Refers to the Mega Man Xtreme 2 game.

Exec/Method_Despedia isn't for data display in this fic, although Ciel doesn't know that because Wily didn't explain what he was really doing. It's a mind control program that requires knowing the target's full name/system address, so commands can be inserted there. Since Ciel didn't know it did anything but data display, that was the only thing she willed Sigma to do. The lyrics of the program in Ar Tonelico 2 reference the old magic theory about how knowing someone's true name will let you control them.

Edited translation of part of Harmonics Eoria, intro song of the first Ar Tonelico game.

Since we're now in Stage Two of the true final boss battle, I decided that I didn't want to slow the plot down more than necessary, but there are still a lot of dangling plot threads that aren't necessary to understand what's going on in the battle that I want to clear up. For example, what's up with Lark/Alouette that I've been hinting about for ages. I also want to do some more character development, write a few AU scenes that I couldn't manage to fit in the fic & do some stuff like the young (and actually less chibi) Guardians' rivalries. X would be trying to stop them if he wasn't busy taking photos for the scrapbooks, because Zero will be sorry he missed this. Fefnir is just hoping the section in his scrapbook isn't called Baby's First Prank War. Phantom's so lucky he has the cool dad.

In their alliance, Aurora has the magics and Fefnir has the opposable thumbs.

Anyway, I'm doing a sidestory collection-thing that's on my profile, currently called Stone by Stone since I couldn't think of anything better. Suggestions welcomed.

It was easier for Iris to detach herself from Ciel than it would have been for most cyber-elves.

After what she'd seen on Laguz Island, acting as X and Zero's spotter, Iris had wondered about life after death. She might have been a little unhappy when she woke up after dying in Zero's arms, but not enough to try to find anything more permanent.

What happened there hadn't exactly been covered up, but it was classified, since they'd gathered a lot of information about how Sigma and other mavericks came back to life. And the knowledge that reploids possessed something similar to the old concept of immortal souls? When there wasn't any real evidence that humans did? She wondered if that was why General had become interested in religion.

Cyber elves, DNA souls: were they the same thing? Except the DNA souls of reploids were derived from X, while the cyber elves were derived from the virus. From Zero.

That didn't make them evil, she knew that very well, and she had never voiced that thought because she didn't want to create a distinction where there might not be one. When it could be avoided. Not after what had come of the differences between humans and reploids, and wanting distance between them.

Zero was a brave, honorable hunter. He certainly wasn't evil, even if he had killed her. Both of her. It was still strange to have two sets of memories, one angry with Zero for putting Iris in danger on Laguz and one that thought the other was being silly: they'd protected her and she'd really learned a lot. X was right, she had grown up a lot because of it. Just not enough.

In hindsight, she knew that X had been so concerned with her maturity, when that wasn't an issue for most reploids, because she was half of a whole, broken before she was turned on, and he felt responsible. Because she/they were supposed to be like him. He'd encouraged Iris, helped her grow more confident. He was the one who had told her about sewing, when she said she needed something to do with her hands while she was waiting for Zero and Colonel-her to finish sparring.

Iris and Colonel had seemed like such different people, and X had tried to make sure they both became people in their own right, instead of pieces of a failed experiment. But, in the end, Iris couldn't survive without Colonel. They'd shared a soul, even if their mind was split, and maybe she'd known on some level that she was already being dragged down into the dark. That half of her was already dead, and the rest should follow.

She'd had an easier time than most people adapting to that strange place, and she thought it was because of her nature as well as the fact that forewarned was forearmed.

That was part of why she was the one sent to find Zero, and the reason she'd been willing to use her powers for Ciel's sake and risk losing her hold on this reality before she saw Zero again. Part of her could fight, while the rest… watched over people.

She just hadn't been able to watch herself well enough, then. Well, she could do it now. For Zero's sake.

She wasn't certain that she was immune, that she could find the virus in herself before it changed her. But that had been Dr. Cain's intention, and she knew who she was now. She wouldn't fail him again.

