In which X has had it up to here with Zero's goddamn martyr complex. The escort mission from hell didn't help.

Don't you hate escort missions with idiotic AIs?

Sometimes, like in my fic Tales of Payback, there's a scene in a game or other type of story where I really, really want one character to read another the riot act since they're acting like a complete moron.

Or nimrod would be a better word, since we're discussing Zero and the name means 'mighty hunter.'

After Zero's announcement that the two of them fighting was inevitable, or rather realizing that Zero was going to refuse to do the sensible thing and get his chassis back to headquarters, X had tuned the rest of it out, closed his eyes, and started counting backwards from ten. When that didn't work, he started doing trajectory calculations, and found himself working out the force, leverage, angle, and optimal distraction necessary to throw one of these medical drones at Zero's head.

Sadly, that wouldn't be enough to knock him out.

Sadly, Zero was right, or almost right, and the almost was the infuriating part. "Zero, you're right. For once in my life, I actually do want to fight someone. I don't like violence, but beating your nonfunctioning head in and hauling you back to medical is incredibly appealing right now, and it would be even if the alternative wasn't letting you be declared maverick and letting children who idolize you be sent to kill you."

Zero hesitated, like he was going to say something, and X was not in the mood. "No. That's not going to happen. But it won't happen because you will be returning to base, right now, not because you're going to face Sigma and take him down with you. You should know you can't win like this! Don't think I don't know what you're thinking!"

He muted his com, and thought that he really should turn it off so that what he was about to say wasn't recorded for posterity, for Zero's sake, but as embarrassing as he would find it, it was for his own good. He still felt incredibly petty about it, airing the dirty laundry in front of not just their friends but future generations, but this wasn't about that right now. "I appreciate the thought. Really, I do. I'm not looking forward to going into all of that virus. It's going to play havoc with my systems, and that's going to make things very difficult. I understand why you want me to go back. I understand why you don't want to return to medical and let me head in there alone." Even a compromise, X letting Zero accompany him, wasn't an option. "I wish I could just let you come with me and sort this out afterwards, but has it even occurred to you why I can't!?"

He took a deep breath then, to force himself to stop speaking for a moment. "Zero, I know that you're not a touchy-feely person and that you've suffered enough trauma and abuse that you're incapable of dealing with your own emotions, let alone other people's, and I need to make allowances because I let the Irregular Hunters treat you like that without even noticing, it's not that long since Iris died and we've all been under a lot of stress lately, but frankly, right now, I don't care."

Zero seemed to start to realize what a big deal this was when X said that. Well, finally. "I know that you feel like you have to protect me, because it was the one thing he asked of you, and that you'd never forgive yourself if I died in there. How do you think I'd feel? I know that you don't care whether or not you die, you've been suicidal since the day I met you, but I did not help repair you, run all over the planet to recover your parts," Sigma had to know what memories the race to get the components would stir up, "and provide escort for a couple of medical drones without the survival programming Dr. Cain gave toaster ovens though several kilometers of mavericks smart enough to know they needed to shoot the med unit first just so that you could get yourself killed!"

Normally, X didn't mind escort missions. Preserving lives was why he was doing all of this, but the virus, and the mavericks, and the spikes, and not just Alia but the other two backseat driving, and if these two med units' proximity sensors were in working order, then he was a mettaur! His left arm practically shook as he pointed at them, because at this point, he really wanted to shoot them himself. He doubted there was anything else on the way here that hadn't gotten to.

"I really, really want to fight you now. It's not like I'd be doing any actual damage. You thoughtlessness certainly proves that your central processor isn't working, and you were in a shuttle that first crashed into Eurasia the orbital and then Eurasia the continent! At this point, no wonder you're saturated with the virus the way Medical Officer Obvious pointed out! If it's not the only thing keeping you upright, I'll eat my helmet!" He pointed a finger at Zero. "All Sigma would have to do to get you down for the count is drain the virus out of an area, wait a few seconds and give you a little poke." He mimed the motion.

"Oh," he continued, "I really want to fight you now. Sadly, Sigma takes priority, and you would know this if you weren't letting your idiotic death wish throw you around like a lemming! You think he didn't know that you would insist on going up on that shuttle?! Isn't it obvious by now that the entire purpose of this entire war has been taking you out, and you're not even putting up a fight! The way you're helping him, even I'd be starting to think that Lifesaver was right, if I weren't aware that sufficiently advanced stupidity is indistinguishable from malice! Knocking you out would take up valuable time, giving time for more virus to clump there, and making it harder for me to get out again after killing Sigma!"

