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Future Vision

Chapter Text

“Bass, cover me!”

Punk’s voice echoes through the complex, his loud metallic footsteps following soon after.

Quint, who’s perched on top of a roof with Sakugarne laid low next to him and Enker kneeling at his other flank, takes aim while carefully tracking Punk’s mad dash out of cover. Ballade is taking no such caution across the way, popping up and spraying out automatic fire like there’s no tomorrow. Roll has to pull him back by the back of his chestpiece to avoid Punk’s return fire, which splats into the wall behind him.

Quint fires, and Punk swears audibly enough that they can hear him from the rooftop as his shot hits home. He staggers and kneels, arms crossed. He’s not five meters from his goal, a bright red flag that is a little tattered at the edges.

Ballade whoops, and Roll and him break cover to make their own grab at the flag. Enker jumps down from the rooftop, and Quint covers him as he goes in for a melee assault, wielding a paint roller on a pole. They’re all interrupted by a black-and-yellow blur.

The hiss of his dash boosters echoes around the warehouse complex as Bass enters the fray. In the space of seconds, Roll, Ballade, and Enker are forced down to their knees as they’re tagged out. Grinning, he makes a beeline for the flag, arm reached out to grasp it -

- and freezes as, at the last possible moment, a paintball collides with his back and leaves an angry red splotch. His head swings around and he glares red bloody murder at Quint as he hops down on Sakugarne from the rooftop and strolls over leisurely to pick up the flag.

“Team one wins,” Enker says.

“Oh, that’s bullshit! ” Bass seethes, reaching around behind his back to try and wipe away the paint. It’s no good - it’s right in the spot where he can’t reach.

You think that’s bullshit?” Punk says, standing up and dusting off the front of his boots. “You’re the one who cost us the game!”

“The training exercise,” Enker corrects, and Punk rolls his eyes exaggeratedly.

“You’re the one who cost us the training exercise,” he amends.

“You should know that you can’t just tell me what to do!” Bass barks back, bristling.

“I’m sorry you’re a nightmare to work with!” Punk shoots back, bristling just as hard if not moreso. Bass is intimidating, but Punk is made almost entirely of spikes, so he has a lot more to bristle. “If this’d been a real fight I could’ve died, you complete ass!”

“Guys,” Quint says, cutting in in his most diplomatic voice. “We’ve been running drills for years, and Bass has never worked in a team before. He’s learning a whole new set of stuff here.”

“Roll is just fine,” Ballade jerks a thumb over at Roll, who Quint can tell is trying not to look pleased.

“I mean,” she says, stern professionalism finally winning over her warring expression, “I’m used to working in a team, too. With Jazz.”

There’s an awkward beat as everyone simultaneously remembers the events of a few months ago. R-Shadow’s assault from Quint’s timeline, chasing his Roll and Kalinka who’d followed Quint’s trail for refuge. His change of heart, his real name, and his sacrifice, disappearing with the Time Skimmer into the aether.

Quint isn’t sure what to say. Whenever this topic comes up, he wants to tell Roll that Kalinka thinks Jazz might still be alive out there somewhere, but she’d asked him not to, and he sort of understands her reasoning. So instead he weathers the distant look in Roll’s eyes and the silence it brings with it that no one wants to break.

“I did fine when you put me with Quint.”

Bass is, predictably, the one to get over the sentiment the quickest.

“That’s not the point,” Enker says with what in Quint’s opinion is a downright saintly amount of patience. “This is a teamwork drill. You have to be able to work with any one of us, not just Quint.”

“I don’t have to do shit!” Bass throws his hands up. “I’m stronger than all of you and you can pull your little teamwork shit while I go in and fight solo.”

“You’re not going to be stronger than everyone you meet, Bass,” Ballade snaps. “Plus, from what I heard? Roll handed you your rear the last time you fought.”

Bass snarls, looming in Ballade’s direction.

“Eat shit, Ballade,” he says.

“That’s enough,” Enker says, with the definitive air of a referee. He points at the multicoloured mess of splotches their exercise left behind. “Losers clean up. Hop to it.”

They can’t practice with live plasma cannons anymore, but that hasn’t stopped Enker’s near-obsessive need to put the ex-Mega Man Killers plus Bass and Roll (they still haven’t decided on a new name) through training. They’ve had to make do with an eclectic mix of paintball modifications and human athletic equipment.

Bass seethes, seesawing on the spot before storming off back in the direction of the lab.

Punk sighs the long and resigned sigh of those who are assigned an inept partner for group work everywhere, and trots over to pick up a washcloth and bucket from where they’re stashed around a corner. Roll shakes her head and, against Ballade’s protests, pitches forward to help him.

Quint jogs after Bass.

---

Bass, who is equipped with a dash booster, a longer stride than Quint, and an unwavering sense of purpose in every step, is fast enough that Quint doesn’t catch up to him until he’s already inside the lab. Kalinka is in her normal spot at the hub, working on some machine or another below the twisted space that used to be R-Shadow’s portal.

“Bass!” he calls out, and Bass looks over his shoulder. An initially frosty piercing gaze softens when he catches sight of who it is. He stops walking, and Quint collides with him in a hug.

“Hey,” Bass says, looking sort of self-conscious as he puts his arms around Quint in return. It’s kind of weird - Bass isn’t concerned in the least by public displays of affection out in the city, which is mortifying for Quint, but when it comes to it in front of people they both know, he seems to suddenly become shy of anything past hand-holding. Kalinka is doggedly not glancing up in their direction, though, so he relaxes into the embrace. “You here to tell me how much I suck, too?”

His tone is bitter, if disarmed of the teeth it had when he’d been snapping at the others.

“You don’t suck,” Quint says. “Buuuut,” he draws out the word through his teeth, “being part of a team means teamwork, y’know. There’s no getting around that.”

“I don’t need teamwork,” Bass says obstinately.

Quint cocks his head.

“But you already work with Treble all the time,” he says. “And like you said, we don’t have any problems.”

“Yeah, well, I like you guys,” Bass says. “That’s different.”

“Awww,” Quint grins. “You like me?”

“Of course I like you,” Bass rolls his eyes and plants a kiss on Quint’s nose. “Idiot.”

Quint laughs, and gives Bass one last squeeze before letting go.

“It’s Enker’s job to push you on this,” he says, more solemnly. “So I won’t, but I think they’re right.”

“Whatever,” Bass crosses his arms and looks away. “Your family is weird.”

“They’re yo-” Quint starts to reply, but he’s cut off by Kalinka.

Yes!” she says, holding up the piece of machinery she’d been quietly working on in the background the whole time. “It’s working!”

The two of them both look up at her.

Kalinka, who is still sprightly despite the obvious oncoming of middle age, bustles around the disaster area that is the centre of her lab, setting the new machine down below the portal, where a thin beam of light is emitted from it and disappears into the warped space above.

Her work area fans out in a few rings of equipment and tables from its centrepoint where the Time Skimmer once stood, and the passageways between each area resemble rugged woods trails in their tidiness - that is to say, they’re difficult to find and it’s even harder to avoid stepping on something important, because the piles of components are always teetering in a delicate balance over the meagre clear path.

“I can tell you’re dying to know just what kind of brilliant feat of engineering I’ve pulled off today,” Kalinka says, fingers flying over the keyboard.

“Not really,” Bass says flatly.

“Let me rephrase,” Kalinka says, lips curling into a crooked smile. “I can tell you’re dying to get out of that conversation.”

Kalinka!” Quint says.

“Wow, we better go see what kind of brilliant feat of engineering Kalinka’s pulled off today,” Bass says, practically dragging Quint through the widest pathway to the middle of the room. Quint pouts, and then winces as an unidentifiable piece of circuitry crashes to the floor in their wake.

“Behold!” Kalinka presses the enter key with a flourish, and as they pull up next to her, the array of screens in front of her switch from complicated graphs, numbers, and an internet browser to a single unified video feed. “The Time Skimmer four-point-oh!”

It’s some kind of laboratory, though the equipment lying around seems different somehow from what Quint remembers from his time as a lab assistant. More streamlined, maybe. Futuristic. The feed is staticy and the colour of the area is tinted purple, but it’s clearly a lab, built with metal walls and metal flooring and characterized by a dull desaturated paint job, with a lot of areas just showing bare metal. It’s also abandoned.

“I thought it was a time machine,” Bass says, missing the mark of impressed and hitting somewhere just above openly disappointed.

“Wily made it a time machine,” Kalinka sniffs, clearly offended. “We’re using it for its original purpose - skimming timelines. We’re looking at another world and time altogether right now, so try to look at least a little excited.”

“You’re trying to find Jazz,” Quint says, as it dawns on him.

“So he’s not dead?” Bass scowls. “Why the hell would we want to find Jazz?”

“Because he has a lot to answer for, and he doesn’t get to just walk away from it,” Kalinka says, and then more quietly: “And because he’s family.”

Bass looks away from her and back to the unmoving video feed above. Quint detects a hint of something pass over his face, and just as he’s about to inquire about it, he sees Bass’ eyes lock on to a spot on the screen and Quint follows his gaze.

On the other side of whatever they’re looking through, a door opens, flooding the abandoned lab with light.

---

A hundred or so years in the future, but also half an hour ago:

Zero’s tumble into consciousness goes a little something like this: first, as always, his combat systems come online. He registers that there’s only one other person in the room, and that they’re a massively powerful threat. Then the rest of him, always secondary, kicks into gear, and he relaxes, because while objectively his combat systems are correct, it’s just X.

He would wake up to a minor panic attack every day for the rest of his life if he could forever capture the rush of relief he feels when he opens his eyes and looks down at X, brown hair mussed, curled up against his side and tangled up in the golden strands of Zero’s hair.

“Hey,” Zero says, curling up an arm to jostle his partner. X’s expression scrunches up from the tranquility of sleep as he stirs, and then emerald green eyes are blinking at Zero owlishly.

“Oh,” X says, smiling faintly. “Hey.”

Zero smiles back.

It’s new to both of them, waking up like this. They’ve only done it a few times so far.

X yawns, which Zero observes with interest. They’re both built to look and act like humans, but X is on a whole different level altogether. Dr. Light put every minute detail of humanity into his frame, including the small and subconscious things that humans take for granted. Zero catches him scratching at a phantom itch on his arm every so often. He gives him shit for it, because they’ve been friends for longer than most reploids have been alive.

“No time to be sleepy,” Zero says, letting his head fall back onto the pillow with a soft thmp. “Didn’t you have a report to get in?”

X groans, pulling himself closer to Zero and gripping him like work is physically trying to pull them apart.

“How can you remember that and still be so behind on your own paperwork?” he whines.

“Hey, it’s not totally my fault,” Zero grins. “I can’t very well do my squad reports if my squad hasn’t given me their reports.”

“It’s your job to make them do it.” X rolls his eyes.

“It’s my job to retire mavericks,” Zero huffs. “I’m really good at retiring mavericks.”

“I know, I know.” X pats his abdomen.

“I’m so good at retiring mavericks, X.”

“Alright, I get it,” X says. Zero feels a rumble as he tries and fails to contain his laughter. Zero grins and then pulls him in for a languid kiss, enjoying the soft press of X’s lips on his.

They stay that way for a few minutes, but eventually, with the greatest reluctance, X pulls away and starts to rifle through the room for his things.

Zero fans out to take up the whole bed, enjoying the time for what it is. He’s due to drill the Zeroth Unit in about twenty minutes, and normally he would be out there getting ready for it already. He doesn’t handle downtime well, generally speaking. He always feels like he’d rather be out fighting something. X, and a handful of other people, are exceptions to the rule.

Watching X just putter around and try not to put his shirt on backwards, he could do that all day.

Naturally, they’re interrupted.

“X, Zero, report to command as soon as possible,” Alia’s crisp and professional voice comes in over their comms.

Zero sits up and the two of them share a look. When the two of them are requested for duty together, that usually means…

---

“The readings are similar to the Sigma Virus,” Alia says, bringing up a map of the area in question on the screen. “That was concerning enough, but this area hasn’t had any recent history of maverick activity.”

Alia is seated at her station in the informational hub of the Maverick Hunter base, hands flying over the keyboard. Secondary screens are displaying information and scrolling past at what, to Zero, is a dizzying speed. There’s a background noise of chatter as the other navigators guide their respective assignments through missions and the command, which start in rank above X and Zero and go up to the general, Signas, deliberate and disseminate orders. X and Zero are standing behind Alia, fully armoured and ready for duty.

“That’s… abnormal,” X says, stroking his chin and frowning thoughtfully. “When any strain of the Maverick Virus goes through an area, we’re usually -”

“- playing whack-a-maverick,” Zero finishes. X sends him the driest and most unimpressed look, and he just grins disarmingly.

“Well, yes, essentially,” X relents. “That’s what the virus does. It turns reploids maverick. Shouldn’t we be in crisis mode right now?”

“That’s the thing,” Alia says. “We’re a peacekeeping organization. We can’t get a whole squad in there unless there’s actually a maverick to hunt. Not to mention, if it is a new strain, who knows how it operates. We’d be risking infection.”

“So you’re sending us in because we’re both functionally immune and it’s just the two of us,” X surmises. Alia nods.

“You’ve got it in one,” she says, and then she looks between the two of them as though sizing them up. “Oh yeah, X, did you ever get that report in? Signas was looking for you last night, but nobody could find you.”

“Oh, uh,” X straightens. “No, I didn’t. Sorry, Alia. I’ll get it in as soon as I can once we’re done here.”

“And Zero usually knows where you are, but no one could find him, either,” she says. Zero’s not an expert at reading people, but the statement seems pointed.

“He was with me,” Zero says.

“Doing paperwork,” X hastily cuts in. “He’s so behind. Which is why I didn’t get my report done.”

“Yes,” Zero says, trying not to let his annoyance show through. “That’s me. So behind on paperwork. As everyone knows.”

Alia’s eyebrow, which has slowly been climbing up her forehead during their exchange, reaches its zenith.

“We should get going,” X says.

“Agreed,” Zero says.

---

The building they’re sent to, the origin point of the signal, is an abandoned building. According to Alia, it used to be some kind of technological development facility for weaponry, but it’s been shut down for nearly twenty years.

Zero knows the drill here. Usually, in this kind of situation, a maverick has taken over the facility and the old defense systems come online and try to kill him as he makes a mad rush towards the room where the maverick is waiting (or hiding, depending on their temperament) for a good old match of one-on-one combat.

… Which is why it’s so unnerving when precisely none of that happens. X and him press into the facility’s depths, going through hallway after unremarkable hallway, but nothing jumps out at them. It’s just dark, bare, and empty. And a little purple. There’s a haze settled around that’s growing denser as they go.

Frankly, after the fourth corner they round without any opposition and the fifth cleared room, Zero is starting to feel on-edge from a pressing boredom.

He makes triple-sure his comms haven’t been left on before tapping X on the shoulder.

“Hey,” he says, even as the other hunter jumps, his head whipping around. “Why’d you lie to Alia?”

Zero -” X says, breathing out slowly. “Please don’t scare me like that.”

Zero frowns. He guesses it would be pretty sub-optimal to get shot because he startled his partner. Then again, he’s not sure if X and him feel fear quite the same way, sometimes.

“Hey, don’t dodge the question,” he says.

X sighs, running a hand down his face.

“Because as soon as we go public about our relationship, we have to deal with command, and, if it gets out, the actual public. Just… a whole mess of figuring things out and restructuring. And politics.

Zero frowns. He interacts with the organizational structure of the Maverick Hunters about the minimum possible amount that he can get away with. X has always been far more engaged.

“I don’t really want to hide it,” he says, finally. They’ve started moving again, creeping through the darkened hallways with weapons up. Zero’s beam sabre is throwing off enough light to see by, even in the sections that aren’t lit or windowed.

X bites his lip, and then starts to say something, but then they pass by a doorway that opens as they approach, and he reaches back to grab Zero’s arm.

“Alia,” he says, and it’s echoed for Zero over the comms, “I think we’ve got something.”

---

In the present:

Quint gasps as the figures enter the room. They’re at once familiar and not at all so; one of them is wearing armour that could only be described as a tribute to Mega Man. The colour, even distorted through the viewscreen, is clearly blue, and patterned in the same way with the darker blues on the boots and other armoured parts. On the other hand, he’s sporting chest armour, too, and there’s a big red jewel in his helmet right over his forehead.

Behind him, the source of light steps in. His getup is bright red, and Quint would honestly be hard-pressed to sum up his appearance in a few words. He’s got armour too, but it’s got far more segmented parts and it’s overall more angular and sharp. His helmet is stylised almost into something resembling horns at the top edges. His under-armour is varying shades of grey, and there are some white and golden decals that sort of remind him of Bass. They match an absolutely, unreasonably massive golden mane of hair, which is swept into a huge ponytail behind him. He’s holding a beam sabre in his hand, which is emitting a soft blue glow that pierces through the purple haze around them. It also reflects off of two of the most awkwardly-placed chest jewels that Quint has ever seen.

“Hey,” Bass rests a hand on Quint’s shoulder and points at the second figure. “I’ve seen that girly robot before!”

“You have? ” Kalinka asks, wrinkling her nose. “I was sort of hoping we’d locked on to something in, I don’t know, the future future.”

“I’ve never seen a beam sabre come from a handle like that,” Quint points out. “It’s like… miniaturized.” His eyes wander back to the blue robot, who’s wandering closer to their vantage point. Their mouths are moving, but there’s no audio.

“He wasn’t activated yet,” Bass says. He frowns and narrows his eyes at the feed. “You have no idea when or where this is?”

“Why Kalinka, how ingenious you are, re-inventing extradimensional tracking all by yourself on a budget,” she mutters.

“I think it’s really impressive,” Quint offers.

“Thank you, Quint,” Kalinka beams. Bass rolls his eyes hard as she continues. “But no, I don’t have a fix on exactly what we’re looking at just yet. I was just following Jazz’s trail the best I could.”

“Um,” Quint says, as the blue figure walks towards the screen. “Is he supposed to be looking at the camera?”

“There isn’t one per se, so no,” Kalinka says. Her hands start moving as she relegates the feed to one screen and starts messing with programs that Quint doesn’t understand.

They all hear it at once - an ominous sparking from the rebuilt Time Skimmer. All heads turn to see it shaking.

“Well that shit can’t be good,” Bass says, following the trail of light with his eyes up to the twisted space it’s feeding into above them.

---

“X, be careful,” Zero says. He’s on high alert - there’s something about this room that gives him the feeling they’re not alone. That’s not an abstract sensation, of course. His combat systems are locked onto the same space that X is making his way towards, bombarding him with queries about why his senses keep sliding over it. It’s the same instinct that proves invaluable against cloaked foes. There’s something at the heart of it, some kind of glow hanging in midair, though the space extends much further.

But mavericks aren’t exactly known for their patience, their leader Sigma notwithstanding. Most of them aren’t mentally stable enough for it. X is easily within striking distance. Zero’s already calculating the best vector to step in, but it’s odd that he hasn’t had to yet.

“I am,” X says. “Alia, I’m getting some weird readings from this spot. Do you think it could be the origin of the readings?”

“It’s -sible,” Alia’s voice crackles over the comms. “We’re g-ing s- -isturbance.”

X looks over his shoulder at Zero and they share a wary look.

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” Zero says.

“Me too,” X agrees. He pulls some equipment out of a boot compartment. Alia had provided it to them before they left - it’s all sensors and transmitters. “We’ll just set up these and get out of here.”

He steps forward and Zero realizes with a jolt that X must not be seeing the gap in perception as well as Zero is, because he’s stepping right into it.

“X, wait-! ” he jumps forward, but X’s boot lands solidly within the field and things start to go weird.

---

When things start to light up, Quint’s programming falls back on the laws of robotics. Fact: Kalinka is ducking as the portal, reopened, throws off several arcs of bright blue electricity. The opening itself isn’t that sickly purple from last time, either, but a white-blue maelstrom of light. Fact: Kalinka is human, and if she gets hit, she’ll surely be injured.

“Quint!” Kalinka’s eyes are wide. “We need to stop it, let me up-!”

Through her protests, Quint puts a hand around her shoulders and forces her under the desk. He crouches next to her and looks up to find Bass with his buster already out, advancing on the Time Skimmer 4.0.

“How about I just fucking shoot it!?” Bass yells.

“No!” Kalinka shouts after him. “It’s reacting unexpectedly, we have no idea what that could do!”

Quint rises, hurrying after Bass as he closes the space between them and the machine.

He feels a sudden pull, like the floor’s been ripped out from under his feet, and then there’s a flash -

---

- then there’s a flash, and the soft glow erupts into a maw of energy. X jumps back, buster out, Zero dashes to his side, and two figures tumble out in an interconnected mess, hitting the ground with the distinctive clang of metal-on-metal.

Every fibre of Zero’s being screams attack, before they get their bearings, but X holds out an arm in front of him and he holds himself back, because he trusts X to know when and when not to pick a fight.

Fuck,” comes from the tangle of limbs in front of them. After a moment of shuffling, the two reploids separate. Both of them look dazed. One of them, a green-armoured little guy whose eyes are covered by a visor, lifts up his head and looks between the two of them, mouth forming a little ‘o’.

The shining portal closes behind them, the light winking out of existence as suddenly as it came.

“Oh,” he says, sounding faint. “Oh no.”

---

Kalinka is still standing in the sparking ruins of her central setup as the others come running in, staring at the smoking Time Skimmer.

“What happened?!” Roll asks, running up to stand behind her.

“I,” Kalinka swallows, turning to face Roll and the ex-Mega Man Killers, who have gathered up behind her and are surveying the scene with no small amount of alarm. “I lost them.”

Chapter Text

“Oh no,” Quint continues, looking up at the tall blue robot. His face is hauntingly familiar. Granted, most of the time he knew it those eyes were red, and full of malicious intent, but he’s undoubtedly looking at someone who looks exactly like - “... Jazz?”

At the mention of Jazz’s name, Bass’ head snaps up and his eyes zero in on the blue one, narrowed. The maybe-Jazz in question just looks confused, and traces of the same expression are working their way onto his companion’s face. His companion which, Quint notes now that he’s really paying attention, is holding his sabre back as though ready to strike and is only being held back by his friend’s arm in front of him.

“Where exactly did you come from just now?” Maybe-Jazz asks, and Quint quells the spike of panic that jumps up when he hears the familiar voice.

“None of your fuckin’ beeswax,” Bass snaps, ever diplomatic. The red robot twitches.

“Wait,” Quint puts his hands up in what he hopes is a universal signal of nonaggression. “Wait, let’s not fight, okay?”

“I could take ‘em,” Bass says, shooting Quint a look.

“Okay, I’m confused,” the red robot speaks up, slowly lowering his beam sabre. But not deactivating it, Quint notes. “Are you mavericks?”

“Zero,” the blue one says, “when has that question ever worked?”

“They’re sending out really mixed signals, is all,” Zero says, eyes flicking between Quint and Bass.

“What the hell is a maverick?” Bass asks, and Zero and the blue robot turn to him with twin expressions of disbelief.

“I think it’s like, when someone doesn’t follow the rules, or if they dress funny,” Quint offers, and the heads swivel over to him.

“Oh come on, the second one is obviously not what they fucking mean,” Bass crosses his arms. “Why would they want to kill us over that?”

“Well I dunno, I was just trying to help,” Quint pouts.

“Okay, I’ll give you mixed signals,” the blue one says under his breath to his companion.

“And if we’re going to go around bumping people off in the name of fashion, we should be starting with booblights over there,” Bass says, pointing at Zero as if his description was somehow unclear.

The blue robot, previously the more unflappable of the two, lets out a startled chortle even as Zero’s expression darkens.

“X,” he says. “I want to fight them, X.”

Zero,” X says, bringing a gloved hand up to his face to clamp over his mouth. He leaves it there for a few seconds, seemingly to regain composure, before continuing. “I don’t think they’re mavericks. They haven’t attacked us.”

Zero looks unconvinced.

“We really don’t want to get into any trouble,” Quint says, holding out his hands defensively as he and Bass finally pull themselves up to stand. “Are you like… robot police or something?”

That earns him another disbelieving look. It’s the Jazz lookalike that finally speaks, in a measured tone.

“We’re maverick hunters,” he says. “Do you really have no idea who we are?”

Bass narrows his eyes at Zero again, but doesn’t say anything.

“We’re really… not from around here,” Quint says.

Zero’s eyes jump from them to the space behind them, where they’d tumbled out of the portal.

“No kidding,” he says.

X sighs.

“This is… an unusual situation,” he says, putting two fingers to the side of his helmet and frowning. “Comms are still spotty.”

“Do we treat it like a civilian evac?” Zero asks, mirroring the motion as though to confirm. “Take them to quarantine and get them checked out?”

“Checked out for what? ” Bass asks, edging closer to Quint. The question earns them another quizzical look.

“I mean, I guess if you don’t know what maverick hunters are…” X muses.

“Maverick virus. Causes reploids to go criminally insane and act lethally towards humans,” Zero says.

“What, like jacked-up Roboenza?” Bass asks.

“Uh, what’s a reploid?” Quint asks, almost at the same time.

“... Okay,” X says, pinching the bridge of his nose. “We need to get out of here and have a real talk.”

“But…” Quint glances back at the space they tumbled out of. It’s just like the one in the lab back home, a subtle wrongness that sets him on edge. “How are we supposed to get back home if we leave here?”

“We want to get to the bottom of this, too,” X says, voice taking on a kinder tone. He gestures to some equipment a few feet from the group of them. “We were going to set up sensors anyway, so if anything else happens here we’ll know, okay?”

Quint nods hesitantly, and then looks to Bass. Bass looks, in a word, agitated. He’s hunched over, and he keeps looking between X and Zero like they might attack at any moment. Quint understands. He’s fighting down a well of panic himself. They’re trapped in another time, which is an all-too-familiar nightmare scenario.

He reaches out and puts a hand on Bass’ forearm. Bass’ eyes snap over to him, and his expression softens. An understanding passes between them: I’m not alone here.

“Okay,” Bass says, finally. “Whatever. Let’s go.”

---

The quarantine area has a windowed observation station. Zero is leaning against the rail on his elbows, keenly watching the proceedings below.

The two of them have already submitted to a full scan, which came up negative for the virus. Now they’re just enduring some minor invasive tests. As Zero watches, the green one reaches over and blindly takes the hand of the one with the weird helmet. It would be hard for most people to tell, but he’s shaking. Zero files away that interaction in his growing database of interesting things about these two.

He wouldn’t bother, but there’s something else about them that’s unusual.

That train of thought is interrupted as X enters the hallway, attempting in a futile gesture to be silent on his approach. As if Zero isn’t spatially aware of everyone around him, especially X.

“Hey, X,” Zero greets him, and he misses a step, but then strides over and drops his elbows onto the rail next to Zero with a huff.

“One day I’ll get you,” he says. Despite the situation, Zero finds it in him to grin.

“So eager to take a sword to the face,” he says. Then, since the hallway is empty of anyone besides them, he adds, “but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, after last ni-”

Zero,” X groans, covering his no-doubt cherry-red face face with his hands. “We’re in public -

“Relax,” Zero laughs, reaching over and patting X on the back. “No one’s around.”

“Okay, can I protest on the grounds that you’re just terrible, then?” X finally releases his face from the clutches of his hands, and Zero is delighted to see that yes, he is in fact blushing furiously.

“Mmm, I don’t know,” Zero smirks. “Let’s hand that question over to our correspondent, ‘X last night’. What’s that? He doesn’t seem to think so?”

“Shutting up,” X groans, head sinking to rest his forehead on the railing. Zero laughs and lets him, turning his gaze back to the scene below.

The black-armoured robot is yelling at one of the lifesavers. His companion is wringing his hands and saying something, too. An apology, maybe? The reploid medic in question is sporting an expression that Zero has long since learned conveys the sentiment ‘I don’t get paid enough for this.’ Zero is familiar with this expression because the support staff tend to make it around him. Often.

“There’s something weird about those two,” Zero says, as the scene below concludes in the lifesaver successfully wrangling what looks like grudging cooperation.

“Well, for one, they dropped out of some kind of portal,” X says dryly.

“No, something else,” Zero says, eyes narrowing. “My combat systems aren’t registering them as a threat anymore.”

He hears X sharply intake a breath.

“What? But you…”

“Register everyone as a threat?” Zero hums. “Yeah.”

“Including me,” X says, and Zero feels like he probably shouldn’t feel so gratified to hear a note of jealousy in X’s voice. “When did this happen?”

“Around the time we decided not to fight them,” Zero sighs. “As soon as I backed off from active threat assessment.”

“That’s… weird.” X says, following Zero’s gaze down to the two mystery reploids. “Things are getting very weird.”

“Yeah,” Zero says, resuming his observation in earnest. “And I intend to get to the bottom of it.”

---

“We shouldn’t tell them anything,” Bass says, rubbing the spot where they’d peeled up the artificial skin to get access to one of his ports. He gives a dirty look to the door that the medic-bot had left through for good measure.

“I don’t see how we could get away with that,” Quint replies. He’s pressed right up to Bass’ side, gripping his free hand very tightly, and that’s helping keep the panic down. He hadn’t thought that the very specific trauma of travelling through time and then having his insides poked at was likely to come up again, but here they are.

“Well how fuckin’ likely are they to believe the truth?” Bass scowls. “Hey, yeah, we’re time travelers, who fucking exist by the way, take our word and a weirdass portal for it, now trust us when we say we’re not here to fuck with you and help us get home.

They had, in fact, learned that the date was 21XX while being poked at by the medic-bot. Quint had almost disabled his left arm, jerking so hard while the joint was being examined.

“Maybe if you take the swears out,” Quint says crossly. He shakes himself for it mentally - they’re both stressed and he really should know better than to take it out on Bass. More softly, he adds, “... You’re right, though. I guess I’m just kinda used to it being a fact of life.”

He looks down at his lap, and sighs.

“... Hey,” Bass says, and Quint feels a squeeze where their hands are held in each other. “This is really fucked up for you, huh?”

“Yeah,” Quint says. “I’m glad you’re here, but I feel like… I dunno, like I dragged you along?”

“I’m the one who wanted to shoot the stupid machine,” Bass says, and Quint looks up just in time to see him roll his eyes. He gets a poke in the stomach. “Just because it’s time travel doesn’t mean it’s your fault. Don’t be self-centred.”

“Hey,” Quint squirms away from the poke, pouting. “Let me sulk a little! It’s my thing.”

“Time travel or sulking?” Bass raises an eyebrow.

“... Both?” Quint offers, and gets another poke for his trouble. “Yeesh, okay, I’ll stop!”

“You better.” Bass grins. “I need room to bitch about how much I miss my wolf.”

“Oh, yeah.” Quint leans into his shoulder. “I’m sorry. I’m sure he misses you too. I’m sure everyone is worried about us.”

Bass snorts.

“Worried about you,” he says, so quietly that if Quint wasn’t leaning against him he might have missed it.

---

“Whaddya mean, you lost them?! ” Punk is the first among them to regain the power of speech.

Roll, whose hands are covering her mouth, thinks that they’re all thinking the same thing. And that they all know the answer, which is why it took so long to ask.

As though that was the unpause button, Kalinka jerks to life from where she was staring at the damage to her lab and starts moving with purpose through the organized mess.

“I mean they - Quint and Bass - disappeared through the portal,” she says, pushing aside piles of junk in what looks like an effort to find something. A moment later, she pulls out a laptop and makes her way back to the centre of the disaster area.

Roll finally unsticks herself from the spot and runs after her.

“But how did - I thought that the portal was closed!” she says, as Kalinka flips open the machine and taps the side of it impatiently as it boots.

“I was running experiments on it,” Kalinka says, taking a brief break from tapping to run a hand over her face. “ Damn it. It was just supposed to be observational. This doesn’t fit in the models at all!”

Roll hovers behind Kalinka, unsure of what to do. She recognizes the tone of someone who’s slipping into talking to themselves, and a lifetime around eccentric robotics geniuses leaves her reluctant to interrupt.

“What do we do?” Enker’s voice comes from next to her, and Roll jumps. Enker is putting on a professional voice, but she glances back to see Ballade and Punk sort of swaying on the spot with indecision.

“There’s nothing to do until I can fix my equipment,” Kalinka says, voice and posture tense. “And figure out what went wrong. Preferably without triggering the same effect. And maybe build shielding around this thing, so it doesn’t fry my lab every time the interdimensional vortex feels like coming over for tea.”

Roll bites her lip.

“Kalinka…” she starts.

Something in Enker’s expression hardens, and he swivels around on the spot and starts moving back towards the others.

“If anyone can find them, it’s you,” she says, laying a hand gingerly on the older woman’s back.

Kalinka sighs.

“Thank you, Roll,” she says. “I hope so.”

---

The atmosphere in the common room is tense.

This is a natural side effect of the giant purple wolf who has taken up residence in the middle of it. Usually Roll would wait until she’s in a room to make a call on the atmosphere, but she and the ex-Mega Man Killers are sort of crowded around the doorway. Treble’s growls fill the entire space and echo out past their heads into the open air. This intimidating aura is only slightly undercut by Sakugarne, who’s hopping around the room in a frenzy.

“You know, if I went missing, I wouldn’t leave behind a rabid death machine,” Punk says, peering over Enker’s shoulder.

“How considerate of you,” Enker says.

“You are a rabid death machine,” Ballade says, leaning against the doorframe. Roll is trying to look over him, too, but he’s much taller than Enker. She ends up looking through the gap between the two of them.

“Aw,” Punk says, “Thanks, man.”

“He’s probably just scared for Bass,” Roll says. “Poor thing.”

“That ‘poor thing’ has a higher kill count than I do!” Ballade turns his head all the way around and then still has to crane his neck a little to look Roll in the eyes. She crosses her arms.

“Well how hard is that, really?” she asks. “From what Quint said, most of what you guys do is sitting around.”

Ooooooooh,” Punk crows.

“She’s dissing you too!” Ballade snaps at him.

“Can we focus on getting our common room back?” Enker says, pinching the bridge of his nose. “We have planning to do.”

“Planning?” Roll asks. She’s maneuvered the crossed-arms move into more of a hugging-self position. Despite the fullest empathy for the wolfish support unit’s situation, the growls make her uneasy. “But Kalinka said there’s nothing to do.”

“Oh, yeah, they’ll do that,” Punk says, making a dismissive wave with his hand. “Relax, just because your typical mad roboticist thinks they’ve got it all covered doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do.”

“Kalinka isn’t mad,” Roll says. Insists, really. She actually brings up her foot a little just to stomp it down again.

“We’re not saying she’s insane,” Ballade puts up a hand defensively. “Just a little, you know, mad scientist.”

“Mad in that context means insane.” Roll frowns.

“Mad or not,” Enker says, sending a glance back at the pockmarked lab. They’re far out of earshot, but Roll can see Kalinka bustling around and checking equipment. “She still sent two of ours on a trip through a portal in an experiment we didn’t even find out about until it went wrong.”

Roll winces.

“She didn’t mean to,” she says. “And, I mean… we don’t know what happened. If they hadn’t been there, she could’ve just as easily sent herself.”

“Yeah, because that totally screams ‘sane scientist’ to me,” Ballade says. Roll glares at him.

“Look, we know you guys have known each other for a long time -” Punk starts.

“Forty years or more,” Roll says.

“- yeah, basically forever,” he says, “but we have known her for jack squat. And she may have taken out our loyalty programming for Wily, and she didn’t exactly replace it, but…”

“She’s still functionally our new boss,” Enker says.

“But she’s not like Wily!” Roll protests. “And she doesn’t see herself as your boss.”

“Then she won’t have any problem with us making our own plans,” Enker says, curtly. Roll sputters. He peers back into the common room at Treble and sighs. “I suppose we’ll have to hold this meeting in another room.”

“Ohh, do we finally get to see Enker’s room?” Punk wiggles his fingers greedily.

“No,” Enker says flatly.

“C’mon, you had to know that wasn’t gonna work,” Ballade says, very carefully hovering with his hand before strategically choosing a non-sharp spot on Punk’s back to pat.

They’re already moving, towards the hallways that separate the different sections of the makeshift rooms. Roll doesn’t move, though. She stays right in the doorway of the common room, and when Ballade throws her a questioning look over his shoulder, she shakes her head. He shrugs and the three of them are soon around the corner and out of sight.

She sighs and slides down the doorframe, running her hands down her face. Distantly, she hears Kalinka curse at a piece of equipment.

She sniffles into her hands.

She only realizes that the growling from the common room has stopped when she feels a cold nose nudging her elbow. When she looks down, Treble’s fierce red eyes are looking up at her. They’re not as fierce as all that right now, though. They look like how she feels - lost and sad and very lonely.

“It’s okay,” Roll says, softly. She works up a smile and reaches out gingerly to stroke Treble between the ears. “We’ll find them.”

Treble whines and inches forward, resting his head on her lap. Sakugarne hops up beside him, making the saddest eyes she’s ever seen on a pogo stick, and she rests her other hand on its handle while she scratches Treble behind the ears.

“You’re a good boy, huh?” she says, and Treble makes a noise that she takes as an affirmation. “Those guys are just… overwhelming.”

Treble opens one eye and looks at her searchingly. She smiles tightly.

“I know,” she says. “I’m just projecting.”

Treble woofs softly.

“It’s just that…” Roll sighs. “This is all so new. I don’t not like them, but I barely know them. And without Quint to hold us together, look how fast we’re falling apart.”

Treble whines.

“Well, if Bass were here, then he’d just want Quint back so bad that he wouldn’t care what anyone thought,” Roll says. “That’s pretty straightforward. I don’t know what to make of this weird… behind-the-back stuff.”

Treble levels her with a look, and her shoulders slump.

“I know I can’t understand you like Bass can,” she says. “But it’s making both of us feel better to pretend we’re really talking, isn’t it?”

The wolf huffs a breath out of his nose and closes his eyes again. Roll lets her head fall back against the doorframe gently and lets her eyes wander skyward.

“I just… I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,” she says. “I’m worried and I don’t know what to do about it.”

Treble makes a low, mournful noise, and Roll takes it as agreement.

Chapter Text

“Okay,” Signas says, running a thumb over his temple. He’s propping up his head on one elbow, the other hand stretched over the mound of readings and reports on his desk. “So, just to summarize, we found readings that suggest a new strain of the maverick virus, but there were no casualties or other signs of maverick activity.”

“Yes, sir,” Alia says.

“We dispatched X and Zero to investigate,” Signas continues.

“Yes, sir,” X says.

“This is all very reasonable so far,” Signas says, and then picks up one report in particular. Zero recognizes X’s obsessively precise formatting. “But then, some kind of portal opened in thin air at the source of the readings and dumped out two reploids of unknown origin before closing.”

“Yes, uh, about that,” Douglas puts up a finger. He’s not a lifesaver, but the rotund green reploid is the head of Maverick Hunter R&D. Zero, who has learned from experience that their commander has a voice he puts on when he wants to get to the end of a story before being interrupted, rolls his eyes.

“No, no,” Signas says, waving a hand. “One thing at a time, please.”

“It’s not going to make sense whichever way we put it,” Zero says.

He’s the only one here that isn’t sitting at attention. Signas’ office is large and looming. It used to belong to Sigma, a long long time ago when he was the leader of the Maverick Hunters. X says that Signas’ choice to take it as his workspace represents an awareness of the possibility that any hunter could go maverick, and the vigilance that must be upkept at all times to prevent disaster. Zero thinks it’s probably more to do with the fact that Signas is huge and he wants to be able to get through the door.

The members of the room who are sitting up properly include X, Alia, and Douglas.

Signas lets out a heavy sigh. His armour is largely rigid, decorated in the manner of officer’s regalia and ornamental, so instead of slouching, he just sort of… looks down.

“True enough. Douglas?” he says.

“Well, er, they’re not really reploids. As far as we can tell. From preliminary scans.” Douglas says.

“What do you mean, not reploids?” X asks, frowning.

“A reploid is, by definition, a highly advanced form of robot based on your design, X.” Douglas says. He’s fidgeting. “You could easily be fooled by how they act, and their outward appearance, but their internals are, well, they’re archaic. One more so than the other, but-”

“So they’re like me,” Zero says, leaning forward in his seat and stroking his chin.

“Well, in the sense of not literally being a reploid, yes,” Douglas says. “But the difference in sophistication is night and day. Even though you’re not made from X’s schematics, you’re just as advanced.”

Zero grunts and sits back again.

“We’re still taking readings from the location in question,” Alia puts in. “Unfortunately, the monitoring equipment wasn’t set up at the time the event took place. However, I can confirm that the area that X and Zero say formed a portal is giving us some… interesting data. We’re still analyzing it.”

“So all evidence points towards the conclusion that these… robots… really did come from some unknown place through some kind of portal?” Signas asks, frowning.

“That’s what it looks like, sir,” Alia says.

“Alright,” he says. “In that case, my most pressing question is if they’re a danger or not.”

“Well, speaking in terms of combat capability, most of our hunters could take them easily. Their armour and weapons are totally outclassed,” Douglas says.

“One of them is aggressive, but he’s refrained from actually attacking anyone so far,” X says. “The other one actively de-escalated the situation when we met. And Zero says -”

“They’re not showing any of the classic signs of infection and their virus scans came up clean,” Zero interrupts. X throws him a meaningful look, brows furrowed. Zero sends him one right back.

The other three present in the room give both of them a look, a curious one, but when neither X or Zero come forward with any elaboration, they continue.

“How much time do we need to assess the situation at the site of the event?” Signas asks Alia, clasping his hands together in front of him and intertwining his fingers.

“Unknown.” Alia frowns. “We’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Keep me updated,” Signas says, shuffling some papers around. “It’s not a priority over ongoing missions, but I don’t want to see this get out of hand if we could have prevented a major incident. Douglas, make sure to pass on any relevant data from your department’s investigation to analytics. As for the two… irregulars…”

“We can keep them on-base. I’ll keep an eye on them,” Zero says. All heads turn to him.

“You’re offering to babysit?” Alia asks, apparently so taken aback that she drops her professional tone completely.

X is frowning at him thoughtfully.

“It just makes sense,” Zero argues. “I have a backlog of office work to catch up on, I’m immune to the effects of the virus if they’re really carrying a new undetectable strain, and no one except maybe X is more capable of taking them down if they turn out to be dangerous.”

“If you’re actually Axl and Zero sent you in his place to a meeting again…” Signas tuts.

Zero scowls and leans back in his seat, arms crossed.

“It’s really him,” X says, sounding exasperated. “Trust me.”

“You would know best,” Alia says, unable to cover an undertone of amusement.

“I suppose I shouldn’t let go of an opportunity to get you to touch your paperwork,” Signas says. “Alright, Zero. I’ll leave them in your hands. Obviously, you’ll still be needed for critical missions, so…” he pauses thoughtfully. “X, do you think you can pick up that slack?”

“Sure,” X says, resigned. “It does just make sense, after all.”

---

“Is there any reason you kept your real reasons from Signas?” X asks, once they’re far from command and the hallways are only occupied by the occasional hunter or support staff walking from one section to another.

“Of course,” Zero says, rolling his eyes. He lowers his voice so only X can hear, even though the hallway is totally empty of any other occupant at the moment. “Think about it. Signas has got the clearance to know that, as far as we know, I’m the origin of the Maverick Virus, even if I’m clean now. If my systems aren’t categorizing someone as a threat, that looks very bad, doesn’t it?”

“That sounds like a very compelling reason to tell him everything, actually.” X frowns.

“No, because I’ve always seen everyone as a threat, including mavericks,” Zero says. “There’s something special about those two, but with how weird this whole situation is, it wouldn’t take much to tip command into doing something rash.”

“Okay,” X says, scrubbing a hand over his face. “You have a point. But -”

“Please, X,” Zero says, checking around for any sign of anyone else before reaching over and taking X’s hand. He squeezes it. “This is important to me.”

X opens his mouth and closes it again, gaze falling to their joined hands and trailing up Zero’s arm to his face. Zero puts on his most winning hopeful smile, and he can see the moment that X’s resolve buckles.

“Alright,” he says, a tiny smile tugging the edges of his lips up. He squeezes Zero’s hand in return and then they both let their hands fall back to their sides. “I’m not sure what you hope to find out, though.”

“Well, it might be too much to hope for, but there is one mystery I’ve wondered about for a long time…” Zero frowns, once more facing front as they approach their destination.

---

“Yeah, he’s totally a Wily-bot,” Bass says. “Damn old man threatened to replace me with him once. I’d recognize that stupid hair anywhere.”

“Huh,” Quint says. “Then what’s he doing in the future? Hanging out with… I mean, that X guy has to be a Light-bot, right? He looks and sounds exactly like Jazz, just with different armour. And, uh… nicer.”

“Do I look like a future expert?” Bass scowls.

They’ve been left alone for the moment. So far, the moment has lasted forty minutes. They’re reaching critical boredom levels.

They’re sitting back-to-back, leaning against each other. Quint appreciates the contact, which is comforting but not overly intimate. He doesn’t think either of them are feeling particularly intimate at the moment. The room - Quint isn’t accustomed to thinking of repair facilities as medical bays, but that’s what the nice doctor robot had called it - is bare, clean, and professional, all of the tools that they had used to investigate the two of them tucked away in their places. He’s been in hospitals before, and the similarities are striking.

“Well, no,” Quint says. “But then again… what does a future expert look like?”

Bass pauses.

“I have no fucking clue,” he says.

“Y’know,” Quint says, smiling despite himself. “I was a future expert once.”

“Tch,” Bass says. Quint can’t see it, but he imagines that he’s probably rolling his eyes. “I’ll check in with you if I want to know what kind of video games they’ve got.”

“Oh! Do you think they have Future Fighter 21XX still?” Quint asks. “Or, if they do, I guess they probably would call it Present Fighter 21XX.”

“Oh for fuck’s - they would just shift it,” Bass says. “It’s probably Future Fighter 22XX now. If it’s still around. How many video games do you play from a hundred goddamned years ago?”

“Well I -” Quint starts, but he’s interrupted by the door sliding open.

It’s X and Zero. Zero crosses the room towards them purposefully, X trailing behind at a more sedate pace.

“You’ve been cleared,” he says, curtly. “Since we’re still investigating the situation, you’re to stay on-base for now. I’ve volunteered to keep an eye on you.”

“Wow, house arrest,” Bass says, scowling. “I’d hate to see how you treat actual fucking threats.”

“Generally, we kill them,” Zero says. His expression doesn’t move a muscle. Behind him, X winces and rests his face in one palm.

“But seeing as you’re not likely to go around killing anyone,” X says, in a familiarly diplomatic tone, “let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.”

The intercession does nothing to shake the staring contest that Bass and Zero are now engaged in, Bass’ heated, narrowed eyes against Zero’s cold stare.

“Uh,” Quint shifts so that he’s also facing forward, placing a hand over Bass’. “Since we don’t really have anywhere else to go, thanks for giving us a place to stay.”

“We’ll have some questions eventually, but we’ll let you get settled in first,” X says, gaze flicking from Zero to Quint. He’s sending Quint an apologetic look with his eyes that says sorry about my friend. It’s a look that one gets familiar with when they get close to Bass. If Quint weren’t wearing his visor, he’d shoot one right back.

X pauses and puts two fingers up to his earpiece, and then sighs.

“Well, I’m needed elsewhere,” he says, and then adds in a tone that seems joking on the surface but hides an underlying nervousness: “Please don’t kill each other while I’m gone.”

“Each other?” Zero, who up until this point had worn a mask of indifference, looks up at X’s retreating form, genuinely offended. “They’re practically geriatric! I could take them in my sleep!”

“You’re right,” X sighs dramatically over Bass’ strangled noises of rage. “If only I had some reason or precedent to be worried about you dying!”

“You suck, X.” Zero makes a face as X goes out the door. He turns back to Quint and Bass just in time to notice Quint’s efforts to hold Bass back. He’s got both arms around Bass’ middle in a sort of a restraining koala hug.

“Why don’t we throw down and see who’s really stronger?!” Bass snarls.

“Orrrrr maybe we could make friends!” Quint suggests in a voice pitched high with rising panic. “Wow, I don’t think we got introduced properly -”

“Leggo of me, I can take him!” Bass says, fingers scrabbling for purchase to pry Quint’s arms off of him.

Zero looks between the two of them with an inscrutable expression.

“Sure, why not,” he says, and both Bass and Quint pause and look up at him with twin expressions of surprise.

“Buh?” Bass says.

Tomorrow, though.” Zero says firmly. “We’ll hit the training room and spar some. For now, X is right. You should get settled.”

Quint looks up at Bass, who has a calculating look on his face. He’s stroking his chin.

“Fine,” he says, and Quint sags in relief and untangles himself from Bass’ midsection.

“Good,” Zero says, and turns, waving them along. “Come on. You’ll be staying in my quarters.”

They exchange a glance, but it doesn’t take the two of them long to hop off of the examination table to follow him.

---

Their names are Bass and Quint, Zero learns on the way to his quarters. And, for all of their supposed antiquity, they act more or less like any other reploids he’s ever met. The two of them have an easy back-and-forth that, along with their apparent lack of physical boundaries, suggests a deeper relationship, but Zero’s never been good at reading that kind of thing. Maybe he’ll ask X about it later.

“You’ve got a whole apartment!” Quint gasps as they enter his quarters. They’re big (for a reploid), though sort of spartan. He honestly doesn’t sleep here most of the time, preferring either the capsules, which boost self-repair functions, or X’s quarters. Lately his opinion has been very weighted towards X’s quarters.

“Whoop-de-fucking-doo,” Bass says, standing in the doorway with his arms crossed.

Their attitudes are starting to give him whiplash.

“It’s a place to live,” he says, neutrally.

Quint, who’s found the couch and sat down on it, is scanning his shelves. Bass wanders in and then gravitates slowly over to Quint. Zero closes the door behind him and observes. He’s not quite certain what else to do here - these aren’t hunters. They don’t have any common ground to speak on. Come to think of it, he’s fairly certain that a good sixty percent of his day-to-day conversations with Axl involve complaining about some aspect of their job. X is really an outlier.

“Hey, why are you so fucking boring?” Bass calls over from the couch.

“Bass!” Quint says, scandalized.

“What?” Bass says. “What kind of person has a TV this big and no games?”

“I usually watch things at X’s place,” Zero shrugs, walking over to the entertainment centre. “I’m not really into video games.”

Bass mutters something that sounds a lot like you’re fucking disowned, and Quint sighs. Zero raises an eyebrow.

“We’ve just had a long day,” Quint says. He’s sinking into the couch, and he sounds tired. “A long, long day.”

“It felt like a hundred years,” Bass says, with a completely, suspiciously straight face.

“Oh my gosh, don’t,” Quint whines, swatting at him limply. Bass’ face splits into a grin.

“Uh,” Zero says, leaning on one of his condensed dining-room-kitchen chairs. He wishes X hadn’t been whisked away. He would have known what to do here. What would X do here? “This is all probably very… jarring for you.”

Bass frowns and he sees the ebony-armoured robot scan his face. Zero isn’t good at reading people’s expressions, but the looks Bass have been shooting him all day are… distinctively measuring.

“You’re going to be here for a while, so,” Zero says, moving to the coffee table and picking up the remote, “you’ve got free range of the TV. It’s the least I can do.”

“Thanks, Zero,” Quint says, perking up and reaching to take it. Bass grunts and leans back, and then sighs as his helmet fins scrape against the couch fabric. He fiddles with his chin strap and then lifts off his helmet, revealing a slicked-back head of black hair.

“Oh, yeah,” Quint says. “Guess the TV would be easier to see without shades, right?”

“Uh, maybe you should keep it -” Bass starts, but Quint is already pulling his helmet off.

And then Zero is meeting the eyes of what looks uncannily like a younger version of X.

“- on,” Bass finishes.

Chapter Text

There are pointed differences. The kid - and it’s now very apparent that Quint is modelled after an early teen at best as opposed to just being short - has black hair where X’s is brown and blue eyes where X’s are green. But his facial structure is exactly what X would look like if he were human and de-aged about four or five years.

They also have the same stricken expression. It takes Zero a moment to realize that the reason that Quint is making that face at him is because he’s jumped back and activated his beam sabre. His combat systems, previously a hundred percent hunky-dory with Quint’s presence, are blaring a red alert at him. Also, Bass is pointing his buster at him.

There’s a tense few seconds that tick by that are one half standoff and one half awkward moment.

Zero deactivates his beam saber and the shining blade retracts with a hiss. In return, Bass’ buster inches downwards from its mark on Zero’s centre mass, slowly at first, and then he lets it fall completely.

“What are you?” Zero asks, voice tight. He forces himself to click the handle of his sabre back into its holster over his shoulder.

“Can we not do this right now?” Quint ducks his head, burying it in his hands.

Bass’ red eyes are flashing as he holds Zero’s gaze.

“What are you? ” Bass shoots right back. “I don’t know shit about whatever the rules are here, but I’m pretty sure you just pulled a big dick move!”

“Oh, we’re doing this right now,” Quint moans into his hands softly. “Great.”

“I…” Zero grimaces. “It was a reflex.”

He expects further accusations from Bass, but all he gets in return is another one of those measuring looks. Bass is narrowing his eyes, and Zero sees the unmistakable glint of understanding in there.

“I bet it fucking was,” he says, finally, and his buster is finally deactivated and replaced with his hand with a click.

Zero grits his teeth. It feels like they’re talking around something big, but he has no idea what. Or, he does have an idea what, but it doesn’t make any sense. X is the big thinker, not him. Zero is straightforward and in the moment.

He lets out a breath and sends away his armour, leaving himself in casual wear. He sits down cross legged on the floor in front of the couch and folds his hands in his lap.

“You know something,” he says to Bass, who’s eyeing him warily. “About me. You keep giving me those looks.”

“You’re not going to believe us,” Quint says, peeking over the tips of his fingers. His tone is… resigned.

“You came out of a freaking portal,” Zero says, drumming his fingers along his knee. “How much crazier could it possibly get?”

Quint and Bass exchange a glance.

“Pretty… fucking crazy,” Bass says, face twisting up in a complicated frown.

“Crazier than an immortal resurrecting psychopath who lives in a literal computer virus?” Zero cocks his head at them.

“That’s a… really specific example,” Quint gulps.

“Pfft,” Bass rolls his eyes. “That’s not crazy. Crazy is trying to take over the world like twenty times and never changing up the formula.”

“Eight maverick generals,” Zero intones. “You can set your watch to it.”

What?” Bass actually stands up, throwing his hands up in the air. “The old man is still kicking!? How? He’s fucking ancient already!”

“Wait,” Zero says, pushing himself up as well. He’s much taller than Bass, but Bass’ aura of presence somehow puts them on even footing. “What old man?”

“Uh,” Bass pauses, “Fuck.”

“I was talking about Sigma,” Zero says. He looks between the two of them and there’s not even a spark of recognition. “You don’t know what a reploid is, you don’t know who X is, you don’t know who Sigma is, but you know who I am.”

He’s trying to keep an even tone, he really is, but he’s just so frustrated. His words tumble out faster and faster as he goes.

“And you know about the old man,” he says, “Nobody knows about the old man. I haven’t even told X about him! He’s just something I dreamt up! Who are you?

There’s a long pause as he finishes, hands splayed out to the side as if he could physically grasp the answers to his questions. Quint is staring at him wide-eyed, and Bass’ frown has… softened somewhat.

“You really don’t have a clue,” Bass says, eyebrows furrowing. “When were you activated? No, don’t even - it had to have been after he kicked the bucket.”

“What?” Zero asks.

Quint sighs and stands up, resting a hand on Bass’ shoulder armour.

“Bass thinks -” he starts.

“Bass knows,” Bass interrupts petulantly.

“- that you two were made by the same person,” Quint finishes. “This is going to be really hard to believe, but we’re from the year 20XX. That portal was, well… it’s a long story, but it was a time portal.”

Zero blinks.

“You’re right,” he says. “That is crazy.”

“Too bad,” Bass scowls. “It’s true. Deal with it.”

Quint sighs, flopping back onto the couch.

The terrible, terrible thing, Zero thinks, is that it does make sense. It’s consistent with Douglas’ reports on their internals, their entrance, the spike-pit-wide gaps in their general knowledge, and most importantly, their strange insights on Zero himself.

It’s just…

“But… time travel,” he says, articulating his last grasp at any kind of sanity in this world. Quint sends him a soulful, sympathetic glance. It’s kind of eerie, because he’s seen the same exact expression on X before.

“So wait,” Bass says, nose scrunching up as he frowns. “How the fuck does someone live in a virus?”

“I need to sleep on this,” Zero says.

---

After the dizzying heights of absurdity that that conversation had managed to hit, the proceedings to go to bed are almost painfully mundane. To spare the two of them the discomfort of sleeping in their armour, Zero fishes out some street clothes from a drawer that he’d nearly forgotten he had. They’re oversized on Bass and comically oversized on Quint, but it doesn’t stop the two of them from curling up together on the couch.

Zero is still lying awake a few hours later when he hears someone sneaking through the apartment and towards his room. He tenses, at first, but by the time his door is creaking open, he’s relaxed.

“X,” he whispers, and he thinks maybe he sounds a little needy.

He hears X huff out a soft chuckle and make his way over to the bed, where Zero feels the mattress depress next to him as X settles in and throws his arm over him. Zero rolls around and pulls X into a full embrace.

“Hey,” X says, in a low voice. Lower, Zero thinks, than he would normally speak when they’re cuddled together like this. He probably doesn’t want to bother the two in the other room. “Babysitting go okay?”

“Define ‘okay’,” Zero says. “Nobody died.”

“That’s normally a good sign,” X says, voice tinged with amusement. “You know, it would have been good manners to give them the bed.”

“They don’t seem to mind,” Zero hums. He busies himself burying his face in X’s bangs and kissing his forehead absently. “... Hey, X.”

“Yeah?” X says. Whispers, really. They’re so close that any sound they make at all would be audible. Zero, who knows at least that it’s bad manners to engage in certain activities while there are people sleeping on the other side of a thin wall, thinks that he should be given far more credit for manners than he’s getting.

“Where do you think those two come from?” he asks. X pauses, and when he looks down at his face, one green eye is looking up at him questioningly.

“... I don’t know,” X says, after it becomes clear that Zero isn’t going to elaborate. “Until we figure out what that portal was, it’s impossible to say. If they had teleported in, we could put in a request to check the satellite logs.”

“Mhm,” Zero says, closing his eyes and letting X’s voice wash over him.

“And they arrived in the same location as the strange virus-like readings, but they don’t give off any of the same readings themselves. Though I checked in with Douglas and he said the one with the fins has a weird power source,” X continues. Zero can practically hear the gears turning.

“That one’s Bass,” he supplies. “Other one’s Quint.”

“Huh,” X says. “Well, I feel rude now. I really didn’t properly introduce myself.”

“Tomorrow,” Zero says. “Is there even any facility that could have made them?”

“Well,” X shifts a little in his arms, no doubt frowning. “That’s tricky. Not off the top of my head. They would have had to have been made independently, but then, what purpose could they serve that a factory-made reploid couldn’t fill more cheaply and efficiently? And then, there’s their design. We have zero - heh - information on robotics from earlier than me and you, but Douglas said their systems were totally archaic. I’m not an expert, but I read the report, and -”

“What if they are from before me and you?” Zero interrupts gently.

“Wh - that’s -” Zero opens his eyes to see X looking up at him intently. “That’s not… possible.”

Zero shrugs.

“We’ve seen a lot of weird things, X,” he says.

“Did they say something to you?” X asks, frowning.

“Yeah,” Zero says. “I’m not sure if I believe it, but they said some pretty crazy things. But…”

“But?” X prompts, as Zero trails off.

“But it makes enough sense to be worth thinking about,” he says. “So I’m asking you to think about it.”

X laughs, pulling a hand up to cover his mouth and muffle the sound.

“You’re outsourcing thinking about it to me?” he glares up at Zero fondly.

“You’re so good at it.” Zero grins. “I’m not qualified to figure out if someone is a freaking time traveler.”

“And I am? ” X rolls his eyes. “Wait, they said that? They said they were time travelers?”

“Yeah.”

“Huh.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m going to sleep on this,” X says wearily.

“That’s what I said!” Zero laughs, and pulls X closer.

---

Roll lasts about half an hour of sulking before she absolutely cannot take it any longer and starts tidying. The common room, where Sakugarne and Treble have left a mess in the wake of their tantrum, is attacked with extreme prejudice. When she’s done with it, the furniture is perfectly symmetrical, and there isn’t a speck of dust anywhere. The various board games that have been accumulated over the last few months by salvage or otherwise are meticulously opened, the pieces sorted, re-packed, and then are stashed alphabetically on the shelves. Bass’ support unit and Quint’s pogo stick lurk in the doorway, cowed by her single-minded devotion to order.

When she’s done, she feels a little better, but not much. She can still hear Kalinka working in the lab area, and despite the fact that it’s a disaster area, Roll’s not about to charge in and clean Kalinka’s lab while she’s working on bringing her brother and Bass back.

That’s how she finds herself pacing the hallways around their personal rooms, trying to still her hands.

The walls aren’t very thick here. She can hear the murmur of conversation from Punk’s room, though she’s not nosy enough to try and actually listen in. Soon, though, she doesn’t need to. The voices are getting louder.

“- won’t work! We don’t even know that it’s still intact!” Ballade’s voice is the first to crescendo to intelligibility.

“Well what do you suggest trying?” Punk’s reply comes on its heels.

There’s another voice, quieter, probably Enker’s. She doesn’t catch what he says, but a moment later, the door Punk’s room slams open - Roll jumps - and Ballade storms out, turning around just long enough to slam the door behind him, too.

His face is a mask of rage, and he swivels around only to freeze as he meets Roll’s wide eyes.

“Oh,” he says, and runs a hand over the back of his helmet with a grimace. “Shit. I didn’t mean to, uh…”

“Startle me?” Roll tries. She puts a hand on the wall next to her, which is steadying.

“Yeah, that,” he says, and then sighs. “Sorry.”

Roll looks him up and down. His posture, which was a moment ago terrifyingly tall, has deflated to a hunched-over mess.

“I was going to go grocery shopping,” she says, pulling her hand away from the wall and clasping it together with the other one. “Would you like to come along?”

Ballade glances at the door to Punk’s room, which, now that Roll thinks about it, is showing a few signs of structural failure at the hinges after Ballade’s mistreatment.

“Yeah,” he says, turning back to her. “Sure.”

---

It doesn’t take Ballade long to recall his armour and get his wallet from his room. Not counting Punk, Ballade is the tallest of the Mega Man Killers. He looks physically older than Bass, though still not quite out of the teenaged category, and is built more solidly where musculature is concerned. Like Bass, he has red eyes, but they’re more a deep maroon than a bright crimson and you could easily mistake them for a colourful brown at a distance. As a sharp contrast from most of the others, Ballade has a head of mussed blonde hair. He’s wearing a simple jeans and black T-shirt combo.

The lab being where it is, they don’t walk all the way to the store, but teleport into an alleyway not too far away.

“I’m going to be honest,” Ballade says, as they stroll out onto the sidewalk proper. “I’m not going to be very helpful here.”

“That’s okay,” Roll says, tucking the reusable bags she’s brought along under her arm, opposite a long-strapped purse. “It’s an extra set of hands.”

They walk in silence, for a few minutes, the large building that houses the grocery store moving slowly into view.

“Aren’t you going to ask what we were fighting about?” Ballade asks, finally.

“I would,” Roll says, “but it sounds like you could use a break.”

Ballade sighs, running a hand over his face and letting it fall limply to his side.

“Yes, well,” he says, “that’s very… way too… thoughtful.”

“Well, it’s not totally selfless,” Roll says. “I’m worried. I’m sort of keeping myself busy.”

“You could have come with us to plan,” Ballade says, half-frowning.

Roll shrugs.

“When everyone else is running around putting out fires elsewhere, someone needs to make sure the house doesn’t burn down while they’re gone,” she says.

“I guess,” Ballade says, and they fall into silence once more.

They come up on the entrance of the store, leisurely dodging the paths of cars as they wind their way through the parking lot. They grab a shopping cart at the entrance, and Ballade gawks around at the produce displays like a tourist. In a way, Roll thinks, he is a tourist. She is more than at home here, efficiently weaving in and out of the mini-aisles and grabbing items to work her way down her mental list.

“It’s just,” Ballade finally speaks up as they’re hitting the bread section, leaning on the cart’s handlebar with his elbows and steering it with his body weight. “It’s slow going. Quint levels us out. Keeps us from getting at each other’s throats and having stupid fights. Without him, we’re just bickering constantly.”

His tone is subdued and frustrated and above all wistful. Roll looks up from a frank and nuanced comparison of two different brands of whole wheat bread to see Ballade staring off into the middle distance.

Oh, she thinks, several puzzle pieces from across the time she’s known him tumbling into place.

“I miss him too,” Roll says. “And I think he’d be happy to know that everyone is trying so hard to get him back.”

“You think so?” Ballade says, looking up in time to catch Roll’s chosen loaf of bread. He blinks down at it and then up at her questioningly.

“I know so,” Roll says firmly, and she plants her hands on her hips. “Now we’re going to going to get your mind off of it, okay? It’s time for grocery training.

Ballade’s expression lifts slowly, and then he snorts.

“It can’t be worse than combat training,” he says.

“That’s the spirit,” Roll says, grabbing him by the arm and pulling him and the cart along.

---

“That was worse than combat training,” Ballade groans, as they arrive with bagfuls of food back at the warehouse.

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous.” Roll supposes she could have skipped the nutritional lecture on each and every item they’d picked up, but she’s nothing if not thorough. “Someone has to know how to feed Kalinka. What if I go missing?”

“Doesn’t Kalinka know how to feed Kalinka?” Ballade asks, as Roll steers them towards the kitchen.

“You would think so,” Roll says, opening the door. Ballade walks in and then looks around as if he’s never been in this room. Actually, it’s entirely possible he hasn’t. Roll plants her free hand on his back and gently spurs him to move forward and occupy the centre of the room. “But honestly, if I left her to her own devices she’d probably die of a nutrient deficiency on account of not eating anything but coffee and ramen.”

“Ah,” Ballade says, in the distinct way that people say ‘ah’ when they want to sound like they understood what has been said to them.

“Dad was the same way,” Roll says, taking bags from Ballade’s arms and putting groceries away. Ballade follows her progress with some interest. “Dr. Wily, too. I swear, roboticists are the least functional people on the planet. Oh! Would you like some hot chocolate? I can get some hot water going while I make dinner.”

“Uh, sure,” Ballade says, shuffling over to the small table and two chairs that constitutes a poor excuse for a breakfast nook. He takes a seat. “What’s hot chocolate?”

Roll pauses midway through reaching for the electric kettle.

“Oh, you poor thing,” she says, aborting the movement and grabbing a pot to boil milk in in one swoop. “We’ll get you the proper stuff. Do we have marshmallows...?”

When Ballade’s face lights up like a kid at their first carnival a few minutes later as he takes his first sip, the extra effort feels entirely worth it.

---

“I don’t have time to eat,” Kalinka says stubbornly, eyes still on the screen. “These diagnostics will be back any minute.”

“You’ve been at it for hours,” Roll says, brandishing a simple plate of food like a weapon. “You need a break anyway.”

Kalinka sighs and rubs her eyes.

“Can’t you just leave it here?” she says, and Roll puts her free hand on her hip.

Kalinka,” Roll says. “We both know if I do that I’ll come back and you’ll barely have picked at it.”

It’s going to take another few minutes to coax Kalinka away from her task, Roll knows. She’s certainly not looking forward to the battle they’re going to have later about going to bed at a reasonable time.

Roboticists.

Out of the corner of her eye, she notices movement. She lets whatever meaningless opposition Kalinka is putting up blow past her for a second as she turns her head to the rooms area and catches Enker, Punk and Ballade walking by. They look like they’re arguing about something or other, but Ballade catches her eye and waves.

She waves back, and smiles, and returns to her merciless task.

When Kalinka is begrudgingly wolfing down her meal a few minutes later, Roll feels a little better. Not much, but…

It’s something.

Chapter Text

“I can’t move,” Quint says, stubbornly.

“You can obviously move,” Zero says, towering over Quint’s reclining position on the couch.

“Look at him,” Bass says, with a wide gesture at Quint’s prone form. “He’s not going anywhere.”

“He’s just wrapped up in blankets,” Zero says, crossing his arms reproachfully. “He’s made of metal.

“And yet here we fucking are,” Bass says, fighting to keep down laughter.

The rising sun is peeking in the windows of Zero’s living quarters, illuminating a drama in progress. Bass is already up and in armour, as is Zero, but Quint has burrowed himself into a blanket cocoon and is making his best puppy-dog-eyes at the both of them to allow him to stay put while they go out. Bass has already resigned himself to giving in and is now enjoying the kick he’s getting out of Zero’s futile resistance.

“I won’t even leave the living room, promise.” Quint says. “What kind of bad guy stuff could I even do in your living room?”

“Lie about staying in the living room, for starters,” Zero says. “Go over to my desk. Hack my computer, find delicate hunter intel and use it to wreak havoc.”

“He couldn’t hack a fucking toaster,” Bass snorts.

“Hey,” Quint protests, “I mean, yeah, but who puts a computer in a toaster, anyway?”

Bass watches Zero’s eyes drift towards the kitchen, which looks unused and doesn’t even contain a toaster. Zero sighs.

“I’m pretty sure X’s toaster has a computer in it,” he says. “Not that it matters, because that’s not the point.”

“Look,” Quint says, shuffling in his blanket wrap to look Zero a little straighter in the eye. “I just… need some time to do nothing, okay?”

Bass watches Zero’s expression go from thoughtful to understanding to resigned.

“Fine,” Zero says, finally. “But you’re locked in until we get back, and don’t touch anything except the TV.”

“Thanks, Zero,” Quint says, with a tired smile.

Bass would put up more of a fight himself, but they’d already talked about it the night before, pressed up together on the couch and trying to sort through the day’s stresses before hitting sleep mode. Bass isn’t by any means a paragon of emotional stability, but he knows Quint well enough by now to be in-tune to when he needs a break, and the strength of his grip around Bass’ waist and the strain in his voice had been telling.

Besides, some time alone with Zero will probably be a learning experience.

“Don’t hack any toasters,” Bass says, leaning down and favouring Quint with a quick peck. He feels awkward about it, with Zero right there watching, but the smile he gets in return is more than worth it.

“Only ‘cause you asked so nice,” Quint says, eyes gleaming with mirth.

He draws himself back up to see Zero looking between the two of them with a question lurking in his eyes. Bass ignores it pointedly and crosses his arms.

“Are we going, or what?”

---

The halls of Maverick Hunter Base are at once very familiar and totally alien. They’ve got approximately the same aesthetic, with bare metal walls and floors in a lot of places, but there are also some key differences. For one, there aren’t any random moving platforms or spike pits lying around. In the far future of 21XX, they also seem to have discovered the technology of stairs and elevators. The other jarring difference is the foot traffic. There are robots everywhere, walking around with clipboards and tablets and using terminals and just walking with purpose past Bass and Zero towards destinations unknown. Bass even spots the odd human weaving in and out of the crowd.

Human crowds don’t bother Bass. With the exception of a select few of them, who all happen to be roboticists, he largely regards humanity with indifference. They may as well be part of the backdrop.

