There are not words to express how embarrassing this piece is. It's cram-packed with every in-joke and cameo I could think to cram-pack into it, and that makes for a pretty severe mishmash. It's terrible. Ugh.

Er, shite. Featuring Firestorm Lion, intellectual property of NeonTiger, Lady Wolfette, property of whatever she's calling herself these days, Staccato, property of Aspect, and lastly Frog and the Swamp belong to Lex. (I also received an "I don't get it" e-mail from someone about this story. Ha.)

Night Janitor

Maverick Hunter Headquarters wasn't necessarily a quiet place at night, but it was considerably quieter than during the day. Rumiko pulled her brown hair back into a low-slung ponytail as she padded quietly into the darkened, empty halls, dragging mop, broom, and trashbin behind her on the yellow Tupperware cart that she'd been given upon her arrival at the building seven years ago. Quiet, she reflected, making her way toward the rec room, was how she liked it.

She glanced over the electronic pad that listed the duty roster and activity schedule of the base, pausing. "Maybe I'll start with the front lobby tonight." Yesterday had been graduation day, and the lobby was bound to be trashed. Scores and rankings were listed on the main billboard, right before the eager eyes of the rookies, who either erupted in fits of joy or fury as their scores came up. Both moods were equally destructive.

A small whirring noise drew her gaze to the floor near her ankle, where a box-like object was quietly nosing about her with its feelers. "Evenin', Roy."

The box whirred backward a pace, feelers twitching upward, and a small line of text reading "?" printed across its front LED screen.

"Just me." Rumiko went on her way, and the diminutive robot followed her. He was security detail, minimal AI, a mounted camera and forward sensors, and he was intended as something like a roving security camera. Most nights he helped Rumiko with the vacuuming.

We can afford a thousand-dollar security bug, the janitor mused, rounding the corner to the lobby, and we can't dish out the cash for self-cleaning carpets and a Hoover power vac. Things never change.

She glanced over the lobby with a look of distinct displeasure. "I came to join the Hunters and ended up on the janitorial staff.." The chairs were overturned, some torn and the stuffing scattered all over the floor. Several beer bottles -- some broken, some not empty -- lay strewn about, amidst burnt of cigarettes and confetti. ".. I still think I got the better end of the deal."

Roy chirruped, feelers twitching.

"I thought they banned silly string after last year." She grabbed the broom out of her moving supply rack and started over to the mess, looking resigned, when a movement to her right made her pause. Roy whirred past her, toward the darkened receptionist's desk, and she uttered a hiss of warning, hurrying after in the hopes of snatching him up before he got there.

Damn security bugs! It's probably just some rookie, too drunk to get to his quarters!

Roy was already around the edge of the desk before she could reach him, and as she got there, she heard a distinct crunching noise and a startled chirp that drained into a half-hearted whir.

"Roy!" She slammed into the desk and leaned over, searching for the small bot, and was met with a set of smiling fangs. She lurched back as the fangs coalesced into a leonine face with golden red fur and a flaring mane.

"Yours?" the grinning mouth formed, and two large paws dropped Roy on the desk. The small robot looked as if he'd been stepped on.

Rumiko stared blankly at Roy, then back at the lion, only then noticing the unpleasantly familiar insignia on his shoulder. "M-maaaa --" she choked out, much to the lion's amusement.

"You wanna play, too?" he rumbled, then sprang four-footed to the table, before Rumiko could react.

When she did react, it was to bolt back through the lobby, shrieking at the tops of her lungs. Behind her, she could hear him say something, but she didn't understand what, only feeling a sudden pain as she was struck in the back of the head, knocking her forward to skid across the tiles. Alarms blared everywhere, and the last thing she felt before tumbling to unconsciousness was the weight of something falling across her back.

Rumiko uttered a soft moan, blinking blearily in the pale of fluorescent lamps as she awoke from a number of unpleasant dreams revolving around lions jumping on her and tearing her to shreds.

"Well, well, well, so Sleeping Beauty's finally awake."

She started, jerking her head sideways to be greeted with the sneering face of Maverick Hunter HQ's Chief Medical Officer. Uttering a small shriek, she lurched away, and he leaned back with a roar of laughter.

"Don't like your handsome prince, do you?" He snorted, snatching up an electronic pad. "Sabins, Rumiko. Night Janitor. Medium pay." He glanced down at her. "You might get a raise after this."

She blinked unsteadily, her head beginning to throb. "Wh-what happened..?"

"From what I understaaaand," he said lazily, eyes still flicking over the pad, "you had a confrontation with Firestorm, which ended in him bashing you over the head. And then Staccato fell on you."

Well, that explains the headache. "Fell on.. me?"

"Yeah, that's what I said." He suddenly ducked his head down close, expression an approximation of a mocking leer. "Did you two have a good time down there?"

Rumiko lurched back again, eyes going a little wild, and someone threw back the curtain around her bed with an irritated shout. "Tempo! Will you STOP harassing the patients?"

Tempo drew back, a grin on his face. "Gillian, I'm doing a service for the Hunters. They won't get hurt as often if they don't want to come back in here, now will they?"

Rumiko stared blankly between the two, huddling back in her blankets. I'm so glad my job keeps me away from these people.. most of the time..

The other doctor growled. "I can't even get them to come in for physicals because of you. How you got to be Chief Medical Officer, I'll never know!"

"Bad luck, Gillian. A lot of bad luck." With an airy wave, Tempo stepped out of view, tapping something on the pad as he went.

Rumiko swallowed. "When can I go..?"

Gillian smiled at her, apparently trying to undo some of the damage that Tempo's unpleasant demeanor had wrought. "Oh, you can probably change and go now, if you like. Just watch your step for a couple of days."

