Something that I saw on Japanese fanart sites & liked was the 'kiriban,' or a reward to the people who came to the site (or that specific person) when a certain hit count was reached, to commemorate the landmark and show that the people who like their work mean a lot to an artist (or that's my interpretation). I decided that I should do that, only I'd write a fic instead of drawing a picture to show my appreciation.

The winner of this one is DemonAngel-SweetDevil, who requested as her prize a Zero series horror fic, with Zero becoming a maverick, for example. I'm sorry this is late, I kept finding myself writing fluff or plot instead anything remotely like horror. I'm going to be posting at least one other of those attempts as well, and I think I'm finally going to give up and post this as the kiriban rather than make her wait any longer, even though I think I managed to evoke dread more than horror. There's a school of thought that dread is the more effective of the two, but this piece isn't very effective at it.

Harpuia is not as suicidal as he seems in the games, really. He'd like to be 'death before dishonor' but he's already very dishonored and knows it. So he sticks around and digs himself in deeper, mainly. I'd hate him for the genocidal tendencies more if he wasn't such a well-meaning and childish idiot.

A question in Zero series is whether or not anyone but Zero (and X, obviously) knows that he's the source of the virus. Dr. Weil is the most likely person to know, but he never brings that particular fact up, just that he was created by Dr. Wily. That may be due to Inafune's views on... Well.


"Why does he… keep shooting himself?" Ciel knew all of Dr. Weil's crimes, but watching something like this was making her sick to her stomach.

"It's the maverick virus," Zero knew. "It's capable of infecting complex mechanaloids, like the system keeping him alive. And the maverick virus tries to kill all humans."

"The emergency council put him in that so he could suffer for his crimes for all eternity." Ciel had been there, as the surviving heir of one of the members, even if she hadn't been old enough to vote. "And now it's constantly killing and reviving him."

Painfully. Ciel's human ears could barely hear the screams from inside the biohazard containment cell she'd had built to contain Dr. Weil in, but they lingered on the edge of hearing, faint enough she wondered if she was imagining them.

She hoped she wasn't, because that meant they'd haunt her nightmares. She couldn't sleep without a pill as it was.

"It's no less than he deserves," she managed to say, after swallowing. "But without the Dark Elf, we can't purge it from his system, and if Neo Arcadia finds out that the virus, the real virus has returned and can't be cured… It will make the previous purges look like, like nothing." Dr. Wiel had brought Copy-X back before the expedition that had resulted in… this. "His true goal is to kill all reploids. He wants to wait until enough infrastructure has been built up for humanity to survive, but he'll order a full purge, right away. First the army and bombs would be used to kill all civilians, then army units would be told that other units had gone maverick, whittling them down and down until the generals could finish off the remainder." And then themselves. She'd read the operational plan: it was one of the documents cyber-elf X, the true X, sometimes pulled out of Neo Arcadia's systems for them.

"Are you sure there's no way to kill this bastard?"

"He was meant to be as hard to kill as possible so he couldn't escape his sentence by killing himself." To suffer an eternal hell for the hell he had unleashed. And now he'd unleashed, or released, a second hell on earth.

The maverick virus, once again.

"After what Weil did, modern elves were made incapable of affecting the systems of reploids the way the originals could. I… vaguely remember some of the principles, but all information on how to create elves capable of hacking reploids well enough to control them or cure the virus was purged from Neo Arcadia's systems. X might know something." If he was still alive. No, alive wasn't the word. Hanging on, after Elpizo had killed him. "But we should try to find the Dark Elf and baby elves before Neo Arcadia can. They may be our only hope." She swallowed. "What should I do?"

"Don't hide in your room. The Irregular Hunters had human staff members, early on. They were a useful early warning sign, as we became the Maverick Hunters. Like canaries. If someone randomly tried to kill one of them, then we knew there was a problem. Have Corveau create an energy reflector for you, but hiding won't do any good. And it will hurt your chances for survival. A maverick isn't going to want to strike in a group of people who will defend you. Dr. Cain managed to die of natural causes." Which had been sadly impressive.

