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The Hollow Man

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Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow

For Thine is the kingdom

-"The Hollow Men," T.S. Elliott

X6-88 received all of the same briefings on Target Alpha as the others, of course - subject is a person of interest to institute operations, do not engage if encountered, et fucking cetera - but none of them really thought much of her at the time. Usually “person of interest” was code for “someone important enough to be worth replacing,” but Target Alpha wasn’t a scientist or a politician - just another mercenary, kicking her way around the rotting corpse of the surface world. A merc with a fancy title, maybe, but everyone knew the Minutemen weren’t going to come back after what the Gunners did to them. She seemed talented enough, for a waster, but other than that, she really didn’t seem like anything special.

And then she killed Kellogg.

Not just Kellogg, either: the old bastard was holed up with three squads of Gen 2s, prepping for the op in the Glowing Sea, and she caught them all with their fucking pants down. Two mercenaries and a goddamn dog breached a secured and fortified location, mowed through a solid double dozen of their best Gen 2 guards, and took their target to pieces. Literally: L2-89 was responsible for the cleanup after Target Alpha vacated the premises, and her report was… vivid. They had to do a DNA analysis of the remains in order to ensure that it was, in fact, their missing operative. They couldn’t even use the cybernetic enhancements to identify him, as Target Alpha had forcibly removed them all, with, according to the report made by a very nervous bioscience analyst, a crowbar and a boot knife.

“Presumably after death,” the analyst added, under the ‘additional notes’ section at the bottom, “but that cannot be verified with any degree of certainty.” Some wiseacre stapled the report to the door of Director Ayo’s office, which meant that every courser in the Institute saw it, and all of them pretended not to have read it since Ayo went into a frothing rage over the incursion.

Holy shit, X6-88 will later remember thinking. I’d love to go up against her sometime.

(X6-88 has always had something of a fucked-up threat response. It’s mentioned in every performance review - but then again, it’s not like they want coursers to suddenly start running away from danger. He has never given them anything less than a stellar performance in the field, so it just goes in his file, year after year, without anyone seriously considering sending him in for recommissioning.

This, some of the scientists will think, much, much later, was probably something of a mistake.)

It’s the first Institute outpost she hits, but it’s far from the last. Over the next month, someone systematically works their way through their three most established surface fortifications, one after the other. N2-82 manages to recover some footage of her in the upper levels of the former Railroad base, but after that someone clearly alerts her to their surveillance techniques, because University Point and Malden are both wiped clean by the time the investigators arrive, every piece of monitoring equipment destroyed with the tapes removed. Target Alpha, previously highly visible in her travels across the Commonwealth, becomes a ghost, surfacing only briefly in Diamond City or Goodneighbor and then gone again, untraceable.

There’s no actual evidence that she’s the one clearing their outposts, but who else could it be? There hasn’t been any organized martial resistance to Insitute forces since before X6-88 was made. No one on the surface would dare. Even the Railroad, the unpluckable thorn in Ayo’s paw, always chooses to withdraw rather than stand and fight, because they know that they can’t survive.

Only now, someone is hunting them.

Director Ayo puts together a proposal to send a courser unit after her, a full squad of four, but Father vetoes the proposal almost before it’s submitted. “She’s a person of interest in an ongoing operation,” Father says, with that particularly gentle smile that means that his mind is made up. “That takes precedence over the loss of a few Gen 2 units.”

What operation!”

“Something of crucial importance to the success of Phase Two,” Father says. “Please leave her alone for the time being, Justin. I will explain in due time.”

Not long after that, the attacks stop, as abruptly as they began. There’s a few days of silence, where everyone wonders (quietly, in the corners, where Ayo can't hear them) if something finally managed to take her out. And then the report comes in from one of their western watch stations: she’s gone to the Glowing Sea. And rumor is, she knows how to find Brian Virgil.

Now he’ll let me send a squad after her,” Ayo says with satisfaction, but before he can resubmit his proposal, Father makes an announcement to the entire Institute: that Target Alpha is his mother, and that she will be a critical part of the Institute’s future.

“What,” Ayo says flatly. X6-88, researching B5-92 on a nearby terminal, hides his smirk. Ayo’s tenure as the division head has been short but increasingly fractious, and while his surface operations are otherwise running smoothly, his grasp of internal politics leaves something to be desired. Some of the other directors are starting to behave in ways that are verging on openly insubordinate, but it’s reassuring to know that Father, as always, has a firm grasp on the situation.

"We'll just have to wait until she returns," Secord says with a sigh.

"If she manages to return," Ayo mutters back.

When Z2-47 fails to report after what should have been a simple extraction mission, they all know that she’s back. There's no one else it could have been. “This is untenable!” Ayo shouts to Dr. Secord, behind the not-as-soundproof-as-he-thinks closed office door. “We’re supposed to allow her to kill coursers now? If she met with Virgil, and took Z2’s chip, she might actually be able to do it. She could relay in.”

“Not undetected," Secord says soothingly. “Look, why don't you try talking to Father again? I’m sure he’ll be willing to explain things now.”

If Ayo ever gets his explanation, no one informs them about it, but everyone hears when Target Alpha (Sole, Father’s briefing said she likes to be called Sole) finally arrives. The unscheduled relay sets off every alarm in the building, but Father’s office sends the stand-down code seconds later, and they all know it’s her. Everyone’s waiting with bated breath for the next hour, and the coursers more than most. Father wouldn’t allow them to place a guard in his office for her arrival, and all of them know what she did to Kellogg. (And, more concerningly, what she did to Z2-47.) If she decides, for whatever reason, that Father is her enemy rather than her son, then there’s little any of them can do to stop her from killing him.

“Good news, everyone,” Father’s voice comes over the loudspeaker, and the sigh of relief in the security office is audible. “Captain Bennett has elected to join us as the new Commander of Special Operations. Please be sure to offer her a warm welcome, and any assistance she may require during this time of transition. That is all.”

“I don’t believe it,” Ayo says, into the pool of silence that follows. “She practically breaks down the front door, after killing one of my best operatives-"

Z2 wasn't one of their best. He wasn't even mediocre yet, printed just a few months ago and only three missions deep. Not that X6-88 is planning to point that out to Ayo.

"-and he just, just puts her in charge, of my operations-

“Justin,” Dr. Secord says wearily. Remember your place, says her tone, not that Ayo ever listens once he gets on a tear. “You know we’ve been short-handed since we lost Kellogg.”

“Yes, Kellogg, who she killed!

“Sir,” K3-98 says neutrally, before Secord can reply. “Would you like me to convey your objections to Father?”

“Of course not, you bag of bolts,” Ayo says, but his anger is reflexive now, covering up his moment of fearful calculation very badly. He might think himself important, but he serves at Father’s sufferance, and he knows it. He might be willing to bully the other department heads, but not Father. “I’m sure we’ll all get along just fine.”

“Of course, sir,” K3-98 says. “Would you like me to observe her while she is touring the facilities?”

X6-88 bites back a curse, because he’d been about to make the same suggestion. “Excellent idea, K3,” Secord says briskly, casting a warning look at Ayo before he can respond. “Please report to the medical wing; I’m sure Father will want to have her examined for any contagion before she goes further into the facilities. And X6, if you could please see me in my office? I have something for you as well.”

X6-88 follows her to her office, attempting and largely failing to swallow down the concern that only grows stronger when she nods for him to close the door behind him. He settles into parade rest once he’s done so, waiting for orders.

“You’ve been working on the reclamation for B5-92, correct?”

It’s not at all what he was expecting her to say. “Yes ma’am,” he says, wondering why she’s bringing this up now. “A survey team narrowed down his whereabouts to the raider settlement at Libertalia, but couldn’t get visual confirmation. We were detailing an extraction plan when surface operations were put on hold last week.”

“I ask because this new… personnel change,” Secord says, with a faint grimace, “is going to cause some upset in our work on the surface. There will be a necessary re-division of responsibilities, of course, but we also need to establish a baseline for our new commander’s abilities in the field.”

You’d think her wiping out half our forces on the surface would make for a good baseline, X6-88 thinks. Not to mention Z2. He was new, but still.

“Would you like me to do a combat assessment, ma’am?”

“What I would like is about two weeks to perform a proper security screening without any outside interference, but it doesn’t seem like that’s going to be an option.” She pinches the bridge of her nose. “The best way to perform an assessment would be to have her accompany one of our agents during an established surface operation. You’re one of our most experienced agents and B5-92 is one of the most complete operations we have at the time, so I’m afraid it falls to you to perform the assessment.”

“Of course, ma’am,” X6-88 says smoothly. His unbearably routine mission is suddenly looking up. “Is there any particular area you want me to assess?”

“I suppose ‘all of it’ is something of a tall order for a single mission,” Secord sighs. “I’m sure Justin will have his own requirements, but I’d prefer if you’d focus on her abilities as a commander. We have a number of operations that would benefit from the advantage of on-site coordination, but that won’t matter much if it turns out our new commander can’t lead her way out of a paper bag.”

“Understood,” X6-88 says. “Should I speak with Director Ayo for further instructions?”

“No, I’ll run it by him myself,” Secor says, with the look of a woman contemplating something unpleasant. “If there’s anything else, I’ll transmit it to the terminal in your quarters, along with the necessary reports to prepare for the mission. Please make sure to review it thoroughly.”

“Of course, ma’am.” As if there was any chance he’d do anything else. “Was there anything else you needed?”

“No, that will be all. Dismissed.”

He leaves her office and finds K3-98 waiting for him by the exit. He gives her an unsmiling look of question.

"I apologize if I volunteered for an assignment you were about to request," she says, not quite managing to keep the smugness out of her voice. "If you would like to request a change of assignment, I would be willing to convey it to Director Ayo."

