Disclaimer: I own nothing, save for the things that belong to me.
A/N: So…I'm really glad I didn't promise less than two weeks, since it's now been just about three. I am so, so sorry for the delay, but the past couple of weeks have been an exercise in patience for me. And even more so for my beta. It's a good thing she's my sister, otherwise, I might be in trouble right now! Anyway…here's the next chapter. Hope it's worth the wait!
As always, thank you to all who have read/followed/favorited/reviewed! Extra special thanks to my beta, Xaraphis, for not only being awesome but for having the patience of a saint! ;)
The words hung in the air between them, though neither moved. Finally, Khan lifted his head, only to lean even closer, wrapping himself even further around her, his arms sliding around her middle – his touch gentle, delicate and ever mindful of her injured back. "You will not run." He hummed the words against her neck, the syllables shaped with such a curious mixture of command and plea that she couldn't decide if it was meant to be an order or a question. "When I let go, you will stay...you will not run…"
"I said I'm listening," Duval repeated, eyes closed now as she tried very hard to find some kind of equilibrium – something he was making it very difficult for her to manage. Frustrated and almost painfully confused by him and all of his emotional toing and froing, she clenched her fists at her sides, trying very hard to sound controlled and collected rather than desperate and needy. "So how 'bout you let me go and start giving me something to listen to.
The words snapped off her tongue, each one bitten off and sounding far angrier than she had intended and she felt him tense up even more than he already had been.
"You are angry," he said, pressing his lips against her neck though he did not actually kiss her. "Why must you always hear the worst possible meaning in every word I say to you?"
He sounded…sad. Genuinely hurt. Her frustration ratcheted up even higher, directly proportional to the sweeping urge to turn around and throw her arms around his neck that she only just managed to quash. Ignoring the shriek of discomfort from the bruised and swiftly stiffening muscles across her upper back, she tipped her neck sharply away from the perilous thrill of his touch, wishing with all her might that she was, in fact, pissed off at him. It would have served him right, going around, scorching her in one breath only to freeze her with the next – it would absolutely serve him right if she was completely pissed off at him.
"Maybe I wouldn't if you'd actually explain things to me."
"That is precisely what I was trying to do."
Any other time, she might have laughed at their ability to be so perfectly and identically frustrated with one another. But at the moment, she lacked the distance to appreciate the humor in the situation.
Slumping, somehow managing to curl even further around her – she could feel the burn of his skin across her back, down her spine and all she wanted to do, her very first instinct, was to press back into him, to brace him; to shore him up and shoulder what burdens she could and that just…terrified her – Khan let out a slow, ragged breath. That single weary exhalation hit her square in the chest even as it sent a tendril of soft brown hair dancing across her cheek. Fighting what she refused to acknowledge as a losing battle against the gentler instincts that she hadn't even known she was capable of until he had come along, Duval reached up and flicked the errant hair out of her face with slightly more force than necessary.
Almost as if he had been waiting for exactly that, Khan's hand darted up and caught hers, lacing their fingers together. His other hand dropped from around her and no sooner had the warmth and weight of him disappeared before she could feel a tug on her hand. Turning, allowing herself to be led, Duval followed the insistent pull as Khan drew her away from the door. She still didn't look at him – not trusting herself to maintain her composure – just let him walk her all the way back to the end of his bed. Once there, he lifted his free hand to her shoulder, exerting only the lightest of pressure as he urged her to sit back down in the same spot she had vacated only moments prior.
As soon as she was settled, he was back on the other side of the room, pacing once more, his hands raking heatedly through his hair. Duval finally let herself look at him again, hands flat on the bed, fingertips tucked beneath the outside of her thighs; she chewed at the inside of her lip, waiting as patiently as she could for him to say something.
Finally, he turned to face her, expression fierce. "You believe that I blame you for what has been done to me," he paused, swallowed, "and to my people."
"No, I don't," she said quietly, proud of herself for not flinching, for keeping her expression passive. "I don't think you blame me for it, Khan. I think that you resent me for being part of the machine that's responsible for what's happened to you and your people. Blame and resentment are two very different things."
That threw him; the frown that creased his brow told her that loud and clear.
"I do not…"
"You do," she argued, cutting across him. "You said it yourself not ten minutes ago…I'm just another way for Marcus to manipulate you. I'm just one more tool that he uses against you. And before you get indignant…it's fine. I understand why you would feel that way because, let's face it, it's true."
If she'd thrown him before, now he looked positively aghast. "I knew that you had misunderstood me," he said, something miserable in the flatness of his voice, "but I had not imagined you could have so thoroughly misread the intent of that particular confession. Rebecca…when I despair of Marcus using you against me, it is for your sake and your sake alone."
Now it was her turn to frown. "Why would you…"
Before she could get the sentence out, he was on his knees in front of her, the distance between them erased before it had even registered in her mind that he was moving – a well-timed reminder of the rare and remarkable specimen that he was. In this position, the disparity between their heights was virtually erased, putting their eyes very nearly level with one another. Khan kept his hands at his sides, not touching her at all and though his eyes still burned fierce, there was something distinctly troubled – almost pained – about the knit of his brow, the pinch of his lips.
"I am aware that your current beliefs have been informed by my past conduct – I have accused you too often when it has only ever been Marcus that I have truly blamed for anything. You were, as you so astutely pointed out, merely a more convenient target for my ire. And that…" here he paused, blinked, looked away, "that is inexcusable. Petty. Weak." He lifted his head again and she could see the self-recriminations swimming in all that beautiful blue. "I blame you for nothing, Rebecca. I resent you for nothing. You have been…"
He stopped once more, mouth snapping shut and then he was on his feet again, putting distance between them yet again. His back to her, he stopped just before his closet, one fisted hand lifting to rest against the door, his shoulders drooping tiredly. "Every day is a trial – has been, from the moment I was awoken. Every minute that passes…every second that ticks by…I feel the sting of what I have lost. Of what has been taken from me – kept from me." He lifted his fist, brought it back down hard onto the closet door, the panel folding inward slightly. "I bear the weight of seventy-two souls upon my back, Rebecca; seventy-two lives, each of which is as precious to me as my own and any of which Alexander Marcus could end at any given moment. It is a heavy burden; one that even I struggle to bear."