Deep breath. Ten, nine… No, he wasn't going to wait, even if he'd regret saying this later. "If you were thinking, Zero, you'd know that what you're trying to do here isn't saving my life. You're just trying to get yourself killed, and then what happens? There's only one immune reploid left, and Sigma gets everything he wanted out of this war on a silver platter. You know how much easier that will make things for Sigma. I know that it's unfair of me to say this, but wanting to fight me here…. It's the most selfish thing I have ever heard." Well, probably there were more selfish things somewhere in his memory banks, but frankly he just didn't care. "I have never been so disappointed… Alright, to be fair, I was more disappointed by General. At least being unscrewed in the head is a better reason to screw everyone else over than cold-blooded, calculating cowardice, but the fact remains that what you want to do to assuage your own guilt and make the pain stop is going to screw everyone else over."

He really felt sorry for Zero, and he wanted to shake his head to say that no, he regretted saying that, but he couldn't. "If I actually have to fight you, then rest assured that I will beat Sigma, and I will come back, because I will, personally, weld you to a table in Medical and keep you there until you get over your logic-error of a guilt complex. I don't want to do that. I know that being trapped in a lab isn't going to help your mental state, and I don't want to do that to you, but sometimes I find myself having to do things that aren't nice at all, like kill people, in order to save lives, and I can't give you space and let you deal with this on your own the way you want me to when Sigma can play you like an electric guitar. We all know why he arranged for the shuttle to be infected, and I had to sit back and let you do that. Do you have any idea how I felt when you told me how you didn't mind making that sacrifice, and I could see that you were happy to just…" Aargh!

"It was like Vile all over again! Sigma knew what that would do to me, and you just went along with it without even wanting to put up a fight! You were happy about it! I was very relieved when you survived." He would have cried, except heroes didn't, tears were associated with bad news and that might have been the straw that broke the back of the hunters' morale.

"And then you pull this stunt. You know how I feel about losing people, and you've been my friend for years. Don't you realize that I don't want you to die any more than you want me to die? Don't you realize why I asked you to kill me if I ever went maverick? Because unlike you, I'm not here risking my wiring because I want to die. I'm here because I don't want you or anyone else to die. I don't want to die here, because I realize what that would do to you and I am not going to do that to you." Even though Zero had been willing to do it to him, and some of this anger wasn't on Zero's behalf. That had hurt.

"You're the one who said yourself that if someone goes into a fight wanting to lose, they're going to lose, and I am not going to let you stay here and go to your death. I am not. And you are not. You are going to let the nice med drones heal you so that you can still defend yourself even after getting out of this saturated area, because there's a gap between the area the virus is and the end of the teleport shield and you'd be a sitting duck otherwise. Then, you are going to purge it from your systems and teleport right back to headquarters so that Lifesaver can patch you up and other people can have their own chances to yell at you. Maybe, if you get your chassis moving like a good hunter, you can be in fighting condition in time to get back here and help me with killing Sigma or getting back out after killing Sigma. Otherwise, you are letting him run whatever tests he wants to run, I don't care how stupid they are. And then I'm going to check, you over, personally, because that scared me. I thought you were dead. I thought you were dead, you, you, and then this!" The last bloody straw!

He ended up waving wildly at the sky that wasn't there, not letting the look on Zero's face stop him. "I know that it was terrible, waking up to find that you'd killed all those people, and now there are so many you can't save. I know that first they looked at you with hatred, suspicion, and fear because those units died, and now it's started again because of the virus he designed to infect you. I know that you joined the hunters and thought you could redeem yourself and find happiness because Sigma believed in you, and then he was taken by the virus. I know that you should have had a happily ever after with Iris, and then she betrayed everyone. They both betrayed you, and it has to hurt, and I know that you blame yourself because you don't feel that you have a right to hate them for it, because it wasn't their faults."

That wasn't the half of it, even though it was really the half that mattered more to Zero, who had always fought for people instead of ideals. "I know that these wars go on, and on, and on, and every death, every single death, human, hunter, or maverick just brings the virus that much closer to victory. That unless we pull off a miracle, we're going to fail to protect everyone, all the people we care about. I also know that, at this point, the only person you have left to care about is me. I even know that big secret you think you've been hiding, and I should have told you I knew before now, but I was being considerate and waiting for you to tell me. I'm kind of regretting that right now."