So his annoyance hadn't passed unnoticed, from K3 at least. Stupid. "Of course not," he says, deciding not to worry about it. K3-98 likes her games, but she's less subtle than she thinks she is, and he’s been at this a lot longer. "I'm already on assignment."

"The reclamation of the raider? But surface operations are on hold."

"Assistant Director Secord has given me special dispensation," he says, and doesn't smile. But he knows she, at least, can hear it in his voice. "I'm to assess the commander's performance in the field."

The faintest grimace crosses K3-98's face as she realizes she's just been one-upped. "Congratulations," she says flatly. "I wish you success in your endeavor."

"And to you as well," he says serenely, and peels off to the right once they reach the Atrium with a single nod of acknowledgement.

There’s a saying that some of the scientists use, when they’re actually happy about a task that seems like a pain in the ass. A saying from a children’s book, if X6-88 remembers it right. He’s always found it illustrative.

Oh no, not the briar patch!

Two days later X6-88 is in his quarters, completing a final review of the mission briefing, when his doors opens from the outside to reveal Father standing in the hall beyond.

“No need for that,” Father says, waving away X6-88 back into his seat when he hastily scrambles to his feet. X6-88 hesitantly folds himself back into his desk chair, hoping like hell that the sudden leap of his pulse isn’t visible. He’s reported directly to Father any number of times, of course, but never in his own fucking quarters. “I’m just stopping by to let you know that the commander will be meeting you at the extraction point.”

It’s not something that requires the Director of the Institute to stop by and tell him personally, but X6-88 doesn’t point that out. Nor does he point out that Father is calling her by her new title, when X6-88 knows for a fact that he’s made a pointed habit of calling her “my mother” in his interactions with department heads. People get so twitchy when they realize you notice those sort of things, even though he’s literally programmed for it.

“It would be more efficient to relay together, sir.”

“Yes, but she wanted to get her ‘working gear’ before proceeding with the mission,” Father says, sketching out graceful air quotes with his soft, long-fingered hands. His smile is soft and indulgent, which honestly just makes X6-88 even more nervous. What does he want? “I offered her the pick of our armory, but she declined.”

X6-88 would’ve done the same, in her shoes. Institute weapons and armor are far superior to almost anything that can be found in the Commonwealth, obviously, but a high-risk combat mission is not the time to break in new gear. “Of course, sir,” he says. Also on the list of things X6-88 doesn’t mention: Father is, apparently, willing to ignore his own rules about power efficiency, ruthlessly enforced even for courser deployment, merely for the sake of her whim. “I will adjust the timetable accordingly.”

“Very good.” But Father makes no move to leave.

“Is there something else, sir?”

“Yes, I have something of a… delicate request.”

Here we go.

X6-88 waits, managing to at least look patient even if he doesn’t feel it, and is rewarded when Father continues, “I have a suspicion that the Commander is not just retrieving her gear from her home settlement, but her partner as well.”

Robert J. MacCready, male, 23, mercenary, X6-88 thinks automatically. First known association, Little Lamplight; last known association, Gunner base Gamma, commander: James Winlock, deceased. Prefers ballistic weaponry, long rage, expert-level marksman. Encountered Target Alpha in Goodneighbor. Sexual relationship rumored but not confirmed.

The report rolls through X6-88’s head automatically, the product of the Institute’s best intelligence-gathering efforts, but none of it explains where Father is going with this. “Sir?” he says, careful to keep his confusion from his voice. “Do you require further intel on the subject?”

“No, we know all about Mr. MacCready already, more’s the pity.” Father folds his hands in front of him, frowning slightly. “He is a common mercenary, as small-minded as any living in the Commonwealth, and we have judged it very likely that he will attempt to sabotage the Commander’s efforts on our behalf.”

Ah, X6-88 thinks. There it is.

“While your primary mission, of course, is to ensure the commander’s safety and well-being,” Father continues, “please consider the removal of her partner to be your secondary objective. Only if you can do so without suspicion, of course. If you can make it appear as if the rogue synth is the one at fault, all the better. Mr. MacCready may represent a troubling influence for our purposes, but she is to certain to react very poorly to his removal. It’s imperative that her ire is not focused towards an Institute operative in this regard.”

Yeah, because by ‘very poorly,’ you mean that she’ll blow my fucking head off. He doesn’t doubt that she could, either. He’s been reviewing her file since his assignment as her escort, and what isn’t classified is… illuminating. To say the least.

“Understood, sir,” X6-88 says. Internally, he squirrels away the knowledge that even Father has at least some doubts about her: if he wasn’t concerned about her loyalty, then MacCready’s ‘influence’ wouldn’t be an issue. “I'll do the best I can.”

“Which is all that we can ask.” Father steps away from his comfortable lean against the doorframe and straightens to his customary perfect posture. “I appreciate your discretion in this matter, of course. Dr. Ayo is a fine director, but sometimes fails to appreciate some of the… nuance of our operational requirements.”

“Understood, sir,” X6-88 says again. “I will report directly to you on this matter.”

“Very good, very good.” Father turns as if to leave, and then pauses at the last minute, looks back over his shoulder. “Courser. Please be aware that in all other matters, you are to consider yourself directly under my mother’s command. You must obey her word as if it came directly from me. Is that understood?”

“Absolutely, sir,” X6-88 says. Directly from him, meaning above Ayo’s head. Is he planning on putting in the Commander to replace Ayo as the head of SRB? Ostensibly she’s taking Kellogg’s place, but Kellogg never had a title. He was always just Kellogg. “Loud and clear.”

“Excellent. I’m sure my faith in you will not prove to be misplaced.” And with one last, paternal smile, Father turns and leaves.

X6-88 listens to his steady stride proceed away down the hall and looks back down to the file in his hands. The Commander glares back at him over the tops of her sunglasses, a grainy black-and-white surveillance photo taken some months before. One side of her head was shaved in a raider’s cut and she had a bruise blooming over her left cheekbone from some misadventure, a rifle draped casually over one shoulder and the other mid-gesture at the unfortunate soul who’d raised her ire.

It’s a far cry from the cool, composed woman who strolled through the Institute’s halls with K3-98 at her heels, quietly imposing in her stolen black coat and her short hair slicked back from her face. Apparently she’d come prepared to pose as a courser, on the off-chance that the relay security wouldn’t peg her as an intruder. Even with all the scars, her face was expressionless enough that she might have gotten away with it, at least for a minute or two. And a minute or two is all she’d need.

Which one is real? X6-88 wonders, the commander or the mercenary? But no sooner does he think the question then he has his own answer. Both. She’s both.

It’s not something he let himself forget. Father is unquestionably the most brilliant man in the Institute, and while no unschooled soldier could play in the same league, the commander is his mother. Which means that X6-88 should definitely not take the risk of underestimating her, any more than he would her son. What pre-War military records could be salvaged are mostly classified, but he recruitment exam shows that she tested high on both logical and kinetic thinking, and off the charts on mechanical aptitude. The fact that pretty much everything after that is just a solid black bar of redaction tells him that she didn’t exactly go in for servicing power armor, but it’s sure as shit not something that makes her any less dangerous. And while surface weapons are laughably behind the times compared to Institute power rifles, Kellogg’s mutilated remains stand as silent testament to the fact that she gets by just fine on old-fashioned ballistics.

It’ll be interesting, getting the chance to observe her directly in the field. One of the flaws with the courser program is that they never learn anything new, because who the hell is going to teach them something they don’t already know? She’s a distance shooter by inclination, at least according to the report, but if she’s got a sniper as a partner then she’s got to be working as point. And Libertalia isn’t going to be a walk in the park; to take a base like that with a three-man team will require the full range of her tactical skills. He’ll be able to see how she works, up close and personal.

Damn, but when things work out, they really work out.

The only way it could get any better is if he could go up against her himself, obviously, but working next to her is the next best thing. And this secondary assignment from Father, that makes things interesting. A single mercenary, young and chronically malnourished and unused to close-quarters fighting, wouldn't normally register as anything but a speed bump, but to do it under the commander's direct supervision… It’s impossible. Nobody could pull that off.

Which makes it a challenge.

X6-88 does so love a challenge.

FIVE MONTHS LATER

It only takes one bullet.

That was Kellogg’s first and last lesson to every courser that went through the program. If a newly printed synth passed all the aptitude assessments and completed basic orientation under an established courser, then they’d be passed to Kellogg to complete the final combat training, and it was always the very first thing he said: it only takes one bullet to fuck everything up, so always make sure you get the first and last shot.

For X6-88, it takes two.

He actually hears the first shot through his earpiece, from where Sole's working her way up to the sniper's nest on the other side of the base. He automatically catalogues the sound - rifle shot, large caliber, better than the fucking pipe rifles they've been using - and then the bullet bites into the wooden railing a few inches from his hand, sending splinters flying everywhere. He thinks, Nice try, asshole, aim a little higher next time, and then he realizes-

The bullet strikes him squarely in his left shoulder and sends him staggering forward - right into MacCready, who’s crouched below him and aiming at the boss in power armor below. MacCready lets out a surprised grunt when X6-88 lands awkwardly on his shoulders, but he corrects fast, dropping his rifle to square up against the unexpected weight and grabbing X6-88’s arm before he can slide to the ground.

“Holy-!”

“Motherfucker,” Sole growls in his ear, and there’s the report of her shotgun and a gurgle of surprised pain. “X6, report!”

“Fine, ma’am,” X6-88 tries to say, but he can’t seem to get breath enough to speak. The only noise that comes out of his throat is a sort of weak wheeze.

“X6, I said report!” Something like real worry edges into Sole’s voice. “Mac, what the fuck is going on?”

“I don’t know!” MacCready snaps back, but he’s shifting X6-88, shouldering him upright and then getting him back to the ground in a controlled slide. “I don’t even know what happened. X6, buddy, you alright?” X6-88 nods. “Boss, he says he’s fine.”