Duval had never, in her entire life, felt more out of her depth than she did at that very moment. She had imagined herself to be in over her head so many times before, especially over the past few months and specifically in regards to Khan. But now, staring at him wide-eyed, scared and disconcerted, she recognized with silently gathering panic that she was utterly ill-equipped for this. Any of it. All of it.
Worse, and most terrifying of all, there wasn't a chance in hell that she was going to let that stop her…
"But you made a deal," she said, stumbling over the words and feeling her cheeks flame. "He won't touch them…so long as you…"
Khan made a noise of disbelief, shook his head, turned to look at her over his shoulder. "You are no fool, Rebecca. In my place, how much faith would you place in the Admiral's deal?"
There was only one answer to that. It wasn't something she let herself think about often, a quiet dread, lurking at the back of her thoughts. She knew Alexander Marcus better than most – was intimately acquainted with his own particular brand of ruthless efficiency. She swallowed against the lump that now sat like a rock in her throat, but she didn't look away from him; she wouldn't let herself retreat now, no matter how much she might want to. "None," she said, firmly, plainly. "None whatsoever."
His expression didn't change. There was no flash of surprise, no shock of incredulity. She had said nothing more than he already knew. Instead, after a long moment, he dipped his head toward her – a thanks, she suspected, for her raw honesty. "He lords their lives over me; a sword at my neck, used to keep me to heel. I live with the constant fear that this…this will be the day that he is no longer satisfied with threats alone."
The silence that followed was stilted, pregnant with a tension that Duval could feel in every bone, every muscle. She wanted to say something, to reassure him in any way that she could…but she doubted there was any real comfort that she could offer. Not in this.
Still…better to at least try.
"I haven't…he's never really said anything about them. At least, not to me," she said haltingly, took a deep breath. "But if it would help…if you would like…I could…"
The word was harsh, emphatic. It stole the words she had been about to say from her lips and left her frowning, a little bit hurt by so harsh a rejection to such a well-meant offer. "You don't even know what I was going to say."
"It does not matter what you were going to say," Khan shot back, turning to face her fully, fire in his eyes yet again. "You will do nothing. You will say nothing. You will keep yourself as far removed from this as you possibly can."
The hurt only grew with that, an ache in her chest and a throbbing in her head. Despite herself, her eyes dropped from his. "Right. Bad idea. Sorry. I'd probably just make things worse."
"You would," Khan agreed, and the ache began to spread, radiating out until she could feel it in the tips of her fingers, clenched in the covers of his bed. "You would undoubtedly make things worse, Rebecca. You would make things far, far worse for yourself and that is something that I cannot – that I will not – allow you to do. Not anymore."
Duval's head jerked up, surprise tempering the ache ever so slightly. "What do you…you're worried about me?" She shook her head, chagrined. "Don't do that. You've got enough to worry about. I can take care of myself, Khan."
His jaw sharpened, his eyes blazing down into hers. "You risk too much, too often. So many times now, you have put yourself in jeopardy for me, Rebecca – so many times now and in so many different ways…"
"Stop it," Duval almost shouted, uncomfortable with this change in the conversation. "Stop romanticizing. You make it sound like I'm some kind of saint, selflessly throwing myself to the wolves for your sake when we both know that everything I've done has benefitted me as much as it has you."
"Indeed?" He took a step toward her, still angry but now something else as well, something at once brighter and deeper than his fury. "Three weeks ago, you risked your reputation, your career, your very life to give me answers for no better reason than because I had demanded them of you. Explain to me, I beg of you, Rebecca – what benefit was there in that for you?"
She opened up her mouth to answer but he didn't give her the chance, taking another lurching step in her direction. "None," he snapped. "Absolutely none, no matter how you might try to pretend otherwise. You put yourself in danger for my sake then, just as you have done every, single time you have stepped between Marcus and myself. I shudder to think how many times you have risked yourself for his sake – for the Section's sake. I sometimes wonder if you possess even the tiniest shred of self-preservation."
Chafing now beneath what was beginning to sound far too much like a scolding for her tastes, Duval narrowed her eyes at him. "You say all that like it's a bad thing. Like I've done something wrong when really, you're just criticizing me for being loyal!"
"Precisely!" Khan spun away, ran a hand through his hair, mussing it even more than it already was. "You are loyal," he said roughly. "Too loyal." His voice now was hushed, as quiet as she had ever heard it. "I fear that loyalty, Rebecca."
There was a desperation wrapped around those words that tore at her, made her ache in an entirely different way than she had before, but she pushed it aside, clinging to her bristling anger. "I'm sorry but I'm a little lost here," she said, a little bit petulant and a lot annoyed. "What the hell is wrong with being too loyal?"
For several very long moments, Khan was silent. He stood there, back to her, his entire body rising and falling with the rhythm of his breath, each one seeming deeper and more strained than the one before. Finally, his head lifted and though he did not turn, she could feel his focus directed entirely upon her. "When I told you of my dream," he said at last, quiet still and with a poignancy that sent gooseflesh up her arms, "you posited that your presence in it was as a more accessible stand in for Marcus – that it was nothing more than a lurid fantasy gone wrong."
Perplexed by what this had to do with anything, Duval shifted restlessly, hands burrowing even further beneath her thighs in vague discomfort. "It makes sense that…"
"You were – and are – entirely incorrect, Rebecca. That dream was, in fact, the embodiment of my greatest fear in regards to you. You are…so loyal. So dedicated. You risk too much, court danger without so much as a thought for your own well-being." He sucked in a shuddering breath, turned slowly to face her. "I could so easily be the death of you…and it terrifies me."