As it turns out, being surrounded by a crowd of what he can assume are mostly combat-capable robots equipped with future tech is extremely stressful. He keeps catching himself running through tactical scenarios in the back of his mind where what if that guy with the flamethrower goes for him and that chick with the hammer slung over her back joins in -

“Are you two together?” Zero asks out of nowhere, snapping Bass out of what he’s almost certain was about to become a metaphorical headache.

“What?” Bass asks, rubbing the side of his helmet and trying to regain his bearings.

“You and Quint,” Zero clarifies.

“No, I just kissed him because his chapstick tastes good,” Bass says, voice laden heavily with sarcasm. Zero raises an eyebrow, and then furrows them both together.

“What’s chapstick?” he asks.

“Whatever,” Bass says, unwilling to reveal the depth of knowledge about makeup that hanging out with Roll the last few months has bestowed upon him. “Yes, obviously, we’re together.”

Zero frowns thoughtfully for a few seconds before continuing.

“... Were you both made by the same person?” he asks.

“O-kay, we’re not going there,” Bass says. “It’s complicated, but no.”

“How complicated could it be?” Zero asks, and Bass barks out a laugh.

“It’s a long story,” Bass says, and then shoots Zero a critical look. It requires an upward angle, as Zero is annoyingly taller than him. He’s pretty sure that Wily did that on purpose to piss him off. “You asking for a reason?”

Zero’s eyes flick down to Bass and then forward again.

“We’re here,” he says, as they pass a set of automatic sliding double doors.

“Ugh, so mysterious,” Bass says, as they pass over the threshold. “Are you sure you’re not just Proto Man in a wig?”

The space they come out on is a balcony overlooking a large, gymnasium-esque space. The walkway continues off to the left and right, wrapping around the whole upper tier of the room and meeting on the far side in what looks like an observational hub where Bass can see the flickers of computer screens. Above, there’s a giant spherical machine hooked up to a system of wires. The sides of the training area are jammed wall-to-wall with some kind of bulb. Below, a group of hunters are traversing some kind of obstacle course. As they finish, the topography of the course disappears and they’re left in a featureless version of the room.

“Huh,” Bass says, leaning over the railing to get a better look. Hard holograms aren’t new tech. He’s fought Astro Man enough times to know that. But this setup looks cleaner, covers a wider area, and doesn’t appear to have any physical moving parts. Even the drones are part of the facade, their conquered husks dissolving with the rest of the illusion.

“This is the training facility,” Zero says, leaning on the railing next to him. The group below filters out through a ground-level exit that was previously obscured. “It’s state-of-the-art; we have data from every maverick that we’ve retired, drill programs, programmable environments, the works.”

Enker would kill to have this room, Bass thinks, and then scowls and shoves the thought to the back of his mind.

“Do you want to give it a go?” Zero asks, and Bass’ head snaps up.

“Hell yeah,” he says, grinning.

---

“Oh, hey, Zero!”

Zero, who is sitting with his boots propped up on the console and ignoring several dirty looks from the navigators on training rotation, looks up to see a certain member of his squad jog towards him from the doorway.

“Hey, Axl,” he says, waving.

“I thought you were doing desk duty. Which is weird, because, uh, that never happens,” Axl says. The redheaded reploid has a distinct way of speaking that makes him sound perpetually excited. “That’s the word we got from command, anyway, and I haven’t seen X around. Have you seen him?”

“What makes you think I know where he is?” Zero hums, flicking his eyes back to monitor the screen. “I’m not his keeper.”

“Do you know where he is?” Axl counters.

“In Siberia backing up the fourth unit,” Zero sighs, pointedly ignoring the shit-eating grin he’s certain Axl is levelling at him. “At least, that’s what he was doing at 0500.”

He knows this because that’s what had caused X to leave the comfort of his bed earlier this morning, but he’s not about to tell Axl that.

“Oh, shoot, I hope they’re still up for movie night later,” Axl says, and Zero looks back over just in time to notice him blink as he focuses in on what Zero is actually doing. “Who’re you running through? New recruit?”

“Not exactly,” Zero says, moving his boot to uncover the screen completely.

“The novice program?” Axl winces. “What’d he ever do to you?”

Zero unmutes the audio feed from below.

“-ou son of a bitch I know you can hear me!”  Bass’ voice rings out from the console.

“In order to avoid hazards, try jumping over them,”  a calm female voice - Alia’s, actually, as she’d done the recordings for this program - broadcasts below.

“I know how to jump over spikes, FUCK,”   Bass screeches in response, pulling his buster on a flying mechaniloid.

“Keep your distance if you use a ranged weapon to take enemies out.”   The program drones on, oblivious to the irritation of its occupant.

“SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP!”

Zero leans forward just far enough to reach the mic and activate it.

“Never ever diss the chest jewels,” he says, completely deadpan.

“Ohhhhh,” Axl says, over Bass’ strangled litany of cursing. “That’d do it.”

Zero mutes the feed again, leans back, and smiles.

---

Quint is metaphorically knee-deep in future cartoons when he’s interrupted. Future cartoons are much like normal cartoons, but taking the addition of reploids for granted and also so stylistically different from what he’s used to as to be jarring. At the same time, the scripts are predictable enough, and that’s comforting.

At first he thinks Bass and Zero must be back, but it’s X who walks in. He’s in armour. When Quint looks up from the TV, he does a visible double take, and Quint is reminded of Zero’s reaction last night.

“... Quint?” X asks, making his way over and scrutinizing him. “I’m, uh, I didn’t introduce myself earlier. I’m X.”

“Yeah, I know,” Quint sighs, scooting over in his blanket burrito and patting the empty cushion next to him in invitation. “It’s weird without the visor, right?”

“You look…” X clears his throat. He stares down at the proffered seat. “I didn’t expect you to look so young.”

“Is that weird?” Quint asks, leaning against the armrest. After a moment of swaying on the spot, X finally gives in and sits down, folding his arms in his lap.

“It’s not unheard of,” X says. “Just… unusual. And most of the reploids I’ve known who were built to look like children eventually ended up requesting alteration.”

“Hey, I’m a little older looking than a child,” Quint pouts. “I’m pushing teen. And I dunno, I’m pretty old and I’ve never felt like changing it.”

“How old are you?” X’s eyes flick over from the TV to him, and Quint frowns.

“Can we not do this right now?” he says, burying his head up to his chin in his blanket haven. “I know you said we were gonna do questions today, but I’m trying not to freak out.”

“That’s fair,” X says, to Quint’s surprise. He sighs and absently rubs his eyes. “I didn’t mean to corner you. I’m just… curious.”

Quint bites his lip.

“I guess I understand,” he says. “I’m curious, too.”

X leans back into the couch cushions and hums thoughtfully.

“Question for a question?” he suggests. “You can veto, if you’d like. Strictly off-record.”

Quint mulls it over, watching the colourful figures on the TV go on a shopping adventure.

“Okay,” he says, eventually. “Who goes first?”

“You can, if you’d like,” X says.

“Okay,” Quint says, and cocks his head. “What’s a reploid?”

“Well, you’re certainly devoted to the part,” X chuckles. “A reploid is a robot designed after my schematics who has true free will, just like a human.”

Quint sits up a little straighter.

“Just like a human…?” he asks, somewhat awestruck. “Wow. So that means you have free will too, right?”

“That’s two questions, but I’ll allow it,” X smiles. “Yes, I do. I take it that you’re implying that you don’t?”

“Not exactly,” Quint says, sinking back down into the couch. “Not like a human. I can do whatever I want, I guess, but what I want is always gonna be affected by my function.”

“Hm,” X says, looking intensely thoughtful. “Couldn’t the same be said for humans?”

“S’not a philosophical difference,” Quint sighs. “I literally can’t cope with not helping people, ‘cause I was programmed to be an assistant. How I do it, who I like, what else I do on the side, that’s up to me, but it’s… I’m not exactly like a human. And hey, that’s like three questions.”

“That’s fair,” X says. “Shoot. Two in a row.”

“You were built by Dr. Light, weren’t you?” Quint asks, quietly.

“Yes,” X says, a frown inching its way onto his face. “I was. It’s… common knowledge, really.”

“Blues, Rock, and Roll… do those words mean anything to you?” Quint asks, biting his lip.

X’s perplexed expression is all the answer he needs, but he waits for the answer anyway.

“I mean… They’re types of music, I think? Our records on that era are, well, fuzzy.” X says. “Should they?”

“I had a feeling they wouldn’t,” Quint sighs, mentally adding: When you didn’t recognize me right away with my helmet off. When Zero didn’t know who Bass was.

X puts on that thoughtful expression again, tinged with a faraway look in his eyes that Quint knows signifies a long-held burden. He’s staring at the TV, for lack of anything else interesting to look at in Zero’s bare apartment.

“You know,” he says, finally. “If I was a time traveler with no knowledge of the future, I’d probably be watching historical documentaries or something, not cartoons.”

“Great,” Quint says, maneuvering his arms out of the wrap to pull the blanket over his head entirely. “Now I’m lost in time and I feel stupid.”

“Sorry,” X says. “It’s a little hard to believe.”

“Zero told you, right?” Quint asks, peeking out from a hole in the blankets. His voice is a bit muffled. “I figured. You guys seem close.”

He’s surprised to see X blush, scratching the back of his neck.

“Well, yeah,” X says. “Zero is my closest friend. We’ve known each other since just a few years after my activation, and I was literally there for his - well, his proper activation, anyway.”

“That’s really funny,” Quint says, a grin creeping up his face. “And cute.”

“Uh, thanks,” X says, casting him a suspicious glance. It’s pointless, because while Quint has no poker face and owes Enker the money to prove it, he’s still completely shrouded in blankets.

“I’m glad you have someone who’s always been there for you,” Quint says, more earnestly. “It couldn’t’ve been easy.”

“It… wasn’t,” X grimaces. “Actually, the thing I wanted to ask the most was… when you saw me, you said ‘Jazz’.”

“Oh,” Quint says. “You, um… look a lot like him.”

“Who is he?” X asks. “Does it have to do with this musical thing?”

“He’s my brother,” Quint says. “And, uh, can we stop now? I really don’t wanna talk about that.”

X’s brows pinch together, and he looks like he’s about to say something, but then he lets out a breath and once again folds his hands in his lap.

“Okay,” he says.

They sit in silence for a little while. Quint’s not really absorbing the plot of the cartoon any more.

“Hey,” he says, popping out of his head wrappings. X looks over. “D’you have any favourite movies?”

“Well, there’s a really compelling period piece set in…” X pauses, taking in the face Quint is making. “I’m getting ‘not a drama fan’.”

“D’you have any favourite cool movies?” Quint revises dutifully, and X laughs.

“Zero and I have some compromises,” he says, picking up the remote. He starts flicking through a digital catalogue. “Something classic might be a good fit… how about Space Wars?”

“I love Space Wars,” Quint says, nestling further into the couch.

“So does Zero,” X says, fondly.

“That’s kinda on the nose,” Quint says. “With the beam sabre…”

“Yeah, but don’t tell him that.” X smiles, settling back into a much more relaxed position as the music begins and the text crawl starts.

---

You rusty-ass piece of scrap, when I get home I will go and make sure your girly ass never gets made I swear to FUCK -

“Huh,” Zero says, checking the monitor indifferently as Bass rolls in like a gathering storm. “C-Rank placement. Better than I expected.”

“Wha-” Bass pauses in mid-rant, mouth hanging open. “C-Rank?

“Your weapons and armour are antiquated, but you’re clearly an experienced combatant,” Zero says. He swivels around in his chair and stands up. There’s another robot next to him that appears to have been watching the feed. He’s got black-and-red armour, green eyes, and spikes of red hair sticking out from under the back of his helmet. He looks younger, around the same age that Bass presents as, and he’s got what on a human would be a nasty X-shaped scar that crosses the bridge of his nose and takes up a prominent part of his face.

“Oh, and what rank are you?” Bass asks, crossing his arms.

“Uh, everyone knows that,” the new guy says, amused. Bass instantly hates him. “They basically invented SA-Rank for X and Zero. And, well...”

“Why don’t you go die in a dumpster fire?” Bass grinds his teeth.

“Wow, you’re charming.” the redhead laughs. “Zero, where’d you pick this guy up?”

“It’s a long story,” Zero says. “Bass, this is Axl. He’s a member of my squad, the Zeroth Special Unit.”

“The Zeroth unit?” Bass gives him a flat look.

“I know, right?” Axl grins, and then glances at Zero. “Uh, I mean…”

“No, go ahead,” Zero says, “what were you going to say?”

“He was probably going to say that that sounds made up as shit,” Bass puts in.

“Nnnnooooo,” Axl says.

“After all we’ve been through, can’t you give me your honest opinion?” Zero says, with his mouth. His eyes, and the smirk that’s working its way up his face, say otherwise.

“Wow, look at that, I’ve got a super urgent mission,” Axl says, backing away and right past Bass. He pats Bass on the shoulder as he passes and Bass pulls away as if he’d been burned.

“You know I can see the mission logs, right?” Zero calls after him.

Super urgent and secret!” Axl flings back as he exits.

Bass scowls after him.

“He’s a good kid,” Zero says, strolling up into actual conversational space with Bass.

“What’s his rank?” Bass asks.

“SA, actually,” Zero says. “He acts like a doofus sometimes, but he’s a hell of a hunter.”

Bass’ lips curl downward.

“We were gonna fight,” he says, finally.

Zero cocks his head to the side, eyes searching.

“You have to know how this is going to end,” he says.

“If you’re the strongest around, then I’ve got to fight you,” Bass says, shifting his feet as if to physically plant himself on the spot.

Zero hums, scratches his cheek, and then turns around, walking over and tapping some things into the console he’d been sitting at.

“I can respect that,” he says, starting off toward the door and waving at Bass to follow.

---

They’re almost at the trench run when Bass and Zero return, and there are some immediate alarm bells going off in Quint’s head as they walk in.

Bass is trailing behind Zero, quiet and pensive. His head is ducked and he’s projecting misery so strongly that Quint is almost getting flashbacks to the dimensional areas. Zero looks… well, it’s hard to read Zero, but X is looking over at them and he looks worried.

Quint unwraps himself from the blankets as X stands up.

“Zero,” he starts, but Zero shakes his head.

“Can we talk for a second?” he says, and X looks between him and Bass and nods. They vacate the room together through the front door, leaving Bass and Quint alone.

“Bass?” Quint asks, and before he can stand, Bass makes his way over and practically falls onto the couch next to him. He threads an arm around Bass’ waist. “What happened?”

He can feel Bass’ hand curl up into a tight fist against the side of his thigh, and Bass’ forehead falls into his shoulder.

“I lost,” he says, into the space between them.

“Oh,” Quint says, putting his other arm around him and pulling him closer. “Bass, I’m sorry…”

“It wasn’t even close,” Bass says, and Quint’s mouth opens and then closes.

He doesn’t know what to say to that, so he just holds him close.

Chapter Text

“What happened?” X asks. He’s the first to speak after the door to Zero’s room closes behind them. The hallway outside of the officers’ quarters is usually quiet around this time of day, especially since a lot of them share Zero’s perspective on living space, and today is no exception. There isn’t another soul around.

“We fought,” Zero says, and he sees X’s eyebrows shoot up. “Yeah, I know. He knew he was going to lose, but it seemed important to him.”

“These two…” X sighs heavily, leaning on the wall. “I don’t know what we’re supposed to do with them. After what Quint just implied, subjecting them to formal questioning would open more than just a debate on the feasibility of time travel.”

“How much paperwork does a debate on the feasibility of time travel make?” Zero asks, and X snorts.

“Too much,” he says, resting his face in one hand. “But not as much as…”

“... the possibility that he’s really another creation of Dr. Light,” Zero finishes, and X’s head shoots up from his palm in alarm. “C’mon, X, really? Have you seen his face?”

“Zero, I’m famous. Anyone with access to a 3D printer and a few algorithms could make a younger likeness of me,” X says, frowning.

“I dunno,” Zero smirks. “I don’t think it’s that easy to capture your essential adorableness.”

Zero,” X hides his face in his palm again, probably to hide the blush. “This is serious.”

“I am serious,” Zero says. His face evens out and he ghosts a hand over the hilt of his sabre. “I wasn’t sure until I fought him, but they said that Bass was made by my creator, and I think they’re telling the truth.”

“Your creator?” X says, slowly, the cadence of someone chewing on a new piece of information. “That’s… a whole other ball game. And you’re sure?”

“I’m not sure how to describe it, but…” Zero pauses, gathering his thoughts into words. “Everyone’s fighting style is a fingerprint, and I’m very, very good at analyzing them. His is familiar. Close to how I fight with a buster, even. Less polished, but...”

“Okay,” X says, and Zero feels a rush of gratification. Anyone else would have pressed him, he’s sure, but X trusts him absolutely. “Okay, this is a lot to take in.”

“It is,” he agrees. And then, because no one is around, he steps forward and takes X’s hand, squeezing it gently. X looks up at him, pleased, but at the same time his eyes flick around in a moment of panic, and Zero sighs and lets go, hand falling to his side. It’s not exactly a rejection, but it feels like one, and he’s not sure what to do with that feeling. He shoves it aside for now.

“How much paperwork do you think this is gonna be?” he asks, straight-faced. “Overall.”

“Have you even started on the paperwork you told Signas you were going to do while you looked after them?” X counters.

“Yes,” Zero lies. X, whose innate trust in him has been tarnished on this particular subject, raises a critical eyebrow at him. “... No.”

“You know that you’re not actually immune to the bureaucratic consequences of -” X starts, and Zero groans.

“Okay, okay,” he says. “Why don’t you marry paperwork if you love it so much?”

“Mmmm, I don’t know,” X says, a gleam in his eye. “I guess I have always been into numbers.”

Zero laughs, and for just a moment, his concerns wash away. It’s just him, X, his innate and everpresent desire to fight X, and the love that always overcomes it.

“... We should probably check on them,” X says, when the moment is over. Zero runs a hand over his helmet and part way down his ponytail.

“Yeah,” he agrees.

---

When they go back into the apartment, there’s a short flurry of movement from the couch. By the time they get over there, Bass and Quint are sitting mostly apart, Bass sitting tall and stiff. Quint is sending him worried glances, but doesn’t make a move to re-initiate physical contact, just leaves a hand innocuously palm-up on the cushion between them.

“Okay, so,” X says, positioning himself in front of the TV, which is still paused on a frame of the rebel forces in Rex-Wings blasting SKY fighters on their way to the Demolition Moon. “I know we said we were going to question you today, but it’s become clear to me that you’re both still adjusting -”

“I’m fine,” Bass bites out.

“- so I’m going to recommend to command that we hold off for now,” X finishes. “It shouldn’t be a problem. We’re really not on a time limit, since we’re still analyzing the site itself.”

Quint makes a face, a pinch of the eyebrows and a suspicious little frown.

“... Really?” he asks, apprehension dripping from his voice.

“That’s the official line,” X says, and then he dismisses his armour with a flash, walking over to the kitchen to retrieve a chair. He sits down cross legged on it and takes a deep breath. “Personally, I’d like to hear the whole story. You don’t have to, but if I know what’s really going on, it’s going to be easier on both of us.”

“How do we know we’re not being set up?” Bass asks, crossing his arms.

“Because X is a good person,” Zero says, with not an inconsiderable amount of force. “He’d never bend the rules unless he was trying to protect you. Which he is.”

Quint’s eyes look between the two of them, and, puzzlingly, a gleam breaks out in his eyes and he visibly fights down a grin.

“I’ll be frank,” X says, “You’ve claimed and implied some incredible things, and if you’re right, there are a lot of people who would do a lot of bad things to get at you. If only to better understand our inner workings.”

“You said that most robo- uh, reploids are based on you,” Quint says, sobering quickly.

“All of them are. Zero’s about the only exception.” X nods, expression grim. “But there are aspects of my design that even to this day remain unsolved mysteries, and the same goes for Zero. There have been literal wars started over this kind of thing.”

Quint exchanges a look with Bass.

“Maybe we should both start from the beginning,” he says. “It sounds like there’s, uh, a lot to go over.”

X exhales, running a hand over his face.

“Just more than a hundred years of missed time, yes,” he says.

“Most of it was wars,” Zero says, leaning back against the wall. He flashes out of his armour, too, for the sake of presenting a more comforting front.

“Oh,” Quint says faintly. “Great.”

“So what else is new,” Bass says. “Dr. Wily tries to take over the world like every week.”

“Doctor who?” X frowns.

Bass gawps at X like he just asked who Sigma is. Zero pauses to consider that that might actually happen in the course of this conversation and struggles to think of someone else as ubiquitous. X? No, they’d already done that.

“Oh geez,” Quint says, the conversation moving on before a substitution can be found. “Oh geez, what happened?

“In the century before my activation, there was an incredibly destructive worldwide conflict,” X says. “Highly advanced digital warfare wiped out most contemporary sources of information, and physical records were hit hard, too. We lost a lot of information about the period right before the war. Including, I guess, this Dr. Wily.”

“And all we know about Dr. Light, we know because of X,” Zero puts in.

“Right,” X says. “I was built before the war started, and sealed away in a capsule. Since I was a radically new type of AI, according to the messages Dr. Light left behind, I was to undergo thirty years of morality and stability testing to ensure that I wasn’t a danger to the human race. Given how things ended up, I stayed under for just under a hundred.”

“And when you woke up, you were just… alone?” Quint covers his mouth, making that stricken expression that reminds Zero so much of X again.

“Well, I was dug up by an archaeologist, Dr. Cain.” X says. “It was important work, after the wars. A lot of tech had been lost or buried, and humanity was trying to get back on its feet again. He was like a father to me, in a lot of ways, and a very close friend.” he closes his eyes, taking a breath before continuing. “It was Dr. Cain that adapted my schematics, what he could make of them, to make the first reploids.”

“Problem: a lot of the first reploids turned out to be unstable,” Zero says. “They were the first mavericks. Just poor saps who didn’t get enough time in lab conditions before getting thrown out into the real world, or berserk mechaniloids.”

“Dr. Cain established the first Maverick Hunters to head off the problem, which was a necessary step at the time,” X says. “I was opposed, mostly because like Zero says, they were just victims of our poor understanding of reploid psychology. The hunters were headed up by a reploid named Sigma. Back then, he was a great leader, compassionate, and one of the greatest tactical minds of the time. He convinced me to join the efforts, actually. And, of course, not too long after that, we found Zero.”

Zero grimaces.

“I was found by an unrelated hunter sweep through an abandoned tunnel complex, totally berserk. I took down an entire squad and a half with my bare hands and a rusty pipe before they called in Sigma, and he barely managed to knock me out and haul me back to HQ.”

Bass frowns and looks away.

“The damage Sigma did wiped his memory clean, if he’d ever woken up before that in the first place,” X says, more gently. “And knocked out whatever drive he’d had to kill indiscriminately like that.”

“And everyone gets mad when I smack the computers when they don’t work,” Zero snorts. Quint, who’d looked like he was one step away from crying, lets out a startled giggle. X sends him a look halfway between exasperated and grateful.

“Putting aside Zero’s baffling technological illiteracy,” X says, “things after that were pretty good. Zero and I became friends, since we spent so much time together while he was being reintegrated with Dr. Cain and then when he joined the hunters. It was about two years before the first large-scale Maverick rebellion.”

“Turns out, Sigma had gone turncoat,” Zero says. “He took most of the hunters and their leadership with them when he went. X personally took down all of their generals while what was left of us battled with their army and located Sigma’s base. Long story short, we infiltrated the fortress, I died -”

“You died? ” Bass’ head snaps back up.

“I got better,” Zero says, smirking.

“He has a habit of doing that,” X sighs.

“You have a habit of dying? ” Quint asks.

“And getting better!” Zero protests.

“And giving me reasons to be in therapy,” X says into his hands.

“- I died, X destroyed all of the generals again -”

“This is sounding familiar,” Quint frowns.

“- and then Sigma himself, and we all lived happily ever after until he started coming back from the dead over and over,” Zero finishes.

“We didn’t know it at the time, but his consciousness and data merged with what we would later identify as the Maverick Virus,” X says. “It’s enabled him to survive his physical form being destroyed no less than eight times.”

“That’s terrible,” Quint says, and even as X says something comforting in return, Zero can’t help but focus on Bass, because Bass looks… thoughtful. In an intense way, like he’s trying his hardest to figure something out and he doesn’t quite have all of the puzzle pieces.

“So,” X says, leaning back. “That’s us, more or less. What about you?”

Bass and Quint exchange a look, and Bass finally lets his hand rest on Quint’s open palm and clasps them together.

“Strap the fuck in,” Bass says. “It’s a long story.”

---

Roll is in the middle of deep-cleaning the oven when she spots Ballade hovering around the entrance to the kitchen. He’s still in streetwear, probably due to the complete lack of any sort of action on the horizon. It’s a dreary reminder of how little control any of them have over the situation.

Roll pushes that thought aside and greets him with a smile and a wave.

“How are you doing?” she asks, straightening from where she’d been going over the interior of the stovetop with a scrubber. Normally, she wouldn’t dream of it, but in the spirit of giving herself something to do later, she wipes her hands off on the rumpled old pair of jeans she’s wearing for cleaning in.

Ballade hesitates for a few seconds before leaning against the doorway and sighing.

“Not great,” he says. “We’re getting nowhere. Punk ran off to blow off some steam and that’s put a wrench in things.”

“Ran off?” Roll says, alarmed.

“Yeah, he does it from time to time,” Ballade says, inching his way in the door so that he’s leaning on the inside of the frame. “He calls it being an independent spirit. Enker calls it a pain in the a- uh, neck.”

Roll bites her lip.

“Should we look for him? He’s not exactly… He’s kind of…” she says, worrying a lock of hair between her fingers.

“Kind of a giant death machine?” Ballade fills in for her. “Yeah. But he’s usually fine. We’ve only had to bail him out once or twice.”

“Right,” Roll says faintly.

“Though Enker’ll never let him forget it,” he says, with a wry smile.

Roll puts down the scrubber, and really looks Ballade over. He’s speaking casually, but his posture is stiff and the line of his shoulders is tense. It probably wouldn’t be as noticeable if he was in armour, with all the bulk.

“Why don’t you sit down?” Roll says, nodding towards the tiny table and chairs he’d inhabited on his previous visit. She runs over the inside of the stovetop with a dry rag quickly and then closes it, reaching for one of the pots. “I’ll put on something to drink.”

“Sure,” he says, uncoupling himself from the doorframe. Then, as an afterthought while he’s sitting down, he adds, “Uh, thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Roll responds automatically, already absorbed in the easy manual task of making hot chocolate. “... You’re still worried about him, though, aren’t you?”

There’s a long sigh behind her and she looks over he shoulder to see Ballade sinking into the recesses of his seat.

“I’m... more worried about Enker,” he says. It comes out awkwardly, almost shyly, like a thought that has never been outside before and just now finds itself lost two blocks from home. “Punk is good at, I dunno, keeping him from getting too up his own, uh…”

“I think I get the gist,” Roll says, ever merciful. She pours milk into the pot and starts pulling things out from the pantry.

“Right.” Ballade sounds relieved. “And we’re not seeing eye to eye anyway, so… he’s not great to be around right now.”

“I’m sure you two will work it out,” Roll says, dropping the cocoa and sugar on the counter next to the stove. “You’re both just worried, is all. It’s understandable to get tense.”

“Yeah,” Ballade says. It’s an uncertain affirmation.

Neither of them say anything else while Roll throws the rest of their drinks together. In a matter of a few minutes, she sits down across from him with two mugs and slides one over to him, which he gladly accepts and starts sipping at. Then his eyes widen and he sits up straighter. Roll turns around to see Treble skulking in.

“Oh, hello there,” she coos, and holds out her hand. Treble winds his way over to it, sniffs her hand, and then pushes his muzzle into it.

“You’re the wolf whisperer,” Ballade says, clearly awed. Treble breaks contact with her hand just long enough to growl at him before returning to ear scratches. Ballade scowls in response.

“He’s a sweetheart,” Roll insists. “He just knows when Bass doesn’t get along with someone, I think.”

“He’s gonna wear out his voice box growling, if that’s all it takes,” Ballade huffs. “Bass is the single most hard to get along with person I’ve ever met, and I’m a Wily-bot.”

Treble fixes him with a glare, but doesn’t move away from Roll’s ministrations.

“I don’t know,” Roll says, gaze lingering on her hot chocolate. “I’ve only known him for a few months, and he’s definitely… abrasive...  but my brother gets along with him just fine. Well, better than fine, obviously. Then again, he’s always gotten on with just about everyone.”

When she looks up, Ballade is grimacing.

“Oh,” she says, abruptly realizing herself. “I’m sorry -”

“Don’t be,” he says, and then props his chin up with his elbow and sighs. “Damn it. Am I that obvious?”

“A little,” she says. “I’m sorry. It must be hard.”

“I just -” He takes another sip of his hot chocolate, obviously savouring the taste. “We didn’t know. He was always closed off, when it came to the big stuff. We just thought he needed space, or whatever. I thought I was doing the right thing, and then Bass just swoops in and turns everything on its head.”

Roll bites her lip and gently retracts her hand from Treble, who whines, but contents himself curling around the chair at Roll’s feet.

“And like, I’m happy that he’s happy. I am. I want him to be happy. But I also have to see him be happy with Bass. And that’s…” Ballade trails off, taking another sip of cocoa.

“Complicated?” Roll offers.

“Complicated,” Ballade says.

“Really hurts?” she says, more softly.

“Hurts like hell,” he sighs. “Er, I mean -”

“It’s fine,” Roll sighs exaggeratedly. “I can’t let Bass off the hook and turn around and get mad at you.”

“Yeah, okay,” Ballade says. “It hurts like a son of a bitch.”

Roll gasps, scandalized, and he laughs.

“I thought it was fine!” he says.

“It’s… fine…” Roll coughs politely into her hand.

“Yeah, sure,” he says, shaking his head. “At least now I know why Quint’s got such a mild mouth on him.”

“I’m sorryyyy,” she laughs. “It’s just… I’m still adjusting. I’m sorry. This isn’t the time.”

“Nah,” Ballade shakes his head, and then takes a full swig of his drink. “I’m done thinking about it right now anyway. It’s weird, but talking about it… helps a bit.”

“Do you not usually talk about things?” Roll asks.

“Just about never,” he says, shrugging. “Well, not like this, anyway.”

“Well, if you ever need an ear, I’m here,” Roll says, decisively. “Any time, okay?”

Ballade blinks, and then slowly but surely, a shy smile creeps its way onto his face.

“Okay,” he says. “Thanks, Roll.”

They make chitchat after that, nothing quite so heavy as what came before, and their mugs slowly drain of hot chocolate. When they finally do hit the bottom, Ballade gets up, they say their goodbyes, and Roll picks up the scrubber again. She’s just opening the stovetop up again, and Ballade is heading out the door, when his footfalls still in the doorway.

“How are you doing it?” he asks, and she looks over and blinks.

“Huh?” she asks.

“You’re so… how are you so okay?” he says, gesturing in her general direction.

“Oh,” she says, and flashes him a tired smile. “I’m really not.”

A conflicted look steals over his face, but he doesn’t say anything, obviously tongue-tied. Eventually, Roll turns back to her work, and when she looks up again, Ballade is gone.

Chapter Text

X’s eyes skim line after line of text. If he were human, he would have long passed the point of contracting a painful screen headache. His eyelids, he imagines, would likely be drooping with fatigue.

The Maverick Hunter archives, thanks to Dr. Cain’s influence, aren’t a bad starting place to look for traces of the past. Findings of antiquated mechaniloids, pre-war military bases, areas where the earlier Maverick rebellions had taken root in long-overlooked structures. All of these things exist in large enough numbers that if one really knows what they’re looking for, they can start to draw some conclusions.

It’s jarring. Bass and Quint’s story takes X from almost zero information about the previous century to an overload of new things to consider. If they’re telling the truth, he has - had, he thinks with a pang of despair - siblings. Dr. Light, that figure he’s known only through holograms and messages and gifts of war, would have been a loving father figure.

And then there’s the aliens! And time travel! And elaborate one-man world domination plots!

If they’re telling the truth, everything he thought he knew has been turned on its head and then some. He’s tempted to dismiss it out of hand.

But then, there are signs in the record. Insignificant, when looked at out of context, but… Fortresses filled with spike pits and death traps that had previously been assumed to be simple aberrations among the many military installations of the late twenty-first century. Accounts of and remains of war machines that incorporate abilities similar to the “robot masters” the two described. Signs of expeditions to other parts of the Solar system, odd power readings from orbit, and most damning of all, many, many inexplicable skull motifs.

“You’re thinking too hard again,” Zero says from behind him, and he jumps nearly a foot in the air from a slouch.

“Zero!” X clutches his chest as he swivels around in his chair, which is a useless gesture given the impossibility of heart failure but always seems to be his instinct anyway. “Seriously, you’ve got to stop sneaking up on me.”

Zero cocks his head.

“I’ve been having a conversation with Layer for like ten minutes,” he says, jerking a thumb over to the purple-haired navigator, who is working away at a console not twenty feet away and surreptitiously sneaking shy glances at Zero. That does nothing for X’s mood.

“Oh,” he says, letting his hands fall on top of each other in his lap. “Well… still.”

Zero pulls up a chair and settles down on it backwards, resting his arms on the backrest and leaning forward to give X his full attention.

“So what’d you find?” he asks.

“Enough to circumstantially say that what they told us was plausible,” X sighs, ducking his head and pinching the bridge of his nose. “As ridiculous as it sounds. I still want to look into some of the civilian sources, but…”

“So you’re freaking out,” Zero says.

“I’m freaking out,” X confirms. “This changes everything.”

“Does it?” Zero says. “Sigma’s still out there. Does it matter if we think he might have taken a little bit of some old German guy’s brand of crazy?”

“I haven’t even thought about what this means for Virus Theory,” X groans, and then takes in a deep breath and looks Zero dead in the eye. “Or… what it means about you and me.”

“I always had a feeling we were meant to be enemies,” Zero frowns into his arms. “But that doesn’t matter, X. We’ve got free will. We’re more than some weird mad scientist grudge-match.”

“Yeah,” X says. He can’t help but smile at the warmth that he feels at that declaration. “You’re right. I really am overthinking it. But…”

“But?” Zero tilts his head to the side, rolling his chin against his forearm.

“That Jazz guy,” X says. “Don’t you get the feeling from what they said, about him looking like me… I mean, the timeline lines up just the right way that it seems like…”

“And he’s a maverick,” Zero says.

“Yeah,” X says.

“And that scares you.”

“Yeah.”

Zero sighs.

“Even if that’s true, that guy isn’t you,” he says. “You’re literally immune to the virus and you’re the best person I know, X. You’re not going to go maverick.”

X looks away, feeling his cheeks heat up.

“Thanks, Zero,” he says. “I hope you’re right.”

“I know I’m right,” Zero says, firmly, and with such an intensity in his expression that X can’t help but believe him for the moment.

---

It’s two days of babysitting before Signas sends Zero a gentle reminder that if he’s going to use paperwork as an excuse to look after Bass and Quint, then he actually expects him to get some of it done. Seeing as the logical next step of this process involves members of his squad - or, if he’s really unlucky, X - being sent to “check on his progress”, Zero finally buckles down and starts working.

His desk is located just off the living room area, his quarters being rather open-concept aside from the bedroom, and Bass and Quint are draped across the couch behind him. They’ve been keeping to themselves, mostly, and while Quint seems content to watch what he insists on calling “future TV”, Bass radiates a restless energy. Zero, who feels the exact same way after going several days without getting into a fight, can’t help but sympathize.

After a few short hours of trying to make heads or tails of supply requests and personnel reviews, he could really go for retiring a maverick or three.

Zero groans and lets his head drop to the desk with a thump.

“Are you okay?” Quint’s voice drifts in from behind him.

“Are you dead?” Bass’ voice follows, sounding rather less concerned and rather more indifferent.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that death is no escape,” Zero says into the wood grain.

“Ugh, what are you even doing? ” He hears Bass get up and, very shortly, arrive behind his shoulder. Zero moves to cover the documents with his hands.

“This is internal hunter business,” Zero says, even as Bass cranes his neck to scan the digital display. “You are definitely not allowed to see this.”

“What am I gonna do with -” Bass grins as he apparently snatches a victory from between Zero’s fingers, “- requests for twenty ride chasers? I don’t even know what the hell that is.”

“They’re hoverbikes.” Zero finally just tabs out of the word processor, and then frowns and reopens it. “Wait, we only need ten.”

“What do you need ten hoverbikes for?” Bass crosses his arms.

“We…” Zero mentally flashes back to the last few missions where he’d had to use a ride chaser to cross rough terrain. All of them unfailingly end with the bike in question totalled. Maybe he would stop dismounting them at top speed if the damn things had better brakes. “... go through them fast.”

“Uh huh,” Bass says, as though he can psychically sense the pile of angry letters Zero has gotten from the hunters’ supply managers over the years.

“Anyway, that’s critical military information,” he says. “Very… top secret.”

Axl’s performance on the field is exemplary - you spelled exemplary wrong - but he’s been reprimanded several times for abusing the vending machine in the Zeroth Unit’s break room,” Bass reads off the screen, and Zero puts his head in his hands and groans. “Yeah, I can see how bad it would be if this got out.”

“I’m bad at paperwork,” Zero grouses. “We have the least of it to do and the most leeway of any unit, and keeping up with it is still a nightmare.”

“Uh, no kidding,” Bass says, squinting at the supply papers. He leans in past Zero, who’s given up on stopping him at this point (who’s he going to tell, anyway?). “I literally know nothing about this and I can spot like five mistakes.”

Zero sends a look at Quint in an attempt to find solidarity, but Quint just shrugs.

“Bass is really good at picking up on stuff,” he says. “I’m sure you’re doing alright…”

Zero sighs and leans back, drumming his fingers along the elbow rests.

“Honestly, I’ve always wondered if Sigma didn’t scramble my brains a bit when he knocked the rabid out of me,” he admits. “Point me at something to fight and I’m great, at least.”

“Okay, give me the chair,” Bass says, straightening.

“What?” Zero blinks.

“I have dick-all to do and I’m tired of future TV,” Bass says. “Maybe if you get this done we can actually do something, so I don’t have to picture strangling you for some fucking entertainment.”

“Well…” Zero says. It’s not strictly allowed, or even probably moderately allowed, and actually come to think of it definitely straight up not allowed. But the siren call of not having to spend the next few days struggling at his desk is strong. “You know what, sure.”

He cedes the chair, and Bass sits down and starts going over his work with a vengeance. Quint shuffles over to allow Zero the closer proximity to the desk on the couch, and they start a back-and-forth where Bass mostly asks Zero what he meant to do and Zero tells him.

“What are you so happy about?” Zero asks Quint, who, fifteen minutes or so into this process, is beaming.

Brotherly bonding,” he says, in an excited stage whisper. Bass rolls his eyes so far they could escape his head, but he doesn’t correct him.

They finish before dinnertime.

---

They’re just in the middle of a debate on what to do around Zero’s kitchen table when X returns. He’s sporting some nasty plasma burns on his armor, blackened melted spots cutting diagonally along his chest piece and pauldron. Quint does a double take, but Zero merely nods at him as he enters.

“Where’d they send you?” he asks, with the air of someone asking how a minor errand went.

“Amazon basin,” X says, equally conversational. “We had an organized raiding party going after shipping on the river. Headed up by an ex-navy guy, Screech Dolphin.” He stretches, flashing into civilian wear and sending his armour off who-knows-where. “Their leadership sure wasn’t happy about his going maverick, I’ll tell you that much.”

Zero snorts. “Are they ever?”

“No, they’re not,” X sighs. “And it’s the second defector they’ve had in as many months. They need to implement better screening. They’re not remotely up to standard, and this is going to keep happening until they catch up.”

“Does this happen a lot?” Quint asks, and the two of them blink and turn his way as if they’d just remembered they weren’t alone.

“Every once in a while, someone in charge of a reploid fighting force decides to cut corners on maverick prevention measures like virus screening and psych evals, and surprise surprise, we get more mavericks,” Zero says. “It usually self-corrects pretty quickly, but until then, it’s our job to clean it up.”

“There are whole armies of ro- reploids?” Bass asks, uncharacteristically pensive. He’s been largely quiet, with the exception of his outburst earlier, since his fight with Zero.

Quint’s really starting to worry.

“Well, yes,” X says. “Humans are still involved, of course, but reploids are generally a better choice to fill an army with, all things considered. Auto-repair is more efficient than healing, and we can be pretty near dead and be back in fighting shape within a few days with repairs.”

“There’s still the maverick problem, but with the hunters around…” Zero shrugs.

“Don’t hunters ever go maverick? With what you said about Sigma…” Quint bites his lip, and X and Zero trade a grim look.

“It’s a real problem,” X sighs, finally taking a seat at the table next to Zero and sagging into it in one motion. “We have the most rigorous countermeasures in the world, and we still have to put down our own from time to time. It’s not good for morale, but it has to be done.”

“Let’s talk about something else,” Zero says, casually putting a hand on X’s back and rubbing soothingly.

“Like what we’re going to do,” Bass says, annoyance edging in on his voice. “I’d rather listen to the three musketeers trying to make the damn snark Olympics than sit here for another minute.”

“You mean... the Mega Man Killers you were talking about?” X ventures.

“Yeah,” Quint says. “That’s just kind of how they talk.”

“It’s fucking annoying,” Bass grouses.

“Huh,” X muses. “Quint is sort of a d'Artagnan-esque figure, in that context.”

“What?” Bass looks, if anything, offended at the prospect of someone finding a deeper meaning in his insults.

“Never mind,” X shakes his head. “Actually, I wanted to go check something in one of the civilian archives. I’m sure that Signas would sign off on taking you off-base under our supervision if you wanted to come.”

“You want me to come with, X?” Zero says. He sounds pleased.

“Yeah, of course,” X smiles back, face alight as though he only has eyes for Zero. “I figured you’d want a break after all the paperwork.”

Bass and Quint exchange a look. It’s a different look, between the two of them. Quint’s going for more of an ‘aww, that’s cute’, and Bass is distinctly gagging. The exchange is over by the time X and Zero seem to remember that the two of them are, in fact, also present.

X makes a throat-clearing sound, which Quint has never heard from a robot before, and has the decency to look sheepish.

“Well,” he says, “Let’s get going, shall we?”

---

“Whooooa,” Quint says, unabashedly gaping at the air traffic above the city. “You guys have airships!

“Flying cars, too,” X notes, amused.

“We already have those,” Bass says, doing his level best to seem unimpressed.

“Well yeah, but they’re super expensive and mostly used for wate- oh! ” Quint gasps, flitting over to a store window. Bass clenches his jaw as the smaller robot is almost lost in the crowd. He’s pressing his nose against a store window. Inside, new holo-TVs are advertised and demonstrated, including one the size of the store’s entire wall.

The city, Arcadia, is impressive. New and futuristic cars, both wheeled and otherwise, rumble along raised highways that weave in between marvelous skyscrapers made of materials Bass can only take a guess at. The street level is a metropolis of humans of every shape and size existing right alongside reploids, who, unlike the robots of 20XX, appear to be intermingling with the humans with no real divide between them. As if the Dr. Light-shaped ghost of robot future were guiding their path, a human and reploid pair stumble out of a bar nearby, laughing uproariously and leaning on each other.

It’s impressive, and for all of the direness that X and Zero’s future has had in store for them thus far, Bass has to admit that the future that the two of them fight for is a rosy one indeed.

Too bad it’s also a goddamn nightmare. The crowding problem that Bass was having in the hunter base is hitting him again, but even worse this time - there are potential threats everywhere. And it doesn’t help that everyone is staring at them.

“Why are they all looking at us?” Bass complains, hanging close to X and Zero, who he’s certain could absorb a few hits for him if it came down to it. He refuses to let himself think of it in terms of their combat ability surpassing his. That’s just… he won’t.

X sighs.

“Well, I am the ‘Father of all Reploids’,” he says, the phrase sticking in his mouth like an unpleasant taste. “I don’t get much attention when I go out on my own without armour, but…” he hesitates.

“I’m distinctive,” Zero says, distractedly pushing a few goldens strands out of his face. He’s clad in black jeans and a red henley shirt.

“No shit,” Bass says. Zero in his civilian wear is more distinctive than any human being Bass has ever seen. As if the hair, which is now unfettered and swaying behind him gently as he walks, wasn’t enough, there’s also the fact that he looks like Wily picked his face and general appearance out of a male modelling magazine (thanks a lot to Roll for giving him that basis of comparison).

Bass really doesn’t want to go any further down that rabbit hole.

“And when I stand next to Zero, well, people tend to put two and two together,” X smiles, shrugging helplessly. It’s true, too - X looks as normal and inoffensive as it’s possible to look, dressed in a bluer version of the futuristic casual wear all around them.

All around them… where all of the scores of robots are.

Bass shakes himself mentally as Quint returns to the group, looking much perkier than he had a few days prior. The time chilling out, while exceedingly boring, looks to have done him a mountain of good, and the sight of his boyfriend on the upswing brings a private smile to Bass’ face.

“Have you tried not wearing blue?” he drawls, more to see Quint’s reaction than X’s, but he can’t help but snicker when both of them look equally scandalized at the prospect. It’s a mirror image of Lightbot indignation, and even Zero looks amused.

“He has a point, X,” Zero grins, bumping X with his shoulder.

“You’re wearing red,” X says, reproachfully.

“I’m distinctive,” Zero sniffs. “I can’t help it.”

“Kill me,” Bass says to Quint, making a face. “Are we like that?”

“Nnnnno?” Quint says, with his mouth, but his face says otherwise.

“Double kill me.”

“Nnnnoooooo,” Quint whines, pitching forward and grabbing him from the side. Bass graciously puts up with him hanging off of him. X and Zero, Bass suddenly notices, have gone totally silent.

“Oh, look,” X says, weakly. “I can see the museum from here.”

“Why do you need to check, anyway?” Bass says, reaching out with one arm without looking and scooping Quint around the middle so he doesn’t fall and get dented on the pavement or something. “You obviously believe us.”

“I… mostly believe you,” X says, and scratches the back of his neck as Quint makes a sort of squeaking noise. They start walking again, and Bass ends up pulling Quint along by the hand. He’s holding it very tightly, unwilling to weather the wandering again. “Zero’s convinced, and that’s a big point in your favour as far as I’m concerned, but I want something more solid to present to Signas. Especially if I’m going to persuade him to keep things mostly classified.”

“Hopefully the field analysis will come back soon,” Zero says, as they come up to an intersection. It’s a large one, and there are tons of people waiting on the other side. They start crossing, and about halfway across, they encounter the crowd, filled with reploids, bustling against them. They’re packed in like sardines, and Bass can’t help but be jostled as he makes his way forward.

Suddenly, it’s impossible to keep focus. Every movement against him is an attack, and the enemy is all around him, his combat programming blaring a hundred warnings from the mechanical side of his brain even as he distantly hears Quint’s voice saying his name. He calls his armour, he can’t fight like this, he can’t -

- there’s a blur of motion and he’s in an alleyway. Zero, the fucker, is holding him by the shoulders, and it’s a credit to how damn fast the guy is that he’s not certain if his systems glitched out or something or if Zero managed to drag him here in the space of a few seconds.

He’s saying something.

“Wha?” Bass manages to reply, still disoriented.

“I said, put the buster down,” Zero says, calmly.

Oh, would you look at that. He’s got his buster arm pointed right at Zero’s midsection. He reluctantly lowers it and lets the buster go, his hand clicking back into place.

“What the fuck happened?” Bass says, and now that his senses are returning, he sees Quint and X at the mouth of the alleyway, making their way in. There are some onlookers, too, and X stops to ward them off.

“Bass!” Quint calls, and skids to a stop just out of earshot as Zero holds up a hand. Bass grits his teeth. Being babied is a new experience for him, and he doesn’t like it one bit.

“I saw signs of it at the base,” Zero says, straightening. “I think your combat analysis system is overreacting.”

“How the fuck do you know?” Bass bites out, pushing himself forward from the alley wall.

“I have the same problem,” Zero says, mouth a hard line. “Well… worse, actually. It helps to get a second to catch your breath.”

“I don’t breathe,” Bass says, but Zero has a point. The relative isolation of the alley is taking the edge off of the feeling of being surrounded he’s been harbouring since they left Zero’s room.

“Venting your cooling systems,” Zero rolls his eyes. "You know what I mean."

“Fan-fucking-tastic.” Bass grits his teeth. “Why don’t we add just one more stupid goddamn thing on top of everything else.”

“Uhh, Bass…?” Quint is inching forward impatiently, and Zero steps back to allow them room. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” he says, stubbornly.

“He’s gonna be fine,” Zero confirms. “Honestly, it can come in handy when -”

A massive explosion erupts somewhere nearby, and Quint nearly loses his footing as it shakes the ground under them. Zero erupts into a string of curses colourful enough that they could have come from Bass, and in a flash he’s in armour. Down the alleyway, a blue light mirrors it as X armours up as well.

“- when that happens, damn it! ” Zero finishes, taking out his sabre. It flares to life with an electric hiss. “Stay here!”

Before he can do anything, X jumps backward towards them, buster out and tracking something above. There’s a crash at the end of the alleyway as some kind of mech lands at the mouth of it. It’s like a walking tank, vaguely humanoid but with no head, instead seating a single rider. It’s equipped with huge fists and being ridden by a reploid who’s packing what looks like a shoulder cannon, among other pieces of ordinance.

“Vile!” They can hear X yell.

“Good to see you again, X,” Vile says, his voice low and gravelly. He levels the cannon at X and the fists of the mech smash against each other threateningly. “And so soon, too.”

Chapter Text

The argument starts, as many arguments do, in a muffled back-and-forth that flies just under Roll’s perception. She’s distracted, to her credit. After the common area, the kitchen, her room, the kitchen again after making breakfast for Kalinka this morning, and mercilessly spraying down the last specks of paint outside that they’d missed during prior training exercises (Mostly when her brother was the loser, she notes with a long-resigned annoyance), there’s nothing left to clean.

She doesn’t want to bother Kalinka to let her clean the lab; she’s been combative as it is. The roboticist has been working every available minute for days, stopping only when forced to. She’s already starting to look haggard even with Roll’s continued efforts to keep her afloat.

With all of that on her plate, she’s sitting in her room trying to think of something else to do when the voices get loud enough to pierce the veil of fidgety anxiety she’s worked her way into.

“... ‘re being an ass! ” Ballade’s exclamation is the first to work its way to coherency.

Enker’s retort is too muffled to make out. Roll weighs the morality of eavesdropping for about three seconds before hopping off of her bed and tiptoeing down the hall towards Ballade’s room, where the ruckus is coming from.

“That’s easy for you to say,” Ballade’s voice, strained, makes its way out into the hall. “But you don’t - it’s never happened to you. I can’t go through that again, damn it.”

“And you’d stake Quint’s life on that?” Enker’s response is cool - no, that’s not the right word. His voice is ice cold. Precise but sharp.

“That’s low,” Ballade growls. “That’s low even for you, you cold hearted son of a -”

There’s a loud thunk.

“I’m sorry, do you want me to coddle you?” Enker barks. It’s the most emotion Roll has ever heard from him. “We can’t just sit here and do nothing!”

“There’s got to be some kind of middle ground between doing nothing and getting ourselves ca-” Ballade starts.

“Quint would risk it for you in a second,” Enker says, and there’s a moment of dead silence.

“Fuck you,” Ballade chokes out, and this time he’s the one who’s ice cold. “Don’t you play that card - fuck you. You know what? Punk was right. I’m coming back when you’re feeling like less of a gigantic asshole.”

“Fine,” Enker says, terse. “Leave.”

“Fine,” Ballade says, and Roll just remembers to step back as the door slams open into the space she’d been occupying a second ago. Ballade’s eyes widen as he appears in the doorway and the two of them lock eyes, and Roll thinks that if she could blush her entire face would be red with mortification.

It only takes a second or two for the shock to wear off, and he dutifully flips Enker - who Roll only just catches sight of - the bird before slamming the door again.

They stand there in the hall awkwardly.

“... Do we have any hot chocolate left?” Ballade asks, sounding drained.

“Yeah,” Roll says, straightening. “We do.”

---

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have eavesdropped,” Roll says, once they’ve acquired their respective mugs of liquid comfort and settled down in the kitchen nook. It’s starting to become a thing, she notes. “That was obviously personal.”

“Well I’m not going to say I don’t wish you hadn’t,” Ballade sighs, savouring his first sip. “But… apology accepted, I guess. At least you have the decency to apologize. Unlike someone.”

“You said he’s been like that since Punk left?” Roll asks, cupping her hands around the mug and enjoying the warmth on her palms.

“Since all this went down,” Ballade says. He frowns downwards at his drink. “But Punk evens him out a lot, takes the edge off. Ironically. Can’t blame him for taking off, though. I’ve never seen Enker so worked up. Not since… well, not since I was first activated.”

“Since you were first activated?” Roll prompts.

“Well, since I got towed back from space and rebuilt,” he says. “We didn’t exactly get along before that. I was kind of up my own a- uh, I had an ego. But he was pissed for months after I defected. Probably because that’s when Wily got the bright idea to start really stepping up his loyalty programming.”

Roll’s heard the story before, in brief. But there’s a certain sadness in Ballade’s voice as he retells it.

“Why did you do it?” she asks, before she can stop herself. When Ballade looks up and blinks at her, she ducks her head. “I mean - I’m sorry. That’s an insensitive question.”

“No, it’s fine.” He sighs and looks back down, distant. His words come slowly, hesitantly. “It was… it was Mega Man. When I fought him, the first thing he did was plead with me not to fight. I didn’t understand, but after he beat me the first time, I… I did a lot of thinking. He had this drive to win, and it wasn’t for himself, but for something as big as the whole world. I started to admire it. I started to admire… him. By the time we fought again, I wanted him to win.”

“I’m sorry,” Roll says automatically. She feels wetness gathering at the edges of her eyes, and she wipes at one eye absently.

“It’s in the past now,” Ballade shrugs, and then looks up. His eyes widen in alarm. “Oh hell, are you crying? I didn’t mean to -”

“- No! Don’t feel bad,” Roll says, with a sniffle. “It’s just - so sad. And then Wily rebuilt you and made sure it could never happen again… I’m so sorry. That’s awful.

“I’ve had lots of time to get used to it,” Ballade says. “I mean, until all of this crazy stuff happened with Quint and you and, uh… anyways, I never could’ve dreamed we’d get another chance like this.”

“And… Enker wants to do something that would put that at risk?” she asks, softly.

Ballade lets out a long sigh and takes a gulp of cocoa.

“I was kind of hoping you’d chase the other side of that coin instead,” he says, hunched over. “It’d be easier.”

“What, that you had a crush on my brother and then… had a crush on my brother?” Roll says wryly. “That’s not actually that surprising.”

“Well when you put it like that… ugh. Enker doesn’t want to share the plan with you,” Ballade says. “He thinks you’ll tell Kalinka and shut us down.”

“Should I be telling Kalinka and shutting you down?” Roll frowns.

“Maybe. I think he’s being a reckless idiot. Which is a new one,” Ballade says. “He’s usually so… on top of things.”

“I’m sure there’s a reason he’s acting like this,” Roll says. “But… it’s not alright for him to take it out on you like this.”

“Thanks,” Ballade says. He sips at his hot chocolate slowly. “It’s nice to have someone in my corner.”

“That’s what I do,” Roll says, and she’s unable to stop a note of bitterness from slipping out. Ballade puts down his mug and frowns thoughtfully.

“And you’ve just been hanging around making sure Kalinka gets fed…?” he asks.

“Basically,” she says, eyes dropping to the brown circle of liquid below. “And… cleaning. I’m running out of things to do, though. I wish I could help Kalinka, but most of what she’s doing right now is data analysis and recovering what we had before half the lab got fried. I think…”

Roll pauses, and then lets out a breath.

“... I think she lost something really important in the accident,” she admits. “She’s been looking rougher and rougher every time I go over there.”

Ballade seems to mull it over, swishing his cocoa around in the mug one last time before draining it completely.

“Do you want to go look for Punk?” he asks, finally.

“Yes,” Roll says, sagging with relief at the prospect of something productive to do. She smiles up at Ballade gratefully. “Yes, I’d really like that.”

The smile he gives her in response is shy, and unpracticed, but it buoys her mood nonetheless.

---

“Usually Enker goes to fetch him,” Ballade explains, as they step out of an alleyway not too far from a hole-in-the-wall music store. Its sign, bold and stylish, is worn with time and the weather, and through the front window Roll spies a veritable maze of records, CDs, and other more recent formats. “He also likes to complain about it.”

“They seem to work together well,” Roll says, adjusting her purse strap. She hesitates before adding, “... you all do, most of the time. It’s honestly a little intimidating.”

“Trust me, I know what it feels like to be the new guy,” Ballade says, and then frowns as they come up to the front window of the store. “Well, no seven-foot-tall wall of spikes here. Guess we better try somewhere else.”

“We’re not going to go in?” Roll tilts her head at the door. “He might have been by.”

“Oh, uh…” Ballade shrugs. “Sure?”

The front of the store is the space for the cash register and counter, and also, logistically speaking, the only place a seven-foot-tall wall of spikes could hypothetically stand. The space between the racks is far too narrow for Punk’s frame. Ballade looks around as he trails in behind Roll, who makes a beeline for the counter. There’s a human man in his thirties sporting a mohawk sitting behind it, and he looks up from his phone as Roll approaches.

“Hey, what can I do for you?” he asks, as she reaches the counter.

“We’re looking for our friend,” she says. “Do you know Punk?”

“Gotta whole section over there,” the man says wryly.

“Hah hah,” Ballade says under his breath, and then more audibly, “Walking death machine, red paint job?”

“Who’s asking?” the man straightens in his seat, looking them over warily.

“That’s his brother,” Roll says sweetly, as Ballade’s expression turns stormy and he goes to open his mouth. “Are you a friend of his?”

The man looks between them with a thoughtful expression before relaxing and nodding.

“You must be Ballade,” he nods at Ballade, who blinks. “Yeah, Punk’s a regular here. Guy really knows his tunes, for a walking death machine. Hey, did you really get beat up by a cat?” The last bit is directed at Ballade.

“Change of plans,” Ballade grates out. “I’m gonna kill him when we find him.”

“Well no shit, you really are brothers.” He laughs.

“I’m Roll,” Roll says politely, putting out her hand to shake and trying not to smile at Ballade’s face as it settles into something resembling a pout.

“Kevin,” the man says, taking the hand and shaking it. “Damn, girl, you’ve got a firm grip.”

“Look, do you know where he is right now?” Ballade says, crossing his arms and watching the interaction with thinly-disguised suspicion.

“Well,” Kevin hums, withdrawing his hand and leaning back in his chair to rub his chin. “He did pass by a few days ago. I think he mentioned an event, yeah? Something about getting out of Dodge for a while.”

“An event?” Roll asks, trading glances with Ballade. “Like a concert?”

“No, longer,” Kevin says, and then slowly grins. “Wait, you don’t know?”

Roll looks over at Ballade, who shrugs.

“Well, what kind of event is it?” she asks, turning back to Kevin.

---

“So this is… a LARP,” Ballade says, beholding the scene in front of them. He sounds distinctly unimpressed.

The event, such as it is, is taking place in a wide field, a piece of wild property that isn’t too unlike what Dr. Light’s extensive backyard looked like, but with the addition of a good chunk of forested area. From their position on a hill, they can see a lot of people in fantasy garb of varying levels of quality, some of which are engaged in a pitched battle with a group of people dressed up like some kind of lizard. There are a number of tents pitched in what looks like a central hub around a large fire pit. Behind them, there’s a parking lot full of vehicles.

“It seems like it,” Roll says, at a total loss.

“I thought I knew him,” Ballade says, running a hand through his hair. “If I’d known about this I’d never run out of shi - err, mud to sling.”

Roll side-eyes him, raising an eyebrow.

“Gosh,” she says, “I can’t imagine why he never told you.”

“C’mon, cut me some slack,” he huffs. “Apparently he’s going around telling random humans about the time Tango got me.”

“Okay, I guess that’s fair,” she laughs. “I don’t see him, though. Do you think we should ask-?”

“Hey, are you here for the game?” They’re interrupted as a woman in leather armor pads up from a nearby group. She’s got two foam swords coated in duct tape attached to her belt with makeshift holsters that may or may not have been fashioned from the cardboard loops from a roll of tape. She nods to the path behind them. “Check-in station’s over by the barn, a little ways up the path, but I think all the storytellers are busy right now. Otherwise, we’ve got the place rented, so...”

“Oh, no, we’re just here for a friend,” Roll says.

“He’s seven feet tall counting the metal mohawk, red all over…” Ballade says.

“Oh!” the woman’s eyes light up in recognition. “Yeah, he’s over at NPC camp.”

“Right,” Roll says, with a small amount of uncertainty.

“Here,” the woman beckons, starting off with a step. “I’ll take you. Just put your hand over your head so everyone knows we’re out of character, like this.” She demonstrates, leaving the hand there afterwards.

They walk down the slope of the hill, stopping only so the woman can explain in brief to her group what’s going on. They set off in a different direction amiably.

On their way down, they pass the group who was fighting before. The lizard people are splayed out on the ground, mock-dead, and people are going around stooping over the bodies. As they pass, one of them is handed a few coins and a piece of paper and the lizard-person gets up with their hand over their head and goes off into the woods.

Ballade is the first to speak again.

“So you guys have to know he’s a…?”

“Robot built to help conquer the world?” the woman says, flipping a strand of hair out of her face with her free hand. “Yeah, of course. We watch the news.”

“And you still let him play?” Ballade asks.

“Well, he’s never attacked anyone here,” she shrugs. “And he’s a good sport about pulling his weight monstering. The storytellers love him ‘cause he’s easy to do up as the hulking evil golem or troll or whatnot.”

They pass through the central hub, getting a few glances but not much else. People are mostly wrapped up in their own business, Roll observes. There’s a group off to one side receiving a pitched pre-battle speech from a man dressed in a kilt and furs, and by the fire there’s a loose circle of people who look to just be hanging out talking. Everywhere else around them, people are clustered around their tents or walking from one place to another.

It’s not too long after that that they hit the treeline, and the costuming situation changes. People are walking around this area in modern clothing, mostly black T-shirts and pants and such, some of them wearing or carting around masks and other props. Their guide drops the out-of-character gesture and they follow suit.

They spot Punk sitting around a campfire with a small group of humans, gesturing as he speaks.

“So there I am, watching from the roof across the way as these guys try to talk their way past the officer, who’s convinced that they’re selling Quint drugs or something like that. Enker’s keeping his cool, but the truck is getting further away every second, right? So Ballade finally loses it and -”

“- is right here and will scrap you if you finish that story!” Ballade cuts in, shaking his fist as he steps forward.

Punk looks up nonchalantly, though a few of the humans around him are scrambling to get up.

“Okay, okay, we’re not here to fight,” she says, putting her hands up.

“I hope not,” Punk says. “Do you know how much these guys spend on insurance? You’d bankrupt them on the premium bump.”

“Hey, uh, we’re just gonna… go see if they need any more kobolds,” one of the humans jerks a thumb at the biggest tent, which has a table out front.

“Yeah, yeah,” Punk says, rolling his eyes. The humans vacate, giving Ballade nervous glances as they go. In the same motion, their guide makes her excuses and leaves, too, leaving just the three of them around the fire. “... Aw man, you spooked them.”

“Sorry not sorry,” Ballade mutters. Roll spies a camp chair and sits down, sighing. “Maybe they wouldn’t be afraid of me if you weren’t going around talking trash about me to every other human on Earth.”

“Oh, that reminds me,” Punk says, brightening and turning to Roll. “Quint says he’s banned from kitchens for life-”

“Hey, don’t change the subject!” Ballade says. “What are you doing here, anyway? This isn’t the best time to play hooky.”

“Well, it’s not like we were getting anything done,” Punk shrugs, leaning back and bracing himself on his arms. “You’re not gonna budge, Enker’s not gonna budge, Bosslady’s working on it, and there’s only two weeklong events a year. Why should I stick around and watch you two argue?”

“I- just-” Ballade throws his hands up and lets himself fall to a sitting position with a thump. “Ugh.

“While you were gone, Enker’s been taking things out on Ballade,” Roll says, finally cutting in.

“Eh. Kinda hoped he’d cool down, but…” Punk sighs and pushes himself forward, freeing an arm to scratch the back of his… head-base. “I guess I should’ve known better. He doesn’t like not being in control of what’s going on, and we’re down two guys, uh, bots.” he nods to Roll.

“Well, they’re guys,” she grants. “Are you going to come back with us?”

“I was kind of hoping to get to actually play my character,” Punk says. “I’m usually short on cash, so they let me NPC for longer to get out of the entrance fee.”

“Oh boy,” Ballade says. “You’re gonna go around hitting people with foam swords?”

“Hey, don’t knock it until you try it,” Punk says. “It’s fun. ‘Sides, I know you don’t have to worry about it, but some of us don’t look human. There aren’t a lot of places that I can run around without worrying about it, you know?”

“Still,” Roll says, over Ballade, who doesn’t seem to know what to say in response to that. “Please, Punk? I don’t know what it is they’re arguing about, but…”

“You haven’t told her yet?” Punk stares down Ballade, who puts up his hands defensively.

“Enker said not to,” he mutters. “Like I want him breathing down my neck right now.”

“Fine, I’ll take the blame, you big baby,” Punk huffs. He turns to Roll.

Roll bites her lip.

“See,” he says, “Enker wants to go and raid Wily’s systems to find out where he dumped the old Time Skimmer.”

Chapter Text

Vile! What are you doing here?!” X shouts, levelling his buster at centre mass on the huge contraption that the maverick is piloting. Around them, the city erupts into chaos as explosions and screaming rise from the immediate area around them. Quint, who until now was the only one left in street clothes, dons his own armour even as he turns his head this way and that to try and get an idea of what exactly is happening. It’s no dice, though, the steep and harsh walls of the alleyway blocking all but a thin slice of the action. What he can see is pretty grim, smaller robot drones flooding the streets and people stampeding to get out of the way.

“Settling an old score,” Vile responds, and though they can’t see his face through the thin slits of his helmet, there’s a vicious grin in his voice.

“Going for best four out of seven?” Zero asks, drawing his sabre. “You’re nil for three, by my count.”

There’s a whirring and the tip of Vile’s shoulder cannon glows. That’s all the warning they get before a massive beam scores the alley. Quint just manages to slide out of the way, and he can see everyone else scattering to avoid it; Bass with his dash, and X and Zero kicking off the side of the buildings they’re wedged between. He can feel the heat off it from several feet off, and realizes with a spike of panic that if he gets hit with that thing head-on he might well be vaporized.

X and Zero close in on Vile, and Quint suddenly understands Bass’ despair. The two of them are impossibly fast, both equipped with dash functions and using them to the fullest advantage as they weave in and out of close range in perfect sync. They force him out of the lip of the alleyway and the battle pours out into the street.

A stream of rapid-fire plasma flies over Quint’s shoulder and he realizes abruptly that Bass is closing in after them. Cold fear grips him.

“Bass, wait-!” he raises an arm after the ebony robot as he dashes past, but it’s useless. He’s totally intent on his target.

“Eat this, you motherfu-!” Bass’ salvo finally slams into the mech that Vile is riding (it’s so bulky that it seems like whoever designed it didn’t bother making it dodgy), and he cuts himself off as the shots practically ping off of its surface and the plasma dissipates.

“What are you doing?!” Zero calls out from the middle of a jumping arc. He neatly bisects a group of missiles fired from a compartment in Vile’s chest before hitting the ground and tucking and rolling to a stand. “Get to cover!”

Don’t tell me what to do! ” Bass snaps, already charging up his buster. He and Zero scatter from their position as another huge beam from the shoulder cannon rips up the concrete between them.

Streams of light, teleports, start pouring down from the sky. They’re landing all over, in buildings, on the streets, on roads. It’s only seconds before the lights start heading skywards, as well.

“Zero!” X calls, from where he’s dodging another volley of missiles. “Draw his fire! They’re starting evac!”

It’s faster than Quint is used to, but then, he supposes that the hunters have the advantage of experience with sudden attacks like this. Not to mention they’re in spitting distance of the base.

“Got it!” Zero says, and in a hiss of plasma he activates his dash and launches himself right at Vile. Bass’ charged shot whizzes past him and hits centre mass, doing just about nothing. Bass swears up a storm.

Vile opens fire with the shoulder cannon again and the massive beam forces Zero off-course.

“Dammit, he’s stronger than last time!” Zero grits his teeth, boots sliding to a rest as he hits the pavement.

“X!” Vile laughs, a visceral sound that projects what’s unmistakable as sheer thrill. If Quint had blood, it would run cold at that sound. “Your unlimited potential… that secret you’ve guarded all these years! It’s not yours alone anymore!”

“What are you talking about, Vile?” X stills, buster levelled at Vile’s form in the cockpit. The endless stream of ordnance has ceased with Vile’s monologue, though everyone has their weapons up.

The space around them is anything but quiet - the screams and shouts continue, and there are still the sounds of combat and explosions all around them, now punctuated by the whine of hundreds of teleports running together. But in their pocket of road, everything else seems to be dampened as a purple aura - a very familiar purple aura, Quint notes with widening eyes - flares to life in a corona around Vile’s body. It spreads from him over the surface of his craft, and X takes what looks like an involuntary step back.

“Now you’ll bow before my potential!” he says, and in the blink of an eye the fight is back on as the mech and seemingly every spare inch of space on Vile’s body and the mech open up to reveal weaponry. The resulting wall of explosives and plasma comes at X, Zero, and Bass in a wave.

To Bass’ credit, he doesn’t try to stay on the front lines. He’s crouching behind a huge block of tossed cement trying to take potshots at this point. Quint’s hovering on the edge of the battlefield, mostly trying not to get hit with stray fire, and he sees the lone missile fly wild from the cloud around X and head straight for -

BASS! Watch out!” he calls, and Bass’ head turns just in time to see the projectile closing in from the side.

Zero reacts faster than Quint can even keep track of, literally leaving red afterimages in Quint’s optics as he disengages from the firing zone and dashes back to Bass’ position. He scoops up Bass, and the missile impacts the concrete where he was in the next second. Zero’s blur is heading at Quint, now, so fast that he barely registers it before he feels being grabbed, a flurry of movement, and then they’re on one of the nearby rooftops.

Stay out of the way,” Zero says, expression flinty as he stares Bass down. He’s got a new wound, electronic innards sparking from a gash caused by shrapnel in his arm.

Bass’ red eyes are blown wide and he’s still looking as disoriented as Quint feels. Zero’s gone in a gust of displaced air not a moment later, vaulting back down into the battlefield.

They both stand there shock-still for a few seconds, the sounds of battle echoing around them.

“Stay…” Quint hears Bass croak.

Bass collapses to his knees, hands coming up to grip his head.

“Stay out of the way,” he repeats, voice trembling.

Quint bites his lip and crouches next to him, resting a hand gingerly on his back.

“I couldn’t even dent him,” Bass says. “He’s so strong. They’re all so strong.

“Bass…” Quint starts, but Bass shakes his head.

“I’m obsolete! ” he bites out, sinking even further. His fingers are shaking where he’s gripping his helmet, tips scraping along the smooth surface until they close into fists. “I’m - I don’t stand a fucking chance! I’m a liability!

