Coming around a corner, Protoman startled a group of them as they talked quietly amongst themselves. The robots scattered, but Gemini Man didn't move quite fast enough. Finding himself the target of the black visor's featureless glare, the Robot Master swallowed with some difficulty.
"What are YOU looking at?" Protoman growled. Gemini Man quickly raised his hands, backing away.
"Nothing, nothing at all," the robot stammered. There were a few snickers from his cohorts, all quickly silenced when Protoman glared at all of them. As the red robot stalked down the hall, he could faintly hear sighs of relief behind him.
"Idiots," he snarled. "Not one of them with the processing power of a common toaster!" He couldn't understand why, after creating HIM, Wily had had such a string of failures.
Still fuming, Protoman stomped into the small room that Wily had allotted him. It was really little more than a closet, containing a slab on which to recharge and a small table of personal items. Throwing himself down on the charging table, Protoman crossed his arms behind his head and stared up at the ceiling.
Mega Man had gotten away again, of course. The two of them had been engaged in one of their now-common "no weapons" fights, taking each other on hand to hand. As usual, Mega Man had handed him his butt back, sending him plummeting to the floor far below their catwalk battleground. And also as usual, he and Wily had barely escaped capture, while the plan was a total loss.
"I think I'm stuck in a rut," Protoman informed the ceiling. This was getting to be extremely repetitive. In fact, as they'd made their way back to the castle, Wily had finally lost his temper and asked just WHEN Protoman was going to forget about the "honorable combat" and just blast his brother to smithereens. He'd blown the scientist off with a smart-ass comment, but inside, the question had hit home.
Why didn't he just blast Mega Man? It was obvious he'd never be able to beat his younger brother without weapons-- he'd been trying far too long. Why not take it to the next level? Mega Man was pretty skilled with an arm cannon, so it wasn't as if the fight would be too easy. It was almost as if... he didn't WANT to win.
That was crazy, wasn't it? All he'd ever wanted was to beat Mega Man, to prove he was the better brother, and to prove it in combat. Okay, random destruction and terror was fun, too, but it was taking down Mega Man that was his main goal.
_Sure, you want to beat him. But do you really want to DESTROY him?_ a little voice asked.
Well... not really. To be honest, Protoman would much rather Mega Man join them, even though he knew it was unlikely. Unlikely? Try impossible! His little brother was a hero, through and through. No chance that he'd ever switch to Wily's side.
Still, it was Protoman's favorite dream. Mega Man was as close to an equal as he'd ever find. If one of them was better, it was only by a tiny bit. As opponents, they were perfectly matched. As allies, they'd be unstoppable.
Besides, Protoman had to admit that he missed his brother. Ever since they'd been forced to work together on that island, he'd been thinking about how much fun it was to be together, and not enemies. And then when he'd pretended to leave Wily, and return to Mega Man's side, he'd been startled to find himself welcomed back with open arms. Mega Man had desperately wanted to believe the situation was real. And Protoman had found, to his surprise, that somewhere inside, he almost wanted to believe it himself.
_Of course, I could always go to him... Not that they'd trust me this time._ Even so, Protoman smiled a little, imagining what life might be like as one of Dr. Light's robots. _No dumb Robot Masters, no lab equipment being tossed at my head when the Doc's in a mood... They'd probably remember my "birthday" and throw me a party!_ He ought to be disgusted by the idea of becoming a do-gooder robot, but being a part of a family did hold a certain appeal.
With a sigh, he turned on his side, staring at the blank wall. He'd been so confused recently. The mayhem and chaos of Wily's plans didn't hold the attraction it used to. In fact, on some of the most recent schemes, he'd found himself almost disgusted with the whole thing. He still wanted to defeat Mega Man, but the idea of destroying him was becoming less inviting all the time. Still, Wily had created him. That meant he owed the little man some loyalty, didn't it?
"Protoman!" Wily's voice crackled over the communicator, causing him to sit bolt upright.
"Come to the lab immediately," the scientist continued. "I have something very interesting to show you."
Protoman tapped his communicator, rolling his eyes. "Yeah, yeah, keep your shirt on, Wily. I'm coming." Jumping off the slab, he headed out the door.
Protoman had seen a lot of strange things over the course of his existence. When you were right-hand robot to a mad scientist, it kind of came with the job description. But this had to take the cake. Dr. Albert Wily, evil genius and general menace to society, was practically bouncing in glee.
"Okay, Wily, cut to the chase already," the red robot sneered, lounging against the wall. With his eyes hidden behind his black visor, it wasn't hard for him to appear bored with the entire proceedings. It wouldn't do to let Wily see his curiosity; that would only give the scientist the upper hand. Working for Wily was a dangerous balancing act, and Protoman wondered, not for the first time, just why he continued.
"Yes, yes. You are far too impatient, Proto," Wily replied, jarring the robot out of his thoughts. Protoman bristled slightly at the nickname, but not enough for the roboticist to notice.
"You know the old saying that 'two heads are better than one?' Well, I thought it was about time I brought another head into this party."
Protoman snorted. "Not much good if it's another one of your empty-headed Robot Masters. Not one of them could outthink a tuna sandwich, much less Mega Man."
"Unfortunately, you're right. Which is why I based my newest creation on a modification of your design. I present to you-- Bass!"
Out of the storage chamber walked a humanoid robot that Protoman had never seen before. Physically, he was similar to Protoman, same height and build. However, his armor was completely black, and two golden projections arose from his helmet. _He looks like he's got speakers,_ Protoman thought irrelevantly.
The biggest difference between the two was in the face. Protoman's eyes, though hidden by his visor, were a clear blue. Bass's were a devilish red, and sparkled with an insane light. To complete the picture, two purple streaks ran from the outside corners of Bass's eyes to his jawline.
"You're going to defeat Mega Man with a punked-out subwoofer?" Protoman was incredulous. "Get real."
"Hey, you had your chance," Bass replied. His voice was low, thin, and had an unpleasant hissing quality.
"You've even got tape hiss! What are you, a rebuilt stereo?"