The brown-haired janitor nodded slowly, then slipped down from the bed. Gillian, still smiling, pointed to her clothes, which we piled nearby. Snatching them up, she hurried back behind the curtain, stuffing herself into her overalls with an alacrity that night-time rarely witnessed. That done, she hurried out the door, one hand to her head, which was throbbing.

In her rush, she failed to pay attention to where she was headed and promptly walked into the first person who crossed her path in the hallway. "S-sorry!" she yelped, springing back and glancing up at the object of her apology. To her general bemusement and slight irritation, though, he appeared to pay her no heed, instead continuing his conversation with his companion without the slightest amount of acknowledgement.

She stared after them blankly for a moment, then continued on her way. There are reasons I took the night shift . . . As she continued on, she could hear snatches of conversation from the more-crowded daytime halls.

"Did you hear about last night?"

"Yeah, a real ruckus . . . who was it that got beat up?"

"I dunno, some janitor. Did you hear about that weird security bot they found?"

"Yeah! I thought they took it to recycling."

Rumiko froze in mid-stride. Roy! She slipped over to the Reploid who had spoken, a timid and pained look on her face. "Um.. can you tell me where recycling.. is?"

The Reploid, a tall male with orangy hair, looked at her oddly for a moment, then pointed back the way she'd come. "Two rights past the med lab, why --" He broke off when he realized he was talking to thin air. Rumiko was already pushing her way down the hall at a dead run. Two rights past the med lab..

She spun on one heel, nearly pitching through the door face-first. Pushing her bangs out of her face, she took in her first sights at the Maverick Hunter Headquarters recycling center -- and came close to having a heart attack. Roy was tumbled halfway down a scrap heap just at the edge of the conveyer, clearly the reject pile.

"E-excuse me!" she stammered quickly, stumbling toward one of the workers. "I need to retrieve that robot there --"

The worker gave her an idle once-over, tapping something on his electronic pad, then shrugged. "Got the paperwork?"


"Yeah." His gaze drifted back to his work. "Ownership and registry. Unless you cough 'em up, he's the property of HQ recycling."

"But he's a security 'bot," Rumiko protested.

"Yeah, and he's totally trashed," retorted the other.

"B-but he can be repaired --"

"Not in this lifetime." He turned around to face her, expression decidedly bored and mildly irritated. "Look, lady, if you don't have the papers, I'm gonna have to ask you to leave."

"Now wait just a minute, Mister," Rumiko growled. "I'm an employee here at the HQ, too, and I know I have the right to retrieve my equipment! So if you'll excuse me --" So saying, she marched over to the scrap pile, snatched up her battered robot, and marched toward the door, much to the bemused annoyance of the worker.

"Hold your friggin' horses," the man snapped, chasing after her and wheeling around in front to take hold of the robot with an irritated snatch. "I said, no paperwork, no robot!"

With a low noise, she snatched back. "I'm telling you, it's mine!"

"Give it back, lady!"

"I said no!"

Their argument ended abruptly, when a solemn voice murmured "Now look here, what's going on?" and an old, familiar hand came down on Rumiko's shoulder.

"A-angus!" the girl said in sudden relief. "They're trying to recycle Roy!"

The worker took that opportunity to snatch the robot in question out of her hands again. He then looked at the old wolf Reploid with something that resembled respect. "Look, sir, I don't what she's talkin' about. This is just the 'bot that got smashed up in the attack last night --"

Angus cleared his throat, a faint smile starting at the edge of his muzzle. "And this is the girl who got smashed up last night, young man."

"H-huh?" Rumiko allowed a slightly smug grin to cross her face at his confusion. The young man caught sight of it and scowled. "But I still can't let her have it without --"

The wolf flicked his ears, grin turning dry. "You lost track of it in the confusion," he said, then walked around and plucked the robot from his unresisting hands, returning it to Rumiko, who hugged it close to her.

"Whatever you say, sir," the worker mumbled, returning to his station.

"Thank you, Angus!" the brown-haired girl beamed, starting toward the door.

He nodded absently, light glinting off his silvery fur. "You'll be at work tonight, Rumiko?"

"Of course!" With that, she was out the door. She had gotten half-way back to her own quarters before she thought to look the security bug over and see just how bad the damage was. Oh no.. what a mess. She turned him over in her hands, looking hopeless. No wonder they sent him to recycling. As it was, she could only think of one person who would give the little 'bot half a chance at life, and with heavy step, she made her way slowly downstairs to the Swamp.

The Swamp was, as usual, alive with the sounds of quietly whirring mechanisms, drips of oil, a clank of tools -- and animated swearing. Rumiko slipped in as quietly as she could, ignoring the musty, oily smell and clutching Roy as tightly to herself as she could. It was with a bit of weaving and winding -- and nearly slipping in one of a number of ill-placed puddles -- that she finally came across the object of her search, who was bent nearly into a crate of Reploid parts and grumbling loudly to herself.

The janitor waited patiently for a few minutes, but when no response appeared to be forthcoming, she finally stammered out, "F-frog?"

"Eh?" came the muffled response from the crate. Apparently she had something in her mouth, and talking around it was going to be a chore.

"I.. have a favor to ask you."

Rather indistinctly, as whatever she held in her jaws was hampering her language abilities, Frog replied, "Sorry, no favors today. Try back next week, we have a spec --"

"Frog!" Rumiko protested, and the woman spun around, blinking.

Clamped firmly in her mouth was what appeared to be at least part of an elbow joint -- and a surprisingly clean one, at that. Upon catching sight of Rumiko, she spit it out on the floor and rubbed one hand across her forehead, leaving a trailing smear of oil. "Oh, it's you."

