Author's Note: At last, we come to the end of our journey. To you few who not only stuck with this little project but were also kind enough to comment on almost every chapter, to you I say, if you loved this piece, then consider it a gift. Because you were the people I thought of every time I updated. You kept me going. I hope you enjoyed my take on the spiritual evolution of Khan Noonien Singh. After all, he would never have been motivated to avenge Marla unless he really, truly loved her, and that could never happen unless she became a woman far stronger and brilliant than that shown in the TOS episode. So, a thousand thank yous and well wishes and may you live long and prosper! :hug
"What are you thinking about?" Marla glanced over her shoulder at Khan as she busily scraped minerals off the surface of a boulder using a jagged shard of metal.
From where he was breaking rocks with a sledgehammer to free more mineral deposits, Khan gave her a look that clearly said, you are taking liberties again. He pulled his heavy sandrobe sleeves down his arms to shield them as he turned around and told her anyway, "Even if a ship passes by this planet, we have no radio to hail them. We have no probes, no flares, no signals…" his face darkened. "We can do nothing, nothing to push the odds in our favor. Captain Kirk…" his words flooded with such sudden hatred that Marla turned around to have a good look at him, "has obviously told no one that we even exist."
"He couldn't," she responded reasonably, "you're not allowed to exist. The Federation would destroy every single one of you."
"And this," he spread his arms out wide, exasperated, "is any different?! At least it would be quick and clean! I would not have to watch as everyone…" he trailed off.
Marla looked at him. "It is hard. It isn't fair. Life isn't. But remember," she added warningly, "no one's doing this to us. This is chance, fate, the Universe…whatever you want to call it. Not Kirk's fault, not mine, and definitely not yours."
Khan seemed to let her words float harmlessly by him. "I think that I might have gone mad in the past…" he saw her look of horror and quickly amended his statement, "once or twice. That I might have gone insane, hating Kirk…he is the only scapegoat I can find, Marla…he is the demon who haunts my nightmares."
Marla slung the basket over her arm and came to sit beside him on the large rocks that jutted up from the sand like giant's teeth. Khan barely acknowledged her as he fingered the sledgehammer like a weapon. "When I think that he woke us up and returned us to life…only to condemn us to this death. So much death. I fear I would revenge myself upon him…"
"Khan!" she interrupted him impulsively, "not that! Please…"
He saw the worry in her eyes and quickly buried the thoughts, determined not to give her cause for anxiety over something that would never happen anyway. "Do not worry, my dove," he smiled, squeezing her knee briefly, "My reign on Earth taught me how expendable life is. This planet taught me how fragile it is…but it was you who taught me how precious it is."
He dropped the hammer in the sand and took her basket away, watching her hands with an almost dreamy look. "You only know me as a barbaric chieftain, Marla. You never saw me as a king. You could have been with me, as my queen. No one could deny you; you would have had a palace in the deep, green valleys of India that are ever moist, with tigers in golden collars to guard your chambers. And all would speak in wonder of my queen. My queen with sapphire eyes and hair like red fire," he smiled fondly at her, then saw that she was barely listening. Irritated, he asked, "you find no pleasure in these thoughts?"
Marla shrugged reluctantly, trying to peaceably make amends. "It's a lovely idea, Khan…but these thoughts on what could have been are not good for you. Why fire up longings for the impossible? You make what might be endurable here seem positively unbearable."
Khan blinked. He had never thought about it that way. As everything around him grew worse and worse, he found it only natural to look back on what seemed to be such a better time.
"You know," Marla easily changed the subject, allowing Khan to think about what she had said later, on his own time, "the Eugenics Program's first test subjects were either purchased or donated by their families…I know all about it. But a question that's always bugged me…do you remember them at all? Or anything of your childhood, for that matter?"
"No." His answer was short and concise, without emotion. "My memory was wiped very early, before I had reached ten years under the Eugenic Program's tutelage."
He stated it matter of factly; he really didn't care. How could he miss what he had never known? "It was done so I would not be hampered by ties of duty, tradition, affection …love."
"And now…how do you find these ties…of love?"
