The super mutants attacked in force. X6 was used to one suicider among a larger group, but always kept a lookout for a second one that might decide to ambush him. Super Mutants weren't quite as dumb as they looked and were known to occasionally have good ideas. Thus when the second suicider rounded a corner X6 whipped around and emptied two dozen fusion charges into the creature. It dropped to the ground far away from the Director or him. Two suiciders were rare. X6 hadn't counted on the third. It was running straight towards the Director and she didn't see it, had her back turned as she attacked the mutants farther away. The sounds of gunfire drowned out the warning beeps. He broke into a run, sprinted across the courtyard and reached her just in time to shield her with his body.
The blast hit him straight in the chest. The force sent him flying, heat seared off his skin. With a dull crack he was thrown into a car, his leg cracking when it got between the metal frame and his body weight. He tried to catch his fall with his wrist and grunted when that too made an unhealthy noise and toppled him over. He numbly thought he heard someone shouting but couldn't be sure. It was a small miracle of bioengineering he still remained conscious. Hounds howled and then one was one him, massive teeth dug into his leg. X6 smothered his scream in its beginnings, kicked the hound with his broken leg as he hurriedly reloaded his weapon. It shook its head, jerked him around like a ragdoll. His leg felt like tearing apart, ligaments screeching, the hounds blood drenched in synth blood. He set the rifle to the beasts head and shot once, twice and then a third time until it dropped dead, jaw still set in his leg. Every cell burned in pain as he pried it apart and pushed it to the side. He was losing a lot of blood. From the light-headedness he suspected a lot more of that was internal. No matter. He'd take care of this when the fight was done.
His leg protested as he pulled himself up and kept shooting. It took more than a mini nuke and a mutated mutt to take out a courser.
The rest of the super mutants were quickly dispatched. The moment the last of them died the Director was with him, looking horrified but also impressed.
“Not my blood.” he quickly lied.
He stalked towards her with his usual sweeping gait, expertly hiding every limp. His broken bone didn't thank him for it, but a little pain was nothing compared to what would happen if he let his weakness show.
“I saw you get hit by a nuke.” the Director said doubtful.
“Got lucky. You want to do some scavenging before we're on our way?”
“Now hold on a minute. At least let me look you over.”
“There's no need of that, ma'am. I'd much rather leave this … stink behind me.”
The Director didn't buy it but let it go for now. She took the lead, allowing X6 to favour his broken leg as he trailed after her. After a fight like that, and consequently loot like that, the chances stood good they'd make camp soon.
True enough the Director led them to an abandoned apartment complex and into one of the flats at ground level that had all its walls and door intact. She picked the lock and let him enter first, forcing him to put all his weight on his leg again. With another curt assurance he reaffirmed that the blood drenching his coat was not in fact his own and went as fast as he could into the adjoining bedroom, while the Director spread out their spoils on the living room table.
The moment he closed the door behind him he sank to the ground, crawling into a corner and rifling through his pockets for a spare stimpak. The blood loss made itself known. Pain he could deal with. The physical limitations of a damaged body was nothing that could be overcome with willpower alone. He'd waited too long. He should have injected himself with a stimpak right after the fight, the fractures be damned. It would have been far easier to break them again and set them properly than fighting against unconsciousness with every move.
His hands shook. His vision swam. The stimpak clattered out of his hands and onto the floor, echoing loudly in the silence of the apartment. He stilled, listened for footsteps and sighing in relief when none came. He managed to grab the stimpak on the second try and uncapped the needle. Breathing came hard, his heart pounded hard in his chest to make up for the blood loss. He blinked to drive away the dizziness, had to lean back against the wall and compose himself or else he'd have thrown up. He tried jamming the stimpak into his thigh. The needle bounced off his coat as if lightly thrown.
Tearing at his clothes to get them out of the way, X6 knew he didn't have much time left. He sat in a pool of his own blood, too weak to even pierce his clothes. The coat he pushed aside but trying to lift his hips to get rid of his pants required too much effort. He had to try again like this. He pushed the stimpak in, bore it through the thick leather of his uniform, willed it to sink deeper and into his muscle.
