Lodestone: A Wynston/Ruth Alternate Universe
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12.17.2012 , 06:03 PM |
L + 3, part 1
Wake up. Inventory: normal sleeping clothes, mild aches here and there from the close-range engagement with the SIS sniper the previous day. Nothing that would slow him down. Surroundings, warmth behind him, lovely lean-muscled arms around him. Sounds, her breathing, and someone moving past in the hallway. Crew was already up.
He rested for a little while anyway. Work could wait a little while.
In time, though, he turned around. Without leaving the warm circle of her hold, of course. Her eyes opened as if she had been waiting for him all along. For a little while they just looked at each other. She ran a hand around to stroke his cheek and jaw. He leaned into it while trying not to break eye contact. He very much didn't want to break eye contact just then.
"I like waking up in your arms," he informed her.
She smiled drowsily. "I like it, too."
Alas, time to move. He pushed up to get closer to her. "Ready for the day?"
She looked thoughtfully at him. "Yes," she said after a few seconds.
He leaned into a slow kiss. "I'll be with you."
It was with some reluctance that he got moving; he followed Ruth out to join the crew at breakfast. Jaesa pulled her aside when that was done. Wynston settled at his console to skim Holonet and comms chatter until such time as he was called to work.
A long time later, he looked up and around. The ship was dead quiet; nobody had passed through in quite some time.
He found Pierce settled in the armory, checking weapons over. The big man grunted greeting.
"Are we moving today?" asked Wynston.
"Once the Wrath's ready," said Pierce. "She's in the conference room. Goin' in there would be hazardous to your health."
He cocked an eyebrow. "Why?"
"Don't know. I only know the degrees of worried Jaesa gives off. Max power and humming when she stepped out of there."
"I see. Thank you." That sounded bad, and so naturally Wynston made straight for the conference room.
He found Ruth was sitting at the head of the conference table. She had been crying. She was staring intently at a small holoprojection of a recording of Wynston himself facing Quinn.
Quinn's image spoke. "My feelings for the Wrath are less conditional than you seem to think, agent."
She tapped the console. The recording skipped.
"Do you have any idea what you did to her?"
"More than you could know."
"You must convince her to allow me to serve."
"Jaesa recorded it," Wynston said quietly. "Prudent."
"Yes," she said distantly, not looking at him. "She thinks ahead."
"I do hope she succeeds," said Quinn's image. "I hope that when your operation ends and you have no further use for her, your disappearance from her side will cause her less distress than mine did. I have not forgotten that the closest she ever came to defeat was in one of your operations based on your faulty intelligence. If you are all the servant she is to have, you had better start living up to your own opinion of yourself.
Do not fail her again."
"It isn't what he says about you," she said leadenly. "Just the way he says it. He was that passionate all the time. He sounds so much like he cares."
"If you've only ever learned one act, you get to be good at it."
"I wanted him."
She wiped her eyes. "This is why you were angry last night."
"Yes." He took a step closer. "Ruth, I told him I would talk to you, and here I am to say that no good can come of his survival. He'll only repeat the one lie he's got, and it'll only keep tearing you up."
She stiffened. "Should I feel better if he's dead?"
"It will hurt. I know that. But you've got to remove the blade before the wound can heal."
"You're less interested in that than in revenge."
As she would be if she were hard enough to really understand the concept, and for once he thought she could use that level of hardness. "Revenge by itself is a waste, but with some people you'll find it becomes a very satisfying thing to layer onto threat elimination."
"I'm not eliminating him." Her eyes finally moved up to him while the rest of her stayed still. "This isn't open for discussion. He will not die by my hand or yours."
"He doesn't deserve that mercy."
Her lip curled. "I thought you people wanted me to stay merciful."
"Not with him! He'll only come after you again sooner or later. We both know he doesn't give up at anything once he's sunk his claws in."
"You don't know anything. You haven't understood a thing he was doing or saying since day one." She lifted her chin and took on that air of command she used on other people. "This isn't something you talk me into, by argument or by charm, so don't try."
Her insistence was too cold to be childish, too childish to be cold, and too much of both to be anything he thought she would've called love for Quinn. Love, as had amply been demonstrated of late, was simply that which made a mark act against its own best interests; Wynston never thought it would look this harsh from her.