He looked at her then, half smiling, "now…I realize, I understand why they tried to sever them. But the ties of love are infinitely powerful and infinitely strong…" He suddenly realized what he had been missing for so many of those early years…how Joachim and Marla would never even have come to be in his life if he had continued in his old existence as dictator of Earth.
Why could he not rule the Universe with a family by his side? Why had the natural right to fatherhood been denied him for so long, because of the genetic meddling of some doddering old scientists who selected him as their tool and decided they had the right to castrate his heart and ruin its natural course, giving him love of the body only, not love of the spirit…
Marla leaned into him, reminding him that he was in the middle of saying something endearing to her. Unfortunately, it changed abruptly into a rude tirade. "There was no time to be a boy. I was never a boy. I was only a man. A man with the world at his feet, a prince of thousands." Prince of thousands. Mockingly echoed at him. He kicked at the ground, his boot sending a shower of sand up, "now I've got this!"
Suddenly, sharply ashamed of his loss of temper, he turned to look at Marla. Her face twisted with sympathy as she grabbed his face. "And this," she said suddenly, kissing him.
Yes, he had her. Marla. The one woman who had been able to surprise him. Beautiful, small, but strong. One hand crawls through her red hair as he pulled away briefly to say, "I suppose I can be content with that. You make this planet bearable."
Marla breathed out slowly, her blue eyes shining. "If…if you were still king of Earth, you would not be stuck here on this god forsaken planet…you wouldn't have married me." She looked at him suddenly, and there was real doubt in her face, "Am I worth it?"
Khan was surprised, stupefied even, by his own answer.
"Yes." He kissed her again.
Because she was. She was worth everything. He couldn't even imagine his life without her anymore. She was worth every bit of pain she had made him go through, every moment of doubt, ever loss of temper…she was worth it.
The wind suddenly kicked up, puffing their long, wild hair around each other's faces. Marla laughed and stood up. "The sun's setting and a storm's coming. We need to go back."
Khan grinned and stood beside her, "shall I carry you?"
Marla snorted, shoving him in the chest although Khan barely felt it, "I've had quite enough of that kind of treatment, thanks!"
He chuckled. "Who said I was asking, beloved?" and he lunged at her with a playful growl.
Marla shrieked, her cheeks red with exuberance as she avoided his strong arms that could easily have picked her up and tossed her like a suitcase, arms she always felt so absurdly safe in. She scrambled onto the big rock and lunged over it. Her boot, however, caught on the edge and she fell over the side into the ditch beyond with an exaggerated oof.
Still grinning, Khan was already on top, ready to leap over and follow her, when a shrill scream startled him and instantly froze the blood in his heart.
Marla was writhing on the ground, hands clawing at herself as tiny, soft grey bodies slithered over her skin. Pure terror and panic stamped its mark on her pale face. "They're all over me!"
The eels. Khan was over the rocks and down beside her in less time than it took to blink, nearly stumbling in the shifting sand. He yanked her to her feet, ripping off the eels, ignoring the red, v-shaped tears their teeth left in his skin as he flung them down. "Cover your ears, cover your ears!" He snarled at her in what he realized was his own terror.
He saw a blur of dark, shiny wetness by Marla's ear and lunged for it. All his frantic fingers felt was the sticky trail it left; it silently slipped right inside.
Her eyes snapped wide and she went stiff and rigid in his arms, her head thrown back as she screamed in acute agony, nearly deafening him as her hands grabbed without thought at his shirt. But he didn't care. Without waiting for her to even finish, he scooped her up into his arms and ran towards the camp, his heart pounding.
And he could hear the ghosts, the ghosts Marla didn't believe in, wailing in the darkness, naked in the wind, floating on the empty sand dunes. He could hear them calling her name.
She felt like cold air was whistling in through a hole in her left ear, wrapping its chilly hands around her brain, sadistically tightening as red hot throbs of pain slowly fluttered up her skull. She cracked her eyes open…everything was so blurry. It was all so hot…had Khan forgotten to open the door that evening again?