Duval couldn't move; could barely bring herself to breathe. His eyes…his face…there was too much truth there – too much everything. It wasn't supposed to be this way. They weren't supposed to be this way. None of this was supposed to mean this much…
"Khan…" His name was a whisper on her lips, a plea. I can't do this, she wanted to yell it at him, scream it at the top of her lungs. You can't do this. We can't do this.
If he heard the unvoiced thoughts, if he saw the alarm that she knew must be swelling in her eyes, he ignored them entirely. Instead, he began to move toward her, his steps slow, measured. His gaze – dark, fervent, heated – held hers captive, refusing to let her go. "I have little enough light in my life now," he said, quietly, so intense that it stole her breath away. He stopped just in front of her, large hands reaching out to cup her now upturned face between his palms as he stared down at her. "I have lost so much – too much," he brushed his thumbs across her cheekbones, something mournful and broken in his eyes. "To lose you…"
He sank to his knees, his right hand sliding down her face, her neck until it rested just over her heart, his eyes sliding closed as his head began to bob gently, in sync with the drumming beat she could feel in her throat. "You will not risk yourself, Rebecca. Not for me. Never again."
Alarm giving way to full blown panic, Duval's pulse skyrocketed, her vision beginning to tunnel until her entire world had narrowed to the man before her. Somewhere, from deep, deep down, words clawed their way up and out of her throat. "I can't…I can't promise that. You can't ask me to promise that."
His eyes remained closed, the hand still on her cheek slipping backwards into her hair, fingers molding to the curve of her skull and drawing her closer. When their noses touched, his eyes blinked open, steely determination turning his irises very nearly gray. "I am not asking; I am telling. Do what you must – lie to me, if you must. But you will never again endanger yourself for my sake, Rebecca. Never again."
Duval's vision blurred and it took her far longer than it should have to realize that her eyes had filled with tears. Damn this man…damn him straight to hell…
"I don't want to lie to you," she choked out, her voice tiny, her composure lying in tatters at his feet. She reached up, tentatively – petrified – and placed her hand over his heart, mirroring their positions. "My whole life is lies…I don't…I don't want this to be a lie too."
Khan leaned in, lips brushing against her skin, catching a renegade tear as it slid slowly down her cheek. "No," he murmured, dragging his lips over the plane of her face, across the line of her jaw and down the column of her neck. "Not a lie," he whispered into the skin just above her racing pulse before closing his lips around the thrumming spot, sucking at it hungrily, greedy tongue darting out to taste. Then he slid his mouth further, the hand over her heart slipping down, sideways, fingers dancing along the curve of her breast before settling over the jut of her ribcage. "This," he said, the tip of his nose nudging at the ridge and dip of her collarbone, "is not a lie."
Duval let her eyes slip shut, torn, utterly undone and so…damn...scared. She laid her hands on his shoulders, sliding them up until her fingers found the back of his neck, stroking at warm skin and corded muscle alike. "I don't want it to be," she agreed, a hurried, hushed confession, drawn from her hesitant lips by the most unguarded affection she had experienced since her parents had died. "I don't want this to be a lie."
Khan reared backwards, breathing hard, his eyes a maelstrom of fear and fire and desperate, frenzied resolve as they bore into hers. "Never again," he repeated, his voice gone hoarse and the hand woven into her hair at the back of her head let go, falling to land on her neck, pressing against her pulse – feeling the rush of her blood, the hum of life beneath her skin. "Say it, Rebecca. Swear to me…never again."
They were there, on the tip of her tongue, the words that he wanted…the promise that he was demanding. It would be so easy to give them to him, to do as he'd asked and lie to him. Behind that though, beneath it and all around it, was her own demand. A truth that she wanted. That she craved.
So she bit back, hard, on those words, on the easy way out. Eyes wide but spine straight, she met his soul-stirring gaze with a passionate intensity to rival his own – quieter, perhaps, but no less formidable. "No," she said, tremulous but so, so sure. "I can't promise that, Khan. I won't promise that."
She braced herself, certain that her unapologetic obstinacy and entirely unrepentant refusal would anger him. To her surprise though, that didn't appear to be the case at all. He neither pulled away from her nor pushed her away from him. He didn't even tense up; didn't, in fact, do anything that she had figured he might.
What he did do, was sigh, long and deep; his eyes sliding shut as he tipped his head forward to drop his forehead to her neck, just at the base of her throat.
A chime sounded from without, the electronic trill of the main door to their quarters singing into the dim silence. As one, they went rigid, tensing at the unexpected – unwanted – intrusion though neither moved. Duval stiffened, looked toward the door of his room, dread pooling in her stomach.
Please…don't let it be Marcus, she begged, offering up a prayer to higher powers that she had never put even a scrap of stock in. Not now. Not yet. Please don't let it be Marcus.
Glancing down at the dark head still resting against her breast, she lifted a hand to scratch at his scalp, half-urging, half-petting. "I should get that."
Khan growled, annoyance all over him. "Must you?"
Loath to ruin the unexpected peace of the moment – though there was a part of her that was screaming for exactly that, desperate to put some space between them after everything that had just happened – Duval ran a finger down his neck, delighted by the shiver he couldn't quite hide. "Yes. It could be important. It could be…"
"Marcus," Khan finished for her, the name, for once, devoid of the spitting hate he habitually imbued it with. Sighing, he leaned back from her, pulled his arms away and looked directly into her eyes. "You understand now," he said, a question without a question mark.
The chime chirped again, an insistence to it that she knew she wasn't going to be able to ignore no matter how much she wanted to. Reaching out, she swept his hair back in a gesture that she was swiftly coming to think of as hers, fingertips tracing the furrows of his brow, the slope of his proud forehead. "I understand," she agreed, eyed him. "Do you understand?"
"I do," he said, leaning into her caress for a moment longer before pulling away from her touch and regaining his feet. He looked down at her, extending a hand, the brittleness gone from his expression though it remained serious. "Though I do not like it."
Duval took his hand, letting him help her to her feet. "I didn't expect you would. But like I told you…I won't lie to you. No matter what."
