X tore through abandoned corridors, furiously blinking away tears that cast halos around the glaring emergency lights.
I can't lose you again.
From the deepest recesses of the base, X could still hear the shouts and blaster fire of hunters waging an assault against their virus-infected comrades. A sizeable portion of the non-combat reploids had simply fled in terror as news of the falling space colony spread, though there would be no safe haven on Earth if the hunters failed their mission.
But X had kept a brave face for those around them, trying desperately to incite hope – hope that the world wouldn't end the way Sigma wanted it to, crippled by chaos and fear. He had weathered pain and fatigue with tight-lipped professionalism, reminding himself that his hardship didn't matter, if it meant that the world would be spared.
That was until he had returned with the last shuttle component in tow, when he had heard the news that had cracked his stoic veneer like so much ceramic.
He slapped the door controls to the Level 8 lounge, normally a popular spot where fresh-faced young recruits would gather between assignments, now deserted save for a solitary figure.
The red hunter sat hunched forward with his hands resting on his knees, an inscrutable expression on his face. He made no sign, no acknowledgment of X's presence, not even when X stood trembling before him.
X clenched his fists at his side, fighting contrary urges to either fall exhausted and weeping in his friend's arms or to knock him senseless. Neither choice would be particularly helpful, so he steeled himself and decided to bandy with words instead.
"I hadn't realized you were so eager to throw your life away," he spat.
"What makes you think I won't be back?" Zero said, his voice maddeningly calm.
"Zero, it's suicide."
A hint of Zero's brazen smile appeared. "Hardly."
"Listen, you can play the cavalier some other time. Right now, we can't afford to lose you. Do I need to remind you what kind of hell will break loose if the colony falls?"
"Which is exactly why I need to fly the shuttle," Zero said, matter-of-factly. "Any other pilot would be less likely to succeed and way more likely to bite the big one."
Zero leaned back in his chair and folded his arms over his chest, finally raising his eyes to look at his partner, and frowning slightly as he studied X's face. X realized with chagrin that Zero could tell he had been crying. Dammit.
X lifted his chin in defiance. "I don't buy it," he said. "I can fly just as well as you can and you know it. Why are you so hell-bent on doing this?"
Zero chuckled weakly. "Can't fool you, can I?"
"Not on your life."
Zero tapped his fingertips on his forearms in thought.
"This is something I need to do for myself," he said at length.
X stiffened in surprise. "What are you talking about?"
"You know that I am harboring what we fear the most," Zero said. "The virus has hurt more people than I can even imagine, and yet it seems to give me strength. There can't be any other explanation."
A pang of dread clawed at X's midsection. He shook his head slightly and opened his mouth to respond, but Zero continued.
"Sigma has an agenda for me, I can feel it. I can feel a terrible power waiting inside me, and the virus is threatening to unleash it." Zero's voice had softened, taking on an almost reverential tone.
X sank to his knees, distractedly clasping Zero's hands.
Come back to me.
Zero's eyes, blue, heartbreakingly clear, flickered down to their entwined fingers, then back up to his partner's face.
. . . I love you.
X winced at the thought. There was madness down that path, a tendency to value one life above the lives of everyone else in the universe. And where was the logic in getting too close to someone, when anyone, at any time, could become a maverick? He was a hunter first and foremost, and Zero was teetering on the edge, so close to falling . . .
"But I'm in control of my destiny, X," Zero was saying, his voice again brimming with confidence, "and I choose to use my life however I see fit to protect what matters most to me."
Zero's smile was warm and genuine, and X couldn't help but smile weakly in return.
"Let me do this, X – let me show Sigma that my will is stronger than he can even fathom and that I'll never be his slave."
X bowed his head – in reverence or in defeat, he wasn't quite sure – and then raised his eyes again, his own voice seeming to come from far away.
"Just don't leave me here on my own, Zero."