X6-88 wakes just as the pale, pre-dawn light streaks across the sky, barely visible through the slats in the roof above. The air is wet and heavy from last night’s rain, and as he sits up and takes a slow breath, he feels the weight of the Commonwealth, the above-world, the decrepit and filthy Wasteland settle against his skin like an oily fog.
The Institute is gone. Incinerated from within, burning outward in an explosion so huge it rocked the earth, sending shockwaves shivering through the ground. X6 hadn’t been there, had been ordered to remain behind. Forced to watch, to feel the foundations of everything he’d ever known was shatter, all in the name of his ‘humanity’.
Now it's a whole new world. He thinks he recognizes, at least partially, how the Director (ex-Director, he reminds himself firmly. That poisonous, traitorous prefix — Ex — before whatever he calls himself now) must have felt when he left the Vault for the first time. The bone-deep shock when the safeguards didn't hold and the backup measures failed, and X6 is suddenly, irrefutably alone in wreckage of his own life.
X6 has been staying in a small house the ex-Director provided for him in the ramshackle settlement of Sanctuary, stuck in a holding pattern of ‘what comes next’. He closes his eyes against the breaking day ahead and thinks about forever. Thinks about infinity, spiraling out from this moment, the future a dark, branching chasm stretching before him, and clenches his jaw tight against the helpless scream building in his throat.
He could leave. He should leave. He could do anything, as the ex-Director is so fond of reminding him. Offered him endless choices for how his life could be in this new phase of his artificial life, ranging from the barely reasonable to the truly absurd, all of them hinging on the opaque, impossible premise of X6 having any desire to live past the moment the Institute was destroyed. After all, what is existence stripped of any meaning? Why bother when the only point is just to keep living?
X6 will be alive for a long, long time.
Rolling his shoulders as he stands, X6 slips out of the room and begins walking along the nearby stream, not wanting to stay in the claustrophobic space for any longer than he has to. The whole thing is ridiculous, he thinks with an inner sneer. As if a house was what X6 wanted. What X6 needed. Compared to the Institute, who created him and blessed him with his purpose, with the liquid-sweet rush of his own competence and power?
The ex-Director could never understand. The ex-Director is loyal only to his own circle, tiny and selfish and so short-sighted it makes X6 grind his teeth in frustration. Not even family, as X6 is now so bitterly aware of, but his ‘friends’, based on some metric X6 can’t even begin to fathom. The ex-Director flits through organizations like a prewar butterfly, changing his mind halfway through whatever task he’s on and abandoning the ideals he pledged himself to.
And now they’re here. The ex-Director, who threw away the greatest minds humanity had to offer, all so he could play the hero and dig in the dirt like an animal. And X6, living in a human settlement with people who looked at him with either revolting pity or poorly-disguised terror while he hunts and kills for their food.
Pathetic. A waste.
Deacon’s the only one who isn’t afraid of him.
Or maybe he’s just the only one who can hide it. X6 has noticed the man before, has seen him slip into new costume, new roles, even a new face or two. Has seen him when he’s sure Deacon’s been unaware, has seen his face go still and quiet, fallow, only to jump to life again when someone else’s eyes were on him. It’s almost synth-like, to be in such control over one’s body.
Most humans can’t manage that. Most humans are ruled by their emotions, the hot rush of blood in their veins and their animal instincts. Deacon is different. Unusual. The smooth, unbroken surface of a lake, glittering light reflecting off the surface and disguising the depths below. Not even a ripple to give X6 a clue to what’s churning underneath.
It’s intriguing; and very few things intrigue X6 these days.
The two of them are outside, X6 sitting in a chair he dragged out to the riverbank last week, facing away from the settlement. His rifle is heavy in his hands, and he disassembles and cleans the individual pieces with methodical, practiced motions. Deacon is cross-legged on the ground next to him — he had asked, when he walked over here, if X6 minded if he joined him.
X6 hadn’t even known how to answer that question — X6 didn’t mind, X6 didn’t care, X6 wasn’t designed for having boundaries about who did or did not sit next to him. So he shrugged, and watched out of the corner of his eye as Deacon gingerly sat down on the cool ground and straightened out a creased packet of papers, making notes in the margins with the pencil pulled from behind his ear.
