rock was quick to obey and follow him out of the main control room, with Blues not far behind.

----

The medical bay actually was not far from the command room. The main door to the medical labs was almost adjacent to the command center; Rock decided that it was because the main trans-server was there and it would help the medical team's response time. Zero II opened the door, holding it for a brief second until Rock caught up.

They were immediately spotted by a nurse, who seemed to recognize Zero II and scurried over. The female reploid wore a set of what Rock guessed were the future's equivalent of scrubs. It wasn't much different from the uniforms the rest of the Resistance soldiers wore, but the vest was a bit longer and a light blue in hue. "Sir! I hope you're not hurt," she said, looking at Zero II. "We're swamped right now, so unless you have a serious injury, you're going to have quite a wait ahead of you."

"I'm fine," Zero II replied flatly.

"We're just here to pay a visit to the people we rescued," Rock explained. "That's okay, isn't it?"

The nurse turned and looked at him inquisitively. "Who are you? I've never seen you before."

"He's a visitor," Zero II replied sharply. "The other one is too. They're with me."

"If you say so, Zero," she replied with a shrug. "If you'll follow me, then, I'll take you to them. Most of them should still be in the waiting room, or are in outpatient care." She began walking, and the three followed right behind her.

"How many of them are actually hurt?" Blues asked. Rock glanced around at the corridor as they passed. Obviously he'd never been to a human clinic before, but the place still looked disturbingly blank. Rock was fairly certain that most doctors offices and even hospitals kept paintings or photographs on the corridor walls. These walls were as blank and metallic as any other in the base.

"Most of them aren't badly injured at all," the nurse replied. "Mainly what we're doing is just general scanning, checking for chronic problems and internal damage. But needless to say, doing full physical scans on several dozen reploids who are still anxious about being here is a bit of a chore." She put a hand through her brown hair. "It's stressful. They've all been clamoring about what happened at that factory. Sounds like a real nightmare… it was a good thing you were able to rescue them." The nurse was obviously very talkative, but all Zero II gave her in reply was a noncommittal noise.

As they approached a bend, Rock could hear voices coming from ahead. There were many people all talking at once, producing a mishmash of words and sounds that he couldn't begin to try to untangle. The voices grew louder as they approached, though most of them sounded largely positive or conversational. He could feel a little warmth build in his mind; these people were completely safe now. And they realized it too, from the tones of the voices.

They rounded the bend and emerged into a packed waiting room. The room was only meant to house a fraction of the number it currently held, as the lack of space and chairs would attest. Most of the rescued individuals were either standing, huddled into close groups, or sitting on the floor along the walls. The nurse halted, and a couple of the reploids in the room turned their heads. First they looked at her, then their vision shifted to Zero II and the other two visitors.

"Hey! It's the guys who saved us!" One of them called out over all the conversation. He rose from the floor and approached them. Several others soon followed his lead. It only took a moment for the team to be faced with almost every single reploid in the room, each offering profuse thanks, their hands to shake, and countless other words that Rock had a difficult time making out.

It was Blues who finally put up his hands and spoke over everyone to calm down. "One at a time, one a time. Is everyone okay?" There were nods and several words of approval. "That's good."

"Thanks for coming down to check on us," said the first reploid who had approached them, a slightly-built green haired male. "I admit that some of us were worried that you guys weren't much different than being in Neo Arcadia. But already we can see that you guys are a lot better than that."

Zero II nodded slowly. "Dr. Ciel will be happy to hear that."

"Yeah, seriously. You guys are life savers," another reploid piped up, prompting more nods and agreements.

"Hey, can I ask a question?" Rock asked, once the confusion had died down again. "Did you see anything unusual while the place was under attack?"

The green-haired man shook his head. "Most of us just ran and hid. Those Golems kill anything once the guards activate them." His expression darkened deeply. Rock winced, realizing he probably had said the wrong thing.

"I saw something," another reploid said tentatively, raising her hand. Zero II nodded at her to speak, and she did so, slightly nervously brushing her hand through short blonde hair. "I saw the reploid who broke into the factory and raised the alarm."

"Did you get a good look?" Rock asked, though he already knew what she was going to reply.

The woman nodded. "He was wearing red armor and had a weird yellow crest on his head. He was so fast. He destroyed the Pantheons before I even realized it! It was incredible!" She made a motion with her finger, moving it swiftly from left to right. "And then he saw me. I was scared, but… he didn't try to hurt me."

"Didn't hurt you?" Blues asked. His visor flashed in the fluorescent light as he jerked his head toward her. "What did he do?"

"It was the strangest thing," she continued, a slight red tinge now creeping into her cheeks. "He... picked me up, and ran me to the office where everyone was hiding. We were there so quick, I couldn't believe it. I didn't know any reploid could move that fast. But he saved me, I know it. I'd never have made it there on my own."

"Yeah, he helped me too," another male reploid said, emboldened by his comrade's story. "He literally pulled me out of the way of a Golem's laser cannon at the last second. Whoever that guy was, I want to thank him. Is he a member of the Resistance?"

"No," Zero II shook his head. "He's not."

The reploids looked at one another. "Then who is he?" asked the blonde woman.

"We don't know," Zero II's face turned more serious. "I don't suppose he said anything to any of you?"

"No, other than a 'you're welcome' after I thanked him for saving me," said the man who had recounted his own rescue story. Rock exchanged a puzzled glance with his older brother. The reploid gave him a curious look. "Is something wrong, kid?"

Rock shook his head. "It's just weird..." He hesitated for a second. "Hey, how many of you got help from him? Could you give me a show of hands?" Almost half of the reploids in the room did as told. The blue bomber's eyes widened. "Um, okay."

The green-haired reploid frowned. "So you don't know who he is? You sound like you think he should be an enemy or something. But, I mean, he saved like, half of us. That has to mean something, right?"

