Birthday giftfic for NHOrus, not all that belated compared to some other giftfics I owe. I hope you enjoy it!

I keep seeing references to "Jane's Guild To Military Weapons" and "Jade's Guide to Naval Ships" and such and such in various books. Apparently they're a British publishing company that specializes in military, industrial and aerospace reference books.

Barely-there reference to Patlabor. I just wanted to give it a nod.

Zero looked down into the box. He didn't have to express his irritation. It was understood.

The top part was a simple t-shirt that wouldn't restrict the movement of his arms. Green, because green wasn't associated with either of them and also probably because X just liked the color. He'd also mentioned something about it being a good thing if clothing matched your eyes or highlighted the color, which was important for humans whose genes didn't produce eye pigment and therefore their eyes only appeared to be colors other than black and brown because of refraction and colors picked up from the environment and the nearby lighting. Since Zero's eyes were probably going to look green anyway (unless they were attacked, although the stress of having to keep someone alive through that might keep them from calming to blue), better make sure that he was in conditions where eyes would normally appear green.

At least his blond hair was a similar mutation caused by two copies of a damaged gene, and apparently people who had one set of broken genes were more likely to have the other than average humans. Why humans thought that malfunctioning systems were aesthetically pleasing would have been nonsensical if Zero hadn't known that X was an android, more similar to humans than most reploids, and X got bored when everything was the same color all the time, which was why he didn't ever wear a single piece of blue civilian clothing unless he had to for the sake of being recognized as Commander X.

So maybe that desire for some variety in their lives was why humans would go so far as to hit up sperm banks so their children would have malfunctional hair and optic colors. He'd asked X if there was a similarly prized broken skin pigment gene, but apparently that one had too many negative health effects since that pigment was an important component of their built-in radiation shielding. Zero was sure that otherwise, humans would be all for white skin with blue and red stripes.

He still didn't understand why his creator would give his ultimate creation hair and optic colors that proclaimed that he was flawed, damaged, not perfect, but the man was insane and Zero's eyes were probably supposed to be red by default.

When red eyes in humans were also a symptom of damaged genes.

The long brown leather gloves were going to restrict his hand movements a little, but even though no human clothing was an acceptable substitute for armor, they'd provide at least some amount of protection that would be worthwhile if Zero was actually a human. If he had to do something that might have injured a human, then wearing some protective gear would cause fewer questions when he wasn't injured. If he was going to be driving a ride chaser for this, he'd have needed a leather jacket, too. A leather jacket and leather…


Now he glared down at them.

"I got you the kind for martial artists, Zero," X said patiently.

"They make a stupid idea slightly less bad, they don't make those… things anything a warrior would ever wear."

"A lot of human warrior cultures would have agreed with you. Unfortunately, climate was a concern, and giving their legs at least some protection against skidding on rock and sharp plants. I know you don't like restricting your range of motion when you don't have any armor to compensate for it, but you agreed to this." If Zero wanted to pass for a male human, he was going to have to wear the damn things.

"The entire point is to not be recognized as Commander Zero, isn't it? So why can't I wear something practical?"

"The mission is to not be recognized after the parents have put their child in your hands." After Zero had tricked them into thinking that he wasn't a monster, not that X would put it that way.

"Shouldn't a better disguise-"


"And hair this long is associated with female models anyway, isn't it? So if they see a male model with hair like mine, that's odd, but a female model…"

"You started a trend, Zero. It's fashionable now."

"Then I don't see why I can't…"

"Zero. I realize that reducing your combat potential bothers you. I'm well aware of what happened when someone tried to put you in a suit."

Sigma. Not all that long after Zero had joined the hunters. When he was still the Red Demon in the eyes of everyone but Sigma, X, Dr. Cain. When human clothing signaled that someone was less of a threat, both to reploids and humans, and formal clothing was a mark of civilization. When he'd had very little awareness of his own body, of his strange systems. At first he'd been uncomfortable because people were looking at him, studying him, and Medical hadn't been very pleasant when X and Dr. Cain weren't present. There was also the strangeness of all those looks and measurements not being hostile.