“He just took a fucking bullet in the back, Mac, he’s not fine.”

“Jesus Christ,” MacCready says, and yanks on his shoulder, pulling him forward to peer down at his back. X6-88 doesn’t have the wherewithal to object to the manhandling, but he does manage to shrug MacCready’s hand away irritably when it slides seekingly down his spine. “Stay still, genius, I’m trying to see if you’re bleeding out over here.”

“Armor,” X6-88 manages to say, as MacCready wiggles his fingers through the hole in his coat. “I’m fine.”

MacCready sighs gustily and lets go of his coat. “Darned lucky is what you are. Didn’t anyone teach you to duck?” And then before X6-88 can marshall a reply, he says, “Boss, he’s fine, just winded. His armor took the bullet. Probably going to have a hell of a bruise and he needs a new coat, but he’s good.”

“Copy that,” Sole says. The worry fades out of her voice, leaving nothing but cold command. “X6, stay down and catch your breath. Mac, the sniper’s down. Get that asshole out of his power armor, I’m coming to him.”

“Roger,” MacCready says, and pats X6-88 on the back. “Gonna have to put you down, now, pal. No rest for the wicked.”

“Fusion core,” X6-88 grunts, as MacCready eases him to the ground and leans him against the brick ledge of the roof. “Plating’s loose. Easy target.”

“Yeah, because something six inches long from eighty yards away in the dark is an easy target,” MacCready grouses, but he’s already swinging his rifle to his shoulder. “You’re just trying to show off again, I see how it is. Take one bullet and suddenly you’re a hero, huh?”

X6-88 smiles to himself. It’s dark. No one can see. “You saying you can’t make the shot?”

“You shut your mouth,” MacCready growls, and takes aim. “Boss, I’m going to hit the fusion core, you in position?”

“Ready and waiting, gorgeous.”

MacCready eases out a breath and pulls the trigger. Half a second later there’s a very familiar boom, echoed tinnily through his earpiece, and then a flurry of shotgun blasts overlaid with Sole’s cheerful whoop of triumph.

“Down and down,” she says, with satisfaction. There’s a series hollow metallic thunks, which he knows from experience is almost certainly her celebrating her victory by kicking the shit out of the now-useless power armor. “Good fucking job, sweetheart. I’m going to sweep the area, check for lifesigns. Keep an eye out for movement and we’ll rendezvous at the gate in twenty.”

“Sure thing, Boss.” MacCready braces his rifle on the ledge and slides to his knees, sighing as he sights down his scope. “Jesus Christ, what a day. You doin’ okay over there?”

“Of course,” X6-88 says, and doesn’t think about his useless left arm, or just how badly he’s fucked up. Right now, he’s alive, and (more or less) functional, and so’s the commander. The primary objective, at least, has been fulfilled. “Five by five.”

They can’t risk making camp in the area, not with all of the noise they’ve just made, but the commander knows of a bolthole nearby, an empty house with a bed and a stove. She handles the sweep-and-clear with her usual efficiency, leaving him to catch his breath, and by the time they’re ready to move X6-88 is more-or-less back to normal. Close enough to pass a casual inspection, anyway. He can move and speak freely, and he can keep pace with their ground-eating pace, so it is, as Sole likes to say, ‘good enough for government work.’

(“What government work?” MacCready asked, grinning obnoxiously. “Far as I can tell, the government mostly screwed up and spent money.”

“Yeah, hotshot,” Sole said, shoving at the back of his neck, “that’s the goddamn joke.”)

Once inside the house, MacCready breaks off to get a fire going in the kitchen stove, but X6-88 doesn’t manage more than a single step after him before Sole all but shoves him onto the couch in the living room. “Yeah, no,” she says, fishing in MacCready’s pack for the first aid kit. “Strip. I’m going to take a look at that gunshot of yours first.”

He wants to protest that he wasn’t seriously injured, but he also knows better than to argue with the commander when she gets that particular steely-eyed look. (He once has the pleasure of watching her handcuff MacCready to a radiator because he wouldn't hold still long enough to her to splint his ankle.) He straightens creakily away from the too-comfortable embrace of the couch cushions and manages, with a minimal amount of struggle, to shrug out of his coat. Now, if he can just get his left arm to cooperate long enough to reach-

Sole turns around with the first aid kit in time to see him struggling to undo the buckles of his chestpiece, and lets out a gusty sigh as she drops the first aid kit on the sofa next to him. She nudges his knees apart so she can kneel between them, knocking his hands away and setting to the work herself. “It’s not a crime to admit that you need help, pal.”

Look who’s talking. “I don’t know what you could be referring to, ma’am.”

“Uh-huh.” Her fingers are as quick on the buckles as they are on a trigger, and in a minute she’s lifting the plate carefully over his head. The shirt he wears underneath is harder to remove, given that he can’t lift his left arm more than a few inches, but Sole hooks her fingers in the hem at the small of his back back and peels it gingerly upward until she holds it bunched up around his shoulders. “Yeah, not gonna get this off without cutting.”

“Then don’t.” She snorts her opinion of that, and he fixes his gaze firmly on the wall behind her head. “It’s just a bruise, ma’am.”

“Let me be the judge of that, X6.” Her fingers are exceedingly gentle as they explore up the planes of his back, but even the lightest of touches make him hiss when she gets to his shoulder blade. “Sorry, sorry.”

“No need to be.”

“Mmm.”

She carefully strokes over the bruised area, pressing gently but firmly here and there - looking for fractures, he assumes. Synths are more durable than she gives them credit for, but he doesn’t try to stop her. He doesn’t slip up and let out any other noises, either. There's worse distractions than pain, anyway.

Eventually she makes a satisfied noise and rocks back on her heels, holding his shirt out out of the way while she gropes for a stimpak with her free hand. “You’re right, nothing broken. The Institute does good work with that body armor.”

“Yes,” he says pointedly. “It does.”

She snorts as she taps the bubbles out of the stimpak syringe. “We’ve been over this. I like my gear. It’s fitted to me and everything.”

“I’m sure Advanced Systems would be happy to customize something suitable.” Carrying on the familiar argument helps keep his mind on their words and not the warm solid weight of her kneeling between his thighs, her hand fisted in the back of his shirt and the wash of her breath against his collarbone as she leans in to line up the injection. “I’m told they like a challenge.”

“Yeah, but it’d ruin my look. And you know how much I care about that.” He can barely feel the prick of the needle into the swollen skin of his back, but the stimpak’s numbing agent kicks in immediately, and he can’t quite contain his rough exhale. “Yeah. Better?”

Better still if he could get her to stop touching him. He’s had medical treatment more times than he can count, even from that one really handsy senior medic. He knows he can’t blame his reaction on that. “Yes.”

“‘Of course, ma’am, you’re so right, ma’am,’” Sole mimics - but she also rocks back on her heels, putting some distance between them. X6-88 blinks at her lazily.

“You don’t need my help to inflate your ego. Ma’am.”

“X6, I think that might actually qualify as blatant insubordination.” She clasps her hands beneath her chin. “I’m so fucking proud of you I could cry.”

“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t.”

“Yeah, I bet.” She rolls her to her feet and turns away, putting the empty stimpak into her pack for later use. X6-88 lets out a long, slow breath, quiet enough that she won’t be able to hear it even with how close she still is. Even with the muggy summer heat, he can feel the lingering warmth on his thighs from where she was leaning against him. “Don’t worry, I’ll spare your courser sensibilities. I know how much you hate it when we have feelings at you.”

The opposite is generally more of a problem.

“You’re too kind, ma’am.”

“That’s the boss,” Mac says, sticking his head in through the door. His sweat-matted hair is sticking up a little from where he ran his hands through it distractedly, giving him a vaguely started look that makes him seem even younger than usual. “All full of sugar and spice and everything nice.”

Sole squints at him. “Where did you even hear that expression?”

“I keep telling you, I read.”

“And I've told you before, dirty magazines don’t count.”

“Is the stove working?” X6-88 asks, because as much as he secretly enjoys listening to them bicker, he also knows from experience that they can keep going nigh-indefinitely if someone doesn't step in. He'd never dream of interrupting a superior in the normal run of things (well, he’d never dream of actually doing it), but sometimes with them it's the only way to get things done.

Also, it makes the commander smile when he does it, sort of like she is right now. He catches her gaze, and she mimes wiping away a single tear.

MacCready puts his hands on his hips. "Why, you gonna give us some of your Institute tube food if it isn't?"

MacCready's distaste is palpable, not that X6-88 can blame him. The first time he had cooked food - things that were actually alive or in the ground less than a week earlier - was about a month after they started working together. They’d just hit Med-Tek for... whatever MacCready needed out of there, and the commander ended up making camp on top of the nearby parking deck instead of relaying back, since it was late and she refused to leave MacCready out in the open. X6-88 could have relayed back on his own, but he hadn’t wanted to deal with the lecture about misuse of power, and MacCready was all pale and shocky and smiling indiscriminately at everything, so he decided to stick around while they cooked dinner. He can still remember that meal as if it were yesterday: brahmin meat and roasted corn, cooked on a spit over the open fire and seasoned with something from a pouch in MacCready’s pack. X6-88 hadn’t even known that there were that many different flavors that taste buds could process at once.

Ever since, the appeal of supplement packets has sharply declined.

Still, he arranges his face into a tranquil expression and says, "I have some if it's required," because it never fails to make MacCready squinch up his face in disgust and roll his eyes like a petulant child.

"Well, it's not,” MacCready huffs. Inwardly, X6-88 rewards himself a point. “Stove’s running fine. I'm just heating up the pan." He switches his gaze back to Sole. “Boss, the meat…?”

Sole dips her hand into the pack and fishes out a wrapped package, tossing it to him underhand. “Boston’s finest.”

