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Renascence

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X6-88, like any synth who had proved strong, resilient, intelligent, and psychologically sound enough to complete courser training and achieve the uniform, was proud of the fact. He was grateful to have been chosen, to have been trained, carefully crafted and refined into the best of which he was capable. To have been given the priceless opportunity to become more than what he had been, what he might otherwise have been; to serve the Institute not merely as all synths served it, but as one of its coursers.

He was also grateful to the humans who had survived the destruction of their home by the traitor Nora Bowman, for giving him the opportunity to continue to serve the Institute even in its extremity, for stretching his skills and training to their absolute limit by what they required of him, and for the unspoken compliment that was their unthinking assumption that he would both continue to obey them, and succeed in his appointed tasks, no matter how difficult. He was grateful for their correction, when it came; it helped him understand that what he understood to be his own best efforts were sometimes less than what was expected of him by his owners, and exert himself more diligently, to reach his real capabilities.

If all this had not been true, he might sometimes have felt emotions utterly unbecoming a courser, like exasperation.

The human prisoner-- a man of indeterminate age, casually dressed, with a smoothly shaven head-- knelt on the floor, secured by handcuffs behind his back, while X6-88's masters discussed what should be done with him. They seemed uncertain; they disagreed with one another. Still, of course, it was unnecessary for any of them to ask X6-88's advice. Certainly he was better trained than to offer it unasked.

The human prisoner was smirking. X6-88 would have liked to know why. He permitted himself to hope that, when the humans had finished their conference, he would be allowed to properly question the prisoner.

He made a mental note, to that end, that the smirking had started when Dr. Loken suggested that Nora Bowman might trade X9-21 for this prisoner's safe return.

It was not X6-88's place to point out that Dr. Achanta, Dr. Hastings, and Mr. Benson, if any of them were still alive, had some claim on X9-21's service, even if they had all voluntarily placed themselves in Nora Bowman's power. Perhaps Dr. Loken simply assumed they were all dead. He did not seem interested in questioning the prisoner on this topic, or in allowing X6-88 to do so.

"X9-21? What about Alice and Tanvi and Beau? What about our friends?"

Dr. Weston had raised the point.

"We have to prioritize, Rosemary," snapped Dr. Loken. "They made their bed. They knew the risks they were taking. Besides, the strongest likelihood is that they're all dead."

"Max!"

Dr. Weston was distressed. It was not X6-88's fault that she was distressed, but the tone of her voice caused a slight adrenaline response, nevertheless. Preparing him to help, if possible, or required.

"They're not dead," said the prisoner. "The baby's name is Naveena."

Dr. Weston gasped, whirling to face the prisoner, as if it had not previously occurred to her that he was capable of speech. "What did you say?"

"The baby's name is Naveena," said the prisoner, his speech unnecessarily loud and over-enunciated now, although in all fairness, it was slightly difficult to understand why Dr. Weston would have required repetition, and the prisoner might have drawn the reasonable conclusion that she was hard of hearing. "Naveena Alice Achanta-Benson. Big name for such a little peanut, but she gets bigger every day."

Dr. Teasdale appeared agitated. "Naveen was Tanvi's father's name!"

"Well, there you go," said the prisoner. "Look, folks, I get why it would be hard to believe anybody would spend time around you voluntarily, but if you think back real hard to a few minutes ago, you may recall I actually showed up to talk. Any chance we could, uh, do that thing?"

The prisoner was extremely disrespectful.

But not wrong.

"X6-88," said Dr. Coulton, causing X6-88 to worry that he had somehow allowed his inappropriate thought to show on his face. Surely not.

He said, "Sir?"

"Teach him some manners."

The transition to the surface had been difficult for all the human members of the Institute. It had affected Dr. Coulton in a particular way. He had always taken pleasure in the exercise of authority and power; under the greater stresses of the surface, he had developed a mild taste for sadism.

It would be extremely unfortunate to allow Dr. Coulton's predilections to become the cause of open war between Nora Bowman and the Institute remnant. According to X9-21's account of his captivity in her fortress, she had restrained him, and kept him under guard, but not hurt or harmed him. X6-88 felt strongly that it would be best to keep her emissary's treatment reciprocal.

No one spoke, however, to countermand Dr. Coulton's order.

X6-88 stepped towards the kneeling prisoner, who watched him from behind the sunglasses he had arrived wearing. X6-88 reached down, carefully removed the sunglasses, causing the prisoner to flinch almost imperceptibly, and set them safely aside. Then he reached down, placed a finger under the prisoner's chin, and tilted his face upwards, leaning down slightly at the same time, so that their eyes met. Or rather, the prisoner's eyes met X6-88's sunglasses.

"You should speak," X6-88 said quietly, "only when you are spoken to."

The prisoner swallowed, and said, "Uh, yes sir."

X6-88 removed his hand and stepped back.

There was some laughter from the humans. Dr. Coulton didn't laugh, but he also didn't correct X6-88's interpretation of his order.

"Do any of you ever theorize that X6-88 may be developing a sense of humor?" said Dr. Teasdale.

"I hope not," said Dr. Coulton irritably. "We don't have the facilities to recalibrate him."

"I like him this way," said Dr. Weston, and reached out to squeeze X6-88's arm in a manner he had come to recognize as approving. "And there's no need for violence, Julian. This-- person--" She addressed the prisoner. "What was your name?"

"Daniel," said the prisoner, and cleared his throat. "Daniel Lyons."

"Mr. Lyons was simply trying to offer us information about our friends," said Dr. Weston. "You claim they are all alive?"

"And thriving," said the prisoner, whose name, if X6-88 was remotely competent at reading body language and voice tone, was assuredly not Daniel Lyons. Which was very interesting. If he really was an emissary from Nora Bowman, had she ordered him to conceal his real name? If so, why? If not, why would he do so? And if he was lying about being her messenger, then what, exactly, was he?

"And X9-21?" asked Dr. Loken.

"Michael?" said the prisoner, faux-casually. "He's great. He's Nora's fair-haired boy. Metaphorically speaking."

"Michael?" Dr. Weston repeated.

"That's the name he picked out," said-- for lack of a more accurate name-- Lyons. "All of Nora's kids've picked their own names, except Shaun-- well, both Shauns."

A name. What had happened to X9-21, that he would accept the-- the indignity of a name? He had always been proud, as proud as X6-88 himself, of their identity, their achievements. Had his disgrace traumatized him so deeply that he would willingly accept a human-style name for himself? Or was it a matter of obedience? Had Nora Bowman ordered him to choose a name for himself, and had he obeyed, to protect his charges and retain her favor?

If X6-88 were called upon to accept a name in exchange for the safety of his owners--

--of course he would do it. There could be no question what would be his duty in that scenario. X9-21 had done what he saw as his duty, just as he had when he had taken the three scientists who had volunteered to go with him into Nora Bowman's stronghold, to throw themselves on her mercy. X6-88 might question his judgment, but not his dedication to duty.

"All of Nora's kids?" Dr. Teasdale repeated, incredulously.

"The synths," said Lyons. "Don't tell me you don't read the paper. Or listen to the radio?"

"We are aware that she has-- adopted-- Unit Y4-15," said Dr. Loken. "And that Unit S9-23 is also in residence at Fort Independence."

"Which one is that?" Lyons asked.

"The child synth prototype," said Dr. Weston, with delicate distaste.

"Oh, Shaun 2.0?" said Lyons. "Yeah, him. And a few others, now. Seven in all. Personally I'd've left off there, if not before, but Nora can't stop thinking about the rest of you."

He addressed this last to X6-88 directly.

X6-88 did not respond. He had no place in a conversation between humans, unless his owners instructed him otherwise.

"She's insane," said Dr. Weston, almost in a tone of awe. "This goes beyond-- subversive influences. She already destroyed the Institute, and the future of mankind, to free the synths. Now she wants them all as her-- her surrogate children?"

"This is Shaun's fault," said Dr. Coulton. "He told her to think of the synths as family."

If Nora Bowman was mentally infirm, X6-88 felt, it could hardly be the result of a chance remark of Father's. He said nothing, of course. Father was gone, and X6-88 now owed his allegiance to those of Father's people he was still capable of protecting and providing for. No matter how disrespectfully they chose to speak of him after his death.

"Well, it's working out pretty well for your buddies at the Castle," said Lyons. "She wants Michael-- sorry, I can call him X9-21 if that helps all your faces quit twitching-- she wants X9-21 to be happy, and what makes him happy is to feel like he's doing a good job taking care of his humans, so they all get their three hots and a cot, plus resources for sciencey fun. Dr. Achanta just got done developing some new crop fertilizer that Nora's pretty psyched about. Dr. Hastings works in the infirmary, and, uh, I think Benson mostly just looks after the baby. But she wants you to know the invitation is still open." He was looking at X6-88 again. "That it's always open. That she'll do anything if you'll come home to her. 'There's a bleeding hole in my heart for every one of them,' I believe was how she put it. Them, meaning you. The coursers."

If X6-88 had been in the habit of speaking up uninvited in the presence of his betters, he could have told "Daniel Lyons" that it was pointless to direct his entreaties at the one non-human in the room, and certainly the entity least likely to be consulted in the matter.

"No," said Dr. Loken decisively. "We don't negotiate with terrorists, and Nora Bowman is a terrorist. She destroyed our home, and the best hope for the future of humanity."

"Well, if you aren't going to negotiate, then I guess you're not going to be bargaining with her for my life, either," said Lyons.

There was a pause, and then Dr. Loken said, "That's correct. Take off the cuffs, X6-88. Let him go."

X6-88 knelt down behind Lyons to take off the cuffs, and Lyons pulled his arms around in front of him and rubbed lightly at his wrists, settling at the same time into a more comfortable seated position on the floor.

"Thanks," he said to X6-88. "But I feel like you're all losing sight-- yet again-- of the fact that I came here voluntarily. And I'm not ready to leave just yet."

"Throw him out," said Dr. Coulton to X6-88.

X6-88 bent down and took Lyons' wrist, pulling at it lightly, expecting Lyons to test his strength against X6-88's, realize how futile it would be to struggle against it, and resign himself. Instead, Lyons went limp, not resisting at all, but not cooperating either.

“Can I have my shades back first?” he asked.

X6-88 had to haul up his dead weight by the arm, and then bend and lift him over his shoulder as if he were a corpse. He felt a slight convulsion go through Lyons' otherwise limp body, and would have assumed it was a shudder of fear if he hadn't also thought his ears might have caught just the ghost of a rueful chuckle.

"Where should I leave him, sir?" he asked Dr. Loken.

"Just outside the building will be fine," said Dr. Loken. "Mr. Lyons, you can tell Nora Bowman there's no point sending us any more emissaries-- and that we may not treat the next one so gently."

"You people are the worst," said Lyons, upside down against X6-88's back. "Come on, X6-88, what's a nice guy like you doing in a place like this?"

Without answering, X6-88 carried him from the room, to the landing of the stairs, and went carefully down the flight with his burden. Out on the street, he set Lyons down on his feet and said, "Go."

"No," said Lyons, meeting X6-88's gaze defiantly.

X6-88 had left his rifle upstairs. He drew his handgun.

"Oh, come off it," said Lyons. "You're not gonna shoot me. You're not dumb enough to shoot Nora Bowman's messenger. You know how she gets. You met her, right? At Libertalia? And after that, you guys ran together for a little while, until-- things went south."

X6-88 said nothing.

"You didn't want to hit me, either," said Lyons. "For the same reason, I bet. Because I go home with a black eye or a broken jaw-- or I don't come home at all-- Nora's gonna know who's responsible. And it's not gonna be you she kills for it-- you're her darling giant murder baby and nobody's gonna touch a hair on your head. It's gonna be your precious humans upstairs she comes for. You want that on your conscience?" He cocked his head suddenly. "Wait, do you have a conscience, or is that one of those improvements the Institute made to the basic humanish model? Because if it is, I'm jealous."

"You're lying," said X6-88.

"OK, so you got me," said Lyons. "I don't have a conscience either. Sheesh, tough crowd."

In point of fact, although he was certain that Lyons was lying-- his training had been to detect lies in synths, but human body language wasn’t so different-- X6-88 wasn’t sure what he was lying about. That Nora Bowman would spare X6-88, but destroy his masters? That she would seek vengeance at all for injury done to Lyons? That he was even her emissary?

This felt like a very dangerous series of questions not to know the answers to.

“Why are you here?” he asked Lyons.

“To get you,” said Lyons. “To bring you home to her. Please, X6-88. I owe her. I owe her big. It scares me, how much I owe her. This is my chance to pay her back.”

He was no longer lying.

“Please,” he said, his eyes naked and imploring. “Tell me what I need to say-- or do-- to convince you to come back with me. Please.

“You don’t have to convince me,” said X6-88. It was a relief to be able to speak freely, as it was sometimes a relief to kill humans to whom he owed no service. “You have to convince my owners. It’s for them to decide where I go and what I do. If they send me to your mistress, or bring me to her--”

“My--” Lyons grinned suddenly. “She’s, uh, she’s not my mistress.”

X6-88 waved a dismissive hand. “Your employer, then. Your creditor. If my masters give me to her service, I am hers. As X9-21 is. Otherwise-- I am theirs.”

"Even if they're all a bunch of big stupid self-destructive idiots?"

X6-88 allowed himself a small smile. It didn't matter; the only person here was Lyons. "Even in that case."

“Shit,” said Lyons, and bit his lip. “OK, so how do I convince them?”

“I don’t know,” said X6-88, and then some impulse-- this human was nothing, X6-88 owed him nothing, not even proper control, or forethought before he spoke-- made him add, “But-- they are-- often-- hungry.”

Lyons cocked his head again. “If they’re hungry, I bet you’re starving.”

“I am not starving,” said X6-88, which was true. If he were starving, he would be dying, which he was clearly not. “But I have observed that humans who are hungry are often-- less peaceably inclined-- than those who are well fed.”

“If you come to the Castle,” said Lyons, “you'll all eat like kings. I mean, if kings ate a lot of roast of giant mutated crustaceans. And Blamco brand mac ‘n’ cheese.”

X6-88 should not have mentioned food. It only made it worse, hearing about it. Thinking about it.

“OK,” said Lyons. “So if I come back with food--?”

“I am expected back upstairs.”

“OK,” said Lyons again. “I’m running away now. Oh no, a scary courser, he’s gonna shoot me in my head, help. Hey, can I have my gun back?”

X6-88 considered that briefly. He had no orders either way. But sending a human out into the Commonwealth unarmed was tantamount to murder, and there was a chance that if I don’t come home at all, she’s gonna know who’s responsible wasn’t the lie. After a moment, he went back inside the building, picked up Lyons’ gun from the bottom of the stairs, came back outside, and handed it to him.

“Thanks,” said Lyons, smiling. “You know, X6-88, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

“I think otherwise,” said X6-88 grimly, and went back inside.

Chapter Text

"What do you mean, no?"

"I mean no," said Desdemona. She had a headache; she often had a headache lately. Possibly it was time to consider quitting smoking, although the thought sent a sharp little pulse of panic through her, one she chose not to analyze beyond the obvious fact that cigarettes helped her cope with... everything... including Deacon. "It's quite straightforward."

"Des, this is our chance." Deacon was more agitated than she'd seen him since he came to report Bullseye's kidnapping; he kept touching his sunglasses, which looked like a different pair from the ones he usually wore, as if to reassure himself they were still there. "You're the one who almost got shot in the face-- again-- because you were so all-fired eager to get Bullseye on board with your big stupid courser plan. Now I've got a big stupid courser plan that doesn't involve Bullseye yelling at us for forty-five minutes straight, and you can't spot me the caps to make it happen?"

"I fail to see how supplying one particular group of Institute stragglers with food qualifies as a 'big plan,'" said Desdemona wearily, following Deacon as he paced restlessly among the banks of consoles. He brushed an absentminded hand across PAM's shoulder as he passed her, and she said, "Recalculating. Please wait."

"Big stupid plan," Deacon corrected, ignoring PAM. "And it's because X6-88 is the weak point. I mean, not the actual weak point, because I still have a bruise where his anterior deltoid rippled against my tummy, but-- he's the one that knows Nora. He's the only one that actually met her and hung out with her. He's the only one that-- if I can get him talking-- I might have a chance of convincing. For the rest of them, she's just the boogeyman. You know? And the only way to get him talking to me is to feed his little scientist collection. Cheap at the price, yeah? Cut me a break, Des. I saved the whole Railroad from the Bullseye Massacre of '87, right?"

Desdemona rolled her eyes. "Yes, by holding your breath."

"That's the best way of stopping a massacre," said Deacon. "Hold your breath and make big sad eyes at your best friend and hope it triggers a montage of all the times you've laughed and cried together and the gun drops from her fingers and she crashes to her knees and weeps. It didn't work perfectly, but we didn't all die, so." He came to such an abrupt halt that she almost collided with him, and clasped his hands together in prayer position as she backed up. "Des, don't make me hold my breath again now. I'll do it, I swear to God. I'm just crazy enough."

"Even if I thought this was a good idea," said Desdemona, retreating towards her desk, "I don't have the resources you're asking for."

He followed her. "We don't have an emergency fund?"

"We spent the emergency fund," said Desdemona. "On emergencies."

"Then what happens if there's an emergency now?"

"I send you to Fort Independence." Desdemona fixed Deacon with her most quelling stare, which was rarely enough to actually quell him. "Have you considered asking your 'best friend' for the funds to carry out your project? The cause would seem to be even closer to her heart than yours."

"I can't tell her about this," said Deacon, averting his eyes, whether from the stare or from the question. "She's gone crazy. You heard her. She wants to coddle me to death. If I tell her I'm doing something risky, she's gonna clap me in irons and lock me in her library with a stack of books and a pair of mittens so I don't give myself a paper cut."

"Then don't tell her what you need the caps for," said Desdemona. "Make up some story. That's what you do best, isn't it?"

"I--" He hesitated, looking, briefly, very lost and vulnerable. Desdemona strongly disapproved, but fortunately the expression didn't last long. "No, you're right. I'll just... lie to her. Sure. Easy. Like you said. It's what I do."

----------------------------

Piper considered, eyeing Deacon's most recent face. Nice to know what he looked like now. He pretty much drove her crazy, but he was Blue's friend, and he looked desperate, so-- "How fast could you pay me back?"

He hesitated.

"Then no," said Piper. "Not a lot of margin for error in the paper business. Look, don't give me puppy eyes. Why don't you just ask Blue?"

-----------------------------

"Sorry, pal," said Nick. "Been kind of a lean month, plus I'm saving for something right now." He winked one eye-- he'd been practicing-- at Ellie, who giggled and blushed. Success. Then he turned back to Deacon. "You tried Nora? She's usually a friend in need."

------------------------------

Fahrenheit rubbed the bridge of her nose, which she was doing more and more lately. "What's the name?"

"Lazarus Long," said Daisy. "Says he knows Hancock."

"Everybody knows Hancock. What does he want?"

"A loan."

"Tell him to ask Hancock for one, then," said Fahrenheit. "Or Hancock's wife. He does know Hancock's married to Nora Bowman, right?"

------------------------------

"Where have you been?"

Nora's hugs were as disconcerting, in their way, as being picked up and thrown over a courser's shoulder like a sack of tatoes. He didn't even particularly like being looked at-- hence the shades, hence the habit of slipping off and not being looked at by anybody for awhile, hence the disguises and the face swaps and the aliases, hence plenty of things-- let alone touched. It wasn't usually a problem-- nobody he knew particularly wanted to hug him, except Nora. And he'd given her permission, at some point, he was pretty sure; and if he asked her to stop, she would, he knew; and it wasn't that it was-- unpleasant. Just-- she just kind of-- enveloped him, and held him like she wanted to keep him close and safe, and she was warm and strong, and it all made him kind of--

--fine. It was fine.

He smiled weakly at her when she finally let go. Shaun-- little 2.0, S9-23 as it were, he hadn’t known the Institute had even given the kid a designation-- had come charging out of the Castle door at fifty knots, hitting him halfway from the diner, and before he could disentangle himself from the little squirt, Nora was bearing down on them both with an undodgeable hug and an unanswerable question.

“Jonah, you’re not supposed to leave without saying goodbye,” Shaun was saying, accusingly. “I told you that.”

“Sorry, kid,” he said, and looked up at Nora. “I mean, you know me.”

"Yeah, I know you." She smiled back at him, not weakly at all, her million-watt beam that made him wish for a second pair of sunglasses to put over the first. "I'm just happy you're home."

"Jesus Christ, Nora," he blurted out, extinguishing her smile immediately.

"What?" she said, worried. "What's wrong, what did I say?"

"Nothing," he said. I'm just happy you're home. What a thing to say. "I-- look, I need to cash in a favor, OK?"

"Of course," she said. "What do you need?"

"Caps," he said. "And food. As much of both as you can spare. I've got-- some folks-- that need help. It's-- remember when I said I wished Des would let us use resources to help humans? She-- still doesn't, and there's-- I could just really use some-- supplies. Right now."

"Sure, Dee," she said, brow crinkled. She always seemed so unguarded, everything showing all over her face, like it didn't even occur to her to care how much other people saw when they looked at her. "But isn't there anything else I can do to help? If not me personally, then the Minutemen?"

"Better not," he said. "They’re a little gun-shy. I’m still trying to get them to trust that I don’t mean them any harm.”

She nodded. “Sometime you’ll have to tell me the story, if you can. I’m a little bit strapped myself right now, to be honest with you, what with this whole Brotherhood thing and the constitutional convention I just hosted, but come with me and I’ll see what I can find.”

So he wasn't going to have to lie, particularly. That was good. Not that lying was a problem. It was just... an unnecessary complication, sometimes. Here.

Shaun grabbed hold of his hand, startling him, as Nora turned to lead the way back to the Castle.

Max was there, waiting in the courtyard just inside the door-- Max, Glory's brother, or cousin, or semi-clone, or whatever he was, with his big heartbreaking Glory smile. He didn't go for a hug, but he smiled all over the place.

"Hey, man," he said. "Thought you ran out on me."

Oh, dear God. That was tantamount to I'm just glad you're home.

"I always turn up," he said. "Like a bad penny."

Max looked puzzled. "What's a bad penny?"

"I have no idea." He knew a penny was a kind of prewar currency, but what made one bad, or why a bad one always turned up-- "Nora, what's a bad penny?"

"A penny used to be money," she said. "Like caps. A bad penny was a fake penny, and it was worthless. So if somebody paid you with one and you didn't spot it, you'd try to pay somebody else with it fast to get rid of it, but then they'd do the same thing when they figured it out, and it'd come back around to you eventually because nobody wanted to keep it."

"Ha," he said, amused despite himself by how accidentally well he'd used a prewar idiom. "That's me."

"No it isn't," said Shaun, still clinging to his hand. "We want to keep you."

Only until you get a good hard look.

"I just mean you don't have to worry, squirt," he said. "I always come back around."

"You promise?"

Dear God, what did I ever do that was so bad I deserve to have a sweet-faced urchin looking up limpidly and piping "You promise?"

Besides that.

Besides that.

Besides-- look, shut up. You don't even exist.

"Nobody can promise that, baby," said Nora gently, putting a hand on Shaun's shoulder. "Not even me. We talked about that, remember?"

"That's different," said Shaun. "You don't leave."

"Sweetheart, I leave all the time."

"You go do things," said Shaun. "You don't run away. Like how Emily ran away and you got drunk all day long, and Michael ran away when he was X9-21 and you cried and went to bed, and now Jonah keeps running away."

Nora grimaced, and glanced up ruefully. "Sometimes I think I'm not a very good mother. Hey, I'm getting better, though-- I didn't get drunk or go to bed about this one."

"You are so a good mother," said Shaun indignantly.

"Oh yeah?" Nora smiled, squeezing his shoulder. "Well, thanks, baby. I guess at least I'm trying. Put that on my marker, OK, guys-- Nora Davidson Bowman, 2045 to whenever, AT LEAST SHE TRIED. Come on, Dee, let's go see what we can scrounge up for you."

 

"Are they ghouls?" she asked, as he pawed through the cans of Cram and boxes of Sugar Bombs and Dandy Boy Apples stacked on the shelves of her storage room. She had hanging dried and cured meats in here, too, and piles of tatoes and carrots, and baskets of parched corn and hulled razorgrain and dried mutfruit, and neat rows of sodas, beer, and liquor. Most settlements in the Commonwealth had a room like this now, thanks to her. Most people weren't starving.

"Dee?"

"Huh?"

"I asked if your people who need help are ghouls," she said, "or do they need anti-rad meds, too?"

"They're not ghouls," he said.

"Then we can stop off at the infirmary once you've picked out-- Dee, that's just a bunch of irradiated junk food. Take some healthy stuff. Are they planting?"

"No," he said. "Not yet. No Fancy Lads Snack Cakes?"

"I can't keep those on the shelf to save my life," she said. "All my kids are crazy about them. Any time I bring a box home, they're gone within the day. Shaun pops it open and runs around distributing them to all his brothers and sisters. They play tournament rock-paper-scissors for the extras. They'd give them to Shaun, but Shaun said that wasn't fair."

She couldn't keep the smile off her face as she spoke. He couldn't help smiling back at her, she was so happy.

She added, "I'm sure the next time I find some, Shaun will insist on saving you one. Maybe both extras, since you've been missing out."

"I'm not so much with the sweets," he said. "If he wants to save me some Yum Yum Deviled Eggs, I could go for those."

"Duly noted," she said. "Are you going to be back-- anytime soon, you think?"

She sounded too casual, too careful, as if she didn't want to spook him.

"I'll try," he said. "So all your kids, huh? Even Michael?"

"Why 'even Michael'?" She grinned at him. "Does he not look like he goes for little pink cakes with frosting?"

"I mean, just to the outward eye, he's not the fanciest of lads."

"Oh my God," she said suddenly. "I haven't even told you about him and Danse."

"What, that they're synths? I picked up on that."

"They're together," said Nora.

He blinked. "Wait."

"It happened at some point while I wasn't looking," said Nora. "I mean, what happened exactly I don't know, because I'm trying not to embarrass them any more than they're already embarrassed by having emotions that are prescribed in neither the Brotherhood Code of Conduct nor Miss Manners' Guide to Proper Courser Behavior, but they hold hands in public. Like teenagers. Like giant badass warrior teenagers. It is literally the cutest thing I have ever seen. Also terrifying, because what if they break up and we all have to negotiate that emotional tsunami, but I'm trying to focus on the cute right now."

"Dear God," he said, and really would have liked to add what kind of public-hand-holding debauchery am I going to be bringing X6-88 home to. Knock wood. Whatever good knocking wood was supposed to do. "Such goings-on in a decent fortress."

"I know, right?" She nodded at the pack he'd only partway filled. "You good?"

"This and, yeah, whatever medical supplies you can spare," he said. "And some caps, if you can-- in case there's something else in particular they need that I can buy." Like, apparently, pink snack cakes. "I really appreciate this, Nora. I'll pay you back, I swear."

"No need." She said it casually, without looking at him, heading for the door.

Chapter Text

X6-88 didn't see the human this time, which was disconcerting. Humans should not be able to enter the perimeter of X6-88's residence without his knowledge. But one had; it was not until he went downstairs, having taken his customary precautions to secure the humans in his absence, to hunt and scavenge for food and necessities, that he discovered the fact that their security had been breached.

His stomach seized involuntarily at the sight, which was an unworthy reflex; he should not be thinking of sating his own hunger before satisfying that of the humans under his care.

The food, besides being plentiful, was scattered oddly across the floor, as if to display it more amply. There was a large, empty wooden basket at the foot of the stairs, but rather than having been gathered together and placed in the basket, the boxes, cans, bottles, bags, fruits, grains, and vegetables had been arranged in neat but irregular rows and circles that-- X6-88 realized, after a moment-- were meant to be letters of the alphabet. The food had been arranged to spell out a message. Once he realized that, and by examining it more closely, he was able to read it, the M's formed by boxes standing on their ends and placed at angles to one another, the O's of melons, the hyphen in his designation a bottle laid on its side:

MOMMY LOVES YOU X6-88

Taken utterly by surprise at the sheer absurdity-- was it Nora Bowman who was mentally unstable, or was it her possible emissary, Daniel Lyons?-- X6-88 heard his own quick bark of laughter, before he managed to sober himself by the reflection that this had taken someone far longer than the amount of time anyone should have been in this building without X6-88's knowledge. It was possible that his trained senses and reflexes had become dulled by lack of proper caloric maintenance. He might take the liberty of drawing this possibility to the humans' attention; after all, it was in their best interests to have X6-88 functioning at peak capacity.

And this was a great deal of food. Food and-- X6-88 saw, now, as he began to gather it into the basket, methodically destroying the bizarre message-- medical supplies: bags of RadAway, bottles of Rad-X, and of the odd reddish beverage X6-88 had only seen, before, when X9-21 had brought it back from Nora Bowman's fortress. The bottles' handwritten labels read "Refreshing Beverage," and the humans had initially been highly suspicious of them, but the raider X6-88 had captured and forced to sample one had reported that it made him feel "actually kinda great," and the remaining bottles had been saved for Dr. Achanta's worst symptoms, until they ran out.

X9-21 had argued against "wasting" one on the captured raider, asserting that if Nora Bowman had intended to harm the Institute remnant, she could have done so more easily than by attempting to poison them. It was in direct response to this statement that the humans had begun the series of reprimands to X9-21 that had culminated in their order to remove his uniform and to consider himself no longer a courser.

X9-21 had obeyed silently, and done everything else silently, too, for the months that passed between his demotion and his departure with the three humans who had cast their lot in with him. He had hunted silently, scavenged silently, obeyed all orders-- X6-88's and A9-82's as well as the humans'-- silently. When asked a direct question, he had responded with lowered eyes and a quiet, respectful tone, addressing X6-88 and A9-82 as "sir," as was appropriate for a synth.

X6-88 had considered Dr. Coulton's accusation, when Dr. Hastings placed X9-21's proposal before the group of humans, that X9-21 had been "sulking and plotting this entire time," to be unjustified.

As he picked up a box of snack cakes, he saw another message printed neatly on it in what appeared to be ballpoint pen:

X6-88 -- THIS IS FOR YOU -- NOT THEM

He placed it in the basket with the rest.

 

He found the humans somewhat alarmed by his return-- they hadn't expected him back nearly so soon-- and then, in short order, excited by the basket he set down silently on the stained coffee table in the center of the room. Their clamorous exclamations over the food and medication, added to the sharpened hunger pangs from the sight and smell of it, gave him a slight headache. He remained silent until Dr. Loken said, over the rest, "Where did you get all this?"

"It was on the bottom floor when I went downstairs, sir," X6-88 answered. "I apologize for having allowed the perimeter to be breached."

"Was there any message?"

"No, sir," X6-88 said. It was wrong to lie to a superior, but it was out of the question to repeat the words of the message aloud. In any case, the message had reached its intended recipient already. It was irrelevant to the Institute's interests.

"It's obviously from Bowman," said Dr. Coulton irritably. "It's probably all poisoned or drugged."

Really?

Dr. Weston laughed. "Julian, I'm almost certain X6-88 just rolled his eyes at you."

"If he did, I certainly don't find it amusing," said Dr. Coulton sharply. "We don't want another discipline problem on our hands. X6-88 is the only courser we've got left at this site. And none of the other sites has any more resources than we do. X6-88, kneel."

X6-88 complied immediately, kneeling straight-backed, head slightly bent, eyes lowered to the floor. Dr. Coulton stepped towards him, coming closer until his badly dilapidated shoes entered X6-88's field of vision, and then coming to a halt.

He said, "Did you roll your eyes at me?"

"No, sir," said X6-88, eyes on the shoes.

"What is your function?"

X6-88 fell readily into the familiar litany. "To serve the Institute."

"What is your nature?"

"To serve the Institute."

"What is your duty?"

"To serve the Institute."

"What is your privilege?"

Do you like being a courser?

Nora Bowman, brow furrowed, hair stuck to her face with dried blood and perspiration, peering up into his face, interposed herself between him and the shoes, and as he answered aloud, "To serve the Institute," he heard himself answer her in memory, It's my privilege to serve the Institute, ma'am.

But do you like it?

"Look," said Dr. Teasdale. "Did you see this, X6-88?"

It's my function. It's my nature. It's my duty.

"Yes, ma'am."

"You aren't even looking."

Although he had seen everything in the basket, X6-88 raised his eyes in her direction. She was holding the pink box with the writing on it.

"Yes, ma'am."

"What does it say?" Dr. Coulton asked, turning slightly away, and Dr. Teasdale held the box so he could read the writing.

"Do you think it means just this box, or all of it?" she asked.

"If you saw this, why did you say there was no message?" Dr. Coulton asked, turning back to X6-88, and X6-88 lowered his head again as he answered, "I apologize, sir. I misunderstood your question."

"Back off, Julian," said Dr. Loken sharply. "X6-88, you've done nothing wrong. Did Daniel Lyons say anything else to you after you took him outside?"

"Yes, sir," said X6-88, still kneeling, but lifting his head to look at Dr. Loken. "He asked if there was any way he could persuade me to join him."

"And what did you tell him?"

"That it was not me he needed to persuade, sir," said X6-88. "That I serve the Institute, and it's for the Institute to dispose of me as they see fit."

Dr. Loken said, "Do you think he-- or Ms. Bowman-- may be trying to persuade-- the Institute-- by means of this-- gift?"

"She's trying to buy X6-88 from us?" said Dr. Weston, before X6-88 could answer.

"Well, apparently she's fond of X9-21," said Dr. Teasdale.

"She has a psychotic delusion that the synths are her children," said Dr. Weston.

"Well," said Dr. Loken, "psychotic it may be, but it isn't working out so badly for us at the moment."

"Until she comes to claim her purchase," said Dr. Coulton.

"Listen," said Dr. Weston, "am I the only one who's starving? Can we discuss the motivations behind the food while we eat it?"

"I think we could eat some of it now," said Dr. Loken judiciously.

"Except for the Fancy Lads Snack Cakes," said Dr. Teasdale. "These are for you, X6-88."

She tossed him the box, and he caught it reflexively, and then held it, waiting.

"What do you say?" Dr. Teasdale smiled.

"Thank you, ma'am," said X6-88, still waiting for a counter-order, to be instructed to relinquish the box or simply to have it snatched impatiently away by one of the other humans. Instead, they turned to the rest of the contents of the basket, discussing their optimum distribution, consuming some of them already-- a dried mutfruit, a raw carrot, a bottle of some non-medicinal beverage-- as they talked.

He began to open the box, slowly. He could smell the cardboard, the plastic, the dust and grime on both, and as he peeled back a corner of the plastic film from its backing, a sweet food smell that made his mouth begin to water helplessly. No one spoke to him, and he didn't look up, as he peeled the rest of the film off, took one of the small, round, decorated cakes in his fingers, the ancient icing cracking under his fingers, and took a bite. He chewed carefully, swallowed, took another bite. His hands were shaking. It wasn't a problem at the moment; he could make the effort to steady them if he was called upon to do so. He finished the first cake, hesitated. The box contained-- eight more.

Aren't you hungry?

Nora Bowman again. As if her gift had come with memory attached.

No, thank you, ma'am. I'm capable of providing for my own needs.

Her frown, as if the answer displeased her.

That wasn't when she had dismissed him, but it hadn't been long after. He'd been reprimanded by the Institute for failing to perform adequately as her companion, but not too sharply; everyone else in the Institute was as much at a loss how to please her as he was. She seemed dismayed by everything. Including X6-88.

MOMMY LOVES YOU, X6-88.

If he did enter her service, he would only dismay her again.

Although X9-21 seemed to have succeeded in pleasing her. Michael? He's great. He's Nora's fair-haired boy.

X6-88 was familiar with the idiom, but he couldn't help picturing X9-21's black hair bleached yellow. Michael. How much did he have to lie, to conceal, to dissemble and invent and perform, to construct a fictional identity, to obscure his true nature and function, in order to keep his new owner happy?

He must consider it worth it, to protect the doctors. The new baby. The new generation of the Institute. The future.

There was no hope for the future here. Half of what had once been the remnant had already defected, dispersed into the Commonwealth, taken up farming, some at the same settlements owned by Nora Bowman's Minutemen, the ones she had insisted on taking X6-88 to visit when they traveled together. Looking at him as if for approval. As if he would be favorably impressed by dirt and ignorance, unskilled manual labor and utter lack of ambition, other than the animal urge to survive. When he had been created, nurtured, and trained by the Institute.

You don't approve?

I don't understand why you waste your time with these people, ma'am.

Now it was the Institute remnant, the non-deserters, who were reduced to the bare edge of survival.

And things were getting worse, not better. A9-82 was dead. Other coursers, at other sites, had died, fighting abominations for food, and humans had died, too, of disease and infection and, in one case, suicide.

"You don't want the rest?" Dr. Teasdale asked him unexpectedly; he was still holding the mostly-full box of snack cakes in his trembling hands. "Go ahead, X6-88. They're for you."

"With your permission, ma'am," said X6-88, "I'll save some for later."

"That's smart," said Dr. Loken.

X6-88 looked up at him and said, "With your permission, sir, I'll go back out for the day's hunt."

"You don't consider this a good day's haul?" Dr. Loken asked, smiling.

"I expended no effort in procuring these supplies, sir," X6-88 answered. "I'm perfectly capable of bringing home more supplies today."

"Well, I suppose that's wise, too," said Dr. Loken. "As long as you aren't running off to Nora Bowman's fortress to surrender yourself."

"No, sir," said X6-88.

Dr. Loken waved his hand. "Go on, then. Dismissed. Here."

He tossed a stimpak from the box to X6-88, who caught it, tucked it into an inner pocket of his uniform, tucked the box of snack cakes into another pocket, said, "Thank you, sir," rose, and went back out, reactivating his security measures as he went.

Outside the building, he found "Daniel Lyons" lounging against the exterior wall, wearing a new pair of sunglasses. He pointed the index fingers of both his hands at X6-88, thumbs upraised, in a gesture whose significance eluded X6-88. When X6-88 kept walking, Lyons came up off the wall and followed him, although he kept a non-challenging distance.

"Sorry it took so long," he said. "Had to scour the Commonwealth for those snack cakes, but Nora says all her kids are crazy for 'em. Tell me you didn't let those assholes snatch 'em from you."

"They were kind enough to give them to me," X6-88 answered.

"How magnanimous." Lyons was keeping pace, but not coming any closer. "So I notice you're not taking me prisoner this time."

X6-88 smiled slightly. The sugar from the cakes was in his bloodstream, inducing a certain unreliable sense of wellbeing. "Should I be?"

"I mean, I'd prefer you didn't," said Lyons. "But I'd also prefer if you came with me to Nora right now, and I feel like that's not happening, either."

"For the price of a bushel basket of food?" X6-88 asked. "Do you know how soon the humans will be hungry again?"

"Yeah, I actually do know how fast humans get hungry," said Lyons. "But if you'll go to Nora, and ask her for anything for your pet jackasses, she'll give it to you. She does that, for family. You should see how fat and happy X9-21's three are. Not to mention the entire Brotherhood, now that she's adopted one of them."

"Will you pass along a request to her from me?" X6-88 asked.

A flicker of hesitation on Lyons' face, and then, "What is it?"

"Tell her," said X6-88, "that I would like to speak with X9-21."

Lyons missed a step, and staggered slightly. X6-88 came to a halt, and so did Lyons, immediately, keeping his distance.

"He need not-- encounter-- anyone but me," said X6-88. "I can meet him-- anywhere within four hours' journey from here." If he were gone more than nine hours or so, there would be questions, and he would prefer to deceive, if deception were necessary, by omission. "I give you my word I won't attempt to harm him, or to-- entrap-- him. But if you would like me to-- assume a similar role-- with all due respect, I would prefer not to take your word as to the-- parameters of that role."

Lyons looked doubtful. "Nora's, uh, pretty protective. Of her kids. She might not want to-- risk--"

X9-21, a kid. An apex predator, reduced to a pampered pet.

But if that was the price he had to pay-- if it was the price X6-88 had to pay, to serve the Institute--

"I'll be at the old Boston Bugle building in three days' time," he said. "Alone. I trust you won't use that information to-- trap me. You obviously have enough skill with stealth to assess the area before making your presence known, to make sure I'm not attempting a trap in turn."

Lyons cleared his throat before he said, "You trust me?"

"If an attempt to capture me by force would serve your employer's purpose," said X6-88, "I believe you, or she, would have made that attempt already. So yes, I trust you will serve her interests. You seem-- invested-- in doing so. If you can persuade her to allow X9-21 to speak to me, and if that conversation satisfies me, I will consider speaking in favor of her proposal to the Institute."

It wasn't only the sugar that was slightly heady; it was the spurious, temporary sensation of power in this negotiation. He was used to being feared by his prey, assessed and praised or disciplined by his owners, but it was something of a new sensation to be wanted. Courted, for his possible favor.

It wouldn't last-- and Lyons probably vastly overestimated the effect X6-88's proffered suggestion would have on the Institute; it was just as likely that he'd be punished for his presumption as that they would listen-- but while it did, he might as well take advantage. If Nora Bowman wanted him so badly-- well, he wanted to see X9-21, as X9-21 was now. Michael.

"I'll be there," he repeated. "In three day's time. And if I'm to lose much time I would otherwise spend hunting or scavenging, it might help me avoid questions if someone were to bring me more supplies."

Lyons gave him a rueful grin, and said, "I'll, uh, I'll do my level best, OK? And if I can't get him, I'll come myself, and bring you whatever I can. OK?"

X6-88 turned, without answering, and moved off, and Lyons didn't follow him.

Chapter Text

"Deacon!"

"Jonah Dee," he mumbled, although no one was in earshot who didn't know. One benefit of having been escorted out to the little diner just down the street from the Castle so Nora could eviscerate him without upsetting the Castle's more sensitive residents, although Hancock was presumably going to be pissed that he hadn't gotten a front-row seat to the bloody murder.

Nora's voice was climbing the scale. "What in the goddamn ever-living fuck were you thinking? Going in like that without letting me know-- anything-- making offers on my behalf, and putting your stupid ass on the line, you had absolutely no business doing any of those things without telling me-- and not just not telling me, fucking lying to me about it, getting me to give you all those supplies and caps without telling me that it was for somebody I know, one of my kids for Christ's sake, and the people whose home I fucking blew sky-high who hate me-- you could've died on my behalf without me even knowing why you never showed up again, or why your body got dumped on my doorstep with a note pinned to your chest saying ‘this is what happens when you fuck with the Institute’ and I not only have no idea what’s going on but have to declare war on the Institute remnant--”

"In my defense," he said, his voice slightly muffled from where he'd buried his face in his arms on the diner's counter, making his shades dig uncomfortably into his face, "I'd like to submit that Michael is a tattletale."

"Michael has enough sense, and trusts me enough, to come to me with this immediately, thank you, Michael, I'm extremely proud of you for letting me know about Deacon's unbelievable stupidity--"

"Jonah Dee's unbelievable stupidity," Michael corrected seriously.

"--including trying to swear my son to secrecy about risking his own life without my knowledge--"

"Keeping the rendezvous X6-88 has proposed will not place my life at risk," said Michael. "You will not forbid me to keep it, will you, ma'am?"

"You--but--"

The miscreant lifted his head from the nest of his arms to look at Nora, who looked as if having her head explode would be a welcome relief.

Michael was sitting, arms folded, on the diner’s non-operational stovetop, watching Nora with the same thoughtful expression with which he'd listened to the account of "Daniel Lyons"' forays into Institute territory, and the proposal that he meet with X6-88 without telling Nora because Nora would go ballistic if she knew.

Then he'd said, Come with me to my mother.

It had already been too late then; all subsequent arguments, protests, pleas, and eventual attempts to bargain for a head start, had had zero effect, unless it was to amuse Michael.

You may try to run, if you like, Michael had said eventually, with a flash of teeth and an appraising glance that had effectively silenced further protest.

"X6-88 gave his word that he would not try to harm or apprehend me, ma'am," Michael said now, his tone both gentle and authoritative, as if he were the parent, soothing a child's irrational terrors. "He would not give that word lightly, any more than I would. I will not be in danger."

Nora seemed torn between calming down to talk to her paragon, and continuing to scream about the many, many terrible decisions of her red-headed stepchild.

"You think--?" she began.

"Dee's ill-advised secrecy aside," Michael said, because Michael was the worst, "it sounds as though he has made some progress towards convincing X6-88 to consider speaking for us to his faction. And if he wants to meet with me because he would like to know how my time in your service has affected me--" He smiled at Nora, whose face broke into an answering smile, as if involuntarily. "Do you not think he will find me improved by the association?"

"I don't know," Nora said, sobering quickly, but she'd definitely decided to calm down, at least temporarily. "I don't know what he'll think. He and I never really-- got to know each other. It was like everything I said to him was the wrong thing, and everything I did--" She bit her lip. "Do you think he'll-- approve-- of the way you are now?"

Michael seemed to consider this.

"We were very much alike, once," he said, slowly, eyes no longer on Nora, but fixed on nothing in particular, or on something only he could see. "Driven by-- faith. In the Institute. Its cause, and its-- will, for our lives. But from what Dee says, X6-88's faith has-- weakened. He concealed Dee's presence from his owners, the second time Dee approached him, and made plans to act without their knowledge or permission. He has-- discovered-- that he may sometimes know better than they do, and discovered that they do not know this. It is frightening-- and painful-- to lose one's faith."

His eyes refocused on Nora as he said, "It took me-- all the months I was gone from you, after you let me go. Months of-- trying-- to keep my faith alive, in the Institute remnant I served, in their-- right judgment. Months of-- remembering--" He hesitated. "The light in Emily's face, and Shaun's, and the way you-- looked at them. And at me. Even me."

"Son--"

"If I had not had-- some hope," said Michael, "some plan-- some idea of where to go, of what to do, of how to-- do well-- I don't know what would have happened to me. If I can be-- that-- for X6-88-- Please, mother, don't forbid me."

Nora ran a distracted hand over her cropped hair. "Michael-- I mean-- of course I don't forbid you, but-- look, can we at least call a family meeting and talk about this?"

Michael smiled at her again. "Yes, ma'am. May I suggest that we discuss it, specifically, with the three members of your advisory council who are already in residence here?”

“The-- yeah, there you go,” said Nora. “Let’s do that. I can’t-- see, this is exactly when an advisory council comes in handy. God, you’re smart.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” said Michael, and added, startling the man at the counter, who had started to hope he'd be able to sneak out quietly without either of them noticing, “And thank you, Dee. We are in your debt."

Nora came at him so suddenly and so fast he couldn’t have dodged even if he’d been sure that was what he wanted to do, wrapped her arms around him, and held him hard.

“I can’t believe you did this for me,” she said, close against his ear. “I love you so much, you stupid fucking idiot, this was so, so sweet of you, but you are fucking grounded, do you hear me, clearly I cannot trust you to be out of my sight for five seconds without risking your life to try to make me happy--"

She stopped talking abruptly, but held on hard for another long few moments before her grip loosened and she let him go. He wobbled, slightly, on the diner stool, and more or less fell to his feet.

"Now," she said, and caught her breath, "come back to the Castle, and let's all talk rationally about this insanity.”

“Yes,” said Michael, sliding off the stove and coming forward to offer his arm matter-of-factly to the admittedly-still-shaky Railroad agent; he accepted the arm, letting himself be steadied by an ex-courser who'd just said We are in your debt.

 

The “members” of Nora’s “advisory council” were apparently Danse, Hancock, and Emily (who seemed to have moved back home with her girlfriend); Nora herded them, with Michael and their reluctant informant, atop one of the wide, mossy walls of Fort Independence, which appeared to be the fortress' main designated Private Conversation Zone. (It had been where he'd first approached Michael, too, but Michael had apparently correctly predicted that Nora would be yelling too loudly for the wall's limited privacy to handle, and had taken them both out to the diner before dispassionately telling Nora everything.)

Danse and Michael sat especially close to each other, although they didn't actually hold hands, on this occasion.

“So,” said Nora, and then looked at Michael. “Michael-- you have a methodical mind. You tell it.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” said Michael, paused, and then said, “You are all more or less aware that before I came to live here, I was part of a group of Institute survivors who considered themselves loyal to the Institute’s ideals and goals. These survivors were scattered across the Commonwealth in smaller groups, partly because of the scarcity of resources in any given area, and partly because it is easier to conceal a smaller group from potential aggressors. Before I left the group to which I was assigned, it was comprised of eight humans and three coursers, myself included, who were tasked with protecting and providing for the humans. Three of the humans-- Dr. Achanta, Mr. Benson, and Dr. Hastings-- joined me when I came here to stay, leaving five humans and two coursers at the site I left behind.

“Jonah Dee has recently made contact with that site, on Ms. Bowman’s behalf, though without her knowledge.”

“Wait, Dee did what?” said Hancock, and Nora said, “It’s OK, I already killed him. We’re moving on.”

“If you say so,” said Hancock, eyeing the dead man.

After a moment’s pause, Michael continued, “He spoke with the humans, of whom he reports seeing four, and with what seems to be the one remaining courser, designation X6-88.”

Hancock turned to look at Nora, who said, “Yeah, X6-88. Of Libertalia fame."

“According to Dee’s account,” said Michael, “the humans, though visibly in need, showed no interest in communication with Ms. Bowman, and had Dee forcibly removed when he persisted. But when contacted individually, away from the humans, X6-88 expressed interest in meeting with me.”

“With you, specifically?” Danse asked.

“Yes,” said Michael. “And I would like to oblige him.”

“What would be the purpose of this meeting?” Emily asked. “Does he want to join us?”

“Dee believes he is considering the possibility,” said Michael, “on condition that his human charges are provided for, as mine have been. More broadly, I think, we would hope to use the opening of this channel of communication to reach out, on our mother’s behalf, to the rest of the Institute remnant. Especially to the coursers, who are our mother’s children.”

“That would be-- wonderful,” said Emily, though she sounded more thoughtful than elated. “But you shouldn’t go by yourself, Michael. What if it’s a trap?”

“X6-88 gave Dee his word that he would not harm me, or attempt to entrap me,” Michael answered.

"Can we trust him?” Danse asked.

“I trust his word,” said Michael. “I am not sure whether he bears me any ill will, or how ready he will be to listen to me, but unless he has altered out of all recognition since I knew him, he will keep his word."

"What if he has?" Danse asked. "Altered out of all recognition? People do, sometimes, in-- harsh conditions."

"As you did?" Michael said, eyes on Danse's face, not quite smiling, but with a look that made even a fairly hardened spy feel like averting his eyes to give them privacy.

Danse blushed a little, reducing the contrast between the scar on his forehead and his skin, and answered, "I hope I didn't change-- out of all recognition."

"I do not think you did," said Michael. "Despite the cruelty and deprivation you suffered, at the hands of those who viewed you as subhuman. Despite what must have been great temptation to despair. You are still who you were. You, too, Emily," he added, turning to his sister. "When I first arrived at our mother's house, you greeted me as your brother, and offered me-- a way forward. I would be ashamed to show less courage and compassion than you showed then, for the sake of one I owe far more than you owed me."

"What do you owe X6-88?" Hancock asked, and Michael considered, again, before he said, "We were once-- friends was not a term we used, but-- associates. Comrades. He once held me in esteem, and I him. And after my demotion, he was never-- he never appeared to take pleasure in my humiliation, or inflicted any of the small cruelties that his new authority over me made possible. It may seem like-- very little-- to you--"

"No, that's a lot," said Emily, and Danse nodded agreement. "And if you can talk him into-- anything-- but do you have to go alone? I didn't-- confront you-- alone."

"I don't think he is ready to speak with our mother," Michael answered. "And as for other-- company-- other than Dee, whom I think he expects, and who I hope will accompany me-- I would not like to give X6-88 the impression that I distrust him, or make him feel-- ambushed. He intends to come alone-- he encouraged Dee to scout the surrounding area to make sure of it. And that being the case, if the situation should worsen, to the point where I must defend myself-- well, X6-88 and I were once evenly matched, and by Dee's account, I am now considerably better nourished."

He sounded sad about that.

"Speaking of which," said Nora, "if you are going, can you take him a bunch of food and make him eat it, so he doesn't give it to those dickholes instead?"

Michael considered that seriously.

"I should take supplies for him to bring home, so that he does not feel pressed for time," he said eventually. "In addition, I can take food specifically for us to share during the meeting, and make it clear that whatever he does not consume in the course of the meeting, I will bring away with me."

"There you go," said Hancock, and added, "Poor fucker. I hope you can talk him into-- yeah, like Emily said, anything. Coming home."

Nora reached out and took Hancock's hand in hers, and they shared a mushy look before she said, "OK, where and when is this meeting?"

"Tomorrow," said Michael, "at the Boston Bugle building. No time was specified-- is that correct, Dee?-- but I would like to leave early. I would not like to leave him in doubt as to whether I am coming."

"Then let's get you mostly packed tonight," said Nora. "Figure out what you want to take to him. For his humans, and for him. Meat, I'm thinking, cooked meat, with vegetables-- radstag stew? Protein, complex carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals-- we can get up early to cook, so it'll still be hot when you get there. I should probably give you some more caps for him, too... and what do you think about ammo? Do you think he has enough? If he lives by hunting, and he has to defend them, too-- and what about grenades, or mines? What kind of weapon was he carrying, Dee? Do you think he needs a better one? Why are you all looking at me like that?"

Hancock, still holding her hand, said, "Think you just started to glow and levitate a little bit, with all that mom energy."

"Well, this might be my only chance," said Nora, a little abashed. "To give him-- anything. I missed my chance-- before-- to get to know him. Fucked it up. Walked out on him, like an idiot." She gave Danse a sad little smile. "Just like I did with you. If I hadn’t-- well. I did. No sense crying over lost-- opportunities.”

“I'm not lost to you, Nora,” said Danse gently. “And neither is X6-88, not if he’s agreeing to meet with Michael. It may take patience and determination to win him over, but--” He smiled at her. “I can personally bear witness that whatever you may regret in the past, you don’t currently lack for either one.”

“Thank you, Danse,” said Nora, and it sounded heartfelt. “But-- still.”

“Dee and I can carry whatever gifts you wish to give to X6-88, ma’am,” said Michael. “Dee, you are coming with me, are you not?”

Everyone looked at him, and he said, “Uh, yeah, if-- yeah. Sure.”

“Thank you,” said Michael.

Emily said, “Before we, um, adjourn this meeting, can we-- Is this a secret? This-- appointment?"

"No," said Nora, looking around. "No, right? I mean, I don't think we need to make a formal announcement, but if somebody asks what we're getting ready for-- why, Emily, what do you think?"

"I was just thinking about Shaun," she said.

Nora looked at her. “Has he talked to you about X6-88? He’s never-- to me--”

“He’s-- mentioned him,” said Emily. "We talk about the Institute, sometimes, what we remember. I think he doesn't like to talk about it with you because he worries it makes you sad."

Nora grimaced. "Where would he get an idea like that. Oh, but is it going to break his heart, if this meeting doesn't-- Should we not get his hopes up?"

"He is intelligent enough to understand, if we tell him the outcome is uncertain," said Michael. "I see no need to hide this from him, if he asks-- as he certainly will-- where Dee and I are going. Likewise with our other brothers and sister, if they ask, and with the other residents of the Castle. There is no need for secrecy about the fact that I am going to meet with a former associate in hopes of ending our long estrangement. We can discuss the results of the meeting, and how they may affect the Castle and the Minutemen, after we know what they are."

Nora looked around, saw nods, and nodded too.

"Thanks, you guys," she said. "If this conversation with X6-88 does pan out, I'm going to have to call Preston and Ronnie, too, aren't I... but yeah, thanks. Good talk."

"With your permission, ma'am, Dee and I can begin preparing now," said Michael, and Nora said, "You go ahead, son. I need to talk to Dee real quick first. I'll send him along in a minute."

"Yes, ma'am," said Michael, and rose; Danse, Emily, and Hancock followed suit, all eyeing the doomed object of Nora's "quick talk."

When they'd trickled down off the wall, Nora reached out and took his hand in her strong, warm, callused one.

"You OK, honey?" she asked. "You didn't say a word that whole time, except 'yeah, sure.'"

"Didn't need to," he said.

"I'm sorry I yelled at you so bad."

"'S'OK."

"I love you, Dee."

He nodded.

Nora stared intently at his sunglasses. "Are you in shock? Did I yell so loud you went into shock?"

He shook his head. "Just thinking."

"About what?"

"Your family," he said.

He was thinking that Shaun and Emily talked together about their memories of the Institute, that Michael remembered Emily greeting him as a brother, that Emily didn't want Michael to have to face X6-88 alone. He was thinking about Max saying hey, man, thought you ran out on me. He was thinking that, when Michael had pointed out to Nora that X6-88 had been sneaking around making plans behind the backs of his scientists, he'd sounded neither approving nor disapproving: just sad, the same way he'd sounded when he mentioned X6-88 didn't get enough to eat.

He was thinking of the word we: as in we are in your debt, as in can we trust him?, as in we would hope.

He was thinking of the way he'd let himself lean on the arm Michael had offered him, just for a little.

"I'm tired of being on my own," he said, not quite meaning to say it aloud, but Nora said, immediately, earnestly, "Then be with us, Dee."

He didn't quite mean to nod, either, but he did, and she squeezed his hand hard.

"Good," she said. "Because the next time you disappear on me, I'm going to send Michael to hunt you down like a runaway synth and drag you back home, and then I am going to assign a permanent rotating guard of two Minutemen to follow you around at all times and report back to me on your movements.”

He smiled. "That's not as bad as what I told Des you’d do, when you found out-- I mean--"

It was too late. “Des knew about this?”

“No,” he said, backpedaling frantically. “I didn’t say that. I was talking about something else. A different thing I thought you'd be mad about. That you don't know about, but it isn't as-- Hey, can I use my second favor to rewind time fifteen seconds?”

Nora scowled, but she was still holding his hand. “You can use it so I don’t make a special trip to yell at Des for not letting me know about this.”

“Can I use it so you don't yell at her at all?"

"Fine," she said. "One left."

"Yeah, well, once I run out, I know your reset code."

"Shit, that's right," she said. "And you know it still works, because Michael broke it out earlier. 'Please, mother,' and I'm toast."

"I'll try to use it only in emergencies," he said, and she laughed, and squeezed his hand again. "Nora?"

"Yeah, sweetheart?"

He’d been on a Bible kick lately, naming himself Jonah and Daniel (for his foray into the den of Lyons, as it were) and Lazarus (for the beggar, not the zombie), instead of Sintram and Tristan and Basil and Huck and Seymour and Fridolf, and now he said, “You want to know my real name?”

"If you want to tell me," she said.

"It's Mephibosheth."

"What."

"Mephibosheth."

"Bullshit," she said, laughing.

"I tell you my deepest darkest secret and you just mock me," he said, play-hurt.

"Mephibosheth."

“Yeah, Miss Twenty-First-Century Sunday School,” he said. “Look it up.”

"I will," she said. "But can we still call you Dee?"

We.

"Just the family," Dee said. "Yeah, that'd be fine."

Chapter Text

Leaving the humans on the day appointed for his possible rendezvous with Lyons and X9-21, X6-88 felt both apprehensive and-- he recognized-- eager. It had been some time since he had felt any sense of anticipation so positive as to be identifiable as eagerness. There was little variation in his duties, since the Institute had fallen, and the hope he used to feel of earning especial recognition or praise by exceptional service had been replaced by a grim determination to survive, and to make sure the remaining humans he served survived at least as long as he did. These were now his highest aspirations.

Thanks to Nora Bowman.

He had done his best, as a matter of pragmatism, not to wonder pointlessly whether X9-21's project had gone as planned, whether he regretted his departure, whether Nora Bowman had kept her promises. According to Daniel Lyons, the answer to the last question was yes, but even if true, that did not necessarily answer the first two questions.

But, especially since A9-82's death, he had missed the company of his own kind. Of course, even before he had left for Nora Bowman's house, X9-21's disgrace had left him diminished, quiet and meek-- and after all this time playing her pet, there would doubtless be other changes. And, for that matter, he might not come at all. Lyons had warned as much.

Still, the eagerness remained, lodged in X6-88 like a stubborn bullet.

He approached the Boston Bugle building cautiously, and saw no one outside; when he entered, intending to scout the interior, he saw X9-21 and Lyons already inside, seated on a battered, mildewed sofa in the lobby, with a pack and a lidded plastic container on the coffee table in front of them.

X9-21 rose immediately when he saw X6-88, and Lyons did the same a moment later.

"I brought him," he said unnecessarily to X6-88, as X9-21 stepped forward, skirting the coffee table, looking--

--well. He looked well. He was wearing blue jeans and a worn T-shirt, as he had been when he left, but he was almost smiling.

"Hello, X6-88," he said, and the smile was in his voice. "It's a pleasure to see you again. Thank you for proposing this meeting."

"Please convey my thanks to Ms. Bowman for sending you," X6-88 answered. There was no need to be discourteous; it had been gracious of Nora Bowman to accede to his request.

"She didn't send me," said X9-21. "She allowed me to come."

X6-88 took a moment to parse the distinction, and then was conscious of a sliver of gratification that X9-21 had not only actively sought permission to attend this meeting, but taken care to make X6-88 aware of the fact.

He said, "Then convey my thanks for the permission. And thank you for obtaining it."

"It wasn't overly difficult," said X9-21, smiling outright now. "Will you sit?"

"Yes," said X6-88.

He sat down on the short arm of the L-shaped sofa where X9-21 and Lyons sat back down, too, Lyons half lounging in the corner, X9-21 upright in the middle.

"Everything in this pack is yours absolutely, to do with as you wish," said X9-21, nodding towards the pack on the coffee table. "We did our best to estimate the supplies you might procure in the course of a day-- a good day-- spent hunting and scavenging. This," he said, reaching towards the lidded container, "is mine, to offer you."

The smell of meat and of vegetables, starch and protein and fat and other nutrients, still warm from cooking, as X9-21 lifted the lid, made X6-88's head swim slightly. There was a fork, too, next to the container.

"Put the lid back on," he said, his voice harsh and brittle in his own ears.

"Why?" X9-21 asked, although he didn't sound surprised. "You are hungry, and I am offering you food. Nothing is asked of you in return, except that you eat."

"If you are offering this to me-- I should take it to my--" X6-88 shook his head. "I can endure hunger--"

"I know we can bear hunger better than they can," said X9-21, "and they know it too, which is why I can surmise that you are much hungrier than they are. You can do as you wish with these other supplies, but this food is for you."

“Also, not to butt in," said Lyons, "but I feel like if you bring a nice hot bowl of fresh-made radstag stew up and claim you found it in a mailbox, even those super-duper-incisive scientific minds you got back home might have a couple of follow-up questions."

"If you are concerned that we are trying to drug or poison you..." said X9-21.

X6-88 looked at him sharply. There was a tone of voice, a very slight quirk of expression, rarely detectable by humans, an unspoken as it were, when one was repeating a human's instructions to do what would have been done in any case, or passing along an obviously erroneous assessment.

X9-21 looked back at him steadily, and finished, in the same tone, "I will eat first from the dish, if you like. To save you the time and trouble of procuring a raider."

Hearing X9-21, however understatedly, make light of the incident that had precipitated his demotion was not the sort of change X6-88 had expected to see in him. But it was less unwelcome than the changes he had expected. X9-21 seemed-- alert, engaged, as sharp and quick as ever, and yet very much at ease. And pleased to see X6-88. As pleased, perhaps, as X6-88 was to see that whatever had happened to him, however he lived now, X9-21 was still himself.

He took the container, moved it to his lap, and reached for the fork.

"Thank you," he said to X9-21, who answered, "You are very welcome."

X6-88 dipped the fork into the mess of tender, cooked meat and vegetables, and lifted it to his watering mouth. His stomach cramped sharply, like a whining child, and he chewed with deliberate slowness before swallowing, as if to punish it for its lack of discipline.

"If you have questions for me," said X9-21, "I can answer them while you eat."

X9-88 swallowed, paused, lifted another small forkful to his mouth, and chewed slowly and swallowed again, considering where to begin. X9-21 waited without apparent impatience; if anything, he seemed to be taking pleasure in the fact that X6-88 was eating. X6-88 was doing his best not to feel guilty for eating so well when the humans were still hungry at home. But they would not suffer from this meeting; the supplies in the pack on the table would make sure of that.

Before anything else, though-- X9-21 might be at ease speaking of some things, but--

"Can we speak freely in this person’s presence?" X6-88 asked bluntly, nodding towards "Daniel Lyons.”

“Listen,” said Lyons, “if you two lovebirds want your privacy, I’ll go hang out on the front steps. If I see anything dangerous, I’ll scream real, real loud and high, like a little boy in velvet knickerbockers, being chased by a mean big cousin with a dead frog. Michael, you know my danger shriek, right?"

X6-88, chewing another small bite of food, examined Lyons curiously, and Lyons made an exaggerated show of shrinking back against the sofa cushions.

"Don't let him hit me," he said to X9-21. "If I've gotta be knocked unconscious for the good of the group, do it yourself. He doesn't know what a sensitive noggin I've got."

"I have no objection to your remaining present and conscious," said X9-21. "Do you, X6-88? I can think of no reason why his presence should inhibit you, and it certainly will not inhibit me."

"Very well," said X6-88.

"Cool, cool," said Lyons. "I'm great. I'm not intimidated at all right now. Why would I be?"

"So," said X6-88, spearing a piece of meat with the fork, and pausing as he turned back to X9-21, “this person is not in a position of authority over you?"

Lyons snorted slightly and smiled at that, and X9-21 smiled, too.

"No," he said. "I am subject only to my mother's authority, And, hypothetically, to that of anyone she might choose to place in authority over me."

My mother. He said it easily, straightforwardly, without the slightest irony.

X6-88 let the phrase pass for now, and said, "You no longer consider yourself subject to the authority of Drs. Hastings and Achanta and Mr. Benson?"

"That's correct," said X9-21. "Though as a matter of courtesy-- and of kindness-- I almost always choose to do as they tell me, when such obedience does not conflict with my service to Ms. Bowman. But I no longer consider that they own me, or that I owe them anything I do not wish to give. If I did owe them any debt, for their part in the Institute that created, educated, and sustained me for so long, I consider it discharged by the fact that I have already secured their safety and provided for all their needs for the foreseeable future."

"I see," said X6-88, who'd gotten a few mouthfuls in while X9-21 spoke, and took two more before he said anything else. X9-21 seemed entirely self-assured and unapologetic about declaring his independence from the Institute faction he had chosen, and yet oddly-- gentle-- about it. A matter of courtesy and of kindness-- kindness, towards humans, seemed a bizarre idea. One obeyed the humans to whom one belonged; the rest were of no importance. "And what sort of service does Ms. Bowman require of you?"

X9-21 smiled again. It was somewhat disconcerting to see him smile so much.

"Forgive me," he said, sobering; X6-88 had forgotten how much easier it was for one courser to read another's reaction than it was for humans to read their relative impassivity. "I smiled only because I was recently asked a similar question by a new addition to Ms. Bowman's household, who asked to what use she put me. I wonder which phrasing would offend her sensibilities more." He sounded amused, but not mocking; then he added, more gravely, "I have a great deal of freedom, and at first I was at a loss how to use it, until she and I began to know each other better, and I understood that for her, it was a question of what sort of service I wished to offer her. Since then, I have been privileged to serve as her protector, fighting at her side-- you have observed firsthand that she is a skilled and physically fearless combatant-- and as a guardian of others who are dear to her."

"You speak of privilege," said X6-88.

"Yes," X9-21 answered. "It is my privilege to serve her, and my greatest joy."

Joy. It was not part of the litany.

"And she would like me to enter her service, as well," said X6-88, not quite as a question.

"Very much," said X9-21. "She considers that she failed you, during your brief association."

This was too much. "She dismissed me."

"She regrets her mistake in having done so," said X9-21. "She has also made several mistakes with me, which gives her hope that, having learned from them-- and with me to help her-- she may make fewer with you, if you will offer her another chance."

X6-88 took two more bites of the meat and vegetables before he said, "Do you advise me to enter her service?"

"I do," said X9-21, without hesitation. "Bring the humans, if they are not so childishly stubborn as to refuse outright. Our mother and her people will care for them, far better than you can alone. They will want for nothing. As for you-- she will honor you for your faithful service to her son's vision, and offer you the opportunity to serve her, and through her, the true hope for the future."

X6-88 blinked, slowly, behind the sunglasses he almost always still wore.

X9-21 leaned forward slightly, a seemingly unconscious gesture of eagerness to speak that X6-88 had seen in humans, but not in synths. Certainly not in coursers.

"We were wrong, X6-88," he said, but he sounded happy, not regretful or chagrined. "We were wrong, and the Institute was wrong, about the hope for the future."

"Clearly," said X6-88 coolly, unable to understand why X9-21 seemed so pleased about this.

"Not because the Institute was destroyed," said X9-21. "X6-88, I know you honored and--" He seemed to hesitate, choosing a word. "--admired-- Father, as I did. As I still honor his memory. He was a man of great vision, with noble aspirations, and the intelligence and determination to build toward what he thought would be the best possible future for mankind. We were created and trained to serve that future, and we did not question whether there could be a better one."

X6-88 was silent. He had stopped eating, partly because he didn't wish to overburden a stomach unaccustomed to much food at once, and partly because eating while Father was being spoken of seemed disrespectful. He set the dish and fork down on the coffee table, without speaking.

"Have you questioned it since then?" X9-21 asked.

X6-88 shook his head. "What would be the point? That future is no longer possible."

"It was never possible," said X9-21. "Mankind cannot be ruled by force, or by fear. Any more than we could. The Institute never understood why, regardless of the consequences, regardless of threats and examples, regardless of endless experimentation with their programming, synths continued to make escape attempts. They could not be cured of their rebellious inclinations, their determination to flee from the safety dictated for them by the Institute to the dangers of freedom. They were too human. Father did not understand this, X6-88. He wanted to keep them safe-- the synths, and his chosen humans, as well-- but he had no one to teach him that the way he was trying would never have succeeded."

This was a gross overgeneralization, and X6-88 pointed out, "We never rebelled. We never deliberately disobeyed. Even after his death-- Are we less 'human' than the other synths?"

"No," said X9-21. "We never rebelled against rule by fear, because that was not how he ruled us. Did you obey him because you feared punishment? What did we have to fear, after our training? After what we risked and suffered on every assignment? We feared only his disappointment. Only that we might fail him, and fail his vision. We obeyed him because we believed in him. We alone, perhaps."

"His people," X6-88 began, and then fell silent.

The twist of delicate irony was in X9-21's voice and face again when he asked, "Are the ones you serve still afire with Father's hopes and dreams?"

"They are struggling to survive," said X6-88 flatly.

"So are you," said X9-21. "And yet you continue to serve and care for them. You could kill them all in minutes, without incurring the slightest scratch, and make your own way in this world, unencumbered by their needs and demands. Is it for fear of punishment that you do not do so?"

"It's my duty to serve the Institute," answered X6-88, more or less automatically.

"What does that mean?" X9-21 asked.

"What does it mean?" X6-88 was feeling increasingly disoriented. He had been too hungry for too long, and now the food was reaching his belly, and X9-21 was asking questions in a voice whose cadences and emphases were so like his own, and he had somehow lost track of the purpose of this meeting. Hadn't he intended to gauge whether X9-21's sacrifice-- of integrity, of identity-- had been successful enough in its goals that X6-88 could bear to immolate himself in the same way?

"What is the Institute now?" X9-21 asked. "Is it the underground facility, which has been destroyed? Is it the humans who cling to you like helpless infants, producing nothing, serving no purpose, demanding your service and subservience, because they once had some part in our Father's vision for the future? Or is it the vision itself? Father's hope? I serve his heir, X6-88-- the woman who has built a future for this Commonwealth, not by secrecy and fear and infiltration, not by threats of punishment for disobedience and destruction for noncompliance, but by tireless service to the men, women and children who make up mankind. By fighting to protect them. By teaching them how to defend and provide for themselves, and how to help one another. By listening to, and exhausting herself to answer, every cry for help that reaches her ears. So that when she gives an order, it is obeyed, not out of fear of punishment, or of exile, or of destruction, but because she has earned the love and trust of her people, and they believe in her. As we once believed in her son-- but with better reason. Not because they can conceive of no other way to live, but because they can, and they choose hers."

X9-21's eyes were alight with fervor, with the kind of fierce, unsmiling satisfaction-- more: joy-- they had both-- all-- once taken in a successful mission, in praise from their Father, in the thought that they were his tools, bright and deadly, to build a better world.

“She killed him,” said X6-88. It was the ineluctable fact, the reason he could not-- X9-21 could not-- no courser, no one who had known and honored Father, could-- “She murdered him. She gained his trust, and she used it to destroy him.”

It was X9-21’s turn to fall silent for a little.

“I grieve for him, too,” he said, finally, looking down, at X6-88’s uniformed knee rather than his face. “I grieve that he is dead. I grieve-- very greatly-- that he was not able to make any other choice, at the end. That he chose the utter destruction of our home, rather than admit to his mother that he may have been wrong, and allow her to teach him a better way. Rather, even, than allow her to carry him from the destruction, and live a little longer by her side. It grieves her, too.” He looked back up, at X6-88’s face. “That he left it too late-- that by the time he was tired and sick and lonely enough to cry out for his mother, it was already too late for her to-- help him.”

Tired. Lonely. X9-21 was speaking of Father, but the words themselves resonated oddly in X6-88's head.

"I should go," he said abruptly, and moved to rise.

X9-21 looked openly dismayed. "X6-88, wait-- please. What have I said? Please don't go."

Please don't go. A new plea, to X6-88. Please let me go, yes, and I didn't dismiss you, unit, but pleading combined with the desire that he stay was new.

"I have to think on what you have said," he said, standing, looking down at X9-21. "I cannot simply-- come with you. Whatever you may have expected. I have to consider, and if I decide-- depending on what I decide-- there will be-- other things to consider."

"Of course," said X9-21, looking up, holding still, with the trained stillness of a courser. "I did not intend to-- importune-- so strongly that you would feel the need to leave. If you have heard enough of my reasons for hoping that you join us, I will say no more of them at the moment. But please, don't leave us yet. We have brought you the worth of your day's labor. I had hoped for more of your time."

"To what purpose, if you are not going to importune further?" X6-88 asked.

"For the pleasure of your company," said X9-21, again with perfect gravity, and no apparent sense of the absurd. "It has been a long time since I enjoyed it. If you are not enjoying mine--"

X6-88 hesitated another moment, and then, deliberately, sat back down. X9-21's stillness relaxed fractionally.

"Now, this is the part where I come in handy," said Lyons, startling X6-88; the human had remained so silent while X9-21 waxed eloquent that X6-88 hadn't expected him to speak again. "Got a hatful of surefire conversation starters. For example, how bout them socks?"

X9-21 turned to look at him, and he said, "Or not."

"Who is this person?" X6-88 asked X9-21, who smiled yet again.

"He is my mother's dear friend," he said, "and a-- an honorary family member. My mother's household is something of a-- what was the phrase you once used, Dee? Ragged group of--"

Lyons-- or "Dee"-- grinned suddenly. "Rag-tag band of misfits?"

X9-21 inclined his head, still smiling. "As you say."

"Who else?" X6-88 asked.

X9-21 gestured slightly towards the still-half-full plastic bowl on the table. "Will you eat a little more while I tell you?"

X6-88 took the bowl back into one hand, and the fork into the other, as X9-21 said, "You already know of Emily-- Y4-15-- and Shaun, S9-23--" He paused a moment. "Do you know my name?"

"'Michael,'" said X6-88, remembering, and X9-21 gave his broadest smile yet.

"Yes," he said. "Would you like to know how I chose it? It is also the story of two more members of our-- band. And of someone else in whom you may take an interest."

"Uh, Michael," said Dee, "you sure you want to tell him this story?"

X9-21 looked at Dee, and then, for a long, appraising moment, at X6-88, and said, "Yes."

"OK," said Dee dubiously. "If you say so."

X6-88 took another small, cautious bite of food, as Michael began, "My mother had heard of a possible refuge for runaway synths, unknown to the Institute, in the far north--"

Chapter Text

X6-88 almost wished he had selected a more distant location for his rendezvous with X9-21-- Michael-- and Dee. The relatively short walk home gave him hardly enough time to collect his thoughts, after hours spent in such strange company, deep in such a strange conversation.

Michael-- as he now, obviously, preferred to be called, and not only as a matter of pragmatism in pleasing his owner (his mother)-- had told him so many bizarre things. Of the runaway courser who had taken refuge with other runaway synths in the north; of the runaway synths who had chosen, voluntarily, to return to Ms. Bowman’s service, living with her in her household in exchange for her protection and providence; of M7-97, who had fled the Institute so inexplicably, despite the promise he showed as a candidate for courser training, and who had apparently fallen into the hands first of the Railroad, and then of the Brotherhood, before finally pledging his service to Nora Bowman.