Their visitor, whoever it might be, signaled their presence a third time. Both of them turned to shoot looks of annoyance at the still closed door of his room.
"I would suggest," Khan growled, "that you make haste, Rebecca – unless, of course, you would prefer that I greet our guest?"
"I'm going," she sighed, rolling her shoulders in an attempt to relieve some of the stiffness that was now settling deep into her muscles. "I don't want to, but I'm going."
The door chimed again.
"We will see to your back once our visitor has been dealt with," Khan said, following behind as she began walking across the room.
"It's fine," Duval insisted, really not wanting to rehash all of that yet again.
"You are in pain, therefore it is not fine."
"It's just a bruise, Khan," she said, dismissive, as she activated the door, stepping out into their living room as it slid open ahead of her, "it'll be gone in a few days."
Khan, who had trailed after her, stopped at the threshold of his room, his gaze a near palpable warmth at her back as she moved away from him. "Nevertheless, we will see to it," he said in that my-will-be-done tone that made her want to jump him like a skipping rope when it was directed elsewhere. When it was directed at her, it made her want to jump him in an entirely different – and far less pleasant – way.
Opening her mouth to remind him just how well she tended to take orders outside of her professional life, Duval was cut off by the door squawking at her yet again.
"Jesus fucking Christ," she snarled, "someone better be dead." She was at the door now, her finger hovering over the button to open it, pausing to glance back at him in all his rumpled glory. "You just gonna stand there like that?"
Khan grinned, a feral glint in his eye and crossed his arms over his chest. "Most definitely."
Pick your battles, she reminded herself. Pick. Your. Battles.
"Suit yourself," she said with a long-suffering huff. She turned back around and reached out to press the button, the door sliding open to reveal the handsome and currently very decidedly not smiling face of a none-too-pleased Facility Commander. Duval frowned, even more annoyed now than she had been before. "Vazquez," she acknowledged blandly. "Think you could've been a bit more impatient if you'd tried?"
"I need to speak with you, Lieutenant," he said in lieu of a greeting, completely ignoring her sourness.
"Can it wait? I've got a few things…"
"Now, Duval," he said, insistent. "Let me in."
She sighed, irritated, but stepped aside anyway. "By all means, Commander…come on in."
The words were barely out of her mouth before Vazquez barreled past her, stopping short when his eyes landed on Khan. Khan…who was leaning against the door jamb, arms crossed and eyes sharp, predatory. How the man could manage to look that dangerous with messy hair and bare feet was beyond her…
"Commander Harrison," Vazquez offered in greeting, his voice wound as tight as the rest of him.
"Commander Vazquez," Khan dipped his head in acknowledgment, not a shred of deference in the gesture. "What a very great pleasure. To what, might I ask, do we owe the honor of your extraordinarily persistent presence?"
From behind the Facility Commander's almost painfully squared shoulders, Duval cocked her head to the side and shot Khan a look. "Stop," she mouthed at him, over-enunciating the silent command without much hope that he would actually listen.
"I need to speak to Lieutenant Duval," Vazquez ground out. "Alone."
"Hmm…do you indeed? It is a matter of some import then?" Khan's eyes were twin shards of ice as they locked onto the Facility Commander. "I cannot imagine that a man of your stature would make such a callow spectacle of himself over anything less."
Oh goddamn it…
Without giving Vazquez a chance to respond, Duval jumped into the conversation. "Harrison," she barked the name warningly, completely unsurprised to see Khan's head jerk to the side, glaring at her for the unavoidable but – to him – no less offensive use of that name. "I'm sure Commander Vazquez wouldn't have been quite so pushy," and here she did level a look in the Facility Commander's direction, annoyance plain on her face, "if it wasn't something important."
Vazquez, stone-faced, looked back and forth between Khan and Duval before settling his eyes back on hers. "You're a half hour late for your 1100 meeting with Marcus. Since you aren't answering your communicator, the Admiral sent me to see what the problem is. So yes," he snapped, "I imagine," and here he swiveled his gaze around to Khan, eyes narrowing, "that it is of definite import."
Her face slowly leaching of color as Vazquez spoke, Duval reached down to her belt on reflex, finding nothing but the clip that held her apparently missing communicator. At the same time, her eyes flew up to the time display on the wall, her stomach turning over uncomfortably at the 1137 glowing on its face. "Oh…oh shit," she muttered, instantly on high alert. "God…I'm…I'm coming…just let me…"
She looked down at herself, taking quick stock. She was, at least, dressed, though her clothes clearly bore the signs of having been slept in – oh well, she dismissed, it'll do. The sight of her socked toes peeking out from beneath her black pants made her frown. Her boots were off. Why were her boots off? She had fallen asleep with her boots on…
And her hair…she reached up, ran her fingers through the chestnut strands, finding knot after knot…she shuddered to think what her hair looked like.
Duval looked up to see Khan, her boots in hand, striding across the room toward her. He grabbed her hand and pulled her over near her bedroom door before handing them over into to her outstretched fingers. "Where…?"
"Beside the bed," he murmured, attempting to keep his words for her and her alone.
She bent in half, trying to hide her pain as she pulled on first one boot and then the other. "Did you…"
"You did not look comfortable," he whispered hotly, then he held out his other hand, peeling away his fingers to reveal her communicator – her very broken communicator – laying in his palm. "This was also beside the bed."
Duval snatched it up, flipping it open only for the two halves to come apart in her hands. "I must have landed on it when I fell," she hissed. "God damn it…son of a bitch."
"Problem, Lieutenant Duval?"
She and Khan looked up at the waiting Facility Commander in unison, near identical looks of irritation glaring out from behind green and blue alike. "Not at all, Commander Vazquez," she responded, shoving the now useless bits of electronic flotsam back into Khan's hands. As soon as hers were free, she reached up and began gathering her shoulder-length tresses into a one-handed ponytail, gritting her teeth as her back screamed at her. "Did you find…?"