The Director knocked at the door.
“X6? You sure you're alright?”
X6 cursed again, softer this time.
“I'm alright, ma'am.” he called over from his makeshift watch post. His voice shook and broke towards the end. He just hoped it would be enough to persuade the Director to leave him alone. The needle got stuck in his trousers, wouldn't budge half an inch further. X6 didn't remember why that was a bad thing. The haze in his mind brought on from the pain muddled his thought processes, reducing every thing he had left to a single thought: Don't let the Director know.
His ears rang, the sound of his teeth chattering from shock-induced cold deafening. He didn't hear her approach and when he saw her frame come into his field of vision all she was was a blur of colour.
“X6. Why didn't you say anything? Come on, let me help you.”
“No.” he said and pushed himself off the ground. “I am capable of … handling this myself.” he said, wavered with a new bout of dizziness. The stimpak fell down again.
“You're capable of passing out on the floor and that's about it. Sit down again. Let me-”
“No!” he said again, more forcefully than was entirely appropriate from a synth. “I can …”
He didn't finish that sentence. The last of his strength left him and he broke down, tears of exertion in his eyes as he tried to right himself.
“Don't be stupid about this. Just hold still, so I can-”
Again he interrupted her. With one hand he kept himself on his knees, with the other he pushed the Director as hard as he could. She staggered back, more from shock than any real impact. The bone he'd set haphazardly grinded against its lower half and with a sharp crunch gave out. He screamed, felt thick blood oozing out of the wound where the bone had pierced his calf. The Director's hands on him were the last thing he felt before losing consciousness.
He'd be decommissioned. There was no doubt about it. The last courser taken out of action had gotten a mem wipe and a reassignment to facilities for blurry vision in one eye. His injuries alone were enough to warrant complete destruction. The fact that he needed help, that we wasn't even able to treat them himself was just the last nail in the coffin. How was he supposed to hunt rogue synths if he couldn't survive the Commonwealth alone?
They were going to decommission him and there was nothing he could do about it. His next report would be his last, when they read what happened. Even if he considered lying, which he didn't, the Director herself would make sure the deed was done. Some of her decisions didn't match up with Father's vision of the Institute but even in her world order there was no place for broken coursers.
Those were the thoughts that swam through his head as the Director took care of him. She'd given him some Med-X which made him feel like he was under water, every sound and feeling muffled and unimportant. The pain had receded, although spikes of it still occasionally breached the cotton wall the drug erected.
He slipped in and out of consciousness, measured the passing of time by the brightness in their room. Singular rays of light fell in through the window that someone had boarded shut, then were gone the next time he woke. Through all of it the Director was never far away. Memories of the process blended together like water colours. He was vaguely aware of being undressed and covered with moth-eaten blankets fraying at the edges. She held his leg, both were hurt and he could no longer tell which one had the bite and which one the fracture. They'd have to cut it off. These limbs were even more useless than the rest of him. He wondered if that's how they'd do it, cut him apart limb by limb until he died of blood loss or the pain. He wondered who would perform the procedure. If it would be the Director herself. She'd always claimed being fond of him. Not fond enough to not take pleasure in cutting him apart. He scarcely formed the thought when she was by his side and reaching out to his leg. No, he didn't want to die. Not like this. He thrashed and kicked out, connected with something but couldn't be sure what. The Director was still there, coming closer again, dodging his feeble attempts to defend himself. Then her body was on his, her whole weight pushing him down and keeping him pinned. He fought against her, lashed out.
“Not like this.” He felt the pain shoot through his mangled body again. “At least make it a clean kill, you bitch.”
The Director said something, her voice still pleasant to his ears despite the fact that she was to become his murderer. Something pressed down on the crook of his elbow. Turning his head made the world tilt precariously but he saw the syringe before he passed out again.
Next came the fevers, leaving him pushing at his blankets until the Director took them away, sighing as she dabbed at his exposed skin with cool water. He listened to her mumbling to herself and smiled. She liked to do that when she was worried about something and as much as he was programmed to ease her burden in any way part of him liked listening to her go on like that. But his fever wouldn't go down and her mumbling became more urgent as she wiped under his arms and in the crook of his knees with the soaked rags. Eventually she touched his shoulder.