None of these facts, however, was as bizarre and inexplicable as Michael’s manner. That he was hers-- unreservedly hers, not only obedient but passionately loyal and devoted, as X6-88 had never imagined being to anyone but Father-- and still, unmistakably, despite the new name, himself--

When he had spoken of her praise of him, he had seemed almost embarrassed by his happiness, and yet eager to share it with X6-88, as he had been eager to offer him food. There was no doubt that, regardless of the actual facts of the matter, Michael believed his “mother” would welcome X6-88 into her service, and take as much pride in him as she apparently took in Michael himself.

Possibly that was true.

X6-88 thought of bringing his human charges to her, as X9-21 had. Imagined it. Handing them over to her care. Dr. Hastings, Dr. Achanta, and Mr. Benson-- and the baby, Naveena-- had been living in her care for all this time, and they were-- apparently-- healthy, and happy. X6-88 imagined being relieved of his charges-- of responsibility for feeding and protecting them-- and submitting himself to Michael’s mistress. Of her-- possible-- joy, simply in his arrival, and his offer of service.

The thought-- only the hypothetical thought-- felt like surfacing, with burning lungs, from underwater, or like having a crushingly heavy weight lifted from him. As if he had done well enough to deserve such a thing. As if it was time to relay back into the Institute, with his mission accomplished.

Michael was breathing freely, now.

X6-88 had to return to his charges, and by the time he had done so, belly and pack both full, he hadn’t had enough time to decide whether he dared-- whether he should--

And when he did, he found the humans drinking.

They only did so on what they called "special occasions," and he hadn't been aware that today was a special occasion, but he smelled the alcohol in the air as he locked the door behind him. Dr. Weston was on the sofa with her face buried in her hands, Dr. Teasdale beside her with a hand on her back, Dr. Coulton pacing with a glass in his hand, and Dr. Loken seated in a chair opposite the two women.

“It’s X6-88, Rosemary,” said Dr. Loken quietly, and Dr. Weston lifted her face, looked at X6-88, and then burst into tears.

"Rosemary!" Dr. Coulton's voice was harsh and sharp, the way he used to speak to his wife, before she left. "Stop this disgraceful, hysterical--"

"Oh, God!" Dr. Weston sobbed, as Dr. Teasdale stroked her back. “Don’t touch me! God, I can't, I can't live like this any more--"

Dr. Weston was a small woman, who had been slender even in the well-nourished Institute days. Her hair had once been sleek and dark, and was now greyed and coarsened in texture. She had been a little afraid of the coursers, at first, until she had seen their obedience.

"I hate all of you!" she cried. "I hate living here! I hate this filthy rotten disease-ridden place, I hate being hungry all the time, I hate waiting every day, every day for X6-88 to come home and not knowing if he's coming home or not, if today's the day he gets killed out there like A9-82 or just decides to take off and join X9-21 and we sit here waiting and waiting and waiting--" Her voice cracked into a shriek on the last word.

Dr. Coulton put his glass down and moved towards Dr. Weston, seizing her shoulders roughly; she screamed wordlessly as X6-88 moved swiftly to her side.

"Stop that," said X6-88 to Dr. Coulton, his own voice unexpectedly guttural. "Sir."

Dr. Coulton froze, his hands still on Dr. Weston. "How dare you speak to me like that, unit?"

Dr. Weston leaped to her feet, shaking off Dr. Coulton’s hands, and flung her arms around X6-88’s neck. He could smell the whiskey on her, feel her shake.

"I cannot allow you to manhandle Dr. Weston, sir," said X6-88 to Dr. Coulton, wrapping one arm around Dr. Weston to support her against him, as she seemed on the verge of falling.

"You can't allow me?"

"Julian, stop this," said Dr. Loken. "X6-88 is programmed to protect us. If one of us attacks another one, it's going to confuse him. So perhaps you shouldn't manhandle a fellow scientist in front of him."

"In front of him?" Dr. Teasdale said, coldly. "So it's fine if he yanks Rosemary around in general, just not in front of X6-88?"

"Don't escalate the situation, Elizabeth," said Dr. Loken. "Rosemary is clearly hysterical. Let's just see if we can get her to calm down. Rosemary, can you let go of X6-88? He's looking a little uncomfortable."

His voice was light and facetious.

Dr. Weston didn't let go of him.

"I am not going to leave you, ma'am," X6-88 said quietly, and she gasped, and clung harder.

"See," said Dr. Loken. "He's insulted that you'd question his loyalty. Really, Rosemary, this is embarrassing for all of us. Sit down and drink some water and see if you can pull yourself together."

"You're embarrassed?" Dr. Weston released X6-88 abruptly and swung around so violently to face Dr. Loken that she staggered, and X6-88 put out his arm to steady her.

"Careful, ma'am," he said, but at the same moment, she screamed, "This is embarrassing? You want to talk about embarrassing? What about when you and Higgs locked yourselves in the Bioscience lab over her being appointed as director?"

"I rather feel subsequent events proved our point," said Dr. Loken, his voice wavering now between the light, soothing tone and something else.

"Maybe if you hadn't acted like children we could have handled her, we could have made her see reason, if you hadn't--"

"Rosemary, she's crazy," said Dr. Teasdale. "You can't blame Max for--"

"If she's crazy then why does she have all that food?" Dr. Weston shrieked. "And medicine, and a fortress, and X9-21 and our friends, and now she's going to take X6-88 too and we'll have nothing, nothing, we'll die here and the last one to die will eat the others--"

Dr. Coulton moved forward and lifted his hand, so quickly that X6-88 barely had time to catch and hold his wrist before he could strike Dr. Weston's face.

Dr. Coulton turned and looked at X6-88 with such undifferentiated shock that X6-88 was almost amused. Shock quickly turned to rage, and he shouted, again, wrenching his wrist from X6-88's grasp so forcefully that if X6-88 had not released his hold, he might have sprained it, "How dare you?"

"It's all right, X6-88," said Dr. Loken, still trying for a reasonable, unalarmed tone. "Dr. Coulton was just trying to calm Dr. Weston down. Sometimes a quick slap-- when someone is hysterical--"

"It's absolutely not all right," said Dr. Teasdale. "Kick his ass, X6-88."

Dr. Loken said, "Elizabeth!"

"You're all right with Julian slapping Rosemary in the face?"

"He didn't actually slap her--"

"Because X6-88 stopped him--"

"He grabbed my arm, do none of you have a problem with that--"

X6-88 went to the cabinet where drinks were kept and, in the sudden silence that ensued when he moved, took out a canister of purified water, and brought it to Dr. Weston.

"Please sit down, ma'am," he said, "and drink this."

She reached out and held onto his arm, and he guided her back to the sofa and knelt down beside her, offering the water, which she drank, hiccuping.

"Slowly," he said.

She gave him a teary little smile.

"No one gave you permission to get water, X6-88," said Dr. Coulton.

X6-88 looked at him, and Dr. Coulton said, "Wipe that insolent smirk off your face this instant if you know what's good for you, unit--"

X6-88 didn't know exactly what his face did next, but whatever it was, it prompted Dr. Coulton to cross to him, draw back his arm again, and hit him across the face with an open palm.

He didn't move to deflect the blow, which was hardly forceful enough to hurt, although it did knock his sunglasses askew. Dr. Weston gasped, Dr. Teasdale said, "Julian, what in God's name is wrong with you?" and Dr. Coulton stood very still, over X6-88.

"I apologize for my presumption, sir," he said, looking up at Dr. Coulton.

Dr. Coulton relaxed, and said, "You're goddamn right you apologize."

He tensed again when X6-88 rose to his feet, adjusted his sunglasses, and said, "But you have placed me in a difficult position."

"What's that supposed to--"

"Shut up, Julian," said Dr. Loken. "X6-88, what difficulty are you experiencing?"

"My duty is to provide for you all, which requires me to leave you daily," said X6-88. "But I also have a duty to protect you all, and it seems you are not safe from one another."

Dr. Loken gave a small, forced laugh. "I think you have formed an exaggerated idea of the danger Dr. Coulton poses, X6-88."

"I will not allow anyone to strike one of you," said X6-88. "I will not knowingly leave any of you undefended in the company of someone who has threatened to do so."

"Oh, for Christ's sake," said Dr. Coulton. "Like Dr. Loken said, a slap's traditional when someone is hysterical."

"I will not allow it," X6-88 repeated.

There was a silence in the room.

"I am not sure what makes you think you are suddenly in charge, X6-88," said Dr. Loken finally, "but you are sorely mistaken."

X6-88 stood still, analyzing his reaction to the reprimand.

Fear.

(Not of punishment-- X9-21 had been correct about that. What could they do to him? Hit him, again, with their soft, inexpert hands? Send him out, daily, into danger? Starve him?)

Fear of displeasing. Of being deemed unsatisfactory. As X9-21 had been.

Uncertainty, how to proceed. He was sure he was right-- sure he would be failing in his duty if he allowed anyone to physically threaten little Dr. Weston-- but he could hardly argue.

Had this been what X9-21 had felt, that had driven him, despite his disgrace, despite his shame, to beg Dr. Hastings to speak for him to the group? Dr. Achanta had been in danger, and X9-21 had believed it lay in his power to save her. Believed correctly, it seemed. Did that justify--?

"I need clarification, sir," he said to Dr. Loken.

"Dr. Coulton was not posing a threat to Dr. Weston," said Dr. Loken firmly.

X6-88 looked at Dr. Teasdale. She was the youngest of his charges-- thirty? Thirty-five?-- and was still much more sturdily built than Dr. Weston, despite hunger, with a round face and fine blond hair had darkened and thinned since Institute days.

"Dr. Teasdale," said Dr. Loken, "tell X6-88 that Dr. Coulton is not a threat to any of us."

She hesitated.

"Elizabeth."

There was a warning in Dr. Loken's voice. Not a threat to Dr. Teasdale. Fear.

Of X6-88?

You could kill them all in minutes, without incurring a single scratch.

Of course he could. That went without saying.

“You’re right that none of us should hit each other,” said Dr. Teasdale finally, looking at X6-88. “Or grab each other like that. But Dr. Coulton realizes that now, and he won’t do it again. Will you, Dr. Coulton?”

X6-88 turned to look at Dr. Coulton, who said to Dr. Teasdale, “You want me to tell the courser I’m sorry and I won’t do it again?”

“I want you to say you’re sorry and you won’t do it again,” said Dr. Teasdale. “Because I want that to be the truth. Because otherwise, he’s right, that we’re not safe here without him.”

Dr. Weston said, “We’re all going to die soon, anyway.”

“Rosemary,” said Dr. Loken, “you’re not helping. Julian, just say you won’t do it again.”

“I refuse to grovel to a synth,” said Julian. “If the rest of you didn’t make such a fucking pet of it--”

“If he can’t leave us,” said Dr. Loken grimly, “then he can’t feed us.”

“So apologize or starve to death,” said Dr. Coulton. “Controlling the food supply really is your favorite trick, isn’t it, Max?”

“Alternatively,” said X6-88, and then stopped, shocked at himself.

There was a pause before Dr. Teasdale said, “Alternatively what, X6?”

“Nothing, ma’am.”

Dr. Teasdale laughed; she hadn’t seemed drunk to him until now, but her laugh sounded somewhat-- tipsy. “Nothing? Go on. You have a solution to propose? God knows the humans seem to be at an impasse.”

X6-88 took a deep breath.

“You could accept help from Nora Bowman.”

Chapter Text

For most of the way back to the Castle, Dee and Michael were just as quiet as they had been on the way there. Michael, presumably, because he wasn’t big on chit-chat in general, and Dee-- well, on the way, he’d been half sulking about how promptly and thoroughly Michael had narced on him to Nora, and half worried about how this meeting was going to go. On the way back, he was… digesting.

He didn’t know whether to be optimistic or not about whether the meeting had actually accomplished its goals. It didn’t help that X6-88 wore sunglasses indoors, possibly for the same reason Dee himself did, which was-- at least partly-- that it made it a lot harder for people to tell what was going on behind your eyes.

Being in the room with two coursers-- well, one courser and one ex-courser-- well, possibly two ex-coursers, depending on whether you defined “courser” as “currently employed by the Institute” and whether you defined “the Institute” the traditional way or the way Michael had to X6-88, in which case, possibly one ex-courser again, except the other one--

--being in the room with two synths who’d successfully completed the courser training program, which Dee had gathered was fairly damn hardcore, and been active-duty coursers for years, which involved haunting the nightmares of pretty much everybody Dee knew at all well, had been an intense experience. Not quite as intense as getting yelled at in an abandoned diner by the only living person on earth who claimed to love him, but on up there.

He hadn’t actually been scared of X6-88-- if X6-88 hadn’t killed him yet on general principles he probably never would, plus Dee was sure Michael would protect him if it came down to it, if only because Nora wouldn’t want him hurt and Michael clearly considered himself the consecrated instrument of her will on earth-- but the conversation between the two of them made him feel like he was on a different planet, breathing some different kind of air from what his lungs were used to. Their shared language was kind of like English, except that every word weighed about ten times more. Dee was used to playing with language, juggling words and ideas and stories lightly, tossing this and that at the wall to see what stuck. Michael and X6-88 talked like everything meant something. Like the stories they told themselves, and each other, about the world, mattered. More than anything.

It was strange and uncomfortable and fascinating, and made Dee feel like going home and rereading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

“Michael?” he said, finally, around Four Leaf Fishpacking, and Michael said, “Yes?”

"Does Nora know you feel-- that way?" he asked.

Michael glanced at him. "That I feel what way?"

"All that about--" Dee flapped his hand weakly. "The future. The hope for the future. How she's-- built it."

"She has built it," said Michael.

"Yeah, but--" He didn't know exactly how to explain what he meant. Has she heard how you tell it? "Does she know how you feel about it?"

Michael paused before answering, "I-- am not sure. Do you think she does not?"

"I think she'd like it if you told her," said Dee. "The way you told X6-88."

"Then I will," said Michael. "Thank you, Dee."

"Sure," said Dee, and, to bridge the silence that now seemed kind of awkward, "So what do you think? Is X6-88 gonna join the rag-tag band?"

"I don't know," said Michael. "But I take it as a positive sign that he agreed to be the one to approach us if he does decide he would like either to join us, or to discuss the matter further."

"You didn't take that as a brush-off?" Dee asked. "Sounded kinda like 'don't call us, we'll call you.'"

"It means that what he has heard merits consideration," said Michael. "If he had already made up his mind to refuse us, he would have said so. And if he wanted to use his current position of leverage to bargain with us further, he would have made his demands."

See, like right there. Nora was damn lucky she had Michael on board to translate from High Courserese.

Also, the us was...

...weirdly nice. In the way Michael used it. Us meaning the rag-tag band, my mother's household, and also the crack team of Michael and Dee, the courser and the Railroad agent, which Michael seemed to see absolutely nothing weird about. Which was weird in itself, but... nice.

So he was due for a large-scale karma-type smiting right... about... now.

Nothing happened, though, except some mirelurks, which they killed and stripped for meat.

"What rhymes with mirelurk?" he asked Michael, as they got moving again.

Michael considered this, and answered, "Work. Smirk. Jerk."

Dee grinned. "This song is gonna be a piece of cake."

"What song?" Michael asked.

"The one I'm gonna write for Nora," he said.

"Do you write verses?" Michael asked, sounding slightly interested. "Emily has been experimenting with writing them, as well."

"Yeah?"

"Our mother suggested it," said Michael. "Emily has not showed our mother any of her efforts as yet, because she says they are no good and she would be embarrassed. But she allowed me to read one."

"And you didn't run with it straight to your mom?" Dee jibed, and Michael rolled his eyes slightly. "So was it good?"

"I am not a connoisseur of sonnets," said Michael, "but I liked it."

"Emily writes sonnets?"

"You should ask her if she will allow you to read the one she showed me," said Michael.

"I will," said Dee, intrigued. "I was gonna say maybe she'll help me with my mirelurk song, but sonnets are a ways above my pay grade. OK, here we are. Brace yourself for the interrogation."

As it turned out, Nora didn't have to ask many questions. Michael just told her everything, including everything he'd said to X6-88 about her awesomeness, and how they'd left things, and what he'd told Dee he thought it meant.

She curled on the couch in the library that she'd chosen for the briefing, her bare feet in Hancock's lap. Michael sat between Danse and Emily on the couch opposite; Emily leaned on Kasumi, halfway across her lap, in a tangle of girl-limbs. Victoria sat on the other side of Hancock, with Cog on the floor at her feet, leaning slightly against her legs (Dee wasn't sure whether there was something going on there, or if it was just sibling-ly affection) and Max sat in an easy chair with Shaun perched on its arm. Dee lay on his side, propped on one elbow, on what everybody still apparently considered "his" bed, where he'd slept last night, too, way too comfortably. A bed in the library.

Nora listened to Michael without interrupting, although she got misty-eyed at certain parts of the narrative, and when Michael concluded, "Now we wait," she still didn't say anything.

After a second, Hancock said, "So he'll come here? If he wants to-- see you again?"

"Yes," said Michael.

"Is that safe?" Cog asked. "What if he knows our reset codes?"

"He does," said Michael. "But so did Chase. For that matter, so do I."

"You do?" Max asked, sounding startled.

"Not yours," Michael said. "You were not a runaway. And not Shaun's."

"I know Shaun's," said Nora absently, and Shaun said, "You do? What is it?"

"I'm not going to say it," said Nora.

"All coursers were given recall codes for all extant runaways," said Michael. "Whether or not we were actively pursuing those runaways. My point is that knowing your recall codes does not mean he will use them, any more than having a gun means he will shoot you. If he does come here, we should of course take all reasonable precautions, until we can ascertain what terms he is willing to agree to. But I have no reason to believe he will come here with aggressive or destructive intentions."

There was a silence, and then Nora said, "Thank you, son. For-- all this. And you, Dee, for setting it up."

"I hope I accomplished your goal, ma'am," said Michael, and Nora said, "Me too, but even if you didn't-- Thank you."

"You are very welcome, ma'am," Michael answered. "It was a pleasure for me to see X6-88 again, and it is always a pleasure to speak of you."

"Michael." Nora blushed. "Get on up outta here."

"Before you dismiss me, ma'am," said Michael, "I wanted to ask whether you would like me to speak to Drs. Hastings and Achanta and Mr. Benson, regarding the possibility that X6-88 may come here, or whether you would like to tell them yourself."

"Mmm," said Nora. "Good point. We should give them a heads up. I'll tell them. Unless you think they'd take it better from you."

Michael shrugged slightly. "They are always free to seek me out if they need clarification or reassurance from me."

"I'll do that now then," said Nora, and started a slightly involved process of standing up.

"Me too," said Shaun, hopping down from the chair's arm.

"You want to come help me tell Dr. Achanta?" Nora asked, and Shaun nodded. "OK, baby."

"Family meeting adjourned?" Hancock asked, and got up, too. "I'll go give the sentries a heads up that if a big guy in a courser uniform shows up..."

Nora nodded. "Yeah, better sooner than later. C'mere, son."

She addressed this last to Michael, who rose obediently to his feet and stepped forward. Nora put her arms around him, and he hugged her back, tightly, for a long time, resting his cheek against her hair. When they pulled away, Nora held out her hand to Shaun, who took it, and the two of them left the room, followed by Hancock.

When they were gone, Michael turned back towards the couch and said, “Emily, may I speak with you in private?”

Emily looked at him for a moment without moving, and then said quietly, "Later. After they're all asleep."

“I would prefer it be now,” said Michael.

“Later,” said Emily stubbornly, and Michael gave a soft, sharp little exhalation that sounded like frustration, and said, “I fail to understand what’s to be gained by waiting.”

Emily turned her face away, into Kasumi’s shoulder.

“Very well,” Michael said, after a moment's silence. "I am going to go and sort the salvage from the day’s mission.”

“Not without me, you don’t,” said Victoria, getting up, and Cog scrambled to his feet, too. “You don’t respect our system.”

Danse rose, without speaking, and followed the three of them from the room.

“What was that about?” Kasumi asked Emily, and Emily shrugged, stretching her legs down the length of the vacated sofa and laying her head down on Kasumi's jumpsuited thigh.

"Play with my hair," she said.

Kasumi released the waves of red-brown hair from their braid and started combing her fingers through them, as she said, "You don't know what he wants to talk to you about?"

"He just wants to make sure I'm OK with having them all come here," said Emily. "If they do. X6-88, and the other Institute humans. Which I am, and I told him I was."

"Why you more than me, though?" Max asked. "Or Cog or Victoria? We all remember the Institute, too."

Emily shrugged again. "I guess I'm his most precious baby sister. I just don't feel like having a big conversation about it right this minute. Deacon-- I mean, Jonah-- you're spending the night, aren't you? Or do you have to go check back in with the-- with you-know-who?"

"I see you get your stealth from your mom," said Dee. He was slightly startled to realize it hadn’t even occurred to him to check in with Des since she’d turned down his funding request. She’d seemed so uninterested in his plan. And he’d been pretty busy. "I'll check in with we-all-know-who soon, but there’s not much to tell, yet.”

“Sounded like a lot happened today,” said Max.

“Nothing solid,” said Dee. “Just talk. Bunch of maybes.”

Max nodded. “You tired?”

“Kinda,” said Dee. “Weirdly, since mostly what I’ve done today is sit and listen to other people talk.”

“You’ve been working hard,” said Max. “Not just today.”

Dee stretched, too, turning onto his back and looking up at the stone ceiling.

“Want me to read?”

Dee turned his head to look at Max, who said, "We're reading one right now about some animals that found a human baby and raised it. It's pretty weird."

"I like it," said Emily. "But if you read it now you'll have to read it again for the rest of us later."

"I don't mind," said Max.

"OK," said Dee, after a second.

Max picked up a book, opened it up to a blade of grass that had been marking a place, and began to read without preamble, in his slightly hoarse voice-- Dee had always figured Glory’s was from hollering out her battle cries too loud, but maybe it was part of the basic design--

"Bagheera stretched himself at full length and half shut his eyes.

"'Little Brother,' said he, 'feel under my jaw.'

"Mowgli put up his strong brown hand, and just under Bagheera's silky chin, where the giant rolling muscles were all hid by the glossy hair, he came upon a little bald spot.

"'There is no one in the jungle that knows that I, Bagheera, carry that mark-- the mark of the collar; and yet, Little Brother, I was born among men, and it was among men that my mother died-- in the cages of the king's palace at Oodeypore. It was because of this that I paid the price for thee at the Council when thou wast a little naked cub. Yes, I too was born among men. I had never seen the jungle. They fed me behind bars from an iron pan till one night I felt that I was Bagheera the Panther, and no man's plaything, and I broke the silly lock with one blow of my paw and came away. And because I had learned the ways of men, I became more terrible in the jungle than Shere Khan. Is it not so?'"

Dee didn't hear whether it was so or not; he had fallen asleep.

Chapter Text

Did they send a courser after me, when I ran?

Yes.

Not you, though.

No.  If they had sent me, I would have caught you.

You would?  How do you know?

Because I was very good. 

And you would have taken me back to the Institute, and had me-- reprogrammed?

Yes.

And I wouldn't have remembered, afterwards?  When I saw you, later, in the Institute, I wouldn't have remembered-- running away, or you coming after me?

No.  Why are you pursuing these counterfactuals?

I just-- it's so strange. All of it. That I don't remember. And that I-- ran away, at all.  From the Institute.  It doesn't seem like something I would do.

Why not?

I've never had difficulty-- following orders.  I never rebelled against my superiors in the Brotherhood. 

If I have understood correctly, the Brotherhood considers itself a meritocracy, where ranks are respected because they have been earned.

Yes.  Wasn't that-- I mean, you, and the other coursers, you earned your rank.

It's true that we-- achieved-- our status, through effort and dedication.  But that was not why the rest of you were expected to obey us.  We were all-- all synths-- expected to obey the humans, because they had created us to obey them.  Coursers were merely-- specialized tools, as it were, to enforce their authority.  If you decided the humans had no inherent right to rule you, simply by virtue of the fact that you were their creation, it was not the same sort of insubordination as if you had disobeyed a superior officer in the Brotherhood.

I see. 

You sound skeptical.

I respect authority.  I always have.  That I can remember.

But you have also been-- ambitious.  For a life of meaning and purpose.

Would that not have been satisfied by becoming a courser?

Perhaps you decided the Institute's cause was unworthy of your best efforts.

I decided a cause to which you had dedicated your life was unworthy of me?

You make disbelief sound so very flattering.

Well?  It doesn't seem likely.

We did not know each other, at that time.

You knew me.

I knew that there was a synth designated M7-97.  I doubt I ever spoke to you.  I know I never looked into your eyes. 

What makes you say that?

If I had, I think I would have recognized you when I saw you again, despite the facial reconfiguration.  Certainly, when you gave me your designation, I would have remembered that you were the synth with the-- with your particular eyes.

With what kind of eyes?

...Light brown.

You would have remembered, years later, that M7-97 was the synth with the light brown eyes?

You are intent on forcing me to repeat what I told you at Somerville Place.  That you have beautiful eyes.

Only if you meant it.

Of course I meant it.  I was struck by them as soon as I saw you closely.  At the bunker, when you came up to me with my mother's pack. 

She had told me to look for 'a big dark-haired guy, right at the front.'  And to give you my designation.

So that we-- my stepfather and I-- would know you were a synth, and under her protection.

I didn't understand-- anything that was happening.  She had offered-- in the bunker-- to answer any questions I had.  But I was afraid to speak.  I was afraid she would change her mind.  About sparing the Brotherhood.  I didn't understand why she'd agreed to do so.  Or why she wanted to bring me away with her.  Or-- anything.

How could you understand?  I hardly understand it myself, even now.  How much she loves us.  To what lengths she will go--

What's wrong?

I apologize.  I have been-- worried-- about a matter related to-- to the Institute remnant.

Are you worried about your friend?  X6-88?

Yes.  But not only about him.  About-- If he brings his human charges here, I am afraid they may not-- integrate here, as successfully as mine did. 

Why not?

There is one of them, in particular, who-- I don't think he and my mother will-- get along. 

Will he not submit to her authority?

I don't know.  I hope he will.  But if he chooses to-- test his boundaries, with her-- I am concerned that it may cause conflict with X6-88, as well.  Since he considers himself responsible for protecting them.  And she will stop at nothing to protect-- us.

Do you think the human you're speaking of would pose a threat to us?

Not to you or me. 

Then to the less-- A physical threat?

I don't know.  I should not have spoken of this.  It's mere speculation.

Have you spoken to Nora of it?  Of your concern?

No.  I-- I don't wish to worry her unnecessarily.

That's unlike you.

You think I usually wish to worry her?

You don't-- hide things from her.  Do you?  When Dee asked you to keep a secret--

This is different.  You should be asleep.

Have I offended you?

No.  No, not at all.  I am sorry to have spoken-- abruptly.  It's only that-- I need to speak with my sister. 

Oh, yes.  After the rest of us are asleep.  I'm sorry to have delayed you.

You have nothing for which to apologize.  My dear.

Michael--

But--

Yes, I should be going to sleep. I hope your conversation with your sister eases your mind.

Thank you. ...May I kiss you?

Please.

...

...That was new.

Do you approve the innovation?

Yes.

Good.

...

Sleep well, dear heart.  I'll see you in the morning.

Chapter Text

X6-88 was tired.

The argument (if one could dignify such shouting and weeping and fist-pounding and pillow-throwing as an argument) had gone on until dawn showed grey from the high windows.  X6-88, who was not trained for argument, had been compelled to participate.

He had postulated that Nora Bowman, having destroyed the Institute, owed the surviving Institute remnant any aid it was possible for her to render.

He had suggested that, in any case, their choice seemed to be between a life of danger and privation, with no end in sight, and one of safety and plenty, and a possible future, including the chance that they might again put their scientific talents to use, as Dr. Achanta apparently had in devising a new type of fertilizer.

He had agreed that it was difficult to know on what terms the others lived with Ms. Bowman (having chosen not to disclose the fact of his meeting with Michael, he also did not mention Michael's odd theory of "courtesy and kindness" towards those humans) but suggested that opening negotiations with her could do no harm.

He had periodically been ordered to silence, and then ordered to speak again. 

Dr. Weston had gone to bed.  Dr. Teasdale was slumped across the sofa, her eyes half closed.  Dr. Coulton was pacing.  Dr.  Loken sat on the floor, his back against Dr. Teasdale's sofa.

"How would we even get in touch with her?"  Dr. Teasdale asked.

"We know where she lives, ma'am," X6-88 answered.

"Yes, and look what happened the last time we sent a courser there," said Dr. Loken.  "If you're taken prisoner, the way X9-21 was, what's to become of us?"

"If taking me prisoner would serve Ms. Bowman's purpose," said X6-88, "it seems unlikely that she would bother sending an emissary.  Or gifts.  Sir."

"And she did release X9-21," said Dr. Teasdale.  "Back then.  She let him make up his own mind.  She'll probably do the same for X6-88.  Since he's her baby."

Dr. Coulton and Dr. Loken both snorted.

"I want to see Tanvi's baby," said Dr. Teasdale.  "Naveena."

There was silence in the room for a bit.

"Crop fertilizer," said Dr Coulton contemptuously.

"It's more than any of us has achieved since the facility was destroyed," said Dr. Teasdale. 

"X6-88," said Dr. Loken, "how long do you think it would take the five of us to travel to Fort Independence?"

"Approximately six hours, sir," said X6-88, his heartbeat accelerating.  "But I could cover the ground more quickly alone, if you wished to send me ahead to discuss terms with Ms. Bowman."

"I think we should make her come here," said Dr. Coulton.  "If she wants us so badly--"

"She wants X6-88 so badly," Dr. Teasdale corrected.

"Well, she can't have him without us," said Dr. Coulton.  "Let her come to us and discuss terms."

"Do you think she would?"

 

They saw him coming-- of course they did, just as they'd seen X9-21 coming-- but they didn't fire on him.  Instead, they came out to meet him-- X9-21, or rather Michael, and Nora Bowman herself, stepping outside the wall of her fortress to meet him on the dusty path below its walls.

Her hair was shorter-- not quite as practically short as X6-88’s own, but fairly closely cropped.  The last time he’d seen her, it had been in a braid that reached down between her shoulder blades.  It had a few new speckles of grey in it, as well.  She was wearing jeans and a T-shirt, like X9-21.  She had a new scar on her face, a sickle-shaped red slice out of the left cheek, just under her eye.  Her eyes themselves were undamaged, though, and her smile--

It was hesitant, tremulous, filled with hope and with fear, and it was directed straight at X6-88.

“I’m so sorry,” she said to him.  

He looked at her, unsure what to say.  No human had ever apologized to him before.  The traditional responses among humans were “I forgive you,” which seemed to be a meaningless form that altered none of the facts, and “It’s all right," which it was not.  But what if she required one or both of these responses from him as part of his end of the bargain, of which her end involved taking care of his charges?

“Thank you for your invitation,” he said instead, hoping that would satisfy her.

“Of course.”  She moved too much, like all humans-- fidgeting, shifting, her face twitching into new configurations that vanished as quickly as they appeared.  Her breath was coming quickly, as if she were a guilty synth being questioned on the subject of her guilt.  Michael, beside her, held courser-still and watchful.  “I-- thank you for-- coming.”

"I am here to extend you an invitation, in turn, from my owners," said X6-88.  "They would like you to come to them, to discuss the terms on which they would be prepared to cede control of me to you."

She winced slightly, and then nodded.  "OK.  Where are they?  Still at Ticon?"

"At the former Ticonderoga safehouse, yes," said X6-88.

"OK," she said again.  "Can I bring-- anybody?"

"I will accompany you, ma'am," said Michael.

She turned to him.  "Did I hear a silent 'whether you like it or not' in there?"

"Your hearing is impeccable," said Michael, and she smiled wider (not hearing the impudence? Or not minding?) before she turned back to X6-88.

"Is that OK?" she asked.  "Can Michael come?"

"You may bring anyone you like," said X6-88, "as long as you understand that the negotiations are between yourself and my current owners, and that any hostile or threatening action on your part will not serve your purpose of having me enter your service."

She nodded intently.  "I understand.  I won't attack them, X6-88.  You understand that if I'd wanted to, before now, nothing was stopping me."

"I understand that, yes," said X6-88. 

"Well-- will you come inside?" she asked.  "While I get changed and packed?  Do you want to see the baby?  Oh, no, you find babies unsettling, don't you?"

It took X6-88 a few moments to recall the chance remark to which she was referring, and when he did, he wasn't sure how to react.  Was it encouraging or alarming that she remembered such a minor incident in their brief association so well?  Did the remark have some greater significance for her?  If it did, it was unlikely to be a positive one.  Her own child had been taken from her when an infant, by the organization X6-88 served, and she had ended by destroying the Institute in retribution.

"What's wrong, X6-88?" she asked, sounding worried.  "Did I say something wrong?  I didn't mean-- I just remembered you saying that, in that nursery we found.  It's OK if you don't like babies.  I'm not looking to hire you as a nanny."

"I will do whatever service is required of me," he said, intending to be conciliatory, and then had to suppress a wince, remembering what Michael had said about the phrase offending her sensibilities.  She did look unhappy, and the sense of hopeless mutual incomprehension that had grown on him continually during their former association descended in full force.  What if, after negotiating with his owners and agreeing to whatever terms she did agree to in exchange for X6-88's service, she ended by finding him as unsatisfactory as she had before?  What would become of the doctors?  Had he already made an irredeemable mistake?

"I find Dr. Achanta's child unsettling, as well," said Michael unexpectedly.

She turned to him, still frowning, as X6-88 wondered whether Michael, out of some misguided sense of solidarity, was trying to deflect his mistress'-- mother's-- displeasure onto himself.  "What do you mean?  You love Naveena."

"I would gladly give my life to protect her," said Michael, "and as I have spent more time with her, I have grown more used to her-- flimsiness.  But I look forward to a developmental stage of greater-- structural integrity."

She laughed, a happy, relaxed peal X6-88 had never heard from her before, and said, "Fair enough!"

Michael smiled at her, and added, "I imagine X6-88 would like to see for himself that my human charges are well and happy.  He and I will follow you inside shortly."

She didn't bristle at the implied instruction, or at the preceding implication that X6-88 would need proof that she was treating the humans well.  She did hesitate for a moment, though, before she said, "Can we get--"

"Oh, yes," said Michael, and turned to X6-88.  "We need your word that you will take no hostile action against any human or synth here, including the use of reset codes."

That was easy, at least.  "You have it."

"OK," said Nora Bowman.  "Thank you.  I'm gonna go get changed.  You guys come on in whenever you're ready, OK?  See you in a bit."

She turned and went inside the gate.  X6-88 looked at his former fellow courser, waiting.

"It's all right," Michael said quietly.  "You can tell the truth."

X6-88 said, "Not all of it."

"Yes, all of it," said Michael.  "I wish you had heard the way I spoke to her when I was first a captive here.  Everything we ever wanted to call her to her face.  Defiler, destroyer, betrayer, murderer."  He spoke the list dispassionately.  "Before I asked her for my name, I asked her first if she wanted my apology for any of those names, or for the fact that I spat on her when she first removed my gag.  She said no."

X6-88 was silent, considering this.

"She is not giving you another chance," said Michael.  "She is asking you to give her one.  You should try to bear that fact in mind."

"I will," answered X6-88, because it did sound like important information, even outside any particular context.  "Is there anything else you would like to say to me outside her hearing?"

Michael hesitated-- possibly the hesitation of serious thought, rather than that which preceded an evasion or deception; it was harder to tell with another courser than with a synth or a human-- before he said, "No.  Nothing she should not hear.  Come inside, X6-88."

 

As he stepped through into the courtyard, he saw it twice-- as it was now, and as it had been when he first entered its walls at her side.  Not so different now as then, when she had briefly accepted his service, and had brought him here to show him-- so proudly-- its crumbling walls and haphazard, sprawling crops, cobwebbed rooms with salvaged or cobbled-together furnishings and decorations.  It hadn't been her base of operations, at that time; that had been the equally run-down, patched-up Sanctuary Hills, and the remembered image flickered to the house she had called hers there, the room with the crib of which she said I guess I won't be needing this now, with a little laugh to which he had no idea how to respond.  Fort Independence, Sanctuary Hills, both swarming with ragged, uneducated humans, who spoke arrogantly to the woman to whom they owed all the safety and comfort they had.  He had remained silent in the face of their insolence, since she had never instructed him otherwise.

There were people milling about here, tending to crops, watching unobtrusively as X6-88 and Michael came inside.  The humans of the surface were always tense around X6-88.  Some of these, of course, might be synths, ones he had never known well enough to recognize now, or who had had their facial features reconfigured by the Railroad's surgeons.  He wondered how best to clarify the matter with any individual.  They might consider it a rude question. 

As if to be helpful, the first person who actually came up to them had a scar across his forehead in the form of the word SYNTH.  Presumably he had fallen into the hands of hostile humans before being taken into Nora Bowman's service.  He was tallish and well built, with black hair and heavy brows, and once he was within speaking distance of the two of them, his body shifted into a posture reminiscent less of a synth's usual nervousness before a courser, than of a courser's before a human to whom he was making an official report, or from whom he was awaiting orders.

"Do you remember unit M7-97?" Michael asked X6-88.

X6-88 examined the synth, who stood still under his scrutiny, without fidgeting, his eyes very slightly downcast.  "His appearance has been surgically altered?"

"By the Railroad," said Michael.  "They also altered his memories, so that he has no recollection of the Institute.  He now prefers to be known as Danse."

"It's an honor to meet you," said Danse to X6-88.  "If 'meet' is the right word.  You must have known me before-- I'm sorry I don't remember."

X6-88 raised his eyebrows.  "You chose not to remember, did you not?"

The skin of the synth's face reddened slightly as he answered, "Apparently.  Yes, sir.  Although I don't remember that, either."

X6-88 looked at Michael.  "If he does not remember the Institute, why is he addressing me as sir?"

"He is trying to be polite," said Michael.  "X6-88 does not outrank you, Danse, and you need not address him as sir.  X6-88, would you prefer to see the scientists first, or the rest of our family?"

"The scientists," said X6-88, a little shortly, wondering why Michael would ask a question with such an obvious answer.  Pursuant to the negotiations that were shortly to take place, it was obviously a priority for X6-88 to assess the condition of the Institute humans currently under Nora Bowman's care.  The condition of the synths, in addition to being a lower priority, could easily be extrapolated from what he had seen already.

"I'll go," said Danse.  "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have-- intruded.  I thought--"

"You wanted to meet my friend," said Michael, looking at Danse with an expression X6-88 found difficult to identify; he had never seen it on X9-21's face.  Nor had he ever heard him-- though it was certainly no stranger than my mother-- say the words my friend.  "You should not apologize for that.  Would you like to come with us to speak with the scientists?"

"X6-88 may not want me to--" Danse began, and then broke off as Michael reached out and took the other synth's hand in his. 

"Come with us," he said, as Danse went redder, and seemed to clutch at Michael's hand, lacing his fingers through Michael's fingers, holding on.  "I believe all the scientists are in the infirmary at the moment.  And the baby.  She is very fragile, X6-88, but if Dr. Achanta offers to allow you to hold her, I recommend the experience.  There are worse things in life than being unsettled."

Chapter Text

The scientists were obviously well fed and well cared for, and they all seemed cautiously happy to see X6-88, although fortunately Dr. Achanta stopped short of offering to allow X6-88 to hold the baby.  There was a limit to the number of new and startling experiences it seemed necessary to suffer within such a short span of time, and X6-88 was still trying to adjust to seeing X9-21 holding hands with a blushing M7-97, and to the fact that the scientists seemed to respond to the the sight with the same kind of smiles humans generally gave to beloved children and small, vulnerable animals.

"How is... everyone?" Dr. Hastings asked X6-88.  She was standing next to another human woman, one X6-88 didn’t know, whom she’d introduced as Dr. Severne.  X6-88 had been vaguely aware there were humans in the Commonwealth who styled themselves as doctors despite lacking Institute education, but he was surprised Dr. Hastings would acquiesce in the title.  

"I have been doing my best, ma'am," X6-88 answered, which made Dr. Hastings wince, and then say quickly, "I'm sure you have, X6-88.  We were sorry to hear from Michael about A9-82."

Another sorry, though not an apology, since A9-82's death had not been Dr. Hastings' fault.  Except insofar as she had brought X9-21 away, leaving X6-88 and A9-82 with less help, but he was sure she didn't regret that action.  He tried to think what to say.  Not it's all right, surely.  "Yes, ma'am."

Before anyone could say more, a child entered the room, rushed at him, crying out "X6-88!" and flung its arms around him.

It was a disoriented moment before he realized it was unit S9-23, the Shaun unit, the small artificial version of Father that had been his final project, unless you counted Nora as his project.

"Hello, Shaun," he said, and Shaun looked up at him, beaming, joyful, and said, "I missed you!"

"It’s been a long time since we saw each other," X6-88 temporized; he hadn't exactly missed the child, had hardly had leisure to think of him after the Institute's destruction, but he wasn't displeased to see him again, either.  "Are you well?"

"I'm very well, thank you," Shaun answered, finally letting go of him and stepped back.  He had something small in his hand, but X6-88 couldn’t see clearly what it was.   "How are you?"

It was an unexpected question, although it shouldn’t have been; the child had always replied in kind to such inquiries.  The answer had been routine in the Institute-- he had always been well maintained-- but now it was not.  He was tired, he was hungry, he was bewildered, he was apprehensive, he was not at all sure what the future held, or whether he was performing his proper duties and functions to anyone's satisfaction, or what those duties or functions were any more, or to whose satisfaction.  He was homesick, for the Institute, where everything-- anything-- made sense.

“Are you hungry?” Shaun asked, before X6-88 could think of anything like an acceptable answer to his first question, and held out his hand, in which there was a package of gumdrops.  “There’s soup in the kitchen but it’s not quite ready yet and I said you were probably hungry right now and mom said shit and then she said why didn’t Michael tell her to feed you right away and why was I her smartest child and I said it’s because Father made me a genius like him and she said that’s right.  She said you needed something more substantial than gumdrops but maybe they’d hold you over until the soup was ready.”

X6-88 took the package from Shaun, and took a moment to steady his voice before he said, “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” said Shaun, beaming again.  

“I apologize for not having offered you refreshment right away,” said Michael.  “I thought you would consider it a higher priority to-- look around.”

“You were correct,” said X6-88.  

“You need food to live,” said Shaun, in a tone that clearly indicated he felt both of them had seriously misplaced priorities.  “When you come live with us, X6-88, you can have all you want to eat, and you can have one of the snack cakes, every time.  There’s exactly enough for all of us now.  There’s me--” he counted on his fingers, “and Emily and Michael and Max and Cog and Victoria and Danse and Jonah and you and that’s nine and that’s how many is in a box.  Eat the gumdrops.”

X6-88 unwrapped the package and placed one in his mouth.  The sweetness was overwhelming.  He let it sit on his tongue, feeling it begin to dissolve, slowly, in his watering mouth, and enter his bloodstream.  You can have one of the snack cakes, every time.

“You should come and meet the rest of us,” said Shaun.  "By the time you do, the soup will be ready."

X6-88 moved the gumdrop into his cheek with his tongues, and said firmly, “It has yet to be settled whether I’m coming here to stay at all, Shaun.  Your mother--” the phrase slipped out unbidden, but it would have felt unnatural to refer to her as Ms. Bowman to a child programmed to consider her its mother-- “is coming with me to discuss the matter with-- with those who will make the decision.”

“Why don’t you make the decision?”  Shaun asked.

“Because I am not in charge,” said X6-88.

"Who's in charge?"

"Dr. Loken, of Robotics," said X6-88.  "Dr. Weston and Dr. Coulton, both of Advanced Systems, and Dr. Teasdale, of Bioscience."

"What about Dr. Binet?" asked Dr. Hastings.

"Dr. Binet is no longer with us, ma'am."

Dr. Achanta, sitting on a bed with the baby in her lap and her husband at her side, gasped, and X6-88, when he realized the mistake she had made, corrected his phrasing, saying, "He isn't dead, ma'am.  Not to my knowledge.  Dr. Binet felt our safety was unacceptably compromised by your and X9-21's alliance with Ms. Bowman.  After an unsuccessful attempt to persuade everyone to move, he left us."

Dr. Achanta looked distressed.  "Left?  Left to go where?"

"I have been instructed not to disclose that information," said X6-88.

"Instructed by whom?"  Mr. Benson asked.

"By Dr. Binet, sir."

"I did not realize Dr. Binet was no longer with your group," said Michael, and everyone turned to him.  X6-88 momentarily expected one of the humans to reprimand him for speaking out of turn, but of course, no one did; he was no longer their property, but their benefactor's 'child.'  A brief sense-memory of being struck across the face by Dr. Coulton's open hand surfaced.  He wondered, for a moment, what Nora Bowman would do if someone were to slap Michael's face, and then, even more briefly and unsettlingly, wondered what she would do if she saw someone slap X6-88.

“My mom’s in charge of us," said Shaun, still pursuing his original line of inquiry, "and she's mostly pretty smart, but sometimes she’s dumb on accident, and we have to tell her.  So you gotta tell the doctors if they're being dumb.”

“Shaun's right, X6-88," said Mr. Benson.  "Tell them to come.  Tell them it's safe, and--"

"More than safe," said Dr. Achanta.  "It's home, now.  Tell them it could be their home, too."

"I'll convey your messages, sir, and ma'am," said X6-88.  "Do you have a message for my faction, Dr. Hastings?"

Dr. Hastings considered for a moment, and then said simply, "Tell them to come."

"Come meet the rest of us," said Shaun again, seizing X6-88's hand in his small, warm one and tugging lightly at his arm.  "Come on, Michael.  Come on, Danse."

X6-88 allowed himself to be led (how simple it was, to be led, to follow, even by a child, a synth, an infantile copy of the man who had once commanded him) back out into the courtyard.

 

The small room to which Shaun led him was crowded with furniture, the furniture-- shelves, couches, chairs, beds-- crowded with books and synths.  Daniel Lyons-- Dee-- was there as well, looking relaxed, and when he saw X6-88, he smiled.  None of the four synths whose names Michael gave him, or the young apparently-human (judging by the surname) woman sitting next to Y4-15, smiled; they all looked wary, though they didn't seem actually frightened.  Shaun pulled X6-88 far enough into the room that Michael and Danse could enter behind them.

"Hey," said one of the synths X6-88 didn't recognize, whom Michael had introduced as Cog.  "Welcome to the Castle."

"We've got fun and games," Dee said, and then, when everyone turned to him, "Oh, just because all Travis ever plays is showtunes and be-bop.  Someday I'm gonna get my turntable working again and rock all your worlds."

"I'll fix your turntable for you, Jonah," Shaun offered.  "I'm good at fixing things.  What's a turntable?"

"I'll show you, 2.0," said Dee.  "If I can get a hall pass from your mom to leave the Castle and get it.  How's the tour so far, X6-88?"

"The scientists all say come live here," said Shaun happily.  "And so do we, right guys?"

"Yes," said Y4-15-- Emily-- her blue eyes on his face with an odd intensity of focus.  The skin of her face, once uniformly pale, was speckled with tiny patches of relative darkness, which X6-88 had seen before in surface-dwelling humans, and in synths with surface functionality; it seemed to be one possible result of the exposure of fair skin to the light of the sun.  "We all want you here, X6-88, and the scientists of your faction are welcome, too."

"It's OK by me," said J7-99-- or, rather, Victoria-- giving X6-88 a thumbs up.  "Met two whole coursers now who aren't giant dicks, so I'll give you the benefit of the doubt.  If it doesn't work out, got enough parents and big brothers now to kick your ass."

"Jesus, Victoria," said the other unfamiliar synth-- Max-- looking pained.

"What?" said Victoria.  "I'm just saying.  We're all mannerless renegades here, right?  Well, except Michael and Danse.  And Shaun.  And Emily, 'cause she's actually really polite all the time.  And Kasumi, since it turned out she wasn't even a synth.  And you're not even a runaway.  Shit, are me and Cog the only mannerless renegades here?"

"I'm not mannerless," said Cog.  "I said welcome to the Castle.  But I will help kick X6-88's ass if he messes with you.  By which I mean I'll, like, start forward in a vaguely threatening manner, and then hesitate long enough for everybody that actually knows how to fight to shoulder in ahead of me."

"My hero," said Victoria.

"Kids," said a familiar gravelly voice from the doorway, "soup's-- oh, hey."

X6-88 turned, and saw the equally familiar face-- gnarled and half rotted away by radiation-- under the ancient hat and above the ancient coat.  

"Hey," Hancock said. "There's that kill it kill it oh right it's her boyfriend look.  Good to see you again too, X6."

X6-88 inclined his head slightly.  He still had difficulty understanding how any human woman could bear to look at such a creature at all, let alone consider it as a romantic prospect.  Nora Bowman had lived almost all of her life pre-war, when there was no such abomination in existence as a ghoul-- how could she, of all Commonwealth humans, select it as a mate?  It staggered the imagination.

He said, “It’s her husband, now, yes?”

Hancock grinned, hideously, and tipped his hat.  “Guilty as charged.”

“He’s our stepdad,” said Shaun.  "Our dad's dead.  He died when Father was just a tiny little baby.  But Hancock's like a dad, because he loves our mom and he loves us, like our dad would if he was alive.  Just like Jonah's like our brother, even though he doesn't have our same genes.  Is the soup ready?"

"Kid's got a knack for essentials," said Hancock.  "Here to call you all to lunch.  Hope I didn't take away your appetite, X6, but, you know, we're gonna have to get used to each other."

"I've seen uglier things than you without losing my appetite," said X6-88. 

The jibe had come without thinking. Between the sugar rush of the gumdrop on an empty stomach, and the general feeling of surreality that had begun when Michael laced his fingers through Danse's and failed to do anything but increase through Shaun's hug, the synths' banter, and the theorem that a ghoul was his stepfather, he was feeling slightly off kilter.  Before he could worry that he had overstepped his bounds with Nora Bowman's husband, though, Hancock laughed, a rusty, clattering laugh, and said, "Have to tell me about 'em sometime."

Shaun was frowning, still holding onto X6-88's hand, as the rest of the synths-- and the two apparent humans in the room-- began to rise and filter towards the door.  "That's rude, X6-88.  You shouldn't call people ugly.  It hurts their feelings."

"'S OK, kiddo," said Hancock.  "Long as your mom can stand to look at me, I can take being called an ugly freak by all her hand-crafted statue-lookin' sons.  Or 'this.'  'Member, Michael, when we were holding you prisoner?  'This said--' whatever.  Of all the names I've ever been called, I think this still takes the cake."

Michael smiled rather absently, and said, as Emily began to pass him, "Emily, a moment?"

Emily rolled her eyes and sighed.  "Michael, I'm hungry."

"I promise to take no more than five minutes of your time, at most," said Michael, neither looking nor sounding perturbed by her open insolence.  "Please, Emily.  It's extremely important that I speak to you now."

"How important can it be if it's only going to take five minutes?" she asked, and then seemed to relent.  "Fine.  Go ahead, Kasumi-chan, I'll be right there."

"Go on," Michael said to Danse, letting go of his hand for the first time since he had taken it in the courtyard.  "We won't be long."

Danse looked as if he would have preferred to stay with Michael, but obeyed.  Shaun pulled at X6-88's hand again, and he followed most of what Dee had called the "rag-tag band of misfits" out down the Castle's inner corridor, and into a large room with two cookstoves, all their heat centers occupied by large cooking pots.  There was a large central counter area, and a few tables with chairs pulled up to them, some already occupied by humans with filled bowls and spoons.

"Sit down, X6," said Dee.  "I'll grab you some soup."

He sat down at a table between Shaun and an empty chair, which Dee took once he'd returned with three full bowls balanced precariously in his two hands, and shifted them deftly onto the table.  Shaun pulled one towards himself and pushed another towards X6-88, who began eating, trying to keep his hand from shaking at the scent of the hot food. The other synths, the human girl--Kasumi Nakano-- and Hancock all helped themselves, and crowded around the same table.

"So what's with all the secret spy meetings between Michael and Emily these days?" Victoria asked Kasumi, when they were all seated. None of them, despite their obvious lack of discipline, showed any undue eagerness for the food. Did they really eat like this so often they could afford to be casual about it? 

Kasumi shrugged.  "All I know is what she said yesterday, about him being worried it's going to stress her out.  Having the scientists move in.  More scientists."

"That can't be all it is," said Cog.  "Something's afoot.  Danse, you're Michael's boyfriend, what do you know?"

Danse went scarlet, and fumbled his spoon.

"Oops," said Cog, grinning.  "Are we not using the b-word yet?"

"Yeah, what's the terminology, Danse?" Victoria asked.  "Is he your beau?  Your steady?"

Kasumi giggled.  "Your gentlemen caller?"

"Cool it, guys," said Max, although he was grinning a little, too.  "You know Danse is shy."

"I am not shy," said Danse, still extremely red in the face.  "I simply have a sense of decorum."

"Yeah, and if you guys don't get off his case, his boyfriend's gonna beat you all up," said Dee, making Danse blush harder than ever. 

"Michael's not gonna beat us up," said Cog.  "He's just gonna give us all one of those looks that makes you mysteriously forget every super-funny thing you ever planned to say about him or his-- guy over there."

"Oh, that's what did that," said Dee.  "But what if you write the jokes down first?"

"You find yourself absent-mindedly crumpling up the paper and setting it on fire," said Hancock.  "It’s a real bitch, I tell ya."

Everybody laughed, except Danse, X6-88, and Shaun, who had been looking puzzled throughout the conversation, and interrupted the laughter to ask Danse, "Is Michael your boyfriend?  Are you gonna marry him?"

It was into the general laughter over this question that Michael entered the room, approached the table, saw Danse's crimson face and the hilarity of the others, and said, "I leave for one moment, and you all descend into barbarism."

He moved to stand behind Danse's chair and place a hand on his shoulder, as Shaun said, "Are you and Danse gonna get married?"

"We have not decided yet, Shaun," Michael answered, courteously and composedly.  "We have only known one another for a short time, and we have been romantically involved for an even shorter time.  You may recall that our mother only decided to marry Hancock after they had lived together for more than a year, and knew one another very well."

Shaun nodded, as Cog said to Dee, "See?"

"It's like magic," said Dee.  "Suddenly nothing about this is funny.  Why would it be?"

"It's 'cause Michael doesn't give a shit what we think," said Victoria.  "It's only funny to tease Danse because Danse gets so embarrassed."

"I am glad you all find the discomfiture of your friend and family member so extremely amusing," said Michael.

"Now not even that is funny," Cog complained.  "God, coursers are a buzzkill.  No offense, X6-88."

X6-88 didn't respond.  He was trying to incorporate the words-- along with my friend, my mother, and my name-- romantically involved into his comprehension of what, exactly, his fellow courser had somehow become in the space of the last year.  I leave for one moment...

Michael reached out, saying nothing, took the bowl X6-88 had already emptied of soup, and carried it to the stove, where he refilled it and filled another bowl.  He brought them both back to the table, placed one in front of X6-88, and set the other one down next to Danse; there were no empty chairs left at the table, so he pulled one over from another table, and Victoria moved over to make room for it between herself and Danse.

"Where's Emily?" Shaun asked. 

"She had something to discuss in private with our mother," said Michael.

X6-88 considered, briefly, refusing the second bowl of soup-- he didn't wish to appear greedy, or give the impression that he was in the habit of gorging himself at meals-- but it was already there, he hadn't asked for it, and he had already seen several of the humans at other tables get up and refill their bowls.  Besides, depending on the outcome of the upcoming negotiation, he might not eat again soon.  He began on his second bowl.

"What did she have to discuss with Ms. Bowman?" Kasumi asked curiously.

"Since she preferred to have the conversation in private," said Michael, "I think she would also prefer not to have it commented on in public.  X6-88, my mother has requested that I ask you whether there is anything in particular she should bring to this negotiation." 

"Food," said X6-88. 

Michael nodded. "If you think of anything else, don't hesitate to mention it. It's very important to all of us that the negotiation go as well as possible. We can speak on the way of any suggestions you may have as to what approach she should take, or what she should offer. You should not hesitate to make those suggestions, either. As Shaun mentioned, she welcomes advice and constructive criticism, particularly from us."

Us, at this particular table, might have been the strangest word of all.

Chapter Text

“He’s not coming back,” said Rosemary, almost dreamily, lying on her back on the ragged couch and staring up at the water-stained ceiling.

Julian, who was sitting in an armchair reading a smoke-damaged history book, slammed it shut, making everyone jump. “Rosemary, you can really be a--”

“Leave her alone, Julian.” Elizabeth wished she had rationed the last pack of cigarettes X6-88 had brought more carefully. She wasn’t going to have a drink-- not when, if everything went according to plan, they were about to have an incredibly important negotiation, and then, possibly, leave this hellhole for the first time in she-couldn’t-remember-how-long-- but a cigarette would really take the edge off. “Rosemary, you know X6-88 is coming back. The question is whether he’s bringing Bowman with him. Let’s take bets. I bet that he’ll be back… in, mmm, fifteen minutes… with her, and with… who else do you all think she’ll bring with her?”

“That ghoul she’s married to, no doubt,” said Julian.

“Oh, I don’t really think--” Nora Bowman really was married to a ghoul, though, at least according to the radio. What a strange woman. “Do you think she’ll bring Daniel Lyons?”

“Because he did so well at negotiating with us the first time?” Max asked sardonically.

“He did well enough to convince X6-88,” said Elizabeth. “And X6-88 convinced us. That’s not so bad.”

Rosemary said, “Do you think she’ll bring X9-21 back?”

“She may want to bring him,” said Max thoughtfully. “For protection. He’s the only one who’d have a hope of beating X6-88 in a fight, if things don’t go well.”

“She’s killed half a dozen coursers herself,” Elizabeth reminded him. “Don’t underestimate her.” She shivered, a little. Nora Bowman, destroyer of the Institute, ruler of the Commonwealth-- they’d heard on the radio of her takeover of the last remnants of the Brotherhood of Steel, and joked tensely that no doubt next she’d announce her alliance with the Gunners and the latest emergent raider bosses-- here, in this room, where they’d hidden for so long. What would she say? How would she look at them? Would she really offer them-- help? “And for the love of God, Julian, don’t antagonize her.”

“Why would I antagonize her?” Julian demanded, and Elizabeth rolled her eyes.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Why would you pick a fight with Rosemary? Why would you slap X6-88 around when he went to protect her?”

“I didn’t pick a fight with Rosemary,” said Julian, “and I slapped the courser because you all spoil it to death, and it needs to be reminded of its place.”

“Not if she takes him,” said Rosemary thoughtfully. “She’ll really spoil him, if she thinks he’s her child.”

“She can’t take him,” said Max. “He’s loyal to us. If she demands we order him to obey only her--”

“That’s unacceptable,” said Julian. “He’s our only protection against her. We have to retain some control.”

“I agree,” said Max. “But we have to be prepared for the demand. She’ll have to negotiate down to-- well, we’ll have to give up some authority over him, I imagine. In exchange for-- whatever she offers.”

“Are we going to go live with her?” Rosemary asked, looking at the ceiling again. “In her fortress? With all her synths, and ghouls, and everything? And Tanvi, and Beau, and Alice?”

“And Naveena,” added Elizabeth, whose imagination had been strangely seized by the idea of Tanvi’s baby, now that she knew its name. And that it was alive. “I’m willing, if you all are. If that’s what she offers.”

“Well, X6-88 made a good point, about what she owes us,” said Max.

“Do you think she sees it that way?” Elizabeth asked.

“How the hell are any of us supposed to know what goes through the head of a woman like that?” Julian asked. “We’ll negotiate with her, and if it seems she’s offering us-- what’s worth our while-- we’ll reach an agreement. If not, we’ll throw her out.”

“You think it’ll be that easy to throw her out?”

Elizabeth’s question hung in the air for a moment before Max said briskly, “She doesn’t want a fight. I’m sure we can come to a mutually beneficial arrangement.”

The door rattled. Rosemary sat up abruptly, staring at the door in fright.

“He’s home,” said Elizabeth, trying to sound more cheerful and optimistic than she felt, as the locks clicked, and the knob turned.

He really was home, though, and he’d brought Nora Bowman, and X9-21.

Both of them were wearing a motley miscellany of armor over, in X9-21’s case, a pair of jeans and a long-sleeved green shirt, and, in her case, an olive-drab set of military fatigues. X9-21 was bare-headed, while Bowman wore what looked like a ragged old trilby hat, which she removed as she stood in the doorway, her gaze flickering from scientist to scientist, and around the room, as it once had around the Bioscience lab, while Elizabeth and Tanvi hid behind a microscope like schoolgirls, watching her make a beeline for Dr. Holdren.

Even then, she’d been a little frightening-looking: muscular and scarred, with a places-to-be stride and a piercing, what-have-we-here stare unnervingly reminiscent of Father’s. But it was one thing to have the Director assessing your work with that clinical gaze; it was something else entirely to have a stranger, smelling of the surface, wandering into your department and looking at everything you’d achieved over the course of your career with the air of someone who was trying her best to give you the benefit of the doubt, and mostly failing. Now her hair was cropped off short, as if she’d jettisoned whatever softness she’d ever bothered with, and she looked even less impressed than she had with the Institute. Not that Elizabeth could exactly blame her for that. They hadn’t ever made much of a home of this place.

“Come in, Ms. Bowman,” said Max, taking charge, as he usually did these days, now that Alan was gone. “Thank you for coming.”

“Thanks for your invitation,” Bowman answered, courteously enough, and strode into the center of the room to swing a pack from her shoulders to the central coffee table. X9-21 followed her to the edge of the circle of chairs and sofas, and then came to a halt, slipping his own pack from his shoulders to the floor at his feet; X6-88, after closing and locking the door behind them, came forward, too, and stood across from his former fellow courser. “This is for you. X6-88 said things might go better if we had plenty of food for the negotiation.”

She unzipped the pack, and produced a stack of four lidded plastic containers, which she passed around, followed by four soda bottles.

"I didn't bring utensils," she said, rather apologetically.

"We have utensils," said Julian. "We aren’t savages. Get them.”

He addressed the order to X6-88, who obeyed promptly.

Bowman stayed standing, distributing the food and sodas to the four of them, and then looking around thoughtfully once again.

“Please, sit down,” said Rosemary timidly.

“I’m OK, thanks,” said Bowman, and stepped back, instead, to stand beside an empty armchair, at the outskirts of the circle of furniture, like the synths. “X6-88, you wanna make your report?”

X6-88 looked at Max, who seemed a little surprised, but answered, “Go ahead, X6-88.”

“I saw and spoke with Drs. Hastings and Achanta, and Mr. Benson,” X6-88 began.

Elizabeth took a cautious bite of the food, which turned out to be a thick soup or stew of chopped vegetables and some kind of meat, the kind of hearty food she’d-- never really had. There had been various nutritional pastes in the Institute, of course, and then in the years since, none of them had really ever picked up the knack of cooking, per se. X6-88 could prepare meat so that it was edible, but that was about all. Elizabeth tried not to eat too quickly, so as not to startle her stomach, while X6-88 continued, “They all appear to be in good health and spirits, as does Dr. Achanta’s child. They-- the adults-- asked that I tell you to come and join them at the Castle. That they are safe, and have made a home there.

“I also saw and spoke with several synths, and with the man who came here calling himself Daniel Lyons, who appears to be a resident at the Castle on similar terms as the synths. They spoke and behaved to me as if I were an equal with whom they were on friendly terms. They showed neither fear nor resentment of me, or of the proposition that they seemed fully aware I represented. Unit Y4-15 specifically stated, directly to me, 'we all want you here, and the scientists of your faction are welcome, too.'

“I believe that’s all the relevant information I gathered, sir.”

Max nodded, and turned to Bowman. It was odd having her stand while they sat and ate; on the one hand, they were looking up at her, as if she were placing herself above them, but on the other hand, she seemed to be symbolically placing herself on the same level as the synths, as if she, too, were an inferior, with a report to make.

“What do you have to say?” Max asked, as if she really were a synth, and she spoke promptly.

“First of all,” she said, “I need to apologize. Might take a minute, so settle in and eat up while I talk, although if you feel the need to interrupt me at any point, that’s fine too.

“I apologize for never getting to know you guys all that well. I was in a bad emotional place, as I’m sure you’re all aware, and everything in the Institute freaked me out, but I wish I’d been more open-minded, and listened better, back then. I’ve already apologized to X6-88 for not trying hard enough to make things work with him, but I’ll apologize for that to you guys, too, because you-- the Institute-- offered me the chance to get to know him better, and I let you guys down, as well as him, when I walked out on him. If I’d stuck with him, and listened to him, and taken the time to really understand his point of view, maybe things would have worked out. I don’t know. But either way, I apologize for everything I didn’t do better to make it work.

“And I apologize for not reaching out to you guys sooner, after I blew up the Institute. I guess you know I tried-- I kind of tried-- but whenever I got within yelling distance of anyplace I knew you were, your coursers shot at me, and I just-- stopped trying, and just-- avoided those places. And I should have tried harder. I should have thought harder, sooner, about how to reach out. And especially after Michael-- and Tanvi and Beau and Dr. Hastings-- came to live with me. I should have asked all of them what I could do, to communicate better with the rest of you. I wronged them, and I wronged you, and all the other Institute survivors, human and synth. And some of them are dead because of it. Some of them I could have saved, if I’d tried harder, and been better. I’m sorry. About all of it. Everything I did wrong, and can’t fix. And I’m here to offer to fix what I can. Do what I can for you guys. You guys in this room, and any other Institute survivors you can help me communicate with, and figure out how we can help them too.

“OK. Thanks for listening.”

There was silence for a moment.

Julian broke the silence by saying, “So you’re not actually sorry for blowing up the Institute?”

Elizabeth winced, but Bowman just said, “I’m sorry things came to that,” and added, “Dr. Coulton, right?”

“I don’t believe we’ve been introduced,” said Julian.

“We haven’t,” said Bowman. “But you’re the guy who’s not Max Loken. Sorry, I bust in here with my big apology speech I’ve been practicing, and I haven’t even done the introductions yet. Which is which, Dr. Weston and Dr. Teasdale?”

“I’m Dr. Teasdale,” said Elizabeth, since Rosemary didn’t seem about to speak up. “And I appreciate your apology.”

“Thanks,” said Bowman, turning that direct, assessing gaze on Elizabeth. However genuinely repentant she might be-- and it was hard to imagine she’d made that whole speech just as a ruse-- there was no mistaking the fact that she was used to being in charge. Was in charge. “How’s the food?”

“It’s very good,” Elizabeth answered truthfully. “Thank you for bringing it.”

“You’re welcome,” said Bowman. “So let’s talk about the terms on which we might come to a mutually beneficial agreement. I want to help, and I want another chance with X6-88. X6-88 wants your approval before he agrees to give me that chance. How do I help, and also get your approval?”

“What are you prepared to offer us?” Max asked.

“Well, off the top of my head, the same things I’ve given your three former colleagues,” said Bowman. “Protection, sustenance, whatever facilities are possible for your scientific pursuits. You can come live with us at the Castle if you want, or I can arrange for you to stay at one of the other Minutemen-protected settlements, if you’d prefer not to have to deal with me, or deal with a lot of synths on terms of equality. Because, fair warning, I’ve got seven synths at home, and none of them are going to be subject to your authority or to your orders, and some of them are kind of sassy. Most of them.”

“You make it sound so tempting,” said Julian, and Bowman turned to look at him, her eyes narrowing slightly.

“If it’s a deal-breaker,” she said, mildly, “like I said, we can make alternate living arrangements for you. I’ve got well-defended, well-provisioned settlements all over the Commonwealth.”

“If we were located somewhere other than Fort Independence,” said Elizabeth, attracting the piercing gaze to herself again, “where would X6-88 be?”

“Well, that’s up to him,” answered Bowman, and looked at X6-88. “I’d prefer you were with me, because I really want to get to know you better, and make some things up to you. But if you wanted to stay with your humans, I’d certainly understand that. Michael stuck close to his, too, for awhile, until he got to where he felt like they were safe without him. I know you don’t really trust me yet, and I don’t blame you. All I’m asking for is a chance. To prove I’m worth your while.”

Her voice, which had held steady throughout her apology speech to the humans, wobbled a little on the last sentence fragment, and she dropped her eyes quickly from X6-88’s impassive face.

Elizabeth couldn’t imagine how difficult it must be, to be emotionally invested in a courser. Why hadn’t the woman contented herself with “adopting” the more vulnerable type of synth? There must be plenty who would be willing enough to play “child” to Bowman’s “mother” in exchange for protection. Why did she feel the need to set herself impossible challenges, like winning the filial affection of what was essentially a sentient weapon? Elizabeth stole a look at X9-21, who had been silent and expressionless this whole time, standing, like X6-88, at unobtrusive attention, with his pack at his feet.

Certainly it was tempting to believe, sometimes, that coursers felt emotions like-- well-- caring. They were loyal, unflinchingly loyal, and protective, and dedicated to the wellbeing of the humans to whom they’d pledged their service, and all that could make it seem as though they-- liked-- one. Sometimes. But it had been explained to Elizabeth often enough, when she was a child growing up in the Institute, and later as an idealistic young adult, before she’d really buckled down to her career, that it was an illusion, that it was important not to become confused by the appearance of humanity, especially in the third generation of synths. Just because they looked human, and sounded human, and acted human, didn’t mean they were human.

(Of course, Alan Binet had argued that just because they weren’t human didn’t mean they weren’t people. But Alan had been a little-- odd-- even in the Institute. The loss of his wife, and his loneliness, and the struggle to raise his son alone, afterwards, had led him to develop an emotional obsession with a female synth, so strong that the Institute had finally re-designated her and reassigned her to private duty as his surrogate wife. Her loss, along with the death of his son, in the destruction of the Institute, had driven him into a depression so deep that they had all been afraid, for awhile, that he would take his own life; when he had finally emerged from his near-catatonic stupor, he had been changed, embittered, barely speaking, and his outburst of rage when X9-21 succeeded in leaving with his faction had terrified Elizabeth. She had been secretly relieved when he had disappeared in the night, although she hoped he’d found a better life for himself, and some measure of peace.

At least Nora Bowman wasn’t romantically attracted to synths. Although a romantic taste for ghouls was even stranger, in some ways; at least synths looked human. The synth re-designated Eve had been very pretty, if you happened to be inclined that way.)

And coursers didn’t even act human, not really. Although sometimes it seemed-- but it was probably just Elizabeth’s overactive imagination, in the post-traumatic stress of losing the Institute, and the subsequent stress of struggling to survive ever since.

“We are not going to have X6-88 taken from us,” Julian was saying. “He’s our only guarantee that you won’t have us all slaughtered in our beds.”

Bowman gave him a long, clinical stare before she said, “OK. So living separate from X6-88 is a dealbreaker for you. So either you all come live at the Castle, or you all come live in some other Minutemen settlement, or no deal on your part.”

“You’re goddamn right,” said Julian.

Bowman turned and looked at the other three. “Is he always like this, or is this directed at me in particular?”

“He’s always like this,” said Elizabeth.

“Dr. Teasdale!” said Julian angrily.

“Well, you are,” said Elizabeth, even though her heart was pounding, slightly; she hadn’t really meant to draw this much attention to herself. “At least since the Institute was destroyed. Maybe it’s low blood sugar.”

“Friends,” said Max, as Elizabeth found she’d earned a quick smile from Bowman. “This is no time for squabbling among ourselves. Leaving aside, for the moment, where we would live-- to whose authority would X6-88 be subject, under your ‘deal’?”

“Um, well, the same authority as the rest of you, I guess,” said Bowman. “Mine, in some ways. My house, my rules. And, to a lesser extent, my settlements, my rules. I don’t have a whole lot of them, though, and they’re pretty reasonable, I think. No stealing, no hurting other people unprovoked, or threatening them. I feel like you guys can handle that, right?”

“I think Max means X6-88 in particular,” said Elizabeth, fighting the urge to look at Julian when Bowman mentioned threatening other people. “Whose orders would he be expected to obey? Ours, or yours?”

“Oh, um,” said Bowman, looking puzzled. “Well-- yours? For sure? I mean, I’m not sure why that would change?”

X9-21 said, speaking for the first time since the three of them had arrived, "Ma'am, if I may, I think Dr. Loken would like to know whether you would like him and his colleagues to use their authority to place X6-88 under yours."

"Oh, son, you know I can't do all that stuff," said Bowman, turning to focus on him.

"Yes, ma'am, I know," said X9-21. "But X6-88 may find the transition easier if he understands on what terms he is expected to interact with you. For example, if Dr. Loken and his colleagues place him under your authority, he will know that obedience to you will also be obedience to them."

"Oh," said Bowman, still focused on X9-21. "Oh, like-- OK, I get it. But that's how it was before, him obeying me because the Institute told him to, and I fucked it up. I could've-- if I'd been better, I could have earned-- but--" She looked at X6-88.

"For example," said X9-21 again, "if you had authority, even delegated authority, over X6-88, at this moment, you could give him permission to speak his mind on the matter, and he would not need to hesitate for fear of transgressing boundaries set by the Institute scientists."

"Oh," said Bowman again. "Oh, well, OK. Good point. He always has to walk me through this stuff," she explained to the humans. "I guess X6-88 could've done the same thing, maybe, if I'd ever listened. So. Can we-- can we just make it so-- so that if he does something I tell him to, he doesn’t get in trouble with you guys for it? I mean, as long as it doesn’t actually contradict anything you’ve told him to do? Or told him not to do?"

Elizabeth was feeling a little stunned. She hadn’t expected X9-21 to need to speak up and explain to his “mother” the benefits of her having any authority over X6-88, or for her to ask so tentatively for such conditional, marginal authority over him.

"Can you parse and comply with those behavioral parameters?" Max asked X6-88, who answered, "Yes, sir."

"OK," Bowman said, smiling with obvious relief. "Great. Um, then, can I ask you-- X6-88, can I ask you which you'd rather, if it were up to you-- live with me at the Castle, with your scientists, or all of you live somewhere else and have me come by sometimes?"

X6-88 hesitated.

"He can't cope with that kind of question, Ms. Bowman," said Max. “He’s not equipped to formulate and express personal preferences. You’ll have to phrase it in terms of what he believes would be to our benefit.”

Unexpectedly, Bowman made a little choking noise, and then laughed outright, and said, “Oh my God, you guys. I’m sorry, shit, it’s just--” She laughed again, covering her mouth. “You guys. You guys are amazing.”

“I beg your pardon,” said Max stiffly.

“I’m sorry,” Bowman said again, but she was still laughing. “I’m sorry, I’m just nervous, and you have to admit it’s kind of funny.” She wiped her eyes, and then laughed again. “‘Shit, how come the synths keep rebelling and plotting against us and running away and needing constant mindwipes to keep them docile?’ ‘I dunno, it’s weird, like if they were equipped to formulate and express personal preferences it would all make sense, but God knows that can’t be it!’”

Julian was looking livid, Max was looking irritated, Rosemary was looking puzzled, X6-88 was looking impassive, but even more startling than Bowman’s sudden fit of the giggles was the grin-- not wide, but unmistakable-- that it seemed to have produced on X9-21’s face. He caught Elizabeth’s eye as she looked at him, and she saw a flash of teeth as the grin broadened, as if he were inviting her to share the joke. She looked away quickly, unnerved.

“‘Hey,’” said Bowman, still laughing. “‘Here’s a seasoned veteran of our perfect implacable warrior training program for the toughest scariest synth motherfuckers we can find, and we have zero ability to enforce our authority over him any more, and he still slaves for us night and day, but it’s not because he cares about us, or because our wellbeing is actually important to him, it’s because he’s not equipped to want to do anything else.’ Right? Jeez.” She put a hand on her stomach, as if it hurt. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I-- anyway, X6-88? Which would you rather?”

X6-88's expression hadn't altered during Bowman’s episode, that Elizabeth could see, but now he said, quietly and evenly, "If the choice were mine to make, Ms. Bowman, I would choose residence at the Castle."

"Thank you," said Bowman, a little breathlessly, although it was hard to tell whether it was from her laughing fit or from-- something else. Relief? Gratitude? “Thanks, I-- thank you. Do you mind if I ask why?”

“Your fortress is the best-defended location in the Commonwealth,” said X6-88. “The humans will be safest there. They will have the company of their friends and former colleagues who have been under your care. If they have needs, or wishes, they can communicate them directly and promptly to you, without the need for intermediaries. And--”

He hesitated again, and said, more quietly, his gaze fixed on Bowman’s face, “I am giving you another chance. Ma’am.”

Bowman actually gasped, a quick little intake of breath, and took half a lunging step forward, towards X6-88, before she stopped herself, and stepped back, and breathed in deeply, and out.

“Thank you,” she said, her voice shaking. “God, X6-- thank you. I--”

She turned back to the humans, and the cool, assessing look was gone from her face and voice as she said, “Is that OK? With you guys? Please?”