Oh my God…wait…the eels…the memory of the tiny, sticky, things sucking at her skin as they persistently crept all over her, the scabby adults who bit into her arms and legs and neck, the one invasive, cold finger that wriggled into her ear where she could do nothing to stop it…
In her ear.
"Khan!" She screamed for him, trying to reach out and find him only to be brought short by what she realized were fever ropes, to keep her from flailing about. A dark face materialized above her and Marla recognized M'dara, the doctor.
"M'dara…the eels…I'm going to die, aren't I!" She realized she sounded hysterical but didn't really care.
M'dara bit her lip, unwilling to answer. Suddenly, Khan appeared, pushing her aside as he pressed a hand to Marla's sweaty forehead. "No, you are not."
"Khan, I have an eel lodged in my brain and I'm going to die…I'm going to die!"
"No! You. Are. Not!" His hand trembled where it touched her, as if he was resisting the urge to grab and shake some sense into her. "We are going to find a cure…"
Marla swallowed saliva, wincing as even the slightest movement from her jaw seemed to reawaken the little horror in her cerebral cortex, and the sharp, stabbing pain became a reality…like a migraine, only one that would never go away. "You can't…you can't tear it out, can't pour anything into my brain...I'm going to die, Khan…'
"NO!" His hands withdrew abruptly, as if he was afraid of losing his temper.
Marla reached for him; she didn't want to argue anymore, not in what would be her last moments. She wanted him to stay with her, to hold her hand and love her and tell her it was alright. Because she was afraid. She didn't want to die. "Please, don't, Khan…it'll only hurt worse…please, just this once, bend to fate…tell me goodbye."
"I cannot and I will not," he felt a strange calm invade him as he leaned over her, "I will not lose you."
He pulled her into his arms and stood, feeling how strangely light, almost ethereal, she felt. "Stay with me," he whispered in her ear, still pressing hard to the wound, as if he held her life in his hands.
He began moving, began running across the desert sand…he would get her back in time. He could not lose her. He would not lose her.
Marla began to sob, helplessly, miserably. She just couldn't help it. She was going to die and leave them…leave Joachim and Khan all alone on this miserable planet. All alone. Head hurts…my baby…Khan…please no…(Khan) let me go…(dear God) let me stay…
Saddened by her grief but refusing to allow himself to surrender to it, Khan bent over and gently kissed her forehead. He paused, his face inches from hers as he whispered, "I will save you, Marla…do not fear. You will live…you will live." His eyes burned with desperation and love, begging her to understand and agree with him, "you will see it."
She cried for Joachim. Khan only allowed him in once, when Marla seemed to be feeling better. She kissed him and tried not to cry…but wasn't very successful. Khan left him in the care of Patricia, who had two young ones of her own.
Together with an increasingly unwilling M'dara, they tried so many remedies, so many strange, painful, desperate treatments…but as expected, nothing worked. Marla only wished Khan would leave her in peace, would stop building up his frantic pile of hope…would just appreciate the little time they had left together.
Every day, she felt more and more of herself slipping away.
Fevered dreams, distorted memories, waking up with her throat raw from screaming…and always the pain, the sickly throbbing in her head, so bad that sometimes her body would move by itself in a frantic, joint snapping fit, desperate to get rid of the creature lodged in her brain as it sweetly and contentedly sucked away her sanity.
Her sight got worse and worse, regressing like an old woman's. Things became blurry…she started having panic attacks, started losing entire weeks of memories. She couldn't see faces unless they bent in close. They couldn't untie her even as she retched and twisted, her face burning, her eyes burning, her mind churning in her skull until she wished and prayed someone would just scoop it out and end it all.
Khan's voice still came to her ears, but dimly. And she saw his face, but only the agony, burning bright and clear in his deep-set eyes, was clear to her. Her judgment was twisted out of shape as she cried out terrible things she had never meant to say, accusations and insults and a growing madness that left her helpless and terrified in her own mind, as her sense of self, overthrown and exiled, floated around her world and watched it fall to pieces.