"Possibly," Blues distantly replied, adjusting his scarf quickly. "Anyway, enough about that. We're just glad you're all okay."

"Yes, thanks to you," said the man. "It'll take time, but I think we're going to like it here." He looked about quickly, drawing short nods from most of the others around him. "Say, when are we going to get issued our rooms and stuff?"

"Presumably after everyone has been checked for injuries," Zero II replied. His eyes darted between many of the reploids in the crowd, studying each one of them with a critical eye. "You all need to know, this will not be an easy life for all of you. We don't have much here, and the work will be difficult. Do you all think you can handle that?"

The green-haired reploid shrugged. "Hard work? Man, I doubt anything you throw at us could be worse than working in that hell hole of a factory. I'm happy to work if it means we have freedom."

"Mm," Zero nodded, expression becoming less stern. Rock noticed a smile attempting to tug at the reploid's lips, but ultimately failing.

"Hey, I hate to break up this touching spectacle," the voice of one of the doctors called out from above and behind the crowd. "We need the next wave of patients in here now." The doctor checked his datapad and looked back into the crowd. "Once we finish a couple more groups, we can give you your room assignments and you can all go get some well-deserved rest."

Some of the reploids began to file towards the doctor as the "leader" of the group glanced between the three heroes, nodding to each. "Thank you, you three. What do they call you?"

"I'm Rock," he answered, "and that's Blues, and he's Zero."

"I'll remember that," the reploid replied, smiling brightly. "Thanks again! I think we can all agree you that we're glad you took the time to come visit us. Take care of yourselves."

------

Night fell over the Resistance Base and life quieted down. Darkness enveloped the small room which had formerly belonged to Bass and Zero. Due to their earlier destruction of the adjoining room, however, the small space now belonged to the Light brothers. At the moment, X lay on his back on one of the bottom bunks, his eyes automatically focusing on the metal bedframe above him as he wondered what exactly had awoken him.

Then the sound came again, and X immediately slipped sideways off the bed, tugging off the recharge cable as he went. Standing up, bare feet cool on the tile floor, he could now see the source of the noise. Rock was asleep in the top bunk, though he did not look very restful. He was tossing about, threatening to accidentally pull out the recharge cable, and his eyes fluttered rapidly beneath tightly closed lids. He looked no different from a human having a nightmare—which X quickly surmised was what was happening.

Then the boy shifted slightly, his black hair spilling messily across the pillow, and made a soft whimpering sound as though something in his dream world had injured him. X was at his side instantly. "Rock, wake up," he said, slight urgency reaching his voice, reaching under the railing of the bed to shake his shoulder gently. "Rock!"

The young robot started at the sudden touch, his eyes snapping open. He tilted his head to the side, blue eyes wide and confused. "Wha... X?"

X's synthetic heartbeat calmed, and he mentally chided himself for worrying over a harmless dream. "You were having a nightmare," he said, and absently moved his hand to tidy his brother's rumpled hair, unable to stop himself from adding, "...Are you all right?"

"Y...yeah..." Rock said, though X privately thought he looked anything but. His eyes were glazed and not completely focused, and also...

"You're crying," X observed. Rock touched a hand to his cheek, seemingly startled at this. X watched him silently for a moment before offering, "Would you like to talk about it?"

"I... guess," Rock said carefully. X saw his eyes dart across to the bed across the room, where Blues still slept, oblivious to the voices of his brothers. X felt an odd twinge on seeing the gesture. It was obvious Rock would much rather talk to Blues about this. However, the older boy was currently dead to the world, so the task of dealing with Rock's nightmares fell to X.

Rock climbed down from the top bunk and followed X to sit on the lower one. He gazed blankly at the opposite wall, his legs swinging idly above the floor. X watched him for a few moments before clearing his throat and saying, "So... what was the dream?"

"...I saw those people at the factory," Rock said quietly. "All the ones that... we couldn't save. I couldn't move... all I could do was stand there as... as they died."

X's face softened. "I figured it might be something like that," he replied. "This is your first time seeing so many dead people in one place, isn't it?"

"It... it might be my first time seeing any dead people," Rock admitted in a small voice. X raised an eyebrow. "Besides like, robot masters, you know? Wily never really wanted to actually kill people before. He just basically caused property damage... to incite fear, and everything."

"...I see," said X.

"It's not just the people being killed though," Rock continued, now staring down at his feet. "I guess... I guess I'm just thinking... if it's that easy for a mindless mechaniloid to kill reploids then... how much easier would it be to kill humans?" Rock's hands were shaking slightly now, and he quickly folded them in his lap, trying to keep steady. "If Wily had really tried... how many people would be dead? Would I... would I even have been able to stop him? Is that what's going to end up happening?"

X was silent for a moment, trying to figure out what would be best to say to calm his brother. "Rock," he said finally, and the boy looked up at him. "I'm sure you could rise to any task that was set before you. If Wily had really want to hurt people... yes, you probably couldn't have saved everyone. But I know you would still have stopped him."

"But X..." Rock said, still sounding distressed. "I should be able to save everyone. That's myduty. I'm supposed to protect them..."

X sighed quietly, reaching out and putting his arm around his brother's shoulders. In the end, he thought, Rock's just a kid. He was a brilliant one, X freely admitted, with fighting skills that could match the best of Hunters. But I can't help but worry about him. The way he looks at the world is so naïve...

The root of the issue was that X saw far too much of himself in Rock. He'd once felt the same way, determined to protect everyone no matter what. It had taken a bloody war and Zero's death to completely rid himself of his rosy view of the world. He did not want—no, could not allow that transformation to happen to Rock too. This wasn't Rock's world or Rock's war, and X could not permit his brother to suffer psychological distress because of catastrophes of another era's making.