“I'm sorry, X6, but I have to …” He didn't know what she had to do until she did. She spread his legs and dragged the rag along where his thighs met his hips and deeper still. Then she was gone, leaving him trembling but feeling slightly less hot.
She did it again, each time with the worried mumbling taking on an apologetic tone, but slowly his fever went down and allowed him for the first time in what seemed forever, to sleep.
When X6 woke up his head was clear again, the pain a minor throb at the back of his mind. He was still naked but dry and clean. The Director must have taken the time to give him at least a cursory wipe down because he couldn't feel blood or sweat on him.
“Hey there. How you feeling?”
He looked to the side to see the Director sitting by his bed, a bowl of soup in her hands. At once X6 was faced with reality. Him being hurt, the Director finding out. Decommissioning. He'd told her to leave him alone. At the very least she could have spared him the agonising trip back to the Institute and left him to bleed out up here. It was clear that one way or another he was of no use as a courser anymore. At her hopeful smile he turned his head away. If he had to be destroyed anyway a little insubordination wouldn't make it worse. From the corner of his eyes he saw her shoulders sag.
“Oh. … Are you hungry? I made soup.”
He kept ignoring her and stared at the wall. Faded paint came off in flakes. It must have been yellow at some point and had a pattern X6 didn't recognise. He spent the time stubbornly trying to follow the faded lines until the Director got the message. She did after a small eternity, put down the bowl of soup and left the room.
By the time she returned X6 had peeled off a small heap of paint, scratching at the wall and finding ridiculous pleasure in getting particularly long strips away. The soup he hadn't touched. He'd tried, once he was sure the Director was gone and didn't just lurk in a hallway to prey upon his weakness some more, but hadn't managed to sit up or even lift the spoon reliably. It wasn't like he needed the food now. If he was to have a last meal he would have preferred some of the pre-war snack cakes anyway. Not that such requests were considered by the Institute. Technically he didn't die. He'd just be dismantled.
“X6?” The Director. Her voice sounded timid, as if she didn't even know what she'd done to him. He didn't answer, scratched more paint off the wall with his thumb. He reminded himself that she was the Director, that she had no other choice in this. It wasn't out of any kind of malice. In any other situation he'd have advised her to do the same thing. A broken synth ought to be destroyed and replaced with a new model. If they went and let every malfunctioning machine run amok the Institute would be a laughingstock.
The Director didn't hate him. She didn't want to destroy him. He'd just outlived his usefulness. He'd grown weak.
But something spiteful in him said that she made him weak in the first place. All her kindness towards others, all their long talks when she tried to persuade him of the many virtues of the Commonwealth or freedom or whatever other matter they tended to disagree on. All of this had softened him up, chipped away at his programming and conditioning. If she hadn't been there, he would have found a way to avoid that last suicider without blowing himself up. It was her fault and now she had the audacity to pretend to be worried about him.
“X6, what's wrong? Talk to me.”
“Leave me alone.”
It was the first he'd spoken in a while. His voice was rough and caught in his throat. It sounded not entirely unlike a sob. Which it wasn't. He hoped she wouldn't interpret it as such, add insult to injury by writing in her report that he was emotionally compromised as well. He wasn't crying.
She nudged him gently, placed a hand on his shoulder when he wouldn't respond. Her hand was warm and heavy on his bare skin and it took more than he let on not to shiver at the intimacy.
“You're angry with me. Tell me why? Is this about patching you up?”
That did it. X6 turned around as quick as he could. Which wasn't very quick, robbing him somewhat of the impact he meant to have.
“Yes it's about patching me up. I told you I was fine-”
“I would have been-”
“I just wanted to help-”
“You didn't! You want to gloat before they take me out, before they dump me in the trash like your friend Valentine!”
The Director backed away, eyes wide in horror.