“Bass,” Quint says, leaning in closer. His breath hitches when he notices a teardrop tracking its way down Bass’ cheek.

“He finally did it. The old man finally replaced me,” Bass says, and there’s hysteria creeping into his voice now. “I’ll never be strong enough - I’ll never be -”

Bass!” Quint says, sharply, and Bass’ head whips back up to look at him. “Listen to me. No one could replace you.”

Bass’ face twists up into a grimace.

“You’re just saying that because -”

Yeah, I am, but that’s not it,” Quint says. He lets his hand fall off of Bass’ back and circles around to clasp his hands face to face. “You’re the strongest robot in the world, Bass. It doesn’t matter what Zero was built for, okay? It doesn’t matter that he’s got a super strong sword or that he’s fast or that he’s got good armour.”

“That’s sure as hell enough to beat me,” Bass’ jaw clenches. “You sound fucking delusional.”

“The reason you’re the strongest robot in the world -” Quint says, reaching out a hand and resting it on Bass’ chest, “- is because you never ever give up, okay? Yeah, he beat you, but when has that ever stopped you?”

Bass opens his mouth and then closes it, not breaking eye contact. As if he’s daring Quint to break it first, to show any sign of uncertainty. Quint doesn’t.

“I…” he says, finally. “This is different. We’re sidelined.”

“Is it?” Quint asks. “Look, I know what it’s like to face impossible odds. We just have to find a way. There’s always a way.”

Bass looks at the ground and then brings up a hand to scrub his cheeks dry as he stands up and staggers towards the edge of the rooftop. Below them, X and Zero are fighting fiercely.

“Fuck,” he says, with a tight frown, as X takes a glancing blow from a shoulder cannon blast - now tinged purple and even more potent - to the side and cries out. It streaks into a nearby building and the ground shakes again. “They’re… losing.”

Quint casts around with his eyes at what they can see from their vantage point. Evacuators, rampaging machines, and a lot of hunters caught in combat.

“They’ve got no backup,” Quint says.

“Even if we took shots from up here they wouldn’t pierce his armour,” Bass leans over and grips the railing so hard.

“The Screw Crusher won’t do anything…” Quint mumbles, tracking the action from next to Bass. “Ballade Cracker would only be a distraction.”

“Wait,” Bass jerks back. “You have those idiots’ weapons on you?”

“Uh, yeah,” Quint blinks. “Don’t you? We’re all on the same team.”

Bass is watching the battlefield with a renewed vigour, brow furrowed thoughtfully.

“There,” he says, pointing at Vile’s shoulder cannon as it spews forth another concentrated beam of plasma. “The Mirror Buster! It’s a shield and it’ll turn it back on him but powered up even more! That has to be enough to get through.”

“That’s enough energy to turn us into ashes!” Quint says, pulling back in alarm. He stares up at Bass. “My systems can’t handle that… do you think yours-?”

“My power source is bullshit,” Bass says, and for the first time since his fight with Zero, he grins. “My systems are built to handle that.”

Quint’s armour turns blue and yellow in a wave, and he holds his hand out to Bass. Bass takes it, and his armour shifts colours to match.

“I believe in you,” he says, as quietly as he can while still being audible over the fight below.

Bass pauses, one hand still on Quint’s and one boot already up on the railing as he’s poised to jump. He squeezes Quint’s hand and nods.

“Thanks,” he says. “It’s - thanks.” and then he’s jumping and falling in an arc towards the melee.

---

Zero really wishes that certain people would have the decency to stay dead, which he refuses to acknowledge is a hypocritical viewpoint on the matter.

Vile is tough, but he hasn’t been able to best X or Zero since the first rebellion. None of his subsequent resurrections have ever helped matters, which is why it’s so surprising that he’s so easily beating both of them. He’s pressing the offense relentlessly, firing at an output that should be theoretically impossible and keeping both of them dancing just to avoid his attacks. Meanwhile, he keeps rushing in when they’re busy and smacking them around with his ride armour’s giant fists.

The purple aura is a mystery, too. Zero’s more than familiar with what it feels like to be in proximity with the Maverick Virus. It usually (to his distaste) actually gives him a minor boost in power and acuity, along with a nagging eagerness to do battle. This is an entirely different sensation. It pulls at him in a different way, overwhelming him with thoughts and images. What if X took that missile just now, what would I do, and what will happen to the rest of the hunters if we fall here?

Wait, he thinks. This is sounding familiar. But he doesn’t have the time to puzzle it out.

They’re slowing him down, dulling his reactions. He almost doesn’t even realize he’s been hit until X screams his name. The pain registers in the moment after, lighting up his midsection like fire. Stunned, he looks down. Yup, that’s a hole in his middle. And oh, that’s the ground. When did he get there?

Someone’s yelling. It’s probably X. No, wait, that’s not X. Zero could recognize X’s voice from a mile away underwater, which is coincidentally about how far away he feels right now. His internals are screaming with him to shut down and engage auto-repair, but he forces himself to look up and refocus.

It’s Bass. He’s standing in the middle of the battlefield, and he’s yellow and blue now for some reason.

“Hey, you stuck-up fucking cosplayer!” Bass calls out to Vile, who seems to have stopped firing out of respect for the sheer audacity of the gesture. “Why don’t you stop cowering in your bitchmobile and face me?!”

“Got civilians fighting for you now, X?” Vile asks, sneer apparent in the tone.

Bass, what are you doi-” X starts. He’s running over to Zero as they speak.

Shut up,” Bass snaps at X, and then turns back to Vile. There’s something happening to him. He’s got a glow to him, too, greenish flames licking up and over him from his feet. Bass points his buster straight on at Vile as though it hadn’t completely been outclassed by his armour minutes before. “You’ll beat X when pigs fly, you hack!”

“If you’ve got a death wish, you just had to say so,” Vile says, and his shoulder cannon glows.

“X, stop him-!” Zero rasps out, putting out an arm, and X’s eyes widen as they both realize that Bass isn’t intending to dodge.

X spins on his heel, and Zero feels the backdraft from his dash thrusters, but he doesn’t get there before the cannon fires.

Several things happen right after another. First, an energy shield appears in front of Bass. Second, the beam, which is even deadlier since Vile’s power-up, slams into it. Third, the energy around Bass, the green-white flame, explodes in intensity, so brightly that if he were human Zero would be blinded and miss what happened next entirely. The shield’s surface becomes the source of a new beam, this one twice as big and twice as bright as its predecessor, which hurtles back at Vile with remarkable speed. Vile, who didn’t get as far as he is now without a survival instinct (okay, maybe that’s poor wording), bails from the cockpit and avoids the full brunt, but when the dust settles, the ride armour slumps forward, a massive hole shot right through it. … And, Zero notes in distant awe, right through the building behind it.

Command’s not going to be happy with that.

Vile staggers to his feet, holding a sparking limb and clearly glaring daggers at Bass from under his helmet.

“Nice trick,” he spits out. “Won’t work twice.”

Then he’s teleported away. A mass of teleports follow. They’re retreating.

Bass collapses to one knee, breathing heavily. Heat is coming off of his body in shimmering waves.

X is caught between the two of them, frozen in shock.

“Bass!!” Quint hits the ground nearby and stumbles over the uneven ground to Bass’ side, and that clinches it. X darts back to Zero and takes his hand, eyes watering.

“Don’t you dare die on me again,” he says, and Zero huffs out a chuckle. It hurts.

“I’ve… had worse and lived,” he says. “He missed... my core.”

Relief washes over X’s face at that. He squeezes Zero’s hand.

“Okay,” he says. “... Okay.”

Zero opens his mouth to say something else, something comforting, but that’s about when everything goes dark as he passes out.

---

He wakes up in the med bay. It’s not an unfamiliar state of affairs, as hunting is dangerous work, but Zero usually at least remembers walking there. He can feel his stomach, so it looks like the Lifesavers have done their work.

“Hey,” a voice says, and surprisingly, it’s not X.

Bass is there, instead, leaning against a support beam with his arms crossed. He’s peering down at Zero with a neutral expression, almost bored.

“Bass?” Zero groans, pulling himself up to sitting. “Where’s X?”

“Glad to see you too, asshole.” Bass rolls his eyes.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad you’re alive after - what was that?” Zero says, rubbing the bridge of his nose.

“One of Enker’s tricks,” Bass says, and for the first time since the start of the conversation he really frowns, averting his eyes. “... so, thank Quint for bringing it along, I guess.”

“Humility doesn’t sound right on you.” Zero raises an eyebrow. “Quint’s not the one who stepped in front of a death laser with it, anyway. So, thanks.”

Bass huffs, but doesn’t say anything. Zero frowns.

“What’s wrong?” he asks.

“He would have if he could have,” he says, eyes on the floor. “I just - can handle the power. It was a coincidence.”

“Wait,” Zero says. “I’m confused. You’re upset because…”

“I’m not upset!” Bass says, obviously upset.

“... You’re upset because you saved the day, but it wasn’t -”

“If Quint hadn’t been there then you’d be dead,” Bass snaps.

“You’re right,” Zero leans back, closing his eyes. “I can’t believe you relied on someone else.”

“Are you being sarcastic?” Bass narrows his eyes.

“No,” Zero says, looking him dead in the eye. “I can’t stand that. How could you.”

“Oh, fuck off,” Bass mutters.

“My strong opinions on not relying on others are exactly why I’m part of a large organization,” Zero continues, heedless.

“I get it,” Bass growls, glaring at him. Zero finally breaks the stone mask and smirks, and Bass flips him the bird. “Ugh, you’re such a brat.”

“Pot to kettle much?” Zero hums, swinging around to hop off the metal table he’d been lying on. “And aren’t you like five?

“I don’t give a shit how old you are, you’re still the little -” Bass says, and then abruptly swallows it. Zero’s eyebrows retreat right up into his helmet as they share a beat of stunned silence.

“- Brother?” Zero finishes for him, and Bass throws up his hands.

Wow let’s go see what X and Quint are up to!” he declares, storming out of the med bay.

“You almost said brother,” Zero grins, sliding after him.

“I hope you go bald,” Bass says, voice laden with venom.

“That’s a terrible thing for a brother to say, Bass,” Zero says, and Bass swats at him (which Zero ducks) and gives him the silent treatment the whole way to Signas’ office.

It’s totally worth it.

Chapter Text

When Bass and Zero arrive in Signas’ office, he sees both Quint and X perk up at their arrival. They both look relieved, though Quint is more along the lines of a student who just heard the end of class bell ring and X is rocking more of a I never thought I would see you again, my love expression right off of a romance cover from an airport bookshelf. For someone who is so devoted to keeping their relationship on the down-low, Zero thinks, X sure is bad at hiding it.

Then again, he’s been making those faces for years.

Zero shakes himself out of that train of thought and turns to nod at Signas, who nods back curtly. The general looks… strained. Also in attendance is Palette, a navigator-cum-technician who’s tapping something furiously into a datapad.

“Douglas not available?” Zero asks, first thing, flopping onto a chair. Bass just leans on the back of Quint’s chair and glares at Signas as if daring him to tell him to sit.

“What we’re discussing is kind of out of his specialty,” Palette replies, looking up from her datapad. With her unusual head configuration, a set of large antennae and analysis equipment stylized to look like hair, it’s a significant movement. Like Axl, she has a peppy voice that lends a sense of earnesty to everything she says. “He’s a genius engineer, but we’re looking at -”

“- cyberspace,” Signas cuts in, sighing. “Among other things. We’ll get to that. X, what we’ve covered so far, if you’d care to catch Zero up?”

“Right,” X nods. “Three days ago, at approximately 1800 hours, there was a coordinated maverick strike on Arcadia, not more than three miles from hunter base. Due to the proximity, hunter response was quick, and there weren’t many casualties, but before the enemy forces retreated it was noted by all units that the maverick forces were unusually, almost unnaturally, stronger than they should be given our intel on their threat levels.”

“Like Vile,” Zero frowns. “With that weird aura.”

“Evil energy,” Bass mutters. Signas doesn’t make a face, but his already-existing frown thins and tightens.

“That aura was observed on other mavericks, as well,” Palette pipes up. “It doesn’t match the signature of the virus, not exactly, but the readings were identical to the ones in the location you and X scouted in Abel City.”

“... Which was raided at the same time as the strike here,” X says, voice grim. “The research team didn’t make it, though thanks to their actions we received the full dataset. Unfortunately, we think the mavericks have it, too.”

“So it was a distraction,” Zero frowns, leaning forward and for once sitting at attention. X nods.

“At the same time, we observed a major shift of forces to what, by all accounts, seems to be a random spot in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and another inroad into Siberia,” X says. He scratches at his arm and then his hands drop to his side, listless. “So, we can gather that they’ve organized another coordinated force.”

“I hate it when they do that,” Zero says.

“Don’t we all,” Signas says. “That’s the tactical overview. There’s also the matter of…” his eyes swivel over to rest on Bass and Quint. Quint squirms in his seat. “The time travellers.”

“You believe them?” Zero asks, cautiously.

“Analysis of the data from Abel City confirms the presence of exotic particles associated with chronotech, along with a whole host of other fun stuff that R&D is having a field day with,” Palette says, running through data on her holographic screen almost faster than Zero can track. Navigators, man. “Cain Labs’ archaeology division was also able to corroborate some of X’s preliminary research on their story.”

“I believe it,” Signas says, “But I’m not thrilled about it. Especially since, once again, our enemies have access to this data as well.”

“But they don’t have access to us,” Quint says, speaking up for the first time since Zero entered the room. “So there’s that, right?”

“If you really are a precursor to X, then yeah, that’s a good thing,” Palette says, and then absently adds, “Oh, that reminds me, Bass, we really want a look at that power source of yours…”

“Get fucked,” Bass snarls. Palette just shrugs and returns to her pad, leaving Bass with a grumpy expression.

“Bass, be polite,” X says, earning a middle finger from Bass. Zero reaches over and cuffs the ebony robot on the ear, which gets a shocked expression, then a flash of anger, and then sullen silence. Quint glances between them and bites his lip.

“But the biggest thing about your story is, if it’s all true, it’s a huge change in how we view cyberspace,” Palette continues, and her voice speeds up as obvious excitement shines through. “Currently we’ve been working on the assumption that it’s just a means of navigating and affecting computational architecture, and we thought we’d taken that about as far as it could go. But if it really is some kind of sub-dimension that can affect the real world, we could apply our current cyberspace tech in some really novel ways.”

“That sounds exciting,” Quint says, with a half-smile. Zero suspects it’s out of politeness.

“It’d take an awful lot of juice, though…” Palette ruminates to herself, frowning down at her holo-screens. Signas clears his throat.

“We can discuss what I’m sure are going to be some absolutely staggering funding requests later,” he says, and turns to X and Zero. “We’re still gathering intelligence on the maverick positions, and you’ll receive the mission data when it becomes available. As for you two…”

Signas swivels to regard Bass and Quint. Bass scowls and meets his eyes in challenge, and Quint wrings his hands.

“I can’t think of anywhere you’d be safer than in the hands of X and Zero, so we’ll continue the current arrangement. You should be aware that as it stands, you might be targets, so keep that in mind,” Signas says. “That should be all we need to cover right now. You’re all dismissed. Oh, except, X. A word, please?”

“Of course,” X nods, moving to take Zero’s seat as Zero himself practically leaps up at the prospect of escaping a meeting of any kind. Bass, who’s still visibly annoyed, nonetheless allows himself to be corralled to the exit.

“We’ll wait outside,” Zero says. Bass mutters something about executive fucking decisions, but as the door closes behind them, he crosses his arms and leans against the wall anyway.

---

When X steps out of Signas’ office, the door seems larger than usual, looming even, a property that is usually reserved for entry into the space of a man as important as the general of the Maverick Hunters. Then again, X muses, one is always entering something when one exits through a door.

Zero and the others are waiting for him in the short hallway that connects this space to the command hub. When Zero catches sight of him, his whole face lights up with a dazzling smile that reaches his blue eyes and makes them sparkle. For someone normally so unreadable, he’s just got no subtlety at all when it comes to his obvious affection for X. It’s a good feeling, one that bubbles up warmly from below all of the stresses of X’s day to day life and gives him something to hold onto.

Right now, it also twists his gut a little.

“What did you need to talk to me about, sir?”

“You know, X, I don’t know what I would do without you.”

“Sir?”

“Hey,” X says, waving weakly despite the fact that they’re literally five feet apart. Zero snorts.

“Hey,” he says in return. “What was that all about?”

“We’ve just been attacked a stone’s throw from our headquarters of operation. I’m sure you can imagine the press.”

“I don’t miss that part of the job, no.”

“You don’t miss any of it, I’d wager.”

“I think you’re doing a far better job than I could, sir.”

“Oh, just some administrative things,” X lies through his teeth with a smile. If Zero catches on, he doesn’t let it show. It’s not like they’re not used to the need-to-know nature of some of the Hunters’ operations. “I’d say you know how it is, but…”

Zero crosses the space between them to elbow him.

“I’ll have you know I did a whole paperwork,” he says.

“With help,” Bass pipes up from his spot on the wall, where he seems to be attempting to mentally bend space and time to create a corner to sulk in. Quint’s sort of hovering next to him, very much apart from that aura and looking exhausted.

“Shut up.” Zero grins.

“I’ll give you that. In any case, since you were on the scene, it wasn’t as ugly as it could have been.”

“PR-wise or collateral-wise?”

“Both. Though, if this new threat scales, and they tend to, we might be looking at another large Maverick force.”

“Sir…”

“Look, X… you’re the father of all reploids. A symbol of hope and stability , the latter of which we need right now.”

“Sir.”

“I know this is unfair to ask of you, given… recent developments…”

“I know,” X says, patting Zero on the shoulder and giving him a weak smile. “I’m very proud of you.”

“You don’t sound very proud of me,” Zero pouts, and then, apparently unable to keep up the facade of misery even a moment longer, breaks out into a grin and pulls X into a side-hug.

“Alright, alright,” X says, letting himself be crushed up against Zero’s sharp, angular armour for a scant few second before extricating himself. He catches a flash of disappointment on Zero’s face and the twist in his gut sharply redoubles. “You’re the one who almost died,” he sighs. “I should be the one initiating the hugs.”

“Yeah,” Zero says, drawing back up to his full height and looking away. “You should.”

“I need you to be the golden boy right now and not rock the boat, X.”

“Not… rock the boat?”

“As in, cause any kind of potential scandal in the middle of a burgeoning conflict.”

“... For how long?”

“I don’t know. I wish I did.”

“... Is that all, sir?”

“That’s all.”

“May I be dismissed?”

“Yes. You’re dismissed, X.”

X takes a second to stare down at his boots. They’re not much to look at.

“... Yeah,” he says, looking back up to meet Zero’s eyes. “I should. Do you want to get back to our quarters?”

Zero seems mollified by the compromise, countenance perking up. He smiles, though there’s still a lurking undercurrent of injury in his expression.

“Sure,” he says, and turns to go shoo Bass and Quint along.

They’re only five feet apart again, but X feels like the distance has grown somehow.

---

Through the magic of teleportation, the mottled greens and browns of the forest abruptly give way to greys and subdued industrial paints as Roll and Ballade return from Punk’s hideaway.

Roll finds herself studying the ground, distantly aware that she’s fiddling with her sleeve cuffs again.

To find the old Time Skimmer, huh? She thinks, and to her surprise, it isn’t the prospect of being left out of the loop that’s upsetting her. She hasn’t quite put her finger on what is.

“... Look,” Ballade speaks up, and Roll shakes herself out of her reverie to look up and meet his eyes. He pauses before continuing, obviously searching for the words. “I should have - I’m sorry I didn’t just tell you.”

Roll sighs, long and ragged.

“Enker’s already taking things out on you enough,” she says. “I… understand.”

Ballade looks tongue-tied at that, and honestly, Roll can’t think of what to say either. They walk the short distance in the small walkway between warehouses, which are still spotless from Roll’s earlier ministrations. They come up on the side doors that lead inside to the lab area, and Roll reaches out for the handle, but hesitates. She looks over (up, really, given the height difference) at Ballade.

“You’re afraid that Wily will recapture you all,” she says. “That’s why you and Enker were fighting.”

Ballade grimaces, sighs, and leans against the other door, running a hand down his face.

“Loyalty programming failed already,” he says. “What if he just completely rewrites us?”

Roll bites her lip.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “That’s an awful thing to have to think about.”

“Yeah, it does suck,” Ballade says, and he half-smiles. It doesn’t reach his eyes. With a shrug, he adds, “Maybe he’s right, though. Maybe I’m just being a coward.”

“You’re not a coward,” Roll says. The words come firmly and automatically. “Do you think Bass and Quint would want to come back and see you and the others reprogrammed?”

“Quint… no.” Ballade looks away. “Bass, I can’t see him giving a- caring either way.”

He jumps as Roll gives him a solid poke in the side, looking down at her finger and then up at her face in alarm. Roll screws her face up in her most stubborn expression and rests her other hand firmly on her hip.

No one would be happy about it, okay?” she says.

“Alright, alright,” Ballade says, putting his hands up defensively. Roll nods sharply and finally opens the door, and they stride together into the space around the perimeter of Kalinka’s lab. Unlike the parts the roboticist is currently using, this area is immaculate, as are the hallways between the makeshift rooms that they pass through after.

Ballade stops at the door to his own quarters, putting an ear up to the door first and then letting out a sigh of relief.

“Looks like Enker went to his own damn room to sulk,” he says, voice barely above a whisper and eyes darting around as though he expects Enker to be around the corner listening. “I’m gonna follow suit. Uh, Roll…”

“Yes?” she replies, out of courtesy keeping her voice down to a similar volume.

“Thanks for coming along,” he says, and this time the smile he gives her, as weak as it is, is genuine.

“Thanks for taking me,” she says, and nods at his door. “Get some rest, okay?”

“I will,” Ballade says, and he almost sounds bemused at the concept. He slips into his room and Roll is left out in the hallway.

Alone.

With nothing else to do.

“Oh,” she says, to herself.

She makes her way to the kitchen, pausing as she passes Kalinka’s lab only to move along as the sound of mad keystrokes continues unabated, and sinks into one of the chairs at the table, burying her face under her arms and resting her forehead on the cool surface of the table itself.

Despite her best efforts to the contrary, she’s just starting to work up to a debilitating amount of worrying when she feels a cool nose nudging her leg. She lifts her head to see a familiar purple wolf looking up at her questioningly.

“Oh, Treble,” she says, softly. She shifts away from her hunched position and reaches over to pet him. The wolf leans into her touch almost greedily, and Roll giggles despite herself.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “You must be really lonely, and I’ve been busy cleaning so much. Where’s Sakugarne?”

Treble shrugs. It’s a weird look for a quadruped.

“As long as it’s not lost,” she says, and Treble doesn’t appear worried, so she decides the little pogo stick is probably alright. “I’m sorry we haven’t gotten Bass back yet.”

Treble whines, shifting to curl himself around the base of the chair. Roll rests her elbow on his rigid fringe as she scratches his ears.

“... I know I said I was keeping things together at home, but I think I might be doing a bad job,” she says, quietly. Treble’s ears perk and he looks up at her expectantly. “Everyone else has some kind of idea of what to do, or what not to do, and I’m just sitting here… keeping things tidy. Meanwhile, everyone is falling apart and I just...”

Treble woofs softly.

“You’re right,” she sighs. “I should be saying this to someone who can talk back. But nobody needs this on top of everything else that’s going o- ow!

Roll pulls her hand away at the sudden sharp sensation of being bitten. She examines her hand quickly to reveal that it didn’t go through the synthetic skin and glares down at Treble, who looks back up at her with absolutely no sign of remorse in his canine features.

“I see you disagree,” she says, dryly. Treble grins. “Ohhh, you are Bass’ pet, aren’t you? Fine, what do you suggest?”

Treble stares at her, and despite not being equipped with the means to understand him, Roll distinctly gets the vibe he’s saying something along the lines of I don’t know, I’m a fucking wolf.

“... Yeah,” Roll sighs, letting her head drop to the tabletop again and closing her eyes. “Yeah, that’s fair.”

She sighs and pushes herself up, straightening her back and taking a deep breath. She lets it out in a sigh.

“Okay,” Roll says, standing up and pushing her chair back into place roughly. She strides out of the kitchen with purpose.

A second later, she flits back in and straightens the chair so it’s resting perfectly straight against the table. Treble rolls his eyes as she leaves again, which she pointedly ignores.

---

Jenny is in love with her boss Kevin, the grade-A asshole, that much is clear. But as Ballade turns the pages, it becomes clear that she’s also inexplicably entangled with a roguishly handsome street performer and his twin brother who works with her brother at a local landscaping company.

He’s literally hunched over the book on the edge of his bed cushion as Jenny gets caught up in the latest of a series of tax evasion schemes, most of which seem to end up with her boss’ animal magnetism overcoming both of them but little do they know the street performer is filing his busking license just outside the closet they’re in why oh why did she not listen to her down-to-earth brother’s very reasonable advice, when a knock at the door sounds and he stuffs in a bookmark and stows the title so fast that Quick Man would be jealous.

“Hello?” he says, trying to keep his voice even. There’s an edge to it, because there’s a good chance it’s Enker come to pick another fight.

“Ballade?” Roll’s voice drifts in instead, and Ballade relaxes his shoulders.

“One sec,” he says, and then pauses and pulls another pillow over his book just in case. “Come in.”

Roll pushes the door open and pops her head in shyly, and Ballade catches her looking around the room. It isn’t much to behold, honestly. He’s got a bookcase that’s still mostly bare, a salvaged bed with a reading lamp attached to the headboard, and that’s about it. She steps the rest of the way in and closes the door behind her with a soft click.

“So, uh…” Ballade rubs the back of his neck.

“I was upset when I found out about Enker’s plan because I feel like I’m not doing anything,” Roll says, all at once. She’s tugging on her sleeve as she speaks. “I just squirreled myself away doing busywork because it got my mind off things. If I’d faced things head-on, maybe it wouldn’t have gotten to the point where Punk ran off in the first place.”

“Whoa, hey, that’s not - you don’t know that,” Ballade says.

“But -” Roll grimaces.

“Look, I’m glad you weren’t involved, okay?” he says. “Because otherwise, I wouldn’t have, well, gone to talk to you.”

Roll sighs, reaching up and scrubbing at her face with both hands.

“I’m glad,” she says. “But it’s really… it’s really because I’m just so used to being told what to do. Or, knowing that everyone else has things under control and doing what I need to do to support them. I don’t know what to do when there’s… no plan.”

Ballade isn’t sure what to say to that. Is she crying? He doesn’t think so, but the thought is upsetting. He’s met with an answer when she pulls her hands away, revealing not a stricken face but blue eyes alight with determination.

“But I want to do something,” she says. “I want to fix this, and get everyone on the same page so we can rescue my brother and his boyfriend.”

She crosses the room and takes both of this hands in hers, holding them between them and looking him right in the eye.

“I know this is hard for you, too, and you don’t have to, but I could really use your help,” she says.

“Uh,” Ballade says, words momentarily failing him. “... Yes. Sure. Of course.”

Her face lights up like the sun, and she gives his hands a squeeze before letting go and nodding with a smile.

“Thank you,” she says.

“Anytime,” Ballade replies faintly. “Uh, so the plan is…?”

“I… sort of didn’t come up with one yet,” Roll admits, drawing back. “But I’ve got to go make dinner, so I’ll have some time to think about it. Do you want to meet me after?”

“Yeah, that sounds good,” he says, and Roll nods brightly and starts out the door.

“Okay! See you then!” she says, and waves on her way out, then pops back in just before her heel is out to mouth ‘thank you’ before the door is closed behind her with another click.

Ballade sits on the edge of the bed watching the door for what feels like an eternity. Finally, he flops back onto the mattress and groans into his hand.

“There’s something seriously wrong with me,” he says softly, into his palm and the empty room.

The room has the decency not to respond.

Chapter Text

“I don’t see the point of this,” Bass gripes.

“I’m sure,” Zero replies dryly, cracking open one eye to meet Bass’ glare.

The day had started out very promising, Bass reflects, the thought process entirely secondary to expelling venom from his eyes at Zero. Zero has the gall to look completely unaffected. They’d gone to what Zero had explained was a private training area for the higher-rank SA hunters, which he’d apparently booked ahead of time to ensure it was totally clear. Then they’d sat down and just… done nothing.

“Couldn’t we have sat on our asses at your place?” Bass says, packing in the glare for the time being and trading it out for a simple, serviceable scowl. Zero sighs and opens his eyes again to roll them.

“It’s meditation, first off,” he says, “and second off, we’re working on your threat recognition problem. I don’t really feel like replacing any furniture.”

“Is that what this is about?” Bass asks, planting one hand on each knee, which are far apart because he’s sitting as close to what his huge boots will allow to crosslegged. “Ugh, what a waste of my goddamned time. We could be training right now. I could be getting stronger.”

“Strength comes in many forms,” Zero says. “Control is one of them.”

Bass huffs and crosses his arms.

“Look, I know what it’s like,” Zero says, tone a little kinder. “I’ve had… the same problem.”

“Reflex,” Bass mutters.

“What?” Zero asks.

“You pulled your sword on Quint when he took off his helmet,” Bass says. “You said it was a reflex. It’s because he’s a Light-bot, right?”

“I wish it were that simple,” Zero sighs, and scratches the side of his neck, looking skywards. “Remember how Sigma knocked me around before taking me in?”

“Yeah,” Bass says, frowning. “You said he kicked the maverick out of you.”

Zero snorts.

“Good way to put it, but that wasn’t all he did. I think X mentioned it, but a lot of the tech that went into him and me, it’s black box. Even after all this time, they still haven’t been able to reverse-engineer everything that went into making us. And X keeps getting upgraded by his dad, so -”

“Light is still fucking around?! ” Bass interrupts. “He would be what, two hundred?”

“No, he’s not still alive,” Zero waves him off. “He just left behind some kind of AI in his image or something. It shows up whenever a big war crops up and leaves these capsules filled with upgrades for X. At first we thought they were pre-hidden, because they seemed like prerecorded messages, but the way they appear and disappear… and, hell, there have been times where he entrusted X’s upgrade data to me, and once or twice he even gave me an upgrade.”

“And you figure if it wasn’t thinking it would never hand out jack-shit to a Wily-bot.” Bass says.

“I never really had the context to think of it that way, but I always felt like… I was supposed to fight X,” Zero admits. “Which brings me around to what I was trying to say before, which is that when Sigma kicked the maverick out of me, he knocked a few other things loose too.”

“Like your ability to do paperwork,” Bass intones.

“Yeah, that,” Zero says. “Some tics here and there. But the big one is that my combat systems are… stuck.”

“Stuck,” Bass repeats. He actually leans forward a little, intent.

“I’m always sizing up people as threats, subconsciously,” Zero says.

“You’re surrounded by combat robots,” Bass says, a note of horror slipping through into his tone despite his best efforts. “And... X? You and him are a thing, right?”

“Don’t spread it around,” Zero says, after a moment of deliberation. “Yeah, especially X, honestly. But he helps. He’s easy to concentrate on.”

“Yeah, I bet,” Bass says. “So even when you’re -”

“Do you really want to talk about how this affects my sex life?” Zero raises an eyebrow.

Ugh, no!” Bass recoils. “That’s not where I was going with that! Fuck!”

“Because if you want,” Zero grins, “I could go into detail about how satisfying it is to conquer -”

So what the fuck are we meditating for,” Bass cuts in forcefully, and Zero laughs.

“You went in for repairs after the thing with Vile, right?” Zero says, and Bass nods.

“Stupid power surge almost fried my gun,” he bites out. “I hate that guy.”

“Yeah, join the club. But I checked with the lifesavers, and they said that according to scans, you shouldn’t be having this problem. Your combat systems are… different than most reploids’, but they’re not broken.”

Bass frowns, slowly, posture relaxing into something more thoughtful as he rubs his chin-strap absently.

“And what the hell does that mean?” he asks.

“Search me, I’m not a techie,” Zero shrugs. “But if I had to guess, if you’ve never had this problem before, it’s probably mental.”

“You think I’m psyching myself out? Seriously?” Bass scowls.

“The first mavericks were just reploids that ran into unexpected problems with their programming when they got thrown into new experiences,” Zero says. “And yours is way more rigid than that, right?”

Bass’ gaze drops to the floor. Annoyingly, Zero’s huge mane of golden hair is still visible just at the edges of his vision from this angle. He’s got it tucked around himself like a shiny blond nest.

There might be something to Zero’s theory, Bass thinks, with a flash of annoyance.

“I was built to be the strongest,” he says. The pile of hair shifts and Bass thinks Zero might be nodding.

“That’d do it,” Zero says. “Dick move, by the way.”

“The old man is made of dick moves,” Bass snorts. “You’re lucky you never met him.”

“Yeah,” Zero says. “Probably for the best.”

There’s a stretch of silence, and Bass thinks that if this is what meditation is, fuck meditation. It’s awful.

“Why are you helping me?” Bass asks, finally. It’s much quieter than anything else he’s said in this conversation.

“Why wouldn’t I?” Zero asks, and he sounds genuinely confused. Bass drags his gaze upwards and finds that his expression matches.

“Don’t you have more important things to do?” Bass asks. “When this is all over, we’re going back home. I fucking hope so, anyway. Why are you wasting time helping me get over my systems throwing a bitchfit?”

Zero’s eyebrows climb upwards, and then come back down as he settles into a thoughtful frown.

“I mean, I guess you’re right,” he says. “Objectively, anyway. But you know what? I’ve had nightmares for years about my creator. He’s always been this… evil thing, reminding me I don’t belong here. That my whole life, everything I’ve built with X was, you know, a fluke. Hell, I’ve never even told X about it. It seemed less real that way.”

“Wow, that fucking sucks,” Bass says, and Zero lets out a startled laugh.

“Yeah, it does,” he agrees. “But here you are, and you’re from him too, but you’re not… well, you’re family. I’ve never had that before and I like it. So if you’re going home and I might never see you again, that’s all the more reason to spend time with you now.”

Bass looks back down at the ground.

“Ugh,” he says. “You caught Light-bot. Gross.”

“With how much you like Quint, is that really an insult?” Zero says, and Bass can hear the grin in his voice. He moves to kick Zero’s hair.

“Shut up and let’s get this meditating shit over with,” Bass grouses.

“That’s the spirit,” Zero says, annoyingly indifferent to Bass’ hair assault. “So first you want to find something to concentrate on…”

“Can it be on how stupid you look?”

“Sure, but why bother when you look so much stupider?”

“... Fuck you.”

---

“Having fun?”

Quint’s head bobs up from where it had been resting in his arms, turning to face X’s voice. He’s leaning against the railing adjacent to the observation window that looks into the training room that Bass and Zero are currently occupying.

X is once again in full armour, and the damage from a few days before has been apparently repaired and then replaced. Well, not fully replaced, anyway. There are some saber-marks, but they’re not as bad as what he’d come home with from Brazil.

“I kinda thought there’d be more action,” he admits, flashing X a half-smile. “Another mission?”

“Always,” X says, and there’s a soft note of resignation in his voice as he sashays over to settle in on the railing next to Quint. He looks out at the two Wily-bots, who are currently engaged in some unheard banter. “Ah, arguing again, I see.”

“Yeah,” Quint smiles. “They’re getting along really well, I think.”

“Zero’s certainly taken a shine to him,” X says, and then snorts as Bass tugs on Zero’s ponytail and gets a red boot to the face for his efforts. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, after he practically adopted Axl.”

“Axl… I think Bass mentioned meeting him,” Quint hums. “He said, he was, uh, ‘some punk kid with dumb freaking hair’, except he didn’t say ‘dumb freaking’.”

“Ironic,” X says. “Honestly, I wasn’t a fan of him at first either.”

“Were you jealous?” Quint asks, and then when X’s head swings to face him in alarm he rubs the back of his neck. “Uh, sorry, I mean…”

X sighs, a long and shuddering sound that ends with him bent double, his forehead resting on the railing.

“It’s that transparent, huh?” he says.

“The way you look at each other? Yeah,” Quint says, hesitating for a moment before reaching out and putting a hand on X’s shoulder. “That and, like, you were sleeping in his room. We might’ve still been up when you came in the one time.”

X groans.

“Sorry,” Quint says, drawing out the word like verbal taffy. “I mean, it’s really cute, though. I’m glad you have someone.”

“Some days…” X looks up again, straightening and glancing at Quint before looking through the observation window at Zero, “I don’t know that I could go on without him. We’ve been fighting for… so long. It never seems to end.”

Quint’s lips press together as he follows X’s gaze, and he withdraws his hand and places it with the other one on the rail, fidgeting quietly.

“I’m sorry,” Quint blurts out. “I’m - I’m not the right one.”

“What?” X tilts his head, reverie lost.

“I’m not the one who you probably - Rock would have been better for this,” Quint says. “You two have way more in common. He would’ve - he’d know the right thing to say.”

X blinks.

“Quint…” he says, gently. Quint bites his lip and hunches over the railing. X places a hand on his shoulder. “... It would have been nice to meet Rock, yes. It would be nice to meet my whole family. But… I never expected to meet any of you, and you shouldn’t sell yourself short. You’re just as much my brother as he is. Or… was, I suppose.”

“Time travel sucks,” Quint mutters.

“It certainly complicates things,” X says, bemused.

“I have so many people that would or could or are my family that it’s actually kinda getting hard to sort through them all,” Quint says, a smile appearing across his face despite everything. He looks up at X. “You’re really okay with it?”

X looks down at Bass and Zero again. Quint follows suit, and he sees the two of them engaged in a rowdy verbal back-and-forth with a lot of glaring on Bass’ end. Quint knows Bass well enough to know when he’s actually mad, though, and this is much closer to the kind of glare he gives Quint when he’s beaten him at a video game.

“I think family is who we choose it to be,” X says, expression soft. Quint hums and looks back and forth along the line of sight, from X to Zero and back.

“You really love him, huh?” he says, softly. X looks over his shoulder before answering.

“Yes, I do,” he says. There’s a weight to his words that reminds Quint of his most introspective moments, the few and far between times when he truly feels his age. “I always have. I think I always will.”

“So…” the words roll on Quint’s tongue for a few seconds before he releases them. “Why’re you hiding it?”

“Because there are some problems in this world that can’t be attacked by a beam sabre, and I want to protect him,” X sighs, the softness in his green eyes turning melancholy. “There are things about Zero that are going under the radar right now, things that might get attention if everyone is looking at us. And they will look at us. I’m the ‘Father of All Reploids’, and Zero’s an international war hero.”

“I don’t miss dealing with reporters,” Quint half-smiles. “Though, they weren’t always too bad. I think I got it easy ‘cause I look like a kid. But, like, if you’re both heroes, and you’re still worried, how bad is…?”

“Pretty bad,” X says, and then quickly amends, “Nothing that’s his fault. I’m just… trying to think of how to deal with it.”

“I hope you do,” Quint says, opening his mouth to add something else but closing it when he realizes he doesn’t really have much else to say.

“Me too,” X says. They sit there in silence, watching the brothers below, for a few minutes before X suddenly straightens and puts two fingers to his ear.

“... Recon finished up? Good. I’ll let Zero know.” X says, and then pauses, an embarrassed expression flitting over his face. “Well, yes, he’s right - you figured? I’m not his kee- okay, you know what, I’m hanging up. That’s right, laugh it up.”

He removes his finger from his ear, thoroughly consternated. Quint stifles a giggle.

“I hope you figure something out pretty quick,” Quint says, and X rolls his eyes.

“Please. I’ve been weathering that for years,” he says.

“But they were right, weren’t they?” Quint grins.

“Let’s go and get Zero,” X says, hurtling over Quint’s statement like a champion athlete. His expression grows serious. “They’re ready for us in Siberia.”

Chapter Text

“Where did you get all of this?”

Ballade’s voice enters the kitchen as he does, and he’s raising his eyebrows as Roll looks over to greet him. She’s got an apron on, probably a leftover from preparing food and other kitchen duties if the pile of drying clean dishes and hovering smell of curry is to be believed.

“Oh, I ran to the store,” Roll says, capping a dry-erase marker.

‘All of this’ is a whiteboard, lots of sticky notes, several differently-coloured markers, and the beginnings of a chart listing each member of the ex-Mega Man Killers along with Roll and Kalinka. Off to the side of the chart is a cute doodle of Treble, which may be owed to Treble’s presence curled up in the corner closest to the stove, and another of Sakugarne with some question marks around it. The mess of information is titled ‘Operation: Friendship’.

“Are we planning a reconciliation or a war?” Ballade asks, running a hand through his hair as he scans the board.

“We’re just keeping organized,” Roll says, somewhat reproachfully. “... and, well, I guess I’m used to briefings by now. We did a lot of them, when Jazz and I…” she clears her throat, which is such an artificial gesture for a robot that it sticks out, “well, anyway, it should make it easier to coordinate!”

“You shouldn’t let Enker see this,” Ballade warns. “I mean, for the obvious reasons, but also because he might take over the kitchen as a war room.”

Roll gives him a perfectly pleasant smile as her hands very deliberately place the marker she was capping in its place on the whiteboard’s little bottom shelf.

“He’ll do no such thing,” she says, and Ballade fights the urge to take a step back at the intensity in her voice. Suddenly, the prospect of her and Enker working together seamlessly is terrifying. “Besides, none of you ever come in here on your own, besides Ro- Quint.”

“Yeah, good point, I guess,” Ballade says, pulling out a chair and sitting on it backwards, leaning forward and crossing his arms to rest on the back. “So, what’s the plan of attack?”

“Well, the goal is to get everyone working together,” Roll starts, pulling out another yet-unseen marker from the front pocket of her apron. She uses it to point at their names on the chart, which are linked with a thick green line that is labelled, if Ballade squints, with a small exclamation of ‘buddies!!’. “Obviously, we’re already working together, so we’ve already made progress.”

“Right,” Ballade says, trying very hard not to look outwardly as pleased as he feels. “So as for the others…”

“We know that Punk isn’t coming back until the situation with Enker is sorted out,” Roll says, drawing a split red arrow from his section, which ends at both Ballade and Enker. “And we know that you two are having it out…” she draws a thick red line between them. “What else?”

“Uh…” Ballade rubs his chin thoughtfully. “Enker doesn’t trust the new bo- er, Kalinka.”

Roll frowns as she deliberates for a moment before picking up a yellow marker to mark that relationship.

“... None of us really do,” Ballade says, after a moment, and Roll sighs and repeats that with all of the ex-Mega Man Killers. He notes that she’s already drawn a green line between herself and Kalinka, and herself and the doodle of Treble, and a yellow line between her and Enker.

“I guess I understand why, but I wish you would,” Roll says, putting a hand on her hip.

From his corner, Treble moves, and Ballade tenses. The wolf growls in Ballade’s direction, but doesn’t make a move to attack or anything.

“Does he have to be in here?” Ballade asks, leaning away from the other purple death machine in the room.

“Aw, he just wants to be a part of getting Bass back,” Roll says, striding over to stroke Treble between the ears, which he accepts without missing a beat. She pauses and goes back to the chart, drawing a yellow line between Ballade and Treble.

“You don’t expect me to bond with that thing, do you?” Ballade grimaces, and is met with some deeper, more menacing growls. He glares back.

“I suppose not, but it couldn’t hurt,” she says, both hands on her hips. She turns to scan the board they’ve created. “Alright, I think we have enough to work with.”

Ballade looks at the web of differently-coloured connections and tilts his head.

“... Yeah, you’re going to have to take point on this one,” he admits. “I don’t even know where to start.”

“Well, the red ones are going to be the hardest,” Roll says. “So it makes sense that we should work on the yellow ones first.”

Ballade casts a suspicious glance at Treble, who meets his eye and snorts a puff of air out of his nose.

“Which means that I’ll work on Enker, and you can talk to Kalinka!” Roll says, clapping her hands together decisively.

“Wh- are you sure? ” Ballade sits up straighter. “Enker is, well, he’s, you know.”

“He’s…?” Roll asks, cocking her head to the side.

“He’s a scary son of a - er, gun, when he’s mad,” Ballade says, carefully.

“Oh, I’m sure I can handle him,” Roll says. “What’s the worst he can do?”

Ballade thinks back to their last conversation and frowns deeply, rubbing the back of his neck.

“I guess technically… not much,” he admits. “This isn’t Wily’s fortress, I mean, back then, he could technically do whatever he wanted, so…”

“So what’s the problem?” Roll prods gently, taking a step closer.

You’ve been so nice and I don’t want to throw you to the wolves because I can’t handle him, Ballade thinks. Treble snorts again, as if he can hear Ballade’s thoughts.

“It’s… it’s nothing,” he says, instead, looking away. “How exactly do I make Kalinka and me green, then?”

“You mean trust each other?” Roll says, obviously holding back a smile at that. “Well, you should try talking to her, for one.”

“Isn’t she busy working?” Ballade asks.

“Well, yes,” Roll says, crossing her arms. “But honestly, I usually try to get her to stop not too long from now anyway. Working as long as she is, it’s not good for her and it’s not good for her work, but she’s too stubborn to admit it.”

Ballade takes a moment to think about that, trying to place this new information in a slowly-growing list of factoids about human health. Fictional literature hasn’t had much to say on this particular topic, to his chagrin.

“So you want me to go talk to her about when you want her to stop working,” Ballade says, raising an eyebrow. “That’s… convenient.”

Roll sniffs.

“It’s just efficient,” she says, defensiveness creeping into her voice edgewise.

“Uh huh,” Ballade says.

“If you’d like, I’m sure Treble would love to play fetch with you,” Roll says. “Or go for a walk… he really hasn’t been getting as much attention as he ought to, with Bass gone.”

Ballade glances over at Treble, who bares his teeth in what is unmistakably a jagged grin. He looks back at Roll, who’s waiting for his response patiently, in the manner of someone who knows they’ve won.

At some point in the past months, he remembers wondering why Quint would do pretty much anything Roll asked without question. He wonders no longer.

“Okay,” Ballade groans. “I’ll do it. But I have no idea what to talk to a human about.”

“The same things you’d talk to anyone about,” Roll says, steepling her fingers together as her face brightens right up, like some kind of weird reverse Enker.

“Uh,” Ballade says, searching mentally for what passes for communication between himself and the rest of the ex-Mega Man Killers. Somehow, their brand of back and forth doesn’t seem right for the situation at hand. “Liiiiike…?”

Roll’s bright demeanor fades a bit, and she looks thoughtful.

“Try asking her how it’s going,” she offers. “I haven’t, because I don’t want to upset her, but it’s a good opener, and it doesn’t sound like I put you up to it.”

“Which you are,” Ballade points out.

“Yes,” Roll says.

“And if she answers me, then you find out how it’s going without having to ask her.”

“Yesss,” Roll says, and this time she looks away, twiddling her fingers. Then she sighs and shakes her head, looking Ballade in the eye again apologetically. “Okay, you got me. I’m worried about her, but I don’t want to push in case she gets even more stubborn. I don’t want her to start refusing meals or something, you know? But with you it might be different.”

Ballade takes in her expression, the silent plea in her blue eyes, and sighs.

Well, she’s facing Enker, so...

“Okay,” he says. “I’ll give it a shot.”

“Thank you so much,” she says, smiling brightly.

---

“Roll put you up to this, didn’t she?” Kalinka asks, not taking her eyes off of her computer screen.

Ballade, who had just opened his mouth to speak and had not, in fact, even gotten his greeting out, snaps it shut and wonders if it’s too late to pull out of this operation.

“... No,” he tries. Kalinka snorts and rolls her eyes.

“Please,” she says, snapping out another line of what looks like code on the screen. She pauses and brings her hand up to rub her eyes.

Ballade hesitates a moment, utterly lost in this situation, before mentally throwing up his hands.

“Yeah, okay, you got me,” he says, spying an extra chair nearby and pulling it over to sit. It’s nerve-wracking. He could never imagine being so frank with Dr. Wily, but if Roll thinks that this has any remote chance of going well, then he’s probably not in any danger. “But I, uh, want to know how the work is going, too. To, uh, rescue them.”

At that, to his surprise, Kalinka deflates. She sighs and reaches over to the keyboard, and in a few swift keystrokes the window she was working on is saved and closed. Then she spins in her chair to face him.

“Do you really want to know?” she asks.

“Well…” Ballade recalls Roll’s fears of being pushed away, and there’s another beat of fear, but he swallows it. “Yeah. I’m worried about him. Them.”

“Pass me what’s in that fridge, please,” Kalinka says, turning to rummage in a drawer. “I wasn’t getting anything else done tonight anyway.”

Ballade pauses, but complies, reaching into a minifridge near his feet and pulling out -

“Ah,” he says, staring a bottle of amber liquid. He’s a little fuzzy on a lot of human things, but this is a subject that’s extensively documented. On closer inspection, looking past the brand information, it’s labelled rum.

“You sound surprised,” Kalinka says, returning from her quest with two shortish glasses. They land on the surface of the desk with a soft dual clunk, and one of them is pushed towards Ballade. “Were you expecting vodka?”

He stares down at his designated glass blankly.

“You know this won’t…” he says.

“Yes, last I checked I am a roboticist,” she snorts. “Think of it as a human ritual. Hand it over, would you?”

Ballade does, and Kalinka pours herself a glass halfway full and then leans over to fill Ballade’s, too. Then she lets the bottle rest on the desk between them, picking up her glass and taking a sip. Ballade takes the cue and cautiously sips his glass -

- and almost drops it as the flavour hits him like a wrecking ball. It’s sweet, for sure, but not in the same way that Roll’s inviting hot cocoa was. It’s thick and cloying and there’s a sharp spice and burn that only intensifies as it runs down the back of his throat. He makes a face and carefully maneuvers his drink back to solid ground. Kalinka is watching with a clear twinkle of amusement in her eyes.

“That’s bad,” he manages, covering his mouth as though he could protect his past self from ever imbibing the stuff. Kalinka laughs, and then takes another sip. Absolutely no such effect on her, he notes. She even looks like she’s savouring it.

“It’s an acquired taste,” she says. “Wish I had some ice… Maybe you’d like a mixer, hm? We’ll have to try it at some point.”

“I thought the point of these was to get drunk,” Ballade says, shooting the offending glass a look.

“Hah! Drunk,” Kalinka says, and then sighs heavily. “As if I’d let myself. Not right now, no. I just want to take the edge off.”

‘Taking the edge off’ is one of those phrases that Ballade is familiar with but has never quite understood the meaning of.

“So you want to…” he prompts.

“It’s not going well,” she says, resting her glass in her lap, cradled in both hands. She breaks eye contact with him and casts her eyes down into it.

“Oh,” Ballade says.

“I didn’t lose everything,” she sighs. “The data on where they went, I guess you could call them coordinates… I was able to recover that. That’s something. But the Time Skimmer’s design files, Wily’s improvements, we’d already lost most of that data in the fight with R-Shadow. I haven’t had time to establish proper backups after leaving the institute, this was only supposed to be a test of the base skimming function, it wasn’t supposed to take anyone anywhere.”

Her speech becomes faster, stronger, more frustrated as she goes on. She punctuates the end of the last statement with a long draw on her rum.

Ballade feels a very real, cold tendril of fear stretch itself over his thoughts.

“So they could be lost forever?” he asks, numbly.

No,” Kalinka says, slamming her drink down next to her. It sloshes dangerously. “This is my fault. I will fix it, damn it. I can’t lose…”

She trails off, and the pause extends too long and becomes an awkward silence.

“... Quint, again?” Ballade tries filling it.

“Anyone else,” Kalinka says. All of a sudden, she sounds tired. Very, very tired.

“Who did you…” Ballade pauses, wondering if he’s crossing a line. “Who did you lose?”

Kalinka takes another drink, this time a lot more than a sip, Ballade notes.

“Everyone,” she says, when she comes up from it. “Almost everyone. You’ve never seen it, but we were at war, Ballade.”

“Well, Dr. Wily…” Ballade starts, and she shakes her head.

“One lone madman can cause a lot of damage,” she says, “but it’s not the same as a real war. It was everywhere. People left to fight and they didn’t come back. There was no time to rebuild, no opponent merciful enough to leave control chips intact.”

Her posture is bowed, green eyes once again focused on her drink.

Ballade doesn’t know what to say.

“I know the Cossack bots were repurposed for war in this place very early on,” she says softly. “But for me, they were always just family. They were my caretakers, my friends, my projects, my brothers…”

She bites her lip.

“... My son,” she adds. “One by one, they left to fight and didn’t return.”

“I’m sorry,” Ballade says. He is, too - something twists in him as he imagines watching his team dwindle to nothing, mission by mission. The possibility had never seemed real until now.

Kalinka sighs deeply and straightens out through what looks like an effort of will.

“No, I’m sorry,” she says. “I shouldn’t be unloading all of this on you.”

“I asked,” he says, raising an eyebrow. She snorts and finishes off her rum.

“Well, you didn’t ask for my life story,” she points out.

“I don’t usually get what I want.” He frowns. Kalinka blinks and then gives him a scrutinizing look.

“You should be glad you can’t get drunk,” she says, pushing aside her empty glass and eyeing Ballade’s. “You going to finish that?”

“I thought you were just taking the edge off,” Ballade says, sliding his barely-touched glass of rum over anyway.

“Turns out there’s a lot of edge,” Kalinka says, shrugging, and then hands him back the bottle. “There, no more after this. Scout’s honour.”

Ballade stows the rum back securely in the minifridge next to what look like pre-prepared snacks from what could only be Roll (he can tell on account of the fact that they’ve all been made in cute designs of one form or another).

Kalinka doesn’t say anything else, and they sit there in silence. Not a heavy silence, but maybe something a little closer to the one that he and the others enjoy when they’re all in one room and absorbed in their own activities.

Which is good, because he has a lot to think about. Part of him wants to retreat back to his room to sort it all out. But something about this feels… unfinished.

“Roll’s worried about you,” he says, the words forming and coming out of his mouth practically of their own accord.

“She would be,” Kalinka says, with a half-smile. “She’s a worrier.”

“Isn’t she right?” Ballade says, a little more quietly, eyeing the glass in her hand.

“Yes,” Kalinka says, somewhat sourly. “I suppose she is.”

The roboticist puts down her rum and runs a hand through her hair.

“I’m worried about her, too,” she says. “I’m just… concentrating on getting her brother back, first and foremost.”

Ballade opens the minifridge and pulls out one of the snacks, some kind of kiwi-grape turtle-shaped amalgamate. He holds it out.

“I think she’d like it if you didn’t kill yourself doing it,” he hazards.

Kalinka raises an eyebrow at the proffered item and then zones in on his face, a calculating look coming over her features. Finally, she takes it, popping one of the grapes into her mouth reluctantly. It has the unfortunate effect of looking like she’s beheading the turtle. Food, Ballade decides, is weird.

“You’re nice enough,” she mutters to herself. Ballade thinks that’s a little weird, because he’s right there. She raises her voice to address him directly. “Alright, fine. I’ll get on to bed. You can let Roll know your little mission succeeded.”

“I was going to anyway, thanks,” he says, crossing his arms. Kalinka snorts again, this time dissolving into a giggle.

“Well, shoo, then,” she says. “I’ll find my way.”

Ballade only hesitates for a moment before getting up and taking his leave, though he looks back just before disappearing into the hallway, not sure exactly what he’s looking for. He sees Kalinka stowing her unfinished drink in the fridge and going about shutting down equipment and feels… satisfied.

He pauses to let that feeling wash over him, rare as it is.

He takes a detour to the kitchen. Roll isn’t there at the moment, but he stops at the whiteboard with the markers and picks up the green one and the eraser. Very deliberately, so as not to disturb the rest of the carefully-constructed graph, he erases the yellow line between himself and Kalinka and replaces it with a green one.

That feels satisfying, too.

The feeling is cut somewhat short by the door to the kitchen being swung open with some force. He turns, alarmed, to see Roll stalking up to the whiteboard beside him with both hands balled into fists and face set in a stony glare. She grabs the red marker and the neat yellow line between her and Enker is replaced with a bold red one.

Ballade looks from her to the board and back again.

“Didn’t go well, huh?” he asks. Roll shakes her head violently.

“Enker is an asshole,” she says, and Ballade’s eyebrows climb right up his forehead.

“Oh boy,” he says.

Chapter Text

Axl?! ” Bass seethes, grinding his teeth together.

“That’s right,” Zero says, completely impassive.

“Oh boy,” Quint says faintly, looking between the two of them.

“You’re leaving us here with him?! ” Bass says, gesturing to the ‘him’ in question. Axl scratches his nose with the barrel of one of his pistols. “This fucking… cowboy kid?”

“Hey, you know, that’s kinda hurtful,” Axl says, not sounding particularly hurt.

Quint wrings his hands.

They’re all congregated by one of the walls in the command centre, as out of the way as possible. Despite this obvious attempt to keep a low profile, Bass can tell he’s turning a few heads. As is becoming usual, he has to quash the nervousness that thrums through his systems at being surrounded by what said systems stubbornly refuse to categorize as non-hostiles. Including said cowboy kid.

It’s not helping his mood any. Worse, he thinks Zero has noticed, because the red robot speaks up again, damnably calm.

“This is a priority mission assigned to X and I,” he says. “Sorry, but this is out of your weight class. If you two came along, you’d be liabilities.”

Bass’ fists, already curled tightly, have no more to give, so he hunches his shoulders instead and glowers at X and Zero from under the fringe of his helmet.

“Not to mention it would be a lot more difficult to explain your presence on an official mission than being attacked coincidentally while with us,” X says, subtly elbowing Zero. He frowns and his eyes slide over to Axl as he adds, “... And, you’re possible targets, for reasons already discussed.”

If Axl is bothered by being left out of the loop, he doesn’t show it. Dick.

“But does it have to be him?” Bass says, crossing his arms and glaring at Axl openly. “That’s like getting a dog to watch your dog.”

X pauses, considering, and then it’s Zero’s turn to elbow him. They go through a little dance of nonverbal communication, where X returns the gesture with an amused expression and Zero rolls his eyes and shoves him outright. Bass gags, and he hears Quint stifle a laugh next to him.

“It’s not up for debate,” Zero says. “Axl is an SA-ranked Maverick Hunter and he is more than qualified to keep an eye on you around the base. We have to go for the briefing now, so keep out of trouble, alright?”

“We’ll try,” Quint says, traitorously speaking for the both of them.

Zero nods, and him and X depart.

Gun stowed, Axl claps his hands together.

“Ssssso,” he says, and before he can get past that, Bass turns on his heel and starts off out of the busy hub. Behind him, two sets of boots hustle to follow.

“Bass -” Quint calls out, and Bass fights down a wave of irritation before giving in and leaning against a wall in the hallway. There are hunters and navigators coming and going, but it’s not as many. He lets out a breath and tries to focus.

He’s not jarred when Quint puts a hand on his shoulder, which he counts as progress.

“Are you okay?” Quint asks, quietly.

“I’m fine,” he says.

Quint looks doubtful, but it doesn’t take Axl very long to catch up with them at a steady jog.

“Hey, look,” the redhead says, earnestly. “I dunno what I did to get you all riled up, but I’m sorry you got sidelined. I know it sucks, we’ve all been there.”

Bass just glares, but Quint tilts his head and pipes up.

“You’ve been sidelined?” he asks.

“Yeah,” Axl says. “Big repair jobs, political stuff, uh, other stuff… it happens.”

“Other stuff?” Bass asks, catching the hesitation in his voice. Axl shrugs helplessly.

“Rehabilitation, for one,” he says, and Bass parses that there’s a deeper meaning behind that statement somewhere. He files it away for later. Axl pauses and looks between Bass and Quint with a discerning eye. “... But I doubt that’s the reason for you, right?”

“I, um, don’t think we’re allowed to say,” Quint says. He rubs the back of his neck nervously.

“Hey, I get it,” Axl grins. “Top secret, right? It’s gotta be good, too, if Zero took time off for it.”

“Are you gonna get to the point anytime soon?” Bass snaps. “Get to it or stop being fucking nosy.”

“Okay, okay,” Axl says. “Point taken. X and Zero’ll be out for who knows how long, so how do you feel about hitting the sims?”

With as much restless, nervous energy as Bass is packing right now, he has to admit that sounds pretty good. He glances down at Quint, who shrugs and smiles.

“I did miss it last time,” he says.

“Sure,” Bass says, pushing off of the wall. “Let’s fight some shit.”

“A man after my own heart.” Axl grins.

“Ugh, don’t ruin it,” Bass says, as Axl starts off, waving them along impatiently.

---

“Whooooa,” Quint says, leaning over the railing so far that Bass is vaguely concerned he’s going to tip over the edge. They’ve arrived through the same door Zero took him through the first time, overlooking the training facilities. “Enker would -”

“Yeah, I know,” Bass cuts him off. When Quint pouts at him, he rolls his eyes and elaborates. “Enker’d give up his fucking spear for this, etcetera.”

“It’s actually a javelin,” Quint says, in the automatic manner of someone who either regularly corrects people on a topic or has been in lengthy contact with one of the former. Bass strongly suspects it’s the second one.

“Whatever, it’s stupid and he’s stupid,” Bass says. “Aren’t javelins for throwing?”

“Yeah, but…” Quint pauses. “Huh. Yeah. That’s pretty weird.”

“Who’s Enker?” Axl asks. Both of them stiffen. Bass had almost forgotten their babysitter was there, for a moment.

“He’s none of your goddamned business,” Bass says automatically, and then, as an afterthought, “... but he’s a dick.”

Bass.” Quint gives him a look. “He’s not a, he’s not that. He does a lot to look out for us.”

“And while doing that, he’s a dick,” Bass maintains.

Axl looks between the two of them, obviously bemused.

“I feel like there’s a whole story here I’m not getting,” he says.

“Die wondering,” Bass says. “Hey, when are we gonna fight something?”

“Looks like they’re all in use right now,” Axl says, walking over to a small console - nothing as big as the ones in the control room - on the railing and pulling up some holographic screens. There are multiple video feeds, one of which is another angle of the action happening below. He types in something quickly and then stands back, watching the feeds with a practiced eye. “There, we’re in the queue. Oooh, Battle Pelicannon’s probably going to beat their PB this time…”

“PB?” Quint asks, drifting over to peek around Axl. Bass follows, taking a closer look at the one Axl is clearly talking about (he hasn’t been here for long, but he’s puzzled out that animal-reploid names are about as on-the-nose as robot master names, on average).

“Personal best,” Axl explains, chipper. “We have data on every maverick we retire for combat practice, but sometimes they put up the whole mission as a sim, if recon did their job well enough. Some of us make a hobby out of beating the mission sims as fast as possible. There’s a scoreboard and everything.”

“Your break from fighting is… more fighting?” Quint frowns.

“You sound like X,” Axl laughs. “It’s different when there aren’t any stakes, you know?”

“Yeah, and don’t you just spend half your time on fighting games?” Bass adds. Quint pouts.

“That’s… totally different,” he says, reproachfully.

“Uh huh,” Bass says.

“Okaaaaay,” Quint sighs, slumping into Bass’ side. “Fine, you’ve got a point.”

“I win.” Bass grins, putting an arm around Quint’s shoulder to steady him.

“Aw, you guys are adorable,” Axl says. Bass flips him the bird. He continues blithely. “Y’know, I can’t put my finger on it, but you guys remind me of X and Zero somehow.”

Bass narrows his eyes even as Quint fidgets, standing up straighter.

“Uhh, it’s probably because you’ve just seen us standing next to them or something…” he says. “And there’s two of us. And Bass has got a lot of gold highlights on his armour, you know, and so does Zero-”

“It’s probably because you’re wrong and a fuckwit,” Bass says, cutting off Quint’s absolutely abysmal lie before it can ramble them further into a corner. Axl raises an eyebrow, and he opens his mouth to say something, but the console beeps behind them and he turns to look instead.

“Oh, our turn,” he says. “Sweet.”

---

The control room that they head to is the same one Bass is familiar with from his time here with Zero. The consoles are being manned by different reploids than before, most of them still obviously noncombat models, and now that he’s not metaphorically ripping into Zero, he’s noticing finer details. The wear and tear on the consoles and chairs, not so much a neglect of maintenance but a sign of frequent use; a larger display towards the head of the room that’s flashing various statistics, including what looks like the scoreboard Axl mentioned (separated into several subcategories, like ‘100%’ and ‘any%’, under letter rank); a poster that strictly warns all hunters that the simulators are not to be used for something called LARPing (last warning!).

He glances at Quint, who’s taking all of this in for the first time. It’s hard to tell from behind the visor, but he thinks he’s watching Axl, a small frown on his face.

Bass takes a second to feel vindicated that he’s not the only one to think that their babysitter is untrustworthy.

“Trust me, this’ll be great,” Axl says, meandering over to a free console and opening up whatever program they use for these things.

“Do I get to shoot you?” Bass asks, pulling up to the side of the console and slouching against the side of it as moodily as he can manage. Which is very moody, because if he had to pick a skill he’s second best at to fighting, it would be showing displeasure.

To his even further displeasure, Axl laughs.

“Yeah, I wasn’t thinking head to head combat. That’d be, uh, massively unfair,” he says.

“Then what were you thinking?” Bass grits his teeth.

“A different kind of contest,” Axl says, pointedly dropping his finger down on the last key. The screen changes, and Bass reluctantly shifts to a better position to see it.

It’s some kind of airport, full of grounded airships and teeming with the familiar activities of small combat drones.

“I’ll handicap myself, and we’ll have a race through this mission,” Axl says. “Good ol’ Storm Eagle.”

“Storm Eagle?” Quint asks, and Axl gives him an odd look.

“Didn’t you say you do these things for fun?” Bass cuts in hastily. “How the fuck is that fair?”

“Well, I actually haven’t done this one,” Axl says. “It’s really old, so there are some glitches in the sim data, and there was a whole big argument a while ago, something about flying carpets, and uhhhh long story short, it got put on a special scoreboard for running missions with glitches, and I don’t really do -”

“Ugh, forget I asked,” Bass says, scowling.

Quint is still regarding the screen, head tilted ever so slightly to the side.

“Is it okay if I sit this one out?” he asks. “I can stay up here and watch, right?”

“Yeah, sure,” Axl says, starting towards the exit already and waving Bass along. “C’mon! It’s loaded up.”

Bass goes to follow, as Axl exits, but Quint grabs his arm. He looks back to see that same frown from before on his face.

“He’s sizing us up,” Quint says, voice low and worried.

“I know,” Bass says. “Nosy little dick.”

“Be careful, okay?” Quint says, letting go of Bass’ arm and fidgeting. “I don’t think he means any harm, but… I don’t know.”

Bass frowns, thinking back to what X had said not too long ago.

We have the most rigorous countermeasures in the world, and we still have to put down our own from time to time.

“Yeah, I will,” he says, moving forward to plant a peck on Quint’s lips. Quint smiles and ducks his head in that adorable way he does when Bass does things like that in public, and, feeling a little less on edge, he turns to follow Axl.

---

The simulator loads around the two of them, bare bulbed walls turning into the airport from the picture. It comes complete with the sensation of the wind on Bass’ face and all of the background noises that one would associate with such a thoroughfare plus or minus the sounds of hundreds of killer sentry drones. The only thing that’s missing is the sensation of being bounced off of a teleportation shield. Actually, come to think of it -

“What’s that thing?” Bass asks, jerking a thumb back at some kind of small circular pad with machinery around it. Axl’s eyebrows climb up into his helmet and he mentally curses at asking what is obviously a stupid question.

“It’s a transerver?” Axl answers, his tone confirming that that should be obvious. Then the hunter’s eyes widen and he rubs the back of his neck. “Oh, duh, you obviously haven’t been on any real missions - right. See, the first responders put it down at the entry point in a secure position so we,” he pauses to thump his chest, “or whoever gets sent to back them up, have a tactical starting position.”

“So this is inside the teleport shield on this place,” Bass asks, thoughtfully.

“Right,” Axl confirms. “Or, you know, it would be, if it was real.”

Bass mentally admits that sounds a hell of a lot better than appearing at a random point outside of the range of the jammer. It makes sense, actually - there are similar tricks to bypass jammers once someone’s been inside in his time, but those vulnerabilities tend to be found and dealt with quickly. A permanent fixture inside, guarded by allies, becomes a lot more feasible if you have backup.

Maybe with the rest of the team, they could do something simila-

Bass shakes his head violently and scowls.

“Alright,” he says, ignoring the look Axl gives him. Good. Let him wonder. “What are the rules?”

“First one to the maverick gets a point, first one to beat the maverick gets a point, and if it comes down to it we have a good old fashioned spar to determine winner,” Axl supplies.

“Are we like, betting anything on this?” Quint’s voice comes over the comms.

“Those idiots are rubbing off on you,” Bass grumbles.

“If they’re idiots, why do they have most of my allowance already?”  Quint counters, a smile in his voice, and Bass tilts his head for a full-body eye-roll.

“I’m up for a bet,” Axl grins tauntingly, and Bass narrows his eyes.

“Fine,” he says, and then pauses as an idea hits him. He raises a hand to point at Axl, jabbing a finger at his chest. “If I win, you tell us why the hell you’re really being so nosy.”

Axl’s face, previously wide open and friendly, slides into what Bass recognizes as a more calculating look. The X-shaped scar on his face, previously just odd window dressing, suddenly seems… almost intimidating.

“Okay,” he agrees, slowly. “But if I win, you answer my question.”

“You’re on,” Bass says, and despite the sudden gravity of the situation - or maybe because of it - he feels a grin spread over his face. “So what’s this handicap you were talking about?”

“Oh yeah!” Axl’s expression returns to normal, and in a blink he pulls out one of his pistols and shoots Bass at point-blank range.

What the fuck -” Bass staggers back, rage erupting. His buster is out in a moment, Axl disappears into a big flash, and suddenly Bass is pointing his buster at -

- himself.

“What the fuck,” Bass hisses softly, buster not twitching from its position aimed at centre mass. Not-him’s face brightens in a very un-Bass-like expression.

“Copy shot!” Axl says, in his voice. “Neat, huh?”

Chapter Text

“Get out of - change back right now! ” Bass releases his buster and balls up both fists, leaning forward to yell better at - himself. He knows it’s Axl in his body, but that doesn’t stop it from being disorienting.

“C’mooon,” Axl says, once again putting a cheery expression on Bass’ face that doesn’t belong there. “This is my handicap!”

A massive fuck you to you too,” Bass seethes.

“No, not like -” Axl pauses, making a thoughtful, distant face. “Okay, maybe a little like that. What the heck are these systems, even? Were you made in a junkyard?”

As Bass emits a strangled howl of rage, Quint’s voice crackles over the intercom again.

“That’s really uncalled for!” he says, “It’s super rude to just turn into someone without asking their permission! I think.”

“Fine, if it makes you feel better, I’ll get rid of the DNA after this,” Axl sighs theatrically.

Bass, about two seconds away from seeing red, hits the pause button on his intense desire to shoot Axl in order to fully process that statement.

“... the what,” he states flatly.

Axl gives him a look he’s none too fond of at this point - the ‘you should know this and asking is weird’ look. He takes a moment to reflect back upon better times, when the subject matter of those looks was things like ‘plants need sun’ and ‘the concept of protecting your living space with locks and keys instead of a big robotic wolf’.

“The DNA data,” Axl repeats.