The janitorial staff and the limited staff of the Swamp had come into contact on a number of occasions, though Rumiko herself had only been down once or twice. Once to check on the repair of a second-hand vacuum robot (it had proved irreparable) and once to see after Angus himself. He'd been caught in the crossfire of a Maverick raid and miserably damaged. She was mildly surprised that Frog remembered her at all.

"What can I do you for?" she asked with a grin, and Rumiko took a moment to sort the statement out before answering.

With a manner and expression that keenly reminded her of the time she had brought a wounded bird into the veterinary clinic in her home town, she pushed Roy out into view and mumbled, "Can you fix him?"

"Gee, it's like deja vu, isn't it?" Rumiko paused at the entryway to the lobby, almost as if anticipating any unpleasantness that lay beyond. Graduation this week. I'm glad summer's starting soon. Not that summer meant any less work for her.

Roy wheeled up beside her with a chirrup, feelers quivering. His repair job had gone smoothly, according to Frog, when she'd returned two days after delivering the wounded robot. And now I owe her a favor.. The thought wasn't exactly a pleasant one. Owing Frog a favor generally meant a several-day trip down to the Swamp, before the staff there realized that there was simply no straightening up to be had.

Oh well.

She trotted in, dragging her cart along behind her, and surveyed the wreckage. The seniors, not to be out-done by mere rookies, had left the place in an even greater shambles, the walls and even the receptionist's table having suffered damage -- or at least spillage -- from the celebratory academy graduates. "This," she declared, "is disgusting."

Roy didn't respond, whirring his way out into the middle of the room on a recon run for intruders.

"Remember what that got you last time," Rumiko told him drily, tugging her broom free and making a quick effort to gather all the general mess into one place. It was a daunting task at first, but she quickly fell into her easy, janitorial rhythm of sweep, sweep, swipe, then double back and do it again. Roy flittered at her ankles, snapping up the little pieces that she missed and relaying them to the growing heap. As she worked, she started to whistle softly, wishing she had her headset handy. Nothing like music to make the work go faster.

As she was turning to snatch a disposal bin off her cart, she froze. Turning her head slightly, a look of terror splashed into her eyes. She had seen a flash of orange over her shoulder. And it HAD just --

"There you are, Rumi!"

Rumiko spun with a shriek, broom at the ready. The black-haired figure that stood in the doorway blinked at her for a moment, then put a hand up to her mouth to repress giggles.

"Diana!" Rumiko gasped, half out of relief and half out of annoyance. Diana was one of the only three night janitors the HQ could lay a claim to. Angus was the other, though he was more general staff. The Reploid girl was short and slim, and her attire was generally the janitor's uniform, only blue and white instead of the drabs and grays the officials would have them wear.

The Reploid girl laughed out loud. "Who were you expecting, the bogeyman?" She put her hands on her hips, eyes dancing, then darted forward to catch her fellow janitor by the arm. "Come on, Rumi, you need a coffee break!"

I need anything BUT coffee, Rumiko thought with a groan. "But Diana, I've got to --"

"Oh come on, it can wait!" All the while, the smaller girl was tugging her friend inexorably toward the lobby entrance. "Angus just fixed up a pot -- we've got a lot to talk about!" Rumiko found the sudden twinkle in Diana's eye dangerous and tugged away.

"I'll never get finished if I take a break now," she argued.

"Oh please." Diana had her by the arm again, and this time Rumiko put up very little struggle as she was tugged down the hallway to the lounge. "You get stuff done even faster than me and Angus combined."

That's not so . . . Rumiko had no time to express her thought in words, however, as they entered the lounge to see Angus seated at one of the tables with a cup of coffee and a newspaper. He glanced up as they entered, and his canine features broke into a grin. "Well, so she did manage to convince you!"

"Sort of," Rumiko replied with a wry grin, disengaging her arm from Diana's grip. The other girl merely smiled serenely and snatched up her own cup, gesturing at the empty chair. Roy wheeled in a moment later, feelers twitching, and whirred about the brown-haired janitor's ankles as she sat down, relaxing slightly.

Diana sat down, gazing at Rumiko mischievously over the edge of her coffee cup. "So, I hear you had a little adventure last week, Rumi!"

The other managed a slight nod, taking the mug of coffee Angus offered her and sipping it lightly. "You and the rest of HQ . . ." She shrugged, tossing her ponytail. "Big Maverick lion got in somehow, and --"

Diana waved a hand dismissively. "Oh, I know about that!" Her expression grew impatient, as if she was waiting for something more. "Come on, Rumiko! Spill!"

The Reploid's only reward was an expression of bafflement from her colleague, who took another sip of her coffee in silence before opening her mouth to speak. "What are you.. talking about..?"

"Argh!" the black-haired Reploid groaned in response, drawing out the 'r' dramatically and rolling her eyes. Angus' ears shifted in amusement, and he went on reading his paper as if neither of them was there. "Just tell me, Rumi, was he cute?!"

Rumiko nearly spit the sip of coffee back into her mug and stared at Diana in wonderment. "The lion?"

Diana returned the stare blankly, then her face cleared with a giggle. "No, you goose! The Hunter!"

The human girl's expression didn't change, but she set her coffee mug down and folded her arms, immediately on the defensive. "What Hunter?"

"Ugh!" cried the blue-and-white clad janitor. "They said there was this Hunter falling all over you to come and help!" She folded her arms as well, indignant, as Rumiko's face cleared in a flurry of understanding.

"Di . . . he fell.. on me."

A spitting snort of laughter issued from behind the newspaper, and Angus' coffee mug found its way shakily to the table. Diana blinked once, then sprawled across the table in giggles. "Oh.. Rumi -- you've got to be k-kidding!" She lifted her head, eyes dancing. "Did you have a good time?"

Rumiko's face went red, and she turned her head aside, as it was her turn to feel indignant. "I don't know WHAT you're talking about. I was unconscious the entire time!"