Wily cleared his throat emphatically, and the two robots backed away from each other. "Thank you. Now, I have equipped Bass with a new weapon, the Circuit Burner." Bass hefted his arm cannon and smirked.
"Once it strikes a target, it causes energy surges that will eventually burn out every circuit in the target's body. It's quite painful. It will have a similar effect on the human nervous system." Wily smiled thinly. "Even a glancing blow is eventually fatal."
Protoman's jaw dropped. He knew he'd lost his usual indifferent fašade, but he couldn't seem to help himself. "That's- that's-" He sputtered incoherently, trying to explain his revulsion.
"You have a problem?" the scientist inquired.
_YES!_ Protoman screamed internally. _That's sadistic! Finishing someone off with a blaster is one thing, it's quick!_ He and Mega Man were constant rivals, but he had no desire to see his little brother in screaming agony. Still, he knew that reasoning wouldn't go over well with Wily, so he swallowed his protest and shook his head.
"No, just don't point it at me," he replied, in as normal a tone as possible.
"Heh. Don't worry, Mega Man is the one who'll be on the business end of the Burner," Wily assured him. "Now, that little blue annoyance is out in the forest near the Catskills, escorting Dr. Light on one of his experiments." Wily quickly punched up the coordinates on one of his computers. "I trust you two can handle the situation appropriately?"
Bass essayed a mocking bow. "Of course, Dr. Wily," he replied, smirking. Protoman snorted.
"There they are," Bass pointed. He and Protoman perched atop an outcrop of rock, looking down at the group below. Dr. Light was deeply absorbed in his computer, while Mega Man played Frisbee with Roll, his sister, and their dog Rush.
"A quiet day in the country," the red robot sighed. "Isn't it just so peaceful?"
"A perfect little family scene," Bass agreed. "If you don't count the way Mega Man is watching the surroundings."
Despite himself, Protoman had to grin. "That's my little brother," he agreed. "Always on duty."
Bass chuckled. "Seems almost a shame to spoil their fun."
"Yeah, well, we're on duty too. What's the range on that thing?" Protoman nodded at Bass's weapon.
"I have no idea. Shall we find out?" Closing one eye, he took aim-- at Roll.
Before he could fire, however, Protoman wrenched his arm downwards. "Listen, you sadistic bucket of bolts, Mega Man is our target. NOT his sister."
Bass raised an eyebrow. "Aren't we protective? You sound almost concerned."
"I'm CAUTIOUS. I know Mega Man, at least well enough not to underestimate him. If you miss, you'll alert him to our presence, and he'll probably hand us our heads back. If you DON'T miss, you'll still let him know we're here-- and you'll seriously piss him off besides. Trust me, you don't want that."
Considering that for a moment, Bass nodded and relaxed. "So, what's YOUR plan?"
"Come at him from both sides, fast and hard. We concentrate on HIM, not the others. Roll might interfere, but for the most part, they leave the fighting to him. Okay?"
"Understood." The two robots split up, circling around to approach the camp from opposite sides.
The first warning of the attack that Mega Man had was when a bolt of energy went straight past his head. He turned and ducked, forming his hand into an arm cannon as he did so.
"Protoman!" he yelled, snapping off a shot. "Don't you have anything BETTER to do with your time?"
The red robot grinned. "Not particularly!"
"Mega, look out!" That came from Roll, directly behind him. Mega Man didn't turn, simply dropped flat. A bolt of sparkling energy zoomed over him, so close he could hear the hum of it's passing. It almost hit Protoman, forcing him to dodge as well.
"Hey, watch it with that thing, will ya?"
Rolling onto one shoulder, Mega Man looked behind him, only to see a robot he didn't recognize step out of the woods. "Who the heck are YOU?" the blue robot cried.
"Name's Bass. Pleased to meet you." Bass snapped off another couple of shots, forcing Mega Man to roll away quickly.
"Oh, this is NOT good," Mega Man breathed, leaping to his feet. "Two goons at once. Gotta lead 'em away from Roll and the Doc." Snapping off a shot, he took off through the woods.
"He's getting away!" Protoman yelled. "We have to go after him!"
"Not just yet," Bass replied. Turning, he aimed his arm cannon at Roll, who had just managed to get Doctor Light into the hover-car.
Just as Bass fired, Protoman threw himself at the female robot, knocking her to the ground. The shot struck the side of the car and dissipated.
"I told you, we're after Mega Man!" Protoman growled, getting to his feet. "If we lose him, Wily's gonna have BOTH our heads! Now get GOING!"
Bass stared at him for a moment, then dashed off after his quarry.
Turning, Protoman offered his hand to Roll, not really surprised when she batted it away. "Go. Take Doctor Light and get out of here," he ordered.
"You think I'm going to leave Mega to the two of you? Dream on, pal," she retorted. He took a step closer, and smirked a little as she drew back.
"Look, I just saved your life. It won't happen again. Get in that car and get out of here, or I swear, I will shoot you myself."
"After you saved me?" Roll folded his arms and gave him a look.
"Better my gun than Bass's. At least my way would be quick."
She frowned. "What kind of game are you playing, Protoman?"
He sighed, looking to where Mega Man and Bass had disappeared. "To tell you the truth, I'm not sure." Turning back, he gave her a cocky smile. "I'm not even sure what the rules are." With that, he turned and headed off after his brother. Roll watched him go for a long moment, then climbed into the car.
It didn't take long for Protoman to find Bass and Mega Man. The yells, explosions, and blaster sounds left a clearly audible trail. Protoman shook his head, grinning slightly.
"Little brother, we have got to teach you the concept of subtle."
Soon, he came to the edge of the woods. A couple of hundred yards from where the trees stopped, the ground dropped away in a sheer cliff. On that grassy meadow between woods and drop, Mega Man and Bass were fighting.
Protoman didn't join the conflict immediately. In the first place, he didn't trust Bass any farther than he could throw a tank. The other robot might easily put a Burner shot in his back during "the heat of battle." Besides, if the two of them defeated Mega Man, Protoman was out his best sparring partner. Somehow he didn't think Bass was up to the job. And if Mega Man could take out Bass, Protoman wouldn't have to worry about the other robot taking his place.