With an effort he got a hold of himself. "I didn't mean to presume, darling. I'm sorry. If you could see the hurt on your own face right now you would understand. We all hate seeing it. And he's the one who did it to you."
"Then he's mine to deal with. Isn't he."
He shouldn't keep talking. She was only getting more defensive. "He's a monster and still a threat," he said.
Her whole face twisted. "I know what he is! Better than you ever did, better than you ever will, no matter how hard you're trying to be a point-for-point replacement!"
"I'm not a replacement," Wynston said, with more calm than he felt. "For one thing, I'm here–"
"To do a job, you've said repeatedly. I'm on good terms with your masters so far. Shall we just hope that continues?"
"I told you they're not my masters anymore. Neither they nor anyone can make me hurt you."
"And I'll believe you just because you're good to me? Because I want to? You think I'm that stupid?"
He didn't have proof of his goodwill. There was none he could have and they both knew it. "You're not stupid, Ruth. Believe me because what we've given each other is real. When I'm with you–"
"You enjoy it, I'm sure." Her lip twitched again. "So do I. I can't think straight when you get close, you know that. But you're not controlling me, Wynston, not in anything. Especially something you understand as little as this."
How could she be that willfully wrong? "I understand he tried to kill you. How can anything else matter?"
"You don't get to ask that question! I won't take his offer if that's what you're worried about. But you don't get to harm him." Her gaze flicked back to the frozen holorecording. She activated it again.
"My understanding of the matter isn't in question," said Wynston's image.
"Quite right," said Quinn. "It's no use questioning what isn't there."
She stopped playback. "You sounded like you care, too," she said.
"Yes. I do."
"I want to believe you." Her blue eyes sparked when she looked up at him. "But that's attachment, isn't it? You're good at this. The comfort's been nice. Perhaps I needed it. Now it's time for you to get out."
His stomach turned inside out. "No," he heard himself say. "Don't ask me to leave you." He started towards her, struggling to marshal an argument centered on her. "Don't try to do this alone."
The force on his throat ended his progress and shoved him backwards. "Stop trying to manipulate me," she spat. "Get out and don't come back."
The only manipulation he was trying was for the good. He wanted to argue he wasn't trying to manipulate at all. He was trying to…he stopped. Save? Patronizing. Love? Irrevocable. Help? Not enough. Not nearly enough.
"You take direction so well when it's something you want," she said in a low hard voice. The next Force shove slammed into his heart and propelled him almost to the door, leaving him to stagger the last couple of steps. "You're so kind when I do what you say. So sweet as long as I act like the harmless child you enjoyed."
"Ruth, I care for you any way at all."
"I care enough to repeat, get out. That's the last chance you get."
It took everything he had to step backwards and let the door fall shut between them.
He stood still for a few moments. He felt dizzy for no good reason. There was almost nothing he could do. But he had to do something. Perhaps a quick walk over, around the corner, and he could end the source of the seeping poison. It would destroy all hope of going back, but in the end it would be better for her.
Except that her hate would remain for Intelligence and the new organization, too. The Wrath might come around to stability, but she would never be their ally. It'd be a failure of one mission and total prevention of many more. And it was the mission that mattered. Yes. The mission.
Fool. If he was going to pretend this was about the mission he should've sent Vector. Or any other Cipher Keeper could direct his way. Or anybody at all, because if Ruth was going to lash so hard at anyone who came, it would've been better for the person who came to not care.
He went back to Ruth's quarters and picked up his bag. He was always packed to move.
He ran into Vette on his way back out. "Uh, hi," said the Twi'lek, eyeing his luggage. "You going somewhere?"
"Yes." He kept his voice cool and steady. "I'm glad I caught you first, I'll need your holofrequency."
"Oh, no. You're not leaving now. There's still more crazy than me and Jaesa can beat."
"I'm not being given a choice. Give me your holofrequency, I'll be in touch." He spoke quickly to discourage the hurt she was doing a good job of not showing anywhere but in her eyes. "I'm not giving up, Vette."
