I don't own the chapter titles: Rudyard Kipling's poem The Hymn of Breaking Strain.

The ending line is very corny, but every time I look at it and think about the themes of the story, it warps around to being vastly amusing in a good way, partially because Zero has no idea how corny it is and X is the only one who would know how corny it is, so he'd try to appreciate the thought and not wince.

A reason to wish reploids read more, so they could take advantage if humanity's experience of what not to do, although knowledge of history is generally far more urgent and likely to result in deaths than poor knowledge of literature, which just results in corny attempts to be romantic/poetic.

"I should have tried harder to track you down." X felt that he was the guilty one now?

"You had Sigma's forces to deal with, X. They were the intelligent threat. You had more important things to deal with than me being a crybaby."

"Zero, call yourself a crybaby again and I will spank you like one." Zero's WTF expression when he heard that merited a disapproving look. "Get your mind out of the gutter, you don't know what's in there and I am not interested. I hope you aren't masochistic naturally or we're really not going to work out, you know how much I hate hurting people. It's certainly not something I'd want to do for fun." Then he frowned. "If you weren't controlling Alia, then her deciding to watch us now was her own decision. If it was, Alia, you are both in major trouble and getting a very nice holiday gift! It's amazing how clouds are sometimes almost entirely composed of silver lining, isn't it?"


"Dealing with the virus, deleting it, repairing the damage, was really the biggie. After all, it was what traumatized you in the first place. Dealing with those with situations analogous to yours was practically begging for flashbacks. The atmosphere cleanup was probably a great deal of work, but there wasn't atmospheric virus during the Cataclysm. It wasn't stirring up traumatic memories. When you realized we were being spied on, your maidenly virtue," X laughed a little, probably the closest he'd come to sniggering in his life.

When he had almost finished laughing, he continued, "Maiden, sorry, it made you both want to have them forget it and stop doing it. So you cured them, and this is important, without thinking about it. Which meant making the attempt didn't trigger flashbacks and reinforce the belief that doing it would cause enough flashbacks to break you. You had done it, succeeded in it, and nothing bad happened. Even you realized that this was important, and tried to take advantage of the lack of flashbacks before the adrenaline-equivalent wore off, leading you to cure the hunters, easily the group most analogous to yourself. I think the total memory wipe might have been a bit of a Freudian slip, actually. There were other, worse ways what you described could have gone. Many of them. A lot worse." X was the greatest living expert on how the reploid mind worked, after all. "If you hadn't thought of that as the 'best' emergency option the instant you knew you couldn't pull off the planned scenario, it would have been, well." In other words, an utter catastrophe. "Which is also part of why I said not to push yourself."

"It was almost reflex."

"I know, I know you and helping people, especially the hunters, Zero. Let me finish. At that point you proceeded to make a mountain out of a hole in the ground on the issue of your mistake, and you listened to me amazingly easily. You were suddenly much easier to get through to, much more rational. Then, with Alia, you were embarrassed as opposed to insanely guilt-tripping. That was why I tried bringing up the topic of the deaths this time, which are really the only deaths you could be held anything near accountable for. That might have been pushing it, but we seemed to be on a roll and you were a little in shock over how well things had gone. Emotionally overloaded, only with the good emotions. If you were normal you would be jumping or crying with joy right now, or something along those lines. You really have no experience dealing with happiness." A cookie was offered and taken.

As Zero chewed, "Where were we? Oh. In any case, the deaths involving you can be blamed on two causes: the virus, and virus trauma-induced insanity. You'd just beaten the virus, so I was hoping the high and healthy mental state would make the contrast between sanity and how you were then too clear for even you to miss. And you were able to arrive at the same verdict you'd been involved in helping former irregulars get yet never applied to yourself: not guilty by reason of temporary insanity."

Zero's mouth was slightly open, almost in awe. X was right.

"It's probably going to take a lot of time for that to sink in fully, but I would be willing to bet brownies you could cure the rest of the mavericks, oh, by the end of today." This time the cookie was not bitten down on, although X was able to almost fit it in the open mouth. "Zero?" He didn't think he'd messed up, but this was Zero, he didn't want to mess up Zero!