"You really have recovered your memories." Along with his original body.

"A few too many," Zero said, almost to himself. "It's possible that the first infectee was Elpizo. That was definitely maverick rhetoric that he was sprouting. The Dark Elf was based on the principles of the maverick virus, I know that much. Modern technology wasn't up to it: they had to modify Dr. Wily's. It's possible that whatever Dr. Weil did to use her to control all those reploids messed that up somehow."

"Dr. Wily's?"

He blinked at her. "You don't know? Your mother was on the team with Dr. Weil."

Ciel shook her head. "Almost all of it was classified."

"Right." Otherwise no one would think of Zero as the legendary hero, he knew. Not if they knew the truth about him and the virus. "X thought the truth would affect morale too badly, and Signas agreed before a crazy managed to take him out." One of the people who really believed that nonsense Lumine had spouted. Mavericks all thought the same way. They'd managed to protect Signas from all reasonable chance of Maverick attack.

A different attack strategy from someone not working from a playbook they'd studied for decades had caught them off guard.

"Truth?"

"You don't want to know," he told her, hair swishing as he shook his head, faking cheerful in a way she'd never seen from his amnesiac self. There were so many more facets to this Zero's personality, now that he'd not only been through so many things but remembered their details and impacts.

"Isn't the line that I can't handle it?"

He gave her a measuring look. "Or maybe you can. You created Copy-X, and put him in a pressure cooker that was too much for X the legendary hero. All of these deaths are your fault. Except for the stuff that's his." He nodded towards Weil. "And Dr. Wily built me, and put the maverick virus in a subdrive. I'm the one who infected Sigma and started it all. That's why it could never control me for very long, no matter what Sigma pulled. I was built to control it."

"You… I don't have a right to react with shock or horror, do I. Especially when you forgave me for what I did so easily." Ciel bowed her head.

"Good girl." That was mature of her.

His approval meant a lot to her, it was a sign that she'd managed to redeem herself, at least a little.

And, she knew, some part of her was still that weak little girl who'd wanted X, who had sort of been everybody's father figure as well as the only one she'd ever known, to come back even if she had to build a lie.

"You might want to make sure that you're never alone with a single reploid. Mavericks won't want to give themselves away in front of someone who isn't their target. Even if they're both maverick, you'll be fine as long as they don't know that. Mavericks, other than Sigma, couldn't tell who else was infected. That might have allowed us to identify others once we knew who one was."

"How likely are we to be targeted?"

"The maverick virus preferentially targeted the command staff of military groups, which was only smart. Copy-X having his generals do the mopping up isn't a very good plan. Not when they'll be the first ones targeted, besides me. Sigma walked off with all the experienced commanders in the very first war. So Elpizo would have been an obvious target even if he wasn't the first target." Zero smiled, like a shark. "It amazes me how unparanoid you all are. Neo Arcadia could send infiltrators, you know. You're all worse than X."

"It's been years since anyone had to worry about their best friend suddenly becoming a homicidal maniac out to kill or infect them."

"Best friend. Interesting choice of words there."

"Hmm?"

"I was X's best friend, or he was my… only friend, for quite awhile. And I was built to kill him. X, the real X, was like that."

"I don't remember him very clearly, but yes. Yes he was." That memory: her angelic copy had been built as a tribute to it, an attempt to recapture it. "Speaking of words, is unparanoid a word?"

"I, everyone was always telling X that he should take more precautions. One day he explained that to someone else, Dr. Cain actually, by saying that we thought he was, 'Too… unparanoid.' The word stuck." It had been funny.

But this was no laughing matter. He gave her a stern look. "You aren't X. You can't afford to be as trusting as he was. One buster shot, and you're dead. And a lot of people will die without your leadership."