Khan's hand appeared in front of her face, one of her simple black hair ties pinched between two of his long fingers. She snatched it up, her eyes seeking out Khan's as she twisted it into her hair, securing a messier-than-normal knot at the back of her head. He stared down at her, a kaleidoscope of feelings and reactions waging war in his gaze, though at the moment she was zeroed in on the encouragement her galloping heart most needed.
How could she have lost track of time like that? How could she have lost track of everything like that?
Christ…Marcus was going to murder her. He was going to absolutely eviscerate her.
"Sometime today would be good, Duval."
Khan's eyes snapped up and away from hers, staring down Vazquez over her head with a look of such vicious contempt that Duval reached out and laid a hand on his chest. "Please, don't," she said quietly, then turned, addressing Vazquez this time. "Ready when you are, Commander."
Vazquez looked back and forth between them yet again before turning away, making a sweeping gesture toward the door. "After you then, Lieutenant."
With one last look at Khan, seeking and finding a little extra encouragement, Duval took a deep breath, cocked her chin up and walked out the door with as much dignity as she could muster. After a few steps down the corridor, she saw Vazquez move up to walk beside her out of the corner of her eye and couldn't help but give him a quick read. As she had suspected, Rafael Vazquez – handsome, overachieving, smooth-operating Rafael Vazquez – was not a happy man at the moment. Striding along beside her, eyes forward, jaw clenched, he looked very much like he wanted to hit something. Hard.
Most people, she knew, would do something to break the ice. Say something to de-fuse the situation. Luckily, she wasn't most people and she was perfectly content to toddle along beside him in complete and total silence, ignoring all those silent distress signals that he was letting off like steam out of a boiling pot. If he had a problem, he could damn well open his mouth and tell her about it; she certainly wasn't going to invite his confidence.
She already had her hands well and truly full on that front, thank you very much.
Side-eyeing him for another moment or two, Duval finally just gave a mental shrug and settled in for the duration, trying to think of anything other than the conversation – and in all likelihood, the punishment – that was most likely waiting for her at the end of this little stroll. Of course, as soon as she relaxed, that was the moment Vazquez's pot decided to bubble up and boil over.
"What is going on with you, Be…Lieutenant?" He spat the words out, hurling them at her, heedless of – eager for? – the damage done when they struck their target. "What the hell are you thinking? Are you even thinking? "
Everything that had happened from the minute he walked through their door had been an utter and unquestionable debacle. She had been caught off-guard; unprepared in a way that she, of all people, never ever was. There was so much going on in her life, in her head – she had screwed up all over the place of late, in little ways and big ways alike – that she was, quite honestly, running on emotional empty.
She felt completely drained of every drop of inferential intuition and empathetic forbearance that she possessed. Which meant, in short, that she didn't know exactly what Vazquez was ripping her head off over and, more importantly, she didn't even care. Not even a teeny, tiny bit. "I can tell you exactly what I'm thinking right now, Commander, but I really don't think you want to hear it."
Vazquez shook his head, lips pinched white with fury. "Damn it, Duval…I'm serious. Where is your head at? No," he snapped, shaking his head and sounding thoroughly disgusted, "don't answer that. After that little scene back there, I know exactly where your head is at. And I can't believe that you, of all people, would…"
"Stop," Duval said, her tone dark and dangerous enough that she suspected that even Khan would have been impressed. "I really wouldn't say another word if I were you."
"You can't just…"
She stopped, whirled on him, glancing quickly up and down the corridor, glad to find that there was no one within immediate earshot. "I said not another word. You've got no idea what the hell you're talking about, Vazquez. You don't know even a single, goddamned thing about me or the state of my head!"
"I know that you're floundering," he shot back at her. "Floundering! Watching you back there…that was so far from the Rebecca Duval that I've always known that I barely even recognized you!"
Duval spun away and started walking again. "Your problem," she spit out, "not mine. The Rebecca Duval that I've always known certainly doesn't need your validation."
"And how about Marcus' validation? Do you need that? Or is John Harrison's the only voice you're capable of hearing anymore?"
She wasn't going to stop. It wasn't worth stopping. "Don't talk to me, Vazquez. From now on, unless its business related, don't even bother to fucking talk to me."
"I do have business to discuss with you," he seethed. "I was trying to get in touch with you before you were late for your meeting. I had my own meeting with Marcus this morning and there are…," he paused looked around again, lowered his voice, "…there are things I need to tell you. Things you need to know."
Duval kept her eyes forward and her feet moving – they were very nearly there now. "Not interested," she barked. "You've told me more than enough for one day, thanks."
"It's important, Duval. Marcus has plans…"
"You don't say."
Vazquez made an impatient gesture, frustration pouring off him. "Goddamn it, Duval…listen to me!"
Only steps from Marcus' office door now, she spun around and stopped the Facility Commander with a hand pressed firmly against his chest. "I know how that looked back there and I know what you're thinking," she said, proud of how very reasonable she sounded, "but you're wrong. I'm not blind, oblivious or stupid and I'm well aware that there's a lot going on right now – likely more so than even you are. Trust me when I tell you, Vazquez…you don't need to tell me about Alexander Marcus. I know him better than you do and I sure as shit understand him better than you do, so don't for a minute think that I need you to tell me that he has plans. If you're surprised by that information, then I think it's safe to say that you're the one with the problem here…not me."
Vazquez was breathing hard, his fists clenched and his face turning a shade of red she had never seen on him before. "Not like this," he forced out from between his teeth, still trying despite his obvious upset. "I've never heard him plan like this before."
Duval arched her brow at him. "That bad, huh?"
He nodded sharply, a rough jerk of his head. "Worse."
She tilted her head to the side, looking up at him, measuring. "You're surprised?"
Another nod. "I am. I really am."
His expression had smoothed slightly – he thought she was softening, preparing to listen. He really didn't know her at all. Duval shook her head slowly, pulled her hand away from his chest. "Then you need to pay closer attention," she said, her voice bland but still strangely cutting, "because there's no excuse for anyone as high ranking as you are to be that ignorant, Vazquez. Now leave me alone…I've got nothing else to say to you."