So he watched, and waited, ready to see just when and where to come into the battle... if he came in at all. Both robots were tiring, battle being quite hard on a robot's energy reserves. Gradually, Mega Man was pushed back to the edge of the cliff, until his heels hung over the edge. Taking aim, Bass flashed a poisonous smile.
"It was nice knowing you," the black robot rasped. Then he let go a shot.
The sparkling energy bolt caught Mega Man in the shoulder, causing him to reel backwards. With a sharp cry, he tumbled over the cliff.
Unhurriedly, Bass strolled to the edge and looked down. Then, with a smile, he touched a button on his wrist. "Dr. Wily, this is Bass. I have good news. Mega Man is dead."
"I have no idea why I'm doing this," Protoman grumbled to himself. After Bass's announcement, the red robot had slipped away into the forest, making his way to the bottom of the cliff. He supposed that he simply had to see for himself, to make sure.
"After all," he informed the surrounding woods, "declaring Mega Man dead without checking the body first usually comes back to bite you in the butt."
Right. That was it. And that tightness in his chest when Mega Man went over the edge had just been excitement. After all, it wasn't every day you finally got rid of your archrival.
A flash of blue caught Protoman's eye, and he hurried over to where the dented body lay on the rocks below. Though the damage was extensive, it wasn't nearly what you'd expect after a two-hundred-foot drop. Reaching for his brother's wrist, Protoman quickly checked the energy read-outs, then sat back on his heels with a smirk.
"Oh, yeah, Bass, Mega Man is dead," he laughed. "Amateur." His brother wouldn't be fighting any one-man wars for a while, but he was alive. The question was what to do about it?
He could finish him off, but the credit would still go to Bass. Besides, there wasn't any challenge in taking out an unconscious enemy. And there was another problem-- Mega Man had been hit by the Circuit Burner. The damage didn't show externally, but inside, his brother was being eaten alive by the energy surges.
What should he do? The smart thing to do would be to finish him off, or take him back to Skull Castle and let Wily have him. Protoman discounted the second one immediately. Wily would simply let the Circuit Burner do its work, until Mega Man was nothing but an empty shell. There was no way Protoman could watch that, or even know it was going on.
Besides, the way things stood now, Bass was way ahead of him on points. With such a success, the other robot would no doubt take over his position in Wily's hierarchy. No way was Protoman going to spend his time toadying to a sadistic psychopath-- okay, ANOTHER sadistic psychopath. One Wily was more than enough.
So... how to humiliate Bass? Well, if Mega Man were to recover, that would put some serious doubt on the black robot's abilities. But the only way Mega Man would get better was if Dr. Light had a chance to repair him.
Protoman grinned. Dr. Light had a mountain lab, not too far away. If he could get Mega Man there, it would be easy enough to contact the scientist and have him fix the blue robot. As long as Wily never found out about his involvement, things would work out just fine.
Slinging the unconscious Mega Man over his shoulder, Protoman checked the position of the sun and set off to the west.
"Time for a break," Protoman announced, setting his brother on the ground. Reaching into a small belt pack, he pulled out an energy canister. "Has anybody ever told you that you are _heavy?_" he asked, not expecting an answer. Picking up Mega Man's arm, he checked the energy meter on the wrist.
"Oooh. You need this more than I do... on the other hand, _I'm_ the one hauling your unconscious butt cross-country." He regarded the can for a moment. "Tell you what, we'll split it." Raising the can to his mouth, he drained half of the energy in one long swallow. Then he knelt down next to his brother and held the can to his lips. Even though Mega Man was unconscious, the blue robot absorbed the remaining energy.
_Don't you think it's about time you stopped lying to yourself?_ a voice whispered in the back of his head. _You're not doing this to get back at Bass._
"Sure I am! I'm not letting that two-bit toaster oven make ME look bad in front of Dr. Wily!" Protoman slapped his forehead. "Great, I'm talking to myself."
_You're worried. About Mega Man._
He sighed. Yeah, it was true. Mega Man was a do-gooding twerp, and a major pain in the tail, but after all was said and done, they were still brothers. He didn't want to see him hurt. That's why they usually ended up fighting hand-to-hand, instead of with arm cannons. Sure, he always claimed it was for the satisfaction, but deep down...
"You know, bro, I think I'm jealous," he realized suddenly. "You've got Roll and Dr. Light, and even that stupid dog. The only family I've got is you." And he didn't want to be alone.
Mega Man shifted slightly, and Protoman froze. But the blue eyes didn't open, and Mega Man stilled once more. _Incredible. He's got some sort of system keeping him unconscious, so he can't feel the pain._ Just as well, the red robot supposed. The Circuit Burner had to be causing incredible agony as it ate through Mega Man's systems. But this kind of reaction was unheard of in robotics.
_Dr. Light sure treats you good,_ Protoman mused. _Too bad Dr. Wily couldn't give me something similar. Of course, your creator was definitely the better scientist._
Suddenly he frowned. Wily had said that Bass was a modification of Protoman's own design. But if Wily had built them both, then why had it taken so long for him to try something like this? Why had Wily spent so long creating Robot Masters, a step down in technology from Protoman, his first creation? There was something that didn't quite add up here. One thing was for sure, though. Mega Man was no normal robot.
Just then Mega Man shifted again. His eyes fluttered open, and for just a second rested on Protoman. Surprise flared in the blue eyes as Mega Man attempted to speak.
"Wha..." The blue robot's voice was no more than a croak, and he couldn't even finish the word. Protoman smiled.
"Don't worry about it, little brother," he said quietly. "It's all just a bad dream."
Even as Protoman spoke, Mega Man lost the battle to keep his eyes open, and fell back into unconsciousness.
"And for once in your life," his older brother continued, "you're safe with me."
Bass was tracking them. The other robot hadn't even bothered to conceal his presence from radar and energy scans. Protoman rolled his eyes in disgust. No doubt Bass was confident that Mega Man's scanners had been destroyed by the energy surges, and he was probably right. And since Protoman's tracks were identical to his brother's, Bass more than likely was still convinced he was following a surprisingly alive Mega Man. Still, that was no excuse to be sloppy.
