The original intent of this fic was to focus more on the actual Maverick Wars and show that Zero being female wouldn't really change much aside from how people thought of him/her. The issue was that with rare exceptions, characters are male as sort of the default, which is the reason I have that be the default reploid gender (even though really, female is the default gender evolutionarily) while making a character other than the designated love interest female is a deliberate choice that's generally done to invoke various female tropes.

X-Men First Class is a recent egregious example. A genderflip fic made it painfully obvious how few female characters there were and how cliché their roles were, and really, an expectation that females will be traitors (incl. Moira's memory thing as a precaution)? What?

Since male is very obviously the default for Wily's robots, I had to wonder about what it would mean for him to choose to make Zero the exception.

And then the fic got cracky and One kind of hijacked it by being cute at me, along with Iris.

So, since it was determined to be more a series of scenes than a serious storyline, I thought I'd wrap it up (I've had the first six chapters in my documents folder for well over a year, I'm sure) and get it posted.

Of course, there's no reason not to…

"I'll go," One said, before Zero had a chance to speak or X enough time to process this.

It wasn't that X hadn't known that launching the shuttle at Eurasia was their backup plan, if they weren't able to recover the components for the cannon. He'd thought they had a shot at that, no pun intended, with the three of them able to split the four targets between them, but One's shield had gotten broken almost immediately after starting the mission and while he'd eventually managed to get the part and limp home, it was too late.

Honestly, X had just been grateful he'd survived. One hadn't felt that way, face bleak when they told him he'd done all of that, endured all that fire for nothing. He'd taken so long that he might as well have aborted the mission right away.

And maybe he should have: it was because Zero was getting two components and One the fourth that X had been able to stay on base after getting the one he'd been sent after and help their engineers try to figure out how to compensate for the strange way space was warping around Eurasia, likely to defend it from just such an attack. Even their best shot would have had a fifty/fifty chance at actually hitting. Otherwise, he could have gone after the fourth component once One aborted the mission and came back to base to report.

X had known that if they sent the shuttle, one of them would have to go up with it. There were only three immune reploids. He'd expected Zero to volunteer, because Zero had always been suicidal and what happened to Iris and Colonel hadn't helped.

He should have known. He should have known that One would feel responsible. That he wouldn't want anyone else to die for his weakness.

No matter how angry One was at Zero, despite the fact the commander of the Eighth and the commander of Unit Zero had barely talked outside of work since Zero had killed Colonel and Iris had attacked her to avenge her brother's death only to fall as well, One wouldn't let even Zero die because One was weak.

The weakest of the three of them, even now. Zero was a purpose-built war machine, X was supposedly a being with infinite potential, but One had been an empty vessel, built to have Zero's superior parts slotted into him. The processor and systems he'd been given as placeholders might have been the work of a genius, but One was a reploid, not an android.

Maybe that was why after all these years, X still thought of him as the child. Even though he was the oldest living reploid aside from mavericks and Signas.

Zero didn't count.

Maybe that was why he had to open his mouth to protest, even though the reasoning was starkly clear.

X might have thought it was funny, if he'd felt like he could ever laugh again. Here he was struck dumb and Zero? She was furious. At any other time he might have been relieved that she was acting like this, hair lashing like the tail of an angry cat, stalking around One and finally grabbing him by the throat, trying to shake sense into him even though Zero never got physical with anyone outside of training, even though she had forgotten what those hands had done during the rampage.

If it happened months ago, he would have been glad that One finally shouted at her, "You're not my mother! And you're not my commander anymore, so you have no right to tell me what to do!" X had tried to get them to talk, engineer some scenario that would get two people who were so quiet, possessed such reserve, to open up. Air their feelings before they had any more time to fester.

One was talkative when he was happy, but he hadn't been happy since Iris had died. He'd never been a very confrontational person, and afterwards he'd just… gone quiet. Oh, he'd tried to be cheerful in front of Dr. Cain, because Dr. Cain was dying. After One lost his grandfather as well, X hadn't had the heart to try to confront him about Dragon, the only comfort the boy had left, and Zero had forgotten about the little thing as well.