And on top of the pain, there was a cold rock of terror sitting in the bottom of her stomach. Terrified for Khan, and what would become of him. He would not let her go…and when she died, as she knew she would, then there would be no one to act as his conscience, no one to help him slowly grow his own. No one to walk with him, listen to him, support him, raise his child, grow old with him…
If I'd only had more time, she thought idly as Khan's strong but unnoticed arm wrapped around her shoulders, forcing her to eat, ignoring what she accidentally spat or spilled on his shirt, only had more time…I can see a world, a future where we grew old together, where he mellowed and I grew quieter and we clung together like two old trees…and we could have died together, happy, at peace, content…so happy…but now we will die alone, torn, Joachy…my baby…Khan…alone…
Soon after that, the world stopped making sense.
Finally, when it became undeniably certain that Marla would die, Khan drove M'dara out, almost becoming violent. When she had retreated he barred the door solidly, ignoring the curious, outraged questions coming from outside.
Then he quickly crossed over to the bed and knelt there. He touched her hair gingerly, watching the vibrant red strands pull across his fingers as she tossed and moaned in delirium. Watched her tightly shut eyes as tears ran out of their corners and mingled with the drops of perspiration that already beaded her pale face.
He spent the last days whispering to her, as she always had to him, I love you. It's alright. Don't worry. We'll be fine.
Although every word was a lie and she couldn't even hear him. He undid the ropes that bound her wrists so tightly and hugged her to himself, ignoring the red, bleeding furrows her flailing nails tore through his skin as she screamed and fought him, clawing at his face…only to collapse into a sobbing, muttering mess for hours.
And his heart felt like it was bleeding, dying with her.
He had thought she could not possible feel any more pain than that…he was wrong.
It was at least two days later, in the late hours of the night, when Marla suddenly constricted in his arms, seizing him as her entire body seemed to be transfigured by a burst of life. She threw her head back and screamed, louder than he had ever heard her before, raw with agony and terror and sheer insanity.
Then, the thing slipped out of her ear and fell with a plop to the floor in a puddle of blood, writhing and chattering.
Khan attacked it with his bare hands, smashing it into the ground until the floor cracked and the gooey remains covered his hands. Then, he looked up at Marla.
She lay, half on the bed, her head sideways. She looked at him...and her eyes were clear, full of recognition, relief, blessing. They were blue, they were beautiful and so, so alive…
And then, with a shuddering sigh, they closed.
Khan moved forward on his knees, pressing his chest against her side as he gently felt her neck for a pulse. Nothing.
The emerging whisper, once released, set off a thousand ripples in his mind, all of them hissing and laughing that final word.
Wait…didn't get to tell you…
I promised you...
Khan reared up, away from her, staring at her body as if it was an assassin or a malformed monster that had crawled into his bedroom. He stepped back and felt a bookcase press against his back.
Instantly, he turned around, seized it and flung it across the room to go crashing into the opposite wall. Books and papers fluttered down. His arms…they were shaking, so badly that he couldn't…he slammed them together and tried to calm them, calling on his muscles to serve him as perfectly as they always had…it didn't work. Nothing worked.
He demolished the room; denting the walls of the cargo bay as he threw furniture into them and destroyed everything he could get his hands on. Everything but the Bed and the Woman who lay upon it.
Surrounded by chaos and crashing and destruction, he was waiting. Waiting for a persistently irritating voice to cry out for him to stop, for weak hands to grab his shoulders or shove him lightly or even slap him…it didn't come. Nothing came.
Finally, he felt himself falling, falling to the ground among the shards and splinters of wood and metal. He didn't even feel it puncture his skin as he slammed into the ground, panting, exhausted…his hands were bleeding, sliced to the bone by metals no human being should be snapping with their bare hands. He lay there, paralyzed, staring at Marla's corpse.
Then, his eyes drifted down to the cover of a book, mostly preserved, that lay right before his face. He saw the title through a blur.
Paradise is lost…Marla is lost…Satan falls…I fall. He rules in Hell. I reign here. What is left?
Nothing, but one thing.
Khan's wet eyes snapped open; he wasn't even aware that he'd been crying. Powerful yet shaky arms and legs gathered themselves under him and pushed him upright. He stared down at the book.