Nothing happened for weeks. No reports of anything out of the unusual, and Ciel was beginning to think that maybe Weil's expedition to awaken Omega and Elpizo's unsealing of the dark elf had been isolated incidents.

Then she went to tuck Alouette in one night.

There was something about a little girl like her with a knife – and where had she gotten a knife? – that held her transfixed, or maybe it was that this was Alouette. No, not Alouette! Not the little girl she'd promised to take care of!

The way she hadn't taken care of her own creation.

Ciel could move faster, at least, and Zero was close enough and the walls were flimsy enough that he could break one down when he heard her scream.

"No, no, you can't! That's Alouette!" she screamed when he grabbed her and threw her behind him, buster at the ready.

His right arm kept hold of her, keeping her from running forward to try to shield her stepdaughter. "Not anymore," Zero said, firm and sad.

And fired.

Ciel collapsed to her knees, shaking and staring at the body. She'd seen she didn't know how many Resistance members die, reploids and cyber elves alike. She'd grown used to it, horrible as it was.

But this just wasn't right.

This was Alouette.

"She wasn't supposed to… not Alouette!" She buried her face in her hands.

"It always hits humans harder when it's a female model, doesn't it? It generally hits us harder, too. There's really two types of people who specifically choose to be a female model and work in an organization like the hunters. The kind that wants to kill and look pretty…" Zero shrugged. " Not so much. But the other's the kind of person that likes looking after other people. The kind that makes a good spotter. The kind that saves so many other people's necks or makes their days better that you sort of feel like the universe, or at least the fighters, owe it to them to make sure they stay safe. Like if there were any cosmic justice out there, they'd stay safe and die last. The kind of person that just shouldn't have to die."

He found a cleaning cloth to offer her. "This feels like it did when Alia was taken. She'd been around for… years. She'd become as much a fixture as Douglas, and he never left a sterile area. We knew she wasn't immune, but she'd been around so long that I started to make the mistake of thinking she'd always be there."

He pulled a sheet off of the bed to cover Alouette, with the air of someone performing a sad, solemn duty they'd had to do too many times. It almost had the air of a ritual. "I didn't remember all of that, when I met her. When I met all of you. I let myself get used to all of you being here. I'm going to have to stop thinking that way." He bowed his head, then went down to one knee to carefully pick up her body. "I'm going to have to go back to thinking of almost everyone I meet as someone who's going to get shot someday, likely enough by me. Alouette went all over the base. Everyone knew her. No one would have said no if she wanted to play with them for a bit. It's rare for a maverick to just decide to go active one day without orders. Especially one as well-placed as she was. There's a new Sigma in town. At least they're not as bright as he was."

"What do you mean?"

"Having such a valuable carrier attack you while I was nearby? They threw her life away." And Zero wasn't going to forgive them. "Well, at least now we know."


Master X's eyes had been red for a long time. A childish mistake, thinking such a thin material would be able to tint them green. Harpuia had ignored it. Leviathan had said it was a good choice, to appear more intimidating. Fefnir had approved.

None of them had really thought of why no one had red eyes installed. They were intimidating, yes, but before the four (now three) of them had been built they meant something else.

Maverick.

"Well." He found himself riding the edge of hysteria, like catching an updraft from one of the hurricanes that had raged throughout half the year until the weather control system had finally been fixed. "Now I know why Fairy Leviathan was in my sleeping chamber last night." Even though she'd been making it clear for as long as they had been alive that she wasn't interested in him, he'd had to kick her out.

Well. This proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that his Master X was a copy, didn't it. His Master X had been dedicated to the welfare of humanity, their parent race that had suffered so much because of their children. His Master X would never have done something like this. Never.

The legendary hero, father of them all, had been immune.

His Master X, who had worked so hard to save humanity… obviously hadn't been.

Harpuia realized that he owed his life to that monster Weil. He must have sabotaged Master X, for him to blow up in the moment he unleashed his true power, to add injury to the insult of that stutter.