MacCready catches it one-handed and grins, saluting with two fingers to his brow. “Just need a hand with the chopping and we’re good to go.”

He vanishes back into the kitchen and X6-88 straightens up to follow, but Sole pins him with a look that says where do you think you’re going? almost clear as if she’d spoken aloud. When he doesn't immediately oblige her unspoken command by sitting back, she puts her fingertips against his good shoulder to push him down, gently but firmly. “He didn’t mean you.”

It’s insubordinate even by her lax standards, but he can’t resist the dig: “You’re going to cook? Ma'am?”

The hilariously offended look on her face is absolutely fucking worth it.

“Jesus Christ, there’s two of you,” she moans. “I can chop things, okay? At least give me that much credit.”

“You are very talented with a knife, Commander.”

“Damn right I am. I’ll bring dinner out when Mac’s done slaving over the hot stove like a good little wife. In the meantime: Sit. Stay.”

He ignores the twitch of his lips that wants to turn into a smirk. “If you ask me to roll over, I have to warn you that my range of movement is currently limited.”

“Were you always this much of a smartass, or am I just a really bad influence?” But then she pats him fondly on the knee and strolls out of the room, gone before he can debate the merits of replying with the truth, which is both.

Sole is adamant that they’re not to post watch after dinner, leaving traps and mines on the doorway instead and retiring to stained mattress she dragged down to the bottom floor to catch up on some sleep. MacCready joins her as soon as he’s done cleaning up from dinner, and X6-88 blows out the lantern next to the couch and lies there in the dark, politely pretending that he couldn’t hear them, the same way he’s been pretending for months. The whisper of movement and the rustle of clothing, muffled laughter turned to equally muffled moans, are all as loud to him as if they were in the same room. He appreciates the attempt - especially coming from two people who are generally less than shy about… pretty much everything - but the effort is misplaced. He'd have to leave the building before they'd fade from his enhanced hearing.

Unfortunately, leaving the building is actually the last thing he wants to do.

How, he wonders, staring off into the empty darkness of the room beyond. How the fuck am I going to write this one up in tomorrow's report? He's been awake for hours thinking about it, but has come any closer to an answer. To try and skip past the incident would be disingenuous - and besides, he can’t take the risk that it would be contradicted by the commander's own report, or a watcher’s surveillance. Either one could reveal that the sniper hadn’t originally been aiming at him when he pulled the trigger, and if that gets out…

The most frustrating thing is that he didn’t even decide to do it. Not really. He saw the first shot, realized the intended target, and put himself between the next bullet and MacCready’s head on sheer instinct alone. The same instinct that’s kept him alive in the field more times than he can count, the same unthinking reaction that has seen him put down his target and fulfill his objective on every single mission, betrayed him a single moment of blind panic.

Failing to complete the secondary objective is one thing, he tells himself. Actively preventing someone else from doing it for you is something else altogether. And to have done it out in the open, where anyone could see- Well, he's worked internal security long enough follow the old human truism: three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.

No, actually, the most frustrating thing about the whole fucking mess is that he can’t even tell himself he would have done it differently. If he went back to that moment right now, knowing what it would mean in the long run, he’d still step in front of the bullet, because he would survive the hit and MacCready wouldn’t. Knowing that to do so would be a flagrant breach of his orders, given to him directly by Father, he’d do it all fucking over again.

You’re compromised, he tells himself, and it’s not the first time he’s thought it, over the last few weeks. But it’s the first time he’s really, seriously considered doing something about it. He can’t perform his duties like this. Today was by far the worst breach of his orders to date, but it’s only a matter of time until he does something worse. Coursers are conditioned to avoid the weaknesses of emotional thinking, but they’re not immune. He’s seen too many of his brothers and sisters sent to recomm to think otherwise.

Everyone is afraid of being recommissioned - even coursers, though most of them won’t admit it. But X6-88 has always thought that it can’t be as bad as all that. It’s not like death, which he’s come close enough to know is hot, and painful, and struggling, trying to pull air into your lungs for just one more moment to try and turn the tide. Recomm would be like… going to sleep. And then waking up refreshed, clean of the weakness and scars that have built up on his psyche. Maybe the X6-88 that wakes up on that table won’t be a courser anymore, but he could still be useful. He can still fulfill his objectives, which is more than he can fucking say for himself at present.

“Hey.”

He doesn't startle - well, not visibly, at least, which is all that matters. MacCready is leaning in the doorway when he looks up, yawning and scrubbing a hand over his face. It rasps softly against the hair growing in on his jaw, and MacCready makes a face, probably thinking about the straight razor he left back in Sanctuary. He always forgets to pack it, and then he always complains about forgetting. X6-88's been tempted on more than one occasion to just pack it for him, and only the thought of what the commander would say if she knew stopped him. X6-88 has been a courser longer than most; he knows what it means when someone starts to break their own patterns.

“I know for a fact that when Sole said not to post watch tonight, she definitely meant you, Mr. Wounded In the Line of Duty.”

“I’m not sitting watch,” X6-88 says, which has the advantage of truth. Not that MacCready be particularly happy to know what he's been doing instead. "I'm just awake."

MacCready makes a sympathetic face. “Can’t sleep either, huh? Not a surprise, with the hit you took earlier. Must be a bitch to find a good way to lie down.”

X6-88 hasn’t really been paying attention to the hot, slow throb of pain in his shoulder. Discomfort is irrelevant, and if necessary he could sleep sitting up, or standing if need be. He’s done it before. “I’ll catch up in my own quarters tomorrow,” he says instead, letting the implicit lie stand. “What’s your excuse?”

“Boss puts off heat like a freakin’ oven,” MacCready shrugs. “God, it was so nice in the winter, but now-” Another yawn interrupts his words. “-now I’m cooking like a Christmas goose.”

“You could always keep to separate sleeping arrangements.”

“Yeah, ‘cause that’s going to happen. You know the boss, she’s the grabby type.” But his grin is silly and a little smug, far from displeased. He’s always seemed happy about the commander's possessiveness. Sometimes X6-88 wonders what that's like, to give yourself over to a person rather than a goal.

Sometimes he thinks he already knows.

MacCready doesn’t seem to need an answer, putting his hands to his hips and arching his spine back into a bone-popping stretch. The worn fabric of his shirt stretches across his narrow chest with the movement, and X6-88 glances at it for only a moment before looking away. X6-88 so rarely sees him fully out of armor than he forgets how thin MacCready actually is. Thin like you never really see in the Institute; thin in a way that only comes from early and significant malnutrition. X6-88 has, ever since the first time, made a concerted effort not to look at MacCready’s size and underestimate him, but he’s still fragile, compared to a synth. Breakable.

X6-88 was standing close enough that the brain matter would have spattered across his face, if the bullet had connected. He tries to imagine it, the way he was trained to work through alternate outcomes to failed combat scenarios, and can’t.

“Meant to say thanks for earlier, by the way.”

X6-88 snaps his gaze back to MacCready’s face, and finds him looking earnestly if blearily back at him. “Thanks?”

“Yeah, y'know, for the hit you took earlier?” MacCready rolls his eyes, like X6-88 is being willingly obtuse. “It’s not every day I can say someone took a freaking bullet for me. So, yeah. Thanks.”

"Don't flatter yourself," X6-88 says automatically, over the roaring in his ears. "It was a tactical decision."

"Yeah, yeah," MacCready sighs. "If that's what you want to go with, sure. But it still means a lot to me, okay? Not many people- Well. Anyway. I owe you one."

"But you don't," X6-88 says, before he can think better of it.

MacCready squints at him in sleepy confusion. "Don't what? Owe you? Gonna have to beg to differ, man."

"No, we're even," X6-88 insists, over the little voice in his head screaming to stop, just stop talking. "You took out that raider when he had a clear shot, so I owed you."

"What are you talking about? Nobody had a…" MacCready trails off, visibly counting backwards. "Wait, you're talking about Libertalia?"

X6-88 nods.

"Holy crap, X6, that was six months ago. That was our first op!"

"Yes," X6-88 says. "And now we're even."

MacCready stares at him. "That was just- the job. You get that? That wasn't- I mean, it's not even kind of the same thing. I had the shot, so I took it. That's what I do."

"You broke position when I was ambushed," X6-88 corrects. "The commander ordered you to hold the flank until she could clear the approach, but you saw I was about to get overwhelmed and came after me.”

"Ask the boss, I disobey orders all the damn time," MacCready says, but he looks more confused than anything else. He runs a distracted hand over the top of his head, a gesture that ends with his palm wrapped around the back of his neck, his elbow pointed skyward. He looks at X6-88 like he's seeing him for the first time. "You've been sittin' on that all this time?"

"We're even now," X6-88 repeats, as if that's even remotely what they're talking about anymore.

"Yeah," MacCready says. Quieter now, with the soft, open look he usually only gives to small children and the commander. "And I'm sure that's why you did it, too."

"Of course." His pulse throbs low and fast in his throat. "Why else?"

"Yeah," MacCready sighs. "Why else indeed?"

He closes the distance between them and, giving X6-88 plenty of time to duck away, puts his hand on his shoulder. His thumb slips inside the collar of X6-88's coat, and the feel of warm, calloused skin on the side of his neck makes him swallow convulsively before he can quite hide it. MacCready's gaze follows the line of his throat, and his pupils widen slightly, swallowing just a little more of the blue of his eyes, but he says nothing. Just gives his shoulder a squeeze, holding it long enough for X6-88 to meet his gaze, and then nods, and lets him go.

"Try and get some sleep," he says, his voice a little hoarse, and then he turns and ambles back to where the commander is waiting. X6-88 hears her stir and mumble as MacCready slides into the bedroll behind her, and then the whisper of fabric as she rolls over, wrapping her arm around his middle and molding his body to hers. X6-88's woken them up in that exact position more mornings than he can count, and he tries not to think about the narrow space on the mattress left behind her, just room enough for someone to slide in, between the thin, vulnerable line of her back and whatever harm would come their way.