“What the fuck is DNA?” Bass asks, narrowing his eyes. Axl raises an eyebrow.

“I think it’s like, human programming,” Quint offers, totally unhelpfully.

“I thought that was called a brain!” Bass throws his hands up. Axl raises the other eyebrow.

“So were you, like… literally built in a junkyard?” Axl says, carefully. “Look, dude, no judgement -”

“Shut up and explain,” Bass cuts in sharply.

“Uhhh, I can’t do both of those,” Axl snorts.

“Look, we’re kinda sheltered, and it’s not easy to explain, but we’d really appreciate if you filled us in...” Quint says, in a voice that Bass recognizes instantly as his ‘I’m-just-a-poor-kid-woe-is-me’ inflection. He often pulls it out with humans, when they’re out and about the city. Bass can’t quite contain an eyeroll.

Axl’s face softens, though (sucker, Bass thinks), and he scratches the back of his neck absently. The motion is somewhat hindered by Bass’ headfins.

“DNA - Dynamic Neural Array,” he explains. “The group of firmware programs and schematics data that connect our mechanical brains with our hardware, and works our weapons? The Copy Shot grabs a copy of the data, and since I’m a new-gen reploid, I can use my A-Trans to change totally into whatever DNA I grab.”

“Uh huh,” Bass says. He considers and discards the idea of asking what a new-gen reploid is. It’s probably some stupid made-up sounding bullshit anyway.

“Speaking of, you have a weird serial number,” Axl hums. “SWN-001? That’s, uh, pretty nonstandard.”

Bass is suddenly very glad that Quint opted not to join them. If Axl had copied Quint down to that level of detail, he’s certain that there would have been some capital-P problems.

“Alright, lesson over,” he says, quickly. “Let’s get on with this shit already!”

“Right!” Axl says, getting into a runner’s starting position. Bass just walks up beside him and stands at their impromptu starting line with his arms crossed. “Quint, I set up the timer. Hit it!”

“On it!” Quint says, and in front of them, a big set of letters form and hang in the air, proclaiming Mission Start!

Both of them careen forward in a dash towards the lifts dead ahead, and Bass is immediately gratified to see that he’s pulling ahead already as he jumps and activates his secondary thrusters to get another jump in midair.

They’re beset by mechaniloids on their way up to the rooftops of the massive hangars, which Bass deals with using the tried and true method of pray’n’spray full auto. He takes out a whole wave of the flying ones before realizing his tactical error as Axl shoots up past him, throwing up a mocking salute as he dashes from the lifts onto the roof. Bass swears under his breath and follows, hot on his tail.

There’s a straightaway on the roof they land on, where the drones don’t seem to have a position, and even though both of them are dashing, he closes the gap on Axl by the next jump to the roof over.

“Hey, you gotta be cheating somehow…!” Axl says. “How are you going faster? We should be totally evenly matched!”

“I’m better than you,” Bass says. A turret on some kind of extending column rises ahead of them, and he jumps to try and clear it before it gets all the way to its full height. It clips him in the boot and he winces as its shields collide with his own, taking a noticeable chink out of his armour’s energy stores. “And I thought you were handicapping yourself!”

He hears the sound of his own rapid-fire slam into the turret behind him, followed by a small explosion. He’s tempted to turn and see, but he belays that thought as he has to twist to avoid a pair of missiles. Rolling out of the way, he sees the sick lovechild of a tank, a turret, and those ‘ride armours’ from earlier - a heavy turret on legs. Detecting that the missiles didn’t work, it opens another compartment and Bass has to jump to avoid what looks like a really nasty jolt from two balls of electricity. He’s keenly aware that the firepower of this thing is at the level of a robot master or more, despite being a drone. Taking his form really is a handicap for Axl, who no doubt has the newest, shiniest armour that -

- hm.

Bass turns his head to see Axl clearing the pillar and smirks.

As the turret-tank opens up to fire another salvo of missiles, he leans back and hits his dash boosters, propelling himself backwards. He hears Axl yelp in his voice, skidding to a stop to avoid an imminent collision. At the last possible moment he jumps and hits his secondary boosters in midair to angle himself down and behind Axl. He hears a very satisfying little boom-boom as the missiles hit his impostor head-on.

There’s a spray of fire and the tank-turret explodes, going to the scrap pile where it belongs. Or… the imaginary scrap pile, anyway. It’s a little disappointing to remember this is all a simulation.

“Oh, so that’s how it is,” Axl says, and with such acidity that it genuinely sounds like Bass for once. Bass just grins wickedly and dashes forward to - oh, his favourite, moving platforms. These ones are jet-propelled and occupied by flamethrower turrets. He almost feels nostalgic, but the distinct lack of googly eyes on all of these robot drones has been throwing him off. They’re behind another turret-tank-turret.

Still riding the advantage from their last exchange, Bass opts to just jump over the tank-turret-tank entirely and peppers the flamethrower with fire in midair. He lands smoothly in the empty spot the tiny explosion leaves.

There’s another steady surface, the top of an air control tower by the looks of it. Hearing Axl fast catching up with the hiss of dash boosters, he dash-jumps and bypasses two platforms and other flamethrowers to land soundly on the tower. To his annoyance, Axl lands a few feet behind him with a metallic tmp .

A quick survey reveals that there are more platforms, all in a line, between them and the next viable rooftop. Below yawns a drop that the simulator doesn’t seem to have bothered rendering, effectively making it so these moving platforms and their occupants are merrily puttering away above a featureless black void. It’s kind of creepy.

“Scared?” Axl asks innocently, pulling out the Bass Buster and firing at the first turret.

“I eat scared for breakfast, you fucking punk!” Bass snaps.

“Uh, that doesn’t…”  Quint cuts in.

“Yeah? Well I eat scared for dinner! ” Axl returns.

“That’s not right either,”  he sighs.

“I can’t believe I’m dating the fucking comeback police,” Bass says, letting a salvo loose on the next one down the line and tensing to jump as soon as Axl stops shooting. They’ll both be gunning for that first platform, he knows. This is going to get tricky.

Your mom wants my comeback,” Axl says, and they both jump at the same time. They land in a jumble on the first platform, which just barely has room for both of them. Bass briefly considers tossing Axl over the edge, if only to relieve himself from the burden of this conversation, but he decides otherwise. Any tumble risks backfiring right now, and he doesn’t want to find out if falling is an auto-loss or not.

“I don’t get it,”  Quint says.

“I don’t have a mom,” Bass says.

“Me neither.”

“Yeah, neither do I,” Axl admits. "that one is kind of hit or miss around here."

They both make a leap to the platform Bass cleared, but this time, Bass knows a fraction of a second before landing, with a sinking feeling, that something is wrong. It might be that in his haste to keep pace with Axl, he miscalculated the jump, or that he wasn’t paying close enough attention through their banter, but the realization hits him as he just overshoots. There’s a split second where he goes to his secondary boosters, frantically trying to figure out the best angle to fire them, as he doesn’t have a visual anymore, when -

- a hand shoots out and grabs him by the headfin, jerking him back onto solid(ish) footing.

Buh? ” he says (it’s more of a noise than a statement, but whatever), head whipping around to see Axl, hand going back to rest at his side. “What was-?”

“Hey, it’d be really lame if you got disqualified already,” Axl shrugs in an easygoing manner. “Over a stupid misjump on a bottomless pit? Happens to all of us.”

“... Buh? ” Bass ‘says’ again, as Axl starts unloading on the next turret to clear the way.

After a moment, as Axl takes off, he shakes his head violently and hurries after him.

---

They’re neck and neck like that all the way to the maverick’s lair. Bass had already figured from their trajectory, but their destination is an airship that’s hovering at the very edge of the airport, only accessible via the highest building and some more of those moving platforms. It would be impossible for them to get to the thing under the power of their boosters alone, and Bass reflects that the major threat of the future seems to have continued Wily’s obstacle design ethics. Or maybe this Storm Eagle guy just really wanted to have it out with whoever originally ran this mission. He can relate.

In the final stretch, Bass puts his slight edge in speed to good use and lands on the top of the airship first.

“HAH!” he croons, feeling the rush of victory.

“Nice job!”  Quint says over the comms. That’s a different rush altogether, and not a bad one.

“You’ve got round one,” Axl says, making a neat landing beside Bass. He grins. Bass observes that his movements are smoother now than when they started - he’s gotten noticeably better at compensating for what Bass is sure is a large difference in weight distribution from his default form. “But there’s still a maverick to blast, so stay on your toes, huh?”

“Yeah, well, why don’t they show their -” Bass pauses. Axl is pointing up.

Bass looks up, following his finger up into…

A cloud of missiles headed straight for them from above.

Shit! ” Bass activates his dash and throws himself forward. There are two turrets protecting the top of the ship, but between him and Axl (who is laughing, the ass) they’re decimated in short order. They both scramble down a hatch that Bass can only presume Axl knew was there and take cover behind a blast door as the airship’s hull takes a beating from above. Eventually, the shaking stops. Since the door is welded shut, they proceed to a lift that takes them to the top of the ship. The ordinance has done its job - the sail that stood atop the ship, whatever its original purpose was, is in tatters, and the hull is battered down and charred.

Storm Eagle descends from the heavens. True to his name, he’s some kind of purple anthropomorphic eagle man, with a harsh beak, a massive set of wings attached to his back, various golden and red decals, and boots (feet?) modeled after the wicked claws of a bird of prey.

Maybe it’s the fact that he’s just a simulation of the real thing, but his eyes, the only real part of his face that could show emotion, are uncannily empty. Bass doesn’t have more time than it takes to get that impression before the battle begins as Storm Eagle divebombs the two of them.

Bass and Axl throw themselves to opposite sides to dodge. Bass comes up from a roll just to lose his balance as the maverick whips around with incredible speed and anchors himself to the hull of the ship, flapping his wing and creating a huge gust. Bass swears and grabs onto the metal framing that was once the mast.

A cluster of shots peppers Storm Eagle from the other side of the ship and pings! off of the maverick’s armour in quick succession.

“Oh come on!” Axl cries out. “This thing is a popgun!”

“Don’t shit-talk my gun!” Bass snarls, flipping his buster from full auto to single-shot mode. He starts charging, taking advantage of the maverick’s divided attention to line up a shot.

“Well maybe your gun should be better at shooting things!” Axl says, dashing under a whirlwind.

“Well maybe you should get fucked,” Bass retorts, letting go of his charged shot. The greenish plasma slams into Storm Eagle and he staggers. Bass grins to himself until the maverick’s (creepy, creepy) eyes whip around and zero in on him. Then he’s running, because Storm Eagle hucks up an egg and Bass doesn’t have to be told that it’s going to hatch into several smaller birds that fling themselves at him. Some things just never change.

They continue much in that vein for a few minutes of pitched fighting - both of them have a comparatively low attack power, but Bass’ ground mobility easily keeps up with Storm Eagle, who is fast and has the air advantage but isn’t maneuverable at all. When he does hit, though…

“Augh!” Axl cries as he’s flung back past Bass to the edge of the airship by a collision. He scrabbles for a hold, and there’s a sparking open wound in his midsection. (Bass has to take a moment to remind himself that the injuries are simulated, too - a lesson he’d learned the hard way from Zero.)

Storm Eagle, who is looking much more beat-up than either of them and probably nearly on his last legs, advances, wings flaring open. In a beat, Bass realizes that all he has to do to win is step out of the way. There’s no way Axl could hold his grip on the surface of the hull against the blunt force of the whirlwind attack.

He hesitates -

- swears -

- and stands his ground, as the hurricane-force wind blasts into him. His boots start to slide across the rugged surface, and he realizes in a start that he’s going to be the one blown off the side.

Then a charged shot flies past him and hits Storm Eagle right in the head.

The wind abruptly dies in the air as the maverick’s shield systems overload. There’s a pause as he powers down, and then an explosion rocks the air as some kind of cascade failure rips through him. The world fades out into the sterile environment of the training rooms, and a holographic message hangs in the air - ‘Mission Success’ followed by ‘Group Combat Rating: Rank B’.

Bass sighs and turns around to face Axl, who’s back in his own body (which Bass is thankful for) and grinning from ear to ear (which Bass could shoot him for).

“Do not read into that,” he says, crossing his arms and glowering as hard as he can.

“Sure.” Axl grins wider. “Well, I guess we gotta duke it out now, huh?”

“Oh, hell yeah,” Bass says, suddenly feeling better as he remembers that tidbit.

“Except… well…” Axl frowns. “Thing is, if I fight you in your form, I’ll lose. There’s that weird power output difference. And if I fight you in my form, I’ll win. It’s pretty clear-cut.”

“You’re not backing out, are you?” Bass scowls.

“You can’t just quit because you’re gonna lose,” Quint adds, and it’s not over comms this time. He drops down from the catwalk above and jogs over to them.

“Look,” Axl says, putting his hands up and linking his hands behind his head. It has the effect of sticking his hair up even further. “I started this thing with like, one question, and now I’ve got somewhere around… twenty? I like a good brawl, but I don’t wanna cheat to win, so how about a new deal? I’ll tell you what you want to know and you tell me what I want to know. Tit for tat.”

“There’s no way you know twenty things I want to know,” Bass says flatly. Quint, meanwhile, is stroking his chin thoughtfully.

“Could you do us some favours instead?” he asks, slowly.

“What kind of favours?” Axl asks, cautiously.

“Nothing crazy,” Quint says. “But, uh, maybe we should talk about this in private?”

---

Even as a being with a stupendous range of operable temperatures, X finds Siberia to be a little on the chilly side. He finds himself rubbing his hands together without thinking, a habit for which Zero would usually tease him. But as they’ve been taking out small mechaniloid installments on the way to their destination, the source of some seriously weird readings and what seems to be the centre of the maverick position, Zero has been much quieter than usual.

“Are you okay?” X asks, and Zero blinks, glancing down at him.

“Do I not seem okay?” he asks.

“You’ve just been quiet,” X says.

“I was just thinking,” Zero says, and a very small frown passes across his lips. “You don’t think that… after what happened before… that those two will be mad at us for putting them on the bench?”

X raises an eyebrow.

“You mean, will Bass be mad at you,” he says shrewdly.

“Let me have my dignity, X,” Zero sighs.

“Never,” X smiles. “I’m sure that even if he’s mad, which… wouldn’t be exactly out of character… you two can talk it out when we get back.”

“Right,” Zero says, and flicks a stray strand of hair back into place. “When we get back. If the base doesn’t get attacked while we’re gone or something.”

“Zero, relax,” X says, putting a hand on Zero’s shoulder pad. “It’s in good hands. The base is secure, we’ve dealt with situations like that, and they’ve got Axl looking after them.”

Zero takes in a breath, holds it, and then releases it.

“Yeah, you’re right,” he says. “How much trouble could they really get into?”

---

“You know, I could get in a lot of trouble for this,” Axl says, inserting a storage drive into what looks like the future equivalent of a laptop. “And, uh, for the record? Very crazy.”

“Intel for intel,” Bass says, from his position leaning against the couch.

They’re in Axl’s quarters, which are a far cry from Zero’s spartan arrangements. The kitchen is still barely touched, but the living area is jam-packed with posters, memorabilia of shows that Quint has never seen, and even (to his amusement) a pair of figures of X and Zero. There’s also an honest-to-goodness gaming console attached to the TV which he’s been eyeing for the last ten minutes as they deal with more important matters.

“I wasn’t thinking you’d ask me to steal a friggin’ mission briefing,” Axl whines, bringing up the files. “If you weren’t hanging around X and Zero, I’d be flagging you as mavericks right now.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Bass says.

“We’re, uh, not,” Quint puts in. “Do they, like, sell figures of all of the maverick hunters, or just X and Zero?”

“Man, this better be worth it.” Axl groans, covering his face for a second and then peeking through his fingers and reading aloud. “Occupation in Siberia, threat level estimated G…”

It’s mostly what they’ve already been told, with some extra boring strategic details about positions and perimeters and -

“Wait,” Quint says, cutting off Axl in mid-sentence. “What were those coordinates again?”

“Uhh…” Axl flicks the display back a screen with his finger and repeats the numbers. Quint has seen them enough times to know them practically by heart.

“Wait,” Bass says, standing up straight and glancing over at Quint. “That’s -”

“- Cossack’s fortress,” Quint nods, frowning.

“Shit,” Bass says. “That can’t be good.”

“Yeah, it can’t,” Quint agrees.

“There’s no record of a, uh, fortress out there,” Axl says, looking between the two of them with a suspicious expression. “We have a visual on the whole area, scans, the works.”

“We need to get out there,” Quint says.

“And what about answering my questions?” Axl crosses his arms. “Why is Zero acting so buddy buddy with you? You got here like a week ago! Why are your systems so weird? What could you know about some random spot in Siberia that’s suddenly a maverick target?”

Bass and Quint exchange a look, and a nod.

“We’ll tell you on the way,” Bass says.

Chapter Text

Earlier

Roll prepares for her side of the mission habitually. She takes off and neatly folds up her apron, its job done, and stashes it in her room. She judges her current outfit in the mirror - a simple sweater and a skirt over jeans, common fare for the cleaning and chores she’s been partaking in up until now. Even if Enker didn’t live right down the hall, she doubts that he has any real conception of clothes etiquette, so there’s no point in changing. Which is almost a shame, because she’s been using her share of the allowance to buy some adorable outfits -

She shakes herself. There’s no point in thinking about that now. There’s befriending to do.

Without any of the others around, the little hallways in between the makeshift rooms they’ve erected are quiet and echoing. Distantly, she hears a murmur of conversation from the direction of Kalinka’s lab.

The doorways to each of their rooms are on their own indistinct, but some of them do stick out due to additions. Punk’s room is by far on the forefront of that department; it’s covered with a mosaic of welded-together street signs which Roll hopes were legally acquired but suspects otherwise. There’s Bass’ door, which has been altered so the lower half is an oversized doggy door. Quint’s door isn’t decorated per se but has been left open a crack, as it almost always is unless he and Bass are occupying the space together. Roll hasn’t had the heart to close it. Her own door has a little whiteboard on it, which is covered in cute doodles in red marker.

Enker’s room has no such identifier. It’s just closed, and stark, and very much in front of her. She takes a deep breath and knocks.

There’s a beat before Enker answers in which Roll could swear she hears a muffled ‘Saku!’ from inside, and then the door opens just a crack and she’s greeted by one lone green eye, staring at her coldly.

“Hi!” she says, “I just wanted to -”

The door slams shut in her face. Well, as much as a door can slam when it was only open a fraction in the first place. It’s more of a firm click.

“- talk to you.” she finishes, lamely.

Roll blinks, and then spends a few seconds throttling down annoyance. She clasps her hands together and then unclasps them, takes a deep breath, lets it out, and then knocks again.

“Go away,” comes the clipped response. He must be right on the other side of the door, because it’s coming through loud and clear.

“Enker,” Roll says, exasperated, “I just want to talk.”

“And I don’t,” he replies, evenly.

“I was talking to Ballade -” she starts.

“I’m well aware.”

“- and, look, I know this has been hard on all of us -”

“Didn’t I just say I didn’t want to talk about it?” Enker says. They can’t see each other, so the gesture is futile, but Roll’s hands find their way to her hips.

“Now look here, you’ve been sulking for days and I just want to help you work through it. I thought we were supposed to be a team, ” she says.

There’s a very long pause before Enker replies.

“Well, yes, but I’m a stubborn buttface who won’t listen to reason,” he says.

---

Now

“He didn’t say that,” Ballade says, leaning back in the chair opposite Roll in the breakfast nook. She sighs irritably, head sinking into her arms, which are splayed out on the table.

“He didn’t say that,” she grumbles. “But he may as well have.”

“You’re not wrong,” Ballade snorts. “But what did he actually say?”

“Well…”

---

Earlier

There’s a very long pause before Enker replies.

“We are supposed to be a team,” Enker says, and there’s an edge lurking under the composure of his voice. “So don’t pretend you haven’t already taken a side.”

“What?” Roll says. “I haven’t -”

The door flies open and she finds herself staring down the shaft of Enker’s javelin, which is pointed right at her throat, into his eyes. His face is a grim mask of impassivity, but his eyes are burning like frostbite.

Roll gasps, and stops her first instinct, which is to call her armour.

“Ballade is sentimental, so I should have expected this,” Enker bites out. “You won’t find it so easy to sway me as that traitor. Who, oh yes, just so happens to carry the weapon I’m weak to. What a coincidence.”

“Ballade is not a traitor,” Roll protests, staring Enker down with her hands firmly planted on her hips. “That’s - he’s just fed up with you treating him so horribly over this!”

He doesn’t seem to react to that accusation at all, but after another few tense seconds where it becomes clear that the javelin is adding nothing to the conversation, he pulls it back and draws up to his full height. The two of them are about even.

“Honestly,” Roll says, “no one is trying to… whatever you think is going on. You’re acting childish.”

“You’re the one who’s acting childish,” Enker says.

Excuse me?”

“Placing all of your trust in a scientist to save the day,” he says. “She may have been kinder to us than Dr. Wily, but she’s not infallible.”

“Oh, I know about your little plan,” Roll says. “It’s dangerous and foolhardy, especially since we’re lucky Wily hasn’t come after you already.”

“And how did relying on the wisdom of the roboticists work out for you before?” Enker asks, leaning ever-so-slightly on his doorframe. “How did it work out for Jazz.”

Roll freezes.

“Don’t you dare bring that up,” she says, quietly.

“I’m just pointing out -”

“No. No. You don’t know anything about Jazz,” Roll says, feeling her hands ball up into very tight fists.

“I know enough,” Enker says, shortly. “You can pretend that sitting here and playing house will accomplish anything, and you can rope Ballade into it, too, but I will be here making an actual plan.”

“And how is that going?” Roll says, icily. “With you and yourself and no one else because you’ve driven everyone away?”

Enker’s eyes flash and he opens his mouth to retort, but he’s cut off by a mournful “Saku…” from inside his room, and the sound of hopping. He frowns.

“I think we’re done here,” he says.

“I think we are,” Roll agrees, voice tight, shoving her hands roughly into the front pocket of her sweater.

Enker retreats into his room, and just like that, Roll is standing alone in the hallway.

Her hands are starting to shake.

Pursing her lips tightly, she spins and starts stomping off towards the kitchen.

---

Now

“Wow,” Ballade says, grimacing.

“I just - I can’t believe he had the nerve to say that!” Roll sits up straight. “How completely awful. He’s been perfectly agreeable for months and now he’s just-!”

“An asshole,” Ballade finishes for her. She nods sharply, and he sighs. “I don’t know what’s going on in his head, man.”

“... I just thought…” Roll sighs and props her chin up on one arm, looking away. “He obviously cares about all of you. After that stunt he pulled to get you away from Wily… That was so selfless. How can he be so hurtful to people he cares about so much?”

Ballade rubs his temple.

“I don’t know,” he admits. “But, you know, it’s… it’s hard. We’re not, well, like you.”

“Like me?” Roll glances back at him.

“I dunno,” Ballade says, and he looks like he’s grasping for the words, “like, we just don’t talk about these things. Pretty much ever. Not like this, anyway.”

“Never?” Roll echoes, frowning.

“Not - never,” Ballade amends. “With Quint the most? And probably not as often as we should have? But he’s not, you know. A war machine.”

Roll sits up again and reaches over. Ballade makes a flustered face as she takes his hand in both of hers. Poor thing, he’s definitely not used to contact. She makes a mental note to ask first next time.

“You’re not just war machines,” she says.

“Well… thanks,” he says, not meeting her eyes.

She lets go and leans back, confident posture evaporating.

Jazz.

Now why did Enker have to go and say a thing like that?

“Um, do you want to…” Ballade speaks up, and her eyes, which had been steadily falling towards the surface of the table, flick back up. He looks concerned. “... go somewhere? Talk about it?”

Roll looks around at the kitchen, the oven that prompts thoughts of her responsibilities, and the board flaunting her failure.

“Yes,” she says, flashing Ballade a grateful smile. “That sounds like a great idea.”

---

They end up going to a cafe, another new experience for Ballade. It’s a homey little hole-in-the-wall type place, with the menu written out on a chalkboard that takes up most of the free wallspace behind the counter and mismatched tables and chairs that somehow still work together. The two of them grab drinks - Ballade is tempted to order hot chocolate, but in the end he decides to expand his horizons with tea. Roll orders some kind of iced coffee. He insists on paying, since he still hasn’t found many things to spend his allowance on and has a surplus, and Roll gives in after a few polite refusals. They grab themselves a table in the back corner, enjoying their respective beverages in silence for a few minutes before either of them really initiates conversation.

“Hey, I’m uh…” Ballade is the one to speak first. “I’m sorry about what Enker said.”

“It’s not your fault,” Roll says, fiddling with her straw. “It’s… it’s a complicated subject, anyway. I’m not even sure he knew what he was saying.”

I think he knew exactly what he was saying, Ballade thinks darkly, but he shakes his head.

“Jazz sounds like he was a complicated guy,” he says, instead.

“He was,” Roll says, quietly. “I know he ended up doing horrible things, but when he was activated, he was just the sweetest thing. I could tell father didn’t want to send him out to fight, but things were… desperate. Dr. Wily really pushed for it. I remember them fighting about it.”

“Of course he did,” Ballade growls.

“It was with good intentions, I think,” Roll sighs. “You have to remember that our Wily was reformed. I knew him that way for much longer than he tried to conquer the world.”

“I can’t get my head around that,” Ballade says. “To me, he’s just this… he’s this looming thing that you only see when you’ve really fu- screwed up. He’s evil.”

Roll chews gently at her lip and pauses thoughtfully.

“I think… it’s more complicated than that,” she says. “When were you built? Pretty late into this whole thing, right?”

“Not as late as Bass, but…” Ballade says, “pretty late.”

“But you can taste that tea, right?” she points at his tea, which is currently cupped in both of his hands. It’s pleasantly warm, even half-drained.

“Yeah,” he says. “I never got that. I mean, I like it, but what’s the point?”

“Taste is a social sense for us,” she says. “Humans have so many rituals around food, and sharing food… you’d be locked out of a lot of their lives without it, if you think about it. The Dr. Wily I knew believed in the things my father believed in, too. Robots and humans living together in peace. He was always less optimistic about it, but… the fact that he kept making robots who might someday be able to find lives like that, I think it means that part of that person still exists in this version of Wily, too. Just a little bit.”

“But he’s still a total bastard,” Ballade says.

“Totally,” Roll says. “He’s done some awful, awful things. Things that maybe shouldn’t be forgiven, ever. But, you know… it’s never simple. No one is just evil.”

“Do you forgive…” Ballade hesitates.

“... Jazz?” Roll finishes for him, softly. “I don’t know. I feel like… I feel like if I had done a better job, somehow, it never would have happened this way. I feel like he did those awful, awful things because I messed up.” She pauses, and Ballade is alarmed to see her eyes brimming with tears. “I thought he was totally gone, but then when he fought Quint, just for a little while before the end, he was the person he used to be. And I thought, maybe I didn’t just mess up in the beginning. Maybe I should have reached harder after... Maybe I could have said something that w-would turn him back into the Jazz I knew.”

Ballade glances at the rest of the cafe. It’s mostly empty, which is an intense relief. Still, he shifts his chair along the floor to shield Roll from view.

“It’s not… your fault,” he says.

“You don’t know that,” she says, wiping her eyes. It’s punctuated by a sniffle.

“Look, I…” Ballade pauses. “I’m not good at this. I just know that you’re… you’re like one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, and I can’t picture that… R-Shadow… being your fault.”

“That’s really nice of you,” Roll says. “But… I still…” She swallows. “The worst part is knowing I’ll never be able to say that to him. I never understood why humans built cemeteries until I lost someone, and I just… wanted somewhere to go and talk to them and pretend that it was the same.”

Her head is bowed, and the tabletop is slowly collecting liquid, drop by drop. In that moment, she looks like she’s carrying the entire world on her shoulders, all by herself. Not for the first time, Ballade doesn’t know what to say. His hand twitches, and then inches forward and brushes Roll’s hand. She looks up, sniffles, and takes his hand, squeezing it very tightly.

“I’m sorry for dumping all of this on you,” she says. “You have so many of your own troubles, and Quint is still - I should be -”

“It’s fine,” he says, automatically, and to his mild surprise, it really is. “I offered, remember?”

“I guess you did.” She gives him a watery smile and withdraws her hand to wipe at her eyes again.

“Do you… feel better?” Ballade asks.

“A little,” Roll says, and Ballade’s disappointment must show on his face, because she adds, “It’s… a lot. A little better is still better.”

“I’m glad,” Ballade says. He swallows another sip of his tea.

Roll takes a while longer to totally regain her composure, and Ballade lets her. He concentrates on his tea - it’s mild, compared to the rest of his limited repertoire. Understated in its sweetness, and with a much less overpowering hint of spice underneath. He decides that he likes it.

“Oh, I never asked…” Roll says, and Ballade detects a hint of embarrassment as she shies away from looking at him when she speaks. “Your talk with Kalinka… it went good?”

“Yeah,” he says. “Weird, but good.”

“Weird how?” Roll asks, finally reasserting eye contact. Ballade takes in a breath as he struggles to come up with the words.

“Well, it was the longest I’ve ever talked with a human, for one,” he says. “She’s not what I pictured.”

“Not what you pictured?” Roll asks.

“Well…” Ballade pauses. “She’s usually so… larger than life. I would have never guessed that she was so…”

“Grieving,” Roll supplies, when he fails to grasp the sentiment. He nods.

“She said she lost her whole family,” he says. “And her son.”

“Oh,” Roll says, gently biting at her lip. “I’m surprised she said as much. After he died, she, well… she hasn’t had the heart to talk about him, for the most part.”

“Is that why she doesn’t spend much time over at Cossack’s?” Ballade asks, one of the swirling half-formed thoughts that had been left after his talk with Kalinka putting itself in order.

“Well…” Roll pauses, steepling her fingers over her mug and resting her chin on them. Her eyes grow distant. “I don’t know. I don’t think so. You know that Quint and I could go and spend time with this world’s version of father whenever we wanted, right? He left us the invitation.”

“Yeah, I guess so,” Ballade says. It genuinely hadn’t occurred to him, and said invitation must have been a private affair. He thinks back to the last few months and can’t find any time unaccounted for in their schedules that he can think of. “But neither of you have.”

“I still sort of think of them as family,” Roll says, “but it’s… not really the same. It sort of hurts to see him alive after saying goodbye for the last time and knowing... well, that’s how I feel. And I bet that Kalinka feels the same way.”

“Haven’t you guys talked about it?” Ballade asks. “You’re all about talking about things.”

Roll lets out a sound halfway between a giggle and a snort.

“Oh, the student surprasses the master, hm?” she asks, smiling up at him with a gleam in her eye. It makes him feel funny and he struggles not to look away as that feeling tries to force its way to the forefront. “Well, I guess I just haven’t felt ready. I’d sort of been enjoying things being… settled, for the first time in a long time.”

“Right,” Ballade says, frowning. He doesn’t really get it, but then he thinks about the last few months, really reflects on them, and realizes that there’s been a shift in atmosphere that he hadn’t quite pinpointed until now because it had been the lack of something rather than a new thing in and of itself. Never having to worry that the door would be kicked open by someone with a bone to pick, or that a mad genius would come around with a dangerous mission for them, or that any wrong move might get one of them scrapped or reprogrammed. “I… think I get what you mean.”

“Not to mention that she can be so evasive when she wants to be!” Roll continues, heedless of how fast Ballade’s thoughts are having to work to catch up. “I swear, she’s my best friend, but sometimes there’s just a brick wall when she’s upset, you know?”

He doesn’t know.

“Yeah, absolutely,” Ballade says, nodding. He sips at his tea.

“Oh, that reminds me,” Roll says, unsteepling her fingers and taking another draw from her mug. “Did she say anything about how things are coming along…?”

Ballade freezes mid-sip, caught by Roll’s hopeful face.

“Uh…” he says, “She’s… still working on it…”

Roll visibly deflates, and he winces internally.

“It’s not going well, huh?” she sighs.

“No,” he says. “It’s not. But, uh,” he continues, as she looks even more crestfallen, “she’s recovered some of the data, so she knows where they are, it’s just getting there, right?”

“That’s… you’re right,” Roll shakes her head. “That is progress. I just hope they can hold out until we get there. I can’t imagine what kind of awful danger they could be getting into.”

“I’m sure they’re keeping a low profile and staying out of danger,” Ballade says.

---

“Y’know, I sort of envisioned sneaking out of the base being harder,” Quint says, as Axl leads them through a hallway at a casual walking pace. Bass is sticking close to Quint, glaring at literally everyone they pass. Axl keeps waving at people and saying hello, and Quint keeps sending them apologetic glances for Bass, so the experience of passing the group of them is consistently disorienting.

“Dude, I work here,” Axl points out, between greetings. “We just gotta leave the grounds for this to work, and then it’ll be plenty hard.”

“Fucking good,” Bass says. “I was getting bored. Bring on the mavericks.”

“Yaaaay,” Quint says, tone resigned, “danger...”

“That’s the spirit!” Axl grins.

---

Roll and Ballade exchange an unsteady look as Ballade tries to convince himself of the truth of his statement and Roll clearly does the same.

“Yes, I’m sure they’re fine,” Roll says, fiddling with the cuff of her sleeve. “It’s just that my brother is sort of…”

“It’s just that Bass is…” Ballade says, trailing off.

They look at each other. Ballade sips his tea.

“They’re idiots,” Roll says, and he almost spews out a mouthful of tea in her face.

“They’re both idiots!” Ballade agrees, and brings his fist down on the table, stopping at the last moment as he realizes he could easily break it. Roll’s eyes go wide for a second, and then she starts giggling, and then the giggling turns into full-on laughter as she slumps over the table and shakes with mirth. Ballade follows suit, guffawing until he’s out of breath (which he imagines must be much more unpleasant for someone who actually needs the air).

“One time,” she gasps out, “I sent him to the store to get something and we got a call from the middle school an hour later because someone had cornered him asking why he wasn’t in school and he was too embarrassed to interrupt them while they dragged him there!”

What?” Ballade wheezes. “Why didn’t he just teleport -”

I don’t know!” Roll covers her mouth, but the laughter escapes anyway. “And I’ve never let him live it down!”

“And Bass - I had to explain to him what locks were,” Ballade laughs.

“Was that - oh my gosh, was that why the rec room door was broken last month?” Roll asks.

“He just forced it open! He’s like a bulldozer pretending to be a person!” Ballade snickers.

“That’s mean,” Roll chides, but she’s still covering her mouth and he sees her eyes crinkle into another smile.

He’s mean.” Ballade rolls his eyes. “Let him have a taste of his own medicine every once in a while.”

“Oh, he’s not as mean as he thinks he is,” Roll chuckles, finishing off her drink in a few gulps. Her mirthful expression fades, and she looks up at Ballade with melancholy in her eyes. “... I miss them. Both of them.”

“Yeah.” Ballade sighs, and to his surprise, he finds... “Me too. Even Bass, I guess.”

Roll smiles.

“That’s big of you,” she says.

“Mostly I miss giving him shit,” Ballade says, affecting a wistful expression. “Big asshole that he is.”

“Do you miss the competition?” Roll asks, quirking up an eyebrow, and Ballade snorts.

“Point taken,” he says, and, taking another sip, finds himself at the bottom of his tea. He stares into the mug. Once again, half-formed thoughts swirl around, and as though the absence of tea made room for them, they all pour into the space left over and pool together. “I guess I’ll have to settle for reliving all the times I did by -”

In the empty mug, two thoughts come together and something abruptly clicks.

“I think…” he says, looking back up and meeting Roll’s eyes, “maybe I should go talk to Punk again.”

Chapter Text

“This is nice,” Zero says, neatly bisecting a Bustard mechaniloid with his sabre. The turret on legs stands there for a second with a straight molten line through it, probably contemplating what death will bring the best it can with its subsapient programming, before exploding in a shower of parts and heat.

Zero feels X back up against his back - he knows through situational awareness that he’s picking through a cloud of Batton Bones with high-frequency uncharged buster shots.

“I can think of some things I’d rather be doing right now,” X says, through the whine of his buster charging. He releases a fully charged shot and Zero hears a chain of small booms as the swarm is overwhelmed by X’s firepower.

“Me too,” Zero grins, heady with the thrill of battle. The thrill of fighting alongside X, matched only by - “Well, one thing,” he says, and, catching a flash of motion, neatly pirouettes, activates his EAS boosters, and dash-jumps right into an oncoming Float Gunner which was trying to angle a shot on X sabre-first.

“Mhm,” X says, clearly catching his drift and clearly unimpressed. “Not exactly what I meant.”

Zero double-checks his comms to make sure they’re off and rolls his eyes.

“C’mon, X,” he says, scanning the snowbanks for signs of more enemies as he leaps back to X’s side. Visibility is poor, since it’s snowing heavily, but he doesn’t catch any motion. “I know this doesn’t exactly get you going, but I am shocked and offended if you prefer this to -”

Please stop talking,” X says, eyes flicking around - he’s probably doing the same thing Zero is - as his face goes bright red. More quietly, he adds, “Of course I don’t, but we’re on a mission.”

“I don’t see the problem,” Zero says, stowing his saber. The area is clear. “Nobody lives out here, so we’re not looking at casualties if we get distracted for, say, the amount of time it would take to -”

Zero,” X says, covering his face. Zero leans in very closely and whispers low in his earpiece.

“- test out a certain fantasy of mine.”

Zero!” X yelps, and Zero laughs as X reaches out and pushes him out of his immediate personal space. “You remember that our location and vitals are being monitored, right?”

“Yeah, and?” Zero shrugs. X lets out a ragged sigh, and suddenly the atmosphere is totally different.

“You know why that’s a bad idea,” X says, starting off towards the next snowbank. Zero follows, nonplussed.

“I know,” he says, trying to keep the sulk out of his voice. “But this is the first time alone we’ve had for like - since Bass and Quint got here.”

“We’re hardly alone,” X says, peering over the top of a snowbank into the white-grey swirls of the snowstorm and squinting.

“Well we’re hardly ever alone,” Zero says, frustration mounting. He’s relieved when he catches the telltale signs of an approaching enemy and zips forward to engage. He takes it out with a neat slash and is disappointed to find that it’s just one of those little snowball-throwing arm things. He hasn’t seen one of them for absolute ages. Probably because they’re… not especially effective weapons.

“I know,” X says, cresting the bank and sliding down to join Zero. “I know. You know how busy things are right now -”

“They’re always busy,” Zero says, starting to walk.

“Well, we’re Maverick Hunter Commanders,” X says, exasperated. “We have a lot of responsibilities.”

“I know, X,” Zero says. He takes out his sabre, looking around desperately for something to fight. He grimaces, suddenly aware that being annoyed at X and looking for a fight aren’t wise wires to cross. “You know what? You’re right. We shouldn’t do this in the middle of a mission.”

“I shouldn’t have to tell you that,” X says. Zero strains for a moment to decipher the tone - he’s holding back annoyance, Zero realizes, and that just feeds right back into his own bad mood.

“Yup, that’s me,” Zero says, pressing forward into the storm. He hears X hurrying to keep pace. “One hundred percent mission-minded combat machine.”

X sucks in a breath.

“That’s not what I meant,” he says. “I want to talk about this, but can’t we do it later?”

“There’s been a lot of ‘later’ lately,” Zero grumbles, but then X appears at his side and he’s looking up at him with those eyes and he can’t bring himself to continue being belligerent.

“I know, and I’m sorry,” X says, painfully sincere. “I... I’m doing the best I can.”

Zero sighs.

“Me too,” he says.

Then, blinking, he stops, putting out an arm to hold X back. X collides with it mid-stride and bounces back on his heel before coming to a stop.

“Zero?” X asks, peering up at him.

“Look up,” Zero says, following his own advice. X follows his instructions, squinting, and then his eyes go wide with realization.

“The snow,” X says. Sure enough, observation confirms what Zero’s passive systems had already picked up on - there’s a visual distortion above, a divide in the snowfall that’s invisible at ground level. There’s a gentle curve to it, going upwards and away. “... a dome?”

“Some kind of cloaking,” Zero says, mentally tracking the field down to its base a few feet in front of them.

“That explains why our scans came up empty,” X says, frowning. “If this is the centre of the maverick disturbance, they could be hiding anything in there.”

“A whole army,” Zero hazards, “or their base of operations. Though… no, that doesn’t make any sense. If they were trying to hide, why signal their position this way?”

“Their movement patterns make no sense in either of those scenarios,” X agrees. “They were moving in to attack.” he pauses, and then sighs. “Nothing to do but jump in and see, I guess.”

“Sounds like my kind of plan,” Zero says, a smile finding its way to his lips.

“I’ll call it in and then we’ll go,” X says, putting two fingers up to his earpiece. “Alia, we’ve found something…”

Zero crosses his arms impatiently as X fills their navigator in on the details. It takes far too long, by his estimation. By the time X is done answering follow-up questions, Zero’s about ready to drag him forward bodily through the cloak.

“Okay, thanks Aliaaaack Zero!” X yelps as Zero does exactly that.

“Try not to do anything t- -r-zy--” Alia’s voice follows them through comms right up until they pass through the barrier, at which point it winks out in a burst of static.

They’re both too preoccupied to try to re-establish contact, though. The snowfall which was coming down so thick around them a moment ago is completely absent in this dome, creating a sense of almost artificial stillness. Therefore, they have a clear view to -

“Is that a castle? ” X asks.

There’s an enormous fortress in, true to X’s exclamation, the style of an old Russian citadel. The central spire is a huge onion dome.

“Looks like it,” Zero says, squinting. It’s not all still in this pocket of space, he realizes, and he points down towards a spot some distance from the base of the walls, which are smoking. There are forces milling about in what looks like an established base camp, and he can just make out a very familiar ride armour. “Damn. Looks like we’ve got company.”

“The mavericks,” X says, frowning. “It’s… a siege?”

“X,” Zero grins very slowly. “It’s time to be the cavalry.”

“You’ve got a lot of practice at it,” X says, with a begrudging smile back. He forms his buster and nods. “So much for not doing anything crazy… let’s go.”

They take off at a dash.

Above them, in the distance, a bright green teleport beam descends into the centre of the fortress.

---

The three of them stumble apart as they land in the dark corridor. Quint, who normally doesn’t feel too disoriented when he teleports on his own, manages to stay upright, but just barely. Bass leans on a wall, and Axl falls onto his rear with a clank that echoes in the bare space.

“Yeesh, that was a rough ride,” Axl says, shaking his head as he picks himself up from the floor. “How many times did we get pinged around there?”

“We’re lucky any of the old man’s satellite network was still up,” Bass grunts, pulling himself up to standing. Quint lets himself sag against the wall next to Bass as his gyros stabilize.

“And that he never replaced my teleporter,” Quint adds. “Looks like Cossack’s system really did still see me as Rock.”

“Have I mentioned how criminally fucking badly he missed out not actually using you for anything?” Bass says.

“Once or twice,” Quint smiles. “Thanks for the vote of confidence, even if, uh, that would have super sucked?”

“Just take the compliment,” Bass says, rolling his eyes.

“Sooooo are you guys planning on filling me in any time soon?” Axl cuts in. “Because I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Bass and Quint exchange a glance.

“Okay, okay,” Quint sighs. “We did have a deal.”

“Let’s get going,” Bass says. “We can walk and talk.”

They start down the hallway. It’s dark and cavernous, and like many of the hallways in Cossack’s fortress, it’s pointlessly long and very similar to the others. It’s also frigid. The plan had been to teleport right into the heart of the citadel, but Quint supposes that the decaying satellite network they came through probably threw off his aim. He suppresses a shudder at the idea of how else a teleport mishap might have presented itself - could they have landed in a locked, plasma-proof room?

“So okay, first question,” Axl addresses Bass, cutting into Quint’s anxiety spiral before it can really get going. “Why is Zero acting so weird about you?”

“He’s my - we were created by the same guy,” Bass answers.

“You were whaaaaaat,” Axl says.

“Is there something wrong with your ears?” Bass snaps. “I just know they’re gonna be pissed that we told you, so the least you could do is fucking listen.”

“Okay, geez, chill,” Axl puts up his hands defensively. “... that does explain the serial thing.”

“Serial thing?” Quint asks, poking in between the two of them from where he was trailing a little in the middle.

“When I copy someone, I get a little peek at some of their system info. You know, standard HUD stuff, what I need to control their body, shoot the bad guys, blah blah,” Axl says. “Stuff like serial numbers pop up in there. Yours is SWN-001, which is weird ‘cause the standard is like triple the length, you know?”

“Uh huh,” Quint says, nodding sagely and trying his best to pretend that this isn’t totally new information.

“But like, I’ve seen one other serial like that, and it’s Zero’s,” Axl says. “His is DWN-∞.”

“Wha- infinity? ” Bass chokes.

“Yeah, weird, right?” Axl says.

“That’s one way to put it,” Quint says, eyes sliding over to Bass.

“Weird? It’s bullshit,” Bass says. “Infinity is not a fucking number!”

“Wouldn’t that mean he’s like, multiple robots?” Quint muses. “Like, an infinite number or robots. But he’s named Zero, so...”

“Robots?” Axl gives them both an odd look.

“Reploids, whatever,” Bass corrects. “Ugh, that’s such a fucking Wily thing to do. I hate that old bastard.”

“Wait, so the ‘W’ stands for Wily,” Axl says, looking between the two of them, “and an old man… named Wily… made Zero. And you. Am I getting this right?”

“That’s the gist of it,” Quint says.

“Cool,” Axl says. “My number of questions is now like, exponentially bigger.”

“Well it’ll have to wait,” Bass says, putting out an arm and stopping Quint. As wrapped up as he was in the conversation, it takes a moment for him to refocus on their surroundings.

“Oh,” Quint says, looking at the walls.

What was bare wall a few metres back slowly unfolds into a nest of wires and pipes that permeates the wall and hallway almost organically. In the darkness, it hadn’t been visible until they’d practically walked on top of it.

“What the hell…?” Axl says, eyes narrowing as he looks around. Bass looks to Quint.

“This is… not supposed to be here,” Quint says, answering Bass’ unspoken question. His voice sounds as uneasy to his ears as he feels.

“It’s like roots,” Axl says, running a hand along the walls and trailing over some of the tangled wiring. “It’s broken through cracks in the wall… huh.”

“So there’s some kind of giant mecha-plant in here?” Bass frowns.

“I don’t know, but we should definitely keep our guard up,” Quint says, edging closer to Bass.

“Yeah,” Bass says, pulling out his buster. He rests his functional hand on Quint’s shoulder and gives it a squeeze before pressing on.

Quint shoots him a grateful, tight smile.

---

The wiring along the walls gets thicker as they walk. As curious as Axl obviously is, they’re all too on-edge to be caught up in another conversation - all busters and pistols are out, even though the stillness of the dark fortress is still as oppressive as ever. Sometimes, distantly, they hear muffled explosions.

The hallways eventually end, as they tend to, opening into a huge rectangular room behind shutters. Well, sort of.

They pass what used to be the shuttered door to the room. The metal is contorted, ripped open by some unimaginably strong hands. The rootlike wires have grown over it and in, or perhaps over it and out, since they appear to be following them to the source - the entire room is covered with them, and under that, there are battle scars. Burn marks peek out from behind the tangle here and there, the floor is cracked and similarly marked, and in the centre of the space floats a reploid.

“Log oh-oh-oh-one-four-seven. The experiment escaped… still no signs of whereabouts. But he led us to something interesting…”

The first word that comes to mind looking at her is wizard. She’s floating a few feet above the ground, surrounded by holographic screens like the ones Palette was using back at the hunter base, and her helmet is stylized so the silhouette resembles a classic witch’s hat, from under which flows long blonde hair. her armour is built to resemble a stiff, decorated gown that hides her feet (if she even has any) from view. She’s wielding some kind of golden sceptre with a glowing purple gem, and she’s hunched over, examining something and muttering to herself.

At least, she’s facing away until Axl gasps. Then she’s turning to look at them with eyes that reflect the light of her sceptre with a mad gleam. The screens around her wink out in an instant, and the lights in the room, previously dead, shudder to life with a jittery electric hum. She advances, slowly, eyes locking onto Quint. The three of them take a collective step back.

“R-Shadow…? Is this where you’ve run to? Ah, no, you prefer Jazz, don’t you?” She says, almost coos, and then pauses. A screen appears next to her, running a line down the screen that seems to print out Quint’s approximate build. “No, you’re not him, are you? Scans indicate a lesser degree of sophistication. How very interesting.

“You’re Berkana,” Axl says, both pistols up and pointed at the reploid’s face. “You fought X and Zero… who brought you back from the dead?”

“Stay out of my way, hunter,” she says, not taking her eyes off of Quint. “Your plans… less sophisticated, yes, but maybe combined with his data, yes… a missing link! Much better than a rusting carcass.”

“Stay away from him, bitch,” Bass growls, stepping in front of Quint.

Berkana laughs, and Bass visibly grinds his teeth.

“I don’t take orders from the dead, save one,” Berkana grins. She brandishes her sceptre, which flashes, and they all flinch -

- and the room starts moving.

The wires, which wrap around the whole room, spring to life with creaks and the screech of metal on metal as they abruptly pull up from the walls and furl around Berkana. Quint and the others jump back against the wall, but for the split second her expression is visible, he sees confusion and rage at the incursion.

Berkana shrieks, and there’s a pulse from within as a dark shockwave of energy bursts the wires coiling around her. From the far door, which had been previously completely covered, more, thicker wires slither in, and she regards them with cold annoyance.

“I see. Well, we’ve gathered enough data today,” she says, and then flashes the three of them a manic smile. “I’ll see you again soon.”

With that, in a stream of light up through the ceiling, she’s gone.

All three of them still have their guns up, but as soon as the maverick leaves, the wires fall still again, in some cases collapsing to the floor.

“What the fuck was that?” Bass is the first one to speak.

“Like the maverick or the weird thing at the end?” Axl says.

“Both!” Bass throws his hands up. “Fucking - both!

Quint, taking a few steadying breaths, moves forward into the abandoned room as the two of them argue.

“Well,” Axl pauses. “That... was Berkana. I remember reading the file on her - one of the first real serious reploid DNA researchers outside of Cain Labs, caused a whole incident when she turned maverick. X and Zero took care of her and her croney, but…” he shrugs. “Someone must have DNA resurrected her. Super illegal, but the mavericks do it all the time.”

“Great,” Bass says, running a hand over his face as Quint looks back from where he’s climbing over a pile of wires.

“She mentioned Jazz,” Quint says. “She was - looking for him? They met?”

“That’s not concerning at all.” Bass crosses his arms. “I shouldn’t be fucking surprised. What a pain in the ass.”

“Who’s Jazz?” Axl asks.

“He’s my brother,” Quint sighs. “We were looking for him, and that’s how we ended up here. Kind of. It’s a long story.”

“Yeah, I bet,” Axl says, stowing his pistols. “I guess I can get behind looking for family…”

“Sorry, it’s just a lot and we’re in the middle of - guh,” Quint cuts himself off, stumbling back and tripping over a wire. He lands on his backside, staring wide-eyed behind his visor at the sight before him.

“Quint?” Bass starts making his way over. “Is something wro - oh, fuck,” he hisses, stopping after making his way over the mound of wires and landing at Quint’s side. His voice wavers. “That’s…”

It’s a robot, or the remains of one. Black armour over rusted, exposed internal components, the worst of it mercifully covered by the mechanical growth but still fully recognizable as -

“Bass,” Quint says, in a small voice, reaching out blindly to his side and grasping Bass’ hand. It’s shaking. “It’s… you?”

Chapter Text

There are a few seconds where neither of them say anything, just staring at the broken body of a second Bass with their hands clasped tightly together. Quint doesn’t have to look to know that Bass is having a reaction - he’s almost crushing Quint’s hand.

“What’s wro- oh.”

The stunned silence is dispelled when Axl crests the pile of wires and joins them. Quint tears his eyes away from the grisly scene to take in Axl’s reaction. There’s a second where his eyes are widened, but then his expression shutters and his eyes turn flinty.

Quint has seen enough action to know what it looks like when someone has become hardened. He doesn’t know Axl very well, but he feels a pang of sympathy for what the redhead must have gone through.

“What the hell,” Bass says, barely above a whisper.

Axl looks between the pile of scrapped remains and Bass and weaves his way past the two of them, crouching to take a look.

“Blunt trauma, no plasma burns,” he says, voice completely even and professional. “Multiple smaller injuries, one arm’s torn right off… the attacker was about the same stature, maybe taller, but possessed incredible strength. Looks like they must have been fighting unarmed.”

Quint winces and gasps as Bass’ grip tightens even further, and the pain sensors in his hand flare up. Bass pulls his hand back like it’s been burned, holding it in the other one. His eyes are flashing through emotions so quickly that Quint can’t pin them down, except that he’s clearly upset. He opens his mouth to say something, but he’s cut off by a gasp from Axl.

They both swivel to look at Axl picking something up. The shattered remains of something, actually.

“The control chip,” Bass says numbly.

“It looks like someone crushed it,” Axl says.

They all know there’s no coming back from that.

“Who are you? Both of you,” Axl asks. His voice is cold, now, far different from the Axl they’ve come to know so far. That kind of voice, Quint thinks, is reserved for enemies. “What is going on?”

Bass’ mouth twists into a snarl, and before he can snap at Axl, Quint cuts in.

“We’re from the past!” he says, and puts up his hands. “I know this is hard to believe, but we’re time travellers and we’re from 20XX and we’re stuck here and X and Zero have been helping us and we weren’t supposed to tell anyone but this place belonged to a friend of my dad’s and so we had to come and -”

“Whoa okay what slow down,” Axl says. He drops the remains of the other Bass’ control chip, which clatter to the floor, and Bass winces and shoots him an even dirtier look than before. “You’re freaking time travellers?

“Yes! Fuck!” Bass throws up his arms. He’s still shaking, though at this point whether it’s from shock or rage or both is unclear. “Are you satisfied? You done fucking prying? You want our life stories now?!”

Axl opens his mouth and then closes it, eyes flicking between Bass, Quint, and the remains.

“Okay,” he says, “so, um, I’m just putting together that this is really screwed up.”

“Yeah,” Quint says, “it is.”

There’s an awkward silence.

“This can’t be how I…” Bass mutters.

“Bass…” Quint moves to position himself between him and the sight, taking his hand gently. He’s surprised to see that Bass flinches away from the contact, but doesn’t push it. “That’s not you. Remember? Kalinka said that that isn’t how this works.”

Bass frowns and looks away, first settling his eyes on Axl and then just into empty space.

“So are you gonna… go back in time and erase everything?” Axl asks. “Any way you could not do that?”

Quint shoots him a look.

“It doesn’t work like that either,” Bass says. “But thanks for the concern, asshole.”

“Can you seriously blame me for being worried?” Axl frowns.

“Guys, can we not do this right now?” Quint says. “Nobody’s getting erased or killed or anything like that, so there’s no reason to fight.”

“Okay,” Axl says, “I guess.”

“Whatever,” Bass says, crossing his arms.

Another muffled explosion, like the others that have been going on intermittently, rings out. It’s louder than the others.

“We should get going,” Bass says. “Find out why Jazz was really here. Can’t imagine it was for my dead body.”

“Yeah,” Quint says, looking up at him and biting his lip. “We should.”

---

As they approach what Quint recognizes as the centre area of the fortress, the landscape changes. The thick cluster of wires turns into a mess of machinery; there are what look like server racks and computational cores littered about everywhere, connected to the whole in an indiscernible pattern.

Axl and Bass still aren’t talking. There’s a silence between them so thick you could cut it with a knife. Considering Axl’s earlier curiosity, Quint can’t help but be concerned.

“We’re getting close to the biggest lab,” he says, wielding the metaphorical knife.

“You mean the one he fought Mega Man in?” Bass asks, tracing the direction of the mess on the walls with his eyes.

“Yeah, probably,” Quint says. “Well, I mean, it’s not for that… he works - uh, worked - on the bigger machinery projects there. Kalinka, too, sometimes, but she kinda specialized into humanoid robotics.”

“So like… did they need to build a castle in the middle of nowhere to do robotics? Is that a robotics thing in the past?” Axl asks. His voice sounds uncertain. Quint chooses to interpret that as treading carefully.

“Yes,” Bass says, at the same time that Quint says “No.” They look at each other.

“Well, uh, my dad didn’t make a fortress,” Quint says. “There are plenty of roboticists in the past that don’t build fortresses.”

“Maybe his robots wouldn’t keep getting stolen if he did,” Bass says. Quint is gratified to see that he’s starting to look less tense, getting back into the groove of their comfortable back and forth.

“That’s not…” Quint pauses. “Well, see, it wouldn’t…”

The edge of Bass’ mouth pulls up into a smirk.

“Okay, well that’s just because of Wily,” Quint pouts. “If Wily wasn’t going around stealing robots, it would make no sense at all.”

“But Cossack already had one,” Bass points out.

“Well, yeah, but he’s…” Quint says, “... eccentric. And kind of super paranoid.”

“Uh huh,” Bass says.

“And, uhhh, it didn’t stop his robots from getting stolen, now did it?” Quint crosses his arms.

“You know ‘robot’ is a slur now, right?” Axl says, interrupting Bass’ attempted comeback.

“Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind,” Bass says, smirking.

“Great,” Quint winces. “I’m telling X and Zero you taught him a bad word.”

“Hey! No, don’t do that!” Axl yelps. “Zero’ll kill me!”

Quint laughs, but when he sees Bass’ reaction, he abruptly stops. The tenseness from before that had started to fall away is back in full force, and his expression is totally blank.

“... Bass?” he prods.

“We’re almost there,” Bass says, increasing his stride to break off from the group and walk ahead. “Let’s get this over with.”

Axl shoots Quint a confused look, and he sends back an equally baffled glance before they both hustle to catch up with him. As it turns out, they don’t have to go far.

Bass is stopped past an incline where there used to be stairs, which is now overgrown so it more resembles an uneven ramp. There are a pair of shuttered doors, and the wires grow out of cracks in the wall around it, leaving the way clear to walk through.

“This is the place,” Quint says.

They walk through the hallway leading up to the room, and step out into the open space it opens up into with the click-click-click of the somehow still-functioning doors. Quint gasps.

The room, which is the size of a large gymnasium, is packed with capsules. They line the walls in disorganized rows, connected to the system of wires, and they’re even draped from the ceiling at random. The floor is absolutely covered in wiring and machinery, which all fans out from the centre, in which sits a lone capsule. In every other way, it’s exactly the same as all of the others.

“Holy shit,” Axl says, looking all around with wide eyes. “These are…”

The room pulses with an odd glow, light visibly running through the wires at intervals to the centre capsule. Before any of them can do anything, they’re caught up in a rumbling wave as the wires shift and carry them to the centre. Bass swears and activates his boosters, and Quint struggles, but the wires have them securely by the boots.

When all is done and over with, and they’re standing at the base of the capsule, the glass casing slides up and open, and a hologram flickers to life inside. It’s a familiar face.

“... Dad?” Quint says, before he can stop himself. The hologram of Dr. Light, lined with even more advanced age than Quint remembers from his own time, regards him with a tired smile.

Uhhhhh what?! ” Axl says, and Bass slaps a hand over his mouth.

“Not now,” he hisses.

Quint takes off his helmet and wipes at the edge of his eyes where tears are starting to gather.

“Rock, my boy,” Dr. Light’s projection says. His voice is overlayed by static which fades in and out as he speaks, but that does nothing to lessen the emotion in his tone. “It’s been so long.”

“It’s, um, it’s Quint now,” Quint says, sniffing. “And I’m not really your, um…”

“I know,” Dr. Light says, with a sad smile. “My son is long gone. But it’s nice to see his face again.”

Quint swallows thickly. He feels Bass’ hand fall lightly on his shoulder and squeeze, and watches the hologram’s eyebrows furrow just a tiny bit as he notes the gesture.

“You helped us earlier, right? With that maverick?” Quint asks, steadied by Bass’ presence.

“I did,” Dr. Light says, expression turning serious. “I’ve been watching you since you entered the citadel. I imagine you came looking for the same thing that she did.”

“You know about Jazz?” Quint leans forward fractionally.

“Indeed,” Dr. Light says. “I met him not too long ago. He was being pursued, and so I -”

“Before we hear about that, I want to know what the fuck happened here,” Bass cuts in.

“Bass -” Quint looks up and back at him, ready to protest, but he’s met with a stonewalled expression. His grip on Quint’s shoulder tightens. Quint bites his lip and turns back to Dr. Light. “I… yeah. I’m kind of curious too. Why are you all… like this?”

Dr. Light sighs.

“More than a hundred years ago, there was a pause in Albert’s seemingly endless attempts to take over the world,” he says. “At first, we enjoyed the respite. I had been working on my newest creation, X, desperate to finish before I became unable to work in my old age. I suspected that Albert had finally reached his limit, as well. I should have expected that he, too, was working on his ultimate project.”

Bass’ grip on Quint’s shoulder tightens even further, but he doesn’t say a thing.

“Just after I sealed X away for the morality tests on his AI, we received word that there was something dire going on at Skull Fortress. By the time that Rock arrived at the scene... it was too late for Albert. Most of his robots had also been destroyed. Those that were left - including Bass, yes - told of a terrifyingly powerful robot who had, after activation, gone berserk and attacked anything that it encountered.”

“That sounds like a viral maverick,” Axl says. His voice is strained.

“Yes, it does,” Dr. Light says, grim. “It hit populated areas not too long after that. Rock, and almost every combat-capable robot I had, went to stop it. They failed.”

“I’m sorry,” Quint whispers.

“It’s not your fault, my boy,” Dr. Light says. “Those that remained - mostly the injured, including Bass - followed me as we took refuge in the Cossacks’ citadel. I knew that if X were to ever face such a threat, he wouldn’t be capable in the form I had left him with - even with his infinite potential! The technology was imperfect, but I felt I had no choice but to preserve my mind to ensure X’s survival in a future marked by Albert’s last legacy.”

“But he followed you here,” Bass says, voice tight.

“Yes,” Dr. Light says. “And, at the cost of Bass, Mikhail, Kalinka, and almost all of their creations, we were eventually able to damage the robot enough to trap it in stasis. Using what little reach I had left in this form, I stashed the capsule in the most remote location I could find and shut down to await X’s awakening.”

“Why bother shutting down?” Axl asks. All heads turn to him. “I mean, you made X so many armours and upgrades… they revolutionized reploid tech! You’re telling me you didn’t even start working on them until X woke up?”

“He’s dying, you fucking idiot,” Bass snaps.

“Oh,” Quint says, turning back to the hologram.

“Bass is correct, I’m afraid,” Dr. Light says, with a heavy sigh. “As I said, the process was imperfect. I’ve spent all of my time helping X in his times of greatest need, shutting down in between times of conflict to prolong my lifespan, but the time is fast approaching that he will have to walk this path he’s chosen without my aid.”

“Dad…” Quint says, lifting a hand to reach out. His hand goes right through the hologram, as he expected, but somehow, it’s still disappointing. “That’s… I’m sorry.”

“My boy - Quint. I’ve lived long past my natural lifespan,” Dr. Light says, gracing him with a gentle smile. “It’s alright. X will be fine, too -” he pauses to nod at Axl. “He’s surrounded himself with good friends, and steadfast allies.”

“Ironic allies,” Bass mutters.

“Yes, I was surprised, too,” Dr. Light chuckles. “But the future can be unpredictable. I’m glad to see that you’ve found similar peace, Bass.”

“Oh shut up, you old hack,” Bass scowls.

Dude you can’t call the father of modern robotics a hack-! ” Axl hisses.

Fucking watch me -

“But, if you were asleep, then Jazz-?” Quint prompts, over their argument. The holographic Dr. Light clears his throat, silencing Bass and Axl.

“He came to me, actually,” Dr. Light said. “I was amazed to find another version of X had wandered in here, and when I confronted him, he explained his situation. Including that he had come from another world entirely, which had always been a theoretical possibility, but to have those theories confirmed… simply monumental.”

“Berkana mentioned that an experiment had escaped,” Axl says. “So this Jazz guy is X from another dimension? I thought it was just time travel?”

“It’s a long story, but basically I’m from a split timeline from the place we came from,” Quint says, shoulders sinking. “I really hate thinking about it and it’s stupidly complicated.”

“It appears that the differences run deeper than that,” Dr. Light says. “In our brief time comparing notes, I was able to deduce that the 20XX of this world has some key differences from yours. In my time, there were no group of robots known as the Stardroids, for instance.”

“So it’s even more stupidly complicated?” Quint bites his lip.

“That’s not that complicated,” Bass says, rolling his eyes. “It just means we got dumped further along in the timeline in a parallel dimension that split off from ours a long time ago. Weren’t you paying attention to Kalinka when she explained how the stupid Time Skimmer works?”

“No, I’m with him,” Axl pipes up. “That’s kind of stupidly complicated.”

“Oh I’m sorry, would you rather worry about us going back and erasing you?” Bass crosses his arms. “You want to play around with paradoxes and shit?”

“Okay, okay!” Quint says, holding up his hands to signal defeat. “Anything is better than paradoxes. You’re right.”

“In any case,” Dr Light continues, “your brother told me that he had landed here after leaving your world in a hurry. He said… well, perhaps it’s best if I show you.”

The figure of Dr. Light fades away and is replaced by the visage of Jazz, helmet off and stark in his resemblance to X.

“Dad... I’m sorry,” he says, voice wavering. “I screwed everything up. Again. They told me they were just scientists, and that I’d be safe there if I’d just let them run some tests. But when I felt them coming after me, and I tried to leave, she…”

The figure flickers and is once again replaced by Dr. Light.

“He told me that he arrived in this world in a laboratory that was occupied by mavericks operating in secrecy to research for their cause,” he says, frowning. “After a brief period of misunderstanding, it appears that they realized that he is near-identical to X and had no idea what they were, and used that to their full advantage to gain his cooperation.”

“The lab in Abel city,” Quint says, realization dawning. “That’s where we tracked him to.”

“Who was coming after him?” Axl asks.

“His old posse, that’s who,” Bass grimaces. “That alien army, right?”

“That what? ” Axl yelps, even as Dr. Light nods.

“The group he calls the Dimensions,” the doctor says. “He believed that they were pursuing him for his ability to use his Time Skimmer to intuitively navigate between worlds. A manifestation of his own infinite potential, if I had to guess. I helped him escape, and I’m afraid I don’t know his whereabouts now.”

“How fucking convenient,” Bass grunts.

“If he’s right…” Quint bites his lip, clasping his hands together tightly. “That’s bad, right?”

“Uh, if they managed to make some kind of breakthrough on DNA research on X because of this, that’s bad enough,” Axl says. “I can’t even copy him or Zero perfectly - it’s bonkers advanced.”

“And the Evil Energy, they have that too,” Quint says. “Berkana and Vile both used it.”

“The what? ” Axl asks.

“Okay, seriously, stop asking what, ” Bass snaps.

“Then stop saying things that make me ask what! ” Axl shoots back.

Another explosion sounds, this time much closer, and everyone present save Dr. Light flinches.

“I fear our time together grows short,” Dr. Light says. “The mavericks have almost made their way to the inner sanctum. I’ll have to take drastic measures to protect my core.”

Bass steps forward, past Quint.

“Then - upgrade us!” He says, fists balled up.

“Come again?” Dr. Light’s eyebrows shoot up.

“If you did all that for X, then you’ve got to know how completely fucking outclassed we are,” Bass says. There’s an edge of desperation to his voice. “We’re dead weight like this.”

“X did say that you upgraded Zero once,” Quint adds.

The hologram looks between the two of them and sighs.

“It’s short notice,” he says. “Without more time, I can’t do a complete overhaul - you still won’t be as powerful as X,” he says, and then, looking at Bass, he adds, “or Zero.”

Bass grits his teeth.

“Just do it, old man,” he says.

“Very well,” Dr. Light says, and his form disappears. “Step into the capsule. One at a time.”

---

Fighting Vile is an excellent distraction, Zero has decided. There’s very little time to worry about X being mad at him when he’s dodging a cloud of fifty mini-missiles. He’s almost disappointed that they’re going to have to kill him again.

“Eurgh!” X cries out, as a blast from Vile’s cannon catches his side.

Almost.

Zero ignites his blade and leaps into melee range once again, and the whole missile cloud turns on a dime with him. Some of them fall short, though, and impact against one of the inner walls of the castle.

Their battle, which had started out front, has slowly migrated into the walls and closer and closer to the heart of the place. The mavericks camped out there had retreated into the opening they’d blasted in, and X and Zero would have gladly hunted all of them down by now if it weren’t for Vile tying them up. As it is, he estimates that reinforcements will still be a few minutes given the hunter protocol for situations like this.

There’s also a weird system of wires and machinery that’s been growing thicker as they go, and Zero doesn’t know what to make of it, but he’s glad for it because somehow it’s been tripping Vile’s ride armour up fair more often than him or X.

Vile’s ride armour, which is right in front of him very suddenly and oh he’s being punched through a wall, cool.

“ZERO!” he hears X yell, as he breaks through a solid layer of stone and metal and lands so hard that his optics go black for a second.

When he opens them again, cursing under his breath, he’s greeted by a dark and ominous room full of capsules, one of which in the very centre is rapidly sinking into the floor, and three familiar faces looking for all the world like they’ve been caught with their hands in the cookie jar.

“Heeeeeey, Zero,” Axl says, grinning nervously.

Chapter Text

When Ballade and Roll arrive at the site of the LARP, not much has changed since their last visit but the weather. It’s overcast, and the chill of autumn is much more noticeable this time around without the stark rays of the sun to combat it. There are still plenty of people running around in costumes, and it doesn’t take them very long to track down Punk.

“When in my youth I departed, dishonoured, from the house of Galloburn, I had naught but the sword on my back and the gumption in my heart!”

“Holy shit,” Ballade mutters, watching Punk at the head of a crowd of humans, all dressed in various degrees of period appropriate attire. He’s holding up a foam sword the size of most of said humans, which he’s using to gesticulate his speech.

“Was it easy?” Punk bellows. “No! Did the dogs who called themselves my kin ever hunt me for my slights? Yes! But where did I find myself? Here, in the town of Darkwell, where anyone with hale enough heart and sharp enough steel may carve a home!”

“He’s really into it,” Roll observes, stroking her chin thoughtfully. Her eyes are scanning the crowd, which is letting out a cheer. “You know, some of those costumes are really cute…”

“And now our home is threatened!” Punk stabs his ‘sword’ up towards the sky. “By the dark army of the necromancer and the resurrection of her dark lord! Will we stand by and oh dude come on,” he says, finally spotting the two of them. Ballade feels self-conscious as the crowd also takes notice of their presence - one of the humans he vaguely recognizes from last time takes a step back.

“We’re, um, we’re not here,” Roll says, pointing to the hand laid firmly on her head, and then to Ballade’s own out-of-character gesture. Punk rolls his eyes.

“So you aren’t,” he grouses, at normal volume, and then sighs theatrically before belting out “Will we stand by and let our home fall to ruin?

A cry of defiance erupts from the gathered crowd, and many foam weapons are hoisted. There’s more speech, most of which is about places and events that Ballade can’t make heads or tails of, before the point is made and the crowd goes off to… prepare for a battle or something. Ballade’s not totally sure. Punk’s refusing to acknowledge their existence, talking to a man who’s clad from head to toe in honest-to-goodness full plate who’s wearing a dead serious expression.