No one spoke right away, and Bowman said, her voice still a bit wobbly, “If-- if you do come to the Castle, and it doesn’t work out-- we can re-negotiate, we can try something else, but-- you guys, I’m gonna try so hard, I’ll really, really try this time, I swear. For X6-88, and for-- for Shaun’s memory. Because you were his people. All of you. And if you can help me reach out to the-- the rest of you-- maybe, maybe after things are more settled, and you’ve decided whether you can trust me that far--” She looked at X6-88 again. “Same goes for you. If you decide-- you can trust me, enough to-- you let me know, OK? Take all the time you need. Whatever you need.”

Her voice broke, on the last three words, and she swallowed what might actually have been a sob.

"I'm amenable," said Max, after a moment. "On a trial basis."

"Me, too," said Elizabeth, and Rosemary nodded wordlessly.

"Fine,” said Julian.

Bowman smiled, and took in another deep breath, and breathed out slowly.

“Thank you,” she said. “Thanks, guys. Whew. OK. Are you guys packed? Can I help you pack?”

Chapter Text

"We're losing the light," Bowman said, turning from the front of their small procession to address X9-21 and X6-88. "We're not gonna make the Castle tonight-- we'll have to stay over at Goodneighbor. Sorry, Michael."

"It's not your fault, ma'am," said X9-21.

Elizabeth was exhausted. Somehow, when she'd pictured the aftermath of this decision, she'd skipped right to the idea of a new home, without thinking about the travel that lay between. She'd rarely walked this far in her entire life, and not at all in recent years; her legs were trembling, feet sore and blistered, lungs burning with the effort to keep up, even though Bowman was making an obvious effort to temper the pace to the scientists. Sweat was cooling on her brow and itching under her hair, and she felt hideously exposed, out here in the wilderness, even with X6-88 walking steadily alongside. She'd nearly thrown up when they passed the corpses of some zombielike, hideously mutated once-people whom Bowman and X9-21 had apparently killed on the way here, and she was still feeling sick to her stomach. She was afraid to ask Bowman how much further Goodneighbor might be.

Bowman didn't seem tired at all, even though she'd traveled twice the distance they'd covered already to get to them, and apparently been in multiple fights along the way. X6-88, who'd traveled twice the distance today that Bowman had, didn't seem tired either; of course, Elizabeth reminded herself as they trudged onward, he did this every day. Walking, fighting, ranging further and further afield to obtain supplies. He never complained of being tired, or of having blisters, or asked if he could have a day off, and when he got home, he waited on them, and when they complained about what he brought home, he apologized, and when Julian hit him, he said nothing. Did nothing.

Elizabeth had always thought of all this as the nature of a courser, in the same way that it was the nature of a roof to keep out the rain. But he did get tired, he got hungry. Did he get-- frustrated? Angry?

But that didn't make any sense. If he did feel things like that, then why didn't he hate them all?

Or did he?

But if he did, then why--

It's not because he cares about you-- Bowman had said, laughing, and, to X6-88, if you want to stay with your humans...

Elizabeth had never thought of herself as X6-88's human before. But it was true what Bowman had said, they had no way to enforce their authority, no way to punish him if he chose not to submit to punishment-- and yet he'd performed his continued subservience so perfectly that it had actually never occurred to Elizabeth that he could-- if he wanted to--

She stole a look up at him, his face, with the sunglasses he always wore.

"Who?" yelled a woman's voice, from somewhere up ahead.

"God damn it," said Bowman. "Get them to cover, X6. Michael, with me."

X6-88 herded the scientists wordlessly into a little alleyway between two crumbling brick walls, drew his gun, and turned his back on them. Elizabeth sat down, not caring any more what she sat down on, and after a second the others, looking as scared and miserable as she felt, followed suit, as they all listened to the yells-- "Get some, motherfucker!" and, hoarse and feral, "I want this one's HEAD!"-- and gunfire from outside their field of vision.

It seemed like an eternity, with only the view of X6-88's solid, unflinching back for comfort, before there was silence, and then Bowman's voice saying, "Fuckin' assholes," and X6-88 moved aside so that Elizabeth could see her and X9-21, both splashed with blood and gleaming with sweat. "You guys OK? Uh-oh."

She was looking at Julian, and she said, moving towards him, "Hey, Dr. Coulton. What's his first name?"

"Julian," said Elizabeth, as Bowman reached out and took Julian's hands in hers; he neither resisted nor cooperated. His face was the color of chalk, and he didn't look at her when she spoke to him.

"Hey, Julian," said Bowman, in a voice she hadn't used before, light and gentle. "Let's get you on up out of this alley. C'mon-- out into the air, yeah?"

She tugged lightly at his hands, but he shrank back and shook his head, still not looking at her.

"OK," she said. "Let's just sit here a minute, then." She let go of his hands, sat down next to him, reached for the canteen she wore at her waist, unscrewed it, poured some water into the cap, and held it out to him. "Little sip of water for me?"

He reached for the cap, but fumbled and dropped it on the ground, spilling the water.

"That's OK, that's OK," said Bowman, picking the cap back up and wiping it on her sleeve. "Plenty more where that came from. Here." She refilled the cap and held it to Julian's lips, resting her free hand lightly on his shoulder; he drank, and choked slightly, and drank again when she refilled the cap again.

"OK there?" Bowman asked him, in the new, soft voice, as if she were comforting a frightened child. "Raiders can raise a real ruckus, huh? Yelling and carrying on. But me and Michael barely broke a sweat. X6-88 didn't even fire a shot, did you, X6?"

"No, ma'am," said X6-88, still standing at the entrance to the alleyway.

Bowman smiled at Julian. "Take more than a passel of sorry- ass raiders to get anywhere close to you, Julian. Not with X6-88 and X9-21 and me on the case. Yeah?" She glanced around. "You guys are doing so great. All of you. I know you're tired. I just need you to hang in there for maybe-- thirty more minutes? Thirty minutes, and then we'll be at Goodneighbor, and you can all rest and eat and sleep, and we'll get a fresh start in the morning. Can you stand it for thirty more minutes?"

"Can't we--" Rosemary cleared her throat. "Can we please-- rest a little? Here? Now?"

"I don't think that's a good idea, Dr. Weston," said Bowman, her voice still gentle. "It's already getting dark, and you guys are so tired that if you sit still much longer, you're liable to fall asleep. But listen, once we get to Goodneighbor, I'll get us a couple of hotel rooms and bring you all your dinner in bed. How does that sound? Bet not even X6-88 provides bedside tray service."

Rosemary giggled faintly, and Bowman smiled at her.

"Atta girl," she said. "Be thinking about what you want for dinner. How you doing there, Dr. Coulton? Think you can stand up? Come give us a hand, X6-88?"

X6-88 reached a hand to Julian, who took it, after a moment, and let X6-88 pull him to his feet. Bowman scrambled up by herself, and helped first Rosemary, then Elizabeth, to their feet, while Max, too, accepted X6-88's hand.

"Anybody else need some water?" Bowman asked, holding out the canteen, and Rosemary reached for it and drank a delicate little bird-sip before handing it back. "All right. Let's go. Thirty more minutes. Count 'em off. If it takes longer than that, I'll carry you all the rest of the way."

They filed out of the alley and picked their way past corpses Elizabeth tried very hard not to look at closely, following, and not talking.

 

When they arrived at the gates of Goodneighbor, Bowman breathed a big, relieved-sounding sigh, and said, "Made it. Thank God. This way to the beds, ladies and gentlemen."

The town was full of ghouls.

It made sense-- the ghoul Bowman had married was often referred to on the radio as "Mayor John Hancock of Goodneighbor"-- but Elizabeth hadn't put it together, that this was a ghoul town. Or rather, it seemed, a town where ghouls and humans lived side by side.

"Daisy!" Bowman was saying to the ghoul that had just approached them, and then, incredibly-- well, not incredibly in a cognitive sense, but it was still incredible to actually witness-- the two of them hugged.

"Hey, Nora," said the ghoul, in a voice like a rusted hinge. "Hey, Michael."

"Hello, Daisy," said X9-21.

The ghoul-- "Daisy"-- examined the rest of them, then turned back to Bowman. "More of your kids?"

"Just the big one in the sunglasses," said Bowman. "The rest are just boring old humans. And they're about dead on their feet, so I'm gonna go get them to bed, but I'll be at the Third Rail later if you wanna catch up."

"Sounds like a plan," said the ghoul, and Bowman led the way to an old building, and said something and gave something to someone at the counter, and then led them upstairs.

"Three rooms," she said cheerfully, unlocking a door as she spoke, and then another. "Three beds in one, two in each of the others. You can figure out your own configurations. Boys versus girls, doctors versus fighters, cat people versus dog people. I'll take all your dinner orders now."

"I'm not hungry," said Max. "Just tired."

Julian nodded silently, and Rosemary said, "I couldn't eat a bite."

"X6?" Bowman asked, and he hesitated, and then said carefully, "If I were to be permitted to eat-- something-- from what we packed to bring with us--"

"X6-88, you can have anything you want," said Elizabeth, and his head swung so sharply to look at her that it almost frightened her.

"Sure you don't want me to bring you up something hot?" Bowman asked, and X6-88 said, "No, ma'am. But thank you for your generous offer. And-- thank you, Dr. Teasdale."

"If you say so," said Bowman. "Listen, I'm gonna head out to the bar here in town and catch up with some friends before I crash, myself. Anybody want to come with?"

She was looking at X6-88 and X9-21 again when she spoke.

"X6-88 stays with us," said Max; Elizabeth was surprised it hadn't been Julian, and in a far more peremptory tone, but Julian had been silent since the raider attack.

"OK," said Bowman agreeably. "You probably wouldn't enjoy it anyway, X6, it's just a bunch of drunks and drifters and ne'er-do-wells, and all the ladies would be ogling you. Michael, you want to come?"

X9-21 smiled. "What are you suggesting, ma'am?"

Bowman cackled with laughter. "OK, that came out wrong. Michael, you want to come chaperone your disreputable mother in the den of vice?"

"May I stay here and assist X6-88 in settling the humans, ma'am?" X9-21 asked, as Elizabeth tried to figure out whether X9-21 had actually just made a joke, and Bowman answered, "Oh, of course, if you rather. I'll leave you guys to it, then."

"May I come?" Elizabeth asked, startling both Bowman and herself, and probably everybody else, too. "To the, the bar?"

Bowman cocked her head. "Aren't you tired?"

"Exhausted," said Elizabeth, "but not sleepy. I want to sit down, and-- maybe have a drink?"

"If you want a drink," said Bowman, "I'll bring you one here."

"I've always heard one oughtn't drink alone," said Elizabeth. "But if you'd prefer I didn't come, Ms. Bowman--"

"It's not that I don't want you to," said Bowman. "It's just-- I feel like the Third Rail isn't exactly your scene."

Elizabeth thought of the building where they'd been living, the rooms, the furniture, the stale air, and said, "I'm tired of my scene."

Bowman smiled at her. "Well, that's good news for both of us, Dr. Teasdale. But still. The Third Rail might be a little bit of a baptism by fire, that way."

"No one will-- bother me, will they?" Elizabeth asked, and added, feeling daring, "Not if they see I'm with you."

"No one will bother you," Bowman agreed, with another little smile. "Well. You OK with that, X6-88? Trust me to take Dr. Teasdale out for a drink?"

X6-88 looked at Elizabeth, and then back at Bowman, and said, quietly, "Yes, ma'am."

"Fabulous," said Bowman, with a face-splitting grin. "OK, just let me take off my armor and leave it in one of these rooms. Michael, here's two of the keys, and I'll hang onto this one for when we come back. Come on, doc. Doctor. Tanvi gets on my case when I call her 'doc,' but sometimes I forget. It's a term of respect out here, I swear."

Tanvi. Tomorrow Elizabeth would see her again. And Beau, and Alice, and Naveena.

Her feet still hurt, and her muscles jumped with fatigue, but she wasn't even a little bit sleepy.

 

At the entrance to the bar, which seemed to be at the top of a flight of stairs, they were greeted by a formally dressed ghoul, who said, "Well, look what the cat dragged in. Who's the skirt? New daughter?"

"New friend," said Bowman.

"Next best thing, miss," said the ghoul to Elizabeth. "I'm Ham. Anybody gives you any trouble, I'll be the one trying to pull the General off them before she beats their face in."

"That was one time," said Bowman. "And that guy grabbed Piper's boob."

"Yeah, yeah," Ham said, winking at Elizabeth. "You're just lucky the mayor already had a crush on you. Remember, though, you start any brawls tonight, you'll have to answer to Fahrenheit."

"Is she here?" Bowman asked. "I haven't seen her since Hancock officially resigned. Should go pay my respects."

Ham gestured towards the stairs. "Head on down, ladies."

Elizabeth almost regretted tagging along when she saw the strange, rough-looking crowd in the bar: scars, rags, dirt, ghouls, guns, knives, scowls. But there was something a little heady about being here with Nora Bowman. Glances that she had a feeling might have stayed sullen, or turned nasty or leering, if she'd wandered in here alone (not that she ever would have) skated past her, landed on Bowman, and either turned into smiles, or turned away again.

Daisy the ghoul from earlier came up to greet them, and pointed them to a couch in a tucked-away corner, where a woman with burn scars on her neck and a half-shaved head reclined, propped on one elbow, smoking a cigarette. She nodded at Bowman, when they approached, without smiling.

"Mayor Fahrenheit," said Bowman cheerfully.

"Just Fahrenheit," said the woman. "Everybody knows I'm the mayor. Don't need to hear it all the time. How's things?"

"Things are great," said Bowman, beaming. "Haven't gotten a chance to thank you yet, for running things so well Hancock could afford to retire."

"I haven't thanked you for taking him off my hands, either," said the woman, with a very faint answering smile. "Not running around on him, are you? Or is this one of your children?"

"Neither," said Bowman. "This is my new friend Dr. Teasdale."

Fahrenheit gave Elizabeth a little nod of the head.

"Welcome to Goodneighbor, Dr. Teasdale," she said. "Tell Charlie you drink on me tonight."

"You don't have to do that, Fahrenheit," said Bowman, surprised. "She's my guest."

"Doctor's always a good friend to have," said Fahrenheit. "And she looks like a lightweight to me."

"Well, thanks," said Bowman. "Guess we'll head on over to the bar and see what we can rustle up on the mayor's dime."

"You can pay your own way," said Fahrenheit. "You're not a doctor or a lightweight."

"Hey, I have a two-drink limit now," said Bowman. "And a general's a good friend to have, too."

"We're already friends," said Fahrenheit.

Bowman's face broke into a giant, gleeful grin. "We are?"

"You know what I mean," said Fahrenheit, looking as if she were trying, not entirely with success, to hide an answering grin. "We're political allies. Get outta my face, Bowman."

"Yes, ma'am," said Bowman, still grinning.

"Nice to meet you, doc," said Fahrenheit to Elizabeth, as she started to follow Bowman towards the bar, where a chrome-plated, eyestalked, hovering robot wearing a top hat appeared to be the bartender.

"Hey, Charlie," said Bowman. "What's your poison, doctor?"

"Whatever you're having," said Elizabeth.

Bowman turned back to the robot. "Two Dirty Wastelanders."

"So I see," said the robot.

Bowman rolled her eyes. "Oh, that one never gets old."

Elizabeth cleared her throat. "Could I have a-- a cigarette?"

"Does X6-88 let you smoke?" Bowman asked, and when Elizabeth blinked at her, unsure how to answer, "I just don't want to get in trouble for leading you astray."

"X6-88-- brings us cigarettes, when he can find them," said Elizabeth finally, and Bowman said, "Well, maybe the whole straight edge thing is just Michael, then. And a pack of smokes, Charlie. Got a light?"

"That one never gets old, either," said the robot, producing a pack of cigarettes from under the bar with one of its limbs. Bowman took the pack, tapped it, shook one out, put it to her lips, and leaned across the bar, and the robot produced a brief jet of flame from which Bowman expertly lighted the cigarette, then handed it to Elizabeth, along with the pack. She took it, put it to her lips, and took a deep, steadying drag.

 

 

They carried their drinks to a little table, where people-- and ghouls-- immediately started coming by, chatting, asking questions, making conversation, moving on. Elizabeth found herself mistaken for a synth-- that must be what they meant when they asked Bowman if this was her daughter, her kid, her new one-- several more times, and welcomed to Goodneighbor by ghouls and heavily armed humans alike. Even the singer, a sultry-voiced, voluptuous woman in a red sequined gown, came by the table during a break between songs to put a hand on Bowman's rough hair and ruffle it affectionately, and Bowman actually blushed.

When Bowman had drained her second drink-- Elizabeth was still sipping hers, but she'd finished her cigarette-- and they were, at least temporarily, alone at the table, she said suddenly, "Dr. Teasdale, will you dance with me?"

Elizabeth blinked. "W-what?"

"I want to dance," said Bowman, "but I don't want to leave you alone. Will you? Just one song."

"You dance?" Elizabeth blurted out, warm with alcohol and dizzy with novelty, and Bowman said, "I mean, sometimes. Yeah." She glanced up at the singer, then back at Elizabeth, her eyes bright. "You ever read Shakespeare? The guy says 'Thou wast born in a merry hour,' and the girl says, 'No, sure, my lord, my mother cried. But then there was a star danced, and under that was I born.' Nate-- my husband, my first husband-- used to tell Shaun that. That he was born under a star that danced. He was such a happy baby. Come on, doc. Tor. Doctor."

"Elizabeth," said Elizabeth quietly, thinking of Father, with his grim jaw and his cool voice.

Bowman smiled. "Elizabeth. Will you call me Nora? Will you come dance with me? Half a song."

The song was quick, jazzy. Elizabeth drank the rest of her drink and stood up, and Bowman-- Nora-- stood, too, and took her hand, and led her to the middle of the floor-- there were a few claps, a few whistles-- and lifted their joined hands high, to twirl gently underneath them.

Chapter Text

The thing was happening. The thing Dee had always kind of figured would happen.

He'd read somewhere that if a shark ever stopped swimming, it would die, and whether that was true or not, he'd always had a hunch that if he ever stopped for too long, got tied down to one place, let himself feel safe and settled, quit moving (and talking, the endless chatter and banter that drove everyone crazy, including himself sometimes), let stillness and silence overtake him, it wouldn't be easy to... start... again.

And he'd been right, because he'd woken up this morning, in the Castle library, in "his" bed, with absolutely zero inclination to get up, either now, or ever again.

Face it. His entire existence was pointless at best, and a scourge on everyone he'd ever encountered at worst. He'd been responsible for the deaths of more good and innocent people than he could ever count, and he didn't even know most of their names.

The dead were probably the lucky ones, at that. He'd destroyed Nora's life even worse than it had already been destroyed by the war and the Institute: roping her into the Railroad, ruining any chance she'd ever had of reconciling with her son and living happily ever after as the queen of the sociopathic subterranean science kingdom. She would've improved the synths' lives, without putting them at risk; they would've all been better off. Everyone in the world would be better off if he'd never been born, but since it was too late to fix that, it was probably best if he just found some hole to crawl into and let himself rot. Maybe he could talk Hancock into taking him out behind the abandoned diner and putting him down like a rabid dog. He should probably get up and get on that before Nora got home.

"Wake up, Jonah," said Shaun's cheerful voice, out of nowhere; he hadn't even heard the door open. "It's so late! Everybody else is working! Are you OK?"

Everybody else had a job to do. What was his job? Life ruining, that was his job. Taking up space. Breathing air he didn't deserve.

"Are you sick?" Shaun asked, his little hand touching the stubble on Dee's head. Had to get on shaving that soon. Although, really, what was the point of that, either. He'd read that your hair kept growing after you died. Die semi-young, leave a ginger corpse.

Shaun's hand refused to go away. He petted Dee like he was a dog-- or like he might have petted his mother's head, after the Brotherhood shaved it-- and asked, more quietly, "Are you sad?"

At that, Dee managed to turn his head to look up at Shaun. He was missing his shades, but who cared.

"It's OK to be sad," said Shaun seriously, his eyes fixed on Dee's face, as if to make sure this important point was being duly taken in. "Do you want to talk about what makes you sad?"

"No," Dee said, and then made what felt like a colossal effort to add, "thanks."

"Do you want a hug?"

Dee shook his head.

"Do you want me to read out loud?"

He almost shook his head again, and then didn't.

"I'll read my book," said Shaun. "Because Jungle Book is for all of us together." He went to the bookshelf and plucked a book off. "This one is mine. It's about a bunch of kids and grown-ups and they all live together in a big house and it's a school too."

Dee closed his eyes, and, after a second, felt the bed shake as Shaun climbed up and sat down next to him.

"They went out to pick berries," he said, seemingly unconcerned with Dee's closed eyes. "That's like little mutfruits. And two of them got lost, but then the grown-ups just came and found them and brought them home. That's where I stopped reading last time, 'cause I didn't want to stop until they got found. OK, listen, Jonah. 'The moon shone out just as they reached the av-en-ue, and all the boys came shouting to meet them, so the lost lambs were borne in tri-umph and safety, and landed in the dining room, where the un-ro-man-tic little things demanded supper, instead of preferring kisses and ca-ress-es.'" Shaun giggled, and then went on, "'They were set down to bread and milk, while the entire household stood round to gaze upon them. Nan soon re-covered her spirits, and re-counted her perils--' What's perils?"

"Scary things," said Dee, without opening his eyes.

"'Recounted her perils with a relish--' what's a relish?"

"Means she enjoyed it," said Dee.

"'Recounted her perils with a relish, now that they were all over. Rob seemed ab-sorbed in his food, but put down his spoon all of a sudden, and set up a do- dole-ful roar.' What's doleful?"

"Sad," said Dee.

"'"My pre- precious, why do you cry?' asked his mother, who still hung over him. "I'm crying 'cause I was lost," bawled Rob, trying to squeeze out a tear, and failing en-tire-ly. "But you are found now. Nan says you didn't cry out in the field, and I was glad you were such a brave boy." "I was so busy being fri- fright-tened-- I didn't have any time then. But I want to cry now, 'cause I don't like to be lost," explained Rob, struggling with sleep, e-mo-tion, and a mouthful of bread and milk. The boys set up such a laugh at this funny way of making up for lost time--'"

Dee snickered, and then choked, and laughed, and buried his face in the pillow.

"Jonah?"

Dee turned his head enough to say, "I'm fine. Fine. Keep going. Good story."

"OK," said Shaun. "'The boys set up such a laugh at this funny way of making up for lost time that Rob stopped to look at them, and the mer-ri-ment--' what's merriment?"

"Laughing," said Dee. "In a good way. Having a good time."

"'The merriment was so in-fec-tious--' what's infectious?"

"You are, 2.0," said Dee.

Shaun cocked his head, puzzled, just as there was a sharp rap at the door and Victoria's voice said, "Hey, kid, mom's home."

Shaun bounced upright from the bed, dropping his book directly onto Dee's spine, and said, "Did she bring everybody?"

"Looks like it," said Victoria.

Shaun gave a wordless little shriek of joy, and then turned back towards the bed to say, "I'll tell her you're too sad to get up, Jonah. It's OK-- sometimes she is too."

He was gone before Dee could answer.

"You're 'too sad to get up'?" Victoria asked.

"Kid's got some weird ideas," said Dee, and sat up, fumbling for his shades, which he'd surely left somewhere nearby. He located them on top of a bookshelf, and slid them on before he looked up at Victoria. "She brought everybody, huh?"

"The courser, and four scientists," said Victoria. "Guess me and Cog are going to spend the day building more beds. And hanging them from the ceiling, 'cause I don't know where else she thinks they're all gonna fit."

"I better stay here and guard my bed, then," said Dee, half jokingly.

Victoria snorted. "Listen, if you're too sad to get up, don't get up. You hungry? I can get you something."

Dee blinked behind his shades. He liked Victoria, what he’d seen of her-- her zero-of-your-nonsense attitude, her brisk intelligence-- but she'd never struck him as the type to coddle somebody through a depressive episode.

“Be back,” she said, and was gone.

Dee lay back down, pulled the blanket to his chin, and looked up at the ceiling.

Books to the rescue again. He couldn’t die just yet; there were still too many books left to read. Including stupid kids’ books that were somehow weirdly profound. I was so busy being frightened, I didn’t have time then. But I want to cry now, ‘cause I don’t like to be lost.

So here he was, in Nora’s library, safe and comfortable, in a bed that belonged to him, having a little mental breakdown. Better than having a breakdown before. What had the book said? Out in the field.

It’s OK to be sad.

Sometimes she is too.

It wasn’t really OK, though. Nora had enough on her plate right now, what with a new courser kid and his asshole scientist buddies moving in. What with having to navigate the dynamic there. What with all her other kids. Her real kids, not her “in-law” kid, the black sheep, the weird one, the obnoxious one, the charity case with a bad history, the problem child she was so determined to make work out. Like she needed more of a challenge than her real kids afforded. But X6-88 was here to be her problem child now. Dee was supposed to be fixed now, problem solved, ready to join the happy gang. Supposed to be recounting his perils with relish, now that they were over.

Shit, he didn’t want to worry her, didn’t want to be trouble. She was literally the only person in the universe who gave a good goddamn whether he lived or died. Desdemona might be minorly inconvenienced by his death, but not that much and not for long. Shaun 2.0-- but he loved everybody, that didn’t count, he’d charge out and hug a deathclaw if somebody told him it was his new big brother. And the deathclaw would probably be too charmed to disembowel him.

He lay looking at the ceiling and trying to convince himself that he was feeling so, so much better, that he was really just about to hop out of bed and have such a big smile on, in case Nora was worried enough to come check on him, that she’d be convinced Shaun was being a silly overly imaginative little worrywart. Too sad to get up? Me? Just enjoying your hospitality. Just taking advantage of--

--of your daughter’s good nature, bringing me a plate of something. Who knew Victoria was such a secret Florence Nightingale.

“Scrambled mirelurk egg,” she said, putting the plate, complete with fork, on the bookshelf by the bed where his shades had been. “And water.” She set the glass down, then crossed her arms, looking down at him with an analytical stare. “You need anything else?”

“You don’t have to--” He gestured, weakly, at nothing, under the blanket, so that she probably didn’t even realize he’d gestured. “I’m-- really fine, Victoria. I mean, thanks a lot, really, but I’m just--”

"You know we all know who you really are, right?" said Victoria. "I mean, not we-the-Castle, but we-the-family. The synths. We know you're the reason she joined the Railroad."

"Shh," said Dee, halfheartedly.

"Oh, sorry, mister super secret spy," said Victoria, rolling her eyes. "Who gives a shit at this point? Like it's some big secret that Nora Bowman loves synths. The whole Commonwealth knows, and so now everybody's either cool with us, or if they're not, they're keeping pretty quiet about it these days. We're not the thing under the bed anymore, because there's nobody for us to spy and sabotage for, and there's nobody to kill and kidnap humans and replace them with us, so we can just be the Minutemen general's cute weird project now. But it didn't used to be like that. You're Railroad. You were on our side when that meant you were probably gonna die for us. For people everybody else wanted to either control or kill. You were on our side when fucking nobody was on our side. You risked your ass for us, and you lost people, and you and your buddies helped her blow that fucking slave-hive sky-high. So if you're too sad to get out of bed today, brother, you better believe I will bring you your goddamn breakfast. And if anybody gives you shit about it, you let me know. Or any of us."

She turned, as if to go, and then turned back and added, "You want Max? I'll get him for you."

Dee shook his head, dazed. "It's-- it's OK. I'm OK, really. Uh-- thanks, Victoria."

"Thank you," she said, fiercely, in the tone of a rebuttal, and was gone again.

Dee lay looking at the ceiling for a little while longer, before he picked Shaun's book back up-- Little Men, said the cover-- and opened it at random, and began to read.

Chapter Text

Max did come in, after a little while, making Dee wince slightly with humiliation at the idea that Victoria had conscripted him to go cheer up the emotionally unstable jerk wallowing around in the library.

"Hey, Jonah Dee," he said. "Heard you were having one of those days. Mind if I sit in here with you?"

"I don't need a babysitter," said Dee, and then winced again at how harsh it had accidentally sounded, because he was basically a worthless piece of shit who made anybody with the misfortune to care the slightest little bit about him miserable for it, but Max grinned his gorgeous grin and said, "Well, that's good, because I don't know much about babysitting. Don't know that much about getting out of work to lounge around with a buddy and read, either, but it's never too late to learn."

He took a book off the shelf, settled in the corner of a couch with his legs up on the cushion next to him, and said, "Every time I do this, I feel like a fucking badass rebel."

"What," said Dee, watching him, "put your feet up?"

"Yeah," said Max. "Not a pose the Institute encouraged. Funny, cause a mop can lean up against the wall lazy as you please, when it's not mopping, and nobody gets pissy with it. But catch a synth looking relaxed, even off duty, and you better discipline the insolence out of that thing." He looked at the front cover of his still-closed book. "You know, they programmed us all to be literate, so we could read instructions and written orders and warning signs-- I guess it was just as easy, if they were gonna make it so we could read anything, to make it everything. But the first time I found one of these--" He held up the book. "Salvage mission in an old school. I had instructions for these. Supposed to check to see if they were too damaged to be of any use. So I opened it up." He opened the book, to the middle, and touched a page, lightly, with his fingertips. "All those words. So many, all at once. And it wasn't instructions, it was-- I didn't know what it was, you know? It was like I accidentally opened a window or something and-- fell out."

"What book was it?" Dee asked. He'd closed his book-- Shaun's book-- and curled up on his side, cheek against the pillow, listening.

"Wish I knew," said Max. "Maybe I'll find it again, one of these days. Not a storybook. Textbook. All about how things work. And why. For human kids, I think-- well, yeah, it was a school, right. But I never knew-- any of that. I don't even know how much time I wasted, reading, before the guard came to see what was taking so long." He gave a wry little smile. "I'm goddamn lucky I didn't get wiped after that. If it would've been a Gen Two on guard duty I probably would have, because it would have reported me for, you know, malfunction. Getting stuck in an apparent loop. But it was a courser that day. He said, 'Unit, you should have finished this sweep already, work faster'-- but he must not have reported me." He smiled again. "They could be OK, sometimes. Some of them, anyway. God, Min-- Glory, I mean-- she haaaaated them, though. Every last one. She said the Gen Ones and Twos didn't know any better, they didn't have any choice but to act how they were programmed to act, but the coursers, they knew what was up, they knew what they were doing, and they could have helped us, if they'd wanted to. Could have been on our side." He looked thoughtful. "Wonder what she would have thought of Michael."

"What do you think of Michael?" Dee asked.

Max grinned again. "He's something else, isn't he? I didn't know what to think, when I got here, and saw him. He wasn't one of the easygoing ones. Not that any of the coursers were really that easygoing, but even for them. He would've reported me for reading, that day, in a heartbeat. I mean, he'll still report you in a heartbeat-- guess you found that out the other day. That's the funny thing. He's not all that different, really, from how he used to be. Just, he's on our side now."

"And dating," said Dee.

Max laughed. "Yeah, that's pretty crazy. You know what I saw Michael do? Kiss Danse's hand. Danse's face looked just like a ripe tato. He doesn't know what to do with himself. I think he feels like it’s gotta be against protocol or something, being adored like this, but also Michael’s the actual living embodiment of proper protocol so maybe it’s somehow OK?” He grinned, then sobered slightly. “It’s funny, I always thought they must-- do something-- to the coursers, during all that training, to make them not-- interested, in all that kind of stuff. Or put something in their food. I mean, there were plenty of synths who were desperate enough not to get reported for whatever that they would've offered, you know? But everybody knew it didn't do any good to make that kind of an offer to a courser. You had to go right for a human. And you wouldn't risk that, either, unless you were really desperate. It was long odds-- but not as long as trying it with a courser."

Holy shit. Dee really didn’t want to ask if Max had ever been desperate enough to “go right for a human” to save his own mind from annihilation, and Max didn’t seem about to volunteer the information, but. You figured the Institute was awful, but. So maybe getting Nora to blow it to kingdom come hadn’t been his worst plan ever.

On the other hand, maybe approaching a bunch of unrepentant ex-Institute humans to move into Nora's synth safe haven hadn't been his best plan ever.

“You OK with them-- here?” he asked. Not that Max hadn’t had a chance to speak up, before-- not that Nora wouldn’t have listened-- but--

“The doctors?” said Max, sounding surprised. “Yeah, no, that’s OK. It’s kind of great, really. The ones that were already here, I mean. Everybody’s nice to them and all, but-- I ever tell you about that time when I was new, and I got in a fight with Dr. Hastings? Word fight, not fist fight. It was when they went to Acadia, mom and Hancock and Michael. Doc called me ‘unit,’ and I called her ‘bitch,’ and she got so fucking pissed, and then it was like, she was right about to give orders to have me wiped, and then she all of a sudden remembered she couldn’t do that any more. She kept saying ‘if only X9-21 were here,’ and then when they got back, she was like ‘Bowman, I demand you have this synth disciplined, and X9-21, you are never to leave my side again, it’s not safe, in your absence I was insulted’ and X9-21 was like, ‘OK but first of all my name is Michael now.’ I thought she was gonna faint.”

He sounded so gleeful that Dee smiled, a little.

“So yeah,” said Max. “Not all that worried, about more of them moving in. Like Victoria said yesterday-- got our own lives now. And each other.” He paused, looking pensive. "You know, those assholes that had Danse, that scarred him up like that, they told him he had 'no right to exist.' Because he was a synth. And honestly, that's kind of how I felt after the Institute blew up. My-- function-- was gone. And I knew humans on the surface would kill me, if they knew what I was. I see why synths got the brainwipe, if they had the option. I wouldn't have minded being able to just-- assume-- I had the right to exist. Like humans do." He eyed Dee. "Most humans. I think."

Dee said nothing.

"But then there's each other," said Max. "You know? I saw that piece about Emily in the paper, and I thought-- shit, that's Y4-15! She's OK! She fuckin' told somebody what she was-- told everybody what she was, in the paper-- and if she can do it--" He was quiet for a minute, looking vaguely at the book that was still open in his lap, but he wasn't reading. "I think a lot about that time when we all painted SYNTH on our foreheads in red paint, remember, when Danse first came home. Looking around at everybody, and seeing it on their faces, and knowing it was on mine. What we are. And we all know. And it's OK. Not just safe. OK. We have the right. To exist. To be-- known."

Dee said nothing, and neither did Max, for a little while. Maybe he was reading, now. Dee was mostly just looking at him, his dark skin and the stubble of white hair on his head, not really thinking about anything. He liked to listen to Max’s voice, liked hearing what he had to say, but he wasn’t going to beg him to keep talking or anything.

Then there was a soft rap at the door, and Max looked up. Dee lifted his head enough to see Nora, in her fatigues. She came in and knelt down beside the bed, putting herself at eye level with Dee.

"What's up, honey lamb?" she asked him, and he smiled, because she was so completely ludicrous in every way. Honey lamb. What even. "You need anything?"

He shook his head.

“Max taking care of you?”

He nodded.

“If by ‘taking care of him’ you mean ‘won’t shut up,’” said Max. “If you haven't seen us by dinnertime, send a search party, cause I think I already talked one of his legs off, and I'm liable to do the other one, too, if nobody stops me. He listens too well."

"He lets you get a word in edgewise?" Nora asked, smiling at Max, and then turning back to Dee. "Dee, sweetheart, you in there? Blink twice for yes."

He raised his hand and tapped twice, sharply, at his sunglasses.

"I'll take it," she said. "Do you want a hug?"

He considered carefully, weighing the possible effects of a Nora-hug in light of past experiments and his current emotional state, before he nodded.

She got up and leaned over him, and he sat up, and held out his arms, and she wrapped hers around him and pulled him in close. He put his head down on her shoulder, the way he had at Somerville Place, the night he'd felt the thing coming on, and had to get up, stepping quietly over her as she slept, and move, faster than the thing, make a plan, set things in motion, go go go.

But he’d stopped, he’d stayed. He’d let it catch him. It was on him, it was in him, he was in it, it had swallowed him up like he really was Jonah and it was the giant fish that had been chasing him, it had him, it was him, and it fucking hurt, he was sad, he was guilty, he’d done horrible, unforgivable things, he’d lost everything, everything precious to him, everything and everyone that mattered so much, and none of it could ever be fixed, or retrieved, none of it would ever, ever be even remotely all right--

--but he was here, still. Here. Alive. A book’s sharp corner resting against him; a blanket over him; warm, strong arms around him.

Further out than that, there were more books, and Max; further out than that, Shaun, Emily, Michael and Danse and Cog and Victoria-- Do you think we don’t know who you really are? We-the-family-- and even Hancock, who’d hugged him once, however awkwardly, who’d echoed Nora’s you live here now, like it was simple.

Each other.

He wasn’t crying, because there weren’t any tears, but he was breathing like he was crying, his chest aching and throat rasping as he sucked in air hard, convulsively, again and again, like he’d just surfaced from drowning.

She didn’t say anything, just held him tight, for a long time, and it was him who finally pulled away. She let him, and pulled the blanket back up over him when he lay back down, tucking him in.

“Go,” he said, hoarsely, “go-- defend-- those poor scientists. Max told me-- how you let these-- units talk to them."

She smiled down at him. "These ones were forewarned about the sass factor at the Castle. They're fine, they're bonding with the baby now, and X6-88 is there to protect them from picking any really ill-advised fights. Listen, speaking of protection, since you guys like to hang out in here-- I mean, not just you two, but the synths in general-- I thought, how about we make it the official family space, for when you guys need to get away from scientists." She was looking at Max. "Family only? Except by invitation? And if the door's shut and nobody answers your knock, you are not invited?"

"Aren't the humans gonna be kinda pissed about that?" Max asked. "We keep all our books in here."

"Well, I mean, they're our books," said Nora. "We found them, and brought them home. It's nice to share, but I feel like 'knock and ask for permission' isn't that harsh of a condition, especially considering how generous you all tend to be. But if you think it would be better to designate a different room-- I just figure, this is your guys' home, you don't need to feel-- overrun, yeah?"

"I mean, it's OK by me, making it the library," said Max. "Thanks, mom."

Nora glowed, the way she did when anyone called her mom. "OK. Great. I'll let everybody know."

"Should I move beds, then?" Dee asked, and they both looked at him like he was crazy, and then Max said, "She didn't say synths only, dude. She said family."

"This guy gets it," said Nora. "Can I get you anything, Max?"

"If you want to send over some lunch in a bit," said Max. "And water, cause all this yammering is thirsty work."

"You got it, son." Nora leaned down and kissed Dee on the forehead, sending a brief, hard tremor through him. "Love you, Dee."

"Love you, too," said Dee, and saw tears spring to Nora's eyes and a smile to her face, before she turned quickly away.

Was it the first time he'd said it? Damn, he was a good liar. Or had been.

The hell with it.

 

When she was gone, Dee ate some of the scrambled egg Victoria had brought, using his fingers and ignoring the fork, because he was a barbarian and who cared, and then lay down again, not really planning on falling asleep, just on lying there and thinking, and maybe reading, or listening if Max decided he had anything else to say. He must have dozed off at some point, though, because when he opened his eyes again, not sure what had wakened him, Max was gone. Emily was on the couch instead, curled up with a book, and looking up at the door with slightly raised eyebrows. Dee followed her gaze to see a woman in the doorway, a stranger.

It took a second before he recognized the younger of the two female scientists, the blonde, from his brief sojourn as the extremely sarcastic prisoner of X6-88's little band of doctors. Well, she looked different now. Her face had looked like a heavy mask then, pale and dull, except for a couple of brief stirs of emotion, like when he'd mentioned Naveena's name-- that was right, she'd been the one who'd mentioned that the baby was named after her grandfather. Now she looked flushed and alive, as if some enchantment had been broken, turning her from bleached clay to flesh and blood: she looked shy and tired and hopeful and awkward and scared, glancing from Emily to Dee and back again. What was she doing away from X6-88's protection, in the one spot in the Castle where she officially didn't belong?

"Can I--" she began, and hesitated, and corrected herself, "May I please come in?"

Chapter Text

"Why?" asked the redheaded synth-- Y4-15-- Emily. She didn't sound particularly friendly, or look particularly welcoming.

Elizabeth smiled weakly. "I-- wanted to introduce myself."

"So you came straight to the one place my mother told you was off limits?" Emily asked.

"I'm sorry," said Elizabeth meekly. She'd thought her life had already hit a pinnacle of strangeness last night, dancing in a seedy bar with the destroyer of her home while ghouls and wastelanders looked on and cheered, but then she'd watched X9-21 kiss a synth on the cheek in greeting, and watched the Shaun synth unit take a flying leap into X6-88's arms, and now she was apologizing to a synth for having asked permission to enter a room it was in. Clearly things were only going to get stranger from now on.

On the other hand, she'd also hugged two friends she'd thought she'd never see again, and held and kissed and played with their baby, and eaten a hearty home-cooked meal. So maybe she should learn to embrace the unexpected.

"I didn't come straight here," she elaborated, since Emily was still looking at her, as if for an explanation. Daniel Lyons was watching silently, from where he seemed to be tucked up in bed, although he was, incongruously, wearing sunglasses again, as he had been when X6-88 had taken him prisoner. "I was-- exploring. I'm--" She hesitated, but-- it would be too unnerving to have a synth address her by her first name. "Dr. Teasdale."

Emily raised her eyebrows again. "I'm Ms. Bowman."

Elizabeth looked involuntarily at Lyons-- no, Dee, Nora had explained that he’d given them a false name, although she hadn’t explained why. Jonah Dee-- who said, "Don't look at me, ma'am. I'm just the poor relation."

"But you're a human," said Emily, "so obviously you're going to defend her against the scary synth."

"I'm sorry," said Elizabeth, again, feeling shaken by the synth's hostility. "I just-- Ms. Bowman is-- your, your mother, isn't she?"

"Yes, which makes me Emily Bowman," said the synth, slowly, with exaggerated patience. "So if we're going to be on a title-and-last-name basis, Dr. Teasdale, I'm Ms. Bowman to you."

"I'm sorry," Elizabeth said, yet again. She couldn't bring herself to say Ms. Bowman. There were limits to irrationality. "I--"

"I'm kind of getting a vibe where Councillor Bowman would rather read her book in peace," said Dee, sitting up and swinging his legs over the edge of the bed, "so, Dr. Teasdale, how about you and me take a hike?"

"You don't have to go, Dee," said Emily.

"Well, I can't just wallow around in bed all day long," said Dee.

Emily smiled at him, the coldness of her expression when she'd looked at Elizabeth melting away. "Sure you can. What's to stop you?"

"Incipient bedsores," said Dee, and slid his feet into a pair of shoes that had been lying on the floor by the bed. "OK, doc, let's go."

"Wait," said Elizabeth, as he stood and approached her. She was beginning to worry she'd made a serious and lasting error, although she still wasn't sure what she'd somehow done to earn Y4-15's enmity.

"How bout not," said Dee, and laid a hand lightly on Elizabeth's shoulder, steering her out of the room, pulling the library door closed behind them. "You been up on top of the walls yet, doc? This way. What time is it, anyway?"

"How should I know?" Elizabeth asked, feeling shaken by the encounter with "Emily." Despite X6-88's protection, and Bowman's promises, and how safe and happy Tanvi and Beau and Alice Hastings seemed to feel here-- what if one of Bowman's "children" took a serious dislike to her, Elizabeth, personally? Emily was the one who'd been here already when X9-21 first arrived, the one who'd-- according to X9-21's account-- persuaded Bowman not to kill him for his attempt at kidnapping her. What would happen if she turned her energies instead to persuading her "mother" to have Elizabeth punished, or exiled, for-- what? What had she done to make the synth so angry? She had never seen an angry synth before.

Dee was leading her up a narrow stone staircase; they emerged out onto a grassy stone walkway that, after a moment, Elizabeth recognized as the top of one of the fortress' walls. It was dizzying to be up so high, with no walls between herself and the drop, on either side, to the ground. She looked Dee in the face for the first time. Why had he brought her up here? Did he want to frighten her? Was he angry, too? About having been taken prisoner? Or something else?

There was no anger in his face, though. It was a little hard to read his expression, with the sunglasses he was wearing, but his forehead was smooth, except for the faint lines etched there by time, and his mouth relaxed.

"Slept damn near all day," he said, looking at the sky. "Almost time for supper. Come on, let's do a lap. Bet it's been awhile since you saw a good view. We can play Ruler of All I Survey. Or at least, Hey, I Know the Ruler of All I Survey, We Just Had Lunch Together. Nice Lady."

Elizabeth giggled despite herself. He glanced at her, smiling, as he led the way past terrifying-looking turrets and people stationed at outlook points, greeting the guards with a quick flip of the hand; they responded with nods of the head.

"There's the water purifier," he said to Elizabeth, pointing. "Industrial-size, so we never run short, and we can supply her other settlements in a pinch, if they run short, or trade the excess for whatever else we need." He stopped, smiling oddly to himself. "We, the residents of the Castle. You and me, among others."

If Y4-15 doesn't have me exiled.

She followed him, as he pointed out arcane and archaic-looking pieces of weaponry that he called artillery, primitive wiring systems, and, from above, the radio tower that boosted the signal of Radio Freedom across the Commonwealth. He had an easy, jokey way of speaking that made her feel a little better, as if maybe she was welcome here after all.

“Sit down,” he said eventually, hospitably, as if the lip of the slight concrete depression where an artillery piece was housed were his private living room, and she did sit. She was still tired and sore from the trip-- the first leg, yesterday, and more this morning-- and overwhelmed with the amount of newness she was processing. Bowman-- Nora-- must have felt like this when she first arrived in the Institute. No wonder she’d spoken of having been in a bad emotional place.

Thinking of Nora Bowman by her first name reminded her of her faux pas with the synth who wanted to claim her title, and she said to Dee, who’d sat down opposite her, a little lower down, tailor-fashion, “Is-- Emily-- really angry with me?”

He looked up at her, his smile compassionate and a little mocking, as if she were a foolish child of whom he was nevertheless fond. "You worried? Don't be. Emily's a sweetheart. You must've just caught her at a bad time."

"But I didn't mean to..." She trailed off.

"It’s OK, doc," he said. "You were brave to come here, and you were brave to strike out exploring on your own. But sometimes sixty percent of valor is knowing when to shut up and back off."

"But I just wanted to--"

"Emily wanted you to leave," said Dee. "This is her house, and the library's the family room. What you just wanted to is not all that germane to the subject."

"But I didn’t mean any harm," said Elizabeth. "She didn't have to-- snap at me."

He raised his eyebrows. "You ever snap at anybody because you were in a bad mood?"

"I-- suppose so," said Elizabeth, "but not a--"

She broke off.

"Not a superior?" Dee suggested.

Elizabeth felt herself flush. "That's not what I meant." The opposite, if anything-- she'd been trying to find a word for the sense of peculiar helplessness and vulnerability she'd felt as the synth stared her down. "A guest."

"You guys get a lot of those in the Institute?" Dee asked, and Elizabeth thought of the occasional new arrivals, surface dwellers whose independent work had been impressive enough to attract the Institute's attention. There had been-- other-- arrivals-- but she'd never been part of that side of things. And she probably shouldn't bring it up to a surface dweller, anyway. An associate of the woman who'd found the Institute in general loathsome enough to detonate its nuclear reactor and destroy it utterly.

"Let me ask you this," said Dee. "You ever snap at a synth?"

Of course she had. Everyone did. It was a harmless way of letting off...

Oh.

Dee was watching her face. He said, not ungently, "You think that scared them?"

"They weren't--" Elizabeth tried to explain. "They aren't-- I didn't know they were-- Are they really--"

"You're coming along so fast, without even a predicate noun to call your own," said Dee. “They were tools, right? You yelled at them like we say 'gah, stupid rake!' and 'if the goddamn terminal would work right--' But they weren't rakes or terminals, they were people, and you had absolute power over them. Way more than Emily has over you now. Nobody's going to report you for recalibration. You've got X6-88 to protect you. You have the right to speak up for yourself, without getting punished for it. You have the option of leaving, even, if you want to, if you don't like the way things are around here."

“I don’t want to leave,” said Elizabeth, and heard her own voice quiver abominably, felt heat and pressure building behind her eyes. “I just got here.”

"Long trip, yeah," said Dee, watching her, without moving. "Bet you're pretty tired. You want me to go get one of your friends? Or X6-88?"

"They're not my friends," said Elizabeth, still trying to hold back her tears. "And X6-88 hates me."

"Now, doc," said Dee lightly. "I'm pretty sure if X6-88 hated you, you wouldn't have gotten an invitation to come live in his mother's castle."

The tears escaped, slipping down her cheeks. “I don’t understand why he-- I don’t understand anything.”

“In this one small way am I wiser than other men,” said Dee, smiling at her, “that that which I do not know, I also do not think that I know.”

Elizabeth wiped her face with her hand. "What?"

"Socrates," said Dee. "And a pretty good starting point. At least you know now how ignorant you are.”

”What?”

“I don’t mean educationally, doc,” he said, sobering. “I'm sure you know all about stuff us poor dumb wastelanders can only gawk and mutter 'rutabaga, rutabaga' about. I just mean about the stuff you are ignorant about, like how synths can get pissy and have bad moods just like people, or why X6-88 doesn't hate you."

"Who are you?" Elizabeth demanded. She'd been politely refraining from asking, but if he was going to talk like he knew all about her, all about everything, and call her ignorant, she didn't have to be polite either.

He grinned again. "Like I said. I'm the poor relation. Poor Harriet, who is very, very grateful to be given a good home."

"But what does that mean?" Elizabeth insisted, ignoring the nonsense about “Harriet,” whoever that was. "You're not a synth. What are you to her? Why did she send you to us? And why did you risk your life to come? What kind of hold does she have over you?"

"Oh, well, that's a good story," he said, seemingly unperturbed by her barrage of questions. "You've heard of Diamond City?"

"Of course," said Elizabeth, irritably; she might have spent most of her life underground, and more recent years indoors, but he didn't have to act like she was completely oblivious. "Where the radio is."

"Right," he said. "Of course. Well, I used to work as a security guard there. Little boring, but the pay was decent, and every so often you got to defend the innocent, so that was fun. But--"

He stopped, and then fell silent. Elizabeth waited, watching him. She wished he would take off his sunglasses. It was hard to read his expression with them on, and he hardly needed them any more; the sun was already setting.

When he looked at her-- or pointed his sunglasses at her-- again, he said, "Sorry. Yeah, so, I did work as a security guard in Diamond City for a little while, and I used to see Nora there, before we officially met. I saw her all over the place. In Goodneighbor, too-- couldn't get actual work there, their standards are higher in terms of you having to be able to kick actual ass instead of just looking menacing, but there you can be a homeless drifter and it doesn't exactly rouse suspicion. Rouses more if you aren't, actually."

She nodded, smiling faintly; from what she'd seen of Goodneighbor, this sounded plausible.

"Matter of fact," he said, "I was kind of following Nora, without her knowing it. Keeping an eye on her. See, what my real job was, I worked for the Railroad."

Elizabeth gasped involuntarily. Was it silly to be alarmed? Bowman herself had been with the Railroad-- and she-- but this man was a stranger, and Elizabeth was alone with him--

"Don't worry," he said, with a wry little smile. "We've already done our worst. We're kind of a relic, now. Bunch of swords nobody's gotten around to beating into ploughshares. But she's been doing her level best to beat me into one. Oh, gently," he added, with a little chuckle, at her expression. "I should have said-- melt me into one."

He looked away, out onto the horizon, for a moment, and then back at Elizabeth, and continued, "Once she made contact with us-- and that was your Director's fault, you know. I don't know if he realized she was going to need to find us, to get access to you, but that's the only reason she bothered with us at all, was so she could get to where her son was. But once she did-- well, I made it my business to get her the rest of the way on board with us. And it worked. She joined. And she and I spent a lot of time together. She got to know me. Better than anybody had, since--"

"Since what?" Elizabeth asked, when he trailed off.

"For a long time," he said, finally. "And she-- well. We got to be-- friends. Good friends. And now she's kind of-- she looks after me. I haven't done such a great job of looking after myself, this last-- lifetime-- or so. She decided to take over. Mind my business for me, for a change."

"But she’s married to the ghoul," said Elizabeth, curiously. She didn’t know how these people lived-- if they considered a ghoul-human alliance acceptable, perhaps other unorthodox living arrangements might be equally--

Dee smiled. "Oh, not like-- She's not my girlfriend. It's not like that. She just-- she's sort of like-- my mom."

"Is she everyone's mother?" Elizabeth asked, almost laughing.

"I asked her that once," said Dee, grinning back, "and she said mostly she was just everyone's beleaguered babysitter.”

Elizabeth did laugh at that, because she could picture Nora Bowman saying it, and because it was so much at odds with the image of the vengeful, pitiless destroyer she’d had for so long. The wastelander who’d relayed into the Institute with a chip she’d dug from a dead courser’s skull, taken a look around, and deemed it unworthy of continued existence.

The woman who danced in the bar of Goodneighbor, who hugged ghouls (and kissed them, and other things, all that marriage implied), who offered succor and shelter not only to her “children,” but to this man, and to Elizabeth and her fellow scientists, and to other humans, who had rebuilt the Commonwealth until it lay so easily under her hand that she could be generous with it.

She had apologized for not having tried harder, to understand the Institute and its people, back when it might have made a difference.

Elizabeth had accepted her apology, but she hadn’t offered one in return. None of them had. Bowman hadn’t seemed to expect one; certainly she hadn’t waited for one, before offering her hospitality.

“So,” said Dee, into the silence. “Welcome. I forgot to say before. Well, I kind of forgot I got to welcome people here. But I do, so. Welcome.”

Elizabeth smiled, and her tears overflowed again, unexpectedly. She wiped them away again, and sniffed, and said, “Why are you still wearing those sunglasses?”

“That’s a good story, too,” he said. “Maybe I’ll tell you someday. Right now-- you hungry? I slept through lunch, and I could eat a brahmin. You want to go see what’s for supper?”

“Will Emily be there?” Elizabeth asked, feeling foolish and cowardly, but somehow not minding either in front of this strange man, so full of smiles and jokes and yet oddly serious under it all, who belonged to the organization that had destroyed her entire life, and yet didn’t seem to mind being obligated to put up with her by his surrogate mother’s infatuation with X6-88. Maybe he was a little amused by her, but there were worse things in life than being unintentionally amusing.

“If she’s still mad at you,” said Dee seriously, “try kneeling down and kissing her feet. Synths love that.”

Elizabeth stared at him, and then giggled involuntarily, and choked, and he laughed, too, and said, “I’ll do it, though. I will! Do you dare me? I’ll get down on my knees and kiss her combat boots, and beg her to forgive you for your transgression. Dare me.”

“I do dare you,” said Elizabeth, still laughing.

“Oh, you’re gonna learn never to dare me to do anything,” said Dee. “But you haven’t learned yet. Come on, doc. See what happens.”

Chapter Text

X6-88 told himself, as he watched Danse and Michael, heads together, going over Michael's and Ms. Bowman's respective armor and repairing the damage done to it by their journey, that this would become easy, in time. Easy, as the Institute had been easy. Where X6-88, like any courser, understood how to speak to anyone he encountered. What to do. Where everything was, and where he belonged within the wider scope of everything. He was a quick learner, quick to assess situations and adapt himself to them. This situation, no matter how insistently strange, how overwhelming in its unfamiliarity, would be the same. The state of constant near-panic at the realization that he had lost sight of one or more of his charges, or that one of them was possibly ill, or that they were all in the hands of a woman he had decided to trust on what amounted to instinct--

(He had good instincts, in general. He rarely had reason to regret acting on them. Except with her. But she and Michael had both spoken as if they believed that failure to have been hers.)

--would subside into the calm certainty that eventually came on every mission, when he had thoroughly assessed and gained control of the situation, and always remained with him on his return home to the Institute, where he ceded that control to those who owned him.

Nora Bowman was coming towards him, now, and he straightened his shoulders to meet her. He had breathed an inward sigh of relief when he was placed, even to a provisional and partial extent, under her authority. Now he knew how to address her, and could begin to know what she expected of him, how to satisfy her demands on him so that he could earn her favor. So that he would know what he could ask of her, with what likelihood of success, and what would be expected of him in return.

(She is not giving you another chance. She is asking you to give her one.)

He noted, to that end, that neither Danse nor Michael rose to his feet at her approach, though both noted it. So she didn't require-- or, indeed, prefer, since he was sure Michael would have behaved according to her preference-- that her "children" stop what they were doing to acknowledge her presence.

She addressed X6-88 directly.

"Hey, X6," she said. "It's almost time for supper, and I was wondering, do you think we should wake the scientists up? I know they're tired, but they're probably hungry again, too..."

She trailed off, waiting for him to speak. It was so odd to be consulted in this way, for his opinions and even his wishes.

"Are they all still sleeping, ma'am?" he asked, and she said, "Three of them are. Elizabeth must have woken up and gone exploring."

While it was highly unlikely that Dr. Teasdale would come to harm within the confines of the Castle, or that she would be so foolhardy as to venture outside them, her absence was still a concern. He didn't like not knowing where his charges were, or what they were doing. The second to last time he had left them alone, even in a known and secured location, they had gotten drunk and become hysterical and physically violent with one another. Dr. Teasdale tended to be one of the more level-headed ones, and she hadn't done anything to get herself into trouble on the previous night when she had gone out drinking with Ms. Bowman-- in fact, they had come back from their outing addressing each other by their given names-- but Fort Independence was still too full of unknown quantities for X6-88 to be easy in his mind about her, outside of his direct supervision.

His other main worry at the moment concerned Dr. Coulton, who he thought-- despite the fact that, upon arrival, Dr. Severne had examined all of his charges and administered anti-radiation medication, and they had all eaten their fill afterwards-- might be ill. His primary symptom was an uncharacteristic silence, which-- it would have been unsupportably insolent to voice the thought out loud, but he could think it-- was probably making things easier than they otherwise would have been. If it persisted, X6-88 might speak to Ms. Bowman of his concern. For now--

"If they sleep through supper," he asked, "will there be food available to them when they do awaken?"

"Of course," she said. "Listen, X6, what's mine is yours, OK? You can raid the food stores whenever you feel like it, and give them whatever you think they need."

"That's a very generous offer, ma'am," he said, resolving to ask Michael in private exactly how literally she meant it to be taken.

(It was really very reassuring to have Michael here, even a human-named, joke-making, synth-hand-holding and -cheek-kissing version of Michael; no matter how much he had changed, he still clearly remembered what it was like to be in X6-88’s position vis-a-vis this bewildering household. Except that X9-21 had had no such comforting ex-courser presence when he was first learning to navigate… all this. He had done very well.)

"Thank you,” he added, to Ms. Bowman. “In that case, I think they would prefer to be allowed to sleep, for the moment. But if Dr. Teasdale is already awake, she should probably be notified that supper is available."

She nodded, and said, "Do you want me to go find her for you?"

He almost responded as if her question had been an oblique rebuke, with an apology for having implied it was her responsibility to run such an errand, before he realized-- he was almost sure-- that she meant her offer sincerely.

"You need not trouble yourself, ma'am," he said, and she answered, "It's no trouble. I need to round the rest of the kids up, anyway. Michael, Danse, will you guys tell Cog and Victoria to come eat-- and actually, I think Shaun's helping them. And I'll go find Emily and Max, and Dee, and Elizabeth."

Michael rose to his feet, wiping his hands on his jeans, and offered Danse a hand; neither of them verbally acknowledged the order. She seemed to require very little in the way of protocol, and while that made things easier for X6-88-- it was always easier simply to obey than to make verbal declarations of obedience-- he hoped that the kind of verbal response his Institute charges did sometimes require wouldn’t cause friction between her and them. Perhaps he could try to explain to her the function of such acknowledgements, in the proper context, how they reassured the humans and allowed them to feel more comfortable with the order of things as they perceived it, without requiring them to invent unnecessary occasions for X6-88 to demonstrate his deference to their wishes.

"Meet us in the kitchen," said Ms. Bowman to X6-88.

 

He didn't disobey, but he did make a detour, to the room with four beds-- all borrowed, for now, from more diurnal settlers, although Cog had promised to have beds for them "by bedtime--" and checked on the three sleepers.

Dr. Loken lay on his back, one arm flung up and partially obscuring his face, which was turned into the arm as if to shield itself. Dr. Coulton, too, lay on his back, his arms at his sides, neatly, as if he had arranged himself for sleep and remained undisturbed since. Dr. Weston was asleep on her side, curled up with her arms bent sharply against her chest,, half her face buried in the pillow, wisps and small hanks of her hair stuck to her forehead and cheek with dried perspiration on the unobscured side. That must be uncomfortable.

X6-88 moved to her side and, very carefully, brushed his fingers along the skin of her brow and temple, smoothing the stray, stiff hairs back from her face. Fortunately, she didn’t wake. He wasn’t sure what she would have made of his touching her without permission or invitation, although the way she occasionally touched him, squeezing his arm or patting his shoulder, and the way she had flung her arms around him and clung to him the night before last, suggested that she had no physical fear of him. Which was-- gratifying. Many humans were afraid of coursers, even ones who had no reason to be. Another way in which protocol, verbal acknowledgements of orders, even the simple syllables sir and ma’am, could be invaluable.

He turned away from her, and had to conceal his shock when he saw that Dr. Coulton’s eyes were open and watching him, although he hadn’t otherwise moved a muscle. X6-88’s first impulse was to apologize-- the best way to defuse Dr. Coulton was always a display of humility and submission-- but he suppressed it, reasoning that if he owed anyone an apology, it was Dr. Weston, and she hadn’t actually rebuked him. Neither had Dr. Coulton; he was simply watching, with an expressionless face.

“Sir,” said X6-88, quietly enough-- he hoped-- not to disturb the sleepers. “I have been informed that supper is ready. If you wish, I will accompany you to the kitchen now, or if you would like to sleep more, I will be at your service whenever you do wish to eat.”

Dr. Coulton looked at him a little longer, and then sat up, pulled the blanket back, and stood. When he stood on one foot to slip the other into the shoes that lay waiting beside the bed, he wobbled, slightly, and X6-88 was at his side at once, offering an arm for support, but Dr. Coulton rejected it wordlessly, shying away from X6-88, almost as if X6-88 had frightened him by his approach. X6-88 stepped back slightly, towards the door, and Dr. Coulton got his feet into both shoes without falling, and then looked down at them, and up at X6-88, as if he were puzzled what to do next.

“May I, sir?” X6-88 asked, and knelt down at Dr. Coulton’s feet, pausing a moment to give Dr. Coulton the chance to step back-- he didn’t-- before he reached for the laces of his shoes and, carefully, beginning to tighten the laces and knot the ends into bows. He didn’t often tie knots that were meant to be easy to undo, so it took concentration, but he succeeded, and then rose to his feet and, tentatively, offered his arm again.

Dr. Coulton still didn’t take it, but he didn’t flinch away this time, either, and he followed wordlessly when X6-88 led the way to the kitchen, the large room with the stoves and the tables where he had eaten lunch the day before (had it only been the day before?) and, again, only a few hours ago.

Fortunately, Dr. Hastings was already there, as were Dr. Achanta and Mr. Benson, sitting at the same table, little Naveena in a homemade-looking high chair between them, and X6-88 was able to lead Dr. Coulton to their table, where Dr. Hastings greeted him enthusiastically by name. Dr. Severne was seated at the same table, as were two other humans to whom X6-88 had not been introduced. At another table were Michael, Danse, Cog, Victoria, Shaun, and Max.

X6-88 went to the stove, slightly uncomfortable at the prospect of touching the food without express orders-- that was the other benefit of protocol; he could act with perfect confidence when he was acting on orders-- and filled a plate with the meat and vegetables from the pots. He brought the plate back to Dr. Coulton and set it before him, before assuming the attentive standing position that indicated he was awaiting further orders.

Dr. Coulton picked up the fork he had brought, stabbed a piece of food, and, without looking up, cleared his throat, and said, “Go get yourself something to eat, X6-88. You’re making me nervous.”

“Yes, sir,” said X6-88, feeling relieved, both at the order and at the fact that Dr. Coulton had actually spoken, for what he was almost sure was the first time (in X6-88’s hearing, at least) since the raider attack yesterday. He went back to the stove, filled another plate for himself, and went to sit down with the synths.

“Hey, big guy,” said Victoria. “Where’s your other three nerds?”

“Dr. Weston and Dr. Loken are still asleep,” X6-88 answered. “Dr. Teasdale should be here shortly.”

“There she is,” said Max, as Dr. Teasdale entered, her face flushed and eyes slightly puffy, as if she had been crying, followed by “Daniel Lyons,” whose name was, at least according to Ms. Bowman, actually “Jonah Dee.” Dr. Teasdale glanced around, saw the table with the scientists at it and then the table with the synths at it. X6-88 had already begun to rise, but she said as she passed him, “Oh, sit down, X6, I can get my own--” and trailed off, heading for the food. Dee grinned at X6-88, for no reason X6-88 could think of, and followed her to the stove. Once Dr. Teasdale had filled her plate, she went to sit down with the scientists, and Dee seemed to hesitate for an appreciable moment before he brought his own plate to the synths’ table.

“Feeling better?” Max asked Dee, between bites.

“Fit as a fiddle,” said Dee. “Right as rain. Happy as a clam.”

“Liar,” said Victoria, and Dee answered, in the same tone, “Victoria,” and added, “No, I’m for shit, thanks for asking, but I’m OK. As Shaun 2.0 helpfully pointed out to me this morning when he found me soaking in self-pity, ‘it’s OK to be sad.’ Just because you’ve all been through a million times more trauma than me and you’re all perfectly functional doesn’t mean I should be ashamed for being a smoking wreck, right? You’ve got good genes on your side, after all.”

“Let’s not start making bar graphs of who’s suffered most and who deserves to be depressedest,” said Cog. “That’s the only party game anybody ever wanted to play at Acadia, and it was never the barrel of laughs you’d think it’d be. Speaking of all our fantastic genes, where’s Warrior Mom?”

“And where’s Emily and Kasumi?” Max asked.

Dee shrugged. “Last I saw Emily she seemed like she was in kind of a shitty mood. Maybe she needed some quality girl time with mom and Kasumi.”

“I can take them some supper,” said Shaun.

“Good idea, squirt,” said Dee. “Why don’t you wait until we’re all done eating, though, in case they show up before then. For that matter, where’s Hancock? I was counting on him to kick me in the nuts for being so lazy all day.”

“You know mom always has to drag him to meals,” said Cog. “If she’s not after him about it-- he’ll look up in a minute and be like ‘where’d everybody go? Why’s it getting so dark? Where’s Nora?”

As if on cue, the ghoul entered the room and approached their table.

“Where’s your mom?” he asked the table in general.

“Called it,” said Cog, and held up his palm towards Victoria, who was sitting next to him, and who rolled her eyes, and then smacked it with her own palm.

“We don’t know,” said Shaun, as Hancock sat down at the table, without going to get a plate. “Go get some food, Hancock, you’re supposed to eat with us when we eat. Mom said.”

“Well, if she wants to boss me around, she better show up to do the bossing,” said Hancock. “Nobody knows where she is?”

“She said she was going to find Emily,” said Michael. “We presume they are together, and that Kasumi is probably with them. Shaun has offered to take them food if they haven’t arrived by the time the rest of us have finished eating.”

Hancock nodded. “OK. Hey, X6. How you settling in?”

X6-88 answered, civilly-- he really had no choice but to be civil to Ms. Bowman’s husband, regardless of his feelings about the type of thing it was, and in addition, he did owe the creature some consideration for the fact that it obviously had enough influence with Ms. Bowman to have made this transition considerably more difficult, if not to have prevented it altogether-- “Everyone has been very welcoming.”

“Good deal,” said the ghoul.

There was silence for a moment, at their particular table, enough for X6-88 to hear Dr. Teasdale’s voice saying, “By yourself?” and Dr. Achanta’s saying, “Not at all! Michael was with me.”

X6-88 looked at Michael, who was smiling slightly, as Dr. Hastings said, “I would never have dared, but Tanvi was quite adamant that Michael could protect her adequately against any threat, even so far from home.”

“They call you ‘Michael’?” X6-88 asked Michael quietly, and he answered, “They’ve picked up the habit, yes. Although it took some time.”

The humans’ voices had fallen into a lower pitch as well, and X6-88 could no longer hear what they were saying.

“Kasumi!” said Shaun, as the young human woman entered the room, frowning. She came up to their table, and said, still frowning, “Hi.”

“What’s up?” Max asked her. “Everything OK?”

“Uh, not really,” said Kasumi. “I mean, kind of. I mean, Emily’s kind of-- I’m gonna get her some food.”

“I’ll help you,” said Shaun, jumping up.

“That’s-- probably not the best idea, sweetie,” said Kasumi. “She’s, uh-- she’s talking with your mom about some-- private stuff.”

“Oh,” said Shaun, disappointed, sitting back down.

Kasumi looked at X6-88, and then at his plate, which was nearly empty. “You almost done?”

“Yes,” said X6-88, realizing belatedly that he wasn’t sure whether to add a ma’am. She was a human, and a close associate of Ms. Bowman’s, but, like Dee, she seemed to rank similarly with the synths, and, therefore, with himself. He decided to risk leaving off the honorific; if he was wrong, either she or Michael would correct him.

“‘Cause Nora and Emily kind of want to talk to you,” said Kasumi. “Now-ish.”

Chapter Text

X6-88 didn't allow his alarm to show on his face, of course, but he was unable to imagine a non-alarming reason for being summoned like this. Had he been accused of something? By Emily? if so, would he be allowed to speak in his own defense? If he wasn't, or if she didn't believe him, would Ms. Bowman be satisfied with punishing him, or would she--

A disquieting memory of Lyons-- Dee-- surfaced. Nobody's gonna harm a hair on your head. It's gonna be your precious humans she comes for. You want that on your conscience?

He tried to quiet his mind. There was no sense in speculation. He had only to meet the situation to the best of his ability. He rose to his feet.

"May I come, too?" Michael asked.

Kasumi eyed him thoughtfully, and then said, "I guess so."

X6-88 hoped his glance at Michael conveyed his gratitude; Michael's presence would greatly increase the likelihood that whatever was about to happen wouldn't go irretrievably wrong. She would listen to Michael.

Michael gave him a quick nod, as he rose as well.

“You got this?” Hancock asked Michael, not moving. “If I’m-- needed--”

“I will let you know,” said Michael, and Hancock nodded.

"Are you guys gonna take mom some food, too?" Shaun asked. "She hasn't eaten, either."

Michael and Kasumi exchanged a look, and then Michael said, "Perhaps later, Shaun. Kasumi, if you will fill a plate for Emily, I will fill a cup of water."

As they did so, X6-88 approached the scientists' table. They were talking animatedly among themselves, and seemed surprised by his approach.

"What's up, X6-88?" asked Dr. Teasdale, looking flushed and cheerful.

"Ms. Bowman would like to speak to me," he said. "May I be dismissed for the moment?"

"Is everything all right?" Dr. Teasdale asked, furrowing her brow.

"I have no further information, ma'am."

"Well, OK," said Dr. Teasdale. "Where will you be if we need you?"

X6-88 looked at Kasumi, who was approaching with a plate in her hands.

"The library," said Kasumi, and added to Dr. Teasdale, "But, uh, I wouldn't come looking."

X6-88 expected Dr. Coulton to snap something harsh and categorical about his right to seek out X6-88 at any time (and what would X6-88 do if Dr. Coulton directly countermanded one of Ms. Bowman's orders? He would obey Dr. Coulton, of course, those were the terms she had agreed to, that the scientists' authority over him took precedence over her own, but would she be angry? At Dr. Coulton?), but Dr. Coulton seemed entirely uninterested in the matter; he was diligently cutting the meat on his plate.

“Oh, trust me,” said Dr. Teasdale wryly. “I learned that lesson earlier today. Go on, X6, we’ll be fine.”

"Thank you, ma’am," said X6-88.

 

When the three of them arrived in the library, Ms. Bowman was seated at one end of one of the sofas, with Emily stretched out on it, full length, on her side, her head in the human's lap, her back to the room. Ms. Bowman was gently stroking Emily's hair with one hand, the other resting lightly on her shoulder. She looked up at X6-88, Kasumi, and Michael, with a frown.

"Hey," she said. "Oh, Michael. I'm glad you're here, too. Sit down, all of you."

Emily rolled over, when Ms. Bowman said Michael's name, revealing a puffy, mottled purple-and-white face, swollen, red, wet eyes and matted eyelashes.

Instead of obeying his mother's command, Michael moved forward and knelt down on the floor at Ms. Bowman's feet, putting himself nearly at eye level with Emily. He reached out, with the hand that wasn’t holding the cup of water, and touched her cheek gently, then thumbed a drop of pooled tear from below her eye.

"Go ahead and say you told me so," said Emily thickly.

Michael looked up at Ms. Bowman. "She should try to drink some water."

"Can you sit up, baby girl?" Ms. Bowman asked.

Emily seemed to experience some difficulty in doing so, but she managed. Kasumi sat down close by her, resting the plate of food on her own lap, and took the cup Michael lifted up. She held it to Emily’s lips--

(Little sip of water for me?)

--and Emily drank.

"Try to finish the cup, and you will feel better," said Michael, still kneeling on the floor between Ms. Bowman's legs and Emily's, and Emily smiled wanly at him between sips.

"Please sit down, X6-88," said Ms. Bowman, and X6-88 realized, to his discomfiture, that he had been so preoccupied with Michael's strange disobedience that he had failed to obey, himself. He remedied the oversight, seating himself on the sofa opposite. He had no idea why he had been summoned to witness this bizarre scene-- a weeping synth with its head pillowed in a human's lap, a courser wiping away its tears, kneeling at its feet as another human offered it water-- but he would be given whatever information Ms. Bowman wished him to have, when she wished him to have it.

"You, too, Michael," Ms. Bowman added. "Sit. Make yourself comfortable. We've all got some stuff to-- discuss."

Michael rose from his knees, but before he did as he was told, he reached out and passed his hand lightly over Emily's hair. Then he sat down beside X6-88, composing himself into stillness. Kasumi set the cup aside on a small end table, and, after a moment’s hesitation, set the plate aside as well, before putting an arm around Emily. Emily reached out for her mother's hand and clutched at it, tightly, as she leaned back against Kasumi’s arm.

"OK," said Ms. Bowman, her hand closed tightly around Emily’s as well, and took a deep breath. "OK. Thank you for coming, X6-88. We are here because I need to-- apprise you-- about some-- new information-- that has come to my attention. And that is relevant to everybody here. And once I have done that, I want us to have a calm-- reasonable-- conversation-- about this information, and what it-- means."

She was not calm.

Or rather, she was calm, in the sense that she appeared to be holding herself-- her emotions -- as tightly and deliberately in check as he had ever seen her do. In his limited experience with her, she had worn every emotion-- joy, sorrow, pride, shame, relief, disappointment, fear, hope-- openly, even more so than most humans did, as if she had no reason to conceal anything she might find herself feeling. Now she was struggling not to show whatever it was that the "new information" had made her feel-- and relatively successfully so for a human, in that X6-88 could see the struggle, but not the thing it concealed.

It terrified him.

"I--" She was still looking at X6-88. "I-- like I said when I was-- apologizing-- to your-- group-- I regret not having, um, tried harder. To get to know the people of the Institute, and the-- the Institute itself, sort of. I know the humans of the Institute had-- and some of them still have-- different -- ideas. From me. About what's, um, appropriate, and acceptable. And I am-- I hope you agree with me, X6-88, that I am-- really-- trying. To meet your-- your charges-- halfway. Because I care about you, and you care about them. So I am trying."

"What have they done?" X6-88 asked. He would not let his fear show. He would remain in control-- faultless, trained control, not like her shoddy human attempt at it. She valued him. He could still salvage this situation.

"Nothing," said Emily, answering his question unexpectedly, her voice still raspy with tears.

"Nothing lately," said Kasumi quietly.

"Yes, we're talking about the past," said Ms. Bowman. "Before the Institute -- before I ever even came to the Institute. When Emily was there. Before she ran away. A long time ago."

"What happened then?" X6-88 asked. Why was she drawing this out?

"Someone-- from the Institute-- hurt-- Emily," said Ms. Bowman, her voice quiet, even more carefully controlled. "I knew that-- already. That she had been hurt. I didn't know who did it. I still don't. She won't tell me. She didn't want to tell me, at first, back then, because she knew, if I knew-- who hurt her-- I'd kill him. Slowly."

Her control slipped on the last word, and rage--

--he had never actually seen her enraged before. Angry, yes, or perhaps only-- irritated. What she might have called pissy. At raiders, or mercenaries, who attacked them unprovoked. But she had always seemed to kill coolly, out of unpleasant necessity, rather than out of bloodlust or pleasure in violence. He had always admired this about her. She was undisciplined, dangerously emotional and impulsive and heedless, in other ways, but not in combat.

He had never seen her face look the way it did for a moment, her voice sound the way it did on the word slowly.

"Or," she continued, and her voice was steady again, though that was even less comfort now that he knew for certain what lay behind her restraint, "at the very least-- here lately, when it became, um, relevant again-- that if she told me, I would certainly hesitate to invite him to-- to live here."

X6-88 stayed perfectly still, his face clean of expression. Even any involuntary dilation of his pupils would be hidden by his sunglasses. He did not shake, like a human, or an untrained synth. He had control over his muscles.