"That bad, huh?" Diana's helpless laughter turned into a squeal of terror as Rumiko lunged across the table at her, spilling both her and her friend's coffee.

"It's not FUNNY!" Rumiko yowled, giving chase as Diana scrambled across the room.

"Oh, but Rumiko, I've always thought you should have a b-boyfriend -- but is that really the way to go public --" She broke off as a pillow from one of the lounge chairs connected with her face. By the time she had pulled it away and recovered from her laughing fit, Rumiko had stormed out of the room, Roy wheeling along behind. Angus merely flipped his newspaper.

"Aw, wait! Rumiko!" She gave her foot a stomp and hurried after. "Rumi, please forgive me!"

"No!" her friend's voice issued from up the hallway.

"But you know I didn't mean it!"

"Go away, Diana, I'm not speaking to you!"

"But Rumiiiii," Diana wheedled, coming up beside her. "I'll never do it again, I promise!"

The other snorted, folding her arms and refusing to meet her pleading eyes. "That's a lie."

The Reploid couldn't repress a good-natured giggle. "I know . . ." She sprang in front of her taller friend, arms spread wide. "I'll make it up to you! I'll clean the front lobby for a week!"

Rumiko cocked her head, expression doubtful. "Two weeks."

"Two?" Diana uttered an overly dramatic sigh. "You're so harsh, Rumi."

"You deserve it!" Rumiko started walking again, and Roy scurried ahead, chittering to himself.

"I never said I didn't," Diana retorted humorously, then she paused. "I really feel bad, Rumiko. Here, I'll take the lobby tonight, okay?" At Rumiko's bland stare, she added, "You can do my shift in the library!"

"Well.." With an internal sigh, the brown-haired girl relented. It was nearly impossible to stay angry with Diana, hard as she might try. "All right, all right . . . knock yourself out." She handed over the equipment, shaking her head at her friend's whoop of joy.

"This means I'm forgiven, right?"

"For now." Rumiko grinned at her as she took hold of her cart and started back toward the library. The Reploid's answering laugh was enough to tell her that the entire incident was gone from her mind.

Roy chittered merrily at her ankles as she made her way to the library, cart rattling. Cleaning the library generally meant a lot of vacuuming, since the entire thing was carpeted. It was one of the more relaxing tasks of the night shift, thought it was usually Diana's first choice on the rotation. She claimed it was because she liked the cats, but Rumiko personally figured it was the Reploid's little concession to laziness.

A yawn started in her throat as she reached the closet that held the vacuum (the only vacuum in the entire HQ), and she shook her head. Tired already? Gimme a break. Reaching for the door handle, she paused, listening. A sour expression flickered across her face as the noise repeated itself. Rookies.. she groused. Can't they pick someplace besides the janitor's closets for this kind of thing?

Expression business-like and manner brisk, she whipped the door open, exposing the pair of giggling youngsters, thankfully before their tryst had gotten much farther. Twin expressions of mortification greeted her entrance, but she merely pushed past them without so much as a glance.

"'Scuse me," she offered blandly, pushing her way back out, as the pair watched her blankly.

She felt no small surge of triumph as the pair filed out after her, faces burning, to find somewhere else to spend their private time. She smirked at Roy, whose LED screen registered a bemused '?', then went into the library, dragging the vac behind her. "Moments like that just make my night."

"!" was the small 'bot's reply, and a small whir of amusement accompanied it.

Letting the moment of triumph pass, the janitor took a deep breath and pushed the doors to the library open. Thought everyone else at the headquarters seemed to adore them, Rumiko privately didn't think much of the two cats who made the library their home and kingdom. Just something creepy about them, she had often said to herself upon encounters with them.

"Oh well, huh?" she said to Roy, who registered a befuddled '?', since he hadn't heard the accompanying thought.

"Never mind." She sauntered in with a lazy click-click of her tongue. The sound usually brought that cats out of hiding in the hopes of a scratch behind the ears or a kitty treat. I just want them where I can see them, Rumiko said to herself with wry humor. Nothing was worse than accidentally stepping on a twitching tail or paw.

Tonight, however, nothing answered her summons, and she blinked quietly in the dim of the dusky night lights. "Mama," she called wheedlingly, "Beauty! Where are you, sweeties? Come on out!" Again, no response, and she stomped her foot wearily. Damn cats. "Well, if I step on you, it's your own damn fault."

As she pulled the vacuum cleaner into the room, looking for a place to plug it in, she shivered slightly, feeling an odd draft. A draft in the library? "Hey, Roy, find that draft for me."

The robot whirred at her derisively, apparently of the mind that she should be able to follow the breeze herself, but he did as he was told, within moments leading her to the back of the library. Glancing up, Rumiko blinked. One of the windows was open to the street outside, and the night breeze was filtering in. No wonder the cats didn't answer! the janitor thought in horror. "Mama! Beauty!!"

Without hesitation, she scrabbled at the bookshelves, an act which would have undoubtedly had the librarians in spasms of fury, and heaved herself over the top, balancing precariously at the edge of the high window. "Mama!" she hissed outside. "Beauty! Where are you? Here, kitty kitty --" She broke off sharply, spotting movement below.


Two sets of gleaming eyes turned up toward her in the darkness. It was the cats, all right, but oddly, this encounter was filling her less with the usual uneasiness and more with the same unmitigated terror she'd felt on her encounter with the lion. "K-kitties . . .?"

A small squeal escaped her throat as, in a blur of motion, one of the pairs of eyes was level with her on the windowsill and apparently attached to a long, lithe felinoid body. The eyes blinked once, then the mouth split into a feral grin. "Boo," rumbled a soft, husky voice, and Rumiko took that moment to collapse in a dead faint, tumbling backward off the shelves to strike the floor with a dramatic thud.