“Why are you saying that?” she asked and that question alone robbed X6 of every bit of strength he'd gained back. He sank into the bed again, swatted her hand away when she attempted to make him more comfortable. She should have been angry, shouted at him for his lack of respect. Should take him out back and shoot him. Instead she remained calm. Asked questions. Wanted him to be comfortable.
X6 never could make heads or tails of that woman. What did it matter to her if he felt good before he was destroyed. Why did she insist on touching him, drawing up the blanket to his chin after making sure he was too weak to fight back.
“Maybe you don't want to gloat.” he ceded at last. He'd been unfair to her and knew it. His personal feelings of betrayal had nothing to do with her decision. There hadn't been a betrayal. He knew who and what he was and he knew who she was. He was a tool in her hands and she would replace it once it became too brittle and rusted to be of any use.
“Why would I want to gloat? Or not want to gloat. Whatever. I don't understand. Who wants to throw you away?”
“The Institute of course. A weak courser is of no use to them. Or you.”
For some reason, being useless to her was worse than being useless to them. To the Institute he was just a machine. But the Director had said often that she liked having him by her side more than any other courser or even human. She'd have to find a new favourite to accompany her, even though he'd worked hard never to let her down. The Director's hand cupped his cheek. He looked up at her, the warmth of her touch calming and aggravating him at the same time. He hated himself for becoming weak and he hated her for discovering him like that. If she'd only left him alone to tend to his wounds by himself. He could have proven he was still capable of surviving hardship and she would never have seen him pathetic like that.
“No one's going to throw you out. Or kill you. Or anything like that. Jesus, I should have known. I'm so sorry for putting you through this. I know how little the Institute values your lives and still I couldn't put two and two together. Of course you'd be terrified of them hurting you.”
“I'm not programmed to be terrified.” he said, more a reflex than anything else. They both knew he'd developed traits not inherent in his programming.
She stroked his cheek, looked at him with so much pity he couldn't stand to see it. Instead he closed his eyes, leaned into her touch and hoped that all of this was just a bad dream.
“X6, listen to me. No one is going to kill you.”
“It's standard procedure.”
“Fuck standard procedure.”
He opened his eyes in shock and awe. The Director was a calm woman. The strongest words she usually used where invocations to her old world god.
“I'm the Director.” she continued after clearing her throat. “I can do whatever I want. And this … this throwing synths away like used paper tissues ends today.”
She would have let him speak but X6 didn't know what to say. Wished for her to interrupt him to fill in what he couldn't put into words. He felt as if she'd injected him with another dose of Med-X. Nothing made sense anymore.
“What will … If I won't be decommissioned, what will become of me?” was what he eventually said, voice weak and quivering. He was disgusted at himself for showing so little restraint.
“I'll take care of you until you recover.” she said. “And then we'll continue on as before. Nothing will change. You're still one of the best coursers at the Institute. You got hurt but you're not broken. Do you understand that?”
What else could he do but shake his head? He watched her expression soften.
“You helped me out more than once when I was injured. And no one suggested replacing me. Why is this any different?”
Because he was a synth, he wanted to say and realised this argument would never work with the Director. She thought of synths as people and people weren't replaced even when they were useless deadweight. At once he realised how foolish he'd been. He'd been afraid of what she'd write in her report not realising that whatever she wrote she'd never let the Institute kill him. He was only a machine but her skewed perception of synths made her see him as more than that.
“I was an idiot.” he said, and remembered with a start all the ways he'd acted out of turn. He ignored her, shouted at her, he called her a bitch. “Director, what I said I-”
“Shh. It's okay. You were afraid, I understand.”
It was clear she would hear no further word in this. X6 didn't feel like arguing even if she did. The whole exchange tired him out, left him wanting to sleep for days. The Director slipped into bed beside him, responded to his questioning glance that she hadn't slept in a while either. Only now did he notice the dark circles under her eyes. Wondered how long he'd been out, what she had done to keep him alive. She must have seen something in his expression because she pulled him close into her arms.
“Sleep now. You're safe, nothing to be afraid of anymore.” she said and settled down with him.
And then she simply held him for a very long time.