One avoided what he didn't want to talk about. He clammed up. It would have been better if he'd sent Zero death glares the way those who'd despised her for killing their friends in the rampage had. At least then he would have been expressing those emotions somehow, X thought. And Zero knew how he felt anyway, and she had learned to avoid those people, thinking that she couldn't change their opinions and believing she didn't deserve to. Until the advent of the Maverick Virus changed them for her, Sigma instead of Zero the great monster.

X hadn't known what to say, or do, and Dr. Cain hadn't been there anymore to ask for advice, and now he stood here helplessly, watching them. Knowing that yet another child was going to sacrifice himself to… No, not stop the virus. Merely delay it.

It was hypocritical of him to care more about One than all the soldiers in his unit. All the children that had died since this war started. He still found himself wanting to leave the room, wanting to flee not from One's death or his fight with Zero but X's own helplessness in the face of it.

He wanted to volunteer himself, since that was the only way he could think of to get them to stop fighting, unite in order to shout him down for even suggesting that, but this was… This was the sacrifice of a person's life. He couldn't demean that by treating the offer as just a tactic, something to use to manipulate them. He couldn't make that offer unless it was in earnest: to make it when he knew no one would allow him to go was empty. Hollow.

Even more hollow than he felt right now.

He wanted to close his eyes, he wanted to weep, because One was going to die and Zero would hate herself even more, take even more insane risks, but he couldn't look away. Not when even the shuttle mission had a deadline, not when Eurasia was looming ever closer, not when he would, he would have to pull Zero off One himself, if that was what it took.

After all, hadn't he decided years ago that he would save this world, even if killing innocent children was the price of letting it live another day? To stop now would make everything, all of it, all the children built only to die have been for nothing. And he could not do that. He just couldn't.

Even if the bloom of virus in the sky meant that One's death had made no difference. Even if Zero striking him when he tried to pull her off made Signas decide to listen to Lifesaver and put her in the brig until either there was time to reexamine her or things got bad enough she had to be sent out anyway. X was actually glad of that last – it was dangerous out there now, even if the virus strengthened Zero, and he'd watched her eyes as One calmly acknowledged the final course corrections, as the command center's screens showed the shuttle's impact with Eurasia.

It was better this way, even if it left Zero even more convinced that she was a monster, even if it meant she was caged in alone, without anyone to comfort her. It was better than her being out there, wanting to get shot. At least she'd be alive.

At least X wouldn't lose both of them.

"You're here? I thought she'd come," X heard, and stiffened.

As he turned around, the voice continued, "All the virus here's dangerous for you, and we both know it just makes her stronger." Yes: both of the other immune hunters had already observed what Lifesaver had recently 'discovered.'

The virus made X dizzy. One rejected it without any effects, good or ill. Zero was empowered by it.

Part of that might not be true anymore.

"…He found a way to revive you," X breathed. "That was why he didn't try to stop the launch." X had thought they'd simply moved too fast for One's creator to act, even to save his youngest child.

One widened his eyes and tilted his head a little, an innocent, childish questioning look that wasn't ruined at all by the darkness around them, the virus' twisted light. That hadn't been ruined by all his years as a hunter. "Oh," One realized. "No. He didn't come up with anything new, not for me. Not when he was so busy. I'm not important enough. Or I wasn't," he corrected himself.

X wished he hadn't spent that time as a doctor now, before joining the hunters. Wished he couldn't connect the dots. Wished it wasn't true. "Can you reject it now?" he asked, or prayed. If One knew that the virus would revive him if he accepted it, or guessed that it might, then it only made sense that he'd insist on being the one to take the risk of piloting the shuttle, right? The shuttle saturated with virus. So he'd let it in, counting on his semi-indulgent creator to let him have a new body, counting on him to let One refuse the virus later and leave with X again, join the Hunters again, just like back then.