"He's getting too close, too fast," Protoman informed his brother. "If he catches up to us, we're both spare parts. As long as he thinks it's just you, he'll probably keep working alone. This is his mess, he'll clean it up. But if he realizes I'm helping you, he's probably going to call in the Robot Masters, and then we're both in trouble. So, how to make him think you're the one he's up against?"
Protoman broke into a grin. Early on, the brothers had discovered that copying the weapon of one of Wily's Robot Masters caused their uniforms to change color. Not only was the effect pretty much useless, but it made impersonating each other far too easy. Both Mega Man and Protoman had deactivated their color changers immediately, and security scans at both bases were configured to detect an active changer.
Protoman didn't know about his brother, but he'd only deactivated the device. It was still in his arm, and easily fixed. Popping open a panel, Protoman quickly reconnected two wires. Concentrating, he made his red parts darken to a deep blue, while the gray areas faded to a lighter blue shade. Then, tapping the side of his helmet, he retracted his visor. Looking down at himself, he nodded. Not bad. A close look would reveal the differences in helmet markings, but from a distance, it should work. There was just one last thing...
Mega Man was beginning to get restless. The systems keeping him unconscious were beginning to fall to the energy surges, and had be been human, Protoman would have said he looked like he was having a nightmare. Reaching up, Protoman removed the scarf from his neck. He never took it off, but it would look really strange with the rest of Mega Man's ensemble.
"Here, hold onto this for me, will ya, bro?" Protoman asked gently, pressing the scarf into Mega Man's hands. To his surprise, the other robot clutched it tightly, curling around it protectively. Briefly, Protoman wondered what that was about, then shrugged. Leaving his brother relatively hidden among the rocks, he went to go throw Bass off their trail.
Protoman's eyes were capable of seeing under almost lightless conditions, but the cloudy, moonless night that had rolled over them defeated even those optic sensors. Finding a convenient cave, really more of an overhang than anything else, Protoman gathered some wood and quickly lit a fire. He didn't need it for warmth, but it would keep the local wildlife at bay, and besides, he needed the light to check Mega Man's condition.
He wasn't too worried about calling a halt. He'd slowed Bass down in the forest today, sending him sliding down into a ravine. They'd probably gained half a day on the other robot, and not even Bass could track them in this.
Mega Man's restlessness had gotten worse. In the dim firelight, Protoman realized that the blue robot's face was covered in-- sweat? _But robots don't sweat!_ Then he realized that Mega Man's coolant systems were working overtime, trying to compensate for the heat caused by the circuit surges. With most of the peripheral systems gone, Mega Man was neither awake nor unconscious, in a state that humans would describe as delirium.
Most of the time, Mega Man simply stared at the ceiling with empty, unfocused eyes. Sometimes he'd cry out, his memory circuits bringing up past battles against Wily's robots. After one particularly bad sequence, his eyes caught on Protoman and focused a little.
"Blues? What... what's going on?"
_Blues?_ Protoman was startled. _Geez, that's going way back, before... before-- before what?_ He couldn't remember. The information he was reaching for just... wasn't there.
_But robot memories are computer banks! We don't forget... unless we're told to._ Mega Man's motion brought Protoman out of his thoughts.
"Don't worry about it, Rock," he soothed, the name coming out of nowhere. He'd take the time to be puzzled by it later. "You've caught a programming bug, that's all."
"Where's Roll? And Dr. Light?"
"Working on a way to make you feel better. Now just relax, okay? It'll all be over soon."
At those words, Mega Man subsided, leaving Protoman very confused.
_Rock? Blues? I know those names... why can't I remember?_ He cast his memory back, heading for the day of his activation. Only a rolling cloud met his attempts.
_These are MY memories,_ he thought fiercely, _and no one is going to keep me out of them!_ As if in response to his determination, the cloud faded away and he dropped into the past.
_Blues. My name is Blues._ "I'm fine, Dr. Light," he replied, recognizing his creator. In the corner stood another man, taller, with wild gray hair and a mustache to match. _Dr. Wily,_ his databanks supplied.
"Excellent," Dr. Light smiled. "You see, Albert, the first test has been successful."
Dr. Wily nodded. "Yes. A lab assistant, just what we need around here." Blues bristled at the faint sarcasm in the tone, but only inwardly. Outwardly, he remained impassive.
"Yes, but think what a success will mean for industries like mining, construction, or for law enforcement! Self-directed, decision-capable robots will be able to improve the quality of life for humans immeasurably."
"Indeed," Dr. Wily smiled. Blues didn't like the expression. "Life will be quite improved indeed."
A month after Blues' activation, Dr. Light had finished two new robots. One, the male, looked exactly like Blues himself, with brown hair and blue eyes. The other was female, blonde and blue-eyed. Dr. Light had dubbed them Rock and Roll. Dr. Wily had rolled his eyes at the names, but said nothing.
"They've been made almost completely from the same plans as you yourself, Blues," Dr. Light explained. Dr. Light always treated Blues as if he were a person, explaining things to him and occasionally asking for his opinion. Not like Wily, who usually regarded him as a piece of glorified lab equipment.
"In a sense, you could be considered their older brother," Dr. Light continued.
Wily snorted. "Really, Xavier, don't you think you're being a little too sentimental here?" the other scientist asked.
Dr. Light's tone held a hint of irritation as he replied. "No, Albert, I don't at all. You could use a little more sentiment in your life, you know." It was an old argument between the two men, and with a shrug, Wily let the matter drop.
Blues, meanwhile, was fascinated. He was going to be a brother! He wasn't sure exactly how that applied to robots, but it definitely sounded like an improvement on being alone. This way, he was going to have a family.
Dr. Light pressed a button on one of the consoles. A crackling noise filled the room, and slowly the two new robots opened their eyes. The male, Rock, blinked slowly as his eyes focused on Blues.
Blues grinned. "Hey. I'm Blues, I'm your brother."
