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Holes in the Lifeboat

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He doesn’t know if he’ll make Christmas Dinner. He hopes he will - it's still a few days away - but he doesn’t know. Rufus Carlin flakes out on his family. Again.

“It’s okay,” his mom says, when he calls to warn her. “We'd love you to be here, but what you’re doing is important. Your brother will understand. If it comes to it, we’ll keep you a plate. Your mail's on the side. I think you’ve got some cards in there.”

Dinner’s in the oven; your mail is on the side; your brother understands.

His mom means well, and she believes what she says, but one of these truths is not like the others. Kevin does understand when his big brother’s a no show, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t disappointed, and he’s at that age where your head knows one thing, but your heart feels another, and they even out somewhere around frustration and hurt.

Which is to say, pretty much any age. Rufus can be honest about that.

He doesn’t get to be honest about a lot anymore.

The Lifeboat rocks a little as Wyatt hauls himself through the hatch. When Rufus twists to look, he sees an expression closer to a wince than a smile as Wyatt's eyes stray to his ribs, double-checking Rufus hasn’t suddenly developed a new bullet hole.

He does that a lot.

At first it was annoying. Like Wyatt thought Rufus wasn’t going to pull his weight? But it’s become weirdly comforting, too.

Which really sums up his life right now: things are annoying, or weird, or annoyingly weird.

On the plus side, if he ever does suffer spontaneous perforation, Wyatt will be the first to notice - Rufus can trust that.

Trust.

Harder than it was last month. Easier than it was a week ago.

He likes Wyatt, and he likes Lucy, and he understands.

Even when he’s disappointed, and hurt, and frustrated.

Plus, frankly, Rufus has lost track of who’s betrayed or let down whom the most - it’s not like he’s innocent - so he's drawn a line under the whole thing and stopped waiting for the other shoe to drop. They’re safe right now. Right now, they’re safe. Hidden away with the Lifeboat while Lucy visits with her mom, getting ready for one last trip. No lies, no half truths, no moral ambiguities.

Wyatt drops into the flight chair next to his. “You okay, man?”

“Fine. Just thinking."

“Really?” Wyatt’s habitual grimace eases into a smile. “Because it looked a lot like you were about to pick up a chainsaw.”

No real point in denying that impulse: the Lifeboat is, at best, one fried wire away from disaster at any given time - in any given time - and one day he won't be able to fix it. Maybe today's that day. “I didn’t say what I was thinking about,” he points out.

“Nah.” Wyatt shakes his head and leans back, apparently at ease in a chair that Rufus suspects was designed by someone who had been told about, but never actually experienced, comfortable seating.

Probably that guy in R&D with the standing desk. Ellis - something. Rufus tries to stretch out the kink in his spine and decides that Ellis - something must be stopped. Or at least strapped into an Easy Boy with Netflix and popcorn until re-educated.

“With a brain like yours,” Wyatt goes on, oblivious to Rufus’ dark plotting. “I bet it was something way more interesting. Something math-ey.”

“Math-ey.” Really?  “I’m an infinitely complex being with a multitude of facets and interests, intrinsic and extrinsic, and the best guess you have for what I might choose to think about at any given time is ‘something math-ey.’”

“O-kay.” Wyatt holds up his hands, eyes gone wide and mouth twitching in a half smile. “Sorry to interrupt, I’ll leave you to the-” He waves a hand vaguely in the direction of the console that does, admittedly, have wires leading to the touch pad in Rufus’ lap, which is scrolling with data that might, under certain circumstances, to the uneducated eye, look somewhat…

Fine.

Math-ey .

“No. It’s.” Rufus huffs and drops his screwdriver onto the panel, ignoring the clattering of scattered washers. “Sorry. Actually, I was thinking about my brother. Mostly to avoid thinking about the next mission. Which I started thinking about to avoid thinking about Jiya, because she --”

Scares him. Scares him so much his heart skips to double time just thinking about her.

He wasn’t even that scared when he thought he was dying.

His chest hurts; there isn’t enough air.

“Jiya’s fine.” Wyatt breaks in gently. “Your brother - that's Kevin, right?” Rufus guesses he must look surprised, under the rush of anxiety, because Wyatt shrugs. “They gave me files on everyone.”

Well that’s just, it’s just unfair; righteous indignation derails the panic. “I didn’t get a file on you!”

“That’s because, if you read it, I’d have to kill you,” Wyatt deadpans. “It’s exciting, but I’m not sure it’s worth your life.”

“Seriously?”

No, not seriously. Jeez. Your clearance level is probably through the roof, anyway. Request it, if you want. But there’s nothing in there you need to know. Scout’s honor.”

Rufus has doubts, and he lets them seep into his tone. “But you needed to know my brother’s name?”

Wyatt shrugs and smiles again, and says nothing.