Rock had lapsed into silence now, and X let him stay that way, leaving his arm around his shoulders as the boy leaned against him. He worried about his brother a lot, X admitted to himself. It wasn't just his worldview that troubled him. There was also the simple fact that Rock was not a reploid. He just wasn't built for combat in the twenty-second century and beyond. His firepower had been enhanced, and his battle abilities and special weapons were enough that he'd held his own so far, but X cringed every time a plasma bullet came near either of his brothers. One unlucky hit and it was over. Rock's armor was nothing compared to what X was used to and his systems were undeniably more delicate. X's design was the result of Dr. Light's learning from both Rock and Blues, and so was far sturdier and able to deal with damage that would be debilitating to either of the older robots.

X supposed where physiology was concerned he should be more worried about Blues, as the red robot had never even been officially upgraded for combat like Rock. But the older boy—and he could not see him as anything but older, despite the fact that X had truthfully been active for several more years—seemed to know his limits far better than Rock did.

And that was the paradox that X had been struggling with internally since first finding out Rock and Blues were his brothers. How was he, the technical youngest, supposed to deal with older siblings who were not, actually, older? Blues was easy enough; it would be an insult, and incredibly unwanted, for X to try to be anything but the younger brother. Rock was a different matter entirely. He acted like a kid. He was a kid.

X sighed. There really wasn't any other option, was there? Rock could call him 'little brother' all he wanted, but X knew in the end he was the one who had to take responsibility. He'd just found his family, alive and well—now he had to ensure they remained that way.

I'll protect you, Rock, X decided silently. You might not like me much for it, but... I have to make sure you stay safe.

X glanced to the side. Rock's eyes were closed—he had dozed off on his shoulder. With a small smile, X gently maneuvered him into the bed and tucked him in. The boy slept on peacefully. X gave the boy one last glance before heading to the ladder to take the abandoned top bunk.

This was the right path. He could endure his brother's annoyance with him as long as it meant he could still see that smiling face.

--------

Rock dangled his feet over the edge of his bed, idly turning the pages of a book. It was difficult to keep his focus on the novel. X had let him borrow it while they waited, but Rock's boredom was beginning to get to him, and he was now fighting back the urge to go wandering aimlessly through the Resistance Base. Looking for Alouette had crossed his mind a couple of times, but Blues had instructed him not to go far in case they received news.

Zero II had told them that the Operators were finally close to locking down Wily's precise location, and that was obviously heavy in everyone's thoughts. The news had no visible effect on Blues, but X and Zero looked more on edge than usual, anxious to be on the move. Bass was the most impatient. He paced back and forth across the bedroom like a feral animal, eyes fixed on the door. Rock tried to ignore the grumbling of the Wily-bot and glanced back down to the book.

"How much longer is this going to be?!" Bass finally demanded, his steps becoming heavier. "This is driving me nuts!"

"Be patient, little brother," Blues replied, dismissively.

"I've told you, don't call me that!" Bass hissed back. "If I wanted you as a brother, I could just get a broom, give it a scarf and a pair of sunglasses and I'd already be better off."

"Surely I'm worth a mop, at least," Blues smugly returned.

"Don't push it, or you're being reduced to a plunger."

Blues' only reply was a soft chuckle, which brought a slight smile to Rock's face. Though Bass was being irritating as usual, it was good to see someone taking it all in stride. This thought led Rock to wonder why Zero would so willingly put up with the black armored robot's antics all the time. The Light-bot debated if Bass just acted differently around Zero, or if the reploid actually genuinely found Bass amusing.

Suddenly the blonde reploid in question raised his head, turning toward the door. "Someone's coming, guys!" A few seconds later there was a cursory knock on the door before it opened, revealing Zero II.

"We have them. Come on," the resistance fighter beckoned with a motion of his hand.

Bass' eyes lit up and a smirk of anticipation formed on his face. "All right! Finally!" He dashed toward the door to follow Zero II, with Zero close behind. Blues gave a noise of agreement and followed them at a more deliberate pace.

"Here, X. You may want this back before we go," Rock said, handing the book back to his younger brother. The reploid opened one of the compartments in his boot and slipped it back inside quickly. The two youngest Light brothers then trailed behind the others.

"So, where are they?" Zero said, his voice, tinged with anticipation, reverberating off the walls.

"Ciel said she would give you the details," Zero II replied tonelessly.

"I don't care if Wily's in Skull Fortress or hiding in a cardboard box," Bass said, sounding both dismissive and probably too excited. "Once we get to him, we know what to do."

"Do we really?" Rock asked, instantly regretting that he did. But he resigned quickly to the fact that he opened his mouth, and continued. "I mean, it's not like we can throw a pair of handcuffs at him and expect him to come quietly. He usually gives up when I've beaten his final contraption, but… he has too many escape routes this time."

Bass actually didn't reply with a cutting remark, much to Rock's surprise. "Then we'll just have to blow up all of his other options," he returned, glancing back at Rock as the elevator flew up the shaft. "Shouldn't be hard." The doors to the elevator slid open as it ground to a halt. "Now then, let's go. If I have to wait any longer, I'm going to go insane."

The group quickly filed into the briefing room. There was only one Operator at the console at this point, and she looked remarkably harried trying to keep up with the current missions. Ciel was standing in the center of the room, near one of the holographic projectors.

"I'm sorry this took so long, but we finally did it," she said without preamble. "We know where those 'robot masters' came from. As I'm sure you've guessed, the signal comes from within Neo Arcadia." A hologram of Neo Arcadia shimmered to life from the projector, and the image slowly began to zoom in on a specific building. "The location is in a recently abandoned reploid factory, located in one of the southern districts of the city."

"An abandoned factory?" X asked. "Why wouldn't Neo Arcadia be protecting it?"