Rock processed that, then gave the other robot a matching grin. "Cool."
Rock and Blues were inseparable, prompting Dr. Light to joke that he should have name the younger of the pair "Rhythm" instead. Roll spent a lot of time with her brothers, but she had other interests as well. Not so the two boys, who spent every waking moment in each other's company. Dr. Light had created the robots to act as lab assistants, but Rock and Blues generally wound up working on building Dr. Light's designs.
By the time Christmas rolled around, about a month after Rock and Roll came online, life at Dr. Light's lab had settled into a familiar routine. All three of the robots adored Dr. Light, and avoided Dr. Wily when at all possible. Roll put it best when she informed Rock, "The way he watches us, it's like he's window-shopping with a brick in one hand."
Tonight was Christmas Eve, and Dr. Light was out attending a city Christmas party. He'd tried to get the robots included as well, but had been unable to do so. "Perhaps next year," he'd sighed. So Rock, Roll, and Blues were spending the evening listening to music and talking quietly.
In the middle of the conversation, Rock leaped to his feet and raced out of the room, leaving Blues and Roll to exchange puzzled glances. He was back almost immediately with two packages, one marked "Blues," one marked "Roll."
Handing the packages to the appropriate recipients, Rock smiled shyly. "I was out running errands for Dr. Light the other day, and I saw these. I hope you like them."
Ripping open the wrapping paper, Roll extracted a book from her box. "All right! I haven't read this one yet, Rock. Thanks."
Blues opened his package more carefully, withdrawing a yellow scarf. He looked up at his brother in shock. "Rock... I don't know what to say. I didn't get you anything."
"I don't need anything," Rock replied, shaking his head. "I've got you guys. What more could I ask for?"
"Ah, now isn't this a sweet scene." At the new voice, the three robots looked up, instantly drawing closer together. Dr. Wily strolled into the room, carrying a strange-looking weapon in one hand.
As unobtrusively as possible, Blues edged in front of his siblings. "What are you doing here, Wily?" he snapped.
"That's Dr. Wily to you, robot," the scientist replied. "As for my purpose here, well, I'm just doing my Christmas shopping a little late."
"And we're on the gift list, right?" Rock asked.
Wily nodded. "I can do so much with three such advanced robots as you."
Roll shook her head. "We're not leaving with you, Wily. Dr. Light created us. We're staying with him."
"Wanna bet?" Wily raised the weapon. "This is a circuit scrambler. It will reformat your memory circuits, completely erasing any and all memories that you have. When I'm through with you, you won't even know Dr. Light's name."
Blues noticed Roll eyeing the lab's alert system, and nodded sharply. "On three," he said under his breath. "One, two-- THREE!"
At his command, he and Rock dodged one way, while Roll threw herself towards the alert switch. Unfortunately, Dr. Wily followed her trajectory, sending a bolt from the circuit scrambler in her direction. It struck home in the center of her back, just as she hit the switch.
Roll collapsed to the ground, motionless, as alarms began to blare throughout the compound. "It's over, Wily!" Blues yelled. "The police will be here any minute."
Rock dashed to his sister's side, quickly checking the meter on her arm. "Blues," he choked, "she's-- shut down." Both robots knew what that meant. The circuit scrambler had done its work.
Almost unconsciously, Blues transformed one arm into the welding cannon he used in the lab. Raising it, he launched a shot of plasma at Dr. Wily, who barely ducked back around the doorframe.
"You can't do that!" The scientist's voice had practically made it into the soprano register at this point, and his eyes were huge. "Your programming-- you can't attack humans."
"You hurt Roll," Rock replied, getting to his feet and forming his own cannon. "I don't think you qualify."
"The police are coming, Wily," Blues continued, "and the only way we're letting you out of here is with them-- or in pieces."
Wily snorted. "I don't think so." Leaning out, he snapped off a shot at Rock.
Hampered by Roll lying at his feet, the robot dodged, but not quite quick enough. The scrambler pulse clipped his shoulder, deadening his firing arm and knocking him to the ground. Half-dazed by the pulse, Rock could only watch as Wily fired a second shot at him.
Blues didn't think. He didn't have time; his reaction was instantaneous. Yelling his brother's name, he threw himself forward, taking the shot directly in the center of his chest. There was a surge of light and sound, and then the entire world went dark.
_And it explains why you and I are both so attached to this scarf,_ he realized, looking at the unconscious Mega Man. _On some level I must have remembered what it meant to me, because I've never taken it off._
Protoman frowned as another thought occurred to him. They'd both of them, he and Rock, been more than ready to take a shot at Wily. Heck, he himself HAD. But the evil scientist had been right, they should never gotten that far. The programming Dr. Light installed had forbidden it.
_But we were both so angry, it never came up. Can it be that our emotions can actually override our programming?_ That lead to a number of interesting ideas. Protoman had always thought himself stuck with Wily, because his programming dictated loyalty to the man. But if he could override his own programming to follow his heart... the thought drifted away half-formed, but Protoman made a note to get back to it later.
_I wonder what happened after I blacked out? What stopped Wily from taking you too, little brother?_ It had been mid-February when he had awakened in Wily's fortress for the first time. By that point, the scientist had already created his first set of Robot Masters, and had his butt handed back to him by Mega Man. Protoman grinned. Whatever had stopped Wily from taking Rock, the scientist had to be kicking himself eight ways from Sunday about it.
Looking out of the mouth of the cave, Protoman realized that the sky to the east was beginning to lighten. Rising to his feet, he picked up his unconscious brother and started his trek again.
About midday, the sky opened and the rain started pouring down. The cold and the wet weren't a problem for robots, but the lack of secure footing was. After nearly becoming part of a mudslide, Protoman decided that it would probably a good idea to find shelter. Luckily there were a number of caves and rock overhangs in this area, and he was able to find a reasonably dry place to wait out the storm.
He didn't particularly like waiting. The longer it took to reach the lab, the more damage was being done to Mega Man's systems. The blue robot's body temperature had been rising slowly during the trek, as the cooling systems went offline one by one. Hopefully the soaking they'd received would keep Mega Man a little cooler, at least for a while.