Please let that be true.

"I can," One reassured him. "Just like Zero did, when she was revived under the virus' control." And had fought X until she snapped out of it, back during the Second War.

Zero hadn't rejected it right away because she'd been dazed and confused, more berserk than maverick. Like the first time she'd woken up. One was lucid, so why hadn't he rejected it yet? X almost desperately tried to think of some reasonable answer to that. "Does it make you stronger, when you're like this?" That made sense, right? If One fought off the virus now, in the middle of a nest of mavericks, without his shield? They'd have slaughtered him. Being one of them would have kept him safe until someone got here.

One nodded, and X felt grateful, because he knew he'd been grasping at straws. Maybe one of them really was a lifeline. But then One frowned. "Why did she make you come? I didn't want you to come here. He wants you dead." 'He' had to be One's creator.

He wanted X dead and not Zero? "Actually, she's still in Medical. She was so upset over what happened to you that I didn't want her to be let out, actually," he confided in One, even though X didn't like that One would probably be happy Zero was so upset. At least it would prove she cared.

Yet One wasn't distracted. "You shouldn't have come," he said, finally seeming actually upset himself, Dragon leaving his hair and climbing down One's arms so One could hold him. "I want to fight her, but you… Maybe if you go now, he won't…"

"Fight… Zero? One, no matter how angry you are with her…" During a war? Using the virus to make himself stronger, to make up for the fact he was only a shadow of Zero in so many ways?

"She killed Colonel. And Iris. All of Repliforce died, and they weren't infected. They can't be brought back." If One hadn't been immune, he would have been declared maverick himself for refusing to participate in that war. "And you, and you just let them! What about protecting people! What about Dr. Cain's family! What about, about…. Iris!" Zero's eyes were normally green when she talked to people, blue on the battlefield. That was where she felt at peace, while people stressed her out. One's were normally a calm, untroubled blue when he wasn't fighting, shades of green seeping in only when he was pressed, when he couldn't avoid a confrontation.

Now they were red.

And X wanted to believe that it was the virus' doing. That One's creator had found some way to break One's immunity, break his will. That this wasn't One he was talking too, not really. Another lost child, but he'd already thought One was dead.

Then One clenched his fists for a moment, visibly calming himself, and that color went away. X hadn't seen Zero or One's eyes turn red before. They weren't people who got truly angry, One because that usually wasn't in his nature and Zero because she tended to kill people, or otherwise act, long before the world managed to break through the shield around her heart, the discipline she'd learned to keep herself from going berserk again, from yielding to the monster.

Blue eyes looked into X's green. "I know what he'll say. It's like your brother. He was a good person, but because he fought, other good people suffered. I wonder if they didn't want to fight him, like I don't want to fight you? But, because of that… If it just goes on, and more innocent people die… I know you wouldn't want that. So…"

"One, don't…" Please, don't do this.

"That's not my name. It's just part of my number. DWN Infinity Minus One. And Wily. He didn't give me a personal name, but he gave me that designation, and a family name. I didn't tell you before because they were secrets, and I promised." There was a bit of apology there. "I want to fight Zero. I don't want to fight you. I like you. But if you only fought people you didn't like, you'd never fight anyone, and I'm not… I won't be weak. And if I can subdue you, maybe…"

Maybe Dr. Wily would let X live? Maybe? If One was a good creation, and did what none of the others ever had, not the disobedient robot masters nor the rebellious princess, meant to rule the hive mind of the virus? If he defeated Light's champion? "…Maybe you don't have to die. Like Iris and Colonel and Dr. Cain… I won't lose anyone else!" All the hunters in his unit that had died before they got infected, all the hunters he'd trained with long since gone, design generation after design generation dead and scrap. And X would join them, if Dr. Wily's remnant had his way. Or Sigma got lucky. Or Zero just killed him, like she had Iris and Colonel even though Colonel had admired her so much and Iris had liked her! Even though they were friends, like Zero and X!