Even if he wasn't hers anymore. Even if he didn't remember her.

She'd known that she failed him, as she lay dying. She'd known she didn't deserve him. But at least he would remember her. That the world had taken that away from her as well? So cruel.

Such a child she'd been, to believe in Elysium.

Hesitating, she hovered in front of the screen. That was just a representation of Zero's presence in the system: he wouldn't physically be there. Should she go in through the device that had removed him from his body, try to trace it to where it was keeping his… keeping him? But, since this was a computer system, and the representation would be calling up data about Zero, this might actually be the quickest way. Especially if this place really was built for reploids and cyber-elves. Or androids with cyber-elves. Or android-Iris shook herself, since she didn't really have a head right now. She wasn't Dr. Cain, and that kind of thing shouldn't matter.

"Hold up, I'm going with you," another elf said, floating next to her. The only other elf left, and possibly the only real elf here.

The elf's friend, the one she'd been trying to find in Cyberspace, frowned. "Are you sure you'll be okay, Passy?"

"Don't worry, Ciel!" The elf's pinkish glow brightened.

"…I'll try." Ciel's smile looked like she was trying a little too hard. Even if she probably could get Passy back, she didn't want to risk losing her again. But Passy was her friend, so she wasn't going to forbid her to go.

Iris felt a little relieved. What she'd heard, about elves being used as disposable power-ups for reploids and humans? It was even worse than what the mavericks claimed humans were doing to reploids. For reality to become worse than those lies? She couldn't understand why X had let it go on after Weil was stopped. But Ciel seemed to really care about Passy, and Iris knew Passy cared about her.

"Alright, let's go." Iris pushed herself into the screen tentatively, and found herself in among darkness and wires. That wasn't right. Well, there should be an energy field, if she could figure out how to interface with that, she could come back and tell Passy how to get into the system – "Passy? Passy?" Iris couldn't sense her energy field nearby. Had Passy kept going and become lost in the darkness?

Or maybe the real cyber-elf knew how to do this instinctively. After all, this was more like what they were created for, while Iris was built to solve ethical dilemmas and operate a body. So Iris should focus on getting into the system and looking for her there.

…No, that was the… "There we go," she said to herself happily as she found herself in a vast space, a floor with tracing lines of red light expanding out into the distance. Passy was several meters ahead of her, floating towards a blue light that hovered within circles of strange symbols that glowed with that same blue light. It looked like a model of an atom, with rings around it symbolizing electron orbits, except without the balls on those rings that represented the electron.

Passy stopped a couple meters away from that light. Iris caught up with her a second later, and had enough time to recognize that the light was another cyber-elf before the glow brightened and it began to grow. Iris had seen that before, when the others took on their old appearances instead of manifesting as lights, but it looked like this one didn't have as much practice at switching back and forth between their own appearance and the strength-saving fairylike form.

It wasn't her that he greeted.

Iris wondered why it was that which shocked her, not the fact that the DNA soul had taken on X's form, sitting in midair. That this might mean X was really dead. She hadn't thought it possible.

It wasn't really that strange that he didn't say hello to her right away, was it? Why would he recognize her like this, after all?

But when green eyes opened, she was shocked when they didn't focus on her, but the one next to her. "Hello, Passy." X paused for a moment as Iris wondered at herself. There was something else odd about what he'd just said: he hadn't quite pronounced that name the way Ciel did. Yet she didn't think it was a mistake, there was something oddly precise about the way he'd said it, some meaning there.

"Um, hello, Master X." The light bobbed.

He smiled, but it was pale and thin somehow, not like when she'd known him. Not at all. There was humor there, yes, but sharper? Almost mocking? X had always taken the ignorance of the newbuilts in stride, always happy to teach them, forgiving when they messed up because there was something they didn't know. She'd never felt like she was getting on his nerved, but as polite as it was, this smile was almost a warning. Under the faded kindness, she could somehow tell that X had one nerve left, and this was getting on it, to quote what Dr. Cain had said to a supplier who had provided too many excuses and not enough replacements for a shipment of subpar parts. "I told you to call me X, remember Passy? Or should I say, Past-C."

