A/N: this story will not have a sequel. Please let me know what you think of it (and if possible, do not track me down to burn my house.:)
# # #
The stare contest had been going on for a few good minutes with neither of them backing down.
Carol was the first to break the tense silence. "I have been expecting you sooner, Commodore Cartwright."
"Are they really dead?" he asked in a measured voice.
"You think a shorter leash would have held him in? And if yes, for how long? A few months? A year? More? We both know he would have eventually gotten loose. My father made the mistake of underestimating that creature and he killed him... while I watched... with his bare hands. Do you know what the last words my Dad heard were?"
Cartwright sighed, studying her from the corners of his eyes, in which she thought she saw a hint of pity. "You should have let me sleep... . It was in Captain Kirk's incident report."
"He shouldn't have, though. He should have killed him, killed them all. I had to do it – for him... for you all." He was regarding her steadily. Carol schooled her face into a blank expression. "It's over now. They're gone."
Cartwright leaned back in his seat, resignation flickering over his features. "Are you comfortable, Doctor Marcus? Do you need anything?"
She shook her head no. "No," she said airily. "I'm finally at peace."
# # #
The system was small, just four planets orbiting a red dwarf. The first two were habitable, while the last ones were barren, frozen desserts marred by deep asteroids craters. But it was far away, way past the borders of the Tholian Assembly and into what the Federation deigned unexplored space. After careful consideration, he had decided to land on the first planet; it was a small one, about the size of Mars, but it was enough for seventy-three people. The geography was an uneven mass of tundras, rocky low-altitude mountains and hills interrupted by vast lakes and cold seas transversed by icicles. Sensors indicated no large animals, but still survival would be a challenge, given their very limited resources. However, they had each other and they were finally free. That had been over four months ago. In all this time he had kept a channel open within the Xindi ship's communications system, a channel he had no intention of ever closing. There was always a risk of the signal being intercepted, but it was a small one and it was even less likely anyone would ever pay any attention to a tiny, isolated star system on the outskirts of the Alpha Quadrant.
"And all I loved, I loved alone," Ling's voice came from behind him.
Khan smiled bitterly, not tearing his eyes from the vista of coral and dark green of the uneven plain spreading at his feet. "I never quite liked Poe," he commented. "Too melodramatic."
Ling slipped to his side with her casual grace, perching on the edge of the cliff he was currently standing on. "And yet your favorite authors are Melville, Shakespeare and Milton."
"Do not forget Dante!" he said mildly.
She scoffed, but when he looked at her, her grin was good-natured. "I wish I could... . May I ask her name?"
Khan glanced away again. "I suppose it's redundant to inquire how you've guessed."
"I haven't guessed. I know," she said with a certainty born out of a lifetime spent living practically in each other's pockets.
"Her name is Carol... Carol Marcus."
Ling winced. He had shared the details of what had happened between his being awoken by Alexander Marcus and the escape from Talos III but had kept his mentioning of Carol to a minimum, her memory, though dear, too painful to contemplate. If he did, he would have to accept that he might never see her again.
"I take it it's not a name coincidence," Ling said after a long pause, during which they stood together side by side in companionable silence.
"No, it is not," he said quietly, his memory summoning Carol's sweet face with impeccable accuracy.
"You weren't in the habit of denying yourself anything you truly wanted."
"That was in another life, Ling. Besides, I had you all to consider."
Ling rested her hand on his shoulder, squeezing slightly. "I can tell you one thing, though: you never do things the easy way."
# # #
The early evening air smelled softly of something that was very much like a mix of hyacinth and honey. A warm breeze caressed the valley, bringing the freshness of the nearby rivers into the city, which was surprisingly quiet given its large dimensions and the thriving activity that did not stop for the fall of night. Snow-capped mountains covered the horizon, profiled against rose-tinged skies. Brightly lit insects zigzagged across them, painting them with iridescent speckles of copper and azure. The view was both familial and alien, showcasing the extraterrestrial nature of the dynamic human colony on Archer IV.
"There you are," called a familiar voice from behind Carol, startling her from her contemplations. "I've been looking for you. Ready to try the famous Archerian slug wine? Real and non-replicated."