Then he blinked, signaling that his optics were being used again: he'd hooked his visual processor up to another sense. "You've won that bet."

When X was overjoyed he didn't cry or jump. He just smiled, and it wasn't anything like dawn. Zero wasn't good as metaphors, but he really didn't think there was anything good enough to be compared to this smile. Well, he'd heard sex was great, but he didn't have a basis for comparison and from what he'd heard sex was, well, dirty. This wasn't.

Then he hugged Zero, and it wasn't tight and it wasn't hard. It wasn't those things because it didn't need to be. He wasn't afraid anymore of losing Zero. It was just being in each other's arms, being together, and sex would involve that, but would it be better or a distraction?

His sexual stimuli regulation system was of the opinion that it would be so very much better. His emotional stimuli regulation system was of the opinion that it was already on the verge of overloading from so many stimuli of such a rarely-encountered type, and until it reconfigured to handle the new workload Zero had better stop it with the joygasming before he fainted so that the system shutdown could allow a rapid reconfiguration as opposed to atypical stimuli overload and one hell of a headache.

It wasn't until he got a warning light in the corner of his vision that he remembered that he could use the Dolphin protocol to switch all operations to part of his systems, reconfigure the other, switch everything to the remodeled part, reconfigure the first part, and avoid having to reboot to make changes on that level. Dr. Cain's models had to do things like that either unconscious or while asleep. He could do it mid-battle.

Maybe there were some advantages to being a Wilybot. Wilyoid?

Android. Like X.

Who finally separated from him. "I'm going to make those brownies." He kissed Zero on the cheek, or tried to, but Zero intercepted his lips with his own, earning a brief kiss and a smile. "If you're still watching, get down here and bring party supplies, that's an order!"

"Um, X? You won the bet. You don't have to make brownies."

"Oh? Well, I won, so I can make brownies if I want to."

"I took you up on it, so I should make them."

X didn't make a bet this time, but the sentiment was clear. "I sincerely doubt you have ever made brownies, or anything at all similar, from scratch in your entire life. I'm making them. You can be my assistant and lick the batter off things afterwards."

Zero had no idea what he was talking about, but at least this time he didn't assume it was something kinky despite a keyword that invoked images of licking… chocolate-and-stuff-goop off of X.

"You really have a lot to learn." X shook his head, clearly pitying Zero. "You can help with the first batch, and then if you'd like I could watch while you make another one and let you know if something's about to go wrong. You do have to be careful with cooking. It's like chemistry, only fewer explosions and more, well, we don't have to worry about salmonella but rock-hard brownies are a tragedy. And sometimes you do get explosions, or I do when I let rookies use my oven. It's a good thing it's self-cleaning."

That sounded like there were funny stories involved, but Zero had a more pressing issue on his mind, now that the reconfiguration and defragmentation had cleared it. How to go about this?

Iris had almost been pity-dating him at first. He'd actually stammered, and been utterly embarrassed. Once they were actually dating he viewed her as a partner instead of someone certain to reject him, and it had still be awkward, but… She'd been the victim of his issues. His substitute X, and yet she was not X.

They were already partners. The person who was almost dragging him by sheer force of personality (like a red giant orbiting a blue giant) to the kitchen had gone to a great deal of trouble to assure him that they still were. So the entire awkward phase had been, well, greatly extended, but if Zero acted awkward that was a sign that they weren't partners yet and X wanted his partner Zero. Until Zero stopped being awkward he was still clearly unhealthy and X would want to nurse him back to health, not stress him out by adding another dimension to their relationship. Also, it might be taking advantage of him and X wouldn't do that even if the person in question was begging to be taken advantage of.

Zero found those people creepy too…

Okay, he was good at strategy, even if he'd been deliberately failing at it recently. The best way to go about this was to…

Kiss the guy.

Okay, good, but he wanted more and at this rate he was going to flatten their lips with the force he was applying.