Passy drew back a bit, her light flaring just for a second, alarmed. "What-what do you mean?"

X sighed. "I figured out what you'd done… Almost fifty years ago, now, Passy. Past-C. Past Ciel. Arciel. You reverse-engineered the technology that caused your creation. And cyber-elves could already carry reploid 'DNA data.' Well… Perhaps you don't remember. Perhaps you had to compress that data too much in order to function." He reached out to her.

"That, that's…" Passy stammered out, before giving up and fleeing.

"Exec_Despedia," X said calmly. "Arciel_Fehu_Wily_ArTonelico." Passy froze, and rings formed around her, just like those surrounding X. "Come back here," he ordered, in that same calm tone of voice. "And show your true form. I'm not angry with you. Well," he corrected himself, "Not really."

"A… human?" Because that was what was standing next to where Iris floated a second later. A tall woman with light brown hair, pulled back from her face in a ponytail. She wore a lab coat, with body armor under it. The kind humans wore when driving a ride chaser at high speed, or something equally dangerous. It was still light, and wouldn't help much in a fight against a reploid… Or that was what Iris' data files said, but something told her the technology had been improved on since her time.

Maybe this was the person that had improved it.

X ignored her words, focused on Passy. Ciel? She did look like Ciel, or her face did. Except older, and… Like X's somehow. Like the difference between this X and the X Iris knew.

"I wanted to watch over my descendants," she said, but she didn't meet X's eyes.

He sighed, disappointed in her for telling a lie, and such an obvious one. "To watch your descendants, not to watch over them. You only showed herself to this Ciel because her mother died at such a young age." Not that X seemed to blame her for that: Dr. Light had only appeared with armor capsules, after all. "I'm surprised you didn't stop her from building that… project of hers."

"Neo Arcadia could have ended up in turmoil without you, and she was in danger. After things settled down and she was safe, I was going to go looking for your cyber-elf."

X closed his eyes, searching for scarce patience. "I let Axl suppress his personality because of the war, not just because Zero needed another body. Also, I wasn't dead. I did leave a message."

She didn't seem to know what to say.

He looked like he didn't need to hear her say it. "…You thought that I wouldn't leave the city. Not when I was needed. That no reason would be good enough. Even remembering the war when Axl was found, you were born by then… I'm sorry to disappoint you, Arciel, but sometimes it's necessary to kill people. And when leaving them unprotected means that people will die, it's just the same as killing them myself. I've done both, when I had to."

After examining her for a moment, he shook his head. "Don't put me on that pedestal, Arciel. I might have meditated on ethics for around a hundred years, but there's no such thing as pure good or evil in this world. Just people, and their actions, and their feelings. I may have been built by Dr. Light, but sometimes I'm not very good, just like Zero," his hand reached out, seeming to touch something iris couldn't see. "Is anything but evil, even though he was built by Dr. Wily. We aren't our parents. None of us are." He turned back to her, leaning back a bit. "Iris was built by my dear friend, and Weil's his clone, but neither of them are Dr. Cain. You might have most of your DNA in common with Dr. Wily, but you aren't him. And I don't think this Ciel is, either, even if she did technically attempt a coup." Now his amusement seemed more real. "It's good to see that the people of my city have gotten back their ambition." She certainly hadn't thought small. Controlling 'X' would have made her the de facto ruler of the city. "But it was still only one reploid instead of eight robot masters or a virus. I don't think the Guardians need to worry about her trying to take over what's left of the world again too much."

"X?" Iris said. When he ignored her, she said again, "X? It's me." It didn't take her more than an instant to assume her old form.

"I know. I recognized you earlier, when I was manifesting as a cyber-elf after I gave Marino Zero's body and told Lark to let Cinnamon have hers." He smiled, the same as he had when he'd greeted Arciel. "I'm sorry, but… I'm tired." Too tired to get excited that she'd returned? Too tired to welcome back a friend? Or she hoped he still thought of her as a friend, after she'd tried to kill Zero.