"It's one of the older factories," Ciel replied. "It only produced worker reploids, not military ones."

"That explains why Wily was targeting a weapons factory with Quick Man," Blues returned, folding his arms. "Well, just another reason."

Zero raised an eyebrow as the hologram rotated around a few times, giving a full view of the factory. "Is there anything we need to know about the area?"

Ciel nodded. "There are a few human residences not far from the factory, and there are occasional Pantheon foot patrols through the area. The factory itself still has power and was supposed to be retrofitted with new equipment in eight months. That's why there's no one protecting it, I believe. And it's not like Weil to waste time defending a factory that makes reploids, anyway. If it were Copy X, we could probably expect a squad or two there on guard at all times."

"So the only reason why Wily was able to set up in there was because Weil didn't care about defending it?" Rock summarized. "Lucky."

"It was luckier for him that his trans to the South Pole wasn't detected," said Zero II.

"He covered his tracks very well," Ciel replied, rubbing her temples wearily. "The reason why it was so hard to find him was he re-routed his trans-jumps throughout several points on the Neo Arcadian grid before he reached his destination." She glanced at X. "This man is very cunning, X. I've never seen someone manipulate the system so keenly with so little experience with the trans-server system… let alone see someone who could program a virus complex enough to do damage to the Neo Arcadian network. How many times have you faced him in the past?"

X shook his head. "I've never faced him before, Ciel. Wily is from Rock's time."

"I've faced him about eleven times," Rock said. "But he doesn't usually bother to be this subtle... then again, though, he has been getting sneakier with every war he starts. Mr. X, then Bass, then King…"

"We don't have time to be reminiscing, rockhead," Bass said, snapping him back to reality. "We should get moving."

"...Right," Rock replied, sheepishly.

"We'll leave Wily to you, then," Ciel said, smiling at Rock. "Good luck, all of you. ...Zero, are you going too?"

Zero II nodded curtly. "...Might as well see this through."

"All right." Ciel motioned them towards the trans-server, and the group stepped on to the platform. As she stepped back to the control console, she gave them one last look, her eyes focusing on Zero II. "...Please, be careful."

He nodded calmly. With a small smile, Ciel looked down and let her fingers dance over the dials. A soft glow surrounded the group. Moments later, the Resistance Base, the control room, and the brave young scientist melted away.

-----------

The transport landed them in a dark back alley, filled with filth and trash much like their first encounter with Neo Arcadia. The odor was pungent, and Rock instantly remembered just how much he missed home. Before he could lose himself in memories, Zero II's communicator beeped, and Rock turned to try to hear what he could.

"Zero, you're within a block of the factory," came Ciel's voice, sounding soft and slightly static-filled. "You should be able to reach the target through the alleyways. Readings for Pantheon patrols are minimal. You should have no trouble. Good luck."

"Roger. Moving out," Zero II replied, removing his fingers from the side of his helmet. "I'll take point." The warrior reached for his Z-Saber hilt and held it in front of him as he stalked forward, checking cautiously around the nearby corner. Zero followed closely behind, while X took the anchor position.

Rock's ears picked up the ambience of the street nearby. He could hear the distant voices of a small crowd and the occasional vehicle passing by. However, the further they moved, the more muted the sound became. Rock guessed the factory was on a side street that was rarely traveled.

A few tense, silent moments passed before they reached the loading docks of the factory. The chain link fence that normally blocked the alleyway had been cast aside, like it had been cut open with a beam saber. Zero turned back to X.

"Sigma?" he whispered.

"Maybe," X returned, equally quiet.

"Keep moving," Zero II shot back. He motioned for the group to follow, and approached the aluminum shutters that covered the large entrance to the loading area. The red reploid reached for the handle to check if the shutter was latched. A light tug moved it a few inches upward.

Zero II turned back to the rest of the team, nodding slightly, and the others quickly got the message and pointed their weapons forward. With a sharp jerk, Zero II sent the shutter flying open, and immediately reached for his Z-Buster.

Their caution was unwarranted. The docks were empty, save for a few abandoned pallets, and some old, rundown loading equipment. The walls were bare concrete, and the power was out. Only the sparse sunlight filtering through the skyscrapers around the factory provided illumination inside the building. Rock considered flipping his vision mode to low-light, but decided against it. There was still too much light pollution around to make it worthwhile.

"Looks like no one's home," Blues smugly muttered. "Guess they won't mind us dropping in."

Zero II ignored the Light-bot's remark and entered the room, walking up to the double-doors leading deeper into the factory. He pressed himself against the wall beside it, and motioned for the others to do the same. After a moment, Zero II pushed open the door and led first with his buster.

The hallway beyond was dimly lit; only a few of the overhead emergency lights were active. The corridor was not very wide, but there were several doors along the path, before the hall split into a four way intersection. The walls and floor were bare. Cinderblock walls met a tile floor in a space that reeked of Neo Arcadian architecture: functionality over any sort of aesthetics.

"Looks like these were labs at one point," X remarked quietly, glancing into one of the doors they passed.

Rock looked inside as well, realizing X was probably right. In this lab, there were several work station tables and countertops, as well as a few shoddy looking steel-frame bookcases. However, the tables and walls were completely bare; discolorations on the walls indicated there had once been machinery near the workstations, but whatever it was had been stripped.

"Zero II?" Rock asked. "Ciel said this place was closed… but..." He glanced at the bare places. There was debris on the countertops, paint chips that had peeled off the walls when whatever had once been there had been removed. They were not yet dulled by the dust that covered everything else. In fact, now that Rock looked, there were signs of fresh stirring of that dust... "It looks like it was done… recently."

Blues gave his brother an appraising look, his smirk telling Rock he'd noticed the exact same thing. "Looks like we're on the right track."

