Lodestone: A Wynston/Ruth Alternate Universe
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12.18.2012 , 07:29 PM |
L + 13 months, part 1
Ruth kept in touch with Wynston, less than she would like but more than she could really expect from someone she knew was giving his all elsewhere. There was the occasional holocall. More often there were short notes, almost comically bare of anything that might compromise operational security; she answered in brief affectionate kind rather than risking scaring him away with longer missives.
Would he really scare? She didn't want to test the point.
Otherwise she worked, alternating between strategic objectives and some more protective missions on Imperial border worlds. The less important ones that needed a strong hand against the Republic's incursions.
And she saw to Colrand. He had plenty of doting admirers in the Niral household, but she never felt quite right unless she was with him, feeding him herself, rediscovering the fact that dark blue eyes were entirely enchanting. He was a sweet baby, Force sensitive at a level she could already feel. Endlessly happy to be handed around. Endlessly happy to be with her.
So she was less than enthusiastic when the Emperor's Hand finally called again.
The two Sith stared down at her from the holo in her home. She clutched Colrand a little closer and met them stare for defiant stare.
"Wrath," said Servant One. "The time has come, and the Emperor's new vessel is prepared."
"The will has a Voice once more," said Servant Two.
Colrand started crying.
"You are to meet with him in person," Servant One said steadily. "There he will prepare you for the next step in your service."
"Send me the coordinates," said Ruth. "I'll go there immediately."
Servant One just stared at her until his image dissipated.
Ruth stroked Colrand's hair, fine and soft and deepest black, and rocked him until he hiccupped and calmed. She set him to rest, buckled armor over her still-adjusting torso, and strode out to the shuttle that would take her out into the Wrath's galaxy.
Ruth's directions took her to a small star well outside the galaxy’s outer arm. It was a long, cold ride. When she left hyperspace she found a fortress made of something so black she could only pick it out by contrasting it against the light of the galaxy beyond.
A hangar opened silently for her when she approached. No one showed up when she stepped out; she found her way into a hallway that was all black metal and white light that managed to hurt the eyes without illuminating anything.
It was dark here in spite of the harsh lighting. Her spirits sank with every step, and the Dark Side crept thick in every breath. Instinctively she formed a little tight focus within herself, a tiny knot of clearer energy to light her way.
The hallways and open doors led her in one direction, winding in toward the center of the fortress. Her path finally opened into a huge black room, lit only by one orb fixed at the top of a massive black throne. A broad-shouldered humanoid figure sat there, hooded and swathed in black robes.
He raised his head a little, enough to reveal blood-red eyes and a pale-lipped smile. "Wrath," he said.
She would have knelt with or without the sense of compulsion she felt. This was a power too overwhelming to think about displeasing. This was the heart and source of this whole place's darkness.
"Master," she said, and wished it weren't true.
Something thrust into her awareness, shattering what focus she had. It was a heavy oily presence, vile as it pushed over and through her thoughts. It was cold as it spread, seeming to push into every memory at once and render disdainful judgment. It went on, and on, and Ruth realized at some point that the only reason she wasn't retching was that she was too busy sobbing.
Too long afterward the presence withdrew, leaving her empty and stained. She fell to hands and knees and waited for her head to stop spinning.
"Welcome," the Voice of the Emperor said mockingly. "You have come to serve, Wrath. And I know you will serve well."
She forced herself back to her knees, then her feet. "What do you wish of me?" she said, as steadily as she could.
"You will carry out my will. As you have done on Corellia and on Voss. You will strike, and my enemies will fall."
"It will be as you say." Anything to get her out of here.
"In many works my Hand will direct you. In some, you will come to me, and I will make you my instrument." He leaned forward. "As you will be today, Wrath."
He gave her a name she had never heard, a place she had, even though she'd never been there. He sent her away with a mirthless smile. It was all she could do not to run.
She left that horrible place and made straight for the location she had been given. The mission drove her, the only living thing in her mind; this was the job. She found her target, scattered his security like so many leaves, struck him down. Another enemy defeated, as it was meant to be.
Everything felt brighter when she got home. Colrand cried inconsolably in her arms, for hours, but Ruth was happy to be with him.
L + 13 months, part 2
"I'd like to talk," Ruth told Wynston.
"Certainly," he said. He had a delicate operation to do, but it would be wonderful to see her. "Is there any way this can possibly be delayed another seventy-two hours?"
"Yes, of course," she said firmly. "Do what you have to do."
Too firmly. He contemplated her face. She sounded…she sounded as she hadn't since he was alone with her after Quinn's betrayal. She sounded scared. "I'll make it twenty-four, darling." He could bring the op to a close or bring someone else to finish it by then. He only wished he could do better. "Take care of yourself."
This time when he arrived she wasn't waiting for him by the gate. Young Briggs greeted him instead, and escorted him in to where Ruth was sitting by the fire, holding a sweater tightly around her.