The feline uttered a coarse laugh and sprang down to the ground again. Within moments, she and her companion had disappeared into the night.

Rumiko awoke a few minutes later to the sensation of someone shaking her by the shoulders and the sound of her name being called, over and over. She took a shuddering gasp of air and sat up, looking around wildly.

"Finally!" Diana gasped, sitting back slightly.

She found herself laid out on one of the couches in the lounge. Angus leaned over the back of the couch, looking concerned, and Diana cocked her head worriedly. "God, Rumi, what happened? Roy came in here, beeping like the world was coming to an end, and then we found you passed out in the library!"

"I . . ." She shook her head confusedly, then her back went stiff as the memory resurfaced. "The c-cats!"

Diana blinked. "The.. cats? What about them?"

"Th-they -- they got out the window, Diana, and -- and when I went to look -- th-they turned into Reploids! M-mavericks!! And --" She stopped abruptly, noting that her friend's expression had changed from one of concern to one of stifled hilarity. The brown-haired janitor's expression immediately became one of injured dignity. "It's not funny, Diana."

Unable to contain herself a moment lonter, the black-haired Reploid burst into helpless giggles, hands clamped over her mouth. "I'm s-sorry, Rumi -- b-but -- the cats?!"

Rumiko folded her arms, expression sour. "It's the truth, Diana." Her argument would have continued, but Angus cleared his throat, a look of concern in his eyes.

"Rumiko.. do you think maybe you should take a vacation? That encounter with the lion seems to have --"

Her eyes shifted over to him, genuinely hurt. "You don't believe me either..?" Neither Reploid could find it in their heart to respond to her injured plea, and she eventually leaned back, arms folded. "Maybe.. maybe I was just seeing things." By her tone, even she could tell that she was only saying it to comfort them. "I'm sorry for the trouble, guys.. I'll go back to work now."

She stood up slowly, and Roy whirred quietly around her ankles. "But if you don't mind, Di, I'll take the lobby tonight."

Diana nodded dumbly, concern and confusion playing at war across her face. Snatching her cart from where it had been set, next to the table, she slipped out to the front lobby, shoulders slumping. The janitor who cried wolf. Wouldn't THAT just figure? Entering the lobby, she noted that Diana had actually started cleaning, and that the bulk of the work was already done.

With a low sigh, she tugged out her mop, swiping half-heartedly at the beer stains on the floor. As she worked, a lazy song lifted from her throat, eventually turning into a full-throated rendition of 'The House of the Rising Sun'. Her parents had raised her on an eclectic selection of music, and she reflected on that as she pushed the mop across the floor in time to the song.

She'd lived in a small suburb bordering Maverick territory until she was seven, when the Mavericks had finally taken over the area and her family had been forced into a refugee camp. I guess that was why my dream was to be a Hunter. Pretty stupid.. She pushed the mop a little harder. I trained and I trained . . . played Hunters and Mavs with my friends in the neighborhood . . . She struck a sour note and winced slightly, then resumed the song.

I can't believe I flunked the entrance exam.

Her voice had risen in volume as she worked, and she barely realized in time to stop when she heard a step from behind her. Spinning sharply, she discovered that Diana had followed her, a quizzical expression on her face. "Um.. Rumi?"

"What is it?" she asked, a little stiff.

"Um.." Mischief twinkled in the corner of the Reploid's eyes, but Rumiko had no time to brace herself before Diana inquisitively demanded, ".. Why are you singing about a whorehouse..?"

There was a split second of silence, during which time Rumiko's face went a rarely-seen shade of crimson and Diana tore off up the hallway. "DIANA --" screamed Rumiko, "THAT'S -- NOT -- FUNNY!"

The only response she received was a whoop of laughter from up the hall. Restraining her first impulse, which was to chase her friend down and beat her senseless with the mop, she turned sharply to resume her mopping -- and froze in place. Barely two inches in front of her nose, a hauntingly familiar figure stood, a hauntingly familiar insignia on his shoulder.

She stared upward, and the leonine face split into a toothy grin. "Rumikooooo," purred the throaty voice.

"M-m --"

The grin, if that were possible, grew wider. "No, it's Firestorm," he corrected her, running his tongue over his teeth. Rumiko took a lurching step back as he suddenly leaned in close to her. "So.. tell me, Rumikoooo," he rumbled softly, the grin still fixed on his face, "why were you singing about a whorehouse?"

The janitor's face blanched, then went crimson. "I -- I l-like the -- s-song," she stammered out, taking a scampering step back. A futile gesture, she noted, when she bumped directly into the Maverick lion, who had somehow worked his way behind her and was leaning his muzzle lightly against her shoulder.

"That's allllll?" he purred into her ear, one arm snaking its way around her waist. "It doesn't hold any.. special meaning for you?"

The question was rewarded with a sharp intake of breath. "What is that supposed to mean?!"

"Well," the lion purred faintly, tugging the helpless janitor into an even tighter and more unpleasant embrace, "janitorial work is a kind of low-paying job ... I can see where you might get desperate --"

"That's disgusting!" Rumiko yelped, struggling violently for a moment, until she realized it only made his vise-like grip even more painful.

"Tell me," Firestorm said, sounding genuinely curious, "has Zero ever been one of your customers?"

This elicited a howl of fury from the pinioned girl, who managed to free one arm long enough to smash her captor in the face with her mop. Without apparent concern and with the merest flick of his wrist, he set it on fire, and Rumiko, upon realizing that she now held a fast-burning torch, dropped it to the floor with a horrified squawk.

"How much would I have to pay?" he asked, pursuing the subject as if she hadn't reacted at all.

"You couldn't pay me ENOUGH!" Rumiko screeched. This earned her a paw smacked right across her mouth and holding it shut in order to keep her objections from rising any louder in volume.