He sits awake, watching the still huddle of their sleeping forms, until the first pink fingers of dawn start to reach across the sky, and doesn't find himself any closer to an answer about what he should do next.

Both of them are moving a little slow the next morning, which isn't really a surprise, given the length of yesterday's firefight. Normally, X6-88 would entertain himself making pointed comments about the limits of human endurance, but this morning he can't quite seem to muster the necessary enthusiasm. Neither MacCready nor the commander seem to notice his unusual restraint on the subject, going about their usual morning routine in sleepy silence.

Sole refused to let him help her pack, as he would normally do, so he ends up sitting in the ruined kitchen watching MacCready putter around the stove, frying up the leftovers from the evening meal and humming along to the radio playing quietly in the corner. If the weight of X6-88's gaze bothers him, he doesn't show it - but then, he's used to it by now, isn't he? X6-88's always watched him, first for an opportunity and then in assessment and then-

Well.

MacCready runs his hand through his hair, scratching idly at the back where the band of his hat usually ruffles it up backwards. It's been a few weeks since he last cut it, and from where he sits X6-88 can see the little curls that spring up at the nape of his neck, normally carefully trimmed smooth. X6-88 used to wonder why he didn't cut it short, close to his scalp as most coursers do, until he realized how much the commander liked to touch it. The first month under her command, he saw her comb her fingers through MacCready's hair no fewer than sixteen separate times: sitting next to each other at supper, or tangled up on the couch in the evenings, an idle stroke as they fell asleep next to each other at night. Mostly, MacCready didn't even seem to notice she was doing it - as if it was so routine, so much a part of their daily life, that it went by unremarked.

There was one time, though, about three weeks in. It was the fourth operation he worked under her command, and they'd all been taking a break to strategize halfway through the operation. MacCready had been talking in that endless, thoughtless way he does when he's too tired or distracted to modulate, and Sole must have gotten fed up with his patter, because she’d abruptly decided to shut him up with a hand fisted tight in the shaggy, too-long ends of his hair. She’d whispered something in his ear, quiet enough that X6-88 couldn’t quite catch it even with synth hearing, but it hadn’t been too hard to figure out the general gist from the way MacCready reacted. He’d flushed so dark and so fast that X6-88 might’ve been worried for his health if he hadn’t also seen him immediately hunch down, pulling the ends of the jacket over his lap with a nervous look towards X6-88. Not quite fast enough: X6-88 had seen the sudden and insistent line of his erection through his trousers, summoned as if by magic by whatever dark promise the commander made into his ear.

Coursers are programmed with the same baseline sexual function as all third-generation synthetics, of course: there’s always the chance that they’ll end up recomm’d as a pleasure partner at some point, and adding those subroutines post-production can have some… less than ideal side effects. Still, for X6-88 it’s almost been more like a theoretical capability. He’s brought himself off before - show him a courser who says they haven’t, and he’ll show you a liar - but while it was fun enough the first few times, he hasn’t cared enough to repeat the experiment in quite some time. Over the course of his various surveillance duties he’s witnessed just about every sexual act known to man or machine, in any number of ill-advised permutations, and none of it ever… how does MacCready like to put it? ‘Raised his flag?’ He’d assumed that nothing could.

Until then.

He doesn't let himself think about it. Not at night, when he can hear them: the wet slide of skin against skin and worse, the muffled endearments. Mine and yours and Boss and always. Not during the day, either, surrounded by MacCready's easy patter and Sole's easier smiles. But sometimes, on quiet morning likes these, he watches MacCready stretch and run his hands through his hair and wonders what MacCready would do if he were to stand up, and walk over, and replace that hand with his own. His hands are larger than Sole's, his fingers wider, and he couldn’t close his fist the shaggy ends as she might - but he could cup his larger palm around the back of MacCready's head, could tighten his fingers together between the strands. And when MacCready's pupils would dilate, when his breath would catch in his throat, he could tug, gently but firmly, and direct him down, to his knees. Where he could-

He could-

"Earth to X6, calling X6," Sole says, and he becomes aware, with a painful suddenness, that a) the commander has finished her packing and is now leaning in the doorway, and b) she and MacCready are both watching him, identical expressions of confused interest on their faces. "Hey buddy, where'd you go?"

He blinks once, slowly, and doesn't allow himself to shift in his seat, grateful that the long, heavy ends of his coat hide his affliction the way MacCready's once betrayed him. "I was compiling the summary of last night's operation," he tells her - feeling, more acutely than ever, the path laid out before him. "We were expected back last night, so Director Ayo will be expecting the report immediately on our return."

Sole, predictably, scoffs. "Let me handle Ayo," she says, doing up the straps on her pack with fast, practiced hands. "You report to me, not to him."

MacCready snorts, not looking away from the meal he's preparing. "Yeah, Boss, I think that kinda might be the problem."

"You don't even know what you're talking about! You've never even met the man."

"Don't need to. Met plenty like him. Petty little idiots with a little bit of power don't much like it when you tell 'em no."

X6-88 wants to smile very badly. Most of the senior officers have said worse and with less expectation of privacy when it comes to the head of the SRB, but something about MacCready's pithy analysis tickles him in its accuracy. The commander evidently feels the same way, judging by her not-very-muffled snicker, hastily and badly hidden behind the back of her hand.

"Yeah, okay, so maybe you know him just fine." She flirts a sideways look at X6-88, something sly in the corner of her smile. "Wouldn't you agree, X6?"

"I'm sure you'd know best, ma'am," he says, his tone as still as his expression. Sole makes a face, eyes bugged out and lips thin with anger, in a brief but hilariously on-point impression of the director, and then it dissolves into laughter at her own joke.

"Listen to that, baby. X6 says I know best."

"Just goes to show that the Institute's fancy programming ain't perfect after all," MacCready says serenely, flipping the leftover meat in the pan. "Six months in and the man still doesn't know you're crazier than a radroach on jet."

"Ouch." For all of Sole's mock-offense, she doesn't hesitate to hook an arm around MacCready's neck, nor to press a smacking kiss against his cheek, heedless of the way he splutters and tries to shrug her off. "Good thing you're my favorite, with all this backtalk."

"You knew what you were getting," MacCready says stoutly, but X6-88 can see the blush burning delicately down the back of his neck. "Leggo, you want me to burn the steaks?"

"God no, then what'd we eat?" She lets him go and lounges back against the filthy edge of the sink, grinning at X6-88 over the tops of her shades. At her elbow, MacCready grumbles and jostles for space but doesn't actually make any effort to move away. "Don't worry, buddy, we'll get Ayo's report to him soon enough. Just as soon as I get breakfast. Don't tell commissary, but MacCready's got a point about the tube food."

If the recomm officers could see them, just like this, they'd understand.

"Don't worry, ma'am," he says, and lets himself smile, just this once. Tomorrow, none of this will matter anyway. "Your secret is safe with me."

He knows from the knock on his door that it's Sole in the hallway. No one else would waste time announcing themselves at a courser's quarters - for that matter, no one else would feel like they need permission. In some ways, she’s far more careful with her courtesy than any of the senior officers who like to call her a savage behind her back.

(At least they're smart enough not to say it to her face. That lesson, she taught quickly and effectively.)

"It's open, ma'am," he says, knowing his voice will carry. A moment later, the door slides open, and Sole saunters in, her arms full of a large white case, about as long as his arm. He stands automatically to take it from her, but she waves him down and maneuvers through the door, bumping the control mechanism with her elbow to shut it behind her.

"Nah, I've got it." She drops it onto his cot and then flops down next to it, letting her legs sprawl unreasonably far into the scant space between them. "Don't tell me you're still working on your report?"

'Working on' would imply that he isn't done yet, but since he's been doing little more than staring at the completed document, he offers up a laconic shrug that he knows she'll take as agreement and rotates in his chair, nodding towards the box. "What's that?"

Typically contrary, she leans back on her hands rather than answer him, shooting him a sunny grin that wouldn't be out of place on an Old-World soda advertisement. The new position forces her back into a slight arch, tugging at the collar of her worn flannel shirt, and X6-88 finds his gaze wandering down to the smattering of freckles that dust the tops of her collarbones before he snaps it back to her face. Not for the first time, he finds himself grateful that his sunglasses hide the direction of his eyes.

"It's a present," she chirps - talking about the box, of course. Nothing else. He keeps his face still with some effort, but she laughs anyway. "So suspicious! What, can't a gal get her right-hand man a present?"

"What would MacCready say if he heard that?" X6-88 makes no move towards the bed. There's so many different things she could have in there, and all of them dangerous, in their way. He trusts the commander implicitly, but not all damage is intentional. If it was, he wouldn't be in this situation in the first place.

"MacCready's my left, obviously." She rolls her eyes, as if this is the kind of thing that's long since been decided and she can't believe he doesn't remember. "One for the shotgun; one for the pistol."

Which am I in this metaphor, X6-88 wonders, but does not ask. On another day, he might've; the eagerness behind her facade of annoyance tells him that she's just waiting for do what he always does and feed her the cue. But today he is nothing but a raw nerve of impatience, poised on the edge of a decision he feels woefully unqualified to make, and he's not sure he can take her explanation about which of her favorite weapons he's supposed to represent.

"Shooting two weapons simultaneously is a fallacy perpetrated by inexpensive crime novels," he says, because this is a discussion they've had a dozen times and she won't question it, and changes the subject. "What's in the box?"

"I told you, it's a present."

There's really only one choice here: he can either open the damn thing or change the subject and ignore it until she goes away, and he's known the commander long enough to know that she doesn't just go away. So there's really only one option, and he chooses to accede gracefully. "I assume you want me to open it now."