"Yeah," she said in her flat unconvinced tone. "Well, look on the bright side. You're better off than the last guy she dumped." She took out her holo and tapped it. "Call any time you want, as long as it's soon."
He hurried out of the suddenly stifling ship into the hangar bay. His mind raced along safe colorless practical lines. He'd better get back to his own ship. Pick up any extra gear he needed. Continue the situational monitoring he had started. The Wrath still had a job to do and he had to help. It wasn't in his nature to do anything else.
L + 3, part 2
She just let the recording loop for a while. Jaesa had told her she should see this conversation. What Jaesa hadn't said was that this was Wynston going behind Ruth's back at the first opportunity. How excited the Chiss was. And how terribly, terribly determined Quinn was.
He always had been. The passion, the focus, the arrogant way he stepped in because there was simply no one who could do it better. She hated that. Near the end it hadn't been so arrogant at all, just…right. She hated that, too.
Damn Wynston. Damn him for being here, for being determined, for being almost perfect only to turn around and start making demands. He didn't have any right to meddle in Ruth's affairs, with the father of her child least of all. Quinn was a traitor, a liar, a threat and a thief, but even so, even knowing she had to cut him out of her life the moment his master was eliminated, she couldn't lose him to such a final thing as death. And it didn't matter how much Wynston offered her if he was just going to turn it to whatever murky combination of his precious job and his patent grudges he was angling for.
She pulled herself together before anyone else could barge in. Time to go, before someone else decided an intervention was a good idea.
She barged out to the refresher and scrubbed her face raw. In time she gave up on waiting for the tears to stop. It would all go under a mask anyway.
What she had been delaying all morning was the search for the Sith Entity. Once it was cut away from Baras, Vowrawn had – not said, but heavily implied – that she could turn her attention to Baras himself. Damn heavy implications, too. She wanted straight answers.
She headed out to the hallway; Vette was loitering near the ship's exit.
"Oh," said the Twi'lek, looking almost suspiciously neutral. "Hi."
"We're going," said Ruth.
"He's out," she growled.
"Huh. I kinda thought so. You know that you're kind of an idiot?"
"Door's right there if you want to join him."
"Looks to me like we're all going out that way. It's the same fight waiting."
"No, it isn't. It never was."
"You do know he really really likes you?"
Jaesa and Pierce finally showed up, drawn by the sounds of conversation. Broonmark ghosted behind them. Ruth steeled herself for the next round.
"It's time to go," she said, turning for the door.
"Where's Wynston?" asked Jaesa.
"He won't be returning. Come on."
Jaesa paled. And, to Ruth's chagrin, took a step toward the conference door as if expecting to find him in there.
"What's wrong with you?" snapped Ruth. "He's fine, he just left. We're going."
"I saw what you wanted me to see, Jaesa, and I talked it over with him. We had some differences regarding how the captain is to be disposed of. At my suggestion Wynston left."
"I just wanted you to know what was going on while you were out. I wanted you to see how he was sticking up for you."
"Then she got an attack of the stupid," said Vette, "and kicked him out."
"Why are you on his side?" demanded Ruth.
"Beeecause he's on your side?" said Vette. "And I'm on your side. It's a big side. Good for a whole crowd when you're not
kicking people off it."
"Silence." Vette had always taken Wynston's part anyway. She probably liked the company of fellow judgmental whiners. "Lieutenant, we've got more tracking to do today. Any word from Vowrawn's people?"
Pierce nodded, ready as ever for business to start. "Couple of messages came in this morning, milord. We have a starting point for looking. Still quite a few Republic blocks between us and anything that might help."
"We know what to do with those." She shot Vette and Jaesa dark looks before slipping her close black mask on. "Follow my lead. Let's play it quick and as clean as we can. We're after answers today, not fights." Because she could do that to get this over with. Get the Entity over with, get all of it over with, just get it done, finished, Baras and Quinn and all the rest. She didn't even want blood right now, she just wanted an end.
And she could play it clean. She didn't need Wynston around to get things right. She could be something that was neither as pliable as the ingénue he was hallucinating nor as ugly as the butcher he was mad at. And she could do it without the string-laced help he offered.