He’s snapped to attention when Roll tugs at his elbow.

“Hey,” she says, tone hushed. “You wanted to talk to Punk, right?”

“Well, yeah,” Ballade says. “Why?”

“That’s perfect,” she says, smiling. There’s a gleam in her blue eyes. “Because I have an idea, and I need some time to set it up.”

“What’s the plan?” Ballade asks. Roll gestures him closer, and, glad that he can’t blush, Ballade acquiesces.

She tells him the plan.

“That’s… just crazy enough to work?” he says, drawing away to rub the back of his neck. “Man, I’ve never gotten to say that before.”

“Oh, hush,” Roll says, crossing her arms. It’s belied by an amused expression. “Just go and pull him aside before he gets caught up doing something else.”

“Right,” Ballade sighs. “I just hope this buys you enough time.”

---

Punk has been laughing for five minutes.

“Oh yeah, no, do continue,” Ballade mutters darkly.

“You,” Punk wheezes, “you like her! I’m dying!”

“Do you even breathe?” Ballade says.

“You liiiiike her!” Punk repeats, doubling over about as far as his stiff frame will allow. “You’re killing me. Oh man.

“I feel like you don’t breathe.”

“Hahahaaa, what is it like having a type?”

“I don’t know, what is it like being an ass?” Ballade very carefully resists crushing the arm of the camp chair he’s parked in.

They’re in a small campsite in the woods, some distance from the main central area where most of the activity seems to take place, and Ballade is actively regretting every choice that ever led him to this point. At least they’re alone.

“You’re just, oh,” Punk mimes wiping away a tear with one hand, the other propping him up against the trunk of a thick tree, “so, so funny.”

“I’m glad you think so,” Ballade says, burying his face in one hand. “I’m really glad. So glad we had this talk.”

“Hooooo… Oh, that wasn’t the talk,” Punk says, pushing off of the tree and crossing his arms. “You want to talk about it?”

Ballade pauses, taking in the sudden shift in demeanor.

“I’m rethinking that plan,” he says. “On account of you being insufferable.”

Punk sighs, sitting down on a root that sticks up out of the ground on a rise high enough to function as a seat.

“I’m just giving you shit, man,” he says, leaning (half-leaning, so his many spikes don’t stick into the bark) against the tree. “After all that time you spent mooning over Quint, though?”

Ballade sighs, sinking into the camp chair further than he thought physically possible.

“I know,” he says. “You think I don’t know that?”

“Dude,” Punk says. “That sucks.”

“It does! ” Ballade throws up his hands. “How am I supposed to - I didn’t even know this could happen. How can I like two different people at once?”

“It happens sometimes,” Punk says, shrugging. “Look, this kind of thing is always complicated. Feelings don’t exactly follow rules. It sucks.”

“How do you even know?” Ballade asks, somewhat petulant.

“Uh, because I have a social life?” Punk says, crossing his arms. “And experience?”

“Experience?” Ballade’s eyebrows shoot up. “What, like - but - how-?”

“Well, it isn’t exactly easy when you look like… this,” Punk says, gesturing to himself. “But, you know, if you wanna make it work you find a way. Which, uh, let’s just say it didn’t work out, okay?”

“... I had no idea,” Ballade says.

“Yeah, well, there’s a lot you don’t know about me,” Punk says.

“Yeah, clearly,” Ballade says, looking around.

“So what are you gonna do about it?”

“Huh?” Ballade snaps to attention.

“I said, what are you gonna do about it,” Punk sighs theatrically. “You like her. Great. Step one complete. What’s next?”

“I, uh,” Ballade pauses, “didn’t have a plan, so much?”

“You are hopeless,” Punk says.

“Well, come on, she’s going through a lot,” Ballade says, defensively. “Is now really the best time to make a move?”

“Okay, stop me if this sounds familiar,” Punk says, holding up a hand. “You fall in love with a gentle soul from a distant future, but, unwilling to cause them suffering, you bravely hold in your feelings, loving them from afar right up until some asshole who has the balls to ask them out sweeps in -”

“Okay, first off, fuck you -” Ballade interrupts.

“- no, dude, listen to me.” Punk says. “Do you know why Bass beat you out?”

“Because he’s too much of a dick to be considerate?” Ballade says. “Is that what you’re getting at?”

“No, idiot, it’s because he - well, yeah, probably in the start actually, but - he respects Quint enough to work shit through with him. We kind of dropped the ball there, you know.”

“I -” Ballade looks away. “I just wanted to keep him safe. That place could’ve killed him.”

“Yeah, well, who are you really keeping safe if you don’t tell someone how you feel?” Punk says.

Silence hangs between them.

“... Yeah,” Ballade says, quietly. “I get it.”

“Good,” Punk says, with a bob of his torso. It’s what passes for him as a nod.

“... She also knows about the whole Quint thing.” He sighs. “I don’t know how to handle this.”

“You are a walking disaster zone, you know that?” Punk sighs, getting up and walking over to pat Ballade on the shoulder.

“Thanks,” Ballade says. “You gonna tell everyone you know about it?”

“Not this time,” Punk says. “Scout’s honour. All the other times, though? Fair game.”

“You’re not a scout.” Ballade rolls his eyes.

“How do you know?” Punk says, a grin in his voice. “There’s a lot you don’t know about me. We just established this.”

“Because you’d sooner die than look like a tool of The Man in training,” Ballade says.

“Yeah, you got me,” Punk laughs.

“Hey, man…” Ballade says. “Come back home. We need you.”

Punk sighs and falls back to sit on the root with a thump.

“Dude, I just got started actually playing like an hour ago,” he says. “Can’t Enker’s pissfit wait?”

“Well if playing the game’s what you want…” Ballade says, looking over Punk’s shoulder as a human who is barely passing period appropriate dress code (it’s just a little too apparent that their leggings are actually jeans) scrambles through the forest towards the campsite.

“Milord...!” they say, doubling over and clutching their knees as they gasp for breath. “Come quickly! They’re here for you!”

Punk narrows his eyes at Ballade.

“Where exactly has Roll been this whole time?” he asks.

---

“Where is that dog who betrayed the house of Galloburn?!”

As they enter the clearing that serves as the activity hub of the game, Ballade and Punk don’t immediately catch sight of Roll, but they can hear her loud and clear. Her voice, which projects impressively, sails past a ring of onlookers to meet them at the edge of the forested area.

Punk turns to Ballade and narrows his eyes.

Ballade grins.

Punk rolls his eyes and draws his huge foam sword, striding forward to part the crowd around Roll. Ballade scurries behind in Punk’s wake, dutifully keeping his out-of-character gesture in place. He settles next to a woman in plainclothes who has a printed T-shirt on denoting her as a storyteller as Punk enters the circle, and they both get their first look at Roll.

Roll has, somehow, managed to rustle up a full costume in the twenty or so minutes Ballade bought her, a studded leather chestpiece with dangling metal faulds and matching gleaming gauntlets and greaves donned over her sweater and jeans. She’s holding up a much more reasonably-sized faux blade than Punk is toting.

Punk hesitates at the edge of the crowd and leans towards Ballade.

“You better hurry and ask her out or I might,” he hisses, with a quick hand on his head, before gliding forward and totally ignoring Ballade’s sputtering response (which is mostly half-baked death threats). “Who dares challenge Theodore the Outcast?!

“Cousin, you must answer for your crimes!” Roll bellows, brandishing her sword in his direction and taking up a stance. “Galloburn sends me to reclaim your honour - return home and face trial for your wrongdoings! Redeem yourself!”

“Never!” Punk says, closing in to melee range. “‘Twas not justice which drove me from my home, but the disgraceful actions of my family in its wake!”

“I’m seeing some parallels here,” Ballade mutters, and the human next to him snorts.

“Things have changed in your absence, Theodore,” Roll says, and the two begin to circle each other, swords up and ready. “Would it be that you could change them further, were you to return home.”

“Darkwell is my home!” Punk says, and he steps forward to strike. Roll nimbly jumps backwards out of the way of the swing. “If Galloburn lay in shambles, then so be it. The responsibility to fix a broken house doesn’t lay on my -”

“One damage!” He’s interrupted as Roll lunges forward and catches his leg with a swipe of her foam blade. He grunts and turns with his sword in front, dragging the ground with another swing, but she’s already out of his reach. “You can’t just ignore the problem!”

“What do you expect me to do about it? I mean,” Punk pauses to take another massive swing at Roll, which she rolls (heh, Ballade thinks) out of the way of. “I am but one man! The patriarch made his decision and the matriarch hers. They’ve set their course.”

“You underestimate yourself!” Roll says, rocking forward with the heat of the statement. “I know that you have a life here in Darkwell, too, but -”

She’s cut off by a muffled thunk as Punk’s weapon finally gives her a solid whack, impacting her side. Despite the fact that they’re robots and there’s no way that the padded pole would even injure a human, Ballade winces.

“Five damage!” Punk declares. Ballade notes with some surprise that there’s genuine anger lurking behind his false bravado. “And what the hells do you presume to know about me?”

“How many hit points does she have…?” Ballade asks the storyteller, in a hushed tone.

“Counting armour? Fifteen,” she answers, not taking her eyes off the action. “He’s got twenty.”

Ballade frowns.

Roll grips her blade tightly.

“I know that you care about your family,” she says, and then she’s a blur of movement. The crowd gasps.

She passes Punk, who’s too slow to put his guard up in time.

“One damage!”

She rebounds and leaps backwards, planting a strike on his back.

“Backstab, three damage!”

“Wait, you’re an assassin? ” Punk sputters.

“I guess you don’t know much about me, either,” Roll smirks, sliding along the grass to stop just out of his sword’s reach.

Punk advances.

“What do my feelings matter when the house is so fractured?” he says, swinging and then swinging again as they skirt the very edge of the circle. “When the reason for it is beyond my control?”

“Maybe - hup -” Roll starts, ducking, “- you can’t do anything alone, but together-!”

Together, we could maybe follow E- I mean, the patriarch’s damned plan, but at least if I’m here he won’t go off half-cocked!” Punk shoots back with wide gesture of his hands. Roll takes advantage of the opening to knick him.

“One damage! And are you sure about that?” Roll says.

“I like to think I know him pretty damned well, so yeah, I’m sure!” Punk growls. “He’s not stupid enough!”

“Leg wrack! Two damage!” Roll says, swerving in under Punk’s guard and getting in another strike. “Just like he wasn’t stupid enough to try and sacrifice himself to save the house?”

Punk visibly pauses, and Roll doesn’t let the opportunity go. She runs and slides through his legs, held wide enough in his stance that there’s a gap even between his enormous boots, rebounding with a force that kicks up a clump of grass and dirt as she swats Punk’s back again.

“Backstab! Three damage!” she declares, and the crowd around them gasps. The storyteller woman whistles lowly from next to Ballade.

“That’s eleven to five,” she comments.

Punk wheels around and brings his weapon along with him in a wide arc, and it catches Roll right in the side of the head with enough force to send her tumbling.

“Five damage!” he roars, and the humans let out a clamour. Someone yells ‘time out!’ from the sidelines, only to be silenced as Roll bounces back up without any apparent injury and holds up a hand for silence, and the other awkwardly balancing the foam sword and the out-of-character gesture on her head.

“It’s okay, I’m a robot, too,” she says. The human on the other side of Ballade gives a start.

“Holy shit, is that Light’s - mmmrph!” He’s cut off as Ballade puts a hand over his mouth.

“Don’t ruin it!” Ballade says through his teeth, and the human’s - a man’s - eyes widen and he nods in a jerky motion. Ballade lets him go and refocuses on the action as Roll gets back into character and they start circling each other again.

The crowd is transfixed. Ballade is acutely aware that Roll can only take one more strike before she’s out.

“Look, Theodore,” Roll says, footwork impeccable as they each wait for an opening, neither attacking. “I know what it feels like to think you can’t do anything to change what’s going on. To think that nothing you do will matter anyway.”

“Oh yeah?” Punk says, sounding the least like ‘Theodore’ that he has all day while supposedly playing the part. “And lemme guess, you got over it after learning a valuable lesson about friendship.”

“No!” Roll says, and she dashes forward, pulling back at the last second to avoid Punk’s retaliatory strike. A feint. “I didn’t get over it. I still don’t know what to do, okay? I don’t know how we’re going to fix this.”

“Then why should I leave Darkwell?” Punk demands. “At least here I’m not just sitting around being miserable and - and watching everyone be miserable!”

“Because I don’t know what to do, but maybe if we can stop fighting for two seconds and put our heads together, then maybe we will know what to do,” Roll says, and then she’s a blur again, landing strike after strike as Punk twists to try and catch up.

“One damage!”

“One damage!”

“Arm wrack! Two damage!”

“Backstab! Three damage!”

“One da-”

Punk’s sword connects with a pronounced thud , and Roll stops dead. The crowd gasps, and Ballade sucks in a breath despite himself.

“... Four damage,” Punk says, letting the sword’s duct taped blade fall and rest with its tip on the ground. He sighs, letting the handle drop too, where it comes to rest on the grass, and kneels. “I yield.”

Roll blinks, and then nods, throwing her sword to the side. She walks up in front of Punk and puts out a hand. He looks at it questioningly.

“No more fighting, okay?” Roll says.

“... Hah. Alright,” Punk says, taking her hand and pulling himself up on it. Despite Punk’s size, Roll doesn’t show any sign of difficulty helping him up.

“... Darkwell!” Punk says, once he’s up, addressing the crowd (which, now that Ballade’s paying attention, has grown in size considerably since the fight started). “There are matters that I must attend to in my ancestral home, but I shall return!”

The crowd cheers and starts to break off into groups almost immediately. Punk and Roll make their way over to Ballade, and Roll nods to the storyteller brightly.

“Thanks for letting me do that,” she says. “And lending me your costume.”

“Yeah, not every day someone gets a personal plot for their exit from a game,” Punk adds. “Thanks, Sal.”

“No problem.” The woman (Sal, Ballade supposes) grins. “You do a lot of NPCing and you always get your paperwork in on time, so consider it a thank you.”

“Oh, I should get changed before we get going,” Roll says, turning to Sal more directly. “Can you show me where to put…?”

“Yeah, of course,” the woman says, gesturing for Roll to follow as she starts bustling off.

Punk and Ballade are left behind, awkwardly hanging out in the middle of a field.

“Well, that was something,” Ballade says. Punk snorts.

“It sure was,” he says. “Not what I expected, that’s for sure.”

“Really?” Ballade quirks an eyebrow. “You didn’t miss a beat playing along. There’s no way you had all of that in your character’s backstory already.”

“Ehh, it was all pretty vague to begin with. Improv’s the name of the game,” Punk says. “Though now I’ve got to try and talk her into coming back sometime. That was too good to waste.”

“Maybe, uh…” Ballade pauses. “Maybe I could come, too.”

“Oh?” Punk asks, in that distinct tone that denotes that if he had an eyebrow it would be raised.

“Yeah,” Ballade says. “I could play, like, your brother or something?”

“Wouldn’t that make Roll your cou-”

“Never mind.” Ballade makes a face, and Punk laughs. “Didn’t think that through.”

“Tell you what,” Punk says, lifting a hand to rest on Ballade’s head. “Play something you aren’t already. I’ll help you work it out.”

“Sounds good,” Ballade says, with a smile. He catches sight of Roll, jogging across the field and waving at them, and looks up at Punk. “... If you ask her out I will kill you.”

“Bold words from the man who’s weak to my weapon.” Punk’s eyes crinkle at the sides in his best appropriation of a grin as Roll makes it back.

“Okay,” she says, putting on hand on either of their shoulders. “Let’s go.”

They leave behind the clearing in a column of light.

Chapter Text

X has had better days.

Some of them, he thinks, even as he weaves in and out of Vile’s line of fire and clouds of missiles, EAS thrusters uncomfortably warm on the bottom of his feet as he pushes their cooldown cycle to its limit, even involved Zero getting punched through walls. He spares a thought for how low the bar has become before starting his buster’s charge-up and closing the distance between himself and Vile’s ride armour.

Vile brings up the mech-walker’s arm to block the shot, but instead of discharging, X dashes past him and kicks off of the wall, twisting his body to aim the barrel of his buster at Vile’s form in the cockpit. With a mighty yell, X lets the shot go, and Vile lets out a grizzled scream as he’s hit in the face with a wave of hot plasma.

X doesn’t have the chance to celebrate, because that’s when a homing missile catches up with him and explodes (again, in the space of a minute, his injured side informs him with a sharp flare of pain), throwing him to the ground and draining his already-taxed shields to their limit. Automated draw from the subtanks pulls back nothing; he’s running on fumes.

He rolls along the ground, a carpet of wires and machinery, and comes to a stop. Staggering to stand, he lifts his buster to repel whatever Vile’s thrown at him now, to find the air clear of projectiles. Where Vile was a moment prior, there’s a thick mass of writhing wiring.

“What the-?” X mutters under his breath, disoriented.

The entire building rumbles, and there’s a muffled boom from within the wires along with the unmistakable screech of folding metal, and through a gap in the binding a purple teleport beam streaks up and through the ceiling.

He’s sitting on top of a death trap, he realizes belatedly, and scrambles to his feet, not sure where to point his buster because the wires are literally surrounding him. Zero, he thinks, alarmed - It’s been too long, where is -

“X!” Zero’s voice cuts through his panic like a beam sabre, leaving behind intense relief in its wake. Zero flies through the hole he’d left in the wall in a graceful leap. There’s another shift in the already uneven ground as the rumbles intensify.

“Zero!” X runs to meet him, throwing his arms around him in a fierce hug. Zero’s arms wrap around him in return, and they’re tightly interlocked for a moment before X pulls back, words urgently spilling from his mouth. “You’re okay - something’s happening, the whole place came alive, Vile got away-!”

“We know,” Someone that isn’t Zero says, and just because of the circumstances it takes X a beat to process that that is in fact Bass’ voice. X’s head whips around to see Bass, Quint, and Axl crawling out of the same hole in the wall, all grim-faced. Further inspection reveals that there’s something different about Quint and Bass, but that’s not important right now, because -

Axl!” X steps out of Zero’s hold. “What the hell are you doing here? You were under orders -”

Axl flinches.

“I can explain!” he says. “You’ll still be really mad but there’s a seriously good reason we came and you’re gonna wanna hear -”

“I’m sure Signas is going to want to hear it, too,” X balls up his fists. “You should know better than to -”

The rumbling gets louder, and the floor begins to shake under them. Off to the side, Quint loses balance, only to be steadied by Bass.

“We don’t have time to argue,” Zero cuts in. “The whole place is coming down! We need to get out and we need to let them get out however they came and not mention that they were here to Signas. Not yet.”

What?” X turns to face Zero, mouth ajar. “Zero, I know he’s one of yours but this is court-martial worthy! You can’t always protect him from-”

“X,” Zero says, putting one hand on either of his shoulders and looking right into his eyes. “Do you trust me?”

“I…” X falters under his gaze. “Yes. I trust you.”

“Then let them go,” Zero says. “We need to get our stories straight before debrief.”

X hesitates.

“... Okay,” he says, and then turns to Axl. “Go. I’m sending you a set of coordinates. Rendezvous with us there.”

“Right,” Axl says, averting his eyes. He slinks over to Bass and Quint. Quint meets Zero’s eye and nods before they disappear in a beam of green light.

There’s another rumble, and even Zero loses his footing as the sharp crack of shattering concrete signals the beginning of the walls failing.

“This had better be good,” X says, reaching out to grip Zero’s forearm.

Zero looks back at the hole in the wall, and X sees his expression waver from its certainty for the first time since he got back.

“I don’t think ‘good’ is the word, X,” he says.

X swallows, and, with the flip of some internal settings, activates his teleporter.

---

“Dr. Light was there and you pulled me out?!”

“X, he was already gone by the time I landed in there. If I’d thought we had time to find him, we would have stayed.”

Zero, I don’t appreciate you making that decision for me.”

X, I didn’t have a whole lot of time to think it over.”

Quint is currently absorbed in the ceiling of X’s safehouse.

Oh, it’s an ordinary apartment, in an inconspicuous neighborhood, but he’s spent enough time around the criminal element while on missions with the Mega Man Killers - ex-Mega Man Killers, he mentally corrects - to recognize the signs. A thin layer of dust from disuse, stock furniture, an unlived-in cleanliness, and a shelf full of board games and movies piled away very, very neatly. Oh, and very few windows.

He feels different, somehow. Mentally, though he’s annoyed to find that whatever it is isn’t affecting his usual numbing response. Bass, next to him, is leaned forward, face hidden in shadows. Axl, last time Quint looked, is watching X and Zero go at it, fidgeting over on the other side of Bass. Morosely, Quint thinks that the three of them look about ready to face the firing line.

“... Now might be a good time for that explanation,” X says, turning to them.

They stir from their respective funks to meet X’s eyes, and then look at each other for a beat before all three of them start speaking at once.

“I just wanted to know what was going on with Zero -”

“If you hadn’t fucking left us behind, then maybe -”

“It was dad’s friend’s place and we thought -”

“Okay, stop,” X holds up a hand for silence, pinching the bridge of his nose with the other one. “One at a time. What. Happened. Why did you go against orders to follow us, how did you know where to go, and why is Quint taller?”

Quint sighs and pulls himself up to sit straight.

“It’s kinda my fault, honestly,” he says. “Axl was curious and I thought, well, what would Enker do, and I thought Enker would say if we used that, we could maybe figure out what was going on, and so I said, let’s make a bet…”

He relays the events of the last few hours from there. By the end of it, X and Zero - especially Zero, he notes - are grim-faced. X’s face is half-cradled in one hand, which is rubbing his forehead.

“... and I’m taller ‘cause, um, I haven’t really had a chance to look, but I think maybe I’m older-looking now?” Quint finishes, pulling off his helmet. He sees Bass studying his face sharply out of the corner of his eye. “I don’t know what dad did, exactly, but my systems are all really different and I’m still sorting through it.”

“You look more like X,” Axl notes, “that’s for sure.”

“There’s a difference,” Bass says, firmly, reaching over and taking Quint’s hand. “You’re just blind.”

“Aww, c’mon, it wasn’t an insult,” Axl says.

“That’s the least of our worries,” X says, sitting down on a nearby recliner and sighing. “... You’re sure that that’s exactly what the doctor said? About this Wily’s… final creation?”

Zero looks away. It’s hard to read his expression.

“That’s what he said,” Axl says, also averting his eyes. “If I had to put two and two together, I’d say -”

“- that the Maverick Virus came from that robot,” Bass cuts in. “That that whole huge world war you were talking about might’ve been kicked off after that.”

Nobody says anything to that for a good long while.

Zero abruptly starts towards the door.

“I need some air,” he says, as X opens his mouth to say something, and the door opens and closes before anyone can interrupt.

X’s posture crumples, and he puts his face in his hands.

Damn it,” he says, softly.

Quint looks between X and the door.

“Wait,” he says, “You think that Zero was-?”

“Are you seriously just putting that together now?” Bass says, and despite the fact that on the Bass scale of disapproval it’s only a mild look, Quint winces.

“X…” Axl’s voice is low. “How long have you known about this?”

X sighs.

“I’ve suspected for a long time,” he says, pulling his face out of his hands. His emerald eyes are strained and miserable. “Ever since we fought during the fifth war. There were signs… certain things lined up too well. There were things that Sigma said, that…”

“You never said a thing about it,” Axl says, and his voice is no longer low, but roiling with emotion. “You knew the whole time we’ve known each other.”

“I was trying to protect him!” X says. “It’s not - he’s not a maverick! You of all people know how easy it is to be labelled maverick, and if that happened, then what?!”

Axl takes a deep breath in and a deep breath out, and then gets to his feet.

“I can’t do this right now,” he says, striding towards the same door that Zero had exited through.

“Axl!” X gets to his feet. “This cannot leave this room!”

Now who’s breaking the rules, X?” Axl spits back. “Don’t worry. My lips are sealed.”

The door opens and swings shut with a slam.

X hangs there on the spot, expression torn.

“Wow,” Bass says. “You really fucked that up.”

Bass!” Quint says, biting his lip.

“He’s right,” X says, sinking back into the chair. “I… this is…” he trails off, eyes still on the door.

“X,” Quint says, as gently as he can manage. “Maybe you should talk to Zero.”

“... Yeah,” X says, shaking his head and grimacing. “That’s… probably a good idea.”

---

The hallway outside of the safehouse is dimly lit, lights spaced on the ceiling just far apart enough to leave the impression of movement as their light brightens and dims on the walls next to X as he walks.

Zero is in one of the darker spots at the end of the hall, leaning up into a corner next to a service door that has a tiny window in its centre. The lights of the city, just starting to come into prominence in twilight, spill into the space and paint a stripe down the cheaply carpeted floor. Next to that glare, it’s hard to make out Zero’s face.

“Hey,” X says, coming up next to him and swaying on the spot before letting himself lean on the wall next to him.

“Hey,” Zero says, not moving an inch.

“... How are you doing?” X asks.

“How do you think?” Zero says. He does move, fractionally, posture folding in on itself.

“I think… you have more than a right to be upset,” X says.

There’s a pause as Zero turns his face, and X can see his expression more clearly now. He’s grimacing.

“He’s afraid of me,” Zero says.

“Axl?” X says. “He -”

“Bass,” Zero says, shaking his head. “He’s - I can tell. Subtle reactions. He’s subconsciously categorizing me as a threat.”

“He’s… He’ll get over it, Zero. That wasn’t you.”

“Wasn’t it?” Zero says, and for the first time since X arrived, his voice starts to waver with emotion. “That was what I was built for. To kill. To make other killers.”

“Zero -” X starts, and Zero whirls around suddenly, fists clenched and teeth gritted.

“X, I killed your family.” He says. “You were only supposed to be under for thirty years. You could have known your brothers and sister, even if the doctor had died of old age. I killed my family! I - this whole thing, everything we’ve ever gone through, all of the war that you hate so much is my fault.

His blue eyes are wild, and X sees the glistening of tears gathering at the edges.

“It is not your fault,” X steps away from the wall to face him. He lifts his hands up to cup Zero’s cheeks, which Zero makes no move to stop. “You can’t be held responsible for something you did under the influence of a virus that isn’t even there anymore, and you can’t be blamed for what your builder did. You said it yourself, didn’t you? We have free will. You’re not defined by what your creator intended.”

“X,” Zero swallows thickly. “I’m supposed to kill you too. There’s part of me that - damn it, there’s a part of me that wants to!”

“You would never do that,” X says, even as he feels a tugging somewhere in his gut.

“I don’t want to. I don’t ever want to, not with the part of me that actually thinks and feels and -” Zero raises a hand to rest on X’s wrist and squeezes a little too hard. “- and I love you. But…”

“But…?”

“I loved Iris, too.”

X sucks in a breath.

All in one motion, Zero pulls away and slumps against the wall, sliding down its surface until he’s sitting with his face buried in his armoured arms.

X sits down next to him, carefully folding his hands together over his lap.

“Iris made her choices,” he says. “She chose to align with mavericks, and she chose to attack you.”

“It’s not that,” Zero’s voice creeps out from between his limbs. “It was easy. I spent so much time with her, X. I paid attention to her. I knew her strengths and weaknesses and how she moved as well as I knew how she smiled and how she laughed. When she attacked me, killing her was easy.”

“If it was that easy, you wouldn’t be talking about it right now,” X says, gently, reaching out with a hand and resting it on Zero’s. Zero’s fingers move to lace around his own automatically.

“I just feel like Bass is right to be scared,” Zero says. He lifts up his head to meet X’s eyes. “Like maybe you should be scared. I’ve thought that for a long time. And just when I finally thought, maybe we can do this -” he pauses, squeezing X’s hand meaningfully “- I find out that I really do destroy everything I touch.”

X bites his lip, looks for the words, finds himself wanting, sighs a ragged sigh, and lets go of the stiffness of his pose and leans bonelessly into Zero.

“I could never be afraid of you,” he says, finally. “And I never want anyone to believe that about you. Especially you.”

Zero huffs out something between a laugh and a hiccup.

“Too late,” he says.

They stay that way, propped up against the wall and each other, for a while.

---

It takes a while after X leaves for either of them to say anything.

Bass gets a good look at the carpet, mostly. It’s blue. Of course. He’s been resolutely staring downwards as though he could bore a hole in the floor with his gaze alone, and he’s about halfway to shooting it. He’s consumed by a restless energy and held back by some kind of paralysis at the same time. He wants to beat the shit out of someone. He wants to play a video game. He wants to be away from here. He wants -

“I want my damn wolf,” he says, voice a low hiss.

He hears movement behind him as Quint shifts on the couch, and then there are arms around him and the soft heat of Quint’s cheek pressed against the nape of his neck. The sensation is different now, somehow. More acutely felt on his new skin, with more nuance to the touch.

“I know,” Quint says.

He sounds tired.

Bass hunches his shoulders. The right thing to do would be to talk about Light. Or about Jazz. He’s not sure which one is the cause of the limp set of Quint’s limbs around him.

“That whole plan with Axl really wasn’t your style at all,” he says instead. “You should leave that shit to Enker.”

“I guess,” Quint says, almost but not quite in a sigh. “It’s hard not to think about what they’d do, though. I miss them.”

Bass grunts.

“And I bet they miss you,” he says. It comes out way more bitter than he’d intended. The arms around him tighten, and he feels Quint raise his head up from where it had been resting. “What? Are you seriously going to try and tell me they give a shit about me?”

“I know you guys have trouble getting along, especially you and Ballade -” Quint starts, and Bass can practically hear the frown as he’s unable to stunt a bark of laughter, “- but they’re your team, too.”

“I’m just there because of you,” Bass says. He refuses to look up and see what kind of look Quint is giving him. “Like everyone doesn’t know it. They don’t want me there. They put up with me.”

“That’s not true,” Quint says, but Bass can hear the smallest hesitation in his voice. “They’re just -”

“Well I don’t give a shit if it is true!” He sits up in one sharp movement. Quint jerks back in response, startled. “I don’t give a shit what they think.”

He forces himself to look at Quint. He’s biting his lip, hands hovering in front of him like he isn’t sure where to put them. He might be shaking a little. Even though Bass is still getting used to the fact that he suddenly looks older, the change has done nothing to make him look less pitiful when he’s upset, blue eyes as big and soulful as ever.

I should apologize, a little voice that Bass didn’t have as recently as a few months ago says, from the back of his mind.

“What,” he says, instead.

“They’re your family,” Quint says, eyes dropping to look at his lap.

Fuck, fuck, fuck.

“Well my family isn’t as clear-fucking-cut as yours, okay?” Bass spits out.

Quint opens his mouth, and closes it, and then looks away and Bass can’t stand it anymore. He jumps to his feet and starts striding towards the door.

“Wait, Bass, I’m sorry -” Quint calls after him, but he glares back and he’s out the door, down the hall, and -

- locks eyes with Zero, who is curled up with X on the floor in a sitting position between him and the only door.

He freezes, and Zero notices, and his expression says hurt all over it, and Bass forces his feet to move and barrels through the door to the air outside on the fire escape, closes the door behind him, grips the railing so hard it bends, and shakes with the urge to hit someone.

Fuck.

Chapter Text

“Well, we’re done running preliminary tests,” Alia says, spinning around on a stool from the main array of computers in this laboratory. She’s got another one of those portable holographic screens, which Quint has accepted mentally as “future clipboards”.

He sags in relief, realizes that’s probably rude, and shoots back up to sit straight as a ramrod. A bird’s nest of wires shift with each movement.

“That’s good,” he says, and then after a beat, adds, “Uh, ‘preliminary’ tests?”

“Anything we can do without at least partial disassembly or shutting you down to do a deep scan into your software,” she clarifies, and when Quint winces her expression softens. “Don’t worry, we wouldn’t do anything like that without your consent.”

“That’s good…” Quint half-mumbles. He rubs the back of his neck, carefully avoiding a wire plugged into the base of his neck. He’s interrupted in his fidgeting by X’s voice from the doorway.

“Alia,” X greets, the door sliding open to allow him entrance. “Quint. Just got out of the full debrief, how are things going?”

“Well, we had ample time, considering that…” Alia checks her screen, Quint presumes for the time, and cocks an eyebrow at X, “a good hour of it was classified information?”

X drags a hand down his face and sighs, eyes casting around. He locates another stool like Alia’s and rolls it over to form a conversational triangle with her and Quint.

“You’ll get a lot of it eventually,” X says, slumping into the seat. “Especially since we’re pulling your expertise on this.”

“Expertise?” Quint asks, and they both turn to him.

“Before working with the hunters as a navigator, I used to be a reploid researcher,” Alia says, and her eyes slide towards X. “Specializing in uncovering the secrets of X and Zero’s DNA data, actually.”

“Wow,” Quint says. “That’s really cool. Why’d you stop?”

Alia’s expression turns uneasy, and X coughs politely.

“... It’s a long story,” she says, and turns to her future clipboard. “But it’s coming in handy right now. I can tell you that your systems bear a remarkable similarity to X’s.”

“So my body’s been upgraded to like, reploid level?” Quint frowns.

“Not just your body,” Alia says. She shakes her head and turns to the main console. It cycles at her swift touch through a few screens of what Quint can parse as schematic data and not much beyond that before settling on a cranial view. “Your DNA data took a huge jump in sophistication and complexity. It appears your control chip and processors have been upgraded to handle the load, and then some.”

“Um…” Quint fidgets. “So I’m smarter?”

“Do you feel smarter?” Alia asks, swivelling back around.

“Not really,” he says, and feels oddly like his cheeks are heating up. “Actually, I feel dumber, but that’s probably just ‘cause that was a dumb question.”

“You’re blushing,” X says. Quint blinks.

“Oh,” he says. “I couldn’t do that before. That’s not fair! That’s a lame upgrade.”

“Tell me about it,” X snorts, and then leans back, stroking his chin. “Anything else, Alia?”

“Well, there’s a marked upgrade to his combat specs,” Alia notes. “I can extrapolate that Bass must have been augmented similarly, but he completely refused to be looked at.”

Quint bites his lip as X shoots him a meaningful glance.

“He’s… upset,” Quint says. “I can’t blame him, but…”

“Right,” X says. “Alia, have you taken all the readings you need to for now?”

“For now? Yes,” Alia nods, tapping away at her future clipboard. “Between Douglas and I, it’ll take a few days to analyze this thoroughly, but that’s more for us than him. I can’t see any reason to keep him here.”

Quint tries not to look too relieved. He’s certain that he’s failed, because Alia comes around in short order to disconnect him from the mess of sensors and plugs. He practically jumps to his feet when he’s free.

“Do you want to walk back to Zero’s room with me?” X offers, and Quint nods. X says his goodbyes to Alia and he barely registers it for his eagerness to get out the door.

---

“How are you doing?” X asks, more or less as soon as they’re out of sight of the laboratory wing. Or is it the medical wing? With these blurred lines, Quint isn’t sure anymore.

They’re on a thoroughfare of hunters and other personnel. Quint is glad that X offered to walk with him, because he’s no closer to deciphering the layout of Hunter HQ than the day he got here.

“Not good,” he says. He rubs a hand up and down his arm as he walks. “What about you?”

“... Not good,” X says.

“I’m sorry you didn’t get to see dad,” Quint says, and X looks away.

“It’s fine,” he says. Quint thinks he’s lying, because his lips are twitching with the effort not to grimace and his eyes are distant. “I’m sure it was difficult for you, too.”

“Well, yeah,” Quint says. “‘Cause I kind of wish that my dad - my dad - was still around. Not… kind of. A lot. I wish that a lot. But it still felt like him.”

X’s lips press together and they walk past a hallway. X pauses and looks down it, frowning.

“I left some things in my office,” he says. “Do you mind if we…?”

“Not at all.” Quint shakes his head. X nods and steers their twosome down the hall, stopping at a sliding automatic door much like all the others on-base labelled with a placard above the access pad to the side.

Mega Man X, 17th Elite Unit, it reads.

They enter, and X sits down at the computer at the desk, running through what looks like a lot of paperwork. Quint eyes the chair in front of the desk, pauses, and then wheels it around to sit next to X on the other side of the desk.

“What’d you forget?” he asks, craning his head to see the screen.

“Ah - just some reports,” X replies. “I usually end up writing them up in my quarters, but they have to be submitted from this terminal. Security protocols and all that.”

“Huh,” Quint says. Something catches his eye. “Hey, that says Zeroth Unit on it.”

X pauses, and Quint tilts his head.

“Is that… Zero’s?” he hazards, and when X looks guilty, he knows he’s on the money.

“Yes,” X sighs, probably surmising the same thing. “It’s Zero’s. I might… check all of his paperwork before it goes in.”

“Isn’t that a lot of work?” Quint frowns. “I mean, he said he doesn’t have as much as the other units, but it still took us like three hours to get through it all.”

“It’s not a trivial amount of work,” X says. Quint narrows his eyes at him before realizing that’s a useless gesture because of his visor. He crosses his arms instead. That has the desired effect. X sighs again. “Yes, okay, it’s a lot of work.”

“I don’t get it, though,” Quint says. “Why don’t you just sit down and do it with him?”

X shifts uncomfortably.

“At that point I’d basically be doing it for him,” he says. “It’s… just… I don’t want him to worry… to think that he’s inconveniencing me.”

Quint stares at X and scratches the side of his neck thoughtfully.

“Do you do a lot of stuff like that for him?” he asks, just as X looks like he might be about to turn back to his work.

“... Yes,” X says. “Paperwork, mostly. Reports, scheduling, sometimes smoothing over coordination between units.”

“That’s a lot of stuff,” Quint says. “And you have your own stuff too?”

X chuckles dryly.

“Yes,” he says. “I do.”

“Have you guys, like, talked about this?” Quint asks. “Does he know?”

“Of course he knows. Well, sort of,” X says. “Zero can be... hyper-focused. He’s a good leader in the field, and I can count on one hand how many hunters even come close to his level of combat proficiency. He’s singlehandedly taken down threats that would have shredded through full teams. But as soon as it comes to the administrative side, he struggles. I stepped in to help him once or twice, and I guess it just… snowballed into this.”

X gestures helplessly at the screen.

“Uh huh,” Quint says. “So you’re doing your job… and half of Zero’s job… and also keeping safehouses and stuff for the hunters?”

“That’s… well, that’s not related to the hunters,” X says sheepishly. “Technically speaking, I’m also the sole inheritor of Dr. Cain’s estate, so I’m on the committee that runs Cain Labs, and I own a few other things here and there, you know, as insurance in case of situations like this…”

“Hey, X?” Quint says.

“Yes?”

“I play video games all day,” Quint says, wrinkling his nose. “I feel really lazy now.”

X’s shoulders relax as he laughs.

“Don’t feel lazy,” he says. “I might be a workaholic. Besides, from what you told me, you deserve the time off.”

Still,” Quint says. “Are you, like, okay? You’re dealing with a lot. I don’t think I could handle it.”

X leans on the surface of the desk (It’s metal, Quint notes. Why is everything in the future made of metal?) and props his chin up on his elbow, casting his gaze into empty space.

“I don’t know,” he says. “Recently, I’ve been… well, since Zero and I got together, I’ve been happier than I’ve been in a long time. But it’s… am I okay? I don’t know.”

“Hey, X?” Quint says.

“Yes?”

“Me too.”

“Hah,” X says, with a tiny puff of air from his nose that couldn’t even really be considered a snort. “I’m sorry.”

“Do you want a hug?” Quint asks.

“Yeah,” X says, with a smile and sad eyes. He looks younger than Quint thinks he’s ever looked. “I think I’d like that.”

Quint gives him a hug.

---

There. Lance-type weapon, walking pattern tilted forward, probably has boosters -

- she’s packing heavy artillery under that shell, at least three hardpoints visible, maybe more from another angle -

- it’s just a human, but they’ve got a buster pistol and that suit maybe looks magnetically shielded, could they have electromagnetic weapons in that pack -

- that guy is a fucking elephant -

- heavy steps ten paces back indicate -

- she could attack and I wouldn’t have time to react -

- he’s small but agile -

The hall is filled with would-be targets, but Bass focuses on putting one foot in front of another to make progress. He’s already ducked into side-pathways more times than his pride would like to admit, stopping in a less crowded environment to gather his bearings.

After hours of frustrated, pent-up boredom, he’s just trying to get to the training rooms, but without Zero there to act as a potential shield, his combat algorithms won’t stop working overtime to detect and warn him about everyone around him and their fucking mother -

“Hey! Bass!”

A hand snakes its way out of the crowd to come to rest on his shoulder and Bass jumps a good foot in the air and whirls around to see Axl. Who looks totally unruffled by the fact that he’s got his buster out and trained on him.

“How the hell did you get the drop on me?” Bass says through gritted teeth, forcing his buster away and dropping his arm to his side stiffly. Axl grins ( ass, Bass thinks) and links his hands behind his head to affect a cocky pose.

“I’m just that good,” he says.

“Whatever,” Bass says, turning back towards his destination. “Didn’t you fuck off or something?”

Axl just takes a step to walk beside him, and the oppressive atmosphere of the crowded hallway lifts a little as Bass concentrates on hating his stupid face.

“Yeah, from talking to X and Zero,” Axl says, and Bass is mildly surprised to hear a note of resentment in his voice. “I still have a job to do. Not like the bad guys are gonna blow themselves up, you know?”

“I see you’ve never met Grenade Man,” Bass says. Axl laughs.

“Dude, what?” he says. “That’s so - is that real? Is that a real guy?”

“Yeah, he is. And he’s a masochist.” Bass snorts. “Wily really knows how to make ‘em. I think for every good idea the old man has he has to go through twenty batshit ones.”

“Man, Zero would…” Axl starts, and then abruptly trails off. He frowns, which contorts the X-shaped scar on his face. “You probably don’t wanna talk about that.”

Bass doesn’t. He really doesn’t.

“I don’t give a damn,” he says, hunching his shoulders. “Talk about whatever you want. It’s not like you’re gonna go away.”

Axl gives him a searching look.

“Where’s your boyfriend?” he asks.

“Quint?” Bass says. He tries not to sound too bothered. “He’s letting them poke at him. Figure out what Doc- what happened to us. Hard pass, but I’m surprised they just let me walk out.”

“Well yeah, of course they did,” Axl cocks his head. “This isn’t some kinda experimental top secret base. We’re the good guys.”

Something about that doesn’t sit well - Bass is surprised to feel that discomfort mirrored in a physical sensation somewhere in his middle.

“Ugh, it better be worth it,” he says. “If I’m not a hell of a lot more powerful I’m going right back to Siberia and shaking that holographic dickhead down.”

“Heading to the sims, huh?” Axl grins. “Want company?”

“Shooting you sounds like the best idea I’ve heard all day,” Bass grins right back. “Sure.”

The rest of the trip to the training rooms, though longer than Bass had made it on his own, is much easier.

---

Shooting Axl is, in fact, the best idea Bass has heard all day. It’s even better this time because he’s not wearing Bass’ face, which definitely would have put a damper on things.

Or maybe not. All of the worries and the vague guilt he’s felt since walking out on Quint melt away into the rush of combat as him and Axl circle each other and zigzag out of the way of mutual barrages of hot plasma.

Axl’s default form is just as maneuverable as Bass’, in its own way. He has a robust dash system - Bass thinks he’s heard it referred to as EAS, whatever that stands for - and the ability to hover for short periods of time. He’s also got two guns and an output speed to match Bass’ full auto mode. He’s also annoyingly skilled - Bass can’t say he hasn’t earned a rank to match X and Zero’s.

The only reason he’s willing to make that concession is that he’s almost - almost! - keeping up. Off of the top of his head, Bass has noted significant upgrades to his speed, optics, reflexes, buster output (by a dramatic amount - no wonder his shots were doing jack shit before), and dash speed. His face is splitting with the width of his grin.

Axl catches him with a burst of fire to the side and there’s a wave of pain - detached pain, after a moment as his systems catch on that what’s happening is simulated - before the simulated environment fades, leaving the results hanging in midair as before - ‘Winner: Axl. Combat Rating: Rank SA’, and below, ‘Loser: Guest. Combat Rating: A’.

Bass shoves down a wave of disappointment as Axl whistles.

“Daaang. You shot up two whole ranks? That’s insane.” he whistles, whirling on the spot to face Bass and holstering his pistols with a flourish.

“Not insane enough,” Bass grumbles. He crosses his arms. “I need three to catch up with Zero.”

Axl looks like he’s going to say something, but then closes his mouth with a click. A thoughtful look comes across his face.

Here it comes, Bass thinks, bracing himself for whatever saccharine bullshit is about to -

“I’m really jealous of you, you know,” Axl says. Bass blinks, realigning his thought process with this new and unexpected direction.

“What?” he says. “Why?”

“I had to work hard and prove myself for such a long time to get close to X and Zero. They’re my heroes, you know?” Axl says. “And you just get to roll up from a time portal or whatever and you’re just in. Even though you’re not even trying and you’ve been a huge jerk the whole time you’ve been here.”

“Tch,” Bass scowls. “I didn’t ask for this to happen.”

“Y’know, that kind of makes it worse?” Axl says. “‘Cause I think after what happened - after what we just found out - you’d probably be happier if Zero didn’t exist, right?”

“What?” Bass straightens, suddenly stiff. “No, I - no.”

“Well damn, dude, you kind of act like it. I know he’s off somewhere feeling terrible about it and you’re in here whining about how you aren’t strong enough to beat him,” Axl says. “Actions speak louder than words, you know?”

“You don’t understand,” Bass’ lips curl into a snarl. “And if Zero’s so fucking important to you why aren’t you off with him?

“Because I’m mad at him!” Axl’s arms fly up, and carefully-guarded resentment spills over abruptly into anger in his posture. “Because he and X both kept this from me forever even after all we’ve been through - and man, we’ve been through a lot, up to and including me going maverick - and I’m still not - I’m still not…”

He sighs, arms slowly lowering and coming to rest limply at his side.

“I’m not his real brother,” he finishes. “And you… are.”

“I -” Bass swallows. “Well what if I don’t fucking need a brother!”

Axl’s gaze, which had been trailing slowly downwards, shoot back up to give him a harsh and disbelieving glare.

“I’m sorry you have some big fuckin’ issues, but don’t put them on me because I happened to land in your way,” Bass says. “I didn’t ask for Zero and I didn’t ask to get dumped here and I certainly didn’t ask for Enker or Punk or fucking Ballade -”

“Who?”

“- Whatever!” Bass throws his hands up. “What the fuck ever! I don’t need this bullshit. I just need to get stronger.”

“Uh,” a voice comes from the doorway. It’s Quint. “Is this… a bad time?”

Bass and Axl both whirl around to see Quint, accompanied by -

Bass’ traitorous fucking midsection feels like he swallowed something heavy, because Zero is standing right next to Quint. His expression is blank.

“How long have -” Axl starts.

“You have missions up on the board,” Zero says. His voice is eerily even. “Report to Zeroth and pick one.”

“Yes, sir.” He averts his eyes and, fists clenched, walks quickly past the two of them and disappears into the hall.

Bass hangs there watching until he’s completely out of sight, and then as long as he dares after that, before meeting Zero’s eyes.

Zero turns away.

“Come on,” he says. “We’re heading back.”

Bass presses his lips together and follows, eyes down.

Chapter Text

“So the random spot in the Pacific Ocean wasn’t random at all?”

One of the downsides to X’s job in the hunters is that when things really hit the fan, no one has any time to breathe. The punches come in and everyone just has to roll with them and do the best they can.

“Not in the least, it turns out,” Signas says. Their commander leans forward and gestures to Alia, who is sat behind a cluster of screens. X catches sight of some of the analysis data from Quint, and something to do with electrical grid placement in Spain. Typically, it looks like she’s doing three things at once. She taps another screen and a map of the area in question is blown up and projected onto the wall. “There was a meteoric impact there three years ago, and not too long after, mining rights were bought by a company called Gigantis Minerals.”

“So there’s something in that meteorite that they wanted to mine,” Zero says. His voice is cold and professional, and he’s actually sitting up straight in his chair; X is getting flashbacks to the days after the Repliforce incident. His lips tug down into a frown.

The long and short of it is that Zero has been avoiding him since they returned from Siberia.

“So what?” Bass asks. X, who had forgotten that Quint and Bass had been invited along to this briefing (on account of X, no less, who had decided that after the fiasco with Axl he’d rather not have to lie to Signas’ face and pretend they’d given the youthful reploid the slip again when they inevitably found a way along), startles as he continues. “It’s a meteor. There’s like, what, iron in there? Can’t they get that somewhere else?”

Even more worryingly, Zero has been avoiding everyone . He barely acknowledges that Bass has spoken; far from the openness and ease that X had been getting used to as far as the brothers were concerned.

He thinks he might have missed something crucial, but he’s lost as to what.

“Iron, nickel, iridium, palladium, platinum, gold, magnesium…” X shakes his head. “Those are some common metals found in asteroids, but surely not worth the effort to mine them out of the ocean?”

“Nerd,” Bass says.

“Bass,” Quint chides. He sounds tired. Bass lapses into sullen silence.

“Exactly what I thought,” Alia says, and another graphic appears on the wall. “Which is why, when I researched further, I was surprised to find plans to create an artificial island around the crash site.”

“Giga City,” Zero reads from the slide. “Not just an island, but a whole settlement.”

“The executives were reluctant to part with this information,” Signas says, “and even more reluctant to reveal their findings. However, a circling pack of mavericks is a great motivator towards openness.” He nods to Alia.

“They call it force metal,” Alia says, and she looks like she’s about to say more, but she’s interrupted by Quint and Bass shooting straight up in their seats.

“No way,” Quint gasps. “That’s -”

“That’s why those fuckers are rolling in Evil Energy!” Bass growls. He’s gripping both of the armrests, lurched forward.

“I’m kinda glad ‘force metal’ stuck instead of ‘bassnium’...” Quint mutters.

“I thought you might know something about it,” Alia says, levelling Bass with an unimpressed stare. “Given that the readings from the site match the strange readings we got from your core.”

“It was none of your business,” Bass balks. “Fuck. Until now, I guess.

“It certainly is,” Alia says, to Bass. “I’ve been in contact with one of their researchers, a man named Professor Gaudile. As it turns out, Gigantis has been looking into the potential applications of Force Metal, and the material has some potentially revolutionary properties, even if it’s difficult to refine and work with.”

“Properties that the mavericks are now aware of after coming into contact with Quint’s brother,” X notes.

“This…” Alia sighs, “‘Evil Energy’... seems to be synergistic with the effects of the Maverick Virus. Analytics of the attack in Arcadia would suggest that they’ve already gotten their hands on some of it.”

“That explains why Vile is suddenly such a powerhouse,” Zero says, leaning forward and narrowing his eyes.

“I don’t know the technical stuff, but I know that Evil Energy gets stronger when it’s fueled by negative feelings in robots - er, and reploids too, I guess,” Quint says. “The maverick virus makes them all murdery and stuff already, right, so it makes sense that it’s giving mavericks a big boost.”

“I suspect that this energy was a component in the virus in the first place,” Alia frowns. “I can’t think of anything else that explains the similarities in the readings we’ve been gathering. Which bodes well for future research into a cure, but…”

X can’t help but look at Zero. He’s hunched forward, stiff as a board. The only thing moving to track the various speakers in the room are his eyes.

“Terribly for our immediate tactical prospects, yes,” Signas finishes. He’s laced his fingers together.

“But if they haven’t managed to overtake the main facility yet, that means they must only have access to a small amount of Force Metal,” X says, forcing his gaze off of Zero and back to front.

“Which means that if they get access to the motherlode, they’ll gain an overwhelming advantage,” Zero says.

“And Vile mentioned that ‘my unlimited potential wasn’t a secret anymore’ right before powering up with what must have been Evil Energy,” X says. “And because of Siberia, we know that they were researching Quint’s brother -”

“Quint’s brother, who is some kind of doppelganger X from another dimension, according to the reports,” Alia says. “Who apparently also has a Force Metal core and all of the fun implications that come along with that. You could have warned me I was about to wander into a B-movie science fiction plot, X.”

“Sorry, Alia,” he says, with a half-smile and a shrug. “If it makes you feel better, I’m stuck here too.”

Zero draws himself up to stand, and all eyes swing to him.

“We know that they were researching Quint’s brother, that Berkana, a DNA specialist, had access to him for who knows how long, that he had a force metal core, which has other purposes, but most importantly for now, can produce Evil Energy,” he says. He’s still speaking in that overly even, professional tone. X catches Alia giving him a questioning look, which he looks away to avoid. “So when can we expect Evil-Energy-Sigma?”

X winces.

Please don’t jinx it,” he says. Zero fixes him with an exasperated look, the most emotion he’s shown all day.

“Berkana did mention taking orders from a dead person,” Quint says. His tone is apologetic. X buries his face in his hands and moans.

“Why can’t he just stay dead?” he says. “This nightmare just never ends.

He half-expects to feel Zero’s hand on his shoulder, where it always rests when X is teetering over the edge like this. Reliably pulling him back to safe ground.

But it doesn’t come. He looks up from his hands and just sees everyone looking at him with vague expressions of concern, including his superior officer. Except Zero.

Zero does look concerned, but he also looks conflicted, and pained, and maybe one or two more things that X is having trouble discerning. He’s still stiff, arms ramrod straight at his sides.

Of course, he thinks, feeling like an idiot. He’s probably trying not to give us away.

Like I asked him to.

In that case, it shouldn’t hurt this much.

But they’re in the middle of a briefing, so X pushes all of that down and composes himself.

“... Of course,” he says, “maybe they won’t be able to pull off something like that without the force metal.”

“Exactly my thoughts,” Signas says. “Which is why we’re sending you two to repel them. And, provisionally… the time travelers.” He says the last words with great reluctance. “Any knowledge they have of its workings could potentially prove valuable in the field. I hope I don’t regret this decision.”

The last part is directed at X. Which X thinks, wearily, is fair enough.

“The sixth and recon are still establishing a foothold at the site,” Alia says. “We’ll alert you when we’re ready, so take the opportunity to get some rest.”

“Right,” X says. “Thanks, Alia.”

Zero turns wordlessly to leave, and the rest of them file out after.

---

Zero’s apartment is quiet. As soon as they’d gotten back after the briefing, Zero had made his excuses and left to take care of something or other, leaving Bass and Quint alone in his barebones living room.

Bass is starting to become a carpet expert, with all of the floors he’s stared at over the last day.

“Hey,” Quint says, from the other end of the couch. His voice is soft, and maybe Bass is imagining it, but it’s almost too soft - like he’s trying to approach a wounded animal.

“What,” Bass says.

There’s a pause. Bass lifts his head to see Quint worrying at his lip.

“How are you doing?” he asks, scooting closer. Bass doesn’t stop him, but he does swing his gaze back down to the floor.

“Shitty,” he says. It’s the truth. Quint huffs out a breath, a humourless half-laugh.

“Yeah,” he says. And then, after a moment, he adds, “What you said about Zero…”

Bass scowls and hunches over. He pulls his knees up, locking them against his chest and hugging them so that his boots are hanging half-off the couch.

“I knew you were gonna get on my case about that,” he bites out. “So it’s about Zero now, huh?”

“Well… yeah, but it’s also about you,” Quint says. “You didn’t really mean that, did you?”

No. But it felt good to say.

“So what if I did?” Bass says.

“I think it really hurt his feelings,” Quint says. He sounds tired again. Bass feels twin stabs of guilt and agitation.

“No shit, Sherlock,” Bass mutters into his arms.

They lapse into silence. Rather than study the floor again, or take in the now-familiar sights of Zero’s living space, Bass lets his eyes flutter closed.

Quint, who’d scooted up right next to him, leans so that Bass can feel his body’s weight on his side, but no more than that. It’s lighter now, Bass notes - he’d already surmised as much while training. The density of whatever futuristic materials they’re made of now is much lighter. He wonders, remembering a day not that long ago spent on the beach, if he’s buoyant enough to swim now.

“Hey,” Quint says, quieter this time. “You know that what happened here, to that other you… it’s not going to happen to you.”

“Yeah,” Bass snorts. “We got upgraded.”

“Not because of - well, yeah, that too,” Quint says. Bass feels him shift, and the subtle but audible sound of him scratching his neck. “But you’re not even at Skull Fortress anymore. Your life is totally different now.”

“So what?” Bass says. “Doesn’t mean the old man isn’t still working on his perfect replacement. Doesn’t mean he won’t be… strong enough to beat Mega Man.”

“Is that what this is about?” Quint asks. “How strong he is?”

“Of course it fucking is!” Bass snaps his head up, and Quint startles. “What the fuck else would it be about?”

He looks at Quint’s face, eyes still blown wide with momentary shock, and feels another inconvenient stab of guilt. He jams his head back down into his arms, shoulders hunching, if possible, even further.

“I just… no matter how strong I get, there’s always someone better,” he says. “Mega Man, fucking R-Shadow, now Zero…”

“But we beat R-Shadow,” Quint says.

We beat R-Shadow,” Bass says. “Even with all that Justice Energy bullshit, if I’d fought him one-on-one… who the fuck knows.”

Quint goes quiet.

“But,” he says, after that lengthy pause, “you knew Zero was stronger from the start. And you didn’t start acting this way until -”

“Until I found out he killed me? ” Bass growls. “Yeah, well, maybe I was being stupid.”

“Bass…” Quint sighs.

What.

“I’m just,” he pauses. Bass can practically see him biting his lip, even if he’s not looking. “I’m just worried about you. You’ve been avoiding everyone since we got back, even me, and you snuck off to train, and -”

“- and what?” Bass says. His arms go stiff as he clenches his fists. “Do you think I can’t handle going to get myself fake-shot in a fake sim?”

“You know you’ve been having problems with crowds!” Quint exclaims. It’s the first thing he’s said that has any volume to it. “What if you’d had an attack in the halls?”

“I was fine! ” Bass snaps back. “I’m not - fuck, don’t call them attacks! I’m not a fucking mental patient!”

“I could have gone with you, but you didn’t even ask!” Quint says, and Bass feels him shift on the couch next to him.

“Well you were busy getting poked and prodded at,” he says, unfurling from his hunched position to face Quint. “What was I supposed to do, sit around on my ass and waste time?”

“I-I would have -” Quint, who had been sitting up very straight to yell at him, deflates and looks away. “I would’ve… I wish you would’ve stayed. It sucked. They put a bunch of wires and stuff in me and it sucked. Alia was nice, but...”

Bass grits his teeth.

He should have thought of that.

Quint’s fidgeting and Bass can see a little tremor in his hands. That’s from recalling it, so it must have been unpleasant.

I should apologize, he thinks.

“Well you volunteered,” he says, turning away. “If you didn’t want to do it, maybe you should have fucking said something.”

Quint breathes in sharply behind him.

“I want them to trust us,” he says, and Bass can hear in his voice that he’s wounded. “And you won’t let them look at you. I was just trying to help.”

“I didn’t ask for you to cover for me,” Bass says, even as he feels an odd, unpleasant sensation in his stomach. That’s new. It’s like the guilt has taken physical form and is trying to rebel from his gut.

“You don’t need to,” Quint says, and then, muffled (probably through his arms, Bass surmises), he adds, “but if you’re going to be a jerk about it, I won’t bother next time.”

“Fine,” Bass says.

It’s not fine.

“Fine,” Quint says.

It’s really not fine, Bass thinks. But he doesn’t have a fucking clue what to do about it.

Part of him thinks that he does. But it’s not strong enough to unstick the words in his throat.

He’s not strong enough.

Chapter Text

Roll is walking on air as they make the short walk from the open space outside the warehouse to the side-door that is their customary entrance. Ballade is walking a pace or two back, in step with Punk, who Roll is trying and failing not to view as the spoils of victory. As she sneaks a look back, she sees Ballade smile at her, and then get elbowed by Punk, whose eyes are crinkled up in amusement, which Ballade responds to with an exasperated but unmistakably fond shove.

Finally, actual progress.

For the first time since they started this harebrained scheme, things feel as though they might pan out.

Naturally, when they get inside, that feeling is stopped cold along with her feet as they don’t hear the steady and unyielding sound of typing that signals Kalinka hard at work at her station. Instead, she spies Kalinka slumped over her desk.

The others, maybe not as perceptive as Roll when it comes to this kind of thing, bump into her.

“Hey, what gives?” Punk says, and there’s a pause where he must be following her gaze before he says “... Oh, shit.”

That’s the shock she needs for her training to take over as she hurries to the centre of the lab area, where Kalinka is -

- looking up at her as she approaches through the mess, thank goodness.

“Rollll,” Kalinka slurs. That’s when Roll notices the tumbler she’s cradling and everything clicks into place. “I’m, I didn’t, this’s all my fault.”

“Oh, Kalinka…” Roll says, some of the tension seeping out with the exhale. She reaches out and gently excises the tumbler (which is empty, along with, Roll sees, a little more than a third of a twenty-sixer of rum which is resting pushed up against one of the screens) out of Kalinka’s grasp. She doesn’t meet any resistance. “It’s not - are you nauseous? Your hands aren’t too cold…”

“I’m sorry,” Kalinka says, slumping back in her computer chair in lieu of actually answering.

“Is she okay?” Ballade asks, as the other two catch up with her. He’s looking between the bottle and Kalinka and looking vaguely guilty, a reaction which Roll files away for a later time. At the query, the older woman giggles.

“She’s drunk,” Roll says. One of her hands find the hem of her sweater and she absently bunches it. “I’m not seeing any signs of severe alcohol poisoning, but we -” she pauses to reach for the bottle and put it firmly away in the fridge, and sends the roboticist a stern glare, “- are cutting you off, doctor.”

Kalinka is at least present enough to wince at that. Punk, who’d been lagging behind on account of trying to navigate his bulky frame through the narrow pathways, joins Ballade in hovering, uncertain, around the perimeter of the central area.

“I can’t believe you!” Roll plants her hands firmly on her hips. “I told you not to push yourself this hard, that something was going to give, and I didn’t think it would be this. It’s been -”

“M’sorry,” Kalinka says, and she looks so miserable that Roll just can’t hold onto her anger. “I… I don’t think I can…”

She pauses, rubbing her temples, and leans back forward. At her touch, the screens flicker on from their dormant state and the mouse wobbles its way to open up a communications program.

“We got this,” she says, opening the top message with a flourish and then dropping back to slump on the chair. The back dips under her weight as a video message begins to play.

It’s Roll. The other Roll, Roll thinks, which is always surreal. The other her is wearing a variation on one of her own favourite dresses, a dress-and-hoodie combo that goes sleeveless over what looks like a tight black t-shirt. Her other self is fiddling with one of the two large front buttons that attach the hood itself. She looks worried.

‘Uh, hi, I’m sorry to bother you. I guess you all must be busy. It’s just that I had plans with Bass yesterday and he hasn’t been answering my messages, which isn’t like him? I hope everything is okay.’

Roll bites her lip, eyes sliding over to Kalinka, who’s staring at the screen, unblinking.

Oh.

She looks back to the message in progress to see the screen wobble as they catch sight of Dr. Light’s lab behind her and an indistinct voice in the background. The Roll on the screen is turned to look around her shoulder.

‘Oh - Blast Man is here? Already? Okay, I’ll be right there.’

She turns back to the camera and gives it an apologetic, but strained, smile.

‘Anyway, please let Bass know I’m going to be busy for a while, too. There’s a bunch of maintenance work coming up and I’m helping dad out. So, bye, and please get back to me soon, okay?’

The message ends, the image freezes on the other Roll’s uneasy face.

Roll lets out a breath and leans forward to banish the application. Kalinka’s breath hitches, and she looks up at the group of them with watery eyes.

Ballade and Punk are standing there looking at each other, and it occurs to Roll that they have no idea what to do.

“... Okay,” she says, taking Kalinka’s hand and pulling her up to stand. “Let’s get you some water and an acetaminophen and straight to bed, alright?”

“Okay,” Kalinka croaks, and lets herself be led away. “I’m sorryyyy…”

“I’ll be right back,” Roll says, over her shoulder, steering an unsteady Kalinka through the narrow path out.

“Yeah, we’ll uh…” Ballade says. “We’ll be here.”

---

True to Ballade’s word, he and Punk have barely moved at all when Roll gets back. They haven’t even sat down, though Punk is leaning on one of the worktables. The mood is dour.

“I’m sorry you had to see that,” Roll says, as she reaches them. “She’s normally - well, we haven’t had to have a conversation like that in a long time.”

“Is she going to be okay?” Ballade asks. His arms are crossed and he looks vaguely uncomfortable.

“She’ll sleep it off and then we’re going to have a real talk, I think,” Roll replies. She casts around for somewhere to sit and ends up plopping down into Kalinka’s chair. She straightens out her skirt and wishes that her feelings would be nearly as easy to unrumple as the fabric.

She looks up to find the two of them both looking at her.

“You can say whatever it is you’re thinking,” she sighs.

“I’m not gonna lie, that didn’t exactly inspire confidence,” Punk says. Ballade doesn’t say anything, but he’s avoiding Roll’s eyes.

“I know it didn’t,” Roll says. She drums her fingers on the desk. “Please understand that the reason this happened is because she’s being very hard on herself.”

“It is her fault this all happened,” Punk points out. It’s without malice, but Roll grimaces all the same. “I’m just thinking that maybe Enker’s starting to make sense when he says we can’t rely on her?”

“She’s trying,” Ballade says, and Punk throws him a questioning look. “We… we talked. I think she’s doing her best. After what she told me about losing family, her son, I mean, if that were me, I’d be taking this rough too.”

Oh, Roll thinks, I could kiss him.

“Yes! Thank you,” Roll says, clasping her hands together. Ballade smiles sheepishly and looks away.

“There’s losing your son and then there’s losing your robots,” Punk says. He doesn’t have an eyebrow to raise, but his voice conveys the sentiment.

“Her son was a robot,” Roll says.

Ballade and Punk both startle.

“He was?” Ballade says.

“Oh, she didn’t mention it?” Roll says, and then she sighs, rubbing her cheek with one hand. “I guess that makes sense that she wouldn’t have gotten into it. His name was OVER-1.”

“Kind of clinical,” Punk observes.

“I know,” Roll says. “She was going to let him pick his own name when he was older. I think she got the receiving end of me complaining about how silly dad’s names are a few too many times.”

“I happen to like the music thing,” Punk says, sounding offended.

“I don’t,” Ballade grouses. “My name is stupid. All the power to her.”

“Your name isn’t stupid,” Roll tuts. “At least it’s not half of a pair.”

“And the last half, too,” Punk says. “Yeah, I can see how that might chafe a little.”

Anyway,” Roll says, “he was also the first of a line that was supposed to push the Variable Weapons System further and transform not just weapons, but attributes from whole systems - an ‘array transformation’. It was called project X-OVER. With an ‘X’. So, taking that out, the first model was OVER-1.”

“There isn’t an ‘X’ in ‘crossover’.” Ballade frowns. She rolls her eyes.

“There is in fighting games,” Roll says. “Roc- ugh, Quint would never let me forget.”

Ballade and Punk meet each other’s eyes.

“It’s a javelin,” they intone, in sync. Roll raises an eyebrow.

“Enker gets pissy whenever we call it a spear,” Punk explains. “If you ever need a way to get under his skin...”

“What’s the difference?” Roll asks.

“I think it’s for throwing,” Ballade says. “But more importantly - she named a highly advanced robotics program based on video game title logic?”

“I mean, it does sound cool,” Punk says.

“Roboticists do tend to have a flair for the dramatic. And he was built using some aspects of Project X, which was what dad called Jazz for a long time, so...” Roll shrugs. “Anyway, OVER-1 didn’t really mind. He was a good kid.” She looks away and, without thinking, brings up her arms to hug herself. “... I miss him, too.”

The look Ballade shoots her makes her think that maybe Kalinka told him how he’d died. Not the details, probably. Roll squeezes herself tighter and wishes faintly that she could forget the details.

“We don’t have to keep talking about it if you don’t want to,” Punk says, jerking her out of her reverie. They’re both looking at her oddly now. It’s hard to make out Punk’s expression with his lack of facial features, but his voice is sympathetic. Ballade, on the other hand, looks out-and-out concerned.

It feels wrong, somehow, for them to be concerned about her.

“It’s okay,” Roll says, drawing herself up and turning the chair around to reach the mouse and keyboard. “There isn’t much else to say anyway. Kalinka’s not going to be up for a few hours, so maybe we should all get some rest and recharge. I’ll make sure she didn’t forget to save anything, okay?”

“Okay,” Ballade says, from behind her. She sends him her most reassuring smile, and he returns it, the worried lines in his face easing.

The two of them retreat, and she hears snatches of a conversation just as they’re getting out of earshot, but nothing solid.

It’s good that they’re talking again, she thinks, absently working through the task of opening each program and tab that Kalinka had open and saving before closing them. It feels like they’re beginning to build something, the group of them, together. It’s still fragile, but -

Roll’s eye catches on a word, mouse hovering over the exit button.

Jazz.

What?

She pulls back from exiting the program and starts scrolling up.

Inside of her, as her eyes scan the words of Kalinka’s personal research journal, something fragile begins to crumble.

---

“Yeah, you definitely have a type,” Punk says, as they get to the outskirts of the lab area. Ballade glares at him.

“Oh, for - not when she could hear you! ” he says, throwing a look back over his shoulder. Roll, mercifully, remains absorbed in her self-assigned task. “And I thought you said you were going to leave it alone.”

“I said I wasn’t going to tell anyone about it,” Punk says, in that annoying grinning voice he has. “I think leaving it alone might actually kill me.”

Ballade, a connoisseur of Punk’s vocal patterns, specifically those pertaining to teasing, detects a hint of smugness, a whiff of amusement, and a wish to be punched in the face. Maybe he’s projecting that last bit.

“Uggggh,” Ballade groans, for lack of a coherent response. He’s saved from having to come up with a follow-up as he bumps into Punk’s outstretched arm. “Hey, what-?”

The source of the sudden stop makes itself - himself - obvious with a large, wolfish yawn that reveals rows of sharp teeth. Treble, who has made himself comfortable in the middle of the hallway between them and their rooms, snaps his mouth closed at the conclusion of his yawn and settles his head down on his paws, one red eye fixed on the two of them and ears ever-so-slightly tilted backwards.

Ballade begins the mental calculations. There isn’t another entrance to the hallway around their rooms, so…

“We could climb the walls,” Punk says.

“No, they’re not built for that. We’d bring them down,” Ballade responds.

“Step past him?”

“Not enough room. Your boots are too big.”

“Shoo him?”

“Oh, after you.”

“Ass. What if we like,” Punk makes a flat and somewhat incomprehensible gesture with his hand, “took one of the doors off and used it as a shield?”

“You think he’s gonna have a problem chewing through a wooden door?

“Well I dunno, man, I’m fresh out of ideas,” Punk says, shrugging forcefully. With spiked pauldrons, there’s a certain enhancement at play to that kind of gesture. “Jump over?”

Ballade glances at Treble. Treble is grinning.

“Yeah, something tells me that’s not gonna work,” he says.

They’re at a deadlock. Time passes, the two parties staring each other down.

“This is ridiculous,” Ballade says, finally. He takes a deep breath and throttles down his sense of self-preservation and steps forward.

“Dude, what are you doing?” Punk hisses, and Ballade waves him off.