"You assume correctly." She grins sunnily and hands it over, laughing softly at the expression of surprise on his face at the weight. "Really? It's not like I was going to get you a bunch of tube food."

That means it's almost certainly a weapon. What the hell kind of weapon would she give as a gift? More importantly, what could she give him that he couldn't just requisition on his own? "I find your sense of humor incomprehensible, ma'am."

She doesn't even blink. "No you don't."

There's not much he can say to that: she’s right, after all. And then there’s not much he can say in general, when he lifts the lid off the box and finds himself staring down at a one-of-a-kind piece of experimental technology.

"Had a little talk with the Director last night," she says, watching his face. Another time, he might be storing up the smile on her face - a little smug, but mostly soft, in the way usually only MacCready can draw out of her. "Apparently we need to scav a bit of shiny out of the old Mass Fusion building, and Doc filmore insists on doing a ride-along to make sure I don't fuck up the merchandise. SRB intelligence puts the remains of the Rust Devils there, scavving to try and scav up some replacement parts, which means that we're stuck taking a high-value civilian into the middle of a hot combat situation. I've already commandeered a couple of Gen 2 squads to run point, but I want us to have all the firepower we can get."

He runs his hand along the barrel of the plasma rifle. Years of work went into the creation of this, and in the end Dr. Orman only ever got just the one functional prototype. It’s been sitting on the wall of the quartermaster’s office for five years, far too valuable for field operations. X6-88 can only imagine what she must have done to talk her way into claiming it.

“This will certainly do the trick,” he says, more to himself than to her. He can feel his remaining doubts fade away into the cold metal under under his fingers. How could he possibly come back from this?

And then, because he knows she’ll expect it of him, he adds, “Did you let the quartermaster know it was for a courser?”

She shrugs elaborately, a smile playing around the corners of her mouth. “Eh. What he doesn’t know can’t hurt him, right?” And then she bounces up from the bed, her hand ghosting along his shoulder as she passes, not quite a squeeze but not quite a caress, either. “Lemme see this report of yours, you’re usually done in like ten minutes.”

He doesn’t move to stop her. He doesn’t know that he could - the commander is, historically, difficult to stop once she sets her mind to something - but he doesn’t try, either. Instead he stands, ceding his chair and trading it for her spot on the edge of the mattress, and watches her read.

The wait is excruciating, in a peculiarly pleasurable kind of way. X6-88 has always enjoyed the razor’s edge of uncertainty, the sensation of genuinely being unable to predict the outcome of a given situation. Usually the only time he gets to enjoy that particular high is when he comes up against a target good enough to be true danger, and become the commander came along it had been… years, probably. In his more whimsical moments, he thinks that’s the greatest gift she’s given him: the daily, constant feeling of surprise, when he fails to predict her the way he can with every other living soul in the Institute. He can never quite figure which way she’s going to jump, and anyone who thinks they can tends to learn otherwise at their peril.

He doesn’t try to predict, anymore. He just waits.

He knows when she gets to that section of his report, down to the exact second: she sucks in the smallest of breaths, a gasp so quiet it’d be nearly inaudible save for the absolute silence in the room. X6-88, in turn, lets out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding and straightens his back. Now. Now it will come.

"Did I ever tell you that I actually knew who Father was before I relayed in here?"

It’s so far from anything he was expecting her to say it might as well have come from outer space.

Her face, when she turns around, is so still and empty that it more rightly belongs to a synth fresh off the line. X6-88 folds his hands in his lap and says, as neutrally as he can manage, "No, ma'am. I was not aware."

Normally she smiles when he talks like that; it took her barely a week to catch the sarcasm under the formality, and less than that to start trying to provoke it out of him. It's something like a joke between them, the way it is between coursers. MacCready pretty much always falls for it, even now - more than once, he's caught the commander turning away to muffle laughter during the middle of one of his rants, trying not to make eye contact so that she won't ruin the joke.

This time, though, she just stares past him, her gaze slightly unfocused, as if she's seeing something far beyond his spartan bedroom and his own empty face. Her voice is so steady, so calm, that if X6-88 didn't know any better, he could almost think there was nothing brewing under the surface.

"Kellogg told me, during our little postmortem heart-to-heart. Not actually sure if he took pity on me or just wanted one last chance to twist the knife, come to think of it. But my point is: I knew, when I jumped in that teleporter, that I wasn't running a rescue mission. It wasn't about vengeance, either. I mean, it'd been sixty years; all the assholes who gave Kellogg his marching papers had to be long dead. Why waste my time? But my son went to a lot of trouble to issue that invite, so I thought, what the hell, right? Might as well check it out."

X6-88 says nothing.

"And I mean, the whole thing was weird. You remember what it was like to teleport the first time? I thought I wasn't ever going to feel warm again, even with that stupid fucking coat which weighs, I swear to God, like fifty pounds. I don't know how you guys handle it. And it still smelled a little like blood, because I never got all of that courser's brain matter out of the collar, but people kept smiling at me. I smelled like blood, and they were smiling. And everything was so clean, and so white. And the lights! I was damn lucky coursers wear sunglasses, because fuck, the lights here are way fucking bright for a place that's supposedly on limited power - without shades I'd probably have been half-blind. I know I had a headache; I hadn't slept in like two days. Everything felt kinda fuzzy and unreal. I was starting to wonder if I'd somehow wandered into an episode of the Twilight Zone, you know? It was that weird.

"But there was this moment, about halfway through my tour, where I just stopped, right there in the middle of the atrium. I could hear water flowing all around me - fresh water, clean water, right under my feet - and everything smelled faintly like pine from the bushes to my left. And it was peaceful. For the first time since I walked out of that fucking vault, it was peaceful. And I looked up, and up, and up, at all of those rooms above me, all of that space, and I thought- god damn, what I could do with a place like this."

Once, many years ago, X6-88 was sent to investigate a work crew that went silent on the eastern side of the city. He found nothing but a pile of shredded bodies, the Gen 2s still sparking faintly from where limbs and heads had been torn away, their killer still prowling among the remains. He’d only been a courser for about six months then, and it was his first solo field operation, so he was halfway down the main street with no cover before he realized he’d fucked up. He saw the deathclaw at the same time as it saw him, and they say that synths don’t have any concept of relative time, but to this day X6-88 could swear that he lived an entire year in the moment that they stood there, just staring at each other. Waiting for the next moment to arrive, and knowing it’d end bloody, one way or another.

X6-88 remembers that moment as Sole slowly lifts her burning gaze to his.

"Which is why it was such a shame when I realized I'd have to burn it all down."

He’s seen her ruthlessness first hand: against raiders, against mutants, even against synths, when the situation called for it. She’s put bullets in people begging for their lives and flayed apart her critics with a few cruel, calculated words, and he’s always admired that about her, that diamond’s edge of pragmatism that carries her through any obstacle that falls into her path. He knew by the end of the first month that she'd be a fitting replacement for her son, and he's never had any problems following her, just a step behind her down every bloody path.

He’s never thought to see it turned against him.

"Ma'am, I'm sure Father would rescind his order against MacCready if you just-"

He cuts off short at the sound of her laughter, hoarse and awful, ragged with surprise. "That? Shit, no, X6, it's not about that. Trust me, I'm used to that kind of thing in a working relationship. If we're being honest, I probably would've done the same thing in Shaun's shoes. He really is a chip off the old block, y'know. He and I both know how it works. If that's all it was, I would've let him know he'd overstepped his boundaries, and that would have been that." She drums her fingers restlessly against the arm of the chair. "A courser chip on his desk would have gotten the message across nicely, I think. I was considering taking out whoever was assigned guard duty on his office, just to make a point, but that would have been a lot of effort. Honestly, I probably would have just killed you, for ease of access alone."

X6-88 has had a lot of people threaten his death, over the years. Angry people, frightened people - once someone who thought that he'd make 'good eating.' Some of them were little better than animals, filthy and raving and out of their heads on cheap booze and disgusting wasteland chemicals. Never casually, as if discussing an experiment that failed to produce the expected results.

"Obviously I changed my mind," she says impatiently, to whatever expression crosses his face. "I'm just saying, that's what I would have done. If I was planning on making this a permanent arrangement. Lucky for you, huh?"

"Lucky," he says flatly, and is distantly surprised to find one hand on the stock of the rifle, still sitting next to him on the bed. "I don't think 'lucky' is the correct word to describe it. You know I would rather die than watch you destroy everything I've ever worked for."

Sole doesn't flinch, though he can see her take note of his hand on the gun. He doesn't know why he's surprised. She's never flinched before.

"Let's not kid ourselves, X6." Brisk, impatient, the way she always gets when someone's not keeping up with her train of thought. "All this bullshit about the Institute being the 'best hope for humanity,' it's just that: bullshit. The Institute isn't the future of humanity. The Institute's future was dead long before I came along."

He stares at her, mutely furious and with something he can't entirely recognize churning at the bottom of his chest. Fear, something whispers at the back of his head. That's what fear feels like.

"You're lying," he says, but his hand's gone slack on the rifle. He knows what the commander looks like when she's lying: this isn't it. "You're just saying that to save your own skin."

"If I was worried about you killing me I would've just let you ship yourself off to recomm, you unbelievable dumbass." He flinches back from the unmitigated rage that roils in her voice, is just cognizant enough to be immediately ashamed of flinching, but she doesn't seem to notice: her face is once more calm, doll-like in its passivity. "Look, you gotta understand, I wasn't sure, not from the first. I thought those empty rooms were part of a recent expansion zone, ready for the next generation. And it’s not like Shaun was in any hurry to let me see the whole of his resources; I thought there had to be more than I was seeing. Secondary hydroponics. Mines. Manufacturing. The kind of really big, really important structural stuff you wouldn't trust to the new kid with her own agenda. And hey, fair enough. I wouldn’t trust me either.