"Then that means I get your services for free, doesn't it?" A broad grin was spreading across his face, the same grin that she'd seen in their last encounter, when he deposited Roy on the table in front of her.

Where the hell is Roy, anyway?! Rumiko demanded mentally, before her attention was jerked back to the present situation by a liberal slap to her behind. Outrage roared across her consciousness, and she kicked at him sharply -- and missed. His return kick, however, was right on target. As if suddenly realizing the complete hopelessness of her situation, tears welled up in the human girl's eyes, and she began to cry.

Firestorm watched her with interest for a moment, then smiled and said comfortably, "Come on now, don't cry.. it'll be lots of fun once we get started, I promise."

This did nothing to improve Rumiko's attitude toward the idea. In fact, her sobs increased in strength, and the lion shook his mane. "Well, if that's really how you feel --" He broke off abruptly, jerking his face back toward the hallway, where two slender figures were flitting rapidly toward him. Rumiko screamed again, but the sound was muffled by Firestorm's restraining hand. A moment later, she realized that the scream would have done her little good in any case, because the pair skidded to an even halt beside her captor. She immediately recognized the larger as the cat who had jumped her in the library. She began crying again.

"You'd better pack it in, Firestorm," the larger of the two snorted, whiskers twitching. "There's company coming."

"You two are really ruining the mood, you know," the lion observed, glancing at Rumiko. "I was just about to --"

"Well, you don't have time," the smaller said bluntly. "After last week's little incident, they doubled night security. We're going to have to run fast if we even want to get off the compound before they catch us."

"Tolar's right," replied the cat with the sea-green eyes. "One of the other janitors was keeping an eye on the library --"

"All right, all right," Firestorm growled, grip loosening slightly, though not enough for Rumiko to effectively take advantage of. "But there's no way I'm going to let you ruin ALL my fun." He turned a slightly vicious grin toward Rumiko. "You're taking a trip with me to Maverick HQ, my pretty little janitor."

Rumiko paled and shook her head wildly, tears flowing afresh.

"Now, there's no use arguing --" He broke off once again as a shot sizzled into the floor right between the two cats.

"Move it, Firestorm!" Taiban snapped, and she bolted toward the entrance. Tolar followed her close, winking at him. "Besides, if you really want a good time, you can have it with me!"

Firestorm paused, indecisive. It took another shot that singed his tail to make him act. With an irritated curse, he dropped Rumiko, shoving her viciously at the wall, and scrambled toward the entrance, right behind the two cats, who had broken the glass to get out, rather than resorting to more conventional methods.

Rumiko collapsed on her knees, gulping in air and vaguely aware of the footsteps of several Hunters walking past her. Not one of them bothered to ask if she was okay.

"Christ, that's getting really annoying," one of them grunted, shaking his head. "What the hell could he possibly be after, anyway?"

"I dunno," responded another. "But those two cats in the library were really a trip. I don't think anybody expected them."

The first one barked out a short laugh. "Bet the librarians are in for a shock tomorrow."

"RUMIKO!" wailed a familiar voice, and the brown-haired janitor looked up just in time to be swept into Diana's fierce embrace as the other girl crashed to the floor beside her. The black-haired Reploid was on the verge of tears. "I was so scared, Rumi, I thought they'd gotten you! Are you all right?!" She drew back slightly, gazing into her friend's tear-streaked face with frightened concern.

"D-diana," Rumiko stammered, tears welling up again. "I.. I'm okay.." Then, with a sob, she buried her face in her friend's shoulder and wept as if she'd never stop.

Angus's lupine form loomed over them both for a moment before crouching down beside them, face mirroring Diana's concern. "Take her back to her room," he said, voice a gentle rumble. "I don't think there's anything else to be done tonight."

Diana nodded faintly, giving Rumiko's shoulders a squeeze. "Come on, Rumi, can you get up? We're gonna take you back to your room now."

Rumiko managed a slight nod, wiping her eyes with one hand as she attempted to get back to her feet. Angus carefully pulled her up, and with Diana's support, she stumbled down the hallway toward her quarters, Roy skirting around her ankles. The two Hunters watched with apparent surprise before Angus barked at them to get back to whatever they were supposed to be doing.

The rest of the night passed uneventfully for all concerned. Diana sat quietly at Rumiko's bedside until the girl fell into a fitful slumber, and by morning she had gone, assured that her friend would be okay.

Rumiko woke around noon the following day, slightly disoriented and unsure as to the events of the previous night. It came to her in a flash after about fifteen minutes of staring at the ceiling, and she gave a small shudder and curled up under her blankets, facing the wall. It was all so incredibly embarrassing. She'd been praised for her level-headedness on more occasions than she could remember, and now she was seeing Mavericks every time she turned around. I wonder if they'll ask me to resign, she thought miserably, then a whirring at the edge of the bed drew her out of her thoughts.

"Roy?" she mumbled, rolling over to have a look down.

The security bug's screen flicked to a startled "!" as her face appeared over the edge of the bed, then a questioning "..?", feelers twitching.

"Yeah, I'm okay now," she informed the little robot, then paused before asking, "Is Angus around?"

"+" came the affirmative response.

"Okay," she said, almost sighing. "I guess I'd better go talk to him, then." She swung her legs carefully over the edge of the bed, and Roy whirred out of the way, chirping. Rumiko was momentarily startled to find herself fully clothed, then remembered once again the circumstances of the night before and shook her head. "I probably ought to change anyway.." After a moment's consideration, she decided against it and pushed out into the hallway.

"Roy, take me to Angus, would you?"

The bug gave an affirmative chirp and set off down the hallway, Rumiko right behind him. The daytime halls were crowded, just like they had been on her trip out of the med lab, and Rumiko quickly lost sight of her rather short companion. Damn it, Roy, she muttered to herself, and picked up her pace.