Despite One's determination, despite the fact Dr. Wily hadn't replaced his metal shield because One (X didn't have any other name for him) could use the virus as a shield now, X still knew who would win after the first ten seconds.

Because One was using it as a shield.

He could have used it to swamp X, dizzy him, make him unable to fight or resist. He didn't. He just shot at him, and X knew One knew, even if he didn't seem to be thinking of it consciously, which of them was the master of the buster. Oh, he tried his shield bash move a few times, but not as much as he would have with his normal shield. And that move was much better against larger mavericks than against X, anyway. X was far more agile than most animal reploids. Than most reploids, period.

One was fighting defensively, trying to wear X down without hurting him. He didn't want to kill X, and it showed.

X didn't want to kill him, either. But he never wanted to kill anyone, so he'd learned long ago how not to let that stop him. How to keep from hesitating. How to kill, even though he hated it with every strut in his frame.

And if this wouldn't really kill One, then… Then X couldn't tell himself that this would free him from the virus, but it would let X stop Sigma. It might give One time to come to his senses. So he fought.

So, in the end, he cradled that head in his lap. "One… I'm sorry," he said, and it was apparent he knew it was inadequate. So much to apologize for.

"No, it's… Okay. One was… a nice name."

"What should I call you?" Because what he wanted to be called, who he would be, should be up to One. That was the point of X and those derived from them. Even if so many had that choice taken from them, X wouldn't be the one to do it.

The boy looked distant for a moment, abstracted yet focusing. "One's… fine." The glow faded.

It took X a minute to realize that the glow had faded, the virus was gone, and One was still alive. That hadn't been some mark of his passing, a sign he'd left his body. "You…"

"Iris… can't come back anymore," One said, and tried to move the arm that had fingers: he didn't have enough control anymore to turn his buster arm back into a hand.

"Try to rest. Communications are down, they don't have to…" know that you attacked me, that you gave into the virus for even a moment, X would have said, if he hadn't been shot, the blast passing right through his torso, his armor unable to protect him or the dying child.

Sigma's laugh and Zero's scream of rage (when had she gotten here? How long had she stood there watching?) faded. He thought he heard a voice like his father's, but it faded like a human's dream after X woke up again.

One didn't.

have the fic return to a mood fitting in more with X series, in the end. X5 is the point I write a lot of AU scenarios at, but in-verse it's kind of where AU scenarios go to die, since there are all these different tracks that all end up to about the same bleak ending, and by Zero series it's all literally the same outcome anyway.

Yes, the com should have been on during that scene, but I didn't want to deal with the complications of having Alia, Signas and Lifesaver in the conversation. It's an AU to begin with. (So please don't sue me, Capcom.)

The title is from The Firebrand, by Marion Zimmer Bradley. There's a quote at the beginning about Queen Hecuba, mother of Paris, who, "dreamt she gave birth to a firebrand, who burnt down the walls of Troy."

An annoying trope is Female Success is Family, and female characters tend to get sidelined in favor of male ones in general. So in the end, I ended up doing a bit of commentary on how people treat female characters, instead of sticking with the plan of having Zero play exactly the same role in the fic as in canon. I've given One a passive personality, when I write him, in order to avoid having him steal the spotlight. He was specifically constructed to not really be that kind of character, but more of a sidekick type that acts as a plot device/support for the more important characters around him. Here, though, he's ended up clinging to Dr. Wily and Iris' memory instead of seeing X and Zero as his parental figures.

No, by the way, this is not an X/Zero fic. They actually have less chemistry than in canon, due to X having Zero in that 'potential daughter-in-law with mental health issues' slot instead of 'sempai/trainer that I can rely on when I need help' slot. My Xmuse just isn't attracted to people he doesn't see as equals. And dating his son's sort-of-ex? He might be old, but he'd rather not be a creepy old man.

I could spend more time on how Zero is not going to want to work with Axl at all, because he is young and cares about his family and obviously doomed doomed doomed, but I decided to wrap this up with a depressing finale because it's an X series fic.