"There's a fork up ahead," Zero said, looking further up the corridor. Another corridor intersected horizontally with the one they were currently traveling. "Let's split up there and cover more ground."

"We'll split into teams of two," Zero II agreed. "Rock, you and Blues check the left wing. Zero, you and Bass go straight, and X and I will take the right."

"Meet back here in ten minutes," X added. "If there's trouble, just do something to alert the rest of us."

"Right, you got it!" Rock returned, moving to Blues' side. "Let's move on."

--------

"Ugh, have you found anything, Zero?" Bass grunted, peering into a door, only to find out it was an abandoned broom closet that smelled of decade-old cleaning supplies. It was at this point Bass began to question why he even turned his olfactory senses back on during this era.

"Not a damn thing. But that in itself could be a clue…" Zero replied, from across the hallway. "Rock was right. Everything of value in this place was stripped… I've found some old, useless business files… but nothing else. No notes, no diagrams, hell, not even a left behind screwdriver."

Bass shrugged. "Could be that the Neo Arcadians took everything of value when they put this place down."

Zero shook his head. "Not likely, they left all these business files around, after all…"

"Who the hell knows?" Bass snorted. "If Wily was here, he's probably long gone by now."

"Don't give up hope yet, just keep at it," Zero said, heading for the doorway. His blonde hair stirred up dust as it swished through the air. I'm going to go check a couple of labs back down the hallway that we missed."

Bass folded his arms. "There's not going to be anything there."

"Yeah, but we have to check," Zero replied. "You know that X would never let us hear the end of it if we did our job halfway. I'm sure you don't want to hear him griping at me any more than I do." With a dismissing wave, Zero turned on his heels and paced back up the hall, his boots lightly pinging against the concrete floor.

"Got me there," Bass admitted to no one in particular. He was pretty sure Zero hadn't heard him say that, but it really didn't matter. With a shrug, he turned about and gave another quick glance down the hall. At the end was a bend to the right. The ebony-clad robot decided it would probably be wise to check down there next. He armed and primed his Bass Buster as he approached the bend. Before he took the corner, he peeked around. A set of open double doors greeted him, and beyond looked like the remains of the main lab.

However, what really caught the robot's eye were the black blast marks along the walls, and the chunks of concrete lying on the floor between the corner and the door. A few scorch marks were on the wall across from Bass, but the damage in the hallway was much greater. All the marks looked strangely fresh...

The Wily-bot frowned deeply, then attempted to quietly slip around the corner. His caution got the better of him. As he tried to carefully step over the debris on the floor, he mis-stepped on a large piece of loose concrete and the side of his boot glanced against a small pile of rubble. Several pieces of shattered masonry clattered rather noisily to the ground. Bass resisted the urge to curse and raised his buster higher, continuing cautiously toward the door …

...and nearly ran headlong into a large, imposing figure who suddenly barged through the double doors.

Both Bass and the newcomer jumped and immediately pointed their weapons at each other. It took Bass only a second to realize that this was someone he'd never met before. The male reploid was about the same height as Bass, but he was far more imposing looking. Both of the massive, red-painted cannons he wore on his arms were pointed directly at Bass's chest.

"Who the hell are you?!" the reploid demanded loudly.

"Who the hell are you?!" Bass shot back, his voice carrying along the walls. He tightened his grip on his Bass Buster.

The man was wearing typical 22XX armor; red with a white jumpsuit. Notable on his helmet were two spikes shooting up from the crown of his helmet. Slashes of red warpaint on his cheeks added fuel to his angry expression. "I asked first," he returned, gritting his teeth. Bass could tell he was putting pressure on the triggers of his arm cannons.

"Go ahead and try to shoot me. You won't like the outcome." Bass snarled back.

"Tough guy, huh?! I love a good challenge! Prepare your—"

"What is going on?" A sharp male voice cut in.

Bass's eyes widened as another figure materialized from the shadows beyond the opened door. The second reploid's armor was bright green, his helmet adorned with large wing-like protrusions. "Who is this?" the man asked, cool green eyes shifting from Bass' face to the face of the first newcomer.

"Someone who's lookin' for a fight, that's who!" the red-armored man shot back.

"Really, now," the green reploid replied, moving forward to stand beside what was apparently his comrade. Bass took a step backward as he saw the newcomer reach behind him for what looked like a beam-saber hilt. The green reploid's eyes locked onto his, and Bass could swear he saw a glimmer of curiosity, though his face remained stern.

"So, you want to start something too, huh?" Bass muttered, preparing to dig himself in for a nasty fight. Where the hell was Zero when you needed him? "Two on one, huh? I can take those odds."

"Who sad anything about two?" asked a higher voice from behind the other two, amusement in her tone. A third reploid, obviously female and clothed in blue armor, moved out to stand beside the green one. She carried a long spear in her right hand, and gave the weapon a quick spin before pointing it at Bass.

Bass cursed inwardly. If the outlook wasn't good before, it was outright bleak now. He took another step back as the three reploids slowly converged on him, pressing down on the trigger of his buster...

"Always getting yourself into trouble without me around, aren't you?" Zero's voice shot down the hallway, his tone somewhere between exasperation and eager for a fight. The sound of dash thrusters drew closer, and Zero halted at his brother's side, beam saber already in hand.

"Great timing," Bass sighed.

"Hey, it's what I do," Zero replied, grinning. Then his eyes hardened as he focused his gaze at the three strangers. "Who are these people, anyway?"

There was a pause. All three reploids were now looking at Zero like he was an alien. Zero frowned. "...What? I can understand the lady being stunned speechless, but when it's guys, it's just creepy."

The green reploid's eyes narrowed, but he seemed to ignore the comment. "…An interesting development," he said. "Zero, I presume?"

"See you've heard of me," Zero replied. He leveled the beam saber at the man. "Now, we've got some questions, starting with who are you and what are you doing here?"