"You look like a drowned rat, bro," Protoman observed wryly.
"You're not much better yourself," came the weak reply. Protoman sat up straight, surprised to find his brother watching him warily.
"Well, I see you're back in the land of the lucid," the red robot greeted, shifting so that Mega Man could see him better. "How're you feeling?"
Laboriously pushing himself into a sitting position, Mega Man laughed faintly. "Like one of Wily's Skull Tanks ran me over, then backed up to finish the job. What's going on here?"
"You were introduced to Bass, Wily's newest psycho-droid, who has a wonderful new weapon. You got shot with it, and the energy pulses are slowly burning out every system you have. I'm trying to get you to Dr. Light's mountain lab before you shut down permanently."
"Why? Why not just let me--"
Protoman shrugged. "I've got a lot of reasons. Because it'd be too easy. Because Bass would get the credit. Because if I didn't have you around, I'd get pretty rusty. Because you're my brother. Pick one of the above."
"Never let our relationship stop you before."
"Yeah, well, I didn't know then what I do now." At Mega Man's curious look, he decided to go for it. "I remembered. I remembered who I am, who I WAS, what happened to me, everything. I remembered all of it-- Rock."
Mega Man stiffened. "That's not my name," he replied coldly.
"Not anymore. I haven't heard anybody use it since I woke up in Wily's fortress. Come on, little brother, tell me. What happened after I..."
"Got blasted?" Mega Man finished. There was an edge to his voice that Protoman had never heard before. He sighed. "I could hear the police coming in, and so could Wily. He must have realized that he wasn't going to have enough time to grab all three of us and get away, so he just went for the form that was closest. That was you. Then he ducked out the door. I tried to go after him, but the scrambler had practically destroyed my sense of balance.
"Dr. Light was there almost on the heels of the police. He managed to repair me pretty quickly, but by that time, Wily was long gone. Roll, though, was another story. The scrambler had overwritten her entire memory with gibberish, indecipherable information. Even if she did wake up, she wouldn't remember. It would be like she'd just come online right then.
"Anyway, it took her more than a month to build up a working charge, with the low-level energy feed that Dr. Light had set her up on. Anything more, and she could have overloaded and burnt out completely. Unrecoverable. By that time, Wily'd already launched his first attack, and I'd gone out to stop it. Not like there was anyone else. The press dubbed me 'Mega Man,' so when Roll woke up, that was the name I gave her. She started calling me 'Mega,' Dr. Light followed suit, and the rest is history."
"And Wily dubbed me 'Protoman' to mock you, and rub in what he'd done. But why?" Protoman asked. "Why change your name like that? You didn't mind being 'Rock' before."
Blue eyes flashed. "You- Blues- DIED right in front of me, and there wasn't a thing I could do to stop it. I knew that by the time you woke up, Wily would have reprogrammed you, and you wouldn't be Blues anymore. That first time we met on the battlefield, I was surprised you even remembered we were brothers. But Blues was dead, and the last thing I ever heard from him was my name."
Mega Man shook his head. "You wouldn't remember anything, I knew. Roll didn't remember. Dr. Light wasn't there, he only knows what I told him. I was the only one who remembered what happened that night, and I wanted to forget, too. Just close the door on the past and start over again."
"You're not the only one who remembers now, bro," Protoman replied quietly. "Did you tell Dr. Light everything?"
"You mean, did I tell him we were both of us ready to turn Wily into Swiss cheese? No." Leaning his head against the wall, Mega Man closed his eyes. "I was afraid of what his reaction might be, if he discovered our programming was somehow... defective. Besides, it was just one more thing I wanted to forget."
Protoman snorted. "Geez, hope you packed a couple suitcases, 'cause you're on the longest guilt trip I've ever seen."
"Hey, at least I've got enough of an ethical sense to FEEL guilt," Mega Man shot back. "Enough reminiscing. Since you're feeling so helpful all of a sudden, why don't you give me a damage report?"
"Well, I don't have any way to tell for sure, but my guess is that you've lost all the peripherals. Radar, enhanced sensory scans, low-light vision, that sort of thing. Coolant systems are offline, and your temperature is climbing slowly. Judging by how slowly you're moving, motor circuitry is beginning to be compromised, so weaponry is probably already completely kaput."
Mega Man shook his head. "No. Weapons are compromised, but they're still there. One of the few systems I CAN monitor with my diagnostics shot. Considering the life I lead, Dr. Light made weapons and motor control equal priority in my systems."
"Okay. We're a couple hours from the lab. Assuming this storm lets up sometime today, I should be able to get you there in time to get Dr. Light fix you up. It's probably going to be tight, though."
"The rain's letting up, I think." With a weak wave, Mega Man indicated the cave's mouth, where the storm did indeed seem to be stopping.
"That's good." Protoman grinned. "Of course, you're never going to be able to keep up with me. I guess I'm gonna have to carry you."
Mega Man groaned. "Slung around like a sack of potatoes. Hope the fan club never gets wind of this." He broke off, seeing Protoman's expression change. "What is it?"
"Bass. I can't believe he's still tracking you in this muck! We couldn't have gotten lucky and lost him in a mudslide." Rising to his feet, Protoman sighed. "Guess it's time to throw him off the trail again."
Mega Man gaped as his brother resumed the disguise he'd worn earlier. "Good grief!" He could have been staring at his reflection in a mirror.
"Not bad, huh?" Protoman grinned. "Long as I keep my mouth shut, and you keep an eye on my scarf, I think I should be able to fool Bass."
Mega Man was shaking his head, even as he accepted the scarf from his brother. "Not without me, you're not. This is my life at stake, and I'm not just going to sit here and wait to see who comes back for me."
One look at Mega Man's set features, and Protoman knew it was useless to argue. He nodded sharply. "Okay, little brother, how good of a sniper are you?"
In the end, Mega Man wound up placed under a tall pine, his back set against the trunk. The tree stood on a ridge that overlooked the path that Protoman had been taking through the forest.