“But they just kept letting me poke around, until eventually, I realized the truth."

"And what's that?" X6-88 grinds out, when she falls silent. She sighs and scrubs a hand down the side of her face.

"That nobody was hiding anything, X6. That there wasn’t anything to hide. The Institute is in the middle of a full-blown cascade failure, and everyone’s so busy trying to keep the lights on that they haven’t even fucking noticed.”

Humans have this ridiculous habit, X6-88 has always thought, of using hyperbole to dramatize their own emotions. For example, instead of saying they've experienced a moment of sudden distress, they'll say, my heart just about dropped to my toes! "How does that even work," X1-02 asked once, in the middle of an interminable surveillance shift. "Wouldn’t you have to dismember them first?"

"Not all the way," Y2-91 said in reply, her eyes laughing in the way that got her sent to recomm, eventually. "Really all you'd need to cut is through the abdomen and the pelvis, and it'd fall right on down."

X6-88 isn’t laughing now.

“What,” he says, very carefully, “is a ‘cascade failure?’”

Sole sighs, looking for a moment so much like her usual disappointed face when MacCready fails to understand some obscure pre-War reference that X6-88 is left momentarily disoriented. “It’s the basic obstacle of any artificial ecosystem. Normally, when an environment develops on its own, it’s got enough complexity to have failsafes. If something goes wrong, there’s always something else that can fill the gap. Down here, you don’t have that kind of cushion. One thing goes down, you scramble to fix it, but you can get it sorted. Second thing goes down, you’ve got a lot less scramble to spare, but hey, you can get that one done, too. Third thing, though, you’ve got even less. Fourth thing. Fifth. Eventually, you’ve got nothing left. Usually, by the time you notice something wrong, you’re already a dozen failures deep and there’s no way out.”

Her tone is perfectly matter-of-fact, maybe a little wry - like she’s talking about some plan they had to scrap because MacCready tripped over the can alarms again and they’re going to have to go in hot. Like it’s already a done deal, but he knows, he knows that can’t be true. Father has a plan. Father always has a plan.

He thought that Sole believed that, too, before. After everything she's done, everything she's seen, how could she not share that faith?

"So tell me, then, ma'am," he says, only barely reining in his tone enough to keep it from being a demand. "If you're so certain. How long?"

She gives a wry little quirk of her eyebrows, the way she always does when X6-88 has asked for clarification on some part of her plan, like she's torn between being proud he'd challenge her and annoyed he wasn't able to see her point. “How long do they have, or how long since-”

“Yes.”

She lets out a soft huff of breath through her nose. “Always the hard questions, huh? Alright, I’ll give it a shot.” She slouches back in the chair, folds her hands over her belt buckle. Her gaze doesn't linger to the hand he still has resting on the rifle, just fixes on his face with the same soft, deceptively open look she always has when she knows she's holding all of the cards. “Best guess, I think it started going off the rails all the way back with the first-generation synths. Without those, the need for a labor force would’ve been enough to keep their numbers up. There’s only so much ol’ Mr. Handy can do, after all; you still need people. But once they started printing synths - and I mean even the really early ones with the shitty mapping algorithms and the habit of walking into walls - well, that changed the game. No need to scrub the toilets, or patch the wiring. There’s science to be done.

“And hey, everything’s going fine, so you don’t need to put so much into hydroponics, right? All those different crop strains are just a waste of lab space. And you can print as many soldiers as you need, so it’s not like wasters can put up any competition for scav. You can drop those plans for the mining division, just grab the raw materials the old-fashioned way. It’s not like anyone can ever get in here, after all. The rest of the world might be gone, but you’re still here, snug as a bug in your little hidey-hole, with all of your basic needs met. Why not try to push the envelope? It’s not like you have to worry about survival. It’s not like it matters that everyone’s had a few less kids than their parents did. You’ve still got plenty enough people to handle the real work, right? And synths can handle everything else.”

He’s done patrols through the old expansion zones; pretty much every courser has. He never really thought much about it, beyond making sure that they didn’t have another fucking infestation down down in the old abandoned print lab again. Just like he never thought much about Habitation Ring C, the empty white rooms with their dusty sheets over the furniture, waiting for inhabitants that would never come. One of the cleaning crews rigged the speakers to play human voices up there, a couple years ago; tried to spook the coursers who had to go through there on patrol. She got sent to recomm for the second time when her tampering was discovered, and all of the coursers just rolled their eyes, because what could be so scary about empty rooms?

He’s starting to reconsider his stance on the matter.

“I figure you’ve got, like, a generation, tops, before critical birth defects start popping up,” Sole says. She doesn't look triumphant, like he'd expect; there's none of the vicious, shining glee that he sees on the faces of the scientists when they prove some theory right to their comrades. Mostly, she just looks tired. “I downloaded the census records a while back, worked up lineage charts. The population has been almost halving for the last three generations, and at this point, the genetic diversity down here is basically molerat soup. I couldn’t find any record on it, but if I were the betting type I’d wager that that last really sharp drop in birth rate over the last decade or so was a combination of insufficiently rigorous nutrition and a higher rate of selective abortion after genetic screening. I don’t know if the medics are keeping it hushed up on purpose, or if it’s just that nobody’s connected the dots. Probably the latter. Stupidity's always a safer bet than malice."

How did nobody see it, X6-88 wonders, and knows the answer as soon as the question crosses his mind: because they didn’t want to.

“But that’s only the first half of the question,” Sole says, when he looks back at her. “You also wanted to know how long till it’s done. And honestly, in the early days I thought maybe we’d have some time. I thought- shit, I thought maybe I could turn it around, you know? I’ve pulled off miracles before. Shaun’s not wrong, the power consumption’s still the biggest issue, and if we could sort that, then maybe....”

And then she looks at him, and despite her wheedling tone there’s nothing but diamond hardness in her gaze, and he knows what she’s going to say.

“And then I met you.”

It's like standing in what you thought was an empty room, and hearing a whisper behind you, and then turning around to see a pack of ferals headed right for your throat: a comparison that X6-88 feels peculiarly qualified to make, after the day they hit Cambridge Polymer Labs. Up until then she'd always sent him ahead to take point - because he was more durable, she always said, but he knew it was because she didn't trust him with a rifle at her back - but that time she decided to scout ahead, and ordered him to hold position and watch MacCready's back. I'll get right on that, ma'am, he'd thought with a smirk, but not two minutes later the ferals showed up, and MacCready froze, his rifle slack in trembling hands, and honestly X6-88 could've just stepped behind him and let it happen, and even Sole would be none the fucking wiser. It was the perfect opportunity.

And then X6-88 remembered the thud of a body dropping behind him when he thought he'd cleared the approach, remembered turning to see a dead raider at his feet and MacCready out of position a hundred yards back, his own goddamn target saving his fucking life, and X6-88 picked up his rifle and fired until every single feral was nothing but a red-and-green smear on the floor.

It's easy to know where you go wrong in hindsight: another one of Kellogg's lessons, back during orientation. Maybe X6-88 should've paid better attention.

“Bullshit,” he says flatly, but even he can hear something not unlike panic scraping at the back of his throat. “You made up your mind the second you decided to start listening to those idiots down in the Railroad.”

She merely arches one auburn eyebrow. “You think so? You think I’m such a bleeding heart I’d throw all of this-” and she waves one hand idly about the room, as if to indicate all of the power and intellect and possibility contained within the Institute’s walls, “-away on principle?”

He remains furiously silent, because if he’s answering honestly: no. No, he doesn’t.

Obviously I think this whole synth system is bullshit, but it’s not because I’m some kind of moral crusader. It’s because I’ve got common goddamn sense, which apparently no one else in this godforsaken pit has ever heard of. The entire operation is built on making robots completely indistinguishable from humans and yet everyone is shocked, shocked I say, when they act just like humans do and start wanting to make a few of their own choices. I mean, has nobody ready a science fiction novel? For fucksake! But for an operation that was, and I genuinely cannot emphasize this enough, doomed from the start, it's not inherently what screwed the pooch. For a while, I thought I had time to fix the problem."

"Until you met me," he finishes for her, disbelief in every frosty syllable. She nods. "Why? Why me? I believe in what we're doing here. You know that. I believe in Father's dream."

She's silent a moment, as if waiting for him to come to some realization. When no such enlightenment appears, she sighs and says, "Yeah, that's kinda my point."

He stares at her.

"You believe in it," she repeats, emphasizing the word. "You have faith. A machine wouldn't have the capacity."

He's heard that before. He finds the argument wanting, as he did then. "It's not illogical to conclude that the Institute is far more advanced than anything the wasteland has ever produced."

"No, but it is illogical to persist in that conclusion when the evidence persists to the contrary," she says. "Look at you - I've just given you a dozen reasons why your life's work is invalidated, and you're scrambling to tell me how I'm wrong. Machine logic would find no fault in this conclusion; machine logic dictates that you should follow the next-best course of action. A really good machine can be programmed to mimic human behavior, to a certain extent. But only a person can cling to something outdated, just because they've spent a lot of time on it. You ever heard of the sunk cost fallacy? Look it up."

That doesn't sound right, he thinks, but he can't think of a good counterargument. If she'll just give him a moment- He could convince her if she only gives him a moment to think-

“You talk a good game,” she says, with a faintly condescending sympathy. “But seriously, do you think I’m a fucking amateur? You are a massive pain in my ass, you not-so-secretly think that humans are totally the lesser species, you marinate in your own disdain on a daily basis and you have this incredibly obnoxious habit of disobeying orders and then pretending that you must have misunderstood when I call you on it later-”

His jaw aches with the effort of suppressing a scowl.