It’s oddly soothing. X6 is comfortable with silence, with someone working beside him absorbed in their own projects, and while he keeps his face turned toward the twisted trees ahead of him, he chances a few sideways glances at Deacon’s face. He’s biting his lower lip, almost chewing on it, and X6 is sure he’s going to draw blood if he keeps it up.
Deacon isn’t entirely an unknown quantity — X6 knew of him, even before the Institute fell. Had some amount of data on almost every Railroad agent, certainly every agent that saw as much field time as Deacon. His past is murky, almost as if Deacon had deliberately placed dead-ends and misdirection along his own trail. He was a gang member at University Point, then a farmer with a wife, then a grifter on the streets in Goodneighbor, then a caravan investor with a residence at Bunker Hill that he shared with his husband...but not all of that could be true. There are inconsistencies throughout, and the more X6 digs the more improbable it all seems.
“You hungry?” Deacon asks, breaking the silence, eyes still on his work. “I was gonna go grab something from the kitchen.”
X6 lets out a low breath, his hands steady as he clicks the last piece of the newly-cleaned rifle into place. He doesn’t like being reminded of his physical limitations, or the food and sleep he needs to survive. “No. I don’t have anything of my own right now.”
Garvey had set up a food-share program in the settlement along with the more standard barter system, but X6 had declined to participate. He’d rather go hungry than share his meager supplies with the town, and Garvey hadn’t pushed the issue. But he’s low on food, was planning on doing tracking down a caravan later tomorrow or the day after.
“Really?” Deacon says, folding his papers back into a discreet square and getting to his feet. “Well, I can’t let my Study Buddy go hungry. I can sha...I mean, I can swipe something for you, if you’re pantry’s empty.” A grin as he slips his papers into his back pocket, the light breeze ruffling the dark hair of his wig.
“No you can’t,” X6 says dismissively, glancing up at Deacon. “The kitchens are guarded almost more than the houses. You couldn’t steal anything without being caught.”
“You think so?” Deacon says, still smirking at X6, and there’s something...charming, about it all. About this human, offering to steal food for him, partly just to prove he can. “I’ll bet you a pack of Snack Cakes I can get you a well-balanced breakfast without anyone being the wiser.”
X6 stares at him for a moment, and is again amazed at how easily Deacon meets his gaze. Deacon has more reason than most to skitter away from him, and yet... “So I’d have to give you back anything you manage to take? Counterproductive,” he says with a shake of his head.
“Hmm, good point,” Deacon concedes, tapping his chin with one finger, his grin getting bigger as X6 finally stands up and holsters his gun. “Let’s alter the stakes then — a favor. Specifics to be determined at a later date.”
X6 raises an eyebrow, feeling more and more like he was being teased. “A favor.”
“Yeah!” Deacon says, shoving his hands in his pockets and rocking back on his heels. “It’s the best thing to play for, really. And it’s a total win-win for you — I have plenty of skills that could come in handy. Ask anyone.”
The sun is climbing higher in the sky, and X6 feels a traitorous twist of hunger in his stomach. “Deal.”
Twenty minutes later he’s sitting alone in his house, three packs of Snack Cakes stacked on the table and Deacon’s triumphant smile lingering behind his closed eyes.
Days, weeks, months pass. X6 remains in Sanctuary for the most part, with occasional trips to Bunker Hill or Goodneighbor when the need arises. There’s a level of freedom to his life now that he’s never before experienced; all his responsibilities vanished when the Institute fell.
He’s reached a strained sort of peace with the settlers of Sanctuary, built in no small part by Garvey’s tenuous leadership. The man is too soft, too trusting, X6 thinks, but he’ll take the acceptance he’s offered. Now that the ex-Director isn’t always with him anymore, X6 hovers at the edges of the settlement, with only the angry or the naïve brave enough to approach him. X6 finds himself swinging between annoyance at the childish offers of patently false friendship, and a profound loneliness that he can’t begin to describe.
Before, he was part of a hierarchy, working toward a shared goal. Now he’s nothing. A spare part. A discarded weapon left out in the rain, frayed wires and rusted joints.