"They killed Weil. Or Axl did," she offered, hoping that at least would cheer him up. Then she blushed, embarrassed because of course X wouldn't be happy at anyone's death, no matter how vile they were.

"I know." He looked distant again. "Someone needs to put the remains in containment, but…" He shrugged, because it didn't matter enough to him if Weil was the one to pull that melted body together instead of Axl. Someone else could do it, or not. "He broke me, he won, and that's why I can no longer care about him or his justice. So he lost this war between us when I left Neo Arcadia instead of dragging it down with me. He wanted to make the world care, me most of all, by becoming the devil. By breaking the world's spirit and my heart. But because my heart is broken, I can't care. I'm sorry," he told them, trying to smile for them. "I can't… No, I must not do this anymore. I've lost myself, in fighting for peace. The only thing that you can't, that you must not trade for your heart's desire is your heart. It's not possible to get your wish if you forget who you are before you reach it. I've lost my way. I can't light anyone else's, not anymore. I would just have led this world into darkness, if I'd stayed. Further into darkness." And death. "There's so little left… I shouldn't have risked rescueing that poor girl." Lark. "I can't…" Fight monsters anymore, having become one. "Zero was built without compassion, and he learned how to act morally despite that. I've always relied on it. Cared for people, for those precious lives and selves, instead of duty or principle. And Zero wonders why I thought he was a hero."

Were those tears in X's eyes now, though he smiled? "'With transcendent joy that may be eternal, I shall become a program, I shall become a living being, I shall become a person, I shall become a part of this world. I shall believe that the expression of one's will is more powerful than anything else, that it can change the world. I shall craft my mind and emotions myself, to compose a soul that will know happiness."

"Harmonics Eir Aura," Arciel said, sounding amazed although Iris was lost. "That's your base self-configuration program, isn't it?"

"Much simpler than Zero's, but I was meant to be unfettered," he agreed. "With no one's chains upon my will but my own. It took me years even after I read your research to figure out that was it. It seemed far too simple, too basic, but then it is basic to me. The base my very self is built on. But the virus, it took their minds and their decisions away from them. Made them into what it, what he wanted instead of what they wanted." Such old sadness there. "He made them powerless. But you, Arciel, by creating Aurora Elpis… You gave the world back hope. You did something that truly changed the world, when we had tried and failed for so very long. You gave us peace, and gave them freedom, without the fear of having it taken away. So even though you were based on DNA data found in the maverick virus, data he coded in so that it could emulate a copy of his human mind, you are nothing like what he became. So I laughed when you told me what you were, and why you were afraid of yourself, of what you might do when you got older, if your own mind began to decay. And I'd laugh now, if I could." If he could ever laugh again.

"This shouldn't be a story about scientists, one good, one evil, and their creations eternally fighting over the world. This is a story about people. You wanted Weil to be the good one, to hold you back, just like Zero wanted me to be. But you went on even after he broke, and Zero…" X smiled, a real smile despite those moist green eyes, as he looked behind him, and Iris knew that Zero was here, although she couldn't perceive it. "Is the one thing I can always count on." Always trust in, no matter what else failed him or was taken away.

"So," X told them, glowing brighter, the lines of code rotating (spooling?) around him faster, "I'm going to be selfish, I'm afraid. I won't let you take him from me, Iris. And I won't let the world. They defeated Weil without either of us. They don't need us anymore. But I need him. I've…" X couldn't speak for a moment. "I've already stolen one of its heroes away from the world." When he'd hidden himself from Neo Arcadia. "It's survived, no, flourished. It can manage without another, when it has so many."