"We'll be asking the questions here," the blue reploid replied, raising her spear slightly.

The red reploid shifted his cannons so one was aimed at each of his opponents. "Or did you forget we still have you outnumbered and outgunned?"

"We didn't forget about outnumbered, but outgunned? You'd need a lot more than you three to take us down," Bass snapped back.

"If it's a fight you want, we'll oblige," the green-armored man replied, drawing the saber hilt and igniting a pink-colored beam dagger.

"That won't be necessary," came a familiar voice from the corridor behind the three strangers.

The three immediately glanced over their shoulders while keeping their weapons locked on Bass and Zero. A moment later, Blues sauntered into view from inside the main lab. He drew closer at a leisurely pace, folding his arms over his chest. "Bass, Zero. Don't tell me you two were just about ready to pick a fight."

"He started it," Bass said, pointing at Zero.

"Yes, I'm sure he did," Blues returned, sarcasm dripping from his tone.

"And who are you supposed to be?" The red-armored stranger asked, keeping his guns pointed at Bass and Zero but turning sideways so his back was to the corridor wall. "And why don't you want to fight?"

"It'd be pointless," Blues simply replied.

"You didn't answer the first question," the female stated, now leveling her spear towards Blues. "Who are you?"

Blues smirked, and put a hand to his waist. "Give me your names, and I'll give you mine."

"...such brilliant wit from our hero in red," Bass muttered. Zero gave him an odd look, but decided to ignore it. Blues' smirk broadened a little.

The three reploids exchanged glances. "You don't know who we are?" asked the woman. "You've never heard of us?"

"Should I have?" Blues coolly asked. This earned a scoff from the green reploid, though the red and blue warriors looked slightly bemused by his attitude. Blues continued to walk forward, directly through the middle of the group of strangers. All three tensed, but Blues ignored them completely. He slipped past the green-armored man and approached Bass. "Put that away," he said, putting a hand on the Wily-bot's buster arm and pushing it towards the ground. Bass did as he was told, though he shot Blues a growl and an evil glare the older robot chose to ignore. Turning back to the newcomers, Blues continued speaking. "I don't have any intention of fighting with you three, especially without knowing who you are."

The green reploid's expression didn't change, though the blue reploid approached him. She tapped the arm he was holding his lit beam saber in lightly. He seemed oblivious to the action, which earned a roll of her eyes.

"Fine then, I'll bite," she said, resting one end of her spear on the floor, allowing it to point directly upward. "I'm Leviathan, former general of Neo Arcadia."

Following Leviathan's lead, the red reploid continued. "And I'm Fefnir, also a former general and Guardian of Neo Arcadia."

The green reploid glanced between his two companions, a tinge of annoyance in his eyes. He didn't deactivate his weapon or ease his stance. "Leviathan, Fefnir. I hear more of them coming. Be ready!"

Sure enough, a moment later Rock, Zero II, and X appeared from inside the main laboratory behind the three strangers. Rock was looking very annoyed. "Blues, you're not supposed to run off and leave me behind!" he said, glaring at his brother.

"Sorry, Rock," Blues said, not sounding very apologetic.

"It's… Zero!" Fefnir shouted, and Rock blinked as he finally noticed the three reploids. "...another Zero?" Fefnir's gazed swiveled from Zero II back to Zero. "…wait, this is confusing..."

"…Fefnir, take a look who's standing right next to Zero," Leviathan stated, trying to keep her voice level, though it remained a little uneven.

"…Master X," the green-armored reploid stated, ignoring his companions and locking eyes with the Light-bot. "…So you've come."

X looked completely baffled. "Do I know you?"

"…so you don't recognize us, then," the man replied. Both his companions looked confused, but his own face betrayed no emotion.

"Zero, who are these three?" X glanced over to Zero II, who frowned slightly.

Zero II's blue eyes were hardened like steel. "Those… are the Three Guardians of X. …Your guardians and generals. The red one is Fefnir, who used to lead the Neo Arcadian armies into combat. The woman is Leviathan, former head of the Marine forces, and… the green one is Harpuia, commander of the airborne divisions. …Harpuia's the leader."

"Well, such a nice introduction, Zero. I'm flattered you spoke so kindly about us," Leviathan teased, her tone playful but with an unmistakably aggressive edge.

"So they're the ones that I've heard about," X replied. "What are you all doing here?"

"I want to know what you're doing here first, Master X," Harpuia shot back. "The dead are not supposed to walk among the living."

X frowned, but Zero cut in before he could say anything. "Hey X, you know... their colors are off, but they look a lot like you. They're like your groupies!"

"Zero..." X sighed.

Harpuia exchanged a confused glance with Leviathan. "Master X, surely you remember we were built in your image to help serve you better. We're based directly on your plans." He raised an eyebrow as he spoke. X's expression reflected bewilderment, further confounding the green reploid.

"Wait just a second!" Fefnir piped up. "Master X just said it. That other weird guy there is Zero! But… there can't be two Zeroes at once, can there?!"

"No, there can't be," Leviathan shook her head. "It's impossible."

"I know, I know," Zero said casually, with a disarming grin. "I'm so devilishly handsome, it's positively mind-blowing. Having two of me? I don't know how the universe can take it!" This earned a roll of the eyes from his future counterpart. X looked annoyed that he was too far away to hit Zero and shut him up.

"Master X," Harpuia said, icy voice cutting through the banter. "Start explaining yourself."

"I don't think you're in any position to demand explanations!" Bass shot back.

"Bass, please," Blues said calmly. "That's not going to get us anywhere."

"Yes," Harpuia returned. "If you really are Master X, you have nothing to fear from us. Just explain what you are doing here… and how you're even alive to begin with."