It’s not so bad when Deacon’s here. He visits the settlement often, and never fails to appear at X6’s elbow with a joke or a dry observation or even just his presence.
X6 should hate it, should hate the reminder of the organization that destroyed his life, should be repelled by someone who dedicated his life to the absurd notion of synthetic freedom.
But somehow. Somehow he doesn’t.
They don’t talk about anything of consequence, usually. Tonight they’re sitting in front of the fire, alone together after X6’s shadow had chased away everyone else. The conversation had been focused on the Medford Memorial Hospital – the ex-Director had asked him to check it over, and Deacon had volunteered to accompany him. ‘For the human angle,’ he’d said, laughing a little, and X6 didn’t object.
But then Deacon goes quiet, his gaze intent across the fluttering flames. The only sound is the crackling of the fire, the rush of water and wind across the earth. If not for Deacon’s tense, alert body language, X6 would suspect that he’d dozed off.
“So. How do you feel about a topic change?” Deacon says, tilting his head slightly and smiling, looking so obviously nervous that X6 is certain it’s manufactured.
“What do you wish to discuss?” X6 is curious, more than anything. Deacon never fails to hold his interest.
“Look. I don’t know if you want to hear this, but I wanted to say…” Deacon starts, uncharacteristically stumbling over his words, and X6 waits for him to continue.
“I wanted to tell you that…I’m sorry.” Deacon says, refusing as always to use X6’s designation, and X6 goes completely still.
“For what?” X6 replies after a long moment. “Not for the bombing of the Institute, I assume. You’ve shown no remorse for that at all.”
“And I won’t. Ever,” Deacon says, his own voice still low and soft. “Not for that. But I am truly sorry for what happened to you in there. For what they did to you.”
A prickling sensation whispers across X6’s skin. No one had ever apologized to him before. Not even the ex-Director. “What they did to me was give me a purpose. That’s more than anyone here has ever done. The Institute made me into something worthy.”
“You made yourself worthy. All they did was use you. Made you believe you’re a thing,” Deacon says evenly, and X6 feels his gaze like a physical pressure.
“Don’t speak of things you don’t understand,” X6 says, breathing slowly to keep the rising tide of emotion at bay. Anger, grief, and a hard knot of something like…shame. “You know nothing about me.”
“You’re right,” Deacon says quickly, holding two hands up as if in surrender. “You’re right. It’s not my place. I’m sorry.”
Apologizing again. For breaking their fragile peace, or for him and the life he’s lead? X6 stands abruptly and stalks away, resolutely not turning around.
Neither of them mention the conversation the next day.
X6 usually fights alone. He is not designed for groups, for bonding, for the shared thrill of the hunt. When the ex-Director sends him out on these ridiculous missions, for food or technology or supplies, X6 tastes a refusal building on his tongue every time. No, he wants to scream. No, I am not fetching copper and fiberglass so these animals can live in slightly-elevated filth. I am not built for this, I will not create life for the dregs of humanity.
But he never does. He accepts everything that’s handed to him and completes his tasks with ruthless efficiency. The ex-Director doesn’t force him, doesn’t order him, and even though X6 knows why it still feels like a rejection. X6 is made to carry out orders, and this is but a pale imitation of what he craves.
So he hunts for scraps in the wasteland for people who don’t even know enough to be terrified of him. And if he happens to slaughter a party of bandits along the way, anyone not fully affiliated with the ex-Director and his precious settlements, then so much the better.
The only one he can stomach is Deacon. He fights invisibly, like X6, the faintest woosh of air around them both, and with a sort of grace and innate understanding of how X6 will move.
Deacon knows him better than anyone now. One of the few who neither hates him nor stubbornly pretends he is anything other than a Courser, designed with a singular, deadly purpose. Deacon doesn’t willfully ignore what he is, and it is almost refreshing to be in the company of someone who...understands him.
X6 could kill him in a heartbeat.
They go out together alone often enough to not arouse suspicion; he could make it look like a raider attack, or an accident. Wouldn’t even need a weapon, could wrap his hands around that pale throat and squeeze until his smirking, lying mouth finally goes slack and open and honest for the first time. Could stash the body and report that Deacon had left without saying why, and they would believe him. Because Deacon is, in a way, as unknowable as X6.
