i. out of necessity

ACCESS DENIED.

"You're kidding me."

ACCESS DENIED.

Zero was an S-class Hunter. He had retired Mavericks that had terrified dozens of his comrades. Solo. He had, apparently, been instrumental in the whole X-saving-the-world thing (although he wasn't thinking about that at the time). Ten minutes after being put back online, he was doing it again.

So damn it, he was allowed to whine a little when his door wouldn't open.

The Hunter dormitories were never anything particularly special. They hadn't even had dorms at all, at first, but Dr. Cain had argued (and X had successfully proven in simulations) that reploids had just as much need as humans for a Place to come to, something private and personal, a constant-particularly in their so frequently inconstant lives. They were pretty half-assed the last time he'd seen them-dark grey hallways with rows of doors that looked more like the entrances to top-secret laboratories than bedrooms. The halls were... well, the same halls, but there was carpet now (dark green and cushy enough to muffle even the sound of his fully-armoured footsteps), and some of the doors had pictures taped on. (The dorm across the hall had a complex and perfectly symmetrical arrangement of sparkly flower stickers, the word IRIS done out in negative space. Cute.)

Zero's door hadn't changed, though. Except for the fact that it wasn't taking his damn passcode.

The blond reploid kept himself to a groan this time, letting his eyes slip tiredly shut as he stepped back to comb his fingers through his hair. There was probably something stupid obvious he was missing, but damn it, he'd blown up a supercomputer today and that was the easy part. (Okay, second easiest. He didn't usually like being alone and silent with one person at a time, but X was already the exception to a truckload of weirder rules.) He hadn't even been back at HQ five minutes before he was whisked off to medical to "make sure he was okay" when what the hell else would he be after being rebuilt from scratch-translation: "be scanned a million times while people stare at him like he was a fucking zombie"-, and then there was the bureaucracy of being brought back from the dead because the stupid systems put "dead" and "Maverick" under the same category and they had to manually put in a loophole to let people be removed from that category because funny enough they'd never had to do that before, and not that Zero didn't like not being attacked by the automated defence whatevers or anything but he definitely didn't like having to wait half a day to get into a damn building, and then of course the next ten hours ended up basically being paperwork. Because he'd helped end a war. And there were reports. Apparently.

A human probably would have fallen asleep just getting up the stairs. Zero wasn't human but he certainly felt like one after all of that.

And his door wasn't working.

He was definitely allowed to whine.

He was halfway through poking out his passcode again out of desperation when a quiet voice interrupted him. "Zero?"

Turning his head a little, the blond reploid caught sight of X, who was looking a lot slimmer and smaller without his armour but also a lot more... himself.

"Hey," Zero said, a little surprised. "They kept you up too?"

X flushed a little, darting his eyes to the side. He tugged uncertainly at a loose thread on his shirt and even from the couple of metres' distance Zero could see that his hands were shaking. "Not really," he said. "They—they pretty much knew what happened with me. And the building didn't try to kill me."

"Lucky."

Silence fell. X worried his lip, his eyes wide and fixated on Zero's face like he couldn't quite believe he could see it again.

Like the looks everyone else was giving weren't weird enough.

"Why are you here, X?" Zero asked, and promptly winced when he realised how… unfriendly it sounded. "Isn't your room…?" Vaguely, he wiggled a hand in the direction of "up" and "a little left, maybe".

"Oh." X blinked a few times. "I was looking for you, actually," he said. "I know they put you back into the system, but I realised that they'd erased your room data when you—" Faltering. A shake of the head, skipping over the words he didn't want to think about. "I didn't know if you were reassigned or not."

…Well, that explained the door. "I don't think so." Zero leaned against the wall, valiantly trying to make it not look like he was thinking about just switching off then and there, recharger be damned.

A thought struck him and he frowned. "If you were done with Command hours ago…"

X shrugged and avoided his eyes. "I couldn't sleep."

Oh.

"So since I'm not using it and you still officially don't exist…" (X's smile didn't reach his eyes X's smile didn't reach his eyes) "My passcode's the same. If you want, I mean."

Zero pursed his lips and pushed off of the wall. "Promise me you'll get some rest too and you've got a deal."

X grinned. (Now it did. Something tight and afraid in Zero's chest began to unwind.) "I thought I was the mother hen," he teased, falling into step with the taller reploid, and his voice only trembled a little.

Zero affectionately kicked X's ankle midstep, not quite tripping him but definitely messing him up a little. "Shut up, rookie."

X had a bed. Like, an actual, human bed. With sheets. He had actually put a mattress over his recharger.