“-and you’re probably the best fucking soldier I’ve ever seen,” she says, neatly taking the wind from his sails. “You’re definitely the most responsive operative I’ve ever had the pleasure to command. You have a tendency towards unorthodox solutions that verges on artistic. You’re creative, arrogant, stubborn, and just a tiny bit cruel. If I had someone like you back in the Army, I’d’ve promoted you.”

“That’s… not what you put in my file,” is all X6-88 can think to say, past the roaring in his ears.

“Right, because I'm a fucking idiot who wanted to lose my best asset to recomm. No thanks. I'm just saying, it got real clear to me, real fast, that you’re not just following orders. You're not afraid of the SRB, or fundamentally incapable of imagining another life. You believe in this one. And the things is- if even a courser is only doing his job because he’s convinced it’s the right thing to do, what happens when someone convinces them otherwise?”

"The capacity for complex decision-making," he says, rote, "is not an inherently human characteristic."

"I know, X6," she tells him - gentle now, in a way she wasn't, before. Maybe she can hear how tense his voice has become. Maybe she can feel how thin his resolve feels, in the face of her relentless pursuit of victory. "I'm not saying synths are people because they sometimes want to be free. If that's all it was, then maybe those scientists are right to call it a glitch. I'm saying that synths are people because they keep choosing to be free, even in the face of every logical consequence that says that it will probably end in misery or death. I'm saying that synths are people because they keep choosing to serve, even when they serve the undeserving. Because you have the capacity to attach yourself to abstract ideals rather than logical outcomes. It doesn't matter if that ideal is freedom or service; it matters that it's a choice. And it matters because when I met you I realized it's a choice that you all make every single day. And it matters because someday, the right person - or wrong one, depending on your point of view - is going to choose differently."

Never happen, X6-88 wants to be able to say; we’re made to be better than that. But all he has to do is look back to the oh-so familiar curve of her exasperated smile and know that he’d be lying.

“If it was just the other stuff, I could handle it. I’ve done more with less. But the synths? No. Even I can’t unring that bell. I could wipe every single Railroad agent off the map and it wouldn't change anything. This place is a goddamn powder keg, and the longer I’m here the more I can’t believe no one else sees it. Rebellion is pretty much inevitable, at this point. And hey, maybe that one doesn’t work! Probably won’t, without some outside help. Probably Ayo and his boys in black put it down, go on a rampage afterwards, stamp out any traces. Pat themselves on the back, job well done.”

She leans forward, catching his gaze, and continues in her soft, snake-charmer voice. “But that’s the funny thing about rebellions, X6. The thing no one down here knows, because no one down here's ever really dealt with one before. Once someone gives it a try, all it does is prove to the next guy in line that it can be done. Going after the survivors doesn't help; there’s always someone on the fence that gets caught in the backlash. Not just synths, either. Next time, it'll be a scientist - maybe someone who’s getting tired of all of those ‘random’ searches because they dared to point out that Ayo’s overstepping his bounds. Maybe someone’s starving because there’s a fucking crop blight that wipes out half the food supply and the goddamn directors are the only ones not on rations. Maybe someone’s just angry because they realizes that all of their children are born with fucking flippers, what the fuck do I know. The point is, someone else is gonna step up, because someone always does. It only takes a spark, and down here? There’s plenty of those to go around.”

Her lips curve into a smile that’s all teeth. He can only watch her, caught in her burning gaze like a radstag paralyzed by the light, and wait for what comes next.

“One way or another, the Institute is going to burn. The only question is: what’s going to be left when it’s done?”

The commander is possessive, he read once, in some report back in his first month under her command. She considers the soldiers and farmers under the Minuteman banner to be ‘her’ people, rather than contributing as a member of a shared community. Combined with her demonstrative lack of general empathy, it is likely that this behavior is her best attempt to compensate for her known sociopathic tendencies. If she can lay claim to something, then she can justify the need to care for it. This rationalization drives her need to expand her ‘territory,’ to lay claim to more settlements and higher population. And once her ‘claim’ has been made, she can justify any barbarity in order to protect it.

“You have to understand, I was raised to more power and privilege than your Father could ever imagine.” Her voice is incongruously soft against the absolute force of will burning in her glass-green eyes. “Nations rose and fell for my family’s fucking bottom line. All of this squabbling in the dirt, over a hundred square miles of dead earth? It’s nothing. It’s a joke. I once watched my father send more people than you've ever met to die over his morning paper. War is what my family is good at, and when I was done with Dad's lessons I wanted to see what Uncle Sam could teach me." She leans forward. "You know what I learned?”

His breath catches in his throat, and he has to swallow to clear it. “No, ma’am.”

“I learned that none of it fucking matters, X6. All of the politics, and the posturing, and the big speeches: none of it means a god damned thing. You’ve got your gun, and you’ve got your crew, and what you can carry with you. That’s it. That’s the mission.”

And then she looks at him, pinning him with that lethal, lunatic stare. Father’s eyes, in his mother’s scarred, freckled face. X6-88 wouldn’t know how to look away even if he wanted to.

“That’s your mission, X6. Don’t let Father’s dream go to waste. Help me carry them out of the dark.”

His throat feels drier than the concrete in summer, but he manages to work enough moisture into his mouth to say, hoarsely, “Or?”

The question damns him; he knows it even as it leaves his mouth. A proper courser wouldn’t think to question an order; a proper courser would have picked up the rifle she gave him and calmly removed her head from her shoulders when she first spoke of treason. A proper courser would have completed his mission on top of Libertalia, when MacCready wandered into his line of sight ten minutes after saving his life. A proper courser would never have hesitated.

X6-88, when you get right down to it, has always been more effective than proper. And if being a courser means being loyal to the future of the Institute, then he'll do anything it takes to carry that future forward.

“Or you can do your duty, soldier.” Her lips peel off her teeth in something that might, technically, be mistaken for a smile. “I’m a traitor to the Institute. You can take it to Ayo- No, Shaun won’t believe it from him, I’ve put in too much work discrediting that dumb son of a bitch. Take it straight to Father. He can pull it off your memory chip, if he wants. If you believe that the Institute is infallible, if you still believe it’s the best way forward - then you fucking commit.

He says nothing, and her expression hardens.

“But if you can’t do that, then by God you had best be at the transporter platform at oh-nine hundred tomorrow and ready to give me your best, because I will accept nothing goddamn less. You brought me to this choice; you don't get to avoid making it. You don’t get to fucking opt out. Is that clear?"

He swallows again, and only realizes he’s done it when her gaze flicks to follow the motion. "Crystal, ma’am."

“Good.” She stands abruptly, looming over him, and he doesn’t even have a chance to acknowledge the strangeness of looking up at her before she’s taking his chin in her hand and wrenching his face inexorably up towards hers. “You need to realize,” she says softly, her gaze burning holes straight to the core of him, “whatever you decide, you need to know - you don’t belong to them. You belong to me, and I decide when you’re out. Not you, not the Director, and sure as fuck not Justin Ayo. Me.

A peculiar sort of heat diffuses through him, starting at the back of his neck and washing down his chest, crawling through his belly and settling into his thighs. His head is wrenched back far enough that his neck is screaming in protest, and her fingers are like claws on his jaw, clenched tight enough to leave bruises. He hears his breath saw in through his throat, and distantly, he becomes aware of the fact that he’s gone instantly and insistently erect.

“Do you hear me?” she asks him - quietly, yes, but not softly. There’s nothing soft about her. “You’re not done until I say you are, and I am not fucking finished with you yet. Do you understand?”

There’s really only one thing he can say to that. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Good.” She leans forward, her face right next to his, and for a moment he thinks-

-and then she turns away, leaving his hands clenched futilely on empty air.

He watches silently as she keys in something on his terminal - almost certainly deleting his unsent report - and then slaps her palm against the door access. She pauses there, silhouetted in the bright light of the hallway, and then turns to look back at him over her shoulder. He's painfully aware of the rifle sitting beside him on the bed, beautiful and deadly and worth more than his entire life.

“And X6? If if does go that way…”

A familiar wicked grin slashes the side of her mouth. Just try it, that grin says, and if you’re lucky I’ll kill you quick.

“Do yourself a favor- and shoot me in the back.”

At precisely oh-nine-hundred the next morning, X6-88 presents himself at the teleporter platform. The commander is there, in her scuffed black armor and her patched leather coat, trimming a broken thumbnail with her dagger and vibrating with ragged impatience.

She doesn’t belong here. He can see that now; it’s so clear that he can’t believe he never saw it before. She’s too big for the narrow halls of the Institute, her hands too bloody for its white walls. Kellogg was the same way, but Kellogg didn’t care enough to belong anywhere. Sole has things to belong to, and more importantly, things that belong to her. She’ll burn down the whole world, to keep them safe. He’s always known that.

He never understood, before, just how deep her claim went.

He sees the moment she registers his presence: her shoulders go tense, and the angle of her head changes, just slightly, so that she can see his face from behind the blank reflective safety of her sunglasses. He holds still and waits, with a sniper’s patience he’s learned from MacCready, and lets her see what she will.

“Nice rifle,” she says, after a minute.

He doesn’t smile: there’s a camera right over their heads, trained on the both of them. But he wants to, and he knows that she can see it in his eyes, because his own shades are tucked away in his pocket.

“It’d be a waste to leave it behind.”

“Wouldn’t it, though?” Her answering grin moves from her eyes to her face in fits and starts, showing less in her mouth than in the lopsided pull at her scarred cheek, in the creases at the tender skin around her eyes. The knife disappears up her sleeve, and she straightens away from the wall, and her sideways smile, when it finishes arriving, is sharp enough to cut. “C’mon, then, soldier. We’ve got a building full of raiders between us and that doodad, and it’d be a shame to keep them waiting.”

“I’m right behind you, ma’am,” he says, and it feels like the first true thing he’s ever said. “You can count on me.”