Razor-sharp ceramic armor feathers had fallen everywhere, including the control panel that might have been used to stop the launch. There was one buried in Harpuia's arm. He'd remove it when he got around to it.

Missiles were raining down on Neo Arcadia, just as they had on another city long ago when Sigma revealed himself. A literal opening salvo, to mark the beginning of another Maverick War.

"X tried to build us to be resistant." Not Master X. "Resistance isn't immunity, but it worked for two out of three. Or possibly one out of three." He knew that he shouldn't have his back turned to Fefnir, even if the other had helped him take down Leviathan. "For now."

Correction. Had helped him take down the maverick.

Fefnir growled automatically, and would have taken more offense to that if he hadn't studied the history like the rest of them.

If he hadn't just seen the reality.

"We have to get out of here." He gave the console one last through glance, wondering if it would be worth trying to repair it so that certain bombs could be set off. No, Master X had known about all of those, they had been his plan. They would certainly have already been deactivated, so that the reploids there would live to be infected.

"There wasn't any decrease in deactivations." Fefnir didn't like this.

"No. But he ordered us to focus on the older reploids two months ago." Age conveyed experience, tricks, and knowledge of gossip. Like the location of the resistance base and how to escape to it. They all knew there were people who stayed in Neo Arcadia to give that information to the young. "Age is one of the traits linked to resistance." The other traits were also not encouraged in Neo Arcadia.

Resistance to the virus tended to be linked to the ability to resist other means of controlling the populace.

"As of this moment, we are two out of the three oldest living reploids." Harpuia hated this. His lord was deactivated, was dead, and it hadn't even been by his own hand! He, not Dr. Weil's sabotage, should have been the one to free him from this!

"You must be joking?"

"They are standing orders!" Even if they weren't from Master X, they were all he had left! "Weil, the virus, there is only one person left capable of stopping them!"

"Maybe you have been taken, you'd never say something like that!"

Harpuia didn't want to think it, but in the face of Fefnir's disbelief he had to say the true reason. "There's only one person left capable of stopping us!"

Fefnir froze.

"We're not immune, Fairy Leviathan proved that! We can be taken, no, if this goes on much longer we will be taken, it's only a matter of time! I'd rather die than be taken and betray humanity," betray Master X, "but we cannot run like cowards! We have to fight, as the hunters who served under X did, until the virus is stopped again or we die in battle!" One way or another.

Leviathan had died the other way. Graceful Fairy Leviathan, whose design had been finalized last (although they'd all been worked on at the same time), right before the end of the peaceful era that Master X had worked to have come again, permanently this time. More whimsy in her design than any of the others. Although Fefnir had simplified his quite a bit, when he became a combat reploid.

But they'd all been built out of the sturdiest materials, the highest class of parts. Built by a master, with a brainpower that no modern reploid could possess, by law.

Thinking burned up power like crazy, after all.

If she had been taken, so could they all.


"And so we are obeying X's standing order to, if he died before you woke up, go and offer you our assistance." Even though it was already quite awhile after Zero had woken up.

The real X had died last year, too.

Harpuia was barely managing to force the words out through gritted teeth, making it clear to everyone how he absolutely hated what he was doing, this in no way shape or form meant that he'd stop trying to kill them all just as soon as this was over, and so on and so forth.

Quite the opposite, actually. Zero was fairly certain that he was fantasizing about the painful deaths of everyone who had witnessed this indignity.

Harpuia was much, much easier to deal with now that he remembered seeing this kind of thing before, in hundreds of forgettable rookies and mavericks, and didn't think that it was something to be taken seriously.

Back then, he would have called Harpuia a drama queen, and X would have given him a look and said to be nice.

He was getting worried about X, actually. He would have tried to stop the virus when it appeared, and Cyber elves could run out of energy.

No, X wouldn't let the virus kill him. He was hopefully just trying to recover.

Surely.

Zero chastised himself for thinking that. Anyone can die, he reminded himself. Anyone.