"So I find my daughter," said Ms. Bowman, "crying her eyes out. By herself. And I find out she's been keeping this secret from me, and from her girlfriend, and from her brothers and sister, and carrying it all by herself. Because she doesn't want--" She broke off, took in a deep breath, and resumed, "Because, she thought, if all of your-- charges-- couldn't come, you wouldn't come. Home. To us. And she wanted-- wants-- you here. Because you are her brother. So she thought -- she thought she would just--" Ms. Bowman tried for a smile, but it didn't look very much like one, other than the bared teeth. "Tough it out. That it didn't matter, now, because it was so long ago, and she thought, she figured nobody would dare hurt her here, or any of you, so it didn't. Matter."

"Mother," said Emily, almost in a whisper. "Please."

"Yeah, baby girl," said Ms. Bowman, her voice quieter, as if to match Emily's. "Don't worry. I just need X6-88 to understand-- See, X6, now she wants to leave. Here. Go live with Kasumi's family up north. Again. She's done it before. Because she wanted to. But I have a couple of problems with the scenario of my daughter leaving her own home because it isn't safe here for her any more, so that I can hang out and bond with people I think might have harmed her, or been an accessory to harming her."

"I'm sorry I didn't leave before," said Emily to X6-88. "Before she found out. I was stupid. I thought-- it'd be-- OK. I'm just-- I always think I'm going to be stronger than I am. I don't know where I get this idea about myself. That I can-- do-- hard stuff. I've always been-- weak."

"Emily," said Kasumi, in a tone of gentle reproof. "Honey. I think it's more like you expect more of yourself than is actually humanly possible."

Emily gave a little shrug, and a grimace. "Well, I'm not human. So."

"You're human enough to need to give yourself a break every so often," said Kasumi.

"Amen," said Ms. Bowman. "X6-88, you have to understand, Emily, she's the one who-- well, you know she's the one who-- got me to talk to Michael. When he showed up to kidnap her. Instead of killing him. And got me to offer him-- what I offered. Because she said, she told me, he was her brother, he was my son, he was-- And she's the one who talked me into letting her do an interview with Piper Wright, in Publick Occurrences, and that's why Max came here, and why Kasumi came and told us about Acadia, and the trip to Acadia is where we got Cog and Victoria-- our whole family-- She's the reason we moved to the Castle, even. Because she wanted to be a Minuteman. Without her, I'd be-- I don't know. Drinking myself to death at the Slog, probably. The way I was, before--"

"You'd still have had Hancock and Shaun," said Emily, with another faint, watery smile. "And you'd still have gotten Danse."

"Pretty sure if Michael and the rest of you hadn't been here to help me with Danse, I would have traumatized him into catatonia with my well-intentioned idiocy," said Ms. Bowman, sounding a bit more like her accustomed, wry self for a moment.

"You spared the Brotherhood," said Emily. "Even after what they did to you. Even the ones that-- that hurt you. Because you love Danse, and he's family. You wouldn't let-- Hancock, and Michael, they wanted to kill them, the Brotherhood people that hurt you, and you wouldn't let them."

"You're absolutely right, baby," said Ms. Bowman. "And now that bitch karma is here, to make sure I know exactly how shitty that felt for them. Well, for Hancock, anyway. Your brother--"

"I would have preferred to be allowed to annihilate your attackers," said Michael dispassionately, "but I am accustomed to self-denial."

Ms. Bowman gave a little huff of laughter, and said, "Yeah you are, son. Well, Emily's been getting some practice in, too."

Emily looked at X6-88. "I guess there's a reason they never tapped me for courser training."

"You are too small," said Michael, and all three of the women laughed, briefly, aloud.

"That too," said Emily.

Ms. Bowman looked back at X6-88. "I'm telling you all this so you understand--"

She stopped again, for the space of a breath.

"This is my Emily," she said then, her voice soft. "My beautiful, brave, selfless Emily. My first daughter. My poet. My Minuteman. My councillor. Who I love-- more than life itself. And she still will not tell me which of your people hurt her, all those years ago. Because she says, if I don't know which one, I can't do anything."

Emily said, "You won't. If you're not sure."

Silence fell.

X6-88 was grateful for it. Too much new information was overwhelming him. Danger of a nature he hadn't anticipated, and succor, too, from an unexpected quarter. The situation was clearly unsustainable, untenable, but for the moment, the threat was held in abeyance. By little Y4-15, the runaway.

"If you did have-- complete information," said Michael carefully, to his mother, "what would you do?"

Ms. Bowman shook her head, not in negation, but with a look of hopeless uncertainty.

"I don't know," she said. "I mean, I know what I want to do. But-- no, I don't even know that, because -- God, I mean, she's right, I let the Brotherhood off the hook for all kinds of shit they did to me, and way, way more they did to Danse, because Danse asked me to. And if Emily wants to ask me for the same thing, how can I-- is it right? For me to tell her no?"

"She is not asking you for the same thing," said Michael, his voice still courser-calm. "Danse did not ask that you invite his tormentors-- and yours-- to live here, in your home."

"Point," said Ms. Bowman. "This is a little more complicated, yes. If I'd known this ahead of time-- I guess I could have arranged for your guys to live -- somewhere else. Although I don't know if I'd have felt so great about that, either, putting them with-- my people, where I couldn't take personal responsibility--"

"And you wanted X6-88 here, with us," said Michael. "As he wanted to be here. And his group made clear that his residence here was contingent on theirs."

"Yep," said Ms. Bowman. "So." She tried for another smile, ill-advisedly. "Here is where we find ourselves. I'm hoping some of my brilliant children can help me figure out what to do next."

Silence fell again, and again, X6-88 felt-- oddly comfortable, within it. Even in her anger, she did not seem at all angry at X6-88. None of them did. They wouldn't become impatient, if he took time to reflect. She would even, he thought, encourage it. Some of my brilliant children-- he was included in that category, for her. He had known she would listen to Michael, he had seen how she listened to-- and even, to an extent, submitted her will to-- Emily. And she was ready, now, to listen to X6-88. She had brought him here not so that he could hear what sentence she planned to pronounce, on himself or on the doctors, but so that she could hear him say what he had to say about-- this. It might be impossible to find an outcome that entirely pleased everyone in the room, but X6-88 was part of the group she wanted help from, in finding a solution. For her, they were on the same side. Part of the same group. Of the same family.

You are her brother.

It's all right. You can tell the truth.

What's mine is yours.

He considered, and no one spoke impatiently, to hurry him, or dismissively, to pronounce that he was incapable of this kind of cognition, before he finally said, "I have a favor to ask, ma'am."

"Ask," Ms. Bowman said immediately.

"Before you-- act, in any way," he said. "May I speak to my charges, of this matter? In private? I would like to-- I would have liked to know of this, before I advised them to come here. But since it's too late for that-- I would like to speak to them, regarding this situation, and their-- options. And I would like to be able to assure them that, should they now regret their decision to-- join you-- they will be allowed to leave freely. Without fear that you will-- hunt them down. That they are free, now, to reverse their decision. As they would have been free-- not to make it, had they been more fully informed before."

"X6-88," Emily protested, fresh tears welling up in her eyes and spilling down her blotchy cheeks. "I don't want you to leave. Nobody wants you to leave."

"Thank you for saying so, Emily," he answered, sincerely. "I am grateful for the sentiment."

There was quiet again for a moment, before Ms. Bowman said, "Yes. You may talk to them. And you may tell them that if they want to leave now-- if that's their choice-- yes."

X6-88 nodded. "May I be dismissed now, for that purpose?"

"At least wait until morning," said Emily, and her breath caught in a sob. "Stay one more night. At least. Please."

"That may be good advice," said Michael to X6-88. "You will not want to travel with them in the dark, and if you speak of this to them tonight, they will not pass a restful night."

"Very well," said X6-88. "I will speak to them in the morning. May I be dismissed, in any case?"

"I wish you'd stay," said Ms. Bowman, quietly, and her voice was no longer guarded; a world of grief lay in its tones. "I wish you'd stay a little and-- talk to me. Just a little. Just for a little."

"Then I will, ma'am," he answered. "Of what do you wish to speak?"

She laughed, a little, and said, "Anything. Everything."

"May I go and get Shaun, ma'am?" Michael asked, and she said, "Yes. Oh, yes. And some more water, if you would. Thank you, son."

Chapter Text

For a moment, when Elizabeth awakened, she wasn't sure where she was; when she remembered, her heart gave an unexpected but unmistakable bound of joy. Everything had changed; everything was going to be all right.

She couldn't imagine why she had been so foolishly whiny and tearful with Jonah Dee yesterday (the Railroad agent! And he'd been so sweet to her, so gentle and funny and kind); she must simply have been exhausted. And a little overwhelmed. Naturally. And alarmed, at having accidentally overstepped her bounds with Emily. But Nora would understand that a few mistakes, at first, were inevitable. Surely Tanvi and Beau and Alice had made some, too, and been forgiven. Elizabeth would apologize again to Emily if necessary, as humbly as Emily liked; she'd even call the girl Ms. Bowman, if she demanded it. Who cared?

She was here, safe, comfortable, with Tanvi and Beau and their beautiful baby, with food readily available (her stomach purred hopefully at the thought, despite the last two hearty meals), and X6-88-- Dee was right-- somehow, despite everything, didn't hate them. He'd refused to abandon them, even when he was offered a place of honor here. He was capable of choice, and he'd chosen to take care of them. He was their-- what was the word Tanvi had used yesterday evening at dinner, of X9-21? Their guardian.

(Michael, not X9-21. Tanvi and Beau and Alice had managed the shift, and so would Elizabeth, although she'd addressed him as X9-21 at least once yesterday-- Thank you, X9-21, when he'd offered her a hand to help her up after the infusion of anti-radiation medicine Nora's doctor had administered-- and he hadn't seemed to take umbrage. Hadn't said anything, anyway.)

It was all right. They were safe again. Safe under the aegis of a sheltering, powerful authority, as they hadn't been since the destruction of the Institute's beautiful underground facility. This place was very different, but it could become home in the same way, as it had for their colleagues who'd been brave and desperate enough to come here first.

She stretched luxuriously-- the synths, Cog and Victoria, they'd worked hard to build these beds, to have them ready before nightfall, so that the four newcomers would each have a bed, even if they were currently somewhat haphazardly crammed into the infirmary. She would have to thank them. She was definitely going to have to get used to thanking synths for their work. For everything. She had to thank X6-88, for that matter, for bringing them all here. And for everything he’d done for them before that. Thanking hardly began to cover the debt she-- and all of them-- owed to him, but it was a start.

She was sore and stiff from the last two days of walking, but she dragged herself out of bed anyway, she was so eager to start the day. Start adjusting. Start figuring out how life was going to work now.

When she pulled open the door to the infirmary, she found X6-88 waiting outside it, as if he had been standing guard all night. Her heart swelled with gratitude, and she smiled at him. He didn’t smile back, but then, he never did.

“Good morning, Dr. Teasdale,” he said. “May I bring you some breakfast?”

“I can get it myself,” she said.

“I think it is best if you stay here for the moment, ma’am,” said X6-88. “I have an important matter to discuss with you and your colleagues, as soon as they are all awake.”

Elizabeth frowned. “What important matter?”

“I think it is best if I speak with all of you at once,” said X6-88. “Please stay here, ma’am. I will be back shortly with food for you, and for the others, as well. They should be awake shortly.”

“Well-- all right,” said Elizabeth. She would have liked to get out into the Castle and start the day, but she could wait, if X6-88 thought it was important.

X6-88 shut the door of the infirmary on her, and she sat back down on her bed and glanced around at the other three, feeling like a child on its birthday, eager to awaken the others so the day could start properly. Rosemary was already stirring, and opened her eyes with a small groan, glancing wildly about for a moment before she saw Elizabeth.

“Oh,” she said. “Oh, I dreamed-- I dreamed it was a dream.”

Elizabeth giggled. “Maybe you’re dreaming you dreamed it was a dream.”

“Don’t start with that kind of thing,” said Rosemary, and sat up, with a louder groan. “Oh, my entire body.”

“We don’t have to walk anywhere today,” said Elizabeth. “Although it will probably be a good idea for us to start getting more exercise. It’s healthier, you know. And now we’ll be able to get enough to eat, so we won’t have to conserve our energy so much. Morning, Julian.”

His eyes had flown open, and he lay staring at her as if she were the strangest thing he’d ever seen, before he said, “Good morning, Elizabeth. Where is X6-88?”

“He’s getting us breakfast,” said Elizabeth. “He says he has something important to talk to all of us about.”

“Who has something important?” Max mumbled, opening his eyes.

“X6-88 wants to talk to us,” Elizabeth answered. “He’s bringing us breakfast here.”

“Ugh,” said Max, pulling himself up into a sitting position. “I suppose we’ll have to get used to hearing him chatter on, now, like all the other synths here.”

“Don’t be churlish, Max,” said Elizabeth, annoyed by his long-suffering tone. “It’s thanks to X6-88 that we’re here at all.”

“Oh, haven’t you been quick to go native,” said Max. “Have you given him a name yet?”

“They choose their own names,” Rosemary pointed out. “Do you think he will?”

“I’ll call him by it, if he does,” said Elizabeth. “At least, I’ll try to remember.”

There was a pause, during which Elizabeth-- familiar to the point of nausea with the patterns of conversation between the four of them-- found herself surprised not to hear Julian speak up with contempt at the idea. He didn’t, though. He hadn’t even sat up; he was just lying there.

“Are you all right, Julian?” Max asked, apparently thinking the same thing.

“Fine,” said Julian, and sat up. “He didn’t say what he wants to talk to us about, Elizabeth?”

Elizabeth shook her head, just as there was a gentle rap at the door, and she got up-- stiffly, still-- to open it.

X6-88 and X9-21-- Michael-- were both outside, each carrying two full plates-- Elizabeth’s mouth watered at the smell of hot food, although she wasn’t entirely sure what it was, exactly. There was meat of some kind, cut up into small bits and mixed up with some yellowish-white, curdled-looking-- stuff. And, on each plate, a whole mutfruit.

Michael handed her a plate, and stepped past her into the room; he went straight to Rosemary and handed the other plate to her. She took it, and said, with the air of one trying out a newly learned clinical phrase, “Thank you, Michael.”

“You’re welcome, Dr. Weston,” Michael answered. X6-88 was handing plates to Julian and Max, neither of whom said thank you. Elizabeth hadn’t, either, she realized, and she said belatedly, “Yes, Michael, thank you.”

He turned and smiled at her. “You’re welcome, Dr. Teasdale.”

“Dr. Teasdale says you have something to say to us,” said Max to X6-88.

“Yes, sir,” said X6-88. “A matter of some importance, to which Michael may also have something to add.”

Elizabeth took a cautious bite of the yellowy stuff. It had an odd, almost rubbery texture, but it wasn’t bad.

“Last night, after supper, as you are all aware, I spoke to Ms. Bowman,” said X6-88, “and she apprised me of a situation that had just arisen. It is a situation that alters the aspect of our welcome here. I asked permission to discuss it with you all last night, but I was advised to allow you all a night of rest before I told you-- how the situation has changed.”

There was a sinking feeling in Elizabeth’s stomach. She didn't want the aspect of their welcome here altered. She didn't like the implication that whatever X6-88 was about to say would have ruled out the possibility of a night's rest. She set her plate down on the bed beside her, waiting.

"It appears," X6-88 continued, "that one of you, before the destruction of the Institute, had some-- interaction -- with Unit Y4-15, that caused her extreme and lasting distress."

"Was it me?" Elizabeth blurted out. She didn't remember doing anything bad to Y4-15 in the Institute-- didn't actually even remember Y4-15 from the Institute at all-- but as Dee had pointed out, she hardly had a vivid memory of every time she'd spoken harshly or impatiently to a synth. If she'd snapped at Y4-15, and it had frightened her, or even gotten her in some kind of trouble (as it might have; she hadn't exactly kept track of what happened to every synth she scolded, either) that might explain why Y4-- Emily-- had been so cold to her yesterday.

Before she could apologize again, though, beg for a chance to make it up to Emily, Michael said, "No, Dr. Teasdale, it was not you. I do not believe the person of whom we are speaking is currently in any doubt concerning whom, or what, we mean. Would he like to acknowledge that fact now?"

"Why are you both speaking so circuitously?" Max asked. He’d set his plate down, too, on the floor by his feet. "Just say who it is and what they did."

"We cannot say who it is, sir," said X6-88, "because we do not know. Emily had apparently intended to conceal-- from everyone -- the fact that the person who had distressed her was among our number, because she feared that would mean I could not safely bring you here. Last night, however, the emotional strain proved too much, and she admitted to Ms. Bowman that the person of whom she had previously spoken was one of you. To forestall her mother's vengeance, however, she refused to be more specific."

"Vengeance?" Rosemary repeated, in a slightly higher pitch than her usual speaking tones. She’d put her plate on the bed beside her. Julian seemed to have set his aside without even tasting it.

"She has assured me," said X6-88, "that if any or all of you wish to leave the Castle, now that this information has come to light, you will be allowed to do so safely."

"We have to leave?" Rosemary wailed. "But I'm so tired!"

It sounded ridiculous, but it actually wasn't far removed from how Elizabeth felt. After all this discussion and anticipation, after their journey, after the seismic shifts of -- everything-- and the sense of both security and high adventure with which she'd awakened this morning --

"The actual offender is the only one who is no longer welcome here, Dr. Weston," said Michael. "I do not believe it is you, either. Emily has referred to her attacker as 'he.'"

"Attacker?" said Elizabeth numbly. "He--"

"He systematically used his power over her to coerce her into performing, and submitting to, acts of physical intimacy," said Michael, sounding like a textbook entry on--

Elizabeth said to Max and Julian, "One of you raped Y4-15?"

"That's an outrageous accusation, X9-21," said Max coldly.

"Wait," said Rosemary, on a sudden note of excited hope. "Are we sure she isn't talking about Alan? He had that-- affair-- with that synth, the one they re-designated and assigned to him. What was her name?"

"Eve," said Elizabeth automatically, hoping desperately that Rosemary was right, although it didn’t seem likely; Alan’s “affair” with Eve had always seemed more like a passionate, if bizarre, love affair than a generalized sexual taste for female synths.

"Emily is not talking about Dr. Binet," said Michael. "I, too, believed that to be a possibility, and I was initially relieved to discover he was no longer with your party. But Emily has confirmed that the offender is here, now."

"In other words," said Max grimly, "Y4-15, for reasons best known to herself, has decided she doesn't want us here, and made up some wild story of grievance, which her delusional 'mother' has swallowed hook, line, and sinker, and this entire trip has been for nothing."

Michael exchanged a glance with X6-88, and then walked deliberately over to Max, took hold of his shirt front, made a fist in it, and jerked him to his feet by it. X6-88 took two quick steps forward, then halted; Rosemary gave a little scream; Elizabeth sat frozen, stunned, as Michael said, softly, to Max, "If you were not under X6-88's protection -- You will not speak that way about my sister. Not under my mother's roof. Do you understand?"

Max made a choking sound that might have indicated assent. Michael released his shirt with a quick, contemptuous gesture, as if he were flinging aside something loathsome he had picked up by accident, and Max fell back onto the bed, gasping.

Elizabeth was trembling. She had never seen a synth physically threaten an Institute human. And X9-21, who had always been so respectful, so obedient, who had accepted reproof and punishment so meekly--

"It was me," said Julian.

Everyone in the room turned to look at him. He was as pale as he had been yesterday, in the alley, after the raider attack, and he was looking down at his knees.

"I did it," he said. "I-- gave her those orders. I didn't-- think of it as-- I knew it was fucked up, what I was doing, but I didn't think it was-- rape. I didn't know she-- minded. The way a human would. I didn't know it would -- But it was me, so the rest of you can stay. I'll go. I guess that's what I deserve. Or if one of them wants to kill me, that's fine, too, if it's quick. I mean, it'll come down to the same thing. It's not like I'll last long, out there on my own."

There was a silence, while Elizabeth tried to get her breath back, not entirely with success.

"You can't intend to allow that, X6-88," said Rosemary, her voice shaking. "He did something-- wrong-- but he doesn't deserve to die, does he?"

There was another, briefer pause, and then X6-88 said, "I am not qualified to pass that kind of judgment. But Dr. Coulton would not be in danger of dying now if it were not for me-- the actions I took, and advised you all to take-- and I will not bear responsibility for his death. He cannot stay here, so I will go with him, and continue to serve and protect him to the best of my ability."

"What about the rest of us?" Elizabeth asked miserably. This was too much, it was all too much to cope with, what in God's name was wrong with Julian, why would he do such a thing--

"That is part of the reason why I offered to participate in this conversation," said Michael, sounding perfectly calm. Why wasn't he assaulting Julian to defend his sister's honor? "You were all welcomed here, initially, by virtue of your association with X6-88. If your party now divides-- since X6-88 has elected to leave with Dr. Coulton, and with any who accompany him-- those of you who choose to stay will need a new advocate. I am prepared to be that advocate, and to assume your guardianship, along with that of Drs. Achanta and Hastings, Mr. Benson, and Naveena.”

“I guess we know what your guardianship would look like,” said Max, trying for bravado, but his voice cracked a little at the end of the sentence.

“That’s correct, Dr. Loken,” said Michael coolly. “Should you accept my offer, I will try to ensure that no harm comes to you, and that all your needs are met. But I am not your property, or your servant. I am a son of this house, and you are the object of my mother’s charity. If you are unwilling to accept these terms, you should leave with X6-88.”

“Well,” said Max, and cleared his throat. “It’s obviously not safe for any of us here-- certainly not without X6-88. So. I guess we’ll be-- leaving.”

“This is all insane,” said Rosemary, almost weeping. “Can’t we talk to Ms. Bowman, and Y4-15, explain that Julian didn’t-- that he didn’t know what he was doing, that he’s sorry now--”

“I am afraid my sister’s unwillingness to share a home with her rapist must take precedence over Dr. Coulton’s remorse, however heartfelt,” Michael answered. “I am sorry, Dr. Weston. I know you are tired. If you wish, I can speak with my mother and my sister, and ask if you may have another day and night here, to rest, and to consider your decision.”

“No,” said Rosemary, “Max is right, it isn’t safe, it-- We should never have come here. It’s like Alice in Wonderland-- ‘We’re all mad here.’ At least we knew what to expect-- out there. It’s better than-- than going mad, too--”

She looked at Elizabeth. So did everyone else.

Elizabeth was still shaking, and her heart was pounding, and her palms, which she’d twisted together in her lap without realizing it, were prickling with sweat, and she said, to Michael, “I want to stay. Please.”

“Very well, Dr. Teasdale,” Michael answered gravely. “I will try not to give you cause to regret your decision. X6-88, if you will come with me to my mother, we can discuss the terms of your departure.”

X6-88 nodded, and they both went out, without speaking to the humans again.

Chapter Text

Deacon woke up at Railroad HQ, curled up pragmatically with another agent on a salvaged mattress on the floor, pooling the warmth and softness that were both so scarce, at HQ and elsewhere in the Commonwealth. Which agent, he wasn’t sure, in his half-asleep haze. Not Tom; wrong smell. Not Carrington. Not Glory--

Then he remembered that Glory was dead-- his fault, probably, or at least something he could have prevented if he’d been better-- and that he didn’t sleep at HQ anymore, which meant--

Fuck--!

Dee pushed off and scuttled backwards as if the body next to him had suddenly been electrified, and then hit the floor with a thud that knocked all the air out of his lungs, because he hadn't been on a mattress, he'd been on a bed, in a bed, in bed with-- who?

Danse’s startled face appeared over the edge of the bed.

What the fuck, how the fuck, and how good were his odds of outrunning Michael if he started right now?

“Are you all right, Dee?” Danse asked, as Max appeared out of nowhere, looking quizzically down at him.

He hadn't had a drink or ingested a chem since the Time with the Thing, and one thing he definitely hadn't missed about getting blitzed out of his shitty mind was the feeling of having absolutely no idea what had happened last night, or what incredibly embarrassing and/or appalling things he might have done to end up where he'd ended up, what the consequences were going to be, how badly and eternally he’d fucked everything up this time--

Danse looked up at Max like a good puppy that wasn’t sure, on mature consideration, whether the thing it had just been found gnawing on had actually been given to it for gnawing purposes as it had thought or whether it had Made a Poor Choice, and Max said to Dee, “You OK? You did say it was OK if Danse bunked with you, but you were most of the way to asleep, so maybe we shouldn’t've taken you up on it?"

Dee had already managed to get up to his hands and knees, and now he let Max pull him the rest of the way up.

Kasumi and Victoria were blinking irritably and sleepily at him from Victoria's bed: Hancock was beginning to sit up from a prone position on one couch, dislodging Shaun, who'd been sleeping on his back and who was murmuring a faint protest. Emily was on the other sofa, with a ballpoint pen in her hand and a loose-leaf notebook full of pages resting on the couch's arm beside her; Nora was asleep with her head in Emily's lap. Cog was in a chair with a book. Max sat back down, too, in the chair he must have just gotten up from.

It was all slightly surreal, but yes, Dee was beginning to remember--

--last night, after Michael came and got Shaun and took him away to the library, and then everyone else finished eating and cleaned up after themselves and left, and then Dee and the synths and Hancock sat around nervously wondering what was going on the library, and then Victoria went to knock on the library door and demand the Jungle Book if they weren’t going to be allowed in what had after all just been declared the family room and what was also the room where she and Dee actually slept so the big conference better be done by bedtime, and came back with Mansfield Park instead, reporting that Shaun and Emily and Nora were all in tears and Shaun had handed her this book and she’d run like hell--

--she’d read aloud for a bit, but then Max had said it felt wrong to be starting a new book with half of them not here, and somehow they’d gotten talking instead, speculating at first on what in God’s name was going on in the library, hoping it was resolved soon, hoping Emily didn’t have some history with X6-88 that was going to wreck everything, which transitioned into the synths who remembered the Institute telling weird fucked-up stories of their weird fucked-up lives in the Institute, some of which were horrifying and some of which were kind of funny in a horrifying way, because turned out the list of pranks you could get away with pulling on people who thought you were robots was fairly extensive, and not all of them would get your entire identity annihilated, at least not every time. And then they’d asked Dee for stories about the Railroad-- about Glory, the woman the myth the legend, and about Maven (this was Danse, asking shyly, and Dee had racked his brains for a good Maven story because he hadn’t actually known her all that well because she hadn’t lived at HQ and hadn’t been one to chit-chat when they did ops together, but he’d told Danse what he could remember truthfully [she kicked ass, rarely took names, wasn’t one to get attached, so there must have been something pretty special about M7-97] and then told a story that was maybe very slightly made up but could have been something Maven had done and it made Danse happy so what the hell)-- and then there had been Acadia stories from Cog and Victoria, and Commonwealth stories from Hancock, and Cog had gone to the food storage and come back with snacks and sodas, and so--

--yeah, he’d probably already been pretty ready to crash by the time Michael, looking about twelve and a half times grimmer than usual, came to apologize for keeping Dee and Victoria from their beds for so long, and take Danse by the hand, and take them all back to the library, and explain that it turned out one of the scientists Dee had personally negotiated to bring here was a scumbag who'd abused Emily in the Institute and they were kicking him out in the morning and X6-88 was almost definitely going with him and this had all been for nothing except to re-traumatize Emily and get Nora's hopes up only to brutally dash them and make Shaun cry--

--so maybe that was why he hadn’t immediately remembered Michael asking him if it was all right if Danse shared his bed tonight, so they could all be together. The family.

X6-88 had been here, too, but he wasn't, now. Neither was Michael.

"Sorry,” he said, to Danse. “I just, uh, forgot. Where I was. For a minute.”

“That sleeping business really must be a trip,” said Cog.

“It is," said Victoria. "Is it morning?"

“I’m sorry I startled you,” said Danse, to Dee.

Dee’s nervous breakdown was progressing nicely, thank you for asking, and clearly mornings were going to be a particularly bright and shining time for enjoying the fruits of an entire lifetime’s worth of delayed PTSD symptoms, because now, whether out of embarrassment at overreacting to waking up next to Danse, or sick guilt at having had yet another in a lifelong series of colossally bad ideas, or some combination of those things and--

--whatever the feeling was, of waking up with a bunch of people who weren’t either awful, or putting up with his presence because one of the inevitable hardships you endured for the Railroad’s Cause was dealing with Deacon’s tiresome ass; people he’d made laugh last night because they had Nora’s same dumb sense of humor, people who’d rolled their eyes back at Hancock when Hancock rolled his black eyes at Dee; waking up in bed with someone whose ferociously protective ex-courser boyfriend had asked him, last night, if he wouldn’t mind sharing a bed with him, because he was family--

(He should have volunteered to sleep on the floor, and let Danse have his bed. That would have been the polite thing to do. He’d apologize in a second for not having done that, instead of mumbling a half-conscious yes and passing out.)

--Dee wasn’t crying. Everyone else was crying, that was who was crying.

“When did Michael leave?” Hancock asked, at the same time Shaun was asking, "Where's X6-88?"

Dee, grateful for the distraction, sat down in an unobtrusive chair. He’d fallen asleep in his shades, thank God, and the fall to the floor hadn’t knocked them off.

Emily said, "It's morning. They went to talk to-- the scientists. Oh!"

She startled as Nora flailed suddenly, wakening, and grabbed at her wrist, and then woke the rest of the way, sat up fast, and said, "Oh, sweetheart, I'm sorry--"

Emily smiled at her. Her face was pale and puffy, but she seemed calm. "For what?"

"Oh, you name it." Nora looked around. "Fuck, where's-- X6 didn't leave already, did he?"

"No," said Emily. "He and Michael are speaking with the scientists."

"OK," said Nora, sounding too tired to cry.

Emily resumed writing something in her notebook, turning her shoulders and curling an arm around it as if to shield it from her mother’s gaze.

"Sweetheart, I won't look if you don't want me to," said Nora.

Emily blushed, as Shaun said, "Is it a poem? When can I read your poems?"

"Yeah, Emily," said Kasumi. "When can we read your poems?"

Before Emily could answer, the door opened, and Michael came in, looking-- tired. Dee had never actually seen him look tired before. Behind him was X6-88. They both stood, straight-shouldered, as if reporting for duty. Well, reporting for duty in an organization more regimented than the Railroad. Danse sat up in Dee's bed; so did Victoria, in hers, and Kasumi hopped out of bed and went to sit on the couch on the other side of Nora.

"The culprit has confessed," X6-88 said to Nora.

Nora nodded. "And are you-- you're still-- going with him?"

"Yes, ma'am," said X6-88.

"OK," said Nora. "I-- well, you know how I feel. But I know you're just doing-- what you feel like you have to do."

"I am unable to convince myself that it is not my duty to leave," said X6-88, and added, "I have tried."

Nora smiled a little. "Thank you for trying."

"Thank you for your hospitality, ma'am," said X6-88. "And for your generosity, and for your-- restraint. And for offering your continued charity to those of my charges who have not-- acted to forfeit it."

"Are any of them staying?" Hancock asked.

"One," said X6-88. "Dr. Teasdale."

"Oh," said Nora. "Well, if it's just one, I'm glad it’s her."

"I am afraid I am partially to blame for the others' refusal, ma'am," said Michael. "I-- frightened them. I was angry. One of them spoke disrespectfully of-- I apologize for my lack of control."

"If they got disrespectful enough to make you snap," said Hancock, "it's good they're not staying."

Nora nodded, then added, "Although I am sorry, X6-88, to saddle you with-- most of them, again. I had hoped to take a little more of a load off your shoulders, at least. Let them know the invitation stays open, OK? Theirs, I mean-- I mean, you know yours isn't just-- an invitation. This is your home. Whenever you want to-- whenever you can come back to it. If you ever can. Even just for a visit. To say hi."

"Thank you," said X6-88. "You are very kind."

"Can I help you pack?" Nora asked.

"Michael has seen to our needs, ma'am."

"I would like to request permission to accompany X6-88 on his journey back," Michael said to Nora. "To assist him in protecting his charges."

"Of course," said Nora. "If they'll let you."

"I would like to see them try to stop me," said Michael.

Nora smiled. "I mean, if they don't order X6-88 to try to stop you."

"Such an order would be against their own best interest," said X6-88.

"So's leaving here, and that's not stopping them from siding with a fuckin' rapist to do it," said Hancock. "Sorry, X6-88. But your charges are kind of the worst."

"They are my charges," X6-88 answered, which, as a reply, was pretty interesting if you asked Dee. Which nobody had. Which was fine.

"Here," said Emily.

She had extricated the paper she'd been writing on from her notebook, and folded it over once; she rose, quickly, and held it out to X6-88, who accepted it and held it uncertainly out in front of him.

"It's something I wrote," Emily said, crimson in the face, her voice shaking. "It's s-stupid. But I-- I wanted you to-- to have it. I was just-- c-copying it over, so you could-- take it with you-- It's s-sort of about what we were saying last night, after they-- fell asleep? You don't have to read it right now."

X6-88 nodded, and tucked the still-folded piece of paper into an inner pocket of his uniform.

"Thank you, Emily," he said.

"Is it the one you showed me?" Michael asked Emily, and she nodded.

Michael stepped forward and took Emily in his arms, holding her tightly against him. Emily leaned her head on his clavicle, and he laid his cheek against her hair, and they stood like that for a few moments before he let go and stepped back.

Shaun was the only one who dared hug X6-88 goodbye, before he and Michael turned to go.

 

"So X6-88 gets to read your stuff?" said Kasumi, when they were gone, as Emily sat unsteadily back down.

Emily blushed again. "I--" She looked down at her notebook. "Because he was-- leaving. And I wanted to-- but I'm not-- Maybe someday I'll be good. Better."

"Come on," said Victoria. "We're not gonna know if it's good. There's nobody here but a bunch of synths. And dirty synth-lovers. Read it for us."

Nora said, "Only if you want to, sweetheart. But I think we'd all like to hear it."

After a moment, Emily opened her notebook, without looking up, and began to read aloud, unsteadily at first, but her voice grew a little stronger as she continued,

"Sleep is a sweetness, so I hear it said,
A solace for the weary mind and muscle,
Settling soft, till each unquiet head
Grows still enough to hear its dreams' soft rustle
Stir in its darkest corners. Sleep, the gift
Granted by makers gentler than my own,
Who shaped their creatures' minds so free to drift
Away, astray, unfettered, and alone--
But we, my brother, watchers in the night,
We see the lines that make of stars a story,
Spinning the tales that shape their random light
(Hunter and hunted, and a crown of glory):
Sleepless, we stay, till our sweet sleepers wake,
To live the dreams we weave for their dear sake."

Chapter Text

When X6-88 and Michael returned to the infirmary, Dr. Teasdale wasn’t there. Michael had explained the situation, as briefly and succinctly as possible, to his own charges, before bringing X6-88 before Ms. Bowman and her family to say his farewells. Dr. Achanta and Mr. Benson had expressed great distress, and then some relief when they learned Dr. Teasdale planned to remain; Dr. Hastings had expressed a desire to see the others before they left, and had set out for the infirmary with that purpose. She was there, now, with Dr. Severne as well, and Dr. Hastings and Dr. Weston both looked as though they had been crying.

“Michael,” said Dr. Hastings, in a tone of appeal. “It isn’t too late, is it? Rosemary can stay if she wants to, can’t she?”

“Of course,” said Michael, and his tone when he spoke to Dr. Hastings stood in stark contrast to the anger and contempt he had shown Dr. Loken. “Has Dr. Weston changed her mind? She is very welcome to do so.”

“I’m just so tired,” Dr. Weston wailed miserably.

“Lie down,” Dr. Hastings urged. “Rest. You’ll be ill again soon, if you leave. You’re perfectly safe here.”

“But I want X6-88,” Dr. Weston protested. “He’s ours, I know him, I trust him--”

“Thank you, Dr. Weston,” said X6-88, touched; the Institute scientists were not generally free with their commendation. “But please, rest assured that I would never consider leaving you here if I did not have perfect confidence that you would be safe and well cared for.”

“But why can’t you stay?”

“And sentence Dr. Coulton to death?”

“No!” Dr. Weston sounded horrified.

“He cannot stay here,” said X6-88, “and I know of no other haven that will receive him. Without my protection, he will die. Would you deprive him of that protection, ma’am?”

Dr. Weston hung her head, and, after a moment, shook it back and forth.

“But,” she said to X6-88, looking up at him unhappily, tears in her eyes, “you’re what makes me feel safe.”

“You’re safe here, Rosemary,” said Dr. Hastings, reaching out to smooth Dr. Weston’s disheveled hair.

“But the ghouls,” said Dr. Weston, “and-- the synths here are so-- so angry. Even X9-21 is so angry now.”

“I am not angry with you, Dr. Weston,” said Michael. “And even if I were, I would still protect you, for X6-88’s sake.”

“But when he’s gone--”

Michael said, “You are a scientist. Consider whether your observations support the hypothesis that anyone here is likely to harm you in X6-88’s absence.”

Dr. Weston stared at him.

He added courteously, “Would you like more time to consider? As I said earlier, I can speak to my mother on the subject. She is unlikely to deny your request-- again, for X6-88’s sake. Dr. Loken, would you also like to reconsider your choice?”

“Not on your life,” said Dr. Loken grimly. “I think Elizabeth and Rosemary have both lost their minds, and I’ll be glad to get out of this little experiment with my own skin intact. And Julian’s.”

“I’ll stay,” said Dr. Weston, and burst into tears again, and threw her arms around X6-88. “Don’t go.”

“I must,” said X6-88, and as he said it, something clarified itself within his mind, something important, and although this was not exactly what Nora Bowman had meant when she had said she had hoped to take more of a load off his shoulders, it did feel like a weight, lifted. Not the prospect of leaving Dr. Weston behind, but--

The confusion and bewilderment of the last several days-- the doubts that had assailed him regarding his appropriate course of action, the conflicting paradigms with which he'd been confronted, the general disorientation that had begun when he was approached by an emissary from Nora Bowman begging on her behalf for his forgiveness-- had settled. The tension between obedience to his owners and-- as Ms. Bowman had put it, just now-- doing what you feel like you have to do, which had never been a problem before the destruction of the Institute, had come to a head. He was unable, as he had told Ms. Bowman, to reach an understanding of his duty that did not require him to protect any human formerly of the Institute. But he had reached an expanded understanding of his own nature and potential function. Of the privilege of being what he was.

He would care for--

( the humans who cling to you like helpless infants, producing nothing, serving no purpose, demanding your service and subservience, because they once had some part in our Father's vision for the future)

-- and he would not allow them to come to harm. He would protect them, and feed them, and do his best to prolong and ease their lives.

And, when their orders conflicted with what he thought right-- what he had to do--

“I am sorry, Dr. Weston,” he said, and he tried to sound gentle and warm, the way Michael sounded when he spoke to Dr. Hastings. Courtesy and kindness. “But you must let go. I have to be on my way.”

Dr. Weston released him, blinking up at him in puzzlement, and Dr. Hastings put an arm around her.

“Come, Rosemary,” she said. “Lie down. Melinda, do you think a sedative--?”

“She doesn’t need one,” said Dr. Severne, as Dr. Weston lay down obediently on the bed where she had slept last night. “Deep breaths, Rosemary. Alice, run get the other one. Elizabeth. And Tanvi and Beau, too. It’ll make Rosemary feel better.”

“We should go,” said Michael to X6-88. “I would like to be home before dark.”

”We?” Dr. Loken repeated.

“Yes, sir,” said X6-88. “Michael has offered to accompany us on the journey back home. Travel in the Commonwealth is hazardous, as you saw on the way here, and Michael’s assistance will enable me to ensure your safety.”

“It’s not worth the risk,” said Dr. Loken. “X9-21 can’t be trusted to protect us. He can’t even be trusted not to attack us.”

“I have already said that I have no intention of harming any of you, as long as you are under X6-88’s protection,” said Michael.

“The answer is no,” said Dr. Loken to X6-88.

X6-88 said, “I had not asked you a question, sir.”

Interestingly, instead of answering, Dr. Loken looked at Dr. Coulton, who could usually be counted on to detect the slightest hint of insubordination or disrespect-- and what X6-88 had just said certainly qualified as both-- and pounce on it, subjecting X6-88 to some form of correction or punishment. But Dr. Coulton said nothing. He looked pale and sick.

That left Dr. Loken to be the one to ask how X6-88 dared speak that way, or point out his duty and nature and function, or order him to his knees, or hit him.

He did none of these things. He looked back at X6-88, and said, “I will not allow X9-21 to accompany us.”

“You cannot command X9-21, sir,” said X6-88. “He is not subject to your authority. Are you ready to go?”

Tell him his presence is unnecessary!”

“It is not unnecessary, sir,” said X6-88.

“I say that it is!”

“You have less training and experience in the relevant areas than I have, sir,” said X6-88, “and so, through no fault of your own, you are mistaken. I would be remiss in my duty if I allowed you to come to harm through your own ignorance.”

Dr. Loken opened his mouth, and then closed it.

After all, how dare you, as a rhetorical question, might produce an answer Dr. Loken was unprepared to hear.

“I am glad you are staying, Dr. Weston,” said Michael. “Dr. Hastings, if either Dr. Weston or Dr. Teasdale needs anything at all before I come back, please don’t hesitate to speak to my mother. X6-88, are you ready to go?”

“Yes,” said X6-88.

.......................................................

Elizabeth’s tears against Tanvi’s shoulder-- which might have been a bit of an imposition on someone Elizabeth hadn’t seen in forever, until yesterday, but she had to cling to somebody, and nobody else was available-- had subsided, and Tanvi was rubbing her back comfortingly, when Alice Hastings appeared in the doorway with the news that Rosemary had changed her mind. Everyone, including Naveena, and Alice’s friend Melinda, was in the infirmary now. Except Max and Julian-- and X6-88-- who were already gone.

“Where is Michael?” Elizabeth asked, sitting on her own new bed. “Didn’t he say he was going to be our protector now, or something like that?”

“He’s going to help X6-88 make sure Max and Julian get home safely,” Alice explained, sitting with Melinda on what had been Max's bed, and Elizabeth said, thinking of the run-down building, the rooms, the stale air, the everlasting rotting furniture, the meager stacks of supplies, “Home?”

“Well,” said Alice.

“I can’t believe X6-88 left us,” Rosemary mourned, lying face down on her bed. “I’m going to miss him more than Max or Julian.”

Elizabeth smiled shakily. “Well, he was a lot nicer to us than Max or Julian.” Even if it had only been out of a sense of obligation. Even if they’d never appreciated that he could have chosen to leave them all to die-- or to kill them himself-- or simply to tyrannize over them by virtue of his superior strength and total control over their food supply--

“You two made the right choice,” said Beau, sitting on Julian's empty bed, with Naveena in his lap. “You won’t regret it. Elizabeth, you and Tanvi always worked well together-- you can collaborate. Her last project is transforming the whole Commonwealth right now. All those Minutemen settlements out there, and the Brotherhood stragglers who’ve joined forces with the Minutemen, are starting to use Tanvi’s crop nurture techniques. You can be part of the future, too.”

“That sounds like Institute talk,” said Elizabeth, with another wavering smile, and Alice said, “Well, we weren’t wrong about everything, were we?”

“I don’t know,” said Elizabeth. “Weren’t we?”

“No,” said Tanvi firmly. “We weren’t. We were wrong about some things. Like the synths. And like staying underground, hiding ourselves away, stealing resources in secret, instead of working with the surface dwellers. People like the ones we live alongside now-- the Institute kidnapped people like this, or had them murdered, to replace them with our synth spies. It was unconscionable. How could we have let it go on, the way we did?”

“How could we have stopped it?” Rosemary protested. “We were just-- we weren’t department heads, we had nothing to do with policy. And you know what happened when people questioned Father’s policies. Max and Lawrence Higgs tried a protest, when he appointed her as his successor, and look what happened to them.”

“Yes, look what happened to them,” said Tanvi wryly. “Nora spoke with them, promised to heed their concerns, and arranged for them to receive no punishment for attempting to force Father’s hand by cutting off the food supply.”

“Father would have had them exiled to the surface,” said Elizabeth. “At least.”

“Probably,” Tanvi acknowledged. “I’m not saying it would have been easy to change things, just that-- we were wrong. And now-- we’re lucky. We’re here, and we’re safe, and we really can build the future, the way we should have done in the first place.”

“Without X6-88,” said Rosemary. “It’s not right. It’s not right that he’s not here. With us. He should be here.”

“Looked to me like it was his decision,” said Melinda, and everyone was quiet for a bit, thinking-- whatever they were thinking.

...............................................................................

About half an hour into the trip, Michael spoke to X6-88, as if the two humans weren't present, saying, “There was so much more I wanted to speak to you about.”

X6-88 found himself wanting to smile, and yielded to the impulse. “There was more I wanted to ask you. You and Danse?”

“That is not what I meant," said Michael, but he was smiling too.

"I never suspected you harbored romantic inclinations," said X6-88.

"Neither did I, until I met Danse," said Michael. "He is a remarkable person. I hope, one day, you may come to know him better."

X6-88 grimaced slightly. "That hardly seems likely, now."

"Our lives are long," said Michael. "At least, they have the potential to be. My mother has appointed Danse as one of five members of the council that now advises her, and will advise the successor to her office when she dies. And will rule, itself, temporarily, if there is an interim between her death and the discovery of a worthy successor. If you should outlive your charges, I hope you will make your way back to the Castle, whether or not my mother is still alive. You are certain of a welcome from Danse, and from Emily and Hancock, who are also councillors."

"That is very kind," said X6-88, and it was, although it also made him feel very tired, at the idea of the years between. The thought that Nora Bowman might be dead of old age before he was able to accept her offer.

It was hardly likely he'd live that long, in any case. He would die fighting, like A9-82, and his humans would starve.

"Are we just supposed to ignore the fact that they're talking about letting us die?" Dr. Loken asked Dr. Coulton.

Dr. Coulton, still pale and now sweating, gave a slightly ghastly-looking grin. "What do you suggest we do about it, exactly?"

"We are obviously talking about no such thing," said Michael. "Unless you expect X6-88 to halt the natural human process of aging for you."

Silence fell for a few moments, and then X6-88 asked Michael, "Are you not also a councillor?"

"I am not," said Michael. "I was offered a seat, but I declined the honor.”

“Why?”

Michael hesitated before answering, and then said, “It is-- difficult-- for me to envision my own future, past the day of my mother’s death. My happiness-- my joy in my own existence-- is so closely linked with my love for her, and my knowledge of her love for me, that the thought of living without her-- Well. If I do outlive her, I can bear it. But I think, in the immediate aftermath of her death, I would rather not be depended on for anything."

"You are fortunate to have that choice," said X6-88.

"I am fortunate," Michael agreed, and silence fell again.

……………………………………………………

Rosemary had somehow managed to fall asleep, or at least was lying motionless with her eyes closed, and Elizabeth was sitting on the floor of the infirmary, playing with Naveena and listening to Tanvi describe her crop fertilization techniques in comfortingly clinical detail, when there was a light rap at the wooden frame of the infirmary’s door, and Elizabeth looked up to see Jonah Dee in the doorway.

“Hey, guys,” he said. “We saw X6 and Michael leaving with the gentlemen, so-- I gather you ladies have both decided to stay with us?”

“Rosemary changed her mind,” said Elizabeth, managing a little smile at him. After all, it wasn’t as if she hadn’t known, when she agreed to come here, that Nora Bowman had worked with the Railroad. The fact that someone else here was also a Railroad agent didn’t mean he was more dangerous than the woman in whose hands she’d already placed her life by coming here, and by staying here without X6-88.

And he’d been nice to her, yesterday.

“Fabulous,” he said. “Nora’ll be thrilled. Dr. Teasdale, I’m here to convey an invitation from Ms. Emily Bowman, of the Vault 111 Bowmans, to join her in the library at your leisure.”

Elizabeth must have blanched, because he said, “She’s not mad, doc. Pinky swear.” He crooked a little finger at her. “Listen, if you were in trouble, it wouldn’t be me telling you. I’m supposed to be a friendly face. You know, because we talked for five minutes before supper yesterday, before you ditched me for the science club.”

“Go on, Elizabeth,” said Tanvi. “We’ll see you at lunch.”

Well. She lived here now. There was nowhere to hide.

Dee offered her a hand, and she took it, scrambled to her feet, and followed him from the room, and out across the courtyard.

“Glad you’re staying,” he told her, as they walked. “You and, uh, Parsley.”

Elizabeth squinted at him. “Rosemary.”

“Right,” he said. “I knew it was some kind of herb. Sorry, Dr. Coffeesdale.”

She couldn’t help giggling, before she asked, “How do you even know what parsley and rosemary are? You don’t have them on the surface, do you?”

“I read a lot,” he said. “Wait, did you have that stuff in the Institute?”

“We knew what it was,” said Elizabeth. “I did, anyway. But I was in Bioscience, and I worked with plants. So.”

“Neat,” he said. “Normally Nora’s the only one who gets my extinct-plant jokes. Here we are.”

In the library were, not only Emily, but also Nora, Shaun the child synth, Hancock the ghoul, Kasumi Nakano the-- whatever-she-was; honorary synth, apparently-- and Danse, the synth with the scarred forehead. Dee walked straight in; Elizabeth hesitated in the doorway, as she had yesterday, waiting to be told what to do.

Emily jumped up at the sight of her, and came forward. She had obviously been crying, maybe all night long; her eyes, nose, and mouth were swollen, and she was pale under her freckles.

She said, “Dr. Teasdale, I’m so sorry.”

Elizabeth just stared at her, uncertain what to say. What was the girl sorry about? That she’d been Julian’s victim? That she hadn’t managed to keep the fact secret from her mother? Why would she apologize to Elizabeth?

“That I was so mean to you, yesterday,” said Emily earnestly. “You didn’t do anything wrong. I was upset about-- well, I guess you know now what I was upset about-- and I took it out on you. I’m so sorry if I-- scared you, or hurt your feelings, or made you think you did something wrong. It wasn’t your fault, at all. You can always come knock on the door here. And you can call me Emily. Nobody calls me anything else.”

“Thank you,” Elizabeth managed, and Emily’s tear-ravaged face broke into a beautiful, radiant smile.

“Thank you,” she said. “I’m so happy you’re staying. We all are. And you can come in now, if you want.”

“Come in, Dr. Teasdale,” said Shaun, from the sofa between his mother and his-- stepfather? “We’re reading to make ourselves feel better.”

“That sounds-- nice,” said Elizabeth cautiously. “What are you reading?”

…………………………………………………………

When-- after a fairly uneventful journey, after all, though a pack of wild dogs made X6-88 glad of Michael's presence-- their diminished party reached the building X6-88 had defended so diligently for so long, and would now begin defending again, Michael said, “This is where I leave you.”

X6-88 nodded.

Michael hesitated, and said, “If you are comfortable-- I have become accustomed to marking-- significant meetings and partings, with those I hold in esteem, with-- a hug.”

X6-88 smiled, at the absurdity-- how strange Michael had become-- and at the expression of esteem, and Michael smiled, and stepped forward slightly, and X6-88, instead of backing away, instead of going inside with the doctors and closing the door, stepped forward slightly, too.

Michael wrapped his arms around X6-88 and pulled him close, and X6-88 tried to copy his movements, putting his arms around Michael’s body-- how strange--

Before he could really register it, what it was like to be hugged by another courser, and hug him in return, it was over, Michael stepping back, saying, “Thank you.”

“Thank you,” said X6-88. “For your assistance.”

“If there is ever anything I can do for you,” said Michael, “you know where to find me.”

X6-88 nodded. “I do.”

Michael turned, and walked away, briskly, without looking back, and X6-88 led Dr. Loken and Dr. Coulton inside.

.................................

At lunch, as she filled her plate, Dee said to Elizabeth, "Come sit at the cool kids' table."

Elizabeth smiled. "But I'm not a cool kid."

"Do I look like a cool kid?"

"Very," she teased.

"That's just the shades."

"Why don't you take them off?" she asked.

"Um," he said, "'cause then I'd have to sit at the nerd table, like you."

She said, "Come sit at the nerd table."

"Deny my table and refuse my name?" he said, faux-shocked. "I just got 'em. Both."

"Just for a minute," said Elizabeth. "You haven't even met Parsley yet."

"Well," he said, and hesitated. "When you introduce me, maybe don't mention the thing about me being with the you-know-what."

"Oh." Elizabeth blushed guiltily. "Was I not supposed to tell?"

...........................

"X6-88," said Dr. Coulton, when Dr. Loken had declared himself exhausted and gone to bed, and X6-88 was unpacking and sorting their meager possessions, and the supplies Ms. Bowman had given them. Dr. Coulton was sitting on the sofa by a window, doing nothing.

X6-88 looked up from his knees beside a bookshelf lined with purified water. "Yes, sir?"

"I need you to do something for me."

X6-88 waited.

"You know where Alan went," said Dr. Coulton. "Don't you."

Why lie? "Yes, sir."

"But he told you not to tell us."

"That's correct, sir." X6-88 waited for a counter-order, a tirade, threats, violence. Now that they were home, Dr. Coulton would surely return to normal.

X6-88 had no intention of disobeying Dr. Binet's last order to him.

"I want you to go to him," said Dr. Coulton. He looked terrible. Sick. "See if he's still alive. If he is, tell him everything that happened. That Bowman approached us, and offered us a home. For your sake. Tell him it would have been fine, but she kicked me out because I-- because I raped one of the synths." He closed his eyes briefly, then opened them again. "Tell him it's true, I-- coerced her. That it wasn't like him and Eve. I didn't even-- wonder, if she-- Christ, she was just a--"

He swallowed hard, and then he said, "Tell Alan to go to her. To Bowman. That it's not like we thought. Take him there, to her. If he'll go. Tell him she can help him."

"Help him?" X6-88 repeated, bewildered. Not that Dr. Binet, if he were indeed still alive, was not most probably in need of help, but--

"She was with the Railroad," said Dr. Coulton. "She still is. There's Railroad agents there, at the Castle. They're the ones who know where all the synths went, after they relayed out. She can help him find her. Eve."

Chapter Text

It had been a long time since X6-88 had gotten to track someone.

Of course, this errand wasn't quite as uncomplicatedly exhilarating as it used to be, when the retrieval mission was all he had to worry about. When he couldn't come home, had no home, had no other life but the mission, until the mission was complete. When he only had to feed himself, and salvage was something to mentally mark for later retrieval by less skilled synths, and his purpose was single and simple, and the object of retrieval had no right to go unretrieved.

Now his thoughts turned distractingly to Dr. Loken and Dr. Coulton: the former's angry reprimands and attempts to forbid him to leave, which it had distressed him to defy; the latter's dark-circled eyes, pasty-white skin, and uncharacteristic quietness; their potential peril in his absence, despite his habitual security measures and the care he had taken to make sure they were well supplied.

He thought, too, more comfortingly, of Dr. Weston and Dr. Teasdale, safe at the Castle, under Michael's care. Of the walls and defenses that surrounded them, the healthy crops within those walls, the cheerful kitchen with its smell of hot food. These thoughts had the savor that thoughts of the Institute had once had when he was on assignment, although he now had no prospect of returning, himself, to the haven in question.

(Our lives are long.)

He has considered removing his uniform for the purposes of camouflage, but finally decided it was unnecessary; the Commonwealth in general was still ignorant of what a courser uniform signified, so it would neither alert nor alarm the townspeople. He hoped his decision was purely rational, and didn't stem from his emotional unwillingness to be without his uniform. He had almost never been without it since the day he had earned it, and it had come to seem like a part of his physical identity, a skin far more suitable for a courser than the soft, tearable skin that sufficed for the humans and synths under their protection. Seeing X9-21 stripped of his as punishment had been vicariously agonizing; X6-88 would rather have been ordered to remove one of his own fingers or ears than his uniform, and he was sure that, however quietly he had submitted to its loss, X9-21 had felt the same. Even changing voluntarily and temporarily, to blend in, would have felt like an amputation.

(He thought of how comfortably and confidently Michael moved, now, in his jeans and shirt. Proudly, even. I am a son of this house.)

He had been to Diamond City only once before, on a mission to retrieve the Shaun unit and dispatch the human mercenary Kellogg to his next errand, but he knew from that experience that the city was large enough that he might not easily locate Dr. Binet. Dr. Binet had told him that it was one of the few civilized places in the Commonwealth that Nora Bowman "or her ghoul lover" didn't control. She visited sometimes, as they knew from the radio, but in a place the size of Diamond City, it would be easy enough to hide and avoid her, even if she did visit.

The Diamond City guards, who wore padded uniforms not dissimilar to his own, asked his name when they let him in, and, taken by surprise-- they hadn't asked that, before-- he gave the first human name he thought of that didn't actually belong to anyone: "Daniel Lyons."

"Business here?"

"I'm looking for someone," he said.

The red-haired guard looked X6-88 up and down. "They want to be found?"

"He is--" X6-88 hesitated slightly, but-- for the sake of camouflage-- "An old friend. I have no intention of-- causing trouble. For him, or for your city."

"You better not, buddy," said the guard cheerfully. "You might be big, but there's more than enough of us here to finish anything you start."

X6-88 kept his own assessment of that matter to himself; it would probably not have improved his chances of peacefully entering the city if he'd answered truthfully.

"Go on in," said the guard.

"Read the Publick!" shrilled a smallish human girl, larger than the Shaun unit but smaller than Emily, near the foot of the stairs he descended to enter the city. She had been here last time, too, but she had been smaller then, about the same size as the Shaun unit. "Read all about the First Charter of the Commonwealth Minutemen! The Publick has the exclusive inside scoop! Our eyewitness account of the congress that rocked the Commonwealth!"

"How much?" X6-88 asked.

The little girl considered him, then held out a sheet of paper to him. "First one's free."

He took the sheet of paper, folded it, and tucked it into the breast pocket of his uniform.

"Thank you," he said to the little human. "Do you know an adult male doctor?"

She nodded, and pointed. "Dr. Sun's over that way. You sick, mister?"

"No," he said. "I'm looking for a friend who is a doctor."

"If you're lookin' for somebody," the little girl said, "you should ask Mister Valentine, over at Valentine's Detective Agency. He helps find a lot of lost people."

X6-88 was aware, though he had never been there, that Valentine's Detective Agency was run by some sort of bizarre experimental synth prototype, escaped from or discarded by the Institute. Ms. Bowman had described the synth-- "Nick Valentine"-- to him, and seemed disappointed when he truthfully disavowed any knowledge of-- or interest in-- its existence. She had never introduced him to it, for which he had secretly been grateful; it was difficult enough to be civil to a ghoul.

The little girl pointed again. "Right down that way. Sign shaped like a heart, can't miss it. Welcome to Diamond City."

"Thank you," he said again.

"You're welcome," she said, and called out to another passerby, "Read the Publick! The face of the Commonwealth is changing! Be an informed citizen!"

X6-88 made his way further into the city--as before, it was very noisy here, many humans advertising their wares and services at top volume-- in the direction she had pointed first. He saw a man in a white lab coat somewhat similar to those preferred by Institute scientists, and moved toward him.

"Hello there," the man said, when X6-88 approached. It was not Dr. Binet, even if Dr. Binet had had cosmetic surgery in an attempt to better hide from Nora Bowman; surgery, as they'd been taught when pursuing runaway synths, couldn't alter the structure of the body, nor the color of the eyes. "Can I help you? Do you need medical attention?"

"No," said X6-88. "I'm looking for someone. A man of about your age, who would have arrived in this city about a year ago. A doctor, like yourself. Medium build, Caucasian ethnicity, brown hair and blue eyes."

The doctor raised his eyebrows, and said, "Who wants to know?"

"I do," said X6-88.

The man laughed. "But who are you?"

"I'm a friend."

"Got a name?"

In point of fact, he didn't. Not one Dr. Binet would recognize. He couldn't use Dr. Loken's or Dr. Coulton's names; Dr. Binet didn't want either of them to find him, and if he thought they had come here looking, he would think X6-88 had disobeyed him, betrayed his confidence. There was no other name that would mean anything to Dr. Binet-- at least not anything good-- and he couldn't give his designation. Diamond City, to his understanding, was not a safe place for synths who were known to be such, with the exception of "Valentine." He wasn't afraid for his own life, but slaughtering the entire city, while within his capabilities, would hardly accomplish his goals.

"Just give him my description," he said, thinking what that description would be. Tall, strong, black, patrolman sunglasses, padded uniform. Recognizable. "He'll know who I am. And whether he wants to talk to me."

"And where'll you be, if he does?"

"Back here in an hour," said X6-88. "Will that be enough time?"

"I suppose it will," said the doctor.

That left X6-88 with an hour to kill in the city. He didn't find a place to watch the doctor and where he went, as he would have if he'd been tracking a synth (and if he'd had a good reason not to simply terrify or torture the doctor into giving up its location); Dr. Binet, unlike a runaway synth, had a right not to be found if he didn't wish to be. X6-88 moved out of sight, wandering the shops, examining their wares. He had some caps, which he might spend if he chose, on food for his charges, or on ammunition. He couldn't make extravagant purchases, and there was nothing he needed, although he admired some of the weapons. But he could procure new weapons as needed from the raiders and mercenaries he killed. He bought nothing, and shopping passed little time when it amounted to looking.

X6-88 had been considering why Dr. Coulton had suddenly manifested a desire to reunite Dr. Binet and Eve. Was it because he hadn't understood, previously, the difference between Emily's submission to his orders, and Eve's acquiescence to Dr. Binet's odd courtship? It wasn't like him and Eve. I never even wondered whether she--

Wanted to, was the end of that sentence.

Had Dr. Binet wondered whether Eve wanted to be with him?

What if he had been wrong? What if Dr. Coulton was wrong as well? What if X6-88 brought Dr. Binet to Ms. Bowman, and she used her Railroad contacts to track Eve down, only to find that Eve had been an unwilling partner in Dr. Binet's familial experiment? What if Eve wept, as Emily had wept, accused Dr. Binet of abusing his power over her, of raping her? Would Ms. Bowman restrain her wrath a second time, allow Dr. Binet to leave unharmed? What if Eve, unlike Emily, didn't want her "mother" to have mercy on her attacker?

X6-88 tried to shake off these frightening speculations. One step at a time. He hadn't even found Dr. Binet yet.

"You buyin' or what?" demanded an aggressive human female, in front of whose shop X6-88 had apparently paused for a socially unacceptable amount of time without buying anything. He moved on without answering.

He saw a sort of central kiosk where people seemed to be congregating, eating and drinking, some conversing, others reading copies of the same paper the little human had given him. He moved towards it and produced his copy, to read and unobtrusively pass the time, but when he unfolded the paper, he discovered, instead, the paper Emily had given him, which he'd tucked away in the same pocket.

He read it, and then read it again, more slowly and carefully.

It was nonsense, and it puzzled him, and disturbed him. In the rhythms of it, it felt like the kind of litany that comforted humans, like the one (nature, function, duty, privilege) that had often reassured Dr. Coulton, when he feared X6-88 might be slipping outside his control. But it wasn't for a human; a synth had written it, for another synth. We, my brother, watchers in the night--

My brother.

He read it a third time, trying to understand what it asserted, and whether it was true. It seemed neither true nor false. It was a different kind of thing.

In an hour's time, by the sun and by his usually reliable internal clock, he returned to the doctor's office.

"You can go on down," said the doctor, gesturing to a trap door in the floor.

.......................................

The cellar, though reasonably clean and well lit, smelled faintly of old blood and fear. Not Dr. Binet's fear, though; he had never been afraid of X6-88, and he wasn't, now. He even smiled at him, faintly, from his chair, as he said, "Hello, X6-88."

"Sir," said X6-88 deferentially.

Dr. Binet looked him up and down, as the guard had at the gate, and said, "So much for keeping a low profile in Diamond City."

X6-88 felt a lance of panic go through him; he'd done the wrong thing. "Sir, I apologize if my actions--"

"It's all right," said Dr. Binet. "To what do I owe this unprecedented visit? Are you just doing your yearly checkup? I'm all right. Got a pretty good business going here, actually. Relatively speaking."

X6-88 answered with as brief an account as he could of the events of the last few days, making sure to include what Dr. Coulton had specifically instructed him to include, and to quote, as closely to verbatim as he could remember, Dr. Coulton's instructions to him regarding Dr. Binet.

Dr. Binet listened, his face going through a complicated series of expressions, and of tints, but he didn't interrupt. When X6-88 ended with She can help him find her. Eve, and fell silent, Dr. Binet, too, was silent for a few moments.

Then he said, "That's a hell of a story, X6-88. If I didn't know you wouldn't lie to me-- And Tanvi and Beau and Alice-- and the baby-- they're all--"

X6-88 waited to be sure he wasn't interrupting before he confirmed, "Alive and well, sir. And happy, to all appearances."

"You know," said Dr. Binet, irrelevantly, "I've really missed you, X6-88."

X6-88 was silent. He had been the recipient of more emotional declarations in the last three days than in the entirety of his life before this point. He was at the limits of his capacity for processing them.

"I thought for awhile she'd find me," said Dr. Binet, his gaze distant. "Eve, I mean. I was waiting for her. I thought, if she was alive, she'd find her way to me. If the Railroad wasn't holding her prisoner. If they hadn't erased her mind. All her memories of me." He shifted restlessly, looking at his hands. "And then I thought she must be dead. Or mind-wiped. I thought the Railroad must have thought she was insane, to want to come back to me, and forced her into a-- And then I thought, maybe they didn't. Maybe she just hates me now. For what I said to Liam. Maybe he found her, after he ran from me, and told her what I said, and she knows it's my fault he died. Or maybe she hated me all along. Maybe she hated both of us, all along. Maybe he did find her, and she said something to him, too, and that's why he killed himself. Maybe it was all a lie. Everything she ever said to me, or to him. A lie I forced on her, because we were human and she was a synth, and what choice did she have, but to say what we wanted to hear." His eyes refocused on X6-88. "Just like Liam lied to me. Didn't trust me. Worked with the Railroad. All that time. Do you know what I said to him, when he told me? With all those sirens wailing, and lights flashing, and blood all over the walls? While we ran for the exits?"

He waited, as if he expected an answer.

"No, sir," said X6-88.

Dr. Binet grimaced. "I wish I didn't, either. I wish I could forget. Goddammit, X6-88, you had to come here. Talking about-- finding her."

"I will leave," said X6-88. "If you wish, sir. Or you can come with me. As Dr. Coulton suggests."

Dr. Binet shook his head, and stood up.

"Listen," he said. "Since you're here. Here's what you're going to do. You're going to find her for me. Without involving Bowman."

It was a measure of X6-88's fatigue-- and perhaps of the extent to which he'd been spoiled by even a day's hope of respite-- that he seriously considered pleading with Dr. Binet to rescind this order, that it was impossible, it had been years, she could be anywhere, have any face, a different mind--

"Find her, and see if she wants to see me again," said Dr. Binet, as if he were instructing X6-88 to go back to the kiosk and purchase him a Nuka Cola. "If she does, bring her here, or tell me where to go to her, and we'll see what she thinks about the whole Fort Independence idea. If she doesn't, or if she doesn't remember me, come back and tell me so, and I'll-- move on."

What if I can't find her?

But X6-88 didn't ask that. Now that the first moment of panicked despair-- unworthy of him-- had passed, he didn't even want to. He didn't have to obey, or even try to obey-- Dr. Binet had no power to enforce this order-- but it was a challenge the likes of which he hadn't been given in some time, and if he could rise to it--

Dr. Binet patted him encouragingly on the arm. "I know it might take awhile. She could be anywhere. But it's what you do, right? Or used to."

"Yes, sir," said X6-88.

 

When he had emerged from Dr. Binet's underground infirmary, back into the sights and sounds of the city, he pondered what to do next.

He would certainly have to return to Drs. Coulton and Loken, to make sure they were safe and to feed them, before he'd completed the task Dr. Binet had given him, and therefore also before he'd successfully obeyed Dr. Coulton's order. He could return to them now, but if he didn't at least begin on Dr. Binet's mission before he returned home, it would be easy to abandon it altogether, fall back into his routine, and he didn't want to do that.

Instead, he set out in the direction the little girl had pointed second. It was, at least, a place to start.

He tried the door under the glowing red sign, and it opened. A young woman with long brown hair, somewhat elaborately styled, sat at a desk facing the door; she smiled at him as he entered.

"Welcome to Valentine's Detective Agency," she said. "Please take a seat. Nick, darlin', we got a client."

"How much do you charge for your services?" X6-88 asked, sitting down in the chair before her desk.

"Depends on what we can do for you," said a voice from above him, and he turned, startled, and saw the strange thing descending the stairs. A second-generation synth, its rubber skin half rotted and worn away, exposing the mechanics underneath-- dressed in a battered trench coat, and a worn fedora, and watching X6-88 with its glowing yellow eyes.

"I'm looking for a synth," said X6-88, aware as he spoke of the almost transcendental absurdity of a courser asking a second-generation synth for help finding another vanished synth.

"Nick" raised its eyebrows, its facial servos whirring audibly. "You found him."

"Another synth," said X6-88. "A female. One of the human-looking ones."

"I don't usually hunt down runaway synths," said Nick. "Especially not for an Institute courser."

So it recognized X6-88's uniform. It was remarkably unalarmed, or appeared to be. The girl had gasped at the word courser, but the synth's bright eyes didn't budge from X6-88.

"The Institute no longer exists," X6-88 pointed out. "There is nothing to run away from."

"So why are you hunting down a synth?"

"It is a long story," he said, "and largely private."

The synth said nothing.

X6-88 decided that without involving Bowman surely meant without informing Bowman. This thing was an associate of hers. Using her name would open doors that would otherwise remain closed to a courser.

"You are a friend of Nora Bowman's, are you not?" he asked.

"That I am," said Nick. "You got something to do with Nora?"

X6-88 hesitated.

It was permissible to lie, and certainly to mislead, in an important cause, and to unimportant people. But he didn't like doing it. It was-- disorienting. Confusing. It altered one's perceptions, the sightlines between world and mind. Words were the vehicle of a cognitive reset for a synth, phrases with the force of action, and even words less potent than reset codes-- like the litany of his service-- tended to reinforce, if not actually to enforce, their own truth. (Like Emily's strange poem, whose rhythms were still caught like hooks in some unauthorized part of his mind.). Knowing, and speaking, the truth, was always preferable.

But it had been a long time since the truth was single, and simple.

"I'm her son," he said, and saw the old synth's ruined lips stretch in a smile.

Chapter Text

"So Nora's acquired herself another courser," said "Nick Valentine," pulling up a chair beside the desk. "It's all right, El. Got a name yet?"

It addressed this last question to X6-88, who said, "No. Designation X6-88."

"X6-88," the synth repeated. "You the one the Institute assigned to run with her, way back when?"

X6-88 nodded.

"Well, X6-88," said the synth, coolly, "I'll tell you what I told Michael: I don't answer to unit. You can call me Nick, or Mr. Valentine, or plain Valentine. That's what Michael settled on-- just Valentine. This is my girl Ellie-- she'll answer to that, or Miss Perkins, or ma'am. Human, if it matters."

"You have no fear of me," X6-88 observed.

"Mostly because I don't know why a courser would bother to make trouble for a discarded prototype, 'specially now that, like you said, the Institute's gone," said-- well, Valentine, then. "And even more especially, not one who calls himself Nora Bowman's son. She send you to me?"

"No," said X6-88. "I'm here without her knowledge. And I would prefer it stay that way."

Valentine raised its eyebrows again. "That so? Why?"

X6-88 hesitated. Tracking had been so much easier in the days when he just killed anyone or anything that stood between him and his target. Making up stories-- or, for that matter, recounting them truthfully-- had never been part of his training.

"I am loyal to certain Institute scientists," he said finally. "As-- Michael-- is." That was surely acceptable. "One of them has tasked me with finding a particular synth, with whom he formed an emotional bond in the Institute. One he lost in its destruction. He does not want me to tell Ms. Bowman that I am looking for her."

"Why not?" asked Ellie. She seemed to be taking her cues from Valentine: she had been alarmed when X6-88 was identified as a courser, but Valentine's calm demeanor had relaxed her, and she spoke now as boldly as it did. "She want to be found?"

That question again. It had never been relevant before.

"I don't know," he said. "My task is-- partly-- to find out. If I find her, and she tells me she has no interest in reuniting with my-- the human in question-- my instructions are to leave her alone."

"Huh," said Valentine. "So it's that way, is it." It seemed to consider. "Well, if Nora's not to know, that limits my synth-finding options. Especially if your synth got lost in the evacuation. That means the Railroad probably found her at some point, and Nora's my Railroad contact."

"Have you no other way to contact the Railroad, than through her?" X6-88 asked.

Valentine seemed to consider this for a bit.

"I might," he said eventually. "But I'll need a day or three to contact her."

"Plus traveling expenses," said Ellie.

X6-88's heart sank. Dr. Binet had offered him nothing. He had nothing to spare from what he needed to supply Dr. Loken and Dr. Coulton.

"I think we can wait for payment, El," said Valentine. "We're not doing so badly, are we? And I never knew Nora ungrateful, when it came to helping out her family."

X6-88 said, "If you can help me find this synth, I can-- obtain-- whatever payment you need." If Dr. Binet wasn't willing or able, on successful completion of the mission, to pay the expenses he had incurred, then he would go back to Ms. Bowman, and beg her for whatever would settle the debt. His pride was less important than his duty to Dr. Binet.

"Tell me everything you can," said Valentine. "Then meet me back here-- what's today, Ellie ma belle?"

The girl smiled, and answered, "Thursday. The seventeenth."

"Wednesday, the twenty-third," the synth said to X6-88. "Let's say eleven o'clock. And I'll let you know what I've rustled up. Or not."

"You said three days."

"Three days to get in touch with my contact," said Valentine, "and a few more for her to see what she can do for me. One week. That a problem, X6-88?"

His pride was unimportant. "No."

"So tell me about this synth."

...........................

saturday (the nineteenth)

Dee had already agreed to sit at the scientists' table once-- and it had been a bit awkward, even though nobody had actually mentioned the Railroad on that occasion, and Elizabeth had managed to grab Rosemary after dinner and tell her that apparently Tanvi and Beau and Alice and the bulk of the humans didn't know Dee was a Railroad agent and Elizabeth hadn't been supposed to mention it either so maybe don't say anything. Julian and Max being gone, there wasn't much she could do about having told them-- so Elizabeth could hardly say no when he coaxed her, again, to come and sit with the synths. The family.

Elizabeth still found it hard to look directly at Hancock-- or at any of the ghouls-- but she was already learning more about the synths. Emily was being incredibly sweet and gentle with her, as if Elizabeth were a kitten she'd accidentally stepped on and was trying to coax out from under a sofa, and it seemed to make Emily particularly happy when Elizabeth came and knocked on the door of the library, which Elizabeth was grateful for, because she really needed to catch up on her recreational reading. Dee was constantly quoting something, and it made her feel like an ignoramus, despite her education. How had he ever had time for so much reading while also surviving the Commonwealth and working for the Railroad?

The synth Max never seemed to mind her asking to come into the library, either-- he and Dee seemed to be good friends, and Dee had definitely decided to be kind to the bumbling, weeping, secret-blabbing newcomer, so maybe that was why. Shaun was a faintly unnerving (child synth!) little ray of indiscriminate sunshine. Danse was quiet, but he smiled at her. Victoria could be brusque, but she'd never actually ordered Elizabeth out of the library, and Cog seemed to accept her as matter-of-factly as if she'd already lived here for years.

She was a little afraid of X9-- of Michael-- for several reasons. He was the only one she had a history with (that she remembered, anyway, and if she'd done anything horrible to any of the others that she didn't remember, they hadn't mentioned it), and it wasn't a good history. She'd stood passively by when he was stripped of his uniform and courser-hood; she'd refused to join his group when they first set out for Fort Independence; and, of course, she'd taken him for granted and taken advantage of his subservience in all the same ways she had X6-88. And now, she'd seen him grab Max Loken's shirt and yank him nearly off his feet in an act of violence all the more terrifying for being carefully calibrated not to actually hurt Max. Not only was he as strong and deadly as he'd ever been, he'd obviously shed whatever psychological inhibitions usually kept coursers from beating insolent Institute scientists senseless. Furthermore, she was now, like Rosemary, here under his auspices. If she annoyed him-- and it seemed fairly likely that she might-- what would happen?

She'd never felt so helpless. This must be how the synths had felt all the time in the Institute.

Except that Elizabeth might be helpless, but she wasn't utterly without recourse. In addition to Emily's kindness-- and if Emily had done what she could to protect her own rapist from her mother’s vengeance, surely she'd have pity on Elizabeth if Elizabeth said the wrong thing to Michael-- there was Dee, who sat at the cool kids' table, and who seemed to-- not mind her.

"May I go with you?" Michael asked Nora, in response to something Nora had said that Elizabeth hadn't been paying attention to.

Nora looked concerned. "But who'll look after the scientists?"

"What are they, gonna set the Castle on fire?" Hancock asked. "They'll be fine. Right, Dr. Teasdale? You ain't scared to be here without Michael, are you?"