Stone-faced once more and so furious that he was nearly vibrating from the force of it, Vazquez didn't answer, just stared at her for a long moment before turning on his heel and stalking back the way they'd come. Duval watched him walk away for exactly two heartbeats, but then she turned around, shoving everything about Facility Commander Vazquez and his over-familiar attempts at camaraderie from her mind.
At the door to the suite that housed not only Marcus' Io office but his private quarters as well, she stopped, took a deep breath and then activated the door to let herself into the anteroom. The grim-faced but otherwise unremarkable young man that sat behind the glass desk in the center of the room – Marcus' newest PA, she guessed; the man tended to go through them like tissue paper – stood immediately upon her entrance, tapping away furiously at the PADD in his hand.
"Agent Duval," he greeted, his voice as forgettable as the rest of him and Duval wondered how long it had taken him to learn how to do that, to make himself so completely a part of the background that it was easy to forget he was even there. It was a talent all its own – one that she certainly didn't possess. Blending in was one thing, but to be able to disappear entirely…that was a rare gift. "If you would follow me, please."
Any other time, she would have been interested; impressed as she always was to see fresh-faces with real potential. But now…today…she really couldn't have cared less. Not even inclined to be particularly polite, but knowing that she needed to be, she shot the kid a quick, completely forced grin. "No need," she offered with a wave, "I know where his office is."
The kid's expression didn't change as he pushed his chair in and started walking toward the door on the far side of the room. "I'm to show you to the Admiral's sitting room, Agent – not his office. I'm afraid I can't allow you to enter that part of his quarters unaccompanied. Security protocol, you understand."
Nothing; not even a flicker of personality behind any single one of those words and Duval, even more impressed, nevertheless felt her skin crawl. That level of mildness, of unaffected equanimity…it just didn't feel natural. Not that Duval was paying him all that much attention – any thoughts on his preternatural evenness were fleeting and quickly forgotten. She had never, in her entire Section career, been shown to Marcus' private quarters.
She wasn't actually sure that she had met anyone who had, aside from Carol, which hardly counted as she was his daughter. Marcus, for all his posturing and over the top, in your face personality, was a deeply private man. To him, business was business and personal was personal and never the 'twain shall meet, which was why his rooms in every Section facility had always been exactly that – private. Very private.
And yet here she was being ushered toward what basically amounted to his holiest of holies – the inner sanctum of all of his inner sanctums.
Section enclaves, as a rule, operated clandestinely from inside already established Starfleet installations, like Mars 3 and the Kelvin Archives. Io was the exception to that rule; the only facility that belonged entirely to Section 31. As such, it afforded Marcus the sort of limitless autonomy that he was only able to taste in small doses elsewhere, hampered as he was not only by Starfleet's rules and regulations, but also – and to an even greater extent – by the institutionalized pacifism that defined it as an organization.
On Io, Alexander Marcus didn't have to pretend to be something he wasn't, didn't even have to pay lip service to rose-colored concepts like compassion or tolerance or mercy. On Io, Alexander Marcus didn't answer to anyone or anything but himself.
On Io, Alexander Marcus wrote the rules, enacted the rules and enforced them as he saw fit – something that had never been a source of any particular concern for Duval before. But now, with her eyes open so much wider than they had ever been before, she could no longer view the arrangement with the simple, stoical approval that she once had.
In fact, given the nature of her current situation, the idea of Marcus as judge, jury and executioner was more than simply worrisome, it left her feeling deeply – deeply – uncomfortable.
You are going to have to spin like a goddamned tornado to get yourself out of this one, the too-often (of late) ignored voice of her most rational self drawled, dispassionate and wholly unimpressed. Christ, woman, you've made a hell of a mess for yourself.
"I'll let the Admiral know you're here," her escort said softly after they had halted just in front of a totally non-descript door along a hallway dotted with them. "Would you mind please waiting here for just a moment, Agent?"
He punched in a code on the control panel beside the door as he asked and Duval gave a shrug and a shake of her head, her expression a picture of sardonic amusement. "Do I have a choice?"
Mr. Personality – if he'd offered his name, she hadn't caught it; didn't actually care anyway – swiveled his head to stare at her, the weight of his look articulating the answer to her question without him even having to say a word. Finally, he turned away, pressed one final button on the panel. "I won't be a moment, Agent."
He slipped through the door before it had even fully opened but it snapped back shut before she could see or hear much of anything from within. Barely a minute later, the door swished back open again and the world's drabbest man came shuffling back out. "Admiral Marcus will see you now, Agent," he said, not a lick of a hint as to what awaited her in his eyes, voice or carriage.
Useless, Duval dismissed, weird, creepy and completely useless.
Without another word – because honestly, what was the point? – she shoved every little bit of her dread deep, deep down and walked through the door, head held high.
She walked down a short hallway and then right out into a large room, her eyes immediately drawn to the windows that comprised one entire wall of the space, starting at the floor and reaching all the way up to the very high ceilings. Beyond the transparent aluminum barrier, Jupiter loomed large, a brightly lit giant filling up the entire width and breadth of the viewport. It was beautiful and Duval stood in silence for a moment, admiring the gaseous swirls of color in the upper atmosphere.
"It's a hell of a view, isn't it?"
Hearing Marcus' voice wasn't a surprise, but Duval couldn't help but stiffen up anyway. "It is, Sir." A particularly bright auroral flash, vivid against the muted, autumnal Jovian palette, drew her eyes up toward the northern pole and the haze of light that danced there. "A hell of a view."
"The lights are bright today," he said, relaxed, genial.
Duval turned, putting Jupiter's beauty just at the edge of her vision. Much as she would have liked to focus her attention elsewhere, she knew better than to give Marcus anything but her full and undivided attention – now more than ever before. "Io must have had a spike in volcanic activity recently," she said, nodding her head toward the show outside. "All those extra particulate emissions traveling along the plasma torus and putting on a show. Good call picking this side of the station for your view, Sir. Much prettier than Io's sodium cloud."