As he pulled the blanket up to his chin, Zero kind of understood; in the moment before his systems stilled, he resolved to figure out where X had gotten the mattress in the first place.

He whirred back into awareness when it shifted beneath him a couple of hours later. He tensed, turning his head, adrenal systems thinking about coming online, but—

But it was just X, his dark mop of hair in fluffy disarray, his face slack and his eyes loosely shut. He wasn't under the blankets; he must have perched on the very edge, tried not to disturb Zero…

Zero's lips quirked. Slowly, so as to avoid waking his friend, he tugged the brightly-patterned quilt out from under X's hips and drew it up to the sleeping android's ribs.

He drifted off again to the sound of X's breaths timing themselves with the slow pulse of the recharger. And if he woke up with X's back pressed to his chest, his nose shoved in X's hair and his skin singing with shared warmth, the most content he could remember really being…

Well, that was just an added bonus.

ii. out of concern

"I'm fine," Zero protested, wincing as his shredded shoulder joint exploded with a brief shower of sparks.

X raised an eyebrow at him.

"My self-repair systems can work through this," he said patiently. "Just watch."

"I know." But you're in pain. And X couldn't stand it when people were in pain—much less Zero, out of all of them, although there was that bit of worried guilt that he had started to put so much emphasis on a single individual over an entire world. "How long?"

Zero shrugged before he thought better of it, his voice modulator catching on a garbled, staticky cry of pain, his eyes squeezing shut. "About a week," he said through gritted teeth.

"My self-repair is almost as good as yours," X offered, consciously exerting effort to not immediately close the two steps' distance and start physically carrying his friend rather than risk him hurting himself more. "And you know how my systems can adapt. If we hook up during recharge cycles—"

Hesitated. Thought a moment about what had just come out of his mouth. Thought a moment about the connotations of what had just come out of his mouth. Thought a moment about the bitten-back Knowing Snickers that his closeness to Zero already got without accidental innuendo.

Tried, and failed, to keep a faintly mulberry flush from tingeing his synthskin.

Zero, bless him, didn't seem to notice. He just grimaced, giving the cold wall of the medical wing a calculated stare. "You're not going to let me say no, are you." It wasn't a question.

"Well—If you really don't want to—" X frowned a little. "I just want to help you."

The look Zero gave him was… strange, almost… wondering, as if he couldn't quite believe anyone would want to help him and really mean it. (X wanted to go through some records, try and see what exactly kept happening in Medical that made Zero so antsy afterwards, but he didn't want to look without permission and he didn't quite know how to ask without making the already-reserved reploid close off even more.) "I know," he said, very quietly, and there was that look transformed into words—like he wasn't referring to the present situation at all, but something deeper and more hidden, and he fully expected X to know exactly what he was actually talking about even without an explanation.

Zero did that a lot.

"Okay, bluejay," he said, voice lightening. "Your room or mine?"

Bluejay? X thought, a little puzzled. And then, more pressingly, does he honestly not know what he just said or is he messing with me?

"Hook up" had really been a fairly inaccurate term, since neither one of them had much in the way of ports or external cords, but X doubted it would feel any more… integral, merging, even if the connection had been something more tangible than nanites filtering through each other's skin. Anything not specifically designed to be permeable to the tiny particles had a habit of confusing them, so they had stripped down to the conductive bodysuits they wore under their armour—a pretty meaningless attempt at modesty; it wasn't like the suits did a single thing to halt or interrupt or even slightly muffle their sense of touch, so X felt Zero's ribs shifting against his with as much acuity as if their skin had been completely bared.

Exhausted from the self-repair process, Zero had fallen asleep almost before X's systems had joined in to help. He lay on his uninjured side, facing X, his nose cold against the brunet's neck. X could feel Zero's almost translucently pale eyelashes fluttering against his chin every time the dreaming android twitched in sleep.

Slowly combing his fingers through the loose spread of Zero's unbound hair, X hoped they were good dreams. Zero deserved them.

The blond's arms tightened around X's waist, face pressing closer into his throat, and X couldn't keep back a smile as he slipped into peaceful unconsciousness.

iii. out of comfort

X wasn't surprised to see Zero sitting in his room when he opened the door. Good. Zero probably couldn't explain why he was there anyway. He could barely even think in complete sentences. Doubted he could talk.

X set the door to absolutely not tell him if anyone tried to reach him and walked over, shedding his armour on the way, his footsteps quiet and careful as if Zero was some sort of pain-maddened stray animal.

Zero hiccupped an indescribable noise that was not a laugh at that.