"This is no time for honor, bro," Protoman instructed seriously. "You get the shot, you take it, because there isn't going to be a second time."
Mega Man nodded, and tried to make himself comfortable. His head was spinning, and he wasn't sure whether that was a side effect of the Circuit Burner, or simply of his confusion.
He had to believe that Protoman had indeed accessed those memories that had been scrambled. How that was possible, he wasn't sure, since Dr. Light had deemed them unrecoverable. But Dr. Light had admitted that Mega Man's systems occasionally behaved in ways even he didn't really understand.
Wily might have remembered that he had once been named Rock, but the scientist surely didn't realize the significance of one name or another. He doubted that Wily realized robots could be attached to one name or another. No, the only explanation was that Protoman really remembered who he had been.
The question was what did that change, if anything? Wily had reprogrammed Blues into Protoman, and Protoman had logged several years worth of memories, as opposed to the two months that belonged to Blues. Besides, Wily's programming still ticked inside his brother, and nothing was likely to change that. _Of course, our programming doesn't seem to have as much control over our actions as it should._
God, he was confused. His brother had spent years trying to kill him, and had nearly succeeded a few times. And after all the betrayals, he should expect treachery by now. But Protoman seemed sincere in his desire to save Mega Man's life, and despite all his hard-earned lessons, Mega Man desperately wanted to believe him again. He wanted his brother back with all his heart, even if he was just setting himself up for yet another fall.
The sound of plasma fire below drew Mega Man out of his thoughts, and he saw his now-blue brother trading shots with Bass around the clearing. Taking a deep breath, Mega Man took aim at the small black figure below, then stopped. Shooting a 'bot from hiding went against his principles, but he could live with that. However, his weapon power was dangerously low, thanks to his condition. He could probably hit Bass with a shot, but whether the bolt would have enough power to stop him was another story.
Making a sudden decision, Mega Man changed his aim and fired. The blast rocketed through the air, striking the base of a tree. Its roots obliterated, the small tree teetered, then plummeted down onto Bass. The black robot never knew what hit him.
With a grin, Mega Man leaned back against the pine that was supporting him, suddenly dizzy from the energy expenditure. As Protoman crested the rise, Mega Man threw his brother a quick salute.
"Not bad, bro," Protoman grinned, taking his scarf back as he faded back to his normal color scheme. "Guess we found the answer to the age-old question, huh?"
"What's that?" Mega Man asked, his eyes closed.
"Well, if a tree falls in the forest, and Bass is under it--"
Mega Man laughed. "It definitely makes a sound!"
Even before they'd started moving, Mega Man had passed out again. As far as Protoman was concerned, it was just as well. Hauling an unconscious robot through the woods was hard enough; it went up an order of magnitude when your cargo was awake and complaining. Besides, despite Mega Man's protests to the contrary, Protoman could tell that his younger brother was in pain. The more Mega Man could be spared that, the better.
Protoman had no illusions that the falling tree would do more than slow Bass down for a while, except perhaps give him a killer headache. The black robot was far too tough to be felled by that for any length of time. However, it had bought the two of them a head start, and it looked as if that was going to be sufficient. Up ahead, at the end of the dirt road they were travelling, was Dr. Light's mountain compound, used for geological studies, forest monitoring, and the occasional family vacation.
Reaching the gate, Protoman stopped. The compound had an automated security system, and he certainly didn't have clearance. Under ordinary circumstances, he might have tried to break in, but with Mega Man, he didn't dare risk it. Slinging his brother off his shoulder, Protoman steadied the other robot as he tried to coax him back to wakefulness.
It took less time than Protoman would perhaps have liked, indicating that the surges were beginning to burn through the defense systems. However, once awake, Mega Man was able to deactivate the systems by voice recognition, and the two robots slowly made their way to the lab.
Like all of Dr. Light's lab setups, this one was dominated by a large computer/communications setup. With Protoman supporting him, Mega Man quickly punched in the code for the main lab in New York City.
The screen lit up almost instantly, revealing a somewhat frazzled Dr. Light. "Mega Man! Thank goodness you're-- good heavens." The scientist broke off as he realized who was supporting his creation. With the hand that wasn't locked around Mega Man's chest, Protoman gave a quick wave.
"Hi, Dr. Light. Listen, Mega Man's been zapped with a new weapon Wily designed. It causes energy surges that burn through robotic systems one by one. It's been about a day and a half since he was shot, and I don't know how much time he's got left. Can you fix him?"
Mega Man gave his brother a look that mingled annoyance and amusement, then turned to the computer and shrugged. "I think he pretty much said it all, Dr. Light."
To Dr. Light's credit, the man knew when to ask questions, and when to just take things on faith. "You're at the mountain compound? Very well; I'll be there in about ten minutes. Perhaps less, since I'll be letting Roll drive. Hold on until I get there, all right? Dr. Light out." The computer image faded.
"Guess the insurance premiums are going up again," Mega Man observed, swaying slightly. "And I think my balance systems just went."
"I got that impression," Protoman replied dryly, helping him over to an examination table. "Here, bro, lie down. Otherwise you're going to FALL down, and I think Dr. Light would appreciate having you at arm level."
It took some effort, but Mega Man finally managed to get onto the table. Closing his eyes, he laid back with a small sigh.
"How're you feeling?" Protoman asked, after a second.
Cracking an eye open, Mega Man looked at his brother, who was holding onto his hand. "It hurts, bro," the blue robot replied matter-of-factly. "A lot. To the point where I'm considering asking you just to shoot me and put me out of my misery."
Protoman looked away. "If Dr. Light can't help you, we'll keep that option open," he replied quietly. "But we're not ready to give up yet, right?"
"I can't give up," Mega Man replied, smiling slightly. "It's one of my annoying traits. Just ask Dr. Wily..."
He was out again.
They were still in that position when Dr. Light strode into the lab, less than five minutes later. "Excellent, you already have him on the table," the scientist complimented. "Now, you say this weapon causes energy surges in the internal circuitry?"
"Yeah, pretty much. At least, that's how Wily described it. And be careful, Dr. Light. According to Wily, the energy will do the same thing to the human nervous system, too."