"Those men went on to tame a continent, Mr. Khan. Can you tame a world?" Kirk's mouth pulled into an obvious smirk.
He looked up, up at the roof, beyond the roof, beyond the burnt, ruined sky…into the great expanse of space, the freedom of the stars and other worlds and a million planets where, for all he knew, Kirk was still flying, free.
"Have you ever read Milton, Captain?"
He looked at his gloved hand, watching it tremble. This…this death. So many dead…Marla had told him so often it was not his fault. But it had to be someone's fault. Someone with no excuse for what he did. Maybe it seemed a silly, unimportant thing now, when she was gone, but a dying man will grab for the first rope he can, if he thinks it will show him a way to live on. That someone was Kirk. Kirk, who exiled and abandoned them, who dared to leave Marla on a world that would destroy her.
He turned to look at Marla, lying there with such a peaceful look on her face. Her beautiful face that would never look at him again…never hear her voice…Marla. A giant pain of regret and bereavement and confusion ripped its way through his heart and he stumbled. He almost fell back into the vale of agonized emotion he had lost himself in.
But no. He would not. Never again. Marla was not here, with her special strength and beauty and love. All he had left, all that could save him…was (nothing) the old way.
The way of death, and hatred, and revenge.
The Augments crowded around Khan's cargo bay, suspicious, leaderless, festering with rumor and anger. They wanted to know what was happening, and they wanted to know now. Their anger grew as time went by, and the loud noises, the screaming, and then finally the roars, like a great beast speared through the heart, only increased their boldness.
Some realized that Khan had at last had it; his beloved little she-demon had died. They were fed up with this attitude…they had all lost friends and family, but none had taken it this hard. It was an inevitable part of life. What, did Khan think that somehow he would be spared?
Patricia wisely kept Joachim out of sight as the mutterings grew louder. Finally, when all noise within the cargo bay had died, a man named Aaron stepped forward and punched the door with his fist.
The sound of the blow reverberated through everyone, and they watched expectantly.
The door opened.
A hand shot forward and latched onto Aaron's face, tightening, digging into his cheekbones and forehead, lifting him from the ground as his body arched in pained surprise. Before he even had time to fight back, Khan stepped forward and threw him away from the doorway and into the crowd.
There was a collective gasp. Khan looked horrific. In the week or so that had passed, the white strands in his once thick black hair had multiplied, like thick streaks of pain that made him seem abnormally old. He was covered with blood and dust and splinters, his bare chest exposed under a torn shirt, sweating and silently swelling with every breath, like a rabid dog's. His eyes, also, looked like a rabid dog's. They weren't burning…they were electrified, wide open and fueled by a bitter, bitter pain as they darted wildly at them all, staring without seeing, yet seeing far too much. He strode straight into the crowd, trespassing on their personal space without fear, daring them to protest.
Aaron struggled to a stand, wheezing, holding onto his jaw as if it was coming off. Khan walked right by him without looking. The Augments rippled away from him as he cut through them. And he started speaking…there was something alien, inhuman in his voice. It was heavy with pain, but it was utterly distant, as if it was a pain they could never experience or share or speak with him about. It was a pain that didn't concern them and would never concern them.
"Ah, my people…so you have come to gloat?" he almost smiled; but anyone with intelligence could see the beginnings of insanity in his eyes, when all barriers are broken and all ties are severed, when a man no longer cares about anything, not even himself. As he reached the edge of the crowd, he turned. The Augments, with their finely tuned senses, felt the intense aura that flowed from him like acid melting into their skin. It was disturbing; threatening…it was an aura of death. Death for anyone who touched him. "You have come to pick at my bones like vultures? Why are you here?"
"How is Mar…" a woman began to ask.
The brief flash of agony in his eyes came and went far too quickly for anyone to see it. Khan grabbed her around the throat, cutting off her air as he yanked her face forward, stopping short inches from his. "None of you are to speak her name again. You were not worthy to utter it when she was alive," the woman tried to punch him. He caught the fist and released her abruptly, "and none will speak it now that she is dead."