She bounded to meet Wynston when he arrived. "Hello there," she said, hugging him without taking her eyes off his face.
"Hello. I must say it's nice to see you found someplace dry to wait for me this time."
"Hm. I don't usually mind being outside. But I've been cold."
There was something about the way she said that. He cupped her chin and lightly ran his thumb across her lips. "What happened, darling?"
She blinked. "Hold on, he's crying."
It took Wynston a moment's concentration to pick out the faint wailing from another room. Ruth hurried on ahead, disappearing into one room or another and coming back jiggling a chubby and newly quiet baby in her arms.
"This is Colrand," Wynston said calmly.
She nodded and flashed him a smile. "Yes. Cole."
Wynston had no idea what to say. The baby looked like Quinn. No way to work around that; he should risk facing it. "He's already looking better than the last model," he drawled.
She laughed a strained little laugh. "He costs me less on food, too."
What mattered was that the little one was Ruth's child. Wynston strode up and offered his arms. "May I?"
She carefully transferred little Colrand to Wynston's steady hold. The baby immediately kicked his way a little bit upwards, seized Wynston's jacket, and punched him in the chin.
Well, points for spunk. Wynston grinned and asked bemusedly, "Is that good?"
"Um." Ruth was suppressing a giggle. "I don't think he's done that before."
"I see. I'm already earning special treatment." He laughed at the look on her face. "Don't worry about it. A warrior's got to practice somehow."
Wynston liked babies, so long as they were other people's. Babies were too young to know how to hate yet, too young to lie about being driven by selfishness, and forever appreciative of kindnesses. Also they were terribly, terribly cute. Sure, sometimes they punched you in the face, but they were cute.
Colrand, having paused to reevaluate his situation, spent a minute staring up at Wynston's red eyes. Wynston stared right back down. "He's never seen a Chiss before, has he?"
"No. You're the first."
"Well, he isn't screaming. That's a good start."
"Just count yourself lucky you don't have lekku. I'm surprised Vette and Deshla haven't snapped and left me forever, given his fascination with the things."
"Now, Cole," said Wynston, "there's a time and a place for grabbing, but it it's rarely the optimal opening move when a woman–"
"What? I'm giving him important advice."
"Run these lessons by me first?"
Colrand burst in with an earsplitting exclamation of total nonsense. He looked ridiculously cheerful about it. Wynston grinned down at him. "If I had any reason to believe that was intentional Huttese I would have to wash your mouth out." He looked back up at Ruth. "I can do Huttese lessons, too. Are those bad?"
"Almost certainly," she said, fake-glaring.
"Look, Cole, I'm trying to help, but your mother is–"
Colrand followed this up with another swing at Wynston's face. Ruth gave up and collapsed into giggles. Wynston bounced the little hellion, just a little bit, while Ruth gathered herself and came in to reclaim the child. "Deshla," she called toward the other room, "he's calmed down a bit, at least if your name isn't Wynston. Can you watch him for now?"
The Twi'lek servant emerged from the other room and, with friendly nods toward Ruth and Wynston, took charge of the baby and headed out.
Wynston rubbed his jaw, more for show than anything. "That boy will be a great Sith, mark my words. He already knows exactly what to do with his operatives."
"You okay?" asked Ruth, her smile dimming slightly.
He grinned. "Yes. Come on, what would you like your evening to be?"
He followed her back out to the living room and let her curl up against him on the couch nearest the fireplace. He waited while she got comfortable. And waited some more for something he didn't have the information to name.
"Ruth?" he said at length.
She had her head tucked against his neck, and she was staring at the fire. "I'm glad you met Cole," she said quietly, "but that wasn't why I asked for you on such short notice."
"I guessed as much." He stroked her hair and waited.
"I met the boss yesterday," she said throatily.
His heart sank. "The Emperor?"
"His Voice. That's the one. He's…stronger than he was. I think Voss had made him soft."
"I see." There was an unpleasant thought. The entity that he had helped Ruth free on Voss a year and a half previously had been far from benevolent.
She stared at a spot on his shoulder and was quiet for a few moments. "I think," she said slowly, "his commands are in the Empire's interests. Of course. But it is dark, and he…he was crawling around my mind, Wynston. Laughing at what he found. I don't think I could hide anything from him."
One implication jumped out at him. "Anything such as the arguable treason that I commit to deal with Sith authorities who get destructive ideas."
"Anything such as that," she agreed.
"That may make things interesting. We can hope he sees the greater good over the individual Sith I'm forced to sabotage." He felt her shiver and he set aside the practical line of thought for the time being. "This was hard for you."
"What can I do?"
She led him over to sit before the fire and tugged his arms firmly around her. "Tell me something good," she said.
"You're here with me," he murmured impulsively. "Your son is healthy and rather entertainingly self-assured. Uh, also yesterday I turned a certain corporate board meeting inside out such that future weapons deals in certain critical systems are all very suddenly going to start favoring Imperial allies. The whole region has been a death trap; this adjustment should straighten it out in our favor. And save a lot of lives."