X? Was a genius. Although once Zero was reminded by that almost questioning little poke that oh yeah, there was more to kissing than just the lips it was Zero that dived in hungrily after X's tongue with his own. Get back here…

Tongues or even facsimiles thereof weren't all that interesting in general. Well, now that he thought about it… Anyway, this was X's tongue. Which therefore made it a lot more appealing then anyone else's tongue or, sadly, Iris' entire body. Her body was a very nice model, but it wasn't X's model. She wasn't X, and he owed her serious apologies. Very serious, what with the bringing her back from the dead as a maverick and other general fucked-up-ness.

Anyway, X's model was much better. Very nice proportions, interesting reactions, highly sensitive, and he could list things all day. Although, to be fair, he hadn't gotten to whatever 'base' this was with Iris, but, well, X.

X who was very reluctantly pulling away. "Are they coming?"

"Are who… oh, the party. What? I've never let myself think dir-" X looked very disapproving when he started calling this dirty, and Zero had to agree that dirty was a very incorrect term. "About sex before. And now I am. A lot. Because you're wonderful, gorgeous, and don't stop that!" During the encounter, X's hands had migrated up as Zero's had down. "Mmm…"

"And you look just like you'd be purring if you were a cat-you can purr?-when I scratch your scalp like this. Yes, I understand, but were they still watching us when I announced the party or not? If they turned the screen off before then, then they didn't get the invitation and we can just have the party later."

Zero checked the usage log and smiled. "They did. Turn it off, not get the invitation. And I've made it so they can't turn the cameras back on. I can do stuff with nanites like you wouldn't believe." Oh, possibilities. "And we're…" He had been going to say that they were going right back into that bed, but there was chocolate and stuff here. Decadent, but he'd missed out on that. And Sex with X (which sort of rhymed) was over the top unimaginable as it was.

What would work with him?

"You're looking fiendish." X clearly liked this.

He knew where the ice cream sundae supplies were.

Sadly, he didn't know about much else. Yeah, he was learning how to cook. He'd always had to look away when X was eating something really scrumptious, and he was going to make up for lost time when it came to that expression too.

Maybe he'd look even better if it were an actual orgasm? The metaphor had to exist for a reason.

"I think I'd better tell you now that there will be no ripping off of clothing unless you buy it for that purpose."

He hadn't even thought of that! "You'd probably better take it off then. You like the strawberry syrup first, then the whipped cream, then the hot fudge, and… no, that' s on vanilla. You're more chocolate, which means caramel…"

"You memorized my favorite ice cream toppings?"

"And you know how I position my paperwork so that I can tell if anyone tampered with it while I was out of the office. Wait a minute, I haven't tried these things, no wonder I can't guess what goes with you. Just going to have to test out all of them. Any requests?"

"The carpet is harder to clean, so let's keep it on the kitchen area's tile; toss me the hot fudge and caramel so I can warm them up; and don't take your own clothes off, I have restraint and intend to take advantage of it."

"Think fast!"

X caught the jars with the ease of long practice. "Welcome back, Zero."

For an instant that seemed a little odd, when he realized how little like Zero he was acting. Then he thought about it, and realized that he was being Zero, just applying the focus to this that he'd normally reserved for weaponry and combat techniques (Hmm, wrestling…). He was, really being more Zero than he had ever been, since Commander Zero had been broken in every area but those essential to atonement, or his idiotic attempts at it.

Also, he needed to do something about this keyword sensitivity! Like teach X how to take serious, serious advantage of it.

"Glad to be back, X." This part was almost old ritual, though full of new significance in this instant. He'd start a new ritual. "I love you."

"I love you too."

Zero smiled, and then returned to the program that had been interrupted by this important announcement. "Do you want to give me that talk, or should I just start doing stuff and see what works? Hmm, no, let's go with both at the same time." He leaned back against the cupboards next to the countertop he'd put everything interesting on as X put the two hot ones with them. "I love your voice. I love to hear you talking about things like you putting your hands on my body, and letting me lick things off things, and coming, and my verbal input processor is as hungry for you as the rest of me. Talk…" not dirty, "tell me how it will be."

And he was unwrapped like the most wonderful present X had ever been given (and X treasured gifts for the feelings they contained), and this was utterly cliché but he really did feel, when he awakened from the exhausted slumber their exertions sent them into still floating in the afterglow that he had died and gone to heaven.