A minute later, a sharp whoop echoed from up the hallway. "Hockey time!" came the enthusiastic yell. "And I've got the puck!" Several shouts chorused after this announcement, and Rumiko was startled to see about five Hunters headed right in her direction, the foremost of which carrying a familiar, metallic form over his head.

Roy was not at all pleased with the situation.

Neither was Rumiko.

"HEY!" she shouted, "Give him back! Give him back right now!"

The merrymakers either didn't hear her cry, or they were ignoring her, because they pushed past her without even a glance in her direction, scurrying toward one of the less occupied hallways in order to commence with the game. Still yelling after them, the janitor followed, blood boiling. As if I don't have enough problems! "GET BACK HERE!"

The pursuit lasted nearly ten minutes, and when Rumiko finally caught up with the Hunters, the game had already started. Roy wheeled around frantically, trying to avoid them, but he was having little success. "ROY!" Rumiko shouted, and the bug whirred helplessly, wheeling toward her as fast as he could go. The Hunters all turned, expressions blank, as she reached down and snatched Roy into her arms. "You idiots," she snapped at them, then turned on her heel.

The Hunters looked at each other for a moment, then one called after, "Hey, lady! Is that your pet or somethin'?"

"We're awful sorry," echoed another.

"If we'd known, we woulda asked!" said a third. The entire group seemed to find this enormously funny, and they promptly dissolved in hysterical laughter. Rumiko's face went red, but she marched on determinedly. Roy, who had not, apparently, forgotten his previous instructions, directed her toward Angus with LED arrows.

"Thank you," she muttered, and he chirped at her.

They reached the wolf without further incident, and he turned, startled, at Rumiko's hail. "I'm surprised you're up," he told her, waving away the rookie he'd been instructing, and she shrugged.

"I thought I might as well get up," she offered in explanation. "Staying in bed all day wouldn't have helped any."

Angus nodded his approval, scratching the back of his head. "What did you need to see me for?" he asked, walking with her toward the cafeteria. She had suddenly realized she was achingly hungry.

"I.. I needed to talk.. about the job," she said hesitantly, bowing her head.

"What about it?" The wolf sounded puzzled.

"Should I.. resign?" She kept her gaze resolutely at the floor, voice barely audible. Roy twitched slightly in her grip, and she set him down with the promise that he wouldn't get into any more trouble.

"Resign..?" Angus' rumbling voice was almost amused. "I can't see why, Rumiko, unless you're looking into other job opportunities."

"H-huh?" She looked up at him. "But I've been getting into so much trouble with the Mavericks lately.. and I haven't gotten a lot of work done, and ... I'm not sure if I'm really any help --"

"Whoa, Rumiko, stop a minute." The wolf took her by the shoulders, turning her to face him. "What in heaven's name are you talking about? I've never fired anyone because she got caught in the middle of a fight with the Mavericks."

"But --"

"However," he overrode her, voice stern, "if you really feel insecure in your current job ... well ... Diana and I have been discussing it."

Rumiko froze.

He heaved a soft sigh. "Don't look like that, Rumi," he told her gently. "We thought that maybe the night shift was too stressful for you right now, and that maybe you should move over to the day shift for a little while."

"Wh-what?" she stammered blankly. "B-but --"

"It's entirely up to you, Rumiko. Neither of us want to see you go, but we're very concerned for your welfare." He patted her on the shoulder, releasing her. "You can give us your decision by the time shift starts tonight, and we'll abide by it." He paused, glancing up the hallway. "Right now, I've got a meeting to get to, so I'll leave you to think it over."

That said, he turned and walked up the hall, leaving her staring after him in shocked silence. Roy twitched his feelers at her once or twice, puzzled by her lack of movement, and she glanced down at him. Without a word, she continued to the cafeteria, mind awhirl with confusion.

It was an hour before Rumiko realized she'd been wandering aimlessly through the halls of Maverick Hunter Headquarters, expression blank and arms wrapped around herself as if to keep from flying apart. The primary factor in this realization was when someone stopped her just outside the rec room and asked if she had taken her medication today. Roy, who had been following her worriedly the entire time, uttered a derisive whir at the very suggestion, and Rumiko went red in the face before shaking her head and apologizing.

Now everyone's going to think I'm insane to boot, she growled at herself, stomping off hurriedly before anyone else could corner her. After about ten minutes more of stalking the halls in a temper fit, she discovered that she had gotten herself quite lost.

And she was very hungry.

With a groan, she leaned against the wall and sank to a sitting position, arms wrapped around her knees. You gotta decide, girl, she told herself grimly, gaze drifting to the opposite wall.

It had never been a question before, she realized. It had been either the night janitor's job or the streets for her. The idea of moving to the day shift was completely foreign. She realized in the back of her mind the logic of the whole thing. On the day shift, there were considerably more people around, and there was distinctly less danger of a Maverick attack at high noon. The work load might also be less, since the staff was larger. A peculiar sense of calm befell her as she considered her options, and an even greater peace descended when she concluded what her only choice really was.

"Guess I better go find Angus again," she remarked to Roy.

"??" Roy responded.

"Never mind," she answered him, grinning as she rose to her feet. "Can you find Angus for me again?"

"!" announced the small robot, then "+", and he immediately took off down the hallway.

"Hey, wait! Slow down!" Rumiko objected, hurrying after him. His sole response was a loud beep as he rounded the corner. The brown-haired janitor made a face, then quickened her pace to a half-run.

As the robot came back into view, she thought she was gaining on him -- at least until he went zooming past her in the other direction. She managed to yelp out a puzzled "Roy?" before crashing full-on with what felt like a wall.