"Good," she said. "I like that you do that. Most of my life-saving is in the form of stomping on the biggest threat in the room, casting dirty looks around, and repeating until the survivors promise to be nice."
"It works," he said, smiling, "among Sith."
She quieted and watched the fire. He held her, savoring the smell of her hair, the firelight's play on her small pale hands.
She shuddered again. "I can't describe what it felt like, having him in my head. Like I couldn't…nothing was…" she curled tighter. "I didn't feel like me, and I couldn't stop it."
He settled his arm more securely around her shoulders. He breathed deep, silently asking her to go along, to relax her body language with his. He remembered things. In time, he spoke. "Can I tell you something?"
"This isn't to trivialize what happened yesterday. I can't imagine the violation that must have been." He laced his fingers in hers and stared at the fire. "I never told you what was happening when you saw me on Quesh."
She stiffened. "You never explained, but I remember, when you injected that…whatever it was. You were talking to empty air, you said you wanted your mind back."
"And I did. I very much did."
Slowly, haltingly, in terms less clinical than the report he had filed when kicking off the private initiative to locate and free the other victims of that Intelligence program, he described the ordeal of the IX serum and the Castellan restraints. The brainwashing applied as a 'safety measure' after the Dark Council heard of his defiance of Darth Jadus. His failure in understanding, his treason in servitude. He laid it out, after a year and a half of silence and evasively worded professional notes, and she listened, because Ruth always listened.
"Is anyone who was involved in doing that to you still alive?" she said in a hard clear voice when he was done.
The physical perpetrators, Imperial Intelligence, he had forgiven; they did what they had to do to assure the mission and save both Wynston and themselves from the ire of the Dark Council. The SIS agents who had used the keyword over and over and over, though…"No. I saw to that."
"They couldn't read me. They didn't have that…presence…that such a Sith as the Emperor must have. But if they commanded I obeyed, and that…it was vile."
She lifted his hand and spread his fingers, gently tracing his outline in the glimmering firelight. "You've been doing the right thing at the expense of what any higher-up says since the day I met you. I hate that anyone…" she kissed his hand and was quiet.
"I got the better of it in the end."
"I'm not sure I have that option against my own boss."
"He hasn't compelled anything. Right? Just looking, outrage though that was?"
"Just looking," she agreed. "I hope that's all."
"I hope not even that happens again."
"I can take care of myself, but if for whatever reason he doesn't like what he sees about you in my head. If a conflict comes up…"
"If a conflict comes up, I'll run for it." He forced humor into the statement.
"We'll work something out, Wynston. I won't let him hurt you."
"And I won't allow certain confrontations. I told you you're not the enemy, darling. You never will be."
Ruth had the kitchen droids serve them dinner at their couch, and afterward she seemed to revive a little. She and Wynston talked work. They talked about the progress they were making in the Empire's interest. She talked about Colrand. He drank in her voice, stored it up for the days to come.
He wondered, briefly, whether her taking him to bed was a matter of habit at this point, something she did because he expected it. That doubt lasted exactly as long as it took her lips to reach his again.
Afterward she kept chattering, increasingly drowsily as the night went on, seemingly reluctant to let the evening end. Eventually, though, she did drift off, and he let her warm steady breathing lull him to sleep.
She awoke at some point in the dark. He ran inventory: undressed, pleasantly fatigued, in Ruth's familiar room, her nearby – and sat up as she stole toward the door. "Ruth?"
"Baby's crying," she said, belting a robe around herself. "He isn't used to sleeping without me. I'll be back in a little while."
"You can bring him back here." He would rather have her close. "I really shouldn't be muscling him out."
"He's squirmy. Good luck sleeping if you're not used to it."
He could do with a night of bad sleep with her. "I like the two of you. Bring him in."
So she glided out, and came back before long with Colrand clinging to her breast. With admirable coordination she got into bed on her side, keeping him in place, and relaxed.
Wynston edged close enough to take her hand. "Settled in?"
She yawned. "Settled in."
"I could die happy right now," she murmured.
"All right. I won't." Ruth shifted her other hand on Colrand's back. "I think he would be badly put out if I did."
"I would be, too, darling. Not to sound jealous of your attention or anything."
"Hm." It was close to a laugh. "You, jealous."
"Your time's precious, sweet. But I can share."
"There's always time for you." She closed her eyes. "Mmm. After sleep."
Just another situation he never expected to enjoy.
If this isn't love,
I don't know what is.
Caution kicked in.
That's the point, man. You've never known what love is.
She's happy. With me.
That just means she's got a hook. A pleasant one, but a hook. You've seen how that ends.
Fine. Drop the word. The fact remains, she's happy here. And so am I.
At some point in the night, Colrand rolled over and punched him in the face again.
He found Ruth's hand and slept in an unexpected kind of contentment.
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