“Relax,” he says, coming down into a crouch in front of the wolfbot. Treble, who had been eyeing both of them intermittently, is now treating Ballade alone to his blood-red glare.

“Hey there, uh… wolf,” Ballade says, and Treble’s ears flatten fractionally. He hears a growl starting to rumble its way out of the wolf’s throat. “Treble,” he amends.

“Strong start,” Punk whisper-yells.

“Shut up,” Ballade snaps back. He turns back to Treble. “Look,” he continues, in a softer voice. “I’m sorry about Bass.”

The growling abruptly stops, and the lone eye that Ballade can see narrows. Questioningly, maybe? He spares a thought to wonder exactly how intelligent Bass’ support unit is.

“I’m sorry he’s gone,” Ballade continues. “And we’re trying to find him. I promise. We’re working together with Roll. You remember, right?”

There’s a stretch of silence, and then Treble shifts. Ballade tenses, but Treble just brings up his massive head from his haunches, locks both eyes with his, and…

… whines.

He didn’t know Treble could look mournful like that.

“Yeah,” Ballade says. He tries his level best to keep the surprise out of his voice. “It sucks. We just want to go and get some sleep while we can so we can work on it in the morning, okay?”

He sucks in a breath as Treble moves again, this time off of his haunches and onto his feet. He yawns again, pads a few steps to the side, and drops back down to the ground, curled up against the wall with his eyes closed. There’s ample room to get by him, now.

Wolf whisperer,” Punk says, as Ballade pulls himself up and dusts off the knees of his jeans.

“I had a good teacher,” he says, and grins. “C’mon. Let’s get some shuteye.”

---

It’s hours later when Roll finally extracts herself from the terminal in the lab. She’s read through months of journal entries. Skimming over the technical details, but in between those…

She’s shaking.

She didn’t tell me.

She had been crying, but her eyes are dry now.

On autopilot, she finds herself in the halls outside of everyone’s rooms. It’s dead silent. Ballade and Punk must have gone to bed, like she’d asked.

She didn’t tell me.

Kalinka’s door is next to hers. It isn’t decorated, but she honestly spends so little time in there, just crashing after working all day -

Working all day at trying to find Jazz.

Roll has such a tight grip on the cuff of her sleeve that a distant part of her is worried she might rip it.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” she asks Kalinka’s door, in a small, quavering voice. “How could you let me think he was…?”

She stares at the floor and shakes her head.

Placing all of your trust in a scientist to save the day, Enker’s voice whispers from the back of her mind.

No. She won’t. Kalinka’s hit a dead end. She should have seen it. Seen the signs, long before the bottle came out. There’s nothing she can do. Which leaves…

Enker’s plan. It’s the only way, now, Roll thinks, in an unpleasant burst of clarity. She’d hoped so hard that Kalinka would be able to -

No, she thinks, shaking her head again. Harder this time. No waiting around for everyone else to solve my problems again.

She turns. Ballade’s door is right there. She’ll wake him up, and…

Roll hesitates, hand outstretched to knock.

Ballade, who has been nothing but kind to her and who has confided in her and told her things he hasn’t talked about with anyone else. Ballade, who wanted nothing to do with this plan from the beginning. Ballade, who is afraid of being recaptured and reprogrammed, and rightfully so.

Her hand recoils as though burned, and she steals down the hallway, past Punk’s room, to knock on another door. A pair of red eyes watches her from a mound of metal sprawled against the wall; she tries not to meet Treble’s eyes as she sneaks past him.

Enker opens it just a crack, and his cold green eye, made colder by the darkness, narrows when he sees her.

“I’ll help you get the Time Skimmer,” she says. “Just… keep the others out of it.”

There’s a long pause that stretches out, second by second, in the dark and quiet hallway.

“... Deal,” he says, opening the door to let her in.

Chapter Text

When Bass appears on the other end of a teleport beam, he’s greeted with a sombre, cloudy sky. The clouds are dark and heavy, and it looks like it could start pouring at any moment. For now, though, the rain is only a threat.

X and Zero have already arrived, and they’re making their way to what looks like a small base camp. X, Bass sees, is stealing glances at Zero, but Zero’s looking straight ahead. Quint appears next to Bass as he steps off of the landing pad, and they look at each other for a second before Quint tilts his head to avert his gaze elsewhere. Bass sees a frown tugging at his mouth.

Great. He’s still mad.

The platform that the hunters’ station is situated on is an obvious construction zone. As Bass and Quint walk in X and Zero’s wake, they pass scores of construction and general purpose drones - mechaniloids, Bass thinks he’s heard the hunters call them in passing - as well as a lot of what look like military models. They weave in and out of girders, piles of covered materials, and metal scaffolded platforms.

In the very centre of the mess, there’s what looks like the beginning of a shaft. A few metres away from it, though, is what really catches Bass’ eye. Unlike everything else here, which is metal, metal, metal (seriously, do they have any other building materials in the future? Even Wily dips into stonemasonry sometimes), there’s a huge chunk of rock being held down by a tarp and rope. It’s the centre of a perimeter of mechaniloid defense.

“... wanted to teleport it out of here, but it’s been having unpredictable effects on most anything electronic that it touches.”

They catch up to X and Zero just in time to hear them talking to another reploid. He’s a - well, he’s a fish with legs. There’s really no better way to describe him. If Wily had made him, Bass thinks, he would have been named Fish Man. He’s got a huge set of jaws and prominent metal teeth, and is mostly covered with silver-grey colouring with red highlights. The Maverick Hunters logo is painted on one of his shoulder pauldrons. and he bobs his large, toothy head as Bass and Quint file in behind X and Zero.

“And there’s no possibility of airlift or marine transport?” X asks, bringing up a hand to rub his chin.

“Air transport’s a no-go,” the fish man says, shaking his head. “The skies are hot right now, and we got a sternly worded letter from Gigantis regarding who would get the bill if this thing gets lost or destroyed. Ungrateful sons of -”

“Marine transport?” Zero cuts him off. He sighs.

“Same situation,” he says. “You wouldn’t believe what that thing’s worth, either. They say it’s the purest concentration they’ve managed to dig up so far.”

“I can take a guess,” X says, eyes sliding over to Bass. Bass sends him his surliest look in return, and he frowns. “Captain, if we could break for a moment? I need to check in on something.”

“‘Course,” the captain in question grunts. X starts steering Bass and Quint to the side.

“We can go over the logistics while he does that,” Zero says, gesturing the other hunter to the assortment of tents and equipment that constitute the hunters’ field hub. X visibly pauses, but then continues until they’re out of earshot.

“Bass,” X says. “How much force metal, exactly, is in your power core?”

Bass crosses his arms.

“Why do you need to know?” he asks.

“Bass, come on, ” Quint pipes up, for the first time since arrival. “This is serious.”

Fine,” he says. “Not a hell of a lot.” he holds his fingers a little less than two inches apart. “Maybe that much, if I had to guess. Shit’s potent.”

X’s eyes become unfocused, and he looks over at the chunk of rock through the girders and bustling worker-bots.

“Right,” X says. “That’s… worrying.”

“Uh,” Quint follows his gaze, “how much is in…?”

“A lot more than that,” X says.

Bass’ lips press together tightly.

---

When they return to the rest of the hunters, there’s a flurry of activity around them. More generic reploids, a lot of them the same make, bustle around carrying equipment and weaponry and relaying orders. It gives Bass the jitters, but they’re out of it soon enough. They find Zero and the officer from earlier in one of the tents, poring over a holographic map.

“X,” the officer inclines his massive head as they enter.

“Barracudang,” X answers, and it’s only Bass’ lingering feeling of being on edge from the crowd of combat reploids outside that prevents him from having to stifle a snort. “What’s it looking like?”

“Looking like it’s going to be a bad day,” Fish Man - Barracudang - answers.

“The maverick forces completely surround us,” Zero says, not taking his eyes off of the screen. “Sixth Armada is working on it, but because Gigantis was so late in divulging this location, they managed to establish a blockade. We’re still scrambling to get larger assets out here.”

“And you said Seventh is tied up in the air?” X frowns.

“Until the airships get here, which will take hours,” Barracudang says, leaning on the corner of the desk. It sags a little under his weight. “They’ve got a jammer up, too.”

“Which means that we can’t expect any support that can’t be beamed in on that transerver.” X frowns. “No artillery.”

“As far as we’re concerned, commanders, you are the big guns,” Barracudang says. “We’ve got individual hunters and their units inside the blockade trying to stall them from moving in all at once, but…”

“We’re seeing a concentration of forces in the north,” Zero says. “They’re going to punch through our perimeter.”

“How soon?” X asks.

A sound like the crack of a whip slices through the air, and then there’s a boom from what Bass guesses is the north. The platform they’re on shudders oh-so-slightly.

That soon,” Zero says, pulling out the handle of his sabre.

Shadows begin to emerge over the horizon.

Bass has been in a lot of fights. He’s been part of, on varying sides, three major robot uprisings and innumerable petty conflicts with Mega Man.

This is nothing like he’s used to.

The hunters are a well-oiled machine (hah), the rank-and-file swarming amidst shouted orders to their positions on the platform. As the mavericks approach on large boats of futuristic design, the hunters start firing stationary plasma turrets. X is standing at the very edge, firing charged blasts at a smaller disturbance out in front of the boats, and Barracudang leaps into the water and makes a beeline to the approaching fleet.

Bass and Quint stand next to Zero in the mouth of the command tent, separated from the action. Bass can only imagine that the only reason Zero hasn’t moved is because he’s waiting for them to close to melee range - he’s watching the opening blows of the fight with hard, analytical eyes.

“What are we supposed to do?” Quint asks. Bass glances over at him and finds he’s already got his buster out. He watches Quint wince as one of the hunters on the cannons takes a shot from out on the water and falls back with a smouldering hole where their shoulder should be.

“Stay close to X and cover him,” Zero says.

“What about you?” Bass says, unable to keep the irritation out of his voice. Zero’s eyes slide over to meet Bass’ for a beat longer than they should before looking away again with a frown.

“I’ll be highly mobile and right up against the front line,” he says. “The primary objective is defending the force metal, and X will be falling back as the last line of defense as soon as they start boarding the platform.”

“You want us out of the way,” Bass says.

“Believe it or not, this isn’t about you,” Zero says, stepping forward. Despite the best efforts of the hunters, the boats are nearly at the platform. “Now go!”

Things rapidly get chaotic from there.

As the boats pull up, Zero is off like a shot. He’s a red blur, on the front line in a second and beyond it in an instant. Bass can see him alight on the front boat, a faster skiff, and rip through the unfortunate maverick steering it like it’s made of tinfoil. Just like that, he’s on the next ship. Rinse and repeat.

What’s going on immediately around them is harder to parse, not in the least because his damn stupid fucking threat assessment is in overdrive. There’s a lot of shouting, and though Zero is doing an admirable job keeping their frontal assault stalled, he’s not able to stop everything. They’re spreading out and coming from the full width of one side of the platform.

There’s plasma fire everywhere, the acrid smell of molten metal and synthetic materials crowding his nostrils. He’s at least vaguely satisfied that his new and improved buster is chewing through the maverick rank-and-file, but he finds himself aiming at one of the hunters as they make a sudden movement more than once. He catches himself the first time, and Quint stops him the second, as they’re crouched behind a pile of girders for cover.

“Bass -” he starts, looking genuinely worried as Bass snatches his buster arm back from where Quint had pushed it down.

“I’m fine, ” he says, acidly.

He has to be fine, because at that moment there’s an explosion, and X, who had been thinning the enemy ranks a few girder piles ahead of them, is thrown clear past them and slams against a concrete pillar. He groans and staggers to his feet amid shattered concrete, and the reason for his sudden trip swaggers into view with one hand on a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher.

“Good to see you, X!” Vile shouts, casually ducking small arms fire from one of the lesser hunters. He holds out a hand in that direction without even bothering to look and with a click , flames shoot out and Bass hears a scream cut short. He grits his teeth. “You owe me a ride armour.”

“I don’t owe you anything,” X says, levelling his buster. There’s a level of hostility in X’s voice that Bass isn’t used to. “Except retirement. Permanently, this time.”

“Funny choice of words for someone who’s about to be obsolete,” Vile jeers, and then the two of them are moving, strafing up and down the platform and exchanging fire. Bass and Quint duck crossfire as they dart between piles of construction material. Their shots aren’t pinging off like before, but Bass can see they’re not doing much against whatever armour Vile has.

“Damn it!” he says, twisting back behind cover to avoid a rocket, which shakes the pile, though their cover remains intact. “We’re still fucking useless!”

“We’re not useless.” Quint says, popping up to take a shot of opportunity. He just as quickly dives to avoid the return fire, a gout of flame. It’s purple, this time, and hotter. Bass feels personally affronted. “We’re dividing his attention! Treble does this for you all the time.”

“Great, so we’ve levelled up to support unit,” Bass says, and he wants to add more, but his combat systems, however muddled, see fit to warn him that something big is incoming. He grabs Quint, who squawks, and activates his dash boosters in time to avoid a sphere of… some kind of energy, which slams into the place they’d just been crouching and dissipates.

“Oh my,” a chillingly familiar female voice says, and they turn to see Berkana, sceptre held forward. “How fascinating.”

“Shit!” Bass says, pivoting his buster arm to aim at her. He takes in her appearance. The same as last time, and, notably for their surroundings, untouched by plasma burns. He catches a sheen as a stray shot dings the space around her, revealing some kind of force field on impact.

“You’ve been changed. Transformed.” Totally unconcerned with the chaos around her, she studies Quint intensely. Screens pop up and disappear around her, scrolling too fast to see even if they were close enough to actually read them. “This data could prove quite useful.”

Bass shoots her with a fully charged shot. The shield flickers, but holds.

“Go to hell,” he says, with a confidence he doesn’t feel.

There’s a cold feeling coiling in his middle.

Berkana laughs, one hand daintily draped over her mouth.

“Oh, I’ve been,” she says, and then raises her sceptre again. It flashes a dark, sickly purple. Bass and Quint brace themselves, and -

“Say hello for me when you get back.”

Zero crashes into her from the side like a wrecking ball made of beam sabres. Berkana shrieks, and bounces back as the impact from the saber glances off of the shield and fizzles out, but only barely. Zero follows up with a vicious kick, which sends her flying into one of the many pillars that dot the construction.

“I’ve got her! Go!” he says to the two of them, reigniting his sabre and dashing after her.

Bass, disoriented, wonders for a second where he means by that, but then X yells out in pain and his feet are moving.

X and Vile have almost made it to the meteor fragment in the lateral movement of their brawl. As before, Bass observes just how high of a level X is operating at in combat. His optics - upgraded, they must be - are having an easier time tracking X’s movements, but that just leaves room to appreciate his form. He’s dodging through clouds of missiles and flame and precisely taking advantage of small openings with each shot.

Bass can still hear the sounds of battle, but they’re far back from most of the fighting at this point. Distantly, from the direction Zero had gone, he hears another crash and the platform once again shakes ominously.

With the lack of the sheer numbers that had been surrounding them when they started, Bass should be more focused. He’s not. That cold feeling from before is clawing its way through him and slowing him down, making him hesitate. Watching X fight Vile - watching the two of them dance around each other, both of them far beyond his power - is only making it worse.

Quint’s saying something.

“What?” he asks, snapping back to attention.

“I said are you okay?” Quint says, in between volleys.

“I’m fine!” Bass says, automatically. He whips his head back around and dashes out of the way of a stray rocket. It impacts uncomfortably close to the large rock. “Damn it, X, watch it!”

“Not exactly a lot of choice in the matter!” X shouts, kicking off of a pillar to avoid another stream of purple flames beneath him.

It’s not long before Quint voices what Bass is starting to glean from observation, in a moment in between waves of attacks.

“They’re evenly matched,” he says. Bass can’t see his face under the visor, but he’s easily able to imagine it based on the amount of worry in his tone. “We need to do something.”

It’s raining now, the drops coming down intermittently but large enough that the patter is audible. They’re only picking up speed.

Bass’ eye catches on the rock.

“If we split up and go at it from different directions -” Quint starts.

“I could try using that thing,” Bass says.

“Wh- use it?” Quint asks.

“How hard could it be?” Bass scoffs. “It’s made of the same thing as my core, right? We know it’s some kind of mental bullshit blah blah cyberspace, so I go up, grab some Justice Energy or whatever and wreck their day!”

“That’s a terrible plan!” Quint says. “We have no idea if it’ll work, first off, and what if you just fry yourself or-?”

I can’t just sit here and watch everybody else fight!” Bass snaps. Quint flinches, and he immediately feels bad. He watches Quint take a breath and let it out.

“You’re not,” he says. His voice is firm. “You’re helping - we’re helping. You’re not as strong as X and Zero, but -”

“Oh fuck this!” Bass kicks off of the ground with his boosters and leaps clear of cover. He makes a beeline for the meteor, even as Quint’s voice calls out after him.

“Bass! Don’t!

His hand connects with the meteor fragment, fingers splayed out across its surface, and the world darkens.

An incorporeal wave of purple rolls out of the rock from every direction, and as it flows through Bass, he gasps and buckles to his knees. It’s like the dimensional area all over again, but a hundred times worse. The cold feeling from before returns in force and now, only now, with his own psyche reflected back at him, does he recognize the feeling for what it is.

Fear.

Quint is screaming his name.

---

Almost, Zero thinks, as his sabre collides against Berkana’s shield. She can’t have infinite energy reserves for that thing, no matter how improbably efficient Evil Energy is. As though it can hear his thoughts, the force field finally gives way.

He’s raising his arm to deliver what should be a devastating blow when it hits him.

fearguiltisolationFEAR

Zero staggers backward, clutching his head. It feels like he’s about to explode. He’s dimly registering that the sky is darkening. It had already been overcast, hadn’t it?

There’s a glow in front of him.

Berkana raises herself from where she’d fallen on the ground with her arms spread far apart, sceptre shining purple like a beacon, and laughs as she’s engulfed in a dark halo.

“So this is the power R-Shadow wielded!” She cackles, and raises her staff. “With this, we can do… anything!

Zero tries to move, but it’s like his body is rooted to the spot. Something is catching, something in his systems is hitting a feedback loop and he’s overloaded and what is happening -

The last thing he sees before his eyes stop registering input is purple-tinged lightning springing from the staff.

Chapter Text

As darkness spreads across the construction platform, the comm chatter in X’s ear ratchets up in intensity. The line, which is used to relay orders and positioning, is suddenly overcome with requests for aid. The reason why becomes clear to him a moment later, as he dashes out of the way of a hurled pile of cinder blocks and returns fire at a Moledig. He comes to rest on a pile of girders; whatever is going on, it’s given Vile pause, too.

All over the platform, the mechaniloids are turning on hunter forces. Both the construction bots and the backup forces that the hunters had brought are moving on hunter positions, enveloped in some kind of purple aura. Faintly, he can see that there’s a larger glow and the sounds of combat from over where he knows that Zero was fighting Berkana. Is fighting Berkana? It’s oddly quiet. For the first time since this started, X feels a twinge of worry for Zero.

And not too far from him, where the pulse emanated from, he sees Bass.

Oh, damn it.

Bass is touching the meteor fragment, expression wide-eyed and distant. Quint is making his way to him, but their position is being swarmed by mechaniloids, which is slowing him down considerably.

That’s all the time that X has to ruminate. He springs left as one of Vile’s rockets comes down on his position, throwing up scraps of metal debris hot on X’s heels.

“Looks like the tables have turned, X!” Vile says, with an edge of manic glee. There’s an inflection on X’s name, the one he always uses, that makes X feel like he needs a shower. He pulls up a hand to his earpiece, and there’s a distant boom. “And that’s your emergency exit.”

The transerver, X thinks, and grits his teeth. His buster is whining with an unspent charge.

“You won’t win this, Vile,” he says. Vile responds by levelling his rocket launcher at X’s face.

“It’s just going to be me and you,” he says. From within his helmet, through the eye slits, X sees twin purple glows. “We’ll finally settle this score, now that we’ve evened out that pesky unlimited potential -

Zero cuts him in half.

It takes a moment for that fact to sink in, both for a startled X and for Vile, who turns around slowly to face his assailant and gets out a rasped “wha-” before exploding.

“Zero?” X asks, unconsciously raising his off-hand. Something is wrong, a strong feeling buzzing at him and warring with relief at seeing Zero alive and unharmed. Zero’s figure is hunched over, Z-Saber still crackling with plasma from the swing that had bisected Vile. Except, it’s the wrong colour. Standing out against the darkened surroundings, it’s a bright, sickly pink-violet instead of the usual greenish-blue.

“... Zero?” X tries again, taking a step forward. “Are you…?”

His head whips around and his eyes meet X’s. X gasps.

Zero’s eyes, which are looking at X with not a trace of recognition or emotion, are bright red.

He’s gone maverick, X thinks, his entire world shattering in a single moment.

A single moment is all he gets before Zero leaps towards him, sabre up, and he’s fighting for his life.

---

Fear.

Bass is suffocated by it. Surrounded and enveloped by it. He can’t see, or move. He’s paralyzed. There’s something bothering him from the peripheral, a little buzzing of the outside world, but it’s not nearly strong enough to break through.

This whole time, he’s just been - afraid?

Afraid of the hunters.

Afraid of Zero.

Afraid of letting himself show weakness.

Because he is weak.

He’s not supposed to be afraid. He’s supposed to be strong.

With clarity comes despair, with despair he sinks even further, and the buzzing that inhabits the edge of his consciousness feels further and further away.

---

Bass!” Quint yells, again, over the din.

It had started as the sounds of drones stomping closer, metal on metal mingling with the splatter of raindrops. Now it’s storming, the dull roar of the rain doing nothing to mask the screams and panicked shouts from the hunters as the full complement of support they’d brought turns against them. The air is split with lightning and thunder booms over the sound of plasma fire. Nearby, X and Zero are fighting, both titans of unimaginable power. He couldn’t follow the action if he tried. The ground is shaking.

Everything is going wrong. At the middle of it, Bass sits, dead to the world.

Bass!!” Quint calls, desperate. He twists to catch a beelike drone with a charged burst of plasma, which drops it from the air. Its husk drops to the ground, throwing up steam as the superheated metal is assaulted by the rain.

There are so many of them. If only he had something that could take out multiples -

- oh.

Boom-CRACK.

The Ballade Cracker goes off much more destructively than expected, taking out a whole cloud of bat bots in one shot. His buster upgrades must have also affected the output of special weapons, he thinks, distantly, as he deploys several more of them.

Boom-CRACK.

Boom-CRACK.

Boom-CRACK.

When the crowd is cleared, Quint makes for Bass in a dead run. He grasps him by the shoulders - tries to, anyway. It feels like grasping a hot stove element. He gasps and pulls back.

“Bass,” he says, coming up as close to his side as he can without touching. “Bass! Wake up!”

---

“Zero!” X cries, dashing backwards as Zero comes crashing down sabre-first where he was not a fraction of a second before. “Zero, wake up!”

He shouldn’t be wasting the mental resources on trying to reason with him. His EAS boosters are hot on the bottom of his feet, overtaxed from trying to keep his distance, and Zero is bit by bit gaining ground on him.

A cold, reasoning part of him knows that there’s no point in trying to reach a maverick once they’re gone like this. Zero’s looking at him like - he’s never seen this look on Zero, not even back when they first met, when he was barely able to comprehend life outside of his combat subroutines. He’s looking at X like X’s continued existence is an error to be corrected, a cold determination fueled by equally cold hatred. The intensity of the glare slowly grows the longer they fight, the longer X draws this out.

It’s tearing X apart.

Please,” he says, firing a shot which Zero deftly avoids.

---

The meteor fragment proves to be just as untouchable as Bass, and Quint’s buster just pings off of it. Whether that’s because of some property of the rock itself or because of what Bass is doing, he doesn’t know and doesn’t have time to figure out.

“I’m really sorry,” Quint whispers, and then kicks Bass right in the middle. It doesn’t work; instead, it sends Quint flying back in a painful wave of purple energy.

Dang it!” he says, scrambling to his feet and running back over. His hands hover over Bass, uncertain.

Can’t take out the rock. Can’t shake him out of it. He’s not responding when I yell, he thinks. What else can I do?

Paralyzed, he stares at his hands. Everything is dark, and oppressively purple, and X and Zero are fighting, and there’s no backup and he doesn’t know what to do.

Wait.

His hands aren’t purple because of the ambient Evil Energy. They’re purple because he’s still equipped with the Ballade Cracker. The upgraded Ballade cracker.

Backup, he thinks. He’s covered with energy…

A plan falls into place. It’s a stupid plan. He hopes very hard that it’s stupid enough to work.

“I know I said I wouldn’t do this again,” Quint mumbles, as his colours shift into the yellow-and-blue of the Mirror Buster. “So… m’sorry.”

He grabs Bass by the shoulders and doesn’t let go.

---

Quint’s presence cuts through the darkness like a hot knife through butter. It’s not quite the same as their near-psychic connection through the dimensional area, but Bass can feel the weight of the grip on his shoulders through the armour. And a scream, following it, that starts as an exclamation and is forcefully choked back.

He’s lucid again (he thinks). Everything outside of the immediate area still feels fuzzy. He turns his head to see Quint grimacing as he stubbornly holds on to Bass.

“Bass?” he gasps.

“What are you doing?” Bass demands. “You’re hurting yourself!”

I’m hurting him, he realizes, in horror. The Evil Energy - he’s causing this. At the thought, another pulse emanates from the place where his hands touch the surface of the rock. Quint’s breath hitches.

“Bass,” he says, “Let go!”

“I’m -” he tugs at his hands. “They’re stuck!”

“I don’t know how to - nnngh!” Quint winces. Bass’ eyes focus. He’s not green, is he. He’s yellow and blue, which means that he’s using the Mirror Buster to absorb the energy that Bass’ whole body must be wreathed in, just to withstand the touch.

He’s clever, Bass thinks, and the line of Quint’s posture relaxes minutely.

That also means they’re on a time limit. Quint can only take so much before he has to expel the excess energy, and he’ll run out of weapon energy for it eventually.

The thought of being dunked back into the darkness alone grips him, and it’s terrifying.

“Hhh-” Quint sucks in a breath. “We can - we can figure it out!”

“It’s me,” Bass says. “Fuck. It’s like that stupid dimensional area. I’m making Evil Energy because I’m -”

Hurting you.

Afraid.

Weak.

“Then you have to let go, ” Quint pleads. “It’s going to be okay.”

“I can’t! ” Bass says. He pulls back to no avail - his hands are still firmly stuck in place, like they’re glued to the rocky surface. “I’m not strong enough!”

“You’re the strongest in the world,” Quint says.

“You always say that,” Bass says. He’s trembling.

“Because I believe it!” Quint says, though he sounds desperate. “If it’s just you , then - then of course you’ll beat this. Just concentrate. I’m right here.”

Just concentrate.

It sounds familiar. His head is all jumbled up, but he remembers a day not too long ago when he practiced that. Shakily, he takes a breath and tries to focus.

He’s not alone.

He pulls away, slowly, surely - his hands start to come without resistance.

“Yes!” Quint says. “You’re doing it!”

“Hah,” Bass whispers, half for his own benefit. One of them is free. Just one more. “As if some boulder could -”

Quint is ripped away.

Bass!” he screams, and Bass reaches after him, only to be stopped dead by his still-caught arm.

Quint!” Bass cries out, and through a haze, he sees the person responsible.

Berkana looks a little the worse for wear, but she’s still strong enough to keep Quint pinned up against her, her sceptre across his neck. His helmet’s half-off, and Bass can see the panic welling up in his eyes.

“How interesting,” she says, in an almost-purr that makes Bass feel like he’s been dunked in an ice bath. “I thought you were just a relic. Vile’s reports, in hindsight…”

There’s a shift in the air.

Let him go you BITCH!” Bass snarls, pulling in vain. Quint’s struggling. His helmet, already precariously placed, falls off and lands on the ground with a clunk.

“Bass,” he says, eyes wild. “Don’t let her take - please - I can’t-!

“I won’t!” Bass says. He’s pushing off with all his might. He’s activating his dash boosters. He can lose an arm. That’s okay. That’s fine.

Just not Quint. He can’t lose Quint. He loves -

Several things happen at once.

The air, which had wavered around them before, erupts into green-white flames. Equally as potent as the darkness, it rips across the platform from the meteorite in a wave. Mechaniloids, which had been closing in from all sides, spark and fall to the ground as one -

Bass is free from the meteor fragment. He closes on Berkana, whose face is a mask of surprise -

Quint lets go of the energy from the Mirror Buster. Berkana screams as it discharges in a wave from Quint’s hands against her torso, creating a shockwave of dark energy in all of their faces -

Bass, totally unprepared, is flung backwards and crunches into a concrete pillar headfirst. Everything goes black.

---

I’m going to die, X thinks, as he hears the metallic tmp, tmp, tmp of Zero’s approach. He sees the violet glow of his sabre saturate the rain around them, brighter with every step. It’s been coming down in sheets.

Everything hurts. His systems are flashing critical damage warning at him, his subtanks are empty, and he can barely move his limbs.

To think that he had made Zero promise to kill him if he ever went maverick. He’d never imagined it happening quite like this.

Zero steps into view. X raises his head, as much as he can manage, and in a feeble effort to defend himself he brings up the barrel of his buster. Looking down it, he can see cold red eyes regarding him.

It’s all he can do not to laugh. He’s probably already crying, but those tears have been swept away with the rain.

Zero - this thing that is no longer Zero - kicks aside his buster with the air of someone swatting a bug. He raises his sabre. Time seems to slow down.

From the side, a wave of white-green slams into both of them. It passes X through with no effect, but Zero staggers as though physically struck. His sabre goes out and clatters to the ground as he holds his head and shakes.

When he looks up again, his blue eyes are disoriented.

They stare at each other.

“Zero?” X croaks.

“X? I -” Zero’s eyes widen, and then look around to take in the scene in front of him. X can see the growing horror as it creeps into his expression. “No. No… no. I did - I did this.”

Lightning cracks across the sky, and X struggles to get up as thunder chases it with a deep rumble.

“Zero, it wasn’t -” he starts, and then, fatally, hesitates.

Zero takes a step backwards, and then another, shaking his head.

“Zero,” X pleads, trying to get up. His legs are so damaged. They won’t respond, no matter how hard he tries to will them. Instead, he grasps out with his hand.

“I have to go,” Zero says, so quietly that through the rain X almost doesn’t hear it.

"Zero!

Lightning flashes again. It’s nearby. X’s optics stutter at the sudden bright light, and when he’s able to see again, Zero is gone.

---

When Bass comes to, it’s not dark. It’s not really light, either. It’s adequate, artificial lighting.

He’s in a cell.

“So you’re awake,” he hears. It takes him a second to place it. It’s X’s voice.

Bass sits up from the bench he’d been sprawled out on. He feels the back of his head. His helmet is dented. Badly. His systems are blaring alerts at him. He feels like shit.

Quint.

The realization propels him forward to the front of the cell, where he grasps the bars with both hands.

“Quint,” he asks X, and fuck it if he isn’t completely past caring about how desperate he sounds. “Where’s Quint?”

X looks like shit. He’s covered with plasma burns of all kinds, sabre wounds, his armour is dented and cracked and sliced up, and he’s missing a good chunk of his right leg. The part of X that most looks like shit is his face, though. He’s regarding Bass cooly, with a steely-eyed gaze, but he doesn’t seem somehow all there. His frown is incredibly tight.

“Twenty-seven,” X says.

“What?”

“Twenty-seven. The number of hunter personnel killed in action yesterday. One MIA.”

Bass has enough sense to force himself to shut up as X continues. He runs a hand over his helmet and down the side of his face.

“We lost… a lot of equipment, and a lot of mechaniloids. That’s not unusual. This is a dangerous business. The number of deaths that occurred before your stunt… nine.”

Eighteen, Bass thinks, his grip tightening on the bars. He remembers the hunters walking about around him in the base camp and feels - something. Not much, but something. A vague unease in his stomach.

“We failed the mission. The mavericks have the force metal,” X continues, and as he goes on, his voice starts to lose it harshness and resemble a tone Bass recognizes from Quint. Fatalistic, he thinks. “They’ve already announced their plans to resurrect Sigma from their moon fortress. Which is where… I suspect they’re holding Quint.”

“So let me out and let’s go get him,” Bass says.

“No.”

“What?”

“You’ve proven to be a liability, Bass.” X says. He sounds tired. Beyond tired. “Not only that, but a dangerously unknown quantity. You’re staying here until this is all over. Maybe longer.”

“Damn it, I know it’s my fault!” Bass shakes the bars. They don’t give way at all.

“It is your fault,” X says. “But it’s also our fault, for trusting you, and taking you along. It’s my responsibility to make the right decisions for the mission, for our hunters, and I failed.”

“And what the hell does Zero have to say about this?” Bass spits.

X stiffens. His expression slams shut like a safe.

“... He’s MIA,” he says, finally, turning away. “But it’s not your concern right now.”

Bass freezes. He feels very cold.

“Wha- the hell it isn’t!

“I'm going to fix this,” X says. “... And I don't want, or need, your help."

He starts walking.

“Don’t you fucking walk away!” Bass slams a fist against the bar. It rings out hollowly as X departs, limping, down the hall. “Dammit, get back-! X! X! What if they’re hurting him?! I can help, fuck, let me out!

He calls after X long after his battered form has disappeared around the corner. He goes through every obscenity he knows, until he runs out of them, and then he just devolves into a scream of rage, until finally, completely spent, he collapses against the bars and shakes.

Chapter Text

Roll has often wondered about the interior of Enker’s room. She’s seen the others’, if only in glimpses. Ballade’s room is spartan but has a promising nook of literature on the shelf, Punk’s is plastered in posters and band paraphernalia (which certainly exceed what Roll estimates to be his available funds, but after meeting his friend the music store owner she feels a lot less uneasy about that), Bass’ sports a private worktable that he sometimes cloisters himself at to work on this or that, and Quint’s is slowly growing into something resembling the room he had back home. Kalinka’s… she’d prefer not to think about that right now.

Enker’s room is a stockpile.

There are a lot of shelves, an assorted mismatch of metal frame and cheap wood that says ‘scavenged’. On them are piles and piles of parts, components, and all types of energy tanks. They’re neatly organized, but every inch of shelfspace is packed to the brim and it’s starting to overflow in places.

It doesn’t really feel in any way personal. It’s like a storeroom.

The cost and effort that must have gone into acquiring all of this...

“The mission,” Enker says, and Roll realizes she’s been staring. She snaps her attention away from the surroundings and onto the owner of the room.

He’s standing in front of a small computer desk, staring at her with a particular expression that makes her feel like she’s being judged and found wanting. Like everything else, the desk is claustrophobic, the monitor and keyboard jammed in closely together and the actual machine tucked under with just enough room to get one’s legs under. And next to that…

“Sakugarne,” Roll breathes, scooting closer to the little pogo stick. It coos and hops up into her hand, leaning into her touch. “I thought you might be in here.”

“Sakuuu,” it says.

“Didn’t want to leave Enker alone, huh?” she says. Some of the pain she’s feeling leaks out into her voice. It’s hard not to open up, if only a little, to the world’s saddest pogo stick.

The mission,” Enker repeats. Roll takes a deep breath and lets it out, straightening.

“Right,” she says. “You said you’d been planning, so I hope you have something solid.”

“I do,” he says, and if he’s bothered by her lack of confidence, he doesn’t show it. He turns around and sits in a ratty little folding chair in front of the computer, opening what look like floor plans. “It’s a stroke of luck you changed your mind when you did. I was ready to go alone, if need be.”

“Unbelievable,” Roll says, hands gravitating towards her hips.

“If you feel so strongly about it, go and get the others,” Enker says. Her hands drop, and she bites her lip.

“Fine,” she grants. “So you were about to leave?”

“I maintain contacts at Skull Fortress,” Enker says. “It just happens that a convenient distraction is coming up. One that will tie up Dr. Wily’s attention and resources enough that we should be able to get in and out with the Time Skimmer unnoticed.”

“You ‘maintain contacts’,” Roll says.

“Yes.”

“I have Shadow Man’s number, too, you know,” she says, reaching into a pocket to flash her cell.

“Then you know that he and your brother aren’t available to assist,” Enker says flatly.

“Since he’s still recovering,” Roll says. “Some brother. He hasn’t even called once. Why do you-?”

“Because I knew you were going to bring it up,” Enker says. His stare is completely, annoyingly even.

“Ugh,” Roll says. “Get on with it.”

“There’s a facility that Dr. Wily -” he pauses as his computer beeps a notification, and he turns around and taps a few keys. “It’s happening early. We should get going.”

“What’s happening, exactly?” Roll asks, looking around his shoulder. When she sees what’s on the screen, she sharply inhales. “... You knew about this ahead of time and didn’t tell anyone?”

“The distraction will give us an opportunity to save them, without tipping Wily off to our whereabouts or connections,” Enker says. There isn’t a drop of remorse in the statement. “I made the right choice for our team. Someone has to.”

In a flash, Roll is in her armour.

“I hope you’re right,” she says, tightly. “Let’s go.”

---

The facility in question isn’t at all like Dr. Wily’s regular fortresses. It’s not shaped like a skull, for one. It’s daylight when they arrive in the mountains on the other side of the world, just about dead noon; the sun hangs in the sky above them. It feels wrong to carry out a covert mission in broad daylight, but the two of them make short and stealthy work of the drone security going in and then it feels appropriately dark again.

Really, the most remarkable thing about it, Roll thinks, is that there aren’t spike pits and other traps every two feet. The halls are dimly lit, cold, metal, utilitarian, and above all, straight, normal hallways. Every so often, the two of them pass capsules and rooms where the doors have been left open to workspaces where robots and machinery sit halfway constructed.

The most striking work in progress is a humanoid model, resting in a capsule and curtained by a mane of blond hair that reaches nearly to his feet. Large chunks of him are missing, exposed circuitry dotting his form, and off to the side are unfinished pieces of armour, some of which have already been painted red. She doesn’t glean much more before they’re moving on into the next corridor.

“What is this place?” Roll asks. They haven’t met much resistance, but she’s still keeping her voice low out of caution.

“It’s a fallback location,” Enker answers, peering around a corner. “And a cache. Dr. Wily keeps old projects he’s lost interest in here, in case they prove valuable in the future. Failsafe plans, too, like those robots he tucked away to spring him from prison. There’s also… here,” he says, peering into a room that houses a cluster of computers and screens. Roll recognizes Wily’s personal brand of disorganization all over it.

Enker walks in, after looking around to make sure there isn’t anyone in there, and whips out his javelin to stab one of the computers through. A golden thrum of energy passes through the gilded parts of his armour and into the javelin, and the circuitry sizzles. The air is quickly filled with the acrid smell of melted components.

“What are you doing?” Roll whisper-yells from the entrance, looking over her shoulder quickly in a stab of paranoia.

Enker walks back out, calm as can be.

“Tracking database for all of the Wily Numbers,” he says. “Wily had a few of them. I’ve been meaning to take out this last one for some time.”

Roll blinks, and then frowns as he waves her on. They continue to creep down the halls.

“You’ve been working on covering our tracks,” she says. “Alone.”

“Yes.”

“And you’ve been stockpiling parts…? You know Kalinka has a whole lab’s worth of spare parts, right?” she presses.

“I believe I’ve made it clear that I don’t trust her,” Enker says, with a sidelong glance. “You wouldn’t be here if your opinion hadn’t changed on the matter.”

Roll’s lips press together.

“Am I right?”

“She kept something from me,” Roll says. Blurts, really. “She… she thought that Jazz might be alive, just somewhere else. With the Time Skimmer. But she didn’t tell me. Instead, she let me mourn him for months. I’m so mad at her. I-I want to trust her right now, but… since she treated me like I needed protecting, after all we’ve been through together, my brother and Bass are lost.”

“I see,” Enker says.

It’s an underwhelming response. Roll thinks it’s just disinterest, but then she takes a closer look at his face. A twinge of a frown, the slightest crease of the eyebrows. Discomfort.

“You know… that’s not that different from what you’re doing, running off to stop Dr. Wily from tracking everyone without saying anything,” she says.

His expression twitches.

Bingo.

“It’s a different situation,” he says.

“You should tell them how much you care about them,” Roll says. Enker closes his eyes, pinches the bridge of his nose, and takes a deep, steadying breath.

“This was a mistake,” he mutters.

“If you don’t, how are they supposed to know?” Roll continues blithely. “You’re giving mixed signals. Ballade said you haven’t been this angry at him since you got mad at him for betraying Wily back when, and you’re saying really hurtful things right alongside putting yourself in danger to help him.”

“Mad at him for…” Enker’s eyes widen, fractionally, for a second, and then his expression shutters like a metal door. “... they can believe what they want,” he says with an air of finality. “Now stop being inane and look sharp. We’re here for a reason.”

She has half a mind not to, but Roll purses her lips.

For a second there, he’d looked… hurt.

“Oh? And what would that be?” A third, entirely new voice, sounds from up ahead. Enker and Roll simultaneously jump to attention, sabre ignited and javelin out, as a new robot sashays into view at the intersection of hallways ahead. He’s red, with stylized golden and lime green accents, but the most notable thing about him is that he’s a monkey.

Well, not exactly. His armour is stylized to make him look like a monkey, complete with a tail and oddly-shaped earpieces. He’s also got a staff resting across his shoulders, hanging both hands off of it and looking quite unbothered for someone staring down two people with actual weapons.

“Buster Rod G,” Enker says, less than cordially. “The bottom of the barrel.”

“Enker,” Buster Rod (Roll refuses to use his full name in her head - what is it with Wily hopping around between naming conventions?) answers. “Likewise. I’ve heard the Mega Man Killers have been on vacation! What kind of monkey business are you up to?”

“Did he just -” Roll starts.

“Yes,” Enker says.

Ugh.

Buster Rod blinks, as though noticing her for the first time.

“Is that Roll? She’s not a - Hey Mega Water S!” he calls over their shoulders, and Enker’s expression darkens as they notice another robot behind them. He’s obviously inspired by a kappa, going along with the mythological theme. “That is Roll, right? She’s not a combat robot. I thought she wasn’t a combat robot.”

“Normally I would just say you’re an idiot,” the new robot says, “but you’re right. That’s weird.”

“Ahah! I knew it.” Buster Rod grins. “Whatever, whatever. I’m sure the doctor will station us somewhere that isn’t out in the middle of nowhere if we grab these two and deliver them.”

“Well someone is having a red-letter day,” Mega Water says. He draws up one skinny, gloved hand to stroke his chin. “That’s actually not a bad idea.”

“Be my guest and try,” Enker says. He’s frowning, scanning the area around them. Does he know something?

“You’ll regret it,” Roll warns. The two enemy robots share a look over the two of them.

“Yeah, sure,” Buster Rod snickers, and then with a spinning gesture, wields his staff. “Get ready toooo -”

The wall next to Enker and Roll bursts open as an absolutely massive robot rams through it and straight into the both of them.

“- MEET HYPER STORM H!”

---

Ballade awakens from sleep mode to some very strange sounds coming from his door.

He groans, sitting up and removing the charging cable from his arm. It’s not the primary jack, but he’s found that it’s less comfortable to indulge in his new habit, laying down on a bed, with a cable in his torso than to let his arm dangle over the edge as he lets his cheek sink into the soft fabric of his pillow.

Not long ago, an indulgence like that would have been unthinkable, and sounds at the door would have been cause for serious alarm. As it is now, he’s just blearily annoyed as he blinks at the door, letting his systems fully come online before he commits to any actual action.

The sound in question is a scratching, punctuated by some kind of heavy tapping and the occasional thump against the wooden surface of the door. There’s a pause, some kind of murmur, and then a sort of scraping noise as the doorknob jiggles.

“What the hell,” Ballade mutters to himself, shuffling over to the door and trying the doorknob. There’s resistance, at first, but then there’s a scuffle from the other side and he manages to swing it open.

Treble and Sakugarne are sitting in the hallway in front of his door. At his appearance, Sakugarne starts bouncing in place, babbling its usual chain of ‘Saku’s. Treble sits on his haunches and looks suspiciously innocent.

Ballade frowns and cranes his head around the door. There are a bunch of brand-new claw marks on the paneling, and what may or may not be teeth marks on the doorknob.

Great.

“This is my life now,” Ballade sighs, crossing his arms and turning back to the dynamic duo. “What do you two want?”

To his surprise, Treble whines. Sakugarne also seems upset, now that he’s paying attention. He slowly uncrosses his arms, looking between the two of them.

“Is something… wrong?” he asks.

Treble whines again and stands up from his haunches, loping over to… Roll’s door, pawing at it miserably.

Ballade freezes mid-step, in the middle of following him.

Something is wrong.

---

“О Боже ,” Kalinka says, face cradled in her hands. “She’s gone? You’re sure?”

She looks the worse for wear, with bags under her eyes, hair unbrushed and thrown back into a rough ponytail, and still in her nightclothes. She’s nursing a coffee. Ballade isn’t an expert on the beverage, but he’s sure that the way she put it together - taking instant mix and adding hot tap water - is some kind of crime against nature. Then again, they’d all been in a hurry to collect themselves in the main lab area once Ballade had gone to wake them.

“I checked everywhere,” he says. “She’s not outside, either. Treble must have seen her go or something, because him and Sakugarne are, well...”

He shoots a glance at the two in question, who are hovering at the edge of the inner circle of equipment.

“Enker, too, huh,” Punk says, very pointedly.

“Enker too,” Ballade confirms. “I even… I even looked in his room. He’s not there.”

The interior of Enker’s room was a whole other matter that Ballade had neatly compartmentalized to unpack later.

“But why would they have run off?” Kalinka asks. There’s an edge in her voice, and she’s clicking with maybe more force than necessary as she takes the lab’s computer out of sleep mode. At the same time, she winces and rubs her temple.

Ballade and Punk exchange a meaningful look behind her back. There’s a nonverbal exchange, a lot of gesturing, and frustrated head-shaking (from Ballade, since Punk doesn’t really have a head to shake), but finally they both nod and Ballade speaks up.

“We might… have an idea,” he says.

Kalinka spins around in her computer chair and fixes both of them with a sharp stare. Ballade feels like she’s looking right through him.

“Do you, now,” she says.

“But that doesn’t make any sense,” Punk cuts in. “She was totally against that plan.”

“That plan?” Kalinka asks, eyes flitting between the two of them. Ballade takes a deep breath.

“Enker had… a plan. To fix things,” he says. The words are sticking in his throat. Under Kalinka’s harsh stare, he’s drawing uncomfortable parallels to reports given to another doctor. “It… uh…”

“He wanted to go grab the old Time Skimmer.” Punk swoops in to save him at the last minute. “From right under Wily’s nose. Problem being that it would have been a risky move, especially down two people.”

Kalinka stares at them.

“It’s -” Ballade starts.

He’s cut off by a long and impressive chain of Russian swearing.

Why didn’t anyone tell me?” Kalinka finishes it off with. “I can’t believe this. If I’d had any idea the original Time Skimmer was salvageable…” she trails off.

Ballade has his arm up in front of him, mid-wince. Punk isn’t faring too much better, the set of his shoulders tense. He’s in the middle of taking a step back.

“... Oh,” she says, deflating. Her voice is thick, somehow, and she swallows, swiveling back around. She drops her head to the desk, into her folded arms, coffee forgotten at her elbow. “Of course.”

Ballade and Punk exchange another look. Ballade forces himself to relax, and steps forward.

“Enker asked us not to,” he says. “And Roll… she believed that you could do it without Enker’s help, and we were all divided on it anyway, so…”

Kalinka sits up, rubbing her eyes.

“Oh, Roll…” she sighs. “I don’t deserve her.”

There’s an awkward beat as Kalinka opens her work programs, most of them meaningless data to Ballade, on the main screen.

“Look, it’s…” Ballade hesitates. “I know you were working on getting them back. No one’s going to say you weren’t.”

“That’s not why I -” Kalinka starts, and then gasps. The cursor freezes in place over a text document. “Oh. Oh no.”

“Oh no?” Punk echoes.

“My journal,” Kalinka says, minimizing the application. She lowers her head into her hands once again. “It’s - she read it. I didn’t mean for her to find out like…”

“Find what out?” Ballade asks, a roiling tension starting to crowd out everything else he’s been feeling. It’s different than the nervousness. There’s an edge to it, like it could change into something much different at a moment’s notice.

“That Jazz might still be alive,” she says. It’s barely audible.

“He what?! ” Ballade says. Kalinka, already half-curled in a miserable ball, winces.

“Half of the point of reopening the portal was to find out where he went,” she explains, still quiet.

That roiling tension does transform, after all. It becomes anger.

“How could you?!” Ballade says. “She was devastated about what happened! If something like that happened to… if something like that happened to Punk, or Enker, or Quint, if I really thought they were dead, I don’t even know how I would deal with it!”

“And if you were holding out hope that they were alive, and had those hopes crushed?” Kalinka says. Her eyes are glistening. “I wasn’t - I’m still not sure. After all that we’ve both lost, how could I tell her unless I was sure? How could I hurt her like that?”

“It sounds like you’ve hurt her anyway,” Punk says. He sounds damnably calm, compared to how Ballade feels. His fists are clenched very tightly.

“... You’re right,” Kalinka says. She reaches up to wipe away the tears before they can escape her eyes, and slowly draws herself to sit up straight. “I’m sorry. I’ve made a total mess of this, and I intend to take responsibility. I know that both of you…” she pauses to let her eyes rest on Ballade, “have no reason to trust me, not really. But I’m going to need your help to set things right.”

Ballade looks away.

He catches Treble’s eye. The wolf is sitting at attention, Sakugarne leaning at rest on his flank. He’s looking up at all of them looking for all the world like an anxious puppy.

Hadn’t he been much scarier yesterday?

“... Okay,” he says, returning his attention to the others. “If they’re in danger, it’s not like rushing in alone is going to help, so, fine.”

“Well, if he’s in, I’m in,” Punk says, in a sigh.

“Saku!” Sakugarne pitches in.

Treble woofs. It sounds like an affirmative.

“Oh, like hell it isn’t a dog,” Punk mutters, which earns him a growl.

“Leave it.” Ballade rolls his eyes. “So what’s the plan, then, doctor?”

“Please,” she says. “Call me Kalinka. Do we have any idea where they went?”

“I might,” says Punk. “There’s only one place that it’d be stashed that I know of. Problem is, it’s high-security. I’m not sure the two of us -” he pauses as Treble growls, “- okay, the four of us could handle it.”

Ballade frowns.

“What, the fallback facility?” he asks. Punk flashes him a thumbs-up. “With how paranoid Wily is? There’s always some group on rotation there.”

“Right,” Punk says. “Enker said he had a plan, but since you two were going at it, he never actually got around to explaining it.”

“Well, if you know where it is, that’s easy enough,” Kalinka says. She’s already opening up a communication program. “If only we knew some kind of fortress-delving robot with a specialty in beating up robot masters.”

“Oh,” Ballade says. If he had a heart, it might skip a beat at the thought of seeing the Blue Bomber again. “That’s… not a bad idea.”

His fragile… he’s not sure what to call it. Hopes? Ballade’s feelings on the matter turn out to be moot in any case, because they get transferred immediately to voicemail. Voicemail that is closed, because it is full.

“That’s odd,” Kalinka frowns. “Maybe Papa…?”

An attempt to get in contact with Dr. Cossack also ends in (a much more brusque) recorded request to leave a message.

They all look at each other uneasily.

Kalinka wordlessly opens a news feed.

‘- and, augmented by my brilliant double gear system, these robots of mine will take over the world! Even your beloved hero, Mega Man, will be powerless to stop me this time!’

Dr Wily’s face takes up the screen, overlaid by a news ticker.

Mad scientist Dr. Wily makes another bid for world domination, it reads.

“Good news,” Punk says, as Kalinka dissolves into another bout of filthy language. “I think I figured out Enker’s plan.”

Chapter Text

It’s been three days since the beginning of Sigma’s latest full-scale uprising, since X’s newfound brother was kidnapped, since Bass was thrown in a cell, and since Zero went missing.

X wishes that he didn’t already know what it was like to do this without Zero. His time is split between running field missions, coordinating his own unit, and the endless stream of paperwork that their activities produce. Even with wartime agreements postponing or waivering certain requirements, there are still supplies, personnel, and assets to coordinate, and…

He recalls his latest meeting with Signas.

“What do you mean, we can’t find him?”

“I mean that we’ve tasked every resource we can afford to the task to the matter, and Zero is nowhere to be found.”

He’d been overwhelmed with concern. He’s still overwhelmed with concern, but everything is overwhelming right now.

“His tracking box…?”

“We did find that. It appears that he ripped it out of his own chassis.”

X had winced, and Signas had given him his most sympathetic expression. It was more than most people got from the head of the Maverick Hunters.

“I’m sorry, X, but that’s where the trail runs cold, for now.”

“We have to find him.”

“X… if what you reported is accurate, then he’s not a threat. And, well, if he was actively hunting mavericks on his own, we would have found him by now. He’s not exactly subtle. I think it’s most likely that he’s simply laying low.”

Laying low and blaming himself for almost killing X, he’d wanted to counter. Laying low and suffering, quietly, by himself.

X felt - and feels, even now - an immense stab of guilt. He’s an officer of the Maverick Hunters. He sees casualty and death counts pass his desk every day, and sees those numbers play out in front of his eyes on the field. There’s so much more at stake here. Zero’s life probably isn’t even in danger. And…

He looks over at the corner of his desk, where Quint’s helmet sits. He’d retrieved it personally. The rest of Quint, he knows, by their intel, is probably somewhere in that moon base. With Berkana.

X stares at it, fingers hovering over the keyboard, until he feels vaguely nauseated.

He’s sure that loving Zero is one of the best things ever to happen to him. So why does he feel so selfish about how he feels?

X groans softly, withdrawing his hands and letting the jewel of his helmet drop to the desk with a  gentle tnk against the metal surface.

“X!”

He shoots right back up as the door to his office swishes open and Axl comes bowling in. He doesn’t even wait for the door to be open all the way before shoving his way through.

“Axl?” X says, as Axl storms up to his desk and plants both hands firmly on the surface.

“What are you doing here?” Axl demands, leaning forward so his face is just behind X’s holographic screen. X sighs, mentally resigns himself to not getting any more work done in the immediate future, and closes the screen to address the younger hunter.

“My job?” X tries, trying and failing not to sound exasperated.

“Are you crazy?” Axl sticks his chin out. “Zero is still MIA and you’re working on supply requisitions?

He must have read it before I closed the screen.

“Among other things,” X says, rubbing his temple. “Look, Axl, I want to. Believe me, I want to be out there looking for him. But we’re in the middle of an uprising. There are fires being set faster than we can put them out. You know that.”

“Yeah, of course I know that!” Axl says. “You know what else I know? That there are hundreds of hunter officers and thousands and thousands of us altogether fighting that war, and none of them care about Zero the way you do.”

“This isn’t about how much I care about him!” X says. Yells, he realizes belatedly. He’s sitting up much straighter all of a sudden.

Axl’s scanning his face very closely, he realizes. He tries to school his expression, but Axl’s face, already frowning, twists further.

“You’re such a garbage liar, X,” he says.

“Not all of us are at liberty to act on our personal feelings, Axl.” X says. His voice is forcefully even. “Do you have any idea how much we put on the line to protect you when you go off and do things like what happened in Siberia?”

“Hey, this isn’t about me,” Axl says. “And maybe if you hadn’t kept me out of the loop, that wouldn’t have happened!”

“Well, maybe if you didn’t make a habit of sneaking off all the time, I would be more inclined to trust you -”

“That’s personal!” Axl says. “You know I’m just looking for where I came from! If you’d known about the deal with Dr. Light in Siberia, wouldn’t you have gone and checked it out?!”

“I can’t just do that, Axl!” X slams a fist down on the desk. “If I had known, I would have had to bring an archaeological team, notify several bodies of reploid regulation, get R&D ready - a whole slew of things that I have to do because I’m Mega Man X and I don’t get to just do things for me!

His voice is quavering, now, and his eyes suddenly find themselves cast downwards.

There’s a beat of silence.

“I dunno,” Axl says. He sounds… disappointed. “This Mega Man X guy sounds like he’s just putting off deciding if Zero is important enough to stick his neck out for or not.”

That stings.

“Axl…” X starts.

Axl leans back, crossing his arms.

“Which is insane! Because the X I know is like, a really great guy who always goes out of his way to look out for the people he cares about. He’s totally my hero.”

That shouldn’t sting, but right now, it absolutely does. X winces.

“I thought Zero was your hero,” he says, feeling the perfect picture of misery.

“He makes it a lot easier,” Axl says. “Mostly because he doesn’t yell at me all the time.”

“Is this your plan?” X says, into his hands. “Guilt me into looking for him?”

“I shouldn’t need to,” Axl says.

He shouldn’t need to, part of X agrees.

But he can’t listen to that part, because there’s a mountain of obligations and politics and practical concerns standing in the way and he can’t just ignore those. He glances up at Quint’s helmet sitting on one corner of the desk - a tangible reminder that he can’t afford to be selfish. Axl’s eyes follow his gaze and his expression softens.

“I’m… sorry about your brother,” Axl says. “He’s a sweet kid.”

“I should never have taken them along,” X says softly. “I just thought… I couldn’t handle another near-miss like Siberia if they forced themselves along again somehow.”

“I heard about what happened with Bass,” Axl says. X knows he shouldn’t have access to that information, but somehow he’s not surprised. He doesn’t have the energy to be annoyed. “... he still locked up?”

“For the time being,” X says. “I don’t know how long this is going to take. They’ve been shooting down any craft that gets even close to the base, and they managed to destroy every known teleporter satellite network up there. We’re gathering parts for a solution, but…”

“... Let me guess,” Axl says. “Each part is one-of-a-kind and there’s a maverick general guarding every last one?”

X sighs.

“Yeah. Sounds about right,” Axl says, and then sighs himself. “... Hey, X. Come on. Help me go find Zero and we’ll go kick Sigma’s ass and get your brother back.”

“... I can’t,” X says.

“It was worth a shot,” Axl says, voice once again tinged with disappointment. He stands up. “... Fine. I’ll do it myself.”

He pauses, maybe hoping for a response, but X just pulls up his screen again.

His door swishes open and then closed, and he’s left alone with his work.

---

The worst thing about being thrown into a cell is that there’s nothing to do but self-reflect.

Sure, there had been an effort to avoid it. Bass spent a whole five minutes noting that the damage he’d received during the battle was slowly but surely lessening. Usually, after a defeat, he would take the time to repair himself and Treble. (What he would do to have Treble right now, curled up at his side, a reassuring presence.) It would take his mind off of the sting of shame that he always felt after a loss. But…

He guesses he has an auto-repair function now. That’s... something.

That line of thought isn’t enough to distract from the howling emptiness that comes whenever he thinks about Quint. His absence aches. He doesn’t think that they’ve spent this long apart since they got together, and even when they were apart, Quint hadn’t been unavailable. He hadn’t been in danger, out of reach.

Bass has had three days of wallowing in his own guilt, and all he can think is that -

It’s all his fault.

And, worst of all, it’s all his fault because he was weak.

Is weak.

It’s all so horribly clear, now that he’s identified the feeling behind it. Every action - pushing Zero away, making a mad dash for the force metal as soon as things went south...

Quint. Arguing with Quint. It’s completely possible that the last thing they ever did together was argue.

Fear - raw, powerful fear - sweeps him again, and it sickens him. He clutches his knees harder. He’s still curled up against the bars, where he can see the occasional comings and goings of hunters; if X comes back, he’ll see him from this angle. It’s a forlorn, stupid hope. As if X is coming back for him. As if he has any reason to.

He hates it, but he’s been crying on and off. His cheeks are still damp.

Weak, weak, weak.

“Yeesh. You’re looking rough.”

The voice comes out of nowhere, right next to his head on the other side of the bars, and Bass jumps about three feet into the air and spins around. He tries to summon his buster, but it won’t form - they have him in some kind of cuffs. He’d guessed that’s what they were for, but he’s still annoyed that he was right.

“... Axl?” he says, finally processing where he’s heard that voice before. There’s still no one visible on the other side of the bars. He frowns and narrows his eyes. It takes him a second, but there’s a sort of… Axl-shaped distortion, now that he’s looking closely.

“Yeah, it’s me,” Axl says. “I heard about what happened.”

“Great,” Bass says, feeling anger rise at the prospect of someone to aim it at. “Are you here to rub it in?”

He can’t see, but he’s dead certain that Axl rolls his eyes in the pause that follows before he speaks.

“Yeah, like I have time to waste on that,” he says. “Did X tell you that Zero is missing?”

Bass lowers his buster arm, which he belatedly realizes he was still pointing at him.

“... He mentioned it,” he says, looking away. “Why?”

Axl’s distorted form leans forward and there’s a tap against the bars.

“Well, no one can find him and X is giving up before he even starts because he’s having some kinda crisis,” he says. “... again.”

Bass’ jaw clenches. There’s an alien sort of feeling bubbling up inside of him, fear and worry and anger all mixed up together.

“He said he was gonna fix it!” he says, grabbing the bars and squeezing them tightly.

“Well he’s not,” Axl says. “And I’ve got no leads. So I need you to help me find Zero.”

Bass opens his mouth to reply, but the words won’t escape his mouth.

This is… this is what he wanted, right? He’d screamed after X, begging him to let him help. He wants to help.

What if I can’t?

“... I’ll just make things worse,” he says, through gritted teeth. “That’s all I’ve fucking done since I got here, is get in the way and make things worse.”

Because he’s weak, weak, weak.

“So what?” Axl says, and Bass’ gaze, which had been dropping, snaps back up.

“What the hell do you mean, so what?

“Are you seriously gonna pass up a chance to make up for it?”

“It’s not… On top of getting my boyfriend kidnapped and whatever the fuck happened to Zero, I got a bunch of people killed and we lost the damn meteor,” Bass says. “You think finding Zero will make up for that?”

“A chance to start making up for it,” Axl amends. “Is there something you can do about it or not?”

Bass grips the bars very tightly. There is something he can think of trying, off of the top of his head. He’s not sure if it will work. That uncertainty feels like it’s rooting him to the spot. Even if he finds Zero, isn’t it hopeless? Won’t he hate him? Hasn’t he wrecked everything?

Fear. It’s overwhelming.

The reason you’re the strongest robot in the world is because you never ever give up, okay?

Quint’s words hit him out of nowhere like a ton of bricks, and his vision suddenly blurs as tears spring into his eyes.

“Fuck,” he says, hoarse. “That’s what he meant.”

“Uh…?” Axl says.

He’s not sure if it will work, but damn him if he won’t try.

He’s tired of feeling weak.

“I can help you,” Bass says, steadying his gaze so he’s looking at… where he think Axl’s eyes probably are. “Get me out of here and I’ll find him.”

The cell door clicks and swings open, and Axl shimmers into view. There’s a flash, and then Axl isn’t Axl anymore.

“Now we’re in business,” Axl says, with X’s voice and body. “Let’s blow this joint.”

Chapter Text

If it had just been the Genesis Unit, they would have been fine.

The sneak attack from behind the wall had complicated things, sure, but it’s not as though Roll is unnaccustomed to fighting multiple enemies. As for Enker, she can only guess, but he’s one of the most experienced warbots alive in this timeline, and certainly not a pushover.

If it had just been the Genesis Unit and one wall-related surprise attack, they would have been fine.

Sure, they’d had a few issues closing in after that. Hyper Storm H, it turns out, has the ability to produce fierce gusts of wind, enough to blow a robot backwards. And his friends are annoyingly well-equipped to take advantage of the spacing, throwing projectiles at Roll and Enker every time they’d tried to get close. Projectiles which are not made of energy, no less, so Enker’s mirror buster had no fodder to feed on.

No, they still could have won, despite the fact that the Genesis Unit are apparently just super at teamwork. When Roll had been able to connect, it had been doing a lot of damage. And Enker has some ranged capability, if feeble.

The real problem had come about when the security drones, the ones who had seemed so sparse on the way in, had flooded in to assist the three mythic-animal-themed robot masters, providing crossfire and completely surrounding them.

That, Roll concludes, is the only reason that her and Enker are sitting back to back, tied up with the same bundle of thick metal cables, while the three Genesis Units bicker about whether or not to call Wily and seal their fates right now at the other end of the room, right next to Enker’s javelin and the parts they’d ripped out of Roll’s buster arm to disable her sabre while they were unconscious.

“... Well,” Roll says, breaking the silence between the two of them, which has been hanging in the air since they’d been tied up. “I guess this is it.”

Enker audibly exhales. It’s not quite a sigh and it’s not quite a snort. It’s somewhere in between.

“Regretting coming along?” he asks.

Roll does sigh, long and hard.

“Mostly regretting… not just telling the others what I found out about Jazz,” she says, staring out into empty space in front of her. “... I’m sorry.”

“Why are you apologizing to me?” Enker says.

“I was so mad at you for acting irrationally, but as soon as something really hurt me, I just acted without thinking,” Roll says. “... Not that I forgive you for hurting Ballade’s feelings that way, but…”

Enker really does snort this time.

“It’s not funny,” Roll says.

“You’re the one who’s going to end up hurting him the most,” Enker says. His voice has remained annoyingly deadpan this entire time, but this is the first time that it’s really felt wrong.

“That’s not funny either,” Roll says, pursing her lips.

“... You really have no idea,” Enker says. Finally, something colours his voice. Exasperation.

“What do you mean?” she presses.

“What do you think will happen to us when we’re turned over to Wily?” he says.

Roll bites her lip.

We’re going to be reprogrammed, she thinks. But...

“Do you really think that he would be more upset about losing me than losing you?” she says, quietly. “You’re his brother.”

“I’m his teammate,” Enker says. “Ballade has always made his priorities clear.”

“Oh, stop,” Roll says. “I know you never talk about how you feel, but you were upset when I said that you were mad at him for that, and even if that was true, you’ve done nothing but protect him.”

“Has anyone ever told you that you’re nosy?” he says. There’s a real undercurrent of tension in his voice, now.

“Has anyone ever told you that bringing up dead family is crossing a line? ” Rolls snaps back.

She’s still mad about it, she realizes, all of a sudden. Even madder than when he’d first said it, now that what he’d said about Kalinka was…

“It… was,” Enker says. “It was intentional.”

“That’s... awful,” Roll says, carefully tamping down what she wants to say. Her voice trembles with the effort. “Why would you do that?”

“I said you were going to hurt Ballade,” Enker says, dispassionately. “You are… you’re stubborn, and naive, and you trust far too easily.”

“So you wanted to stop us from being friends because you think I’m going to rub off on him?” Roll says.

Enker sighs.

“Light-bots…”

“Well, even if I did rub off on him,” Roll says, irritably. “At least he’s happier. The way you’ve been acting has been making him miserable.”

“If I have to trade his happiness for his safety -”

“You don’t get to make that choice for him! he’s his own person!”

“- the last time he made that call, he got himself killed and reprogrammed and there was nothing I could do about it!

He yells it, all semblance of cool self-control gone and replaced with something raw that she’s never heard from him before.

Roll is stunned into silence. She can’t see his face, but he’s gone very stiff against her back.

“How completely ironic that he thinks I hated him for betraying Wily,” he says. “I begged him to spare Ballade, do you understand? I took on his punishment and still Wily strengthened our chains.”

“Enker…” Roll says, very softly.

“That is what happens when you rely on the mercy of roboticists,” he says.

“What was done to you isn’t fair,” Roll says. “But how is -”

She’s interrupted by a loud, wet sniffle from off to the side.

“That is so sad, ” rumbles Hyper Storm H, pig-like ears drooping.

Excuse me,” Roll says, “This is a private conversation?”

“You’re excused,” Buster Rod pops out from behind him. He’s also wiping away some moisture from his eyes. “But why don’t you just tell him how you feel, man?”

Enker doesn’t say anything, but Roll does feel him turn his head towards the interlopers and notices the proverbial atmosphere take a sudden drop in temperature.

“Me and my team, man,” Buster Rod continues, blithe to that change, “We’re all about communication.”

“I hate both of you and you’re idiots,” Mega Water calls, from where he’s stationed at a nearby computer.

“See?” Buster Rod says. Hyper Storm nods solemnly. “We completely feel you.”

“So… you’ll let us go?” Roll hazards.

“No,” Hyper Storm says, with another big sniffle. He raises up a huge hand to rub his snout. “But we feel really bad about it.”

Super bad,” Buster Rod agrees.

“I don’t,” Mega Water adds.

“The worst,” Buster Rod affirms. “Oh, and by the way, we already called him and he’s got some ‘bots coming to pick you up.”

“And my last moments of free thought will be spent here,” Enker says. His voice is back to its usual unnerving evenness. “Entertaining morons.”

“That’s really hurtful,” Hyper Storm says.

“Don’t be too hard on him,” Buster Rod says, patting his companion’s spherical side. “He’s working through a lot of issues.”

Roll feels a twitch somewhere around the neighborhood of Enker’s hand, where it rests against her own.

“Since you feel so bad for us,” she says, very sweetly, “could you maybe give us some time alone? I have, er… I want to cry, but it’s way too embarrassing in front of everyone.”

She sniffs for effect.

“Oh no,” Hyper Storm says, exchanging looks with Buster Rod. “We made Roll cry. Oh no…”

“Right,” Buster Rod says, looking deeply uncomfortable as Roll’s lips quiver. “Uh, we’ll be… over here.”

The two of them back up practically the whole length of the room, and Roll turns her head in the opposite direction, as close to facing Enker as she can get at this point.

“Are you okay?” she hisses.

“I’ve been better,” he says. “Do you have a plan?”

“... No,” she admits. “I… don’t see how we can get out of this.”

There’s a pause.

“Neither do I,” Enker says.

Roll bites her lip.

The anger from before is… gone. Burned out. Now she just feels tired.

“After all I went through, I never imagined it would end up like this,” she says, closing her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Enker says. Roll’s eyes blink back open.

“For…?”

“For a lot of things,” he says.

It’s vague, and Roll has half a mind to press him on it, but it’s the first apology she’s heard from him, ever.

“I’m sorry, too,” she says. “For letting everyone down.”

“... Yes,” Enker says, after a thoughtful pause. “That’s it.”

“A little late to get to the same page,” Roll sighs.

“It is what it is,” Enker says, and then she feels his head shift. “... Did you hear that?”

“Huh?”

It’s faint, but now that Roll is listening, she can hear some rumbles. They’re distant, but each one is louder than the last. As if on cue, Mega Water’s terminal lights up with red warning windows.

“Oh, that’s not good,” Mega Water exclaims, voice high and thin. “We have intruders!”

The security feeds pops up, and Roll has never been so relieved to see Ballade and Punk in her life. They’re shredding through the security drones, and in Punk’s case, the walls.

“It’s them!” she gasps.

“Dammit,” Enker says, craning his head to see as well. “It’s just them? They’ll be overrun!”

Just as quickly as her hopes had crested, they fall. Enker is right, the part of Roll that knows how to fight a war says. With how the Genesis Unit made short work of them, even though it might be a closer fight, there’s no way that they’ll prevail.

So much for taking charge of my own destiny, she thinks, miserably. Ballade and Punk are going to pay for my mistakes, and I’m sitting here tied up with a broken, sparking -

“Oh!” Roll says under her breath.