He knew what admiration looked like now, recognized the look in someone's eyes when they looked at him and saw something glorious, not a monster, but then it was one more new, strange thing that probably was going to end unpleasantly. Most things did, when he'd killed so many people's comrades and didn't know how to…

His tactical systems had been deeply unhappy, but then his tactical systems had been deeply unhappy the entire day.

In hindsight, he knew that he got the same discomfort from being around humans period as he did from being around armed and hostile reploids even though the danger posed by humans was fairly insignificant because he was supposed to be killing both of them. Back then, it all faded into a blur of suppressed… not fear, he wasn't capable of fear, but anxiousness, the expectation of attack, always having to sit on energy his systems were trying to release in order to fuel defense against that attack. Or taking the offensive himself.

Sigma was calming because Sigma had brought him in alive. Sigma was his ally, in this place.

Sigma was infected.

Dr. Cain, well, another old scientist figured in his dreams. So Dr. Cain he hadn't wanted to kill.

His systems were calm around X for an entirely different reason. Quiet. Allowing for calm analysis. Not giving himself away. Waiting for him to choose the perfect moment to attack.

In hindsight, it was a little odd that Sigma had delivered him into the hands of mostly-humans, but then Sigma hadn't consciously known what exactly Zero was, not then, and it might even have been X's idea, so people could look at Zero and see something other than a killer.

There was no question that he must have been gorgeous in whatever they finally stuck him in. He was gorgeous by default, and he doubted professionals would have done anything but highlight that. But he'd never gotten a good look at it. He hadn't even finished walking over to the mirror when his body started freaking out about how there was something tangled around his legs, and when he wasn't in armor his survival depended on his ability to dodge. It didn't move out of the way obediently the way his hair should have, and searching for things to compare it to, his memory could only pull up being restrained in the medical lab, and the hands that were clenched into fists at his sides, trying to keep control, opened up and get it off me.

How could humans stand to wear those suits? Closely-fitted ones had superior aesthetics, but the cost of that? There was some human spy in movies that was known for preferring suits, but that was ridiculous. A humans' only protection was always not getting hit. No warrior except a suicidal one would willingly wear suits. Or was that the humans' idea? To make sure the gender with chemicals that made them stupidly aggressive was too tied up to do any actual damage before security took them down at important events with important people present, while the half of that population without that handicap was walking around advertising how deadly they were (those were some nice balance systems) so all the humans' their tactical systems were well aware that if anyone did something stupid, they'd be outnumbered by strong people?

Humans were like robot masters, not like reploids: they had programming that they couldn't do anything about, so it made sense that with hundreds of thousands of years of having to live with the programming of primitive systems they'd have worked out ways to reduce the damage.

Had Sigma been pleased, that human clothing made Zero's skin crawl? The way humans in general must have made Sigma's skin crawl, by then. That absolute disgust, their existence utterly repugnant.

When X tried to get him to do something in human clothing, years later, he'd picked out a shirt that didn't even have sleeves, and stretchy shorts. The whole thing felt more like an undersuit than anything, so that was alright, but apparently it wasn't alright if you weren't going to the beach.

Humans. They clearly understood what practical clothing was, so why did they make up all these rules against ever wearing it when it would be useful?

The martial artist pants were designed to allow them to do combat moves without tearing the pants (or having to tear their pants off first), but he could still feel them, and maybe X was right and they felt worse than they actually were, but…

X was looking at him just slightly disappointed now, and "You didn't have to offer," he told Zero. "Please don't put yourself in positions that you know are going to make you uncomfortable just to help me."

"You said undercover," Zero pointed out.

A small sigh. "You know, most humans have to worry about being grabbed. Or getting tangled in things that are long and flowing." Scarves, capes, Zero's hair. Long slit skirts.

Zero snorted a little.

"Yes, I realize that your hair is bait." Anyone who grabbed it would be getting in melee range of Zero, a mistake that would prove fatal very quickly. "But will you please just try them on? I really have to get going, Zero, and if you can't wear this then I only have seventeen minutes to try to find a trustworthy human mercenary who will take a job from an unknown person with no information upfront without selling the information to anyone, and avoiding any chance of compromised com systems."

Their spotters could pass for human in public now, but they could be infected someday. So that wasn't an option.