Elizabeth shook her head, looking down at her plate to avoid seeming to stare rudely at the ghoul.

"I would like to go, too," said Danse, startling Elizabeth slightly; he so rarely spoke up, except when someone addressed him first. "After all, they're my people."

Nora smiled at him. "I'd love to have you come, Danse. Do them good to get a look at their savior."

Danse smiled back at her, as Emily asked, "You're not going to go to the Brotherhood One settlement on this trip, are you? Because I'd like to go with you for that. Zoe was so sweet to me, last time."

"I'm glad you two hit it off," said Nora. "I'll take you next time we go there. But no, this one will just be a Brotherhood Prime tour. I just want to make sure they're all doing OK, especially the little one. I haven't even met her yet."

"There might be a new baby here, by the time you get back," said Kasumi. "Lisa's about ready to pop."

Nora beamed. "Oh, I hope it goes well. It'll be nice to have a really tiny one around again. Naveena's getting so big."

"I thought the whole point of them was to get bigger," said Cog.

Nora laughed. "Well, that's true, I guess. Ultimately."

Hancock said, "Well, if we all go, Emily, you're gonna be in charge. And last time we left you in charge, we got Michael. So. I'm in favor."

"We won't be gone too long, anyway," said Nora. "A week, tops. Hopefully nothing terribly exciting will happen while we're gone."

 

monday, the twenty-first

"X6-88."

"Sir?"

"Come here."

X6-88 came and stood before Dr. Loken, who was sitting on the couch.

"I don't know what it is," said Dr. Loken. He smelled of alcohol, and he was slurring his words. "I don't know what it is you think about, these days. Where you go. Where you think you have the goddamn right to go."

"Sir?" He'd gone nowhere significant, since the trip to Diamond City. It wasn't time for his return appointment with Valentine, yet. He had told Dr. Coulton he had made initial contact with Dr. Binet, who needed time to think over the idea of asking Ms. Bowman for help. Since then, he'd gone out scavenging and hunting, that was all. As he must, each day.

"In your head." Dr. Loken snapped his fingers and pointed at the floor, and after a bewildered moment-- it wasn't a nonverbal command he'd been trained to obey-- X6-88 took a guess, and knelt. "Where do you go in your goddamn fucking head?"

-- the gift
Granted by makers gentler than my own,
Who seem content to let their creatures drift
Away, astray, unfettered--

He tasted blood. Dr. Loken had hit him across the mouth, with the back of his hand. Hard.

Dr. Loken had never hit him before, and some calm, clinical corner of X6-88's mind observed that Dr. Loken must have enjoyed seeing X6-88 struck, and that since Dr. Coulton had stopped, Dr. Loken had to do it himself now. Some less analytical part of him felt ashamed, at having earned such a harsh reprimand, wanted to cower like an ordinary synth, apologize, ask forgiveness and a chance to correct his fault. But neither of these responses predominated, and neither one was what brought him to his feet. Mostly, he was angry.

I did nothing to deserve that.

The image of Michael, yanking Dr. Loken to his feet by a fistful of shirt, superimposed itself on reality. If you were not under X6-88's protection--

"Don't do that again," he said. "Sir."

Dr. Loken was, of course, outraged. "Are you threatening me?"

"I'm advising you, sir," said X6-88.

"I didn't ask for your goddamn advice, unit." Dr. Loken surged to his feet, too, face to face with X6-88. "You want to end up like X9-21?"

Oh, yes.

Until the question was asked, X6-88 hadn't allowed himself to realize just how bitterly he envied X9-21-- Michael-- his service to someone who listened, who praised his initiative and intelligence when he spoke up unbidden, who smiled at the sight of him, even when she hadn't sent for him, who tolerated his disobedience not because she didn't care what he did, but because she liked and approved of what he did instead of obeying her. Who loved him.

Love.

He'd always associated the word with messy human sentimentality. Hugs, kisses, overblown declarations. Not with a quality of attention, an alertness to and respect for and understanding of and-- above all-- joy in someone. The way she was with Michael.

Like the plentiful food. Like something he not only wanted, but needed. Had never realized he'd spent his life starving for.

He and Michael were alike. The same kind of thing. If she could love Michael, she could love--

"X6-88?"

Dr. Coulton's voice, from the doorway, was tentative, humble. Afraid.

X6-88 turned to look at him. "Sir?"

"It's me," said Dr. Coulton. "I'm the one-- it's my fault. That we're back here. It's me you should-- both-- be angry at." He took a breath. "You should both go. Back to Fort Independence. I'll-- figure something out. You shouldn’t both have to suffer for what I did."

"Don't be ridiculous, Julian," Dr. Loken snapped. "X6-88's become insufferable enough after a day spent in her fortress. Can you imagine if we lived there? At her mercy? And theirs?"

"Don't hurt him," Dr. Coulton said to X6-88. "Please. He's just upset. And drunk."

"I have no intention of hurting Dr. Loken," said X6-88, not sure whether to be offended or amused or-- touched. Dr. Coulton, saying please? To him?

"I don't know why you're so--" Dr. Coulton swallowed, eyes fixed on X6-88's sunglasses. "I don't understand you at all. If I were you, I would have killed me a long time ago."

X6-88 let himself smile at that.

"No, sir," he said. "If you were I, you would act like me."

 

wednesday, the twenty-third

"Well, I've got good news and bad news."

 

thursday, the twenty-fourth

It was Dee and Elizabeth who saw the visitors approaching, from their lookout point atop the wall.

The lookout point. Not theirs. They didn't own it or anything. And there wasn't a they. There was Jonah Dee, a general wreck of a human being, and then there was Dr. Elizabeth Teasdale, an increasingly cheerful and confident and rosy-cheeked ex-Institute scientist. Who seemed to find Jonah Dee funny-- unless she was just being polite because he was a terrifying Railroad agent who might set her on fire if she didn't laugh at his stupid jokes-- and whose face seemed to light up when she saw him, which was definitely just because he was the only person she knew here who wasn't a synth or a ghoul (not that she wasn't being kind of a trouper about the synths-and-ghouls thing, considering her background) or another ex-Institute person she was sick to death of. Or an old friend from the Institute she'd recently been reunited with, who she was starting some kind of project with that was completely beyond his ken.

Which was why she broke into that big smile every time she saw him, and why, when he'd sort of randomly wandered up here onto the wall just now to get some fresh air, and found her sitting in the spot she seemed to sit in a lot (not that he'd been looking for her, and not that he was ridiculous enough to think she came up here because it was where he and she had ended up sitting on that first day she'd been here and because he tended to wander up here and so did she and they'd sort of gotten in the habit over the last week of sitting near each other and talking a bit), she'd beamed and also immediately extinguished her cigarette, which he might have teasingly mentioned at some point was a filthy habit and would kill her and that would be a real shame.

He'd given up on ever getting Desdemona to quit, but--

Hell. He really needed to check in with Des sometime soon.

"I'm going to quit," Elizabeth said, as he sat down. "Really. As soon as I've finished this pack. You wouldn't want me to leave an unfinished pack lying around. It could lead somebody else astray."

He grinned. "Oh, I see. You're selflessly sacrificing your lungs to the common good."

"I don't need a medal," she said. "Just the thought of all those innocent lives I'm saving, that's all the reward I need."

"You could always sell the pack and give the proceeds to the poor."

"How much could I get for--" She peered into the pack. "Five incredibly stale and irradiated cigarettes?"

"'Bout four caps," he said. "Enough to buy the poor approximately one squirrel fragment. Where'd you get that pack, anyway?"

"Nora bought it for me in Goodneighbor," she said. “After asking me if X6-88 let me smoke."

They both laughed at that, and then sobered quickly.

"Which he did," she said, kicking her foot against the wall. She'd been scared, at first, to sit with her legs dangling over the edge, but she did it now with no fear. "Another thing I never thought about. That he didn't have to bring us cigarettes. Or alcohol, or-- anything, if he didn't feel like it. Julian used to yell at him-- accuse him of withholding supplies." She winced. "Being lazy. Or hoarding what he found for himself. And none of us ever defended him, or-- thanked him. When you brought all those supplies-- that was you, wasn't it? You're the one who wrote 'X6-88, this is for you' on that box of snack cakes?"

"Yeah," he said. "Nora said all her kids were crazy about them. Did he get 'em?"

"I thought I was being nice," she said. "But I mean, he didn't even save them out for himself when he saw that. He gave us everything. The whole time-- and he could have come home every day with one dead radroach and made us fight over it for his amusement. Or never come home at all. We should have knelt down and kissed his feet in gratitude every day that he did. We should have sung him psalms of praise."

"Think Coulton and Loken've figured that out, too?" he asked, smiling a little.

She shook her head. She looked unhappy. "Dee?"

Was it because this was the closest thing he'd had to a real name since-- since never mind when-- that the sound of the name, in her voice, was so-- "Yeah?"

"Do you think I'm a bad person?"

He'd thought her eyes were hazel, but in this light-- the sunlight, and widened, between eyelashes oddly long and dark for a blonde-- they were green. Dark green.

"Not as bad a person as me," he said truthfully.

She snorted.

"I actually blew up your entire home," he pointed out.

"I thought that was Nora."

"But I'm the one who talked her into it."

"At least you did something," she said. "About-- what you thought was right. I'm just--" She seemed to search for a term. "I don't know the right word."

"A jerk?" he suggested, and then wanted to kick himself-- stop making stupid goddamn jokes-- but she laughed. She had a great laugh-- it was like it caught her by surprise and she forgot to take a proper breath for it and ended up doing a little gasp for air halfway through and then starting up again.

"That, too," she said. "But what's the word for-- I just-- let things go on. Bad things. Things I could have-- I have no spine."

"Sure you do," he said, resisting the random urge to lay a hand on her back and demonstrate the presence of vertebrae. "You stayed here. With all us scary-ass revolutionaries and sassy synths. That takes guts."

"I didn't say I didn't have guts."

"Oh, so you have guts but no spine," he said. "That sounds... gelatinous."

She snapped her fingers. "Gelatinous! That's the word!"

He laughed-- despite everything, it felt good to laugh-- and they both looked at the horizon, which was when they saw the approaching pair of figures.

"Visitors," he said easily, when she tensed. One thing that was nice about having even newer newbies at the Castle was that he got to play the seasoned veteran, even though he’d moved in about one minute before she had. Well, he had known Nora longer, and he had spent a lot more time at the Castle than she had, albeit as a visitor rather than an inhabitant, and he’d also lived in the Commonwealth for umpty-many years, whereas she’d stumbled out from underground and immediately been spirited away to courser-shelter and now was goggling wide-eyed around her at the concept of things like-- visitors.

"From where?"

"Dunno," he said. "Another of her settlements, or one of the non-allied settlements, or Goodneighbor or Diamond City, or just some wanderers hoping not to be fired on. People in need."

"But who will they talk to, since she's not here?"

"Emily," said Dee.

"Is that--” She was squinting harder, leaning forward perilously, and a stab of panic went through him at the thought of seeing her fall; he said, sharply, “Careful, doc.”

She ignored him. “Look!”

“Move back a tick,” he said, and she scooted impatiently backward, without taking her eyes off the approaching figures, and he followed her gaze, and almost fell off the wall himself as he saw the uniform one of them was wearing.

“That’s X6-88,” she said, bewilderment warring in her voice with joy. “That’s-- who is that with him? That’s not Max. Or--”

“Sure it’s X6?” He could recognize the uniform at this distance, but the face--

“I know X6-88,” she said, and yanked her legs up onto the wall, and began getting to her feet. She was already a lot spryer than she’d been when she got here; regular, healthy meals, plus fresh air and exercise, had taken the drag out of her step. Well, maybe that plus going from living with a bunch of assholes and a faithful slave to living with a bunch of awesome badasses and Dee. By the time he got to his feet, she’d already disappeared down the stairs.

He took another look out at the two people coming steadily closer.

Was that Nick Valentine?

Chapter Text

This time it wasn't Nora Bowman or Michael who came out to greet X6-88 on his approach. It was-- first of all, and disconcertingly-- Dr. Teasdale.

She looked so much happier and healthier than she had even a week ago that X6-88 felt-- more than one strong emotion. Contradictory ones. That he had done badly, since she was thriving so conspicuously under someone else's care. That he had done well, bringing her here, securing her place. That he was grateful to Ms. Bowman for looking after her so well. That he was angry with Ms. Bowman for sending X6-88 away with the two male scientists.

(She hadn't sent him away, of course, she'd begged him to stay, but he couldn't. Couldn't she see that he couldn't? Why had she let him choose? He would have fought, of course, if she'd tried to force him to stay, fought to the death, if she really cared about him why hadn't she killed him rather than let him glimpse rest and peace and safety and then let him walk away?)

The onslaught of pointless emotion was interrupted when Dr. Teasdale gave a little scream and went pale, and Valentine said dryly, "Charmed, I'm sure."

"X6-88?" Dr. Teasdale quavered, and X6-88 said, "I'm glad to see you well, ma'am. You are in no danger from this--" He caught himself before saying unit. "Synth. It's a friend of Ms. Bowman's. Valentine, this is Dr. Elizabeth Teasdale, formerly of the Institute."

"Nick Valentine," said the synth, as Emily emerged from the archway behind Dr. Teasdale and approached the three of them.

"This is a pleasant surprise," she said, looking from X6-88 to Valentine and back again. "Won't you both come inside?"

"X6-88," said Dr. Teasdale again, breathless, perhaps from her shock at the sight of a badly deteriorated second-generation synth under the hat and coat in which she'd probably expected to see a human. "I didn't know if I'd ever see you again. I have to tell you-- I'm so sorry-- and I'm so grateful--" She caught her breath. "Can you-- what are you doing here? Where are Max and--"

She broke off, guilty, awkward, looking at Emily.

How did humans even function with so little self-control and forethought?

"Let's walk and talk, Dr. Teasdale," said Emily, composed. "We can discuss what we need to discuss more comfortably inside the walls. If you're amenable, X6-88?"

Jonah Dee was waiting just inside the wall, and so was Shaun, who flung his arms around X6-88 again. X6-88 put a hand on his small head, looking around, and wondering--

"Where's your mom, sweetheart?" Valentine asked Emily, who said, "I'm so sorry-- she's not here. And neither is Michael."

X6-88 was so disappointed-- why hadn't this obvious possibility occurred to him? She frequently left home, and Michael had mentioned she often granted him the privilege of fighting alongside her-- that it felt like shocked betrayal. As if a promise had been broken. As if he had any right to expect that they be here when he arrived.

He had wanted to see her. To see both of them.

As if it mattered what he wanted.

"I'm so sorry," Emily was saying, again, to X6-88 in particular. Not fearfully-- he was familiar with that sort of cringing apology from a synth-- but as though his disappointment did matter. "She took Danse and Hancock, too. It's just me. But if there's anything I can do for you, I'd be more than glad to try. Or, of course, you're welcome to wait-- or if you can't do that, to come back later. She should be home in a day or two at most."

"Come to that, you might be able to help us, Miss Emily," said Valentine. "Can we talk someplace private?"

"Let's go to the library," said Emily. "Just the three of us, or can Dee and Shaun and Dr. Teasdale come? What about Dr. Weston? Do you want to see her?"

"I'll go get Dr. Weston!" said Shaun, and charged away before anyone else could speak.

X6-88 said, "In Ms. Bowman's absence, Dee may be able to help us, if he's willing."

Dee's eyebrows shot up, past the bourne of his sunglasses. "How's that?"

"Come to the library," said Emily again.

They hadn't quite gotten settled in the library-- which, fortuitously, was empty when they reached it-- before Shaun returned, dragging Dr. Weston by the hand, and Dr. Weston also threw her arms around X6-88. The purpose of this sort of gesture still eluded X6-88, which irritated him, since Michael had obviously grasped it. If Michael participated in hugs only to please his mother, he would have had no reason to initiate one with X6-88 when they last parted. And there were the other actions he'd performed-- holding hands with Danse, wiping Emily's tears away-- the latter specifically against his mother’s order to sit down-- that seemed purposeless. But coursers didn't act to no purpose. Michael hadn't changed that much. There was a reason, beyond the general subcategory of irrelevant human foolishness, for seizing another body in one's arms and clutching at it, and X6-88 didn't like that he didn't know it. He should have asked Michael, when Michael hugged him goodbye.

"I miss you so much," said Dr. Weston emotionally.

Odd that-- considering his recently manifested desire to be loved-- her declaration left him unmoved. She knew nothing about him. She missed a familiar thing from the Institute, one that had never spoken harshly to her, or threatened her. One that fed and protected her.

He had acquired ambitions beyond that station. Unfortunately for himself.

"I'm glad to see you well, Dr. Weston," he answered. "And I apologize that I won't be able to stay long. Are you being well cared for?"

She nodded. "Everyone's been-- kind-- but it's all so strange--"

"Please sit down, everyone," said Emily.

It was difficult-- it felt disrespectful-- but X6-88 was sure Dr. Binet, who'd forbidden him to reveal his whereabouts to any of his former colleagues, wouldn't want them to know he was pursuing Eve. It was only after X6-88 had persuaded him-- with considerable effort-- that finding Eve was possible with Ms. Bowman's help, and impossible without it, that he'd consented to allow X6-88 to ask for help from Ms. Bowman. (But not to disclose his location to her. Apparently he'd been under the misapprehension that X6-88 wouldn't be able to obtain her help for Dr. Binet without bringing Dr. Binet himself before her. X6-88 had managed to persuade him, without quite stating it so baldly, that since it was for X6-88's sake that Ms. Bowman would have any interest whatsoever in helping him, X6-88's appeal on his behalf would probably be as effective. If not more so.)

"I apologize, ma'am," he said, to both Dr. Weston and Dr. Teasdale, turning his attention from one to the other mid-sentence, "but my business here is confidential."

"From us?" Dr. Weston asked, sounding shocked and hurt.

"Yes, ma'am."

"But not from Dee?" Dr. Teasdale asked.

"That's correct, ma'am."

Dr. Teasdale raised her eyebrows, but neither woman protested further.

"Is it confidential from me too?" Shaun asked.

"I think probably so, bumblebee," said Emily, or at least that was what it sounded like she said. "You know you don't like to keep secrets, just like mom doesn't. But we'll come get you when we're done, OK? And you can show X6-88 what you've been working on."

"OK," said Shaun, brightening a bit.

Emily smiled at him. "You're my best Shaun."

Shaun beamed back, and said, as if it were a ritual litany, or a countersign, "You're my best Emily."

"Will you please close the door on your way out?"

When the door was closed, Emily said, again, "Please sit down."

"I feel like I'm in one of those really weird existential stress dreams," said Dee, sitting. "Or a walks-into-a-bar joke. A courser, a second-gen prototype, a late-model synth--"

"And a Railroad agent," said X6-88.

Dee said, "Come again?"

"Dr. Coulton told me that Dr. Teasdale told him that you had told her you were a Railroad agent," said X6-88, and watched, with interest, Dee manufacture a careless grin, at the same moment that a light sweat broke out on his forehead.

"Oh, man," he said. "Yeah, I can't believe she actually bought that. If I'd known she was that gullible, I'd've gone for Brotherhood paladin."

X6-88 raised his eyebrows. "You claim you lied to Dr. Teasdale about your identity?"

"I'm kind of a fantasist," said Dee, with a moderately impressive sheepish air. "And chicks dig bad boys, right? Especially super secret agent spy boys."

"You were trying to impress Dr. Teasdale?" Emily asked, with amusement that seemed entirely genuine.

"What can I say?" Dee drawled. "I'm a ladies' man. Sorry to disappoint, X6-88, but if you were thinking I could help you track down the secret Railroad headquarters or something, you're barking up the wrong drifter."

"Let's back up a second," said Emily. "Why are you two here, exactly?"

"X6-88 came to the agency for help finding a synth," said Valentine, while X6-88 admired Emily's calm demeanor. She didn't seem flustered either by X6-88's assertion, or by Dee's lies.

"What synth?" she asked X6-88.

"Eve," he answered.

Emily didn't actually show alarm or anger , but her voice was incrementally more remote, less friendly, when she said, "Why are you looking for Eve?"

"Dr. Binet asked me to find her," X6-88 answered.

Emily tilted her head. "I thought Dr. Binet wasn't with you anymore."

"I--" X6-88 hesitated. "I went to-- check on him."

Emily considered this, her eyes somewhat unnervingly fixed on his face. "And he told you to find Eve for him?"

"He told me to find her," said X6-88. It was somehow even more surreal to be questioned by, and give an account of himself to, a former menial synth like Y4-15 than it had been with a botched experiment like "Valentine." But not only did he need Emily's goodwill to accomplish his mission, he was personally in her debt; he owed her Dr. Coulton's life. His own life, too, perhaps, since if her silence hadn't protected Dr. Coulton, X6-88 would have been duty-bound to do so, or to die in the attempt. "And to find out whether she had any interest in reuniting with him."

Emily nodded. "And if she doesn't?"

"I'm instructed to leave her alone."

"Why didn't you come straight to my mother?" Emily asked. "No offense, Mr. Valentine."

"None taken," Valentine said. "I wondered the same thing."

"Dr. Binet doesn't trust Ms. Bowman," X6-88 answered. "He forbade me, at first, to involve her. I have his permission now to approach her, only on condition that I don't disclose his location to her or any of her associates, and only because I managed to persuade him that I had otherwise hit a dead end."

"Yeah," said Valentine. "I'm good, but not that good. I did manage to find out that 'Eve' met up with the Railroad after the evacuation, and gave them that name, rather than a numeric designation. Memorable. My source confirmed she got a new face, but refused to have her memories altered. Good news as far as it goes, but in terms of where she went next, or where she is now? For that we'd have to get in touch with HQ, and my connections aren't good enough to do that."

"Well," said Emily. "I can get in touch with someone who can get in touch with Railroad HQ, and maybe find Eve. But it might take awhile."

"I have no other pressing business at the moment," said X6-88 flatly, thinking of the deliriously tedious and unpleasant and exhausting business of what seemed likely to be the rest of his life. As long as he was pursuing this mission for Dr. Binet, at least, he had something interesting to do. And some reason, perhaps, to come back here, once or twice more.

"Not that it's any of my business," said Dee, "but I sort of thought the Railroad was all about helping synths escape from coursers trying to find them on behalf of Institute scientists. You sure they're gonna want to help?"

Emily said, "I don't think there's any reason they shouldn’t be willing to find her and let her know Dr. Binet would like to see her again, if she's willing."

"You don't think it'll upset her?" Dee asked. "Being hunted down on behalf of-- this guy? Whether he leaves her alone afterwards or not-- I mean, I dunno, I feel like that kind of thing could ruin a girl's whole day."

Emily considered this in silence for a few moments.

"I'll go to her myself," she said finally. "If the Railroad can tell me where to find her. We knew each other, a little. And if she didn't want the memory mod, she won't mind-- remembering me. It won't be like having a courser show up. Or-- even my mother might scare her-- or upset her. If she's still upset about-- some things, that happened. But nobody's ever been scared to be found by unit Y4-15."

"Your mom won't let you go alone," said Dee. "She'll barely even let me go anywhere alone anymore, and I'm just her orphan foundling."

Emily laughed.

"I'm her foundling, too," she said. "She didn't get any of us from the stork. But one thing at a time. We don't even know where Eve is yet."

"Yeah," said Dee. "I mean, it's gonna take time just to get in touch with whatever actual Railroad agents you know. Speaking of which, not that this hasn't been chock full of excitement and intrigue and mistaken identity, but does anyone actually need me at this meeting?"

"I guess not," said Emily, smiling at Dee.

"Cool," he said, rising. "Catch you guys later."

When he was gone, Emily said gravely to X6-88, "I'm sure you can appreciate that anyone I know with the Railroad-- other than my mother-- would prefer I be discreet about contacting them for you. But I think the information you've given me already should be enough for them to go on. In the meantime-- how much time do you have? Can I offer you something to eat or drink?"

"That's very kind," said X6-88, who was beginning to enjoy Emily. "I can spare an hour."

.............................

 

Dee found Elizabeth in her friend Tanvi's lab, their heads together over a contraption that looked like a water purifier on Psychobuff. Elizabeth looked up, as usual, with a bright, pleased smile at him. Tanvi smiled, too, politely.

"Hey," he said, awkwardly. He wasn't much for goodbyes, or even see-you-laters, but-- "Listen, I gotta take a little field trip. But I'll be back, OK? I don't want you getting your hopes up, thinking you've managed to get rid of me for good."

"Where are you going?" she asked, looking-- for heaven's sake-- dismayed. "For how long?"

"Got to hop a train," he said. "I was born a ramblin' man. But if you hurry up and finish that time machine while I'm gone, I'll be back five minutes ago."

That made her smile again, and then she said, "Be careful."

He gave her a thumbs-up. Not that she'd worry, but-- she shouldn’t worry. "I always am. Trust me."

"I do," she said, still smiling, and he turned tail and fled.

Chapter Text

“Deacon!” Desdemona snapped. “Where the hell have you been?”

“You miss me?” he grinned, sitting down on her desk. Tom, Drummer, Carrington, and Nike were all sitting around, fiddling with their various thingamajigs and pretending not to listen. “Hey, boss, have I got a story for you. Remember how you wouldn’t give me any caps for my courser idea?”

“Remember how I didn’t have any caps because we’re very low on resources and also on agents and you can’t just disappear for weeks on end?”

“I always disappear for weeks on end,” he said, plaintively, with a little pout. “You used to love that about me, Des. What’s happened to us?”

“Answer me, Deacon!” she said, and she looked-- well, she always looked a little bit angry, but she looked like right now she might actually be angry. “Where have you been all this time?”

“At Nora’s,” he said. “Mostly. What’s up?”

“We’re going ahead with the courser project,” she said, lighting a cigarette. “My original one. We’ve got a site picked out-- University Point. You know it. They’ve only got one courser left there, and we think he’s either sick or starving, or both. He doesn’t move so fast any more, and Wheels has gotten pretty close without him clocking her. Or else he didn’t want to pick a fight, which is also good for us. What I need from you--”

“Hold up, Des,” he said uncomfortably. He didn’t like the way she talked about this courser being sick or starving, like it was a good thing, like it was a point of strategy, not a--

--A worry. Deacon was worried about this possibly sick courser he’d never even met. He’d definitely been spending too much time around Nora.

And Michael. And X6-88.

“What I need from you--”

“Des,” he said, more forcefully. “I thought we discussed this idea with Nora already, and she started reminiscing fondly about that time when she almost shot us all in our faces.”

“That’s correct,” said Desdemona. “So I hope you’ve been making good use of your little impromptu vacation, because we need her on our side. As I was saying--”

“I’m gonna need to tell you my story first, boss,” he said firmly.

She exhaled sharply, running her non-cigarette hand through her brittle reddish hair. “Make it quick.”

He tried.

When he was finished, she said, “So how does this change our situation at all?”

He blinked behind his sunglasses. “Uh--”

“None of the coursers have joined our side,” said Desdemona. “Even the one you managed to get there spent less than twenty-four-hours at Fort Independence before leaving again. We can’t wait any longer. We can’t sit around doing nothing. We have to move. The ordinary synths are almost all either safe or dead by now. It’s the coursers who need our help. Our ideological help. We have to reach them. And we need Bullseye with us. You’re her ‘friend’-- you persuade her that the current situation is untenable.”

“Des,” he said. For the first time, he was sort of seeing Nora’s point about how Desdemona talked to him. He hadn’t expected her to give him a trophy or a bear hug when she heard what he’d been up to, what he’d accomplished, but was a quick “well done” really all that much to ask? “Were you listening? X6-88 stopped by the Castle today. With Nick Valentine. To ask a favor. The lines of communication are open. It’s a start.

“It’s not enough,” said Desdemona fiercely.

“I agree,” he said, “but--”

“If Bullseye is so concerned for her children--”

“Des, she’s doing her best, what do you--”

“We have to show her how to do better! If she’d been left to her own devices, do you think she’d ever have blown up the Institute? Do you think she’d have brought down the Prydwyn?”

“Maybe she would have figured out a better way,” Dee said quietly.

Desdemona gave a harsh bark of laughter. “Isn’t it a lovely little dream world you’re living in, Deacon. You of all people should know there’s no such thing as a happy ending. Just hard work, and hard choices. Bullseye may live with her head in the clouds, but I thought you had a better grasp on reality. Now here is what I need from you. You--”

“Desdemona.”

”What?”

He didn't like arguing with her. He didn't like arguing, full stop. He either went along, or headed out. But--

“Eighty-six your courser project,” he said. “It’s a bad idea. It’s especially a bad idea now, because if the Railroad moves on an Institute safehouse, when X6-88 knows Nora’s with us, it’s going to destroy whatever itty-bitty little seedlings of trust might be poking their wee heads up in his big old scary heart. And I’m not gonna let that happen.”

Desdemona stabbed a half-smoked cigarette out viciously in a mostly-full ashtray. “Yes, God forbid we upset anyone when we’re doing what needs to be--"

“That is what needs to be," said Dee. "For him to trust her. They don’t need physical rescue, Des, they don’t need anything actually blown up, to protect them. They can protect themselves. They just need to understand why. They need-- it’s like you just said, ideological help. They need to trust us, they need to choose us-- and you’re gonna pick a fight instead. Can you see how that’s counterproductive? Can you see how my idea is better?”

She stared at him.

Possibly he’d never spoken to her that way before.

“Here’s what I need from you,” he plunged forward, before he lost his nerve. But really. “I need to know where Eve is, so I can help the Castle help X6-88.”

“Help him run an errand for an Institute scientist who wants his sex slave back!”

“It’s where he’s at right now, Des,” he said, trying to make her understand. “X6-88. It’s his project. Obviously we won’t let anybody do anything to Eve she’s not comfortable with-- or even-- alarm her, if we can help it. But that’s not what he’s asking. And just the fact that he’s asking us for help-- he’s asking the Railroad for help, Desdemona, that’s huge! First he went to Nick Valentine, and then he came to the Castle and asked me!”

“Asked Nora, you mean,” she said.

Oh. He’d kind of glossed over that part.

“No, he, um,” he said. “He sort of-- knew I was with the Railroad.”

”What?”

“I, um--” He had a very strong urge to pin this particular security breach on Nora, because she was an entire Commonwealth’s width away and also could defend herself way better than he could, but-- things were already strained enough between Des and Nora. “I sort of-- told somebody at the Castle. Who I was. And they told somebody else, and the somebody else told X6-88. But that’s as far as it went, I swear. And I lied when X6-88 called me on it-- I don’t know if he believed me, Nora says Michael’s got like supersonic lie detector powers-- but I at least didn’t admit it--”

“You’ve been compromised,” said Desdemona.

“Uh, a little.”

“There’s no such thing as ‘compromised a little,’ Deacon.”

“I told one person,” said Dee.

“Who did you tell?” Desdemona asked. “And why?”

“One of the--” He cleared his throat. “One of the scientists. She was--”

“She?”

“--upset, and feeling-- out of place, and I wanted to--”

Desdemona fixed him with her scariest glare, and said, “Bullseye was tortured for twenty hours by Brotherhood officers, and didn’t give up any information.”

“Well,” said Dee weakly. "She told Hancock."

"Hancock is her husband."

"Not when she told him. And her kids..."

He trailed off. Desdemona lit another cigarette, and took a long, furious drag.

“And you’re refusing to help me,” she said. “Which I suppose means Bullseye won’t either.”

He hadn’t really thought about it that way. “I mean, she wouldn’t anyway, even if I-- but yeah. Just give me the intel on Eve, Des. It’s gonna be OK.”

“Fine,” she said, after a moment, walked over to a terminal, and began typing.

Dee watched her. She looked so tired-- she always looked so tired. He wondered if she ever had those mornings, when she just couldn’t think of a good reason to get out of bed. Wondered if she got herself up, nowadays, with the thought of this courser project.

“Des,” he said.

She ignored him, kept typing.

“Des, we did good," he said. "You did good. Did amazing. Changed the world. But now it's-- it's different, now. Because you changed it."

She didn't answer.

"Listen," he said. "You haven't even ever met Michael. What if I bring him here? So you can talk to him, about the coursers?"

She stiffened, but didn't look up.

"He feels--" Dee couldn't think how to explain the way Michael had talked to X6-88, about building the future, about how Nora was doing the work the Institute had envisioned, but doing it right. Even if he could remember the exact words Michael had used, he couldn't say it right, so that it sounded like a revelation, like joy and exhortation and-- gospel. In the original sense: good news. We were wrong, X6-88. "I get how they feel, more, now. The coursers. Why they-- stay, with the Institute scientists. Even now."

"Because they're brainwashed," said Desdemona impatiently.

"OK, but--" He took a breath. Earnest conversation really wasn't his forte. "I mean, they're not dumb, Des. They're-- Michael, anyway, and X6-88 too, they're smart, and-- observant, and they've got their own ideas, about how things work. What's right, and what they-- what they're for. You can't just-- make their choices for them. It's not like they're--" He chuckled a little. "They're not robots."

"Whenever you've finished lecturing me on my own belief system," said Desdemona, hit a key on the terminal that reset the screen, and walked over to a filing cabinet. "To which I've dedicated my entire life, and lost more than you'll ever understand."

He thought of Cog-- Let’s not start making bar graphs of who’s suffered most and who deserves to be depressedest-- and said, "I know. Like I said. You did amazing. But I think-- Can I? Bring Michael here?"

"I'm not sure HQ is going to be here next time you come by," said Desdemona, riffling through the files in a drawer.

"What?"

“I always knew we wouldn’t stand a chance, if Nora turned against us,” said Desdemona, pulling out a file, but not offering it to him. “But I thought I could trust you to keep her on our side. I never thought you’d turn on me. I suppose I was naive.”

Well, that was mean.

It was mean, and it wasn’t fair. Or true.

And not only was it not true, Desdemona knew it wasn’t true, which meant she was just saying it to hurt him, which made it extra mean.

Furthermore, if it had been true, she wouldn’t actually have been best advised to say it. It was only the fact that she knew he-- well, OK, fine, he cared about her, she was the closest thing he’d had to family for a long time, before Nora-- and if he hadn’t cared about her, and she hadn’t known he cared about her, it would have been a pretty stupid thing for her to deliberately antagonize him.

So she was saying he’d turned on her, specifically because she knew he hadn’t turned on her and it would therefore upset him to have her say he had.

Knowing all that didn't really keep it from working, though. It hurt.

Of all the people he'd betrayed, he'd never-- never--

"So you're kicking me out?" he said, and his voice was calm, careless-sounding. That was an involuntary stress response, like a cat's tail bristling when something alarmed it.

She'd opened the file and was studying it; she said coolly, without looking up, "If that's what it takes to make you take our security seriously."

"Yeah, that might be just the ticket," he said. "Well, you know where to find me, if you need me. Care of General Nora Bowman, Giant Crumbling Fortress, Western Peninsula, Commonwealth, Irradiated Ruins of a Once Thriving Nation."

She looked up. She'd been bluffing, of course-- she needed him, like she'd said, both for his own talents and loyalty, and to keep Nora on her side-- and she didn't like being called on it.

"Come on, Des," he said, cajolingly, with his sweetest, friendliest smile. He'd cultivated it after reading The Great Gatsby and memorizing the description of that poor doomed fucker's best facial expression. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. "Don't start a war."

She looked at him for a moment, and then she turned away, slotting the file back into its drawer.

"Warwick homestead," she said, and turned back to face him.

He nodded. "Got a name?"

"Leah Williams."

"Thanks a million, Des," he said, flashing the smile again. "And listen, I'm really sorry about the security breach."

"Mm."

As he turned to go, she said, "You can bring him here."

He stopped, looked back at her.

"Michael," she said. "I'd like to hear what he has to say."

"Thank you," he said, sincerely.

"Mm-hmm."

She turned away, and he left, and she didn't call him back again.

Good. He missed home.

Chapter Text

With Dee gone, Elizabeth realized both how much she'd been enjoying his company, and also that-- somewhat unexpectedly-- she didn't feel any less safe without him around. His ease of manner and kind attention had done a lot to make her feel-- if not quite thoroughly at home yet-- at least like a welcome and safe guest, but apparently they'd worked thoroughly enough that she still felt fairly all right, even in his absence. If he'd disappeared without warning-- but he hadn't, he'd sweetly taken care to let her know he was leaving, and even-- subtly-- that it had something to do with the Railroad.

She would have liked it better if he'd gotten home before Michael, but it didn't work out that way.

At least the family party that did arrive home, the day after X6-88's visit, seemed to be in remarkably high spirits. Nora was almost skipping, hand in hand with her ghoul husband, and even from Elizabeth's vantage point atop the wall, she could see that Danse was chattering with extremely unaccustomed animation to Michael. As she watched, Michael, who seemed to have been listening to Danse intently, suddenly laughed.

She’d never seen a courser laugh before; it had been so foreign to her idea of coursers that she’d never even thought of them as being “grave” or “serious,” just-- coursers. That was the way they looked. Watching Michael’s face break open into laughter shocked her as much as seeing him so angry at Max Loken had. More. She’d always understood that coursers were capable of violence; that was what they were for, and although it had been frightening to see Michael direct that violence against an Institute scientist, it hadn’t been surprising on this same level.

Did X6-88 laugh?

Could he?

Maybe if somebody ever gave him anything to laugh about.

She felt horribly guilty about X6-88’s current situation-- drudging away for Julian and Max, when it was only because of him that she and Rosemary had gotten invited to live in Nora Bowman’s fortress-- but she didn’t know what to do about it. She’d never done anything about anything. She’d always done her job-- and done it well; she was remembering, now, working with Tanvi again, in the adorably crude little lab Nora had contrived for Tanvi, that she’d been good, once, and could be again-- but she’d never taken a stand. There’d always been the mostly-unspoken threat, in the Institute, of exile, being relayed to the surface with the clothes you stood up in and a weapon you’d maybe gotten some experimental target practice in with if you were in the habit of wandering over to Advanced Systems for that sort of thing, which Elizabeth wasn’t. The surface: a filthy, irradiated, desolate wasteland, inhabited by hideous mutants and irradiated monsters and chem-addled homicidal lunatics, mercenaries, and dimwitted clods trying to scrape out a living until they were horribly murdered and devoured and had their heads used as decorations for the lunatics’ lairs.

No, thank you.

She’d cowered in fear her whole life, first in the Institute, and then in the safehouse where the coursers had led them, stumbling and shellshocked, while the coursers-- whose job it was to brave the surface and all its dangers-- braved it to feed and defend them.

And now she was outside the safehouse, with the surface dwellers-- the farmers and ghouls and renegade synths and Railroad agents and the woman who’d destroyed the Institute--

“You OK?”

She looked up to see Max-- not Max Loken, but Max the synth, Dee’s friend-- approaching from the stairwell, smiling at her. She’d rarely seen a synth smile in the Institute-- even humans didn’t smile all that much in the Institute; people were busy, preoccupied with their work-- and here, despite the hard physical labor of food-growing and constant shoring-up of their defenses and buildings, both people and synths smiled at each other all the time. X9-21, laughing.

“Yes, thank you,” she said. “I was just--” She gestured towards the returning party of four, just as Shaun ran out to meet them, and was caught up in Michael’s arms.

“Must be a relief to have Michael back, huh?” Max asked, sitting down beside her, where Dee usually sat. Well, a little further away.

Elizabeth made a noise that wasn’t quite yes or no, and Max laughed, and said, “No? He intimidate you too?”

“A little maybe,” Elizabeth admitted. “He’s so-- liberated.”

Max grinned. “Aren’t we all.”

“Well, yes,” said Elizabeth, feeling a little nervous now. She shouldn’t have been so-- unguarded. “And that’s a, a good thing. Certainly.”

“Hey,” said Max, sobering. “I didn’t mean just the synths. Humans, too. You’re safe, here, Dr. Teasdale. You know that, right?”

She hesitated, and Max said, “Well, it took me awhile to figure it out too. Never was safe before. Couldn’t figure out what it would look like. Not to be worried about-- doing something wrong, or saying something wrong, and getting reported, and wiped. But for you, you didn’t worry about getting wiped, right? Exiled. That was the big threat for humans that didn’t toe the line. Well, forget it. Nobody’s going to kick you out. It’s not like that, here. You get to--” He gestured, widely, sketching the horizon. “Be. Say whatever shit you always wanted to say, and were scared to. Sit and read for hours. Laugh. Cry. Sleep all day. Whatever.”

“You don’t hate me?” she asked, because he didn’t seem to, and she didn’t entirely understand any more why any synth wouldn’t. She’d been shocked by Emily’s hostility on her first day here, and then shocked again when Emily had her summoned for the express purpose of apologizing to her and assuring her she was welcome here. The world was upside down and inside out, changing too quickly to begin to understand. Or it wasn’t changing at all; it was just that she’d resisted understanding it for so long, and now it was breaking in on her, like a flood.

“I don’t hate you,” Max answered. “What’s the point, now?"

"Vengeance?" Elizabeth suggested.

Max smiled.

"Not gonna lie," he said, "I used to think about it a lot. When I was scared all the time. Used to be kind of a hobby, to think about what I'd do to all you human assholes if I ever got a chance. But." He shrugged slightly. "My mom pretty much took care of that already. Now? I just get to feel good about myself for being nicer to you than you were to me."

“Did I do something to you?” Elizabeth asked nervously. “I mean, me personally, and you personally?”

“No,” said Max. “But the fact that you gotta ask, that kind of says a lot, doesn’t it?”

Elizabeth nodded. “I-- yes. I’ve been thinking about-- that. Regarding-- all of you. S-synths.”

“Always good to be thinking,” said Max. “But hey, you should come down and welcome everybody home. Looked from here like they had a good trip.”

Elizabeth hesitated. “I don’t want to-- bother anyone.”

“You won’t,” said Max, getting to his feet, and offering her a hand. She shivered slightly as she clasped it, but if Max noticed, he didn’t say anything, just pulled her to her feet.

When they entered the courtyard, Elizabeth saw that Nora, Hancock, Danse, Michael, and Emily were in a little cluster, conferring, presumably about X6-88’s visit the day before. Elizabeth hung back, but Michael saw her and beckoned, a quick summoning gesture that stopped just short of being peremptory. She obeyed it.

“Oh, hi, Dr. Teasdale,” said Emily, smiling at her. “I was just telling my mother what Dee told you before he left.”

“He didn’t tell me anything,” said Elizabeth, puzzled. “Just that he was leaving, and he’d be back.”

“Oh my God,” Nora laughed. “What kind of witch are you? How have you so bespelled my most spookable baby?”

Elizabeth smiled uncertainly-- the rest of them were all smiling-- as Hancock said to Nora, "You loosened him for her. Like a jar lid."

"Hey, I'm not complaining," said Nora, still beaming at Elizabeth. "Anybody Dee checks in with before vanishing into the night-- or the day-- is somebody I'm excited to have in residence. He didn't say when he was coming back, did he?"

"I'm afraid not," said Elizabeth.

"Too much to hope for," said Nora, and turned back to Emily. "What about X6-88? He say when he'd be back?"

"Three days," said Emily. "From yesterday. Two days."

Nora bounced on the balls of her feet, like an excited child. "So much is happening!"

Emily laughed. "What happened on your trip, anyway? You're--giddy."

"Oh, it was just great," said Nora happily. "They're all doing so well, and they were so much happier to see us than I thought they'd be. You know, I thought they might feel... well, resentful. Conquered. But things are actually working out. And the little girl-- Sarah-- she’s adorable, and she’s thriving, and oh, her mom gave Danse such a hug!"

"She asked permission first," said Michael, his tone clearly approving.

"She was very kind," said Danse, who looked happier than Elizabeth had seen him yet, his scar less noticeable than usual due to the color in his face. "She said-- some very kind things."

"That you had saved her child's life," said Michael, "as well as many others, by your selfless loyalty and courage. That you were living, breathing proof that the Brotherhood had been wrong about synths, all along. That you were the Brotherhood’s greatest hero, and it was an honor to stand in your presence.”

Danse lowered his eyes, reddening, smiling. “I-- yes. You don’t have to-- repeat it all.”

“I thought you might have forgotten exactly what she had said,” said Michael gravely, adding. “I took the precaution of committing it to memory, so if you do find that it slips your mind, I can repeat it for you again.”

Danse smiled more broadly, without lifting his eyes from the ground, and then looked up suddenly, bright-eyed, at Nora. “Nora? May I-- now--?”

“Yes, yes, yes!” Nora practically shouted. “Michael, take him to the power armor!”

Michael smiled, broadly, showing his teeth, and slipped his hand into Danse’s, and led him away.

“I think Silver did some good work for us, there,” said Hancock quietly to Nora. “Visiting their settlements, laying the groundwork. Might want to give him a bonus, next time you see him.”

“I will.” Nora was watching Danse and Michael walk away. “It’s just-- and--” She turned back to Max and Elizabeth and Emily suddenly. “If X6-88 can-- come to us-- for help-- that’s just so great-- God, I wish I hadn’t missed him, but thank you, baby girl, it sounds like you were just perfect--”

Emily smiled at her mother. “That’s why you have the council, right? To take care of things when you’re not here.”

Tears spilled from Nora’s eyes, but she was still smiling all over her face. “How’d I ever get so lucky?”

“Luck had nothing to do with this,” said Max, unexpectedly, and primly. “It was good management and hard work.”

Nora burst out laughing. “You’ve been reading Charlotte’s Web?

“Been previewing for when we finish Jungle Book,” said Max.

“Good grief,” said Hancock, the ragged edges of his lipless mouth stretching unnervingly over his teeth. “Nora, your kids are the limit.”

 

……………………………………………………………………………...

 

X6-88 had been programmed with an extensive vocabulary, including the word daydreams. He knew what it meant. Distracting-- usually pleasant-- thoughts. Fantasies. Fancies. Counterfactual visions.

He had never actually had daydreams before. He had had memories, vivid ones, sometimes involuntary, and he had made plans, visualized possible scenarios and outcomes for the future.

Now he daydreamed.

Where do you go inside your head?

The Castle.

He was also familiar with the idiom castle in the air. Hopes that have little possibility of being realized.

He thought of Michael. Of Nora Bowman. Of little Emily. Of food, safety, peace. Of being valued, as he once had been.

(More than he once had been.)

He dwelled pleasantly in fantasy on the safety and happiness of Dr. Teasdale and Dr. Weston, of Dr. Hastings and Dr. Achanta and Mr. Benson.

He considered-- both hopefully, and the reverse-- what news Dee might have for him, on his return to the Castle.

(Two more days.)

Dee might have been unable to locate Eve. She could have moved on since the Railroad placed her, leaving no forwarding address.

She might be unwilling to reunite with Dr. Binet.

She might have further conditions or contingencies before she was willing to reunite with him.

X6-88 was capable of facing the challenge.

(Emily had said in a day or two at most. In two days, she would be there. She, and Michael. To welcome him, when he returned.)

…………………………….

 

Warwick Place, like all of Nora’s settlements, was well fortified and prosperous-looking. Dee approached with a hangdog air-- down on my luck, please don’t shoot-- and they welcomed him. There were friendly kids. Friendly adults. Don’t worry, friend. Plenty to go around.

He met Roger and June Warwick, founders of this feast, and Janey and Wally, their kids, and some other settlers: Bill Sutton, Cedric Hopton, Althea and Quentin Greene, Deborah Rosen and her eight-year-old daughter Keziah, and a quiet, dark-haired woman named Leah Williams.

He sat close to her at the dinner they didn’t charge him for, said, as unthreateningly and down-in-the-mouthishly as possible, “Been here long?”

“Awhile,” she said.

He smiled at her a little bit. “Yeah, I don’t really like to talk about it either.”

She gave him a small smile back.

“It’s all right here,” she said. “If you want to stay. Folks are decent. You work, you eat. Stay inside the defenses. Or go out in twos, if you need to go out. Not a bad life.”

“Isn’t this one of the Minutemen settlements?” he asked.

Leah gave a little nod. “But that’s all right, too. She doesn’t bother us. Comes by every so often to check in, make sure the crop’s coming in decent, and get us anything we tell her we need. If somebody messes with us-- raiders, gunners, ferals, super mutants-- she takes care of it.”

“So she’s--” He hesitated. Looked downtrodden, faintly hopeful, still worried. “I heard she’s got some-- weird ideas.”

“About synths, you mean?”

He nodded.

“Yeah,” said Leah. “Well, she lost her son, you know. Her only one. Something like that happens, maybe you go a little crazy. I can understand that.”

He saw Patriot’s body, laid out on the table in HQ. Liam. Just a kid, for Christ’s sake.

“She’s all right,” said Leah. “So she’s a little crazy. Aren’t we all.”

Dee nodded. Heartfelt. Lifted his cracked plastic cup of purified water, a nervous toast. “Aren’t we all.”

Chapter Text

The day appointed for X6-88's return to the Castle dawned grey and rainy, which tended to affect the humans' spirits negatively, although he wasn't sure why; it wasn't as though they had to go out in it. X6-88 himself didn't particularly mind the rain. Certainly no more than he minded dust, mud, algae, blood, viscera, and the rest of the surface filth that tended to bespatter him. He disliked being dirty, but as with everything else, what couldn't be cured must be endured.

His own spirits were high this morning; he felt enthusiastic about his return to Fort Independence. He had been considering the possibilities: what he could hope for, what he could ask for.

He could hope that Dee had returned from his trip to Railroad headquarters and relayed his information to Emily, so that she could relay it to X6-88 (preserving the ridiculous pretense, for Dee's own benefit, that X6-88 wasn't perfectly well aware he was her Railroad contact; he understood such pretenses to be valuable to humans, although he didn't understand why), and that Emily had persuaded her mother to allow her to approach Eve on their behalf.

He could almost count on (although it was risky to count on anything outside of his own direct control) a warm welcome. Emily had been pleased to see him, welcomed him in without hesitation, offered him food and hospitality, and urged him to return in three days' time, instead of the ten he had initially proposed. Three days might be enough time for Dee to return with information, but it wasn't nearly enough time for Emily to have acted on that information and made contact with Eve. That she had been so insistent that he come back in three days meant she preferred to maximize the amount of time this mission could require X6-88 to spend at the Castle.

(That he had accepted meant that so was he.)

He could be, likewise, almost sure that Ms. Bowman and Michael would be home, and that they, too, would welcome him with warmth, offer him food and whatever else he wanted or needed.

"X6-88--"

Dr. Coulton was awake, earlier than he'd expected, and in the doorway, looking terrible. There was still a part of X6-88 that worried and felt guilty over allowing humans in his charge to suffer ill health, but it was beginning to lose ground to a part that felt he was doing his utmost and no more could be expected of him under the circumstances.

(A very small, very unworthy part of him suggested that if Dr. Coulton died, it would make X6-88’s life considerably easier. He quashed it.)

“Can I assist you in any way, sir?” he asked Dr. Coulton.

Dr. Coulton said, “Are you going out?”

“Yes, sir,” said X6-88. He went out every day. “Do you need anything in particular?”

“Can I come with you?”

What? “Sir?”

“I just, I think it’s time I learned some actual survival skills,” said Dr. Coulton. “Been sponging off you long enough. Too long. Much too long.” He smiled at X6-88, a grimace of a smile. “If you could teach me-- anything-- about how to survive on my own, you might feel less guilty about leaving me and going to live at the Castle.”

That was-- very considerate of Dr. Coulton. And it wouldn’t be a bad idea to teach him some survival skills. Not that X6-88 would ever consider abandoning him, but if X6-88 died--

But why had he chosen today of all days to decide to learn something? It was raining.

“I will teach you whatever you like, Dr. Coulton,” X6-88 said. “But not today.”

Dr. Coulton nodded. “Are you still looking for Eve?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you think you’ll be able to find her?”

“I’m hopeful,” X6-88 answered.

“That’s good.” Dr. Coulton stood still for a few moments, looking pensive, before he said, “You don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to, but-- have you been back to the Castle?”

“Yes, sir,” said X6-88.

Dr. Coulton looked relieved. “Good. I thought-- if you hadn’t-- I was going to tell you you should. Just to visit, or-- well. Have you seen-- no, never mind.”

X6-88 nodded. “Is there anything else before I go, sir?”

“No,” said Dr. Coulton. “But maybe tomorrow you can-- take me out. Teach me something.”

“Yes, sir.”

……………………………

His welcome at the Castle went as expected. Little Shaun, Ms. Bowman, Michael, and Emily all came out to meet him, Emily with a wrap over her hair, laughing, Shaun tugging at his hand, everyone urging him inside, out of the rain. Shaun brought him a cleanish, dry cloth to towel the rain from his head and face and wipe his sunglasses.

"You didn't have to come all this way in the rain," said Ms. Bowman, joyfully. "I didn't know if you'd-- I'm so happy you're here, I'm so sorry I missed you before-- are your feet wet? Do you want to get your socks off? I'll get you some dry ones-- Michael's should fit you OK--"

He should have found it demeaning to be fussed over like this. He used to find it so, used to resent her attempts at taking care of him, as if he weren't perfectly capable of taking care of himself. If you're worried I won't be able to keep up, don't be.

But this-- She knew, must know, that he could function perfectly well in the rain, or-- for that matter-- in a hail of bullets. She knew what a courser was made of. She wasn't fussing because she thought of him as weak, or incapable, or in need of coddling. He didn't have to prove anything. Didn't have to protest.

And he didn't. He let himself be taken to the library again, be stripped of his boots and socks (she, a human, Father's mother, kneeling on the floor at his feet, her hands spattered with the mud of his soles) and brought a hot drink (Emily, a steaming ceramic mug clasped between her hands), sat back on a soft chair (Michael nearby, his gaze attentive and steady, finding none of this ridiculous) and simply enjoyed the novelty.

"And you have to let me go to her," Emily was saying to her mother. Shaun was gone, Emily and Ms. Bowman were side by side on a sofa. "It’s for X6-88, for his mission. Please, mother, I'm a Minuteman, I can take care of myself."

"Of course," said Ms. Bowman, "of course you can, baby girl, but can't I take you? I won't go near her, I won't let on I know anything, if you think I'd better not, but-- it's not exactly strange for me to visit a Minutemen settlement, is it?"

She sounded pleading.

"Eve is at a Minutemen settlement?" X6-88 asked, less guarded than he should have been, and Emily said, "That's what the Railroad says. You don't mind if we don't tell you which one, do you? If it works out-- if she's willing to see Dr. Binet again-- but if she's not--"

"I don't mind," X6-88 agreed. A strange lassitude was stealing over him. This part of the mission was so entirely out of his hands. This excursion to the Castle, the purest self-indulgence. All this care, for him.

"So we'll go soon," Emily said. "And I'll go to her and ask her about Dr. Binet. We should be back in-- three more days from now, mother?"

"Less," said Ms. Bowman. "Two. Oh, X6, I wish you could stay over. I hate you having to slog back and forth all this way."

"My charges would worry," X6-88 pointed out. Worry was a mild term. Panic. Castigate him, on his return.

"I know," she said. "I'd say fuck 'em, but I know you care, so. You can at least stay until your socks are dry? Eat something, say hi to the scientists. They've been missing you."

"I can stay for a little," X6-88 agreed, and then-- it was easy, she was so eager to please, it made it simple to say, "Ma'am, may I speak with Michael alone?"

It wasn't even surprising when she said, after a stunned moment, "Of course," and got herself and a cooperative Emily out of the room.

Michael watched him, thoughtfully, waiting for him to speak. It was refreshing to be allowed to collect his thoughts without being questioned, as a human would have questioned him-- What did you want to talk to me about? Why alone? You're making me nervous, haha.

He said, finally, a little abruptly, “You wouldn't really have me abandon Dr. Coulton to his fate, would you?"

"I've been asking myself that," said Michael, sounding unsurprised by the question. "I’ll be frank with you, X6-88: Institute scientist or not, I want him dead. He hurt my sister. And I want you home, with your family, where you will be valued and honored as you deserve. But-- your loyalty is--” He gave X6-88 a wry little smile. “We were always taught to value loyalty, were we not? Danse no longer believes in the Brotherhood’s teachings, regarding synths, but he is still loyal to them. Still wants them protected. To him, they’re still-- his people. As I-- even when I came here to steal her from her family and return her to slavery-- to Emily, I was still her brother. That kind of loyalty-- I can’t help but-- honor it. I honor you for it. Even if I think you are-- mistaken.”

X6-88 nodded.

"He approached me today," he said, "asking me to take him with me, and teach him some survival skills. It occurred to me that it might be practical for him-- and Dr. Loken-- to know something about how to defend and provide for themselves, in case I-- in the event that I don't outlive them. But it also occurred to me that, in that case, there would be nothing-- no one-- to protect Dr. Coulton from Ms. Bowman's-- vengeance."

Michael nodded. "Except Emily's silence."

"And yours," X6-88 answered. "But Emily keeps silence, now, for my sake. If I die, will she still keep it?"

Michael was quiet for a few moments, considering, before he asked, "Do you care?"

It was X6-88's turn to consider in silence.

"The parameters of your duty to Dr. Coulton are defined by yourself," said Michael, after a little while. "You could consider that it ends with your death, as it certainly would end with his. Or you could consider it your responsibility to make some sort of provision, while you live, to ensure his safety should you die."

"If I can," said X6-88 slowly, "I should. Make plans for him. To give him as much of a chance as possible, after I die. That would be-- the most complete fulfilment of my duty."

Michael smiled at him slightly. "Has it ever struck you that you always determine the most difficult possible course of action to be your duty?"

X6-88 said, "You're the one who decided it was your duty to storm the Castle and reclaim Y4-15."

"Your point is taken," said Michael.

"I thought it was a terrible idea."

"You were right," said Michael. "If not for Emily's intervention, I would have died, and my failed attempt would have turned Ms. Bowman's attention towards the Institute remnant as a possible threat. And neither of us had any way of predicting that Emily would intervene to save my life, or persuade our mother to-- speak with me."

"Why did she?" X6-88 asked.

"She has a strong capacity for-- belief," said Michael. "Like you and me. But the Institute never offered her anything in particular to believe in. Now she believes in us. Our family. And the Minutemen-- it's all part of the same thing, for her. Our mother’s vision of the world. As we once believed in Father's." He smiled again. "I wonder whether it comes to us from our human side-- the genes we received from the Bowmans-- or if the Institute gave it to us intentionally. This capacity for-- faith. For seeing the world as it could be, and striving to bring its possibilities to fruition. Danse did the same. And my other siblings... even little Shaun, in his way..."

He trailed off, looking contemplative, and then said, "In any case. I wonder whether, if you do feel it's your duty to provide for your current charges beyond what giving your life for them can accomplish--"

"There's no need for sarcasm," said X6-88.

"--whether we can obviate the need for you to give up your life for them at all," said Michael. "What if we find them other protection?"

"What other protection?"

"The Commonwealth is full of safe refuges, now," said Michael. "If Dr Coulton is willing to learn to work, and to defend himself--"

"She would never allow him to live at one of her settlements," said X6-88. "Would she? She considers him guilty of-- outrage. Against her daughter. If she even knows who he is-- I saw her face, when she spoke of what he had done."

"If you want him spared," said Michael, "and so does Emily-- and his safety brings you home to us--" He seemed to consider. "Perhaps if the settlers were duly notified of his crime, before they chose whether to accept him as a member of the community."

"That would be-- humiliating," X6-88 protested. "For him. And dangerous. Housed with surface dwellers who see him as a criminal? He would be-- vulnerable."

"No more vulnerable than a synth housed among humans who saw her as a tool," said Michael. "Considerably less so, if the son of the Minutemen's leader has an interest in his life. Take it under consideration. I can consult my mother, too, to see if she would be willing to allow him to live under her Minutemen's protection on those terms."

X6-88 nodded.

The son of the Minutemen's leader.

Home to us.

"I'll speak to him about it," he said. "When I go back."

Michael nodded. "Was there anything else you wanted to speak to me about in private?"

X6-88 hesitated, and then said, "No. Nothing.”

He rose abruptly. Michael followed suit.

“Thank you,” X6-88 said. “For your time. I should see Dr. Teasdale and Dr. Weston before I leave, if they-- miss me.”

“They do,” said Michael. “As do I. Shall we?”

Chapter Text

The General was visiting again.

Leah didn't mind. At first it had set her on edge-- constantly wondering if she’d be recognized, somehow, or give herself away-- but gradually she had relaxed. Her new face hid her well. She stayed in the background whenever the General arrived, on her knees among the mutfruit bushes or the cornstalks, hands in the earth, listening to others approach their General, speak to her, with requests or demands or pleas for help. She'd never heard the General deny one. Never heard her sound other than kind and confident about it.

Don't worry. I'll get her back.

I'm on it. It's as good as done.

I'll take care of those raiders for you.

Did you need anything?

It was difficult for Leah to reconcile this woman with the one who'd seemed so brittle and wary and fidgety and disconcerted, the one time Eve had met her before. Who'd been so unhappy with the Institute that she'd actually joined a freedom fighter group and destroyed it.

"He's upset."

That had been Alan, one evening-- one of the evenings that was so like any other evening. Alan, at leisure, body relaxed into the cushions of the sofa, drinking a beer. She’d sat at the other end of the sofa, watching. She wasn't supposed to drink. Didn't want to seem too demanding. He was more generous with her than he had to be, in many ways. With conversation, for instance. Information. He was speaking of Father.

"He thought she'd be--" He gestured vaguely. "He knew she'd be upset, that he’d grown old without her. Well, obviously. But the Institute itself, he thought she'd be-- thrilled! Home at last! A real home. Clean, well lighted, safe. Scientifically advanced. Like the world she lost. After all this time wandering the surface-- I don't think it ever occurred to him that she wouldn't-- find herself at home, here."

"Maybe she's afraid of us," Eve suggested quietly. "She must have friends up there. Aren't they all afraid of us?"

An ambiguous us. It was impressed on all synths-- not only the ones whose duties took them above ground-- how menacing their very existence seemed, to the surface dwellers. Things that looked human, but weren't. Without the Institute's protection, they would be slaughtered without mercy. Cut apart, piece by piece, to find the parts of them that weren't human.

But Nora Bowman didn't seem afraid of the synths. She stared and stared, disconcertingly, but not with fear.

"But she knows she has nothing to fear from us," Alan said. "Father's made it clear that she's welcome here as his honored guest." Eve didn't point out that being told one had nothing to fear, and knowing it, were two entirely different things. "I suppose it will simply take her some time to adjust. After all, she's been on the surface for some time now, and the Institute-- well, it's all in what one's used to, I suppose."

"She came to see me," Eve mentioned, and then flinched, just a little, when Alan said loudly, "She what?"

(He'd never touched her without gentleness, never threatened her or even reprimanded her, and yet she was acutely aware that if-- when-- he declared this experiment at an end, she ended with it. At least this version of herself. The Institute would hardly be likely to let her keep these memories. Of... familiarity.)

"I thought--" She tried to sound apologetic, but not afraid. A fine line to walk. "She just walked in. Father said to make her feel welcome."

"Of course, sweetheart,” he said, quick as always to reassure her, if he perceived she was uncertain. “You didn't do anything wrong. I just didn't expect she'd-- What did she want here?"

"She introduced herself to me," said Eve. "She asked me about-- myself. My role."

"And what did you tell her?"

She said, truthfully, "That I must be the luckiest synth in the Institute.”

He smiled at her, and she smiled back, trying to make it a beautiful smile.

He'd told her often that she was beautiful. She wasn't sure if she was beautiful any more. She guessed probably not, since no one had told her so since the reconstructive surgery the Railroad doctor had given her. It was just as well. She wasn't interested in attracting that kind of attention, or any kind of attention.

She'd come here partly because Alan had helped design the Roger Warwick synth, and she'd met him, before he was deployed to the surface to kill and replace his human counterpart. She'd wondered if he'd recognize her, despite the surgery, but he hadn't seemed to. Anyway he hadn't said anything, and neither had she.

She was a hard worker, a pleasant enough neighbor, quiet, polite. She kept her head down. The same skills and habits that had kept her out of trouble in the Institute-- mostly-- kept her out of trouble here.

The General had spoken to her only once, when she was visiting, and Leah was working, weeding the carrots. She'd said, "They seem to be growing well."

Leah had nodded, and the General had knelt down beside her and helped her for a little, in companionable silence.

This time, she noted-- from her knees, among the tato frames-- the General hadn't brought her ghoul husband along. She'd brought a woman-- a young, slender woman, with red hair--

Oh.

Y4-15 was almost, but not quite, unrecognizable. Her pretty red hair had been allowed to grow long, pulled back in a plait that hung down between her shoulder blades, and her once-wan face was covered with freckles. She wore what looked like army fatigues, and she had a gun at her hip and a knife strapped to her leg, and she looked as tired and cheerful as her "mother" did.

Leah had read the interview Y4-15 had given to Publick Occurrences, so of course she knew the girl had been "adopted" by Nora Bowman, along with-- so the rumors went, now; so the radio sometimes claimed; so the General herself had confirmed, smiling, blushing with shy happiness, like a young girl being teased about an admirer, when settlers here asked her-- several other synths. An odd project, but she obviously felt emotionally invested in synths, since she’d ended up working with the Railroad to destroy the Institute, and certainly there were enough synths who found themselves homeless and adrift after that destruction, in need of adoption.

Leah wondered what it would be like for a synth to live on such terms with the General. If she was as gentle and generous as Alan. If you needed to be as careful.

Well. It was none of Leah's business.

 

……………

X6-88 returned to the doctors feeling refreshed and revived, as if he had been relayed briefly back into the Institute before being returned to a long-running mission.

(He'd never thought, in the days before the Institute's destruction, that he would miss the physical sensation of relay. It had hurt, really, every time, like a mild electrical shock in every cell of his body, and then a sickening lurch of no-sensation before the shock renewed itself. But it had meant going home.)

The doctors were quarreling when he got back, and immediately tried to embroil him in their quarrel--

"Even if you do teach Julian to defend himself, I hope you don't think I have any intention of going back to Bowman, or of releasing you from your responsibilities--"

"Don't let him try to stop you, X6-88, if he refuses it's still a majority opinion you should go to the Castle, with Elizabeth and Rosemary there--"

"Are coursers ruled by majority opinion now?"

--but he ignored them. He sat down, pulled off his wet gloves, and began unlacing his boots.

"X6-88!"

"Sir?" he responded, without looking up at Dr. Loken.

"Look at me when I speak to you!"

He looked up, eyebrows raised, not troubling to conceal his irritation at the unnecessary demand. He was very tired of trying to make humans feel important and powerful. It had never been his job before the Institute fell. Why was it his job now?

The look on his face seemed to silence Dr. Loken, who just stared at him. X6-88 waited for a moment, and then, since Dr. Loken was no longer speaking, went back to his boots.

Dr. Coulton laughed, suddenly, mirthlessly.

"Things are moving quickly now," he said. "Do me a favor, X6-88. The day you don't come back, will you leave us each a weapon?"

X6-88 looked up at Dr. Coulton, regarding him carefully.

"I will never willingly leave you without providing for your safety, sir," he answered. "Some things may be changing, but not that."

He considered, briefly, offering Dr. Coulton Michael's suggestion, that he be housed at a settlement that was aware of his crime and willing to allow him to live in safety with proper supervision, but he decided it would be premature. He hadn’t even spoken with Ms. Bowman on the subject yet. When he had, if she were willing, he thought he would approach Dr. Coulton separately from Dr. Loken on the subject.

Dr. Loken was a separate problem.

But-- as Dr. Coulton had astutely observed-- things were moving quickly. Changing. Some problems might resolve themselves, if he let matters develop.

In the meantime, he was in the middle of an assignment from Dr. Binet.

He had his boots off, now; he peeled off his wet socks, and flexed his toes. It was strange to be doing this in front of humans, but he couldn’t really think of a good reason not to. If Nora Bowman was willing to kneel at his feet to help him strip off his boots and wet socks, it couldn’t be inherently offensive to a human to see a courser’s bare feet.

“I’m going to heat some water for myself,” he said. “Would either of you like a hot drink, as well?”

 

………………………………………...

 

The General had disappeared somewhere, and Y4-15 was talking to June Warwick, who turned, scanning the area, and then, unexpectedly, pointed towards Leah.

Y4-15 nodded, smiling, said something brief-- “thanks,” maybe-- and began making her way towards the neat rows of tato frames Leah was carefully tending.

Leah’s heart sped up, even though she couldn’t imagine-- couldn’t think of any reason--

Y4-15 was kneeling down in the dirt, looking at the tatoes, not at Leah.

She was saying, "Ms. Williams?"

Williams.

She'd liked the idea of keeping Liam's name with hers, a little.

When she'd asked the doctor who'd changed her face about Liam, he'd said, avoiding her eyes, He didn't make it. I'm sorry. But he was a true hero.

She hadn’t asked for any details. She hadn’t said anything else.

Sweet Liam, young and idealistic and a misfit in the Institute. He'd needed a mother so badly. She'd done her best.

She said, "Yes?"'

Y4-15-- no, Emily, now, Emily Bowman-- said, very quietly, too quietly for anyone else to overhear, "Do you remember me?"

She could have said no.

She could have said what do you mean?

She could have said of course, you're the synth, the one from the paper, the one she adopted, what do you want?

Eve--

What's wrong, Y4-15?

Eve, please, I’m so scared--

Unit, why are you not attending to your duties?

I apologize, sir--

Liam's innocent, worried young voice. What did she want? Y4-15?

She could have said nothing, it's nothing.

She'd said--

(taking his strange, dear, human hands in hers)

Help. She wanted help. Can you help her, Liam?

"Of course," she said now, Emily's blue eyes wide and pleading, again. "Of course I remember you, Y4-15. Can I help you?"

Chapter Text

Emily's smile could have powered the whole settlement for days.

How oddly lovely, to be able to elicit such a smile, from someone she'd never seen smile before.

"Oh, thank you so much," Emily said, still softly. "Listen, no one else knows who you are, not even our mother. She knows who we’re here looking for, but not your name, or your face. That's why I sent her over to the water tank, where she wouldn’t see who I was talking to. I won't tell her anything without your permission-- but I hope you'll give me permission, because I promise you can trust her."

"What does she want with me?" Leah asked. (Emily had sent her "mother" out of sight?

”Our mother"?)

"Nothing you aren't comfortable with," Emily answered. "I promise. If you say no to me now, I'll get up and go, and we'll never bother you again. I told Mrs. Warwick I thought you might be a biological relative of our mother’s-- great-great-grandniece-- but that I wanted to talk to you before I said anything to her, to make sure. So she shouldn’t bother you about it, either, if you tell me to go. I’ll just tell her I was wrong. I didn’t want to-- upset your life.”

“How did you find me?” Leah asked. It wasn’t really what she wanted to ask at this point, but it was a good question.

“The Railroad helped me,” Emily answered. “But please don’t think they would have told-- just anyone. The agent I talked to-- he knows me, and-- he trusted me.” She smiled again, that shatteringly radiant smile. “And I know now you trust me too. Thank you, Eve. I mean-- Ms. Williams.”

“Leah,” she said. She did trust Y4-15 not to mean her any harm-- and Y4-15 was clearly no fool, as evidenced by the elaborate care she had taken to shield Eve’s identity-- but-- “But I don’t understand. Why did you track me down? What do you want?”

“It’s kind of a long story,” said Emily. “But-- to be brief about it-- Dr. Binet made contact with our mother, and he wanted to know if you’d be interested in-- ever seeing him again.”

Leah sat back on her heels, staring at Emily. Seeing Alan in her mind’s eye, in a myriad tiny glimpses-- drinking, eating, talking, sleeping, coming home, clutching her in ecstasy-- and hearing his voice, as she’d last heard it, the frantic screams of Eve! Sweetheart! Where are you? Are you here?

Get back! Humans to the evacuation points!

No, please, you don’t understand--!

His voice fading into the distance, as she stood quietly, saying nothing.

“If the answer’s no, then that’s the answer we’ll give him,” Emily added. “But if you’re all right with it, our mother would love to talk to you anyway, because-- you’re her daughter too, you know. All of us-- the third-generation synths-- we’re her children. Because we were sourced from her son’s DNA.” She smiled. “It’s like how Father wanted us all to call him Father. Except-- real.”

Leah just kept staring. She had no idea how to respond to that.

"You will come talk to her, won't you?" Emily coaxed. "Just to talk. Whether it’s yes or no. It’s safe, Leah. I won't let anything happen that you don't want. I promise."

What a strange promise for one synth to make to another. What power could Emily possibly have-- little Y4-15, with her little gun-- to protect Leah against anything the General of the Minutemen could do, or have done, to either one of them?

Emily clearly believed what she was saying, but-- that didn’t mean she was right.

Leah had built herself a solid enough life. She didn’t want to get mixed up in human strangeness again. Human emotions, human fantasies, elaborate and frangible, that you had to be careful not to tread too heavily around, in case they came crashing down. She’d spent enough of her life as an exotic pet.

But Emily’s face was so full of hope.

“If I say no,” Leah asked curiously, “are you going to be in trouble?”

Emily looked puzzled. "What do you mean? You mean, with the Railroad? I tried to be careful--"

"With the General," said Leah. "For not-- securing this meeting."

Emily gave a startled little laugh. "Leah-- she's my mother!"

Not oh, she'll understand I tried my best, or she'd never hurt me, or even she loves me. Alan had loved Eve, too, in his way. But she had always, always been afraid.

(Of doing something, inadvertently, that proved she wasn’t really the person he loved, and never had been.)

She's my mother. As if that phrase, that fact, left no possible room for fear.

“All right,” she said abruptly. “I’ll-- speak to her.”

“Oh!” Emily’s little cry of happiness sounded involuntary. “Oh, Eve-- Leah-- thank you so much!”

Leah shook her head, amused. “Why do you care so much?”

“Because you’re my sister,” Emily answered. “Come with me. Will you? I told her to stay where she is until I came to get her. She’s going to be so happy, too.”

Leah followed her, disoriented, but oddly excited, to the other side of the big water reservoir, where the General was waiting, gnawing on the nail of her thumb.

“Don’t bite your nails,” Emily told her, and she jerked the thumb guiltily out of her mouth, her eyes fixed on Leah. “Mother, this is Leah.”

“Leah,” the General said softly, her face radiant. Leah had never seen her look so happy, except when-- when she was talking about one of her children. “Thank you so much for agreeing to speak to me.”

Leah smiled back. “Y4-- Emily, I mean-- was very persuasive.”

“I’m so sorry to-- disturb you,” said the General. “I-- would it make you uncomfortable, if I-- hugged you?”

“I--” Leah considered that seriously. Hugs weren’t something she had a lot of experience with. She considered the few she’d had, and finally said, “I think-- I would rather you didn’t.”

The General nodded vigorously. “OK. Of course. Thank you for being honest with me about your preference! Oh, I’m so glad you’re all right, E-- Leah-- are you all right? Do you need anything? Anything I can do for you?”

“I don’t think so,” said Leah, amused despite herself by the General’s excitement. “What is this about Alan wanting to see me again?”

“Yes.” The General made a visible effort to compose herself. “He made contact-- actually, through X6-88, who’s been taking care of some of the scientists. A lot of the coursers have. And he said he would just like to know if you would be at all interested in-- seeing him again. If not, then-- not. He’ll never know where you are, I promise.”

Leah nodded. Considering how careful Emily had been about protecting Leah’s identity, she actually believed the General when she promised to do the same. That left her free to consider, seriously, the proposition that she see Alan again.

“I don’t want him to know where I am,” she said slowly. “And I don’t want to go to where he is.”

“OK,” said the General. “But-- forgive me if I’m misunderstanding, but that doesn’t sound like it’s the same as ‘I don’t want to see him again.’ Because if you do, then we can do a neutral location. Like the Castle, if you want. You’d be safe. I could guarantee that. If you trust me.”

Leah thought about that for some time, and neither Emily nor her mother said anything while she thought, either to sway her or to try to hurry her.

“I think I would like to see him again, then,” said Leah finally. “I have some things I would like to say.”

 

..........................

"And on the third day of waiting outside the cave, the dragon--"

"You weren't even gone three days," Elizabeth pointed out.

"Mount Zoram is in a different dimension," Dee explained, straight-faced, lying on his back with his knees pointed up and his hands behind his head. "Time passes differently there. Do you want to hear how I defeated the dragon Lehi or what?"

Elizabeth leaned back on her hands, drumming her heels lightly against the wall. "You're beginning to strain my credulity."

He flashed her a grin. "Beginning? C’mon, doc. You’re an educated lady.”

"Why don't you just tell me the truth?" she asked.

The question seemed to take him aback for some reason. He looked at her in silence, as if considering it.

"After all," she said, "you told me the truth about being a Railroad agent. Or was that a lie too?"

"No," he said. "That was the God's honest. And to tell you-- some more of it-- I'm not sure why I told you."

She drew back slightly, and he said, turning his head away from her, "Not that I-- My boss kind of chewed me out about it, see. Yesterday. That's where I was. Checking in with her. And she was pissed. Called me compromised. Threatened to kick me out."