Although it said something about how unfair he was being that the part he regretted was being considerate, not the secrecy. He'd wanted Zero to make the decision to tell them on his own, because if X had approached him about it first then Zero would have been ashamed he'd kept it secret, and the other Maverick Hunters would have thought that too and been suspicious of him even more than the inevitable amount. Coming forward, on the other hand, would be recognized as a brave thing to do. A very hard thing to do.

"You knew?"

Luckily X still had the self-control to fire the charged shot he'd been building up all this time into a wall instead of Zero's face. He been quiet like a good reploid until now, why did he have to open his mouth? "Zero? Shut up. This is not the time." Very much not. Bringing it up now would make their listeners think it was a confirmation of things beyond Lifesaver's wildest theories. "I know that you have all sorts of reasons not to want to go back. I know that there are all sorts of reasons you want to just… stop fighting, just give in. But, frankly, Zero, I don't give a damn. Dying won't make the pain stop. It'll just make everyone you care about hurt instead, and I don't want to suffer that. Not again. It's probably selfish of me, and I know I'm going to feel guilty about this later. I've been saying things that I know will hurt you, and saying them in the most hurtful way possible, because I want to get you to understand the kind of pain you've been causing other people. Maybe you wanted us to understand each other through fighting."

That was a Zero way to communicate without actually having to do anything painful. Getting shot wasn't a big deal for a reploid. X would rather be shot any day than have to stand there in HQ and watch the impact, or lie there as Zero blew himself up, or… Not again. No.

Well, this was having a fight, sort of, even if it was really just a slaughter because Zero didn't know how to defend himself with words or against words. He hadn't wanted to, he'd thought he had no right to, and X was really going to hate himself for this in the morning, but, "If you keep going, Sigma will kill you. So yes, if you even think about staying here I am going to fight you the way you want, and I'm going to be happy to do it. Because, if the choice is between Sigma killing you and doing whatever he wants with your body, you know what another fake maverick you would do to morale, and me killing you, here and now, then I'm going to be the one to do it, just like I asked you to kill me if it ever came down to it. I'll try not to kill you, but I probably am going to hurt you, because I have never been this angry before. I really don't like how I'm acting because of it, and frankly at this point I'm angry at you for making me act like this, even though my actions are my own responsibility."

Speaking of things Zero might make X do, "So. Either you act like an adult and go back to base on your own, or I'm going to have to cut you up into parts and try to use the drones as pack mules." To carry them home as he had during the second war, except it would be hard to fight carrying a whole body instead of one reasonably-sized chunk at a time. "Please don't make me do that, those things make you look like you have a properly functioning survival imperative. If I have to try to shepherd them all the way to Sigma I really am going to die." This was why they never brought mechanaloids along with them.

Zero sounded remorseful now. "And I thought my day was rough." Sorry for making it worse.

X didn't bother trying to shut him up. He'd really lost the momentum with that depressing excuse for a joke, as though dying was a laughing matter, and now grief and guilt were starting to overwhelm anger, the way they usually did. "Zero, you nearly died. I'm fine. You had the rougher day, and I really don't have a right to complain, but don't do this to me again. Just don't. Please don't. You have to live, even if you don't seem to understand that yet. Until you can live for your own sake, live for everyone else's."

"Are you sure I can't help you get there, at least?"

"Zero, I was thinking about maybe having the drones heal you and letting you help me get there so you could feel that you were doing something, as though you haven't already done enough. Maybe. And then you pulled this idiotic stunt on me. If I had my way, I'd be stripping you of your weapons and putting you on suicide watch. If you are fully repaired and they let you, then you can come back and see if you can help. If. And hopefully I'll be done before then." X finally gave in and sat down, feeling incredibly tired. His body had been on red alert the entire time, just in case Zero tried to force the issue by jumping him. "Right now, you are not helping. If you got back to base and I knew you were safe, that would help."

"Are you ok?" Because Zero might just force the issue if he wasn't.

"No." He sighed, using the air to cool down. "The instant the virus is out of the sky, I'll take a vacation, I promise. But I can't take one if you aren't around to cover for me."

"Got it." Zero still hesitated.

"Get over to those medical drones." X raised his buster. "Or so help me…" Was this what hysterical felt like? Or the beginnings of it? He had been wound too tight, and he'd let his temper loose, then let his anger go, and now maybe it felt a little like everything was going to break loose, and he couldn't afford to fall apart.


X let his eyes close, listening to the drones heal Zero and trying to ignore the soft crackling of the virus. "Maybe I should just keep the com off, but I really need to apologize."

"Why aren't you in charge again?"

X waved that away. "It was still insubordinate. And rude." Inconsiderate.