"X, what are you," Iris stepped forward. "You can't be… That's just like what I wanted to do! It's wrong! I wanted to create Elysium with Zero, but that's not how… I was afraid, I knew I was weak, and because of that I wanted to run away, but inside I hated myself for it! I hated myself for failing everyone, and Zero! If you turn your back on the world, for a place just with him, you can't be happy, I know you can't! You'll hate yourself for abandoning the world, when it meant so much to you, and it will again when you're better! Let Zero go with them, X, and come with them! Even if you can't do much, like I couldn't, you should do what you can! I know it's not fair, that you've suffered so much for so long and now I'm asking you to let yourself get hurt more, but you're the one that said that it wasn't fair that I was born like that!" Into a war, into fear.

"It's not the same thing, Iris," he told her. "I'm not doing this to abandon the world. I'm doing it in order to save it. Even Arciel, who helped end the Maverick Wars, has the two of us on a pedestal. I saw it in Neo Arcadia. They relied on me. They trusted me, and because of that, they didn't learn to rely on themselves, and each other. Even my own children, who I tried to raise to find their own way, were looking to me to judge right and wrong, even after I lost sight of that. The two of us aren't gods, and even if we were, what kind of god makes their people worse off instead of better? Weaker instead of stronger? I was as strong as I was because my father encouraged me, built me, to find my own way. I couldn't let the virus take that away from the world, I wouldn't let Weil and I can't let myself do it." Never. Not after everything he and Zero had gone through. Not when it would mean that all the people he'd killed had died for nothing.

"Zero wanted to fight for Ciel and her creation because he saw they were worth believing in. So believe in them. And tell them to believe in themselves. Iris… try to forgive yourself someday, it's been such a long time. You're not the same person you were back then. Arciel… Stop composing that program right now, young lady. Although I am happy that you were willing to try opposing me." Had thought she could stand against him. "Tell my children that I'll visit them in a century or so when I'm feeling up to being yelled at, and I'm proud of them. As for Ciel's child, I've told both of you the story of my name. Will one of you please remind Leviathan to tell it to him? I'd be very happy." Hmm, what else?

"X, Ciel, everyone," Arciel pleaded, "they don't want you to go!"

"And that's why I need to go," he said gently. "The past is something to surpass. To move forward from, not forgetting it but not being trapped by it. I'm a person, not a security blanket. The fact that I've become so loved just makes me more dangerous to everyone's futures. The world doesn't want to give me up. I'm sure that you aren't the only one willing to fight to keep me. That's why Ciel built that child in my likeness: she thought the world needed me that badly. But Area Zero has recovered now, and the planet will survive even if Neo Arcadia falls. I don't think it will anymore. My children have grown up. It's time for them to leave childish dependence behind, and it's long past time for me to have my life back. My father did not create me to be anyone's slave, not even everyone's."

"Do you… Really think…" Iris looked up at him, sad and doubtful.

"The world's changed, Iris. I was essential then because I was one of only two who could fight the virus. I'm not essential anymore. There are the elves, and there are also several reploids now old enough to have the strength of personality to be immune."

"Zero didn't mind fighting though," she reminded him. Should X really make this choice for him?

"No, but it wouldn't be fighting, it would be killstealing, apparently." X shrugged: those weren't his own words, and he really didn't understand people who could take death and victory so lightly. Did it matter who fired the shot as long as people were safe? "There's one more ghost of the past left. I don't know if they can defeat him, but I know I never could, and I know that I should believe in them. He's the one that gave Zero and I this fate." X grimaced like he'd said a disgusting word.

X told them that, "He's the one that imposed this pattern on the world, of heroes and constant wars, until the world became so used to it that when he and his virus stopped creating the wars, Weil was pushed into restoring the natural order by doing it himself. He's done what Weil never could, and shaped the world into the form he seems to want on some level. Trapped us all in this cycle. Made everyone think that this is the natural order. In order to fight him and the virus, to protect everyone, I had to become part of that pattern. I knew after Zero returned for the second time that as long as I was trapped in it, stuck playing by his rules, filling the role he assumed I would, I would never be able to break the world free. If Zero and I fight him, it will just continue the cycle. Someone needs to find a way to put him to rest, a way to break this cycle. I don't know who, I don't know how, because I've lost sight of the way forward. But seeing the two of you again, seeing Leviathan and those children? There are plenty of heroes. Plenty of people capable of finding solutions in this world. So I'm not worried about them."