Ruth made little progress that day. She kept herself under control, even if she wasn't cordial about it. When she returned to the ship that evening she found her room as she had left it, minus one bag: clean and bare but for her own possessions in the half of the room she had kept for herself the whole time. She should have kept more.
It was a relief to sense no one else nearby when she lay down. It was simpler this way. Cold, difficult, but simpler. No surprises.
L + 3, part 3
Wynston kept a stiff upper lip on his way through the spaceport concourse. There was work to do and he couldn't afford to sabotage it further through another lapse in self-control.
He shouldn't have pushed. He shouldn't have challenged her, not on anything that wasn't absolutely critical, not while things were so delicate. It was just that he thought they were working well together. She was so reasonable about everything else, just not Quinn.
Then again, hadn't that always been the way?
Enough. He should check his correspondence. Call Vector, see that the
was prepared for when Wynston…finished? Gave up? For when his business on Corellia was concluded. See that Ensign Temple was staying out of trouble; he still hadn't decided what to do with that sometimes alarmingly by-the-book creature now that he was going off the books entirely. Check in with Keeper.
Find someplace to dance and drink.
Stupid idea, that. Too much to do. He had a lot to catch up on and then he had to negotiate a re-approach. Ruth knew she could trust him, and he knew she knew it. It was just a matter of…of something. Getting over the defenses again. Finding the right leverage. It wasn't enough to just be himself, cute though that idea seemed. It never had been enough, never would be, and he was old enough to know that.
There was a way to fix this. There had to be.
Don't draw rash conclusions from what had happened back there. Think clearly, dammit, if he had to think on the subject at all. Rejection was nothing new. This one hadn't even involved knives, projectiles, or legal action; it should be easy. So much for the girl, move on. The only matter left to resolve was the job. If support was required for any practical end, there were ways. He considered. Extravagant repentance involving gifts and flowers, not likely to work. Torrid forceful approach, definitely ineffective. Crawling servility she wouldn't accept. Straightforward professionalism with a brief apology for trying to make it personal, she wouldn't go for it even if he could stomach saying it. She didn't think she needed professionals.
None of the scripts were likely to work, and going off script had made her suddenly decide he was being manipulative. He was out of tricks. Time to send in a contrasting agent to take over the op? He didn't have a whole lot to draw from. And nobody else knew her, her strengths and weaknesses, the things he couldn't just put into a briefing and the things he wouldn't. Nobody else would be there for her sake such that they could come close to the transparency that would keep her from shutting them out.
Right. Because his honesty had been so bloody effective.
What the hell was it about Quinn that had set her off like that? Even she had to know that Quinn's continued existence was a bad thing. Wynston couldn't just pretend otherwise. If he had registered the opinion and then just stopped pushing…that would've been the smart thing to do. Don't let anything, even something that significant, get in the way of the op.
"Op" didn't feel like the right word, but he wasn't ready to deal with that yet. Instead, as he reached his own hangar, he turned his attention to the perimeter and ship-exterior check: nothing new or unusual. A little wear showing on the ship's underside; he made a note to have that looked at. For that matter it had been a while since the auxiliary power system had gotten a once-over; he should look up whatever Fixer Keeper could recommend as non-Sith-owned and have them take a look. Yes. And, on the topic of keeping the ship in order, he made a note to restore Imperial ration type D bars to the droid's regular supply shopping list. Kaliyo had hated the stuff, hated even the smell of it, to the point where she'd made a policy of throwing any such ration bar she could find directly at Wynston's head until he gave up trying to stock it. Well, she was gone and he could have them back now.
He wished his own base didn't have these associations. It left very few safe topics to think about.
He made a round of the ship's interior, not really doing anything, just checking that everything was as he expected. Then he headed to the holo to make a call.
"Keeper," he drawled as soon as she came up, "you're a sight for sore eyes."
"Cipher," she said crisply. "How are you liking Corellia?"
"About as much as I did the first time around," he said. Pyromaniac bosses and torture interrogations had been bad for his physical health, but at least they hadn't been personal.
"I'm sorry to hear that." As well she might be, given whose idea the interrogation plant had been. "Any progress securing an alliance with the Wrath?"