"Carol's call – she's got a much better eye for that sort of thing than I do." He was sitting in a large, overstuffed chair, turned to face the view though he himself was looking at her. "Come sit down, Duval."
There was a second, identical chair beside his. Assuming that's where he wanted her, Duval breathed deep and walked over to the proffered seat, easing herself down into it – very, very careful not to show even the tiniest flicker of discomfort, despite the ache across her shoulders. "Thank you, Sir," she said once she had made herself as comfortable as she was likely to get.
Marcus waved her thanks away and they sat in silence for a long moment – a silence that was, given everything, surprisingly…comfortable. A silence that Duval wasn't about to break herself, so she sat and she waited, eyes focused without, tracing along Jupiter's latitudinal zones, each clearly demarcated band varying in thickness and color.
"Plasma torus," Marcus said finally, a strained humor coloring the words and pulling Duval's eyes to his face, "particulate emission." He turned his head to meet her hooded gaze. "Sodium cloud. Khan certainly has left his mark on your vocabulary, at the very least."
Maintaining eye contact, Duval didn't let herself rise to Marcus' bait. "Or it could be that Astrosciences was one of my favorite course studies at the Academy, Sir."
Marcus scoffed, turning to look back at the viewport. "Don't try to sell me that line, Duval. It won't work – I've seen your Academy record."
No question about it now, he was definitely baiting her; trying to throw her off kilter. He knew her well enough to know that the more off-balance she felt, the more she was likely to reveal. Unfortunately for him, she was far more motivated now than she had ever been before. "Having mediocre grades doesn't necessarily translate into having a mediocre brain, Sir. I wasn't the most diligent student, I admit – doesn't mean I didn't learn a few things here and there along the way."
The Admiral didn't respond, just kept staring out. Eventually, Duval shifted back around in the seat herself, eyes forward once more. "You've had almost ten years to see that I'm far from stupid, Sir. Not that I believe for a minute that you ever thought I was to begin with – I doubt you would have recruited me if you thought I was an idiot."
"Recruiting you was…" Marcus stopped, shook his head, lowered it slightly. Duval held her breath, waiting, hoping for the answer to a question that she would never, ever have asked herself – why her? But then, the Admiral blew out a breath and lifted his head once more. "You may not be an idiot, Duval," he said instead. "But recently, you've been making some damn boneheaded calls."
She couldn't help it – despite knowing him as well as she did, despite knowing exactly what kind of a bastard the man sitting across from her was – she couldn't help but feel the pinch of real remorse. "I am…well aware of that, Sir," she said, her throat tight. "No one knows better than me just how much I've screwed up of late."
Marcus sighed and there was so much displeasure in the cadence of it – so much disappointment – that it made something very young and very terrified inside of her start to tremble. "I never thought I'd have to have a conversation with this like you, Duval. From the minute you came on board, you've been everything a good Agent should be. But now…"
It felt like something was sitting on her chest, making it harder and harder to breathe. Duval kept her eyes on Jupiter, though she could no longer see it past the shadows darkening her eyes. It had been a very, very long time since she had last heard that tone – that odd mixture of sadness and caring that cut like a knife and squeezed like a vice.
A parent. He sounded like a parent.
Like a father.
At that realization, Duval's stomach promptly twisted itself into so many different knots that it took all her self-control to keep the discomfort of it off her face. It's a manipulation, she reminded herself sharply. You know it is and you know why he's doing it – he knows your issues better than you do yourself. Suck it up, squash it down and don't let him hang you with your own rope!
She twisted her hands together in her lap, fingers tangling and knuckles going white from the force of her grip. "I'm still every inch the Agent I've always been, Sir. Like I said, I know very well that I've slipped up more than once lately, but in my defense, I've been put in an extremely difficult situation and I'm making the absolute best of it that I can."
"Well," Marcus drawled, angling a pointed gaze her direction, "that's one way of putting it."
Frustratingly, Duval could feel the faint burn of a blush steal up her cheeks. Cool façade beginning to crumble, she looked away from the Admiral once more. "I've said it before, but I'll say it again – this is what you wanted. I've given you exactly what you asked for and now you're punishing me for it."
"I wanted you in his bed, Lieutenant – I certainly didn't want or expect you to go and fall in love with the son of a bitch."
The pairing of that concept with her and Khan was like a bucket of ice water, dumped straight over her head. Shivers shooting down her spine and an odd, swooping nausea eating at her stomach, Duval forced herself up straighter – made herself look at him. "I'm not in love with him," she said, the words low, thin. "I can't…I won't deny that I care about him – you've seen that much, no point trying to deny it. But I'm not in love with him."
"Semantics," Marcus dismissed, equally as quiet, still so damn genuine that it made her itch. "No matter what the degree, the problem is the same. Now, I've been doing this a long time, kiddo. Long enough to know that this kind of thing happens; it happens to the worst, it happens to the best and it happens to everyone in between. What matters, what delineates between the best, the middling and the worse is what they do when and if it does happen to them." He stopped, turned toward her, his expression clouded but fierce. "So what's it gonna be with you, Duval? What are you gonna do?"
What was she going to do?
What the hell am I going to do?
"I think," she said, almost shoving the words off her tongue, "a better question is – what are you going to do, Sir? Based on the last time we spoke privately, I was expecting to be handed my burn papers in this meeting."
It was a weak attempt at deflection, but it was all she could come up with. Marcus had, with startling efficiency, destroyed her composure yet again. Unfortunately, she was beginning to suspect that it had far less to do with any sudden leaps in his ability and far more to do with her own rapidly evolving emotional state. Before – before all of this – nothing flustered her because nothing could.
Things were different. She was different. Strangely, she couldn't quite bring herself to believe that was a bad thing, even with the burn of condemnation staring out at her from Marcus's cornflower gaze.