Zero walked over to stand by him. "It was my fault you had to chew me out like that. Sorry." He crouched down a bit to put his right hand on X's shoulder. "Sorry for all this." Suddenly, X felt incredibly drained, and when he opened his eyes the world spun around him. He recognized these symptoms. "And for this. The amount of virus beyond here is insane, which works for me, but… You were right, I was only able to fight because of something Sigma could take away, but the med units helped, your capsules are making me an armor so that should compensate for the fact that my structural supports are beaten all to hell, and you're the one who listed all the reasons that I couldn't just let you go die. What am I supposed to do without you? I can't handle it alone, either. If I can't make an end to it here, then I swear I'll come back, and you can do whatever you want to me after you take that vacation. Promise."

X wanted to protest, that Zero shouldn't say things like that so sadly, so regretfully, as though they were promises he wasn't intending to keep, was already mourning that future.

If Zero died, then he was going to kill him.

A fake Zero just reminded him of all the reasons Zero had been a complete idiot. So, when the real Zero showed up, his first words were, "I kept your beam saber, as proof of your promise."

Zero looked afraid that X was going to stuff it down his throat, but took it gingerly when X handed it to him hilt-first.

"We deal with the nightmares and virus-infested areas, and then I'm going on vacation," X told him, because really, if he started taking Zero apart before he got a vacation then he wasn't sure he was going to be able to stop while it was still possible to put him back together.

Yes! Axl inwardly cheered. They'd got X back. They were moving so slowly, because nobody was listening to him, when he was the one who had found out about this in the first place and this was Red (Axl hadn't seen a human before coming here, so to him, the word 'father' was one of those random things in his internal dictionary that didn't have anything to do with anything, like 'stirrup' or 'antidisestablishmentarianism') and, and…

But they were the ones who knew how to do this stuff, so he needed them, even though it had taken Zero forever to listen to him and X had been doing boring computer stuff all day instead of being a hunter and Axl had only managed to get him to come back now. If there were two of them, maybe they'd actually start moving so he could do stuff too? They kept saying he was annoying, but he had to be or they ignored him and it was so frustrating! Sure, lots of people needed saving, so he couldn't really complain about the detours, but, but, Red! Maybe X could do all that?

Why was X smiling at Zero like that. "I'm back."

Yeah, they already knew he was back. What was it with people having to repeat things like twenty times before any listening happened?

Wait. Zero was wincing?

X was smiling, but not in a 'hello' way or an 'I saw something that makes me happy' way. Alia looked vastly amused, Layer looked really worried, and Palette, who had just started here too and was actually trying to be helpful (probably because she hadn't been here long) didn't seem to know what was going on any more than he did. "Beam saber." He held out his hand.

Zero handed it over. "Right," X said, and grabbed Zero's hair. "I know we can't say for certain yet, but it would be wonderful to have another immune person here. Welcome to the hunters, Axl," he said as he started to pull.

"I can walk."

"Zero? Please be quiet and don't move. Do I need to reduce you to parts?" Because he would. With Zero's own beam saber.

Zero looked like he was going to respond, but then thought better of it. He let himself be dragged along the floor, boots scraping, and just kind of shrugged when Axl looked at him. What the?

"What are you doing?"

"It will take them awhile to figure out where to go next, so this is the perfect time to do something I've been meaning to do since before you were built. We're going to medical, and I'll need to pick up a few supplies and borrow a welder."

Normally, Axl would have angrily demanded answers, but even though he generally didn't notice the things people did to express things other than actually saying them, because they were stupid and inefficient, the sheer weirdness of how X was acting made him study him for clues, and a quick check of the diagrams of expressions in his database showed that while X was smiling, it was a kind of smile that only happened when people were really, really angry, which was very counter-intuitive.

When they arrived at the med lab, Alia went and turned on the camera in the corner of the room, which made Zero wince. "What… what are you doing?"

"Welding him to the table. He already let them do all of the tests they wanted, but I'm sure you can think of a few more, right Alia? Especially now that we may have a third to compare him to." A third immune person. Possibly.

Axl had always heard that X was, well, old and stuff, but this made him add him to Axl's mental list of people not to annoy 'cause they might get mad at him and that would be bad. It was a very short mental list, and until now had consisted solely of Red, because Axl liked Red and what if Red made him leave? Even the other legendary hunter, Zero, wasn't on it, because not only was annoying Zero safe it was the only way to make him do anything.

"I'm sure we can," Alia agreed, causing Axl to consider a pretty worrying theory:

That it might not be just that they weren't listening, it might just be that the hunters were really just sort of… completely freaking insane.