Even heroes.

He should know.


The resistance soldiers scurried past Harpuia in the halls, trying not to meet his eyes so he hopefully wouldn't remember their faces. It only mollified him somewhat.

The fact Zero clearly regarded the whole thing as childish was infuriating.

What was truly infuriating was that Zero had taken advantage of the situation to put Ciel in charge of Neo Arcadia, and advising her to institute some truly preposterous policies.

"This was what I always would have done if I were head of the Maverick Hunters, or at least tried to do. That's a third of the reason I was never head of the Maverick Hunters," Zero said as he looked out over what remained of the city, humans and reploids mingling in the ruined streets. "You can't catch the virus from a human, so being around humans most of the time seriously decreases a reploid's chance of going maverick and being around humans also increases the odds a maverick will give themselves away. Speaking of which, I know X had you read those books, and while he probably was hoping you would treat them as a how-to, he meant for the other side." How to break down racism and boundaries instead of how to create and enforce them.

"Are you trying to get them all killed?"

"Harpuia? You're the one who's responsible for them being so unable to defend themselves. Not to mention how so few reploids have any reason to want to defend them. There's just no way to create an organization like the hunters, and whose fault is that? Why, it's the fault of the impostor you backed." Zero's eyes narrowed as he turned away from the window. "So either sit down, shut up, and try to analyze that data or get out there and start doing fly-bys to watch for attacks, if you're that worried."

As though stopping one attack would make any difference. "There's nothing to do but wait for either the dark elf or Sigma to appear."

"Sigma's dead." Zero showed a commander's stark disapproval of an idiot subordinate who was going to get his people killed. "We don't know who the new template is: it's not Lumine, we'd know by now. I hope it's Copy-X. Lumine was a one-trick pony, and once we knew about that trick he was a pushover compared to Sigma. There's someone in charge here, I just don't know who. Leviathan was almost as bad as you are, she'd have done a full frontal assault already." He turned again, taking a few steps, partly to change his viewing angle, but mainly to think.

"You know quite a lot about the virus."

"X really didn't tell you?"

"Tell us what?"

"Why I was taken out of my body for the experiments?"

"They needed an immune test subject, and they couldn't do all that with you in there."

"Why I had to go into hibernation?"

"Technical problems. The experiments, compatibility with your new body and your design flaws."

Zero seemed greatly amused. "Well, all of that's true. Just like X, really… No." That good humor vanished.

"What?" Harpuia stepped forward, in a way that would have been threatening to almost anyone but Zero. "I don't appreciate being kept in the dark."

"There's someplace I need to check out. Guard Ciel while I'm gone. Hopefully, I'll be back soon."

"Where are you going?"

"Either nothing will happen or… nothing will happen that I'd want back-up for. This is almost certainly a wild goose chase, but it's the kind of wild goose chase that would hurt morale. Although, after what Copy-X did, I don't know if X's reputation can get any more ruined than that."

"You think he… but cyber-elves can't be infected!"

"Well, the dark elf contained what was probably the maverick virus, and it was unleashed as X's body was destroyed. Elpizo attacked him, and then an instant later he became maverick. That's what happened when Sigma took me out. Maybe something in the transition could have… Dr. Wily didn't program the virus for cyber elves, so I have no idea if that would render him vulnerable. An elf is akin to the virus, so maybe… I'm almost certainly wrong. Except. X knows how I think. Me, not an amnesiac stumbling along. Sigma was generally pretty helpful about repairing me too. And the main reason X was immune was his determination. He knew who he was, and he was the opposite of everything the virus stood for. A hero, not a killer. Has anyone told you why he sealed himself away with her?"

"He didn't care about fighting anymore." He hadn't cared about humanity, or any reploids. Copy-X had tried, at least.