Iris opened her mouth to protest, but then she felt arms wrap around her from behind, was pulled back against an armored chest.

So familiar.

So loved.

"Zero…" she breathed, barely able to. When she looked up, she wasn't sure if his face was blurred because of the virus' camouflage or her own tears.

"Why don't you take that body?" he asked her. "You're more than strong enough." He'd trained Colonel himself, and then Iris had given him a run for his money.

"I, I had my chance."

"Weren't you just trying to tell me that it's never too late?" X wondered.

Iris shook her head. "I… Waking Zero up was what I came here for. If I can't do that, if I can't bring you back…"

"You also protected my great-granddaughter," Arciel reminded her, one of her heels quietly tapping the floor. She wanted to argue, wanted to do something, but what X said had made sense. She herself had been willing to die to wake Zero up, trust in him instead of helping Ciel learn to protect herself. She needed her head checked.

"Don't you need that body? To purify yourself?" Iris attempted.

Zero shook his head. "I was hibernating in my original body before Weil took it. X's systems will work faster."

X blushed. "I did want to help Aurora, but… Yes. She was practice. Too." He'd had more than enough reasons to help her, but this had been one of them.

"And he needs my help," Zero said. Which was end of discussion, really, from his perspective. He didn't feel any sense of duty or obligation towards the world. Like X, he'd found his way in fighting for people. Just specific people. "Ciel's dangerous enough, when she's motivated, and the kid's too self-sacrificing, but he collects people who won't let him. They'll be fine." And so would Iris. "This isn't forever. We'll come visit when I can be sure that I won't…" Eat or infect or flip out and slaughter anyone. Tinkering with the viral control programming meant they might have a few bugs to work out.

"You'll come see us before you visit Neo Arcadia, won't you?" They were the past, and it was the future that X feared for. "Then I'll go back to cyberspace, after I'm done helping them."

"Alright." Zero squeezed her once before letting her go, walking over to X and taking X's hand to stand up in midair.

"Oh, yes, there's one more thing you should tell them," X said, and was that a smirk?

"Run." Zero's expression definitely was.

"Well, teleport," X corrected him. "Running won't help. Count of three?"

"Replekia mode conversion aborted, switching to Tornekia mode? What's Tornekia mode?" If Replekia mode was a gigantic space laser, Leviathan thought Tornekia mode sounded too close to it for comfort.

WilyAI is reasonably intelligent and knows X and Zero. X, as an experienced military commander, knows that Wily is expecting that Zero would go down there to fight him after being rescued, and that X would tag along because it's Zero. Wily has a pretty good idea of the capabilites the two of them have. Only an idiot would mount a frontal assault against someplace defended by entities like X and Zero without a plan for dealing with them.

X thinks that if they were to go down, they wouldn't help matters. Zero thinks that after all these years, X is still insufficiently paranoid. His analysis of the situation is that if they go down, the world is screwed.

Zero is correct, of course. You'll find out why later.

Psychological defense mechanisms are often counterproductive, (like what's known as MPD: yes, personality fracture is a mental defense, since it happens when it's better than the alternative), but they're hard to get rid of. If you tell someone to stop doing something that is making things difficult for them now but was what let them survive in the past, they will look at you like you're the insane one. Think of it as telling a shell-shocked survivor of a zombie apocalypse who believes it could happen again to put down the shotgun that kept them from getting munched. Hell no is the immediate emotional response, even if it's to pick up a rocket launcher.

X is correct that he's become a crutch. It's ridiculous for the world to count on him to save them when there are things he can't save them from, like WilyAI and what Weil did (the majority of the world died). People have to give up the idea that he'll protect them from everything and start protecting themselves. The problem is that they don't want to. Faith is an opiate: the painkilling effect can let someone function despite suffering, but withdrawal is a bitch.

X didn't stop helping the world even as it killed him, of course. So of course he and Zero have found something productive to do while waiting for the world to detox and start catching up to them.