X sighed and put a hand to a chin. "I don't even know where to begin…"

Rock glanced up at X, who was obviously having an internal battle with himself as to wondering how much and just what he could safely say. The young robot swallowed a lump of tension in his throat, and spoke. "Um, can I say something here?"

Fefnir cocked his head slightly, looking over at Rock as though it was the first time he had even noticed him. "Ha! The kid there wants in on our conversation! Tell me, then, what could you possibly add?"

Rock frowned slightly. "I would appreciate it if you wouldn't call me 'kid' without even knowing who I am." X looked down at Rock, almost in shock at the firmness of the boy's tone. "We're here looking for a Maverick. His name is Sigma."

"Sigma?" Harpuia repeated.

"You've heard of him, then," X stated.

"Yes, but only briefly…" said Harpuia slowly, "and only in the history logs."

"You're hunting a reploid that existed decades ago?" Leviathan asked, looking contemptuous.

"We traced him and his men here," Zero II said flatly.

"Sigma is a tall reploid, bald, and wields a beam saber. He was also in the company of a human," Rock continued. "The human is an old man, balding, with gray hair and a large moustache. He has a German accent. They were probably accompanied by two or three other battle reploids."

"…Interesting," Harpuia stated, with rather more hesitation than was necessary. "...Though that doesn't explain where Master X came from. Or who you are."

"His name is Rock," Zero II said. Harpuia did not seem impressed. "And judging by your reaction, I'd say you've seen something. What were you doing here snooping around and what did you see?"

Harpuia snorted. "Fine then. …Master X." He turned to X, obviously not wanting to directly answer Zero II. "We saw the reploid and human described. They were in the laboratory just beyond this room. They seemed to be leaving with lots of crates. …They disappeared into what looked like a swirling portal. And we have no idea where they teleported to."

"It was unlike any Trans-Server I'd ever seen," Leviathan agreed. "It was like… the fabric of reality bent around this portal. I couldn't look directly at it. The old man and Sigma disappeared through it almost right away."

"That doesn't explain the damage in the hallway," Zero II sharply stated.

"There were two reploids with them," Fefnir said. "One was very fast, and the other shot ice everywhere. They spotted us when we walked into the room and attacked us. We fought with them briefly, but they pushed us back into that hallway. They looked… primitive, but man, did they pack a punch."

"Eventually they fled too, and the portal shut behind them," Harpuia finished. "I'm reasonably sure that was not a trans-server. …What do you all know about this?" There was no answer. "I assume they are not with the Resistance." After a moment longer of silence, the green general frowned sharply. "Not going to answer?"

"That was Sigma, all right," X stated. "And that portal you saw… that's a complicated matter." The Hunter paused, then took a deep breath. "…And it has something to do with why I'm here right now." He glanced over at the others.

Blues shrugged. "May as well tell them, X. At this point, they've seen enough…"

X sighed resignedly. "Harpuia," he sad slowly, and locked eyes with the green-armored man. "The human and reploid you saw were not from this time period. Sigma is over one hundred years old, and he doesn't exist in this day and age."

"Doesn't exist?" Fefnir demanded. "But we just saw him. We rumbled with his flunkies!"

"I said in this day," X clarified. "He existed in the past. And the human you saw is Dr. Albert Wily, a roboticist from two hundred years ago."

Harpuia's expression darkened and his eyes narrowed sharply. "That's impossible. No human could live that long. Even Dr. Weil has only been alive for little more than a century, and that was under special circumstances. And what about you?! You've still not answered my question! Or any of you!"

"Seriously, why are there two Zeroes? And what's with the guy with fins for a helmet, the guy with the glasses, and the kid?!" Fefnir continued, tightening his hands around the grips of his weapons.

"Hey, I told you, don't call me a kid. I'm a couple hundred years older than you, you know!" Rock shot back. He watched as the facial expressions of the Guardians twist into surprise and confusion again, and they all paled.

Bass sighed. "Don't you get it yet? Tell me, how could X exist here? The Copy X's in this era were both destroyed."

"And the data for creating another one is gone," Zero II added quietly.

"What are you implying, Zero?" Harpuia said sharply. "The Original X's body was destroyed, and his Cyber Elf form has faded away."

X sighed again. "The quickest answer to your questions is… all of our group here, except the Zero you know, are from at least one hundred years in the past. Rock, Blues, and Bass come from the dawn of robotics, in 20XX. Zero and I are from 21XX, after the Eighth Maverick War."

The three Guardians stared at the group. "...You've gotta be kidding," Leviathan said finally.

"That portal you saw Sigma and Wily disappear through was a temporal distortion," Blues stated. "A time portal. That's why they disappeared and couldn't be tracked on any sensors."

Harpuia was silent. The other two glanced at him, apparently at a loss for what to do.

"Well, we've answered your questions," Zero said. "Now answer ours. Why were you three here in the first place?"

There was no response. Zero began to look annoyed, but Blues folded his arms. "It doesn't matter. I know why they were here."

"...Oh?" said Harpuia.

Blues shrugged. "This place isn't exactly a thoroughfare, so I assume you found this location by tracking Wily's trans-server movements… meaning you knew something was up long before you came here. And I'd wager you also knew something about what was in those crates they took, too."

Leviathan smiled impishly. "Well, aren't you the clever one?"

"…We saw you all on the security systems in the weapons factory in Neo Arcadia," Harpuia stated. "We wanted to know if the Resistance was responsible for the attacks on Neo Arcadia. It was surprising that you were not." He folded his arms. "But the fact is, this Sigma has taken a significant quantity of weapons from Neo Arcadia. Not to mention that he's stripped this factory clean of materials and components. When we arrived, a few mechaniloids were removing the last of the machinery from the labs. This makes Sigma a danger to the humans of Neo Arcadia."

"And it sounds like he escaped back in time," X stated.