He'd put X in a tight spot by agreeing to this without thinking it through first just to be helpful, hadn't he?

At least his systems were okay with crowds of humans now. It was actually a lot easier when he was in human clothing. He was in the middle of a herd of his prey, and they didn't even know. They were completely unaware that death was already in their midst, that he could annihilate them before they had a chance of fleeing, much less getting help. It might even have given him the calmness he felt in combat, if not for his awareness of exactly why he was feeling this satisfied, and the worrying need to devote some of his attention to watching himself and his systems, in order to continue to pass. In order to veto all the plans for dispatching multiple opponents effectively tactical kept tossing up.

In hindsight, he did understand why Medical had all looked at him like he was a complete monster. The complete monster that he was compared to reploids, who were running X's solution set programming.

He'd answered their questions honestly, as best he could, and only found out later that no, most people's systems were not constantly helpfully informing them of how best to murder everyone around them. Calculating trajectories of kicks to send heads smashing into walls the way most people's movement systems saw a thrown ball and would predict where it was going to go and how to move in order to close their hand around it before it hit the ground.

"Hey, aren't you supposed to be watching me? Why are you staring out the window?" the young human asked, sounding disappointed but hopeful.

What he definitely didn't want to say was 'I have been watching you. My systems have already produced over two hundred context-specific ways to kill you. And, since I can define people as non-priority targets now, it's prioritizing the speed of my action and the ease of terminating several other people within the same second over the speed of your death. Some of them would leave you alive for quite awhile, surrounded by dead, dying and wounded screaming bodies, which I've been told is very unpleasant for those programmed to care about their fellow beings at all.

'Some of them would even leave you in good enough condition that it would be possible to save you, with prompt medical care and donor organs. Believe me, there would be plenty of freshly dead organs with no one using them anymore, but you're a child: your body has fewer resources to heal with, so any decent triage team would ignore you in favor of those they could possibly save. And, of course, your organs wouldn't be all that useful, and if they have to take a patient who's probably going to die, they'd have to at least take someone whose presence in the hospital could be used to save others. Not that I wouldn't be targeting the medical response teams, so since you'd be at the epicenter, there's absolutely no way they'd reach you before you did die.

'Unless X got here in time…'

The awareness that he was at a disadvantage was making his systems absolutely insist on running an excessive amount of those simulations, and drawing more attention to them than he'd like. It was normally a background process, but he couldn't even afford to slam the likelihood that he'd be attacked down as far as it would go, not when maverick attack was a possibility and he'd need all the situational awareness and preparation his systems could muster if that happened, between the disadvantage and the burden.

He did not like being on the defensive, and he was very, very glad for all the practice he had keeping control and not starting something just because combat, with all the screams of the dying, was so much better than the hellish waiting, the peace X wished for.

I'm going to have to do this again, Zero knew, even as he winced at the thought. It's good practice.

It hadn't taken him long to realize that he thrived on challenge… no, he'd known it all along. It wasn't until recovering that memory forced him to stop ignoring the truth and connect the dots that he connected it to X and his Infinite Potential System.

It would be easier to do this next time. And the next, and the next… Although who knew when there'd be a next time, when even he hadn't known that X was doing this.

Telling him about it was a very stupid thing for X to do, huh? When the point was to keep anyone who might go maverick from finding out about it.

Zero would have thought that X should have picked Axl, except they had confirmation now that Axl had been built at Sigma's request before either being released into the wild or getting out of wherever on his own, and Zero'd cut orders for Axl to do an undercover mission that he wouldn't be coming back from for another week well before the Federation Council decided to do something stupid and X had to take off his 'Commander X of the Elite Seventeenth' helmet and put on his 'Dr. X Light of the Cain Foundation' hat to run damage control.

This was actually pretty rare, these days: not that the Council pulling stupid stunts was rare, but after decades of trying to maintain operational security so the mavericks didn't find out about things they shouldn't, usually the press and X didn't find out either until everything had gone to hell and it was a job for Commander X. Lumine, for example.