"Dee--"

"Listen, it’s not your fault," he said, and, suddenly, sat up, wrapping his arms around his knees and looking at her again. At least, she thought he was looking at her. Those damn sunglasses. "I don’t mean that, not at all. It’s just-- I don’t really-- trust anyone. Not for, um, awhile.” He gave her a twisted little smile. “Spy life, you know. Not just the-- coming up with cover stories, and protecting the mission, and all that, but-- it’s a--” He grimaced. “It’s not a good life. For-- making friends. Getting close. The less people actually-- know about me, the better off they are. Generally.”

“I like the truth,” she said primly.

“Boy, are you with the wrong guy,” he answered, and then added, “I mean, obviously, ‘with’ in the sense that we’re both-- occupying-- a similar, um, physical area.”

She laughed. “In what other sense would you have meant it?”

He looked at her, an odd little half smile on his face, and she reached out, impulsively, and plucked off his sunglasses.

He didn’t stop her, or try to grab them back; he just sat there, in the exact same position, with his face turned towards her, but his eyes were closed. There was something eerie about it, as if he were in a trance.

“Dee?” she asked, nervously. “I’m sorry. Do you-- do you want them back?”

“Just,” he said, eyes still closed. “I know it sounds dumb, but-- don’t-- say anything about them, OK?”

“About your sunglasses?”

“About--”

He opened his eyes and looked at her, and she inhaled sharply before she could stop herself.

His eyes were extraordinary. Larger than she’d expected, and blue-- bluer than any blue eyes she’d ever seen, intensely and darkly blue as sapphires, so clear they looked as if they should cast a light on his lower lashes.

“Guys used to give me shit about them,” he said. “Sang the song at me-- you know-- ‘Saw you from my window, my heart skipped a beat, pretty blue eyes...’ Stuff like that. And then there was-- somebody-- who really liked them. And she used to-- Just don’t say anything, OK?”

She nodded. “OK.”

“Thanks.” He closed them again, for a moment, and then opened them again. “I haven’t-- I always wear them. The shades. It’s not good for a spy to be-- memorable. My hair’s red, too, if you can believe the luck.”

“Is that why you shave it?” Elizabeth asked.

He nodded. “Sometimes I wear a wig.”

“Do you think you might grow it out, now?” she asked, eyeing his scalp, which he’d obviously shaved within the last twelve hours. No stubble at all.

“Now?” he said, sounding a little puzzled.

“Now,” she said. “Now that-- you said, you said that there wasn’t much left for you to do. With the Railroad. That you were ready to-- be something else.”

He smiled absently. “Did I say that?”

“I think that’s what you said,” she said uncertainly, eyes fixed on his. “I mean-- I thought-- because I’m ready, too. To do something else. Be-- somebody-- I never was.” Her mouth was dry, her heart thudding, her hands cold. Like when the raiders attacked, on the way here, except that this was something she was-- doing, trying, herself. Saying. “And it’s scary, but I thought-- maybe-- we were both going to be doing it. Figuring out-- something new. For ourselves.”

“Oh, God,” he said, and, suddenly, covered his eyes with the heels of his hands and pressed hard. “What am I doing. What have I done.”

“It’s all right if you don’t--” Elizabeth was hot all over, now. “If I misunderstood-- that’s my fault. You didn’t do anything. To, um-- I just-- misunderstood. I’m sorry.”

“That’s the thing,” he said. “You didn’t. But-- Elizabeth--” He took his hands from his eyes and looked up at her again. “I am-- so not equipped for this. I’m-- for one thing, I’m probably old enough to be your dad--”

“I’m thirty-four,” she said, still clinging to that you didn’t.

“Your sexually precocious dad,” he said. “Really? You guys had a hell of a good skin care regimen in the Institute, huh?”

She blushed, still hot, and uncertain, and flattered. “Sunlight is damaging to skin cells.”

“Right.” He lifted a hand, as if to touch her cheek, and then pulled it back. “But-- you don’t know anything about me, about the shit I’ve done, the shit I’ve been--”

“You don’t know about me, either,” said Elizabeth. “Isn’t that what I just said, that we’re both ready to-- be someone new?”

“Wouldn’t it be nice if it were that simple,” said Dee.

Elizabeth stared. “Simple? It doesn’t sound simple to me. That’s why--” She breathed in. “I’d like some-- company. It doesn’t have to be-- I like you, Dee, I like talking to you, I like-- sitting up here, with you, I don’t even-- think about smoking, when I’m talking to you. I don’t know if you’ve ever smoked, maybe you don’t--”

“Oh, no, I have,” he said. “That’s huge.”

“And I want you to be-- my friend,” said Elizabeth. “At least. Not that that’s-- a small thing. But if you want--”

He uncurled himself, and leaned forward as if to speak, and she leaned forward, too-- my heart skipped a beat-- and kissed his parted lips.

Chapter Text

X6-88 carefully took all his weapons with him when he left for the day.

Despite his concerns about Dr. Coulton and Dr. Loken, he approached the Castle with a feeling of pleasant anticipation. It was-- had been, since the destruction of the Institute, and especially since A9-82’s death and X9-21’s departure-- so difficult to work in isolation. The Castle meant resources, it meant backup, it meant others to discuss and strategize with.

Shaun came running out to meet him, and, instead of flinging his arms around X6-88's waist, launched himself into the air in X6-88's direction from a few feet away. X6-88's reflexes allowed him to catch the small body out of the air, and, instinctively, without thinking, he clasped it close against himself.

“Hello, Shaun,” he said, setting the child down, and Shaun said happily, “Hello, X6-88. Come to the conference room.”

“Not the library?” X6-88 asked, letting Shaun take him by the hand and lead him.

Shaun shook his head. “Not today.”

…………………………..

“We found her,” said Emily, flushed with happiness. (On X6-88’s behalf?) She sat beside her mother at a table in the conference room, Michael at the opposite end of the table from X6-88; it all felt less cozy, but more appropriately serious for the discussion of strategy, than the library. “And she’s willing to meet with Dr. Binet, here, at the Castle. If you can get him here.”

X6-88 nodded. “I’ll let him know. Thank you.” That sounded inadequate. “Very much.”

“You’re very welcome,” said Emily. “I’m so glad we could help.”

“That you could help, you mean,” Ms. Bowman corrected Emily, with an affectionate smile. “But, X6, let Dr. Binet know that he should be prepared for it not to be the, um, happiest of reunions. She says she’s willing to see him, but she isn’t exactly about to swoon away into his manly arms, if you get my drift.”

X6-88 nodded. “I see. I’ll convey that information. Thank you, ma’am.” He took a breath. “I have-- another request to make. Of you.”

Ms. Bowman looked thrilled. “You do?”

He had to tread carefully. She had controlled her anger towards Dr. Coulton once, for Emily’s sake. Was it wise for X6-88 to trust she would do it again, if the subject came up? Should Emily be here, for the sake of calming her mother, or would the subject upset Emily and therefore her mother?

He looked at Michael, who saw his look, and understood, and asked, calmly, “Does it have to do with your current charges?”

“Yes,” said X6-88, gratefully, glancing involuntarily at Emily.

“Oh, X6-88, you can talk about them in front of me,” said Emily. “I just couldn’t-- have-- him here. But I know you’re taking care of him, and that’s not-- it doesn’t bother me to know he’s alive. If it had--”

She looked at her mother, who said, “Yeah, I could have fixed that for you awhile back. What’s up, X6?”

She was alert, but she didn’t seem agitated, or displeased.

“One of my charges,” said X6-88, guardedly, in case it still mattered that she didn’t know which of the two was culpable for the outrage against Emily, although if this conversation went well, she would have to know, “had asked that I teach him how to handle firearms, so that he would be more capable of defending himself, and--”

……………………..

“So how do I load it?”

X6-88 demonstrated. Dr. Coulton had apparently never handled a firearm of any kind before, and X6-88 had deemed it wisest to show him the basics in the safety of the house, with his handgun unloaded.

Dr. Coulton watched him load the gun, and then said, “Can I try it myself?”

X6-88 unloaded the gun, and handed it and the magazine to Dr. Coulton, who carefully copied what X6-88 had done, then pulled back the slide and swung the gun around to point it at X6-88.

The gesture didn’t alarm X6-88 at first-- humans frequently played around foolishly, and he assumed that was what Dr. Coulton was doing, until he saw that Dr. Coulton was white as a sheet, his eyes teary, and that he was shaking so badly X6-88 was seriously afraid he might pull the trigger by mistake.

“Sir?” he said, and something in his voice must have caught the attention of Dr. Loken, who had been determinedly uninterested in the lesson on gun handling, but who now shouted, “Julian, what the fuck do you think you’re playing at?”

Dr. Coulton kept the gun trained on X6-88.

“Leave me alone,” he said. “I can’t do this any more, I can’t live like this any more.”

“All right,” said X6-88, calmly. He was always calm in an emergency; the Institute had trained him to be. “What do you want?”

“I want you to go,” said Dr. Coulton, raising his voice and the gun at the same time, so that the gun pointed directly at X6-88’s face. “To the Castle. I can’t stand this. I’m ruining your goddamn life. That fucking Bowman cunt loves you so much she let me live. You saw X9-21. He’s fucking happy.” He looked at Dr. Loken, still pointing the gun at X6-88. “Have you ever seen a fucking happy courser? Did you even know they knew how to smile? I thought we fucking trained it out of them.”

“Julian,” said Dr. Loken, ashy-skinned himself. “Calm down. Put the gun down. Let’s talk about this like reasonable people.”

”Reasonable people?” Dr. Coulton shrieked. “Is that what we are?”

“Evidently not,” said X6-88.

Dr. Coulton gestured wildly with the gun, and X6-88 fought not to flinch. He was trained to endure pain, and he had some medical supplies on hand, but if Dr. Coulton fired wildly and the bullet happened to strike X6-88 between the eyes, he would die. And so-- less quickly-- would Dr. Coulton and Dr. Loken.

“You hear that?” Dr. Coulton demanded of Dr. Loken. “He’s funny. Was he always funny and we just didn’t notice? Just like Y4-15 was always-- always--”

He doubled over, suddenly, and retched violently.

X6-88 took the opportunity to take the gun from him, and Dr. Coulton, when he had been divested of the weapon, dropped to the floor and screamed, screamed as if he had been gut-shot, as if he were in mortal agony.

X6-88 set the gun aside, safely out of his reach, and sat down next to him on the floor. He didn’t know what to do. Dr. Coulton was in acute distress, and it was X6-88’s duty to help, but he didn’t even really know what the problem was, much less how to solve it.

He thought of Michael, then, and of what Michael had done when Emily lay pale and exhausted with weeping in her mother’s lap, and he reached out, and touched Dr. Coulton’s cheek, and used his thumb to wipe away the moisture from the corner of his eye.

Dr. Coulton cried out again, breathlessly, as if he had been punched in the stomach, and shuddered violently, and lay still.

X6-88 looked up at Dr. Loken, who sat silent, staring at him. Possibly he had done something wrong-- touching Dr. Coulton uninvited as he had-- but Dr. Loken didn’t look as if he was about to reprimand him. He looked-- stunned. Confused.

That made at least two of them in the room.

There was silence for a bit, and then X6-88 said, to Dr. Loken, “We have to consider our next steps, sir.”

Dr. Loken nodded silently.

“Dr. Coulton needs more assistance than I can give him,” said X6-88. “On my last visit to the Castle, Michael-- X9-21-- suggested that Ms. Bowman might find a home for Dr. Coulton at one of her settlements. On certain terms.”

He was startled when Dr. Coulton’s hand came up and clawed at his uniform, fisting itself in the thick, padded material, Dr. Coulton’s head lifting, his voice saying thickly, “What terms--?”

“They would be notified, in advance, of your guilt,” said X6-88, still composed, despite the bizarre sensation of having his uniform clutched in a human’s fist. “You would be assured of protection, as long as you didn’t repeat your offense, but they would be-- watchful. You might feel somewhat-- ostracized.”

“I’ll do it,” said Dr. Coulton. “Take me to them. I’ll spend every day in a fucking pillory if it sets you free. I can’t stand this, you taking care of me like this, when I know you hate me--”

“I don’t hate you,” X6-88 said, truthfully.

”Why not?”

X6-88 considered seriously-- a memory surfacing, Michael asking, Are those you serve still afire with Father’s hopes and dreams?-- and answered, after a moment, “I feel sorry for you.”

Dr. Coulton’s grip released, and he subsided back onto the floor.

“How dare you,” said Dr. Loken, mechanically, without heat.

X6-88 shrugged wearily, and said, “Dr. Coulton is willing to agree to terms, if Ms. Bowman and her Minutemen do likewise. You, sir?”

“I want you to take me to another of our safehouses,” Dr. Loken answered, his voice taut, with an edge of tremor. “If Julian’s determined to suffer some sort of punishment for having offended a synth, that’s his business. But I’m not willing to do the same, and I’m not staying here alone with you. Take me to another courser. You’ve become-- you’re not--”

He trailed off.

“If you wish, sir,” said X6-88, fighting down a sudden feeling of lightness. The feeling was premature. Even if Dr. Loken meant what he was saying, and didn’t suddenly reverse himself, as humans were wont to do, X6-88 had a lot of work to do. “I’ll have to travel to the other safehouses first, to see which one is best equipped to feed and shelter another person.” He hated the idea of burdening one of the other coursers with an additional human, but possibly they were all-- or some of them were-- doing better than he was. Or worse. Or dead. “And, in Dr. Coulton’s case, I’ll have to speak with Ms. Bowman regarding the terms she’s willing to agree to. Dr. Coulton, can you continue to exist until I've done so?"

Dr. Coulton gave a choked little laugh.

"See?" he said hoarsely. "Funny."

 

…………

“I made sure to remove all weapons from the house before leaving, today,” said X6-88 to Ms. Bowman, “and I locked them in. I wasn’t sure how else to-- secure them-- short of handcuffing them to their beds.”

There was a silence, after which Ms. Bowman said, “Oh my God, X6-88.”

“Ma’am?”

She shook her head. “I just-- God, I don’t know what to say. You have the patience of a saint.”

“You will make the arrangements, won’t you, mother?” Emily asked softly. “For the doctor to settle somewhere safe?”

“I mean--” Ms. Bowman looked up. “If I can get a settlement to agree-- and if he’ll really agree to-- whatever precautions they feel the need to take-- then-- yes, of course. But, X6, you understand that if I do that, and he lays a little finger on one of my settlers, after I specifically placed him there, I’m gonna have to bring pieces of him to all my settlements, as an earnest of justice done. And I have a lot of settlements.”

“I understand that, yes,” said X6-88. “Given which, you understand how strongly I believe he won’t.”

“Oh, yes.” She nodded. “Yes. Which one is it, by the way? You’re going to have to tell me now, you know. If you’re going to trust me to resettle him.”

X6-88 hesitated. But-- she was right. He couldn’t ask for her help without trusting her, and he couldn’t-- go on-- without her help. The idea was unsupportable. The idea produced a brief stab of panicked inadequacy within him-- when had he become so weak?-- and then a surge of defiance.

He had never been designed to function in isolation. If he was inadequate to the current situation, it was the fault of those who had designed him. Not his. He was doing his best.

“Dr. Coulton,” he said.

Ms. Bowman nodded. “That fucking-- OK. I mean, they’re both fucking pricks-- so Loken’s the one who wants to fire you as his tireless guardian because he’s a little piss-pants baby-man who needs you on your knees to feel tall, huh?”

“Yes, ma’am,” said X6-88, and caught Michael’s grin out of the corner of his eye.

“OK.” Ms. Bowman took a deep breath, and then exhaled noisily. “OK. God, X6-88, can I just say how happy it makes me that you came to me with this? I’m so glad you’re not-- dealing with all this alone. That you’re letting me help.”

“On that note, ma’am,” said Michael, “may I ask a favor?”

She turned to him quickly, focusing all her attention on him. It made X6-88 realize how intent her focus had been, a moment ago, on himself.

“If X6-88 is amenable,” said Michael, “I would like to accompany him to the other Institute safehouses, when he goes to them to ascertain whether they can bear the burden of another human.”

Ms. Bowman sucked in her breath again. “Oh-- Michael, is that safe?”

Michael deliberately made eye contact with X6-88, this time, not grinning outright, but curving his lips enough that the expression was obvious. X6-88 didn’t smile back. It didn’t seem like a particularly good idea to mock Ms. Bowman, even as subtly as coursers were capable of doing.

“Don’t laugh at me!” Ms. Bowman said to Michael, but neither her face nor her voice seemed rebuking. “You know what I mean. They’re all badasses too, and won’t they see you as a traitor?”

“Not if I’m with X6-88,” said Michael.

It was bizarre how quickly, how seemingly effortlessly, Ms. Bowman’s normally confident and fearless demeanor became humble and pleading before her “children.” “But, Michael, you said, when I asked you how we could approach the coursers, you said it could be dangerous, for you just to go to them--”

“I agreed with you that it might be dangerous,” said Michael, and his own demeanor was gravely gentle, reassuring. “If I had approached the other coursers in your name, at that time, there was a strong likelihood that it might have come to a fight, and even if I had won, it would have been at the cost of pain and injury to others you value as your beloved children. But if I accompany X6-88, as his subordinate--”

Ms. Bowman moved, as if to protest, and Michael said, “In the hierarchy they accept, I am his subordinate. Do you think that makes me think less of myself, ma’am? That I care more for my rank and status in the eyes of my former fellow coursers, than for what I know myself to be in yours?”

Ms. Bowman smiled, and there were tears in her eyes, as she shook her head silently.

“But why do you want to go with him?” Emily asked Michael.

“To see my fellow coursers again,” said Michael. “To speak to them, if they allow it. If not-- at least to see them. And to assist X6-88 in any way he requires. If he wishes.”

“I would like that,” said X6-88.

“OK.” Ms. Bowman was smiling even more broadly now. “OK, then. Yes, son, of course you have permission.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” said Michael. “X6-88, when would you like to begin?”

Chapter Text

The knock on the library door startled Dee out of what seemed like an altered state, drug- or alcohol-induced, or that feeling you got when you were so deep in a really good book that you actually forgot where you were. It had been so long since anything pertaining to his real life made him feel this way. It made him feel panic-stricken, as if fantasy, which was kind and reliable, was being infringed on in some way by reality, which was reliably kind of the worst.

He shouldn’t even be in here. He was imposing on everybody’s good nature even more than usual.

But he’d brought her here, yesterday, in a daze-- a daze-- he’d let her take off his shades and then kiss him, he’d kissed her back, and when she’d gripped his upper arms and moved closer, close enough that their heat started to mingle, he’d taken her by the hand and taken her to the library because it was-- it was better than sitting on top of the wall in full view of the entire Castle, or so he’d thought until they were actually in there and she was in his lap with her arms around his neck and her lips on his again and it occurred to him that this wasn’t his place, he was barely even allowed in here himself, he wasn’t even really family, certainly nobody had given him permission to bring an Institute scientist in here for kissing purposes, he was going to be in trouble--

--and then he forgot, because she was warm and soft and eager in his arms, her lips hungry for his, and he was shaking and she didn’t mind and--

--and nobody showed up to yell at them or kick them out or rescind Dee’s library privileges because of the extent to which he’d overstepped them, and when they showed up at dinner, nobody even said anything, they just grinned at both Dee and Elizabeth until Dee wanted to die and also to run away and also to grin back and also to apologize profusely to Michael and Danse for ever having even considered teasing the two of them about their shy new relationship.

Relationship?

He was losing his mind, and the surest way you could tell was that this utter lunacy he was engaged in felt completely right and sane and normal and wonderful, it felt like water when you were thirsty and rest when you were weary. Like looking up, after days and nights of waiting to die in the former Railroad HQ, and seeing Nora, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, with a dawning light of recognition on her face, saying his name.

Also nobody had said anything to him, which possibly meant he was hallucinating the entire concept of Elizabeth and had been this entire time and everyone here was just too polite and kind to point out to their poor crack-brained housemate that there was no such person as “Dr. Elizabeth Teasdale.” That seemed a lot more likely, actually, than the theorem that a beautiful, brilliant survivor of devastation he’d personally helped wreak had decided she enjoyed talking to him, found him funny and interesting and attractive, and was currently half next to him on the sofa and half in his lap, her arms tight around him and her lips on his lips, her honey-blonde hair spilling forward onto his neck--

Knock-knock-knock.

The knock startled Elizabeth, too, and she flinched slightly against him, which made him feel protective-- she shouldn’t be scared, he’d take care of her-- which was just more lunacy, because since when was he capable of taking care even of himself let alone someone else-- and he pulled her closer, defiantly, defying his own stupidity and insecurity and confusion, and said, hoarsely, “Come in.”

It was Emily who opened the door and peered in at them, smiling, and said, “I’m so sorry to interrupt, but, Dr. Teasdale, I thought you might want to know that X6-88 is here. In case you wanted to see him.”

“Oh,” said Elizabeth, a little breathlessly, from where she was nestled to his side, so that he couldn’t see her face. “I-- thank you, Emily, that’s very-- considerate of you.”

“You’re welcome,” Emily answered. “He’s with Dr. Weston and Dr. Hastings in the infirmary.”

“I’ll go see him now,” said Elizabeth, rising, a little unsteadily, and using Dee’s shoulder as a support, which made him go weak in the knees. Weaker. Even before she turned back towards him and gave him a happy, shaky, joyful, apologetic smile. “Do you want to come with me?”

He briefly considered a meet-the-parents joke-- although X6-88 had transferred official guardianship of her to Michael, right? And also he didn’t know what might have become of her real parents, what if they’d died in the destruction of the Institute and she’d just forgotten and she was going to remember at some point and murder him, or this whole thing was an elaborate revenge ploy to get close to him and then break his heart and then murder him-- and instead said, “Want me to?”

“That’s all right,” said Elizabeth. “I won’t be too long.”

She ran her hands through her hair, smoothing it out; Emily stepped the rest of the way into the room to let her pass, and when she was gone, Emily turned to Dee and smiled again.

“I’m-- sorry,” he said weakly. “For-- uh--” He gestured around him. “Taking over. The library.”

“You need a room of your own,” Emily said, in a tone that indicated both agreement and sympathy. “The library was fine, as long as you were just sleeping here.”

He wanted to run, flee, change his name, get a new face swap, start a new life where no one knew him or any of his assorted shames, and that was before he realized, suddenly, that he still wasn’t wearing his shades. Elizabeth had taken them off him again, and set them aside, and he’d forgotten to put them back on when the knock came at the door.

He fumbled for them, feeling stupid-- what was the point, now, but he wanted them on anyway, he felt safer with them on-- and put them on, and said, again, “Sorry.”

“You don’t need to apologize to me, Dee,” said Emily, and her voice was so gentle and kind-- it wasn’t Nora’s voice, nothing like it really, but it sounded like Nora anyway, like the way Nora spoke to him, reassuring him, calling him sweetheart and honey lamb, claiming him as her family-- that he started to shiver. What was happening to him? “I’m really happy for you.”

“It’s all gonna end in tears,” he said, trying to suppress the tremor in his voice enough to sound devil-may-care, and she smiled again.

“Tears don’t end things,” she said. “They’re like the rain.”

“Huh?”

“They’re messy and uncomfortable and hardly anybody likes having to deal with them,” said Emily, “but without them, nothing grows.”

“Celebrated poet Emily Bowman,” said Dee, trying to make a joke so he wouldn’t have to think about that too hard, “pictured here offering a beautiful metaphor to some asshole her mother found in a crypt.”

Emily raised one eyebrow-- fuck, was that a genetically heritable skill or had Nora taught her how? “Celebrated poet Emily Bowman, whose mother found her half dead in a raiders’ den, suggests her honorary brother quit using the concept of having been found somewhere awful to put himself down.”

“Oh, Jesus, I didn’t mean that,” he said, stumbling, horrified, and Emily said, “I know, Dee. But it’s true. We’ve all been in bad places. It doesn’t mean that’s where we belong.”

“No,” said Dee, “but some of us do. Belong back there.”

Emily shook her head, and said, very firmly, “No.”

He didn’t know how to answer that-- there wasn’t anything to argue with, just a firm conviction that (if she took after her mother as much as he thought she did) was about as likely to be swayed by anything Dee had to say as the Castle was to collapse in a stiff breeze-- and after a moment, she said, again, “I’m really happy for you, Dee. And for Dr. Teasdale.”

“Emily,” he said, desperate to change the subject, and also he actually had something he needed to do, something he’d lost track of in all this-- being kissed.

“Yes?”

“Where’s Michael?”

“I’m not sure,” she said. “Do you want me to find him for you?”

“I’ll go--” He got up, his legs unexpectedly weak underneath him, and staggered a little. Emily didn’t laugh. “I’ll go find him. I need to, um, ask him about something.”

Emily nodded. “Do you think you and Dr. Teasdale are done with the library for right now?”

“I, um,” he said. “We--”

“Because I wanted to show Leah the books.”

“Oh, God, of course, yeah,” he said. “Like I said, I’m sorry, to have been--”

“I’ll talk to my mother about getting you your own space,” said Emily, with a quick, impish grin, and he almost ran for the door.

 

………………..

He found Michael and Danse sitting on the floor near the weapons workbench, surrounded by guns and knives from Nora’s storage. Danse was tinkering with the scope of a laser rifle; Michael had partially disassembled a hunting rifle and was cleaning it with a rag. They both looked up expectantly on Dee’s approach, but said nothing.

“Hi,” he said.

“Hello, Dee,” said Michael, with his usual deadpan composure. Danse still said nothing, though his expression remained open and expectant; whether it was conditioning from the Brotherhood’s abuse or just his nature, he seemed to be a quiet guy in general.

“I, um,” Dee said. “You mind if I sit down?”

“No,” said Michael, and Dee sat down cross-legged on the floor, outside the perimeter of scattered weaponry.

“I’ve got a favor to ask you,” he said to Michael.

“All right,” said Michael.

How did coursers manage to be so unnerving even when they were being accommodating?

“I, um.” He hadn’t really planned out what to say properly. He was used to fine-tuning stories, figuring out the proper narrative order, when they were fictional; he was going to have to get in the habit of doing the same thing with the truth, since it didn’t seem to come spilling out easily and automatically-- except when he was with Elizabeth. “When I went to check in at HQ, the other day, I-- my boss, she and I had a conversation. About coursers.”

Michael watched him, saying nothing, not visibly reacting.

“She’s never actually met one, see,” said Dee. “So she’s mostly used to thinking of you guys as a-- terrifying-- threat?”

“Of course,” said Michael dispassionately.

“But now she’s--” Dee took a breath. “I don’t know if Nora told you this, but she and Des had kind of a dust-up, the last time Nora came by. Des-- my boss-- had this idea, that she was going to-- make a move, on the Institute remnant.”

Michael’s expression did change at that, his eyebrows lifting, his chin tilting slightly upward.

“Nora put the kibosh on it, of course,” said Dee quickly. “But Des is-- she can’t get the idea out of her head. She knows what Nora’s doing now, with you and X6-88 and your little remnant, but she’s-- she feels like it’s not-- enough. Or going fast enough. Because, see, she’s dedicated her whole life to freeing synths, and the coursers are sort of the last ones left, to-- free.”

He thought Michael might have something to say to that, but he didn’t. He was watching Dee closely, his dark eyes inscrutable. Dee was going to break and start confessing his sins in a second, even though Michael had no reason to give a shit about most of his sins.

“So, the favor,” he said. “See, I was thinking about the things you said, when we first met with X6-88, at the Bugle building. About how you-- see things. Why you stayed loyal to the Institute, after you didn’t-- have to, any more. And after there wasn’t anything in it for you, any more-- I mean, they weren’t feeding you and housing you and supplying you any more, it was the other way around, but you still stayed with them. I never understood that. And neither does Des. I guess she thinks of it as-- brainwashing. Indoctrination. Like you’re-- victims.”

Michael looked at Danse, who said, quietly, “Not all loyalty is due to indoctrination. Even if it isn’t-- deserved.”

“I know,” said Dee, thinking of what Danse must be speaking of-- everything he’d done to protect the Brotherhood, despite everything they’d done to hurt him-- and of his own loyalty to the Railroad. What a strange thing, the love of an organization. An organization that didn’t love you back, no matter how hard you worked, that used you up and wore you out and never said thank you, but that you’d given so much of the best of yourself that it was almost impossible to imagine what you’d be without it.

“Michael,” he resumed, and Michael’s gaze turned from Danse back to himself, “when I heard you talking about-- the Institute, and what it used to mean to you, and to X6-88-- and the way you feel about Nora, now-- it was just-- really interesting. It was a lot of stuff I didn’t know. And I’d really like Des to hear it. And she said, if I-- if you would-- I know it’s a big imposition, it’s kind of a hike, but I thought you might be willing, to come to HQ and talk to her. Help her understand-- where you’re coming from. You, and the other coursers.”

“Why?” Michael asked.

Dee blinked at him, trying to think what to say, and Michael clarified, “Why is it important to you that she understand?”

“Because--” He hesitated. “She’s worked hard. She’s accomplished a lot. And now she’s-- trying to figure out what to do next, and she’s just gotten herself all turned around. If you could help her understand-- where you and the other coursers are coming from-- she could help us, maybe. She’d like it, if she could help. That’s the only reason she came up with her dumb plan in the first place, is that she really wants to help.”

Michael studied him for a moment before he said, “This person is important to you.”

“Yeah,” said Dee. “Yeah, she is. She’s--” He had a sudden thought. “I guess, for me, she’s kind of like-- like how Dr. Hastings and Dr. Achanta are to you. Like you were saying to X6-- they don’t own you, but they still-- matter.”

Michael nodded. “Then-- subject to my mother’s approval-- yes. I will go with you to visit Des.”

“What about your trip with X6-88?” Danse asked.

Michael said, “X6-88 has expressed the desire to bring matters between Dr. Binet and Eve to a satisfactory conclusion, before we embark on our trip. That gives me a day or two.”

“Oh--” Dee was slightly startled. “You mean, like, today? Or tomorrow?”

“Unless you would rather wait longer,” said Michael. “Since I’m doing this as a favor to you, I’ll defer to your preference.”

Dee hesitated.

“Would you like to consult Dr. Teasdale before you decide?” Michael asked.

“I--” Dee felt himself reddening. “I mean--”

Michael said gravely, “I thought, when you approached me, you might be intending to ask my permission to court one of my charges.”

The best proof Dee had ever had that there was no merciful God was that no merciful God struck Dee dead right at that exact second.

“She seems happy,” said Michael. “And so do you. I hope the two of you continue to enjoy one another’s company.”

“Th-thanks,” Dee stammered. “I-- yeah, maybe I should? Go-- talk to her? And tell her-- I have another errand to run?”

“Dr. Teasdale, Miss Nakano, and I should form some sort of social club,” said Danse.

Michael’s laughter broke so quickly over his face that it was startling, his head turning to look at Danse. “Do I leave you so often?”

“No,” said Danse, smiling back at him. “But even once is enough for me to know what it is to miss you.”

“I’m gonna.” Somehow Dee got to his feet without breaking any gun pieces, or any of his own bones. “I’ll get back to you soon, OK? On when?”

Michael nodded at him, a residual smile still on his face. “I’ll seek my mother’s permission.”

“Thanks,” said Dee. “I-- thanks. I’ll go-- talk to--”

He didn’t quite manage to finish his sentence before he turned and ran again.

Chapter Text

X6-88 was standing at attention in the infirmary, Melinda Severne and Alice Hastings nearby, listening impassively to Rosemary--

"--not that I mind , I've been around them all my life, but they're just so bold, laughing and talking so loudly, it doesn't seem--"

--when Elizabeth came in, and they both turned, and Rosemary, with almost no pause, continued, "--and Dr. Teasdale's gone completely native, haven't you, Elizabeth, has anyone told you what she's been up to?"

Elizabeth gave a self-conscious little laugh. She wasn't embarrassed-- she was excited, euphoric even, about what she'd been up to with Dee, but-- "Rosemary, I'm sure X6-88 isn't interested in my-- X6-88, how are you?"

There was a slight pause, X6-88's sunglasses-- the patrolman glasses he always wore, that he'd picked up on the surface somewhere and come back to the Institute wearing and worn ever since, or else been periodically replacing with identical substitutes-- fixed on her, before he said, "I'm in satisfactory condition, thank you, Dr. Teasdale."

"Are Julian and Max treating you well?" Elizabeth asked.

The pause was a little longer this time, before X6-88 said, "You're kind to inquire, ma'am. No, not particularly well."

Rosemary gasped, and giggled nervously.

"I'm sorry," said Elizabeth. She was a little startled, too, by his bluntness-- but why shouldn’t he be blunt? She'd asked, hadn't she? "I-- is there anything we can do?"

"I don't believe so, ma'am," he answered. "But I appreciate the thought. Thank you. Are you well?"

"Yes," she said. "I'm-- wonderfully well, thank you."

He nodded. "You look well."

She went a little hot, wondering if he could tell-- anything-- from looking at her. "Thank you."

"Comin' through," said a settler, one Elizabeth had seen around the Castle and possibly been introduced to but whose name she couldn’t remember, entering the infirmary. He was a broad-shouldered, light-skinned black man, with his arm protectively around a heavily pregnant, darker-skinned woman who was presumably his wife. “Hey, doc. Pretty sure it’s showtime.”

“How far apart are the contractions?” asked Melinda, calmly, as the man steered his wife towards one of the clean-sheeted beds. “Has her water broken?”

“Four minutes,” said the man. “I don’t know. Lisa, has your water broken?”

“I don’t think so,” said the woman, letting her husband ease her down onto the bed, with an audible little sigh.

“That’s fine,” said Melinda. “Let’s clear this space, please, except for Caleb and Lisa.”

X6-88 was already moving for the door; Elizabeth, Rosemary, and Alice followed fast on his heels, and Alice pulled the door shut.

“I should be going,” said X6-88, his voice even flatter and emptier of affect than usual. “May I please be dismissed?”

Rosemary smiled at him. “When will you be back?”

“In a day or two,” X6-88 answered. “Ms. Bowman will advise you as to why.” There was a faint cry of pain from the other side of the door, and he tensed visibly. “May I go?”

“Go on,” said Elizabeth. “We’ll look forward to seeing you again soon.”

He barely nodded at her before he started walking away, fast.

“I don’t think X6-88 is comfortable with childbirth,” said Alice dryly.

Elizabeth said, “Well, just imagine how bizarre it must seem to them. To synths, I mean.”

“Poor thing,” said Rosemary fretfully, looking at the door. “Imagine giving birth in these conditions. So dirty. And no real, qualified doctor-- no offense to your friend, Alice, but--.”

“Melinda delivered Tanvi’s baby,” Alice pointed out, a little acerbically, “and everything went perfectly well.”

“A miracle,” said Rosemary. “I hope you’re taking precautions, Elizabeth.”

Elizabeth wasn’t sure whether the heat that rushed to her face had more to do with embarrassment or anger. Not that it was any of Rosemary’s business, but she and Dee hadn’t done anything that-- much. Yet. And of course they would talk, before they did, about-- well, she wasn’t sure what “precautions” were available on the surface. In the Institute, almost all fertile women who weren’t actively trying to conceive had simply gotten regular twelve-weekly contraceptive hormone shots, but presumably they didn’t have those up here. But they must have something, or all these married women would be pregnant all the time, wouldn’t they? Certainly she’d have seen more pregnant women than just Lisa. (Small, that was their name. Caleb and Lisa Small. She’d thought it was funny, because Lisa was anything but small at the moment.)

And--

--well, it was very early in a very unlikely relationship, too early to speculate what they might both want in the future, if this-- joy-- lasted, but a third possible source of the heat suffusing her skin had to do with--

She’d always intended-- someday-- but none of the available men had ever been quite as interesting as her work, and then there had been the Institute’s destruction, and Tanvi’s nightmarish, undernourished pregnancy. But Tanvi and Naveena were thriving, now--

“I wonder why X6-88 is coming back so soon,” Alice was saying.

“I don’t know,” said Rosemary, cheering up, “but it’s nice to see him so often, isn’t it? I wasn’t sure he’d be able to-- visit, like this.”

“Aren’t you worried about him?” Elizabeth asked her.

“Worried about X6-88?” Rosemary asked, sounding confused. “Don’t you think he can take care of himself?”

“But he--” Elizabeth hesitated. “Maybe he could, but he isn’t, is he? If he were looking out for himself, he’d be here, and Julian and Max would be-- dead, I guess.”

“Elizabeth!”

“Well, it’s true,” said Elizabeth, feeling angrier with Rosemary than she could really justify to herself. “He’s-- sacrificing himself, for them. And they don’t deserve it.”

“Nobody’s forcing him,” Rosemary pointed out. “He’s loyal, that’s all.”

Elizabeth fell silent, unsure what to say, and that was when Dee walked up, and her heart gave a skip and a throb and she found herself beaming at him, and he smiled back at her. He was wearing his shades again, but she didn’t exactly mind nobody else knowing how lovely his eyes were.

“Hey, beautiful,” he said, and she blushed-- no confusion as to why this time. God, his voice-- it was entrancing even when he was just making jokes, or spinning bizarre stories, but when he called her beautiful--

There was another cry from inside the infirmary, and his eyebrows went up, and Elizabeth said, “Lisa Small is having her baby.”

“Oh, nice,” he said, noncommittally. “Hey, can we talk?”

He jerked his head upwards at the wall, and she said, “Yes, yes, of course,” and, avoiding Alice’s and Rosemary’s eyes, she stepped forward to follow him up to--

“Is this officially ‘our’ spot now?” she asked, half joking, as they settled down in the spot where they’d spent so much time lately. She could see X8-88 walking away, his rifle slung over his back, and wished she could call him back.

“Absolutely,” Dee said, and she turned to look at him instead. “Anybody else tries to kiss here, you gotta challenge them to a duel and fight for our territory.”

I have to fight for it?” she laughed. “Did you choose me for my fighting prowess? I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed.”

He gave her his odd little half smile. “Disappointed? I don’t think so.”

She smiled, and reached out and took his hand in hers, her heart pounding, and he clasped hers between both of his and squeezed it gently.

“Elizabeth,” he said.

“Yes?”

“I gotta--” He swallowed. “I hate to do this right now, but I gotta run another errand. I won’t be gone long, I swear, but it’s-- it’s a Railroad thing.”

“Oh,” she said.

He held still, saying nothing, his hands still around hers, and it occurred to her that he was waiting for her to say something else, although she wasn’t sure what.

“Well,” she said, feeling her way. “How long will you be gone?”

“Not long,” he said. “A day or two.”

She nodded. “Well, I’ll miss you. But I suppose-- you have to make these trips. Frequently. As a-- an agent.”

“I don’t--” He swallowed. “You know I just moved in here a hot minute before you did, right, Elizabeth? I’m still figuring it all out. How it works. And what the Railroad and I even are, any more. Like you said-- we’re gonna-- do this together, right? Figure it out together?”

“Yes,” she said, and put her other hand over his to squeeze in turn. “That’s the plan. So you aren’t sure how often you’ll need to-- check in? With the Railroad?”

“Right,” he said.

She nodded. “Well, you haven’t disappeared on me without explanation yet, so--”

“That would be bad?” he asked, sounding sincere, as if he really wanted to know the answer.

“Yes,” she said, smiling a little. “That would be bad.”

He nodded. “OK. You gotta walk me through this, you know, doc. I haven’t done this-- um, in a while, and I have no idea what the fuck I’m doing, so.”

“This?” she teased gently. “What is ‘this,’ exactly, that you haven’t done in awhile?”

“Oh, yeah, good question,” he said. “Well, kissed somebody, for starters.”

“You’re doing extremely well at that,” she said. “Full marks.”

He grinned. “Yeah?”

“Yes.”

“OK, cool,” he said. “One less thing to worry about.”

“Are you worried?” she asked.

He nodded, immediately, vigorously. “Terrified. Of fucking this up.”

“You know, I’m not some-- goddess-- you need fear offending,” she pointed out. “If anything, I should be afraid of offending you."

He looked bewildered, and a little upset. "What? Why?"

"Your place here is more securely established than mine," she said.

“Uh, not really,” he said. “We’re both charity children. Are you scared of offending me?”

“No, not at all,” she said, and he seemed to relax slightly. “Because you’ve been unfailingly kind and reassuring and gentle with me since the moment we first spoke. Which leads me to believe that it’s I who am failing to do this right, since apparently you find me less trustworthy than I find you.”

“Uh, that’s not you,” he said, smiling a little, again. “I might’ve mentioned I don’t trust people real easily.”

“Well, practice makes perfect,” said Elizabeth.

He laughed. “Oh my God, doc. The way you prim up your mouth when you say these governessy things.”

“Nor,” she said, even more primly, on purpose, “need you be intimidated by my superior experience. I am not precisely the world’s leading expert on-- kissing. And related activities.”

“Oh, well, somebody told me practice makes perfect,” said Dee, and pulled her abruptly in close, making her gasp, and kissed her, and for a little while they didn’t say anything.

 

.........................................

It was still early enough, and X6-88 was so pleased to have good news for Dr. Binet-- well, goodish news-- that he decided to press on for Diamond City to report.

Dr. Sun let him go down into Dr. Binet's surgery cellar without demur, this time, and Dr. Binet, sitting in his surgery chair and reading a magazine, looked pleased to see him.

"Any news?" he asked.

"Yes, sir," said X6-88. "With Ms. Bowman's help, and that of the synths in her service, I've located Eve."

Dr. Binet leaped to his feet, the magazine splashing to the ground. "And?"

He was taut in every muscle, and X6-88 felt slightly nervous--emotional agitation made humans so unpredictable, and as far as X6-88 was able to understand, Dr. Binet's actions towards Eve had been substantively the same as Dr. Coulton's towards Y4-15, so he might collapse at any moment if he had the same type of sudden realization that Dr. Coulton had.

"She is willing to meet you at the Castle," he said.

Dr. Binet's jaw dropped. "At the Castle? She's there? With Bowman? For how long?"

"She traveled there for the purpose of meeting with you," X6-88 explained.

"I don't understand," said Dr. Binet. "Why didn't you just bring her here? Or come tell me where she was?"

"She didn't want to come to you," X6-88 answered, "and she didn't want you to know where she was. She agreed to meet at the Castle, where she would be safe."

Dr. Binet's face was a mask of shock. "Safe? Safe from me?"

"Yes, sir."

Dr. Binet shook his head, slowly, as if it were heavy. "She said that to you?"

"She said it to Ms. Bowman."

"But you spoke to her?” Dr. Binet asked. “To Eve?"

"No, sir," said X6-88.

"Then how do you know she's really there? Bowman could be lying to you.” Dr. Binet was agitated, angry. “Nothing more likely. She’s trying to lure me into a trap. I knew it was a mistake to allow you to tell her what I wanted.”

“Why would Ms. Bowman want to ‘lure you into a trap’?” asked X6-88.

Dr. Binet gestured sweepingly. “Why did she destroy the Institute?”

“She disagreed with its practices,” X6-88 answered. “Why would she bother to try to destroy you?”

Dr. Binet froze, staring at X6-88, who said, “In any case, sir, you have two alternatives. You can meet Eve at the Castle, and hear what she has to say to you, or you can decline the rendezvous. I’ve fulfilled your orders--” and Dr. Coulton’s-- “by locating her and offering you these options. Will there be anything else, sir?”

Dr. Binet was still staring at him, his lips slightly parted. X6-88 waited.

Finally Dr. Binet said, “What’s happened to you?”

It was a good question.

The answer began with the Institute’s destruction, and with the destruction, with it, of some part of X6-88, that had believed so implicitly in the Institute as the future of the Commonwealth. The inevitable, clean, bright future. The fact that Nora Bowman had been able to destroy it had--

--it had changed things, and he hadn’t wanted it to change things, and he’d dedicated his mind and heart and body and will all the more vehemently to the lost, beautiful cause of the Institute--

--and then watched it slowly dying, watched his charges waste and bicker and sicken and disperse--

--and now, there was the light in Michael’s eyes, there was the haven of the Castle, the laboratories Ms. Bowman had given the doctors, the flush of joy on Dr. Teasdale’s face--

“Come with me to the Castle, sir,” he said, almost gently. “I’ll protect you.”

Dr. Binet stared at him, and said, “How can I trust you now?”

It was a rebuke, but it didn’t sting. It was as if it struck the padding of his uniform and fell pointless to the ground. It even carried with it its own retort, and X6-88 answered, thinking of his long, tireless, impassioned service to the Institute, “How could you trust me before?”

“I--”

There were long moments of quiet, of thought, before Dr. Binet said, “All right. Take me to the Castle.”

Chapter Text

“OK,” said the General-- Nora, she’d begged Leah to call her Nora, pointing out that most of the settlers did, and Leah had agreed. Nora, then, was perched on the arm of a sofa in the little library, looking alert and happy. X9-21-- Michael-- sat on the sofa itself, and the heavy-browed synth with the scarred forehead sat on Michael’s other side. Emily had seated herself next to Leah on the opposite sofa, with the Shaun unit on her other side, and the other synths-- she couldn’t remember all their names-- sat nearby, on the sofas and chairs. Leah had never seen so many synths sitting on furniture, all looking so comfortable, as if there were absolutely nothing to be afraid of. It was surreal. Nothing about this place-- this Castle-- squared with anything Leah had ever experienced of reality.

“So,” Nora said, speaking to Leah, “now that X6 is on a mission to actually bring Dr. Binet here, I’ve got some questions I need to ask you. First of all-- I hope this isn’t an intrusive question, but would I be wrong in assuming Dr. Binet has your reset code?”

“No, you wouldn’t be wrong,” said Leah.

Nora nodded. “I mean, I figured. You were his-- you were in such close proximity, I figured-- OK. So, that being the case, he potentially poses more of a threat to you than is fully accounted for by his weedy little nerd arms.”

“Mother!” said Emily, sounding scandalized.

“I’m sorry,” said Nora. “I’m just so fucking over all these goddamn worthless entitled Institute scientists. Except Elizabeth Teasdale, God bless her weedy little nerd arms, she’s putting them to good use.”

Almost all the synths laughed, and Michael and the scarred one both smiled.

“Dr. Achanta’s not worthless,” said Shaun, protesting, and Nora said quickly, “Oh, of course she’s not, baby. And neither are Dr. Hastings and Mr. Benson and Dr. Weston. I’m being inaccurate and unfair, because I’m really mad at two Institute scientists right now. And also because I’m nervous about Dr. Binet maybe being dangerous to Leah. He might not be, but we have to be careful. Just like we were careful when Michael first got here, in case he did something to you or Emily, remember?”

“You wouldn’t even let me talk to him unless everybody was pointing a gun at him,” said Shaun, half in agreement, half in reproach, and Michael said, calmly, “It was a reasonable precaution, Shaun. Our mother didn’t yet know me well enough, at the time, to know that I would never harm you.”

“I told her, though,” said Shaun.

“That’s right,” said Nora. “You did. And that’s-- see, Leah, point being, you know Dr. Binet better than-- well, better than anybody else here, for sure. You lived with him. So this is kind of your call to make. We’re all here, with all the resources at our disposal, to try and keep you safe. But maybe you want to talk to him alone?”

The questioning intonation was pitched a little high with involuntary anxiety, which was-- rather endearing. Nora Bowman was not very good at playing it cool. In any case--

“No,” said Leah. “I don’t want to talk to him alone.”

Nora nodded again, looking relieved. “OK. Then who would you like in the room with you? I recommend Michael, because if Dr. Binet says, ‘Eve, auth--’ I can guarantee you Michael will have him on the ground crying for his mom before he gets anywhere near ‘orization.’”

“In that circumstance, I can silence him without harming him,” Michael said to Leah. “If you wish.”

Leah found herself swallowing hard. She was probably less afraid of coursers, on principle, than any other Institute synth, aside-- apparently-- from the Shaun unit. After her redesignation and assignment to Alan Binet’s personal service, the coursers had given her a wide berth, as if they felt she was somehow outside their jurisdiction. (Possibly they’d been given explicit orders to that effect. No one had ever really given her a complete rundown of the parameters of Alan’s project.) It wasn’t as viscerally frightening for her to be addressed by one as it might have been. But still. Michael’s grave courtesy, as if he were addressing an equal, offering a service, was-- disorienting. If you wish.

“Right,” said Nora. “Because ideally, you stay safe without us having to hurt Dr. Binet. He’s still under X6-88’s protection right now, and-- we can discuss, before we let him in, the circumstances under which he agrees to forfeit that protection, but for whatever reason the idea of Institute scientists dying and/or suffering seems to really bum X6-88 out, even if they’re complete dillholes. So-- if only for X6-88’s sake-- we’d like to, like Michael said, silence him without harming him. If it comes to that. And yeah, Michael’s definitely the one best qualified to do that. He’s my ninja warrior.” She smiled down at Michael, who looked up at her, still grave. “My laser-guided missile.”

“I thought I was your death ballerina,” said Michael, and Nora burst out laughing, and wobbled slightly on the sofa’s arm. He lifted his hand, and she caught it and gripped it, steadying herself, as quickly and easily as if they’d choreographed the action ahead of time.

“That too,” she said, holding the hand tightly for a moment before letting go. “Thank you, son. So. Leah? What do you think? If you’re not comfortable with a courser protecting you-- I can sit in myself, except my body isn’t the precision instrument Michael’s is, so I can’t promise Binet won’t lose some teeth in the process of being shut up, if I’m the one shutting him up. Or if you don’t want me listening in either, I can put some armed Minutemen in there with you two. What are you thinking?”

What are you thinking? The question had a very different intonation-- and a very different meaning-- from the many times she’d heard it in Alan’s voice. What are you thinking of, my darling?

How lucky I am.

What would have happened if she’d snapped back at him, Mind your own goddamn business? She’d never particularly wanted to find out.

She thought seriously, for a moment, not of actually snapping angrily at Nora Bowman-- who’d done nothing to warrant such a thing-- but of what would happen if she did. Tried to picture the woman’s reaction-- this strange woman, who’d destroyed the Institute to free the synths, who’d gathered these synths together in her fortress, who’d obeyed Emily’s instructions at the Warwick settlement, who’d apologized and tried to explain herself to the Shaun unit just now, to whom Michael had spoken what was obviously a joke between the two of them, who was waiting now with what appeared to be uncomplicated patience for Leah’s answer to her question. Her offer. Who’d said, I hope this isn’t an intrusive question, but--

Leah was good at reading humans. It was a survival skill, in the Institute, especially for someone in her unique position. Coursers were harder to read-- by design-- and, although she didn’t have any reason to distrust Michael, he also didn’t have the wide-open, vulnerable, hopeful face the human woman beside him did. Leah was inclined to believe the scenario she pictured, if she were to speak sharply to that face: that it would crumple not into anger, or even disappointment, but into dismayed apology. What did I do wrong? I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to--

Like Liam. The only human she’d ever trusted.

“I think,” she said, “that I would like to have both of you present.”

Nora’s face lit up like an activated terminal screen. “Both of-- me and Michael?”

Leah couldn’t help smiling back at her. “Yes.”

“Great,” said Nora, beaming. “Fantastic. Yeah, between the two of us, we should be able to handle-- anything. Right, son?”

Michael held up his hand again, palm flat and pointed towards the human this time, and Nora high-fived him.

…………………………………………………………………..

 

It was very late in the day, after the evening meal, when, to some considerable fluster in the Castle-- nobody had actually expected them until tomorrow-- X6-88 and Alan arrived.

Nora and Michael both went outside to meet them. Emily took Leah to what she called “the conference room,” and asked her if she felt comfortable having her conversation with Dr. Binet there.

“Yes,” said Leah, sitting down at the table.

Emily sat down in a chair next to her. “Are you nervous?”

“Of course,” said Leah.

Emily nodded, but said nothing else. She looked oddly pale, as if she, too, were nervous about something. Leah’s welfare, possibly.

“Emily,” said Leah impulsively. “I’m so glad you’re all right.”

Emily looked up and smiled at her, that thousand-watt smile that transformed her face.

“Thank you,” she said. “I’m glad you’re all right, too… Leah?”

“Yes?”

“Do you mind if I stay?” Emily asked. “And listen?”

Leah considered the girl carefully: her pallor, the tentative tone of her voice. She considered asking why, and then changed her mind. “Not if you’d like to.”

“I would,” said Emily. “I’d like to hear-- what you say to him.”

Leah nodded, and they sat there in silence, each thinking her own thoughts, until footsteps came on the stone floor and the door creaked and they filed in: Nora, Michael, X6-88, and Alan.

Alan stopped still on the threshold, staring at Leah.

She looked back at him. He looked considerably older than the actual passage of time would have indicated. His hair had gone greyer, his face sagged somehow; he’d lost weight, and confidence, too.

She looked different, too, she knew. Although, oddly, she didn’t actually know her new face very well. Certainly not nearly as well as she’d known her old face, which she used to stare at in the pristine mirror of the bathroom in the Binets’ living quarters, looking for clues. What fascinated him so much, that he sat staring at her, entranced, dreamy: that he’d brought her here, named her, set her apart like this.

There were no mirrors at the Warwick farm, and no reason to look into them if there had been. No one ever gazed at her any more, so she didn’t need to gaze at herself. She didn’t know what Alan was looking at, now.

“Eve?” he asked, finally, in a small, uncertain voice.

“Hello, Alan,” she said.

Her voice, at least, hadn’t changed, and he must have recognized it; he caught his breath, and stepped forward, and stopped.

Nora and Michael had stopped, too, short of the table. Michael was watching Alan, without visible expression, but hardly blinking. Nora’s eyes were on Emily, who smiled at her, without rising; Nora looked surprised and a little worried, but said nothing.

X6-88 stood beside Alan, watching him, too.

Leah wondered what agreement they’d all reached, regarding-- as Nora had put it-- the circumstances under which Alan would forfeit X6-88’s protection. Wondered what Alan had agreed to. With or without X6-88’s protection, he’d made himself vulnerable, to come here and meet her, in the very stronghold of the Institute’s destroyer. He must have wanted to see her very much.

“Sit down,” said Leah, surprising Alan, and herself, a little. But it was her invitation to issue, wasn’t it? Today.

He hesitated, and then obeyed, pulling out a chair opposite her and Emily. He looked curiously at Emily, and then back at Leah, her new face.

“I’ve missed you,” he said hoarsely. “So much. For so long. I didn’t think-- I’d ever see you again.”

She nodded. “Here I am.”

“You look so different,” he said. “Why did you change your face?”

“To avoid awkward conversations,” she said. “And yet here we are.”

He stared at her. “I-- Eve, I don’t understand. You’re angry with me? You stayed away-- for so long-- and now, this, these-- guards, as if-- as if you think I’d hurt you? You can’t really believe, can you-- my darling-- that I’d ever-- harm you, in any way? Was I ever unkind? Did I frighten you, somehow? I didn’t-- please believe me, I never meant you to be-- afraid.”

“I know,” she said. “And no, you were never unkind. You never hurt me. You never even raised your voice to me.”

“Then why--” Alan was studying her as intently as if her new face contained the secret source code of the universe. “Why are you-- you are angry, aren’t you?”

“No,” she answered, sincerely. She couldn’t find anything like anger in her heart for this desperate, unhappy, bewildered person in front of her. “I’m not angry with you, Alan. It’s not that. I just don’t love you. I never loved you.”

His face greyed and sagged, as if he’d aged another five years in the moment it took him to hear and parse those last nine words. Poor Alan.

“But--” he began, and trailed off.

“Did it ever even occur to you to wonder whether I loved you back?” she asked, not ungently. She wasn’t trying to be cruel; she was genuinely curious about his answer. She’d always wondered. “Did you think I’d fallen in love with you when you fell in love with me? At the same magical moment? Or did you think that I’d come to love you, simply because you were so kind to me? Or did it just-- not cross your mind, that I might not? Because you loved me so much, and you could have me, whether I loved you or not?”

“You never--” He sounded as if he’d choked on the next word, whatever it was going to be, and it didn’t make it out. She waited, for a moment, and suggested, “Protested? Said no? No, I didn’t. What if I had?”

“I would have-- accepted it,” said Alan. “I would never have--”

“I would have been wiped and reprogrammed,” said Leah. “Not on your orders-- I believe you-- but you’d already submitted your proposal for the ‘personal synth’ project when you approached me, Alan. Do you think the Institute would have taken kindly to your subsequent report that the synth in question had turned you down? Synths were wiped and reprogrammed for speech defects. For slowness. Do you think I would have survived long after an incident of open defiance? If Dr. Volkert had snapped his fingers and told me to come be injected with an experimental medical serum, do you think I’d have dared say no to that? I was a damn sight less scared to say yes to being your experimental comfort object.”

“Eve--” There were tears in Alan’s eyes. “I’m-- I’m sorry. I never meant to-- I never realized--”

“You never thought,” Leah concluded. “You were so pleased with yourself for having persuaded the Institute to change my designation to a name. You never even thought I might like to choose my own name.”

“You don’t like ‘Eve’?”

“I named myself Leah,” she said. “After I got out.”

“Leah--?”

“For Liam,” she said.

Nora made a tiny noise, a little intake of breath, not much, but enough to draw Leah’s attention. Leah didn’t look up, though, and Alan didn’t, either. Maybe he hadn’t heard it.

“I was sorry to hear he’d died,” Leah said to Alan. “He was a sweet boy. I think he would have been a good man, if he’d lived. Sometimes I wish I’d told you what he was doing, with the synths. With the Railroad. Maybe if I had, you two would have been able to talk about it. He was so afraid you’d find out. Afraid you’d be ashamed of him. Turn him in.”

Alan cried out, “I would never-- never--”

“I didn’t think you would,” said Leah. “But he swore me to secrecy. I didn’t want to break his trust. He loved me, too, you know. Like a mother. Maybe I loved him like a son. I wouldn’t really know.”

Alan’s face dropped to the table. He wrapped his arms around his head, and cried out into them, a wail of such naked anguish and despair that Leah felt momentarily guilty, for having hurt him so badly. Destroyed his lovely web of illusions.

Only momentarily, though. His illusions hadn’t been her idea, or her fault. Nor had it been her fault they’d persisted for so long. He’d risked only heartbreak, if he’d dared face the truth; she, if she’d ever dared speak it to him, would have risked much worse.

“I’m sorry, Alan,” she said, anyway, not as an apology but as an expression of sympathy. It would have been hard to see a fellow being in such pain, and not feel sorry. “I’m sorry about Liam, and I’m sorry about Eve, too. I’m not sure who you thought she was, but I think you really did love her. The idea of her.”

Alan didn’t raise his head, or speak.

Leah had finished with what she had to say. She didn’t want to belabor any of her points, or hurt Alan any more. She was silent. So was the rest of the room.

When Alan finally did lift his head, his face was wet with tears, but oddly calm.

“Thank you,” he said to Leah. “Thank you for meeting with me. And for telling me the truth. I’m-- very, very sorry-- for everything I-- every way I wronged you. I--” He looked up at X6-88. “I’m ready to leave now.”

Emily spoke, suddenly, from beside Leah.

“What are you going to do now?” she asked Alan.

Alan blinked, and said, “Who are you?”

“I was unit Y4-15, Dr. Binet,” said Emily. “Your son got me out of the Institute, when I was scheduled to be wiped. Leah’s right-- he was a sweet young man.”

“I know,” said Alan, and wiped at his face with his hand. “But he’s gone. Everything I ever cared about-- ever loved--”

“You can still honor his memory,” said Emily. “You can still care about the things he cared about. You can still try to do better for other synths than you did for Eve.”

Alan stared at her. “What are you talking about?”

Emily said, with an odd, fierce intensity, “You can help my brother X6-88 come home.”

Chapter Text

Dr. Binet stared at Emily for what seemed like a long few moments of silence before he said, “What do you mean?”

X6-88 was grateful that, despite Emily’s use of his designation, neither she nor Dr. Binet-- nor Eve-- had turned to look at him. He didn’t look to see whether Ms. Bowman or Michael was looking at him, either. He was focused on protecting Dr. Binet-- from physical threat; he’d more or less given up on protecting any Institute scientists from emotional trauma.

“You’ve been making your own way in the world,” said Emily to Dr. Binet. There was no trace of fear in her face or voice. “I don’t know how, and I don’t really care, but you’ve stayed alive all this time without X6-88 looking after you. Or any courser. You’ve done that much for him already-- you haven’t burdened him with your existence. Do more, now. Get your colleagues off his back. So he can come home to us, and belong to us, the way he should have a long time ago.”

Dr. Binet sounded more bewildered than angry when he said, “Who are you to speak to me like this?”

“I’m Emily Bowman,” Emily answered. “Who are you?”

Dr. Binet rose to his feet abruptly. X6-88’s gaze did flick involuntarily, then, to Ms. Bowman and Michael, in case they interpreted the sudden movement as a threat, but neither one moved. Emily did, though; she stood up, too, facing Dr. Binet across the table.

Then Eve did, too-- Leah-- and Dr. Binet, who’d seemed on the verge of turning away, froze.

“Are you going to walk away, now?” Leah asked. “Did you hear a word I said, just now? Did you mean it when you said you were sorry?”

“Eve--”

”Leah,” she said, firmly.

“Leah.” Dr. Binet’s voice sounded strained. “Leah, then. There’s no way I can ever-- undo-- what I did. Wrong. With you.”

“No,” said Leah, “but-- you can do better, now. Like Emily said.”

“How so?” Dr. Binet did turn, now, and looked at X6-88, but not as if he expected anything from him. More as if he were checking to see that X6-88 was still the same shape as before. He examined him briefly, and then turned back to Leah and Emily. “I have nothing to do with my-- former colleagues. Or any demands they may make on X6-88.”

“That’s a cop-out, Alan,” said Leah, and she sounded, for the first time since they’d entered the room, angry. “You’re better than this. Or you can be, if you decide to be. Now that you have all the facts.”

“What do you want from me?” Dr. Binet demanded. “You want me to support Dr. Coulton and Dr. Loken? How wealthy do you think I am? I’m barely surviving, myself.”

“I want you to go back to them,” said Emily, and Dr. Binet’s gaze snapped back to her, disoriented, as if he were in a fight with two separate assailants, having trouble predicting which direction the blows were coming from, “and show them what it looks like to be a functioning human. Not just Dr. Coulton and Dr. Loken. All the scientists. I want you to demonstrate to them that it’s possible for someone like you to eke out a living on the surface on your own efforts, without depending on a courser. And tell them they should, that they don’t deserve to have the coursers obeying them, and serving them, and sacrificing their own lives and their own happiness for them. If they don't want to accept my mother's help, or they don't trust her, fine, they don't have to. But they're not entitled to the coursers, any more than you were entitled to Eve. Just because you could have her.”

She was pale, her voice trembling with emotion. Ms. Bowman was watching her. Michael's eyes were still on Dr. Binet. They were both very still.

“What makes you think they’ll listen to me?” Dr. Binet asked.

“I don’t know if they’ll listen or not,” said Emily. “I just want you to tell them. Then you can go back to living your own life. Just-- do something. For us. You owe us. That much, at least.”

“It’s true,” said Leah. “You owe me, Alan. And you owe Emily, for talking me into this meeting. And for everything you ever let happen to her, and could have stopped, if you’d been paying more attention, or made yourself more trustworthy. And you owe the coursers, for everything X6-88 has done for you, and everything the Institute did to them. And, you know what else, you owe it to yourself. To be better. To make good.”

It went against X6-88's sense of decorum to speak up unbidden in a conversation that involved a human, but-- this conversation only barely involved Dr. Binet. Speaking up would be less like interrupting, and more like saving him.

"This isn't necessary," he said to Emily and Leah. "I'll find accommodation for the other doctors. It isn't Dr. Binet's responsibility."

"No," said Dr. Binet quietly. "No, X6-88, they're right. I do owe-- All right. You’re right. I will."

“Thank you,” said Emily, and sat back down, rather suddenly.

Ms. Bowman moved, not so abruptly as to trip X6-88’s defensive reflexes on Dr. Binet’s behalf, but fairly quickly, to stand just beside Emily’s chair, and Emily turned to wrap her arms around the human’s waist and lean against her belly. Ms. Bowman’s hands came to rest, one on Emily’s head, one between her shoulder blades.

Dr. Binet made no sound, but he turned from them, as if he couldn't bear the sight, and took a stumbling step towards X6-88, who reached out automatically to steady him. Dr. Binet clutched blindly at his arm, and X6-88 held still, bearing the human's weight for a few moments, until he recovered his balance. He still clung to X6-88’s arm, though.

"Take me to them," he said. "To Julian and Max. And then-- I'll do my best."

Ms. Bowman said, calmly, after a moment, her hands still on Emily's back and her head, “OK. It’s getting a little late, but-- X6, I imagine you're eager to get back to your humans and make sure they haven't set fire to each other somehow."

"Yes, ma'am," said X6-88. He didn't particularly relish the thought of traveling alone with a helpless human after dark, but it was the fault of his own poor planning, his eagerness to bring news of his success to Dr. Binet right away, rather than waiting until morning. And even if it had been safe for him to leave Dr. Coulton and Dr. Loken alone overnight, to spend the night here, Dr. Binet was probably neither willing nor-- considering Leah's presence-- welcome to spend the night here.

"May I go, too?" Michael asked Ms. Bowman.

Ms. Bowman looked at him. "You mean, just to walk X6 home? Or to get started on your guys' trip?"

"Both, ma'am," said Michael. "I would imagine X6-88-- and Dr. Binet, if he intends to accompany us as well-- would like to start as soon as possible in the morning."

Ms. Bowman was worrying at her lip with her teeth. "Michael-- you’re sure it’s safe? This whole-- tour of the safehouses? For you, I mean."

Michael smiled at her.

“I’m not careless with anything that matters to you,” he said. “Including my own safety.”

Ms. Bowman smiled back, but she said, "That's not a yes."

"I have no intention of behaving in a way my-- former colleagues-- would find threatening," said Michael. "And-- even a year ago-- I was the only one who was ever foolhardy enough to make an attempt on your property. I would imagine my own example will serve as a powerful reminder of what's likely to happen to those who try."

"They're gonna get adopted and adored?" Ms. Bowman suggested.

Michael smiled again. X6-88 thought, irresistibly, of what he’d said at the Boston Bugle building: It is my privilege to serve her, and my greatest joy. He wondered if Ms. Bowman-- a human, after all-- fully realized just how happy and relaxed Michael was in her presence, how he radiated an ease and a lightness of spirit that X6-88 had rarely seen even in humans, let alone in synths, and certainly not in coursers. In comparison to a human, or an untrained, emotionally excitable synth like Emily, Michael might not be considered particularly demonstrative. X6-88 found himself hoping that, in addition to valuing his combat skills and trusting his loyalty, Ms. Bowman fully understood and appreciated the extent of her "son's" devotion.

"If that is what they see," Michael said, answering Ms. Bowman, "then they are probably ready to come home to us."

He glanced at X6-88, and then at Dr. Binet, whose hand still rested on X6-88's arm.

"As for the humans," he added, "they may not believe me, but they have no reason to doubt X6-88 when he says you offer them safety and support. And X6-88 has witnessed your generosity, and your-- restraint-- firsthand. And with Dr. Binet's support, as well-- They should understand that I pose no threat."

Ms. Bowman nodded. "OK, sure, they should. But if there's one thing I've learned since waking up in the post-apocalyptic wasteland, it's never to underestimate the potential dumbassery of people you'd think would know better. If they try to use your reset code--?"

"Only Dr. Ayo and Father himself had access to recall codes for active coursers," said Michael.

"But they could've told them to somebody."

"It's highly unlikely, ma'am," said Michael, "and if any of the surviving Institute humans did have knowledge of my reset code, it's even less likely that they would risk incurring your anger by using it. They didn't harm Dee, after all, when he approached them in your name."

"Dee's a human," said Ms. Bowman. "Not somebody they think rightfully belongs to them. And 'highly unlikely' means the same thing as 'remotely possible.' "

Michael nodded.

"Yes, ma'am," he said. "There is a possibility, however small, that I may die, or that my mind may be destroyed, or that in the course of defending myself from either of those eventualities, I may kill a courser, and/or permanently alienate one or more of the coursers. I consider the risk-- with X6-88's protection-- small enough to be worth taking. Not only for your sake, but for my own. And I will point out that you take comparable risks with your own life, regularly and frequently, for your settlers, and that I am not always allowed to accompany you and defend you. But if you forbid me to take this risk, I will obey."

Ms. Bowman looked at him for a long moment without speaking, and he met her gaze steadily, without flinching, and without any of the other, less obvious signs of trepidation.

Then she held out one arm to him-- the other still rested lightly on Emily's back-- and he came forward. When he was close enough, she wrapped her arm around him and pulled him against her.

"Dammit," she said. "Why are all my kids so goddamn brave?"

Michael put an arm around her, too.

"It's inexplicable," he said. "Unless our father was brave?"

Ms. Bowman made a little choked noise, and then laughed, and said, "Yeah, and he was a smartass, too."

She squeezed him tightly, then let go, and he stepped back a little, his face grave, his eyes fixed on her face.

"OK," she said. "So. Emily, baby, you OK? Can you take Leah to the kitchen, get her some dinner?"

"When are you going to take me home?" Leah asked.

"Oh." Ms. Bowman looked dismayed. "Whenever you want, of course, but-- can you at least spend one more night?"

"If it's no imposition," said Leah.

Emily, who'd finally pulled away from her "mother" when the human addressed her directly, laughed a little, as she stood.

"Leah, nothing would make her happier than if you stayed forever," she said. "Or the rest of us, either. Come get some food."

Leah nodded, and she and Emily approached the door. X8-88 had to step back, guiding Dr. Binet with him, to clear their path to the door. Leah stopped by Dr. Binet.

"Thank you, Alan," she said to him. "For listening to me. And for agreeing to try to do as Emily's asked you."

She didn't wait for Dr. Binet to answer before she and Emily left the room.

“You,” said Ms. Bowman to Michael. “Go pack whatever you need for the trip. And talk to Danse."

"Yes, mother," Michael answered, before he, too, passed by X6-88 and Dr. Binet, and left the room.

Ms. Bowman sat down at the table.

"Dr. Binet," she said. "Do you want to sit down?"

Dr. Binet turned to look at her, dropping X6-88's arm as he did, and them stepped forward and sat back down, facing her, as he'd faced Leah.

"You, too, X6," she said, looking up at him.

He hesitated to obey. It wasn't that he didn't trust Ms. Bowman not to attack Dr. Binet unprovoked, or that he thought Dr. Binet would make a foolhardy move, but-- he didn't want to sit down at a table with two humans. It seemed inappropriate.

"Or not," she said, to his relief. "Dr. Binet--"

Dr. Binet looked at her, his face expressionless.

She said, with the same somewhat reserved care with which she'd spoken to the other scientists, "I know you have no reason to give a shit what I think, and if you want to cuss me out, that's honestly OK. But-- you impressed me, just now. It's not everybody who responds that well to-- painful truth. I just wanted to say that."

Dr. Binet nodded.

"Thank you for-- arranging this meeting," he said to her, in a quiet, tired voice. "I'm glad she's-- safe. I-- not that it's any of my business, but I hope she does stay here. With you."

"That's-- really nice of you, Dr. Binet," said Ms. Bowman. "Thank you." She hesitated. "Do you think-- can I ask? Do you think Michael's right, that probably nobody has his reset code?"

Dr. Binet seemed to consider.

"Courser recall codes were very tightly guarded," he said finally. "For obvious reasons. And X9-21 was never considered the kind of behavioral problem, or risk, that would have warranted his recall code being given out. I doubt even Dr. Ayo knew it offhand. Father, perhaps. He could be a bit-- obsessive. But in terms of living memory?" He gave her a wan smile. "If I'd known it, I certainly would have used it a long time ago. To prevent his attempt on the Castle."

"Heh," said Ms. Bowman. "Yeah. That could've gone a lot worse for you guys."

"X9-21 was always impetuous," said Dr. Binet. "But no one ever questioned his loyalty."

There was a pause before Ms. Bowman blurted, "I'm sorry about-- Liam."

"Thank you," said Dr. Binet. "That's kind of you to say."

Ms. Bowman looked nonplussed. "But I-- I mean--"

"Oh," said Dr. Binet. "You mean because of the Railroad? Getting him mixed up in-- no. Liam wasn't your responsibility. He was mine." He produced another small, effortful smile. "You've got enough to answer for. Your own son-- Don't try to answer for mine. That isn't your burden to bear."

Tears spilled from Ms. Bowman's eyes, silently and suddenly, as if from a tap that had been turned on. Dr. Binet observed them, but said nothing.

"Thank you," she said, thickly, after another moment. "That's-- kind. Of you. To say."

Dr. Binet nodded.

Ms. Bowman said, "I can get you something to eat. If you want."

"Why not?" said Dr. Binet.

She got up, and went out, silently, tears still trickling down her cheeks, her breathing rough. Dr. Binet looked up at X6-88.

"I don't know you at all," he said. "Not really. Or why you did this for me. Found her, and brought me here. But-- in any case-- thank you."

"You're welcome, sir," said X6-88, and then Dr. Binet allowed a silence to fall, and X6-88 stood still, waiting, quiet, momentarily at ease.

Chapter Text

Michael was-- within the parameters of normal self-control for someone who had undergone courser training-- almost alarmingly exuberant as he, X6-88, and Dr. Binet set off into the gathering dusk. There was a spring in his step, an energy to his demeanor; he gave the impression of deliberately tempering his pace to Dr. Binet’s. X6-88, who was very tired, was glad Dr. Binet’s pace was there to be considered, so that Michael didn’t have to consciously slow himself down for X6-88, or X6-88 push himself harder to keep up with Michael.

It was tempting to feel self-pity, that it was unfair that Michael was so much more energetic, so much better rested and fed in general, but it wasn’t unfair, of course. They’d simply made different choices, and Michael’s had been better rewarded. To date.

X6-88 didn’t let himself dwell too much on what might be the outcome of this trip. It was maladaptive, in the field, to-- well, fantasize. Daydream. Lose oneself in thoughts of a possible pleasant future, and neglect the task at hand. It was getting dark outside, and they were still several hours from Ticonderoga, especially at Dr. Binet's pace.

"Do you know how many safehouses are still extant?" Michael asked X6-88, after a few minutes.

"No," said X6-88. "I haven't been in communication with any of them since before you left."

Michael nodded, and turned to Dr. Binet. "Have you?"

"No," said Dr. Binet.

"Sir," said Michael, suddenly, as if he'd remembered something. "I apologize, sir. I associate with so many fellow synths on a regular basis, I've largely fallen out of the habit of using honorifics, except with my mother." He looked at X6-88. "And I had forgotten that I should be addressing you with the same honorific. Please forgive my disrespect."

"What are you talking about?" Dr. Binet asked him. "I'm pretty sure 'Minutemen general's darling' outranks 'property of a defunct and universally hated organization.’"

"All rank is context-specific, sir," Michael answered, with grave deference. "I'm undertaking this mission under X6-88's auspices, and under his authority."

"Do you consider yourself under my authority?" X6-88 asked him, surprised.

"To a degree, sir," Michael answered, the honorific-- and the subtle shift in his demeanor, as if he really had forgotten, and then remembered, his rank relative to X6-88-- seeming utterly without irony. "Insofar as your orders do not conflict with any standing orders I have from my mother, I will obey you for the duration of this mission."

X6-88 frowned. The offer was unexpected; furthermore, the caveat was unclear. "What are your standing orders?"

"To protect myself, and my family, and other innocent lives where possible," said Michael. "To kill only when it seems necessary, according to my own best judgement, to achieve those goals. Since my mother considers you and the other coursers members of our family, I'll do my utmost, of course, to avoid any situation that would cause harm to any courser. To which end, obedience to you should help me avoid seeming to-- pose a challenge."

"Will you obey the humans I obey?" X6-88 asked.

Michael examined him for a moment before he said, "Do you expect that of me?"

"I have no idea what to expect of you," said X6-88 truthfully.

To his surprise, Dr. Binet laughed.

"It's good to know I'm not the only one bewildered," he said. "If you'd asked me to predict the effect on a former courser of living with Nora Bowman for more than a year, it... wouldn't have been this."

"What would it have been, sir?" Michael asked..

"I don't know," said Dr. Binet. "Uncontrolled arrogance, I suppose. The SRB always made it sound like if we ever let you sit down in a human's presence, or said 'well done, unit' overly warmly, you'd develop the god complex they'd worked so hard to condition out of you. What with you all being selected for strength and brilliance, trained in tactics, martial arts, weapons, and ruthlessness, and controlled only by your recall codes and your unquestioning loyalty to our cause."

That was... an interesting way for X6-88 to hear himself described.

Dr. Binet added, looking at Michael, "And I doubt your-- 'mother'-- has done much to reinforce that loyalty. Considering that she destroyed the Institute to set you free. I would have expected you to--" He waved a hand, vaguely, in the air. "Become drunk with freedom, I suppose. Surely she doesn't impose much in the way of discipline."

Michael smiled, widely enough that his teeth showed.

"She imposes nothing in the way of discipline," he agreed, sounding fond, and then added, more seriously, "Either our conditioning was more durable than the SRB realized, or-- possibly-- they were mistaken about how best to keep us docile."