Finally, the last of his protective shell discarded on the bed, X knelt on the floor beside Zero.

Neither of them said anything. After a few moments, X gently—so gently—reached forward, unlatching the fastenings on Zero's helmet, easing it away from his face and placing it with care on the floor next to them.

That's right, Zero thought; he hadn't not been wearing his armour for… how long… had it been? The last war had felt so short…

"They weren't even Mavericks," he said, his own voice startling him. But X didn't react.

"I know." Not, 'Some of them were,' or, 'Not all of them.' He just knew.

Probably better than most—X, who had never chosen any of this willingly, who had only turned to combat when people started dying… and now the people who were dying weren't even killed by Mavericks, but by their Hunters, and what were they supposed to tell themselves to believe they weren't monsters now

"I killed her—her brother." The words were heavy on Zero's tongue, leaden, and he tried to push them away.

"You had no choice," X murmured, brushing a ragged strand of Zero's bangs away, fingers cold and focussing.

Zero shook his head, flinching, tucking his knees a little closer to his chest. X sat back on his heels, close enough to sense but not so close as to be stifling. How did he know things like that? Calculate the exact distance that would be most reassuring at that moment? Zero didn't even know and he was the one X was trying to reassure…

"She had no choice," Zero corrected dully.

X was silent. Zero didn't, couldn't, look at him.

"She was your Navigator," X said, finally breaking the quiet.

Zero almost wanted to snap back, to say that no, that wasn't right, that wasn't good enough, but…

Navigator. That voice in his helmet, keeping him safe. Keeping him steady. Guiding him home.

And he had killed her. The dream that—morning? He'd always thought it was a memory, but it was getting harder and harder to know which memory-blood and oil on his hands, on his armour, seeping into his mouth—

"She would have killed you," X whispered. "There was nothing you could have—"

"You would have found a way." Because X was like that, X was better than him, X didn't get himself into the kinds of darkness that Zero was born in.

"They looked at her. I read the reports." X shook his head, very slowly. "There was nothing anyone could have done to stop her. And there was nothing she could have done to stop herself."

Critical failure. Back when they were just fighting Irregulars. Back when the deaths were rare and always out of mercy instead of self-defence. Reploids too broken to put back together, glitches too deep to rewrite, paradoxes and infinite loops until the entire personality was just one huge error message.

Funny, Zero had never seen that happen to a sane reploid before.

"Should have let her kill me," he said.

"It wouldn't have fixed her."

"Might have fixed me."

X's fingers reaching out, grasping his with a sudden urgency. Zero looked up, startled.

"My Zero," X said, his green eyes soft and so, so bright, although whether from pain or something else Zero couldn't say. "I think you're wonderful."

Zero swallowed, squeezing X's hand with the nameless desperation of a drowning human clinging to driftwood. "Stay with me?" The words came out like blood from a wound.

"You're the one who came here, remember?" X's smile was soft and constant, and the guilt and the hate still bubbled in Zero's mind but he could at least believe that X believed that Zero was good, could be good, would be good, and that in itself was a kind of comfort. X tugged at his hand; limp, Zero let himself be pulled along until his head rested on X's shoulder.

Something sagged at the contact—his forehead to X's clavicle, just one tiny point and it wasn't enough and it was too much, and someone was crying and he didn't know who it was it couldn't be him he'd never cried before did he even have the ability to cry why would he have been built with—

"It's okay," X was murmuring, rocking them gently, cradling Zero's head in his arms. "It's okay. I know."

Zero hid his face in X's stomach, his breaths coming shallow and choked and desperate, until exhaustion overtook him and he finally, desperately, slept.

X's only move the whole night was to tug a blanket from the bed and lean a little closer to the wall.

iv. out of habit

A second pillow appeared on X's bed.

X saw it and laughed.

v. out of love

X nuzzled further into Zero's chest, a faint, dazed smile dancing across his lips. "Missed you," he murmured, barely audible in the stillness.

Zero stroked his partner's hair, slowly, like the shorter android were a particularly comfortable cat—which he might as well have been. The colour had started to return to X's face, softness retaking its territory from the dead-eyed, rough-edged expressions he had carried before, when Zero had first come back again. The stress wasn't gone—far, far from it—but at least, at least X didn't look like he would just lie there if he fell.

Zero shut his eyes, nudging a firm kiss to X's hair. "Missed you too, buddy."

out of time.

X squeezed his eyes shut, trying to work up the will to walk away from the chamber.

Inside, Zero's body lay motionless, his mind out of reach.

X closed the door. It did not open again.