A fic that was incomplete in my documents for ages, given an ending finally when I realized it meshed well with something I'd written earlier and could serve as a sequel.

Supposes that X6 can follow on from a certain ending of X5 if X's memories of Zero returned when Zero did. That period when he didn't remember his best friend's existence isn't referenced in the following because it's narrated from X's POV and he doesn't remember/think of the gap.

He had to forget Zero in order to function, and the fact that his ability to remain sane (one of the better definitions of sane is able to function in society/day to day to life) is that precarious...

It's also been awhile since X5: this takes place post-Command Mission, presuming Alia and Signas are still alive. I wanted to toss him some bone.

For weeks now, the barracks had been buzzing not about the usual things, like the latest fashion, newest meme, or superstition about the virus, but ghosts.

That wasn't very unusual, really. So many hunters died, it was only human – or reploid, for that matter – to want to think that they would come back in some way, shape, or form. Every so often ghosts would become the latest craze, and sometimes someone would claim to see one on base.

It wasn't always that they were lying. They wanted to believe, often enough.

X was known as the person to ask about odd, old, or human things if they wanted accurate information instead of fourth-hand gossip. There was a bookshelf in the seventeenth's common area that he kept stocked with various things. Sometimes people brought them back, sometimes they didn't. He preferred it when they didn't.

The books were always returned to him… afterwards. While a book stayed gone, he could hope that meant the hunter who borrowed it was still alive.

He also heard maintenance's complaints about how they were getting all these complaints about cold spots and odd noises coming from the walls, and they couldn't find anything.

It was starting to make some people a little paranoid, but then paranoia was the better part of survival, these days. A few rookies had to be reassured that no, auditory hallucinations weren't a symptom of infection, but then they'd known that.

Unit Zero was uniformly convinced that it was a prank, and a very impressive one that wasn't being pulled by them, for once, as part of their secondary mission of playing 'Red Team' and keeping everyone else on their toes. Zero was staying out of it so far, as was X, but when the 'ghost' hadn't come forward to take credit for it, they'd started to worry about the vulnerabilities in security whoever was doing this had to be exploiting, and X had needed to explain to one of the younger ones that Ghostbusters was a work of fiction and shown them how to tell the difference.

Unit Seventeen had thrown themselves into trying to solve the mystery more because it was a mystery. Most of the other units were adding to the gossip and/or the amount of money in the betting pool Alia was running. Command had the view that since people were going to place bets anyway, they should be organized by someone who could be trusted not to rip the rookies off.

It was also another means of keeping track of things.

Currently, the smart money said that Commander Zero definitely wasn't responsible, since it would take some technical wizardry to fool people's sensors like this and Zero was well-known to not like technology that required anything more complicated to operate than a beam sabre's on button. He could have ordered Maintenance's security programmers to set it up, or Unit Zero's own information extraction experts, but keeping something like that secret, with all of them involved in trying to figure it out, would have required serious acting ability. Few reploids could act that well, unless the virus was involved.

The very smart money said that Commander Zero had either been informed by the prankster in advance or had already figured it out, because otherwise he'd care more, between the hole in base security & the fact he'd been around long enough to lose lots of people.

The reason a lot of hunters were hoping ghosts were real was because practically everyone here had someone they wanted to see again.

The bright but sadly wrong money had noticed that it was close to Halloween and the person most likely to want to celebrate an old holiday was X, who had a frankly ridiculous ability to override just about everything in Maverick Hunter HQ for several reasons. He'd worked with these systems for years, of course, but he was immune, so he had official ability to override… anything that might need to be stopped by someone who wasn't a maverick.

He'd made it snow… was it eleven years ago already? He'd cleared it with Signas and the others in advance, of course, but the break from routine had been meant as a surprise, and it had definitely surprised them.

They'd needed it.

Just as they needed the distraction from the risk of death the prospect of life after death offered.

X was surprised no one but he and Zero had figured it out yet, not even Alia or Signas. But then, very few of the 'modern' Hunters had gotten to know any humans.