And, after a second, Rufus gets it. And he’s grudgingly, darkly, amused, for all he’s appalled at the realization. “No. Of course you don’t need to know his name. You need to know about pressure points, right?” No point waiting for an answer; his question is rhetorical anyway. “You have to know who they’d threaten to turn me.”

“You wouldn’t turn.”

Rufus blinks. “I actually did. I did turn. For weeks. And it was extremely nerve wracking. I would prefer not to do it again, if possible.” But he absolutely would, for his family, and there's no way that Wyatt, Christopher, Mason and God himself doesn't know it.

“We'd prefer that too,” Wyatt agrees. “So if someone threatens Kevin, or your mom, you tell me and we go pick them up, and because I know the layout of every location they frequent, we wouldn’t be going in blind.”

“I guess that makes sense.” Rufus adds ‘comforting’ and also ‘disturbing’ to the growing list of 'weirdly...' madlibs. “Do you have any family?”

“None to speak of. Just as well, right?” Wyatt wears a faintly self-deprecating smirk, but Rufus can’t quite muster a denial. With Lucy’s sister wiped from history, and his own family a target, it seems more than a little disingenuous to suggest that having loved ones under threat is no big.

“Tell me about Kevin,” Wyatt says, breaking the awkward beat. “He a super genius too?”

“He’s really smart. Really smart. Great at sport, too - loves basketball. Way better with people than I am. He’s just -- he’s a really good kid. I’m proud of him. I -- want him to be proud of me. But I can’t tell him what we do and even if I could, I’m not sure he should be proud of that. I’m Wernher von Braun. I’m Oppenheimer. I’m the latest in a ridiculously long line of very arrogant people who released a genie from the bottle and couldn’t put it back.”

He didn’t mean to kick the console; he hadn’t even realized he was angry.

“You don’t think Connor Mason had something to do with it?” Wyatt caught the rolling screwdriver before it could fall. “I mean, I’m all for taking credit for your work, but if he was here, I think he’d probably argue the toss. And there’s a whole company full of people who never said, ‘wow, you know, time travel: maybe that could all go horribly wrong.’”

“I know.” He does know. But Rufus figures, if he can’t make his little brother proud of his accomplishments, at least he can be a sterling example of personal responsibility. Or something. Not that he’ll be able to tell Kevin about that either.

Anyway, as alluring as the fantasy of dropping in the whole “heroic time traveller” reality on his family is, maybe over carving the Christmas turkey, what he wants to do, more than anything, is say, ‘Hey, Kevin, you know those people they don’t teach you about in history? They were even more amazing than you ever knew. Here, let me show you.’

Yeah, that’s not happening any time soon.

“I told Kevin about Katherine Johnson,” Rufus blurts out. “Not about meeting her, just who she was. He’d never been taught about her. I told him about Bass Reeves, about how he was the original Lone Ranger. He didn’t believe me until he wiki-ed.”

“You figure, if he can’t be proud of you, he can be proud of them?”

Wyatt likes to let people assume he’s just a grunt. It took half an hour for Rufus see through the act, and he still thinks he was a little slow. In his defence, there'd been a lot going on. Time travel. Terror. More time travel. More terror.

“Something like that.” He nods, and frowns down at the data report, which has long-since lost all meaning. “I think, more than anything, I want him to be proud of himself.”

Wyatt stands and pats him on the shoulder. “If he’s anything like you, he should be.”

How Wyatt manages to pull off something that cheesy, Rufus can’t begin to imagine, but somehow it works. Maybe they learn it in Basic.

He coughs to clear his throat. “If we make it back in time, you -- you’re welcome to join me. Us. My family. For Christmas. I have four aunts and two uncles, and a great aunt as well. It’s loud, and I guarantee at least two arguments, and you may find that you use the extensive knowledge you apparently have of my home to go hide in the attic, and actually, you’re right - it’s a terrible idea. Can I join you for Christmas?”

Wyatt’s going to say no, Rufus can see the rejection in the almost panicked tightening around his eyes. “Uh. I don’t know where I’m going to be," he hedges. "One last jump and then they’ll ship me out.” He swallows; his shoulders relax in tight degrees. “But… if I’m around, sure. Thanks. I’d like to actually meet Kevin.”

“You may change your mind.” Rufus grins. “Basketball and Black Panther is his life right now. That’s all the conversation you’re getting out of him.”

“That’s fair. I was actually going to ask Agent Christopher what the policy on travelling to the future was, so we could jump the queues a little. Do you think she’d buy it as a team building exercise?”

“No.” Rufus shook his head, firmly. “No I do not.”

“Well, I guess you just don’t have the pull around here that you thought, destroyer of worlds. I’m going for coffee, don’t kill the Lifeboat while I’m gone.”

Rufus picks up the screwdriver.

He can fix this.