Her and Enker’s gauntlets are right up next to each other under their bonds.

As the Genesis Unit scramble out of the room to meet their new intruders, Roll turns as far towards Enker as she can.

“I’ve got an idea,” she says.

---

After months of sitting around running bargain bin training drills, Ballade is enjoying storming the facility a little too much for the circumstances. He can’t help it, honestly; he was made for combat, and each boom-CRACK from his crackers is music to his ears as it wipes out a chunk of drones.

Whoooooooo-hah!”

Punk seems to feel the same. He unrolls from his spiked-ball-form and comes to a stop next to Ballade, leaving a trail of battered and eviscerated metools in his wake.

“You boys having fun?”  Kalinka’s voice crackles in through the comms, amused even through the obvious underlying strain. He’s still getting used to that.

“Do heroes always get to do this much property damage?” Punk answers, shooting out a casual screw crusher at an approaching rabbit-bot. It neatly slices through the carrot-shaped missile the thing had already let loose and embeds itself right between its googly eyes. “I might’ve missed my calling with this whole Mega Man Killing business.”

“How often are we going to be blowing up Wily’s stuff?” Ballade says, shooting out another cracker to blow up Wily’s stuff. “I mean, not that it isn’t cathartic. I could do this all day.”

“Technically speaking, there are an infinite number of Wilys in the multiverse, and thus an infinite amount of his stuff to blow up,”  Kalinka puts in. “And no time police to catch us, if you get my drift.”

“I like the way you think,” Punk says, rolling up into a ball. Then he’s gone again like a shot, and another wall is converted to scrap metal.

“Speaking of why we’re here - any sign of them?” Ballade asks.  He notices a metool wearing a jetpack in his periphery, swings around to attack, and -

- a purple blur snatches it out of the air as several hundred pounds of metallic wolf tear into the unfortunate little thing. Treble drags the met to the ground and shakes it in his jaws like a chew toy.

Yeah, just gonna let him do as he pleases.

“Not yet,” Kalinka admits, voice instantly sobered. “They’re not on any of the cameras. But you do have incoming - uhhh… a monkey king ripoff, a kappa, and a pig-man?”

“We get to beat up the Genesis Unit?!” Punk shouts, stepping back out from the next room, which is thoroughly trashed. “This is the best day ever! I hate those guys!”

“It’ll be the best day ever when we get the others back,” Ballade frowns.

“Oh, but you won’t!” A new voice comes from up the hallway. They’re in a much more open area now than when they started, in no small part due to Punk’s renovations, and Ballade sees the Genesis Unit lined up in a row with the speaker, Buster Rod G, up front. He’s pointing at them with his staff dramatically.

“Oh hell, he’s going to monologue, isn’t he?” Punk mutters, as he steps back to fall in line with Ballade.

“Yeah, your friends thought the same!” Buster Rod croons. “They thought they could just -”

“Er, uh, no they didn’t,” Hyper Storm interrupts.

“What?” Buster Rod falters.

“Well, you said they thought ‘the same’, but he’s here to rescue them,” Hyper Storm says, slow and ponderous. “Those two before didn’t have anyone to rescue, did they?”

Ballade opens his mouth, but Punk puts up a hand in front of him and shoots him a look.

“Oh,” Buster Rod says, tapping his staff on the floor. “Well, whatever! Your friends! Thought they could just walk in here and take on the Genesis Unit!”

“Actually, they seemed surprised to see us,” Mega Water says. “I’m pretty sure they had no idea we were guarding the place.”

“Nnnnnngokay well we’re going to beat you up like we beat them up!” Buster Rod says, and then launches himself forward to close the distance.

As they meet, the battlefield erupts into chaos.

The Genesis Unit might be discordant in speech, but they’re a well-oiled machine when it comes to combat, just like the ex-Mega Man Killers. Buster Rod is - predictably - the most annoying, with extreme agility, that extendable pole, and a trick not unlike Gemini Man’s where he creates illusory doubles. Add in Hyper Storm’s battlefield control with his gusts of wind, and most of Ballade’s crackers are simply blown off-course.

“Dammit,” Ballade says, as he dodges another pole to the gut narrowly. He hits the floor and slides several feet under the wind. Over to his left, he can see Punk and Mega Water S having it out. “Why are they ganging up on me?!”

“Checking the records…”  Kalinka’s voice comes over comms, along with frantic typing sounds. “Ah! Looks like they’re all vulnerable to explosives! Monkey boy had it patched out, but they must see you as the biggest threat.”

“Great!” Ballade says, kicking back to avoid Buster Rod getting up close and personal. “What do we do about it?”

“Kind of busy here!” Punk says, and it’s echoed over comms. He’s sporting several injuries, Ballade notices at a glance.

“It would help if we weren’t outnumbered!” Ballade says. “Where did Treble go?”

“Hah!” Buster Rod exclaims, as he lunges in for another pass. Ballade is knocked back with a whoof as he takes a kick to the gut. “If you want to beat us, you’re going to have to stop monkeying around!”

“I hate you so much,” Ballade growls, reaching out to grab his assailant’s boot. Buster Rod lets out a very monkey-like “Eeek! ” as he goes flying into Mega Water, knocking both of them down.

Ballade and Punk regroup, back to back, as the Genesis Unit do the same.

“You’re both low on energy,”  Kalinka says, voice tense. “You should consider coming back - it’ll do no good if we lose you two, too.”

Ballade, who had already used his E-tank, grimaces. By the look in Punk’s eyes, he’s done the same.

“We can’t pull out now,” he says. “This is our one shot!”

“I…”   she says, and then audibly swallows. “It’s your choice. Be careful.”

“Of course -” Ballade says, or starts to say. He’s rudely interrupted by the entire bulk of Hyper Storm H colliding with the both of them spherical-backside-first, which happens so fast that neither of them have a chance to bail out of the way. They crunch against the far wall and Hyper Storm rolls off of them.

Ballade groans.

“What... the hell... was that?” Punk voices what he’s still working up to.

“Our patented cyclone wrecking ball attack,” Mega Water says, smugly swaggering up to them alongside Buster Rod. “While you were busy gabbing, a combination of my waterspouts, Hyper Storm’s winds, and Buster Rod’s… rod… propelled him at you at blinding speeds.”

Ballade tries to lift his arm, to find that it’s not responding. He’s low on energy, too, shields flickering.

“О Боже, Kalinka’s voice says in his ear. It’s staticy probably because of the damage to his systems, cutting in and out. With each snatch he does get, though, she sounds more and more panicked. “No, n- Tr-le, w- -re you? Th- -down!”

Great, he thinks. On top of dying and letting everyone down, now I feel bad.

“You guys really are idiots,” Buster Rod croons. “Without your leader spearguy, you’re complete pushovers. We’ll hand-deliver the whole lot of you to Wily.”

The three of them approach, weapons drawn, standing right over them. Ballade closes his eyes, listening to the comms crackle in his ear. At least the last sounds he hears as a free bot will be someone -

- his train of thought derails, abruptly, because the comms have gone dead. That’s weird.

There’s a peculiar sound. It goes sort of like Psshhnk.

He opens his eyes to see Mega Water S staring down at the tip of Enker’s weapon sticking out of his chest.

“It’s a javelin,” Enker says, from across the room. He’s just pulling back from a perfect throwing form. Roll is there, too, armour melted and charred and leaning on Treble.

“Oh,” says Buster Rod. “Right.”

Mega Water falls down.

“Get ‘em, Treble,” Roll says, patting the wolf’s metal fringe. He gives her a disgustingly adoring look and then leaps forward along with Enker. Roll grits her teeth and grabs one of the many broken pipes littering the arena to step forward along with them.

Buster Rod takes a whole step back and pulls Enker’s javelin from out of his compatriot’s sparking body. He holds it out in front of him in one hand with his rod in the other like a ward.

“Wh-why is that mutt here?!” he says. Treble flashes his full set of teeth at Buster Rod in a snarl.

“He’s a wolf,” Roll says, with a full-on smirk, and things start moving.

With Mega Water down and Treble on their side, it’s a surprisingly onesided battle. Ballade watches as Treble rips into Hyper Storm, Roll surprisingly canny even with just a broken pipe as she plays distraction and then drives her makeshift weapon right into the pig robot’s optics.

Enker dashes right up to Buster Rod and grabs his spear right out from his hand, assisted by a pulse of energy sent up it which sizzles against Buster Rod’s shields. From there, without Hyper Storm’s windy interference, it comes down to a one-on-one melee duel.

Ballade has seen enough of Enker’s prowess to know how that will go long before Buster Rod falls over with a hole through his torso to match Mega Water’s.

Ballade and Punk have both pulled themselves up to sitting by the time the others finish up and make their way over.

“Thanks for the save,” Punk says, rubbing a particularly nasty puncture wound on his leg.

“We should be thanking you,” Roll says, offering Ballade a hand. He takes it, with his good arm, wobbling on his feet. “If they hadn’t left to fight you, well… we wouldn’t have been able to make a break for it.”

Now that he’s closer, and things have calmed down, Ballade can see the damage to Roll’s back. It’s, in a word, bad. In more words, it looks like she took a charged plasma shot right to the back. Her hair is also singed, and her buster arm… it’s not in good shape. It doesn’t look like anything the Genesis Unit could have done.

“What happened?” he asks. Roll sees where his eyes are and gives a helpless shrug.

“We were able to escape because Roll discharged energy into her sabre arm, where some of the exposed parts were touching my armour,” Enker says.

“He was able to convert the energy into an attack, but without the javelin to focus it, it sort of went out… everywhere,” Roll says. “And we were back to back, so... but, um, it worked! And then on our way out we found Treble, who is a good boy yes he is, ” she pauses to scratch the wolf behind the ears, “and he took us to you.”

“And now,” Enker says, as Ballade opens his mouth, “we have very little time before more of Wily’s forces arrive, so we need to get the Time Skimmer and leave now.

“Right,” Ballade clicks his mouth shut. “Let’s get going.”

---

It is, Ballade reflects, a bizarre sight.

The group of them are making their way down the halls, guided by a voice he can no longer hear. (He’d turned off his half-functional comms; the static was really getting distracting.) Enker and Punk are discussing something tersely up front, wiping out the last remaining dregs of the security force as they go. Treble is behind them. Just a day ago, that would have made Ballade nervous, but now…

Roll is next to him. They have an arm slung across each others’ shoulders, helping each other along as the worst-damaged.

“Hey,” he says. Roll, who had been surveying the rooms as they passed, looks up.

“Hey,” she says.

“... You really scared me,” he says. She bites her lip and looks away again.

“I know,” she says. “I’m sorry.”

“I just… don’t get it,” he says. The apology doesn’t make him feel better. Somehow, it makes him feel… angrier. “I don’t get why you did this alone. After all the stuff you said… you should’ve known that you didn’t have to do it alone.”

“Well, there was Enker, but -” Roll winces under Ballade’s withering look. “No, you’re right. I should have come to get you. It wouldn’t have been such a close call if I had. I just…”

“You just?”

“You were so scared of being reprogrammed,” she says. She looks up at him with tears rimming her eyes. “How could I ask you to do this, after how Enker made you feel about it? I thought, I thought I could get it done and still protect you.”

It’s only by their shared momentum that Ballade doesn’t stop in place.

“Protect me?” he repeats, dumbly.

The words form, but they don’t make sense to his ears.

He quite literally doesn’t know how to feel. It takes a few seconds of processing, but the maelstrom of emotions eventually coalesce into two similar but wildly different warring forces:

Roll put herself in danger to protect him.

He’s a warbot. The idea clashes with his very identity. He’s supposed to be the one doing the protecting, if there’s any to be done. It hurts a deeply-buried well of pride that he’d thought he’d long abandoned.

On the other hand.

Roll put herself in danger to protect him.

“I…” Ballade says. “You shouldn’t have.”

“I know, it was stupid -” Roll starts.

“No, I mean…” he wishes he had a free hand to hide his face. He feels vulnerable. “If something had happened to you because of me, I don’t… know if I could forgive myself.”

“Well,” Roll says, quietly. “Me, neither.”

Ballade looks upwards. Enker and Punk are a little further ahead than they were before. If he had to guess, he’d say they were very conveniently hanging just out of earshot.

No, I mean…” Ballade says. “Because. I. Um.”

He swallows, and very pointedly does not look at Roll. Then he does, because he’s a sucker. She’s looking at him questioningly.

Oh, why couldn’t the Genesis Idiots just have knocked me out so I could put this off?

“BecauseIlikeyou,” he says, in one breath.

“... Oh,” Roll says, and then, “OH. Ohhhh.”

She’s covering her mouth with her free hand when he works up the courage to look over. Her eyes flick over to Enker and then back to him, very wide.

“Oh,” she says, again, softly. “Oh, Ballade…”

“Aaaand you don’t feel the same way,” he says, any remaining hopes dashed at the obvious pity in her voice. “... I… figured.”

“Ballade…” Roll says, and he can see her visibly grasping for something to say. “I… I really respect the courage it must have taken to tell me this...”

That stings.

“I shouldn’t have,” Ballade says, grimacing. “It’s going to be awkward now, isn’t it?”

“Maybe for a while, I’m not going to lie,” Roll says. He feels a gentle squeeze on his shoulder where her hand is laying. “But not forever.”

Ballade feels a wetness at the edge of his eyes.

It hurts. It really hurts. He’s been afraid of rejection for so long, and here it is, hurting like a son of a bitch. Exactly like he thought it would.

But not forever.

It’s ironic that he’s thinking about that future - the one where everything is okay again - when they finally stumble upon the old Time Skimmer, half buried in a pile of junk.

“Let’s get this back,” Enker says. “We have a lot of work to do.”

They all set to it. The future is waiting for them.

Chapter Text

Quint wakes up to darkness.

Actually, maybe ‘wakes up’ isn’t the quite right. He’s conscious, he thinks, but the mechanical side of his brain, the one that sends him damage reports and vectors and prompts, is… absent. He’s just him, Quint, standing around in a colourless, lightless void. Nevertheless, looking down, he can see himself as though he’s fully lit.

For a few seconds, that thought process takes up his attention. Then, he remembers the last thing that happened to him.

Bass… the meteor fragment… he’d used the Mirror Buster, or the upgraded form of it… he’d had to let go of the energy eventually, though, which had escaped from him in a shockwave at the worst time possible. That was new. And then…

Here he is.

“What’s happening?” he mutters, looking down at his hands. They’re in better shape than he would have anticipated, green gloved surface unmarred by the abuse he’d just put on them.

“You’re dreaming,” a voice says, from in front of him. Quint’s eyes snap back up, and where before there was only empty space, Dr. Light stands. He’s not a hologram this time, though his age is just as advanced as it was in the capsule. Here, with the aid of colour and a clearer picture, the wrinkles and imperfections that set him apart from Quint’s own memories of his father are even more apparent.

“I… I can’t dream,” Quint replies, stupidly. Dr. Light’s face crinkles into a gentle smile.

“I admit that I had some part in it, this time,” he says. “But, given time, it will happen naturally.”

“Given time?” Quint asks, his voice wavering. Dr. Light sighs.

“Forgive me, my boy,” he says. “The upgrade that I gave you and Bass is a far-reaching change. Under normal circumstances, I would have liked to ask your permission.”

“Dad,” Quint says, “you’re, um, really freaking me out.”

“Ah…” Dr. Light straightens. “I’m sorry. It’s been a long time since I spoke to anyone at length, and to tell the truth, I’m not entirely myself.”

Quint tilts his head. He feels dread clawing up from within himself, and takes a steadying breath.

“If I’m dreaming,” he says, “then you’re like… in my brain? Am I plugged into your capsule or something? What happened? Is Bass okay? Am I okay?”

Dr. Light frowns, which just sends a spike of anxiety through Quint.

“As far as I know, Bass evaded capture,” he says. “As I’m somewhat limited to your point of view, that’s all I’ve been able to glean. As for you, well…” he pauses. “... I thought it best to keep you asleep, rather than to wake up right now.”

“I’ve been kidnapped,” Quint says. Dr. Light nods grimly. He puts his head in his hands. He’s shaking and not shaking. It’s more like the world around him is, somehow, trembling. “... they’re taking me apart. They’re going to - they’re going to reprogram me! They’re going to change me again! They’re -”

“- not going to reprogram you.” Quint feels a hand on his shoulder and looks up, wide-eyed, to see his father’s gentle expression.

“H-how can you say that for sure?” he asks, lip quivering.

“When I created X,” Dr. Light says, “at the forefront of my mind were all of the times that my robots - my children - had been turned against me. Entirely against their will, they were forced to become different people. So, with X, I aimed to create an architecture that could not be overwritten by the whims of selfish humans.”

Quint sniffs.

“Are you saying…?”

Dr. Light’s other hand finds its way to Quint’s other shoulder.

“Quint… I know that you are not my Rock. But, the things you have gone through… I can’t help but feel that those things are the legacy of my own arrogance. I gave you a soul, but I left it vulnerable to be subverted. I made you my child, but I never gave you the ability to grow like a child should, to reach full independence and to live a full life.”

“All of the things you gave X,” Quint says, feeling tears well up in his eyes.

“Yes,” he says. “All of the things I was able to give to X. And, by extension, the things that X was able to give to all of his successors. The gift of true free will - and, perhaps, after all of the conflict it’s caused, it’s simply another act of arrogance. But I couldn’t bear to fail my children that way again.”

“I forgive you, dad,” Quint whispers.

“Of course you do,” he laughs, softly. “You have the biggest heart… more than I ever thought possible. I am so, so proud of you.”

Quint bites his lip. It’s wet at the edges, tears tracking down and making a stop in the contours there before flowing to his chin.

“You made me like X?” he asks. The question mark is a formality.

“Indeed I did,” Dr. Light says. “It will take some time to fully work itself out. What I’ve done is… well, I’m sure you don’t want, or need, the technical details.”

Quint sniffs and forces himself not to make the face he’s sure he was making at the prospect of a complicated explanation.

“To put it metaphorically, it’s sort of like putting a goldfish that has grown to the limits of its current space into a bigger tank,” Dr. Light says. His eyes are shining with amusement. “You’re more or less the same right now, but you will have space to grow. To mature. And, most importantly… you are as immune to tampering as X is.”

“Bass, too?” Quint asks in a quiet voice.

“Yes,” he smiles. “Bass, too.”

Quint bites his lip.

“This is a lot,” he settles on.

“I know it is,” Dr. Light says, giving his shoulders a squeeze.

Quint pitches forward and engulfs his father in a hug.

“I m-miss you so much,” he hiccups.

“Oh, my boy…” Dr. Light puts his arms around him in return. He feels so frail. “I miss you too.”

They stay that way for a while, Quint crying his eyes out. After a little while, he feels wetness in Dr. Light’s beard where it touches the top of his head, and he cries harder.

“I n-never got to s-say goodbye,” he says, when his voice comes back to him. “I’m so, so g-glad to have Roll back but I-I’ve never felt the same. He, he didn’t e-even know if I was a-alive when he died…!”

“He would have hoped,” Dr. Light says, quietly.

Quint sniffs, a long and wet sound.

It’s not a happy answer, but somehow, it makes him feel a little better.

“Am I…”

He sniffs again, and bites his lip, looking up.

“Am I gonna… grow out of liking Boulevard Brawler… ?” he asks.

Dr. Light huffs out a laugh, patting Quint on the back and letting him out of the embrace.

“I certainly didn’t,” he says, eyes gleaming with laughter and still wet with grief.

“That’s good,” Quint says, forcing up a smile in return. “‘Cuz, I’m really good at it… it’d be really lame if I did.”

“Yes, it would,” Dr. Light says, with that wrinkled smile. Something catches Quint’s eye - he’s sort of transparent at the edges.

“Is it... almost time for you to go?” Quint asks. Dr. Light’s smile turns sad.

“Yes… it appears so,” he says, looking at his own fading hand. “I’m just a fragment of the real me, I’m afraid. I was left here to explain what I’d done. Now, my job is done. The space I’m taking up in your new brain will be freed for you to grow into as you see fit.”

“Oh,” Quint says. “Dad…”

“Yes, my boy?”

“Thank you.”

“You’re very welcome,” he says, and then pauses. He’s almost gone, now, a ghost of his own image. “Can you do something for me, Quint?”

“Anything!” Quint says, leaning forward.

“Tell X I’m proud of him,” he says. “And… look after your siblings. And yourself.”

He’s gone, then, leaving Quint alone in the big, black, empty void.

“I will,” he whispers.

It’s not too long before a more complete darkness, unconsciousness, overtakes him.

---

“So, uh, your creator,” Axl says, hefting himself over a boulder and surveying the terrain. “Clandestine lab out in the Himalayas, huh?”

“We told you the old man was nuts,” Bass says.

They’d snuck out of Maverick Hunter HQ with surprising ease, with Axl’s guise as X smoothing things along. X is probably going to be pissed, later, which was a bonus.

Now, they’re looking at the rusted remains of what used to be the entrance to Wily’s fallback location. It’s surreal, seeing it so disused; the old man always kept up his contingencies, which was the quality that kept him a free man after all of his bids for world domination.

Axl is frowning.

“Keep lookout,” Bass says. “The old man had trackers in there. I know where he keeps them, so I’ll be in and out.”

“Seriously?” Axl says, and him and Bass stare each other down for a few moments before he relents. “... Fine. But if you’re not back in fifteen, I’m coming in.”

“What am I gonna do, get into a fight with a hundred-year-old robot master?” Bass vaults over the boulder they’d been sitting behind to stride over to the entrance.

“And lose, yeah!” Axl calls after him. Bass flips him the bird and keeps walking.

The inside of the facility is much like he remembered it, but dilapidated and stripped bare. The already sort of dim lighting is mostly blown out, leaving only pockets of light that occasionally flicker as he passes through. Metal hallways and supports are eaten by rust, leaving girders and internal wiring and pipes visible in some spots.

There are also, intermittently, signs of damage, plasma burns, and the occasional piece of robot or chipped armour lying around. That does nothing for Bass’ nerves.

He’s well on his way to the room with the cluster of computers where he can only hope that the tracking program is still functioning when he hears a noise.

It’s a small noise. It might have escaped into the background, were the place not otherwise dead silent.

Bass forms his buster. If he really does get into a fight with a hundred-year-old robot master, he’s going to shoot Axl on principle.

“Who’s there?” He calls. There’s another noise, a shuffling, and from one of the side rooms up ahead, a red boot steps out, followed by the rest of Zero.

They stare at each other.

“What the fuck are you doing here?!” Bass points at him, putting his buster away in favour of an accusing finger. Zero, whose expression was in the middle of reverting to that carefully neutral face from before, gives him an nonplussed look.

“What do you mean, what am I doing here?” he asks. “Aren’t you here looking for me? Why else would you be here?”

“Well, we were, but -” Bass scowls. “We came to check the trackers! I didn’t expect your dumb ass to be here!

“Are you upset that… wait,” Zero says, eyes widening. “We? Is X here?”

“No,” Bass crosses his arms. “It’s me and Axl.”

To his complete bafflement, Zero's face goes through a kaleidoscope of emotions and settles on relieved.

“... Good,” he says, looking away. “I don’t want to put him in danger.”

“And we’re hunky-fucking-dory being in danger?” Bass says. “Wow. Fuck you.”

“That’s not what I…” Zero looks back up, screws up his mouth, and sighs. “You shouldn’t be here, either. I’m dangerous. You were right to be afraid of me.”

Bass clenches his jaw and forcefully chokes down his first knee-jerk response.

“... No,” he says, once he’s gotten over the urge to deny it and punch Zero in the face. “I wasn’t.”

“It’s a little late to change your mind,” Zero says, looking away again. Into the side room he’d stepped out of, Bass notes. “After you’ve been proven right.”

Bass steps forward without a word, craning his head to see into the room that’s got so much of Zero’s attention.

It’s a high-ceilinged space. The lights within are in better working condition than most, illuminating the whole space. There’s a capsule within sight of the door, the kind that Dr. Wily uses to work on new robots, and what Bass has come to recognize as beam sabre marks dotting the walls and floor. Along with some other signs of damage, he concludes that a fight must have happened here.

Something that Zero said a while ago clicks into place.

“This is where you were first activated,” Bass says.

Zero nods and steps into the space, eyes dragging on one of the scorches on the floor. Bass follows.

“I don’t remember it, but this is where Sigma and I fought,” he says. “... Like I said, from what I read about it afterwards, I was totally berserk. But he hit me hard in the head, and my helmet jewel shattered, and, well...”

“And that’s when the virus left you and got into Sigma,” Bass says. Zero looks up in alarm. “... What? I’m not an idiot.”

“That’s… what I figure must have happened,” Zero says, looking around the room. Guard down, he looks completely miserable. “So, I thought, it must be gone. Whatever happened, I’ve never been affected by the virus the same way since. Until now.”

“Until now?” Bass frowns.

“Until I got hit by whatever that dark wave was and I went berserk again and tried to kill X,” he says.

Bass sucks a breath in between clenched teeth. It makes a hiss.

“Fuck,” he says, clenching his fists. “That was… my fault.”

“... That explains what happened,” Zero says, eyebrows pinching together. “But I was affected by it earlier, too, when Vile was using it in the city. If that’s their weapon of choice now, it was bound to happen eventually. I’m a ticking time bomb.”

“But you’re fine now,” Bass points out. He’s starting to feel heated, and it comes through in his voice. “Whatever happened at the end there, it must’ve knocked you back together. Justice Energy cancels that shit out.”

“Sure,” Zero says, raising his voice in kind. “And what if next time it happens you don’t have a meteor’s worth of force metal around or the element of surprise, or what if I kill you first? Again?

There’s a beat of silence. Bass’ eyes widen, and Zero’s do, too, as he clearly realizes the weight of what he just said.

“I -” Zero starts.

“Sit down,” Bass says.

“What?”

“Sit the fuck down,” he says. Zero stares at him for a second before looking away and acquiescing, lowering himself to sit crosslegged. Bass follows, so that they’re facing each other a few feet apart. “I need you to get the fuck over yourself.”

Zero scowls in response.

“Look,” Bass says, evenly. “You said that I was the only good thing that you ever got from our old man, and…” he pauses, struggling to put together the words. “... I meant it when I said you got off lucky never meeting him. All of… most of... the other Wily-bots are stupid shitheads not even worth the cost of their damn parts. And they hate me just as much as I hate them.”

“Bass…”

“Shut up and let me finish,” Bass says. “... You’re the first Wily-bot aside from my damn wolf to want me to be… family. To like me? And I’m, fuck, I’m not good at this, Zero. I flipped the fuck out and said shit I didn’t mean and fucked all of that up.”

Zero’s pursing his lips.

“So. I’m… sorry.” The words are hard to force out, but they come.

“I… appreciate the apology,” Zero says. His eyes cast downwards. “But that’s not why I left.”

“Oh, I’m getting to it,” Bass wrinkles his nose. “Why the hell did you leave, you fucking moron!?”

“Wha - I told you!” Zero recoils in place.

“You came here to keep from hurting X?” Bass gives him an unimpressed look. “I’m a fucking expert on hurting Light-bots, and you’re doing it!”

“I know - I know he can’t be taking this well, but I’d rather that than kill him!”

“I’m sorry, is he surrounded by Evil Energy? No?! You’re fucking golden, dipshit!”

“I don’t know that it won’t happen again!” Zero counters. “How can I be sure that there’s not some kind of… residual evil?”

“For fucking - my boyfriend is kidnapped by fucking mavericks and you’re schlepping around an abandoned fucking cave because you’re scared of the off-chance that you’ll go nuts and stab yours!?”

“Quint’s been -” Zero starts, wide-eyed, at the same time that a high-pitched “What!?” comes from the doorway, followed by a dual tnk.

Their heads swivel around to see Axl, who is standing at the threshold of the room, slack-jawed, and has actually dropped both of his guns.

“You guys are dating now?” Axl says. Zero holds his face in his hands. “And you didn’t tell me?”

“We were -”

“I mean, everyone knew, but like, do you have any idea how many zennies are gonna change hands when that gets out?” Axl continues. “Oh, and - geez, that makes me so much madder at X!”

“There was a betting pool?” Zero lifts his head, expression a picture of abject horror.

“Dude, for years.” Axl says, finally seeming to remember himself enough to kneel to pick over his pistols. “Alia is gonna be so rich.”

So Quint’s been kidnapped by mavericks?” Zero turns back to Bass abruptly.

“Yes! Fuck, thank you for getting back around to something that is actually fucking important. ” Bass says, glaring at both of them. “Berkana took him and X thinks he’s on the moon. But they can’t get there because it’s a space fortress and they keep shooting down ships and the hunters’ teleport satellites.”

That’s no space station,” Zero mutters.

“Yeah, I just said that,” Bass scowls. “Were you even listening?”

“Have you not seen Space Wars? ” Zero asks, looking genuinely offended. “That was out in 20XX.”

“No, and who cares?” Bass crosses his arms.

Now who’s disowned?” He says, and when Bass’ expression darkens even further, he holds up both hands. “Okay, fine. So we need to get to the moon.”

“Uh, we need to get back to HQ,” Axl says. “And get X, and I dunno, get you two to kiss and make up and go get Sigma.”

Zero shakes his head, and Bass lets out an aggravated sigh.

“He’s afraid he’ll go maverick again and hurt X,” he says. “I already yelled at him. Oh, and I’m not fucking going back there, anyway, because they’re gonna throw me back in a cell.”

“You’re really not gonna budge on this?” Axl says, to Zero. Zero sighs.

“No, but… Bass is right. We have to do something. And if it really was that Evil Energy that triggered it, then Bass is the only one with a hard counter, so if he gets thrown in a cell that’s my only safety net gone. And we both know that command’s not going to change their minds about containing him.”

“Man,” Axl says. “We’re gonna be in so much trouble when this blows over.”

“Not if we save the day,” Zero says, smiling for the first time since Bass got here. “Or die trying.”

“You’d know,” Bass rolls his eyes. “Also, let’s fucking not.”

“So. Moon. Options.” Zero says, drumming his fingers on the floor.

“We don’t have a spaceship,” Axl says.

“Thank you, Captain Obvious,” Bass says.

“Cool it,” Zero says, in his direction. “It just means we need to get our hands on one.”

“Or we could just teleport there on Wily’s old network,” Bass says. “It’s how we got here without getting followed, isn’t it?”

“Wily’s network goes out to space?” Axl raises his eyebrows.

“Yeah, ever since the whole thing with Gamma,” Bass says. “Technically, we could probably get to most of the damn solar system if we wanted. … Okay, well, maybe not all of it. Some of the satellites are bound to be fucked by now. But still. If the hunters hadn’t found the ones we used after all this time, what are the chances that the mavericks did?”

“Well, even if they hadn’t noticed them before, as soon as we beam in, they’re gonna know they’re there,” Axl says. “It’s a one-way ticket.”

Zero stands up.

“I’ll take it,” he says. “And maybe… once we’ve beaten them down, and all of this Evil Energy nonsense is over… then I can face X.”

“... Alright,” Axl says, stepping closer. “I’m with you.”

“Let’s go and kill all of them,” Bass says, standing up as well. Internally, he’s already setting the coordinates for the jump. “And get Quint back.”

He puts one hand on Axl’s shoulder and another on Zero’s, and they’re rising up in a beam of light, into the night sky and towards the hanging face of the moon.

Chapter Text

As of a day after their outing, the future is still waiting.

Ballade is sprawled out facedown on the couch of the common area, where those of them without any technical expertise (a.k.a. all of the former Mega Man Killers present) have been banished from the lab while Kalinka and Roll finish the alterations on the old Time Skimmer.

Dimly, he’s aware of Punk and Enker’s positions. They’re on the floor in front of the TV, which also happens to be in front of him, watching the live coverage of Mega Man’s progress against Dr. Wily’s latest world domination attempt.

“D’you think he has a fire and ice robot quota he sticks to when picking which ones to steal?” Punk says. Ballade looks up to see Punk drumming his fingers on his knee. Judging by the cool hue of the screen, the details he can’t exactly see from this angle, he presumes that the Blue Bomber must have gotten to Tundra Man.

Enker makes a noise from the back of his throat, somewhere between a grunt and a sound of acknowledgement. His attention seems to be rapt on the action.

“... Probably,” Ballade says, pulling himself up to sitting. “Or maybe not? I can think of a few times there was a fire robot and no ice robot.”

“Yeah, but then there was always a water guy instead,” Punk waves him off. “Also, welcome back to the land of the living.”

“Uggh,” Ballade says, letting himself fall over sideways back to reclining. “Piss off, man. This is your fault.”

Enker turns his head fractionally, which is all Ballade needs to know he’s now listening very closely. He grimaces.

“Got shot down, huh?” Punk says. His voice isn’t unkind; there’s definitely sympathy in there.

“What do you think?” Ballade says. On account of the sympathy, he tries not to sound too scathing. He sighs and runs a hand through his hair. He wishes, with a pang, for his armour. It’s currently being repaired alongside the alterations to the time machine, probably with Roll’s.

That’s an entirely different pang. Regardless of how his impromptu car crash of a confession had gone, it still makes him uneasy to think how close they came to destruction.

Even if a part of him is feeling bitter, he can’t bring himself not to feel that ghost of worry remembering the shape Roll been in when they’d caught up to her.

He realizes that several seconds have passed, and Punk is looking at his face with searching eyes.

“I think that must’ve sucked,” Punk says. “You doing okay?”

“... No,” Ballade sighs, stretching back out onto the whole length of the couch, this time on his side. “My life sucks and I’m gonna die alone.”

“I knew she was going to hurt you,” Enker says, matter-of-factly. He doesn’t take his eyes off the screen.

“Like you’re one to talk,” Ballade mutters into his shoulder.

Enker turns, finally, and fixes him with an unreadable expression.

“... If you’d simply come to me, we could have talked strategy,” he says. Ballade blinks, and then slowly cranes his head to look Enker straight in the eye.

“Uh, what?” he asks. He’s gratified to see that Punk is looking at him more or less the same way.

“Your approach was ill-timed and clumsy,” Enker says, with a completely straight face. “We could have worked together to arrange events to ensure -”

“OH-kay,” Punk says, putting a hand over Enker’s mouth. “I don’t know where this is coming from, but do us all a favour and never listen to him ever on this, alright?”

Enker shoots Punk a venomous look and pries the bigger robot’s hand off of his face.

“Yeah, because your advice worked out so great,” Ballade says.

“Hey,” Punk says, putting a hand to his chest defensively. “Timing aside, do you really think that doing anything differently would’ve changed how it went?”

Ballade thinks back to the deer-in-the-headlights expression Roll had sported when he’d finally pushed the words out, and then how quickly it had morphed to apologetic. The memory is uncomfortably vivid, even by robot standards.

“... No,” he admits, grudgingly.

“Look,” Punk says, reaching out a hand and putting it on Ballade’s shoulder. With the way he’s laying, Punk’s gauntlet is now blocking nearly his entire field of vision, with Enker’s gold helmet poking out at the side. “So she’s just not into you that way. It happens. Now you know.”

“Knowing sucks,” Ballade says. Part of him wants to leave it at that, but another, newer part of him wins out and he continues. “... It’s gonna be awkward now. I really liked hanging out with her. What if I screwed up basically the only friend I’ve ever made?”

“You’re overstating it,” Enker says. “Awkwardness is a behaviour you have control over. If both of you don’t want it to be awkward, it stands to reason that it won’t be.”

“Ehhh, I mean, it’s not that simple…” Punk retracts his arm. “But he has a point.”

Ballade picks himself up on his elbow, eyeing Enker. Enker eyes him back.

“You’re acting different,” he says. “Did the fairy come in the night and make you a real boy?”

Enker rolls his eyes, impassiveness giving way to annoyance.

“Your friend had some choice words for me,” he says. “Some of them had some merit.”

“Oh,” Ballade says, dumbly.

“Wha - someone got Enker to listen to them?” Punk says. “I thought it was a case of unstoppable force meets immovable object.”

“No! Punk, you’re going to ruin it,” Ballade says, as Enker’s expression turns dark in Punk’s direction. “He’ll just kill her and then we’ll be back to square one.”

“I couldn’t get away with killing her,” Enker says. “Even eliminating Kalinka from the equation, Quint would be -”

“You think he could take her?” Punk says, ignoring Enker completely. “I don’t think he could take her. We saw what happened last time.”

“I don’t think he’d play fair,” Ballade says, shaking his head. “He’s devious.”

“You’re right,” Punk says. “The question is, would he implant a bomb during repairs, or would it be a surprise attack?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Enker says. “... a bomb would easily be detected by a system scan. It would be much easier to just sabotage her charging port to overload and incapacitate her, and then finish the job from there.”

“Do you actually have a plan to kill us all in our sleep?” Ballade rolls his eyes.

“No,” Enker says. “As of this conversation, I want both of you to be awake when I do it.”

Punk laughs, throwing back his whole body and thumping Enker on the shoulder.

“Well at least we know you’re not a pod person,” he wheezes. Enker’s eyes head skywards, and he sighs.

“Regardless,” he says, finally settling his gaze back on Ballade. “About calling you a traitor.”

Ballade tenses up.

“Yeah?” he says.

“That was out of line,” he says, and then turns back to the TV. On the screen, the ice-skating robot master and Mega Man are facing down in a battle for the ages. “You’re not.”

“Uh… huh,” Ballade says, shifting to sit up a little more fully.

Is this… his version of an apology?

He frowns at the back of Enker’s head. He’s known him long enough to know when Enker considers a conversation over.

He catches Punk’s eye, and Punk shrugs.

He leans back against the back of the couch and sighs.

“So now what?” he says.

“Now you can move on,” Punk says, reaching out to pat his knee.

Ballade looks up at the open ceiling of the room, out to the scaffolding and vents that sit between him and the roof of the warehouse.

He realizes, abruptly, that the notion of moving on is completely new to him.

“I’m not sure I know how,” he says, sinking further into the cushions.

“Well, it starts by wanting to,” Punk says.

“... I’m not sure I want to,” Ballade says. He eyes Mega Man on the screen.

Has he even moved on from that? The thought catches like a hook, uncomfortable and persistent.

Do I want to feel like this forever? He thinks.

“It feels bad,” Ballade continues out loud. “But it also kind of feels good. If it didn’t, I’d have let go by now.”

Punk snorts.

“Yeah, I know,” he says. “But don’t you think you might be happier if you didn’t have the bad gunking things up all the time?”

“Probably,” Ballade admits. “... You never read about this stuff in books...”

“Maybe schmultzy romance novels don’t have it all figured out?” Punk asks, with an air of amusement. “No kidding.”

“Oh, can it,” Ballade says. “That’s not all I read.”

“How much of it, in percentage, is what you read?” Punk asks, a grin in his voice. “Asking for a friend.”

Ballade kicks him.

Punk laughs.

Somehow, Ballade knows that Enker is rolling his eyes.

This feels good, he thinks. In a straightforward, uncomplicated way. There are still missing pieces, but when they get them back...

Maybe, for once, it’s going to be okay.

---

“We’re almost done,” Kalinka says, standing back from the Time Skimmer and lifting up her welding mask to examine a new seam. She’s in work clothes, overalls with short sleeves currently obfuscated by a welding jacket. Her long hair, blonde and greying, is held back in a bun, which some of the strands are doing their level best to escape.

“That’s good,” Roll says, looking up from her work setting a makeshift blast wall down.

Normally, she would say more. Something encouraging, maybe. But even though they’ve been working for several days, and Roll becomes more and more on edge as the project nears completion and her brother seems further within reach, they haven’t really been talking beyond the communication required to coordinate their work.

With the elephant in the room…

Well, the problem is really that there are two elephants, and the elephants are naturally opposed. The first elephant is Kalinka’s deception, keeping something as important as Jazz’s possible continued existence from her for months. The second is the understanding that having an argument about it right now will only slow down their work.

As one might expect, it’s difficult not to feel on edge with two elephants fighting in an already cramped workspace.

“I just need to set up the system to automatically trigger from this end after a set period,” Kalinka says, in that voice reserved for roboticists talking to themselves. “And contact Papa to send someone as a failsafe if it doesn’t activate.”

There’s a beat, where Roll sets down another metal sheet in the perimeter around the machine, before that sinks in.

“Why would you need to do that?” Roll asks. “You’ll be here, won’t you?”

“And leave you all alone in the future without someone to repair you if something happens?” Kalinka says. “Once you’re on the other side, I can’t guarantee we would be able to stay in contact, and I can only keep the portal open for so long on top of that.”

Roll presses her lips into a thin line.

“I do know basic repairs,” she says. “... But this isn’t really about that, is it?”

Kalinka sighs and sinks to sit on a nearby worktable.

“I can’t just send you off and hope for the best,” she says. “I’ve failed you too many times already.”

Just like that, one elephant stands victorious. All of the latent tension comes crashing in at once.

“I wish you would just trust me to take care of myself,” Roll blurts out. Kalinka’s head jerks upwards, taken off guard by the forcefulness of her voice.

“Roll, I don’t -” She swallows, bringing her hands down to her pants legs, where they smooth out rumples in the heavy denim. “I didn’t… I’m sorry.”

Are you sorry?” Roll says. “Are you sorry for keeping it from me, or are you sorry I found out?”

“Of course I’m sorry I kept it from you,” Kalinka says. “I didn’t think - I just thought you would be so much happier, in the end, if…”

“If you just brought Jazz back yourself?” Roll finishes, when Kalinka trails off. “I would have still been mad at you! You went ahead and decided that for me!”

The last word ends on a quaver. Just then, Roll realizes that there’s a tear sliding down her cheek.

“I thought we were friends,” she says, even as Kalinka opens her mouth to reply. “I vouched for you! I told Ballade and Punk you weren’t like that.”

“I’m sorry, Roll,” Kalinka says. She’s gripping a bundle of denim in both fists, now, eyes moist. “I was just… I’m just so afraid of losing you. You’re all I have left. You’re the only one who understands.”

Roll bites her lip. Her hand has found its way to the edge of her sleeve, which she’s crumpled up in her fingers.

“You’re the only one who understands, too,” she sniffles. “Which is why I’m so mad.

“That’s… the worst way I failed you,” Kalinka says, softly, bringing up her trembling hands and cradling her face. “I’m… I can’t… I’m not cut out for this. I can’t make anything right. All I do is hurt the people I’m s-supposed to help.”

“Kalinka…” Roll says. She feels her resolve to stay angry crumbling.

She closes the distance between them, step by step, and takes a seat on the metal work table next to Kalinka. She takes a deep breath and clasps her hands together.

“You’re not my dad,” she says, as evenly as she can. “I don’t want that from you.”

Kalinka looks up from her hands, eyes puffy and face red.

“I overstepped my boundaries,” she says, “huh?”

“Yeah,” Roll nods. “Things are really weird, right now. I’m… I’m built to be part of a family. Even if I wasn’t, I… I r-really miss dad,” she says, and then after mastering the hitch in her voice, continues. “So much that it hurts to put into words.”

“Yeah,” Kalinka says, turning her head to look forward into empty space. “I know… how that feels.”

“Maybe we kind of… both fell into old habits,” Roll says, following her cue. The intimidating form of the Time Skimmer looms above. “I tried to take care of you like I took care of dad, and you tried to take care of me like, well…”

“OVER-1,” Kalinka says, in a rasp. “I sheltered him. Maybe if I hadn’t, he wouldn’t have been so eager to…”

Roll reaches over and puts a hand on Kalinka’s.

“Don’t,” she says.

“It’s very hard not to,” Kalinka says, looking down at their hands. “... I know I haven’t said anything. I should have. But, these days, I… I find it very hard to hope.”

“You work really hard for someone who has no hope,” Roll says. Kalinka huffs out a wet chuckle.

“I just don’t trust fate or chance anymore,” she says. “I want to put everything in my own hands.”

“I hope I don’t need to tell you how that’s been working out,” Roll says.

“I got a hint about that at the bottom of the bottle, yeah,” she sighs.

Roll bites her lip and squeezes Kalinka’s hand.

“You scared me,” she says. “You really scared me.”

“I’m sorry,” Kalinka says. “I should have been stronger.”

“You should have talked to me,” Roll says. “We’re friends - we’re more than friends, we’re family. I-I’m still figuring out how that works. Dad’s gone and Rock is a whole different person with a whole different name, and there are four new people who are just this big mess of complicated feelings and what Wily did to them, and we all just kind of... have each other now.”

“And trust you to be the one to notice that,” Kalinka half-smiles. “I mean, with what you were built for…”

“I’m supposed to help everyone,” Roll says. “And I’m just trying to figure out how to do that when things are so different than before. I can’t just sit around and keep things tidy while everyone else takes care of things anymore. But… I got carried away.”

“You really scared me,” Kalinka says.

“I’m sorry,” Roll says, hanging her head. “I’m a big hypocrite.”

“You so are,” Kalinka says. “You’re also my best friend. I forgive you.”

“You, too,” Roll says, and then pauses. “... but I don’t think I’m ready to forgive you just yet. I need some time.”

“That’s understandable,” Kalinka sighs, and then slips off the edge of the table, standing up. She pauses, a wry smile creeping onto her face. “Do you take bribes?”

Roll puffs out her cheeks.

“No!” she says. “... What would you bribe me with, anyway?”

“I finished repairing your armour last night,” Kalinka says, bustling over to a large set of drawers.

“You were going to do that anyway,” Roll says. “Also, do you mean after you were supposed to go to bed?”

Even so, curiosity piqued, she gets up and follows. Kalinka gestures into one of the larger drawers, and she looks in and gasps.

“Oh!” she says. “It’s cute!”

“It’s not much of a change, but…” Kalinka lifts Roll’s chestpiece out to rest on the lip of the drawer, with visible effort.

It’s the same shade of red, but the sharper edges of its design have been softened. The pauldrons are rounded instead of squarish, and the upside-down triangle, the button that activates the dimensional area, has been replaced by a white heart.

“The old armour was a rush job, wasn’t it?” Kalinka says. “I think this suits you a little better. I made the helmet cuter, too.”

Roll wipes away gathering tears.

“No fair,” she says. “That’s a really good bribe.”

“... I’m really sorry,” Kalinka says, delicately replacing the chestpiece back in the drawer.

Roll sniffs again, and then steps forward and hugs her. Kalinka hugs her back, very tightly. They stay that way for a while.

When they finally step apart, Kalinka turns towards the Time Skimmer once more.

“Let’s find them together,” Kalinka says, picking up a wrench from a nearby work surface.

There are just a few more hours of work, Roll knows. But if they work as a team, it won’t feel very long at all.

“Yeah,” She says, wiping her eyes one last time. “Let’s finish this.”

Chapter Text

“So you and X are dating,” Axl says, over comms.

Zero grunts and leaps into the air, becoming a whirling dervish of death and ripping through an aerial sentry. He flies in a lazy arc and lands softly on the lunar surface, kicking up a cloud of white dust. It fans out and soon he’s standing in a little darkened patch of moon, which then becomes a springboard again as he dash-jumps to meet the next enemy.

The mavericks have sent out the welcome wagon, though not in the sheer numbers they expected. Bass and Axl are providing handy cover fire as Zero meets the vanguard of the maverick mechaniloids, an arrangement that has been going mostly smoothly. Mostly.

It would be going better with X, Zero thinks wistfully. Somehow, X never hits him with friendly fire when they pull this kind of maneuver.

He shakes himself mentally.

“This isn’t the time to talk about it,” he says, in his most authoritative voice. “That’s an order.”

Bass snorts.

“Uhhh, we’re not on an official mission right now, so you’re not my superior officer,” Axl replies.

“That very much isn’t how this works,” Zero says. Boom, goes another mechaniloid, cut clean in half.

“So you and X are dating,” Axl repeats, chipper.

“Axl -” Zero starts.

“Just answer him,” Bass cuts in, between bursts of auto-fire. “He’s going to keep fucking saying it.”

“Et tu, Bass?” Zero grimaces.

“What?” Bass says, and Zero can’t see his face, but he can clearly picture it. It’s his own unique blend of offended and confused, reserved for judging someone for knowing more than him.

Actually, maybe not surprising that he didn’t catch that one, Zero thinks. I only know it because of X’s historical dram-

Zero groans.

“Fine,” he relents. “We’re dating. Or were dating. I don’t know anymore. It’s complicated and he wanted to keep it secret until we could figure things out -” he’s subtly aware that his tone is growing louder and more emotional with each word, “- but it turns out that that’s not necessary because surprise, my suspicions about being a weapon made to kill him were right all along and now everything is falling apart!

He punctuates the last line by jumping into - and subsequently through, thanks to a few quick slashes of his sabre - the torso of a large mechaniloid.

He’s breathing heavily on the other side - with such little atmosphere on the moon, he’s running hot, and his cooling systems are struggling to keep up.

“Okay,” Axl says, after a beat. “There’s a lot to unpack there.”

“I don’t see the problem,” Bass says.

“With what?” Zero says, irritably. He makes a mental note to limit EAS use - while it’s helping maneuverability in the reduced gravity, it’s a big strain on his already-overheated systems.

“What, so you were made to kill X?” Bass scoffs. “Big fucking deal. I was made to kill Mega Man, and now I’m dating future him.”

“Yeah, and X said he’d suspected all this for years, too!” Axl says. “If he cared about that he wouldn’t have agreed to date you in the first place. He’s X. He obviously loves you, he’s just having an episode.”

“Having an episode?” Zero echoes, jumping to allow an opening for the other two to pepper the lines with automatic fire.

“Yeah, like remember when we met and he was on the whole support-only full-pacifist kick?” Axl says. “Because of the endless and cyclical nature of conflict and violence or something?”

“Ugh, what a Light-bot,” Bass says.

Bass,” Zero says, sharply. He takes a breath, still airborne. “He does… get overwhelmed sometimes. But that’s just it. I’m… I’m built for everything X hates. He shouldn’t love me.”

“Well he does!” Axl says, shifting course to take out a small cloud of moon-themed batton bones. “And running away to mope about it totally didn’t help and totally made everything so much worse. I mean, you’re making him choose between his job and chasing after you!”

Zero stops dead in his tracks.

I wanted him to come after me.

“I was,” he says, with growing horror.

“Watch your three-o’-clock!” Bass shouts over the comm, and Zero snaps out of his reverie in time to dodge a plasma bolt.

“I didn’t even think about it!” Zero says, combat reflexes running on autopilot as he runs his mouth. "I just - got scared and reacted and I thought I was doing the right thing but I’m really just - I-I almost killed him but I still wanted him to pick me over - but - I screwed this up and he’s having a breakdown again holy shit I’m a monster.

The silence stretches over the comms as the maverick fortress looms on the horizon. They’re close. There’s a break in the enemy forces - they’re probably between waves.

“I get it,” Bass says, his voice uncommonly calm. Maybe… thoughtful? It’s not anything Zero’s heard from him before. “I get you. You got scared and made a boneheaded fucking idiot move.”

“Thanks,” Zero says, morose.

“But now that you know that you made a boneheaded fucking idiot move, you gonna fix it, or what?” he says.

Yeah,” Axl says.

“Can I really fix this?” Zero asks, drawing a hand up to his chest and squeezing it into a tight fist. “I did almost kill him. Even if I stayed away because I was being selfish and didn’t realize it, I’m still… I’m still just a weapon. Purpose-made.”

Look,” Bass says, walking over and crossing his arms to stare Zero down. “Just cut that crap out right now. The old man may have been an evil son of a bitch, and he may have wanted to you be X’s opposite number or whatever. But he was also… for some crazy reason he also made us people, and the fact that you’re standing here with free will? Means the shit with what happened when you were activated was obviously not meant to happen that way. You were always…”

Bass grits his teeth as he trails off, looking away, but as Zero opens his mouth to argue, his red eyes snap right back up and he scowls.

“You were always meant to be my idiot little brother, so get that through your head!”

Zero blinks owlishly.

“You said it,” he says, slowly.

Bass rolls his eyes skyward.

“I’m regretting it already,” he grouses.

Zero can’t help it. He laughs.

“No takebacks,” Axl says, coming over from the awkward distance he’d been standing at and punching Bass on the shoulder. Bass jumps and shoots Axl a glare.

Axl is smirking, and even though Zero isn’t that great at reading people, he’s spent enough time around Axl to sense that he’s putting on a mask.

“Thank you,” he says, walking over and putting a hand on each of their shoulders. “... both of you.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Bass says uncomfortably, at the exact same time that Axl says “You owe me big time,” with a much more genuine smile.

Zero rolls his eyes.

And, out of the corner of them, he spots the next wave of mechaniloids.

“Look sharp,” he says, drawing and igniting his sabre. All three of them drop back into combat positions in a snap.

Zero dashes to meet the front line.

He’s even more impatient now. He’s got to get into that fortress. He’s got to beat Sigma. He’s got to get rid of this possibility-of-turning-maverick thing, because -

- he’s got to talk to X.

---

“X, we’ve got to talk,” Signas says, leaning back in his chair.

“Hm?” X says, looking up from his datapad. He finds himself vaguely surprised to be meeting with the general, even though he’s sure in order to get here he must have received a summons, walked the several hallways over from his office, and sat down in one of the chairs in front of Signas’ desk.

Signas raises an eyebrow, clearly running through the same thought process.

“Ah -” X raises a hand to his mouth and clears his throat. It’s unnecessary, but it’s one of those ingrained faux-human behaviours that he’s never quite wanted to fix. “- Right. Yes. What did you want to talk about, sir?”

“Well, as you know, we’re in the middle of a full-scale Maverick Rebellion,” Signas says. “And, short several high-ranking personnel, hunters putting in extra effort is commendable.”

“I’ve been doing my best,” X says, glancing down at the datapad. Several notifications have already piled up - he’s been coordinating several missions involving his unit working with some of the more others in what can only be described as a logistics marathon.

“Yes, well,” the general shifts in his seat, steepling his fingers, “not to put too fine of a point on it, but your productivity has been abnormally high.”

X blinks.

“Sir?” he asks.

“Normally, I would just be grateful,” Signas says. “But we’ve worked together for quite some time, and I like to believe I have a grasp on your limits.”

“With all due respect, I’d just like to get this whole thing over with,” X says. “If I’m working abnormally hard, that’s why.”

“You want to free up the resources to look for Zero,” he says. “I know, X. But -”

“That’s only part of it, sir.” X interrupts. “We both know that the longer this goes on, the greater toll there will be. In damage and in lives.

He realizes belatedly, as Signas shifts backwards to lean in his chair, that what he in fact just did was snap at the general of the Maverick Hunters.

“I’m aware,” Signas says. “But I consulted with Alia this morning, and we identified a pattern in your performance record. Specifically, the last time you were getting this much done…”

X’s mouth twists into a deeper frown.

“... Well, it was right before you stepped down from a combat role for several months prior to the Red Alert incident,” Signas finishes. “I’m worried you’re going to burn yourself out, X.”

“This is -” X sputters. “You’re seriously telling me I’m working too much? After all those conversations we had about putting the hunters first?”

Signas sighs deeply.

“You know as well as I do that command at this level is a balancing act. I’m accountable to a lot of people, and to the lives that might be lost with each decision,” he says, rubbing his temples. “Right now, I have to choose between telling you to slow down, or taking your increased work efficiency with a risk that you’ll in one way or another deprive me of another senior officer.”

X does know. He knows very well the position Signas is in. He’s been in that chair before, and he’d left it as soon as the opportunity arose.

The reason why is bubbling in the pit of his stomach right now. Anger and despair, his gut reaction every time he’s reminded that the world he lives in is very, very unfair. He knows that Signas can’t exactly afford to care about X’s feelings on the matter beyond their consequences, but it still hurts to hear it put in completely dispassionate terms.

Another notification dings from his datapad.

Damn it,” X says, standing up in one jerky motion. “Sir, I have work to attend to. May I be dismissed?”

Signas gives him a long look.

“Yes,” he says, eventually, with a tired wave. “Just… think about what I said. Wave in Douglas on your way out, if you will.”

“I will,” X says through his teeth.

The trip back to his office is as much of a blur as the way there, but if the latter has been distracted by a million little things buzzing around and vying for X’s attention, this is a single-minded inability to focus on any of those in favour of red hot anger.

X finds himself in his own office, feeling like he’s been punched in the gut.

He rests his face in his hands and slowly sinks to desk level as his elbows slide apart. All the while, notifications chime from his workstation and datapad.

I hate this, X thinks, even as he forces himself to straighten and open up his messages.

I hate that he’s right, he thinks, as he allocates mechaniloids to be dispatched to Antarctica to protect a research station.

His eyes flicker over to Quint’s helmet, which is still sitting on the corner of his desk.

I don’t know how much longer I can do this, X thinks, with a new wave of guilt. As if pulled from the ether, the conversation they’d had in this very spot comes back to him.

You’re dealing with a lot. I don’t think I could handle it, Quint had said.

“It turns out I can’t, either,” X mumbles out loud in belated reply, to the ever-scrolling text on his screen. “Not without…”

Without Zero.

Well, since Zero and I got together, I’ve been happier than I’ve been in a long time. But it’s… am I okay? I don’t know.

His own words echo in his mind uncomfortably.

It’s at precisely that moment, as messages stream in on his screen, as he feels on the edge of grasping something important, that Alia enters the room.

She’s no Axl, but she wastes no time bustling in, waving X’s question away before he can even get a sound out and coming to an abrupt stop in front of his desk.

“Turn on the news,” she says, and X complies.

“-ijacking several official sources to broadcast the efforts of the Maverick Hunters to broach their moon fortress,” the anchor says. “Famed maverick hunter Zero of the Zeroth Shinobi unit, alongside another member of said unit and an unknown reploid -”

She continues, but X isn’t listening, because they’ve switched over to showing the footage.

Zero,” he gasps.

They’re there, the three of them, in the bowels of Sigma’s latest fortress, fighting mechaniloids and narrowly avoiding death traps. As he watches, Axl shoots out one of the cameras, only to have the feed switch to another within seconds.

When he’d heard that Axl had sprung Bass, it had practically flown under his notice, however irritating. If he’d had any idea it was going to lead to this-!

That’s a passing thought, though. The world seems to realign around him as Zero barely avoids a gruesome fall into a pit of spikes. X feels his stomach drop as though he’s there, and his mind, ever industrious, supplies to him that with signal delay from the moon, all of this happened - Zero could have died - several seconds before X even had the chance to react.

Another notification sounds from his datapad, and he looks around at his work. If Alia hadn’t taken this directly to him, it might have taken full minutes to filter through the hunters’ grapevine and reach him, with all the priority messages in his inbox right now.

Zero could have died while he was buried in a mountain of work.

X is shaking. He looks up at Alia, who is watching him with a growing expression of concern.

“Get me out there,” he says.

She nods, and flicks up a holoscreen from her datapad.

“We can’t get large scale assets close enough to get in, but with what we’ve recovered from the maverick generals,” she says, “I can get you a shuttle and the cover to make a dro- oh.”

X, who is already standing up, tenses.

“Oh?” he says.

“Alert from the replacement team at Abel City,” she says, looking up. “There’s been activity from the portal - something’s coming through.”

“How long will it take to prep the shuttle?” X asks, resuming movement to a brisk walk. Alia gets the hint and walks with him through the halls towards the transerver room as they talk.

“At least half an hour,” she says. “Go. We’ll be ready by the time you get back.”

---

When X arrives at the previously abandoned laboratory in Abel City, where this whole mess began such a short time ago, it’s different. The purple haze from before has cleared, and the hallway lights are on. There are marks of a battle here, too, and supplies from the hunters line the shelves in the storage room they’d set up portable the transerver in.

There’s also a ruckus coming from not too far away.

X follows the noise - voices - through a short stretch of hallway and into the laboratory where the ripple in time and space lies.

He walks into a standoff.

There are four strange reploids (robots, probably) with weapons drawn, a mechanical wolf, a human woman, and a... pogo stick... in front of the open portal, surrounded on all sides by hunter rank-and-file, who all have their busters up at the intrusion.

“Stand down,” X orders as he steps forward. The hunters startle at his sudden entrance, but obey, stepping aside to let him through.

The robot in front, a girl in red armour, openly gasps as she drops her sabre arm and the blade deactivates, the other hand drawing up to cover her mouth.

Jazz? ” she says, and X winces. The others lower their weapons, visibly confused. Except the wolf, who growls as X steps closer.

“I’m afraid not,” he says, apologetically. “My name is X, and you must be Roll. You’re here for Bass and Quint, right?”

“That’s right,” The human woman - Kalinka, X presumes, from what he remembers of Quint’s tale - says, stepping out of the protective circle of combat robots and to the front. “You’ve met them, then?”

“Are they here?” one of the combat robots, the golden-and-blue one, asks.

“Yes and no,” X grimaces. “It’s a long story. If I told you they’re in danger, I don’t suppose you’ll be content to let us handle it?”

“No way no how,” the tallest of them says.

Roll, who’d been shaken to silence, removes her hand from in front of her mouth and straightens.

“Take me to my brother,” she says, expression hardening to a determined stare.

X nods, and lets out a breath.

“Alia,” he says, putting up two fingers to his earpiece and activating comms. “How much room is there in that shuttle?”

Chapter Text

Bass has experience with fortresses. He’s lived in them, guarded them, raided them. Sigma’s moon base isn’t really anything special, aside from the added futuristic flourishes that he’s already gotten used to in 21XX.

It is, however, grueling. By the time the three of them arrive in the cavernous space that could only be the final lair of Sigma himself, just past a short hallway, they’re all banged up.

“This’s gotta be it,” Axl says, looking up as they enter.

Bass shares the sentiment. Backdrop to the massive room is a wall covered floor to ceiling with glowing technological circuitry. It looks almost runic. Energy of some sort, probably Evil Energy based on the violet hue, runs through the entire network of lines in pulses from the top of the wall to a point where all of the lines meet at the floor and run downwards. In the middle of all of this, there’s a capsule hooked up below the largest and most complex rune. It takes Bass a second to see what’s inside, but when he does, he feels like every fluid ounce of coolant in his body is freezing over.

Quint!” he dashes forward without a second thought, and comes to an abrupt stop as he runs into a force field.

Someone laughs, a high-pitched and warped sound. Berkana appears from thin air, twirling her sceptre. Behind him, Bass hears the sound of Zero’s sabre igniting.

“Admiring my Shadow Matrix?” she asks.

What the fuck are you doing to him?!” Bass snarls, straining against the force field. It doesn’t give under his strongest kick, and he starts charging his buster to shoot it point blank.

“I do so love talking about my work,” Berkana smiles. It’s unnervingly genuine. “It was supposed to be that R-Shadow in there, you know, and we had to make some sacrifices on efficiency, but this one proved to be a viable substitute. With this, Lord Sigma will be unstoppable.

“A shame we’re going to shut it down, then,” Zero says, with, appropriately, zero remorse, over a litany of curses from Bass. He steps forward, taking a fighting stance.

You’re not going to do anything,” Berkana laughs. “As much as it pains me to see my research reduced to mere entertainment… This is all backstage, and you’re the star of the show.”

With a wave of her sceptre, a force field springs up from the floor around Zero’s feet and the hexagonal tiles under him vanish. With a yelp, Zero falls, a last-ditch effort from his boosters in midair simply prolonging the fall as he bounces against the field.

“Zero!” Axl and Bass cry out in unison, already on the move.

Before either of them can make it to where he’d been standing, the field sinks back into the floor and the tiles reappear.

“Where’d you send him?!” Axl grits his teeth and points both pistols up at an unconcerned Berkana.

“Oh, just to Lord Sigma,” Berkana says. She holds up her staff, and the purple gem at its tip glows brightly. The whole room around them begins to shift and change; Bass narrowly avoids a row of spikes as they almost shoot up under his boot. “Your journey ends here, I’m afraid.”

Bass glances at Quint’s form in the capsule on the wall and sets his jaw.

“The hell it does,” he says, raising his buster.

---

Zero falls into darkness.

When he hits the hard metal floor, even with the shock absorbers in his boots, the kinetic energy ripples up and down his body in an unpleasant wave. He winces, dropping to one knee and drawing his sabre to provide some illumination besides the dull purple glow of the runic patterns on the walls.

As it turns out, there’s no need. One floodlight turns on, and then another, and then all around the space a ring of lights flash on in sequence. There are mechaniloids, just like the ones on the way in, eyes wide lenses and pointed inwards. Standing in the middle of it all is -

“Sigma,” Zero says, righting himself to face the man down.

Sigma stands above eight feet tall, just as Zero remembers, with a broad musculature to match. The perception is only enhanced by his appearance this time, huge pauldrons set on a chest piece in which rests a purple gem, which is glowing and pulsing in time with the patterns on the walls. His face is stretched into a menacing grin.

He’s radiating a purple aura, and something in Zero recoils from the feeling it gives him. It’s slimy and viscous and cling to his thoughts, like it’s mentally weighing him down.

“Zero,” says Sigma, arms coming up in a wide gesture. “Good of you to come. I expected X to be here, too, but we can manage without him. All the better, in fact.”

“Can it, Sigma,” Zero says. “How many times do we have to do this before you stay down?”

Sigma throws back his head and laughs.

“I will never end, you fool,” he exclaims, and then, slowly, his form starts to hover off the ground. With a sickly, organic gurgle and then a sharp crack, twin wings grow out of his back and stretch out on either side. “And with this new energy, my form is limitless! I will grow and consume this world with the very potential X squandered!”

“Maybe you should use some of that potential to come up with a new line,” Zero says, holding up his sabre in front of him.

Sigma attacks, holding up an arm that morphs into the barrel of a cannon. Zero rolls out of the way of a wave of purple-tinged plasma, but even as he avoids the physical attack -

MALICEMALICEMALICEMALICEMALICEMALICEMALICEMALICE

- he feels the intent behind it like a punch to the gut, and staggers, holding his head.

---

Bass swears up a storm as he and Axl split to avoid a cascade of bouncing fiery orbs. Above them, Berkana cackles, attack after attack streaming out of her sceptre. What shots the two of them have been able to get in fizzle against her force field, even Bass’ fully charged newly-upgraded blasts.

“Oh come on! ” Axl exclaims, pulling a complex dash-hover-twist maneuver in midair to pass through a wave of attacks and get in a shot.

“There’s got to be a weak point somewhere! ” Bass says, leaping over an exposed tile of spikes as a spiked ball bears down on him. “Can’t you copy her and get rid of these traps or someshit?!”

Axl lands next to him, panting. He’s got one gauntlet resting on his side, where he’s still nursing an injury from their way in. A telltale flicker of energy over the surface of his armour tells Bass his shield reserves must be dangerously low.

Bass isn’t doing too well himself.

“I mean, if I could get an opening, yeah, probably!” Axl says.

“Fuck, okay, I’ll -” Bass starts, but Berkana cuts him off.

“An interesting hypothesis,” she says, and the room darkens, except for the runes on the wall, which glow more brightly. A miasma of purple energy is sucked into her staff like water down a drain. “However, I’ve bored of this experiment. It’s time to finish you off!”

Violet lighting crackles from the staff.

“Oh, that can’t be good,” Axl says, tensing. Bass braces himself to move, and move quickly.

---

Zero moves, and moves quickly. There seems to be no end to Sigma’s well of energy as he sends wave after wave of plasma at Zero. The air is filling with purple fog, which clings to the floor in fluid tendrils that Zero disturbs with every rough landing and every energy attack that slams into it behind him.

“You were a fool to ignore your destiny, Zero!”

That nauseating wall of pure ill intent grows stronger against Zero’s will every second, even as his usual reaction to the virus kicks in and he feels faster, stronger, better.

Even with the boost, though, he can’t seem to close in and do any damage. Sigma moves around the arena like a phantom, leaving afterimages in his wake.

“Where is X now, hm?” he taunts.

“I don’t -” Zero growls, pausing to vault over a line of crackling electrical orbs, “- need X’s help to beat you! I’ve done it before!”

Sigma just laughs, and Zero lunges again to try and catch him, teeth gritted.

---

There’s a second where the room goes totally dark save for Berkana’s form, crackling with purple electricity as she holds her sceptre aloft.

Bass knows an ultimate attack when he sees one. He doesn’t know how much more his shields can take.

I’m sorry, he thinks at Quint’s capsule.

But just then, just as the room reaches pitch black, a charged bolt of white-hot sails through the air from behind them and slams into Berkana. She shrieks, and the space snaps back into focus.

Bass and Axl whip their heads around to see X. And not just X, but a familiar group of robots.

“You came,” he says, picking his jaw up from the metaphorical floor.

“Yeah, and not a moment too soon,” Ballade says, weapon raised at Berkana’s writhing form. “We can’t let you go anywhere.”

“Is that a goddamned wizard? ” Punk says.

Bass opens his mouth to say something snarky (it hasn’t come to him yet, but he’s nothing if not inventive when it comes to on-the-spot insults) when he feels a familiar connection at the periphery of his consciousness.

Bass!!

On cue, Treble bursts through their ranks and leaps to meet his master.

“Treble!” Bass catches his wolf with open arms and hugs several hundred pounds of metal wolf as hard as he can, arms not quite reaching around his conical mane. He’s vaguely aware of Axl raising and then lowering his pistols in alarm beside him. “... Good wolf.”

I missed you, Treble says, with big, soulful eyes.

“I missed you too, buddy,” Bass mutters.

“We all missed you,” Roll says, stepping forward. Bass gives Treble one last affectionate squeeze before letting go and straightening.

“Somehow I fucking doubt that,” he says with a scowl.

“Hey, you never said you had a cool dog!” Axl pipes up, and Roll does a double-take. She opens her mouth, but Bass gets there first.

“He’s a wolf, idiot!” he snaps.

“Okay yeah what ever,” Axl snickers, and then makes a face and gasps softly, doubling over and clutching his side.

“Axl,” X cuts in, a wary eye on Berkana. “You’re injured. Are you out of subtanks?”

“‘Fraid so,” he says, with a tight smile. “What’s the situation?”

“We have an exit transerver down in the hallway into this room,” X says, tilting his head to point back at the door. “You can beam out for emergency repairs.”

“And enjoy the show from home,” Punk adds.

“Enjoy the show?” Axl asks.

“The mavericks have been filming your entire infiltration,” X sighs, buster whining as it charges. Over in the centre of the room, Berkana is getting her bearings. “And broadcasting it to whoever will watch.”

“What?!” Axl exclaims, and then winces. “Why?”

“I don’t know,” X says. “But get going! She’s coming back around!”

Treble slinks to Bass’ side as he turns back to face Berkana. Behind him, Axl’s footsteps scurry out the door, which slams back shut after him.

“X,” Berkana says, cordially. There’s a plasma burn mark on her body where X’s blast impacted, but it appears to be little more than a surface injury. She pauses, scanning the new arrivals. “You’ve brought me some new research subjects. How delightful.”

“It’s going to be one of those fights, isn’t it,” Enker says.

“Berkana!” X shouts, letting go of a massive charged blast. It pings against her force field, dispersing harmlessly. “Where is Zero?!”

“Why don’t you join him?” she smirks.

“Shit,” Bass whips around and reaches out, but he’s too late. The same field that had trapped Zero has raised around X, who gets a single shocked look around before the floor drops out from under him. “ Shit!

“Is he -” Roll is next to him in an instant, but she pauses and puts two fingers to her earpiece. “- he’s there?

“Don’t worry about him right now, worry about us! ” Bass says, raising his buster and taking careful stock of the hazards littered around the battlefield.

Berkana laughs and raises her sceptre once more.

---

Zero is losing.