Just as the Mavericks all kept working from the same basic 'playbook,' reploids tended to start with the same set of… principles? Tools for understanding and manipulating the world? And most of them didn't realize the wealth of tactics history offered, nor live enough to gain the experience with tactics necessary to learn the value of coming out of left field.

Humans thought differently from reploids, and from each other. It took time for a personality to establish itself and become unique (as opposed to just defining itself in terms of the people around it: similar or different), and a young human generally had ten years to a rookie's ten weeks.

Most of the Hunters had never realized that there were people other than mavericks who just didn't work the way they did. They knew that X and Zero were 'strange,' but never thought about it in those terms.

X had decided to see how long it would take them to realize that this was something out of their experience and start thinking about what that meant. Hopefully once they made the leap it wouldn't take them too long.

Then the recently-promoted Commander of the Fourth had become convinced that it was the ghost of the previous Commander.

X didn't know if the ghost had tried to lead the poor reploid on or if he had deluded himself, but that was a sign things had gone on long enough.

Which was why he was walking through the halls using not normal, night, or heat vision, but the spectroscopic analysis he used when doing finicky repairs or trying to detect virus particulate that wasn't in a large enough concentration to be visible with normal vision.

Zero had sent him an innocent-seeming communication earlier, so the haunt should be about to get started. Everyone knew that Commander X had exceptional systems, and Zero had drummed into a certain someone's head that sneaking up on either of them was likely to end in someone getting shot, since even though X didn't want to kill innocents, decades of fighting tended to ingrain some reflexes.

Unlike most reploids, X could remove all of his armor, and he had a set of armor which included a faceplate for when he wanted to pass as an ordinary Reploid it came in handy at times like…

X's glove closed around empty air: for a moment it stayed empty, and his eyes began to widen, but then he felt the solid metal that should have been there.


The armor gripped by his brown glove was white, and the startled eyes that met his were orange.

That, now, that was a surprise.

He told himself that he couldn't be sure. Lumine would have been insulted, demanding to know how it was possible, that he could be caught like this by a mere reploid.

He felt the copy system (Axl's copy system, please let it still be Axl's) attempt to scan him.

Also the white-armored reploid was floating, without obvious jets. That could mean an upgraded armor, or, well, Zero had floated. For part of the time he wasn't himself. When X was forced to fight him, and thankfully Zero woke up, returned to himself, later.

Axl and Zero almost certainly had the same creator. That meant he could hope it worked the same way for both of them.

But what, then, of Lumine?

"…Caught, huh?" the boy (and yet he was older than so many of the hunters now) asked sheepishly.

"Have you looked at yourself in a mirror while using this armor?" X asked him.

"Armor? It's not an armor, I just figured out how to go intangi-" Axl frowned, scanning his own appearance. "Something weird happened when you made me solid again. I didn't know my appearance changed while I was invisible. Why would it do that?" Seemed like a total waste of effort.

Once again, X wished he could go back to his studies, to the lab. Once again, he washed the wars were over, but, "Alia will be interested in your new ability, but you're interfering with someone's mourning." Giving them false hope, that they could see their loved one again. The line had been crossed between the nebulous desire to believe in something, and the hope that it could be real, that they could see their loved ones again, that led people to study the virus. How it brought back Sigma, Vile, so many others as twisted ruins of their former selves.

Studying the virus always ended in death or infection. Unless you were X, and just because he hadn't died yet…

"I wouldn't do that! I took Red's form, but…" But Axl was the only one left to remember the original Red, the only one left who would mourn. And he'd taken it to defeat Sigma.

"I know," that Axl hadn't tried to mimic anyone. He'd played a ghost, not someone's ghost. "We let it go on this long since there wasn't… there shouldn't have been any harm in it." X wished, how he wished, that one person's loss could be the most important thing here. But not just invisibility, actual intangibility? "How long have you had this power?" Axl had learned how to become invisible with the help of a new invention during the Giga City Incident, and he had avoided some rather difficult attacks, but it wasn't as though X knew how difficult the individual dodges were when he hadn't known where Axl was at the time. Even his infinite potential system had needed a little time to work on the problem of seeing through that new breed of invisibility.

"Invisibility? I got the hyper mode at-"

"No," X told him. "When I tried to touch you, at first you weren't there."