"If that's what he did," Harpuia replied. "What proof do we have to trust you're telling the truth, Master X? That he… and you are really from the past?"

X's expression softened. "…I… don't have any proof, Harpuia. I only have my word of honor."

The green general closed his eyes, and turned his back to the team. Emerald eyes danced between his two compatriots, as though Harpuia was speaking to them telepathically. A terse sigh from the green general broke the silence, and he slipped his deactivated saber back in its holster. "All right, Master X."

"You're going to believe him?" Fefnir quietly asked, turning to Harpuia.

"He… is different than the others," he replied. "I can see it in his eyes. I do not believe he is deceiving us."

"Hmm, I agree," said Leviathan. She lifted her spear from the ground and held it idly at her side. "But who is this Dr. Wily? I've never heard of him before."

"Dr. Wily is one of the most gifted roboticists of all time," Rock replied. "But… he went crazy, and uses his talents and robots to try to conquer the world. After he found out about time travel, he's been using it to get future weaponry for another attempt to take over the world." Rock sighed. "To put it simply, Wily is not a nice man at all. He's even somehow managed to get Sigma to follow him, and that puts the entire timeline at serious risk."

The blue general nodded slowly. "So, Harpy? What do we do now?"

Harpuia did not immediately respond. He stood still, silent for several moments. It was as though he was completely distant to the world for those few seconds. But then, quickly and firmly, he spun around and spoke in a firm, confident tone. "…We let Master X take care of his business."

"Huh?" Fefnir asked, confused.

"It's obvious that it isn't our place to meddle," Harpuia replied. "We will leave it all to him. Fefnir, Leviathan. We're leaving, and we saw nothing here."

"I don't even get to rumble with Zero for a few minutes first?" Fefnir dejectedly asked.

"You can't fight what wasn't here, Fefnir," Harpuia said evenly.

Fefnir grumbled. "Aww, man..."

"Well, I guess that means goodbye again, Zero," Leviathan smiled, her imp-like tone returning. "A pity we weren't able to fight, but there's always next time. And I'm looking forward to it!"

"I'll bet you are," Zero II said flatly, not sounding at all enthused.

Harpuia turned to his teammates, and gave one last glance over his shoulder at X. "Let's go," he ordered. Moments later, he disappeared into a column of white trans-server light. His two allies quickly vanished in the same fashion, leaving the others alone in the factory.

Rock took a deep breath, glancing around the circle of his companions. "...Well, that was interesting..."

"…I guess this means you found what you were looking for," Zero II stated. "What do you intend to do now?"

"We have to follow them," X said decisively. "We can't let Sigma and Wily get any farther ahead of us. We're catching up with them, if this was any indication… sounds like we missed them by a matter of minutes."

"So you're returning to your own time," Zero II returned.

"Looks like it," Bass replied. "But the question is, which time?"

"I think 20XX would be best," Blues replied. "Dr. Light is probably wondering about us by now. We can stop there and reconnoiter."

X nodded. "All right. That's fine with me."

"Hey," Rock said, his eyes brightened suddenly. "Zero II… I had an idea. Would you like to come with us?"

"No," Zero II said immediately, shaking his head. Rock's face fell slightly. "I doubt I'd be of any help to you. Besides, Ciel and the Resistance need me here. I can't leave."

"We understand," Blues returned, putting a hand on Rock's shoulder. "You have to keep them safe. Nothing wrong with that."

Zero took this time to enter the conversation. "Besides… wouldn't two of me traveling through time cause it to break, or something?"

"Maybe. So if we end up at the end of time by mistake, it's on your head, Zero," Blues answered.

Silence hung in the air briefly. "…I guess we'd better get going," X said. "Take care of everyone, Zero II. …It was great to meet you."

"Likewise, X," he replied.

Zero stared at his counterpart for a moment. Then he stepped forward, offering his hand. "Keep the future safe for us, all right?" he said quietly. "I know you can do it."

Zero II's blue eyes locked onto his twin's. Then he took the hand, a slight smile flashing across his face as he shook it. "...Thanks." X hid his own smile, knowing that in some strange fashion, the two had just reconciled their differences.

"I'll miss you, Zero," Rock said, darting forward and giving the reploid a hug, which Zero II looked too shocked to return. "Say goodbye to Ciel and Alouette for me, all right?"

"And stay out of trouble," Blues added, tugging gently at Rock's arm to get him to let go.

Zero II nodded. "I will."

Bass folded his arms, and grunted. "Look, goodbyes aren't my style. Just… don't die. …And good luck with fighting that Weil guy. Probably won't see you again, but you'd better win. I don't want the farther future to be even more of a mess…"

"Don't worry about it," Zero II replied.

"Well, we'd… best be off," X said, walking toward the center of the room, away from Zero II. The others quickly followed suit. "Take care again, Zero. And do be careful."

The red warrior gave a single nod in response. X raised the time machine, and Zero II watched as the five robots from the past disappeared from view in a torrent of white and gray energy.

Zero II stood alone in the empty warehouse, silent except for a distant drip of water from a leaking pipe somewhere in the building. With a small sigh, he switched on his communicator. "Ciel? I need a trans back to Resistance base." He paused as he listened to the voice in his helmet. "...Yes, just me. The others… have gone home."

The red reploid folded his arms gently over his chest. A strange feeling blew through his mind like an unsettling wind. He had only known them a short time, but… oddly, he couldn't help but feel like it was longer than it was. Still... he couldn't help but be glad they'd left. It left him free to attend to matters at hand… and if recent intelligence was correct, there'd be a lot of them soon enough. Closing his eyes, the red reploid felt the trans-server pull him from the abandoned factory to send him home as well.

They'd gone to protect their time, and now he had to protect his. That was his promise to Ciel, to Rock, to X... and to himself.