At this second unwarranted attack, the people muttered angrily, surging towards him. One of the bolder ones stepped forward, icy blue eyes narrowed angrily as he spat in Khan's direction. "She made you weak before…her death has made you mad."
Khan really smiled now; this was not reckless insanity, the kind that caused men like Nyguk to kill themselves. This was utter, chaotic disregard of morals, the rejection of life and disownment of his fellow man. It was deadly to all around him, and they could feel it. He stepped forward, his head angled ever so slightly as he stalked eagerly over to the speaker, unafraid of him or the entire crowd behind his back. "Say it now…" his voice was raw with pain but also eager, almost hungry, "or never look me in the face again."
The man stared back, slightly taken off guard by the bold, sudden challenge. But like all Augments, he rose to it magnificently; he took it. "She made you weak and ma…"
Khan lunged at him. The man barely avoided it, swinging around to land a good elbow slam into his back that would have winded another man. But Khan turned in his grip, seized his fist as it came down for a second blow and chopped upward at the elbow, breaking the arm.
The Augment went pale. He sagged for a split second as his system fought to cope with the sudden pain. That was all Khan needed. Within seconds, he had the man's neck nestled in his arm, his hand pressed to the side. One hard, sharp push, and it was over. He dropped the lifeless body in the sand. As the Augments started crying out in protest, he bellowed at them, fists raised, "Come at me! Come at me with any weapon, one of you, ten of you, all of you!"
And some did. They rushed him, and he fought. He killed as if he was the very Scythe of Death, slaughtering them as the madness flared higher and higher in his eyes until even the bravest drew back in terror before a man who had been utterly transformed and, in the process, become something even less human than an Augment. Marla had been able, through love, to fan that spark of nobility and honor into something far greater than what he had been before. But now, without her, he fell even farther. He took all the trust, all the obedience, all the reliance she had once held safe, and gave it to the Beast within, the animal lurking in the darkness of his soul. He fed the animal with hatred, with killing, and with vengeance.
He stood before them, panting, broken bodies littered around his feet. He had killed them all with his bare hands. He spoke, and as before, they hung on every word. But it was demented yet controlled, ranting yet powerful, "you thought I was weak, because I would not fight…because I loved an earth woman. She is no longer able to shield you from my wrath, so take care you do not anger me! Do not disobey me, do not question me, or I will purify you with blood!" he lifted up his gloved hand and clenched it in a fist, shaking with the pure rage that was coursing through his veins. "You swore to follow me once before…swear it again, before I send you down into the sand with these your treacherous brothers! Swear it!" he barked out the order, looking as if he would attack the crowd the very instant they disobeyed.
And they swore. They swore, then and there, to live and die at the command of Khan Noonien Singh, greatest of the Augments, ruler of Ceti Alpha V and the man who would lead them to death or vengeance, whichever came first. They swore out of terror, but it was sincere. For, in a world that had become a nightmare, a devil king hardly seemed out of place. His wanton slaughter had only made him stronger in their eyes, a rock of death in the ever-shifting sea of sand.
Marla was buried in a great tomb of carven rock, deep in the caverns below the desert. Khan could not bear to let her sink into the soft sand, to be dragged down into the nether darkness; he couldn't bear the thought of her spirit exiled to a tortured limbo between living and dying, shriveled and wailing across the desert forever; besides, he didn't want to think of what that spirit might say to him.
When he looked through her things for the last time before storing them safely in the burial chamber, he found her old Starfleet belt buckle. The leather belt had been taken long ago to repair something or other, but the buckle was mostly undamaged, save for the rim, where a chunk of metal had been broken off.
He welded some wires into a chain and hung the buckle around his neck. It was the only thing of hers that would never rot. It was a symbol of space, of that beautiful, cool expanse of stars that he would never see again…where he first found her.
Only Joachim was allowed to be at the burial with him, simply because he had the right to be there. Khan lowered Marla into the tomb with his own arms, straightening her body. He hesitated, staring at her face. Then, slowly, he reached out and touched her red hair for the last time. The pain in his eyes started up again. He could give it no freedom and pulled his hand away, surprised at how difficult such a simple motion was.