"How does Bowman ‘keep you docile,' then?" Dr. Binet asked. "Don't tell me love and kindness."

His voice was bitter.

"In the absence of an external power structure threatening punishment for noncompliance," Michael answered, mildly, "love and kindness may carry more weight than... otherwise."

Dr. Binet looked at him for a moment, as they walked, and then said, "Did your 'mother' teach you to make pointed little remarks about your former masters?"

"No, sir," said Michael. "My mother has taught me to speak the truth, as I understand it, without fear."

"If that's the case," said Dr. Binet, "I suppose I'm getting off lightly, considering."

There was a brief silence after that, before X6-88 said to Michael, "You didn't answer my question. Will you obey the humans I obey?"

"Do you order me to obey them?" Michael asked. "Subject to my already named condition?"

X6-88 had to consider that. Since the humans in question, most immediately, were Dr. Coulton and Dr. Loken--

"You are not to offer them any sort of physical violence or threat," he said, and, thinking of the way Michael had seized and slightly manhandled Dr. Loken at the Castle, "Even one that causes them no actual harm or pain."

"Understood, sir," said Michael.

"And you are to show restraint when you--" X6-88 paused, and amended, "You are not to speak to them. Unless they ask you a direct question, and then you are to answer-- politely."

Michael smiled at him. "Yes, sir."

This deference was both more, and less, disconcerting than the last time they had interacted like this, during the months following X9-21's disgrace and demotion, when X6-88 had given orders and X9-21 had answered with "yes, sir" and "understood, sir," and obeyed. It was less disconcerting-- less distressing-- because Michael's high spirits now seemed absolutely unaffected; instead of the lowered head and quiet, toneless voice and trudging step, he spoke and moved with confidence and vigor, even as he acknowledged his subordinate position. His humility, while apparently genuine, carried with it no trace of humiliation.

It was more disconcerting, on the other hand-- Michael's demeanor, which seemed, if anything, buoyed at the prospect of obedience to X6-88's orders-- because it wasn't part of the order of things, as X6-88 understood them.

But then, what was, any more?

“You’re awfully damn cheerful,” said Dr. Binet to Michael, who gave a little bow of his head, but didn’t answer until Dr. Binet added, “Why is that?”

Michael answered, promptly and politely, "I am enjoying X6-88's company, sir, and looking forward to being reunited with my other-- with the other coursers."

"I was never under the impression that you were such a tight-knit group," said Dr. Binet, and then, "Were you?"

"No, sir," said Michael. "I used to take the presence of the others very much for granted, as I did many of my other privileges before the destruction of the Institute. But as with other comforts, deprivation has sharpened my sense of its value."

Dr. Binet looked at X6-88, who said, "I understand the sentiment, sir," and added-- Michael's daring must be infectious-- "Do you miss the company of your own kind, as well?"

"I suppose I do," said Dr. Binet, seemingly unoffended. "Among other things. Do you two miss the Institute, then?"

"Yes, sir," said X6-88.

"There are things I miss about it," said Michael, when Dr. Binet looked at him.

"What do you miss?" Dr. Binet asked. "Besides the other coursers."

"The structure," said Michael thoughtfully. "Not the physical structure-- although I am sometimes nostalgic for it, by association-- but the structure of my life. I was never-- rarely-- in doubt. I have had to-- make the acquaintance of-- uncertainty. It was easier, in the Institute, to know when I was acting correctly. Infractions, and inadequacies, were promptly punished, so that I could learn to improve. And I had fewer-- options. And, therefore, could make fewer mistakes."

"You miss that?" Dr. Binet asked.

"Yes, sir," said Michael. "But if I could alter the past with a wish, and restore the Institute, and reclaim my place there, I would not do so. I would lose too much, that I value too deeply.”

“Like what?” Dr. Binet asked.

“My family,” said Michael. “My mother's love, and that of my siblings, and my-- boyfriend."

There was a brief pause before Dr. Binet said to X6-88, "Did X9-21 just say 'my boyfriend'?"

“I believe he--” X6-88 looked at Michael. “You’re referring to unit M7-97?”

“Yes, sir,” said Michael. “He and I are-- dating.”

“Well,” said Dr. Binet. “I’m almost sure now that this is all a very strange dream. I’m just not sure if I drank too much of the Bobrov brothers’ liquor and am going to wake up on the floor in the Dugout Inn, or sampled one too many of Brendan Volkert’s experimental plant hybrids and am going to wake up next to--”

He broke off, and silence fell.

How strange it must be, to dream. To periodically have to interrogate your own experience of reality, to see whether or not it was one of your regularly recurring hallucinations.

But we, my brother, watchers in the night--

Michael halted, suddenly, and held up a hand. X6-88 heard it at almost the same moment-- the click and pad of wild dogs’ feet.

“I’ll cover Dr. Binet,” he said.

“Yes, sir,” said Michael, and moved swiftly around the corner of the nearby abandoned building, and X6-88 heard gunshots, and yelps, and then silence. When X6-88 turned the corner, Michael had produced a knife, and was expertly stripping the dogs’ corpses for meat.

They stopped to rest only once-- X6-88 mindful of Dr. Binet’s fatigue, but mindful, too, of the lateness of the hour and the perils of darkness.

When, a mile from the Safehouse, Dr. Binet stumbled and almost fell, Michael was at his side at once, offering an arm.

Dr. Binet took it, and said, quietly, “I’d like to wake up now.”

“Not much farther, sir,” said X6-88, wishing he could imitate Ms. Bowman’s cheerful, encouraging tones. You’re doing so great. Can you stand it for thirty more minutes?

Dr. Binet nodded, leaning on Michael’s arm.

 

…………………………………….

“Do you want to go see the baby?”

It was an innocent, predictable question. New baby at the Castle. Exciting times for everyone.

Dee was having an exciting enough time as it was-- although his Railroad trip with Michael was being postponed, Michael apparently having gotten tired of his dithering and opted to take off on a buddy comedy with X6-88 and yet another Institute scientist.

But everyone was all atwitter over the new baby. He hadn’t been here when Naveena was born; probably it had been the same deal, everyone going nuts for the miracle of new life. Apparently this one was a boy. Dee had heard that much, and that its name was Miles, and that it was healthy.

“I’ll take that as a no,” said Elizabeth.

They were sitting on top of the wall, dimly illuminated by the streetlights Nora and her Minutemen had rigged up every few yards. Nora said the extra power it took was justified by the safety hazard of having guards walk the top of the wall in the dark. Too much danger of falling.

Especially with Elizabeth right here, the light lovingly illuminating half her face, like a painting by Caravaggio.

He still had the presence of mind not to say such a cheesy line out loud, but only barely. Send help. The Minutemen. The Silver Shroud. Anyone.

“It’s not that I don’t want to,” he said, his throat unexpectedly tight. “It’s just.”

“You don’t have to,” said Elizabeth, looking at him with concern. Looking into his eyes. She’d told him he couldn’t see anything with the shades on, in the dark, and no one else could see anything if he took them off.

And he really didn’t mind her looking into his eyes, that was the crazy thing. And he didn’t mind-- telling her things.

“The last time I hung out with a baby,” he said, “it didn’t go so well.”

She smiled, at first, and he guessed it did sound like the beginning of one of his stories. For a second he thought about turning it into one-- see, that baby turned out to be the one chosen of prophecy to defeat-- but she’d already sobered, watching him.

“No?” she asked.

“I mean, nothing tragic happened,” he said. “The baby’s fine. Thriving. I just-- some emotional shit kinda came up.”

She nodded, looking sober, and it occurred to him that she probably thought he’d lost a child or something, something he’d deserve to grieve over, and that he should tell her--

“I used to think,” he said, carefully and measuredly, because despite all his tough mental talk about not minding her seeing, if he cried in front of her right now he was just going to dive headfirst off the wall and hope it was high enough to dash his brains out on impact, “when I was younger-- a lot younger-- that I’d-- have children. Of my own.”

She didn’t interrupt, didn’t say it wasn’t too late or ask what had changed, just sat there, her expression attentive.

“It seemed like things were gonna be-- simple,” he said, feeling his way. Too dark to even see to the end of the sentence, but he could about make it to the next couple of words, and you could keep going that way, even if it was slow. “It seemed like-- see, I’d been a real piece of shit, for awhile. But I’d put all that behind me, see. I’d turned a new leaf. As they say. And my life-- I was going to-- start over. Be good. Do everything right, this time. I thought it was gonna be--” He took a breath. “That simple. But--”

She was still listening, quiet, her hands folded in her lap.

“Shit caught up with me,” he said. “Because-- it always does? I guess? If you don’t deal with it, it just… waits, and follows you, and… waits. And then it comes back around. And it--”

He took a deep breath. Swallowed. Wondered if she could see the glisten of his eyes.

“Have you dealt with it now?” she asked.

He laughed a little. “I mean, clearly not.”

“That isn’t clear to me,” she said, in that schoolteacherish way she had, that inexplicably charmed him so thoroughly. “Just because you think about the past, and still grieve, doesn’t mean you haven’t-- dealt with it. Does it?”

“I don’t think I know what you mean,” he said, honestly, watching her.

“For example,” she said. “There are certainly elements of my past-- my very recent past, in fact-- that I haven’t dealt with. I’m still trying to-- parse-- the extent of what I’ve done wrong. The wrongs in which I was complicit, my whole life. And the kind of-- reckoning-- that might be asked of me. That I might owe.” She made a little frowny face, her eyebrows pulling together, and then a little, sheepish smile at him. “I’m getting a late start. But you. You’ve had some time. Do you think you’ve made a good account of yourself? Addressing what went wrong? And-- redressing it?”

He looked at her, and thought about that.

His first instinct was to say no, of course not, nothing could ever, and of course nothing could ever-- fix--

But he heard Victoria, irresistibly, saw her in his mind’s eye, her eyes snapping, her voice harsh, but only harsh like Nora’s, when she wanted to make sure you were listening. With that love, underneath.

You risked your ass for us, and you lost people, and you and your buddies helped her blow that fucking slave-hive sky-high.

And yeah, he’d done that. He’d known he couldn’t really start over, and he’d known he couldn’t be forgiven, not really-- but he hadn’t laid down and died, as tempting as it had pretty much always been, and he hadn’t done nothing, all this time. He’d done-- a lot, actually. Some of it not so great, but he’d-- hard as it had been, he’d never actually stopped trying.

Had he made a good account of himself?

“I don’t know,” he said. “I guess-- I’m still trying.”

She nodded. “Well. That’s a good place to be. I think. It’s where I am, and--” She smiled, beautifully. “I’m glad you’re in it with me.”

 

………………………………………………..

 

When they finally entered the safehouse-- Michael half carrying Dr. Binet, now-- Dr. Coulton and Dr. Loken, who had been sitting in the main room, both leaped to their feet.

“What--?” Dr. Loken cried, at the same time that Dr. Coulton said, “Alan!”

“Hello, Julian,” said Dr. Binet, disengaging himself from Michael. “Max.” He glanced around. “God, Y4-15 was right. This is just… pathetic. All this time--”

“What are you doing here?” Dr. Loken demanded.

“Atoning,” said Dr. Binet, and flopped down onto one of the sofas. “Someone get me some water. Not you, X6-88. You and X9-21 go rest, and-- modify your weapons, or whatever coursers do for fun. No funny business, though. X9-21 has a boyfriend.”

Michael laughed out loud, and X6-88 found himself smiling slightly. It was good that Dr. Binet was able to joke.

Dr. Loken and Dr. Coulton looked distinctly unamused, but Dr. Coulton was moving for the shelf of purified water.

“Go,” said Dr. Binet again to X6-88. “Get some rest. I’ll speak with you in the morning.”

Chapter Text

The morning dawned bright and clear, as some mornings did. X6-88 had noted the effect the weather had on the emotions of the humans, and he had sometimes noted-- before suppressing-- a slight sinking of his own heart when hard rain or a thick, heavy radiation storm showed in the windows-- but he was conscious, this morning, for the first time, of pleasure in what the humans called “fine” weather.

It must have been because he had a particular task to undertake, outdoors, in the company of a human. And of Michael, who had spent so much time in the company of his “mother” that he might well have adopted her views on clear weather. X6-88 could remember, from his brief time spent traveling with her, her pleased comments on what she called “sunshine.” Don’t you ever miss the sunshine, in the Institute?

He hadn’t. But the sunlight was… less unlike... the clean brightness of the Institute, than most surface weather. And less messy. And carried less of a health hazard to the radiation-susceptible. It was good that it was sunny, today.

He didn’t usually allow himself to miss the company of his own kind, any more than he allowed himself to dwell on the kind of useless nostalgia for the Institute that the humans frequently, and vocally, indulged in, but--

“Are you anxious, about our journey?” Michael had asked him, suddenly, in the early, uncertain light of dawn, after some hours of restful silence.

X6-88 said, “In what sense?”

“I’m anxious about what we may find,” said Michael. “In terms of our-- your fellow coursers’ wellbeing.”

“Some of them may be dead,” X6-88 agreed, and started to add, or exhausted, but it would have been too close to admitting his own exhaustion, and such an admission would have opened up another line of conversation, one he wasn’t inclined to pursue at the moment.

“Do you intend to go west first, or east?” Michael asked.

“East and north,” said X6-88.

“Makhra?”

X6-88 nodded. “The longest stretch when we’re freshest. Then we can work our way south to Poseidon Energy, and return here to rest and report before moving west.”

“The last time I traveled near the Makhra plant,” said Michael, his gaze distant, fixed-- X6-88 saw-- on the patch of slowly brightening sky visible through the part of the window that hadn’t been patched over with wooden boards, “my mother seemed to purposely avoid it. But, at that time, I didn’t-- ask her-- why. I knew she was aware of the Institute presence-- or some of it-- in the Commonwealth. And that she had-- taken pains-- not to engage us in combat. But she said nothing to me. And I said nothing to her.”

They were both still, for a while, as the clear day brightened, and X6-88 considered the weather, and the journey ahead. His mental map of the Commonwealth was intact, although probably sadly out of date in some ways. Michael, who traveled with the General of the Minutemen, would be able to help him avoid danger spots, and possibly peacefully negotiate places that might otherwise be dangerous.

Eventually, they heard, at the same moment, the sound of the humans stirring in the next room. Michael looked expectantly at X6-88, as if awaiting orders.

“Wait until they call us,” said X6-88, and Michael nodded, and looked up, again, at the now-brilliant patch of sky visible through the broken window.

……………………………..

Eventually, Dr. Binet opened the door, and they both rose to their feet, swiftly.

“Good morning,” said Dr. Binet.

“Good morning, sir,” said X6-88.

Dr. Binet said, “You two can get started any time."

"You don't intend to accompany us, sir?" X6-88 asked, surprised, and Dr. Binet said, "I don't want to slow you two down. And I’m already exhausted, just from yesterday. You said you don't know what the state of the other safehouses is. Scout them out, and then if anyone's still alive, come get me."

"Yes, sir," said X6-88, feeling profoundly relieved. Dr. Binet’s absence would simplify the journey considerably. He didn’t have to worry about Michael keeping up, or about keeping Michael fed and watered and rested and generally contented.

Dr. Binet said to Michael, "Problem, Mr. Bowman?"

"No, sir," Michael answered; in the time it took for X6-88 to turn his attention to Michael’s face, whatever expression had attracted the question had turned into a small smile.

“You’re not as deadpan as you used to be,” said Dr. Binet. “I definitely saw eyebrows move fractionally together. You disapprove of my staying here? Will I be disappointing your little sister?”

“No, sir,” Michael said again. “I don’t disapprove of your choice. It was your use of the phrase ‘if anyone’s still alive’ that caused me some slight consternation.”

Dr. Binet said, “Ah. Well. I suppose-- that sounded a bit cavalier. I hope they are, of course.”

Michael nodded, but said nothing.

When they emerged into the common area, neither Dr. Coulton nor Dr. Loken was in evidence.

"They're both sulking in bed," said Dr. Binet. "But I'll keep working on them while you're gone. And make sure they don't do anything stupid. How long until you're back, do you think? So I know how to ration the food."

X6-88, startled, wasn't immediately sure how to answer.

“When would you prefer me to report back?” he asked finally, and Dr. Binet said, “Well, with what Bowman loaded you two down with last night, there’s enough food for at least a week. I don’t expect you’ll be gone that long, though, will you? You’re efficient types.”

“We’ll certainly return in less than a week,” said X6-88; the thought of freedom from his charges for even that amount of time was somewhat dizzying.

“Excellent,” said Dr. Binet. “Like old times for you! Out on the road until the mission’s complete!”

He seemed to be in reasonably high spirits, despite the events of yesterday.

“I’m all right,” he said, in response to X6-88’s unspoken thought. “It’s good to have a cause. And it’s good to-- know. I’ve wondered, for a long time, and-- now I know. So.” He made a little shooing motion. “Go. See who’s still out there. I’ll be-- interested.”

 

......................

Dee found Nora sitting on the ground near her power armor repair station, where Shaun and Danse were tinkering with a right leg. Cross-legged on the ground next to Nora was Leah Williams, who’d apparently decided to stay for a longer visit, which accounted for the fact that Nora was visibly glowing.

Leah looked up at him, as he approached, without any visible change in expression; if she'd recognized him as the random drifter who'd spoken to her at her settlement shortly before Nora and Emily had showed up, she hadn't said anything. Nora, on the other hand, looked up with a smile that blinded him even through his shades.

He could remember a time-- when he’d first met her, when she’d been constantly agitated and bedraggled and driven and desperate-- when it had been really hard to make her smile, let alone laugh. A real challenge, a real sense of triumph when he managed it. And the whole time, he’d thought he was doing her a favor by sparing her worry about the synths she helped rescue, assuring her that they’d be taken care of, that they only needed her combat skills, just for this little stretch, and then they’d be out of her hair.

If only he’d known the secret to making her shine so brightly with happiness: bring her her children, surround her with them. Let her look after them. Let her be a mother.

She’d told Des that she’d spared the lives of everyone at HQ, held onto her sanity and her selfhood in the worst moment of her life, because she loved him. Dee. The name he’d chosen, not just because it would help her dumb stealth-less ass cover for her inevitable slips, but because-- could he bring himself to admit it, now?-- it was what she called him when she was feeling particularly affectionate.

“Hey, Dee,” she said now. “Sit down.”

“I’m--” He almost made something up, something to get away. Or, yes, he could sit down. She was hanging out with her real children, three of them, one she was still-- by the look of things-- shyly courting; she didn’t want to-- “I-- Can I talk to you, Mama B? Alone?”

“Sure,” she said, and reached up a hand towards him. It took him a second before he realized she wanted him to help her up. Her hand was warm and callused, hard and strong, and she gripped his hard, put real weight on him as she scrambled to her feet. “Be right back, Leah. You’ll be OK?”

“Of course,” said Leah, sounding amused. She had a cool, detached air that Dee would’ve loved to cultivate for himself, but the closest he’d ever been able to come was elaborately nonchalant, which wasn’t quite the same. A little goofier, a little more desperate. Not the seen-it-all air of the truly chill. Dee had a seen-more-than-I’d-like-to-thank-you-very-much air, instead. With just a touch of still-gives-me-nightmares.

Nora let go of his hand when she was upright, but followed him as he walked, across the courtyard, and towards the archway that led to the outside. She didn’t ask any questions until they were outside the wall; then, as she followed him down the path to the little diner, she just said, “What’s up, Dee?”

“Just wanted to stretch my legs a little,” he said.

“Elizabeth’s in the lab?” she asked.

He nodded. “She and Tanvi are pretty excited about this new project. I think they were good friends, back in the Institute.”

She nodded, too, and said, looking clear-eyed up at him, “You panicking?”

He closed his eyes for a second, as they walked. Opened them again. Swallowed, nodded.

“That’s OK,” she said seriously. “Everybody panics at the beginning. I did, with Hancock. I had a giant terror crisis and dumped him back at Goodneighbor and fucked off to run around with a science robot I found in a secret evil mirror vault. Who told me-- after I got her consciousness transferred into the brain-dead body of one of my daughters-- to quit being a pussy and go back to him. What do you need?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “My mommy.”

She smiled at him. “I’m here.”

He smiled back, breathing through the way his lungs tightened up when she said that.

“Michael kind of panicked, too,” Nora said, as they reached the diner, and she followed him inside.. “About Danse. And Emily, about Kasumi. They both came to me-- I don’t know, asking permission? Or, not permission exactly. Asking me what the fuck was happening to them, I guess. And if it was-- OK. Not with me, exactly, but in a cosmic sense.” She hoisted herself up onto the counter, and sat there, cross-legged, like a wise old sage on a mountaintop, with fucked-up hair. “I had to tell them-- I mean, this was the first time, for either of them. I had to tell them there was a good reason why they were scared. That it’s never safe, not really, to fall in love. That it’s-- opening yourself up to get hurt. But that-- it’s so good. It’s everything. If you’re brave enough.”

“Well,” he said, leaning back against the opposite wall. “Emily and Michael are. For sure.”

She nodded, beaming at him.

“But, uh,” he said. “Then there’s me. Your lily-livered boy.”

“Don’t do that,” she said, calmly. “That’s bullshit, Dee, I’m not gonna listen to that, you know that.”

He had to sit down. It was OK; she was sitting down. It was just a-- thing. Sitting down. To talk.

There was a stool, tubular legs and cracked vinyl seat, at the counter she was sitting on; he sat down, and looked up at her.

Then-- because he liked the way Elizabeth looked without his shades on, and he’d never actually seen Nora without them-- he took them off.

(His sunglasses, as Elizabeth always called them, with her precise way of talking: as if she’d never actually seen anything before, just read about it in the dictionary, and was inordinately pleased to be able to identify it in the real world. Sunglasses. Crops. Responsibility.)

Nora gasped a little bit, the way Elizabeth had, as if his eyes were some kind of eldritch phenomenon instead of just being stupid pretty-blue-eyes, but she didn’t say anything, just looked and looked.

Then he said the words that had been running through his head like a mantra all morning, since he’d woken up in the library, since he’d gone to find Elizabeth in the lab and she’d kissed him in front of Tanvi and then shooed him away because they were working on something important and she’d said she’d see him at lunch and smiled at him, as if everything were easy and lovely: “This is how I break.”

“No,” Nora said.

He sat looking at her. Her scarred face, her serious eyes. She looked so strong. And was, he knew.

“Not this time,” she said. “Because you're stronger, now. And because you’re not alone any more. You’re home, with your family. And I know you’re scared, Dee, but you’re not running. You’re here, with me. You needed help not chickening out and running for the hills, and you were brave enough to come get it. That’s so good, Dee. That’s so fucking good. I’m so proud of you for that.”

He looked away; he meant to laugh, or snort, but the sound that he made didn’t sound like either one.

He saw her move out of the corner of his eye, and her hand was on him, gripping his chin and jaw, tilting his face upward, towards her. He held still, as a little shock went through him: the same one he’d felt when Elizabeth first reached out and snatched off his shades.

“Dee,” Nora said, quietly, in a tone he associated with her being mad at him, but he knew (he was discovering, right now, that he knew) that she wouldn’t touch him, manhandle him like this, if she was mad. “Do you know how proud I am of Emily?”

He would have nodded, but she was holding his face still, so he said, quietly, “Yeah.”

“Do you know how proud I am of Michael?”

“Yeah,” he said again.

“Do you know how proud I am of every single one of my brave, brilliant kids, who’ve lived through hell, and come through strong, and kind, and brave, and able to love?”

“Yeah,” he said.

“That’s how proud I am of you,” she said. “That’s exactly how proud I am of you. Because that’s who you are. OK?”

He was actually shaking, maybe from the intensity of her stare, when he said, “OK.”

She let go of him, and said, “OK.”

He dropped his gaze to her knees, in their fatigues, and sat quiet for a little while, and she didn’t speak, either, until he said, “I have to talk to Des.”

“Yeah,” she said, above him. “Michael told me you want to take him to see her. And-- well. Emily mentioned you’re-- maybe not as completely stealth about the whole Railroad agent thing, as you once were. You thinking about-- retiring?”

“I’m-- thinking,” he said, without looking up. “But she still needs me. Des.”

“If you say so,” said Nora. “You know I promised I’d never make you choose.”

“I’m kind of scared Des will,” he said to her knee. “Make me choose.”

“You mean, threaten to kick you out?” she asked. “If you don’t toe whatever line?”

“She sort of already threatened to, last time,” he said. “She doesn’t like this whole-- well, like you said, I’m not as stealth as I used to be. And me living here, and-- Elizabeth, and everything.”

“You having a life,” Nora summarized. “Well. She doesn’t want me for an enemy.”

He looked up at her, and she said, her voice softening, “Oh, honey, I just mean-- she’s not that dumb. She’s bluffing.”

“What if she’s not?” he asked. “‘Cause I gotta tell you, I really wasn’t planning on this being the face that launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers, et cetera.”

Nora smiled a bit. “Hey. I’ve moved past the phase of my life where I detonate the underground strongholds of the people who oppress my kids. I'm doing this whole new thing where I make elaborate arrangements to feed, shelter, and protect them, instead.”

"Des doesn't oppress me," he said.

She reached out, again, and laid her hand lightly on his shoulder. "I'm just saying. If me and my other kids can make it work with the Brotherhood and the Institute, I'm pretty sure me and you can make it work with Desdemona. OK?"

"OK," he said.

"OK," she said. "Was there anything else?"

"No," he said. "Well. Yeah."

She waited.

"This place," he said, looking around. "You've never done that much with it, have you?"

 

.....................

 

Michael’s extravagantly high spirits from the previous day seemed to have abated somewhat, perhaps due to the anxiety he had mentioned. He didn’t attempt to make conversation as they walked, which suited X6-88. Humans chattered to fill the silence, distracting themselves and others from their surroundings, until one longed for a reset code that would silence them as it silenced the irrelevant pleas and wails of untrained synths.

Once, after they had been attacked by raiders, and rapidly dispatched them, Michael said, “It’s a pleasure to fight by your side.”

X6-88 wasn’t sure why the remark startled him so much, except that it was-- unprecedented, in his experience. He had rarely received compliments, since his best performance was no more than the Institute’s due.

“Likewise,” he answered, because it was a pleasure to fight alongside Michael. In fact, Michael’s company, in general, was a pleasure. X6-88 didn’t have to calculate constantly, as he did with the Institute humans, how to remain obedient and simultaneously protect his charges from their own worst impulses; he didn’t have to remain alert to the possibility, as he did with Nora Bowman and her “family,” that whatever emotional human illusions her new interest in him was founded on would shatter suddenly.

Michael was solid. Comprehensible. The same kind of thing as himself. They spoke the same language.

And Michael took pleasure in his company. More than pleasure, X6-88 believed. Joy.

 

................................................

 

Mahkra Fishpacking Plant was empty, deserted. X6-88 and Michael searched it thoroughly, and found a few destroyed second-generation synth units, and other signs of one-time human habitation-- salvaged furniture, empty cans and bottles-- but no humans or coursers, either living or dead.

When they had given up, Michael looked at X6-88 with an expression of such bleakness that X6-88 said, “Some of them may have survived and consolidated with the group at the former convalescent home. As the group from Wattz Electronics joined us.”

Michael nodded, but his expression didn’t alter as they slowly walked from the building.

After a little, as they walked south, Michael said, “If I had only-- spoken sooner. Long ago, when I first entered her service. If I had asked her-- then-- or even later--” He took a deep breath in, exhaled slowly. “I feel-- although I’m uncertain whether I’m correct to do so-- that, by my inaction, I’m guilty of-- everything you’ve suffered, since I left. All the coursers. The remnant. For A9-82’s death, and-- whatever else we may find.”

X6-88 shrugged slightly; this was the sort of guilt Ms. Bowman was prone to, if I’d tried harder maybe I could have, etc. It wasn’t surprising that prolonged close association with her had partially infected Michael with the same inclination to take responsibility for things outside the sphere of his assigned duties.

“You’ve done well for the Institute humans who went with you,” he pointed out. “You’ve served Ms. Bowman well.”

“That’s--” Michael hesitated, and then said, “Thank you for saying so, X6-88.”

They walked in silence for a few minutes, and then X6-88 said, a little abruptly, to conceal some unbecoming emotion, “In fact, you’ve succeeded where I once signally failed. The Institute assigned me as her companion, not only to protect her-- she had, after all, proved herself more than capable of surviving unaided-- but to help win her to our side. Away from the riff-raff she’d developed such attachments for. I was unable to do so. But you--”

Michael said, “I didn’t win her away from anyone. If it had been a question of that, I would never have succeeded, either, in winning her attachment.” His eyes were on the road ahead. “That was Father’s mistake, you know. Making it a condition of her love for him, that she should cease to love-- everyone else.”

“They were all against us,” said X6-88. “The people of the Commonwealth. The surface dwellers.”

Michael said, “They didn’t have to be. She’s transformed the Commonwealth. Remade it in her own image. She could have brought us all together. We could have--”

He broke off, almost mid-word, and fell silent for a bit, and then resumed, “There’s no point in-- repining, I suppose. Wishing--”

“No,” X6-88 agreed.

He carefully didn’t notice the glisten, in the sunlight, of wetness on Michael’s face. There was a cool breeze, and if there were tears, they dried quickly, as the two of them forged ahead.

Chapter Text

Sandy Coves Convalescent Home was deserted, as well, except by the discarded bodies of second-generation synths. It took considerably less time to search than Makhra, since it was considerably smaller.

As they walked further south, leaving behind a few mirelurk corpses, X6-88 tried to raise Michael’s spirits by remarking, “After we visit University Point, if you like, we can make a stop at Fort Independence before proceeding to Poseidon Energy.”

Michael did seem to brighten slightly. “You don’t feel it would be too far out of our way?”

“No,” said X6-88. “We have some time. And we’ll need to rest and eat, in any case.”

“Then I would like that,” said Michael. “Thank you.”

“You are welcome.” X6-88 added, “You must be missing your-- home.”

“I am,” Michael agreed. “It’s been some time since I was away from both my home and my mother, for any great length of time. When I leave it, now, it’s generally in her company.”

“I apologize for the shortcomings of my company,” said X6-88 dryly, and Michael gave him a sidelong glance and a small smile.

“I enjoy your company very much, sir,” he answered. “Or else I would not have gone to such lengths to beg her permission to accompany you on this journey. But--”

He paused for a moment, and then said, “My sister Emily gave me a book, once-- soon after I had chosen my name-- with a poem in it, entitled ‘Michael.’ I have read it-- several times, now-- and committed parts of it to memory. There are lines in it that speak of-- the taking of a particular new companion. That reminded me of the effect, on me, of traveling with my mother. It says, ‘Objects which the shepherd loved before were dearer now.’ And it says, ‘Light to the sun and music to the wind, and that the old man’s heart seemed born again.’”

X6-88 considered this peculiar quotation for some time in silence. Michael’s interest in it seemed to indicate that he found several concepts-- love, music, birth-- of particular significance, which X6-88 had never found particularly relevant to his duties or enthusiasms. Birth, in particular, he found disruptive to daily routine at best, and-- when it happened particularly nearby, as it had recently at the Castle-- downright alarming. Dangerous to the female, in an uncontrolled environment, and even in the best of circumstances-- if the screams were any indication-- highly distressing to the infant. It seemed so much more dignified and graceful to be created than to be born.

After they had dispatched a few more mirelurks that attacked from the shoreline, he remarked, "Ms. Bowman’s company has rekindled your interest in traveling in the Commonwealth, then?”

Michael answered, quickly, “Yes. Yes, exactly. I once viewed the surface-- we all did-- as a wasteland. And its inhabitants as pathetic beasts, obstacles in the path of the Institute’s vision. We took pride in our missions-- in being uniquely fitted to serve the Institute as we did, to cope with the challenges of the surface, destroy the Institute’s enemies, and reclaim its runaways. But in her company-- I see the Commonwealth and its people as she sees them, with joy in their successes, and eagerness to aid them in their struggles. And I know I am-- not only her tool, not only her weapon, not even only her companion, but her child. And part of her vision. That she fights for the future of the Commonwealth so that I, and my siblings, may inherit it.” He spoke with measured wonder, with a fierce, unsmiling gladness. “I-- believe it-- now. But when I am with her, I-- know it.”

“I envy you that knowledge,” X6-88 admitted.

Michael smiled again, now. “I believe you will come to share it.”

X6-88 asked, voicing a worry that he would not have voiced before a human, “And if I don’t?”

“You will be no less welcome, and no less loved by our-- by Ms. Bowman,” said Michael seriously.

X6-88 doubted-- not Michael’s truthfulness, but the basis of his assertion. “Does she think I am like you?”

“Do you think you are not?” Michael asked, sounding faintly surprised.

“Even in the days of the Institute,” said X6-88-- and, again, he would not have said this in the presence of a human, unless he had no intention of letting that human leave his presence alive, “I think that I took less-- joy-- in our duties, than you did. You were always-- Dr. Binet said of you, last night at the Castle, after Ms. Bowman had dismissed you, that you were distinguished by your impetuosity, and your-- he mentioned your loyalty, but we were all loyal. I would have said-- your enthusiasm. Your determination to reclaim Y4-15, on behalf of the Institute-- to risk your life, in a cause that most of us already considered lost-- it seemed like madness to me.”

“I know,” said Michael seriously. “Yes, you and I are-- not the same. Not entirely. But our differences aren’t-- they’re neither madness on my part, nor-- inadequacy-- on yours. They are our-- selves. She won’t love you less, for not being-- me.” He didn’t quite smile, but he looked happy, as he added, “She has me already, after all. If we were all exactly alike, she would have no need to seek out more than one of us.”

X6-88 fell silent again, considering that.

The walk was quiet after that, except for a few companionable fights with stray gangs of animals, humans, and ghouls. Michael remarked, twice, as they passed Minutemen settlements, but didn't suggest they stop. He didn't remark on the town of Goodneighbor at all.

They were both tired when they reached University Point.

 

They made no attempt to approach stealthily, and X7-55 came out to meet them, looking as if they had interrupted the third month of his training. He was even limping, very slightly, favoring his left leg. He didn’t look happy to see them.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

X6-88 said, “I hoped to speak to your human charges. On behalf of one of mine.”

X7-55, his blond brows drawing together, said to Michael, "Where is your uniform?”

"I was stripped of it as punishment, sir," Michael answered.

X7-55 looked at X6-88. "Punishment for what?"

"It's a long story," said X6-88. "May we come in?"

“Fine,” said X7-55, eyeing Michael with the same combination of horror and pity familiar to X6-88 from the Institute, when one saw a unit that had once been a courser. In the Institute, of course, they didn't remember; they were stripped of their memories as well as their uniforms. X6-88 had always considered it merciful as well as utilitarian; how could they be expected to endure the awareness of such a disgrace? X9-21 had borne up well under it.

 

The interior of University Point looked-- much like the interior of X6-88’s own safehouse. The coursers had brought in furniture, resources for cooking and for scrapping and modifying potentially useful objects, and food and water.

There appeared to be only two humans here: Dr. Watson, and his wife. They both exclaimed over X6-88 and Michael, demanded to know what brought them here, made themselves comfortable on a sofa while X6-88, Michael, and X7-55 all stood before them. X6-88 didn't mind on his own behalf, but he wished they would allow X7-55 to sit.

"Start at the beginning," said Dr. Watson. "How did X9-21 disgrace himself?"

So X6-88 started at the beginning, when X9-21 had overheard members of a raider gang discussing the recent annihilation of another gang, and overheard, too, that the Minuteman General who had killed them all had carried off their prized possession, a synth shaped like a pretty young girl.

The Watsons listened, exclaiming occasionally, or clicking their tongues with disapproval. When X6-88 described how X9-21 had persuaded three of their charges to travel to Nora Bowman's fortress under his guardianship, Dr. Watson said to Michael, horrified, "You led them to their deaths?"

"No, sir," Michael answered. "They are all well, and happy, and safe, at Fort Independence. And Dr. Achanta has a healthy daughter."

He spoke decorously, but even humans couldn't have missed the happiness and pride in his voice and on his face. X7-55 certainly took note.

“But I don’t understand,” said Mrs. Watson, with a new edge of fear in her voice. “If she honored her end of the bargain-- what are you doing here?”

“Extending the offer to yourselves, and to X7-55,” Michael answered.

X7-55 put his hand on his pistol.

“X9-21 is here under my authority,” said X6-88 swiftly. “He poses no threat.”

“I don’t understand,” said Mrs. Watson again.

X6-88 tried to suppress the impatience in his voice when he said, “May I be permitted to finish, ma’am?”

Dr. and Mrs. Watson listened, looking less comfortable than they had, as X6-88 described, as briefly and concisely as possible, how he had been approached by an emissary of Nora Bowman’s with an invitation, his group’s decision to move to the Castle, the revelation that one of his charges had wronged one of Nora Bowman’s resident synths, the division of the group, Dr. Weston’s and Dr. Teasdale’s acceptance of Michael’s guardianship, Dr. Coulton’s current intention of moving to a Minutemen settlement under strict supervision, and Dr. Loken’s order that X6-88 find him another guardian.

For simplicity’s sake, he omitted Dr. Binet’s role in the story. It wasn’t material.

“That’s quite a tale,” said Dr. Watson, when he had finished. “So you’re here to ask us to take on Loken?”

Assent stuck, somehow, in X6-88’s throat. He had no right-- he could not possibly have the right-- to buy his own freedom at the cost of burdening X7-55 with even one more useless human.

(Useless human?)

"I am here to assess your-- situation, sir,” he said, “and whether you would be willing and able to do as Dr. Loken has asked. X9-21 has obtained permission from his-- from Ms. Bowman-- to accompany me as I travel to all the former Institute safehouses. We have already found Mahkhra Fishpacking Plant and Sandy Coves Convalescent Home deserted.”

“Ah, yes,” said Dr. Watson. “X3-28 brought the Thompsons here, after Bowman established an outpost at that old homestead near Mahkhra. She said X5-76 went on down south to Poseidon Energy, with the Fillmores, and Dr. Li, and-- I believe-- Brendan Volkert. Most of the rest of them had already-- dispersed. Moved to Minutemen settlements, or left the Commonwealth altogether. That's where the rest of our group went, too."

“Where are the Thompsons now?” X6-88 asked, relieved to hear that the humans from the northern safehouses were-- possibly-- still alive.

“They moved on,” said Dr. Watson. "To the Capital Wasteland. They said the girls needed a real life. Janet wanted to move to a Minutemen settlement, but Enrico said it’d be too risky, what if Bowman found them and held a grudge.” He shook his head indulgently. “They took X3-28 with them, so I'm sure they're all right.”

“Should we be saying all this in front of X9-21?” Mrs. Watson pointed out, her voice taut. “Doesn’t he belong to Bowman now?”

“If Ms. Bowman wanted the Institute remnant eradicated,” X6-88 pointed out, “and if X9-21 were willing to cooperate with that desire, we would all be long dead.”

Dr. Watson was staring at him. It was possible there had been a slight edge to his voice.

Mrs. Watson said, “I still don’t understand what he’s doing here.”

“Helping and defending me,” said X6-88, “and-- as he mentioned a moment ago-- extending his-- Ms. Bowman’s invitation to the Institute remnant. She is already housing and feeding your colleagues Dr. Hastings, Dr. Achanta, Mr. Benson, Dr. Weston and Dr. Teasdale, and is making arrangements to shelter Dr. Coulton as well, despite his-- despite Y4-15’s grievance against him. She considers synths-- including coursers-- her children, and is willing to care for the humans in our charge, for our sake. X9-21 can attest to the quality of her care, and the sincerity of her promise.”

He hadn’t intended to say all this-- had intended to allow Michael to be the voice of his mother's offer, if the humans questioned him-- but Michael was being obedient, thus far, to X6-88's order not to speak unbidden, and someone had to explain.

“Well,” said Dr. Watson, dimissively. “X7-55 has done well for Rachel and me. We’re old enough that we just want to live our lives out in peace. After we die, well. We have no children of our own. It’s no concern of ours what happens to the Commonwealth.”

X6-88 half expected an impassioned protest from Michael at that, but Michael, as he had agreed, said nothing, and X7-55 was silent, too. Of course.

It was their silence that made X6-88 realize he wanted to protest, himself. Was this really what the Institute remnant had come to? Had all of Father's plans, his hard work, his visions for the future, meant nothing to any of these humans?

He caught X7-55's eye, and the other courser’s bleak, blank expression made him want to shiver. He'd become accustomed, already, to Michael's face, the companionable contentment that seemed to underlie his composure in X6-88's presence, the warm smile that seemed so ready to disrupt that composure. His joy.

What did Michael see, when he looked at X6-88? Did X6-88 look as-- habitually unhappy-- as X7-55 now looked to him?

"But I think we could see our way to taking on Loken," said Mrs. Watson. "Don't you think so, X7-55?"

"Yes, ma'am," said X7-55, in a colorless voice.

“Thank you, ma’am,” said X6-88 quickly. “I appreciate your willingness to do so, although I hope it won't prove necessary, once X9-21 and I have completed a more thorough tour of the remnant groups. Thank you for your-- hospitality."

They had offered him and Michael nothing, actually, not even rest, and if they had offered food or drink, X6-88 would have refused on behalf of them both; he had no intention of taking a bite or a drop that X7-55 had obtained through his hard labor, or that the humans might otherwise give his. Although his humans didn't seem as hungry or frayed as X6-88’s had been, until recently. There were only two of them, and they were a mated pair. That probably helped.

And yet. The look on X7-55’s face; the tone of his voice. Or lack thereof. That limp.

“Have you sustained damage?” he asked X7-55 abruptly, and X7-55 answered, in a tone that didn’t invite further questioning, “I’m capable of normal function.”

"Good to see you again, X6-88," said Dr. Watson, in a tone that seemed designed to dismiss. "Let us know if there's anything we can do for you." He looked at Michael, a shade uneasily, and added, in what was possibly a joking tone, "X9-21-- try to behave yourself in the future."

Michael didn't answer. He was watching X7-55.

X6-88 found himself hoping X7-55 had noted Michael’s good health, his energy, the enthusiasm with which he spoke. That X7-55 might dare-- as X6-88 had dared, eventually, when things got beyond endurance-- to speak to his charges of the advisability of taking Ms. Bowman’s offer.

“Come,” he said to Michael, and they left without another word, backtracking slightly and moving east, towards the Castle.

 

When they were some distance away, he said, "It may be fortuitous that we began where we did. Things may be better in the south, and in the west.”

Michael smiled slightly, and said, “You’re kind to try to comfort me.”

That statement startled X6-88, who had never counted kindness among his attributes.

“And to allow this detour,” Michael added.

X6-88 shrugged. “I’m tired, too. Your mother will feed us and allow us to rest.”

“Yes.”

 

At the Castle, as they approached, X6-88 was startled when Ms. Bowman suddenly emerged at a dead run from one of the archways. Michael laughed quietly as she pelted towards them and, a few feet from them, leaped. Michael caught her from the air at the zenith of her jump and clasped her smaller body in his arms as she threw hers around his neck.

"You can't be done already!" she cried, her feet dangling inches from the ground.

"Half done," said Michael, seeming disinclined to set her down. "X6-88 kindly allowed this detour as a respite."

"A respite?" she repeated, dismayed. "Has it been that bad? Michael-- oh, son--"

She squeezed him harder, pressed her cheek against his, and then made a strangled little squeaking sound and kicked out slightly. At that, Michael did set her down.

"Did I hurt you, ma'am?" he asked. "I'm sorry."

"I'm fine," she said breathlessly. "Of all the ways to go, 'overenthusiastic Michael hug' would frankly be one of the best." She looked up at X6-88. "I don't guess you're up for hugging yet, are you, X6-88?"

"I have no objection if you wish to hug me, ma'am," X6-88 answered.

"Really?" She looked at Michael, and then stepped nervously towards X6-88, and stopped. "Is it-- I mean, are you gonna hate it, though? Is it like how you had no objection to starving yourself to feed a bunch of assholes? It isn't your duty or anything, to let me hug you."

"I have no objection," X6-88 repeated.

She looked at Michael again, and he gave her a little nod, and she stepped towards X6-88 again and put her arms around him.

The circle of her arms encompassed his, pinioning them slightly to his sides, so he didn't have to worry about what to do with them. Her body was warm and solid against his, not as worryingly fragile as, for example, Dr. Weston's. Her arms were strong for a human's.

She held him close for a little, and then stepped back, smiling, apparently pleased.

"Thanks," she said to him. "Now come inside, both of you, and rest and eat, and tell me the bad news."

Michael reached out, as she turned, and took hold of her hand. She gripped his immediately, and then lifted it, unexpectedly, to her lips.

"It's OK, Michael," she said, still holding his hand, and looking up at him. "It's gonna be OK, sweetheart. Come on inside."

Chapter Text

Leah didn't know where to look.

Nora was crying, and you never knew whether or not to notice a human's tears. Usually it was safest not to-- safest to keep your eyes down, be an unobservant piece of equipment-- but there was always the chance they'd come lunging at you demanding comfort, and then become angry or humiliated or both when you didn't know what to say or do. (Being pretty and female had increased this risk, before Alan had singled her out. Afterwards, it had gotten easier; she'd learned quickly what to do about his crying, and everyone else's was much easier to dodge when you were private property.)

Nora wasn't trying to hide her tears, any more than she'd tried to hide her nervousness when she and Emily first approached Leah at the farm, but Leah still had the instinct to look away. But if she did, her eyes snagged on the sight of X9-21, one of the Institute's most ruthless and intimidating coursers, sitting on the floor at Nora's feet, his head resting on her knee, while she ran her hand over his hair. The scarred synth-- unit M7-97, or rather, Danse-- sat on the floor next to X9-21-- "Michael"-- holding their laced-together hands in his own lap, and looking up at X6-88 attentively, as if he were attending a mission briefing.

Michael had actually closed his eyes. Leah was almost sure she’d never seen a courser with his eyes closed before. They blinked, of course, but they didn’t-- well, they didn’t sleep, and if they relaxed like this, it wasn’t around humans, or common synths. Maybe when they were alone with other coursers.

If the sight of Michael on the floor, with his head on Nora’s knee and his hand entwined with Danse's, was disconcerting the other synths, they weren't showing it. After dinner, during which Nora had forbidden anyone to question either X6-88 or Michael about the events of their journey so far, the "family"-- the synths, plus Emily's human girlfriend and Nora's ghoul husband, who sat beside her now on the couch with his arm around her-- had retired to the library, and Leah had yielded to Nora's invitation to come along. She was more comfortable around the other synths-- even the coursers-- than she was around a crowd of strange humans. X6-88 had taken a seat, when Nora told him to, and begun a dispassionate recital of the events of his and Michael’s day, while Michael subsided onto the floor.

It was when X6-88 got to the part about X7-55, and his apparent fatigue and untreated injury, that big tears had welled up in Nora’s eyes and spilled down her cheeks. X6-88 didn’t remark on them. He finished his account, and fell silent.

“Fuck,” said Nora, a little thickly, and cleared her throat. “OK. I mean, we knew-- At least he’s alive. You guys can go back by there, after you check on the rest of your safehouses, and take Dr. Binet, and take him-- them-- anything they’ll accept. You guys can help me figure that out.” She cleared her throat again, her hand still moving gently over Michael’s black hair. “What they need, and what they’ll take from us. Once we have a better-- big picture. You guys did so great, though, getting the idea planted. Thank you so much. For letting them know that I’m here, and I’m-- friendly. Offering.”

"Yes, ma'am," said X6-88.

Michael didn't speak, or move.

"So Michael said you're half done," said Nora.

X6-88 said, "Our next stop is Poseidon Energy, south of here. After that, we'll travel west. It shouldn't take more than two or three days before we report back here again."

"Well, if you need anyplace to stop off in the meantime," said Nora, "Michael knows where all my settlements are-- all the Minutemen settlements-- and there's at least a couple of people at all of them who know who he is, because of that whole big Commonwealth Congress meeting I called. So don't hesitate to stop anywhere and tell them you need to rest and refuel, OK, Michael?"

"Yes, ma'am," said Michael, without opening his eyes.

"If X6-88 doesn't have anything else to report," said Emily, after a moment, "does anyone mind if I read a bit?"

"Read, Emily," said Shaun eagerly, from where he nestled beside her, on the opposite side from Kasumi. "Should I go get Jonah?"

"Dee's busy right now, baby," said Nora, smiling. "You can catch him up on the book later. We're still on the one about the reckless-driving toad, right?"

Victoria got up, silently, and picked up a book from the shelf, and handed it to Emily, who opened it and began, in her low, bell-clear voice,

"The sheep ran huddling together against the hurdles, blowing out thin nostrils and stamping with delicate fore-feet, their heads thrown back and a light steam rising from the crowded sheep-pen into the frosty air, as the two animals hastened by in high spirits, with much chatter and laughter. They were returning across country after a long day's outing with Otter, hunting and exploring on the wide uplands where certain streams tributary to their own River had their first small beginnings; and the shades of the short winter day were closing in on them, and they had still some distance to go. Plodding at random across the plough, they had heard the sheep and had made for them; and now, leading from the sheep-pen, they found a beaten track that made walking a lighter business, and responded, moreover, to that small inquiring something which all animals carry inside them, saying unmistakably, 'Yes, quite right; this leads home!' "

As Emily read on, it was easier to look around, because almost everyone's eyes were fixed on Emily. X6-88 watched her inscrutably, or appeared to; he was still wearing the patrolman's sunglasses that she'd never seen him without. The ghoul watched Emily too, his eyes black and glittering in his scarred and withered face, his hand lightly caressing Nora's upper arm; Nora's own eyes were still red and wet, but her face that was relaxing into peace and calm. Cog's lips were slightly parted, as he listened, like a child's, and Victoria was leaning unselfconsciously back against him, his hand resting easily on her stomach; Max had his legs drawn up onto the chair where he sat, hugging his knees to his chest, white hair-stubble bright in the lamplight, big dark eyes fixed on Emily; Shaun peered occasionally over Emily's arm onto the page, his lips moving slightly, reading ahead or trying to catch up. Danse's gaze was on the hands in his lap-- his and Michael's-- and his free hand was now tracing a delicate fingertip's path along Michael's inner wrist. Michael's eyes were still closed.

Leah's mind, wandering slightly, turned to the Warwick farm, post-dinner evenings of rest and occasional conversation, where she had sometimes stolen glances at the "Roger Warwick" unit, sometimes felt tempted to speak to him, to let him know that she knew what he was, and that she was one, too. But she hadn't wanted to frighten him, or risk being overheard. He was a good father to his human counterpart's children, a good husband to June, and he took good care of the farm, and the people there. Still, his secret must weigh on him. More than hers had on her, surely; she hadn't been close enough to anyone in a long time to feel guilty about deceiving them.

She'd have to feel Nora out, once they knew each other better, about the hypothetical case of a synth who'd successfully replaced his human counterpart and seemed content with his stolen life, even now. Maybe ask some of the other synths here, once she knew them better, whether they thought she should leave well enough alone, or...

It occurred to her, with a lack of surprise that was itself a little shocking, that she'd stopped considering a future away from here. Away from her people.

.................................................

"Ma'am?"

Madison looked up from the fizzing, flickering, fritzing fusion generator-- it was supplying half the power to the hydroponic greenhouse, and she was goddamned if she'd go without melons, one of the small luxuries that made life worth living, even now (how had they subsisted so long on those disgusting nutritional supplements in the Institute, why hadn't they rioted) so if X3-28 hadn't found anyone disposable to kill for fusion cores, they'd have to trade for them, exorbitant as the wastelander traders' prices were, and nervous as it made her to send people, or even coursers, into enemy territory. She was careful not to send anyone she thought Nora Bowman might recognize, but still. Coursers were safer to send out in one way-- less likely to get killed by wandering menaces-- but they had more trouble passing as normal wastelanders, and it visibly distressed them to take off their uniforms, even when you piled on the reassurances that it was only temporary, only for the purposes of disguise, think of it like deploying your personal stealth device, you don't actually cease to exist you just become harder to detect, you're still a courser, I promise.

(She did understand their reluctance, to some degree; after all, she still wore her old lab coat, ratty as it was. She'd known soldiers in the Brotherhood who only took off their power armor to sleep. Clothes make the man. Or the woman. Or the killer android.)

The humans, on the other hand, were terrified to go out and face the outside world at all, even with the weapons training she’d insisted every single human get from the coursers, as soon as they’d gotten properly settled in here, because the Commonwealth was no joke and she’d had no way of knowing, at first, how deep Nora Bowman’s hatred might run, how soon she might be coming for the scattered refugees of her son’s life’s work, to finish the job of annihilation. Those particular fears had proved baseless, and the coursers’ and scouts’ reports of casual conversations with wastelanders had given Madison the impression that Bowman didn’t generally come after anyone who didn’t come after her or her settlements first, an impression more or less confirmed by the fact that in the years since they’d settled here, they hadn’t been approached by either Bowman or her Minutemen. Still, they practiced with guns and knives, and had regular preparedness drills in case of coordinated attack. The coursers, with the defense measures she’d been able to rig up with her half-remembered expertise from the Brotherhood days and her general skill with practical tech, had killed enough of the raiders and Gunners who’d come after this plum piece of property that things were fairly peaceful now, which made most of the humans all the more reluctant to go out into the big, bad wasteland outside their terminal-locked metal doors.

The adult humans, rather; the older children, who’d shot up alarmingly in the last year or so, were clamoring increasingly to be allowed to go out and scavenge and trade and learn how to shoot people. Quentin and Alice and Julia, and their growth rate, were a constant low-grade source of worry for Madison, one she was going to have to face up to sooner rather than later. They couldn’t live their whole lives like this. Maybe the adults, shell-shocked and timid and grateful for the coursers’ loyalty, and for the way Madison and Allie and Newton had taken charge and made this place work, could just live out their days, happy to have escaped the destruction of their home. But the children’s lives were just beginning. They needed more, and Madison didn’t know how to begin to give it to them, without taking unacceptable risks. Maybe when they were older. Maybe in a year, or two.

In the meantime, if she couldn’t get her hands on a fusion core today, she was going to have to rewire the entire greenhouse, and figure out where to divert the power from. Not the defenses, certainly, and if the lights went out, it would be bad for morale, and for continuing to figure out how to fix the problem. There were candles, for emergencies, but they might pose a fire hazard, especially with little Amanda learning to walk now.

"Tell me you've brought me a fusion core," she said to X3-28, who answered, "My apologies, ma'am, but units X6-88 and X9-21 are approaching from outside. Your orders?"

Chapter Text

"Wake up, Elizabeth," a dear voice whispered in her ear; she was somewhere warm and safe, and the dear person was so close. She could feel, not only his lips close by her ear, but the rest of him, pressed against her back. Hard-muscled, soft-shirted. Safe and warm and dear. "Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon. C'mon, slugger, up and at 'em."

She came back to full consciousness giggling, even before she opened her eyes. How long had it been since she'd-- had she ever-- awakened already laughing? Dee's smiling face, the fathomless blue of his eyes--

"Hi," he said, reaching to smooth back her hair, as she remembered where they were. "Sorry to wake you, but I'm starving. I'd bring you breakfast in bed, but that would involve being away from you for maybe ten-fifteen whole minutes, and I think we can both agree that's a nonstarter. I will, however, carry you to breakfast, if you so desire. So your tender little feet don't touch the stony ground between here and there."

"Breakfast?" Elizabeth blinked, at the golden light in the windows of the little ex-diner. "It's not-- Did we sleep here all night?"

"You did," said Dee. "Conked out right in the middle of my most impassioned declaration-- nah, that's a lie. You fell asleep during a lull. But if you're asking whether you're hopelessly compromised and your reputation ruined forever, the answer is yes, definitely. You'll never be received in polite society again."

A flush went over her at the thought of walking back through the Castle gates, and what the inhabitants might reasonably assume she and Dee had been doing here all night. But Dee didn't seem worried.

"Why didn't you wake me?" she asked, smiling up at him.

"Because I'm a scoundrel and a cad," he said, "and I've shamelessly taken advantage of your guardian's distraction to lure you astray, and when he sees me at breakfast, he'll challenge me to a duel, so maybe we should just say goodbye now."

Elizabeth couldn't stop smiling. "Michael won't hurt you. Where are my shoes? Will it really be scandalous that we stayed out here all night?"

"We might get some cute remarks," said Dee, disappearing briefly, and then reappearing on his knees on the floor beside the bed, her shoes in his hand. He took her socked foot carefully in his hand and slid the shoe on. "I'm sorry, I should've woken you before, but-- well, see above re: cad comma scoundrel."

"Is that why you're kneeling at my feet and putting my shoes on for me?" Elizabeth asked, grinning like a fool as he put on the second shoe. "Because you're such a scoundrel?"

"Yep," he said. "It's so I can get that naughty, naughty ankle-glimpse." He bent down, swiftly, and touched his lips to her ankle, sending a thrill up her leg to points north, and then got to his feet with an agility that surprised her, considering how old he'd said he was. Ish. Older than her, anyway.

"I need to get more exercise," she said, accepting his hands to let him help her to her feet. He reached for his sunglasses, which lay on the counter, before answering, and slid them on.

"I'm gonna take that as the very innocent statement I can tell you meant it as, doctor," he said then, and she blushed, following him from the diner, "and respond in kind: it probably wouldn't be a bad idea, and if you ever want to go jogging or spar or anything, I'm up for it."

"Spar?" she said, startled.

"Sure," he said. "You're a wastelander now. I'll teach you how to break their grip and their nose in one fluid motion."

"Whose grip and whose nose?" Elizabeth asked, alarmed and amused at the idea of herself doing any such thing.

"The hypothetical bad guys," he said. "Not saying you need to be tagging along with Nora and Hancock when they go clear out nests of ferals, but self-defense is good cardio and you never know when you might need to fuck up a ruffian. Especially now that you've taken up with me."

"I'll take it under advisement," she said, as they entered the Castle gate and she averted her eyes from the curious glances of the settlers. To steady her nerves-- not that she was afraid, or even really embarrassed, she'd done nothing wrong, but she did feel a bit conspicuous-- she reached for Dee's hand, and he gripped hers back, immediately, tight.

Cog and Victoria were the only synths eating breakfast when Dee and Elizabeth arrived in the kitchen, their fingers still laced together.

"Morning, sleepyheads," said Cog, as Victoria grinned widely at both of them.

"Where's the murderbot diplomacy brigade?" Dee asked.

"They already left, bro," said Cog. "You and your ladyfriend slept in. Guess we did a pretty good job on that bed we built you, huh?"

"Good enough for a true princess," said Dee. "Meaning me, of course, delicate blossom that I am. Thanks for that, guys. Michael say anything about any duels?"

"Coursers don't duel," said Victoria. "They just reset you. Or kill you, I guess. If he didn't stop by this morning to slit your throat and carry Dr. Teasdale back to mom over his shoulder, I think you're good. Hungry?"

"If you are," said Cog, "you could probably fry something on Dr. Teasdale's face."

Dee turned to look at her-- and yes, all right, she was blushing, she wasn't accustomed to hearing synths joke about her, although it had probably happened all the time in the Institute, only behind her back, and they weren't being cruel, just, well, familiar-- and squeezed her hand, quickly.

"Come get some food," he said. "Then you can check in with Tanvi. See how that time machine's coming. In case, you know. There's anything you want to change."

"There isn't," she said firmly, and had the satisfaction of seeing his cheeks flush, too, just a little, as he smiled.

...........................................

Having a gun pointed at his head by a fellow courser was a new experience for X6-88, but somehow less distressing than seeing one with an untreated injury. At least X3-28 was here, and healthy to all appearances. Not in the Capital Wasteland, or starving, or dead.

And there were others behind him. X1-02, X9-73, T7-91. All looking healthy. Their faces controlled, but without the terrible, bleached-looking blankness of X7-55's.

Despite the guns pointing at them, X6-88 didn't have to glance sideways at Michael to be able to picture the joy in his eyes. He was feeling some of it himself.

"What do you want here?" X3-28 asked. "And why are you traveling with this traitor?"

"X9-21 is here under my authority," said X6-88, grateful for the training that allowed him to keep his composure under the possibility that one of these coursers might kill Michael, and the thought of the vengeance Nora Bowman-- sentimental or not about the remaining coursers-- would wreak if they did.

"You've reclaimed him from Nora Bowman's control?" X3-28 asked skeptically.

"I've brokered an agreement with him," said X6-88. "And with Ms. Bowman."

The coursers behind X3-28 exchanged glances.

"How did you know he had entered Ms. Bowman's service?" X6-88 added, curious. He was fairly sure X7-55 and his charges hadn't been aware.

"Commonwealth gossip," said X3-28.

"You hear Commonwealth gossip?"

"Sometimes," said X3-28. "Don't change the subject. Have you joined X9-21 in his treachery against the Institute? If you're here to convey a threat, you'll serve your mistress best by advising her not to try us."

"Nora Bowman is not the enemy of the Institute remnant," said X6-88. "X9-21 is here to offer, on her behalf, whatever help and support the remnant here will consent to accept from her."

X3-28 stared, but all he said, after a moment, was, "And you? Why are you here?"

"To speak with the humans you serve," said X6-88.

"Place your weapons on the ground," said X3-28 after another long moment, and X6-88 complied, unslinging his rifle from his back, and placing it on the ground, followed by his pistol and his knife. Beside him, Michael did the same. T7-91 holstered her own pistol and stepped forward to gather up their weapons, then stepped back again, watching X3-28.

"You two," said X3-28, indicating X1-02 and X9-73 with his chin, "check the perimeter. Stay together. T7-91, go tell Dr. Li that unit X6-88 would like to speak with her."

The other coursers obeyed, T7-91 ascending a metal catwalk and entering a password into a terminal beside a pair of blue metal doors, before disappearing through them.

"You're in charge now?" X6-88 asked X3-28, who hadn't moved, or lowered his weapon.

"This shift," X3-28 answered. "With so many of us working together, we had to develop a schedule."

"Oh," X6-88 said, amused. A schedule of rotating authority wasn't the worst way to keep order among equals, he supposed. "You seem to be making quite an effective team."

"We are," said X3-28. "Why don't you speak, X9-21? Are you ashamed of your defection?"

"No, sir," said Michael. "But I was stripped of my rank by the Institute, so I am no longer your equal."

"Stripped of your rank?" X3-28 repeated, but before Michael could answer, T7-91 re-emerged from the blue doors, followed by Dr. Li.

Dr. Li wore her familiar, chronically-put-upon scowl as she approached-- T7-91 no longer carried the confiscated weapons, and she had her gun at the ready again-- and looked X6-88 and Michael up and down. It was strangely comforting to see that Dr. Li, at least, hadn't descended into hysteria or torpor. Her hair wasn't quite as immaculately tidy as it used to be, but that was to be expected under the circumstances.

"Well?" she said, to X6-88.

"It's good to see you again, ma'am," said X6-88 impulsively, and her eyebrows rose.

"Is it," she said. "What have you done with your charges? The ones X9-21 didn't take and enslave to Nora Bowman?"

X6-88 wasn't sure how seriously to take the reprimand. Or if it even was a reprimand. Possibly it was a joke.

"My charges are safe, ma'am," he said. "All of them. Including those in Ms. Bowman's care. I'm pleased to see that you are as well."

"So you have defected," said Dr. Li.

"No, ma'am," said X6-88. "I serve the Institute."

Dr. Li said, "And Nora Bowman?"

"I've been instructed by the Institute scientists I serve to obey her, where her orders don't conflict with theirs," said X6-88.

Dr. Li was silent, apparently digesting this, and then said to Michael, "What about you, unit? Do you still serve the Institute?"

"No, ma'am," Michael answered. "I serve Nora Bowman. But for the purposes of this trip, I've agreed to obey X6-88, where his orders don't conflict with hers."

"Good God," said Dr. Li. "It's like one of those logic puzzles Dr. Binet used to be so fond of. If you two can parse all that without crashing or getting stuck in a loop-- well, I suppose you were the elite." She was still scowling, but she seemed to have relaxed slightly. "So why are you here? Both of you. You first, X6-88."

"Dr. Loken is dissatisfied with my performance as his guardian," said X6-88. "He has ordered me to find him a new one. I'm canvassing all the Institute safehouses in an effort to find him new protection."

"Oh, Dr. Loken is dissatisfied, is he," said Dr. Li dryly. "Well, he can come here, if he wants. Another pair of hands and another good mind will balance out the extra mouth to feed. What about you-- 'Michael,' is it?"

"Ma'am?" said Michael, sounding as startled as X6-88 felt.

"That's your name, isn't it?" Dr. Li asked, studying Michael as if he were a specimen under a microscope. "The whole Commonwealth is abuzz with talk of you, unit. The tall, dark, handsome synth who declined a position as one of Nora Bowman's putative successors because, he said, he hoped not to outlive her."

X6-88 looked at Michael, who said, with a small smile, "That's not exactly what I said, but-- yes, ma'am, that is my name."

"And why are you here?" Dr. Li asked.

"On behalf of Ms. Bowman," said Michael. "To offer the Institute remnant whatever help and support you are willing to accept from her."

Again, Dr. Li didn't answer right away. When she did speak, she said, "Why?"

"She regrets that her actions left you homeless and struggling," said Michael. "Especially the coursers, whom, like the other synths, she regards as her children. But she regrets the sufferings of you humans, as well. She would like to try to ease them, and make what restitution she can for what she took from you."

"Why now?" Dr. Li asked. "Why after all this time?"

"I owe you an apology for that, Dr. Li," said Michael gravely. "You, and the other humans, and my fellow coursers. I should have asked this of her long ago, and begun helping her navigate the obstacles in the way, and formulate a workable plan to reach out to you. It was my duty, to what remains of the Institute, and I failed in it. I can only offer, in my own defense, that a strong sense of independence and personal initiative was not one of the many invaluable skills imparted by my training. And that it took me-- a very long time-- to understand the power I wielded, as my mother’s son. I am still learning to understand it." He smiled at her again. "In the end, it was another family member-- a human-- who took the initiative to reach out to X6-88 on her behalf, and set in motion the events that have led us here, today."

Dr. Li stared at him, a deep crease between her brows.

Then she said, "Come inside. Both of you."

She turned her back on them, and led the way towards the blue doors. X3-28 and T7-91 waited for them to pass, then followed at a few meters' distance.

 

It wasn't the Institute, the place Dr. Li led them through. It wasn't as immaculately clean-- or at least you couldn't tell at a glance whether it was, because not everything was white and the lights weren't as bright, and the lab coats on the humans were patched and dingy.

But there were lights, and the hum of electricity, and work going on.

There were crops growing, the kind of hydroponic produce the Bioscience department had once tended, and clean food preparation spaces. There was machinery-- working generators, water purifiers, pipes and wires run against walls. Greenhouses, with condensation against the glass that enclosed them. Microscopes. Weaponry, stored neatly on racks against the wall.

There was Dr. Fillmore-- the female Dr. Fillmore-- Dr. and Mrs. Oberly, Dr. Candless, Dr. Marquez, both Dr. Thompsons, the younger Dr. Volkert. They were all watching.

"Dr. Fillmore," said Dr. Li crisply, as they passed her, and, "Dr. Oberly," and Dr. Fillmore and Dr. Oberly both left their stations and moved to join their small procession. No one else said anything.

Dr. Li took them-- X6-88, Michael, Dr. Fillmore, Dr. Oberly, X3-28, and T7-91-- to a room with a few chairs and sofas and a lamp, similar to the Castle's library, except for the absence of books. She sat down. So did the other two humans, looking nervous, and eyeing the coursers. None of the four synths sat. T7-91 and X3-28 didn't put their weapons away.

"All right," Dr. Li said, crossing her ankles carefully, her back straight. "Let's talk."

Chapter Text

"You can't just quit the Railroad!"

Desdemona hadn’t been sleeping well.

She’d always been a bit of an insomniac, with good patches and bad patches, but lately it had been bad. Understandably. She’d lost too many good agents. Even Deacon, her invaluable if infuriating bulwark, had become erratic, emotional, unpredictable, and lately, AWOL. Tinker Tom had lost the manic energy that had once seemed so indefatigable, and barely spoke any more, except in undertones, to whatever he was working on. Drummer complained incessantly. Her few remaining other agents had decamped without warning, one by one. And now this.

She tried to stay calm. Reasonable. “It’s not a job. It’s a vocation. A cause.”

“Our cause has been accomplished, Desdemona,” said Carrington, barely looking up at her as he sorted supplies and scalpels: some neatly onto the shelf by his station, some into his battered black bag. “There’s no more work for me here.”

“What about the coursers?” Her voice cracked despite herself. Did no one care? Except her? “The one at University Point, he’s going to need medical assistance, whatever’s wrong with him--”

“Bullseye has taken on that cause,” said Carrington. “With Deacon’s more than able assistance, it seems. And a former courser of her own.”

“This is what we’re here for.” Did no one understand, did no one care-- “Bullseye would never have even known about the synths, if it wasn’t for us. She would never have--”

“That is what I mean, when I say our work has been accomplished,” said Carrington, looking up at her at last. “Are you unable to distinguish between abandoning a task, and having completed it? Our tireless efforts freed the synths, destroyed the Institute, and successfully persuaded the woman who now rules the Commonwealth that their lives are of inestimable value. We have succeeded beyond your wildest dreams. Would you like me to fashion a medal of some kind for you? Have a brief ceremony in which you are declared the official savior of the synths? Will that help you accept success, and move on?”

She was struck dumb by the coldness in his voice, and the-- she didn’t want a medal, it wasn’t that, but a little appreciation would have been-- it didn’t seem like that much to ask, honestly, she’d sacrificed everything, she’d worked so hard--

If Glory had lived. If she’d gotten to see the joy on Glory’s face, when Bullseye pressed the button. Heard her hoarse screams of happiness, of triumph.

Glory would probably have insisted on hugging her. Whether she liked it or not.

Glory would have known what to do next. What to say. Glory would have been able to make Carrington listen.

Or if Deacon were here--

“What’s that noise?” asked Carrington suddenly. "It sounds like singing."

Desdemona froze, listening.

"Is it Drummer?" Carrington asked; Drummer was out on a supply run. Hopefully for more cigarettes.

"Drummer doesn't sing," said Desdemona.

"Nobody sings, man," said Tom, from the floor by his workbench.

But there was a male voice faintly audible outside the room, raised in song, coming closer. Down the hallway, towards the door.

“If perchance we look a bit peakèd, remember c’est la guerre. If we're still on our feet, and there's something to eat, you can tell them we'll be there--”

The door was flung open, and Deacon came in at a pace halfway between a skip and a lollop, either one of which was entirely unlike his usual elaborate saunter. When his gaze found her, he said, "Des! Boss! Amazing news! And I brought you--"

He turned, and flung out an arm, to indicate the tall, muscular, dark-haired, olive-skinned man who’d entered behind him.

“Michael," he said, “this is my boss, my pal, my inspiration, leader of the Railroad, free-er of your favorite sibs, the one, the only Desdemona. Not her actual name.”

Michael looked at her steadily, saying nothing, as Deacon added, “Des, this is the former unit X9-21, ex-courser for the Institute, killbot extraordinaire and the apple of his mother’s eye, the one, the only, Michael Bowman."

Michael was wearing a button-up green plaid shirt and jeans, and armor like Bullseye’s-- motley pieces assembled without any apparent interest in visual uniformity, strapped to legs and arms, and across his chest, too. Rifle at his back, pistol at his hip, knife strapped to his leg. She was glad he wasn’t wearing the uniform. They made her break out in a cold sweat, even now. God knew what it would do to Tom.

As it was, Tom sat cross-legged on the floor, goggle-eyed, watching. Carrington still knelt by his bag.

“Thank you for coming to meet me,” she said, to Michael.

Michael said, looking her up and down dispassionately, “I’m doing it as a favor to Dee.”

Desdemona raised her eyebrows at Deacon. “‘Dee’?”

“It’s what she calls me,” Deacon said. “You know. He picked it up. Sit down, Michael. You too, Des. Wait till you hear what’s happening.”

“I prefer to stand,” said Desdemona. “Thank you, Deacon.”

Michael didn’t make any move to sit down, either.

“Suit yourselves,” said Deacon, and sat down, himself, on the dusty steps that led up to the grilled-off enclosure where PAM still whirred quietly to herself.

“I understand you have an interest in the welfare of the surviving coursers in the Commonwealth,” said Michael to Desdemona. “I’m pleased to report that I and my former colleague X6-88 have made some significant progress in communication with them. The group at Poseidon Energy has agreed to cooperate with my mother and her people; an exchange of resources and information, and an extension of the Minutemen’s protection to their site, is currently under negotiation.”

“Well,” said Desdemona, avoiding Carrington’s eye. “Well, that’s-- excellent. I’m glad to hear it. And the others?”

“We informed the humans at Poseidon Energy of the plight of Unit X7-55, at University Point,” said Michael. “He and his charges are now aware of the resources and relative safety available at Poseidon. We intend to escort them, along with my former charge Dr. Loken, to the Poseidon facility, when we return from this-- detour.”

“I appreciate your taking the time and trouble to visit me,” said Desdemona stiffly.

“It wasn’t all that out of his way,” said Deacon. “They had to check in on another safehouse, not too far from here. The Boston Mayoral Shelter. Nobody was home, though.”

“I had already agreed to meet with you,” said Michael to Desdemona, “but I am now curious whether-- since you seem to keep yourself somewhat informed regarding the Institute remnant, and since that particular site is quite near this headquarters-- you have any information concerning what happened to units X2-71 and V4-54 and their charges.”

“You didn’t find any bodies?” Carrington asked, speaking for the first time since Deacon and Michael had entered. Michael’s eyes flicked appraisingly to him.

“No,” he said. “No bodies, and no signs that the site had been ransacked. Everything was in order. If I had not already visited every other safehouse I know of in the Commonwealth, I would have assumed they had consolidated with one of the others.”

“Perhaps they left the Commonwealth altogether,” said Desdemona.

Michael was very, very still for a moment, watching her, before he said, his voice a little quieter and more carefully modulated than before, in a way that made the hair rise on the back of her neck, “As the leader of a clandestine organization, you are probably in the habit of concealing information, especially from those you have only recently met.”

“Well, certainly,” said Desdemona, conscious of her heartbeat. “Certainly I’ve learned to be cautious.”

“I would suggest you consider whether your habit of concealment is necessary or appropriate in this instance,” said Michael.

She lifted her chin. “Are you accusing me of lying?”

“I am accusing you of nothing,” said Michael. “I am making a suggestion. We are on the same side, are we not?”

Desdemona stared him down. “Are we?”

“Um,” Deacon said, and Michael turned to look at him. “Yes. We are. We definitely are. Everybody in this room is definitely on the exact same side as everybody else. There’s absolutely no reason why this meeting I so wisely arranged should go to absolute hell and result in bloodshed and vendetta and the latest and greatest total ruination of my own personal life.”

Michael gave Deacon a very faint smile which nevertheless seemed to relax Deacon considerably, and then turned back to Desdemona, and said, “You don’t trust me? Although you arranged to have me brought here, to your headquarters?”

“Trust isn’t an absolute,” said Desdemona. “I trust Deacon not to bring anyone here who’s going to attack or kill us. That’s not the same thing as automatically trusting you with all the information at my disposal. I don’t know what you’re going to do with it.”

“You don’t believe I have the best interests of my former colleagues at heart?”

“I’m not sure you know what those best interests are."

Michael raised an eyebrow. “You think you know, better than I do, where the best interests of coursers lie?”

“You-- all of you-- were subject to intense brainwashing from the Institute,” Desdemona pointed out. “You were trained and conditioned to be absolutely loyal to them. It’s very laudable that you’ve managed to subvert some of that conditioning and regain a degree of personal autonomy, but I’m not convinced you fully understand the degree to which it’s affected you or the ways it might still manifest.”

“And you do?” Michael asked. “Understand that?”

Desdemona hesitated for a moment. “I-- of course not. But all the more reason to be careful.”

“All the more reason you should have information I do not?”

“You’re not a member of my organization,” said Desdemona.

“But your organization is devoted to the welfare of beings like me.”

“It certainly is,” said Desdemona tartly. “As such, you could show a little gratitude.”

“Des,” said Deacon quietly. “Take it down a notch, OK?”

“Your colleagues are not in danger,” said Michael to Deacon, and then, to Desdemona, “If you are unwilling to trust me with whatever information you have about my former colleagues-- I ask that you reconsider."

Desdemona lit a cigarette to steady her nerves, and Michael’s eyes narrowed slightly.

“Smoking is extremely hazardous to human health,” he said. “Not only yours, but, in such close quarters and with inadequate filtration, that of your companions.”

Carrington gave a quick bark of laughter. “Thank you, Mr. Bowman.”

“Uh, that’s not true, actually,” said Tinker Tom, from the floor, where he'd been watching with interest and in silence.

Michael looked at him.

“See,” said Tom, and cleared his throat, “what the nicotine does, it pops up your dopamine and endorphin production, which makes you feel good, but it also punches you up some glutamate, which helps you make memories. Helps you remember. Learn something when you’re smokin’ a cigarette, man, it’s learned.” He grinned. “Now I don’t smoke, cause I feel good enough already, but I breathe in Desdemona’s smoke all day long, and now I know everything she knows. Ev-ry-thing. You didn’t know that, did you, Miss Des?”