Zero was just grateful that since the Irregular Hunters had started out as a humanitarian assistance project by Cain Labs, taking down and fixing poor misbuilt irregulars no matter who built them and then often pressing charges, they still weren't government -run. Oh, he'd heard that in the early days of the Irregular Hunters becoming the Maverick Hunters a lot of the human military had thought they could come in and throw their weight around, but that was over by the time he came back to life. Cain Labs, now the Cain Foundation, had never been for-profit, and with Dr. Cain's passing, X owned seventy-five percent, and the missing twenty-five would pass to him whenever one of the attempts to assassinate Signas, Dr. Cain's last living son unless you thought Sigma counted as 'living,' succeeded.

X owned all the hunters' facilities and equipment, since he was the one who had it all built and made for them. The Cain Labs part of the Cain Foundation 'donated' it to the Maverick Hunter part of the Cain Foundation. Zero got the feeling that the military contractors had been more pissed off by the whole situation, and the loss of all that profit, than the actual military, especially once the actual military got a look at the equipment and living quarters the Hunters got out of all this. Since X wasn't in favor of people dying, and really wasn't in favor of people dying because of substandard equipment and poor living conditions, he'd thrown his own political weight behind a reformation of military spending that the analysts saw as a shrewd move and Zero saw as both X being X and a shrewd move. X might be too kind for his own good, but Zero had met X after he and Dr. Cain had spent years trying to ensure that reploids would be built owning their own bodies and with decent rights. If X had ever been naïve, he'd grown out of it fast.

Nationalizing the Hunters, effectively stealing from a world hero, was fortunately obviously dumb enough that the council itself shut down any of its members who seriously suggested it. Shifting the Maverick Hunters from reploid control to human control would give maverick propaganda a field day like there hadn't been since Repliforce.

A significant number of non-infected reploids who should have known better had given their support to Sigma during the Eurasia Incident because of what they thought Repliforce meant about the state of reploid rights.

The world could not afford a repeat.

They called him naïve because he trusted people, but it was only because he trusted that Zero was here, doing this. Attempting to make conversation with a human child, at the moment, that was looking up at him with big eyes. Trying to flatter him, was he? Make it clear how much he admired Zero. Not to mention that large eyes were supposed to identify young humans in need of looking after. Like trainees.

Who didn't want Commander Zero to think they were worth training?

Zero might not have recognized the Adopt Me (I'll learn fast and kill annoying people for you!) look if Axl didn't have it down to a science. He supposed he was lucky he had some protective instincts, even if they were probably supposed to be devoted towards mavericks instead of mostly X.

Still, identifying the human as 'like Axl' helped, just like 'X wanted this one alive' did.

"I'm keeping an eye on things," he told the kid, which was honest enough. Most of the people in the bus (trains were choke points in transit, too easy to target) with window seats were doing the same thing he was. Especially after seeing that there was a kid on board. Children rarely left their home cities, not until they were older.

They were still in a city, this wasn't exactly tractless waste. They'd be switching to air transit when things got to this point. They were still in a reploid area.

The buses were the same, and the windows could only be seen through one way, for obvious reasons.

"Can I see?" the kid asked hopefully. He wouldn't have been in a reploid city before, not any kid his age and especially not this one.

"I'm staying in the window seat," Zero told him. An attack could come just as easily from the other side of the bus, but the odds were better if he looked out the side he could look out, and didn't have a kid in the way if he had to fire. Or cut an emergency exit into the side.

"Can I look over you?" the kid asked, undaunted.

"Sure," Zero said, expecting the kid to lean forward and peer around him, but not really expecting him to lean towards Zero as well, leaning eagerly enough that they came into contact, even if there was still clothing between them.

Zero was wondering what the kid thought he was doing, or if he was just oblivious to the fact there was something called personal space, especially when curious about something. It was a relief that his systems didn't seem to care. Other people got jumpy when others came too close to them. For Zero's instincts, it just lowered the odds that the boy could survive Zero reaching out and snapping his neck by a sadly infinitesimal percentage.

Well, alright, it did bother him a little when people got too close when they were X. And Iris. The ones he didn't want to kill, and were they trying to get themselves killed. But he knew that humans (and X, and Iris) appreciated physical contact in a sort of 'this person isn't going to kill me' systems check, so he didn't mind anything that made sure the kid wouldn't get nervous. So far, he was just excited, even though he must have been told how dangerous this was. Maybe he believed that Commander Zero was invincible: too many did, despite Zero's track record of relying maybe a little too much on his inability to stay dead.