Still-orange eyes (as thought Axl didn't have any idea why orange eyes could possibly be suspicious, as though Axl hadn't despised Lumine and wouldn't have wanted to rid himself of any resemblance to that idiot) blinked a little. "Really? I thought I'd come pretty close to being clipped a few times…"

The conversation continued, X discussing technical details, or rather enlightening Axl, almost on autopilot, knowledge and habits from when he'd worked from Dr. Cain called up from the depths of memory. It hurt to call them up, because everyone had lost someone.

And, it appeared, he'd lost Axl. This attempt to act innocent proclaimed that he wasn't, to someone who had spent decades watching everyone around him for the little changes, the little signs that someone's personality was beginning to warp, that the virus had eaten them alive from within.

Lumine was pretending to be Axl, pretending to be their comrade. The same tactic used by 'Spider.'

The virus' tactic, really. Control the hunters, turn them against the world, have the murderous enemies pretend to still be X's friends.

He almost wished that it wasn't so easy not to cry. He'd mourned Axl on the way back from that battle. He'd mourned Axl when he joined the hunters, because hunters always died, and at the time he and Zero had no reason to think him immune.

For that matter, Zero wasn't immune.

It was possible that it was Isoc who infected Dr. Gate. That empty shell of a body, left behind to point them towards the realization that it was inhabited by the ghost of Zero's father. That Zero had that man's insane desire for vengeance and destruction to thank for his resurrection.

Yet the lab recordings, certain ones Alia had handed over to X without watching herself, because what she didn't know she wasn't legally bound to report? The ones he'd reviewed on his break to study the virus?

It was Zero, and his awakening, that made Dr. Gate maverick.

Zero was still infectious. Being around him was exposing the hunters to the virus. But fighting the virus exposed the hunters to it. Infections were inevitable. And for now, Zero was saving more lives than he took, by killing mavericks. For now, he couldn't be sealed away. They needed him. If the occasional poor newbuilt was infected?

If Lumine decided to create the virus within the body that was once Axl's (he hoped it was once Axl's, that the child hadn't been a lie all along, they still weren't certain about Spider and he knew it gnawed at Zero and knew that was the plan) and infected one or two members of the unit? He couldn't infect that many, he couldn't be obvious about it, not without blowing his cover.

If his cover was already blown, then there was no reason to try to keep it intact.

There was no reason to have Axl fight mavericks in order to remain in proximity to X and Zero, to study their weaknesses, if he knew X knew.

It was too much. To look forward to seeing him every day, seeing that child's face, Zero's little brother, a sign that immunity could be possible, their hope for the future…

False hope.

So, so very cruel.

Why did the virus, the mavericks, the world, have to be so cruel?

Because he was the last creation of Dr. Light, and making him suffer, well, it wasn't the only reason this was happening, otherwise killing himself so all of this would stop, the innocents would stop getting caught up in this, would start looking like a valid option, but it was a reason.

He couldn't let Lumine see him cry.

He wouldn't let the ghost of Zero's creator, Dr. Wily's remnant, have the satisfaction.

Zero would want to destroy the cause, and it would remind him that he couldn't. X didn't want to do that to him.

Perhaps, perhaps Signas.

They were coming up on the anniversary of Dr. Cain's death.

Let the Commander of the Hunters, let the only survivor of his friend's children, let Dr. Cain's son think that X was crying for Signas' father, for his old friend, instead of yet another lost boy.

It's entirely possible that Zero is an active Typhoid Mary, since the series states that he has to be sealed away or else eliminating the virus can't work: more people will just get infected by Zero, if they don't purify him.

Wow this series lends itself to depressing thoughts. A scarily plausible bit of musing about how things could have gone down in canon, although someone needs to do a real fic where Lumine took over Axl in X8, and Spider/Redips were more of Lumine's, while 'Axl' watched X and Zero...

The first fic in this collection/series: X has to forget Zero, or else he can not remain sane, or just able to function. What about when that isn't an option, or isn't the option that will save the most lives... for now. Staving off disaster in the short term, but without a cure for the virus, all they can do is stave off disaster in the short term. And X knows that, given X7.