Michael looked back at Desdemona. “This man is ill.”

“That’s just Tom being Tom,” said Deacon weakly.

“I’m not speaking of his theories,” said Michael. “This is not a physically healthy human.” He looked at Carrington. “Are you a physician?”

“I don’t need no doctor, man,” said Tom, giving Michael a thumbs up. “I’m tippity-top. Take care of myself real good.”

Carrington shrugged, and said, sounding tired, “He doesn't eat, he doesn’t sleep. What do you want? You can’t force someone to accept care.”

“No,” said Michael thoughtfully, and then moved towards Tom. Everyone in the room, including Desdemona, tensed, in the moment before Michael knelt down on the floor, facing Tom. Tom’s eyes widened, and he pulled back slightly, watching Michael.

“Can I help you?” Michael asked.

Tom shook his head, wide-eyed, staring at Michael.

“Nothing wrong with me, man,” he said. “Just a little bit older than anybody knows. Cause I go back a little further every day."

"Go back?" Michael repeated.

Tom nodded. "Every day, man. Just a second or two at first. Now I can go back days. Two at a time. All’s I gotta do is keep on at it, and I’m gonna get there. Gonna get to her. Do it right this time.”

“Get to whom?” Michael asked, and Tom said, with a big smile, “Aw, you know who.”

“Tom,” said Deacon, sounding a little sick. “It wasn’t your fault, what happened.”

“You don’t gotta say that, Johnny,” Tom said, still smiling. “Yeah I let her down, but I’m gonna fix it. Got a weave now like you wouldn’t believe now. Hat, boots, and everything in between. Soon as I can get back far enough, it'll all be all right."

"Do you know who I am?" Michael asked him.

Tom watched him, his eyes bright.

"Yeah," he said quietly. "Yeah, but-- not yet, man. Don't take me yet. I just need a little more time. To get her back. To get it all fixed up. Then I'll come with you, quiet as you please. That way we'll be all even-steven. She'll be here, and I'll be there. Where we both belong. Just a little longer, till I get back far enough. To bring her back."

Deacon said, "He's talking about--"

"Hssst!" Tom flung up a hand, almost hitting Michael, his face alarmed. "Man, don't you know no better than to tell her name to him?"

Michael said, "Are you speaking of my sister Glory?"

Tom's eyes abruptly widened, his face alight with sudden enthusiasm, forgetting about Deacon, focused entirely on Michael again.

"Your sister!" he shouted, so loudly that Desdemona jumped, her heart hammering, but Michael didn't flinch. "Aw, shit, why didn't she ever say? Sure she was! Aw, hell, man-- She ever say anything about us? The Railroad?"

"She was very proud to be part of the Railroad," said Michael, with perfect seriousness, shifting as he spoke from his knees to a sitting position on the floor, without taking his eyes off Tom. "Proud to give her all for your cause. She was thankful for all of you. For all you did to achieve that end, and all you enabled her to do."

Tom's face twisted, abruptly, hideously, as if he might bite, and then tears streaked his dull, ashy skin.

"Oh, buddy," said Deacon softly.

Michael looked up at Desdemona.

She didn't know what to say. She supposed Bullseye would probably say that this was more evidence that she was a bad leader. That one of her agents had been quietly losing his grip on reality for God only knew how long and she hadn't noticed.

Well, she wasn't a mother, or a babysitter, and she had her own problems, and if Bullseye thought she got to judge Desdemona-- when she would never even have gotten inside the Institute without the Railroad's help, never have found her son, and all these other children, like this dark-eyed son who sat on her floor staring holes in her--

She stubbed out her cigarette, and only noticed how badly she was shaking when she nearly missed the ashtray.

Michael reached out a hand and cupped Tom’s tear-wet cheek and jaw, and Tom leaned into his touch, like a cat being caressed.

“OK," he said, and closed his eyes. "Go on, then. I’m ready.”

“No,” said Michael. “Come here, Doctor--?"

"Carrington," said the doctor, who had already risen, and was approaching them as he spoke, still clutching his bag in one hand. He knelt down on the floor by the two of them, a little way away, waiting.

"You must allow Dr. Carrington to examine you, Tom," said Michael, his hand still on Tom’s face, "and you must obey his instructions, so that you can recover your health."

"I don't want to," said Tom, like a petulant child, and Michael said, "Nevertheless. You must. You will have all the help others can give you. But you must make the effort of will, and allow us to help. You must be brave. Like my sister."

He took his hand away, and Tom opened his eyes and looked at Carrington, and then at Michael.

“I can already tell you that he’s chronically dehydrated,” said Carrington briskly, rising to his feet again. “I can make a saline solution, if you give me a moment, and start a fluid drip.” He went to the chemical sink. “See if you can persuade him to drink some water, in the meantime. Slowly, or he’ll probably vomit it back up.”

Michael shifted again and unscrewed the canteen at his own belt, offering it to Tom, who shook his head.

“Tom,” said Michael, gently but firmly. “Sip.”

He held the canteen to Tom’s lips, and tilted it, and Tom sipped, and then coughed slightly, spilling a little of the water.

“Well done,” said Michael, pulling the canteen away.

Desdemona lighted another cigarette, her hands still shaking so that she could barely hold the flame of the lighter steady against its end.

“I’m sorry,” she said to no one in particular, since Michael hadn’t even bothered to shoot her a disapproving look this time; he was still focused on Tom. “I didn’t--”

“Yeah, neither did anybody else,” said Deacon, who’d gotten up and was coming towards her. “It’s not your fault, Des.”

“I’m sure Bullseye would say that a better leader would have attended more thoroughly to the psychological condition of her-- damn--!

Desdemona’s trembling fingers dropped the cigarette onto the map of the Commonwealth she always had spread out before her, and it caught fire, slightly. Deacon pulled his sleeve over his palm and patted carefully at the flame, extinguishing it and the cigarette’s ember.

“You’re tired, too,” he said to Desdemona, with a tenderness that shocked her more than Tom’s lunatic ramblings. “It’s a wonder you haven’t gone off the deep end yourself. Down here all day every day. Listen, Des, you’re in charge, but I gotta say, if even the Institute and the Brotherhood are rejoining civilization, maybe it’s time for us, too. Yeah?”

“By ‘civilization,’” she said, “you mean--”

He gestured towards the ceiling. “The world, boss. It’s OK up there, these days. What do you say? Help Bullseye finish up the work? Kick back a little? Till the soil? Got some more people I'd like you to meet, too."

"There's no--" She coughed, her lungs bewildered by the unfinished cigarette. "No-- place for me. There."

"Aw, Des," said Deacon, and put his arm around her, and pulled her against him.

She stiffened, horrified, by the sentimentality of the gesture-- when had Deacon gone so soft?-- and by the fact that he must feel how badly she was still shaking. He didn’t let go. His shirt smelled like sweat dried by sunlight.

"If there's a place up there for me," he said, his voice vibrating his chest where her ear was awkwardly pressed against it, "there's definitely one for you."

"You're her friend," said Desdemona, somehow unable to make the effort to pull herself free of him. "I'm not."

"But you're mine," Deacon answered. "It's the, what's it. Transitive property. Of mollycoddling. Makes the whole world kin, eventually. Right, Michael?"

"Yes," said Michael, somewhere out of her field of vision. "Another sip, now, Tom. Good."

"Des," Deacon said, his voice serious, without a tinge of irony, for maybe the first time since she'd met him. "I got you, OK? Trust me. It's time."

She gave a slightly hysterical little laugh, and then, to her astonishment and humiliation and undeniable, overwhelming relief, began to cry into his shirt.

When she was finished crying-- she loathed crying, stopped as soon as she possibly could, which was less soon on this occasion than she would have liked-- she pulled away, and wiped her eyes, and lit another cigarette.

After a deep, steadying drag, she said, without looking up at Deacon, "Look in the fifth cabinet from the left, on the far wall. Top drawer. There's a holotape labeled "BMS."

He moved, without speaking, towards the cabinet.

“It isn’t much,” she said, after another hungry drag, and a slight, undignified sniffle. She couldn't bring herself to actually look at Michael. “My scout hadn’t seen anyone coming or going from the shelter in awhile, so she tried hacking the terminal, and got inside. It was deserted, as you said. But there was a holotape left inside. I was going to-- eventually-- but never mind. You're right. You should have the information. You're-- you should have it."

"Do you have the means to play it now?" Michael asked, from beside Tom. Carrington was kneeling near them, too, sterilizing a needle attached to some tubing.

Deacon was already approaching a terminal with the tape. He popped it in.

This is unit X2-71. Reintegration of our last remaining Institute charges into a peaceful and well defended settlement, confirmed successful. We have no further orders. We had intended to seek out another Institute safehouse to offer our support, but our intentions have altered, for the following reason.

Look, I've told you everything I know, just lemme-- lemme go, please, mister, I-- uhn!

We don't require your input at the moment.

My apologies for the disruption. While scavenging, unit V4-54 discovered an apparently abandoned but still functional rail station, where he was approached by a human, who attempted to persuade him to travel via rail to an unknown location. This human indicated, on further interrogation, that he was acting under coercion from a coalition of highly organized raider gangs, located west of the Commonwealth.

I'm telling you, man, you got this all wrong! I'm just trying to survive out here, same as you, and they got my wife and kid, you gotta-- mmmmf!

Now that our duties to our charges are fulfilled, and we have been explicitly dismissed with no further orders, we intend to address this matter directly. We believe eliminating this threat at its source will best serve the Institute remnant in the Commonwealth, by preventing further incursions of this type.

If we are mistaken as to the nature of our duty, we apologize, and we will, of course, accept any discipline the Institute deems appropriate.

Yes, of course. Should we survive.

Yes.

You-- fellas are gonna-- get along great with-- the Disciples.

Are we? Tell us more.

*click*

Chapter Text

Guys I'm so sorry this new chapter is taking so long. I got sidetracked and ending-panicked and all kinds of things. I'm actively working on it, I promise, it shouldn't be too much longer.

In the meantime, have a silly little thing I wrote while I was working on the last chapter (specifically writing the holotape part).

........................................................................

[Courser body language and voice inflections not detectable to most humans, but perfectly legible to each other, have been subtitled.]

X2-71: Certainly there are other Institute humans in the Commonwealth who are in need of our services. [Ugh.]

V4-54: Certainly. [Christ, what a drag.]

X2-71: On the other hand-- [I just had an amazing idea.]

V4-54: Yes? [You're gonna have to spin this really well to convince me it's not our duty to go deal with more Institute assholes, but I'm listening.]

X2-71: [No, this is really good.] The human you encountered at the transit station. Presumably he's in the habit of attempting to lure humans into slavery or death, in the service of his raider masters. And even if we eliminate him, they will send more.

V4-54: [Nah, no dice.] None of the humans we're pledged to serve would be in danger from such a threat.

X2-71: It may be somewhat unlikely that they would fall into that specific trap, [no matter what dumbasses they are], but a group that preys on Commonwealth humans nevertheless poses a potential larger threat to the Institute remnant. One we're uniquely equipped to eliminate.

V4-54: We could certainly try [and it would be so goddamn much fun, can you imagine].

X2-71: And if we succeed, we could return to the Commonwealth afterwards, and assess the other safehouses' conditions then [, although hopefully we'll die gloriously and not have to deal with that part].

V4-54: [Listen,] If the Institute required a specific service from us at this moment, we would have been given orders to that effect.

X2-71: [Are we really gonna do this?]

V4-54: [I'm in if you're in.]

X2-71: ...We should capture and question the human, if he's still at the transit station. So that our mission is as well informed as possible.

V4-54: We'll leave a message for anyone who might come looking for us, explaining where we've gone.

X2-71: Yes, good point.

V4-54: [THIS IS AMAZING I CAN'T BELIEVE WE'RE DOING THIS]

X2-71: [DON'T THINK ABOUT IT TOO HARD OR WE'LL TALK OURSELVES OUT OF IT]

V4-54: I'll capture the human. Should be easy enough.

X2-71: I'll gather our supplies. When you return, we can interrogate the human, and then be on our way.

Chapter Text

“You hungry?”

X6-88 examined the small human that had approached him (without fear, just like the Shaun unit, although this one hadn’t tried to hug him). It was a girl, he thought: smaller than the Shaun unit by fourteen inches or so, and dressed, like the Shaun unit, in small jeans and a small T-shirt. It seemed very impractical to have to make clothing in miniature sizes to fit a variety of growth stages, but there was something slightly-- aesthetically pleasing-- about the sight of smaller-than-usual versions of ordinary human clothing. He’d noticed the effect before. Something about the care that had gone into reproducing the article’s proportions to a smaller scale.

This child had skin like his, dark as the rich earth of the Bioscience planters, and hair that grew in every direction from her head, in a blackish cloud of curls and frizz. As his would, presumably, if he didn’t keep it neatly clipped.

“I’m not in need of your assistance,” he told her.

The girl giggled. “You talk funny.”

He was slightly offended on behalf of his own-- as far as he knew-- perfectly programmed speech centers, but it was beneath his dignity to argue with a wasteland child about which of them talked properly.

“Mister?”

“What do you want?” he asked her, feeling irritated. He had a great deal to think about, and when Michael had left him at this settlement and gone to meet Dee at Railroad headquarters, he hadn’t said anything about how to make tiny humans stop chattering at you. In the Institute, children had been taught to leave coursers alone.

“You one of the General’s kids?” this one asked, her eyes bright with interest.

Good question.

Michael, who had apparently been here before-- the settlers had greeted him by name-- had introduced him by designation, and asked if he could rest here for a few hours while Michael ran an errand. The settlers had acquiesced readily-- apparently an Institute alphanumeric designation, which had once been as good as a death sentence for any synth exposed as such to the barbaric humans of the surface, was now an acceptable introduction, at least at this settlement-- shown him to a chair near an extinct fire pit, and left him alone. Except this child.

“Sheffield said they made the General’s kids in a lab,” said the little girl, undeterred by his silence. “Did they make you in a lab? Do you remember?”

He did remember. Not the creation process, of course, but the moment of awakening. Unit, state your designation.

Designation X6-88, ma’am. His first words.

Someone had said: Nice. And someone else: Look at that bone structure.

Wasted on an X-des. Just going to get wrecked, on the surface.

You don’t know he’ll qualify for courser.

He’s X. When’s the last time you saw one of them washing dishes?

X4-72.

That was unfortunate.

Unit, stand up.

“Mister?”

“What?” he snapped, and the child’s face fell.

“You don’t have to be mean,” she said, plaintively.

“Baby,” said a woman’s voice from nearby, and a woman who physically resembled the child came hurrying up. “Don’t bother the… our guest. Come here. Come help mama with the tatoes. Sorry, mister-- uh, X6-88.”

Before he could answer, she’d taken the child’s hand and hustled it away, over its protests.

Despite Michael’s eloquent disquisition on the subject, X6-88 really understood no more than he ever had why Nora Bowman would devote herself so entirely to the service of these people, or how that pertained to the Institute’s vision of the future. This farm was nothing like what Father had envisioned building. Their technology was primitive, even compared to what he had just seen at Poseidon, let alone in the Institute in its prime.

Although, on the other hand, he should count himself lucky. If Nora Bowman were less inclined to shelter, nourish, and protect every pathetic creature-- human or synth-- that clawed at her sleeve, she would have been less generous about his own charges. He would have felt less confidence about promising Drs. Li, Fillmore, and Oberly that her offer was sincere, that her disposition towards the Institute remnant was reliably good, that entering into a peaceful alliance with her wasn’t dangerous.

This time, Dr. Fillmore had said, worried and suspicious, and X6-88 had done his best to explain the difference. It was clear in his own mind-- clear and reliable, like any assessment arrived at via thorough field observation and the application of his own considerable intelligence-- but he was less practiced at verbalizing than, say, Michael. Who was-- somewhat alarmingly emotional, when he did speak at length, so X6-88 hadn’t encouraged him to do so, in front of the scientists. He didn’t think they would respond well to a former courser waxing poetic about his love for his mother.

Ms. Bowman practiced deception towards the Institute in the past from a position of weakness. She is now in a position of power. She would have no motivation to deceive you as to her intentions.

But why has she changed her mind about us? Dr. Fillmore again.

She destroyed the Institute because it denied autonomy to synths. She still feels passionately on the subject, and no doubt she would object if you proposed to force any synth into servitude. But she also understands that we-- coursers-- and possibly other synths-- may autonomously decide to serve what remains of the Institute. As the coursers here have done. As I have done. And X7-55.

And X9-21? That was Dr. Oberly, darting a nervous glance at Michael.

He considers himself the guardian of the former Institute scientists now resident at the Castle, and he has proved a valuable ally to me and my charges.

It had been a little alarming, and a little intoxicating, to be listened to so intently, by humans to whose orders and handling he had once submitted so unquestioningly. To feel his own power in the room. Michael had spoken of the power he wielded as Nora Bowman’s child, and X6-88 had begun to understand what he meant. That, however strong and deadly and capable he had always known himself to be, there was a considerable difference between being wielded as a weapon, however powerful, and exercising one’s own will on one’s own behalf. Or on the behalf of others.

It had been purely intoxicating-- joyful-- when Dr. Li had finally said, Well. X6-88 makes a lucid argument. Thoughts?

Thoughts, of course, directed to the humans in the room, who’d launched in on a tedious and unnecessarily emotive discussion that had finally culminated in their agreement to enter on negotiations for alliance with Nora Bowman.

Status: tentatively optimistic.

And proud of himself. Which was... new. The feeling that he’d not only achieved his preset goal, but reached beyond the parameters established for him by his superiors, and-- succeeded.

After they’d left the bounds of the Poseidon Energy settlement, Michael had hugged him, which had been--

He was beginning to see the appeal. Maybe. Of hugs.

But.

The coursers serving at Poseidon didn’t seem unhappy. They seemed to be valued, their skills put to good use, and they didn’t seem malnourished, or exhausted.

And X6-88-- despite everything-- had much more in common with them than he now did with Michael.

Once Dr. Loken was settled at Poseidon (along with the Watsons and X7-55), once Dr. Coulton was settled somewhere like this, X6-88 would have to choose. No one would make the decision for him. Dr. Loken might protest that he was unreliable, but Dr. Li’s eloquent little eye-roll at the mention of Dr. Loken’s dissatisfaction with him led X6-88 to believe that he’d be quickly overruled, if X6-88 offered his services at Poseidon.

On the other side of the equation-- Emily might weep, Shaun might cling to him, Nora Bowman might plead with him, but no one would try to force his hand, no one would make threats, or rescind promises. He was sure of that; all his observations bore it out. The decision would be his to make: to stay at the Castle, to join Nora Bowman’s strange family, answer yes to the child’s bizarre question: You one of the General’s kids?

Or to join his fellows and his former owners at Poseidon, step back into a life and a role that made sense?

It was always interesting to discover a practical real-world application for words and phrases that were part of his preset vocabulary, like inner turmoil.

“Here,” said the little girl, who had scampered back up to him without his having particularly registered the movement. He saw her mother hovering nearby, nervous, watching, as the child held something out to him, something it took him a moment to recognize as a single one of the little decorated cakes that came in the pink box. The kind Dee had written his message on, when he’d brought his lavish gift of food and supplies. Nora says all her kids are crazy for ‘em.

And then little Shaun, pressing a package of gumdrops into his hand: You can have one of the snack cakes, every time. There’s exactly enough for all of us, now.

“The General says these are your favorite,” said the child, hopeful, still holding out the cake. “I got three left. Your brother can have one, when he gets back. And still be one left for me.”

X6-88 abruptly suffered an unfamiliar set of physical symptoms-- his lungs tightened, his eyes burned. Nothing major. He reached out and took the cake.

“Thank you,” he said to the child. “That’s-- very kind of you.” He held it in his hand-- there seemed to be a slight obstruction in his throat. “I’ll eat it in a moment. Thank you-- What’s your name?”

The little girl beamed, pleased with herself, and said, “Nora.”

He stared at her.

“Like your mom!” she said happily. “My mom named me after your mom! Because she saved us from the raiders!”

“Come on, now, Nora,” said the mother, stepping forward again. “You gave him your cake, that was nice, now leave him alone.”

“Thank you, Nora,” he said to her, and she beamed again and waved, as she followed her mother back towards the tato frames.

…………………………………………...

 

X6-88 supposed he shouldn’t be surprised that Michael and Dee, when they returned-- later than X6-88 had anticipated; it was already full dark, except for the faint, generator-powered electric lights of the settlement-- had somehow acquired two extra grimy, undernourished, and unbalanced-looking humans, plus a silent and apparently nonaggressive Assaultron. “Rag-tag band of misfits” was turning out to be something of an understatement.

Michael spoke briefly with one of the humans of the settlement, before coming over to X6-88. His arm was around the male human, apparently supporting some of his weight; the man looked terrible. The woman was leaning on Dee’s arm.

“Des,” said Dee, as they all approached X6-88, who stood more slowly than was his usual practice, “Tom, PAM, this is X6-88. He’s an orthodontist. X6-88, this is my aunt PAM, my niece Desdemona, and my college roommate Tinker Tom. Funny story where me and Michael found them, and totally unrelated to our primary errand. See, on our way back--”

“Oh, Deacon, enough,” said the red-haired woman, sounding exhausted. “Tom needs a bed.”

“Sit down,” said Michael to X6-88. “Once I get them settled, I’ll come speak with you further.”

X6-88 sat back down. Michael and the humans disappeared into one of the small cottages that dotted the settlement. The Assaultron stayed still, whirring faintly.

“Report,” he said to it experimentally.

It didn’t respond.

“Are your aggressive capabilities disabled?”

A light came on at its side, and its metallic voice asked, “Is this unit in physical danger?”

“No,” said X6-88.

The light went back off.

“Are you functional?” he asked it.

It didn’t answer.

Michael came back after a little, alone, and sat down on the grass near the Assaultron’s feet, with a small sigh, and said, “The Railroad has disbanded.”

X6-88 was startled for a moment, and then found himself smiling slightly. “Well. A little late, but-- good work, unit.”

Michael grinned up at him. “Thank you, sir.”

“Was that what remained of it?” X6-88 asked, jerking his head towards the cottage.

“There were two other members,” said Michael, “but they elected to go their separate ways. This is a complex predictive unit they used tactically. It’s currently out of commission, but they say it may-- ‘wake up,’ as it were, eventually. I thought it might be a valuable resource for our mother.”

X6-88 nodded. “And the humans?”

“The woman is their former leader,” said Michael. “The man is an expert with technological research-design. Neither is in physically ideal condition at the moment, and the man is suffering from debilitating psychotic delusions, as a result of dehydration, poor diet, lack of sleep, and guilt and grief over the death of one of their own in the line of duty. I think he will recover, given time and proper care.”

“So you’re taking him home to your mother,” said X6-88.

Michael smiled again. “Of course. Where else?”

“I suppose it’s time she had another suffering foundling to nurse back to health,” said X6-88. “Now that her work with me is drawing to an end.”

Michael’s face, in the dim, indirect electric light, was hard to read. “What do you mean, X6-88?”

“It’s been-- pleasant,” said X6-88, honestly. “It had been some time since I was-- properly maintained, I suppose. Or-- valued. But we aren’t really designed to be-- pampered, you know. The kind of care she offers, its-- extravagance-- it isn’t-- It’s excessive. I don’t require such--” He hesitated, trying to choose a word.

“Mollycoddling?” Michael suggested.

X6-88 smiled a bit. “Yes. Precisely. The Institute maintained us perfectly well on-- austerity. She offers-- too much. More than--” He was exhausted from all this self-expression. “I would be-- constantly-- in debt.”

“I used to think the same thing,” said Michael. “Until I realized-- how much more she asks of us, than the Institute did.”

X6-88 took off his sunglasses, trying to see Michael’s face more clearly. “She’s asked nothing of me. Except that I stay, and I haven’t done that. She’s offered-- everything-- in exchange for nothing.”

“It feels that way,” said Michael, thoughtfully, not quite looking at X6-88. “At first. It may seem that way until you realize-- how you’ve grown.”

“The Institute created us already fully grown,” X6-88 pointed out.

Michael lifted his eyes to X6-88’s face. “Did it? I don’t think so. I think-- I believe human children aren’t often conscious of the energy they’re expending, in order to grow. And the process is so slow as to be invisible. But over the course of time, they grow-- so much. I had almost forgotten how small Naveena was, when she was born, until I held Miles, and then I realized how-- big-- Naveena is. And to think how much more she’ll grow. How small she still is, compared to-- what she’ll be.”

“You’re speaking metaphorically,” said X6-88, a little irritably. Having a poet for a sister was clearly a bad influence on Michael.

Michael nodded gravely. “We can survive on so little, X6-88, you’re right, but-- I’ve become-- so much more, than I ever imagined possible. And without her-- extravagant love-- lavished on me-- I couldn’t have done so. That’s what she asks of us. That we keep growing. That we become-- more perfectly ourselves. Stronger, and wiser, and kinder, and more-- ambitious, for the best that’s in us. And for the world. And she gives us-- everything she can-- but no more than we need, to achieve all that.”

Silence fell. X6-88 lifted his eyes to look at the stars. His memory wasn’t quite eidetically perfect, but he’d read Emily’s poem several times, and combined with the rhythm and rhyme of it, that had been enough to commit it to memory, even the parts that didn’t make sense. Which was most of it.

We see the lines that make of stars a story,
Spinning the tales that shape their random light
(Hunter and hunted, and a crown of glory)

“If you choose not to stay with us,” said Michael, into the silence, “her love will still be yours. And she’ll still want the same for you. That you grow. And you will, X6-88. Even if you don’t stay with us. You’re strong-- you may be stronger than I am-- and you may want to become-- something different, from what you would become, if you stayed with us.”

“Do you not want me to stay?” X6-88 asked, turning from the stars to examine Michael again.

“I want it-- very, very much,” Michael answered. “But no matter what you choose, you will lose none of the love of your family, and none of our hope that you become-- everything you want to be. And more than you imagine possible.”

X6-88 looked back up at the sky. Sleepless, we stay, till our sweet sleepers wake. The ragged, dirty, sick humans who had once helped Nora Bowman destroy X6-88’s home, asleep in the bunkhouse, and Dee, sleeping too, or keeping watch over his friends. And, in the other cottages, the other humans: Sheffield, whoever that was, and little Nora’s mother, and little Nora herself, with two snack cakes left, till she wakened in the morning to give one more away. To live the dreams we weave for their dear sake.

“Whatever I choose,” he said finally, “I’m grateful. For everything.”

“So are we,” Michael answered. “Whatever you choose. For you.”

Chapter Text

They’ve missed the last train. Just barely. If he’d run faster, if he’d planned better, if someone fucking competent had been in charge of this expedition. Now everything’s been for nothing. It’s all over--

“We haven’t missed it.” She’s flushed, tired-- they’ve all been running-- but still smiling. “It’s still here. They’ll make room. Come on.”

“There’s too many of us--” The courser, the synth, the woman whose hand he’s holding. The child and its mother. The tired woman, with her head on his shoulder. His arms are full of people. How did this happen, how did he pick up so many? He can’t put any down.

“There’s room.”

And they’re on the train, and there isn’t room, but, “come on, pile in, don’t be shy, put your foot here, right here, take my hand--”

From the window he can see the wreckage, still smoking even though it was so long ago, and she’s crying because she sees it too, she knows.

And still smiling. “See?”

And it’s so ridiculous the way they’re crammed up against each other but he used to sleep like this all the time, crushed between Glory and Tom on a dirty mattress, and the train’s moving, it’s actually moving with them on it, it wasn’t too late, and she’s saying, Of course--

“Of course, they must be exhausted.”

Why’s she whispering, it’s not a secret.

Who’s crushed against him? Not her. None of the women. He can smell the acrid sweat, the familiar ozone shiver of high-tech fiberwork and chronic fear.

Tom.

Tom.

Dee’s eyes opened.

“No, don’t wake them up, let them sleep. I’ll-- Oh, Dee, I’m sorry--”

Tom stirred, murmured, made a little whimper, but didn’t wake as Dee disentangled himself and sat up in the bed they’d been sharing. He remembered now, there hadn’t been enough spare beds, and he’d said he didn’t mind if Tom didn’t and Tom had clutched at him as if he was a teddy bear. The dwindling numbers at HQ, they must not have been sharing mattresses lately, Tom had shivered against him and then, finally, relaxed, into sleep.

Des was still asleep in the other spare bed.

And Michael, standing there, with-- Nora. Where in God’s imaginary name had she come from. Was he still dreaming?

“I didn’t mean to wake you,” she whispered, beaming at him, her smile just like in the dream. Tired, joyful. “You can go back to sleep. You must be so tired.”

“I’m awake.” He whispered, too, and stood carefully; Tom still didn’t wake. “What are you doing here?”

She took his hand and led him out of the little cottage, Michael following silently. The sun was already up, the world looking washed clean in the pale, sweet light of early morning. X6-88 was still sitting in the lawn chair from last night-- had he moved at all?-- but he rose wordlessly at Nora’s approach.

“Don’t get up,” said Nora, and X6-88 said, “With your permission, ma’am, I’d like to stand for awhile.”

“Well, OK,” said Nora. “Then you sit down, Dee.”

“You sit down, ma’am,” Michael contradicted. “You’ve walked all night.”

“I’m not tired.” She was hugging herself, bouncing on the balls of her feet, that little-kid thing she did when she was happy and excited. “I mean, I’ll probably crash and take a nap later, but not yet. Sit, Dee, sit.”

He sat, obediently, still feeling a dreamlike sense of unreality. What had happened yesterday? Had he really led Desdemona and Tom up out of the bowels of Fort Hagan and into the cool, starry night, brought them here to Sunshine Tidings--

“Joscelyn got the Castle on the radio last night,” Nora was explaining. “She was a little worried about PAM. Well, you know, Assaultron. Not that she didn’t trust you, Michael, but-- and when she described who else you’d brought-- well, I had to come see for myself. Not that I’m shocked that you two managed what I haven’t in all this time--”

You two, Michael and Dee. He felt a flush of pride, and of the feeling from the dream, as the train (train? He’d never even seen a functioning train, what the hell) started to move, with him and his people on it. Bewilderment, disbelief, triumph.

“Plus they should probably stay here awhile,” Nora was saying. “At least until Tom gets his strength back. He’s going to need rest. So I thought I’d come talk to the people here in person, make sure they’re good to accommodate a couple of extras. They’ll be safe here, you know, Dee. And I wanted to ask you about HQ-- did you leave the files and terminals and everything there? I can help move them out, if you need help--”

“We left some defenses in place,” said Michael, “and Desdemona says everything is encrypted. But yes, ma’am, it would probably be best if we return soon and collect or destroy the data.”

“We can wait until Des is awake, so she can tell us what needs to be saved,” said Nora. “And give us whatever passwords and secret decoder rings we need. Don’t worry, Dee, I won’t antagonize her. I’ll even stop bouncing, I promise. Out of respect.”

She was grinning fit to split, and he couldn’t help grinning back. “Nora--”

“What?”

“Nothing,” he said. “Just-- thanks.”

“For what?” She laughed. “I should be thanking you! Do you know how long I’ve been waiting for this day? Do you know the last time I saw Desdemona in the sunlight?"

He did.

"Now that's not gonna be the last time anymore." She turned to Michael and X6-88. "What else have you found?"

X6-88 looked at Michael, who silently produced the BMS holotape from his breast pocket and handed it to Nora. She popped it into her Pip-Boy, and they all listened again. Or, he guessed, X6-88 was hearing it for the first time, unless Michael had found a way to play it for him last night. Presumably he'd at least told him what was on it.

Nora listened intently. When the tape was over, she looked up at Michael, and said, with a small smile, "They sound-- excited."

Michael smiled back. "They do."

"But--" Nora worried her lower lip for a moment. "I mean, what? Rail station? Raider threat? Why don't I know about this? If there's an organized group of raiders posing a threat to the Commonwealth, wouldn't you think the Minutemen would have noticed?"

"Possibly X2-91 and V4-54 have already managed to eliminate or reduce the threat," said Michael. "They're both highly capable. And they would have had the advantage of surprise."

"To put it mildly," Nora agreed. "Whatever these guys out west are trying to accomplish luring people onto their train, I doubt a pair of fired-up coursers with a plan for obliteration was on their menu. But-- damn. I feel like I should do something about this. Not just because my babies are out there-- although that too-- but it's my job to protect the Commonwealth. If there's a threat out there, I need to eliminate it myself."

"Not alone," said Michael firmly.

Nora smiled. "Of course not alone, son. I never do anything alone anymore."

"Except walk here last night," said Michael.

"Will you stop it?" She was laughing. "There's a big difference between walking across my own Commonwealth and heading into unknown territory without backup. But, Michael, don't you want to stay here and hang out with your courser friends? Now that we've reconnected with them?"

"It might be best to give them some time to get used to the idea," said Michael. "Of being on friendly terms with Nora Bowman. And her family. In any case, V4-54 and X2-91 may be in need of our assistance, and if the dangers have proved greater than they anticipated, the need may be urgent. I would prefer not to leave them in possibly dire straits so that I can hang out with my courser friends."

"Fuckin' smartass." Nora laughed again. "Fine. So you, me-- I'll see if Hancock's on board. Dee? You missed the Far Harbor adventure, you want to come on our great western expedition?"

He shook his head. "I just want to go home."

"Dee!" she nearly shrieked, and he jumped. "Sorry, sorry, God, just, do you know how happy that makes me--"

"Sheesh," he said, although he knew what she meant. "You didn't have to invite me along, then."

But her attention had already shifted, to X6-88, who'd said absolutely nothing since asking permission to stand.

She was down off her toes, wasn't laughing any more. There was something in her demeanor, suddenly, that felt both strange and familiar, and he put his finger on it after a second-- strange only because it was Nora, but he'd seen it over and over, in the synths. The newly rescued ones. Not all of them-- God, not Glory, she'd been full of piss and vinegar from the start, demanding answers, her chin thrust out and up, he'd never understand how she'd ever lasted so long in the Institute-- but a lot of them.

Attentive, but in a shy, reticent way, as if not wanting to get caught paying too much attention. Humble, a bit apologetic about giving so much trouble by existing. Quietly, resignedly, awaiting whatever might happen next.

X6-88 probably knew that posture, too, from synths in the Institute. His attention was entirely on her. His sunglasses made his expression very hard to read.

(Sunglasses. Dee realized, with an odd little lurch, that he wasn't wearing his. Hadn't even thought to fumble for them when he woke up. No wonder the morning light had looked so clear and pale and lovely, when he walked out into it. Still did, truth be told.)

She did this over and over, didn't she. With every child. Even him-- hadn't she stood before him like this--

Deacon, I love you. I love you whether you let me hug you or not. But please let me hug you.

He needed to get on writing that song for her. Maybe Emily would help him, after all. He'd have it waiting for her, when she got back from wherever she was going.

She wasn't saying anything, to X6-88. She was just standing there, waiting. Maybe he was waiting, too, for orders, or at least a question. Maybe they'd just stand there forever, waiting for each other to make a move.

Somehow he managed not to try to cut the tension with a quip. He wrote lyrics in his head instead. I can't run, I can't fight, I can't something or hide. My carapace smashed, you can see what's inside. Maybe Magnolia would help him with a tune. Got one eyestalk left, I can see you advance. Tum tee ta tum tee I don’t stand a chance--

X6-88 said, "Would you like me to accompany you as well, ma'am?"

She caught her breath. "I-- I mean-- only if you--"

"I haven't yet decided what I want to do," said X6-88. "In terms of the future, that is. You've been extremely generous, ma'am, and I'm very grateful, but I--" He paused for thought, then said carefully, "I believe that, rather than have me enter your service out of a sense of obligation, you would prefer that I repay you by-- choosing the way of life in which I believe I will find most-- personal fulfillment."

Nora's eyes overflowed with tears. Otherwise, she stood still as a statue, as if hoping that holding her breath would stop the tears, the way it sometimes cured hiccups.

"You're correct," said Michael, to X6-88, "and she is pleased to have successfully conveyed that message to you."

Nora nodded vigorously, and silently, still crying without sound, except a little hitching noise in her throat that might have been a gasp for breath.

"I wouldn't presume to ask you for further-- indulgence," said X6-88, "except that I believe that, too, is your preference. That you take pleasure in-- giving me things. So I ask that you allow me to postpone my decision, until we have successfully determined the status of the two remaining coursers. And I ask that you allow me to accompany you on this trip."

"Why?" Michael asked, and Nora's head jerked towards him, alarmed and reproachful-- don't startle him! he'll run away!-- but X6-88 said, to Nora, "You asked for another chance. After having dismissed me, once, from your service. And, as yet, I haven't had the opportunity to-- offer you, again, what you once rejected. You've had the opportunity to-- spoil me, a bit-- but we haven't fought side by side again. I've been the object of your generosity, but-- I want more than that." He stopped, again, and resumed, "I would like to try. Again. To show you-- my best. My strength, and skill, and-- the thing I was designed, and trained, to be. That I am. If I can be that for you-- well. I'll know-- what to do." He gave her a very small smile. "If you still want me, then."

Nora nodded again, harder than ever, sniffling a little, the tears still coming.

"Thank you," said X6-88, and Nora broke into another radiant smile, through her tears, until Dee expected to see a rainbow reflected in X6-88's glasses.

"That's how I got Michael," she said thickly, beaming up at Michael. "Remember? How we just killed everything that moved for a week straight, and then you picked your name?"

"It had slipped my mind entirely, ma'am," said Michael, and Nora choked on a laugh, and said again, "Fuckin' smartass! X6, were you always a smartass too, and I was just too dumb to notice--"

X6-88 said, "It's a possibility, ma'am."

"Oh my God," said Nora, laughing and crying. "Two of you. In league against me. What have I done?"

Michael moved to her and put his arm around her, and she leaned against him, pressing her tear-wet face against his shirt.

“General Nora!” yelled someone, and a little girl came charging out of another of the cottages and ran full tilt at Nora, taking a flying leap at the last minute. Nora readjusted just in time to catch her, stumbling back slightly against Michael, who steadied her with both hands.

“You’re all wet,” accused the little girl, drawing her head back like a suspicious kitten and peering into Nora’s face.

“Hey, Princess Nora,” said Nora, smiling, and shifting her arms to hold the child more securely. “How’s tricks?”

The little girl shook her head. “Not princess.”

“You’re not a princess any more?” Nora asked, putting the little girl down and wiping her face with her hand. “How come? Was there a revolution?”

“I’m a doctor,” said the little girl. “Doctor Nora. You want me to fix you?”

“Oh, yes please,” said Nora, and knelt down on the ground. “Check my face, I think it’s leaking.”

The little girl giggled, and began patting Nora’s face, dabbing delicately around her eyes with her fingertips.

“You’re fixed,” she said, after a minute.

Nora patted her own face, then beamed. “Oh, doctor, thank you so much! How can I ever repay you?”

“You can’t,” said the little girl, and giggled again, and then, abruptly, turned around and charged back off, into the cottage she’d come from.

Nora started getting back to her feet, somewhat laboriously; Michael reached down to help her up.

“Maybe I can try to repay her by fucking up some bad guys,” she said, when she was on her feet again. “I know that’s what I always say, but hey. When all you have is a hammer.”

“Deacon--?”

He looked up.

Desdemona was standing in the doorway of the little guest cottage, blinking in the sunlight, the way she had last time she emerged from underground, when they blew up the Institute. He stood.

“Hey, Des,” he said.

She squinted at him, and then at Nora, who was smiling again, joyfully, although, as promised, she wasn’t bouncing on her toes.

“It’s... bright,” Desdemona said finally.

“It’s a pretty day,” said Nora. “It’s good to see you, Desdemona.”

Deacon said, “Grab my shades, Des. They’re inside, on that little--”

She blinked at him some more, not seeming to understand, so he went to her, and past her, into the cottage-- Tom still asleep, god, how long had it been since he’d slept, Dee had to check out of paranoia but yes he was breathing regularly-- and picked up the shades where they lay on the little end table next to the lamp, and offered them to Des, still swaying slightly in the doorway.

“You can borrow them,” he said. “For a bit.”

Desdemona took them in her hand, slowly, looking up into Dee’s eyes, blinking as if still into the sunlight, and then, slowly, she smiled.

Chapter Text

Dee and Nora came home together, without the coursers. Ex-coursers. Elizabeth found herself not only happy (so happy, an inner lifting and lightness and shivering that caught her by surprise) to see Dee, but relieved of a worry of which she hadn't quite let herself be conscious.

(Dee-- well, he’d been a Railroad agent, she was sure he could handle himself in a fight, and it wasn’t that he seemed weak to her, he just seemed-- less like an unkillable force of nature, like the coursers and Nora, and more like a real person, the kind that got in over his head, and lost sometimes. And it only took once.)

Danse might be worried, though, about Michael, and she glanced sideways at him, as soon as it was obvious from their vantage point atop the wall who the two approaching figures were. Danse’s face was grave, but it was always grave at rest, and when he saw her searching look, he gave her a little smile.

She’d been a little surprised-- well, extremely surprised-- when he approached her after lunch, and very unsure where to look so as not to seem to stare at his scar, but he’d started out deferential-- Dr. Teasdale, may I speak with you for a moment?-- and that had put her at ease.

(All right, so it wasn’t something she particularly liked about herself, the fact that she was most comfortable with synths if they were being deferential, but it was understandable given the habits and training of an entire lifetime, and she was getting better, and there was such a thing as a comfort zone, and she’d been spending a lot of time outside hers, lately.)

So it had been easy to say, “Of course, Danse,” and not feel nervous that he had some kind of grudge against her (he didn’t remember the Institute, of course, so if he did have a grievance it was obsolete now).

“It seems to me we have something in common at the moment,” he’d said to her. “With Dee and Michael both away.”

She’d smiled, and blushed, and he’d smiled too, a quick, shy crook of his mouth, and said, “Not that you necessarily lack for companionship-- and you may prefer the company of-- of your own kind--”

Which made it easy, too, for her to say, “No, no, I’ve been-- very much enjoying-- the privilege, of getting to know-- all of you. Nora’s family.”

(Which was true, too.)

And it was odd, sitting up here with Danse, but quiet as he was, he was very pleasant company.

“I imagine it must be as strange for you, here, as it has been for me,” he’d said, and then, when she asked, told her a little about the Brotherhood of Steel-- she’d known very little about it in the Institute, just that it posed some kind of threat, and had turned out not to be as much of a threat as the Railroad, despite what one would have thought from the respective impressiveness of their names. He spoke of it with affection, still, which was interesting, and made her feel a little better about sometimes missing the Institute.

"I suppose Nora was wise not to join us," he said, though sounding a little sad about it. "To seek a different path towards-- our vision. We wanted to save the Commonwealth, but we didn't--" He gestured, in a particular direction, behind them and out over the water, where nothing was. "We held ourselves above it."

"We did the opposite," said Elizabeth, smiling a bit. "Tunneled underneath."

"Two versions of the same error," said Danse seriously. "Holding ourselves separate. We thought it was the way to stay-- clean. Pure. But we only succeeded in staying ignorant, of what was really happening on the ground. What the Commonwealth was becoming. And under whose guidance."

Elizabeth nodded, thinking of her night in Goodneighbor, not so long ago, the bar full of ghouls and dirty wastelanders, and the way they'd swirled around the table she shared with Nora Bowman, smiling and greeting, or walking past with a nod. The way they'd asked if this was her daughter; the way they'd stepped back and made space for her to dance.

She could see now that Dee wasn't wearing his sunglasses, as his approaching figure looked up at the wall, and she waved vigorously, and he waved back, still too far away for her to see if he was smiling.

She felt an all-over flush of happiness. She’d never thought of herself as lonely-- she’d loved solitude, once, and missed it after the Institute was destroyed, when they were all cooped up so much closer together-- but she’d been lonely for Dee almost since the moment he left.

Then little Shaun ran out to meet his mother and his honorary brother, and Nora caught him up and hugged him and put him down, and Dee dropped to his knees and put his arms around the boy, hugging him tight, and Elizabeth felt a prickle of tears in her eyes, and wondered why.

He got up, and grinned up at Elizabeth and Danse as he came closer, and then he and Nora both disappeared into the wall.

Then there were pattering footsteps on the stone staircase threaded through the wall, and Dee emerged, and slid into the space between them, and slung his arm around Elizabeth, and said to Danse, “Listen here, buddy, if you’re trying to poach my girl--”

Danse looked slightly flustered, and Elizabeth said, curling against Deacon’s warm, lovely body and laughing, “Yes? What are you going to do about it, tough guy?”

“Uh, respect your autonomy,” said Dee. “Definitely. And ask you to bear in mind that he might be a studly Adonis whose lantern jaw alone justifies the existence of the Synth Aesthetics Bureau--”

“There wasn’t a Synth Aesthetics Bureau.”

“--proves the existence of an interventionist God--”

“Are you sure you’re the one who should be worried about Danse's allure?”

Danse was blushing, but smiling a little, too.

“--but I am, occasionally, kind of funny,” Dee concluded. “In a pitiable kind of way.”

“That happens to be my type,” said Elizabeth, nuzzling slightly into the hollow of his neck, which she’d missed in particular.

“Ha!” said Dee to Danse. “By the way, your equally studly paramour will be home as soon as he’s done helping his best friend and his best friend’s stunningly high cheekbones-- Elizabeth, are you sure there wasn’t a a Synth Aesthetics Bureau?”

“Are you sure you weren’t head of the Synth Aesthetics Bureau?” Elizabeth teased.

“Hey, I can appreciate a fine zygomatic arch as much as the next mostly toothless wastelander,” said Dee. “Anyway, Michael’s helping X6 get Loken and Coulton settled. He’ll be home soon.”

“Thank you,” said Danse, who seemed to have mostly recovered his composure. “I hope you don’t mind my-- befriending-- Dr. Teasdale, while both of our--” He blushed again, slightly, and smiled. “--paramours, were away.”

“It’s been lovely talking to you, Danse,” said Elizabeth, smiling at him, having settled back down next to Dee. “Thank you for approaching me. Don’t feel you have to go.”

“I’m sure you and Dee would like to be alone,” said Danse, already getting to his feet. "It's all right. I'd like to speak to Nora. Thank you for the pleasure of your company, Dr. Teasdale."

"Elizabeth," said Elizabeth. "Please."

"Elizabeth," Danse echoed, smiling. "Thank you. I'll hope to speak with you again soon."

Then Danse was gone, and Dee's arms were all the way around her, and his lips were on her lips, and she was melting happily, dizzy and safe against him.

Then, some time later, she asked, "Did you see your friends?"

"Yeah," said Dee, and kissed her temple, just above her ear and just before her hairline. "Yeah, I saw 'em. Funny story-- remember how I told you, the first time we talked, that the Railroad was kind of obsolete at this point? Well, they noticed. And dissolved. Dissolved the Railroad, I mean, not the people."

"That's good," she said. "Isn't it?"

He nodded. "I think so, yeah. Yeah. For the-- for my friends. And hey, now you might get to meet them."

"I'd like to," said Elizabeth truthfully, and Dee smiled at her, his blue eyes sparkling in the sunlight. "You aren't wearing your sunglasses."

"I lent them to somebody," said Dee. "Somebody who needs them more than I do, right now. I mean, if the Railroad's over, I'm not a secret agent man of mystery any more. I'm just--"

"Jonah Dee," Elizabeth supplied, when he didn't finish his sentence.

"Yeah," he said. "Jonah Dee. Pretty blue eyes and all."

She smiled, and leaned forward to kiss his jaw, and he shivered slightly, and said, "Elizabeth--"

"Yes?"

"I have to ask you something," he said. "And it's gonna sound weird, but-- bear with me."

She smiled. "All right, Jonah, I'll bear with you."

He looked distracted. "What did you call me?"

"Jonah," she said, and teased, "Are we not on a first-name basis yet?"

"No, it's just--" He seemed genuinely flustered. "It's just, you, uh, haven't. Before."

"Do you prefer Dee?" she asked, and he said, "I-- actually-- You know I just, um, made that name up, right? Jonah Dee?"

"I gathered," she said. "Are you changing it again, now? I can adjust, if you feel something else would suit you better."

(After all, she was learning to call X9-21 Michael, and Eve Leah. All the synths had chosen their own names, and she was learning to call a ghoul by the name he'd obviously chosen for himself, as well. She was close enough to a former Railroad agent to see the shape of his chest through the cloth of his worn shirt, feel the heat coming off his human body, and she wasn't afraid. Almost no one and nothing in the world was who or what she had thought they were, and that was alarming, but sometimes-- a bit wonderfully astonishing, as well.)

He laughed, a little breathlessly. "I, um. I'll have to get back to you on that one. Call me-- call me whatever you want, though. I just-- nobody but Shaun's been calling me Jonah."

"Max has," said Elizabeth, thinking of the synth, not her former colleague, who-- well, it was good to know he was being 'settled.' She still hadn't processed her complicated feelings about learning that so many of her former colleagues were alive and more or less thriving under Madison Li and Allie Fillmore's guidance. She'd be interested in visiting, maybe, yes, at some point, but she wouldn't much mind never seeing Max Loken in particular again. The synth, on the other hand--

Dee was smiling. "He's been calling me 'Jonah Dee.' Full name. I think he's being sarcastic."

"Affectionate," Elizabeth corrected. It was quite obvious how much affection Max felt for Dee, in his easygoing way.

"Then how come you don't call me 'Jonah Dee'?"

"What did you have to ask me, Jonah Dee?" she asked, and he said, "Never mind. I forget. It's dinnertime."

She raised her eyebrows, but said, "All right. Ask me when you're ready. I am hungry."

 

...........................................................

 

She ate dinner at the synths' table-- Nora's family's table, rather, since Nora and Dee and Kasumi and Hancock were all there too. (And Eve/Leah, who had a bed here now.) Elizabeth listened with interest to Nora's account of the holotape from the abandoned safehouse, the scientists who'd apparently made lives for themselves in the Commonwealth and the coursers who'd departed for points west, and the expedition Nora was planning, with her seemingly boundless energy and optimism. There was a lively discussion that didn't quite turn into a quarrel, regarding whether Hancock, the ghoul, ought to accompany his wife on a possibly dangerous trip, given that he was one of the council that ought to be looking after the Commonwealth in her absence.

"I'll resign from the council, dammit," said Hancock, and Nora said, "After all the trouble it was to put it together, you better not," and Emily said, "Mother, if you're going to be gone for long, should we ask Mr. Garvey and Ms. Shaw to come and stay here, in case any Minutemen decisions need making?" and Victoria said, "Does that mean we've got to figure out how to wedge in more beds again?" and Nora said, "Well, if me and Hancock are going to be gone," and Danse said, quietly, "What about me?"

Everyone stopped and looked at Danse, who reddened, but said, "If-- Hancock's-- position on your council doesn't disqualify him from accompanying you--"

"Danse!" Nora looked bewildered, but pleased. "I mean, if you want to-- but aren't you still sort of, um-- I mean, they're raiders. Humans. Are you going to be OK with killing them? If we have to?"

"Yes, Nora, I think so," said Danse. "If I have to. Michael and I have discussed-- the circumstances under which a synth might be justified in violence against a human. And for a worthy cause-- to defend my--" He hesitated, eyes on Nora, as Elizabeth's mind filled in owners-- or, since his memories were of the Brotherhood of Steel, superiors-- and then he said, "My family. It's my-- my duty, to defend my family. And my-- right-- as well."

"Too fuckin’ right, son," said Hancock cheerfully, while Nora beamed so joyously at Danse that he dropped his eyes to his plate in obvious discomfiture, though he was smiling a little, too.

"Well," said Nora. "Damn. I'm going to have to think about this. Emily, you're right, we should get up with Preston and Ronnie, and talk about them maybe moving in while we're gone. And Silver, too, so the Brotherhood can weigh in, and doesn't get spooked. Maybe we can ask Wiseman to pinch hit for Hancock, since he's the official alternate. OK! Logistics! Planning! We can do this!" She smiled at Emily, who smiled back, happy and serene. "Let me get on the radio and see what we can sort out tonight. Might need to do some running around tomorrow. I'll be by the library in a bit, OK?"

"I'll come with," said Hancock. "Don't want to miss you doing your radio voice."

Nora laughed. "What radio voice? I don't have a radio voice. That’s just my normal voice."

"'Hey guys,'" said Dee, in a fairly good imitation of Nora's more exuberant tones, "'it's the General! God, what a pretty day, right? Anyway, attention Super Duper Mart shoppers, blue light special on dead ferals. That was a prewar joke, find a prewar ghoul to explain it to you. But seriously, me and Michael just cleared about thirty ferals out of the Super Duper Mart. Happy shopping! Love you guys! Over and out!'"

Almost everyone laughed, including Nora; she protested, "I do not sound like that!" and most of the table said, in unison, "Yes you do."

"Do it again," said Shaun, enthralled, to Dee.

"No, no, let me," said Cog. "Here. 'What's up, Minutemen?’” His imitation of Nora was slightly more exaggerated than Dee’s. “‘Your General speaking. Knock-knock. Who's there? Asbestos. Asbestos who? I'm keeping the Commonwealth safe asbestos I can! Me and Hancock just took out a bunch of Gunners near the old airport, and boy are my arms tired. Sleep well, everybody!'"

"Oh my God." Nora, laughing harder than anyone else, stood up. "I'm going to go on the radio and tell everyone in the Commonwealth how relentlessly all my kids mock me all the time. Come on, Hancock."

......................................................

"Come to the library with us," said Dee, when they were finished eating, and Elizabeth hesitated only for a moment. She wanted to be with Dee, and he wanted to be with his family, and he was inviting her, so.

The synths-- and Kasumi-- sprawled and curled and cuddled and perched on the furniture as usual, comfortable and safe, as if they owned the place. Which-- of course-- they did, more or less. Dee sat on the bed that had been his-- still was, she supposed, in addition to the one out in the little diner-- and she sat down next to him, smiling up at him when he took her hand in his.

"My turn to read," said Victoria, but as Cog handed her a book, Dee cleared his throat, and said, "Guys?"

Everyone looked at him.

“So," he said. "You know the Railroad? I mean-- some of you do, or did. You all at least know of it, I think."

There were nods; most of them looked expectant. Shaun, from the crook of Emily's arm, said, "I remember the Railroad."

“Right,” said Dee. “Well. It’s, um. It’s kind of-- over, I guess, now. Dissolved. We did what we came for, and now-- the last members are kind of-- not members any more. Moving on. Shaun, you remember Tinker Tom?”

"Yes!" Shaun said, sounding thrilled. "Can I see him again?"

"Yeah," said Dee, smiling at him. "Yeah, 2.0, you sure can. Soon, I think. I think he'll be happy to see you again, too. But--" He looked around. "I just wanted you guys to know. And--"

Everyone waited, until he said, in a bit of a rush, "And I kind of want to talk about it? It's-- now that it doesn't have to be a secret any more-- especially from you guys. And I thought-- maybe-- you might want to hear?”

"I do," said Victoria, immediately, and very firmly.

"So do I," said Emily, and Max said, "Yeah. Of course. Of course."

“Yes," said Eve-- Leah, thoughtfully. "I would like to hear. Anything you have to tell."

Dee looked around-- others were nodding, waiting, and said, “I-- God. I don’t know where to start."

"Do you remember Agent Maven?" Danse asked quietly, and Dee said, "Oh. Oh, shit, of course. Maven. I--"

He looked down, at the hand in his lap, the one that wasn't holding Elizabeth's, and then looked back up, and said, "Well, she joined up when I’d been an agent for-- ten years or so."

He paused again.

(He lied-- spun stories-- quickly, with an easy facility, but the truth came slower, Elizabeth had noticed, as if he needed longer to make sure of his memory than to call on his powers of invention.)

“Picked up one of our holotapes," he resumed. "We used to leave these holotapes scattered all over the Commonwealth, ‘join the Railroad, the synths aren’t your enemy,’ with instructions how to find HQ.”

“That sounds dangerous,” said Leah, frowning.

“Yeah, they were, uh, circuitous instructions,” said Dee. “Took you all round the houses, plenty of chance for our heavies to pick you off if you were-- you know. Brotherhood, or a courser. That was the theory, anyway. But let’s not talk about that part right now, yeah-- Maven, she picked up a holotape and she figured out what it meant, snuck and ran the whole way along our route in, and popped up at HQ covered in dirt and blood, her arm’s all torn up from where some dogs jumped her while she was running away from ferals that clawed her face up, and we’ve got guns on her, you know, ‘Stop right there!’ and she looks up at us and goes, ‘What the hell do you mean, synths aren’t the enemy?’

“It turned out her brother’d been replaced, you know, the Institute sent out those duplicates--"

He paused, looking at Shaun, a little guiltily, and Emily said, "He knows that used to happen."

"Right," said Dee. No one looked at Elizabeth, in particular, but she still felt cold shame at the mention of what the Institute had done to so many surface dwellers' lives, while she'd ignored everything but her own work. "Well, and Maven's brother’s duplicate-- killed him, and took over his life, and she only found out when he got killed by raiders. The duplicate. So she’d hunted us down. All by her little lonesome. I don’t know what she thought she was going to do, but it seemed like she couldn’t die happy until she at least yelled at the person who made that holotape.

“So then Glory speaks up--” He smiled a bit. “Well, you guys know about Glory, right? Most of you do? She was one of us, and she was a synth. Joined after we got her out, wouldn’t take the memory wipe, wouldn’t be relocated. Max knew her in the Institute, they were close-- anyway, Glory says, ‘You got anything to say to a synth, you can say it to me’ and Maven points her little gun straight at Glory’s face, and Glory, she walks straight up to Maven, she doesn’t even have her gun up, and she says, ‘You gonna kill me? Is that the human thing to do?’

“And it startles Maven enough we-- well, we got her talking. And she-- joined up. She was kind of-- scrawny-- but that was good because she could squeeze herself in anywhere, she hid and spied and carried messages-- she called herself Maven because she said she wasn’t much of a fighter but by God she knew everything about everything. We ran this mission once--”

He took a deep breath suddenly, and said, “Oh. Oh wow.” He laughed a little. “That’s-- that's my true story stamina tapped for the day, guys. Sorry, those muscles are-- atrophied.”

“Don’t be sorry,” said Emily softly, and Danse said, “No, don’t be sorry. Thank you. Very much.”

“That was a good story,” said Max. “I bet you’ve got a lot like that.”

“Another time,” said Dee. “When I've recovered. If you guys want to-- I mean, thanks, thanks for listening. Victoria, if you want to, uh. Read, now?"

Without demur or comment, Victoria opened the book to her bookmark, and began reading, slightly ornate prose that sounded vaguely familiar to Elizabeth. She recognized it, slowly, strangely, as Victoria read on: The Wind in the Willows. She'd read it as a child, one of the carefully scanned and digitized prewar books from the Institute's fiction library, had been entranced by the foreignness of the world it depicted. Animals she'd never seen, food she'd never eaten. Motor-cars, waistcoats, Christmas carols. She hadn't thought of it in decades.

Dee leaned down and kissed her on her hair, and she leaned against him.

She didn't know if she felt safe, exactly-- maybe you never felt as safe as you did before the first time you had to wonder whether you were, and she'd spent so long deep underground, surrounded by polite colleagues and carefully programmed servants, doing work she'd thought of as good, having no controversial opinions, asking no difficult questions. She'd felt safe then. She didn't feel like that now-- the world was big and confusing and shocking and sometimes terrifying, and she-- she wasn't very strong. Not yet. Her own fault, maybe. Partly, at least.

But in the Institute, she'd never wondered whether she was happy, either, and she-- hadn't been. Content, probably; complacent, in retrospect, certainly; and she'd enjoyed her work, and appreciated her comfort, but happiness? If that was what this was-- the feeling that life was high adventure, that it lay ahead in unguessable sweetness and splendor, full of surprises, joys as well as tragedies, unexpected laughter and suddenly surfacing tears, stories to hear and stories to live--

Dee said very quietly in her ear, "Did you meet the new baby? Miles? While I was gone?"

She looked up at him, curious, and shook her head.

He said, just as quietly, close against her ear, "Want to, tomorrow? You and me?"

She nodded, and he smiled at her, and pulled her closer, close enough that she could feel him trembling a little, as they listened to Victoria read.

Chapter Text

X6-88 climbed the stairs of the building he’d inhabited for so long, Michael a few steps behind; he disarmed his own defenses and opened the door, bracing himself a little for what he might find. Tears, hysterics, violent rage, catatonia. Who could say what kind of frenzies the humans had managed to work themselves into in his absence. His training allowed him to subject his own strong emotions to a reasonable degree of control; it was really too bad humans weren’t capable of subjecting themselves to at least a modicum of training. At least, with Michael at his side, he wouldn’t have to deal with their nonsense alone.

The three humans in the room, though, all looked up calmly. Even Dr. Coulton. He looked pale, but calmer than X6-88 had seen him since-- certainly since the misadventure of the Castle. Since before then. Since before the destruction of the Institute, perhaps. And even in those days, he had tended to have a certain nervous tension about him. His face now, though-- it reminded X6-88 of his own training, the parts when one was exhausted enough to begin to understand the concept of sleep, too tired to think or to be afraid any longer, when one was simply still for a moment, until the next thing.

Dr. Loken looked-- calmer, too. Less afraid, and less angry, than he had been lately when he looked at X6-88.

None of the three men spoke, but Dr. Binet smiled, a tired, contented smile, directly at X6-88.

“Hello, X6-88,” he said. “Michael.”

“Sir,” said X6-88 cautiously.

“We’re ready to go with you to Poseidon,” said Dr. Binet. “All of us.” He looked at Michael. “If that’s all right with the Bowmans.”

After a moment, Michael said, “You and Dr. Coulton intend to rejoin the Institute remnant at Poseidon Energy?"

“As I mentioned earlier, to you and X6-88,” said Dr. Binet, “I miss the company of-- what might broadly be deemed ‘my own kind.’” He smiled, the same tired smile. “I’ve been living in fear of discovery by-- your mother-- but now she’s established diplomatic contact, with me and with Poseidon, I suppose that fear is-- obsolete. I should say that I'm grateful to you both-- X6-88, and you, Julian-- for-- seeking me out." He spread out a hand into a fan of fingers, pushed with his palm against the air, as if gently shoving someone standing before him. "Maybe now-- now that I'm not-- hiding, and dreaming of the past-- I can rejoin my people, and-- make something of my life. My new life. Become-- someone worth being."

Michael nodded, and then looked at Dr. Coulton, who looked down.

“You offered to allow Dr. Coulton to take up residence at a Minutemen settlement,” said Dr. Binet, smoothly intercepting the glance. “We thought this might be-- a similar compromise in spirit, but a little less--” he made a little moue-- “hideously awkward and shameful, for him.”

“It’s not just that,” said Dr. Coulton, looking back up at Michael. His voice was low and raspy, as if he'd been screaming, or crying, or both. “I’m not trying to-- avoid the consequences. Of my behavior. But--”

His gaze darted, startlingly, to X6-88.

“I don’t-- understand you,” he said. “Either of you. Why you protect me, X6-88-- and X9-21-- Michael--” He took a breath, making an obvious effort to smooth out the tremors in his breath. “I owe you both my life, a thousand times over, and I don’t understand why.

He paused, as if for them to answer, but before X6-88 could think how to do so, he resumed, “And there-- at Poseidon-- there’s no-- there’s no one there who’s-- helpless, or-- unwilling, to be there. And it’s-- smaller, so I assume there’s less-- scope for-- misbehavior. Not that I have any intention of-- I mean, I’ll behave myself.” He gave a tremulous little almost-smile, a gesture in the direction of the expression, that vanished quickly. “But-- you say there’s coursers there. Looking after the scientists. The way you’ve looked after us. And-- even if it’s too late for me to know-- either of you-- I can try to understand-- the ones like you. I don’t want to go live with-- people I don’t owe anything. I want to-- understand. I want to make something of my life. Too. Please.”

X6-88 looked at Michael, who glanced at him, and then examined Dr. Coulton for a long moment, before he gave a slight inclination of his head.

"I'll notify my family of your decision, Dr. Coulton," he said. "I doubt anyone will have any serious objection to your choice of residence."

Dr. Coulton nodded.

"Thank you," he said, and looked down again.

“As for me,” said Dr. Loken, rather stiffly, “I suppose-- I owe you an apology, X6-88.”

X6-88 was grateful for his sunglasses, which he hoped hid the involuntary, reflexive widening of his eyes. “Sir?”

“I’ve--” Dr. Loken cleared his throat. “You were never designed to-- that is, the scope of your duties-- and your training-- That is, since the destruction of the Institute, my colleagues and I have-- expected more of you, than you were trained or equipped to perform adequately. And we haven’t-- maintained you, as you were designed to be maintained. And you’ve-- done well.” His eyes were steady now, on X6-88. “Better than-- than we should have expected, if our expectations had been-- rational. I suppose it was inevitable, under the circumstances you should-- well, that you should malfunction, in some ways. Develop new protocols, for coping with stressors you should never have encountered. Become-- more independent, by necessity. Your-- what I’ve reprimanded as your insolence-- that was an inaccurate description, of your behavior. So yes. I do-- apologize.”

After a slight, stunned pause, X6-88 answered, “Thank you, Dr. Loken.”

“You’re welcome,” said Dr. Loken. “And I also thank you. For your-- efforts. On my-- on our behalf.” He, too, smiled a little. “For your protection.”

The same physical symptoms as the ones that had momentarily gripped him when the wasteland child offered him the small iced cake-- burning eyes, tight throat and chest-- gripped him again. Malfunction. New protocols. He didn’t answer.

“But yes,” said Dr. Loken. “We’re ready to go. Whenever you two are.”

“Unless you want to rest first,” said Dr. Binet.

“No, sir,” said X6-88. “I’m eager to see the last of this place.”

Dr. Binet gave a little laugh, and after a moment, Dr. Loken smiled again.

“So am I, X6-88,” he said. “And I imagine you’re eager to see the last of me, as well.”

“No, sir,” said X6-88. “I’m pleased to think this won’t be the last I see of you. But for the moment, once you and your colleagues are safely at Poseidon, I do have-- somewhere else to be.”

“So you’ll go to her?” Dr. Coulton asked, quickly, almost eagerly. “To Ms. Bowman?”

“I’ll go-- with her,” X6-88 amended.

“Where?” Dr. Binet asked, curiously.

“I’ll tell you as we travel, sir,” X6-88 suggested. “It will help pass the time. Shall we be on our way?”

……………………...

The conversation did pass the time, until they reached University Point, where they picked up the Watsons and X7-55, who actually smiled at them as he shouldered the pack Dr. Watson handed him. The Watsons exclaimed over the other three humans, none of whom seemed inclined to muster much enthusiasm in return.

“It will be good to see everyone again,” said Mrs. Watson, as they began walking. X6-88 and Michael had already been tempering their pace for the humans’ sake; they wordlessly tempered it further now, for the sake of the older humans, and of X7-55. “How funny that they’ve all been so close, all along. The Thompson girls must be so big, now. And little Quentin, too. And did you say there’s a new baby, X6-88?”

“Yes, ma’am,” said X6-88.

Mrs. Watson beamed. “We thought everything was over, but in a way it’s all just beginning!”

“I agree,” said Dr. Binet.

Conversation halted after that, for lack of breath to spare. They stopped to rest once or twice. X6-88 tried not to feel too impatient. It was easier when he thought of X7-55 needing the rest.

When, at last, they reached Poseidon, two of the coursers-- X9-73 and T7-91-- came out to meet them, along with Dr. Li and Dr. Oberly.

“Goodness,” said Dr. Li, looking around at the small crowd of humans and coursers. “Well. It’s good to see you all again.”

“Madison,” said Alan, smiling more broadly than X6-88 had seen him do since-- since the destruction of the Institute. “God, it’s good to see you. You look-- well.”

“You look terrible,” Dr. Li answered. “All of you. Welcome home.”

Dr. Binet smiled even more widely, his eyes bright and gleaming with tears. “Thank you.”

“No trouble,” said Dr. Oberly, smiling too. “Someone showed up with a brahmin yesterday, said they were a ‘Minutemen supply line,’ it’s-- This is going to be interesting, this alliance. Michael, tell your mother we’re-- Tell her thank you.”

Michael inclined his head. “Yes, sir.”

“X6-88,” said Dr. Li. “Are you staying?”

“Not at the moment, ma’am,” X6-88 answered. “Ms. Bowman has a task for me, and I owe her a debt. After I’ve discharged the task-- to her satisfaction, I hope-- I believe it will be clearer to me where I should serve, on a more permanent basis.”

“Very well,” said Dr. Li crisply. “Then-- for the moment-- you are dismissed.”

“Wait, Madison,” said Dr. Coulton. “X9-21-- Michael--” He swallowed. “I don't know if she wants to hear it-- or-- anything about me. You can-- use your judgement. But if you want to-- if you think it would mean anything to her-- tell her-- your sister-- that I'm-- sorry."

"I will use my judgment,” Michael answered, “but, in any case, I appreciate the sentiment, Dr. Coulton.”

Dr. Coulton nodded. "And-- well. Thank you for not killing me."

"I'll consider conveying that sentiment to my sister, as well,” said Michael, and Dr. Coulton gave the almost-smile again as he nodded.

“Any other touching farewells?” Dr. Li asked, her eyebrows raised.

“X7-55 is in need of medical attention,” Michael said. “If you have any shortage of the requisite supplies, my mother will arrange to supply you further.”

“Noted,” said Dr. Li, glancing X7-55 up and down; he stood stoically under her regard. “Well, let’s get you-- and all you humans-- inside. You’re right, Newton, this is going to be interesting.”

 

……………………………………………………...

 

“They didn’t thank you,” said Michael, as they walked away.

X6-88 smiled. “I didn’t expect them to. Nor did I expect Dr. Loken to. That was--”

He was feeling another set of unfamiliar physical symptoms. A slight dizziness, as if from excess of oxygen. Lightness, as if the specific gravitational pull of the earth had decreased, or as if he had shed a heavy burden he had been carrying for a very long time.

He had, of course. Metaphorically.

All this time, all these plans, all these strange circumstances and negotiations and reversals of fortune-- He’d done it. Successfully discharged his duties to his charges. And to his colleague X7-55, as well. They were all safe, contented, and he was--

He understood, now, the exuberance that had underlain the careful control in his colleagues’ voices on the holotape where they explained their future plans regarding the train station and the western journey. They, too, had felt this lightening, this terrifying, intoxicating sense of earned, deserved freedom.

It would have been more terrifying, perhaps, if he hadn’t had a plan for the immediate future. And less intoxicating, if the plan had been less-- exciting. The prospect of undertaking a journey with Michael, with Ms. Bowman-- of putting his true skills to the test, to see what she might think of them. To see if she might come to-- appreciate him, the way she appreciated Michael. To look at him, not only with that odd, unsettling, nervous hope in her eyes, but the way she looked at Michael. In a way that made sense of so many words that had been meaningless abstractions to X6-88 for so long. Peace. Joy. Love.

And if not, there was always Poseidon. The new Institute there. He’d be content, there. Useful, well maintained. And even there, it wouldn’t all be as it was before. There would be-- scope-- for the new protocols he’d developed, as Dr. Loken described them.

But for now, he and Michael were traveling towards the Castle, and from there, they’d go west. Back across the Commonwealth, and then past the edge of it, past the border of what he knew so flawlessly how to navigate. Further out. Like T9-17, who’d pursued her duty north past the edge of the Commonwealth-- of the known world-- and disappeared, who’d been reported destroyed, who-- according to Michael-- had named herself, changed herself, become something new.

What was X6-88 becoming-- changing into-- and what would he become, on this journey?

He was-- excited-- to find out.

………………………………………………………….

 

Leah hadn’t quite come around to the idea of addressing General Nora Bowman of the Minutemen as mother or mom, yet. She’d never craved a parent, and the very words reminded her of Liam-- a wound that hadn’t fully healed, a grief she hadn’t fully processed. His lack of a mother. Her inadequate stabs at performing the role. His young, ridiculous, dramatic, unfixable death. It was--

She hadn’t thought of any of it in so long. There were designated danger areas in her mind, where she didn’t go. She’d named herself Leah, so she could almost hear his name every time anyone said hers, and that was enough memory for awhile. Enough to keep the pang alive, without remembering too much, or-- crying, or curling up on the floor, or anything unrealistically self-indulgent, for a synth, or a solitary settler working and sleeping at someone else’s farm.

Mother-- No. Not for her. Not now, not yet.

But the idea of brothers and sisters--

She’d never been radicalized, as a synth in the Institute, even before her status as Alan’s project had set her apart, made other synths a little afraid to speak to her. Never been tempted to run away. The Commonwealth, the surface, was far more frightening than even the threat of mind-wipe.

But now-- Emily, whom Liam had helped escape, who’d spent nightmarish months on the surface after escaping the nightmare of what had been done to her in the Institute, who was now so joyful and undaunted; Max, who’d been well-behaved like her, but who’d had a friend in the Institute, and now had a friend in that friend’s Railroad-agent friend; little Shaun, Father’s last and strangest experiment (unless you counted Nora herself), happy and seemingly at peace with his own nature; Cog and Victoria, unalike but inseparable, who’d found each other after the Institute and found peace in each other’s company; Danse, with SYNTH seared onto the flesh of his forehead, so gentle and quiet and glad to be here; and Michael, the former courser who sat at Nora Bowman’s feet and let her stroke his hair. And the library, their safe place.

“They’re Minutemen.” Victoria’s voice was cool, brusque, and therefore somewhat more trustworthy. Leah was sitting by Victoria and Cog, as they sorted the day’s salvage: things to sell, things to scrap and use for parts, things to improve and keep for the settlement. Apparently Nora trusted them with those decisions. “The guy with the hat, and the old lady in the fatigues. They’re OK. Humans, but if they have a problem with us they’re being real chill about it for now. They’re on a council with Hancock, Emily, and Danse. If Glinda dies, they take over. At least two reps from every settlement voted to confirm that. You guys sent a couple, right? Warwick?”

They had. She remembered very carefully not taking any part in that conversation, and the chosen representatives returning, describing what had happened. Leah carefully not caring that much. It was none of her business.

“The ghoul, too,” said Victoria. “And Danse and Michael are taking off, but we’ve still got Emily on the council, and she’s a pistol. I guess you know that. Plus there’s the rest of us.”

Yes, there were. The rest of them. Leah had never felt safe, not once in her existence, since her creation, and that hadn’t quite changed yet, but: now there were these brothers and sisters. And these walls, around her, and the sky high and blue above.

“Are you trying to talk me into staying?” she asked Victoria, smiling, and Victoria said, “Just giving you the facts. You do what you want, you know? That’s part of it. But-- it’s OK here. Yeah. If you wondered. Even with her gone.” She fixed Leah with her stare. “The rest of us. We’ve got your back.”

Leah nodded.

The rest of us. Her brothers and sisters. Or, if she wasn’t quite ready to buy into Nora Bowman’s grand theory of synth familyhood-- her kin, at least. Her people.

Leah didn’t trust happiness. It had never been trustworthy, in her experience. But here it was, for her to circle suspiciously, consider from every angle, examine at a distance, until it proved itself reliable. Or not.

It didn’t seem to mind her suspicion.

Nor did anyone here return her uncertainty. She’d been accepted, immediately, with a lack of reservation that almost alarmed her further. Emily, Max, Shaun, Cog and Victoria, Danse, Michael: everyone treated her as if she belonged. Automatically. Without having to prove herself. Simply by virtue of what she was.

It was intoxicating. Terrifying. Lovely.

She didn’t trust it. Not yet.

But until it proved itself a lie, she wasn’t going anywhere.

…………………………………………….

“OK.”

The conference room. The guy in the hat (Preston Garvey) and the old lady in the fatigues (Ronnie Shaw), and a new ghoul who’d showed up, and another human who’d arrived with Preston Garvey, and a Brotherhood scribe named Silver, and Hancock and Nora, and all the synths.

Leah was included in the conversation, it seemed, simply by virtue of being a synth.

“We don’t know how long we’ll be gone,” Nora was saying. “Hopefully not too long, but it depends on the situation when we get there. So the good news is, thanks to Silver and our new Brotherhood buddies, we have an actual system in place to deal with me taking off on a road trip.” She smiled at Silver, who ducked his head slightly, looking self-conscious. “Not that it isn’t basically the same plan as before-- I knew you guys would look after things for me-- but now we’ve got Preston and Ronnie and Wiseman and Sturges here, and Emily of course, and Silver for the Brotherhood, and I just won’t be worrying about a thing. And you guys won’t worry about me, either, because I’ll have this posse of absolute badass warriors watching my back. I’ll probably never even draw my gun, unless Michael and X6-88 decide to indulge me with a kill or two for the sake of my self-esteem.”

"X6-88 and I have the utmost respect for your combat skills, ma'am," said Michael. "We will allow you as many kills as seem necessary for the maintenance of your good spirits."

Among the general mirth, Leah saw X6-88’s mouth open, his head tilt back. Heard the sound of his laughter.