Ah, so the kid was aware of what he was doing, Zero realized when the kid got a knee up under him so he could lean even more over Zero, bracing himself on Zero's knee this time. He'd taken Zero not reacting as permission. Testing the waters was intelligent, as was taking a mile once given an inch.

Barely-hidden glee was much easier to deal with than fear. Zero was not looking forward to what would happen if the kid realized how much danger he was really in. Simultaneous 'it's realized it should be afraid of you: kill it before it alerts the others!' and 'something that's yours/to-be-protected is reporting that it's in danger: kill the cause' when he was trying to stay undercover and not kill things.

As long as he stayed too excited to listen to his survival programming, Zero's job would be much easier, so spoiling the kid wasn't a bad idea, as long as it wasn't anything too dangerous, or anything that would add time onto the trip.

"What's that?" the kid asked, then seemed to realize that it might have pushed its luck: people got annoyed at incessant questioning.

Ah, data acquisition mode. Zero loved trainees in data acquisition mode. They listened to their elders and that made them a lot less likely to die quickly and cause paperwork for him and sadness for everyone else.

He put a proprietary hand on the kid's head. "Those are a civilian construction ride armors: they call them ride labors. Most modern ones are mechanaloid-based, since it gives them better reflexes and reduces the amount of piloting skill necessary to keep them from falling over, but you'll still see ones like that, because the simpler the mechanism the harder it is to infect and the less infectious it'll be even if that does happen. All the rental ones are that type, because they get passed around from site to site and they'd make good viral vectors otherwise. Cheaper to produce, but the pilots have to be more experienced."

"The package was delivered," he told X when the other hunter got back, pushing himself off the wall where he'd been leaning, waiting for X to arrive. It was the middle of Hunter HQ, so any mavericks who hadn't been spotted yet might not be stupid enough to try anything, but X, out of armor, was a target of opportunity.

"Did you put this teleportation room on lockdown?" X asked him when he didn't see anyone else there.

"And the corridors between here and your quarters."


"You're unarmored, and immune, and everyone had enough advance notice. If you don't want to be in anyone else's way, then get your aft moving," Zero said, pointing.

"Are you going to keep doing this until…"

"What do you think?"

X was tired enough not to argue, just pick up his pace out of consideration for any fellow commanders who might want to head back to their quarters in the officers' wing. It still was a little fascinating how different he sounded without his armor. The weight, the hydraulics. It would be nice if the desire to pounce Zero was feeling right about now wasn't some percent caused by all of that telling him that X would be a lot easier to kill this way. X didn't have his systems telling him what a bad idea it was to wear a suit, and with his physical design he needed the help to look distinguished instead of like jailbait. "I need to speak to Signas before I go to sleep. Could you com him for me?" X's secure com was in his armor, not his head, since it was Hunter issue instead of built-in.

Zero nodded. "Fifteen minutes?"

X nodded back, and Zero found himself tracking the movement of that hair, even though it was purely natural. It would only take him five to get there and armored, plus a few quick things, but once the security system verified that X's door was shut, X asked him, "How was he holding up?"

"He enjoyed the trip," Zero said.

"It's a shame that they have to leave their families, just because we can't…" Because X couldn't find a cure. Because the mavericks targeted human children above a certain IQ level. Because a budding genius couldn't stay hidden forever, not and get the training they needed, unless someone else hid them. "Thank you for getting him there safely."

"I brought him Jane's Guide to Ride Armors at the airport bookstore," Zero told him. "He seemed too ecstatic to be homesick."

That grateful, relieved smile, and Zero would sign up for twenty more days in clothing that should be outlawed by the safety standards people to see it on X's face again. One more burden lifted from his shoulders, and if only it was as easy to do that by killing people. "It sounds like Weil made a new friend. You didn't have any trouble, did you?"

"Not really," Zero said with a bored shrug instead of the smirk that meant there hadn't been anything that qualified as trouble for him, because what X didn't know about the airplane running into a swarm of wild maverick mechanaloids, he would probably be too busy to see on the news.