Dr. Light shot Protoman a quick glance, even as he was popping the main panel off Mega Man's chest cavity. "Thank you, Protoman, I'll remember that. There's energy out in the compound's kitchen, if you want some."
The red robot tightened his grip on his brother's hand. "Why don't you just work around me?"
"I'll do that." Dr. Light smiled. "Especially considering that I'd have to cut Mega's fingers off to separate the two of you."
Protoman acknowledged that with a small smile.
For a long moment, all was silent as the scientist examined the inside of Mega Man's main cavity. Then he nodded sharply. "The first thing to do is to drain off the energy," he explained, taking a coil of wire. "This ought to ground the system out." Dr. Light made a few connections and there was a sudden snap as energy shot through the wire, out of Mega Man's systems. Dr. Light sighed.
"There. The damage has been halted, and it looks as though his memory and personality circuits are undamaged. Now it's just a question of replacing what's been burned." He gave Protoman a second, unreadable look. "It's a fairly tedious process, but he's not in any more danger."
Protoman shook his head. "I'll stay," he replied. Dr. Light smiled.
"I thought you might."
For several hours, Protoman sat by his brother's side, waiting for Mega Man's systems to develop a working charge. Dr. Light had left the lab some time ago, saying something about needing to eat. Since Protoman's newly recovered memories could serve up countless instances of Dr. Light forgoing dinner to work on a project, he knew the scientist just wanted to give them some privacy. Protoman appreciated that.
After a long wait, the red robot was finally rewarded, as his brother's eyelids fluttered, then slid open. Mega Man's head turned slowly until he pinned Protoman with a cloudy blue gaze.
"You're... still here," he managed. Protoman smiled.
"Sure thing," he replied quietly. "I had to know whether or not to kill Bass."
"Jury's still out on that. Still out on a lot of things."
Mega Man tried to sit up, then thought better of it. "So what are you going to do now?"
Protoman sighed. "I dunno. I can't go back to Wily, that much is certain. But I can't stay here, either. That programming is still inside me, and it makes me who I am. I can't get rid of it, and I can't trust myself to be around you with it, either. Not until I'm sure I can override it, make my own decisions." He gave his brother a lopsided smile. "Besides, I'm not sure anybody'd trust me to hang around here. I don't exactly have the best track record where you're concerned."
"I'd trust you," Mega Man said quietly. "Even though I'd be afraid I'd regret it."
"Yeah, well... You always were the good kid," Protoman replied, with some difficulty. Releasing his brother's hand, he stood and walked to the door of the lab. Stopping, he looked back over his shoulder.
"Take care of yourself, bro." Then he was gone.
Bass was having the worst day of his life. The fact that it was only the second day of his life in no way diminished it's lousiness. He'd been forced to inform Wily of Mega Man's survival, and even the fact of Protoman's involvement hadn't softened the scientist's ire. Now he was forced to WALK out of the forest, all the way back to Wily's lab. And to top everything off, he still had a headache from being bashed by the damn tree!
So when Protoman materialized out of the shadows, Bass had to fight very hard not to put a Circuit Burner shot into him right there. Wily wanted him alive, however, so that he could express his displeasure with the errant robot personally. The cocky smirk on the other robot's face wasn't helping Bass's anger any, either.
"What do you want, traitor?" Bass snarled. Mentally, he was calculating distances and angles, trying to figure the best way to take his opponent by surprise.
Protoman raised an eyebrow. "Traitor? That would imply Wily ever had my loyalty to begin with. I'm loyal to one person-- me."
"What about Mega Man and his little family?"
"Still up in the air. Guess Wily wasn't too happy to hear of your failure, huh?"
Bass's grin was positively feral. "He'll be much happier when I dump you at his feet."
Shaking his head, Protoman continued to grin. "Don't think so, _Bass._" Protoman deliberately mispronounced the name, as if referring to the fish. "In fact, I want you to give Wily a message for me."
"And what's that?"
Protoman's face lost all expression, and his arm cannon whipped up to point at Bass. "When he salvages you, tell him to consider this my resignation." A ball of plasma struck Bass directly in the abdomen, throwing him into unconsciousness immediately. Reaching down, Protoman pulled the cannon off Bass's arm. Throwing the inert robot a mocking salute, he disappeared into the darkness.
Roll stood on the front porch of the main house, staring up at the stars. Mega and Dr. Light were inside, talking, and she'd felt like a bit of a third wheel. She knew they were discussing Protoman and the events of the day; and she needed some time to sort her own thoughts out.
He'd saved her life today. When Mega had told her about the Circuit Burner that had landed him in such critical condition, she had finally understood the meaning behind Protoman's words earlier. She shivered just thinking about it. To think that she could have gone out like that, energy surges burning through every system...
Now she was even more confused, though. She'd trusted Protoman once, and gotten badly burned for it. They all had. So why were Dr. Light and Mega so open to him this time? She'd always written off Mega Man's acceptance as a combination of his naturally open personality, and a desire to have his brother back. But Protoman had never been trustworthy-- Mega Man just kept setting himself up for a fall. But Dr. Light...
Roll got the feeling there was something they weren't telling her. She wished she knew what it was.
The sound of a footstep made her turn quickly. She was less than surprised to see Protoman standing in the shadows, watching here. Almost instinctively, she settled into a defensive stance, though not a completely threatening one.
Protoman grinned. "I brought you something," he explained, handing her an arm cannon. It was a replica of his and Mega's, except that its color was black. The trailing wires at one end hinted that it had been forcibly removed.
"Most guys bring flowers," Roll replied, taking it. Protoman laughed. "That's Bass's arm cannon, modified with the Circuit Burner. I
figured Dr. Light might be able to do something with it, make a defense against it or something."
He turned to go, and Roll found herself blurting out before she thought. "Why are you doing this?"
Though he stopped, he did not turn around. "Because once, you were my family too." Then he was gone, leaving Roll to stand on the porch and wonder. After a long moment, she went back inside. Back to her family.
And in the forest, Protoman slipped away through the dark.