Steady, he reminded himself. "It's touch and go. Her attention is fully occupied in the Sith infighting game, tearing down Darth Baras's people." Then, the number one takeaway he had to hand Intelligence so it wouldn't actively line up contingency plans for an uncontrolled power as big as the Wrath: "I'll have something by the time he's down. She is understandably gunshy, it may take time."
"Time isn't on our side. Matters with the Dark Council are moving quickly. There's a short list of targets I'd like to point her at if we get the chance. But of course Baras comes first."
"Absolutely." After that it was Ruth's call. He wasn't going to tell Keeper that right away. "In the absence of any better way to prove our goodwill, I'm working on resolving the Baras situation as fast as possible. Keep me informed as to what resources you can scramble on Corellia without bothering your own neighborhood Sith."
She sighed. "That may as well be nothing, but I'll do what I can."
He cracked a smile. "I know you will. I can tease what I need out of my own neighborhood Sith, so don't let my priority weight interfere with holding the rest of your duties together." It wasn't like anything she could arrange for him could change the part that mattered to him anyway.
"You know, when you move on I'm going to miss having an agent as low-maintenance as you," she said.
"You can call anytime. Not many people get to do that, you know. At least, not many I'd pick up for."
That finally got a returning smile, albeit an anxious one. "I'll call if I have to. Otherwise I expect your attention is needed more in the field."
The conversation wandered to lesser logistical details for a little while; then, eventually, he bid Keeper farewell and ended the transmission. There. That was one person who thought he had it together. The knowledge that someone was falling for it made him feel better.
Now for Vector. The Joiner couldn't see his aura over holo, and if Wynston was careful he was pretty sure his aura was the only thing that betrayed disquietude.
Vector picked up the holocall in short order. "Wynston," he said warmly, or as warmly as he ever said anything. "We hope the situation has improved on Corellia since your last visit."
"The Empire appears to be slightly worse off than it was," Wynston said levelly. That applied to the larger strategic situation, too. "I'm working on it."
"We would be glad to join you. Our vacation, while pleasant, has done very little to improve matters for others."
"No. If you're going back to work I need you on the
getting things in order for when my assignment here is finished."
"Ah. And how is the Wrath? She seemed nearly as popular with rival forces as we were on Voss."
Of course Vector would think to ask. He, being both decent and sane, genuinely liked her. Which made evasions feel a little wrong. "She's getting by." Not so wrong that Wynston wouldn't give them. "Darth Baras isn't pulling his punches, but he can't keep this up forever, not at the rate we're hitting his power base." Never mind the absence of apparent progress over the past three days. "She's cautious about newcomers right now, which is why I think you're better off elsewhere. I can say hello for you, though."
"Please do. We look forward to seeing her in less stressful times."
"Don't we all." Wynston steered the conversation away then, to Vector's off time, to plans for the
to the changes in operation that would happen when Wynston was fully set up with an out-of-the-way base of operations and a disguise generator that would let him remove the last trace of himself from his dealings. Good material, all of it. Promising. Disappearing sounded really good.
When he was satisfied with all that, he cut the line. That made two people he could still work normally with. Now it was time to get to his own task, identifying and removing major elements of Baras's support. He wanted to be near Ruth for it. That, he reminded himself sternly, was impossible. The only thing he could do was help with the job.
The following morning: wake up. Inventory: normal sleeping clothes. Pain: heavy, choking. Spiking now that he was paying attention to it. Nothing physical. Nothing that would slow…nothing that would…nothing that would slow him down, idiot, he was perfectly capable of finishing that sentence, he lied for a living. Move on. Surroundings, his own room, cool, clean. Sounds, nothing at all.
Ruth, his brain added unhelpfully, missing. In pain, hiding all her brilliance and warmth, and definitely, emphatically not wanting him. Himself, torn. He had opened up to her for a few short moments, more than he had to anyone since he was half this age and a thousand times this stupid. And she had tugged it all out, demanded more, taken a hard look, and decided she didn't want it. Necessity had driven him to perform a dazzling variety of chemical and surgical operations on himself in the past, but he didn't know how to stitch himself back up this time.
Stop it. Irrelevant to the status report, to side support activities, and to leisure prospects. Not actionable. Move on.
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