"No! He didn't care about the people he was killing! He stopped tearing himself up inside about having to kill you idiots! That was why he stopped. Before all of your… before you destroyed what made him X. But you did something the virus never could. You eroded him. If the virus took him, it's Dr. Weil's fault. And the fault of every single one of you who didn't…" Zero put his hand on the window's synthglass.


Zero remembered the path to where X had been sealing the Dark Elf, even though he'd only walked it once. X had been down that path, X had been in danger and that had seared it into his mind for all time.

Unless he got amnesia again.

The sound of bright, childish laughter from up ahead made him wish he hadn't been right. Or perhaps…

Alouette was there – X wouldn't have meant for her attack to succeed, just to serve as a warning and allow him to revive her here, out of danger. There were two other children whose energy signatures revealed that they were Crea and Prea, in reploid shells because it was hard to play with a ball as energy beings. The young woman leaning against X's side was too young to be a mother, but then the Dark Elf, or Mother Elf, had done what she needed to do for the sake of the world.

"X." Zero nodded.

"Welcome, Zero." His old friend smiled at him, and succeeded easily in doing what Sigma had never managed.


"If he's been taken, what are we going to do?"

"Hopefully it's not him." Zero's eyes closed. "Sigma was already dead, that whole time. If it is him, I'm going to have to break my own seal, to see if I can save him. If he's dead, then… I'd save this world one last time. For him. If he's been taken by the virus… He asked me to kill him, long ago. I can't do that. So, if he's been taken, it's over. I'm on X's side, now and always." He smiled at Harpuia, a cat's smile, and vanished.


Weil hadn't even tried to wake up the real Omega: he'd just installed a servant that he could use to create terror. He had known better than to want to wake him up, because Weil was a human and he wanted to rule, not die.

Recovering that body, however, had given Zero the capability to access all of his memories, and his amnesia had given him the desire to. His hunter self hadn't wanted to know.

Wise of him.

Zero had sealed himself away so that he could purge the virus from his new body, recreate himself in a form that could survive without it. Returning to this body had forced him to return to the way he had been as a hunter, living with it sealed within him.

Gaining enough control over the virus to find out of X was still in there somewhere forced him to throw all of that away. To become one with the virus once again. To know in his bones things that he had rejected for X's sake, that X had truly believed weren't true.

Until a human managed to do something terrible enough to shatter that beautiful heart.

To create cracks the virus could worm its way into when a power-hungry reploid had destroyed the protection of X's body's immune system and stolen away the mother elf, their daughter, who would have cured him of the virus before it had managed to do anything to him.

This was X, insulated from the pain of the world, from the suffering he had experienced and his orders would cause. This was X, his friend, who was having a tea party with a little girl while his rebuilt systems' ability to multitask was being used to coordinate mavericks all over the world, informing them of who else had already been infected. Who to target. What bombs and other useful materials to place where.

This was X, and people calling Zero a hero had always seemed like a bad joke. He had always only fought for the people he believed in. Here was X, peaceful as he hadn't been in far too long. There, in the virus' web, were Sigma and Iris. Alia, Signas: all the people he had ever cared about except Axl, who had never been anything but exactly what he was, incapable of being taken in by the virus while he lived or after he died.

Everyone except for Axl and one other. "I'm keeping Ciel," he told X as he sat down, beginning to reach out into the web and check X's work. The student had surpassed the master when it came to strategy, but he didn't mind helping out.

"I thought you would. There are handful of others who want to keep theirs, and I told them that I was sure you wouldn't mind as long as they were kept under control." Zero's word was absolute, but X knew him well enough to guess what he'd say.

"Sure." Zero had never cared about people in general. His small family was here, or would be here as soon as the bodies he'd ordered were completed, and that was what he cared about.

X had lost the ability to care about the people he had to kill, and the virus had ensured that he would never get it back. So he poured Zero a cup of 'tea' like Alouette's, as Harpuia paced, trying to decide whether to swallow his pride and ask Ciel to help him track down Zero and Corveau worked on the rocket that would be used to launch Dr. Weil into the sun.