Joachim cried; for once, Khan said nothing about it as the boy leaned over the coffin with difficulty and pressed a last kiss to Marla's cheek.
Khan bent over, and looked at her.
So beautiful…could you but wake up now, Marla, you would hate me…but do not hate me, beloved. I do this for you, for me, and for all our lost chances together.
He slowly, gently kissed her cold lips.
You were everything…everything. You were worth every pain. I would go through it all all over again, if it would bring you back.
A single tear appeared on Marla's cheekbone and trickled down into the shadows under her head. Khan blinked angrily, realizing it was his.
I will not cry…I would bring you back…but I will not cry. Only you had the right to see my tears. Only you.
Then, using only his brute force, he heaved the massive stone lid over her coffin with a terrible rumbling sound, hiding her forever from all the cruel tools of nature Ceti Alpha might extend towards her. Only gentle Time could reach her here, and it would do all that was necessary.
Khan pressed his forehead to the cold stone and took a deep, deep breath. When he exhaled, he felt as if all that was left in him, all that was sensitive, good, thoughtful…all the finer things in him that Marla had loved…was buried there with her. And he cared. He cared too much, as if Marla's chastisements were still reaching for him from the grave.
He would not be surprised.
After a silent, long moment, he stood abruptly and left, ignoring Joachim's silent sobs as the boy trailed after him, ignoring the memories that seemed to echo behind him in the cave until they faded into nothingness. And those whispered memories hurt him and tore at his heart and frightened him far more than the wailing of the ghosts on the desert. Because he would have given anything to hear them from her, just one last time.
"And this is your reward, my dove."
Marla opened her eyes, cupping his chin in her palm. "I don't mind…I have enough."
But her eyes still sparkled, and her smile retained the fresh, heart lifting sweetness it had always held for Khan. It was still the treasure he sometimes fought to earn, the treasure he would lock away in his mind's eye to warm his heart when it was heavy.
Fingers suddenly brushed through her hair. "If it had to be from your family…couldn't it be red?" Khan asked suddenly.
Marla burst out laughing. She couldn't help it. "Give me that!" she growled, taking the baby from him and leaning back into her now cool pillows. "I need to sleep."
Khan got up and put a hand on either side of her as he leaned over, breathing in the smell of her, of their baby, lathered down with the little soap they had left. "For how many years?" He smiled.
Eyes twinkling mischievously, she grabbed his shirtfront. "Just a few thousand centuries. Have dinner ready." And then she pulled him into a kiss.
"Why…why did you come then, Marla?"
She screamed back, eyes flowing with tears, hands clenched in her rags, leaning towards him with so much fire that he felt, should they touch, he would be burned. "I came…because I loved you!"
One hand crawled through her hair, red hair, pulling it away from her face…a beautiful face, beautiful because he knew it better than his own, had seen it everyday…argued with it, smiled at it, kissed it…loved the soul that sang behind it. She was Marla, his Marla.
She ran one hand through his black hair, her face less than an inch from his as she breathed, "think of this as a promise…a promise forever."
Together, for once in perfect synchrony and consent, perfect agreement and peace of heart, perfect love…they kissed with a freedom, an invigorating joy that Khan had never felt before.
"Good. Because you're not." Marla felt a patch of rough, bumpy scar tissue on his scalp. Her fingers delicately brushed over it, relieved to not find any heat there that would signify an infection. "In fact, you're quite hideous."
"That does it!" Khan's long arm snaked around her waist, surprising her. Marla shrieked aloud as he pulled her around him in one swift motion until she was lying in his lap, the book awkwardly poking into her shoulders.
Khan leaned over her, his dark eyes reflecting the fire as he smiled devilishly at her. Marla laughed, and then received his kiss.
"It is a pity we are in complete darkness…I would see your face one more time, should our almost impossible chance at survival prove to be too impossible."
He felt slender fingers touch and wrap around his chin in the dark. "That's a very sweet thought, your Excellency. Will this be enough?"