Carol stepped away from the railing bordering the small terrace of her mother's apartment on Archer IV and turned to her parent, noting again with great concern the deepening of the lines of her face and the many white hairs streaking her short golden bob. Her heart gave a mournful tug at the thought of how much pain and embarrassment she had caused her mother in the three years that had gone by since she had been expelled from Starfleet and found unfit to stand trial by reason of mental disease or defect and committed to a rehabilitation facility in Greenland back on Earth. She had recently been released on her mother's reconnaissance. The same mother who was watching her now with warm, worried eyes and an uneasy smile. She had come to the balcony holding two bulbous glasses filled with a thick light brown liquid. Carol took one from her with a mouthed thanks.
"You've received several subspace communiques, all from USS Enterprise."
Carol clinked her glass to her mother's. "I'll get to them later."
Her Mum's grin widened, some of her hesitance draining from her features. "I'm glad you've kept in contact with your friends."
Carol took a sip of her wine. The pulpy liquid stuck to her tongue and the roof of her mouth, swallowing it proving unpleasant, but it tasted good, a bit oaky and very pungent.
"You don't have to drink it, if you don't like it," her mother assured.
Carol shook her head, coughing a little. "It takes some getting used to," she confessed.
They were wary, still feeling their way around a relationship that had never been exactly easy. Through her sentencing and the subsequent years in the psychiatric facility, her mother had been quietly supportive, not asking any questions Carol wasn't ready to answer and relentlessly petitioning for her release in her care. For that alone Carol was immensely grateful.
"Mum," Carol began. "I'm sorry, so, so sorry. I can't imagine how hard these past three years had been for you, what kind of gossip, of judgment you've had to endure. The press called Dad a stain upon the reputation of Starfleet and then less than two years later I was expelled and declared mentally incompetent."
Her mother shook her head vehemently. "No! Carol, stop... please. I won't insult your intelligence by lying to you about how important my research at the Royal Academy was to me, but believe me when I say that nothing in the entire Universe comes before you. I know we've had our fair share of disagreements in the past and that we've quarreled all too often after you joined Starfleet, but the truth is that I was jealous of your and your father's closeness. I wished you'd come to me the same way you used to go to him with each and every one of your problems. I always felt like I was on the inside looking in, but you never stopped being my precious little girl and no matter what you were accused of or what people said, nothing has mattered to me more than the fact that you are alive and well."
A lump formed into Carol's throat blocking words of love that had never flown easily off her tongue. She gave her mother a one-armed hug, which was returned full-heartedly. She sniffled, burying her cheek into her Mum's shoulder, basking in the affection and the acceptance. They drank their wine in a comfortable silence for a while, after they had broke apart, standing at the edge of the terrace, surveying the busy street bellow.
"Mum, I never told you why I deserted and was almost court-martialed... ."
Her mother frowned slightly. "You don't have to. I trust you, Carol, much more than I ever did Starfleet. I know you didn't do anything wrong."
Carol drained the last of her wine. She was getting a little tipsy now, warmth spreading through her body, making it loose-limbed. Night, darker than it could ever be on Earth, had fallen around them, only the lights of the city dimming its black reign. Carol lifted her eyes to the sky above. The first stars were twinkling in the distance. Somewhere beyond them, far away, in a place she would probably never see, maybe just maybe a subspace channel aboard an antiquated Xindi ship remained open. She had thought about it every day for the past three years, turning her choices over and over in her mind, as time had wasted away slowly in that airy and uncannily colorful facility, to which she had been committed. Khan was haunting her. Three years and she still lacked a proper understanding of her feelings for the man who had killed her father. She still had nightmares of her Dad's death and pain still coursed through her left leg at times, but both occurrences had become rarer and rarer. At the junction of her neck and shoulder the imprint of Khan's teeth had scarred and the scar was starting to fade. Perhaps she was finally healing. She hoped she was, anyway, but couldn't be certain.
She was closer now to believing that Khan did in fact love her or had at last loved her at the time he had made his confession, but only because the notion made everything she had lost to protect him and his family easier to bear, lacing the impossibility of confiding in anyone with a certain measure of solace. She had just regained her liberty, but she did not feel free. Though none of her areas of expertise were available to her now, she could reorient towards a field still open to her, given her record of legally-enforced commitment, and begin a new life on Archer IV, far away from Starfleet and the fear of the watchful eye of Section 31. She should be relieved, but all she experienced was exhaustion. Sometimes she thought she could sleep for a thousand years and still not get any real rest.
"Mum," she said holding up her glass. "Do we have any more wine?"
~ the end ~