His walls are built with deflections and easy smiles and deeply unfunny ‘jokes’, rather than X6’s preferred icy silences and a flat stares, but they are solid bricks all the same. Even his own people can’t reach him, can grasp only shadows when they try, their hands empty of anything real.
Deacon makes himself vulnerable, to be so alone. He is only a human — he needs a pack, needs protection. He cannot last much longer on his own.
“So have you ever had sex?” Deacon asks casually one day, fishing out a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his pocket. The two of them are trudging back towards Sanctuary, their packs weighed down with supplies. Thanks to the ex-Director, the caravan passes are easier to get through in small groups, with multiple waystations and guarded stops along the way.
X6 raises an eyebrow. He knows what Deacon’s trying to do. Some sort of embarrassment-based bonding, designed to startle him into...something. Honesty, or camaraderie. Humans do seem fond of trading minor insults and humiliations back and forth, and it makes sense, in a way. To be vulnerable, but then spared the bite of pain is a powerful feeling. X6 has no use for it outside of coordinated interrogation tactics, but he can understand the appeal.
But if Deacon thinks X6 is going to blush and stammer and fidget under his too-personal questions disguised as friendship-traps, though, he's in for a rude awakening. X6 doesn't smile, but he feels the impulse under his skin.
“Of course,” he replies after a beat, trampling over Deacon’s inhale for more words. Words, words, words, so many words that X6 is sure he'll choke on them one day.
“Really?” Deacon says, and X6 feels a flash of amusement at his obvious surprise.
A rustle of grass to their left, and both of them go quiet, instinctively moving toward each other and drawing their guns. A rabbit skitters by, and they both relax again, eyes still scanning the ground for another rush of movement, of danger.
“Is it so shocking?” X6 continues smoothly after a moment, turning to face Deacon once he’s certain they’re not in danger. “I possess an exact replica of a human body, precisely planned and perfectly made; I can do anything you can do. Except better.”
“My, my. Aren’t we the cocky one?” Deacon says, smirking and pulling a cigarette out of the pack, letting it dangle unlit between his fingers. This close X6 can see his own reflection staring back at him in the surface of Deacon’s sunglasses, knows Deacon is looking at his own smirking face in X6’s. Endlessly mirroring each other, darkened and reversed. Railroad and Institute, human and Courser, two lines on a graph so close they're almost identical, yet can’t ever touch. Approaching infinity, together.
The Railroad may be an organization founded on a ridiculous purpose, but they had given him a fight over the years. More than anything X6 admires will, and in his own way Deacon is unstoppable. He'd have to be, to choose to go up against the Institute. Brave, of course, but effective, too, and even after everything, X6 finds he approves of this strange person.
If nothing else, Deacon’s taught X6 some valuable conversational maneuvers.
“If you're looking for a demonstration, that can be arranged,” X6 says evenly, batting the conversational ball back over to Deacon, stepping forward again to continue their steady pace toward the settlement. Hears the slight, barely noticeable hitch in Deacon’s breath behind him before he turns it into a cough, and in barely a blink he’s under control again.
Flirting. This is what flirting feels like. A shiver of unexpected heat runs down his spine, and he focuses again on the lines of Deacon’s body as he catches up to him. The pulse point in his neck, the ludicrously-colored ginger scruff just barely visible on his face.
“They really teach you guys everything, huh?” Deacon says, pulling a lighter out of his back pocket and flipping it open one-handed.
“Combat, basic scientific and technological competency, and human sexuality,” X6 reels off, pushing down the warmth in his chest at Deacon’s incredulous, fascinated expression. It feels...good, to talk about his life in the Institute, even if only briefly. Before, he’d thought it was base sentimentality to wallow in memories, but now he thinks he understands. “Among other things.”
“Man, Institute School was a hell of a lot more fun than Human School,” Deacon grins, and when he moves to put the lighter back in his pocket, his hand brushes up against X6’s.
“Of that, I have no doubt.” A small slip, a hint of the teeth and steel that thrums through him still, and even if he were as oblivious as most humans it’d be impossible to miss the flush of arousal that flickers across Deacon’s face.