Response Center 999 was empty when Ilraen returned. This was strange, but did not immediately concern him: he had a string of charges to take care of, two “Austrailiens,” one mini-Aragog, and one little boy. In fact, Ilraen breathed a sigh of relief.
This lasted until young Tommy looked up and realized the hand he was holding no longer belonged to a nice redheaded man, but rather a six-foot-one blue centaur with no mouth and too many eyes. Tommy burst into tears, Ronald Weasly hissed at him, and tiny!Aeryn did what came naturally and fired her itty-bitty pulse pistol at the mini. It lunged at her, and that started a merry five-way chase around the response center. It took what felt like forever to settle everyone down, and it involved trapping Ronald Weasly in the bathroom, separating tiny!Aeryn and tiny!Vala (one on Nume’s bunk, the other on the console), and convincing Tommy to stop crying and come out from under Ilraen’s work table. The last was only achieved with the lure of chocolate, courtesy of the mini-replicator, and had the unpleasant side-effect of leaving the three-year-old rather sticky.
Ilraen decided to make the Nursery his first stop.
He dropped Tommy off with Miss MacKinnon, a kindly woman with prematurely gray hair in a bun, who typically helped supervise the daycare class. She was fairly new to the Nursery and not quite certain of things like Andalites yet, but that didn’t stop her from trying to coax Ilraen into putting his name down as the boy’s guardian.
“Children need to know someone cares about them, Agent Ilraen,” she said. “I’m sure I’ve seen you here before, haven’t I? Surely you’ve thought about it.”
<Oh, I’ve been to visit Henry. He is my friend Jenni’s son,> Ilraen said quickly. <But . . . > and he hesitated. The little boy was looking up at him, thumb in his mouth and his face all puffy from crying and smeared with chocolate. Ilraen was responsible for that. But . . . . <Miss MacKinnon, I am not a suitable guardian. I . . . I am barely an adult myself,> he admitted. <Also, my partner would kill me.>
She blinked at that, but nodded. “All right, Agent Ilraen. I understand. Well, what about a name, then, or is Tommy all right?”
<I am not sure Agent Thomas would like that,> Ilraen said. <What about something from the Alex Rider continuum?>
So they consulted the Internet via the Nursery’s office computer, and together they came up with Ian Thomas Horowitz—“Ian” after the uncle who raised Alex Rider and “Horowitz” after the series’ author. Miss MacKinnon made a note to keep track of his speech development, given the terrible grammar his home fic had taught him, but assured Ilraen that he would learn quickly with other children around to set an example. After seeing the newly christened Ian happily playing with Henry and the other toddlers, the Andalite didn’t feel too guilty about leaving him.
This time, he was able to take note of the fact that Nume still wasn’t in the response center. He would have been interested in the scaled-down Aeryn, but he wouldn’t have let her and tiny!Vala bicker like they were in their identical, high-pitched voices. Something about whose behavior was worse and which one should shut up and help the other one escape first was all Ilraen caught as he came in, and then they were both shouting at him.
“You!” went Aeryn, who had a military edge when it came to shouting. “You promised to explain everything! What is this place, and what are you?”
Ilraen turned his ears back—the voice was really irritating—but did his best to answer. He gave his name, species, and position, and went on to explain the PPC as best he could in as few words as possible. Then he had to try to tell the two of them why they were so tiny, and once again, the explanation that a bit of writing had caused the situation did not go over well. Finally, he resorted to playing a random episode of Farscape on the console, and that shut them up.
“So . . . ” Vala said after a minute, “does the recording of my world come with a fancy musical score, too?”
Aeryn made a disgruntled noise, but Ilraen nodded. <Yes. Yes, it does.> Vala appeared pleased with this.
<Listen,> Ilraen went on. <There is very little I can do for you here, but I can take you to places where you will be welcome, and where you will be able to learn more about everything. It will have to be all right. You cannot stay here.>
He didn’t give them a choice, so they had to agree. For Vala, he opened a portal to the course coordinator’s office at the Stargate Official Fanfiction University and left her on the desk, where she was sure to be noticed. For Aeryn, he escorted her down to the PPC Archives, where he knew he’d heard of an Archivist who had a mini-Budong and was certain to be sympathetic. Tiny!Aeryn and Chrichton, the mini, circled each other a few times, to be sure, but it turned out that he was just the right size to serve as a mount for the miniaturized Peacekeeper. Agent Neshomeh allowed as how it would be nice to have some help, and Aeryn pronounced the arrangement satisfactory. She glided away after Neshomeh on Chrichton’s back.