A wall that uttered an explosive curse, followed by, "What in the HELL --"

"Ow.." Rumiko grimaced, now sporting a sore rump in addition to her mental trauma. "Excuse me, I didn't --"

"Oh, sheeee-RIST," the wall growled out, "YOU again?"

Rumiko stopped in mid-sentence, sweeping her gaze up to see an imposing figure in green glaring down at her, an expression that was a mixture of irritation, disgust, and not a little embarrassment on his face. She opened her mouth to respond, when a somewhat smaller figure poked his head around, a curious expression on his face.

"Hey, Staccato, what happened?" he asked, then caught sight of Rumiko, who immediately shut her mouth, face paling. "Hey, that's the one from last week, isn't it? The one you tripped over?"

Rumiko's face went red, and Staccato's face immediately deepened to an identical shade. "Aw, shut up," he growled roughly, then pushed past the startled, confused, and mostly mortified janitor, stuffing his hands into his pockets and grumbling to himself about needing a smoke. The smaller figure blinked for a moment, then waved to Rumiko and took off after him.

Rumiko gazed up at the ceiling for a moment. "Hey," she said sourly -- and blasphemously, at that, "why not try giving me a break for once?"

She felt a movement at her elbow, and turned to see Roy, feelers twitching in a puzzled manner. "???" his LED screen read.

"Never mind," she muttered.

The familiar hush of after-hours had fallen over Hunter HQ, and with that came a peaceable sort of sensation, brought on mainly by the fact that the Hunters who were usually out carousing and making noise in the halls were either sound asleep or out on patrol. Rumiko had always liked it better that way.

She pulled her cart along behind her with a contented yawn, stretching her free arm up toward the ceiling. A few feet behind her scurried a small security 'bot whose presence she had learned not only to tolerate, but to enjoy.

As she rounded the corner into the lounge, she called out, "Hey, Angus, I need a new mop."

From behind a newspaper, the wolf's voice answered, "It's on order."

"That'll take weeks!" the girl retorted, putting one hand on her hip. The lagging nature of the beauracracy of MHHQ was nearly legendary, especially when the matter of new supplies came up.

"Look at it this way, Rumi," answered Diana, flipping her dark hair over her shoulder, "You'll get all the easy work until it comes in!"

"Like the library, for example," Angus said, lowering his newspaper long enough to crack a grin at the sour-faced Rumiko.

"The rec room, too!" Diana volunteered gleefully. "I hear there was a birthday party there this afternoon," she added.

Rumiko glared at her, then turned to Roy, who skidded back slightly and gave a questioning chirrup.

"Should we start with the rec room?" she asked him.

"!" he responded, as Diana attempted unsuccessfully to stifle her giggles.

"All right then!" the brown-haired girl responded, pointedly ignoring her superior and her friend, who were watching her with unconcealed amusement. "Let's get going." She sauntered out of the room, the shadow of a grin on her face, and from behind her she heard Diana push her chair back, standing up.

"Hey RUMIIII!" she shouted after her friend, hands cupped around her mouth. "We're glad you decided to STAYYYY!"

"Stick it in your ear!" Rumiko retorted, and Diana promptly collapsed in gales of helpless laughter.

When she reached the rec room, the janitor found it completely abandoned, which wasn't often the case. A great many of the rookies (and senior Hunters, at that) found it a convenient location to crash out after a night on the town. Most of the time, they could barely tell which way was up, much less where their rooms were located.

She flipped the light on, expression faintly amused, and immediately saw that Diana's rumor about the birthday party was completely correct. Wrapping paper, empty cans and bottles, streamers, balloons, and assorted other garbage lay strewn about the room.

"Now I understand what my mother must have felt like," Rumiko murmured to herself, walking into the room. "Gee, they even left the karaoke machine on." She walked over to attend to that oversight, and a smile spread across her face. I've had a rough week, she reasoned, checking the tape, so why shouldn't I have a little fun?

Without another thought on the matter, she flipped the machine on and grabbed the microphone, whipping right into a roaring rendition of "Respect". Roy wheeled around her in a circle, chirruping in complete alarm, but the janitor paid absolutely no attention to him whatsoever, except as an audience, which the little robot eventually resigned himself to being.

The tape had clicked over and was about halfway through "Stayin' Alive", when the doors to the rec room swished open, admitting a puzzled-looking girl with brown hair and dark, wolf-like ears. She rubbed at her eyes groggily for a moment before coming into focus on the oblivious janitor.

"Um.." she began, taking a step forward. "Excuse me..? Miss?"

Rumiko froze, then whirled to face the intruder, her right hand dropping the microphone as her left fumbled toward the off switch. "I.. ah.." she stammered.

"I heard the noise," the girl continued, "and I wondered what was.. going on.."

"Nothing," Rumiko managed to get out. "Nothing at all, I'm not here, you didn't see me --"

"If you say so," the girl replied dubiously, watching Rumiko scurry about and snatch up her supplies. "Are you one of the janitors?" she asked curiously.

Rumiko, who was half-way past her and partly out the door, responded, "N-no -- I mean yes -- I mean ... sorry if I woke you up, ma'am."

She then fled down the hall, leaving the wolf-girl standing in the middle of the rec room with a very confused expression on her face. Once she was safely out of range, she stopped, changing directions to head to the library.

"I'm a moron," she confided to Roy, a sheepish expression on her face.

"!" Roy replied.

With a slight snort, Rumiko continued walking. So this is my life, she thought drily. Instead of becoming a Hunter, I'm cleaning up after them. Instead of being a hero, I'm a damsel in distress. Well, whatever. Mavericks, Hunters, mistakes, or humiliations, they would all just have to wait.

A lazy whistle drifted from her throat as she continued up the hallway. Every single one of 'em will just have to wait.