He felt her breath on his face, and the smile grew, stretching over both his cheeks. "For now."
Marla scooted next to him. The air was cold as it licked the water on his bare skin. But she was warm. The floor was warm. She tucked her arms around his left one, cuddling it like a little girl cuddling a teddy bear.
Instinctively, his right hand crossed his chest and took her hand in his, wrapping around it safely. In less than a minute, they were fast asleep together.
She reached up suddenly and traced the side of his face. Intrigued, not sure why she was doing it but willing to let her amuse herself, Khan raised an eyebrow. They were swaying together now, subconsciously using the pitter-patter of the rain as a sort of primitive music, as ancient and relentless as the beatings of their own hearts.
Responding with an amused smile, Khan moved to hold the shovel with one hand, wrapping his other arm around her slender shoulders. "You are far too inquiring for your own good, Marla."
"Well, my good is not what's worrying me right now."
Instead, Marla's eyes widened in wonder and disbelief, her face turning pale with shock. Half suspended against the wall, she slowly, oh so slowly, reached out with a thin hand and gently touched his left cheek. It twitched under the sudden touch, dragging the skin under her soft, curious fingertips.
Something of sudden revelation and even awe transfixed her face. "You're crying."
"What…what is this?"
"This…" Marla pressed a slow, strong kiss to his cheek, her eyes closed, willing her own spirit into his, willing him to find the safety and the contentment she offered him, "is love."
His boots left footprints in the sand that, though deep and sharply cut, would be gone within hours as the low breeze whipped layers of dead sand across the ground, restlessly whirling, without a home, without a purpose.
He stood tall on top of the dune, arms crossed, his whitening hair blowing about behind him as it framed a face that had once been noble, strong, handsome…now lined with pain and bitterness, with brown eyes that burned where they had once glowed.
He stared out over his domain, over the dead wasteland, the desert that burned beneath the setting sun, wide and orange where it fell behind the horizon. It cast long, lonely shadows across the ground and the wind was swiftly becoming cold.
A little hand slipped into his with a familiarity that had been too strong to be stopped instantly, as he had wished it. He had to be cold, cold and distant for what lay ahead…he must always be a killer in the eyes of his people if he wished to lead them in the way he had said he would.
"Father?" Joachim stood beside him, looking up with both trust and yet uncertainty written on his face at this man who was so like his father and yet so unlike. "What do we do now?"
Khan's lips curled up in a sneer. "Survive. We survive."
He lifted his head and looked up at the dying sky, where the clouds were thin and stretched, almost deformed, still as burnt and crisp as the day the planet had turned into the nightmare that devoured everything that ever mattered to him. He looked up, and he whispered, "come to me, Kirk. Come to me, to this living death you condemned me to…and I will kill you."
Joachim was startled. He pulled his hand away and stared up at his father.
Unaware, Khan continued, his face contorted by rage, "I will kill you…as you killed her." With his gloved hand, he suddenly thumped his chest violently, as if trying to dislodge the agony swelling there. "Beware! You killed the keeper of my heart, and the beast within me is loose. It will find you."
And then, his gaze drifted over the desert, over dead Ceti Alpha V, the graveyard of all his hopes, dreams, and loves. When he spoke again, it was a broken whisper that even his son could not hear. "You killed the keeper of my heart," for a split instant, he blinked against blurry vision; he thought he saw a flowing mass of red hair framing bright blue eyes and a smile that made his heart tremble…he waited for a voice that could touch it and bring it back to life, make it beat with love and live again. But the blue eyes faded away…the smile melted. There was nothing there, and he couldn't even bring himself to reach for where he thought she had been. When he spoke again, his voice was tremulous, quiet, like a little lost child's. "You killed her."
And for the last time, the whispered name floated over the desert, borne away on the wind, carried off into the sun, bearing the last of his love with it.
"He desired only one thing; vengeance for himself, and for the woman he had adored. Because somehow, somewhere in the middle of that horrible nightmare, she had become the very center of his universe, his first, his only, and his last."
~adapted from Ricardo Montalban.