That just left Ronald Weasly for Ilraen to deal with. Unfortunately, the mini had spun himself a web in the shower and refused to come out, and Ilraen quite simply could not be bothered to force the issue. He left the bathroom door open, just in case Weasly changed his mind, and went to take a nap.
When he woke up, it was eight hours later. The mini was still in the shower, and there was still no sign of his partner. He checked first for a note (there was none) and then the HQ network’s official status.
It read, “Status: Unknown.”
This was worrisome.
He went to talk to the Lichen and learned that Nume had been sent on a mission three days ago, about the same time as Ilraen, but as far as the Lichen could tell the mission had been completed in short order: the badfic hadn’t registered for over forty-eight hours. Ilraen was on the verge of panic, but suddenly the Lichen’s computer screen flickered, reloading the data on display. Agents Decima and Supernumerary now read as “In Headquarters.”
The Lichen couldn’t blink, but Ilraen blinked enough for two. <Well,> he said. <I apologize for taking up your time.>
Oh, not at all, dear boy, the Director said. It was an unusual situation. I’m sure your partner will have an interesting story to tell. Anything nasty he says about me is a lie, by the way.
<Er. Of course, my Prince.>
Closing the door to the Lichen’s office behind him, Ilraen shook his head and started back for the response center. He would find Nume there and share stories, grab a bite to eat, and then settle down with a nice, relaxing book, no more running around, no more . . . .
He paused. A sound had caught his ear, a nearby voice, although muffled. He listened some more, ears swiveling.
“Yeah, move your hips a little. Almost there.” It was a woman’s voice. He didn’t recognize it, but he did recognize the answering voice.
“Ow! Watch where you put that! Okay, can you feel it?” That was Nume, no mistaking it, and both voices were coming from behind a door to Ilraen’s left.
“Just a little more!” cried the female voice. “Just lean a little more. No, the other way! There we go, I’ve got a hold of it now. Come on! Yes!”
The door burst open. Nume tumbled out and landed flat on his back with a short, red-haired woman on top of him. There was silence. Then Nume coughed, getting his wind back, and the woman, breathing heavily, laid her head on his chest.
“Are you comfy?” Nume demanded. “Can I get you a pillow?”
“That or a cigarette,” said Decima. “Your choice.”
<Um,> Ilraen said very quietly.
In unison, the two agents looked up and scurried to their feet, straightening themselves out and smoothing down wrinkled clothes and tousled hair. Nume’s, however, refused to cooperate and stuck up at odd angles. Feeling Ilraen’s eyes on him, he bore down on his partner with a glare.
“What?” said Nume. “You’ve never seen anyone trapped in a closet before?”
<Um,> said Ilraen. His mental voice quavered, possibly with uncertainty, but possibly on the verge of laughter.
“Shut up.” Nume turned to Decima. “Decima, this is my partner. We’re going home now. I had a rotten time and I’m glad we’re not dead. Don’t ever look me up.” He put a hand out.
Decima laughed as she took his hand in both of hers. “Aw, sweetie. You just let me know if you ever wanna go again. I have all sorts of interesting things I could show you.” One of her hands was lightly stroking the top of his. She had a mischievous glint in her eye and a grin on her face. She broke off the handshake, if you could call it that at this point, and walked past Nume. She started laughing uproariously before she was ten feet down the hall.
“You wipe that smirk off your face,” Nume said once she was out of sight. “I’ve been through twenty-seven goddamn plotholes in the last—I don’t even know—and I’m not in the frelling mood.” He started in the opposite direction, and Ilraen fell in alongside.
<So,> Ilraen said after a minute. <She seems nice.>
Yes, they were hoping each time that the next leap would be their leap home. No, they didn’t change history for the better, although they did run into a very confused hologram at one point.
We’ll probably find out how badly Nume takes a mini-Aragog in the shower next time. Oh, and thanks to doctorlit for making Miss MacKinnon free to use. Her recruitment makes me tear up every time, and she’s awesome.
Thanks again to Guvnor and Phobos for co-writing with me, and to Tranum and July for beta-reading. You guys rock!