It’s not quick. He’s invested a lot into maneuverability upgrades over the years, and Sigma’s attacks are powerful, but sluggish. He’s weaving in and out of purple-tinged plasma and wing-slams and whatever else the maverick of all mavericks pulls out.

It’s not quick. He’s gotten in close, gotten in a sabre-stroke or two before disengaging. If it were only damage he had to worry about, he might be winning.

Another beam passes him by, exploding into the metal floor and carving a rut of molten metal. That sickly feeling presses against his consciousness like a creature scratching at the door to be let in.

It’s not quick, but Zero thinks he might be losing his mind.

“This day was always going to come,” Sigma says. His voice booms around the arena. There are tons of mechaniloids hovering around the edges, but they haven’t closed in yet. In fact, they’re keeping their distance, not even shooting at him.

“Go to hell,” Zero snarls, anger coursing through him. He closes to melee again, taking a swipe at Sigma’s new pair of wings. He’s blown back by a mighty flap that releases a gust of charged aerial eddies. “And stay there!

“You’ve learned the truth, haven’t you?” Sigma laughs. “That which you could only guess at before… I knew, I knew that one day you’d return to us.”

The air tastes like murderous intent.

It’s familiar.

Shut up!” Zero clutches at the side of his helmet. “I’m not like you. It’s gone, it went into you, I’m immune!

What went into me?” Sigma alights upon the ground. The dark aura around him twists and pulses irregularly.

“You know damn well what I mean -”

“For the cameras,” Sigma grins. “After all… we’re live.”

Zero freezes.

Another look at those hovering drones, and he catches the flash of a lens.

Horror mounts, clawing its way up his frame. The secret he’s kept his whole life… if this whole thing had been broadcast, then…

I’ve lost, he thinks.

A charged buster shot hits Sigma in the face from above.

“Zero!”

X’s voice snaps him out of it. He’s falling from above, and lands dead in the middle of the arena, already glowing with another charge.

There’s a feeling that bubbles up inside him at the sight of X, like a charge from one percent battery, like X is the first and last thing he’s ever needed and now that he’s here -

- now that he’s here -

- that feeling is chased by a slowly creeping panic, because that thing is still trying to get into his head, and with every second it grows fractionally closer. His systems are already starting to give him errors. Just like they had right before he’d gone dark, a prisoner in his own subconscious.

X!” he says, dashing to meet him. He grabs him by the shoulder armour, turning him around to look into his eyes.

---

“Dammit, she is strong! ” Ballade dives out of the way of a bouncing fire orb, nearly landing right in a pit of spikes. He kicks off of the ledge at the last moment and clears the other side. Dimly, Bass registers that he’s got a dark visor down and that his helmet-horns are raised.

“Welcome to the fucking future!” Bass calls over his shoulder.

“Bass, get on comms!” Roll calls, from where she’s hacking at Berkana’s force field. Unlike every other attack they’ve put out so far, it seems to be doing… something. It’s leaving a mark, at least. “We need to coordinate!”

Bass grits his teeth at the order, but acquiesces. A quick frequency scan patches him into coordination already in progress, Kalinka’s voice coming in through his earpiece.

“-hing is probably feeding evil energy to Sigma,”  she says. “If this footage is anything to go by, his viral nature is somehow allowing him to channel it locally into physical changes to the real world. No dimensional area involved - It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen!”

“Great! How do we stop it?” Bass says.

“Geek the mage first!”  Punk’s voice comes over the comms crisply, despite the fact that he’s currently bouncing around engaged spike-ball-to-spike-ball with one of Berkana’s many attacks.

“We were already trying to do that,” Enker says, as he fends off a homing ball of lightning. “We need a real plan.”

“My sabre isn’t breaking through, but I think it’s damaging the shields!” Roll backs up as Berkana swoops down on her, rolling out of the way. “Maybe a concentrated blast of justice energy?”

Bass’ free hand curls into a fist.

That’s your specialty, Treble says, from next to his heel.

“I can’t,” Bass mutters in response.

“What?” Ballade says, and Bass realizes abruptly that he just said that over comms.

Shit.

“I can’t - I’m not powerful enough,” he says. It’s not a lie, more of a half-truth. He can think of something that might work, but it relies on him summoning up the right kind of energy.

And last time…

“Are you… feeling okay?” Roll asks. It occurs to Bass that what he just said sounds wildly out of character, and he snarls.

Whatever!” he snaps. “Can’t do it, we need another plan!”

“X’s charged attack landed just fine,” Enker observes. “The first time.”

“She was charging up some kind of ultimate attack,” Bass says.

“Navigator analysis says that when that happened, they got a notable flux in energy readings in your vicinity,”  Kalinka cuts in. “She was probably pulling power from the generator -”

“Bitch called it the ‘Shadow Matrix’,” Bass cuts in.

“Pretentious. She was pulling evil energy from the generator, so it stands to reason that it’s what’s powering these force fields if it went down when she diverted from it.”

“So if she’s pulling from it, the force fields go down,” Roll says.

“Roger that,” Enker says. “We need to piss her off. Ideas?”

The comms are flooded with ideas. Bass opens his mouth and closes it.

Something’s changed in his absence. Everyone seems to be working together so smoothly. He’s standing, metaphorically, on the outside of a closed circle looking in. Without Quint there to reach out and force them to include him…

Isn’t that your other specialty? Treble asks, jarring him out of his thoughts.

“Shut up,” he says.

This time he makes double-sure not to broadcast it.

---

“You can’t be here!” Zero says, grabbing X by both shoulders. He’s frantic.

Zero winces at the shock that passes over X’s face. It’s quickly followed by anger.

“Don’t you dare say that!” X says. “Do you have any idea what you just put me through?”

“I’m sorry,” Zero says. “I’m sorry, but X, you have to get away before -”

No!” X says, reaching out and grasping Zero’s forearms. “I’m not going anywhere! I - I can’t watch you die again, I can’t. I was being selfish -”

I was being selfish,” Zero cuts him off. His tone is hurried, even as he feels his voice hitch. “I knew there was something wrong with me but I still thought - I thought we could work it out! Because I love you.”

“Zero,” X says. His green eyes are wide. “You’re scaring me.”

“X -” Zero swallows.

The purple haze is closing in. Something in his systems is reaching a tipping point. It’s slower, this time. He watches the machine part of his brain fire warnings at him, strangely detached.

The creature at the door grows louder.

Error. Ω System overflow.

“- the whole world is watching,” he says. “It’s happening again.”

“No,” X says.

Error. Cascade failure imminent.

“You have to stop me,” he says, more quietly, but just as urgently. “If you don’t - if I become Sigma’s lapdog - me - you know what that will do to the hunters.”

No,” X says, tears gathering in his eyes. “Don’t - don’t make me do this. There has to be - please, no -

Emergency control chip partition online. Backup systems init̷͎͑i̸͇̍ȧ̴͔ṫ̷͜e̷̢d̸̯͋.̶̲̚

His head hurts. It hurts like his metal skull is splitting apart.

Ĕ̶̞̈́Ṙ̷̦͠R̷̲̙͝͠O̷͈̠͐R̸̥͐̄

---

X is looking up into cold, red eyes.

He feels numb.

Then he feels whiplash, because he’s been thrown off of him. He lands on the plated metal floor and skids, metallic boots screeching as he slides.

Sigma is laughing.

“It seems that you weren’t able to prevent this, X,” he says, coming to land behind Zero. Zero - the thing that isn’t Zero right now - doesn’t even flinch or glance back. “So much for your limitless potential… now bow down to mine.”

Chapter Text

The sound is deafening, but X can barely hear it.

Wave after wave of purple plasma rains from above as Sigma swoops overhead, bombs drop and detonate, rending the floor of the arena, the thrum of a violet sabre ebbs and flows as Zero dances in and out of melee to take strikes of opportunity as X pushes his maneuvering systems to their limits avoiding destruction.

It’s reaching his ears, and he’s reacting to it, years of combat experience and training driving his movements.

He’s preoccupied, though.

He’s searching for a time and a place that he’d been sure existed, but now that he reaches for it, it’s nowhere to be found.

I never told him I loved him, too.

Threat incoming. X activates his EAS and dash-hops backwards in time to avoid being bisected.

He told me. Why didn’t I say it back?

Red eyes stare out of Zero’s face, alien and unfamiliar in their calculating regard.

Why didn’t I say it back while I could?

The cameras watch from the sidelines, flashes of light from combat glinting off of their lenses and creating, in those moments, a sea of eyes.

---

“The fight downstairs is getting out of hand!”  Kalinka’s voice crackles over the comms. It doesn’t get by Bass that she sounds nervous. “We need to take action now or you’re going to have more than just Berkana to contend with!”

“Right, no pressure or anything,” Ballade says, blasting an orb in midair with a boom-CRACK. The orb passes through the smoke of his Ballade Cracker explosion, completely unfazed, and he’s forced to jump over it. “We’re totally outgunned here!”

“Ideas!” Enker repeats, back to back with Punk. “We need a plan!”

Bass grits his teeth and shoots an ineffective stream of plasma at Berkana. It’s caught by the barrier with a series of pings . He’s in the air, on familiar wings now that he’s been able to fuse with Treble. He’d hoped that it would up his buster’s power, but he supposes he’s lucky fusing works at all.

It figures that all the upgrades in the world wouldn’t help here.

And with all of the others in the room, he’s having trouble focusing, because on top of everything else of course his threat assessor problem would be acting up!

“What the hell is going on down there?” Bass barks. “Is Zero down, or what?”

There’s a pregnant pause.

“He’s...”  Kalinka says. “Gone rogue. He’s turned against X.”

Bass feels like he’s been dunked in ice water.

If Zero’s gone maverick again, then the only one they know who can do anything about it is him.

“I need to get down…” He trails off, looking at Quint’s capsule on the wall. So close and yet so far. “No. No, no, fuck!

“Bass, focus,” Enker’s voice says in his ear. “We need to -”

“I’ll take some fucking action!” The boosters on Bass’ wings flare to life and he rockets towards Berkana in a green-white streak.

---

Zero!

It didn’t do anything last time. It won’t do anything this time. But X still finds himself crying out.

“You can’t reach him now, X!” Sigma’s voice floods the space, seemingly booming from every direction. “Your precious Zero has met his end, and soon, you will too! This world will belong to the mavericks!”

They’re fighting in a purple haze, fog whirling around their boots as they step and jump and dash, locked in combat.

“Shut up!” X shouts at Sigma’s form, hovering overhead. He’s withdrawn, mostly, from the constant assault, but where there were once bombs there are now words, and the thing that isn’t Zero, freed from having to deal with friendly fire, is matching him blow for blow. He turns back to Zero only to bring up his arm in time to shield himself from a nasty dash-propelled kick, clearly intended to knock him off balance.

“I know you’re in there,” X pleads. “Zero, I’m sorry.”

Zero’s body hefts his bright violet sabre and brings it smashing down on the ground. Debris flies out from a shockwave of power and flies up into X’s face. Not expecting it, he doesn’t twist out of the way in time, and it impacts the side of his head, sending him spinning. His gyros kick in and he rights himself in moments.

The thing that isn’t Zero is trying to close the distance, leaping in. He’s made a mistake, betting on X’s senses being scrambled long enough to come in from an unexpected angle.

He pulls up his buster. It’s fully charged, glowing and hot against his internals.

The world is watching.

X hesitates.

I never told him.

His shot goes wild, and he cries out as Zero’s saber pierces his shields, leaving a deep molten groove in his shoulder.

---

“What’s gotten into you?!” Roll’s voice nags in Bass’ ear as he bounces off Berkana’s shield. Like Roll’s sabre, it leaves a rippling mark in the otherwise invisible barrier. But it doesn’t pierce it.

Damn it!” Bass says, charging up his buster and ramming it right point blank against the barrier to let out a charged shot. It peters out just like everything else.

“Begone, you antique little pest.” Berkana moves fast for someone who doesn’t look made for combat. Bass catches her sceptre to the midsection. Its purple aura crackles against the green flames surrounding him and there’s a bang as he’s sent flying into the wall opposite the Shadow Matrix. He falls to the ground with a clang.

“Hey, I know you’re incapable of listening to anyone but Quint,” Ballade starts, “but we need to actually work together right now so can you -”

Fuck you!” Bass staggers to his feet. His middle hurts like a bitch.

“What is wrong with you?” Punk says. “This is not the time for this!”

“Quint is depending on all of us,” Enker says. “You’re making things worse.”

“I know! Fuck! Do you think I don’t know that?!” Bass says, raising his buster again as he takes wing for another go. “Quint’s depending on me, Zero’s depending on me - but I can’t - but if I don’t do anything they’re both going to -”

“Well at this rate you’re going to get yourself killed, which will help exactly no one !” Ballade snaps.

Don’t act like you wouldn’t like that!” Bass snaps right back.

The comms go dead with stunned silence.

Bass launches himself forward for another attack.

---

I can’t kill him.

X has openings to take. He keeps hesitating, and he keeps paying the price. His body is pockmarked with sabre wounds, his armour approaching functionally useless with every new stroke.

His shields are low, too, and his sub tanks are going to run out soon.

Comms have been out ever since he dropped down here. Jammed. He’s alone.

Not quite alone.

The world is watching.

He can see it, in his mind’s eye, the hope slowly dying on the face of each and every viewer - some familiar, like Alia, some just products of his imagination, faces and places that blur together - as they watch Mega Man X fall to his best friend, turned maverick. Zero.

There’ll be an investigation, and they’ll find out about Zero’s origins. They’ll find that he was complicit in hiding Zero’s history with the virus, that the hunters as an organization made efforts to cover it up.

Zero knew that, too.

You have to stop me.

But he can’t.

“Please,” X says. His face is wet. “Zero, please, I can’t do this, I can’t be the one to - I’m sorry - I can’t-! I -

I never told you.

X hesitates.

I needed to tell you.

---

“I - I wouldn’t be -” Ballade stutters.

Just as before, Bass’ aura just isn’t cooperating. The green-white flames he knows signify justice energy have all but died, giving way to a sickly mix of green and purple. He hits Berkana’s barrier and doesn’t even properly bounce - and unlike before, he feels his shields take a hit as he touches the force field.

Treble’s worry, wordless but present, is buzzing in the back of his head. He tries to ignore it.

I was supposed to be making up for fucking up, he thinks, and just like that he’s back in that prison in Hunter HQ. A prison for mavericks. He’s helpless. Powerless.

Quint is right there, and somehow despite all of the distance he’s travelled to get here, he’s just as far away as before.

“Of course you would be,” Bass says, vaguely aware that his body has been overtaken by violet, churning flames, that the space around him is somehow absorbing light. “And why the fuck not? I deserve it. I can’t save Quint. I can’t even save my idiot little brother.”

He barely feels it as a spiked ball slams into him from the side, crunching into one of his wings - Treble, he thinks, the only thing that pierces through to alarm him - and then he’s falling, falling, falling, into the waiting arms of a spike pit below…

---

I need to tell him, X realizes, as the sabre pierces his chest. It’s close to, but narrowly missing, his core.

The thing that isn’t Zero is on him. He’s being driven to the ground under his weight, which is driving the sabre in further. His shields are officially offline, nothing between him and hot plasma. It hurts with a blinding intensity. Red eyes are staring him down from Zero’s face.

His core power is dropping, the battery display on his HUD disappearing pixel by pixel. Fifteen percent. Twelve percent.

“I…” X croaks. His systems are throwing him critical warnings. He’s ignoring them. His voice box has taken damage, too.

He reaches up, arm shaking, and clasps Zero’s wrist, the one that’s holding the sabre. Five percent.

“I…” he starts again. He gasps as the sabre twists, cutting ever closer to his core.

Somewhere above, Sigma is laughing. He’s saying something else. X can’t make it out.

I need to tell him.

He’s almost out of power. One percent.

---

Fear, real and raw, courses through Bass as the gap between him and the spike pit widens. His jets are dead, Treble’s injury in their transformed state knocking them offline. His threat assessor is on overdrive; something’s about to collide with him from the side.

He tries anyway, the dash pads on the soles of his boots sputtering. It’s too late, he’s on a collision course with -

- arms, grabbing him around the middle and followed by the full weight of a tackle.

They just clear the edge of the spike pit, tumbling to a stop on the ethereal panelled floor of the room.

“You are such a drama queen,” Ballade groans, rolling to pull himself to his feet.

Bass gapes.

Ballade reaches out his hand, and for a second, Bass is seeing double. His threat assessor is throwing a warning at him for proximity, but…

Far from the scowl he associates with Ballade’s face, the expression that he looks up and sees now is remarkably open. His eyebrows are drawn together in concern, and there’s just the crook of a wry smile tugging at the edge of his lips.

But Ballade hates him. Of all of them, he hates Bass the most.

Doesn’t he?

He wanted to come get you, too, Treble’s thoughts intrude on his, snaking through their strengthened bond along with vague impressions of pain and distress.

He did? Bass thinks. If he did, then…

He reaches out. His systems blare a warning. He grits his teeth.

He takes Ballade’s hand, pulling himself up in one rough motion.

The divided world collapses into one, his threat assessors quieting as they narrow down to a single point. Berkana.

Berkana, who is watching the proceedings with something resembling scientific interest. For a second, Bass wonders why she’s stopped attacking, but then he remembers. They’re not the real targets, and she’s sitting pretty behind a force field, stopping them from getting to -

Someone smacks him in the arm.

Ow!” he exclaims, pulling back and whipping his buster around to point at whoever just hit him.

“You are such an idiot!” Roll exclaims. Bass lowers his buster. “Do you really think Quint is the only one who cares about you?!”

“No!” he snaps back. “I just - I should be strong enough to help him! I should be strong enough to help both of them!”

“From what I’ve heard about this Zero character, he’s supposed to be near-unbeatable,” Roll puts her hands on her hips and stares him down. “Are you saying he’s weak?”

“I should hope the fuck not, since he effortlessly kicked my ass,” Bass says, scowling.

“So why are you carrying on like needing help makes you weak?” Roll says.

Bass’ mouth stops halfway to a response.

The first, knee-jerk answer that comes to mind is that Zero is different. Zero isn’t him.

“I…” he says. “It’s…”

But he is, isn’t he? Weren’t they built for essentially the same thing?

If needing help makes Bass weak, then it makes Zero weak. But it’s a fact that Zero isn’t weak. If Zero is strong, then it’s still a fact that he needs Bass’ help, and thus strong people can need help.

She’s got you, huh, Treble comments, and Bass strongly considers unfusing with him right then and there.

“Bass,” Roll says, resting a hand on his shoulder. “Let us help.”

Bass looks away from her, and, by process of elimination, ends up looking squarely at Ballade.

“As much as you constantly piss me off,” Ballade sighs, “I don’t want you to die. And Quint needs us. All of us.”

Bass bites his lip, hard, and looks up at Berkana, a dark outline against the purple glow of the runes behind her. She’s standing between him and Quint. She’s standing between him and Zero.

Slowly, creeping up from the base of his boots to the tip of his helmet fins, greenish-white flames begin to gather.

“Let’s kick her ass,” he says.

---

Two percent.

Chapter Text

X should be dead.

His internal HUD is crowded with so many warnings and system failure messages that they run together like so much water. But his optics still function, and Zero - the thing wearing Zero’s face - is right there, impaling him with a violet blade.

Zero, he thinks.

The light from the sabre casts long shadows over the thing’s face. It’s grinning, in a distinctly un-Zero-like way. His ears are malfunctioning, but he thinks it might be laughing. Or is that Sigma?

Somehow, his hand is still gripping the hilt, fingers overlapping Zero’s.

Zero, he thinks. I...

The flow of notifications stops.

need…

His internal power reserves tick up, digit by digit.

to reach…

There’s another source of light, suddenly, warring with the purple cast of the room. It’s a warm, familiar blue.

Zero!

It’s coming from his hand. The thing wearing Zero’s face isn’t grinning anymore, but grimacing in pain and pulling away from X’s searing touch.

---

“It’s the staff,” Bass says, over comms. “I saw her use the force field before, even when she didn’t have a hookup like this, so even if the generator is powering it, it’s her projecting the damn thing.”

Berkana has resumed her attack in force, and they’ve scattered again, avoiding the roomful of obstacles and orbs. Bass gets the uncomfortable sense they’re being played with.

“And when she pulled from the generator, when we were coming in, it was going right to the - hup - sceptre!” Roll says. Across the room, she’s jumping and kicking off the wall to avoid spikes coming up beneath her feet.

“It’s possible she’s rigged the sceptre to convert the evil energy into something she can use without damaging herself,”  Kalinka says. “It makes sense; it plays havoc with normal electronics.”

“Don’t I know it,” Enker says, darkly. “But none of this speculation matters if we can’t get to it. It’s behind the force field as well.”

Ducking out of the way of a spiked ball, Bass hesitates.

It’s an idea he’d already had, but...

“... There might be one way,” he says.

“Dude, if you have an idea, don’t hold out on us!” Ballade says.

“I don’t know if it’ll work!” he snaps back. “It could backfire and hurt Quint!”

The comms are silent, for a beat.

“... We don’t have any other ideas,” Roll says. Her voice is steady - steadier than Bass thinks it has any right to be. “Tell us.”

“Fine,” he says, and lands next to Roll. He turns to her and points to the heart shape on her chest. “... Can you still do that thing?”

---

X is on his feet, somehow. He’s distantly aware that he’s being shot at, but he doesn’t feel it. The world has taken on a tint of blue, and his forehead feels hot under where the red gem sits in his helmet.

His shields are recharged.

A glance down reveals that his injuries are mending themselves together, bathed in that same blue light.

Zero, the red-eyed not-Zero, is wide-eyed. The sabre between them has been deactivated, and it’s pulling away, frantically tugging. X’s hand holds fast.

“Zero,” he says. “I know you probably can’t hear me, but…”

---

“You’re right,”  Kalinka says. “It’s risky. It’ll power up everything. If something blows…”

Roll lets out a breath over the comms.

“But if Bass and I work together… it might work,” she says. “Do you think the rest of you can cover us?”

“Is there always an ice guy every time there’s a fire guy?” Punk says.

“What?” Bass says.

“He means yes,” Enker says, voice edging into exasperation. “Time is of the essence. Let’s move.”

---

“I know you’re in there somewhere. This isn’t you. And… and even if this is a part of you, that’s okay. I always knew about it, and I never wanted you to feel like…”

---

“Hey, bitch! ” Bass calls, as Roll and him cross the room in dash-bursts. He doesn’t have full flight functionality back, but his new auto-repair mercifully seems to extend to his fused form and so his dash jets are working. He’s dragging Roll behind him by the hand. “You’re gonna regret going easy on us!”

Berkana looks almost distracted, watching some kind of holo-display intently, but her head snaps up to look at the two approaching challengers and she grins.

“I prefer witch, ” she says, spinning her sceptre. It gleams purple, and she holds it up. “And if you insist -”

Hit it!” Bass says, and Roll brings her free hand up to press the button on her chest.

The room goes funny, the now-familiar sensation of the dimensional area sweeping over the already surreal-looking room and inverting all of the colours. All of them but the sickly purple of the Shadow Matrix, the runic grooves on the wall intensifying in luminosity until the room is a dim murk of purple haze.

Except two beacons of light, on a collision course with Berkana.

Bass and Roll are wreathed in justice energy, the bluish aura of her blade and Bass’ greenish flames mingling until they’re one streak of aquamarine. As though illuminated by a blacklight, the edges of the force field shimmer into view.

Orbs of energy pour out of her sceptre, tinged with violet. They come crashing towards the two of them in a wave.

---

“I never wanted you to feel like I was ashamed of you. I know that’s how you must have felt,” X says. His face feels wet, again.

The thing that isn’t Zero is still pulling away, its red eyes searching X’s face. It lashes out with its free hand, clawing at X’s wrist.

White noise resolves itself into a voice from above as X’s hearing stutters back online.

“Don’t waste your time, X!” Sigma’s voice booms. “He can’t hear you. Even your potential cannot reach him now!”

As if on cue, the arena darkens even further. Sigma’s form, a shadow through the haze, as of yet untouched by X’s light, shudders and grows.

“I was… I was trying to put off the hard part,” X says, eyes still on Zero’s face. “I was being a coward.”

---

The three ex-Mega Man Killers meet the orbs head-on. There’s a series of boom-CRACK s as Ballade’s crackers deflect a row of spiked balls, and Punk revs right through a line of ice orbs, jerking out of ball form and coming to a crashing stop at the end, his chassis covered in blooms of ice. A burst from Enker’s mirror buster collides with and negates several fire orbs, and he jumps into the last one, absorbing it with a subdued cry.

“A new variable? Useless! ” Berkana screeches. “You’ll never get past -”

Bass and Roll slam into the barrier as one. It cracks, a web of bright seams opening where Bass’ fist and Roll’s blade meet the surface.

No!” Berkana’s arms come up, sceptre in front of her. It shines brightly, and Bass can feel the field pushing back against them. “I won’t be defeated by… obsolete rust buckets… like you!”

Bass grits his teeth. The dark atmosphere is coming in on them from all sides, and, aided by the dimensional area, her rage is almost a physical force in and of itself.

Obsolete, his own thoughts echo back, and the intensity of his flame stutters.

The cracks in the force field begin to close.

“No,” he says, with growing horror as he tries to push harder to no avail. “No, no, no-!

---

The haze is moving now, a wind picking up around them. They’re in the middle of a maelstrom of darkness. Plasma, purple electricity, blades all whip in and out of the darkness, but X and Zero stand in a pocket of shining blue light as X raises his voice to be heard above the cacophony.

“I should have said this a long time ago!” he says, both hands now gripping Zero’s over the hilt of the Z-sabre. “I should have said it when you said it to me! I should have said it before that, when I knew! I should have said it a thousand times by now! Zero! I -”

“HE CAN’T HEAR YOU!” Sigma roars, and the darkness closes in.

---

“Bass!” Roll’s voice cuts into his growing fear like a knife. “Look at me!”

He turns his head.

She’s pressed against the force field blade first, face set in determination. As she looks up to meet his eyes, he sees…

Vulnerability. Her whole body is shaking under the effort, and despite the set of her features, her flame is sputtering too.

“She’s wrong,” she says, voice even.

“She’s beating us!” Bass says.

“She’s scared!”

You’re scared!”

“Of course I’m scared!” Roll’s eyes squeeze shut as they’re pushed back another few inches. The cracks in the force field, which were mending, are speeding in their recovery. Purple sparks play at their edges. “I’m always scared! Everyone is depending on me, and I… I don’t know what I’m doing half the time!”

“But you keep doing it, don’t you?” Bass says. “Come on, don’t fucking give out on me in the middle of your own damn speech!”

Roll’s eyes fly open, and despite everything, she smiles.

Her sword flickers again, once, twice, and then brightens.

“I won’t,” she says. “And you had better not, either!”

Warmth spreads from somewhere inside of him, starting around his chest and streaming toward his fist. Green-white flames flare out from the point of contact in a brilliant corona.

Crrrk. The cracks that had been closing widen again in a dazzling spiderweb.

“Wha- What is this power?! ” Berkana shrieks.

“Like I’d -” Bass leans in, grinning even as he shakes with the effort. “- let you upstage me! On three!”

“One!” Roll nods, squaring her shoulders.

“Two!” Bass barks, dash boosters gathering up energy.

“You can’t do this!” Berkana’s eyes are wild.

Three!” They shout, as one, and push.

Their energy narrows to two gleaming points and then explodes outward and backward in a jetstream of aquamarine. The force field pulses, once, again, and then, with a mighty CRACK, shatters into a million glowing pieces that disperse and fade like embers.

Bass’ dash boosters, just recovered enough to give him the boost of speed he needs, propel him forward and into the the face of a shocked Berkana. She holds up the sceptre in defense, and he reaches out -

---

In their pocket of shimmering light, the sound of the storm outside dulls as X meets Zero’s crimson eyes.

“I love you,” he says, and leans forward.

---

- and grabs it, tearing it out of her grip.

“I’ve got it!” he calls, and as Berkana makes a sound like a wounded animal and claws at him, Roll hits her like a freight train made out of sword.

“Alright, phase two!”  Kalinka’s voice comes over the comms. “Plug it in!”

Bass wastes no time, crossing the room to the previously guarded wall. He passes what was once the threshold with no resistance and jumps up to the capsule where Quint lies, above which is the very centre of the matrix.

One hand on the capsule, he hesitates. The sceptre’s gem, in his hands, glows a soft green-white. He looks down to see Quint’s face. He’s serene in sleep, and Bass aches to see those eyes open again.

I love you, he thinks, and touches the sceptre to the matrix’s core.

His vision is filled with blinding light.

---

Zero’s tumble into consciousness goes a little something like this: first, as always, his combat systems come online. He registers that there’s someone in front of him, touching him, and that they’re a massively powerful threat. Then the rest of him, always secondary, kicks into gear, and he relaxes, because while objectively his combat systems are correct, it’s just X.

He kisses him back.

---

It’s a simple press of lips. They’ve had deeper kisses, more passionate kisses, slower kisses, quicker pecks that held a promise for later. But as X draws back, eyes fluttering open, and sees familiar blue eyes looking back at him, he thinks that if he lives an eternity, he will remember this one most vividly.

“I love you too,” Zero says, with a small, private smile. He almost sounds shy.

X sobs, relief overtaking him, and launches himself forward into Zero’s arms. The Z-sabre clatters to the ground, and Zero holds him tightly.

“Sorry for running away,” Zero says, into his ear.

“Sorry for making you feel like you had to,” X sniffles into the crook of his neck.

“It’s -” Zero starts, and then X feels him shift, chin tilting as he looks up. “Ah, he’s still up, huh?”

X follows his gaze to see Sigma straining against their protective bubble. He’s ghoulish, face twisted into a mask of rage and body nearly unrecognizable. It’s twisted and grown to a huge size, almost organic, with bare sinew and sharp metal bone and tattered black wings.

There’s some kind of light shining from above, and wherever it touches, the sharp edges melt away like clay.

As though on cue, his wailing finally pierces through.

IMPOSSIBLE!” comes the guttural cry, barely a real voice anymore for how layered it is with harsh static. “My… potential! His… purpose! How?!”

“You’d think he would’ve reworked his definition of ‘impossible’ by now,” Zero snorts, and X withdraws from the embrace. He bends down to grab Zero’s sabre, and holds it out.

“Let’s end this,” X says, smiling wearily. “I want to go home.”

Zero reaches out and takes his hand, gripping the blade’s hilt over X’s hand. They both glow as they turn to face Sigma as one, Z-sabre alight between them.

On the edges of the arena, a sea of shining eyes watch as they strike him down together.

---

Quint’s being held. That’s the first thing that cuts through the haziness he feels as he regains consciousness. There’s also a receding, bone-deep pain that throbs and prompts a groan from his throat.

He opens his eyes and immediately feels crowded.

“Guys…?” he says, as his optics come into focus and he really takes in the situation at hand. Bass is holding him, his hand is being held by - ah, that’s Roll, he almost didn’t recognize her in different armour - and Punk, Enker, and Ballade are all crowded around, looking various degrees of openly concerned. “Where’re w-?”

His observation is cut off along with his question as Bass kisses him fiercely, his grip around Quint’s middle tightening.

“H-hi,” he says, bashful, as Bass withdraws. He realizes that his face is wet where their faces touched. “Oh, you’re -”

“Don’t worry about it,” Bass says thickly. Quint’s hand finds its way to his and squeezes.

“Okay,” he says, and then casts his gaze to the others. “If you’re all here… does that mean we can go home now?”

“Well,” Ballade says, standing up from kneeling on one knee and looking back towards what Quint is having trouble seeing from this angle but might be a door. “We can certainly get the hell off the moon, for starters.”

Quint blinks.

“... The moon?

Chapter Text

The lifesavers have come and gone, and the small room that Quint and Bass are occupying in the medical bay, it’s quiet.

They’re cuddled up together on one of the worktables (they hadn’t originally, but after the majority of repairs had finished they couldn’t keep them apart), and Treble is curled up at its base.

Quint shifts a little to get comfortable, and one of Bass’ red eyes opens. His arms around Quint tighten, for a second, as though he fears dropping him over the side of the table.

“Hey,” Quint says, voice soft. He moves his head to nestle in the crook of Bass’ neck. “‘Mfine.”

Bass doesn’t respond to that immediately, but Quint feels his fingers running a small circle into his back. When he does speak, Quint feels the rumbling in his throat against his cheek.

“You almost weren’t,” he says.

“That’s true,” Quint sighs into Bass’ shoulder and lifts his head again to take in Bass’ expression. It’s softer than the face he puts on in public, eyebrows pinched, frown small but tight. Quint can’t quite pin down the exact emotion in his eyes…

“It was my fault,” Bass says, and that cinches it.

Ah. Guilt, Quint thinks, and takes a deep breath.

“Bass -” he starts.

“Don’t even try to say it wasn’t,” Bass says, eyes flicking to the side as he averts his gaze.

“I wasn’t gonna,” Quint says. Bass’ frown deepens. “... and I can’t say it didn’t suck? A… a lot? Even though I was asleep for most of it.”

He leaves unsaid that even here, in what he knows is complete safety, he still feels shaken up. Bass scans his face and seems to pick up on it regardless.

Fuck,” he says, and Quint feels the arms around him tighten again.

“... You know I forgive you, right?” he says. Bass graces him with that very particular don’t-be-stupid glare.

“I haven’t even said I was sorry,” he says.

“Well, yeah, but…” Quint bites his lip. “You’re obviously beating yourself up over it, and you did come to the moon to rescue me, so…”

Bass groans and presses his forehead into Quint’s shoulder.

“Stop doing that,” he says, with an unexpected heat. “Stop going easy on me.”

Quint pauses, taking in a sharp breath.

“... Okay,” he says, closing his eyes. “I was really, really scared, and I wish you’d’ve listened to me. And I know you were going through a lot, but I was really trying to help, and… you kept pushing me away.”

“I’m sorry,” Bass says.

“... I’m sorry, too,” Quint says. Bass rears his head back a few inches, gives him a consternated expression, and lightly headbutts him right in the (artificial) clavicle. Quint squeaks. “Hey, what was that for?”

“You’re too fucking nice,” Bass complains, and then with a slightly darker expression, adds: “The last thing that happened before you got kidnapped because of me was us arguing. Doesn’t that make you mad or something?”

“Well, uh…” Quint ducks his head, which is more of a bob to the side given their present configuration. “I didn’t have a lot of time to process it, and then dad showed up in my head to tell me stuff, and now I’m too tired out to really be mad.”

“Your dad did what?” Bass asks.

“Oh, that’s…” Quint sighs, letting his head rest against Bass’ forearm. “That’s a whole thing. Can I be mad later? I don’t want to right now. I’m just glad you’re here.”

“... Yeah,” Bass says, pulling him in tight again. There’s something soft in his voice, almost breathless. “Whatever you want.”

Quint hums an affirmative into Bass’ frame, and they stay like that for a while.

---

“I suppose I should start by saying congratulations,” Signas says.

The Maverick Hunter leader looks far from congratulatory. Mostly, he looks exhausted. It should be a physical impossibility for a reploid built as armoured as he is to slouch, but X notes that he’s pulling off the look admirably under the circumstances.

“Thank you, sir,” X and Zero say at the same time with completely different intonation.

They’re in Signas’ office in a familiar configuration. X is seated directly across from Signas, while Zero is slouching in the chair next to him. Slightly off to the side, Alia is sitting with a datapad. There’s a smug air about her.

“Well,” X asks, feeling drained himself, “What’s the damage?”

Signas sighs and straightens.

“We’ve had several requests from contributing governments to withdraw Zero from his position in the hunters,” he says, and X winces. Zero, who’d looked unconcerned up until now, subtly tenses. “Which I have refused, of course.”

“I’m surprised they didn’t call for another kind of retirement,” Zero says.

“Oh, there’s been that, too,” Signas says, rubbing his temples. “It’s been a circus.”

“He’s responded to every inquiry about retiring Commander Zero with an estimated cost report,” Alia says, professional facade cracking for a moment as a smirk makes its way through, “for taking down the both of you.”

X’s eyebrows shoot up.

“Hell of a statement, sir,” Zero says.

“The number includes replacements for the two-thirds of the hunters who would probably go with you,” Alia adds.

X tries to mentally estimate how many zennies that would amount to, and quickly gives up. He shakes his head.

“You’re really going to bat for us,” he says. “After what you said…?”

“Yes, well,” Signas says, “however much I wanted to avoid a mess, we’re in it now, and there’s nothing to do but get to work cleaning it up.”

“What he said?” Zero narrows his eyes.

“Let’s just say that I feel I owe you the support,” Signas says, putting up a hand. “Ah, but there is a silver lining. While we’ve received many calls for your retirement, one way or another, you two put on quite the show.”

“Oh,” Zero says, voice steeped in a bone-deep dread. “Oh no.”

X shoots him a quizzical look.

“Yes, Zero,” Alia says. “Oh, yes.”

“X,” Zero says, standing and taking a bewildered X’s hand. He clasps it between his, staring deep into X’s eyes. “Believe me when I say that I didn’t wish this upon you.”

“If we could keep it professional in official meetings, please.” Signas says, completely resigned.

“What… is going on?” X asks. His cheeks are burning.

“There’s been a swell of support from the public after what happened on the moon,” Alia says. “A lot of people were touched by your undying devotion to each other.”

Fans,” Zero hisses.

“Oh,” X says, shoulders drooping as he relaxes a tense pose he hadn’t realized he’d assumed. “Is that all? Isn’t that a good thing?”

“Oh, X,” Zero says, reaching out and cupping X’s cheek in his hand. “Yes, but at what cost?

“Commander, please retake your seat,” Signas cuts in. Zero rolls his eyes and plops back down in his chair. “Yes, it is indeed fortunate that we have the popular opinion on our side, and I will continue to work to smooth things over. Now, in the interest of my schedule, could we please move things along?”

“Alright, alright,” Zero says, slouching even further into his seat.

“Next on the docket,” Signas says, shuffling some papers around. “Disciplinary measures. Where oh where do I start?”

Zero groans.

---

Quint is slowly but surely being crushed under the sheer pressure of Roll’s hug.

“I can’t believe they had the nerve to separate us!” she says, at the same time looking at no one in particular and clearly speaking at the one Lifesaver who had been left behind to straighten things out. Said Lifesaver doesn’t even twitch to acknowledge the words; Quint imagines they must have heard worse from other patients.

He makes a little gurgle of agreement, absent the ability to breathe, and Roll finally lets go, smoothing down the sleeves of his shirt. Sakugarne bounces anxiously at his side.

“Oh, don’t be dramatic,” she says, and Quint pouts.

“You hug really hard! ” he says. “I missed you too, but I’ll have to go right back into repairs if you crush my spine...”

“Did someone say spine-crushing?” Punk cuts in, picking Quint up in a vice-like embrace. He yelps.

“Owwww, Punk, your wrist-spikes!” Quint squirms.

“Shhhh,” Punk says, nevertheless shifting to induce less poking. “These are affection spikes.”

“That’s terrifying,” Ballade says, coming up next to him. He’s obviously barely holding back laughter.

“Hey, don’t kill my fucking boyfriend!” Bass says, and Quint turns his head to see Bass enduring a hug of his own from Roll. He’s trying to cross his arms, but he can’t quite reach, so he just looks uncomfortable.

“We are in a repair bay,” Enker says, seemingly unconcerned, from where he’s sitting and watching the action on one of the worktables. “If there’s anywhere to almost die, it’s here.”

He’s still banged-up in some places, golden sheen scorched and dented. Quint guesses that he must have taken more damage than the others trying to fuel his Mirror Buster.

“Spoken like someone who’s never had to repair anyone,” Kalinka sighs, from nearby. She’s poring over a datapad, the contents of which Quint can only guess at. “Also, Roll, you can’t seriously tell me you don’t understand quarantine procedures. You have a nursing degree.

“I do!” Roll says, letting go of a grateful Bass. Treble hovers nearby and noses at her hand for pets, which she gives, scritching the appreciative wolf behind the ears. “Just, you know, for humans. This robot virus business is something else.”

“I keep forgetting you weren’t around for Roboenza,” Bass mutters.

“Oh, tell me about it,” Roll says. “Your timeline sure got weird.”

“Someone talking about us?” Zero says, from the doorway. Everyone turns to see X and Zero enter.

“X! Zero!” Quint says, slipping out of Punk’s arms to run and meet them. Bass trails after him, as does Sakugarne, albeit more slowly. Quint greets X with a big hug, which X returns, somewhat bewildered.

Bass greets Zero with a punch, which Zero adeptly catches with one hand.

“Way to almost get yourself killed,” Bass says, withdrawing his arm.

“X kissed it better,” Zero grins.

“Never fucking speak to me again,” Bass says, wrinkling up his nose. Zero laughs.

“That was quite the spectacle you two put on,” Kalinka says, standing up and crossing the room. She extends her hand to Zero. “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced. Doctor Kalinka Cossack.”

Zero nods and takes her hand, with the businesslike shake of someone accustomed to introductions.

“Zero,” he says. “But you already knew that.”

“We spoke about you in the meeting,” X says. “Alia said you’ve been helping to get our understanding of force metal technology up to date?”

“As much as I can, yes,” Kalinka says, picking her datapad back up and throwing up some holograms with a step back to create some room between them. “Side note, can I keep one of these?”

“I’m not sure how comfortable I am sending advanced technology to the past?” X frowns. Kalinka waves him off.

“Don’t be silly, it’s not your past,” she says. “And it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve done it, either.”

“Think of it as a trade,” Enker says, from his position on the worktable.

“Glad that’s settled,” Kalinka says, and over X’s attempted reply, she continues. “Now onto the important stuff. You’re going to want to take a seat.”

X and Zero exchange a glance, and then X looks at Quint. Quint shrugs.

“I just got here too,” he says.

They all shuffle around, and eventually settle in a circle around an open stretch of floor, where Kalinka takes up the centre. Quint is pressed up against Bass’ side on one side and Roll’s on the other, one hand draped over one of Sakugarne’s handles.

Kalinka throws up a hologram of Zero’s schematics. Zero, on the other side of the group, tenses.

“We were able to isolate the factor that caused Zero to go berserk,” Kalinka says, highlighting and zooming in on one component in Zero’s head. “The answer is, as usual, that Dr. Wily bit off more than he could chew.”

“You mean it wasn’t the virus?” X frowns.

“Yes and no,” Kalinka says. “We’ve spent a few days comparing notes, and it seems as though the vector of the Maverick Virus is cyberspacial. With that knowledge, and dimensional area tech, we were able to crack one of Zero’s black box systems. It’s called -”

“The Omega System,” Zero cuts in.

“That’s right,” Kalinka nods. “The Omega System is very similar to dimensional area tech. It’s designed to absorb the very virus you were designed to spread and boost your power. Sounds like a good idea on paper, right? But it’s flawed.”

“Yeah, no fucking kidding,” Bass says.

“No fucking kidding indeed,” Kalinka says. She throws up another diagram of some kind of component. Quint assumes it’s a more detailed schematic of the system itself. “Wily obviously had an incomplete understanding of cyberspace tech when he built it. You’re sensitive to distortions in cyberspace like the ones Evil Energy makes, and if the system is overloaded…”

“Cascade failure,” Zero says. At some point, Quint observes, Zero’s hand and X’s had found each other. He’s squeezing X’s hand tightly.

“It creates an error that causes your brain to partition off your higher functions and defaults to your combat systems without any more guidance,” Kalinka says. “And once it starts, after a certain point… well, we projected some very twisty effects on cyberspace thanks to the feedback loop. Damn thing could even grow its own personality -”

“Wait, wait,” X says, alarmed. “So this could happen again?”

“Then I’m a ticking time bomb!” Zero says.

“Oh, relax,” Kalinka says. “Your R&D department is already working on a fix. They’re basically frothing at the mouth over this whole thing - I heard they want to make some kind of cyber-electronic life forms, too. Interesting stuff.”

Quint watches X and Zero both sag with relief. X’s change in posture is more pronounced, while Zero just closes his eyes and sighs.

“So… it’s over?” Quint asks. “We don’t need to worry about Zero going crazy again?”

“That’s what she said,” Bass says, elbowing him gently in the ribs. “Pay attention, damn.”

“I am!” Quint pouts. “I’m just relieved.”

“I have to agree with that,” X says. “After everything I’ve seen, I’m not really used to things like this ending well.”

“Well, that’s depressing,” Ballade says, from somewhere to Quint’s right. He turns to see him withering beneath Roll’s glare. “What?”

She’s about to say something in response, but she’s cut off by Axl’s sudden arrival at the doorway.

“Hey, Zero!” he calls. “There’s a briefing at thirteen-hundred, and Captain Wombattle wanted me to make sure you knew, ‘cause you haven’t been answering co-”

There’s a clatter.

Quint’s head jerks around to look at Kalinka, who’s dropped her data pad and is staring at the doorway wide-eyed.

“Oh no, I forgot to tell her -” Roll hisses quietly from next to Quint. So quietly, in fact, that Quint is sure that if she wasn’t sitting next to him that he wouldn’t have heard it.

“Uhh,” Axl says. “You okay, lady?”

Kalinka recovers admirably, shaking herself and crouching to pick up the pad from the floor.

“Да,” she says. “Sorry, I just… mistook you for someone else.”

Axl’s expression goes that shade of calculating that Quint remembers from when he’d been suspicious of him and Bass, but it evens out into an easygoing, apologetic smile.

“Well, sorry for startling you,” he says.

“Meeting at thirteen hundred hours?” Zero says, sliding off the workbench and walking over. “That’s ten minutes ago.”

“Yeah, why do you think they sent me?” Axl rolls his eyes, and the two of them rapidly disappear down the busy hallway outside.

Kalinka runs a hand down her face.

“... Well,” she says, “that’s about all I had to say.”

“I see,” X says, and he sounds concerned, but as Kalinka regains her composure, he drops into a more professional tone. “Well, aside from checking on all of you, we came to say that the team has asked for time to set up observational equipment at Abel City, so if you’re not too eager to leave, you’re all welcome to stay a few more days.”

“Assuming that papa got my message, it’ll be a while until they activate the Time Skimmer to fish us out anyway,” Kalinka says.

“Thank you for having us,” Roll adds politely.

“Are we all gonna be squashed into Zero’s room?” Quint asks, looking around.

“I don’t see why not,” Bass says. “It’s not like he’s going to be sleeping there.”

X turns red.

“I’ll get back to you on sleeping arrangements,” he says, clearing his throat and standing up. “For now, er, I have… work to do.”

Punk snickers as he beats a retreat from the medical bay.

---

“Hey, isn’t it lonely up here?” Roll asks, walking up to where Kalinka is leaning against the railing overlooking Maverick Hunter HQ’s training facilities.

It’s day three of their time in the future, and Roll has seen a lot of awe-inspiring new technology. Just the day before, X had taken all of them out into the city, a dizzying world where Dr. Light’s vision of robot and human cooperation had truly borne fruit. It had almost been enough to make Roll forget that he lives and works in the one place that deals with constant threats to that ideal.

As Kalinka turns and wordlessly gestures below, Roll supposes she shouldn’t be too surprised that the majority of their party would be the most taken in by the new ground broken in combat simulation technology.

As she comes up next to Kalinka, she spies Bass, Zero, Ballade, Enker, Punk, and -

“- Ah,” Roll says, as her eyes land on Axl. “I see.”

“I think we might have to pry Enker out of the future with a crowbar,” Kalinka says, heedless.

“That or bring the projector back with us somehow,” Roll hums.

“Trust me, I looked into it,” Kalinka sighs. “It’s all very non-portable.”

“That’s a shame,” Roll says.

Silence settles between them as they watch the action below. Despite the rough and tumble nature of their sparring, it seems good-natured. It’s not exactly a language Roll speaks, but she thinks that maybe between combat-bots, there’s a lot being said there.

“So,” Kalinka says. “How are you doing?”

“Huh?” Roll snaps out of her reverie. “Why do you ask?”

“Well, you know…” Kalinka says, not removing her eyes from the arena. “X, and who he reminds you of.”

“Oh,” Roll says. She peers at Kalinka’s face from the side, and notes that her friend looks distant. “Well, it took a little while to get used to, but X is… different. Much more grown up, you know?”

“Yes,” Kalinka says. “He seems to have made a life for himself here. Good on him.”

“He has people who support him, and care about him,” Roll says, looking back down at the others. Zero catches Axl in a headlock and mercilessly noogies him. “So I’m not worried about him.”

She hears Kalinka turn, and glances over to see her sporting a halfway consternated expression that’s totally spoiled by a wry smile.

“You’re supposed to be doing a better job pretending that we’re talking about X,” she balks.

“Oh, hush,” Roll says, drawing her hands up to her hips. “Why can’t we just bond over weird alternate timeline family members openly?”

“It’s not done,” Kalinka sniffs daintily, and then her eyes glint, hawklike. “But if you want to talk about things openly -”

“Oh no,” Roll puts up her hands.

“- then you could tell your bestest friend in the whole universe about the boy who confessed to you,” Kalinka says, eyes sliding down to, Roll is sure without looking, Ballade.

“Ugh, you’re the worst!” Roll says. “How do you even know about that?”

“I have my ways,” Kalinka says, steepling her fingers. “... Your comm got stuck on after getting damaged and then it was too awkward to interrupt. Now spill.”

“What’s to spill?” Roll pouts, leaning heavily on the railing. “I got blindsided and then said the worst thing possible. I feel awful about it.”

Kalinka leans next to her.

“Well, there are only so many ways to say you’re not interested,” she says, sagely.

“You’re being nice,” Roll mumbles.

“I’m being nice,” Kalinka agrees. “He’ll bounce back, though.”

“You think so?” Roll says. “You think I ruined everything?”

“Yeah, I think so,” Kalinka says, and then, when Roll turns sharply to look at her, she hastily adds, “I think he’ll bounce back! I don’t think you ruined everything.”

“That’s good…” Roll relaxes again.

“Though,” Kalinka says. “I’m a little surprised you weren’t interested. He seems like your type. Blond, tall, heart of gold kind of guy… built...”

“Oh my gosh stop talking,” Roll buries her head in her arms, and Kalinka laughs. “I’m just… not. And even if that were true, which shut up it’s not, I’m not going to be someone’s rebound from my brother.

“Fair,” Kalinka says. “More than fair.”

“Plus…” Roll casts her eyes out into empty space. “I don’t know if I’m... if I want to do something like that at all, right now. With everything that happened, and how I’m not even sure about who I am anymore sometimes... Maybe that’s why I don’t feel that way. I don’t know.”

“I can relate to that,” Kalinka says, and Roll can feel the weight behind it.

“So, is that why you haven’t talked to…?” Roll says.

“That’s part of it,” Kalinka sighs. “And partly what you said before, I think.”

“More than fair,” Roll echoes.

“It’s a good name, though,” Kalinka hums. “‘Axl’. Suits him.”

“From what little I’ve seen… I think so too.” Roll smiles.

They fall back into companionable silence after that, until -

“So Zero’s totally your type too, right?” Kalinka says. “He is sizzling hot.”

Roll screams quietly into her sleeves.

---

“Hey!”

While he’s managed to convince his programming to accept the ex-Mega Man Killers as non-enemies, Bass’ threat assessor still has problems with the hallways of bustling death robots that make up Maverick Hunter HQ.

“Hey, Bass.”

It’s frustrating. Everyone he bumps into, every voice, every -

“Hey, are you ignoring me?” Axl says, and Bass barely registers swatting his finger away as he taps at his shoulder.

- every incursion on his personal space puts him on high alarm. He’s in a sort of herd, at the moment, with Zero at the front, Ballade, Enker, and Punk in the middle, and him and Axl taking up the rear. He can tell that the others are having something of the same discomfort, which -

“Rude!” Axl says, flicking one of Bass’ head fins from behind.

“Would you fucking stop that?” Bass rounds on him, though he’s still walking. “Stop sneaking up on me!”

“Dude, I’m not sneaking up on you,” Axl snorts. “I’ve been trying to get your attention for like half a minute. You’re spacing out.”

“That makes no goddamn sense,” Bass says, holding up a finger. “I -”

He runs through his memory of the last half minute.

What?

“Wha… but that…”

That makes no sense. Actually, come to think of it, Axl has been sneaking up on him a lot. And he never seemed to be trying particularly hard. That would have to be a flaw in this otherwise overly active threat assessor? Unless...

Bass is slammed with a horrible realization.

“Oh, fuck,” he says. “Are we friends?

There’s a beat.

“Did you…” Axl blinks, and then starts grinning very, annoyingly wide. “Did you not know that?”

Bass just stares, horrified, until Axl finally dissolves into laughter.

“Shut up!” He shoves him and double times it to catch up with the others, who they’d been lagging behind.

“Aww, wait up!” Axl jogs behind him. “Zero! Good news! Bass made a friend!”

“Are the end times upon us already?” Zero says, without even turning his head.

I will kill you before you even get born, you fucking-!

Laughter echoes down the hall, and for all of Bass’ seething, they make it back to the personal quarters before he’s realized it.

---

It’s a full week after the day they arrived when the portal in Abel City flares back to life. There’s a ten-minute scramble as everyone grabs their things after the call goes out, and not too long after, they find themselves lined up in the now very much not abandoned laboratory where this whole thing started.

The robot greeting them comes as somewhat of a surprise, apparently.

“Tundra Man?!” Roll gasps, as they enter.

He’s definitely different from the Tundra Man Quint remembers from his timeline, who had a lot more of a rugged aesthetic. This version of Tundra Man is all lithe and graceful and shiny, with icy decals in bold crystals and an attachment of segmented icy crystals hanging from the back of his head, stylized to look like a long braid. He’s also got what look like the blades of ice skates bolted onto the bottom of his boots, and somehow he’s having no difficulty walking on them. He turns from a small group of standard-issue reploids to greet them, arms wide.

“Splendid! You’ve arrived,” he says, spinning in place and leaping to land in front of the group on the tip of his skates. “I feared the worst when I landed here. It’s a dreadful atmosphere, isn’t it?”

He pauses as Enker’s javelin finds its way very suddenly to his throat.

“Speaking of dreadful,” he says.

“The last we heard, you were under Wily’s control,” Enker says, in that particular way he does when he wants to sound threatening but not overly bothered about it.

“Please, put the showstopper away,” he says, pushing Enker’s weapon away to the side with one delicate finger. “That whole ordeal is long over. It’s been weeks.”

“Weeks?” Quint says, eyes widening.

“Oh, that’s interesting,” Kalinka says.

“Oh, no,” Roll says, reaching up and scrunching her hair up in her fingers, “everything in the fridge has gone bad!”

Enker withdraws his javelin, a slight downward tug to his lips.

“So… you’re a good guy again?” Ballade asks.

“Of course!” Tundra Man strikes a pose. “I’m here at the behest of the good Dr. Cossack,” he says, and then, glancing at Kalinka, he adds, “The other one. As it’s going to be a while before I can return to my spotlight and adoring fans, alas, I volunteered.”

“Well, thanks for the pickup,” Punk says. He’s got a crooked finger to where the chin might be on a human. “Nice getup, by the way.”

“Why, thank you! It’s my own design,” Tundra Man preens, and strikes another bold pose, and Quint watches Enker give Punk a look. Punk’s eyes crinkle back at him in what passes for Punk as a grin.

“Right, well,” Quint says, “I really want to go home, so... I guess we better say our goodbyes?”

“Yeah, alright,” Bass says, and walks over to Zero. “Try not to be such a colossal moron all the time. Bye.”

Zero wipes away an invisible tear.

“But how will I do that without my big brother around to look good next to?” he says, and Bass snorts.

“Just don’t die,” he says, and Zero straightens and nods.

“I’ll do my best,” he says.

“Just don’t die, ” Bass stresses.

I’ll do my best,” Zero repeats, and Bass smacks him on the shoulder and walks towards the portal, arms crossed. “Bye!”

“I feel like I’ll never figure out how those two got so cozy…” Ballade mutters.

“They have a lot in common,” Quint says, with a shrug, and then turns to X.

X, he notes, looks forlorn.

Quint glances at Roll, who in true sibling fashion, meets his eyes at the same time. An understanding passes between them and they both move forward, gesturing and guiding X to a slightly more private corner.

“Hey, X,” Quint says. “Are you okay?”

X looks between them and sighs, bringing a hand up to the side of his face.

“I… no,” he says. “I feel like I just met you, and now you’re already going away.”

“I understand,” Roll says, taking X’s free hand in hers and patting it softly.

“Do you?” he asks, and he sounds… bitter. “I’ve never had family like this before. You two were activated together, weren’t you?”

“You never got to have us, or the other us, I guess,” Quint says, “And… I wish that you could have, back then. But… you were the one who said family was who you choose it to be, right?”

X sighs, and then half-smiles.

“Yes, I did,” he says. “I just don’t want to let go yet.”

“Hey, it’s not the end,” Roll says. “If Tundra Man can come around to find us, then we can definitely visit sometime.”

“Just try to keep the world from burning down until then,” Quint says, with a bleak smile. X laughs, startled.

“I always am,” he says.

“Oh, but take it easy, okay?” Quint says, much more earnestly. “Like… as much as you can.”

“I’ll do my best,” X says, with a nod.

Roll clears her throat and looks down at her boots, and then back up.

“I’ve known you for an even shorter time,” Roll says, and her eyes are glistening, “But… you really remind me of the good parts of someone else I knew, and I’d be glad to be your family, X. I’m going to miss you, too.”

Quint’s not sure who started it, but the three of them go in for one last tight hug before pulling apart.

A quick look over at the portal tells Quint that everyone else is waiting for them, and he nods to Roll. They start over, and then Quint stops, jogging back over to X even as he’s in the middle of crossing the room to stand by Zero again.

“X, I was supposed to tell you, and I totally almost forgot -” he says, breathless, “- Dad said to tell you he’s proud of you.”

“Oh,” X says, eyes softening. Zero takes his hand as emotions spill over his face. “... Thank you for telling me,” he manages to say, finally.

“I am, too,” Quint says, with a big, teary-eyed grin. “Goodbye, X.”

“Goodbye, Quint,” X says, and Quint darts back to the others.

The last thing Quint sees as he walks back through the portal, looking back over his shoulder, is X and Zero waving, their hands firmly clasped together.

Chapter Text

A hundred or so years in the future, but also a few days later:

The bedsheets are soft under Zero’s touch, the feeling welcome after a hard day of work. Normally, he would forego the minor luxury for the efficiency of a charging capsule, but there’s something else soft curled up against his side.

X is dressed in a set of blue pajamas, the sleeves of which emerge from the blankets where he’s leaning into the crook of Zero’s arm. He’s sedately browsing through something on a datapad.

Impatient, Zero turns his head and buries his face in X’s hair. X laughs softly as he blows a puff of air into X’s scalp, which musses his brown hair and also tickles Zero’s lips as the strands go awry.

“Just a second,” X says, tilting his head. His expression is attempting to be stern, but he’s got a sparkle in his green eyes that belies his amusement. “I’m almost done.”

“How hard can begging off of work really be?” Zero asks. “Seems counterproductive, working so hard to take a vacation.”

“It’s not just that,” X says, shifting positions to rest on his side, facing Zero. Zero’s arm rests loosely around his middle. “There are a lot of little things to delegate. And don’t you need to…?”

“Finished already,” Zero says, resting his chin on top of X’s head.

“Oh?” Zero can’t see X’s face, but he sounds pleasantly surprised. “That was fast.”

“I wrangled Axl to help,” he says. “I would have asked Layer, but she’s been down lately, so…”

“I can’t imagine why,” X says, a beat too quickly. “But, I’m glad. It’s one more thing out of the way.”

“Yeah. And all he asked in return was to be assigned to go help the cleanup crew in Siberia,” Zero says.

“Huh,” X says. “Weird.”

“Yeah. Speaking of...” Zero says, pulling back a few inches to look X in the eye, “I didn’t think of it before, because it was all going smoothly, but a little bird told me someone was going to an awful lot of effort to correct my paperwork.”

Alia,” X sighs ruefully.

Zero reaches out with his free hand to tap X on the nose. It wrinkles under his touch.

“In between linking me to articles about how heartbroken people are that I’m no longer an eligible bachelor, yeah,” he says, and then more subdued, adds, “You could’ve told me you were doing so much.”

“She’s sending you those too, huh…?” X says, and then sighs again. He huddles into Zero’s side, datapad darkening as he lets it rest on the sheets. “I just... didn’t want you to feel like you were some kind of burden.”

“X, I know I’m not normal,” Zero says, wrapping his free arm around X to encapsulate him in a full hug. “I need help doing part of my job. That’s just how it is.”

“I wanted to help,” X says, into Zero’s chest.

“I know,” Zero sighs. “But the last thing I want to do is wear you out.”

He pauses thoughtfully.

“Except in bed,” he adds, and X groans softly.

“Couldn’t keep it in, huh?” X says, voice torn between amusement and exasperation.

“You love it.” Zero grins.

“Goodness knows why,” X says, and Zero feels his face twitch into a smile against the thin fabric of his bedshirt (which is really just a random selection from his regular shirts; unlike X, he doesn’t have devoted bedclothes).

“Anyway,” Zero says, “I talked to my unit, and Axl and some of the other senior Zeroth are going to take over most of the day-to-day admin. I’ll have to sign things, mostly.”

X lifts his head and peers up at Zero.

“... Thank you,” he says, and the thinly-veiled relief in his voice tells Zero that he made the right call. “Actually… I was going to say. I’ve handed off some of the Cain Labs board of directors duties.”

“X,” Zero frowns, shifting to see his face more clearly. “I know how much Cain Labs means to you…”

“Not all of them,” X says, bringing up his hand to grasp Zero’s hip. He runs his hand up and down his side soothingly. “But… between how much time has been taken up by the press recently, and how much I’ve wanted more free time in general… I’ve been re-examining my priorities.”

Zero kisses him. It’s slow and languid, and when they part, X is smiling up at him just so.

This is his, he thinks, with a sudden wave of something that couldn’t be called dizziness but feels close. It’s giddiness, he realizes, as he shifts his weight and goes in for a much more heated kiss from his new position straddling X’s midsection. X gasps into his mouth and then kisses back just as eagerly.

---

Later, as they lay in a tangle of limbs and blankets and blond hair, Zero closes his eyes and finds himself looking forward to the morning, and every morning after that, panic attacks and all.

---

In the present:

“Bass! Incoming!”

It’s a little colder than it was the last time they were all out here, the chill of late fall beginning to settle into the breeze. It’s been wetter, on average, too, but today the skies are dry, if grey and overcast. To Bass, it hardly matters; he’s wearing a tank top and shorts for maximum mobility, and he would be wearing the same in the dead of winter.

Besides, head fins had been deemed an unfair advantage.

Heavy footsteps slap across the concrete as the other team bears down on Roll. Punk and Enker move to block the shot, and Bass almost moves out of position, but there’s a whunk as Roll’s kick connects and then the ball is sailing towards him.

He almost reflexively catches it in his hands, but at the last moment he remembers himself and sidles back to get control with his feet.

“There’s an opening!” Ballade calls, from behind him where he’s tending their goal. “Go for it!”

“I know! ” Bass calls back, already dribbling to get closer. Behind him, he hears the other two disengage from Roll and start to come after him.

Quint’s the goalie on the other team, and he’s staring Bass down with fire in his eyes and arms outstretched.. It’s the liveliest he’s looked since they got back, and Bass takes a moment to savour that before winding up and letting loose on the ball.

Whunk! His foot connects solidly with the ball, and it goes a little wider than he anticipated. For a second, his eyes widen, as it flies at the very corner of the goalpost, and Quint jumps for it -

- and it just stays inside the goalpost, right past Quint’s outstretched fingers, and impacts the netting with a light fwomph .

“YES!” Bass pumps his fist.

“... Aaaand that’s three,” Punk sighs, his heavy metal footsteps coming to a stop. “How did we lose with two soccer buffs on our team, again?”

Enker elbows him sharply, and Quint covers his mouth to stifle a giggle. Bass turns around and crosses his arms, puffing out his chest.

“Obviously my team would win,” he says, with a crooked grin.

“You’re seriously going to try to take the credit?” Ballade grouses, as he walks up. “Roll made two out of three of those goals.”

“Yeah, because of my stellar fucking defense!” Bass says.

“It was a team effort,” Roll says diplomatically, coming in between them before Ballade can come up in his face. “Everyone did a good job.”

She’s in athletic wear, too, with a white t-shirt that has ‘002’ stitched on the front and back, and black spandex shorts with two thin white stripes down each side. It’s topped off with a red ribbon in her hair matching a similarly coloured sneakers and headband. Given that Roll doesn’t sweat, it must be purely an aesthetic choice.

“Yeah,” Ballade sighs, to Bass’ surprise. “Everyone did.”

“... But me the most,” Bass says, and both Roll and Ballade roll their eyes in sync.

“Unbelievable,” Ballade says, throwing up his hands. “But I guess it’s progress.”

“It is,” Enker says, and as Bass catches his eye, he nods minutely.

He’s honestly not sure how to process that, so he’s grateful when Quint comes over and latches onto his middle.

“I hope we play more,” he says, eyes bright. “This is the coolest training ever.”

“It’s still training,” Enker says, and Punk elbows him.

“No need to get defensive,” he says. “That’s what he said, isn’t it?”

“It’s a teamwork drill,” Enker says, and then, in response to a look from Punk, sighs. “Yes, we can play again soon.”

“It’s like you’re allergic to fun,” Punk pokes him, and he swats Punk’s hand away and glares at him. “The world won’t end if you enjoy yourself.”

“Anyway,” Quint says to Bass, as the two of them devolve into a restrained slap-fight in the background and Ballade and Roll gravitate over in that direction to intervene, “That was a good shot.”

“It… wasn’t supposed to go that wide,” Bass mumbles, now that they have some relative privacy. His cheeks are, oddly, warm, and Quint is suddenly looking at him weird. “What?”

“You’re blushing!” Quint says, and he sounds delighted.

“What?” Bass reels back, mortified. “ No. I am not - what? That’s not - I don’t blush.”

His cheeks feel even warmer. Quint grins.

“Yuh-huh. You are. I can see it.”

“No I’m not, piss off,” Bass says, and puts out his hand to push Quint’s face away. Quint laughs.

“I’ll prove it!” he says, even through one squished cheek. “You’re really good-looking! I like how passionate you are about stuff you’re into! You’re really cute when you sleep!”

Now his ears are burning.

“F-fuck off!” he says, giving up on pushing him away. As he withdraws his hand, he sees that Quint’s cheeks are rosy, too. “Fuck it. Light can take back his damn upgrades. I want to die.”

“Don’t say thaaat,” Quint snickers.

Ugh,” Bass says, looking around for an escape route and desperately hoping the others don’t look their way. Luck smiles upon him as the side door of the warehouse opens, revealing Kalinka.

“Is the ‘training’ over?” she asks, surveying the scene. “I’ve got something to show you all.”

“Har,” Enker mutters. “Fine. Lead the way.”

---

“Behold!” Kalinka says, gesturing to the centre of the lab. “The Time Skimmer five-point-oh.”

The new setup is impressive, Quint has to admit. Even if the looming form of Wily’s old Time Skimmer makes him uncomfortable, it’s covered in a lot of unorganized metal scaffolding and new gadgetry that makes it look distinctly more Kalinka . It’s taking up the space below the now-closed portal, which now has a platform erected underneath it and metal steps leading up to it. The control console is located on the other side of what looks like clear blast shielding all around the base of it with a good three metres of clearance on both sides.

The main screen is flashing numbers and graphs that Quint can’t make heads or tails of.

“It’s alright,” Bass says. “Is it gonna suck us in again?”

“You are impossible to impress, you know that?” Kalinka sighs, collapsing into her chair by the main console.

“Yeah, we worked really hard on this,” Roll says, pouting.

“Well fucking excuse me if the last time it didn’t go so well,” Bass says, belligerent.

“Yeah,” Quint says, more quietly. Both Roll and Kalinka’s expressions soften.

“It looks like you’ve set it up as a permanent fixture,” Enker says, observing the platform above. “That’s for ease of use?”

“Yes,” Kalinka says, straightening. “That brings me to my point - Roll and I intend to use the Time Skimmer to search for her brother.”

“After what you guys said about him being pursued by the Dimensions, it’s even more urgent now,” Roll says. She’s wringing her hands. “So…”

“‘Roll and I’?” Ballade frowns. “What about us?”

“We didn’t assume that you would be onboard,” Kalinka says. “You signed up to guard the place, after all, not to go crossing over into new and dangerous -”

“We’re in,” Enker says.

There’s a beat.

“Well, thanks for making that executive decision,” Punk says, rolling his eyes. “But, I mean, yeah. We’re in.”

“I’ve been craving some action anyway,” Ballade says, putting his hands up behind his head.

“The future sucked,” Bass says, crossing his arms. “... But it had its good points. If we go other places, I’ll get to fight a lot of people, so I’m sure as hell in.”

There’s a pause, and Quint becomes aware that they’re waiting for him to weigh in.

He takes in the sight of the Time Skimmer, and the shimmery not-quite-space above it, one more time. Then he closes his eyes and sighs before looking around at everyone.

“I’m, um… I’m not gonna lie, I’m not super excited about it,” he says. “But Jazz is my brother, too, and he needs our help. So of course I’ll go.”

Roll’s eyes are shining, just a little, as she nods.

“Thank you,” she says.

“If we’re all in agreement about our new purpose,” Enker says, “We should sort out the name thing now.”

“That’s been bothering you, huh?” Punk says. “Look, Team Murderkill still has the most votes at two -”

Yeah,” Bass says.

“And it remains firmly vetoed,” Enker says.

“Okay, let’s not drag this out again,” Ballade says, putting his hands up. “Enker’s right. Deal with it.”

“Well what do you suggest?” Bass snaps at him.

“Uh, well…” Ballade brings a hand up to stroke his chin. “Something related to timeline-hopping, right? ‘Time Unit’?”

“What, like hours and seconds?” Quint says.

“That is what comes to mind,” Roll says.

“I like ‘Unit’, though,” Punk puts in. “Has kind of a ring to it. I hate the Genesis Unit, but they’ve got a class act name.”

“Well, if we’re going to be crossing over into new worlds and stuff…” Quint says. “Maybe ‘Crossover Unit’? That sounds cool.”

“Spelled with an ‘X’,” Ballade adds in, softly.

“Ballade!” Roll takes in a sharp breath, hand flying up to cover her mouth, and looks to Kalinka, who’s sitting up straight very suddenly.

“It does… have a certain ring to it,” she says, eyes unfocused for a moment. She gives Ballade what seems to Quint to be a knowing look, even if Quint isn’t quite sure what the meaning behind it is. “... I like it.”

“Are you sure?” Roll asks.

“Quite!” Kalinka says, waving Roll’s concern away with one hand. “Anyone have any objections?”

“It’s as good a name as any,” Enker says.

“I’ll have to settle for second best,” Punk says.

“I don’t care,” Bass says, petulant.

“I’m alright with it if everyone else is,” Roll says.

“It does sound cool,” Quint says.

“Well, then, we are officially the X-OVER Unit,” Kalinka says, with a sharp nod. “Good to have that out of the way.”

“What now?” Quint asks, stepping forward.

“Now,” Kalinka says, looking up at the portal. Six sets of eyes follow her. “We start looking.”