"I'm not going to kill you, Duval," Marcus denied, though his gaze had narrowed as if he was trying very hard to read her. "You're far too useful to lose. I may not like the particulars of your little arrangement with Khan, but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate what it can be made to do for us."
"That's a different tune than you were singing the last time we discussed this, Sir."
"I'll admit it," Marcus gave a small shrug, "I overreacted, though not by much. Even then, if you'll recall, my main issue wasn't with your relationship, it was with the fact that you hadn't told me about it."
"And I tried to explain to you then, Sir…me not telling you had nothing to do with not wanting you to know. It had everything to do with not knowing how to tell you. That…all of that…it's really not my area of expertise, Sir, as I told you when you first suggested it all those months ago."
It wasn't entirely a lie – true, she had not wanted to tell him at all, but if she had, she certainly wouldn't have known how to go about doing it if he hadn't brought it up first. Hopefully, it was enough to convince him this time.
To her surprise, Marcus made an impatient gesture, brow furrowing. "I told you I overreacted, Duval, so just let it go. My concerns have shifted. Considerably."
Sucking her lower lip into her mouth, Duval bit down on it firmly to keep her mouth under control. What the hell was he talking about now, his concerns have shifted? What the fuck did that even mean? Why was she surrounded by men who insisted on giving her emotional whiplash?
"What have your concerns shifted to, Sir?"
Before her eyes, his entire demeanor shifted again, the harshness fading and that soft, almost paternal look of concern stealing over his face once more.
Oh, you bastard…
"Tell me something, Duval – how do you think this is gonna end? When it's all said and done, when Khan has finished the work I need from him…when he has his people back…what do you think's gonna happen then?"
Oh…you unbelievable bastard…
All of her fear, all of her dread from earlier, came rushing back, filling her up and setting her heart to racing in her chest. The flavor of it though, the bitter tang of it in the back of her throat, was different than before. This was more than just Marcus…this was something else entirely…
"I don't understand what you mean, Sir."
Marcus shook his head, the pained expression in his eyes only growing stronger. "You know exactly what I mean, Duval. We've already established that you're not an idiot – you've thought of this, whether you want to admit it or not. When Khan Noonien Singh gets his people back…do you honestly believe there will be a place for you with him? Can you honestly tell me that you think he'll have the slightest use for you then?"
He stopped, leaned forward across the arm of his chair, eyes locked on hers and Duval held her breath, knowing another blow was about to fall. "Do you honestly think that he would have the slightest use for you now if it weren't for the situation he's in? He's alone and he's miserable, Duval. Can you look me in the eye and tell me he would have had any interest in you if it weren't for that?"
Those words, out loud…her most secret fears, given voice. Wanting to curl into herself, to hide from his words but knowing that she couldn't, Duval sucked in a breath, blinking hard to clear away tears that she refused to acknowledge. "I don't see what any of that has to do with…"
"Answer me, Duval," Marcus snapped, all that assumed gentleness – she'd been right to call it a manipulation, she could see that now, in the flash and flare of satisfaction in his eyes – wicking away and leaving the old smugness she was far more accustomed to in his face. "Tell me the truth. You already know it – I can see it in that kicked-puppy look you're trying so hard to hide from me. I want to hear you say it."
Anger; deep, abiding anger swelled up from far beneath all her fear and her mortification. Anger at this man, who could sound like he cared one minute and then reveal that he didn't in the next. But she couldn't show it. Not now. Not yet.
She looked away, eyes falling once more on Jupiter, on the swirling browns and reds and oranges. "I'm convenient," she said at last, her voice carefully flat. "I'm convenient…and he'll leave me, in the end."
"Bravo, Lieutenant," Marcus said after a short silence, sounding downright…chipper. It was, Duval thought, a very good thing that she wasn't armed at that moment. "I know just how difficult that must have been for you."
Not that she couldn't kill him with her bare hands, if she really wanted to…
"Now, I know you're probably royally pissed off at me right now, Duval, but you have to understand…I'm doing this – all of this – for your own good."
Every word out of his mouth now was like slow-dripping acid, every syllable burning her a little bit deeper. But Duval kept her head, tucked everything away and just…soldiered on. "Of course you are, Sir."
"I'm making you face reality, Duval. Making you keep your head on straight…and making you see the bigger picture."
She turned her head, shoulders still forward, catching Marcus eye. "The bigger picture, Sir?"
"The bigger picture," Marcus affirmed once more, pushing himself up and out of his chair and walking to stand just at her side, staring down at her with a hard, uncompromising look in his eyes. "Enjoy it while it lasts. Use it while it lasts." He leaned down, his face only inches from hers. "But do not, for an instant, forget that this situation has a shelf-life. One day, it'll be over and he'll be gone. And where will you be then, Lieutenant?"
She said nothing; could say nothing. Just stared up at him.
"Remember, Rebecca Duval, where your loyalties lie. Remember who made you what you are." Marcus straightened, glaring down at her now from his full height. "And remember who can take away everything that you have."
Marcus spun on his heel, stalking across the room to a door on the far wall. "Think about that," he called over his shoulder. "Think about all of it. And then get the hell out of my quarters, Agent."
Then he was gone, the door closing behind him, leaving Duval sitting there, staring at Jupiter, a roaring in her ears, a burning in her throat and a slow, growing certainty expanding to fill the hollowness in her chest.
She couldn't keep doing this, this tight rope walk between old loyalties and new. It was eating her alive, tearing her apart…and she couldn't keep doing it.
She stared out at the swirling, shifting vista before her, but she didn't see it. Couldn't see anything but the sweep of unruly black hair across an alabaster forehead…the flex of elegant, grease-smudged fingers against a never-ending kaleidoscope of tools. Couldn't hear anything but the sound of rumbling, baritone laughter…the smack of bare feet padding across the floor toward her as she fiddled with the still temperamental replicator…
Decisions loomed before her. Big, terrifying decisions.
And the time was very swiftly coming when she was going to have to make them.
One way…or the other…